FathomOnline

 

 Fathom 1994

Cover

 

Inside Cover

 

Poetry

Graham Touchie (3)
Derrick Higginbotham
Tara J. Hoag (3)
Jason Holt (3)
Nadine Herman

Prose

Otto Lambert
Michael Kohn
Peter J. Taylor
Andrew Mitchell
Andrew MacLeod
Kenneth Gordon
Urs Frei

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Urs Frei

 

 

Desire

     The day has been slipping toward this moment, and here I am, in the men’s washroom of the Church Hall, struggling with the zipper of my blue dress pants. It will not – Christ, it will not. I breathe deeply and lift my eyes, and think that this must be my punishment for drinking. The branch of a maple swings before the window. I think of climbing the urinal and opening the grate – ten years ago I might have fit through, twenty years ago I might have reached the maple and climbed down, drunk or not, and escaped to spend the last of this wretched day – my sixtieth birthday – alone.
     And why not? It would break Emily’s heart, and why not, since break it must? This dilemma is for younger hearts. But no teenager makes her courtship by hiring a band and a Church Hall and bringing cooks and sixty guests to the birthday party of someone they don’t even like. If I won’t climb the urinal I won’t put myself into a good temper for her either. No, it will be a pleasure now, being rude. If that young suit from Toronto were giving his speech now, he’d have to come down from the stage to hand me the book and shake my hand, and I wouldn’t even feel obliged to rise for him.
     There are voices outside, late arrivals – they startle me, coming through the window suddenly, and I listen for Eileen’s among them, but it isn’t there. I give the zipper one last tug, then take off my sweater. Fortunately the band has started again and the dancers are up, I can hear their feet. I open the door and cross, holding the sweater before me, my head down a little, as if I’m preoccupied.
     Emily is near my seat hanging one of the prints – the one of the harbour through the railings of the bridge – donated by my publisher. The night has on it the curse of all unwanted gifts. Behind the stage is a banner – Happy Birthday Gerald! – that irritates me every time I see it, as if two people are up there kissing. An invisible waiter refills my glass. And the worst is Emily herself, dressed to parody her courting years, the girlish print dress, a little tight at her hips, alas, the red bow in her hair, the tartish paints. Fondness and loathing are doing battle in my heart. Her look when I catch it upon me seems forlorn, as if she’s wondering how long she’ll have to wait before I ask her to dance. But now she has nails in her lips and an aggravated look. She has split a flake of plaster the size of a silver dollar from the wall, and catches sight of me as she turns to see who noticed.
     “Ho’ dis, wi’ you?”
     She taps the wall, finds the stud again, with two triumphant blows drives the nail, then takes the print from my hands and hangs it. She brushes the plaster so that it falls behind my seat. Then she wipes her hand on her dress and takes the nails from her mouth.
     “Well it’s your bloody birthday. I hope you’re enjoying it.”
     I sit down with the sweater in my lap and say in a low voice: “I have three friends in this town-”
     “Friends? Where did you get three friends?”
     This is better. I could almost reach up and pull off the stupid bow.
     “You, your daughter and your granddaughter-”
     “Eileen and Sarah? They don’t like you any more than I do.”
     “Since two of them aren’t even here yet, how do you expect me to enjoy myself?”
     She helps herself to my glass. “You’re a toad. Everyone likes you, and everyone’s grateful to you. They think your pictures are beautiful, and so do I.”
     “They’re garbage.”
     Her look has no expression. She turns away and goes on to hang the next print.
     The floor has become so crowded with dancers, crossing and turning, that I’d thought I would be invisible to anyone on the other side. But now Bob McEwen is coming across. He’s been itinerant all evening, in his shiftless way. I’d seen him at the table with Patrick Dunne and the Garrisons, laughing up a storm, and now it’s my turn. Emily raises her arm, perhaps maliciously, to point out where I’m sitting. He’s drunk and holding up a copy of my book and picking his way clownishly through the dancers. I pretend to fix something on my camera, and because of this I don’t realize the door has opened until I hear Eileen’s voice bounding over the music. A constriction opens in the middle of my body. I lift the camera to my face, pressing it to steady my hands, and turn to see her in the viewfinder. She knows it’s watching. She knows that I know that she knows, and that nobody else does. Her gaze passes over me, and she smiles. She can hardly keep from laughing. Her hair is bobbed at the top. She has on the vivid red dress, or kirtle, that I expected, and black leotards. The half moon cut from her chest by the dress is very white, her collarbones small and vivid. She is just six.
