ONE (1) WON
This will help you stay calm you’re told as you’re handed small bright pills and a paper cup of water; as you’re handed the keys to the new car; the diploma or certificate; the instructions to the new appliance which tells you how to install, equip, and load.
The trouble-shooting guide printed in bold.
It’s a busy Saturday afternoon in the Eaton’s downtown. John-Paul Roti has been in line ten minutes before he heaves his items onto the cashier’s counter: one “VIP” camcorder, one “PS” tripod. Twenty boxes of blank “North Country” 1-hour Hi8 videotapes. He smiles.
The cashier smiles back. This is nothing new to her.
“Cash or card?”
She smiles automatic. John-Paul sniffs. She smells of must. Must process this transaction, must process the next.
“This will help me stay calm.”
She — doesn’t quite hear him. She scans the barcodes as he counts out his twenty dollar bills, the cash the lion’s share of a severance package that had accompanied the collapse of Federated Life Insurance where John-Paul had worked for “six seven eight years now”. She takes the cash from him, recounts it, and gives him the change and the receipt.
“Enjoy it,” she says.
He lingers, sensing the importance of his actions was not being recognized. I want to feel calm. The cashier looks past him at the growing, restless line.
“Thank you,” she says, gesturing to the line-up.
He drove his clean white 1986 Omega home and parked it outside his house on Beatrice Street. He collected his purchases and for his sole pleasure displayed them a moment in the living room before like a child he tore them from their boxes. He ignored their instructions and instead went about the adventure of smelling their newness, admiring their sheen. He mounted the camera in his living room window and trained it on the street.
He was going to capture events that would require national, if not international, broadcast.
He made tea and waited.
He grew cobwebs out of his blue eyes, as if the sky itself were raining the silken threads from corn husked and boiled alive.
Shriek, says the corn.
Make a wig of me, plead the threads.
Grew cobwebs day after day wasting film taping his solid boring residential street. Nothing was happening. Nothing. But he knew change was afoot, knew that within each house great revolutions were occurring. Common sense revolutions. He saw nothing wrong with putting people to work for their free money. He knew money was hardly free, though the dissolution of Federated Life Insurance had provided him a little windfall, a neat nest-egg. And he agreed with the principle: people would gain valuable skills and experience from picking up pebbles from the sides of roads and freeways and by colour assorting them and tallying them.
Mistake me for green I break your face.
For days he watched his street letting the tape roll and roll. People walking past on the sidewalk, mini-vans speeding up the street, cats and children darting out between parked cars. One eager boy had almost been hit, and John-Paul, as the child’s parents screamed hoarse their relief at his safety, re-played the segment over and over. He watched in slow motion the child dash away from his parents, the horror look on their faces, the glee on his. The car was exceeding the limit, and, for that reason, just missed the boy. Had it been travelling any slower — John-Paul shuddered, took the tape from the camera, marked it and put it on the shelf next to the other tapes that documented the dramatic events of his street.
He looked across Beatrice Street, stared at the spot on the sidewalk where the adults had earlier administered their firm joy at their son’s flight and return.
In his sleep that night he rubbed his eyes and drew the webs all across his handsome handsome face into the creeks and crevices of his firm fat lips.
Woke up on Tuesday that felt like it should be Friday. Do you know that feeling? Has it ever happened to you?
He shut the door to that possibility.
If you share something with me, he said looking out at his street through the viewer of the camera, I don’t want to hear about it. I don’t, I wouldn’t, I’d rather not acknowledge.
I want to feel calm. I want nothing more than to feel calm. Will you help me stay calm?
Me, I feel. Not so fine.
A camcorder in each eye and I’m on the look-out.
Woman stumbles over curb, regains balance.
It happened really fast — she looked both ways before crossing even though it was a one-way street and stepped out across the avenue. So quick, so slow-motion, raised her right foot over the curb but her left foot missed the sidewalk somehow.
What was she thinking?
And she almost fell flat on her face. John-Paul was startled. He called through the window.
“Are you okay?”
The voice was dimmed by the glass but the woman heard and looked up alarmed, embarrassed. She saw the man staring widely and the camera in the window, and, nodding politely, gathered her senses and hurried up the street.
I’ll be careful, Elmer.
Fly the flag at half-mast, the child’s legs kicking against the indifferent mass-mediated sky.
TWO (2) TOO AS WELL ALSO
The strange man across the street has been sitting at his living room window for almost two weeks. Harriet, my daughter, noticed him first. She’s ten, and wonderful, and wise. And, of course, curious.
