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Eat Like a Fish

I am a restorative ocean farmer. It’s a trade both old and new, a job rooted in thousands of years of history, dating back to Roman times. I used to be a commercial fisherman, chasing your dinner on the high seas for a living, but now I farm twenty acres of saltwater, growing a mix of sea greens and shellfish.
I’ve paid my debt to the sea. I dropped out of high school to fish and spent too many nights in jail. My body is beat to hell: I crawl out of bed like a lobster most mornings. I’ve lost vision in half my right eye from a chemical splash in Alaska. I’m an epileptic who can’t swim, and I’m allergic to shellfish.
But every shiver of pain has been worth it. It’s a meaningful life. I’m proud to spend my days helping feed my community, and if all goes well, I will die on my boat one day. Maybe get a small obit in the town paper, letting friends know that I was taken by the ocean, that I died a proud farmer growing food underwater. That I wasn’t a tree hugger but spent my days listening to and learning from waves and weather. That I believed in building a world where we can all make a living on a living planet.
Fishermen must tell our own stories. Normally, you hear from us through the thrill-seeking writer, a Melville or Hemingway, trolling my culture for tall tales, or a Greenpeace exposé written from the high perch of environmentalism, or the foodie’s fetishization of artisanal hook and line. When fishermen don’t tell our own stories, the salt and stink of the ocean are lost: how the high seas destroy our bodies but lift our hearts, how anger and violence spawn solidarity and love. There’s more edge to fishermen—more swearing, more fights, more drugs—and we are both victims and stewards of the sea.
So this is my story. It’s been a long, blustery journey to get here, but as I look back over my shoulder, a tale of ecological redemption emerges from the fog. It begins with a high school dropout pillaging the high seas for McDonald’s and ends with a quiet ocean farmer growing sea greens and shellfish in the “urban sea” of Long Island Sound. It’s a story of a Newfoundland kid forged by violence, adrenaline, and the thrill of the hunt. It’s about the humility of being in forty-foot seas, the pride of being in the belly of a boat with thirteen others work­ing thirty-hour shifts. About a farm destroyed by two hurricanes and reborn through blue-collar innovation. It is a story of fear and love for our changing seas.
But, most important, it’s a search for a meaningful and self-directed life, one that honors the tradition of seafaring culture but brings a new approach to feeding the country among the wandering rocks of the climate crisis and inequality. As fishermen and farmers before me, all I’ve asked for is a job that fills my chest with pride, a working life that my people can write and sing songs about.
I still miss being a commercial fisherman. But that’s over now. Overfishing, climate change, acidification have forced me to change course. Now I have more in common with a kale farmer than I do with fishermen. My life is quiet, constant—working the same patch of ocean day after day for over a decade. I can’t hang out in the same bars: What fish tales would I tell? Would I swagger into the Crow’s Nest, turn up the lilt of my Newfoundland accent, order a stout, and tell a yarn about sea­weed? “There I was in fucking flat calm. Reached down with my gaff, hooked a buoy, and up came my kelp, glistening brown wide blades. Fifteen feet. Longest I’d seen it in years. Yes, b’y, it was something to see.”
I’d be laughed out of the bar.
About this book
Writing this book was hard. My early years are fogged with drug-fueled violence and adrenaline, and I suspect drenched in over-the-shoulder romanticism. A life seen in reverse is an untidy affair. I struggled with structure. After much wrangling, I decided to weave together five concurrent strands.
First is my evolution from fisherman to ocean farmer. It was a difficult, emotional birth. I had to rewire my nervous system to new tempos of work, grow a blue thumb, hang out with odd breeds of people, even learn a new vernacular of food. It was a bumpy trip: my first brush with aquaculture left me disillu­sioned, and I’ve made many mistakes along the way to becom­ing a restorative famer, but in the end I landed on my feet.
The second strand is my rocky romance with sea greens. Like most Americans, I was skeptical about moving seaweed to the center of the dinner plate. Honestly, except for sushi, it sounded kind of gross. But I fell in love with a food lover, and she took me by the hand on a long journey of discovery. We met chefs spe­cializing in making unappetizing food beautiful and delicious, learned about the lost culinary history of Western seaweed cui­sine, and tested out kelp dishes on roofers and plumbers. In the book I’ve included a handful of recipes developed by Brooks Headley and David Santos, two of the most creative working chefs in the United States, whose work points the way toward a delicious future.
The third strand is instructional: how to start your own underwater garden. It provides the basics for building a farm, seeding kelp and shellfish, and provides tips on farm mainte­nance and harvesting. It’s not comprehensive, of course, but it might wet your whistle.
Fourth is my journey of learning. I had a long history of struggling in school, but yearned for a way to understand my life on the ocean within a larger context. So I trace my learn­ing curve through the rise of industrial aquaculture and the origins of restorative ocean farming to the secret strategy to convince Americans to eat kale and the emergence of the regen­erative economy. There were many surprises along the way. Who knew that the Japanese consider an Englishwoman the birthing mother of nori farming and hold a festival in her honor every year? Or that a shipwrecked Irishman accidentally invented mussel cultivation while trying to net some birds to eat? Or that McDonald’s pioneered a seaweed-based burger in the 1990s?
Finally, there is my tale of passing the baton. This didn’t always go well. I swam with the sharks of Wall Street, drowned in viral media, and failed at building a new processing com­pany. But it was worth the trip, because out of the ashes came GreenWave, a training program for new farmers, partnerships with visionary companies like Patagonia in the era of climate change, and a new generation of ocean farmers to take over the helm and release me back to my beloved farm.
You’ll also hear a lot about kelp in the book. On my farm, we’ve experimented with a few different kinds of seaweed, but sugar kelp has emerged as the most productive, delicious, and viable native species in my area. Most of the book will refer to kelp, but know that, every day, farmers, scientists, and chefs around the world are figuring out new ways to grow and use the thousands of vegetables in the ocean.
Though I include a lot about kelp, I’ve written very little about Asian cuisine. The history of seaweed use in East Asia is well documented, and I could never do it justice. What’s sur­prising is the largely unknown parallel history—reaching back thousands of years—of shellfish and seaweed cultivation and cooking in the West. At times these two histories intersect, which I explore in the book, but I figured my job as a U.S.-based ocean farmer was to explore my own regional roots, and ways to cook and work with sea greens within the region I know.
Although I’m an ocean famer, I am not a fish farmer. The vast majority of aquaculture has entailed humans’ trying to grow animals that swim. Recently, there have been major advances in the industry, but my take—which routinely drops me into hot water with the fish-farming crowd—is that the United States chose the wrong path for ocean agriculture and continues to do so. Over the previous decades, there were countless opportuni­ties to reflect on the unique qualities of the ocean from a farm­ing perspective. If the nation had chosen to focus energies on growing restorative species such as seaweeds rather than jailing and feeding fish, we’d have a much more sensible dinner plate today. We’d be feeding the planet while breathing life back into our seas, and protecting wild fish stocks while creating middle-class jobs.
There will be gaps in my story. For example, I am estranged from most of my family, a history that I will address with silence. They are good people; I could have been a better man. And I’ve worked many different jobs in my life. I’ve driven lumber trucks and sold my wood carvings on the streets of New York City. I’ve worked on community-organizing campaigns with coal miners, immigrants, and fishermen, and even did a stint for a politician. But these have all been mere tributaries. Though I have been pushed off the water many times in my life, I have always fought to return. This is a tale of a fisherman’s forty-five-year search for meaningful work at sea. Maybe one day I’ll spin another yarn of my dizzy days on land, but for now I’ll stick mostly to the saltier side of my life.
A note about foul language. In his book Distant Water: The Fate of the North Atlantic Fisherman, Pulitzer Prize–winning author William W. Warner tries to prepare his readers for the cultural shock to come:
The fishermen in some chapters swear more than others. No national slights are therefore intended. All fishermen have their choice epithets. . . . Their oaths and swear words are mere interstices—points of emphasis, like raising one’s voice—devoid of literal meaning. The reader should so understand them, and take no offence.
So, before we dive in, let me apologize in advance. I write about the slimy, violent end of things, especially in describing my early years. And I swear a fair amount, always have, which has remained a sore point even at home.
Convention says I should repent and prefer the sober, inof­fensive, and violence-free life—but I don’t. The knife’s edge has been good to me. Making the world a better and more beautiful place isn’t about “softening” for the dinner crowd. It’s about the granular hard work of fighting waves and rolling up tat­tooed sleeves to work with nature. It’s not about “domestica­tion,” it’s about blue-collar innovation. So leave civility on the docks; hop aboard and revel with me in the profane. It tastes so good.
A few words about word choice. While some prefer the term “fishers,” I use “fishermen” to refer to both men and women who fish commercially for a living. Many have come to this con­sensus. As Clare Leschin-Hoar, who has extensively covered the fishing industry, explains: “I’ve met many female fishermen . . . and 100 percent of the time, they have told me they like the term ‘fishermen’; they don’t want to be called fishers.” She says women in the fishing industry see the term as a badge of honor. “They worked very hard to become commercial fishermen, and they want that respect.” I follow their lead.
To refer to my farming model, I use “restorative ocean farm­ing,” “regenerative ocean farming,” or “3D ocean farming.” This signals my search for a new lexicon for sea-based agriculture. I hate the term “aquaculture,” but honestly, I haven’t yet settled on what to call my type of farming. Same goes for seaweed, which I refer to as “sea greens,” “sea vegetables,” and “ocean greens.” In some of the more scientific sections, you might even see “macroalgae”—that just means seaweed, too. If you have bet­ter names, let me know; I’m keeping a list. Also, for all you land­lubbers: at sea, rope is called “line.”
What is restorative ocean farming?
Picture my farm as a vertical underwater garden: hurricane-proof anchors on the edges connected by horizontal ropes floating six feet below the surface. From these lines, kelp and other kinds of seaweed grow vertically downward, next to scallops in hanging nets that look like Japanese lanterns and mussels held in suspension in mesh socks. On the seafloor below sit oysters in cages, and then clams buried in the mud bottom.
My crops are restorative. Shellfish and seaweeds are powerful agents of renewal. A seaweed like kelp is called the “sequoia of the sea” because it absorbs five times more carbon than land-based plants and is heralded as the culinary equivalent of the electric car. Oysters and mussels filter up to fifty gallons of water a day, removing nitrogen, a nutrient that is the root cause of the ever-expanding dead zones in the ocean. And my farm functions as a storm-surge protector and an artificial reef, both helping to protect shoreline communities and attracting more than 150 species of aquatic life, which come to hide, eat, and thrive.
Shellfish and seaweed require zero inputs—no freshwater, no fertilizers, no feed. They simply grow by soaking up ocean nutrients, making it, hands down, the most sustainable form of food production on the planet.
My farm design is open-source and replicable: just an under­water rope scaffolding that’s cheap and easy to build. All you need is $20,000, twenty acres, and a boat. And it churns out a lot of food: up to 150,000 shellfish and ten tons of seaweed per acre. Because it is low-cost to build, it can be replicated quickly. Best of all, you can make a living: one farm can net up to $90,000 to $120,000 per year.
Finally, the model is scalable. There are more than ten thou­sand plants in the ocean, and hundreds of varieties of shellfish. We eat only a few kinds, and we’ve barely begun to scratch the surface of what we can grow. Imagine being a chef and discover­ing that there are thousands of vegetable species you’ve never cooked with or tasted before. It’s like discovering corn, arugula, tomatoes, and lettuce for the first time. Moreover, demand for our crops is not dependent solely on food; our seaweeds can be used as fertilizers, animal feeds, even zero-input biofuels.
As ocean farmers, we can simultaneously create jobs, feed the planet, and fight climate change. According to the World Bank, a network of ocean farms equivalent to 5 percent of U.S. territorial waters can have a deep impact with a small footprint, creating fifty million direct jobs, producing protein equivalent to 2.3 trillion hamburgers, and sequestering carbon equal to the output of twenty million cars. Another study found that a network of farms totaling the size of Washington State could supply enough protein for every person living today. And farming 9 percent of the world’s oceans could generate enough biofuel to replace all current fossil-fuel energy.

