Read an Excerpt
“Distress Hotline. Carlos speaking.”
“Carlos? Phil here.”
“Phil! How’s it hanging?”
“How’s it hanging? Is that really an appropriate way to greet callers to a distress centre?”
“Phil, we’ve talked about this. You are not really in distress.”
“Says all of us. You’re depressed, you’ve got this self-destructive drinking thing going on, but you don’t pose any true threat to yourself or others.”
“I beg to differ. I pose a huge threat to others. Why, look at what I’ve already done to them! And I wasn’t even trying.”
“Phil, some of what you’re going through is just life, you know. I mean, I’ve gone through some of this stuff. My marriage fell apart . . .”
“Big time. Mirella just decided she was in love with somebody else. She decided at, I don’t know, eleven o’clock in the morning, she was out, she was fucking gone, before dinner.”
“Do you have kids?”
“A boy and a girl. Six and three. And now there is this really bitter custody battle, she keeps dragging up all this heroin stuff that is like years old.”
“Hmm. Heroin, you say?”
“I’ve been clean for twelve fucking years. She’s a ruthless bitch to even mention it. And it’s not like she was a fucking Girl Guide. I mean, there’s been some shit in her body, you can bet your ass on that.”
“And like this sexuality stuff. I mean, whose goddam business is that?”
“Whose sexuality are we discussing?”
“Mine. There has been a little confusion. A little ambivalence. But who among us is absolutely one hundred per cent hetero?”
“I see. So I take it she’s making a strong case for sole custody.”
“It breaks my fucking heart, Phil. Some days I don’t know how I’m going to go on.”
“Well, you know. Baby steps. Right? One little step after another little step, before you know it, you’ve covered vast distances.”
“Didn’t I say that to you?”
“And you were right.”
“I guess so. Look, Phil, sorry, sorry, I mean, you called me, we should talk about . . . so? What happened tonight that made you pick up the phone?”
“Well . . .”
“Aside from drinking four bottles of wine or whatever it was.”
“I just called to say, um, I won’t be calling any more. I mean, it’s been pleasant getting to know you all, but maybe it’s taken up a little bit too much of my time. And I need time, now, I need lots of it.”
“Because I’m working on a book.”
“Really? A book about what? Your career in television?”
“Well, I might mention that.”
“People find television very interesting.”
“I have noticed. But I think my book is going to be a bit more general.”
“Like about how you screwed around and did all these things which you think are so bad but really aren’t? Things that when you get right down to it are a little bit boring?”
“Yeah. And of course there’ll be quite a bit about my career in television.”
“What are you going to call this book?”
“Umm . . . The Ravine.”
“The Ravine? How come?”
“Because it seems to me, Carlos, that I went down into a ravine, and never really came back out.”
1 | The Ravine
When i was eleven, and jay was ten, we joined the wolf cubs.
I was actually too old to be a Cub–at eleven a lad should be a proper Boy Scout–but there is apparently a kind of apprenticeship that Lord Baden-Powell insisted be undertaken, symbolically represented by placing two little stars in your Cub beanie, which means you then have both eyes open. This has to do with the wolf imagery, you see, the baby cub growing until the birth-gook clears from his eyelids and they pop open with self-realization. I adored all that wolf stuff, I loved sitting around in a circle with the other boys and chanting–praying–to the plastic wolf’s head that our scoutmaster held mounted on a staff.
“Akeyyyy-la! We’ll do our best! Dib dib dib, dob dob dob!”
Jay and I still do this, after several too many at Birds of a Feather, the hateful bar at which my brother has been resident pianist for lo these many years. At least, we used to do this, but haven’t for months now, because Jay and I aren’t talking. He’s mad at me for screwing up my life. He should talk. But before this estrangement (and often) we used to stumble out onto the street and find a suitable object for our veneration–the moon, a comely hooker, a two-fingered man playing the ukulele–and we’d snap to attention and begin the Grand Howl.
“Akeyyyy-la! We’ll do our best! Dib dib dib, dob dob dob!”
