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Category: Published Fiction

We’ve Burned

We’ve burned the furniture and started on the books. Luckily there’s a small library within our palisade. The fuel trucks are still smouldering in what the map calls terra nullius. The UN is no help. We were able to clear the orphanage. The toddlers thought it a big game but the infants are not okay. Yesterday we had to repel a scavenger group near the East Gate—I think they were Australians—and one woman was helicoptered out in the night. Something’s not right, but the agent offered coupon codes for our trouble. So glad we chose the tinned goods and wild game option. The pool was not as advertised. We’ll be home Tuesday afternoon. So sorry you couldn’t come with. Next year we’ll do something family friendly—maybe Guernica or Sarajevo.


Copyright © Todd Besant. All rights reserved.


This story won the third prize in the 14th Annual Geist Postcard Story Contest.
It first appeared in Geist issue 109.

This story was submitted, and rejected, for consideration for the 2022 Fractured Lit Reprint Prize judged by Meg Pokrass. Read the rejection letter!



Best paired with Столичная, icebox cold.


Reprint and reproduction rights for this story are available for purchase. Contact me for more information on Anthologies, Course Packs, Reading Comprehension Exams, Translations, and Dramatic Adaptations


All material, unless otherwise noted, Copyright © Todd Besant. All rights reserved.


Image copyright © Photo credit: christian kurz on Visualhuntom, used under Creative Commons 2.0 licence



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The Conditions of My Parole

Glenna is my fishwife and she stinks of low tide. Neither her smokestack cigarette habit nor the fog of perfume she inhabits can best the reek of rotten fish that wafts from her palate and palms, pits and pudenda. It is not a laughing matter. One day people will Run for the Cure to Fish Odour Syndrome. There will be celebrity endorsements, arms raised in victory at the finishing tape, and smiling sufferers grateful for the sanctioned attention.

In the meantime, Glenna ignores strangers’ suggestions she improve her personal hygiene, eats a restricted diet—no eggs, or peanuts, or chocolate, or beans, little meat—and we sleep in separate bedrooms. We have sex only in the shower, our bodies slippery and sudsy with a pungent PH moderate soap. In the shower, Glenna whispers filthy words to me and calls me filthy names and asks me for filthy acts. I want everything she says to be true so, except for one thing, I do everything she asks.

In my ad on the Write a Prisoner website I wrote I was a Marriage Minded Man. Although not necessarily true, it wasn’t essentially untrue. I received seventeen marriage proposals and many prayers and offers to show me The Way to Salvation Through Our Lord Jesus Christ. Almost every letter contained heartfelt poetry and a photograph. Sometimes topless. I did what any man in my circumstances would do; I chose the prettiest one.

Every morning I watch from our kitchen window, a clot of dread in my chest, as Glenna buckles herself into her bright candy red car and backs out of the garage. The car is perfectly safe—for a death machine. It has airbags and childproof locks. The tires are inflated to the recommended psi. An authorized dealer services the car. Glenna is small and sits too close to the steering wheel. She chain-smokes and talks on her cell phone as she drives. I worry about collisions, the docile plastic bumpers, the violence of the exploding airbags, the purposeful steering column. (I worry about lung cancer from tar, nicotine addiction, brain tumours from microwave towers, and other sanctioned afflictions, too.) I drink sugary black coffee and distract myself by reading the calendar on the refrigerator door—it is a precisely highlighted and annotated appointment schedule for Glenna and the girls with immunologists, allergists, dietitians, psychologists, and a chiropractor, although, to my knowledge, the girls and Glenna do not have any back or joint problems. Most often I have no opinion about the calendar so when I expressed concern that the number of appointments this week (Monday: Acupuncture; Tuesday: Dr. Wilson; Wednesday: Hair Cuts & Photos; Friday: Dentist) would make it difficult to get the girls’ lessons completed, Glenna put her hand on my cheek and told me I’m a good man. I felt the hot wash of shame run through my face and guts.

Glenna runs a small perfume and soap shop on a trendy urban avenue. Two beautiful young women work the front of the store. Glenna mostly keeps to a small, well-ventilated backroom where she mixes her custom blends. She charges outrageous prices for her concoctions, which her clientele quietly believe contain the secret of attraction. Glenna is her own best customer.

My worries ease when she calls to say she has safely arrived at her store. Then I eat sparsely buttered dark toast, pour the dregs of the coffee pot into my cup, and call Jenna and Johanna for their daily lessons. They smell like their mother, in a softer, fish-bowl way, and Glenna will not hear of sending them to school, so I home-school them in spelling, grammar, and arithmetic by rote, and worry about how I will teach them higher mathematics. They are allowed a modest dose of leisure television and one hour a day with an iPad. Glenna has me spritz the girls with perfume three times a day. It makes them smell like ditch weeds. While I am uncertain this regimen is best, I do not argue. Instead, I have a secret name I use when she is not around or within earshot: I call Jenna and Johanna “my guppies.”

An electronic leash around my ankle tethers me to the house. A black box plugged into the phone snitches on my every move. My leash is waterproof so I need not remove it for our waterlogged sex life. But I cannot take the trash or recycling to the lane and sometimes it makes Glenna crazy mad that she must do all the mowing and snow clearing, and this takes some of her pleasure out of gardening. I could not walk my guppies to school, even if I had to. Every time the phone rings I rehearse The Conditions of My Parole: I have not consumed any alcohol or drugs or attended any functions where alcohol was served. I have not purchased any firearms. I have completed my mandatory drug and alcohol counselling. I have completed 300 hours of community service and I have finished my anger management class. I have not been in contact with any felons. Every Thursday morning the caller is Evelyn, my parole officer. I am her most innocent client. I prove this by calling her every day.

