Monday, 30 April 2012

A Prelude to "Baggage"

Baggage is a happy accident that became my first foray into flash-fiction (250 words or less), and is due to be published in the Lake Winnipeg Writers' Group magazine, Voices, at the end of May...which is another first - the first time my work will be published in Manitoba. I've been recognized and/or published in every other part of the country - not to mention overseas, in Britain (which I will continue to inform anyone at the drop of a pin) - but good ol' Manitoba (as usual) was slow to catch onto the news of what a gifted fellow it provides a home to. As with Burton Cummings, I look forward to receiving a model of a Red River Cart with much anticipation. I mean, who wouldn't?

Actually 'work' might be too grandiose a word with regard to Baggage. I was just goofing around at the computer when I decided to see that, if I wrote nothing but pure dialogue, how far could I go without any narrative whatsoever - not even any 'he said' or 'she replied', or anything of the sort. So I set my mind in neutral, and wrote down the first thing that popped up, and then replied, and continued on in a progression of what I felt was logic. When I was finished a page and a half later, I could see that I had a complete story, with a beginning and an end, and an admittedly very little bit in between. Okay, maybe it wasn't the sort of thing I would usually write, but there it was, literally in black and white. From start to finish might have taken ten minutes - add maybe another half hour for editing.

Still, I'm a creature of habit, conservative by nature, and this, if anything, was an anomaly. I was more bemused than anything when I set it aside and returned to what I was supposed to have been working on all along, if I hadn't given in to my natural tendency to procrastinate. When the LWWG's competition came out about a day later in the Guild's newsletter, stating that it had a venue for something so short, I included it on a whim with what I considered to be my serious entry - which just goes to show, never underestimate the power of a whim.

A word of caution for the faint of heart: there is language, so you might want a proxy to translate.

Sunday, 29 April 2012

On a Roll...Long May It Last

Once Josiah Stubb was deemed read-worthy and ready to be sent out, I was free to wade back into the short story genre. Actually, let that read, "free to wade back into the short story genre full time," because there was only a short hiatus during the period that it took to write that novel's first draft. Let it not be said that I was idle between readings. Actually, it's better to have something else to occupy the mind between those sessions. Editing a manuscript too intensely is all too easy to do - it gets to the point where you no longer see what you're reading - and it's a malaise to which I have a chronic susceptibility. So work on multiple projects - in order to flush the overfamiliar from the system - is often called for. In fact, one abets the other. On the one hand, wading into a short story buys you time between heeding the siren's call of the manuscript. On the other hand, you launch yourself into the short story with all juices flowing, courtesy of a catch-pool left over from the creative process of the novel. I wrote three stories during that time - two have been recognized - one, The Mathematics of Fate, short-listed with Arts Hamilton, and yet another, Roll of Honour, short-listed in the Galbraith Award. A third, Baggage, written afterward, is due to be published at the end of May.

The Story Behind Josiah Stubb

The Adventures of Charlie Smithers is a novel that took place in 19th century Africa, so was promptly labeled as historical fiction by many publishing houses (a genre that, for some reason, they do not accept). There's little enough historical content, so I hesitate to agree, for all the good it does me, but after flogging every publisher that was calling for submissions, and being continually turned down, I resolved that my next novel would be contemporary as all get out, and as literary as anyone could ask for. So naturally, I launched into Josiah Stubb, a story that took place in the 18th century, based on the second siege of Louisbourg. I don't know what gets into my head sometimes, but that's the way it goes with writing - at least that's the way it goes with me. The story presents itself, and I write it - I mean, there's really not that much choice. So there I was, up to my eyeballs in historical fiction again, only this time even deeper than ever.

Still, I have interest in that period. As a whole, I think that Canadians know very little about that time: only that the British success was the prelude to The Plains of Abraham the following year. But given that building the fortress was one of the most ambitious undertakings by the French in North America, and that it was deemed by many to be impregnable, the obvious question arises: How did the British take it?
It was compelling, and before I knew it, I was pouring over every book that I could find on the subject, as well as spending untold hours on Google. Let's be clear, though, as a rule I hate doing research, as I imagine that most fiction writers do. That's the surest way of taking an interesting subject and boring me silly, until something that was meant to be enjoyable actually becomes work. But there is a case to be made for taking yourself seriously. I mean if you consider yourself as a serious writer, and you're going to tell a tale based on fact, then you have a responsibility to do everything in your power to get those facts right. Keeping that in the back of my mind was a great motivator throughout the process.

I began Josiah Stubb on the 15th of August, 2010, and finished the rough draft shortly after the New Year in 2011. That may seem like a long time for a rough draft, but bear in mind that there were frequent interruptions as the emerging story revealed ever more questions demanding answers, and then it was back to the research table again until I was ready to proceed. That could be hard sometimes. I'm not patient when it comes to writing. I want to get at it as soon as the idea comes to mind. I'm hooked on the journey, the place where it takes me, and anything that gets in the way is regarded as a distraction. In the case of Josiah Stubb, there were distractions aplenty. That's probably why I felt so unsure with what I had when I was finished. The continuity had been broken so many times that I wasn't sure if there was any flow. As a rule, I make a serious effort to edit my work before letting Heartless Editor get her hands on it (which might explain why I get so hysterical when she gives it a thumbs down - I mean, when you think that you're down to nudging commas around, and inserting the odd semi-colon for effect, and she points out some rather serious errors, that will require what seems like an immense amount of work to fix, denial is a pretty enticing alternative), but this time I gave her the (very) rough draft, more or less saying, "Here! You figure it out, because I can't." She read it and offered a few suggestions (like maybe watering down the love scenes a little [I tend to get carried away]) but on the whole declared that she liked it.

 That was a relief. In fact, it was huge. It got the adrenaline pumping again to the point where I could see, that with just a few changes, the road would become clearer. After that the process continued far more smoothly.

There comes a time in the process where you see what you have, but you can also see what it could become. As improved as it was, I still had to admit that the manuscript wasn't readable. Something was missing, like it was too two dimensional or something. It lacked depth, texture, and all those undefinable elements that make a story come to life. It felt like there was a disconnection. I mean, there I was, stuck out on the prairies, writing about something that happened way out on the east coast almost three hundred years ago. All I knew about the places I was writing was from books, and I felt that that's the way that they read. So, with that in mind, I could see that there was no way around it - if I insisted on considering myself as a serious writer, a road trip was definitely in order.

Cape Breton - the parts I saw of it - is beautiful in the summer. I would like to see more some day, but we (Heartless Editor and myself) were there on a working vacation, so it was straight to business. Driving into the modern town of Louisbourg was a thrill. When we pulled into the small, but very nice hotel overlooking the harbour, it felt like coming home. There, maybe a mile to the left, was Lighthouse Point (in the flesh, so to speak), and over there, an equal distance to the right, was the fortress itself - which meant that that island I could see right in front of me at the harbour's mouth must be where the Island Battery had been situated...which meant that we couldn't be very far from the Royal Battery's site. All the research I'd done to that point was paying dividends. During our time there we visited the fortress twice, walked over every square inch of it - from Rochefert Point to the King's Bastion, and studied the ruins of the unreconstructed Queen's and Princess' Bastions, where it's still possible to see the scars in the earthworks from untold barrels of gunpowder the British used when they destroyed it as a precaution, in case Louisbourg was ever returned to France after the end of hostilities, as had been done previously. We drove out to Freshwater Cove (as it was called at the time. Its modern name is Kennington Cove, after the frigate that provided covering fire during the landing) and again the research came into play, as there were no signs to show where the main British had landed, but we found it with very little trouble, and even found the clefts in the rock, large enough for one, maybe two boats, that General Amherst spoke of. We walked out to Black Point, drove out to Lighthouse Point, and walked out to Wolfe's Landing (not to be confused with the real landing at Freshwater Cove) where the siege guns were brought in from the fleet, then dragged with inestimable toil, over rocks and through bogs to the various batteries that eventually encircled the harbour. As far as research went, it was priceless, and when we returned to the hotel, I would while away the hours doing re-writes, or transferring a wealth of notes taken during the day into the story's outline, happily sure that, now, I was getting it right.

