Anthony Sabourin is a writer from Ottawa, Ontario. His work has previously been published by X-R-A-Y, Little Death, and Bad Nudes. Find him here.
The Doomsayer is at work.
He takes a sip of black coffee from a styrofoam cup. He mumbles to himself and barks like a dog and screams into his elbow as one would muffle a cough. He takes another sip of coffee, gargling it and spitting it into the street; wipes his mouth with the back of his hand. Across the street the train is stopping, and soon the morning rush will be streaming by on the stretch of street before him, walking in their harried steps, a tension in the inconvenience of being a person around other people, already impatient to hasten the day’s end before it’s begun. The Doomsayer adjusts his pants and trench coat, picks up his cardboard sign, and steps upon his milk crate. He shouts the words on his sign.
“The end is nigh!”
Faces look up to see.
“The world is almost over!”
The Doomsayer worked early and all day, taking lunch at 10 am and as many bathroom breaks as he could finagle out of the decrepit Subway across the street, where he was engaged in a bitter feud with the manager, a weaselly man named Laramie. He would be home in time for dinner with his wife, a sturdy and freckled woman who stunk from her work at the smelting plant, whom he loved completely.
It was a good life, and the Doomsayer found joy in his work. He was passionate about the end of the world, and while he was aware that his message was difficult to accept, for a long time he lived for even the most tacit acknowledgement of the words that he raggedly shouted to the idiot faces of the people who worked in glass and steel buildings. Even the most furtive of glances would satisfy him for weeks.
He remembered with great fondness one particular day when a car broke down in front of his preaching stoop. —his cracked yelps painting a picture of the end, of how the resolute corporate leaders of the past were long dead, and how their doughy and cow-eyed offspring could only lead us more swiftly to our certain doom; that unchecked plague had emaciated the horses and left the goats vomiting in the city’s neighboring fields, and how more and more these days the rain was actually just acid that left the asphalt smoking after a storm. He supplemented his arguments with credible first-hand analysis of various religious texts. And with the tow truck loaded and ready to leave, as the Doomsayer asked out of professional courtesy if this mother and her child would at least acknowledge if they, on the basis of the case the Doomsayer had presented to them, thought that the world would end, was it not true that their heads, as the truck jerked and pulled away, bobbed in a manner that was markedly similar to a nod? For so long this had been the highlight of the Doomsayer’s career, so much so that yearly his wife made him a rum cake to mark the anniversary of the occasion.
—after the black clouds of the chemical factory had intermingled with and covered the skyscrapers with soot, and all was darkness except for the fires from neighboring cities—that crowds began to form. Only now—as the syphilitic ramblings of the city’s mayor failed to placate them—that the crowds gathered to listen to the Doomsayer.
“Have we passed the point of no return?” he asked the crowd.
“Yes!” the crowd shouted back at him.
“Do the penguins now slide into the muddy ocean from the floes of our own garbage?”
“Surely!” they cried.
“What happened to all of the good animals? The noble giraffe? The whimsical flying squirrel?”
“All of the good animals are extinct!” the crowd said.
“And what of the new animals humankind discovers? Those weird fangy monstrosities they fish out of the bottom of the ocean? With their glowing eyes and spiked, skeletal bodies - what do we make of mother nature’s nightmares?”
“Only abominations remain!” the crowd cheered.
“No!” the crowd chanted in ecstasy.
“And what of our neighbors? Can we depend on the slack-jawed inbreds to the east and west of us for salvation in our hour of need?”
“Our neighbors can only be depended on for war and death!” the voices boomed.
“What have we done to our planet?” he would shout at their faces.
“We’ve wasted it!” the crowd would wail.
It was a true golden age.
Yet, after years of plying his trade in obscurity, the Doomsayer felt a sense of emptiness in his newfound success. The work came to him easily now, and he longed for the days when convincing people that the world was ending was a challenge. He had taken to rolling in the garbage in the alley by the Subway, thinking the rank juices dripping from his trench coat would make his message less sensible, but still, the crowds grew.
Only a seasoned observer would have been able to tell that his rheumy eyes were sad and not sick, his voice still full of fury but devoid of passion, his malaise not directed at the end of all things, but at himself and his lack of joy in this—his moment of triumph. The closest thing the Doomsayer had to such an observer was the dreaded Laramie, who mistook these changes as sure signs of the imminent death of his rival. Over a sandwich made for the Doomsayer with open contempt, they conversed:
“Is your death near?” the scoundrel Laramie asked him.
“Is yours?” he spat at his enemy.
“I am a picture of health,” Laramie said, and the Doomsayer did acknowledge to himself that Laramie’s long neck, bulbous head, and tiny limbs still wriggled about the vandalized sandwich counter with the ease of a younger man.
“But you—” Laramie continued. “Your new friends out there may not notice the change, but I have seen how your voice falters, how your eyes have turned splotchy, and your gestures uncertain. I have seen your skin grow pale and your body rebel with stink as it rots from the inside. I want you to know that I relish it!”
“If I appear ill,” the Doomsayer said, “it is no doubt from the stagnant meatballs and moldy cheese I ingest from this, the foulest of the Subways.” He took a bite of the sandwich and chewed it slowly. “But I want you to know, Laramie, that this food is the small dose of poison that grants me the immunity I need to endure your presence, and upon your demise I will lead your family to this failed enterprise to celebrate my ultimate victory.”
It would take another half hour of negotiations before the Doomsayer could use the bathroom.
After facing an afternoon of the cheering crowds, there was little relief for the Doomsayer among his own kind, for even at the Lazy Susan—where the drink special of a free rotisserie chicken with the purchase of a pilsner openly courted the castoffs of society—the company of his fellow harbingers, soapbox criers, suspected deities, and lesser prophets greeted him as a celebrity.
He drifted about in the whorl of voices with his pilsner and a drumstick—
Majestic tirade out there—buy you a drink you’ve earned it—the voice it’s his voice how he uses it he can—goes to show that hard work pays off in the—did you see the garbage he rolls in a stroke of genius—Kevin, I’m—it adds so much resonance you know he’s the garbage we’re the garbage we’ve wasted it—used to be humble too good to drink with the Kevins now—I think it’s his sign you need the right message—location is the key—no, I’m not Kevin I’m Carl you know, the conspiracy of dust that’s mine—all hard work that’s the key—The end!—It will never end it can’t—so proud of him I taught him the ropes and he—buy you a beer whatever you want —is nigh!—such persistence, it couldn’t have happened to a better guy he’s—
—running his fingers along the arches spine of Susan IV, the tavern cat about on her rounds—
It’s really him he comes here—yeah of course the end of the world—eat the rich that’s my thing I pass out pamphlets—where did you get that cloak it’s really thick—when he bellows it shakes the earth—they eat out the palm of his hand how articulate—the geese there are too many of them that’s my thing—K-E-V-I-N, I’m the second coming get you the right cloak—the end is nigh!—I found out they all huddle together close to the lake and I try to convince them to drown but the geese don’t ever—the end is nigh!—No I’m Carl the dust it—listen—you’re a Kevin I’m a Kevin—THE END IS NIGH!—oh every night this chant—THE END IS NIGH!—they never listen—THE END IS NIGH!—the rich you gotta eat them I hand out recipes—THE END!—dust building never stopping—IS!—the voice it’s—NIGH!—can’t hear you these chants—THE END IS NIGH!—the dust builds and it can’t - no listen –THE END IS NIGH!—it builds—THE END IS NIGH!—THE END IS NIGH!—THE END IS !
