Summer Reading Notes…

In the face of this hot and cold, grey and sun-streaked summer, and in the absence of the usual editorial grind, I determined to read more than usual–to read, for the first time in a very long time, for the simple pleasure of doing so. Here are this summer’s reading notes so far…

 

Roxane Gay in conversation at St. Paul’s Trinity Church, July 5, 2017.

Hunger, by Roxane Gay: Compelling. Searing. Honest. It made me sob-cry. An absolute must-read. So very lucky that I had the opportunity this past July to see Roxane Gay in person in Toronto (while she was on tour for the just-released Hunger) and hear her speak so eloquently on the craft of writing as well as the shenanigans of the Kardashian family. She is hilarious, fantastic, and inspiring.

The Princess Diarist, by Carrie Fisher: So much of Carrie Fisher’s retelling of her “affair” with Harrison Ford (if that’s what it can be called) during the first Star Wars shoot sounds so cold as if it had happened to her not with her. Her diary excerpts from the time demonstrate incredible self-awareness for a nineteen-year-old as she dealt with the massive internal struggle to understand “it” (the “affair”), “him,” and his terrible silences. Most interesting is the book’s third act in which Fisher details her foray into “lap-dancing,” aka, her appearances at Comic-Con to sign photographs of Princess Leia. In this section, she seems to be trying to come to terms with being the bodily vessel who happened to portray that character, the most iconic princess-general of cinema. It is a complicated negotiation that even at 60 she appeared to still be working through. A fascinating, but heartbreaking, read.

Nemesis, by Agatha Christie: I picked this and Third Girl up at a sale at The Monkey’s Paw a couple of summers ago. Written in the 1970s when Christie was well into her eighties, Nemesis is the final Jane Marple mystery, and while it has its engaging elements, it is unnecessarily long and repetitive. But most grating is its tendency to preach through the mouthpieces of numerous male characters about the perceived moral failings of the contemporary young woman. Cool covers, though.

 

My cat liked it too.

I Love Dick, by Chris Kraus: A little hard to get into at first, as most of the art references went over my head, but once I did, I was mesmerized. This work, coined in the Afterword by Joan Hawkins as “theoretical fiction,” traverses all manner of territory, in particular, the social, cultural, sexual, and political milieu of the art world. The “fiction” begins as the result of “two genial but not particularly intimate or remarkable meetings” (Dick’s works) between artist and filmmaker Chris Kraus, her professor / semiotician / husband Sylvere Lotringer and art critic / theorist Dick (Hebdige), that, to Kraus anyway, culminates in a kind of “Conceptual Fuck” between her and Dick. To deal with the sudden and obsessive crush that Kraus experiences in the wake of these “meetings,” she and Sylvere write Dick a series of letters, which in turn, becomes a full-on art project that also stimulates their somewhat dour marriage. As her obsession / crush / love grows, and her personal and professional life implodes, so does the scale of the project as it transforms from love letters to what Hawkins calls, “essay-letters,” in which Kraus weaves the personal with such varied topics as Guatemala, the work of artists Hannah Wilke and Kitaj, schizophrenia, and so much more. Simultaneously breath-taking, thought-provoking, and surprising, this is the kind of text that, in order to absorb it fully, requires a second, third, and fourth reading…

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The Art Bar, 1991-2016

Art Bar, June 24, at Black Swan

[ADDENDUM: I wrote this as an elegy for the Art Bar Reading Series after attending what was, apparently, its swan song in late June of last year. As it turned out, in the months following this “final show,” a new team resurrected it; please visit The Art Bar Reading Series for more information. I decided to leave my post as is, despite the change in plans, despite it remaining the longest-running, poetry-only reading series in Canada. I decided to leave it as is because it reminds me that, sometimes, a public reading can be self-transformative.]

In 1999, at the Imperial Pub Library on Dundas Street in Toronto, in a big room upstairs that looked like a cabin, alongside Uncritical Mass, I was excited and petrified to be sharing poems from my first chapbook, Gypsy. Afterwards, out on the street, a woman came up to me, took my hands in hers and said I had too much energy. That it was coming out fast and going in too many directions. “You need to focus,” she said. And so it was at The Art Bar, one of the longest reading series in Canada, that I first learned how to read poems out loud.

