The fiction I have written has tended toward short stories, due in part to there being a better likelihood I will know when the story is finished; anything larger attracts doubt, difficulty and potential for dangling dénouements. That said I recently finished, yes actually finished, a novel of several hundred pages and proportions. Writing Play the Jukebox (it’s fourth and final working title) was among my life’s most rewarding experiences. Getting lost in the lives of dozens of fresh beings for eighteen months then coming out the other side covered up in aces I am confident the thing is finished. I look forward to my editor’s comments and my responses to them. Writing Play the Jukebox (it’s fourth and final working title) was among my life’s most rewarding experiences. Getting lost in the lives of dozens of fresh beings for eighteen months then coming out the other side covered up in aces is hard to diminish.
There are two dozen short stories on my Fiction page. In Panic Don’t Panic I take you right down to the concrete on the streets of Winnipeg and introduce some of its denizens.
Panic Don’t Panic from Fiction page
A steamy prairie wind blows in from the west, the city swelters, the garbage blows up and down Graham Avenue. Come Soon Summer does a finger check because the wind told her to. She curls her fingers toward her and counts. One two three four five. One two three four five. Yup, all there, even the one with the dirty plastic band-aid on it. Someday she will look under the band-aid and see what is there but not today.
She knows the finger stealer is nearby. Perhaps it’s the white man who thinks he’s cool in wrap sunglasses. Maybe it’s the old black lady with the thick glasses and the polka dot shopping bag. Or it’s the tiny drooling googly-eyed baby in the huge plastic carriage, or its mother, the thin distracted woman sipping a take-out coffee through a straw as she navigates the giant tram through sidewalk traffic, picking away at some black thing in her hand, the plugs in her ears telling her how to be in the world and what to do. Whoever it is, there is danger.
Come Soon Summer hears all about the danger from the wind through the elm saplings along the sidewalk, the whish of the bus tires on hot cement and the chattering in her head. There is danger. One two three four five. One two three four five.
When she remembers where she lives, Come Soon Summer can always go home, back to the little boxy house in the bush by the little stream that drowned somebody every summer for twenty five years but never drowned Come Soon Summer, not even once. In the house she sees her half-brothers Ilis and Orlis feet up watching some game on TV, eating zesty chips from crackling bags and bubbling water from plastic bottles. She sees first their feet then their legs being removed by the diabetes and she sees the spinning spokes of their wheelchairs create fluttering birds in the late afternoon sun. She spirals into the flickering light, her fetch overshadows her ghee. She doesn’t understand her thoughts.
Come Soon Summer finds a piece of thick blue chalk on the sidewalk. It is a finger, she thinks, someone has lost a finger. She counts her own fingers. One, two, three, four, five. One two three four five. All there.
She picks up the chalk, which has fallen out of a girl’s bag as she ran from the library to the waiting family car. Is the library on fire? Come Soon Summer asks herself again and again until she can’t remember the question anymore. That’s how she likes it, when she can’t remember the question anymore. She is holding chalk with all her fingers. That’s all. That’s all she knows, needs to know.
She remembers she can write. She can’t think of anything she needs to write or even wants to write. Come Soon Summer has no words. She stands weeping wordlessly as the library door swooshes open and closed.
She remembers the only two words any of us really need to know. They come rushing at her, toward her and she captures each one before it gets lost inside the word zoo building. Together the two words squeeze out small music in her mind.
The blue chalk is becoming moist and crumbly in Come Soon Summer’s hand. She now knows she needs to write and she knows what she needs to write. She kneels and applies the blue chalk to the red brick sidewalk in front of the library. A wad of gum sticks to the chalk. She flicks it away and feels the chalk expressing her command beneath her hand. She feels powerful. Her words appear large and blue.
Slouched against the stone building Come Soon Summer watches as library patrons walking in and out scuff her words away, her important message, her blue lines disperse like clouds in a red brick sky, vaguely tinting the soles of boots and shoes that later at home cats will sniff and sneeze from the blue dust of her chalk.
Come Soon Summer sneezes just as a woman in office clothes bends toward her offering her a loonie. Come Soon Summer takes the metal thing and smiles widely at the woman, revealing her blackened and broken teeth and the dark gums that still keep some of them in place. Come Soon Summer looks at the metal thing in her palm and suddenly lets out a yelp that startles a library patron who is chaining up his bike at the rack. One of her fingers is gone! Another yelp! Gone! One of her very own fingers! Counting one, two, three, four… only four, one gone! She curls her fingers toward her and counts again. “One two three four…” Still one short! Panic, Don’t Panic, Panic, Don’t Panic!
Something else is going on.
