July 8, 1927

by Paul Luckhart

To Milly

The wildfires burning in the city’s outlying regions were said to be the worst anyone could remember. A cloud carried through the streets, softening colours and dulling the edges. The features of structures and people were made indistinct, and all that was visible was what was near. I thought of glimpsing something I was not prepared for, like a monster jumping from outside the frame in a horror film, appearing suddenly within the small space I managed to see.

I walked on Comox street, breathing the thick coarse air, attempting to find a building that had a fire of its own which occurred ninety years before in the year 1927. I had read of the event in the Vancouver City Archives on an original print torn from the July 9 newspaper of that year. The edges were tattered and much of the article was missing, though the image, yellowed and reticulated, was intact. I saw the name of my great-step-grandmother Elizabeth, and the names of her three children, Ted, Jean, and Grant. I could only learn so much before reaching the place where the paper was separated, and the rest was lost to some indistinct past. The story of their deaths and the circumstances leading up to it had previously been made known to me in few words by my father, who had remembered Elizabeth and the child that survived the fire from family holiday gatherings or birthdays, but by then the child was an adult who paid little attention to my father, and Elizabeth would apparently never speak of that day. What I had learned, however, was that Elizabeth had decided to travel from Toronto to Vancouver that summer with her children to be close to her mother who had fallen ill. This came soon after the death of her husband, Edgar, who died from some condition or another on January 1 of that year. They took up residence at The Royal Alexandra, at the corner of Bute and Comox, not far from the beach where they had spent that early July morning. It would appear in the photographs of the burning building, which I would view in the archive, that the only cloud to paint the sky that afternoon would be the dark noxious mass billowing from that very building. It was the death of her husband on the first day of 1927 that would signal the beginning of a year marked by death for Elizabeth, who in addition to her two children who would die in the Royal Alexandra, her mother would soon pass on as well, as though death encircled her like a fire enclosing on a landscape.

The Beach

Grant could hear his mother encouraging him forward from the shore behind him. He knew she was expecting a full emersion, for him to disappear from the superficial world to explore one all his own, to return with one big, wet lashing gasp and tell her all about it. But he had come far enough. He wanted out. He kept his arms tight against his chest to keep warm, to compensate for the cold swallowing his legs. The water gushed and grew against his body, reaching higher to dry regions untested by the temperature, and it would be like a sharp pain causing him to howl and hold himself even tighter. Mother had stopped calling from the shore and although Grant was staring ahead, he could tell she was disappointed, and he did not want to look back to see it for real. He could feel it on his back like a knapsack stuffed with school textbooks, heavy and sharp and full of things hard to understand.

Ted was out there, goggles and snorkel on, snatching handfuls of earth and swimming them back to shore. He was looking for microfossils. He said it was the ocean’s darkness that kept them hidden, and if he looked, he might find them in the loamy bottom. He talked about them like snowflakes. Each one was different from the next, the petrified remains of puny creation. He thought about it as life wanting to exist so badly that it existed in things he couldn’t see. Collected handfuls on some driftwood washed ashore for later inspection, he asked mother, mumbling through the plastic mouth piece of the snorkel, to keep an eye on it. She said she would.

The area around Ted’s eyes were red with deep impressions from the goggles, eyes burning with the salinity that passed though the breaks in its suction against his face. He looked over his mound of clod on the flat face of the driftwood, spread the sand across the sun-bleached surface, and brought his face close to it.

“See anything?” Mother asked, leaning on her elbows in the sand. Her straw hat cast dappled shadows against her face. Her hair was in French braids, and the braids were falling opposite. One rested on her collar, the other behind her back. She was squinting despite the wide brim, as though she too were trying to see what her son had found.

“Sea glass,” he said, disappointed.

“That’s lovely,” she said. “Just think of where that glass may have come from. Japan. Australia maybe.”

Ted held the pieces in his palm, each colour different from the next. He fingered their smoothed edges, brought a single red shard up to his eye, and stared through it. He looked toward the ocean, which had turned from blue to a milky white, like a big bowl of cereal.

