In my room at my desk, I startle at the front door’s metallic cracking shut. It’s Monday and she’s left for work, the workaday routine of teaching high-school Biology. Without a goodbye, which she trills when happy, calls expectantly when fairly content, speaks normally when resigned to the daily grind. Her saying nothing this blue Monday may be nothing more than a neutral sign ... I hope. Yet I continue troubled by that exit like a shot. She knows the technique of a soft door-closing (hold the knob open, pull the door softly shut, release carefully), which has always quietly signalled consideration for me and my work. Maybe she’s just wearied of her life ... though that would include the possibility—even the probability—of her being terminally tired of me. I do hope I’m still part of the plan, still on the payroll, so to speak. She will eventually have a great pension. Bottom-feeding writers get nothing.

I’m alone now and that suits me fine. I go into the living room, to the narrow window like a battlement, to scope her shrunken figure way down there crossing busy Front Street to the bus stop. I don’t linger: whether or not she is met by Vice-Principal Mel Macdonald, who moved close to the same stop a few years ago, is unimportant. But then, so little means anything anymore, apart from my writing. And coffee.

With my oversized mug warming my sternum, I stand over the coffee table, and in the awkward space between couch and table gaze down at the permanent mug stain, a perfect ring. We used to joke about who was to blame for the stain, though we both knew who (my mugs are smaller). It was a long-running, weirdly intimate joke that had a hundred variations. Now, I just hate the sight of that ring stain.

I walk up and down the hallway to the bedroom, telling myself I’m on a coffee break, though I’ve written next to nothing, and “next,” as they say, just left town on a rail. I remind myself not to forget to make the bed, if only to avoid the self-reprimand on my subsequent passes. But I’ll forget until close to her return, then hustle and bustle. Instead, I return to my room and shut its door on the echoing apartment. If the non-paying work goes well this morning, I can at least forget the real world with all its troubling troubles for a spell.

I stall over a word choice, flip to Google for meanings and synonyms, but find myself unresolved. The aging mind drifts to my thinking how much I dislike her calling into my room. She knows she shouldn’t do it, had accepted the rule, yet continues to break it. Every irrelevant interruption begins “It’s just ...” It’s just that I was thinking. It’s just that you said. It’s just that I need. It’s just that you promised. Granted, she stopped for a good while after I asked her to imagine my coming to the closed door of her classroom a few times a day and shouting in, “It’s just about the shopping,” or just about supper, or that event I said I’d go to which I don’t want to now. But her imagination has always been wanting and so she eventually breaks my rule of silence. The return to interruption always follows the same un-learning curve: in increments from mumbling to herself in the living room to quiet calls of goodbye to opening my door and apologizing for some pressing matter or other—“It’s just”—to shouting at me again through walls and doors. It’s just so unjust, is what it is.

After some careful composing, I patiently explained that interrupting me in the middle of writing is like startling somebody awake from a dream.

“So I didn’t just imagine I heard snoring from in there?”

“Dear, I’ve never been more serious.”

“No, you haven’t.”

But she frowned thoughtfully in that way I yet loved, turned aside and, presenting her still lovely profile, pinched her lips. “Okay, seriously, I can see that. It’s a pretty good parallel too, Chris. Or is that an analogy? A simile? ... Whatever, you should use it somewhere.” Which more than compensated for this latest interruption.

The next minute she sang from beyond my doorway, “My temperature’s up!”

A sign, a signal, a call to arms, hers. Those were the days.

My study (her word, I prefer “work room”) is the costly second bedroom of our apartment. Since losing the dream of a nursery, she’s challenged in containing her dislike of my occupation of this room and regularly complains that “at least” we could have a guest bedroom. “Guests?” I no longer fire back. Last time I did, she closed her eyes and shook her head slightly. “There have been nights, Chris—or there were before she moved downtown—when it would have been convenient, and safer, for Mel to sleep over.” I said, “Well, well, now Mel the lush can walk home. So: moot point.” Then reasonably asked, “And where would you do your homework?”

She has a desk in here too, which she uses only in the evenings, for marking student assignments, which she does during my TV time, and the little prep she still has to do. We don’t pretend to enjoy the same shows anymore; I favour reality shows of people making fools of themselves (Neighbourhood Wars, Ridiculousness, and such), she the Home Channel (House Hunters, reno shows and the like).

She’s always hated apartment living, had thought the return to Oleum would change that. The move to London had not worked out, mainly because I could not get even part-time work teaching high-school English (my B.Ed. specialization). We had thought we could be homeowners there, and working part-time I could write. We had moved back to Oleum having convinced ourselves that that plan could actually be better executed there. And I could have found a position, but only full-time. Joan had expected that by now we’d be living in a small house far along Lakeshore, or even out in Bluewater.

I love apartment living. Up here on the ninth floor—penultimate to the penthouse—of Haggerty Towers at the corner of Front and George. It’s a bit unfortunate that we have our backs to the big river (the St. Clair, not far from where it rushes out of Lake Huron and under the dual Bluewater Bridges), but such a view would have been too much to ask (as in, too expensive). On the river side I’d also have a clear view of the grassy knoll of Alexander Mackenzie Park, which had marked the terminal point of our old Sunday rambles when we were kids. But such an ever-present nostalgia trigger would be serious daily hurt. All nostalgia nauseates me, which can be a professional hazard, so I stomach it out for my art (that’s a joke).

It’s more than just the stain of a coffee mug, of course: it’s a symbol, obviously. But before being that, it is—it has to be—the actual material stain on the table her quietly skilled father quietly made for us as a wedding gift some twenty years ago. (He later made us a china cabinet, which we sold, at her urging, and cheap.) Myself, when I think this way about fathers and legacy gifts, I tend towards the psychoanalytical rather than the sentimental nostalgic—catch myself and see that I’m again confusing complex reality and neat fiction. That’s another occupational hazard, a more threatening one as I stumble life’s shortening path with my thickening bindle of distorting memories and bulging suitcase of resentments. There are simple truths though, I know some, and a relevant one is this: Joan’s father, the nearly-not-there Mr. O’Connor, was kind and generous; my da an irredeemable madman.

In some instances (her father’s handmade furniture), Joan fit Wilde’s description of one who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. For instance, I had given her a diamond ring that I’d been secretly saving for some five years into our marriage (miraculously, I’d sold an early story to The New Yorker and was able to hide half the fee from her). We were still in such need of money then, to fund “the plan,” our dream. She returned the ring on the excuse that it didn’t fit (without a by-your-leave, I might add). She refused to have the jeweller size it correctly, insisted on the considerable refund and used some of the proceeds to buy me my very first computer, a Macintosh Plus, which looked like an old black-and-white security monitor. She pooh-poohed my continuing pro-forma objections as I first sat before the marvellous machine. She draped her forearms across my shoulders from behind, so that her elbows acted as earmuffs and her wrists as blinkers, and leaned on me. I felt her breasts on the base of my neck. She softly said that now I just had to dedicate my first book to her, if there was ever any question of that, she joked. I remember saying, “I’m dedicating it to myself.”

She said, “Compromise, dear, the secret of a successful marriage! How about: to Science teachers everywhere?”

“That would be some compromise. ... Okay, but only if they promise to convince their English-teaching colleagues to adopt it for every class.”

She’d leaned a bit more heavily on me, her forearms solid bridges, and kissed what then was my hairy crown. I cleared my throat: “Thank you. I love you.”

“I love you too. Hey, you should write a love story! You’re so good it’d make us rich!”

“Dream on. I know the limits of what little gift I have. I got lucky, The New Yorker has stopped sending me even form rejections.”

“Don’t talk like that, don’t even think it. I’m banking on you, Dickens.”

