12/8/16

“Fifteen,” a mini-essay about lying (mine, that is) during adolescence

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1. “Nothing.”

In answer to my father’s “What are you two doing upstairs?”

(Simultaneously, my sister and I had the experience-based intuition that accurate replies—“Reading Vogue,” “Pretending to be Vogue reporters covering catwalk shows,” or “Designing and sewing gowns to photograph for Vogue-like Polaroid photo spreads”—would have adverse consequences.)

 

So begins “Fifteen,” an essay that came to mind a few months ago when I was thinking about how often I lied way back when I was a teenager. And why.
Plenitude Magazine offered to published the essay and I’m grateful for its editorial readers for selecting it. (The rest can be found here.)

09/11/16

“Spiked”: a review of ‘The Break’, by Katherena Vermette

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First, here’s the review (wholly unchanged from the last time I submitted it).
After its 1200 or so words, I’ve included some paragraphs of backstory.

Bleak Houses
A Winnipeg poet paints a downbeat portrait of life among vulnerable Métis women

The Break
Katherena Vermette
Anansi 368pp $22.95

by Brett Josef Grubisic

Within the sweeping generalization that opens Survival (1972), that influential study of Canada’s literature, Margaret Atwood writes: “The survivor has no triumph or victory but the fact of his survival; he has little after his ordeal that he did not have before, except gratitude for having escaped with his life.” She was introducing her notorious “Victim Positions,” which she regarded as hallmarks of the national literary imagination.
Atwood’s assertion surfaced over and again as I read The Break, the ordeal-intense debut novel by Katherena Vermette. Despite The Break’s jacket description—a “powerful intergenerational family saga” by an “exciting new voice in Canadian literature”—with its hints of downs but also ups (and maybe a moment or two of unequivocal triumph), this profoundly dispiriting novel appears to hold scant hope for its characters except scraping by. A Métis Winnipeg resident whose poetry volume North End Love Songs won a Governor General Literary Award in 2013, Vermette’s cooly documentary outlook impresses with its precise craft. More than the saga’s power, though, the novel’s deep-set forlornness sticks with the reader. She’s undoubtedly a new voice in Canadian literature, but “sepulchral” and “dolorous” offer greater accuracy than “exciting.”
Set in winter and wintry in tone (bleak, discouraging, unforgiving, perilous), Vermette’s story begins in the wee hours with a tense police interview following a scuffle on the “empty expanse of land” in Winnipeg’s North End locals call the Break. Stella is overburdened with kids, anxiety, and a crushing history (her mother froze to death in an alley after she was beaten and raped and later ignored as a ‘drunken Native’ at a hospital). Now Stella has witnessed what she believes is a sexual assault outside her house at midnight. Initially patronizing and dismissive, the police—who have taken four hours to answer the 911 call—regard Stella as unreliable, a hysterical overtired mom with a feverish imagination. Though seething with a “familiar rage,” Stella quietly swallows their judgement.
That pair of officers discover a mass of bloody snow and regard it as evidence of yet another territorial gang dispute. They’re not exactly indifferent but close. As the weary and snide veteran Caucasian cop mentions to his earnest young Métis partner (whom he callously nicknames “May-tee”), “Nates” in vicious combat isn’t exactly headline news. “Why fret,” his manner conveys.
With first- and third-person narration in chapters named mainly after women in Stella’s extended family, Vermette expands her view to include a larger community of downtrodden North Enders. For example, the following chapter, “Emily,” traces the dangerous path of Stella’s young cousin, a sweet if self-loathing thirteen-year old. Emily, who “feels ugly and fat most of the time and is positive that no one has ever, ever liked her,” decides to accept an invitation to an illicit house party. The impulsive decision—to meet a cute boy—leads to a frenzied attack in a snow drift. Its resultant trauma ties Emily’s experience to those of her female relatives across the generations. The next chapter, “Phoenix,” depicts the erratic trail of another teenager, a lost but broke and furious escapee from juvenile custody with a dismal family history who hides out in her drug-dealer uncle’s hovel. Phoenix is glad to return “home” despite the fact that the house is a “total dump” filled with garbage, stolen goods, the odour of “smokes, dope, and old food,” and passed-out young women with limbs blemished with “track bruises.”
Across 29 chapters Vermette gives voice as well to Emily’s mother Paul (Pauline), aunt Lou (Louise), grandmother Cheryl, and great grandmother Kookom (Flora). Subdued, these voices do express love, hope, and contentment. But that’s sporadic. Far more commonly, they speak of shame, regret, sadness, anger, loneliness; their stories are pervaded with the sense that whether it’s past, present, or future, life for mixed-race or Native women seems fated for an assortment of relentless disappointments and miseries. This state might be especially the case for the desolate North End. Although Tourism Winnipeg labels the locale “a culturally and architecturally diverse neighbourhood,” in The Break there’s a culture of poverty, violence, addiction, racism, subsistence, and entrenched hostility and mistrust between Native and Caucasian; as for architectural diversity, Vermette highlights an ugly desolation: run-down houses with sheets in their windows, cramped apartments, humming electrical towers, a frozen wasteland. No war has been officially declared, but the atmosphere is notably war-torn.
Generation upon generation this family’s women have endured violence and heartache. Victims or witnesses of rape, murder, abandonment, and hardship, they also have more than passing familiarity with addictive substances as a coping mechanism; shame, defeat, longing, grief, and sadness are their ordinary emotional states.
In The Break, personal and familial crisis points surface with disarming regularity. During a pivotal one, Lou and Paul, who’ve seen too much misery and faced decades of letdowns, losses, and pain, spit out frustrated words and experience-based philosophies:

“We live in a crazy world, Lou. It’s a fucked up, crazy fucking place and I don’t put anything past
anyone anymore. We’re so fucked. We’re fucked, we’re all fucked.”
“We’re fucked up, yeah, but not completely fucked.”
“What the fuck is that supposed to mean?”
“It means everything’s going to be okay.”

Four chapters later, on the novel’s penultimate page, the women briefly return to that debate: “We’re fucked up but not fucked.” As far as statements of optimism go, that’s it. As a realization, as a baseline measurement for existence, that gallows humour is breathtakingly close to nihilism.
Ultimately, Vermette’s vision is disturbing because it’s so oriented toward a future of loss or defeat. She cannot or does not opt to give any of these women the gift of a better life or a feasible escape. Nor does she envision any means to heal individuals or communities. In the end, instead, Paul vows: “I’m going to give up feeling so hopeless. Or at least I’m going to try to feel hopeful as much as I can.” But Vermette—a novelist, not a documentarian; writing fiction, she could pack their bags and move them to the sunny Okanagan if she chose to—offers her characters nothing better than trying not to feel hopeless. The seeming implication? Deadbeat men will continue to let women down, hurt them, or rape them; gangs, violence, and drugs will flourish; direct or implicit racism will remain oppressive norms. And there’s no changing it. The best these Native and mixed-race figures can do is remain alive, and hope that no one will assault them or their kin again. As a portrait of existence, it’s stunningly bleak. And as a portrait, it’s an instructive lesson about just how crushing one author views daily existence in one region of a supposedly progressive, affluent, multicultural, and “highly livable” nation.
At one point Cheryl asks, “They’re already so broken, could they break any more?” Vermette’s despairing view suggests that the adult women will continue to struggle with addictions, serial heartbreaks, and calamity; already in the system, assaulted, or tempted by the fatal promise of gangs, their teenage offspring have just begun to comprehend life’s stacked deck. Like winter storms, further breakage will come. Vermette presents a far-reaching indictment that touches on race, gender, history, and governance. Her perspective is finally so dismaying because it perceives the damaging and corrosive  dysfunction of the system as perhaps unfixable and, certainly, a fait accompli.

