Thursday, 19 December 2013

Digression: Marketing Advice for Artists from 'Christmas Magic,' a Made-for-TV Xmas Movie

   Made-for-TV Xmas movies are the best, not least because they're so unflappably (and arguably pathologically) optimistic about the redemption that each and every Special Season ushers in—for individuals, families, and entire municipalities!!

   Christmas Magic effortlessly reflects the genre's manic, chirpy disposition. Oakville, Ontario's own Lindy Booth (Relic Hunter, Warehouse 13) stars in Hallmark Channel's pop-Christian heartwarmer, directed by Stratford's own John Bradshaw (of Christmas Star, Mistletoe Over Manhattan, The Town Christmas Forgot, Cancel Christmas...and Pegasus Vs. Chimera fame). 
   It's an "original movie" in the sense that a Hallmark greeting card represents "original art."

   Booth plays Carrie Bishop, who is killed in the opening five minutes. 

   No angel (yet), she's a conniver, a backstabbing event planner who steals clients from her former boss and mentor using hinted-at but never fully disclosed feminine wiles...
   Carrie can't resist gloating, of course, and decides to make a cellphone call to her ex-boss while driving. In the middle of her villainous boasts, she's hit by an oncoming vehicle. Apparently, God doesn't always move in mysterious ways.
   Dazed, Carrie appears to wake up in the next scene. She's outdoors; there are white Christmas lights and a wide set of stairs, but otherwise she's all alone and confused. A man in a military uniform, who'd warned her just minutes before about talking on the cellphone while driving, approaches her and says, "I warned you about driving and using the cellphone." (Besides mapping redemption in various forms, TV Xmas flicks are always irrepressible, even evangelical, Message Movies, uncomplicated parables for the Age of Television).
   The stranger also informs her that she's Tot, as the Germans say. And that since she was such a nasty careerist hag in real life (these aren't his exact words), she's got one chance to make amends—all by midnight on Christmas Eve!
   Naturally, this stranger in military clothing is a guardian angel who will oversee her Heavenly Assignment of helping a befuddled sad-sack widower fix his life and dowdy restaurant, which serves terribly unfashionable and paradoxically bland Chicken Piquante (the tell-tale sign of the restaurant's imminent bankruptcy). 
   Carrie'll burn in eternal hellfire if she fails—that's implied, not stated—but can float to her own fluffy cloud in Heaven if she succeeds. By Godly omnipotence she's whisked off to a picturesque small town (Ontario's own Hamilton, in fact).

   And so begins the renovation of Carrie Bishops corroded soul. 

   I stopped watching soon after, so I don't know for sure how her journey ends. My guess is the legendary pearly gates (re: the Book of Revelation 12:21—"The twelve gates were twelve pearls, each gate made of a single pearl. The great street of the city was of gold, as pure as transparent glass.")
   Along the way, newly non-conniving Carrie stops by a gallery, where a nervous artist is hanging paintings for his first solo show. 
   He's pacing, sweating, and wringing his hands. He could use a Quaalude. This being a Christmas movie, a genre philosophically opposed to pharmacology, the anxious artist gets helpful advice instead—from Carrie (who is, after all, an event planner from New York City). Grateful, he bows to her metropolitan expertise.
   She scans the four white walls of the small square of a room and then asks him, "So, what's your catch phrase?"
   "Huh? Catch phrase?" He's bewildered.
   "Yeah, a catch phrase. So that everyone will remember what to say about your show the next day."
   She returns to scanning the walls, which feature the artist's brightly-coloured depictions of Americana West iconography in a Pop Art style. 
   "I've got it," Carrie announces. "New American Classics."
   Guess what? The next day, the phase "New American Classics" is falling out of gallery-goers' mouths. It's a Christmas miracle!

   Fellow artists, you have a novel coming out, a short story collection, some poetry, perhaps your first solo show, and you've reminded friends of the fact, made attempts to befriend and/or ingratiate yourself with arts section newspaper/magazine/online literary site editors, and made efforts to simultaneously (a) increase the scope of your socializing and (b) mentally substitute hazy, unproductive "socializing" with entrepreneurial, go-for-the-throat "networking." You're willing to kiss ass, shake hands, kiss babies. 

   Good for you. You are a brand, and this brand is a business enterprise within a competitive capitalist environment. The brand must grow. Stagnation is not an option.
   But have you brainstormed about your catch phrase yet? Is it clever? Accurate? Memorable? 
   You must assure that your catch phrase trips off the tongues of well-heeled consumers. You want Michiko Kakutani, Adam Begley, and James Wood to be singing "[insert your catch phrase here]" as they wander from bookstore to launch to publishing industry insiders' party and have other women and men of influence ask, "So what's that catchy tune?" They'll reply, "[insert your catch phrase here]." Before they walk off, they'll add, "Trust me, it's sure to be a hit."    
   Trust literally angelic Carrie; she knows a thing or two.

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Digression: Books I'm Reviewing—Barry Dempster's "The Outside World" and Kelli Deeth's "The Other Side of Youth"

   In the Toronto Star Alex Good recently identified Douglas Glover's Savage Love as the "best book of 2013 you probably never heard of," and praised the book as a stylistic masterpiece (overlooked chiefly because its author tends to write experimental short fiction published by small presses, he'd opined in an earlier review).

   My feelings for The Outside World are similar. Not the experimental masterpiece bit, but the should-be-widely-recognized-and-has-not-been sentiment.
   If in the furiously active world of Twitter, products and brands are ever-trending (as in "Now Trending: Disney Star Dylan Sprouse’s Nude Selfie Lands on Twitter, and Other Hot Topics"—thank you for the headline, Globe and Mail), then, I imagine The Outside World is resolutely non-trending (untrending? flatlining?). 
   At least the mediasphere that has made me aware of the books I ought to read (Glover's, Boyden's, Catton's, etc) hasn't as yet let me know to add Dempster's fine Bildungsroman to the pile.
   The quietly sensational novel tells about a young teenage boy's dilemmas in his world, which is suburban Scarborough circa 1966. One affecting charm is in the hapless character and his wrestling with the complications of a family environment that radically destabilizes. The other comes with Dempster's prose, which is neither baroque nor experimental (as it reflects, more or less, the knowledge and ability of its adolescent protagonist), but manages to not become merely prosaic (which would probably be an accurate representation of the writing style of an actual 13-year-old) because Dempster's other work (as a poet) suffuses the prose to just the right degree.
chief among them the fact that he mainly writes experimental short fiction published by small presses - See more at:
chief among them the fact that he mainly writes experimental short fiction published by small presses - See more at:


