March 28, 2009
1. The Edge of Darkness
The grandfather clock in the dining room struck ten thirty. On the television they were hanging a young boy. I sat in the darkness at the top of the stairs watching the movie through the reflection in the glass dining room doors. Outside the wind howled. The old peach tree smacked against the side of the house, its fingers clawing away at the windows. The screams of the young boy were gargled and choking as his silhouette danced at the end of a rope. Mother turned her head away into my father’s shoulder. The boys feet kicked against the television screen.
I lay in bed staring up at the ceiling. There was a shadow cast of the peach tree in the backyard. It stretched onto the wall opposite my bed. Its branches looked like legs. The wind shook the tree and the legs began to dance. Another tree, an old maple, creaked like a rusty gate. The wind howled a graveyard tune as it whistled through the cracks in the window frame. I pulled a pillow over my head, trying to kill the sound.
Someone screamed, I didn’t do it, in my head.
I jolted up and listened. Outside the branches of the peach tree bashed their heads against the eaves trough. Inside the house, all was quiet. And then I heard it, the creaking sound of floorboards. Someone was coming upstairs.
2. The Invasion
All that could be heard was the hum of the refrigerator, the whirl of fans in the hot sticky evening, and the ticking of a clock somewhere deep in the house. I watched the space ship enter through the open kitchen window and land on the kitchen table beside a can of decaffeinated coffee. It was some time before anyone stepped out of the ship. A small door slowly opened underneath the craft and a rope ladder was dangled down. One figure climbed down, followed by a second and a third figure. The first astronaut bounced across the table toward a half eaten slice of toast. He plunged a flag in it.
3. Waking Up
My eyes opened. Am I awake? Is this my world? I was standing at the altar waiting for communion. I looked up. Christ tore a piece of his face off and threw it onto my tongue. My eyes opened. I walked down the hallway into my parent’s room. Were they breathing? I stepped into my sister’s bedroom. I bent over and checked under her bed. An old man with a crooked nose and sharp yellow teeth smiled, than dragged me into a pit of darkness. My eyes are opened by the sound of them running across my bedroom floor. Their feet were filled with purpose. I woke up in front of the television. An ogre on the screen grabbed the edge of the screen and pulled himself out of the set.
4. A Sister
We sat in the back seat of the Chev, our feet dangling out the windows. The air tickled our toes. Cathy looked at me and giggled. The sky was blue with little balls of clouds. Mother sat in the front seat beside my father softy singing a country song. I saw the transport coming down the highway towards us but said nothing.
5. The Stranger
I sat huddled in the corner of the room shaking with terror. A man was sleeping in the bed. I did not know the man. I did not know the room. This wasn’t the room daddy had put me to sleep in. This wasn’t the room where teddy bears stood guard over me at night. This wasn’t the room I awoke from nightmares in. The stranger woke and looked at the alarm clock. He cursed and punched the pillow, turned over and went back to sleep. Except, he did not sleep. One eye stared out over the edge of his pillow through the darkness across the room at me.
6. Mr. Rodgers
A large fat man sat behind a desk smoking a cigar. He was wearing a gray suit, a white shirt, and a striped blue and gray tie. The sign on his desk read – Mr. Rodgers, Director, Eastern Division. He gestured to the chair opposite him and I sat down.
He said, “Patience is of prime importance. You must be patient. And you must be prepared. Are you prepared?”
I did not reply.
Mr. Rodgers opened a large book and began to write in it with a long feathered pen that he kept refilling in an ink bottle. When he was finished he used a blotter on the page.
I was escorted out of the room and into a long hallway with a plush red carpet. The hall seemed to go on into infinity. There were open doors every fifteen or twenty feet. Each time I reached a door, the door closed by itself. And locked. I walked on. The carpet became soft and pliable and I began to sink. Up to my knees. Up to my waist. I grabbed onto the ledge and sank. I woke up under a woman. The dead body of a woman. She was plastic and melting.
7. A Sister
She would come running out of the living room, screaming, her pigtails swinging from side to side, her shoes slamming on the hardwood floor.
“The monster!” she would cry, the words tumbling out of her in an avalanche of terror.
Mother held her on her lap, hugging her, combing her hair with her long red fingernails.
“There is a monster in the television!” she would keep screaming. “Matthew says that there is a monster in the television!”
8. The Trance
My mother wanted me to see a psychiatrist.
“There is something wrong with the boy,” she said to my father. “He spends too much time in front of that idiot box.”
“You’re home with the boy,” my father responded. “Tell Matthew what he can and can’t watch.”
“It doesn’t matter what he’s watching,” mother explained. “He’ll watch test patterns. He’ll watch a blank screen. He say he isn’t interested in programs. He says he watches television to see the other world.”
“What kind of world?” my father asked.
“The dark world,” my mother responded.
9. The Cottage
I sat in the front room of the small cottage. Three of the walls contained windows. Out of the south window, the sun seeped through the leaves of an oak tree and washed across the floor where a cat curled up asleep. Out of the west window the lake flickered in a swarm of pin pricks of light. A motorboat moved slowly across the water. Out of the north window I could see our family car pulling up into the driveway. I rushed over to open the door and greet them. When I opened the door I stepped out, grabbing onto the door knob at the last moment as I dangled out over a deep pitch black hole.
10. The President
The President’s car pulled up to the curb. Secret Service Agents stepped out of the car, surveying the scene. A moment later the President stepped out of the car, waved to the small crowd, and made his way toward the front steps of the building. Someone cried out, “Mr. President!” The President turned. Gun shots were fired. The Secret Service Agents hustled the maimed Chief of State back into his car and sped off. The gun dropped from my hand.
11. The Mistress
She appeared before me briefly every evening in the moments before consciousness and deep sleep. She stood there at the end of the bed, naked with her belly open. Not ripped open or torn apart. Open like a drawer in a dresser, pulled out.
12. The Whore
She appeared before me briefly every evening like a small moon at the edge of the horizon. She stood there at the end of the bed, naked. Red nail polish dripped from her fingers.
“I am the Son of God,” she said.
I stepped into the living room to watch television. There was no TV. I went into the kitchen to get a bite to eat. The refrigerator was gone. I walked down toward the bathroom to have a shower. An elderly gentleman was taking a bath. I ran into a church to plead my case. I fell to my knees before the Crucifix. There was no one on the cross.
14. The Queen
I stood on the edge of the frozen lake, smooth as a mirror. I put on my skates and struck out across the pond. The lake became a huge screen upon which the face of the Queen appeared, giving her annual New Year’s Address. She smiled and the ice gave way beneath me.
15. A Little Girl
She bounced a ball off the wall of the school. I stood leaning against the fence, looking at her. She turned toward me.
“Hello, sir,” she said.
“Hello, Betty,” I replied.
“How do you know my name?” she asked.
“You’re my daughter,” I responded.
“What’s next?” she asked.
“You die in an accident,” I replied.
16. Another Little Girl
She bounced a ball off the wall of the school. I stood leaning against the fence, looking at her. She turned toward me.
“Why are you watching me?” she asked.
I did not reply.
“I know all about strangers,” she said. “My mother has told me about you. I know what you do to little girls. You let us come into the world and then you let us die.”
17. Still Another Little Girl
She bounced a ball off the wall of the school. I stood leaning against the fence, looking at her. She turned toward me.
“Why are you watching me?” she asked.
I said nothing.
She said, “I know all about strangers. My mother has told me what you do. I’m not afraid. My daddy is watching us right now from that apartment over there.”
I looked up at the apartment building. There was a man standing in a window. He began to laugh. The single laugh exploded into a flood of laughter. Even the building shook with the laughter. The ground began to shake. A crack appeared, a great grin across the schoolyard. The grin broke into a laugh, swallowing all the ground around it. The building, followed by the schoolyard fence, and the street, were all sucked into the laugh. I grabbed onto his teeth.
18. The Voice
All of us heard it. Heard the voice over the game. The game didn’t exist without the voice. When each of us played the game, we heard the voice in our head. Heard the voice over the news of the day. The events shown didn’t exist without the voice. Heard the voice in children’s stories. The stories had no ending without the voice. Without the voice, the game, the fires, the wars, the Presidents cut down, were not real. We lived in the voice. When the voice stopped, the nightmares began.
19. Three A.M.
Standing at the window of my room, listening. The distant roar of diesel trucks. The ocean roar of a highway. The whirl of air-conditioners. The pin prick insanity of crickets. Streetlight pasted to the street, yellow and gooey like toffee. I watched a little girl with bright orange hair bounce a ball up the street. She stopped. Her ball was gone. She stepped forward and disappeared as if she had found a rip in the night and had stepped through it.
The curtain over the window blew in, waving lazily over her face. Outside a tree bent, a few leaves fluttering to the ground.
I lay on the ground weeping. This is too much pain to be real. The next morning two policemen found me. One turned away and vomited. I am covered in flies.
I stared up at the ceiling. Bill and Fred leaned over the couch and looked at me as if I was a corpse. I could hear muted crying in the background.
“Let it out,” Fred said.
“You can’t blame yourself,” Bill added. “Accidents happen.”
I wanted to laugh. I think I smiled.
“I don’t feel anything,” I said. “Maybe I am dead.”
23. The Angel
I tried to stand up but fell down with each attempt. Each time I fell I managed to keep the bottle I was holding from breaking or spilling a drop. A guardian angel appeared and helped me to my feet.
“Thanks,” I said.
The angel laughed.
“What’s so funny?” I asked.
The angel scratched his head.
“I’m not sure,” he said. “Something must have been funny.”
“You really an angel?” I asked.
The angel smirked. “What do you think these wings are for?”
“I figured I might have to cut back on my drinking. What do you want?”
“You died last night.”
I examined myself. I didn’t appear to be any different.
“You sure?” I asked.
“We don’t make mistakes about such things,” the angel replied. “You choked on your own vomit.”
“That’s disgusting,” I said.
“And you’ve been judged,” he said.
“Judged? I don’t remember being judged.”
“You passed out,” the angel explained.
“You mean no one represented me? I had no legal counsel.”
“Lawyers can’t get you into heaven,” the angel responded.
I smiled. “So I made it into heaven.”
The angel nodded.
“Well, let’s go to heaven,” I said.
“You’re there,” the angel said then began to laugh.
“I’m where?” I asked looking around. “I’m in a bloody alley with garbage cans, maggots, and rats. This can’t be heaven.”
“It is for you,” the angel said.
“Don’t hand me that shit,” I said. “I know when I’m being scammed. You can’t do this to me. I know my rights. Heaven is supposed to be a glorious vacation spot, like Florida without the hurricanes and the tacky clothes.”
“I’m sorry, Matthew,” the angel said. “But, this is your heaven.”
“If this is heaven,” I cried. “What is hell?”
In a fit of temper, I smashed my bottle on the ground.
The angel looked at me.
“Now, you’re in hell.”
I stood in the spotlight, surrounded by smoke.
A voice spoke. “Who are you?”
I took out my identification from my vest pocket and dropped it on the ground. I picked it up.
“Matthew Chambers,” I said.
“What do you want?” the voice asked.
“Want? I was sent here. I died and they sent me here. Someone sent me here. Is there someone I’m supposed to talk to?”
“I’m just supposed to wait here?” I asked. “Just stand in this smoke and wait?”
“I see,” I responded. “I am being punished.”
“You are not being punished,” the voice replied.
“Okay,” I said, relieved. “Is there something I’m supposed to do while I’m waiting? Perhaps I could review my life, or recall some mortal sins, or…”
“I’m not supposed to do anything. Could I ask a personal question?”
“Yes,” the voice replied.
“What is your function?”
“To answer questions,” the voice replied.
“Let me get this straight,” I said. “Your function is to answer questions. My function is to wait. Is there another word for what I’m doing here?”
“You are waiting.”
“A synonym,” I pleaded. “Could you give me a synonym for this process of waiting?”
“Digestion,” the voice replied. “You are being digested.”
March 24, 2009
The Seduction of the Sun
I took his course as part of a program at the college to become a television technician. My friends said that I should be in front of the camera, that I had the looks, but my husband would not allow it. He was not crazy about the idea of me working at all. We had a young child. But this was a new country with new opportunities and I wanted to try everything.
The way he spoke my name made me smile. It was the delicacy of his phrasing, the manner in which he attempted not to, how can I say this, not to damage my name. The course was not difficult and most of the students were adults, people new to the country or citizens returning to school to be retrained. We liked him right away. He was even handsome in a disheveled intellectual sort of manner. And he was clever in that male sort of way. Smart with the promise of influence. As if his words came out of some tower of authority. When he was asked a question, he would always pause before answering. If you asked a good question, the pause was flattering. But that vacuum of silence could be devastating if your question was superfluous or mundane.
Some days he would join a group of us for lunch and he could be quite amusing. The other girls said that he stared at me, that he seemed to listen very closely to my remarks but I did not notice this. One day when I was alone in the lunch room, he sat down next to me. We were talking about, I don’t know what it could have been, when I started discussing my marriage. He made me nervous. I admit it. And when I am the least bit nervous I begin discussing personal things. I can go on and on.
He said, “If one is dissatisfied with one’s marriage, one should either seek professional counseling or get a divorce”
It made me angry. I don’t know why. I wasn’t asking advice. I was just talking. When I get angry I talk about things that are even more personal, even intimate.
“My husband is not good in bed. He is frightened by my needs. I am a passionate Russian woman. I need affection. My husband says that I am obsessed by sex. It is so frustrating. And to think that I waited for marriage. I was the only virgin amongst my friends. Are all men in such a hurry to get it over with?”
He smiled. My God, he thinks that I am making a pass at him.
“Maybe you could slow him down?” he asked.
How would I do that?
“We have discussed counseling. But you don’t know Russian men. They must be so macho. He cannot admit that he fails me.”
He sat there sipping his coffee with an amused grin on his face. I hated him. People in control infuriate me. He was like ice, so logical, so reasonable. He knew nothing of passion.
“What about your friends? What do they tell you?”
“They tell me to leave him. I cannot do that. I want my little girl to grow up with a father. He is a very good father. And he has a good job with prospects. My girl friends talk about their affairs. Once I judged them so harshly. Sluts, whores, I called them. I didn’t understand. I would never say such a thing now. I cannot live the rest of my life without… It is not right.”
Another day we met in the garden on the roof of the main building of the school. We sat down on a bench somewhat secluded. He offered me a cigarette. I declined. He talked about his work, the ideas he had been submitting to the CBC, the national television network of the country. He mentioned some of the people he had been in discussions with, names that I did not recognize. It felt as if we weren’t talking about anything at all, as if the whole discussion was in code, that we were waiting for something to happen between us.
“My husband is always tired. He does nothing but watch television. He doesn’t express his feeling so easily. My father is like that. When we went to my uncle’s funeral in New York, my mother bawled like a baby. I did not cry. Everyone thought I was cruel.”
I rambled on and on about the funeral, the arrangements, the food that was served afterwards. His hand grazed mine. My heart began to pound. Let him touch me. I jumped up and using the excuse that I had to make some appointment, ran off. All I thought about all the rest of that day was the touch, that slightest of touches. I made my husband make love to me that night. I was so excited and it had never been so good between us. But afterwards I could only think about that touch. I tried to avoid him and for a week I was successful.
We met again in the garden one day. And once again I rambled on about some nonsense. I could not stop talking.
“It makes me so angry. I am always the one who has to initiate sex between us. I want to be adored, worshipped in our lovemaking. I wouldn’t care if a man had a small penis as long as he was passionate, as long as he was intelligent.”
I went on and on in more intimate detail about what I expected in a lover. He put his hand on my knee. I remember saying, Matthew. I placed my hand on his and held it. I didn’t know what was next but I was afraid. His hand slid up my leg. My legs parted slightly at his touch. What was I doing? I was a married woman. One finger reached my panties. He must have felt how wet I was. His finger slid under the elastic of my panties and slid along my swollen lips. I almost fainted.
I pushed his hand away.
“Why did you do that?” I cried.
“I’ll do what I want,” he said.
2. The Hotel Room
It was a very nice room, clean and tidy with a view of the Gardiner Expressway. I felt odd. We were standing there on each side of the bed looking at each other. We undressed. The bed was like a great sea between us. I felt safe. When we were naked, I remembered that I had to put foam in. I excused myself. When I returned Matthew was still standing there, the same pose, his penis erect and pointed at me. It was very cute.
He told me to come to his side of the bed. I followed his directions. He sat on the bed and pointed to his penis.
“Kneel down in front of me,” he said. You can’t talk to me like this. I’m not some slut you picked up in a bar. I knelt down in front of him.
“I don’t know how,” I said. He smiled and gave me instructions. It was like we were back in class. When I started to gag, he slowed me down. When I grew tired, he told me to use my teeth.
I have never had a man go down on me. I had only been with my husband and he would have found it distasteful. It was like Matthew suddenly disappeared. Only the top of his head was visible. The more excited I got the more I talked.
“Should I talk?” I asked.
“There are no rules,” he said. “We are like explorers in a new land. We have to make maps for each other.”
“Talking makes me relax.”
“In Russia, you had to watch what you say in public especially if you were a Jew. My parents were always warning me about the dangers. I don’t think there was any real danger. It was just a habit my parents had from the old days. And I felt more Russian than Jewish anyway and when my friends talked I could not restrain myself.”
Matthew turned me around. He placed a pillow under my stomach and then knelt behind me. There was a moment of delicious anticipation before he slid his penis inside me then reached around and fondled my breasts.
“Pretend that I am not here,” he said.
“You want me to fantasize that you are someone else?”
“No. I want you to imagine that you are being fucked by yourself. And talk. Talk like you were inside your own head.”
“My best friend and I were so crazy,” I began to speak. “Our town was so boring. It was difficult for us to have fun. One time when we were walking home, the street was dark and empty, my girlfriend dared me to take off my blouse and walk bare breasted for a block. I was afraid and yet it was quite marvelous. I don’t know what the communist party would have thought of such a thing but my parents would have been scandalized. We laughed so hard about it, my girlfriend and I, that we almost pee’d our pants.”
Afterwards neither of us spoke. I felt guilty. Not for being unfaithful to my husband. Guilty for what we had been doing. A terrible guilt that felt delicious. I was one of those women who had a secret, a secret written in a code that no one but my lover could understand. Even the word lover sounded exotic. I had taken a lover. Matthew had given me a taste of his authority.
