Worms, Inside Out

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The starlings are doing a shitty job of keeping a secret. Several pairs spent the weekend fashioning nests in the fir trees just north of the house, and now, that work complete, the males are passing time till the eggs hatch by picking fights and beaking off, darting into and back out of the thick branches like darning needles shot through a sock.  They trill at the squirrels barking from adjacent branches and dive-bomb the mailman, skimming his shoulder when he pauses nearish their nesting spot and bends to tie his shoe.

The birds remind him of a book he once read where everyone started going crazy or getting sick or committing violent crimes because of starling lice. Or something like that. He can’t quite remember the details but remembers they were awful and has carried a dread of starlings ever since, their brown-blue feathers oily and slick, beaks releasing songs so down and dirty not even Tom Waits could croak  that way. And all that time they spend drilling for dinner in the lawns up and down his route, gagging bugs down their gullets, savouring worms turned inside out.

His dislike of starlings is at odds with the reverence he feels for things that fly. Airplanes — noisy, terrifying, impossible to comprehend. Insects — creatures reduced to the most pragmatic of parts: some armour, some guts and a membrane to hold the other bits aloft. And birds. Once, he scooped one from where it lay stunned in the road, and the idea that he was cupping a dinosaur in his hands was too big an idea for him to hold onto for very long before he had to let it go.

All day, he lugs sacks of mail for a wage and an equal weight in his own thoughts for free. Well, not for free, precisely. He knows his thoughts exact a toll and fucking tire him out like no bag of letters ever could. Sometimes, he thinks his work inappropriately solitary, thinks that with a few nattering colleagues or consistent interaction with clients, he might lighten up. Might become a man of action: less think, more do. Other times, he folds his hands in gratitude for the privacy his day affords, feels deliciously invisible walking right onto other people’s property, no questions asked.

Their business is his business until he places it into their mailboxes, and he plays a little game where he reads the return addresses, green customs stickers and packing slips, trying to guess what’s inside. Sometimes he even gives the cartons a light shake. Treating mail marked “fragile” like shaking a baby, something everyone knows you’re not supposed to do, but maybe just a gentle one that no one notices would be ok. Next to babies and parcels stuffed with glass, birds top his fragile list, metaphors and industry handling birds like dainty things. Feathered balloons that nature sling-shots across the sky. Down pillows, puffy jackets and blankets, everything we make from birds designed to protect us against something awful by being fluffy and tough.

Despite the solitude of his days, and let’s be honest, most of his nights, once, the mailman was in love. Once, he let go of his privacy and his mailbag and his routines long enough that someone crept into his life to nest in a nook of his heart. And, when she stuck around long enough that a special occasion arose, he understood the importance of giving her a special thing. The sort of thing other people ordered from remote and  thoughtful places and which he carried up walkways to deposit in mailboxes beneath starlings’ nests out front of their homes.

The most precious thing he could imagine gifting was a tiny bird in a delicate cage, but somehow this, like the starlings, had an awful, dark side that he couldn’t quite shake. Would she understand that he had presented her with a metaphor for all the things he could never explain and which words would belabour until they were clumsy and plain? Or, would she mistake this tiny, pretty creature as a portent of what he hoped she would become to him — a thing held back from the thing that made it special in the first place?

As the occasion approached, in addition to his bag full of mail and his brain full of thoughts, he lugged a struggle between faith that a bird was so right and worry that a bird was only, completely, wrong. Worried he would deliver the wrong message, exactly the opposite message he intended, he thought and thought and over-thought the whole thing until the occasion passed without anything passing from his hands into hers. As if he’d forgotten out of inconsideration when really all he did for weeks and days and weeks after those days was consider the event and the bird and what to do about it all.

Worst-Case Scenario Kid

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Man, the world is a dangerous place. That’s what makes it so great. The looks on people’s faces when Pete gives them the news. An entire candy store secretly poisoned, no evidence of tampering on the wrappers, just a batch of kids flopped dead on the sidewalk like a breadcrumb trail to a cottage no one meant to eat, their eyes bugged out and tongues dry and blue. A massive toxic cloud burning its way around  the world and leaving empty nations in its wake. The ozone hole through which the sunshine drills like a laser beam, smoking us like ants under a magnifying glass.

Each morning on the bus ride to school, Pete’s got another one and airtight evidence to back it up. He totally saw it on TV last night, or his brother Teddy swore he heard from another guy. Or, Pete heard the news straight from Uncle Lou, and no one’s going to argue with Uncle Lou — his knuckles are huge. Hear him crack his left fingers followed by his right and even a doubter knows Lou speaks the truth.

