A small-town Bill Clinton look-alike agonizes over whether to accept a tempting offer from the CIA; an obese young woman finds love in a prairie cafe; a lonely child encounters a supernatural being; a teenage girl struggles with a sexual predator as she hitchhikes on the autobahn; a newly divorced man tries to return his adopted children; two brothers and a sister take their father's ashes back to the North, trying to make it over the ice road before break-up. These are just a few of the stories from Margaret Macpherson's remarkable debut collection, Perilous Departures. Perilous though they may be, all of these stories represent a departure from the ordinary and all celebrate the chaotic splendour of life. Each story, in its individuality, illuminates the path that leads to home, but home isn't always what we expect, and paths in Macpherson's world are rarely straight and narrow.
With compelling exuberance, Margaret Macpherson entices her readers to leave behind their familiar comforts and join her on a unpredictable journey of hazardous navigations. In Perilous Departures, the risks are many, the rewards transformative.
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About the Author
Margaret Macpherson is a writer and teacher, originally from Canada's Northwest Territiories. She holds a MFA in Creative Writing from UBC and has worked as an essayist and journalist in Halifax, Bermuda and Vancouver. She is a published poet and the author of four non-fiction books including the award-winning Nellie McClung: Voice for the Voiceless. Both her debut short story collection, Perilous Departures, and her first novel, Released, were finalists for the Mary Scorer Award for Best Book by a Manitoba Publisher. Her seventh book, the novel Body Trade, was the winner of the 2012 NorthWords Prize.
Read an Excerpt
Couple of weeks ago some Japanese tourists mistook my husband for the President of the United States. He's golfing, see. Somewhere near the fifth hole (which is really tricky because of the sand traps) this Oriental couple ride up in one of those carts. They’re both wearing safari hats and white clothes, the type you see on old movies about the Indian empire. Bill — yeah I know, they have the same first name — said later he expected them to have a thermos of gin and tonics or sake or something real exotic-like.
Anyways, they drive up to the edge of the green and start jabbering in Japanese like he's supposed to know what they're saying or something. The only thing he understands is the word Clinton. It keeps on coming up "Clinton, Clinton" and he says they're nodding their heads, you know, sort of bowing, like it is in their tradition, really excited, even though he tries to tell them, no, he's not Clinton, not even close.
Anyways, they can't speak any English and he's lined up this great shot which should keep him under par on the fifth and he's got a couple of beers riding on it, so he just lets them go ahead. He’s putting. You know, looking really concentrated and stooped over the golf ball like it's presidential business or something.
So one of the little Japanese guys gets out this big camera and his wife gets out the smallest camcorder in the world and they start taking shots, footage. And Bill gets all nervous of course and misses his putt but smiles real dignified and statesmanlike, right at the camera, and they're all ooohhing and ahhhing and saying Clinton, Clinton and he pops it in like he meant to do it in four instead of three.
The reason I know all this is he came home afterwards all excited and told me while he was drinking a beer on the deck. But the weird thing is, he's telling me, okay, he's sitting there, telling me, pretty darn full of himself, thinking he looks like Clinton and all, and I hand him a second frosty and he looks at it like he's never seen a beer before and asks me — just as nice as can be, mind — if he can have a glass. For his beer.
Well, I should have nipped it in the bud right there, him and his Illusions of Grander or whatever. But, like some sort of sicko 50’s wife I goes and gets him one, even dust off one of them big German steins with the handle and the lid and all, the one Rita's mother brung back for me for watering her plants and cleaning out the cat box the summer I was eighteen. Anyways, yeah, so I give the mug to Bill, and he pours it real careful so it's foamy but not too foamy on top, and then he holds up this beer like he's on T.V., he shows his teeth all fake and charming, and says cheers. "Cheers, Hillary."
That cracks him up, which kinda makes me mad, ’cause to me he doesn’t look anything like Clinton who, truth told, I haven't really paid much attention to, being Canadian and all. Bill looks like Bill, like a great big radish, with his shiny red face and yellow chompers, but I didn't tell him that. I mean, he was really happy and all, and I figured okay, if some camera-happy tourists want to take home pics of my husband and tell all their hundreds of relatives back home they saw the president of the United States, so what. Right? No skin off my nose.
Now this is the part where it really gets weird. Coupla, three days go by, I’m doing my thing with the kids and all, you know, making sure they don’t kill each other while still trying to have a life. So, it’s morning. I’m lying on the sofa ’cause I’m really bushed. The Worm was up cutting teeth half the night (We call him The Worm, but his real name is Warren, after Bill’s stepdad).