There were more afternoons for Matthew and I. We explored each other’s bodies. He asked me to take his penis in my mouth when I was fully clothed. I had done this to my husband but he never liked it. Now that I was involved in an affair, it felt as if all the rules had been thrown away. But I did not like oral sex. It prevented me from talking and I felt my orgasms increase in intensity when I could talk. It made Matthew laugh. Sometimes he laughed when he was coming. And I liked his hands around my neck, and his teeth in my flesh, and the weight of his body on my chest so I could hardly breath.
A couple of hours passed by like a few moments. I was always in a rush. My daughter’s day care charged extra for every ten minutes I was late and I did not want to have to explain additional expenses to my husband.
As soon as we entered a room, we were on each other. Matthew was inside me. One day he blindfolded me naked and tied my hands behind my back. I sat in a chair in the middle of the room. I could hear him walk around me. And for long periods of time I felt as if he had left the room. Oh God!, I thought, He’s left me here alone. And then his hand would graze my cheek. His touch was like a shock of electricity. I could hear his breathing close to me but not his touch and the smell of his penis near my nose but not its softness on my lips. I began to talk.
“We lived in a port town in Russia. What I didn’t know as a young girl was that it was the most famous town in all of Russia for the beauty of its prostitutes. When I was seventeen I was attached by three sailors. Thankfully I was rescued by the police. My parents were angry with me for wandering around that part of town. My girlfriend and I began to take excursions through the red light area though we were always very careful to keep our distance from anyone in a uniform. My girlfriend was always asking me about the three sailors, what it was like, was I afraid, did I ever think of giving in to them. Sometimes I fantasize about being with more than one man.”
Sometimes Matthew would lay beside me, tracing the lines of my body with his finger. It was a lovely feeling, almost tickling, almost orgasm. I abandoned myself to his exploration, like the new world opening itself up to Columbus.
“It is such a simple thing, this desire of one body for another. Governments are afraid of the body. Its desires are uncontrollable. Its needs are anarchistic. Russia always feared passion. Russian always feared itself, feared what would happen if the people became in touch with their soul.”
Matthew wanted to meet outside. In a park. Or in his car by the lake. I was always afraid of getting caught. One day we did drive over to the St. Lawrence Market. I gave him a blowjob in the parking lot. But mostly we met in hotel rooms. Matthew liked to enter me from behind. If there was a mirror in the room, he placed it in such a way so that I could watch him slapping against my bum.
“It was a dream. I was rushing home last week on the subway still thinking about our afternoon together. The platforms were filled with people and the subway cars were worse. We were packed against each other so tightly that my hands were fastened to my side. I had nothing to hold onto and each movement of the subway threw me from side to side. It was like the fear of drowning. I was afraid that I might slip below the crowd and be trampled. A man pressed against me. From behind. I could not see him, could not turn and get away from him. I could feel his penis up against my buttocks, could feel him getting harder as the subway moved back and forth. I was angry. My face began to flush. Against all my wishes, I became excited. I bit my lip with frustration. My legs began to tremble. His hands were on my hips, rolling me back and forth and I could feel his cock pushing against my ass. His breath was warm and agitated on my neck. One of his hands moved around me and massaged my breast. It felt as if his cock was ripping through my clothes. I was dry and it hurt. I managed to turn my head slightly as he pressed harder. It was you. My husband woke me up. Who is Matthew? he asked me.”
3. The Park
I wanted a change. The hotel rooms had lost their romance.
“We could go to a park,” I suggested.
“ I thought you were afraid of getting caught,” Matthew responded.
I persisted. Matthew relented under one condition.
“Wear a nice flared dress and no panties.”
We walked slowly through the park, Matthew running his hand under my dress and over my ass. We stopped at a fence that looked over a long hill falling down to a small stream. Matthew stood behind me, raised my dress, told me not to turn around.
Later we lay under a large maple tree. I watched the thin snake of smoke from Matthew’s cigarette curl up into the branches.
“I love to travel. I once heard some Americans say that they preferred television. My husband and I drive up to Georgian Bay to swim and sun on the beach. He never goes into the water, never takes his shirt off, doesn’t have a pair of swimming trunks. He’s afraid of swallowing water, claiming that the Americans on the other side of the lake are always peeing into the water. One time I wandered quite far out. The sand bars keep the water quite shallow. I thought I was alone. When I turned around I almost lost my breath. A teenager, a rather plump boy was standing less than a meter or so away. I smiled. Then I noticed he had pulled down his trunks and from out of his penis a long white worm curled toward me. He laughed, pulled up his trunks and swam away.”
I turned and looked at Matthew. He was smiling.
“Don’t you ever talk about anything else than sex?” he asked.
“But I do,” I cried in my defense. I looked out across the grass. A young man was watching us.
“That’s not fair,” I said.
Matthew slid his hand under my dress. I pulled away. He put his hand in my hair and pulled my face towards him. I kissed him.
“Suck my cock,” he said.
“But, there’s a boy over there watching us.”
“I know,” he said and pushed my face into his lap.
Afterwards I told Matthew that I thought I loved him.
“You don’t have any idea what love is,” he responded. “You think what we do has anything to do with love.”
“You have no feelings for me?” I asked.
“Feelings,” Matthew responded than laughed. “Of course, I have feelings for you. I invented you, didn’t I?”
“What do you mean?” I asked. “I have risked my marriage. If my husband would find out about us it would destroy him.”
“Then why do you do it?”
“Because I love you,” I responded.
Tears ran down his cheeks, he was laughing so hard.
4. A First Snow
It was a freak snowstorm, melting as soon as it touched the ground. The streaks of snowflakes sliding down the restaurant window threw shadows across Matthew’s face making him look old. A tear ran down my cheek. Matthew didn’t notice.
“Why was I born in Russia? How did Jews come to arrive in Russia? There are thousands of stories, some happy, most tragic of people who are my ancestors, my neighbours. The whole history of two peoples have led me here to you. To this place in this new land. I want you to love me.”
Matthew reached across the table and held my hand that lay helpless like a corpse on the table. I bit my lip. I wanted so much to make sense. I wanted my broken words to reflect the clarity of my soul.
“You tell me nothing about yourself. I know you are married but what is your wife like. You have a son but I know nothing about him. Everything in Russia was a lie. All of life, every routine in the day operated like a code. Everyone knew the code except me. My parents said that I was naïve. My friends said that I was gullible. I thought that when we came to the West, there would no longer be any codes. Everyone would be honest, open, direct. I go to bed with you but you are a stranger. My husband is a stranger. I tell you that I love you and you laugh at me like I had told you a joke. I don’t want to be another stranger. My heart desires familiarity. My soul needs company.”
I pulled my hand away and lit up another cigarette even before I had finished my first.
Matthew chuckled. “You never smoked before I met you. Now you are like a forest fire.”
“Don’t treat me like a child,” I cried. My voice was loud. The patrons at the other tables looked at us out of the corner of their eyes. I looked down at the table. The coffee in front of me hadn’t been touched. For a while we said nothing. I looked outside. I took a Kleenex out of my purse and wiped my eyes.
“Tell me something, Matthew,” I begged.
“You don’t exist,” he responded.
“Why do you say things like that to me, Matthew? Why do you want to hurt me? You are like my husband, like all men. So selfish. All you care about is your own needs. Are you tired of me already?”
Matthew did not respond. He sat there with that imbecilic expression of authority on his face.
“What is happening to us?” I asked. “Don’t leave me, Matthew. I need you.”
“That is unfortunate,” he said. “We shall never see each other again.”
I gasped. I could not absorb what Matthew was telling me.
“I won’t bother you anymore with my careless thoughts. I won’t talk so much. Is that it? No more demands. You don’t have to love me. Just don’t let me go. I need to be held. Everything is so frightening.”
“I did love you,” Matthew said.
“You won’t understand any of this,” Matthew added. “Let’s just say that I’m sorry if I hurt you though I doubt that is really possible. And for the sake of consistency in our little drama lets pretend that I got bored with you. The truth is, and I know how mad this sounds, the truth is that I woke up and you weren’t there. The woman I fell in love with was a girl I met in a dream. She lived inside your pussy for a while. She was my escape from all of this. For a while I got caught up in the moment. I convinced myself that all this meant something, that it was real. But it was just another sedative. Another distraction.”
“I love you, Matthew.”
“Than I feel sorry for you,” he said, turned and headed out of the restaurant and into the late afternoon snowfall. I never saw him again.
March 22, 2009
2 30 7
by Matthew Chambers
There is a ceiling in a dark room. There are walls in a dark room. There is a clock radio. There is a close-up of an eye, upside down and closed. It opens. The sleeper speaks. I laid there for what seemed like hours trying to get to sleep. I checked out the time… 2 30 7.
The sleeper turned over in bed, rolling back and forth, punching the pillow, sighing. Finally he stopped, on his back, staring up at the ceiling. My knees began to itch. I scratched them. My toes began to curl up. I stretched my legs full out. I wrestled with sleep hoping to slip into exhaustion.
A single bead of sweat trickled down the sleeper’s forehead and curled into his ear. I tried to dream of women, sheep, birds in flight, winning the lottery, counting my money. My wallet began to itch.
The sleeper turned and twisted in his bed so that the sheets were soon so tightly wrapped around him that he resembled an Egyptian mummy.
I couldn’t breath. I unwrapped the sheets, threw them off, turned on my back, looked at the clock once again. 2 30 7. Not even the second hand had moved. Maybe it wasn’t working. Martha had wanted a clock with personality, a face – hour hand, minute hand, second hand. Dead hands. I slapped the radio clock. Nothing!
The sleeper turned the bedside table light on. He turned the radio on. There was no sound. He picked up a book and began to read. I began reading Findlay’s The Wars. I read one line several times over.
The sleeper slammed the book down, climbed out of bed, and headed for the kitchen. Food had always acted as a sedative. I felt like bacon and eggs. Cholesterol puts you to sleep. I thought about the fight Martha and I had the evening before. What was it about? It was serious enough to send her to the guest room for the night. It was serious enough to give me insomnia.
The sleeper opened the refrigerator and spotted some cheese. He smiled as the light flashed across his face. A cheese omelet. That would hit the spot. But there were no eggs. Now I remember what our fight was about. I was supposed to pick something up at the grocery store. I’d forgotten. Martha accused me of forgetting everything. Someday, she warned, I would lose my mind. I poured myself some corn flakes. There was no milk. I used Coffee-mate and water. I looked at the oven clock. 2 30 7. Damn thing must be buggered up again. Martha had asked me to get it fixed the previous week.
The sleeper carried his corn flakes into the living room and placed them down on the coffee table. The television was on. Errol Flynn’s smile was frozen on the screen. What the hell was this? The film was stuck on one frame. I flipped through the channels. Each station was the same – a still picture with a peculiar buzzing sound. I switched to channel ten to get the time. 2 30 7.
The sleeper switched off the TV, rose and headed down the hallway into the bathroom. There was the sound of water running. When the sleeper stepped into the bathroom, a fat slightly balding man was having a bath.
“Who the hell are you?” the sleeper cried.
The bather looked up at the sleeper. “Sir?”
“What the hell are you doing in the bath?” the sleeper said.
The bather reached for a towel to cover his nakedness.
“Please, sir!” he exclaimed. “Take anything you want but don’t hurt us.”
The bather rose out of the bathtub, dropped his towel and reached for a bathrobe that hung from a hook next to the tub.
“What are you talking about?” the sleeper asked.
The bather stepped out of the tub, wrapping himself in his robe.
“Stop there!” the sleeper insisted.
The bather stopped.
“Who are you?” the sleeper asked.
“Oliver North, sir. There must be some money in the desk in the hall. We always keep a little cash there for emergencies. My wife’s jewelry is mostly of sentimental value. If it’s drugs you need, there is medication here in the medicine cabinet. My wife is a melancholic. There must be something you can use.”
The bather, Mr. North, reached for the door of the medicine cabinet.
“Stand back!” the sleeper cried out. “You think I’m a burglar?”
“What else?” Mr. North replied.
“What were you doing in here?” the sleeper demanded.
“Isn’t it obvious?” Mr. North responded, slightly put off by the sleeper’s enquiries. “I was taking a warm bath. I have a slight case of insomnia. A warm bath helps to relax the limbs. But if you’re not a burglar, what are you? Surely not…”
“I am not a rapist,” the sleeper responded. “What the hell is going on here?”
The sleeper turned and stomped out of the bathroom. Mr. North followed him down the hallway toward the telephone. But when he got to where he expected to find a telephone, there was none. He looked at Mr. North, brushed passed him and headed for the kitchen. There was no phone there either. Mr. North stood behind him, a puzzled expression on his face.
“Are you in some kind of trouble, young man? Is there some kind of medication you need? Are the police involved? Do you have money problems? I know that a pile of bills can unhinge the mind.”
The sleeper looked around the kitchen. Everything had changed. This was not his kitchen. The refrigerator, though it looked new, was a very old model. The stove hardly resembled the range he and Martha had bought the summer before, and the table and chairs could have been antiques.
“Where’s the telephone?” the sleeper demanded.
“In the study,” Mr. North responded pointing back down the hall. When the sleeper reached the study, he threw open the door to find a telephone resting on a small wooden table. It was a dial phone. The sleeper didn’t think they made them anymore. He began to dial.
“I’m calling the police. Let them figure this out.”
“Thank you,” Mr. North responded with a smile. “I was about to do that myself. With your permission of course. I’m sorry that we have to bring the police into this, but I think it’s the most reasonable course of action.”
As the phone rang, the sleeper looked around the room. He and Martha had never wallpapered this room. Martha hated wallpaper. And then he noticed the pictures on the wall. He didn’t recognize any of them.
“We never wallpapered these walls,” the sleeper said.
“Funny you should say that,” Mr. North responded looking around the room. “Neither did we. Perhaps the little woman threw this up recently. I’ve been putting a lot of hours in at the bank.”
The sleeper hung up the phone.
“Is this 12 B, 56 Eversfield Drive?”
Mr. North nodded. Pushing passed Mr. North, the sleeper headed for the guest room. Martha will clear all of this up.
Mr. North grabbed the sleeper’s arm.
“Please, sir! Don’t wake up my wife! She’ll become quite upset. Strangers terrify her.”
The sleeper’s mouth dropped open.
“Your wife is in my guest room?”
“Your guest room?” Mr. North gasped.
The sleeper opened the door. He saw the fluorescent numbers on the digital clock. 2 30. He flicked on the light. The woman in the bed turned and shielding her eyes looked toward the two men standing in the doorway.
“Turn off the light dear,” she said.
The sleeper turned to Mr. North.
“I don’t know what to say,” the sleeper said. “How can I apologize?”
Mr. North looked at the woman in the bed and then at the sleeper.
“Dear me, sir. That’s not my wife either.”
The woman in the bed screamed.
March 20, 2009
A Romantic Life
1. A First Anniversary
Martha stepped up behind her husband, put both her arms around his waist and hugged him.
“I didn’t think it was possible to be this happy,” she sighed.
Matthew turned around and looked into his young wife’s eyes.
“I feel as if I am in a dream. Life is so perfect.”
Martha played with the top buttons of Matthew’s shirt.
“Do you remember how we met?” Martha asked.
Matthew rubbed Martha’s forehead with his forehead.
“Who could forget Andersons,” he responded.
“And their huge sale of new Admirals,” Martha continued. “I’d never seen so many TV sets in one place. There must have been dozens of them, piled piggy-back in the store, six or seven sets high. All of those sets turned on to the same station.”
“It was as if someone had blown reality up,” Matthew added, “and scattered it like confetti in the wind.”
Martha moved over to the couch and sat down. Matthew watched her with fascination. She was like an actress occupying center stage.
“I felt,” she said folding her hands in a prayer, “as if I was walking amongst alien beings. All those short square bodies with the same expression on their face, and you amongst them like a king amongst pygmies. That was the moment I fell in love with you. Do you remember what you were wearing?”
Matthew laughed as he stepped over to the couch and sat down next to his wife.
“Only God and you would remember that, my dear.”
Martha turned toward Matthew.
“You were wearing a navy blue suit made from some new plastic material that made you shine like a clear morning sky.”
“I looked like a neon sign,” Matthew responded, shaking his head with delight.
“You looked wonderful.”
Matthew added. “Fred and I had a bet to see who could wear the ugliest tie.”
Martha shook with laughter.
“And what did you think of me the first time?”
Matthew paused for a moment to tease his wife than smiled.
“I thought you were the most beautiful and delightful creature I had ever laid my eyes upon.”
Martha leaned across the couch and took Matthew’s hands in hers.
“Let’s go to bed and make a baby,” she said.
“You don’t want to see what’s on television?” Matthew said teasingly.
Martha stepped over to the television. She cleared the few objects off the set and climbed on top so that she was sitting on the cabinet. Pulling up her dress past her knees, she opened her legs.
“I’m on the set tonight, darling.”
2. The Pregnancy
Martha met her husband in the vestibule of their apartment. Matthew smiled at his wife as he removed his galoshes, hat, gloves and overcoat. Kissing his wife on her forehead he proceeded into the living room, picked up his pipe, filled and lit it, flicked on the television, and sat down in his favourite chair. Martha sat down on a nearby stool and stared at her husband. Matthew smiled politely and flipped the stations until he came to the CBS News with Walter Cronkite. He returned to his chair. Martha continued to watch him.
“It’s been a long day,” he said to his wife. Why the day was long, Matthew did not explain but turned instead to the television. A monk in Saigon had just set himself on fire.
“Matthew,” Martha said.
Matthew turned to his wife.
“Can you believe that someone would actually do something like that? Imagine the depth of one’s beliefs to douse oneself with gasoline. I cannot conjure up a situation in which I would become a human torch for an idea. And right in front of the camera. Makes you wonder if he’d have done it without the camera.”
“I’ve got something to tell you,” Martha said, her voice soft and patient.
“Why didn’t the cameraman try to help him? The guy is burning to death on front of you and you don’t do anything? Am I the only one who finds this act abhorrent? I suppose it’s all about witnesses. Nothing is done in a box.”
“I was at the doctor’s today,” Martha smiled, pressing her skirt with the palms of her hands.
Matthew looked at his wife. “The doctor? There’s nothing wrong, is there?”
Martha shook her head.
“Good,” Matthew smiled and turned back to the news. Martha said nothing. For several moments Matthew continued to watch the TV. Then slowly his mind turned back to his wife. He looked at Martha. “Why were you at the doctor’s?”
“I don’t get it,” he said with a profoundly dumb expression on his face.
In a collected but softly pleased tone, Martha spoke. “I’m going to be a mommy.”
Matthew smiled, turned to the television then did a double take at his wife. Half climbing out of his chair and with a great smile on his face, Matthew spoke. “That means, I’m going…”
“A daddy,” Martha added.
