By Geoffrey Morrison
I hadn't meant to buy myself flowers. I had meant to eat shish taouk and make notes on the concept of joy. I'd been doing this every day for the last six months – the concept of joy being the topic of my manuscript. If I failed to complete my manuscript, I would be scoured with pads. The consequences of my failure to eat shish taouk would not immediately be felt, but might over time be made manifest.
I was by myself when I purchased the flowers – not only unaccompanied at the cash register, but also the solitary customer in the narrow and crowded shop. It smelled like wet water. The clerk asked me for the name of a beloved, so that she might write it on a card in beautiful writing. She explained that she would then position the card among the tines of a plastic fork specially designed for that purpose. I politely declined and admitted that the flowers were for myself.
“Oh!” she said. “Certainly brightens up a room!”
“Oh yes!” I said. “That is exactly what I was thinking.” This was true; I had been thinking exactly that. But I felt sorry not to see the beautiful writing.
To return home, I had to walk along Onager Street. Our town has 400,000 people, and most of them like to drive, especially on Onager Street if they can at all help it. I do not drive; this is because I once saw two videos. The first was of an auto accident involving speeds up to and including 100 miles per hour; the second was of an internecine war triggered by climate change. Both videos convinced me that the automobile has at best only a tenuous relationship to joy.
The first sign of trouble was on the part of Onager Street that bends like a mantis hand – just before Fontanelle Avenue and the park that doesn't have benches. A white 1995 Daihatsu Hijet cab-over pickup truck slowed past me to take the curve. The men in the cab were a landlord and a landscaper. The landlord's children were unsecured and unsupervised in the back of the truck – all very illegal – and all wore the distinctive orange jumpers of the Berlioz Academy. They had captured the Superintendent of Schools.
“Gay,” said the landlord, in a neutral tone.
I looked around.
“Gay! Gay!” said the landscaper, pointing at me and smiling with menace to make sure I knew who they were talking about.
“Gay, gay, gay!” said the children in unison.
The Superintendent of Schools, being bound and gagged, said nothing. I thought I recognized in his eyes an expression of pained sympathy, but it could have just been pain.
A few minutes later, at the intersection of Onager Street and Trial and Death of Socrates Way – the one by the Jug Town – a forest-green-and-orange 1976 Volkswagen Westphalia slowed to a stop at a late yellow. The men in the front seats were a 29-year-old pool-ball-glaze evaluator and a 29-year-old regional distribution agent of loud sounds.
“Go get her! Get that girl!” shouted the first man.
“You're-a gonna get laid in the night!” shouted the second man, echoing the catchphrase of an Adam Sandler film that was popular that summer.
As we all waited for the light to change, I noticed the passengers in the back of the Westphalia. The passenger closest to me was a fifteen-year-old screenplay called Love Actually by Richard Curtis. The screenplay was reciting its contents to my now-retired high school drama teacher, Ms. Grand. She looked disappointed and bored.
Next came the stretch of Onager Street that is mostly head shops and office supply stores. It begins just after the sepulchral greyish-white building that used to be the Third Church of Christ, Scientist, and is now an Anthropologie Structurale. I looked at the head shops, their lizard-green hand-painted lettering and heavy black curtains. I did not look at the office supply stores much. I looked at the flowers: red and yellow roses, a combination the clerk said meant joy.
Behind me I heard a hollow, fleshy rattle, almost like a skydiver's lips in freefall. A car was coming, but its make and model were ones I had never seen before. Its body was pink, a rosacea'd endoscopy-pink, a pinkness I realized was tripe in all four flavours: book tripe, reed tripe, blanket tripe, and honeycomb tripe, all flapping in loose layers like petals on a Busby Berkeley bathing cap. It had the low and terrible profile of a hearse.
I heard its occupants before I saw them: “Ass! Anal!” barked a 19-year-old rictus, an 18-year-old grimace, and a 19-year-old fangman, somehow all hanging out of the same passenger's-side window like a varsity Cerberus. A phlegm-green miasma rose from the tailpipe: corpse gas.
I stopped walking to watch the retreat of the unusual car. Their words perplexed me. The only explanation I could muster was this: for a man to have visibly engaged in an act of tenderness was a sign, in their eyes, that he practiced a kind of sex they hated.
Perhaps some might call what they said to me an expression of their joy, their hurtful joy. I had devoted much of my time to the study of this phenomenon, but it didn’t seem to fit in this case. I think the joy that hurts other people comes from barely seeing them as people – “of course I can say that to you; you exist to please me; you have no recourse.” This was the joy of the men in the Westphalia, and the joy of the fifteen-year-old screenplay they transported. But the looks on the faces of these boys were different. Closer to fear. First and foremost fear of each other.
I felt a righteous pity, as one might do for a bird that keeps eating the breadcrumbs that give it fatal gastric distress. These boys – almost certainly undergraduates at the local university, and bound for comfortable careers in business or the applied sciences – might never drive a car that didn’t smell like dead-person shit and stomach lining. Their so-called friends would say body parts at them if they drove cars that smelled like flowers, or cloves, or motherhood, let alone if they did not drive at all. I guessed that almost all the things that had given my life its quiet richness – even in this town, doing this work – were unavailable to them on account of their fear. I thought of a soon-to-be brightened room, thought of Ms. Grand in happier times clapping and smiling as I haltingly eked out a face I had never made before, thought of a shish taouk delivered with the utmost care to its bed of rice and lentils, thought of two ass-lovers delivering each other to brightness with utmost care, thought of a Superintendent of Schools delivered from pain, thought of the beautiful writing I hadn’t seen. I did not have a name to encompass the feelings brought by my contemplation of these things. Not even joy, a concept which I no longer believed was philosophically, sociologically, or even psychologically coherent – and indeed this was the drift that my manuscript’s argument was gathering itself up to take. I just knew that I wouldn’t stop doing the things that made them say body parts. I couldn’t if I tried.