I’d been happy to marry a high school teacher. Apart from some creeping, cultural studies theory that was only then beginning to trickle down to teacher college English programs (my B.Ed. specialization), she was left alone to believe that facts are facts. Me, I believed unreservedly in Joan (formerly the neighbourhood girl known as Siobhan O’Connor). We were in love and living the poorly funded (because the boy known as Christopher Kisbey also believed a real writer shouldn’t work full-time) plan formulated since ... No, not high school, elementary school. If together on and off, that is.

In fact, I cannot remember a time when Joan was not in my life. There had to have been such a time, of course, if only a time my being unaware of her, but it now seems that her absence was always but an immanent presence, by the year, then the month, day-to-day, vaguely so even in Galway and through the earliest school grades. Then as near-pubescents in grade four, we became particularly aware of each other, then tentative friends, and then, before that school year was out, fast friends. Until the summer before grade eight, when we became each other’s first declared girlfriend-boyfriend. We’d shyly revealed our relationship to friends, who’d known of course and had no interest whatsoever in bringing the good news to the world. That was also the time we settled on “the plan.” The point is that Joan O’Connor has always been there, my muse, my anima, science to my art, in plain truth the female me. I have no idea what I’ve been for her, and right from the start.

We were taking our usual Sunday walk together, had stopped for a lunch of Orange Crush and plain Humpty Dumpty chips in the old wax-paper bag, into which we would reach simultaneously with flicking indexes and middles in mock fight. There was also something excitingly intimate in sharing the old-style ridged bottle. We were sitting on the old store’s wooden steps when Harmony Armstrong (“Harmstrong” to our classmates) came along. Joan stood immediately and brushed her thighs. They were kind of best girlfriends and stood face-to-face (though Harmony was shorter), too close for my liking. Harmstrong had a big weirdly threatening head, which looked like a wrecking ball facing Joan’s. She smacked her lips, maybe salivating because of the salty residue around Joan’s mouth. Without expression she said, “Remember what we talked about, Joan.” Joan nodded with a small smile but said nothing, though whether it had been a question or statement or command, I couldn’t tell. Unsatisfied herself, Harmstrong walked away.

I stood and brushed off. “What was that about?”

She didn’t answer, but obviously she was troubled, as with her gaze she followed her troublesome friend.

“You and Harmstrong keeping secrets?”

She hurried: “No-no, it’s just, uh, that Harmony thinks I should go back to using my old name?”

“What? Siobhan? You’d be spelling it out for the rest of your life, Joan.”

“I don’t like you saying Harmstrong, neither does she.”

I disliked Harmstrong a lot. She had failed a grade but at fourteen had read The Second Sex, and always let everybody, the baffled girls, know she had; in a corner of our schoolyard she would proselytize to her posse about the “patriarchy” (Principal Sister Hildegard put an end to those little tutorials, if too late for damage-control). In class she could make even the blackboard brushes uncomfortable by arguing loudly with our grade-eight teacher, Sister Mary-Brigid, and winning every argument. Harmstrong would flummox the gentle nun with a “Just look at you ... Sister?” Emboldened further by the nun’s dumbfounded blinking: “I mean, with all due respect, Sister, you should read The Female Eunuch.” Sister’s chin found touchdown on her gimp, as she raised her left arm straight out to the side, pointing to the door. Harmstrong headed for the principal’s office loudly glossing The Feminine Mystique for Mary-Brigid’s edification. It was something though, the way she’d rallied support from a number of otherwise timid girls, who wouldn’t sit still for Harmony’s being punished “so unfairly.” After the classroom door snapped shut loudly, Christina Pitts said normally: “Harmony’s right, the boys get everything.” With “Yeah” from a few others. “Class!” barked the nun. I was content to picture the humped back of Harmony Armstrong again uncomfortably against the wooden chair in the Hildegard’s office.

A few times Harmstrong even joined in some scrub-football with the boys, the only girl ever to take such liberty, and hurt not a few guys. For a couple of weeks there wasn’t any point in my gang’s kicking the shit out of Art McNeil, which we did in fun (from our pov). She quit horning in on our games only after I’d pretended to fall on the pileup and kneed the side of her thigh. “Kisbey, you are such a fucking prick,” she’d said, hobbling off. We startled at her use of the F-word (a rarity for the time), then roared our heads off. But for days Joan, who’d been watching, gave me the cold shoulder, which was worse even than a charley-horsed thigh. And for more days my gang mocked me at every opportunity: “Kisbey, you are such a fucking prick.”

After our lunch of pop and chips, we walked some more, in uncharacteristic silence. Until reaching Alexander Mackenzie Park, where we sat on the small hill overlooking the St. Clair River with its eye-stinging smell of diesel and beached fish. By that time, we were sitting so close as to allow our arms to touch and shoulders to bump in the give-and-take of excited talk (both of us) and constant joking (me), always aware that our Sunday time was running out. We would linger leaning against each other, permitting our hips to press, as alert to motion as young rabbits. Yet talking, talking, talking. That was my thing, talking, with no sexual innuendo in either the patter or the covert touching, or unaware of any such. We never held hands (because she said she disapproved, it was a sign of “dependency”; I suspected she was taking only the expression from Harmstrong, because her knuckles often brushed mine and would rest there).

Mostly though I was in a state of grace and adoration and gratitude for my great good fortune. I could scarcely contemplate her face in profile and contain myself at sight of the babyish ear, near translucent, the fine brown eyebrow and long lash, the button nose, puffy pinkish mouth always downturned in abstraction or light mockery, sculpted small chin, skin pale as a petunia petal. I just could not look for long at the loveliness she was freely giving to klutzy me. I’d have to catch my breath and clear my throat and turn away and take up the compensating talk talk talk. I was grateful even for the finest fuzz that lightly shadowed her jawline when sun off the river shone through it, as that showed she too was human, and that another Sunday was wasting. She was just thirteen (if you know what I mean), in puberty by then (she’d proudly ‘let slip’ the beginning of her first period)—and indisputably a breathtaking beauty of a very young woman. I couldn’t look at any of my older sister’s magazine models and not see Joan, or not think that she was more beautiful. “Why are you looking at my magazine?” “Uh ... no reason.” “Wait a minute: you’re in love, aren’t you? I know the signs, away all day Sunday, not hungry all the time like the pig you are. Who is it?” She teased in singsong, the sweet-voiced Terry (formerly Treasa): “It’s that Siobhan O’Connor, isn’t it? Joan? ... She’s cute anyway. Strange to say, but I think your friend Phil is sweet on our Peg.” My heart was a mad monkey newly caged. “No, she isn’t, and Phil thinks Peg is stuck up. Anyway, I think she’s one of those lesbians.” “What! Where’d you get that?

Slowly the Plan took shape: Joan declared she would become a high-school Science teacher (it would take too long to become a professor, Harmstrong had informed her), and I would become an English teacher while truly being a writer and set the world to rights for men and women.

I said, “Wha ...? What’s wrong with the world? I mean, like, as long as we’re together?”

She squinted right into my face. “Harmony says a girl living under pay ... patriarchalism suppression today needs more than one plan or one man. That’s all.”

What? Why do you say that? And I am a writer already.” Claimed I who had written nothing but a few bad rhymes, for her: Joan alone / my home only home / even as Siobhan, my only one. And more such wordplay, which is what formed my idea of poetry. Joan’s response? “You’d better not let my mother hear you ever call me Siobhan.”

We remember our moments of pretension hotly, whatever our age, and suffer nausea for them forever like they were still happening, because they are always churning away. Alice Munro says so in a story about a girl from the poor side of town trying to impress her better-off classmates. As said, for me nostalgia always ends this way.

