Mike was from a small town; he was tall, thin-skinned, doe-eyed and had spiky black hair like a Chia Pet plugged into the mains. Throughout his childhood, Mike was convinced that his parents – though outwardly a high school vice-principal and homemaker – were in fact experiments in the latest in other-worldly entertainment technology.
When he was very young, Mike believed that his parents had some sort of unbelievable inner life going on, perhaps projected on some IMAX screen just a little to the left or right of their field of vision. Or perhaps that they had invisible eyes in their foreheads that perceived heat, or music, or dancing fairies, because it seemed so hard to get their attention. They were kind, considerate – and not beyond petting, although Mike found it hard to be petted to sleep by his mother, because each pat came so far apart that it always startled him. It was not as relaxing as being held; she would rock him so slowly that her patterned breasts would swing by his sight with the speed and regularity of bright polyester constellations.
Perhaps due to this, Mike really got into astronomy when he was about eleven. He bought a telescope, kept records on sunspots and mapped the mountains of the moon. He read about interstellar distances, which seemed to stretch his mind almost to the breaking point, like when a child first learns about infinity, and asks: ‘what’s after that?’ (Mike, from the age of five to seven, for some reason, thought that his mother’s ironing board was the edge of the universe.) Once, reading about the problems of communications, he read that the problem of delay was significant even at interplanetary distances; the moon was only two seconds away; Mars was several minutes…
Gosh, I wish that my parents were even that close, he would think wistfully.
Mike’s father would have been a perfect dad if he’d been sped up about twenty thousand times. Playing catch with him, for instance, was quite disconcerting. It set back Mike’s sense of physics – as well as his athletic abilities – several years, because his father would wind up and throw so slowly that when gravity and momentum finally got a hold of the ball, the effect was startlingly rapid, like a video going from slow-motion to fast-forward. He read stories so slowly that Mike became fascinated with morphemes, the bitty parts of speech. Pauses between characters speaking were so long that every line seemed like a new chapter. Mike used to sneak glances, sure that his father was reading ahead, but he wasn’t; his eyes slowly crept down to the next line, the cheeks were sucked in… (It always seemed that he produced his scant words by milking a vacuum.) Sometimes, Mike stared at his father, wondering how long it would take him to notice his son’s unblinking gaze, but he never did, and Mike always backed away from this game, as if from a precipice. Dr. Seuss was a Chinese water-torture of repetition; the cat did not like green eggs and ham over and over, and had to really thinkabout it each time, each page, each line. Mike would be dizzy when it all ended, his fists in knots, and wouldn’t sleep for hours.
Mike’s mind worked very, very quickly, and he wondered sometimes whether there wasn’t a fixed amount of mental speed available to a family, because sure as Socrates, he seemed to have gained his prodigious speed at the expense of his parents. He sometimes pictured the progress of his gestation within his mother, imagining that when his parents first visited the doctor, they asked a lot of rapid-fire questions about the process, his father leaning against the paper-wrapped patient bed, his hat back at a rakish angle, like a 40s reporter: ‘so, doc, you’re saying that ectopic is a pregnancy in which the fertilized ovum implants on any tissue other than the endometrial lining of the uterus’ – and then his mother (she was always smoking in this fantasy, but through a cigarette holder, which seemed okay), would jokingly call Mike’s dad a ‘rube,’ tapping a medical diagram with a red fingernail, saying: ‘listen up, rube – it goes like this, see?’
As her pregnancy progressed (so the fantasy went), more and more energy and speed flowed into Mike’s developing ecosystem of growing flesh and silent, blunt thought (did I feel like an expanding balloon, he wondered, with the umbilical like a string tied to me, bumping around in the slosh of my mother’s innards?). As the months passed, his parents began to space out and slow down, easing into friendly, vacant, over-the-fence chatterboxes. (Mike always imagined that their minds slowed before their voices; that just seemed the way of the world.) His mother stopped smoking, losing that stimulation; his father started playing horseshoes… And then finally, they shuffled to the hospital, all their former energy compressed into one restless digging fetus, and sat dumbly in the delivery room as the doctor lowered himself from the high crags of medical terms to the simple plains of monosyllabic comfort words: ‘you have baby; breathe good, much pain…’
It wasn’t so, of course, but it took him a while to believe it. He would sometimes joke with aunts and uncles, as young children do, searching for clues about his parents’ life before he was born, looking for the limits of responsibility, probing nature and nurture. One treasured interaction was with his Uncle Tommy. When he was about fifteen, Mike had said something about his parents having a very ‘animated discussion,’ and Tommy had laughed and said: ‘wow, which one blinked?’ Mike had acted surprised, upon which Tommy had said: ‘that pair make fossils look lively,’ and then Mike had laughed, quite relieved that his parents had changed so little over the years. Somehow, it let him off the hook.
