The Donor

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The last thing he remembered was tightening his grip on the steering wheel. The image of his unfastened seatbelt flashed before him, the empty buckle grinning a wide, stupid grin that he’d like to fill. He had the flash of a thought that maybe if he held the wheel tight enough, he could brace himself against the force of the collision, the way one grips the crossbar of a rollercoaster to prevent from falling out during the loop-the-loop. It was useless, though. He was thrown through the windshield and landed on the boulevard, his head coming very close to colliding with a Yield signpost.

He should have died. In fact, he was (technically) dead for a minute there in the ambulance. His heart stopped for a full spin around the undamaged watch that clung to his fractured wrist. The paramedics tried to pound the organ awake, but they were pretty sure they were knocking on the door of a dead man. They were readying the paddles when his ticker started keeping time again—just like that. The seasoned paramedics shared a “how-about-that” glance, real quick across his body, like blink and you’d miss it, and then set about stablizing him.

All that time and for three months after he was out cold, dreaming about something that faded and was lost the moment he awoke to the fluorescent lights of the hospital room. There were no Get Well cards or flowers because he was more or less alone in the world and had always preferred it that way. But waking up alone in a strange place with a question mark over his head made being alone feel very lonely.

The attending nurse brought him up to speed and regaled him with the rather miraculous story of his survival. “You shouldn’t be alive,” he was told. It was something he heard too frequently during his recovery.

There was no one there to pick him up upon his release from hospital so he took a cab home and found a note taped to his door informing him that his neighbour, an older woman he’d conversed with regarding the weather on a few occasions, had been collecting his mail for him.

“And I knew about the hidden key so I let myself in.” He was sitting at his neighbour’s kitchen table, having a cup of pretty bad coffee and looking at the mail stacked between them, wishing to grab it and go. She was in the middle of justifying her reasons for entering his home. “I wasn’t sure if you had any pets or plants and I’d seen you hide the key under that fake rock, so I felt it was my duty to—”

“I don’t have any pets or plants,” he said.

“I noticed. But when it got cold a little ways back, well…you know it isn’t a good idea to leave a house to the cold like that, so I lit your pilot light and—”

“I guess I should be getting home. Thanks for the coffee.”

***

Sitting at his own kitchen table, he sorted the stack of mail into junk, bills and other. It was mostly junk and bills, but he did find one letter of interest, sent Overnight Delivery from his aunt in Florida. It was an invitation to attend his twin sister’s funeral, which he was three months late for.

After the initial wave of grief had subsided, he looked again at the invitation and noticed that the funeral was right around his accident. He called the aunt—who was at first mad at him for not attending—and after some catchup about the goings-on of some cousins he didn’t care too much for, he got the date and cause of his sister’s death. She had died, approximately, at the same time his accident occurred; cause of death unknown. That is to say, she died due to heart failure while walking her corgi, but why, no one knew. She was, according to the aunt, perfectly healthy.

He hung up and went to the bedroom. The bed had been stripped of its linen and the pillows were on the floor. Most likely the neighbour’s doing. He was too tired to make the bed up so he lay facedown on the exposed mattress, staring at the wall. He focused on the dull whiteness of the paint and on slowing his breathing. Somewhere beneath the quiet of his in- and exhalations he heard the steady sound of his heartbeat.

