STEPS Magazine Spring 2011 Editor-in-Chief Max Karpinski Fiction Editors Ryan Healey Ari Resnikoff Poetry Editors Livingston Miller Eric Andrew-Gee General Editor Claire Horn Art Editor Sally Lin Cover Design Sally Lin Ryan Healey Thomas Bollier Cover Photo NASA Commons Contributors Gavin Thomson, Kerry Maguire, Nia Kiriakova, Ian Becker, Ariel Yehoshua, Alexis Hranchuk, Allison Murphy, Jack Deming, C. Z. C. Robertson, Eric Kilpatrick, and Laura Freitag STEPS is funded by the Fine Arts Council of the Arts Undergraduate Society of McGill University. Special thanks to Le DĂŠlit and the McGill Daily for the use of their fine production facilities.
Table of Contents
Letter(s) from the editor(s) Hello readers,
We Left Our Daughter at Home Gavin Thomson
Untitled Kerry Maguire
Warsaw Eric Andrew-Gee
Untited Nia Kiriakova
Green as Fuck Ian Becker
agenda Ariel Yehoshua
Twins Ariel Yehoshua
Thank you to everyone who has helped Steps this year. I can’t wait to see the issues that wil be put out next year.
Untitled Alexis Hranchuk
Love y’all, Max
Drunk Punch Allison Murphy
Poem Livingston Miller
The Box Step Jack Deming
Architect Max Karpinski
Big-Boots Snakeskin Bone-Crushing Carl: A Modern Western C. Z. C. Robertson
My Father and the Elms Eric Kilpatrick
To Ella, for Expansive Quiets Laura Freitag
For the last time, I’d like to thank you for picking up the magazine or for looking at it on your computer screen. It’s been a wonderful year, with four beautiful issues of Steps as well as two incredibly fun and amazing launch parties/readings. I want to thank everybody who worked with me on this year’s editorial board. You guys were all great. Before I turn this letter over to the incoming editor(s)-inchief, Sally Lin and Ryan Healey, I want to take the time to thank everyone who submitted their work this year. It’s wonderful to see how many other students write and are interested in creative writing at McGill, and it makes us feel great to keep putting out these issues for you guys. Thank you.
... Hey again, As the new Editors-in-Chief of Steps, we are excited to continue printing the exceptional prose and poetry of McGill students while expanding and improving the magazine. We hope to increase Steps’ readership by making it more accessible to students of all departments, and to greater diversify our published pieces, both artistic and literary. We also hope to organize more readings to give writers the opportunity to share their work, meet other writers, and stay hydrated. We are also thrilled to be working alongside six stellar editors. Our fiction will be covered by Ian Becker and Gavin Thomson, poetry by Eric Andrew-Gee and Tim Beeler, and our general umbrella, allstar discerners go by Emma Benayoun and Zoë Robertson. Since this is the last issue of the year, we would like to thank everyone who has submitted to Steps, everyone who applied for editorial positions, the McGill Daily for use of their office, and most importantly, everyone who took the time to read our magazine. Lastly, we would like to thank the Woods Residence for hosting our Poetry and Prose Reading. We hope that you’ll enjoy this issue and we wish you all an enjoyable summer - wherever it may take you! All the best, Sally and Ryan
We Left Our Daughter at Home
fter we’d packed our luggage for our weekend getaway to Frank’s cottage, Mackenzie and I wrote a list of the rules Emma was meant to follow and posted it on the fridge. We made it very clear to her that if she were to do anything, anything at all, that would jeopardize her safety, she would not be given a second chance. Our neighbour, Margaret, would check in on Emma every once in a while, but for the most part she’d be left on her own. Mackenzie and I told her to make us proud. At the door, we both gave her a kiss on the forehead and I told her that I loved her. “If anything happens,” I said, “you must call us.” On the first day of our trip, Emma was fine. She spent her time reading, making photo albums on her Macbook, and watching movies in the den. When Margaret checked in around dinnertime, she found Emma watching Lost in Translation and drinking a bottle of ginger beer. Margaret was suspicious. She thought the drink might be real beer. So Emma offered her a sip. Mackenzie and I were not worried that Emma would drink while we were away. Emma is not interested in alcohol. She makes fun of the kids at school who drink and she says all drinks smell like bug spray. She would never jeopardize her health. After Margaret left, Emma ate a plate of the boeuf bourguignon I had made for her that morning and some soy-based ice cream for dessert. Things were going according to plan. Mackenzie and I ate a fourcourse meal with Frank and afterwards we swam in
the river and drank two bottles of red wine. That night, however, Emma did not sleep well. She had one of her usual bad dreams. She dreamt a strange man broke into the house to kidnap her, and when she awoke, she thought she could hear him breathing outside her door. She reasoned that the man had been watching the house for months, and that he knew how to break in without making a noise. This could not have happened, of course, since our house is protected by an alarm system – but Emma forgot this. She thought the man stood outside her door and she prayed that he would leave. She prayed over and over, the way I had taught her. She did not fall asleep until three in the morning. Mackenzie and I had, mind you, made it very clear to Emma that if anything happened, anything at all, she was required to let us know. But maybe because she did not want to draw attention to herself, or maybe because she was embarrassed, she did not call us. To make things worse, when Margaret checked in the next day, Emma told her she was fine. Margaret said she looked tired, but Emma said it was nothing. Margaret asked if Emma had any plans that day, and Emma said she planned to sit on the back deck and read. Margaret called to tell us this, of course. She said everything was fine. After hanging up the phone, Mackenzie said it was incredible, how much Emma had matured in the last few months, and I made a toast to the hell that was parenting and Mackenzie said amen. That
