Found Stories

February 20, 2014

Some postcards are little stories in themselves and suggest larger real-life dramas. They provide answers to four of the Five Ws—who, what, where, and when—but leave out the crucial “why”. I found this postcard at the Aberfoyle Antique Market in Aberfoyle, Ontario, and bought it because I like to imagine what was in that parcel.

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Painting by Jerry Campbell

Please feel free to provide comments and criticisms! (The ending is a work in progress…)

Calvin Campbell

Ideal Man

Mirela,” I said. “Mirela, Mirela, Mirela.” I must have told him a hundred times, no exaggeration.

What the hell kind of name is that?”

I ignored him, lit a smoke and watched a group of teenage girls as they laughed their way to the high school across the street. They wore identical uniforms with dark green blazers and tartan scarves. They even wore the same type of pea coat. One of them turned and gave me the finger. I couldn’t figure out why and gave up trying. Dale approached me, wiping his hands on a filthy, half-frozen rag.

So what’s she like?”

You mean is she hot? I don’t know. I only talked to her for about ten minutes on the phone, but she sounded nice. Intelligent. Easy laugh. Albanian.”

What?”

She’s from Albania.”

What’s that?”

 A country. It’s near Italy. I looked it up on a map.”

 She speak good English?”

 Good enough. Heavy accent.”

Dale spat. “As long as she’s not like that lazy limey we got stuck with last summer.”

I tried to laugh, but the cold had frozen my face. “Billy? There will never be another Billy.”

Did you know we’re still paying that jackass workman’s comp?”

I know. You keep telling me all the different ways you’re going to kill him.” I’d been working with Dale for nearly five years. I studied for a year at Nick Norris College, but I dropped out. Everything they say about that place is true.

I was just about to gag when Dale finally threw the damn rag into the back of the truck. Window cleaning is a disgusting job. All kinds of crap gets stuck in the creases of your hands and there’s no way to scrub it off. You’d need to get in there with a chisel. It’s like being branded. One time I had to clean big blotches of puke off some windows down at the Nick Norris dorm. They really know how to party over there.

I lit another cigarette without realizing that I hadn’t finished the first one. Dale and I were both on edge. We’d never hired a girl before, and there was no doubt that things would have to change. For instance, we’d probably have to cut down on our profanity. I looked down the street to see if Mirela was coming, but there wasn’t a soul in sight.

She’s late,” said Dale.

She probably just got lost.”

You sure know how to pick ’em.”

Dale started pacing irritably, which made me irritable, but instead of pacing I drove our sad old Dodge pickup out of the garage. It was about twenty years old, and looked like something you’d find abandoned in the middle of a Saskatchewan farmer’s wheat field. Rust had settled into its every pore, giving it a tubercular appearance. “Summit Window Cleaners – Look on the Bright Side” was barely legible on the door panels. You couldn’t ask for worse advertising. The garage itself was at least a hundred years old, and had been a horse stable once upon a time. Years after I quit window cleaning, I looked at a picture of the place and I swear I could still smell old horse manure. The walls inside had been plastered with Playboy centrefolds. Billy’s work. Once we knew that a girl would be working for us, Dale and I had spent most of one day tearing them all down. Now they were crumpled up in a big garbage bag in the back. I pulled one out at random. Her name was Tricia Lange. I guess she was good looking. She was naked, anyway. I flipped it over and read. Her turn-ons were eye contact, smiles, intelligent minds, warm water, rock ‘n’ roll music, and fast cars. Her turn-offs were cigarette smoke, traffic, smog, and insensitive and insecure people. For some reason, I folded it and stuffed it into my coat pocket, grabbed my coffee off the dash and went back to stand beside Dale. The wind was really ripping now.

She’s late,” said Dale. He suddenly turned and hurled his squeegee against the back wall of the garage. He threw tantrums like that pretty often, but they still made me jump. “Fuck this,” he said. “Let’s go to the 7-11.”

“I’ll leave her a note,” I said. Dale handed me a pen. He always carried pens in a pocket protector, just like a real boss. I found an old coffee-stained invoice and wrote on the back of it: “Mirela. We’re at the 7-11. Just go up Stayner. It’s on the right hand side. Morris.” I stuck the note under the wiper, secretly hoping that it would blow away. I was twenty-six, but I was wary of girls, and not just because I still had braces on my teeth and pretty bad acne scars on my face. It’s like they all carried some secret knowledge in their hearts that they could use against you. Even the dopey ones.

