About the Author

Cordelia Strube

Born and raised in Montreal, Cordelia Strube trained as an actress, moving to Toronto in the ’80s. She turned to writing plays for radio and in 1987 won the CBC Literary Competition for her play Mortal. She has also won the Toronto Arts Foundation Protege Award and been shortlisted for the Prix Italia, the Books In Canada First Novel Award, the ReLit, and the Governor General’s Award. Her seven novels include Milton’s Elements, Dr. Kalbfleisch and the Chicken Restaurant and Planet Reese.

Books by this Author
Alex & Zee

Alex & Zee

edition:Paperback
also available: eBook
tagged : literary
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Excerpt

One

 

Zee doesn’t want to go home. Sitting very straight on the park bench he feels like that statue of Lincoln: solid, all-seeing, immovable.

He doesn’t want to go home because Alex will be there and she’ll want to know what he did today. She’ll want to know when he is going to do something with his life. She’ll want to know why a forty-three-year-old man sits around a park all day watching pigeons shit; she’ll want to know how much longer he plans to sit around with his “thumb up his ass contemplating the meaning of life.”

Abruptly, a wino, reeking of alcohol, flops down on the bench beside Zee and stares at him, bleary-eyed. “Can you spare a buck?” he asks. Zee feels around in his pocket for change and hands some to the wino, who examines it before shoving it in his pocket. “It’s cold as a witch’s tit,” he says. Zee nods in agreement. The wino leans towards him, squinting. “Colder than a witch’s aassss.” He stares at Zee to see if his words are having any effect. “Colder than a witch’s pussseee,” he adds, then chuckles and picks his nose. Zee has a feeling that the wino isn’t concerned with the meaning of life. He suspects that the wino understands that if he dies it won’t make any difference, and this doesn’t bother him. The wino doesn’t feel he has to leave a “mark on the world.” Alex wants to leave a mark on the world. A big bruise.

A man with a navy wool tuque pulled low over his forehead walks by, slapping himself on the head repeatedly. “I’m going to get you,” he says. “No fucking way, man.” He slaps himself. “I am. I’m going to sneak into your bedroom, and I’m going to . . . No fucking way, man.” He slaps himself again. “You think I’m kidding. I’m going to kill you.” The wino looks at the man, then at Zee, and circles his index finger at his temple. Zee nods in agreement, although lately he has felt the urge to slap himself on the head but has resisted, aware that this would mean that he is losing his mind. Bird poop splatters on the bench between them. The wino points at it and snorts. Zee stands up, stretches and starts across the park. “Ciao, amigo,” the wino calls after him. Without looking back, Zee waves.

Above the floor of Dini’s bar is a neon-tubed, large-breasted woman holding her arms out in welcome. How appropriate, Zee thinks, just like a woman, alcohol will lure him inside, promising good times, only to make his life a living hell later. But alcohol, unlike a woman, is predictable. He knows exactly how many drinks it will take to dull the pain and how long it will take to recover. With Alex, he never recovers but lives with the constant memory of the pain, dreading its recurrence. Pushing open the door to Dini’s, he remembers when he lived alone—how happy he was. He smoked when he wanted, drank when he wanted, slept when he wanted, watched TV when he wanted.

Now it’s a cold war.

He sits at the bar and orders a beer. The beeping and buzzing of the video games against the wall remind him of the killer bees. What’s happened to the killer bees, they must have crossed the Mexican border by now.

Alex wants a baby so that it can be swarmed by killer bees.

Watching teenagers in torn, pre-faded jeans bounce around the screens, he wonders why it is that people don’t have the patience to fade their own jeans anymore. Used to be faded jeans contained lives. He tries to picture the teenagers older, sitting in suits behind desks. How can they bear the weight of the knowledge that soon they’re going to have to figure out how to be adults? He feels he should warn them that it’s not something you figure out once. You have to maintain it, the facade, forever. It exhausts him just thinking about it. Today, he decides, he will stop trying to be anything. He’s always tried to be something, always felt that if he could only figure out how to be something he’d feel fulfilled. He used to sit on the toilet, studying the “Career Without College/Training at Home” matchbooks, trying to determine if he’d feel fulfilled if he learned how to fix air conditioners and refrigerators. Today, he understands that the key is to X the if. Don’t try to be anything, people will look at you strangely for a while, but eventually they’ll ignore you as if you had no legs or a hump. Maybe he should tell the teenagers about X-ing the if. They probably wouldn’t believe him.

A little, round man in a worn satin baseball jacket, sitting at the opposite end of the bar, waves at Zee. Zee waves back. The little man shakes his head several times. “Hockey isn’t what it used to be,” he says. Zee nods and stares at the rows of liquor bottles behind the bar. “Now they hit each other with sticks,” the little man adds. “They have to wear so much padding it’s a miracle they can skate at all.” He shakes his head again. “No, it’s not like it used to be. I don’t watch much anymore, can’t. It’s too bad they’re always hitting each other with sticks.” Zee nods, thinking that there are more crazy people around than there used to be. The little man wipes his nose with the back of his hand. “I guess that’s what the public wants.” He shrugs. “It’s not like it used to be. Too bad.” Zee nods, running his fingers over the bar. The wood grain of the counter reminds him of the relief patterns on the maps in grade-eight geography. Things were better in grade eight, he thinks. He knew everything. His classmates strained their necks and eyeballs to glimpse his answers on multiple-choice tests. He’d fill in the wrong answers then change them at the last minute. Why? Why bother?

A man in a turquoise shirt with sweat stains around the armpits pulls up a stool beside Zee. “Anybody like riddles around here?” he asks. “I’ve got a riddle.” He wipes sweat off his forehead with his hand and looks at it as if he can’t believe he’s actually sweating. “What politician has a face like a shoe?” Zee’s having difficulty absorbing the question. “Come on. Guess,” the man insists. Zee shrugs. The man leans into him. “Our great leader,” he declares. “Get it? Heel, as in swine.”

Lately, Alex has been telling Zee that he’s the best person she’s ever known and that he mustn’t give up but must learn to take pleasure from the little things because life sucks, that’s the way it is, he can’t expect it to be easy. Alex understands that living is hard work, that planning and constant surveillance are required. Sometimes he wants to put a pillow over her face. Not to suffocate her, but to stop her working it out, summing it up. Stop! Just stop! Can’t you stop?

Maybe he should go home and have a bath. Baths are good, he feels suspended, weightless. In his next life he wants to be a whale. Except they’re all dying in toxic seas. The sweaty man leans into him. “Do you believe in reincarnation?”

“I haven’t really thought about it,” Zee lies. He doesn’t want to encourage discussion because he has a feeling the sweaty man is about to tell him he was a Roman Emperor in a past life.

“You know how you tell if someone’s been reincarnated?” the sweaty man asks, tilting his head back and looking at Zee down his nose. Zee shakes his head.

“If they’re smart.” The sweaty man wipes his forehead. “Stupid people are on their first life, that’s why they’re stupid. Smart people have done it all before so they know better. Every time something shitty happens to you in this life you have to go, ‘okay, what am I supposed to learn from this?’” The sweaty man karate chops the bar for emphasis. “Everything’s a lesson, and your soul chooses lives depending on what it needs to learn. For example, I could be really depressed right now, but instead I’m going, ‘okay what can I learn from this?’”

“What have you learned?”

“I haven’t figured it out yet. That’s part of the process. You have to go through the process.”

Zee looks over the sweaty man’s shoulder at the little man in the satin baseball jacket. The little man grins and waves. Zee waves back and orders another beer. The bartender, without taking his eyes from the TV above the bar, pulls a beer from the fridge and opens it. “This one’s on me,” the sweaty man interjects. “Have a scotch, would you like a scotch?”

“Thanks.”

The bartender pours two scotches, notes it on the tab, and stares back at the TV screen where a woman is being submerged in water. Her hair spreads out in tendrils around her, her eyes bulge, her lips pucker as she blows bubbles. “When’s your birthday?” the sweaty man asks.

“June 12th.”