Mommy, why does that man sit there all day?
What man where, honey?
That man in the window across the street.
It’s rude to stare isn’t it, mommy?
We moved onto Beatrice Street just a month ago. Michael took a job with the new government. For me it’s a bit of a trek to the school in Markham where I teach math, but we’re going to get another car. I’m not overly fond of driving, but the neighbourhood is pleasant enough and it feels safe. There are a lot of Catholics, though. Which isn’t a problem, of course, but, how shall I say, my Portuguese is a bit rusty. There hasn’t been much interaction beyond simple pleasantries with our immediate neighbours. Probably, that will change once we’re settled. Things are still a bit hectic of course, and we haven’t completely unpacked. The place desperately needed painting, and the entire second floor had to be re-carpeted. People here seem friendly but reserved, and I’m hopeful that we’ll get to know everyone once things calm down.
Yes, honey, I tell Harriet, it’s rude to stare.
The front garden went wild. The old owners let it go, and the house was unoccupied for almost half a year, which is amazing to me. It’s a red brick “semi-detached” house, which means it’s quite attached to another red brick “semi-detached” house. The people next door are very quiet, the Madeiros family, Fernando and Maria and their three children though I shouldn’t call them children — they’re almost older than me. It’s a bit embarrassing, really.
The back yard, to Michael’s pleasure, is an enclosed brick patio.
I was out cataloguing the weeds and wildflowers, Harriet playing in the “rainforest” with me, when the father, Fernando, came outside and sat on the bench on their half of the porch. He smiled, as usual, but remained quiet.
“Nice day,” I said. “My name is Susan.”
“I know. You told me.”
It was a beautiful day. Beatrice Street, like so many of Toronto’s downtown residential streets, has a glorious canopy of elm and maple trees covering the roadway and since we moved in we have witnessed the unfolding of the leaves and the turning of bare branches into virtual forests above us. Downtown, I was learning, was a lot greener than I had thought.
Harriet whooped it up amongst the banana trees, cracking coconuts for her new-found invisible neighbourhood chums. She had scooped a small enclave for herself in the tall wastrel grass — the first weeds to go, I realized sadly — and was serving imaginary tea to children whose presence she had conjured out of the flowerbed overrun with dandelion, thick with thistle.
Fernando smiled at the sound of Harriet’s voice issuing pleasant commands to her guests.
“No no no Jacklyn, that is Mary’s. You don’t take milk. John, please sit still. Your turn will come. Joy, leave Carl alone.”
Fernanado smiled at me. He pointed to the house behind him.
“All my children. Born in the house.”
“Is that right? How long have you lived here?”
He smiled and nodded.
“You have lived here a long time?”
I noted the difference between our gardens. Their flower bed was neat and sparse, red and yellow tulips alternating along the base of the porch. The small lawn was perfect and weed-free. Their yard looked so clean and proper next to our boisterous wild space.
I thought of Maria screaming out through the house, her cry carrying up the street in winter joining with the freezing rain and coating the thin grey tree branches, in summer her cry enfolded by the lush and shimmering leaves; the blood on the sheets, the laundry hung up to dry on the clothesline at the back. The howl of new-borns.
It must have been such work to keep the weeds on our side from crossing over the border to their side.
Fernando’s red tulips nodded in a trick of the wind.
THREE (3) A CROWD SOME
John-Paul was running out of tapes. Either he began recording over things or he’d be forced to leave the house.
He was being careful to keep the house well ventilated, admitting fresh air into all of its rooms, which he kept clean, and tidy, and presentable. Just in case.
In case of what? Nobody had visited the house in years. People had come to the door of course — Jehovah’s Witnesses, politicians, the odd neighbour with a question or request leaving flyers, notices, tracts. When his parents had been alive there had been visits from an uncle or an aunt; neither of his parents had “gotten involved with the community”, as the saying goes. Both of them were hard-working god-indifferent occasional voters who instilled in John-Paul respect for routine and a desire for uneventfulness. There had been little conflict in their house. There had been little conflict.