At some point, the venue moved to the Victory Café, and I would spend many Tuesday nights there, trying to grow into a better writer by listening, learning, engaging, and drinking. On one of the many Dead Poet’s Nights, I nervously recited Primo Levi’s compelling poem, “Unfinished Business,” wanting so much to do Dr. Levi justice, to honour him in some small way as one of my heroes. The Art Bar was the place where I got to do that very thing. And sometime before that night, I had featured there alongside Robert Kroetsch; I remember playing Fleetwood Mac’s “Albatross” during my reading to help me relax, but mostly, I remember Mr. Kroetsch’s kind words to me, a gesture of encouragement I have held close ever since. The Art Bar gave me that.

My attendance would wane over the years, after the series moved to Clinton’s and then to Pauper’s. I had, in some ways, drifted away from that particular world, perhaps too enclosed in my own. But, on the nights when I did go, I always witnessed something special, whether it was Ray Hsu (Dr.Ray.ca) tearing out pages of his book to chew on, or James Arthur mesmerizing everyone in the room with his incredible, melodic, off-book recitation. The Art Bar had all that.

The very last time I was there it was to read from a new collection, and my nerves were on fire as if I hadn’t learned a damn thing about controlling all that energy that woman first told me about that summer night on Dundas Street seventeen years ago. There was a certain vibe: the room was packed, and the audience was listening, and the other two readers lit up the cavernous space of the series’ final venue, the Black Swan, with their beautiful words. That night, I was high-fived and told to “Keep on going,” which is all any of us can do. One more lesson learned from The Art Bar.

So, thank you, Art Bar, and all the people who kept it vital for so long. Thank you and good night.

Almost There…

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Rejection is the inevitable, sometimes painful part of the submission process for all writers. I keep twenty years’ worth of rejections in a series of portfolio books, and once in a while, I take the books out and flip through the pages to read over the wealth of responses: “Thanks, but no,” and, “Sorry!,” and, “Your writing does not meet our needs,” and, “Try to avoid abstractions,” and, “I’m afraid the humor here didn’t quite work.”

I learned, over time, what things not to do; for example, never send, as an unpublished and inexperienced “writer,” that poem you drunkenly wrote last weekend about unrequited love to The New Yorker. I also learned not to write the clever cover letter as a way to “stand out” (I cringe over such audaciousness, and all the unnecessary bolding and italicizing). As I got older and more experienced, my approach to my submissions became more professional, more polished, and, slightly more successful. And I say slightly because acceptance is still elusive, even with all I have learned. Perhaps it’s not seeing the work clearly enough or not knowing exactly where it might fit. It’s not always clear who the audience is, where they live, and if they’re listening. And, in the meantime, as I search for the right fit, the right place, the rejections slowly trickle in.

Some rejections sting more than others. When I submitted that poem to The New Yorker, I was wholly naïve and impulsive, and yet I also knew better. I knew sending an unpolished, unedited, hell, stupid poem to such an esteemed publication was a waste of time. But I did it anyway. Sometimes, I think I just wanted the fancy slip of paper with its lovely letterhead, as if it was a notch in my lipstick case. Something kind of cool.

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Some rejections are helpful. An editor might provide feedback that explains why the piece wasn’t for her, or, a note of encouragement to submit again, which lessens the sting, and keeps hope alive. But some rejections take longer to get over, perhaps because they strike at your very being. Just this past week, I received two rejections, but one stood out more than the other. It included this gem:

“Your work was almost there.”

Almost there. The words punched me in the gut. Where, I wanted to cry to the unnamed editor, is There? And if I’m not There, where am I? Nowhere? It’s the kind of rejection that aims to be hopeful, like that time you ran into an old friend, someone you hadn’t seen in years, and she told you how glad she was to hear you’re still at that writing thing. Hopeful and kind of condescending. It’s the kind of rejection I’ll carry around in my head for a while. Even if I know that there could be anywhere or everywhere or even here.

 

 

Some Kind of Progress

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This past Christmas, I recycled over ten years’ worth of printouts, notes, and drafts of my book There Are No Solid Gold Dancers Anymore, which had formed an unsteady, waist-high column in the closet. I kept only the oldest version of the thing, when it was called, Fortune-Telling Hazards, a title I loved until I revealed it to an acquaintance who proceeded to not only rearrange the grammar but kill any beauty it had had in my head. There’s something to be said for the adage, Never tell anyone anything.