“Gemini, oh boy.” He clucks his tongue. “I had a lover who was Gemini. Dangerous waters. Don’t misunderstand me. I don’t regret any of it.” Only now does Zee realize that the sweaty man reminds him of a hedgehog, the kind in English storybooks. “I’m Sagittarian,” the sweaty man continues. “You and I actually complement each other.”

Feeling the scotch, Zee is thinking about the single hair growing from the tiny mole on Alex’s chin. Once he caught her clipping it with nail scissors. Embarrassed, she tried to look as if she were tidying the medicine cabinet. He couldn’t understand why she’d be embarrassed about clipping a hair on her face. He clips his nose hairs all the time.

He tries to remember when he stopped looking forward to seeing her. He always used to look forward to seeing her. They’d share the day’s experiences, hug, cook dinner. Now they circle around each other saying excuse me and please and thank you. Now it’s a gamble. Should I try to talk to her, make her laugh? Will she flinch if l touch her? He used to know her, like he knew himself, what she wanted, what she needed. Now he watches her sleeping, tidying, baking, updating her files, and he has no idea. She might look up and ask him to make coffee, or she might demand to know what he’s staring at.

He looks back at the sweaty man who smiles at him. Only now does it occur to Zee that the sweaty man is homosexual. This does not alarm Zee, only saddens him. He almost wishes he could swing both ways just so the man won’t be disappointed. He hates disappointing people. He hates disappointing Alex. That’s why he stays out of her way most of the time. His toes turn to prunes while he sits in the bath, staying out of her way. He has become a roommate she has to put up with, clean up after in the bathroom. Was she always such a fanatic about cleanliness? He never used to notice her chasing after him with a sponge. So why does it bother him now? Why can’t he accept her obsession with cleanliness as part of her? Because, he thinks, it’s his dirt she hates, his dirt she guns down with her bottle of environmentally friendly cleaner. It used to be their dirt, mutual dirt. Now she thinks it’s all his dirt.

When the sweaty man excuses himself to relieve his bladder, insisting that he’ll be right back, Zee sneaks out of the bar. That’s another thing Alex says about him. He’s a coward.

 

Two

 

At the makeup counter, Alex is trying on different shades of lipstick even though she never wears lipstick. Each time she tests a new one the dull-eyed salesgirl says, “That’s a good colour for you.” Alex doesn’t wear lipstick because it comes off on cups, clothes, men’s faces. It bugs her that women on TV have perfectly applied lips after eating, showering, fornicating. She applies a bruise-coloured lipstick just to see if the girl will say that it’s a good colour for her. “It’s a good colour for you,” the girl repeats, leaning languidly against the counter. A woman in a sheepskin coat places her gloved hand on the glass and glances at the girl. “Have you got any of that Shuko Anti-Aging gel?” A three-year-old boy tugs on the woman’s coat. “In a minute, pumpkin,” she tells him. Alex watches the boy as he turns and hops over to a perfume display. He stares at the exotically shaped bottles and, with his mittens dangling from the sleeves of his snowsuit, tentatively reaches towards them. His mother sees him, rushes over, grabs his wrist and pulls him back to the makeup counter. She glances vacantly at Alex who smiles at her. The woman averts her eyes and ruffles the boy’s hair.

Lately, Alex has been staring at children, fascinated by their wonder as they make discoveries about the world. Yesterday she stood in the park for twenty minutes watching a little girl explore a wooden jungle-gym. The girl climbed ladders, walked over ramps, swung on tires, pulled on knobs, turned wheels. She behaved as though it was her mission to explore every aspect of the wooden structure. Finally, her mother appeared, wrapped a protective arm around the girl’s shoulders and stared fiercely at Alex as though she were a pedophile.

Alex finds the Ladies’ room, sits on the toilet and rests her head in her hands. She doesn’t even really like children. “I only want one,” she says over and over to Zee, hoping that somehow “just one” will be acceptable to him, as if “just one” might be less of a problem, something she can slip past him, something small that he can do for her as a favour. “Other people have babies,” she points out. “People poorer than we are, I see them all the time, they can handle it.” It frustrates her that she has to wait for his consent before she can go ahead with what, primarily, will be her concern; her body, her baby, her pain. It infuriates her that she has to beg a man to cooperate before she can act on her decision and subsequently wait for the right time of the month before luring him into bed, titillating him so that he will get hard, stay hard and ejaculate. And even then she can’t be sure. She read in the paper that women over thirty have only a twelve-to-thirteen percent chance of conceiving each month.

She pictures Zee slumped on the couch, sipping his scotch and sucking on his pipe even though she has informed him repeatedly that smoking affects sperm production, even though he knows that second-hand smoke is hazardous to her health.

All her life she has tried to believe that you make choices, that you control what happens to you. Now she feels out of control.

She’s considered spending time in bars, trying to pick up men who appear capable of producing quality sperm, but how could she be sure that it would be AIDS-free?

Of course there is always Michael. Why he finds her desirable, when he’s only seen her in baggy jeans and sweaters, she has no idea. There was a time when she dressed like a woman, when she still believed in the ultimate relationship.

Now she feels trapped in a skirt and high-heels, unable to run, unable to kick in a rapist’s face. Now she has no expectations or delusions. She wants to get on with her life.

Already she knows what sex with Michael would be like. He’d try too hard and ask her if she had come. Not wanting his penis to go flaccid, she’d say yes and try to coax him into ejaculating, her sole object being the acquisition of his sperm.

She pushes open the toilet-stall door, leans over a sink and splashes cold water on her face. In the mirror, she tries not to stare at a woman in a miniskirt lining her lips with pencil. The woman applies lipstick with a brush then steps back to appraise her work. Apparently satisfied, she deftly resurrects the lines under her eyes with a pencil then pulls out her compact to freshen the powder on her nose. Alex dries her face and leaves. She’s always felt like a lump around women who line their lips. A lump that should be removed.

She doesn’t want to go home because she’s afraid that Zee will be there, and she’ll start a fight. She can’t help it, can’t stand his passivity, can’t stand how nothing gets to him the way it gets to her. She prods at him just to get a reaction. When she succeeds, he flails his arms and shouts, “So leave me! I can’t be what you want me to be, so leave me!” Then he slumps into a corner of the couch and sulks, cleaning and refilling his pipe. Or he hides in the bathroom, soaking in the tub, humming old Randy Newman songs, leaving a disgusting ring she’ll have to clean because if she asks him to do it, he’ll say she’s “needling at him.” She doesn’t want to go home because if he is in the tub, she might push his head under water and hold it there.

In the hat department, she tries on a bright red felt hat that makes her look like her mother. Lately, Alex has felt her mother’s expression gripping her face like a clay mask. She can feel gravity tugging downward at the corners of her mouth, forming jowls. People have always remarked on her resemblance to her mother. Alex didn’t believe them. Now, wearing the red hat, she sees it too and quickly drops the hat back on the table. An arm darts past her, swooping it up. A narrow, grey-haired woman, her spine bent forward, jams the red hat on her head and stares into the mirror, clutching her handbag with both hands. Alex turns away, wishing she could rid herself of this trapped feeling.

In the mall, she sits at the donut-shop counter and orders an apple fritter and coffee. Lately, she’s been eating sugar, hoping it will make her feel better, but it only makes her feel fat. She stares down at her thighs spreading on the stool. Zee insists she’s neurotic about being fat, that she’s as slim as she’s ever been. But Alex knows she’s getting fatter. Why eat donuts then? What kind of sick person eats donuts when she knows she’s fat? She licks the sugar from her fingers and places her palm over her coffee cup, absorbing its warmth. A frizzy-haired mother in a yellow, down coat, at the counter with her fat-cheeked ten-year-old son, orders a muffin for herself and an eclair donut for him. “You said something very true before,” the mother says. The boy stares hungrily at the donut the waitress sets in front of him. “About bad teachers,” the mother continues. “There will always be bad teachers, but you have to remember that they’re unhappy people, and that’s why they yell at you.” The boy licks the cream oozing from his eclair. “And when you get older,” the mother warns, “in real life, there will be lots of people yelling at you, and you’ll just have to remember that they’re yelling because they’re unhappy.”

