Category Archives: People

The Sandwich

 
He didn’t so much eat the sandwich as fall into it. An architectural wonder of a sandwich it was, layers of meat and cheese and those expensive sprouts you get at the Whole Foods stacked primly yet precariously one after the other, like magic, like wonderful, luscious stratigraphy.

The sandwich was a sensation.

Held together by great dollops of fancy mustard and glistering with just a hint of artisan olive oil, the kind that comes from an island, somewhere far away.

As he bit down his face slowly vanished, embedding itself in sandwich almost to the bridge of his nose, and with laboured chewing and a mighty exhalation he resurfaced again, like an orca cresting the waves against a magnificent sunrise, the light of the midday sun hitting his face just so.

Our eyes locked.

“Oh!” he said, and I marvelled at his audacity.

Don’t say anything. Don’t you dare ruin this.

“Is that all you’re having?” he said, indicating my own pathetic lunch (nothing at all compared to his), sandwich juices running down the sides of his mouth.

He dabbed at them with the palm of his hand.

He took another bite before I could say anything, his face disappearing again into the sandwich, two great slabs of ham dangling from between thick slices of bread, mercifully blocking my view once more.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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House Haunting

 
I like to walk around in other people’s houses when they are not there. It thrills me.

I like to open kitchen cabinets and refrigerator doors and I like to peer under beds and parse paint choices and peruse bookshelves.

I like to straighten pictures and nudge knick-knacks just a touch to the left, just a touch to the right.

I walk, I look, and I wonder about the people.

Would they notice the planter askew, where I had moved it with my finger? Would they mind that I used to bathroom? I startled the cat on my way to the bedroom, poor thing. I creaked the floorboards going up and down the hallway.

Tee-hee! Ha, ha, ha!!

I think about how fun it is to haunt people, and then how ultimately pointless.

Tee-hee.

And then we gave notice on our apartment, and for a while I wondered about my own paint choices, the books lining the shelves in my living room, the contents of my refrigerator. My plants, my furniture, the crusty dishes I left in the sink.

And I thought about being haunted.

Do I want to live somewhere where the people before had painted the walls a deep, insistent mauve? Where the kitty litter had been kept, of all places, in the kitchen? Where Anne Rice enjoyed such an undeniable presence?

And which Anne Rice? Anne Rice, Queen of the Damned? Anne Rice, The Pious? The Once and Future Anne Rice?

Does it matter?

There were hand smudges on the walls of my new place. I painted over them but sometimes when I pass along the hallway, I can almost just see them.

And I admit that for now I will avoid looking directly into the dirty mirrors strewn around this place, I will throw away the greasy microwave that was left here, I will sprinkle “Nature’s Miracle Just for Cats Urine Destroyer Intense Urine Stain & Odor Remover” around this godforsaken place like freakin’ holy water.

I think that would be best, don’t you?

Ha, ha, ha.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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Saving Grace

 
I see the church standing there everyday on my walk to work, at a busy intersection in the heart of Mirvish Village, and I think how miraculous.

I’m hardly in churches. My first time, I was in elementary school because, in their gratitude to some helpful and determined neighbours, my parents took me to a church for Sunday school. A show of goodwill, a polite gesture (nothing actually promised).

I remember it was dark and I remember the happy smiling triumphant faces of the neighbours, a husband and a wife, as they lead us into the church.

And I remember it being dark. Dark inside the church as we walked through the heavy wooden doors. Light filtered through stained glass, deep reds and blues I hadn’t ever seen before. There were seats like benches and a sort of fountain full of still water.

I don’t remember thinking much about the water because (I’m told) I stopped and stood transfixed at the figure thrown in contrast by the windows, nailed to a cross nailed to the wall of the church.

Thin emaciated naked save for rags strewn around his delicate waist. His face a mess of agony, blood streaming freely from the thorns wound round and round his head.

His weird muscles. And nails right through the palms of his hands. More blood. I close my eyes now and imagine dirty fingernails.

Actually, (thinking now), all nothing I hadn’t seen before.

But for that save for that beard.

My god, that beard.