Grant returned to shore and laid his head down against his mother’s red lap, hot and smelling of zinc. The split between her thighs acted as a crevice against his ear through which he could hear the goings on of the world beneath her, the coarse friction of earth and flesh as her knees crossed to accommodate the weight of his thoughts. The sand beneath his body was burning, pleasant at first but increasingly singeing, but he stayed where he was, eyes closed, listening for his mother’s voice to become visible. Her words were always some beacon.

Ted watched his brother through the lens of sea glass. He swept his vision across the beach, finding Jean in her bathing suit on the rocks that jutted out from the shore, staring out. Ted kept record of the time it would take for Jean to turn around and find him staring at her. It was a game the three of them sometimes played. He counted.

Jean had her knees up high and her elbows resting on them. She watched a big tanker take its leave through the blur in the distance, a shape lose itself in a faraway space from which there would be an entirely new blur to look ahead to. She wondered about crossing through these liminal spaces that in themselves were the outermost point, borders drawn by the limits of the eye. She considered the prairie they had crossed in order to arrive here. It had appeared endless and without interruption. Grain silos stood like monoliths in the dry heat. She never knew unlimited space back home. Halls always ended in a room she couldn’t go to. Lawns were cut by tufts of hydrangea and sugar maple or some evergreen, rows of homes faded at the end of the block which turned off to one just the same, and all those who resided there permitted such consistency with the schedules they kept. It was a stretch of existence which had benefited most from the dispassionate use of invention, whose search for opulence had led them to await each day as though it in itself was that threshold from which to view a greater scene, but nothing ever changed.

Jean pushed her hands into the water and brought some to her face. The sun was hot on her shoulders, and she imagined the water leaving her face and sizzling against them, steam rising from her in squirming strokes. She started to sing a tune to herself, one she heard on the radio about falling in love in summer. When she imagined the woman singing, she imagined mother.

Summer is just a piece
of this story we share
this love won’t cease
so long as we care

Or was it,

Summer is just a beat
in this heart we share
and it’s so sweet
when love is in the air

Something like that. She felt somewhat self-conscious about her singing, though nobody was around to hear it. She turned to look at the shore, making sure there had been no witness to it. She found her brother watching her, squinting through a red fragment of glass pinched over his eye.

“Three minutes and twenty-four seconds!” he yelled. “Nearly broke the record!”

“You grot!” She squealed, searching nearby for something to throw and found nothing but the ocean itself, which was either too heavy or too light to reach the distance between them. “Point that grimy kaleidoscope somewhere else.”

Ted looked to the beach and all its occupants, the thick bodies bent in placid postures beneath erected canopy and parasol, all eyes watching remote quarters of the space beyond them. Everything was bloodshot. It reminded him of a time he had seen the inside of a darkroom and the glow of a safelight. He’d watch images appear in the molten bath, their darkened shapes marbled on the emulsive gleam of the paper handled by dainty rubber tongs. He thought it strange that the deepest part of the photograph always arrived first, the depressed interiors untouched by the light. The shadow across a face, a mountain, some emptied inner cavity. They were the Rorschach smears against the immaculate sheet submerged beneath a chemical wash, demanding an interpretation. Taking the fragment of sea glass away from his eye, his vision burned at the renewed light of the overexposed world, and staring hard, he attempted to make out what he saw. The world mottled and met its resolution, and he discerned his mother and brother, Grant’s head in her thighs, eyes shut, her fingers spinning his hair, loosely coiling strands and letting them fall to his head. One by one, the weightless columns slumped over the sleeping boy’s face.

These were images that would be scattered in Ted’s memory for some time afterward. He would forget his shallow excavations of the seafloor and the microfossils he didn’t find, and how each one was meant to look different from the next and that life wants to live so badly it lives in things unseen. He would lose track of Jean buckled on the rock jetty and misremember the time he spent staring at her. He’d remember squinting through to that place where his mother held his brother bleached like driftwood in her sunburnt arms, and her braids that dropped over his face, but in his memory his brother was already dead.

