x365: 57 of 365: melba (ii)

Pink zip-up hoodie. Braces. Chemically burned strawberry blond hair pulled back in a hasty ponytail. A sprinkling of freckles and irritated pimples. And she's my bank teller. When did tellers get so young? Her nametag says Melba. I hand her a sheaf of cheques that I've been too lazy to deposit hoarding in order to keep myself solvent.

— You're a writer?
she asks, holding up one cheque from a magazine.

— Huh? What? A whatnow? Yes, I finish smoothly. I do a bit of writing, reviews and stuff. But it's not my day job.

Then I remember that my day job involves writing.

— I'm a speechwriter, so I guess that makes me a writer of some kind.

Melba stops inputting. She looks at me like I've told her I'm an archer at the parapets of Minas Tirith or something.

— A what?

— A speechwriter. I write speeches for politicians.

— You mean... they don't write their own?

Melba swings her head around and announces to the teller at the next wicket: &mdash Hey, did you know that politicians don't write their own speeches?

The other teller gets a look on her face like the escalator she's riding on has suddenly come to a halt. I wonder how often Melba sees that look.

— Yeaaah
, says the teller. She searches my face for a moment with an imploring save me please flash in her eyes.

— You two have a great New Year! I say.

x365: 56 of 365: melba (i)

In grade nine, the cruelty of young girls reaches a point so fine that it passes into near-invisibility, and it cuts with such efficiency that you don't even know what's going on until there's blood and bits everywhere. Melba arrived with certain disadvantages: she was taller and bigger-boned than everyone else, and she hadn't learned to move her body with grace. She bumped around as if she'd been stuck together from spare parts. You could feel the contempt of the other girls like the heat on the surface of a hive of bees. I've no doubt that Melba is beautiful now.

x365: 55 of 365: psycho the alligator

He's in the crate, the man said, leading us around behind the emu pen. A three-legged dog came bounding out from behind the hedges. The emus started at the sudden motion, began running around in dizzy little circles. In their minds I'm sure it translated as escape.

C'mon, Zero!* The man slapped his thigh and kept walking. You have that camera running, buddy?

Sure, said Greg. Why not. He slung the Betacam up on his shoulder.

The crate turned out to be large enough to hold a horse, a great rectangular box of whitewashed planks. A strange smell hung around the crate, a sharp marine stench that came back on the tongue with a metallic aftertaste. The man opened up the crate and stepped inside. — Don't be scared. It's just old Psycho.

The strange smell poured out through the door, a reek of piss boiling on a copper plate. The alligator lay on a scattering of straw, an armoured shadow in the dimness. Several layers of duct tape sealed its monster jaws shut. The creature dragged its muzzle along the floor to look at us.

Psycho's a young gator, but he's really aggressive, the man said. I had momentarily forgotten that he was in the crate. We picked him up in a lady's backyard.

Tell us what you're going to do with Psycho.

He's going on a trip to the Everglades in the back of my pickup truck. That's where we dump the gators.

He put one foot on the alligator's back. I took a quick glance at Greg to make sure he was getting this, just in case the alligator suddenly freaked out and started injuring the man who called himself The Gator Wrangler.

He gave the gator a nudge with his sneaker. — You're going for a ride, aren't you, big guy? See ya later. Alligator.

Damn, Psycho. You deserved better than that.

*Three-legged dogs get the coolest names. I knew one called Killer when I was a kid.

x365: 54 of 365: armadillos

I picture my brain as a pipe. Words flow down the pipe. Ideas flow as well, but they're chunkier, more substantial things, and every so often an idea, in its course down the pipe, will wedge itself into an awkward position. Words begin to back up. Eventually the pressure pops out the idea, and the resultant splatter just isn't pretty.

For example, armadillos.

X365 is about people you've encountered in your life. I've never met an armadillo.* I bet they're mean. But I saw one on television the other day and knew, as soon as the idea of an armadillo entered my head, that it would get stuck in there. I couldn't get over the thing's appearance - a collision between a pig and a loaf of pumpernickel - and I knew that its awkward shape could not possibly fit in my brain. I also knew that at some point, I would be compelled to write about it, or engage someone in conversation on the topic. Otherwise, I'd spend days unable to write, waiting for the thing to dissolve.