close this panel
The Body in Question

Excerpted from Part One
"When that door opens, sign out. Say you’re taking a ciga­rette break,” he says.
“I don’t smoke,” she says.
“You don’t have to smoke, just sign out. If they call your number, ignore them.”
Neither notices the door open.
“A friend of mine got out just by saying he couldn’t sit under the words ‘In God We Trust,’ ” she says.
Her number is called, C-2.
“You have another angle?” she asks.
“If one of the lawyers asks if you’ve ever been involved with an attorney, tell him he picked you up in a bar five years ago.”
“You’re assuming the lawyer will be a man,” she says.
“Tell her she picked you up in a Lowe’s five years ago. She had the power sander, you had the tool belt.”
The second time her number is called, she rises reluctantly.
“Hey,” he calls after her as she makes her way between the uneven rows of folding chairs. “Good luck.”
C-2 is surprised to find the courtroom already in session. Everyone but the defendant, a girl in her late teens, looks up as C-2 takes the only empty chair in the jury box. The other five chairs are occupied by women of varying ages. Three sport flip-flops. One is dressed as if for a hot date. One wears church clothes.
The judge, an older African American woman with a no-nonsense haircut, asks the defendant to turn around in her chair and face the prospective jurors. The defendant’s head revolves so slowly that C-2 can’t discern whether the sluggishness is deliberate, to arrest the court’s attention, or if the teenager in the ill-fitting but very expensive clothes has something physically or mentally wrong with her. Her most striking feature is her hair: the bottom six inches are dyed shoe-polish black, the top six inches are Barbie blond.
C-2 has studied her share of faces. She started her career as a por­trait photographer for Rolling Stone and Interview magazine until it finally sank in: she wasn’t interested in people. As individuals. She was interested in them as a species.
The defendant’s features are the kind found in how-to-draw books—sketchy and basic. If C-2 were to close her eyes, she doubts she would remember what is inside the blank oval a second later.
If C-2 had to wager a guess as to the teenager’s crime, she would bet shoplifting, or selling her grandmother’s Percocets to her class­mates, or both. A one- or two-day trial at most.
The judge asks, “Do any of you recognize the defendant?”
Two hands shoot up.
“I saw her on TV,” says one of the flip-flop set.
“On Court TV,” says the woman who has removed her lip and nose rings out of respect for court.
The defendant’s counsel, a full-figured woman in her early thir­ties, and the jury consultant, a gray-haired gentleman in Armani, confer: the two women are dismissed. Two more potential jurors enter the court and take the vacated chairs: a woman who looks pregnant but is too old to be pregnant, and the young man with whom C-2 had been mildly flirting in the holding area—in his early forties, whereas C-2 is fifty-two—the one who had all the clever answers on how to get out of jury duty. He catches her attention and shrugs self-mockingly. His eyes are a blue that seems too crys­talline to belong to his face, which is pitted with acne scars. Other than the church lady, he is the only one dressed appropriately for court; khakis, white shirt, closed shoes. C-2 is wearing cutoffs and a T-shirt. It is 95 degrees outside.
“This is a murder trial,” the judge says.
The defendant slides her eyes sideways in her expressionless face. C-2 follows the stare. It lands on a middle-aged woman seated in the front row of the gallery, her face an illustration of anguish. A blond replica of the defendant comforts the woman, but this version is prettier. Her face is vibrant, as if each feature were an individual puppet and she were the puppet master. If C-2 closed her eyes, she would remember that face.
“The trial may take up to three weeks,” the judge explains, “and may involve sequestration. Is there anyone who believes themselves incapable of fulfilling such an obligation?”
C-2’s standby excuse, that she couldn’t sit under “In God We Trust,” seems flippant, almost reprehensible to use given that the middle-aged woman is shuddering and imploding in the gallery. C-2 could tell the judge that her husband is eighty-six, the truth, and that she is his sole caretaker, her fear.
The woman too old to be pregnant and the man with the lucent blue eyes raise their hands.
“F-17,” the man introduces himself to the judge. “I’m a professor at the medical school. My Gross Anatomy course begins next week. I have twenty-one cadavers waiting for me.”
“Aren’t they already dead?” the judge asks.
Again that self-mocking shrug. “Yes,” he says.
“They can wait.”
The woman’s hand is still up. “J-12. I’m going in for tests next week,” she says.
The judge waits a beat for anyone else to speak up.
C-2 could still raise her hand. Though her husband retains his impressive, curious mind, he loses things daily—keys, words, height, mass, the ability to hear conversations, his peripheral vision (though he insists on still driving), the subtlety of taste, and the assault of smell. And most alarming, the loss of the sixth sense, proprioception, the ability to know the position of one’s body parts. Her husband isn’t always sure where his hands and feet are without having to look for them. It takes him a wooden moment to reach for things, to make those measurements one unconsciously calculates each time one dips under a low beam, or eats popcorn in the dark. He can still navigate the day’s obstacles, but for how much longer? C-2 is becoming his copilot. Her senses must work double-time shepherding two separate bodies through space, but to refuse the job—not to point out the broken step, not to repeat the punch line he couldn’t hear—will mean abandoning him in the woolly, dim, mute isolation of old age.
She met her husband when she was twenty-four and he was fifty-seven. He was a Pulitzer-winning journalist and she had just given up portraiture for something more dangerous. He had asked her to be his photographer on an assignment in El Salvador—civil war had broken out yet again. He had flown first-class, and she had flown economy. Not once during the seven-hour flight did he venture back into steerage to see how she was faring. That had cinched it for her: her attraction for him was an unreciprocated crush; he had only been interested in her photography.
At the San Salvador airport, they hitched a prearranged ride in a bus chartered by Hollywood’s radical chic, a director of conspiracy thrillers, an earnest actress, and her producer husband. The actress had come to interview the charming mustachioed general of the rebels. The van had to cross the mountains before nightfall and curfew. The road was a stretch of graveled ascent, bracketed with makeshift checkpoints manned by ragged boys with rifles.
The producer broke out a bottle of Valium and handed the pills around. C-2 noted that the war correspondent didn’t take one, so she didn’t either, even though she wanted one very badly.
She could tell she had passed some sort of test with him, and that having passed the test, the power had shifted between them. That night at the hotel, she was aware of him staring at her as she opened her door. The stare was electric. She had only recently accepted that her desire had less to do with whom she was attracted to, and everything to do with whom she wanted to attract.
She played her hand riskily, bet the house. She walked into his room while he was transcribing his notes, unbuttoned her blouse. He took over from there, for which she was thankful.
She didn’t—doesn’t—consider herself especially attractive. She makes a handsome first impression—a fit figure, a wedge of auburn hair, a long neck—but on second look, her left eyelid droops slightly, and the asymmetry cancels out her best feature, her wild eyebrows, which she grooms weekly. Just before she met her husband, the lid miraculously found its way open, lending her face an astonished look, and, unbeknownst to her, she became extremely beautiful. The lid sank again a year later, but by then she had already met her husband. More important, she had been given a tease of the charmed life she might have lived had her left eyelid been two millimeters higher.
The first time her husband introduced her to his mother, eighty-seven years old and living in a Jewish retirement home in Buffalo, the old woman took one glance at C-2, at the apex of her beauty, then looked at her middle-aged son and asked a question that C-2, at twenty-four, hadn’t yet thought to ask herself: Who is going to take care of him in his old age?
If C-2 is sequestered, she will only have to take care of herself—a much-needed respite justified by civic duty. If something should happen—the dreaded fall—there is always the alternate to take her place.
The judge is still waiting.
C-2 doesn’t raise her hand.
The jury box is now full, five women including C-2, and two men, F-17 and the twitchy alternate with the hectic buzz cut who doesn’t pay attention when the judge explains what a voir dire is. The alter­nate is too busy admiring the defense counsel, the woman in her early thirties with the disruptively full figure. C-2 notes a shimmer when the young woman crosses her legs under the table. She is wear­ing nylons in August in Central Florida.
To C-2’s left, the woman in her mid-sixties who had identified herself as a homemaker and member of the First Calvary Baptist congregation raises her hand. “Where’s our other half?” she asks the judge. “Aren’t there supposed to be twelve of us?”
“Florida only requires a six-person jury in all but capital cases,” the judge explains.
The prosecutor, rotund, places both hands flat on the table and jacks himself up. He struggles to button his suit, gives up, and then flashes the jury an aw-shucks grin to let them know he is a local boy, not someone hired from South Florida. He rifles through the questionnaires the jury had filled out earlier that day, with all their stats—profession, married or single, children, felonies—and asks if anyone has concerns about being able to wait until they’ve heard all the evidence before making up their minds.
C-2 has never had the patience to listen to someone else’s story and not try to guess the ending. But guessing the ending is different than calcifying into certitude. She would be willing to switch sides if persuaded, but that wouldn’t stop her from speculating. Who honestly imagines themselves to be that neutral and fair?
She glances around at the other potential jurors. They are all nodding affirmatively, certain of their neutrality and fairness, except F-17.
He raises his hand. “Isn’t the belief that you won’t rush to judg­ment proof that you will?” he says.
C-2 can see that he hopes his syllogism will get him dismissed.
But the prosecutor looks away, as if a new idea has just occurred to him. “Do you read the newspaper?” he asks the woman seated directly in front of C-2. The chairs in the back row sit on a riser. C-2 can see the woman’s scalp through her cornrows. The woman is white and the stalks blond. The ruts in between are sunburned.
“H-8,” the woman says. “I use the newspaper for my parrot’s droppings.”
“Let’s talk about doubt,” the prosecutor says. “Reasonable doubt versus an abiding conviction of doubt.”
The church lady raises her hand. “What does ‘abiding’ mean?”
“The court isn’t allowed to define terms,” the judge intervenes. “And you can’t look up the word on your smartphone tonight. You aren’t allowed to consider any information, including the definition of a word, outside this court. I dismissed a juror last year for looking up ‘prudent.’”
The prosecutor studies his polished shoes until the judge finishes. “Let’s talk about common sense,” he says, walking over to the church lady. “How did you decide what to eat for breakfast?”
“I looked in my fridge.”
“So you accepted the evidence before you and made a decision.”
“I had scrambled eggs.”
“Okay, let’s take a more important decision, one that you had to think hard about.” He looks over at F-17. “Are you married?”
“No,” F-17 says.
“You?” the prosecutor asks C-2.
“How did you decide to marry your husband?”
“Our accountant told us we would save money on taxes,” she says.
They’d been living together for over five years. They loved each other. The money could be spent on a vacation, something they had never allowed themselves. They had traveled extensively on assign­ment, but only to places where the tourists had fled. This time they decided to go somewhere exotic where there wasn’t a war. But without a war, they almost killed each other.
“So you would say your decision making is more swayed by facts than emotion?” asks the prosecutor.
“Yes,” C-2 says.
A hand goes up, the twitchy alternate’s. “Why are you asking us all these questions? Why don’t they have professional jurors?”