Once, Zee yelled at her, called her a bitch, grabbed her shoulders and shook her until she pointed out that he looked ridiculous resorting to physical violence. She tried to appear calm, but she was frightened because he seemed to hate her, seemed to blame her for his despair. He was the victim and she the villain. So why does he stay in the relationship? It doesn’t make any sense. All day at the Centre, she tells young girls to get out of relationships that make them unhappy. You stay in a relationship because it makes you happier than you would be out of it. That’s what she tells them.

Sometimes, seeing him huddled on the couch staring at the wall, she feels as though it makes no difference to him whether she’s there or not. Sometimes she has to say his name twice or wave her hand in front of his face to get his attention. She worries that he stays with her because he’s too lazy to get a job; that he stays with her because she doesn’t have the guts to make him go. Often now, in the evenings, he doesn’t even talk to her but watches stupid sitcoms on TV—and actually laughs—or goes to some bar and charms people into buying him beers. Alex wipes the ring under her coffee cup with her napkin and decides that they can’t go on like this. She can’t waste any more time waiting for him to get his life together. She has no more time.

 

Three

 

Cutting through the park, inhaling the bittersweet smell of crushed and sodden leaves, Zee thinks how marvellous rain is; how it cleanses, rejuvenates. He almost feels ready to start all over again. Even with Alex. Who knows, maybe tonight’s the night. Maybe they’ll go to Dini’s for a beer, stare at the rain sliding down the windowpane and just feel lucky, incredibly lucky to be together. They used to feel that, or anyway he did. He’d watch her sip her beer and wipe her mouth with her hand and feel so lucky to know her. But they don’t go for beers anymore. He doesn’t know why or when they stopped. It just doesn’t happen.

A squat man in a trench coat, under an umbrella, hurries past him, trailed by a tiny terrier on a leash. The terrier hangs back, pulling on the leash, stopping to pee on a trash can. Zee considers telling the man that it has stopped raining and that he can close his umbrella. Then it occurs to him that maybe the man likes holding his umbrella, feels safe under it, yearns for rainy days just so he can hold it over his head. The dog finishes his pee, circles the trash can, hikes his little furry leg up and starts another one. The man cops a quick glance at him. “Otis, we haven’t got all night.” Suddenly Zee wishes he had a dog like Otis who’d love him as long as he fed him regularly. He reaches down to pet him. “Please don’t pet my dog,” the man says abruptly. Zee’s hand freezes in mid-air. He looks at the man, expecting some explanation as to why he is not allowed to pet Otis. Does he look like a dog kidnapper, a dog molester? But the man tugs on the leash. “I warned you not to waste my time,” he tells Otis who pricks up his ears and wags his stumpy tail. Zee wants to say, “Fuck you, too.” Instead he says, “Nice night out.” Ignoring him, the man hurries off, dragging Otis behind him.

What is the world coming to when you can’t even pet a person’s dog?

It is, in fact, a nice night out. Zee can even see stars. What he hates most about living in the city is not being able to see stars, just little tiny specks of sparkle, nothing dazzling or uplifting. But tonight he can make out the Big Dipper; ever-present, unshakeable. Humans must be a joke to look down upon, running around frantically like ants, building empires, holes in the sand. What’s the point?

“Haven’t you got a home to go to?” a voice calls from behind him as a hand clamps onto his shoulder. “Zee buddy, how ya doin’?”

“Oh hi, Dave, how are you?”

“Can’t complain,” Dave says, tapping his fist into his palm.

“Were you jogging?” Zee asks, noting Dave’s fluorescent orange windbreaker, grey spandex running tights and bright-green and purple running shoes.

“I’m done.” Dave pulls on his nose with his thumb and forefinger. “Listen, do you want to stop by for a beer?”

Zee hesitates. When Dave used to go out with his sister, Jenny, he would phone Zee periodically to chat and confide. Once, he told Zee that he knew he had poor communication skills and worried that he forced himself on people.

“I want you to meet someone,” Dave says, leading Zee down the street. “I’ve met an awesome woman.” He looks around as though afraid someone might overhear and contradict him. “I’m marrying her.”

“Congratulations.”

“Thanks. I’m having a stag. I wanted to invite you, but I didn’t know how you’d feel about it, you know, being Jenny’s brother.”

“I feel fine about it. I’m very happy for you.”

“Thanks.” Dave slides the zipper on his windbreaker up and down. “It sounds corny I know but I swear, when I met this girl, I knew she was ‘the one.’” He stares at the pavement, shaking his head in disbelief. “I never thought I’d hear those words coming out of my mouth. I feel blessed, really blessed.”

Up in Dave’s high-rise apartment, a full-bodied, young woman, wearing nylon running shorts, lies on her back on the floor with ankle weights strapped around her calves, lifting her legs up then lowering them again.

“Honey?” Dave says. “Remember I told you about the nicest, decentest guy I ever met? This is him.”

The young woman glances at Zee and sits up. “Hi,” she says, pulling her feet towards her groin to unfasten the weights. Zee, noticing her pubic hair poking out from under her shorts, looks away, out the sliding glass doors to the balcony. “You’ve got quite the view up here.”

“We like it,” Dave says and hands Zee a can of Coors Light. “Zee this is Glenda, Glenda this is Zee.” Both Zee and Glenda nod and smile politely. “Nice to meet you,” she says, pulling herself up off the floor to sit cross-legged on the couch.

“Glennie’s an R.N.,” Dave tells Zee.

“A what?”

“Registered Nurse,” Glenda explains, almost apologetically.

“Oh, good for you, that’s a tough profession. I admire nurses for putting up with . . . what they have to put up with.” She stares at him. “I mean doctors, and low pay and all that.”

“It’s not that bad,” she says, and Zee worries that he has offended her.

“Anyway, good for you,” Zee repeats, staring down at Glenda’s weights, nervously tapping his sneaker on the parquet floor.

Dave looks closely at Zee. “You look a little wasted. Everything okay with you?”

Zee shrugs, nods, and sips his beer, trying to avoid glancing at Glenda’s crotch. It’s not that he wants to look at it, it’s just that it’s right there in front of him.

“How’s Alex?” Dave asks.

“She’s fine.”

Dave looks at Glenda. “Zee’s girlfriend is a social worker, works with teenaged mothers. What a pair. Good people, the two of them. Soul mates.” He grins. “When are you two going to face up and get married?”

Zee tries to smile mysteriously, but he’s thinking that Glenda’s thighs are very round and smooth. Pink enamel glints off her toenails. What would it be like to touch her? Would his fingers sink into her flesh or would she feel firm under all that roundness?

“Anyway, I think you two have a good thing going,” Dave says. “Mutual respect. That’s important, right, Glennie?” She nods in agreement.

Zee pictures Alex’s solid, angular frame. He can’t remember what a soft woman feels like and worries he will never feel a soft woman ever again. “I should be going,” he says.

“So come to the stag,” Dave reminds him. “Here on the twelfth. Eight o’clock.” Zee has never been to a stag and pictures men sitting around with antlers on their heads. “And I’d love it if both you guys could come to the wedding. Maybe Glennie can send you an invitation.” Dave glances at Glenda who nods in agreement.

“That would be nice,” Zee says, knowing they won’t go. Alex boycotts weddings, doesn’t see the point of them, or of marriage. She believes that the commitment is in your head. Besides, she says, I don’t see how two people can live together for more than ten years without eating each other’s livers. How interesting that she should choose a large gland that secretes bile to symbolize ten years of marriage. Why the liver? Why not the heart?

 

Four

 

Staring at the skinny girl in the panty-hose ad, Alex wonders how women are supposed to feel good about themselves when advertisers keep telling them they should look like emaciated fifteen-year-olds. The man sitting beside her, smelling of mothballs and Clorets, stands, preparing to get off the train.

