It feels too fast every year - the end of summer is once again in sight. Make the most of our remaining warm days by packing in great summer reading - and today you can discover brand new reads right here, free and exclusive on Open Book!
We're presenting the final set of winners for the Ontario Book Publishers Organization and East End Arts's What's Your Story? literary contest. We've already hosted three amazing sets of winning texts, and the fourth and final edition today highlights the neighbourhood of East Toronto.
The What's Your Story? contest recognizes both the wealth of literary talent in Toronto and puts a particular spotlight on the inner suburbs of Etobicoke, Scarborough, East Toronto, and North York.
The 2018 East Toronto What's Your Story? winners:
In the Established Writer category: Award winning writer Lesley Krueger, author of Mad Richard (ECW Press), and Elizabeth Gillan Muir, author of Riverdale: East of the Don (Dundurn Press), and secretary of the Riverdale Historical Society.
In the Emerging Writer category we're excited to introduce two vibrant new voices: Emily Gillespie and Nicole Saltz.
Don't miss reading brand new, exclusive stories from all the talented winners across Toronto. Check out all the winning texts from Etobicoke, North York, and Scarborough as well as the great reads below.
And be sure to take advantage of your last chance to attend a What's Your Story event in person for this year! The East Toronto winners will share their work at a free event, hosted by Toronto Poet Laureate Anne Michaels, on September 16, 2018. Register by visiting the Weekend of Words Festival registration page here.
Established Writer Category winners, East Toronto region
"We are Pianos" by Lesley Krueger
Neighbours had put a cardboard box of books on their front lawn with a sign saying to help yourself. It had snowed the previous day, and Lucy could see footprints heading back and forth between the house and the box, as if someone had kept having second thoughts. Maybe two sets of footprints, as if people had argued about what to put out.
Six years ago, after Lucy and her ex had arrived at a Mexican resort, she’d thrown down her towel and run ecstatically toward the ocean— tripping over a lounge chair and breaking a toe five minutes into their vacation. That evening, as she limped along the beach beside Phil, she glanced back and saw her footsteps looking skewed, the uninjured foot digging more deeply into the sand as she carried her weight on her right side.
Your CanLit News
Subscribe to Open Book’s newsletter to get local book events, literary content, writing tips, and more in your inbox
“While the suspect had an injured left foot, Detective,” — she would tell her doctor — “bearing the weight on the inner side of the foot, so the toes barely left an impression.”
“Too many TV cop shows!” her doctor cried.
Lucy had gone to the clinic about post-Mexico stomach problems, knowing they couldn’t do anything about the toe. The doctor didn’t bother looking at it, saying they could send her for an X-ray if she wanted. But Lucy had been conscious of not burdening the medical system with unnecessary tests, feeling that if she was a decent person, she would bank enough good karma to exempt herself from medical disasters: lower back pain or dementia and/or cancer.
That hadn’t worked so well, had it?
The box was a mishmash of books. Google for Dummies. The inevitable Margaret Atwood. Underneath was a thick biography of Queen Victoria. Lucy had read a couple of other biographies by the same author, Elizabeth Longford, and thought she had a fine eye for detail. She took Victoria while her friend Ally claimed a paperback of Shakespeare’s Tempest.
“Funny how I’ve always meant to read this,” Ally said. “And here it is.”
This was around the corner from Lucy’s house on Verral Avenue. She couldn’t remember if the walk was her idea, or Ally’s, or the oncologist’s, but Lucy was exhausted and shivering as they turned away from the books. Seeing this, Ally steered her home, even though Lucy usually walked for hours. She collapsed onto the couch, thinking she might as well read the biography, but finding that she didn’t have the energy to open it. Coming back with a smoothie, Ally processed Lucy’s condition, her free hand clenched into a fist like a child.
“My grandfather used to open his Bible randomly and put his finger on a verse,” she said. “That was pretty fun.”
A game. Ally loved games, and Lucy couldn’t bear to disappoint her. Gathering her resources, she opened the book and pointed at a paragraph about Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert.
“How she admired the elegant swan’s head at the tip of each skate. When he slipped down playing ice hockey she was amazed at the agility with which he sprang to his feet again.”
The book heavy on her lap, Lucy said, “I want swans’ heads on my skates. When I get some.”
“I kept an old pair,” Ally said. “We can go skating at Greenwood as soon as you’re feeling better.”
So the walk had been Ally’s idea. Of course.
