The controlled and calm life of William Oaks is shattered when his parents die suddenly in a car accident. A reclusive paper conservator at a renowned Toronto museum, William must face the obsessions and denials that have formed him: delusional family history, religious fundamentalism, and get-rich-quick schemes. Memory and facts collide, threatening to derail his life and career as William feverishly prepares for an important exhibition on the Egyptian Book of the Dead.
|Publisher:||Tightrope Books, Inc.|
|Product dimensions:||5.00(w) x 7.00(h) x 0.80(d)|
About the Author
Ken Murray lives in Prince Edward County, Ontario. He teaches creative writing at Haliburton School of the Arts and at the School of Continuing Studies at the University of Toronto. He is a volunteer broadcaster in community radio and dabbles in several sports. Eulogy is his first novel. For more information visit kenmurray.ca.
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By Ken Murray, Marnie Woodrow
Tightrope BooksCopyright © 2015 Ken Murray
All rights reserved.
Toronto, December 2000 — I visited my parents a few weeks before Christmas. Mom had left many messages, "William, where are you?" "William, are you okay?" "William, do you need any more Slender Nation?" I'd been ignoring her calls for months.
Terry had become a big part of my life, and I was happy. For the first time, I didn't want to be alone. I had my work at the Royal Ontario Museum, and she had hers in one of the bank towers downtown, and we had each other, and we had our music, and we fell into that inner space that people find when they love someone. Terry burned brightly in my world, and the rest of the world faded. Work was still good, but I fell out of touch with home, and for good reason; I didn't want to tell my parents about her because I didn't want to deal with their questions. I stopped calling, stopped visiting.
But dealing with it became inevitable: I had to tell my parents that I had a girlfriend, and even though I was a grown man with an established career, it was terrifying. I shouldn't have done it, but December has that magical power to make us that much more crazy. I drove home to Otterton, the Southern Ontario industrial town where I grew up, for a Saturday lunch visit, blasting trance music along the way loud enough to make the steering wheel shudder.
Mom gave me a Slender Nation shake, as usual, and after I drank it she offered me a sandwich, while Dad sat grimly across from me. His short black hair, still neatly combed, was starting to grey, and I detected a hunch beginning to form in his shoulders.
"The government," he said, "is trying to destroy us."
"I know Dad, you've told me that before."
"You've got to be careful. Any day now, son, any day."
"Any day what?" I said, not sure if he was still talking of the government or had moved on to the Antichrist. The two were synonymous for him.
"They'll be coming for us. We don't have any good sense left in this country. We've got godless leaders. The States are doing much better — the new President Bush they've elected is a God -fearing man, he'll set things right. We need someone like him up here."
"Keith," barked Mom. "We must focus on the spirit." Mom adjusted her pink button, straightened her blouse, and instinctively touched her hair which, despite the years, remained as red as it was in my earliest memories of her.
"I am — this is all about the spirit. Everything is about the spirit," he said through clenched teeth. He pointed at her and said, "You have no idea."
"I have every idea," she said. "Or at least the good ones. Stop your negativity, now, I command it in the blood of Jesus." He wrung his hands at her and looked away. She turned to me, "Are you still drinking Slender Nation?" she said, her hands forming mirror C's in front of her.
"Yes," I said. "Actually, no. No I don't. I only drink it when I'm here, when you're in front of me, because that's what you want me to do."
"What are you saying?"
"I'm saying that I don't drink Slender Nation anymore."
"But you had some just now."
"I was being polite."
"So dishonesty is politeness? That's a lie, that's sin. You need to pray for forgiveness, right now."
"What would happen, William," said Dad, "if The Rapture came right now? You'd be left behind. We need to pray, together, as a family."
"No thanks," I said, feeling a surge of total honesty, the kind of honesty that has nothing to do with what's righteous or good. Righteousness may exist. And if it does, it moves quietly, anonymously, never calls itself by name.
"Please, let's pray. This is dangerous," said Mom, reaching for my hands.
"No." I got up, backed away from her.
"What's wrong with you?"
"Yes, what's wrong with you?"
"Nothing. Nothing at all. For the first time in my life everything seems good, and you're jumping all over me." I wanted — oh so much — to show them my life, perhaps also to understand what had become of theirs, and desire drowned the logic that said I should keep silent and let them be.
"It's a woman, isn't it?" said Mom.
"The scarlet woman, God warns about her," said Dad. Mom hit him. He sulked.
"It's not a woman," I said.
"So you don't have a girlfriend, still, at your age?"
"Which is it, Mom? Is it scary that I might have a girlfriend or is it weird that I don't?"
"Don't play games."
"I'm not. I'm just trying to know where you stand."
"So, there's a girl, then?"
"Actually, yes, there is a girl."
"So it's a woman, I knew it. Is she saved? Is she the one who led you away from Slender Nation?"
"Who is she? Where's she from? Does she go to church?" Dad was back in the conversation.
"When do we meet her?" said Mom, raising her voice. I waited two full breaths before speaking.
