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Nosy White Woman

Excerpt from Nosy White Woman:

When I finally stole a look inside my sister Hayden’s refrigerator last year, I was startled. Much had changed in the way of healthy-food-sounding alcohol. Hayden was basically doing her grocery shopping at the liquor store. She had coffee ale, presumably for mornings; apricot IPA and plum porter, I guess for her produce needs; pecan beer (her version of Southern cooking), and lemon hard cider; there’s your vitamin C. Also chocolate stout.

“What are you looking for?” she demanded.

“Is there any way at all that I can help you with your drinking?” I asked, closing the fridge door very very gently, as if I hadn’t quite taken in what I’d just seen.That’s my last-ditch way of dealing with her: try to be frank but also leave a little escape clause in there.

“Paige, I do not have a problem. I have been extremely clear with you about that. On the other hand, you unquestionably have a problem with trying to control my life,” she said—her standard reply to my muted annual or biannual declaration that she was out of control.

She always stayed on message, and the message was that opting for beer rather than coffee when she woke up was not odd, because our mom’s dementia and the stress of her caretaking were creating understandable extra drinking that would taper off, with no effort on Hayden’s part, when things got easier. Presumably after our mother died, which her doctors were saying could be a long time indeed.

Twenty years earlier, on Thanksgiving, I had watched Hayden nearly burn the sweet potato pie and then, evidently rattled by the magnitude of this near-tragedy, down a tall glass of Ravenswood zinfandel, like a child finishing her milk in order to leave the table. Of course I’d seen people drink beer that way, but it was startling to watch someone slam back a twelve-ounce tumbler of wine. Her eyes cut over toward me from the side, with her throat lifted and the glass tipped all the way. She was watching me watch her, and she wasn’t trying to hide. It was as if the lack of surreptitiousness could make it normal.

“Look, this is insane. You’ve really, truly got a drinking problem,” I said then, jarred nearly much by the essentially private nature of what I’d just witnessed as by the size of the glass. It was the first time I tried to talk with her about it.

“I do not,” she said reflexively, as if she’d been waiting for me to say something. “Plenty of people these days use water glasses for wine.”

“They don’t inhale it like cigarette smoke,” I said. “It would be even faster if you just stuck a straw in the bottle. Carried around an IV pole.”

That was probably eight thousand bottles of wine ago.

Spending more time with her now, one development I saw was that hand in hand with the drinking went her lying. She did it automatically, to me and to our younger sister, Carlin; to each of us individually or both of us together, on any topic or pretext. It didn’t have to be about our mother or her needs or anything with the house. She lied as a means of self-protection, to stockpile a little time or credit, to gain a few points that she might or might not need later; she did it to throw up a cloud of words and fuzz and confusion that might have no immediate purpose or benefit while she was talking, but, who knew, could come in handy sometime. She lied because it was a skill she still had, perhaps something that made her feel competent or gave her a sense of privacy.

Our mother lived for another two years after I saw the fridge of liquor groceries, and Hayden was her caregiver—a symbiotic relationship that meant she could stop pretending to job hunt altogether, and she felt entitled to budget the household money however she chose. She moved the two of them into a small rented bungalow close enough to all necessary stores that she rarely had to drive.

Carlin and I tried to make changes, but our mom was decent good care, albeit from an alcoholic. Hayden might go to bed early, but I also saw how gentle she was.

“Let’s get you set up here in your big chair,” she’d say, clucking around with shawls and footstools. “You want a snack? Want some of those fig cookies you like, with some lemonade?”

Our mother was washed and fresh-smelling, dry inside her diaper, wearing her special stockings to keep the swelling down. Hayden cooked Mom’s scrambled eggs the way she liked them, and she popped the tricky denture plate out deftly, then patted her on the cheek. Yes, Hayden was a slow-moving crisis, but the truth was that she never had a DUI and wouldn’t get behind the wheel of a car when she’d had a drink. (This was one of the sources of her employment problems.) Why should she listen to us?

She’d turfed Carlin out, when she moved home from Arizona with no money and no place to stay; but Carlin, who was mad for a long time, had gotten over it.