In the house. The porch outside however had been the damaged site of an invisible struggle inside John-Paul’s father. Towards the end of his life, he would sit throughout late spring and summer nights on the porch and from the early hours of the evening until very dark would lowly mutter and curse about what he had read that morning in The Globe and Mail, teaching John-Paul the virtue of discretion and a certain degree of wariness towards Canada’s National Newspaper. It was a seasonal ritual. His father, seizing the cliché of the silence of snow, would stockpile until the spring when the words would burst out of their pods after the long forced quiet of winter. His father’s venom was constituted only by ingredients milled from the news; it was not of his house and home or family or job as an adjuster at Federated Life that he chewed on and spit out. His rants, calm in their own way, would be cut short, though, when either his wife or child chose to join him on the porch and, waiting a respectful moment for him to pause, ask him of his day, comment on theirs, offer him tea or maybe a lemonade.
Beautiful beautiful summer eves and the old muttering man on the porch, going blind.
Inside, John-Paul and his mother would sometimes sit in the kitchen together and talk or simply sit each of them reading or listening to the radio or to the old muttering man on the porch, going blind.
John-Paul’s father died in wintertime, bloated, his body unable to wait yet again for the relief of beautiful summer eves. His mother’s body waited until spring, when the ground is softer and it is easier to dig.
John-Paul sat behind the camera, humming, and focused on the scene across the street. The woman was talking to a neighbour, the child playing in the yard that had been “let go”, the yard that was universally recognized as a rude embarrassment but which John-Paul secretly admired for its insistence of shape and colour, for its casual ignorance of routine and its lawless manufacture of eventfulness.
Years and years since anyone has come to call.
Across the street the woman stood nodding her head while the girl floated slowly up off the ground, reaching the maple leaves that twitched in their remembrance of the Dutch disease that had robbed that part of the world of all its elm trees six seven eight years ago now.
The tape had run out, and by the time John-Paul had found a used one he could tape over, the girl had returned to earth and had vanished inside her house.
FOUR (4) PHOR FORGET IT
I get up, get out of bed, shower shave dress. Susan uncurls from sleep at the sound of my shower ending. Sometimes she sits up in bed and watches me dress, watching as if to see if I would do anything differently. Pants both legs at a time instead of one after the other? Tuck my shirt in before knotting my tie?
I like her watching me dress; it is her way I think of recording me, of looking at me maybe from different angles doing the same thing every week day determined to pull out of the act just a glimpse of mystery, as if I would yield up some small surprise in the way I move, unfold an undershirt, drag a comb across my head.
This morning she surprised me.
“Michael, I’ve been thinking. About the yard.”
“The jungle you mean.”
She sat on the edge of the bed, pulling the sheet around her.
“Jungle, if you prefer. Whatever we call it, I’m beginning to feel quite fond of it.”
I looked at her.
“It’s a bit wild, yes, it needs trimming in parts–”
“Especially the more, umm, expansive weeds closer to the Madeiros’s yard.”
“All weeds are expansive, Susan. It’s their nature.”
“Michael, hear me out. Dandelion spores are a problem to be a sure, but the wastrel grass can be contained, quite easily. The thistle must go. But there are such beautiful little wildflowers, I don’t even know the names of half of them. They’re wonderful. Don’t you think? Have you even walked through it?”
I put on my jacket.
“Walked through that thickness? Baby, whenever I look at the yard I cringe. We should have had it taken care of before we moved in.”
She got up and took her robe down from behind the door.
“Don’t Susan me. Just let me look after the yard. Harriet loves it. She camps out in the grass, she’s collecting flowers — I’m surprised you haven’t noticed some in a jar in the kitchen–”
“I have, they’re beautiful–”
“She pretends there are coconuts and bananas growing there. She’s so imaginative, and I can’t help but think this yard would be — is — good for her.”
“Good for her?”
She hugged me. She smelled of silk.
“Until she makes friends. Very good.”
I’m not “against” nature. Who could be? Nature is important: the rotten apples in the barrel make for the sweetest cider — the trick is to root them out before the rot spreads and in that way, I suppose, ensure the cider’s scarcity and its profitable return.
We both wanted to move downtown. It’s a really good time to buy. The market’s been bloated for several months now and I knew it was going to be a question of finding an empty house whose owners were caught out, unable to sell but unwilling to rent. Asking two-fifty was getting them nowhere, but it served us well. We got them down to two-ten without a sign-back.
I was assured of a position long before the election. I have been an activist for almost ten years now, organizing Conservative — PC — riding associations around Metro, consulting on the Reform problem and on media management. Hard work pays off, and even though I’m on contract — a highly lucrative one — I’m feeling more confident about Ontario than I have in a decade. It is as if the path out of the wilderness has finally, possibly irrevocably, been laid.
We have a clear mandate. The world is watching.
