15 March 2010

A City, Some Rain (and please vote for my book!)

My short-story collection Buying Cigarettes for the Dog (Freehand Books, 2009) is one of five finalists for the Alberta Readers' Choice Award. Now the public votes. Daily, even. Here's the link to vote.

Below is the second in a series of excerpts from the collection. "A City, Some Rain" was originally commissioned by ArtSpeak, a Vancouver art gallery that was looking for something text-driven to accompany their Toni Latour catalogue. Toni does a lot of performance stuff in which she imitates critters, so I thought I'd explore critterdom



At the bus stop, in the misty rain, early in the morning, a chill wind skidding along the sidewalk, a tussle broke out in the queue. Bob was fighting his way to the front, to the gaping door of the bus. Inside the bus, nearly spilling down the few steps towards the door, were more and more of the lumpy bipeds, some with large suitcases clutched in their right hands, hands that barely poked out of glistening plastic rain sleeves. “Let me to the front,” urged Bob. “I am the numbat, the banded anteater.” He pushed forward, but was shoved back, and curses rose from the small cluster of bipeds gathered round the open door of the bus. “For god’s sake,” cried Bob, “I have fifty-two teeth — no other land mammal has fifty-two teeth! I have a tooth for every card in the deck!” One of those queuing broke free from the mass and got a foot onto the first step in the bus. The cold rain began to pelt harder. Bob was certain he could hear each individual drop hit its target. “My ears are prominent!” he shouted. “I eat termites!” In the back of the bus, the silent back of the bus, oblivious to the commotion outside, another biped stood, making herself as thin as possible in the crush of her fellows, one hand gripping an overhead rail, the other holding a paperback book just inches from her gently quivering snout. In the book, the tip of a sword cut swiftly through the laces of a corset. Passion would ensue, as it always did. All was calm in the back of the bus, the rain streaming along the windows in soothing rivulets.


Sarah lay on her back in bed, listening to the rain pummel the skylight above her, watching the ectoplasmic shadows the rivulets threw onto the walls of her bedroom. Beside her lay another biped, unshaven and childless, mucus fluttering in his nostrils with every sleep-breath. Sarah rose towards the ceiling, into the darkness, and began to glide through the treetops, sniffing out the nests of birds. I am an egg-eating snake, she thought. I produce no venom. Each time she slithered to a nest held high in the branches, she swallowed the eggs whole. They passed through her mouth and were ruptured by a row of teeth that descended from the roof of her throat, and she swallowed the contents. As for the shells, she compacted these within, and launched the ivory balls out through her mouth. Good god, I’m efficient, she thought. I can only marvel at myself. She shifted, pulling the covers more tightly around her shoulders and off the hirsute figure that lay at her side. It felt like years since she had crawled into bed beside him, years since the glass had smashed against the wall in her living-room.


The water rushed along the gutter towards the drain, washing over Henry’s face. He was motionless, remorseful, lying in the street on his side. A tie was knotted loosely around his neck and his shirt was unbuttoned partway down his chest. He was only dimly aware that it was cold in the gutter, that his dark hair waved like seaweed in the flowing stream. His skull throbbed. Two passing bipeds stopped and knelt to lift Henry out of the water. “A remora,” one of them said. “His dorsal fin has become an enormous oval sucker. He’s travelled the warmest seas on the planet, fastened to the undersides of larger host fishes. He is kind, considerate, grateful. He doesn’t give his host any trouble, but occasionally disengages to eat other fish. This one’s big — they’re rarely longer than a metre.” Henry began to cough, and water dribbled from the corner of his mouth. Back at his house, Tammy sat shivering in the dark at the kitchen table, her eyes on the clock, a mug of cold coffee in her hand. She knew she shouldn’t have left the party early. The doorbell rang, and Henry’s gerbil ran faster on its little wheel.


It was so goddamn early in the morning, and Luc couldn’t remember if he’d just arrived at work or still hadn’t left from the night before. He sat at his desk, his sleeves rolled up, listening to the rain play on the window behind him. A phone rang on his desk. He looked at it, lifted the receiver, paused, then placed it back in its cradle. He peered across his office to the opposite wall, where years ago he’d hung a large acrylic painting of a startled bear in a dark forest. Luc longed to take shelter behind the painting, in the little crevice between the picture frame and the canvas. Or perhaps up there, by the ceiling, behind the curl of peeling wallpaper. He picked up a pen and slid a pad of sticky memo sheets towards him. I am a tiny black thrip, he printed carefully. I flutter my narrow fringed wings and suddenly I am in your hair, in your eyes. Winter approaches, and I shall hibernate in your house, in any available crevice. Luc leaned towards the potted plant on the far corner of his desk and sucked of its juice. A wrecking ball crashed through the window behind him, and Luc flew from his brown leather chair.


A colourful blur of bipeds pressed by in both directions, some holding soaked newspapers over their heads, others wielding umbrellas or tugging hoods low on their creased brows. Sheltered from the clamour, in the doorway of a boarded-up shop, Lisa stood with her eyes nearly closed, her hands hanging loosely at her sides. Her mottled, brownish-black coat glistened. “I’m not used to this,” she murmured. “I long again to scuttle through the hot desert, where chuckwallas belong.” She closed her eyes and became aware of her breath. “A plump lizard, I inflate my body with air and thus am wedged between these rocks. I cannot be dislodged. I cannot be dislodged.” A taxi skidded to a halt at the curb opposite her, and a face appeared at the back window, squinting through the pedestrian traffic. “Lisa? Is that you? The guy on TV said —” “I cannot be dislodged.” The rain fell harder now, splashing up from the sidewalk like fireworks, and Lisa felt safe, felt cleansed.

Copyright © 2009 by Stuart Ross


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