Understand that pity is not what we’re looking for. We are men, we remind each other as often as we can, and we must bear that burden. Forgetting was what got us into trouble in the first place. It’s a weak word, “trouble.” But that’s what came to mind when someone finally bought the Wong-Campeau place at the south end of the cul-de-sac. Stefan Brandeis took one look at the silver Camaro Z28 in the driveway and said, “Vroom-vroom. Here comes trouble.” He was kidding, of course. Who could have believed that a barbarian was at the gates?
Their agent had priced the property before the market started to clench, but with their Ritalin-infused twins at JeanBaptiste de Lamarck, an International Baccalaureate school, the Wong-Campeaus couldn’t afford to come down. That kind of corked-up familial stress inevitably manifests as fault lines. In other words, 2781 Chatham Crescent was, as Trevor Masahara succinctly put it, looking like crap. Marcus van der Houte had offered to fluff the place at a generous discount, but they had declined. (“Fluff” is not a term Marcus himself would use. His business card reads: Art Direction for Real Estate.)
“I should’ve done it gratis,” Marcus later said, more than once, more times than might have been necessary, while draining the last of another shaker of his signature fig-infused vodka martinis. “A couple of orange pvc Rashid pieces out front—” (one of us, possibly Karlheinz Jacobsen, observed that the designer’s cordless Dirt Devil was an “isomorphic miracle”) “—the front door in Shade-Grown Espresso with a Spa Blue casing to make the brown really pop.” All we could do was reassure him that he could hardly be held responsible for all that had happened. Or caveat emptor, as Patel Seth, our Latin scholar, put it.
“Damn his carnivorous soul to hell!” Kim Fischer had yelled from atop his carport toward the end, brandishing his fists like an Old Testament patriarch or modern-day mullah. It’s perhaps not fair to speak of Kim, who with his unisex name and dubious tenor no doubt had more to contend with than the rest of us. His resilience was something to marvel at, though. We like to think he’s running a raw food retreat somewhere in the West Kootenay, or way out east, the Gatineaus maybe, remarried to a woman who appreciates his way with a paring knife, who understands that taking a pumice stone to the rough skin of your heels does not necessarily make you any less of a man.
But this isn’t about Kim. You could say this is about evolution. You could say we’ve developed a deep personal appreciation for Darwin, the man and the theorist—his dyspeptic stomach, his own human frailties, his ability to cling to contradictory desires. We’ve weighed anchor aboard the Beagle and, if only in our dreams, charted our own Galapagos of the soul and found it wanting.
He moved in on the Canada Day long weekend. As the children circled the cul-de-sac on their Razors and Big Wheels, like planes stacked in a holding pattern, he arrived with a U-Haul hitched to the Camaro and started unloading. No moving company, just him. He wore what’s commonly referred to as a “muscle shirt,” but some would call a “wife beater.” Stefan Brandeis noted that he hadn’t seen a grown man in cut-offs that tight since Expo 86. We later had a spirited debate about whether his was in fact a conventional mullet or ersatz “hockey hair.” The first thing he wheeled out of the U-Haul was a hulking, jerry-built barbecue. He seemed friendly enough. He flashed what Trevor Masahara called “a big, shit-eating grin” at those of us who’d gone over to welcome him with a pitcher of iced matcha tea spiked with Kentucky Gentleman.
“Shake hands with the Q,” he said, patting the hood of the barbecue as if it were a loyal hound, the half moons of his prominent cuticles edged in grease. Karlheinz Jacobsen’s wife later commented that he smelled a bit ripe and the other women made a show of fanning the air in front of their faces. Kim Fischer’s wife even enthusiastically snuffled Kim’s exfoliated pits like a truffle pig. At the time, it seemed they were being a trifle judgmental, but one thing we’d always appreciated about our wives was that they spoke their minds.
It bears mentioning that he did something else that first day as we gathered around his “Q” trying to make small talk. Without missing a beat, he reached down to rearrange himself inside his cut-offs. This is something we’ve never talked about, not even Stefan B. Some things are better left unannotated.
Afterwards, he sat down on his new front steps and drank beer straight from the can, wiping his lips with the back of his hand, exaggeratedly rotating his shoulders as if attempting to recalibrate himself. It had all been amusing at first, some kind of sideshow. Like having a Molson ad shot on your very own street. This was before the dog and the Dodge one-ton arrived.
