Despair: And Other Stories of Ottawa

Despair: And Other Stories of Ottawa

by André Alexis


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These eight stories reveal a world that’s both recognizable and strange: cities of anxiety and violence, where quiet inhabitants lead outwardly banal lives that conceal sinister interiors. The premises, both fantastic and surreal, are also eerily plausible; they often follow the logic of dreams where the real can appear in disguise. Though geographically rooted, the setting – from Ottawa to Toronto and the South of France – take on an ephemeral dimension: the geography is of the subconscious.

With his darkly philosophical bent and sly humour, Alexis has fashioned an underworld and limned it with light. Despair quakes with life and sings with the imaginative brilliance of one of the most accomplished new talents writing today.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780771006661
Publisher: McClelland & Stewart
Publication date: 09/12/1998
Pages: 232
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

André Alexis was born in Trinidad in 1957 and grew up in Canada. His debut novel, Childhood (1998), won the Chapters/Books in Canada First Novel Award, shared the Trillium Award, and was shortlisted for the Giller Prize and the Rogers Communications Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize. It has been published around the world. He is also the author of an internationally acclaimed collection of short stories, Despair and Other Stories of Ottawa (1994), which was shortlisted for a Regional Commonwealth Prize, and he has published a play, Lambton Kent (1999).

André Alexis lives in Toronto, where he is at work on his next novel.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


It had been a beautiful wedding.

    Even Michael's father had managed a smile. He had risen and fallen with everyone else as they rose and fell in prayer. Father Albert hadn't gone on too long: a few words about connubial bliss, a prayer to the God of light, and a passage from the Song of Solomon. Michael's mother had cried quietly, then the bells had pealed, the new order was heralded, and sin was banished to those unfortunate beds that were neither bridal nor conjugal.

    Inside, the church was quiet. Light pierced the stained-glass windows, touching the outermost pews, leaving the congregation in shadow. The stillness smelled of incense and talcum powder, wood and rose water. The statue of the Virgin, her bare foot on the serpent's head, was graceful in its alcove.

    Outside, the sun was bright. The church steps had been swept, the black railings polished, and the rectangles of lawn cut.

    But for the cars and trucks that rumbled by, the scene was idyllic.

    Now the question was: who would go with whom to the Botanical Gardens?

    A few of the guests had no idea where the gardens were. Others hadn't the means to get there. So it was some time before directions were given and transportation arranged. The wedding ended at noon, but it was two o'clock before everyone scattered.

    And again an hour before the reception began.

For Michael, age fifteen, it was the same mysterious thing as every gathering: all ofthese people, family or friends of family, whom you rarely saw. Better they had been total strangers. That way, there would be no taps on the head, no big kisses, no tearful "Remember me?"s. (Those were the worst. You looked into tired old faces, into the eyes of men and women who had cleaned your shit-stained bum or suffered you to vomit on their shoulders. Of course they remembered you, but why should you remember them?)

    The reception hall was an immense rectangle. Twenty long tables were strategically placed to allow for a stage and, between the stage and the guests, a dance floor.

    Michael sat beside his mother at a table near the center of the hall. The food was Trinidadian, or most of it was. They began with a hot fish soup, and then there was chicken roti, pelau, crab and callaloo, sugar cake, and sweet bread. It was all very good, but it was gone as quickly as it had come.

    The meal was over in minutes, and before it could be digested the groom's brother climbed on stage and told off-color jokes, which he read surreptitiously from small white cue cards.

    That went on forever. Michael counted ten cue cards before he lost track, and when the jokes were over there were speeches: speeches from the father of the bride and the mother of the bride, the sister of the groom and the mother of the groom, a friend of the groom and a friend of the bride, an honored guest from Curepe, and then, finally, a tired old man from Belmont who forgot what it was he had come to say. It was six o'clock before the music started and they were free to move.

When the dancing began, Michael got up and wandered. He went from table to table, stopping here to sit with his uncle Horace, or there to talk to an adult who called him over:

    —You look so much like your father, they said. (or)

    —You look so much like your mother!

    And then they let him go. (Like a fish.)

    It was as he moved away from a group of reminiscing relations that Michael noticed a young man sitting alone at a table. He was thin, and his skin was a peculiar color: brown beneath a translucent layer of gray, the color of long illness or long convalescence. The man coughed, looked up at Michael, turned away.

    The music was loud. Sparrow sang:

    —One a de women started to beg. He bite she on she chest. He bite she on she leg ...

    And everyone sang along:

    —I envy de Congo man ...

