About the Author

Pablo Strauss

Pablo Strauss’s previous translations for Coach House Books are The Country Will Bring Us No Peace, The Supreme Orchestra, and Baloney. He is a two-time finalist for the Governor General’s Literary Award for translation, for Synapses (2019) and The Longest Year (2017). Pablo grew up in Victoria, B.C., and has lived in Quebec City for fifteen years.

Books by this Author
Benediction

Benediction

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The travelling companions had been back on the road a few hours, and Lew had picked up his drinking where he’d left off before deciding to nap. As they made their way south through Spring Valley, on the northwest edge of Lincoln County, near the borders of White Pine and Nye counties, they caught sight of a herd out to pasture less than a mile away.

“Interesting,” Hackberry mumbled.

They approached slowly, and the herd didn’t scatter. The animals scarcely paid the two cowboys any mind. Will and Lew counted thirty-odd head, no horns.

“Thirty-one,” said Will.

“GS?” asked Hackberry, checking the brand high on their hindquarters.

“The Lazy GS. The Swallow brothers’ outfit over in White Pine. Got a whole post office just for them, up in the district they call Shoshone.”

“You know ’em?”

“By reputation, mostly,” said Will. “Smug bastards. Don’t treat their men good. Horses neither.”

Will and Lew stayed on their horses a minute, smoking in silence and circling the herd. The wheels in Hackberry’s head were turning, as if he were focusing every ounce of concentration on the task of sobering up so he could think clearly for a moment. He opened his mouth a few times but nothing came out. Will put him out of his misery.

“Something botherin’ you, Lew?”

“You reckon they just wandered all the way out here?”

“Sure do look that way.”

Nowhere did they see the slightest trace of horse tracks, either fresh or old. No one knew that these cattle were out here with the two men, some twenty miles south of the Lazy GS Ranch and the county line.

“Figger you could blot that brand?”

“I don’t have my gear on me,” answered Will. “Plus we’d have to wait for it to scar. Risky.”

“Well, we can’t just go and sell them in Ely. Word would get around too fast.”

Ely was the biggest livestock hub in this part of Nevada. Ranches from all over the eastern, central, and northern parts of the state sent their cattle through Ely on the way to Denver.

“Not sure what to do. The Swallows may be bastards, but we could still bring them their cattle back. They’d pay us handsomely.”

Lew sat up tall on his horse.

“Really, Bill? Really?”

“What?”

“Did they castrate you along with them steers over the summer?”

Will thought for a moment.

“I know a place not far from the Utah state line. Oasis. Kinda place where they don’t ask questions.”

“You took the words right out of my mouth. Oasis! Now there’s the Will James I thought I knew.”

Now it was Hackberry’s turn to think a little. He was positively reinvigorated, and grinning like a kid.

“From Oasis, I’ll catch the train to Denver. I know people there. It’ll be easy and we’ll be rich. I’m sure we can get thirty-five a head, at least, maybe forty, who knows — maybe even fifty! Those sure are some nice fat cattle!”

Fifty a head was over the top. Will wasn’t about to get carried away, but the prospect of making somewhere in the region of five hundred dollars for a bit more than a week’s work was nothing to sneeze at. It would be enough to set Will up for the winter, maybe even the entire next year, without having to worry too much about what to do next. He’d finally have time to draw, maybe even travel to the West Coast and study at art school. He could visit his idol, the great cowboy painter Charles Russell, in his studio.

“Okay then,” said Will. “We should get there in ten days or so. But you’re gonna have to follow my lead. I know the area better than you, and you’re pretty damn drunk. You got many of those jugs left?”

Hackberry indicated that he did not, and adopted a malicious look that had been known to get him into trouble. Will steered them back to the matter at hand.

“Once we get to Oasis, I know I can trust you. But, until then, it’s me who’s in charge. And for God’s sake, try to sober up a little.”

Lew bared his rickety yellow teeth in all their splendour.

They decided to wait until sundown to make their move. That way, if other riders showed, they could always say they’d just arrived on the scene and were wondering what to do. Lew had no problem finishing his jug — he still had three left — as Will tried to convince him to get some rest. The next several days — or, rather, the next several nights — would be long.

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Dishwasher, The
Excerpt

AN EXCERPT FROM THE DISHWASHER

THE SNOWPLOW’S ROTATOR BEACONS light up the buildings’ white-coated façades as it slogs up Hochelaga pushing snow. We finally manage to pass it and turn onto a small, dimly lit street. Low-hanging cottony clouds fill the dark sky. The comfortable warmth of the car interior is almost enough to put me to sleep. You can just hear the dispatcher’s voice on the CB. Mohammed turns down his music the moment I get into his black Sonata. He keeps his car immaculately clean. No crumpled up newspaper floor mats, no old coffee cups or leftover food in the compartment under the radio. Just a small Koran with an illuminated cover and a receipt book. The leather seats are good as new. A fresh, minty aroma suffuses the car.