After I dropped all that marked-up, stained paper into the blue bin, I started thinking about the past two years since TANSGDA’s publication. I have had to push through a strange, grey haze of loneliness for that old thing (and the old life it represented) while fighting my fear over how the poems sound out loud in the heads of others. I have also struggled, as most writers do, with this identity called, “the writer,” with identifying too much with the thing I had written, of letting it define my life and what it means. I’m still kind of working through all that. And I suppose that’s some kind of progress.

There have been other steps forward as I try to find myself beyond TANSGDA. My flash fiction piece, “One Saturday in 1988,” made the MASH shortlist last July and was beautifully narrated by voice actor Elisa Berkeley. And just this past week, my work, along with the work of my fab friend, Mary Crosbie, was published in Issue 6 of the online magazine, Body Parts; read “The Blue Boy” and “Life Saver” (Mary is a freaking awesome writer, comedian, and all-round performer; check out more of her work here).

There remains a big pile of paper in the closet – a pile of old stories, half-baked ideas, and odd snippets I cannot yet part with; perhaps there is a story there I can salvage, make something of. I know this is unlikely. But one step at a time.

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The Dinner Party

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From time to time, I would like to share a story I wrote.

Late in the evening of April 14, 104 years ago, the Titanic struck an iceberg in the North Atlantic. Less than two hours later, in the early morning darkness of April 15, it sank. This is a story about modern-day people, who, for no real reason whatsoever, decide to recreate the last supper of the first-class passengers.

The Dinner Party

Ellen swears the oysters are sardines from a can Mila had unearthed out of the depths of a high cupboard. In her mind, they squish into each other like amoebas forming a new creature; in reality, their growls tickle her intestinal wall.

The dinner party is now into its fourth course: filet mignon and lyonnaise sauce and vegetable marrow or something or other. Mila explains every detail of the course in an annoying English accent. That had been part of the invitation: learn the appropriate accent to your assigned station. Ellen’s invitation had said, “Third-class passenger, Cockney accent.” The invitation had also suggested costume ideas, but Ellen had told Margaret, the woman making her go to this dinner party, that there was no way she would wear a period costume.

“Where the hell am I supposed to find such a costume anyways?” Ellen had said on the phone to Margaret, one day before the dinner party.

“Don’t you have any old grandma clothes?” Margaret had said.

“No.”

“I’ve got an old hat you can wear. And some long gloves. For the top and bottom just wear something neutral and non-descript.”

“No. I’m wearing what I want. And what’s with the Cockney accent? Doesn’t this Mila know that the third-class passengers were mostly immigrants, not east-end Londoners? I mean, has the woman even done her research?”

They argued for a while and Ellen threatened to not come. Margaret relented. She wanted Ellen to come. There would be men at this dinner party that Margaret and Ellen would not get to meet otherwise. Mila had promised. And Ellen was always complaining that they never did anything interesting. Here was their chance.

And now here they are at a fancy dinner party full of interesting people. The man seated to Ellen’s left is a “first-class passenger, politician.” His name is Carl. He wears a tie and sits up straight. He does not say much at first. But as the fifth course dangles tantalizingly from Mila’s mouth, he turns to Ellen and says, “Is this weird?”

Ellen looks at him. “Is what weird? Creamed carrots?” She stabs at the mush on her plate.

He smiles. “No. This.” He gestures with his fork around the table, his eyes stopping at Mila who stands to explain what “Parmentier potatoes” means: “This is a dish featuring a minced potato blended with meat…”

“Isn’t it just a mashed potato?” says John, “second-class passenger, schoolteacher,” who sits next to Margaret, deemed “first-class, socialite.” She pulls at her lace blouse, which has a high, starched collar.

Mila looks flustered and starts spluttering about who Parmentier was. Then she says, “Where’s your English accent?”

Ellen nods to Carl, then says, in her best attempt at Cockney, “Super weird.”

He starts laughing. The other first-class passengers, Taylor and Mitch, Perry and Noelle, stare the two down.

“Really, Carl? You’re not supposed to cavort with the third-class baggage,” Mitch says, smiling at Ellen as if to say, “No offence. Just in character.”

Ellen looks around the table. The only other third-class passenger — Bruno — eats in silence, ignoring everybody.

Mila laughs. “No trouble, please. We are all in the same boat!” She clamps a hand over her mouth and giggles like a schoolkid after drinking her first cup of coffee. The other first-class passengers, minus Carl but including Margaret, also laugh, repeating the joke, “We’re all in the same boat! Hahahahha.” Together, they sound like a chorus of dying hyenas.

