by Richard Rosenbaum
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
Her hair that burnt-out crunchy orange that’s the colour of attempting to remove all colour, like maple leaves on the ground in October. Oliver stares, follows it from the crown of her head, hanging stiff and stringy, down till its abrupt end at the point of her chin.
“I booked us five days of recording time at the studio next week,” the hair says. Well, the owner of the hair. Polly. “And if you don’t get that guitar of yours fixed by then I swear to fucking Apollo I will impale you through the lungs with it, do you hear me?”
Her lips thin, viscerally pink. Oliver’s fingers strum idly, discordantly, at the strings of the guitar in question. Polly’s eyes green and serious. Oliver’s head nods, maybe at Polly’s words, but maybe at the unheard beat of some imaginary drum, which only infuriates her further.
She must have broken up with him, he thinks. That’s why the impatience. This is good news. Inside his head Oliver flips the little kill switch connected to his brain’s “crush on Polly” circuit, and imagines hearing it click. When she’s involved with someone there’s no point, but when she’s single Oliver can enjoy some nice unrequited longing.
“Everything okay?” he says. “You seem, like, upset.” Inside him, Oliver’s lungs expand in Polly’s direction. Inflating; deflating.
“I am upset,” she says, as if just getting the words out is a really exhausting task for her. “Because it is the year 2009 of the Common Era, and our band is called The Oughts, and the whole point of calling it that was to capitalize on the, like, zeitgeist of the first decade of the twenty-first century, and that decade is now nearly over, and we have no recordings that are not total shit and we haven’t ever made more than a hundred dollars playing a gig and this is unacceptable!”
Oliver strums, looking really sort of understanding and friendish.
“You broke up with him, right?” His voice low with compassion; inside, a livid heart pumping.
“Fuck you,” says Polly. Pulls her gloves down over her wrists as far as she can, her eyes leaving Oliver’s. “Yes,” she says.
“He was a dick anyway,” Oliver says, which is not true. Oliver actually kind of liked this one.
“You’re a dick,” Polly says, “and I’ve had it with your dickitry. I’m serious about the guitar thing. Get it fixed. Or get a new one. I won’t have that piece of crap crapping out on us in the middle of a studio session. Will you get it fixed?”
“You’re right, you’re right,” Oliver says.
“Will you get it fixed?”
“I know, it needs fixing.”
“Will you. Get it. Fixed.”
“Say it. Say the words.”
“I’ll get it fixed!” He clutches it to himself like he’s afraid she’ll take it away from him. A sound like metal reverberates from its body into his ears.
“I promise, I promise.”
Damn, Oliver thinks, but more with, like, admiration than resentment. She knows him well enough to know he’ll never do anything unless she makes him promise to. And she only makes him promise things that are actually beneficial. This is one reason why they get along.
They meet in their last year of high school. Guitar class. Both of them in the front row.
That first day, before the teacher arrives, Oliver sits there with the standard-issue public school acoustic guitar in his lap, expending his full concentration on plonking out the bass line from Come as You Are—which is the only thing he knows how to play—over and over and over, like a needle in a scratched vinyl groove. He doesn’t even notice when Polly takes the seat beside him.
“That’s a good song,” she says, alerting him to her presence. He stops playing and looks at her. He knows her by sight as that pretty girl who always has her guitar case, but they’ve never had any classes together and their circles of friends don’t overlap, so they’ve never really spoken.
“Oh, thanks,” he says, which is stupid, so then he says, “I mean, yeah, it is.”
She’s got her blue wooden acoustic, wider at its widest point than her body is, and it’s covered with stickers for bands that must be good because Oliver has never heard of them.
“Can you play any of the rest of that album?” she asks.
“Oh man, no way,” he says. “This is literally the only thing I can even play at all. That’s why I’m in this class, I want to learn.”
“Gotcha,” she says. “I’m in this class for the easy A. I’ve been playing since I was eleven. I can play anything.” The way she says this it doesn’t come off as arrogant, just confident, self-aware, because it is clearly actually true.
“Nice,” Oliver says. “I’m Oliver.” He reaches out to shake her hand, and her bare hand reciprocates. Her fingers long, with blue-polished nails.
“What does that stand for?”
“Uh, Polly Jane. Everyone calls me P.J., though.”
“I like Polly better,” Oliver says. “Do you mind if I call you Polly?”
“No,” Polly says, a little bewildered. “No, I don’t mind.”
about the author
RICHARD ROSENBAUM is a writer from Toronto. Also: Associate Fiction Editor for the Incongruous Quarterly (incongruousquarterly.com), and Broken Pencil (brokenpencil.com), plus editor of an anthology of short stories culled from the latter publication, titled Can'tLit: Fearless Fiction from Broken Pencil Magazine (ECW Press 2009), which you can peruse at killcanlit.ca. A couple of his stories can be read for free online at joylandmagazine.com/stories/toronto/the_fence and on your mobile device at cellstories.net/info/share_welcome/54.
from the library
The Last Judgment
by Maria Meindl
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
The Snake Crosses
the Tracks at Midnight
by Daniel Karasik
People grow in dimensions other than those we perceive. The teenage narrator of award-winning author Daniel Karasik’s latest story must deal with the fact that his older sister is now a grown woman, and Lucy, his crush-next-door, has become a mystery, with depths beyond his comprehension. Has he been coasting all this time, school and television his life’s only sources of momentum?
Trigger Finger Blues
by Chad Pelley
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.
by Marielle Mondon
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.
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 Cynthia Flood
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
by Jack Bootle
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