Matthew jumped up and grabbing his wife, gave her a hug. Turning his head to the ceiling like a wolf at the sky, Matthew howled. “Gads!”
Martha snored. Matthew rolled out of bed, pulled the blanket over his wife’s shoulder and gently planted a kiss on her forehead. He couldn’t sleep. The idea of fatherhood had excited him too much. His mind was active, imagining himself pushing a carriage, changing diapers, teaching his boy to skate. He slipped out of the bedroom and turned to the living room. Pouring himself a scotch, he watched an old Superman movie, falling asleep before Superman saved the planet. Matthew dreamed about himself as a distinguished citizen of a dieing planet, forced to send his son off into space in a rocket ship. Five minutes after the ship had left the planet’s gravitational field, the planet got well. Life returned to normal but Matthew had no son.
4. Seven Months
Matthew watched with wonder as Martha’s naked body rolled over. He rubbed the cream across her swollen belly. Martha laid back and smiled.
“What’s so funny?” he asked.
Martha grinned impishly. “I never quite pictured you like this.”
“How am I supposed to take that?” he responded, playing (tongue-in-cheek) the role of the injured party.
“Oh!” Martha laughed grabbing her belly. “Don’t make me laugh. It wakes up the baby and she’s sitting right on my bladder.”
“You think it’s a girl?” Matthew asked.
Martha nodded. “She keeps moving the furniture around in there.”
Matthew continued to rub cream on Martha’s belly. He could feel the thump of the baby’s foot against the wall of Martha’s stomach.
“Did you feel that?” Martha gasped, her eyes fixed on some vision she had of the baby inside her.
“Have you thought of a name?” Martha asked.
Matthew put his ear to his wife’s belly.
“How about Spartacus?” he said.
Martha shook with laughter.
“Why do you think it’s a boy?” she asked.
“I think he farted,” Matthew responded. “A girl wouldn’t do that.”
Tears of laughter ran down Martha’s cheek. A wide grin circled Matthew’s face. He had never seen his wife look so beautiful, so transformed as if another creature had emerged from her body. An angel.
“What are you thinking?” Martha asked.
“I was thinking how much pregnancy suited you.”
“I could do without the hemorrhoids and sore back,” she smiled.
Martha lay upon the table as the doctor affixed instruments to her belly. Then the doctor turned to one side and switched on the monitor. He warmed up a flat iron instrument. Matthew stared at the small screen as the outline of the child Martha carried in her belly, appeared. Martha looked at her husband. Matthew smiled. An idea arose and ruled Matthew’s thoughts. The child was not growing inside Martha; it was growing inside the monitor.
6. The Wait
Martha looked around. Matthew was not there. So carried off had she been with the variety of colours and fabrics available to babies in the children’s department, Martha hadn’t noticed Matthew’s absence. She looked up and down the aisle. She called out. Stepping into the main aisle she panned the store. There was a crowd gathered near electronic section.
“Oh God,” she muttered to herself.
When Martha reached the crowd she spotted Matthew at its core. He was staring up at one of the security cameras. The camera had stopped scanning the store. It was staring down at Matthew. Neither flinched.
A woman screamed. “Do you have any idea how much this is going to cost?”
Martha squeezed through the crowd until she reached her husband’s side. The woman’s voice belonged to a short rotund balding man. Hello, I’m Mr. Everett, read the badge pinned to his chest.
“Who’s going to pay for it?” Mr. Everett screeched, his hands resting on his hips. Martha thought he looked like a teapot.
Matthew threw his hands in the air. “What did I do?”
“You know very well what you did mister. You…” Mr. Everett began gathering his strength. “You winked at the camera!”
“Oh!” the crowd sighed in unison then broke into laughter.
Flustered, Mr. Everett turned to his audience. His voice broke and rose higher in pitch as he attempted to explain the catastrophe that had occurred.
“I saw it all myself. He was looking up at the camera, staring at it. The camera stopped. The cameras are not supposed to stop. They are programmed to scan continuously. Arresting their journey strips the operating mechanics. I tried to stop him. I ran over and yelled at him. He winked. He winked at our camera. You should have heard the terrible squeal from the camera. It was in pain. Smoke rose from behind the lens as if its heart had been pierced by an arrow. He winked on purpose!”
With each word that Mr. Everett uttered, the crowd’s laughter grew. Eventually, defeated by the mocking laughter of the crowd and the absurdity of his claims, Mr. Everett’s voice dropped off. Shoulders slumped and head bowed, he slunk from the crowd and retreated behind a door that read Department Store Personnel Only.
“Oh dear,” Martha sighed.
“I think we should leave,” Matthew responded.
“But there is the cutest little outfit I wanted….”
“Another time,” Matthew interrupted. “We should get out of here before it occurs to Mr. Everett to review the tapes.”
7. The Maternity Ward
Martha squeezed Matthew’s hand with each cramp. Matthew smiled at his wife. The hospital had allowed Matthew to stay overnight with his wife. A cot had been set up beside Martha’s bed. There was a television set. Matthew was watching a documentary about the father of the atomic bomb, Robert Openheimer. The man fascinated Matthew. All these men who had created the Twentieth Century’s inferno, sounded like Nineteenth Century romantics. Once Openheimer had been introduced to the offspring of his work, he had shrunk in horror. Frankenstein had met his monster.
Matthew lay in the cot beside his wife slipping in and out of dreams. The events of his life seemed to advance in single file toward this one moment, the birth of his child. Hope, he kept saying over and over again to himself. That is what the birth of a child represented. Matthew had thought of life as closed ended, a box in which everything was determined. Life was a constant repetition of what had gone before. Everything was one; change was a delusion. Now as a child was about to arrive, the universe seemed filled with possibility. It was a way out of the madness.
Early in the morning, before the sun had risen, Matthew woke to find his wife weeping.
“Something is wrong!” She sobbed, holding her stomach.
Matthew called for a nurse. Martha was rushed to an operating room. Matthew was rushed into an adjoining room. There was a monitor in the corner. He had been promised that he could watch what was going on. He sat staring at the interference on the television screen. Someone had forgotten to turn on the camera. The baby was still born. Later Martha begged Matthew for a second chance. She wouldn’t fail again. A year later, Allan was born.
8. The House
The workmen cursed at they slogged the furniture out of the van into the house. Martha directed traffic, deciding which furniture went where. Little Allan stood alone at the dining room window watching. Matthew carried the odd small piece into the house. None of the workmen could understand why anyone would need so many television sets. Matthew spotted Allan looking longingly out the window at some boys playing ball hockey on the street. After speaking with the boys, Matthew went into the house and fetched Allan.
9. The Antenna
Matthew climbed onto the roof. He wrapped the last metal strapping around the chimney, securing the antenna. No more ghosts. He took a bottle of beer out of his jacket pocket and opened it with a bottle opener he kept around his neck. Sipping his beer, Matthew looked out over the roofs of his neighbours. It was a forest of aerials. He imagined how Quazimodo must have felt looking over the roofs of Paris. A squirrel chattered from the branch of a nearby tree. Matthew marveled as the creature swung from the tree, flew through the air, and grabbed one of the arms of his aerial, landing gingerly on the roof. The squirrel looked up at Matthew. Matthew winked.
“How many years have we known each other?” Fred asked.
Matthew wasn’t listening. He was marveling about the television that rested on a high shelf above their heads. That there were one or two of these sets in each of the rooms of the Red Lion Tavern, imprinted an indelible question upon his consciousness. Who was doing the watching? The patrons of the bar or these one eyed Cyclops? The government could be spying on all of us.
“Since we were eleven,” Fred responded to his own question. “And ever since we’ve known each other, you’ve had your head in the clouds. The first time I saw you, you were a resident of the ditch in front of your house, staring up into the sky at the passing clouds, imagining that it was the planet and not the clouds that were moving. You’ve always been at odds with the rest of us on the planet.”
Matthew turned from the television and looked at Fred whose lips were rapidly moving. What have I missed? Smiling, Matthew grabbed one of the fresh beers recently dropped on the table by the waiter. Does the government keep tapes? Who do they recruit to watch them? I should start checking out the classifieds.
“I wonder where Bill is,” Matthew said, sipping on his beer. “He said he’d be here by nine. That guy is going to be late for his own funeral.”
Matthew looked at Fred. Fred leaned across the table. Matthew could tell Fred was going to say something serious by the furrow in his brow. Matthew hated Fred’s furrows.
“You’ve got a young attractive wife, Matthew. You’d better start paying attention to her. Women need attention and affection. You can’t start taking them for granted. And you’ve got a kid. A cute little guy who needs his dad around. someone to play with, someone to look up to. These years pass quickly, Matthew. Before you know it, he’ll be a teenager and beyond your control.”
“What do you think could be keeping him?” Matthew asked.
A look of exasperation swept across Fred’s face.
“I’ll bet he’s forgotten,” Matthew added. “Did you phone him up?”
“Matthew! Have you heard anything I’ve been saying to you?”
“Ya, ya.” Matthew nodded. “Wife, kids, home life. All that shit.”
“Matthew, if you aren’t careful some asshole like me is going to come along and take the whole thing away from you.”
Matthew turned and looked at Fred.
“Are you in love with Martha?” he asked, hesitated for a moment then burst out laughing.
Fred shook his head in dismay. “Why do I even try?”
11. Technical Difficulties
The picture flashed on, followed by a popping sound. Then the picture slowly dimmed and faded away. From behind the set, Matthew sighed.
“Third set this month,” Martha said to Fred who stood at the living room entrance with her watching Matthew’s attempts at repairing the set.
“I’ve never seen him get so upset,” Martha said, “as he does when one of these old sets gives up the ghost. Has he always been like this?”
“Ever since I’ve known him,” Fred responded. “I remember one summer finding him in the ditch taking a radio apart and smashing the tubes with a hammer. He was waiting to hear the radio cry. I told you a long time ago that Matthew was certifiable.”
“Ah!” Matthew sighed.
“What’s the problem?” Fred asked.
Matthew peaked out from the set.
“Too strong a current,” Matthew responded. “These old sets can’t handle the power they’re flushing through the lines. They are mainlining too much electricity. Their circuits are overdosing.”
“Do you ever listen to what you say?” Martha asked. “You talk about these things as if they were alive.”
Matthew looked at Martha and then at Fred.
“Tell her,” he said.
Fred turned to Martha. “Matthew thinks they are alive. But with all the sets that are biting the dust, I’d say your house was turning into a graveyard.”
Martha sat on the couch weeping. Cigarette smoke curled up passed her blotchy face. Matthew sat opposite her in his rocking chair watching television.
“Can’t you turn that thing off?” she cried, crushing her cigarette out in the ashtray.
Matthew did not respond.
“I’d thought you’d be happy,” Martha continued. “You said you wanted more children. I thought that was why we bought this house. It’s going to be a girl this time. You said you’d like a girl.”
Martha took a Kleenex from a box on the coffee table. She blew her nose then lit up another cigarette.
“Do you think that’s a good idea?’ Matthew asked without taking his eyes off the set.
Martha put the cigarette out.
“I know about you and Fred,” Matthew said.
A painful laugh broke from Martha.
“What are you talking about?”
Matthew howled with laughter, his rocking chair rolling back and forth causing the floorboards to squeal with delight.
“Stop!” Martha cried out.
Matthew turned and looked at this wife. He leaned forward and turned the television off. Martha stepped across the room and knelt at Matthew’s feet. Tears rolled lazily down her cheeks. She hugged her husband’s legs.
“I can’t take this loneliness, Matthew, the loneliness of being with someone who lives inside his own thoughts. I need your attention. Our little girl will need… What happened to us, Matthew? When did we stop looking at each other? When did we become… strangers?”
Matthew leaned forward and kissed his wife on the forehead.
“What do you want to call her?” he asked.
Martha looked up. A smile broke through her tears.
“I want to call her Betty.”
“I don’t know how to talk to him anymore,” Martha said.
Fred stirred his coffee slowly.
“Matthew thinks we’re having an affair,” Martha said, wiping the tears from her eyes. “He won’t listen to my denials. It’s like he wants it to happen.”
Fred looked at Martha. He wanted to reach over and comfort her but was afraid. Was he in love with her, or was it a maternal instinct inside him? Sometimes he hated her. Didn’t she have a girlfriend she could discuss this with?
“And that’s not all,” Martha said, lowering her head. “Matthew thinks I’m pregnant. I don’t know what to say to him. He keeps asking how my body feels, if I can feel it yet. I’ve been seeing a psychiatrist to try to come to grips with all of this. Doctor Gabriel wants to see Matthew. But every time I even raise the subject with Matthew, he flies off the handle. Says I’m trying to push him away. He’s so paranoid. Maybe you could talk to him.”
14. The Flintstones
Matthew returned to the living room with a couple of beers.
“Thought you’d like a cold one,” Matthew said.
Fred nodded and reached up from the bean bag.
“God, I hate this thing. How can they call it furniture?”
“Allan loves it,” Matthew responded.
“It’s comfortable enough when you’re in it,” Fred responded, leaning back and taking a sip of beer. “But it’s hell to get out of. Is Allan finally asleep?”
“He didn’t want to say his prayers,” Matthew replied. “He said he and God weren’t on speaking terms.”
“Instead,” Matthew added with a smile, “he wanted to talk about road safety.”
“Jesus!” Fred laughed. “Well, the acorn doesn’t fall far from the tree. So tell me about the story you sold.”
“It’s more of an idea,” Matthew said. “They’re going to pay me real money for it. I wrote it as a short story but they talked about expanding it. They’ve got to fill the time slot.”
“You think they’ll make a series out of?” Fred asked.
Matthew shrugged his shoulders.
“Out with it,” Fred insisted.
“A woman,” Matthew began, “is sitting on a bench in a part with her kid. The kid is playing. Slides, monkey bars, that sort of thing. This bum stumbles into the park and he sits on the bench beside her. You can tell she’s not comfortable but it’s a park and she figures she has a right to be there. The guy isn’t wearing shoes and he’s got a five o’clock shadow and is wearing rags.”
“Does he smell bad?” Fred asked.
“I hadn’t thought of that,” Matthew responded. “The story is mostly a conversation. The woman is having marital problems and the bum counsels her.”
Fred laughed. “A bum is giving out advice about marriage. Where does he come by his knowledge?”
“His wife has recently passed on,” Matthew responded.
“She was run over by a mastodon,” Matthew replied.
Fred howls with laughter, almost choking on his beer.
“And,” Matthew added, “she starts to fall in love with the bum.”
Tears ran down Fred’s face.
“She’s falling in love with the bum? Like a doctor-patient thing?”
Fred shook his head in disbelief.
“Well, it is television,” Matthew explained.
Once again Fred shook with laughter. Matthew smiled, waiting for Fred to regain control of himself.
“There’s one other thing,” Matthew said as Fred took a swallow of beer.
“Ya, what?” Fred asked.
“The description of the bum that I wrote…” Matthew said.
“He,” Matthew continued, “he looks like you. How are you with that?”
Fred shrugged. “Why the hell would I care? As long at that’s not the way you feel about me. We’ve been friends a long time. It’s good to see you feeling so up. Everything is okay, right?”
“Never been better,” Matthew smiled. “I sold a story. Money coming in. Did you have something specific in mind?”
“Martha’s been talking to me. She’s concerned about you. Thinks you might be going over the deep end.”
Matthew shook his head. “Nothing wrong with me. Besides, she’s the one seeing the shrink.”
15. The Kids
Matthew lit up a cigarette and leaned against the schoolyard fence. He checked his watch. Kids should be out any moment. A slight breeze stirred the leaves around Matthew’s feet. Matthew laughed. I have to quit doing that. Martha wanted him to see a psychiatrist. The last thing he wanted to talk about was himself. The problem was the universe. And recently he’d been given some clues about reality that he did not wish to discuss with a stranger.
Matthew looked around the schoolyard. It had been many years since he and Fred had roamed the grounds. Back then the yard was grass and mud. Now it was asphalt. He recalled the great religious wars fought against the nearby public school. Matthew smiled. There was the day he and Fred had ridden their bikes out to Highway 27 to see the Queen drive by. All they saw was a black limousine. And there was the winter day he’d kicked Fred’s front teeth in playing soccer. And the day he almost lost an eye from a snowball. Where had all those days gone? It was as if they had remained the property of the school, like the desks and the text books.
Matthew laughed when the bell for the three thirty dismissal jarred him. The school doors opened and the roar of children’s voices came pouring out.
16. The Siren
An ambulance siren tore open Matthew’s dream. He leaped to his feet with the baby’s screaming. Turning to check on his wife, he found her fast asleep. Throwing back the covers, Matthew stepped into his slippers and robe. A moment later he was in the nursery. The baby lay on her back, covers thrown off, legs in the air, screaming. Picking up the child, Matthew carried her over to the change table.
“The runs again,” he said, the smile on his face turning suddenly down as he unwrapped the Pamper. “You stink!”
As soon as Matthew had cleaned the baby, powdered her bottom, put on a new Pamper, the child smiled. Matthew tickled her tummy. She began to laugh.
“What a rigamaroar, Betty!” he playfully scolded the child. Betty began to coo.
Betty sat in Matthew’s arms watching a late movie, Spartacus.
“The movie is almost over,” Matthew explained. “That’s Kirk Douglas hanging on the cross. Everyone thinks he is Spartacus but actually he’s an actor. That’s Lawrence Olivier, another actor, on the horse addressing him. He was married to a mad actress who starred in Gone With The Wind. She fucked everyone on the set. Douglas and Olivier are having a conversation like two chaps in a pub late on a Saturday night. Kirk Douglas is going to have a hell of a hangover the next morning. This scene takes place on a higher stage than a mere Roman revolt. They’re talking about reality. Olivier is angry because he knows he does not exist. He exists inside Spartacus’s dream. His military victory will disappear with the death of Spartacus.”
“You didn’t!” Matthew cried. “I just changed you.”
Betty laughed louder.
17. The Old Woman
Matthew walked back and forth in the hospital waiting room, his eyes fastened to the patterned gray tile of the floor as he sucked on one cigarette after another. He looked up to the doors as the they swung open. An elderly woman accompanied by her middle-aged son made their way slowly across the checkerboard floor. The old woman was weeping. Her son kept reassuring her. They sat down on a molded plastic couch beside a small gaunt woman in a frayed beige cloth coat.
“She’s sitting in our spot,” the old woman muttered. Her son told her to hush.
The doors swung open again and this time Fred stepped in. Matthew rushed up to him.
“Oh God, Fred,” he cried, tears pouring out of his eyes.
“I got here as soon as I could,” Fred exclaimed, directing Matthew to an empty bench.
