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
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
by Kayt Burgess
When Blanche first began singing, she was humble, eager, willing to work, willing to learn. Now she is headstrong, condescending, unprofessional, and just a tiny bit full of herself. She is also the closest to genius that Antoinette, her accompanist, may ever have a chance to work with.
by Caroline Adderson
Coming out of an unhappy relationship and a stint at an artist colony, Charlotte, a writer, takes a job teaching at a private ESL college. There she befriends Renata—audacious, sexy, and as changeable as Proteus. “I have a story for you,” Renata says to her one day over lunch. She doesn’t elaborate further, but Charlotte soon discovers that she has found in Renata an unexpectedly passionate and compelling subject.
“Caroline Adderson is such a graceful and intelligent writer that the work that must surely go into creating her hilarious, prismatic stories is never betrayed in the language. There is no strain on the page, not a bead of sweat. I think of her as a writer’s writer. I envy her talent and learn from her sentences. The short story, Obscure Objects, is, I’m happy to report, Adderson at her glorious best.”
— Barbara Gowdy, author of Helpless and The White Bone
“Obscure Objects, Caroline Adderson’s fierce and affecting workplace comedy, is a deadpan gem: droll, moving, snapping-smart.”
— Meg Wolitzer, author of The Uncoupling, The Ten-Year Nap, and The Position
by Pauline Holdstock
After undergoing a cosmetic treatment to recover her lost youth, a middle-aged woman finds herself reconnected to her alienated daughter - a young woman still searching for her own path in life - in an unexpected and incredible way. A modern-day fable from two-time Scotiabank Giller Prize nominee Pauline Holdstock.
“Hers is the kind of prose you get lost in.”
— National Post on The Hunter and the Wild Girl
“Holdstock’s writing manages to be both heartbreakingly poetic and densely detailed ... sad passages, ghostlike recollections, written almost from the vantage point of the present, establish the book as a great work of fiction.”
— The Globe and Mail on Into the Heart of the Country, longlisted for the 2011 Scotiabank Giller Prize
“Holdstock, with a few deft strokes, pulls the reader into the tumultuous life of an alluring rabble of characters: painters, sculptors, patrons, fools, and slaves . . . In Beyond Measure, she proves herself a master of pacing. Her lively, macabre plot trips lightly along in spite of its dark elements.”
— The Globe and Mail on Beyond Measure, finalist for the 2004 Giller Prize and the 2004 Commonwealth Writers' Prize
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
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
This Is a Love Crime
by Lee Kvern
Marta is a human resources employee at a grocery store chain. She moves through the days passively, always taking the path of least resistance, until a case at work - that of a hijab-wearing woman, in defiance of a strict no-hats policy - awakens her to the injustices of her own life.
“This Is a Love Crime by Lee Kvern is a cunning and intensely human look at one of the central issues of our time. It negotiates the space between belief, racism, liberty, and sexuality with curiosity and compassion.”
— Todd Babiak, bestselling author of Toby: A Man and The Garneau Block
“Lee Kvern paints with a scalpel. With characteristic unflinching honesty, she peels the relationship between Marta and Corbin back to quivering nerves in This Is a Love Crime and juxtaposes it against veiled assumptions about cultural oppression. The narrative leaps crackle with energy and empathy. When I read Kvern’s stories, I’m seduced by exquisite detail and—love or loathe them—left with the scent of her characters long after the last page.”
— Betty Jane Hegerat, author of Delivery and The Boy
“In This Is a Love Crime, Lee Kvern uses the intricately drawn characters of Corbin and Marta to explore the charged topics of ethnicity and Western modes of submission and control. Written in Kvern’s distinctive, poetic, and multi-layered style, the story leaves us with warm insight into all the characters—and challenges our hearts and preconceptions.”
— Barb Howard, author of Whipstock, Notes for Monday, and The Dewpoint Show
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.