—looking out at still more expectant faces, the bedraggled and cloaked and rag-covered fellow cranks, he never knew what to tell them. He had nothing to say. He lifted up his beer to his fellow colleagues in a gesture of goodwill, chugged it down, and left to more cheering.
Outside he was accosted by one of the newer criers, a weathered boy who carried pamphlets of recipes for how to eat the rich, which he distributed to the university students downtown.
“Wait!” he said, grabbing the Doomsayer’s arm.
“Eat the rich! How is that going?”
“The University guards and their truncheons do not support cannibalism but I can still outrun them,” the boy said.
“Ah that’s good. You may want to use your pamphlets as padding, if they ever do catch you.”
"I appreciate the wisdom, sir. And, I apologize for grabbing you just now but please, do you have a moment to discuss the end? I feel like there must be something more to it. I have to know what is next.”
“Don’t pretend. These people, they look to you now because you knew, and because you knew, surely you must know what happens next. There must be something. Please, I beg of you— help me out here, I mean I’m just starting and even with just a nugget of your foresight I could build a whole new-”
“There is no next.”
“The end is it. One day it will all be over with and done and that’s it. That’s the end of it all.”
The boy fell silent and his shoulders dropped into a slump. “Oh,” he said. The Doomsayer left him by the neon lights of the Lazy Susan, and walked home to his wife.
Home and seated for dinner, the Doomsayer realized it was the day of the cake. The Doomsayer had forgotten, but now here it was, his wife bringing it into the dining room and setting it out on the table. The rum cake is a glistening oversized donut shape from the bundt pan, with two candles representing the woman and her teenage child from that halcyon day years past.
He tried to make a happy face.
“What’s that, all of those things your face is doing?” his wife asked.
“I am just so moved by this gesture. The rum cake, I appreciate it so much I just.” The Doomsayer blew out the candles to keep from crying. He cut two pieces of rum cake and set them onto plates as listless smoke filled the room.
“Oh, so we will eat the cake in this very sad manner,” his wife said.
“No, I am happy, I love this delicious cake,” the Doomsayer said with a full mouth, chewing as his eyes began to water.
The Doomsayer’s eyes said that nothing was wrong, only this was unconvincing, because they were spilling tears, and suddenly he was breathing heavily and having a panic attack while still trying to eat the cake. His wife went into the kitchen to pour him a glass of water, and throughout the Doomsayer was trying to comport himself as though he were not having a panic attack, his body shaking as he swallowed cake between gasps of air, all of it becoming increasingly ridiculous. With his full mouth he sobbed “I no longer love what I do.”
His wife laid the water on the table and held him. She cooed into his ear: “Ah so what you love has turned into work, eh? Woe unto the prophet now that his obscure and cool new future is the common present. Shush, my idiot baby. You think I do not see this at the smelting plant? Some people stare at the glowing ore until it takes their minds away. You just need to take a vacation.”
“A vacation,” the Doomsayer said with wonder. The very concept seemed alien to the Doomsayer, but immediately his panic faced relaxed and his eyes brightened, and he again seemed at peace. They went back to eating their cake, which was very strong, and it led naturally to their lovemaking, their cries frightening the squirrels who had overtaken and were developing complex structures with the garbage they were collecting in the field beyond the Doomsayer’s home.
In the morning he purchased a plane ticket and packed his bag, soon finding himself on a propeller plane rocketing in its arc towards the Republic of Vronsk, a coastal city known for its decommissioned oil rigs, incomplete skyscrapers, and beautiful beaches, with sand as white as the Doomsayer’s knuckles as he experienced a screeching stop on the ramshackle landing strip of the Vronsk airport.
Vronsk was beautiful. The Doomsayer wandered around the city in a Hawaiian shirt and dollar store sandals, marveling at a sky that wasn’t grey-black. He fed beef jerky to the mongrel dogs, who began to follow him around.
He gazed up at an unfinished condo, whose main level was ransacked, and whose upper levels gave way from glass and concrete to upright metal beams that stabbed at nothing, razed manmade exclamation marks surprised that this was their end. As he walked up another block to see another interrupted building, he heard the familiar sound of a voice yelling in the street. Feeling the pangs of homesickness, he walked to the source of the shouting.
“It’s over!” the voice cried out. It was a Vronskian woman with a shaved head, wearing a metallic bouffant dress. She was gesturing to the great and unfinished skyscraper above her, which the Doomsayer had to admit was a nice touch. A crowd was forming.
“The sun shines weaker every day and the ocean rises ever more swiftly to swallow up Vronsk!” she shouted. “Our street dogs outnumber our children! And in their canniness they slip into our houses and lie in their beds!”
Voices murmured in agreement.
"Our leaders have been rendered fetus-like from inbreeding! Drought has crippled our farms and clouds of locusts rattle against our windows in the night! The word is ending!” she shouted. The Doomsayer found the material to be very strong, and he enjoyed being present in the throng of people who shouted in recognition.
“The world is ending!” he heard the woman say. All around the Doomsayer was a sense of good cheer. The woman basked in the jubilation for a moment, but she cut the crowd short. “It is ending! But is this enough?” she asked the crowd.
“No!” They shouted back.
“No!” the woman said. “For the end is not coming soon enough. We must act!” she preached. Members of the crowd raised their fists in the air.
“We must destroy!” she shouted. “We must waste! More garbage! More fires! The end is in our hands and we must never waver!” she screamed. “We must be resolute! The end is now!” The crowd was rapturous. The glass in the skyscraper was mirrored like the back of a bar, and reflected in that mirror the Doomsayer saw an old man in a Hawaiian shirt. He felt as though he were in a foreign church. The dogs followed him as he left the crowd.
The Doomsayer meandered beachward, stopping to buy postcards at a souvenir shop. On the back of a postcard featuring art depicting a more optimistic Vronsk, with the sun setting and playing off of completed skyscrapers, he wrote a series of threats addressed to Laramie. Then, on a postcard depicting a series of minerals native to Vronsk he addressed to his wife a poem of longing. He continued on, mailing the postcards and, at a corner store, buying a jug of brackish wine which was described to him as a local delicacy.
From the beach looking towards the ocean, the decommissioned oil rigs lounged in the distance like ugly mechanical swans. The Doomsayer laid on a towel in the sand with his dogs and an open package of beef jerky. He was sharing the jug of wine with a couple who had seated themselves next to him. They were honeymooning in Vronsk, which was very affordable, and they overlapped against each other like sunning seals, languid curves supine and happy. They reminded the Doomsayer of earlier days with his wife, and he radiated happiness and goodwill towards the loving couple, and refrained from mentioning the imminent end of all things.
They watched people in swimsuits splash in the waves; the new wife and husband periodically wading into the water, and as the jug emptied the afternoon passed in the lazy and relaxed way that beach days pass when the sun is out. Bony birds circled overhead, and shade from the palm trees retreated to the street.