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The Lola Quartet


Anna had fallen into a routine, or as much of a routine as a seventeen-year-old can reasonably fall into when she’s transient and living in hiding with an infant. She was staying at her sister’s friend’s house in a small town in Virginia.

The baby always woke up crying at four thirty or five a.m. Anna got up and changed Chloe’s diaper, prepared a bottle and bundled her into the stroller and then they left the basement where they were living, walked three blocks to the twenty-four-hour doughnut shop for coffee and across the wide empty street to the park. Anna sat on a swing with her first coffee of the morning and Chloe lay in the stroller staring up at the clouds. They listened to the birds in the trees at the edges of the park, the sounds of traffic in the distance. The climbing equipment cast a complicated silhouette against the pale morning sky.

There was a plastic shopping bag duct-taped to the underside of the stroller. It held a little under one hundred eighteen thousand dollars in cash.
That morning at a music school in South Carolina, a pianist was sitting alone in a practice room. Jack had been playing the piano for four and a half hours and under normal circumstances his hands would have been aching by now, but he was high on painkillers and couldn’t feel it. There was an east-facing window in the practice room and the morning light had long since entered. The piano was illuminated, sun caught in the varnish and gleaming in the keys, the whole room shining, he was dizzy, his skin itched and he hadn’t slept all night. His roommate had gone to Virginia to rescue a girl whom Jack had imperilled and everything was coming apart around him, but so long as he kept playing he didn’t have to think about any of this, so he closed his eyes against the shine and launched once more into Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue.

Ten years later, in February, the showerhead in Gavin’s bathroom began to leak. The timing was inconvenient. His editor had assigned him to a story about Florida’s exotic wildlife problem, and he was leaving New York the following morning. Gavin stood in the bathroom watching the steady dripping of hot water, at a loss. It seemed to him that this was the sort of thing Karen would have taken care of, before she’d moved out, and he realized at the same moment that he wasn’t even sure where the landlord’s phone number was. On a piece of paper somewhere, but pieces of paper had taken over his desk and spilled over onto the living room floor in the three weeks since Karen had left, a sort of avalanche. After a half-hour he came across a box of baby clothes that he’d forgotten to take to Goodwill and after that he didn’t want to look anymore, so he retreated into the bedroom and resumed an earlier search for clean socks. He could call the landlord when he got back.
What Gavin had wanted was to be an investigative reporter, a newspaperman, but nothing about his career was as he’d imagined it would be. When he’d graduated with his journalism degree he’d thought that this would be the moment when his life would finally begin. In idealistic daydreams he’d thought he might help change the world or at least improve it, and in shallower moments he’d just wanted to be a star reporter. He’d wanted to extend his hands and feel the weight of the Pulitzer with the crowd applauding before him, step up to the podium and clear his throat in the spotlight. He’d managed eventually to land a job as a reporter at one of the city’s best papers, but coming to the New York Star was like stepping into a drama in which all the major roles were already taken, or perhaps the play had already closed. There were veteran journalists at the Star, men and a woman who’d brought down titans and gone into war zones and propelled the paper to a point only just beneath the Times in the New York City newspaper pantheon, people who didn’t have to imagine what a Pulitzer felt like, but even the veterans seemed adrift in the changed world. The paper was sending out fewer and fewer correspondents on faraway stories. There were no more bureaus overseas or even in Washington. The paper was covering local news, relying on Reuters and freelancers for everything else. Too many of the stories seemed more like entertainment than news to him.

“You have to put in your time,” his editor had told him, but Gavin feared more and more that his time had passed. On two or three occasions he’d managed to get invited along for drinks with a couple of the veterans, and their stories mostly concerned a time that seemed better and more glorious than now and ended with some variation on “those were the days.” He’d come home from the bars leaden with disappointment.

“You know what your problem is?” his friend Silas said one night, when they were drinking together at an Irish bar near the paper. “I just figured it out.” Silas was a copy editor, and had been at the paper longer than Gavin had. Their desks were side by side in the newsroom.

“Please,” Gavin said, “tell me what my problem is.”

“Look at you. Jesus. The fedora, the trench coat. You want to run around the city with a flashbulb camera and a press card in your hat band.”

“How is that a problem?”

“Your problem is that you don’t really want to work at a newspaper, per se. You want to work in 1925.”

“I don’t disagree,” Gavin said. It had been clear for some time that he was in the wrong decade. All of his favourite movies were older than he was. His camera was a 1973 Yashica. He’d seen Chinatown a dozen times.

He suspected his editor was sending him on his first out-of-town assignment to make him feel better about not being senior enough to be sent into a war zone, or perhaps to make him feel better about having missed the days the veterans drank to. He knew she was doing him a favour, but the assignment itself seemed depressingly symptomatic: he was being sent to his hometown. He’d gone in a circle. He wanted to scream.

“Aren’t you from there?” his editor asked, when she called him over to her desk.

“I am,” he said. “But—” and he realized as he spoke that of course there was no way of evading the assignment, of course he couldn’t tell her that the weather in his hometown had sent him to the hospital with heatstroke nearly every year until he’d left at eighteen, so he sat by her desk discussing the story for a few minutes and then went back to his computer to check the South Florida weather. The city of  Sebastiana was in the grip of a heat wave.

That night he lay awake listening to the dripping shower and wondered if it would be pathetic to call Karen about the landlord’s phone number, decided against it and woke at an unspeakably early hour to board a southbound plane.
Gavin had been back to Florida only once in the past five years. He flew into Fort Lauderdale and when he stepped out of the airport the heat made him gasp. He drove a rental car down the freeway to the city of  Sebastiana and called his sister from his hotel room, which was mostly pink and smelled of synthetic cherries.

“I’m glad you’re here,” Eilo said. “You’re sure you won’t stay with me?”

“I don’t want to impose. The paper’s paying for my room.”

“Want to meet for dinner?”

“I’m supposed to meet with a park ranger later,” he said. “How about tomorrow?”
But their schedules were incompatible, and three days passed before he had a chance to see her. He spent his first day in  Sebastiana and the day after that interviewing conservationists and herpetologists, knocking on doors of the houses closest to the canals to ask residents about their encounters with giant snakes. He took photographs of blue-green water, of shy iguanas at the edges of backyards.

There was an afternoon spent staggering through swamps under a wide-brimmed hat, listening to a park ranger named William Chandler talk about the new monsters that had been appearing since the early ’90s. The creatures in the Florida swamps were terrifying and new, and the canals delivered the swamps to the suburbs. Experts speculated that some of the animals had been blown deep into the swamps by Hurricane Andrew—greenhouses that had held snakes had been found shattered and empty once the storm had passed—but most were abandoned pets. Small glittering lizards who’d seemed manageable enough when they were babies but then outgrew aquarium after aquarium until they’d become seven-foot-long two-hundred-pound Nile monitors with eerily intelligent eyes and extravagantly pebbled skin, perfectly capable of eating a small dog. Or Burmese pythons, purchased when small, abandoned when the owners got tired of having to feed them live rabbits. Capable of swallowing a leopard whole, William Chandler told him, and therefore capable of swallowing a human. All of these creatures multiplying in the brackish far reaches, the suburbs coming out to meet them. All Gavin could think of was the heat, but he blinked hard against the spots swimming before his eyes and wrote down everything Chandler said. Insects hummed in the trees.

By night the suburbs glimmered anonymously from his window, but even by daylight it was difficult to grasp the terrain. There had been considerable development in the decade since Gavin had lived here, and nothing was quite as he remembered. The present-day  Sebastiana was like a dream version of his hometown, much larger than it had been, circled by unexpected shopping malls and new condominium complexes, entire new neighbourhoods where once there’d been trees or swamp. Once this had been the outer suburbs but now there were suburbs that sprawled out still farther, linked up with exurbs by lacework patterns of freeways. The heart of the city was difficult to find. The suburbs circled wetlands, and there were monsters in the swamps. He wrote about the pythons and the Nile monitors, William Chandler and the frightened residents who lived alongside the canals, working deep into the night in the cool light of the hotel room.

“How do you like being back in Sebastiana?” his sister asked. Their schedules had finally coincided on his last night in Florida, and they’d met at a seafood restaurant near the hotel. Eilo was only thirty-two but her hair was mostly grey now, and she’d recently cut it very short. The haircut made her eyes look enormous. She was wearing a suit.
“It’s exactly the way I remember it,” Gavin said.

“A diplomatic response,” Eilo said.

“Except even more sprawling.”

“It never ends,” she said. “You can drive from here to Miami without leaving the suburbs. How’s Karen these days? She couldn’t come with you?”

“We broke up a month ago. She moved out.”

“You broke up? Even though she’s pregnant?”

“She’s not pregnant anymore.” Gavin remembered, sitting here, that he’d thought seriously about naming the baby after Eilo.

“Gavin, I’m sorry.”

“Thanks. Me too.” He didn’t want to talk about it. “How’s the real estate business?” They spoke on the phone every couple of months, but he hadn’t seen her in so long that being in her presence was unexpectedly awkward.

“Never better,” she said.

“In this economy?”

“Well, I do deal exclusively in foreclosures.” Eilo was looking at her plate. She hesitated a moment before she spoke again. “How’s your health?”