On our park bench Joan placed her left hand on top of my right where it rested just above my knee with its pinky inserted between our pressing blue-jeaned thighs, and said in a muted superior voice, “I know that ... Wordsworth.”

What was not to love, not to adore? Is there another almost-fourteen-year-old would-be scientist girl in the history of the world who’d not have said Shakespeare? Though I, a would-be literary fourteen-year-old, was the one who’d had her read Wordsworth’s “Intimations of Immortality” (which I don’t think she ever really got; she said it made her cry because her beloved granny had recently died; and truth in fiction: I’d read it only because of a great movie I’d seen about a couple of teens who lose their minds in love).

But of course there was a time when I was unaware of Joan/Siobhan, say Galway and the first two or three years of elementary school at St. Anthony’s Separate, but I honestly cannot recall such a time. I do remember first taking clear notice of her in grade four, when we were ten and nine, she in grade three of the split class. Can a ten-year-old boy see a nine-year-old girl as beautiful? Yes. Love her at first sight? Ditto.

We made acquaintance when she began providing me the use of classroom things, metal-edged ruler and Lepage mucilage and math compass and the like instruments for making and measuring, tools I never had the money for, and things for which I was too much the poet in soul to care about. Sister Benedicta not only didn’t mind, she encouraged us to help each other. Many times, Joan patiently showed me exactly how to set the radius of a circle (after the first time I was faking inability so as to watch her closely as she concentrated on the page, her tongue tip peaking from her pale pink lips). I sat directly across from her and one back that year (the dividing aisle between grades three and four), and then for every split-class after made sure of the place (“Move, McNeil”). Harmstrong would always sit directly across from Joan in front of me. When Joan was sitting sideways to show me something, Harmstrong would hiss, “Joan.” It wasn’t to caution against me but because McNeil who, one desk behind me now, was taking in the show up Joan’s skirt. Those days I got my gang to thump him for real.

We got in trouble together, always because of something I did. We joked, or I joked and Joan laughed at everything I said. She also squinted so cutely then nodded agreeably at my every serious thought. Her mother, the redoubtable Mrs. O’Connor, was pleased that she helped me with math at their kitchen table, for they were already hoping she’d be a teacher one day (a main route out of Oleum’s south end). They didn’t appear to mind when we said one Sunday morning that we were going for a walk and would be back soon, but then didn’t return till after the supper hour (her alarmed mother had alarmed Mammy with a phone call). Regardless, once begun, the Sunday walks continued as day-long excursions. It took two years before I innocently, if nonetheless romantically, kissed her. I was thirteen at the time, she almost, and “innocently” or not, I swaggered for days like I was James Bond.

From there things did get sort of sexual between us. In our walks we’d been seeking more secluded spots to rest. Whenever I got too close to real physical intimacy, she would push me off with a pretty good hand-heel thump to my chest and gather herself up with a “That’s private.” I’d merely been peeking down her blouse, but I loved her for that modesty too, and for the relief provided, because I wouldn’t have known what to do next. (Only much later, in the second phase, did I understand that she had wanted me to push further, because I learned she was readily aroused and always wanted to complete her pleasure.) My adolescent ardour found expression only in fantasies of my rescuing her from danger, usually some form of exposure, say my finding her half-frozen and warming her up, comforting her. So, my only desirous feelings for her were protective—light years from thoughts of “protection” as prophylactic.

Our innocent first-phase romance couldn’t go much further, and ended on a crisp and sunny Sunday towards the end of August at about 10:15 a.m.

It could have been a painterly exercise in vanishing-point perspective, Joan’s approach that Sunday morning. She always went to first Mass with Harmony Armstrong, and then to Harmstrong’s home in deepest south-end Oleum. The sidewalk there was so long and straight to where we always met at the corner of Stuart and Devine streets, which was dominated by the dark brown brick of St. Anthony’s Church. Per usual she was first just a dark dot jigging along that sidewalk towards me ... though she looked abnormally bigger and seemed in no hurry. Shadowy at distance in the dappling light, because the streets of oldest Oleum were heavily treed with big overhanging maples. We always met in the time between Masses, when the space around the busy church exuded the spooky silence of vanished congregation, like the sudden absence of the fairy-tale Rapture had really happened. At first, I couldn’t determine why at distance she seemed ... wider. Then I saw as through a dark glass clearly. She was with the stout Harmstrong, whose big face and aggressive new tits were soon coming at me full-bore.

A year or so before, just after I’d been told by my sister Terry that I needed to start using deodorant, Harmstrong had said to me in the cloakroom following an active recess—with Joan and a couple of my friends nearby—that I stunk. My face had fired and I’d looked at my gang. McNeil waved his hand before his big nose and said, “Harmstrong’s got you there, Kisbey, B-O.” On the way home I instigated a gang shit-kicking that maybe went a bit too far. That Friday evening Mrs. McNeil called Mammy: “Do they have to be so rough in their horseplay? Arthur is covered in bruises?” That cost me the whole weekend, Joan and my Sunday. Mammy had already learned about “grounding” from Mrs. O’Connor.

Joan and Harmstrong came to a stop like a march that had achieved its position. The four-square Harmstrong stepped away and pivoted towards her, wearing on her ugly mug a gritty grin that ordered Joan: Proceed.

The awkwardness extended, in a felt silence that was actually breeze through the trees, a dove in the church’s dark belfry cooing in a loop—the air torn by a wakened cicada. She sharply sipped anticipant air and spat it out: “I’m going somewhere with Harmony this morning.” She pinched her mouth and turned away. Just like that.

They walked off in lockstep, arms straight at their sides, not talking or giggling but bumping and playing with each other’s hands at hip level, flicking and backhand-slapping as if to say Stop it, not yet, let’s get away from him first. I believe they did pick up the pace.

The breeze continued to whisper in the trees ... and that was it. No cicada. No dove. Just the wind telling the leaves a big secret that probably everybody but I knew. Bulky brown St. Anthony’s looked even more deserted, because it was, abandoned in that way only a brooding church can be in the doldrums between Sunday services. I visualized how lovely she’d looked that morning at first Mass, in russet-coloured hat with yellow ribbon and breezy amber dress, untouchable in her beauty—paying me no mind whatsoever, all girly exchanges with Harmstrong. Now I didn’t know what to think or feel. I felt nothing.

I turned back and headed home. Suddenly I felt scooped out in the chest, hollowed, and the sunny world appeared as if artificially lit, and somehow increasingly immaterial, even the concrete sidewalk felt spongy underfoot. And, strangely, released—I felt free! ...  But free for what? Already the rest of that one Sunday was striding away meaninglessly, like some whistling gypsy heading over the hill. When I stepped through our back door into the kitchen, Terry, who was at the sink washing up from our big post-Mass Sunday breakfast, glanced and said, “Uh-Oh.” And Mammy, sweeping table crumbs into her palm, was alarmed: “What’s the matter, is he hurt?” And Terry smirked into the dark dishwater, “Not so you’d notice.”

So, we’d had our last Sunday walk two weeks ago (because of the previous weekend’s grounding for the too-real beating of McNeil). This Sunday marked then the real end of our first love. I understood the import of what she’d said and done, I just never knew why. Harmstrong, perhaps with the support of Mrs. O’Connor the Sunday I was grounded, had convinced Joan to stop doing whatever they imagined we’d been doing every Sunday. I couldn’t conceive the possibility that Joan had wanted it to stop too. It’s just ... I never knew. It’s just that I still don’t know. She’s never filled me in. I’ve asked a few times since, but it’s a secret she’s kept. Though I guess, why should a sudden end of first love be less mysterious than love at first sight?