A week before this, Lucy had been coming home on the streetcar and couldn’t stand up for her stop. They clanged past Queen and Carlaw with Lucy still struggling, growing more and more frantic the farther they rattled from her house.
She’d noticed a woman her age watching from across the aisle, a pretty woman with features as small as a child’s. Now the woman bent over her.
“Lucy, it’s Ally Boiko.”
So it was.
“I had my final radiation this afternoon,” Lucy said, “and I don’t have much left in me.”
Ally got a young man to help carry her out of the car. Lucy tried to pull herself together by thinking of a word for him. Finally she came up with strapping. The strapping young man set her on the sidewalk and the cab driver strapped her in beside Ally, who insisted on coming back to the house, having established that no one was waiting. When Lucy had split with Phil four years ago, she’d come up short in the division of friends, Phil having cornered the market on charm. After her diagnosis, Lucy’s remaining friends had disqualified themselves from helping by a) saying cancer was caused by stress, meaning it was her fault, b) telling her to think happy thoughts, proving they didn’t know her at all, or c) trying to make her eat kale.
Lucy wasn’t aware that Ally had left until she came back in the room.
“I talked to my husband,” she said. “We agree I should bunk here for a couple of days.”
“I’ll be okay,” Lucy said. “Pizza contains all the necessary food groups.”
Not that she wanted Ally to leave. Lucy had been proud of remaining roughly herself during the first radiation treatments. But now she had a blackened pothole in her breast that felt even worse than it looked. She didn’t know how she’d be able to cope without Ally, whom she hadn’t seen in more than twenty years.
They’d been divers, athletes, practising together intensively from the time they were eight years old. But Lucy had blown out her shoulder when she was sixteen and Ally had gone on to glory, Olympic medals, so good she was arguably a mutant. After retiring, Ally did TV commentary for a couple more Olympics, then Lucy lost track of her.
It turned out she’d been making documentaries. Also that she’d married a Paralympic athlete from the national sledge-hockey team, a former soldier whose legs had been blown off in Afghanistan. For the past four years, they’d been working on a major project, following eight former soldiers as they tried to integrate back into society. Ally said that in the U.S., they told veterans, “Thank you for your service,” then ignored them. In Canada, we just ignored them.
Lucy learned all this while slowly getting better, or at least feeling better. Increasingly bored, she questioned Ally about her life, rewarding each revelation with a quote from Queen Victoria, meanwhile failing to say anything about herself, being an essentially private person. (Maddening, according to Phil.)
When the queen was on a visit to Ireland, “‘a poor little dove’ carrying an olive branch was plumped in her lap.”
In Scotland, the queen “blithely smoked cigarettes on a picnic at Balmoral to keep the midges away,” leaving Lucy to picture Queen Victoria with a cigarette hanging off her lower lip like Humphrey Bogart.
Ally went home after sleeping on the couch for three nights; she and her husband had a condo in the Beach. But she still came over every day, bringing homemade granola, blending smoothies, cooking dinner. Lucy felt she was cheating on Ally when she started reading Queen Victoria at night, cracking the spine when she found an entertaining passage so the book would fall — quote, “randomly” — open at the right spot.
She also felt increasingly puzzled by Ally’s relentless presence, failing to understand her angle: whether she wanted to convert Lucy to her grandfather’s happenstance religion or, more likely, ask her to do an interview for a documentary she was planning about former athletes.
Lucy knew it was unworthy of her. Ally couldn’t have been more helpful or more discreet about helping. Yet finally she couldn’t stand it any longer.
“Ally, what are you doing here?” she asked.
Ally had just made another smoothie, and put it on the coffee table before nodding. She seemed to have expected the question, even though Lucy would have said she wasn’t very good at understanding people.
“The world is in such a mess,” she said, “and I want to help, and I never know where to start. So when a, a situation lands in front of me, I just try to do what I can.”
Lucy saw that this was the truth, and felt she had to respond in kind.
“Something I really liked,” she said, opening the biography. “It’s about General Gordon, who went to the Sudan on some absurd mission to save the British Empire, even though he knew he’d be killed.
“‘We are pianos,’ he wrote to his sister; ‘events play on us.’”
“Oh,” Ally said, deeply struck. She sat down beside Lucy. “We should quote that about our veterans.”
