RUNNER UP: Like Triumph

I was eating my dry Corn Flakes as Annie got ready for work. I think she said she loved me; she kissed the side of my head. Then she was calling out, Knock ’Em Dead.

Like Triumph” is an unspeakably sad portrait of descent, despair, and internal self-destruction. It does not ask pity for its protagonist, only portrays it with language that's remarkably intricate and expertly crafted, yet arrestingly simple, unfussy, and honest. What do you think is happening here?

—Casey Plett

I was eating my dry Corn Flakes as Annie got ready for work. I think she said she loved me; she kissed the side of my head. Then she was calling out, Knock ’Em Dead. Then she was gone and I was alone with the baby. We didn’t see each other much, at that time, me and Annie. There was her work, and when she got home from work she was all about Tassie and that made sense, and there was always the smell of kitty litter in the apartment. I heard myself say goodbye, but she was already gone. Already in my head I could see her at the bus stop, the wind fiddling in with her blondeygrey hair as she untangled her headphones. So I went to the sink to fill Tassie’s fat neon sippy cup, and I saw a see-through plastic sheet on the kitchen door: Annie must have taken my suit to the cleaners for my interview, and I said Woah, that’s an expense, to Tassie. Then Tassie was saying Ca, this was her word for cup. Then she was screaming it.

This was a few months ago. I hadn’t worked for a couple of years by this point and to be honest I was starting to wonder if I was really alive or not. Previously I’d done various kinds of communications projects, mostly around e-learning product breakthroughs, when my writing didn’t work out, and I thought my experience was okay, but the only interviews I got were when the job description was written about me exactly, Mark Ferguson: gluten-free, Habs fan. Does not own a Vespa. Likes to have his neck pecked. But then something always went wrong in the interviews. I’d lose the use of my tongue and lips, for example, I mean I’d find myself physically unable to speak, as if some other version of me only not in a suit was standing there behind me, above me, spooning sand into my mouth. Or the opposite: I’d find myself talking about Self-Regulation, but too much, not able to stop talking about Self-Regulation, even as I found myself walking backward like a black-clad modern dancer towards the elevators, smiling about Self-Regulation. I’d forget the basic tenets of my field; my own educational history, seemingly tailored to this moment, became a black hole to me. Or I’d just be thinking about Bella.

Annie said Don’t worry. She said it was the economy; she said it was demographics. But the interviews slowed, and then the interviews stopped. That was my life I saw when I went for a run, late at night: that train, stopped on the tracks, forgotten, lights on, emitting a high-pitched whirr through the windows.

We knew it was crazy to have Tassie, madness pure and simple. No one said it, but we knew. Their eyes said it. The faith Annie had in me! At first it made me glow: Something’s just around the corner! Then it scared me. It should have been her with Tassie, not me, and I walked around the apartment seeing dollar signs sprouting up out of Tassie’s onesies, her multicoloured plastic kitchen furniture, her many tiny shoes that Annie always seemed to be exchanging with other mothers for slightly larger ones, her diapers, as if you could hang her on the door by them. She called for me, she clung to my shoulders, that warmth! But I wanted to be on my phone, alone with my thoughts. But I didn’t want to be alone with my thoughts because they were bad, at this time. It’s not like in the movies where you put the baby down and read a book or screw your wife up against the banging bathroom door. When I had five minutes I thought about baking bread. I tried to improve myself, start running again.  Meanwhile my brother-in-law Roger bought a boat.

When you look at yourself, when you look at your life, do you see a pattern? Do you see a thread? I pick up these moments and I look at them now, but somehow, I can’t connect them, somehow, I can’t see them as relating to me. Like beads or marbles, there’s no necklace. My moments are not my moments. They rest on the night table by the call button that my nurses all ignore. Annie once said this way of thinking about things, it wouldn’t help me any. But it bedevils me. It keeps me up at night. More than the beeping does, more than the whirrs. It’s four in the morning and I’m thinking, Who am I? Who is this? Mark Ferguson. Is this just a way of thinking, really? Is it just habit?

At least it stops me dreaming.

We used to play pool on College street: one ball would hit another.

