Another footfall. The pavement here is spongy. Nice on the feet, but still I pant like a maniac. I’ve decided to retrieve my bike from the bus station, which is a half-hour run away. I missed the bus from Jeonju, a small city near the west coast of Hanguk, the country that is temporarily my home. I stayed out late last night and had to cab home, so my bike is at the bus station. I started running, and thought I might run the whole way. I have ten minutes in on this run. Where’s the breaking point?
What’s the breaking point? That’s when my body relaxes. My stride is longer and my breathing is less desperate. That’s when my primate self dies and I am one with my breath. That’s something we have in common. Breath. One of the only things.
The people around me must be confused to see a six-foot-tall foreigner wearing five dollar clothes. In Korea you can get almost anything for five dollars. Graphic print T adorned with yellow skeletons and white text, CREEPY dance!, five dollars. Camo print canvas sweats, five dollars. Black and red runners, five dollars. Black UV guard sleeves, Gangnam style socks and grey zebra-print hankie tied around my neck, collectively five dollars. Ear buds in my ears blaring Amanda Palmer’s Theatre is Evil and drowning out my thoughts and the noises the world makes, five dollars. Amanda Palmer’s Theatre is Evil, free. But you can pay five dollars for that too if you want.
This is the kind of getup I show up in for a going away party for a man named Sky. He and his friends do a writer’s group in Seoul. Seoul is a big city in the northwestern part of Hanguk. The city used to be called Namyang. Hanguk used to be called Korea, hundreds of years ago, in a time when a man named Charles the Great ordered his soldiers to anally skewer and incinerate my Saxon forefathers because they wouldn’t switch allegiance from their barbaric war idol for his equally barbaric war idol. After Korea, this country was called Joseon. Now it is called Hanguk, a country in which there is an apartment party where two writers examine my attire and say odd things about it, including:
Tim: Damn. HE looks like a writer.
Deanne: I think you’re confusing author and character.
Now my chest hurts. The doctors diagnosed me with asthma. The truth is that my lungs just don’t work the way they should. My eccentric grandfather smoked cigarettes in his 1985 Ford Escort station wagon throughout my youth. My car window was often open, as was his. Smoke flew back into my lungs for years. Heartland, a research division funded by Big Oil and Big Tobacco to warn the people of the world that they are being fooled by Big Science, claims second hand smoke isn’t bad for you. Heartland would like to change American public school curricula to reflect their values. Some politicians would like to let them do that.
My chest burns so badly now. My legs ache. I want to stop. Something won’t let me. I’m tired of limitations. Will Smith once said something during his famous alchemist interview that stood out to me. He said that his secret to success was that he gives himself only two options. He will either do what he has set out to do or he will die. There’s no third option.
Tears are streaming down my face. Not sad tears. Determined tears. Tears that scream, DEATH TO LIMITATIONS, MY BURNING CHEST, MY ACHING LEGS. Let them burn. Let them ache. Two options. I run or I die.
My body realizes that I have become psychotic. It gazes in at the movie projector in my brain. It sees me crying at the side of the bed where my cousin lies unconscious after a serious asthma attack. I wasn’t sure if he was going to survive. I didn’t know he was going to grow up to become a successful documentary filmmaker. At that moment all I knew was that I can’t handle the thought of death.
In this moment all I know is that I can’t handle living with limitations on what I can do. All I feel is the burn from the last cigarette I smoked. All I see is my grandfather, smoke pouring out of his white bearded lips, balancing a beer with a Du Maurier in one hand while his elbow steers the wheel and he tries to block out the sound of my grandmother screaming at him to pull over. The demented Santa Claus responds with an ear-shattering HO HO HO!, and becomes a goat. Grandma can’t compete with that. End of discussion.
I see my body collapsing to its knees in the soggy street because my lungs have failed and triggered a severe attack from an unchecked case of COPD, stifling my heartbeat and releasing my consciousness from the burden of possessing a central nervous system. The lights go dim. I cannot express how happy I am to never again have to worry about happiness.
My body is donated to science. The scalpel unzips my chest and a wheeze of foul smelling smoke rises. Doctors swear they see two eyes and a mouth in the likeness of Bastard the Unfriendly Ghost lift with the putrid emanation. The same guy who filmed dead birds on the shoreline filled with bottlecaps and other human garbage finds that there is nothing inside the body of Leif Sturmanis Nordholm but gobs of tar, cigarette butts, kimchi, rice and a key to a heart-shaped locket I once swallowed in a moment of symbolic frenzy but never managed to eject with the rest of my shit.
