JOHNNY WAS DEAD WHEN I got home.
I opened the door, and do you know what? I knew. I couldn’t feel him anymore, is the only way I can describe it. You might think that’s crazy, but that’s the way it was.
After a while, I found him in the coat closet, curled up in the back corner. He hardly took up any room — he was the smallest I’d seen him since he was a kitten. I crawled in there with him and took one of his tiny paws between my fingers, and I thought of little Andrew Lloyd Webber all alone in Wendy’s empty apartment. And I started to cry. I cried for him, and I cried for all the cats in the world who don’t have love, and at least that’s one thing Johnny had. You can take everything else away, but at the very least he had love.
THAT NIGHT MY PHONE rang, and it was Sherry, which is funny because I couldn’t remember ever giving her my home number.
“I’ve been calling everyone.” She sounded out of breath. “Something awful’s happened.”
“Oh, no,” I said. “Is it Wendy?”
“Oh, Eunice,” she said, and that’s when I heard the catch in her voice, and a second later, she was sobbing.
“Shhh,” I said. “It’s okay. Let it out.”
By this time, I’d taken Johnny to the vet. I’d said goodbye to him, and the nurse had given me a big hug, and then I’d come home to my empty apartment.
“Wendy, she —”
“I know. I know it’s hard. Shhh.” (more…)
THE NEXT DAY WAS a Friday so I had my reports to do, and I was also preoccupied with thinking about the night before.
The clinic had been decorated with garlands and plastic holly, and the vet had poked and prodded Johnny, and he didn’t complain — he never was a complainer — but I could tell he was feeling anxious. Before we left, they recommended lots of rest, and I told them he’d been doing that already, and they said that’s good, but then I caught the vet and the nurse exchanging a glance that they didn’t think I saw.
I was also feeling bad for how short I’d been with Sherry the day before, because all she’d really wanted was my company, and all she wanted us to do was help a sick friend — a dying friend — together. I was planning on saying something nice to her when I went to deliver my reports, but she beat me to it.
She walked by on her way to lunch and stopped in front of my desk and smiled at me. “Eunice,” she said in a very sincere voice, and I knew she was going to ask me about Johnny because Sherry is the type to look to the future and let bygones be bygones. “Eunice,” she said, “how is your day going?”
“Oh, Sherry,” I said and heard my voice catch, “he’s not doing very well.” Then I realized she hadn’t asked about Johnny at all.
Sherry made a sad face where she stuck out her bottom lip and sort of folded it over her top lip, and she stared at me for a good fifteen seconds before I mustered up a smile and said, “Thanks for asking, Sherry.”
“Well,” she said with a wink, “you know me!”
I nodded and switched my gaze to the Grand Canyon. The way the edges of my computer screen framed that natural wonder, it humbled me to see it. Johnny and I are specks, I thought to myself. We are teeny-tiny specks, the two of us. (more…)
THE NEXT DAY, SHERRY and Val and Ruth P. went to visit Wendy on their lunch hour. I could’ve gone with them if I wanted to, but it was a Thursday and my reports are due on Friday, and the three of them were gone for more than an hour, and I can’t afford that kind of time the day before I have to hand in my reports.
They brought Ruth P.’s card that we’d all signed with Ruth C.’s pen (I wrote, “Eat lots of Jell-O!” because I was trying to think of something nice associated with hospitals, and the fact that they often serve Jell-O was the only good thing that came to mind), and Sherry told me later that day that Wendy had been in good spirits. She was sitting up and joking with the gals about not having to do her weekly score sheets for Mr. Vanderhoeven. Wendy’s score sheets are quantitative and my reports are qualitative — there’s a big difference.
“Did you tell her about the kitten?” I said.
Sherry squinted. “No, I don’t think we mentioned the kitten. But Wendy said our card was very thoughtful, and she really appreciated my idea about us keeping up her apartment while she wasn’t there, but she said she’d like to wait for the biopsy results before we started that because she might be going home soon. She said she was hoping for the best.” Sherry took a deep breath. “And then there were tears.”
“Oh, no,” I said. “Wendy started to cry?”
“No, I did. We’ve gotten so close, Wendy and me, and I couldn’t bear to see her lying in that hospital bed wearing that ratty nightgown of hers, surrounded by all sorts of equipment. Not that she’s hooked up to any of it, but it’s there, you know?”