The Camera

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The mother finished clearing away the breakfast dishes and nudged the boy. Why don’t you just try it out, she said. The boy had been wrapped up all morning in the instruction manual for a new camera he’d received as a gift for passing grade five with medium-to-high marks. When his final report card had come and his parents asked him what he wanted as a reward, there had been no hesitation. A real camera with a flash and everything, he’d said. And he didn’t want one of those colourful kiddy numbers. He wanted something grown-up-looking. A simple black camera will do, he’d said. What he came down to this morning, in addition to blueberry pancakes, was a box containing exactly that: a simple black camera with a flash and everything. There was a card too, containing a written message from both his mother and his father in their wildly different scripts saying more or less the same thing: we’re really proud of you.
The boy wanted to be taken seriously as a maturing person, so he announced to his parents that he wasn’t going to even touch the camera until he’d read the instructions and got to know the do’s and don’ts of proper camera ownership. I can show you all you need to know, pal, his father said. Thanks, but I want to know what the manufacturers have to say about this model, he replied.
After a summary investigation he was pretty sure the manual was overkill, but he read it in depth all the same. He learned how to put the batteries in. How to open and close the lens cover. How to rewind and eject the film when it was spent. All things that, in the end, he was sure his father could’ve showed him. He felt a pang of contrition, so, pretending he wasn’t entirely clear on the concept of film loading, he went to his father with the camera and the roll of 24 shot colour Kodak and asked him for help. Just to be certain, he said, so that I don’t do it wrong and spoil the whole thing.
Following an overlong tutorial on the proper method of film loading, a tutorial that came with an unasked-for end tag in which his father prattled on about focal points and shot composition and the spiritual nature of still images, the boy was finally released to go off in search of subjects.
The boy’s first impulse was to collect some of his army figures and take them outside to capture their staged battles. But that was a childish impulse—the camera was a sign of maturity and here he was undermining its symbolic value with fantasies of Dinky toys. He chose instead for his subject the bounty of colours and shapes that nature provided in his own backyard. I’ll start with the familiar, he thought, and when I get better I’ll move out beyond my yard to the park and by the time we go camping in August I’ll be pretty good and can shoot all kinds of unfamiliar things.
***
The boy didn’t know it, but it was a perfect morning for nature photography. The sun was warm and not so radiant that one needed to squint in order to see. In another hour or so the sun would be blinding and any photo not taken in the shade would be overexposed.
He saw some butterflies flitting about his mother’s azaleas and ran to capture them. He snapped off three of what he thought were really good shots. After the butterflies moved on, he got an extremely tight shot of the pink flowers that would have come out blurry if his roll of film had survived what happened next.
As he made his way toward the other side of the yard where his father was still in the process of building a fence, he noticed his recently divorced neighbour Mr. Boyer, watering his small vegetable garden. Mr. Boyer spotted him and they exchanged a casual greeting. The boy thought about how impressed Mr. Boyer would be to see someone so young shooting on a real camera with real film. It crossed his mind to mention the camera, but his neighbour had already returned to his watering. He was, however, standing in a good position to observe the boy and his camera if he were to look up again, so the boy crouched down and meretriciously snapped a picture of a fence post. He repositioned himself so that the camera could be better observed. He even turned the flash on, hoping it would attract Mr. Boyer’s attention. But the sun was too bright for the flash to register.
The boy tried a new tack. He walked the property line swinging the camera from his wrist by its string. He whistled the way old men did when they were strolling or sitting by the fountain in the park. Surely all the movement and noise was bound to catch his neighbour’s attention. And then the boy thought, what if he does look up and see me with my camera, how is he to know that it’s a real film camera? So the boy opened up its back in order to display that there was in fact real film inside. He continued to stroll and whistle until Mr. Boyer was finished with his watering and, without a second glance, retreated indoors. The boy was disappointed, but he mollified himself by returning to his original purpose. He did a good job of covering every corner of the yard until the role of film was spent.
Lucky for the boy, the print shop where his mother dropped the film off did not charge for the exposed roll. And when his father asked what had happened, the boy simply stated that his thumb slipped and opened the camera back. I guess you’ll know to be more careful in the future, his father said. The boy nodded his agreement, too embarrassed to speak.

Dust

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Howard Blunko awoke to the smell of dust. He reached over to his bedside table and grabbed a tissue to clear his nose. He blew until his sinuses were clear. He breathed in deeply, but there was no change–the smell of dust persisted. Thinking perhaps that it was just his bedroom needing a good vacuuming, he went to the kitchen, a room typically bursting with aromas, but it too smelled of dust.

Howard set to work making breakfast, thinking surely the smell of food cooking was the solution. When the frying pan was hot enough, he scooped a generous heap of butter onto it. The butter sizzled. It was a pleasing sound. He cracked two eggs into the pan, seasoning them with salt and pepper and a little basil. He popped two slices of rye bread into the toaster and stood there waiting, watching the eggs as their translucent membranes turned solid white. Once they were done, he set them aside on a white plate. The toast popped and he buttered both slices with room temperature butter. Then, he divided the eggs onto the toast, one egg per slice, cut a tomato into slices, salted the slices and carried his plate over to the table and sat down. All the while he had been breathing more or less through his mouth, afraid to stimulate his olfactory sense until the meal was ready. He exhaled until his lungs were empty, then brought his nose to about six inches above the plate and inhaled slowly and deeply as he rose to his full and proper sitting height. He pushed the plate away and felt miserable. His breakfast smelled like dust.

Howard sat quietly until his food was cold. Finally, he decided that aromatic or not, he needed to eat it. He finished the cold food not enjoying it in the least. He rinsed off his plate and sat it next to the sink. Maybe the persistent smell of dust was due to some debris that needed to be dislodged. He wondered. He went to the washroom and hung his robe on the back of the door. He turned the hot water to max in the shower–pointing the shower head towards the tub surround–and got in. He breathed in the steam as the water splashed down at his feat. He breathed the steam in for several minutes, then began a rather unmusical rendition of throat-clearings and nose-blowings until he was certain that his passages were completely cleared of foreign matter. He adjusted the water temperature and rinsed himself off. He lathered and brought the soap up to his nose. It should have, according to the box, smelled of a glacial river, but it didn’t. Just dust.