In accordance to a legally binding final testament, my chest is coated in polymer and my arms are nailed to a crucifix made of AK 47s, which is planted in the ground across the street from the Heartland Institute and set ablaze.
My body, having seen this all playing out on my inner movie screen, realizes that this psycho isn’t kidding. My muscles relax. This is when I become frightened.
My fingers scramble nervously to turn up my mp3 player. I try to drown out my thoughts with Theatre is Evil. But it’s too late. The thoughts come rushing in, as they often do when I am not in pain. That’s what pain is good for. It replaces the part of my brain that thinks about the one thing I don’t want to think about: My story. Everyone has a story. Every story is fucked up.
I don’t write for pity. I write for crazy people. Crazy people are otherwise sane people who have been frightened by fascists into believing the BS statement, all the pieces fit. And if they don’t fit you have to try to make them fit. And if you don’t toil daily to make them fit, or you do and it just isn’t working, it’s your fault. You are rushed to the guillotine in front of the entire world so the fascists can make an example of you, because THAT’S WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU FAIL TO MAKE THE PIECES FIT. That’s fascist humour. This is my humour. I write to make anyone else who is fucked up laugh. Laugh at the opera. Laugh at life. It’s tragically comic. It’s filled with magic and monsters. That’s why I’m a clown. Because everything is tragically hilarious. I learned that from my mom.
My mom was promoted from a sect of diamond land Buddhism to the philosophy of atheism to the enlightened state of self-absorption in which she found a fuckbuddy ten years her junior, a man who spent most of his life training to become a leader of a now-defunct cult in Minnesota. While he went gambling with her credit card, she sat at home emptying cheap bottles of merlot until she could regain the sense that everything was hilarious, which happened in the six minutes that occurred between being hopelessly drunk and passed out cold. Then she’d see the truth, the truth that everything is brutally funny. My stepdad failed to see that. Two abortions of illegitimate children later, one from a boyish photojournalist and the other from one out of six regrettable decisions, things did not seem very funny to my stepdad. Some people just miss the point.
My mom told me once while shaking and sobbing that she had reoccurring dreams in which her mom, dad, family, and everyone she knew was sitting around a table. They were alive, healthy and happy. They were all discussing random things and laughing.
Maybe she was dreaming about love.
I don’t really dream these days. I just have thoughts. I think now about the last time I ran. This was the first time I had run for any serious distance since grade 5 running club. Grade 5 running club was invented by Mr Baron from Liverpool, my homeroom teacher. He used to run beside me. He liked to mumble to himself as he ran. I never understood what he was saying.
I had moved to this rural town called Summerland with my mother and stepdad. According to mythology, Summerland was a place people went after they died. In reality, it was a brief rest stop tossed out on the side of the Okanagan Lake, buried deep in British Columbian Bible belt.
In those days I wore my hair long and had a chain around my neck dangling a pendant my mom gave me from her trip to Hawaii. It was special to me. It was a blue S meant to look like a lightning bolt. My hair and jewelry prompted the kids to use a slanderous word against me that was trending at the time, Queer. They also liked to use the word, Faggot. These words meant nothing to me except for the fact that they flew through the air with granite stones pitched towards my head. It’s hard to explain the feeling of being stoned in the head. It’s a kind of crashing sensation. Like being woken up with cold water. I learned the following things in grade 5:
a) no student, teacher or supervisor was going to help me
b) no child in their right mind would hang out with a kid who gets stoned in the head
c) crying only makes things worse
d) there is always a place to hide
Once my mom got wind of this, she trudged down to meet with Mr Baron from Liverpool. In the PT meeting, the stoic Wordsworth looked up over his small plastic cup of yogurt and calmly explained, “I’m not sure what those kids get up to. He’ll tough it out. Just tell the boy that whatever he’s doing to invite the derision of his classmates, he should stop. I’m afraid that’s all I can say, Mrs. Nordholm?”
“Sturmanis!” screamed my mother as she stormed out. Nordholm was my biological father; I was his bastard.