Tuesdays and Thursdays my guppies walk to their friend Amanda’s house for a play date. On Wednesdays, Amanda comes to play with my guppies and sometimes her mother, Trudy, comes for tea. Trudy has a blotchy forehead and teeth like a rugby scrum. She is pear-shaped and always wears fleece jogging suits, a different colour for each day: pink, lilac, powder blue, mint green, or butter yellow. Trudy smells like Ivory soap and generic underarm deodorant and this gives me a hard-on. I shift in my chair and keep my back to her if I have to stand. If my guppies run into the room, I make sure they can’t jump into my lap.

Soon after Johanna’s third birthday, Eric, Glenna’s first husband and father of the girls, decided he could no longer stay. Not even for my innocent, white-throated guppies. He had done, he said, the right thing long enough. This, he said, was not how he imagined his life. He could no longer, he said, suffer the stink of them all. He packed his clothing and left. What can I say to help my girls, whose father could not stand the smell of them? What worse is there to protect them from?

Fridays I am allowed a three-hour unescorted absence from the house. I wear baggy jeans to conceal my electronic leash. Glenna takes the afternoon off and drives me downtown. Some days she drives slow and sheep-like, forgetting her turns and simply steering where the traffic flow takes her. Other days she curses and honks and gives the finger through the windshield and turns where she pleases. I would prefer to drive but The Conditions of My Parole forbid it. Glenna takes my girls to the new glass and steel library. I walk to a Starbucks three blocks away. The coffee shop is always crowded with people oozing purpose—the hunch-back with the Hitler moustache who draws superheroes in a fat sketchbook, students diligently typing into laptops or highlighting textbooks and notes, the bun-headed ballet students counting their calories. I order an espresso, usually from Angie, a platinum blonde with three rings in her lower lip and an elaborate Chinese dragon tattoo curling down her right arm, or sometimes from Rita, a middle-aged widow with a Shar-Pei face who likely never imagined she’d need to serve coffee to keep her house. I take my espresso to the patio to practice smoking. I need to deaden my taste buds and dull my sense of smell so I can fuck my wife in her bed and save my marriage. Smoking is like breathing for Glenna, but my smoking isn’t going very well—I’m coughing too much and my sinuses burn. Judging from the warnings on the packages, I figured I’d get hooked in a snap. I’ve taken to pretending, pulling a little smoke into my mouth every once in a while. Mostly I just let the cigarette smoulder and diligently scrape the ashes into the crimped tinfoil dish that passes for an ashtray. Then I light another.

It was a spring of high water when Eric left Glenna and the girls. Glenna said when she knew for certain he wouldn’t return, she packed the girls into the car and drove to the Floodway. The water was high and its smooth rush was a bleak invitation. She had driven the perimeter of the city twice and the girls were dozing in the backseat, lulled by the drive and the overheated car. Glenna talked about how easy it would have been to simply roll down the embankment and let the water do its worst. Glenna told me this twice—the first time during our first phone call. The second time she said it in a letter, and further down the page, she listed the sexual acts and the household chores she expected from me.

The bad smell days are stretching into bad smell weeks and Glenna asks for increasingly bizarre sexual acts. I ardently comply—except for the one thing I refuse—even though I find myself conjuring Trudy’s ordinary scents. It happened when my guppies and Amanda were playing in the backyard. Trudy was standing over the sink looking out the window, her fleece-clad bottom a wide powder blue plain. I walked up behind her and buried my face in her sweetly scented hair. She pressed her bottom into my groin. I slipped my hand under her shirt and inside her bra. We could have stayed that way all afternoon. Instead, I pushed her to the floor and we fucked quickly and silently and with much more satisfaction than I had anticipated. Afterward, I felt as though I were looking at a photograph of myself from a time I didn’t remember. Later that day I phoned and suggested sexual acts we could do next time.

On our wedding day, I vowed to take Glenna as she is, for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health. She won’t hear of it. Every evening she comes home, spritzes herself and the girls with her latest potion, sets incense to burn in every room, and sits down to surf the Internet for news of a cure—gene therapy, self-help groups, surgical experiments. On very bad smell days she opens all the windows and runs fans throughout the house. There is one moment each day I can’t stand to look at Glenna—when she takes her morning pills. There are too many to count: low dose antibiotics, charcoal and copper and chlorophyllin, multivitamins, Children’s Aspirin, and sundry herbal capsules. After dinner, she starts her bookkeeping. A few days ago Glenna said she wanted to sell the shop and go back to university to study genetics. She believes she can find a cure for her fishy stink.

Most lessons I begin with geography. Our many atlases, purchased from used book stores, are perpetually spread on a table made from an old bathroom door and two sawhorses. We track the wash of history—the flexible borders, the rechristened capitals, the mortality of nations: only the continents are resolute. After a snack of oatmeal cookies and apple juice, I have them draw and colour their own maps of the world. I do the same; my are maps borderless fantasies. This morning, Glenna reminded me, is their dental appointment, so in between cereal mouthfuls, I coach my guppies with addition and subtraction flash cards. Their freshly cut hair shines in the sunlight.

A quick round of kisses and they are out the door. I sip my coffee and stare out the kitchen window, the clot of dread in my chest doubly large. But once Glenna pulls from the garage I will call Trudy. She has arranged to leave Amanda with her mother, and then she will come over and we will go to my bed.

My coffee is a sugary slurry at the bottom of my cup and I think about my guppies’ new haircuts. When the phone rings I know it is Evelyn and grasp without glancing at the schedule that today is not dentist day because yesterday was haircut day and I am not leaving for my three hours of smokey respite and Glenna has not backed her bright candy red car into the lane and the clot of dread bursts into a nebula. When I am out the back door and quickly off the patio, the black box sends its warning down the phone lines, squealing I am violating The Conditions of My Parole. I kick in the garage door and step into smog.