That was Cape Breton. In a way, St. John's was even better.

Louisbourg is a sleepy little town that virtually shuts down in the evening. St. John's is neither sleepy, nor little (to someone who thinks that Brandon's too big) and comes alive after dark. It's vibrant, yet friendly, with cars stopping for us if we even looked like we wanted to cross the street (we must have had TOURIST stamped on our foreheads). The taxi drivers' were helpful, and their accents charming, and I won't even start about the food. After all, we were there to work.

We were all over Signal Hill (Flagstaff, as it was known in period), even out on North Head, where a bittersweet scene was to play out in the book. Between Cape Breton and St. John's, I wouldn't want to calculate all the miles we walked, but let's just say that when we went out for dinner in the evening, we felt that it was well-deserved.

This was all really good stuff we were getting, but the reason - the main reason - we had come to St. John's was that I wanted to get a feel for what the town had been like in that period. Since that time there had been at least four major fires that had destroyed virtually everything, and each time the rebuilders hadn't felt obliged to follow the lines of that which had just been erased. So it was almost impossible to describe the town with any sort of accuracy. I didn't know any street names, or even if there were any streets, or if they were cobbled. Who was the gentry, or what passed for gentry? I knew the manner of government, but where did it reside? In fact, I knew very little, and hoped to find answers at Memorial University. What we got was a huge pile of books that the librarian thought might be helpful. They might have been for all I know, but we were due to fly out the next day, and I couldn't see us pouring over all those books in that time. Then we struck gold. The previous day, a lady from Archives gave us the name of an archeologist (who shall remain unnamed, but his initials are Gerald Penney) who ran a consulting firm for the city.

At first I was dubious. I wasn't sure if an archeologist was what I wanted. An archeologist could tell me where a road was, but not what it was called, and that seemed true for everything else I wanted to know, but I shouldn't have worried. I Googled his firm, got an email address, and sent a message stating what it was that I wanted. I received a reply a few hours later with an invitation to drop by his offices the next morning (the morning that found us in the library), and he would see what he could do. So we summarily abandoned the books, and took a cab out to see him. As it turned out, we didn't get to speak to him for very long, because he turned us over to the historian he had on staff (who also shall remain unnamed, but his initials are Bob Cuff). A historian was exactly what I wanted, and I don't think I could have done any better than Bob.

Once more we explained what we wanted, he didn't blink an eye, but excused himself, returning within the minute with a map, dated just a year or two before the time when the story took place. Then he started to talk. I was scribbling like mad: wonderfully antique names like YellowBelly, Maggoty Cove, King's Wharf, Parson's Garden, Ring Noone, and on and on and on, until when we reached the end an hour later, I was fighting the worst case of writer's cramp I'd had in years, and pages and pages of my notebook had been filled. I continued to correspond with Bob long after returning home, and continued to glean valuable information from his wealth of knowledge. How do you adequately thank someone for that? Not just for his knowledge, but his patience as well.

But that was our working vacation, and from thereon in the process was more the norm, until by December, I was at last able to declare it at least readable, and began to send it out for consideration, knowing that, historical fiction or not, no stone had been left unturned to make it the best that it could be.

And that is the story behind the making of Josiah Stubb.

Why "Story River"?

A friend pointed out to me that this site's title might require an explanation. I suppose, that on the face of it, it doesn't really. I think that the connotation is clear enough - a flow of stories - which is what  this blog is supposed to represent, but there is a deeper meaning, I have to confess, and it has to do with the initial process of writing, as it pertains to that all important figure, myself.

It's about being in the zone, when words and ideas are coming faster than I can put them on the page. It's always exhilarating, that's for sure - a high I can't get anywhere else. It's as if it's not coming from me, but some place outside of myself. I've heard other writers talk about this, always with awe, always with that same sense of humility. "It's not me, it's something else." Stephen King called it, "That place where the stories are." (I shouldn't have used quotation marks as I'm paraphrasing, but I think that my recollection is accurate enough that I'll leave them in) The implication being that the stories already exist in some ethereal form, on some other plain, and that he's simply a conduit. You might laugh at the idea, but you wouldn't if you've ever been there.

Maybe it's nothing more than an attempt to avoid liability for an ego gone wild - a way of disavowing that we are in any way responsible for our deep immersion into our 'self'. We writers are an egotistical bunch, after all. I think that we have to be to do what we do. Confidence is a must in our trade, and the more the merrier, but I don't think it's that, exactly, at least not all of it, not even close.

I think that the stories do already exist; try telling me they don't when the words are appearing on the screen so fast that, when I next look up, ten pages have been written in what seems like the blink of an eye. Try telling me that I'm more than just a conduit when, at the end of the day, I'm coming down from that high, and I feel like something unimaginably powerful has just flowed through me. I may smile and nod my agreement (I'm Canadian, after all, it's what we do) but I won't believe you. For me, the place where the stories are is a river, infinite and continuously flowing. To go to that place is to wade into the water and let it play through my fingers, letting it wash over me until I become a part of it - not it of me. That's when the stories come - or to be more precise, that's when I can see them, because they were already there, just under the water's surface. All it took was to become immersed, to become of the water, and allow them to flow through me.

In my opinion, it's as spiritual as it gets. At various times I've been at the keyboard laughing, crying, happy, sad, angry or in mourning - the entire gambit of every emotion conceivable - and none of it has anything to do with me, but what's coursing through my mind.

So there, I think that's the best that I can explain it. If you think it sounds eccentric, well, we're a pretty eccentric bunch, too - egotistical and eccentric, yep, that pretty much sums us up. But that doesn't mean that what we believe doesn't have meaning. If I stopped having faith in the river, I might as well close up shop and take up stamp collecting. That might be more lucrative, but I can't imagine it ever replacing that high...

Friday, 20 April 2012

Story - Tharn!

I wrote Tharn! in April, 2009, during one of those extended breaks from work, that I refer to as a "writing holiday", but other folks might consider as "unemployed". Those were great times, when the myriad of problems that came hand-in-hand with constructing a building - that seemed to rule my every waking (and unwaking) moment - could finally be shed, and all of the pent-up frustration, accumulated from never having any time to write, could be unleashed upon the page. What followed would be a flurry of activity as story after story appeared, and the strain somewhere inside, caused by a backlog of ideas that had been too long denied expression, began to ease when they were finally given their chance in the world. Then eventually the call to come back to work would arrive, and the whole process would begin again.
Transition accepted Tharn! for a special edition on humour in January, 2011. It was also the second time that one of my stories was subjected to editing, only this time with my permission as well as my active participation, to fit within the editor's constant demands for length. I never felt slighted; on the contrary, I felt a heightened sense of contribution. Something that the folks who mangled "A Word" might want to consider.
Tharn! is a tongue-in-cheek (and perhaps cynical) tale of the paranoia that often exists between the sexes in the early stages of a relationship - of how truth becomes the first casualty. In this case - as in many cases - the lost truth is considering experience to be knowledge.