Anyways, I’m lying there trying to get some shut eye. Millie is in the bathroom playing like she runs a beauty parlour for all her dolls, and The Worm is foraging for the Cheerios I scattered on the carpet when the phone rings. Well, that’s not so weird, but I get up, all pissed off like, and I’m prepared to blow off Gail or Pam or any of the other girls who just need to borrow a cup of raisins cause they’re right in the middle of making bread pudding and the kids won’t eat it without raisins and who can blame them? I wouldn’t eat bread pudding any old way or, if I did, I sure the heck wouldn’t tell my neighbours I was making it. Poor people’s food, bread pudding. For folks who can’t afford Jello, my mom always claimed.
But it’s not any of them on the phone. It’s this guy from the FBI. Yeah, I’m not kidding. He says he’s from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and at first I think it’s some cheesy company trying to sell us a dresser. Like we don’t already have enough bedroom furniture. Anyways, he finally says it F-B-I, like the letters, not the words, and I figure I better listen up, find out what the hell’s going on. Turns out this guy has seen the pictures, Lord knows how, wants to know if we know a Mr. Teing Fung. Teing Fung, Fung Teing or something like that.
It finally clicks that he’s talking about the Chinese guy who took the golfing picture, so I say, No we don’t know him from Adam. And how did’cha get our names anyhow? Well, turns out this guy, this Teing Fung or whatever the hell, is being held in Boston as some sort of security risk. Something to do with these photographs of Bill, my Bill, but the FBI fellow wouldn’t say anything else, ’cept he’ll be in touch. Well, I hang up then, mouth hanging open and The Worm, who’s mad I’ve been on the phone, has practically chewed through the phone cord. I’m shocked. I’m just shocked stupid.
Bill comes home that night and I’m busting to tell.
*He doesn’t even look up from the chainsaw he’s tinkering with out on the deck. "Oh, yeah? What she want?"
"She?" I just keep drilling him with my eyes.
He looks at me then, all puzzled. "Who phoned?"
"FBI," says I, and then I repeat it real slow so it sinks in "Federal Bureau of Intelligence. Americans. The muscle who go around in suits and blow up things. You know, James Bond."
Well, I can tell I’ve gone a little too far ’cause Bill just looks at me, dumb like a doorknob.
*Huh?" he says, wiping the grease from the saw on the backass of his second best jeans. I don’t say nothing though, just smile. "They’re gonna phone back."
When I see him scowl, I suddenly get scared. "Bill, you didn’t do nothing, did you? Something you’re not saying?"
"No," he says, real slow, so I believe him with my whole heart. "We still got any of that chewing tobacco round the house?"
Well, me, I can’t wait for the FBI to ring back. Every time the girls call with news about their cat’s kittens or little Jimmy’s boils or some gossip about the paving crew that’s in town and raising everyone’s hormones sky high with their tight, tarry jeans, I have to practically bite my tongue off so as not to tell. I tell Millie, though, mostly because she’s three and I just gotta tell someone. "Your Daddy," I say, right proud, "your Daddy is wanted by the FBI.
Turns out I’m right.
They want Bill — my Bill — to stand in for the President of the United States when he goes on his tour to someplace in Africa. Turns out there are some American soldiers down there — been there for a long time. They need some encouragement and Mr. Clinton needs some good press. Problem is terrorists. Jungle terrorism. It’s dangerous down there in this unpronounceable African place. Too dangerous for Mr. God Almighty Presidente himself, but, heck, not too dangerous for my look-alike husband. I guess them soldiers haven’t seen Mr. Clinton before, at least not up close and personal like, so if he looked a little like my radish man, heck, they wouldn’t know the difference. Folks on TV’d be fooled too, according to the FBI muscle.
"Leave it to us, Mrs. Freeman. Leave everything to us."
Then they told me about the money. I just about lost it. Get this. All expenses paid plus ten thousand dollars a day. Double for the time Bill’s actually walking around in Congo-bongo. It’s close to $40,000 American. For three days. Imagine!
It’s so much money it makes me feel sick and I have to sit down and pull The Worm up onto my lap, just to get re-adjusted to reality. He’s damp and drooling and his cheeks are bright red from the molars breaking through but, despite that, he smiles and crows when I blow air onto his tummy to make his favorite farting sound.