“Well, that’s not exactly true, is it?” Ellen says, wincing at the echo. “The third-class passengers didn’t eat this crazy meal for their last supper, I bet.”

“So consider yourself lucky,” Taylor says before delicately placing a ripped piece of squab into her mouth.

“Whoa there Miss Fancypants,” Ellen says, pushing her plate forward. “No need to be rude, now, is there?”

“Excuse me, but my name is Lady Taylor. Kindly use the appropriate title,” Taylor says between chewy chews.

“I will if you learn how to be one first. God, why don’t you shut your mouth when you eat?” Ellen says, folding her arms across her chest.

Mila’s face turns dark while Margaret’s turns purple. She tugs at the tight lace around her throat.

“How dare you speak to me like that you muppet … munter… I mean, miscreant!” Taylor, uncertain of her word choice, throws down her napkin, and keeps chewing on that piece of rubbery squab, her jaws like a trash compactor on automatic.

“This isn’t the goddamn Titanic!” Ellen yells, standing up.

Margaret slams her hands onto her plate.

“But it is! That’s the whole point, Ellen, and you’re ruining it!” Mila yells back.

John looks at Margaret. “Are you OK?”

She shakes her head, points to her lace collar.

“I’ve a mind to throw you off this boat!” Mila looks over to Mitch and Perry and nods her head.

“Seriously?” Ellen says, as the two men stand up. Both are wearing stupid naval jackets they must’ve found at Value Village.

John is now undoing the lace collar, button by button. “God these things are so small,” he says, fumbling his fingers, as Margaret gasps for air.

Mitch and Perry are circling the dining room table. “Officers. Take her away. She’s bothering me,” Mila now says with the calmness of an English aristocrat.

Carl stands up. “Don’t touch her.”

Ellen looks up at Carl and rolls her eyes. She throws down her napkin, and pushes her chair back. “Yah. Don’t touch me. I’m outta here. Thanks for the lousy mutton. Hope you all choke on that foie gras shit.” She turns to walk out.

“It was marrow! Marrow! Don’t you listen?”

John finally undoes the last button. Margaret heaves in a gulp of air. Her face, red and tear-streaked, turns to look at him. “You saved my life!”

“Officers, see her out!” Mila shouts though all the two men do is to stand in the doorway with blank faces while Ellen searches for her coat in the closet. She yells back, “Oh my God, shut up!”

“See what happens when you try to invite the less fortunate?” Taylor says.

“So ungrateful,” Noelle says.

“So rude,” says Mila.

The front door slams.

The two officers return. “Well, that’s done,” they say. “No more trouble from the third-class, I expect.” They sit back down at the table. Everyone now looks to Bruno, the lone third-class passenger. He is still eating.

Carl is at a standstill.

John is feeling the rush of pride at having saved Margaret. “This must be what it felt like to save women and children from the Titanic itself,” he says to her, beaming. She takes his hand and says, “How can I ever thank you?”

“Waldorf Pudding, anyone?” Mila says, before rushing out to retrieve the carefully arranged ceramic bowls on a lacquer tray.

Carl sits back down. It is too late. Ellen is long gone, adrift in that cold sea of humanity. He sits, staring at the tidal wave of Waldorf pudding, satisfied he would never find her in all that debris. Then, he dips a spoon into the whirling mass.

 

 

Chicken Dinner

From time to time, I would like to share a story I wrote.

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Tonight there will be no funny business unless bad choices in music are made, which is how a good night at Nina’s house usually starts. If she is in the mood, she will play eighties songs on the house stereo at a raucous level, and by the second song we will all be swaying and screaming the lyrics like drunk people at karaoke. But it is too early to tell if it is going to be that kind of night, so all I can do is sit and wait at the round table near the sliding doors in Nina’s massive kitchen while over at the eighteen-foot long granite island, upon which you could play a mean game of shuffleboard, Susan fusses over a bowl of roughage and Nina stands over a boiling pot that says dinner will be ready in about five minutes. On either side of me sit our mother and father. They could be strangers at a poker table in a seedy casino if one did not comment on the crystal vase of lilies in the centre of the round table, and the other on the heavenly smell of the chicken or how well kept the backyard is looking these days. I hear all their voices as one would if she were crouching in a dark upstairs closet hiding from the most menacing sister, straining every ear follicle for the pound of her impending footsteps, leery of her inevitable discovery, the nasty smack to the arm, and the smug, triumphant call of, “Ha! You’re it!”