I saw her only once again for years afterwards. It was the following summer, by far the loneliest time of my life. My friends had left me alone, I don’t know why, as everyone knew the situation. Phil O’Connor, Joan’s older brother and my one-time best friend, had taken up with a new crowd, and as with his short friendship with Ollie Crawley, he didn’t want me dragging him down. By myself one Saturday evening, I took the free bus out to Arcadia on the Lake in Bluewater, a summer venue that brought in some popular acts. That night it was the Stampeders, who were on the radio a lot. When they came on, a lot of the audience bunched into a central space some twenty feet from the stage. This allowed many others to walk in rings around that central hub, with the guys forming an outer ring moving counterclockwise and the girls the inner ring clockwise. It felt weird at first, like a human wheel within a wheel, turning to no practical purpose.

I was always on the lookout for her—the reason I’d come, actually—and spotted her approaching, with Harmstrong, the two of them with arms locked as girls are allowed. They passed with heads turned towards the stage, where the band was in the middle of its hit, “Sweet City Woman.” Joan’s not seeing me gave my thunk-tripping heart time to settle, but the girl’s cycle still turned too quickly and in my distorting state she was soon approaching again. I made sure she saw me this time by raising my left hand like a cop stopping traffic. We paused and without greeting looked into each other’s eyes, she like a waylaid stranger, and were both instantly bumped and pushed then shoved from behind, with Harmstrong still hooking Joan’s arm and pulling her along.

I stepped out and turned homeward. On the free repurposed school bus, it was all younger kids, many with parents, with sand on their insteps, smelling of the beach, of fruity sunblock and dead fish. I sat by myself with temple against the cooling pane and took in the last light far out on the darkened lake. A radio played Spanky’s “Sunday Will Never Be The Same.” The universe was conspiring against me. It can still bring me to tears, that song, as it did then, a reaction I’ve never shared with her. Real men weren’t allowed. When Mammy died, I cried quietly in my father’s presence, and he looked at me and shook his head: “Tch.”

We went to different high schools, she to the nearby Oleum Collegiate Institute and Technical School (OCITS), I to the more distant St. Anthony’s Secondary. She found a new crowd. I began my lonely life of antisocial behaviour; not physical violence, all psychological, and if in violence, to my psyche only. Some nights I thought I was losing my mind.

We didn’t hook up for the second phase of our romance till grade eleven, at sixteen. A long romance with her school’s sports star had ended (she told me much later the cause was his increasing pressure to “go all the way”; how far did you go, virginal Joan, in such a long rolling in the splendorous grass?). Our reunion was arranged by the same old friend who’d broken us up, Harmony Armstrong, whose phoning had startled me like a knee to the thigh on an empty school bus.

I’d won first prize in a city-wide high-school competition, and my poem and photo had appeared in The Oleum Observer. Even today I think my poem quite sophisticated for high school. It was titled “Intuit Together,” and the first line was “in to it to get her”; the second line brought the words closer together, “into it to get her,” the third elided all spaces, “intoittogether,” and the next line, the middle of the poem, was an alphabetical mashup. This took some trial-and-error on the school’s old Underwood. From that middle the poem did a disentangling reversal line by line till its last: “to get her into it.” Symmetry. On the page it looked like a typographical hourglass.

Harmstrong called to tell me that Joan was depressed, that she still really liked me a lot, and that if I still thought myself her friend, she needed me.

“What about you, Harmstrong? Whoops.”

She hmphed. “I don’t need you, Kisbey.”

“That’s not what I meant. I mean, aren’t you and Joan—”

“I know what you meant, big boy. By the way, neat poem ... uh, congratulations. Joan said you were always too smart for her.”

“You couldn’t convince her otherwise?”

“I tried, guess I wasn’t smart enough.”

Through a surprising laugh I managed, “I bet you did!” Maybe I’d misjudged Harmstrong, misread her. Or in the few intervening years her story had changed. Maybe as grade-school kids we could have been friends ... even a girl as one of my guys?

“Thanks ... Harmony.”

I dropped everything—my years of confusion and loneliness and anger and suspicion gone like a cool breeze through bare trees—including a nerdy near-girlfriend, and went to Joan. (Oh yeah: my poem was dedicated “for J.”)

Our second love has lasted through the rest of high school, through college here in Oleum, and through long marriage. She has thrown a heavy silver candlestick at me with serious intent; she doesn’t “throw like a girl” either (surprisingly given her uber-feminine appearance) but like the baseball pitcher she was (softball actually, so windmilling, with Harmstrong always her catcher). Once in the passion of an argument she couldn’t win—about money (not enough for her), morphing into sex (ditto moi)—she spat in my face. I didn’t speak a word to her for a month, the longest stretch ever. There’d been many shorter periods, as the silent treatment has always been the extent of my intimate partner violence. But what with me being me, not talking was as much masochistic. We came back from that record-setting exile very slowly, like returned soldiers having to relearn the peaceful culture of the home front. Quite the scare. We never let it happen again, at least not for that long, but kept banked the more scorching flares of contempt that enduring familiarity breeds, that constant threat of intimacy immolating.

I’ve never been unfaithful, never even been tempted outside fantasy. But a couple of times she has answered insistently that a routine blood test sometimes includes analysis for STDs. I didn’t argue. It was in the later time of her still trying to get pregnant, which was her explanation for the strange request. It didn’t matter that I said, “But I’ve never been with anybody else!” She lamely said, “Who knows how or from where these social diseases spread?” I ended as is my wont, avoiding: “Are you associating me with social disease, Ms. Wizard?” “Oh, darling, let’s just get it over with.” We did, I’m a sucker for “darling.” But slow I was slowly alerted for other signs of her possible disloyalty.

More than for the ineradicable blemish on the table, my irritation with the coffee mug stain comes from her refusal to learn simply to drink her many daily cups without allowing drainage past her lower lip down the mug’s side ... that thin inundation that invisibly wets the base of her three identical mugs, and so builds the daily ring on her late father’s wedding gift. That and that she never ferries the mug back to the kitchen. I conceded that it may not be intentionally aggressive but all subconscious, that all unawares she buys mugs of exactly the same circumference exclusively for herself, always sets the mug precisely on the same spot, and forgets it, so that it sticks and has to be carefully rocked off. But subconscious or not, Freud did say there are no accidents (he’d have made an alarmed traffic cop). This is the sort of puzzle I’d usually work out in fiction, but I’m talking real life here.

Speaking of traffic cops, any trip to the living-room window can take in a near-accident down at the intersection, and sometimes the disturbing aftermath of full-on collisions. Recently I witnessed the T-boning of a green Tesla by a big black pickup jacked-up from its wheels like suspendered pants—smashcrash whoosh of popping windshields ... Stillness. That eerie post-violence silence.

I stepped out on what amounts to little more than a Juliet balcony, and peering down felt some testicle-tingling vertigo. Red and green and black gunk was spreading on the road like blood and guts, and soon there arose the warm sweet stink of engine fluids. The shocked pedestrians suddenly reanimated, with the braver approaching only a step or two towards the vehicles. A distraught girl emerged from the green car whose front was a battered accordion, apparently unaware that her face was covered in blood, but upright and looking intact otherwise. Opposite her, a fat man whose beige cap was funneled to feeding-tube dimensions, slipped from the big black pickup. He zombied forward with his right fingers feeling the hood. Stood still for a stretched moment. Then bent a bit and commenced vomiting a volume that seemed without end. Eventually he snatched off his cap and slapped it against his thigh and, uninterested in the other vehicle or its bleeding driver, walked round to face his truck’s scarcely damaged front. He raised his arms in a gesture of Whatthehell! What did I do to deserve this? My truck! My lovely truck! I had only eighty-one payments left! Likely someone was already saying, “Thank God nobody is badly hurt.” But injuries often emerge later, whiplash and the like, sometimes much later. It can take time for the accumulated insults to our vulnerable bodies and brains to take their toll. PTSD exists on a spectrum, and even a close call counts, for principals and witnesses alike. Personal Injury lawyers are always eager to help us better understand such pain and loss.