            “What do you want from this?” she asked, ever so innocently – like, in the same tone a spider might use when inviting a fly to its web.
            Aw geez!
“I mean, it’s time to speak honestly, don’t you think?”
If there’s one thing that gives me ‘the heartburn’ (as W.O. Mitchell used to say) it’s when a woman steers you toward the correct answer. Not that I don’t appreciate the guidance, mind, but they’re so darned inconsistent with it. Now, if she’d given me the same sort of hint for her first question, I’d be miles ahead of where I was now.
 “Well, don’t you?”
Sometimes we higher life forms are just kidding ourselves, thinking we have freedom of choice.
“Sure!” I try to sound like I just love where she’s going with this, “Absolutely!”
But if ever there was a time to equivocate, or to lie, or to pretend you have been suddenly rendered mute, or to just plain fall into a swoon that will last until she changes the subject, now is that time.
She had it dangling over me like Damocles’ sword, just itching to split my head in two. Except of course, the blade wasn’t poised over my head - with women it never is.
You see, the thing was this had a fifty-fifty chance of going either way, and in my experience, those odds fall well short of being anywhere near satisfactory.
If I told her I was only in this for shits and giggles, and it turned out she had her heart set on something altogether more serious, she’d have my balls for breakfast, and we’d be finito. But if, on the other hand, it was I who wanted to see where this might take us, and she who was simply looking for something uncomplicated, that sword would still slice off my cajones, and so much for scenario number two.
In fact, the only way of avoiding disaster was for our terms to be compatible, but I didn’t have a clue as to what they were.
I felt frozen in the headlights, feeling helpless, like there’s nothing I can do but sit there, allowing the forces of Doom to descend and utterly destroy me.
There’s a word for this state. In Watership Down, Richard Adams called it Tharn.
I don’t mean for it to sound the way it does. I mean, I’m falling for this girl, or at least I think I could be falling for her, or I think I might be reaching the point to where I could visualize myself falling for her, but I wasn’t ready to say so just yet – not even to myself.
 “I mean, we keep skirting around it, don’t we?”
“Yeah,” I said, still none the wiser, “we do.”
Of course the main attraction for me, or at least the main attraction thus far was that she coupled like a stoat of Gomorrah must have coupled, but there was no use telling her that. Women don’t take such compliments the same as men.
I want to be with you,’ I might say, ‘because you couple like a Gomorrah stoat.’
Really?’ she would reply, ‘How lovely of you to say so.’ I don’t think.
Hearken and tremble all ye men and know: regardless of what they may tell you, women are different.
“I think it’s time to stop pussyfooting around.”
It’s a wonder more women aren’t into small engine repair. I mean, they just love to tinker with the mechanics of things. There we were, purring along famously, then she has to go and see what’ll happen if the spark is advanced just the teensiest bit.
“Stop pussyfooting!” I repeat with false enthusiasm, “By all means, couldn’t agree more.” Then I start doing so for all I am worth.
“Four weeks,” I give my head an appreciative but neutral shake…which is not easy to do.
Four weeks is the amount of time we’ve been together. My neutrality could mean either I thought that was very long, or hardly any time at all.
“Yes,” she was watching me closely, “and how do you feel about that?”
How do I feel, forsooth! Christ, we were striking into the very heart of femininity!
To buy time, I laugh a hoarse laugh. “How do I feel?!” and again, with emphasis “How do I feel?!” I give an admiring chuckle, as though she’s really gotten a good one in - like she’s just made a really good joke or something. But the fact is I’m praying like hell she’ll think I consider the question too incredibly ludicrous to answer.
“Yes, how do you feel?”
Damn! Damn and blast! She had me backed into a corner and (at the risk of mixing metaphors) I’d have to come down on one side or other pretty soon. One mistake and, at the very least, a really fun time would go up in smoke. At the very worst, my life would be ruined!
But wait! She’d mentioned ‘pussyfooting’, hadn’t she? Now, that was a serious word which only a serious person would use! No one who was just interested in a little slap-and-tickle would say anything even remotely resembling ‘pussyfooting’ in that context!
So I gave her my most frank stare and opened my mouth to tell her that I wanted us to go further…then closed it again, and glanced away.
Maybe it was a trap. Maybe she had some insecurities, and she was setting this trap for me to blunder into. Then she could give me the old heave-ho and avoid having to deal with her baggage, all at the same time.
Yeah, that made sense. All women have hang-ups, absolutely all of them, and with that total inclusion comes the fact that not a single one is willing to face any of them head-on. Like I said, they’re not like men – not like me, for instance. ‘Level-headed’ was my byword, and ‘baggage’, for me, meant an extra pair of socks and a change of underwear. Matter of fact, if you were to get to know me, you’d probably think I was Beaver Cleaver’s dad. But in contrast, there’s a reason why women wear heels: it’s their way of telling you they don’t have two feet on the ground – only ten toes, which is not quite the same, any way you care to look at it.
So, with that in mind, it would be best to tell her I was gung-ho for the status quo. That way the pressure would be off and her hang-ups could go whistle.
Except, of course, if that wasn’t the case, it would be the worst possible thing to tell her.
Cursing silently, I lied, “Well, that’s a very good question.” I sat back, steepling my fingers sagaciously against my chest and looked to heaven for guidance, “Yes, certainly an excellent question.”
But now I was stymied - totally Tharn. A long uncomfortable pause was inevitable, and the only thing worse than saying the wrong thing was to say nothing at all. When that happened it would be over, tout finis, kaput. Anything I said afterward would be too late.
I sat there, staring at her in a state of mute panic, almost hearing the engine roar as that murderous machine bore down on me, thirsting to rend limb from limb, like a ravenous wolf would an innocent lamb.
But then, in the nick of time, Blessed Inspiration came to me like it comes to people maybe once in their lives, if that!
“It’s complicated,” I said, avoiding her eyes.
The complexities of the feminine mind are forever attracted to a kindred spirit…unless, of course, she just wanted to keep things simple!
“Oh? How so?”
I almost faint with relief (God, I wish I had!) But she’d swallowed the bait, and that was a good thing.
“I mean you’re so fascinating,” I glance up to see how she’s taking this. Her head was tilted quizzically to one side (excellent!)
I left it hanging.
“Go on,” she prompted.
“What I mean is you’re not like other girls. You’re so….” My hand slowly stirred the air while my eyes continued to gaze skyward.
“You’re so….” I cease stirring for a moment, squint thoughtfully – consider - then give my head an impatient shake as though discarding a word found wanting.
“You’re so…”
The point of this exercise, of course, was to turn the object of our discussion from myself to her, and it would seem that had been successfully carried out – admirably carried out, if I do say so myself. Now that she realized I found her fascinating, she just wouldn’t be human if she didn’t want to hear more.
“You’re so…”
Finally, I let my hands fall into my lap, and give my wrists a weak flip: failure personified.
“Complex,” I finish lamely, with just a hint of self-annoyance to suggest I found this totally inadequate.
Well, obviously that wasn’t the case at all; it was the perfect word! I defy anyone who has been described as ‘fascinating’ and ‘complex’ not to be intrigued by it. I mean, I’d be intrigued if someone referred to me that way.
“Really?” she leaned forward, “I’m intrigued.”
“I mean, you’re so beautiful,” her brow twitched with annoyance so I hurried on, “but that’s the very least of it.”
It became serene again.
“It’s just that I don’t understand what you see in a guy like me.”
A little self-effacement never hurt anyone, especially if you put it in such a way as to elicit a reply. And it was true too, of course. I’ll admit honesty has its uses sometimes.
“You’re interesting,” she offered, which was good for starters, but it would be bad form to let her go on – especially if she wasn’t willing to.
“I’m glad you think so,” I cut in with polite impatience, as though considering this was a given (which was far from the truth), “but the thing is there’s so much more about you that makes your physical self seem almost common by comparison.”
I’ll admit that was going out on a limb; no woman ever wants her looks to be brought into question. But it was plain as day she’d been told she was beautiful so many times by so many guys (all of who would’ve had an ulterior motive, of course) that she regarded such comments with suspicion, almost as an occupational hazard. So, to be confronted by someone who found her appearance lacking in relation to her mind, and with the gumption to say so, well, odds were I’d go up a notch or two in her estimation.
Sure enough, her face clouded over like it was getting ready to storm for a week, but it cleared up again as soon as she caught my meaning. Then I saw something new in the way she looked at me, and wondered if it wasn’t gratitude.
The beauty of it is I wasn’t lying, not about that part anyway. For one thing her mind was like a treasure chest filled with rare jewels. It drew me to her like a fly to fly-paper, and did almost as much for me on the physical side as did her body. Then there was her sense of humour that kept rocking me back on my heels, because it was so original and not cruel the way most humour is. But even all that paled when compared to…well, just the good old common sense way there was about her. Most beautiful women like to talk about themselves and not much else - it’s groomed into them. But she wasn’t like that. Oh, she wasn’t immune to a compliment every now and then (like what I was doing now, for instance) but it would have to be carefully tempered and not overdone, otherwise I would end up doing my cause far more harm than good.
But for all that, what it all came down to was that she was a woman, and being a woman, she just had to ask bloody awkward questions, like the one that started all this in the first place. Still, when it came to brass tacks, say what you like, life hasn’t been boring since I met her.
So I summed up with, “You’re like no one else I’ve ever known, man or woman.”
 Gender neutral statements go over big with women, but I found myself perplexed to be speaking more from the heart than I’d originally intended. I also discovered a curious lack of being unsettled by that.
She gave me a hard look that lasted an eternity. Then, thank God, it slowly broke into a smile to let me know the inquisition was over and I was off the hook.
“So are you,” she said, and I think she meant it, too.
We sat in silence, feeling closer than ever, like somewhere along the line we’d taken a step toward something.
Then I caught her smiling secretly to herself.
 “Oh, I was just curious how you were going to wriggle out of that, is all.”
Aghast, I stared at her, feeling the blood turning cold in my veins.
“You mean you did that on purpose?!”
“Of course,” she giggled. “How else am I supposed to test your mettle?”
I took a long sober moment to consider the improbity of women, thinking I might have to reassess her sense of humour after all.
By god, I’d been had! She’d led me on a wild goose chase, and had me jumping through one flaming hoop after another, like a toothless old lion in a one-ring circus, just so she could satisfy an idle curiosity!
 With that knowledge came a flash of anger, a grim determination that I would continue to be my own man – my own level-headed self - and that nothing, or no one, would ever lead me around by the nose again!
I felt used, degraded, my sensibilities ruthlessly invaded for the sole purpose of being mocked. It wasn’t good enough, not by a damn sight! This was war! I’d see her in hell! I’d rather drink hemlock than spend one more minute with such an unfeeling creature! Why, I….!
 But then, in spite of everything, I suddenly found myself laughing too - a kind of ‘vive la diffĂ©rence’ sort of chuckle.
What the hell, we only go around once, right?
“Well for starters,” I said, taking her hand before kissing her gently on the mouth, “let’s talk about the stoats of ancient Gomorrah.”
That’s probably what she had in mind all along.