At this time, I wasn’t really sleeping. I never had that much sense of my own freedom, I suppose. The result was that I nearly died. I tried to kill myself; I got lucky. It could have been me lying shallow in the ground there, instead of telling you this. Six months in a hospital bed. Why’d they put a funeral home across the way from a hospital? Who does that? Do I need to apologize to you all? I’d need to get to know you first. Annie most of all. But yeah, it’s probably too late.

Four-five months ago, so a coupla months before the interview, that is before I shot myself in the head and blew out a good quarter of my pre-frontal cortex, I am told, my brother-in-law, Roger, took me camping with his friends. They all brought rifles in these immense, ornate cases like for pool cues, like for special chef-brand knives. They were all expert. For some reason I wasn’t expecting that, though I’d been told in the past that they liked to kill small animals in the woods. I guess I thought they were kidding about what camping was to them. But I wasn’t understanding things as well as I used to. Not hearing instructions clearly. You know. That and my incipient deafness. My dizzy spells.

Hey, it’s hard for me, too, Roger admitted.

He was a huge guy, I’d say three times my height, my weight I mean, ex-police, now he’s a big shot defence lawyer. I pretended like I didn’t know what he was talking about. A lot of the time, I just say nothing. I felt about an inch tall next to him, and I hated that. He’d learned a lot on the Force about Process, he said. What to do when things go wrong.

Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth, we said together.

Jinx, he said. You owe me a Coke.

This loud and sudden crack came from the fire. These other guys were all asleep, visions of heavily armed hookers dancing through their heads. They’d ragged Roger about Erica until his puffy white neck got red. Your wife’s so hot I have to wear sunglasses just to look at her. She rips the sky a new one. Your wife’s so hot I—

I been there. You know that, said Roger. I’ve had times in my life. We all have.

Suddenly I wanted to be back in the city.

Roger flicked his can of Old Milwaukee off into the woods manfully. It went miles into the black. Even here by the crackling fire, the sky was so thick with stars that it looked like the sea. Or was it the other way around?

Roger checked his phone, muttered something about a stupendous restaurant he’d finally got Erica a table at. Vaping in the woods he looked like something out of that show about the highly sexed dragons that everyone was talking about the whole damn time, that I’d never seen.

Sometimes you’re gonna want to pretend to be that guy, said Roger.

What guy? I asked him.

A man’s glory is to ride roughshod into his enemy’s lands, behead his enemy, enslave his enemy’s sons, and make wash-shirts out of his enemy’s wives and daughters, I thought.

Mark-o, he almost sang. You gotta let yourself be part of things. Take it easy on yourself. Why do you always push? You feel me?

I was back in that moment when they let me hold a rifle. I could have pointed it anywhere. It was lighter than I expected. It felt like triumph.

I’d had a fucking ball that day, I don’t mind telling you. They were good guys. Roger said it was nice to see me smiling.

Roger’s tiny lupine eyes were orange now. Around them, his stubbly jowls were huge and demonic in the pumpkin-shaded chiaroscuro. I thought he was going to tell me something very personal, so I got in there first and said it was simple: We all have this voice in our head, I said. There’s something wrong with mine. It’s angry with me. I don’t understand it any longer. It speaks to me in a language all its own.

I was lying, of course.

All you’re doing is telling yourself stories buddy, Roger said, after a pause. It was as if he knew, as if I was transparent. As if he could read my mind. He scratched at himself in the sleeping bag. You might as well make them good.

Sometimes I’m so confident. You’re all my ribbons. But sometimes I couldn’t even look you in the eye.

Through a big huge yawn he asked me what I thought about this investment opportunity, the land for sale on the drive up we’d seen, his rifle range idea. I said nothing. Some days it’s a victory to get my shoes on.

How’s our girl?, said Roger. I didn’t know which he meant.

Good I said. She just started on solids.

Then he was asleep.

I could have stayed out there forever, just the lickety flames and me. I could have walked into the forest and never come back.

He’d said he had an in at Callway. Guy on his hockey team. We’ll look after you, he’d said. Nothing bad ever really happens, was what he said. I know a guy, he said. We’re gonna make you whole again.