Nodding, feeling herself to be a kind of veteran, Lucy found tears spilling from her eyes and heard herself sobbing, weeping for the first time since her diagnosis, laying her head on Ally’s shoulder as her old friend put her arms around her and let her cry. Afterwards — after a very long time — Lucy drank the smoothie, suspecting it contained kale, but deciding that she didn’t mind.
"Growing Up in Toronto East" by Elizabeth Gillan Muir
It was in the summer that children had the most fun east of the Don, in bygone times. When the days grew long and the sun shone warm and bright, boys and girls could hardly wait for that last school bell. Toronto East was full of ravines and creeks and animal trails waiting to be explored. Those were the days when kids left the house after breakfast, and parents knew they’d be home just in time for dinner.
But it was the Don Valley in particular where kids used to spend most of their holiday, before the motorway and speeding cars made it inaccessible and sterile. Boys slid down the muddy banks and got covered in burrs. There were swimming holes where young men could swing, Tarzan-like, on branches and vines and plunge into the water in the nude — “bare-assed,” they called it. Afterwards, they’d make small fires with birchbark and cedar twigs and bury potatoes in the hot coals, and when the potatoes were cooked, wolf them down with boiled tea that was muddied with bark and ashes. There were picnics and corn roasts, and the girls roamed the valley looking for spring flowers and summer berries.
There were concerts in the Don Valley flats, too, and sometimes a travelling circus, although that entertainment cost money. In 1852, P.T. Barnum’s Grand Colossal Museum and Menagerie with ten elephants, six lions, one polar bear, a dwarf, and other attractions cost twenty-five cents each; a lot of money for the hard-working poor families who lived in the east end.
But, in those days, kids usually made their own fun. There were popular games such as crack-the-whip, horseshoes, hide-and-seek, tag, marbles, and kick-the-can. Or children might amuse themselves with a form of chicken, running in front of streetcars, making the driver slam on his brakes and shout and swear. “Duck-on-the-rock” was popular then, a game that seems to have gone out of style, a combination of tag and stone-throwing. Someone placed the “duck,” a large stone, on a larger rock. It was guarded by one of the players. If a boy threw a stone and missed the rock, he could be tagged and then had to become guard. Another game, “Buck Buck, How Many Fingers Up?” began with one player leaping on another’s back and ended with a chain of kids, two layers deep, shouting and screaming.
There was also high tag. If a boy — for it was always boys who played this risky game — were touched on the sidewalk on the Prince Edward Viaduct, he became “it,” but if he ran along the rail high over the Don Valley he was safe, at least from being tagged. There was no protective architectural veil then.
Sometimes, boys and girls got to go farther away from Toronto East. There were ferries that took families across the harbour to the sandy Toronto Islands where they could picnic and swim. If kids were lucky, their father would have a fishing rod and other gear and they could try their hand at catching the whitefish and salmon that earlier inhabited the lake. In the summer, streetcars were free for kids to ride farther east to Scarboro Beach Amusement Park where people could be swept down a water chute in a small flat boat and get thoroughly soaked as they splashed into a pond, not unlike the log ride at Centre Island today. Or they could take a streetcar to the Canadian National Exhibition at the end of August where they would fill a bag with all the free samples and brochures they could find, perhaps more interested in paper handouts than kids are today. Less often there might be an all-day trip on the lake by steamer to Niagara Falls.
There were always horses and carts to chase, such as the pedlars’ or the rag mens’, or Eaton’s delivery vans, or the ice carts in the summer that always spilled some cool shards when the men delivered blocks of ice to the various homes for their primitive refrigerators. In those days, practically everything was delivered door-to-door, such as milk, tea, vegetables, and bread. Sometimes the drivers would offer kids a ride.
In the fall, when the days were cooler and the nights longer, there were indoor parties with other games not often played today such as pin the tail on the donkey, musical chairs or blind man’s buff.
There were also the bowling alleys and movie theatres that filled kids’ holiday time. Frequently the ushers would sneak kids in the back door of theatres after the movie began if they knew the kids couldn’t pay. And the Broadview YMCA (near Broadview and Queen) was especially popular, although it was financially prohibitive for many to take part in the activities there. It even cost money to get a towel for after swimming, but often a boy brought the required ten cents to buy the towel and bought a hot dog instead, drying himself with his underwear. The Y had a large gym, a swimming pool, a billiard room, and a bowling alley, all with the purpose of “Building Better Boyhood.” There were also dances on Saturday nights in the gym, which the girls were allowed to attend, and often they met their life partner there.