That day is easy to recall with a great deal of clarity for another reason. We’d always been spared the smell from the rendering plant across the Burrard Inlet. But on July 1, there occurred a shift in the wind that continued unabated throughout the summer. The congealed odour of pyrolyzed animal parts would enter the cul-de-sac and then just hang there, as if snagged on a hydro line. It came and went, some days thankfully better than others. Can you smell it, we’d ask hopefully at the gelato shop two blocks away on Mountain Highway. Didn’t you smell it on Albermarle Drive as well, we quizzed our letter carrier, who took to pelting through her rounds on the cul-de-sac as if Cerberus were at her heels. It was difficult to believe we were the only ones in our North Vancouver enclave saddled with the almost gelatinous stink. There were days when even the leaves of the silver birches that edged the ravine behind our properties appeared to curl back from it. The cedars and the Sitka spruce, more stoic trees, stood their ground.
We have accepted our confluence of bad luck not as a “sign” of something, but rather for what it apparently was: bizarre coincidence. People have driven themselves insane for millennia trying to figure out what it all means. Most often things just are.
“I know it’s only a smell,” Trevor Masahara said one particularly rank Tuesday evening, interrupting our book club’s parsing of Clarissa’s guilty rejection of the hydrangea in The Hours, “but sometimes it seems like, you know, an actual thing.”
His name? It’s easy to forget he actually had a name, a driver’s licence, most probably a SIN number. For a while, we called him the Truck Guy and, later, the Meat Guy. Karlheinz Jacobsen, who has a scientific bent, was the one who nicknamed him Lucy. You know, the so-called missing link? We thought this was terribly funny. “Lucy!” Stefan Brandeis would yell sotto voce, “You got some ’splainin’ to do!” while the rest of us laughed. We literally yowled. It seems even then we had more in common with other animals than we could have imagined.
A couple of days after he’d moved in, as if it had been teleported there overnight, the Dodge Ram, circa early ’80s, sat on blocks in the middle of his front lawn. Off-white (“tapioca,” Marcus van der Houte insisted), one broken headlight, and on the slightly dented back bumper a peeling orange neon sticker that read: I’m Going Nuckin’ Futs! And one of those chrome Jesus fish. (We never did witness any signs of even covert religiosity, a disappointment to Karlheinz Jacobsen, who alone among us held to a notion of the divine.) The kids went giddy—instant ADHD —as if they’d never seen a truck before.
Marcus was the one who elected to go over to talk to him about it. Bear in mind that we didn’t then, nor subsequently ever, use the term “property values.” We are not the kind of men who fixate on our lawns. In fact, those of us with southern exposures have switched to drought-resistant native grasses. And if there is grass that actually needs cutting, a communal Lee Valley push mower is used.
He was underneath the truck banging around, bare knees poking out, feet in decaying Adidas. Marcus tapped out the end credit sequence to Moulin Rouge on the hood to get his attention. (“You should’ve just yelled, “Yo!” Marcus’s ten-year-old son told him later.) The slathering muzzle of what looked like an Alsatian/Cayman cross shot out of the front passenger window and Marcus actually fell on his seersucker-clad ass, cartoon style, white bucks up over his head. (For the record, at least one of us failed to suppress a guffaw.) The guy slid out from under the truck with a grunt while the dog continued its concerto.
He offered Marcus a greasy paw (our neighbour, not the dog) and heaved him up. After they “shot the shit for a while,” as Trevor put it, our reconnaissance man gave a wave and walked away, wiping at his grass-stained butt.
“I lost my nerve,” Marcus said later. We assured him we would have as well, while Patel Seth pried his fingers from his third black mojito and suggested it might be a good time to up his dose of citalopram.
Fear, we all know, is a useful adaptation. “Only the brave die young,” Stefan Brandeis said rather soberly, and for once it seemed he might not have been joking.
The dog’s name was Gido. He wasn’t a bad dog, really, despite being seriously misbred, his gene pool a murky concoction that no doubt involved at least one AWOL chromosome. Contrary to what his owner might have desired, he really did seem all bark and no bite. His oversized head, with its long snout housing teeth in double rows like a shark’s, balanced on a dachshund’s body. He looked alarmingly like a life-sized bobble-headed dashboard dog. How he ever managed to hold up that head for any length of time we’ll never know.