It seems to me possible that when people talk about heaven and hell and call them superstitions, they’re missing something obvious, which is the temporal dimension. It seems to me eminently possible, likely in fact, that our great era, with our ability to see via location tracking where in the grocery store our personal fucking grocery shopper Rahul is standing, is basically Marx’s hell. But that in turn the Dark Ages was the cold wet Hades of the Greeks; the solitary life of the salaryman is the hell of your social cave dweller. This life I’m living now, with my toddler and my recycling: to my 19-year-old poet bike-riding snooty self, it would be hell.

Shortly after or before Roger’s hunting trip I said to Annie these last two years have been just fucking horrible just entirely horrible just hell I’ve been falling down a mountain in burning hell for two years and I’m alone and I’m burning up. These interviews, I said. I don’t sleep.

She said nothing for a while.

Then she said, Not entirely horrible. I knew she was talking about Tassie.

The size of her eyes. Like saucers. My wife and my child! What was I doing to these people? I didn’t want Tassie to end up like me.

This needs to stop, I thought. I didn’t want to end up like my dad, reeling out my own madness. Who was I kidding? I missed Bella. I missed talking to her. She was the only one who really read my stuff, too, and I always listened to what she said because it was like she got me and now she’s gone. My sister on the boat. My sister in the water. Whereas Lara doesn’t give a shit about us; she never did. She was always on her own track.

Do you think there’s part of you that wants to make it worse, Annie said. Do you think that’s something you could try to change maybe? Sweetie?

I resolved to, that day, and it helped, for a while. I stopped drinking, I prayed, I started on the little pink pills, triangular. I did some woodworking, I did Tai Chi, I learned to cook, I meditated, I stopped complaining, I stayed in the moment, I read. If we’d had a piano I’d have learned to play it. I stayed off the porn.

It helped, for a while, but, you know, it was still me doing it.

What did I do next? On the day of my interview. What the fuck even happened? I put on a show for Tassie On Demand. Callway hadn’t called to cancel, that was something. Out of the smeary window it was contractors in white cargo vans, a hearse with its long tail of black town cars and little purple Funeral signs stuck into the hoods like birthday candles. Jogging moms pushing strollers tutting at the mail carrier’s truck parked halfway up on the sidewalk. You’re going to hurt some little kid! It’s the law! I guess to the rest of the world the day your life nearly ends is just another day. I saw the hypnotherapist cruising ever so gently up the street the wrong way in her cream-coloured Merc, and the moustachioed local painter who provided home painting solutions we couldn’t afford. The day’s recycling bins stood gaping like baby dinosaurs in the nest. It was high summer, but already golden leaves were falling, spiralling, all their little loves dying, and still the sun failed fully to pierce the branches of the chestnut tree, as, delicately, a red-tailed hawk spread his white underwings wide to come into landing on the rusty skewed spire of our church steeple. Twitching, he glanced over his great territory once more, and prepared to hunt again.

See? I fucking told you. Poetry.

An episode of Backyardigans lasts 24 minutes and 18 seconds, from character reintroduction to final handholdy goat song. I showered with the door open, under the broken light fixture, going over my Strengths (they’d said the interview would have various steps: after the usual sit-down, a practical element with a verbal-oral component). Then the bathroom went white, like the space behind my head, and when I came to I was in the foetal position, the water spraying my back. I almost killed myself sliding out of there, that would have been funny, and of course I wasn’t dressed or shaved yet and I called out coming sweetheart! She was still inert though, in her own world. And it was okay, I didn’t want to see my big head, older than it was supposed to be, my red eyes, anyway, so maybe it was better not to shave. I’m not going to show them I care. Annie had instituted a one-show limit for brain development, but I had to find a fucking tie, so I put on another show, thinking I’ll be able to do more for her brain development if I can afford to buy her some books, okay? I grew up in a house full of books. But the TV was always on in the corner, that was my mom, the corner of the kitchen, in front of the fine china, and I turned out okay. Tassie has the softest hair in the world, the sweetest smell. I’m going to do better, I promised.

Her mouth was moving funny. Or I’d had a stroke. No, I was fine. Out of the side of her mouth, Tassie said, Describe a client conflict you recently resolved. Where do you see yourself in five years?, she asked me. What makes you laugh? Do you believe in luck?

