by Jessica Westhead
In this unexpectedly dark character study, Jessica Westhead puts you in the shoes of an apprentice forced to listen to a seasoned wedding DJ as he lectures on the tricks of the trade. Emboldened by the captivity of his audience, the DJ's 'humorous' observations and grievances claw deeper and deeper, betraying ugliness at the core.
“In the still-frothing wake of And Also Sharks, here’s another sadly hilarious and hilariously sad Jessica Westhead story with bite. The self-deluding wedding DJ in The Lesson is a perfect addition to Westhead’s bent gallery of sympathetic sad sacks blustering their way through work and love ever after.”
— Zsuzsi Gartner, author of All the Anxious Girls on Earth and the 2011 Giller Prize–shortlisted Better Living Through Plastic Explosives
LET’S START WITH WHAT the women are like. Because above all else, you need to prepare yourself for the women.
First off is the bride, and I’ll give you a for-instance. Last week my fiancée went out with a big group of her friends, plus my mother and her mother and her two sisters, and one of her sister’s sisters-in-law, to pick out her dress. I said to her, “All those opinions? All those screeching voices telling you what to do? You are in for a world of hurt in that scenario.”
She put her hand on my arm in that way she does—she thinks it’s a soothing thing to do, but to me it’s just patronizing—and said, “How about I handle my end of things the way I want to. You are in charge of the rental tuxedos and the music. That’s all you have to do.” Implying that my job—our job—is easy, that I only have to entertain an entire banquet hall full of inebriated wedding guests and give them the most ultimate night of their lives.
When she says stuff like that and uses that tone with me, I get a pang diagonally above my heart that makes me think negative thoughts such as, Maybe our impending marriage is a mistake. It’s as if she doesn’t understand me at all.
Nah, but I’m just kidding. I love her more than anything. You got a girlfriend?
Then there’s the bridesmaids. But they’re usually too busy boohooing about how fat they look and rubbing up against the best man to be much of a hassle. Even if he’s married, oh yeah. Are you kidding me? Especially if he’s married. There is something about two people publicly promising to love each other forever that brings out the lowest form of dogshit in everybody else.
Next up— Okay, let’s press the pause button because you seem a little distracted to me. You keep checking your phone, and meanwhile I’m imparting information on a you-need-to-know basis here. Think about it—if I was to walk away right now, leaving you and your limited skill set alone with all these people, they would eat you alive. And your fancy mobile device there would be like, “Oh shit, what do we do now?” Technology can only take you so far, which is why I don’t have the Internet on my phone. What’s the Internet going to tell me that I don’t already know? All right, so you’re taking notes. That’s good. If you’re taking notes, that’s fine. We can proceed.
As soon as the reception starts, you need to scan the crowd for troublemakers. See that woman over there, the one with the spiky hair and the feathers on her dress? What does she think she is, a bird or something? See how she can’t sit still, how she’s squirming in her chair? What? Aha, she’s laying an egg, that’s funny. Picking up on the bird motif, that’s clever. You have to be quick on your feet in this business. I’m impressed.
But you need to listen very closely to me now. That is a woman who wants to dance, but she’s the worst kind—she only wants to dance to her music. You can always spot her because she’s straight out of the textbook. Not a real textbook, no. More like a textbook I made up in my mind. She’ll be late thirties to early forties. She’ll be drunk, and will get drunker. She’ll have short hair, or medium-short hair, with sort of spiky bits or parts that flip out at the sides. She’ll think she’s cuter than she is. She’ll believe she’s going to charm you. And yeah, she’ll be charming at first. Hell, she is cute. But not as cute as she thinks she is. She doesn’t have much in the tits department. Her heels aren’t as high as the other girls’ heels.
Moving right along—and things move fast here, so you need to keep up—the first ingredient of a primo playlist is timing. You want to get the old people out dancing before everybody else because they’re going to be gone before everybody else. Yes, right, gone in every sense of the word. Again with the comedy. I like it. But you need to focus on what I’m telling you. Ideally the old folks go home thinking—or saying, which is even better, but old people generally aren’t big talkers so you settle for what you can get—I had a good time. That was some kind of good time I had, yessir.
Timing-wise also, you do not want to blow your best material too fast. Look around—these guests are still eating dessert. If I played the new Beyoncé single right now, the majority of them are not getting up because they’re neck-deep in chocolate mousse. You might get a couple of die-hards on the dance floor, but that’s it. Then you know what happens? Somebody’s going to come up to you later in the evening and want that very same single again. Which puts you in the difficult position of saying you already played that song. But the guest wants to hear it again because now there are actually people dancing. And you’re supposed to make the guests happy, so basically you’re fucked.
about the author
JESSICA WESTHEAD is a Toronto writer and editor, and one of the short-story-loving masterminds behind YOSS (Year of the Short Story). Her fiction has appeared in major literary journals in Canada and the United States, including Geist, The New Quarterly, and Indiana Review. Her novel Pulpy & Midge was published in 2007 by Coach House Books. Her short story collection And Also Sharks, published by Cormorant Books in 2011, was on the Globe and Mail’s Globe 100 list of the best books of 2011 and was a finalist for the 2012 Danuta Gleed Literary Award. She was shortlisted for the 2009 CBC Literary Awards, and one of her stories was selected for the 2011 Journey Prize anthology. Visit her website at jessicawesthead.com.
from the library
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Father Michael, in his final assignment, has been asked by his Order to help facilitate recovery of an Asian country blighted by war. On the long odyssey into the interior, his driver and translator Trang tells him a story set in a once-famed traveller’s refuge known as the Inn of Tender Embraces. What starts as a simple tale of ill-fated lovers becomes, for Father Michael, a familiar beacon that guides him through the mists of an exotic landscape.
