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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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Damages

Damages

Selected Stories 1982-2012
edition:Paperback
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Dead Heat
Excerpt

SQUARE SILENCE

I’m sprawled out in bed practising imaginary flip turns in a semi-daze when Sabotage from Beastie Boys starts blaring, and my body floods with adrenaline. After I finally realise it’s my ringtone I’m hearing, I turn on my side and start feeling around on the floor. Eventually, I find it under my t-shirt in my shoe. Somehow last night, it ended up in there. I answer. It’s Buoy, he’s bored and wants to go down to the thermal bath. I’m still only half-conscious, so instead of telling him to fuck off, I agree to meet him in twenty behind the old movie theatre. Buoy – judging by his voice, anyway – doesn’t seem too distressed about last night’s party. I don’t remember every last detail, plus these nights are pretty much the same anyway, but one thing’s for sure: we did get seriously shitfaced. I hang up and try to open my eyes, but it’s too early. I even forgot to roll down the shutters last night.

Downtown’s always like a set from The Walking Dead at this time of day. Main Street’s the only place with any sign of life. A couple of screaming kids on tricycles zigzag around bums in zombie costumes sifting through garbage cans. Otherwise, everything’s disturbingly empty. Buoy’s got it in his head to take a detour towards the White Rhino, cause he heard from someone that there was a major fucking battle at the club last night. I’d rather just get going to the pool, but I don’t feel like wandering around by myself, so I stick with Buoy.

As soon as we get there, you can tell that whoever told the story wasn’t kidding when they said it was a battle. There’s POLICE LINE: DO NOT CROSS tape strung around the trashed entrance, and they tried to sweep the broken window glass under the bushes, but the shards crunch loudly under my feet just the same. The walls and the fence are covered with bloodstains and there must’ve been a couple of bigger pools of blood on the concrete that got sprinkled with sand to soak them up. Buoy heard that the gypsies stabbed someone or the skinheads stabbed the gypsies, but whatever happened is still unclear because there was a massive crowd, and Buoy’s homie who watched the whole thing go down couldn’t see much through the mob. In any case, it’s all really fuzzy.

There’s blood and hair stuck to the jagged glass sticking out from the window frame. I’m lost in space for a second and can’t see anything else except a dark strand of hair quivering in the draft. Buoy’s voice makes me snap out of it.

“This was real hardcore,” he establishes with satisfaction. “Lucky we left early,” he adds.

So that means we were at the club too. I wanna ask if I was with them, but if I was, Buoy’s gonna think I’m a total retard, so I keep my mouth shut and stare at the smashed door instead. I’m not sure what facial expression should match this moment, cause standing around on the empty street like this kinda weakens the whole horrifying effect. Still, it’s hard to disassociate from the fact that someone’s head was shoved through the window here. And if the glass looks like this, imagine what’s left of that poor guy’s head. Buoy studies the scene a while longer, then I manage with some effort to drag him away, and we head off to the spa. We weave our way through the cars parked in front of the White Rhino. There’s a smudged streak of blood gleaming on the trunk of a white Mazda. I’m no car freak, but I have this thing for Japanese cars. Knocked-out teeth lie on the ground, but they’re arranged so neatly that I’ll bet the news crew used them for cutaway shots.

We’re walking down the road. There’s no traffic at all. They cleaned my favourite graffiti off the high stone wall separating the music school from the jail that read: Prisoners of Music. It’ll have to get sprayed on again. Buoy’s talking a mile a minute, and sometimes it gets out of control, but I’ve realized that when he’s like this the best thing to do is act like Viggo Mortensen in that creepy sci-fi and just keep saying, uh-huh, and yeah. I don’t really care about the kids Buoy’s going off about, I don’t even know half of them by name, and he’s already said everything he knew about last night’s scuffle. We’re almost at the spa when he launches into some story about the Cloister Street Thai Massage Parlour and happy endings, but before I can get him to tell me more details, a water polo girl slows down on her bike beside us. Grinning, Buoy starts complimenting her on the killer whale tattooed on her calf.

Twenty minutes later we’re soaking in the thermal basin, the water gurgling softly into the overflow drain. Wrinkly old crones with liver spots surround us in the water and by the poolside, as far as the eye can see. They remind me of wallowing hippos on Animal Planet. I’m watching Ducky, but he doesn’t notice me. His face’s all red from the hot water as he looks around with a bored expression for somebody to bang, but we got here a little early so there are no good chicks yet, just a bunch of grannies. Then again, it’s always Ducky’s mood and the situation that decide who he’s gonna screw.

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