We can now admit an isolationist stance would have been best for all concerned. But we did what any civilized tribe would have done under the circumstances and invited our new neighbour to a dinner party. The soiree was held at the Brandeis-Lahr place, as they have the most accommodating deck. It was one of those sultry, edge-of-the-rainforest evenings, but the lingering smell from the last shift at the rendering plant soon drove us inside. We were discussing what Trevor Masahara’s wife maintained was an apocryphal story about the worth of a certain crowd-pleasing Egyptian Bastet cat statue at New York’s Metropolitan Museum, when our guest of honour arrived with a two-four under one arm, dressed in sweatpants of some ambiguous vintage and, to everyone’s relief, a T-shirt with sleeves. He clamped a beer between his molars before anyone could offer him a bottle opener and said something like, “How is everyone? ” (Patel Seth recollects it as the more colloquial “Howz it hangin’? ”)
The cat statue, Kim Fischer continued, after a series of ill-executed high-fives and faux gut punches initiated by our new neighbour, turned out to be much too valuable an antiquity to be put on open display, so what museum-goers were gaping at was in fact a meticulously wrought replica. When this got out, no one was interested in viewing it anymore. Karlheinz Jacobsen recalled the story differently—that the actual statue was put on display, but after being authenticated by a third-party expert on the Ptolemaic period was found to be a fake.
“It’s all the same in the end, isn’t it? ” said Patel. “People place great stock in authenticity.” He turned to our guest, who stood squinting his eyes and chewing his upper lip as if deeply considering the issue, and asked his opinion. “What I’ve been wondering,” he said, thrusting his beer in the direction of Trevor’s chest, “is how much mileage you get with that rice grinder out there.”
Kim’s wife, ever diplomatic, extended a skewer of honey-glazed late-season fiddleheads, cultivated in the dankly shaded side of his house. “Kim’s a committed locavore,” Trevor said, recovering himself admirably. “He’s been trying to convert us all.” The Truck Guy smirked and twirled a finger alongside his right ear: “Loco what? ” We had no choice but to laugh along good naturedly, even Kim. He was our guest, after all, the new guy on the block.
The evening proceeded on what could in hindsight be clearly seen as a preordained crash course. (“In the land of the blind, the one-eyed jack is king,” a hung-over Stefan remarked the next morning. To which Trevor replied, “Come again? ”) He actually snort-giggled at Marcus’s lamb Popsicles in fenugreek sauce and when Karlheinz unveiled a test tube tray of plastic ampoules filled with wild morel cream that we were meant to squirt into our mouths (the women loved it, that clever Karl!) he pretended to inject his amuse bouche into the raised veins traversing the waxy underside of his left arm, flexing in a manner that accentuated his already over-delineated bicep. Again we laughed. (Although Marcus stage-whispered to Patel, “It’s obvious that he’s never actually shot up.”)
Karlheinz was explaining his failed attempts at crossbreeding golden agoutis with voles in order to create sleeker guinea pigs, when someone passed our new neighbour a plate of Trevor’s dulse salad. He demurred, muttering something about erectile dysfunction.
What felt like light years later, during which Hot Rod (as Stefan dubbed him that night) frequently interrupted the conversation with detailed descriptions of the modifications he’d made to his car—Noki adjustable shocks, Bruce Herb 1.31-inch anti-sway bar, two-inch lowered Simpson Michigan leaf springs [?], EJR carpet, Dyno-Mite insulation, restored dash pad, Ultra-Lite Automorphic gauges, Painfree Wire 16-circuit ’68–’74 muscle car kit, TPS polygraphite bushes [?] used throughout, including body mounts. WRT Z28 coil springs, Calvert Johnson Cal-Rac traction bars [a pause for lubrication here], Black ’73 interior, added years ago, Sony Frost Mark stereo head unit, 5×160w amp. And believe you me a twelve-disc multi-play CD changer, two 6×9 Altitude rear speakers, and PH Quartz components in front—he returned bleary eyed from yet another trip to the bathroom and shot dual pistol fingers at each of our wives: “Next weekend, I’ll make you ladies some real food.”
With that he disappeared into the night and in the elongated silence that followed we could hear the waters of Lynn Creek churning through the gorge below the water pipe bridge as the snow pack far above melted in the July heat. Already it had claimed a young man, the season of playing chicken with the creek only just begun. We could almost hear the melt.
Sure we knew men like him existed. But we’d never had a chance to observe one in such close proximity. Karlheinz confessed to thinking of him as a specimen, and we nodded in agreement.
