Biblioasis

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Excerpt

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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Excerpt

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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Dream Sequence
Excerpt

Excerpt from Dream Sequence

The beautiful house was empty. Kristin watched from the front window as her sister climbed into her snow-spattered car and drove away, shuttling from one set of worries – Kristin – to another – the noisy, complicated, enviably involving struggles of her family life.

Suzanne had left behind a liveliness in the air through which she had moved and talked. Kristin walked back to the kitchen where there were syrupy breakfast plates to clear. She transferred them to the small dishwasher and sucked her sweetened thumbs. Diversify, Suzanne had said. Find some other activities and interests. She used a clear, careful voice with Kristin at the moment, stripped of challenge and controversy. In Kristin’s mind Suzanne’s broad, freckled face still hovered, neutral and patient, ready for her reaction. I understand you not getting a job for a while if you don’t have to. You’re in a great situation, when you think about it. Perfect fresh start time. Craig thinks … Kristin didn’t care what Craig thought. Craig was entirely unsympathetic. Craig was most of the problems Suzanne was now shuttling towards in her rattling Kia on the road back to Pottstown. Craig thought that Kristin had got it made: married to her boss, divorced by her boss and now entitled by law to the lifestyle to which she had become accustomed. You won the Rollover, he liked to say straight to her face and smiling, as though she wouldn’t hear the dirty joke he was pretending he hadn’t made. Craig was the sort of dumb and nasty that thinks it’s smart. Often, when Suzanne’s back was turned, he looked at Kristin, just looked at her for as long as he felt like it, smoking and thinking things.

Kristin was upstairs now, deciding whether she needed to change the sheets of the bed where Suzanne had slept. Kristin lowered her nose to the creased fabric and thought not, catching only a sharpness of lavender. She removed a long curving hair from the pillow and tugged everything straight. Kristin had painted the upper rooms of the house in colours she had seen on The Grange, a British TV programme that had in the most extraordinary way become a very important part of her life. In the show, the walls of the rooms where the wealthy family lived were painted in rich and sombre colours she didn’t like but the servants’ rooms downstairs had lovely colours that she spent many hours with swatch books seeking to match. Blues and greens that were spacious and honest, that had a dignity and sadness that were ideal as the containers of her new, ruined life. Not that Kristin spent much time in the upper rooms. The bedding in this one was white, voluminous, heavy, and made soft crunching sounds as she rearranged it. All neat again. A border of broderie anglaise, an intricate pattern of holes, ran across the top of the comforter.

Kristin had with great care and attention to detail redecorated her marriage away. Everything was now to her taste and signified her ownership of this desirable rowhouse. Removing all traces of Ron had been a relief but changing her stepsons’ rooms was painful. They had only been there for the odd weekends that Ron had them but Kristin had always loved that rushing influx of youth and energy, even if, except for the youngest, Lionel, they had not liked her back. Beautiful little Lion. The older boys would glare or speak in grudging single words while staring at their devices, but Lion recognised her kindness, her eagerness, and needed it, coming slowly closer and closer. Now she had removed the clutter and colourful walls of childhood and replaced them with tasteful, impeccable adulthood. Sometimes she regretted it.

Kristin decided to go to yoga. That was another activity and interest. Suzanne didn’t even know. Kristin went to the room with her wardrobe and changed from pyjamas into the soft second skin of her exercise clothes. Over them, she put on her long quilted coat and collected her mat and bag.

When she went to the front door, she found mail lying there, one piece, for Ron: a catalogue for a clothing company that he had never got round to cancelling. Kristin knew it well, mature men in outdoor wear posing in landscapes, fishing, striding, drinking out of enamel mugs with their shirtsleeves rolled. It would go straight into the trash. She was not his PA any more. It was maddening that she still had to deal with these things. Kristin pulled at it to tear it in half but it was too thick. The pages just twisted in her hands. The whole Ron situation had begun with tasks performed for him, note taking and letter writing and appointments in his diary and travel bookings and gifts for his wife and children. When he formed his own company, she went with him. Those morning drives away from traffic out of Philly into greenness and landscape and his big house near Valley Forge, the crackling sweep of his gravel driveway, that long wrong turning in her life. He was still there, with a new wife now, his third. And Kristin was alone. Almost alone.

Kristin liked walking along with the rolled mat poking out of her tote bag. The spiral of foam was a recognised thing. People knew what it was and saw her walking brightly along, supple and sensitive and responsible. The walk was twenty minutes of mostly straight, harsh road but she liked to do it. Almost no one walked but she did. Kristin was in tune with a different time, historical and civil, walking in the salted channels between crusts of snow with the quick chirping British voices of The Grange talking in her head. Kristin admired good penmanship too and handwrote her letters to Henry Banks in navy ink. She tried to make them so beautiful and neat that they looked like you could put the pages upright on a stand and play them on a piano. She put on her hat and gloves and went out.

Henry. Henry was everywhere and nowhere, shaping everything. He was the key signature in which the music of her life was played.

The cold air was rough and quick, the light under grey clouds a thickened white. Unseasonable weather. They were barely into fall and this snow had come suddenly swinging down from the north, flinging whiteness. Kristin liked it, the thrill of this unexpected change. She walked with poise and purpose, her yoga mat protruding from her bag.

Behind the front desk at the yoga centre, the girl’s familiar face looked strongly exposed, floating in front of the cabinet of t-shirts and water bottles, smiling Buddhas and detoxing teas, as though it had been cropped out of a different photograph. ‘Wow,’ Kristin said. ‘I like the hair.’

‘Oh, thank you,’ said the girl, lengthening her neck with a slight inclination of her head as though the hairdresser were still circling her with a mirror to show her all the angles.

‘Dramatic,’ Kristin said and the girl looked directly at her. ‘It’s great,’ Kristin repeated.

‘I thought, you know, this could work for me.’

‘Oh, it works. Maybe I should take the plunge instead of.’ Kristin took hold of her braided ponytail and lifted it up to the side, demonstrating its weary familiarity. ‘You have to invite change, don’t you? Step into the new. Where did you get yours done?’

The receptionist hesitated. ‘Where did I get it cut?’ she asked.

‘Yes,’ Kristin read her name tag, ‘Layla. Where did you go?’

‘Well.’

‘It’s okay. You don’t have to tell me.’

‘No, no. I was.’

‘It’s fine. I understand. We can’t all have it done. I probably don’t want it anyway.’

