"Catechism" (Short Story)
The Walrus, July 2005
Why did he come to the city?
He was not yet ready to return to the one where his wife was waiting for him. He could never return to the one where he was born.
There was a snowstorm on Labour Day - the third of the 311 days that would comprise his stint as writer-in-residence at the Regina Public Library - which he hoped in vain the natives of Regina would assure him was anomalous or would seem even slightly disconcerted by.
Being a Newfoundlander, he thought of a familiar phrase that made him disinclined to even remark upon the occurrence of a snowstorm fifteen days before the end of summer: "People in glass houses should not throw stones."
His employers and the writers of the city were very helpful and welcoming when he arrived.
They found him an inexpensive basement apartment within walking distance of the library. They searched their attics and basements for pieces of furniture which they no longer used but which were still serviceable and saved him the bother and expense of buying his own.
One writer, whom he never saw again after their initial transaction, asked him, "Do you have your own brick or would you like me to get one for you?" To which he responded that he neither had a brick nor was able to think of why he might be thought to need one.
The writer came to his library office the next day bearing a red clay brick, assured him that, in ways that he did not have time to explain and which in any case a newcomer might not believe, it would prove useful, then left.
He took the brick home with him and put it in his closet.
Not until mid-winter did he discover its purpose. By then, the nights were so cold that not even by plugging one's car into a block heater could one ensure that it would start in the morning, a problem that was easily solved by keeping one's car running all night long by placing a brick on the gas pedal. On the coldest nights, the cars in the parking lot of his apartment building idled from eight at night to seven in the morning, row upon row of them with plumes of exhaust rising up like smoke from chimneys, engines running, windows opaque with frost.
But he decided that to keep his car running all night long, night after night, was, given the proximity of his workplace, more trouble than it was worth.
The sound of the idling cars just outside his basement apartment windows kept him awake at night, as did the exhaust fumes, which seeped into the building and made it, on the worst nights, all but impossible to breathe. By mid-winter, everything in the city, indoors and out, smelled of exhaust. A pall of blue-grey haze, such as he had once seen in Los Angeles, hung above the city.
Among the things with which the residents of the city diverted themselves throughout the long winters was a car called "Old Faithful," which was placed on the frozen lake near the university each January and left there until, with the melting of the ice in the spring or during an unexpected but not unheard-of winter thaw, it sank out of sight.
To raise money for some charity, people placed bets on when Old Faithful would sink through the ice.
For ten dollars he bought an entry form and guessed that Old Faithful would sink on March 17. On March 17 of that year, it was thirty-eight degrees below zero and the lake looked as if one could safely have driven across it a fleet of tractor-trailers.
Old Faithful sank not quite two months later, on May 11. It was not left at the bottom of the lake but was dragged from the lake by the chains, which, in January, had been fastened to its undercarriage. In this way, the number of cars in the lake did not increase by one each spring and it was possible to use Old Faithful over and over again. What were the city's most remarkable natural features?
An ash-coloured river, from which bubbles of sulphur erupted continuously, that wound its way through the neighbourhoods near the university and from which there came a stench that carried throughout the city - just such a stench as his high-school chemistry teacher had described as being like that of "last year's cabbage."
When hell freezes over it will look like that, he thought.
There was a kind of mud called "gumbo" that was so deep and volatile that it rendered pointless the laying of sidewalks in the outlying parts of the city, the parts where, not long after his arrival, he went for a walk and wound up with boots so encrusted that when he stood on the pavement to wipe them clean he found himself six inches taller than usual and his feet so gumbo-laden that he lurched along like Frankenstein's monster.
There was cold of a severity for which not even a childhood spent in Newfoundland was sufficient preparation. He was terrified by the early onset of this cold, by whose innocuousness the locals swore and attributed to its being "dry" and, which, by October, made it necessary for him to buy replacements for his winter clothes. He was terrified, too, by the wind chill, which was measured in "watts" and which, when it surpassed 2,000 watts, was, in spite of its "dryness," thought to be sufficient reason for warning people not to venture out of doors for more than thirty seconds at a time. Did the users of the library frequently consult with him in his capacity as writer-in-residence?