When the owner-operators of a 1910 Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost Shooting Brake hollered and made an illegal U-turn just for me, I wasn't even mad. I doubted they'd prepared anything I hadn't heard before, or imagined I might hear, or even said to myself in a moment of my own bottomless scrabbling self-hatred and fear.
They were a 31-year-old grinning knowledge and a 31-year-old California vowel shift and a 31-year-old refusal to land upon a definitive conclusion. Six, seven, or eight years ago, these men had been what was then known as “hipsters.” They had had beautiful jackets, and had lived in the metropole, and provincial boys and girls who had spent less time in the metropole than them had been filled with admiration, envy, and a self-abasing lust. Now they were simply a grinning knowledge and a California vowel shift and a refusal to land upon a definitive conclusion, bumbling along in straitened circumstances like everyone else and hating that. Their Shooting Brake was so old and slow that their yells didn't bend to the Doppler effect.
“Sadboy! Hey sadboy! It's going to make for a hackneyed album cover!”
“Yeah! Spotify 'less-than sign' a thousand plays!”
“Hey sadboy, where's your bicorne? Kiss me, Hardy!”
I extended my arms wide – the bouquet in my right hand, and nothing in my left – and walked after the ancient car. Naturally they tried to floor it, but the engine belched and seized. The grinning knowledge remained at the wheel as the other two hopped out and ran around to the front, each one taking a turn pulling the hand crank, hurting his hand, swearing, getting his friend to do it, pulling, hurting, and swearing again, all the while both begging the engine to turn over. I came closer.
“The sense of ironic distance cultivated by the postmodern artists of the last quarter of the previous century,” I said, “was at once an aesthetic triumph and a political failure – the aesthetic triumph ultimately engendering a second, aftershock political failure in the first decade-and-a-half of the current century as the compromised techniques of ironic art were recapitulated in the popular sphere, where they both deviated from the intentions of their originators and at times became as volatile as nailbombs. Responses to these conditions in the form of purportedly stable archetypical systems, new Great Chains of Being – responses which have distinct leftist, rightist, and centrist iterations, incommensurate in content but concordant in form – have been, at worst, fascist, at best an echo of the conclusions of dialectical materialism without either the dialectic or the materialism. The project of a new socialist art in our time will in part be a reinvigoration of faculties which were only ever burlesqued both by postmodernism and its critics.”
“I can hear you typing,” said the grinning knowledge.
“I can't believe you said 'Great Chains of Being,'” said the refusal to land upon a definitive conclusion.
The California vowel shift sneezed.
I knew this first attempt at contact had beefed it, knew almost as soon as I heard myself speak. I was trying to beat them at their own game, when the lesson of my reverie by the head shops and office supply stores had been, no, don't do that, play your own game. I thought of mercy and great saints and holy people – no words, just the images and feelings that they might bring. My arms were getting tired, but I kept them stretched out. I made the nicest face I knew how.
“Dandrew,” said the California vowel shift, “I think this guy's gonna murder us.” He worked the hand crank heroically hard, and the engine finally clickered into readiness. The hand-crankers ran back around the sides and into the car, beating the grinning knowledge hard on the back with the heels of their hands to make him drive faster. It would seem I had taught them nothing.
I came in a short while to my building. It is a concrete tower built in a style that none find lovely, but its insides are clean and my balcony offers commanding views of the broadleaf trees and hidden paths and shaded low-rise office blocks of our town. My first sensation on breaching the lobby was the smell that old wood fixtures and paneling make in summer, as if they are able to sweat. Then I noticed the elevator midway to closing. I dashed, and a polished chestnut satchel swung out to stop the doors. I immediately recognized the satchel of Dr. Sanders, who after thirty-five years at the teaching hospital was now retired and dividing his time between our town and the one he was born in, in Saint Peter's Parish, Antigua. I thanked him for stopping the doors.
Dr. Sanders nodded. We had known each other long enough that he no longer inquired about the progress of my notes on the subject of joy. He smiled at my bouquet.
“Nice and cheerful for summer,” he said.
“Yes,” I said. “They are going to brighten up my room.”
Back in my apartment, I banged around for a vase. Best I could do was a decanter I'd been given as a housewarming gift three cities ago by a classmate – a woman who had been kind to me and who, to my shame, I had forgotten the name of. I hadn't used it yet, but not for want of liquor. My flowers just fit.
I looked at the tiny bubbles clinging to the stems like five-day stubble, the stems themselves a bundle of broken ankles under the waterline. The roses had a week, maybe a week and a half tops. The water would grow rank and cloy-sweet, the petals would slacken and brown, and in the end I would pour out the water and compost the remains. I saw it was a stubborn thing to keep cut flowers, to preserve what was already dead – like trying to cling to the freshness of a revelation as dark forgetfulness ate it up from the corners of the imagination on in. I tried to express this in a note.
Out on the balcony, the evening light was still shining golden hot. Homebound cars in a pageant of improbable models and makes were peeling off Onager Street to their appointed side streets and alleys and cul-de-sacs. I sat there and watched them for hours, let night and cool embalm me by degrees.
Geoffrey Morrison lives on unceded Squamish, Musqueam, and Tsleil-Waututh territory. He is the co-author, with Matthew Tomkinson, of Archaic Torso of Gumby, a book of experimental short fiction forthcoming in 2020 with Gordon Hill Press. He is also the author of a poetry chapbook, Blood-Brain Barrier, forthcoming with Frog Hollow Press. During the course of his MA in English at the University of Western Ontario (2013-14), several men shouted at him from their cars.