“No, I wouldn’t want to move back in there,” Carlin said. “I was always more conflicted about living with Mom than Hayden is. Besides, I’ve made a new life now.” She was even talking about maybe dating again—not that she had signed up for Plenty of Older Fish or whatever, but her attitude shift was healthy.

So we made an uneasy peace with having our mother in Hayden’s hands. Two different doctors told me that alcoholics could sometimes be excellent caregivers. And if we were to step in, where would Hayden go?

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From Mostarghia:

Just a few days before your death you’re determined still to be strong, to be the man of the hour, he who can do everything, always, even have his children forget the war and the concentration camps, the bombs and the hunger, the danger and the fear. Your doctor has come to inform us that you are living your last days, and that you are to be moved up to the floor for palliative care. They want to put you on a stretcher to carry you to the floor for the dying, but you refuse. You insist on taking the stairs, leaning, when necessary, on me. I feel you to be short of breath and feverish, like a leaf trembling at the approach of a hurricane. I like your smell, your silky skin, your boniness, and your lightness of weight. You were never a big eater, and even before your illness you said that we had to feed ourselves like birds, just enough to be able to fly. I see our two shadows making their way slowly along the hospital corridor. The impassive beauty of the flowers brought to the dying seems extravagant to me in this thankless place. You hold to me, as once you held to my translations in all the countries we knew where you refused to learn the language. For a long time I reproached you for this linguistic sulkiness, but towards the end of your life I understood that it was a deliberate strategy, a refusal to accept any social contract. As you lean on me and your breath comes faster, I search for words to tell you how deeply sorry I am for all our misunderstandings. (How to say sorry properly in your language, no longer really mine ever since others, like young wives unseating the older ones in a harem, have come to dwell in me, and to make me multiple.) A strange feeling runs through my entire being. As I adjust my body to better serve you as a support, my left breast slips naturally into the cavity in your chest, there where once resided the lung and ribs that have been taken from you. Gently, my breast has begun to swell, to breathe, as if it wanted to become the organ you are lacking, as if it wanted to complete you, but also to hide itself from the world and to return to whence it sprang. At the same time, in a neighbouring room, the Rwandan priest you chased away the other day because he wanted to convert you to Christianity, is reading the Bible to a dying person in a low and solemn voice: “And the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam, and he slept: and he took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh instead thereof. And the rib, which the Lord God had taken from the man, made he a woman.” With your rolling Slavic accent, you whisper in my ear: “My rib is the Adriatic coast. That’s where you were conceived. You will conceive in your turn on another coast.” Your face, like that of mystics in a trance, glows with a beatific smile, and I have a sudden conviction that you have always understood everything, all the languages and all the codes you claimed not to comprehend.

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The Erotics of Restraint

The Erotics of Restraint

Essays on Literary Form
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Anatomy of the Short Story


Story form is an object, a translucent, shimmering thing with words tacked to the surface of its swirling involutions. The words glitter with their own reflective colouration; in them you see the momentary reflections of other words. Wires as thin as gossamer connect the words with more words on distant parts of the structure where they set up new colonies with flags, banners, replicas and maps of the whole. Spin the form and the same words appear in flashes, the eye registers their rhythmic insistence. It is wonderful and miraculous to watch. And yet with all its surface complexity, it is a structure I recognize, a story. That’s the experience of reading for me.

But a story is not an infinite system. On the page, a story is still 5,000 or so words, laid one after the other, a serpentine path in a forest of white space. Its three-dimensionality – characters coming to life and strutting upon the world stage – is an illusion, fostered by technical means. This engenders a paradox: you read a story forward but understand it backward, only fully comprehending the journey when you have reached the end and rehearse it in memory. Even then it is difficult to capture a story in its entirety, as a simultaneous entity, without dedicated re-reading. And over successive re-readings the simple story action recedes in significance as gradually the beautiful machinery of story form comes into focus. There lies a reader’s deepest pleasure.