The killer bee one was the best, but Pete wrecked it. It should have been perfect. A swarm headed north from Mexico, murdering half the continent on its way. But, Pete got so worked up with the telling that he added crazy extra details, things Uncle Lou would never say. This story, it was great on its own but Pete decided to give it a little help. There he was on the bus, turned backward in his seat, knees bent and sneakers braced against the seat in front. All the kids were looking, silent for once, and Pete was twisting a handful of t-shirt in his lap to keep his focus, keep things on track.

“And then and then and then,” he stammered, and that’s when the dumb part came out.

He’d made it through the meat of the story just fine — a swarm of killer bees drawn north by the heatwave that lasted all summer. You could tell them apart from regular bees by their stripes, really narrow black and yellow bands, and the extra hair on their backs. Plus, when you tried to swat them, killer bees left only to come back with their friends, and that’s when you were done for. These bees never gave up a hunt once they picked up your trail. You couldn’t outrun a killer bee or outsmart it by ducking around the swings or doubling back to your beach towel and hoping the bee kept flying straight out over the lake. If you ran indoors, killer bees would just find a crack in the bricks to wriggle through. And remember, by this point that lone bee has been joined by, like, at least twenty others, all digging through weak spots in the walls of your house. You were toast.

So, there he was, the kids practically drooling for the rest of the story, one girl has even started to cry. That’s so great. He’d never had someone cry before. And, he took a huge breath and gave the front of his shirt another yank, and wrecked the whole damn thing. Pete started describing the bees’ home base. Ah, man. Everyone knows killer bees don’t need to sleep, they are way too strong to need sleep like a regular bug, but he started telling about the hive they built from extra-strong wax, a super-comb to store their honey and recover from a long day of swarming locals before heading out on more killing missions. And, a kid at the back of the bus started to laugh.

Crap.

SPF 45

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At first, it felt like a laugh on the cusp of erupting but which never arrived. Unlike a sneeze that won’t come out or being robbed of a deep yawn, this feeling was strangely satisfying, its payoff rooted in the not letting go rather than the release. And then one day, like a burp that couldn’t be swallowed or muted behind a cupped palm, their love belched and was gone.

This took her by surprise. She knew about fizzling love, knew what it looks like to wake up one day and roll over and wonder how things got this way, have no idea where it went wrong but knowing today, from now on, you need to be apart. And, she was well acquainted with love that crescendoed with shouting and crying and make-up fucks before petering into the silent treatment and an awkward division of possessions in the middle of the kitchen floor, a moat of scavenged boxes and crumpled newspapers ringing the cups and plates and those last moments of shared space.

But this time, the moment it ended for her heart felt like marking a journey in pins on a map, precise little jabs plotting a course from feeling this was the only thing she ever needed to feel again to feeling nothing at all. First there was this, then this, then that, then the end. And the end was the sunscreen.

They had taken holidays — short excursions and long weekends and over-nighters that tested their ability to “travel together” and proved they did so quite well, each trip ticking off a box on the list that confirmed compatibility. If this were a ladies’ magazine, they would be passing the true love quiz with flying colours. In a locker room, dudes would be nodding “right on” and dealing highfives. In short, this love affair was on. That is, until the first time they hit the beach to bask under a tropical sun.

No fool and highly conscious of her mid-winter Canadian skin, she applied sunscreen like a sauce garnished with a bikini, paying special attention to notoriously overlooked tender spots. The folds of her ears, the pudgy place that wasn’t quite armpit and wasn’t yet breast, the trough in the small of her back between bikini bottom and bum crack where her suit gaped to admit a few millimetres of unexpected rays. In 2008, only a fool would take a chance on red-hot sunburn and as sexy as a nice brown tan might be, she knew not to go for it on day one.

Stepping from the bathroom freshly slathered in SPF 45, she waggled her pedicure and shook her bum, and made a coy joke about scooping sand from her two-piece suit later on. Tossed the tube of sun protection onto the bed (“I’ve got my own”, he said), shrugged into a loose t-shirt and hoisted her beach satchel over her shoulder, checked for bottled water, added a second book. Asked whether he was ready for non-stop gorgeous warm relaxation. Looked up and felt her heart sink like a balloon harnessed to a stone.

