Authors: Todd Babiak
Tags: #Fiction, #Humorous, #Literary
For my late father, Allen Roy Phillip Babiak
tanley Moss silenced the Cuban music and glanced at his watch. Frieda looked up at him and sighed. Apart from her sigh, the only sounds in the house on 77th Avenue were the turning pages of her novel and the random plunks and creaks of furnace and settling softwood. Outside, the neighbour's modified Honda Civic accelerated from its parking spot and whined down the avenue.
“Why does he do that?”
“I don't know, Stanley.”
“Why would someone pay extra for a noisy muffler? The word itself:
Frieda didn't respond. The novel she was reading for her book club, as far as Stanley understood, concerned life in India. It seemed every novel she read was about life in India, with poetic descriptions of vegetation. In the silence, as the minute hand slid forward again, Stanley considered pursuing this with Frieda: the political and social foundations of her obsession with India.
The spring sun was about to set, sending an orange light into a corner of the house. It illuminated the dust, revealed the window streaks, and illustrated the particularities of his
wife's beauty: small green eyes, long fingers, a larger than average nose.
Five past sevenâthe hour had now officially passed. Stanley shrugged. “That's our boy.”
“Why are you surprised?”
“Because in the e-mail he promised to call.”
“He promised, he promised.”
Their son, Charles, lived in New York City. Charles was an investment banker with one of the most prestigious firms in America. When they visited, once every two years at Christmastime, Charles attempted to be a good host. But he rarely had a free moment between seven in the morning and ten at night, even on Christmas Day. Stanley and Frieda rode around the park in a carriage pulled by steaming white horses, while the big bells rang. They went to museums and restaurants and delis recommended by guidebooks, and partook of Broadway shows that met Frieda's standards for musical theatre. Stanley and Frieda accepted that being a proper host demanded skills that Charles had never acquired; it had to be good enough that they were in their son's city, spending his money. At times, however, times like these, Stanley attempted to be angry with Charles instead of hurt. But Stanley understood he was the architect of his son's flaws.
“So what should I do?”
“E-mail him again.”
“How do I go about phrasing it?”
Frieda closed her novel about life and vegetation in India and slid a finger across her bottom lip. “Dear Charles. Hello, how is your money doing? Good? Good. So, remember that shortness of breath I mentioned? Turns out I have advanced cancer. I wanted to tell you over the phone but you're too
busy to call us back.” Frieda took a deep breath and looked up at the white stucco ceiling. Stanley followed her gaze to a cobweb above the framed map of Clayoquot Sound. Finally, she finished. “I'm dying. Love, Dad.”
Instead of arguing with Frieda about Charles and his maddening insensitivity, Stanley lifted the remote control and turned the Cuban music back on. “Which song were we at?”
Frieda dabbed at her eyes with the pink handkerchief she kept handy and shook her head. It didn't matter. Neither of them spoke Spanish, so the lyrics would not become repetitive. “Put it on shuffle.”
“I don't like shuffle. It ruins the artistic progression.” Stanley did not wait for Frieda to respond. He started with song number one.
The oncologist and his family doctor had agreed that radiation and chemotherapy could prolong his life but would make Stanley miserable with nausea. Instead, they prescribed some drugs to dull the pain in his chest and aid his breathing. There was planning to do. The doctors figured Stanley and Frieda had a few months before things turned ghastly. Why not take a nice trip somewhere?
Frieda was furious at the medical establishment for not catching this sooner, at Stanley for smoking until 1991, at the oil and gas industry and the Alberta government for environmental pollutants that might have sparked the illness, and, most profoundly, at Charles for being Charles. “We should have given him up for adoption. Or fed him to jackals at birth.”
“He defines selfishness.”
“He doesn't know.”
“And at this rate he never will.” Frieda stood up from the chesterfield and dropped her book on the coffee table. “Let's order Korean and drink champagne until we pass out.”
“That's the spirit.”
It took some time for Stanley to get out of his leather club chair. The tumours in his lungs had spread, and his body's hopeless reaction to them left little strength for standing from a sitting position. Once he was up, he pulled his wife in for a hug. Stanley waited until he had enough breath, and then said, “Let's go to the computer this instant and book a holiday.”
“To Havana or Delhi or wherever you want.”
Frieda shook her head. “You'll get diarrhea on the first day and die. Gosh, that would be wild fun for both of us.”