Despite my enthusiasm for the Wolf Cubs, I never did get both eyes opened. I managed a solitary gold star and then quit the organization, or was forced out, I have forgotten exactly what happened. Anyway, one gets one’s eyes opened by achieving badges in various disciplines–arts and crafts, outdoorsmanship, map-reading–but I was a failure at all these things. The only thing I was ever any good at was knot-tying. For some reason, I was a whiz at tying knots, despite chubby little fingers and spectacularly bad eyesight. (I’m legally blind in my left eye, and my right is only marginally better.) But when the scoutmaster handed me lengths of rope, these handicaps faded away; indeed, they may have been a benefit, my sense receptors overcompensating for the little cocktail sausages that housed them, some inner sense making crystal clear what my eyes rendered indistinct. The scoutmaster always called upon me to demonstrate new knots. I would hold two lengths in front of me, one white, the other darkened (still far away from the pitch-black second strand featured in the manual), and announce the knot–“Garrick’s Bend”–before grabbing a standing end and setting things into motion.
Setting out on this novelizing journey, I have some doubts about my visual memory. I read an interview with Alice Munro once (despite my low standing as a television writer, I maintain an interest in such things), who said that when she was shown a black-and-white photograph of her grade two (or something) class, she could recall the colour of everyone’s blouse, sweater, skirt. Shown a picture of my grade two class, I would be challenged to pick out myself, were it not for the huge clue of my spectacles. However, I can conjure in my mind the sight of Jay in his Wolf Cub uniform. Clothes have always been ill-fitting on Jay, none more so than those huge shorts and green shirt. His legs and arms stuck out like pins in a voodoo doll. Jay was always a small fellow, undernourished–if you saw the two of us together, as children, you might conclude that I had been stealing the food from his plate. (Which may have been true, now that I think of it. He never cared all that much for food.) He was and is a small fellow, except for his hands (which aided in his career as concert, and subsequently cheesy, pianist) and his head (which has since birth seemed too great a weight for him to bear).
There was another Cub, named Norman Kitchen, who desperately wanted to befriend me. I don’t know why, exactly. He attended another school in the district, but even so, I can’t believe he was unaware of my ranker status. After all, he’d seen me several times at the Galaxy Odeon in the company of my brother and Rainie van der Glick. Kitchen was a plump lad, with blond hair that was obviously his mother’s pride and joy, as I can’t believe either nature or a ten-year-old boy could come up with such an elaborate display of curls. Norman Kitchen had dark, hooded eyes and a nose that seemed to have been carved for a marionette. His lips were thick, and pursed much of the time, as though he lived in constant expectation of having to buss a dowager aunt on the cheek. Norman was quiet, although when he did speak, he spoke very loudly. He tended to draw too near to people, as if wishing to speak conspiratorially, and then open his mouth and blast away. This is an irritating habit, so I rejected his friendship, although I think in retrospect that I spurned Norman Kitchen only to exact a tiny amount of revenge for the way I was treated by most people.
Wolf Cub meetings were held twice a week, Wednesday nights and Sunday afternoons. They were held at the Valleyway United Church, which lay across the field from the back of our house, a couple of hundred yards away from the school. The church, I mean the building itself, exerted a strange influence upon me. I never went there to take part in services, because my mother was not a religious soul. I had never been inside the church until I went for Wolf Cubs, but as soon as I entered I felt a strange familiarity creep over me, as though I’d returned to a place that I’d missed very much. At the end of the lobby was a huge stained-glass window, Jesus standing with his hands spread before him, as though he were saying, “The fish was yay big, swear to Dad.” I liked to arrive at the church early, and mill around the lobby, absorbing salvation. But my brother would grow impatient; he’d tug my sleeve and we’d descend into the basement. We’d join a circle of boys and chant, “Akeyyyy-la! We’ll do our best! Dib dib dib, dob dob dob!”
One Sunday afternoon Jay and I cycled over to the church, even though in order to do so it was necessary to follow the streets (Langstaff to Juniper Way up to Dunedin and across) and it would have been much quicker to just walk across the field. But it was a glorious late spring/early summer day, so Jay and I jumped on our bikes and pedalled over. By coincidence, Norman Kitchen had done the same thing, so after the Cub meeting the three of us met up by the bike stand. Kitchen hollered at me, “Hey, Phil! Let’s do something!”
“Jay and I are going for an adventure,” I said. I was fascinated by the concept of having an adventure, which was what all the boys on television had. They had adventures effortlessly, all they had to do was walk outside, but I understood that this was make-believe, and that if I wanted to have an adventure I was probably going to have to bike somewhere. “You can’t come.”