As a distraction, I look at the series of plaques that line one window ledge because that is what I do every time I am at Nina’s house whether it is Thanksgiving or Christmas or not. Each plaque is dedicated to a word like “Life” or “Friendship” or “Believe” because Nina says These are the words that matter. But as hard as I try, I never understand what difference these calligraphic declarations make at a family dinner at Nina’s house where forks and knives and bottles of wine chatter without discrimination, and as far as I can remember no one in our house ever believed in anything anyway.

And as I consider where Nina purchased these saccharine decorations and whose job it was to judge what word got the special commercialized plaque treatment, Nina tells everyone to pick up their plate and come and get it while it is hot, so we all crowd around one end of the bombastic granite island where steam rises off a greasy casserole dish full of too many pieces of heavily breaded chicken and a chipped bowl of wild grain rice and another chipped bowl of steroidal white asparagus. Everyone says how good everything looks.

Back at the round table, I concentrate on cutting my slab of chicken into smaller, more easily digestible pieces, my eye on the lookout for grizzle, all to avoid the predictable natter about recent cemetery visits and ungrateful children and unsolicited opinions about what other family members should do with their lives. They need to get a life is the familiar, critical refrain. And when I need a break from all of the various and contradictory definitions of what sort of life each family member needs to get, I abandon my cut-up breaded chicken for the temporary solitude of the bathroom, always forgetting about the cherubic plaque with the word “Love” hanging on the beige wall, always resenting its authoritative glare and flowery self-indulgence as I sit on the toilet, always wondering how love gets defined in Nina’s house. Maybe its design lies in the marble swirls of that grossly expensive granite. Or is it in the breaded topping of the chicken that Nina always bakes for our parents? Perhaps it is hidden somewhere only Nina’s always absent husband knows, and her search for it is an unwinnable game they play. I stare hard at the word. Shift the letters around and all you’ve got is a word for rat, I think, smiling, knowing relief will only come when the bathroom door opens and the scent of that word, tawdry as only canned “cool linen and white lilac” air freshener can be, finally dissipates.

And back at the table, I am sad that my unfinished plate has been cleared, my small, grizzle-less chicken pieces hostage now to the overflowing garbage, and that there are too thick brownies resting lazily on an oversized white plate that Nina lords over. Our mother had brought these brownies. Our mother always brought brownies to family dinners at Nina’s house. And at every family dinner at Nina’s house, as a ritual, someone tortures these brownies for being too good, too chocolaty, too fattening. Tonight, it is Nina who cuts into the first victim with a toothpick, then licks the icing off its sharp point, a sweet stab to the tongue. Meanwhile, Susan, driven by boredom or brownie guilt, makes coffee, and a swarm of busyness pervades the room for the next ten minutes, what, with the organization of cream and milk and sugar and cups and spoons for everybody. And, after watching Nina destroy the guts of one brownie, and make a mess of her oversized white plate, our mother suggests, as she always does, that the torturer simply take one and put it on her plate like a grown-up, but Nina ignores her, drops the toothpick and instead sticks her finger into the thick, untouched icing of a fresh, fat brownie as though she were poking me or Susan for no other reason than to irritate an already recognized bruise. Our mother sighs along with the “Hope” plaque as the ongoing talk of those same ungrateful children and all the money they cost everyone turns vitriolic, and the smell of coffee is like a small miracle. As a gesture of provocation, Nina pushes the plate of brownies at the now seated Susan, then leans back in her chair and pats her flat stomach. But Susan pushes it back as she always does and says with some satisfaction that she never eats brownies. Nina rolls her eyes in that way that she always does when she has goaded someone into purposefully showing her up so she can then say something she should not say. And as our father’s arthritic knuckles tense, and his eyes cast their gaze over all our heads to stare out at the lights of the pool, and the sugarless tea with lemon in front of him is already so cold it is forming a sheet of ice on its surface, I know that it is not going to be an eighties kind of night tonight. All I can do to not look at Nina or Susan or our mother or father is stare at the wall where the “Strength” plaque hangs so precariously it is destined to fall onto the “Family” one beneath it and send both crashing to the hardwood floor.

But before that can happen, the first to give up, admit exhaustion, and end the dinner party is Nina as she clears dishes and doles out cleaning instructions to Susan. Our father reaches for a toothpick before he struggles to stand. Our mother reaches for her purse, her coat already on. There will be half-hearted hugs and air kisses and the inevitable distribution of the night’s consolation prize: the Tupperware containers full of over-breaded chicken and white asparagus no one will eat tomorrow.

