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
In the Afternoon
by Laure Baudot
Catherine wants what Richard has: a richly decorated house, and a perfect, lavished-upon baby. Catherine also wants Richard: a disaffected diplomat whose true passion is for cinema. But Catherine is only the babysitter, and her envy—and its fallout—come to the fore when Richard is accused of a crime, and she must decide whether to help exonerate him.
“Laure Baudot’s prose is exquisite, patient, and sophisticated. In the Afternoon immerses you in the fascinating and complicated mind of a babysitter who is wise beyond her years, yet dangerously impulsive at the same time. This story is irresistible and heartbreaking.”
— Sarah Selecky, author of the 2010 Giller Prize–shortlisted collection This Cake Is for the Party
by Andrew Forbes
An electrical engineer who has lost almost everything - his marriage, his job, his father - retreats to his garage to re-evaluate and reorganize the various loose ends of his life, and ends up assembling a thermonuclear device instead.
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
If You Waited Here, You Would
See Almost Everything
by Danny Goodman
After Ray collapses on the sidewalk outside a New York coffee shop, the bittersweet vagaries of his long marriage come into focus, one heartbeat at a time. From his new vantage point, flat on his back, all their conflicts are laid out against a canvas of sky, contrasting miscommunications and infidelities against something slower, steadier, and ultimately much vaster than he ever realized.
Off the Main Highway
by Courtney McDermott
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 the Bar
by Rebecca Rosenblum
Health care workers on a night out unwind, allowing the anxieties and passions they've had to suppress on the job finally uncoil, like tendrils creeping out into the world - and into each other. Written with empathy and panache, this story is a portrait of briefly flaring humanity - of people granted a temporary reprieve from professionalism, and not quite knowing what to do with it.
“At the Bar is Rosenblum at her best - exploring the complicated nature of work and relationships with her trademark perceptiveness, humour, and compassion, and creating characters that will stay with you long after the story is over.”
— Amy Jones, author of What Boys Like and Other Stories
The Psychology of Animals Swallowed Alive:
by Kirsty Logan
Embark upon these twenty short, scrumptious flights of fancy from the unmistakable pen of Scott Prize-winning author Kirsty Logan, and you will be astounded, titillated, disturbed, amused, heartbroken, and above all, astonished.
“Logan crafts an exquisitely wrought diorama full of tenderly compelling characters; observations about grief, worship, social order, and human nature, and a love that transcends definition.”
– NPR on Logan's debut novel The Gracekeepers
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