A commotion arose in the water. From people-watching and the overheard snatches of conversation, it became clear that a woman playing in the waves had lost her wedding ring. She lay sobbing hunched over herself in the sand, and an improvised search party was formed, with bodies launching themselves headfirst into the surf, legs akimbo, looking in the sand underneath the waves for the lost ring. The newlywed couple next to the Doomsayer were recruited into the search, and the Doomsayer offered to stay behind to watch over their things. He threw beef jerky to the dogs and watched the futile pattern of the people in the waves, as over and over legs would appear out of the water, and would wriggle about in the air until submerging, and after a beat, like a magic trick, an apologetic face would emerge.
Suddenly a siren wailed from the beach, and a fissure of water erupted from one of the oil rigs in the distance. The Doomsayer watched as the rig furthest to the left began its collapse, metal sweeping into the water, the rig’s mast dipping at a dangerous angle and toppling into the adjacent rig. The shriek of metal-on-metal reverberated with the siren in the air. Waves grew larger and crashed to the shore and people retreated to the sand. The search was over.
Eventually the newlywed couple returned to the Doomsayer, where they admitted that the ring was likely lost for good. The Doomsayer stayed on the beach though, watching as the rigs toppled like slow motion dominoes into the greedy sea. The sound they made was mournful. The sun dipped below the horizon, disappearing into a blood-red wink.
Alone with the mongrel dogs on the beach, the Doomsayer turned around to face the street, and he noticed how the people were moving in the moonlight like pallbearers in search of a body. Everywhere there was garbage. He returned to the view of the lapping waves, and he found himself wading into the water, and his head disappeared into the sea.
The dogs watched the waves.
A pair of pale legs popped upright into the air, calm and balanced despite the waves.
The conspiracy of dust carried on unabated.
Most days I would sit in a big jacket in my stall in the dark of the parking garage and I would open the gate for people when they drove up in their cars. When they were gone and it was quiet again, my brain would be full of this image of a spaceship screaming towards Earth, burning up as it entered the atmosphere. I wanted to shed all of the pieces I no longer needed. To burn away until I was almost nothing. I don’t know, other times I’d just watch pornography but not jerk off. I appreciated everything.
Today I sat in Greyhound bus in Ottawa; my big jacket with my cold face amongst the heaving bodies and stale air, and suddenly the bus moved and we were on our way to another place. It felt like I was in the middle of a period of great transformation. I had stolen five hundred dollars and two grams of hash from my roommate. I was going to Montreal.
Outside of the terminal there was snow and cold, and the sidewalks were blue from rock salt. I breathed deeply and it felt sharp and good. I loved it. Matt was there to pick me up. He lived here now, and I had called him from the bus and sold him on old friendships and good times. We hugged and called each other shitheads and talked about how good it was to see each other and we didn’t acknowledge the distance between us. He looked clean shaven.
I didn’t bring any luggage. I saw him notice this and begin to look worried so I gave him another great big hug before he could talk about it. He walked me through the crowd past buildings that were brown and jagged, avant-garde and ugly. That’s the art museum. This is the subway station. I didn’t trust it. The signs were in French. He handed me a weekend metro pass and we walked into one of the brown buildings and submerged. The whole ride, Matt was talking about his new city - he was effusive in his praise, using words like “history” and “culture” and “Leonard Cohen”.
I remembered a night from when were in undergrad and the group of us took a bunch of mushrooms to watch the sunset from the Prince of Wales bridge. When the sun went down it looked like the sky above us was on fire. And we looked down and the water below us was on fire too. It felt like the end of days was coming, like this enormous hellfire was reaching out to embrace us and there was no escape. Matt looked at us and shouted out, “If we’re all gonna die then I want you to know that none of this has been worth it! None of it! You’re all pieces of shit!”
He jumped into the water and he was fine. The sun that night continued to set and instead of armageddon it just got dark. It looked like he was doing well for himself now.
He took me to his apartment and it was a long rectangle of open space and soft white light. There was an exposed brick wall and minimal furnishing. By the kitchen with the gas stove and the new fridge there were sliding glass doors that led to an outdoor seating area that was snowed in. Matt pointed out that in the upper left corner of the view you could see a small ‘+’ that was the cross on top of Mount Royal. The rest of it was blotted out by neighbouring apartments. He said that Montreal was the last affordable Great Canadian City and I said I had read that in a magazine, but I was lying. I was waiting to ask him about doing hot knives. There was a picture of him and his wife Lauren that was framed on the wall. It was from their wedding. They were holding each other happily and there were white flowers in the background. They had met in law school. She was hard-working and relentlessly cheerful in her disposition and so we hated each other. I asked Matt where she was and he told me she was working late. I asked Matt if he wanted to do hot knives.
We had sunken into the couch with blank smiles on our faces and scorched knives in the sink when Matt remembered he made dinner reservations for us. We walked through the streets at night with faces red as our bloodshot eyes, in the kind of cold that makes everything crunch. The restaurant, when we got there, was burnished metal, big windows, and tasteful wooden accents, a chalkboard menu written in elegant cursive handwriting and no prices - it was unadorned by branding, which meant expensive.
The people in the restaurant looked pleased and inert and they chortled away in their language. I didn’t know what anything was. Matt spoke casually to the waiter and a man came out from around the kitchen and made a show of presenting us with a bottle of red wine. He uncorked the wine and took Matt’s wine glass and poured a mouthful in and placed it in front of Matt. Matt picked up the glass by its stem and how he drank this wine was he swirled the glass around and brought it up to his nose and closed his eyes and inhaled through his nose. Then he opened his eyes and looked at the wine and brought it to his mouth and closed his eyes again and took a long slow sip. When he was done he nodded.
Now this motherfucker came up to me with the wine and I was too high to be around all of these rich people. After he poured it I wondered if I could have the same experience as Matt, so I did what he did. I swirled it around and I brought it up to my nose and inhaled and then took a long slow slip. But to me it just smelled like wine and tasted like wine. I started to drink quickly.
When it was quiet again I asked Matt what I should order and he said poutine so that’s what I did. To be honest I wasn’t sure if I liked food anymore. I mostly ate breakfast wraps from the coffee place on the way to the parking garage, and if I got hungry again I would buy another coffee and if I was hungry again at home I would pick at the leftover shawarma platters my roommate would leave in the fridge. My mouth felt like it was always full of acid. My diet made getting high more efficient, and I was becoming gaunt but in a fashionable way.
To say something, I told Matt that I was training for a marathon. I had been really into telling people that I was training for a marathon ever since I watched this video of a person in this spandex bodysuit undressing. It was this black room; all you could see was this person and their suit and it was like this tight blue androgynous cocoon. As the camera got closer you could see by their eyes that it was a woman. And then she started to unzip the suit and she took the head part of her suit off and this long blonde hair flowed out of it. It made me think that we can all be anything we want. Two naked men walked into the frame of the video and then it was pornography. In the parking garage I thought that I would better myself by becoming a marathon runner, and I did research online and bought nike running shoes at full price and a grey sweatshirt that said “CHAMP” on it, with the quotation marks, in welcoming letters that arced like a rainbow across my chest. I told my roommate and my dad and my manager at the parking garage that I was training for a marathon. Everyone is so happy when you tell them you are running a marathon. Or not happy, but they act like they are impressed with you, and it’s nice. My stuff came in the mail and I tried to run once but it was stupid. There was nowhere to go. Still, I started to wear the sweatshirt around to show that I was serious, and it became something to talk about with people. “It’s harder to train in the winter,” I said now, “but the key is to invest in good crampons.” I nodded to emphasize the importance of crampons.