If Zee’s home, she’ll just bake the muffins and go to bed. She won’t “needle at” him. She knows it accomplishes nothing, only makes her feel as if there’s a gash in her stomach. Always, after the fight, she cries and wraps her arms around him, aware that nothing has changed between them, but at least she hasn’t lost him, chased him away. At least she can continue to hope, to delude herself that one day they will have a house in the country and a baby. Right at the start he established the house-in-the-country fantasy. And it has hung there, like a mirage, for seven years. On the days when they came home frayed from work, he would hold her and murmur, “We have to get a house in the country.” She always agreed but asked how they would afford it. And always he said, “We’ll get there.” But of course they’re not getting there. They’re getting nowhere fast and her eggs are rotting.

What does it say about her if he’s a loser? It must mean that she’s a loser. Why would someone who isn’t a loser spend seven years with a loser? She must be a loser otherwise she would have snared a more dependable man. A doctor, a carpenter, a plumber; someone who understands and can cope with the adult world. Someone prepared to make the necessary compromises to build a life.

A mother and child step into the subway car. The child, walking awkwardly on artificial legs, has no arms, only withered flaps of hands stemming from her shoulders. The mother places her hands around the child’s rib cage and hoists her onto a seat. The child stares past her mother’s shoulder at Alex with curious, hopeful eyes. How can you hope? How can you be curious? How can you believe in anything?

Alex has seen the disabled babies of substance abusers at the Centre. And babies with AIDS. Many of these infants die, yet the mothers continue to take drugs and drink, go back on the street and get pregnant again. Alex has a feeling that if she continues to be a social worker she will go mad. She no longer feels that she is helping these teen-mothers, these victims of sexual abuse, these addicts. She knows that they don’t listen to her, only want her pity not her help. They come to the Centre for food, shelter, babysitting and to use the phone. They avoid her eyes and stare at the walls. Some of them tell her about being raped, beaten, burnt, locked up, tied up. They sit, lifeless, waiting for her to feel sorry for them. They want to be victims, choose to be victims. Alex tries to make them understand that they are, in part, responsible for their situations. She tries to make them believe that they can do something to improve their circumstances, but they resist her. They want to blame their problems on the world; they feel justified in blaming the world because the world they see advertised owes them fast cars, microwave ovens and swell houses filled with beautiful people drinking beer. The way they see it, the world hasn’t kept its part of the bargain.

Alex used to agree that society was to blame. But now, when she stares over her desk at young women who continue to take drugs and fornicate without contraception, she no longer feels compassion for them, no longer feels that they have been wronged. Now she feels that they are willfully ignorant. “Why didn’t you use contraception?” she asks.

“Didn’t have any.”

“You know that condoms are always available here.”

They shrug, pick at their pimples and play with their hair.

“Why didn’t you ask him to use a condom?”

“He says it don’t feel right.”

Alex wants to reach over and shake them. But no, she leans back in her chair and wonders what she’s being paid for. To listen to these people? To tell them that everything will be okay? To assist them in getting an abortion so that they can run off and get pregnant again?

“I just want to be with my kids,” they say.

“You can’t just be with your kids. Nobody can just be with their kids. You have to support your kids.”

She’s acquiring a reputation for being “tough on the girls.” Some of her coworkers are saying that she’s starting to burn out. Sometimes she imagines herself walking into McDonald’s with a machine gun and blowing people away. She knows that this is not a healthy attitude for a social worker, which is why she has started to bake muffins. Zee thinks she’s crazy to get up at five in the morning to deliver them. He doesn’t believe it’s worth the money. Apparently, there are no jobs that Zee considers worth the money. He seems to believe that he should be paid to do nothing, to hang out in bars, to sit around the park with his thumb up his ass, contemplating the meaning of life.

Often now, walking down the street, she searches the crowds for a man like Zee, with a similarly humorous face and twinkling eyes. Someone like Zee, but who works for a living and wants a baby.

The woman sitting across from Alex in the plaid coat with frayed cuffs and collar is wearing a white fake-fur hat shaped like a marshmallow. Balanced on the hat is a pair of sunglasses. She notices Alex staring at her. “You have to be careful,” the woman cautions. “They give you cancer.” She tugs on her bare hands as though taking off gloves. “Certain times you’re more likely to get sick from them because your body’s vulnerable. It happened to me.” She presses her hand against her hat. “Don’t listen to what the doctors say.” A man with acne, wearing a nylon parka, leaning back in his seat, opens his eyes for an instant, looks impassively at the woman in the marshmallow hat, then closes his eyes again.

“Don’t listen to what the doctors say,” she repeats. “I spent two years in hospital. Lost all my hair. It never grew back the same. It used to be jet black.” Alex stands, offers the woman what she hopes reads as a sympathetic smile and steps off the train. On the platform wall, directly in front of her is an ad for men’s briefs. A headless man stands flexing his muscles, his pectorals bulge, his abdomen ripples, his penis and testicles push impressively against the briefs.

It maddens her that there has never been anyone in her life she has liked as much as Zee. Never been anyone who could make her laugh when she felt ready to bash her fist through the wall. Never been anyone she’s felt could withstand all forces of her personality, both negative and positive.

Pushing through the turnstile, she thinks he’d probably be better off without her. He could smoke himself to death, drink himself to death, sit in the bath and never clean the ring; he could think about whatever he thinks about for hours. He wouldn’t have her to remind him that the day is over, that it’s meal time, bed time. He could just stay the same twenty-four hours a day, an amoeba; a simple microscopic organism. A blob.

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Misconduct of the Heart
Excerpt

 

“Do you remember Stan?” I ask.

“Of course.”

“He pulled me from the dishpit.  Taught me everything I know.”

“You were teacher's pet.  He called the rest of us dipshits and ne'er do wells.”

“I went to see him in hospital.  It was weird because there was nothing to say really, outside Chappy's.  I said I'd visit him again but he told me not to come back.”

I visited him a bunch of times.”

“When?”

“Before he died.”

“He let you?”

“I didn't give him a choice.  He had nobody.”

“But, I mean, you just showed up at the hospital even though he told you not to?”

“I brought him thermal socks.  His feet were cold.”

That I didn't have the courage to do this, to show my devotion despite Stan's objections, reactivates a seething inner loss.  I grab a rubber band and stretch it between my fingers. 

“He talked about you,” Conquer says, “was worried you wouldn't be able to handle the take-over.  All the corporate shit.”

“How wrong he was.  I am one corporate animal.”  The rubber band snaps.

“What did Bob say?”

“Bob is taking an online course called Discovering Inner Pathways to Success.  He is learning about the importance of empathy and understands that he needs to be more empathic, only he keeps saying 'emphatic' because, as you know, he's dyslexic.”

“Tell me about it.  Last week he saw a truck in the parking lot with Geek Squad on it and wanted to know what a Greek Salad truck was doing outside Chappy's.” 

“Conquer, it's time you learned to appreciate the upside of Bob.  Imagine if we had a real general manager giving real orders—a corporate manager we couldn't ignore.”

In a Viking quandary, he savours blueberry water.  I need a shower to get Bartholomew off me, to become fully sober, to manage my regrets about deserting Stan all yellow and bloated with cold feet; Stan who didn't call me a dipshit or a ne'er do well.  Who told me I did whizzbang jobs.  Why couldn't I interpret that “don't come back” meant come back and bring me thermal socks?  Why do I cave so easily?

“I wish my son didn't hate me,” I say.

Conquer shrugs.  “Kids hate their parents.”

 

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The Barking Dog

The Barking Dog

edition:Paperback
also available: eBook
tagged : literary
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Excerpt

One

 

It started with me thinking there was a man in the house. I’d wake Jerry. “There is no man,” he’d say.

It was around this time he started screwing what’s-her-face.

So I’d tell myself I was imagining things, that maybe I wanted there to be a man, that maybe my man-phobia was what Jerry would call an attention-getting device. But suspecting that the man was inside my head didn’t make me feel any better. Because I started to fear that he was embodying something hideous in my makeup, something I couldn’t face. I would’ve preferred to have been robbed. I could’ve called somebody, dialled 911. I’ve always wanted to dial 911. The thugs-in-blue could’ve come with guns.