When I teach fiction writing, I use a sequence of three short stories to demonstrate formal principles: “The Point” by Charles D’Ambrosio, Jr., “Shiloh” by Bobbie Ann Mason, and “Brokeback Mountain” by E. Annie Proulx. All three were originally published in The New Yorker. All are fine short stories. But there are many fine short stories. These three work particularly well together as a teaching sequence because they use the same structures and devices but with readily apparent variations based on story concept and the author’s taste and personality.

Students often have a difficult time picking out structure in a text because of the sheer number and complexity of the devices involved and because authors vary the devices in wildly individual ways. But analyzing these three stories in sequence reduces the difficulty of isolating form and variation. Taken together, the stories amount to a short course in composition (not to mention, how to be better readers). They teach students the four basic story structures: plot, image patterning, thematic passages and backfill, as well as elements of time control, scene writing, subplot, and that mysterious thing called shape. They offer crucial insight into how to achieve the density of internal reference, rhyme (yes, rhyme) and self-conscious intentionality necessary to make a work of art out of words. The two universal tools in this networked system are what I call homologies (parallel—rhyming—actions) and memes (repeated texts and tags).

The most obvious variations in the story sequence are the amount of time covered in the narrative, the number of characters and point of view. “The Point” covers about two hours, and there are two characters in action. “Shiloh” takes place over the course of a few weeks; there are three important characters and one walk-on. “Brokeback Mountain” follows its two protagonists over twenty years and includes several other characters with significant roles, even point-of-view turns. “The Point” is a first person story, “Shiloh” third person single-character narration and “Brokeback Mountain” third person multiple-character narration with an emphasis on one main character. In other words, the reading sequence moves from simplest case to increasingly complex scenarios.

At the very least my students get to see how authors handle different time control problems. How do you fit two hours or twenty years into the same amount of text? They also learn something about adding supernumerary characters, how to control them and what use can be made of them. And they read good examples of the three most common point of view structures in contemporary fiction. “The Point” and “Shiloh” are conventional in this regard; “Brokeback Mountain,” in its use of an elastic third person is less so and thus somewhat mystifying in the way it seems to play fast and loose with the principle of point of view consistency.

All three stories vary in terms of shape (as I say, that mysterious thing). “The Point” looks quite straightforward at first. It begins at the beginning and proceeds chronologically (with nuggets of background inserted here and there) to the end of the plot. But then it carries on to deliver a major scene from a year earlier. The major backfill is back-loaded, added at the end, a highly inventive variation of conventional practice. “Shiloh” is the most conventional (by which I mean a commonly used structure): the story starts, then after a few paragraphs of setup, it steps back and delivers a snippet of crucial backfill. A couple of pages later, Mason inserts a paragraph-long expansion of this backfill. And then the story proceeds chronologically to its close. In “Brokeback Mountain,” Proulx uses a highly symbolic bookend structure to vary what is essentially a conventional forward-moving narrative. By book-ending, I mean that the story text begins and ends at the same place. It begins with a present tense, italicized section of text that represents a notional now, then drops back in time to deliver the story setup after which the narrative proceeds more or less chronologically. At the story’s close, we return to the image introduced at the beginning.

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Our Own Two Hands

Our Own Two Hands

A History of Black Lives in Windsor
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Excerpt from The Long Road Continues

In the early 18th century, when the planked walls of Fort du Pontchartrain du Detroit stood formidably along the strait, facing the French farms and Indigenous settlements that dotted the southern shore, people of African descent were here. This is their story.

From the earliest European settlement in the Detroit River region, Black men and women—stolen from their homes in Africa, the Caribbean, or Latin America—lived and worked in bondage alongside their masters. According to historian Afua Cooper, the keeping of slaves was a commonplace part of French settlement. In 1701, when Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac staked his claim on the north shore, he brought with him “several dozen slaves, both Panis [Indigenous] and Africans, from Montreal to build the fort.” Fort Detroit itself was a product of the fur trade, fuelled by the fashions of French noblemen across the sea. The coureur de bois who roamed the forests of Michigan, Ohio, and Upper Canada, also kept Black slaves, albeit few in number, who worked the trade with their owners.