“Fine,” he said. “A bit touch and go in the summertime, but I stay indoors and take taxis when it’s hot. Is something bothering you?”

“I don’t know if I should tell you now,” she said.

“Tell me anyway.”
“Part of my job is inspecting homes. I inspected a property on Pauline Street a few weeks ago, a place that had just been foreclosed on that week. The property owner’s name was Gloria Jones. Older woman. She was taking care of a little girl.”

“Taking care of her?”

“She referred to the girl as ‘my ward.’ I actually never saw the upstairs, so I don’t know if the girl lived there or not. She was . . . listen, I know this sounds crazy, but the little girl looked exactly like me. It was like seeing myself as a kid.”

“So she was half-white, half-Japanese?” Gavin wasn’t sure where she was going with the story and was already a little bored by it.

“I was struck by her. I have to take pictures of the home for the real estate listing, and I made sure the kid was in one of the shots.” She reached into her handbag and extracted a paperback. She’d placed the photograph in the middle for safekeeping.

“Oh,” Gavin said. “I see what you mean.” For a disoriented moment he thought he was looking at a photograph of Eilo as a little girl. European and Asian genes in delicate combination, the same straight dark hair and thin lips, the same faint scattering of freckles on her nose. It took him a moment to realize that the eyes were different. His sister’s eyes were brown, and this little Eilo’s eyes were blue. But the similarity was uncanny. She stood at the edge of the shot, by the window of an almost empty dining room.

“She’s ten years old,” Eilo said. Gavin was beginning to understand even before Eilo spoke again. “Gavin, I asked the kid her name when Gloria was out of the room. Her name’s Chloe Montgomery.”


“That was when I knew,” Eilo said.

“She looks exactly like you. Where is she now?”

“I have no idea. To be honest, the woman caught me taking the kid’s picture and started yelling at me, so I got out of there quickly. I drove by the house two days later, but they’d already moved out. I don’t know where they went. I thought you should know.”

“Can I keep the picture?”

“Yes. Of course.” She was quiet for a moment. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I know this can’t be easy, especially given . . . I thought you should know.”

After dinner Gavin walked out to his car and drove past his hotel on purpose. He wanted to keep driving for a while, alone in the air conditioning. He turned off his cellphone. He was thinking about the girl, the other Eilo. Thinking about trying to find her, trying to imagine what he might say if he did. My name is Gavin Sasaki. You look exactly like my sister. I had a girlfriend named Anna who disappeared ten years ago and you have her last name. I know this sounds crazy but I think we have the same genes.

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The Singer's Gun

In an office on the bright sharp edge of New York, glass tower, Alexandra Broden was listening to a telephone conversation. The recording lasted no longer than ten seconds, but she listened to it five or six times before she took off her headphones. It was five thirty in the afternoon, and she had been working since seven a.m. She closed her eyes for a moment, pressed her fingertips to her forehead, and realized that she could still hear the conversation in her head.
The recording began with a click: the sound of a woman picking up her telephone, which had been tapped the day before the call came in. A man’s voice: It’s done. There is a sound on the tape here—the woman’s sharp intake of breath—but all she says in reply is Thank you. We’ll speak again soon. He disconnects and she hangs up three seconds later.
The woman’s name was Aria Waker, and the call had taken place fifteen days earlier. The incoming call came from an Italian cell phone but proved otherwise untraceable. Police were at Aria’s apartment forty minutes after the call went through, but she was already gone and she never came back again.
Broden walked down the hall for a coffee, talked about the baseball season with a colleague for a few minutes, returned to her office and listened to the recording one last time before she made the call.
“Is that it?” she asked when the detective answered.
“That’s it, Al.”
“Please don’t call me that. And you think they’re talking about Anton Waker?”
“If you’d seen what his parents were like the morning after that call came through, you wouldn’t ask me that question,” the detective said.
“How’s the investigation going?”
“Horribly. No one knows anything. No one even knows the dead girl’s name.” The detective sighed. “At least it’s not as bad as the last shipping container we dealt with,” he said.
“I suppose I should be grateful that only one girl died this time. Listen, I’m going to talk to the parents.”
“I tried that two weeks ago. They’re useless,” said the detective, “but be my guest.”
On the drive over the Williamsburg Bridge, Broden kept the radio off. She called her six-year-old daughter from the car. Tova was home from school, baking cookies with her nanny, and she wanted to know what time her mother would be home.
“Before bedtime,” Broden said, hoping this was true.
On the far side of the river she drove down into Brooklyn, graffiti-tagged warehouses rising up around her as the off-ramp lowered her into the streets, and she circled for a while before she found the store: an old brick warehouse on a corner near the river, almost under the bridge, with Waker Architectural Salvage in rusted-out letters above the doors. She parked at the side of the building and went around to the front, where a woman was sitting on the edge of the loading dock. The woman was looking out at the river, at Manhattan on the other side. She turned her head slowly when Broden said her name.
“Miriam Waker?”
“Yes,” the woman said.
“Mrs. Waker, I’m Alexandra Broden. I work with the State Department, Diplomatic Security Service division.” Broden walked up the steel steps to the loading dock. She flashed her badge at the woman, but the woman didn’t look at it. Her gaze had drifted back to the river, grey beyond the weedy vacant lot across the street. There were dark circles under her eyes and her face was colourless. “I’m sorry to bother you,” Broden said, “but I need to speak with your son.”
“He used to sit here with me,” Miriam said.
“Is he home?”
“He’s travelling.”
“Travelling where?”
She said, “In a far-off country.”
Broden stood looking at her for a moment. “Is your husband here, Mrs. Waker?”
“Yes,” she said.
Broden entered the warehouse.
“This one was saved from the sea near Gibraltar.” Samuel Waker had been interrupted in the middle of repainting a figurehead. He had stared flatly at Broden when she came in, but seemed unable to resist giving her a tour of his collection. The Gibraltar figurehead depicted a strong-faced woman rising out of foam, her arms disappearing into the folds of her dress. Her gown ended squarely in an odd cut-out shape where she’d been attached to a ship. Another figurehead had been recovered from the waters off France, her entire left side splintered by the coastline. A third had been pulled from the rocks off the Cape of Good Hope, and this was the one Samuel Waker was restoring. The Cape of Good Hope figurehead had hair the colour of fire, and her eyes were a terrible and final blue. In her arms she cradled an enormous fish. A block away from the nearest river, it opened its gasping mouth to the sky.
“Is this figurehead fairly new?” Broden was looking at the iridescent scales of the fish. “It looks perfect.”
“Restored,” Samuel Waker said. “Had it before, bought it back from someone.” He picked up a palette, and as he spoke he resumed retouching the figurehead’s hair. His voice was reverent. “Can’t believe my luck, getting it back again. I think I might keep it myself this time.”
“Mr. Waker, I was hoping to speak with your son.”
“Don’t know where he is, exactly. Travelling, far as I know.” Samuel Waker’s voice was steady, but she saw that the hand that painted the figurehead’s hair was trembling.
“Travelling where, Mr. Waker?”
“Europe, last I heard. He hasn’t been in contact.”
“What about your niece? You spoken with her recently?”
“Not recently. No.”
“Mr. Waker,” Broden said, “a shipping container came into the dock at Red Hook last week. It held fifteen girls who were being smuggled into the country from Eastern Europe, and one of them died in transit. I think your son and your niece may have been involved in the shipping operation.”
“I wouldn’t know anything about that.”
“Mr. Waker, is your son dead?”
Anton’s father was silent for a moment. “I’m offended by the question,” he finally said. “Here I just told you that he’s travelling, and now you’re calling me a liar.”
“Mr. Waker—”
“I’d like you to leave.” He didn’t look at her. He was filling in a worn-away section of the figurehead’s hair with tiny, meticulous brush strokes. “I don’t think I have anything to say to you.”
Broden stepped out into the end-of-day light. The sun was setting over the island of Manhattan and Miriam Waker was a shadow on the edge of the loading dock, slumped over her coffee cup. It was November and the air was cool but no steam rose from her coffee; the coffee hadn’t been hot in a long time and she hadn’t sipped at it for longer. Broden sat down beside her, but Miriam Waker didn’t look up.
“Mrs. Waker,” Broden said, “I know you were questioned about your niece by a detective two weeks ago. Has she been in contact since then?”
“What about your son? Have you spoken with Anton recently?”
“Mrs. Waker, I’m afraid that something may have happened to him.”
“I don’t know where Anton is.” Her eyes had dropped to her coffee cup, and she was almost whispering. “I don’t know where he is anymore.”
“Well, where was he last?”
“The island of Ischia,” Anton’s mother said.

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Last Night in Montreal


No one stays forever. On the morning of her disappearance Lilia woke early, and lay still for a moment in the bed. It was the last day of October. She slept naked.
Eli was up already, and working on his thesis proposal. While he was typing up the previous day’s research notes he heard the sounds of awakening, the rustling of the duvet, her bare footsteps on the hardwood floor, and she kissed the top of his head very lightly en route to the bathroom—he made an agreeable humming noise but didn’t look up—and the shower started on the other side of the almost-closed door. Steam and the scent of apricot shampoo escaped around the edges. She stayed in the shower for forty-five minutes, but this wasn’t unusual. The day was still unremarkable. Eli glanced up briefly when she emerged from the bathroom. Lilia, naked: pale skin wrapped in a soft white towel, short dark hair wet on her forehead, and she smiled when he met her eyes.

“Good morning,” he said. Smiling back at her. “How did you sleep?” He was already typing again.

She kissed his hair again instead of answering, and left a trail of wet footprints all the way back to the bedroom. He heard her towel fall softly to the bedroom floor and he wanted to go and make love to her just then, but he was immersed so deeply in the work that morning, accomplishing things, and he didn’t want to break the spell. He heard a dresser drawer slide shut in the bedroom.

She came out dressed all in black, as she almost always did, and carrying the three pieces of a plate that had fallen off the bed the night before. The plate was a light shade of blue, and sticky with pomegranate juice. He heard her dropping it into the kitchen garbage can before she wandered past him into the living room. She stood in front of his sofa, running her fingers through her hair to test for dampness, her expression a little blank when he glanced up at her, and it seemed to him later that she’d been considering something, perhaps making up her mind. But then, he played the morning back so many times that the tape was ruined—later it seemed possible that she’d simply been thinking about the weather, and later still he was even willing to consider the possibility that she hadn’t stood in front of the sofa at all—had merely paused there, perhaps, for an instant that the stretched-out reel extended into a moment, a scene, and finally a major plot point.

