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By Anton Baer


The Montréal Review, November 2011





To tell the truth. To remain within nodding distance of the facts, which run away from you effortlessly. To drive after them living people, who are much more unwilling and in the end disappointing than imaginary ones, who can show up anywhere, adopt any pose, pull off speeches of shattering brevity, and do not lie to you.

Guelph, Ontario. A city on two rivers, close enough to the Great Lakes to get their storms, far enough from Mississauga not to be Toronto , but becoming a suburb of perplexed consciousness all the same.

From thirty thousand feet, and on a clear day, which can take you back two hundred years: maples and elms and beeches blanketing heat-soaked hills of summer, dark twisted rivers in limestone gorges. Fiery hills of fall, white burial mounds of winter. Blue infinite sky, frost-chilled horizon, fierce glare and silence... Tracks of elk, moose, wolves, bears indistinguishable from so high. Smoke from Indian fires.

Southern Ontario: a rusting ploughblade parting the waters of these last bodies of glacial melt, Huron, Erie, Ontario. When Canada was Kanata.

Meadows, that turned into pastures; the pastures, into fields of oats and half-wild wheat blown by cool breezes, hot breezes, up against leafy, drooping chestnuts. The distant ringing of axes. Little towns named Berlin, London, Heidelberg. Blacksmiths, tanners, masons, cabinet-makers, brewers, barbers, piano-tuners, and undertakers--the surest sign that life is becoming a society. Hops, tobacco leaves were gathered in, smoked hams and fresh-baked loaves laid out on blankets on creek banks, a little scripture was read. Sturdy, callused fingers, broken nails tracing the print. Afterwards, aromatic clusters of gooseberries over the banks were picked like grapes, softly crushing in straw hats... The wind, blowing against the shuttered houses, rattling the apple trees. Iron pots. Aprons. Herb tea. Early dark. The forests, turning the colours of Indian corn. Harvest moons. And in the spring, after the snow had melted, more cart-roads were pushed further into the forests. Men with double-headed axes, in damp linen shirts, horses in traces. Broken shade of beechwoods. Indians in smoky robes, looking on. Iroquois, Huron. Their dark, heavy, oiled faces. Their rivers, sacred hills.

If you walk up through the narrow gorges of the Speed you can observe from the slab-like formations of the limestone how natural it was for the settlers to use stone even for small houses. With these easily quarried blocks they built most of Wyndam Street , many stables, at least six churches, the footbridge across the Eramosa.

The photographs of old Guelph in the Priory bar, where you can watch sports all day and all night, American football, baseball: the horse-drawn wagons pulled up outside the stone hotels. Dusty summer heat, the clanging of hammers on anvils, the hiss of shovels biting into sand for mortar, the puff of lime from sacks; the creaking of heavy doors, the whap of coats flung over a rail, the scuff of shoe leather in sawdust, the gurgle of beer pouring out of kegs into tall glasses, the mildly spritzing foam. Outside, the streetcars, clanking across the Speed and up Gordon Street under overhanging chestnuts to the university, then just an agricultural college. On Saturday nights, the students who crowded on without paying the fare and going down the hill they tried to rock it off the rails.

Box-camera photographs, taken by a walrus-mustachioed man crouching under a black hood, his deft fingers groping for the nickeled knobs, a short man sweating in worsted and scratchy woollen pants. Expressions of homely respect, sympathy even, for the dead. For the hard life, for early death, for wives who coughed up blood, feverish and sad at twenty-two, for children bitten by foxes and buried six weeks later in wooden crates behind the farm, for badly handled axes, rusty spikes, for waking with the dawn and lighting candles at dusk, for stained sweat-bands round a hat, for lake and river ice delivered wrapped in straw, blue hunks of coolness on a placid afternoon, for horseshit out in the yellow dust.

No photographs of the former Indian graveyard on the hill where the Catholics built their cathedral among maples and wild roses. Desecrated a little bit more by an enormous parking lot. Thought preferable by later citizens to grass, shade, or trees. The venerated asphalt. Fat pale-faced triple-chinned patriarchs and matriarchs in black who wish to be respected by their neighbours hoisting themselves out of their big Detroit cars by the front steps in order to save themselves the waddle from the parking lot. Their big family weddings. Their pride. Their old country.

The broad white steps dropping from the Catholic church three flights down to the intersection of Gordon and MacDonnell Streets. Gordon Street, swooping up from the Farmer's Market, a concrete and asphalt canyon reverberating with heavy cargo traffic bound for Kitchener, formerly Berlin. At the bottom of the steps the Virgin Mary, praying over the tricky intersection. Kitty-corner across the intersection, the Albion Hotel, relic, where once the horseshit lay outside sinking back into dust. Wrought iron balconies and fire escapes overhanging the roaring pavement of today and tomorrow. Three stories of grey limestone, square high-ceilinged rooms with cast-iron radiators and worn carpets rented by the week to single men on the way down. In the bar downstairs, glasses of beer stand on the yellow-varnished tables scorched by the black caterpillars of neglected cigarettes. In the upstairs bar, the bands. The music above the traffic. Red curtains in sleepless rooms. The gassy red and green neon hanging from the corner of the building, where the sidewalk comes up past the outdoor tables on MacDonnell Street . The blue streetlights taking the rise and fall, the mild roller coaster swoop down to the river, which you cannot see.

What you can see: the fifth-hand Cadillacs with minor mobsters or samples of patent leather shoes in the trunk yachting over the hump, past hotels of no distinction, the Diplomat, the King Edward, the illuminated green plastic awning of a taxi stand. Walking past in the dark, glance in at the dispatchers sitting in their glass-fronted cubby-holes like circus fat ladies. They sit that way until dawn.