                                        The End


Thursday, 19 April 2012

Being Recognized Counts Too

Sixteen months would pass before my next story was accepted for publication, but it wasn't time wasted in an arid desert. I was learning about the process - the process of writing, yes that too, but also about the process of acclaim - where stories that might go unpublished for various reasons, nevertheless had their quality acknowledged. Whether it was the the Writers' Federation of New Brunswick awarding "Incomplete" second place, and an "extremely impressed" by the judge, Steven Mayoff, in their annual competition, or Concordia University's Summer Literary Seminar's offer of a fellowship for "The Doe" (neither competition offering publication to anyone), the plaudits slowly, but steadily arrived. "Tin Whistle" managed a "greatly impressed" from Aesthetica, another British magazine, whose competition had thousands of entries. "Sean's Lament", a novella, gleaned an "impressive" from Quattro Books, "The Icon" was short-listed in Arts Hamilton's Creative Keyboards competition, "Dear John" another novella, was short-listed in Short, Sharp, Shock, and of course, "Heading Home" made it to the semi-finals in the Galbraith award. All of the latter three in the same month.

But maybe most of all, it was the hand-written notes of encouragement at the bottom of formal rejection slips for my novel, "The Adventures of Charlie Smithers", that started to trickle in: "very funny, well-paced...enjoyed your characters" - Anvil Press; "Quite interesting...well-written" - Insomniac Press; "captivating and exciting...a great sense of comic delivery and pacing" - Breakwater Books. I've been told that these sorts of comments are gold. Although I'm still waiting for the treasure to show up at my door, the encouragement that it gave me couldn't be denied.

Story - Highway Driving

I finished writing the first draft of Highway Driving on the 30th of December, 2007. The week or ten days off over the holidays was always highly valued, when the demands of work could be set aside in favour of the joy of storytelling.
However, the idea was born weeks earlier, one morning on my way to work in the town of Carberry, an hour's drive from my home.
The winter of '07 was harsh, and the drive often included snow, blowing snow, ice, blizzards, you name it, with nothing more than ruts on the highway, in the dark, in extremely curtailed visibility to guide me. #Two Highway takes a turn, and then a sharp dip into the Souris River valley near Wawanesa. The imagination has time to play tricks on you then - when you start descending, in the dark, in bad visibility, with ice on the pavement - it's tense going down, with only limited control, and you pray that you don't meet anyone coming up. But of course there almost always was...almost always semi's. Once, when conditions were extremely bad, and a semi was surging up while I was careening down, the thought flashed through my mind, "So this is Death," and the idea for a story was born.

The John Kenneth Galbraith Literary Award is one with which I have enjoyed some success over the years - all three of my submissions, so far ('09. '10 & '11) have made it into the semi-finals. Highway Driving was the first and - again, so far - the most successful. My brother, Lloyd, and I attended the award gala in Dutton, Ontario, in part because my story had made it past the semi's and into the finals, but mostly I wanted to experience what it was like meeting people who regarded me, first and foremost, as a writer. While Highway Driving came in second (and out of the money), the experience I came away with was remarkably rewarding, and brought with it friends that I still keep in touch with today.

                          HIGHWAY DRIVING

            “So this is Death.”