Once in 1934, the Y held a centennial celebration where they offered prizes for every conceivable activity teenaged boys might undertake, such as Ping-Pong, typewriting, fencing, tap dancing, stamp collecting, horseshoe pitching, cornet solos, flower-collecting, woodworking, public speaking, penmanship, cycling, aviation, and tennis, suggesting the wide variety of hobbies and interests in which previous generations of young people were involved. Indeed, every fall, the Y brought all the boys together for an annual fall fair.
There were rowing heroes and cycling heroes in the east end, and boys aspired to be like them. But bicycles were expensive. In the early 1900s, a new bicycle might cost more than the monthly rent for a house in that area.
The wintertime was cold and snowy, sometimes so cold that kids were sent home from school, but they made the best of it with tobogganing and skating parties and hot chocolate and amateur hockey games. Some of the boys made bobsleds out of two sleighs and a board. Then they’d hose down the streetcar tracks on the hill and reach up to sixty miles an hour on these “iceys,” perhaps not as fast as at the Olympics, but scary and exciting just the same.
Yet, life for kids in Toronto East was not all fun. A young girl in a large, poor family often had to quit school the day she turned sixteen — even in the middle of the school year — to help support her younger siblings. Girls worked as nannies and cooks, or they took in washing and ironing. There were jobs at the dime stores, too. Although not common, it was not unheard of for girls to marry at age sixteen. Boys, of course, worked, too. They had paper routes, sometimes as young as five years of age, and helped out at brickyards or market gardens. And even if they were able to keep on studying at school, children had summertime jobs such as picking strawberries or other fruit, or crawling on their hands and knees, rooting out weeds in market gardens for a few cents a foot.
In books of memories, there is very little mention of school days, not even of the cases of Indigenous artifacts found locally and on display at Withrow Public School. But kids were imprinted with the stirring military music the teachers played on the piano to march the boys and girls into schools in the morning: “Marching Through Georgia” or “We’re the Men from Sussex” were two of the teachers’ favourites. And they remembered the smart uniforms of the cadet corps the boys wore during the days of the First World War when all the Toronto schools took part in an annual parade down University Avenue.
Life in the east end was both simple and hard, amusing and desperate. Perhaps kids had the best time of all.
Emerging Writer Category winners, East Toronto region
"D is for Despair" by Emily Gillespie
“What part of the city are you in again?” My agent Darrel asks when I pick up the phone.
“East York.” But not quite Scarborough, I want to add. He forgets that we have this conversation every time he calls. My fellow actors always question me about the area too.
“Where, exactly?” he asks.
“I’m a ten-minute walk or so from Woodbine Station, not far from the Beaches.”
“Yes, the Beaches. I love that area, some lovely restaurants along Queen.” He goes on to name some place that’s likely long closed.
“Do you like that area?” he asks. The thing is, I didn’t pick the area. I was, what’s the word, displaced here?
“It’s well, how do I …” I’m still trying to figure out what angle to pitch when my phone cuts out. I try to call him back, but my signal doesn’t always work.
I flop on my bed, sinking into the soft comforter. I get a text. “Background work, casting call tomorrow at 7:00 a.m.”
The call is for somewhere near Bathurst station, in the bright West End, with its crowded streets and enough coffee to wake the dead.
My life is starting to feel like this continual subway ride away as I clutch my TTC transfer. My passport. My bones ache thinking about the long commute, getting pushed as I go to another one-day gig that is of course not in my neighbourhood.
Name’s Shane, by the way, I might be a background actor, but you should at least know my name. Remember who I am yet? Pale girl, dark hair.
I’ve lived here, what, six years? I swear, I notice more details each time I go outside; places like this don’t reveal their secrets all at once. I live in a basement. There are three other units in this house, but I don’t know anyone. I hear every noise from the street, the couple who lives above me fighting, high heels on the thin floor. My place is a dump, black mold, second-hand furniture dragged in from the street, kind of a black hole that slowly threatens to become my coffin.
I moved here when I finished school, just for a while, I told myself, until I “made it.” But who am I kidding? I shouldn’t feel too bad, though. I’m living the dream, trying to make a pieced-together living in the arts industry, working part-time at a minimum wage job to fill the gap. I feel like I’m playing at being an adult, and when I give up I can go get an office job.