I stood up then, and I put my arms around Sherry. She feels so deeply about her friends, I thought, but who’s feeling deeply about her? So I hugged her and said, “Maybe there’s still good news to come.” (more…)
FOR THE NEXT FEW weeks, Sherry came by on her way to lunch to give me the latest on how Wendy was doing — “She’s sleeping better,” or “She threw up six times today, can you believe that?” You could depend on Sherry to have her finger on it.
At the end of each day, I’d go home to Johnny, and we’d sit and watch our shows together, and every so often I’d notice he was a bit lighter than before. I remembered when he used to be big and round and I’d tried to put him on a diet a few times. “To make you svelte,” I used to tell him, but it never worked because he enjoyed his food too much. I petted him and felt his ribs poking me and said, “You’re a svelte kitty now, Johnny. What a handsome, svelte kitty you are.”
ABOUT A MONTH LATER, Sherry came by my desk looking very emotional, and I could tell right away something big had happened because Sherry gets emotional when it comes to her friends.
“Eunice, you can’t imagine what I’ve been through. Yesterday I realized Wendy’s been off for a month — an entire month, Eunice. I called her up and said, ‘This is ridiculous. A person does not miss a whole month of work without something being seriously wrong.’ I said, ‘Wendy, you are unwell, and we need to get you to a doctor. And if it means me driving you to the emergency room and waiting with you until you are seen, then so be it. So that’s what I did.” Sherry gasped suddenly at my computer screen. “Oh God, look at those palm trees. What I wouldn’t give to be there right now, sipping rum punch with the sand between my toes. Right, Eunice? You know what I’m talking about.”
I didn’t, but I stared at my tropical getaway screen saver and tried to imagine the real thing.
Sherry told me she drove to Wendy’s apartment, and Wendy looked about as bad as she’d ever seen her. She was all curled up on her couch in a filthy stained nightgown, and her apartment “looked like a garbage bomb had hit it.” (more…)
OUR OFFICE IS VERY community-minded. We hold two food drives a year: the first one at Thanksgiving and the second one not at Christmas, because the poor people get so much food from other food drives at Christmas that we like to surprise them with something extra on a random day when they’re not expecting it.
We also look out for, as Sherry puts it, “our own little community.” People are always asking how everybody is, how everybody’s family is. Personally, I have never had much time for socializing at work. My reports keep me busy all day, right up until five o’clock when I would go home to Johnny.
Every so often, Sherry would come by my desk, sometimes after one of her vacations, and ask me how my day was going. That was about the extent of my socializing. I couldn’t even tell you how many places Sherry’s been; I know she’s been to China and Australia, and when you go that far away you have to go for at least three weeks because of the jet lag. I only know that from Sherry. The farthest I’ve ever been was to Florida with my family, and it wasn’t even all that warm when we went.
“That Wendy’s not right,” is what Sherry said to me when she came by my desk that October noon hour, and I honestly had to think for a minute before I could picture who she meant.
“Wendy who?” I was eating my ham sandwich, and the polar ice caps were on my computer screen. Apparently they’re starting to melt, if you can believe that. I gazed at that big stretch of white and I thought, Winter is coming. Then my wheat field scene came on, with the environmentally friendly windmills, and I felt reassured.
“Wendy, who sits next to me!” said Sherry. “Haven’t you seen her lately? She looks awful, and she smells awful because she’s throwing up all the time. I think she’s sick with something.” (more…)
The latest crash was, without a doubt, the best story yet. John could tell the first time he told it. He could tell by the way his listeners’ faces fell, everyone standing in a small circle holding their drinks while the last barbecue of the year heated and smoked behind them, steaks forgotten. It was late in the year, the evenings already sharp and suddenly cold, the sky grey with impending sleet. There was always someone, John thought, who just couldn’t let go, who had to keep the summer going. So there were steaks and burgers, sweaters and jackets pulled around tight, and blue smoke blowing sideways away from the barbecue while John held a beer and talked gravely about the latest accident.
“So he cut the wheel back — and that was the right thing to do, cut the wheel back, and get out of the skid — but he went too far with it, and there was this dump truck,” John said, listening to himself as he talked.
Tone it down, he told himself, pull back — not so preachy.