Matt told me it was inspiring that I was training for a marathon.
We got lost in old memories. We talked about the time we did thanksgiving for our other roommates but we got too day drunk and fell asleep and almost burnt the apartment building down. It would have burned fast too - that apartment was littered with balled up Subway wrappers like so much kindling. Matt’s dad died when he was a kid and his mom never had much money so he worked at Subway for all of undergrad, and the smell became a part of him, it lingered on him like he was haunted. I remember I’d go to his Subway when it was quiet and I’d make logic puzzles out of convoluted sandwich orders to help him with his LSAT. He didn’t need the help anymore though - the waiter was coming with our food.
I looked at my poutine and there was this strange grey meat on it. I asked what it was and Matt told me “Foie gras.” They make foie gras by sticking a feeding tube into a duck, and force feeding it until its liver is big and fatty. They do this for a hundred days, sticking the feeding tube into the duck and feeding it against its will, and then they kill it and take out its liver. I knew this because when I felt bad about watching too much pornography I would watch a video about factory farming. I was curious about the foie gras though. Maybe it was worth it.
I took a bite and it made me sad. It was this smooth rich blankness, but it was just a texture. I wanted to eat a breakfast wrap. I sat picking fries and watching my food congeal into this brown-grey sludge. I looked at it and thought of soft splayed legs and sexual pumping and food tubes shoved into baby animals and rows of ducks in tiny cages.
Matt, overtaken by hunger from the hash, was drinking wine and eating lobster pasta with an intense focus. After a long pause, Matt looked at me like he had something important to say, some big epiphany that he wanted to share with me. He told me there was something that had been on his mind a lot lately, and so he told me a story and it went like this:
THE BLUE SHIT STORY
Lauren’s law firm has this famous bake sale. It was this big charity thing to raise money for cystic fibrosis or diabetes, he couldn’t remember. The partners at the firm took it very seriously though, it raised a lot of money and made them all look like pillars of the community. Lauren was an excellent baker, and she wanted to impress the partners at the firm. She wanted to make something that was decadent, artful, and difficult to bake, so she made macaroons. They were perfect blue clouds that tasted of chocolate and raspberries. People at the bake sale loved the macaroons. They sold out, and therefore they were making a difference for the people with the cystic fibrosis or the diabetes.
It took Lauren a day to realize what she had done. She used a lot of blue food colouring to make the macaroons the right colour, and now Lauren was in the bathroom, and she had just taken a shit, and it was blue. Matt ate some of the macaroons and his shit was blue too. All of these lawyers who had loved the macaroons were going to the bathroom and looking at their blue shit and they all knew why their shit was blue. All of these people who were supporting the people who had the cystic fibrosis or the diabetes were dropping these big blue hosses. Lauren was embarrassed. She wondered how she could go to work and practice law and also be the person that made everyone in the office shit blue. She was worried about getting a nickname like Blue Shit Lauren. Like she would be in courtroom and the judge would call up Blue Shit Lauren to present her closing arguments. But she went to work the next day and nobody ever talked about it.
Matt said he thought life was like that blue shit. He said life was this strange and wonderful collective experience that nobody was talking about.
He spun a tumorous mass of spaghetti around the tines of his fork, and shoveled it into a wide open mouth. I thought it was a terrible fucking story, like of course Laura would make macaroons, and who even cared what happened to a bunch of lawyers, and now all I could feel was foie gras lingering in my mouth and maybe it was the wine or the hash or I don’t know, but I felt the saliva pooling and I looked at the floor and one moment it was fine and the next it was covered with so many chunks of grey mush, so much reddish bile, and I felt like I would never stop heaving.
Outside of the restaurant, I was breathing out puffs of air while snow fell around me in fat flakes. Matt was still inside, smoothing things over and apologizing.
There was a concert we went to in our final year of law school. It was a reunion show in a small club, some punk band Matt was into. When the lead singer came out he had this substitute teachers head attached to a substitute teacher’s body - kind of frumpy and washed out. It was shit - the band was too drunk to do anything, and after four songs the substitute teacher just set his guitar up by the amp to generate a wall of feedback, and he walked off the stage to leer at the young girls who were waiting by the bar. After the show Matt kept apologizing to us. I really enjoyed it though. I think it was the first time I understood getting old.
Matt came outside and he looked at me, only now where before his face was flushed and happy, he just looked sad. He asked me if I needed help.
I told him I did. I told him I needed the kind of help I used to give at Subway. I needed help to go to shitty rich restaurants to feast on suffering, and that I needed so much of his help to be so pretentious and empty.
And still he did not jettison and burn off and fly away. He told me that he was worried about me - that I looked sick, and that he was scared for me, and that he wanted to get me help if I needed it. He told me that he worked hard to get the life he had, and that it made him happy.
I didn’t talk for a long time, but when I did I asked Matt if he thought that the average person could step into his life and do a better job with it. He asked what I was talking about. I took the five hundred dollars from my pocket and told him that it was my fee, and that I could free him. He looked at me one last time and left.
I was relieved. My throat was burning from the vomit and there was so much more that I could be doing. I had always felt like a patient zero in search of a disease.
Sometimes when I pictured the future, I saw myself as the King of this Great Pile of Garbage. I was seated on a mound of garbage bags, and it was so comfortable. People would come to me and seek my advice, and I would tell them to throw it all out. My garbage empire would grow and grow. Other times I could only picture blackened wood, embers fading into smoke. I was okay with that too. As for Montreal, it was alright. I walked by a costume store that was selling masks of babies and horses and dogs, and in the display window they were all perched on mannequins of male models. I walked by bars and saw young people who moved around as lithe and panicked as gazelles.
I had been drinking and was now great friends with these two punks. They both had shaved heads and leathery skin. They were older but spoke English. One of them had a head that was dented like a soup can. And the other one had a growth on the right side of his forehead, and that was how I could tell them apart. Otherwise it was a mess of patchwork denim and bad tattoos. I was buying us quarts of Fifty because I was rich. Quarts of Fifty were great because they came in these big bottles and were served with a tiny glass on the side, and you could poor from the big bottle into the tiny glass and feel like some kind of foreign dignitary. The guy with the dented head was telling us about how he got all of these dents.
HOW I GOT ALL OF THESE DENTS
“So I’m waiting at the Bonaventure Metro, right?” he says. “And, wait, shit, you don’t know. The Bonaventure Metro is brick everything. Even the benches. With the heat from the trains it feels like you are trapped in this great furnace.” I nodded. “So I was there waiting for my train and I look across the tracks and I see this deer. It’s just standing there on the tracks opposite from me, and I look at the deer and the deer looks at me and then it goes back to grazing. And I look around me because there’s a fucking deer on the metro, and I am telling people, regardez, c’est un fucking deer but nobody is doing anything. Actually, they are looking at me like I’m the crazy one but I know what I see. And then I hear the rumble of the train coming, and I get really nervous because the deer is right there, yes? It’s still on the tracks and it’s not moving. It just looks up again and stares right at me, and now I can see the light from the train, and there is more noise and you can feel the rush of air, and I just walked right onto the tracks.”