Later he was certain that the first few playbacks of that last morning were reasonably accurate, but after a few too many nights of lying awake and considering things, the quality began to erode. In retrospect the sequence of events is a little hazy, images running into each other and becoming slightly confused: she’s across the room, she’s kissing him for a third time—and why doesn’t he look up and kiss her? Her last kiss lands on his head—and putting on her shoes; does she kiss him before she puts on her shoes, or afterward? He can’t swear to it one way or the other. Later on he examined his memory for signs until every detail seemed ominous, but eventually he had to conclude that there was nothing strange about her that day. It was a morning like any other, exquisitely ordinary in every respect.

“I’m going for the paper,” she said. The door closed behind her. He heard her clattering footsteps on the stairs.

HE WAS HUNTING just then, deep in the research, hot on the trail of something obscure, tracking a rare butterfly-like quotation as it fluttered through thickets of dense tropical paragraphs. The chase seemed to require the utmost concentration; still, he couldn’t help but think later on that if he’d only glanced up from the work, he might’ve seen something: a look in her eyes, a foreshadowing of doom, perhaps a train ticket in her hand or the words I’m Leaving You Forever stitched on the front of her coat. Something did seem slightly amiss, but he was lost in the excitement of butterfly hunting and ignored it, until later, too late, when somewhere between Andean loanwords and the lost languages of ancient California he happened to glance at the clock. It was afternoon. He was hungry. It had been four and a half hours since she’d gone for the paper, and her watery footprints had evaporated from the floor, and he realized what it was. For the first time he could remember, she hadn’t asked if he wanted a coffee from the deli.

He told himself to stay calm, and realized in the telling that he’d been waiting for this moment. He told himself that she’d just been distracted by a bookstore. It was entirely possible. Alternatively, she liked trains: at this moment she could be halfway back from Coney Island, taking pictures of passengers, unaware of what time it was. With this in mind, he returned reluctantly to the work; a particular sentence had gotten all coiled up on him while he was trying to express something subtle and difficult, and he spent an uneasy half-hour trying to untangle the wiring and making a valiant effort not to dwell on her increasingly gaping absence, while several academic points he was trying to clarify got bored and wandered off into the middle distance. It took some time to coax them back into focus, once the sentence had been mangled beyond all recognition and the final destination of the paragraph worked out. But by the time the paragraph arrived at the station it was five o’clock, she’d left to get the paper before noon, and it no longer seemed unreasonable to think that something had gone horribly wrong.

He rose from the desk, conceding defeat, and began to check the apartment. In the bathroom nothing was different. Her comb was where it had always lived, on the haphazard shelf between the toilet and the sink. Her toothbrush was where she’d left it, beside a silver pair of tweezers on the windowsill. The living area was unchanged. Her towel was lying damply on the bedroom floor. She’d taken her purse, as she always did. But then he glanced at the wall in the bedroom, and his life broke neatly into two parts.
She had a photograph from her childhood, the only photograph of herself that she seemed to own. It was a Polaroid, faded to a milky pallor with sunlight and time: a small girl sits on a stool at a diner counter. A bottle of ketchup is partially obscured by her arm. The waitress, who has a mass of blond curls and pouty lips, leans in close across the countertop. The photographer is the girl’s father. They’ve stopped at a restaurant somewhere in the middle of the continent, having been travelling for some time. A sheen on the waitress’s face hints at the immense heat of the afternoon. Lilia said she couldn’t remember which state they were in, but she did remember that it was her twelfth birthday. The picture had been above his bed since the night she’d moved in with him, her one mark on the apartment, thumbtacked above the headboard. But when he looked up that afternoon it had been removed, the thumbtack neatly reinserted into the wall.

Eli knelt on the floor, and took several deep breaths before he could bring himself to lift an edge of the duvet. Her suitcase was gone from under the bed.

Later he was out on the street, walking quickly, but he couldn’t remember how he’d ended up there or how much time had passed since he’d left the apartment. His keys were in his pocket, and he clutched them painfully in the palm of his hand. He was breathing too quickly. He was walking fast through Brooklyn, far too late, circling desperately through the neighbourhood in wider and wider spirals, every bookstore, every café, every bodega that he thought might conceivably attract her. The traffic was too loud. The sun was too bright. The streets were haunted with a terrible conspiracy of normalcy, bookstores and cafés and bodegas and clothing stores all carrying on the charade of normal existence, as if a girl hadn’t just walked off the stage and plummeted into the chasm of the orchestra pit.

He was well aware that he was too late by hours. Still, he took the subway to Pennsylvania Station and stood there for a while anyway, overexposed in the grey atrium light, more out of a sense of ceremony than with any actual hope: he wanted at least to see her off, even if it had been four or five hours since the departure of her train. He stood still in an endless parade of travellers passing quickly, everyone pulling suitcases, meeting relatives, buying water and tickets and paperbacks for the journey, running late. Penn Station’s ever-present soldiers eyed him disinterestedly from under their berets, hands casual on the barrels of their M-16s.

That night there was a knock on his door, and he was on his feet in an instant, throwing it open, thinking perhaps . . . “Trick or Treat!” said an accompanying mother brightly. She looked at him, started to repeat herself, quickly ushered her charges on to a more promising doorstep. The whole encounter lasted less than a moment (“Come on, kids, I don’t think this nice man has any candy for us . . .”), but it remained seared into his memory nonetheless. Afterward, when the thought of Lilia leaving seeped through him like a chill, he never could shake the image of that hopeful line of trick-or-treaters (from left to right: vampire, ladybug, vampire, ghost) like a mirage on his doorstep, no one older than five, and the smallest one (the vampire on the left) sucking on a yellow lollipop. He recognized her as the little girl from the fourth floor who sometimes threw temper tantrums on the sidewalk. She was three and a half years old, give or take, and she smiled very stickily at him just before he closed the door.

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Stone Mattress

The freezing rain sifts down, handfuls of shining rice thrown by some unseen celebrant. Wherever it hits, it crystallizes into a granulated coating of ice. Under the streetlights it looks so beautiful: like fairy silver, thinks Constance. But then, she would think that; she’s far too prone to enchantment. The beauty is an illusion, and also a warning: there’s a dark side to beauty, as with poisonous butterflies. She ought to be considering the dangers, the hazards, the grief this ice storm is going to bring to many; is already bringing, according to the television news.

The tv screen is a flat high-definition one that Ewan bought so he could watch hockey and football games on it. Constance would rather have the old fuzzy one back, with its strangely orange people and its habit of rippling and fading: there are some things that do not fare well in high definition. She resents the pores, the wrinkles, the nose hairs, the impossibly whitened teeth shoved right up in front of your eyes so you can’t ignore them the way you would in real life. It’s like being forced to act as someone else’s bathroom mirror, the magnifying kind: seldom a happy experience, those mirrors.

Luckily, on the weather show the personnel stand well back. They have their maps to attend to, their broad hand gestures, like those of waiters in glamorous films of the ’30s or magicians about to reveal the floating lady. Behold! Gigantic swaths of whiteness plume across the continent! Just look at the extent of it!

Now the show moves outside. Two young commentators--a boy, a girl, both of them wearing stylish black parkas with halos of pale fur around their faces--hunch under dripping umbrellas as cars grind slowly past them, windshield wipers labouring. They’re excited; they say they’ve never seen anything like it. Of course they haven’t, they’re too young. Next there are shots of calamities: a multiple car-crash pileup, a fallen tree that’s bashed off part of a house, a snarl of electrical wires dragged down by the weight of the ice and flickering balefully, a row of sleet-covered planes stranded in an airport, a huge truck that’s jackknifed and tipped over and is lying on its side with smoke coming out. An ambulance is on the scene, a fire truck, a huddle of raingear-clad operatives: someone’s been injured, always a sight to make the heart beat faster. A policeman appears, crystals of ice whitening his moustache; he pleads sternly with people to stay inside. It’s no joke, he tells the viewers. Don’t think you can brave the elements! His frowning, frosted eyebrows are noble, like those on the wartime bond-drive posters from the 1940s. Constance remembers those, or believes she does. But she may just be remembering history books or museum displays or documentary films: so hard, sometimes, to tag those memories accurately.

Finally, a minor touch of pathos: a stray dog is displayed, semi-frozen, wrapped in a child’s pink nap blanket. A gelid baby would have been better, but for lack of one the dog will do. The two young commentators make Aw cute faces; the girl pats the dog, which wags its sodden tail feebly. “Lucky guy,” says the boy. This could be you, it’s implied, if you don’t behave yourself, only you wouldn’t get rescued. The boy turns to the camera and solemnifies his face, even though it’s clear he’s having the time of his life. There’s more to come, he says, because the main part of the storm hasn’t even hit! It’s worse in Chicago, as it so often is. Stay tuned!

Constance turns off the tv. She crosses the room, dims the lamp, then sits beside the front window, staring out into the streetlight-illuminated darkness, watching the world turn to diamonds--branches, rooftops, hydro lines, all glittering and sparkling.

“Alphinland,” she says out loud.

“You’ll need salt,” says Ewan, right in her ear. The first time he spoke to her it startled and even alarmed her--Ewan having been no longer in a tangibly living condition for at least four days--but now she’s more relaxed about him, unpredictable though he is. It’s wonderful to hear his voice, even if she can’t depend on having any sort of a conversation with him. His interventions tend to be one-sided: if she answers him, he doesn’t often answer back. But it was always more or less like that between them.

She hadn’t known what to do with his clothes, afterwards. At first she left them hanging in the closet, but it was too upsetting to open the door and see the jackets and suits ranged on their hangers, waiting mutely for Ewan’s body to be slipped inside them so they could be taken for a walk. The tweeds, the woollen sweaters, the plaid work shirts?.?.?.?She couldn’t give them away to the poor, which would have been the sensible thing. She couldn’t throw them out: that would have been not only wasteful but too abrupt, like ripping off a bandage. So she’d folded them up and stored them away in a trunk on the third floor, with mothballs.

That’s fine in the daytimes. Ewan doesn’t seem to mind, and his voice, when it turns up, is firm and cheerful. A striding voice, showing the way. An extended index-finger voice, pointing. Go here, buy this, do that! A slightly mocking voice, teasing, making light: that was often his manner towards her before he became ill.

At night, however, things get more complex. There have been bad dreams: sobbing from inside the trunk, mournful complaints, pleas to be let out. Strange men appearing at the front door who hold out promises of being Ewan, but who are not. Instead they’re menacing, with black trench coats. They demand some garbled thing that Constance can’t make out, or, worse, they insist on seeing Ewan, shouldering their way past her, their intentions clearly murderous. “Ewan’s not home,” she’ll plead, despite the muted cries for help coming from the trunk on the third floor. As they begin to tromple up the stairs, she wakes up.

