This is a mostly biographical short story I wrote back in 1997. This is the second draft, there are some problems with ‘tense’ (has/had was/is)… it’s something I’ve always had problems with when writing longer pieces.*
This was a piece I wrote right in that sweet spot when I knew I needed help and when I wanted help, but ultimately couldn’t find it before I was overwhelmed by the disease again. It ends just before that overwhelmed thing happened.
*There might be (probably are) other problems I’m not seeing. I’m looking for some feedback, and critical comments are welcome… if they’re rational — although, irrational and funny would be okay.
Alex: a short story
Sometimes when birds mate, they lose the power of flight and plummet to the earth.
Sometimes one dies and the children grow up in single homes.
Alex stepped over the dead bird and said a silent prayer as he walked down Wellington street. He thought for a second and then mouthed a prayer for the world to a God he believed in yesterday.
A man on a bike slowly passed, muttering something about niggers or Lebs or something. Yesterday Alex might have given the man’s back a glare or two. Yesterday Alex might have believed it would have mattered.
Today Alex hunched his shoulders, thrust his hands into his pockets, cursed the cold and continued walking to school.
Alex’s cousin is a crack addict. Recovering or something. He stopped thinking about that a long time ago. After Danny last showed up at his door. Looking like he weighed 50 pounds and most of that scabs. Alex had given him everything he had. $40 and change and Danny never came back.
When they were kids, Alex had killed a dog to save Danny’s life. With a shovel or something. The dog was standing on Danny’s chest. Crazed. Barking. Danny was screaming something. Then Alex hacked and hacked and screamed and screamed.
In memories there is no blood. No sound. Just vague, half-blurred remembrances that may, or may not be concealing something else. The mind is a sieve. Only fragments remain of hopes, loves, fears, hates and desires. Pictures fade. The only memory is who you are today. He wasn’t sure why he thought of Danny.
Today Alex has to walk to school. The transit workers were striking again. Eight miles each way. The Christmas lights in the Chinese take-out restaurant were blinking. Alex stopped to look at the display. Christmas in November. He refocused his eyes to examine his hair, then looked up and down the deserted street to see if anyone had seen his vanity. Not quite deserted. A lone hooker marched solemnly from light post to light post. Disappearing in between. He watched her for a moment as she tried to make her quota so her pimp wouldn’t beat her. Or maybe she was freelancing to make extra grocery money. Whatever, there were no cars. Beaten or hungry it was a lost cause. He turned and kept walking away to school.
Alone in the pre-dawn dark, he watched the shadows while pretending to be indifferent.
“I am strong, hear my belly roar,” he thought. His fingers wrapped around the two small apples he carried in his pocket. “Breakfast or lunch, breakfast or lunch?”
He began to whistle.
Alex enjoyed being a failure for a very long time. He hated it but it was easy. The successes he’s had could be counted on one closed hand. He has helped some people, even guided some. A few days ago he chased away two Somali teens who were beating a man with sticks. The man was drunk and had been calling the kids nigger and pushing them. A few weeks ago Alex threatened two high school kids with implied violence because they were using broken tree branches to scare an old woman at a bus stop. As a joke they told him.
Alex lives in the “combat zone” of Ottawa but isn’t really sure why this sort of thing is happening here.
If only are the two strongest words in the English language. But their power is illusionary. No one can change the past, only forget it.
Alex’s face was numb. The weatherman said the low would be -2c. Alex wondered if the weatherman knew it got colder when the sun went down.
Alex can’t wear his Walkman anymore.
He wore it in the Mac’s Milk a week ago with his back turned to the counter. He turned around and four young black men were in a screaming match with the older Lebanese clerk. The clerk thought they were stealing, they thought he was a racist.
After one of the young men punched the clerk and another started stealing cigarettes from the counter display, Alex had to chase them out of the store. He spent the rest of the evening filling out police incident forms.
Now he’s afraid he’ll miss a cry for help. Or a yell to duck. Or the footsteps behind him.
The early morning traffic was picking up. Alex wondered if the hooker actually did any business this early… or late. A breakfast fuck? Was someone out there searching for eggs, bacon, coffee and a blowjob? Homefries with that?
Alex was in love.
Birds fall from love.
He passed the little high school that was saved from the freeway that bisects Ottawa, by a small hand-spasm by an engineer so a few hundred lucky students could be saved from attending a richer school.
J Loves A You Always Knew, Ace Crew, True Love 4 Ever.
The sun was coming up.
Late one night, Alex’s neighbour down the hall knocked on his door. A huge gash on the man’s leg was pouring blood over his foot, puddling on the floor. He didn’t want to see a doctor, could Alex give him a bandage. For the next week it became a ritual. He had a tattoo of a screaming eagle and a swastika on his left, very large, bicep. He always stank of solvents, and had a glazed stare. He and Alex talked now. Alex has been invited to the man’s friends wedding.