     “Beautiful, isn’t she?” I’d forgotten Bob McEwen. I shrink a little, even though he means her mother, Sarah, standing behind her.
     “I’ll buy a picture of her. Name your price.” He laughs and places the book in front of me. He has a scurf of beard and his air is beery. In the background of the cover photo is the roof of his house. That was a mistake. “Name your price. She looks beautiful tonight, doesn’t she? Radiant.” He nudges me. “Do you suppose it’s for you? You must have a few shots of her - you know - no clothes. A woman like her. She’d do it for free, know what I mean? But I mean, she trusts you.” He laughs and puts his hand on my arm. “No hard feelings now. I’ve got to watch me mouth, I do.” He finds a pen and places it on top of the book.
     “I don’t have any photos and I wouldn’t show them to you if I did.”
     “Och, don’t be that way now. No hard feelings. Don’t you think she’s beautiful though?”
     She is beautiful, and she knows it, and that knowledge in her face hardens me against her. She seems particularly conscious this evening, particularly exasperating. She takes her daughter to the coat room – Eileen follows her without another glance to me – and once again I’m in darkness, closed in, stuck in a corner of the dance hall with Bob McEwen, creeping and fawning as always with his “no hard feelings.” Ten years ago at a meeting for something or other he called me “a goddamn fag” and I split his lip. But the truth is that I owe him a favour. Two days after the blow, when the fuss started dying out, I realized that if the town saw me that way then it would not suspect what I had always been at such pains to hide. Gerald Moore, Pedophile. I was saved, Bob McEwen had saved me. It wasn’t that I had ever committed a crime, no, God help me, even in the tremors of the most excessive passion I’ve kept control, even when the crime has been all but prepared for me, all but created, as when Sarah Brown as a girl posed for me: though for months afterwards, I wondered if there hadn’t been moments of unconsciousness, of betrayal at least, if not of crime.
     Bob McEwen has turned to buy another pint from the waiter. He buys two and gives me one, and I push it back and tell him that he wasted his money, since I’m drinking for free tonight. He puts his arm on the back of my chair and breathes into my ear.
     “Did you hear about Sarah now? Her man’s come for her.”
     “What man?”
     “Her daughter’s father, that’s what man. Her California chap.”
     “What are you talking about?”
     “You know what I’m talking about. Ask Emily if you don’t believe me. Where is she now-?”
     “Where’ve you been snooping?”
     “Well I wouldn’t call it snooping if a man happens to be standing where he has every right to be, in a public place mind you, and happens to hear someone on the telephone, and draws his own conclusions.”
     “What did you hear?”
     Bob McEwen smirks. “It was Sarah phoning. I didn’t tell you half. Her man’s back, and he’s coming by later. Emily doesn’t think too kindly of him, I’ll tell you.”
     “Who’ve you told?”
     “Well seeing the chap’d be coming by anyway-.”
     “Right.” I fetch a quarter and hand it to him. “Now why don’t you sit with someone else.”
     He flips the coin onto the table. “I don’t care for your attitude, Jerry Moore. I would’ve been grateful if I was you.”
     “I am grateful.”
     I try to catch sight of Emily through the dancers. Rosie Trahern catches my eye and winks at me to join them. I smile. For the first time, Emily is nowhere to be seen. Well, Bob McEwen might be dreaming. But Eileen’s father! I’m possessed suddenly by dread and insane jealousy.