By the late 1740s, a small French agricultural settlement had sprouted opposite Fort Detroit, alongside a Jesuit mission that was proselytizing the neighbouring Huron village. Many of these habitants, who carved out ribbon farms fronting the water, owned slaves of African descent. In New France, slavery was governed by Code Noir, a set of rules intended to validate the practice by placing it under the moral authority of state Catholicism. “Excessive” brutality against their human property was forbidden, and both “natural” marriages and informal unions between slaves were recognized by the church. Devout slaveholders often had their slaves baptized. According to historian Tiya Miles, while there was not uniform enforcement of Code Noir, slaves were afforded a “small measure” of legal protection and avenue for social inclusion through the church under the French system.

Along the Detroit River in particular, Windsor-Essex historian E.J. Lajeunesse claimed that slavery was fairly common during the French colonial era, most often employed as “house servants or drudges in the fur trade.” 33 slaves are enumerated in the 1750 Detroit census. By 1773, slaves on the south shore were also included in the count: 74 in Fort Detroit, 9 across the river. Nearly ten years later, there are some 35 slaves held on the Canadian side. While whether these were Black or Indigenous slaves is not specified, Miles, however, reveals that Indigenous slaves outnumbered Blacks nearly twice over in the Great Lakes region, perhaps due to the racialized fear of transporting Black slaves only to lose them to the shocks of a new, colder climate. Somewhat paradoxically, slaves of African descent were also costlier than Indigenous slaves, as they were considered to be hardier, less susceptible to disease, and less capable of escape and survival outside of their slave owners’ communities. Escaping was difficult for enslaved people of African descent: unlike Indigenous or Panis slaves, “they didn’t know the land, they weren’t allowed to see maps or discus routes, and any dark-skinned person traveling without an owner was suspected of being a runaway.” As such, most enslaved people of African descent lived and laboured in relative isolation—part of their captors’ households, but frequently having few or no other Black men or women residing with or near them.

There are few recorded details about what the lives and experiences of these early Black slaves would have been. Research on the nature of slavery in the north can offer just clues. Perhaps due to their relatively small numbers, their high economic value, and the nature of French settler life, slaves often lived in the same house as their owners, eating the same food. As mentioned, many were baptized—and received owners or their relatives as godparents, or even, the name of their owners’ family. Afua Cooper puts it this way: “The paternalistic nature of slavery…had as much to do with the scarcity of labour in a growing colony. […] Yet, the economy, largely based on the fur trade, did not demand large gangs of labourer” as a plantation-based agricultural system would.”

After the surrender of Canada to the British in 1760, slavery of Africans and Indigenous peoples continued unabated. The relief that slavery would be maintained under British rule is palatable in a letter by Pierre François Rigault, Marquis de Vaudreuil and Governor of Canada, dated September 9, 1760. He informed the French Commandant at Detroit, François Marie Picoté, that he had been forced to capitulate with General Amherst’s army the previous day, as the exhausted and under-resourced French troops had been surrounded by three British armies. Rigault provided assurances that advantageous terms had been negotiated on behalf of the French colonists who would remain in the region, including guarantees of property rights, religious freedom, trading privileges, and this: “They keep their Negro or Panis slaves but are obliged to give back those taken from the English.”

It is commonly held that slavery was abolished in Upper Canada with Lieutenant Governor Sir John Graves Simcoe’s 1793 Act against Slavery. However, the full title of this legislation is actually: “An Act to Prevent the Further Introduction of Slaves and to Limit the Term of Contracts for Servitude within this Province.” It merely banned further important of slaves into Upper Canada. Existing slaves were held in bondage until the time of their death or manumission. Children born into slavery as of 1793 would be freed by age twenty-five. Slavery was not totally abolished in British North America until the Slavery Abolition Act came into effect on August 1, 1834. Until then, enslaved men and women—both Black and Indigenous—were the unseen colonial labour force that helped build the twin communities that would one day grow into the cities of Windsor and Detroit.