Kind of, I said. I guess. I thought about it.

Can you make me a list of your triumphs and disasters?

Sure just let me—

Make me a list of your triumphs and disasters.

I looked for them around the apartment. I needed a car to drive through the city to find them, but without a job I couldn’t afford a car. There’s really no way out. I was by the door, trying to kick the stroller open, still in my boxers. I really had to remember the wipes this time. Tassie was gnawing on her own fat arm, basting it in a layer of spit. Oh kid, I said. Then my phone rang and I didn’t recognize the number. Congratulations!, said a girl who sounded about 20 and kind of into me. You have been selected to win a free Taiwanese cruise! Stay on the line for more details. So I did.

I got a feeling, Annie said, before she left.

Stop twitching, Roger said, in the forest hide. It’s not a dance party.

I didn’t love anyone that much. People are a lot of work. My life at this time, it was all cortisol, all shoulders.

This is the problem. With Tassie it was a long walk from the bus stop. Their house was brighter, the lawn was perfect. A black balcony stuck out like a surveillance post. Orange trim brought the windows out garishly, Erica’s latest improvement. Sometimes a set of plates would suddenly appear in our apartment after she visited, a lime-green chest of drawers for the baby would be delivered as if by magic, fully assembled. Suddenly I felt exhausted.

Hey Ric, I said.

Hey Gorgeous, Erica said to Tassie, Hey Nibs! And then, Tyler’s in the playroom with Milinda. I’ll take her. Let me take her. And then, over her shoulder, You want something? Coffee is on.

Milinda’s voice soared along to us from some cavernous reach of the house and then closer and closer, like a siren. How did she move so fast? Could she float? I wondered silently if she had help; she might need divine intervention, with Tyler. She was standing in the doorway now, impassive, red-panted, red-lipsticked, the Queen of the Nannies. Once I walked into this hallway and she was doing CPR on one of Tyler’s stuffies, a pink dinosaur, and he was doing it alongside her on another (a Labrador pup.) They looked deranged and it was not a little disturbing. I was not a little disturbed.

Coffee is on? That didn’t sound like English somehow, that phrase.

We laughed at Tassie laugh at Milinda. She had instantly forgotten my existence.

Erica was speaking. What’s with your coat? It screams don’t hire me. I’m wearing a green trench coat from the ’70s. Meet me in a parking lot for tips on Watergate, but whatever you do, don’t hire me, I billow. Seriously Mark take one of Roger’s jackets. I got him some new finery at Harry Rosen’s for his birthday and he’s never going to wear it, he won’t know. Take it! It’s upstairs. It’s big around the shoulders, it’s fine, it’s better than that goddamn blanket you’re wearing to push your grocery cart along. Jesus Christ Mark do you want this job? Now tell me sit down are you all set? Are you focused? Are you centred. Sit, you can get it later, just tell me what you’re feeling now. Sit. Her voice was like caramel.

It’s an index perhaps of the confusion I was feeling at this time in my life that I sat, meekly, with Erica, whose roots were starting to show in a way that made her look even more like our impression of her at Roger’s stag party, a few years before all this, I think, when everyone dressed up like her, and Roger’s best buddy Astor duct-taped metal mixing bowls across the front of his fluorescent lemon gown and we did karaoke. Fuck, that was a night to forget, too.

