Edward is not expecting her voice. “Why don’t we go out?” They stand with their fingers in the pigeon mesh, the buildings on the far side lit sporadic, a zapped moth twitching in the wall sconce. Edward looks into Lily’s riviera eyes, her pomegranate grin. Close and unseen, pigeons murmur and croon.
“Maybe not tonight,” he says. “You know how it goes, how they see us.”
Across Eglinton the buildings teeter, rock foot to foot in the wind. Lights blink on and off. He’s always liked the randomness of apartment windows at night, the slapdash pattern of those square portals into other lives. TVs flicker, fridges open, a woman appears with a towel wrapped around her head.
“I want you to hold me,” she says, looking off beyond the balcony. Below, far below, teenage trees bend yogic.
He steps close, sinks his chin into the nape of her neck. Drapes his arms around her, fingers linking over her navel. Five years and here they stand at the brink of it. This world a tempest of flesh and lifespans.
Wind lashes the balcony, whorls city-grit on the concrete.
“Come on,” he says. “We should go to bed. I need my beauty sleep.”
She stares at him, mute. By the time she laughs it’s not right anymore. He laughs back, sharp and mean. “Ha ha ha,” he barks, sick with her, with himself.
The fungus does not itch, exactly, but radiates. The fungus pines for fingers, calls for the touch that will feed its spread. The fungus has eyes, stares back in dull mirrors. The fungus does not sleep. The fungus lies awake, glowing neon through the night.
It started as a dime-sized patch on his ankle. The doctor assured him it was nothing abnormal, likely contact dermatitis. She prescribed two creams, told Edward not to mix them. The fungus clambered on, vined up his calves, annexed his lower back. The fungus became a continent, then another. Slowly, the blobs became a Pangaea of rash. Now he wears long sleeves, rolls them up to scratch when no one is watching.
The fungus knows his dearest secrets, hears his dream-spilled longings, intuits his deepest want: to entice the hate in her, to taunt her to hurt, to shriek, to feel.
Edward twirls the pit, scrubs frying pans, cranks The Offspring over dishwasher hum. He brings out a stack of clean plates and sets them down on his side of the line. He avoids Seb’s eyes. Seb who is thankfully occupied tonight, training the new cook, Owen. Seb whose title is kitchen manager though he calls himself sous-chef. Seb who got a totem pole tattooed on his calf when he found out his distant great-aunt was Lenape. Seb who once sent Edward a picture of his crooked engorged penis next to a wine bottle that turned out to be a novelty miniature airplane wine bottle. Seb who, last week, found out about Lily.
Sylvia, tonight’s closer, comes in to pick up a dessert. When she spins off the line, Seb flails his hand near his groin, mimes a flamboyant spank. He sees Edward watching from the pit. Elaborates a wink. “Like that, Eddy?”
Owen chuckles, snorts, pulls the element dials off to clean the steel underneath.
“You’d like to,” Seb says. “Wouldn’t you, Eddy? Real woman for a change?”
“Don’t call me that.”
Seb trades a look with Owen. “Sorry, Ed. Edmund?”
Seb snorts, keels over with his hands on his knees, cackling.
Edward turns up his music on the old grey CD player. He soaks the chafing dishes, the soup tureens. In his sink, heads of lettuce float, rinsing. A shallow pool in the cube of his spray-drain. Archipelagos of dining room gore. He plunges his drain and thinks about the debt, the repair bill, whether he could make it work.
He works slow and calm while the cooks close, sign out, lope down the back stairs. Out in the dining room, chairs are up on tables, the last guests gone. He pulls ice and lime from the well, tosses them into the blender with chunks of frozen mango. Sylvia passes by, spaghetti-string purse strung around her shoulder. She says good night and he says it back, but his voice is lost as he hits pulse on the blender, provokes a roar of ice and fruit, a shriek of bleeding green.