We trudged up Stayner to the 7-11, not talking to each other. Stayner Avenue was in the seediest section of town. Not big city seedy, but it had plenty of drunks, hookers, and cheap and dirty rooming houses. It curved up toward an area near the new expressway, making the whole street seem to frown. You could tell by the old building facades, though, that it had once been a pretty up-scale business district. You could still make out the faded sign, “Ellie’s Fashions for Women”, painted on the brick wall on the side of Dickey’s, a bar so seedy that it made me want to quit drinking every time I passed it.

The wind was cutting, and it started to snow. We burst through the doors of the 7-11 like whipped dogs. Larry, the guy who worked behind the counter, looked hungover. He exuded this fetid, yeasty odour. We got extra-large coffees and I cashed a ten for quarters. And then Dale said he was hungry. He examined an array of muffins under a plastic dome.

He pointed to one of them. “Are there carrots in that muffin?” he asked Larry.

Yes, Dale,” said Larry. “That’s why it’s called a carrot muffin.” He pointed at a label. “Can you read the little sign?”

Sure, but are there actual pieces of carrot in it?”

Probably. How the hell would I know?”

I don’t want a crunchy muffin,” said Dale. “It’s okay if it’s all blended and mashed in with the batter, but that carrot muffin looks different.”

Larry sighed. “Do you want the muffin, Dale?”

Order the fucking muffin,” I said.

Please don’t swear in the store, Morris,” said Larry. As a franchise owner, Larry wanted to keep the place respectable.

I shrugged. Dale passed on the muffin and bought a bag of chips instead. We took turns playing Galaxian. When I was just starting to feel nice and warmed up, Dale sent me back to the garage to look for Mirela. No Mirela. My message hadn’t blown away, but it was buried under an inch of snow. I wrote another note and stuck it to the inside of the windshield. Mirela. I liked her name. I liked that she was from another country—a country that most people couldn’t find on a map. And not just Dale, either. It’s a very small country in a strange location. You really have to look for it. And I liked that I had withheld some information from Dale, because at the end of our brief phone conversation, Mirela had said, “I’m really looking forward to meeting you.” I had a secret.

I clambered into the cab of the truck, pulled the centrefold out of my pocket, and read more about Tricia Lange:

AMBITIONS: To accomplish what I set out to do. To make the most out of life.

IDEAL MAN: Sensitive, sincere, intelligent, stimulating, creative, successful and fun.

SECRET FANTASY: The power to turn fantasies into reality.

I wasn’t interested in her ambitions, and everyone wants to turn their fantasies into reality, so I focused on the part about her IDEAL MAN. In my opinion, Tricia Lange was setting herself up for heartbreak. At least if she lived in Raymond. Just using rough figures based on observation and the people in my own social circle, there were maybe two who you might call intelligent. And if by “sensitive” Tricia meant “people who don’t kick their dogs”, then you might be looking at 65%. We had one creative guy in town – a painter – but he offed himself when I was just a kid. I could see myself objectively, and I can tell you that I was no great catch, but I looked pretty good in comparison to the rest of the population. I read books and things of that nature.

When I got back to the store, I leaned against the game cabinet and watched Dale immersed in Galaxian. I studied his face. People in my town are uniformly homely. We have a muttish appearance. Dale was pretty representative. People in my town look half-baked. Like they’ve been taken out of the kiln too early.

Dale banged the side of the cabinet and something inside cracked.

Hey!” yelled Larry. “Don’t hit the fucking game!”

We stepped outside so I could have a smoke. “Maybe I should call her,” I said. I rifled through my pants and coat pockets and checked my wallet. “Except I don’t have her number with me.”

A fresh gust blew away Dale’s obscenity.

I guess I could go home and get it,” I said. I wanted to hear Mirela’s voice again. I missed her voice, you see.

Dale acknowledged my comment with brief eye contact and a raised eyebrow. “Forget it. We can’t work in this.”

The snow kept falling; pointlessly at this time, because everything had already been buried.

The school bell rang, and pretty soon a small mob of teenage girls, cursing the cold in colourful terms, started streaming into the 7-11. One of them tried to bum a smoke off me. “No chance,” I told her. “It’s for your own good.” That’s what my dad always told me when I first started smoking—before he started bumming smokes from me.

Thanks for the sermon, handsome.” That was really a low blow. And then she followed it up by giving me the finger, which only made matters worse. She rejoined her little group, and this group turned to me. The schoolgirl squadron in full battle dress. There might have been five or six of them, but the blowing snow was making things opaque.