So if I ever meet an armadillo, I'm going to pointedly ignore it. Just because. And anyway, I've got meerkats to admire.

*As far as I know, armadillos are not people. As far as I know.

x365: 53 of 365: wolfgang

Does anyone remember that passage from Zen And The Art Etc. where the narrator describes the kind of person who writes instruction manuals? They tend to be the most useless ones in the shop, the ones who make the most mistakes, cause the most trouble or accomplish the least. So what sort of surprise is it, the narrator reasons, that the manual in your hands is incomprehensible?

I think that the craft of technical writing has largely been professionalized over the last few decades, but the same holds true for cheap interpreters. Wolfgang was better than cheap; he was free, courtesy of the municipal government in the obscure province of western Austria where we were headed. He told us, when we dropped by the Rathaus to pick him up, that he didn't necessarily get along with all the interviewees.

— That one, he said, landing a finger on the call sheet. He is a Nazi.

— What?

— Jah, last time we spoke I called him a Nazi.


x365: 52 of 365: economists

When I was young (let's say 0-25 years, although some would say I'm still spinning out my youth into the finest and thinnest of strands) I was both naive and overly taken by my own convictions. I took a lot of notions at face value and behaved as if these facile ideas needed defending. It was my key to popularity and winning the ladies.

Most of these ideas didn't vanish in an instant; they just weathered and slowly lost their edges. But I still remember the day, sometime in the early 1980s, when a stray phrase on the news popped a major bubble. Two CBC news anchors were reflecting on the recession of 1981 and wondering aloud about the chances of another recession coming along in the future to make everything miserable for everyone. One of the anchors explained it thusly: "Some economists think that X caused the recession, other economists think that it was Y. So we need to look out for X in the future, or Y".

Even to my puberty-addled brain, it was clear that factors X and Y were extremely different measures. It was like watching a debate the increased incidence of puppies in a household, with one person citing the Phenomenon of Dog Pregnancy and the other relying on the Principle of Dog Adoption.

— Dad, I said, how is it that economists disagree on this?

— Well, different economists have different ideas.

— You mean they don't just know?

I know, the mind boggles. How, I thought, could an economist not just know how an economy worked? It was all about money, right? Money comes in easy-to-measure units, you buy and you sell with it, and that's all there is to it, yes? I had no clue about things like the gold standard, debt vs. deficit, inflation, growth and recession - but I knew that something was weird if different experts could examine a past event, come to radically different conclusions and then use those conclusions to predict the future.

I didn't have the vocabulary for it at the time, but what I realized is that economics is as much about the behaviour of people as it is about money and its backup band of players and instruments. And if it's really about people and the billions of choices they make, then economists must start with an idea about how people make those choices. It struck me that evening, while the anchors pointed at charts and interviewed people with poofy hair (this was the early '80s, remember) that these predictions were prescriptive; they had less to do with how people behaved than with notions of right behaviour for people. It was sanctified guesswork with institutionalized prejudice.*

I was outraged, until my parents upped my allowance.

*Being wiser and older now, I recognize that this view is as facile as supply-side economics. Almost.

x365: 51 of 365: greg s.

You liked window seats on airplanes. You talked frequently about your family, introduced me to your wife, showed me photos of your kids, but it didn't take long to notice how badly you craved time on the road. You had a look, which I can only describe as deep calm, when the airplane started its taxi along the runway. You took the window seat every time.

x365: 50 of 365: ria g.

We worked together for only one week. How old was I at the time, thirty-three? I'd experienced one thousand seven hundred twenty-three other weeks to compare that one week with, but that week - the one that featured you, with your condescending mug grinning away at my mounting anger - was one of the most annoying weeks of my life. You were an interpreter for our interviews in the Netherlands, but you showed up late for every interview. And every conversation we had more or less ended with you shaking your head at the ridiculous habits and preoccupations of North Americans. Like punctuality. And courtesy. Christ.