Revisiting our Founding Fathers

In modern-day Windsor, our streets and historic buildings proudly signal our early French and English heritage. Askin Boulevard. The Francois-Baby House. Labadie Road. Elsewhere in the world, contested memories and competing historical narratives are giving rise to difficult conversations about how those who upheld systems of slavery are memorialized in our towns and cities. Statues have come down, streets and buildings have been renamed. In the Detroit River region, public memory includes very little of slavery—save for the narrative that region was the gateway to freedom to Blacks in bondage in the deep South. This, however, is a selective memory—carefully and conveniently failing to confront the reality that Windsor’s founding fathers were not a type of moral, ahistorical anomaly. Like the settlers across the continent, they too were slave-owners.

One contributing factor to the dearth of early slave narratives today in Windsor-Essex is a consequence of the system of slavery itself. There are no first-person records remaining to tell the stories of these Black men and women, rather, all that is known of them comes from the point of view of the slave-owning class. In that perspective, these people were property and they are documented accordingly: inventories, wills and records of sale, scant mentions in captors’ letters and diaries, church records, advertisements, or criminal proceedings. What we can learn about their lives we must learn through the stories of their owners—our forefathers.

Antoine Descomptes Labadie settled on the present-day site of Hiram Walkers & Sons Ltd. distillery in 1769. Labadie’s business ventures included a farm, a grist mill, and a windmill, in addition to extensive trade with local Indigenous groups. According to a retrospective article profiling the “First Labadie” in the December 1932 edition of the Border Cities Star, Labadie fathered 33 children with three wives, leading to “thousands” of descendants across Canada and the United States. Labadie was an established slaver; he owned both African and Indigenous slaves who worked alongside him in properties in Detroit and his farm in Sandwich Township (now, Walkerville). In Labadie’s will, dated May 26, 1806, he lovingly promised his widow that she could keep her two preferred slaves. All other enslaved property would be sold, with the revenues split between family members.

Among Labadie’s contemporaries was the celebrated Baby family, known today as one of Windsor’s most illustrious founding families. The family patriarch, Jacques Baby, was a prosperous trader and Indian agent. His son, James Jacques Baby became a wealthy politician, judge, landowner, militia officer, and fur trader. Another son, François Baby, was a businessman and Legislative Assembly member who built a residence called La Ferme—today’s Baby House in downtown Windsor. It has been reported that Jacques Baby held at least thirty enslaved individuals on the Upper Canadian side of the Detroit River.

The enslaved Africans held by the Baby family included Job and Jacques-Caton. The latter married an enslaved Metis woman named Marie in 1780, at the owner’s insistence. The resulting child, Jacques, was born into slavery in the Baby household shortly thereafter. Dupéront also counted among his possessions an enslaved mulatto woman named Geneviève, and Thérèse, another mulatto woman, who was eventually given to François Baby as a gift. Her children, Léon and Rose Lontin, also belonged to the Baby family. François’ brother, James Jacques Baby, purchased Thérèse but not her children. She was emancipated in 1803, but lived and worked alongside the family until her death in 1826.

The interior lives and characteristics of most of these individuals are left entirely to our imaginations, but a short Baby family narrative exists regarding Thérèse. One of the daughters of Jacques Baby, who had lived away for some time, paid a visit to the family’s Toronto home in the 1820s. A strange Black woman ran towards her on the street, moving excitedly and calling out. The white woman thought that it was a madwoman, but the other family members laughed and reassured her that this was their old slave, Thérèse, who was merely showing great joy to see the daughter of the master after so many years. In the vignette, Thérèse is described as performing a dance accompanied by African singing. This glimpse, albeit still from the slave owners’ perspective and steeped in the language of racial stereotypes, reminds us of this woman’s humanity and generosity of spirit.

While this narrative could be used as evidence that the Babys maintained good relationships with their “property,” there is also records that the Baby family were vocal opponents against abolition. Historian Gregory Wigmore relays a story from James Parrish, a Quaker visiting Sandwich from Pennsylvania in 1793. After a conversation with François, James observed: “This man seemed as dark in his sentiments as many negro masters in the Southern States.” While slavery was not nearly as entrenched or pervasive as it was in the southern United States, it seems the ideologies underlying the system were the same.