I don’t know what I imagined the man was doing in my house because in the morning nothing was out of place; the stereo was intact, the TV, the VCR—objects I hated and would’ve liked to have had stolen. Objects that absorbed my beautiful son and transformed him into an unresponsive, twitching blob.

The man stayed in my consciousness for a couple of years. I dreaded going to bed because he’d be lurking downstairs, fingering my belongings, sneering at the wedding photo and Jerry’s phallic golf trophy (another object I would’ve liked to have had stolen). I’d knocked the stupid thing over at least five times, and once threw it at Jerry. It was unbreakable.

I never went to look for the man myself. I don’t know what I was afraid of: that he didn’t exist?

The prosecution’s been trying to sniff out “dysfunction” in my family: personality disorders, anti-social behaviour. Something that would constitute conditioning for a psychopath. I worry that on the stand my dysfunction will show. Which would be bad for Sam. I’m supposed to appear normal, just as he’s supposed to appear normal.

The point about the man business is that it occurred just before I realized that Jerry was screwing what’s-her-face. Not the one he married, but the first one—my neighbour—who borrowed things from me: garden tools, blankets, roasting pans. She had her own husband. They played golf together, went to Florida and Arizona to try different courses. So I don’t understand what she was doing with my husband. But then I’ve never understood what’s so great about golf.

Now I know that “the man” was the cancer stalking me. The cancer was embodying the hideousness in my makeup.

The joke is that Jerry was diagnosed with it first. I’d told him to go to the doctor because he was chronically fatigued, beyond his regular Jerry-not-wanting-to-do-anything-with-his-family fatigue. He went for tests, then more tests. I took the doctor’s call because Jerry was too scared to talk to him. He stood watching me, his face flaccid, waiting for the verdict. I decided that even if the news was good, I’d appear grim, just to rattle Jerry.

“Yes,” I said sombrely to the doctor. “I understand . . . unhunh . . . unhunh . . . yes . . . I see.” Something like that. I was simply absorbing his diagnosis, not repeating it. But Jerry panicked before I even got off the phone. He walked into the closet and closed the door.

It was thyroid cancer in the early stages. There was to be minor surgery and radiation. Small stuff compared to what I would have to go through.

I stared at the closet. “Come out, Jerry.”

No response.

I considered my options. I could’ve pleaded with him to come out, assumed the womanly role of nurturing and assured him that everything was going to be just fine, not to worry, poochy woochy. Or I could’ve lit a match, slipped it under the closet door and made a run for it. Or I could’ve blockaded him in there. Fed him occasionally.

I did none of this because I didn’t understand yet that life is the very second you’re in. You don’t dick around wasting seconds.

I went downstairs and finished the birthday cake I’d baked for Sam which he hadn’t touched. I yanked out the ten candles that hours before I’d carefully arranged. Consuming slice after slice, I felt sorry for myself for being a mother so wronged, so misunderstood. Then I found myself hoping my husband would die from the cancer, that it would spread up his throat into his brain because this would mean I could sell the house and move to Hawaii. I imagined tropical breezes, ocean spray, rum cocktails. I imagined my boy, rejuvenated by the salt air, running towards me calling “Mummy.”

He never hugs me anymore. Never. To think I once had the freedom to hold him whenever I wanted. To think I was that lucky and didn’t know it.

Eventually, Jerry came out of the closet and shuffled downstairs. I took my time telling him, only at the end admitting that the oncologist wasn’t terribly worried about it.

It was after his course of treatment, when he was considered to be in the clear, that he started “playing nine holes” with the first one, the neighbour who borrowed the pots and pans. I had the impression he was living life with relish, now that he’d been faced with his own mortality.

Which I can understand. It’s sneaking around I can’t stand. Don’t lie. I hate lies. Politicians who lie should be thrown out of government. Or failing that, shot.

I asked him how he thought Sam felt about his dad screwing the neighbour. He said Sam didn’t know. I said of course he does. He asked if I told him. I said of course not. Children know. They always know. Then I told him to get out. Shouted at him, threatened him with lawyers. We didn’t actually throw things that time. At one point I considered hurling the phallic golf trophy. But he left with little resistance. I think he was relieved. They shacked up for a bit, then she went back to her husband. Maybe he was a better golfer.

I was hurt, of course, self-esteem impaired. It seemed important at the time. Now it’s impossible to comprehend how brain-dead Jerr could’ve had such an effect on me. But life’s like that. You go through these things that seem to tear you apart. Years later you wonder why. Years later you’re going through some other thing that seems to be tearing you apart.

I told Jerry that it was his job to explain his side of the divorce to Sam. He never did. At first, I said lame things like we don’t love each other anymore. But during the divorce proceedings I found myself referring to Sam’s absentee father as anal-retentive, emotionally retarded, small-minded, dick-driven, cheap.

Anyway, this is all ancient history. The point is my son. What happened to my son?

In the courtroom, everybody stares at me. How could she give birth to such a monster? How can she stand it? What did she do to drive him to it?

Well, you know what? I wasn’t even around. I’d actually won a raffle, a weekend pass to a spa. I never win anything, and spas give me the willies—strangers slapping oil all over you and squeezing your zits. But I thought, I’ve got to try it, it’s in the country, it’s free, maybe aromatherapy will change my life. I hated it; at one point a taut Chinese woman was rubbing me with rocks. Anyway, I had no idea what my boy was up to, didn’t even hear about it until I came home greased. By this time, Sam had been in an adult jail for twenty-four hours. He’d lied about his age, possibly to protect me but more likely to protect his part-time job as a security guard at my brother-in-law’s hospital. Jerry got the job for him, told him to lie about his age because Jerry got a paper route when he was three or something and believes that all enterprising young men should get jobs and become millionaires by the time they’re twelve. It used to drive him wild when Sam would spend his allowance rather than stash it in his piggy bank.

So I think about that often: If I’d been home, would he have done it? Probably. I don’t keep tabs on him anymore; it’s futile. Which made the whole bail issue terrifying. When the schlep of a duty counsel advised me that we could apply for bail—meaning write a huge cheque or post the house—I thought, You must be joking, take the killer home? But then he was there, my lost son, looking at his hands, tapping his feet, trembling even though the room wasn’t cold. The duty counsel, awash in sweat, kept removing his lawyer duds, first his jacket, then his vest, tie. Of course we must try for bail, I said. The Crown will oppose it, he advised me. No, really? It was then I called Jerry who contacted the hot-shot criminal lawyer. I was rattling within during the proceeding. We had to sit through what felt like several hundred requests for bail before it was our turn. The whole time I was thinking, Please don’t lock him up, please lock him up. I couldn’t believe any of it was happening, had happened. I didn’t know who my son was anymore, what he could do. Our lawyer was worth his hundreds of dollars, a Houdini eluding the Criminal Code. He made it sound like boys kill people every day, no big whoop, and the poor kid has no criminal record, no motive and no memory of the incident which suggests, if in fact he did commit the crime, he may have been unconscious of his actions and therefore not responsible because he had no knowledge or appreciation of what he was doing. I think the judge let Sam off because he wanted the lawyer to button it so His Honour could proceed to lunch. Then there were papers to sign, a recognizance and a document registered against the title of the house, which was the surety payable should Sam skip town.

But the conditions caused me some sleep deprivation. Every couple of hours, I’d wake and check his room to make sure he hadn’t made a run for it. Days should have been easier as he was expected to attend school, but it was June, exam time, meaning not his regular schedule. I had no way of tracking his movements. I’d ask feebly, “Do you have an exam today?” and he would mutter something unintelligible. I’d phone the school, talk to voicemail knowing my call would not be returned because the staff were busy planning their summer vacations. He was subject to a curfew, supposed to be home between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m., but usually he’d show up those few minutes late; just enough time to cause my heart rate to zoom to three hundred beats per minute. And he was ordered to report to the police every forty-eight hours, which he did, but it was weeks before I stopped phoning the division to ascertain that he’d checked in. Now I never call. He’s a good boy. I think. Or anyway understands that jumping bail is a bad idea.