I tried to laugh like I was blowing her off, but it sounded fake, and I think she sensed it. “Maybe you think you’re some kind of dream girl now,” I said. I was getting pretty heated up, so I took a few steps toward her. “Maybe you think—” Before I could tell her what else she might be thinking, she lunged at me and planted a wicked left right in my solar plexus. I kind of buckled and tipped over. Suddenly Larry was yelling something about calling the cops and that he wanted everybody off his property now.

But I couldn’t move. I didn’t want to move. Dale stood over me and offered me his hand, but I didn’t take it. He nudged me with his foot.

You just got floored by a girl,” he said.

It’s been a bad day all around,” I said, sort of gasping out the words.

It was a sucker punch,” said Dale, like this fact would allow me to keep my pride. He started to turn away, but took a step back. “Are you going to get up now?”

I shook my head.

He looked at me and bit his lip. “Well you can’t just lay here in the middle of the parking lot.”

Is that where I am?” I really wasn’t sure where I was. It didn’t seem to matter. I was already finding interesting shapes in the clouds.

Larry came trotting over and the two of them stood looking at me like I was some really complicated chess problem.

Larry nudged me with his foot. “Stop being a dick, Morris. Get up.”

I shook my head. “No can do.”

Larry looked at Dale, and Dale shrugged and acted like he didn’t know me. “Okay,” said Larry. “Grab his legs, Dale.” I didn’t resist. Larry had me under the arms and the two of them carried me to the side of the store and flung me into a snowdrift. Then Larry got a broom and swept some of the snow off my coat and pants.

I thanked him. He shrugged. “It’s the least I can do, Morris. You’re a good customer.” He glared at Dale as he spoke to me. “You don’t bust my machines.”

I lay there for a long time, listening to the mild bustle that surrounded me, such as honking cars and barking dogs and a crying baby and two drunks arguing about who stole the other’s empties. A couple of people tossed spare change at me, which was very kind of them. One old guy in a wheelchair asked if I needed help. I took him up on the offer, and the look of charity sort of drained from his face. I gave him the Tricia Lange centrefold, which had gotten very soggy by now, and told him that I wanted him to put it somewhere for safekeeping. He transferred it to his coat pocket very discreetly, handed me a religious tract, and then wheeled his way up Stayner toward Dickey’s. There followed a period of time in which nothing happened. It was like sleep, but I could only compare it to sleep because I became conscious again. For a few minutes I wondered if I had died. I felt very vague, like whoever made me forgot to add important details. I had a dream that somebody stole my wallet, but when I checked I discovered that someone actually had stolen my wallet.

The sun now was somewhere off to the right, tucked behind and nearly eclipsed by a very dark and monstrous cloud. The snow had stopped falling. A girl was looking down at me. Her hair was cut short and tousled. Her front teeth were prominent but well-aligned, and she smiled like you’d think Joan of Arc might have smiled.

Are you Morris?” She laughed.

Are you Mirela?”

She extended a red-mittened hand and brought me to my feet. “Sure.”

We both laughed. 

My desk

I’ve never considered myself to be one of those people who seemed destined to write. Nature did not endow me with extraordinary powers of psychological observation, and for the first twenty-odd years of my life I felt no impulse to express myself in words. Words are not picturesque. I was very big on going to the movies at the time, so I made Super-8 films instead.

As I entered my early 20s, my attitude toward art became more passive. I read widely and majored in English at university. I tried my hand at writing and discovered that, while I had some facility with language, I had very little to say. Drinking with friends, playing darts, and shooting pool provided an attractive distraction.

The genesis of any creative endeavour is a tension that cannot be expressed by prosaic means. For example, I can swear at someone who has cut me off while driving, but that requires only that my vocabulary contains existing profanity. (And it does, believe me.) The source of tension might be one’s reaction to something external. Beatniks, hippies, and punks all created music (art) that was a response to their perceived sense of injustice and societal constraint. For others, the tension might be internal. An essential component of treatment for those with mental disorders is art therapy. The tension is eased when the internal becomes externalized, and one may feel reconnected with the larger world through the production of something concrete—something that can be shared. Seen in this light, art is not, as some claim, a frivolous luxury. There are, of course, scores of artists whose work is self-indulgent or derivative (enough with the Barbie doll installations already!), but that does not negate the necessity, the inevitability, of art.

It was not until I read Franz Kafka’s book, “Parables and Paradoxes”, that the true power of words became clear. The fragments and short stories that comprise the book are cloaked in ambiguity and spiritual mystery. Age-old problems of truth and meaning are approached tangentially, yet there is an undercurrent of wisdom that is beguiling, just out of reach. Kafka demonstrated to me that uncertainty could be met with still greater uncertainty, and that truth was not bound by the restrictions of logic.

