I recently “graduated” from the Writers’ Federation of Nova Scotia‘s Mentorship Program. Today, I had the opportunity to read an excerpt from my manuscript to WFNS members. I’m hoping to complete my draft by the end of the summer. Endless thanks to my mentor, Stephens Gerard Malone, and Sue Goyette, the force of nature behind the program.
[Late summer 1964] Through another rock cut and that leg was over. Ed felt the throttle pulling back slowly, brakes cutting in against momentum, the weight of his body creeping ahead in his seat.
This station was like a castle. The train nestled up next to it, next to a high stone wall on one side, in close to smooth platforms on the other. A hundred people easy, milling around in summer city clothes. Ed’s car was near empty until they crowded around and through the doors, blocked off the fresh rush of air with their bodies and suitcases.
God forgive him, Ed’s arms were still smeared with engine grease. He’d forgotten about cleaning up decent after the truck broke down. The pocket on his plaid shirt was torn half off. His pants could’ve been borrowed off a coal miner. The whole getup looked that much worse beside bright shirts, flowery dresses, straw hats and little woven purses. Didn’t surprise him a bit that the seat beside him stayed empty, empty, still empty, plenty of space for the dirty hick kid as everybody shuffled by.
One last passenger scrambled on after the rush, a little feller in a suit the colour of lemon cream, not quite white, something close to the inside of a banana. His dark hair was greased back in an old fashioned way, like it was still the ’50s. He was old enough that maybe it still was, for him. Was he ever small, too – not a whole hell of a lot taller than the seats. Great big stupid grin kept him floating an inch off the floor, though, he had that going for him. That smile kinda had him looking like he wasn’t sure where he was. Like he’d blown in by accident and had to play it straight.
He gawked around for a seat, passed on the woman with the baby, the old man with the white beard, the girl Ed’s age, and then dammit, no – the train lurched ahead just as he made it to Ed’s row. He smiled with his mouth wide like he was hunting for something to say – made him seem a little touched, like Francis – but nothing came of that. He just sat. Folded himself into the seat. Folds of lemon cream. Crossed his legs high up like women mostly do. He had on saddle shoes, all shined up, with tall white socks. But he didn’t say a word, like you’d think a dressed-up man would, to be polite. No good day or nothing, nothing to make everybody comfortable.
He dug around inside his jacket and pulled out a cigarette case, a real metal one. Inside, they were perfect, all lined up the same way and smooth, perfectly round. He lit one and grinned into that first long drag. Imagine smiling for a smoke. Ed thought of his mother, who never would. They owned her, she needed them, but she was never happy to see them. But here was this odd little man, pleased as peaches to sit, to sit and smoke with his legs crossed up, squeezing his balls. Like a Martian that hadn’t quite figured out his human disguise.
He turned to catch Ed staring. Ed flinched, and the man’s face lit back up. Out came the cigarettes again, right in Ed’s face this time. Sweet and sick-smelling. “I’m sorry. Do you want one?” Ed shook his head so fast and sure the man and his shiny case of smokes went blurry for a second. The man nodded, his chin tucked back, sad-looking. He didn’t smile on the next drag.
Ed hunted for something to say. “Where you headed?” Stupid. Same way as everybody else. Trains don’t make side trips. Small talk’s for passing the time and keeping from being hit in the mouth, and this was neither. Even if he wanted to hit Ed in the mouth for being a rude prick, he was too busy looking up in the air above the both of them.
“Oh,” he drew it out long, like he was starting up a song. “Oh, I have a big ol’ farm I’m going to.” A farmer. Never in a million years of guesses. Imagine tucking those creamy-coloured slacks into a pair of rubbers up to his knees, shovelling shit, that cigarette case slipping out every time he bends over to pick up a rusty nail.
“Ah, yeah, where?”
“Oh, down there in the valley.” He fluttered his cigarette hand in their general heading and spilled ash nowhere he meant to. Ed flinched again, and the main was faster this time. “Oh, I’m sorry.” He sat his cigarette in the small ashtray on the armrest between them, delicately. It was half gone already. He reached toward Ed, brushed the ash from his filthy pants, his stained skin, and smiled again. Ed felt goosebumps rattle up his arms, across his shoulders, to his scalp. But under that, under his skin, he went liquid.
And the man went back to his cigarette, smiling, uncrossed his legs and crossed them again the other way. He blew a smoke ring, stared off into space, kept on grinning, and hummed no tune Ed recognized. Something was painful and Ed wanted out of it. He counted down to himself and turned away, breathed at the window instead. They were nowhere particular just then, gliding through a dark stand of spruce that flickered inside a few beats to the smooth grey trunks of maples. He heard, no, he felt a gasp. Ed turned to see the man’s eyes big as moons, the last bit of his cigarette dangling at the corner of his mouth.
He’d gone pale as his suit, and just the way his head was in the light, Ed noticed grey hair at his temples.
He stammered. “The maples. This whole time, I never seen. The first time, I couldn’t, but since then, I never.” Here he was, talking, finally, and it was worse, stranger than the big heavy silence from a second ago. Ed wanted to know and didn’t, wanted his shell back, and the sea inside. Not just this sad man.
Gilroy, Corinne. “Twin Phantoms [excerpt].” WFNS Annual General Meeting. Writers’ Federation of Nova Scotia, Halifax, NS. 8 June 2013. Mentorship Reading.