   I experienced misgiving when I struggled over the review of The Other Side of Youth, Kelli Deeth's second story collection, because I had such ambivalence about the book. 
   I admired the craft of the writing, for one, and that's no small matter. Deeth's stories are subtle and superbly engineered, and they express an attention to detail and emotional nuance that stands well above average (which is to say you both remember them and think about aspects of them well after the fact).
   And while the title seems to promise views (emphasis on the plural) of post-youth life, the stories return again and again to a type, a white, heterosexual, and more or less middle class Ontarian, who's marked by a passiveness and masochism with regard to romantic and sexual relationships, her parents (domineering, hectoring mothers in particular), and agency. They're stuck, in other words, and evidently going nowhere fast.
   Taken together, the stories reflected, to me, a relentlessly closed-off, nihilistic, and claustrophobia-inducing setting and a population of female characters that makes the masochistic women of Mary Gaitskill short stories seem boundlessly optimistic. Besides the fact that this narrowly singular vision of WASP femininity matches nothing in my sphere of experience or awareness, my feelings as the reader of a collection of short stories were (and are): why? 
   The compulsion to write more or less the same character in different, albeit similarly hopeless, settings, is an interesting one. As a reader of a collection of stories, though, I'm personally interested in seeing how  - over nine or ten or a dozen outings - an author can register various views of various parts of the social worlds that interest them and their readers.
   As I've implied here and also explicitly stated, these words are personal reactions to these stories. Others have found (and will find) nothing to kvetch about in Keeth's angle of approach. They're likely to sing her book's praises. 

Monday, 2 December 2013

Digression: Favourite Readings (2013)


   The only planned reading I have for December is vintage...from 1972 in fact. (It's Xavier Hollander's The Happy Hooker, and I'm reading it for research purposes. The right, research. 
   That scandalous memoir is a point of reference for characters of the current novel I'm writing, and rather than faking it à la How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read, I'm going to re-read its jail to riches to rags story. That will be the first time since, hmm, junior high school.)
since the only planned reading I have for December predates 2013, I'm free to formulate a list of favourite books of the year. I won't presume to argue that they're qualitatively The Best (that category's a morass, a bog of quicksand: best to avoid it altogether). And considering the large majority of them were assigned for reviews, the sampling isn't particularly wide.
   I enjoyed them, though, and claim them unequivocally as reading experiences I'd recommend for others. (The Sun asked a few contributors for their Top 5 books—with reasons why—and mine can be viewed here.)

   In no special order, here they are—


 The Outside World by Barry Dempster


Mount Pleasant by Don Gillmor

 Caught by Lisa Moore

 Fresh Hell: Motherhood in Pieces by Carellin Brooks


 Juanita Wildrose: My True Life by Susan Downe


Maddaddam by Margaret Atwood


 Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design by Charles Montgomery


The Massey Murder: A Maid, Her Master and the Trial that Shocked a Country by Charlotte Gray



   The Once and Future World by J.B. MacKinnon

  Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls by David Sedaris


    As for less-than-pleasant and less-than-recommended, there were novels by D.W. Wilson, Shyam Selvadurai, and Douglas Coupland. Seeing that one was nominated for a national literary prize and another was called the finest novel of the year
by one Victoria-based reviewer, take my opinion as highly subjective. I also don't like whistling, Moshe Safdie's design for the Vancouver Public Library central branch, sandwiches with bottled mayonnaise in them, a single long-stemmed rose given as a token of affection, the mystifying acid-wash denim revival, the Pontiac Aztec™, Axe for Men, and the unexpectedly persistent trend of Affliction™ MMA couture.

Friday, 22 November 2013

Digression: Books I'm Reviewing / Profiling—Charles Montgomery's "Happy City" and Susan Downe's "Juanita Wildrose"

   On occasion I run into an individual who states firmly (and with an odd or contrarian sort of pride), "Nope, I don't read Canadian literature." 

   "What a tool" is usually my immediate (if unkind and dismissive) thought, as it would be with someone who proudly declares, "I don't do carbs" or "TV? I stopped watching that years ago."

   Later, though, I wonder about what they picture as they think of this entire category they're so comfortable with claiming to know and so comfortable to dismiss wholesale. 
   Is it one of those patronizing, international-in-scope perspectives that would make reading Canadian lit equivalent to remaining stuck in your rinky-dink hometown and never wanting to leave, still wearing those white tube socks purchased at Field's when Kanye's got Maison Martin Margiela face masks? Or do these refuseniks recall one CanLit course they didn't care for in university that featured a handful of doom and gloom novels that started with As For Me and My House and ended with The Stone Angel? Maybe they were assigned The Handmaid's Tale in high school and thought it was a real downer, and from there made this deeply flawed cognitive leap that all Canadian lit was time-wasting and grim. 
   I don't know. 
   Maybe next time I hear that declaration, I ought to say, "Oh, really, and why is that?" and encourage the speaker to flesh out a working definition of all that's unworthy in Canadian literature. 

   If a Group of Seven historico-aesthetic commonality existed between the thousands of books that comprise Canadian literature, then I could understand rejecting the homogeneous entirety of it. But even the slightest of investigations will indicate that such a uniform commonality is, um, a complete fiction. 
   Coincidentally, there's a handy example from this weekend's newspapers that illustrates the point, two books I read a few months ago.
   Susan Downe's quasi-memoir, Juanita Wildrose: My True Life, marries fact with fiction and poetry with prose (and shopping lists) in order to describe the childhood years and later decades of a woman who (actually) lived in the United States and Canada for over a century. In Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design, Charles Montgomery promotes a vision of urban contentedness that's built upon years of global travel and research. Montgomery lives in Vancouver; Downe resides in London, ON: that makes them both Canadian, and their work accordingly CanLit. Other than the fact of geographic 'unity' (kinda sorta: the road-trip would cover 4180.5km), however, I can't find too much in common despite the fact they're examples of a national literature. Rejecting them both because they're fall under one supposedly meaningful category makes no sense whatsoever. 



Friday, 15 November 2013

Digression: Books I'm Reviewing—J.B. MacKinnon's "The Once and Future World."

   Initially I read The Once and Future World because I was curious about its monumental scope (from the last ice age into the near future!) and remedying premise (especially after spending a number of classes teaching The 100-Mile Diet, J.B. MacKinnon's previous book with Alisa Smith), and because I'd been assigned to write a profile about the book / author.