My point here is this (I don’t want to distract): mechanical and human violence transpires regularly right outside my window. I sometimes have the sensation from up here that I’m looking into the very pit of human madness. The intersection of Front and George is a three-way stop. But people stop when they should go, go when they should stop, and either don’t know or do not care to follow the conventions of traffic equality. Walkers will pause to see if the driver is hesitating in deference to pedestrian priority (he shouldn’t); drivers have to jam the breaks when, looking to the left, they near run over a trusting pedestrian coming from the right. Children run out and all vehicles stop dead, tires squealing and scaring the bejesus out of the little kids, who wail (such kids and their distracted—by phones—parents, drivers and pedestrians, are the number one cause of numerous rear-endings). Mothers will decide to teach their children a traffic lesson right in the middle of the zebra crosswalk. I’ve witnessed what could only have been a dissolving romance’s partners on opposite curbs calling their mean goodbyes across the divide, silencing, waiting for the other to relent and come across, and in the end turning and walking away. Such are the unruly roads of intimate partner violence at a three-way stop.

But yes indeed, a chance visit to my window can find any number of near-miss accidents on full display, scrapes mostly, rarely the full-on collision, and often with the ant-like pedestrians unaware of hairbreadth escapes. But accidents still, yes. So put that in your pipe, Herr Doktor F ... Or perhaps the recently viewed angry trucker had been distracted remembering being jilted by his high-school sweetheart some quarter-century ago. At the prom she left him for a boy who’d borrowed Daddy’s limo (Daddy owned a dealership, they lived in the north end of Oleum)? She’d had the poor grace to unpin the corsage and hand it to him, and he was left bereft on the school’s front walk, the flowers hanging upside down at his thigh, his world cooling to absolute zero on the big night. Or did that black truck intentionally T-bone the Tesla? I mean the actual truck itself possessed of bad intentions, in some secret life of mechanical matter yearning for vengeful animation. Real trucks must hate e-vehicles. Perhaps Jung should be the preferred consult? Maybe the Hummer is the Tesla’s shadow? Didn’t CGJ believe all sorts of spiritual nonsense, Ouija-boarding, global ghosts and the like? “Oh, mighty Ouija, does Sigmund really zink I’m da pussy?”

All joking aside, our intersection needs traffic lights, because the three-way is not working, obviously, never would, never will. The hopeful presumption of democratic traffic behaviour seems actually to be encouraging scenes of chaotic calamity, as bad as imposing roundabouts on grid-trained North Americans. Sometimes a driver won’t stop at all at the three-way, or even slow down. Lovely. Lives can be instantly changed forever, or just escape being so, and then there’s all that PTSD. But whether disaster comes from blindness or barrelling narcissism, who really knows? It comes for thee, it comes for me. Here again what matters most: startling horns blare, my fictional dreaming is violently disturbed. It’s just ... so unjust.

In our fifth year of marriage, Joan, now desperate to conceive, and having read something about alcohol and the health of sperm, said this to a badly hungover me one light-bruising morning: “You are so selfish, Kisbey, you never think of me.” That stuck, sunk in. I came to love its paradoxical truth—the perfect line for relationship breakdown. And of course, used it in a story.

Years later she read that story online (the only way it was ever published). I was lying beside her in bed rereading an old book of Alice Munro’s stories, or it may have been the novel-in-stories, Lives of Girls and Women; but not really reading anyway, attentive only to Joan’s every nonverbal response to my story. She snorted once and said without emotion, “Hey, I remember saying that, you deserved it.” When finished, she turned away to place her pad on the night table and didn’t turn back, only whispered, “Fuck me” and thumped her head to the pillow.

“What’s that?” Though it obviously wasn’t summons for command performance. By then temperature-taking and studies of sperm motility had begun to feel like nostalgic Sunday walks.

She mumbled as if from afar, or it may have been because muffled by her pillow: “How much were you paid for that gem?” There may have been an unnecessary emphasis on that, but how do I indicate that without risking misrepresentation?

“Nothing. In fact, I recall having to pay a three-dollar reading fee. Uh, where are you in your cycle?” Oh, mighty Ouija, why am I such a pussy?

Nothing forthcoming (the writer’s nightmare).

Until she must have lifted her head off the pillow, because she said clearly, “You always distort what happened. You do violence to the truth.”

My skin was afire with fire ants. “I do not!

“Yes, you do. If I say goodnight, you’ll make it two words in italics. But I’m not angry, Chris. I’m premenopausal, remember?”


Good ... night.”

It is particularly galling that the coffee-mug ring will forever be in the exact same spot. A brown circle has built up over time and is now ineradicable, wipe and scrub as I will in my househusbandry. By the way, I do all the cleaning, laundry and cooking (my old Irish da never ceased with the stupid jokes; one Christmas he had Mammy give me a frilly blue-and-white apron with the logo “I am the boss / Whatever my wife says goes”). I get no consideration, though I have repeatedly and gently asked Joan to be careful with her mug. (I’d given up trying to teach her to lightly squeegee the lip of the mug with her own lower lip; the third time I demonstrated the technique for her, she stood up from the couch, took a finishing mouthful and let it run from the corners of her mouth to drip onto the table: “Like that, Martha?” ... We were in a rough patch at the time.) I still look down at the stain obviously and tch-tch. She merely smirks now, with a sort of pinched small hiccup, her attention on her thumbs tickling the phone (Hi Mel, he’s at it again, what should I do?). But as a result of her continually placing the mug on the very same spot, the ring stain (actually an attractive dark-mahogany colour against the blond oak of the table) now makes an indelible perfect circle. Or as near as we get to that ideal in this sublunary life ... where once we dreamed of perfect love, managed with increasing effort to live it for a good spell, and now have come to this turn toward pettiness and fragmentation.

It’s not that I’m OCD or anything, finicky or more sexually repressed than the next Irish-Canadian man (I do know how readers of this kind of domestic drama think; it’s my business to know). I’ve been tolerant over the decades. I’ve been indulgent. I nurtured a saintly patience on the order of my own Mammy with my mad da. For Joan’s sake as well as for mine, for our sake (as I once would have first phrased it), but now only practically motivated for the sake of peace, and mainly, of course, for the sake of my writing. I’ve had to become so: from the time Joan smiled knowingly and said to her visiting colleague, the irksome Vice-Principal Mel, whom she was eager (too eager) to impress: “Oh, Chris is far too busy to go—but I’ll go!” To a Home Show or some such waste of time. From about then till when, frowning at her phone, she responded to me in that distracted manner of the cyber-occupied, “That’s nice ...” I’d told her of a story’s acceptance by one of the better literary magazines, which actually paid a small consideration ($50). I upped the volume and said, “We can finally take that European river cruise! Ha-ha.”

“That’s nice ...”

We were entertaining a lawyer couple. I’d met him at The Bluewater Literary Festival, he impressively suited in a dark-blue three-piece and clutching at his chest what turned out to be a Gucci pouch of self-promotion. He had written a mystery-thriller, I had to hear, about a lawyer who kills his transitioning wife for the insurance money, which he is planning to donate to a pro bono legal service for refugees (my tongue may have bled). He wouldn’t leave my little table at the Literary Press Group, talked on and on about his failed attempts to find a big commercial publisher (“No, I’m afraid I can’t help you there either—I couldn’t help myself, ha-ha! But good luck!”) or a literary agent (ditto). I pretended to commiserate over the only option left to “us”: self-publishing. Lucky for me, he spotted more promising prey and left abruptly. With nothing else to do, I watched him work the room: the spottily attended publishers’ booths, and the crowded few Canadian agencies, where the literary lame and halt supplicated with briefs in hand, as he was doing, if confidently, even aggressively.