     And now as if to torment me Eileen appears across the hall with her white arms bare. She begins practicing steps behind the dancers, moving with them back and forward and across, feeling now and then behind her for the wall. For many years I’ve harboured the thought that a moment comes in the life of a girl, more sharply and definitely than in a boy’s, when she learns to think of herself as being seen. It comes, as I imagine it, no earlier than the age of three and no later than seven, and the later it comes the less power it has over the rest of her life. This is true of Emily but not of Sarah. I think of it as something like disease but more permanent, something like trauma but more powerful, and more elusive than either. There are women from whose faces it never disappears, even in their moments of concentration, even when they believe themselves to be alone. I fell in love with Emily when I was eighteen. Her mother brought her – she was five – to the studio I had begun that year, and from her I learned to see what I see now in the face, in the whole body of her grand­daughter, that absorption. Eileen is a little too tense in the shoulders for a good dancer, her hands are a little too much clenched at the hips, and the movements of her feet, back and across, although nimble enough, are a little rigid. Her eyes are black, like her grandmother’s. They are very wide, staring at nothing. The pigtail is bobbing frantically on top of her head, and her tongue is curled out and rests on her upper lip. Her shoulders are almost naked and her arms are so beautiful that I’m in pain. It is a physical pain, in part, located behind the eyes. I put down the camera and shut them.
     Suddenly she’s tugging my pantleg.
     “Aren’t you going to take pictures?”
     I blink.
     “Well?” she says.
     “I already have.”
     “But aren’t you going to take more?”
     “What do you think I should take pictures of?”
     She raises herself. “Me!”
     “Vain you are! What’s so special about you?”
     I push aright one of her shoulder straps, and catch sight of Johnny Spencer coming up behind to pull her dress. He stops and looks abashed, and Eileen turns and puts her hands to her dress in an instinct. But he’s won, she’s all his now. He makes a face and flees across the room.
     It’s always been this way, absurd like this, with Emily and Sarah and now again, always this jealousy, this absurd jealousy of an absurd boy.
     The reel ends and the dancers break up. Rosie takes the stage to lead a round of square dancing. Eileen is holding hands with Johnny Spencer, who is chattering close to her face while she shakes her head, but laughing. Sarah joins their circle.
     When the dancing begins, Eileen has thoughts for nothing else. Johnny Spencer disappears, except once when he makes a deliberate mistake and her eyes flash at him. A great pressure of love is forcing itself at the base of my throat. I try to keep from watching her too obviously – I feel Rosie Trahern’s eyes upon me. I pick up the camera. Emily – I hadn’t seen her – sits beside me, almost touching. I pretend not to notice. My other side is flush with the table.
     “You should be dancing, old man.”
     “I don’t like dancing.”
     “She’s like I was, isn’t she?”
     “God yes. It’s strange.”
     “Sarah’s going to ask if Eileen can stay with you tonight,” she says.
     I clear my throat twice. “Because of the California chap?”
     I put the camera in my lap. She is blushing.
     “How did you know?”
     “Bob McEwen’s been telling.”
     “Bob bloody McEwen!” She looks for him with a murderous, transported look. “Christ what a woman! Has he got a mouth to beat all?”
     “What’s his name?”
     She says very deliberately: “Bob”, and we both laugh.
     “When is he coming?”
     “Well he’s here,” she says, surprised at me. I look toward the door and see a tall man with a hat, who must have come in during the dance. He is standing beside the doorway, smiling, looking for Sarah.
     “Look at that tan. Christ, it’s only May. If he spends his life on beaches I don’t suppose he’s rich.”
     He has a moustache and long hair tied behind his neck. Sarah comes to him but they don’t quite embrace – she draws back slightly at the last moment.
     “He seems nice enough,” I say.
     “Liar. You can’t stand his type. God, look at that smile. He’s so bloody friendly it makes me sick.”
     But we’re in grave danger of liking him. His smile, his whole bearing are seduction and ease. One believes his excuses before he makes them; one is jealous of anyone else receiving that smile. I lean forward a little. Sarah has taken his hand shyly and is leading him around the floor toward us. Her shyness is half put on. She is proud, and stands erect, and lets her claim on him be known.