night we drank two more bottles of wine. Shortly after Margaret left, Emma went on the back deck to read. The sky was cloudless and pale, and the air was not too humid. Mackenzie and I went swimming that day. It was a great day to be outdoors. In abidance with the rules, Emma hung three towels across the banister and sat down on the shady part of the deck. I was not going to let the neighbours see my daughter sunbathing. But before Emma even closed her eyes she heard
a screeching noise from the road in front of the house. A dog had been hit by a car. The driver had knocked the dog onto the shoulder of the road and driven away. From what Emma could tell, no one else noticed, or at least cared enough to step outside, and so after dressing, she took the emergency medical kit from the bathroom cabinet and ran outside to help the dog. The dog lay curled up in a ball, whimpering. When Emma tried to pick it up, it barked and whimpered more. She tried to coax it forward, by lightly pushing its sides, in the hopes
that it would instinctively makes its way home, but it only fell back down. In tears, Emma tried at last to scare the dog, so that it would run somewhere else, where someone else would find it, but instead it limped into the woods, where she was not allowed to go. Emma wanted to tell someone about the dog. First she wanted to tell an adult, so that he or she could spread word to the dog’s owner. Then she just wanted to tell someone for the sake of telling someone. She felt as though she was carrying a heavy secret which needed to be told. She thought: If I don’t tell anyone, it will weigh so much it hurts. In abidance with the rules, she called us. Mackenzie and I were cooking dinner together when Frank’s home phone rang and I answered with a nervous “Hi sweetie.” “Is it you?” Emma asked. “It’s me,” I said. “How are you?” “Fine’n you?” “We’re well, thanks. Is everything all right? Is anything the matter? We’re just cooking dinner. The water here is not so sanitary, so we have to boil it before we wash the vegetables. Did you enjoy your dinner last night?” “I did,” Emma said. “You sure?” “I had the boeuf bourguignon you made,” she said, “and it was very good. I also had some of that ice cream for dessert. I’ve been spending most of my time watching movies and sitting in the sun.” “I’m glad to hear that, sweetie,” I said, taking a sip of wine. “That’s great to hear. Your parents
are here if you need them, you know.” “I know.” “Fantastic,’ I said. There was a pause. “Is that all you wanted to talk about?” I asked. “I guess so,” Emma said. “All right sweetie,” I said. “Goodnight.” “Night.” I rubbed Mackenzie’s back. “Everything is fine,” I said. Everything was not fine. Emma had trouble sleeping again that night. She was tired, but she did not want to sleep. According to her story, she felt as though she was no longer at home, but in a stranger’s house, and she wanted to stay awake until the house became familiar. She checked every room to make sure no one was there. Then she turned on all the lights. She was only meant to keep one light on in the kitchen, so that she could not be seen from outside, but she thought that if no one else could see her, it meant she was invisible. Margaret checked in at breakfast and found Emma curled up in a ball on the couch, sick. She called us right away. “Emma must have had a rough night,” she said. “I found her asleep on the couch.” “My God,” I said. “I think she wants you to come home.” “What happened?” “I don’t know,” Margaret said. “She won’t say. I’m trying to get the story out of her, but she’s
either too sick or too stubborn to speak up. I think you’re better fit to handle this.” “Of course we are,” I said. “We’ll leave now.” “I’m sorry,” Margaret said. “No I’m sorry,” I said. The drive home was slow and stressful. Twice we got stuck in traffic and halfway there we started arguing about whether we were right to leave Emma alone in the first place. I said we were wrong. Mackenzie said we were right. I said I should have trusted my intuition, that I felt we had been wrong all along. Mackenzie said intuition is a term used by mystics, not parents, and that it is impossible to feel what is right. I said that was not true. Mackenzie said it was simple: You can never know anything fully; since truth comes from the inside, the best you can do is know halfway. I said knowledge is not the same as intuition. We went on like this for too long. At home, Emma had hidden herself in her room. She had pushed her desk against the door and covered it with heavy things. When Mackenzie and I knocked, Emma told us to go away. She said we had gone away anyway, so what difference did it make if we went kept going away? “We’re sorry,” I said through the door. “We didn’t think this would happen.” “Let us in, Emma,” Mackenzie said. “Emma, we’re you parents.” “I’m counting down from ten.” Emma threw something against the door. “Go away!” she said. “I don’t care.”
