canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

In the Opposite Direction 

by J. J. Steinfeld


A few minutes before, the sun just about to rise, a cold, windy summer’s morning, Corey had been walking down the street, thinking about how he needed to get his life in order: eat better, get more sleep, find an ordinary, routine job, stop screwing things up, he had diagnosed himself. He was hoping that today, or maybe later in the week, he would meet someone new, a woman he could hold, not have to talk about the past; or if he did talk about the past, he could make up less scarred one. It’s been over a year since the woman he adored, that was how he used to describe her, still thought of her, left him one morning, right after they had finished breakfast together. Her leaving completely caught him by surprise. Scrambled eggs, hash browns, whole-wheat toast, freshly squeezed orange juice. He had burned the toast, but quickly toasted up four new slices, toasted to perfection, she had complimented him. He had squeezed the orange himself. He had really tried not to mess up, to tell her the truth about his life, to every morning make the best possible breakfast for both of them. He adored her, told her that so many times, and it crumbled in a second. He hadn’t lied to her, hadn’t made up another person for her.

No matter how uneasy he was with the past, he kept thinking about it during the morning, as though he were studying someone else’s mistakes and errors. Then he saw the store window and stopped. Corey reached into his inside jacket pocket, the pocket with a dozen stick pens and a small gun. All but one of the pens fell to the sidewalk and Corey thought of pick-up sticks. Stick around…stick-with-it-ness…stick in the mud…a stickler for… He caught himself saying the words aloud. Stick to your guns…stick around… Stick ‘em up, he said at the two mannequins. I have a gun, yes, I have a gun…

Corey pulled the small gun out of his jacket pocket—a gun he had traded a beautiful leather coat for a week ago; a leather coat he had stolen earlier that day—and shot at the larger of the two mannequins through the store window, the glass trembling into a fissured topography, but he missed his target. The window display was for beachwear, a lazy day at the seashore: colourful umbrella, overflowing buckets of sand, oversized sea shells, inflated grotesque beach creatures lounging absurdly next to the happy mannequin couple, the suggestion of a forgotten sideshow world. The larger mannequin looked just like his old high-school English teacher, the one Corey had shown the first batch of poems he had ever written, and the man, a fleshy arm around his student’s shoulder, said, "These are a tender, courageous arrangement of words, Corey. You are wise beyond your years. I sense you will be a great writer one day." Arrangement, Corey thought, what a hideous description, said as much to his teacher. Corey never became a writer, not a published writer; he held no desire to be a professional writer although he was fascinated by words and the writings of others, and often wrote poems that he rarely showed to anyone.

Now, recalling his teacher’s words with a sharp, memory-scraping accuracy, he looked at the mannequin he had shot at and questioned his mind’s construing of a resemblance. How could that be? The mannequin was sexless, a smooth plaster form. At the beach the teacher had wanted to drown Corey, or so Corey had accused him. "I’ll not let go of you, you’ll be safe. Embraced by the sea is when I feel closest to God," the man had tried to assure the teenager, embracing his student. "I don’t believe in God," Corey had yelled at his teacher, twisting out of the man’s hold. But he did believe in God, prayed to God even when he was in jail. "I want you to understand, Corey, I didn’t mean to…" If he hadn’t thrown sand in his eyes and ran, the man would have led him into the ocean. Corey heard the man shout after him that he looked forward to seeing him at school, that his poetry was lovely, but Corey promised himself never to believe another sweet-worded compliment.

He shot the gun again, missing his target once more, this time the glass shattering, a sound of both foreboding and angry celebration. He looked around, concerned for the first time if anyone was nearby. It was early, too early for any of the tourist shops to be open. The smell of the ocean was bringing memories with it. The last week, fifth morning in a row, he had been coming down to this area, about fifty kilometres from where he grew up. Stepping into the window, closer to the larger mannequin, he fired twice quickly, hitting the mannequin with one of the bullets, the misshapen form falling to the floor, its left arm breaking off. Corey detected sadness and fear on the smaller mannequin’s face, thought it might reach to stop him, but he knew his imagination was entwined with his impulsive, fervid actions. Corey fired again, shooting at the left arm of the larger mannequin as if he thought the appendage were attempting to flee the scene of the crime. The final bullet he shot hit the fallen mannequin in the right leg. The wounded mannequin could no longer suppress its pain, and agonizing screams filled the display window and Corey’s ears. The smaller mannequin’s tears, Corey observed, filled the disrupted beach.