At her kitchen island, the two of us at this silver island in a vast expanse of kitchen ocean, just across from each other, with all her Mexican suns on the wall watching me, some of them smiling, some of them scowling, like the masks of ancient dead comics and tragedians, her hand on my forearm now, her bracelets jingling, this is Annie’s older sister, they love each other, they talk in the evenings. She’d just come from her trainer. She knew way more than I wanted her to about my day, my plan, and she didn’t let me get a word in, she was all yoga pants and glossy orange lycra and exuding good things, good energy, the sweat she’s sweated out, the sweat that still dappled her lovely shoulders, I guess they used to call it vibes or chakras and your place in the energy circle and she was kidding around with me, too, she was super earnest and then she was kidding around with me (what is it with people and their ability to speak? I barely say anything, anymore. I keep my counsel), she was making cute faces, saying this coffee maker cost us a thousand dollars and I don’t know how the goddamn thing works! and talking to it like it was voice activated, and yet somehow I knew how human she was, how desperate, underneath it all, like all of us, how much fear she felt, like all of us, but then fuck, I watched her turn away from me like we were in a nightclub like when once in a while, two hundred million years ago, a girl would turn away from me only then to grind against me thinking maybe I had pills for her because of my reticulated way of dancing, it’s not that long ago we used to go dancing, the four of us, and she reached up to grab two tiny espresso cups the ones with the goat and a fawn on them they’d bought in Italy and I was like, fuck. I just wanted to grab her, all your laws and customs be damned. An incredibly rich smell was filling the room. It’s grinding, Erica said to me, and winked, and I wiped the fucking idiot grin off my face or I tried to. Could she read my thoughts? Was I actually made of glass? Somehow I felt like I’d been here before.

For some reason I really hoped Annie hadn’t told her what my little pink pills did to my ability to hold it for more than 30 seconds. It helped in its way because Annie was too tired most evenings for that kind of thing anyway. For some reason I remembered this one time, we were here, in this kitchen, I’d come in from the vast den where Roger and I were watching the Colts fuck the Ravens up the ass for the eighth time that season, it was like some kind of monstrous zoological sex crime, Roger said, Only in football shirts, I’d said. Tripping up those three little steps I thought of the stuffies one on top of the other. I came in to grab four more beers and Annie was here with Erica, Annie was in this seat, Annie had her head in her hands, she was staring down dead-eyed at her beautiful reflection in the marble countertop of the island and when I came in Erica folded her arms. These Mexican suns on every inch of wall space, staring down at me.

They talked. I know they talked.

For some reason I thought they were talking about what happened to Bella. But Annie talked to me about Erica, too. She was born with a scalpel, Annie told me. She’s an emotional vampire. She sucks in pain, but she can’t let herself feel it.

No, you know what it is, Annie says, correcting herself. She wants to help. Annie always sees the good in people. It’s her selflessness.

Now, these days I mean, my hospital days, let me tell you, Annie brings Tassie to see me, sometimes, but more often it’s Milinda who does that. You know Milinda she comes to see me every day. Tyler and Tassie do thumb wars as we talk about what Jesus might want from us. Doesn’t he know?, I ask her. Why doesn’t he tell us? She leans forward and clasps her heavily bejewelled knuckles together on the side of my bed and we pray, she leads us in prayer.

Every night, I dream I’m a monk.

Every night, I dream I’m a monster.

My Dear Great God, she says, Above us all.

The sparrows come and go, but she’s here every day. She tells me about Tuay Bareg, where she’s from. You’re funny, she says.

She’s good people. There’s goodness there. You could say it’s a fire hose, sure. But you could also say she’s taken me in hand.

I was thinking about you in India, Erica said.

How is Roger these days? I asked and made some questiony shooting sounds. What’s the big fella up to?

Fuck Roger, she joked. I told you India. I want to try something with you. Close your eyes. What do you see?

Her face now. Young, like an Annie who doesn’t have to work.


Think of India. What do you see.

Shit in the streets, I said. Dead babies everywhere.

Jesus Christ, Mark, I knew you wouldn’t take this seriously.

And then Oh I wanted to ask you. We’re going to Bermuda for Christmas. Can you take Tyler? She bangs the counter with the bracelets on her lower forearm like the suburban Wonder Woman she is. But I don’t give a rat’s ass, she says. I need to do something for me. Milinda’s going back to the Philippines: first it was her mother was sick, now it’s her father, if you can believe it. But we need the time. You know. Us. Sugar? she said, touching my forearm again. Her nails are white. Her fingers are tanned.

Two, I confessed.

I worried for Tassie for a second. Tyler was a beefy, threatening kid. His mouth looked like a sewer grate. And like we were in perfect synchrony Erica went to check on Milinda, and so I started going over my prep again and when she came back she asked me, What is that? Can you even read that?

Sometimes, I said.

It was my list of triumphs and disasters.

She looked genuinely concerned and about 50 years older.

