This is the parable of Bryan Dong. It is somewhat parabolic. Back in the day, in a very specific suburb of Winnipeg, specifically Transcona, when Leslie Mackie was an elementary school student, from the age of six, he used to go to Bryan Dong’s house every weekday for lunch. Leslie was a latchkey kid. Bryan was the greatest person in the world. Leslie was perfectly aware that he sometimes annoyed Bryan. It was hard not to be somewhat overenthusiastic in Bryan’s presence. Leslie felt a real sense of dedication to his best friend. Not only was Bryan one of the most popular and physically attractive boys at Harold Hatcher, but his parents, Roy and Deandra, were the Block Parents of Allenby Crescent. Every livable street in Winnipeg had a house that was designated the Block Parent home. If a child were to be in danger of any kind, they could find safety and solace in the arms of a Block Parent. Leslie felt especially lucky that his mom had brokered the lunchtime deal with Mrs. Dong.
1. MYSELF & THE CITY
My name is Folsom and the most important fact of my existence, as determined by others, is that I survived the Kindergarten Massacre. I am one of eight. My memories of the event are minimal but precise, as I have been made to recount them countless times over the years: Fisher-Price, safety scissors, smell of smoke, exploding sounds, hair flying, bloody carpet, I can’t tell you any more. While the rest of them ran, I managed to climb into a cubbyhole and black out, and so saved my life.
It has always been believed that the only witnesses were myself and the seven others. In the years since, we have been studied and analyzed, but what we recall is truncated and unreliable: no one has been able to surmise the reason for the sudden violence that swept through our classroom. It remains a case unsolved, motives undetermined.
The bus accelerates up the gentle slope leading from the wide street on to the small brightly lit bridge that takes it over a branch of the Oker, and no sooner have you caught a glimpse of the murky water, the houses and fences which line the riverbank, than the bus jerks to a halt in the shadow of a building at the Oker Bridge stop. The door hisses open with a sigh, and from here it’s not much further to his street, Spinnerstrasse. As if things weren’t bad enough already, he has to live on Kook Street.
His apartment, a so-called studio, is awkwardly shaped, sort of like a trapezoid, but also curved on one side. A desk, a chest of drawers, a mattress on the floor, raffia mats on top of the linoleum. Hardly any room to move around. But then why would he want to move around?
When I was a child, in my backyard, there grew a sapodilla tree. In the summer my parents would send me to collect the ripened chikoo fruit, or to drive away the monkeys who would try to steal them, with their long, curling tails and clever fingers. But now I live as far as possible from that house; the chikoos have become the strings of lights wrapped around my balcony and the monkeys replaced by young hooligans who, at this very moment, are tearing them down. I watch helplessly from the roof of my building as three of them disappear down an alley, leaving a river of coloured, broken glass.
Archie spotted the scanner at a swap meet one Sunday morning. The hawker evidently concluded that he wasn’t an undercover pig, because he leaned across the pile of swag and said, “It’s your lucky day, man.” The scanner was about the size of Archie’s shoe.
Though dismissed by Lila as “just another stupid toy,” once he got the hang of things, it allowed Archie to eavesdrop on firefighters and paramedics, on the banter of security guards, construction crews and bicycle couriers. But the hawker had been right: the police frequency was best.
After dinner most nights, Lila’s ample fanny parked in front of the TV, he’d lie in the dark listening to cops working stakeouts and drug busts, in pursuit of robbery suspects and car thieves. The action was unedited and often profane. Due to atmospheric interference, it could also be unintelligible.
I’m at the corner of Bloor and Ossington and, all of a sudden, it's really hot. The sun is hitting me directly in the eyes. When I look up, all I see is the dullness of everything around me—the buildings, the sidewalk, the garbage cans. If this is what it’s like to come down, I have to get back up. I rest my head between my legs and for a second it feels good—until I remember I’m wearing a skirt. It’s 8:30 in the morning and my lace underwear is in full view of the intersection. My friend Tina, who is also in second year at York University, comes running out of an alley and the colours around her blur and she seems to be coming at me. If I didn’t know her, I swear, I'd scream "get the fuck away from me, asswipe!" I do know her though, so I say calm the fuck down, Teen. "Ok, beyotch," she says, slamming into my side. "I love you, Jenny."
