Many months ago I started writing some fiction. It follows the horizontal line below. I didn’t know:
- what I was doing;
- actually, that’s it. I guess I didn’t need a list.
You might recognize commonalities between the text and my own life- that is intentional and very much a tribute to Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried”. It’s one of my very favourite novels. The fact remains, however, that like TTTC this is a work of fiction.
I choose to write about what I know. If the characters weren’t inspired by people I know or knew, they wouldn’t be inspiring to read. Nonetheless, the characters are fictional. Sorry for knowing me.
Six feet cracked the frost beneath, Camus gasped like a tired, corroded engine as he pulled on his lead and Matt Berninger’s baritone humdrum bellowed in my ears. Camus was willing me forward, steering me from the suburban sidewalk and into the frost of the fields despite headwinds drawing his eyes shut and the taut nylon that choked at his marble marbled neck. He was bounding, shivering frantic. His eyes reddening, his ears listening, his every muscle twitching to go. Wilde Jagd.
And he was off. Off towards the wooden audience of trees adjacent to the field and its solitary dilapidated farmhouse. He became the brush as he bustled through it, his stubborn nose to the ground, his speckled liver and white coat combining with the sticks and the spotted snow, the burrs and the pale murky sky. With bottle eyes of glassy blue I watched as he stalked the horizon; he was larger than life, forceful vitality; he was on the hunt. While he searched further and farther into the distance I became acutely aware of my awkward body, of myself. I was alone and still; numb. I could smell nothing. I felt the winds slip up my sleeves and hug me totally. I noted the words buzzing through my headphones: put your spine in your back and your arms in your coat. You’ve got cold girl fever. As I stared off into the distance, I reflected on those words. I did indeed. Matt Berninger and I share the same pen, the same ink.
Robin came to my mind as gently as she had first entered my life. Sixteen, her catholic high school uniform, her stilt legs and metallic smile, her cool eyes that dared. We were both sixteen. If I focused, if I really focused, I could see my bus permit and backpack, her collared shirt and emerald kilt on my bedroom floor, my eyes in her eyes, daring right back; I could think of the taste of metal, the car crash of our teeth. I should have paid more attention. Now I’m left with a scholar’s lens, a distance and a burnt tongue. Dust. She had loved me and left me, loved me and left me, loved me and left me. But that love, that love that started gently, young and awkward in hallways and foyers, in front of lockers and goalposts, had left. It was gone. Dust. The wild wind had carried it away, howling sardonically, drawing her eyes shut.
For a few seconds, I heard the hushed whisper of the brushwood, the distant rattle of the two metal tags on Camus’ collar, his four paws pounding the hard November mud, the clouds drifting above. The music had stopped. Contemplating the final lyric—you’ve got cold girl fever—I was interrupted by a pleasant punch to each eardrum. Graceless. Is there a powder to erase this? Is it dissolvable and tasteless? You can’t imagine how I hate this. Graceless. My playlist, composed of The National’s complete discography, from the self-titled debut to 2013’s Trouble Will Find Me, was set to shuffle; as “Graceless” began, not for the first time, neither the last, I felt as though the songs played with an uncanny appreciation for time and place. It all seemed seamless. “Graceless” demanded my attention, leaving my contemplations on the previous masterpiece strewn about and neglected, lost in the field. “Graceless” had verve, momentum. It told my story.
A rustling among the twigs and litter, soggy newspapers and Tim Hortons coffee cups, caught my eye and awoke within me a muted curiosity. The perceptible form was Camus surely, only fifteen paces from where I stood. From the rustling I could tell that he was frantic once more. For the first time in what seemed like years, I moved the feet I could not feel, one after the other, left after right, right after left, floating heavily towards the commotion in order to find a line of sight.
I saw red—deep red yarn tangled in tall, deep, dead grass. Red life leaking from a moving blurred mass. Camus had caught a rabbit. Bigwig snared. With the wild-thing in his mouth, he shook. His powerful jaws showing restraint to keep from piercing it deeply, his powerful neck showing none whatsoever. I’m trying, but I’m graceless. Don’t have the sunny side to face this. I am invisible and weightless. You can’t imagine how I hate this. He was shaking it senseless; the rabbit’s eyes were somewhere else. Again I thought of Robin. I wanted to call her, to hear her answer “Hello?”, to keep quiet as she followed that up with “Quinn?”, to remain silent as I hung up. It occurred to me that I should call “Camus” instead, that I should put an end to the thrashing, that I should do something. But I couldn’t. I didn’t. I was so small in Camus’ shadow. Froth collected in his jowls. Froth fell to the frost. Had Fiver seen this coming?
Still, he just kept shaking and I just kept standing. Still, still. I’m trying, but I’m gone. Through the glass again. Just come and find me. Blood and earth staining the white patches of his fur. He was roan. He was well-pleased. And then, perhaps out of bored satisfaction, or rather proud proclamation, Camus loosened his vice. The rabbit rolled off of his tongue and bounced off of the hard ground beneath. A teddy dropped from a child’s clutches. Everything, everyone, still.
