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"What's Your Story?" OBPO Contest Winners Part 3: East York

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We've got four pieces of brand new, original writing today on Open Book - it's the third instalment of the Ontario Book Publishers Organization's inaugural What's Your Story? writing competition!

The contest asked Toronto authors to translate the character and diversity of their local neighbourhoods into writing, focusing on the "inner suburb" areas often under-represented in Toronto literature: Etobicoke, North York, East York, and Scarborough. Authors submitted anonymous writing samples to prove their literary merit. Once the four most compelling samples (three from the established author category and one from the emerging) were selected, those authors were contacted and asked to write an original piece that captures the essence of their region. 

Today we're hosting the original, commissioned pieces from the East York neighbourhood: in the Established category Diana Fitzgerald Bryden, Kate Flaherty, and Michael Januska, and in the Emerging category, exciting new voice Lee Parpart.

Stay tuned next month for the winning entries from our final region, Scarborough, to be published exclusively on Open Book. You can also see our previous postings, featuring the winners from the Etobicoke region and the East York region. 

 

Established Writer Category winners, East York region

Diana Fitzgerald Bryden

The Scent by Diana Fitzgerald Bryden

Bowling shoes after years and years of use: steeped in oils from human sweat until they’re more atmospheric than physical, more smell than tired, two-tone leather. Stacked by size, white stitching gone grey, insoles permanently damp; sanitized they attain a top-note of sweetness like dirty laundry spritzed with Febreze. The smell plunders memory: too many men, too many cramped into one stinking space; one move, a knife-flash. But no, he’s good, this is his job. He needs this, and his diligence pacifies Jean. Just putting in my time, she says, with no sense of irony. Nineteen years at Thorncliffe Park Bowlerama. Who would have thought? 

His first night back he went to the nearest Tim Horton’s and nursed a double double until they closed. He slept out, it was warm enough. He thought he might be rousted by the police and moved along, as he has been in other cities, or set upon by a stranger, as has also happened, but in his brown parka he melted into the scrubby bush. The wind in the leaves whispered him into a shallow sleep. Every time he woke he gulped lungfuls of air as if the supply was finite. 

A fox hovers on the lip of the ravine, sniffing the night. She lifts her head and sniffs again. Mice, gophers, and somewhere in the trees by the river, deer. But also, coyote. 

Stairs with the musty haze of abandoned swimming pools take you down to the bowling alley: permanent night plus jazzy lighting and absent fresh air. A swirl of noise. The rancid smell of cheese melting on thawed pizza, foot-stink, washrooms that emit gusts like scented farts each time their doors swing open. Hotdogs warming, burnt coffee stewing in the pot. It can all overwhelm a person newly vulnerable to sensory input. He has to take a moment before he plunges in.  

The PA Day mums shun Jean’s coffee. They bring herbal tea or Starbucks frothing in those ten gallon cups with the corrugated sleeves; sip lustily while they watch their kids try on shoes until they find a pair that fits. Gross! The kids say to each other at the feel of clammy insoles under their socked feet. 

He averts his eyes from a child in distress, pleading to wear his own running shoes. Skinny arms folded, lip trembling, fighting for self-control. He has a bit of… and the Mum leans in and quietly, confidentially mutters the name of it, his problem, but implacable Jean stares her down. House rules. No bowling shoes, no bowling. After private negotiations (whispered promises of some compensatory treat) the boy caves as Jean knew he would. The other option on a rainy PA day is the Science Centre, and, she says, this type only shows up at Bowlerama when they’ve had it up to here—she taps her chin—with the Eagle Flight Simulator and Sneeze Boy. 

Just before the bridge at O’Connor he looks down into the dark ravine. Even from there he can smell the river. The lights from distant traffic are beads pulled along a string. And then he sees her. She sees him too. Keep very, very still. 

There’s a human up there. Big, with a strange soft scent. Not a predator. Not the sharp sour meat tang of coyote, though she’s seen a pair prowling down by the river. Nor the delicate beige breath of deer. Harmless, too big for prey; she flicks her plush tail and runs softly down the slope, after mice and, maybe, a reckless bird. She stops once to tear at a mushroom’s clothy flesh with the points of her teeth.  