Near the end of the day, he returned to me where I’d not signed one copy of either of my two old short story collections, In Company and The Players: A Family Saga (it was Oleum, and I the only local ‘real’ writer). At first, I believed he was lawyer-lying when he claimed to have closed a deal with a Toronto literary agent, who’d immediately gone to the biggest booth in the school gymnasium (Penguin Random House Canada) and, after only an hour, had returned with an offer of publication. I couldn’t hide my disbelief. So, lawyer that he was, he showed me the signed letter of agreement. “Contract tomorrow,” he said matter-of-factly. He left without buying a book, whose covers colours were badly faded. As he headed for the exit, he was waved to by a besieged male agent and a pretty Penguin-Random girl, which he blithely acknowledged. In psychic shock I did my best: Forgive him, Father, he knows not what he’s done.

Come into his published glory, he yet remembered me and called on pretense of looking for advice but really to crow some more to someone “in the business.” His lawyer wife/literal partner asked a question about whether writers ever retired, turned to Joan and asked if we had any plans. Joan said, “Retired? How will I be able to tell?” We all laughed, the three of them heartily. The wife-partner said seriously (and God bless her for trying), “Would I know any of your books, Chris?” I was saying “That depends—” when Joan over-talked me: “Chris writes literary fiction, short stories only, and almost exclusively for those fat pulpy journals you might remember from university, the ones whose covers were great for absorbing coffee rings.” All laugh, mine forced again at her double dig. “The serious writer Christopher Kisbey has published two books, two collections of short stories ten years apart, the last a good decade ago, In Company and The Players: A Family Saga, available at dying bookstores nowhere.” The lawyer-wife laughed warily. I could see her preparing to end our klatch and get home to something real. But her newly apotheosized author-husband was quick to continue the socializing: “Oh, like our Nobel Laureate, Alice Munro! Did you know she was reared just up the lake, in a little town called ... Springham.”

Joan smiled at him: “No, I didn’t know that. Alice ... Funicello, you say? How fascinating.” She was always mistress of an obvious irony that would have made Austen blush.

I took recourse to an old line: “Everything I know about the inner lives of girls and women I learned from Alice Munro.”

Joan closed her eyes as the couple laughed, the husband overmuch, then said, “Which is little enough.”

I hurried my follow-up: “I’m not joking.”

The husband laughed freely and some black coffee, which had been served to end the evening, trickled a line from the corner of his mouth, and as he paused leaning forward, a drop found the dead centre of the mug stain.

Joan, looking only at the splashdown, broke routine further: “He’s not, I’m afraid. But who’s afraid of Alice Munro!”

When things, such as everybody’s breathing, normalized, the wife-lawyer said, “So that’s the life of a writer-househusband—something to look forward to!” Joan’s behaviour must have licensed her to think it was open season on odd partner-husbands.

The term “househusband” had long since had its currency devalued—too sexist or binary or something, let alone its careless demeaning of “housewife.” There was a brief period when the unmanly occupation had been inflated by John Lennon’s loudly occupying it. Of course, Lennon could choose to end his domestic occupation with the wonderful Double Fantasy album, and then had the bad grace to get murdered. But for myself I see no end to my domestic sentence other than to keep trying to write my way out of it into a greater world of some acclaim. (Okay, recognition. ... Oh, whom am I kidding: any attention, a notice, whatever.) But how many sixty-year-old writing white males are surprised by the joy of success in today’s cultural marketplace? I mean, of course, apart from retiring personal injury lawyers with a story they just gotta tell (he’d even got a decent five-figure advance!). Joan was at her archly interested, ironic best when at our unending coffee, he'd tiresomely described his second novel—in-progress in fulfillment of a two-book deal! It was “shaping up” as humorous-serious fiction, with synergistic potential as sitcom for both movies and streaming series, a serio-comical story involving indigenous children rising from unmarked graves and, in a zombie army, led by Princess Diana, defeating that last bastion of the colonizing patriarchy: the Russian-Chinese-Iranian neo-Axis Powers. Working title: The FunDead: A Graphic Novel. I’ve not invented a word of that, hand to God. Nor Joan’s saying, “You should be taking notes, Christopher.” Nor the new Stephen King’s asserting in phony laughter, “It’s been copyrighted.”

Anyway (ah, narrative mastery), in socializing situations, the increasingly few, Joan began fielding all questions, even those put directly to me. I ceased challenging her stories with interjections or parenthetical qualifiers (which they needed, she’s hopeless on detail, simply invents to the purpose). When I was still answering and she’d not liked it, she would hit my shoulder none too gently and correct me. Within a decade of our marriage, she thought nothing of loudly overtalking me, or of appropriating the story whole cloth. So I quit bothering. I avoided socializing at every chance and simply turned to her when something was asked of us, which was a lot easier than I’d anticipated, and became more so. If you like to complain about your social calendar’s demands, try ditching it; you will be surprised at how perfectly you can disappear, become the Invisible Man at any event, just a bag of beer over by the drinks table. It’s what I expect growing old, or older, will be like.

Mornings she eventually assumed priority for bathroom prep and privacy. Now when I’m in there, she comes to the locked door and tells me to get out—It’s just that I have to go to work! The coffee’s brewed at least, right, Chris?... Kisbey!

Rather than discuss it anymore, she says she doesn’t care what I make for supper; breakfast is a nonstarter, as long as the coffee mug, that culprit, is in her hot hand at 8:15.

In our rare socializing (for her work, she insists), when the inane conversation turns from sports (the men) to new acquisitions (the women, excepting the purchase of new cars, which still makes men giddy as girls), her favourite expression has become “Oh, we could never afford that.” She no longer looks at me, or even in my direction (increasingly proximate to the drinks table). No newer model car for us, no forever home by the lake. We have always been a one-income, apartment-dwelling, no-car, no-kids ‘family.’ Expensive vacations, tours and cruises, have become the yearly extravagance of her and a close circle of friends. Or friend, as for years now it’s been only V-P Mel Macdonald and her, off to the Amazon or some sweltering insect-ridden territory or other—the very sort of conspicuous consumption she once ridiculed in others.

Way back, in our mid-twenties, we’d not longed for children. By our thirties, when we had to accept that she couldn’t conceive, she’d begun telling the story of our sacrifices for my, yes, for my art. She actually used that cultural cliché, its polished articulation over time like a diamond rock she’d sling at the Philistines. She used to do that, yes, when she was still that way, with table-diamond faith in the necessity of literary art (yes!). What can I say? She talked that way when she was truly in love with me. I on the other hand love her more than I did, say, ten years ago. If love her differently (to use a current cliché). No matter what you may have concluded from the foregoing.

The first years of marriage had been like grade four all over again. Even as late as a decade ago, she would implicitly criticize others who talked of their plans by saying that we had no interest in such vacations: European river cruises, African safaris, climbing on top of that Mayan ruin whose spelling looks like a pranked keyboard, and all other such “adventures,” which they could take now that the kids are grown and gone (“They never call, ha-ha”; ours never were, ha-ha). Fed up and tipsy, she once asked an especially irksome wannabe adventurer, a spinster colleague, “What about riding Bezos’ big rocket to the moon, I mean now that you’ve got your life’s second or third wind? Or Musk’s even bigger one? Or maybe you’re more Richard Branson’s Virgin-Galactic type? Or would that be too much?” Too much indeed, my Joan, you are, or were (God but I do still love her). In those halcyon days, she’d send me a smile and maybe a wink, which would distract me from thought of another beaker full of cool Canadian beer and draw me back to thinking of my current story in-progress. I still know no one else—woman or man—who can pull off a wink without looking afflicted with a tic or mentally challenged.