It has become impossible to confront people without resorting to violence, or the implication of violence. You can’t reason with ignorance, you can only ignore it or glare at their backs and hope the blonde sees your defiance and asks you to sleep with her. Ignorance makes the enlightened feel emaciated, like a eunuch. What do you say when three men and a woman at the back of the bus start laughing about Somali drivers and how niggers think they rule the world?
What you do is you give your friend a nervous shrug and pull the bus-cord so you can take the next bus, or move to the front, or turn up your Walkman.
Alex was uncomfortable with his size. He wanted to be invisible, but was made to look like a truck. Six feet tall, 236 pounds. Dirty blonde hair that started nice, but looked goofy by noon, big hands and brown eyes.
He lived in a neighbourhood where, if there was a car in the driveway it was usually the company truck. A-1 Appliance, CANON Copiers, Lareau’s Plumbing Supplies. Every once in a while there was a Volkswagen, or an Acura, the kinds of car that beep when you walk away from it and scream when a kid bumps into it on his Big Wheels.
Carling and Holland. He stopped to light one of his last five cigarettes.
He could have gotten his licence ten years ago. He had a learners permit three or four times and has known how to drive since he was ten.
He crossed against the light.
Holland turns into Fisher in the middle of the intersection.
Alex was always in love. He had fallen in love with every girl/woman he ever dated. For Alex, love involved a lot of guilt. Alex felt self-pity a lot. At least he used to when he enjoyed failure.
Now Alex is medicated and only feels guilty about the self-pity and the inevitable joy of failure. And the love he thought he felt.
When he’s alone he can still get overwhelmed by it. Not so much now that he’s medicated.
The word conjures up alchemists and electrodes. At least it did for Alex for so many years.
He takes seven pills a day. 2100mgs of Lithium. And his mind clears up. The guilt subsides. The faces fade. And he can speak at parties. Not that he gets invited to a whole lot.
Thick, wet flakes began to fall. For Alex this meant his hair would be soaked from the snow, or creased and flattened from his hood. He pulled up his hood and fixed his backpack. His cigarette had burned a new hole in his glove. He flicked it into traffic in disgust and pulled out one of his apples and began to munch.
“Breakfast,” Alex said out loud. His voice was still thick with sleep.
Alex could always write. In his high-school yearbook it was his ‘claim-to-fame’. Poetry mainly. Also short stories. It was mainly this attribute that had allowed Alex to pass through life with limited effort. Alex now believes that his high school teachers believed it was a sign of intelligence that he could put words together in the form of half-sentences and vague thoughts.
High school teachers need very little incentive to pass a student, and their perception of Alex’s assumed intelligence was it. His potential. Now the same seemed to be happening in college.
Alex dropped out of high school. Twice. He won’t do the same in college. At least not again. He should have graduated by now, would have too, but he had quit when he got overwhelmed with self-pity towards the end of his second semester. He was unmedicated at the time.
Of course he blamed a lot of other things, minor events made huge by lack of medicine.
Alex was in love then too. He thought it was for real that time. For three years Alex listened, laughed, touched her lips, caressed her hair and kissed her nipples hard. But Alex was a failure, and after three years she reminded him of that. Just to make the year complete, he was forced to quit college a few months later. Both were his fault for being unmedicated. A few weeks later he decided enough was enough and began eating his pills like a good citizen.
Manic-depression. The self-pity disease that breeds failures and self-help books with self-pity titles.
The indecisiveness is the killer. Does she love him, does she think of him? Is she laughing right now, her hand seductively on the table, the other at her mouth caressing her smiling lips waiting for him to reach over and take her stretched fingers into his?
Alex was in love. New love. Alex wanted to fall like two birds.
Finding her name in the phone book, Alex had walked by her apartment for no other reason than to make her tangible. To make her exist.
And now Alex walked. Six long blocks to Baseline and Fisher, right on Baseline and straight to school. Halfway is about one block away from Baseline, on Fisher.
The snow fell harder. Nice fat flakes. The kind of snow that sticks to you no matter how warm you are. If you just lay down, you could be buried. If you just lay quietly. Pretended to be dead. Just lay quietly and wait for the suns of spring.
A drunk man wearing dirty clothes and smelling like dog-shit staggers towards you on a dark and semi-deserted city street. There’s just enough people around that you’re embarrassed enough to stop when he starts his line, but not enough that someone will call the cops if he attacks you. You know that they’re all thinking “thank God it’s not me”. And then he asks for change because he’s from Sudbury and he’s going back there in the morning so he can receive treatment at a schizophrenic clinic and he needs $2.86 so he can get something to eat before his bus leaves.
And as you’re reaching for change and getting ready to apologize for not having any, his friend walks up and you freeze as you wonder if someone will call the cops and you bring your hand out of your pocket, praying that the coin in your hand isn’t a Loonie, and that your hand doesn’t brush the $20 out of your pocket. And then you eloquently express your sorrow at only being able to part with nine cents and smile and turn away and get angry at the fucker for interrupting what was an already shitty evening and would he please just drop the fuck off the planet please, just to put a smile back on your face.
