The following is from André Alexis' novel Days by Moonlight, in which Alfred and his dead parents' friend Professor Morgan Bruno take a surreal trip through southern Ontario/the Underworld to find a mysterious and/or dead poet. André Alexis' novel Fifteen Dogs, won the 2015 Scotiabank Giller Prize and the Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize. His debut, Childhood, won the Books in Canada First Novel Award, the Trillium Book Award, and was shortlisted for the Giller Prize and the Writers' Trust Fiction Prize.
3. Three Hamlets: Schomberg, New Tecumseth, Marsville
Though I brushed my teeth a number of times, I couldn’t lose the taste of brass. I’m almost certain that this was down to the cider I’d drunk the night before. All morning, I was reminded of ‘amber mole.’
My mother and Anne were on my mind, too. I couldn’t think why, until I remembered that I’d heard Gordon Lightfoot’s voice: the voice of my mother’s favourite singer. (‘Black Day in July’ is the first song I remember hearing.) It had been a surprise to discover, when we first moved in together, that Anne, too, loved Lightfoot’s songs. I’d teased her about it.
–Why not listen to something modern? I’d say. I hear Glenn Miller just dropped some hot wax!
Which had been my way of teasing her and which, on reflection, I regret. How uncivil I was, in those days when I took her for granted.
I seemed to be the only one suffering from our time at the Moose. Professor Bruno hadn’t drunk alcohol, of course. But Mr. Henderson, who’d drunk more than I did, was in a good mood at breakfast. He boiled eggs for the three of us—the sulphuric aroma unfortunately reminding me of his flatulence—along with thick slices of a dark rye that was as dense as polished felt.
An unhappy coincidence: as he made breakfast, Mr. Henderson suddenly started singing ‘Summer Side of Life.’ He hoarsely whispered the words, which I recognized immediately. The song—more Lightfoot—was Anne’s favourite and, as if a curtain had been drawn aside, my feelings for her flooded in, so that it was all I could do to eat breakfast and listen to the Professor and Mr. Henderson talk.
The two men had grown close. They now spoke as if they’d been intimates for years, as opposed to the acquaintances they’d seemed the day before. Mr. Henderson was in his bathrobe, on which white clouds were depicted against a light grey background. His hair was neatly combed but he’d parted it down the middle and it made him look like a musk ox. Professor Bruno was in a clean pair of pyjamas: white cotton with a single breast pocket over which there was a crest from the University of Toronto. As they ate, they talked about small towns. They went on about Stephen Leacock. They rhapsodized about Algonquin ‘in the seventies.’ They recalled the devastation of Hurricane Hazel. They spoke of so many old things, I began to wonder if we’d make Feversham, an hour or so away, before nightfall.
The professor must have caught my impatience, but he picked up on my sadness as well.
–Do you know, he said, I think Alfie’s unhappy. What is it, son?
I thought about hiding my feelings, not wanting to trouble their good spirits with my heartbreak. But Mr. Henderson said
–The young man’s in love, Morgan.
Struck by his sensitivity, I thought it would have been dishonourable to lie. So, I said yes and told them how difficult it had been for me to be left by a woman I loved. I told them my story as plainly as I could, so we wouldn’t have to dwell on it.
–Ah, said Professor Bruno, we’ve all been there, son. I couldn’t eat for a year when my wife left me. These things are painful, but they help us live, if we survive them. I’m only sorry you’ve had to go through this now. We’ve had such wonderful weather, if you know what I mean.
I knew what the Professor meant and I understood his reaction. Mr. Henderson, though . . .
As I spoke about my heartbreak, Mr. Henderson held his teacup immobile before him, the porcelain vessel like a dollhouse cup between his thick thumb and index finger. When I finished speaking, he was overcome by emotion. He began to cry. It made for an odd sight: a musk—ox in pyjamas, sitting quietly as his tears fell, riveted by his own emotions.
Thinking himself responsible for his friend’s distress, Professor Bruno apologized.
–I shouldn’t have brought my heartbreak up, he said. I’m sorry to have upset you!
–No, no, said Mr. Henderson, it’s got nothing to do with you, Morgan. I can usually talk about heartbreak without a fuss. But you two made me think about John and, then, Alfred made me think about John and Carson. It’s the damnedest thing crying about other peoples’ affairs, but I can’t help myself.