“Not survivable,” saying it like a judge delivering a verdict. “I could tell that right away. You didn’t even have to run — nothing anyone could have done anyway.
“Crushed them right there where they were sitting, even the kid in the back seat. Hard to even tell what parts belonged to which body.”
John hadn’t even seen the bodies — the police had come and taped off the scene after the firefighter had pushed him back, closing the road and holding up tarpaulins when the firefighters started cutting the car into pieces — but nobody knew that.
John thought about throwing in a resigned shrug, then thought better of it. He caught a glimpse of Mary’s eyes, and they looked sharp and beady and black like a crow’s.
Afterwards, when they’d left for home in the car, she started talking, her voice low, her face fixed and straight ahead so that she was talking to him without ever looking at him. “You enjoy it too much,” she said. “All these horrible things that happened to other people.” Her hands were working in her lap as if desperately trying to find something to do, he thought, or as if she was afraid he might hit her. (more…)
The third crash was different — not quite in their yard this time, but caused by too much speed on the same familiar straightaway, and by the same sharp curve just before the house. A car had swung its way almost into the ditch, one front wheel over onto the loose stones of the shoulder, but this time the driver had cut the wheel sharply, in time to get his car back onto the road. He was successful in that, but in the process he flung his car across the centre line and straight into the path of a dump truck heading in the opposite direction. Neither driver had a chance to react after that, and the accident was awesome in its sheer brutality.
There were no pieces travelling around the car in their delicate prescribed arcs, finding their way to a new position along explainable lines. This was all hard, full, spectacular stop, the car crumpling abruptly underneath the huge engine of the truck, the back of the car accordioning into the front as it kept moving forwards.
Inside the house, the head-on impact sounded like an explosion. John jumped off the couch, knowing immediately what had happened. As he ran for the door, Mary threw the book she had been reading at him, the pages whiffling and fluttering, but she missed.
John could see how serious the accident was as soon as he got out the door. It was the way the dump truck was crouched over the crushed car like a cat over a small and absolutely dead mouse. The driver’s door on the truck was open, the driver running around the car from one side to the other, trying to see inside. The roof, what you could see of it, was crushed flat down to the tops of the doors, so the vehicle looked more like a sheet-steel tank than anything else.
There was an absolute absence of sound, everything startled into silence.
John could see that other cars were stopping, people piling out in a rush until they got close enough to the car to take a good look. Then they were simply slumping away, leaning on their cars as if they needed the support, as if their bones and muscles had suddenly developed an inexplicable weakness. (more…)
With the second crash — dry, clear roads, right in the middle of a sunny Sunday afternoon — John felt he’d gotten better at grasping the important details. At cataloguing them more carefully. This time it was a pickup truck with a load of freshly cut fir logs. It didn’t so much leave the road as trundle in a straight line off hard into the ditch, the truck stopping faster than its load of wood did.
The top layer of logs slid through the window behind the driver, with one log, slightly more than a foot in diameter, striking the driver right at the base of the skull before smashing out through the windshield and coming to a stop on the hood. John stared through the side window at the driver for ages, amazed at the fact that the man’s dead hands were still holding on to the wheel, waiting fruitlessly for a signal to let go.
The passenger, a man in his fifties, was turned in his seat, caught as if looking at the driver, staring across “stone dead,” John would say later, as if killed by the tableau of sheer horror sitting next to him.
When the ambulance crew arrived a handful of minutes later, they yanked the passenger out of the truck roughly and spread him flat on his back on the ground, surrounded by John’s freshly cut grass, futilely pushing on the man’s chest and pumping air into his lungs with a ribbed plastic bag. John watched across the hood of the truck, smelling both the crisp smell of the fir sap and the brassy sharp tang of the fresh blood. He watched as the fire crew unloaded their gear, cut the roof away with the tools and lifted the log off the mangled driver.