 

• • • • • • • • • • • • • • •

 

The book review would be “spiked,” the email informed me. I hadn’t run across that term and assumed it was journalistic slang for cancelled.

The review in question had been written by me about The Break, a debut work of fiction by Winnipeg poet Katherena Vermette. Well before this announcement the review had already been revised once (per the fiction editor’s comments). When the now-satisfied fiction editor passed that version of the review to the editor-in-chief, it was bounced back to me with further directives regarding a “responsible” next revision. The most recent revision, I was told, had made things even worse. (For those interested in the economics of freelance book reviewing: had the review been published by the journal that assigned it, for the hours spent reading the novel, writing the review, revising it, and revising it again, I’d be paid $110.)

By “things” and “worse,” I understood that the review came across as potentially racist to the editorial readers. True, “racist” was never spoken; I inferred that. The word I read and heard over and again was “insensitive.” As with “responsible” (another word I read and heard repeatedly), what I took away in a reading-between-the-lines kind of way was that the review registered negatively with the Toronto-area editorial staff. Evidently, it appeared insensitive about a subject that required kid gloves, irresponsible—or perhaps not responsible enough—about a subject that needed placement in a highly particular context. To my ears, the subtext of the emails (and, later, a conversation) related to the social politics of unequal power and privilege. Still, as a gay Caucasian male taking up media space to opine about heterosexual Métis and Aboriginal characters in a novel written by a Métis woman, I believed I’d understood the dimensions of the situation. The charge of insensitivity, then, baffled me. (Also, it embarrassed me: the implicit accusation of embodying or reflecting white masculine privilege didn’t jibe well with my own self-perception. The history of my people [ie, sodomites], after all, was nothing but marginalization and Othering for millennia.)

Eventually, thirty minutes of actual telephone conversation with the editor-in-chief culminated with mutual non-understanding, tense words (“censorship” and “Well, that’s not how I see it),” and abrupt call termination (that latter was me, hotheadedly).

The editor-in-chief and (I was reminded several times) additional readers at the office of this literary review journal had perceived the review as dwelling on Vermette’s negative depiction of the lives of her characters in Winnipeg’s troubled North End as indicating my 1) blaming the characters for their plights, and 2) faulting the novelist for not writing a story with a happy ending. To me, neither of these accusations made any sense; they struck me in fact as perverse misreadings of the review.

My own perception is that the review does not disparage the novel at all; there is no fault-finding per se. Instead, the review identifies the overall wintry tone of The Break and speculates on the author’s reasoning for highlighting such a menacing, despairing, and hopeless atmosphere. Further, the sole “responsibility of the review,” I was instructed, was to situate the novel in context to a national dialogue about violence and missing First Nations women that had been going on for the past few years. By that logic any other way of regarding the novel was irresponsible; there was only one correct way to view it and talk about it. About this matter of any review’s primary ethical obligation, the editor-in-chief and I retreated to diplomacy: “I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree.”

Rather than print the review, which would—I assume—somehow sully the quality and reputation of the literary journal, its editor would simply make the review disappear from sight. Evidently, in its pages no public discussion or assessing of Vermette’s novel was gauged preferable to an “insensitive” one. Instead of agreeing to the disappearing of the review, I withdrew it from consideration (with a tearful sayonara to $110) and gave it pride of place here instead.

→ Btw, Wikipedia’s entry on “spiking” places the term in the following ethical frameworks:

“In journalistic parlance, spiking refers to withholding a story from publication for reasons pertaining to its veracity (whether or not it conforms to the facts). Spiking is relatively rare and usually happens late in the editing process (after the assigning editor has signed off on it). It is only required when a simple edit or questioning the reporter or assigning editor cannot fix the problem. Reasons for spiking include a clear bias (someone on an opposing side of an issue did not respond, despite the fact that said response is central to the story), a major hole (many, if not most, readers will have a question after reading the story), a sudden change in events (three more people have died, but getting details from officials is impossible on deadline), or suspicions of plagiarism or other ethical violations on the part of the author.”

Looking now at the usual rationales for spiking—from “clear bias” to “ethical violations on the part of the author”—I’m once again surprised at the differences between my perceptions and those somewhere else who read the review and decided that spiking it was a best plan of action. The whole episode feels like an instructive moment, yes, but I’m still pretty unclear about the nature of the lesson.

 

 

06/1/16

from: the Department of Rejection — “Thanks Again (Alternative Lit History Series #4)”

Like “Oats,” “Thanks Again” is a kind of rewrite.
Alice Munro published “Thanks for the Ride” in the late 1950s and in it describes a couple of relatively privileged middle-class young men who visit a run-down rural outpost in what seems to be Ontario’s cottage country.
Exploring the power dynamics of class difference and heterosexual relationships, the story pits the two relatively self-assured male visitors to this town against a pair of scornful townie girls. Filled with mutual antipathy and struggles for control, their unpleasant double-date features both sex and disdain. At the end of the foursome’s evening, one of the young women leaves the guys’ car and expresses her contempt for them, her own situation, and, seemingly, the entirety of their evening and the future that looms above her. The male narrator states, “And then we heard the female voice calling after us, the loud, crude, female voice, abusive and forlorn: ‘Thanks for the ride!'”
As a thought experiment and writing challenge, I kept the mid-century historical setting and basic character dynamic. Instead of small town Ontario, I transplanted the action to New Westminster, BC (with a population of 28,000 in 1951). Instead of two heterosexual guys visiting small town girls, I changed the narrator to a young man who has recently come to understand his homosexuality and hopes to (a) wait until ‘the phase’ passes and (b) emulate his manly cousin’s ways with women. With those changes thrown in, the circumstance I hoped to explore related to how the new dynamic might alter the outcome. The story below supplies one answer.