We have often wondered what Darwin would have made of the summer-long struggle for existence on our cul-de-sac. If he’d lived here, would he have taken the role of observer or participant? By all accounts he was a bona fide gentleman, didn’t partake of arguments, even kept his own counsel when the Beagle’s mad Captain FitzRoy expounded at length during dinner—as if daring the naturalist to differ—on the Book of Genesis. (Once, only once, did he weigh in, when the captain was explaining the trickle-down benefits of slavery, proving our hero did have a backbone.) Did he float above the chickpeas and rice in the captain’s mess, a benign smile shielding his face, lost in barnacle dreams? Did he clutch his stomach and plead seasickness and flee to his cramped quarters?
Something we can be certain C.D. didn’t consider: reaching across the table and throttling FitzRoy until the man’s eyes bulged from their sockets.
We found his backyard well kept, albeit oddly quaint. (“Holly Hobbie chic,” Stefan called it.) Garden gnomes stood here and there (“Gnomically,” Patel later said, as if reciting a Zen koan rather than a bad pun) among towering delphiniums and various mulleins. Lobelia and other generic annuals spilled from a small weathered wheelbarrow and a blown-glass hummingbird feeder hung from the coral bark maple.
Surely the Wong-Campeaus couldn’t have left these things? But it was even more inconceivable that they belonged to him. (It now seems laughable that we wasted so much time over the following week debating the question of whether he had bought all this in earnest or whether he had an understanding of its kitsch value. Karlheinz had posited the most plausible theory: “It could be they were his mother’s and he maintains them through a sentimental streak.” That we could understand, although Marcus couldn’t help reminding us that sentiment is anathema to design.)
The “Q” stood in the centre of the yard like a Mayan shrine in the cloud forest of Cobán, feathered in smoke, and snapping and spitting as fat hit the fire. Mosquito torches on bamboo poles flanked the barbecue. (Trevor’s wife deemed this “thoughtful.”) The patio table was laden with platters of raw meat, the variety defying categorization, but our host was all too willing to lead a tutorial. There were slabs of porterhouse steaks, ribeyes, short ribs, spareribs, pork loin chops, lamb shoulder chops, and lamb leg steaks. He eschewed terms like “well-marbled” in favour of “nice and fatty,” and smacked his palm down soundly on cuts he deemed particularly “bodacious.” We hardly need point out that there wasn’t a rub or marinade in sight.
REO Speedwagon blasted from what looked like car speakers attached to the balustrade of his deck. He later came strolling through the sliding doors with a guitar, yodelling “Ring of Fire” as a prelude to dishing up his Voodoo Chili, a recipe he had evidently learned in a squat on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince. He promised us his chili would fire up visions of Erzulie Dantor, the Haitian goddess of sex. She would make love to us in our dreams. His way of putting it, of course, involved more colourful terminology, in a dialect Patel, our own Henry Higgins, recalls as “Thunder Bay, 1977.”
We will admit to the record that he was an attentive host that evening, exuding a kind of ruffian charm in his own milieu. He even kept his talk of body mounts and adjustable shocks to a minimum. It also bears mentioning that this was the closest we ever came to being chummy. At one point, he and Trevor engaged in a tête-à-tête about the ultimate burger. (Trevor swears by a knob of frozen blue cheese encased in the centre of 275 grams of hand-chopped Kobe sirloin.) “No shit,” he kept saying, sounding genuinely impressed as Trevor pulled out his BlackBerry to do some quick temperature conversions (our host not having mastered the move from imperial to metric back in grade school). “No shit.”
It turned out that among his many adventures he’d spent some time in the Australian outback. “Kangaroo,” he told us, “is a beautiful protein.” Patel Seth’s wife, an ear, nose, and throat specialist, said she found that poetic. (A less generous person might have said, “She wouldn’t know poetry if it bit her on the ass,” but Patel wasn’t that kind of guy.)
Other things we learned that night: Chicken isn’t meat. Medium rare is for chumps. Boys who can burp the Lord’s Prayer at age eight retain the ability, like a vestigial limb flaring to life, well into their thirties.
The night was alive with smoke and fire. Insects held at bay. Blood pooled on his plate. Stefan’s wife leaned forward and dragged a finger through it and then exaggeratedly sucked. At the time, we erroneously believed she was mocking him.
For a while after that, things were good. Almost too good. Kim’s wife turned to him in bed the night of the barbecue and said, “Fee, fie, foe, fum, I smell the blood of an Englishman.” He told us her overbite had glinted in the bedside light like the teeth of something feral. We all knew what he meant. Even Marcus’s wife, who has a no-nonsense air about her and is an avid golfer, started running her fingers through her closely cropped hair in a manner some of us found disconcertingly attractive. (During those brief, heady days, more than one child walked in on a mid-afternoon scene in a rec room or kitchen that elicited hysterical giggles or cries of “Gross!”)
