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The Killing Circle
The Killing Circle
The Kensington Circle
VALENTINE’S DAY, 2003
This is Sam, my four-year-old son. Running into my room to jump on the bed and rain crayoned Valentines over my face.
“It’s Love Day,” I confirm. Lift his T-shirt to deliver fart kisses to his belly.
“Who’s your Valentine, Daddy?”
“I suppose that would have to be Mommy.”
“But she’s not here.”
“That doesn’t matter. You can choose anyone you like.”
Sam thinks on this. His fingers folding and unfolding a card. The sparkles stirred around in the still wet glue.
“So is Emmie your Valentine?” I ask him. Emmie being our regular nanny. “Maybe someone at daycare?”
And then he surprises me. He often does.
“No,” he says, offering me his paper heart. “It’s you.”
Days like these, the unavoidable calendar celebrations – Christmas, New Year’s, Father’s Day, Mother’s Day – are worse than others. They remind me how lonely I am. And how, over time, this loneliness has burrowed deeper, down into tissue and bone. A disease lurking in remission.
But lately, something has changed. An emerging emptiness. The full, vacant weight of loss. I thought that I’d been grieving over the past three and a half years. But maybe I’m only just now coming out of the shock. Maybe the real grief has yet to arrive.
Sam is everything.
This one rule still helps. But in the months immediately following Tamara’s death, it was more than just a focus. It allowed me to survive. No one-way wants, no me. Not permitting myself to dream had got me halfway to not feeling – easier conditions to manage than feeling and dreaming too much.
But maybe this has been a mistake. Maybe I was wrong to believe you could get along without something of your own. Eventually, if living requires being nothing, then you’re not even living any more.
Tamara’s last days is something I’m not going to get into. I will confess to all manner of poor behaviour and bad judgment and broken laws. And I am prepared to explore the nature of memory (as the cover bumpf on those precious, gazing-out-to-sea sort of novels puts it) even when it causes the brightest flashes of regret. But I’m not going to tell you what it was like to watch my wife’s pain. To watch her die.
I will say this, however: losing her opened my eyes. To the thousands of hours spent gnawing on soured ambitions, petty office grievances, the seemingly outrageous everyday injustices. To all the wasted opportunities to not think, but do. Chances to change. To see that I could change.
I had just turned thirty-one when Tamara died. Not even half a life. But when she left, a cruel light was cast on how complete this life could have been. How complete it was, had I only seen it that way.
We bought the house on Euclid just off Queen as newlyweds, before the arrival of the yoga outfitters, the hundred-dollarhaircut salons, the erotic boutiques. Then, the only yoga being practiced was by the drunks folded up in store doorways, and the only erotica was a half-hour with one of the ladies pacing in heels at the corner. I could barely manage the downpayment then, and can’t afford to sell now. Not if I want to live anywhere near downtown.
Which I do. If for no other reason than I like to walk to work. Despite the comforts offered by all the new money washing in, Queen Street West still offers plenty of drama for the pedestrian. Punks cheering on a pair of snarling mastiffs outside the Big Bop. A chorus of self-talkers off their meds. The guy who follows me for a block every morning, asking me to buy him a prosciutto sandwich (he’s very specific about this) and inexplicably calling me Steve-o. Not to mention the ambulances hauling off whoever missed the last bed in the shelter the night before.
It is a time in the city’s history when everyone is pointing out the ways that Toronto is changing. More construction, more new arrivals, more ways to make it and spend it. And more to fear. The stories of random violence, home invasions, drive-bys, motiveless attacks. But it’s not just that. It’s not the threat that has always come from the them of our imaginations, but from potentially anyone, even ourselves.
There’s a tension in the streets now, the aggression that comes with insatiable desires. Because there is more on offer than there was before, there is more to want. This kind of change, happening as it’s happening here, fast and unmanageable, makes people see others in ways they hadn’t before. As a market. A demographic. Points of access.
What all of us share is our wishing for more. But wishing has a dark side. It can turn those who were once merely strangers into the competition.
I follow Queen all the way to Spadina, then lakeward to the offices of the National Star — “The New York Times of Toronto” as one especially ill-conceived ad campaign called it. This is where I started out. An angry young man with no real grounds to be angry, quickly ascending from copy editor to the paper’s youngest ever in-house book critic. My unforgiving standards buttressed by the conviction that one day all those tall poppies I had scythed to earth would see I had a right to my declarations. One day, I would produce a book of my own.
From as far back as I can remember I felt I had something within me that would find its way out. This was likely the result of a solitary, only-child childhood, throughout which books were often my only friends. Weekends spent avoiding the out-of-doors, curled up like a cat on the rug’s sunny squares, ripping into Greene, Leonard, Christie, mulling over the out-of-reach James, Faulkner, Dostoyevsky. Wondering how they did it. The making of worlds.
What was never in doubt was that I would be among them when I grew up. Not their equal necessarily, but participating in the same noble activity. I accepted that I might not be good at it. At first. But I could sense the hard work that had gone into my favourite works, and was prepared to devote myself to slow improvement.