“Am I going to have to call the fire department?” Mackenzie asked. “Is that what you want?” “I don’t care,” Emma said. “I’m going to call 911,” Mackenzie said. “Unless you open the door this instant.” There was a shuffling noise, a cough, and presently Emma opened the door. Her skin was pale and she looked different somehow. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but she looked as though a part of her was missing. “It’s fine,” Mackenzie said. “You’re fine. We’re here.” “Sweetie,” I said. “Lie down and tell us what happened. We need to know every detail, every little thing.” “Stubbornness isn’t going to get you anywhere,” Mackenzie said. Emma took a while to tell us her story. She told us everything she could, even the details she thought unimportant or embarrassing. At one point she swore and said none of it mattered, but I told her it did, because everything matters. When she finished her story Mackenzie apologized for leaving her alone and I puffed her pillow and told her the same. “We’re sorry,” I said. “We shouldn’t have left you. But we are always watching over you, sweetie, no matter where we are. You know that, right?” “I don’t know,” Emma said. “How can you know?” “I know,” I said, stroking her hair, “because I feel it.” I didn’t know what else to say. 5
Warsaw When the sky was wrapped in metal and melted in flame we pulled the blinds. News of the Polish problem crackled in the next room. We had listened. Now you were naked, your body thinned by rations. The cheque made out to the children of Warsaw had been delivered to the post. Their pain was not ours. In the shaming light of day we thought it might be, remembered the valorous name Sikorski, and bent in sympathy one or two nights, when the front line reports were bad. Many more nights I was absorbed in the small places of yours that demanded my urgency: the left ear, the pink pearl of your inner lower lip, under the curve of your pale right breast. Smoke rode on the Danube. People were firewood. The old wolves came out of the burning forests. There was no rain. All of this was known, and still your body shone
with pleasure, with adoration. You were, under me, a true weight.
Green as Fuck
he North Shore Journal of Dining and Wine and Entertainment annually rates the Highland Park Country Club Golf Course as Exceptional, adorns it with five linear gold stars next to its insignia on a glossy page and prints a photo of undulating green hills and Midwestern conifers next to a photo of a well-dressed, well-paid, well-groomed male in his forties with a grin that is attractively cartoonish. The NSJDWE does this because, by many standards, the rating is objectively true. The steaks at the Club Inn marinate in their own blood and truffle oil. The Inn marinades everything and does not apologize for it. The sand traps on the course itself are uniformly coloured and groomed by someone in charge of grooming sand. The golf carts drive smooth. The grass is Kentucky Blue fused with esters that smell like, depending on the course, jasmine, sage, fresh linen, and Versace eau de toilette. The bathrooms have bidets. The bathroom attendants carry lists of inspiring quotations and personal compliments. The potatoes are marinated. By many standards, the five star rating is objectively true. The HPCCGC is particularly immaculate today because at around noontime, the club expects a visit from one Bert Fischer, known to friends as Bertie and to enemies as fishfuck, the CEO of PolyCorp Group, parent company to many prosperous, conglomerated children. Bert is in the state this weekend. And Bert is a golfer. Chris is not exactly a golfer, though he’s known at the HPCCGC. Chris is a little perplexed by all this extra preparation in one sense because he was asked, aggressively in his mind, to tie his shoelace as he approached the Club entrance, but
also because smoking pot in the parking lot is usually real chill, but today is decidedly not chill. Chris’ companions include one JT Gibbins and one Daniel Lipsky. Today, out of discretion, they’ve reduced themselves to smoking out of what JT deems his hobbit pipe instead of Chris’ one-foot glass bong, and in Chris’ mind this is a relative travesty and he can’t stop thinking about the fact that JT’s little wooden pipe is almost indistinguishable from the idea of two men copulating. Chris is not exactly a club member. As a result of a rule which is rarely taken advantage of, Article 14 of the Club’s mandate, which states explicitly that the male progeny of club members receive free admission until they are eighteen years old, Chris is a semi-regular fixture on club property, sometimes to the chagrin of others. The legality of the admission of JT and Daniel is questionable. In point of fact, Article 14 has various loopholes, and most members familiar with Chris are also familiar with the lone Chris, the youth who previously defecated in the bidets for humour’s sake. Frankly it’s just easier, for employees and members alike, if he’s preoccupied with some fellows, easier to supervise from afar. Human feces turns up in odd places less frequently and everyone’s happy. Usually the trio brings one wooden driver and wanders around the 18 holes semi-aimlessly, red-eyed, encountering club members and pre-empting their probing questions with the explanation that they all have viral conjunctivitis. The sun’s peaked when Bert’s black Aston Martin pulls up and his white-gloved driver eases the vehicle into a space close to the parking lot entrance of the HPCCGC, a space reserved for Bert ahead of time, days ahead of time, lines re-mea-