One thing my mom always said about my biological dad Erik was that he was cold. Don’t be cold like your dad, she always said.
Cold. Two years after I was born he picked up and left to become the Great Canadian Novelist. You’ve probably never heard of him. Not many people have.
Accompanied by his new wife, whom he gave no kids, he put his house on a barge and towed it off to a deserted island in the Georgia Strait. Everything went into his wife’s name and he got off the grid.
This man had icy seawater mingled in with his blood. He loved boats. He had brave notions of opening his own publishing house in a boat. He sunk his life savings, combined with mum’s, into a one-of-a-kind publishing house: a forty foot fishing boat built in ’24 converted into a leaky, moldy houseboat weighted down with an industrial printing press, typesetting machine, bind-faster and wax wands for covers. The floating publishing company was dubbed Orca Sound Press. Their first contract in ’77 was for an ambitious full-colour publication for a fledgling radical environmental protection agency now known as Greenpeace.
Five years and numerous underground poetry anthologies later, the couple discovered that one cannot survive on poetry and love alone, and even those things were finite. In those five years, mum’s first husband was still coming around and Erik was clearly having an affair with a flower child ten years younger than mum, and twenty years younger than him, who took up semi-permanent residence in the publishing boat.
In that leaky, moldy old fishing boat-cum-press, stormy waters brought a new light to Earth. It was December 16, 1982. Erik was fixing a paper jam while mum reclined by the window. I’m not sure what they had planned when the water broke at roughly 4am, but whatever it was, it clearly did not involve a hospital. Mum always told me that Erik had a fear of hospitals. She told me he’d mumble paranoid statements like “they take blood tests there, blood tests!” and conspiratorial sentiments like “why do they need to know about my blood?”
Erik had an impressive knowledge of childbirth it seems. No surgery necessary. A sterilized box cutter severed the umbilical cord as rains ravaged the old boat. The baby didn’t cry, mum told me. It never cried when it was young. It just stared up into mum’s eyes, coldly. It rejected the tit. Erik was prepared with a bottle of soy formula.
“How did you know?” asked mum.
“Just sleep,” Erik quickly replied as he killed the lights and rocked the little one gently.
My eccentric grandfather, a Harvard-educated biochem PhD lauded the fact that the space traveler was born on the same day as his favourite composer. Said composer had been decomposing in Germany now for over two centuries, but you wouldn’t know it to hear Missa Solemnis played as loudly as the stereo would permit to drown out the nightly domestic disturbances in his two-story wooden house built on the edge of the Musquem first nation in Vancouver, BC. Later Little Beethoven would live with the retired couple and learn how to cry. But that wasn’t until after the fateful night the boat sank.
One night two years after the storm dropped off a parcel in a rickety fishing boat, Erik came with mum to her parents’ for what seemed to be a routine dinner. As always, Erik took to repairing a few things on mum’s parents’ shack. Mum and her parents drank too much wine and heatedly debated issues from church to feminism to failed expectations as Erik coolly sat back in his chair and sighed. He finished feeding with the bottle of soy faux-lactate, gently placed the two-year-old in a crib and led mum outside into the driveway.
Erik steeled himself and looked directly into mum’s kiln-glazed eyes. “There’s something I should tell you.”
She kept her eyes fixed on the ground. “You fucking think I don’t know?”
“Well, I haven’t been candid.”
“And I’m not stupid. You think I’m stupid.”
“No, not stupid.”
“I wasn’t going to tell you that. I was going to say… I’m going with her. That’s all.”
Mum couldn’t keep her eyes on the ground, but she couldn’t keep from tearing up, either. She ran towards the porch. She looked down, and there was a vase full of flowers. She quickly grabbed it and rushed her betrayer, but Erik just stood there. He saw her bring the vase up before his eyes to smash it against his head. He slowly, sadly closed his eyes in anticipation. He didn’t flinch. He just sighed as the glass crashed against his crown and opened his eyes again, a minute trickle of blood descending from his scalp. He looked into her eyes again and turned. He paced away calmly as his red-faced lover crumbled into a sobbing heap by the side of the road.
The cradle perched beside the window on the second floor was a spaceship. The spaceman inside saw the whole event. He decided then that Earth was too confusing and from that point on he would do the best he could to follow the prime directive. This mandate would be met with varying degrees of success.