The old woman muttered to her son. “They’re sitting on our bench. Our cottage bench. Where are we going to go for the summer?”
“Bloody Blue Jays,” Fred explained. “I forgot there was a game. Traffic.. how are you?”
Matthew shook his head and bent over at the waist.
“I think I’m going to be sick!”
The old woman turned to her son. “Look at that disgusting man, dear. I’ll bet he’s an immigrant.”
Fred took a handkerchief and wiped Matthew’s brow. Then he handed the handkerchief to Matthew who wiped his mouth. As soon as Matthew felt better, they moved to another bench.
“Look at the mess they left,” the old woman grunted. “A real Canadian wouldn’t do that. I’m sure he’s an immigrant.”
“God!” Matthew sniffled. “If anything happens to that little girl, I’ll never forgive myself. I couldn’t live with it, Fred. I couldn’t.”
“What happened?” Fred asked.
“Betty tried to climb up the sets. It wasn’t her fault. I should never have collected so many. The new one, the Panasonic, toppled over and fell on her. Fell on her chest. She couldn’t… This can’t be happening. It is too painful to be real.”
“They took her into another room. She was overwrought. God, I thought she might have some kind of attack. They took her into another room to give her a sedative. If anything happens to that… Fred, I’m not a strong person.”
“Why is that silly crying?” the old woman chuckled. “I’ve never seen the like of some men to cry. Weeping like little babies.”
“I’d give my life for that little girl. Oh Betty, my sweet little Betty. I don’t care about anything else. My work, the house, Martha, even Allan. Nothing matters but my little girl. Martha shouldn’t have let her out of her sight.”
Fred grabbed Matthew’s shoulders and looked into his eyes. Matthew turned away.
“Matthew, Betty is not real. This is all in your mind. We’re here to find out what’s happening to you.”
A door opened. A doctor stepped through and walked over to Matthew. Matthew looked at the doctor.
“Look at that man,” the old woman chuckled. “He’s just turned into stone.”
18. A Blast of Cold Air
Matthew woke up in the middle of the night with a kink in his neck. The television, across the room from his make-shift bed on the couch, stared at him. All programming had ended. He supposed he had fallen asleep shortly after the news. What had been on the news? He couldn’t remember. Matthew rubbed his eyes and yawned. He wondered what time it was. Matthew stood up and stretched and stepped over to turn the set off. A rush of loneliness swept through him as if a door had opened and a blast of cold air had entered his heart. He looked around. Everything was quiet. The whole world felt like a morgue. His little girl was dead.
18. The Slap
Martha sat next to her husband on the couch. Matthew was watching an old Ernie Kovacs program. She didn’t see the humour in a line of people appearing and stepping out of the bathtub as Kovacs bathed.
“I can’t take it any longer,” she said in a low measured voice. “We don’t talk. I feel like I’m living with a stranger. Do you hate me, Matthew? What have I done? I’m not a piece of furniture. I have needs. Emotional needs. Don’t you feel anything for me? I’m not a piece of furniture. Sometimes I feel as if I could go crazy with loneliness. I’m afraid of what I’m turning into.”
Matthew did not respond. Martha stood up and turned off the set. She turned angrily on Matthew who was standing in front of her.
“I need to talk!” she cried.
Matthew slapped her.
“Betty is dead!” he barked
Tears ran down Martha’s cheeks. She pushed Matthew away.
“Betty doesn’t exist! It’s all in your head, Matthew. Why are you doing this? What’s wrong with you? Is it something I did?”
“This isn’t doing anybody any good. It’s eating me up inside. You’re not the only one whose in pain. We never meant to fall in love. You’re like a brother to me. I felt like I’ve just cut off my right arm. I prayed for the longest time that you and Martha would work things out. I won’t lie to you. Part of me hoped that you’d never reconcile. But another part prayed that you’d find each other again.”
Fred turned away. Matthew looked at his old friend, sitting in the ditch in front of his parent’s house just like when they were kids. Matthew looked up. The moon was high in the sky, as if it was trying to get as far away as possible. A car’s headlights flashed across the faces of the two men before it turned into a driveway. Fred took a cigarette out. He offered one to Matthew who refused.
“What about the golden rule?” Matthew asked.
Fred listened to the air-conditioners. Why was their drone so dull? Why couldn’t the engineers who sent a man to the moon, make engines hum like medieval monks?
“Remember the golden rule, Fred? You don’t mess with a guy’s chick.”
“Ya,” Fred responded, nodding his head. “But that was kids’ stuff.”
“Why couldn’t Martha tell me all of this?” Matthew asked.
“I thought I could tell you. We’re old friends. She said you wouldn’t listen. Martha can’t cope with your indifference. She’s a woman who needs attention. And Matthew, you need professional help.”
“Are you telling me about my wife now, Fred?” Matthew asked, his teeth clenched, grinding out each word. “I’ve been married to Martha for a long time. I think I know a little bit about what Martha needs and I don’t need some back stabbing prick like you educating me.”
“How long have you been married?” Fred asked, drawing deeply on his cigarette.
“What do you mean?”
“You don’t fucking know, Matthew.”
“It’s only a number. Bill warned me that you were a faithless shit,” Matthew barked. “But I defended you. I told Bill that you were well intentioned, that you led with your chin.”
“I warned you,” Fred said in a low controlled voice. “You haven’t been paying attention. Your insanity is destroying Martha. I couldn’t stand to see her so lonely. If you have to blame someone, blame me.”
Matthew laughed. “Now you’re telling me who to blame. I blame Martha. And I blame you, Fred. I mistook a predator for my friend.”
“Martha was hurting,” Fred responded. “And all this stuff about a child…”
“You fuck my wife and now you bring up my daughter’s death to justify it. God, Fred, you are one piece of work.”
Fred was silent. Matthew looked away.
“I had to make a decision,” Fred said, his voice quivering with emotion. “It was either you or Martha. Martha needed me more.”
Matthew turned back and, staring at Fred, laughed.
“Have you ever listened to yourself, Fred? Have you ever listened to how thick you can shovel it? I’ve known you all my life, Fred. This ain’t no hapless cuckold. Ever since we were teenagers, all you’ve ever wanted was a regular piece of pussy. Martha is nothing to you except a little poke on Saturday night.”
“Not this time,” Fred responded, his voice breaking.
Matthew reached over toward Fred. Fred flinched. Matthew grabbed the package of cigarettes out of Fred’s shirt pocket, took a cigarette, lit it up, and threw the pack into Fred’s lap.
“What the hell do you want from me, Fred? My blessing?”
Fred hesitated. “I want to make sure you’re okay. That you’ll be able to handle all of this.”
Matthew laughed. “You’re feeling guilty and you want to be absolved. Go see a priest, Fred. I’m not in a forgiving state of mind. You’re not the great love of her life, Fred. I am. In my haste to better myself, I guess I left Martha behind. Well, I’m going to rectify that now. Martha will understand and for my part I’ll forgive her. Why the hell not? But you, Fred, will you be able to handle it? Will you be okay when Martha and I are a couple again?”
Fred shook his head.
“Martha was right. You don’t listen to anyone.”
March 19, 2009
The Hotel of Despair
by Matthew Chambers
It is the morning in the wall of eyes. The shadow of a man falls across the dry well. Each foot steps into an eye. Puddles of water stare up into an empty sky. Buckets of highways. Electric weeping. Lightning and thunder. A worn out man in last year’s suit, baggy pants and a top hat, steps up to a poet in the hotel lobby.
“Excuse me, sir,” Matthew says.
“Who are you?” the poet responds.
Matthew picks a puddle off the plush carpet and holds it up like a mirror.
“I am crazy,” Matthew says with a smile.
An old man drags his slippers down the hall towards the elevator. Matthew looks up at the photographs on the walls. He doesn’t recognize anyone.
“You are an intruder,” Matthew says to the old man.
The old man smiles. One of his teeth is capped in gold.
“Everyone has his flaws,” the old man responds as he clears his throat of phlegm.
The old man reaches for a small black telephone on a small mahogany table. He knocks it over. A voice cries out from the phone as it falls to the floor.
“Someone is at my window!”
Matthew opens a nearby door and steps into a washroom. A man in the corner is drying his hands under a blower. Matthew climbs onto a sink and steps through a mirror. He finds himself sitting in a tree. Below, a flock of seagulls are feasting on a dead black dog. He hears voices. Nearby on a bench Matthew spots an angel talking with a little girl. The little girl’s hand is up the angel’s gown.
“No!” Matthew cries and tumbles out of the tree.
The couple look up and smile.
“Who is he?” the little girl asks the angel.
“An American tourist,” the angle responds.
“He better watch out for those seagulls,” the little girl observes.
The angel shakes his head.
“Americans aren’t afraid of seagulls.”
Matthew crashes to the ground, a few feet from the park bench.
“They should be,” the little girl responds.
A cat stepped out of the bush and licked the smile off Matthew’s face. Matthew’s head swirled. He tried to stand, but lost his balance and staggered across the park in perfect Gene Kelly elegance and fell into a wading pool. Another little girl, identical to the first, stepped up to Matthew.
“Are you God? Did you bring my mommy back?”
Matthew crawled out of the pool and collapsed. A man and a woman were laying beside him, their clothes on, copulating.
“I’m lost,” Matthew said.
“And wet,” the woman said than laughed.
“Very wet,” the man added.
Matthew rose to his feet. There was a step ladder leaning against a telephone pole. Matthew looked up. It was an empty crucifix. He climbed up the ladder and hung himself out to dry. Looking up into the sky, he cried out in despair.
“Martha, why did you leave me?”
Matthew’s eyes began to close. There was now only a dime of light slipping through the slot in his eyes. He felt like smoke in a dark room. Voices muttered. Heat coughed out of the vents. Walls of eyes, closed. Buckets of tears, empty. Lovers fighting.
“You can’t get it up. That’s no reason to get upset,” the first lover cried.
“You don’t understand,” the second lover responded.
“Understand what?” the first asked.
“Understand,” the second said with a chuckle, “that I don’t care.”
Emptiness chants. A cavern filled with tongues wagging. Water slapping against the darkness. Matthew opens his eyes. In front of him men sitting in chains, watching shadows dancing in gallows across the cave walls. Matthew climbed down into the fire.
“Where is the light coming from?” he cried.
Matthew stepped around the fire. Moths rose like smoke into laughter. A drunken politician greeted him. Matthew pushed one of the buttons on his vest. An elevator opened up. He stepped inside. The elevator rose to the mouth of a cave and vomited Matthew out. In the dizzy sunlight, Matthew covered his eyes. Surrounded by televisions. A woman’s face in every television. The same woman.
“Is that it, Martha? Is that all there is?” he asked.
“No,” all the faces replied.
“What then?” Matthew asked. “What else was there?”
All the faces remained mute except for one.
“That was for you to find out.”
March 18, 2009
Life as an Interview
“Matthew had a wonderful way with backs,” I said, rising with some difficulty from the ground. I squeaked like an old gate, warped ribs and rusted hinges. White puss from severed dandelion heads dribbled off my fingers. I brushed off my dress and looked around the garden. A rose bush at the foot of my bedroom window lay trampled and I was seventy years old today.
“He had a certain touch with his fingers.” The sunlight felt so marvelous against my skin. Like a lover’s breath on the back of my neck.
“A tingling sensation. What a mind Matthew had. He once boasted that he could bring a woman to orgasm without touching her. He proved it at a party the neighbours held for their son Gary’s graduation. He stepped up behind Margaret Anderson and whispered something in her ear. The woman fainted.”
For a moment I put my hands on my hips and breathed deeply. The lilacs smelled so sweet. I stepped gingerly across the lawn. The ground was soft. The grass tickled my feet. I reached the front gate just as the mailman arrived.
“Hello, Mrs. Faxter. How are you today?” he smiled.
He looked so young. These days everyone looks young.
“I remember when I was pregnant,” I said.
The mailman looked at me with a puzzled expression on his face.
“I was dreadfully sick in the mornings and I kept asking myself what the rising of the sun had to do with being pregnant. Do you know what I mean? Are you a Negro?”
“I’ve never been pregnant,” the mailman smiled. He thinks I’ve gone mad.
“It is strange to feel sick and glorious at the same time,” I continued.
“I’m Lebanese,” the mailman added.
“I loved being pregnant. It made me feel so useful. To think that you had two brains in your body where before there was only one, was marvelous. I guess that must have raised my IQ. If I’d had triplets I could have been another Einstein.”
“I never thought of it that way,” the mailman smiled.
“Did you know that James Joyce’s wife was almost illiterate? For a while Matthew thought he was God.”
“Excuse me?” the mailman asked.
I looked at the mailman and took one of his hands and patted it lightly. He was such a charming young man.
“Matthew asked me one time if he could watch me masturbate. What an odd request, don’t you think?”
The mailman had no response.
I stepped over to a patch of tulips by the fence and started picking off their heads.
“When I started having the affair with Fred, I felt as if we were constantly being watched. I wouldn’t have put it passed Matthew to have hired a detective. Fred found it exciting. Matthew was born at the wrong time. If he’d been born in the middle-ages he might have been one of those theologians arguing about the number of angels on the head of a pin.”
I looked down at my hands. They were filled with the heads of the tulips. They looked like the heads of the children, I never had. I released their thoughts. My legs began to tremble. The mailman stepped over and grabbed me before I fell. I needed some marmalade. He guided me back to the porch and into a lawn chair.
“Are you alright, Mrs. Faxter?” he asked and put my mail at my feet.
“You’re a nice son of a bitch,” I said smiling. I love mailmen. The first television program based on one of Matthew’s stories was odd. It was about a fellow who has a heart attack and dies alone in his shop thinking that the world has been destroyed by a nuclear war. Death must have seemed a sweet escape for the fellow. Matthew entered this world from a different hole than the rest of us.
“You can go now,” I said, waving the mailman off.
The mailman departed after my reassurances that I would survive the moment. I reached over to a paint can and lifted off the lid. I removed a package of cigarettes. There was a lighter inside of the package.
“How happy we women are, waiting on the beach for our men to come home from the sea. I am going to die my love. Matthew, you bastard! Why don’t you care?”
Steam rose from the freshly poured cup of tea. I took a seat in my chair at the kitchen table. I smiled at the empty chair across from me. I’ve always felt that I was being interviewed. One doesn’t talk to oneself. One answers questions.
“How thoughtless of me,” I said and pushed the plate of cookies across the table.
“I’m dieing. We all must die but somehow that isn’t much comfort.”
A glance out the window turned into a stare. Where is he?
“Isn’t tea a lovely way to spend time? I never realized how comforting it was until I was fifty. Matthew put his fist through the wall over there. For a cold man, he could blow up quite a storm. His work was everything. It ate him up. Matthew talked about making his mark on the world. What folly is the male ego! I don’t know what good Matthew thought immortality was going to do him. I laugh every time I hear someone order a Caesar’s salad or a Napoleon brandy. Is that all their valor and ruthlessness came to? Croutons and liquor? It seems like such a poor trade off for one’s soul.”
I nodded in the direction of a crayon drawing taped on the refrigerator door.
“Allan’s youngest did that. They say he’s got talent. Allan is sending him for special classes in art. Better that he become an electrician or a plumber. The world has had enough artists. Museums full of art collecting dust. Matthew aimed too high. A shy man forced to entertain. It destroyed him.”
I picked up my cup of tea, stepped over to the sink, and poured it down the drain.
“Sometimes I laughed so hard. Matthew kept me in stitches. There is something close to sainthood in a man who can make a woman smile. I keep waiting for Matthew to return. I know he isn’t coming. Like those women who wait on the beach for their men to come home from the sea. Those women must have known something.”
I looked out the window. The moon hung itself in the trees.
The rain poured into my mouth. Laughter filled with tears. Lightning lit up the sky. It felt like applause. Swinging my long gray hair, now soaking wet. This tattered dress like an old woman’s tattooed skin. I wished I could cut my lawn. I love the fragrance of freshly cut grass. Would the lawn mower work in a thunderstorm? When I got back into the house, I shook like a dog coming out of a lake. Throwing off my dress, I toweled myself down and grabbed my housecoat. I had never felt so alive since the doctors told me about the cancer.
Back in the kitchen I put the kettle on for tea and picked up the mail I had dumped earlier that day. A brochure for a school of auto-mechanics. Should I apply? God, I might die under a car?
“I felt like a cow when I had the first one. Matthew said I looked like one of Rubens’ models. Matthew liked to say that there were three sexes – male, female, and pregnant women. The mirror told another story. My breasts were so full of milk, the skin began to crack. Now my breasts are like pancakes. Who can age gracefully? Nuns. Aging is another word for dieing. One day the baby inside kicked me. I felt like a new universe was being born inside. When they pulled the lifeless lump out from between my legs, I felt as if I had given birth to death itself. I longed to hear a cry, a cry that remained mute. Matthew said that he’d had ideas in his head that had never worked out. I had lost a baby! Couldn’t he see the difference?”
I dropped the brochure for auto-mechanics and picked up a water bill. Outside it was still pouring. The kettle began to whistle. Taking my cup of tea to the table I took a seat and watched the storm that raged outside.
“I dreamed about that baby kicking inside me. That one magic moment. That one lonely conversation. And then the nightmares. I was a huge cooler in a grocery store. Customers would come up and remove large blood dripping roasts from my womb. What sort of child could it have been? I love Allan but there was something about that first child. Matthew isn’t coming. Allan talked to his father, but he isn’t coming. And if Matthew did show up, how would I explain the suffering? There was none. Where are my pills? I’m not taking any. I don’t feel any pain because I’ve gone mad. The mad don’t feel any pain. They invent it. Cancer is my third child.”
I looked across the table at the empty chair. “Matthew persuaded himself that we had a child after Allan. A girl. She was the apple of his eye. Or is that pie? What was her name? Betty, I think. And then she died in some freak accident that Matthew conjured up in his imagination. You’d think that there wasn’t enough misery in life that you wouldn’t have to go out and invent new ones. Matthew never seemed to get over Betty’s death. I think he blamed me. Did you hear that?”
Maybe it was the storm, I comforted myself. I heard it again, this time louder. Someone was knocking at the door.
“I’ll be right back,” I said to the empty chair.
I made my way down the hall.
“What if it is death?”
I opened the door. The sky lit up with a flash of lightning.
“Hello,” Matthew said and stepped inside.
4. The Living Room
Matthew sat in the living room staring at the television set. The screen was blank.
“I never got around to getting it fixed,” I apologized.
Matthew did not respond. I disappeared for a few minutes into the kitchen and returned with a tray – tea, milk, sugar, cookies.