When I shatter the rear windows with a garden spade and reach to free the girls from the backseat, Glenna fights me. Still buckled tight behind the wheel, she turns and fights. Under the shower last night Glenna asked again for what I always refuse. I wouldn’t do it then, but I do it now, my palm twice hard across her face. I pull Jenna and Johanna screaming and crying from the car and then lie coughing with them on the grass. Glenna is shrieking through her bloodied lips—cursing God and Eric and me—and revving the engine ever higher. When I return to drag her from her death machine, Glenna sinks her teeth deep into my forearm, her nails gouge my cheeks and eyes, and I think to relent, wishing I had answered one of the perfumed letters offering to show me The Way to Salvation Through Our Lord Jesus Christ, fearing my return to a grim five metre square pen, knowing Trudy is waiting for my call…

And in this moment, hooked into my flesh nail and tooth, Glenna has never smelled so sweet.


This story was published in Prairie Fire Vol. 30 No. 3.
Copyright © Todd Besant. All rights reserved.



Best paired with Pruno, read aloud.


Reprint and reproduction rights for this story are available for purchase. Contact me for more information on Anthologies, Course Packs, Reading Comprehension Exams, Translations, and Dramatic Adaptations


Photo credit: Mark Strozier on Visual Hunt / CC BY



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Some Variation of No

My lover allowed another man, a stranger, to buy her flowers: daffodils, tiger lilies, and the pink ones with the spiky petals – the flowers I can’t name. Each bloom smells similar, slightly sweet, as a flower should smell, I suppose. Except for the daffodils. Just under their everyday sweetness, daffodils smell faintly of urine. What am I to make of this bouquet? I am a man who knows little of flowers, although as a child I gave my mother handfuls of frothy dandelions and branches of lilac buds.

Lilacs. The scent of lilacs, an old lady scent, a young child scent. The scent of innocence decayed.

What am I to do? The flowers sit in my lover’s favourite vase on the kitchen table, infidelity in full bloom.

“Why do I have to rely on a stranger to buy me flowers?” she says. I cannot tell if she is angry or merely puzzled. I bought roses for a woman once. I suspect I’ve done it more than once, but I don’t remember. Does this mean I know nothing about romance, or only I’m always in love with a woman other than the one I bed?

* * *

Sometimes I eat like a dullard. I use my fork as if it were a spoon, scooping up my meal instead of spearing it elegantly. Grasping the fork like a hammer, I hack at the main course, bending the tines, as if the knife at my place setting were a futuristic implement. I chew vigorously and quickly and hang my elbows out too far. I ignore carefully chosen dinner companions. I fill my wine glass first and sometimes I forget to put my napkin on my lap. Hostesses frown on such behaviour. They lose their meagre appetites. They are women who understand flowers.

So what am I to make of my lover’s centrepiece?

* * *

It’s said you can eat dandelions, that they make a fine garnish for a summer salad. Use only the greens, before they bloom. Wash them gently in cool water, making sure not to bruise them. Sprinkle them lightly with vinegar. And everyone’s heard of dandelion wine. When you’re healthy your urine should be the colour of dandelion wine. At least that’s what nurses say.

Nurses know about flowers. They dispose of them often.

* * *

Stamen. Pistil. Which is which?

* * *

I tell my sister about the stranger’s bouquet. She is unimpressed. “You know,” she says. “What flowers are isn’t important. It’s what they mean that matters. Always know what flowers mean.”

* * *

In the morning, the stranger’s bouquet is plopped in with the egg shells and soup tins in the kitchen trash. My lover sips her coffee and says, “I’ve forgotten to take my pill.” Her pills are packaged how seeds should be: three neat rows, first this one, then this one… They lay between her deodorant stick and her Lady Bic in the medicine cabinet. She never forgets to balm her underarms, and she shaves them regularly, too, along with any other body hair she considers surplus growth. What is surplus depends on the season. But the daily observance of her pill escapes her more frequently each week.

* * *

We met at a party, my hair freshly cut. She was bending into the ‘fridge when I first saw her. I stood there, dumbly, staring, sloshing my beer on the floor. I found her ass arousing. Not an ass, I thought, but a rump. A bottom. A kiester. It has heft, mass. Not shapeless and rippled like a pan of congealed gravy, but smooth and firm like a classical sculpture. Callipygian. That’s what my sister called it. I had to look that up. Callipygian.

Of course, she was married.

* * *

Most Saturday mornings pass like this: I dash out for the newspapers and she brews the coffee. We sit in the sun at the kitchen table. She begins with the crossword puzzle; I, the sports. Occasionally we speak aloud.

“Jeez, Crosby has another concussion,” I’ll say.

“Some variation of no,” she’ll reply. “A phrase. Twenty-eight letters.”

* * *

She wonders about circumcision, rolling my cock in her fingers while we lay in bed on a sluggish afternoon. “What, exactly, was removed?” she asks. I point out the scar tissue, saying that, excepting the Jews, it’s mostly a North American fetish. I tell her some men grieve for what they believe they’ve lost and seek to restore their foreskins with much tugging and skin grafting. She considers this information, scrutinizes my cock, and then asks what my grandfather’s first name was.

* * *

Pistil /’pIstIl/ n. the seed-bearing part of a flower, containing the stigma, style, and ovary, [related to PESTLE]

Stigma, style, ovary.

* * *

I buy a cactus. It will do well on our sunny window ledges. I considered a fern, but I can never tell if ferns – everything drooping – are thriving or dying. She accepts the cactus suspiciously, but still cooks me a fancy meatloaf – with a hardboiled egg in the centre and mushroom soup on top – for supper. I eat politely, except for a greedy-guts third helping.