I was only five, maybe six. I lived a very sheltered life, school and home and adults with no beards. None of the men in my family had beards, or attempted them. None of my teachers had been men, or had beards.

My god, that beard. Too much too far, already asking so much to begin with.

I cried and screamed (I’m told). I cried and cried and cried (I remember). Inconsolable willful desperate child! The neighours, appalled dismayed embarrassed, told my parents to take home. I was never asked back. My parents never went back. No babysitter. Oh well too bad.

And I think thank heaven for, you know.

Thank god.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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IMPRESSionS

 
1a. The Party

A high-rise apartment overlooking a convenience store and a church, painted green. Awful green. The Men hunched over in the living room, watching ultimate fighting. The Women on the balcony. Every so often, they passed each other in the kitchen, where someone had left Electric Ladyland playing in the background. The puppy ran out onto the balcony and peed everywhere, stepping in it, soaking its soft white fur. It ran into the living room, and I took it as a signal. But the party continued anyway.

2a. Cover Me

Calgary. A shitty bar that smelled like musk and stale booze. Sticky floors. Bad food. And a terrible band with a drummer and a singer you could mistake for the same guy. Not twins. The same guy in the same spot twice at once. The one guy, the drummer, had changed his birth name, which was Guy, to something else. They started playing All Along the Watchtower, but stuck in a 7-minute musical interlude about “meeting a woman in a coffee shop (co-co-co-coffeeeeee sh-sh-sh-shoooooop).” They gave everyone a free CD at the end of their set. It was self-titled, I can see it in my mind’s eye, but I can’t remember the name of the band.

1b. Objects in Space

A drunken high school party in the basement of someone’s rich parents’ house. A friend got high and became paranoid about UFOs. She curled up in the corner on the expensive shag carpet and screamed and cried about UFOs, she was so afraid. Finally, I told her that there was no reason to get excited; the air force had satellites in the stratosphere that tracked those sorts of things and if there were UFOs, we’d have likely known about it. She calmed down and after a while, passed out. At another party she stood with her friends on a balcony and I was there too, in a state of vague but real urgency.

2b. Objects in Space II

Past midnight, just outside the downtown, which was never far way from anything in the city. I was staying at the drummer guy’s, not Guy’s, rented house, was told by his girlfriend, my friend, that he was very deep and had a lot of soul. But how could that be? I found myself lying on their sofa staring, rapt, at his bookshelf, was not able in fact to wrench my eyes away from it. It was stacked with only and seemingly every Tom Clancy novel in existence, and a few copies of the same titles too. I consoled myself with the thought that it wasn’t actually my business. Outside the wind began to howl. In time, I fell asleep.

1c. Provisions

She wanted milk and ginger ale for the party. She sent him out to get them because she was busy cleaning the apartment. He stopped at a Goodwill store first, bought a sectional sofa after a quick phone call to borrow $100 from his dad, brought that back instead of the milk and ginger ale. I imagine that it was he who picked the colour of those awful walls, but that it was she who painted them. I cannot, of course, verify any of this.

2c. Enter the Dragon

The band broke up. She married someone else. Outdated computer manuals and a Bruce Lee biography sit on the bookshelf in their home, and I stand in front of it and reprimand myself by the impulse, once again, to judge, to make pronouncements that most likely helped no one, and more likely did not that much in the long run.

3. Said the Joker to the Thief

Did you know? That Bob Dylan wrote and recorded All Along the Watch Tower in 1967, but that it was Jimi Hendrix’s version, recorded six months later, which resonates with most people. Some say that Hendrix’s version has surpassed Dylan’s original. Still others believe that Hendrix’s version is the original. But given the facts that, of course, is impossible.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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In Cahoots

 
It’s strange now to see anyone using a pay phone. Stranger still to see anyone using a payphone on the subway platform, but there she was.

The woman in the farmer’s galoshes.

I don’t want to reveal too much; I don’t want to, you know, compromise her identity or anything, the woman in the farmer’s galoshes with the big scar running from the corner of her left eye to the middle of her rather prominent forehead.

She picked up the phone and dialled, punching in the numbers without hardly ever even looking at the keypad.