     The introductions are awkward, and Sarah uses me to keep her mother at bay. She invites Bob to examine the photograph above my head.
     “I feel like 1 know you already, Gerald. You’re a landscape photographer, are you?”
     I smile.
     “I’ve done a little photography myself. Photography’s a great tool for deception – who said that?”
     His smile is upon me. Sarah is a little shocked.
     “Deception?” she says.
     “You’re right,” I say. “Sleight of hand. Getting people to think they’re seeing something real.”
     “When you say you’ve done some photography,” Emily says, “do you mean, for a living?”
     “I’m not that good,” he says easily. “1 don’t even own a camera anymore. I did work for a film lab in Belgium for a couple of months.” He laughs and glances at Sarah.
     “Belgium,” Emily says.
     “Bob loves travelling,” Sarah says. “Ask him where he hasn’t been.”
     The dance has ended, and Eileen comes to her mother, holding up her arms, but with her eyes on the stranger. He gestures to the waiter and sits across the table from us. Eileen continues to stare down at him, warily, from Sarah’s shoulder. As he receives the bottle he winks at her. She breaks into a smile and hides her face.
     “Who’s that?” Sarah says.
     “I don’t know.”
     “Yes you do.”
     “No.”
     “He’s your daddy.”
     “No he isn’t. Jerry’s my daddy.”
     The three of us laugh. Eileen gives me a hot, betrayed look.
     “Jerry’s not your daddy, silly. Bob’s your daddy. Go and say hi. Go on.”
     Bob is not so gauche. He takes the bottlecap and rubs it between his palms, holding Eileen’s gaze. He closes one fist over it, makes circles with both hands in the air, then opens the fist – no bottlecap. Eileen can’t believe her eyes.
     Bob continues to stare at her. He moves his hands again, then slowly opens his mouth and puts out his tongue, with the bottlecap on it. Eileen is staring like an owl. Bob closes his mouth, then slowly opens it again and puts out his tongue. No bottlecap. He opens his left fist, and there is the bottlecap. Eileen can no longer contain herself. She leaves her mother and clambers onto his lap.
     “Open your mouth!”
     He obeys. She examines his mouth, then the bottlecap, and has him open both hands. She sits down on his lap in defeat at last.
     “Let me tell you a story,” he says, and sets her more comfort, ably. His lips are close to her ear and he speaks in an undertone too low for me to hear. Her eyes glaze over with attention.
     The band has taken a break and left the stage, and Emily takes the microphone to call on Patrick Dunne to come onstage and sing. Patrick Dunne could teach the angels a thing or two about singing. Immediately others are calling for him, and he gets up quickly enough and trots to the front, smiling sheepishly and stroking his moustache.
     When I glance at Eileen and her father he has finished, and she is resting her head on his shoulder and her hands, her infinitely small and delicate hands, on his sleeve. At the end of the song she leaps from his lap and runs to the kitchen. Sarah has gone also, and Emily is in a conversation with Patrick, leaving, awkwardly, the stranger and myself. He coughs abruptly and says, “Excuse me.” His look is vague, all at once, as if he is relaxing his cheerfulness.
     “Sarah says you’re not married.” I say nothing, and he says, “I can’t tell you how many friends I’ve lost because they got married.”
     I have the sensation of hearing him as if from the other side of the room. Perhaps my air is thoughtful, because he seems to be encouraged.
     “Do you mind if I tell you why I’m here? You’re a friend of her mother, aren’t you? I know I’m not really welcome. I didn’t even tell Sarah this. I came because I thought I wanted to marry her. I really thought I wanted to, I really decided to. I always remembered her. She’s pretty sharp. I still think I do. I, you know,” – he pauses – “I really want to want to marry her, I guess. But God.”
     He passes his hand over the cover of my book.
     “I wanted to be a photographer once. You’ll laugh at that. But I really wanted it. I bought the stuff, I bought all this stuff, Christ, I must have starved myself to buy that stuff, and I was taking pictures and sending them off – I even sold a few. And then one day I woke up – it didn’t all just happen on one day – but one day I knew I was getting bored, I could see it on the horizon, like some tiny ship on the horizon, that slowly comes toward you. You know? And one day it arrived, and I quit. I sold all the stuff, and I just quit. And ever since then, whenever I started getting interested in something, I could feel that boredom setting in behind it, I knew the more interested I got the sooner I’d get sick of it. And it’s that way with girls too, I mean with women. God.”