“I couldn’t remember if you took your tea black,” I said.
Matthew still hadn’t moved. Is he dead? I went over to the curtains and closed them.
“It casts a glare on the set,” I said forgetting that the television didn’t work.
“Are you alright?” I asked.
Matthew looked at me. I’m not sure he recognized me.
“You had me worried,” I responded, wondering if I should show him some identification. “You can never tell. For a moment I thought you might be dead. Or I might be dead. And this living room the afterlife. Mrs. Anderson told me the other day down at the convenience store that her neighbour’s son-in-law, only forty years of age, keeled over in the garden. Bent over to pick up a tomato. Dead as a door knob. What an odd expression. Imagine being killed by a tomato.”
I returned to the couch and poured each of us a cup of tea.
“Why do you keep smiling?” I asked.
“You’re a revelation,” Matthew responded.
“I’m just a little mad, that’s all. Mad as a refrigerator. I talk to the dryer downstairs. Men invent all these things for women than go off and die early. All old women have left are appliances. I realized the other day that I would never fall in love again, that I would never have a man between my legs. All that brings me comfort these days is mowing the lawn. Don’t you love the smell of things with their heads cut off?”
Matthew sipped his tea. Black. There was no sound from the television. No picture, now no sound. Perhaps I hadn’t turned it on. Maybe the plug was pulled. Maybe there was a brown out. Maybe the water had stopped falling over Niagara Falls. How long did we have before the sun stopped shining and turned into a dull silver bullet?
“Men get depressed about things that have barely any relationship to reality. A woman aches with the death of planets. Her moods swing with the ebb and flow of tides. A man sacrifices himself to abstractions – greed, power, lust. A woman… a woman is the sacrifice.”
I picked up the plate of cookies and offered them to Matthew. The marshmallow cookies were his favourite.
“They’re my favourite,” Matthew responded. He looked touched.
“I’m dieing, Matthew,” I said. “Most of my life, I’ve been such a fool. Living from month to month, year to year, just being carried along. Five year plans. Investments. Bills. Brain dead. I want to ask the right questions now. I want to die with my eyes wide open.”
Steam rose from my cup. I turned and looked at the television. There was a face in the box… mine. The tea was cold. Matthew picked up one of the cookies. The storm stopped. A light rain fell on the roof.
“I need someone to make sure I don’t get lost.”
5. The Bath
Matthew bent over and tested the water. After making a few adjustments to the water temperature, he turned to me. I sat on the toilet seat in my bathrobe. I removed it and he helped me into the tub.
“I could have done it myself,” I said.
“You fell last time,” he responded.
“I’m a bit shy about this old body of mine. You haven’t seen me naked since we were children together.”
“You have the body of a thirty year old,” Matthew responded. “My eyes are controlled by my memories.”
I laughed. “You were always such a sweet fool.”
As I bathed, Matthew sat on the side of the bath smoking a cigarette. Periodically I stole a puff.
“One morning I woke up and discovered I no longer loved you,” I said. “I felt sick about it. I went out that day and bought a new dress. A red silk dress. Very sexy. You never noticed. I bought some sexy lingerie that I threw into the garbage. I had my hair cut off. You said you liked it. And then Freddy dropped in one afternoon and I dragged him into our bed. I was angry. I know it was a terrible sin. Your best friend. How could you let me fall out of love with you?”
Matthew handed his cigarette to me. He took a cloth and began to wash my back.
“I was a fool,” he said. “I was going down a path that I couldn’t ask you to follow.”
“What kind of path?” I asked.
“I was going mad,” Matthew responded. “And I thought that I would be better off alone.”
6. The Vanity
I sat in my housecoat in front of my vanity. I was examining my right breast. A lump was taking its place. In the mirror, Matthew sat in a wicker chair, watching.
“I should have had them removed,” I said. “The doctor thought I was mad for refusing the operation. What does an old woman need with breasts?”
Matthew smiled at me. What was he thinking?
“Vanity,” I continued. “What else do we have as a defense against the awful silence.”
“You heard it too?” he asked.
“Everyone hears it, Matthew. I don’t know why you never realized it. Sometimes I think you wanted to be your own species. Pain doesn’t distinguish any of us. Only our reaction to it.”
“How did you get so wise?” Matthew asked.
I slipped further into the water. I felt wonderful in the warm water with his hands on me. Would he push me under the water and drown me?
“I knew it was wrong with Freddy. I never called him Freddy until he passed on. Once it happened, what could I do? I never had much imagination and there was no escape that I could see. If only you had fought for me.”
“Every morning I wake up thinking about you,” Matthew said, lighting up a cigarette.
I turned and looked at the cloud of smoke across the room and the tears behind it.
7. The Wicker Chair
I sat in the wicker chair by the window, watching the snow fall. It’s odd dieing in winter. The day resembles a morgue. Everything is under a white sheet.
“I want you to know the truth. Betty never existed. She never laughed at you, held your hand, or gave you a hug. She never died. And you were not responsible for her death.”
I turned and looked at Matthew sitting in a chair nearby. He had fallen asleep.
8. The Bed
Matthew turned in his chair and leaned over the bed to turn off my reading light. I opened my eyes.
“The day I walked out on you, there was so much pain. You looked like a man who had just been awakened from a decade of death. Don’t let me die alone.”
9. The Morning Light
Matthew woke, startled. He turned in his chair and looked at me in bed. My eyes were barely open. My lips flickered. There was something more I had to say. Matthew bent over to put his ear to my mouth. He took my hand in his. My hand went limp. Are you going to die with me?
March 16, 2009
Making a Career as a Mad Man
1. Job Hunting
I live in my cartoon universe. Matthew Chambers’ paradise with talking ducks and thinking accountants. Watching the College Street morning streetcars blowing slush through their nostrils. It’s not traffic, all the avenues are choking on laughter. Like Fred Astaire, the mouths of my trousers licked the tide of history. My umbrella opened its eye to spot a dark scowling cloud, resembling in many details a former Premier of the province, peeking over the legislative buildings of Queen’s Park. The cloud bent over and pinched the bottom of a young woman ahead of me. She turned, looked at my umbrella tip, and cursed my ancestors. I shrugged my shoulders and pointed to the sky. On a wire overhead several crows sat, pointing at me with their beaks and laughing. The lights changed into something more comfortable. It turned out to be a wink. Half way across University Avenue I found myself stranded. Robinson Crusoe. The light was red as far as I could read. A cab driver slammed on his horn. Watch where you’re fucking walking! I raced to the other side sliding over the curb and into a Pole. I helped her back on her feet. Told her that I too was Catholic but she didn’t seem to care. Swung her purse at my head. There was change flying everywhere. I found myself on my back, a loony on each eye. God, I felt lonely. Job hunting for days without a weapon or any sign of game. Flogging a massively inferior product, myself. Maybe it was job hunting that turned Marx against capitalism. The only person who would hire him was his best buddy, Engels. At each prospective employer, I behaved like a houseboy in a Chinese restaurant, all smiles and boughs and humility. Talking about myself so much had given me the runs. At the end of the interview when I was allowed to ask a question, I would ask if I could use the washroom. In one stall, a squirrel stood on a seat with chestnuts in his hands. He turned and looked at me. What are you looking at, Mac? He took one of his nuts and aimed it at my head. I turned at the last moment and the nut grazed my ear. Another set of lights. Two middle-aged women, arm in arm, passed by me, their legs moving in perfect unison, glancing at me with looks of fear and disapproval. I growled and barked at them, wishing that I could have nipped at their ankles. A short stocky man pressed against my back pushing me to the edge of the sidewalk. Are you going? he cried. Get out of my way you silly fool! he roared as he pushed passed. I struggled to keep my balance, doing a tightrope walk on the sidewalk ledge. Opposite me on the other side of the street another gentleman with an umbrella was doing the same balancing act. I felt like I was looking into a mirror. I don’t mind life being cruel. I just don’t see that there is any call for mockery. I turned away and headed for the Parliament Building to complain to my Member of Parliament. A cloud hid behind the buildings giggling. Squirrels massed in the trees for an ambush.
2. Bar Talk
I stepped into a lothario’s dream of indulgence. Hundreds of coloured lights flashed on and off. Walls throbbed with chants and war drums. Three scantily clad girls standing at the bar worked their way through a carton of cigarettes. I headed straight for the washroom where I unraveled half a roll of toilet paper and dried my hair. I headed for the bar and took a seat in one of the private booths. I felt I owed the bar something for plugging up the toilet. The place was empty as far as the eye could see. One of the young ladies swung across the dance floor and sashayed up to my table. A double whiskey! I said. She looked at me with a mother’s disapproval. Please! I added. “It’s a graveyard in here,” she moaned when she returned with my drink. Crossing her legs and slipping off a shoe, she rubbed her feet. She put the shoe on the table beside my Canada Club. “New shoes?” I asked. The girl nodded, chewing on some gum and allowing a bubble to slip between the gap in her teeth. “Nothing harder than breaking in a new pair of shoes,” I said with a smile. “That and a man,” the girl added. I shrugged. “I wouldn’t know about that.” The girl smiled and removed her shoe from the table. As she laughed, I watched her lovely breasts swaying back and forth in her halter-top like a hammock holding two billowy clouds. She stretched her arms erotically. I thought she was posing. Maybe she was bored. I picked up my drink and took a sip. “Anything the matter?” she asked. I told her I ordered a beer. She laughed and pointed to the microphone in the flower on her blouse. Nature records everything. The girl took a seat in a companion chair. Her bum looked snug. The chair looked pleased. “You’re kind of cute,” she said. “My name is Gloria and I hate working here. Not because I find the work degrading. Most jobs are degrading. But this place is boring. All these insipid conversations, I am forced to hear. IQs drop fifty percent as soon as a man steps through those doors. Complaining about their wives or girlfriends or the Maple Leafs. They think I’m their bloody drink. Their wives won’t do this or won’t do that. Useless idle chatter. It’s like watching someone masturbate. I thought I could gather enough material together for my next book. I’m a poet. I’ve got to dance for you or the boss’ll be on my ass.” I nodded and Gloria dragged a box over to my table. She took my hand and stepped up onto her stage. Leaning over she took out my package of cigarettes. I lit her up. “My poetry is street smart,” she said as her breasts tumbled out of their harness. Cigarette smoke poured out of her lips over my hair. My head felt like an Easter sonnet. “I like to write about the whimsical slight happenings of everyday life. I’ve been published in dozens of small magazines and university reviews across Canada and the United States. I’ve been compared to Robert Priest.” “Robert who?” I shrugged my shoulders pretending that I didn’t know Mr. Priest. No one wants to admit that they’ve read a Canadian poet. Gloria turned and bent over, waving her bottom at me. She looked at me from between her legs, the cigarette dangling from her lips. I thought, This must be love. “Do you write about men?” I asked. “Men always think that,” she said, dragging her g-string down her legs. I could smell her five o’clock shadow. She reminded me of those old Coke machines with a bottle opener built into their face. “I’ve written a lot of poems about nature,” she responded, smoke drifting like a cloud between her thighs. I imagined the Vikings first spotting Newfoundland. Gloria turned and lifted her leg over my shoulder. Her cigarette switched lips. “Isn’t this dangerous?” I asked but my voice was muffled in my cough. “I write about the small town where I was raised. People in small towns have real values. They’re not two faced like people in the city. I refuse to write about men. I won’t flatter them by pretending they are of any interest.” Gloria switched legs, removed her cigarette and offered me a puff. I declined. She shrugged and sucked on the Matinee. She swung her breasts across my eyes, took each in her free hand and sucked on it. “Poetry doesn’t pay,” she said and dropped her cigarette in my glass. The whisky sizzled. She stepped off the table and took a seat again. “You owe me for the dance and the whisky,” she said as she dressed. “Oh, of course,” I stammered, reaching into my trouser pocket for some money. Gloria grabbed my hand. “That’s alright,” she smiled. “Let me get it for you.”
3. The First Set
Working for months for VCB, which didn’t stand for anything but made everyone feel professional. Slide shows for pharmaceutical and insurance companies. Business was brisk. Eight hours in front of a monitor. Needles in my eyes. Bacon sizzled in my brain. Wiring snapped. There she was on the screen. Her skin possessed a green cool tone. Her lips a fresh pink hue. She laughed at me. I turned her off and complained to my boss that I’d been working too long. He offered me some drugs, free samples. “What are they good for?” I asked. He shrugged his shoulders. “Does it really matter?” That night I could not sleep. The image of the girl on the screen appeared time and again. Four o’clock. An explanation occurred to me. What if the inner eye of the mind translated a secondary series of codes from the monitor, one that was not visible on the screen, one that the conscious business mind was not aware? What if exhaustion had allowed its message to seep into my consciousness? Was some intelligence in our technology communicating with or manipulating the inner recesses of our brain? I grabbed a pencil. Not finding any paper I scribbled on the bedroom wall by the light from our digital clock. The next morning I ripped off a piece of wallpaper. To my surprise, Martha looked pleased. The next evening I walked home from work. A light drizzle mopped up the streets in a languid lushness. Everyone I passed was carrying an umbrella, looking beheaded. Pneumonia everywhere, I thought. “Are you talking to me?” a middle-aged stocky woman in front of me barked. She turned, her shopping bag grazing my knees. My mouth dropped. Her movements were so elegant, I thought she was going to ask me to dance. “Are you talking to me?” she repeated. “I was talking to myself,” I explained though I hadn’t been aware of speaking. The woman smiled or at least I assumed she had smiled but reconsidered my impression when I noticed that her red lipstick had wandered off her lips and up each side of her face. And then there was the moustache, like Charlie Chaplin’s little tramp. “How am I supposed to know that? There are so many people who wish to have a word with me. I cannot find enough hours in the day. Do you find me attractive?” Again I acted the dummy. “Of course,” she said, smoothing her moustache. “I am not your type,” she added and danced off doing the jitterbug. I looked across the street, something I would never have done if the woman had not stopped me. I try to keep my focus narrow. Martha threatened to go to the track and steal some blinders off a horse if I didn’t straighten out my act. There was a vacant lot, a hole in a row of townhouses. It was obvious by the size of the lot and its attendant neighbours that a house had once stood there. Perhaps there had been a fire. Sitting in the middle of the lot was an old television set. I stepped across the avenue. The set was covered in debris. Several milk plants had grown around it. The cabinet was covered in caterpillars. “Looks like it grew there,” a thin feminine voice said. I turned. Out of the darkness an old woman dressed in a bright orange jump suit stepped. She smiled seductively at me from a sea of Felini wrinkles. “Yes,” I said. “It’s been there since the house was torn down,” the old woman continued. “There was a terrible storm. A huge Dutch Elm fell on the house. Three children were squashed like pancakes. The television was the only thing that survived. It’s an Admiral. No one dares take it away. Superstitious lot. It’s only a box filled with glass and tubes but the peasants think it has the devil inside.” I had never considered the possibility that an object could have a soul. It had always been my assumption that technology was ethically neutral and now I found a television set that was terrifying a neighbourhood. “Why don’t you do these poor people a favour and drag that thing home with you?” The old woman smiled. She had lovely teeth. Like a white picket fence. I was going to ask the name of her dentist but remembered Martha’s mantra about sticking to one topic at a time. I turned back to the set and imagined those three children watching the set as the tree came crashing through the roof of the house. Minutes slipped into hours. As the sun came out, a flock of butterflies rose out of the set and hovered over it like a halo. God, I thought, the first thing I’m going to have to do is to rent a van. I’ll ask my good friend Fred for a hand. He’s got an extra one.
4. The Third Set
“You wouldn’t believe what they were selling bacon for?” Martha said as she stepped into the living room. Her mouth dropped. There were now three televisions, sitting piggy back like three monkeys. The bottom set couldn’t see but it had an excellent sound system. The middle set had blown its vocal chords and now there was the third set. It heard no evil. “You didn’t…” she gasped, sinking into the couch, a bag of groceries sinking with her. One tear chased another down Martha’s cheek and leaped suicidally off her stiff upper lip. “Mother is afraid for our children,” she said, a tragic tinge in her voice. She looked up at me from some place deep inside her fears. “Someday she thinks you’ll completely flip out and commit some horrendous violence on me and the kids.” “We don’t have any kids,” I reminded Martha. “Your mother watches too much Eye Witness News.” Without saying another word, Martha departed with her groceries except for an onion that rolled onto the floor and under the couch. I looked at the sets and smiled. She doesn’t approve. The sets looked back at me with a blank expression. She doesn’t understand, the bottom set responded. Oh, I think it’s more serious than that, the third set offered. As Martha stood at the counter packing individual servings of bacon in small plastic bags, I stepped up behind her. I reached around her and playfully fondled her breasts. Without hesitation, Martha turned around and slapped me across the face with a side of bacon. “How could you?” she cried. Tears ran down her cheek. Her bottom lip quivered. Bringing the side of bacon up to her cheek, she began to dab at her eyes. I rubbed the cheek that was still stinging from her recent assault. “I thought that you would be pleased,” I said in my own defense. “Oh!” she cried and threw the bacon into the sink. She rushed out of the room and headed into the bathroom. Moments later I was at the bathroom door. I could hear Martha weeping uncontrollably on the other side. “You were laughing at me,” she responded, sobbing. “It wasn’t you. It was the bacon and the tears. Reminded me of an old Ernie Kovacs skit.” “Whose Ernie Kovacs?” she whimpered. “The Greeks had their oracles. We have television,” I added. “The world is not a safe place with someone like you around, Matthew. We can’t go on like this. You’ve got to end these pipe dreams of yours. I want to have a child, but I want the child brought up in a normal world, not one in which his father thinks that he is communicating with other life forms through television. It’s too crazy.” Eureka! Perhaps Martha had really stumbled onto something. If other intelligent life forms existed in the universe wouldn’t it make sense that they would try to communicate to us on television’s wave bands? That static had to mean something. “Of course!” I cried, wounded by revelation. Sliding down the wall, I wept with joy at this marvelous insight. Once again the universe had exposed itself to me. Martha opened the door and seeing me on the floor weeping, mistook my ecstasy for contrition. She knelt down, took my head between her breasts, and began to rock me. “It’s alright, Matthew,” she sniffled. “We’ll get by.”
