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
Romance is candlelight on cheekbones, blurring gazes and the press of heels on strange sheets. But what happens a year later? You’re sharing bath towels and bickering over who forgot to buy a light bulb. There is beauty in a familiar hand on the nape of your neck. There is love in waking up under a shared blanket. This story is about the romance of domesticity.
“Kirsty is one of the best and brightest . . . when I read her stuff I feel like I could taste it, chew it, roll it around on my tongue, the language is so delicious and sturdy and musical. She also has a knack for getting relationships exactly right in her writing, whether between parent and child or lovers or friends.”
— Amber Sparks, Fiction Editor at Emprise Review
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.
At the Chickasaw Motel, three generations of the McGuinness clan are led by their elderly and overbearing patriarch. Only little Riley, “the smartest f-ing kid”, is spared the brunt of Grandpa McGuinness’s cruelty; ironically, it is his encouragement that provides her with a way out.
At Georgetown University, a music student and part-time nude life model becomes involved with the first true passion of her life, a man who awakens her to the weight of experience she already possesses - as well as the ups and downs yet to come.
Toronto in the twenty-first century: At night, a beacon on a lonely ancient lake, a drainage pond from the last ice age. In the daytime, a bulwark of glass, glinting in the radiant sun. Joe, Mary, and her cat, Sam, sit in a lakeside condo, trapped by a crazed, mysterious sniper. What has become of their lives? What has become of their city? What has become of their century? As the situation begins to unravel, Mary finds herself wondering, “What would Margaret Atwood do?”
Polly knows what she wants: to be in the greatest band in the world. Oliver knows what he wants: Polly. Together they are The Oughts, a duo trying to attain the unattainable, one basic chord at a time.
“Richard Rosenbaum’s The Oughts jabs its sticky little fingers right into your heart and swirls them around in there for a long, long time. Its characters unfold in pitch-perfect awkwardness and tender apathy, and readers will be struck by the surreal hinges and twitching imagery that Rosenbaum flawlessly weaves in. Writers in the audience should take note: Rosenbaum has created a writhing work of fiction that any scribe would aspire to be capable of pulling off.”
— Liz Worth, author of Treat Me Like Dirt: An Oral History of Punk in Toronto and Beyond and Eleven: Eleven
Steve has his own comic book store, a limitless supply of comic books, and all the time in the world to collect them. That should be enough. But eventually, everyone - even Steve - gets lonely. And when his time comes, he too has to learn that (eternal) life isn’t about what you spend it on - it’s about who you spend it with.
“Every time I read something by Kirsty, I think, ‘Damn her, I wish I’d written that.’ She is the kind of writer that you can’t help but read with teeth-crunching envy, broken-hearted admiration, and a realization that your own work is not half as good as you’d hoped it might be. Be forewarned writers and readers: you will never be the same.”
— Shanna Germain, finalist for the 2010 John Preston Short Fiction Award and nominee for the 2008 Pushcart Prize