His skin, chalky blue with sunblock, glowed like skim milk as he spun before the mirror, his face crumpled from the exertion of seeking missed spots. Like patching the frosting on a particularly delicate cake, he noted then daubed at crumbs of exposed flesh, black leg hair matted in whorls, thick white worms of unabsorbed lotion gathering in places where his body folded and bent and moved with the anxiety of stepping into the sun. In that moment, in that hotel room, on the first day of that week away together, she was struck by the dark side of a romantic get-away, the sight of herself, and of him, as very old, very tired, very quiet people with nothing left to say. By a vignette of dinners to come, passed silently across the table and paid for in the currency of small-talk and commentary about average days; agonising rather than comfortable silence, and the spectre of having not laid a hand on one another in too long to mark using ordinary time.

“I am a terrible person,” she thought, “a terrible, terrible person. But, we will never have sex with each other again.”

And, like that, she pushed the final pin into the map of their time together, and together they headed to the beach, single but for the talking part.

An Accumulation of Things

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Of course, nothing was really Brian’s fault. He could think back all the way and say with confidence that he was last at fault at age nine, that thing with his sister and the hockey stick. But the game had been her idea, and besides, she ought to have been wearing a helmet.

This time, the facts were murkier: there was the stalled car, and the bird (a purple finch), and the falling branch. Plus, the rollerblader in the cycling lane, the worst kind of nuisance, kicking left and right and wearing no helmet (like Brian’s sister that time), skates improperly fastened and ankles bowed inward as he juddered over ruts and deeked around pot holes.

What led to the collision? Well, in Brian’s opinion, it was an accumulation of things, but in Brian’s opinion, it also was rooted in his name. There would’ve been no accident if he weren’t called Brian Paddington, of this he is certain.

Brian Paddington hates his name and often imagines life as someone pleasant-sounding like Townsend or Flatbush, or even plain like Johnson. If he were called Bartleby perhaps he’d converse with greater ease at parties, holding his own as he mingles and grips his glass, tinkling the ice cubes in a casual way without sloshing tonic down his shirt like Paddington always does.

Perhaps if he were Brian Caruthers, he’d be a partner at the firm instead of working the beat and getting saddled with lame clients, and would move his body like he belonged in it, would swing a golf club without grunting, able to land a ball square on the green. Although, then his body would belong to Brian Caruthers, and what if Caruthers thought golf was for jerks? Brian would miss golf.

If he were Franklin, he might have a kept woman named Sarah shacked up in a secret apartment. He’d send parcels of nice candy and tender underwear picked out by his secretary (who Franklin would be polite enough to call his “executive assistant”). Sarah would answer the door to admit Brian Franklin each Monday and Thursday, but would receive no other callers. In books, things often turn out poorly for kept ladies, like in Sister Carrie or The House of Mirth, but Brian would make sure he did right by his lover. If only his name were Franklin.

Instead, he is Brian Paddington, with a boyish face and plump mouth that angles downward, all his suits purchased on credit. He speaks low when he speaks at all, and was made fun of at a diner two days ago for using such a tiny voice to order corned beef. Brian Paddington dreads office get-togethers and has never attended the Friday happy hour, although tonight that will change.

The evening will begin awkwardly, conclude disastrously, and Brian will blame his name for the outcome. If he were Edwards, would he need to mop his palms on his thighs before shaking hands, or want to vomit less at the prospect of trading pleasantries with colleagues? Would he grow less sodden as the hour grows late? Surely Brian Edwards would remember to hold his drink in his left so that he wouldn’t have to shift his glass and shake with a wet and icy right. Surely Edwards would have left the party earlier; surely Edwards would have noticed that purple finch in time.

Good Morning, Sunshine

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Mandy is quiet. She is pretty, in a sensible way, and likes equally pretty but sensible shoes. Mandy is a thinker. She has a great idea that just needs the right person to get it off the ground. That person may or may not be Mandy.

Her boyfriend, Dave, is more edgy and rumpled, and urges Mandy to be a bit wilder; Dave likes a bit of chaos with his love.

Monday dawns roughly. Mandy slips out of bed without waking Dave and heads to the bathroom without turning on the lights. The ambush happens as she reaches the kitchen, toweling her wet hair and debating between a hurried bowl of granola at home or a cereal bar en route.

This morning has some fight in it. It’s laid her crocodile belt as a booby trap and dispatched dress pants and a blouse to land the first blows. As the scaly leather cinches around her right ankle, she steps on the buckle and goes down clutching her heel. The pants kick at Mandy’s face while the blouse sleeves muss her hair. Mandy is going to look like hell for the staff meeting. Not a good impression.