5. The Promotion
The thick nasal voice of my boss, Mr. Grant, seeped out from behind the red coals of his cigar. “Chambers!” I straightened up in the chair opposite Mr. Grant and stared into the well of darkness where Mr. Grant hid. Outside of the fire at the end of his cigar, the room was pitch black. Mr. Grant hated sunlight. The windows were boarded up, and there was a little skirt at the bottom of the door to keep the office light out. God, I wish I’d brought my night vision glasses that Bill had given me for Christmas. I had been working for the communications company for several months and this was my first interview with Mr. Big. There were a lot of rumours about him in the office. Some said that he had a rare skin disease and had to scotch tape up patches on his skin where the skin had fallen off. Others said that he had a rare blood disease that made him sensitive to light and garlic. Mr. Big loved blood sausage. “I had an employee,” he began, “a tight assed little wimp who went and bought a dozen NO SMOKING signs and had them placed on the walls of all of our offices. More than that he had pamphlets printed up on the dangers of second hand smoke and distributed to all of our employees. He even had the Ministry of Health in here checking the air quality. I did not approve. I am not a fellow easily angered, but when I am taunted, as this fellow surely taunted me, I can become a force of wrath. I fired the little twit. The bugger sued me for wrongful dismissal. I should have twisted the little fucker’s head off when I had the opportunity.” There was silence. From deep in the well of darkness behind the large mahogany desk that divided us, there was a deep gurgling phlegm rattle. I swallowed. “Yes, sir,” I finally managed to ejaculate. “Too hot in here?” Mr. Grant asked. “No, sir.” “Have to keep it warm. Doctor’s orders. Oh, those bastards really have you by the balls. Stalin had the right idea. Execute all of them. More and more people getting sick every day. And there are more and more doctors. I don’t believe in coincidence. How many kids do you have?” “One sir. A boy.” “Expecting more?” “The boy is quite a bit to handle. But it’s really up to my wife.” “Your wife!” There was another terrible gargling sound as if Mr. Grant were clearing his throat. I heard someone spit. “When my dear late Elsa was amongst us, she knew when to open her mouth and when to keep it buttoned up. Thirty years of marriage and she never contradicted me once. That’s not a record that will be easy to break. Elsa was a tribute to her sex.” I looked down into my lap where my fingers were tied in knots. I was afraid that I would never be able to unwind them. “Was there something specific you wanted to discuss with me, Mr. Grant?” A rotund toad like face leaped out of the darkness and hovered over the coals of his cigar. A flabby flavescent face grinned at me. “I like you, Chambers,” he said, his eyebrows twitching seductively. I swallowed. “I like you, Mr. Grant.” His alligator grin sank bank into the darkness. “How long have you been with us, Chambers?” “Five months, sir.” “Hmm…” Mr. Grant sighed then pondered publicly. “I thought it was longer.” “Five months,” I repeated without cause. “And in all that time, you’ve only been absent five days?” Mr. Grant added then mumbled under his breath. “It should have been years not months.” “Yes, sir.” And added in my head, plus those Friday afternoons before long weekends. “You’re not like most of the deadwood around here, Chambers. They take Friday afternoon offs before long weekends. Think I don’t know. But I don’t lose any time. I’m locked in tight. The clocks have been adjusted to make up the difference. Now everyone is happy. Let me get to the point.” “Yes, sir.” “I want you to be our new office manager.” There was silence. I wondered how Simmons would feel once he discovered that I’d been given his job. Poor Simmons. Five kids and a huge mortgage. I remembered we’d all signed a card for his wife who was in the hospital. Fallen arches, Simmons had explained. Nervous breakdown was the rumor. “And don’t worry about Simmons,” Mr. Grant said, gargling Simmons’ name and swallowing it. “That’s very generous of you, Mr. Grant. I’ll seriously consider your offer with my wife.” “Discuss with your wife!” Mr. Grant croaked. “Is it more money you want? I haven’t even mentioned a financial package.” “No, sir,” I responded. “I’m sure you’d be more than generous. It’s my wife.” “You can have Simmons salary plus ten thousand.” “But sir…” Mr. Grant laughed with delight. “You tough son of a bitch! But that’s why I want you, Chambers. I like you style. Always thinking about number one. Always the bottom line. We’re two of a kind, Chambers. Always out there protecting your ass. Well, whose ass should you protect? Let the world go to hell in a hand basket. A man who looks out for himself will always be decisive. He won’t bend over backwards, afraid of offending the feelings of his underlings. You’re a man after my own heart. Double Simmons’ salary. How does that sound, Chambers?” I stepped out of Mr. Grant’s office and made me way to my desk. Frank Johnson stepped over and shook my hand. Several other junior workers circled around to extend their congratulations. Eunice Thompson, the receptionist gave me a hug. The door to Simmons’ office remained shut. One of the girls from the typing pool rushed ahead of her sisters and shook my hand. “My name is Mary McGarvey,” she said, words rushing out of her mouth in a flock. “Now that you’ve been promoted, you’ll need a personal secretary and I know just the girl which is me.” I smiled at the young woman, patted her on the head, than turned my attention to the madding crowd. “Actually,” I said, “I think I’m going to quit.”
6. The Waiting Room
“Don’t stand there blocking the bloody way!” the small man with a thick Scottish brogue barked. I looked down the stairs at the rising masses then turned to the little man in a gray Transit uniform shouting beside me. He seemed to be a leader of men. “You remind me of Trotsky,” I said. “Ah hell,” he cried in dismay. “Another lunatic!” Then he pushed me aside as the herd of homo-sapiens stampeded passed us. “Animals!” he grumbled. “You could have been killed out there.” I looked through a window at a room filled with television monitors. Each monitor gave a picture of a different station. I was impressed. There was a sense of omnipresence about the room. “Its not the way I’d choose to go,” the Transit officer swore. “You’ve got to remember that we all live in this world. Selfishness hurts everyone.” On the way home, I thought about what the little Scot had said. A global view of humanity had taken root in the thinking of the common man. I couldn’t wait to tell Martha. But as soon as I thought about Martha my enthusiasm waned. Martha was worried about bills and I had just lost another job. Pragmatism was spading my soul. I wanted to celebrate life. I looked for a bar. “A beer?” Gracie smiled. Gracie was the bartender at the Pilot Tavern, which I had come to call home. “Make it a scotch,” I said than added, “A double.” I climbed onto a stool. A moment later Gracie returned with my scotch. I threw it back. “Now you can bring me a beer,” I said. I looked around the bar. The place was empty. “Where is everybody?” I asked. “Watching the moon landing,” Gracie said, decapitating my bottle and pouring the lovely golden ale into a glass. “I told Frank to put in a set. Mark my words, Mr. Chambers, someday every bar will have a television or two in it.” “Moon landing?” Gracie looked at me incredulously. “I’ve been working a lot of overtime,” I explained. “They left about a week ago. Maybe it was longer. I can’t believe you haven’t heard about it. The newspapers are plastered with pictures of the moon. It looks like Sudbury.” “The moon looks like Sudbury?” I repeated. Sudbury was a mining town in northern Ontario. Desolate, barren and dominated by smoke stacks, it looked more like Dante’s version of hell. And that’s where America’s ambition had led it. After a couple more beers, I left the bar. On my way home, I passed a flower shop. It gave me an idea. Carnations might soften Martha up when I announced my most recent dismissal. I stepped into the flower shop and was greeted by a demure young woman. “I’m looking for carnations,” I announced. “You’ve had a fight,” the girl responded. “I’m hoping to avoid one,” I explained. The girl giggled. “It’s a hobby of mine. Guessing what occasion brings someone into the shop. I’m averaging about 70%. Women bring down my marks.” “Have you considered a career at the track?” I asked. The girl disappeared into a back room. I looked around the shop. As beautiful as the flowers were, there was a smell of death in the shop. A moment later the girl returned. “Do you use your powers anywhere else?” I asked. “Television,” the girl said as she wrapped my flowers in a cone of coloured paper. “I can usually guess how programs are going to turn out. Dramas, comedies, it doesn’t matter. Television only uses a handful of plot lines. Everything else is a smoke screen.” “Do you think that life is like that, made up mostly of illusions?” The girl smiled. “You’re taking me seriously.” “Of course, I am,” I exclaimed. The girl was silent for some time. When she finished wrapping my carnations she handed them to me. “Would you like to take me out some time?” she asked. “I’m married,” I responded. “I guessed that,” she said. “But I have so much more to say. And you are such a good listener.” I paid for the flowers and stepped out of the shop. I checked my change. The girl had slipped her phone number into my hand. I looked at it for some time then tossed it away. It blew down the street, tumbling out into traffic. A car ran over the slip of paper. A local tough hanging out on the corner stepped into the street and picked up the paper. He read it and stuffed it into his pocket. I thought about Martha and wished that I’d never stepped into the shop.
7. Man on the Street
Soon it was April. The lawns now soaked with melting snow were beginning to rust with green. Trees were budding and stretching their arms. Dog shit grew out of the sidewalks. The whole earth had acquired a soft belly. I stood staring at the For Sale sign. For days I had argued with Martha that the house would be a good investment. She finally collapsed under the weight of my persistence. I had to look for money for a down payment. The banks I visited did not consider me a good risk. With five jobs in two years, I was deemed a liability. I had to consider other avenues of collateral. I had already borrowed considerable funds over the years from friends. I was confident that a criminal option was not available to me. Mugging was distasteful and the number of assaults necessary to achieve my goals was astronomical. I considered robbing a bank. But then I would need a gun. And what if I had to use it. I abhorred violence. Then I considered fraud, blackmail, breaking and entering. In each case, I found myself lacking. And so it was that I was going over these alternative life styles, I was approached by two men, one holding a clipboard, the other a camera and microphone. They asked if I cared to be interviewed. “Why me?” I asked. “Why not?” the man with the clipboard responded. “Will you pay me?” I asked. The two young men laughed and shook their heads. “What have you got to lose?” the cameraman asked. I agreed. My agenda was empty. The clipboard instructed me to retreat a few yards and when signaled to walk toward the camera. They would stop me. It would add impact to their question and my response. I stepped back to the designated spot and waited. I wondered if I should run. Clipboard signaled me. I walked toward the camera but forgot to stop. I asked for a second chance. “Sir,” Clipboard cried. I stopped and looked into the camera. The question of the day was asked. For a moment, I hesitated. I’d forgotten the question. “That is not the real question,” I began. “Haven’t you noticed how the question revolts against your query? You must have noticed how the editing machine blurs images or fogs the voices of those interviewed. The camera has its own questions. It has something to say. Viewers, turn down the volume and listen to your television.” Clipboards mouth hung open. “Decode the static,” I continued. “We are being visited by an alien intelligence and it is trying to communicate with us. Technology is trying to communicate with all of mankind. Our very existence as a sentient species may depend upon our answer.” “What the hell is he talking about?” the cameraman cried. Clipboard shrugged his shoulders. It was a slow news day. It was decided to use my interview. The newscaster introduced me, tongue in cheek, as a philosopher for the new millennium. The audience took me seriously. For days the station was besieged by viewers who wanted to know more. Who was I? What books had I published? When would I speak next? And so began my career in television.
March 13, 2009
The Census Taker
by Matthew Chambers
In her bright orange poke-a-dot dress with puffed up frilly short sleeves, Martha stood at the exit of the store wagging her tongue at her husband. Middle aged, balding, shorter and wider than he was twenty years before, Matthew listened mutely.
“Promise me, Matthew. No drinking. Remember your heart. I’m too old to be left a widow.”
Matthew stood behind the safety of the store counter, sipping on a coffee.
“All my beauty,” Martha sighed as she checked herself out in the reflection of the door, then added, “Promise!”
Matthew looked passed the blurry image of his wife to the stand where a loaf of bread had begun to grow hair.
“And the children,” Martha added before Matthew had a chance to respond. “They’ll go home and tell their parents that you were drinking. The little bastards rob us blind when you’re tipsy. The bread man will try and sell you day old bread. Don’t take any. No good for anything but stuffing. And we have all the can goods we need in the basement. And remember the tax on cigarettes has gone up and don’t forget to charge for the matches.”
Matthew stepped out from behind the counter to open the door for his wife. Before she departed, Martha turned and gave Matthew a kiss on the forehead.
“Be good you silly old fool,” she said and was gone.
Matthew stepped back behind the counter. He looked across the store at the bread counter. What was it he had spotted before? He looked at his wristwatch. Ten before nine. He smiled, stepped across the shop, opened the door and dragged in the pile of bound magazines and newspapers that awaited him. After dragging them behind the counter, he took out a pair of scissors and cut the string. Then he ripped off the brown paper that kept them dry. Matthew piled the newspapers on the counter. He placed the girlie magazines in the top shelf of the magazine stand. Matthew opened one of the magazines. The page was white. Another printing error. Customers would be too embarrassed to point it out. A bell rang. Matthew turned around to greet Mr. Robinson, a large black man, dressed impeccably, about Matthew’s age. Matthew grabbed a package of Player cigarettes and handed them to Mr. Robinson.
“A beautiful morning,” Mr. Robinson roared. Mr. Robinson had a huge barrel operatic voice that he liked to exercise. Matthew grunted. He could not stand such enthusiasm about life before the lunch hour. It seemed contrived.
“You should close up shop, Matt,” Mr. Robinson said, popping one of his Players into his pearly white teeth. And then like a magician, he miraculously lit a cigarette. “Get out and smell the roses. You’re only alive one time.”
“I’m allergic to flowers,” Matthew responded.
Mr. Robinson roared with laughter, smoke falling out of his mouth in an avalanche. He pointed to the lottery tickets. Matthew handed him one.
“You’ll never win,” Matthew said.
“Can’t win if you don’t buy one, I always say,” Mr. Robinson responded. “If I win, I’ll buy you a radio. You should have something to listen to in here, something to get your toes tapping.”
Mr. Robinson looked down at the newspaper stretched out on the counter.
“Only the rich win,” Matthew said.
“Law of nature?”
“Exactly,” Matthew said. “The rich get richer and the poor have children.”
Mr. Robinson took his cigarette out of mouth. Matthew was always amazed at the big man’s elegance.
“What do you think of this mess in the middle-east?” Mr. Robinson asked, handing Matthew a crisp new five dollar bill.
“Not our fight. Shouldn’t get involved,” Matthew said, handing Mr. Robinson back his change.
Mr. Robinson shook his head. “They say it could be war. And the Arabs have the bomb. And all that oil. Don’t look good no matter your point of view.”
Matthew grinned. “What are they going to deliver it with? On the back of a camel?”
Mr. Robinson’s smile left his face. His face turned white. A moment later he was gone.
Matthew looked at his watch. All the newspapers had been put in their place. What was next on his agenda? Had to keep busy. A young woman stepped across the floor from the closing door. Matthew smiled. She ordered. He handed Miss Stewart a package of mints and some Kool Menthol cigarettes.
“Where’s Martha?” Miss Stewart asked.
“Gone to rob a bank,” Matthew said. How can anyone have skin that white?
The young woman laughed and patted Matthew gently on the hand.
“And left you to fend off all the females in the neighbourhood?” she grinned, pressing her hands together as if she were going to pray.
“She has faith in my self-discipline,” Matthew replied without breaking a smile.
Miss Stewart giggled, placing one hand daintily over her mouth. She leaned toward the counter to speak to Matthew in confidence.
“Happened again. Just like the last one. He seemed like such a nice man over the telephone. Works for Ontario Hydro. Reading the meters. That’s how we met. If you can’t trust a man who reads meters, who can you trust? But once we got in the theatre, he was all hands. Grabbing at my bosom. Trying to stick his fingers… Why can’t men be more like you, Mr. Chambers? You wouldn’t behave that way, would you?”
“You mistake old age for good manners,” Matthew replied.
The young woman shook her head.
“You are a true gentleman, Mr. Chambers. And modest as well. I don’t know if Martha appreciates you. Men like you don’t grow on trees.”
“I’m afraid of heights,” Matthew smiled.
“You are so cute,” Miss Stewart said flexing her dimples. “Why, if you were twenty years younger…”
“Ah, yes,” Mr. Chambers said raising his eyebrows, “But I would still be married.”
When the young woman left the shop, Matthew checked his watch then reached under the counter. I need a drink. Matthew turned to the back of the shop so that he couldn’t be seen and raised the bottle to his lips. The ceiling is yellow, he noticed for the first time. I’m sure it used to be white.
Three boys milled around the rack of chocolate bars and candies. Matthew kept an eye on them. The red head stepped up to the counter. Matthew had seen the routine played out many times. The red head would distract him while his comrades rifled sweets into their jacket pockets.
“How they hanging, old man?” the red headed kid said.
“It’s Mr. Chambers,” Matthew responded. “What’s your name?”
The red headed kid smirked. “Johnny.”
“And your friends?”
“Johnny and Johnny. We’re all Johnnys.”
At that moment the two other kids headed for the exit. The red headed kid turned to join them as Matthew rounded the corner of the counter. They were too fast. His head began to spin. He felt dizzy and weak and leaned against the wall. All he could see was white.
Back at the counter, Matthew stole another sip. Almost immediately he felt better. He looked at his watch. A cigarette wouldn’t hurt. Two cigarettes later and several swallows of whiskey, Matthew felt on top of the world. As Matthew placed the bottle back under the counter, a clean shaven young man in a brown corduroy suit, holding an attaché case, stepped into the shop. The young man offered Matthew his hand. Matthew declined. The young man placed his attaché case flat on the counter.
“Cecil Moyers, Census Bureau,” the young man said.
Mr. Moyers opened his attaché case and removed some papers. He closed the attaché case and placed the papers on top. He took a pen from his jacket pocket. This was done with all the polish of a well practiced routine.
“The government is trying to estimate how many people are still alive,” he said.
Matthew looked at his watch.
“My wife should be home soon. She can answer all your questions.”
His cigarette fell off his ashtray, rolled along the counter, over the edge and onto the floor. Matthew placed his foot on it and ground it out.
“If you could wait,” Matthew added.
“Wait?” the young man asked.
“I’m not good at this sort of thing, answering questions,” Matthew apologized. “Let’s wait.”
The Census Taker smiled.
“How many survived? That is what I have been set out to determine.”
A tear of sweat rolled down Matthew’s forehead.
“Why do you keep saying survived?” he asked.
“Didn’t you see that flash in the sky a while ago?” the young man asked.
“The sunrise,” Matthew said smiling uncomfortably.
“Don’t we wish,” the Census Taker responded and smiled.
Several girlie magazines rolled off the magazine stand and fluttered to the floor. Matthew turned to pick them up.
“Quite amazing,” the young man continued. “Eighty city blocks leveled in one blow. You must have heard something. This store is the only thing still standing.”
Matthew looked up from the floor at the young man silhouetted now by the front window of the store. Matthew stood up, placing the magazines on the counter.
“You’re joking?” he said.
The smile on the Census Taker’s face vanished.