This time, he had a better idea about everything the firefighters were doing, and when the police arrived, he realized that their investigation was more involved than he had given them credit for the first time. The whole process was quick, sure, but more calculated than he had realized with the Suzuki. They measured the short skid that lipped over the white line at the edge of the road and down into the gravel shoulder, and one policeman took photographs from every conceivable angle, stopping the firefighters at one point so that he could record the pattern left in the glass where the logs had marked and sprung through the back window. They unrolled a long yellow measuring tape and measured from the back wheels of the truck to where the skid started, and one officer climbed the tailgate and photographed the logs, too. (more…)
Born: London, Ontario
Resides: Toronto, Ontario
Trillium Book Award–nominated work: The Perfect Order of Things (2011)
Selected additional works: Back on Tuesday (1986), How Boys See Girls (1991), An Affair with the Moon (1993), Lost Between Houses (1999), Sparrow Nights (2001), A Perfect Night to Go to China (2005), The Film Club (2007)
Biography: After studying comparative literature under Northrop Frye at the University of Toronto, David Gilmour began his career in 1980 as managing editor of the Toronto International Film Festival (né the Festival of Festivals); he worked there for four years. A decade later, he began hosting his own program on CBC Newsworld, Gilmour on the Arts, which won a Gemini Award in 1997. That’s when he left broadcasting to write full time. In 2000, he received his first Trillium Book Award nomination for his best-selling Lost Between Houses. Later, he won two gold National Magazine Awards for his Walrus essay “My Life with Tolstoy.” In his memoir The Film Club, which was a best-seller in Germany, Brazil, and Canada, Gilmour documented his reasons (and conditions, including the weekly viewing of three films) for letting his fifteen-year-old son drop out of high school. He currently teaches literary studies at the University of Toronto’s Victoria College.
Joseph MacKinnon: Has the validation of this Trillium nomination changed your self-perception as a writer?
David Gilmour: No, not at all. If you set your standards by these things, you’ll be a wild-eyed, embittered alcoholic within a few short years.
Joseph MacKinnon: Your combined experience as a writer, teacher, and film critic has undoubtedly provided you with some insights into writing dos and don’ts. What patterns of behaviour or thinking would you caution would-be writers against? What writing rituals do you find personally enabling or helpful?
David Gilmour: I have only one word for writers: Persist. If you pressed me for more, I’d say never read reviews, even good ones, and rewrite, rewrite, and then rewrite some more.
Joseph MacKinnon: Is it important to pursue other interests and activities sidelong to your literary endeavours to keep your writing fresh? What are your preferred alternatives?
David Gilmour: I avoid the company of other writers. That’s a full-time job. (more…)
John had approached the car gingerly, as if there were some need to treat the overturned vehicle gently. He could hear the exhaust system ticking as the metal cooled, the pace of the ticks slowing.
One of the teenagers left inside the car had been thrown upwards in virtually the same arc as the beer case. The stem of the rear-view mirror had taken out his left eye, but it didn’t matter. His neck was broken along the same angle as all the bottles.
The driver, meanwhile, met the steering wheel with his chest, the roof with his shoulder and the inside of the door with the ribs of his left side — except for his left arm, which flicked out through the broken window as if signalling a turn and then snapped as the car rolled smoothly over it. A Kleenex box and a dozen CDs had flown through the air, striking things and flying again. With the last thump, the glove compartment had burst open, vomiting paper and a windshield scraper and a spare house key that everyone in the owner’s family had been trying to find for months.
The first thing John noticed as he came down the driveway was how cleanly the tumbling vehicle had sheared off six of his seven maples. The mailbox post was snapped off at ground level. The mailbox itself, crushed, turned up underneath the car once it was finally moved.
In the minutes before the emergency crews arrived — Mary had called 911, standing in the front window like a black cut-out of herself — John decided both of the teenagers in the car had to be dead. He was wrong. The driver survived, as did the passenger from the back seat, the passenger who had popped out through the back window after the glass burst away and who had flown, wingless, to crumple in the grass.
John stood rooted in one spot when the fire trucks arrived, stunned by the lights and the noise and the rapid, clipped motion of the firefighters. He was still standing in the same place when the police, finished with their brief investigation, their measurements and photographs, stopped traffic in both directions so the wrecker, parked square across the road, could stand the vehicle back on its wheels, drag it back onto the road and haul the wreck away.