The phone rang a few times, it must have, before she got an answer. She tapped her thick fingers against the plastic sides of the telephone booth as she waited.

Her nails were immaculate.

“So you’re home after all,” she said, finally. “Meet me at our spot in half an hour.”

A pause, the heavy underground air ringing my ears.

“Oh, sorry. Did I wake you? Alright then. Meet me at our spot in an hour. Can you get to our spot in an hour? Is an hour enough? Alright then. I’ll meet you at our spot in an hour.”

She hung up the phone, placed the receiver back in its cradle with a semi-satisfying click, the woman with immaculate nails in the farmer’s galoshes with the big scar running from the corner of her left eye to the middle of her rather prominent forehead.

And there I was. Standing there, right next to the booth, the action, pretending to read Didon’s Play It As It Lays, and trying to be cool, just be cool, and wondering.

Was it possible that I had just witnessed something clandestine, at 4:00PM on a Sunday?

I mean, should I even be telling you this?

She timed it perfectly. Our train arrived. The doors opened and the woman got onto the subway car ahead of me.

I tried to catch her eye as she turned, and I failed.
 
 
 
 
 
References

Didion, Joan. (2005). Play It As It Lays: A Novel. Farrar, Straus and Giroux (revised paperback edition): New York.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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Goodbye, Downstairs Neighbours

 
Near the end, they fought constantly; the shouts and rumblings from below almost becoming another rhythm to the creaks and sighs of the old house we shared.

But this one discordant; this one malicious and terrifying.

Every night another screaming match, another shitty day at work, another day the dog was walked.

Doors slamming, the baby crying, the dog barking.

Things going bump in the night.

Jesus, man! Nobody stood by you when you needed them. Only me. I’m the only one you fucking have and now if you’re not going to fucking smarten up, I’m not sure what I’m going to do! Stop being such a little stuck-up bitch!

You’re the bitch! You’re the one who’s not worth a fucking shit you fucking asshole bitch!

You listen to me. Shut. The. Fuck. Up. Don’t make me say it again. Jesus, man. Fuck!

I CAN’T EVEN FUCKING LOOK AT YOU!

THE FUCKING BABY IS CRYING OH GOD THE BABY IS CRYING ARE YOU FUCKING HAPPY NOW?

WHAT’S WRONG? WHAT’S WRONG WITH YOU? WHAT’S WRONG WITH YOU?

I tried turning up the T.V., or going into the other room. I tried staying out a little later after work and visiting my parents’ place on the weekends.

We bought a sound machine to drown out the noise.

But it was no good making excuses.

So, I just listened.

I listened every night, every time they started fighting.

Just in case.

If things went from bad to worse.

One call.

Dial 9-11.

Get help.

Thinking all the while, when I hear it, I’ll know. When it happens, I will call.
 
~*~*~*~*~*~*~
 
And then, when the landlord said the people downstairs would be out by the end of October, I realized that as much as I wanted them to move out and leave us for good, forever, that as much as I wanted to rest easy, finally, in my own home, what I really wanted was for them never to have moved into the house in the first place.

How naïve.
 
~*~*~*~*~*~*~
 
It’s been two weeks now since the downstairs neighbours moved out and the days before that were some of the worst ever. But no call was placed.

I didn’t call.
 
~*~*~*~*~*~*~
 
At night I listen to the silence of the house and breathe in the stillness all around me. It is in those moments that I think about them, still, and wonder where they have gone and why the left and what brought them to the apartment downstairs in the first place.

And I sometimes wonder, now what will they do?

What will they do without me?
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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Raccoon/Raccoons

 
A raccoon tried to break through my skylight above my bed last night.

No wait. Let me back up.

It was a hot day in the summer of my childhood.

The Metro Toronto Zoo, a heavy, hazy day by the lion’s den, the lions more lifeless than bored. But I had already turned away from their prone and insensible bodies.

To peer into the contents of the garbage can, tipped toward me for my benefit. Two brilliant eyes stares back, up at me.

“Hey, girl!” the Groundskeeper had said, “want to see these things close up?”

The raccoon was terrified. In to grab a snack, then suddenly caught and on display like every other damn thing.

His arms were braced against the inside of the can.

