Kaspar Pine, the irreverent and foul-mouthed twelve year-old protagonist of Paddy Scott's debut novel The Union of Smokers (Invisible Publishing), tells you right away that he is going to die today. What follows is the twisted, tragically comic path to his final hour.
Tasked with replacing his recently-deceased pet canary, we ride along with Kaspar through his small 1960s farming community during the last day of his life, encountering a world of bullies, cigarettes, bad words, and first-crushes. With lively and whip-smart prose, The Union of Smokers is a charming, unorthodox coming-of-age story replete with humour, heartbreak, and unexpected warmth.
We're very excited to feature an excerpt from The Union of Smokers on Open Book today.
Excerpt from 'The Union of Smokers':
One of the first things I learned when I moved to my grandparents’ farm was that animals drop off all the time. That’s what they’re born to do. Sometimes there’s an obvious reason, like an axe to the head. And sometimes death is more mysterious, like the one my pet canary Bill experienced just this morning. When I got moved here after my dad, Sliver, exploded in a ball of lightning, I was only around six and therefore pretty empty-headed when it came to taking care of anything. But during the two weeks after Sliver went up in smoke, before I got found out, I did get a little first-hand experience in what it took to look after something helpless—namely, me. Waking up in a deadly quiet house every one of those mornings was a less great experience than you might believe. Bill made sure that wouldn’t happen here, and I’d come to appreciate his singing his little throat off to let me know that life, in the farm part of the world at least, was dandy. When I walked out of my bedroom bright and early this time, I was a little concerned with how quiet things were in the Bill department. Standing on my toes to see inside the cage (I’m not very tall for a twelve-year-old), I saw Bill on the newspaper liner at the bottom, his beak open and his little chest going thip–thip–thip. Then nothing. He didn’t even close his eyes. I hollered, “Bird’s dead, Gram!” Not out of shock, mind you, but because Gram could’ve been anywhere in our very large house.
“What?” she shouted from the back porch. Everybody screamed “what” at everybody around here a lot. Most of our conversations began that way.
“I said the damn bird’s dead.”
“Tongue, please,” Gram called as she bustled in through the mud room and set down a cucumber-and-beet-filled basket on the kitchen table. Today was pickling day. She wore a flowery print number, and a black-and-red plaid shirt over that, her typical look for pickle work. Swaddling her hands in the grey dishtowel she’d plucked off the hand pump beside the basin, she made a beeline for the cage.
“Sorry, Gram.” Gram took a fit whenever I swore. On the other hand, Grumps didn’t give a shit how I talked. I poked at the bird through the wires.
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“Stop that… Is it cold?” Gram leaned in for a better look.
“How the hell should I know?” I mean, Bill was covered in feathers.
“Tongue, mister,” she scolded softly, so close now that her breath bounced against the back of my head. When you have a brush cut, you notice things like Gram’s warm breath.
Where I came from, beating a kid was as natural as lightning. Maybe if Gram’d been firmer with me, took a swing at my head once in a while, I’d have been less of a curse machine around her. Except she’d already told me that nobody hit anybody here, which actually turned out to be the case, so I knew I was in the clear as far as beatings went. Oh, don’t get me wrong, I did feel bad whenever I made her cross, and tried to limit my swearing to out of her earshot. Problem was, thanks to Grumps, I knew so damn many great words, and sometimes they just slipped out. “Sorry, Gram. Yeah, it’s cold, I guess.”
She stared at the little body and, like Bill, didn’t blink an eye. That’s how farmers are. Staring and not blinking—at the fields or the sky, or the fields first and then the sky. Whatever the attraction is—crops, animals, weather—their expressions don’t say much. Whenever Gram looked at me with a frown, though, I could read that crystal clear. It usually meant one thing—worry. I don’t know why. I hardly ever worried about me since I got to the farm, because except for swearing, I hardly ever stepped out of line with Gram or Grumps.
“Okay then,” she said, after giving Bill a ten-count to snap out of it. “I’ll get you five dollars. You’d better go get yourself another one.”
I looked at her like she’d gone simple. I really didn’t want to make that long hump into town just to get a bird, even if it was dead quiet without Bill. “How am I supposed to get a canary home on my bike?” I had an ancient one-speed that used to belong to their daughter—my mother, apparently—and I didn’t think we lived close enough to downtown for me to transport livestock with it.
“I don’t know.” Gram shrugged. “Can’t you stick it in your pants?”
Grumps, having just ambled into the living room to catch the CHEX farm report, tossed in his two cents—“Jesus Christ, the boy can’t stick a goddamn canary in his pants. Give him the goddamn cage or something”—right before he flipped on the TV.
Big help. Now I’m supposed to haul the goddamn cage around too?
“Hush,” Gram scolded as she lifted the cage from its stand. She raised the tiny latch that kept the door closed and shook the deceased bird into a trash can nearly full of crushed cage linings and bird crap. Bill perched there on top like the yellow king of Crap Hill. She handed me the vacant cage. “Same thing. Same as Billy.”
Don’t get the wrong idea about me not wanting to do what I was told. I’d have been perfectly happy humping into town if it was to buy myself a horse or a goat and drag that home on my bike. A real animal I could raise from scratch without anybody’s help. I thought I’d done a pretty good job with Bill, up until today at least, and kind of hoped for bigger challenges, where I could be of more use to Grumps around the barn. A horse or a goat couldn’t live in the house, of course, so wouldn’t be much company in any “pet” regard, and I’m one hundred percent sure neither one can sing, so I’d miss hearing that first thing when I woke up. And, because keeping my farmhouse life as worry-free as possible was Gram’s department, buying another canary as soon as possible made some sense to her, I guess.
After the canary introductions, I’ll make one more, very important intro:
What I really, really mean is, I didn’t want to walk into Couch-Newton’s swinging that big-ass cage in case one particular clerk, a gal by the name of Mary Lynn, was working. I was funny-enough looking as it was, at least if those pinheaded insults I got at school were to be believed. Toss a birdcage shaped like a giant ace of spades into the mix of my knee-high rubber boots, checkerboard hunter’s jacket, and brush cut, and I could forget about getting Mary Lynn to pick up where we left off six years ago. At least I was wearing my blue corduroy bell-bottoms.
Paddy Scott lives in Trenton, Ontario, the town that provides source material for the fictional town of Quinton. Educated at Nicholson Catholic College Belleville, the University of Western Ontario and Carleton University, Scott has been published in Broken Pencil, Grain, Feathertale Review, untethered, and other equally fine places. Devilhouse Press published his first chapbook, Fatal Errors. His near-misses include being longlisted three times for the CBC Literary Awards, being a runner-up for the John Newlove Award for poetry, and being a nominee/finalist for the Canadian Magazine Awards and the Alberta Magazine Awards.