* * *

On a Thursday before a long weekend we go to a martini bar with her work friends. After four beers I am bored with gossip about people I don’t know. Everyone in the bar is smoking cigars and wearing suits that aren’t so impressive when more than glanced at. I excuse myself to the washroom. All the urinals are being used. Rather than wait, I take a stall. Written on the wall, in thick black marker, is Notes For Two Timers: A Businessman’s Guide. After seven beers, I go back and copy the notes onto a napkin.

* * *

From Notes for Two Timers: If you have a secretary, don’t even bother to try hiding your affair from her. She’ll know no matter what you do.

* * *

The first time we slept together it was a shambles. We tried too hard, expecting smooth travelling in unfamiliar terrain. After wrenching some token satisfaction from the act, we played the How Many People Have You Slept With game. Everybody lies when playing this game. A useful rule of thumb is to add ten to her total. Woman should subtract five from his count. Including each other, we both said twenty-five. Telling me she and her husband no longer had sex was the second lie she told me that evening.

Last night was like our first time. A desperate see-sawing, a harbinger of lovers thirty-six and twenty-one.

* * *

I have an unexpected afternoon off and go to my favourite coffee shop. I idly scroll through websites on my iPhone. I read profiles on “Plenty of Fish” and reflect on other people’s desperation. Until I get to: WORTH A TRY Professional SWF, 31, 5’5″ auburn hair, green eyes, medium build, non-smoker, social drinker, friendly, likes reading, crosswords, movies, dancing, seeks compassionate, understanding SM for possible relationship.

I know it’s not her ad, but it gives me pause. I remember what my sister said just before I moved in with my lover. “You’re going to expect fidelity from someone you’ve had an affair with?”

I drive to her office tower and follow her when she leaves. It doesn’t take long. Wearing a pair of new shoes, she spins through the revolving door of a downtown hotel. Of course, she could be going for a drink.

* * *

From Notes for Two Timers: Always make sure you pick up the mail. You need the VISA and MasterCard bills. Never call her at home and make sure she doesn’t call you. As with the mail, listen to the phone messages first. NO email. Take out the garbage every day. It helps create the illusion of domestic bliss.

If you find you never do any of this, look in the mirror, buddy. Hire a detective.

* * *

“You won’t believe what happened to me today,” she says. She starts most of her daily reports this way. “I was in the bookstore and this stranger gave me a book, a copy of the script of Shallow Grave. He claims to have seen me at this movie last summer.”

“He gave you the book? Just like that?”

“Yes, so I took it. But I turned down his lunch offer.”

“Took the book, spurned the lunch?”

“Is that wrong?”

“How do you know he paid for it?”

She reads the book most of the evening. Later I offer her a massage. I check her body for fresh love marks.

* * *

Stigma /’stIgm / n. 1 shame, disgrace. 2 part of the pistil that acquires pollen 3 (in pl.) (in Christian belief) marks resembling the wounds of Christ’s 4 a mark of dishonour 5 a sign of something abnormal.

* * *

We are restless in the night and sleep too late. She lifts the blankets for a peek. My morning erection isn’t for her, but she climbs on anyway. It occurs to me that her morning wetness may not be for me. We finish swiftly, so it’s less of a concern.

When she’s finished showering she tells me she has a hair appointment in the afternoon.

* * *

From Notes for Two Timers: Always do your fucking at her house. If both of you are married, screw in hotels, offices, and parkades. Don’t bring home any new sexual tricks. Pray she doesn’t have the clap. Don’t start drinking wine if you’re a rye & Coke man. Don’t take her word about birth control. Don’t use condoms bought from a bathroom dispenser, buy a box of the good ones. For god’s sake, don’t use your regular pharmacy.

* * *

Peaches, milk, tomato sauce, scouring pads… Standing in line at the Safeway I inventory the shopping cart, wondering what’s been missed. She begins talking about the cover stories on the tabloids. I find it irritating and embarrassing.

* * *

She fidgets at the bouquet-less kitchen table as I stir a pot of soup. She says, “All I want is a gesture. I just want a gesture, not your soul.” I want to say cooking is a gesture. Does she think I’ve ever cooked for a woman before her? What I say is “Soup’s ready.”

* * *

Style /staIl/ -n. 6 a particular manner or fashion of behaviour. 7 pointed tool used for engraving. 8 Bot. the stalk which supports the stigma. [Latin stilus]

* * *

She calls from the bathroom, asking me to get her lipstick from her purse. I find it flopped open in by the front door, its myriad of compartments exposed. A chain of five gold foil packets – RAMSES 1 PREMIUM CONDOM LATEX EXP DEC 15, lies in one pocket. There’s a loner wedged in the bottom beside a package of gum and I take it. I don’t know whether to be relieved or upset. Despite the bubble of anger in my gut, I’m oddly moved that she would have an affair and still take precautions. I find the lipstick and note it’s a shade darker than what she usually wears.

She’s standing naked in front of the mirror colouring-in her face. Her newly cropped and dyed hair bustles in several directions. I place the lipstick on the vanity and move behind her, cup her breasts and lightly kiss her shorn nape.

“What’s wrong?” she asks. I say nothing and begin to trace the ridge of her backbone with the tip of my tongue. Perhaps I squeeze her nipples a little too hard. Now her kisses have a different flavour. Like a mouthful of pennies. She cannot easily undo what she has done.

Deep in the night, her head on my chest, she whispers in her sleep, “Daisies, I want daisies in my bouquet.”

* * *

I imagine what she would say if I asked her to marry me. I don’t think she’d say yes. Yes. Of course, yes. Joyful jumping and squealing. I expect it would be some variation of no. No. Of course not. Are you serious? Not if you were the last man on earth. No, I definitely won’t marry you.