I guess from her perspective the charts and crossings out might seem sophomoric I mean horoscopic, but I explained that I was just going over my plan for the day.

So what’s that she asked, pointing.

Wheelhubs, I said.


The wheelhubs on Tassie’s stroller are rusty. I need to fix them, but I don’t know how.

What the fuck is a wheelhub, Mark?

I forget things. Things I need to do. Squeaky taps. The light fixture in the bathroom.

For some reason even though I couldn’t think of the thousand other things on my list, I felt close to tears.

Hey, she said seriously. Hey. It’s okay. You got your resume together. You sent it in.

That was Roger, I said.

You’re trying, she said.


Not everyone tries, Mark. Some people lie on the couch all day like it’s all they can do. That’s a real thing. With Bella, that’s affected all of us. That changes things. But you’re going to look back on this time, I know it. Breathe now, breathe in, breathe with me. 

I was kind of glad I’d told her actually. It gave me a sense of release. We breathed together.

You have a daughter who loves you, she said. And a wife. These are good things. So what exactly is the problem?

Maybe it’s just a matter of timing, I said, calmer. I mean, Why don’t I get to go to Bermuda? It’s hot there, right?

The grass is always greener, Erica told me sagely. She paused and then she went on. We don’t talk, she said. He’s training for an Ironman now. They lift trees, he says. That’s where he is all weekend. Training. Why are we going to Bermuda? So I can see him. Because I don’t see anyone. Tyler’s a monster. Milinda looks down on me. There’s a lot of scorn there, you know? A lot of resentment; she was a nurse in her country. It’s just me here. Look at us, she said. Look at what life does to you. We were trying for a second. Another Tyler! But I’ve got past the point of thinking the answer to everything is in him, you know? His body. I’m well past the point. My friends, they all know.

I already knew all this from Annie.

So is it cool if I borrow that jacket?, I said. After a long moment she replied with, Go on up. Rockin’ the stubble, she went on, without looking at me.

You’re not hardcore unless you live hardcore, I sang back to her as I left the room.

Shoes off please, she told me.

They had an upstairs because they had a house. Annie said she didn’t want things like them, but I wondered. You’re funny, Erica said, that was in my head as I went up those three little steps to the landing. I heard my daughter yelp, and almost lost my footing. Perhaps it was some other child; one child is much like another. How does one person thrive and another fall into the murk? Tyler was already a brown belt. But we’re all people, aren’t we?

Now the carpet up here was light blue and made of hand-woven hamster hair imported from Persia, flown in by unicorns ridden by eunuchs and naturally phosphate free; it washed your socks as you walked upon it. My toes sank and then I floated up a foot above the ground, I bounced. Walking on the Moon, like The Police. 

I got the jacket from the closet and purely out of innocent curiosity I moseyed over to their bedroom to see where it all happened. Their playroom. There was a machine in there, I don’t know what to call it, with eerie little red buffing wheels and this bathroom the size of Brazil and no doubt cuffs and ropes in the closet here, chokers and gags hidden behind Roger’s many suits. There was an island in the closet, too. And the small red box about the size of a toaster, just where Roger had shown me, a couple of years ago, when it was just something to talk about, on the top shelf. He kept a neon-wrapped key on his keychain; the other was taped to the top of the inside of Erica’s bedside table drawer. In case of intruders, Roger said. Bad guys. He pointed at the side of his nose, his moustache. You have something like this for Annie, right? Sure, I said. I mean you’ve got to now, the way the world is, right?

The handle was black and the muzzle was silver tinged with blue, as if cut from Antarctic diamond. It was smaller than I remembered, like when you go back to your childhood room. And heavy in my hands, heavier than I expected, like triumph. The yellow chamois rag it was wrapped in was oily, but at the same time so incredibly soft. I wiped my hand off on one of his linen jackets. He knew how to fix a light fixture if it busted; he’d be fine. In a different portion of this lunchbox there was a cardboard box containing two cartridges.

Oh a lot of getting ready today, I said.

I didn’t want to be harmless anymore. I wanted to be harmful. I put the box away and the weapon in the jacket pocket and breathed in the cedar deeply and then came back into the bedroom. I left the jacket on the bed so as to take a final pre-interview watery dump in the dream palace.