He follows because he must. Sliding down the steep bank, searing his palms on whip-like branches that slow his descent. 

The afternoon regulars don’t tax Jean’s patience like PA days, or guys’ nights—sloppy bowling and bottomless pitchers of cheap beer with their crappy pizza. Not cheap enough, they carp at her, angling for discounts. The afternoon leagues are mostly old ladies on a fixed income; they play five-pin with intense concentration and nurse a pop or a coffee for the duration. Jean likes them because they require so little from her. They don’t have tantrums, they don’t gouge the wood with ill-flung bowling balls, and they don’t get drunk. Some bring their own shoes in ancient vinyl bags. 

He stays out, avoiding bars and other people, walking until he’s tired enough to sleep. Walk, walk, walk noise into silence. Tension into calm. Walk from work to his room on Danforth, dip down into the ravines and follow the river. The bridge above vibrates. He skirts clear of tents and man-built shelters, and of the dogs who guard them, taut and vigilant. 

A deer flies across the path; so close its wind-rush shocks them both. 

Bowling seems easy at first. When the kids are relaxed they can make flukey shots, but as they get tired and hopped up on birthday cake and pop, their natural abilities and deficits are more evident. Sometimes the PA mums play too. They did not bowl when they were young, he can tell. They’re sexy enough, though considerably older than mothers when he was the same age as these kids. Having them late, Jean says, for the sake of their careers. Wanting to have it all. And then what do they do, she asks rhetorically, but throw it all away so they can be Super-Mom. It’s not rocket science. You’d think no one in the history of the world had ever raised a kid before. 

One night he walked south, for some reason he had to: there it is, the new hospital on the old site. He looked up and wondered: Who’s inside, hurting, sleeping or dying in the ache of institutional light? Is it so different? (The smell of men, the sound of fights, the stifled frenzy of sex or weeping.) What did people see when the excavators tore off the walls and exposed the bars? Did they imagine for a minute what it might have been like, locked up in there? Did they shudder when its ghosts— trapped sighs and shouts and sobs and yes, death-rattles—flew out, released, finally, for ever? Did they feel anything at all?

Sleeping under the bridge, a coyote. Its flicked tail stuns a fly. 

The eight year olds and their birthday parties with the pizza and hot dogs and ice cream cake are slowly drifting away without being replaced. A sign of the times, Jean says. Teenagers won’t wear the shoes. The new places have theme nights and cocktails, DJs and gourmet mac ’n cheese, not burnt coffee and pitchers of thin beer. The new patrons are ironic hipsters toying with a trend that won’t stick.  

Poised on the brushy slope. The most beautiful thing. Sniffing the air.  

She must have a lair close by. Kits waiting for her? She doesn’t seem to mind him watching. She preens or ignores him, her sharp nose attuned to more urgent needs. By late summer, the kits will be ready to go out on their own. How does concrete smell to a fox? The same as it does to a man? 

When he was a small boy he swam in the Don—at its skankiest, before the clean-up. A few years ago he rescued Rose’s dog from its tea-coloured water, where no one swims now. The dog is an old lab, sweet but impossibly foolish. Rose sat on the bank, smoking, wearing a big sunhat. Murphy’s having trouble, he said. No she’s fine, she’ll come out when she’s ready. If a dog can look panicked, Murphy did. So he went in. Boosted her hind end, tucked her old legs, gently, gently, and wrangled her up and out ahead of him. A scintillation of hair and tail and light and water—all over Rose, who kissed Murphy over and over until her dress was fully soaked. Then she kissed him. 

Jean’s bitching about PA days has taken on a nostalgic edge, which means, to his mind, that the place will shut down sooner than later. There are fewer regulars showing up, summer’s less busy anyway—some of the old ladies do lawn bowling instead—but even so. The shoes need dusting now more than a spray and wipe. 

Murphy’s dead, Rose told him, when he called. How are you? Fine, he said. Good. I’m working, and I’ve got a place. That’s good. They chatted for a while and then she said, I’ve got to go. He could hear a child’s voice. 