Trying to cheer himself up, Howard thought about something he had heard–that when a person loses one of their five senses, one or more of the other remaining senses can become heightened. But Howard didn’t know if his sense of smell was truly lost, or just fixated.

***

After several days without any improvement to his condition, he decided to take the afternoon off from work to go to the walk-in clinic near his home. He waited for several hours. It was winter after all, and coughs and colds were in abundance. He was at last called in to see the doctor where he waited for another twenty minutes in a smaller, more blindingly lit room until the doctor arrived.

“What’s the problem?” the doctor said, clicking open a window on his computer.
“Everything smells like dust.”
“What kind of dust?”
“I don’t know,” Howard said. “Are there different dust smells?”
“Sure. Desert dust, animal dust, vacuum dust, dust after a rainfall.”
“Oh. Rain dust, I guess.”
“Any increased vision? Hearing?”
“No. I wondered about that–”
“Troubling. Very troubling.”
“Is it bad?” Howard asked.
“It isn’t good. If you’d said desert dust, then I could help you, but rain dust….”
“What’ll happen to me?” Howard inched to the edge of his chair.

Howard left the doctor’s feeling hopeless. He’d been told there was no cure for what he had. His condition might change, it might not. Wait and see. Howard got on the bus and was jostled toward the back. He ended up wedged between a woman in a thick, dirty coat and a tall man who made a harrowing attempt to read the paper while standing. The rank smell of body odor slowly crept in and overcame him. Howard cringed.

Tours, France – The First Two Months

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There is a very long, very old bridge that I can see from my spot at the library. It crosses the Loire river, which is not unlike the Red River in both its speed and colour. The bridge is called Pont Wilson. Wilson is probably someone’s name and since everything here is named after someone, it’s probably named after this guy Wilson, but I don’t know who he is or what he did. I could look it up, but I’m not going to right now. This bridge is pretty wide and what’s funny about it is that they’ve only designated one lane for vehicles. So if you’re a car and you want to take the bridge south to head towards the city centre, you’re cool, but if you need to cross the Loire heading north, you’d better find another bridge. The middle part of the bridge is reserved for the trams which run north and south. You can walk on that part, but you’d have to move out of the way a bunch so as not to be hit by a tram. They don’t go too fast, but they weigh a lot and if they hit you you’d probably feel pretty stupid. Plus there’s a huge portion of the bridge reserved for foot traffic and a whole separate portion for bicycles. This way everyone gets fair use of the bridge. Except for cars. Like I said, they get one lane. But you know, cars have it pretty good everywhere else, so I don’t feel too sorry for them.

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The library where I sit overlooking the river and the bridge is my library. I call it mine because it’s less than a ten minute walk from my apartment, and I kind of feel a sense of ownership for everything I can reach by foot. It’s a wonderful place to sit and read, and there are only a handful of problems with it. For one thing, it’s closed Sundays and Mondays, which forces me to haunt some other establishment where it’s customary to purchase something if you want to sit and read. The other problem is that all the books are in French. Not a big deal though–I brought a bunch of my own. One nice thing about the library is the DVD section. I can borrow two DVD’s at a time at no charge. This was especially handy during that first month when our internet was in the mail. I still borrow a film now and then because Netflix doesn’t have everything. The last complaint I have is about the people whispering. There’s a lot of whispering.

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When I was in Winnipeg I bought an umbrella at Winners. It was a good umbrella and it was on sale and I read that Tours gets a lot of rain so I thought, boy, you’re really thinking ahead old man, good job. Rosie laughed that I bought an umbrella in the winter, but I told her, just wait, it’ll all make sense. It turns out that it does rain a lot here and if you have one of those tiny purse-sized umbrellas you’re okay as long as there is no wind, but when the wind picks up, look out. That’s why Rosie had to replace her tiny umbrella before we’d even been here a month. I shared my sturdy umbrella with her on the day that hers broke and I think it made sense then why I’d bought the umbrella. To be fair to Rosie, she laughed because I already had an umbrella, but that umbrella was obtrusive. I’m glad I brought this normal-sized umbrella because the streets here are narrow.

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There is a young man walking through the library carrying a book bag that reads, Britney Spears Changed My Life. All I can think is, I hope that’s true.

