canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999


by Dimitri Nasrallah

Already by thirty-one years of age Vincent’s hair had thinned and greyed prematurely beyond the reassurances of supermarket-brand hair dyes. Still, each Sunday he stood in front of the bathroom mirror, his hands toiled over the scalp with disposable plastic container and comb. He stood quietly in worn undershirt and polyester exercise shorts, his feet bare on the tiled floor as drops of dye ran the course of the comb down his hand to his elbow, coming to a final rest at a puddle formed about his toes. This puddle was a murky black.

After some time, the mixture separated. The spreading water lost its form, the dye pushed to the edges of the water, filling the creases between the tiles. His hands, too, were stained from finger to wrist with black ink. Residue from the comb had sprayed outward as it ran the course of the scalp, building in front along the counter and mirror; in behind on the glass of a framed print of Raphael’s Madonna and Child hanging above the towel rack. The print belonged to Vincent’s mother, Genevieve. Several months ago the print belonged to Gregory, Genevieve’s husband and Vincent’s stepfather, but since then he had passed away.

Vincent did not waver at the appearance of the running dye, thoroughly absorbed in his work. Once his hair was restored, he turned his attention to his coarse beard. After completing the dying process, Vincent washed his hands with a liquid soap, scrubbing vigorously to rid his hands of the ink. Despite his efforts, the dye found its way to the towel when he dried his hands.

He walked downstairs to the living room to read the newspaper before going to bed, leaving a trail of black footsteps behind him.

The newspaper, the Sunday edition of the Toronto Star, waited for him on the sofa in the living room. After a twelve-hour shift at the meat-packing plant, Vincent was tired and he could sense the onslaught of a headache. It was not in his habit to work on Sundays but, as his supervisor had explained, the overtime was a necessity to the welfare of the factory during the holiday season. He had arrived at the factory at six that morning to oversee the herding of two thousand lambs, brought in from Northern Ontario by train and freight-truck, onto the factory floor. The young animals, many of whom had been parted from their mothers for the first time, crowded together in the abattoir, unanimously tense with confusion.

By ten, just before the workers took their habitual half-hour break, all two thousand lambs had been beheaded. The bloodletting had been completed by shortly after one, the blood lingering about the tiled floor before being hosed into one of over seventy drains. When the workers returned from lunch, they formed fifteen separate teams of three and began dividing the animals into appropriate packaging quantities.

As a general rule, no person was allowed into the abattoir without a breathing mask, protective plastic bodysuit, and gloves after the bloodletting, partially on account of food packaging restrictions, but mostly for the safety of the workers themselves, who would otherwise be exposed to numerous bacteria that thrived within the animals’ blood and the other strains that developed along the dead carcasses. After every lamb, the work station, an oblong wooden table, was washed clean with a hose that hung down from the ceiling and the next lamb was mounted.

Vincent and his fellow workers at work-table number six divided and packaged the carcasses of sixty-four lambs in under five hours.

He lay down on the sofa and closed his eyes for a moment, to feel the aching along his temple. Headaches were a common feature of his life, a feature he attributed, with little thought, to the stress of the holiday season. His stomach, too, hurt, the pain sharpest when he breathed. Stomach pains, he knew, were an unfortunate attribute of long hours spent with dead animals.

He opened the first section of the newspaper and began reading an article about a young entrepreneur who had started a business by designing innovative-looking order forms for mid-sized companies. The article did not hold Vincent’s interest past the second paragraph and he moved along to one on the opposite page, about an urban day-care centre for the children of wayward youths still pursuing their high school diplomas. This article, too, did not appeal to his taste, and as he searched the newspaper for a reasonably provocative piece of information, he was dismayed to see that almost all of the content was concerned with the trials and dilemmas, the achievements and the celebrations, of a culture more youthful than his own.

Vincent closed his eyes once more and listened to the rhythm of his breathing, his hands rubbing his belly with each exhale. A lamp stood behind the sofa and he soon found its harsh light worsened his headache, forcing his blood to thicken within the veins of his temples. He raised both hands and carefully felt about the sides of his head, searching for the shape of the veins, finding each bulge in the space between his ear and eye. Massaging them, he found, only resulted in placing a greater pressure on his eyes, which were beginning to crave a dark room.

Vincent stood, turned off the lamp, and clumsily attempted his walk up the circular staircase with his eyes closed. At the top of the stairs, he opened his eyes and, after turning off the light in the bathroom, noticed light coming from his mother’s room. Once in his bedroom, he saw it was well past midnight and wondered what his mother was doing at such an hour. Had she fallen asleep with the light on? Was she not well, too weak to call for help? Was it too late to offer her help? What did she do at all hours of the night? Earlier that month, Vincent had caught her, by mere chance, walking aimlessly throughout the house at four in the morning. He had not disturbed her, instead seeking cover behind the door of his room, watching from the cracked opening as she walked back into the master bedroom.

Genevieve and Gregory had married when Vincent was twelve. It was the first time anyone else had lived in the house with them. Previously, Vincent had been an only child and Genevieve had been a single parent. After Gregory arrived, Genevieve was no longer a single parent but he was still an only child.

