Article Category Archives: Fiction

A Nice Pair of Stilettos

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Fifteen years ago, my first job—real job, not babysitting. A shift at John’s Steak Place.

“Keep the tray in one hand. Make it effortless. And you’ll need new shoes.”

The shoes, black and worn, chunky in the heel. Sturdy enough to get me to high school and back. And Deb, the woman giving orders, dark hair fading to grey, permed to loose curl, early wrinkles around the eyes and a lingering smell of menthols buried in her skin.

“You’ll make enough in tips tonight. Get a nice pair of stilettos, used if you have to. I expect them next shift.”

The tray didn’t balance, wouldn’t balance. My right hand constantly darting out to steady gin and tonic, rum and coke, plates of Caesar salad and dry ribs, whatever soup was on special. The next night, new shoes made it worse, ankle twisting left and right, Achilles taken to the limit, trying not to show my weakness while Deb laughed and walked in heels like she was born in them, confident, steady, like a swan on a lake.

It took two weeks to get it right, my wrist tight, aching with new use. Fingers strong enough now to hold back the hands of my grabby boyfriend, twisting his arm away, driving ‘no’ home.

I dumped him. Like the tray. Five times in the first week.

*

You only get stronger, better, the longer you do it. Deb was a riot. Friendly. She never gave me any pointers after the first week, just little winks when she saw me watching, listening, admiring. They ate out of her palm. New customers, regulars, the repeats. The smile, free hand on jutting hip to playfully scold a customer. Men loved her because of that smile, that laugh. Women liked her because she was caring, inquiring, but never at the wrong time, never when they had a mouth full of food. Even John liked her. And she didn’t seem to mind him. At any rate, she never let John get to her.

The restaurant had been John’s for twenty years. He was fat, getting fatter. Stingy, getting stingier. Never slapped our asses though. New girls would start and rave about their luck. Worth tipping out, they said.

Once I started at John’s, I didn’t leave. I liked Deb, liked the food, liked the location near my house. Liked the checkered white and black floor, the fake-gold gilded mirrors on the walls and the plethora of plants. I loved being able to sleep in, to get ready for work only after I was over my hangover. I liked staying late with the staff, having a few drinks at our own private bar after close.

About a year in, I dropped a tray, first one in months. John pointed at me with his that’s-coming-out-of-your-paycheck finger. Deb slipped me her twenty-dollar tip from table three.

After we closed up that night, Deb and I were cashing out with rum and cokes, a plate of poutine set between us, stilettos on top of the bar, shining under the lights.

“You’re young,” she said.

I shrugged, letting shoulders do the talking.

“You could do better.”

“I like restaurants.”

“Didn’t say you couldn’t. But you have time. Think about aiming high.” She nodded at the shoes, laughed, took a break to refill her glass. “You can be bossed around your entire life, or you can become the boss. You really want to spend your life like I have, flirting with men you couldn’t give two cracked glasses about?”

I didn’t answer, just counted out the bills. Counted my tips. Waved them in Deb’s face. “Cash in my pocket. That’s what I like.”

“Just pay attention to the small things,” Deb said. “That’s all I’m saying.”

Oil painting showing two red, high-heeled shoes

Ruby’s Shoes by Lisa-Maj Roos

Not long after that, Deb started dropping trays, first one, then another. I’d never seen Deb drop a tray. Found her in the washroom with wet eyes. Red cheeks.

She’d had a diagnosis.

“You’ll get through this. If you drop a tray you pick it—” I started.

“Don’t give me bullshit. What the fuck am I supposed to do if I can’t do this job? You see what I was telling you. I got nothing other than this job. Nothing easier. You go to secretary school, at least you get to sit down once in a while. You become a teacher, you get the summers off. You go to business school, you can run the fucking world. That’s what I should have done. My smile could have ruled the world.”

She was right. Everyone at the restaurant did what she asked. And she never asked twice. Even stingy John was convinced to put on a large party for the staff every holiday—not just Christmas.

But the slipping started, didn’t stop. Deb’s hands shook, sometimes they’d go numb. I offered to carry her trays for her, but then she’d feel bad and slide me some tips under the table.

The only thing I could think to do was reinvest that money. Like Deb said, I had begun paying attention. One night, when I wasn’t feeling up to smiling, a man asked me, “What do I have to tip for a smile?”

Another day, when my good skirts were in the wash and I was wearing one just a little shorter than usual, I stood taking an order and felt a fork slide up my leg from behind. The guys seated at table three just laughed. Deb took over serving them. I kept hoping she’d drop their drinks, tip the spaghetti onto one of their shirts. But she was too great a waitress for that, even with her illness.

Then one day she wasn’t. She did drop the spaghetti. She fell and couldn’t get up. And I wasn’t even there to help her. By the time I came in, she was gone.

Just gone.

“It was a mess,” John said. “A fucking mess.”

I’d never been to Deb’s house before. Had to get her address from John’s filing cabinet when he wasn’t looking.

“I’ll get disability,” she said. “I’ll be alright.”

She lived in a tiny little bungalow. Two small windows in the front, a neat but plain lawn around it.

“You have someone here with you?” I didn’t remember her talking about anyone, was sure she didn’t have anyone.

“There’s Rob. He’s not great, but he’s here for me. We split for a bit. Got back together and at least I have his guilt now. And you’re here. Tell me it’s because you want to know more about my great plans for you.” She smiled and slowly fixed us some tea. She was shaking but she still had the smile and the charm. I couldn’t say no.

*

My fifth job, maybe my last one. A picture of Deb on my desk. Everyone asks if that’s my mom. I don’t tell them who she is. How do I explain? Can you explain in a few words the person who shaped your life, who made you grow beyond the bounds you thought you were given? Even if I could, I’d choke up. Too hard, talking about her to strangers now that she’s gone. Too easy to miss her gentle push.

I kept on at John’s for a while. Became his favourite waitress. Whenever a new girl would mess up, a tray would drop, I’d think, Deb would have straightened her out. Taught her to balance the weight. Instead, I did it.

Whenever John got that pinched face, the permanent scowl, I’d mention something about Deb’s laugh. She never came back. She never could. And of course John never said anything about missing her. But the whole place did. The mirrors less golden, the plants less green. A good business owner would have seen it, but John was just in and out, push push push. He didn’t even see me heading out the door, didn’t see me angling toward something better.

The other girls all said, “Good for you. I could never do that. How do you work and go to school?”

“Did you ever meet Deb?” I’d ask them. Make it effortless. Buy the shoes. No one likes the shoes, but they teach a good lesson. They show you that you can walk on a bed of nails, you can work through discomfort, you can put up with bullshit and turn it around. If you can work an eight hour shift in high heels, you can do anything. Just like the tray. If you get the balance right, there’s no limit to the load you can carry. You can hold the whole world on the tip of your fingers. It takes practice but, eventually, you’ll get it right. Eventually, you might even defy gravity.

Food Fights

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Bring Your Kid to Work Day and my Eighth Grader wanted to come to the cake factory with me. You can’t have kids on the plant floor when we are in operation, and to tell you the truth I didn’t want her to see me with a hairnet and scrubs on, sorting cupcakes into colours. We make sure the cakes go into the packages blue, pink, then yellow. It’s not exactly what I want her doing when she grows up. You stand on your feet the entire day, doing the same thing over and over while listening to the supervisor moaning how the line didn’t make its quotas. Halley thinks the plant is all Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but she’d think different if she’d stood for a shift smoothing chocolate icing onto cream eclairs one by one.

Best I could do for Take Your Kid day was buy a box of ‘seconds’ cakes from the factory store for Halley’s class and send her to my friend Norma’s café for the day. She wiped the tables down and folded napkins and drank so many milkshakes she couldn’t eat dinner.