When I call my mom, she reminds me that all my friends from school are in the same position. “It’s not you, hun, it’s your generation” like the fact that we’re all in the same sinking ship is supposed to make it better.
Anyway, enough of my whining, I want to give you a tour of my neighbourhood. It’s not all bad. I live on a street with houses packed together, mainly family homes, with two kids and big dogs. Couples, who have decent jobs downtown, pay their mortgage on my street and walk their Labradors. Kids play in parks or in tiny backyards. There’s a ravine. Nice trails, people jogging, dogs roam. Just don’t go there after dark.
I hate the evenings in this area, the darkness is somehow different from downtown, a few shades blacker without all the stores and lights, pushing you further into the void. It’s not like up north where the stars can be guides.
The nicer cafés and little art shops are closed. The fruit markets, and convenience stores with handwritten signs in the window that advertise “we also do taxes!” are also closed for the night. I mean, the ones that haven’t gone bankrupt. Evening is when I notice the decrepit storefronts, dim streetlights. What happened, why’d they leave?
The coffee shop on the corner is also closed. It’s more like a community centre for the unemployed, ladies knitting as men do crosswords. The barrister knows better than to ask if they’re buying anything. But even their lights are flicked off, gone for the night.
Let me tell you about last week. I was walking back from the grocery store and it was only 11:00 p.m., but the Danforth was practically abandoned, only the occasional car . Well, not quite deserted. As usual, older men blocked the sidewalk outside dive bars and cafés that are probably some weird fronts, at the very least local’s-only type joints. They lingered with cigarettes and scooters outside bars that advertise, in uneven handwriting “clean neighbourhood pub, cold beer.” They watched as I walked past, as if it was their job to guard the sidewalks. “Hey, sweetheart, buy you a drink? Why you in such a hurry, baby?” they called.
Every time I go out at night it starts to feel like someone is following me. I stop to check my back, but all I ever see are shadows. The blur of the stoplight looks like someone changed the setting of my vision, and I can’t blink enough to focus. My doctor sometimes asks if I ever think I’m being followed, I say, “Yeah, but I am.”
At night the families and friendly storekeepers disappear, and it’s just me and these men, men with shadows on their faces so I can’t ever see them properly, spitting tobacco on the sidewalk, looking at the Danforth, as if they’re waiting for something, lost something. But the street is empty, and they’ve been waiting all day, all week, at least for a decade, and I still don’t know what they expect to see.
“Aren’t you cold? What are you waiting for?” I want to call. Even as they watch me glide by, I have a weird sense I’ve gained this almost invisibility.
The weekend I moved in, some kid was stabled, robberies, you name it. But this night is silent, police sirens don’t pierce through the stony air. All I hear is the murmur of men on the street, and my raspy throat struggling for breath beneath my scarf.
My grocery bag was heavy, started to slip from my shoulder, fell to the ground. I bent forward, trying to gather my bag of apples that spilled onto the sidewalk, when my other bag slipped. Then, there was an arm firmly around my elbow, pulling me into a doorway and I was yanked into a bar whose sign is flicked to off. The bells on the door swung, but I heard no sound.
“Come on sweetheart, it’s okay.” I smelled stale beer. Looked up, a man maybe fifty, gnarled, yellow, long hair, missing teeth, dark shadows around his eyes. I dug my nails into my palm, felt the flesh under my nails. My scream died in my throat. Shane, wake up.
It’s okay, though, don’t worry about me, I’m not even sure this happened, and I’ve been through worse. Besides, no one was around. It’s always just me. See why I didn’t know what to tell you when you asked about my area?
Do you ever have a feeling like, like you’ve been here before, like a second can last for only a flicker or move beyond some weird expanse of time, and if you somehow think the wrong thought you can get stuck in some other place, some void? Like the only way out is to confirm with a friend what happened, but you’re the only one around?
And the walk home lasted, oh God, it took forever. At least, I think I made it home. I’m waiting for something, but I don’t know what.
Later, in my apartment, with all the lights on, I felt the bruise of his hand on my arm. It was real, Shane, see your bloody lip, fingernail marks on your palm. But who knows. I’ve been told I have a creative mind that gets lost in dark places. And hey, I’m sitting in an empty apartment, trying to give you a map of my hood, my head; it’s not like there’s anyone to ask.
The lights needed to stay on all that night. Tried to look at myself in the mirror, but my eyes were dark, dark like his, and I couldn’t hold that gaze. Something about judging the living and dead.