Anyway he’ll need another job. 

He walks to the bridge, slips down between rusty clumps of sumach and poison ivy, down to the river. Looking for the fox, yes, but something else. What he felt the first time he saw her, ears pricked, eyes turned towards him, luminous and flaring in the dark before she ran, quivering, into darkness herself. 

_________________________________________________

Kate Flaherty

Flocking by Kate Flaherty

305 Dawes Road, September 12, 2001

Standing in a circle on the stage, an arc
of green leaves overhead, we gather
this morning in our ravine sanctuary. Placing
hands on bellies, we inhale together, let out
a sound that vibrates root to branch.

Breath takes form; our bodies swell in space
like a school of fish, a flock of birds.
We settle in our centering ritual,
call this taking a bop, a breath of peace.

This Peace Theatre place,
once the Massey-Goulding Estate,
was a dairy farm turned drama guild.
Crescent Town, Secord, Canadian Martyrs School-kids
come for Peace Camp, to sing in seven languages.
Our summer show so moving,
we were invited to New York.

Today, we are back from 911. Shocked, stunned—
our peace play un-performed at the UN.

Aboard the train—tears, confusion, fragments
of story. A passenger asked us to sing
that Siyahamba song we had been practicing.

At the border we were stopped,
de-trained at the Falls. We sang again,
like water—shanti-song. 

Here back home in East York’s green refuge,
this morning after the twin tower fall,
we gather to make sense
and re-shape our play—
to take to schools and embassies,
mosques and churches. 

The children hold hands. Seeing the weave
of brown and tan palms, Sachi says, “Look,
we are all the colours of the world.”

_________________________________________________

Michael Januska

Divernicity by Michael Januska

1. Summer

We live in a leafy corner of Toronto that in the heat of summer sweats and glistens while nature tries to catch her breath.

Home for us is a few blocks north of the Danforth, on the cusp of East Toronto. If I walk one more block north I’m in what was East York, but there’s really no break in the rhythm. Municipalities like East York formed in pockets and began to rub shoulders until they were ultimately grafted together. Near our place is a street where two houses, almost side-by-side, each have a fire hydrant on their front garden, one hydrant is marked ‘Toronto’ while the other is marked ‘East York.’

It isn’t a neighbourhood of sprawling green lawns. The summer after we moved in, I tore out the grass by hand. I didn’t see much point in buying a mower to service a 12 by 12-foot patch of blades. I prefer a garden anyway. There are some here that look and smell like a bouquet this time of year.

I can stand on the corner of Danforth and Donlands and see the humble Metamorphosis Greek Orthodox church; the Madinah Masjid mosque with its dome and minaret; and the bell tower of Holy Name Catholic church. And we’re surrounded by elementary and secondary schools. The two preferred hangouts during lunch hour are the 7-Eleven, a place that can be a scene of organized chaos, and City Fried Chicken & Pizza across the street serving up Halal fast food. These blocks are a bit of a crossroads.

When someone hears ‘Danforth,’ they automatically think Greek. It’s only natural. In the beginning, Taste of the Danforth was one long corridor of souvlaki. Now there’s also sushi, tapas, roti, pad Thai, yekik alicha…I could go on. We also have our neighbourhood legends, one being the Only Café, reveling in its shabby-chicness and priding itself on its Hall of Foam, and Square Boy, a burger joint frequented by many first-responders. I don’t dial 9-11; I dial Square Boy.

As I write this we’re preparing to dive into the deep end of summer. The thick air glows around the streetlights and is cut in the distant sky by white sheet lightning. I’ve stood in front of Motorama at the top of sloping Jones and been lucky enough to catch a display of these cloud-to-cloud flashes over the lake. Mother Nature’s special effects. After that comes the kind of calm that can only follow great disturbances.

Not too many summers ago flames took a few homes on Donlands, just south of us. A conflagration of the highest degree; we happened to be in the middle of a drought. Ash the size of the palm of my hand was flying all around. Engines and sirens roared and my neighbours and I quickly began dousing our wooden porches. The area was cordoned off. The charred houses were razed, and later funds were raised for the families at a charity event held at a local pub.