    It was a song Michael couldn't understand. He began to feel uncomfortable in the midst of so many people. So he went out through the kitchen.

    Outside, the sun was setting. The midges had already begun to pester the outdoor lights, and the moon was up in the evening sky. There was a cool breeze, and the earth smelled damp. (At that moment Michael felt, from the bottom of his fifteen years, that this sky, the way the world felt this evening, this was his fate: to be outside and alone, unable to say "I'm outside and alone" but able to bear it, because it was his fate.) A voice beside him said:

    —The thing I'll miss, it's the sky. The sky, then the sun. I'll miss the earth, the way it looks now, but mostly the sky ... and the river ...

    It was the thin young man. He was even more emaciated, like a flattened straw, in this light. There was only his gray suit to give him bulk.

    —I'm sorry ..., he said. My name's Winston Grant.

    Without thinking, Michael asked:

    —Are you ill?

    —No, Winston answered. I'm dying.

    And he looked up at the night sky.

    What does he mean? Michael thought as he watched Winston try to light a cigarette. The man's hands shook like twigs.

    —I must look awful, Winston said.

    But he wasn't upset.


It was complicated.

    First, he wasn't as old as he looked. He was twenty-one. (At twenty he'd been in good health and his breath hadn't been quite so bad.) His decline began with an ad in the Citizen:

Wanted: Man about the house for elderly woman. Room and board. Generous wages. Trinidadian preferred. Call (613) 588-6180.

    It was meant for him. He'd been looking for work since leaving his parents' home. He was a diligent worker. He enjoyed the company of the elderly, and although he'd lived most of his life in Canada, he was Trinidadian by birth.

    And he was perfect. The elderly woman, Mrs. Fernandez by name, hired him on the spot, without an elaborate interview and with few questions about his origin. In fact, after pinching both his arms above the elbow and both his legs above the knees (to make certain they weren't wooden), her only personal question had been:

    —Are you a light sleeper?

    —Not really, Winston answered.

    —Good, she said. I have mice in the walls.

    The mice weren't the only trouble with the house. It was a slightly run-down, two-story building of brick and wood in Sandy Hill, not much worse than the places around it but still remarkable. The gardens in front and back were unkempt. The porch needed painting. The windows were ancient and their panes were lumpy.

    Inside there was the same sort of disrepair, but to somewhat different effect. White candles were left on tables and ledges. The wooden floors were covered with bright, handmade rugs into which were woven eccentric designs. The walls downstairs were spotless, but on the second floor they were dirty and, in the rooms he was shown, brightly colored images had been painted on them.

    The house was disheveled but comfortable.

    Winston's room was a large rectangle in which there was a bed, a night table, and a chair. On the table were a ewer and a bowl, and a young woman without eyes (or, more precisely, without irises) was painted on the wall.

    —This is your room, said Mrs. Fernandez. Mines is quite over there at the other end of the house. I like to go to sleep at nine o'clock, so try to be restful ...

    She touched the painting on the wall.

    — I must finish this one, she said.

It was Winston's duty to take care of the house. This meant cutting the lawn, painting the front porch and the wooden trim, cleaning the eaves, washing the windows, repairing the roof, and pulling weeds from the garden. He was also expected to work inside, to sweep the floors, help Mrs. Fernandez with the walls, and put the basement in order. (The basement was a calling of its own: a dark, low-ceilinged set of rooms into which Winston went with trepidation. Hundreds of glass jars filled with jellies and liquids had been left about, and the dirt was a second skin on the walls.)

    Needless to say, there was little time for anything but work.

    Winston spent his first week cutting the lawn and painting the house. He met Mrs. Munro, one of the next-door neighbors, and learned to avoid her. She was an elderly, red-haired woman, loquacious to a fault, who called him over whenever she caught his attention, to show off photographs of her blond and freckled grandchildren. She would then go on and on about anything at all: her late husband, the state of her lawn, the way her windows let the sunlight in ...

    —You know, Winston, these mosquitoes are biting the hell out of me, like it was something personal ... I can't sleep for slapping ... slapping ...

    And so on, until it got dark or until you moved out of the range of her voice. (Mrs. Fernandez never spoke to Mrs. Munro and warned Winston about her:

    —Keep your head down when you see she coming, she said.)

    In the evening he would stay indoors and help Mrs. Fernandez wash the dishes or clean the walls, sweep the floors or move the furniture about. In this way, he came to know her well.

    She was terrified of salt and swore she could smell it on his breath whenever he ate elsewhere. She had a thing about the walls downstairs. She kept them clean as a whistle.

