Article Category Archives: Creative Nonfiction

Gary Gets Angry Sometimes

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Gary can’t pronounce my name; at first he didn’t even try. I don’t think it’s because my name is “ethnic,” as he doesn’t remember my white co-workers’ names either. He calls us Smiley, Pinky, and Blue Eyes, which makes us feel like 1930s gangsters. I call him Helmet Guy because each day during drop-in hours, he rides a shiny red electric scooter down the street from his unit to the housing co-op office and he always leaves his matching helmet on during our conversations.

Gary is a dedicated maintenance volunteer in his housing co-operative. He knows a lot of things about a lot of things. And about a lot of people. He’s resourceful. For instance, one day I wished aloud for a microwave in the office because cold dal just doesn’t have the right texture. As he left, he casually mentioned that he’d keep an eye out. I went back to accounting to the City about how we use their subsidy money. Not two minutes later, Gary returned, speed-walking with microwave in hand. Brown eyes glinting with the score. Official business.

“Holy shit!” my co-worker and I cheered.

“See, I got one for ya. That guy across the street was just getting rid of it!” Only the inside dish and one bottom peg were missing, but microwaves still work when they’re slanted. Gary brought us a dish the next day, found somewhere else.

He knows about mould and doorknobs and furnaces and insulation from his time as a superintendent. He knows exactly which day the City picks up garbage and which day they pick up plastics and which day they pick up paper. They alternate garbage collection now but do compost weekly, to encourage more green bin use. When this was instituted last summer, it drove Gary to the brink of madness.

“Why can no one keep it straight?” he yelled one day in the office. “They should pick up garbage weekly like they usedta ‘cuz people put their compost in the garbage and then the garbage just sits there stinkin’.” I asked the City to deliver calendars listing the pick-up schedule to everyone in the co-op. It seems to have caught on now. Most of the time. Things take time to become part of the culture in a housing co-op, but when they do, they have “always been” how things work.

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775 Concession by Dyan Hatanaka

Gary moves fast, he is a man of action, so this slow pace of behavioural change in the co-op doesn’t jive with him. He gets angry sometimes, and sometimes the reason is obvious but other times, he is not sure why. He has recurring nightmares about Skynet and apocalyptic visions of the office crumbling to rubble. He had lost his Star Trek uniform, and then he found it buried below the Beanie Baby collection that had to be thrown out after a bed-bug scare. One day after a pretty good discussion on aliens and atheism and terrorism, I asked him why he gets so stressed out.

“Maybe you shouldn’t drink ten cups of coffee a day,” I offered. He said that’s not the problem, it’s because he’s seen things. “Like what?” I asked, thinking of previous conversation topics.

“You wouldn’t want to know.”

Last weekend, we ran into each other in the neighbourhood and it would have been awkward not to walk together, as we were headed in the same direction. I didn’t want to talk about work on my time off, so I inquired after his wife. It had been their anniversary a few days prior. They had gone out for Chinese food and it was shit, he recounted.

“Aw, that sucks,” I said.

“Yeah, I told them about it, too.”

“I bet you did. Which anniversary were you celebrating?”

“You always ask the hard questions, Smiley! Don’t tell my wife!”

“Harhar.” I rolled my eyes.

After a silence, he said “Uhhh, four.” I was surprised; with his white hair and deep furrows I didn’t peg him for a newlywed. Then I learned that she was his second wife and they met while he was a superintendent. She’d lived in the building and he was so handy and they hit it off. His first wife? She had leukemia but didn’t know it. One day she woke up with a bad headache, went to the hospital, and died there. Within a week. That’s why Gary never goes to hospitals, even when he has angina attacks, because those places are doomed and those people don’t know what they’re doing.

Before we parted ways, he sighed and said, “You know Smiley, sometimes I used to get angry at my wife. I don’t know why. I really wish I didn’t.”

“I’m sorry Gary. I guess you can make it up by being good to the folks in your life now.”

“Oh I am.” He nodded vigorously. “See ya tomorrow!” The office isn’t open on weekends, but same same. The days go on.

Yesterday, Gary threatened again to “take the board down.” He was angry because the co-op’s board of directors had not yet approved a policy that allowed maintenance volunteers to have copies of master keys for every unit, in the case of an emergency while the office is closed. The board hadn’t even discussed the issue yet, since they meet monthly and Gary had brought it up only last week, but that’s not really the point. The point is, why is everything so inefficient? What would he do if, one day, there was a fire on a weekend? Why don’t people trust him?