 

Thanks Again

 

Thanks Again (Alternative Lit History Series #4)

 

Bodybuilding and the creation of a rugged powerful body will almost always
remove the stigma of ‘sissy’ from any young man, because big muscles and
femininity are incongruous. —Physique Pictorial (June 1960)

 

The family had stuck a label on Phil, calling him a motormouth, a real case of nerves. “Yappy,” Mother said of her sister’s only child. He and I hadn’t ever been that close.
What felt like comfortable silence to me must have struck him as a lapse, a breakdown of civility. Since swinging open the passenger door he’d circled around career prospects a few times. “Yessiree, kid, I’m working my way up,” Phil announced once news of uncles and aunts petered out. Instead of asking “To what?” I’d let him continue. Watching the road took precedence, anyhow, as did picturing Father’s armchair fretfulness as his polished pride and joy hurtled into the night’s fender-bending and paint-scraping dangers. Night driving was his test. I’d fixed my sights on the Honour Roll.
“Ladies shoes are just the beginning, a foot wedged in the door,” Phil promised. He had a plan, with steps and a timetable. And back ups, just in case. Being in sales, he’d confided, meant reaching a plateau and bowing to fickle housewives with penny-pinching husbands. “That’s for chumps. Management, that’s where it’s at.” With enough get-up-and-go, he declared, he could be a Fortune 500 president—easily—by 1970. “But the door won’t open itself,” he told me. “Nosiree.” Only failures resorted to prayers for good luck and promotions.
Sprawled on the seat Phil offered advice as though my face begged for it. “Timing is paramount,” he declared before returning to doubts over Father’s wisdom (“New off the lot? Sheesh, that’s flushing prime loot right down the shitter”). Of Mother, he’d only quipped “She might consider laying off the tea biscuits for awhile” before outlining how size nine heifers demanding footwear made with Grace Kelly in mind had him pounding his noggin for ways to hasten his upward progress. “Creating opportunities,” he assured me, “means money in the bank.” He told me about a whore you could pay with a sack of flour or some potatoes. “A Polack,” he added. I wasn’t sure what he was getting at and sighed with relief to mutter “Skunk” as one’s rank spray wafted inside.
Phil’s eyes more than matched his mouth. They darted, taking inventory maybe, or else as utterly fascinated by every new detail—a neon sign, a muddy farmer’s truck, a pair of girls strolling the highway with linked arms—as a man reared in a cave. Spotting the diner he mentioned stretching our legs. He had a hankering for a bit of old-fashioned adventure, he winked.
I was just out of school then. As impressed by my IQ as she was, Mother had reached the conclusion that I needed guidance, a push into the deep end. “Taking your sweet time” and “dawdling,” she liked to remind me, stuck in her craw. “The sooner you start, the sooner you finish” had been her motto since the war. Of Phil: “A man of the world, well, relatively,” but available here and now. She had no doubt about my brains, she told company, surprised often enough that God had found a way to stuff them all inside my skull. She also believed, she’d informed me and, I overheard, her sister Inez, that applying yourself is impossible, like breathing in outer space, if you’re stuck inside a bedroom daydreaming all day.

 

We didn’t get off to a promising start with the counter waitress, a string bean of a girl my age with pretty hazel eyes who handled pie orders and scooped ice cream when the other two (“Lifers,” Phil decided) cut her some slack. Phil started by flicking crumbs and saying the counter could use a better wiping.
Ordering our hot turkey sandwiches, he’d pointed out misspelled words on the menu and a missing “and.” The counter waitress said “Oh my. I better alert the local authorities” so lightly it barely stung. She ambled by Phil’s drained coffee cup and ducked into the kitchen when he began striking the saucer with a teaspoon.
“Excuse me, miss—,” I’d attempted, embarrassed by Phil making a scene.
“Don’t be so stiff.” Phil stretched, clasping his hands behind his neck. “Girls don’t like it, least not right away.”
“Hold your horses.” The eldest waitress rushed by, a coffee pot swooping by Phil’s ear. “Ernie, is Astrid back there with you again? Tell her to haul—.” She regarded us, potential regulars. “Kindly inform her that the owner doesn’t pay us to take breaks.”
Astrid peeked her head out a minute later. She walked right by us, collected a smeared butter knife from the counter, and returned to clear our plates.
“So,” Phil said. “Astrid. What’s there to do around here?”

 

I’d been letting Mother work herself into a lather about my failure to apply myself. Her concern about eyes (weakening by the hour, she predicted, from reading trash in such dim light) and life passing me by met Father’s work-weary sigh: “Let the boy stop and smell the roses while he can. Soon enough—.”
When her sister suggested they could kill two pesky birds with one stone by shaking a pair of idling sons from their hair for a few hours, Mother began selling me the virtues of older cousins, joy rides, and tasting the wild blue yonder. With Phil saving up for a car and Father’s Buick making friends with dust in the carport, she said, necessity would be the mother of invention.
Sayings weren’t her strong suit, but the woman’s determination could move a planet.

 

I pushed my pie plate forward and rested an elbow on the counter. Astrid swept by, cleaning rag in hand. I turned to Phil, feet planted. Firm, decisive, a Colossus of Rhodes posture.
Phil’s eyes roved, as though seeking a worthy destination and never finding it. Sticking to the counter waitress, he watched her bare arms lifting plates at the order window. He nodded in appreciation when she crouched to stack dirty dishes on a tray. “Nice gams.”

 