When you get a good seat at a coffee shop you kind of want to spend the day there. There’s this place down the street from me called La Petite Atelier. I’ve been going there since the first day we arrived in Tours. In fact we went there our first evening in order to borrow their Wifi and do a money transfer. They put mint in their water. It’s a nice touch. Plus the coffee is good so I just keep going back. I suddenly wondered what the hell Atelier meant so I looked it up. It means “a workshop or studio, especially one used by an artist.” I don’t know if putting mint in the water constitutes artistry, but like I said, the coffee is pretty fucking good.

It’s hard to find spicy food here. We have a pretty good spice rack going on in our apartment, but I still haven’t found chili powder. That’s not the whole truth. I did find chilli powder, but it was way more than I was willing to pay. I think that if something is out of your price range than that thing doesn’t really exist. Like in Rome, I saw a guy driving a Ferrari, but I didn’t really see the Ferrari. All I saw was a price tag with way too big a number on it, so I had to look away and tell myself I didn’t see a Ferrari. That’s why I’m saying that I haven’t found chili powder yet.

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The man with the Britney Spears bag took a book from a section called Romans de l’Imaginaire. Before I look it up I’m going to guess that that means Imaginary Romans. I looked it up. It means Fantasy Novels. I guess Romans means Novel. I was pretty close on the Imaginary bit, though.

I have an island. I’ve only been there a few times because it’s the kind of place you’d really only visit on a warm, sunny day and there hasn’t been too many of those. But I plan to go there a lot in the spring. I brought a picnic lunch there one day. Sunburned my nose, too. My lunch was a sandwich. The bread and cheese here … well, it goes without saying.

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In french, umbrella is parapluie. That’s different than parasol, which is a beach umbrella. I said parasol and Rosie told me that that meant beach umbrella. Now I know the difference.

I drink a lot of wine. It’s the cheapest kind of booze you can find and it goes with almost anything. It’s a nice routine to pick up a bottle of wine and a baguette on my way home from the library. You could live off of that. I don’t live off of bread and wine, though. I eat lots of other things, too. I haven’t had tacos since December. I miss tacos.

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Those are some thoughts and experiences I’ve had so far in this city. When I feel like it I may talk about our trip to Italy. I don’t know. There’s bound to be more to talk about, but it’s a little city and the pace of life is slow. We’ll see what happens.

The Clod In The Casket

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“There is no reason not to predict and prevent your own death when you can self-diagnose with WebMD.”

“You’re right. He only has himself to blame.”

“It was definitely Crohn’s that got him.”

“Could’ve been lupus.”

“Lupus, sure. And it’s so treatable.”

No Smoking

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“It’s disgusting,” my mother said every time we came home from my grandparent’s after Sunday dinner, hanging our clothes in the garage to air them out. Her father was a two-pack-a-day smoker with leather skin and a handkerchief he used to hack into. “Smoking is a nasty, disgusting habit,” she said. I agreed with her, but I still wanted to try it.

I decided one day after school that I’d built up enough nerve—I was going to walk to the gas station, putter around, pay someone a dollar for a cigarette and smoke it on the knoll overlooking the highway. But by the time I got to the gas station my nerves were shot. I couldn’t approach a stranger to ask directions, never mind bum a smoke off one. I spent the dollar on a candy bar and left.

As I walked home, my hand turning over the unused pack of matches in my jacket pocket, it occurred to me that I was not above finding a cigarette butt and smoking that. I made a detour and slowed my pace as I got to the path that cut through the park. Off in the distance I could see the pinks and blues of fall jackets, boys and girls clambering over the playground, technicolour pendulums on the swing set. I hung back from the park and scoured the path that ran along the man-made lake. All I found were a few butts that had been smoked down to the filter. I would learn one day how expensive cigarettes were and why a thrifty person wouldn’t waste, but at the time that was no consolation for my wasted effort. I cursed the smokers who hadn’t even left me enough tobacco for one experimental puff and went home dejected.

As I think about what it was that made me want to smoke, I’m stumped for answers. It wasn’t from peer pressure—none of my friends had admitted to trying it. I still wore sweatpants, so it certainly wasn’t that I was attempting to look cool. Perhaps the problem in trying to understand the motives of my twelve-year-old self is that motive is a grown-up concept. I think about all the times my parents asked me why I did something that I wasn’t supposed to do and how often the answer was, “Because.” If I’d been the sort of kid who talked back I might have asked them, “Why do you need a reason for everything?” I understand now why they needed an explanation, but at the same time I love that there wasn’t one. With so little mystery left in the universe it’s a small relief to me that people remain plenty mysterious.

The Champ Is Tapped Out

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Avaritia stands aloft. Spreads his thick arms. Cash rains onto the partygoers. They slurp the pools of green off his marble floor and out of his champagne fountain.

Across the crumbling city an IRS agent salivates as a judge signs his warrant.