I am tired of being a transient man; a visitor to women’s kitchens and bedrooms. A new recipe tried. A fresh stain on the sheets.

I decide to give her lover a name. Roger. I’ll call him Roger.

* * *

I masturbate into the condom I took from her purse and place it under our bed, wedging it casually between the wall and the frame. We don’t often clean there, so I have to be careful not to disturb the dust. I wonder if cops planting evidence to convict the guilty feel the same thrill of success that shudders through me, or if they simply feel sad and disgusted that the pursuit of justice comes to this.

* * *

Pistil. Related to Pestle.

Pestle /’pestl/ n. a cudgel-like utensil for pounding substances in a mortar. [Latin pistillum from pinso pound].

* * *

I wait for her after work to surprise her with a lift home. I have a bunch of daisies. I’ll say we should go out for dinner tonight. Tomorrow, I’ll say, we should really give the apartment a good cleaning. Look, here she comes now, in her new shoes.

After we began our affair she left her husband. I hadn’t anticipated that and had discouraged it at first. “I’m not leaving him for you,” she said. “I’m leaving him for myself.”

I can’t say she didn’t tell me the truth.


A version of this story won the 10th Annual subTerrain Short Story Contest.
It first appeared in subTerrain issue 29.
Copyright © Todd Besant. All rights reserved.



Best paired with Trapiche Reserve Malbec until you’re maudlin.


Reprint and reproduction rights for this story are available for purchase. Contact me for more information on Anthologies, Course Packs, Reading Comprehension Exams, Translations, and Dramatic Adaptations


credit: www.ilkkajukarainen.fi on Visualhunt / CC BY-ND





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You and Other Women

Since I’ve stopped seeing you and other women, I’ve been sleeping in the middle of my bed. Each night I sprawl out on my back like a king and try to reach the four corners of my ratty sheets. I fart freely beneath the blankets. In the morning I usually wake up on my belly, so I press my piss hard-on into the mattress for a while. I am free to do this since I stopped sleeping with you and other women. My morning arousals are my own.

Since I stopped eating with you and other women, I’ve usually let my dishes pile up. Rather than scrub them, I’ve thrown away the blue ones another woman gave me. But your yellow set I washed in the bathtub using a face cloth and the aroma-therapy body gel you left behind. My dishes have never smelled so good.

You never liked my chest hair. I can now tell you that other women did.

Since I’ve stopped seeing you and other women, I no longer have to: eat low fat food; sit in non-smoking; go to Tai Chi; hide my desire for your sister (since that time at the beach); miss The Young and the Restless; worry about being fit to stand trial; let your sister-in-law cut my hair; wait to read the front page; feed birds with your mum; care if you faked (okay, not you, another woman); come when I’m called; watch football with your dad; phone if I’m late; fib about my salary; feign I like kissing (yes, you, not another woman); visit fabric or craft stores; rent movies every second Friday night; use bathroom air freshener; pretend to work late; wait until you’re asleep before going to bed; remember: your bra size, your tampon brand, your birthday (36 B, Tampax Naturals, March 12. Fuck!); lie to see my friends; sympathize about your boss; hum when I’m mad; pretend I think your brother has made sensible choices in life; listen to adult contemporary music; enjoy marmalade; rinse the sink after I shave; eat Italian every third Saturday, Chinese take-out on video rental Fridays, and at Perkins every god-damned Sunday morning; wash your hair when you bathe; keep a grocery list on my Fridge; subsidize your credit card debt; or find new ways to admire another plush/ceramic/wicker/metal/glass/wood/plastic pig.

Since I’ve stopped dating you and other women, I can answer my phone without fear. But I’m just as happy to let it ring. I’ve also found I prefer using pencils to pens.

You could keep up on long walks. You didn’t snap your gum. You understood that, more often than not, my silence was a sign of contentment, not anger. You never did catch on to the humming (although it happened fairly regularly). You certainly knew how to use your hands, not like J., who wasn’t sure about her own body, let alone a man’s. You kept your fingernails short and painted your toenails. There are parts of you I would use when constructing the perfect woman. Not the parts you might think. (Okay. I’d start with your nipples and teeth.) You didn’t try to make me love you. Perhaps you should have, just for the sake of saving us time.

Other women have other qualities that I won’t share with you.

Since I’ve stopped seeing you and other women, I’ve been able to: play industrial league hockey; order from a drive-through; watch golf; experiment with facial hair; read Tolkien; eat my dinner from the pot I cook it in; clip my toenails where I want; go to confession; have a barber cut my hair; accept my sister’s companion; get rid of my answering machine; tend to my lawn; wash and vacuum the car on Sundays; take up Karate; walk through tall grass prairie (you and your allergies); understand why my father left; smile at strangers; muse aloud about my future; speak my mind to my boss; change the bandages myself; throw away the ties you picked out; have a beer in the morning; roll stop signs without feeling guilty; remember most of your names; pee in the shower; meet your sister for lunch (I was careful to not order a drink); drive all night; spend a day being left handed; duplicate your taco salad; adopt a cat; listen to Tom Waits and Billie Holiday; and rid my house of strands of your hair.

Another man might have handled it differently, but your sister is a woman who really likes my chest hair. Something else you don’t want to know: your sister gets horny after eating a Skor bar.

Since I’ve stopped seeing you and other women, I’ve had to: pay a fine for being drunk and disorderly; guard against optimism; accept a transfer that will take me east; begin masturbating again (okay, I never stopped); face 57 shots in a 14 to 3 shellacking; be wary of infection; trade in the Valiant; admit I’m an atheist; let your sister down softly; clean my oven; say “no” three times; learn the difference between infer and imply; stop myself from stopping; buy a new blender; be tested for HIV; think about actions and consequences; go to garage sales with my mother; remember what happened between the ages of six and eleven; accept the size of the scar; figure out how to apologize (it’s about being specific); submit to a paternity test; learn to be alone; and find the perfect place for a litter box.