   Once the profile was composed and sent off, I realized there were aspects of the book that hadn't properly fit into the interview questions and ideas it raised that hadn't really gotten asked. Thankfully, I was able incorporate those overlooked aspects into another piece of writing.

The review appears in The Winnipeg Review.

Monday, 11 November 2013

Digression: Books I'm Reviewing—Ashley Little's "Anatomy of a Girl Gang."

   Not to be confused in any way whatsoever with Black Rose, Cher's band and album and failed attempt at punkish rock n' roll relevancy circa 1980, The Black Roses are a group of five damaged, streetwise teen girls in Vancouver circa 2010 who decide to rewrite the rules of gang membership.
   Ashley Little's novel, Anatomy of a Girl Gang, charts their (fleeting) successes and (tragic and resolute) failures, while providing glimpses of brutal street living that are harrowing and depressing as hell. 

The review appears in The Vancouver Sun.

Saturday, 2 November 2013

Tips for Writing Success: Source Material (#6)

    Because I'm _____ [busy, lazy, focused on other projects, lacking inspiration/vision/talent, uncertain where to begin with the idea and also where to go with it, passing the buck], I've neither read nor written a piece that's centred on someone somewhere (I don't know actually who or actually where) whose job description for his (yes, for whatever reasons, it's a male I picture) 9-5 activities include the production and dissemination of material like the letter below, written by "Rocky Gupta" of "Kolkata, India." (Also showing up in the inbox this week: an appeal from
"Ambassador Kadre Desire Ouedraogo," whose tragic circumstances I'm quite curious to learn about. Same for "Karen Mangi, a Zimbabwean female studying Medicine in the University of Johannesburg in South Africa.") 

   I would like to read such a piece, maybe in short story form. So, conjectured reader (who is also a writer of fiction), get to it today! And send me the results, svp. I'd love to know all about Rocky, Karen, or Ambassador Ouedraogo (whose name alone is rather promising). 
   Here's Rocky's "employment opportunity" in full—

Work with us as our United states/canada representative and earn money based on a considerable commission. If interested get back to us with your full names, residential address, phone number, company name (if any), date of birth and marital status. We shall forward you all modalities for this employment opportunity.

Yours faithfully,
Rocky Gupta.

Director of Finance
Usha Martin Ltd, Kolkata India

Saturday, 26 October 2013

Digression: Authors I'm Interviewing—Carellin Brooks, author of 'Fresh Hell: Motherhood in Pieces'

   Two favourite discoveries early in my undergraduate years at UVic were campus radio and Cinematica, the latter of which introduced me to Fassbinder and Fellini and all kinds of genres, directors, and left-field ways of film-making I'd never known to consider. 
   Alongside my steady juvenile diet of TV before university independence, whole afternoons passed with me listening to AM (and later FM) radio stations; and just like today those commercial, ad-revenue-reliant stations played a fairly small selection of songs over and over and over. (To the point that last weekend, I heard a song—sappy dreck: "If Wishes Were Horses" by Sweeney Todd—I'd been exposed to a huge number of times in the late 1970s and then not again until 2013. I was still able to recall most of its lyrics. Talk about the effectiveness of brainwashing-through-repetition!)

   At UVic the radio station featured eclectic programming that reflected the anti-mainstream and anti-commercial radio tastes of the DJs. Listeners could hear American banjo music from the 1940s one hour and then industrial bands from Germany (Einstürzende Neubauten) and England (Test Department) the next, all the while being given a kind of education about just how limited in scope the radio stations off campus in fact were.

   Since then I've remained impressed at how so-called alternative or independent music has maintained its cachet and kept a tenacious subculture of devotees who seek out websites that review must-hear (but, relative to Gaga or Kate Perry or the latest flavour-of-the-week, completely obscure) bands and musicians. And buy their music, of course. And attend their concerts. 
   There's still campus radio, of course, and as far as I know it still tends to feature music that never plays on any commercial stations (and more or less abandons those bands as "sold out" once they attain a modicum of popularity).
  Anyhow, what I'd love is for alternative publishers to find the same fervent and dedicated audience, one that makes the effort to track down authors on 'small labels' and read them, talk about them, and, generally, spread the word. Rescue them from total penniless obscurity, in other words.
   I know the fantasy's sort of ludicrous and certainly it's asking for the moon. Instead, though, what sells more or less is what's promoted by the Bertelsmann juggernaut (branding phrase: "media worldwide"; details: "Bertelsmann SE & Co. KGaA is a German multinational mass media corporation founded in 1835, based in Gütersloh, Germany. The company operates in 50 countries and employs in excess of 104,000"), or what's selected by national prize committees, "Heather's Picks," and public radio popularity contests about what the nation reads.

  I bring this up because I've been reading a pile of intriguing independent press books lately—Anatomy of a Girl Gang (Arsenal), Juanita Rose: My True Life (Pedlar), The November Optimist (Gaspereau), The River: A Memoir of a Life on The Border Cities (Biblioasis), Fresh Hell: Motherhood in Pieces (Demeter).
Oct 30 Fresh Hell launch: with the author-as-zombie
   Were I in a Groundhog Day scenario, only in this version every single time I wake up I'm at the entrance of a new location of a bookstore chain, my predication is I'd never see one of those titles. Not one. They would, in other words, be written and published and sell well under 500 copies in large part because they fail to attract media coverage and bookstore promotion. And without that fantasy independent press subculture to seek them out, buy them, or promote them, grassroots-style, by word of mouth, etc, they remain virtually invisible, little Davids that the Goliath can squash without even noticing they exist.

   That really was a digression that verged on a rant. More to the point: I interviewed the author of Fresh Hell a few weeks ago. The article appears in the Vancouver Sun

Monday, 21 October 2013

Digression: Books I'm Reviewing—Douglas Coupland's "Worst. Person. Ever."

  Aside from books (Herbert, Tolkien, Asimov, er, John Wyndham, Franklin W. Dixon, Enid Blyton's Secret Seven series, and Helter Skelter) and comics (Flash, Justice League, Green Lantern, etc., basically anything with super-villains and super-powers), I read and re-read stacks of Cracked and Mad Magazine as a child. 

   While I can't remember much about individual issues now, one random set of cartoon panels has stuck in memory. The "Before" shows the cast and crew on the set of a comic film breaking up with laughter. The "After" depicts a cinema audience of that same production completely stone-faced at the supposedly funny antics on screen.
  I bring that up because my response to Worst. Person. Ever. mirrors those patrons in the Mad Magazine cartoon (despite the fact that the novel's presumed starting point, a story called "Survivor" that Coupland published in 2009, is both cynical and despairing but also terrifically funny).