Vincent lay down on his bed after undressing, and promptly fell asleep. The next several hours passed within minutes. Random images flashed before his eyes. They were vivid images of strangers engaged in strange activities. The corners where walls met, people he’d known for very brief periods of time, and a number of other inexplicables with no bearing on one another. When his dreams settled Vincent awoke with a different body. He examined his hands and they did not bear the lines, the toughened skin of his later years at the meat-packing plant. This made him feel freer almost immediately. His face, too, was smooth, still too young to grow a beard.

For a moment, he seemed suspended in air, a body outside space and time. Then, without warning, he was outdoors. He immediately shielded his eyes with both hands, taken by the severe light of day that nearly caused him to fall. He staggered in search of a shelter to shade him. The land was barren. Intense light shone from all directions, like a fire in a house of mirrors. Vincent staggered about without dedicating his efforts to any particular direction, his arms protecting his face, his head buried into his armpit to the extent that such a thing is possible.

Soon he stumbled across a car, literally stumbled into its side, hitting his head on the window. With his eyes still shut, Vincent followed the surface of the car around to the driver’s side only to find, when he opened the door, that a man was already in the driver’s seat. He immediately recognized this man as Gregory. In the back seat sat Genevieve, staring out her window with her hands in her lap. Vincent called to her but she payed him no attention. He tried to get past Gregory to his mother but Gregory refused to let him into the car. They argued. A struggle followed, with both men, rolling around on the ground. They threw punches, bloodied lips, tore shirts, blackened eyes, bit ears. After several minutes of intense fighting Gregory, his chest heaving for breath, put his hand out as a gesture of surrender. Vincent swatted the hand away fiercely. Gregory broke down in tears. Vincent left him there on the ground, taking his car. Yet even as he drove the light continued to blind him. Soon a road took shape around the vehicle and it gave him direction.

Vincent drove faster than he would have liked, considering he was having trouble keeping his eyes on the road. Not only did the light blind him but he kept peering into the rearview to catch glimpses of his mother. He called, yelled even, to her as he drove but she acted as if he were not there. The side of the road, once little more than fields of brush, began to offer many distractions. He passed many women, in little more than undergarments and arousing positions, who waved at him seductively. Vincent couldn’t help but look. It was all he could do to not stop the car and act out all his dirty fantasies.

The further he pressed the more complicated his surroundings seemed. Shortly after, cars began to appear, coming from the opposite direction. He was unsure what lane to drive in. The cars coming towards him kept moving from the left lane to the right and back. His dizziness intensified. More women lined the sides of the road. He was having trouble keeping his eyes open. He chose to look into the rearview, if only to see his eyes momentarily meet with his mother’s. At times, he was forced to drive on the gravel shoulder to avoid cars that kept changing lanes. His tires would slide, making control of the vehicle more difficult. Vincent persisted forward, blanking out from one moment to the next. He swerved from one lane to the other at dangerous speeds. Traffic heading in his direction grew increasingly unpredictable.

People ought to learn to drive, he thought.

Then his car skidded on the gravel shoulder and slammed him into a wall. He could not determine where he was when the car came to a full stop. Climbing out the passenger door, he looked to the backseat and saw that his mother was no longer there. Outside, a crowd was forming. He was forced to face them alone. They inquired if he was hurt. Their voices talked in unison and he could not discern what it was they wanted to know. He looked back at the car and realized again it was not his own, that this crowd would want answers as to where he found this car, and his worries doubled at the thought of his mother’s reaction to his having damaged Gregory’s car.

“Perhaps this explains the trouble with driving,” he said to the crowd, pointing his finger of blame at the car. “The cars of others must never be trusted, and I must stop making a habit of using them.”

Fortunately the car was not badly damaged. It had scraped the wall with its side and ground to a halt rather than colliding head on, which could have proven fatal. Vincent studied the wall for a long time, its high red bricks and wrought-iron trim, and noticed that it encompassed a large, private garden. It had flower beds and stone fountains and bushes crafted to look like animals and people. "It must belong to a very wealthy man," Vincent said as he turned to back to face the crowd. But they were no longer there.

He awakened again to the dull throb of his temples and the stabbing pain in his belly. He sat up in his bed and his stomach turned light from the abrupt movement. He felt his forehead and cheeks, finding them abnormally cold. Upon turning his head, the pain spread from his temple to between his eyes, slowly working its way to his sinuses.

From the bedroom window he could make out very little. The sun was still behind the horizon, flooding the room in a deep orange. He anticipated the dawn believing it would somehow cure his anguish. Vincent turned on the light beside his bed. His nose was bleeding. The pain was overwhelming, spreading quickly behind his ears. Slowly, with much trouble, he raised himself from the bed, bones aching with every move, sheets drenched in sweat. The clock in his bedroom read twenty after six. He fumbled in the dark for his robe.