Another woman would have handled it differently, but you can’t be blamed for just grabbing what was handy.

These are the scars you know: the half-moon below my left eye, the slim and straight ridge on the inside of my left forearm, the entrance wound of the BB pellet lodged in my back, and the bite mark on my right calf from Sally the cocker spaniel.

Since I’ve stopped sleeping with you, it will be some other woman who will come to know the hairless landscape of the scar you’ve given me. Another woman will trace its ridges and valleys with her fingers and lips. It will be another woman asking “How?” It will be another woman asking “Why?”


This story first appeared in Contemporary Verse 2 Vol. 20 No. 4
Copyright © Todd Besant. All rights reserved.



Best paired with Forty Creek Copper Pot Reserve Whisky, straight-up in a Norlan Whisky Glass


Reprint and reproduction rights for this story are available for purchase. Contact me for more information on Anthologies, Course Packs, Reading Comprehension Exams, Translations, and Dramatic Adaptations


Photo credit: omnia_mutantur on Visualhunt.com / CC BY-NC-ND





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I Really Liked It and You Liked It Too

I’m eating supper at the Spicy Noodle House, hoping I’ll get used to this unemployment game, hiding from a nasty cold snap, watching the couple in the corner booth, knowing I could steal her from him without too much trouble—and I’m crawling pretty close to the baseboard these days—when in walks Burnell.

He sees me right away and recognizes me right off, even after seven years. “There’s a face I know! Hey, how ya doing Pete? Man! Long time!”

I’d been avoiding the Village for a while—too many ex-girlfriends lurking about—but Burnell was a skeleton I thought incapable of door-rattling and here he is pulling up a chair, calling for a menu, looking as mercenary as he always did.

“When was the last time we ran into each other?”

I remember everything, so I tell him. “About two weeks before you were busted for stealing that gun collection. I was at the Wet Lounge and you wanted me to help you break into the chemistry labs at the university. I said no.” I roll some noodles around my chopsticks, don’t look up. “So, how long did you do in Headingley? Make any friends?”

He looks like he’s doing some anger management exercise in his head and then he starts laughing, a gap-mouthed snort. I can see his teeth are still a mess. “Man is this a coincidence,” he says. “You know who I saw yesterday? Brenda Demchuk!” He slaps the table. “You’d never guess where. The Runway. She’s a ripper there. Good too, excellent floor show. You still see Brenda?”

A thin-lipped smirk sits under his weasely moustache and then broadens into a real smile. A tormenters smile. A top-dog smile. “You know what we should do? Head over and see Brenda’s show. It’ll be like old times. What do you say?”

“No thanks.”

“You’re not still mad about the rape thing? Come on, years ago. Forgive and forget. You had an alibi. No harm, no foul. Come on, it’ll be good. She’ll be naked.” This last bit he says in a sing-song style.

I imagine staying here for a tense evening of verbal sparring, the threat of violence brooding in the wings. So I decide to gamble on Brenda not being at the Runway and being able to leave Burnell to whatever friends he has there. I call for my bill. “Okay. We’ll go. But it’s a bad idea.”

***

My face is clamped between Brenda’s formidable silicon breasts. I tried to steer Burnell to a table at the back of the bar, but he insisted on sitting at the rail. As she releases her meaty hold, I stifle a sneeze and she pouts at me, offering a hip. Not wanting to be rude, I stuff a five in her g-string. She bends over grazes my lips with hers and then continues her tired walk around the edge of the stage to ‘Bad Case of Lovin’ You.’

“You like that,” Burnell shouts into my ear. “Didn’t I tell ya.” Then he grabs my biceps and squeezes. “Drink up, Pete. Drink up. Don’t want you falling behind.”

Burnell seems to know everyone in the bar, but he hasn’t left my side. So I drink up and the rounds keep coming. No sooner do I finish a bottle than another appears.

Brenda’s floor-show is not as Burnell advertised and I feel embarrassed for her and for myself. Except for us assholes at the rail, no one pays much attention until she’s starkers. Then the crowd, like primitives around a fire, is hooting and banging glasses and bottles on tables, shouting, “Shower, shower, shower.” I join in out of a perverse sense of loyalty to her, wondering how pathetic I can feel before I find the courage to bugger off.

When it’s over and she’s off the stage, I get up to leave, but Burnell’s hand is heavy on my shoulder, pressing me back into my chair. “Hey Pete, sit down. Sit down. Don’t you want to talk to her? Just leaving isn’t any way to treat an old friend, is it?”

Brenda comes from backstage in a red robe and red “fuck me” pumps. Walks right over to us. “So it is you. You bastard. I thought that nose felt familiar.” She looks at Burnell wearing his shit-eating grin. “You fucker, fuck you for bringing him here.”

Brenda looks both condensed and enhanced. The sweet pouty Slavic face I knew now has glacial set to it. Her breasts are mighty and motionless; her buttocks nearly indistinguishable from her tenuous thighs. Her hands—always creepy, adolescent sized—have huge over-done pink nails. Only her thick brunette hair, a distressed roller set, is familiar to me. She found that look early and stayed with it.

“Happiness,” Burnell says, putting his arms around us. “Happiness.”

“So Pete, you guys working together?”

“No, we just bumped into each other.”

“Pete’s just a little coward. He would only open the back door, hang out in the kitchen, while I did all the work. He was a real backdoor man.”

“Yeah, Burnell is the only real criminal here, even though he couldn’t get into a house without kicking in a window.”

“Back door man. Hey Brenda, was he a backdoor man with you?”