I was wiping my hands on my beautiful dress pants and What are you doing?, Erica said.

I smiled to see her. I might ask you the same question came into my head. Dry mouthed, I said, I’m trying to relax.

She just stood there, so I unbuttoned the leftward inner button at my waist and pulled down my flies for her politely. I was wearing clean boxers for the interview. I’d put on some of Roger’s cologne.

Er, said Erica. What—

Here, I told her, with a little indicatory gesture, and I waited.

What the fuck are you doing Mark, said Erica gravely.

You want to … ?, I said, indicating. You’re here to … ? 

Her eyes were like plates.

It’ll just take a minute, I added. Less.

What do you think is happening here?, she said very carefully, hand nearly at her side, a little splayed out, holding her phone.

You can make me whole, I told her gently.

She burst out laughing, like she couldn’t hold it in anymore.

The room was shifting; it seemed I was stepping backward toward the ensuite.

Oh well, I thought. Okay. 

Oh sweetheart, she said, and I stopped. Oh, I’m sorry. You’re just not cut out for this, are you?

For what? I asked.

Was now the right moment to do up my pants?

She was laughing. One hand over her eyes.

Oh well, I thought. Okay.

This life, she said, still laughing, still grinning, with great sadness. People. You’re a funny guy, she said. She came closer, but she didn’t put her hand on my cheek, thank God. She pushed me back playfully; I felt her diamond ring digging into me hard, through my lapel.

These moments.

Hey, don’t worry: when I left I took his jacket with me. But I didn’t say goodbye to Tassie. My stomach was hurting.

On the bus I felt like I was forgetting something. It was her. 

These moments.

So I went to the interview.

Nailed it.

They loved Mark Ferguson, whoever the fuck that is.

There’s that old JLo video where she’s leaving the city, dumping jewellery, briefcase, walking down to the beach, pulling her clothes off, gradually removing from herself all the things on her that are not her, singing away the whole time like a schoolgirl. Now she’s like some sexy grandmother. Only for some reason it keeps going through my head. What happened next was kind of like that, only people were calling me the whole time. Annie, Roger, Erica, even Callway. Why was no one texting me now? When Annie called for the fourth time I answered.

How’s our girl? she said. How’d you leave her? Are you done yet?

I told her it was delayed, they were running over, and I asked if she’d put my shoes somewhere weird and she said by the door silly and then her voice inflected by concern she asked me what I was wearing. You’re not wearing your clown shoes are you sweetie? I didn’t tell her I was wearing Roger’s beautiful green hunting vest.

We need this Mark, she said. We really need this. Then, Roger’s calling me, she said. Oh, Erica’s calling me. I better check Tassie’s okay. Go get ’em, Tiger! She said. I can pick up Tassie after, she said. You left the stroller, right?

Ok, I said, to no one.

We used to laugh, she said one night. Long ago. You used to tickle my sides! I said. You told me I looked like a violin, she said. We used to laugh, long ago.

I tried to buy a bottle of lime-flavoured Gatorade, but my card was rejected.

Accept love, said Milinda, in her church. A choir of her, singing it out. All the nannies in red gowns. We didn’t have a nanny; I was our nanny.

Standing still, on the street now, I saw people with jobs. Men in light grey suits speeding to the elevator banks. Women in light grey skirts laughing with one another. Indistinct chatter, the subtitles would say. They went to the gym after a big win. They made out at the bar. When they saw something that they liked, they bought it. They were on a path. None of them had little backpacks, I noticed, so I took mine off, and left it by a curvaceous low cement wall.

I didn’t want to be walking any more and soon I found that I was running. When Roger called again I threw my phone into some handy bushes. I took my shirt off and left it on the ground behind me and I ran. It was hard in these shoes. I’d put the jacket back on though and the gun thunked up and down with each step like I was carrying a stegosaurus in there. I was sure it was going to go off and shoot me in the ass, but it didn’t, it didn’t, not yet anyway. But I ran.