We found it impossible not to notice that by the third week of July the hair on our neighbour’s chest and shoulders looked thicker, more pelt-like than the springy bed of curls that had so freely dripped sweat the afternoon he moved in. Throughout the first half of the summer, it seemed he was out there every day, tinkering with the truck and later the Ford Ranchero pickup that joined it on its own blocks on his front lawn. From time to time, he’d wave toward us with a monkey wrench or a soldering iron. “Now that he’s discovered fire,” Stephen quipped one morning while squeezing into Patel’s Mini Cooper with those of us who didn’t telecommute or weren’t on paternity leave, “maybe he’s trying to reinvent the wheel.”
His property became a magnet for the kids. They played in the trucks, roughhoused with Gido, abandoned their tennis rackets and unicycles and junior geologist kits in favour of slingshots and handmade blow dart guns. (“This is how they kill in the Amazon!” Trevor’s five-year-old informed us, adding that all they now needed were poison arrow frogs to toast over a fire like marshmallows, the venom oozing to the surface like a toxic froth.) They showed waning interest in the computer animation camps, father/son minitriathlons, and Urbane Kids Cook! classes we’d pre-enrolled them in months back. We feared they’d soon be running wild in Lynn Canyon, engaging in some kind of Lord of the Flies oneupmanship with rival cul-de-sac kids. They came around in the late afternoons saying they’d already had a snack “at Gido’s,” their breath redolent with the after-effects of processed meats and root beer, their eyes narrower than the last time we had looked closely at them.
Were we neglectful fathers? Were we secretly relieved to find more time on our hands after work and on weekends than we’d ever thought possible post-fatherhood? There was something in the still-childless Kim’s eyes that made the rest of us feel guilty, but he never levelled any accusations. Kim was always the quiet one, the exemplar of those still waters they say run deep. Our wives assured us that unstructured time was what childhood summers used to be all about, but we couldn’t help suspecting that their uncharacteristic nostalgia hinted at a buried desire to revert further into an idealized past.
Chas, as we’ve taken to affectionately calling Darwin, was understandably discomfited by the natives of Tierra del Fuego. In lean times, he was told, they would devour their grandmothers while sparing their dogs. He was apparently misled by a young trickster, as later reports dismiss the notion that the Fuegians were cannibals.
But why even think of this now? There are still grandmothers in the world, and there are still dogs, and there are places on earth where the former are neglected and the latter venerated. And vice versa.
By early August, the trucks stood neglected in his front yard and the Camaro seldom left the driveway. He now took his Harley Low Rider everywhere—the deadening percussion of the altered muffler competing with the stench from the rendering plant for most obnoxious emission status. His favourite T-shirt—or at least the most frequently sported—read “Loud pipes save lives.” Gido perched on the back, small ears flattened in the wind, happy as a gargoyle, roaring down Mountain Highway.
Plants better suited to the bogs of the Carolinas (“or the late Cenozoic period,” Stefan noted) began to spread across his property. Waxy-leafed vines twisted around the trucks, even creeping out through the exhaust pipes, their ropy tendons like the neck muscles of dehydrated bodybuilders. Moss hung, bearding fenders and chrome grills. Cobra plants and monkey cups and other flesh eaters proliferated. Even dragonflies became ensnared, their death rattle unnerving. (“Like ice in a blender,” Marcus observed, swirling the dregs of a kiwi and peppercorn daiquiri.) Giant hogweed (Heracleum mantegazzianum, Karlheinz informed us, “with sap so toxic the skin reddens and blisters after contact before erupting in severe inflammation prone to infection”) soon shot up well beyond the roofline. We finally had a non-negotiable reason to forbid the kids to play in his yard.
Trevor, who had gone into the backyard on the pretext of retrieving an errant Frisbee golf disc, reported that it was almost swampy, as if the groundwater was rising. A crudely framed smokehouse hung with small carcasses was set up where gnomes had previously stood guard by the delphiniums. And, behind the smokehouse, what could only be described as a midden of bones.