The thugs-in-blue advised me that I could have him rearrested at any time if I felt it was necessary. They’ve been itching to get their hands on him, the “rich kid” with the fancy lawyer.

After the remand hearing, driving home, I asked Sam if he had any idea why he’d done it. He repeated that he didn’t know if he’d done it since he had no memory of the incident. We were in the car, stopped in traffic. There’d been an accident, sirens wailed, a blood-thirsty crowd gathered. We sat in silence although his foot kept tapping.

“I have difficulty believing that,” I said finally.

“What?” His foot stopped.

“That you can’t remember anything.”

He shrugged, resumed tapping, turned on the radio, fiddled with the tuner until he found something obnoxious. He told me if I’d been there, he probably would’ve killed me. He said this without malice. As though killing people was normal, to be expected. Why? He wouldn’t tell me. Over the months since he was charged, we’ve had different versions of this conversation. He shrugs, avoids my eyes, stares at the TV. Is that shame? Remorse? What is it? He won’t tell me.

So I stare back at the excuses-for-human-beings who line up early outside the courtroom to get a front-row seat. I don’t understand why we’re so popular; have there been no child abuse/murder/sex crimes lately? Is the press so starved of ecological disasters, stock market crashes and savage warmongers that we’ve been upgraded to page three?

The gawkers have big appetites. During recesses, they munch potato chips and chew on Kit Kat bars. They have already condemned my son and are titillated by my despair. I have no answers for them. I am ashamed and distraught and enraged. I grieve for the little boy I knew. He did exist once. I’ve got the photographs.

 

Chapter Two

 

The judge appears to be drowsy today. Too many cocktails last night, or maybe he was at a cross-dressing party. I can see him in gold lamé and garters, fishnet stockings, glittery pumps, doing the mashed potato. I hate the old fart because he doesn’t listen. During the preliminary hearing he spent most of his time grumbling and telling the defence to “get on with it.” The defence irritates him, and the dull jury take their cues from him. Particularly the winner of the Sonny Bono look-alike contest who also happens to be the foreman. I think of O.J., and all his entertaining, expensive lawyers strutting about in their pink shirts and silk ties. Our lawyer, though expensive, is not entertaining. His robe sags from his shoulders as he shuffles about, wiping his nose every three minutes. Why? myself and the jury wonder. Is there snot on his moustache? He’s also balding and has some kind of scalp condition. The Crown, on the other hand, is a tall, blond and handsome football-player type. During his predictable opening statements, the female jurors eyed him lustily. As he expounded upon the overwhelming physical evidence, they sat with legs crossed, tightening the walls of their vaginas. He has been gleeful while calling forensic witnesses to the stand and almost peed himself when his top cop presented the jury with gory photographs of the murder victims. As the jurors’ faces paled, the football player swelled with self-satisfaction. An open-and-shut case, he was thinking.

Yesterday, a mentally ill man was shot to death by a cop. Two bullets landed in his head and one in his throat. A woman who witnessed the slaughter described the victim as surprised to be shot. The cop is claiming he acted in self-defence because the man, yards away from him, pulled a hammer from his coat. Now there’s a reason to shoot somebody. I always say, if he’s got a hammer, whack him. Before he became mentally ill, the dead man was in medical school.

I wonder what my jury would feel about the photos of the dead medical student’s head. What’s left of it.

The football player regularly reminds us that Sam rinsed the blood from his clothes before returning home. This would suggest knowledge and appreciation of the act. On the other hand, I know Sam. He hates dirt. He washes his hands frequently, showers twice a day. He will not wear a shirt twice before laundering it. He bleaches his whites. I’d say he’s borderline OCD. The fact that he cleaned up the mess doesn’t surprise me.

Baldy with the snotty moustache has to prove that Sam is not guilty by reason of non-insane automatism because he was sleepwalking when he committed the murders. Therefore he was rendered incapable of appreciating the nature and quality of his act, or knowing that his act was wrong. I’m trying to believe this. Baldy has rounded up hired-gun shrinks and psychologists who have attached electrodes to Sam’s head to measure his brain activity during sleep. They believe it is possible to snooze while clubbing people to death.

Jerry’s father used to sleepwalk. It was a family joke. In the morning, there would be food left over from his night’s foraging. Once, he started mowing the lawn, waking the neighbourhood. Less amusing was his habit of urinating in the closet.

But as far as I know, he never killed anybody.

When Sam started sleepwalking, we didn’t worry about it. Sometimes, before he got out of bed, he’d scream, in which case I’d go to him and try to offer comfort. But he’d stare at me glassily. His pupils would be dilated and his muscles tense. When I tried to console him, he’d be unresponsive or unintelligible. If he did wake up, he would have no recollection of what he’d been doing or dreaming. He peed on chairs a few times, but other than that he never caused harm. I told myself it was nothing to fret about, just a family trait, like receding hairlines and varicose veins. Besides, he’s always been an anxious kid. Anxious kids have nightmares. Fortunately, in his teens, the sleepwalking episodes became less frequent. I was hoping he’d outgrown them. But the security job at the hospital required that he work nights. It’s never been easy for him to fall asleep at night, never mind during the day. But it paid better than McDonald’s so we figured it was worth doing. The theory was that he would adjust. Besides, it was only for the summer, until he went back to school. And it kept us apart, providing me with an excuse for the complete lack of communication between us. Sometimes he’d fall asleep on the couch while watching soap operas. I’d turn the TV off and cover him with a blanket, then sit on the armchair and watch him; listen to his breathing. When he’s back to a normal schedule, I told myself, when I’ve finished being Hiroshimaed, things will get better. Like it could be that simple.

Only a year ago he sliced off the tips of two of his fingers trying to use Jerry’s tile cutter. I heard shrieks from the basement and found him staring down at the meat of his fingers on the floor. I tried to staunch the blood pouring from his hand with paper towels, but it was useless. He’d always become faint at the sight of blood and dissolved into the little boy I’d known. “Help me, Mum,” he whimpered. I drove him to a walk-in clinic, sat beside him in the waiting room, made him hold his hand over his head to reduce the flow to the wounds. At one point, he rested his head on my shoulder. I cling to this memory as if he were dead.

How does someone squeamish about blood beat people to death? Didn’t it gush, spurt, splat? The cross-eyed forensic expert testified that Sam must’ve made repeated wild swings with the shovel dripping in blood. Did he vomit before he rinsed it from his clothes?

The prosecution’s shrink experts state that Sam is barely out of a troubled childhood, a victim of an ugly divorce. We were neglectful parents, I in particular have been an unsupportive mother, sacrificing family for career. All this deduced from “psychological assessments” of Sam that took hours long. I get the impression that the more I’m made to look like a self-centred bitch, the better it is for the prosecution because self-centred bitches produce cold-blooded psychopaths. The experts are convincing and I’m beginning to agree with them. It is all my fault. Suddenly, a need to protect my son overwhelms me. I want to rush over to him, wrap my arms around his stiff shoulders, tell him everything’s going to be all right, Mummy’s here.

He’d probably spit in my face. He wants me to take no part in his war. If that’s what this is. Who are his enemies? Two golden agers watching TV on a Sunday afternoon?

I guess the divorce was ugly. I can hardly remember it, don’t want to remember it. The biggest problem was the fucker wouldn’t let me sell the house. The market was down, he insisted, we’d lose money. So Sam and I continued to live in the house of horrors, imagining the sounds of smashing dishes and hostile voices, robotic sex.

That was the tipoff, when Jerry didn’t want to boink me anymore. Not that I wanted to boink him, but sex is compulsory in marriage. You don’t have to talk to each other, just fornicate a couple of times a month and you’ll know you’re normal.

I cough loudly in an attempt to wake the judge. It doesn’t work. The excuses-for-human-beings gawk at me. Is that a smoker’s cough? they titter. Maybe she smoked when he was in the womb and that’s why he kills people. Maybe she drank and he’s suffering from fetal alcohol syndrome. Maybe she was a junkie, injected and snorted substances, smoked jangs, chewed mushrooms.