He also was a kinship nomad, and was noted among his extended family for asking probing questions about long-lost relatives, and asking for long-lost stories, ancient history, combing for… Something? Well, it was something, but nothing his family could understand. Why d’you want to dig all that up for anyways? What’s past is past! Mike’s extended family all fit comfortably into their social niches; they referred to each other as ‘buddy here,’ as in ‘buddy here shot into the trees and almost killed Stan,’ and were completely uninterested in weeding the ‘yous’ from their sentences; ‘yous guys’ was quite as valid as ‘you guys.’ They also turned beer into sheep, in that they used the same word for both singular and plural: ‘get me a beer,’ and ‘I drank thirteen beer last night!’ They viewed all attempts at self-improvement as pretentious; they even used the phrase ‘putting on airs,’ and would drown any original thought in copious amounts of alcohol. (Like peeing on an ice-filled urinal, it caused a satisfying internal crumbling, and a petty but heady sense of power.)
Before he left for college, Mike got a porch-swing lecture on ‘big-city ladies’ from Uncle Tommy. (Uncle Tommy, oddly enough, was about to have his own heart broken by Mindy, an archaeology student from Thunder Bay – who he nicknamed ‘Mindiana Jones’ – who would string him along for almost a year. One of the eternal constants of Mike’s family was the degree to which various members lectured others over vices which were – almost without fail – about to consume the lecturers. This was the extent to which self-knowledge was present.)
This was Tommy’s lecture on ‘big-city ladies’:
“Mike,” he said, “having spent a good deal of time travelling to Thunder Bay,” (pronounced ‘Tunder Bay’) “I wanted to tell you a bit about big-city ladies. Now I’d be the first to admit that Thunder Bay is no Toronto,” (pronounced ‘Trana’) “but it’ll do you no harm, so listen up.” Pause, spit. Spit again, then: “Out here, a woman loves a man for who he is, you know, the basics, what sort of man is he, honest, hard-working, loyal, what have you. But down there,” he said, whispering fearfully, as if ‘down there’ was the twenty-third layer of hell, “things are different. There, women are into you for what you can do for them. You can help them, give them a leg up – no not that way, smart-ass, listen up – they’re yours. They’re ambitious, hard, cold… Selfish, you know. But they don’t come out and say it, nope not a lot. They’ll fall on you and sigh over your shoulder while they go through your wallet. Cold. And they think they’re all lib-era-ted, but they play all the old games. They can make a mill a year, they still want the car door opened for them. It’s like they think they’re all that…” (here he snapped his fingers), “as if there’s no supply other than them. And you’re a good boy, Mikey, you’re smart as a whip deep down, do us all proud, but you’re a hick on the outside, and that’s going to make you a mark. So keep your wits about you.”
Privately, Mike didn’t think that a boy fresh off the bus from St. Mary’s would draw cold and calculating stares from prowling Bay Street vixens, but it is the privilege of the aged to stir more than a smidgen of paranoia into their ethics, so he kept his opinion to himself.
The distinction between ‘head-smart’ and ‘heart-smart’ was very important to Uncle Tommy; he was the family diplomat, the peacemaker. ‘Head-smart,’ in his book, was very dangerous – somehow it had produced nuclear weapons (contrary to stereotype, Tommy did not pronounce it ‘nukuler’ – but did put more emphasis on the first syllable than an urbanite would – noo-clear). ‘Heart-smart,’ on the other hand, never swayed lawyers or judges, but always won over the jury.
In Tommy’s view, Mike had ‘head-smarts,’ but not ‘heart-smarts,’ which made him vulnerable. “It’s late to develop a hard hide, but it has to be done, and better you should do it for yourself than have others do it to you.”
After the talk, Mike was aware of his deficiencies, but had no idea how to fix them. Being ‘head-smart’ seemed bad – and having a ‘hard hide’ was surely good, but what the hell did that all mean? Walking home, he suddenly felt quite hostile towards good old Uncle Tommy. So he dispenses advice, then whittles on the porch, and if I come back with my tail between my legs, it was because I didn’t take his advice, and if I come back in a Camry, it’s because I took his advice. Huh, he sneered to himself. Rube!