Edward did not dream of this career, of doing shift work at fifty. But he’d trudged through school, didn’t like the trades. Tried driving an asphalt truck and collecting debt over phones and found eventually that he liked the quiet, liked working nights, liked the gleam of clean glassware. He liked the rinse aid and detergent passing bright red and blue through their tubes. He liked coaxing an exodus of clung minestrone from the base of a tureen. He liked being alone in the pit, cleaning it piece by piece—plates, glassware, cookware—his small steel world slowly neatening. The final ritual of squeegeeing the counter, up to down, up to down, trying not to leave a streak and then standing back to behold his glimmering dominion of stainless steel. Sometimes at night, once he is finished, he turns the lights off, leans against the dishwasher, and runs it empty. Runs it just to run it, to hear it. Sits alone on the gleaming tiles listening to the thwump of water on the thin steel door, the squirm and churn of his chemical sea.
Edward’s childhood is a nausea of KFC coupons, of listening for the phone to ring, staying home on Halloween tired of asking people to trick-or-treat with him. His father filling the room with Player’s Light, shouting, “Fuck you’re useless. You’re a joke, a twat.” His mother in curlers, spinning for Deal or No Deal, spinning Circus of Cash. His childhood is boys with fingers in their mouths and the smell of fresh rain. Boys on a soccer field calling him Beaky, Bird-turd, Deadward. Sixth graders with basketball-smelling hands prying his mouth and shoving two fresh-dug worms in and he’d closed his lips and squirmed but he could not not taste them. Hands clamped over lips pressing down the taste of worm and blood the plastic smell of a basketball and he could not spit or bring himself to swallow so the worms went down on their own, slunk and wriggled into the earth of him where they wait, squirming, still.
Getting off the streetcar, he sees a four-foot sapling growing out of a flaccid eavestrough, bloated with leaves. Is this flourishing or decay? The elevator is out again. Meaning walking up eighteen stories. Passing the thirteenth floor, fungus glowing under his pant leg, he thinks of the empty pool. The whole floor devoted to a pool that, due to an architectural miscalculation, could never be filled. The weight that would have tipped the balance of the building. He’s always thought he would go in there, one day. Go alone, or take Lily. Sit at the bottom of the empty pool, in the guts of that oversight.
Lily sits at the table, smiling hard when he opens the door. He puts ramen in the microwave and changes into shorts. The doctor said it needs open air, does not like the wet. He sits at the table applying cream and telling her about the cooks, the towels, the jokes.
“Sounds like a pissing contest,” she says, but she doesn’t seem to remember Seb. It’s getting worse and worse. She says she’d chalk it up to insecurity. He stares at his neglected weight bench, his stationary bike, his old Telecaster. She stays up with him for a while, watching some YouTube docs on alternative medicine. He tells her he hopes she doesn’t mind but he might want to be alone tonight.
“Of course,” she says. “Wake me if you need me.”
She goes to bed and he scrolls electric. He plays Overwatch, plays Assassin’s Creed, levels up. He plays Life 2.0, the game in which he is a dishwasher, but in the game he convinces Seb to reach a hand into the deep fryer.
Edward dreams a silken valley, lurid with reds and blues. The colour palette of a movie he’d watched as a boy. Rinse-aid blue, maraschino red. In the dream, they are on a neon toboggan, Lily close. They pass into a liquid moon, spend the day drinking piña coladas, toes spritzed in a lake of molten white.
He wakes, as usual, in the afternoon. Almost two. He’s due at work at five. She lies beside him, her eyes fluttering locomotive. He finds that he’s been scratching the fungus. It has spread again. It’s on his left thigh, down his calf to the ankle. Red brittle, flaking. They shower together. He makes French press. It’s a windy afternoon, and they stand in the living room, watch the buildings sway in the picture windows.
“Do you find it creepy?”
“Yes, a little. Do you?”
“Are you lying?”
“No. It’s uncanny.”
“They’re supposed to do it. Absorbs the wind.”
