Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Nothing like a Poke in the Eye with a Big Smurf

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One of the challenges I've set for myself in Kerfuffle is to give the reader an insider's view of improv and to do so in a way that blends form and content. Just as Toni Morrison set out in Jazz to bring that musical form to paper, I'm trying to structure my novel like an improv game with quick scenes leaping back and forth in time and space. In order to introduce you to Andy, the youngest and newest member of the troupe, I’ve taken three first drafts of my favourite leaps and strung them together. You need to know that Andy lives alone with his mom in a tiny house on Carlaw Street with a front porch chock full of a bevy of blue garden gnomes, wanna-be Smurfs that he swears multiply faster than the Octomom.

Meanwhile, back at the door Andy keeps closed…

As Andy rounds the corner and passes under the arch to the living room, one glance confirms it a bad day. Mom has three kinds of days: fully dressed days, the kind she hasn’t had since Christmas, new bathrobe days, lately the best he can hope for, and old bathrobe days when he wishes she’d stayed in bed. Today is the latter. Still in her ratty pink robe, her hair unbrushed and her eyes unfocussed, mom slumps in her harvest gold armchair staring blankly at the television that sits catty-corner across the room. Clenched fists scrape up and down the arms of her chair, leaving bright red streaks.

For a flash Andy has a vision of slit wrists, until he gets a step closer and smells it—not blood, nail polish. Today, for something to do, Mom is smearing scarlet nail polish off her fingernails on to the arm of the chair. Has apparently been doing so all morning, for all the time he’s been gone. She keeps at it, ignoring his approach, keeps applying, examining, rejecting and wiping, applying, examining, rejecting and wiping. The bottle is nearly empty. Tears track her face. She looks up at her only child and finally sees him; her voice cracks.

“I know I’m an old lady. But Katherine Chancellor is an old lady too and she always has such beautiful nails! Why can’t I have them? Why won’t you ever take me to a nail salon, Mr. Ingrate Andrew Duncan Archibald Mclean? Why won’t you take your own mother, just once?”

“Here, Mom. Let me help you with that.”

As Andy leans for the bottle, he instinctively clamps a hand over her closest wrist. Her right wrist, the one bearing the deadly sharp silver garden gnome charm bracelet. But then he makes a foolish error. Moved by her tears, he drops his guard, leans in too close to her other hand.

And that’s when his left-handed mother drops the nail polish lid, abandons the tiny brush for a clenched fist, a fist made strong by a lifetime of wringing out other people’s laundry. The last thing Andy sees is the glint of one solitary diamond, a jewel bought in 1972 in the best jewelry store in the parish of Kilcalmonell in County Argyle, a rock that has taken an incredible journey from living animal to dead, to carbon deep in the ground, to being dug up, cut, polished, set, purchased, proposed, and accepted, only to be hurled over the Atlantic to touch down in Carlaw Street and skulk nearly forty years on the finger of his loving mother who finally uses it on this rainy day in June to deck her son and only child full strength, smack in the eye.

“Bull’s-eye,” she yells. She kisses her ring. And then she laughs.

Meanwhile, back at Andy’s eyeball…

Andy sits up, grabs the arm of the green chair and pulls himself upright, struggling and failing to keep the room from spinning. He should call an ambulance. Of course he should call an ambulance. But that means waiting in the house for said ambulance. And if he stays in the house, if he stays in arm’s reach of his attacker, he’ll do the very thing he’s been fighting not to do since he was seven — he’ll hit her back. If he crosses that line even once, he knows he’ll find himself where the sane talk ends. There’ll be no crossing guard and no referee. If he hits her once, he’ll keep hitting her. He’ll hit her until he hits the number of times she’s hit him. A lifetime of times. Enough to end one sick old woman’s life.

So instead, with one hand clamped over his gushing eye, he runs blindly from the room. He smashes off the walls and out to hall. On auto-pilot, his hand finds and grabs his keys from the margarine tub. He pulls hand from eye just long enough to use two hands to unlock his bike and sweeps off the verandah, knocking more than one garden gnome to where his mom belongs--in a face plant grave.

Riding a bike with one hand and one eye isn’t easy. For one crazy moment, the lack of balance makes him think of Nellie. That makes him queasy. Tears make him blind. His open eye keeps weeping and he hopes to Christ the only thing running from the other one is tears. It’s drenched, that hand clutching his eye, with something warm and sticky, something running nonstop down his elbow, but he can’t bear to pull his hand away to find out. Would it be better if it was red? Would that mean it was only blood? Only blood! What if it’s clear? What colour is eyeball fluid, anyway? Why does he think it’s clear?

Rounding Carlaw and Queen, he throws up. His bike wobbles then lurches. As he starts to fall he is instantly Meanwhiled, yanked back to his desk in grade ten biology, partnered with that cute little Laura Fox who he never had the guts to tell just how foxy he found her, at least not while dissecting a foetal pig. Andy pokes his scalpel in its foetal eyeball. It pops. Murky fluid burps out.“Vitreous humour,” Andy whispers. “Both funny and runny.” Laura giggles. The sidewalk flies up into his face. And life fades to black.

Meanwhile, back to the Smurfs…

When Andy comes to, he is dead and gone to Smurfville. A gargantuan Smurfette with freckles holds his hand. How have the Smurfs managed to get him all the way from Queen Street to deep in the forest? What forest? The Don Valley? The Leslie Street spit? What have they done with his bike? And why are they so damned big? Enormous Smurfs with echoing voices, all speak far too slowly. Blue gowns and blue face masks lean over him and probe his face with rubbery blue hands.

This is not the heaven he has hoped for.

Smurfette smiles. “Don’t worry, friend! Gargamel won’t win. We’ll smurf that nasty Azreal before he gets your other eye!”

A massive male Smurf leans closer, gleaming knife in hand. Andy doubts it’s for the spreading of smurfberry jam. When he struggles to sit up, Mutant Smurf tackles him. “Don’t be smurfy, son,” he says. “We have to smurf out your smurf.”

Andy struggles harder, trying and failing to focus on Mutant’s smurfy face. It better be Doctor Smurf, or even Brainy or HAndy Smurf, because if it’s Clumsy or Jokey, well, then not even Baby or Granny Smurf will love him anymore and Vanity will break his mirror rather than let him look in it. Pirate Smurf? Cyclops Smurf ? He has no future.

Smurfette hoists a blue hypodermic the size of a rolling pin. She taps it, squirts it and pats his hip. “Roll over, friend. This won’t smurf a bit.”

Andy screams. Mutant Smurf holds him down as Smurfette punctures his left buttock. Dreamy Smurf pulls up in the S.S. Smurf II. “Slip away, Smurfy. Don’t fight it today…” In the lull of blue waves and blue wooden oars Andy closes his eye and goes to sleep.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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Dorothy Ellen Palmer

Dorothy Ellen Palmer is the author of the novel, When Fenelon Falls (Coach House Books). She lives in Toronto.

Go to Dorothy Ellen Palmer’s Author Page