Mother needed to learn to keep her snout out of my business. For that reason I’d rented a post office box and kept mum about acceptance letters from three universities and two job offers, junior positions, at tony city offices. Father appeared to trust my instincts. I felt sure he’d respect whatever choice I made.
Well, almost. Some decisions stand out as being forever incomprehensible, like a team captain’s first pick being a hopeless spaz.
That summer I’d taken to story magazines. Galaxy was my favourite. The title was hard to come by secondhand, though. Settling for If and Astounding felt alright, depending on the roster. Really, anything with Ray Bradbury or Martians kept me hooked. Used goods store owners dumped all those magazines together with pulps in musty rear corners. They were donated maybe, or unloaded for peanuts, and cost practically nothing for a foot-high pile.
Sorting through useless copies of Other Worlds and Fate on a morning no different than another, I saw One, a bundle of four pint-sized issues secured with elastic bands. The copy I flipped through, which had to have been ordered by somebody in the vicinity and came all the way from Los Angeles, practically grew hot to the touch; from cover to cover the word “homosexual” appeared twenty times at least. I slid it back into place and dropped the bundle to the floor.
I purchased two Life magazines about the Korean War; around the corner outside, I pretended to re-tie a shoelace and pulled stolen booty from my sock.
In a pantomime of waiting for an eternally delayed bus, I pored over the entire bundle while hunched on a bench, cars before me barreling by. I used Life as a shield. No one bothered me or asked if I’d missed my connection.
Leaving the magazines there in plain sight struck me as a provocative but reckless act. On a trail I’d once found a girly magazine. On the return trip it had vanished and I cursed my timidity.
I carefully tore out one article and folded it small; the rest I stuffed into a City of Burnaby garbage can. If one of Mother’s cronies happened by at the exact moment I stepped away, there would be questions I wasn’t prepared to answer.
At home I detoured to the carport and filed the article in the middle of a newspaper stack. Father never felt the urge to tidy up. “I know where everything is,” he’d reply when Mother butted in. Along with the den she granted him that unheated territory.
As with everything, I’d learned, gradations are what matter. Objectivity and the full-length mirror that Mother had insisted on in the hall by the front door confirmed that I wasn’t a lost cause.
In a letter to One’s editor, a man had written: “The hissing ‘S’ used by males, the use of well-defined words which stamp the male homo, the exaggerated walk, the compulsion to use cosmetics and feminine attire, can all be banished through hypnotherapy.” I didn’t hiss or think to use cosmetics; according to the mirror, my walk stood out in no way. A hypnotist wasn’t in the cards.
Still, I’m no different than anybody else, and there’s room for improvement.
The carport article, by an expert with tips for success, made it clear that swish mannerisms can attract scorn, or at least the wrong kind of attention. No news there. People, animals basically, sniff out cues by instinct, and before you know it you’re branded. A scarlet Q, cut from the pack. “Avoid the limp wrist as you would the plague,” that was the expert’s first commandment. Only a dolt doesn’t know that. “Learn to control the little finger.” “Remove ‘honey,’ ‘dear,’ and ‘gracious’ from everyday conversations. They’re dead giveaways.” I’d never said any of those words in my life. “Learn the masculine manner of smoking, Johnnie.” Mother would throttle me in my sleep if she caught the least hint of cigarette on my clothes.
“Next, Johnnie, learn the upright posture of masculine males.” Mother’s daily errands and appointments let me unscrew the hallway mirror clips and prop the glass against the front door. Striding toward it, I caught the swing of my arms, the length and solidity of each step. To take corrective measures, if need be.
I wiped up any plaster dust, naturally.
“When standing at ease, under no circumstances allow the weight of your body to rest on a single leg while the knee of the other dips below.” I memorized all this free wisdom. “Your posture while seated can be as telling as at any other time.” At my desk again, I sat, in pretend conversation with good friends or nodding sagely at a meeting with my future boss in the Mortgage Department. “The masculine way is to prop the ankle of one leg on the knee of the other; and to drop the elevated knee to such a level that the leg is almost parallel to the floor.” That’s useful information.
My hands? Best kept in a loose fist position, I’d decided. Relaxed but ready: a reliable message to onlookers.
For the time being, a semblance of normalcy would work. Eventually, I believed, the inner man would catch up with the outer shell. The period between then and now, that I’d keep to myself.

 

Warming to us, bored, or else weary of being ordered around by the senior waitresses, Astrid spoke directly to me: “My shift ends at half past.” With the invitation she stalked off with a zoo animal look that told me she’d prefer the company of two young strangers over drudges whose every complaint she’d heard twice.
“I could have a second helping,” Phil said, eyeing dots of gravy on her apron. “Maybe a bit of peach pie for dessert.”
The articles never described a situation close to this one. A correct posture in an empty house was nothing compared to a night on the town with Phil.
As Astrid passed by he asked, “Say, you got a friend that’s free later?” Neither she nor I was shocked by the forwardness. “Freckled and pretty and fine as you, I hope?”
“You got a car?” Squinted, her eyes took on a calculating shape, how they’d react near a table of customers dropping coins on their bill.
“Of course. We’re parked right there.” Instead of turning she patted the dome of her hair.
“You will forever cease to pat your hair,” the guy in One with the hypnotherapy cure had written. I rested my rigid wrists on the counter’s edge.
“Ce’s usually home,” she said.

 

If she wanted, Astrid could watch her friend’s bedroom from her own right across the street, in a sleepy, canopied neighbourhood that butted up against wire fences. Dairy cows wandered the fields in the daytime, Astrid told us, along with the name on her friend’s birth certificate, Celestina, which only her mother dared to speak.
When I asked what name we ought to use, Astrid said, “I don’t care.” Her stock of expressions was crowded with surly indifference.
Phil held his tongue, for reasons I couldn’t begin to guess.
The whole town, twenty minutes up river from ours, was built on a series of slopes that eventually rolled down to soupy river flats, linked log booms, and mills in a winding line along the water’s edge. Even in pinkish fading daylight it presented a slumped personality. Slovenly. A fresh coat of paint and trimmed hedges would make a world of difference, but, season after season, the effort had evidently proved too taxing.
Locals still caught malaria there, Phil reported. Smiling, Astrid called him a filthy liar. “Mouth like a sailor,” that’s what Mother would say.

 

Astrid’s mother deposited a vegetable peeler in the apron’s pocket and lifted the yellow skirt of it to dry her hands. “C’mon in, sit in the parlour if you like. There’s a fan. That girl of mine has a pygmy’s manners.”
The woman’s chore-drawn face offered no sign that she was upset over her daughter inviting in two strange men and leaving them shuffling like chain gang prisoners in the cluttered foyer. Or that she’d arranged to go out with them without permission.
“Nice to meet you.” Across the room Astrid’s mother kept her arms crossed even though I’d held out my hand.
“Yeah. Nice place.” Phil’s darting eyeballs took in and condemned the entire main floor before dropping to his shoes.
“We wondered who’d be pulling up unannounced on a Saturday night. Waxed and polished, I see, is it yours?” She smoothed the apron, picked off a strand of thread.
“Mine’s in the shop,” Phil lied. “His old man has money to burn. What’s her friend like?”
“She’s no fool, knows a thing or two.” The woman stared past us, at Father’s car maybe, or Ce’s family’s dry patch of yard.
“We’ll see.”
Astrid yelled from upstairs. “Ce’ll be ready when we pick her up.”
“Your father works in an office, does he?” Astrid’s mother didn’t bother to disguise her designs. I half expected her to yank back our cheeks and size up our teeth.
“So, where’s your mister tonight?” Phil treated our hostess as an impediment, an irritating gnat.
“He’s away just now.” Watching us, she retreated to the kitchen. She nodded, a strangely formal gesture, just before disappearing from sight.
“A mother’s blessings,” Phil said. “How sweet.” He used the rag rug to buff the toes of his shoes.