‘It was at Salon Masaya, on Frankford Ave. You have such beautiful thick hair is all. And along with those bangs, so cute.’

‘I know. I’m a lucky person,’ Kristin said. ‘In a lot of ways.’

Kristin pushed through the double doors, splitting the lotus flower logo painted on them, and left Layla behind as the doors swung back together. Now, having entered the sanctuary, from small speakers overhead came the sound of flowing water, encouraging a peace of mind that had not been achieved by the small dog shifting from foot to foot outside the main practice room. Laurie was taking the class. Kristin didn’t think that Laurie should bring her pug with her, though everyone fussed over it and knew its name, Jasmine. The pug was adorable but unfairly so, because of its indignities, its crushed bulging features, wet and black, its short scraping breaths and urgent, inept waddle. Kristin scratched its furrowed scalp and pulled a velvet ear through her fingers before she went in. Hard to know if Jasmine even noticed. It reacted only to the opening door and shuttled forwards. Kristin kept it back with a raised foot and shut the door.

‘Poor thing wants her mommy.’

Kristin turned to see the man who’d made this comment, tall and soft in the middle, a dark bulb of hair, smiling. Around him, four women were readying themselves in different areas of the room.

‘But if I let her in,’ Laurie said, ‘she’d be licking at your faces and blowing her breath over you and you wouldn’t want that.’

‘No, probably not.’

Laurie stood on large livid feet, shaking her long fingers loose. Her flesh had been subdued with years of practice. Her belly lay meek and flat behind jutting hipbones. Hair scraped back, skin clear as rainwater, she smiled generally into the room, a kind of facial hold music, while Kristin deposited her bag and coat and unrolled her mat in a space between the others.

‘Okay, okay, yogis,’ Laurie said. ‘Somehow it’s wintertime already but there is still a sun behind those clouds to salute, so.’ She stretched up and poured herself down into the first asana. The others followed, growing upwards, folding in half.

Kristin stretched and breathed through the hour, seeing the room in different perspectives, the wrinkled cloth at her knees, her red and white fingers on her mat. Periodically, Jasmine scratched at the door. Kristin looked through the hoop of herself and saw the others in similar knots and star shapes. She felt vibrant with exertion, her heart beating heavily, sweat in her hair. Henry, the things I do for you.

Afterwards, they lay in corpse pose and the lights and shabby ceiling tiles drifted like clouds overhead. Kristin liked lying in corpse pose, at the bottom of things, her bones resting on the floor, like she’d sunk to the bottom of the ocean, discarded. Dying and dying and dying. The relief of a final state.

As she sometimes did, Laurie decided to share an inspirational thought to close the class. ‘It is suddenly cold and dark,’ she said, her voice deeper and slower after the hour’s yoga. ‘It feels like the end of the year, like we’re all about to hibernate. But you ask a naturopath, or a farmer, or anyone who really understands natural cycles, and they’ll tell you this is the beginning. The seeds are falling into the earth and will start germinating now, under the snow, underground. New futures are growing, new possibilities. So while you lie there at rest at the end of our cycle of activity, think of yourself as a germinating seed about to get up and walk into your future.’

Oh it was wonderful how if you were open the world told you what you needed to hear which was what you already knew. Kristin was alive with her very particular future. Suzanne had no need to worry. It would happen. The connection was made. Kristin had been reborn before, when she had met her twin soul, Henry Banks, by chance, on her way down to the Virgin Islands for a vacation. She remembered so well the strange dazzling period of realisation that the whole world had changed, down in the blue Caribbean. There was that butterfly that flew into her room and stayed there for several days, its unbelievable colours dancing and gliding. When it settled on her bedspread or curtains she could see the crystalline pattern of its wings, bars of glowing green, dots of yellow, its round, alien eyes and sensitive antennae. You can see the whole universe in a butterfly if you really look, its intricate, perfect machine. It was a sign. That was obvious. It bounced up. It sailed in curves. The butterfly had come to tell her that everything was going to be all right.

After Laurie rang the bell that marked the end of the session, Kristin was the first to leave, her warmth sealed inside her coat. She allowed Jasmine with great relief to scuttle in through the opened door.

During the class more snow had fallen. Kristin walked quickly home into a fresh, speeding wind. Cars thrashed wetly past. On the corner at a cross street the wind whisked up the surface snow and spun it in a little tornado and stopped and did it again. The wind must always spin like that, Kristin suddenly understood, only now it was visible. The snow illustrated the wind and Kristin, noticing, had a little bit more of the secrets of the world revealed to her, things you can’t see but are as true as true. The world is a magical place.

At home, she showered and washed her hair. On the edge of her bed, she bowed into the blast of the hairdryer. From the kitchen, she collected some crackers and baby carrots and dip and took them down to the den. The den was the part of the house where she was most comfortable, warm and half-underground, the snow blue against the glass of the windows. The rest of the house, perfected and separate, hovered overhead. She turned on the TV. If she didn’t turn on the TV the silence could accumulate. Amazing how the silence could gather and get louder and louder and seem almost to be about to explode, like a faulty boiler shaking its pipes. It could give her pressure headaches. The TV kept it at bay. She settled on the sofa. Her hair was fragrant and light and voluminous. Before she started the TVO of The Grange she had her alerts to check on her iPad. Nothing new had come up for Henry’s name on Google. She checked Twitter for mentions. Something in a language she didn’t understand which when translated was just about the show going out that night in their country. In a way, it was a relief to search around and find nothing. The searching was stressful, unpredictable, thrilling sometimes, making her heart jolt with a new photograph or a new lie about his personal life. And there were so many people with stupid opinions, people who had never even met him who thought they knew something about him. Less of this now that the final season of The Grange had been aired with a frightening flurry of coverage. Sometimes she wished the whole online world didn’t exist to confuse her connection with Henry. Once it had all been so simple. He’d held her hand. One day he would again.

She set the iPad down, next to Spiderman. Spiderman lay on the sofa beside her, small and plastic, his stiff arms and legs raised as if for action, holding a stomach crunch position. Lion, little Lionel who loved her, had given her Spiderman one day without telling her. And Spiderman had become a crucial part of the story. It all added up. Kristin picked up the remote and flipped on an old episode. When Henry appeared, she thought she would tell him about the wind and the snow and about what Laurie had said about seeds in winter in her next letter. She would start on it later. Letters flew past all that electronic noise and went right to his hands. Henry’s movements on the screen, his expressions, the exhilarating moments of his smiles, his emotions, the dialogue in that beautiful accent that she could speak along with – it was all a timeless connection. She ate and she watched all the precise little moments, her mind fully fastened to them. She could stay like this until the daylight darkened and the neighbours’ cars, returning from work, passed like aeroplanes overhead.