Goodbye 2015

Goodbye and good riddance 2015. I am not sad to see you slip away and become the past. But thank you for the bright spots like my little family. For those three yellow circles we found leaning impossibly in the air in High Park. For the clouds of cherry blossoms. For the goldfinches that we watched feed one another. For the heart of barf my cat left me. For reminding me that if I look hard enough, I might find another direction to take. And for all the wild skies.

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The Walk

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The walk to the school where I work is long though sometimes it passes as if it takes seconds instead of hours. Sometimes it is easy to notice things, like how even on the smallest of leaves, drops of rain can cling, perfectly whole, until someone in ripped jeans (each rip like a surgical incision) walks by too fast, so the drops break and drip to the sidewalk.

Sometimes, streaks of the sunrise’s final yawn stretch through the gaps between tree branches where the morning birds scream. But as the weeks wear on, the morning sky stays darker longer, and such streaks become sparse. The ground is a wet carpet of yellow and brown collapse. I go a long time without thinking anything until University College’s muddy field forces me to go in circles around lost time.

Then the walk becomes hard as November ends and school inches toward exams. My legs drag, and I wonder what I’m carrying that is so heavy. I see other lost things like a barrette covered in a leopard-skin print that lies in the concrete doorway of the strip club instead of holding back a strand of someone’s hair.

Then comes the day when the chill digs into my muscles, and the sky takes over an hour to fade from deep blue to the pale blue you see too often in powder rooms, and my thoughts turn to my voice and where it has gone. On Palmerston, all the stately houses huddle together, impervious to wakefulness, the lone walker moving south, the green glow of the lampposts.

Now the walk is over. Christmas decorations are up and line people’s railings. Water has been smoothed into ice to skate on. I try not to let time make fun of me or stop me from seeing the promise in each morning. And people continue to walk with purpose toward things.

 

The Box Marked ‘Candace’

From time to time, I would like to share a story I wrote.

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The Box Marked ‘Candace’

 From the bedroom doorway, a sliver of light runs the length of hallway to the top of the stairs. The woman eyes this light hungrily and turns her body sideways, before holding her arms straight out and lifting her chin to avoid rubbing it on the few unsecured cardboard flaps. To propel forward, she must shuffle her feet, then waddle her hips, while allowing the veins in her arms to ache. Her bottom slides along each box face; she can feel the dip of the gap at the end of one box and the ridged start of another, forgetting what each contains although black marker scrawls on the sides form words like “Kitchen” and “Books” and “Clothes.” The boxes have been reused and repacked so often that the woman doubts any hold what the black marker says they hold.  

She keeps shuffling and waddling and rubbing her way to the point where the sliver of light ends. Her heart shakes like loose rock in an earthquake. The woman thinks now, having seen the black writing that reads “Clothes,” about the baby. What about the baby? There had been so much by way of baby clothes, it had never seemed enough. Bibs and sleepers and T-shirts with funny sayings or dinosaur cartoons. Bottles and soothers. A diaper bag for each day of the week. Tiny socks and sneakers. Headbands with pink roses or yellow daisies or purple bells.

The woman bows her chin, sees the thin decline of stairs, and a new slice of light emitting from the tiny crescent-shaped window at the crown of the front door. Smaller, more compact boxes frame the stairs. She sets her sights on that new delicious-looking slice of light on the hardwood floor below. She will find the baby’s things once she is downstairs.

It is hard to navigate the stairs. She uses the wall to lean her weight into. This way, the smaller boxes will not topple over the boxes on the other side that, like wallpaper, cover the entirety of the front hall. For at least a year now, the woman has moved, snakelike, through the dining room to the kitchen because the front hall and adjoining family room became filled with boxes. Her hands trace the wall, note small flecks where paint has scratched off, and her nails, long and pink, tap tap tap as she takes each step. More black writing spells out “Cassette Tapes” and “Photos” and “Office Supplies” and “Magazines.” All the boxes are sealed with packing tape. She cannot be sure if they too hold the remains of what the writing says they do. The woman can only hope. For some time, she has wanted to make a photo scrapbook. But she does not know if the pictures of her life and what it looks like, all spread out, is what she wants to remember.