But at least you showed up for every interview, so you're one up on Wolfgang, our interpreter in Austria. And Wolfgang smelled pretty ripe, like he slept in his clothes. So two points for you, Ria.

x365: 49 of 365: david c.

When you found out that I was over at your ex-girlfriend's house, you put a jack knife in your pocket, hid a frying pan under your jean jacket, and hitchhiked to Lunenburg in order to kill me, or at least do me some serious physical harm. I had left by the time you showed up. This was probably the lowest point of our friendship. Curiously, you're one of only two people I've kept up with from my high school days. The other person never tried to kill me. She did break my heart, mind you. I'm sensing a pattern here.

x365: 48 of 365: the neighbour who killed my cat

You are one my first memories. I was two years old. We lived on the second floor of the house on Vernon Street. My father answered a knock on the front door and I saw you standing there, holding a cardboard box. I think this may be yours, you said. I can't remember anything after that, but apparently you had left the hood of your car up and Macavity had crawled in. I don't remember Macavity at all - only you, holding out a box at our door.

x365: 47 of 365: the couple out of time

Monday night was the deadest night of 2007. It was probably the deadest night so far of the twenty-first century, at least in this town. The Riders had won the Grey Cup the day before, which had provoked a massive spasm in the guts of the city. Everyone disgorged into the streets in celebration. Now the partiers, the street whoopers and the basement screamers, had agreed to lay down on their backs and stare at the ceiling for the next twenty-four hours. I thought it would be a good time to go out.

I went to Abstractions, a coffee shop owned by a Syrian family. They brought to the neighbourhood a ready source of falafel, zaatar, and their strange overseas religion, which they called World Cup Soccer. I got a cup of coffee and sat down. The owner spent the time staring out the window and remarking that he needed to clean the ceiling. I was the only one in the place.

Fifteen minutes into my cup of coffee and my copy of The Public Burning, a man in his forties accompanying his mother, a toothless woman with a home perm and dye job, stepped in from the darkness. They were poor. Not just poor: destitute. The destitute have a way of looking like they've stepped out of some other time, wearing last decade's fashionable coats and T-shirt slogans. They look like they stutter through time, sticking bits and pieces to themselves as they go, a cap here, a pair of boots there, buttons from forgotten causes. They gave me a smile as they went by.

&mdash Long time no see! the man called out to the owner, as if he were addressing someone severely deaf. Over the next half hour it became clear that he spoke to everyone this way. They ordered two bowls of chicken soup, which they agreed was superior to the soup down at Soul's Harbour, the local mission.

&mdash Hey! the man shouted at the owner. Aren't you guys from Arabia or something?

I pulled my head behind my book. Somehow I thought that it would make the direction that this conversation was headed in a little less embarrassing.

&mdash We are from Syria.

&mdash Syria! Hey, isn't that near the Dead Sea?

&mdash Very close. The Dead Sea is in Jordan.

&mdash You hear that, Ma? Irrigation! He shouted, as if they had been talking about irrigation. Nothing will grow around the Dead Sea. They have to use irrigation. It's too salty!

His mother, who had been silently spooning chicken soup into her mouth for the last ten minutes, raised her head from her bowl.

&mdash Macedonia, she whispered.

&mdash Yes, said the owner. At one time, Macedonia.

He pronounced it 'Mack-edonia', like macaroon. 'At one time' was a diplomatic way of putting it. The last time Syria or Jordan had been called anything like Macedonia, Alexander the Great had been running things, and Jesus was still three hundred years in the making. How old was this woman?

&mdash How's your soup, Ma?

Instead of replying, she picked up the slice of panini and began to turn it around in her hands. I watched her long fingers pick up and land on the bread as it rotated, as if she were mapping its shape.

&mdash They gave me unleavened bread, she croaked in her desert-dry voice.

&mdash That's because they're from Syria, Ma.