   If nothing else, the crazy division of opinion about the novel indicates the subjective nature of taste and humour. Ditto for the perennial Big Question: "What constitutes a good novel?" 
   The review in the Independent, for example, concludes that the novel "reads like a failed experiment; a misjudged one-off," while the Guardian's reviewer notes: "Novels are no longer about thinking, they're just vortices of cliche. The race is now on to write the Worst. Book. Ever. And this may be it." More locally, these final words at the Winnipeg Review: "Perhaps the novel would be better, or at least more entertaining, if it were read in spurts, or portioned out as a series of ribald vignettes to mull over. Like Raymond Gunt himself, Worst. Person. Ever. can bring many a horrified chuckle to a person’s lips. Also, like Gunt, a little goes a long way." The Globe reviewer, in contrast, refers to Coupland as an "ideas man," and finds the novel brilliantly insightful. At the Quill and Quire reviewer sees a winning books that's "flashy, loud, a bit unsettling, and screamingly fun."
flashy, loud, a bit unsettling, and screamingly fun - See more at:
flashy, loud, a bit unsettling, and screamingly fun - See more at:
screamingly fun

My review appears in The National Post.

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Tips for Writing Success: Source Material (#5)

   On any given semester I read several hundred student essays. The best aspects of that labour include: an exposure to topics with which I have less than passing familiarity, bits of new information from the marvelous world of science (the vast majority of students in my classes do not expect to major in English or Creative Writing), and assorted other stuff I didn't know.

(Essays blurred to protect the innocent.)

   When I began this blog segment dedicated to Tips for Writing Success: Source Material, there was a half-facetious idea that I'd provide a public service for writers (published or would-be) who might be seeking or needing inspiration—a line or a fact or an overheard conversation that they might use in their short story or novel or essay, or that they might even utilize as the core concept around which they might build their project. 

   I still like the idea, but for whatever reason haven't been listening carefully or taking notes, or (maybe) haven't been social or outside enough to steal someone's public domain utterance from a restaurant, bus, sidewalk, or literary event.
   To make up for lost time, then, here's a new one, lifted (with permission) from a student's essay. The category? A fact I did not know and that you, dear reader, might find useful—

"In most East Asian countries, a first-birthday tradition is to predict a child's future based on which of the four dangling tiny icons the child reaches first—a book (teaching profession), a computer mouse (science field), a calculator (business), or a stethoscope (medicine)."

Thursday, 3 October 2013

Non-Fiction Sidebar: Thoughts on Rewriting / the Anxiety of Influence

   As an idea that felt truly inspired—as in: "Hey, let's just skip town for the weekend, head out on a spontaneous road trip!"—I expected "Resurfacing (Alternative Lit History Series #2)" to unfurl easily. It would be a fun project, I thought. And, I imagined, an effortless one, written and revised over a couple of afternoons at the most. No problem.

   My reasoning was a bit flawed, as it turns out. 
   Retelling a novel as a story, for instance, presents all manner of choices (since you're losing about 85% of the word count), an especially challenging case when the novel is dense and complicated—such as Margaret Atwood's Surfacing
   Similarly, reworking elements of a female quest for a male narrator required rather more thinking than I'd first anticipated. And replacing the heterosexual female subjectivity with a homosexual male one wasn't exactly a matter of direct translation. Ditto for the power and political dynamics of couples: female-male ones aren't quite the same as male-male ones. 
   Substituting northern BC for Atwood's original setting in northern central Canada proved a snap, though.

   Ultimately, the story raised questions that hadn't occurred to me on the day of my original inspiration. Most of them related to the living conditions at a time when homosexuality was still largely taboo, scandalous, and unwelcome (although technically legal). 
   In Atwood's novel the narrator struggles with guilt and regret about her past, and in her fit of madness in the wilderness imagines giving actual birth to a new kind of being. Since the character in "Resurfacing (Alternative Lit History Series #2)" can't in fact give birth and had a different (and arguable gendered) relationship to his family and past, the story veered into its own territory despite my initial desire to parallel Atwood's plot closely. You hear authors saying that as characters take on life of their own they also ensure the plot that contains them follows their lead. (Do authors actually say that? I dunno. I think I heard some authoritative writer make that claim somewhere.) Anyhow, that's what happened here.  

s of today the story appears in Plenitude Magazine, whose editor Andrea Routley has to be publicly commended for suggesting key revisions (and drawing attention to my illicit and unwise fondness for the semi-colon—semi-colon and I have agreed to spend some time apart and think things over).

   This issue contains work by locals (well, Vancouver and Victoria) like Amber Dawn, John Barton, Aysia Law, and Daniel Zomparelli. At $10 for two issues, it's a bargain, and one that ought to be supported. 
   Go for it:

Sunday, 22 September 2013

Digression: Books I'm Profiling—J.B. MacKinnon's "The Once and Future World: Nature As It Was, As It Is, As It Could Be"

   There's lots to admire in The Once and Future World, not least of which is J.B. MacKinnon's apparent ability and willingness to maintain optimism in the face of so much terrible news—scarcity! extirpation! extinction! deprivation! loss! incipient catastrophe! etc—relayed through his book's extensive research.
    Instead of the understandable negativity and despair that could come with comprehending how much environmental bad news our species is responsibly for, though, he proposes ideas that could redirect our trajectory (and that of the natural world) so that the whole planet doesn't end up looking like a dry wasteland on the verge of total collapse (cue the desert shantytowns of any Neill Blomkamp film). 
   Sobering yet hopeful, the book deserves all the attention it receives.

My profile of James and his book appeared in variety of Canadian periodicals.

Monday, 16 September 2013

Digression: Books I'm Reviewing—Charlotte Gray's "The Massey Murder: A Maid, Her Master and the Trial that Shocked a Country"

    In The Massey Murder Charlotte Gray describes a murder that took place on a chilly Toronto evening in February 1915. A young maid shot her employer—who happened to be a car salesman and, more importantly, a lesser branch of an influential and image-conscious bourgeois family in a city that was experiencing growing pains as it reluctantly left Victorian standards behind and embraced modernity.
    With an abundant "list of characters"—temperamental men of substance with axes to grind, arrogant court officers, theatrical lawyers, dogged and bigoted newspapermen, society ladies with vested interests, and one "timid eighteen-year-old" domestic servant who left no written accounts—Gray spins an endlessly intriguing account that satisfies a reader's need for dramatic intrigue with a procedural slant. 
   A lesser storyteller could have made the story interesting enough, but Gray's artful rendition of the times, the city, and the wonderfully (soap) operatic cast with schemes aplenty makes the book a deeply satisfying read from Chapter 1 ("Bang!") to the thoughtful final section ("Aftermath").
   She also has an eye for detail, one of which has stayed with me months after finishing my advance copy. The two-sentence scene makes Toronto of 1915 (ie, "a society in which seams of hypocrisy and prudery ran deep") seem as alien as medieval Japan:
   "In 1912, during another typhoid outbreak, the Star sponsored a "Swat the Fly" contest in an attempt to reduce the spread of disease from garbage to food. A girl named Beatrice Webb collected the prize after killing 543,360 flies." The number of hours she dedicated to the search for over 500,000 flies remains undisclosed.