She’s considered sleeping pills, though she knows they’re addictive and lead to insomnia. Maybe she ought to sell the house and move to a condo. That notion was being pushed at the time of the funeral by the boys, who are not boys any more and who live in cities in New Zealand and France, too conveniently far for them to visit her much. They’d been backed up in spades by their brisk but tactful and professionally accomplished wives, the plastic surgeon and the chartered accountant, so it was four against one. But Constance stood firm. She can’t abandon the house, because Ewan is in it. Though she’d been smart enough not to tell them about that. They’ve always thought she was slightly borderline anyway because of Alphinland, though once such an enterprise makes a lot of money the whiff of nuttiness around it tends to evaporate.

Condo is a euphemism for retirement home. Constance doesn’t hold it against them: they want what is best for her, not merely what is simplest for them, and they were understandably perturbed by the disorder they’d witnessed, both in Constance--though they’d made allowances because she was in the throes of mourning--and in, just for example, her refrigerator. There were items in that refrigerator for which there was no sane explanation. What a swamp, she could hear them thinking. Awash in botulism, a wonder she hasn’t made herself seriously ill. But of course she hadn’t, because she wasn’t eating much in those final days. Soda crackers, cheese slices, peanut butter straight from the jar.

The wives had dealt with the situation in the kindest way. “Do you want this? What about this?” “No, no,” Constance had wailed. “I don’t want any of it! Throw it all out!” The three little grandchildren, two girls and a boy, had been sent on a sort of Easter egg hunt, searching for the half-drunk cups of tea and cocoa that Constance had left here and there around the house and that were now covered with grey or pale-green skins in various stages of growth. “Look, Maman! I found another one!” “Ew, that’s gross!” “Where is Grandpa?”

A retirement home would provide company for her, at least. And it would take away the burden from her, the responsibility, because a house like hers needs upkeep, it needs attention, and why should she be saddled with all those chores any more? That was the idea set forth in some detail by the daughters-in-law. Constance could take up bridge-playing, or Scrabble, they suggested. Or backgammon, said to be popular again. Nothing too stressful or exciting to the brain. Some mild communal game.

“Not yet,” says Ewan’s voice. “You don’t need to do that yet.”

Constance knows this voice isn’t real. She knows Ewan is dead. Of course she knows that! Other people--other recently bereaved people--have had the same experience, or close. Aural hallucination, it’s called. She’s read about it. It’s normal. She isn’t crazy.

“You’re not crazy,” Ewan says comfortingly. He can be so tender when he thinks she’s having some anguish.

He’s right about the salt. She ought to have stocked up on some form of ice melt earlier in the week but she forgot, and now if she doesn’t get some, she’ll be a prisoner inside her own house because the street will be a skating rink by tomorrow. What if the layer of ice doesn’t melt for days and days? She could run out of food. She could become one of those statistics--old recluse, hypothermia, starvation--because, as Ewan has pointed out before now, she can’t live on air.

She’ll have to venture out. Even one bag of salt mix will be enough to do the steps and the walk and keep other people from killing themselves, much less herself. The corner store is her best bet: it’s only two blocks away. She’ll have to take her two-wheeled shopping bag, which is red and also waterproof, because the salt will be heavy. It was only Ewan who drove their car; her own licence lapsed decades ago because once she got so deeply involved in Alphinland she felt she was too distracted to drive. Alphinland requires a lot of thought. It excludes peripheral details, such as stop signs.

It must be quite slippery out there already. If she tries this escapade, she might break her neck. She stands in the kitchen, dithering. “Ewan, what should I do?” she says.

“Pull yourself together,” Ewan says firmly. Which isn’t very instructive, but which was his habitual way of responding to a question when he didn’t want to be pinned down. Where’ve you been, I was so worried, did you have an accident? Pull yourself together. Do you really love me? Pull yourself together. Are you having an affair?

After some rummaging, she finds a large zip-lock freezer bag in the kitchen, dumps out the three shrivelled, whiskery carrots inside it, and fills it with ashes from the fireplace, using the little brass fireplace shovel. She hasn’t lit a fire since Ewan ceased to be present in visible form, because it didn’t seem right. Lighting a fire is an act of renewal, of beginning, and she doesn’t want to begin, she wants to continue. No: she wants to go back.

There’s still a stack of wood and some kindling; there are still a couple of partially burnt logs in the grate from the last fire they had together. Ewan was lying on the sofa with a glass of that disgusting chocolate nutrient drink beside him; he was bald, due to the chemo and the radiation. She tucked the plaid car rug around him and sat beside him, holding his hand, with the tears running silently down her cheeks and her head turned away so he couldn’t see. He didn’t need to be distressed by her distress.

“This is nice,” he’d managed to say. It was hard for him to talk: his voice was so thin, like the rest of him. But that isn’t the voice he has now. The voice he has now is back to normal: it’s his voice of twenty years ago, deep and resonant, especially when he laughs.

She puts on her coat and boots, finds her mittens and one of her woolly hats. Money, she’ll need some of that. House keys: it would be stupid to lock herself out and be turned into a frozen lump right on her own doorstep. When she’s at the front door with the wheeled shopping bag, Ewan says to her, “Take the flashlight,” so she trudges upstairs to the bedroom in her boots. The flashlight is on the nightstand on his side of the bed; she adds it to her purse. Ewan is so good at planning ahead. She herself never would have thought of a flashlight.

The front porch steps are sheer ice already. She sprinkles ashes on them from the zip-lock, then stuffs the bag into her pocket and proceeds down crabwise, one step at a time, holding on to the railing and hauling the wheeled shopper behind her with the other hand, bump bump bump. Once on the sidewalk, she opens the umbrella, but that’s not going to work--she can’t manage those two objects at once--so she closes it again. She’ll use it as a cane. She inches out onto the street--it’s not as icy as the sidewalk--and teeters along the middle of it, balancing herself with the umbrella. There aren’t any cars, so at least she won’t get run over.

On the especially sheer parts of the road she sprinkles more of the ashes, leaving a faint black trail. Perhaps she’ll be able to follow it home, if push comes to shove. It’s the kind of thing that might occur in Alphinland--a trail of black ashes, mysterious, alluring, like glowing white stones in a forest, or bread crumbs--only there would be something extra about those ashes. Something you’d need to know about them, some verse or phrase to pronounce in order to keep their no doubt malevolent power at bay. Nothing about dust to dust, however; nothing involving last rites. More like a sort of runic charm.

“Ashes, bashes, crashes, dashes, gnashes, mashes, splashes,” she says out loud as she picks her way over the ice. Quite a few words rhyme with ashes. She’ll have to incorporate the ashes into the storyline, or one of the storylines: Alphinland is multiple in that respect. Milzreth of the Red Hand is the most likely provenance for those spellbinding ashes, being a warped and devious bully. He likes to delude travellers with mind-altering visions, lure them off the true path, lock them into iron cages or shackle them to the wall with gold chains, then pester them, using Hairy Hank-Imps and Cyanoreens and Firepiggles and whatnot. He likes to watch as their clothing--their silken robes, their embroidered vestments, their fur-lined capes, their shining veils--are ripped to shreds, and they plead and writhe attractively. She can work on the intricacies of all that when she gets back to the house.

Milzreth has the face of a former boss of hers when she worked as a waitress. He was a rump-slapper. She wonders if he ever read the series.

Now she’s reached the end of the first block. This outing was maybe not such a good idea: her face is streaming wet, her hands are freezing, and meltwater is dribbling down her neck. But she’s underway now, she needs to see it through. She breathes in the cold air; pellets of blown ice whip against her face. The wind’s getting up, as the tv said it would. Nonetheless there’s something brisk about being out in the storm, something energizing: it whisks away the cobwebs, it makes you inhale.

The corner store is open 24/7, a fact that she and Ewan have appreciated ever since they moved to this area twenty years ago. There are no sacks of ice melt stacked outside where they usually are, however. She goes inside, trundling her two-wheeled shopping bag.

“Is there any salt left?” she asks the woman behind the counter. It’s someone new. Constance has never seen her before; there’s a high turnover here. Ewan used to say the place had to be a money-laundering joint because they couldn’t possibly be making a profit, considering the low traffic and the state of their lettuces.

“No, dear,” the woman says. “There was a run on it earlier. Be prepared, I guess is what they had in mind.” The implication is that Constance has failed to be prepared, which in fact is true. It’s a lifelong failing: she has never been prepared. But how can you have a sense of wonder if you’re prepared for everything? Prepared for the sunset. Prepared for the moonrise. Prepared for the ice storm. What a flat existence that would be.

“Oh,” says Constance. “No salt. Bad luck for me.”

“You shouldn’t be out in this, dear,” the woman says. “It’s treacherous!” Although she has dyed red hair shaved up the back of her neck in an edgy style, she’s only about ten years younger than Constance by the look of her, and quite a lot fatter. At least I don’t wheeze, thinks Constance. Still, she likes being called dear. She was called that when very much younger, then not called it for a long time. Now it’s a word she hears frequently.

“It’s all right,” she says. “I only live a couple of blocks away.”

“Couple of blocks is a long way to go in this weather,” says the woman, who despite her age has a tattoo peeking up above her collar. It looks like a dragon, or a version of one. Spikes, horns, bulgy eyes. “You could freeze your ass off.”

Constance agrees with her, and asks if she can park her shopping bag and umbrella beside the counter. Then she wanders up and down the aisles, pushing a wire store cart. There are no other customers, though in one aisle she encounters a weedy young man transferring cans of tomato juice to a shelf. She picks up one of the barbecued chickens that revolve on spits inside a glass case, day in and day out like a vision from the Inferno, and a package of frozen peas.

“Kitty litter,” says Ewan’s voice. Is this a comment on her purchases? He disapproved of those chickens – he said they were probably full of chemicals – though he’d eat one readily enough if she brought it home, back in his eating days.

“What do you mean?” she says. “We don’t have a cat any more.” She’s discovered that she has to talk out loud to Ewan because most of the time he can’t read her mind. Though sometimes he can. His powers are intermittent.

Ewan doesn’t expand – he’s such a tease, he often makes her figure out the answers by herself – and then it comes to her: the kitty litter is for the front steps, instead of salt. It won’t work as well, it won’t melt anything, but at least it will provide some traction. She wrestles a bag of the stuff into the cart and adds two candles and a box of wooden matches. There. She’s prepared.

Back at the counter she exchanges pleasantries with the woman about the excellence of the chicken – it’s an item
the woman likes herself, because who can be bothered with cooking when there’s only one, or even only two – and stows her purchases in her wheeled shopper, resisting the temptation to get into a conversation about the dragon tattoo. This topic might swiftly veer into complexities, as she’s learned from experience over the years. There are dragons in Alphinland, and they have numerous fans with many bright ideas they are eager to share with Constance. How she ought to have done the dragons differently. How they would do the dragons if it was them. Subspecies of dragons. Errors she has made about the care and feeding of dragons, and so on. It’s astonishing how folks can get
so worked up over something that doesn’t exist.