An arm flashed rigid and grasping against the pane of the skylight, illuminated by the light of the moon. 3:00AM, alone and terrified, I stared up.

Just as the tiny fingers pushed through, digging into the wire mesh beneath, curling up under the frame of the skylight.

But the groundskeeper was a kind-hearted soul, who said to me, “OK. Step away now,” as he tipped the garbage can all the way down, slowly, gently, to the ground.

Beside us the lions stirred, and were still again.

Her babies. The landlord had called the exterminator, and he had taken away her babies from the old broken down chimney. She was here now, looking for them.

Trying to get in.

And nothing!

For long moments, nothing.

Then one tentative hand. Pause, back in the can again.

Then out.

Out, out, out!

An explosion of grey and black and teeth and fur and tail and ring, ring, rings!

An explosion of glass and wire; of wood and rot and rodent fury had I not.

Had I not.

Hit the lights, jumped on the bed with the only thing at hand – a long cardboard tube of old Christmas wrap – and thrust it into the skylight, the heavens, the mother raccoon.

Those clever little raccoon hands.

The trapped raccoon, mad for his freedom, scattered gravel and garbage in his wake as he ran blindly from his little prison and jumped up, hitting the fence, climbing hand over hand.

Straight into the lions’ den.

Trying to get out.

And I remembered.

I remembered the lion coming to life. I remember her flat then lithe and ready and liquid and pouncing onto the raccoon, with grace, with ease, front claws out then in, embedded deeply into raccoon flesh and then the lion breaking the raccoon’s neck with audible “pop” and then devouring the raccoon in great gulps as the Groundskeeper turned to me and said, “My god, good Lord!

And then in that space between shock and awe, it occurred to me.

As much as I resent raccoons, even hate them, I might as well respect them.

They do what they can.

I jabbed again at the skylight, nearly losing my balance on the bed.

The mother raccoon hissed once, and was gone.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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Anatomy Lesson

 

Having dispensed with the customary reading of Corinthians 13:4-8:

  1. Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
  1. Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away.

the Minister – the struggling sun alighting his thin face, the leaves from the trees shading his features in ugly patches – turned to the Groom and turned to the Bride, and he asked them each in turn:

“Groom, what is your favorite food?”

“Steak,” was his answer. He had to think about it.

“Bride, what is your favorite food?”

“Chocolate,” she answered without hesitation.

“And do you love steak? Do you love chocolate?” asked the Minister.

“Yes,” answered the Groom.

“Yes,” answered the Bride.

From beneath him, the Minister produced a body. Free of blemishes, unmarred in any conceivable way, it was in a word, perfect.

“The Ancient Greeks,” he began, addressing the Groom and the Bride and us, the Dearly Beloved, his hands hovering gently above the body, “have four words for love.”

He looked down at that perfect body, that immaculate skin.

And he plunged his hand within, producing a horrible shlucking sound as he probed past muscle and sinew, past bone and fat and guts, searching for purchase. He stopped suddenly as he found the love, and with a strength almost unimaginable, he pulled it out for all to see.

AGÁPE! Spiritual love, good will and benevolence!” he cried. “With this, you love a spouse or you love a dog and are loved in turn and in kind by them. You are content, with this kind of love.”

He held the love before him, where it pulsated, trying to keep in erratic time with the body from which it had been so cruelly torn. Bile oozed from its insides; sugars and toxins spilled from it, unprocessed. Large and unwieldy, the love was tossed back inside the body’s abdominal walls.

The Minister pointed at the Groom, and then to the Bride.

“Do you each have this kind of love for each other? Do you have this love for each other more than you have for steak? FOR CHOCOLATE?”

“Yes,” was the answer, echoed from Groom to Bride.

Throwing his hands up in the air, the Minister continued. I blinked and suddenly he was driving them down again, into the body once more.

“ÉROS! Physical, passionate love. Attraction, romance. I take it you are well acquainted with this love already,” he intoned rather matter-of-factly, indicating the Groom and the Bride as he moved further down the body, grasping the love at last with both hands. A great balloon, he retched it from its place and held it before us all, cradling it as one cradles a newborn. Juices spilled from the love. It churned, searching, questioning; always hungry, forever ravenous.