“Well now, just wait. We can talk about this as a group at the monthly board meeting on Monday,” I said.

“They’re dragging their feet!” He replied loudly, pointing at me, eyebrows way up. This is a common refrain, along with “one hand doesn’t know what the other hand is doing” and “they don’t know if they’re comin’ or goin’.” It took me exactly 24 minutes from that moment to explain the process about keys listed in the co-op’s by-laws (“Only good for one thing, toilet paper!”).

After he calmed down, he apologized. “I’m sorry Zeela, I didn’t mean to take it out on you.” He’s recently started trying out my name. It’s kind of nice; Zeela is the nickname my favourite aunt gave me.

Gary gets angry sometimes. He doesn’t know where it comes from, but I can understand. For one thing, he hasn’t got much. Gary wouldn’t call himself poor; he gets by. I know that social assistance pays his rent at one of the City’s rare affordable housing units. The waiting list for a place like his is seven years. He won’t move anywhere, despite his frustrations with the co-op. He can’t. Almost everyone around him is stuck the same way—except for the folks who moved into the new condo buildings last week, and the people who frequent that hip new café that used to be a 2$ kabob place.

Gary gets angry sometimes because he’s got no ID. His birth certificate was in bad shape and when he went to get it replaced, the clerk at the desk punched a hole in it and gave him a form to fill in. This is an insurmountable task. Gary’s not the best reader because he didn’t finish school, because he got into “a bad scene” when he was a kid, because he got bumped from one foster home to the next, because he was taken away by Children’s Aid and split up from his siblings, because they all watched their dad kill their mom. He can’t get a birth certificate without listing his mom’s maiden name on the form, which he doesn’t remember because he was seven when she died and he never knew his family again.

Gary gets angry sometimes, like a lot of men I know whose childhoods have been fucked up. This doesn’t excuse his targeting of the board or his wife or me. He has been conditioned to be angry, to win with intimidation; he’s a scrapper, always has been, and he watches too much Fox News which makes him paranoid.

Sometimes, sometimes often, Gary is loving and patient and playful. He appreciates details. Like today, when he complimented me on the strength of the coffee I made for the meeting. “I’d like to take you with me when I go home on the spaceship,” he winked. And I might go, just to meet those few who live without gravity.

To Whom It May Concern

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From: Marie LeBlanc
To: Understorey Magazine
Date: August 12
Subject: submissions for your next edition?

To whom it may concern,

I am a writer and artist in Winnipeg. I recently participated in an art show called Canary in the Coal Mine where I exhibited my photography—even though I could not attend.

I have Multiple Chemical Sensitivity and the gallery was toxic to me, so I interacted via Ipad. I have also done a performance art demonstration about MCS in front of the Legislature Building in Winnipeg. The guards were very good about it.

So I have photography and writing from both of the art shows. Would this be something you are interested in?

Thank you,
Marie LeBlanc

 

From: Marie LeBlanc
To: Understorey Magazine
Date: September 7
Subject: Re: re: submissions for your next edition?

Thank you for your email. I am sorry I have not responded. I’ve been trying to find a place to live.

I left my rental suite due to mould exposure. The landlord denies it exists so I have been paying rent while not living in my place. I have couch-surfed at five different places so far. One good thing about not having a place to live is that I am learning new skills. I’ve helped to cut shrubs and have become a grounds keeper of sorts.

Sorry, my thoughts are all over the place.

When is your deadline?

 

From: Marie LeBlanc
To: Understorey Magazine
Date: September 18
Subject: photos?

Would you like to see images of my photos? Or the stories that go with them? I have one about my GP. He recognizes that there is mould in my apartment and has requested safe housing. There is a second where social assistance says they cannot help with housing. The third is about the employment program for people with disabilities here in Manitoba. They are unwilling to accommodate me and say I am not cooperating.

What is your word limit? And did you mention the deadline?

 

From: Marie LeBlanc
To: Understorey Magazine
Date: September 28
Subject: Re: re: photos?

img_3193-polar-bear-aquarium-4-almost-doneI’m sending a photo from the exhibit Canary in the Coal Mine. The polar bear is the canary, much like I am—a person with MCS in constant search for safe housing and basic needs—although even living in a zoo, a so-called safe place, polar bears are now getting human diseases, an early indicator of an unnatural and toxic environment. And the children in the photo—like our children’s and grandchildren’s future—are fragile, just a reflection on the glass. The photo looks so beautiful and elegant yet it represents a warning sign of what is happening to the human population. Are we the beginning of the end of the human species?