“Don McLellan is the kind of wise, well-travelled writer we don’t see much of these days. With Angels Passing he earns the right to be included in the exotic tradition of Hemingway, Maugham, and Graham Greene. Like all memorable writing, his story takes us to another world and holds us there. As spare and subtle as it is powerful, Angels Passing will linger in your mind long after the last page.”
— John Lekich, Governor General’s Award Finalist for The Losers’ Club
Mike Mike Mike Mike
by Grace O'Connell
After twenty years of running, Betty quietly returns to her hometown of Arbford, thinking it a solid place to finally put down some roots. But the adage 'you can't go home again' proves true, as Betty finds that her mere presence is more than enough to disrupt the stagnant lives of everyone around her.
“In this cautionary suburban fairy tale, a big-city refugee searching for home finds herself in a nest of multiple Mikes and Pyrex-wielding vipers. With enchanting style and snort-causing wit, Grace O’Connell does casserole-studded claustrophobia like nobody’s business.”
— Jessica Westhead, author of And Also Sharks and Pulpy & Midge
Trigger Finger Blues
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Marcel, a sensitive sniper, knew his life was missing something. But he didn't know what until he set his crosshairs on it: Violet Caine. A ginger-headed lover of Thai food, wanted dead simply because her brother messed with the wrong bike gang. It's a story of redemption coming too late, and the ways happenstance can turn a warm man cold. Then warm again. Whether fate wrote his troubled life, or he wrote it himself, he wants Violet Caine to be the end of it - be it figuratively or literally.
When I'm Old, When I'm Grey
by Andrew Wilmot
After an unexpected malfunction, the technology which enables humanity to cross vast distances has separated an interstellar traveler from the love of her life — not in space, but in time. Now, while her companions remain in stasis, she must endure the loneliness of the journey until the moment her lover wakes.
Winner of the 2015 Friends of Merril Short Story Contest, When I'm Old, When I'm Grey imagines the strange — and strangely familiar — forms that fear and longing can take, as we venture forth into the unknown of the future.
by Andrew Forbes
A recruiter for a Division I college basketball team travels to a town in hopes of finally convincing the year's prize high school prospect to play for his team. Over several days, he reflects on his love of the sport, his respect for the kids, and a job that forces him to sweep sentiment aside in order to get results.
“Andrew Forbes' The Gamechanger is a powerful work from a point-of-view — that of the scout, the talent evaluator — which is not often seen or done convincingly, as it is here. A story about fathers and sons, about fate, and about the implicit savageries that lurk at the heart of the sports we love and the teams we cheer for. This is wonderful, raw writing.”
— Craig Davidson, author of Rust and Bone and Cataract City
“A fascinating look at the relationships a recruiter has to manage, from the sacrifices of being away from their family, to dealing with rival recruiters, prospects and their friends and family ... a very nuanced and layered approach that goes beyond just a man with a job to do at a gym.”
— Alex Wong, stevenlebron.com
by Pauline Holdstock
Inspired by true events, this story by Scotiabank Giller Prize-nominated author Pauline Holdstock tells of the incredible bond between a mother and daughter, and with gut-wrenching poignancy reminds us of the little things that make life worth living.
“Hers is the kind of prose you get lost in.”
— National Post on The Hunter and the Wild Girl
“Holdstock’s writing manages to be both heartbreakingly poetic and densely detailed ... sad passages, ghostlike recollections, written almost from the vantage point of the present, establish the book as a great work of fiction.”
— The Globe and Mail on Into the Heart of the Country, longlisted for the 2011 Scotiabank Giller Prize
“Holdstock, with a few deft strokes, pulls the reader into the tumultuous life of an alluring rabble of characters: painters, sculptors, patrons, fools, and slaves ... In Beyond Measure, she proves herself a master of pacing. Her lively, macabre plot trips lightly along in spite of its dark elements.”
— The Globe and Mail on Beyond Measure, finalist for the 2004 Giller Prize and the 2004 Commonwealth Writers' Prize
Everything Must Go
by Jeff Dupuis
A man in the throes of a breakup is selling all of his possessions on Kijiji and Craigslist. Greg’s couch, his VHS tapes, obsolete desktop computer, and cow-shaped clock – it all must go. Between pot smoking, pizza eating, and watching Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope, he meets with would-be buyers, taking his old life apart piece by discount piece in order to figure out what went wrong.