Throughout his ten-month tenure, he dealt with two people who wished him to help them with their writing.
There was a middle-aged woman who brought him what she described as "a children's novel, for preschoolers I think, whose main character is a little lamb named Flossie." It appeared to him, as he regarded the typescript, that it was about 150 pages long. He told her to leave it with him and to come back and see him in a week.
He began reading the book, which was called The Barnyard Adventures of Flossie McPhee. The first fifty pages were of the sort that the title led him to expect. Flossie began to grow up and made friends with other lambs. She drank milk from a bottle held by a succession of children who liked nothing better than to feed her and to pat her on the head. Flossie watched nervously while her mother was carefully shorn of wool by the kind farmer on whose land they grazed. Her mother smiled at her and told her that it didn't hurt a bit and that she needn't worry about what her first time would be like. At the bottom of page fifty appeared the following: "Flossie realized that her mother had been right. It hadn't hurt. Her wool was gone and if anything she felt better than before, not so warm but nice and cool even though it was nearly summer." He turned to page fifty-one, the first line of which read: "Flossie pecked at the ground with her beak."
At last, he thought, postmodernism has found the audience that it deserves.
He turned back to page fifty and then to page one to confirm that Flossie had begun the book as a lamb. He then returned to page fifty-one and continued reading."She still hadn't learned the knack of picking up those little seeds. She tried to peck the way her mother did but every time the seed fell to the ground before she could get it in her mouth."
The woman came back to see him at his office and said, "Well, what do you think?"
He had always had great reserves of politeness, consideration, and forbearance, which were fatally combined with a desire to be liked, and so he had never been able to dismiss someone out of hand or offend them even when he knew that it would have served their interests even more than his if they were to never meet again.
He knew it would be with this woman as it had been with many other such people in his past. For fear of offending them, but especially for fear of incurring their dislike, he would for so long indulge their ambitions that when to do so was no longer possible they would be far more disappointed than was necessary and would never guess that he had not only foreseen their disappointment but, for his own sake, had done nothing to prevent it.
Solicitously, congenially, by prefacing his comments with the caveat that he had never evaluated a children's book before, that she was doubtless better versed in certain aspects of the genre than he would ever be, that he had heard that the audience for children's books was ten times that of the audience for adult books, and so on, he commended the woman on her writing.
She was pleased but eager to hear in more detail what he thought of Barnyard.
He complimented her on having "hit just the right tone" and for not condescending to an audience so young that Barnyard would have to be read to them out loud.
Unavoidably, he eventually got round to the narrative twist by which, in his reading of Barnyard, he was so nonplussed.
"What did you have in mind?" he said, "when, between the bottom of page fifty and the top of page fifty-one, you transformed Flossie from a lamb into a chicken?"
The woman looked mystified, embarrassed. She reached across the desk and took the book from him as if she believed he must have missed something. She looked at the bottom of page fifty and the top of fifty-one and put her hand over her mouth, from which he concluded that the transformation of Flossie from a lamb into a chicken had been unintentional.
His second client?
A voice on the telephone that saddened him the first time he heard it. The voice of a woman who told him she could not come to see him as she had not left her house in seven years. She told him she had "twentieth-century disease," or tcd, whose cause was unknown but which so completely compromised the immune system that the patient was allergic to "almost everything."
"My house is vacuumed five times a day, every inch of it. The windows of the house are always closed. The only foods I can eat are boiled white rice and bananas. I have two children and a husband but they keep to their own side of the house because of my allergies. I have a special machine for reading because I am very allergic to ink of any kind. My husband puts the books I want to read, as well as the short stories I work on, under a kind of bell jar and there is a lever that I use to turn the pages. I read everything through glass. I dictate what I write to my husband. I lived in Toronto for ten years, near a chemical plant. I think that's what made me sick, but no one believes me."
Her short stories were delivered to him by her husband, who was a Pentecostal minister and wordlessly handed him a manila envelope each week.
He had lotion-slick black hair brushed back from his forehead. Skin as pale as if it were he who had not been outside in seven years. Thin-framed silver glasses. A slight, ascetic build.