Please let me know what else you require.

 

From: Marie LeBlanc
To: Understorey Magazine
Date: October 12
Subject: no Internet

In case you are trying to get in touch: I’m going back to my apartment to scan my papers, letters and other documentation about my fight for safe housing. I could not scan these in the summer because it took too long and I couldn’t be in the apartment. So I just hauled my bins of papers to different locations. Seems like all I do is haul my bins around 🙂

Anyway, Internet will be spotty for the next little while.

The landlord has done nothing to fix the mould, by the way. He has just covered it up—a Bandaid fix. But I can’t be near the materials he used so I will have to be quick.

 

From: Marie LeBlanc
To: Understorey Magazine
Date: October 18
Subject: entire household on Kijiji

I am selling all contents in my place. Please see ad below and share as widely as possible.

Full contents sale. Everything must go in fully furnished apartment.  Would consider offers for ENTIRE contents. $2500 OBO.  Contents may have been exposed to mould. Most items have been cleaned; most people would not be affected. Some items of note: 3 metal office cabinets; new portable air conditioner; shelves; full wardrobe including boots and jackets, women’s small. All contents must go. Cash only please.

 

From: Marie LeBlanc
To: Understorey Magazine
Date: October 30
Subject: CTV interview

CTV Winnipeg is doing feature story on MCS next Tuesday. Beth Macdonell interviewed me wearing my hazmat suit.

I cannot find a safe place to to watch it however.

 

From: Marie LeBlanc
To: Understorey Magazine
Date: October 31
Subject: Another photo?

Encased by Marie LeBlanc

I am sending another photo. Can you use it? I call this one “Encased,” even though I am outside. I am always outside and it’s getting cold. I’m trying to find winter clothes now but when I go into stores I have a reaction and can’t think straight. People gawk and think I’m drunk. I often leave with nothing—or I just slap something on my credit card to get out of there. I did buy a jacket the other day. The store did not tell me it was a final sale. Well, the jacket is too small and now I am out $50.

Still no permanent place to live and I feel like an inconvenience to all who have gone out of their way to help me in this process.

 

From: Marie LeBlanc
To: Understorey Magazine
Date: November 1
Subject: Re: re: another photo

I forgot to mention that when I went to drop off the keys to my ex-landlord he made an extra effort to wear cologne! He asked for a hug and I said I couldn’t because he was wearing cologne. He said we were both victims of circumstance.

 

From: Marie LeBlanc
To: Understorey Magazine
Date: November 4
Subject: Thank you!

Since the CTV interview, many people have approached me on social media or by email about their story. I realize there are other people like me who struggle with lots of symptoms, especially confusion and concentration issues. I feel helpless but I do like the process of talking with others.

Thank you for your help and support. I’d love to visit Nova Scotia again. If I could find a good used car I’d take off across the country and leave all this behind. Maybe some day.

Marie

Scars

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Wearing short sleeves in the summer may not seem frivolous but when your arms are covered in the scars of psoriasis, wounds fresh, wounds old and wounds that are still to come, you begin to wear long sleeves as if they were your own skin.

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Blue by Shela Breau

A homeless man shouted at me from across the street as I was walking with my son, “Bed bugs! Bed bugs! Don’t let the bed bugs bite that baby.”

I wondered if he remembered that only a few days ago I gave him pocket change and cigarettes. He never thanked me.

I ignored him and walked on.

Two days later I was arrested for shoplifting skin care products. The arresting officer wouldn’t even touch me to put on cuffs. He borrowed gloves from a sales clerk who snorted in distaste at my appearance. I could almost reach out and touch the waves of hate seeping from her very core.

Upon my arrival at the Burnside clink I was denied long sleeves at admission. After getting settled in, a girl in my day room handed me a long-sleeved shirt, told me her name and said simply, “I understand.”

How unusual and lovely it was for me to find compassion in a person who had been condemned for being anything but compassionate.

After I Left

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I should have left when he stole from me the first time. I should have left when he knocked the wind out of me the first time. I should have left when he cheated on me the first time. I should have left the first time he chased me up the stairs screaming at me. I should have left when he choked me the first time. I should have left when he raped me the first time. I should have left the first time my friends and family accused him of stealing. I should have left when he refused to take me to the hospital when I had a kidney infection—the first time.

I should have, but I didn’t. After all, I wasn’t one of those women with black eyes and bruised ribs….