The song, a slow blend of acoustic guitars, hand drums, and horns, was a sultry provocation. Stanley forced Frieda into a dance. “We can lie about on a beach somewhere and read. The ocean air will open my lungs. I'll be cured by cheap papaya.”
For the rest of that song and half of the next one, Stanley and Frieda danced between the umbrella plant and the dining-room table.
Frieda held his hand, which had gone cool and moist. “What time is your appointment tomorrow?”
She asked something else about the nature of palliative care but Stanley was not listening. There was a Korean restaurant in town and he wanted Frieda to phone it, but the name had fled from his memory. A result of the tumours that
now lived in his brain, or possibly a side effect of the drugs. Something. It started with a
“Is it designed to prolong your life?” she said. “Or do they just make death a more pleasant experience?”
Frieda left the room and returned with a bottle. In the moment it took for her to strip the foil and wire away and ease the plastic cork out of their thirteen-dollar champagne, Stanley felt a buzz of anticipation. It reminded him vaguely of that instant before a teenage kiss or the first time he held his son. The cork popped, bounced off the ceiling, and rested in front of the stereo. Champagne gushed and fell on the hardwood floor with a slap.
“Our final champagne.” Stanley smiled.
In the silence between songs, the fizzing alcohol lay between them like a dog's accident. Frieda shook her head and pointed the bottle at her husband. “Don't say that again.”
“I love you.”
he house on 77th Avenue was in a post-war subdivision three blocks from an industrial park. The park, a collection of manufacturing depots and warehouses, was bordered by
car dealerships, gas stations, fast food outlets, a strip bar, and the most depressing Sheraton hotel in western Canada. From the subdivisionâa collection of bungalows and semi-bungalows covered in stucco and vinyl sidingâthe industrial park was a constant, rumbling reminder of the blue-collar commerce that defined the city. On the uncommonly warm morning of Stanley's visit to the palliative care specialist, Frieda was breaking the dirt in their backyard vegetable garden and cajoling him to sit on the patio and read news paper articles aloud. One of his wife's few superstitions: vigorous vocal exercise might just frighten cancer from the lungs.
Stanley wore his grey suit. There were others, but since he had lost weight Stanley felt insignificant and ghostly in them. It was an old suit, stitched and tailored more than two decades ago. On special days, Stanley wore it with a vest. He liked the idea of the woefully unfashionable three-piece suit, and saw it as a gentle act of rebellion in a world that no longer valued rituals and manners. Once rituals and manners were gone, at a vague date and time he associated with his own death, only blue-collar commerce and its accoutrementsâsnowmobiles, unnecessarily large trucks, ripped blue jeans, automatic weaponsâwould remain.
The story he read aloud was about Afghanistan. As he said words like
, Stanley could not summon their meaning. It wasn't just the names of Korean restaurants that he could not recall.
In recent weeks, whole chunks of Stanley's memory had disappeared like dreams in the morning. One afternoon, he'd been looking at a black-and-white photograph of a man and a woman sitting on the shore of a lake in the Shuswaps; until Frieda commented on his parents' youth, Stanley had assumed these were two strangers. Dead celebrities.
Since then, many of the most important events in his life had faded into shadow. The smell of barbecued meat, a show tune, a striped tie in his closet, or the bent spine of a book would inspire the fragment of a memory he knew was significant, even essential, but more and more often he couldn't grab the whole of it.
And Frieda was beginning to suspect. She tried to trap him. At the end of the article about Afghanistan, she stood up from the hard soil, removed her gloves, and scratched at her grey-blond hair. “Remember that baseball game?” The morning of Stanley's trip to the palliative care specialist, Frieda wore a turtleneck sweater, a jean jacket, a straw hat, and sweatpants with stripes on the side. She waved her gloves. “The night that boy from Lacombe went crazy and hit Charles on the head with the bat?”
On the patio, the newspaper rustling, Stanley remembered the summertime breeze in the Avonmore schoolyard, a warm breeze that slid in over the Rockies from the distant coast or farther, from the mysterious place where wind begins. It smelled of lilac and freshly cut grass, May trees, and leather. He remembered dogs barking in cheap apartment courtyards. Someone's alcoholic husband playing country music out his window and yelling, “Shattap!” The chant of lawn mowers on 77th Avenue and the mosquitoes that always descended upon the diamond to collect the blood of parents. A symphony of crickets. Wheat trains piloted by lonesome and sleepy men, their horns wailing as they passed through Edmonton to cause traffic jams every hour. And
âa hit, a single,
. Was this what Frieda wanted to know? Did she want to know if he remembered parents smoking and taking nips from Pilsner cans in the late 1970s, only pretending to watch the game? Other parents, the
parents who suffered their sons' potential failures and successes before they fell asleep at night, screaming at their children, the umpire, and their saviour? The yellow and blue of the blanket Frieda wrapped around her shoulders when the sun threatened to dip beyond the houses on 81st Street?