Susan can have her jungle. It makes her happy, these things.
FIVE (5) FIVER FIN NIGH
Video Action. Video Addict. Video Affairs. Video Annex. Video Arts. Video Break.
John-Paul didn’t want to go back to Eaton’s and risk being served by that cashier, that hostile uncaring musty woman. His skin ached with too much washing and, generally a clean person, he was surprised to find his skin peeling between his fingers and toes.
The world became dull. All the small print faded; the earth like a billboard had to now announce itself in big bold letters. He could no longer read small: stop signs, flyers, the numbers on dollar bills. The ability to perceive anything small and still fled him. The address on the front of his house disappeared into the brick, the licence plate on his car into the chrome. He could no longer read his watch and instead he consulted the sun.
The sun was shining.
He was going to capture events that would require national, if not international, broadcast.
He took the camera from his living room and carried it to his car and put it comfy in the passenger seat, fixed the seatbelt around it and buckled it into place. The tape in the camera was labelled number 12 in the documentary series, one hour in the life of Beatrice Street; the ordinary human traffic, the houses across the street jostling for sun, their yards clipped and sparse and exact or aflame with unwanted growth. The bright young couple across the street, newcomers to the neighbourhood, arguing in their living room, the woman closing the blind on their argument but their furious movements still visible. John-Paul would present them with a copy of the tape.
Look how angry you are, he would say. Surely things aren’t so bad. Think of the girl, taking refuge in the yard. You make her fly.
He started the engine, pulled out into the street, turned west onto Dundas. He followed the car ahead of him, which took him down to Queen, then west. John-Paul followed, past the Mental Health Centre, under the railway tracks into Parkdale. He had been vaguely aware of the place; it existed as a place or as a history does just at the side of awareness, at the edge of knowing. A fellow clerk at Federated Life had told him about Parkdale. You can get a blowjob there for a pack of smokes, said his grinning fellow. I do not smoke, said John-Paul. His fellow shrugged and walked away, betrayed.
The slow pace of traffic allowed him to look around. It looked like any other neighbourhood, really, not so sordid; only a few people smoked cigarettes waiting for the streetcar or walking on the sidewalks. Stores, offices, restaurants and bars. A sign for a cobbler. A bank that had been emptied of its tellers and withdrawers, its files and warning notices moved to another location. Mail boxes, garbage cans, small lilting trees growing out of concrete boxes on the sidewalks.
The car ahead of him suddenly stopped and signalled left, forcing John-Paul to brake hard. His tires screeching a bit. His hands gripped the sticky wheel with the trustless awkwardness of an adult who had been caught out and proven unable to do adult things: swallow pills without gagging, drive a car without crashing, install a toaster or CD player without appealing to the instructions.
The car ahead of him turned left into a parking lot. It was then he saw the sign.
What a horrible name for a store, he thought, signalling that he too would turn left. What could it mean but the rupturing of one’s walkway, the shaking of one’s porch in the mellow evening? The red brick semi-detached houses coming undone and the once-happy neighbours now sadly waving goodbye to one another as their porches drift and bob away from each other like icebergs set loose from the continent, their cries dying as the distance between them grows, white flags of farewell tossed into the wind between them.
John-Paul pulled into the parking lot and got out of the car. He unbuckled the camera from the passenger seat, removed the lens cap and tucked it safely in the breast pocket of his shirt. He walked around the car with the camera aimed at it, shooting its slightly dusty whiteness against the big blue wall of the store to get a feel for live-action filming. He composed himself and entered the store.
The clerks in their striped button-down shirts looked surprised.
“Can I help you?”
John-Paul zoomed in and focused on the speaker, a young man, eighteen perhaps, pimply. He was new to the job, and had signed a contract that prohibited him from speaking to “the media, a competitor, or any other third party” about the company’s personnel policies and practices for three years after the termination of his employment. He was unsure about his new job, and nobody had mentioned anything about this kind of scenario. He became nervous before John-Paul, before the camera. The other clerk, slightly older, stepped forward, carrying a pile of videos.
“Sir, do you need some help?”
John-Paul panned around the store, recording over life on Beatrice Street. The store was the size of Texas. People walked slowly up and down the aisles admiring selecting frowning, considering their choices among action-adventure, horror, comedy, family. New releases. He walked towards the New Releases wall, bumping into a popcorn display and knocking blue plastic pails and microwaveable packets to the floor. People poring over the selection looked up at the sound of tumbling snack food and saw the tall, casually-dressed man coming towards them with a video camera in his hands. One woman, a copy of Forrest Gump in her hand, stared right back at John-Paul and waited for the inevitable questions about consumer choice, service and frequency of use.