*

The hunger was beginning to hurt. Three days of grinding emptiness, of heat and sudden flutterings in the left side of his body. The relief of small meals in the evenings, monkish bowls of rice and green vegetables that he perceived so sharply, his senses attuned to the rising steam, the warmth and aroma. And afterwards the velvety sensation of being fed that allowed him to fall asleep. In the morning he was hungry again. It was working. It was worth doing. He was becoming what he needed to be, to convince García who, finally, was in London to see him. But it would be a mistake to fast today. He needed energy. He went to his kitchen and ate a banana and two large handfuls of nuts, enough food to relax and feel well but not enough to dull his sharpness. He ate and hummed to himself.

He dressed. He ran his hands down the smoothness of his abdomen. His body was tight. His trousers hung from his hipbones. He chose a khaki linen shirt with button-down pockets that he thought had the right sort of feel: serious, adaptable, with connotations of the military and the desert. Henry checked how he looked in the mirror.

Henry’s face was something everybody had to deal with, to assimilate and get over, even Henry. When Henry caught sight of his face he often felt as though he were arriving late at something already happening. His face looked so finished and authoritative. He had the approved lines, the symmetry; he looked how a man should look. His handsomeness could be a shock, as much for him as for others who sometimes also had to process their recognition of him, their sensation of an untethered and inexplicable intimacy. Occasionally Henry thought that it would be nice, warm and relaxed and human, to be a little ugly, to have a face that showed personality in pouches under the eyes or a large, soft mouth, the face of a character actor, expressing suffering and humour. His own good looks were bland, Henry thought, mainstream, televisual. Hunger seemed to be improving it, its calm masculinity now fretted with sharpness and shadows. Henry had observed long ago that cinematic faces were not normally attractive, not attractive in a normal way. They did not belong on Sunday evening television or in clothing catalogues or any realm of the conventional ideals. The truly cinematic actors, that is. Look at Joaquin Phoenix with his dark stare and scarred mouth or Meryl Streep’s long thin nose and subtle, not quite sensual mouth, her large and frightening eyes, her affronting vulnerability. All of them, when you thought about it: Christopher Walken, Jack Nicholson. Bogart and Hoffman and Day-Lewis. Of course the actresses tended to be more straightforwardly beautiful but then overwhelmingly so. Think of the wide landscape of Julia Roberts’s smile, an American landscape, honest, expansive, full of hope. No, up until now, Henry’s face had been of the reassuring kind that made for success on TV. It had lacked the strangeness and astringency that made for cinema. But now, perhaps, it was coming, with age, with hunger. He observed himself in the mirror. He said, ‘Ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba. Pa-pa-pa-pa-pa-pa. Red lorry. Yellow lorry. Red lorry. Yellow lorry. How are you today? I’m fine, sir. How are you today?’

He checked his phone to see if his taxi had arrived. It hadn’t. He stepped out onto his balcony to smoke a cigarette, cupping the lighter flame from the blustery river air. A whirring sound: straight and fast, a cormorant flew low over the water. He should be looking at his pages again. He threw the cigarette away and went in.

He picked up the pages and glanced at them, reminding himself. He bounced up and down on the balls of his feet, swinging his arms. ‘Ba-ba-ba-ba-ba,’ he said. ‘Pa-pa-pa-pa-pa. You can’t just walk in here whenever you like. You just can’t.’

His phone chimed. The taxi was outside. According to the text, Omar was driving. Henry had booked a taxi because he wanted safety between his flat and Soho, a protected preparatory calm. The bike ride was too long, too raw, too sweaty, and he almost never used public transport now. You never knew what might happen. He put the pages in his satchel. He paused in the centre of the room to practise a facial expression, the animation of a friendly and relaxed greeting. He dropped the expression from his face. He bounced again on his feet then walked on. Locking the front door behind him, he immediately missed the safety of his flat. It would be there to receive him again, to hide him, after whatever it was that happened later in the day.

On the shelf by the exit door he had post. Two letters. He put them into his satchel and stepped outside.

The taxi was a large black people carrier with tinted windows. Inside, he said to the neck in front of him, to the bejewelled hand on the gear stick, ‘Hi, Omar. You know where we’re going?’

‘Got the address here. Greek Street.’

‘That’s the one.’

Not wishing to talk any more, Henry pushed his headphones into his ears and put on his pre-meeting music. Years ago at university, as a music scholar, a member of his college choir, he had sung Renaissance polyphony. A sense of competence and self-confidence suffused him when he heard it now. The plainchant of the opening statement, low and horizontal, was followed by the higher voices joining one after the other, merging, ascending, passing one another, opening a great fan of sound. Calm and ethereal, a translucent grid laid over his view of Docklands, of Limehouse and east London passing outside his window. He hummed along with Palestrina’s tenor line. In the comfortable hollow of his leather seat, he watched the people outside, the Muslims with waistcoats and hennaed beards, the young mothers, the hipsters of Whitechapel over time giving way to the suited office types of Gray’s Inn and Holborn: London’s surplus of faces, of human versions, every permutation, all preoccupied, unconscious, milling towards something. At traffic lights the taxi slowed for him to observe a man on a corner holding a phone to his ear and eating an apple, delicately picking with his teeth at the remaining edible flesh by the core. A cyclist shuttled past his window. All these people, blind to his presence behind darkened glass. They would be interested in him, most of them. Their expressions would change. The taxi progressed in halts and short surges into Soho. Henry checked his watch. Good, he wasn’t too early. He plucked the flowing harmonies from his ears, paid Omar and stepped briefly into the movement of the street. Keeping his head low, hunched forwards, he walked to a discreet glass door with gold lettering and pressed the buzzer. There was no voice but the door buzzed. Henry pushed it open. He was met by a young man of the assistant type descending the stairs, what Henry’s friend Lucas had once referred to as ‘one of those little shits with the hair’. On his t-shirt, much more striking than his actual face, was a very realistic drawing of a gorilla wearing large headphones. He had a pen in his mouth which he removed to say, ‘Hi, it’s Henry, isn’t it?’ as if he didn’t know. ‘Come on up’, as if he owned the place. The guy put the pen back in his mouth and headed up the stairs. Henry followed. At the top, Henry was met by Sally, the casting director, a quiet, tightly organised woman, a great encyclopaedist of talent, and one of the most important people in the business. Often it was those people who seemed the least artistic, like they could work happily in any other business. They spoke in the universal language of professionalism, not one that Henry had been obliged particularly to learn. Sally Lindholm could just as easily have run a government department.