Summer is just a beat
in this heart we share
and it’s so sweet
when love is in the air

Or maybe it was,

Summer’s boiling heat
is too much to bare
and the fire won’t cease
this life just ain’t fair

* * *

The grass in the park at the corner of Comox and Bute had stopped growing for all the tread that had levelled it. The baked earth hardened by sun and footwear dominated the centre of the field, surrounded by a fenced-in enclosure permitting dogs to roam. I sat across the road beneath some trees, watching various dogs attempt to dig at the dirt, scratching at its tough surface and abandoning their efforts at the resistance of the land. I was curious about what, if anything, it was they were searching for, if dogs have any sort of inclination as to what was buried beneath them, or it was those digging who wished to do the hiding. The patch of earth they attempted to excavate was likely to be softened in the months ahead from the winter rains, and I imagined artefacts surfacing in the mud and coming to life.

Across the street stood the Strathmore Lodge, which had changed its name from the Royal Alexandra shortly after the flames had gutted its upper floors. The beige stucco was fractured up the facade, topped by a parapet on which a motif of geometric shapes spanned the width of the building, a decorative pattern from the art deco trend when the building itself was erected. The images I managed to find from shortly after its construction compared with the current exterior confirmed that sharp eaves had once extended over the buildings edge, suggesting renovations had been done to embrace the era in which it had been built. This attempt to reach back and extract what had not been applied to the structure at the time of its initial design demonstrated a forgery involved in its prevailing appearance, and I felt that I alone knew the buildings true face.

I counted the floors to the top of the building, reaching seven. I was aware that in 1927 the fire had started on the sixth floor when a painter had left to go for lunch, leaving his cans of varnish in the heat of the room where he had been working. The Luckhart’s, who had occupied an apartment one floor above, were themselves sitting down for lunch when the fire spread. I learned from a newspaper clipping from November 25, 1948, that yet another fire had started in the building, which by then had been renamed to The Strathmore Lodge. This time it had ignited on the fifth floor, where a man by the name Ralph Lighthart had taken on the fire himself using buckets of water. The casual similarity in our surnames did not strike me until I learned that the architects of The Royal Alexandra were Jacob Lightheart and G.E. Lightheart, who had built a number of buildings across Vancouver, all of which resemble The Royal Alexandra. I began to think of these as other Royal Alexandra’s, that the same building was scattered throughout the city in an effort to muddle the past, each one a decoy to the real building to confound anyone who might search for it.

The Fire

Elizabeth set the water to boil. She decided on macaroni and cheese because it was the only thing anyone agreed on. Ted demanded cereal, Grant insisted on broiled cheese sandwiches, and Jean requested some dish discovered deep inside the pages of The Epicurean cookbook procured on fourth avenue, which Elizabeth explained contained ingredients she had never heard of, grown from gardens in remote destinations far from any she had ever known.

Elizabeth started the gas stove, took a match to its hiss, and watched the blue flame unfurl beneath the saucepan. Warming the milk and stirring, she set the wooden spoon down on the counter, leaving a small white pool to settle beneath its shallow depression. Grant was near to her with his elbows on the counter and his hands pushed into his cheeks, watching. Elizabeth asked if he could help grate cheese and he said he could, responding as though he were competent to do far more than what had been asked of him. She cut a block of cheese and handed it to him and he held it firm, dragging it against the vertical surface of the upright porous hardware. The shreds collected on the plate beneath in one mounting heap, confined within the walls of the grater. Elizabeth watched the rising summit of cheese, feeling certain that the peak could not extend beyond the top of the equipment that sustained its growth, that it was likely that the cheese, not having any place to go, might return through the holes it had entered, or perhaps the uncomplicated appliance might reject its task all together and the cheese would cease to shred. She certainly did not want to return the cheese to the icebox after it had moulded to the print of Grant's sweating palm.