But the cameraman was silent. He walked right up to the woman until her face filled the shot. He stood two feet from her. There was a twitch in her left eyelid.
Twitch in woman’s eye.
“I’ve seen it three times already — this will be my fourth.”
The screen went blank.
“I’m sorry sir,” said the manager, pushing John-Paul onto the sidewalk.
“I’m very sorry,” he said again, shoving him under the left shoulder blade.
“Please excuse me,” the manager said, wishing he could kick the man in the head, settling instead for one last slight shove.
“I have no quarrel with you, sir,” John-Paul said, cradling his camera.
The manager sucked in his breath.
“Don’t come back.”
John-Paul thought of filming the exchange.
“Go,” the manager said, pointing.
But names will never hurt me.
He made his way to the white car, shaking a bit, and put the camera safely into its seat. He sat behind the wheel, staring ahead at the blue wall of the store. His hand brushed the keys in the ignition, which surprised him, for he was very careful not to leave his keys in the car for fear of theft or of being locked out.
He started the engine. Put the car in “drive”. Braced himself — and charged into the side of the building, rattling the shelves of action-adventure and family movies within.
He sat there dazed a moment.
“Hey! What the fuck are you doing?! Get the fuck out of my car! Get the fuck out!”
A man in a tuxedo yanked the door open and pulled at John-Paul’s shirt.
“You stupid bastard! What do you think you’re doing?”
John-Paul fought off the man’s arms and tried to explain.
“Believe me,” he said, “I wanted to do more damage than that.”
“You can do what you want fucker but not with my car! I’m late for my fucking sister’s wedding as it is fucker! Get out!”
It was the wrong car.
John-Paul felt for his keys in his pocket. He found them.
A curious calm flowed through him, extinguishing his body’s panic at being manhandled by the stranger in the tuxedo. The man stepped back from the car, a bit embarrassed at his own sudden fury.
John-Paul got out of the car, a white car like his but a Buick not an Oldsmobile.
His Omega was three cars over.
The man looked at the crunched front bumper, looked at his watch. John-Paul took his keys out of his pocket.
“We can trade,” he said, holding out his keys.
“You can kiss my ass.”
John-Paul put his keys back into his pocket. A small crowd had gathered, among them the manager from the store staring wildly at John-Paul. The tuxedoed man got into his car and pulled quickly out onto Queen Street, taking John-Paul’s camera — still buckled in the passenger seat — with him.
“Oh,” John-Paul said.
He got into his car and slowly made his way through the parking lot. Nobody tried to stop him. The manager yelled the licence plate number at the new young clerk who anxiously wrote it down. There was a break in the traffic, and John-Paul, a lucky driver, pulled out onto the street.
He followed the white Buick all the way to the church.
SIX (6) 6 SHH
I don’t fly in my dreams now I fly in real life when mommy isn’t watching I fly
I like our new house and my room. I like our yard a lot it isn’t big like before. it is like forests
I miss my friends I think some kids live on my new street but not next door like before. mommy said after school is over Jackie and Brynn can come over it is far to Markham.
the man across the street sits and stares. he looks sad and he looks lonely and mommy says don’t talk to him he doesn’t look nice but I think he is just sad. daddy says stay away from him but he waves to me and says hello. mommy asked the people next door about him but I couldn’t hear what they said. they can’t talk very well. mommy says english is not their language I don’t understand
daddy and I walked up the street and the man was sitting on the porch and daddy took my hand hard. I said hello to the man but he was quiet daddy was angry when we got home
I can fly, I said to the man. I know, he said. we are friends now
The man said he used to be able to fly but something happened
Mommy came outside and took me inside
I don’t know what they mean bad people live downtown why are we here then? there were bad people at our old place immgrints my daddy said mommy got angry
The man across the street has a camera in his window daddy said call the police. mommy said why. I had to go to my room
Mommy cries. I want to go home I don’t fly in my dreams anymore. daddy is being mean mommy says it’s daddy’s new job. I don’t know why daddy’s new job makes mommy cry
They yell about the man across the street. mommy says he is simple and we should be nice daddy says he is crazy and he should go to the hospital but he doesn’t look sick
I like our yard a lot I can hide there it smells nice. there are flowers
I met a girl yesterday Sarah and we are friends we hide together
I can fly again