‘Henry, how nice to see you. Thank you for coming in. How are you?’

Thank you for coming in. The pretence that this was an equal relationship was something that Henry was used to ignoring. The answer to the question how are you was always to be kept brief. Genuine as her friendliness may be, Henry knew not to talk with any unnecessary personal detail. The space accorded for his response was like a box on a form to be filled out. It could only contain so much. ‘I’m good, I’m good,’ he answered.

‘You’re looking well,’ Sally said. Her friendliness was real enough. It was other people’s – actors’ – responses to her that couldn’t be trusted. They were always straining, eager, beaming, and Sally was like royalty, accepting this as normal, possibly at this point unable to tell the difference between the acting and the real thing, or not caring. ‘We’re ready to go, I think,’ she said.

‘Oh, really? No waiting area? No fellow actors I have to pretend I’m happy to see?’

She laughed. ‘Not today. You’re spared. Shall we go in?’

‘Sure. I’m excited to meet the man himself.’

‘Of course. Do you need anything? Water?’

‘Just some water would be great.’

‘Okay. Seb, could you bring some water for Henry?’

The assistant swept the upper mass of his hair from one side of his head to the other. ‘I’m on it,’ he said.

Henry animated his face with warm greeting as he entered the room but he had to wait. García was watching some footage on a laptop. A large man, his folded arms rested on his gut. Sitting low in his chair, his face was sunk down into his beard. He held up one hand to stay Henry and Sally then decisively slapped the spacebar.

‘Okay, okay,’ he said. ‘Please.’ He gestured at the seat in the middle of the room facing a camera.

‘You are Henry.’

 

‘I am.’

‘So, I’ve seen your work. I’ve seen you on tape. All very nice.’

Henry dropped his satchel by the door and sat down, leaning forward towards García, his forearms on his knees. ‘And I’ve seen yours, of course. Sueños Locos. The Path to Destruction. The Violet Hour. Bricks. I mean, those are … They mean a lot to me, those films. It’s an honour to meet you.’

‘Okay, okay,’ García exhaled through wide nostrils and shunted his glasses back up his nose.

Seb swooped down at Henry’s feet then backed away. Henry glanced down and saw a bottle of mineral water. Seb settled himself in a seat beside the camera. García said, ‘So, Mike. You like this character?’

‘I don’t know about “like”. I think I understand him. I feel him.’

‘You think you are like him?’

‘Sure. I know where he’s coming from, that commitment, that anger. We all are to some extent. That’s the genius of it.’

García didn’t smile or response. He hit the centre of his glasses again. ‘So we will read a little bit.’

Sally said, ‘You’ve got the pages, haven’t you?’

‘Yep.’ Henry raised an arm to indicate his bag. ‘But I shouldn’t need them. I’m off book.’

‘Excellent. Seb, ready to go?’

‘Just one …’ He pressed a couple of buttons. A small staring red light appeared on the camera. He gave a thumbs-up.

Henry dropped his head down onto his chest, disconnecting, becoming the other thing. He lifted his face. It was tighter, slightly stricken, his gaze significant.

‘Julia?’ he said.

García, an unlikely Julia, gruff and heavily accented, said, ‘Hey, Mike.’

‘Julia, you can’t just walk in here like this.’

‘The door was open.’

‘What does that mean? You walk through every open door you see?’

‘Jesus, Mike. I was just passing and I came in to see.’

‘You can’t do that, Julia. You can’t. You can’t. I’m just getting things, you know, clear here.’

‘Okay,’ García interrupted. ‘Leave it there.’

‘Sure.’ Henry drained back into himself. Uncomfortable, he reached down for the water bottle and twisted the top but didn’t yet drink.

‘That first “Julia”,’ García said. ‘It can be softer.’

‘Okay.’

‘And you know he is saying the opposite of what he wants. He isn’t sleeping. He isn’t eating. The war is in his head all the time. He knows he’s in trouble. He wants Julia to come in. You have to say, “You can’t just walk in.” Underneath it’s, “You have to come in. Please.”’

‘That’s what I thought.’

‘And “What does that mean?” That line, he’s thinking about meaning, he’s thinking in a different way, very fast, very conceptual.’

‘He’s like on a whole other level. He’s like, yes, but what does that mean? She walks through every open door she sees? It’s a description of her, of her freedom. It’s, like, the total contrast to him.’

‘Exactly, exactly. Also, a bit angry. “What does that mean?” It’s too much for him. We do again.’

Henry sighed and shook his shoulders, looking down then up. ‘Julia,’ he said.

‘Hey, Mike.’

‘Julia, you can’t just walk in here like this.’

‘The door was open.’

‘What does that mean? You walk through every open door you see?’

‘Jesus, Mike. I was just passing and I came in to see.’

‘You can’t do that, Julia. You can’t. You can’t. I’m just getting things, you know, clear here. I’m getting set. I’m making improvements. It’s delicate. People need their privacy.’

‘Okay, that’s good.’

‘Really? You don’t want to get more of the scene?’

‘No. Enough words. I want to see Mike alone in his apartment.’

‘Okay, sure.’ Henry took a drink. The bottle was full to the brim. Water toppled into his mouth.

He swallowed. ‘Sure,’ he said. ‘Just …’

 

‘Just be alone in the apartment.’

‘Sure. Cool.’ He closed his eyes and willed himself there. The apartment, as far as he was concerned, had yellowing wallpaper. There was a fridge, old, large, American, with rounded edges. Windows down onto the street. He stood up and paced, quickly, as though his body was a racing thought. He did that for a while then stopped still as though halted by some new idea. He sat down in the chair and stared into the distance, one hand picking at the fabric of his trousers. After a while he swigged from his water bottle with an overhand grip that made it beer. García said, ‘Okay, okay. Enough.’

Henry groaned and rubbed his face with his hands. He felt a drop of sweat, cold, appear at his waist on the right-hand side, rolling down from his armpit.