"Her name is Terry." They were both leaning forward, looking at me, and in their eyes I saw the fear and hunger, that maniac desire from which I'd been on the run for most of my life. I told them more than they ever wanted to hear: "She goes to church as much as I do, that is to say, not at all." Mom turned pale. Dad looked away. "I haven't eaten Slender Nation except in your presence since I was twelve, and I don't believe in your church."
Hoping to tell them about Terry, the best thing that had ever happened to me, I instead told them everything they'd refused to see, the facts I'd kept hidden in plain sight by living my quiet life and keeping them at a distance|...|
"It's important to meet your needs, but God says to do so in marriage, with one who is equal in belief," said Mom, in the voice of salesperson|/counsellor.
"Yoke not yourself with an unbeliever!" When Dad paraphrased the Bible, he did so with English of the King James era.
"What do you think my needs are?" I said, but received only silence. Dad looked away, Mom crossed her arms. "I know how to meet my own needs," I said as I rolled up my sleeves and showed the fleshy carpets of scar that are my arms.
"Who did this to you?" said Dad.
"Why?" said Mom.
"It's who I am."
"Blasphemy. You're sick!"
"So you do this instead of sex?" said Mom.
"For a long time, yes, this is what I did. But now we just have sex."
"How long has this been? When did you go astray?"
"It started right here," I said, "soon after Slender Nation and Jesus."
"In our house? You did this in our house?" She was rushing toward me, arm raised, but I didn't move, didn't duck. She stopped short. "You need to pray, pray right now!"
"You need to get out of that city," said Dad. "It's the gays getting married. I've seen it on the news. It's affecting you." He looked ill.
I left quickly, Mom following me down the driveway with a Bible and a can of Slender Nation. She wanted to instruct me on how to love, but she hadn't shared a bed or even a kind word with my father for nearly twenty years. I haven't one single memory of them kissing or even touching each other. All I ever saw between them was malice, barely contained. "It's not your fault," she said as I pulled away. "Your father never taught you to be a man."
Their sex made me, and maybe that was it.
I drove fast along the highway back to Toronto, the weight sinking in — I'd finally completed the split started all those years ago: paying lip service, since adolescence, to everything my parents expected while quietly, on the side, building my ordered yet desperate life.
When I first embraced pain, I would pinch myself, pull hairs, twist my skin, bruise myself slowly on my arms and legs, but always in a spot nobody could see. Over time, my habits evolved. It became a practice, my quiet way of getting by on my own. I kept to myself for so many years, never dated, never socialized beyond the decorum required of school and, later, work. When people insinuated about my sexual preference, I'd readily say, "I practice self-restraint."
Terry called as I drove. "How was your visit?" she said.
"Bad real bad, or just bad?"
"Bad real bad, I think."
She wanted me to come over but I said no. At home I drew a bath and turned the music loud. I was living in a converted garage in a back alley in the west end of town, where rents were cheaper. I kept my car and bicycle down below and lived in the loft above. Nobody was bothered by my noise. I turned it up until the shimmersound of electric beats dimpled the walls of my mind, and I sunk my head below the water, breathing deeply through my exposed mouth and nose, hearing the dampened shudderthrobs mix with heartbeats, and I slipped away.
When I pulled myself free of the water, it had grown cold. I saw the blood. In my calming, I had scratched open the scars on one of my arms. My fingers were bleeding. Next to the tub was an X-Acto blade. I don't remember doing it, but I'd given myself knifepoint cuts on my fingertips.
I jumped from the tub and cleaned up, carrying the blade between outstretched fingers to the kitchen garbage. I work with knives all the time.
I hate knives.
The phone rang. It was Terry. "You okay?" she said.
"I'll come over."
"What's wrong?" she said. I pulled the phone away for a moment, looked at the bloodstains on the counter, and remembered the hungry terror at the centre of my soul hearing those sermons when I was a kid.
"We have to stop," I said. "You and I. We have to stop. Things are going wrong, and we have to stop. It's been really good, but now it stops."
"I suppose you expect me to cry and say you're wrong?"
"I've no expectations."
"Good. Did your parents put you up to this?"
"That's mean. My parents are done. Through. I'll never speak to them again."
"I don't understand."
"There's nothing to understand, Terry. This is what is."
"We always said we were free to go, whenever. You said it would end with me cheating, that every relationship ends with the guy cheating. I didn't do that."
"Thanks. Thanks so much. You didn't cheat because you didn't know how. This is a brutal way to break up."
"I don't know how to do these things."
"My fault for getting together with an adult schoolboy." She hung up.
It was over. I had never felt so alone, if that was possible. It seemed right, painful and right. I bandaged my arms, watched the news.
A few weeks later was the first time in my life I didn't go home for Christmas.
I didn't patch things up with Terry either. All I did was work, every day, in the conservation lab at the museum. I would have worked Christmas Day if I could have. Work was the best way to avoid the craving for pain.
It was also the best way to avoid the calls from my parents.