2. Autumn

Weeks of summer lull us into a false sense of complacency. But suddenly there’s a chill in the air, no warning. Then the café patios are taken down and it feels like last call. It’s autumn, and the trees are gradually lit into a fiery omen. There’s a maple at the corner of Dewhurst and Fielding whose leaves look like they might be hot to the touch. There are still a few soft edges left around the crisp air.

Sometimes I think Halloween is bigger than Christmas in this quarter. People go all-out with the decorations. One year, in a tribute to Harry Potter, someone built a small car and positioned it up in the arms of their giant oak tree. Others have been known to turn their front gardens into gothic scenes or provide some mildly spooky entertainment for the young ones. Adults chaperoning groups of kids are sometimes walking with travellers that I don’t think are carrying a hot beverage.

Last fall the city made us take down our century-old cherry tree that was being feasted upon by carpenter ants and leaning heavily on telecom wires. Someone came by to look at it, knocked on the trunk, looked up and shook his head. The tree was served its papers. I asked around and found an arborist to euthanize it for us and haul away the remains. It left a big hole in the sky. The little girl next door wept and asked her mum where all the squirrels were going to live now. They have white lilac trees in their back yard, a wedding gift dating back to the Great Depression. On the other side of our semi-detached, the giant, grey-whiskered pine in the front drops birds’ nests in windstorms. 

3. Winter

Winter seems to keep begging forgiveness while yielding very little. I tread lightly and take my chances knowing it wants to throw me, which it has. Winter is the soul’s undesired and unasked for audit. It seems I’m always paying.

I don’t do winter very well. It’s pretty at first, what with the virgin snow. But in the end it’s dark, greasy glaciers along the avenue receding and revealing a season’s worth of cigarette butts and dog turds. Cities don’t do winters very well.

At the height, or depths, of it, I take turns with my neighbours shoveling our front walks. When there is heavy snowfall the challenge becomes where to put it. Several times I’ve had a six-foot high pyramid of snow covering the garden. That’s when you have no other choice but to dump it in the street, near the curb. This can lead to problems.

Homeowners pay a fee to be able to park on the street. We don’t have a garage or a driveway, or what is known as a parking pad — that’s where you sacrifice all or part of your front yard to paving stone or asphalt so that your car has a place to spend the night. When a neighbour on our block is considering a parking pad, the city has to send a notice around and we vote on it. The parking pad referendum routinely gets a ‘no.’ Where I’m going with this is when people start creating mountains of snow in the street, space for cars is lost. There have been times when I’ve spent hours digging out my car, gone to run and errand, and returned only to find someone else is now benefiting from my labours.

Hibernation becomes the only option. I retreat into social media. Sitting at my desk, when I hit the Wi-Fi button on my laptop, seventeen local networks pop up. I know all my neighbours’ usernames. These are tight quarters.

4. Spring

It’s 4:30 a.m. and the dawn chorus is in full swing in the tall pine outside our bedroom window. The chorus is more a cacophony. It ‘s peeling the paint off the walls. Robins, cardinals, and chick-a-dees, I understand. It’s over in about an hour. Sometimes I manage to fall back asleep.

The raccoons — the trash pandas — have also returned. There’s an interloper in the form of a possum. Kids are being told not to pet the skunk. Squirrels are performing their high wire act. There’s a dead mouse, a gift from our cat’s girlfriend next door, on our steps.

Spring-cleaning and households are depositing unwanted goods at the edge of their yard or on the sidewalk, everything from books and vinyl records to computer monitors and dining sets. “Free,” say the handmade signs. The stuff goes pretty quickly. A woman across the street noticed the little patio set I had put out.

“How much?” she asked.

“No charge. Do you want help carrying it over?”

“I’ve got it.”

She came back a few trips later and presented me with a bottle of wine.

There are other sorts of spring-cleaning, but on a much larger scale. A church at the bottom of Dewhurst is being redeveloped into condominiums. I watched them load some of the pews into the back of a moving truck. Other objects were taken out. It was like wartime and the place was being looted. Around the corner a tiny old clapboard house is being carefully knocked down like a house of cards and loaded into a massive dumpster. Somewhere an architect is rubbing his hands together.