“Fuck you,” she says. “Pete, come with me.”

She leads me through the scramble of tables and chairs to an empty corner. “You have to buy me a drink. Keep the management happy.”

I say okay and she waves a hand towards the bar and then lets it drop to my knee. “So, you want a lap dance?”

“No, no. You don’t have to…

“That’s a joke, Pete. You see any lap dancing going on here?”

A waitress puts a bottle of ‘Champagne’ on our table, holds out a hand. “Forty dollars.”

I hesitate. “Petey,” Brenda says. “Be nice.”

So I pay. I decide to try to be nice. I fill our glasses and we share a wordless toast. “You still use the same perfume.”

“Guess you had to notice. Sorry about that, I couldn’t resist. Something about you makes me aggressive.”

“No kidding. Like when we were kids.”

“Yes. Remember? We’d go into the garage and play ‘married couple.’ She leans forward, her robe opening a little, revealing a satin chemise. “The way I made you hold my hand on the way to school? Made you kiss me hello and goodbye?”

“I hated all that, but you were bigger and older. I didn’t have a choice.”

“No you didn’t, and I really liked it and you liked it too,” she says sipping her wine. “You sure liked it when we were older.”

“I was in charge then. You liked that.”

Her expression shifts, like she’s trying to force a sincere look to her face. Her face resists. “Pete, about the rape…”

“That was a shitty, stupid thing you did. It was fucked. Really fucked.”

“I’m sorry, Petey. Honestly.”

“Forget it,” I say, waving my hands. “Water under the bridge.” I’m lying, of course, but I’m trying to be nice. I want to tell her I left because not only did she accuse me of rape, but because she is totally unpredictable. Capable of anything. If she disagreed, I’d say take a look at your line of work. But I don’t. I down my wine, pour more and try to keep an eye on Burnell. He’s keeping both on me like he’s planned some special outcome for me. “Did you know Burnell was bringing me here?”

“No, why?”

“Just wondering what he’s up to. Asshole.”

“Don’t worry about him. He just drinks a little too much.”

“What’s he doing for cash?”

“He keeps a couple of grow houses for some guys. He isn’t ambitious about it, but it’s better than working. Why?”

“Just curious, that’s all.” I file this bit of information.

A bouncer, his shaved head sporting a flaming skull tattoo, walks up to our table and whispers in her ear. “I’ve got to go Pete.” She leans close and says, “Come see me tomorrow. I’m living in my mother’s old house. Come there. Please. Tomorrow.”

She goes out a door near the bar with the bouncer and another guy. See her tomorrow? Not bloody likely. I head for the exit over a carpet as damp and sticky as gum.

“Not leaving are you Pete? Not without saying a proper goodbye?”

Burnell gives me a hard bump and I lose my balance easily, drunker than I think. I swerve toward the can. “Just going for a piss.”

“Well, I think I’ll join you.”

The stink is something else and some schoolboy is half hanging out a stall puking his booze up. Burnell waits until I unzip.

“Pete! No wonder you get the ladies. Who’d think a skinny guy like you’d have a hose like that.”

“Cock watching a hobby you pick up in jail?”

He grabs my hair and pulls hard. “Be careful what you say to me, especially with your dick hanging out.” He slaps my head forward. “Zip up. Time for another drink.”

When I step back into the noise, I decide it’s time to face the consequences of my stupidity. I head for the exit.

***

In the parking lot, I’m holding my own. I’m in close and tie-up Burnell’s arms, clinging to his leather jacket like a leech on a swimmer, but I stumble and he shrugs off the jacket. He’s screaming, “You snitch, you fucking snitch, fuck you, fuck you, you snitch, fucker…” I stumble again in my panic to get my bearings. His knee cracks into my cheek, so like the coward I am, I hit the gravel and turtle.

I come to shaking, but I don’t move, not yet, not until I’m alone. The darkness is a thin blanket but I’m happy to let time pass. My watch ticks in my ear. The sound of cars pulling out of the lot gets me up. Burnell’s jacket is underneath me and I have his wallet, too. I’m covered in blood and dust. My head is pounding and it’s hard not to puke.

After a short walk, I find a cab willing to take me. Cash from Burnell’s wallet pays for the ride.

***

The phone is a banshee. I’m hungover, beaten, embarrassed and someone needs to speak to me, but there’s no one I need to talk to. I keep the apartment dark and try not to move. The pulse of my blood tells me my left eye is half-swollen. My inventory of discomfort also includes a goose egg on my head, a sore ass, a tender knee, and bruised sternum and ribs.

I flop out of bed in the late afternoon. Burnell’s wallet is on the kitchen counter. It’s a fat, cheap brown number. I pour a bowl of cereal and go through the wallet while I eat. The usual I.D., but his driver’s license is expired and I’m surprised to find a library card. Four rags of paper with lists of phone numbers, and the bonus—two grand in tens and twenties.

I sit and wonder if Burnell was looking for me or if he simply took an opportunity too good to pass up. I decide I can’t care. Then I pick up the phone; it beeps insistently.

The messages are all from Brenda. Each is a variation of her hoping that I’ll drop by today, it would be great to see me. She leaves an address and a phone number. The last call sounds desperate—“Fuck, Petey, pick-up. Fuck.” I call and get her voicemail. I hang up without leaving a message.

I decide a cross-town trip is what I need. I hide my hammered eyes behind sunglasses. On the way to the bus stop, I chuck Burnell’s wallet into the dumpster behind the neighbourhood drop-in clinic. The cash is in a coffee tin at the back of my ‘fridge.