“Bullshit you walked right onto the tracks,” I said.
“It’s what I did!” he said. “I walked onto the tracks and I reach out for the deer only it’s gone, it was like it had never been there at all, and now the only sound in my head is the sound of the train, and I look and the train hits me smack, right here!” - he smacks the middle of his forehead with his palm - “and that was it, that was all I could remember. I woke up later in a hospital, and my head was covered in bandages. I became very famous in Montreal for a time as the man who survived getting struck by a train. They let me shake Jean Béliveau’s hand.”
His friend, the other punk, laughed and said “You got those dents in a bar fight don’t be an idiot.” Then they were both laughing and I was laughing too. I felt comfortable with these old punks.
I told them about how I had lost my job at the parking garage because one day I just left the gate open and went home because it didn’t matter. I talked about my roommate and how I was always stealing his food and how I owed him two months rent and had stolen all of his hash and money to come here, but that I’d left the rest of my hash at my friend’s apartment. I asked them where they bought drugs because it looked like they knew where to buy good drugs. They asked what I was into and I said that I pictured my body as this purification plant. I wanted to take in the world’s poison and process the chemicals and feel good or bad or powerful or ecstatic or tired or sick and leave only piss and shit smoke behind.
The guy with the growth on his head never told us about why he had the growth on his head but we all agreed about the drugs, and so we left the bar together to go and buy them.
We walked past portuguese chicken places and butcher shops and rows of houses with walk up stairs. It was late and people were leaving bars and clubs, pushing past us in the streets with their jackets full of the feathers of dead baby geese. The punks talked about hockey riots and jaywalking tickets and how Montreal was a city built on old garbage dumps, nobody knew how many, they just paved over them and built schools and parks and houses. We walked down sidewalks narrowed like clogged arteries from snow. I was impressed by the state of disrepair I encountered. There was exposed piping and holes in the street. I wondered if my friends the old punks were going to kick the shit out of me and steal my money but I didn’t care. We walked for so long that all feeling left my body.
We stopped in front of a house. It had white siding that was yellowing at its edges and windows that were covered in garbage bags and tape. This was the place. They walked up to the door and knocked on it and it opened. I couldn’t see past them into the house. They held open the door and I walked towards them. I could only make out curdled wallpaper and a soft blue light inside of the house. I walked inside. It felt like a church to me.
I smoked something crystalline out of a foil packet and I didn’t feel like I was drowning in the undertow of euphoria, I didn’t get to watch my spirit hover over the Lachine canal while my body stumbled alongside watching, and I didn’t get to meet the lizard king of my third eye. I smoked it all up and sat there with my head of asbestos, and my ashed cigarette body, but this was normal.
I looked over at the punks, who were passed out inside of their own heads like monks at peace with the world and I rifled through their pockets but found nothing except receipts and lint. I walked around the room kicking things over, knocking down lamps and picture frames and breaking glass. I punched at a wall but it didn’t make a hole like I wanted, it just really hurt my hand. I was bored of everything.
I left the house and stepped into the midnight blue of the sky and the yellow of street lights. The quiet of the street was interrupted by the crack of a drum and the sound of trumpets, and I watched as a procession of revellers marching in a dance down the street, in the middle of the road. They were wearing strange masks and thrift store clothing - tattered plaid jackets or dirty leather; nobody was dressed alike but it still looked like they were in uniform. Their leader was wearing a rubber face with cut-out eyes and I couldn’t place who it was supposed to be. He had a snare drum, and behind him there were women in animal masks with cut out mouths swaying and making cheerful noises with their trumpets. Behind them was a crowd of people - thirty or so men and women, all dancing behind them, shooting confetti into the sky. It was a cacophony of noise and jubilation. I watched as they came down the road, but when they got to where I was standing in front of the house everything stopped. There was no more marching or drums or sound, just confetti slowly tracing seesaw patterns in the air as it drifted down onto the street and a bunch of masks looking at me.
I said “English?” out loud and there was no answer.
I said ““If we’re all gonna die then I want you to know that none of this has been worth it! None of it! You’re all pieces of shit!” and I dove into the snow on the sidewalk and writhed around in it and got snow down my neck and back but it was still quiet on the street.
I got back up and looked at them and the grotesque shadows cast by their masks in the light of the street, and said “I don’t know what you want.”
A child in a jester’s costume broke through the crowd and grabbed my hand and pulled me in. The people in their masks patted me on the back and shook my hand and wordlessly welcomed me into their ranks. Everything smelled like tobacco, but there was something sharp behind it, like vinegar. The drumming started again, the quick rat-tat-tat of the snare, and we were dancing through the streets again.
We moved through the city past the fluorescent lights of Jean Coutu pharmacies and parks with trees that were collapsing under the snow. We passed under bridges and through neighbourhoods where houses were being demolished to make way for unfinished condos. When we passed people on the street they cheered us on. I thought of the mother I saw the day I left the gate up at my parking garage job, of her rusted green Corolla and car full of plastic bags and children pulling at her from the back seat and how it felt to leave the gate up. Of how it felt to see the spandex suit unzip in that movie, that moment of shedding your skin, and how I could never find it again afterwards; how some days I thought that I’d just dreamed it, but when I pictured it in my head it was so real. And we danced through the streets in the dark, and I felt a sense of belonging. More and more, people in the street applauded our marching.
As I scanned the faces in the crowd, I saw one that I recognized as my own. The face was my own dumb face, but it the cheeks were fuller, the eyes a bit brighter. The man looked like me but different - he was put together, a nice peacoat and an expensive haircut, but he was less interesting somehow. I broke off from the people in their masks and I approached this man and he said “Avez-vous besoin d'aide?” and I took whatever money was left in my pockets and thrust it into his hands and hurried back to the revellers, who again clapped their arms around my back and welcomed me with open arms as we moved down Rue de la montage past rows of old houses and construction sites and garages, galleries and glass buildings reflecting nothing but the cold. We continued to march until we approached the mouth of a tunnel. The man with the drum walked up to each of us and shook our hands and when he got to me he took of his mask and I understood. And he went back to the mouth of the tunnel and started drumming again and he led us inside, and soon there was only a perfect darkness. I reached out with my hand and felt for the person in front of me, and I found them and we walked together, and another hand reached for my back and we all walked like that in the dark, linked to each other. We followed the echoing sounds of the drums, and the story of the tunnel was this: as I kept on walking through the fertile, fetid darkness, I told myself I didn’t feel any different, but I didn’t know anymore if this was true.