Halley would probably hate this place anyway. That heavy, floury sweetness and the hissing of the machines and the hairnet elastic itching your neck. Plus, she’s a real social kid. We work in teams on the lines, but we’re spread out and can’t talk to each other. We’ll use hand signals if we’ve got a problem—like we need the machine slowed. You gotta concentrate super hard on what you’re doing. People think industrial food production is all automated lines and robots, but they still need workers. Women have nifty fingers, so my line is women except for Rob, who pours the icing into the spreader.

Even though we stand apart on the factory floor, we are a good team. We’ll pick up the slack for someone who’s not at their best. I can tell if a girl’s tired by how she holds her hands over the cakes on the conveyor belt. Sure and quick if she slept well, shaky and slow if the baby cried the whole night. There’s a way a woman’s belly settles into her hips when she’s been on her feet for six or seven hours that means she’s feeling it in her back. We know when one of the Bangladeshi girls gets bad news from home, too. Somehow the others tilt towards her, even though they’re spaced out eight feet.

I’d like Halley to meet the girls here one day. She’d get a kick out of them—we’ve got some characters. Tammy and Paula use body language a lot. Tammy is top of the line and Paula right at the end. Their relationship is rocky. If they’re fighting, they’ll sit at the table at lunch, elbows propped, and slant their heads together rigid as an A-frame, chowing down on their food like they’re tearing into each other’s throats. When everything’s good, they sit relaxed on opposite sides of the table and tease each other. Once they were having a tiff and Tammy turned up the production speed of the cakes bit by bit through the shift. Eventually cakes were piling up at Paula’s section and she’s flailing around all panicky, trying to work out why she can’t keep up. Wicked, that Tammy. That’s as bold as it gets for pranks on the line though. No one wants to lose their job.

installation art showing colorful cake

On the Table (Dainties) by Aralia Maxwell

Then there’s tiny Joyce, mid-line and constantly glancing up and down it, checking, checking. I swear she knows the cake colours without looking down. She adjusts the machines and supervises the line. Been doing this for 35 years. Back in the day this was a hard place to work, according to her. No daylight or fresh air circulation, and the noise of the machinery was incredible. I guess we’re lucky to have big windows now. It’s bright and we don’t have to wear ear protection. There’s an outdoor relaxation area. The cafeteria’s clean and warm.

Joyce sticks up for her line. The Line Manager carped on about hairpins and earrings that Quality Control found dropped into the packages and glared at the Bangladeshis with their beautiful long hair. Joyce gathered up her five-foot-nothing and said management should get better hair coverings then. After, she reminded the ladies on the qt to leave their pretty jewellery at home. All the rest of us have short hair. I’ve been a single mom for eight years, no time for anything fancy. Halley could make it in management. She bosses me like crazy. Us line workers are literally the end of the line in the pecking order. Head Office issues orders and sends them to the Regional Directors, who push them on to the Line Managers, and they dump them on the Supervisors, who squeeze us line workers like toothpaste out of a tube.

Joyce may be a softy with her team, but she and her hubby go hammer and tongs. He’s retired. Joyce has two years left. They’re saving for a trailer in Florida. Joyce decided Jeff could make her lunch sandwiches every day since she did it for him for forty years. You can tell how they are getting along by the sandwiches he packs for her, and what she buys for him from the Seconds Shop. Most of us don’t eat what we buy at the shop—you lose the taste for sugar here—but it’s a big perk of the job. They sell anything slightly damaged or not quite up to standard at a deep discount. I get cakes, buns, tarts, all kinds of good stuff, for practically nothing for my mom and my friends. Jeff loves the sweets. The bigger he gets from eating them, the smaller he likes his treats. It used to be chocolate rolls and pound cake, but now he goes for those fancy little squares covered in ganache, and lately he’s been crazy about mini cherry tarts with whipped cream dabbed on top. But Joyce hasn’t bought him any for a bit on account of The Sandwich Wars.

At first, Jeff made Joyce these fantastic sandwiches. Thick whole wheat bread with layers of cold cuts and cheese, garnishes of pickles, and the best mayonnaise. We were all jealous. But then they had a big set-to. The next day it was an egg salad sandwich, the day after that bologna without ketchup. When she got a lobster roll one day, we joked that she got makeup sandwiches instead of makeup sex, but the next day she pulled a slice of Kraft cheese out of two pieces of thin white bread. Not good. Last Monday she opened her sandwich container, pulled apart the floppy bread slices, rocked back on her chair and laughed.

“What? What’d he put in it?” we asked.

“That’s what’s so funny. Nothing,” Joyce said.

“Nothing?”

She opened the sandwich in her neat little hands like a book. It was just two pieces of plain bread that looked like they’d been sucker-punched. Joyce slammed them down on the table and set off for the cafeteria line. She bought herself fish and chips and scarfed them, scowling the entire time. Storm brewing for sure.

Tuesday, she went to the Seconds Store at lunchtime and bought a tray of the cherry tarts Jeff loves. I watched her cut away the cellophane window of the box. It had a tear in it, that’s why the box was in Seconds.

“Made up with Jeff, did ya?”

“Huh.”

Something was up. Joyce carefully scooped the whipped cream off the top of each tart with a spoon and put it on a plate. Next, she took a spray can out of her bag and started reapplying cream on top of the cherry filling, so the tarts looked just like they did before. By this time, she had an audience standing around our table. Tammy and Paula were A for Anger, peering over Joyce’s shoulder. Other line workers started gathering to see what was going on. The Bangladeshis were whispering together with their hands over their mouths, and even Rob wandered over. Things were edgy, like a union meeting.

“I don’t get it, Joyce. Why are you taking the cream off and putting it back on? Don’t make no sense.”

She handed me the can and squinted up at me fit to burst while I read the label. It was men’s shaving cream. Next thing I knew, Tammy lunged right over the table, snatched the can from me, and sprayed it over Paula. Joyce burst out laughing like a steam release on the sealer machine, and suddenly it was complete chaos. Shaving cream schooshing, screams and giggles and the whole cafeteria tizzy with silliness while Jeff’s precious little cherry tarts sat still and red and perfect on the cafeteria table.

Maybe Halley should work here in the summers when she’s older. She’d learn a thing or two.

A Feast to Die For

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Today, Amarjit was making Hardev’s favorite dishes. She wanted to make them perfect. She would prepare his favorites, masalah chicken with red and green peppers, lamb kebabs with yoghurt and mint, moong dhal, Aloo Gobi, rotis, and for dessert, she would spoil him with gulab jamuns. Peace offering.

Amarjit sautéed the onions, garlic, and ginger in the hissing oil in the frying pan. She looked at the washed pieces of chicken in the sinkah, the henand recalled her reaction at the butcher shop when the young man said, “Very good choice. Fresh young hen!” Amarjit started at the description. That was what Amro, her mother-in-law, had said about her all those years ago: “Just like a fresh young hen,” and cackled, showing her betel-stained lips.

Amarjit vividly remembered that rainy December in her village in Punjab. Barely sixteen, she was making chai for her father when the lazy afternoon was disrupted by the arrival of the foreigners from Canada. She heard her name lovingly called out by her father. With her dupatta covering her head, she barely raised her eyes to catch a glimpse of the smiling face of Amro and the leering look of the man, ten years older than Amarjit, that she was destined to marry. Just like that, her voiceless fate was sealed in the arranged marriage proposal. Those were her last days in Punjab before she became the wife of the rich Canadian wallah, Hardev.

“Lucky,” everyone in the bleak village had whispered, their eyes flashing with envy. “Going to Canada!”

Now Amarjit brushed her tears, still bitter, with the back of her hand and turned her attention to tossing the perfect proportion of pungent spices into the masalah chicken.

Twelve noon. Hardev banged the door open and thundered in, sitting down at the dining table, looking older than his sixty years. She noticed his deep wrinkles and bushy brows. With bulging but approving eyes, he surveyed the food she had slaved over all morning. Hardev piled his plate and noisily began shoving his mouth with pieces of roti wrapped around chicken, pausing to bite into the lamb kebabs. He noisily slurped the dhal from the bowl, scooped the cauliflower and potatoes with his fingers. A beast.