The hockey nets are coming out of storage; the sidewalk is a blank canvas; and in the alleyway, Dew Lang Lane, boys are shooting hoops hung over garage doors, some of which are covered in brilliant street murals. I hear the basketball kiss the pavement once before it bounces off shingles and drops and wiggles through the rusty hoop.

I continue my stroll through a parkette — a uniquely Canadian thing — roughly half of which is a sand box dominated by a swing set and a jungle gym, and littered with communal toys. The kids will be back at it after dinnertime. There’s definitely a rhythm here.

_________________________________________________

Emerging Writer Category winner, East York region

Lee Parpart

Piano Player's Reach by Lee Parpart

I’m skimming the foam from the broth when I realize there’s a good chance Kostis and Nikoletta won’t accept this gift. When I came up with the idea of an edible peace offering late last night, it seemed inspired. Now I’m wondering if it was crazy to think a pot of soup, even one with as potent a history as Avgolemono, could do anything to repair the damage or prevent us having to move again before we’ve even had a chance to settle in.

‘Coals to Newcastle’ comes to mind. If the Pappas want Avgolemono they can make it themselves or head over to Greektown. But with two whole chickens, a dozen eggs and as many lemons already sacrificed to the pot, all I can do is hope they appreciate the gesture. It’s better than leaving it to the lawyers.

Voices float in from outside. Kostis and Nikoletta are standing in their yard, pointing to the tilled earth on their side of the new stone wall that was supposed to have separated our properties. Their burble of soft g’s and hard k’s rising in intensity and filtering through our open transom until I feel I can almost translate their conversation from the Greek. I have no idea what they’re saying, but it sounds a little like ‘Those barbarians have destroyed everything.’

My warped reflection in the stove vent jolts me back to Nikoletta’s face in the moments after she discovered our workers’ mistake. Her eyes and mouth contorted in rage, kohl-stained tears flowing down her cheeks. Her small brown hands diving and swooping between us like angry birds as she keeps repeating the same phrase, kípo mou, kípo mou, then sinks onto a bench near the front steps. Dismissing me with silence.

I wouldn’t learn the meaning of those words, ‘my garden,’ or their full significance to the Pappas until hours later, when their daughter Helen knocked on our door. Looking back, it’s easy to understand why Nikoletta was reduced to stammering in the language of her youth, despite being almost fluent in English. The destruction carried out on our behalf was swift and irreparable. Six heirloom peonies, planted to celebrate the Pappas wedding in 1983, ripped out by their roots and fed to the wood chipper by workers who misread our blueprints. Six living symbols of a shared life, torn away in under a minute for a stone wall that ended up eight inches over the lot line.

All of this, obviously, unthinkable. An act of violence, however accidental, that destroyed a piece of a family’s history. And although none of this is, or should be, about us, Peter and I will probably never recover from this transgression. As new arrivals in this rapidly changing former borough we have no history to draw on, no reservoir of good will to help us move past this colossal error. It doesn’t help that we’re part of a wave of change that’s transforming East York into an enclave for young professionals intent on clear-cutting all the old postwar settlements to make way for progress. Some of us slapping second storey additions onto bungalows, others erecting hulking new homes up the edges of the neighbourhood’s modest lot lines. None of us much aware of the pensioners living in our shadows, forced by tax hikes to consider leaving homes they’ve owned since the 60s and 70s.

Although it seemed tasteful enough on paper, our own house is a prime example of this awkward march toward modernization. Ten-foot ceilings on both levels, faux limestone enveloping the whole structure, and a blinding new second storey cupola, bursting out of the façade in shiny new copper like an engagement ring being flaunted by an over-eager bride. Any of these architectural details might have been innocuous by itself. Combined, they make the surrounding bungalows and even some of the street’s smaller renovated houses look like hobbit huts squatting in the shadow of a Disney castle, or an upscale penitentiary.