Yes, I thought, and she's here on vacation from the Byzantine Empire.

x365: 45 of 635: the woman at the art show who'd met the dalai lama

My back was acting up that night, so I couldn't move away from you and the conversation with the dementia-addled old lady. With your tiny black shawl, skintight jeans and heavy purple eyeliner, you looked like an upper middle class vampire. — I just came back from Toronto. I met the Dalai Lama. He told that the road to happiness was hard, but you had to keep going.

Then you threw your arms upward, palms out, as if you were scattering your own personal sand mandala. I felt a stab of compassion for the Dalai Lama, who went from being essentially a living god to a peddler of homespun happiness to Westerners. Thank you, art show vampire.

x365: 44 of 365: the sword swallower

He lived in a trailer park in North Vegas, where the jets from the nearby Air Force base regularly destroyed the calm of the afternoon. In our printed instructions, we were told to look for a trailer with "a front yard full of robots". I was looking forward to this, since that morning we'd interviewed an "indoor skydiving instructor," which had been a drawn-out and tiring process. But I was discovering that Vegas itself was a drawn-out and tiring process.

After a few turns around the trailer park, we spotted a yard that was full of - something. It sure as hell wasn't robots. Were they toys? Wagons? What were they?

We pulled up. They were robots, after a fashion - the kind you find on Robot Wars, miniature painted vehicles decked out with armour and protruding metal spikes. On the shows, the robots looked shiny and cool. This stuff was cast-off experiments, guts of remote control cars, partly assembled bits and pieces, an intact machine here and there: junk. But definitely cool junk. The best one was an orangutan driving a little wagon.

And it was the home of the sword swallower, who turned to be a lean, rotten-toothed, jovial guy with a love for the camera. We decided to do the interview first and go with the sword swallowing and fire-eating later, so we set up our lights and sound in his tiny mobile home, which smelled like a water-damaged basement with a layer of human grime trowelled over the mildew spots. We had to finish the interview before his fiancée returned.

Like most performers, even ones who'd ended up in a smelly trailer, he had an instinct for the camera, for the correct tone of voice and widening of eyes. Why do you do what you do? I asked. For the kids in the audience, he said. Family-friendly anecdotes spilled from his mouth, and at one point he even smiled for us - a truly startling moment, as I caught a flash of fire-damaged gums and long yellow teeth. Every fire-eater gets these teeth after a while, he says. Circus performers clearly don't have dental plans.

He showed us a series of swords that had all gone down his stomach. The main danger is not cutting your gut but tearing at the lining of esophagus, which can catch on the tip. The most risky of the lot was a scimitar with a slight curve, which he blamed on more than a few esophagal tears.

He took me through his apprenticeship as a sideshow freak in a circus that toured the southern States. His job was to sit in a cage, wearing only a loincloth, and play with snakes. He also got to howl, growl, snarl and wave snakes in viewers' faces. That was pretty fun, he said. Then he glanced at the camera and leaned a little closer. And I'm not a racist, he said, which was a line I'd heard a lot in my American interviews, but you should of seen those niggers jump when I threw snakes at them.

I realized that for this guy, there was more dignity as a sideshow freak in a cage, provided you were white, than as a paying black customer on the other side of the bars. After the interview he showed us footage of sword swallowing from his Renaissance Faire gigs. Oncely! Twicely! Thricely! chanted the crowd, and down went the blade.

x365: 43 of 365: alex j.

Being a hospital patient is a bit like being a prisoner: you have to interpret the outside world through faint and unreliable signals. A nurse's voice, an alarm bell buzzing down the hall, a newspaper that someone's dropped off for your comatose roommate - you lie in bed, eyes on the ceiling, and slowly put everything together. It's like knitting with reality.

I was admitted into the hospital around 6 pm on Tuesday. A porter wheeled my bed from emergency up to the neurology ward, where the nurses introduced themselves, adjusted my posture and promptly gave me sixty milligrams of codeine. Thank you, Randi. Thank you, Barb.

At eight pm the night shift nurses showed up. They certainly didn't look like the night shift nurses I'd seen in the movies, but by then I being washed back and forth by the codeine high, already beginning to feel as if my hospital room were a small chunk of the world that had broken off from reality and had now begun to drift out into god-knows where. From my bed I could see a slice of hallway, past which people in wheelchairs and walkers went, some in bathrobes, some with great zippered scars along their skulls. They looked as unreal as anything else.

