As we go through our lives, we need to interact with other people. But in many cases those interactions are not easy activities. We are dealing with people with different ideals or personalities that are different from our own that we often become uncomfortable or even confused in our thoughts and actions. I realized this as I read the 2015 collection of The Journey Prize Stories how difficult relations are in the human condition and how literature helps to explore those relationships.
Page XI – Introduction by Anthony De Sa, Tanis Rideout, and Carrie Snyder. Selection committee for the 2015 Journey Prize Stories
Perhaps the greatest surprise can be found in how these stories affected us. Some of the stories grabbed us from the very beginning, while others rippled out like water disturbed by a pebble. Regardless of how they took hold, they all engaged us with their richness – the layered and nuanced telling of more we appreciated how beautiful or smart or gritty these pieces were.
This couldn’t have been an easy task for these three to pick out 12 stories that were gripping in their writing and style. Each of these three are strong writers in there own right and certainly they must have been aware of more than 12 stories for them to choose from. Yet these selections are strong ones that move and enlighten readers and writers alike.
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Page 3-4 Fingernecklace by Lori McNulty
Donny’s greasy jeans are tucked into oil-stained work boots in the living room of the care home. He checks his watch, pacing. Crew’s on site. Fuck. Shit. Piss. He’s got the engineer’s change orders. Cost overruns. Goddamn job is killing him. Looking up he sees Gus lumbering down the stairs still wrapped in his white terry cloth robe. Big as a hollowed oak, premature belly spread. Donny shakes a full prescription bottle at him.
“Don’t skip out on me, Gus. You know what happens.”
Donny watches his younger brother’s eyes dart around the room, taking inventory. He sees Gus freeze at the sight of his work boots.
Gus bunches the terry cloth belt in his palms, squeezes, lets the fuzzy ball drop to the floor. He yanks it back up like a fishing line, absently lets it drop. Donny pats the couch cushion, coaxing his brother over.
“Look, Gus, we can’t do our usual pizza run this aft. Got a date with a wrecking ball.”
Gus bunches the belt in his lap, blinks wet, wandering tears. Donny wraps his arms around his big old stump of a baby brother, tries to hold the roots down keep the disease from spreading. Root rot. Runs in the family.
Gus sobs into his brother’s neck. “I want to come home.”
Donny holds him close, tries to stop twenty years of trembling. Five years, six major episodes, a thousand pills and private dreams between them.
We have all seen all sorts of human-interest news stories about families who deal with members who have metal illness. But McNulty short story gives a true essence of what the situation is like. Using bold and frank language she shows the relationship between the two brothers and describes the hard emotions they each must deal with.
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Page 14 Mercy Beatrice Wrestles the Noose by K’ari Fisher
Ghost-Mom has been hanging around me all evening, smoking her cigarette. When she was alive she always had a pack of her fer shit sake sticks nearby in case of an emergency. Now that she’s dead, a machine-rolled Du Maurier hangs endlessly from her lips. She sucks on it pathologically. In the last few months, I’ve yet to see her need to light a new one.
“Why are you here, Mercy Beatrice?” she says. Her see-through body bristles up like a used scrub brush. ” I told you to stay away from this place.”
Here is Bodie, British Columbia. Bodie used to be a self-sufficient whistle-stop along the Canadian Pacific Railway during the lure of Gold Mountain. When the rush was over, they flooded 920 hectares of forest to power the twin turbines running the aluminum smelter on the other side of the cordillera. Now all that remains is my father, his junkyard that operates off scrap brought in on the train, and Pauley.
This is a brilliant short-story written in the first-person. A young woman tracks down her estranged father and learns the skills involved in the pro-wrestling circuit. We follow the protagonist through not only the lessons of wrestling but a wealth of emotions involving her strange family.
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Page 29 – Renaude by Charlotte Bondy
Mischa and I met on the second day of grade nine when our French teacher mistook him for a girl because of his long dark hair and cheekbones like Kate Moss. Everyone giggled and Mischa flushed red down to his shirt collar. After class I found him in the the hall and told him I was jealous of his curls. I also told him this story about when I was twelve and had a terrible mushroom cut. My mom took me to the Gap to buy a pair of velvet pants. The salesperson kept trying to steer us to the men’s section, away from all the leggings, until my frazzled mother eventually pointed at me and yelled, “She’s a girl!” After I told him this, Mischa gave me his special look, the one where his eyes squeeze shut like a smiling Buddha. Then he asked if I wanted to eat lunch with him and that was that.