Looking back on it, I must have seen writing as a sort of religious practice. A total commitment to craft and honest disclosure no less holy for its godlessness. There was the promise of salvation, after all. The possibility of creating a story that spoke for me, would be better than me. More compelling, more mysterious, more wise. I suppose, when they were still alive, I believed that writing a book would somehow keep my parents with me. And after they were gone, I simply changed my articles of faith: If I wrote a good enough book, it might bring them back.
But no book came.
Instead, after university, I started typing my way up the ladder of small-town weeklies and specialty magazine freelancing (“The New Dog, The New You” for Puppy Love! and “Carrots vs Beets?: The Root of the Problem” for Sustenance Gardening being two prizewinners in their fields). After I got married and was hired at the National Star, I thought about my book less, and about a flesh-and-blood future more. Children. Travel. But the niggling idea that I was thwarting my destiny with domestic comforts couldn’t be wholly escaped. In some private corner of my soul, I was still waiting. For the opening line. For a way in.
But no line came.
Two things happened next, oddly related, and at the same time: Tamara became pregnant, and I cancelled my Sundayonly subscription to The New York Times. The articulated reason for the latter decision was that I barely found the time to peel apart its many sections and supplements, never mind read any of them. And now, with a baby on the way – it was a waste.
The truth had nothing to do with saving time or trees, however. It had to do with my coming to the point where I could no longer open the Book Review of the Sunday Times without causing physical pain to myself. The publishers. The authors’ names. The titles. All belonging to books that weren’t mine.
It hurt. Not emotionally, not a mere spanking of the ego. It hurt in the same way kidney stones or a soccer cleat to the balls hurts – instantly, indescribably, critically. The reviews themselves rarely mattered. In fact, I usually couldn’t finish reading the remotely positive ones. As for the negative ones, they too often proved to be insufficient salves to my suffering. Even the snarkiest vandalism, the baldest runs at career enders, only acted as reminders that their victims had produced something worth pissing on. Oh, to awaken on a rainy Sunday and refuse to get out of bed on account of being savaged in the Times! What a sweet agony that would be, compared to the slow haemorrhaging in No Man’s Land it was to merely imagine creating words worthy of Newspaper of Record contempt.
Then Sam arrived, and the bad wanting went away.
I was in love – with Tamara, with my son, even with the world, which I hadn’t really liked all that much before. I stopped trying to write. I was too busy being happy.
Eight months later Tamara was gone.
Sam was a baby. Too young to remember his mother, which left me to do all the remembering for the both of us.
It wasn’t long after this that I started believing all over again. Waiting for a way to tell the one true story that might bring back the dead.
The demotions started some time after my return from bereavement leave. The dawning millennium, we were told, was ushering in a new breed of “user friendly” newspaper, one that could compete with the looming threats of the internet and cable news channels and widespread functional illiteracy. Readers had grown impatient. Words in too great a number only squandered their time. In response, the Arts section became the Entertainment section. Features were shrunk to make room for celebrity “news” and photos of movie stars walking, sunglassed, with a barbell-sized latte. Memos were circulated directing us to fashion our stories so as to no longer appeal to adults seeking information and analysis, but to adolescents with attention-deficit disorder.
Let’s just say they weren’t good days for the Books section.
Not that the ruin of my journalistic career happened overnight. I had slipped down the rungs of respectability one at a time, from literary columnist (gleeful, sarcastic trashings of almost everything) to entertainment writer-at-large (starlet profiles, tallying up the weekend box-office results), a couple months as “junior obituarist” (the “senior obituarist” being five years younger than me), before the inarguable end of the line, the universal newspaper grease-trap: TV critic. I had tried to talk my section editor into at least putting “Television Feature Writer” under my by-line, but instead, when I opened the Tube News! supplement the following weekend, I found that I didn’t even have a name any more, and that I was now, simply, “The Couch Potato”.
Which is accurate enough. These past months of professional withering have found me spending more of my time on various recliners and mattresses: my bed, in which I linger later and later every morning, the chair in my therapist’s office, which I leave shining with sweat, as well as the sofa in the basement, where I fast forward through the lobotomized sitcom pilots and crime dramas and reality shows that, put together, act on me as a kind of stupefying drug, the bye-bye pills they slip under the tongues of asylum inmates.
No shame in any of this, of course. Or no more shame than most of the things we do for money, the paid positions for Whale Saver or African Well Digger or Global Warming Activist being so lamentably few.
The problem is that, almost unnoticeably, the same notion from my childhood has returned to me like a lunatic whisper in my ear. A black magic spell. A devil’s promise.
Maybe, if I could only put the right words in the right order, I would be saved. Maybe I could turn longing into art.
There is something unavoidably embittered in the long-exposure critic. It’s because, at its heart, the practice is a daily reminder of one’s secondary status. None start out wanting to review books, but to write them. To propose otherwise would be like trying to convince someone that as a child you dreamed of weighing jockeys instead of riding racehorses.