I could also hear coughing. Ropy, phlegmy coughing, like someone trying to hork up fresh concrete from their lungs. Every so often the coughing would stop and I could hear a voice that could only come from the cougher - it was a series of deep croaks, like Tom Waits calling up from the bottom of a grain silo. I couldn't make out what he was saying, but he sounded cordial. A cordial croaking frog just down the hallway.

Around 10 pm the night shift nurse came in with more codeine. She looked at her chart.

— They're calling you Aidan, right?

— Yes.

— So why do I have you down here as Alex?

Even through the declining narcotic buzz, I felt a wash of panic. It was one of those tales of hospital horror, where you come in for an ingrown toenail but leave with a lobotomy, all because someone had filled in the wrong name in a box on a chart.

— An Aidan and an Alex. We'll fix that up, she declared, and decisively scratched out the offending name. Score one for human intervention.

I could still hear the coughing man out in the hall somewhere, or maybe he was in his room, still trying to clear his lungs. Then his voice again, croaking out incomprehensible small talk.

It's good that you're coughing, Alex, a nurse said. You need to get that junk out of your lungs.

So that was Alex. He would be coughing me to sleep that night.

It turns out that hospitals are not great places to sleep. Even though the beds are comfortable and the drugs are plentiful, the unfamiliarity of the place, the constant traffic, and the subdued atmosphere of unease keep you up. I read into the night, and Alex accompanied me with his hacking cough.

I had gathered from overheard chit-chat that Alex was recovering from pneumonia, and that the hospital was monitoring oxygen levels in his blood. Apparently the congestion in his lungs had starved his brain of oxygen, and as a result he was a bit addled. Over the next couple of days, I discovered just how addled Alex could get.

Around 2:30 am one of the nurses walked past my door. She stopped dead - there really isn't any better way to describe it - and stared at something down the hall. Then she swivelled around and practically sprinted out of sight.

&mdash J-----, I heard. Alex is out of his bed. His pyjamas are spattered with blood.

A few seconds went by. Then three nurses marched past my door.

&mdash Alex, what are you doing? Get back in your room.

&mdash I'm just going to answer the door.

&mdash There's no door, Alex. Do you know where you are?

&mdash Sure I do.

&mdash Where are you Alex?

&mdash I heard Donna turning the key in the lock. I was just going to get the door.

&mdash You're in the hospital, Alex. Donna's not here. You have to stay in your room and keep the IV in your arm.

&mdash Okay.

&mdash You're going to stay in your bed?

&mdash Yes, I believe I will.

After a few minutes of silence, J---- walked by my door again, carrying a balled-up hospital robe. &mdash Goddamnit. The fucking guy ripped out his IV. He was fucking covered in blood.

Over the next couple of days the volume of coughing subsided, and Alex's voice grew lighter, although it never stopped sounding liked Tom Waits. He seemed to hang out in the hallway whenever possible, trying to stop each nurse for exceedingly polite small talk. I had a feeling that conversation kept him anchored and reminded him of where he was. I only heard him complain once, when he said to somebody No, I don't like it all. It's stupid, which reminded me of the horse from Ren & Stimpy.

On the day of my surgery, Alex tried to make another break from the neurology ward.

Alex, called a nurse.


Where are you going, Alex?

I'm going to see Bob the Plumber.

There's no plumber here, Alex. This is a hospital.

Sure, he's just down the way there. He's the one on TV.

I searched my brain for a TV plumber named Bob, but I was on a morphine drip, and nothing was breaking the surface of that slick.

Do you want me to tell Bob that you're looking for him?

Yes please. He's just down the way.

Okay then. I'll look out for Bob and you go back to your room.

A thin old man in a yellow shirt walked carefully past my door.

Alex? Your room is the other direction.

Alex looked over his shoulder, as if he couldn't quite believe that the conversation with the nurse hadn't ended yet. A bright sickle of a scar curved down the side down of his scalp. I realized that the yellow shirt was actually the top half of a firmly belted hospital robe.