Adolescences is always a difficult time for many people. Trying to fit a certain identity while dealing with set norms that society is trying force us into is not an idyllic experience. Charlotte Bondy explores that setting for three teenagers trying to come to age in a modern city.
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Page 41-42 Cocoa Divine and the Lighthouse Police by Georgia Wilder
Dad complains that Diefenbaker scrapped the Arrow and that Trudeau, French and effete, joined Ed Sullivan’s conspiracy. “Beatle-mania, Trudeau-mania, Mob psychology,” he says. “All those kids screaming like rabid animals. No discipline. Is that roasted chicken? Damn that rock and roll and those crazy hippies. What we need is another war. Pass the green beans. Please! What do you think about this women’s lib, malarkey, Brownwyn?” It’s not a question. It is a test for The Amazing Kreskin. He wants me to read the secret answer his head, not tell him what I really think.
I dress like a boy because girls can’t do shit if they dress like girls, and what I really think is that Dad can take a great word like liberation and make it sound like a bad taste in your mouth, like something loud and fat and embarrassing: lip or lipid or libido. I haven’t heard the term hippie since grade five, and Trudeau is old, and malarkey comes from the kind of braid that’s been mummified in a Canopic jar. There’s a new indie punk glam scene that comes in from campus stations late at night on my clock radio, and those new rocker chicks and club queens and androgyny philosophers are taking over from white-boy cock-rockers like The Who and The Stones and Rush and Styx; and I’m trying to figure out why all the cool black rock-and-rollers are selling their souls to disco, and why the hell Grace Jones is singing synthesized Broadway tunes when she could be kicking ass with real skin drums. My dad says there’s a generation gap. It’s the fucking Grand Canyon. All he sees is this freckled kid who doesn’t say what’s in her head and he makes her feel dumb and small.
Another great story dealing with identity and family relationships. Many of us look back at our upbringings and try to deal with reflections of people who tried to push their views on us. Wilder not only uses frank language but terms from the period which makes this story realistic.
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Page 61-62 The Perfect Man for my Husband by Andrew MacDonald
I put my piece of bread back on the plate and asked my husband, “What do you mean, no hope?”
“Exactly what it sounds like.” He drank some carbonated water, sucking it through his teeth. By the face he made, I could tell he had trouble getting it down his throat, as if it hadn’t gone all the way to his stomach and had chosen his Adam’s apple as its home instead.
This was our Cancer Dinner – what we’d call it over the next few months, when the endlessly multiplying cells really started ransacking his body. I would come to grow fond of this moment, the way Eve must have grown fond of the second before she bit into the apple and damned us all. It’s rare in life you can point definitively to The Moment Everything Changed. We could do that.
Palming a piece of bread into a tiny ball, I threw it across the table at his chest. I pretended his chest was the universe, that the ball of bread was a missile with such potential for catastrophe that it would end all moments. The bread ball bounced into his glass of water. We both looked at it sadly as the water molecules slowly pulled it apart, the bread falling open like a strange underwater flower you needed grief to discover.
A great story in which a wife not only has to deal with her husband’s terminal illness but also the fact that he admits that he is attracted to other men. McDonald has capture the dynamic between a husband and wife brilliantly which gives great insight to the state of couples in our modern era.
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Page 81 -82 – Moonman by Sarah Meehan Sirk
“My aunt is going to stay over the nights that both Chris and I are working,” she said into the receiver. “I don’t know, Fran. It’s going to be tough for a while, but I think it’s only temporary. I mean, my hours and his . . . situation.”
And then she laughed in that conspiratorial way mothers share while talking with one another about their husbands and children. A laugh, it seemed to me that rarely involved joy.
I couldn’t tell her that she’d been wrong. It didn’t matter that she was home when we went to bed and when she got up for school in the morning – her nighttime absence echoed through the halls. We always knew when she was gone. i lost the feeling that children are supposed to have when they drift off to sleep: that knowledge that their parents, their mother, is in the house somewhere, her protective warmth flowing from room to room in the dark. Without it, I lay awake for hours listening to every creak, every rustle, and every snore that rose up from Great Aunt Audrey, who slipped into an impenetrable slumber on a chair in front of the television minutes after the front door was pulled shut and the key turned in the lock.
Another great story looking at the relationship between parents and child. A bit of a conspiratorial feel to this story which gleefully draws the reader into the piece.