They never spoke. As if in solidarity with his wife who consisted of nothing but a voice, he consisted of everything except a voice. Each week, the minister's eyes seemed to say that he disapproved of the writing of short stories and of the man whose job it was to speak by phone to his wife about them but that she had so little in her life that he would not begrudge her this one bit of contact with the world.
He wished he could work up the nerve to tell her: you are ill because you do not love your husband and he does not love you; he does not consider love to be necessary to a marriage and he disapproves of happiness, his own, yours, his children's; you know this but will not end your marriage because you are afraid that he would get custody of the children and that you would be allowed only very limited access to them, if any; you are justifiably afraid that if you do not see your children you will die.
They spoke about her stories, the invariable subject of which was her disease, the setting of which was her "side" of the house, her bedroom, and her bathroom. The only characters were her, her husband, and her children, though she gave them other names, and, in her husband's case, other physical characteristics.
Unable to resist playing the role of therapist, he asked her why her characters, including the one that she denied was based on her, seemed to have no past and to be unable to conceive of any future. But all she wanted to talk about was the stories. "I'm looking for technical improvements, that's all," she said. "I don't expect anyone to enjoy these stories. I don't expect anyone to publish them. But I want to get them right technically. I know that I'm so withdrawn from the world that I have nothing to write about except myself."
He guessed that the stories, which were really just one story, were more difficult for him to read than they would have been for others, more difficult because his and hers were similar predicaments, though he could not bear to dwell for long on this observation.
He didn't know if it was the stories or the toneless sound of her voice or the fact that his own existence had, because of his unhappiness, become so limited, so cloistered, that made him feel as though they were both suffocating as they spoke.
He decided that, no matter what he said and despite the fact that it was she who had sought out this contact with him, there was no point in his trying to prod her toward some kind of self-knowledge, that it was presumptuous of him to think he could help someone so inscrutably ill, about whom he knew next to nothing and had never met, and that it would therefore be less taxing for both of them if all they spoke about was "technical improvements."
He wished he knew what she looked like. He could think of no way of asking her for a photograph that would not give her and her husband the wrong idea. She had no idea what he looked like, and for the same reason that he could not ask for her photograph he could not offer her one of himself. What, while turning the Yellow Pages without purpose one winter night, did he conclude were more numerous in Regina than in any city he had ever lived in or visited?
On what he dearly hoped would prove to be the coldest night of the winter, while sitting at his kitchen table and leafing through the Yellow Pages because he could think of no more appealing way to pass the time, he noticed that two sorts of establishments were more numerous in Regina than any city of comparable size to which he had thus far travelled: adult-video stores and escort services.
Wearing so much clothing that perambulation of even so flat a city as Regina proved to be a challenge, his face covered with two scarves to protect him from frostbite and prevent him from being recognized, he concluded that the proliferation of adult-video stores in the city was at least equal to and perhaps greater than that of advertisements for same in the Yellow Pages.
He was unable to draw a similar conclusion regarding the proliferation in the city of escort services owing to the absence from the advertisements in the Yellow Pages of street addresses, the only means of contacting the escort services being the telephone numbers that accompanied the drawings of busty and curvaceous women.
Night after night he borrowed videos from the adult-video stores, always scarved but nevertheless feeling mortified and shameful, all the more so because of the unaffected nonchalance of the exclusively male clerks in the stores.
In his basement apartment, with all the lights turned off and the volume of his television set turned so low that he had to sit within inches of the screen to hear the sound, he watched the videos.
He had watched similar ones before but never ones so relentlessly explicit, so inclusive of all possible sexual positions and techniques, the effect of which on him was arousal that, after self-administration, always gave way to an oppressive guilt that dogged him night and day but in spite of which he was unable to resist further visits to adult-video stores, especially when he realized that because they were so numerous he would be able to frequent a different one each night for months and that therefore the clerks to whom the renting of adult videos seemed to be as reasonable and no more interesting an act than buying bread would never recognize him. Did he think often of the city in which he was born and in which he could no longer stand to live?