‘You can do it again,’ García said. ‘But you have to stop acting like somebody who is acting.’

‘You mean …’

‘Stop acting. Forget us. You’re alone in private.’

‘Okay. Sure.’ He stared past the blurred mass of García. He hardened his facial expression. Disconnected, he wanted to go to sleep. He thought about going with that impulse and letting his eyes close, but it wouldn’t be enough. He got up and paced again. He stopped. He sat down and fidgeted.

‘Okay, okay. That’s good.’

‘All right.’

‘Good. That’s enough.’

‘It’s enough? You don’t want?’

‘No, it’s good. We have it.’

Sally stood up, holding her notebook to her waist. ‘Great. So.’

‘Well, like I said,’ Henry advanced while he had the chance, hand outstretched, ‘it’s an honour. I’m pleased you called me back again.’

García did not stand up. He held out a surprisingly soft and heavy hand for Henry to grasp.

‘Okay, okay,’ he said. ‘Thank you.’

‘So,’ Sally said again, smiling by the door.

When they were the other side of that door, desperate to get a sense of what had happened, Henry said, ‘Wow, that was quick. For a fourth meeting.’

‘He’s like that,’ Sally said. ‘Quick and decisive. It’s fine. We’ll be in touch.’

‘Okay. Cool. Okay.’ Henry resisted the urge to grip her shoulders and say, ‘Just tell me now.’ He smiled at her and said, ‘Amazing. That was Miguel García. Okay. Well. I’ll see you next time. I guess I can let myself out.’

In the street, he wanted to shout and punch something, to free all of the crushed energy inside him. Instead, he walked quickly for a few yards then turned around and walked in the opposite direction with a destination in mind. Don’t act like a person acting. Such drama school level bullshit. García had a reputation for brilliance, for spontaneity, for breaking down his actors until, defenceless, they gave him what he wanted. But that couldn’t come from stuff like that. Henry wouldn’t believe it. Henry didn’t need manipulation anyway. He was ready to give García whatever he asked for. Henry hurried off Old Compton Street with its many obstructing pedestrians into Dean Street and through the door of the Groucho Club. He was furiously hungry and the Groucho cheeseburger was what he wanted right now. The garish, pretentious homeliness of the Groucho was also appealing, certainly more than the watchful grey restraint of Soho House. He signed the register and pushed through the inner door.

A bristle of inspection from those at the bar, carefully dissembled. He could feel a few of them recognising him: that momentarily prolonged glance before looking away. Their non-reaction was an important facet of their self-respect, a self-respect that Henry knew was nonetheless enhanced by his being there. He walked through the bar, past the piano and down the corridor to a table in the back. He opened his satchel, pulled out his phone and the post he’d forgotten he’d picked up and tossed them onto the table. He raised one hand to attract a waiter and picked up his phone with the other. A waitress appeared, blonde, attractive in her black waistcoat and tie, her long apron, her shining hair tied cleanly back. They hired them for a reason.

‘Mr Banks, what can I get you?’

‘Oh. Can I get a cheeseburger and a Diet Coke?’

‘Of course. Anything with that?’

‘No.’

‘Great. Sorry, to remind you, if you want to make a call you’ll have to take that outside.’

‘No worries. I know the rules.’

He waited for her to go away and put his phone back on the table. He wasn’t quite ready to phone Carol, his agent. Instead, he sat back in his seat, tired, molested with afterthoughts, with the image of García waiting for him to leave the room, with the memory of his own performance. That came back to him now in horrifying flashes of clumsy effort that went on who knew how long. Audition room time seems to distend to great length while it is happening and collapses into one catastrophic moment when it is over. Miguel García was one of the few filmmakers out there that everybody called a genius, a Werner Herzog, a Paul Thomas Anderson, a Scorsese, a man whose interest in you would guarantee the interest of others and who, moreover, made actual works of art. In so doing, he made actors, their faces, their gestures, their names, permanent in the history of the world. He was larger than Henry had imagined, thick-limbed, a slow and stubborn mass. His beard was unpleasant to look at. It was not an outgrowth of lustrous vitality, more a sign of indifference and neglect. His large, square-framed glasses were in the style of no style. They belonged on a man who lived with his mother, who spent hours in public libraries and carried his possessions in plastic carrier bags. That had been García. There was no outward sign of his intelligence, beyond a grumpy decisiveness. Sitting low in his chair, he gave the impression of an animal in an odorous den. He had peered out, judging Henry, deciding whether or not he was worthy of the immortality that he would confer only as a bi-product of pursuing the distinctive beauty of his vision. This film, The Beauty Part, was preoccupied with the central character, with Mike, with, potentially, Henry. Desire for the part flamed up in Henry, scorched and faded, leaving him even more tired and despondent. Fortunately, his Diet Coke arrived and Henry could take a long pull on its cold caramel flavour, its caffeine and enlivening bubbles. No new messages on his phone, he reached for his post.

The first, larger envelope was an invitation to a short film screening and party that he had no interest in. The second envelope was printed with his agent’s company name. That one contained another envelope, decorated with a sticker of a butterfly, in which was a handwritten letter. It began, My dearest Henry, it’s been so long since we met and yet every day I feel us growing closer together and I know you must do deep down as well. I watch you all the time on The Grange so I can keep seeing your face. I know it so well, I know your expressions, your hair and eyes, the sound of your voice. It is the music of my life.

Why had this come to him?

What’s the latest news I have for you? The strange weather I mentioned in my last letter keeps coming. I had a dream about you last night, back in the airport. And then, down in the islands. Remember how I told you that soon after we met I was down in St Thomas and I wrote your name in the sand and drew a heart round it? I was there again, looking ….

Henry stopped reading. This letter should not have got to him. Carol’s assistant, Vicky, was supposed to screen this stuff out, not just stick it in an envelope and send it to him. This was not helpful right now. This letter did not strike him as endearing or amusing. It was typical of quite a few he’d read in the past. Unsettling, uncanny, full of private madness and incantation and belonging to a live person who was out there right now, thinking about him, who thought she had met him, scrawling his name on pages, on the sand of a beach somewhere, and feeling a compulsion in the world that was about them, about his fate. It was nonsense and harmless, presumably, but so much better not to know, not to have this inside him. It should never have reached him.