It seemed like it was over in minutes, but Mary told him he had been outdoors for more than an hour and a half. That was all she said. After that, she didn’t want to talk about it anymore. (more…)
Born: Deep River, Ontario
Resides: Toronto, Ontario
Trillium Book Award–nominated work: And Me Among Them (2011)
Other notable works: Water Wings (2001), The Perpetual Ending (2003), Origin of Haloes (2005), The Occupied Garden: A Family Memoir of War-Torn Holland (2009)
Biography: Growing up along the Ottawa River, Kristen den Hartog would often copy her sister Tracy Kasaboski’s stories and put her own dramatic spin on them. This was both symptomatic and catalytic of her desire to write creatively. Her second novel, The Perpetual Ending, was a finalist at the Toronto Book Awards in 2003. The Occupied Garden, a work of non-fiction that she co-authored with Kasaboski, investigates the lives of their father’s family during World War II. den Hartog, a self-professed “perpetual” amateur knitter, lives in Toronto with her husband, visual artist Jeff Winch, and their daughter.
Joseph MacKinnon: Since childhood, you have engaged your sister Tracy in your writing process and collaborated with her on certain projects. Has your methodology and approach changed over time? For instance, while writing, do you find it helpful to conference ideas with her, or do you now treat writing as a solitary craft?
Kristen den Hartog: Tracy is my oldest sister (there are three of us), and as a child I always admired her ability to make stories appear from the typewriter. I used to copy her rather melodramatic ideas and change the names, and add more dead people that got buried in backyards. (As if her three or four weren’t enough.) Years later, as grown-ups, we decided to collaborate on a family memoir. It was both personally and professionally rewarding, so much so that we’ve decided to do it again, this time about our mom’s family in WWI[-era] England. My process for these books is much different than for my novels, and I enjoy that shift, the collaborative aspect. Tracy and I communicate mostly by email, and the few times we’ve tried to write in the same room have been pretty disastrous. But we have phone meetings regularly, and do research jaunts together, and that keeps us on track with each other. (more…)
Resides: Stayner, Ontario
Trillium Book Award-nominated work: Idaho Winter (2011)
Selected additional works: The Hellmouths of Bewdley (1997), Pontypool Changes Everything (1998), Caesarea (1999), Fiction for Lovers: A Small Bouquet of Flesh, Fear, Larvae, and Love (2003), People Still Live in Cashtown Corners (2010), Ravenna Gets (2010); Pontypool (film, 2009)
Biography: Growing up in Mississauga, Ontario, Tony Burgess took an interest in punk music, which helped derail him from the straight and narrow. After watching A Clockwork Orange and Straight Time, he robbed a convenience store sporting one of his mother’s blouses — a stunt for which he served three months in a medium-security facility, with day passes to finish high school. Later, Burgess — then known as Tony Blue — became a regular on Toronto’s Queen Street West arts scene. He studied semiotics at the University of Toronto before publishing his first book, The Hellmouths of Bewdley, which was rife with stories both macabre and absurd. The next year, he moved to Wasaga Beach, Ontario, where he played Curly in the local theatre’s rendition of Oklahoma! In 2009, he turned his second book, Pontypool Changes Everything (1998), into a Genie Award–winning screenplay. He currently lives in what was once a funeral home with his wife of twelve years and their two children.
Related reading: “Brother Grim” by Mark Medley (The Walrus, July/August 2011)
Joseph MacKinnon: Idaho Winter is a provocative read. The characters on its pages seem to exhibit an extra-literary volition and self-awareness. Could you tell us a little bit about the novel?
Tony Burgess: I hope people don’t read it as a book about being in a book, but rather a book where characters are encountering the same obstacles that we all do. As for what it’s about and what actually happens, I am not certain.
Joseph MacKinnon: How did you react to your Trillium nomination for Idaho Winter?
Tony Burgess: I was thrilled, of course. And a bit curious as to how this could happen. Then I laughed at an irony — this is my only book not set in an Ontario town.
Joseph MacKinnon: You’ve said before, “I’m obviously not anything like an A-list writer, nor somebody who’s going to get on Canada Reads.” Do you think this nomination is the CanLit scene’s way of proving you wrong?
Tony Burgess: The problem with answering questions like “How come you don’t win more at what you do?” is that they are not sensibly answerable. They make me feel like I just grabbed some kind of bait. I have always felt that in order to see my books as contributing to Canadian literature you would have to interpret them in some specific way, so the contribution isn’t apparent. Some people like my books very much and some people really don’t. I’m quite comfortable with that. I think that I misread this question — it’s not really about popularity after all, is it? It’s about a literary argument some people had behind closed doors — and that’s for the best, I think. (more…)