Bullets

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When my father died he left me a mess to sort through. The tax people were owed some money and I had the undesirable task of cataloguing my father’s things to see what I could sell. After he and my mother split he’d moved into his own place. I had never been invited over to this second home because of a fight we had—unrelated to my parents’ divorce—that we never got over. I referred to it as his second home because he’d lived in the first one since he was a child, having inherited it when his parents died in a plane crash. He’d let the house go to my mother in the divorce. Said he’d grown tired of it.

There was nothing worth anything in this second home, though. Nothing that I could sell. I knew this the moment I stepped foot in the place, but I spent an hour pretending to consider the value of a few knick knacks and odds-and-ends because I felt that if my father was watching he would have been insulted if I wrote off his life so quickly. After my appraisal I was hungry so I went into his fridge, which turned out to be a mistake. The crisper was filled with moldy and rotten produce and his condiment jars were missing lids for the most part. I had the thought, “So this is what killed him”, even though I knew he’d been hit by a drunk driver.

Given the condition of his fridge, I was afraid to sit on the furniture. The wooden rocking chair seemed the least suspect, as it was only covered with a blanket. I removed the blanket and upset a sheet of dust that hovered in the sunbeams and settled all over the room. I held my breath until it hurt, trying not to inhale any of it. I sat down and took the place in. There was no television or radio. No books or magazines. There were just stacks of these little pocket-sized notepads piled up on the coffee table. I grabbed the top one and opened it. It was filled with enigmatic, bullet-pointed sentences. 

  • Sit in a softly lit place and imagine waves.
  • Cross your left leg tightly over your right. Like a python wrapped around its double.
  • Trace the lines on whichever surface is nearest you. Do not try to see figures, animals, or objects of any kind in the lines. They aren’t there.

I grabbed another notebook further down in the stack and flipped it open. It contained the same nonsensical bulleted gibberish.

  • Observe your environment. Can it be painted? What colour would you paint it? Imagine doing so.
  • Find a place where you blend into the wall, break open your throat and make an alien noise.
  • Consider the ladder. A horizontal ladder is essentially monkey bars.

I wondered if the man who wrote these little messages was the same man I’d shared a home with for twenty years. The man I had lived with never wrote a complete sentence his whole life. The only reason I knew this was his writing was that I recognized it from the half-completed crossword puzzles he left open on the coffee table that I’d finish after he’d abandoned them and gone off to tend the yard—something else he wasn’t particularly that good at.

I closed the notepad and tossed it onto the table. Trying to glean any meaning from these sentences seemed as futile to me as seeing one’s future in tea leaves.

I wasn’t going to spend any more time on it, but as I sat there I couldn’t stop the subconscious nagging. My brain was trying to form connections. I picked up another notepad and read on. There seemed to be not a theme so much as a tone. The words Bad Buddhism flashed across my mind’s eye. Maybe that was it. Maybe in his later years my father found a kind of religion in writing nonsensical yet calming messages to himself. I remembered the fight that had kept us out of each other’s lives all these years. I told him I hated him for passing his rage onto me. I blamed him for my own failed marriage. Thinking about it I wanted to be angry at him all over again. But instead I flipped through the notepad I was holding until I found a blank space. I pulled a pen out of my jacket and made a bullet.

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.