IILern had to figure out how to tie a knot. Then he had to figure out where to hang it. He was worried about the weight of his head being too great. He could picture the noose giving way, and then he’d just be a guy who jumped from a chair to the floor with a piece of rope around his neck. Once he was satisfied with the rope situation, he moved on to writing his suicide note. He would start to write, “I love you all,” and then he would stop and crumple up the note and start again. Something about the note felt more real than the rope. All told it was two in the morning and Lern was still writing when his suicide attempt was interrupted by the physicists. They opened the door to his apartment and found Lern sitting at a desk with a noose in his arms, looking over a stack of papers. Lern looked up from his desk and saw three thin bald men in lab coats. They looked like variations on the same person. Lern said “I’m busy right now.”“You must stop,” said the first physicist. “Please, listen to us,” said the second physicist.“We are physicists,” said the third physicist. They all had the same voice. Lern hated the physicists.“Ugh, how did you guys even get in here?” Lern said. “The universe is this big hologram so doors don’t really exist,” said the first physicist.“If you can understand the math it’s actually pretty trivial to travel without boundaries through this plane of reality,” said the second physicist.“You left your door unlocked too,” said the third physicist. “But we have pressing matters to discuss with you, regarding your new giant head.” Lern made fists with his hands around the noose. “What, can you guys fix it?”“Hahaha, oh, of course not,” said the first physicist. “No we can’t and we wouldn’t want to.” “Lern,” said the second physicist, “We intercepted hospital readings from the Big Metal Machine, and we believe that your head now houses a potential space-time singularity.” “A what?” Lern said.“A singularity,” said the third physicist. “You know? The start of the Big Bang? The inside of a black hole?”“Singularities,” said the first physicist, “Could be really good or really bad.”“We’ve done all of the calculations and we still don’t know,” said the second physicist. “This is so exciting!”“I mean, we know everything,” said the third physicist, “So having a new unknown is really great. The inside of your head could house the secret to the infinite!”Lern could picture the physicists looking at his head and seeing nothing but a giant italicized x of a math equation. He tried to remember high school physics but all he could picture was the smell of weed and the cover to Dark Side of the Moon. “What do you narcs even want?” he said. “To run tests, of course,” said the first physicist. “Yes, and to activate the singularity,” said the second physicist.“We have to know what happens,” said the third physicist.Lern crumpled up his note and threw the rope on the floor. He stood up and told the physicists “GET OUT OF HERE YOU BUMS! NOBODY UNDERSTANDS WHAT YOU ARE TALKING ABOUT ANYWAY. HOLOGRAMS?? SINGUWHATEVERS?? YOU’RE JUST A BUNCH OF FAKE MATH PHILOSOPHERS!”The physicists stood quiet and dumbfounded at the entrance of Lern’s apartment. Their faces reflected a look of hurt, but also defiance. It didn’t look like they were leaving so Lern kept on shouting “OUT! GET OUT YOU GODDAMN QUANTUM NOBODIES!”A neighbour’s voice came muffled through the wall: “Is everything okay in there?”“NO HAL, I GOT PHYSICISTS IN MY APARTMENT.”“Those cockroaches,” said the neighbour through the wall. “Stay right there, I’m getting my shotgun.”The physicists hurried to leave, dodging a shoe thrown by Lern as they left. Word had spread quickly throughout the apartment building, and they were heckled and pelted with fruits and vegetables as they ran through the street.Lern looked out his window at a particular flying zucchini and felt ashamed that moments earlier he had been trying to end his life. He took his noose and walked to his floor’s garbage chute. He placed the rope inside and closed the chute. The sound of the rope clattering down the chute was pleasing to Lern. That night he dreamt of the cosmos. IIIIn the morning Lern woke up and did not go to work. It was hard to go to work when your head was gigantic and your couch was comfortable. There was so much he was not ready to do. He didn’t want to tell his mom or his dad, or any of his three sisters. He ate cereal until it turned soggy and watched TV until there was nothing but infomercials. Eventually he forced himself to go for a walk outside. Walking through his building’s hallways, with their oatmeal coloured walls and ticking fluorescent lights, felt like leaving the comfort of hibernation. The street outside was covered with smeared produce. He looked up at the sun and it felt like a spotlight. He knew where he wanted to go, and took deserted side streets to get to a small, nondescript rectangle of sand nestled amongst a busy road and a heavily polluted stretch of river. It was his favourite beach.It was early afternoon when Lern arrived, and everyone on the sparsely populated beach turned and looked at him. Lern tried to ignore this and found a solitary spot of sand where he could sit alone. He sheepishly took off his shoes and socks, rolled up his pants, and sat cross-legged, looking out at the water and people. Eventually they looked away. Lern felt hot but not from the sun. More people arrived at the beach as the day stretched on, and Lern continued to sit in the sand, getting used to the activity, getting used to the glares of people, and getting sunburnt. He noticed two teenage girls approaching, one with her face obscured by sunglasses and another forcefully chewing gum. They were talking and looking at their phones. They stopped short of Lern and snapped open a towel and Lern could feel the air. He winced and felt his eyes water. He didn’t want the company, but the two girls sat next to him. “Hey wow, you look like a big red baby,” said the girl with the gum.“Lisa, Jesus you can’t just fucking say that,” said the girl with the sunglasses.“Ugh, why? Hey dude, what happened to your head?”Lern rubbed his eyes and said “I woke up like this yesterday,” “No way.”“Yeah it just happened. The doctor’s don’t know why and some physicists said maybe there’s a thing in my head. I hate physicists, who can understand them.”“Man, physicists gets on my nerves,” Lisa said. “Like if you are so good at physics why don’t you just do straight math. Hey, do you want sunscreen for your big red baby head? I’m Lisa by the way.” Lisa held out the sunscreen. Lern reached out a hand.“I’m Lern.”“I’m Deborah,” said Deborah. “Hi Deborah,” said Lern.“Well Lern, we are going to eat sandwiches and listen to music in your general area so I hope that’s cool. Don’t worry about your head, Deborah has a peanut-shaped one and we all still like her.”“Lisa that is big talk for someone with an outie bellybutton.”“Ahh! Ahh! How can you even see that with your lazy eye?!”It didn’t look to Lern like Deborah had a lazy eye, and Lern continued to listen to Lisa and Deborah pick apart real and imagined imperfections until they both burst into laughter. Lern laughed too, in spite of himself, his whole head lolling back and forth. “You are the first people I’ve talked to all day,” he told them. Lern decided to stay at the beach. Lisa took Deborah’s phone and put on a song that sounded to Lern like a colourful and apocalyptic future. The girls broke out sandwiches but decided they weren’t hungry, so they fed them to gathering seagulls, in willful ignorance of the ‘DO NOT FEED THE BIRDS’ signs posted nearby. A seagull grabbed a piece of sandwich bigger than its head and choked it down in big gulps. It turned towards the rolling tide and started screeching. A second gull landed, stood beside the first one, and started screeching too. It made sense to Lern. He thanked the girls for the sunscreen and left as the birds continued to shriek by the incoming waves of brown water and garbage.As Lern was walking home, he caught the glint of an alto saxophone in a shop window, dying sunlight reflecting off of polished brass, and he bought it on sight. The neck strap didn’t fit, and the cashier tried to talk him out of it, but Lern couldn’t be helped. He smiled the whole walk home. In his apartment Lern took the saxophone out of its case. He set up the reed and mouthpiece, attaching them together with