Oumar towers over me, takes my sweaty white palm in his gentle hand, and leads me onstage. We’re in a packed theatre somewhere downtown, I have no idea where. The glare of the stage lights cocoons us from the mesmerized audience. Oumar burns his charcoal eyes into mine as the theme song from “Flash Dance...What a Feeling” starts to play. We glide across the stage, and then he swings me around, spins me, lifts my feet right off the floor, his lips nearly touching mine. I float through the air like a cloud, the soles of my red and black plaid sneakers scraping the wooden floor. I close my eyes, try to block out the hundreds of peering eyes, and breathe. Inhale the scent of his sweat-drenched body as we move, two lonely hearts beating in tandem. Tonight, we hold the world in our hands.
Leon is leaving Toronto tomorrow. Toronto is a city, a notion of a city, a city en route, a map, adrift, an imaginary allotrope of road and lake, grass and bone.
Leon, on Gibraltar Point beach: tossing smooth skipping stones at the lake’s surface sunrise. Plip, hop, plip, hop, plop. Again. Leon marvels: Lake Ontario looks like the sea from the far side of the Toronto Islands. Texture of blown glass, color a shade between ultramarine and turquoise. Whirling battery of water like light-tipped wings peaking, the shooshing whoosh of the lake’s frothy waves the morning’s drumbeat. Plip, hop, plip. Stop. Each thrown stone a line, a number, an item, a point, a bullet on the lists Leon is making in his head while he hovers on the shore.
“I’m taking my talents to South Beach,” the King said. Not to me, but to the Mayor. At least, that’s what Carl Gibson told me while we waited together in line at the bakery that morning. Carl was a good friend of the Mayor’s, they’d been neighbors for a while before the Mayor became the Mayor and moved into the house behind City Hall.
“I’m taking my talents to South Beach,” the King had said. According to Carl. “Tonight’s performance will be the last, and then I’ll be on my way.” Carl didn’t say if the Mayor had said anything back. If he had argued, tried to offer the King some reward for sticking around, or if he had just nodded and wished the King good luck.
A controversial talent show involving children is midway through taping when a man storms the television studio and takes over a hundred hostages. He’s armed with an explosive device, but expresses no motive and makes just one demand: an interview with journalist Thom Pegg. It’s a bizarre request, everyone agrees including Pegg. A disgraced former investigative journalist, caught fabricating sources, he’s down on his luck and working for a lad magazine in Los Angeles. Reluctant, but pressured by federal authorities, Pegg agrees to travel to the city in question and meet the hostage taker. In this passage, he’s just arrived and is waiting for his escort to take him inside the studio theatre.
THEY CHECKED PEGG INTO A HOTEL. A nice place. Crisp white lobby, staff liveried in chalk stripe.
It’s dusk on a Saturday, I’m out walking. There’s a man, unsteady on his feet, with a long, curled-handle umbrella. He’s holding it up to his shoulder like a machine gun, staring down the barrel and swiveling abruptly, a jungle commando, pausing to catch his image in the scratched Plexiglas window of the bodega. A small boy wanders out of the store and stands a few feet away, watching. The man pivots slowly, beginning to grunt and growl before he comes around to face the boy. The boy pulls his arms around himself and waits to see where this is going. So do I. The man hunkers down and grunts his way toward the boy, the umbrella-gun carefully aimed. I’m weighing my slightness against the man’s new equilibrium. In case. Then, something invisible passes between them and the tension breaks. The boy giggles and runs behind a tree, peeking out. The man pulls a forty-ounce out of a pocket and sits down on the bodega steps. The evening begins.
They worked at one of the hotels. He cleaned the mirrors and mopped the floors, and she was a chambermaid. They had a small room tucked in the corner of the third floor, where they lived rent-free. The room had a double bed, a small table fit for two, a television bolted to a chest-of-drawers, a mini-fridge, an art deco lamp and a hot plate. There were no books in the room, and the light bulbs seemed to flicker in agreement. The curtains were a shade of okra. The walls mustard blush. The linen, however, did match nicely. A window looked out over the alley and into another window, which looked out over the alley. There was a washroom, which he kept spotless, and which she disliked.
A while back, I watched a pair of mourning doves in their nest every day, watched as one then the other sat on an egg; saw their baby emerge from the egg, watched its being carried food and fed, saw them all fly away one late summer morning, never to return, I thought. But there are many mourning doves around my neighborhood and maybe those three are back.