Here is an example of a fragment from “Parables and Paradoxes”:

THE PIT OF BABEL

 What are you building?—I want to dig a subterranean passage. Some progress must be made. My station up there is much too high.

We are digging the pit of Babel.

And so, between games of darts (priorities, here), I entered the world of metaphor, writing little meditations on loneliness and love without mentioning either by name. I wrote secrets to myself: impressions, half-thoughts, and contradictions—a kind of coded diary. I was pleased with the mystery of my own musings, taking comfort in the knowledge that any attempt to define myself to myself must remain vague. To use a darts analogy: I would never hit the bull’s eye, so why aim for the board at all?

But the charm of such introspection soon faded. After a while, it occurred to me that what I was doing was the literary equivalent of playing air guitar in front of a mirror. Wouldn’t I really rather be up onstage, playing to an audience? Well, yes. But that would require a separate blog entry.

Thanks for reading!

Calvin Campbell

The Thief of Words

July 17, 2011


A very short story—a sort of melancholy dream narrative—in which I tried to play with structure in order to create a more impressionistic feel. Constructive feedback is always welcome.

Thanks!

Calvin

The Thief of Words

That’s my memory, kept and clutched as with a sixth sense, that it was a prim Oriental afternoon, with the pink streaks in the sky going God-knows-where down across the park, but very far away. Ghostly, melancholy travellers. Birds met and crashed headlong somewhere up in the trees nearby, breaking branches, and fluttering away, shaken. Now I’m drawing closer to us, where we were sitting. Her eyes, narrowed to slits, alight and, moist and inscrutable, gaze into the ether, as though she is observing fairies. I do not recall how long we have been sitting on this bench, that is at once Autumn-warm and endlessly cold. She does not look at me, though she is always in my sight. She fills my vision. I feel like an infant, knowing nothing else but this face and these beautiful eyes. I watch her lips part again; she has been doing this for as long as I have been watching her, but until now she has not spoken. She gently gasps, and her words reach me before I see her mouth form them. She says the aching words in a soft tone that I could never manage. But that is such a long time ago.

She talks gaily, child-like. She speaks those chosen words just as I pluck them. She has stolen the words from my heart. She is a thief of words. How could she say something so sad with such innocence? Her lyrical voice makes the statement that much more true, that much more brazenly true. For even earthly joys cannot conceal it. Love vanished, and I was left alone with the screaming red sky. The sky above, and the awful clouds knit a rope.

How could she say something like that, this girl whom I have known for how long now? Hours or years? We had travelled on streetcars together, I recall scaling mountains, and was she not with me when I bought my new suit? And somewhere, tucked away and remembered like a lullaby, a summer spent near a decaying lighthouse? She loved that suit. It was this girl, or it could be, though I would never guess it. If not her, then who had I been out with at night, when the air feels so safe and full of promise?

“There’s nothing really wonderful, is there?” That is what she said.

A Ghost Story: Part 1

February 13, 2011

The following is the beginning of a short ghost story that I’ve been working on for some time. Comments, criticisms, and suggestions are all welcome.

A Reflection

Harold did not want anything interesting to happen. It wasn’t part of his evening plan. He wanted only to drink his port and let his mind meander in its predictable fashion: back to childhood memories, perhaps, or forward to future accomplishments. Fantasies. But when he happened to glance into the otherwise unremarkable antique mirror that he and his wife had recently purchased at auction, and saw himself as thin, graceful, and dashing, it occurred to him that this was not a matter that could be easily ignored. Fully aware that even in his finest youthful moments he had never looked so roguish, he could discern from his reflection that he was wearing what appeared to be a very fine silk chemise. The same image was reflected in each of the tri-fold panels. This itself might be attributed to a trick of the light, except that the figure in the mirror bore absolutely no resemblance to himself; rather, with its regal features, the reflection clearly constituted another person entirely.

Harold diverted his attention by focusing his eyes out the window, where a jet stream faded against the emerging harvest moon.

He returned to the reflection (curiosity being that sort of beast) and studied again the handsome face with its aristocratic nose, as well as the slim figure’s Gallic attire: plum velvet breaches, red waistcoat, ruffled white silk shirt, and pointed shoes—all displayed in faded colours that projected antiquity. The man inhabited a parlour done up in the style of the French Baroque. The room was dimly lighted, and its decor appeared unfinished, like a sketch for a theatrical backdrop. Real enough, though, Harold concluded, and then fell into a protracted silence.