His parents had had Mike late – his mother was in her early forties. In Mike’s opinion, that was no indication that he was unwanted, or accidental. He firmly believed that his parents had been trying to have him since their mid-twenties – since they married, in fact – but that his father’s sperm – being his father’s – were in no hurry. The sperm which finally made it could have been released as long as a decade before, and just took its sweet time. You only have to have seen my dad on the highway to understand that.
Entering his teens, Mike had nothing in common with those around him, and so began drinking early and hard. People are overly-influenced by TV-induced visions of life in small towns, imagining white picket fences, pies on the windowsills, concerned neighbours and slow-moving horseshoe games – but they are entirely mistaken. Most small towns are, in fact, squalid pits of vice, corruption and despair. The misery that seeps into one’s bones from knowing that one is far from the centre of the galaxy is hard to overcome. (There is a reason why Luke Skywalker came from Tatooine.) The savagery of small-town drinking, especially among the young, cannot be overestimated. Some people drink to forget, others because they have so little to remember.
Mike was a border case. He was an unsophisticated but highly intelligent youth who attempted to solve the problem of being different by drinking his higher faculties away. His unconscious was his saviour; it gave him shyness to protect his sensitivity, then gave him an allergy to alcohol to save his liver.
It was not a complete allergy (a strong indication of its psychosomatic nature), but rather a whole-Sunday nausea which left him unable to do anything; he could not watch TV or read or walk or clean – or program his computer. The long stretch of a small-town Sunday is unbearably lengthened by a vague physical malaise, and so, regretfully, Mike began to withdraw from the drinking binges. This was very difficult, because drinking parties are crushingly dull to a non-drinker (as they are to the drinker, of course; that is what the alcohol is designed to erase). Also, when one is trying to escape a bad crowd, there are no good excuses. During his breakout phase, Mike had a number of variations on the following phone conversation:
“Come out with us, dude, we’re cruising for coyotes!”
Mike would shrug, cradling the receiver against his shoulder. “Nahhh, not tonight.”
“Why not? What’s the matter?”
“Don’t feel like it.”
“Come on, stop fucking around. Sharon’ll be there, you’ve got a shot!”
“I’m not feeling well.”
“So what? Hair of the dog, dude!”
“Maybe I’ll meet you for dinner. Where are you eating?”
“Shit we’ll just grab you along the way. Come on, you pussy, get you at six.”
“I’ve gotta pass.”
“What, you got a girlfriend?”
“A boyfriend? Fuck, bring him along! I won’t be jealous. Much.”
“You guys go ahead without me.”
“What the fuck, I can’t believe you’re such a pussy!”
The gang would come by anyway, in some aromatic van with a stained mattress in the back and cigarette burns on the dashboard, and they would yell for him from the driveway and he would sit in the dark like a stalking victim and they would eventually throw a beer at his house and screech off.
Before he left for college, Mike had half-expected a long, detailed and possibly useful Polonius-type speech from his own father, half-imagining that the old man’s unnatural quiet over the past nineteen years had been due to his constant rumination over what to say to his son when his time came to leave home.
As it turned out, he hadn’t been thinking on it – or, if he was, he wasn’t done yet, but might be finally ready for the far-off year when his grandson might depart.
His final morning, Mike sat at a table with his parents, drinking coffee. (They imbibed coffee by the pot; Mike could never get used to the idea that it was actually a stimulant, since it seemed to do nothing for them, then he thought with a chill: good God, if this is what they’re like on caffeine…) His mother was crying, but it was a very slow cry; even the tear which zig-zagged down her lined cheek seemed to be getting lost, and not minding, not a bit.
“Well,” said his father eventually.
“Mf,” said his mother. Mike stared at her, thinking: that tear has to be tickling her – will she raise her hand, or shake her head…? But she sat still – not rock-still – that would be like an effort, but still like she was encased in some invisible support which let her relax all her muscles yet still remain upright. A good-posture hammock.
“I’ll miss you guys,” said Mike, which was as close as he got to ‘I love you.’ His parents were a kind of still life; it was hard to imagine loving a portrait.
His father pursed his lips and sucked in his cheeks. Eventually, the vacuum produced sound:
“’S a big world.”