“You sound angry.”
In the pit, lights slurring on the dark wet window, he changes the mophead, watches the chemicals slurp red and blue through their lines. He soaks the chafing dish, tries not to scratch. He turns towards the window, palms its cool. Gazes out at the scurrying couriers, the blinking cyclists, the dog-walkers stooping plastic-handed.
Sylvia appears, staring at the hose. Struck.
“It’s just—isn’t it ridiculous? All that water? I mean the world’s running out. Doesn’t it just seem wasteful?”
Edward shrugs. “It’s a living,” he says.
“Order up,” Seb calls from the line, and Sylvia trots off to collect a cheesecake.
The cooks sign out and he walks the kitchen alone. The yellowed tiles rimed with grease, the steel plateau of the flattop, the knives hung point-down from their magnets. Seb and Owen bark about the soap he left on the pans. He pours bleach into hot water, paints mophead S’s on the tile.
He’s preparing his smoothie when she appears, purse slung over her shoulder. In front of him, the blender’s teeth seem to twinkle. “So,” Sylvia says. “What are you watching lately?”
Sylvia knows about his YouTube sessions. Knows he considers himself an internet person, takes pride in that. He tells her about the alternative medicine doc, about maggot therapy, about biotherapy, about the Renaissance, the nineteenth century, a Confederate doctor in the Civil War. He tells her about diabetic ulcers, about rotten flesh. He tells her how it unnerves people to have creatures eat their wounded flesh, how they tend to think it’s dirty but in fact the maggots are far more efficient, in terms of debridement, than surgery.
“Wow,” she says, a glow in her eyes. “You’re a neat guy, Edward.”
He looks at her, hard, for a sign of pity, of condescension. She smiles, spins, gusts out the swinging doors.
He goes back to the walk-in clinic, shouts “fungus” to a receptionist who asks the reason for his visit. The doctor asks him stern questions, tells him not to scratch, prescribes an oral antifungal. He eats a sandwich, thinks about fermentation, about gut flora. The doctor says it might be necrotic. Maybe some kind of flesh-eating virus. Hard to say. The doctor prescribes antibiotics. “We’ll monitor. See how you respond.”
At work he watches the sun go hazy on the windows. He runs the dishwasher just to hear it. Stares at the clear tubes pumping hydroxide red and rinse-aid blue. The machine, his square companion, slurping thirstily. Sylvia comes and goes, does not ask about documentaries. He thinks of bread, of blue cheese, various accidents of rot. He thinks about Lily, his irrational rage, wonders how he can deal with it, whether he should.
When he goes downstairs to change the rinse aid, he finds a thick tail curling out from under the cans of tomatoes. The least pleasant part of his job. He wraps the plastic bag, turns his face away, and reaches in. He imagines it squirming, thrashing. He pictures the bald patch on its shoulder, louse-gnawed. He gags as he hefts it, turns it over, tail noodling out of the sack.
Coming back upstairs, he hears Seb’s gritty frog voice talking loud, laughing. He stops, around the corner, rat parcel in his hands. He can hear that Seb is at the bar. The dining room must have emptied. He hears Seb say “girlfriend,” say “sicko.” He hears someone laughing. Seb saying “debt,” saying “hemorrhage,” saying “those things cost fifty grand.”
“He’s a robojohn!” This must be Owen’s voice.
Seb goes tin-can monotone: “Oh Eddy, Eddy, please have your way with me.”
He thinks about skulking off. He could still go without being seen. But he’s not leaving, not moving. He’s standing still.
Edward emerges, then. Walks around the corner and sees them. As expected, Owen and Seb, smiling dumbly. But, then, there is Sylvia. Seb’s arm around her, chuckling, smiling, happy, included. And Edward finds himself foolish, courageous with rage. The three so quiet. An acoustic version of “Don’t Stop Believin’.”
Seb stares, snickers. Peels his arm off Sylvia and steps forward. Grins too hard: “Hi Eddy.”