The woman reaches the bottom of the stairs. In the foyer is a pile of newspapers about three feet high from 2000 that she promised to recycle four months ago. She walks over to the front door, no longer holding her arms out or her chin down. Rising up on tiptoe, she looks out the peephole and sees the same, everyday picture: a small swath of sky, the concrete dullness of the porch, and the unruly green grass just beyond. The woman taps her head with one finger. It is time to call Stan, her neighbour. It is time to mow.

Resuming her footing, the woman turns around, forgetting the pile of newspapers to recycle. She supposes the box of the baby’s things could be in the hallway. There was a navy blue blanket with the planets and constellations sewn into it that a friend of her mother’s made. She wonders where that might be. She would love to look at it right now. Pandy, she says to herself, Where did you put all the baby’s things? She surveys the boxes in the hallway. Dan was the one who had packed all of Candace’s things after the last hospital visit. He was the one who had wanted to get rid of everything. He had had all the boxes marked “Candace” lined up in the driveway, ready to go. She had come out screaming and pulling all of Candace’s toys and stuffed animals and headbands out of the boxes. Whatever she had been able to carry she had taken in her arms and marched back into the house, but Dan had come tearing after her, knocking it all out of her hold and telling her she was an idiot. That it was useless, so why bother?

The woman had not thought of that day in a long time. I just want to look at the blanket, she says, again to herself. It must be in a ‘Candace’ box. I’ll find it, take it out of the box, and lay it on my bed. Then, I won’t have to go looking for it again. This plan makes her feel better, so she makes her way through the dining-room pathway her cousin Laurie helped her create a year ago.

In the kitchen, boxes form a permanent curtain for the sliding doors that lead to the backyard. The table is subsumed with piles of paper, organized by a coloured post-it note system. The computer on the counter is on, and, surrounding it is more paper. The only kitchen tool that operates is the coffee maker, which has, since it is 8:30 a.m., already brewed a pot of fresh coffee. This is the only thing that the woman can make in the kitchen, since the oven is stuffed with bulging fabric, and the fridge, which is unplugged, and she never opens, more than likely contains random items like small plastic containers of bobby pins, Christmas ribbon and bows, paper clips, old postcards, empty frames, broken calculators and cameras, lightbulbs, or outdated coupons.

The bottom of the woman’s mug holds the dregs of yesterday’s coffee. She pours out today’s liquid to its brim. She does not need sugar or cream. There is no room for such things anyway. Laurie will be by in a couple of hours time with lunch, so the coffee is enough. Till then, she can surf the Internet, or look for the navy blue blanket with the planets and constellations sewn into it. It had been Candace’s favourite blanket. As the woman sips the coffee, she wonders if it will smell like baby or the unwashed house or the dank interior of decade-old cardboard. She sits in the only chair in the kitchen, and holds the mug up to one cheek to feel the coffee’s heat, glad that Dan did not, in the end, throw the “Charity” boxes out. He had left her, had he not, after that incident? She pushes the mug harder against her cheek, winces at the burn. Yes. Yes, he had.

The woman stares at the computer screen and hits the Firefox icon. She could read the day’s news on CNN. Finish this coffee. Go through the paper on the table, figure out what bills need to be taken care of. But she does not want to do any of that. She places the mug on top of an empty purple folder. She is no longer sure that the blanket is navy blue or has the planets and constellations sewn on it. Maybe it is yellow and has blackbirds for a pattern. She senses it was yellow with blackbirds. She can hear birds through the kitchen’s one small window that she keeps open a crack, but what kinds of birds she does not care.

Did Candace prefer the yellow blanket covered in blackbirds or the navy blue one with planets and constellations? The woman tries to picture Candace’s room — the crib, the delicate pink walls, the rainbow Dan had carefully painted, the dresser with the polka dots, but it is like a made-up room in a catalogue that does not belong to anyone. Anyway, Candace’s room is shut tight like a locked treasure chest. No one has been in there for ten years.

The woman hates the sounds these birds make in the open air that slips through that open crack. She hates their beating wings against the ivy, hates the palpitating haste of their every movement. It is so anguished. She wishes it was nighttime when no aromatic slivers of light can sneak in, and no bird sounds threaten the silence. At night, the boxes are still, she is still, the baby is still. There is no getting out at night. But in the day, there are temptations — the black writing, the flashes of green lawn, the doorbell ringing, the circling of bicycle wheels, the yells of girls and boys at one another. In the daytime, life moves, but the woman sits with coffee, listening and waiting for Laurie. 