But no longer does she dare refer jokingly to my selling a book for a huge advance (she never said a “novel,” God bless her), or pseudo-defensively anymore to my principled devotion in focusing on the unremunerative genre of the literary short story. When for the hundredth time some smart-ass teacher-colleague said, “Alice Munro seems to do all right,” she finally cracked: “Oh, Munro Munro Munro. That was another time! She’d be lucky to get published today with those long, convoluted, miscategorized short stories! Their narratives are so non sequitur they’re like reading for aphasics!”

And I sat still for that lie. As eventually for many another. I’d never understood her honest distaste for Munro, unless it was because I’d come to worship her. Munro had quit her young family to find her writing destiny and eventually won the Nobel Prize. Joan had quit on the story of a normal life. And for what? I would never quit on my writing. Never. I’d as soon quit my life.

At some twenty years on, she’d stopped ever inquiring what I was writing about. Long since she’d quit mock-pleading to see the couple of stories per year that were accepted for publication. At first, I would wait till she asked twice (my test of genuine interest). Then I would remind her by mentioning an acceptance, a one-time reminder. I could still assume that she was distracted by her work, then just forgetful. I compromised to mentioning an acceptance twice. Until a couple of times on the second mention she didn’t respond at all, flipped a magazine page, continued tickling her phone. After a few such interactions, I’d ceased and desisted.

Did I take an interest in her work? Yes, I did. I knew all her fellow teachers and their peccadillos, and annually many of her students’ names, and their shortcomings, advantages, odours. In the time when her daily tales had come to focus on the irritations of the new Vice-Principal, Melody Macdonald, I’d joked about the V-P’s “prickadildos.” She didn’t laugh at my clever spoonerism but looked sort of cross-eyed down her nose, breathed stuffily and said, “No, nothing like that. She just wants me on her side.” I, the eye-pealed writer, missed the significance when she stopped mentioning the vice-principal altogether.

I know she’s had at least one affair. Yes (and as you’d have suspected by now): with V-P Melody Macdonald, that tall redhead with spirit like licking flames, whom all supposedly hated, at least according to the many stories Joan had once told of “Smell’s” insufferable behaviour (that tactic cheaters use in an attempt to distract the cheated: “Like her? I loathe her!”). I secretly knew the affair had happened and thought it was over because we had no sex for a long time, then fiercely every other night for a month or so. But we were so truly dis-partnered by then that I could have been a post for a cat in heat. She quit initiating, then I did. I continued pretending not to suspect her adultery (too old-fashioned a word? I’d actually prefer “sin”), though practically speaking I had no choice: I was and am a kept man. We still showed some affection when among friends, for public consumption, held hands at open-air events, touched and pecked and the like, until that became too much an awkward hypocrisy for our secret true selves.

In bed a few years ago, I turned to her back and lightly placed a hand on her bared side where it dips into the pelvis, once upon a time a ticklish spot for her, an erogenous zone. She flinched and said “Please,” as in leave me alone. It had taken all my resolve to initiate. But I was really relieved. I’d turned onto my back and thought about consulting a divorce lawyer, maybe my new legal writer-friend could recommend one. Of course not. These days I’m always indulging such revenge-fantasies. I would be content to continue as things were: in my house-husbandry, my time my own, with my writing and reading for companionship. I would let nothing disturb that setup. Certainly not my pride. The stories were getting better as I aged, if somewhat longwinded, so more difficult to publish, and as unremunerative as ever. Regardless, I don’t deceive myself in this respect: my fictions were approaching closer and closer to truth ... even if destined for an asymptotic non-touchdown on the big-T runway.

Obviously, as said, the coffee-mug ring stain is a symbol (I know, you knew). But a symbol of what? Of the repetitive irritations of enduring long-married life, that incrementing water-torture drip from the accreting stalactite hanging over most marriages? Of something finally finished? Or simply of nothing? If the figure eight on its side can be a symbol of infinity, a mug-ring zero can be a symbol of nothing. That sounds contradictory, something symbolizing nothing. Or maybe paradoxical is the better word.

Or a Samson riddle? A Buddhist koan? Or just the old, cold Canadian irony? I’d finally thought in the middle of that sleepless night after my last rejection (by her not editors), when nothing was all too something real, to use the perfect ring stain in a story (and not worry about its obviousness). By the time daylight was strafing the ceiling through the blinds, I’d imagined and rehearsed just about all the events of this story, which brought my dark night of the soul close to an end. Maybe tonight I’ll dream an ending for it.

Because that’s all I am anymore: a spinner of fictions. Of the very worst sort in the market’s opinion: literary short stories only, narratrickery with essence of truth (I trust). I have been essaying such all my writing life, since my late teen years, when Joan gifted me Munro’s Dance of the Happy Shades (a real writer just up the lake from Oleum!). I’ve never had a real job, and I earn next-to-nothing for my work, and “nothing” is always cozying up more closely to “next,” set on bumping it off the bench. The world (including the schools, her colleagues, publishers big and little) thinks of my life’s main occupation, my vocation, as on the order of a wastrel’s hobby. “My publisher” (that boastful possessive phrase dear to all aspiring writers and personal injury lawyers, because today most such writers as I self-publish into black holes, which is all a little literary publisher does anyway). But my publisher, Distinctive Books of Trois Rivières Quebec, is that pitiable entity, a small literary press. My two-story collections to date, In Company and The Players: A Family Saga, at their best sold only in low triple digits, with the first having done ‘better’ than the second, and did so only because my purchasing of books at the “special author’s discount” contributed not insignificantly to the royalty statements’ “units sold” figures.

Kathy Beauchamp, my publisher, repeatedly says that sales don’t matter, that she eagerly and patiently awaits my next collection. But she says so every time we talk (which occurs only at my instigation), unprompted, so the lady really doth protest too much. I know that there are numerous writers young and old vying for her support as a real publisher, a “traditional publisher,” as it is now called. It’s not that I’m anxious about Kathy’s loyalty because another’s literary fiction may sell better than mine. It’s that the government granting agencies—Distinctive Books’ main source of income—now look more favourably on grant applicants who demonstrate frenetic activity in social media (scantily visited and rarely “liked” by any but their own authors) and public events (unattended by the public), and the like. In all of which I too am perilously derelict.

To this can be added the recent threat of the various governments’ demanding greater diversity in the authors line up: more publishing of the various previously disempowered “communities.” I guess they too do deserve the opportunity to be unread. But unless I can dig up a marginalized ancestor (a few low-list fellow writers have been doing just that; and I have half-jokingly tried “Black Irish”), my days as a traditionally published author are numbered. The writing is on the wall in disappearing ink. It won’t matter whether I become an author of “blended genre” romances (Harlequin visits Mars), or a thriller-mystery hack, or (my sweet Lord!) a writer of YA stories about secret super-empowered girls. The problem, as the catty Kathy once let slip, is my “profile” (middle-aged male of peeled-potato complexion), and my “platform” (my what?). But wavering Kathy’s slip-up had frequently been confirmed by solicited agents and editors, whom I’ve long since given up on. I don’t see how the situation could be worse: fewer publishers interested in literary fiction, fewer and fewer readers thereof, more and more non-reading wannabe writers who are willing to pay to be published! ... Perhaps it’s time I retired from writing and took up personal injury lawyering. I have seen the future of real writing! ... And it doesn’t include me.