Erik had “accidentally” neglected to activate the water pump keeping the Orca Sound Press afloat. When mum returned to the spot where the floating press should have been, she found nothing but water. Erik had run not only from mum, but from the forty thousand dollars it took to finish the floating press’ payments and pay for the removal of the old fishing boat from the habour. The dream sunk. Mum had nothing left to do but fend for herself while her parents took care of the little spaceman.
Spaceman flew his spacecraft between homes, neither more functional than the other, until he made his own disposable family and finally found the man who had a biological claim to be his father.
It was a cold October when the two met again. Finally frosty Erik had emerged from a cave for a few minutes to let a friend know he was dying of terminal illness. The young spaceman had never really thought to search for this stranger, but now the word had gone out. I suppose, thought Spaceman, I should give him a call.
The men arranged to meet at an Earth colony, a family townhouse on campus at the University of Victoria. It was Hallowe’en night and the spaceman had invited his in-law Earthling family to his home. They didn’t look much like typical Earthlings. They were suited up in bright, garish yellows, blues, pinks and reds.
The in-laws Erik met were clowns—a whole family of them! That night, the musical clown family had been minstrelling to raise money for a good cause, orphans or some such thing. They were loud and laughing, happily playing music and providing all kinds of sensory stimulus that frightened Erik as he tremulously passed through the Earth colony doorway.
Erik’s eyes met with the eyes of the boy who neither recognized him nor regarded him with any sort of familial affection.
The young spaceman was friendly enough. Erik didn’t look like a man who hugged. He looked like some painting of William Wordsworth the spaceman had seen in his literature studies: present and absent at the same time. Stylish and with the world, but visibly offended by any contact with it. Not a man, but a statue.
Despite that Erik was ten years Papa Clown’s senior, he appeared to be ten years his junior, at least. It was not that Papa Clown looked so old, it was just that Erik had a timeless look. Not young, but without age.
The two cold men stood facing each other. One was cold because that’s the way he was born. The other was cold because floating out in space is chilly. Around them a carnival of colour, music and laughter lava was engulfing the Halloween house. You could tell the cold man was beginning to burn. Not even the site of baby Luna could touch his heart. He refused to hold her. “I’m alright,” he said, deflecting.
Erik, after a few mild comments to the joyous clowns and answers to mildly probing questions, chiseled through the mortar between the bricks in the wall of silence between him and his estranged son. “Maybe we could take a walk?”
“Of course,” stammered Spaceman. He could have said something else, but nothing else would have been appropriate for the occasion.
Spaceman whispered into his wife’s ear. She glanced quickly at Erik and nodded. She knew this would be coming.
They left the brightly lit, brightly spirited townhouse just as manic magma spewed out in the form of a coordinated dance routine starring Papa Clown and Brother Clown. Mama Clown had donned her concertina and was squeezing out a pyroclastic flow of musical tephra. Sister Clown followed with her fiddle of fiery fury just as the two cold men escaped into the cool night air.
Erik was visibly irritated by the short humans in unsensibly thick Hallowe’en makeup or vision-barring masks, all with truckloads of accumulated colourful plastic wrappers encasing small chunks of cornsyrup composite. Huff, he sputtered. “Sometimes I don’t want to leave the island. Why today of all days?”
Why today? Now it plays in head as I run to the bus station. Play by play. Moment by moment. Theatre is Evil has finished. It’s just Spaceman and him now, and I have a front-row seat.
Spaceman doesn’t look at Erik. “Thought you’d like to meet my new family.”
Now they come to the edge of the parking lot to a forest trail called Mystic Vale. The trail leads down to a beach called Cadboro Bay. The man called Erik takes a seat on a bundle of sticks called a bench and the young adult who I call Spaceman does likewise on a fungi-covered stump. Spaceman is silent while he thinks about the study conducted the previous year that concluded that human DNA is not significantly different from that of mushrooms.
Erik cuts through Spaceman’s empty gaze. “I looked you up in the phonebook. In 2005, they misspelled your name.”
“But in all other years they spell it right.”
What else would Spaceman say? I feel honoured that you can find my name in a phonebook?
“I knew your professor.”