We pull onto Rue Ontario. Tall snowbanks line either side of the street.

Mohammed ignores a call on his cell. He never answers when he’s with a customer. In the extra rear-view mirrors he has mounted on each side of the windshield, I can see his serene face and wrinkled, baggy eyes under bushy eyebrows. We keep driving to Sicard, then turn right. I don’t have to give him directions. Mohammed knows the route by heart, has for some time. Mohammed, Car 287, is senior driver at the cab stand on the corner of Beaubien and des Érables. Mohammed is the cabbie who nightly takes home half the bar and restaurant workers who ply their trade in Rosemont. Mohammed is a fifty-four-year-old Algerian. He’s owed favours by every taxi driver working the area between Saint-Laurent and l’Assomption from west to east, Jean-Talon and Sherbrooke north to south. Even the old guard, the holdouts still driving for Taxi Coop, respect him to a man. Every second time I catch a taxi at the stand, I don’t have to say where I’m going; every third time I don’t even give my address. It doesn’t matter who’s driving. They know me because I’m a customer of #287. Mohammed is as generous as they come. The kind of guy who’d pull over to help two people moving, stuck under a fridge on their outdoor staircase.

I remember one time two or three years ago. We were driving down D’Iberville, getting close to my house, must have been 1:30 in the morning. The moment we turned onto Hochelaga I had a nagging doubt. This was back when I was closing by myself. At the end of a busy night I’d be so spent I’d sometimes forget some of the closing jobs, like making sure the heat lamps were turned off, or that the cooks hadn’t left the convection oven on. That night I just couldn’t remember if I’d locked the back door of the restaurant after taking out the dining room garbage. Mohammed stopped in front of my place. He looked at me in one of his mirrors. I still wasn’t certain, but I convinced myself I must have done it automatically. I got out of the cab. I stood there next to the car, hesitating, with my hand on the open door. Mohammed turned around and said:

“Get back in, my friend. We’re going back.”

He didn’t turn the meter back on. It turned out I hadn’t locked the back door, and the meat order hadn’t been put away in the cooler. When we got back to Aird and La Fontaine, where we’d started, I held out sixty dollars.

“No no, my friend. The usual fare.”

He wouldn’t take more than twenty.

“It was my pleasure. You’ll sleep better tonight.”

Sometimes, deep in the night, you come across people like Mohammed. After years of night shifts, years of going to bed at four in the morning, I’ve gotten to know all kinds of characters, from young kids so jacked up on coke they chatter uncontrollably to hard cases content to ride their downward spiral all the way to rock bottom. The night sadly doesn’t belong to the Mohammeds of this world. But they’re out there, making it a more hospitable place for its denizens.