After putting the now bulletless gun back into his jacket pocket, Corey bent down and broke off the mannequin’s right arm. Like breaking off a thick tree branch, he thought, but a jagged piece cut into the palm of his right hand, cutting short his poetic image. Some of his blood dripped on the smooth-faced mannequin; then, intrigued by the random design, he drew eyes, a nose, and a thin mouth on the smooth face. No vital organs hit, he whispered at the mannequin, and laughed. Why in the midst pain—his pain? the mannequin’s pain?—did his uncertain, edgy laugh emerge. Give me a gun and I’d end your stupid bullshit—that’s what he told his teacher on the beach, and the man cried, asked for forgiveness and secrecy…wept the word love, and Corey laughed and threw the sand.

Holding on to the tree branch of an arm, like a souvenir of a lost holiday, he thought this time, Corey walked through the beach display, knocking over the colourful umbrella and buckets of sand, crushing the sea shells underfoot, spitting at the inflated grotesque beach creatures, and stumbled out of the window. He considered picking up the pens he had dropped earlier, but instead succumbed to childish playfulness and kicked them from the sidewalk onto the street. He wondered what sound would be made when cars ran over the pieces of plastic, whether the ink would be squeezed out into a warning message. Once more Corey looked around and didn’t see anyone, thinking he was lucky this time, and after hurling the mannequin’s right arm as far as he could down the street, in the direction of the ocean, into the past, he hurried off in the opposite direction, his body covered with the cold sweat and exhilaration of a man who had tempted and sidestepped fate.


The waitress, who had served Corey his breakfast each of the previous four times he had eaten at this touristy coastal diner, and each time told him how he reminded her of her grown son, the way he always looked down at the table and played with his food, but this fifth visit he told her that he wasn’t especially close to his mother, that he had broken her heart on more than a few occasions, the way he couldn’t stay out of trouble. Thinking that her own dear son had brought happiness into her life, despite his limitations and handicaps, the waitress suggested her customer clean his injured hand, told him there was a first-aid kit under the cash register, and he said he’d be okay, he always healed fairly quickly.

"You don’t want that cut getting infected," she said, refilling her customer’s coffee cup.

"Pain has a way of making me feel more alert, less complacent, if you get what I‘m saying," he said, pressing a piece of toast against the palm of his injured hand.

"Not really," the waitress said, walking away from her enigmatic customer. Corey resumed breaking his toast into pieces, smaller and smaller, an artisan confused by his creation. Pain, he thought, the pain of existence…pain in the ass…painful… full of pain—thinking about words as a way to counter the futility he was feeling—the taunting, mocking mannequin, he imagined, had felt pain, excruciating pain. Corey was sitting at a table in the back, underneath a photograph of the Atlantic Ocean, even though the diner was less than a stone’s throw from the Pacific Ocean, if you had a strong throwing arm, He saw himself in the photograph, and his old English teacher. Then he imagined the contours of the ocean as the contours of God, and had the urge to write a poem about that image. Later, after he went back to his room.

When the two police officers, young, handsome men wearing protective vests, came into the diner, Corey, three or four years younger than them but too gaunt and pale to be called handsome any longer, turned his body toward the wall with the Atlantic Ocean photograph, wished he hadn’t brought his bulletless gun with him. What sort of protection would that be, its steel mimicking ferocity? What explanation could he give for the hidden weapon, lethargic inside his jacket? A good-luck charm? A gift with sentimental value from a cherished friend? Should have left it with the wounded mannequin. He thought of the two police officers as Neptune and Poseidon, their guns as tridents, attempted to differentiate which one was the Greek god, which one Roman.