By the look of pinched disappointment on her face, Stanley knew that no one had hit Charles over the head with a bat. If Frieda asked what he had done in his flower shop for thirty-five years, what would he say?
Stanley glanced up at the sky, which was in the midst of transformation. Dark clouds eased in to colonize the light ones, and swirled gently. There was a crackling sound above them, distant thunder. In 1987, the great tornado had passed through the city just to the east of their house, and Stanley remained haunted by the monstrous deep green of the wind that had mopped the earth and killed twenty-seven people. Just beyond those clouds, as they'd torn up the land with the sound of a crashing jet, white-and-blue sky of the greeting-card variety. As he looked up, Stanley was reminded of that day in 1987. The dark clouds did not appear or sound ominous at first, only odd. He thought to call out to Frieda, “Look up!” But before he had a chance, the clouds swirled and a jolt went through Stanley. There was within him a pressure so great he thought his heart had stoppedâor exploded. Now he desperately wanted to summon his wife, but as the desire reached his lips it became impossible.
The sound in the sky, conversing with the soil and clay of their backyard, progressed from a crackle to a rumble to a roar. It was the roar of the natural world, finally swallowing the city and its dull commerce. But it was also a voice. One
voice magnified a thousand times. It did not seem to Stanley that he was
the voice, exactly. There was only pain, discomfort, the urge to communicate with his wifeâall of it overwhelmed by an awful feeling of his own singularity. His fears and regrets and humiliations folded at once into a flash of abandonment. Everything he had learned about death was wrong. It was not easeful or romantic. There was no release in this, no connection or understanding. This thing, whatever it was, wanted to tear him apart. A pulse of blue light filled the yard and the land underneath the back deck quivered.
He gripped the arms of his chair and searched through the light and the sound for Frieda. But she was not with him, and neither was the deck or the chair or the garden or the house on 77th Avenue. It was over.
over. The blue light and the sound and the pressure and pain went as suddenly as they had come. His backyard three blocks from an industrial park returned to him. Stanley shivered with heat and lost control of his bowels. He looked down at the newspaper, which had remained on his lap, and felt a flock of geese flying overhead. Now, finally, his body obeyed him and he called out to his wife. Before she walked over to put her arm around him and ask if he was all right, Stanley knew she would put her arm around him and ask if he was all right. He knew the precise tone of her voice, the anxiety in it that she did not want him to hear. He heard bulbs and bugs quivering under the soil.
“Something just happened.” He looked around. “My heart. Or I might be going crazy.”
“Let me help you.”
“You'll have to check me in somewhere soon. I don't want you changing my diapers.”
“Let's just see what the specialist has to say.” Frieda tried to guide him out of the chair and toward the door.
“What can he say?”
Just then, the intercom at the Ford dealership beeped its introduction. “Garry, line one. Garry, line one.”
“This is what we worked so hard for.” Frieda pointed toward the Ford dealership with one hand, and their small backyard with the other. “Retirement.
Stanley was not yet in the mood to go inside. He dismissed the state of his underpants and regarded the majesty of their backyard in May. The budding branches of a sick fruit treeâwhat fruit?âleaning toward them like a beggar. The chain-link fence on one side of the lawn and the tall cedar hedge on the other. Peeling white paint on the 1951 stucco of their slumping garage. White and brown siding on their small semi-bungalow, crying out for a spring pressure-wash. All to the tune of their neighbour's schnauzer, Ray Ray, barking at nothing, and a Harley-Davidson rumbling across the alley. “
,” he said, and wished Ray Ray would shut up for a minute. He wished the man across the alley would shut off his Harley-Davidson.
Ray Ray stopped barking. The motorcycle went quiet. Stanley heard the man across the alley slap the bike and cuss. He cussed again. A coincidence, Stanley thought, and then, for an instant, he thought otherwise.
“The fuck's going on here?” said the man across the alley. “How does this thing work?”