Do you each have this kind of love for each other?” whispered the Minister, gently rocking the love to and fro and bouncing on the balls of his feet.

“Yes,” was the answer, immediate and true.

The Minster nodded curtly and dropped the love into the gaping hole before him. He surveyed the crowd, letting his hands wander along the length of the body.

He came to the head, and paused.

I stared on, unable to look away.

We went in through the eyes.

Pulling this love out in handfuls of chunks and mush, he continued.

PHILIA! The love of the intellect. Loyalty, virtue and friendship. ‘Mental love!’” he almost screamed, grabbing frantically at the love, fingernails embedding deeply into the grey matter within.

The synapses of the love spurted, firing helplessly into space, trying desperately to connect as the love was thrown haphazardly over the Minster’s head, at the Groom and the Bride, at the crowd of Dearly Beloved. Finally, having run himself ragged, the Minister stopped. He looked down into this red, red hands and regarded the love with something like pity.

And just as simply, he shrugged off the love, flinging its remnants it into the woods behind him.

“Do you each have this kind of love for each other?” asked the Minister, wiping his hands on the sides of his trousers.

“Yes,” was the answer. The Groom’s voice flattered, consumed with emotion. The Bride’s chest shuddered, as she tried to hold back the tears that were threatening to overwhelm her.

The Minister closed his eyes, breathing heavily, nodding gravely. Finally, he pulled back his arms at impossible angles and plugged first one and then the other fist into the centre of the body. He found what he wanted easily.

STORGĒ! Affection. LOVING AFFECTION. Familial love, natural love, LOVE OF GOD!!!” he shouted, holding this love high in one triumphant hand, while the other braced itself against the poor, mangled body.

The love pounded and throbbed. It shuddered; chilled by the afternoon breeze, pumping diligently away to serve the others, even at it itself was rapidly losing precious oxygen.

“Do you each have this kind of love for each other?” asked the Minister,unwilling or unable to lower his arm, squeezing the love till it was pushed through fingers like tree roots.

“Yes!” answered the Groom and the Bride, both shaking in exquisite agony for what was to come.

“Good. Good. Very good,” said the Minister. He put the love into his back pocket, for later.

Depleted of energy and seeing now his impending irrelevance, the Minister softly proclaimed, “You may then, finally, kiss the Bride. God. Bless. You.”

The Groom, at last, kissed the Bride.

The Bride, breaking the kiss, turned and smiled widely the Dearly Beloved.

And I remember thinking, almost aloud:

Love is, and it wants what it wants.

And who’s going to clean up all this blood?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Pet Shop Boy

 
There is a time and place for everything.

At the pet store, for example.

Feeding Ivan, our pet tarantula, means having to go to the pet store – a place that reminds me of a kind of low-grade zoo/high-end furniture store – every two weeks or so to buy 6 individual live crickets.

Her favourite.

It is not a lot. It’s something like $0.90 dropped into the bucket of a ba-zillion dollar industry.

I know what to do and say at the pet store to get my paltry 6 crickets as quickly as possible so I can get out of there as quickly as possible, and get on with my life:
 
1. Go directly to the register.

2. Repeat the line:

Do you sell individual live crickets? I only need six, but I’ll pay for the dozen.”
 
Pet stores almost always only sell live crickets by the dozen. The clerks are usually quite helpful and sometimes won’t even charge for the full dozen.

But the clerk at this particular store seemed to have fallen off the back of something…

  • A truck
  • An after school special
  • The last immediate century

…And right in front of my existence.

He refused to look up, his hands fumbling under the counter at something that I will imagine as not the crotch of his pants. He sighed heavily at the question and answered, all the while fumbling like it was the best thing since sliced bread and there was no tomorrow and like his life depended on it.

“Yeah,” he said, jutting a jiggling elbow to the back of the store, “just go to the back and ask the brown guy.”

Go to the back and ask the brown guy.

He said it like he said it all the time, everyday. He said that like it was the everyday, said like it wouldn’t leave me standing there, forgetting totally my mission to get out of the pet store as fast as I could and on with the rest of my life.