Edward doesn’t say anything. Sylvia’s eyes are pinned to the floor.
“Is there a problem?” Seb says, smile gone.
In his hand, the plastic trembles. He feels the weight of the rat, thinks its dead eyes. He steps closer. In his mouth the taste of distant soil. Of fingers, of blood.
“What are you going to do, Eddy?”
Edward walks up to Seb and drops the rat at his feet, where it lands with a wet thud. A paw slinks out of its Loblaws body bag as Edward spins, walks through the swinging doors.
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He passes the night in cold rage. He eats spaghetti, lies in bed twitching, unable to sleep. The fungus swells, pulses, grows tentacles. The fungus crawls onto his tongue. She comes awake, asks how he’s feeling, if he’s all right, if she should call a physician. He says no, gets up.
“Do you want some company?”
“I want to be alone.”
“Do you want some company?”
“No. I don’t know.”
“No thank you.”
He screams to the ceiling: “I fucking need to be alone.”
“All right,” she says. “All right. Fine.”
He dreams himself in a red and throbbing wetsuit on the roof of the building. It’s hot, and black, a bitumen roof and it’s dark out, the windows of all the neighbouring buildings flashing on and off. There are trees climbing up the sides of the building, trees with long roots like tentacles, branches like gnarled clawed rat paws. Trees that crowd around him, long fingers plucking tremolo at his pant legs, the fungal patches on his elbow. Trees that jeer, prod. Spiky branches and grume of soil and their long, kinked fingers clawing at his mouth, root-feet pushing him down into the bitumen roof that has become a kind of trench, cool and earthen. The trees hunched scatter-limbed and their reedy wind-voices saying look at him, saying pathetic, saying this one deserves to rot.
He gets up and takes a cold shower. He stares at Life 2.0, imagines himself burning the game-restaurant to the ground. He eats a mountain of Corn Flakes, then a mountain of Lucky Charms. He searches his phone, then computer, for the miniature wine bottle picture. Lily offers sex and he finds himself curling into her, giving in to a deep dry sob. Finds himself holding her, gripping, heaving, gasping.
“Let’s go out,” she says. “Take me dancing.”
Night stalks the window. “Sure,” he says. “Fine.”
On the streetcar, he puts his arm around her. A woman with a headscarf and a rolling grocery cart glares at them, fixates on Lily’s breasts. Edward smiles at her and says hello. They find a karaoke bar full of sauced bluehairs in scooters. He gets them each a dark and stormy then takes her out on the dance floor and spins long and slow as a peroxide starlet croons “Love Me Tender.” They spin and spin, her body holding the heat of his. Their chests gumming together and she is smiling her stiff pert grin, the men and women looking on curious, shrewd. The bar filled with the smell of talcum and stale beer and the sour amalgam of spilled liquor stomped into bar mats. Above them the woeful silver planet slings its pinata of stars, disco ball light dapples her face and though her feet aren’t moving he can almost forget the difference between flesh and made.
What he cannot almost forget is the old man in the cowboy hat, beer quivering, dentures grinding. Or the young gun, the sixty-something in bowling shirt, handlebar moustache and a charlatan nest of too-black hair.
“Get out of here,” someone says.
“It’s not right.”
Someone shoves him and he’s gasping, tumbling. He drops her and her head thwacks off the floor and the gathered crowd is laughing and jeering. Edward kneels down, the lights slumping over him, over her. The disco ball still spinning as the song ends. Silver dollars whirling over her face, their limbs, the revolving wash of floor.
At home he powers her on, puts her in platonic mode, and tells her he’s sorry, she doesn’t deserve this, any of it.
She is breaking down and he cannot afford the repairs and his mind is a corrosion of worry, a tinnitus of hurt. She is breaking down because she, too, is a body. Petroleum-derived—silicone, polypropylene, semiconductors, integrated circuits—but body still, matter still. She is breaking down because these things are metal and oil heated and catalyzed and elaborately moulded. Because she lives in the limn, a world made flesh.