So yeah, Darrel, you asked me about East York, but I don’t know what to tell you about this place, because I don’t know the difference between a place and a person. Maybe East York is like sinking into a weird dream, where only half the lights are on no matter what you do, and people watch you with a vacant expression, and you wonder if it’s all in your head, the crime and the old men, and the rundown bars, yet you somehow want to defend it, is it really better anywhere else? If these are the type of imaginary friends I have, well then, what’s it say about me? But don’t worry, there are nice people too.
I feel like this happened before. I wonder if you’d experience the same thing walking down this stretch of the Danforth. But you all live so far away, my friends. And I just need someone to tell me what’s happening.
"Louise Tomorrow" by Nicole Saltz
My hair is wet. It’s been raining all day. My bones feel chilled and fragile as glacier skin.
I want to tell you about the Broadview Hotel, the tasting menu, the kind waiter who used to work in Vegas and the drunk old woman dancing in front of the bar — but none of that matters right now, because I am empty exactly the way you expect that a whore would be empty.
There are easy transactions, and then there are the difficult ones. The easy ones are invisible as pathogens. The difficult ones leave something tangible for you, and for them. My thighs are burning and raked. Somewhere else in this city, a man’s fingernails are caked with my blood, which he may or may not notice when he’s brushing his teeth, or when he kneels by the bed to pray.
Long, hot showers help, but not tonight.
The dog is asleep. He is the only pure thing left of my life.
Yesterday, Marcel offered me a room in his apartment. Rent would be impossibly cheap. He smiled at me and said, “For you, only three hundred dollars a month.”
For you, the junkie who loves me, whom I have bought, whose throat I have held in my hand, whose heart I have crushed and crushed and crushed — for you, only three hundred dollars.
I want to accept, because I’m drowning in this city. The work is killing me — really killing me.
“It will give you time to write,” he told me.
If I lived in Marcel’s apartment, time wouldn’t be the problem. At least, time moving wouldn’t be the problem. Living at Marcel’s, surrounded by his things and his smells and his lovers, would be like dying at Pompeii. Within seconds, there’d be nothing left of me but ash.
I first laid eyes on Marcel when he was standing in our high school hallway, waiting to be castigated by the principal for acting out in French class. When I walked by, I heard Marcel informing a flustered secretary that he would be leaving school for the day. She tried to stop him, but he walked away, waving for me, a total stranger, to follow him as he exited the front doors. At that moment, it was like God woke up inside of me and beckoned. I knew then and there that I would love Marcel forever; that I would follow him anywhere. I knew that I would die for him, and that it would come to that.
A decade passed. Marcel and I grew up. We indulged each other’s young, romantic ideas about death and love. We took LSD and walked along the Bloor Street viaduct, long before they put up the nets that stopped jumpers and drunkards and stumbling children on clandestine walks.
When we were seventeen, Marcel’s best friend, Teddy, died of cancer. Marcel brought home his fentanyl and his morphine and his tramadol. We built a fire in the ravine that crept behind the Don Valley Parkway and Marcel filled two syringes. I looked into his face, which was soft and shattered in the flickering fire light. There wasn’t a single cell of me that was afraid.
It wasn’t that I wanted to start using needles, especially not needles delivering a dead boy’s drugs. It was that Marcel needed me, not only to witness his pain, but to have it inside of me, too. I rolled up my sleeve and Marcel spiked my arm, and then his own and God knows how long we lay by the fire that night.
Soon after, Marcel joined the army. He cut off his long, blond hair, and his wiry body transformed into a living fortress. It wasn’t long before they sent him to Kandahar. I wanted to beg him not to go, but nobody, least of all me, could ever beg Marcel for anything.
While he was away, Marcel and I wrote letters by mail. He signed his, “Yours, Marcel.” I would hold his words against my heart and imagine he really meant them. In the last letter he sent before he came home, Marcel wrote, “You’ll never know how much I treasure our friendship.” And then he returned, and both of us were changed forever.
I still think of the first time I saw Marcel in the high school hall; how he stood, young and defiant; how I shook, alight with the very first certainty of my life. It felt just like the moment a child learns — really learns — that they’re going to die. After that, they spend the rest of their lives shivering at the inevitable. So it has been for me and Marcel.