    While doing the walls, she liked to have passages read to her from the Bible, the only book that held her interest.

    She wore the same clothes day in and day out: pink slippers, thick nylon stockings (for her varicose veins), a blue summer dress, and a white scarf to keep her white hair in place.

    After a while, it was clear they would get along. Even though Mrs. Fernandez worked him like a dog, Winston felt at home. She cooked his meals and watched him eat. ("You don't mind about the salt, eh, Winston? It isn't good for you.") She was kind. She coaxed him into conversation (and so discovered, after all, that his parents lived in Blossom Park, that although he was of Trinidadian origin he was Canadian as could be). It was as though he'd been adopted.

    The only company she received came, without fail, on Sunday mornings before mass. Older men and women brought her presents: clothes, which she used to clean the walls; food, which she watched Winston eat; and bottles of a liquid, which she kept in the basement.

    The guests came in groups of four or five, and they invariably treated Winston with respect. They bowed or kissed his hands or put his hands to their face or touched his face, but none of them ever spoke to him directly. The closest he came to a conversation was one Sunday when an extremely old woman said:

    —Isn't it a lovely day?

    At the sound of these words, the people with her froze. They were all on the front steps to the house, as friendly a place as Winston knew, but it was as if they were frightened. They kept smiling, looking down at their feet, as though nothing had been said. Winston answered:

—It's a beautiful day.

And Mrs. Fernandez came up behind him.

    —Isn't it? she said. Did someone speak to you just now, Winston?

    The woman who had spoken was clearly senile. She looked happily up at the sky while her companions stood in place, leaning away from her. Winston answered:


    And immediately the guests were calm. They entered, left their presents, and went out again as soon as it was polite. They touched his face as they departed, but none of them spoke.

Winston did work hard, but he was well paid, and in theory, his weekends were his own.

    During the first months, his life continued on the same course: he visited his parents or stayed with friends on his days off, drinking until three in the morning or watching foreign films with Adele, a friend from Carleton. Gradually, though, he lost interest in the world outside of Mrs. Fernandez's house. After six months with her, he felt too tired to make the trip to Blossom Park, too tired to stay out all night, too tired to watch movies that didn't make sense.

    Maybe he worked too hard. He lost weight. He felt physically uncomfortable. His back and the backs of his legs were itchy, as if there were boils beneath his shoulder blades and mosquito bites behind his knees. His body felt as though it had been wrung out to dry. His mind drifted into a peculiar loop: he couldn't stop thinking about scissors, broken glass, beetles, and garden loam. Sometimes it was beetles in loam, sometimes beetles in glass. Then it was scissors in loam or scissors in glass or beetles on scissors ... He began to feel unhappy with the work he did for Mrs. Fernandez.

    Still, she was not unhappy with him. She was pleased to pay his wages, and she was genuinely depressed on his days off.

    —Winston, I know is your day off, but stay around the house. What if I need you?

    And she became a little too familiar, patting his stomach and letting her hand linger, rubbing his head and touching his face. (What did these people want with his face?) As though their relations had become courtship, you might almost have said Mrs. Fernandez was infatuated. Isn't that why she sometimes entered the bathroom while he showered?

    —Winston? I come to change the towels.

    When he wasn't thinking about scissors or mirrors, he thought about that.

    What was she up to? Did she sleep at night? (He certainly did. There were times he fell asleep at the dinner table, or in the living room, and he had dim memories of Mrs. Fernandez, old and frail as she was, dragging him up to bed.) What if she did things to him without his knowing? Should he be upset? Flattered? Disgusted? No, angry is what he would be. It was the principle: you weren't supposed to touch people at night without their consent. Of course, he hadn't had anything like sexual cooperation in so long, it was possible the rules had changed ... No. Sex with Mrs. Fernandez wouldn't be sex at all. It would be more like filial excess.

    —What's that about excess, Winston?

    He'd been speaking aloud without realizing it.

    —You're not eating, Mrs. Fernandez said. Eat ...

    He took a mouthful of pigeon peas. They were bitter. He would normally have swallowed and gone on to the chicken, but tonight he spat quietly into his left hand, put his hand beneath the table, and crushed the partially eaten peas in a ridge on the underside of the tabletop. Mrs. Fernandez didn't notice, but she was surprised at how quickly he'd finished them. He said:

    —I'm so tired.

    And she smiled, insisted on helping him up to bed.

    She had the grip of a sailor. Holding him by the waist, pulling his arm around her shoulder, she didn't even notice his resistance. In his room, she let his body fall to the bed like a sack of rice. Immediately, she began to undress him.