I didn’t see the red flags when we first started dating because abusers know better. It’s a slow and calculated dance they perfect to ensure that by the time you think you might be in trouble they have isolated you from your friends. They have made you feel like you are to blame. They have become so entwined in your life that you wonder if it’s just easier to stay … and then before you know it you’re taking vows and signing a marriage certificate. I clearly remember convincing myself that somehow being married would fix things and, if not, I could easily get divorced.

We had only been married nine months when things went from bad to worse. The night I left I had nothing but a small bag and my two dogs. We ran across a room full of broken glass to my car and I was convinced that it was over. That it was all past me now. That I could look back and think, “Glad I’m out of that relationship.” That I could breathe. Silly me.

But abusers don’t stop just because you walked out the door. I had no idea of the nightmare I would live through for three years—and counting—after I left.

And then_scaled

And then…. by Rebecca Bromwich

A week of constant texts, voice mails, emails. He blamed me, apologized to me, begged me, threatened me, laughed at me. And only then, I learned from one of his family members that he had a criminal history and had even spent time in a federal penitentiary. He had over thirty-five prior convictions, including stalking and harassing ex-girlfriends. I guess he forgot to mention this on the first date. I guess I forgot to ask. Silly me.

After I left, he trashed my car—twice. He created over a dozen email addresses and Facebook profiles and harassed me on my personal page, the business page where my dogs went to daycare, on the business page of my employer. He applied for credit in my name and was approved. He hacked my e-mail and sent messages to my contacts, pretending to be me. He broke into my rental unit, cut every single electrical wire and stole over a thousand dollars’ worth of my tenant’s property. He smeared feces and snot on the door to my rental unit and threw rotten fruit onto the balcony. He put my personal belongings up for sale on Kijiji. He messaged me to tell me how much fun he was having following and watching me. He figured out who I was dating and sent them a Facebook friend request. He broke every restraining order he had been issued. He called me weekly, sometimes daily, left verbally abusive messages, threatened to end my life, and he promised he wouldn’t stop until I was dead.

I called the police. Every. Single. Time. I wrote statements. I went in for interviews. I provided evidence. I cooperated. After all he had done, he was charged with only eleven crimes. Of those eleven, the crown prosecutor felt only five had enough evidence to take to court. Of those five, he was found guilty of only two. Of those two, he has been sentenced to eighteen months conditional house arrest for one.

This means he is allowed to go to work. He is allowed to go to the store, to go to any personal appointments, and further his education. Should he find out where I am living, he is allowed to park across the street from my house and watch me. This is because he has only to stay ten meters away from me—and ten meters is about the distance from the street to my front door. But he has to be in his home between nine in the evening and five in the morning. He cannot consume drugs or alcohol. Oh, and he must pay one hundred dollars in restitution for his crimes.

I lost a dream job because of him. I have moved six times. I have changed my phone number four times. I have changed my email address three times. I have changed vehicles three times. I have spent sixteen thousand dollars in lawyers’ fee and then had to let my lawyer go because I could no longer afford to fight. I have had to endure three years of court dates where I have been questioned and cross examined and made to feel like I’m lying and making things up. I have had to tell my story over and over and over again to each new police officer who attended my calls. I have lost friends. I have been doubted by those I trusted. And for every time I’ve been encouraged to tell my story, I have been told three times to move on, forget it happened.

So far, I’ve persevered. I’ve stayed strong. But I’m not sure how to end this story because, in truth, there is no end in sight.

Waiting to be Heard

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After the hearing, my mother and I sat in the breakout room across the table from the Parole Board of Canada’s Communications Officer, a gentle woman who had escorted us through the process.

Next door in the boardroom, two parole board members, both highly skilled in risk assessment, were deciding on the outcome of three applications made by one incarcerated man, the man who brutally murdered my father in the middle of the night, in my family’s home, when I was eleven years old.

“Do you think he’ll get it?” my mother asked. “Oh, I hope he does.”

I knew what she meant: she hoped he had improved enough that he could reintegrate into society, be a productive member. I too hoped that my father’s meaningless death would at least open up space for this offender to become a different man. Different than the twenty-three year-old who broke into my home to steal something.

One could hope.

“He’ll get the first two applications,” I said to my mother. I reasoned that his request for work releases and visits with his counsellor would be supported; it seemed a logical extension from what had been granted at previous hearings. “But he won’t get day parole,” I said. That was too much of a leap.