She puts up a fair struggle. This battle has no clear victor. At one point, the blouse twists into a rope to snap at her thighs like a whip, and becomes wrinkled beyond simple ironing. The dark pants bristle with carpet lint and a cuff lets down its hem.

With five minutes remaining to get into some clothes and onto the streetcar, Mandy bodyslams her fight-weary shirt, flattening it against the kitchen tiles and using her shower-hot belly to steam out some of the more obvious creases. The pants can be fixed with a staple or two at the office; the belt, that traitor, stays home today.

Strappy heels and a lunch bag packed the night before, and out the door, running fingers through her freshly tangled hair. A cereal bar wrapper (raspberry-filled) pokes from her breast pocket.

April, Sleepless

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April lies still and snug, one hand curled around a tuft of quilt, hair scattered across her eyes. If she were awake, she’d be swatting at her bangs in that distracted way she often does. When she’s thinking. When she really, really wants something. When she is flirting. Instead, she just sucks in air then squeezes it out again, murmurs a little and does nothing about the ticklish hair.

Vic lies awake, propped on one arm gazing at April through the darkness. Vic is terrible at being awake alone, and works to prod April awake too. The thing is, it has to seem like it was her idea, her own body that interrupted her sleep, or else she’ll get all cranky about it.

Vic rocks the mattress gently, like he’s floating on a tightly poured waterbed or paddling a quiet sea, his weight twice April’s and easily tossing her to and fro. Small, sleeping April, sweetly rumpled in a way she’d never stand for in waking life. Vic draws his arm from beneath the covers, extends an index finger, and suspends it over April’s face before drawing it down the slope of her nose. He’s trying for one of those tickles that snares a single hair and makes a body judder and slap to brush the fluffy feeling away.

He pecks softly with his lips like a bird nipping at April’s sleep-hot cheek. She bats his nose and rolls over, hauling the blankets with her and baring Vic’s calves to the cool air. Vic freezes, absolutely still. April sighs…it is a conscious huff not a peaceful exhalation. Success! She turns over to face Vic’s smile, which dangles in wait above her shoulder. He looks pleased with himself.

“Vic.”

“Hi, April!’ He sounds too excited and blows his cover.

“You are the worst at being awake alone.”

“I love you…”

“Nice try.”

April nestles against his chest like the conversation is closed, and pretends she is practically asleep again. They both know this is untrue, that April is awake till sunrise, her brain taking over with frets and ideas, anything and everything to prevent sleep from returning until the next night.

“April?”

“Vic.”

“I feel so much better now. Super sleepy.”

“Right. That’s excellent for you.”

In seconds, Vic is snoring lightly, and a few minutes later, making enough noise to ensure that if sleep were to wash over April, she’d be in no danger of going under. She sighs, sits up to look out the window, and watches the pink sliver of morning blush across the sky.

In the Ladies

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A small, framed sign on each toilet stall door in the ladies’ room advises:

“Small personal items have from time to time mysteriously disappeared from the coatrooms, and it is suggested that all staff members take their gloves, purses, and like items with them to their desks for safekeeping.”

All staff members…meaning back then, the office was ladies only, unless the men, too, carried handbags. Jane aches to lunch with the girls who worked here the year that warning was posted, working girls with buns in their hair, and tailored skirts, and modest one-room apartments. Ladies who needed reminding that not all ladies are ladylike, that some are thieves, and that clothing and coins should therefore be kept under guard.

Instead, she’s surrounded by sour women who bolt for the train at 4:37, and traveling executives who skip lunch, then fill the nearby lounges at 5 o’clock, horny and determined to get scotch down their necks as fast as it will go before happy hour is up. Best to lunch alone.

Jane shrugs into her coat then walks to the café where lunch is a simple beauty. It’s small and crowded, with a din that swells while coffee machines grind and steam. She waits her turn while cooks in white shirts and soiled aprons load sandwiches onto platters and shove them across the silver counter top. Jane goes for the roast beef with lettuce and mustard, neatly wrapped with tiny pickles tucked between the crust and the waxed paper. The waitress wipes her hands and calls, “Next! We now have no more quiche!”

Jane comes here every Tuesday, not for the counter staff, their uniforms, or the perfectly crusted bread, but the brown bag folded twice at the top, creased just right for carrying. Also, for the moment at her desk when she arranges her lunch and digs in. It reminds her of Bread and Jam for Frances, the story of a badger who ate only one thing, and who was changed forever by a schoolmate who laid out his meal then ate it in rotation: a bite of sandwich, a bite of pickle, a bite of egg, a sip of milk, and made it all come out even.