Ruth’s chin was perched on top of the steering wheel, eyes straining to pierce the darkness beyond the swirling snow; and now too, past these menacing lights surging toward her. But her world had been reduced to the confines dictated by a howling blizzard, leaving nothing but a few meager yards of rapidly filling ruts that, for the present, was Provincial Highway Number Two.
The glow from the dashboard cast her face in a pale illumination of desperate concentration. Beside her head, suspended by a cord from the rearview mirror, the soft radiance also picked out the phosphorescent pink of a plastic disk. It did not, however, illuminate the words– Ruth’s Road Demo #1 – stamped on it in large black letters. Although nothing more than a cheap oddity, it was treasured infinitely higher than its face value, and so given that particular place of honour.
 The disk had been a gift from Bill; he’d presented it during that too-long-too-short wait at the airport with the other soldiers destined for Kandahar. When that painful time had come to say goodbye, she’d looked down in her palm and noticed he’d slipped it into her hand.
He’d chosen that particular moment with care. His wife’s heavy-footed driving (for that was what Demo #1 implied) had long been a source of jocular conversation among their circle of friends, so he’d planned this reminder of happier times to forestall her tears. But the ploy had been only partially successful. As soon as she’d read the caption, Ruth brayed laughter, so unnaturally loud in the solemn atmosphere, that it had drawn attention from the others. Then, while everyone had cheered good-naturedly, she’d burst out crying all the same.
That had been six months ago. Since that day every moment had rippled with an undercurrent of anxiety, waiting for the padre to come to the door, to tell her that all that was good in the world was now gone, lost in a faraway land. Although that call never came, the toll of the waiting had aged her beyond what mere years could ever do. In fact, so heavy was the price that there was a time when she doubted she could ever again answer either door or telephone without dying a thousand deaths.
Yet, although it would never disappear completely, that fear was already fading into something more bearable. The reason was that Bill’s unit was due in this very evening, and in her excitement, Ruth was determined that when Master Corporal William Wakefield walked off the ramp at the airport, hers would be the first face his tired eyes would see.
But being December on the prairies, the weather hadn’t cooperated. And the army being the army, there’d been a snafu.
CFB Shilo had planned on sending their fleet of long, green buses(‘Pickles’) into the airport at Winnipeg, packed with the families of the returning soldiers to greet them, but it hadn’t quite worked out that way.
“Yep,” Bill’s friend, Sergeant Bean, had called earlier, “We’re good to go, Ruthie. Everything’s tip-top-toolie here. Plane’s coming in at twenty-one hundred, Pickles are leavin’ at seventeen hundred. So, you should be here at…say….”
“Three o’clock?”
There followed an offended silence from Roy’s end of the line. Try as she might, Ruth had never quite gotten used to the military time system. On the other hand, Roy Bean was Army through and through, and regarded those who displayed anything outside the sanctity of those parameters as a civilian at best, or at worst, a communist.
“Fifteen hundred, I mean fifteen hundred hours,” Ruth corrected after some speedy computation.
“Aces and Spades, Ruthie!” Roy was once again cheerful and forgiving, all in the same breath. “Aces and Spades! And if you can find it in your heart to get here a little earlier, maybe spend some time with an old soldier, say…twelve hundred, we might head down to the mess and knock back a few over lunch - do our best to give you that special glow for when he sees you. Whaddaya say?”
Ruth had laughed – she was a bit giddy this morning – and replied noncommittally before hanging up.
For the next few hours she was bubbling with excitement, amazed that it did not explode out of her body like a sunburst. If there was any shadow at all, it may have been a twinge of guilt for feeling so happy. There were others, she knew (some who were friends) who would never experience that peak of joy again; for it had been to their doors that the padre had visited these past months, bearing his grim tidings as would an angel of death, shattering their worlds forever. But she banished the thought for another time. Today was a day of celebration, and nothing could be allowed to interfere.
But then, as though her determination had been a challenge cast at the feet of Fate, a storm front had moved in from nowhere, bringing with it a driving snow and rising wind that grew in intensity with every passing hour. She tried not to worry, yet when the telephone rang again, she couldn’t help the muscles knotting in her stomach. As it turned out, she’d had good reason.
“Ix-nay on the Pickles, Hon.” Roy sounded tired and strained, “Old Man Winter ain’t cooperatin’. RCMP’s closed down Number One.”
Number One Highway – the Trans Canada - was the main artery between the base and the airport, two hours away in Winnipeg, and notoriously untrustworthy in winter.
Ruth’s spirits, once so high, now plummeted. She’d planned this reunion from the day that Bill first told her he was being deployed. Her special surprise, the expensive negligee she was planning to wear under her coat, already lay on the bed, waiting for her to slip into its wisp-like folds. Now, at the eleventh hour, her dream had been shattered.
Fighting back tears, she hung up the phone, and went to the living room window to confirm what she already knew.
They’d bought their off-base acreage a year ago, shortly after they were married. As a country boy, born and raised on a farm in Saskatchewan, Bill was well-schooled in rural life, but for a city girl from Edmonton, it had all been new for her. Through her husband, Ruth’s eyes had been opened to its beauty, and there was plenty of that, far more than she’d ever imagined. But as well as beauty, she was soon apprised that there were also hazards. Their first winter, he’d called her over to that same window where she was now standing.
“Bottom line, Sweetie,” he’d pointed to the skeletal windbreak a half mile away. It marked the home of their nearest neigbour, the Olsens, “if you can’t see those trees, stay off the road.”
When she’d bridled, as he knew she would, Bill had held up placating hands to calm her. “This isn’t the city, Ruthie. If I’m away and you get into trouble, you can’t bank on the chance there’ll be someone around to help. So, promise me,” once more he pointed at the distant copse, “if you can’t see them, stay put.”
He’d gotten his promise, but she hadn’t been too happy about it. Docile acceptance had always been foreign to her nature. But in the end she had to understand his need not to worry. In fact, she understood that very well. More than any other factor of being a military wife, she knew what it was to feel that gnawing fear whenever he was off to some dangerous corner of the globe. So, when the winter storms obliterated the peaceful setting of the Olsens from their living room window, she stayed home with some small comfort, knowing she was doing so for her husband’s peace of mind.
Now, peering out, Ruth saw nothing but a blinding world of white, as though the Olsens had never been.
It was so unfair! With moistening eyes, she grabbed a cushion and clutched it to her stomach before flinging herself down on the sofa. After all the waiting, after all the stress and fear, it was just not fair! She curled into a fetal coil like a wounded animal, and gave in to a tidal wave of disappointed tears.
Minutes passed while she surrendered to her misery, yet eventually, after the initial surge of self-pity, a sober, parent-like thought managed to pierce the din of her frustration. In a no-nonsense tone it reminded her that Bill was coming home, and that he was alive.
Chastened, she felt guilty and childish. She knew there was everything to be thankful for. All that was needed was to wait just a little longer and it would come out right in the end. Once her husband was back, this disappointment would fade to nothing in the blink of an eye. So, remaining curled on the sofa, she dried her eyes and willed the frustration to fade. Eventually, it lulled her into a fitful slumber.
But of course she couldn’t shake her sadness altogether. She’d wanted so badly for that moment to be perfect.
                        *                                    *                                    *
Now, old timers on the prairies have a saying about the whimsical nature of their climate, and they delight in telling it to any disappointed newcomer they run into: ‘Don’t like the weather? Just wait five minutes…it’s bound to change.’ And while Ruth slept, that is what happened.
                        *                                    *                                    *
When she opened her eyes, the first thing Ruth saw was the dim blackness of the Olsens’ windbreak. The second was the clock on the mantel showing five-fifteen.
Roy had told her that the buses had been scheduled to leave at five. She checked outside again. Sure enough, the storm had lessened.
She grappled for the telephone.
“Ruthie?” Sergeant Bean sounded confused, “Are you calling from your cell?”
“No, I’m still at home. I was calling to see if the trip was on again.”
There was a long moment of dead air.
“Sweetheart,” his tone was telling her to brace for a disappointment, “The trans Canada was opened again. The Pickles left on schedule.”
Ire and disbelief cut through her numbness. “And you didn’t call me?”
Roy was at once both apologetic and defensive. “Ruth, I’m sorry, but it’s been crazy as hell here…”
But she’d already slammed the receiver down, savagely hoping she’d burst his eardrum.