I don’t know if I told you, when I was 18 I was offered a track scholarship in the States. I had the fourth-best under 18 time in Southern Ontario for the 1500m. That was me! It’s actually not that long ago. But I said no; I stayed with Annie. On and off. She was always there, in the background, my lodestar. But it’s always been a way for me to be myself. It’s always felt like that anyway. I had my running friends and my work friends and my Annie friends, back in the day. I ran.

Tassie was born. Again she came late into the world—two weeks! What was she doing all that time in the womb? What was she waiting for? A better option? I was at school again, I was crying. I wrote some stories, too. How did the animals do it, I wondered. I mean live. You never saw an insomniac dog, an insomniac fish. I could see my sisters. I could see my sister. I could see my dad. I checked my pockets for my list, but I’d discarded it somewhere. The sky above me looked strange now, like Erica’s face. Boy you fucked up big time now, said the cloudy sun out of the side of its mouth. I should at least have tried to kiss her. Perhaps she would have tried to kiss me back?

My t-shirt was drenched through. I sat on a bench to grab my breath. In the downtown park, near an artificial lake, there was a green hut down on the nearer bank and next to it a floating bright blue dock led out on to the water where ten or 20 midget orange rowboats were waiting, bobbing, tied to floating plastic planets. I’d brought Tassie here to see them, but the City had a wildcat strike and the boats were all taped off and she cried. I was happy then.

A dangerous-looking elderly couple were eyeing me so I leaned forward and looked between my knees. Everyone else in the world was at work. A train flashed away silently, and then another, like duelling swordfish. To the left was the lake and to the right an old train platform, the old industrial tracks that had been taken over by commuter rail. It was Tassie’s naptime. I hoped Tyler hadn’t bitten her again.

The thing in the sky, it was like a yellow ring around a heart of black, and at the same time as it was on top of the sun it was also opening up a hole within it, beneath it: under the blue of the sky, all is black, after all. Our bright blue sky is kind of an illusion: when there’s an eclipse, in the middle of the day, you see stars. The terror of this, the beauty. And how thin a veil it is, that keeps your life together, that makes it make sense—that obscures the truth of it?—and after all it’s just a story.

Peek-a-boo, I said.

They were freaking me out a little with their staring and their gestures, this antique version of me and Annie in love on our honeymoon outside Paris, Ontario, so I went away, I went further. I had to get undercover. There was an old wooden outbuilding on the other side of the fence; I poked through and made my way over to the train tracks that I loved. The metal-plastic caught on my jacket, tore a line, one of many, but who gave a rat’s ass really, not me. There was a big box store, two of them, over, across, but not here. Here I could sit, in between, on the tracks, amidst the drinks cartons and the serried leaves, my knees wide open now. If I fell back, if I hit my head. Sure there was a sound in the air, but that was beautiful, too. And when I think of what I could have been! And what I was. The books I’ve loved, how little help they were to me at this moment. And yet now they seem more real to me than my own life. But had I even read them? My movies, my shows, had I even watched them? I mean, did I attend? These marbles, these threads, they are mine and they are all I have. And they don’t seem good or bad now, they just seem like what they are. Somehow they’ve been given to me and I had to, if not look after them, at least study them, or preserve them, or react to them. It is my task to honour them. And to let them be, because if they aren’t good then they aren’t bad. My pile of stones. My hill of beans.

Be it ever so humble, Annie said to me, when we came back from her birthday dinner at Roger and Erica’s place. My god, she deserved better. When they redid the sidewalk outside our building we wrote our initials in the concrete, she leaned down onto one careful loving knee holding Tassie for our daughter to leave a handprint. What the fuck is wrong with me?

She says they weren’t calling because they were angry; they were calling because they were concerned.

You’re the donkey making your choice, like the philosophers say.

After all this, once I’m better, we’re going to have to move to Guelph. It’s the only way.

But sitting on the tracks by the park, I shot myself in the temple.

Milinda says that’s where you aim, if you want to live.

She is right.

About the author

Damian Tarnopolsky is a writer, editor, and teacher. His fiction has been nominated for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, the Amazon First Novel Award, and the Journey Prize, and his play “The Defence” won the Voaden Prize. He works at the Narrative-Based Medicine Lab in Toronto.