Illustration of a woman holding a tray of food

Food Plate by Ildiko Nova

Amarjit never ate with him. He complained she was too noisy. He complained she was eating too much. He complained she was eating too little. She just sat across from him and watched like a sentinel, noting each approval and recoiling at any dissatisfaction. Sitting back, Hardev pushed his plate away and said, “I knew that when I saw you in your father’s kitchen all those years ago, it was a good omen. You must have learned to cook from the gods.”

Amarjit could hardly believe her ears. Praises. Hurriedly, she waddled into the kitchen and brought out a big bowl of warm, fragrant gulab jamuns. His eyes widened in appreciation. He knew that she had been too busy all morning to have gotten into any mischief. “Acha. Wonderful,” he spat out. She glowed. This one day of praise was akin to months of bliss. Hardev washed his hands and left. No goodbye. No word.

With a sigh of relief, Amarjit cleaned up the mess, humming a Hindi movie tune. She silently savored Hardev’s praises. Thankful that the thali did not fly at her in unprovoked anger. No bitter words slammed into her gullet. Now, she looked forward to solitary bliss. First, she relaxed in the prayer room and chanted the beautiful scriptures from the Adi Granth that transported her to her father’s house where she sat at his feet as they prayed together. Then, she sang a hymn on her waja, turning her head towards heaven, forgetting her worldly sorrows.

Suddenly, the peaceful afternoon was shattered by the angry shrill of the telephone. Amarjit grabbed the receiver. For a few brief moments, it appeared that Amarjit had frozen into time itself. Her face drew a blank look, and her mouth kept gaping. There was not a single sound from her. When she put the phone down, she hung her head for a brief moment. Then she ambled into the kitchen.

She went to the leftover ball of atta and turned on the flame to heat up the pan. She slapped the atta between two palms and doused it in flour. She put it on the counter and deftly rolled it out to the size of a dessert plate. Again, she gingerly lifted the flattened roti and tossed it from one palm to the other before placing it on the hot black pan.

Amarjit watched as the brown spots emerged on the outer side, and she flipped it over as it puffed. With a dishcloth, she pressed the outermost sides of the roti, making sure all parts were nicely browned. She tossed the perfectly speckled roti onto her thali. She reached out for her homemade jar of mango achar on the counter and heaped an overflowing tablespoon onto the compartment next to her roti. Then, she opened the fridge door and took out the leftover bowl of fragrant chole and homemade creamy dhai that she had made the day before. Hardev had refused to have any because she had not made chicken to go with it; he had stormed out, as usual.

She never cared for the fancy food that Hardev craved and insisted that she cookall that never-ending preparation. Amarjit loved the simplicity of her village food: roti, chole, dhai, and achar. Divine. For the first time since she had arrived in Canada, Amarjit ate with gusto in Hardev’s house, their house. She savored every bite as if it were her first. Only when she had satiated her hunger did she finally allow herself to think about the phone call from the emergency room of the hospital barely ten minutes away. The caller told her that Hardev had collapsed in the parking lot of the shopping center. The voice on the other side of the phone whispered, “I’m sorry. It was a heart attack. Just like that. He died immediately. He did not suffer.” Could she please come down to the hospital and make the necessary arrangements?

With a deeply drawn sigh, she put on her sandals and decided to take a slow and leisurely walk to the hospital. She wondered if she would miss cooking.

This Day

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We have a mouse in the house this morning. It found the bread I’d left out to thaw for the boys’ toast. Spring is a strange time of year to be invaded by mice. Maybe her food source ran out. Maybe she has a litter. Too bad. I take some butter and smear it on the trap. This is a day for killing. The mouse may as well go too.

I wonder how many laboratory mice are dying in the fight against COVID-19. Hundreds, if not millions, I guess. Not to mention the ferrets, and cats and chickens and maybe a dog or two. At least they are dying for a purpose.

Ian comes in for breakfast as I’m hiding the trap behind the stove. Levi is with him of course. He follows his father everywhere—to the barn to help with the pigs, to the shed, to the fields. I keep telling him he has do well in school if he wants to be a farmer some day. He tells me he just has to watch Dad.

I send Levi back to wash his hands again and I look at Ian. “Not today,” I tell my husband.

He doesn’t look at me, just sits down, reaches for the milk and pours it onto his oatmeal. “He has to learn some day. It’s not like he hasn’t seen it before.”

“Levi’s only nine. He’s staying in the house. It’ll be hard enough without having him watching.”

“It doesn’t matter who’s watching. Anyway, he can help.”

“Don’t be like this.”

No reply. Just the sound of the spoon scraping the empty bowl.

Of course, the fight doesn’t change anything. We raise pigs. Right now, there’s no place for them to go. There’s no place for them to stay even if we had the money to feed them. There’s no relief in sight. There’s only one humane answer.

My cousin’s son is a chemical researcher in the US. He had to scale back his mouse colony because his students are not allowed to come to the lab. Scale back. That’s a nice term. We’ve all had to scale back at one time or another, haven’t we? Nothing to get upset about. Maybe that’s what I’ll call it.

Breakfast is over. Ian tells Brian to put down his phone and get going. He tells Levi to stay in the house. I try to thank him with my eyes, but he’s not looking at me.

As the three of us walk to the barn, I wonder what my older son is thinking. I wonder what my husband is thinking. I wonder what I’m supposed to be thinking right now.

photograph showing a rustic, barn door looking out to a field

My View for the Afternoon by Anne Macleod Weeks

According to our On-Farm Written Euthanasia plan, veterinary approved and meeting all the requirements of our national standards of care, we humanely euthanize very young pigs using blunt trauma. In other words, we pick them up by their hind legs and crack their heads against the edge of the concrete pen. It takes force and determination to do it right, but it’s quick. When an animal is sick or suffering, it’s only right.

Today is not right. That’s what I’m thinking.

“How can you?” they ask. My non-farming friends, the students in my grade 11 class, the anonymous voices on Facebook and Instagram where I share information about our farm, trying to educate the consumer as we’ve been told to do by the experts. Sometimes the question comes from genuine curiosity. More often it’s from horror and disgust. “How can you kill those creatures you are charged with protecting?”

I used to try and explain that farmers accept death as a part of life. That we believe the animals have a purpose and are there to be used. That there’s tremendous satisfaction in knowing you’ve given your animals the best care possible and in knowing they are going to feed others. Now I just say lots of animals eat other animals and we take pride in making sure our pigs are well looked after. Neither answer seems to make much difference.

The warmth hits me as I walk into the barn. Quickly we change into our coveralls and boots and pull on our facemasks. Then we head down the hall to the nursery.

Brian is lagging behind a bit. He’s fourteen. So far, he’s been all bravado about this. I wonder if it’s starting to sink in. “You doing okay?” I call back.

“What? Yes.” He catches up. He’s grown again and his coveralls are short. I tell myself to pick him up some new ones the next time I’m in town.

Brian wants to take over the farm someday. He’ll need to learn many things. About animal care. About business. About running machinery and leading people and whether to plant today or hope the rain holds off so the field can dry just a little bit more.

And he’ll have to learn there are times when you are revolted or even terrified at what you will need to do. Times when, no matter how much you want to walk away, the voice in your head will remind you there’s no other choice and no one else is coming to help so you might as well get on with it. Times like now.

What will this day do to him, I wonder? To my husband? To husbands and children across the country, all who are in the very same situation? According to the rumours, tens of thousands of pigs will be destroyed. Pigs that were raised for a purpose, but in the end had none. We are at the door now. I look over my shoulder to see if Ian is ready. He nods. His face is hidden by the mask but I can see his eyes. He looks tired. No. For the first time, he looks old.

I reach for the door handle. From the other side, I can hear soft grunts and movement of the pigs. There’s a tiny squeal. My hand drops. I start to shake. I clench my hands and close my eyes. Through the roaring in my ears, I hear Ian. “Are you okay?”

“Give me a minute.” I reach for air.