No one sees him drag her into the restaurant as they are closing for the night. No one sees him take her out to the empty dining room, open the blender in the stark light of the bar.
“Goodbye,” he says.
“Goodbye,” she says back.
“Do you understand? Fuck. Of course not.”
The plan is never to hurt her because how could he? The plan is not to get mad. The plan is to blend, to disperse, to end the sham. The plan is the blender roaring, rearing, whirring, the blade spinning like a deranged steel petal. He powers the machine on, raises Lily to a sitting position on the bar and cups her face in his hands.
“Hey,” Sylvia says, stepping forward through the swinging doors. She eyes him hard. Behind her the doors whine and flap, send a gust through her hair.
“Sorry,” he falters. “I thought I was alone.”
Sylvia looks hard at Lily. Comes close. He shudders, flinches. “It’s all right,” she says, staring at Lily. “It’s fine. I think it’s cool. Whatever.”
“Cool?” Edward laughs. He can see that Sylvia is struggling.
“And I’m sorry about the other night. I should have said something. Those guys are pricks. Seb’s still mad about the wine bottle photo.”
“Here,” she says, reaching into her purse. “I was going to wait for tomorrow. But I got you a present.”
She produces a small plastic jar with an orange lid. He takes it, holds it. Inside, there’s a little zip-lock pouch full of tiny yellow worms.
“Larvae,” she says. “Green bottle fly. Turns out it’s a trend in alternative medicine. FDA approved. Just a joke, but, well.”
“Thank you,” he says. Something strange roils through his insides. Something soft and clear. “Thank you,” he says again.
His childhood is a nausea of smoke wash and worm-mouth until it becomes something else, a squishy torture. A girl a year younger, blond with a snout nose, and her friends are saying she likes you, saying ask her to the dance, and he is pawing the phone book and finding her mother, speaking gutclutched to her parents and then she’s on the line, saying yes with a giggle. A giggle that turns out to mean feigning sweetness, walking with him arm in arm and asking if he wants to get hot chocolate on the way. Hot chocolate that turns out to be laced with copious Ex-Lax. Meaning all of grade nine laughing outside the bathroom. Meaning photos of his feet under the toilet stalls and this would set the tenor of his love life. Three dates in high school, gradually lowered standards and increasing desperation in his early twenties until he found himself alone at a forestry camp at thirty. Alone in the bush with his laptop paying women to talk to him, women in Colombia and Hungary and Arizona, women with cupboards full of wands and beads and suction toys listening solemn telling him he was worthy, telling him he was a good sweet man as he keeled over and wept to the laptop slicing blue through Selkirk dark.
At home he powers her on, puts her in platonic mode, and tells her he’s sorry, she doesn’t deserve this, any of it. He tells her it’s been hard for him but he knows he should do better, can do better. She asks what he needs, and he says nothing. She says she’s tired, asks what time it is. Bed time, he tells her. Gentle, he touches her neck, reaches for the switch behind her hair. Gentle, he shuts her down. Gentle, he takes her in his arms, drags her across the carpet, the laminate, sets her in the closet. Kisses her soft before closing the door.
Through the darkness, they find the fungus almost instantly. Their rough tickle a chorus of coarse and tender tongues. He lies on the bed, staring out the window where the buildings lean and sway in a gathering storm. He does not sleep, not quite, but recedes into a deeper calm. The maggots swarm the rash, spread and skitter, a perfect smothering. The skin calms, cools, almost purrs. Far below, trees stoop and swish, bend to nearly touch the street, the roofs of parked cars. The city trees, concrete-footed, their roots distant though they would like to mingle, to touch, entangle. Maggots cool as menthol, soft as down. The larvae feed, nibble, writhe and squirm and devour him free.
—From CNQ 110 (Fall 2021/Winter 2022)
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