Has the woman overheard her talking to Ewan? Most likely, and most likely it didn’t bother her. Any store that’s open 24/7 must get its share of people who talk to invisible companions. In Alphinland, such behaviour would call for a different interpretation: some of its inhabitants have spirit familiars.

“Where exactly do you live, dear?” the woman calls after her when Constance is halfway out the door. “I could text a friend, get you a walk home.” What sort of friend? Maybe she’s a biker’s girl, thinks Constance. Maybe she’s younger than Constance thought; maybe she’s just very weathered.

Constance pretends she didn’t hear. It could be a ruse, and next thing you know there will be a gang member bent on home invasion standing outside the door with the duct tape ready in his pocket. They say their car has broken down and can they use your phone, and out of the goodness of your heart you let them in, and before you know it you’re duct-taped to the banister and they’re inserting push-pins under your fingernails to make you cough up your passwords. Constance is well informed about that sort of thing: she doesn’t watch the television news for nothing.

The trail of ashes is no use any more – it’s iced over, she can’t even see it – and the wind is stronger. Should she open the kitty litter bag right here in mid-journey? No, she’ll need a knife, or some scissors; although there’s usually a pull string. She peers inside the shopper with the flashlight, but the battery must be low because it’s too dim in there to see. She could get chilled to the bone struggling with such a bag; better to make a dash for it. Though dash is hardly the word.
The ice seems twice as thick as when she started out. The bushes in the front lawn look like fountains, their luminous foliage cascading gracefully to the ground. Here and there a broken tree branch partially blocks the road. Once she’s reached her house, Constance leaves the shopper outside on the walk and hauls herself up the slippery steps by clinging to the railing. Happily the porch light is shining, though she can’t remember turning it on. She wrestles with the key and the lock, opens the door, and tramps through to the kitchen, shedding water. Then, kitchen scissors in hand, she retraces her route, descends the steps to the red shopper, cuts open the kitty litter bag, and spreads lavishly.

There. Wheeled shopper up the steps, bump bump bump, and into the house. Door locked behind her. Drenched coat off, soaking wet hat and mitts set to steam on the radiator, boots parked in the hall. “Mission accomplished,” she says in case Ewan is listening. She wants him to know she got back safely; he might worry otherwise. They’d always left notes for each other, or else messages on the answering machine, back before all the digital gadgets. In her more extreme and lonely moments she’s thought of leaving messages on the phone service for Ewan. Maybe he could listen to them through electric particles or magnetic fields, or whatever it is he’s using to throw his voice through the airwaves.

But this isn’t a lonely moment. It’s a better moment: she’s feeling pleased with herself for carrying out the salt mission. She’s hungry too. She hasn’t been this hungry ever since Ewan has failed to be present at meals: eating alone has been too dispiriting. Now, however, she tears off pieces of the broiled chicken with her fingers and wolfs them down. This is what people do in Alphinland when they’ve been rescued from something – dungeons, moors, iron cages, drifting boats: they eat with their hands. Only the very upper classes have what you’d call cutlery, though just about everyone has a knife, unless they happen to be a talking animal. She licks her fingers, wipes them on the dishtowel. There ought to be paper towels but there aren’t.

There’s still some milk, so she gulps it down right out of the carton, spilling hardly any. She’ll make herself a hot drink later. She’s in a hurry to get back to Alphinland because of the trail of ashes. She wants to decipher it, she wants to unravel it, she wants to follow it. She wants to see where it will lead.
Alphinland currently lives on her computer. For many years it unfolded in the attic, which she’d converted to a workspace of sorts for herself once Alphinland had made enough money to pay for the renovation. But even with the new floor and the window they’d punched through, and the air conditioning and the ceiling fan, the attic was small and stuffy, as the top floors of these old brick Victorians are. So after a while – after the boys were in high school – Alphinland had migrated to the kitchen table, where it unscrolled for several years on an electric typewriter – once considered the height of innovation, now obsolete. The computer was its next location, and not without its hazards – things could diappear from it in an infuriating manner – but they’ve improved the computers over time and she’s become used to hers now. She moved it into Ewan’s study after he was no longer in there in visible form.

She doesn’t say “after his death,” even to herself. She doesn’t use the D-word about him at all. He might overhear it and be hurt or offended, or perhaps confused, or even angry. It’s one of her not-fully-formulated beliefs that Ewan doesn’t realize that he’s dead.

She sits at Ewan’s desk, swathed in Ewan’s black plush bathrobe. Black plush bathrobes for men were cutting edge,
when? The ’90s? She’d bought this bathrobe herself, as a Christmas present. Ewan always resisted her attempts to make him cutting edge, not that those attempts had lasted much beyond the bathrobe; she’d run out of interest in how he looked to others.

She wears this bathrobe not for heat but for comfort: it makes her feel that Ewan might still be in the house physically, just around the corner. She hasn’t washed it since he died; she doesn’t want it to smell of laundry detergent instead of Ewan.
Oh Ewan, she thinks. We had such good times! All gone now. Why so fast? She wipes her eyes on the black plush sleeve.

“Pull yourself together,” says Ewan. He never likes it when she sniffles.

“Right,” she says. She squares her shoulders, adjusts the cushion on Ewan’s ergonomic desk chair, turns the computer on.

close this panel
Red Doc>

Red Doc>

also available: Hardcover Paperback
tagged : epic, love, canadian
More Info

does not pass. Time all
but passes. Time usually
passes. Time passing and
gazing. Time has no gaze.
Time as perseverance.
Time as hunger. Time in
a natural way. Time when
you were six the day a
mountain. Mountain time.
Time I don’t remember.
Time for a dog in an alley
caught in the beam of your
flashlight. Time not a
video. Time as paper
folded to look like a
mountain. Time smeared
under the eyes of the
miners as they rattle down
into the mine. Time if you
are bankrupt. Time if you
are Prometheus. Time if
you are all the little tubes
on the roots of a gorse
plant sucking greenish
black moistures up into
new scribbled continents.
Time it takes for the postal
clerk to apply her lipstick
at the back of the post
office before the
supervisor returns. Time
it takes for a cow to tip
over. Time in jail. Time
as overcoats in a closet.
Time for a herd of turkeys
skidding and surprised on
ice. All the time that has
soaked into the walls here.
Time between the little
clicks. Time compared to
the wild fantastic silence
of the stars. Time for the
man at the bus stop
standing on one leg to tie
his shoe. Time taking
Night by the hand and
trotting off down the road.
Time passes oh boy. Time
got the jump on me yes it
COUPONS horoscopes
in a kitchen drawer he turns
up an old B&W
photograph of her posed in
dashing swim costume on
some long ago back porch.
One leg forward like a
Greek kouros a cigarette
in the other hand she
glows as a drop of water
glows in sun. She looks
sexually astute in a way
that terrifies him he puts
this aside and all at once
the grainy photograph the
early marvel of her life
flung up at him a thing
hardly believable! knocks
him to his knees. He grips
his arms and weeps. Pain
catches the whole insides
of him and wrings it.
Oddly now remembering
his grandmother’s wringer
washer silvergreen and
upright on a platform of
wet boards in her back
kitchen beside the
washing tubs. How
carefully he’d been taught
to feed a piece of dripping
cloth between the two big
lips of the rollers while
she cranked the handle
and the cloth grabbed
fforward to emerge on the
other side as a weird
compressed pane of itself.
He hadn’t known his
grandmother long or well.
She smelled of Noxzema.
Didn’t like doctors.
Believed in herbs and the
Bible. When the apostles
walked down the street
she said their shadows
would heal people. His
mother once told him a
story about her dying.
They never liked each
other hadn’t visited for
years but someone
arranged a phone call. So
there they were mother
and daughter on the
telephone separate cities
separate nights both
suffering from asthma and
so moved they couldn’t
speak. I heard her
breathing I knew what it
was his mother said. He
looks up. He’d almost
forgot about the rain.
Unloading on the roof and
squandering down the
gutters. Rain continuous
since the funeral a
wrecking rattling
bewildering Lethe-
knuckling mob of rain. A
rain with no instructions.
Mothers in summer
Mothers in winter
Mothers in autumn
Mothers in spring
Mothers at altitude
Mothers in solitude
Mothers as platitude
Mothers in spring
Mothers banking their shots
Mothers grackling their throats
Mothers dumped from their boats
In spring
Mothers as ice
Or when they are nice
No one more nice
In spring
Mothers ashamed and Ablaze and clear
At the end
As they are
As they almost all are, and then
Mothers don’t come around
Again In spring