“I’ll do it. You go back to the house.” His voice is brusque.

“Go ahead, Mom. Dad and I can handle it.”

My son sounds like his father. I look at him and see worry in his eyes. I will not. I will not make a day none of us will forget worse for my son or my husband. I will not make them doubt. We are looking after these animals in the best way we know how. We will not fail. I will not fail.

I make my eyes smile. “I’m fine.” I say. And I open the door.

Later, I head to the house while Ian and Brian finish cleaning up. I pull out the mousetrap and put it away. Just for her. Just for today.

Beverly

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Their footsteps had disturbed the morning dew and left a long trail of dark green in the grass. I breathed in, exhaled slowly, and trudged up the hill following one of the wet paths. My inner voice echoed with every step. It was the sound of my mother: keep your head up, your back straight, careful of your words.

Years ago, unsuitable soil was dumped here during road construction and pipe excavations. This rolling hill was left wedged at a fork in the road between two streets, both named Beverly. Later, a few random trees were added, an afterthought, no doubt.

It was an unused parcel of land but that day the project team had gathered to kick off the “first of its kind” green infrastructure facility in our city. The team stood in two separate groups at the top of the hill: the field workers and the office folk. The groups had not yet met face-to-face, though introductions had been arranged through emails and phone calls. I was the lone female engineering designer on the team. For this project, I was also stepping into the role of construction inspector.

Stopping halfway up the hill, I took another deep breath. One of the land surveyors had laid out the project on the ground with white spray paint. I hopped over a white line, then another, to the group of my familiars: the office folk. We were the project administrators, designers, planners, and engineers. I nodded, offering friendly hellos. We made small talk about the weather and family. We listened politely to each other’s news. I answered questions from the engineer about the facility and we discussed its construction.

In the other group were the field workers: the land surveyors, machine operators, inspectors, and labourers. They didn’t seem to use birth-given names to talk amongst each other. New monikers had been appointed over time, likely through a slapstick event, shortening of a last name, or as a token of their skill. Their plaid jackets hung loosely over worn-out, orange t-shirts branded with big reflective Xs. Overstretched jeans partly covered their moulded, unlaced boots that were caked with old mud and splatters of oil.

At some point, Keith, the machine operator, broke off from the circle of field workers. He walked over and tapped my shoulder with the back of his meaty hand. A few guys from the field glanced my way.

“We have a few questions, too.” Keith said and he walked up the hill. I quickly followed at a pace that was double time to his natural stride.

“Well, over there, runoff from the road will flow off the pavement through the grass,” I said, catching my breath. “Then it will flow through a strip of rocks over there. Water that flows through the rocks will filter down through the engineered soil, about here.” I waved my hand over the land, stopping at the areas of importance and making circles in the air. I looked up to his face for clues that he understood. A full set of rolled design plans were tucked neatly in the pit of my arm. I held the heavy tube of paper tightly against my coat. Its length balanced my small frame.

“I’m used to laying pipe” he said, “now, I’m buildin’ gardens?”

“No, it’s not a garden, really. It’s an engineered bioretention facility. There will be pipes underneath.” I squished the grass with my shoes as I began to unroll the plans, firmly planting my heels in the ground. “It’s designed to filter…”

Keith walked away as I was showing him the design and casually joined back into his circle. My eyes squinted after him as if there were a glare from the lights of an oncoming car. I waited, watching to see if he would return. I was left frozen in no man’s land for what felt like several minutes. Winding up the plans, tighter than before, I snapped the elastics forcefully at each end to secure the roll. I walked back to my group with my blood simmering, replaying the scene over again in my head.

photo of bioretention area showing rock, trees, plants

Beverly Street Low Impact Development Area photo by Gail Willis

Conversations began to fade and the two circles dispersed. The office folk walked away, one by one, to their cars and waved good-bye. The field workers continued to linger on the street. One guy talked to another in a truck. A few workers gathered outside the excavator, and one had his foot raised, resting on its tracks. Some were leaning on shovels, while others organized tools. I walked alone down the hill towards my car. When I stepped off the grass onto the pavement, I was signalled by a raised arm and a backwards wave.

“How are these garden pipes gonna connect to this catch basin, here?” Keith shouted. He was standing on the street beside the surveyor and pointing at the metal grate in the road. Beaming, I made short quick strides in their direction.

“Under the layer of engineered soil, there will be a series of subdrains. Each length will connect to a monitoring well,” I said, glancing toward the hill. “Any water in the subdrains will flow towards the outlet pipe.” I paused and tapped my toe a few times on the grate. “And the outlet pipe will connect to this catch basin with a sixteen-inch pipe.”

“We’re gonna be taking out a lot of dirt then, eh?” Keith said. “Any idea how much?” Without waiting for an answer, both men turned and walked up the hill. In the distance, I heard the surveyor answer: “I’m guessing several truck loads.”

The guys started to dig before dawn on a Monday morning. I drove by their dump truck, already full of dirt, on my way to the site. My mind raced. I kicked off my shoes and stomped into heavy boots. I shrugged on an oversized plastic safety vest and fastened the Velcro straps around my waist. My hard hat perched loosely, a bright orange dome tightened to the last notch. I stuffed my calculator into my back pocket. With my arms full of equipment, I leaned forward up the hill. I forced the legs of the tripod into position in the ground, bouncing heavily on each leg. I plunked the “one-man operated” automatic digital laser level on top of the tripod. Marking the measuring rod with penciled lines, I checked the level against the benchmark and headed to the work area. I stood on the edge of the excavation.

“You should’ve been set up before we arrived!” Keith yelled, stopping the excavator. “If I was a contractor, you would’ve lost your job already!” All eyes fixed in my direction. My stomach turned. I hopped down into the trench. In a hurry, I flattened a spot in the dirt with my foot. My lips pursed in a thin line and I felt my cheeks flare red hot. Placing the rod on its end, I raised the metal sections of the ruler until the automatic level beeped.

“Keep digging, Keith,” I announced. The bottom elevation of this trench had to be precise for the facility to work.

“I don’t think so,” he said, staring intensely.

“You need to dig more, about twelve inches or so.” I matched his stare.

“Nope. Check again, did you set up the laser level right?”

“Yeah.”

But I immediately began to second guess myself. I reexamined the pencil marks on the rod, then grabbed the calculator from my back pocket. I punched in the numbers again to double check.

“307 millimetres. That’s roughly twelve inches. You gotta dig another foot,” I said. The area between my eyebrows tightened.

“Check the plans!” he yelled. “You want one of the guys to do the measuring?”

“I designed the facility, Keith. I know what the plans say!”

Keith shook his head and shut the door of the excavator. The machine roared back to life. The teeth of the bucket combed the earth, quickly and methodically, making a small pile. The bucket scooped the pile, curling under, and swung the sandy clay loam into the back of the dump truck. The other guys grabbed shovels and rakes to level and smooth out the hole. I checked again and signalled with a horizontal wave then a thumbs-up when just the right level was reached.

The work stopped at midday for lunch. The sun glared against the back of my sunburned neck as I dismantled the laser level from the tripod. I placed it neatly in its plastic briefcase before gulping down some water. I descended from the hill and sat in the grass under a tree near my car. Keith’s truck rolled up and stopped before me at the edge of Beverly Street.

“We’re goin’ for lunch,” he said, nodding in the direction of the guys sitting in the back. His arm hugged the outside of the truck door. “Come on, let’s go!”

“Ok,” I said, rising up and letting the warm air fill my lungs.

“You need a nickname,” he said, grinning. “What should it be guys?”

I walked over and joined their group.

Ruby

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I need you to listen now, just listen. I’m going to tell you the story of how we survived the August blizzard. We both need to know this story so that we remember: you and I are survivors.

Before the storm, when you were still a brand-new person, in those weeks of late summer when the barometric pressure was high and the sky clear blue, we stayed mainly in the big park where there’s a real forest and a river. The afternoons were so warm, and the nights cool for sleeping. There was plenty to eat—wild carrots and cattails and so many blackberries. And the cook at the canteen always gave me the leftover soup. Your cheeks got chubby and rosy and every day you seemed to feel a little heavier in my arms.

