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
New wife and mother Julie is a woman struggling to find her place. Her dilemmas, while modest, feel harsh, and reflect the ways in which women were once denied control over their own bodies. Her first steps toward independence bring great pain—and not only to herself. With sparing, incisive prose, Cynthia Flood unravels what it meant to be a married woman in post-war era Vancouver, creating an evocative and even unsettling experience for the reader.
“With a precision of language that startles and delights, Cynthia Flood offers glimpses of those moments in which the essence of an entire life is revealed.”
— Nancy Richler, author of The Imposter Bride
“What a great story! Told in terse, restrained sentences, yet opening to a lush and radiant heart, Addresses captures the anguish of a marriage gone off the rails, and the moments of redemption that arrive from unexpected places. Flood’s use of language is uniquely her own–staccato, clean as a knife, and brilliant. Cynthia Flood has done it again.”
— Shaena Lambert, author of Radiance
“The abruptness of the title tells so much about this exquisitely drawn story by Cynthia Flood. ‘Tell the truth but tell it slant,’ Emily Dickinson advised, and that’s always been the approach Flood has preferred for her bone-china fictions, edging into them sideways. Once escorted into the story’s arrhythmic heart, we readers have no choice but to immerse ourselves in a world long gone but still very much with us, to emerge both shaken and stirred.”
— Dave Margoshes, author of A Book of Great Worth
Charlotte is on the cusp of adolescence, and her world is being turned upside down. Unable to turn to her distant mother or absent father, she searches for guidance on the streets of downtown Toronto—and discovers God (or some version of Him) in the gutter.
“The Last Judgment is a story that penetrates into the heart of childhood sadness. Charlotte is without tools to fix what is broken, except for the incredible force of her will. The connections she makes between religion, parental failure, sexuality, and love make perfect sense because they are told in her bell-clear voice. This story is warm and tragic and, at moments, grimly funny.”
— Rebecca Rosenblum, author of Once and Road Trips
On an isolated English beach a man looks back on his school days, recalling the joy and torment of a secret love affair with a boy full of strange ideas, a boy obsessed with the language of the King James Bible. Moments from their relationship return to him: the hidden meetings on the beach, the first attempts at sex, the boredom of a school assembly in summertime, the cruelty of a young English teacher. But most of all he remembers the boy’s words. They’re words that, years later, will haunt him as he tries to come to terms with the person he has become.
“Psalm 77 is the type of story that one wants to read over and over, searching for meanings previously unseen. It is laced with the hidden, the secret, the sacred. From the sand dunes and their private longings in school to the verses, the imagery, and the final paragraphs, there is so much to uncover . . ." (Read full review)
— Amanda Miller from shortsundone.ca
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.
Portraits of people marooned within themselves, trapped by their past experiences, by uncertainty and anxiety — individuals for whom each new situation is a grueling journey towards the present, a place where action and choice are possible. In Second World, Matt Cahill illustrates, with honesty and empathy, how the most important breakthroughs are not the life-altering revelations, but rather the minor miracles that get us through each day.
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?”
Deep in the heart of Ontario cottage country, Izza Ingram’s biological family disintegrates when her parents become trapped in a moment Izza can barely remember. Lost to their parents, she and her sister Paulie form an unlikely family unit under the guidance of their parents’ friend Doug. In this trio of their own making, Izza, Paulie, and Doug try to navigate the differences between the families we are born into versus the families we choose.
In the late 60s, the newest member of a group of all-female pearl divers — the ama — sees her life, and the lives of those dear to her, disrupted by an unlikely force: a James Bond film that sends American men to Japan in search of their own personal 'mermaids'.