Elizabeth weighed out the flour, noticing the dust falling on the counter and settling over the milky spoon, so that when she raised it to stir the milk, a negative image of the spoon was left where it had been. She remembered seeing images in magazines consisting of objects placed on paper and exposed to light. What was seen was not the light but the absence of it, ordinary objects like scissors or coils of film or a fork, each one bright as though it were the source of light and not the obstruction to it. She thought of it as though she were staring at shadows or imprints in the snow or maybe even fossils of something now long extinct. That by viewing the images she was unearthing these typical subjects, discovering the remains of some forgotten life.

Her attention returned to the water, now steaming, the lid chattering. She lifted a box of macaroni elbows from the counter and shook it once, then twice. Turning to Grant who was still preoccupied with the sodden hunk of cheese, she imitated a dancer that she might have seen somewhere with maracas. She moved toward her son, shaking the box in one hand and extending the other out toward him. She took him by the cheese freehand, and they moved from the counter out into the open space of the small kitchen, spinning in their socks. Grant held the cheese firm in his hand, tenacious, committed to his work even beyond its demand. Like his father, she thought.

Edgar had wanted Grant to be something of a solid surface on which to draw an image of himself. Grant was to be firm and Elizabeth was to be tender and that tenderness was not to permeate the boy. The hardiest lessons were to derive from Edgar. Elizabeth would be privy to this, only to validate all that was determined through the monologues presented by her husband, and not once should she overturn what was said through private revision. Now, Edgar was dead, and although her son had always been hers, she felt him to be more so, untethered from the persistent orator of control. She thought about his grave site in Toronto’s West End, and how when he died in winter, they had to wait for the earth to thaw so that they could bury him. She remembered waiting for his funeral like it was some coming inconvenience, a date with an old friend with whom she didn’t have anything to say. Eventually the dirt loosened, but the wind was cold, and she huddled in the door of some mausoleum, smoking, raising her hand to her face and noticing the sudden weightlessness of the ring on it. She thought up images of Edgar in the frozen box, pallid and rigidly staring up toward the surface of the world, perhaps remarking in the way that dead men do on the pain that erased him from it. That he had been starved in life of the tough lessons to prepare him for its end, blaming his own father for this as it had been the work expected of him but not once delivered. Fathers, she surmised, did not know how to speak to their children. And it was only when they were already dead did their children get a chance to speak.

Grant returned to his grating, but Elizabeth kept on shaking. She shook into the living room where Jean sat by the window, staring as she often did at an undisclosed distance. She shook into the bedroom where Ted sat reading magazines. None of her children looked up to greet her, to comment on her antics. She was a solitary burst of flame flickering in an otherwise uninterrupted landscape. Grant called to her from the kitchen.

She returned to find the mountain of cheese freed from its enclosure and reigning over the counter, its apex far surpassing the height of Grant who stood before it, demanding directions on what to do next. She turned down the knob to the boiling water and poured the macaroni in, and together they lifted handfuls of cheese into the warm milk. She let Grant stir. He held the spoon high above his head and could not see over the edge of the saucepan.

Ted stood in the door, leaning against its frame, watching.

“Would you like to help?” she asked, keeping her attention turned toward the stove.

“Fifty seconds,” he muttered.

“What?"

“No, thanks,” he said, moving away from the doorway.

The living room was an immaculately uncluttered, sparsely decorated space, furnished for short-term tenants such as the Luckhart's. Anything bestowed with a bit of hodgepodge was done so with an intention to give some casual way about the place, books and magazines desultorily placed, as though offering a vague sign to any occupant wishing to see in the space the same disorder they saw in themselves.

Ted sank down on the couch and waited for lunch. He watched Jean in the window, keeping her forehead pressed against the glass. Ted watched the square of afternoon sunlight on the floor and her shadow in it, considering the trajectory it would take across the floorboards. He always thought hard to remember where the sun had come from and where it was going, where he was in connection to it and how shadows moved opposite to the sun. He would often use strips of painter’s tape, writing the time of day and marking the movements the sun made as though he were some director to a staged performance of time. It was in this way he felt in control, at the helm of something far beyond him.

He crawled from the couch to the patch of sun on the floor and laid himself across it. Jean’s shape imposed over top of him. He basked in the available light comprised of the negative space around her.