What our summer had been reduced to: endless speculation. Spying on a neighbour. (Karlheinz, in fact, had begun to compile field notes —“evidence,” he called it.) Petitioning various city and provincial bureaucracies to do something about the at times unspeakable (and, we were told, cross-jurisdictional) odour infiltrating our cul-de-sac from the other side of the inlet. Our fitness regimes—let’s just say we were finding it more and more difficult to confront a full-length mirror most days. Our joie de vivre felt as if it were being sucked out from us one pore at a time by a super-strength vacuum cleaner.
And from his backyard the continual haze from smoke rising.
Whenever we complained, about the noise, the smoke, the smell, the sheer onslaught of it all, our wives absent-mindedly stroked our hair (or, in Marcus’s case, his aggressively shaved dome) as if petting cats, their thoughts, we assumed at the time, on the demands their careers were making on their time. Our holiday plans were falling through, one after the other, collapsing due to inertia on our part and the fact that an unseasonable crunch time appeared to have hit the medical, legal, architectural, geological, and IT professions almost simultaneously. We’re still not in complete agreement about whether we were 21st-century men for not questioning our wives’ work commitments, or whether we were dupes. (Trevor, ever self-flagellating, prefers the dupe theory. He is also the one who misses Kim the most.)
Our wives no longer arched close while we watched HBO late in the evenings, angling for deep-tissue massage or core realignment. It transpired that more than one of them had faked orgasms on multiple occasions. Patel told us his wife had called the tantric sex workshop we’d all enrolled in in the early spring “a joke.” Marcus’s wife declared that cunnilingus was meant for only lesbians and cats.
Our neighbour had taken to pulling the “Q” out onto his driveway in the early evening, dispensing goodies as if he were a hot dog vendor at the corner of Hornby and Robson. We could forbid the children from playing over there, but we certainly couldn’t forbid our wives, who drifted over to sample his wares. Karlheinz actually witnessed him laying a piece of deeply charred something or other directly onto Kim’s wife’s extended tongue, as if proffering a communion host. Our wives would come home, often after the sun had set, talking about things like “honouring the whole beast,” marrow smudges at the corners of their mouths.
It cannot be said we didn’t pull out all the stops. We still maintain that “Operation Aphrodisiac” was executed flawlessly. Patel made his Lapsang souchong–smoked duck breast with pomegranate sauce. Kim made dolmades using grapes leaves from his own garden. Then there were Karlheinz’s oyster foam–filled agnolotti, Trevor’s quail stuffed with raisins and quinoa, and Stefan’s saffron risotto with truffle oil and mascarpone. Marcus’s silky black cod with Pernod mole sauce (70 percent pure fair trade cocoa) filled the role of dessert.
Kim even booked himself a spa treatment. (We’re still curious about whether he went through with the rumoured “crack wax.”) At the time, we accepted this as further evidence that he was the bravest and most evolved of us all.
[Our notes are sketchy at this point. Accounts vary too widely to be coherent.]
It was shortly after what Patel christened our Failed Feast of the Satyricon that our wives started dressing differently. (“Their slut phase,” Trevor would later call it, reminding us how mutable this thing we call the “personality” really is.) At first, we thought it was the dry heat, something none of us were used to. The day Kim’s wife headed out to a pretrial discovery dressed like Britney Spears’ little sister, her Nunzia briefcase incongruous alongside the terry towel short shorts and baby-T, we could no longer deny that some kind of deleterious mutation was taking place. For once, we were glad we only had sons and no daughters.
We thought at the time that this was all to do with meat. Could too much unmediated animal protein cause a chemical disturbance in the frontal granular cortex, we asked Karlheinz, who simply shrugged. He was as lost by then as the rest of us, science no longer the bulwark against disorder he had believed it to be. (Karlheinz had by then started attending mass again regularly.)
“I just don’t see why meat has to be the main event!” Kim Fischer detonated one day, seemingly apropos of nothing. We nodded fervently, as if at a Free Methodist revival meeting. Someone, most likely Stefan, added, “Amen, brother!”
No one was yet speaking in tongues.
Then Gido killed Karlheinz’s agoutis. That was the official story. The supposition, anyway. The hutches were open, the agoutis were gone. But, nihil fomeus cannone, Patel said, the best he could come up with in Latin for “no smoking gun.” Without sufficient evidence (“Or balls,” Trevor later said) we could not confront our neighbour. Not then.
We inspected the blood-smeared grass, stomachs contracting. We could smell murder. All day long, the boys yelped in the ravine edging the backside of the cul-de-sac, something distinctly tribal in their ululations. The women, strangely, weren’t disturbed by the carnage. They didn’t even come by to check out the blood on the grass, which by the evening was thick with flies.