 

Before her friend shut the passenger door Astrid asked, “You get it?”
“Cripes, someone’s got a thirst.”
“And someone knows a thing or two. That’s what a little birdie told me.” Phil put his arm round Ce in the back seat. “No glasses, I guess we’ll have to pass it around and take swigs. You girls know a purr-ty place to set a spell?” Phil’s countrified words sounded playful but mean to me, as though he wanted to remind the gals who needed to be thankful for the special treatment and be aware of its cost.
“The flats, for one, but there’s mosquitoes.” Sensible and busty in the Jane Russell mould, Ce snapped open her purse. “Besides, I’m not really dressed for that.” I heard the clinking of glass.
“There’s the lookout by McKinnon’s farm.”
“Sounds fine by me.” Phil passed a pint jar forward and Astrid wiped the lip with her sleeve. She gulped the liquor.
“Golly, what a skilled mouth.” A slick of innuendo coated every one of Phil’s words.
On my turn, I tipped the jar to pursed then licked lips. Mother abstained, and Father could take an entire evening to finish a glass of sherry. Manly drinking wasn’t discussed in the One articles. Keeping up with the other guy and out-drinking ladies struck me as likely, part of the story. “Lord, what is this? Moonshine?”
“Swamp water, dummy.” Ce sat forward to clutch the seat. “That’s when you take a splash from every bottle and mix them all together. You know, so that nobody notices a thing’s missing. Keep that jar up front, As-y, we got our own back here.”
“Let’s get a move on, the night’s not getting any younger.” Astrid shifted, crossed her legs, and jabbed her index finger at the gear shifter.

 

The gradual climb on a rolling farm road led us to a dip and a pungent stand of cottonwoods. I already counted on washing the car in the morning, well before Father brought up the furry coating of dust.
“You ladies know all the spots, I’ll bet.” Phil toasted me, catching my eye through the rear view mirror. He held the jar to Ce’s mouth. “Good, that’s a good girl.”
After a gulp, Ce pushed away Phil’s hand. “Knowing pays off, doesn’t it?”
“Every towny and his dad knows about McKinnon’s. It’s only news for damned tourists.” Astrid’s anger buzzed with a fly’s craziness, alighting on Ce and Phil and then me before veering away to the outside world.
Along with the crossed wires of Astrid and Ce’s directions, I’d been grateful for the shifter and steering wheel. With free hands and parked roadside, I waited for clues from Phil, just as Astrid waited for a move from me. Upright but leaning against the door she smoothed her skirt with her mother’s nervous manner.
The mirror reflected my cousin nuzzling Ce and whispering lines that made her giggle and gush “Oh, you!”
Phil shot his gaze forward. Jerking his head the smallest of degrees toward the side window he arched his brow. Message delivered, he began nuzzling Ce.
“Say Astrid, how’d you like to show me the vista before the light’s completely gone?”
“The vista? Ha, seen one valley, seen ‘em all.” While accompanying us of her own free will, every word from the girl indicated disdain, an immense if obscure wrath. I imagined the sourness as a family trait reaching back generations. Or as preemptive, a reaction to a disappointment bound to happen later. She reached for the door handle. “Oh, I suppose. Alright.”
“Give the man a quarter for his bright idea.” Phil held up the jar to me as a toast before emptying Ce’s concoction. “Watch out for the malaria, but don’t hurry back.”

 

Cutting across a ditch and marching to a gap in the trees, Astrid told me she’d changed into her nicest outfit. “So don’t even think of taking a fork off the trail. I had to save up for the material.”
Phil would scheme to have his way with her, I understood, and that meant I should act angry, tricked by her and led on, or plead for attention with a beggar’s starved expression.
“I promise, I promise. No monkey business.” Away from Phil, the Buick, and Ce’s readiness, the view’s promise urged me forward.
We perched on a warm granite ledge, just a boulder of river stone but somehow deposited miles above water. A few lights flickered below. Further on, unfathomable, the flats and brown water were blanketed in darkness. At twilight an hour earlier, the expansive scene would have been spectacular.
Astrid fidgeted and sighed. Breezes rustling a bank of leaves that stood over an immense snaking river made me think of explorers, of astronauts landing on Jupiter and opening spaceship hatches onto who knows what. To her, the outdoors must have meant sore feet, insects with stingers, and soiled hems that would demand scrubbing.
She turned to me. “You’re cut from a different cloth than that Phil.”
“That’s ridiculous.” I heard an accusation in her tone.
“No, it’s the truth. He’s loud, for one. And a regular Don Juan. At the diner, he measured me. I could feel his eyes. Want me to go on?”
“No, that’s alright. You’re right. Tonight I’m just along for the ride.” I thought better of talking about Mother and her resolve to have me flee the nest. Mother troubles, I suspected, were a surefire way to make fiery Astrid go off.
“Great, lotta good that’s going to do me.”
“You don’t make things easy, do you Astrid? Just tell me what you want and we’ll do it.”
“You couldn’t begin to understand.”
“Great, lotta good that’s going to do me.” My grin matched hers. I thought of my post office box and the advice article hidden in the carport. She was only half right, I decided.

 

“Close enough, just pull over here,” Phil said. He tapped his wristwatch, “Nearly witching hour, and I gotta wonder what you gals might turn into.”
Braking, I caught Astrid’s eye roll in the mirror. I wondered how jaded she’d become by Mother’s age.

 

Pacing outside the Buick Phil had teased us as we returned. He ribbed me about the nice view and whether I appreciated the splendour and queried Astrid about when she’d first seen the view and how often since then. With his adventure winding down he seemed irritable. Now he’d pick a fight for no reason except to cause a stir.
Pretending I misunderstood what he was getting at, I answered. “I’ll bet on a clear day you could see all the way to Washington state.”
Astrid acted as if she’d heard nothing. “If it’s no trouble, we should be getting back.” She addressed me alone. Putting up with Phil likely reminded her of impending years of cafe shifts. “There’s church tomorrow and company right after that.”
“By all means,” Phil said.
“Thanks.”
“I bet Ce there would prefer to snuggle with another gal, As-y. I think that swamp water was a bit more than she could take.” He drummed the trunk with his hands before swinging open the passenger door.
Inside, a gaseous sourness instructed me that I’d have to air out the car on the drive home.

 

The Buick rested at a stop sign from which we all could see the girls’ houses. In the blackness I could see that no other cars were coming or going. “Cripes, it’s a minute, Phil, I think we can spare it.”
“It’s no problem.” Astrid nudged her drowsy friend.
I pressed on the gas pedal and kept my eyes on the road.
“Here we are, ladies, homes sweet homes.” I pulled into Astrid’s driveway.
“Yeah.” His forearm outside, Phil slapped a fast beat on the door.
“C’mon Ce, it’s time.” Though speaking to her friend Astrid’s eyes implored me. With the engine idling, I pushed open my door.
Astrid handed Ce’s purse and shoes to me and pulled her friend’s arm. Phil fiddled with radio dials and adjusted the side mirror to pat his hair.
“Do you need help with her? She’s dead weight, I guess.”
“I can manage. I’ve managed before.” With Ce’s arm draped across her shoulders, Astrid began to cross the road.
In stockings, Ce didn’t appear to notice the gravel’s sharp stones.
Half-turned to me Astrid said, “Thanks again.” The flatness of her voice and the limp wave could have meant anything.
Instead of catching up with the girls and risking gratitude, contempt, or indifference, I placed the purse and shoes side by side and upright on the road.
Pulling away, I imagined an early morning passerby catching sight of these feminine possessions seated in a tidy row. “There’s a story, I’ll wager,” he’d say. Fetching them, Ce’s mother would make a stink, lecture her daughter uselessly about the straight and narrow.
I reached for the radio switch, praying to delay Phil’s barrage of questions and the detailed answers they’d require.