"Forty grand," I say, blowing hard onto his lovely soft skin. "Forty grand. Three days, peanut! Just three days." And then I blow again until he’s laughing so hard he spits up on the couch.
The pressure’s on like never before. Bill is all anxious and drinking too much, trying to decide if he’ll go. The Yankee muscle, CIA, has already done a security check on him and they’ve made him sign a paper that keeps everything hush-hush. He’s not allowed to talk to anyone except me. Ha! As if. He’s all clammed up tight as a Scottish wallet thinking about the money on the one hand and on the other, some spook jumping out of the jungle with a machine gun and spattering his guts all over deepest, darkest Africa. I just let him stew.
"Do what you want, hon. Me and Millie and Warren are right behind you, no matter what," I say. "If you don’t want to go, stay right here and we’ll just kiss this one good-bye right here and now." And then I get a little softer ’cause I see he’s all ripped up over wanting to make us a better life, get me a dishwasher and maybe pay off the truck and I says, "Heck, Bill. It’s not like we weren’t happy before.
The next day, the day the American envoy person is going to call back to confirm Bill’s decision, something happens, something that almost makes me believe there is a God who watches over even little ol’ us.
This is it, see. Bill’s taken the day off, called in sick ’cause he really is sick — with anxiety that is. So he’s not talking and he keeps saying Yeah, I’m going, then, next half hour, No, I’m not going, and he keeps on looking at me all moony like he’s going to die or, if not like that, then all slitty-eyed and suspicious like all I care about is money until I’m sick to death of it.
"Go mow the yard, Bill," I tell him. "Grass is as high as a cow’s tits and you might as well do something useful, especially if it’s the last thing you ever do round here." He doesn’t hear that last bit, which is a good thing considering his state of mind, being so on the fence and all. He just does like I tell him to, hauls out our old John Deere, the one Bill’s stepdad gave us before he moved to the retirement home. He starts her up and starts mowing, round and around in circles, getting smaller and smaller with every pass.
Now we don’t have a big yard, but it’s country out here, so we keep almost an acre mowed so the place looks good and presentable from the road. Anyways, Bill’s mowing and sweating in the sun ’cause, typical, he’s forgot his hat; and he’s turning redder and redder and more and more tense about the big decision, when all of a sudden I see The Worm out in the grass just in front of the mower.
I’m standing at the window, washing the dishes, when I sees his round bald head and a bit of his arm sticking up out of that tall grass, probably cooing and drooling at his dad as he comes towards him on the riding mower.
"Warren! Warren! Bill!"
I scream it loud through the window, but he doesn’t hear over the mower. I can see it all happening and I can’t do nothing to stop it.
"Bill!" He’s not watching, he doesn’t see. And there is Warren’s bald head and the blades are whirling, grass clippings flying, and I watch, a scream dead in my mouth as the mower grinds towards his sweet flesh. It doesn’t stop. The blades swallow my little boy, and the linoleum comes up in a split second and I’m somewhere gone.
Next thing you know, it’s drool wakes me up. Yeah, drool. There he is crawling over my face, The Worm, just as whole and healthy as you please. I can’t believe it. I look around for marks and blood and the razor thin lines of the mower blade, but there’s nothing. There’s some wailing in the background but Warren is there on top of me, pawing me, red faced and slobbering, sort of laughing to himself like his momma on the floor is weird but good, too. I pull him down and feel his hot neck and smell his beautiful boy pong and I’m crying and laughing and saying his name over and over…Warren, Warren…like I’ll never stop saying it.
The screen door slams and it’s Millie holding a shredded rubber dolly and crying like someone just told her all her birthdays now and forevermore are cancelled. Bill’s right behind her holding a part of the plastic baby’s leg with the little toes mangled and mashed and I can tell he’s kind of apologetic but kind of pissed off too.
What are you two doing?" he asks, like he’s suddenly noticed The Worm and I are lying together in a big tight knot on the floor crying and laughing, all snot and tears.
"We’re staying," I say. "We’re all staying right here."
Bill looks at me kind of wondering what he’s heard, and what I mean, but Millie knows. She piles on top of Warren and me and pulls her daddy half way down with her. "We’re staying here, Daddy," she says, all solemn like.
We’re all going to stay here.
And I know he knows, and it makes me so damn happy I grab at his big red mitt and pull him down on top of me, too, gentle though, so we don’t crush the kids, and the four of us lie there in the middle of the kitchen floor clutching bits of pink rubber and grinning like the fools we’d almost been.