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“Grateful for the Chance to Read Such High-Quality Work”

Yeah, a fairly stock rejection letter, but one takes encouragement where it’s offered.

-30-


Featured image photo credit: Sparkzy on VisualHunt.com


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



Best paired with a Strawberry Daiquiri, the saddest cocktail ever.


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Eulogy

The problem with not being able to speak ill of the dead is that it often leaves one with nothing to say. This cultural quirk irks you; gossip is one of your great loves. The possibilities of the situation tantalize you; the defenseless corpse of a man you were not fond of, an emotionally vulnerable audience, and a pulpit. How unfair that the circumstance is rigged to leave you speechless.

You sit in the front pew, dressed in your fashionable black outfit, and listen to the minister drone on about Chester. The things you learn about him. You never knew that Chester was loved. And by so many; family friends, and mostly, in His eternally abstract way, God. Chester was an atheist. The hypocrisy of this excites you. You adjust your custom made shades and contemplate life and death. How similar you think them to be. Both so full of expectations and with an alarming absence of certainty. Funerals help remind people of the similarities. You want to use the eulogy to make people squirm.

Still, you will have to watch what you say. Chester’s mother is here. A tiny, pathetic creature. Her small pale hands cradled yours as she implored you to deliver Chester’s eulogy. She was almost apologetic. You believe she should be. She did give him that name. Chester. Chester Fields. You have been told he was a breech baby. She must have been inspired by the painkillers. You begin to think that this large funeral, with a fibbing minister, paid pallbearers, coerced mourners (what other kind?), is some bizarre form of revenge on  the part of Chester’s mother. But against who? You decide to let the thought go.

You begin to wonder what  Chester would think of this. Maybe he is in heaven right now. After all, God doesn’t want anyone to go to hell. He is not a sadist. Perhaps a bit of a masochist, but definitely not a sadist.

So if Chester is in the heaven you imagine, he can see and hear everything that is happening right now. Even read minds! You wish you could too! The things Chester could hear. Erotic fantasies, mundane shopping lists, hair salon gossip. Ecstasy. You heard one of the pallbearers say that Chester should have been cremated and his ashes scattered in a cat box. What would he think about that? You wonder if Chester would feel the contempt his memory holds.

You let your mind meander back to when you remember Chester, trying to find the spot he first provoked ill will. You cannot find one. Chester was always a slug. The resemblance was remarkable. He had a fat, white, hairless body, certainly not made for fashion fads. But you still cannot find a time when the antagonism began. 

You do remember particular events. Such as the day the class bully, now deceased, caught on to the humour in his name and everyone took turns holding him down and farting on him. By the time the basketball team decided to shave off Chester’s pubic hair, only to discover he didn’t have any, it was routine to torture him.

Back to the task at hand. The eulogy. What to say? The minister keeps looking at you as he sermonizes. Must be your stylish outfit. Or maybe he knows that behind your sunglasses, your eyes are a sea of perplexity, distraction, and fear. Yes, your are scared. Scared, because today, people expect you to tell the truth. Granted, it is only because it would be more entertaining than any gossip about Chester you might relay, but it is still the truth. Horrors. What to say, what to say.

You push the truth issue from your mind. Everyone lies at funerals. The minister lies to the mourners, the mourners lie to the minister, both lie to the family, and the body just lies. You think it is lying that ties life and death together.

You begin to think of your relationship with Chester. All your life you watched him screw up. You never helped him, only felt sorry for him. You remember the day he died, how he received the skull fracture that killed him. forth, in an attempt to encourage it to choke up a can of soda. 

You can still hear the sharp crack of his head on the floor, as Chester toppled the machine squarely upon himself. You still remember that your first thought was that Chester preferred Pepsi.

The minister has finished and he steps from the pulpit. He walks by you, trying to catch the light at the proper angle so he can see through your sunglasses. You know he’s not looking for the designer’s name. He wants to see your eyes.

You rise and walk to the pulpit. Still unsure of what to say, you remember someone once told you that funerals weren’t for the dead, they were for the living. 

You adjust your glasses and say, “We all loved Chester…”


This story was written for the first creative writing course I enrolled in, circa 1984-85, taught by Dave Williamson. I think it was the first story I’d finished that other people read. Heartfelt thanks to Kim Cornwell, wherever you may be, for pressing me to take the course.
Copyright © Todd Besant. All rights reserved.


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: The Rocketeer on Visualhunt.com



Best paired with a Five Star Whiskey and warm flat Coke served in a crystal clear plastic squat cup, crushed ice to taste.


