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
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
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.
by Star Spider
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'.
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.
Laws of Flight
by Darren Greer
An imaginative and resonant work of speculative literature from ReLit Award-winning author Darren Greer. Twin brothers, born on an oppressive family farm, discover a miraculous way to escape the dreariness of their lives, charting a course that promises equal measures of wonder and heartbreak.
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
by Lana Storey
Some time after the incomprehensible death of his son, Joan Miró has settled into his new job working the overnight shift at a Hasty Market in Toronto. He has plenty of time to think beneath the fluorescent lights of the convenience store: of ghosts and late nights, of downtown living and dying, of customer service and self-preservation, of the beauty of the night sky, and of the attempts people make to connect with one another despite seemingly insurmountable distances. These fragments of life prove as difficult to make sense of as any code—until one night, when an extraordinary series of events suddenly teases a pattern from the dark.
“In this graceful, dark, and nuanced piece, Lana Storey reveals a private man unhinged by grief. These are events—and this a narrative—that will stay in my mind for a long time. Never one to shirk from difficult truths, Lana Storey writes in the tradition of George Saunders: an original, at times disturbing, but ultimately transformative worldview.”
— Carolyn Smart, author of Hooked: Seven Poems and At the End of the Day
“Cross Yourself is Lana Storey’s gorgeous swirling image constellation, a story about a man becoming unhinged from the universe and finding redemption in a downtown Hasty Market convenience store. A vibrant, beating heart of a short fiction, Cross Yourself is a vortex worth being pulled into.”
— Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer, author of the 2005 Amazon.ca/Books in Canada First Novel Award finalist The Nettle Spinner
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?