St. John's reminded him of things beyond recovery, beyond retrieval, of a promise and the breaking of that promise, and of a series of revelations that even now he thought could not be true yet knew they were, revelations that convinced him that not only was there such a thing as evil but that two people who were widely misperceived as being decent and respectable were living with untroubled consciences in spite of having freely chosen evil.
He thought about four daughters in St. John's who by those they trusted most had been destroyed. His wife, now waiting for him in Toronto, had been one of them.
As he sat alone in the library on that succession of afternoons, he thought of her, 1,500 miles away. And he thought of another woman twice that far away in St. John's.
He thought about the speculation of the woman from St. John's that, by her subtraction from it, his life would be improved, and about her further speculation that, by her subtraction from it, the world might be improved.
He remembered the faces of her two children. And he remembered her, a tall woman with shoulders slightly hunched, arms crossed as she looked out to sea on a sunny day from a hilltop where a hundred years before a church had stood.
On the nights he spent staring at his television set, he felt sorrow, lust, boredom, self-pity, guilt, nostalgia for a life unlived. Now and then a surge of what he thought might be despair. He pointlessly, over and over, reconsidered the choice that he had made, imagined how things would be, for him, for others, if he had chosen otherwise.
He drank and read and listened to music.
He did not even try to write.
Did there come a time when he availed himself of an escort service?
Yes, but only after having spent many consecutive nights dialing telephone number after telephone number and hanging up upon hearing, whispered in what he assumed were intended to be sultry, seductive, provocative tones, a non-committal, non-incriminating, informationless reply consisting of nothing but the word "hello."
One night he did not hang up when the voice said "hello."
He asked, "So how does this work?"
He was told that, assuming everything "to be in order," a "young lady" would be sent to his address, a masseuse whose hourly rate was fifty dollars, all charges for any "supplementary services" to be worked out between the "young lady and the customer."
He replied that he had only fifty-seven dollars.
The voice replied that she was certain he would find that fifty-seven dollars could still "buy a lot of things."
"OK," he said.
She asked him "what sort of young lady" he was interested in. He was unable to formulate even the semblance of an idea as to what she could possibly mean and therefore said nothing.
The voice informed him that he could normally have chosen from among "blonds, brunettes, redheads, and ravenheads," but that no blonds were currently available; that the "available" ranged in height from five feet two inches to five feet eleven inches.
Never having heard the noun "ravenhead" before, he chose a ravenhead and said that he would "like it if she was about five foot six."
After he furnished the voice with his address and phone number, he hung up and waited.
Standing at the window of his basement apartment, looking out at the frozen courtyard across which the ravenhead would have to make her way to reach the common hallway and the intercom, he waited ninety minutes until he saw her as she hurried down his walkway in a long fur or fur-like coat. She was, in spite of the voice that had indicated the unavailability of blonds, a blond, or at least appeared from that distance to be one, as she likewise appeared from that distance to be slightly over five feet tall despite the high heels on which she somehow managed to walk over months' worth of ice and snow.
When she rang the building's buzzer, he let her in and soon after heard her knock, twice, sternly, loudly, yet somehow discreetly.
He opened his apartment door. She stepped inside and told him to quickly close the door. She said: "Are you the sole tenant of this dwelling?" He replied that he was. "Is there anyone in this dwelling at the moment other than you?" He replied that there was not. "Are you expecting anyone?" When he shook his head, she told him to lock the door.
His first impression of her was that her first impression of him was unfavourable, that she knew that this was his first time, that she had hoped that he had lied about how much money he had, that she had seen many times before the sort of skewed and sheepish smile he imagined he was wearing.
"That's a hand job."
"For fifty-seven dollars?"
"You already owe me thirty, so it will only cost you twenty-seven."
He agreed. With hand out held she demanded that he pay her first.
They lay side by side on his bed. She removed her coat and all but one of her upper garments, a kind of camisole, one of the straps of which was frayed. He removed his jeans and underwear but not his shirt or sweater. "Too cold," he said.
She reached beneath his shirt, took him in her hand, and began a jigging motion such as he had seen ice fishermen make.