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Page 96-97 Last Animal Standing on Gentleman’s Farm by Emily Bossé
After vomiting in the sink where we clean the blenders, I decide I need to get the hell out of this city. If I ever get my face tenderized again, it’s going to be over something I really believe in. Not a day’s worth of wheatgrass profits. When I get home, there it is: a big brown envelope with a note from my mom written on kitchen stationery and something from LANDE & WOLFE on legal letterhead. I open the legal letter first, and it say my uncle Phillip died and left a lot of his estate to me, something about property, something about chattel, a meeting, turnover, so on, so forth. The not from my mom is shorter, saying something along the same lines, but also God knows why Phil would leave this to me as he hasn’t seen me since I moved away, and I just don’t know the first thing about husbandry, but it’s just a hobby farm, really: a little more than a dozen chickens, eight pigs, one goat, a rooster, and a dog. Maybe it would be good for me, and if I can stand the thought of going back to Devon it’s mine. Then, at the bottom: P.S. – tell Paul I say “hi.” Yours, Mom.” I’ve never heard of another mom who signs her letters “yours.” Good old Eva.
I’m on the next bus out with as much as I can stuff into the duffel bag I stole from my deadbeat roommate. For a second I think I see Joanna sitting about six rows in front of me, slack jawed and stringy haired, her roots about six inches of grey fading into an orangey urine colour. She’s looking straight ahead just like she rides the bus over and over back home, but I can’t imagine Paul letting her out like that, and he’s been in charge of her since Mrs. Estey died. We stop at some trucker place called Chatter’s and I call Paul collect. It’s around 3 a.m. back home, but he picks up the phone on the second ring. I tell him my uncle’s dead and I guess I’ve come into some land or something, and I’m coming home toot sweet. Paul inhales and exhales noisily into the phone.
“Paul. Seriously. this is some Jane Eyre shit.”
We all have had those mixed feelings of nostalgia and guilt when we try to return back to the regions of our upbringing. Yet there are little disasters that occur in those visits that tell us that “going home again” just isn’t a great idea. Bossé explores that notion in this brilliant and engaging story.
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Page 117-188 – Lovely Company by Ron Schafrick
I was at work, finishing up for the day, when I got a call from my father. It scared me a little, seeing his name on the screen like that in the middle of the afternoon. Usually I was the one who made the calls, nearly every evening since my mother passed away three years ago. He only ever phoned when he was upset about something, often lat at night when his eighty-year-old mind started playing tricks on him, getting him wound up into thinking that so-and-so was trying to take away the hose, or that someone else was siphoning money out of his bank account. And so it naturally fell to me to reassure him, often unconvincingly, that everything was all right, that no one was stealing from him, and that certainly no was trying to take away the old farmhouse he had built more than forty years ago, the house I’d grown up in and where he continued to live.
“What’s wrong?” I said.
“Nothing’s wrong,” he said. “Something’s got to be wrong for me to call?”
I leaned back in my chair.
“You know what?” he said. “I think I got a girlfriend now.”
I personally could relate to this piece on so many different levels. I have had to deal with elderly parents in this situation so many times that it felt like Schafrick was writing an element out of my life.
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Page 147 – Maggie’s Farm by Charlie Fiset
When Diane leaves, the girl and the boy search their new home.
“Look here!” the boy calls. “What the hell is this thing?”
The girl finds him in the bedroom, touching a bundle of dead leaves that are wrapped in string and hanging from the ceiling.
“It looks like voodoo,” the boy says.
“Voodoo? They’re just dried herbs. That’s how my mom hangs them.”
The girl reaches up to touch a sprig of mint but withdraws her hand when she sees that the slivered, pale green leaves are wrapped in cobwebs and blanketed in dust.
“Come look at the kitchen,” she says, taking the boy’s hand. “Look at all the food Margaret bought us . . . “
We have all taken those extend vacations where we need to interact with different people of different cultures and values. In such journeys do we not only learn about others but ourselves and the people we think we know and care about. This story is brilliant, especially in the fact the protagonists are never named. (Always referred to as “Boy” and “Girl”) This allows the reader to easily imagine themselves in the clothes of the travelers as they go through each experience.
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Page 182 – Achilles’ Death by Madeleine Maillet
I twisted up a tress of wet hair and imagined I could wring the lice out. I let it go and it clung to my neck, like a disgusting thing. If I were a Medusa I wouldn’t have lice. But I knew I wasn’t brave enough to be a Medusa. And I wanted to be pretty. I wondered what I would look like when I was a woman.
Mom asked Nadine to put the radio on and it was smooth and she moaned along. Alan Almond played Sade, Marvin Gaye, that kind of thing. My favourite part was the requests. Someone loves Linda, in Flint, and so the listening audience knows that Linda, of Flint, is loved.