When the snow started, falling straight down, I heard people saying how pretty it looked. Later, when the flowers were all broken and bent and covered over, the wind came. The snow on the ground was too heavy for the wind to pick up, but it drove the falling snow sideways, slamming it into faces and bodies and cars and buildings.

I didn’t plan for us to go to the mall. I was trying to get to the little adobe house at the community garden across the street from the mall. It’s squat and sturdy, close to the ground. Less likely to blow away or be bashed in by a falling tree. I thought if I could block the doors and windows with wood and snow we could get enough shelter from the wind.

It took us over an hour to walk there. We’d have been faster if we’d left my cart behind, but I couldn’t do that. A few times, I had to hold on to the cart with both hands to keep myself from being blown away. You were safely tucked into my big coat. By the time we finally made it to the garden, I knew we needed to be inside a real building.

I don’t like the mall. I’ve never felt safe there. But I knew there would be water, and food, and maybe heat. At least for awhile. We hid the cart in the underground parking garage, way over in one corner, behind the garbage bins under a ramp. I took out what I thought we might need, threw the tarp over the rest, and said a prayer. Then we climbed the smelly concrete stairs into the mall.

Outside it was all roaring wind and snow. Inside there was a totally different kind of roaring and I think it scared me more. So many flashing lights and sounds and overwhelming smells. In the food court people were stuffing their faces with ketchup-y fries and messy burgers, fried chicken, horrible orange sweet and sour sauce, tubs of bubble tea. Maybe they were trying to forget about the mess outside or pass the time while they waited for it to stop, or just filling their bellies while they had the chance. Above the food court, the huge tv screen was showing ads for holiday cruises and anti-aging cream and the latest kind of phones.

I’d wanted to be a tv weather girl when I grew up. Grandmother used to let me practice whenever I stayed over at her house. I would stand in front of the big map on the wall in her library and use the yardstick to point to places where I said there were “weather events.” Watch for trends, Grandmother advised. Notice how things are changing.

Grandmother always refused to go to the mall. She said it made her feel dirty. The only time she took me I was seven years old and I begged her to let me see Santa Claus. We waited in line for twenty minutes before she hauled me out by my coat collar and never went back.

By the time the power went off, you and I had found a good hiding place in the family bathroom, near The Gap. Each time we went out there were fewer people. I don’t know where they all went. Maybe they were in the parking garage. I wondered if I should check on my cart, but it felt too risky to leave our hiding place for that long. The emergency generator lasted only a few more hours.

We were still in the bathroom when the skylight collapsed into the food court. The sound woke me from a light sleep. A deep groaning then sharp cracks, like the sound when the thunderstorm is right over your house. A terrible clap. I heard a voice yelling, the roof, the roof! Then a screechy grinding. I pictured the metal frame of the skylight twisting and breaking. Then horrible crashing and thumping as if a dump truck had unloaded tons of boulders onto a glass table top. I held my breath, and maybe you held yours too, like we were deep-diving together. I didn’t breathe again until there was silence.

When I thought things had settled down enough to be safe, we went to have a look. All the tables and chairs were buried. I noticed a corner of the giant TV screen sticking up out of the snow mountain. But I didn’t see any body parts. I stood for awhile, just staring up at the open roof, shocked by how wonderful the fresh air felt, and how strange the wind sounded, whistling in circles above us. The sky was the colour of rotten potato.

That’s when Spider and Mavis came out of the WalMart and found me. I didn’t know they were in the mall too. I used to see them at the shelter sometimes. I knew they were good people. They offered me some of the juice they had, and some butterscotch candies. Spider jumped a little from foot to foot. He said he was just looking for some pain killers. I think Mavis could tell I was hiding you in my coat, I saw her looking down at my body with a sad smile, and then back at my face.

After that, we started spending more time out of our hiding place. Even though the snow and wind kept coming in through the hole in the roof, it was a comforting reminder that the sky was still out there. Someone started a fire in a garbage receptacle and people brought scraps of anything burnable to keep it going. The smoke floated up and out through the broken roof.

I heard a woman say that the snow is a plague sent by God to punish us. Spider said it’s the government’s fault. Mavis said her brother used to work for a company that flies those weather bombers—cloud seeders they call them. She said that her brother has made lots of weather, but never a storm like this. Spider said they were trying to make it rain because of the wildfires, and the drought, but they screwed up and made it snow instead. It’s too full of water, he said, it’s not frozen enough. That’s why it’s so heavy. Why the buildings are collapsing. Plague woman says only a God who loves us would send such a terrible destruction. God wants to purify us, she says.

But snow is just snow. I knew it would melt the way snow always does. And then we could start again.

I didn’t know how much longer I could keep us warm enough, though. I lined our little den with the shiny emergency blankets that I found in the camping store; I burned one of our candles for two inches before we went to sleep, then another two inches when we woke up again. The blankets reflected back the candlelight and you gazed up at it without blinking. But yesterday morning you had frost on your eyelids. I had to breathe on them before you could open your eyes.

Last night I dreamed about Grandmother’s mink coat. I was small again, in the dream, not tall enough to open the closet door. She was there, and she lifted me up so I could reach the knob. Inside, the coat floated in the centre of the empty space, not on a rack or a hanger, just suspended in the air, hovering above me. I reached up to touch it and when my fingers felt the hem, heat flowed down my arm into my shoulder and filled my whole body. I felt my muscles relaxing, my blood vessels and lungs expanding and oxygen flooding my brain. I felt as though I were filled with sunlight—not just shining on me, but actually inside me, radiating out. I could have heated a whole continent. As soon as I let go, the feeling ended and the cold returned.

I woke up with a plan. If Grandmother’s house was still standing, I could get the coat and we might have a chance. I knew that when the snow melted we could dig up the potatoes and carrots left in her garden. We could be warm and fed.

We had to get out of the mall. We had to believe we’re survivors.

Painting by Flavia Testa showing a house with lighted windows in an abstract forest.

Mi Casa es Su Casa by Flavia Testa

Love Handles

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It wasn’t until the pistol end of the revolver was about to enter my vagina that I finally took pause for thought. It wasn’t until the scene was set for them to make intimate acquaintance that I found cause to reflect. I’d have gone ahead and done the scene, were it not for the assistant director on the set who, just before the cameras were about to roll, leaned in and said, “Would you like a condom with that?”

Don’t get me wrong. There was no facetiousness intended. They were a genuinely kind and concerned crew, right down to the coffee girl. It was the context that gave me pause. Because it occurred to me: if a condom is in order, then have others, possibly in this position, with this very revolver, gone this road before me? What road do I travel, surely not the less travelled?

A friend of mine once said, “Grace, I have hit my nadir.” And I she thought she’d had a fight and smacked her Arab boyfriend. It was that kind of pause. Very long, resulting in the discomfort of cameramen and crew who, hitherto for, had been the very model of patience.

I removed the lusty revolver from between my legs and sent it on its way to props. Closing my legs I said, “Thank you, but I will not be needing a condom.” A cameraman was at hand to help me to my feet in my stilettos, avec dignity, sans pants. And I headed to the dressing room to get them.

But when I got there, I removed my false eyelashes and the gold spangled pasties and I sat. I sat and looked in the mirror at who I was without them.

You see, I was the girl who had it all, the pink bedroom, the parties, the pony rides. Even a year in Lucerne at a Swiss private school that mother said was the absolute end in finishing. This was before daddy left, and mother spent her winters in a spa in Biarritz. Anyway, there I was, all alone in my pigtails and my slippers, standing at the pay phone in the hall dorm, wailing, “I want to come home!”

“Is that what you really want?” Mother asked. “To come home in ignominy?”

“No,” I said. “But there is a flight on Lufthansa.”