“Why not?” demanded Norman at a pitch. “I could be your sidekick!”
“Jay is my sidekick.”
“I’m not your sidekick,” muttered Jay, who had busied himself with some bicycle maintenance, namely, readjusting the clothes pegs that held the trading cards that were purred by the spokes. “I’m your brother.”
One of the reasons Jay had busied himself was to get distance from me and my nastiness to Norman, so I drew a breath and reconsidered. “Tell you what, Kitchen. You can’t be the sidekick. But you could be the fat guy who drinks too much and does the cooking and gets killed.”
“Okay!” he agreed.
I pulled my bike out of the rack and leapt into the saddle. “Let’s ride!”
The area where I grew up is now simply part of Toronto, but when I was a boy it was a separate entity. It lay a few miles to the north of the downtown core and was separated by wide tracts of undeveloped land. Don Mills (Canada’s First Planned Community!) and the city were connected by the Don River, which once teemed with salmon, although nowadays a fish would have a better chance of survival in a cheap motel. Anyway, as you all remember from your Earth sciences, rivers form valleys over vast stretches of time, even a sluggish thing like the Don. The Don Valley was, in sections, parkland, where the woods were tamed and beautified, and walkways ran between beds of cultivated flowers. But there were other areas that were just left alone. The pathway would stop abruptly, and the forest would loom dark and dense.
This was my best shot at adventure, I figured, so I led Jay and Kitchen down into the valley, and we cycled with gleeful fury through the manicured woodlands. And then the path stopped, abruptly, and we leapt off our bicycles and stared ahead to where a forested slope descended to the river. I could spot another body of water, too, small and round. Part of the river had been diverted and formed a stagnant pond. And although no boy on television had ever encountered adventure at a stagnant pond, I said, “We’re going down there.”
“I don’t want to,” said Jay.
“I know you don’t want to. But you have to. Besides,” I said, “it’ll be fun!”
The pond had been created by chance, the edge of the river running into a berm, water sloughing off into a depression, a small regular bowl. I’m guessing out in the middle it would have been perhaps three or four feet deep. Around the edges it was only a few inches, and it was easy enough for us to remove our shoes and socks and (seeing as we were already wearing our Cub shorts) go wading into the muck.
“Why are we doing this?” demanded Kitchen, who soon had a leech on his shin. I judged that the kind of thing he’d rather not know.
“We’re looking for stuff,” I told him.
“The tadpoles are turning into frogs. They look really weird. They got tails but they’re growing legs. They’re like little monsters.”
“So, Kitchen . . . whoever finds the weirdest one wins.”
“I don’t know. They get to keep the little monster tadpole, I guess.”
“I win,” announced Jay quietly. The sleeve of his Cub shirt was wet with muck up past the elbow and he had his huge hand wrapped around something; he held it up to his eye and peered into the hole made by his thumb and fingers.
Kitchen and I slopped over. “Let’s see.” Jay brought up his other hand, cupped the two together and then fanned them apart slightly so that we could see the creature caught in the fold. It was not quite frog, and therefore horrible looking, saddled with a long tail that was spotted and decaying. This thing also had a huge bump on its head, a cancerous growth or something.
We stared at this rara avis for a long moment, and then we heard a voice. “Hey, kid. What’ve you got there?”
Two boys stood by the side of the stagnant pond. Both were tall, sprouted violently by adolescence. Although they shared certain clothing and characteristics–jean jackets, jeans, black running shoes, height and build–they were very dissimilar. One was fair–actually, fair is putting it mildly, he approached albinism. The kid didn’t have pink eyes or anything, but the blue of his irises was so light that it was virtually invisible. These eyes, these white eyes, the boy kept popped open in apparent surprise, although one would think that the sunlight would rush right through and sear his brain. So he gave the impression of blindness, although it was this boy who had demanded, “Hey, kid. What’ve you got there?” His hair retained a dazzling whiteness even after maybe half a tube of Brylcreem, and about half a tube is what it would require to create the particular creation he wore. The sides were combed up and the hair met in the middle, actually high above the middle, of the boy’s head. Some of this wave rushed back to form an intricate design, what was commonly called a duck’s ass, while the rest of the wave pushed forward with increasing volume until it exploded in front of his forehead, by which point it had achieved the firm roundness of a breast or buttock.