I stood there, not knowing how to react, something like a ba-zillion responses flashing in my mind. I stood there for so long he stopped fumbling.

We made eye contact.

And something clicked.

WHAT?”

For both of us.

MIIIIIIKE! Go ask Mike!”

Go ask Mike.

Who got me the crickets, all six, but charged me for the dozen.

When I returned to the register to pay, the clerk had disappeared – two bubbly teens working in his place now – had disappeared like some racist mirage. A false blip on an otherwise limitless horizon where people can congratulate themselves for voting Obama.

The Black President.

But as I left, crickets in hand, I saw him again.

In front of me, again, sitting in the food court.

Eating kettle chips.

As real as anything.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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The Taxidermist*

 
There was a time I would go out of my way, past the subway station and down the vacant city blocks, past the dinky little pharmacy and the cramped and sloping tenements, just so I could stand under that big sign and stare in through the window.

TAXIDERMY STUDIO

Morning, afternoon – to my great relief and disappointment, it was never open.

And so I continued my vigil, as often I would find the time.

But on that day, I sensed something inside.

Movement.

Someone was in there. Very much alive.

 

He sat there at the far end of the studio, slumped behind an ancient makeshift table, hands folded primly across his belly. I glanced at the long nails on his fingertips and imagined them stripping skin from flesh. He was framed on one side by a black bear whose outstretched arm pawed tentatively at the air. On his other side stood two pheasants, male and female, their heads bowed low in supplication. He was crowned by a gigantic moose’s head, which jutted out from the wall behind him and hovered, it seemed, but mere inches from his own.

The studio was filled with a heavy, tactile musk. I swallowed a little with each breath to avoid choking on it. The floor was littered with rubber bands, glass eyes, plastic bags, skull fragments and errant tongues. I carefully picked my way around them. He waited until I stood just a few feet away from the table before he lifted his head, and spoke.

Chinese? Pay double.”

I’d lived in the big city long enough and had learned how to respond in kind.

“I’m Vietnamese. So I should only pay half.”

A twinkle came to his eye. He sat there plump and contented and smiled; a King or demi-god preached on an altar of bone and antler.

A deranged Buddha.

The Taxidermist.

 

I heard laughter, impossibly, to my right.

And there, between empty six-packs of Stella Artois, between Tim Hortons cups brimming with seedling plants and amongst a clutch of three scratching hens and a roaster, mid-strut, beside a yawning coyote and under the serene face of a mounted caribou, I saw him.

The Apprentice.

He was wearing a blue lab coat, faded and frayed at the edges, with metal picks and wooden skewers sticking out the pockets. Invisible just a moment before, he now sat there very plainly on a wooden stool, laughing and gesturing wildly around the studio.

“Nothing is for sale here, girl! The man works on commission only.” The Apprentice smiled at me. He jeered, biting the tip of his thumb.

I tried to explain…what?

That I had felt compelled to go out of my way just to stand in front of the studio?

That I did this more than I would like to confess, especially to myself?

That I needed to come inside?

For what?

All around us, from each corner and from every crevice of the poorly lit studio, The Taxidermist’s creations loomed – listening, waiting. Some lingered, merging with the dust and the shadows, while others leaped out in harsh relief, eager to meet my gaze. I caught the contemptuous glance of a thin-faced red squirrel. A wall of gaping fish – trophy pike, largemouth bass, a lonely gar – sighed audibility as a trio of raccoon skulls leered, mouths partially open. The pheasants regarded us inquisitively, while the coyote took in everything with his teeth bared, obviously bored.

“I just wanted to have a look,” I said.

“A look!” said The Taxidermist. “Vietnamese? You look like this,” he pulled the corners of his own blue eyes hard, as if tying to connect them to his ears. Watching me through narrow slits, he laughed. The Apprentice laughed.

It was early yet, but the sun was already setting into winter’s afternoon. The studio was so narrow and crowded that I had to turn around to leave. But I didn’t want to turn my back on The Taxidermist, and I didn’t want to lose sight of The Apprentice. Saying nothing, I willed myself to stay in place.