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Braille Rainbow
Excerpt

Excerpt from Braille Rainbow

“The Check-Out King”

He died in his mid-twenties
(typically, nobody seemed to know what of).
Got himself safely underground
before the rest of us had had our first cancer scare.
But he was always slipping past the lens,
way over at the cropped edge of the class picture
or dead in the centre in an egg of glare.
He might be at the vortex of a scrum or rumble
or flopped down in the field beyond the goal posts,
oblivious to calls to return, watching
(perhaps) an ant traverse a blade of grass.
In those days no work meant you failed.
“Have you finished, Earl?” the teacher
asked when his head sank onto his arms.
“No.” “Have you started?” “No.”
Everyone, even she, laughed. Everyone
except Earl. He rode out humour
the way a pine tree rides out rain.
A cipher makes a tricky victim:
he may become a black hole or a mirror.
Our bully picked him out only when
he’d run through everyone else repeatedly.
Earl didn’t confront, didn’t retreat.
He stood there and one punch knocked him flat.
He lay for a while with his face to the sky
(so long that some of us
looked up too—just blue and fluffy clouds)
and then he got up and walked away
toward wherever he lived, getting
small slowly, with every few steps
bringing a hand to his face and
flinging a ribbon of blood down at the dust.

“Bill Had”

Two deaf parents who taught him sign language
which he forgot after they died.
Next to mine, the best beat-up old denim jacket
in the crew.
Small hands for such a big man.
Thick dark hair, greenish-brown eyes, and one of the handsomest
faces I’ve seen outside of movies.
A talent for mimicry.
An irritating habit of taking things too far.
An endearing one of apologizing when he did.
Small learning and large curiosity.
A pretty short attention span.
An unshakeable belief that women ejaculated
when they came.
Many girlfriends.
Dozens of friends, including ex-girlfriends.
A part-time DJing job where he met many of his friends
and girlfriends and scored high-quality drugs.
Inoperable colon cancer at age 28.
A cop costume so good it almost got him beaten up
by Halloween partyers who had flushed their dope
until he shared out his own which was better.
A filthy apartment piled with pizza boxes.
A grin no one could resist.
Nimble feet, with which he performed amusing untrained
tap, soft shoe, and jig.
Zero ambition.
Occasional mean moods but no cruel bone in his body.
A Jimmy Cagney routine in which while singing “Yankee
Doodle Dandy” he ran at a wall and up it and back-
flipped off of it, landing on his feet,
which never should have worked because Cagney
was a shrimp and Bill was linebacker-sized
but I saw it, many times, from 1981 to 1985,
during the long afternoons when the galleries
were empty.

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Damages

Damages

Selected Stories 1982-2012
edition:Paperback
More Info
Provisionally Yours
Excerpt

Excerpt from Provisionally Yours

The border guard studied the identity papers Adamonis had kept hidden through his escape out of shattered Russia, looking from his photo to his face, from his photo to his face. He told Adamonis to stay where he was on the train platform. Adamonis set down his suitcase and briefcase and pulled the collar of his woolen coat around his neck. The guard's superior came back without the passport and asked Adamonis to follow him.

He took Adamonis into a cold office in the corner of the border train station where an unshaven man sat behind a desk in a room with a stove but without heat.

Adamonis could see his own breath and his interrogator kept on his coat and hat throughout the interview, taking many notes with a pencil that he stopped to sharpen with a penknife when the lead wore down. The man asked about Adamonis’s career in great detail – called up for service in 1912, accepted into military school, moved to the Austrian front at the beginning of hostilities. Assigned to signals.

This last detail pricked the interest of the plainclothesman. Adamonis knew all about interrogation, and he listened to the questions with admiration as the interrogator followed the thread of Adamonis’s military career in signals to his years in counterintelligence until the army collapsed and split into the red and white factions. This story could have got him shot a month ago back in Russia, but now he was in a place where he could tell the truth. At least he hoped that was so.

The interrogator asked him to wait outside among the exhausted families and ragged men in the waiting room.

“I’ll miss my train,” said Adamonis.

“Another one comes eventually. Maybe you'll get that one.”

There was nothing to eat in the waiting room, a big hall in the Obeliai border station half-filled with cloth bundles upon which men, women, and children slept while they waited to clear customs and quarantine. Some never would. He sat on the end of a bench and took a piece of sausage out of his bag, and a boy was beside him as soon as he cut off his second slice. Soon there were two more children and his food was gone before he could taste another bite. He tried to go outside to smoke, but a guard stopped him at the door and directed him to a smoking room where he had to roll two cigarettes for others before lighting up his own.

His train departed.

Three hours later, the guard called him back into the room. Coal had found itself into the stove and a glass of tea and two biscuits as well as his passport were sitting on Adamonis’s side of the desk. His interrogator came around from behind his desk, introduced himself as Lieutenant Oleka and saluted.

“Welcome home General,” said Oleka. “I wonder if I could ask you a few more questions.”

"No need to salute, Lieutenant. I'm not exactly in the army any longer. And I'd be happy to answer your questions."

The next morning, the whistle blew and locomotive began to jerk forward, leaving behind the barn-like customs station with its hopeful or crestfallen men and women. One more hurdle overcome, and all in all, not the hardest one.

The window beside him had frost creeping out from the corners and the fields beyond were covered in snow. At least the carriage was warm, crowded as it was with Lithuanian refugees coming back from Russia. There had been thousands of them scattered across the country, soldiers in the Czar’s army, bureaucrats and labourers, all going home now that the old Czarist world had collapsed and the maw of the revolution was devouring so many. He was in a carriage with the lucky ones. He’d narrowly missed being shot along with all officers on a ferry crossing the Pruth River in Romania. On a flatbed train car he was denounced as bourgeois, so Adamonis pushed the accuser and watched him fall under the severing wheels. The Soviets were especially bitter to have lost their war with Poland only months earlier. Anyone who chose to leave was a traitor to the cause.

The word home felt like the promise of a warm bed on a cold night. But what kind of a home would it be for Adamonis? His parents were dead and only his sister still lived in Kaunas, and when he’d last seen her, she’d been a teenager. As for the country, it had successfully fought off the Reds and the German freikorps, but lost its southern part to the Poles. Technically, Lithuania was still at war with Poland, and that had made it all the more complicated to return from shattered Russia, forcing him to head north, skirting Poland to enter the country through Latvia.