Robin would have hated this. She feared the wind. She once loved rabbits. She couldn’t understand where I went. Graceless—I suppose I couldn’t understand her either. Why she’d shriek with the wind. Why as we walked outdoors, she’d cut me off midsentence to assert her fear, closing her eyes viciously, pathetically. “The wind scares me! I hate it.” Why she’d get carried away with it. It was only wind. It didn’t move me. Rabbits neither. They were caught too often; they were quiet captives. Undersized. Spineless. Rabbity. Always off somewhere, like me. Where I went was not worth mapping out to her. Depression was a place I knew and it was not Manhattan, it was not Paris, it was not even Uptown Waterloo. She couldn’t walk its streets, she couldn’t pull me back, reroute me. They were drably dangerous and frankly captivating. It was not befitting of her to be seen melting under those streetlights. People would begin to talk.
Snared. She let me go, let me wander those sidewalks my own way. At the time, I laughed. I honestly laughed, shivering frantic. It was something of a nervous habit of mine: laughing outwardly while someone broke terrible news; laughing outwardly while I was shaken within. It’s one of my charming qualities and it’s something I can’t help but laugh at now. How her eyes would grow wild—“You think this is funny?” She would want to shake the heavy head from my narrow, dollar store shoulders. She would clench her jaw until something gave. Pop. “Quinn—” Laughter. A wind-up set of teeth, clattering on a table, falling to the floor. “Quinn. Quinn. It’s over. You never want to go out. You’re cold. You’re depressing. Go.”
We went, taking the field with us, retracing our steps with wet footprints of blood, mud. Waterloo was quiet in the morning. We went, like spectres under the shadows of streetlights, sliding past the silver lawns, the closed garage doors, the sleeping residents and their sleepy lives, the red-bowed wreaths and unlit Christmas lights of Deerfoot Avenue. Chip and Pearl would be awake by the time Camus and I returned, their skeletons and the old wartime hardwood beneath them creaking in the kitchen as they brewed the morning’s first pot of coffee. In robes I’d find them, monks of the morning sun, thankful for the day still young. They’d be eager to see me off as I went. With the image of Chip and Pearl clear in my mind, we went. I let Camus pull me off of the sidewalk and up the driveway.
All of my thoughts of you, bullets through rotten fruit. Come apart at the seams. Now I know what dying means. In the garage, Camus’ two front paws were propped up on the single wooden step, his hind paws on the concrete floor, a closed door in front of his steaming exhalations. I unclipped his lead and hung it from a protruding screw in the mounted cork panel. He would not propel me forward anymore. Before the door, he seemed to dance with excitement, kicking his paws about as I tried to dry them, twisting his neck as I tried to pull the burrs from his collar, panting proudly as I tried to wipe at the froth and blood in his mouth. Upon turning the doorknob, Chip and Pearl would spoil him with their smiling faces, perhaps with slices of apple or with cherry tomatoes, a warm spot up on the couch. I pulled out my cellphone and stopped the music, leaving the buds planted firmly in my ears. I raised my hand to the doorknob and heard it click as I turned it clockwise.
“Morning Quinn. Morning Camus.”
I looked down. (Or rather more precisely, I never looked up.) Then, working at one heel with the toes of the other foot, I pried off one shoe and then the other. I turned to my left to put my shoes in the landing’s closet and then to my right to walk downstairs to my basement apartment. Camus did not follow me. As I walked through the common room, passing its neglected TV and framed photographs—photographs of Chip and Pearl’s wedding, of each group of students from Pearl’s 41 years as a grade school teacher, of the two of them at their modest Muskoka cottage, of Chip and a friend of his working together to hold up a fish the length of my arm—I could hear the clicking of his excited paws on the hard maple, the creaking I had imagined before, and all of the sounds disappear as he jumped up on the checkered couch above. “Who’s a good boy!”
Upon entering my room I was immediately confronted by my dusty bookshelf. The Stranger, The Things They Carried, The Noonday Demon, Watership Down, Fever Pitch, The Principles of Marketing, Nausea, The Norton Anthology of British Literature… My harshest critics. Without flicking on the lights, I could make out the posters that hung in the dim morning haze as I took my towel from its hook: Thierry Henry sliding in celebration before a wall of ugly, frozen Tottenham fans on the 16th of November, 2002; the concert poster for The National’s show with Owen Pallett at The Fox Theatre, artfully referencing “Bloodbuzz Ohio” with its depiction of a head swarmed and detached by bees; a detailed map of Germany with its verbiage printed auf Deutsch. In 7 a.m.’s faintness, I became aware of a blinding bottle of Ativan sitting on my desk. I had left it out. I didn’t care.
Right out through my door and right into the bathroom, I noted that I had only a half hour before I would have to leave for work. Still having to shower, brush my teeth, dress, and scrape the frost from my windshield, I knew I was tight. I didn’t care. Stepping over the edge of the tub, pulling the curtain closed, turning on the hot water, I thought about Camus, the rabbit. I thought about thinking about Robin. Then about Robin herself. About my bookshelf. Reflection is important.
As I stepped out, the cloudy mirror reminded me that I forgot to turn the fan on. As I swiped at the glass haphazardly with a towel, I looked into the blurry face and said out loud: “I’ll write a novel of my own one day.” It’s the side effects that save us.