 

04/28/16

from: the Department of Rejection — “Oats (Alternative Lit History Series #5)”

Sylvia Plath’s poem “Stillborn” (which appeared posthumously in 1971) describes the production of stillborn art and makes it analogous to a stillbirth.
The poet’s speaker laments, “O I cannot explain what happened to them! / They are proper in shape and number and every part. / They sit so nicely in the pickling fluid! / They smile and smile and smile at me. / And still the lungs won’t fill and the heart won’t start.” The poem ends with what we can imagine as the writer staring at a page of words “proper in shape and number and every part” but somehow missing the vitality that makes them animated as art. As a result the poet can only wring her hands in anxious puzzlement: “But they are dead, and their mother near dead with distraction, / And they stupidly stare and do not speak of her.”
I don’t know if Plath ever wrote a poem about producing work that she believed was not stillborn but which others – an editor of a journal or magazine, say – did:

Dear Miss Plath,

Thank you for your submission.
I’m afraid, however, that your poem is well-formed but does not really ‘live’.

Best regards,

In that case there’s a different reaction related, I’d guess, to self-doubt (eg, “I thought it was good, but evidently it was not”) or doubt about the editorial reader and their ability to evaluate with any degree of aptitude (eg, How blind to good work is that editorial board?!?).
These musings are preamble, a way to contextualize the following story. It went through the usual writing and revising process, was sent out for publication, rejected here and there, revised further, sent out again, and rejected again too. From there it sat as an unopened file on my computer, invisible to everyone. I still like the story, though, and (unlike various editorial readers) consider it both interesting and artful. And so I will share it.

Oh, a bit of background. The story is set in southern Saskatchewan and is meant to align with the fictional world of Sinclair Ross, who was publishing stories in the 1930s and ’40s. To my eye his stories (such as “Cornet at Night”) often focus on youths and young men who struggle between farm-family traditions and their own desire for something…more. There’s nothing sexually explicit about them (that was a publishing impossibility then), but finding a degree of homoeroticism in them isn’t all that challenging. For “Oats” I made what was (again to my eye) couched and implicit in Ross’ stories much more direct. The result? Well, as I’ve already written, I like the story and am posting it here because I think it’s worthwhile. Hurray for self-publishing!

Oats

 

A typewritten bundle within one lot of personal papers belonging to the estate of the R— family that was recently sold by Dominion Auctions, the following papers were donated to the Winnipeg Historical Society. The Society subsequently brought the invaluable material to our attention. Reprinted by kind permission. [—Ed.]

_____________________________________________________

November 7, 1938
Dear S—,
Here at Q— — we were gratified to have received “Oats” and given the occasion to continue a mutually beneficial relationship. Regrettably, it behooves us to remark that “Oats” does not match the exemplary standards of your previous stories. If you choose to revise it for later submission, we urge you to consider the strangely rhapsodic tone associated with the unseemly bond between the younger man and the salesman.
Per instructions, we’ve enclosed the original copy of the story.
Sincerely yours,

M— —
Editor-in-chief
_____________________________________________________

“Oats”

“Make hay…!” Hands clapped in quick succession, Aunt Ellen faced me with a halfhearted grin. Darting over my shoulders, her glance passed through the vinegar’d panes of the kitchen window. Dropping hints for me. I guessed she’d lift her eyes above her prized cherry trees, now finished for the season, and follow the rise of weatherbeaten scrub. Above that and on to the horizon, windblown parcels of green-gold wheat beckoned.
The great outdoors, a cornucopia of promise and wonders! With every fibre and despite a politeness nestled in her very bones Aunt Ellen urged me, her unexpected ward, to the back door—or front, which one didn’t matter—and toward fields, roads, paths, or alleyways. Bad enough that Uncle Bill’s sciatica had him dragging himself from room to room like the ghost of Jacob Marley and wincing as he asked for another pot of tea. Now a young man souring the kitchen, her sanctuary, with his moping.
With no telltale hands yet locked on her hips, I knew that if asked Aunt Ellen would protest. She had only my best interests in mind, she’d chirp, and, truly, it wouldn’t be long before clear, bitter morning drifts and white silent miles of empty prairie descended upon us and loitered for another sullen winter as we whiled away the months under a single roof.
Arms lifted and palms open to me, she resumed her smiling. “There’s no finer day to step out.” Recalling February—frozen dunes, boots pushing through fragile ice crusts, bundled layers that imprisoned every limb, and the quavering distant howl of a hungry coyote—I couldn’t debate the point.
Thirsty for a mouthful of water, I’d hoped to tip-toe into the kitchen and return to my room without drawing notice. With the school year—my last—ended I couldn’t make excuses about studying. On top of that, anyone acquainted with Aunt Ellen quickly came to witness mulish determination itself when she dug in her heels. At best, claiming I was reading (a half-truth) or napping (a fact) would firmly purse her lips and rouse a disappointed head shake.
The shadowed, downward cast of Aunt Ellen’s eyes gave me the idea that she’d now settled on her own ideas about my bedroom seclusion. A melancholic orphan, she’d believe. Cruelly cast adrift. Lonely and aimless as a cloud. An odd bird. Even before events—the house fire, my coming to reside with her and Uncle after the funeral, and our moving right into town to make visits to Doc Maclean less of a burden—she’d caught wind of her brother’s reservations. “A dreamer, cut from a different cloth,” when he was feeling generous. “Not a lick of sense,” “Straw for brains,” and “There’s not a drop of farmer in those veins” at darker hours.
I’d heard my father’s complaints often enough too. Tales about my getting lost and returning home delirious after a wintry search for lost yearlings and hiring a useless cornet player for stooking had been legendary at family Sundays, and damning proof that pharmacy, not farming, pulled at me from the future.

Swinging open the picket gate, I paused in a moment of indecision. Aunt Ellen would be hovering a half-step from the front room’s picture window, I expected, so I patted and checked my pockets. If only I could have dropped myself in my room—or on a street in Paris, London, or Peking—by magic.
Instead, one hand or the other.
Left led out of town. I could march on and on toward the Atlantic and see nothing but sun-cooked fields and the men working them. Right meant nowhere I’d never been. In town I’d return nods, and answer questions about Uncle Bill and the plans I’d hatched upon graduation. In the gaps of silence I would sense town wisdom that decisions mustn’t be delayed, responsibilities should never be shirked. These well-wishers would fear that in no time a layabout becomes a hobo riding the rails until a fateful misstep or a deadly cold snap. One of the ladies who stopped by for midday tea with Aunt Ellen might clear her throat and wonder how I was taking to my new situation. Behind her words, she’d pray I’d learned the lesson that in small talk the correct answer is always “Everything’s alright.”
Embroidering on the truth came easily enough to me, and “Alright” stood in the vicinity of fact. Still, a brand new sight or one that I’d not visited for awhile grabbed my attention.
Besides, Aunt Ellen put out plates of dainties for company after church service. I’d have ready replies for all those inquiring souls in rhinestone brooches tomorrow.
Left, then.