If you require proof, just look at the half-dozen souls keyboard clacking and middle-distance staring in the cubicles around mine. Together, we pick through the flotsam that the waves of pop culture wash in every morning. The CDs, DVDs, game software, movies, mags. Even the book desk. My former domain. Now responsible for assembling a single, ignored page on Saturday. But still a better place than where they’ve put me.
Here we are. Off in the corner, no window within staplerthrowing distance. A desk that my colleagues call the Porn Palace, on account of the teetering stacks of black video cassettes on every surface. And it is porn. It’s TV. An addictively shameful pleasure we all seem to want more of.
There’s a box of new arrivals on my chair. I’m pulling out the first offering—a reality show where I’m promised contestants in bikinis eating live spiders – when Tim Earheart, one of the paper’s investigative reporters, claps me on the back. You’d never know it, but Tim is my best friend here. It occurs to me now with a blunt surprise that he may be my best friend anywhere.
“You got any Girls Gone Wild?” he says, rummaging through the tapes.
“Thought you were more of a documentary guy.”
“Wife’s away this week. Actually, she might not be coming back.”
“Janice left you?”
“She found out that my source on last week’s Hell’s Angels story was one of the bikers’ old ladies,” Tim says with a sad smile. “Let’s just say I went more undercover with her than Janice was comfortable with.”
If it’s true that his most recent wife has taken off, this will be marriage number three down the tubes for Tim. He turns thirty-six next week.
“Sorry to hear that,” I say, but he’s already waving off my sympathy.
“Drinks tonight?” he says, stepping away to re-join the hectic relevance of the news department. “Wait. It’s Valentine’s, isn’t it? You got a date?”
“I don’t date, Tim. I don’t anything.”
“It’s been a while.”
“Not so long.”
“Some would say four years is enough to -”
“Three years then. Eventually you’re going to have to face the fact that you’re still here, even if Tamara isn’t.”
“Trust me. I face that every day.”
Tim nods. He’s been to war zones. He knows a casualty when he sees one.
“Can I ask you something?” he says. “You think it’s too late to ask out that new temp they’ve got down in Human Resources?”
It happened again on the walk home.
More and more these days, I’ll be in the middle of something - dashing to the corner store, pounding out the day’s word count at my desk, lining up for coffee – and the tears will come. So quiet and without warning I hardly notice.
And then today, walking along the sidewalk when I would have said “Nothing” if asked what was on my mind, it started again. Wet streaks freezing on my cheeks.
A rhyme pops into my head. An unconsoling sing-song that carries me home.
I’m not well
I’m not well
But who in the hell
Am I going to tell?
By the time I get through the door, Sam’s already finished his dinner and Emmie, the nanny, is drying him from his bath. Another irretrievable moment missed. I like bathtime with Sam more than any other part of the day. A little music. Epic sea battles waged with rubber ducks and old toothbrushes. All of it leading to bed. To stories.
“I’ll take him,” I tell Emmie, and she opens the towel she has wrapped around him. He rushes out of his cocoon and into my arms. A soapy angel.
I get him into pajamas. Open the book we’re working through. But before I start reading, he studies me for a moment. Places a palm against my forehead.
“What do you think, doc? Am I going to make it?”
“You’ll live,” he says.
“But it’s serious?”
“I’m not sure. Is it?”
“Nothing I can’t handle.”
“I don’t want you to be sad.”
“I miss your mom sometimes. That’s all. It’s normal.”
“More or less.”
Sam purses his lips. He’s not sure whether to buy my pinched grin or not. The thing is, he needs me to be okay. And for him, I’ll stay as okay as I can.
He yawns. Squirms in close, his head against my throat so that he can feel the vibrations of the words to come. Jabs his finger at the pages I hold open.
“Where were we?”
Once Sam is asleep it’s down to the basement office. What Tamara used to call the Crypt. Which is a little too accurate to be wholly amusing. A low-ceilinged room that was a wine-making cellar for the previous owner. Even now, I can catch whiffs of fermented grapes. It makes me think of feet.
This is where I watch the tapes. A notebook on my knee, remote control in my hand.
I’m just three minutes into the spider-eating bikini babes when I hit Pause. Dig out of my pocket the ad I clipped from today’s classifieds.
Tell the Story of Your Life
Open your soul. Bring your buried words to the page in this intensive workshop with Conrad White, published poet and novelist. Truly write. Write the truth.
I’ve never heard of Conrad White. Never attended a writers’ workshop, circle, night class or retreat. It’s been years since I’ve tried to write anything other than what I am contractually obliged to. But something about this day – about the taste of the air in this very room – has signalled that something is coming my way. Has already come.
I call the number at the bottom of the ad. When a voice at the other end asks me what he can do for me, I answer without hesitation.
“I want to write a book,” I say.
THE KILLING CIRCLE. Copyright © 2008 by Andrew Pyper.
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