They told our children, “When animals kill each other, we don’t call it murder.” Our lovely, brilliant, Darwinian wives.
We determined that the trapped smell, that wilful pong, was a result of a geo-architectural force, like the buffeting wind tunnel in downtown Toronto created by the TD and Bank of Montreal towers at King and Bay. Trevor was all for cutting down the Sitka spruce grove that towered over the cedars and poplars along the ravine. While a couple of us wavered, we finally came down adamantly against. Those trees were not even our property. “But it’s our stink, right? ” Trevor maintained.
What we feared: Trevor, with his refined sense of smell, would go off his nut in the night and take a chainsaw to the trees.
The black bear signs had been up for weeks. The dry summer caused sporadic wildfires farther up the North Shore Mountains, and no doubt the berries were sparse. While other kids learned to dial 911 at an early age, ours had committed to memory 604-990-BEAR. “Lucy,” as we were calling him by then, scoffed at the signs and the directive: Remove all bear attractants (food). “Gido could take them out,” he boasted. As if taking out a bear was what was required, as if our cul-de-sac were a kind of gladiatorial arena where a wandering cub and a Down’s-afflicted mongrel could grapple to the death while we laid our bets.
Helicopters juddered by overhead almost daily by then. A fugitive was suspected of hiding on Mount Seymour, although he was later found in a tool shed near Indian Arm. A woman tossed her child from the Capilano suspension bridge, but somehow it miraculously survived. Two Japanese exchange students wandered off two-thirds of the way up the Grouse Grind arm in arm and disappeared into the trees.
We no longer communicated with our children except through a kind of sign language. They spoke in coded grunts and shrugs. Stefan’s twins talked to each other in clicks and clacks of the tongue, like the bushmen of the Kalahari. They drew on the garage walls with the charred ends of sticks and charcoal briquettes as if drawing on the insides of caves—of the things they imagined, or the things that had yet to happen, it wasn’t clear then. A small figure emerging from bushes on what looked like an enormous turtle. Men with sharp implements converging on a cowering beast. Tangles of foliage and fire. Rain.
Sightings of our neighbour became rare. His comings and goings much less of a show, perhaps achieved under the cover of darkness, the revving of the Harley less and less frequent, until the bike was permanently dry docked. Gido had such a disappointed air about him that Karlheinz suggested taking him for a ride on Marcus’s Vespa so he could at least feel the wind in his ears.
Stefan swore he had seen Lucy’s arms swinging along, his knuckles skimming the ground, pelvis tipped backwards as he made his way through the dense overgrowth to his backyard after depositing his garbage container by the curb (his front door by then obscured by a tangle of vines). He was certainly moving more deliberately now whenever we did see him, and wasn’t as quick with the rejoinders as he had been. It was only after he stopped the clowning altogether that we realized how much we had enjoyed viewing him as a harmless throwback (or “fucking goofball,” as Trevor put it). Patel, who is intermittently nocturnal and lives adjacent to him, claimed he had seen him on his haunches, eating raw meat straight from the carcass of some small creature. This only made Karlheinz scoff. “Neanderthals cooked meat on hot stones.” We were touchy with each other by then.
Each of us had our own theories. Cro-Magnon! Homo habilis! Homo erectus! Australopithecus robustus! Our hypotheses flew back and forth like insults. We clung to these with a certainty that was all the more convincing for being feigned. Six blind men describing an elephant, when in fact the whole of a thing is so often not much greater or lesser but completely different than the sum of its parts.
But why even trouble with taxonomies? They are shifty after all, and, as we’ve learned, in the end it’s all just words.
It was toward the third week of August that our wives started avoiding us altogether, disappearing into themselves as the sky fell. We tried following them, walking barefoot, careful on the tinder-dry pine needles underfoot, breathing through our mouths slowly and evenly. We knew this wasn’t the way it was supposed to be, fire ants pouring from the peonies, keeping watch while our wives grunted among the vines. But they were always home by morning.
Right before the Labour Day weekend, one of the Japanese exchange students came up out of the ravine straddling the back of a giant tortoise. She looked dazed but otherwise unaffected, the tortoise heavy lidded and benign. (Stefan remarked that it looked a little like Sinatra in his later years.) It was Trevor who called 911. Only after the emergency vehicles and media that converged on the cul-de-sac had gone did we realize that no one had thought to take a photograph. The ones in the newspapers and on SnapTweet, and the footage on the news and YouTube, didn’t come close to capturing the otherworldliness of what we had witnessed. The aquarium issued a statement that a tortoise recently acquired for its upcoming Galapagos exhibit had indeed gone missing from its transport container. But we still wonder.