Gusting breezes and horse-sized eddies of dust raced past me on the outbound road. They’d have housewives at laundry lines on the opposite end of town grumbling in another two minutes.
I’d already been warm at the gate, and by the littered yard of the abandoned farmhouse that folks recognized as the town’s eastern border, I felt swelling gratitude for Aunt Ellen insisting on my wearing Uncle’s chestnut Trilby, which smelled earthy—of salt, leather, and hair oil. A size too big, it made me feel childish until the rivulets of sweat began.
A bare head under the blazing sun is a mistake, any kid knew that, and white streaks of cloud gave no relief.
Roadside crops, alkaline soil patches, and ditch weeds had me reconsidering my decision. In another hundred or thousand steps I could count on an identical view. Other than falcons far above, startled grouse, and a farmer who’d waved from his truck, I was alone.
I vowed to continue on for another half hour and turn around. After dawdling in town, I’d return to witness Aunt Ellen’s partial relief about having managed to salvage part of an afternoon with just one other body in the house.
I stood and then sat Indian-style dead centre at an empty crossroads. Flat on my back right here at night I could stare into the vast field of stars and glimpse eternal mysteries.
With gritty wind picking up, I shut my eyes. Beyond the prairie, each direction promised to eventually take me somewhere. The North Pole, land of wolves and Eskimos, or Antarctica, which could freeze a man into an icicle in a heartbeat. East and west meant cities, salt water, and ships after a time.
Feeling foolish—a young man resting for no reason in the middle of a road—I stood and brushed the seat of my trousers. Barring a diagonal trek through waist-high grain, four routes awaited me. I imagined clasping a willow switch and dowsing my way to treasure. Eyeing the homeward route, I veered right.

The panicked flight of two scaredy-cat grouse. Faint rustling—coyote? fox?—behind a fringe of wheat. A thunderous rumbling. My faith in dowsing’s power faded quickly and I wished instead for a pocket watch. Idly, I wondered about how many steps I’d need to take before speaking to another person. Cut into a dip between two fields the road was windless, a perfect oven in the scorching mid-afternoon.
Shielding my eyes, I turned toward engine noise and the spitting crunch of gravel. I waved as a car, a Buick, roared by and left me a fog of dust to breathe. I felt dry as a scarecrow.
The man behind the wheel slowed about fifteen yards ahead. Pulling over jerkily, he stopped for a second before weaving and straightening out as he sped up in reverse. Unsure of his ability to see me, I scurried halfway down the bank of the ditch.
    He braked exactly when the car’s front bumper met my straight ahead glance.
From my vantage point I saw whitewalls and black side panels frosted with dust. A hood ornament—chrome and shaped like a bullet frozen in motion—gleamed in the sun. The driver kept the windows sealed tight. A traveller taking a wrong turn, I figured. I’d happily take that over the next throttled squawk of a grouse.
We moved in the same instant. He pushed open his door as I climbed three steps out of the ditch.
Younger than Uncle Bill and trim the man took off his hat to fan his face; fingers raked unkempt hair the same rusty brown as my own. As though unaware of me and there only to stretch his legs he strode to the front. Resting his palm for a split-second on the hood ornament, he quickly backed away and grinned at me. “Sheesh, out here’s not a stitch better.” He flapped the front of his jacket and pulled shirt fabric away from his skin. “Hotter than Hades in there. It was either that or dust by the lungful and a plague of locusts. One of them rock and a hard place situations, I guess.”
“Vic,” he said, jutting out a steady hand. “You look too old to be a runaway kid. Too clean for a tramp. Sowing your oats, I’ll bet. What’s the story?
“No story. I’m Phil. You probably drove right through my home town.” I didn’t think of Aunt Ellen’s or Viewfield as home, not quite, but a green-eyed stranger didn’t need to hear that.
“Nope, I haven’t seen anything but that there since dawn.” The man’s sweeping gesture over his shoulder seemed dismissive, although I couldn’t fathom if he meant grain, farming, or the whole prairie.
“So, Phil, you’ve just picked up the habit of ambling along open roads to nowhere while the thermometer hits the roof?”
“I suppose so, something like that.” Vic’s jokey tone sounded couched. The words might hide within themselves a second, truer sentiment, as when Aunt Ellen promised “We’ll see” but in fact meant “Let’s drop the subject.”
“You’re a salesman, aren’t you?”
“Why’d you go supposing that?”
“My aunt says there’s a slippery line between salesmen and flimflam artists. They put you at ease because they’re buttering you up.”
“You got me, junior. Your aunt’s right, part ways at least. These days it’s life insurance. Before that… Well, let’s just say I’ve seen my fair share of rock and hard place situations. Farm folk! It’s like selling blankets in Hell. If I had a nickel for all the screen doors slammed in my face!”
As the outburst dwindled his grin returned. He parked himself against the wheel well.
I cocked my head. His Buick was newer than any truck or car in town. “You can’t be doing that poorly.”
“Long story, so let’s just say it pays to look the part.” He stood again. “Say, I need a long minute alone with Mother Nature, but if you want to take a ride, it’ll get you out of the sun for awhile. I can drop you off wherever you want.” He bounced his eyebrows up and down. “And I could use the conversation. There’s only so much you can tell yourself before the boredom sets in, right? Hop in.”
I twisted the door’s lever.

“When I swung right back there at the crossroads I’d hope for a break in the monotony, a patch of green with a tree to snooze under or a stretch of running water. Know of any swim holes nearby?”
“There’s none that I know of. Anywhere the land dips, there’s a trickle of a creek. Pretty much, anyhow.”
“Alright, ke-mo sah-bee, point the way. I’ll drive.” He wore a smirk comfortably.
We’d covered no more than ten miles but already Vic had mentioned his younger brother, the family success story who sold cars in Saskatoon, his parents’ impatience with the wanderlust of their eldest, and that coming home to roost might happen one day but Vic was also fine that it had eluded him for the time being. There are seven seas, he joked, and most everybody has settled for a water tap. He’d ridden the rails, spent a night or two in the country club, which meant jail, and worked for peanuts on a ship that docked in Portland, Oregon, where he’d gambled on a riverboat and had to work off his debt washing restaurant dishes. I had no way of telling if he spoke truth, lies, or something in between and I didn’t care. Rapt, I leaned against the door and watched him talk. Assured of an audience he kept his eyes on the road. He drove left-handed and ran his free thumb to and fro on the top of his thigh, I noticed, a nervous tic.
Compared to the worldly episodes of Vic’s adventures, the unbridled run of them, Aunt Ellen’s sensible nudges—teacher, pharmacist, banker—had the appeal of root cellar potatoes in May.