“I’m a civil servant, sir. We don’t make jokes. They say it was terrorists.”
Matthew looked at his watch. Martha will be home at any moment. Matthew staggered across the floor of his shop passed the Census Taker. He opened the door. Outside there was nothing. Everything had been leveled. There was an acrid odor. Tattooed on the sidewalk in front of the shop was Martha’s bright orange poke-a-dot dress. Martha! Matthew collapsed.
A young police officer stood inside the shop taking notes. Martha sat on a stool, wiping her forehead with a wet face cloth.
“I’m sorry about the questions, mam,” the officer said.
“Some children found him,” the officer continued. “Just outside the door of the shop.”
Martha blew her nose.
“He had a weak heart,” she said.
“He looked like something had frightened him,” the officer added. “Did your husband have any enemies?”
“It made him look like he was terrified. Matt was afraid of everything.”
“We found an empty bottle of scotch under the counter,” the officer added.
Martha looked up at the young officer standing in front of her.
“We were going to retire. Get a little apartment in Florida for the winters. Now, what will I do? We never had many friends. No kids. I just had him. He had me. I pleaded with him. Stop drinking! How am I going to get by? I can’t do it alone.”
The police officer put his note pad away. He put a hand on Martha’s shoulder as she wept quietly.
“This is a difficult time. You were close to your husband.”
Martha looked up.
“Close! I hated him. The bastard never thought about anyone but himself.”
March 12, 2009
All these stories are related to television programs, especially those of the 50s which I myself grew up on. Reading over these stories I am reminded of how much television has been replaced by the computer as the central agent of attention in our time. I can remember people talking about radio in the same way as we refer to television. I’m not sure what predated radio. Did all this technology fall upon us at the turning of 1900. It almost seems to me that what we call modern history began with the invention of the aspirin and the writing of Einstein’s theory of gravity. Technicians have taken over our world. In some way I found myself pulled down by technology (I mean influenced and not made depressed). I have been absorbed in the structures of thought and story telling since I began to create stories as a 5 year old using pictures and words I found in the dictionary.
March 11, 2009
Test Tube Friends
I glanced at my watch, looked up and down the street. No Matthew. A light drizzle had begun to fall giving the street that pasty look of cheap paintings of Paris. I hoped my suit wouldn’t shrink. I spotted a pop can and kicked it into the street. It hit a passing car. I turned and pretended to be looking into the appliance store. Grand opening. The store was already packed with people, standing around drinking wine and looking for some place to ditch the toothpicks from the appetizers already consumed. A bus passed. I checked my watch again. Matthew was late. He was always late. There was still time to hit the bars.
I don’t know how Matthew convinced me to come to the opening of an appliance store. That’s not true. It was the promise of women. Matthew claimed that there were quite a few loose women wandering around in one of these openings. Loose in the sense that they were alone and not in that too much makeup tight sweater what are you doing later sense. Hell, I was hoping that they were loose in every sense. What kind of women frequented appliance stores? Married, one would assume. Miserable and bored, one hoped. Someone who wanted a little diversion while hubby ran around the shop glad-handing his peers. Someone who was bored with the social demands made upon the wife of a rising ambitious Frigidaire salesman.
A cab passed. I turned. Out of a street lamp, Matthew’s lanky figure crossed the street. It made me smile. Matthew’s entrance into any scene made you smile. He had this quality of bringing life into any situation. With Matthew, anything was possible. He was nuts but I loved him.
“Where the hell have you been?” I asked. “I’ve been dieing out here. I thought you were never going to show up. I wasn’t going in there by myself.”
“Had to find a place to park,” Matthew said, patting me on the back and directing me toward the store. “I found a lovely spot down this lane behind those houses over there on Rockland. You know those new town houses. It’s a bit of a walk but then it is such a lovely evening.”
I glared at Matthew.
“What are you, nuts? I’m going to catch my death of cold.”
We stepped into the store. Once we got inside Matthew made a v-line for the new television sets. I went looking for a drink. The place was huge. It seemed to go on for acres. Finally I found the bar. All they had was white wine. I threw one back and grabbed two others. The bartender gave me one of those condescending glances. I winked then set out to find Matthew. I found him in front of a wall of television sets, every one of them turned on to the same station. I handed him a glass of wine.
“White wine?” he asked.
“That’s all they had,” I responded looking up at the televisions. “Canadian, I think.”
Matthew sipped the wine and nodded. “You’d think they would have sprung for some German.”
“Look at all those sets!” I said marveling at this gluttony of electronic pate.
“Isn’t it wonderful?” he marveled. “Like Niagara Falls. Can’t you feel the spray of colours across your eyes?”
“Most of the women here could be our mothers.” I said glancing around us.
“I thought you told me you wanted to get involved with an older woman,” Matthew said with a smile.
I nodded. “Sure, but I don’t want them to look like my mother.”
As Matthew and I stood watching the sets, a lovely young woman in a long black evening gown appeared beside us. She was holding a glass of wine in one hand and a cigarette in the other. My eyes went directly to her bosom and then her smile.
“It’s difficult to keep your eyes off them,” Matthew said to the young woman then gestured to the televisions.
I looked at the young woman’s bosom again.
“They’re hypnotic,” I added.
“How many sets are there?” Matthew asked.
“I counted them earlier,” she responded then giggled. “I’m afraid I lost count.”
“Imagine,” Matthew said leaning toward the young woman, “that instead of duplicating the same picture on each set, each set showed a portion of a larger picture. If one watched long enough one would have the impression not of watching a number of sets but of looking out a window at the Falls.”
The young woman laughed. “That is wonderful.”
I made some other casual off the cuff remark that I thought was quite witty. I’d written it down earlier that day. It had no affect on the girl. She only had eyes for Matthew.
“Imagine that the televisions have one common brain,” he said. “It is possible that we are witnessing the fecundation of a sentient life form. We become so used to our technological breakthroughs that we come to take them for granted, start perceiving them as part of the landscape of contemporary life.”
The girl smiled. “That is so interesting.”
I could tell that my presence was not in demand and so I volunteered to get alcoholic reinforcements. This time the bartender handed me a drink, which I finished then handed me two more. I had to ask for a third. When I returned, Matthew and the girl had disappeared. I finished one of the drinks and not finding any place to put the empty glass stuffed in my jacket pocket. A middle-aged couple beside me were whispering confidences.
“I lost my lover,” I said sadly interrupting their conversation. “He’s vanished with some young trollop. You just can’t find a good man these days.”
They smiled uncomfortably, caught between their abhorrence for homosexuals and the social demands of empathy. Of course, Matthew and I were not queers, but I could not resist the temptation to play with this couples’ minds.
I finished another glass and stuffed the glass in my other pocket. By now I was feeling a little buzz. I looked around for a table to dump the glasses. I sat down on a couch beside a middle-aged woman decked out in a fur coat and loose fitting pants. She watched with curiosity as I emptied my pockets.
“It’s wonderful what Ralph has done with the store,” she said. There was an interesting mole on her left cheek. I wondered if it came off.
“Oh yes,” I said with a nod. “Whose Ralph?”
The woman turned and looked at me directly. I felt as if I was a corpse during an autopsy. This is my heart, those are my lungs, and yes that’s my…
“He’s the owner,” she said with a smile. “You’re very young.”
“I try to be,” I said looking at her breasts. She caught me and didn’t mind.
“And quite handsome in a rugged sort of way.”
The woman smiled in that saucy Loren Bacall manner. I swallowed deeply. Was she hitting on me? She looked like one of my aunts but the wine was clouding my judgment.
“I’ll bet you have to beat the girls off,” she said and patted my knee. I looked down. She was wearing gloves. I’d never been touched by a woman with gloves. The woman grabbed my arm.
“Let’s go find the bar,” she said. “I feel like another drink.”
“What kind of gun are you going to use during the revolution?” I asked Matthew. The two of us were standing outside a gun shop on Yonge Street late one afternoon watching a demonstration of firearms on a television set. Olympic target shooting.
Matthew laughed. “You mean invitations have been extended.”
I shoved my hands in the pockets of my jeans.
“You’re such a pessimist, Matthew. Look at all the exploitation, misery, and general chaos around you. How long can this last? Haven’t the proletariat swallowed enough of this historical phlegm. Rise up, I say.”
Matthew hadn’t been listening to me. He was staring at the television.
“Revolution,” he said with a laugh. He had been listening. You could never be sure with Matthew. He was one of the few people adept at keeping several parallel conversations going on in his head.
“A useless expenditure of energy,” he continued. “It’s like a plague. When was the last bloody revolution that changed things? Garage sales are generally more productive. Besides, you’ve been talking about revolution since we were kids. Catholic education has programmed you to think that there must be some justice in this world.”
I backed away from the store window almost colliding with two girls, one of whom I recognized from my political science class. I nodded. She nodded and would have stopped to talk except her girlfriend dragged her off. I turned my attention back to Matthew.
“Why do I hang around you, man? I must be some kind of intellectual masochist. How can you say, when was the last time revolution changed things? You think that the world wasn’t changed after the Bastille was pulled down, or the Reichstag burned? You can’t make an omelet without cracking a few eggs.”
“As long as you’re not the egg,” Matthew responded. “I don’t believe in abstractions and that’s what revolution is. It’s murder in the abstract.”
“Abstractions!” I cried. “You believe in some new idea every other week. You change philosophies like clothes.”
I turned away from the gun demonstration and began walking up Yonge Street. When I turned to speak to Matthew, he wasn’t there. He was headed south. I ran after him.
“Everywhere I look,” I said when I caught up to him, “I see greed. Rampant materialism. All for the sake of some vacuous American dream. And the status quo can be as deadly as revolution. Take slavery for example.”
I bumped into two young women. I excused myself. Matthew smiled. They looked at us with hard humourless eyes. One of them was smoking a cigarette. Both of them wore short leather mini-skirts, and white blouses unbuttoned displaying considerable cleavage.
“You got a light?” the one who wasn’t smoking asked.
I shrugged my shoulders.
“Don’t smoke,” I said with a sheepish smile. I had promised myself always to carry a lighter on me but had forgotten. I apologized. The girl didn’t seem interested in apologies. She had a blank distant expression on her face that was very enticing.
“Do you believe in revolution?” I asked. Why the hell did I ask that?
“Sure, why not,” the girl responded still holding her unlit cigarette. Her girlfriend looked around, appraising other prospects on the street.
Matthew had moved off down the street.
“Shit!” I said. “Look, I gotta go. Maybe we’ll run into each other again.”
“Ya, sure,” the girl said as her friend pulled her away.
“What a loser,” I thought I heard the other girl mutter.
When I reached Matthew, he had stepped into a penny arcade. Inside there was a cataclysm of jarring noises. Matthew began playing a pinball machine.
“I wonder about our generation,” I continued. “We complain but we don’t do anything. We see what’s wrong but we don’t right it. Do we just object to the older generation because they are so dull.”
“What happened to the girl?” Matthew asked, pressing buttons and shaking the game.
“She went with her friend. Man, I’ll bet she drops her drawers.”
“So why didn’t you find out?”
“Well,” I said, “I was with you.”
Matthew looked at me with a look of exasperation and shook his head.
“Shit!” I said slapping my forehead.
When Matthew was finished his game we continued on down Yonge Street. We stopped at Dundas Square and leaned against a wall to watch the crowds rush by. Matthew took out a package of cigarettes and asked for a light. I didn’t have one. Matthew smiled and reached into my shirt pocket and took out a lighter.
“Oh shit!” I said slapping my forehead. “That girl asked for a light and…”
“Women do that to me,” I said shaking my head. “They completely fluster me. My brain cramps up. If only I could act indifferent like you do. Chicks dig indifference.”
Matthew handed my lighter back to me and sucked on his cigarette.
“What’s with Fred?” I asked.
“What do you mean?” Matthew asked.
“The guy doesn’t have an idea in his head. When was the last time he read a book? We’ve known him since we were kids and he hasn’t changed. The guy is still a big stupid lug.”
“That’s part of Fred’s charm.”
“He has no political consciousness. All he thinks about is pussy.”
Matthew laughed. “As opposed to what?”
“He’s totally insensitive to the suffering of the working classes,” I said.
“Fred wants to be a lawyer,” Matthew explained.
“He’s not smart enough,” I responded.
“You flatter the legal profession,” Matthew said. “Fred’s carrying an A average. He’s got a photographic memory. Never forgets anything he reads. He may not understand any of his subjects but he can quote page and line about any topic in his courses. The guy is the ideal student.”
A tall blond walked by, her long lanky legs rising up to a short miniskirt. She smiled at us.
“She smiled at us,” I said.
“Sunlight got in her eyes,” Matthew replied, smoke slipping through his smile.
I shook my head.
“I know when a chick is coming on to me,” I said. “Most of the time. Let’s go introduce ourselves.”
Matthew shrugged. “You go ahead. I’ve got to meet Martha at 7.”
I told Matthew I’d meet him the next day and took off after the girl. Having blown one situation with a chick, I wasn’t about to let another slip through my fingers. I rehearsed a number of lines in my head. Keep it simple, I said to myself. Don’t try to snow her. Beautiful chicks can see right through you. I saw her just up ahead and picked up my pace. When she stopped to look at some blouses in a store window, I struck.
“Lovely evening,” I said smiling.
The girl turned. “Get lost, creep!”
“Don’t drop it for Christ’s sake!” Matthew cried.
I gasped, sweat rolling down my forehead and off the tip of my nose. Moving my body slightly I was able to get a better grip on the set.
“Sometimes,” I said gasping for breath, “I think the only reason we’re friends is because you need a pack mule every so often to move your …”
“Less talk,” Matthew grunted as we made our way up from the second to the third floor.
“Why does anyone live in an apartment building without an elevator?” I asked.
The set wouldn’t fit through the entrance to Matthew’s apartment.
“Did you measure the set like I asked you?” I grunted.
“I’ve got to take a pee,” Matthew responded.
“Lets put it down for a moment then,” I said.
“No,” Matthew replied. “We’re almost there.”
We turned the set on its side and slid it through the door. I glanced angrily at Matthew. After dragging it down from the third floor of one building, into the trunk of my car, and then up the three floors of Matthew’s building, I’d about had it. Matthew stuck his tongue out at me.
“Don’t make me laugh,” I cried.
We set the television down on the living room floor. I wiped my brow with the sleeve of my shirt. There was blood on it.
“The damn thing bit me,” I said when Matthew returned from the washroom.
“God,” Matthew said as he stepped into the kitchen to get each of us a beer, “I didn’t think the old bugger was that heavy.” Returning he handed me a bottle of beer and slumped into the couch. “Look at the work on that cabinet. Craftsmanship and styling. Televisions were as much furniture as entertainment back than.”
I sat in a chair opposite Matthew. I looked around the room. Twelve televisions. And three more in the bedroom.
“Martha’s going to be pissed at you for buying another one.”
Matthew shrugged. “Everyone needs a hobby. I hope it works.”
“You bought it before you found out if it works?”
“It’ll be worth a lot of money some day,” Matthew responded. “Sooner or later every thing becomes an antique. The more obsolete technology becomes, the more beautiful it appears to us.”
Martha stepped into the room from the bedroom. I hadn’t realized she was home. She stepped over to the set and dragged her fingers across the cabinet. God, she was beautiful.
“It could use a polish.”
“It’s a walnut veneer,” Matthew said, winking at me. He didn’t know anything about veneers, but it was a selling point.
Martha seemed to buy into Matthew’s sales pitch. She was too smart to be conned. But Martha loved Matthew and she put up with his increasing peculiarities. After we finished our beers, Matthew and I set the television up next to three others in the room. We turned them all of them on to the same station, a tennis match.
“Have you seen Warhohl’s film of the Empire State Building?” Matthew asked. “Eight hours of nothing but the building. Pretty soon you come to believe that you are in a neighbouring building looking out a window at the skyscraper. Warhohl is trying to trick the sub-conscious mind, to make it accept the illusion as reality. You could live in the middle of New York City and with the right illusion, come to believe that you were living in the country.”
“Skyscraper,” I said. “That’s kind of poetic.”
I watched the two tennis players. Every time they exchanged shots I half expected the ball to fly between the sets. I turned and found Matthew smiling at me. God, he could be a condescending bastard, always thinking that he had an insight into life that only a few great minds shared.
Martha came in and out of the room. When we were finished our beers, she brought us two more. I couldn’t keep my eyes off her. It wasn’t sexual. She was my best friend’s wife. But, she was so damn sweet.
“I envy you, Matthew,” I said.
“Of course you do,” Matthew said. “I have all these televisions. I wish they had remotes. Getting up and down to see what’s on another station is too much like exercise.”
I continued. “You have a home, some place you can put your feet up and relax. There’s someone you can share things with, someone to talk to. What do I go home to? Cold Chinese food from the night before. Milk gone skunky. My only company is the television. Visual Ex-lax.”
Matthew laughed. “You’re a hell of an advertisement for marriage, Fred. Nothing stopping you from getting married.”
“There is the matter of finding the right girl,” I said. “If I’m attracted to a woman, she won’t look at me. If she’s attracted to me, I’m thinking there’s something wrong with her.”
“You’re too hard on yourself,” Matthew replied. “If I hadn’t met Martha, there would have been someone else. Home sapiens would never have survived if there was only one special person for each of us. There’s always another woman just like there’s always another bus.”
“Obviously you don’t take transit enough,” I replied.
I put down my beer and lit up a cigarette.
“Do you ever get depressed?” I asked.
“I don’t let myself,” Matthew responded.
“Not once?” I asked.
Matthew shook his head. “It’s a matter of will power.”
“I’ve been depressed for years,” I said, turning around to look for an ashtray. I found one sitting on another television set. “It’s like a black cloud follows me around. Sometimes in the morning, it’s a struggle just to get out of bed. I can hardly breath under the weight of this terrible sense of dread.”
“How come you never told me this before?” Matthew asked. “All the years we’ve known each other and I had no idea. I thought you were a frustrated hedonist.”
“I told you,” I said. “You don’t listen.”
“Excuse me?” Matthew said before breaking into a smile. “You need to get laid more often.”
I shook my head.
“Remember that grand opening of that appliance store we went to and you disappeared on me?”
Matthew looked back over his shoulders to see if Martha was within listening distance. He looked at me and put his finger over his lips.
“After you left with that brunette, I met this woman. She wasn’t great looking, she looked like my aunt Florence, but I thought I’d hang around and see what happened. We tied one on. I hate white wine but we must have consumed gallons of the stuff. And with each drink, she got better looking. Do you know what it’s like to wake up the next morning beside someone twice your age? She was embarrassed. I was embarrassed. Her son was embarrassed when he walked in on me in the washroom. He was our age. I couldn’t get out of that house fast enough. And when I got outside, I didn’t know where the hell I was. I walked for blocks before I found a telephone and called for a cab.”