sured and re-painted. Bert farts loudly inside the quiet Aston Martin before he signals his driver to open his door. Then the driver cracks his knuckles and opens the back passenger door in a fluid movement, smells the stench of Bert’s gas and, used to such a situation, stifles his reaction to the point of a very small, hardly noticeable twitch of the left nostril. Eight suited men, upon seeing Bert exit his vehicle, glide through the heavy wooden doors of the HPCCGC’s parking lot entrance in a V formation and, in an order established previously by the drawing of straws, offer their right hands to Bert. Bert takes them graciously and fingers intertwine and Bert cracks a smile that reveals some dead teeth. Then as a group they shuffle away from the Aston Martin, black and reflective in the sun, into the climatized air behind the wooden doors. **** Chris and J.T. and Daniel sit on a bench under an old oak adjacent to the tee-off point at the fifteenth hole. For a half hour, words have been sparse. Daniel’s shoes are off and his toes are dug into the soft Kentucky Blue. A club official views this with binoculars and pinches his nipple purple to keep from screaming. “You guys want to leave or what?” asks Daniel. “Gonna hit some more balls,” says Chris. “You’ve hit like a thousand balls. This shit’s boring man.” “Bored? Then leave.” “I don’t even know where I am.” “So what’s your hurry?” says JT, intervening. “This grass,” he says, “is green as fuck.” **** Bert reclines in a plush red easy chair in
the HPCCGC lounge and wears his socks on his hands like puppets, both black with gold toes. The puppets speak back and forth and each has the same high-pitched voice. Bert’s attendant-friends sit around him in a semi-circle in the corner next to a large window. Bert knows what it means to be called a hoot. But the term’s usage in this room, during this extended puppet joke, a theatric display of real events according to Bert, is rather unprecedented. The men sound like owls and lean forward in their chairs in competition. Bertie is a hoot, Bertie the hoot, hoot, hoot, Bertie, hoot. No one comes close to saying the word fishfuck. Bert finishes and removes the socks from his hands and puts them back on his feet and slips on his penny loafers. “No flowers, please, gentleman,” says Bert. Then one listener begins to applaud but no one joins and he abandons the endeavor after two claps. He feels like a walking cacophony, and obtrusive, and no longer worthy of such a man’s company or theatre. This man recedes into oblivion unnoticed by Bert, who uses his hands to gesture his present ability to eat a farm animal, an entire one. The group shuffles, drinks of pale gold in hands, prostates swollen, into the five star restaurant next to the lounge like drunken penguins. **** On hole seventeen, Chris and Daniel discuss the merits of Frisbee golf. JT pulls clumps of grass out of the fairway and sprinkles it over his head, smelling its faint jasmine hue, stuffing it in his pockets and placing it over his closed eyes. It’s the late afternoon and the sun’s rays dance between blades of grass on JT’s lids. He is now barefoot and shirtless and in the private observa11
tory on top of the HPCCGC an employee drops his binoculars and seizures on the floor. **** Bert is seated at a circular table in the restaurant of the HPCCGC, making small talk with the gentleman beside him. Bert talks on the subject of international banking to the man who, while trying to act casual, desperately tries to conceal an explosive, pants-bursting erection under the table with his napkin. As the man reaches for a cup of ice water, a band of waiters bring out the meat. Each House Special, steak and potatoes, comes in its own gold serving dish. The waiters now situated
around the table, open the lids in succession. The steam gathers momentarily over the table and Bert breaks an anticipatory sweat. An employee notices and stealthily opens the large window behind Bert’s table, careful not to draw attention away from the cuisine. Bert is calmed by the summer breeze. “Gentleman, start your engines,” he says. **** Chris and Daniel call to J.T, but he doesn’t answer. Daniel thinks it would be funny to put some human testicles close to J.T.’s face. “What’s the point?” asks Chris.
“The point? Balls on his face,” says Daniel. “Yeah, I just don’t see it really,” says Chris. “Really?” asks Daniel. “It’s dumb, man. What are you, gay?” asks Chris. “Am I gay? You’re the one who loves golf. This shit is uber gay, dude, just saying.” “Fuck you. Go, like, put your nuts in some mud or something, you freak,” “Golf sucks,” “You suck,” J.T. thinks about nothing in particular while Chris and Daniel begin to fight and a dead body lies on the floor of the observatory. **** Bert hovers above the steaming meat for a while, eyes glazed, murmuring inaudibly. The moisture opens his pores and his face looks lunar. Do it, Bertie, they say. Bertie we want to see you do it. Bert looks into the men’s faces, and has this brief vision of the men around him. He envisions them as savannah primates and himself as their patriarch. He imagines that they hover around a fresh kill and wait only for his incisors to pierce flesh. Bert lifts a fork of polished silver and stabs, brings his knife to charred muscle and it cuts like butter. A hefty chunk, dripping. “Ready for take off,” he whispers. Then it’s in his mouth, drawn from the fork’s points. Bert’s eyes are closed when he chews. Savannah primates. A fresh kill. Bert drops his fork and raises his fists in front of him, squeezes his knuckles white, prepares to beat his chest. The first pound hits his right pectoral with a thud, powerful, and the force causes the half-chewed chunk of buttered steak to lodge in his trachea. Bert notices that he cannot breathe. Bert begins to turn blue. ****