— I know. I'm just walking down to the end of the hall.

Well, you make sure to come right back when you're done. Brenda? Could you make sure Alex gets back to his room when he hits the end of the hall?

A few minutes later Alex passed by my door again, accompanied by Brenda in her maroon scrubs. We made eye contact for a moment. I smiled in an attempt to say, You're doing great and so am I! but he pulled his eyes away. He had no idea where he was or why he was here, and I was sure that any correct or lucid answers he'd given the nurses were a combination of luck and cunning. His extreme courtesy sprung from a deep fear of these alien creatures to whose safety he had been suddenly and incomprehensibly entrusted. I was no prisoner at all - I was getting out the next day. But Alex had been apprehended and locked away by agents that he would never see or understand.

&mdash Alex, where are you going? That's not your room.

&mdash I know. Thank you.

x365: 42 of 365: shelley g.

Ask Shelley. She knew. She knew a good many things, but best of all, she knew the secret of Wint-O-Green Life Savers and the blue sparks that crackled from your teeth when you chewed them in the dark. One afternoon, when her parents were in the living room, she took me into a closet in the basement. In the airless dark we pressed our bodies against each other, Life Savers in our mouths, and shot sparks across the gap.

x365: 41 of 365: zareen a.

For the first few weeks of our relationship, you refused to tell me your last name. When I found out one recess, I pulled back your hair and whispered it in your ear. Sure you smiled, but I missed your hand coming round to smack me on the side of my head. You were awesome.

x365: 40 of 365: wanda m.

Good old grade nine. You thought I looked like Prince, circa Parade. The truth was, I looked just enough like Prince for you in a blond-haired town. It must have taken me a year to get your shirt off. Do you have any idea of how much effort a fourteen year old boy has to go through to make something like that happen? Do you think there are magical shirt-removal elves that come in and do the work? No ma'am. Seriously, what do U think?

I bet if I'd worn Prince's new perfume, that would have done the trick immediately. I understand that it contains fabric-dissolving chemicals, which would have done a number on your polo top. I had only will and patience on my side.

x365: 39 of 365: katrina van b.

My relationship with you lasted fifteen minutes, and not only did we not touch each other, we didn't even look at each other. Instead we sat on the monkey bars all recess, watching the rest of the class run around a distant part of the playground. We talked about whatever eight year olds talk about: whatever boys and girls talk about when the real subject is attraction. Our words seemed as distant as the children we were watching. Then the bell rang, and we jumped down. You ended up dating Brian.

x365: 38 of 365: christian

The second to last time I saw you, you were all set to marry a refugee you barely knew from Africa. She was pregnant. You were eager to be a father to this transcontinental set of cells. You said you would name it Filodicai, which translates roughly as 'lover of justice'. I supposed that if the child grew up evil, you could rename it Infolidicai.

I saw you once more at a coffee shop, several months later. You were sitting with a woman with ivory-pale skin and waist-length ash blond hair. She said to you, 'I've never met anyone so self-actualized as you' in a way that implied that plans for you and the refugee and her little Filodicai didn't work out so well.


x365: 37 of 365: amanda m.

By your hair you were known, and more than that, you were recognizable from blocks away. Gigantic beyond reckoning, like a great haystack of singed cornsilk, your hair bounced gently on top of your head as you walked. When you turned, vectors of force rippled through your hair. Some days you'd come by after school and we'd walk up South Park Street together to the Lord Nelson Hotel, where we'd wait for our parents to come pick us up. You liked my hair, which I found funny - I had a mohawk at the time, and you liked rubbing the bristled nap.

That was grade 10. You left for Toronto a couple of years later and sent me a few letters, which I still have somewhere. I lost track of you until I turned on the television one day in university and found out that you were a pop star. My roommate was a gigantic fan of yours, and when she found out that I had letters from you, she begged me to let her see them. I did. You'd written to me on coloured stationery.

I watched one of your videos. The music was a bit radio-friendly for me but still good - but your hair, once the world's most powerful blond afro, had been tamed into ringlets.