Edged with tan, deer-trampled grass and watched over by leaning clumps of saskatoon bushes the creek wasn’t much to look at, even during spring when water ran highest. Years of flow had managed to burrow out a pothole by a sheer bank at an elbow. I’d lowered into its coolness the year before; the water had touched my Adam’s apple. Today I’d have to dunk myself to get that wet.
We peered over the ledge.
“Not a swim hole, but that’s as good as it gets,” I said. I’d bicycled to the spot and thought of it as my secret oasis. To Vic, though, I guessed the stream, the opposite of mighty, would seem cut-rate, a pebble of glass being sold as a diamond.
“Hot damn, just what the doctor ordered.” Vic kicked off his shoes and loosened his tie. Unbuttoning his shirt, he stepped to the lip of the embankment and looked down. Backing away he hung the noose of his tie on a saskatoon branch and used another for his shirt. He crouched to yank off his socks.
“You’ll wreck yourself if you jump. It’s not that deep.”
“I hadn’t planned to. I’m no fool.” Thrilled as a boy and shirtless, he loosened his belt. “You’re not joining me? It’s just you and the sun above. And me, of course.”
Last August I’d plunged in without a moment’s hesitation. In the presence of Vic’s company I grew shy. “I gotta think it over.” More than the prickly heat under Uncle Bill’s hat and sweat running down my spine, I felt the momentousness I’d been thinking about at the crossroads, where each direction amounted to a wholly unique destination. My skin yearned for the pool but it also looked to me as a jump from one boxcar to the next must on a wintry night. Actions, Aunt Ellen declared for just about any lesson-giving occasion, have consequences. She gave few clues about how to pick the desired ones from the kinds anyone would hope to avoid.
With no further exclamations Vic trod along the shrinking embankment, arms out like a trapeze artist. After leaping on to a narrow tongue of gravel surrounded by water and comically playing up the sharpness of the stones, he made his way back to the pool. I sat above, swinging my legs.     “Okay, cover your eyes if you’ve got a delicate nature.” Thumbs hooked in his waistband he pushed. I’d heard of “naked as a jay bird” and “naked as a jailbird.” Neither made a lick of sense to me, but that was Vic, except for his hat. He eased in, silent as a muskrat. Lifting the hat overhead he sank fully until I could only see only a sodden crest of hair.
Bursting through the surface he bellowed and slammed on the hat. “Feels like heaven!” He made the offer as though he was handing me an apple for free. Vic tilted the hat over his eyes and floated upwards so that I’d behold his nakedness. Beneath the brim, his smile made me wonder how anyone could summon the backbone to slam a door on the man.
Completely quiet, Vic might have been napping. He clasped his hat by the pinch and tossed it back. He sank again, turned a somersault beneath, and lifted himself to the dry grass. “And now, if we know what’s good for us, we’ll be on our way.”

We scrambled to the Buick, mindful of the heat and the lateness of the hour. Palm touching his seat, Vic moaned “Man oh man” and announced that he preferred dust and locusts over cooking like a soft-boiled egg.
“You’d best be getting home, I suppose.”
“Yes.”
As I pointed out upcoming turns, he chattered. Hoping to lift my spirits or drag me into conversation, he inquired about plans, whether I’d visited a coast, or ever pondered stopping by in Saskatoon or Winnipeg. As I replied in negatives, the thought dawned on me that nothing and no one had chained me to one spot. I could catch a ship to Botany Bay if that’s what I truly wanted.
At the outskirts of town, I told Vic to pull over. Walking the rest of the way struck me as the wisest choice. With the onslaught of Aunt Ellen’s worries, I’d feel protective and tell taller tales than what I already had in mind. “Got all turned around out there” would match her expectations of me.
“Thanks for the hideaway, Phil. Now it’s on both of our maps.”
“Happy to help out.”
“So long.”
I waved as he barreled west. I couldn’t see if he gave one in return.
Aunt Ellen rushed in from the kitchen as I tugged off my sneakers. “Gee willikers, you must be dry as toast!” She thrust a glass of water at me. “I was starting to wonder what happened to you. It’s getting on.”
“Making hay…. You were right, it’s a good idea to get outdoors.”
“Glad to hear it. You’ll be surprised sometimes at what your old aunt can come up with.”
“I need to rest my eyes for a minute.”
“Alright. But not too long. We’ll have ham and navy beans on the back porch. Cherry pie for dessert too.”
“I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”
She regarded me with a mother’s kindness.
Though I hadn’t been untruthful about my fondness of that summertime meal, already I was thinking about what the seven seas could offer a man such as myself.

03/7/16

Excerpts from novel #3

Up_River_front

 

“With the exception of absentees—partiers laid up by the 24 hour flu and boys who’d decided that a paper diploma meant less than legit offers for mill shifts—nervous excitement rippled across 176 Grade 11 bodies for two mornings starting on a Monday in mid-October. On the first, the Principal granted boys freedom from classes in order to take a test, a diversion “not mandatory but highly recommended.” Girls made their way to one of three assigned rooms on the next. Knock, knock: the future had just dropped by”:
The good folks at Plenitude Magazine selected and posted a couple of shorter chapters from From Up River and For One Night Only. Feel free to peruse those excerpts here.

01/15/16

Vintage author photo with interview(s) link

New Wave nightlife, Vancouver circa 1982. D. Young and B. Grubisic en route to Luv-A-Fair nighclub

New Wave nightlife, Vancouver circa 1982. D. Young and B. Grubisic en route to Luv-A-Fair nighclub

This past December Carellin Brooks interviewed me about From Up River and For One Night Only. Set in a Fraser Valley town between August 1980 and February 1981, my third novel follows the personal challenges and ethical entanglements faced by four high school students (who are also two sets of siblings) after they decide to form a New Wave band and enter a Battle of the Bands contest. Read the interview at BC Booklook.
Plus, an interviewer at Nineteen Questions contacted me earlier in the autumn. The results of that conversation appeared online at the end of March. Xtra‘s interviewer, Andrea Routley, discussed the novel’s autobiographical aspects in her profile.
And Queer Voices printed an interview with fun questions courtesy of Redfern Jon Barrett.

01/8/16

Along with a photograph, some writing

DSC00958

Capitol Hill attic selfie with de-labelled boxes, Seattle, 27 December 2015

“The clamps reside in a sock drawer, the cards on a bookshelf. Whenever I catch sight of them, though, they never fail to intrigue me. Just mass-produced consumer goods, they’re potent nonetheless, physical reminders of ancestry. Roots”—a small excerpt from “Nipple Clamps, Vintage Porn, and A Guide for the Naive Homosexual: History with Illustrations,” my new essay.
The rest is available at Plenitude Magazine.