Every morning, right to the window; every afternoon, come home, open the door, right to the window—I witnessed the entire cycle of a nesting mother and father, a chick’s beak cracking through the eggshell, the baby’s care, its parents’ nurturing it, the baby’s first flight.
THE ELEVATED VIEW AFFORDED FROM HEIGHTS OFFERED BY BALLOON TRANSPORT OF THE FUTURE ARE EXCITING. IMAGINE SEEING THE DRIFT OF EastLA LIKE YOU HEAR PIECES OF MUSIC DRIFTING IN FROM HOUSES SUNDAY MORNING, EXCELLENT OPPORTUNITIES FOR CRACKING OPEN CODES OF VISUAL INTERFERENCE.
Should we say our names out loud? For the record?
Just transcribe it, we’ll sort out who was who later.
Or we won’t.
Yeah, or we won’t. Who cares?
Saturday---Liki, Swirling, Tania---
Who wants to start? Who’s going to---
What is to be done?
This is what we must do.
Hey! it blurts. Hey!
Charlie looks around. A voice in her head. She’s alone in the bedroom.
Hey! In here!
She feels it, a rumbling deep in the cavern of her swollen belly.
She puts her hands over her tummy.
Charlie’s not the first girl in the high school to get pregnant. She’s just the first anyone can remember to stay in school while pregnant. Winnie, a twelfth-grader, was rumored to have been knocked up by her uncle, but she stopped attending soon after word got around.
Charlie shows up everyday, homework as neatly completed as ever.
Who’s the father? the other teens whisper to each other as Charlie lumps by them in the hall. The top candidate is Mr. Bradley, Honors and Advanced Placement History teacher. Charlie sits in the front. Charlie does well on tests and reports. She is, in all likelihood, getting an A in Honors Ancient History.
Six PM. Thursday night. Jack’s Café Bar. Usually called Jack’s. Sometimes The Jack. College crowd hasn’t come yet, which is fine. There’s a special on pitchers of beer that ends in an hour, so I’d think it would be slamming in here, but finals are going on right now, so I assume they’re all studying, hiding. Worrying. Doing things that those titans of genius do at about this time.
“You should have forgotten their names by now,” Mike said.
He sat in the driver’s seat like it was a living room chair, his left leg jackknifed under his right.
“You mean I shouldn’t mention them,” Kat said.
“I mean they should be ghosts.”
Browning stalks of corn stood motionless awaiting harvest. Every now and then, a piece of farm equipment, a rusting red thresher against the plain blue sky, merited pulling over for a photograph. But they were doing eighty, and Kat could tell that the ease of the past few months they’d spent getting to know each other in Mexico was fading.
“My step-dad’s ex-wife always came for Thanksgiving,” Kat said. “Sometimes Christmas. It’s no big deal.”
“Nineties psychology,” Mike said. “You set ex-boyfriends into this place and time like they’re my contemporaries.”
“I haven’t had a serious relationship for three years.”
“It’s like this boyfriend mural.”
Avery was a rapist, but that’s not the first thing you’d notice about him. You might observe his pale skin or his glasses, the way the slender metallic frames highlighted his blue eyes. How his eyelashes brushed up against the glass. Or maybe his narrow, straight nose, and the way he was thoughtful when he listened; how he tipped his head to the side to regard the speaker. Every week when she saw him, Jackie noticed his long, white fingers and how he held each stem over the bucket, weighing it between his thumb and index before adding it to the bouquet.
Jackie always bought the most inexpensive flowers: irises or tulips, a few stems of gerbera daisies. After her purchase, she went straight home, sixteen blocks, to put them in water. She discovered that the flowers cast a kind of dignity on the small apartment. But on this day, when she spied Avery from a distance, handling a blush-colored carnation, Jackie decided that she wanted something more.
In Marcia’s favourite book, Cinderella’s stepsisters had thin carroty hair. So did Hansel and Gretel’s mother, and the wicked fairy who wasn’t invited to the christening, but Snow White’s stepmother had rolling auburn curls. They gleamed. Her image, doubled by the speaking mirror, filled a page and made Marcia’s insides feel hollow. She looked so often that the book readily fell open just there. The aunt who’d given it to her was pleased.