Cullen. Another Wordsworth. He who taught the little tricks. He who wrote the play about Sam Wong. He who deposited references to Horace and Hermes into his report writing classes. He who guided his students to find and do what they really wanted to do. He who knew the secrets of the universe and told us simply, “what are you going to do, write poetry?” He who appeared in several places on campus within minutes as though there were ten of him on hand. Little tricks Cullen. He who died suddenly from cancer, leaving behind two daughters who he’d raised alone. Erik knew Cullen.
Spaceman still wasn’t comfortable with death. “I liked him,” was all he could say.
Erik breathed deeply. “Fran just went a few years ago, didn’t she?”
Fran. The spaceman was sleeping in a 1992 Ford Escort station wagon, his home at the University of Victoria, when the news of his grandmother’s death rang on a cellphone lying underneath the car’s brake pedal at five AM. He preferred not to think about it.
He had a weird thought, a little like a grotesque dream, when he was young. When the space shuttle came to transport him from his grandparents’ house in Vancouver to his parents’ house in Summerland, he saw his grandmother dead, but most of her body was like a cooked chicken, her bed a metal tray and left out on the counter, white creamy fat encasing her limp, birdbone corpse. It was an image that just wouldn’t fade.
“What do you want to tell me? We need to get back.”
“I knew your teacher.”
Spaceman closed his eyes to keep them from rolling. “Which one?”
From Liverpool. Erik sure got around for a man on a deserted island.
“I don’t get it. You’ve been stalking me, but it never occurred to you to make contact until now? Why would you bother?”
“You invited me.”
“But I am here for a reason.”
I pull the ear buds out and focus on the cold man’s information for the spaceman.
“Cullen and Baron and I knew each other well.”
How had I forgotten about this?
“Baron gave you a book. Cullen tested your understanding. Now I am making it clear.”
Book, what book?
Yes, of course! The Red Book. An old tale set in a modern landscape. An elderly man invites the scorn of his neighbours with his reclusive behaviour and unkempt appearance.
A boy of ten wanders into his shed one day. What does he find there, but a man who is attempting to change lead into gold. The boy learns everything about the process.
A grand explosion ends the life of the elderly man. But the boy is left both with the knowledge of how to transmute the metal, but the understanding that should he attempt it, he might become a fleshy wall painting.
After Faggot!, after granite, after the PT meeting, the spaceman was given more torment by being singled out to sit in the hallway and read of alchemy while the rest of the class was hypnotized into Aslan’s kingdom via the cunning of CS Lewis.
Why, Mr Baron, was I excluded?
The fit old Wordsworth turned to the ten-year old spaceman as they ran on the dusty road in Summerland. His mumbling increased in volume, and finally I could hear his raving, and I realized it was meant for me, even if Spaceman disregarded it.
“Your peers understand the “collective” part of collective responsibility. But no, they haven’t gone much further. Religion has for the most part, been an attempt to civilize people who would otherwise behave as primates.”
“But they aren’t primates.”
“That, my boy, is EXACTLY what they are. You can tell because even religion is not enough. It never has been the primates take it over and use it to enact the selfsame poopthrowing they are most familiar with.”
“Then why bother?”
“Because at least it gives them a chance. If they were atheist, they would have something closer to the truth, but they would need to have the memories of several lifetimes to truly get it. So we wrap symbolic truth into a format that they can accept and we hope for the best.”
“So, I’m not worth civilizing?”
“No, you’re not. You wouldn’t take to it. That’s why I am offering you this. Do yourself a favour and take it.”
“The symbol itself.”
What is the symbol?
Erik turned to the spaceman perched on fungus and made direct eye contact. “It is THE SYMBOL. It is from the teachings to the people of the black land. It is telepathic mind space connection held together with stars. Stick to curves, avoid the angles. Construct the ARC. Attraction plus repulsion equals circulation. This is the secret of all social and physical reality. You are now free to go anywhere in the known and unknown universe. You can now meet my kind. But you will need a guide. She will make herself known by the light of the moon…”
Erik went grey for a moment. Had scales for a moment. Flicked a tongue in the twinkle of an eye and sent me back, back to a land halfway across the world called Hanguk.
I put my hand on my bicycle seat. That run really took it out of me. Thinking about my story really took it out of me. I’m glad I’m done. Now I can once again forget about that other world, the world that has no more presence than a strange dream. Completely fictitious. And tragically hilarious.