It was the best way to forget, but that's always been my problem. I have a hard time forgetting.CHAPTER 2
Toronto, January 2001 — A renewed barrage of calls and pleas from my parents in the new year led me to block their number. I came home one day to find them in my alley, in a prayer vigil with four others from their church. They were huddled, arms around each other, moaning in prayer at my door as I approached quietly on my bicycle. When I asked them to leave they started to lay hands on me. I pushed past, fumbled open the door as they grabbed at me and prayed in tongues. I shut the door on them. They pounded on it.
"Is she in there?" Mom yelled. "Let us in so we can pray."
"This would never have happened," Dad said to her, "if you hadn't been so miserable to him."
I called the police.
My name was promptly attached to a church-wide (and then world -wide-web-wide) prayer group:
Please pray for our son William, in Toronto, who has become a sexual deviant, mired in the clutch of Satan. We pray that he will not hurt anyone.
Janet Oaks, Otterton, Ontario.
So good of her to spare my identity by not posting my full name, but still including her own. In a follow-up post, she gave out my work email address. I got my first clue of what she'd done when my inbox at work received the following:
Hot man Bill,
I am your sexual Jesus. Mother's anxiety WILL be relieved. Come onto me and you SHALL be set free.
Lovelyone was the first of many. Here's a sampling:
Judgment will fall upon you, sinner. Give up your awfull [sic] labidinouness [sic] or face the fires of Hell!
Righteous in Rochester
Die. Fucking Queer.
I can save you honey, you'll know only pleasure, no pain.
Dear Mr. Oaks,
It has come to my attention that your soul is in need of salvation. If I may be of service in leading you back to the Lord, my number is XXX-XXX-XXXX.
PS Please do not call after 8 pm.
The messages of love and hate kept coming, along with earnest pleadings, gleefully predicting my looming eternity in Hell. Sometimes, after deleting thirty or forty messages en masse, I'd get a mild kick from the thought of a lonely church outpost — in Kazakhstan, northern Manitoba, Vancouver, Guadalupe, or Korea — where people gathered in circles, bent kneed, eyes scrunched, all energy focused on fixing faraway people like me.
Search engines today still turn up my name for prayer, on websites from Argentina to Iceland, Alabama to Albania.
My lawyer's letter to Hillsview Independent Pentecostal Church, and to my parents, asking each to cease and desist, was a last resort (something I did only after phoning them and having Mom repeatedly ask me to repent. How could I humiliate her like this? Why didn't I come back to Slender Nation? Surely all the people at the museum could use it. Aren't there chubby curators?). Mom didn't see any irony when I pointed out she caused the humiliation herself by spreading the word.
"But what, you want me to keep it a secret when there are so many people who want to help you?"CHAPTER 3
Toronto, April 2000 — "Are you serious?" I said again, the phone suddenly hot against my ear.
"Really?" I steadied myself with a hand on my lab table.
From the other end of the line Adam, the long-suffering security guard, sighed and said, for the third time, "There are two people here to see you. They're waiting at the back entrance. And, yes, it's serious."
My parents had come to my work. It had to be them, I never received unannounced visitors. As always, they were trying to save me, but coming here was too much. They'd gone too far.
I carefully set my work aside, a book printed in 1753 — pigskin bound and yellowing — for which I was testing the chemical composition of the binding.
My official title at the Royal Ontario Museum is Paper Conservator, Books (not to be confused with Paper Conservator, Art). I also dabble in wood when called upon, but there are others who are more expert in this area. My day to day is to keep old books healthy: prevent paper decay, repair papers, parchments, and scrolls that are damaged, and to do all this in a way that doesn't compromise the integrity or historic value of the pieces. I work meticulously and by my work these objects are preserved and sometimes displayed. The work allows me to keep to myself, except for the occasional visit from a curator.
Quickly, I made my way down five flights of stairs. I avoided elevators, less chance of having to make conversation with people.
My parents had left the crappy little town where I grew up, drove all the way to the city they hate, and had shown up at my workplace to harass me. I needed to find a way to be rid of them, but also to avoid a scene. The intrusion was intolerable. For all I knew, they were already trying to sell Adam the security guy on the life-giving value of Slender Nation or having another one of their blowout arguments with each other.
I burst from the stairwell and rounded the corner toward the security desk to face them.
There I was met by two police officers, one a younger man, the other an older woman. "William Oaks?" she said.
They introduced themselves, and then she said, "May we speak with you in private?"
"What's this about?" My mind raced through possibilities, but my worst vice, on the legal side, was Napster. I couldn't think of a possible accusation they might have.
"This is best discussed in private," said the man.
Something tweaked inside me. "No thanks. Whatever you want to say or ask, do it here."
They looked at each other uncomfortably. She nodded. He looked me in the eye and said, "We're sorry to bring you this news, but two people believed to be Keith Oaks and Janet Oaks are deceased. Single car accident on the Blue Rock Bridge in Otterton, Ontario."
Excerpted from Eulogy by Ken Murray, Marnie Woodrow. Copyright © 2015 Ken Murray. Excerpted by permission of Tightrope Books.
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