Damn! Damn, and double-damn!
At a distant level she knew that, if she were being fair, she couldn’t blame Roy for the oversight. During all the confusion of trying to get the buses through in the uncertain weather, it was all too easy to forget one person out of hundreds. But, at the moment, being fair was the last thing on her mind. Fuming, she paced about the room like something caged, feeling the renewed surge of her frustration. With one disappointment stacked on top of the other, anything resembling sober council was summarily dismissed.
 Then, fatefully, her head awash in desperation, her eyes lit on the coffee table. Splayed carelessly from where she’d dropped them the day before, were the keys to Demo #1.
With a sudden stab of hope, she checked the time – twenty minutes past five. Then she peered hard at the Olsens, and thought that she could just see, in the fading light, something that might have been trees.
It would do! She’d drive herself to the airport, and if history was anything to go by, head start or not, Demo #1 would beat the Pickles hands down.
She raced for the bedroom, slipped into her negligee – hearing threads tear in her haste – pulled on some high-heeled winter boots, grabbed her coat, and was out the door in five minutes.
As a consequence, she didn’t hear the telephone seconds later. Nor, forgotten on the kitchen counter, did she hear her cell moments after that. And so she missed Roy’s warning that, although open, the highways in her area were still considered extremely hazardous.
Demo #1 started on the first savage twist of the key. She slammed the gearshift into reverse, and by a miracle, escaped getting stuck when the car exploded out of the garage. She wrestled the transmission into first and popped the clutch. Tires spinning, churning the snow to ice, Demo #1 shot forward, rear end sloughing down the lane, and out onto the gravel.
Her mind had been so full of her desperate need to see Bill that she was well under way before she realized that the storm was much worse than she’d thought – blanketing the road with several inches of snow. Combined with the poor visibility, it was difficult to tell where the gravel ended and the ditch began.
Teeth grinding in frustration, she’d never been able to get past third gear for all of the three miles to the highway, but she told herself that the pavement must surely be better. Almost certainly, the plows would have been down the main roads by now.
She decided to take Number Two instead of One. Although this alternate route wasn’t four lanes like the Trans Canada, it was closer and less traveled by semis. Even in her haste, she remembered sobering stories Bill had told her of the mountainous whiteouts that the big rigs left in their wake during these conditions, and how dangerously disorienting it was for the smaller vehicles they passed.
It turned out that the plows had been down after all. When she pulled up to the stop sign at the end of the gravel, she could see the ridges they’d left on the shoulders, but that had been hours earlier. Now fresh snow lay on the pavement, true, not as deep as on the side roads, and there were ruts to follow, but speed, so essential to her plan, would be next to impossible.
Disappointed yet again, she was forced to realize that the intelligent thing to do would be to turn around and go home. But as Demo #1 nosed out onto the highway, she also realized that turning around without getting stuck had its own problems. She hesitated, then thought of Bill, and made up her mind. Maybe it was clear further on.
In spite of telling herself to be cautious, her foot kept nudging the accelerator until she was dangerously close to losing control. She could feel the hind end trying to swivel and sway, but slowed down only when she saw headlights pierce the white maelstrom whirling all around her. Although neither vehicle could have been traveling very fast, the lights clarified with astonishing speed and were past her before she had time to react. The visibility was so poor that she hadn’t seen the other car until there had been a meager few yards between them. Now, suddenly caught in the whirling curtain of its wake, a whiteout made it impossible to see an inch past her windshield for an awful span of year-like seconds.
Ruth instinctively wrenched the wheel to the right; only to swing it around to the left again as the over-compensation took her out of the ruts. When the whiteout cleared, it was to find the nose of the car had been whipped around until it was pointing toward the ditch. The headlights yawed drunkenly for what seemed like an eternity before her tires found purchase and brought her back onto the pavement.
She was so shaken that, in spite of the car’s heater having scarcely begun to work, beads of perspiration had blossomed on her brow. This was crazy! It was insane to try to go any further.
But then, piercing through her fear, she imagined Bill talking to friends about his ‘crazy-driving wife’ in that half-boastful way he had. “The girl’s got guts,” he would always end with an admiring shake of his head – a gesture that said that having guts was something he valued.
Barely conscious of doing so, her foot pressed even harder on the gas.
Now, through the dubious glow of the headlights, the road began a plunging descent. On a clear day, she knew that it led down to a bridge spanning the Souris River, but tonight, unable to see the bottom, it was hard to believe that the real world existed beyond all this madness. On the other hand, it was uncomfortably easy to believe that the sinking pavement was taking her to some other…darker place not of this world that held some entity, even darker still, waiting in ambush.
She braced herself, hands clenching the wheel, every instinct but one screaming for her to slow down.
Then suddenly, just as it was registering that touching the brakes would almost certainly put the car into a spin, out of the raging storm, like the eyes of a ravenous monster, twin shafts of light, set high and wide apart, announced an approaching semi, bare seconds away. The absence of any illumination, whatsoever, on either side of those angry beams promised a whiteout as massive as it was lethal.
Ruth felt a stab of pure terror.
Paralyzed by this nightmare, convinced that it was coming to claim her, a single thought flashed through her mind, so deceptively uncomplicated that it might well be mistaken for calm.
 “So this is Death.”
At the same time Demo #1’s front tire caught the frozen edge of a rut. Then, in the heartbeat before the shroud descended, she had a vision of her husband’s face, and screamed his name.
                        *                                    *                                    *
Weary but happy, soldiers in desert camouflage made their way through the airport corridors, following the helpful directions of strategically placed military policemen along the way.
Weary and happy as the rest of them, Bill heard the cheering at the bottom of the escalator, and knew that the folks at home had made it in to greet them. His view was blocked by the back of ‘Pudgy’ Grealer’s head, but he started to crane his neck around anyway. Ruthie was one of those people down there cheering, and oh Lord – oh, good God almighty – he needed to see her again! It was all he could do to keep himself from grabbing Grealer by the shoulders and tossing him to the side. His wife was achingly near now, he could feel her, and anyone standing in the way was flat out taking their chances.
The descending escalator gradually brought the crowd into view. There was a sea of happy, cheering faces with here and there a ‘Welcome Home!’ placard held aloft among a forest of waving arms.
Pudgy waved and shouted to someone in the throng. Instinctively, but to no one in particular, he found himself doing the same.
After all the fear, after all the longing, after all the dust, the dirt, and the death, here he was, safe and sound at last! Here he was, home-sweet-home!
Well no, he corrected, that wasn’t quite right. He wasn’t there just yet, not until he was holding Ruth again.
All the while he continued to scan the crowd, looking for that beautiful, familiar face.
And then he heard her.
He wrenched his head around so hard that he strained a muscle in his neck, and would wonder about that later on.
Then he saw her, and he would wonder about that, too. She was laughing and running toward him, arms spread wide. Then, even while he was reaching out to embrace her, she pulled up short, grinning impishly, and flashed open the lapels of her coat, revealing a glimpse of negligee that covered a scandalous minimum of that wonderful body he’d been dreaming about for so long.
Caught in the surprise, he threw back his head and laughed harder than he had in months. That was Ruthie all over! You just never knew what she was going to come up with! Man, did he love that woman, or what! And in that moment, he felt a surge of desire that was like water bursting from a dam.
But after he refocused, both laughter and desire abruptly faded…because she had vanished.
He stopped in mid-stride, his arms still unconsciously spread. Bill blinked and shook his head, trying to clear his mind. He rubbed his eyes, and stared again, but the spot where he would later swear he saw his wife was now filled by a captain of the artillery embracing his own family.
He whirled around in a perplexed three-sixty, so completely bewildered that, at first, he wasn’t aware of the chill running up his spine.
Not far away, he noticed his company CO, talking to one of the base’s padres. Their serious faces stood out in that tidal wave of jubilation like blood on snow.
Now he felt the chill. It crept up the nape of his neck, contracting his scalp; pulling the skin taut against his skull.
Even as he stared, both men began to scan the crowd, searching for one particular face.
Seconds later, they found him.