Strange, how he didn’t remember the lineage of Neptune and Poseidon, but nevertheless played with the notion of cop gods of the ocean. Something he tripped up on, the names of Greek and Roman gods and goddesses. Ares and Mars, Demeter and Ceres, Hermes and Mercury, Dionysus and Bacchus, Athena and Minerva, he recalled mislabelling them on a school exam, the year he quit school, rather the year he had his first serious run in with school authorities and the police and had his formal schooling rearranged. Still, it wasn’t the gods and goddesses, Greek or Roman, he needed to confront now, was caught with in landlocked inevitability. The inevitability could be dissolved, he thought, if he were on a boat sailing on the ocean: then he could take deep, freeing breaths and look off into the distance, into the vastness. He has a fear of water, though. One of the earliest dreams he can recall was of being chained to himself, except his other self had no ears or mouth, the two selves crawling along the ocean bottom, crawling for dear life. He had never learned to swim, yet he loved the ocean despite this fear, at least loved the idea of the ocean. Can you love what you fear? Fear what you love? These were questions he had asked on many occasions, as if they were a calling card he needed to hand to any person he met. He had asked the two questions not that long ago of a jail guard, who took particular delight in ridiculing Corey’s then caged existence. Of the woman he adored, made love with every day for a month after one of his jail stays, and who had left him abruptly at the end of that month with an explanation that was now a memory purgative for him. Of the memory of his parents, who’s parenting skills were lacklustre to say the least. Something he actually wrote to each of them in happy-silver-anniversary cards on what would have been their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary had they not divorced ten years earlier.

The police officers look around the diner, but Corey, facing the wall, does not know this, not specifically. His thoughts go back to the photograph. He liked the incongruity of the misplaced photographic scene, or is it displaced, he thinks. He whispers the words misplaced/displaced as if they are one word, a prayerful word. He knows the police officers are looking for him, that is not arguable, but he wonders who had called the police. As he was walking toward the diner, he hadn’t seen anyone near him on the street. The tourist shops weren’t open yet, the sun was barely up. Just the diner. Perhaps someone from an apartment window, staring out from the boredom of an anonymous life. Or from a distant rooftop, binoculars spying his inexplicable disruption of the morning. Could he extricate himself from the police officers’ pursuit, these cop gods of the ocean? Cast doubt that he was the culprit? Could he explain his injured hand? Shooting at the past—a mannequin in a store window as history, his history—what a joke. You agree, officers? I’ve had some disputatious yet meaningful conversations with officers of the law in the past. He laughed at the imaginary conversation.

His right hand hurt, the palm sore, but he still wrote on the napkin, word after word. He liked filling napkins with words. He wrote the word betrayal, saw smaller words dwelling within its sheath. There is little doubt in his mind that he had been betrayed, informed on. Now he believes with an irrational certainty that it is someone who knows him, a former fellow inmate, the woman who left him after a month of lovemaking, the friendly waitress who claimed he reminded her of her son. He cannot discard the word betrayal, the letters adhering to him as firmly as the wordless tattoos he has on his arms and back—starts to make other words from its letters, three letters or longer words. Word games relaxed him—alone in his room as a boy, locked in a jail cell, at a restaurant table—even if he squeezed the pen so tightly that had it been an animal its neck would have been snapped. It wasn’t that he felt resigned or trapped, only hating empty spaces and long pauses. He was filling the time with the writing of words, three letters or more, until... Until what? he thought as he wrote "bet… tray… yet… let… late… ray… bay… rat… bat… brat… bray… belt… ale… bale… tale…" in quick, uncontrived succession.

Corey, if a succinct, social-services description is needed, is a sad, disruptive man who is unable to maintain regular employment. Or a more literary or psychological one: thin, muscular, a mass of contradictions, a large vocabulary, self-taught, an avid reader who alternates between volubility and a reluctance to speak, except maybe to motherly waitresses, that it the phase he is experiencing now, having just celebrated his twenty-fourth birthday by shooting a mannequin in a store window because he saw someone who had hurt him. From his past? From an imagined past? Lately—maybe not so lately—thoughts of time fast and slow and devious, and images and recollections came in and out of his mind shimmering, wavering. At the age of twelve he began to speak and write eloquently of things violent and disturbing. His parents were baffled yet pleased by their son’s creativeness. First one teacher, then a child psychologist, and later another therapist, began to speak of a talent, a facility with language, My God, the child reads more than most adults, more than I do, that child psychologist had said. Before his next birthday his mother and father had separated and talked eloquently of divorce, the son wrote, but not violently. There was no animosity or violence in their marriage, he had written, only erasures and excuses. At the age of fifteen he broke the jaw of a teacher, his first overtly violent act, then walked out of the classroom. Throwing sand in someone’s eyes in self-defence wasn’t a violent act, was it? It was English class, the one course in school he liked. Still, he was outraged that morning, tapping angrily at his desk, seeming to attempt to reshape what had been happening in his life. The teacher twice told him to stop his annoying tapping, and other students in the class looked at him with disapproval. Later, in a letter to the woman who left him, he wrote of it "as that forlorn fateful day drenched in damp despair…heck, a little alliteration never killed anyone, and besides I don’t write for publication, only to annoy myself, which I do in great abundance." After the punch, he softly quoted a line from a poem that no one in the class recognized, though one of the students was certain she had read it somewhere. He had written the poem at his desk. Not his first poem. His first poem he had already shown the teacher. Shown him all the poems he had written. A week later he returned to school, bruises across both sides of his face, stitches over his eyebrow and on his chin, a nervous-handed calligraphy, and the police were called. He quoted several lines of the poem as the police were arresting him. That was almost nine years ago. Corey has spent nearly half of that time in jail: petty theft, meaningless fights, senseless disruptions. He got out a few days ago and would sit in a small, stuffy room of a rooming house until he left in the morning, hungry and frustrated, until each morning he would go to have breakfast, attempt to give some structure to his days. This morning began as the others, changing only when he shoot into the window before arriving at the diner.