And they start to laugh as you walk away. And once more the idea hits you that you may live inside this city, but they really own the outside, and once more you suppress that thought before you start laughing, because you know that maybe you won’t stop. And then you’ll own a little chunk of the outside as well.
The walk along Fisher, from Carling to Baseline, is one of the more lonely in Ottawa. Dark windows and empty driveways on one side, and the empty fields of the experimental farm on the other. Baseline itself is a boundary road. It separates Ottawa from the suburb of Nepean. It’s a major roadway where, if you cross the street, your postal code, city, government, and taxes are all different. Even the space is different. Ottawa’s tall buildings, brownstones, tall trees, small parks, and full sidewalks gradually fade away until you’re at Baseline. Empty fields, new trees, row-housing, industrial parks and subdivisions.
Ottawa’s about people. Nepean is about safety while watching t.v.. Baseline Road is about boundaries, and cars.
Alex didn’t notice the change until he looked back at Fisher when he turned right onto Baseline.
Without the trees and tall buildings, Baseline was like an open air wind tunnel. Alex stopped to put on his scarf. The snow had given up trying to be polite, and now streamed straight into his face.
A few nights ago it was raining when Alex reached into his pocket and prayed that his last $20 stayed in place while he apologized for only having nine cents.
There were no homeless in Nepean. In Nepean you don’t have to worry about owning a piece of the outside, because it’s safe to watch t.v..
Alex grew up in Guelph. He doesn’t remember it. Pictures fade, and there were few pictures. His parents split ugly. His mom, younger brother and Alex moved to a small, rural community and hour and a half east of Ottawa. It’s been 17 years since Alex spoke to his father. He stopped thinking about that 6 or 7 years ago.
Memories are who you are today. The whole of the parts that made you.
Photographs are for those who need a history.
Birthdays, Christmas, holidays in the sun, school yearbooks, parties. Pictures fade like a summer tan in November. Brief seconds that would be forgotten but for a photographers whim. Smiling faces with no bodies. Out of focus smiles. Long forgotten friends hugging, kissing, laughing. Candid moments exposing nothing but guilt for having lost touch.
Pictures fade like the memories that make us whole.
Alex began munching on his last, frozen, apple. He continued walking on the Nepean side of Baseline, trying to keep his hood down, his scarf up, and his stomach quiet.
After finding her name in the phone book, Alex had walked by her apartment to make her exist. To make her tangible, approachable.
A long time ago he used to beat himself with his daydreams. Daydreams that would act as a jealous outlet for his frustration fantasies. Whom is she smiling at now, her hand resting seductively on her smiling lips.
There were still some aspects of his unmedicated past that Alex was trying to outgrow.
To make her exist he had walked by her apartment, it was an old habit that he realized was one he could not rationalize any longer. He had to learn to trust the intangibles.
It was frustrating for Alex, it still only takes a brief smile, a kind word or a pleasant conversation to lead him to believe that there might be something more tangible.
He had yet to have a relationship of any kind begin while he was medicated. He still had so much to relearn.
Alex had loved. But it wasn’t like two birds falling. It was more like one bird spinning out of control, trying to grasp another before he hit the ground.
Alex had finally come to terms with the memories that made him. He could see the world, and himself, in the light of a Lithium induced haze of clarity.
Alex’s Gods had always been Failure and Remorse. But yesterday he discovered he no longer believed in them. He had been gradually moving away from them for some time without realizing it. Now he had discovered he was more able to face the winds of the present.
It’s like he had been walking without his boots on through the snows of February, only to discover that his boots had been strapped to his back the whole time.
Alex was in love. And it wasn’t like two birds falling.
A red light at Merivale and Baseline stopped Alex. He had been walking for an hour and forty-five minutes exactly. The snow had stopped, and the cold wind had relaxed to a stiff breeze.
Today Alex has to walk to school. He let his hood snap back in the wind. His hair streamed back. Alex hoped it would still look good later. He hoped it looked cool to the drivers, but felt good even if it didn’t. He decided he was going to get it cut.
Alex enjoyed being a failure for a long time. But, twenty minutes from school, at a red light on a cold corner in Nepean, he knew that part of his life was over. The sun rose at his back, and the wind blew in his face, but he didn’t mind.
Other peoples problems were their own, to be worked out or ignored. “If only” had no hold over Alex anymore. Their illusionary power had faded like the trees on Fisher. Replaced with the stark reality of “Right Now”. Fine, he was too big, but fuck it, his pants still fit, he was still young. He had time.
The melodrama that is depression was under control with the pills. Alex walked because he could. He didn’t have to love now. Birds fall, and only too late realize that their partner was only in it for the ride.
Birds die from love, Alex wanted to live in it.
Pictures fade like the memories that make us whole. There is nothing so real as the frozen apple core you carry in your mittened hand. Alex’s gods were dead. Now he was free to discover new gods.
Alex was in love. And it wasn’t like two birds falling. It was like his wings had wrapped around himself before stretching out and catching the wind.
Twenty minutes from school, Alex smiled. And kept walking.
Alex: a short story