Sunday, January 05, 2014

short story: Character sketch

             The days dragged on, and I couldn’t stop thinking about her.
                        Paul Auster, Man In The Dark


What frightens us most isn’t death, but its result: absence. Memory shapes and makes us, constantly shifting and changing. We are never the same for very long. If humans the only animal with a connection to even the concept of history, how couldn’t absence overwhelm? We dream up vampires, ghosts, the zombie apocalypse.

The dark side of longing. We won’t allow our dead to disappear.

From Romanian folk tales, we learn that suspected vampires were buried in rice-packed coffins. If the dead were to rise, they would first be compelled to pause, to count every grain. The cemetery caretaker would have time to act, decapitate the corpse with a shovel. Separately, bury the head.

These stories fail to explain why vampires have such innate compulsion, or how a craving for blood relates to numbers. A possible blood count. On Sesame Street, the purple-skinned Transylvanian, Count von Count, rolled numbers off his felt tongue with ease. More often, without invitation, or ability to stop. Obsessed.

For the record: I hate the zombie apocalypse. If there is an apocalypse, it will come from the living.


At the National Gallery, I stare into the skin of a painting. I stare into layers of oil.

The landscape inside a cat’s head.

Delilah’s scissors and Samson’s hair. Like St. Patrick’s snakes, his hair may have been metaphor.

I ease toward the basement galleries, the permanent home of the Inuit exhibits. A hand-held knife swims through the flesh of a harp seal, providing not just for the hunter, but for the village. Black face and silver-grey, the seal bleeds, pencil-drawn. Fixed.

Neil Armstrong, who takes that first step on the surface of earth’s moon, now and forever. Our sun, Sol, most likely knows it’s a star. It’s we who have skewered perspectives.

Small, so small, so very small.


I have yet for my father to offer his take on the birds and the bees. Thirty years late. Now that my son is eleven, I want to have an idea of what I should tell him.
            A knowledge discovered through trial. I don’t want to frighten the boy.
            On my usual Friday, I collect him from day-camp, held at a youth centre deep in the village. This was his mother’s idea. When I arrive, twenty-five children are jumping in place, singing songs about Jesus. The young woman in charge wears a hula skirt over hers, and one of the teenage staff is dressed like a pirate.
            What have hula skirts and pirates to do with Jesus?

I’m uncomfortable with such blatant indoctrination. Shouldn’t one be able to impart a moral centre to children as example, and not through repeated folk tales of a Jewish man some two thousand years ago who may or may not have existed?

I wouldn’t exactly offer you up as example, his mother chides.


Moira, my second wife, hand-picks a paperback copy of How to Take Charge of your Fertility. I wonder, who is in charge of it now?

She responds: this is entirely the point. Her eyes sing: shut up, now.

This, a position I did not expect to be in, twice. The distance is startling. The distance one travels and has travelled.

I want to have a baby, she punctuates. What I already knew.


A single newspaper column announces that Jim Henson puppeteer Jerry Nelson, the voice of Count von Count, has died. One more.

In a box by his half-a-week bedroom, books my son has outgrown. Goodnight, moon. Moira says we should keep them.

In Drowning by Numbers (1988), Peter Greenaway wrote that after the first hundred deaths, they begin to repeat.

We refuse to allow the dead their rest. Respite. An urgency, as Greta Garbo’s final possessions fall into auction, selling her intimate fragments, twenty-two years after her death.

Perhaps we never die. Perhaps this is the point.


My grandfather, who carved pieces of wood into smaller, smooth pieces of wood. By the end, we were less sure what he was making.

Perhaps so in love with the form that results weren’t as relevant. The hours he spent on the front porch.

Within his carved bubble, my grandmother called it.

Reading my late afternoon newspapers at the pub, I see the sweetest looking young woman in a floral print dress stroll past bay window. She is summertime, blissful. In her left hand, fresh broccoli.



A future in which, Lynn Crosbie writes in the Globe & Mail, people would die again and again, only to live forever. An elegant thought, excised from a longer quote.

Sesame Street, ad infinitum. Late-night Turner Classics, Garbo smiles, Garbo stares and Garbo laughs. Garbo withholds, for her protection.
            At the coffeeshop, the remains on the bay window of what I can only hope from a spray bottle. What could be a sneeze.

The night of the August blue moon, Neil Armstrong’s funeral. Later in the evening, a television commercial for memory foam, the effect of a right hand pressed into a mattress. Memory foam was invented, narration tells, after the first man walked on the moon.

Neil Armstrong, forever taking first steps on the dusty surface.
            The world shapes itself to your absence.

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