The prosecution refuses to believe that Sam didn’t know the old couple. They lived seven houses away, the football player points out, how could he not know them? I guess Blondie doesn’t live in the city where you can go for years without knowing your neighbours while inhaling the stench from their barbecues.

I cough again. The clerk looks at me. As does the victims’ only daughter who has come to court every day seething with hatred for my son. Sometimes I try to imagine being her, sitting motionless, visualizing what her defenceless parents must have had to endure. Did they scream, plead, weep? Did they lose control of their bowels before or after they lost consciousness? Apparently there was “excessive fecal matter” at the scene of the crime. I picture the blood and shit and busted skulls with the TV still going, a televised sermon. “Jesus said, ‘I am the light of the world,’” a coiffed preacher intones. “‘Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness.’”

The blood begins to congeal around the bodies.

“Praise the Lord!”

What were heads are now swollen, pulpy masses. The blood darkens, the corpses stiffen.

The only daughter must want to see my only son burned alive.

--

I still haven’t figured out how to present myself as the mother of the murderer. As I’m under scrutiny doubtless my behaviour could influence the outcome of the trial. Should I convey remorse, since he isn’t? Should I cower in shame? Let the tears flow freely? How can I help my son?

The isolation I feel is not unlike what I felt during radiation therapy. Stripped of my paper smock, partially covered with a lead apron, my neck and mutilated chest positioned by a technician who said, “You must keep still,” then quickly fled, closing a heavy steel door behind her, provided me with an aloneness I’d never felt before. Isolated in the sealed chamber, my only company was the high buzzing as the radiation began, which soon mellowed into a low chant. While the laser beams ricocheted around the room, burning holes through me, the technicians, comfortable behind glass, discussed their babies and mortgages and SUVs; the lives they believed they controlled. I can never be that ignorant again, I realized.

Periodically memories jolt me. That day in the bakery, its shelves lined with doughnuts and pastries, cookies, cakes; a child’s paradise. “What do you want, sweetie?” I ask him.

“A whole wheat roll,” he replies.

“You have a choice of all these yummy things and you want a whole wheat roll?”

“Yes.”

A normal eight-year-old does not ask for a whole wheat roll when faced with butter tarts.

As the football player maligns my son, I feel the jury looking to me for argument. Again, I don’t know what expression to wear. The gawkers whisper, snicker and snort. As much as I realize that they’re low-lifes, I fear I will break under the burden of their disdain. During sleepless nights, I sense them outside, still watching, judging, wanting to see my son crucified. I lie in the darkness wondering if he is lying awake, feeling their disdain, or if he’s sleeping and about to get up and kill me. I wouldn’t mind this, if it were over quickly. In fact, I would’ve preferred he kill me in the first place. It would have freed me from the guilt I feel for having been a bad mother who put her baby in daycare, who felt defeated and therefore did nothing. And he could’ve scored my life insurance and headed for Hawaii to enjoy tropical breezes, ocean spray, rum cocktails.

Sometimes I ran away because I was afraid I’d hit him. I felt that impulse, that bolt of electricity in my arm. Is this what he felt when he started swinging the shovel? Is it genetic? Could I kill someone? Certainly there are obituaries I wouldn’t be saddened to read.

Seeing him all dressed up in his court clothes reminds me of his brief career as a child actor. A squash buddy of Jerry’s was in advertising and hired Sam for a few commercials. I thought Sam enjoyed the work, the attention, the money which he knew was being kept in trust for him until he turned eighteen. But one day he cut his face with an X-Acto knife. And hacked off his hair. I discovered the blood in the bathroom sink and his hair on the floor. I cleaned up the mess, my tears transforming his golden locks into clumps. I tried to talk to him about it. “Why did you do this?” I asked. He shrugged. “How could you do this?” I asked. He shrugged.

I put the hair in a plastic bag and showed it to Jerry. “Maybe he should see a shrink,” I said. “He doesn’t need to see a shrink,” Jerry said, “he’s just acting his age.” Which was what I wanted to hear. So what if my son slices his face with an X-Acto knife? Boys do that. It’s a hormonal thing.

The scars are still there, faint white lines, almost imperceptible to anyone but the mother. The hair’s in my dresser, its lustre gone. It looks like a dead mouse.

My point is he’s not a psychopath. I’ve read about psychopaths, they’re big news, you can’t help but read about them; psychopaths don’t deliberately self harm. And Sam has been known to be kind. Last year he volunteered at an old folks’ home, wheeled them out into the sun and listened to their boring stories. I had no idea why he was doing this. Because he missed my parents? He’d been the son they’d never had.

Baldy has recruited staff from the old folks’ home to testify to Sam’s niceness. Although I’m grateful for their testimony, I find it hard to believe that my foul-mouthed son is capable of such compassion.

He began wetting his bed when he was nine. In the morning, I’d find him curled up in piss with his hands over his head. “You’ll be late for school,” I’d warn and he’d respond with “Fuck off, you cunt-shitting bitch.”

I must not tell this to the football player.

Jerry excused Sam’s bedwetting and language by saying he hated his mother when he was that age.

Oh. So it’s okay then.

The spookiest, creepiest thing is that Sam has never admitted that, if he did kill these people, he is sorry. I fear that he’s incapable of “feeling sorry,” that he’s incapable of understanding what he has done. He thinks it’s a movie. He thinks it’s a murder mystery and he’s the star.

Baldy intends to push the fact that he was an exemplary student. He’s summoned two of Sam’s high-school teachers to testify. I have been privy to Sam’s teacher bashing, particularly of the teachers in question: Warty Morty and head-too-small-for-her-tits Miss Dubejsky. I am amazed that he was able to hide his true feelings from them. But then what are his true feelings?

Watching his profile, I can’t believe he did it. He has the face of an angel. Tears bubble up again and I feel the phantom pain in my missing breast. Sam found the cancer on me. He’s the reason I’m alive today. We were arguing, I was trying to stop him from going out with Jackie-the-slut. He pushed me, inadvertently bumping my breast. It remained tender for days, the lump became prominent. Maybe I should tell this to Baldy. He could make up a touching story about it. This child saved his mother’s life.

What would the gawkers think if they found out I only have one breast? That I got what I deserved? Raising a boy like that, they’d conclude, it’s no wonder she got cancer. What would they think if they’d seen me scrambling around the house this morning looking for my prosthesis? I take it out as soon as I get home because it rubs against the scar. The problem is, I can never remember where I put it. Once I found it in the fridge, behind the lettuce.

In the courthouse washroom, the excuses-for-human-beings ogle me in the mirror as they freshen their lipstick and powder their noses. They listen to me urinate. How can she pee? What kind of mother pees when her son is on trial for murder? Their gasps are audible when they spot me outside buying a hot-dog.

Jerry arrives. He can’t always make it because he’s busy raping and pillaging small businesses on the verge of bankruptcy. Natasha’s on his arm wearing a hat that looks like a constipated parrot. I wonder if she has the hots for the football player. Jerry just bought her an Audi for their anniversary which she doesn’t know how to drive. She has a kind of job, consumer reporting on a morning talk show. She gets her hair done and reports back on it. “It was almost a sexual experience,” I heard her say of a pedicure.

Now Jerry wants to sell the house to pay the legal bills. I don’t argue. But nobody’s buying. They know whose house it is.

 

Chapter Three

 

I’m showing a listing to a couple for the third time. I know they’ll buy the house, but they don’t. Or anyway, Hubby doesn’t. Wifey’s keen. The stained-glass windows and hardwood floors have mesmerized her. I smell foundation problems. This is why I hate residential real estate. I’m selling broken homes to people who’ll break their backs to pay for them. Commercial real estate was easier: better money and it was always just business. But commercial real estate isn’t what it used to be.

“It’s so sunny,” Wifey remarks. “We’ve never been here when it’s been sunny.”

“Great southern exposure,” I point out. “Fabulous for plants.”

So now I sell defective houses, making comments like, “It has a newer roof,” or “It’s very clean,” or “It’s certainly an original paint job.” I don’t like myself for this. I keep telling myself the residential stuff is just temporary. Right. As “temporary” as cancer.