Adamonis was tired and could let himself feel it for the first time in a long time now that he was safe. He craved a cigarette, but there was no smoking in his third class compartment with its wooden benches, and it was far too cold to go out and stand between the cars. He could wait. He dozed and dreamed of places he had passed through in the months it had taken him to reach this place –- the Polish dvaras where the spinster sisters had come to him because his fellow officers were stealing their silver. The sisters didn’t mind the loss of the silver, but the thieves were wrapping the knives and forks in notation paper written by a former guest, the composer Richard Strauss. The sisters wanted to save the music. They even offered him a page of the music after he’d saved it, but he’d turned them down. Now he regretted it because the women were probably dead anyway. He had narrowly missed being drowned when the Reds shelled the ice across which his unit was marching. He remembered the forest hung with clocks looted by rebel soldiers, but too heavy to carry all the way home.

After a long journey with stops at every country station, the train slowed as it entered a long tunnel and then pulled into Kaunas. Adamonis stepped off the train with only one bag and a briefcase, not much more than what he’d left with years earlier. As he walked along the platform toward the station he heard cries of delight and saw joyful reunions as men and women embraced and whole families charged into the arms of relatives. But he could see no sign of anyone who looked like his sister.

A young man with a long brown beard and eyeglasses came up to him in the hall.

“Mr. Justas Adamonis?”

He nodded.

“Michael Landa,” and he put out his hand. “We’ve heard about you. I represent the Lithuanian government, and I wonder if we could have a chat.”

Adamonis measured men quickly, as he had been taught. This one looked all right and he was alone, and that was good.

“Of course, but not just now. I’ve been away a long time and I think my sister is expecting me.”

“We’ve spoken to your sister. She’s agreed to let us take you over to her house a little later.”

“Where is she now?”

“At home with her family. She’s anxious to see you, but she’s a patriot, and she understands. I hope you’re a patriot too.”

“It’s a bit too soon to tell. I just stepped off the train.”

“Then maybe you'll become a patriot. In the meantime, your sister lives here, and helping us will help her.”

Adamonis wasn’t sure if this was an appeal or a threat. He could be outraged or he could be agreeable, and he chose the second option. He didn’t really know much about the government, but it couldn't be anything worse than what he'd left behind.

Landa led him out of the station and down the steps to a sled where a driver was waiting for them. Adamonis wore a felt fedora and a heavy wool coat, but the coat had become worn as he had lived in it days and many nights for over a year. He was a solid man in ordinary times, but the last year of flight had thinned him out and he felt the cold as they drove along through light snow.

The city lay in a dim pool of wood smoke and falling snowflakes, with men walking by as quickly as they could on the silent streets. A mother with a scarf over her mouth tugged along a child bundled in a knitted hat and felt boots. He saw only three cars in all.

Kaunas had been a czarist garrison town that now had a capital thrust upon it after the war. Vilnius was supposed to be the capital of Lithuania, but the Poles believed it belonged to them and had seized it three months earlier. With the occupation of Vilnius, the Lithuanians licked their wounds and set up in Kaunas and called it their "Provisional Capital.”

Seeing the city of his youth through the snow was like seeing it in a dream. He recognized Soboras, the massive Russian Orthodox Church built for the garrison in the last century, but the low wooden houses and two-storey brick buildings seemed neither familiar nor unfamiliar, suspended between reality and memory.

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They Call Me George

They Call Me George

The Untold Story of Black Train Porters and the Birth of Modern Canada
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Excerpt from They Call Me George

Sitting in his condominium apartment in Halifax, Harold Adams is at ease with the life he has built for himself and his family and with most of the recent progress of his country. But this was not always the case. “I don’t know how many times I came home and said I am not going back, this work is not for me,” he says as he passes out a cup of tea, perhaps with the same care that he would have offered such service to a stranger over the 35 years of working as a porter on Canada national passenger railway. Now he sits in the apartment among some of the memorabilia that resulted from the long years of service and with fellow retired porter Thornton William and life-long friend Michael Tynes reminisce about life on the road and what has become of Canada.

“When we were growing up as kids we always saw the porters when they got in from a trip,” recalls Tynes with a chuckle. “They were the best dressed guys around, they drove the cars and they had the nicest homes.”

“Well, not all porters had homes,” Adams chides gently, reminding that life was not that kind and equal to everyone working as porters on the railways. “But those that did, I used to think they were members of government, members of parliament, some official, ’cause we would always see them when they were dressed up and when they were leaving to go to work. But after they got to work, and after I got on the railway I learned that when they went to work they changed their clothes into a uniform, a white jacket with a collar that went around the neck, and I don’t like to say it but some people refer to them as monkey hats, and you had to wear that when you were on the job. In those days, you’d see very few Black people travelling in sleeping cars because it was too expensive; if they did travel the coach would be the best they could afford at that time. I am going back to the time when I first got onto the train like it was CNR then... After they made it VIA Rail.”

Williams too remembers seeing the porters around town. “There was this fellow that I didn’t quite know what he did. His name was Walter. I would see Walter around town and Walter was always well dressed and always had a little brief case with him and I kept thinking he was a lawyer. And it wasn’t until years later that I got to realize he was porter.”

Adams signed on to work on the passenger service for Canadian National railway in 1962. He found that when travelling away from home he would stay in private homes as was the case in Montreal where as many as 16 porters might share the bunk beds in the same room on the second floor of a home. “When I first went there, only Blacks stayed there but whites did not. When I first got there that was the way the porters lived. Whites working on the trains were waiters, stewards, conductors and cooks and they stayed elsewhere.” Segregation of Black and white workers was prevalent. “In Canada segregation existed all over. Even with government jobs, there were very few Blacks until around the 60s or late 50s, when Blacks started to get into the dockyards, but even when they did it was like porters….The reputations of us Blacks in general was that we were supposed to be good singers, good cooks, and good cleaners. And that existed in all Canada.”

Over a generation, these retirees have witnessed life changing somewhat for Black people in Canada. There are now more job opportunities available to Black Canadians, not like when they were teenagers. “In the days prior to us, Nova Scotia like other places in Canada was very prejudice jobwise,” Adams recalls. “We had men that went to high school and the best thing they could get, the best job they could get was working on the train. And Blacks in general, especially men, we got spread across Canada mostly from Nova Scotia. What they would do to recruit was to come down to Halifax, down in the valley the small places, and anybody that wanted to work and was capable of making beds, it wasn’t in those days hard work, but they took them and sent right across to Vancouver. In those days, there were very few Blacks living in upper Canada, like Calgary and Winnipeg and those places. They would take them across to live.”

