The following is excerpted from Miriam Toews’s new novel, Fight Night, a darkly humorous story about three generations of women. Toews is the author of seven bestselling novels: Women Talking, All My Puny Sorrows, Summer of My Amazing Luck, A Boy of Good Breeding, A Complicated Kindness, The Flying Troutmans, and Irma Voth, and one work of non-fiction, Swing Low: A Life.
How are you? I was expelled. Have you ever heard of Choice Time? That’s my favourite class. I do Choice Time at the Take-Apart Centre, which is the place in our classroom where we put on safety goggles and take things apart. It’s a bit dangerous. The first half of the class we take things apart and then Madame rings a bell, which means it’s the second half of the class and we’re supposed to put things back together. It doesn’t make sense because it takes way longer to put things back together than take them apart. I tried to talk to Mom about it, and she said I should just start putting things back together sooner, before Madame rings the bell, but when I did that Madame told me I had to wait for the bell. I told Madame about the problem with time but she didn’t like my tone, which was a lashing out tone, which I’m supposed to be working on. Mom is in her third trimester. She’s cracking up. Gord is trapped inside her.
I asked her what she wanted for her birthday and she said a cold IPA and a holiday. Grandma lives with us now. She has one foot in the grave. She’s not afraid of anything. I asked her where you were and she said that’s the sixty-four-thousand dollar question. She said she misses Grandpa. She said that by the time she gets to heaven he’ll probably have left. Men, she said. They come and they—
Today marks the beginning of our neo-realist period, Grandma told me this morning. She plunked down fried potatoes on the table, and a bottle of ketchup. Fun and games! she said. She told me I have blue Nike swooshes under my eyes. She said I need to get more sleep. What’s the problem, Swiv? Bad dreams?
Grandma’s writing a letter to Gord, because that’s the assignment I gave her and Mom at our Editorial Meeting yesterday. She gives me assignments, too. We are co-editors. Our family therapist was the one who told us to write letters, but Mom says we can’t afford therapy anymore if all we’re supposed to do is write to missing people. Grandma says she thinks it’s useful. She says we can be like reporters and have our own news desk. She says letters start off as one thing and become another thing. But Mom mistrusts them, like photos. She hates photos. I don’t want to be frozen in a moment!
Grandma says fragments are the only truth. Fragments of what? I asked her. Exactly! she said. She asked me what my dream was last night. I told her I dreamt that I had to write a goodbye letter using the words one and blue. Na oba! Grandma said. That’ll be your assignment for today, Swivchen! She has a secret language. She didn’t even ask me who the letter was for. Grandma skips over pertinent details because she’s got five minutes left to live and doesn’t want to waste it on the small picture. What if I had a dream that I was naked and locked out of my house? I asked her. Would that be my assignment? Na jungas! she said. It’s happened to me many times! Grandma loves to talk about the body. She loves everything about the body, every nook and cranny. How can it have happened to you many times? I asked her. That’s life! she said. You gotta love yourself, regardless. That’s not life, I said. Being naked and locked out of your house all the time? Fun and games! she said. She was counting out her pills and laughing.
After that we had Math Class. Pencils ready! she yelled. If you’ve got a two thousand-piece puzzle of an Amish farm and you manage to add three pieces to the puzzle per day, how many more days will you need to stay alive to get it done? Math Class was interrupted by the doorbell. Ball Game! yelled Grandma. Who could it be? The doorbell ringer is set to “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” which Grandma forces me to sing with her during the seventh-inning stretch even if we’re just watching the game in our living room. She makes me stand up for the anthem at the beginning, too. Mom doesn’t stand up for the anthem because Canada is a lie and a crime scene. It was Jay Gatsby. He wants to tear our house down.
I went to the door and opened it and told him, It’s yours for twenty million dollars.
He said, Listen, can I speak with your mother. You said the last time—
Twenty-five million dollars, I said.
Sorry, said Jay Gatsby, I’d like to speak with—
Thirty million dollars, capitalist, do you understand English? I slammed the door shut. Grandma said that was a bit overkill. He’s afraid of death, said Grandma. She said it like an insult. He’s lost his way! Jay Gatsby wants to tear down our house and build an underground doomsday-proof luxury vault. Jay Gatsby bought a house on a tropical island once and then forced every other person living on the island to sell their house to him so that he had the whole island to himself to do ecstasy and yoga with ex-models. He forced all the models to take pills that made their shit gold and sparkly. Mom said he’s had fake muscles put into his calves. She knows this because one day she saw him on the sidewalk outside the bookstore and his calves were super skinny and three days later they were bulging and had seams on them. Mom said he went to a place in Cleveland, Ohio to get it done where you can also have your vag tightened up if you feel like it. Then you can just sit around with your S.O. vaping all day with your giant fake calves and stitched-up wazoo and be spied on by your modern thermostat which is a weapon of the state they just call “green” because of sales and Alexa and shit and practicing mindfulness hahahaha and just be really, really, really happy that you don’t have half a fucking brain between the two of you.