Come Soon Summer looks across Graham Avenue into the churchyard of Holy Trinity Church where men are shouting and hooting. Coming on the run around the side of the church is a barefoot young Cree man pursued by four slightly older native men, all of them high as kites on whatever they managed to steal from Canadian Tire that day. The boy runs through the iron gates into the traffic on Donald Street barely dodging cars. Traffic clears and his pursuers easily catch him on the sidewalk beside MTS Centre. They strip off his torn t-shirt and hold him as they take his jeans and run across Donald waving his clothing victoriously in the air. They stand across the street, pointing at his nakedness and shame, their laughter sounds like coyotes.
The naked man’s name is Shaq, actually Shaquille. Short on heroic role models of their own, Shaq’s young Cree parents named him after a black American basketball player due to cross-cultural empathy between downed natives and suppressed American blacks. Shaq is not seven foot one, he’s five foot ten. His smooth young body carries two souvenirs. Along his right side above his waist is a foot-long scar, still red from a knife attack by his drunken sister three months previous. Shaq almost bled to death that time. A sharp indentation on his right shoulder reminds him of the bullet that he caught on Alfred Avenue in the North End when he was eleven. Friendly fire, the cops called it.
On the sidewalk next to MTS Centre, Shaq quakes in anger, his head and long black hair shake as he clenches his fists by his side. Throwing back his head, he lets out an enormous existential wail of angst that echoes back and forth between the old church and the brick and glass boogie room. As he wails, his arms and clenched hands rise skyward, fists shaking over his head. His prolonged, resounding howl sounds like Wolf.
Naked and howling Shaq feels perfectly alone. He reaches inward and draws out his power animal fully, becoming Wolf on the sidewalk next to MTS Centre, powerful, brave. He howls again and again, each more desolate, more authentic than the last. He looks down at his naked body and howls again, this time tinged with a little laughter but ever Wolf. He throws his fists open and claws flex out of his fingertips. He leaves scratches on the afternoon sky.
His tormentors, though still curious what he will do next, lose interest in the game and throw his t-shirt and jeans onto Donald Street. Shaq watches as cars run over his clothing again and again. Clothing seems so irrelevant now, so unnecessary, so imperfect. I am perfect, Shaq thinks. When the traffic clears, he walks into the street, retrieves his wardrobe and dresses in the middle of Donald Street while drivers honk around him. Smiling and baring his teeth, he gives each one a fond finger.
At the same time as Shaq is naked and howling, behind him and proceeding along the sidewalk next to MTS Centre Come Soon Summer sees an orderly double line of poisonous mushrooms, orange bobbing mushrooms, the most dangerous kind!
In fact, they are not poisonous mushrooms, or even mushrooms. They are the Grade Two class from Our Lady of In Spite of Ourselves Catholic School – all twenty two of them, each wearing a neon orange hat for easy spotting during disasters – under the management and advisement of two obese diabetic women who are not their teachers but teacher’s assistants assigned the dirty job of tending the small flock through the maze of downtown, treacherous filthy downtown with its lurid crime, lack of predictability and unbenign deaths as seen on TVs in Squash Squander Heights and other suburbs surrounding Winnipeg. The women and their entourage are headed toward the Millennium Library for Storybook Time with Gerty Glucosemeter.
Both Eleanor Fecunder and Sessious Pindrover, minders of the little herd and both mothers though not of any of the children in their tow, are wearing similar toxic orange hats. The children have been trained to look for “the lighthouse of an orange hat if they are feeling lost.” As a result, child snatchers now, as a rule, have a neon orange hat in their glove box. Neither Eleanor nor Sessious know this or even care. They just want to get the herd to the gee dee library without any of them being flattened by a bus.
Sessious, leading the line, is the first to notice the commotion of the Indian boys. Her heart rate jumps thirty beats a minute, her eyes widen and her pupils dilate in a strange reaction to the anti-depressants she gobbles daily. She sees the naked man, turns toward the children and screams at the top of her lungs, “STOP!”
Bumpily, all the children stop, most are frightened, some start to cry. Eleanor, riding shotgun at the rear, finally sees naked Shaq and yells at the top of her lungs, “RUN!!” Confused, the children start to run past Sessious and Shaq. All of them turn to look at Shaq. Waiting for the light at the end of the block, some children still cry, others, curiosity enflamed, stare big-eyed at the man howling on the sidewalk. Storybook Time with Gerty Glucosemeter turns out to be rather anti-climatic. All the mushrooms make it through the ordeal, none squashed, all home safe and sound.
That evening, around the dinner table in the Bubbler household on Pillsbury Crescent Roll Crescent in Plunging Plover Plateau, Dad (Blair) asks his seven-year-old Son (Seth) what he learned in school today.
“I saw a wolf.”
Dad (Blair) is surprised. “You saw a wolf? Really? Where did you see a wolf, son?”
“Downtown, when we went to the lyberry, there was a wolf howling on the sidewalk. He had no clothes on.”
Dad (Blair) smiles at his son’s active imagination.
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