Another founding father is John Askin. A well-known fur trader, landowner, and entrepreneur in the Great Lakes region, he crossed the Detroit River and settled his family in Sandwich in 1802. Askin, who would go on to serve as militia commandant and justice of the peace in Essex County, is today heralded as a community founder. He was also a prodigious slaver, owning a number of Indigenous and Black slaves on both sides of the river. According to records, there were two enslaved men of African descent, named Jupiter and Pompey, who had been purchased by Askin in New York in 1775 and brought with him to this area. Askin came to hold multiple other people of African descent in captivity in Sandwich, including a man named Ben and another named Emmanuel who lived to the ripe old age of 55. Askin sold an additional slave, Sam, to Alexander McKee, deputy superintendent general of Indian affairs in Upper Canada, justice of the Court of Common Pleas, and lieutenant-colonel of the local militia. Two of Askin’s slaves, Joseph, who was Black, and a Panis woman named Suzanne, had a daughter, also named Suzanne and born into slavery in the Askin household.

One individual who was counted among Askin’s possessions was an enslaved man of African descent named Joseph Cutten, also known as Josiah Cutan. After a trial held in L’Assomption (subsequently Sandwich) in September 1792, William Dummer Powell (the Western District justice who was also a slave-owner) sentenced Cutten to death for stealing rum and furs from the wealthy trader Joseph Campeau. At the sentencing, the slave-owning judge dramatically compared Cutten to “the wild beasts of the night, who… go prowling about at night for their prey.” Cutten was executed on the gallows at Sandwich and is believed to have been the first person to be executed by hanging anywhere in Upper Canada.

Loyalists Matthew Elliott, Alexander McKee and Simon Girty all fled from Pennsylvania to Detroit in 1778, and each of them owned slaves. Matthew Elliott went from Detroit to Malden (Amherstburg,) never formally establishing a residence in what is now Windsor, but at his estate in Malden he owned as many as sixty human beings: some of those individuals were property he had seized during his American Revolutionary War raids. In 1802 or 1803, Elliott sold an unnamed Black woman, described only as “a Cursed negroe wench,” to Alexander Duff, whom present-day Windsorites remember as the original builder of the Duff-Baby Mansion in Sandwich. On more than one occasion, she had been punished for theft. We know nothing more about her beyond these glimpses of rage, reported solely from the enslaver’s point of view; one can only imagine this woman’s experiences.

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Selected Stories 1982-2012
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This Wicked Tongue

Excerpt from This Wicked Tongue

If I moved my head, the air turned dark and blurred my breathing and I felt sick, bad sick.

It was the middle of the day in the middle of July, mid-desert. If we ran the AC, the car overheated. If we drove over sixty, the car overheated.

Are you drinking enough? he said. I told you, keep drinking.

I couldn’t — the water hot as tar. I gave myself up. Whatever happens, I said silently, careful not to move my lips. Better believe I’m yours.

But I faced forward, the better to behold the black and white in front of me. What a world. It was like the heat gave me X-ray vision. A bus breached past, air-conditioned — I could tell because the windows looked sealed and inside people chatted and played cards, ignoring the nothing outside. Twenty minutes later we passed the bus pulled over on the interstate shoulder, engine smoking, suckahs. We snailed on until a stray palm snaked into view — better believe I kept my eyes open — and then an exit, Indio, a gas station where we could fill up and a café where we could eat.

Partway through my burrito I wobbled to the bathroom, thinking I should after all this time. No pee came. My underwear, stretched between my knees, webbed with lines of salt. So much in me.

I flushed though I didn’t have to and struggled to do myself back up. I splashed water on my face. I opened the door to the tiny bathroom. The café wasn’t like what I thought a café should be, candles on the tables and music playing, him facing me.

I moved nearer. His plate lay at his elbow, and by his lowered head and bobbing shoulders it seemed he’d started on mine. Mr. Skinny. I never knew where he put it — bags of corn chips and plastic-wrapped hot dogs and subs, jewel-boxed Krispies washed down with Supersizees, and starting in Oklahoma the biscuits and gravy at Mickey Dee’s. And still his bones left bruises on me each time we joined our hearts together. Always hungry. His thin brown hair matted to his head, sticking up in places like he’d slept in a ditch for a year. The rest of him a scarecrow fixed to poles. Or a scrap of torn plastic bag flapping in a field — I wondered was it ever filled with something, who it used to belong to.