The light glistened on the pane of broken glass when I woke up that morning. I hurried out of bed to jerk the blinds closed in hopes they would hold up against the gusting wind. The chill of January air bit at my skin as I looked for something to put on. I stooped down and dug through a pile of dirty clothes for some forgotten pair of underwear. I walked out of the bedroom door and into the living room of our apartment. It wasn’t really our apartment, actually. It was abandoned when we stumbled across it. But it was ours now.
“And Jonah began to enter into the city a day's journey, and he cried, and said, Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown.” Jonah, 3:4
Perhaps we’d strayed too soon from the great road bordered by signs and, determined as we were to explore the city’s outskirts on foot so as not to miss a thing, we began, without admitting it, to doubt the spot we’d reached was the best place to start. We pushed stubbornly forward over the cement, the view ahead hidden by a light fog. Two massive structures without openings flanked us—a good distance away yet—and seemed to rise from the ground as we grew closer. Suddenly the veil lifted, and a tunnel’s mouth appeared at a hundred paces. Seizing my partner’s hand, I pulled her away at a frantic pace; I’d just become aware of a danger lurking in the tunnel’s depths.
Let’s say you get hit with something. And we say get well soon and tell you that you’ll be running and working and flirting and screwing just like before, just as always, just as you deserve to. Because you don’t deserve this. You don’t deserve illness, injury or old age. None of us does, but especially not you.
I know we haven’t seen each other in a while. And I know last time we talked you were kind of done with me, and that was justified. You were right; I wasn’t accepting reality. I was still trying to get financing for my film, refusing to get a full-time job, and I know I didn’t smell so good. Or show up on time. Or wear pants.
After we had been married for seven years we fell in love. Although not with each other. And not even with others. We fell in love with horses, with the track, with the way the horses, like beautiful women, walked to the gate, and this unexpected love affair of ours began on the cold day in May that our friends Luc and Odette invited us to go with them to the Hippodrome. They drove over the mountain to pick us up in their tiny foreign car and once we had squeezed ourselves onto its back seat, we were off, driving west. We didn’t know either of them all that well yet, but we hoped to become friends with them as a couple. After all, they both seemed to approve of both of us. This was a surprising thing in itself since most of our friends belonged to two opposing camps: those who couldn’t fathom what I saw in my husband and those who couldn’t fathom what my husband saw in me. These new friends were also older than we were.
The name of the lot was COOS AUTO BROKERS and the motto was Good Cars—Good People. Joyce used her weight to open the glass door. A girl who looked about thirteen stood behind the desk. She squinted at a toaster-sized television playing a British movie. The man on the screen crowded up to a woman holding a cup and saucer and said, “Are you quite sure there are no efforts I may make on behalf of your comfort?” Joyce announced that she needed a car immediately, that she was in desperate, pressing need of an automobile. The girl behind the desk said, “Me too,” and summoned someone named Garrett.
Joyce asked Garrett to show her the finest specimen on the lot, and he led her to a black Saab station wagon not two years old. The gleam of the wheels made Joyce avert her eyes.
“Is this a firm price?” she asked.
“Pretty firm,” Garrett agreed. “As firm as any.”
He looked like a Navy kid home for a holiday—crew cut, thin sweater.
When I emerged from the forest I was six years old, all tangled hair and scabby legs. Skinny. Everything had been so blurry, a wash of murky colours and shadowy landscapes that when I saw the sun, my eyes teared up.
The old woman that found me was small, papery and greying, but she bent down and picked me up and carried me into her house. I looked up at her face and thought she looked like a cartoon. She had deep wrinkles and black eyes and when she opened her mouth a stream of question marks poured out.
The man who isn’t really a man wakes up in the hospital bed. The light is so bright that at first he cannot see.
