Monday, January 30, 2012



Our neighbor takes out bags of garbage. Our neighbor walks the dog. She washes the car, sweeps the walkway, shovels the snow, carries groceries home. Our neighbor has remarkable legs and has a birthmark which covers most of her face. It’s not the shape of Jesus, her birthmark not the shape of Mother Theresa. It’s not the shape of the Great Rift Valley, nor of this story. Her birthmark is a black hole, vast and mysterious, unknowable and terrifying and we cannot look, cannot look away.      
 “Why do you obsess about our neighbor’s face,” my son says. “There are other things to think about. For example, her remarkable legs, her knowledge of celestial naviagation. When she was my Grade 2 teacher, she explained about pulling girls’ hair and the right way to form the letter F.“
            “Look at her birthmark.” I say. “Look with both eyes or with one through a telescope which you have coyly hidden behind the almost closed curtains of our living room. Gaze into her birthmark and you will see time and space collapsing. Light disappearing. The glint of the sideview mirror, new quarters flipped into the bright morning air, a sudden shine from the policeman’s badge. Your poor red heart turns to some kind of ground beef and gets sucked in, sucked into her birthmark. Along with streetsigns, seniors hobbling before our front window, horses, the planets, spiral nebulae, great gas giants, and the memories of entire civilizations, the Mezozoic, skipping games, philosophical paradoxes, and the sadness when youth is over. I’m sure you will feel that soon, son, its dull metal taste, its acrid, static melody.  But you will have your children, their consolations, rewards, and material support. And so, in the dim fossil glow when time has just about called it a day, your progeny orbiting bedside, splittle dribbling from your weak and juddering lips, your sallow lungs will wheeze, “Hank, Bob, and Sheila. Janice and Julie; Neptune, Gloria, Saturn and Pluto,” you’ll whisper. “George, Henry, Earth, Venus, and Gwendolyn; Mars, Jeremiah, River, and Dwarf-Star,” you will call to them. “I have something to tell you.”
            “Wait,” my son interupts. “Hold that thought. This just in.“ His eyes roll back in his head. I worry that this might be some kind of seizure, something medical and life ending. But he is gesticulating dramatically toward our neighbour, and he begin to speak.
“Look across the street,” he  says. “Our neighbour’s tawny and spectacular legs shudder like earthquakes, her breath rises as if were a solar flare. Her eyes are obsidian headlights filled with the shadows of deep space. Her pert teeth are constellations which tell their own legends. Who are we? What is our place in all this changeable uncertainty? If communication is dark matter, what are our mouths, our wild exhalations like solar wind seeking night?”
 As always, my son is trying to upstage me with the febrile drama of his false pronouncements. But I am the great blue earth, and beneath the whorl of my clouds, my plains are filled with blond lions and velvet-nubbed giraffes, pods of great singing whales ranging beneath my chuffing seas. I am the centre of everything yet my son insists on his petty heliocentric legends like some recalcitrant Galileo before the otherworldly and academically accurate lute-playing of Vincenzo, his father.
 “Your quotidian bluster lacks the poetic gravitas of the actual,” I tell him. “The black hole is ravenous. It is expanding. Soon it will cover our neighbour’s entire body, a predatory shadow, an endless mine-shaft through time and space. Then it will engulf her side of the street. Then the world. What sparkles at its core? What does it pull toward its alchemical treasures?”
My son, the foretold spittle now running in delicate rivulets down his upturned pink chin, raises both arms, and calls out some unintelligible equation, rotten with coefficients and imaginary trigonometric pig-Latin. Then he runs blindly across the street. We can be thankful that here, in the cul-de-sac of our lives, there is little traffic. No SUV charges toward its End-of Days assignation with daycare, no delivery truck plows forward, laden with time-sensitive communication and Internet-ordered folderol. The well-kept blades of our neighbour’s lawn part before the quick glossolalia of his sneakers, a Exodus-enabling sea of grass flinching before his mad and unintelligible dance. He dives toward his former Grade 2 teacher searching for who knows what further instruction on the calligraphic mysteries of  the letter F and the hieractic protocol surrounding the grasping of pigtails and the ringing of little girls’ hair.  For a moment his body with its sad white sneakers is parallel to the slight curve of the earth and is beautiful.
My son disappears into the infinite shadow that is our neighbour’s birthmark.
Once again, he has stolen the scene.
I weep.
Our neighbour, with her remarkable legs, leaps the fence.


Bruce MacDonald said...

Wow. A serious wow. I try and write and see, and father, and neighbor, even am still a son, and along this story comes. Brilliant. Is it part of something larger? Soon to be available at finer stores everywhere?

gary barwin said...

Thanks for the kind words, Bruce. The story is only part of something larger in the sense that I hope it to be part of a collection of short fiction that I'm working on. I've just finished reading "The 100 Brothers" by Donald Antrim which was an inspiration here. I really liked the novel. Not as much as his "The Verificationist" which is one of my favourite novels, but it is remarkable.

William Keckler said...

I second what Bruce said. I like the catachresis of "pert teeth."