There was a moment of silence before Professor Bruno’s curiosity got the better of him.
–You don’t have to talk about this if you’d rather not, Henny. But did you say ‘Carson’? Is that a friend of John’s?
–You could say that, answered Mr. Henderson. She was the love of his life. But, you know, it’s not their story that gets me. It’s the witch’s.
–Which witches? asked Professor Bruno.
Mr. Henderson sighed.
–It’s a long story, he said, but John’s in it, so you might be interested.
John Skennen had had a hand in the burning of Coulson’s Hill’s post office. He, like his friend Bob Grenville, had been involved with women from Coulson’s Hill. In fact, he’d fallen in love with a woman named Carson Michaels, herself a poet and, reputedly, the most beautiful woman in southern Ontario. Not that Coulson’s Hill could entirely claim her. Michaels had been born in Schomberg, that most mysterious of towns. But she’d come to Coulson’s Hill, an already lovely 21-year-old, dark-skinned, of Antiguan descent.
Also by reputation: Carson was modest and kind, but she was not a pushover. She suffered fools politely, but not for long. And she was extremely private. Though Carson had never been married, people thought of her as a Penelope waiting to meet Odysseus. In any case, she had a number of suitors, young men who congregated around the till at Lee’s Garage where she worked.
So, for practical reasons (the crowding around the till was bad for business) and for personal ones (she was exhausted by the consideration she felt obliged to show the people interested in her), Carson Michaels devised a question to ask of every suitor: what is the only object that makes me cry? She would ask the question three times. If a man or woman could not answer it by the third ask, they would find themself banished from Lee’s Garage.
This was an efficient way to deal with the obviously smitten. The herd was quickly thinned out, with space at the cash register left for customers or for those who, not interested in Carson themselves, were amused by the fate of those who were. There may have been men and women discreetly attracted to Carson. If so, these were people who, by their discretion, saved themselves from the attentions of Lee. Because Lee—who owned the gas station, garage, and general store—had been Carson’s father’s closest friend and he took this banishing business seriously. Once banished, a suitor was fair game for Lee’s pit bulls—Frick and Frack—who were vicious at the best of times. Not to mention that Lee himself, a giant man with a temper as bad as his dogs, took a sadistic pleasure in throwing people out of his establishment. He didn’t care if they resisted or complied. What mattered was that the suitor—male or female—be thrown out and that they never return.
As far as anyone could remember, there had only been one fatality. A man from Napanee had died of a heart attack while running away from Frick and Frack. He’d been older than the usual run of suitors and, though no one knew it, he’d had a deathly fear of dogs. That is, unforeseen circumstances combined to overburden his heart. His death, marked by a crucifix near one of the gas pumps, was spoken of in hushed tones by suitors and it served as a warning.
Whether the banished suitors were good people or not, worthy or not, Carson Michaels never allowed herself to learn. It wasn’t that she had no interest in them. She was a compassionate woman, but she couldn’t really understand their interest in her. None of them knew anything about her. They had no idea who she was. She was nothing more than an object of attention. That being so, Carson was satisfied that any suitor who could answer her question, any who could tell her what it was that made her weep, was worthy of her time, having devoted time to thinking about her—about who she was, about the things that had made her herself.
News of a beautiful woman and her smitten (or dog-bitten) suitors quickly spread throughout southern Ontario. John Skennen first heard about Carson Michaels while sitting in a bar in Sutton. A man at the table beside his began to cry, though he didn’t seem drunk: no slurred words, no spittle, no red face. What the man had were fresh stitches on his right hand and a crown of stitches above his left ankle. The stitches were the result of an encounter with Frick and Frack. It wasn’t the physical injuries that had moved him to tears—though, of course, he hoped feeling would eventually return to his right hand. No, it was his regret at not finding out what it was that made Carson Michaels cry. His guesses had been: a lost teddy bear, a cup once used by her now dead father, her first tube of lipstick.
–You’d be surprised, he said wiping his tears, how many people guessed those same things.
How did he know this?
Because Carson Michaels’ suitors, men and women, shared their stories and their guesses. This was in the days before subreddit categories or easy internet access. There was, instead, a typed and handwritten list that, by the time it was copied for John Skennen, was fifty—five pages long. It was dauntingly (or obsessively) well—organized. Guesses at what made Carson Michaels weep were alphabetically ordered from Adder (skin shed by) to Zest (of yuzu fruit).