   (Elsewhere, my published comments about the book appear in one of those publication with unsigned reviews.)


Sunday, 4 August 2013

Short Fiction: "The Contender"


    [A couple of years ago, a little nothing occurred one day (a blip, somewhere between a significant moment and an event) and I decided to use it ready-made for a short story—a genre I'd been meaning to try out but had never gotten around to actually turning into a reality. 
   Anyhow, I wrote the thing, sent it to a journal, and eventually (I was grateful to discover) the hawk-eyed editor contacted with me good news and a faxed copy of the story considerably marked up with comments and queries. It appeared in The Malahat Review in Winter 2010. Since then it's existed as printed text in volumes stored on public and private library shelves. I have no idea if anyone goes to central library branches in order to read literary journals, but I'm skeptical. 
  With August being a month of reading, relaxation, and review-writing for me, I don't anticipate much free time for blog entries. My debut story, then, will serve. 
  And it's free as well as easy to access.]

The Contender

   “How are things going, ladies? Finished soon?” Jeffrey has positioned himself in the frame of the kitchen’s pocket door, somber mood seeping through the fine strands of his professorial woolens and neat-but-full Sigmund Freud beard. He is breathing in deeply, borrowing from the strategy of the blowfish to scare off interlopers and protect his sovereignty. I’m more imposing than you. That is the overall message of his stance, though there’s another communiqué for me alone: Our home will not become some cut-rate salon frequented by grotesque belles cut from a Steel Magnolias cloth.
   “It’s mere moments before we arrive at the perfect shade of gold,” I say, quoting Oscar Wilde vaguely, “then I’ll rustle you up some dinner, Big Daddy.” As I’m speaking I can hear irony and twang and a wink in the sentence. It’s schizoid, I know, as though Greenpeace and N.R.A. conventioneers have booked the same room, and I’m the facilitator trying to keep everyone satisfied. The price paid for being an appeaser, I suppose.
   Jeffrey returns to his books and closes the door.
   “Someone’s in a lather, that’s what I’d say, Sandy,” Mrs. Gillespie—“Call me Dee Dee”—announces to the kitchen, nonplussed. She’s resting a coffee mug on her lap and her bounty of damp tresses is shingled with foils. Today’s accomplishment will be to eradicate brassy blond and replace it with the “elegant ash” tone promised by Clairol #116. In a whisper on the phone this morning Dee Dee told me that her husband had compared her—aloud—to a Tijuana whore at a family barbecue the night before. “It was humiliating,” she’d needlessly elaborated. Although Dee Dee possesses an abundance of smarts, it’s her irascible husband who lays down the law. Given the tense compression of her voice, “Stop by after three and we’ll fix you up in no time” had seemed reasonable.
   A summer’s late afternoon in Lubbock brings to mind the incinerating wind that accompanies nuclear detonation. Locals don’t dwell on it, or even comment. For a Vancouver transplant accustomed to moist lukewarm air, not infrequent rain, thick cloud cover, and plump-with-moisture greenery throughout June, I’ve noticed that “merciless,” “Hades,” “blazing” and “stinking hot” are on heavy rotation in my daily small talk. I try not to complain. Repeatedly I’m told that I’ll get used to it in no time, but so far I’m fully unconvinced. And until that day of miraculous adjustment, I will not open the kitchen window a crack. Air conditioning is a blessing—another word I’ve adopted of late—although it doesn’t do much for the gaseous stench of the no-ammonia Clairol Dee Dee had shown up with at ten minutes before four. She’d waited at the breakfast nook until I finishing IMing my subordinates their project goals for tomorrow and switched off Old Faithful, the fussy near-obsolete PC monitor I’d insisted on carting south. Although management is also new territory to me, I’m taking to it.
   “We shouldn’t rush colour processing,” I say with ersatz professionalism, “but I figure we ought to close up shop and clear you out before much longer. You know these men and their appetites.”
   “Amen,” Dee Dee replies and lifts the coffee mug to her mouth.

    Jeffrey and I are residing on a dry corner lot at 16th Street and Texas Avenue in the modest rancher we bought through Yolanda for the same hopeful/foolish reason that other couples make babies or spend their precious savings on a romantic tropical vacation: to bolster our marriage. Rescue might sound too drastic, but it’s there too. Also, possibly, to forestall arrest, incarceration, court dates, lawyer fees, psychiatric evaluations, and of course the unseemly notoriety that would come with public exposure and scrutiny. Dee Dee says it often, and I have to agree: “I wash my dirty laundry in the basement behind a locked door, thank you very much.”
    When asked, we tell people that we’re here for the advancement of Jeffrey’s career. The claim is accurate in its way. Naturally the truth, being truth, is considerably more complex. “The God’s truth,” as locals say, we keep to ourselves. If compelled to compose an affidavit I’m not sure that we’d ever come to agree about the details. Suffice it to say, Lubbock is both an opportunity and a necessity.
   For half a decade Jeffrey had been veering between bitter and despondent as thankless contract faculty at the country’s No. 2 university, lecturing on poems, novels, and essays to kids who drive costly European cars to campus. In year six, after being informed categorically in a bulk email from the Department head’s secretary—“Dear applicant,” sent to 178 other hopefuls—that his academic credentials, while “impressive,” had been deemed so substandard in a “highly competitive field” that his name had not even been placed on the long list of eligible candidates for a position he’d warily allowed himself to yearn for, Jeffrey had “acted out” and “gone on a bender”—his words—applying for a “motley assortment of ludicrous positions” in “god awful destinations.” As benders go, it was industrious. A flurry of document packages—the standard envelope containing an “ass-kissing” curriculum vitae and elaborate statement of pedagogy, cherry-picked teaching assessments, and a painstakingly crafted letter of introduction that emphasized scholarly brilliance, ceaseless publication productivity, and intellectual staying power—had been launched with glib commentary (made to me, fellow low-totem faculty and, no doubt, postal clerks) and landed days later on desks in locales that possessed no reputation as hubs, cultural or otherwise.
   They might be in backwater provinces and redneck states, but they’d all expressed keen interest. Jeffrey was flown to Red Deer, Antigonish, and Biloxi, and before each outing, while waiting at home for an airport taxi, he’d keep his jaw set with an obviously false sense of adventure, striving (and failing) to make the trip equivalent to a weekend jaunt to a storied European destination—Montenegro, say, or Transylvania—redolent of mystery and Old World atmosphere. Picturing him during fraught interviews and faculty luncheons in these obscure towns, I guessed that his smile would turn rictus-like and not be at all endearing. About that I’m man enough to admit to being wrong.