The Taxidermist rubbed out his face and shifted in his seat, suddenly became very sober.

“It’s OK. Is OK. Everyone,” he murmured, “is from Africa.”

“Everyone is from Africa,” repeated The Apprentice, nodding vigorously.

“You, me, Sammy Davis Junior,” said The Taxidermist, pointing. His accent was thick, but it rolled off his tongue sweetly, deliberately. I tried to place it (Central Europe? Polish, maybe?), but was interrupted by The Apprentice.

“Listen, girl! We’re all the same! Everything is the same! Everything but the skin, and sometimes the hair, and maybe the eyes,” he mused. He braced his hands against his legs against the stool. A metal pick fell to the floor as he did so, but he made no move to retrieve it.

“Have you ever seen aurora borealis?”

The Taxidermist, too, sat up. He reached out and began caressing the black bear on its neck and muzzle, his hands trailing countless rivulets in the soft dark fur.

“You see my shop? I do it all, except the eyes.”

“The man does it all,” confirmed The Apprentice, who started telling me about the lost art of taxidermy. About how the fleck of a brush can make or ruin a specimen completely. About how the positioning of the limbs or the ears or the curvature of muscle can deliver life and expression, or reduce a specimen to awful caricature. About where to cut along the carcass, keeping ever mindful of the toes and that delicate spot around the nose and lips.

The Apprentice rambled on about the animals that had passed through the studio, all creatures great and small (nothing illegal, no pets) and forever in debt to the exquisite touch of The Taxidermist. He spoke darkly of the hunters and sportsmen who had commissioned work from the studio and never returned to pick it up or pay for it.

“Like throwing away the fucking Mona Lisa. Like spitting in da Vinci’s face!”

The Taxidermist, The Apprentice assured me with a grand sweep of his arm, was a master of his art. A true master.

“The man, he knows,” he said, much to The Taxidermist’s obvious pleasure.

Did I, by the way, want to know the secret to taxidermy?

“Arsenic,” whispered The Taxidermist, leaning back against his seat, hands clasping again on his belly. He closed his eyes.

“I know,” here his voiced raised considerably, “what to do with the skin.”

 

But it was obvious, even from the outside looking in, that The Taxidermist’s masterpieces hadn’t left the studio in years. Most were covered in layers of dust and detritus, their coats dulled in uneven blotches by the sun, their fur and hair falling out in turns.

The studio was a wonder, and it was not; a halfway house for things otherwise forgotten, and going extinct everyday.

There were times, said the Taxidermist, when he would let out his more impressive specimens – the spiny porcupine or the smiling alligator, perhaps – to the movie studios and museums.

But no more.

The universities and colleges still ask him to take a on a student or two every semester and the newspapers still sometimes want him to do an interview for (what else?) human interest.

He no longer returns their calls.

The fish, the fowl, the severed and defleshed heads are less relics now than witnesses to the creeping decay and its final promise.

He will never sell them.

Of that I remain utterly certain.

 

It was almost dark now. I began laying down excuses to leave (“have to met up with some friends”, “dinnertime” “it’s almost dark now”), but was saved by The Apprentice, who jerked his head sharply to the side and caught my eye.

“Hey. I like Lenny Kravitz myself.”

He laughed so hard he almost fell off his stool. At this, The Taxidermist’s eyes flew open.

“Enough!” cried The Taxidermist, hands slamming so hard on the table I would swear he shattered it into splinters. His voice was piercing, insistent. It shocked me. The Apprentice, for his part, was reduced to a fit of giggles, which he tried to suppress with both hands over his mouth.

Pushing himself slowly from his seat, The Taxidermist stood up. Grinning, he playfully shook his head at The Apprentice then turned to address me.

“I need to go to my doctor’s appointment. My diabetes.”

He winked.

“Goodbye girl.”

I waited until The Apprentice joined him behind the table and watched as he helped The Taxidermist to the back of the store before I retreated to the front.

I walked out onto the sidewalk. I heard the loud click of the lock. I felt more than saw the lights go out behind me.

I may have looked back, but I don’t remember.
 
 
 
*Long-listed for the CBC’s “Canada Writes Competition”, June 2014.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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