This day’s writing done, I’m standing at the window and thinking of having another coffee. But it’s late in the day, and I now have to worry about being kept awake through the night and pissing like a kitten. For my bedtime reading the night before I’d been rereading the much-referenced Alice Munro, her short story cycle Who Do You Think You Are? I was not reading it sequentially but randomly in the way she herself has said she reads. I’d skipped to the final, the cycle’s closing, the titular story, which is brilliant, nothing short of humbling genius. That unwieldy title of story and book signify a put-down of the protagonist Rose when she’s acting uppity, which is as typical of Oleum as it must have been of Wingham (aka “Springham,” or at least so to my writing lawyer). But of course the title also points to the subject of self-identity and the very notion of a fundamental self. What makes us who we think we are? Munro’s conservative answer: family, where we grew up; essentially we are who we were, at least to a great extent, and we deny that primary composing at peril of an intact self-identity. When the book was published in the United States, the title was changed. Apparently, the publisher felt that Americans would not get the ironic Canadian put-down in “Who Do You Think You Are?” Perhaps because Americans at the time didn’t question who they were: Ahm a-merkin goddamnit. Now they have a TV show with that title. My, how the mighty ...

To say it again: Munro was born and bred just up the road from Oleum along Lake Huron, in the town of Wingham, whose culture she drew on for the best small-town fiction in English since James Joyce’s Dubliners (for JJ Dublin was but a big town). A sad character from Oleum actually appears in “Who Do You Think You Are?” Fuller disclosure: as a short story writer, I am sometimes blockingly daunted by Munro’s writing, as must novelists be by Joyce’s Ulysses. After I read Dance of the Happy Shades, I thought vainly that I could do similarly for Oleum (or to Oleum). In Company showed I couldn’t, and The Players: A Family Saga confirmed my lack of promise. Okay, I determined, I’m no Joyce or Munro. I sucked it up and soldiered on. I regret nothing ... nothing but the damage my vocation has done to my relations with Joan.

At one time we were perfect for a long time, a golden wheel centred on the diamond hub of our childhood plan, a double wheel in one: she circling more quickly on the inside as a well-paid, well-benefited teacher, I on the outer, more slowly revolving wheel, writer I. Both seemingly going places, at unsynchronized speeds but together in the same direction, and for a good long while. Then ... well, some of us—most of us, ninety-nine percent of us—fail our dreams, don’t we? Don’t be depressed by that Debbie-Downer truth, there’s no shame in it. But don’t be fooled by the advertising lies (redundancy) of insurers (no one collects), lawyers (who’s profiting?), and publishers (there are no so-called over-the-transom success stories, not for real writers). Is there a word more distasteful than failure to our social-media-sucking society of virtual “friends” and “likes”? What most don’t know, though, the story never told or advertised, is that failure has its spiritual rewards: a humbling nearer acquaintance with capital-T Truth. As I trust my story attests in its humble way.

The bus pulls in across the street. It’s some distance way down there (I’ve had to imagine some of what I’ve described), and the sky’s clouded over now. I see two dark figures standing inside waiting for the side door to open. I’m in a sudden heart-tripping state, as when way back she first left me standing at St. Anthony’s Church, ditto as when subsequently walking a lonely wheel outside a faster wheel at the Arcadia rock show. Eventually, I will watch her cross the street, returning home, completing a mock-epic circular journey: having headed out to do the world’s work (excursus), returning with the bad news (recursus).

When I remember that day, which turned out to be our last together (for long time anyway), I see the sooty Oleum city bus pull up to the curb and imagine I hear its hissing brakes, as if it’s impatiently signalling the messy humans onboard to get the hell off and get on with it. Only the two of them exited, which was odd as it was usually a busy stop at that time. Through three filmed windows—mine, the bus’s near side, those of its doors opposite—I saw that it was the tall red-head, Vice-Principal Melody Macdonald.

The bus hissed disdainfully and pulled away to reveal them paused together on the sidewalk. I noted (details would prove essential) that they were standing unnaturally close to one another; it looked like they could actually be touching the length of their bodies, they were that close and I that distant. She was nodding away at whatever instructions Mel was issuing. When they parted, touching hands trailed. She was still smiling when she stepped off the curb at the three-way-stop intersection but is frowning before she’s halfway across. She’s dawdling, and a black pickup that’s been waiting trumpets its horn and makes her startle. Move already!

I go to the coffee table her father made us for a wedding gift, look down. I head for the hall, fearing I’ve not much time till her entrance. I stop at the closet that contains my red toolbox. I get the big claw hammer—weighty, its brown wooden handle greased smooth and cool in my hot hand—the only thing I took from his tool shed when my da died. I return and commence wailing at the coffee table, scoring a bullseye on the ring with every hit ... Till the top’s in pieces and I’m catching my breath, feeling the unusual sweat on my brow and between my shoulder blades, drooping and already ashamed.

That didn’t really happen. That’s not the way it works. I am ashamed, though, if only to have imagined such needless graphic violence here at the close. Yet doing so has made possible the true close. Here it is:

She comes in and, having opened my study door without even tapping, comes farther in. “It’s just that we have to talk, Chris.”

When the door cracks closed on her exit from my room, I hear the tick-ticking on my writing room’s window and go there. I cock listening head to her movements: along the hall to the bedroom. The suitcase dragged out and plopped on the unmade bed. Then an interval of drawer sounds, closet doors, tinkling metal hangers, as for now she selects only necessary clothes. Perhaps we’re both reflecting on old movie scenes of women packing suitcases in the early morning rain. A tiny thunderous rolling towards the exit. A considerate door close?  Hmm ...

It's raining now, late Monday, and getting heavier as I watch and wait. They say a storm is coming howling up off Lake Erie and will soon be general all over southwestern Ontario, drenching the fertile loam fields around tomato-crazy Leamington, teeming across pathetic places such as Chatham, pelting shitty cities like Oleum ... till exhausting itself farther off on small towns such as Wingham. For now, it drills the livid red head of waiting Melody Macdonald, wets dear-head Joan (though I can’t very well see either), and further in imagination soaks my deadhead self.


She and Mel broke up within a year (like that really bad idea could ever have worked). There was a sniffling phone call asking that we try again—away from Oleum, this time in Toronto or some other big anonymous place, Vancouver maybe.

Fool me three times, Joan? I do not think so.

For budgetary reasons I had my landline disconnected. But after this story was published in Toronto Life (she was teaching Chemistry at a private Catholic high school in Toronto, living alone), she sent me the following email, without addressing dear me or signing off:

The memory-lane part made me cry, though it probably bored other readers to tears. We were just too weird ... well you were, I was confused about my sexuality. I liked the closing parody of “The Dead,” if that’s what it is. Or is it an o-mage, Monsieur? But you’re no James Joyce, ha-ha. Did Toronto Life pay anything? Taking that long-postponed European river cruise by yourself? Or is there a new woman in your life? ... Thanks for another dedication. Have a good life, Kisbey, a real life, what’s left of it.

All bravado, as it turned out. I answered that there was no one in my life, never anyone but her. And she returned to me in Oleum. I didn’t need convincing to move to Toronto.

About the Author

Gerald Lynch

Gerald Lynch was born in Monaghan Ireland, where he frequently visits, and grew up in Canada. The Dying Detective (2020) is his seventh book of fiction and the completion of a trilogy. In 2017 Signature Editions published the second, Omphalos, and in 2015 Missing Children. These novels were preceded by Troutstream, Exotic Dancers, and two books of short stories, Kisbey and One’s Company. A Professor at the University of Ottawa, in 2017 Gerald published the co-edited Alice Munro's Miraculous Art: Critical Essays. He has edited a number of other books and published many short stories, essays, and reviews, and had his work translated into a number of languages. He has also authored two books of non-fiction, Stephen Leacock: Humour and Humanity and The One and the Many: Canadian Short Story Cycles. He has been the recipient of a number of awards, including the gold award for short fiction in Canada’s National Magazine Awards.