By now tears of laughter were running down Matthew’s face.
“Did you have fun?” he howled.
“Who could remember?” I replied.
Martha walked into the room with a smile on her face.
“What’s so funny?”
Matthew, still laughing, pointed at me.
“Fred is depressed.”
“I never thought I’d see the day,” Matthew said, laying back on his lawn chair and sipping his coke. “Never thought I’d see the champion of the workers renting an apartment with a pool.”
I smiled uncomfortably. I didn’t like being called a hypocrite.
“But this opulence,” Matthew stretched his arms out to embrace the pool area, “would make Lenin gag. Of course you have to live some place. Right, Bill? I understand the argument.”
I turned away from Matthew and lay on my stomach. I watched Martha in the pool, swimming with smooth even strokes. A small boy, running along the side of the pool, dove in, surfacing a couple of feet from Martha. She gasped, her breasts heaving in the wake of the child. She wiped the water from her eyes and smiled at me.
“But I suppose the ranks of the proletariat have been swollen by CEOs,” Matthew continued.
“What was I supposed to do, Matthew, fill the pool in?”
Martha slipped over on her back, her arms rising, her legs parting in a back-stroke.
“How is it going with you and Martha these days?” I asked. “You said you were going for counseling.”
“Did I say that?” Matthew responded. “You have a cigarette?”
“In the bag,” I said. Martha’s breasts swayed slowly as she moved effortlessly through the water. I had to quit staring at her.
“We’ve come to an arrangement,” Matthew said as he lit up a cigarette. “You know what a counselor was going to say. Spent more time with your wife and less with your work. I don’t need to pay someone to tell me something I have no intention of doing.”
Martha climbed out of the pool and ran up to us, grabbing a towel to wrap herself in. Grabbing a second towel she dried her legs off. She was smiling as she peeled off her bathing cap and let her long red hair fall out over her gorgeous smile.
“The water is so warm,” she said, taking a comb out of her bag and dragging it through her hair. “I wish we had a pool at our place. I’d be in it every day. You should take a dip, darling.”
“You know I don’t swim.” Matthew responded.
“You must come down here a lot, Bill.” Martha leaned over letting her hair fall down and began to comb through the back.
“This is only the second time I’ve been down here. You’d think I could at least have found a building with some fetching blonds. All I get is these kids.”
“Lovely young boys,” Matthew added with a tinge of sarcasm.
Martha straightened up and shook her hair. I couldn’t keep my eyes off her.
“Oh, don’t be like that,” Martha said scolding Matthew. “Tell him, Bill, not to be like that. Life’s too short not to enjoy its little pleasures.”
“Don’t be like that,” I said to Matthew.
Matthew laughed. “Yes, dad.”
“I’m going up to the apartment to change,” Martha said.
“The keys are in the bag,” I said.
Martha stepped across Matthew and bent over to pick up the bag. I stared at her round luscious rump. A moment later she was gone.
“What do you mean by understanding?” I asked.
Matthew looked over at me, the cigarette dangling out of his lips. He smirked.
“You mean you can fuck anyone else you like,” I said then glanced over to make sure that we weren’t within listening distance of the boys in the pool.
Matthew laughed. “That’s a rather crude way of putting it.”
“What other way is there to put it?” I asked.
Matthew sat up. “Monogamy is boring. How can you have your ideas, perceptions, understanding of things restricted to one other person? Nothing is challenged. You don’t change. You get too comfortable. Martha and I have discussed this thoroughly. We know the arrangement has its dangers but what is life without peril?”
“That’s all very cerebral, Matthew. Emotions don’t work like that. If you found out that Martha was sleeping with someone else, you’d go through the roof with jealousy.”
“You know, Bill, you’re very puritanical for a revolutionary.”
“The revolution is over,” I responded. “It was cancelled. Low ratings. There is no such thing as truth. There is just what happens.”
Matthew laughed. “What brought on this despair?”
“It’s not despair,” I said. “It’s loneliness.”
“Nothing is turning out the way we expected it,” Matthew added. “Remember all those brave declarations we made in our youth. How easily they have been swept away. Like candles on a birthday cake. I thought that I would be wildly successful by now. Martha is fucking Fred.”
I stared at Matthew. What had he said? I couldn’t repeat it to myself. There was a great sadness in his eyes. I felt sick. I thought of Martha up in my apartment now, naked, changing into her dress.
“A couple of years,” Matthew said, biting down on the end of a cigarette, the ashes falling onto his feet. “What can I do?”
“You can tell her to stop,” I said angrily. “She’s your wife.”
“She won’t stop.”
“Make her choose!”
“And if she chooses Fred?” Matthew responded, resignation weighing his voice down. “I’d be alone. I don’t know if I could live with that. I love her, Bill.”
I grabbed my cigarettes and lit one up.
“I’ve got to give these up,” I said looking down at the cigarette in my hand. “And you and Fred are still friends?”
Matthew nodded. His eyes were red.
“It’s not Fred’s fault. Everyone falls in love with Martha. I think you’re a bit in love with her yourself, Bill.”
I turned away from Matthew and watched the boys still frolicking in the pool. There was a small puddle of water besides us where Martha had stood drying off. I reached out to wet my finger. I could feel my heart sinking in my chest.
Martha turned her head and looked out the car window at the shoulder of the highway that rushed by and then further out at the open fields that moved so much smaller and then further out at the horizon which appeared to keep pace with the BMW. Her long red hair flapped and tossed around like a flag. God she was beautiful.
“You never had friends,” I responded.
We slowed down. Up ahead the road was clear. We turned onto an older two lane highway. After passing by a gasoline station, some houses and a farmer’s co-op, I sped up.
Martha turned and looked at me.
“I did so,” she replied huffily.
“How come I never met them?” I said smiling.
“What’s so funny?” she asked.
“You are when you retreat to that child like tantrum. It’s cute.” I said.
“It could become permanent.” Her smile like a threat.
I shook my head. “The sun was flickering off your hair. It looked like it was on fire. You are beautiful.”
Martha smiled forgiveningly and taking off her seat belt moved closer. I put my arm around her shoulders.
“For an ugly man, you are very romantic,” she giggled. “And I did have friends. Lot of girlfriends. I remember sleepovers, and dances, and times we went to the fair and stuffed our faces with junk food and conned boys into taking us on the rides.”
“What happened?” I asked, taking my arm from around Martha and reaching into my shirt pocket for my cigarettes.
“Matthew,” Martha said sadly. “It wasn’t that he didn’t like my friends. There wasn’t enough time for them. Matthew had all that energy and it was all I could do to keep up with him. And than after Allan was born, I had no time. You know that smoke dries your skin up, don’t you?”
I laughed, smoke chugging out of my mouth in small moons.
“Remember what you said. I’m ugly already.”
Martha leaned closer to me, resting her hand on my leg.
“I said you were a romantic,” Martha responded with a smile. “How things might have been different if I’d met you before Matthew.”
There was a few moments of silence. I could feel Martha brooding.
“I’m worried about Matthew,” she continued. “After he had that period of success, he fell into a real dry period. Nobody is buying any of his ideas. Bill told me he’s drinking a lot. Can’t pay his bills. Got thrown out of his last apartment for not paying his rent.”
“He thinks they’re poisoning him,” I said, flicking the ashes of my cigarette out the window.
Martha looked up at me.
“You’ve seen him?”
I nodded. “He hardly eats. He even filters his beer through tissue papers before he drinks it. He thinks they’re afraid of his ideas.”
“Whose afraid of his ideas?” Martha asked.
“Well, you’re going to think this is right out of The Twilight Zone. Matthew thinks that machines are trying to kill him. I know. I tried to talk him into seeing a shrink. But when he talks, he seems so rationale. He’s not raving or shouting or wild eyed. He’s very matter of fact. Maybe he’s always been nuts. We just excused everything because he was so damn entertaining. Remember all the television sets he used to collect?”
“We had dozens,” Martha replied.
I could hear her voice breaking. A tear ran down her cheek. I flicked my cigarette out the window.
“Remember this highway?” I asked. “Remember the first time I took you up to the family cottage. It was a day like today. We drove along this very stretch of highway. Remember?”
“Yes,” she said. “I remember thinking that if the police caught us we might have spent a night in jail. And that it would probably get into the newspapers.”
With my free hand, I undid my belt.
“What are you doing?” Martha said raising her head from my chest.
“Take it out,” I said.
“Freddy! We’re not kids anymore.”
“Sure we are.”
Martha smiled and unzipped me.
“If we get caught, I’ll never forgive you.”
We had pulled over to the side of the highway at the end of one of the airport runways. Leaning against the side of my old Chev, we were getting drunk. I passed a brown paper bag with the bottle of scotch over to Matthew. He took a swallow and passed it back.
“I could never figure you and Fred out. Fred, the man of appetites, and you, the man of ideas. The hedonist and the intellectual. Where was the common ground?”
Matthew’s response waited as an airplane rushed down the runway toward, lifted its nose, and roared off over our heads.
“Fred had a lot of ideas. He just didn’t think any of them were worth sacrificing his appetites for. Comfort was Fred’s prime directive. Besides people don’t become friends because they have common interests. Maybe Martha was our common interest.”
A truck passed, shaking the car. I took another swallow.
“This is a hell of a way to drink scotch,” I said. “Scotch should be drunk in a glass.”
“Should have bought some Canada Club like I told you,” Matthew responded. “I remember coming out here so many times. You, me, and Fred. Drinking and talking. You and your socialist ranting, me and my stories, Fred and his empty stomach. All three of us banging away at our own little drums and no one in the world listening.”
I laughed. “The great quest for the answer.”
Matthew grabbed the bottle and took another swallow.
“I had so many ideas then that I never got drunk.” Matthew laughed. “I was drunk with ideas. Alcohol couldn’t compete. But now… I’m all dried up inside, Bill.”
“You don’t have to sleep in the park, Matthew,” I said. “I told you my couch was vacant. Until you get back on your feet. If you get on my nerves, I’ll personally throw you out. How about it?”
“You don’t know me,” Matthew responded. “I’m not the same person I used to be. Success and failure have both taken a lot out of me. I have nightmares. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night, screaming. Frightened to the bone. I can smell fear all around me. The whole planet is afraid. Life is like a wounded animal, Bill. Waiting for the last blow that will put it down. I just want a brief time out. I can’t live with this knot in my stomach. What are the words to explain the darkness in the corner of the rooms we lie awake in? I’d be rotten company.”
Another airplane came rolling toward us. Matthew took the bottle from my hand. When the plane rose from the ground and passed over us, Matthew threw the bottle at it. The bottle landed in some tall grass without breaking. I looked at Matthew. There were tears in his eyes.
“You still think about Martha?” Matthew asked.
I shook my head. Martha was ancient history.
“Who the hell was she?” he asked. “Who the hell was I? I didn’t treat her well, Bill. God, I have so many regrets. And yet, I know that if I had to do it all over again, nothing would change. The kids? I hardly know them. My career? A car crash. My life? It was a colossal joke, played on me by… I can’t get her out of my head, Bill.”
Matthew shook his head. “No, not Martha.”
“So how are you feeling?” I asked.
Matthew smiled back at me, the sheets of the hospital bed wrapped tightly around his chest. I reached into my pocket for my cigarettes when I remembered where I was.
“Giving the nurses a hard time?” I asked.
“Relax,” Matthew said.
“I’m not dieing, Fred.”
“Ya, I know that. Hospitals always give me the creeps though. They say that if you’re not sick when you enter a hospital, you’ll be sick by the time you leave.”
“Oh, I didn’t mean…” I said, my apology stumbling out of my lips.
I took a seat in a chair by the window. Matthew’s room was on the first floor. There was a nice view of a garden.
“I’m sorry I didn’t visit sooner,” I said. “You know how things are.”
“How is Martha?”
“Oh, she’s fine. Loves her gardening.”
“I didn’t know that,” Matthew replied.
“Oh. She has all kinds of things growing out back of the house. Hell, I don’t know if it’s all legal or not. I keep warning her that someone might call the police. She made me come, Matthew. I didn’t want to see you like this.”
“I’m getting better, Fred,” Matthew replied. “The doctors have me on some special medication. They say I’m bi-polar. Like the planet. And I’ve been eating properly in here. Building up my strength. Wouldn’t you know it, that since I’ve been hospitalized a few of my stories sold. A windfall.”
“How did things get so bad?” I asked.
“I got worn down,” Matthew responded, the flicker of a smile on his face. “I could see it happening, but I couldn’t do anything about it. I’ve come to see myself in a new way since I’ve been forced to rest. Found out a lot about myself, Fred.”
“What have you found, Matthew?”
Matthew chuckled. “I go to group counseling sessions in here. You should hear some of the stories these folks tell. I didn’t know there were so many forms of addiction. Alcohol, drugs, gambling, shoplifting, eating. It’s as if no one sins anymore; they become addicts. There’s a beautiful blond down the hall who’s addicted to sex. If you’re horny, I can get you a quick blowjob.”
I laughed and shook my head.
“Same old Matthew. What’s you addiction?” I asked.
“That’s the 64 dollar question,” Matthew replied. “I’m also seeing a shrink. He’s pleased with my physical recovery but not with my insights.”
“But you always have ideas,” I responded. “That’s your nature. Ever since I can remember you’ve been coming up with new ways of looking at things.”
“Maybe that’s my addiction,” Matthew responded. “The shrink wants me to conform to the world around me. He tells me that searching for answers that don’t exist is killing me. He calls it reality avoidance. He’s thirty years old. What the hell does he know about reality? Spent all his life in institutions.”
“Good to hear you’re still angry,” I said.
Matthew pushed himself up in his bed. I got up and helped him rearrange the pillows behind his back. I took my seat again.
“Are you happy, Fred?” he asked.
“I guess. Happy as one could ask. Comfortable. No worries about money. And Martha and I get along. I’m on blood thinners now. High cholesterol. Doctor wants me to quit smoking but I figure I gotta die from something. I miss the old days, Matthew.”
Matthew stared down at the grave. The wind wrapped leaves around his ankles. An airplane climbed clumsily into the sky above our heads. A tear slid down Matthew’s cheek. He looked down at the flowers left on the ground.
“Good-bye, Fred,” he said, his voice weak and shaking. “I never blamed you for Martha. If it hadn’t been you, it would have been someone else. Wish I’d been different.”
I stepped up behind Matthew.
“Time to go,” I said.
Matthew nodded. He pulled the collar of his coat tight around his neck. I looked down at the overturned earth. Soon something would start to grow.
Sitting in the car, Matthew blew his nose into a handkerchief.
“How did Freddy die?” I asked.
“Hit and run,” Matthew replied. “How could anyone not see someone the size of Freddy?”
“Was Martha there?”
“She saw the whole thing,” Matthew replied. “Allan told me that Fred pushed Martha aside and took the brunt of the hit on himself.”
I shook my head.
“Freddy the hero. He would have liked that.”
“I’m going to miss that big clumsy ox,” Matthew said wheezing. “Ah shit, I promised myself I wouldn’t cry. How can it be over? How can someone’s life just end? Fred is no more! It’s incomprehensible. Sometimes it feels as if life is a series of scenes. You graduate from high school. You get your first kiss. You buy your first car. You get married. You have a kid. You get divorced. You die.”
“Just like the seasons,” I added.
Matthew hung his head. “There’s got to be something ahead of us. Otherwise it’s too much to bear.”
“What’s wrong with being fertilizer?” I said. “I read somewhere that every human being on the planet is made up of the atoms of every human being who has ever been alive.”
Matthew shook his head.
“Fred liked you, Bill,” he said.
“No he didn’t,” I replied. “We pretended to get along with each other for your sake, Matthew. We wanted you to think that all was well in the world. I hated Fred. He was a big clumsy ox without a shred of redemption in his character.”
Matthew looked at me with a startled expression. I winked. He began to smile.
“We all hated each other.”
Tears ran down our cheeks as we howled with laughter.
I sat in the plastic upholstered chair by his bed and stared at the television. An old championship fight was on. I vaguely recalled seeing it years before. I looked over at Matthew laying in the hospital bed, sheets tightly wrapped around him, the pillows propping up his gaunt shriveled face. He made a sound. I leaned over him.
“The Foreman fight,” he said with a low squeaky voice.
It was many years ago. Fred and Matthew and I had gone to Maple Leaf Gardens to watch the Rumble in the Jungle. Mohammed Ali was facing George Foreman. Foreman was a huge man, strong, mean, relentless. Ali was no match for him. The Gardens was filled with fight fans watching a huge screen at one of the hall. It was like a funeral. Everyone expected Ali to be killed.
A tear ran down Matthew’s cheek. I grabbed a Kleenex and wiped it off his face.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “Should I turn it off?”
Matthew shook his head feebly and gestured to me to draw closer. There was this horrible whistling sound as Matthew attempted to draw air into his lungs.
“I remember every detail,” he said in small gasps. “Every detail of every show I ever saw on television. And my life. I recall every detail like it was a television show. It keeps playing in my mind like a rerun.”
I looked around the room. I took out a package of cigarettes and using a series of gestures asked Matthew if I could have a smoke. He nodded. I knew he’d enjoy the second hand smoke.
We watched the fight for a while. Matthew began to cough. I put my cigarette out, then rushed into the adjoining bathroom to flush it down the toilet. When I returned to the room, a nurse was bending over Matthew, straightening out his pillows. She gave me a dirty look. I didn’t say a word until the nurse left.
Matthew smiled. “She hates you,” his voice squeaked then added sadly. “I’ll never be with a woman again.”
I looked back at the television. Ali was laying on the ropes taking a pounding from Foreman’s powerful punches.
“Remember that interview you had on television where you told that woman that you could communicate with the planet. You said the blue marble was alive. I died laughing. She did not know whether you were serious or not.”
A sly wicked smile stretched across Matthew’s face.
“Here you were on a national television show putting everyone on, and no one was laughing. No one but me and Freddy. Freddy almost pee’d his pants. Martha thought you were serious. Martha always believed everything you said like it was gospel. And remember how they were seriously considering sending you to Mars to test your theory that the two planets were communicating. The paranormal crowd really ate up that stuff. And that interview on The Tonight Show. Why did you wear a red bow tie? When Leno asked how you were feeling, remember your answer? You said you’d been dead for five years.”
The crowd on the television roared. We turned back to the set to see Foreman tumbling backwards as Ali rose from the dead and laid him out flat.