Brenda’s house is as I remember it, white stucco bungalow, pink trim, brown carpet on the steps, an aluminum front door with a die-cut of three-foot tall heron stalking through reeds. Everything is sun-faded, flaked, careworn. The lawn is uncut and the garden under the front window is a snarl of weeds and the same perennials her mother grew. It’s all wilting and browning from the cold.

I ring the doorbell, ready to bolt if I hear footsteps and change my mind, but there’s no answer. I head around back. The outer door is open, the inner is locked. I have a flash memory from childhood. They kept a back door key under a patio brick beside the garage door—the garage where we played married couple. The key is under the brick.

The kitchen looks like it’s seldom used. A coffee maker with a half-full pot, a rinsed cup in the sink. Stove, refrigerator, dishwasher all white and empty. When breaking into houses, this was as far as I used to come, but I’ve been here before, it’s more like visiting. The powder blue pile carpet in the living room bears the tracks of an upright vacuum. The house smells like vanilla deodorizer. What used to be Brenda’s bedroom, the room where I lost my virginity on a Thursday afternoon, is now stacked with boxes. I stand there a long time, and the memories of what we got up to here provokes an urgent erection.

I go the bathroom stand over the toilet and unzip. It is sick, but I decide to make it sicker. The red shoes Brenda wore in the bar are beside the bathtub. I grab one and jerk-off into it. I usually masturbate to take the edge off a hangover, but I keep it furtive and normal. This isn’t. It is a swift and miserly pleasure and fills me with regret and shame. I give the shoe a hasty wipe, flush the tissue, and put the shoe beside its mate. I nudge it with my foot until I’m certain of its positioning.

Then I fuck off out the back door and down the lane.

***

I’m at a Tim Horton’s fuelling up on coffee and crullers, surrounded by students from the career college across the street. I snag The Sun from a table. A triple slaying dominates the front page. Two men and a woman were found in a West End bungalow yesterday morning, shot execution style. The men were associates of a local motorcycle gang and the woman was known to the police. Police suspect the slain woman, Brenda Demchuk, was a victim of circumstance.

In the washroom, I puke-up cruller, coffee, and last night’s pizza. Is it from regret or relief? Brenda was killed the evening of our so-called date. If I had shown up earlier, would she be alive or if I would be dead? I tell myself it is because of relief. The memory of her as a young girl comes to me; Brenda wearing her mother’s wig, her mouth slathered with red lipstick. Her hands on my cheeks, steering my head. No, this way, this way, kiss me back, push out your lips, kiss me back. Kiss me back. Until I did, and she didn’t have to make me anymore. And I know it is from regret, and I heave until I’m dry. I rinse my mouth from the tap, keep spitting until I no longer taste bile, and brush my teeth with my forefinger. In the mirror is someone I’d avoid on the street, someone I wouldn’t want to recognize in a restaurant. I open my mouth. My teeth are clean and straight, unlike the train wreck in Burnell’s mouth. And I believe that’s all that separates us: good teeth.

And I decide I need to fuck-up Burnell.

I call Crimestoppers from a corner payphone and offer a tip about Burnell and his grow houses, imply that he might have a connection to the dead bikers, mention his previous convictions. I throw in a couple of numbers from the raggy lists that now live in my wallet. I decline a code number. “This one’s for free,” I say. I hang-up, thinking I’ll call the tax department and snitch on him there, too.

The sky makes good on its weeklong threat of snow. Brenda and I had our best times as kids playing in the snow. Before the wig and the lipstick and the kissing. I stick out my tongue discretely and catch a few flakes. Snow makes everything seem new and clean. I start walking home, not happy, but calm.

Then I remember the shoe.


A version of this story first appeared in Front & Centre in No. 6. It is also included in the work-in-progress Black Wind: A Prairie Pulp Fiction, a linked story collection. 
Copyright © Todd Besant. All rights reserved


Laura Hird‘s story “The Happening” was in Front & Centre in No. 6, too! And my story was mentioned with hers in a review!



Best paired with Lucky Lager, warm from the can.


Reprint and reproduction rights for this story are available for purchase. Contact me for more information on Anthologies, Course Packs, Reading Comprehension Exams, Translations, and Dramatic Adaptations


Photo Credit: Copyright © stokpic on pixabay.com



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Of average vanity

Todd Besant is a publisher, editor, reader, writer, occasional author, introvert, secret blogger, stargazer, freethinker, powerlifter, kitchen dancer, podcast enthusiast, and car singer.

He is overly fond of fine pencils, cool notebooks, pocket knives, waxed canvas shoulder bags, Moscot eyeglasses, coffee, bourbon, flat caps, clothing for shorter men, manipedis, and men’s grooming products–especially pomades, face balms, and under eye treatments. Todd is of average vanity, that is, very.

Todd is taller online, inordinately puzzled, comprehensively skeptical, increasingly alarmed, and as analogue as possible under the circumstances. His creativity is informed and driven by an avalanche of failure. Todd’s favourite words are louche, bare, frowsy, oubliette, chemise, thicket, snug, bristle, mound, abandon, frisson, and restraint.

He is the descendant of colonialist settlers and lives on Turtle Island on Treaty 1 Land that is the territories of Anishinaabeg, Cree, Oji-Cree, Dakota, Lakota, Inuit, and Dene Peoples, and on the Traditional Homeland of the Métis Nation, in Winnipeg, MB, an inflexible colonial city mired in the still damp clay bed of a proglacial lake created during the Holocene Glacial Retreat.

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This blog is written and produced on Turtle Island in Winnipeg, MB, on Treaty 1 Land that is the territories of Anishinaabeg, Cree, Oji-Cree, Dakota, Lakota, Inuit, and Dene peoples, and is the Traditional Homeland of the Métis Nation. All material, unless otherwise noted, Copyright © Todd Besant. All rights reserved. Header photo credit: darkday. on VisualHunt.com