"Your hand is cold," he said.
"Relax," she said, then made his doing so impossible by adding, "you haven't got much time left on your clock." She continued jigging, looking around the unlit room as she did, sighing loudly.
"Can you take off the rest of your clothes?" he said.
"Not for fifty-seven dollars."
"I think if I could see your breasts - "
"Jesus," she said, and with crossed arms removed the camisole.
"Can I touch them?" he said.
She sighed. "Only with your hands. Try anything else and there'll be someone at your door within five minutes."
He took one of her purple nipples between his thumb and forefinger.
"Ow," she said.
"Sorry, I barely - "
"I'm nursing," she said. At first he thought she meant she was in nursing or perhaps already a nurse who needed extra money. "Nursing a baby."
"We're not getting anywhere here. You got five more minutes."
"Perhaps if we stood up," he said, "and you stood behind me?"
She sighed and shrugged.
They stood. He took off his shirt and sweater, thinking they might somehow be impedimental.
She took him in her hand again, her hand that was no longer cold, and resumed the jigging motion as he closed his eyes and tried to concentrate.
A few minutes passed. He felt her breath, warm, on his bare back and heard her sigh, about once every ten seconds it seemed. He felt her lean her forehead against his back. He pictured her standing behind him, her forehead against his back, her eyes closed.
"You can stop," he said.
"I think you were getting hard there for a while."
"I didn't really care if anything happened," he said.
"No, really," he said. "I'm a writer."
"So?" she said, looking at him as both of them put their clothes back on.
"No really, I'm a writer," he said. "I'll show you one of my books." He took a book from his top dresser drawer and handed it to her.
"You wrote this?" she said. "That's your name?"
He nodded. "And that's my picture, right there. See?"
"Yeah, that's you."
"All of this just now was - well, it wasn't really research, but I did want to find out what it was like. How it was all done, I mean, how it was all arranged. That kind of thing."
"You're not going to write about me?"
He shook his head.
"No. But you can have that book. I'll sign it for you." He took the book from her and found a pen atop his dresser. "What's your name?"
"Brandy," she said.
She smiled and shook her head.
For Brandy, he wrote. With best wishes. March 29, 1990, Regina.
She took the book from him.
As she was leaving, she paused in the open doorway and flipped slowly through the book.
She raised it, and, like a preacher exhorting a congregation with it, shook it several times.
"I'm going to read this," she said, as if she thought he doubted she could read.
She let the door close behind her. He thought of going to the window to watch her cross the courtyard in her spiked high heels but instead sat on the bed in the unlit room. What, years later, reflecting on the months he spent in the city, would he remember fondly?
The clattering of leaves along the street outside his window on gusty autumn afternoons.
The zodiacal light that because of the flatness of the prairie he could see on the horizon for hours after sunset.
The street people, mostly men, who on winter mornings came into the library to escape the cold and slept undisturbed in the chairs outside his door like the congregants of some exclusive club who had nodded off while chatting over brandy and cigars.
He would remember remembering Newfoundland and how he had lied that it was because he could not write there that he had left the place for good.
He would remember remembering the day he wrote to the woman in St. John's that she would never hear from him again.
He would remember remembering the moment, months before he wrote the letter, when she told him it was time for him to leave; he would remember the tears that when she blinked spilled onto her cheeks while the wind roared against the walls of her house in which they lay supine, apart, silent and immobile and faithless on her bed; he would remember wondering how she remembered him and how she would remember him twenty years from now and thinking that such sentimental speculation would soon give way to sorrow; he would remember remembering her face, the way she looked away at first when he caught her looking at him and then looked back at him and how it seemed the colour of her eyes and the timbre of her voice changed when she smiled.
When did he leave the city?
In June, by car, faintly surprised to have survived what he hoped would prove to be the worst year of his life, he left for Toronto.
He thought about the two women.
The one whom out of vanity he would never leave.
The one he had been too cowardly to love. Wayne Johnston is a Newfoundland-born writer. His next novel, Custodian of Paradise, will be published by Knopf Canada this fall.