“You’re taking up all the room,” he said, speaking from his back.

Jean didn’t bother looking at her brother and instead kept watch over the street.

“Idiot,” she said. “Go find another window.”

It was the emptiness of the room and the emptiness of his stomach that deprived his ability to generate worthwhile recreation so insisted on conquering what in the space had already been occupied. He stared to the ceiling and considered its markings, the water damage and smut, each a distinctive feature to the inverted landscape above him. He mapped it, naming each region for its peculiarities. Mould City. The Kingdom of Inexplicable Smears. The Great Dividing Split in the Plaster. River of Unknown Fluid.

The sun had dragged farther on, moving off from his body toward where he did not bother to follow. Mother entered holding onto the edges of the bakeware with tea towels, setting it down in the centre of the table. Grant scurried in after her with both fists tight around utensils, napkins pressed between his chest and arm. He circled the table, placing each necessary tool down in an order memorised from restaurants, displaying each as he remembered them being displayed, running back to the kitchen to retrieve smaller spoons with the anticipation of desert, uncertain if mother had prepared one. Ted watched all this from the floor, and when mother announced that lunch was ready, he did not stand but stayed on his back.

“Ted,” Mother said.

“Mom,” he replied, staring toward The Kingdom of Inexplicable Smears.

“Have you died?"

“It’s hot.”

“Yes, quite.”

“Too hot."

“I wouldn’t say so. It’s a beautiful day.”

“Like the sun is beneath us."

“I suppose when it’s late at night it is somewhere beneath us. Japan. Australia maybe.”

“Smoke?"

“Never did like it as a habit. Your father smoked for years. Never did like kissing him when—”

There was noise out in the hallway, a single voice, then a gathering of them. There was a sudden collision of materials. The noisy departure from shelter. Ted ran to the door, prompting a head rush from the rapid adjustment of his position, and opening the door without any blood in his head he nearly fainted as the smoke moved into the apartment. He was met there by his mother who leaned outside the door, attempting to peer through to some root of disaster. Jean and Grant joined them, each body combative for the space within the frame to look upon the scene, like subjects avid to meet the camera’s focus.

Ted would later reflect that perhaps what was more breathtaking than the rapidly concentrating, noxious mass of smoke, was just how bodies so near could lose track of one another so easily. He knew there was a hand in his, small, slimy fingers clutching each digit, and he was yanking it along, moving through an unseen interval of hallway toward some undetermined distance. A door was open and he pushed through it.

Grant did not know why he clasped Ted’s hand. It was not Ted’s he was reaching for. He could hear his mother behind them, distant, smothered like a voice beneath waves of quilts pulled overhead. He thought of lying with her in the early morning, reaching for her shape buried under the covers, guessing at which part of her he found. It was a game they sometimes played together. Elbow. Knee. Arm. Hand.

They stood in yet another apartment just like the one they had left behind, decorated all the same, layout too, only the table wasn’t set, no scrupulously set utensils, no macaroni. Grant thought about the macaroni on the table in the other room and how it wasn’t getting cold like meals usually get but even hotter. He followed Ted to the window and Ted opened it, staring down to the street where people were gathering and staring up toward him. Grant wiped his eyes, but they just burned more. Ted threw his leg out the window then sat on its edge with both legs hanging over the people like he was thinking of jumping into their arms, but he did not jump, and the people were calling to him, but he did not know what they said for their voices were too many. Grant stood behind his brother as though waiting his turn for a slide, but there was no slide, and Ted never budged. He called to his brother, but his brother did not turn or speak. Grant pulled the collar of his shirt over his mouth and felt the sharp pain of fire against his skin and remembered the sharp pain of the ocean against his skin and he held his breath like he was ready for a cool submersion. He watched Ted. He played that game they sometimes play. He counted.

About the Author

Paul Luckhart

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Paul Luckhart lives in Tasmania, where he is studying to be a teacher. He spends his weekends in search of the thylacine, an animal long believed to be extinct.