                                            The End

                                                                        CW Lovatt


Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Story - A Word

I have mixed feelings about A Word. There's no question that I'm proud of that story, and that it was included in an anthology of short-short stories that now resides in our nation's national library. Who wouldn't be proud of that? However, I do take issue with the fact that "they" got both my name, and the story's title wrong ('Word' by Chuck Lovall). Not only that, but "they" felt free to edit my work without permission (and edit it badly, in my opinion) to the point of taking the lustre out of the story's essence.

I suppose that I could have blocked the anthology from proceeding, but that would have meant denying other writers the fruits of their own endeavours. So now that book sits on a shelf in Ottawa with a looseleaf apologia explaining the inaccuracies to "A Word".

Every writer is aware of the effort that they put into a story, and the impossible odds that are overcome to its being accepted. To see that all erased at the eleventh hour by pure incompetence, is something that I hope no one else has to experience.

                                     A Word

I am.
It is the beginning, and I exist - a dab of dark ink on white filaments of paper.
I am the letter ‘A’ - high cased - the beginning of a sentence, a first utterance of thought.
I am alone. There is space on either side of me so I know that I am also a word.
I am the word ‘A’.
To my left come the sounds of what might be the scratchings of a pen’s nib on paper. In its wake, there are soft murmurings, astonished utterances of the self-discovery of Becoming. I cast inquiries and receive hesitant replies.
“I am ‘d’”, says one with awe.
“I am ‘a’”, says another in tones of hallowed recognition.
“’y’” comes a third, and with only a moment’s reflection, absorbs the accumulative voicing of their Selves, then cries, “We are ‘day’!”
There is a luminescence of awareness. Ignorance is pushed back, and I can see that myself and they are “A day.” This excites us and we begin to murmur amongst ourselves.
“Shhhh!” cries ‘y’, “I can hear something.”
In the distance, emerging from where the scratching of the pen recedes, I can hear something as well, but it is too far away to tell what it is. They are voices, but this is all I know until ‘d’ whispers to me that there is  ‘s’ and ‘o’ to their left.
Then, at that very moment, the distant strains of the pen stop.
 The silence is deafening.
I am puzzled. Perhaps I am troubled as well. Is this all? But that can’t be….can it?
We had been something, but now we are incomplete. Before, we had been ‘A day’. Now we are ‘A day so’. It makes no sense. We lack meaning. Without meaning, there can be no direction. Will this be our eternity - life without meaning? Our excitement gives way to anxiety, and as the terrible silence stubbornly persists, time passes with no solace for our fears.
Then suddenly, as though waking from a timeless slumber, the sounds of the pen are renewed. Terse, breathless whispers, agitated with tension, come down the line that there is to be more.
“More what?” I ask. My own anxiety reflects the strain. My relief at hearing the writing recommence is quelled by the unknown. What is the substance of those distant, unseen others to which I am bound? What will be my meaning? Will there be any meaning at all?
Again and again I beg a response, but receive none.
I fret.
In agitated time, rumours come. ‘It is a big word’, a ‘great word.’ There follows an elongated pause before it comes to me that it is ‘a vast word’!
Anxiously, I wait.
Then, slowly at first, but as the meaning of this vast new word begins to acquire substance, more quickly the identity of the letters come to me until, anxiety forgotten, it becomes a veritable river of information - “b-e-a-u-t-i-f-u-l”!
Indeed it is a great word! Even in our infant knowledge we know there are few greater than this. Our joy and relief shines pure upon the page for, not only have we regained meaning, a still greater significance has been given us by my freshly minted kin, and – oh! – what meaning it is!
Then even in our rapture the information trickles in that ‘a-s  t-o-d-a-y’ is also appended to our world. It seems our excitement can know no bounds.
‘A day so beautiful as today’…
What greater existence could there be for a humble letter than to be part of such a wonderful philosophy! ‘A day so beautiful as today’ shines clearly in our collective consciousness and we thrill the page with our pride.
Still, from below, the nib continues to scratch.
The tumult of our happiness begins to subside, but gone are our feelings of uncertainty and fear. We take assurance in the knowledge of what we are – a collective of hamlets and villages, and yes, even towns and great cities; each comprised of individuals that have joined and formed a society of thought - that today is beautiful! What can possibly be more noble?
Tingling with excitement, we wait while our cousins below are enlightened with their own self-discovery. In due course, we introduce ourselves and trade information, until we are all aware of our destiny.
‘W-a-s  s-u-r-e-l-y  m-e-a-n-t  f-o-r  t-h-e-e’
A vast, incredulous sigh rises from us all, as mist might arise when greeting the morning sun.
With reverent gratitude we realize that we are to be something profoundly magnificent – something so fantastically wonderful that none of us has dared hope it might ever come to pass.
 We are to become a poem of the holy trinity of Beauty and Love and Truth! We are all to be part of the greatest, most pure thoughts that ever were!
 Oh, what a priceless gift. There can never be another more precious than this.
While the sounds of scribbling come from further below – pausing here and there as each word is chosen with delicate care – we settle happily into the paper like so many dreamers in repose.
Because for the eternity of our existence this is what we will be; any who might look upon us will be moved – yes, even if it be for a thousand years. Individuals will take us away with them in their hearts and make their lives more beautiful. Perhaps they will tell others and theirs will become more beautiful, as well. Maybe they will even come like pilgrims to a holy place to pay us homage. Possibly, one day we will grow to shine throughout the world, perhaps even to other worlds beyond - even to the very outermost reaches of the most distant star!
 Every sheet of paper and every pot of ink have the potential to do all of this; to set in line an odyssey that will last forever.
I am the beginning…that first bold step.
I am ‘A’.

                                             The End

                                                                        CW Lovatt – 29/02/08

Story - Freedom's Wings

Saskatchewan's division of the Canadian Mental Health Association runs a literary magazine (Transition) based on mental health issues. They were calling for submissions in the Manitoba Writers' Guild newsletter asking for stories that dealt with that illness. I had ignored the ad the first time I saw it, because I didn't think that it pertained. After all, I was a terribly sane, terribly serious writer. What did mental illness have to do with me? But when the ad appeared a second time, a week later, I decided on a whim to give my list of stories a quick perusal...and was surprised at what I found. More than a few of my characters were exhibiting symptoms that in no way could be described as healthy.

Freedom's Wings is a story that I had always considered as my first foray into humour, although I'm not so sure if that's true. Others before it - The Rat Chancellor included - could make the same claim. But the thing about this story is that I felt a connection and thought that it deserved recognition. Therefore it was all the more gratifying when it actually got it.