Daniel is hiding behind an oak tree on hole eighteen, hiding from Chris who has decided that Daniel is a fucking dick, and has taken to hitting golf balls as hard as he possibly can in Daniel’s direction. Daniel now realizes that Chris is surprisingly good at golf, at hitting the shit out of these balls which are hard and hurt when they hit your body. Chris hits a ball and shatters a branch, and while he reloads, Daniel makes a break for it towards the Club Inn, just beyond the end of the eighteenth hole, motivated by the endless lists of objects that could be put on or around Chris while he sleeps. Chris drops a ball on the ground and aims at the sprinting figure, draws his club into the air like it’s an executioner’s axe, breathes in, and hits. **** Bert is in the stages of suffocation, wherein one purportedly sees their life flash before their eyes. Bert just looks terrified. The gentlemen around him are confused as to whether to laugh or cry or applaud or call for help and everyone just sits gaping at Bert as his hands begin to shake. Bertie Fischer is going to die at HPCCGC and the NSJDWE’s rating will undoubtedly change. Then Bert is thrown forward and a golf ball bounces on the floor. The oaken table smashes into Bert’s stomach and as his body recoils, a glob of filet mignon launches from his mouth and arcs in the air before landing in someone’s scotch. Bert gasps for air and coughs. The room is silent for a long time. Everyone’s puzzled. Bert says nothing. Bert signals for his driver to get the car ready. Someone takes a glob of meat from their drink and puts it in a plastic bag. Daniel and Chris reconcile and decide to smoke pot near some geese. JT is naked and swimming in a water hazard. The day ends and the grass is exceptional, fragrant, and hopelessly green. 13
agenda today is monday and I’m still hungry from missing your sunday brunch. it’s my own fault i know, and no, it’s not what you might think. i spent the morning searching for my watch. will you read my letters after all? i hope the postman doesn’t make a face when he drops them in the slot. you know how dreadful i can be at saying much aloud. and if i’m overeager or seem skittish ever, slur my words or act foolish among strangers, eat my soup with my dessert spoon and laugh when nothing’s very funny, truly, it is just bad habits. look now! i’m up and ready to get out of bed. I’ll take a bath, and eat some breakfast. there are cornflakes in the cupboard. i will drink a glass of milk. wear my wingtips, collared shirt. later take a walk down to the harbor, buy a coffee, read my book, and try not to think about the weather, try to hum the fast bit of Appalachian Spring.
and maybe i’m thinking too much of myself, too little of the trawler, anchoring at evening with an empty net. his problem is the deadness of the ocean, not the quiet that comes from a long day’s wait.
Lucas and Jacob with me. The student sitter watching the two wolf down their dinners. Twins so they entertain themselves, talking about pee-wee hockey and a fight at recess. Twins, but Lucas has the softer face and smiles less. Asks questions like ‘were you ever in love at my age’ which is eight, and I say ‘Sure I was,’ because I know what he means. Gives a half frown and rubs his eyes, says he’s not in love but wonders sometimes what it’s like. Jacob finishes eating first, flips through the ads in the French newspaper quickly, laughs at the funny’s, not listening. Lucas gives the last Coffee Crisp to Jacob and eats gram crackers instead. Jacob picks a movie, The Land Before Time III, and Lucas makes a list in his homework folder of all the things you need to live. The first is water and the fifth is friendship with a circle around it. The second is mommy, daddy and Jacob, ‘ofcourse!’ Jacob refuses to shower, makes a fuss and screams until I give in. Lucas goes without a word. When the water turns off, I wait but he doesn’t appear in the hall. After a few I check to make sure everything’s alright, knock lightly, open the door. He is standing in front of the mirror staring at his reflection. ‘You okay pal?’ Pale and eyes so wide I feel frightened. ‘Fine,’ in a quiet voice, ‘I’m not fast you know, or loud like Jacob.’ wipes his nose with his towel, rubs his eyes. ‘It takes me a long time to dry off.’
Poem Long ago incomparable sunshine Sighed in the wind. making temples The artists yawned, woke only The rubble of witness: Mystery drugged with sleep On maps was a narrow coastline Encircling a great white blank. Hosts follow new words, What matter the shape of the word? Shake the world – Fire on the veld across Beauty and ugliness Happiness and misery Hope and despair. Men lived and men died Before my eyes. First blazing vitality Frightened me But night, sluggish At the flood Of its human tide Seeking a beginning In the babel of crowd: Deep voices – the thunder of – Coursing sound – entered Corrugated iron.
From shadows the children With untaught grace Move in a night breeze. A song of birth: “move or die” the birth song went on “he is dead” then broke ground “we move or we die” wading to shore –
The Box Step in the dark up ahead a beige jacket swayed like the person it held was embracing another in the drawn out, teetering box-steppish way of old friends before long separation â€“ or else it was one person walking without aiming, waiting for the sun and the stones. 19
The way windows portion out space and where your face portions out the window. Where itâ€™s floating as snow in the evening. Your pencil cutting windows in paper, rough sketches, hurried in lamplight. But still standing, floating behind glass, watching squirrels trembling on tightropes as Geryon watched rabbits by the fence. Just as silent, stories behind shuttered eyes. At almost regular intervals, voices, peals of laughter parade from the park. The dull glow of the TV, its singular eye, peers through the darkness and illuminates your back. Silhouette against the frame of the window, the frame of cables fraying open afternoon blue sky. The spaceship in Willowdale Park, beside fields and persistent buzz of electric
towers. The way lying under the cables made your sweaters dirty. A bottle smashes in the emptied out wading pool and the TV recites final scores and the weather. You exhale along glass and watch breath disappear. The naked bushes and trees shiver square, graphing paper. Your hands are still soft. One callous on your swollen left ring finger where you never learned to hold a pencil correctly. You rub the hem of your shirt, plant a smudge, kiss of graphite. Billyâ€™s voice on vinyl carries from the other room. This is the scratch, where the record keeps skipping, singing one line at 33 RPM. You rest your free hand where your breath just died. Your face fades away when clouds cover the moon.