But I loved him, yeah. I felt baggy myself from the drive, my skin too big and stretched over me like a waste of plastic wrap. And that blur so near it felt like any which way.

Dizzy and ditzy are not the same thing. I believe in signs and in knowing what I know despite what anybody tells me. Stubborn bitch, you’re so stupid. Or, Dummy. And those aren’t the worse.

Mostly I lay in the back all the way here, at first sleeping or pretending to, and then with my eyes staring at all I’d never seen before and not ashamed to admit it, once we were a long way from Ontari-ari-ari-o. So much sky, each moment different. When I sat, green hills, sands like the sea. He drove far into the night and I’d wake to pink licking the windows like a thousand wet puppies. I’d manage him apart from me and let myself out. Fog welling in the ditches. I’d walk a few steps and the haze would lift, as if I’d squeezed my last tears and could get on with things. Like a rest stop with clean bathrooms. Truck rigs neatly lined up. Men mostly, asleep. I never felt so safe. When I’d come back to the car and open the door, on my side there’d be food piled from the stash in the trunk, chips and chocolate bars grabbed in quick handfuls, whatever was most convenient at each station while I’d slept, only waking to the gunning engine and the over-lit midnight stores blown behind us like nuclear blooms in old movies — and then the grainy aftermaths of night forests, local roads.

In Indio, in a café where no music played, he chewed the burrito as if afraid it might escape. His shoulder blades were thin moons.

What could I say to draw him to me, or me to him? Most of the time words don’t mean a thing. They twist mean and not much to do with the truth.

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Excerpt from A Thing You'll Never Do

“We stayed at a small ‘historical’ hotel on the main street and that night played for the mayor and his family and guests in the living room of his high-ceilinged Victorian house on Charlotte Street. Across the way was a lovely, illuminated skating rink, right next to the bandstand. Like the music of Erik Satie or the smell of Pears soap, it was a town that made you nostalgic for something you never had. We played the usual stuff. Beethoven before dinner; Bach afterwards. We don’t take requests but we got a few anyway. To wit, the mayor’s daughter, a blond, curly-haired high school student, asked us for Stairway to Heaven which I thought we should learn because it kept coming up.

While we were playing, I looked out the window; it was still snowing; it had been snowing all day, big flakes whirling around in the park floodlights. I thought, this could be trouble.

Later, the four of us were having dinner in the kitchen—it was between sets. Pretty penguin girls were going in and out with trays when the mayor himself came in wearing a Scottish kilt. He was a red-faced noisy fellow (they’re always short) who prided himself on being a “character.” But he was friendly and I like friendly people.

“If this snow keeps up, you folks aren’t going anywhere,” he declared. He had an engineering degree from Stanford but like many ageing private school boys, he patched his speech with occasional rural intonations.

He offered to put us up for another night in the hotel until the roads were cleared. “We get the last of everything here,” he said, “including getting the roads shoveled.” He gave us four tickets to the local orchestra’s performance the following night. “They’re not in your league,” he said, “but they’re pretty damn good and they work at it.” He gave us a meaningful look, his mayor’s look, through two slightly blood-shot, protruding eyes. “Which is all you can ask from anyone, right?” A volley of laughter rocked his short body. We accepted the tickets but, really, can you imagine? The last thing I wanted to do on a day-off was to listen to an orchestra recital. As we were filing out of the kitchen, he gave us his gold embossed card. “If you’re ever in town, folks, just call me.” Pause. “Just don’t call me late for supper.” Ha-ha! ha! Supper.

Next morning when I looked out the second-floor window of the hotel, I could see the whole town was snowed in. Tree branches weighed down, cars buried; there must have been two feet of snow on the main street. Very quiet. The cellist’s car, a mound of white. So we stayed on.