    Dee Dee utters no complaint as I rinse away her brassy misstep. When I struggle with combing through the knots and tangle, though, her eyes well with tears. “That damned man,” she exclaims. It’s plain that I’m supposed to commiserate with her feminine predicament and am tempted to say (with hands firmly planted on hips, naturally), “I hear you, girl” or some other TV-sitcom salon equivalent, but no words form. It’s quite enough that I’m residing in a Texas suburb and dyeing a woman’s hair in my kitchen so that her husband won’t call her a whore over a family meal of barbequed ribs, and had only a few hours before contributed my two cents during a lengthy telephone conversation about the rules for pairing shoes with accessories. I’d laugh if it were someone else’s tale of misadventure. It’s my life at the moment, however, and instead I’m reminded of Jeffrey’s unsubtle quotation from an essay about conformity he’d taught weeks back that had tempers flaring in this town of team-sport zealousness. “It is the hardest thing in the world to maintain an individual dissident opinion as a member of a group.” He’d read it to me in the guise of a disinterested philosopher. “We also find our thinking changing because we belong to a group.” In case I’d missed the gist he’d left the essay on the kitchen counter, passage highlighted in orange. The author’s confident declaration—an opinion, actually, as I’d pointed out—was bothersome especially because it’s the kind of well-meaning “constructive criticism” I’ve heard with regularity since junior high school. But friendship webs, even the asymmetrical ones I’m building here, are a basic requirement for me. If we expect to settle permanently in Lubbock, that is. Despite Jeff’s ongoing bafflement, it’s hardly quantum physics. The lone-wolf routine and the thick wall of books, Jeff’s inclination, makes no sense to me whatsoever.

   Returned from the interviews at backwoods colleges and impatient for news from afar, Jeffrey was a volatile catalogue of anxious symptoms. His mercurial choice of terms for the No. 2 university (“unscrupulous” turning to “parasitic” and “vampiric” before terminating with “monstrous soul-destroying cesspool”) and its “toxic” faculty (the less said the better), and the burgeoning fantasies that ranged from colleague-homicide-by-strangulation in an elevator to building-toppling-via-C4-explosives (ordinarily described over breakfast) were amusing at first. Admittedly, the scatological punning involving his employer’s No. 2 status—juvenile to begin with—grew tiresome in no time. Weeks later my qualified appreciation of his wit was supplanted by the implication that I was witnessing “going postal” in utero. Unlike those dumbfounded and ineffectual friends or loved ones on the news who claim in retrospect to have noticed the odd tics, glazed eyes, and strange obsessions of the teen who would eventually fix on a random assortment of classmates with his father’s semi-automatic rifle, my vision was 20-20 in the here and now. True, tweedy slouching-toward-middle-age academics are hardly renowned for homicidal rampages, but there’s always the first time to set a precedent.
   “What’s the worse that could happen?” was my initial strategy, simple and classic if predictable devil’s advocacy. After all, could two semesters in Armpit, New Brunswick, or Tornadoville, Mississippi, really be worse than the ignobility of the eight-month contracts and Gastarbeiter citizenship sanctioned by No. 2 university?
   “Lynching? Or worse. Let’s not forget Matthew Shepard,” Jeffrey retorted. Not for the first time his reluctance to break free from present inertia had me wondering if the man secretly liked to wallow in his ivory-tower misery.
   Since lynching was the answer I would have given, I’d seen that scenario coming. “It’s a university environment, not a dive bar on a dirt road. Besides, a change of scenery would serve us well.” By “scenery” I meant “campus” and by “us” I meant “you.”
   “Ah, yes, a university environment. So enlightened, so noble and civilized.”
   I cleared my throat, refusing comment. Jeff’s self-indulgence preferred an audience and I wasn’t in the mood.
   “It’s not all about me, you know,” he said, changing tack.
   “Hey, I’m up for an adventure if you are.” We both knew adventure referred to skiing steeper runs and third-class train journeys in India, not a brick college squatting on wind-swept terrain.
   In my career setting isn’t a factor. Writing travel-industry software requires no daily commute, no felt-surfaced cubicle, no khaki Dockers on casual Fridays. In Vancouver my virtual office was an IKEA desk in a tenth-floor solarium that overlooked a scabby park where the terminally underemployed bought, sold, and smoked rocks of crack cocaine and young careerists (plastic bags in hand) impatiently waited for their toy dogs to void their colons. I wore pajamas from eight till five. So long as I have access to a computer tethered to the Internet I’m capable of working anywhere and can confer with my bosses (in Atlanta, Portland, and Tucson) and those I’m now boss to (Palm Springs, Kansas City, Spokane) on the phone during business hours. A correctly positioned window in Nova Scotia or Mississippi would be almost as eventful, I predicted.
   Our banter about relocation lasted for weeks, tide-like in its ebb and flow. As is often the case with banter, the surface joviality disguised real politicking and worry. The logistics and hassle were causes for concern; moving from a liberal metropolis towards who knows what had led to nights of clenched jaws and grinding teeth. Framing it as excitement was a thought, but we were too set in our ways to commit to that belief. There was the gay-and-proud thing too. As individuals and as a couple we took it for granted that being visible was a kind of mandatory political duty. To be cautious and fearful, or, worse yet, to retreat to the closet was so retrograde that it would be no different from a woman voluntarily relinquishing her right to vote. It would never happen. We settled on a tentative compromise: towns far from an acceptable location would be passed over; a small city we’d take seriously. Red Deer and Lubbock became the top contenders, albeit scrawny ones we felt reluctant to place large bets on.
   The opportunity for career advancement arrived in the mail within an envelope featuring the unassuming letterhead of Texas Tech University. The offer was surprisingly generous. Jeffrey emailed his acceptance the same day, and I smiled with total sincerity, my projected news headline “Egghead Enacts C4 Extermination” rendered purely and comfortingly fantastical in an instant.