What if the blanket, navy blue or yellow, planets or blackbirds, is a memory, or worse, a dream fragment, an imagined thing, that hangs in her mind as if drying on a clothesline amongst other things like the red bra and black dress she used to wear on evenings out — evenings she cannot remember, let alone recreate in a story to tell herself or Laurie, though Laurie would never ask about such things.

She turns her gaze from the computer’s wavy lines to scan the boxes that block the sliding doors. “Dishware,” “Vinyl,” “Utensils,” “Bowls,” “Medicine,” “Games.” The writing is faded, and she wonders if she should go over each letter with a new black marker she recently found in a kitchen drawer. She resumes her scanning, and settles on one box, in the centre of the wall of the boxes that reads, “Candace.”

The woman gets up from her chair and walks over to the box. She examines the writing and is confident it is not her own. She runs her fingers along its edges, wondering how to pull it out without toppling the boxes that lie on top of it or shifting the weight of those boxes to its right and left. She could cause an interior collapse. Everything from that other life could come tumbling out. Boxes could explode with stuff she does not know she has still. Dan’s stuff. He had left, after all, with nothing. Left her everything: pants, shoes, socks, underwear, nail clippers, razors, toolbox, briefcase, unread magazine subscription, bills, every little unremarkable thing. What if all that debris finally gave way and rolled over her like a landslide?

But what if the navy blue or yellow blanket is tucked away in this very box, in the middle of this wall of boxes? What if she never holds it again? It would be like Candace never existed. That baby with the china-like eyes; no, with the marble-like eyes. The woman was always afraid one of those glassy balls would bounce out of Candace’s head and roll into the vent, disappear into the house’s heating system, and clank against the metal pipes day in and day out. She remembers telling Dan about this concern and Dan yelling and yelling till he stopped and left with nothing. Left her with every little unremarkable thing.

She sighs, and looks over to the coffee machine for the time: 9:30 a.m. In one hour, the course of her day has changed. Laurie will not be here till noon. She has plenty of time to get at this box in the centre of things.

She tries to stick her fingers under the box’s bottom. It will not budge because of the weight of the other boxes stacked on top. She needs her step ladder, which is stored under the kitchen table. She gets on her knees, and slides the ladder out. Then, she positions it in front of the column of boxes that has the box she wants. She climbs up three steps, and is now level with the top box, which she pulls carefully out, like reverse Tetris. Breathing in and out, she lowers herself slowly down each step. Ignoring the box’s black writing and the urge to open it, she places the box onto the floor. She repeats this process three times. The left and right rows are leaning dangerously in, but miraculously, stay put. She removes “Candace” and places it on the floor away from the other boxes. Then, she returns the four boxes to their rightful place in the row, leaving a gap at the top where some sunlight now passes through.

In the room, this new light illuminates the kitchen table, the counter, the mound of empty purple folders, other surfaces. She sits in her chair and wonders if she should have her second cup of coffee before opening the box. But this is not the place to pull out the baby’s navy blue or yellow blanket. She needs a softer, shadier space.

She picks up the box and moves out of the kitchen and into the path that leads through the dining room and into the front foyer. She raises her head, looks up to the top of the stairs, which is hard to focus on, since there is so little space. She ambles up the stairs, leaning against the wall, clutching the box, straining every working arm muscle, ignoring the tingling that has erupted in her fingers. Each step is an Olympic hurdle. But the box is so tempting, so full of the beautiful things she longs to hold again, that she pushes forward. At the top of the stairs, she turns right. Here the boxes are less, and she can waddle by with greater ease, though she has to raise the box up, and this burns her shoulder muscles. Her fingers beg to give way. She drops the box in front of a closed door and it shudders before settling on the carpet.

Beyond the door, the woman is sure she hears a beating heart. She slides her back against it and sits on the floor next to the box. Tape hangs loosely off one side and she pulls at it till it slides off, leaving a sticky smudge on the cardboard. She gets on her knees. The beating heart beyond the door shakes as if it is too cold. She pulls more and the flap hangs down like a salivating tongue. She pulls the opposite flap back and out of the box flies a pale moth. She dips her hands, then her arms into the box, but there is nothing. No navy blue or yellow blanket that once belonged to a baby. No shred or rag or thread of a man named Dan. She plunges her head into the empty box and caws like one of those birds. It had been so heavy to carry.