The sheets fold over him like the reflexive fingers of a hand.
An old movie plays on the tiny TV, silently.
He cannot hear it, and thinks perhaps the body he has slid into, like a vacant suit of clothes, is deaf. Perhaps it cannot speak.
He makes a humming sound in his throat that creaks like a door long unopened. He doesn’t say anything because he can’t remember any words.
There are pictures. He sees pictures projected in his mind, a magic lantern show. He cannot describe their meanings. He cannot form words in his mind.
SOURDOUGH My sister Jane was full of secrets about the art of making world-famous sourdough bread. Pretty in an apron, too. She had seven aprons, custom-made, hanging in the pantry. A photographer from the San Francisco Chronicle lined them up and made a photo, and then made a photo of Mom and I. We were the backdrop, he said. That was true. Nobody would catch me smoking outside, readying for the sight of Tom looping his brown arms around Jane's tiny waist inside the Cliff House. Things were growing serious between them. The waves were rushing in and out, the sound was abrasive — the summer fog gathering syrupy thick. Hard to believe there was such a thing as summer in other places. The bay and the ocean surrounded us with a never-just-right scent. There was no way to win. Tom's daddy was in jail sometimes, sometimes not. No big crimes, just little embarrassing ones that grew like the scrub brush around Lands End. That cliff was so beautiful, nobody trusted it.
Claire’s hair made her sad. It fell out in black clumps every morning. After a series of blood tests, she was found to be in perfect health. She noticed a group of strands on her empty pillow and hesitated before unwrapping the towel from around her head. Her boyfriend Travis covered his eyes. She couldn’t be too sure that it was a coincidence, just something that he was doing to block out the sun streaming from the windows.
Claire threw open her suitcase. She had a job as a cat sitter. She stayed in other people’s apartments while they were away. The last apartment she stayed in had a grand piano. She would sit in front of it to wait for the sound to flow through her fingers, but it never did.
Travis had the apartment to himself most of the time and when he wasn’t working as a mechanic, he was at home. He said he liked the feeling of the remote in his hand even when there was nothing on TV.
The Cuckoo Is a Pretty Bird
The first week I was back in Syracuse, Pat met me at my parents’ house, where I would be living again, three months after trying very hard not to. When she first saw me, in my parents’ kitchen on day two of my prodigal return, she said: “You got fat.” She was bundled in her silver, puffy, junior-sized parka, something she had had since our sophomore year of high school, which made her look like a baking potato, wrapped in foil. I hugged her and had forgotten how small she was, how slight.
“You were supposed come back and be thin,” she said.
“I was supposed to come back?”
She opened the refrigerator and started throwing grapes in her mouth. “There aren’t fat people in punk bands, especially in New York.”
“Do we have a band?” I asked.
I am sitting with Officer Carlos Jimenez in the Hotel Nacional, telling him the story of the Iguana while plying him with Irish whiskey. His waxed moustache is glowing in the alcoholic light.
The piano player at the hotel bar has friends in the lounge, and wants to visit with them. After every song she takes a little walk, sits down for a quick chat with her girlfriends, and then hurries chip-chip in her heels back to the piano, her fingers starting on the next song before her derrière has even hit the bench. Her musicianship, it goes without saying, is impeccable, but the piano is slightly out of tune.
Here is what I say to Officer Jimenez:
In the hearts of squares, the palaces were stirring. Columns of rebels were already charging into the mist where streetlamp globes bobbed uncertainly like ripe oranges destined for the children of princes behind silk and diamond panes. Day had not yet unraveled the tangled branches nor the fountains writ their tracery beneath the winter sky. But a rumor had taken hold of those great spaces where the city drew breath: avenues and roundabouts where gods dwelled, broad clearings in the close elms, plazas with reflecting pools where gatherings of stone emote.
By all appearances, life went on, trade threatened little by the fever that had seized so many humble folk. None could have foreseen such ardor for slaughter in these good people whose unspoken hatred had ripened over the course of centuries, forming a face closed to kindness.