It’s preposterous,” he said at last. “Ridiculous. I’m dreaming. Or I’m hallucinating.” But the sound of his voice was no match for that sense which lords itself over all others: sight. Something was happening. Did the borderland of sleep permit the unfolding of a narrative? Were hallucinations so coherent? For now, as he watched the reflection pacing the floor of the old parlour with obvious anxiety, Harold realized that he had joined some drama in media res. What had caused the anxiety? Where would it lead? What is my part in it? An oblivious bird twittered away on the window ledge of the garret. The figure in the mirror jabbed the dagger-like tips of his shoes into the carpet.

I’m of sound mind,” said Harold. He smiled to prove it. Never before had he questioned his sanity. Clutching the bottle closely, he looked again into the glass, where the mise en scene had undergone a dramatic transformation. It was nighttime now in the mirror man’s world. A single candle guttered on a writing desk, where sat the Frenchman, ferociously scribbling on scraps of paper. Hyper-vigilant, he wrote as though taking dictation from an inspired but unseen muse. The man was insane. But only if the man were real.

Harold backed away, meditating on his minimal knowledge of the nature of time, and the theory that a haunting—of which thousands were supposedly well-documented—was in fact a simple recording of an incident that had become entangled in the aether; trapped, and ultimately transmitted to the haunted as an endless loop. Like a film clip with no beginning and no end. If this were a haunting, it was a truly peculiar one, for events within the loop had not yet begun to repeat themselves. It was more like peeping through a keyhole into another time and place.

The door opened and Eleanor entered the room. He recognized her perfume immediately. But she did not appear in the mirror. In lieu of his wife stood the maniac scribe, his hair matted and his expression, at best, obscure. Harold felt oppressed by the writer’s yearning, and his ceaseless fatigue. Felt it like a ravenous gravitational pull.

Eleanor moved breezily past him to the far end of the garret.

Come look at this, Eleanor,” said Harold. “I think there’s something very wrong with my mind. Or the mirror.”

That’s easy,” she said with easy sarcasm. “Your mind.”

I think we’re at some sort of intersection” said Harold. He did not want to use the words “ghost” or “haunting”.

Eleanor sighed. “Is this one of those dreadful jokes in which I must provide the punch line?”

Nothing of the sort,” said Harold.

Are you grappling with mortality again?”

Maybe. In a strange way, maybe.”

Talk sense, man.” She breezed past him in the other direction.

It doesn’t make sense, Eleanor. We’re being haunted.”

Well, Harold, we have our problems like every couple, but–”

No,” said Harold. “I think something is very wrong.

Will you listen to yourself?”

Listen to me!” Harold realized that he believed that the ghost might in some way be aware of hisown presence, though it had not yet acknowledged him. He continued in a whisper: “As I look in the mirror now, I see brief vignettes featuring a man—or some sort of simulacrum of a man; no, aman—or the memory of a man who is—”

Stop it,” said Eleanor. “Stop it, Harold. You’re frightening me.”

Eleanor,” said Harold weakly. “It’s because I’m very frightened.”

Eleanor kissed him gently on the head.

I will look into the mirror,” she said. “I will look because I love you and I want to put your mind at rest.” She put the stopper in the port bottle and knelt next to him, turned toward the mirror. Her fingers gripped Harold’s shoulder. Nothing in the glass was familiar. It was not a reflection at all. Her eyes flitted across the panels of the mirror, trying to assemble the disjointed narrative as it unfolded in the three panes. For each pane now showed a separate scene. The scenes were related, part of a greater story, but they played out in an order that was clearly not chronological. In the left-most panel, a chambermaid was murdered, her throat slit with consummate skill. The glass washed momentarily crimson. The spirit captured the blood in a small gilded chalice, turned, and raised it high above his head.

It’s a trick,” she said. “There must be some kind of projector or—”

No, no,” said Harold, his tone revealing an unwanted epiphany. The spectre dipped a finger in the blood and scrawled sensuous symbols in the air. “Each sign is a different kind of devil.”

It’s madness,” she said. “We’re both insane. It’s called folie a deux; a shared delusion that—”

What does it want?” he blurted.

What can it want?” wailed Eleanor. “It’s nothing!”

The figure turned abruptly. Tight-lipped, suspicious.

He heard you,” whispered Harold.

They waited, paralyzed, as the figure strode toward the mirror, seemed to scrutinize them, then rapped on the glass.

He beamed, a sick and sallow portrait of hard-won triumph.