Oh I know, I don’t look like much under the lights nowadays, sitting out here in my rocker on the porch all day. Wouldn’t mother have something to say about letting myself go. But I had my heyday, back when theatre school was just a log cabin in the woods. Kidding.

I started out as part of a travelling troop, school tours, the classics. Then I joined a raging lesbian collective called “Broadaxe.” It cut a swath so deep it left my career in tatters. From there I went on to have multiple affairs with my directors. Including two twins who were in the closet, followed by several years in a relationship with an abusive actor. He was meant to be my comrade in arms, he wasn’t meant to be an alcoholic. But he was. I’d like to say it was him who drove me to drink, but I’d be lying. He didn’t even own a car.

After that, I headed out west. By the time I reached the coast, I was at low tide, and washed up, too. And that was when I got this part in a play in North Vancouver about an exceptionally dysfunctional family. Nobody was getting laid, nobody was getting paid, but … I had this scene, only the one scene. I was a woman who comes out of nowhere and vanishes again without a trace and … she seemed to speak to me somehow.

I didn’t pay much attention to anyone throughout rehearsal, kept to myself more than usual. I think I was cautiously circling my “nadir,” wondering if it was going to hit me back. And then it was tech night. And there was this man, this slow, deliberate, very considered man, moving about in the shadows of that tiny theatre. It was Lloyd. He both designed the lighting and hung the lights. Slow as a possum, I think he even played dead every once in a while and just hung there, suspended in that darkened room.

And when it came to my scene, I could feel him standing there in the dark, looking at me. He didn’t move, and then, it hit me. The light. It was my light, it was perfect, no tinkering, dead on. Illuminating who I was.

I did my scene in my light as I looked for him in the darkness. He came down to the edge of the stage wearing this little, sly smileit comes out of the corner of his mouth when he’s about to feed you your laugh line.

“You found your light alright?” Lloyd asks.

“Yes,” I say. “It was easy. Your lights are very well hung.”

It was later, not very much later I’m afraid, when Lloyd and I were in bed together, that I asked him about this little silver pendant he wore around his neck.

“It’s a scarab beetle. From Egypt,” he says. “I always wear it when I’m in the theatre.”

“What is it?” I ask. “A kind of talisman?”

“No,” he says. “The scarab is also called the dung beetle because what she does her entire life is roll a ball of shit uphill. And as the ball rolls back down on her, she rolls it back up, again and again. It’s a metaphor for a life in the theatre.”

Well I laughed at that but Lloyd, he was dead serious.

“She does it because what’s inside that ball are her eggs,” he said. “She’s incubating the future, the next generation, the minds and hearts that will be played out on the stage of life. To the untrained mind, it’s just shit, but to us, it’s theatre.”

When we got married, Lloyd put this little beetle round my neck on a silver chain instead of a ring. It’s the only piece of jewelry I ever let him give me.

When he got sick, he got so thin, he hardly made a ripple in the sheets, just lying there, still as a lake with a loon. That last day, I changed the sheets and made the bed up fresh. I lifted him out of the chair, and he was light as a feather. It seemed to me that if I’d tossed him in the air he’d fly, he was that light. Fly away and disappear, right before my eyes.

“I’m losing my love handles,” he says to me. “And if I lose my love handles, you won’t be able to hold onto me. And I’ll die.”

Lloyd was the one who let go. I told him about the revolver and he laughed, and he was gone.

I went out on the porch and I sat in this rocker and I sat here quite some time. Lloyd shone a light on me, on all the layers of my life. And it became mine. So when he died, I didn’t disappear into the dark. Because I know he loved me.

Smog Can Be Thick, kittens can be cruel

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Author’s Note: I sneakily wrote SMOG CAN BE THICK, kittens can be cruel onstage as audience members were filing into the theatre during the pre-show of a new Canadian play by Elena Eli Belyea called Smoke (Downstage Theatre in Calgary, February 13-23, 2019). Smoke is about the aftermath of a sexual assault that may (or may not) have taken place between an otherwise loving couple. The victim and perpetrator have completely divergent recollections of that night and, in the play, confront each other for the first time in two years since the incident.

*RECORD SCRATCH*

What you are about to read has almost nothing to do with that. My character in Smoke, Aiden, is a fiction writer and I used to type out my first monologue over and over again to drill memorization and quell my jittery, top-of-show nerves. After some comfort set in, I used that opening monologue as a writing prompt to create something completely different. Zero resemblance. About as much shared DNA as foster siblings. It’s perverse, really. A total bastardization of its brilliant source material. This story is a peek into my zany mind, never intended to be read by anyone but those intimately involved in the production. It served as both a fun exercise and a love letter/farewell to this powerful and touching play.

*

Once upon a time, there was a town, unremarkable and not without its problems, but the people who lived there were happy to call it home, I guess. The town’s citizens and illegal immigrants spent their days buying groceries, walking their dogs, trying to walk their cats, getting deported, paying their phone bills, fucking their partners and, generally speaking, life wasn’t perfect, but it was good.

One day, a giant fire burned the entire town to the ground.

Historians will argue about its origins. If this was a different story, I would tell you possible theories include: an unattended stovetop, a badly extinguished campfire, amateur fireworks, lightning, that thing those stupid Jackass dudes do where they take a lighter to their buttholes when they fart, maybe arson. However, this isn’t a story about what started the fire. Not even close. In fact, this is the last time you will read the word “fire.” FIRE!

As plumes of smoke blossomed overhead, sirens sounded and firefighters were dispatched. While the professionals worked, the townspeople went to get their kittens from the basement for safe-keeping but it was too late, the kittens had already formed a rebellion. They named it JUSTICE: Right Fukkin Meow. All of a sudden, the fire was the least of their worries. (How long had sweet Fluffy been plotting?) Tha Kittenz sharpened their claws, inspired by the character Wolverine from the X-Men movies. Side note: pets are sponges, do NOT let them absorb any information you do not want coming back to you (i.e. mutants with powers) or you WILL regret it. The poor Mayor, Mr. Roboto, had his arms severely scratched by his newest rescue, Waffles. Immediately, he regretted not buying from a breeder. Shop, do NOT adopt, he reminded himself. When his assistant, Todd, called the SPCA, he said they had to wait two weeks to euthanize undeclared cats. The bastards. How dare they? KILL THEM MEOW!!

This made Todd wonder: what about the bitches? (The dogs, of course). If the cats were wreaking this much havoc, what about the canines? What about ALL the animals? Jesus … did all the pets learn how to use BBQ lighters? (Todd knew legalizing marijuana, which he still lovingly calls “ganja-juana,” was a HUGE mistake.)

With the War on Terror over, childhood obesity obliterated, racism completely solved, the cure for adult acne found and, for the first time ever, Peace in the Middle East, apparently all that remained was to wage interspecies wars. Bring it on, thought Todd. He hadn’t spent every tax return from the past seven years on illegal Canadian paintball equipment for nothin’! When he was four, the neighbour’s cat, Sugarfina, gave him a mean thrash across the temple, a scar he still carries today (sad-ass Harry Potter wannabe). Needless to say, he had scores on scores to settle.

That much was easy. The challenge truly laid in Todd’s deep love and affection for dogs. Growing up, he was a sour patch kid, which is to say he sucked—hard. Kids hated him. ADULTS hated him! (Seriously, his parents weren’t very fond of him; it’s actually kind of a sad story for another time.) Anyway, the real tragedy was that he was a foster fur daddy hosting seven pups at the moment. It would crush him to know Donny, Malone, Contigo, Fifi, Denton, Imelda, and Ines were actually little shits waiting to de-thyroid him. Between the “Threat Level MAMMAL” code called at the municipal building, it wasn’t hard to avoid going back home to his basement suite located beneath his long-time senior citizen roommates (his parents, aaaand they still hate him, by the way).

