Runner-up and Reader’s Choice Winner in the 2009 Alumni Short Story Contest.
Perhaps it was the wine and the pill on the plane that sped the signal from his brain to his tongue and caused him to speak aloud that afternoon in the Denver hotel lounge.
“It’s not your goddam life,” he said.
The two men seated at the bar turned toward him. The bartender at the till stopped and turned as well. They stared at him like alley dogs who had found an injured cat. He looked down at the tuna melt on the plate in front of him. What had he done? This wasn’t a crisis, really. Most crises weren’t crises, really.
The runners-up are Liam Lacey (BA 1978 Victoria) for his story “Remorse and the Post-Op Denver Convention” and Luke Henry Howie for his poem “The Dog (Pic Mobert).”
Lacey also won a Readers’ Choice Award for his story. Laura Rock (BA 1986 St. Michael’s) won a Readers’ Choice Award – for her poem “In Rocco’s House (My Grandmother’s Poor Beginning)”
Even after the surgery, what he remembered most was how his wife and daughters treated him like a wounded king, giving up their favourite television shows so he could lie on the sofa and watch as much as he wanted, day and night. Even the dread had only lasted a month or so after the diagnosis, though his imagination kept spasmodically producing scenarios that he would brush away. Perhaps if he died, Elaine would never be happy again or the girls might be scarred for life, but he was being vain and morbid. Besides, the statistics were in his favour. Thank you, statistics.
A voice in his mind, sounding like his late father, insistent as a chainsaw whine, was speaking: “What are you? A baby? You get this thing, the quacks cut it out and if they kill you or cure you, that’s it. We die like animals in the field. Why should you or I be any different?” His father believed that if you hadn’t seen war, you didn’t know toughness, or disappointment or fear. When his body looked like a bag of sticks and he was trembling on the gurney, he had whispered, “Get me a gun.”
“Sorry,” he said, patting his father’s hand. So useless.
His father never reached the recovery room but he did and when he came to, they gave him a morphine pump. Every two hours when the lights were turned on he felt as though he were being dragged up from the bottom of a well. Each time, the night nurse asked: “Can you rate your pain out of ten?”
“One” or “two,” he said to keep her happy. It was like making up sins to say Confession to the priest when he was a kid.
Later, there were the prescription pain-killers he took every four hours that gave him dreams like cheap horror movies, vivid and violent and crudely symbolic. The second night, he dreamed of a destroyed city and rows of railroad tracks like surgical stitches while he sat on a distant hill in a red convertible. Honestly, you would laugh if you saw it on late night cable.
Once, he awoke feeling a sting near the incision site and he remembered the beginning of a poem: “Wynkin’, Blynkin’, and Nod, one night sailed off in a wooden shoe/ Sailed off on a river of crystal light into a sea of dew.” He had read the poem to his daughters when they were little, turning it into a game. “You’re Wynkin’ and you’re Blynkin’ and I’m NOD…” and he would drop his head and pretend to snore loudly. They would laugh and yell, “No Daddy! Wake up!” and pummel him with their tiny fists.
He started taking slow daily walks while he healed that progressed to long slow jogs around the neighbourhood. One afternoon, when he was coming back to the house, the postman asked him, “So how are you doing, boss? Has your brush with mortality changed you?”
“I’m afraid I’m not that deep,” he said, and took the mail into the house.
In June, he returned to his job writing promotional copy for a sports marketing company. One night during his second week, the department head, Ted Pendrith, came over to his desk. “Feeling nice and rested?” he asked. Pendrith seemed to be under the impression he had been on vacation. He wanted to know if he could fly to Denver that weekend for a marketing convention. Stevens, their research man, had come down with shingles. Could he read Stevens’ speech and pass around some cards and brochures?
He decided to go down a day early and the following Friday he waited in the terminal for the Air Canada flight from Toronto to Denver. He had a carry-on bag and a briefcase, with Stevens’ paper and the pill bottle with the remaining painkillers in case he had trouble sleeping.
He had time to look at Stevens’ paper called “Rethinking Buyer’s Remorse in Emerging Demographics.” He was drawn to a passage cited from an article about buyer’s remorse and perceptions of virility but Stevens had a weakness for demographic jargon like “no-frills affluents” and “suburban “boomer-rangers” and he had the meaning of “bleisure” wrong. It didn’t mean “black leisure”; it meant “business leisure.” He scratched it out and pencilled in “black leisure consumers.” Everybody was in some category.
When his flight was finally called, he got the aisle seat next to a woman in her mid-thirties with bright blonde hair and Western clothing. She winked at him.
“You visiting Denver?” she asked.
She was returning from seeing her younger sister’s new baby in Deep River, Ontario. She and her husband ran a guest ranch near the town of Cathedral, Colorado and last year she got kicked in the head by one of the horses. The MRI scan didn’t show anything but she was left with this eye twitch. Hadn’t he noticed it?
When the flight attendant came along to take lunch orders, he ordered a glass of wine. He explained it was his first drink since his own medical scan. She stared at him open-mouthed.
“You mean you’re a survivor?”
The word sounded like something she’d heard on daytime television: “Well, I don’t think like that but I guess I don’t find myself saying. ‘I hate my life’ anymore.”
“You hated your life?” she said. Perhaps “hate” was too strong. What he had meant to say was that he didn’t feel so angry. Nowadays, he was making things up as he went along.
“You know what I think?” said the woman. “I think our mistake is thinking our lives ever belong to us. They don’t. They belong to everyone we meet, because we all come from the Cr’ator. Time is a gift and that’s why we call it the present. May I say a little prayer for you?”