The boys had jostled for proximity to the tortoise, prodding it with sticks despite our entreaties. One of them (Marcus’s son?) even poked at the girl. By then, a kind of despair permeated our cul-de-sac. Only our sons seemed oblivious to the smell and the frequent volcanic eruptions that pockmarked our driveways with small craters. We had prided ourselves on raising children with a high emotional IQ, but these little creatures had become alien to us, and we could only watch them from an increasing distance, as if from the reverse end of a telescope.
Our wives squatted on their haunches in front of backyard fires they’d built in pits lined with basaltic rock, looking at us with those eyes, waiting for us to do something. Hunt? Gather? Or something else, something beyond our capabilities altogether?
We’re aware that by today’s standards the retiring Chas himself would have been considered a bit of a barbarian by some. He collected specimens by the thousands and thought nothing of casually slitting open the bellies of creatures to examine the contents of their stomachs. In the Galapagos he made a sport, under the guise of research, of swinging a lizard by the tail and hurling it out over the water as far as he could. He caught the terrified creature as it crept back onto the volcanic shore and catapulted it again and again. This type of lizard could evidently swim but was afraid of water. What the naturalist deemed this contradiction: apparent stupidity.
On Labour Day, Kim’s wife left. Patel, not generally a man to talk in clichés, later kept repeating, Thank God there were no children and not one of us even considered scoffing. She had gone, not to Lucy’s as we’d first suspected, but clear across the bridge to another life that was not to include Kim. This was all in her note. (It has to be said, now that Kim is no longer here, that we were taken aback by her schoolgirlish handwriting and her choice of stationery.) We were all in agreement about whose fault this really was.
Late that night, we were decidedly sombre as we gathered in Kim’s kitchen, lit only by the amber glow of led pot lights. To get through the dense foliage we would have to take the equivalent of machetes to the vines and the thick-ribbed hogweed stalks. Kim doled out fully forged and polycarbontipped chef knives with military precision. How different those Sabatiers and Wusthofs were from the stone tools we found scattered around our ancestor’s backyard. We buried those as well. (Stefan has confessed to pocketing a Mousterian scraper as a souvenir, although we agree “souvenir” seems altogether the wrong word. Patel suggests memento mori.)
Lucy! You got some ’splainin’ to do! How could he have explained? With that jaw grown so heavy it was now only good for mastication? With that tongue that most of us were certain had nimbly traced figure eights on our wives’ breasts and thighs, now thickened and barely contained in the bowl of his mouth? Trevor swears he pleaded. His eyes, buried under that shelf of brow, begged for understanding. Did he plead? Sometimes even the merest suggestion of what may have happened is enough to make you question your own recollections.
As for Gido, what could we do? That dog had an exceptional sense of smell. And halfwit or not, that dog was loyal. Even now, we’re not ashamed to admit that more than one of us wept. Karlheinz the longest and hardest.
The mail continues to arrive at 2781, the bills get paid, even the mortgage, thanks to Trevor’s computer hacking skills. Come tax time, Stefan, a crackerjack accountant, will see to it that the former occupant doesn’t fall into arrears. We’ll make sure he sends his old mom, the only personal correspondent we could determine, a Christmas card.
We razed the rampant growth on the property. The children have resumed playing in the trucks, and we’ve accepted that boys will be boys. The little Jesus fish on the Dodge Ram has sprouted rudimentary legs and a tail, clearly one of Stefan’s jokes, although he denies it. It’s so peaceful here on our cul-de-sac, at the edge of the ravine, that it’s difficult to recall that only two months ago we were engaged in what Patel has described as a Manichean struggle.
The smell is something we’ve learned to live with, even Trevor. A kind of sufferance we must bear.
Looking out our front windows we can see our wives curbside, straddling their motorcycles, careful of their gently swelling bellies, revving their engines. The flash of late-October sun on chrome fenders, after all the rain we’ve had lately, could render a man blind.
Zsuzsi Gartner was shortlisted for the 2011 Scotiabank Giller Prize, for her story collection Better Living through Plastic Explosives.
Jillian Tamaki (jilliantamaki.com) has drawn for the New York Times, National Geographic, and The New Yorker.