   Dee Dee has closed her eyes and there’s no sound now save the low hum from beneath the fridge. Foil-framed, her relaxed face tells me nothing at all except that it’s known cosmetics and the desert sun for decades. Anything else is conjecture; and that’s my exact temptation. I can’t help but ponder the whys of her sitting in my kitchen getting “gussied up” as she says. She’s well connected, having grown up in a tree-lined residential area a few miles south, so her motivations can’t have much in common with mine. Maybe it’s the novelty.
   Even though Dee Dee hasn’t managed to utter the word homosexual yet, to all appearances she’s been at ease here from her first visit. Still. She’s taken me out to lunch and happy hour cocktails, but never invited me (never mind us) to visit her home or meet the family. The lapse in etiquette leads me wonder if ours is a covert friendship, one that demands the sort of sneaky attitude adopted toward an interesting person from the wrong side of the tracks. I can’t figure it out and, really, I ought to ask. A direct question, though, that might be received as gauche. Cousin to the stock image of the Southern lady, the Southwest version of decorum veers close to unfathomable for an outsider; and its reliance on indirectness is perplexing to someone who usually feels no qualm in asking or answering “What’s your annual income?” Here, it’s imperative to be attuned to the minuscule breezes and temperature shifts in a given conversation—how long is the pause, what is the exact tone, what has not been stated? As a social ritual it’s positively Japanese. I’m far, far from mastery.
   The one day I did spy Dee Dee and kin in public, it was high noon in an expanse of parking lot at a shopping plaza. At the time I assumed she didn’t see me when I waved.
   “Time up yet?” she asks, eyes steady on mine.
   “Patience, woman. Colouring is an art,” I say. “Just close your eyes for a sec and think of Tijuana.”

   Corresponding with Yolanda Sanchez, C.R.E.A., the Certified Go-Getter I’d contacted online, Jeffrey and I were cautious and close to truthful: We were two men in search of a three-bedroom house. Simple. We didn’t claim to be roommates, nor invent biographies of wives who were waiting back home while we scouted. Neither did we proclaim that we were lovers or partners who’d been wearing marital bands for years. As a united tight-lipped front in person, we directed conversation to minutia about architecture and landscape as well as to location relative to campus and city centre. While being taxied from open house to open house—all recent constructions and to our inexperienced eyes possessing identical floor plans—we posed bland questions about the city’s history, amenities, and weather and answered similar ones about Vancouver. If there was an elephant in her pewter Lincoln Navigator, no one was eager to point it out.
   Yolanda crowed that her professional success was the direct consequence of being a “Tex-Mex prophet.” “I just know it in my bones when the shoe’s a good fit,” she exclaimed, and with a hopeful grin announced “Close but no cigar” after we’d passed through yet another cookie-cutter 3 bed/2.5 bth rancher. “This is the real McCoy,” Yolanda said within a minute of her entrance of the corner lot at 16th and Texas. From the moment of that quiet announcement—for a Tex-Mex prophet Yolanda was unexpectedly free of sideshow dramatics—our final days in Canada were shaped by the tough demands of momentum. Jeff satisfied his need to burn bridges with a J’accuse bulk email—“Dear Department Head”—sent to all faculty and staff in his department. He wanted to extend it to “the media,” but I convinced him it was a highly localized issue and nobody else would care. Disgruntled white-collar workers appear on the six o’clock news only when weapons and hostages are front and centre. Everybody knows that.
   Yolanda had said it was customary to christen a newly purchased home and dropped by with a case of Californian boutique vineyard wines on the afternoon we moved in. She wished us good luck.
   Lubbock is small enough that we expected to bump into our affable realtor again at a shopping mall or restaurant. It was a surprise when I answered the door a few weeks later and found her holding two gowns aloft in the blazing sun. She looked bashful.
   “Pardon the intrusion,” she said, “Is it a bad time?” She tilted her head in order to see past my shoulder. “It’s fine, I’ve just finished with work. C’mon in,” I assured her. “By the way, what’s with the evening wear?”
   In the kitchen Yolanda revealed the cause of her unease. “Well, I was wonderin’…” she stammered comically, “You see, there’s this situation…”
   Yolanda needed an opinion, but she couldn’t bring herself to say outright that my advice was being sought out because I’m a gay man and, accordingly, like Mr. Blackwell, Bob Mackie, Gianni Versace, Yves St. Laurent and Halston I am endowed by nature with impeccable and unswerving fashion sense. Her indecision related to making a good impression at an upcoming realtor’s convention in Houston. So, instead of explaining anything at all, she merely asked, as though it were humdrum and everyday to stop by a male client’s house to obtain expert guidance. As though she’d ordinarily do so with any man, but her husband just happened to be out of town and Mr. Diller across the street had his hands full with lawn work and, besides, my house was so conveniently close by.
After lifting the dry cleaner’s film and squinting as I held the fabric close to Yolanda’s face I said that while “the gauzy grey seemed a bit father of the bride,” the emerald silk jersey was “spot on.” What else was I going to do? Lowering my voice and feigning ignorance—“I dunno, they’re both okay to me”—would have been preposterous. She tittered, and then nodded in agreement.
   Yolanda is “a slave” to her cell phone, a device stuffed with contacts, including Dee Dee, who apparently believe that a friend like Sandy is a mark of cosmopolitanism. It wasn’t long before I had been asked questions—sudden drop-bys all the rage once it was established as fact that I worked from home—about wedding floral arrangements and containers for houseplants. I’d also been invited out for coffee and informed about superb restaurants for luncheon—another indicator of sophistication—and asked whether there was anything special I needed from high-end shops in Dallas and Houston. Not one husband had shown up with a six-pack to chew over sports or cars. Jeffrey and I were pegged.
   Dee Dee’s hair was only the latest facet of my “descent.” The word is Jeffrey’s, intoned—like cancer or income tax—without a hint of levity. I prefer to leave my new role undefined, in process. It seems premature to identify it, anyway. We’re a social species and the entire situation just fell into place organically, so what’s the problem? Though I’d never cut hair, let alone dyed it, I said “Sure” without much hesitation when Dee Dee showed up one morning with slices of her prized lemon loaf and a box of Clairol. Why turn away an opportunity? Returning from campus that day Jeffrey told me my “what the hell attitude” was cowardly. He’s entitled to his opinion. According to him, I should have refused and informed Dee Dee categorically that she was “trafficking in stereotypes.” I say—well, sometimes at least—that relying solely on the one you love as your social outlet is far worse than agreeing to be typecast.
   We’d exchanged words, naturally. The setting might be fresh, but the extreme polarity dates back years—the juggernaut of outraged ideology has squabbled with the embodiment of live-and-let-live ho-humery once or twice before.
   “You don’t give a damn about weddings and you’ve never coloured a hair in your life. So why now?” Jeffrey’s question was perfectly credible. He’s formidable against logical inconsistencies and muddled motivations. Especially when he’s exasperated.
   “Why not?” If he was hoping for a coherent essay of justification, he wasn’t going to get one from me. He could save lectures and assignments for the classroom.
   “So, what’s next? An intimate evening of wigs, eye shadow and lip-synched standards for your gal pals?” Jeffrey peppered his questions with italics to aggravate me.
   To me there’s something hilarious about this “trafficking.” Jeffrey thinks otherwise, seeing it, variously, as degrading, counterproductive and politically retrograde. And “You’re complicit with your effeminization and our marginalization,” to quote. He can hatch zingers like that in his sleep. While he worries about politics, I figure there’s fifth-columnist potential for me. The ladies of Lubbock may hold dubious and outdated ideas about me now, but those will change once they pass through the pink-ghetto façade. Jeff’s so unreceptive to my point of view that I haven’t bothered to mention this thought yet.