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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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Could Superman Have Benefited From Isometric Exercise

The young man chose that particular diner on that particular day out of boredom and because he thought it was owned by young women. The chime of a small bell above the door announced his arrival.

He chose a booth across from the counter and a middle-aged woman wearing a pink waitress uniform approached with a pot of coffee. Strands of black and silver hair poked through her hair-net and made her head resemble an angry badger.

She poured him a cup of coffee without asking if he wanted one and said, “I know what you want. Baklava. You boys always come in here for the baklava.” She said it in a matter of fact way as if there was no decision to be made. The young man smiled at her, thinking she had been pretty once, and agreed to try the baklava.

He watched her as she went behind the yellow Formica counter, opened a large glass fronted cooler and removed a pan covered with plastic wrap. She had just removed the wrap and begun cutting the contents when the telephone rang. She continued cutting, letting it ring seven times before she lit a cigarette, took a couple of short ashy drags and walked over to answer on the eleventh.

“Half Moon Diner, can I help you?” She paused to listen. “Yes, she’s here, and if you ask me, I think she’s lost another wheel from her wagon.” Her tone was exasperated and the young man wondered who she was talking about. He poked his head out of the booth and saw a young woman sitting at the far end of the counter spinning on a red stool, talking softly to herself. He hadn’t noticed her when he came in.

The waitress listened to the caller for another moment and then hung up abruptly.

“You promised you wouldn’t tell.” The young woman jumped up on the counter and began pleading. “Please… call back and say I’m not here.”

“I didn’t promise and I won’t call.” The waitress returned to the baklava, her cigarette an arc of ash.

The woman noticed the young man watching her and posed like a fifties pin-up girl. She said to him, “It’s not true that I’ve lost my wagon wheels. I’ve just lost a pair of cats. They’ll come back.”

The waitress brought him more coffee and whispered, “Mostly she talks nonsense. I’ll bring you the baklava now.”

Before the waitress could return the young woman jumped off the counter and slid into the booth with the young man. She leaned close to him and gestured him nearer. “He’s dead, you know. Or he was, but it could have been prevented.” Her voice was excited and conspiratorial.

“Who’s dead?” the young man was curious, but cautious, and looked to see if the waitress was near.

“Superman, silly. Don’t you know anything?” She paused and curled herself deeper into the booth. “He didn’t have to die fighting Doomsday. All of that destruction didn’t have to happen. All of Metropolis was destroyed.” She was disturbed by this and cried a little. The young man tried to catch the waitress’ eye, but she made sure not to look, standing and smoking as if she were waiting for a bus with a group of strangers.

“He could have been stronger if he exercised, you know.” The conspiracy had returned to the young woman’s voice.

The young man sipped his coffee. “What kind of exercise could have made him stronger? He was pretty strong.”

“Isometric exercise!” She said it as if she were answering a question on a quiz show. She put her hands in front of her chest and began slowly pulling and pushing them against each other. “See? The Charles Altas way!”

The young man stayed silent and considered this. The young woman continued her demonstration until the bell above the diner door sounded.

“That’s for me,” she said.

A man with his hair tied into a top knot approached the booth. “I hope my wife hasn’t disturbed you.” It was neither an apology nor a question. He gently took the woman’s arm and led her away.

She waved goodbye saying, “I like to eat cold plums.”

The young man returned the wave and then sat back and toyed with the sugar dispenser.

“I’ll warm that up for you,” the waitress said, reaching across the table for his cup. She put the baklava in front of him and carefully placed a fork wrapped in a paper napkin beside it. “She would have taken it from you.” And, as if it would explain, added, “She used to be a teacher.”

“What’s wrong with her?”

“She was in an accident of some kind. Hit her head, poor thing. She learns by looking at pictures of things.” The waitress smiled. “She would only talk about porcelain last week. Her husband took her to the art gallery.”

The waitress walked away and he ate his baklava, not bothering to brush away the ashes. He left the waitress a generous tip.

As he stepped out of the diner he looked at the sky. It’s deep blue shade made him hesitate and remember the violets he gave his mother when he was six, the varicose veins in his ex-wife’s calves and an evening last summer when he had seen a blue Buick with arrogant tail fins roll a stop sign and knock down a woman, scattering her groceries. By the time he crossed the street several people were helping her, so he continued on, carefully stepping over some tangerines, a head of cabbage and several plums.


The story first appeared in Zygote in Vol. 3 No. 1.
Copyright © Todd Besant. All rights reserved.



Best paired with a slushed Tanqueray. Add a dash of Boker’s Bitters.



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: x-ray delta one on Visualhunt.com


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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