Then in a magazine of Mum’s, left open, Marcia saw an ad for shampoo. Carefully she cut out the sheet of rippling hair, mahogany-red. In her small room she looked about. Where? Mum was always cleaning. The bookcase? The image slid into Chickadee, a gift from the other aunt.
In time all the back issues thickened with highlights, streaks, conditioner. Always there were more blondes and brunettes, even silvers, than redheads. Never enough.
It’s not easy, being green.
—Kermit the Frog
I could feel Jordan’s hands working up and down my back. He tweaked my shoulder blade and my left arm waved. He pressed his fingers against the base of my neck and my head flopped forward. I maintained the almost plastic smile that I needed to play my part. My limbs dangled like they were made of wood, waiting for his hands to move to where my muscles were twitching, ready.
“And now, I will drink this glass of water while my dummy, Eric, recites ‘Hey Fiddle Diddle’ in falsetto.”
This excerpt from Every Day in the Morning (slow) has been reformatted for Joyland. Think of it as a transcription. The original, available in print and browseable online, is formatted in a way that could be called “concrete lyric fiction,” with words and letters aligning vertically to form a fully continuous “drop poem.” Like the original, but with 95% less white space, the unconventional paragraphs you see here are organized not by sentences, but by tonal arrangements of words. A group of words will interact in a certain paragraph, forming a zone of sound and meaning (and space, in the original), until we move on to the next zone. The emerging narrative links them all together. You need not know any of this to read on, but it provides some sense for the method behind what might, at first blush, appear mad.
Many problems still remain, but I am not angry. Why is that?
I live in this room and that is all that I do. I should be anxious over my lack of achievement but am not. I do, however, make lists of what I’ve eaten today. I say:
— I wrote this after eating an apple.
— I wrote this after eating sawdust.
— I wrote this after eating a dose of iron.
— I wrote this after eating walnut jam.
The world has not melted in years. It froze many years ago I suppose, but I don’t know — nor could I, because all I do is live in this room. The room is a tight fit. In any case, I think it’s a room because there are four walls and a window with a bronze-colored curtain over it. The world froze many years ago, so the window faces an open expanse of flat ice tinted a grayish blue, like a cloud turned inside out.
But I am not angry.
Why is that?
Let me say right off that if any of you mooks repeats this story to Eric or Max or the other guys from school, I’ll call you a liar and find a way to make you pay for it later. Ask around West Park—ask around the whole Westside—you don’t eff with Pearse Rooney.
Not that I’m ashamed of what I’m about to tell you, because I’m not. It’s just that a fella’s gotta worry about his reputation, especially a senior and the captain of the hockey team. So do us all a favor, and keep this to yourself.
The sun rises. As it must. And the sky is cloudless and the kind of blue you want to see in the eyes of a good-looking woman. From real close. Like close enough that you could blow into those blue eyes and she would slap you playfully and giggle and you’d once again be amazed that you were being so intimate and playful with such a gorgeous woman. That kind of blue. That’s how beautiful the sky is today.
And the sun freaks me out. I’m not talking cancer either. I mean, the thing is a star and one day it’s going to die and cosmology or astrology – one of them’s about religion, I’m getting my ologies mixed up here – but the sun’s a big thing and it fills me with big ideas and dread and it makes me feel so small when I think about the reality of the thing. Because thinking likes this opens a hole inside me that lets bad things in, they stream in, and what am I going to do to close it? It freaks me out. When I think about it. So I try not to. I really try.
David Bishop was driving to his mother’s house for dinner when he checked his cell phone and found ninety-eight messages. Every one was from his mother. After listening to the first seventeen, he discovered that the wording in every message was exactly the same. Only her inflection changed with each message, and this only slightly. Pressing some other buttons, he learned that all ninety-eight messages were sent at exactly the same time. He found this strange.
Jenna is tweeting when she’s supposed to be painting. Ennui is the religion of my generation. The singer of her favourite band updates his own Twitter feed as she refreshes her browser. She’s in a small white room that smells like oil paints. Apparently, he sits in a Calgary university library with aching lumbar muscles.
Man. Since when did my lower back decide to turn 65 while the rest of me remains 30? Get me a stretcher
Jenna is alone in her studio, unprotected from the summer heat outside. Over the speaker, his pretty male voice coos over a single strummed acoustic guitar and sweet piano triads. She cranks the volume and stands, waltzing with an imaginary partner.