                          Freedom’s Wings

Freedom is infinity of choice.
I mention this because now Jennifer has decided to end things with me, beaucoup possibilities stretch out to the far distant horizon.
Way c-o-o-o-o-l!
She said, “It’s not you, it’s me.”
“That sounds clichĂ©,” I tell her.
She replies, “You’re right, it’s not me, it’s you.”
She said, “Well, for one thing, you’re too argumentative.”
“Me? Argumentative?”
“There you go again,” she sighs.
“No I’m not.”
“Yes you are.”
“Fine, have it your way.”
“It’s not my way. It’s just how it is.”
“I hate when you do that.”
“Do what?”
“When you say ‘fine’ like that.”
“I’m just agreeing.” I point out – childishly, I suppose.
“That’s bullshit and you know it.” She doesn’t seem geared for a fight. She sounds tired, but she keeps doggedly on. “You’re being passive-aggressive. You’ll never let anyone tell you anything.”
“Whatever,” I reply in my most agreeable tone, which, when you get right down to it, isn’t all that agreeable.
But really, who can blame me? All this talk about leaving is getting me down. Worse than that, this is her apartment, so if anyone’s going to leave, it’s going to have to be me…and it’s raining outside – one of those miserable cold, drizzling days that never seem to end. What kind of a person would kick someone out into something like that?
 There was no denying this was the Mother of all Bummers, and must be dealt with accordingly.
“Okay, so I’m argumentative,” I acknowledge the possibility while making a beeline to my stash. I don’t know about you, but when I’m faced with the Mother of all Bummers, the only sure answer is the Mother of all Spliffs. “So okay, I can accept that maybe I might have to work on a few things. I’m cool with that – so unbelievably cool I don’t think you understand how cool that is. I’m willing to work on myself. Like, I’m willing to expand my personality, to become a better person and all that stuff. So how cool is that?”
I think it is pretty cool.
“It’s too late.”
“Waddaya mean ‘too late’?” I ask, snipping a bud into tiny green flakes. I should probably be paying more attention to her, but a well constructed joint requires some serious attention in its own right. “I’m here. You’re here. So let’s talk. I mean, we can talk, can’t we? We’re two intelligent beings, aren’t we? So how come we can’t put our heads together and have a meeting of the minds? I mean, like, c’mon already!”
I cut up the bud and regard the little pile of shavings with a critical eye before deciding the Mother of all Spliffs requires further grandeur. I reach into the bag for another bud, and find there is only one left. This is indeed a bummer! I will have to give my guy a call. In the meantime, I recognize there are some serious issues needing resolution. I am okay with that. I mean, my mind is open and everything. I begin to cut up the second bud into tiny little snips.
Meanwhile, there is some hesitation at Jennifer’s end - serious hesitation.
“I didn’t want to get drawn into this,” she said.
Man, she sounds tired.
“Drawn into what?” I ask, snipping carefully.
“Into this,” she said with definite despair, “Into another argument! I just wanted to tell you we’re through, that’s all. I can’t take another argument. It’s all we do, and I just can’t take it anymore.”
Man, she’s really in a bad place, all right. She sounds so forlorn I think of putting my arms around her, you know, to comfort her, but my hands are presently occupied.
“Hey, I don’t want to argue, either,” snip, snip. “Don’t think it’s me who wants to argue.” Snip, snip, snip, “I just want us to talk, I mean really talk. We can do that, can’t we?”
“Sure we can. There isn’t anything we can’t solve if we work at it, is there? Relationships take work, don’t they? I remember hearing that somewhere.”
“I said that last night.”
“Oh yeah? Well, that was good. I’ll admit it. That really was a good one, babe, you know…deep. No spoken words were ever more true. You laid it down and I picked it up like….like it was e.s.p. or something. It just goes to show I’m tuned in, doesn’t it?”
I scrape the clippings together and take out two papers – licking the glue on one before fastening it to the other. La Bomba, baby.
“You believe what you like,” she said, ever so weary, “but the fact is you don’t listen. You always want for us to talk, but you never listen.”
“Sure I do.” Rolling a double-paper spliff requires a great deal of concentration. Too much pressure and the seam will split. Not enough and you’ll be left with something that looks baggy, and totally unprofessional. Maybe that sort of thing doesn’t matter to some people, but it does to me. I mean, no question, you gotta take pride in your work.
“Oh have it your way,” she shrugs irritably, “it doesn’t matter anymore.”
Just a second. Just…one…more…second…almost there. I bring Gargantu-Joint to my mouth and lick the glued edge, smoothing it down. I regard the finished product with immense satisfaction. Few things are so rewarding.
“Aw c’mon, babe. Don’t say that. It has to matter. I mean, look at all the time we’ve spent together. Doesn’t that count for anything?”
“You only moved in two weeks ago.”
“Whoa! Really?” I light the joint, inhaling deeply, being careful to keep air flowing on the outside as well as inside to make the coal burn brighter. I suck the smoke down into my lungs and keep it there. Then I hold the reefer out for her.
She hesitates, regarding my creation almost as though she doesn’t trust it. My thoughts are that this is very strange. There are few things in this world I trust more than the weed. The weed is my friend. He will never let me down. He will always listen with respect. He will never bust my balls when things get weird.
In the end, she accepts it. She takes a short, girly drag and hands it back. It is a ceremony, like smoking a peace pipe.
I let the smoke out of my lungs. It billows and clouds between us. I hack and cough and cough and hack. My guy sells me some really primo shit. He is a good guy. In fact, he is one of the most truly superlative guys on the face of the planet.
“So, two weeks,” I manage before I am spluttering and coughing again. “I mean, I guess I realized that, it’s just we seemed to…you know…fit so well it seems longer.”
I take another long and lovely pull on Mr. Super-Spliff. I must have been tense, because already I can feel myself relaxing. It is no good feeling overly stressed in this day and age. I have heard somewhere that heart disease is the number one killer in the nation.
“You had nowhere else to go,” she said, once more accepting the joint, “so I took you in. I felt sorry for you.”
I kind of remember that. Tracey had just kicked me out. That had been after two whole months together – which was something of a record. I mean, we could have been in love, or something. That almost made it tragic, didn’t it?
“You were all alone, like a lost puppy, so I took you in.”
“Hey yeah, thanks.” I am beginning to feel very fine. There is too much reality in the world. I, for one, will have none of it. “That was really good of you – really humane. You could have left me standing out in the rain, but you took me in. I owe you, big time.”
“I felt sorry for you,” she repeated, “you know, after what happened to your brother and all. Even though it’s been over a year, you seem to be having trouble dealing with it. I thought I could help, but I was wrong.”
Fu-u-u-u-u-ck! Low blow or what! Why’d she have to suddenly go and bring Eddie into all this?
I suck in another massive toke. Getting over this bummer is going to require some very real dedication on my part. Throwing my brother’s memory in my face – you know, just out of the blue like that - was serious shit indeed! I mean, what was that all about?
I continue toking on the spliff. There is nothing I feel like saying so I just keep on pulling, watching with an appreciative eye while the coal burns brighter and brighter.
I guess she caught my vibe because after a while she said, “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have mentioned that.”
Man, that coal was bright. Already it has burned down half the length of the joint, which is really something when you consider how moist I keep the weed. It’s probably not a good idea to be wasting it like this, but I can’t seem to be able to bring myself to stop. I just keep pulling and pulling until I’m full of the smoke, like…like I’m a hot air balloon, or something!
Then I think, ‘Hey, wouldn’t that be far out – to be a hot air balloon?’
 And suddenly, like a miracle, it happens; I am a balloon, bobbing gently in the warm summer air. I am one of dozens of brilliant colours on a huge green field of blossoming ganja. All of us are tugging on ropes binding us to the earth, each of us eager to take to the friendly skies. I can feel the sun on my face, and feel the heat inside that insists on propelling me upward. We all want that – to break free – to escape. I mean, who wouldn’t want that? I trust that heat like I trust the weed. We are one…we are brothers.
Then, for one last time, I’m back in her apartment.
“Know what?” I said, “You’re right. We’ve given it our best shot, but I can see it’s a no-go. I’ll just get my stuff and leave, okay? No hard feelings?”
“I’m sorry,” she repeats, but she is right about this also. It is too late.
I go through her drawers, shoving my stuff into two garbage bags. I’m not sure, but maybe in my haste, I shove a pair of her panties in there as well. The bags are the same ones I’d used when moving in, can you believe that? There must have been some sort of inner voice at work when I’d unpacked to make me toss them in the closet instead of throwing them out like a normal person.
I accept the gift of a third bag to pull over my guitar – it’s still raining – and I’m ready. I’ve become something of a legend over how quickly I can be gone from a former place of residence.
Eyes brimming, she waits for me at the door.
“I wish…” her voice trembles. Apparently, she is expecting one of those teary goodbyes.
“It’s okay,” I put the bags down and give her a feather-light embrace. “Everything’ll turn out so amazingly alright you won’t even believe it, just wait and see.”
She starts to snuffle. That’s my cue. I pick up my stuff and leave.
Freedom is infinity of choice.
As I set off down the street, misty rain plastering hair to skull, my mind is a split screen. One half is brooding on the day when Eddie chose Crystal Meth over me. The other is a severing of bonds over green fields, and a cascade of every colour in the rainbow rushing joyfully toward the sun – toward heaven itself, if we can get there.
My brother was free – none freer.
I hope that, somewhere out there, he still is.

                                        The End

                                                                        CW Lovatt – 02/03/09