I’m stirring the pot, marveling at how I missed these excesses, at my passivity in the face of Peter’s weird need to own the best house on an up-and-coming street, when my eyes drift to my hands. Through the steam I notice a small, alien constellation of brown spots beginning to bloom across the wide expanse of my papery white skin. Something resembling the Little Dipper catches the light within the shallow spaces carved out by a patchwork of veins.

More and more, recently, my hands have begun to look like my mother’s: large and useful, with nails kept trimmed and unpainted through decades of focused, sometimes furious, tapping on speed-ball typewriters and IBM clones. But while her hands have always seemed like truthful advertisements for their owner, marking the sturdiness of a New Englander who spent her life sailing wooden boats and playing the piano, I’ve begun to wear mine like foreign objects at odds with my sense of self. People used to praise them as elegant, and at some point I began to enjoy the idea that they looked like the hands of a concert pianist. It embarrasses me now to realize how often I mentally congratulated myself on having a piano-player’s reach – a phrase I must have heard from my mother – without ever having learned to play the instrument.

I catch my own self-absorption and wonder if this, too, helps to explain what brought us to this place. I’m straining the broth and wondering where violence and architecture begin and end when a memory of Nikoletta’s hands forces its way back to the surface. Through the years of baby baths, double shifts at her cousin’s restaurant, and digging through soil to maintain the wedding border that we destroyed, has she ever had the luxury or the inclination to inspect her hands for sunspots or sagging skin?

With the broth ready, I prop up Peter’s iPad and re-watch the video I found earlier about making Avgolemono. The young man from Athens who is sharing his grandfather’s recipe with the world is oddly mesmerizing in his kindness and attention to detail. He unfolds his family’s secrets from a tiny kitchen on a stove encased in foil. White teeth flashing as he peppers his instructions with asides about his Papou and demonstrates every step of the process, paying special attention to the difficulty of the lemon-egg-broth phase.

Peter calls from the office as I’m dragging a fork through the lemon juice to remove the seeds. He sighs when he hears about my projects and reminds me there’s an offer on the table: three thousand dollars for permission to leave the wall where it is, plus damages for the loss of the plants. Negotiations are underway, and gifts of food will only muddy the process. I fall silent and beg off the phone, resolving to talk to him tonight about why it’s so important to offer something besides money. Maybe because I’m the one working from home, fielding cold looks from the Pappas and their friends, it seems obvious that a violation this serious and personal requires an equally personal apology, despite the possibility that it may not elicit forgiveness.

Before I’m ready, it’s time for the most delicate part of the operation, the hinge on which any Avgolemono succeeds or fails: adding the broth to the egg and lemon for a paste to thicken the finished product. It’s tricky to do alone because of the need to keep whisking constantly while transferring the broth. Stopping even briefly can turn the whole mixture into a curdled, unusable mess. The ingredients in this part of the recipe are so elemental and distinct from each other that it takes care and technique to coax them to collaborate rather than following their own tendencies to be egg-like or citrusy. Worry sets in when I think about it this way, as a set of rigged obstacles to integration. But I start the process, and am excited when I manage to keep the whisk flying nonstop as I transfer six ladles of stock to the bowl and end up with a silky blend of egg, lemon and broth. For some reason I can’t quite explain, this small achievement fills me with hope.

Hours later I hear tires on gravel and notice Kostis easing into their parking spot with Nikoletta in the passenger seat. The back of their Ford Focus is stuffed full of bushy foliage, some of it popping through the sun roof, other branches spilling out the tops of both rear windows. I can tell from the spiky leaves and the tight round buds just starting to form that they’ve opted for peonies again, confronting change with repetition. Nikoletta labours out of the car in in her floral housecoat and leans into the back seat to begin unloading their purchases. I am carried across the yard on a bright burst of lemon, hands outstretched, determined to be useful. Looking for Nikoletta’s eyes behind a wall of green.

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Stay tuned to Open Book for the original, commissioned texts from the winners in our final region, Scarborough, next month!

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The OBPO and Open Book gratefully acknowledge the support of The Ontario Media Development Corporation, The Toronto Arts Council, Arts Etobicoke, North York Arts, East York Arts, and Scarborough Arts in making this contest and these original pieces possible.

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