His dad’s habit of contracting contractions always irritated Mike, who wanted to grab him by the neck and shout: it’s is already the short form of it is – do you have to contract it even further, to ‘Ss – what are you, calling a snake? Oh, and thanks for the tip, Magellan. It’s a big world. That will certainly help me navigate it. It’s a big world, and they tax it, so keep your nose clean. Right.
Irritation was, of course, a goodly part of Mike’s speed. Irritation at his parents’ unbearable turtle pace, irritation at his clan’s ability to have the same argument over and over again, or watch the same ‘Married With Children’ episode ad infinitum, delighting over the approach of a favourite joke; irritation with their ability to root for the local Hockey Team (the ‘Cossaks!’ – Mike could never figure out if the misspelling was deliberate) with the same enthusiasm every year – an enthusiasm undimmed by a two-decade losing streak. In general, people’s ability to find stimulation in repetition drove him quite mental.
“Buy tube socks,” sniffed Mike’s mother.
Another lengthy pause.
“Better get going,” said his father – who, as Mike knew, would not move for another ten minutes. He always wanted to be very early for things. Of course, ‘early’ for a glacier is a hundred years – an hour wait for him must seem about five minutes.
Finally, his dad drove him to the bus station. Mike had grown so used to the sound of horns and curses whenever they went on the two-lane highway that he almost didn’t hear them. He still noticed, though, that so many cars passed them in the slow lane that it felt as if they were going backwards through time.
As he glanced at his father’s impassive face, Mike imagined him under torture, in some far-off sweaty Asiatic camp. There would be a ferocious man in black, with perfect Oriental hair, brushing bugs off his face and twisting the thumbscrews: speed up, capitalist Canuck running dog! – and his father’s face turning slowly to his tormentor, saying, with infinite slowness: I – do – not – like – green…
It was no use. Mike couldn’t stand to wait for the end of the sentence, even in his imagination. Dad would survive torture without breaking, he thought,because the pain wouldn’t hit him until the torturer had fretted himself into an early grave… (One last picture; his father, years after being tortured, sitting in an old-age home, lowering his eyes in slow surprise at the cigarette-burn scars on his legs, with one low murmur: oooowwwwwww…)
During his psychological phase (fourteen to sixteen), Mike read a lot of Bradshaw and Branden, and assumed his father was very angry. Certainly the man’s geological pace infuriated his son no end – was that the point? Did the old man drive other people mental because he could not express his own anger? Mike watched his father more closely during this period, and tried two things to test his theory. First, he expressed no irritation at his father’s slowness, and second, he tried being even slower (and oh my Lord, wasn’t that teeth-gritting). If this was some kind of defence mechanism, it should change – intensify, alter, something – if it was no longer having its intended effect.
But no. Nothing happened. Nothing changed, except that his father was promoted from vice-principal to principal. Mike resumed his normal footprints-on-the-ceiling pace and listened with greater sympathy to his classmates, who talked with wide-eyed dread about being sent to Mr. Coleman’s office. This was considered a terrible punishment because the slowness of his lectures – applied to hyperactive MTV kids – gave rise to facial tics sometimes lasting a week or more.
At the bus station, Mike got up ten minutes before the bus had to leave and shepherded his father over to the bus bay. Ten minutes, he thought, yeah, that should be just enough for the handshake, which is like watching my father raise and lower a tiny bridge.
As the bus pulled out of the station, Mike leaned back in his seat and turned his head. His father stood on the platform, staring at Mike with wide, sad eyes. He waved his left hand very slowly, and shrank in size as the bus pulled away, as if he were falling into the dust of the window glass. A sudden gap of years seemed to open up in Mike’s chest, and he ached at the thought of waving his own son goodbye as he left home for the first and last time. His eyes filled with tears. His mouth dropped open in shock, and he shook his head slightly. An old email joke sprang into his mind, and his tears coursed stronger: “Sign outside a funeral home: Slow Down – We’ll Wait…”
And then he vividly pictured closing an open coffin lid over his father’s still face, long in the future, and his stomach contracted, and he felt that he had spent his whole life waiting for his father to become different, to be something that he was not, and that he had forever hated him for being who he was. And he imagined that his own son in the years to come might be as placid as his father, and hate him also for his haste. And it hit him hard, then, as the highway opened up before him: that he had forever stomped his feet for his father to be different, but that he had never been able to stop stomping, and so had no right to demand change in others. And through Mike’s vibrating tears, the sun seemed almost to leap into the sky, and he shuddered in the shaking light, regret stretching like a tearing rope from his adult heart to his childhood home.