The wife asks me about the fireplace. “It can probably be opened up,” I tell her, while being completely ignorant of the inner condition of the chimney. I always encourage buyers to hire a house inspector. But the house inspectors don’t look very hard. And anyway, if the buyers have their hearts set on the house, nothing short of a termite infestation will dissuade them from closing the deal.

“Honey . . .” Wifey calls. She’s eager to show him something, but he’s preoccupied with the sliding-glass doors to the deck which stick.

“It’s a realistic price for the location,” I say, in an effort to distract him. “Even so, I think we can get them down a bit.”

“Honey . . .” She points out some detail in the woodwork above the dud of a fireplace. “Isn’t that sweet?” She’s imagining Christmas here. Chestnuts roasting over the open fire. Will she give birth to a son who will murder? She doesn’t think so. She believes they will produce glorious children who will produce glorious lives. It will all begin in the house with the leaky basement. And she’s probably right. What are the chances of giving birth to a murderer? One in a thousand? One in a million?

Yet I was apprehensive when he was kicking around in my womb. Other mothers worried that their children might be born mentally or physically impaired. I worried about giving birth to a sociopath. Because I believe they are born, not made. I was relieved when Sam grew into a fragile little boy with a constantly running nose. He didn’t poke the eyes out of cats or stick pins into rodents. He collected caterpillars in jars and hammered holes into the lids, enabling them to breathe. Then he waited patiently for them to turn into butterflies. I emptied the jars while he was sleeping so he wouldn’t wake up to dead caterpillars. “They must’ve turned into butterflies,” I’d say when he presented me with the empty jar. “They must’ve squeezed through the holes and flown away.” He’d collect more, watch them even more closely.

But when he was nine, he stopped crying. His grandparents died. He was supposed to go up to their cottage as he did every summer. He’d been looking forward to it, had planned renovations to his tree house. When I explained that they were no longer with us, he accused me of lying. After Jerry confirmed the news, Sam sat tearless in front of the TV for days. Years later, he accused me of wanting them to die, not caring that they were dead. He was right.

Last night I had the dream again. The attacker was swinging at my feet, beating them to a pulp, crushing my ankles. Then he moved to my shins. I heard them splinter, my kneecaps shatter.

The attacker is always faceless, bodiless. I’m only aware of the force behind his blows. He never tires and I know that within minutes he’ll be battering my body, my arms, my head. I beg him to fracture my skull, to knock me unconscious. I plead to be struck dead. But he continues to bludgeon me in the same sequential manner and I can do nothing but wait.

I woke telling myself it wasn’t that bad. Sam smashed their skulls. He did not assault their bodies. He only smashed their skulls. Only.

--

The surgeon tells me to lift my shirt but doesn’t touch me while he examines the incision. He looks repulsed. I don’t know why since it’s his handiwork he’s looking at. Unless he had an intern stitch me up while he dashed off to shtup a lab technician. He ambles back to his desk.

I fasten my bra, pull my shirt back down. “Did you know,” I ask for openers, “that more women have died from breast cancer this century than soldiers in all the wars combined?”

“Who told you that?”

“I read it.”

“You read too much.” He has reprimanded me for reading before, because when I was first diagnosed I spent hours in the library perusing cancer books. I never actually borrowed the books because that would’ve meant I had cancer, and I was still pretending that I just had a little hyperplasia, no big deal. Besides, I didn’t want the snooty librarians to know I was sick; signing out breast cancer books suggests you have breast cancer. Instead, I’d sneak a chair into a corner and hunch over the books, always keeping my hands over the cover to obscure the title.

I tuck in my shirt. “A 36.6 percent increase since 1969, that’s pretty scary.”

“Increase in what?”

“Breast cancer. It kills fifteen Canadian women daily.”

“Don’t waste your time with statistics.”

“So you don’t buy that one-in-eight line?”

He starts scribbling in my file which is bulging with test results and surgical reports. “That’s deceiving. It’s over a lifetime. Lots of things can kill you over a lifetime.”

“That’s comforting.” I watch him scribble, feeling like the naughty girl sent to the principal’s office. The naughty girl who can do nothing but wait for the principal to pronounce his sentence. “I’d like to talk statistics,” I venture, “specifically to do with me.”

“I suggest you ignore statistics. For a few years you’ll be convinced every ache and pain is cancer. That’s normal.”

“I’m worried about my bones, that it’s spreading to my bones.”

“Have you got pains in your bones?”

“I’m not sure.”

“Your bone scan was negative.”

“Yeah, but nothing shows up until it’s advanced.”

“We’ll do another scan in a few months.”

This is not a cheering prospect. “Bone scan” means incarceration in the nuclear medicine department. A technician injects bone-seeking, radioactive fluid into your arm which collects in any area of the bone where there is “abnormal” cell activity. It takes the phosphorous compound two hours before they can actually see anything. You have to wait around with nuclear waste in your body before they can look for more cancer in your body.

“What if I do feel pain in my bones?”

His eyebrow twitches, hysterical woman, he’s thinking. “If the pain is constant, metastasis may be there. As I said, we’ll do another bone scan.” He fiddles with something in his lab coat pocket, takes it out, fondles it. It looks like a small aerosol container, maybe mouthspray. In seconds, he’ll open wide and squirt. “Try not to be obsessed about this,” he adds. “It doesn’t help and it may harm.”

The idea that I might be harming myself makes me start to dribble out of my left eye. He’s advised me that the reason I only tear out of my left eye and sweat out of my left armpit is that he removed many lymph nodes.

“I’m still weak all the time,” I whimper. “I want to sleep all the time.” I know he wants to boot me out of his office, but I waited an hour and forty-five minutes to see him. I need him to listen to me. “Do you believe this stuff about stress causing cancer?”

He sighs wearily. Why is he in this business if he finds breast cancer patients so tedious? “I believe that stress can inhibit the immune system and should be avoided.”

“What if you can’t avoid it?” He must know about the murders. Everybody knows about the murders.

He shrugs. “A lot of women with breast cancer are under chronic stress. So it would seem there is a connection there. I suggest you set yourself up in an ideal environment for healing.”

An ideal environment for healing? What planet is he on?

“Keep up your self-examinations,” he advises. “Early detection is key.”

“What if the lump’s tiny? I read that they can be smaller than peas, snuggled deep in the tissue. Some women can’t even feel their lumps. Dr. Love, that American surgeon, have you heard of her?”

He stares at me as though I’ve just crapped on his carpet. “Yes.”

“She says,” I persist, “if women find their lumps, it’s in the shower, or rolling over in bed, not doing self-exams. She says most women are too scared to do them.”

Both his eyebrows twitch. “Let me ask you something. Is this reading helping you?”

“I think I should stay informed.”

“There’s informed and then there’s misguided.”

“What I read about mammograms giving false positives and missing the real thing isn’t misguided—it’s fact. And pathologists being overworked, looking at slides till they can’t see straight.” I’m speaking really fast, like the little girl who’s so excited about having the correct answer she blurts it out unintelligibly. “Mistakes are made,” I sputter. “Did you read that story about the poor woman who underwent chemo and radiation for a brain tumour that turned out to be benign? She’s never going to recover from that treatment. Her immune system’s toast, she’s in constant pain. There was a picture of her in the paper, she’s brain-damaged, bloated and bald.”

“Those stories are rare.”

“But it happens.”

“I’m not saying it doesn’t. I’m saying, does it help you to read about it?”

“Probably not.”

“Precisely.” He closes my file and stands. “Why don’t you try to forget about it for a while?”

“I’m missing a breast. I can’t forget that.”

He swiftly reaches behind me as if to grab me by the scruff of the neck and hurl me out of the room, but instead he snatches a sweater which is slung over my chair. “You’re one of the lucky ones,” he tells me.

As he propels me out the door, I hear him squirt.

In the waiting room a bald woman sits crying. She’s young, too young. Other patients watch her fearfully. They have no comfort to give. They can’t even comfort themselves.

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