    —What are you doing? he asked.

    —You still awake? Well, take off your clothes and sleep.

    It was only seven o'clock, but that is more or less what he did. He slept for an hour and was woken by the sound of a door clacking shut. He was convinced it was morning, but no, the luminous numbers on his alarm clock said eight, and it was dark outside. He'd been dreaming of mason jars filled with topsoil: a soothing dream, until the jars broke. He'd had a box of straight pins with which to catch the insects that scuttered from the jars, and each time he thought he'd managed to pin one of the beetles down he pierced his own fingers.

    From eight until midnight, he lay in bed, bone-tired, drifting in and out of sleep. (At nine o'clock, Mrs. Fernandez retired for the night. He heard the click of her door closing, then silence.) He thought about his future: how long could he endure a travail that left him so depleted? It's true Mrs. Fernandez paid him well, but after six months he'd managed to spend so little: a white blouse for his mother, a leather tie for his father, a book on Coleridge for Adele ...

    It was winter and the moonlight came through his bedroom window to touch the face on the wall, the eyeless young woman. It was a disconcerting image, not a scene you wanted to enter. Still, there was something seductive about it, and he fell into a light sleep thinking about Adele's shoulders.

    At midnight, Winston was woken by an unbearable silence. The moonlight still fell against his wall, his room was unchanged, but the house was different. There was a light on in the hall outside his door, and then he heard footsteps. Thinking it was Mrs. Fernandez coming to molest him, he said:

    —So, it's true ...

    But it wasn't true in the way he imagined.

    A woman entered his bedroom, but it wasn't Mrs. Fernandez. From what he could see, she was young and beautiful. She was also naked, but so at ease it was as if she were clothed. She needed no light to find Winston, turn him onto his stomach, pull up his shirt, and pull down his pajama pants. Then, after a slight hesitation to suck her teeth, she bit his back beneath both shoulder blades, and the soft flesh behind both of his knees.

    And what did Winston do during all this? Nothing. Nothing at all. He could barely move. She held his head down with one hand while the other kept his nates in place. Then, when she bit the underside of his knees, she kept a hand on his nates and another on his ankles. In any case, it was quickly over. She left the room, casually pulling the door behind her.

    Frightened, Winston put his hands on the back of his legs where she'd bitten: there was blood, but very little. He sat up and listened for the sound of her footsteps: she was somewhere downstairs. It occurred to him that he was dreaming, and no sooner did he think it than he was convinced. Yes, the young woman looked familiar; the situation was ludicrous but terrifying. It was a dream. He would get up and go downstairs for milk.

    He did get up, though he felt faint and his thoughts were confused. (For instance, he couldn't remember who he was, and he couldn't decide what difference it made, though he knew it should have made some.) Once outside his room, he saw that Mrs. Fernandez's door was open and her lights were on.

    —If she's downstairs, she can't be upstairs, Winston thought.

    So he went quietly to her bedroom.

    Save for one detail, it was as he'd expected. The room smelled of an exotic and insistent potpourri. The walls were bare and white, and there was little furniture: a chest of drawers, on top of which was a variety of phials, vials, and bottles; a straight-backed wooden chair; a night table; and a plain, narrow cot.

    The exceptional detail was Mrs. Fernandez herself: she lay fully dressed on top of the cot, her shoes hanging off her feet, which were themselves hanging over the edge of the bed. Her eyes were open; she was staring at the ceiling.

    When he saw her, Winston jumped. His mind raced through hundreds of apologies in a millisecond: I'm sorry, I'm so sorry, jeez I'm sorry ...

    —I'm ..., he said.

    Before he realized there was something wrong: Mrs. Fernandez wasn't breathing. Her body was as flat as if it had been pressed in a Chinese laundry.

    Hoping it was all a trick of the light, Winston spoke up.

    —Mrs. Fernandez! he said in a loud whisper.

    No answer.

    He approached and, lifting her arm, saw that she was indeed flat, lifeless, a Mrs. Fernandez costume of flesh and skin. Now he was even more frightened. He held her flat hand as if it were a dead mouse. A woman's voice said:

    —Is like yuh want to fock de old lady.

    And Winston cried out in surprise. His heart stammered, and for only the sixth time in his life, he lost consciousness.


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Despair: And Other Stories 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Cecilturtle on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
It's always great fun to read a local story and navigate in one's city. Alexis adds a new dimension to our little town by adding a ghost and spiritual dimension which comes from his own caribbean background.