C. Z. C. Robertson
Big-Boots Snakeskin Bone-Crushing Carl: A Modern Western
ig-Boots Snakeskin Bone-Crushing Carl walks into a bar. He says, “Get me my lady.” No, no, no. Wait.
Big-Boots Snakeskin Bone-Crushing Carl walks into the bar. He says, “‘Gon find me a lady.” Yeah. So that Big-Boots Snakeskin BoneCrushing Carl walks up to the bar, where there’s the barman servin’ some old baldies a drink. They’re drinkin’ whiskey, right? Ain’t no one man in this bar ‘gon make Bone-Crushing Carl wait for no brew, so he says: “Ain’t no one man in this bar ‘gon make Bone-Crushing Carl wait for no brew!” Throws his fist down on the wood, so the peanut bowls shudder an’ spin on their axes. Two baldies look over snarlin’ with a question on their lips. But soon as they see Big-Boots Carl over here, towering above ‘em, hands on hips, torso thick like syrup pushing out the tassels on his leather, you bet they ‘gon turn back ‘round. “That’s right. I’m Big-Boots Snakeskin Bone-Crushing Carl, and you’re scared of me.” He roars at the backs of their naked heads, shining like metal helmets. “Don’t want any trouble here,” the mousey bartender says. He don’t look at Carl, but he ain’t scared. He ain’t anythin’. Carl sits down. The bartender wipes a glass beer-mug dry, throws the rag over his shoulder. It
falls over his gray buttoned shirt, falls over his grey hair, grey skin, grey fingernails – those looong grey fingernails. He turns the tap on, pours Snakeskin Carl a beer and sets it on the bar in front of him, an’ goes back to his business. Big-Boots Snakeskin Bone-Crushing Carl takes a long swig and slams the glass down. Wipes the foam from his lip, bows his head, and swivels. Demon eyes! Hawk eyes! He surveys the room for his prey. Scanning left to right: there’s a jukebox in the corner. Playin’ some trash, who cares but there’s a lady. Some old drunk broad twisting around with a fat man in the corner. Ain’t Carl ‘gon take some fat-man’s old drunk broad. She’s a grandma, pretty sure. She prob’ly got wrinkles on her lady-bits. Pool table, scratched up so the top is only green ‘round the edges. Two kids, two punks, playin’ pool. Think they’re tough ‘cos they ain’t smiling. Damn ‘em all, those kids. Don’t belong in a hole like this. Rats is what they are. Slivered eyes and wet noses, eyes dartin’ ‘round the room. “Go back to your damned mommas, ya bastards!” BoneCrushing shows who’s boss. Those kids are rats. Just more dummies sitting in the booths. But wait. There’s a girl. How old is she? Twenty, maybe. They got ‘er all dressed up so she looks pretty, hair’s curled, wearin’ pink lipstick, bringin’ plates back behind the bar. Big-Boots Carl keeps turnin’ on his stool, follows her around the room, watchin’ her carry plates. She steps out from behind the tables; he gets a good look at those fine legs. Damn. She’s wearin’ a skirt above her knees, puffed out and tight
in the waist. Her blouse is puffed too, at the sleeves, and shows off more than her daddy would like. She walks toward the bar. Snakeskin growls under his breath. He got one foot on the pipe beneath the bar and one on the piping of his stool. Legs spread to take up more space. Tries to make it obvious, clear to everybody in this joint that he’s got his target locked. Here’s his little lady now. She’s gotta know he’s looking at her. No way she could ignore it. She puts the plates in the sink and starts washin’ em with a dish-brush. She’s standing facing Carl, but to his left, at the end of the bar. So he leans in closer, starts to do that thing with his eyebrows. But don’t that girl look up, I tell ya. She just keep right on scrubbin’ those dishes with Bone-Crushing Carl burnin’ a hole in her forehead. Bone-Crushing leans in closer. Nothing. Now Carl’s gettin’ angry. “Hey.” She cocks her head like she’s tryna’ shake a gnat out her ear and onto her shoulder. Keeps scrubbin’ the dishes. “Hey!” says Carl. Nothing. “I. SAID. HEY.” Big-Boots Snakeskin BoneCrushing Carl booms. She puts down the dish-brush, narrows her eyes, flares her nostrils, and looks up at him. Gives him the meanest look a girl as sweet-lookin’ as that could give. Turns back to the sink, picks up the brush, and keeps scrubbin’ the dishes. Well, now, you can imagine this don’t sit too pretty with Big-Boots Carl. It gets him riled up