the ligature, which took a couple of tries to get right. When it was done he attached it to the neck of the saxophone, and attached the neck to the body. He said “What am I going to do with a saxophone?” out loud to the empty room. He set it on the chair across from his at the kitchen table and looked at it while he ate spaghetti. He laughed at himself. The saxophone made the rest of his apartment look dull.Now that there was nothing else to do but play the saxophone, Lern found that he could not. He thought of blowing into the saxophone with all of his strength, red-faced, neck muscles bulging, and no sound coming out. He pictured the saxophone falling apart in his arms. The failure felt too big to imagine. He sighed, did his neck exercises, and fell asleep in his bed while the saxophone sat in the kitchen. In his dream, Lern was a big red baby, floating lost through empty space. Suddenly, he was engulfed in a bright light— Lern’s eyes snapped open and, still in his boxers, he grabbed the saxophone and left for the roof of the apartment building. Lern ducked his head under the door and was met with open air and the quiet of a sleeping city. He wedged the door open and set foot on the gravel surface of the roof. He looked out towards the grey brutalism of the new government buildings, then past them towards the gothic revival style of older government buildings, which were in turn surrounded by modest downtown skyscrapers. He held the saxophone steady and placed his hands over the keys. He took a deep breath. He felt ready.He blew into the instrument and no sound came out. The calm of the city was indifferent. Then Lern remembered embouchure, the way the guy at the music store said you needed to shape your mouth to direct the tunnel of air from your lungs to the saxophone. He tried again, resting his upper teeth on the mouthpiece while the reed rested on his bottom lip, which was curled over his lower teeth. He took another deep breath and closed his eyes. He felt his swollen head spinning in the pressure of the Big Metal Machine. A crowd of people leering at him and chanting bobblehead. A crumpled note next to a thick knot. He blew into the saxophone and felt the instrument vibrate, heard a noise disturb the air.IVAs his fingers started moving with unknown purpose along the keys, a huge, immense sound emptied itself out of Lern. Screeching, mournful wailing - geese squeaking at the earth as they fell like bowling pins out of the sky; dive-bombing in straight lines out of immense grey clouds.As Lern continued to play, his body powering a deep thrum of squawking bellows, he saw the white light of his dream; he saw infinity, a nothingness beyond comprehension. Out of that void came a sensation like the colour red, and out of that sensation Lern could see the red expand into the solid brick walls of a tiny bar, vibrating to the music of a group of thrashing punks. He saw a man with his oversized head bobbing at the back of the club, singing along with the refrain of a song that goes: You will always, be a loser! You will always, be a loser!The man with the big head collides into a tall woman with striking black hair - spilt drinks and future laundry. They make eye contact as the singer continues: Aaand that’s Okay! They find themselves singing along, and they start to laugh. They eat pizza slices in the cold November air after the show. Lern’s whole body shifted with the saxophone, as he continued to burst forth with sound and vision. He saw the inky blackness of stars spit out of a black hole. He saw dark hair flowing out the window of a rented camper van driving through the desert. The man with the large head lies in the back of the van. They set up camp and eat hotdogs that split and curl over themselves in the heat of an open fire. They sit by copper gorges of earth cut down by water that doesn’t exist anymore, watch the sky dance and the sun set over the dessert. Stars swirling like water circling a drain around the density of a blue giant.A jubilant cacophony ripped through the air above the street and Lern saw everything at once: a gurney ripping through hospital hallways. The milky way in an expanding whorl. A hand gripping his. The woman with the dark hair screaming as she gives birth. Crowning. A cold dead sun suddenly flaring. The woman with the dark hair holding new life - an infant crying as she learns to breathe. Planets spat back into orbit. A tiny life swathed in cotton. More and more in a torrent Lern can’t control - hands and feet clambering over his head as the child treats her father as an obstacle course. Living in the basement of an old box home given to veterans after the war. First steps and first words. The weary feeling of parenting, stealing sleep by the glow of televisions, in front of open books, the comforting feeling of that head of dark hair fitting like a puzzle piece in the crook of Lern’s neck. A wealth of seasons - rain, heat, autumn leaves and white snow. Planets circled a vibrant sun. Pencil marks along the edge of a wall as an infant ran screaming, the marks creeping upwards as she turns into a three year old. These marks twinned by another child. Colouring crayons and a tiny blue dress. Soccer balls and dance shoes. A calm and even universe. The man with the big head and his saxophone settled into an exuberant groove but there is still more.Faster and faster - images that Lern can’t make sense of - stars losing sense of themselves and turning into primordial clouds, boxes of pamphlets, city council signs with giant heads on them, hand shaking, so many strange faces, so many loved ones, sleek black caskets and dead parents, new nieces, new nephews, new cousins, clouds shedding atoms, and a frantic tone on the saxophone now. And more and too much; dark hair turning grey beautifully, gracefully; a house of textbooks, dumb boys, okay ones, scratched cars and university tours, canoes like matchsticks in a great river, atoms falling apart, subatomic particles freezing, a cold beyond imagining. An elegiac saxophone slows as Lern sees the end – a cabin, a still lake, grandchildren by a gnarled willow tree - and stops playing, a wetness on his face drying in the warm glow of morning.VAn old man with a giant head drifts slowly away from the laughter in the cabin. A young voice calls for him so he waves a hand. In the darkness, the man walks along a dirt path from the cabin to a great undisturbed lake. He finds comfort in the stillness, the stars, the vast geography. He sits at the base of a tall, gnarled tree and takes a last look at the cabin, its happy sounds and warm glow. The man closes his eyes and rests.When his head splits open, the stunning light of the infinite bursts out.
I was outside on my street watching an apartment building on fire. I was watching it with the people who lived in that building, the people who’d left it. At three floors, it wasn’t a big apartment building, but it was a big fire. It was crackling, and flames were shooting out of windows and smoke was filling the night sky.
I looked at everybody. It was nighttime when the fire started, and so you could see these snapshots of how people were living inside their homes. A couple wore rumpled office clothes paired with sweatpants, caught between two routines. There was a guy in a misbuttoned janitor outfit. There was a family with four little kids, crying in mismatched pyjamas. The parents looked lifeless and hollowed out, leaning against each other like dead trees. There was even a guy who looked like Harry Nilsson on the cover of Nilsson Schmilsson, standing lost and gently wasted in a bathrobe. Instead of a hash pipe he was holding this big lamp.
That was the other thing too; people had brought all this stuff with them. But it’s hard to figure out what’s important when you are trying to not die in a fire. Like honey grab that toaster, we need to get out of this fucking building on fire. And then you’re in this rushed procession, everyone wanting to move fast but there’s so many of them that they can only move slow, this urgent slowness, bodies pushed out of hallways like toothpaste, and you’re holding a toaster. Or you grab a box of shit you never unpacked from when you moved in. Or your daughter’s favourite stuffed toy but it’s the wrong one, and now she’s crying on the street and her memories are covered in flames. Outside we were huddled together, we could all feel the warmth.