After the prayer, he decided he was tired of her craziness, so he popped a painkiller and washed it down with the last of his wine. He closed his eyes and drifted into swirling thoughts and then sleep.
Shortly after 4 p.m., he was sitting in the lounge at the Lowes Denver Hotel. He had imagined manly wood and stone and mountain views but the hotel had an exuberantly gaudy Italian Renaissance theme, including marble floors, arches and columns and red velveteen couches.
He was on Stevens’ expense account, eating a late lunch and listening to two men who were sitting at the bar. The younger man had a dark suit with a blue-shadow of a beard like a priest or a thug. The older man, slimmer and closer to his own age, had receding grey hair and a moustache like Mr. Moody from “The Beverly Hillbillies.” A cell phone played the theme from “The Entertainer” and the older man reached into his pocket and held it to his ear.
“What’s up? Well, that’s a shame. We’ll work around it then. Goodbye.” The man slipped the phone back into his pocket and shook his head. “Pullman’s not coming until tomorrow. Story of my goddam life.”
That’s when he said: “It’s not your goddam life”
Some moments were ice-breakers, some were ice-makers; this one felt as though it had been immersed into liquid nitrogen that might shatter. Were concealed weapons legal in Colorado? “I beg your pardon,” he said. “I was thinking aloud.”
The dark younger man seemed to glower. The older man had hard little blue eyes and a wet lip under his moustache. “I believe you were commenting on my conversation.”
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I just finished a long flight and I’m on medication because of a recent surgery and, you know, I thought aloud that your life isn’t yours or dammed. Like my dad used to say, ‘Life’s a present.'”
The man raised his eyebrows and shrugged theatrically. “Listen, friend. I’m a Baptist deacon, myself,” he said. “What I said was an expression of my momentary exasperation, but not really your concern. Please enjoy your stay in Denver and keep a handle on that medication.” He gave him a formal nod to indicate the discussion was over, before turning back to his drink and his friend.
Back in Stevens’ room, he decided he needed to clear his head. He splashed his face and changed into his t-shirt, shorts and running shoes and headed west on wide flat streets, lined with trees and bungalows. He made a running rhythm out of the names of the sports teams – Broncos, Rockies, Avalanche, and Nuggets – but he was gasping after a few minutes. The mile-high city took your breath away. Denver – home of John Denver’s spiritual awakening, but then, this wasn’t exactly Saul to St Paul: Who wouldn’t change his name from Henry John Deutschendorf Jr.? This was also the city of Warren Zevon’s “Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead.”
He saw a park ahead of him and it was splendid with massive flower gardens and tennis courts and running tracks. After a few gasping minutes more jogging, he came upon a tour group gathered around a white cottage next to a pond. He took a brochure from a young woman in a green parks’ t-shirt. As he read the words on the brown paper, he felt a current of joy run through him. The cottage belonged to Eugene Field, a 19th century Denver journalist who had written the poem about Wynkin’, Blinkin’ and Nod, who “sailed off on a river of crystal light.” In the pond there was a fountain statue of the three children in a shoe, adrift but frozen in stone, with streams of water playing over them.
Before he died at 45, Field had once impersonated Oscar Wilde, dressing up in a wig to gloves, waving to the crowd as he drove through the town in a carriage. When the real Wilde showed up at Union Station hours later, only a handful of stragglers were on hand to see him. As one Denver imposter to another, he felt a kind of love for Eugene Fields, and he dipped his fingers in the pool and touched them to his sweating forehead.
Back at his Stevens’ room again, he wanted to call home but Elaine and the girls were downtown at a concert. He emailed them a picture of the statue on the internet with a note about the poet. “And now,” he wrote, “I think it’s time for daddy to nod.”
He lay on the bed listening to the hum of the air conditioner before he slipped away. He was in a dark auditorium with rows of men sitting at metal tables writing exams. Soldiers in leather boots and rifles leaned on walls around the room, watching. He looked at the page in front of him. The question was: “What do you know and how do you know it?” He remembered from school that introductions were important. He would outline categories of thought and lists of things known. He would include illustrations with captions and refer to all the old debates. He would ….
“Put down your pencils,” said a man from the stage.
He had written nothing. Unless he could put down a sentence or two, he would surely fail, but the guards were attentive now, watching the tables closely, their guns in their hands. A telephone rang. One of the guards marched over to the corner of the room and picked it up. He placed it on top of the telephone box and marched until he stood behind his chair and whispered.
“For you,” he said.
No one looked at him as he went to the phone. He picked up the receiver. “Yes?”
The voice sounded like his father: “Tell me what this means: “Remorse is absolute failure.”
Was it a famous quotation? “If you give me a couple of minutes I can find it,” he said. He put the phone back on the box and walked out the exit door. There must be a computer terminal around here somewhere. He was in an arched hallway that surrounded the auditorium. A door was partially ajar. He saw sunlight and outside a field strewn with rocks and bomb shell craters. “What am I doing?” he thought, “I’m going to get killed” but he walked quickly toward the exit.
The phone rang again. This time it was Elaine. She liked to give him wake-up calls when he travelled. Her voice was muffled, as though she were speaking through folds of dark velvet.
“Are you awake?” she asked.
“Not yet,” he said. “But I will be soon.”
Liam Lacey (BA 1978 Victoria) won second place in the short story contest for “Remorse and the Post-Op Denver Convention.” In online voting, readers selected his story as their favourite. Lacey is a journalist working in Toronto.