nice, alright. Snakeskin Bone-Crushing Carl stands up, lets out one biiig belch and stares angry at the barmaid, pulls out his pistol, and shoots a hole in the roof. Grandma shrieks, the fat man squeals. Two punks’ eyes get smaller and they pat their sides like they’re reaching for somethin’ they ain’t got. Rest of the folks starin’ cool like they don’t notice. No – like they ain’t wanna notice. They’re thinking Can we get on with it?, and Not this again, and My french-fry is soggy. There he’s gone and put a hole through the roof. The bartender turns his grey head, disapproving, to Carl. “Now, sir, maybe you could stop all that,” he tries. “I’m just wondering,” Big-Boots starts, “why this young lady here thinks she got the right to stand over there all high an’ mighty, ignorin’ me.” He talks toward the barmaid. She looks at him and pushes her lips out, irritated. She still don’t say a thing. “You ain’t gon’ say a thing? I will shoot this whole god-damn roof off if you don’t come over here, tell me your name, and take a god-damn walk with me.” The barmaid stares at him. She puts her right hand in a fist on her hip and raises an eyebrow. She is saying You Wish, Mister, or You Make Me, or Fat Chance. But she don’t say a thing! Oh boy, you bet how mad our Carl is gettin’! He picks up his brew and, his eyes still on her, turns it upside-down over one of the baldies’ heads. Pours right down his head an’ onto his shirt and some of the foam stays at the top, dissolvin’
real slow. “Aw, that was just cruel,” says a diner in one of the booths at the front. The bartender’s face is droopy an’ he looks uncomfortable that he has to make a decision. First he looks at the baldie, then at Carl, then at the clock. He stares at the clock for a while. Looks like he’s just gonna wait till the sun goes down so he don’t have to say a word. “Now, I tell ya, sir,” Big Boots’ talkin’ to the barman but he’s still lookin’ at the girl, “I ain’t foolin’ ya. I got plenty more shot where that came from.” The bar is silent now, ‘cos the jukebox finished playin’ and the fat man ain’t gonna put no more quarters in now. Everybody’s lookin’. The bartender finally looks down from the clock, sighs as loud as a yawn, and looks back to the baldie with the foam hair. That baldie don’t look miserable or angry, just sittin’, lookin’ forward, dreamin’, wearin’ his foam hat. He’s prob’ly pickled as a beet. Snakeskin cocks his gun, staring daggers at the girl, and shoots another hole in the roof. Fat man really squeaks this time. The bartender says, “God-damnit Cairine, go outside with him. Nothing else is gonna shut him up.” Silence. Just the noise of Big-Boots Snakeskin Bone-Crushing Carl taking one looong, spread-out breath. Cairine throws her eyes to the ceiling. “Damn. But I’m still on the clock, Joel,” she says. Carl licks his lips and pounds toward her,
takes her by the wrist and pulls her out the front door. Folks in the bar stare at them ‘til they pass and then continue as before. Carl and Cairine stand outside, sun’s still high and the sign’s looming over them. Ralph’s Tavern, it says. Joel owns it. “Today’s your lucky day, miss Cairine. I’m ‘gon show you my stallion.” “I don’t really want to see it.” “Like I said, it’s your lucky day.” Cairine crosses her arms. Big-Boots pushes her to the far side of the dusty lot, to his motorcycle. “I’ve seen one of these before. My brother fixed up something like this.” “Yap, she’s one-of-a-kind. Keep her watered and she’s good ta me. Ain’t never been baked an’ I say Giddy-up an’ she takes me.” Cairine pulls her lip up on one side. They stand in front of the bike and she asks, “Who are you anyway?” “I’m Big-Boots Snakeskin Bone-Crushing Carl.” “Not to me, you aren’t. I’m sure as hell not gonna call you that. No, I’m not. Looks to me like ‘Carl’ suits you just fine.” Carl turns toward her, angry. “You will call me as I please you to call me, and that is ‘Big-Boots Snakeskin Bone-Crushing Carl’.” “I’m not going to call you anything like that,” Cairine says a little quietly, and turns her side to him. Carl shows her his bike. He goes into detail with the specifications.
“Heavy-weight,” Cairine says. “Blue-ribbon,” says Carl. Cairine interrupts him, “Why d’they call you that, anyway, huh?” “Big-Boots Snakeskin Bone-Crushing Carl?” “Yeah.” Carl steps back from the bike, straightens himself up, widens his stance. “Why? ‘Cos I got” (he’s pointin’ to his finger, for number one) “big boots. Big enough to stomp somebody’s face in. Snakeskin, ‘cos I done kill a 12-foot snake with my own bare hands and skinned it alive and drank its blood. And I got the skin to prove it.” Carl turns around and shows her the back of his leather jacket, where a tan and black snakeskin’s been treated and stitched into a zigzag pattern. He turns back to face her. “Bone-Crushing, ‘cos I can break a man’s hand just shakin’ it. I broke somebody’s shoulder slappin’ him on the back. An’ I ain’t even mean to do it that time! And Carl, ‘cos that’s what the Good Lord and my Momma chose for me.” He breathes in heavy and spits out the side of his mouth onto the sand. He moves his jaw forward and looks at her, like he’s expectin’ a fight, waitin’ for a response. “Where’d ya find the snake, Carl?” Cairine looks up at him an’ she’s liftin’ her hand to block the sun from her eyes. She shifts her weight to her left leg. “Right here, in the Mojave desert.” Cairine makes a small noise like “Aha.”