Isn’t parole parole? I’d asked myself years before, wondering about differences between escorted and unescorted temporary absences, day and full parole. As a registered victim of violent crime, I felt that I had to learn these terms, learn what was happening to the person who destroyed my world. Each year, as we came closer to the twenty-fifth anniversary of his incarceration, I learned more.

That day, I sat at the hexagon-shaped table in that stark multi-purpose breakout room. I took in the locked cabinets, the bright prairie sun of Drumheller shining through the window, the therapy posters hung on the walls and thought about the series of questions the parole board officers had asked at the hearing, along with the offender’s responses.

seekingthetruth

Seeking the Truth by Leah Dockrill

“Why did you go toward the noise upstairs instead of leaving the house?”

“I don’t know.”

“Why did you pick up the kitchen knife?”

“I don’t know.”

My gut wrenched as I heard the unforthcoming and unprepared responses. I listened to his high-pitched voice and realized, once again, that there may never be answers.

“Why didn’t you just leave?”

“I don’t know. I wanted to leave the house with something.”

He did leave my house with something. And at every parole hearing, each time I saw him sitting with his back to me, I stared at his forearms placed on top of the table, the hand that held that fateful knife, the back of his balding, closely-shaved head, and his running shoes firmly planted on the floor. Each time I saw him, I was reminded that he was here and my father was not. It was a certain resignation where, in his presence, I would slowly close my eyes, lower my head, and say to myself, “You’re okay. You’re just here to witness.”

“Do you think he’ll get it?” my mother asked again.

“He doesn’t have a good enough plan.” I said. “He needs a social worker in there.”

I was disappointed. I assumed there would be people to help him through this predictable application process. And then I laughed at myself. I was sitting in a prison, wishing the man who murdered my father had better support.

“Don’t you think it’s a little absurd that we’re advocating for his release?” I asked my mother. “He murdered dad.”

But I did sit there hoping that he could better explain himself next time, let down that our collective tax dollars seemed to be housing him, funding parole application hearings, but not actually rehabilitating him. Rather, it seemed as though we were all just riding out the sentence’s terms.

“Tell us,” the parole board members had said in the hearing, in and amongst their hours of questions. “What do you think are the long term effects of the crime on your victims?”

I didn’t like how, implied in their questions, we were his possession, his victims. This was the first and not the last time I wanted to speak up, to ask them to reflect on their syntax and the consequences for my identity.

“He’s not there for Christmas,” the offender paused. “Or birthdays.” Full stop.

My heart sank and I wanted to interrupt the questioning. How about the fact that I cannot contribute to my father’s life? That I can’t go to him for advice? That he can’t hold my future babies and teach them everything he knows. I could feel the questions almost leap out of my mouth. Indignation rose in my body and I wanted to yell. But I was not allowed to speak unless I had given them a vetted Victim Impact Statement one month before, a statement that would have left no room for my new questions, let alone a conversation. How unfair that he could see my words in advance but I could not see his. No, I must sit there against a wall. I must not disrupt the proceedings, lest I wished to be removed. And so I sat, silent, waiting to be somewhere else where I could be heard and they continued their questions.

“What will you do if released on day parole?”

“I think I’ll go to Calgary,” he said, tentatively.

“Do you know anyone there?”

“Maybe I’ll contact a friend of my family’s.”

“Have you contacted them already?”

“No.”

“Then what will you do in Calgary?”

He couldn’t respond.

“Calgary?” I said to my mother in the breakout room. “Why didn’t he say Drumheller?”

I couldn’t imagine why he’d go back to the city of his crime and not stay in the town where the prison is located, where he’d developed job and volunteer connections, where he’d made friendships with people willing to give him a second chance. I needn’t have worked in social services my entire adult life to know that his responses weren’t going to slide. They hadn’t prepared him for his release, hadn’t helped him answer the most predictable of questions.

“I wonder if he’ll get it,” my mother said yet again, thankfully interrupting the train of questions that circled my mind.

“It wasn’t a good enough plan,” I responded. “They won’t approve it.”

The Communications Officer escorted us back to the boardroom where we listened to the decision. The unescorted temporary absences – for work and counselling – were approved. But sure enough, his application for day parole was denied.

As they finished up the proceedings, I wasn’t quite sure what I was more disillusioned by: that he continued to not understand the gravity of his crime; that the prison hadn’t helped rehabilitate this woefully unprepared man; or that I didn’t speak up, despite being told I was not allowed to.

So I sat there, stroking my left hand with my right thumb, waiting for the moment I could leave, go to a place where I could speak again.

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