The recruiters would also visit the British colonies in the Caribbean in search of porters for the railways and seamen for Canadian ships—oftentimes the recruits working on both the rails and ships. Elombe Mottley, son of a popular politician in Barbados in the first half of last century recalls in an interview: “When my father was growing up, even when I was a boy going to school in the late 1940s, you could always tell who was a seaman because his children always wore a gold plated watch, cause to own a watch in those days was a big thing.” One particular porter was popular in those days for his community mindedness, a man with the nickname Zephyr who coached boxing to the boys. When came the time for Mottley to plan for the rest of his life, he came to Canada to study medicine at the University of Manitoba in 1958, arriving in Canada knowing that like so many West Indian students before him he could supplement his income and get to see the rest of North America by working summers and winters as a sleeping car porter. Eventually Mottley decided to return to the Caribbean.

Canada became a confederation in 1867 and its history since then can be measured in how successful men like Adams, Williams and Tynes were able to make homes for themselves and their families in this country. Theirs is part of the story of a struggle to change Canada and to make it a place where Black boys and girls could grow up knowing that they have freedom of opportunity to become full fledged Canadians. This then is a story of the struggle for the recognition of dignity and for citizenship.

Let’s presume that in this country we are all fully human, something that wasn’t always a given for people with Black skins or African ancestry. As a meaningful description, then, our greatest characteristic is our dignity: it’s the basis on which we act out the bond we call citizenship. As a basic building block for our social interactions, dignity is what we all have in common, what in our human diversity makes us all equal. As citizens of this specific country, we recognize all fellow members as possessing this dignity, of agreeing to common and preferred ways of collectively acting out our basic humanity in solidarity and fraternity. What make us unique as a nation-state is the particular ways we recognize a common dignity in every member, how we celebrate our unique humanness in a way that makes our country and the way nationals live unique. What makes Canada unique, for example, is that it is supposedly a place—an oasis as it were carved out of the rest of the world—with its peculiar practices of recognizing the dignity inherent in all citizens. This is the vaunted Canadian way.

Dignity does not reveal itself in any specific form, neither does it take any specific colour or hue; it is common across all races and ethnicities, religions and creeds, across all nationalisms, social categorizations and the lack thereof. Indistinguishable, it just exists and can be seen on the face of every human, in the way they walk, talk, play or perform any task, in the way they demand to be treated and how they treat others. Dignity is something that we can never lose, not even when incapacitated, and still be human; indeed, anyone having this dignity must de facto be human, it comes simply with possessing the human form; even the human dead is deemed to still have dignity as so many soldiers charged with war crimes have learned the hard way, or civilians going around desecrating graves and headstones. Dignity cannot be bought or sold, and its supply is not controlled by the vagaries of markets, the wealth of individuals or any other social categorization that determines statures and usefulness in any society. For in its indeterminacy dignity exists before the state intervenes and establishes social functions and the norms that go with them, before the collective or dominant will in the state starts divvying out inequalities. Dignity is a given, even if a society’s recognition of it in its members is more deliberate—often enunciated in laws, bills and charters of rights, regulations, codes, policies and practices—all determined decisions of how to treat one another in a dignified way that is so common it produces a particular culture. Ironically, dignity can only be meaningful in a society.

So if we cannot feel, taste, see, smell or hear dignity, if we cannot use our senses of description to know it, how can we claim dignity as the basis for human equality? Perhaps, we are asking the wrong question—and perhaps we err by relying on signs and symbols analogously to help us to understand something, like an assumed human nature itself, that is unquantifiable. What if we see this dignity as a social convention, a moral belief based on the idea that as human beings we have the right and ability equally to make ourselves better, and in seeking this social perfection to do so in concert with others who share the same attributes and characteristic that is dignity? Freedom, or not to be held mentally or physically in bondage or forced compulsion, seems to capture much of what we imagine dignity entails. Dignity and freedom, as ill defined conceptually as they are, bring specific expectations to mind as we think of how we would expect to be treated by others and supposedly how we should treat them. Ethically dignity would be written into our rules of engagement with one another and would govern our expectations. Citizenship would be the expression of dignity. Dignity is about existence—to be is to have it, freedom and citizenship are its vehicles. It is about acting in good faith.

In keeping with the latter thinking we would be shifting the conversation from decoding signs and symbols—such as relying on the physicality of the color of the skin, the height of the person, the differences in genitals, the language spoken—of dignity as an intangible, as an indication of a relationship between human beings who might be different in as many ways physical as they are people, but as a measurement of the bond resulting from acts of volition for sharing the same intentions and goals. Therefore, whether they are physically or ontologically equal at the beginning of the relationship is not the question of concern, but rather once they are in a relationship our worry would be whether they are treated with the same touch agreeable as common to all participants. In this respect, dignity makes us all relations, social relatives bound together in a fraternal affiliation the strength of which is the expression and actions that flow from the recognition that other fellow travellers are following the same moral and ethical commands and are bound to the same expectations. We would then be all like passengers on a train heading generally in the same direction even if specifically we board and exist at different stops, perhaps some of us even ending up at the final stop or terminus, the farthest point the train would take us.

What I have just described is the challenge undertaken by a group of people in the early part of the last century. They were attempting to shift the perception of fellow residents in their social world from one based exclusively on signs and symbols—from description—to one based on relationship among people who could be deemed to be morally entitled because of their relationship, in this case, in the exercise of nation building. The result of this attempted shift is the creation in the northernmost tip of North America, as part of an overall Western Hemisphere experience, of a country that is idealistically based not on what people look like or how they can be described physically or biologically, not even about what they do privately, but on what they share. Morally and ethically we are talking about how in fellowship people agree to treat one another, and in practice how faithful they are in keeping this agreement.

Such is the story of Canada and of the largely social outcasts, described as Black sleeping car porters, and how these workers were in the vanguard for the creation of a new and modern Canada that now presents itself to the world as a paragon of harmoniously human relations—a country that transformed itself from descriptively a White Man’s country into relationally a multicultural one, to where every Canadian is supposedly treated with human dignity presumably held in equal proportions. This is the story of how these porters came into their own as a social and political force in a very special moment in time—a story of how they changed Canada profoundly, setting it on a course that in good faith would make it idealistically a homeland for all forms of humanity.

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