It seemed to the weeper in Sutton that this list—which he’d got only after he’d been chased from Lee’s—was both devastating and tantalizing. Tantalizing because the list was long and potentially helpful in what it eliminated. Devastating because there were so many things in the world and each thing had, at very least, the potential to sadden Carson Michaels. The suitors could fill an encyclopedia with guesses and not scratch the surface. How could one not despair at the thought?
On hearing of this ‘Venus from Coulson’s Hill,’ John Skennen was fascinated, but his fascination took the form of outrage. His sense of justice was offended. He resented the assumption that men could not resist a desirable woman. And, allowing his outrage to overtake his common sense, Skennen resolved to ‘deal with’ the woman from Coulson’s Hill. He did not allow for the possibility that he would himself fall in love with Carson Michaels. But fall in love he did, walking into the store at Lee’s Garage like walking into a well—known ambush.
What is it like to fall in love at first sight?
Skennen had never felt anything like it. His outrage vanished at the sight of Carson’s face. It didn’t seem to him a ‘beautiful’ face, though he understood why some might call it that. To him, her beauty was beside the point, overcome as he was by her face’s rightness. No other face, seen at the moment he first saw hers, could have had the same effect on him. His sense of justice was appeased and expanded. It wasn’t that Truth was Beauty or Beauty Truth. It was that both ‘truth’ and ‘beauty’ were avatars of Justice, both manifestations of rectitude. In fact, you could have called this love at first sight a kind of crossed wiring in which all the higher ideals—Truth, Beauty, Love, Honour—seemed to be avatars of Justice.
Somehow – was it because desire for her had afflicted so many that she immediately recognized the signs or was it that he radiated longing – she knew at once what his feelings meant. He approached the till, bringing with him a bag of Lay’s Potato Chips. He did not look directly at her, until she asked for his payment. He was careful to say nothing to betray the fact—the impulse, the instinct—that he loved her. His first words to her—as he stared at Wilfred Laurier’s receding hairline and pursed lips on the five-dollar bill he gave her—were
–There you go.
He would have welcomed any words she spoke, but her first words struck him as elegant.
–Thank you, she said.
But she added, as he stood there trying to figure out where to put his change:
–There’s a thing that makes me sad. Do you know what it is?
Skennen allowed himself, then, to look directly at the woman he loved and almost lost himself in contemplation. No particular aspect of her struck him as inescapable. He had seen eyes as lovely (but where?), lips as appealing (not possible!), a brow as noble, hair as lustrous. But he’d never been as affected by these things. He’d never felt as he did and, really, it would have been difficult for her not to recognize his state.
–I’m sorry, he answered. I’m afraid I don’t know you at all.
–No need to apologize, she said. Would you like to guess?
Skennen said the first word that came to him.
To one side of the till, there were four or five men—locals all, from the look of them—standing around, quietly watching. At Skennen’s mention of the word ‘portulaca,’ they snorted in unison. But Carson was kind.
–I’ve never heard that before, she said. It’s a flower, isn’t it?
–It is, he said, but I was thinking of a poem.
One of the locals—pink face above a blue and green plaid shirt—said
–You phony bastard!
Ignoring him, Skennen quoted Dennis Lee.
–‘Lovers by the score come sporting fantasies like we had, strolling bright-eyed past the portulaca . . .’
–That’s lovely, said Carson, but, no, portulaca doesn’t make me sad. Neither does poetry.
Skennen felt dismissed. There were customers behind him waiting to pay.
–I’ll be back when I know the answer, he said.
–I’d like that, said Carson Michaels.
She sounded polite, nothing more. Lee, on the other hand, was cheerful as he met Skennen on the way out. Warm and friendly, if you went by the man’s smile. But he radiated menace. It wasn’t only that the man was six feet, nine inches tall and four hundred pounds. It was that, even standing still, he seemed like a vicious dog straining to break a metal link chain.
–That’s one guess, he said. When you come back it’ll be two. You get three in all, then I feed you to Frick and Frack.
From Days by Moonlight. Used with permission of Coach House Books. Copyright © 2019 by André Alexis.