The phone rang. This time my mom just left the comb hanging in my hair while she talked to Papa. After, she asked us about our funeral clothes and we pretended not to feel like funeral clothes are weird and boring to talk about. When they played “My Girl” we all sang along. Mom had the most gusto and Dini had the best voice and all our voices together made a mood.
We didn’t talk for a while. I asked Mom how much hair she’d done and she drew a line on my scalp with the comb, way beneath the crown. My sister drew the same two-and-a-half storey house with a fence that she always drew. The sun and the seagull were there, in each corner of the sky. Looking at her drawing, she asked, “What’s for dinner?”
Again, childhood is the setting for this brilliant story. We all suffered from all sorts of traumas and excitements that shape our psyche in our adult lives. Maillet’s piece here is a great exploration of some events and the interactions of a child.
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Page 193-194 – Red Egg and Ginger by Anna Ling Kaye
On the day of Baby’s full-month party, Mei wakes with a sore chest. She takes off her nightshirt in the bathroom and checks her profile in the mirror. It is amazing to think of herself as pregnant. There is nothing different about her soft skin, her smooth stomach. Except her breasts feel different. they are stiff and sensitive in the hand. Mei imagines them swelling with milk, like water balloons, nature’s prank on unsuspecting mothers. Mei decides not to consult the literature from Family Planning hidden under her mattress. She walks into the living room to look for her cigarettes.
Her roommate, Ching, is sitting on the couch in a long T-shirt and eating a bowl of ramen noodles. She had Styrofoam bowl balanced on her bare knees, lifting it occasionally for a slurp of soup. The smell of salty broth fills the tight space, making Mei’s empty stomach turn.
“Afternoon, bed-head,” Ching says. “No work today?”
“I couldn’t open my eyes.”
“Romeo called for you. You are so lucky. I need love.” Ching flicks a log of burgundy-dyed hair out of her soup and gives a dramatic sniff. “I’m going to be alone forever. Not like you and Prince Charming.”
Mei chews the unlit cigarette in her mouth and notices she doesn’t want to smoke. In fact, the thought of smoking right then makes her gag. “You think he’s a prince?” she asks. She tries to sound bored, keep the hope out of her voice.
“Of course,” Ching says. “He’s cute, he’s got a good job, he adores you. He’s tall, too. He’s the pot of gold.”
Mei puts the cold cigarette on the table and looks at Ching.
“So your mom would let you marry a white ghost?”
Ching’s scandalized laughter is all the answer Mei needs.
Growing up in a difficult culture can produce difficult hardships. But also many of the pressures are similar to our society. Anna Ling Kaye has documented an interesting situation about a girl in modern Hong Kong society. The rituals that her protagonist seem foreign to us but the pressures but on her family are quite familiar.
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Page 205-206 The Wise Baby by Deirdre Dore
Hi. Is Darryl home? she said
I said, No.
A few nights before, after I got off shift, I had come home and found Darryl lying on the couch, smoking a joint. I took off my shoes and threw my clothes into the washing machine. I am a philosophy student-slash-server. He is an artist-slash-server and was my boyfriend for four years. He painted large female nudes in oil and hope to get noticed one day.
Busy? Darryl asked.
Slammed, I said. If I wash my shirt now, do you think you can iron it for me in the morning? I really, really, need to sleep in.
Darryl said, Vivian? Listen up.
He had two things to tell me. One, that his art was the most important thing in his life. And two, more important even than his art, he might be gay. I laughed. I said, Oh great, I’m thirty-three years old, ready to start my life and I’m stuck with a boyfriend who is having a heterosexual melt down.
Being gay is one thing. Not being gay is another thing. But not knowing, well, that’s something else.
I told him, Do me a favour, go sort yourself out somewhere else.
The next morning he moved up the mountain to his parents’ condo in Whistler, to paint, wait on tables, snowboard, and sort himself out somewhere else.
I didn’t mention any of this to the woman on my doorstep, who introduced herself as Deb and said she had come to return a stamp she had borrowed from Darryl.
This is probably the funniest story in the whole book since it reflects an honest slice of reality. It seems something annoying always pops up when one is trying to deal with an important crisis in one’s life. In this case, after a break up, an overworked philosophy major deal with a couple of neighbours who continually intrude into her life. The concept of relationships and interactions are a strong feature in this short story.
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The 2015 collection of The Journey Prize Stories was a great look at some of the relationships and interactions that make up the human condition. It also provide and great introduction to some new writers that will hopefully continue their craft and allow us to interact with their writings in the future.
Link to The Writers’ Trust of Canada’s website for The Journey Prize
Link to Penguin/Random House Canada’s page for 2015 collection of The Journey Prize Stories