    During our house-scouting trip to Lubbock we stayed at a pricey Marriott for three nights. Online reviews of economical motels—disgruntled never-to-return guests seething about bedbug infestations, stained sheets, dirty carpets and walls, moldy shower curtains and rude or stupid front desk staff—convinced me that the region’s hospitality industry wasn’t aiming for the discerning business traveler set. We joked off and on about the adventure of staying at the noisy Comfort Inn near the airport with iron-burned carpeting and sheets too small for the bed.
   Yolanda insisted that we save our money and skip the rental car: “My dears, I’ll take you anywhere you want to go.” Taxis were a bargain, we discovered, even though we had no cause to doubt the sincerity of Yolanda’s offer. Jeffrey figured a leg or two of our expedition free of a cheerful guide would expose us to “the life to come,” that gloomy-sounding phrase of his trotted out more often than I liked.
   As for the requisite visit to the ground zero of Lubbock gay culture, we saved that for a Friday night. The only other place I’d read about, on a distant highway to boot, drew a crowd with its cheap beer specials. Near the city’s heart, Club Luxor—“Always imitated, NEVER duplicated” its ads exclaim—was in fact decorated in an ancient Egyptian sarcophagus theme and appeared to be a premiere destination for the age group Jeffery would be teaching in September. We arrived early and ordered two bottles of Shiner Blonde lager; an hour later we walked back to the hotel and took in the warm desert air as we spoke in earnest about plusses and minuses.

   Facing nothing except a wooden fence and the yellow stucco side wall of the neighbour’s house, my office at 16th and Texas has not turned out to be eventful in the least. During the days when Jeff is on campus and there are passing cars, phone calls and coding goals to keep me occupied, I catch myself pining for the lively crack economy view of my former office. Even though I sat in a glass cube ten floors above the covert nods and illicit exchanges and had no actual interest in heading outside and trading hard luck stories with the bedraggled park capitalists, I felt connected, a part of an intimate bustling hive-like community. That was illusory, I suppose, just a rose-coloured fiction since my intimacy had no rational basis and the men and women below were completely unaware I existed. It’s absurd, nostalgia for a fantasy. That’s what Jeff would tell me, I’m sure. And I know that if I confided to him he’d connect Dee Dee and Yolanda to my state of mind and at that point it’d be all wrapped up for him, an erratic behavioral issue solved, all the pieces of a mental-health puzzle ordered neatly. He’d be wrong, at least about the erratic part; I’ve met teenagers with greater empathy.

   Admiring the refreshed blonde in the hallway mirror Dee Dee places an index finger to her blouse and makes a sizzling sound. She thanks me with a promise of lunch at Harrigan’s early next week. No doubt she’ll be longing to share the details of her hydra-headed revenge for John Sr.’s insult.
   “Ta ta,” she says.
   Jeffrey opens his study door and I can see the bristling mood hasn’t drifted away completely. He walks toward me. “I just need to rinse out my equipment,” I explain, on guard and momentarily relishing the word’s baggage—it sounds solid and heavy, belonging to a thick-necked auto mechanic rather than a flighty stylist.
The air conditioner has sent the dye’s ammoniac odour out toward the Gulf of Mexico and now the remaining whir of air is cool and pleasantly chemical, only faint emanations from shiny appliances and fresh paint. The room’s surfaces are pristine. With the gourmet’s food prepping island and abundant square footage of countertop, this kitchen is a colossus compared to the slivers of granite that are affordable anywhere in the vicinity of downtown Vancouver. Alongside the desert suburb surroundings, the kitchen’s unavoidable there-ness has thrown our daily routine off course. By the smallest of increments, mind you; the workday appears the same but isn’t, not quite, like the pod-grown body snatchers of a sci-fi movie. We’re slowly adjusting.
   “How was work?” I ask.
   “Fine. Well, actually I’m stalled, so I flipped through a few books for direction.” Jeff stands next to me at the sink and bumps his hip into mine.
    “You two sounded like you were having fun,” he says, “I’m glad.”
The kitchen looks onto the wide road. In between there’s our yard, a stretch of rust Texas dirt, the landscaping of which has not been a priority.
    “She’s alright, all things considered,” I hazard cautiously, “She’s funny, too. You wouldn’t want to piss her off, though.”
    Jeff continues to stare out onto the scorched earth.
“It’s getting to be that time, I guess. What do you want for dinner?”
“Quiche,” Jeff answers. There’s no trace of sarcasm in his voice.
“Quiche? Isn’t it a tad hot for that?” I check thermometer secured outside the kitchen window: 92 degrees. That’s lower than I would have predicted.
“Why not? It’ll be perfect. We don’t have to eat outside.” Like our neighbours, we’ve taken to barbequed meals served at a picnic table.
“Don’t you think that’s kind of stereotypical?” It’s not like I want an argument, but I can’t resist.
“Yes, I suppose you’re right,” Jeff says, making a c’est-la-vie gesture with his hands, “That doesn’t make it any less tasty.”
“Okay, you’re the boss. Quiche it’ll be.” I store the last of the equipment under the sink and walk to the fridge. “We’re going to need eggs, so want to take a walk?”
“In this heat? Nah, let’s drive.” Jeff checks his pockets for the car keys.
“Sure,” I say. I’ll be glad to leave before the phone rings.