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Of Vengeance

Of Vengeance

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Let’s be honest: Who hasn’t fantasized about shooting someone in the face with a hunting rifle? It doesn’t matter why. In the heat of the moment, one reason’s as good as the next. When the reasons still seem good after enough time has passed, I take action.
Every day I look a murderer in the eye. There she is, through the looking glass. An inverted image of the same person standing on my side of the mirror. I’m a murderer; the murderer’s face is my face. Voilà. I know exactly what a murderer looks like. Hey, friend.
I look myself in the eye, hands resting on the rim of the sink, and perform my daily affirmation. “I’m a murderer.” It’s my own personal version of “I’m good enough. I’m smart enough. I can do this.” My lips move and, depending on the words I say, a few teeth appear. The same ones that show when I smile.
I recite each word slowly, either in my head or ever-so-quietly out loud. Sometimes I take a chance and say it slightly louder, in my normal speaking voice. I like the sound of my own voice. It’s a murmur in my silent apartment, slipping out of the bathroom only to be drowned out by the electrical hum in the walls. I listen to the irregular clicking of the baseboard heaters, generating heat without the slightest concern about who I am.
Another reason for this daily ritual: I’m scared of forgetting who I am. Sometimes life is good, and I take breaks.
It’s a summer afternoon. I’m twelve, finished with elementary school. I’ve been on summer holidays for three weeks now, and I’m hanging out down by the river. There’s nothing I enjoy more than spending entire days outside, coming home only to eat. Sometimes I even skip meals, though my parents disapprove. I come home when evening falls and it gets hard to see. Get some sleep and head right back out the next day. Eighteen hours of daylight is my version of bliss.
I’m in a place I think of as my spot. There’s a tree that’s perfect for climbing, with three branches in all the right places: one under my ass, one to prop up my feet, and a third to rest my back on. Together they form a chair of sorts. I have a nice view of the little river flowing through a ditch down below. I can also see the opposite bank. If I stretch, I enjoy an almost unobstructed 270-degree view all the way to the cemetery, where the trail runs. I can’t see behind my position, but that’s no big deal; all that’s out that way is forest too dense to play in this time of year. Beyond the forest is a city park, but no one really bothers with it — why would you, with all this pristine nature, teeming with life?
Up in my tree, no one can see me. Sometimes I pack a lunch. I make my own. My parents think I’m responsible and have stopped worrying that I’ll starve to death. I’m almost a teenager, so it only makes sense that I’ve more or less stopped talking to them. That’s their theory, anyway.
I wrap my food in nonreflective packaging. No aluminum foil, no plastic bags. I watched a movie once where the murderers caught sight of a witness because of a ray of light that reflected in the lens of her binoculars. That won’t happen to me. I also steer clear of sunglasses. They’re just one more thing to carry around, one more thing I’d probably lose anyway. Noise isn’t such a big deal up here. It’s okay to open a container, move around, let out a sigh. The river drowns out most sounds. Except for screams.
I found my spot last week. I was out early to do a little scouting before anyone else showed up. Sometimes I arrive too late, and there are already people at the river bank or the path leading up to it. When that happens, I turn right back.
One morning, eight days ago to be precise, I got here early enough one day to find a nice quiet spot. Just the kind of place no one would think to look. Eureka: the perfect tree. Next to it was a large rock that I could stand on to reach the higher branches. It was a massive balsam fir that had by some miracle survived an entire century without being massacred at the altar of Christmas. An old, almost dead tree with barely any remaining trace of scent and not a lot of sap to stick to my clothing. Sap smells great, but it’s hard to get off your clothes, so I stay away. I don’t want hassles with my mom.
I’ve been counting the days since I found my tree: eight. I count a lot of things. The number of kids down below, the tiles on my ceiling, the holes in my runners, the exact number of seconds it takes an egg to cook so the yolk is still a little runny but not slimy. Careful planning minimizes the chances of nasty surprises.
My first time was a stroke of random luck. I responded with sound reflexes, and discovered the sheer pleasure of it. Now I come mentally and physically prepared, and bring all the equipment I could ever need.
I’m still startled every time I catch a glimpse of myself in a window, a mirror, or a photograph. My face is all wrong. Some might put it differently; they’d say I have the perfect face. My theory is that I was born with someone else’s face, and my real one is off somewhere else, attached to the wrong soul.
I just don’t look the part. My face should be angular, striking, and slender, with that sickly pallor certain men find irresistible. But the allure of the mysterious femme fatale, that image we’re bombarded with day in and day out, just isn’t me. I’m fresh-faced, with the most innocuous features imaginable. I emanate innocence and wholesome pleasures, like farmers’ daughters advertising milk or girls on the packaging of anti-acne medication. Just like them, my pores breathe healthily. I have slightly rounded features, a ready smile, straight teeth, and smiling eyes. Even the beginnings of crow’s feet, if you look closely. My pale skin turns rosy in the wind, or in the cold, or when I exert myself. My cheeks are like scrumptious fall apples. People have been saying it since I was a little girl. All the hours I spend outside, plus these freckles: How could anyone imagine I’m not an exemplary young woman?
Where did that other face end up, the one that should be mine by rights? What happened to that pointed jaw, those big feverish eyes and salient cheekbones? Who got that intimidating head of hair? Was my soul mixed up with another in some limbo, like babies switched at birth in a Latin-American hospital?
I wonder if ugly people feel the same way: startled by their own reflections in the mirror, disgusted by an unattractiveness no amount of torment will ever inure them to. Do they feel the same confusion I do after performing certain acts? Are they, like me, unable to believe that the symmetry of their faces remains unchanged? If my outward appearance reflected my inner self, I’d look dangerous, like the bad guys who get killed off at the beginning of the movie: dark-skinned cannon fodder, balding villains, disfigured hoodlums, random henchmen. I might also give off that whiff of danger, but I have to face facts; I just don’t. My pheromones collide with those of other people without causing so much as a ripple. Yet the real danger is her. This woman I spy from the corner of my eye in every window I pass. She’s there in the bathroom, just above the sink. She’s the one staring at me innocently.
I look like a nurse, or a librarian, or a soccer player. My face is my best alibi.

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Synapses

Synapses

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