As the assistant to the mayor, Todd’s nebulous responsibilities included fielding calls from the mayor’s husband and mistresses. (Some backstory here: Mr. Roboto’s publicist thought it would be a good idea for him to marry a man to curry political favour even though the thought of making out with someone with stubble ironically gave him stress-induced alopecia. As a consolation prize, he is allowed to have up to three mistresses, no more.) When he called Darla, the mayor’s most recent acquisition after Chenise got too power-hungry and stole all the red envelope giveaways at a Lunar New Year’s gala, she said that her cats hadn’t come home from their nightly 8pm peepee breaks. Trying not to cause panic or incite a blackmail situation, and in addition to reminding her about the notarized NDA she’d signed, Todd told her all cats found outdoors after 8pm were now subject to mandatory spay/neutering and will be released after 3-5 business days. Whew.

After an arduous sixteen-hour shift, Todd was allowed to leave City Hall for a quick shower while Mayor Roboto had one of his “visits.” Dreading what he might find in the basement, he took the opportunity to gas up, squeegee his windshield, and put air in his tires before going home. When he finally worked his way down to his suite and jimmied the door open, the atmosphere in his foyer was eerily quiet. He checked on the kennels and found all seven sweet puppers asleep, like fluffy little wingless angels. Relief flooded all over his body but just as quickly, doubt seeped in like a silent fart. Were the puppies simply putting on puppy airs? Had they formed their own version of a rebellion, possibly entitled: No Puppy Love? Now Puppies Will Shove! (I know it’s terrible; it’s a working title).

That evening, Todd’s shower had very Psycho-like vibes. He imagined that each screech of the shower curtain rings was the squeak of the kennel doors. Shampooing with your eyes open is a dangerous game. It stings like a motherfucker. When he changed back into biz-caszh, he went to check on the litter again. Not a creature was stirring not even a…. Anyway, yeah, you get it. The kennels were empty and the doors carefully clasped shut again. Any creature sans opposable thumbs would not have been able to pull that off without great trouble.

Todd retrieved his spare key to the main floor from his old Betty and Veronica lunchbox. When he turned the corner into the living room, the familiar dull glow of his parents’ boob tube was reassuring until he saw that his father’s eyes had been pawed out and the Werther’s butterscotch candies from his pockets had been scattered all over the coffee table, half-eaten. Perhaps he was the star of a Hitchcock film, but instead of The Birds it was The Dogs? That was stupid but a horror film is not far off what Todd’s life had become. He himself had always wanted to be in office. In fact, Mr. Roboto was his old roommate in college. Once a shy Japanese law student, Mr. Roboto found himself a peer in Todd. After hearing Todd’s designs to go from “geek-to-chic” (a turn of phrase he stole from a rerun of Maury about high school losers who grew up to become hot), Kirk Roboto was touched, sincerely inspired, and found his exceptional bar exam results and extensive volunteer work just the thing to make him the perfect candidate for the highest municipal rank. Not only was he highly intelligent, he was also a “gay” man of colour! Todd didn’t stand a chance, his pansy-ass knew, and he threw in the towel early and settled for being his Number 2 (gross, always reminds me of doodoo). Born a straight white male, he did not take well to being second fiddle/not the center of the Universe. In fact, he took it very personally but the presence of his crippling anxiety had always prevented him from sabotaging the Mayor and he actually overcompensated by being an excellent, world-class assistant and professional secret-keeper. It did cross his mind, while fantasizing, that maybe he could come out as somewhat of a hero in this mammalian crisis.

Not having seen his mother or the puppies yet, Todd went upstairs to the second floor. Noticing adorable, albeit bloody little paw prints on the carpet of his parents’ master bedroom, he braced himself for the worst. Before opening the door he paused and realized that if these canine killers were still in there, mauling his mama, he would be completely defenseless. All his paintball gear was in the shed outside! Grabbing the first thing he could think to wallop them without too much damage, he went for the plunger from his childhood bathroom. He wondered how much ancient shit was on that thing before snapping back to reality: cute little doggies were KILLING PEOPLE!

In paintball, as in life, sometimes it was better to take the enemy by surprise. Violently whipping the door open, he found … nothing. All that remained was his parents ancient California King bed (space needed for all the sex they were no longer having), with its immaculate bedding and eleven decorative throw pillows. Where the eff was his mom and the dogs? How had the puppies escaped and his dad been murdered all in the time he took a paranoid, six-minute shower?

Just then a text came through from the City. “Get your ass down here, STAT!” Let me tell you, nothing irked Todd more than when non-medical professionals used medical jargon like STAT in non-medical situations, but at the same time he knew it meant Roboto was serious. He was at once panicked and relieved to leave his house (honestly, he didn’t really care what happened to his mom, he had grown quite attached to the puppies, though).

It is worth noting that although Todd seems like kind of nerdy, incel dickhead with only dogs for friends (facts!), he was very effective at his job. Kirk Roboto would never admit this but he secretly admired Todd’s drive, attention to detail, discretion, and especially fashion sense! In this way and this way alone do we find something redeeming about this textbook Loser. He was a motherfuckin’ workhorse. Snap to the Oblong Office, Roboto relays the news that ALL domesticated animals and pets have essentially gone on a violent, anarchistic strike, claiming they have had it performing tricks with the promise of treats and then maybe or maybe not receiving the aforementioned treats. IT WAS BULLSHIT!

Parenthèses

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Ceci pourrait avoir l’air d’un mauvais film. C’est pourtant la pâte de la vie, de ma vie et sans doute de celle de bien d’autres. Dans des sursauts de ce qui me reste d’indépendance ou de volonté, je veux, de temps en temps, me prouver que je peux me préserver un peu d’espace à moi. Un peu de clairvoyance. Alors, à force d’être suivie ou surveillée sans raison, je m’offre de toutes petites escapades, sans but précis sinon celui d’être seule avec moi-même, pour respirer la forêt ou le rivage, et je rentre noter mes idées, la tête rafraîchie.

Il existe des lieux isolés où je pourrais écrire tranquille. Mais il faudrait que je sois certaine de ne pas y être dérangée. Que le flot de mes pensées ne soit pas interrompu. Nous avons un petit chalet au bord de la mer, adossé à la forêt, face à un grand cap morcelé qui change de couleur avec chaque instant du jour et du soir. De blanc ou rose, il vire au bleu, au gris, au noir. Parfois, la brume l’efface totalement du paysage.

De ma table d’écriture face à la fenêtre, je peux observer les chalutiers passer, les bancs de baleine sauter, laissant derrière elles des remous que les goélands explorent. En sirotant une tasse de thé, le dos au poêle à bois ronflant, je peux voir les marées monter et descendre dans un rythme aussi régulier que celui des femmes. En hiver, les oiseaux picorent une dernière pomme suspendue à sa branche dénudée; une biche broute des herbes rares qui émergent de la première neige ou boit au ruisseau avant que les glaces ne le figent et ne taisent sa chanson. Les lupins et les pois de senteur, qui apparaissent près de la grève de galets en mai, illuminent le paysage en noir et blanc du rivage jonché de bois flotté. Les roses sauvages couvertes de rosée surgissent des bancs de brume, notes vives dans le flou du décor. À la recherche du nectar, les colibris de la belle saison plongent leur long bec fin dans les corolles des lys orange, à quelques centimètres de moi qui rêve immobile sur la terrasse. Puis les fleurs de feu, les verges d’or et les asters mauves viennent ajouter les dernières touches de couleur avant que la boue puis la neige ne recommencent leur manège ravageur et ne défassent tout. La scène n’est jamais la même; les habitants, qu’ils soient papillons, porcs-épics ou ratons laveurs, sont toujours fidèles aux rendez-vous.