When he first met the woman who was to become the woman he shared a month with and later claimed he would jump into the middle of the ocean for her without a second thought, yet he wouldn’t use the word love—But you can’t swim, you told me, she criticized his example of sacrifice—Corey was sitting at the counter of a different diner, telling her that being with her was like acting in a movie trying to evoke an earlier, simpler time. But earlier times were never really simpler times, wouldn’t you say? She said that to him. And he scratched his forehead, scratched very hard. "I feel like I’m a character in a novel…a minor character but one who does something crucial and irrevocable," Corey said, his fingers creating a new language.

"What do you mean by that?" she asked, touching his arm gently.

"I mean by that," he said, paused, and looked at the counter. A tiny lake of spilled coffee caught her attention. He swam with his thoughts through the coffee lake before going on: "It means I have a preference for a more crafted reality." He shook his head at his words, scratching harder, finding new destinations on the limited terrain of his face.

The woman had married a man without scars and with a steady job, that was how she had explained it to Corey, on a small card, her handwriting neater than usual. As he thought of that now, Corey shook his pen, trying to summon it to life. He drew a few circles, trying to revive the pen, but it was out of ink. He said something longingly to the memory of the woman. Then he reached inside his pocket… Both police officers removed their guns, and to Corey it sounded as if the cop gods of the ocean were both speaking at the same time, a single loud voice.

"Put your hands on the table."

"It’s a goddamn pen."

"…on the table…"

"A pen for writing—"

A bullet entered the wall near the photograph of the Atlantic Ocean.

Corey’s gun was empty. He had a dozen pens in the same pocket as his empty gun. Lots of pens, no bullets, no swords either, he thought, rhyming pun with gun, gun with pun. The pen is mightier, he yelled out, as if trying to impress a teacher who thought he was unprepared for a classroom discussion.

Another shot, a bullet with purpose and disdain.

His last thought and last sentence were quite different. His last thought was of diving off the side of a boat, into the ocean, and beginning to swim into the vastness. His last words, coughed as much as spoken, were, "I never learned to swim…"


The first word fiction writer, poet, and playwright J. J. Steinfeld learned to spell correctly as a child was Kafkaesque. As an adult he has had a recurring dream—or is it a nightmare?—in which he plays Scrabble with Franz Kafka and loses by several hundred points each and every time. Despite being trounced in Scrabble dreams, Steinfeld, who lives in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, has published a novel and nine short story collections, including Forms of Captivity and Escape (Thistledown Press, 1988), Dancing at the Club Holocaust (Ragweed Press, 1993), Should the Word Hell Be Capitalized? (Gaspereau Press, 1999), Anton Chekhov Was Never in Charlottetown (Gaspereau Press, 2000), and Would You Hide Me? (Gaspereau Press, 2003), along with two short-fiction chapbooks by Mercutio Press, Curiosity to Satisfy and Fear to Placate (2003) and Not a Second More, Not a Second Less (2005), and a poetry chapbook by Cubicle Press, Existence Is a Hoax, a Woman in Fishnet Stockings Told Me When I Was Twenty (2003). His stories and poems have appeared in numerous anthologies and periodicals, and over thirty of his one-act and full-length plays have been performed in various forms, ranging from staged readings to full productions. His first poetry collection, An Affection for Precipices, will be published by Serengeti Press in 2006.







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