That’s life! she said. You gotta love yourself, regardless. That’s not life, I said.
That’s how Mom talks. It’s probably not true. She lies. She hates words like modern and creative and sexuality and she hates acronyms. She hates almost everything. Grandma told me she doesn’t know how Mom was able to stop ranting long enough to get pregnant with Gord. She compared impregnating Mom to creeping up to the edge of an active volcano that you accidentally thought was inactive. She says Mom does the emotional work for the whole family, feeling everything ten times harder than is necessary so the rest of us can act normal. Grandma doesn’t believe in privacy and thinks everything private is hilarious because she was the youngest kid to be born into a family of fifteen people. Na oba! she’ll say when you’re in the bathroom. Look at you sitting all by yourself in this little room with your pants around your ankles, that’s priceless! Grandma’s dad forgot what all his kids were called and accidentally gave Grandma the same name as one of the older kids. Grandma’s mom used her as a form of birth control by putting Grandma next to her in bed for seven years. After seven years Grandma’s mom entered menopause so she was safe, and Grandma could go sleep for the rest of her childhood in the hallway.
Remember that woman, that friend of mine, who donated her head? Grandma said yesterday. Well, she’s dead. Almost every day Grandma gets a call about someone she knows being dead. This morning Grandma was watching the Blue Jays highlights and she said Vladimir Guerrero reminded her of a good friend of hers in junior high, Tina Koop. She’d just stand casually at home plate, not in a batting stance or anything, and hit a homer every time. I said Wow, what is she doing now? She’s dead, said Grandma. That’s how Grandma talks about her friends. She doesn’t scream about it. She doesn’t even cry. The only thing she and her friends talk about on the phone is dying. Grandma’s friend Leona called her yesterday and said, You’ll never believe this but Henry Wiebe has agreed to be cremated. What! said Grandma. That’s priceless! You know why? said Leona. No, why? said Grandma. Because it’s cheaper! They laughed their heads off. And more stylish! They laughed even more. Leona said Henry Wiebe was always secretly wanting to be stylish and then he found out that everyone he knew was getting cremated. When Grandma got off the phone she told me it was funny because Henry Wiebe preached to everyone for more than fifty years that cremation was a sin, but then he came into direct contact with his mortality and notorious cheapness and need to be stylish and realized that he could save money and be stylish by having himself cremated. But he’ll be dead, I said, so how can he be stylish and save money? Grandma said, You just gotta know Henry.
You can tell when she gets phone calls about her dead friends because she pours herself an extra schluckz of wine to watch the Raptors and she stares at me for long stretches and quotes poetry at me even though I’m not doing anything, just sitting there watching the game with her. Dead men naked they shall be one / With the man in the wind and the west moon. On the days she gets the death calls she grabs at me when I walk past her and I know she wants affection, but I hate always having to be the embodiment of life. When their bones are picked clean and the clean bones gone. Usually I deke to the right when I pass her chair and she misses because she’s really slow, but then I feel bad and I walk really slowly past her again so she can grab me. But then she feels bad about having tried to grab me when I don’t want to be grabbed and so she doesn’t grab me and I have to sort of just plunk down in her lap and put my arms around her. She says she’s knock, knock, knockin’ on heaven’s door and she is at 110 percent peace with that. She says when she kicks the bucket I should just put her in a pickle jar and go outside and play already.
Our next class was How to Dig a Winter Grave. Grandma said when she was a small kid she went to a funeral in North Dakota and discovered that all the people who died in the winter there had to wait around until the spring to be buried. I was horrified! said Grandma. She heckled the undertaker. They didn’t know how to dig a winter grave?! Here’s what you do, she said. Heat up coals and lay them on the ground until it melts. Dig up that layer of dirt. Reheat the coals and lay them down on the ground again until another layer of dirt melts. Dig it up. Keep doing that until you’ve got a six-foot hole. Done! You don’t wait until the spring to bury people. What nonsense! Let’s phone North Dakota to see if they’re still making people wait until the spring to be buried, I said. Let’s do it, said Grandma. I called the North Dakota Board of Funerals. The man said, Yes, that’s just how it is here. Delayed burials are a necessary evil in North Dakota.
From the book FIGHT NIGHT by Miriam Toews. Copyright © 2021 by Miriam Toews. Published by Bloomsbury. All rights reserved.