Oddly enough, the library down the street was open and, after a generous breakfast (homemade whole-wheat bread and thick back bacon) in the Talk of the Town Café, I wandered in later that afternoon. I looked at the “We Suggest” table, novels by the usual Canadian nightmares, one of them signed by its cavern-voiced, peculiarly unattractive author; a musty edition of Montaigne’s essays (how did that get there?), and an oral history of the town. I chatted to the lady librarian, fiddled on the computer, looked up the names of a few old childhood tormentors who, I was happy to see, had done nothing special over the years; watched a YouTube video of Bruce Springsteen doing a cover of the Stones’ Last Time. Just knocked around in the snowbound library and had a nice time. Felt as though I was “living well,” that my blood was clean, which is a pleasant sensation but not one I can describe. The bell on the church across the street rang out the hour, the brass vibrations expanding and shrinking in the cold air. There was a clank in the old-fashioned radiators.

I wrote my girlfriend, Mary-Anne Deacon, an email. I always liked her best when I was out of town. Sometimes I even imagined I was in love with her. But when I saw her standing in the doorway of my apartment, after I’d looked forward to seeing her all day, something always sank in me. Something must have sunk in her, too. But I didn’t see it at the time. It was a period in my life when I got a lot of things wrong, especially what people thought of me. Looking back on it now, I think I was suffering from some kind of reverse paranoia, the assumption that people were going around thinking good things about me all the time. If you live long enough, you find out how a whole bunch of your own stories end and it’s usually not the way you thought they would. Not at all.

The day passed slowly as it always does when you’re away from home. I kept looking at my watch; it seemed to be running at half speed. I watched television in my room; I read a chapter of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. (My father gave it to me when I was having dinner at his apartment. He liked Russian writers. Especially when he was depressed. Whenever I saw War and Peace—his favorite—on the night table, I knew to stay an hour or two longer, that he’d like the company even if he was too shy to ask for it.)

Darkness fell shortly after five o’clock and with it came that slight relief that I always experience with the onset of darkness, a sense that the world is a more mysterious place; the street lights came on; kids in snowsuits pulled toboggans across the park. Somebody had built a snowman in the bandstand; carrot nose, black eyes. From the angle of its head, it appeared to be looking right at my window. A kind of rural take on the T.J. Eckelburg billboard.

I returned to the Talk of the Town for dinner, the “early bird special” with cranberry sauce. The snow lying even and sparkly on the outside window sill; teenage boys in toques and ear muffs: you could see little puffs of their breath when they talked. It reminded me of a place in the deep south that I hitchhiked through when I was fifteen, when I thought you could outrun a broken heart. For three days, I descended through the heat and gradually thickening air; got in and out of cars and trucks and eighteen-wheelers, slept here and there; somebody gave me twenty dollars; somebody took me up a deserted country road when I was asleep and put his hand on me. It was a long walk back to the highway. But it was oddly sweet; birds chirping, cicadas in the high grass, the hot sun pouring down, a dog trotting along beside me and then disappearing into the trees. Hard to believe that the world could contain all this in the same hour.

A day later? Maybe two? I can’t remember the name of the town, it was just a cluster of white cottages by the sea, the waves gently patting the sand, clouds from a child’s coloring book overhead. But I was very young and I hadn’t learnt yet to stay put when you’re happy. So I moved on and when I got to the next beautiful place…etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.

They were glad to see me back at The Talk of the Town. The librarian was there with her husband, who was missing an arm. They asked me if I wanted to join them, I said thank you but I had some work to do. I put my book on the table, face down, and pulled my pen from my pocket and laid it ostentatiously on top of the book, all as if I were just about to start something important. The truth is, then as now, I preferred eating in the company of my own thoughts, alone. They may be prosaic, these pensées, but they didn’t bruise me as people often do, albeit accidentally.

There’s a curious quality to loneliness: you hurry back to it. You end up sort of protecting it.

I sat by the front window; people passed by on the sidewalk. They smiled at me or nodded. It was like sitting in a painting. A man shoveled his driveway soundlessly. A snow plough paused at a red light. By eight o’clock, the streets around the park were mostly cleared, but Errol, the cellist in our group, had got drunk that afternoon with a couple of the locals, and didn’t want to leave. Ever. Said he wanted to move there. You could see his point. Christmas lights in all the trees, teenage girls with white skates over their shoulders going somewhere pleasant. Everybody asking how you are.”

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