“So, would you like a ride on the steed, lil’ lady?” Carl asks her, leaning forward, patting the leather seat of the bike. “I surely would not, thank you, Carl.” Cairine turns away. “Where d’you think you’re going, missy?” “Matter of fact, you’re botherin’ me at my work. And Lord knows I got plenty more to do inside. Good-day, Carl.” Cairine starts to walk back across the lot toward the bar, her skirt swingin’. “Not so fast!” Big-Boots calls, dartin’ in front of her, quick like she wouldn’t have expected. Carl pulls Cairine in close to him, close enough to smell the light odour of greasy food and lavender soap on her skin. The chain around her neck has a cross and it buckles as it’s pushed between her breasts. Carl smells like tar, a little bit like skunk, like sand and leather. The spit from his chewin’ tobacco dribbles out one side of his mouth. “My, my, miss Cairine, you are beautiful.” She looks into his black eyes and at his dark cracked skin. “So are you, Carl,” she says, quietly and not surprised. They look at each other for another while, until Bone-Crushing sets her back suddenly on the ground. “Hold on, miss Cairine,” he says, eyes shiftin’ to the right. He leaps toward the low shrubs in front of his bike, pullin’ out his pistol. Carl does a dance around the bush, then aims and shoots at the ground, spillin’ a small cloud of dust into the air where the bullet hits. “Whoopee! I do believe I’ve done it!”
He leans behind the bike and out of view, and resurfaces with somethin’ in his hand. Walks back to Cairine and holds it out to her. There’s a snake in his fist and it’s danglin’ between them, clamped in his fingers. “For you, miss.” She stares at his offering but makes no move to take it. The burning sun cooks the ground. The wind blows and lifts dust Carl stands with the snake swaying from his extended arm. Cairine stands with her hands at her sides. Big-Boots waits for Cairine to take it, but she doesn’t. Big-Boots Snakeskin Bone-Crushing Carl drops the snake. It falls between them, coiled in an awkward death pose. It’s tongue is forked and it’s pokin’ out one side. You can almost see the X’s on its eyes. Cairine breathes in quick an’ looks at the snake. Big Boots doesn’t look down. His arm’s still straight out. “Good. For. Nothing.” He spits the words. They look at each other; this time, Cairine has eyes like I’m Sorry!, or Why Would You?, or How Did This Happen? Snakeskin has eyes like I’m Real, or I’m Serious, or Get Out of Here Before I Shoot You. “I will give you one last chance to get on the back of that bike, Cairine, or you’re doomed forever.” Cairine looks at him and starts to cry. “Three.” She puts her hands over her mouth. “Two.” He cracks his neck and fingers his gun. 26
“One.” Someone in the bar is laughing at something and it rolls across the open lot. “Too bad, little missy,” says Carl, staring and not blinking. He struts toward his bike, spits on the ground, and gets on. The engine tremors and he twists his right hand to rev it. He pulls up to the bar, between Cairine and the front door. He’s straddling the bike but he’s leaning with his foot like a kick-stand to Cairine’s side. He’s got spurs on his boots. Big-Boots takes out his pistol and shoots the sky. “You’re scared a’ me!” he yells to the bar. He does three donuts in the lot, stirrin’ up a small sandstorm, and he drives out, to the East, without looking back. No, no, no. Wait. He drives the other way. He drives away from where he came. The sun is still burning but it’s lower in the sky and he drives toward it, to the looow-lying mountains far away that’re home to the coyotes and the lions and the rattlesnakes. Still waiting for that bullet to hit, that one that went straight into the sky. Cairine stands in the lot, where the bike tracks are fresh and the dust hasn’t settled. She hears another laugh coming from inside the tavern, but she can’t look away from the road. The bike is a black splotch now and the sun is blinding orange and it’s crawling lower, lower down the horizon. She fingers the cross on her chest. “Big-Boots Snakeskin Bone-Crushing Carl.”
My Father and the Elms My fatherâ€™s in the forest cutting down the elm. I hear his chainsaw rattle and whine against the trunk. My brothers and I will be clearing the branches soon and all the bramble and twigs that are too thin to burn from out of the patterned snow around him. This tree-felling work is long and my father knows the business better than us. He knows where the grains of the wood twist and form knots beneath the surface of the old elm so that when his chainsaw bites past the weathered bark it wonâ€™t catch and jam and lodge in the trunk. They say that all the elms in Canada are dying and I have seen some decaying along the roads. Some farmers leave the dead trees alone above the snow. But my father sees, perhaps in the grooves or grain, something worth grabbing his saw and calling us outdoors. My father knows this tree-felling business better than us. After hauling logs and stumps to stack by the shed weâ€™ll rest with him in front of the stove.
To Ella, for Expansive Quiets our wood floors stay cold in the winter and when you tread out of bed, sleepwalking is never an option— the exquisite pressure against your body in old age now forces curves over as trees tend to do, limb to limb. I wanted a home: a caress—not one that would splinter your bones—which she did once flailing against the mahogany wardrobe. We laugh now thinking how Mum called the wardrobe “primitive antique” it’s funny what spaces can do to us, Ella. In expansive quiet my thoughts still float upwards. When we go out far enough from the city home—I would dream: of us along the streams your white calves goosebumps against mine. And if silence can also break in our claustrophobic house then perhaps it is all well and good that we should break, too.