He decided to take another stab at sleep after a drink of water from the bathroom sink. Under his damp fingers the vein in his right temple bulged, growing rapidly. In the bathroom, Vincent struggled to the mirror and found his brown skin had turned a sickly olive green. His face appeared alien, eyes hollow and lips chapped. Sweat beaded on his shivering frame. The trembling worked its way up both arms until he could feel his jaw shaking. Perhaps I’d better sit down, he ventured, leaning against the counter before making his way to the tiled floor, first on his knees then resting against the wall beside the toilet.

Genevieve was awake. From where Vincent lay against the wall, he saw that her door was open. He listened and heard footsteps walking along the stairs. She walked past the open bathroom door and saw him laid out. Blood from his nose trailed down his chin and chest.

Then the vomiting started.

His mother walked into the bathroom, standing over him as he thrust his head into the toilet repeatedly. She wore a blue flannel nightgown, extending to her ankles, and slippers. Her long hair, going gray, hung about her frail shoulders, shining under the weight of oil. He looked up at her fearfully in the brief intervals his stomach would allow him. Her face was defined by lines, some of age, others of fatigue. Since the last time he’d taken a direct look at his mother, shortly after the funeral, her cheeks had sunk down and her eyes had grown narrow, indistinguishable in the concavity of her aged skin.

“What have you done to yourself?” she cried, to which he was too weak to reply. The question reverberated in his mind, broken into fragments that would not hold together. She bore down on him, examining the sickly colour of his skin.

Genevieve put a glass of water to his mouth but he was too weak to drink. She flushed the toilet, but was unable to flush the lingering smell. With a wet towel, she soothed his greenish-white skin. He looked at his mother, who stood over him now looking down, and hoped she would look beyond their strained past and accept him as if he were a stranger. He muttered “help me” and “please,’ repeated between each deepening breath, both indecipherable to her.

Vincent recalled a particular day in 1975, when he, then a young boy of seven, had run home from school in the rain. His clothes were soaked through and he remembered the cold feeling in his bones, the way his teeth chattered. Genevieve, then a handsome young woman, had helped him out of his wet clothes. That afternoon they had watched cartoons on television and ate popcorn on the living room couch. His body, then so small, had fit perfectly around the contours of her own.

The pain in Vincent’s head was like a nail splitting dry wood. He worried that he would be late for work that morning. Genevieve rushed out of the bathroom to telephone an ambulance and when she returned she knelt down on the tiled floor beside him in the dry stain of black ink that remained from the previous evening. She took hold of his cold, shaking hands, held them to her lips, pressing his palm with her free hand under her chin. He felt her pulse travel through her neck, it was in sync with his. His stomach heaved once more but nothing came.

Trapped between the bathroom walls and Genevieve, Vincent felt cheated by all the maladjusted clocks in his life, their arms twisting his limbs as though he were a marionette. His robe lay open and his frail body exposed. Genevieve grimaced at how thin he’d become. She hadn’t seen his body since she’d bathed him as a young child. The tap dripped and each drop amplified the silence. He raised his hands to cover his ears, his eyes. Genevieve held them down, intent on studying his face.

Vincent pulled her close, begging to apologize for the trouble he had caused her.

There were many things for which he needed forgiveness, some he’d done and others he’d thought of doing. Genevieve held a finger to his lips as he tried to talk, shaking her head, working to keep her composure so as not to worry him. His body, seeping sweat like sap from a maple, lay limp in her arms as she rocked him back and forth. They were immersed in the pale light of day coming through the bathroom window. Cars’ engines could be heard idling as people prepared for the drive to work. Vincent had never been awake for a sunrise before. The day broke with clarity.

Genevieve continued to rock him back and forth in her arms, in a manner she had not used since he was a child. Under her breath, he began to faintly make out the words “not you too” being repeated over and over and through his haze Vincent could tell that all along she was thinking of Gregory. He remembered how two months prior he had driven Gregory to the hospital. Gregory, too weak to sit up straight, had laid down in the backseat with his head rested in Genevieve’s lap. He had watched them silently from the rearview. And he remembered standing alone in the hallway at the hospital, spying through the glass of the door as Genevieve wept at the side of Gregory’s bed. Finally he remembered driving back home, eyeing Genevieve in the rearview again as she sat alone in the backseat.

Vincent waited in his mother’s arms for the ambulance. He stared at the Madonna and Child print above the towel rack. The print had been hanging in the bathroom for as long as he could remember. How that mother and son looked so natural together. In his teens, an inebriated Vincent and his friends would deface it with marker on nights his parents went out, adding long moustaches on the woman and obscenely large organs on the young child she was holding. The dry heaves continued. His pupils were indistinguishable. Genevieve gasped at the whites of his eyes. Their veins, unable to handle the strain, burst and slowly clouded.

Dimitri Nasrallah writes: "I am a young writer from the Toronto area. I came across your webpage and I couldn't help but notice that what you're looking for and what I write have quite a few things in common. I, too, share your conviction for intelligent writing. At this point, I have yet to publish any fiction but I have published articles (including book reviews) at the university press level."







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