He looks around the hall, then leans toward me a little.
     “At least you’re not going to take it as bragging if I tell you this. I hope you don’t take it as bragging. Ever since I was fifteen I knew I could have a girl any time I wanted. That’s when I learned how simple it is. So I’ve never had a problem with sex. Sex is just easy, it’s like buying cookies. So I should be satisfied, right? But do you know what the problem is? I don’t want to be satisfied. God that sounds ridiculous, but that’s what it is. But then what do I want? What should I do? I thought – for some reason I thought – getting married to Sarah – but as soon as I saw her – I mean, she’s very sweet – but the thought of seeing her every day and sleeping with her every night – I mean, the moment I saw her I started thinking of that. And I thought – well I worked on a fishing boat once, that was terrific­ – maybe I’ll do that for the summer – but for the rest of my life?”
     “What about the girl?” I say.
     “Well.” He sighs. “Kids are like pets. They’re not anything to me, not really.”
     “Well if you are going to marry her you’ll have to get a steady crime.”
     Before I can correct myself he says, “What?”, and, to my annoyance, I’m blushing.
     I say, “If you’re not going to work you’ll have to find some way to bring in money. And why not crime? Look at me. Art! An artist is a criminal with no guts.”
     He is smiling faintly. “I don’t get it.”
     “That’s because I’ve been such a gutless wonder all my life. Look at this garbage.” His confidence has spurred me enough. I begin to feel as if my words are being spoken by someone else. I stand up shakily and take the photograph from the wall, clutch it in two hands and almost by accident break it on the table. “This sentimental rubbish.” I try to speak under my breath so that only he will hear me. Then I remember the zipper, and abruptly sit down. “This is what I’m known for. Sunsets. The shore. The ocean. Piss on it. Eighty percent of my books sell in the two weeks before Christmas. God knows who buys the rest, bloody American tourists I suppose. But I tell you, I have photographs in my desk that, if I’d made books with them, not a person in this room would speak to me. And for some not a publisher in this country would risk his lousy reputation.”
     “Uh huh. You’re being metaphorical, right? You wouldn’t go to jail.”
     “Well don’t mean to be meph- I don’t mean to be meph-.” I am blushing again. “And how do you know I wouldn’t go to jail? Anyway, don’t be afraid of jail. Your life is a jail, that’s what you just told me. If you break out of that it doesn’t matter where you find yourself. Let them put you in jail, they can kiss your arse.”
     “What should I do, go out and rob banks?”
     Old twit, he is thinking. Zip your pants up.
     “You’re not thinking. The crime, the actual crime, that’s the last thing for you to think about. Before that you have to prepare yourself, up here” – I tap my forehead – “for being a criminal. Or admit that you are one already. Have you never committed a crime?”
     “No.”
     “But you’ve wanted to. There’s no crime-.”
     Stop now, a voice says, and I stop. He is sitting back and staring at me distantly. Eileen and Sarah are dancing again.
     “Well maybe you’re right,” he says. He is still sitting back, not looking at me now, but staring across the hall.
     I am nervous and humiliated. The waiter isn’t near, and I excuse myself in a mumble and go to the bar, clutching the sweater. From the bar I catch sight of Emily at a far table with her face in her hands, as if she’s just so tired. When I return he is gone – he is with Sarah and his daughter, standing between them and laughing, and clumsily skipping through the dance. I sit for a long time staring at my knees, thinking of that creature, Gerald Moore, stuck in the pits of landscape photography with his wretched books. I push Bob McEwen’s copy away. His pen rolls to the other side of the table and falls. It became a career by mistake, I’d meant it as an exercise only, to distract myself from fantasies of naked girls. But, my God, how I loathe it now! “His inspiration is taken from the