It’s almost Christmas, and I walk down the decorated Danforth thinking about John Carpenter’s The Thing. In it, nobody is sure exactly what’s got inside of them, or if it’s got inside of them at all. It is only in each hero’s final moments of earthly terror, when the alien symbiote is milliseconds away from bursting through their ribs, that they think, “my God, this is no longer my body!”
I admire the twinkling lights strung along storefronts and treetops as I walk past a man playing Bob Dylan on his electric guitar by the liquor store. The drunks hear it and gasp in the winter air, their breaths hot and heaving, but halting, just for a moment, at something so pure as a single note of music. I consider that the universe is limitless and a single note of music here might stop an asteroid somewhere deep out there.
I don’t like to cry in front of the dog, but I do it anyway.
Walking down Broadview Avenue with fresh dope in my blood. The dog moves at a clip and I keep up, feeling vital, feeling cheered on by the moon, which is so bright it almost looks like the sun. I wonder, if I were standing on the moon right now, what would scientists call this eclipse that’s come over me?
A man stands over Chester Hill Lookout, waving coloured lights in circles that frame the city skyline. I watch him for a moment until he tries to meet my gaze. The dog lunges forward, his teeth bared, ready to tear out the man’s throat just for looking at me. A swell of love for the dog overtakes me.
In John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982), once the symbiote is inside of a human, it’s game over. There’s no antidote. Dope is different. Dope is a game of master and servant. To use, you have to give your consent. There is an exit at all times. You don’t have to burn down Antarctica to get out.
Work tonight, but my head is burning with fever and every breath I take feels like encouragement for the nausea. The constant stops and starts of the 504 don’t help. I consider getting off at every stop, calling a cab and going home. My mind runs away with the alternate reality of it. The woman sitting next to me whispers “excuse me” so that she can get off. Why is she whispering? Why to me? I read too much gentleness into her probable laryngitis. It is that time of year.
We drive past banks and storefronts that look warm and inviting, full of Christmas trees and giant snowflakes of fairy lights. I am peering into a heaven I will never afford. I imagine what it would feel like to walk into any of these stores, and just buy something, just for the sake of its beauty. But then I remember, that’s what the clients do with me, and then I am glad to have nothing.
Standing in the scalding shower. It hurts, but I like the thought of burning their fingerprints off of me. I lean against the shower wall, watching droplets of water fall from my body. I imagine each one is a cell of my humanity descending, hitting the tile, running down the drain.
The dog watches me intently, his eyes full of the expectation that something good might happen because of me — dinner, a walk, a few tosses of his ball. For a moment, it makes me want to climb out of this mine. I think about who I could call; who could look all this in the eye. When I can’t come up with anyone, I think about what I would even say. Who could talk me out of myself? Who could stop this avalanche that’s been in motion for years? I throw the ball for the dog.
There are no more drugs in the house. I’ve taken them all. I make a few calls. I meet Jonathan, a baby-faced Mexican friend of a friend, at the bottom of a stairwell in Cabbagetown. He asks if I still want to meet up some time to help him practise his English. I say, “Yeah, sure, some time” and make my way home.
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 End Arts, and Scarborough Arts in making this contest and these original pieces possible.
Emily Gillespie has lived in East York for three years. In addition to being a writer, she works in the non-profit field and is particularly interested in mental health activism. Gillespie has a bachelor’s degree in Gender Equality and English and a master’s degree in Disability Studies.
Lesley Krueger is a novelist, short-story writer, and screenwriter who lives in east-end Toronto. Her latest novel is Mad Richard, published in 2017 by ECW Press. In 2016, she was one of the winners in both the Prism International Short Fiction contest and the Bridport Prize in the UK.
Elizabeth Gillan Muir has lived in Toronto East since 1994. Her son lives there, too, along with his three children. Elizabeth grew up in the Ottawa Valley, attended Queen’s, Harvard, and McGill Universities, earning a PhD from McGill. She has written several books, among them one on the history of Riverdale, Riverdale, East of the Don. She is presently the secretary of the Riverdale Historical Society. Now retired, she worked in education, both teaching and in administration.
Nicole Saltz is a South African–born writer who resides in Toronto with her Cayman-born dog. She studied screenwriting at York University, where she won the Stanley Fefferman Prize for Creative Writing. Nicole’s essays have appeared in Chatelaine and Good Housekeeping, and her poetry has been published by (parenthetical) Magazine and on the Puritan’s blog. Nicole is currently working on her first novel, Louise Tomorrow, as well as a collection of short stories.