Finally we heard sirens. A fire truck honked at us because we were all standing in the street and firefighters started to get off and we moved to the crabgrass of the lawns of the row of houses across the street from the building. There was one house where the shutters were drawn though, and it looked like nobody was home. That house was my house. These people were on the street because the building they lived in was on fire. I was here because I wanted to breathe in a new kind of smoke. I was inhaling their lives. The family pictures, the drawers of junk mail, the jars of small change, the piles of unfolded clean laundry, the unworn jewelry passed down from mom, the overdue bills and lost TV remotes, the blankets, the books, the old vcrs, the stuff, all of it smoke rings floating skyward. These people didn’t know that instead of living they’d been gathering kindling.
Another firetruck and a couple of ambulances came, and I got to watch people at work. Some firefighters were spraying the building with water while other firefighters were going into the building. I didn’t know what was happening but it looked coordinated. It made me think about how when you are a firefighter nobody knows when you are doing a bad job. Like there are people who are bad at their jobs everywhere, so there must have been people who were bad at fighting fire. Firefighters with dull axes and weak muscles, firefighters who got lost on the way to a fire, firefighters who dropped old ladies onto the floor like they were heavy groceries - all heroes. As long as you were showing up to the fire, you were doing pretty good. As long as you do did some baseline firefighting shit, low expectations were their own reward.
I had to pay attention now because a quiet came over the crowd. A lull accompanied by craning necks. I looked with them and I saw it; I saw a life being saved.
The front doors of the apartment were being opened, and there was a firefighter cradling a man in his underpants. The man was almost hairless, heavy - his body a series of soft, round shapes folding in on each other. His skin was reddened, splotchy. It looked like the firefighter was carrying a newborn baby, the man was that helpless, and for all of his size he was being carried with such ease and tenderness.
The man was crying, and he was talking to the firefighter. “Please let me die,” he said. “Please let me die.” His sadness was baby-like too. It was pure and unsullied. “Please,” he said. “I want to go back in there, please. Please.” And the man did not protest further as the firefighter carried him to the paramedics, who strapped him down into a gurney. We all watched this.
I had never seen a life saved before!
We stayed to see what would happen next, but in the end the fire just died. The firefighters were turning away people who wanted to go back, and the crowd dispersed, formless - in the end just more smoke, only I no longer wanted to inhale. Watching that man’s life being saved was akin to saving it myself. I felt a fullness. I walked and walked, directionless, heroic in my wandering.
The streets were broken up by dogshit on neighbours’ lawns, by gum dotting the sidewalk, by shards of broken glass, unclaimed garbage, the smell of marijuana from backyards and balconies. There were signs for missing pets - Charlie and Waldo and Blackie, which was the name of a black cat, which was questionable. The sounds of porch conversations and laughter, of hazy bass reverberating through houses, the sounds of nothing, of my footsteps, of crickets. I felt infused with a sense of community.
There was a lawn of knee-high weeds, overgrown from neglect. I saw a letter on the door of this house, and I walked up to the door and read “JANET ITS YOUR NEIGHBOURS PLEASE CUT YOUR GRASS,” and Janet, you wonder, you holy ghost, I hope you never change. Please let me die? And miss Janet cut the lawn?
It was funny how often you could see into the houses. Most windows were closed off, but there were so many left uncurtained, unshuttered, wide open. The green snatches of plants, or of bookshelves, or of unadulterated, unchanged 1970s decor. Of giant flatscreen televisions, shooting out images of big faces mouthing words at each other, of news anchors commenting on the moving pictures in the box adjacent to them, of tiny men playing baseball, of netflix menus. There was also the shock of people - an old man moving in his kitchen, a man and woman putting food into their open mouths, of a woman adjusting a stereo, adjusting a bra. All obstructed, cut off, edited to fit the aspect ratio of windows; the 16:9 of living spaces beamed outwards. Pause - that couple asleep on their couch, crashed and leaning against each other under the glow of a screen paused on the option to “Continue watching.” I stood and thought to myself about how even dog shit left on someone’s lawn was life. Even broken beer bottles on the street came from living. From drinking that beer and making the earth your garbage. I checked my phone, saw angry messages, looked up and saw that the sleeping heads were now awake and looking at me.
Cut to curtains closed ineptly, a man opening the door, coming fast and saying “What the fuck’s your problem?”
I tried to talk about how full of life everything was. How even Janet was trying her best, or not, but it didn’t matter as long as she was still here. I couldn’t think of how to start, so I asked if he heard about the fire. “Fuck you!” he told me. He looked like he was going to punch me so I ran down the street.
I was sweaty and out of breath when I got to a park entrance. I was lost, but I had my phone so I wasn’t really lost. An unused playground gave way to an unused soccer field, and a path cut through the field, leading to a small forested area that was dwarfed by three apartment complexes. The trees swayed, emasculated, and I walked towards them.
It felt nice to not know where I was.
The forest was lit erratically by my phone flashlight. There was a man-made structure, a long sloping tree branch used as the spine for kind of tee-pee made of found branches. I looked inside and there was nothing. I swatted at mosquitoes and thought about living in here. Thought about being a caveman. Watching fire and living in the dirt. Scrawling madness onto walls. There was a crackling of branches and a flash of red, a soft thumping noise, a cardinal twitching on the ground.
The wing was bent obtuse, wrong, and there was more red than just plumage.
The bird was making noises and I was the only one around to hear its song. I didn’t know if it was dying or what. The bird was flapping on the ground but it couldn’t get up. It stopped and was still. I bent down to look at it. “I can save you,” I said.
I held it in my hands and for a moment it did not stir. It was so light. The red in my hands was almost weightless - almost nothing.
I started to get up and what was in my hands bucked and thrashed. The bird started to pick at me and bite, and I dropped it on the ground. It lay there hurt and screaming. I could see now that there was a lot of blood. If the bird was dying I didn’t know if this was a list of grievances or a confession or a final wish. I tried to pick it up again and it bit at me. It hopped on the ground and fell for a final time.
Its squawking died out, finally, and I was able to hold it in my hands once more.
If the bird was dying I didn’t know what to do.
In the dirt of the wooden structure, I dug a tiny hole.
After that I walked home. The shutters were still closed. I slid my key into the lock and opened the door. I turned on the hallway light and my wife appeared by the stairs. She was wearing an old sweatshirt, baggy and stained. She smelled like sleep and milk. Her upper lip was tight and the lines around her mouth formed a sad shape, and she wanted so badly to shout, but she knew she could not. She had to whisper. She had to whisper that I was a lazy husband and a bad father, and where was I, what right did I have to be such a disappointment. This was anger without catharsis. You can slam the curtains shut, but it’s just fluttering air. Her eyes looked so hurt. So tired. So sad. I couldn’t focus on her words anymore, the harsh sibilants that couldn’t rise to the level of a shout. And even though she was careful, there was a crying from upstairs and I was saved. My wife looked at me a final time and floated back up the stairs.
I grabbed a beer from the fridge and drank it in front of the television as sports highlights played in a loop at low volume. The television flickered and when I woke up no light crept through the shutters. I put the bottle on the kitchen counter and I crept up the stairs like a fugitive. Upstairs I opened our daughter’s bedroom door and looked down at our sleeping baby. I picked her up and rocked her in my arms.
I am saving you, I thought.
Please let me die.
I am saving you.