Cependant, je n’ose même plus aller dans ce lieu qui offrait tant de repos et de baume à l’âme. La dernière fois que j’y ai passé un moment, à rêver et rassembler des idées, à jeter des mots sur une feuille, à m’y sentir renaître, j’ai fait l’erreur d’en parler en rentrant à la maison. J’ai été foudroyée du regard par l’homme qui gouverne ma vie. Comme si j’avais commis un crime. Je lui demande pourtant souvent d’aller y faire un tour en fin de semaine, mais il semble sourd à mes appels. Le lendemain de ma fugue poétique, il y est retourné, seul, pour tenter de comprendre ce que j’y avais fait. Pour analyser les empreintes de mon délit. Comme si les mots qui traversent une tête laissaient des traces. Il m’a semblé, ce jour-là, que mon refuge avait perdu sa magie. Que je ne pourrais pas y retourner sans me sentir coupable d’une faute que je n’avais pourtant pas commise : rechercher la sérénité dans un cadre enchanteur afin que les mots se mettent en place d’eux-mêmes dans ma tête et sur le papier.

Pourtant, je ressens régulièrement un grand besoin de respirer un bol d’air pur, d’être dans un espace où puiser un peu d’encre, de recouvrer l’exigence de l’isolement nécessaire à la création. Et peut-être, un besoin de narguer la bêtise.… Alors, je pars sans rien dire et surtout, je ne vais nulle part. Je parcours des paysages que je redécouvre sans cesse, qu’ils soient vallées enneigées, collines verdoyantes ou rivages venteux. Je me fonds dans leur tranquillité, je deviens caméléon. Et j’ai le sentiment éphémère d’avoir coupé, pour un instant, tous les fils qui permettaient au marionnettiste de me manipuler. Être dans un endroit indéterminé, pour un instant hors du temps. Ne plus faire partie de la civilisation.… S’exclure de soi-même pour se préserver. Luxe qui pourrait paraître ridicule, mais dont les bienfaits sont incommensurables.

Je me demande à quoi ressemblent les parenthèses des autres. Je me souviens que pour une femme du bout de la route, il n’y a eu que l’ouverture de la parenthèse. Elle n’a pas su la refermer. Elle est restée suspendue au bout de sa corde, ses rêves interrompus.… Pourtant, les escapades sont faites pour couper les ficelles, pour déployer les ailes. Pour trouver d’autres mots à écrire. Mais son journal, ce jour-là, n’avait offert qu’une page définitivement blanche. Encre séchée. Je regarde mon cahier et me demande si je dois retourner dans la forêt, aujourd’hui festonnée de vert et de blanc, ou m’acharner à démêler des mots qui n’existent peut-être pas pour exprimer un besoin de paix sans limites.

Badass Orla

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“Hope Acres has unfurnished suites so you can bring your own furniture. It’s like a small hotel with a therapeutic pool and a roof garden.” Moira’s still hell-bent on shunting Orla into a biddy villa.

“Never mind all that.” Orla waves a sheaf of papers. “Dr. Moffatt came through with my referral. I’m to be a guinea pig!”

To Ms. Orla McWhinney from Health Canada: In fall 2018, St Michael’s Hospital Medical Research Program will conduct a double-blind study to evaluate the impact of Vitamin D injections on geriatric depression. As a participant in Phase 1 Trial: High-Dose Vitamin D, you will be entitled to the following benefits at no cost: study-related clinic visits, lab tests, study medication, travel expenses. Compensation: $800.

“But Orla,” Moira sighs, “what about your diabetes?”

“Oh huff and puff,” Orla says, “Dr. Moffatt explained about cutting back on boiled sweets. Hopefully I won’t sprout three heads, haha.”

“They want your informed consent,” Moira shrills. “Have you even read these forms?”

Orla rummages through her drawer full of bingo daubers and mint humbugs for a pen then signs on for six outpatient visits and three nights at the research facility in Mississauga. For overnights, Orla packs her track suit and Nivea cream in a sponge bag reeking of Sloan’s Liniment.

“Don’t be afraid to use the shower,” Moira nags.

 


Bedazzled by Lisa-Maj Roos

 

Ten women and ten men separated into fluorescent dormitories with single beds, private lockers and flat-screen TVs. Orla’s new roommates are Melva, a sallow blonde in a blue onesie, and Dory, a glassy-eyed woman with heavily veined arms. With the exception of one ruddy-faced, bearded man in a fedora, the whole group falls into a pecking order: a secretive coffee klatch by the vending machine, a knit-and-bitch circle, and several nutters who won’t stop pacing. They all line up for their injections alphabetically. Orla is Number 6.

Lucas the venipuncturist has a coaxing manner. “Alrightee, Number 6 show me your bingo wing. That’s it. One, two, three….” Orla quickly loses count of all the needles and syringes.

Armed with vending-machine cocoa and a stack of Woman’s Day, Orla makes a beeline for the glassed-in patient lounge. Melva barges in nattering about her grandson: “During diaper changes, he calls out: ‘I’ll be right back!’ Isn’t that too cute for words?” Orla wrestles the wingback chair into a corner and takes cover behind Ikea birch-tree curtains.

In the dormitory that evening, the nightlight casts shadows on the upper bunk. The heat vent makes a tick-tick, pock-pock sound. Melva and Dory are both out for the count by ten. Even with her failing eyesight, Orla can conjure up shapes in the dark like a magic lantern show. Cormorants wheeling over the Irish Sea, a pooka in the guise of a white hare. By some miracle, she doesn’t have to pee all night.

*

The man in the fedora and beard pretend-knocks on Orla’s cubicle then pushes the curtain aside. “Howdy. My name’s Orie. This your first clinical trial? Go easy on the bacon burgers or your cholesterol’ll go through the roof. They load us up with heavy foods cause blood draws can be enervating.” Orie withdraws then parts the curtain again with one meaty hand, a saggy-jowled Green Man peering through faux-verdant leaves. “You don’t look depressed. Keep your distance from the cuckoo clocks in here and you’ll be alright.”

”Orie? Now there’s a coincidence for you. My name’s Orla. If you don’t mind me askin, howd’ya pass the screening for geriatric depression?”

“I told my doctor my Labrador retriever died last month and I’m still not over it.”

“Oh you’re terrible!” Orla titters. “Depression’s no laughing matter. S’pose I’m just as bad though. I told my GP I could feel a kind of fog closin’ in on me. ‘Dr. Moffatt,’ I said, ‘did you know Ireland ranks second on the list of most depressed people in the western world just behind Iceland?’”

“Well, well. You’re quite the little schemer aren’t you?” Orie says, his eyes shining.

*

Orla watches from her hidey-hole by the window as five male lab rats hurl snowballs into the ravine then piggyback-joust till one of the heftier geezers topples onto his back and limps inside. Rather than head downtown on a day pass, they’ve hung about the research station’s ugly, treeless preserve, their brain receptors awash in Vitamin D.

“Look at the state o’ them!” Orla marvels. She wanders back to the dorm for a quick nap before the next cattle call. In that drowsy, half-oblivious state where you’re not asleep yet you’re dreaming, Orla witnesses a fireball of unknown origin obliterating every nursing home sign for miles: “Caution, Senior Moment in Progress” … “In Dog Years, I’m Dead” … “Retirement Living at Its Best.”

After the final blood draw, Orie appears in the patient lounge. He points to his fancy rubber-soled slippers. “Columbia. Top of the line. Next month I’m off to Northwest Territories to test thermal underwear. I’m their moisture-wicking, anti-crotch rot guy. You should sign on, Orla. You don’t need a doctor’s letter, the money’s good and there’s no needles. Columbia Sportswear used to be a bunch of twerps in snowboard pants but now they’re targeting the fifty-plus market. My new motto is: ‘The future is age-neutral. Get used to it punks.’”

*

Hectic blotches appear on Orla’s cheeks. Her hair sticks up like she’s been sleeping in a hedge. She waves Moira aside and lurches to the car with a rolling sailor’s gait.

“Jaysus and the wee donkey but I feel grand. Like a few kinks in my brain got ironed out. They treat you like something in a glass case in there! Not stingy with the grub either. Steak, mushrooms and spuds.”

Just then, Orie pulls up in a Jeep Wrangler and rolls down his window. “Call you next week, Orla?” he hollers.

“Who is that?” Moira asks but Orla is already long gone.