close this panel


Montreal, 1996

AT FIRST GLANCE, she mistook him for something else. In the fading winter light he could have been a branch or a log, even a tire; in the many years she’d been cross- country skiing on Mount Royal, she’d found stranger debris across her path. People left behind their scarves, their shoes, their inhibitions: she’d come across lovers naked to the sky, even on cold days. In spite of these distractions, the mountain was the one place where she felt at peace, especially in winter, when tree branches stretched empty of leaves and she could see the city below her— its clusters of green- spired churches and gray skyscrapers laid out, graspable, streets rolling down to the Old Port, and in either direction the bridges extending over the pale water of the St. Lawrence. This winter had been mild, and what snow did fall first melted, then turned to ice overnight. Now, at the end of January, it had finally snowed all night and all day, at last enough to ski on. Luckily her final appointment that afternoon had canceled, leaving her free to drive up before the light was gone. She slipped around the Chalet and headed into the woods, losing the vista of Montreal below, gaining muffled silence and solitude, the trees turning the light even fainter. One skier had been here before her, leaving a path of parallel stripes. On a slight downhill slope she crouched down and picked up speed as she moved around a bend.
Turning, she saw the branch or whatever it was too late. Though she tried to slow down, she wasn’t quick enough and ran right into it and was knocked out of her skis, falling sideways into the snow, realizing only when she sat up that what had tripped her was the body of a man. Her legs were on top of his, her right knee throbbing from the impact.
The air torn from her returned slowly, painfully, to her burning lungs. When she could breathe she said, “Are you all right?”
There was no answer. He was fl ung across the trail with his head half buried in the snow. Beyond his body the ski marks stopped. She thought he must have had an accident, but then she saw his skis propped neatly against a tree.
She got to her feet and gingerly stepped around until she could see his face. He wasn’t wearing a hat. “Excuse me,” she said, louder. “Are you okay?” She thought maybe he’d collapsed after a heart attack or stroke. He lay sprawled on his side, knees bent, eyes closed, one arm up above his head. “Monsieur?” she said. “Ça va?
Kneeling down to check his pulse, she saw the rope around his neck. Thick and braided, it trailed beneath him, almost nestled under his arm, and the other end rested on a snowbank— no, was buried underneath it— and on the other side she could see that the branch it had been tied to had broken off.
She hurriedly loosened the rope and found the beating rhythm in his neck, then opened the first few snaps of his coat in the hope that this might help him to breathe. His face wasn’t blue. He was around her age, thirties, his short, wavy, brown hair riddled with gray. Still his eyes wouldn’t open. Should she slap him? Administer CPR? She pushed him gently onto his back. “Monsieur?” she said again. He didn’t move.
She skied quickly back to the Chalet and called 911. In her halting French, all the more fractured because she was out of breath, she tried to describe where in the woods they were. When she returned, he was lying where she’d found him. “Sir,” she said, “my name is Grace. Je m’appelle Grace. I called for help. Everything will be all right. Vous êtes sauvé.”
She put her ear next to his mouth to hear his breath. His eyes were still closed, but he heavily, unmistakably, sighed.
Later, at the Montreal General, she realized that both pairs of skis had been left behind. The emergency workers had loaded the man into the ambulance and she had followed it, weaving through the traffic along Côte- des- Neiges. She wasn’t even sure why. Because the Urgences- santé men had looked at her expectantly, assuming she and the man had been skiing together? Because one of them had said, in commingled English and French, “The police— ils vont vous poser des questions at the ’ospital,” and she had nodded obediently, like a schoolgirl?
It was partly curiosity, to know what had driven him to such an act; and partly pity, because anyone driven to hang himself would have to be suffering deeply and terribly. And it was partly that she of all people had been the one to throw herself across his path.
Maybe it was just because she wanted to know what had happened. Regardless, she was sitting in the waiting room hours later, shivering each time the glass doors slid open with an icy draft. The linoleum was streaked with gray- brown slush people had tracked in, and she could smell car exhaust and cigarette smoke from the sidewalk outside. There was no sign of any police officer wanting to ask her questions. The man had been wheeled off, with a canopy of nurses over his still- silent body. Grace waited, though she wasn’t sure for what or whom. When she remembered the skis— probably long gone by now— she smacked herself on the forehead. Hers were practically brand-new. She looked at her watch; it was seven o’clock, completely dark on the mountain. She was tired and hungry and ready to go home. Before she did, though, she wanted to know that he was being taken care of. She walked over to a nurse at the reception area.
“Excuse me,” she said. “Can I see him?”
The nurse didn’t look up from her paperwork. “Qui, madame?
“The man who was brought in earlier. The skier.”
“I don’t know his name. He was found on the mountain.”
“You don’t know his name?”
“I found him up there.”
“So you aren’t family.” Her tone was hostile, weary.
“I’m a therapist,” Grace said suddenly. “Une psychologue?” The nurse nodded, her manner softening at the French. Now she seemed to grant her a professional capacity, and Grace didn’t disabuse her. “I must see him as soon as possible,” she said, trying to sound authoritative.
The nurse hesitated for a moment, then shrugged and pointed to the elevator. “Three sixteen,” she said.
Grace knocked before entering. The man was lying on his back, wearing a hospital gown, an IV drip attached to his arm. He was staring at the ceiling with a blank expression that didn’t change when she came in. Whatever pain he’d been feeling on the mountain was absent from his face now; he might have been waiting for a train. Visible around his neck was the thick red abrasion from the rope. Clearing her throat, she sat down in a chair next to the bed.
“Do you speak English?” she said. No answer. “Vous parlez français?” Again, nothing. “I took a little Spanish in high school, but that’s all gone, so these are pretty much your only options,” she said. His clothes were folded and stacked on a bedside table. “I’m going to look through your things for your name, unless you specifically tell me not to.” She went through the clothes, feeling for a wallet, and he made no move to stop her, even when she found it and pulled out his license. John Tugwell. English after all. She put everything back as it had been and sat down again. “John, my name is Grace,” she said, “and I’m a therapist, though that’s not why I’m here. I was just skiing when I found you lying on the ground. The branch you tied yourself to broke off. I called the ambulance.” But for a blink, he made no sign of being conscious. She couldn’t even tell if he was listening. His hands, palms down above the blanket, lay fl at, unclenched.
“There usually aren’t many people in that part of the park,” she said, “which I guess must be why you chose it. I don’t know what would’ve happened if I hadn’t come along. Would you have tried again, after a while?”
He said nothing.
There were deep lines around his eyes, as if he spent a lot of time outdoors. His lips were unnaturally pale. Beneath the thin hospital blanket his body looked sturdy and solidly muscled. It was impossible to tell, as he lay there, whether he was handsome or not. The spirit that would have animated his face, giving it character and attitude, had receded from view. She stepped closer. Even at this little distance his body seemed to give off no heat whatsoever, as if he’d been permanently chilled.
“You’re back from the dead,” she said. “Maybe you don’t want to be, but you are.”
For the first time his eyes met hers. They were green. Then he blinked again and closed them.
“If you want to talk,” Grace said, “I can listen.”
They wheeled him out and then returned him to the room with his leg encased in a black boot, and the doctor came and spoke to Grace as if she had a right to be there. His ankle was sprained. There were scrapes and bruises all over his face, but they weren’t serious. A nurse dropped off some crutches. The doctor, who looked exhausted and no more than twenty- five, gave him a prescription for painkillers and told him to come back in two weeks. Grace said she’d drive him home.
“Sir, we need to evaluate your situation before you go,” the doctor said obliquely. When the patient said nothing, he turned to Grace. “An appointment will be made with the psychiatric department,” he said, his manner very formal.
She nodded.
“Our staff will make you the appointment?” the doctor said, turning back toward him.
From the bed, the man’s eyes met hers in a plea. She shrugged; he had already refused her help.
He coughed and said, “I didn’t really mean to do it.” His voice was hoarse and clouded with phlegm, as if the words were caught deep inside, trapped in some cave or web.
“What do you mean?” the doctor asked.
“I just wanted to see what she’d say.” Tugwell jerked a thumb in
Grace’s direction. His voice was painfully rasped and he swallowed visibly after he spoke, but then he modulated it to a tone of playful wryness. “We were skiing together and I told her I was going to kill myself and went off in a different direction. I said I had the rope with me and was going to do it immediately. It took her nine minutes to decide to come after me. Nine minutes! Can you believe that? I timed her.”
“You told your wife you were going to kill yourself to see how she would react, and then you timed her?” the doctor said, frowning skeptically. A francophone, possibly he thought he hadn’t understood the story correctly.
“Almost ten minutes,” Tugwell said. His eyes sprang back to her, and her heart twisted strangely in her chest.
The doctor looked at Grace. For a moment she hesitated: to go along with his story was so absurd that no sane person would even consider it. This man needed help, starting with the psychiatric evaluation and professional intervention. Yet something in his expression, a sense of collusion, drew her in. The spark of life in his eyes was so sudden and bright that she wanted to keep it there, to fan it from a flicker to a flame.
Maybe it was because she thought the hospital would likely give him the briefest, most cursory treatment. Or because she felt responsible for having brought him in. Or because she was happy that he’d turned to her for help.
“He’s never there for me either,” she said, as petulantly as she could.
The doctor sighed heavily and checked his watch. “So this is a marital squabble.”
Grace nodded.
Tugwell said, “I guess things got out of hand.”
The doctor, shrugging as if this weren’t the strangest behavior he had ever seen, clicked the end of his pen and made a notation on the chart.
“I’ll take care of him,” Grace said.
Too busy to worry about it, the doctor left.
When they were alone in the room, Tugwell looked at her again. The flicker had gone from his eyes, as if the effort of that one lie had tired him beyond all reckoning. “Don’t you have anywhere else to be?”
“This isn’t about me,” she said.
“Excuse me?”
“Sorry, I meant dodging the question. I’m groggy.”
“I’m not dodging the question,” Grace said, although she was. “I just don’t think it really matters. Nothing about me really matters right now, not to you. You’re hurt and I’m willing to drive you home and get you settled. Or I can call someone else. Do you want me to do that? Is there somebody you want me to call?”
He closed his eyes.
“Do you need help getting dressed, John?”
“Tug,” he said. “And no.”
“Is this another dodgeball thing?”
“I’m called Tug.”
“Okay, Tug,” she said. “I’ll be right outside. Call if you need me.”
When she came back five minutes later he was in his gray fleece jacket and black ski pants, with one unzipped pant leg rolled up over the ankle cast. She pushed him in a wheelchair to the parking lot and helped him into her car, stowing the crutches in the backseat. Inside she cranked up the heat, and he leaned his head back and said nothing. She wondered where his family was. He wasn’t wearing a wedding ring. If he didn’t want her to be taking care of him, he wasn’t putting up much of a fight— but the resistance could be internal. He might just be waiting for her to go away, and then he’d try again. Those were the ones who often went through with it, the cases who humored you until you finally left them alone.
“Do you live by yourself?”
“Yes. You?”
“Not married?”
“Me too,” he said. “Well, separated. Not offi cial.”
“I’m sorry,” she said. “Is that why you wanted to do this?”
There was a slight pause before he said, “You don’t beat around.”
“No point,” she said, adopting his bulleted way of speaking.
He looked out the window until she understood he wasn’t going to answer the question. Which was fair enough, but then he turned back. “You’re a therapist, you said.”
“Yes, that’s right. I have an office on Côte- des- Neiges. Grace Tomlinson. You could come by if you wanted to, or call, any time. I’m listed.”
“This is how you get business? Skiing around looking for depressed people?”
“That’s right, exactly,” Grace said cheerfully. One of her professional skills was to remain unruffled. “It was a slow day until you turned up. Can you direct me from here?”
He nodded. They drove north along St. Laurent, through Little Italy, into a neighborhood where most of the signs were in Vietnamese. He told her to turn onto a darker side street, mainly of triplexes, the external staircases dusted with snow. Finally, in front of a yellow brick building, he asked her to pull over. Lights showed on every floor. People don’t leave lights on unless they think they’re coming back, she thought. “Someone waiting for you in there, Tug?”
“You’re inquisitive,” he said.
“Yes. You said you lived alone, so why didn’t you turn off the lights?”
He sighed and rubbed his eyes. After a moment he said, “The lights are on for the dog.”
“You have a dog?”
He shook his head. “It’s my ex- wife’s dog. My wife’s. Whatever she is to me now, it’s her dog. But she had to go out of town, so I’m taking care of it. This happens all the time. She’s picking him up later. He would’ve been fine, okay? He has water, food, a chew toy. I hate that dog.”
“Why do you suppose that is?” Grace said.
“Jesus, is this the therapy- mobile? Are you giving therapy to me in your car? I’ve been in therapy before.” The words spilled out of him, scratchy but hectic. “You know, the most helpful thing the therapist ever said to me was, There’s never going to be a perfect time to do anything in your life. Maybe today wasn’t the perfect time to do what I did, what with the dog being there and everything, but I remembered what the therapist told me and I was consoled.”

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