rugged beauties of the east coast,” says the banner. How I loathe the east coast! How I loathe the stupid Atlantic Ocean, and rugged granite shores, and weathered shacks. Only give me the men in these shacks, those murderous drunks. There is more stone in one of those faces than in five miles of coast, and the Atlantic doesn’t have more sullen oceany distances than those eyes. And it’s between twenty and thirty, between when they realize they’re trapped and when they accept it, and start turning into stone, that the men of this region show their fire: that’s when they throw gasoline into the basements of abandoned houses and set them alight; that’s when they take their catch in two fists and brain it on the gunwales. They don’t let themselves be dragged out of boyhood without a fight. Oh how I hated them! and how they hated me, with my camera, looking through windows, spying on their campfires. And here are some of them now, as old as I am and long since mineralized, the women clay, the men stone. Here they are, at every table, all night I’ve been seeing them, and yet I can’t recall their faces. The light seems to become grey around their faces.
     When I wake up the music is over, the band is putting its instruments away, and Eileen is tugging at my sleeve. She climbs onto my lap.
     “What were you saying?”
     “Was I saying something?”
     “Yes! You know you were. It sounded like – I don’t know – I
almost heard it-.”
     “I was saying, If God feeds me nothing better than pork chops I’ll be very disappointed.”
     She is suspicious. “What does that mean?”
     “I don’t know. I was dreaming.”
     Sarah and Bob are coming toward us. They are going to ask if I will take their daughter for the night. Sarah is carrying my coat, perhaps to appease me. The old animal stirs, and I lift Eileen from my lap. She whispers to me like a conspirator.
     “Are we going to take pictures, Jerry?”
     I am sick and old, but outside the air is alive. It is vibrating against my eardrums, and I barely hear the partings and last congratulations. The surface of my skin is numb. Then I am walking in a dream with Eileen under the blooming maples and in the nets of shadow they cast between the streetlamps. She takes my hand and lets go and takes it again, chattering about her father.
     “Did you think I believed all that stuff?”
     “I didn’t know.”
     “Well what do you think? I’m not stupid. He said my skin is pearly. Would you say that? What colour is pearly?”
     We pause under a streetlamp and she rolls up a sleeve of her jacket to expose her arm.
     “A kind of greenish-yellow, mostly.”
     I am not really listening, and she stamps her foot and pulls down the sleeve. We stop at the bridge, where the paved road and the streetlights end, except for one light at the top of the hill, at my driveway. She climbs onto the railing. The tide is passing into the harbour in a long sigh.
     “What direction is China? Is it that direction?” She points out to sea.
     “It depends which way you go. It’s in that direction” – I point to sea, but a little south – “and in that direction.”
     “Oh. Well suppose if you were to sail.”
     “Are you going to sail to China?”
     “Maybe. My father’s been to China. He said he’d take me to Backman’s Island in grandma’s boat.”
     “China’s a lot farther than Backman’s Island.”
     “I want to see China and Japan. And I want to go to Africa. Did you know there are lions in Africa? How are you going to take my picture tonight?” She climbs to the top railing and takes two steps, holding my hand. “I want you to take my picture up here. That would be sharp. How do I look up here? I’ll pretend to fly. Take my picture now. I can stand, let go.” She struggles for her hand. “Let go!”
     It must be because of the light that her face seems so transformed. Rage has cleaved shadows between her cheeks and her nose, and her eyes are altogether invisible. Her lips are pouting only, but for a moment seem to snarl. I keep hold of her hand and lift her down, and on the ground she pulls herself away.
     “I don’t have the proper flash,” I say, panting. “I couldn’t have taken your picture anyway.”
     I’m not forgiven, but it’s just as well. We look at each other like strangers, and then with dismay toward the last streetlamp, up the steep interminable hill leading to my house.

THE END

last updated August 17, 2007 | © 2007 Fathom Publishing
poetry, prose, and artwork © individual authours | website created by Alana Paul