Next door, a grill-cafe with japanned tables and art work hung on wires. Student artists, good artists. A place to get out of the rain. On sunny days dark and foreboding. Keep looking out at the empty street. In the evenings, the young cooks and waiters hanging out after their shifts cling to the barstools, chat, smoke, and read the heavies.

But drinking beer on the grass between the flights of white steps up the Catholic hill at night all you see is the green awning, the ugly neon above the ugly stores, the cars taking the hump down to the Eramosa. Where, some hundred and fifty years ago, Guelph was founded. One John Galt, enterprising Scotsman, who got down off his horse and ceremoniously axed a tree.

No trees there now. A railway bridge. Multi-tier parking lot of a shopping centre fronting on Wyndam where elderly people in running shoes and nylon jackets pass their evenings on slatted wooden benches under the ornamental ficus listening to Muzak. Urban architects' conceptions of trees that can grow out of terra cotta, cast no shade, and make the spiced candle and brass-ladle shops seem real. Blindingly white illuminated drug stores.

The lost history of rivers and hills. Roads as straight as a fall from these thirty thousand feet. The plunging sensation of driving the endless monotony. The moraine hills, the up and down. Dirt, bush, ponds. Weathered barns on white-washed stone foundations, blue metal silos studding the fields, armless windmills. The pestilential stink of dog-food factories. Cows, their muzzles buried in clover. The pioneer graveyards surrounded by expressways. Roads laid out in a grid to give the farms straight edges, to define the wealth. An anaesthetised, strapped-down land, a labyrinth in which anyone can point to the exits: Detroit, Buffalo, Montreal. Not a shopping mall. Its destruction not destruction if money changes hands. Holy Grail. Northern Ontario --still virgin. Oh, yes. Go see. Walk a few hundred yards off the Trans-Canada highway, take a good look. Grey dusty jagged stumps uprooted by all-destroying drag chains. Potemkin village. You drive past it every day. Means jobs. Economy. Oh, yes. Where will this lead. To a people as unnatural and constrained as the landscape, which only at the end, in their mutual extermination, will they remember best.

The value of silence, which is losing its character of spring winds across melting snowfields, the great white pockfaced moon crackling its silver whisper over the stubble fields, bare empty chairs by an open window on hot and empty summer afternoons, and is becoming the noise the television makes when the station goes off the air. If that even happens any more.

Shallow, dirty rivers that have lost their origins and their destinations. Through dry lakes of shade under the summer trees. The Speed, flecked with bubbles from battery acids, detergents, the outwash from commercial laundries. The Eramosa, flowing down to it through the wooded grounds of a sanatorium, past the ruin of the mill, a railway siding, under the stone footbridge by the Anglican church; then under squat, ugly, functional bridges including the railway bridge, past the back walls of factories, and finally a rushing pebble-bottomed curve behind the malodorous back alley of a shopping mall. The ducks there in winter, paddling vigorously among shopping carts and half-submerged rubber tires, quacking in the fog. Mist mostly from the outwash. Wide slow delta, maples overhanging the far bank. Canada geese standing on their wingtips in the early winter morning sun, as white as the ice creeping out from the drooping, snow-capped reeds. Away across a field, the green onion dome of the Ukrainian church. The bruised sky of summer storms. Big drops plashing into the leaves. Run, run for home.

The Farmers' Market, on the old Huron Trail, sunk under a railway overpass. Long low yellow-painted stone warehouse. Saturday morning, barrels of apples, combs of honey. Second-hand paperbacks that make your fingers grimy. Brown bottles of vitamins. Flies on bloody hunks of meat, kegs of white cheese. Doughnuts in bubbling oil. Home-baked bread: flat, soda-tasting loaves. Out back, in the early morning sunshine, truckloads of potatoes, leeks, tomatoes, flowers. Farmers in rubber boots. Frosted breath in fall. Hot cider.

The railway siding on the Eramosa, backing up to the stone ice-rink, at present of uncertain function but slated as a cultural centre once the city converts the west bank of the Eramosa into a shady place, which will involve tearing down the bohemian firetraps on the south side of the Anglican church. Separated from these dwellings by the base of the stone footbridge like the bridge at Mostar in Bosnia . Rising in a short flat trajectory over the usually deserted train tracks, sinking in its longer span across the water into leafy maples that lean out from the shore, shading a few peeling skiffs, and cloaking the red-brick houses mounting the hillside. Houses in which gooseberry pies brown in wood-burning ovens. Ginger tea in old stone crocks, oatmeal cookies crumbling in the mouth as though they had been held over the steam of the tea. The grey stone of the bridge, where you lean thinking of this, of whether it really is so. A beautiful thing in all seasons, the bridge. It cannot have been cheap, and it cannot have been functional. Dry and warm bone in the kite-flying heat, floating over the sun on the brown water in the evening, slippery with stiff frost-furred leaves in an early morning fog, under snow its architecture traced in the dark, then damp with slush on those windy, blue, cloud-scudding days when out walking to visit a friend you realise it has become too warm for even a jacket.

On the way home, the boxcars down below, yellow boxcars, rusty red. Grain pool. Read a book pressed flat on the broad balustrade.

Fall comes. Yellowing leaves blown onto the bridge, big rushing trees of the sanatorium. The lighted windows up the hillside. More speculations: polished wooden floors reflecting a candlelight glow, Christmas catalogues, roast turkey in the oven, pumpkin pie with whipped cream made runny by the spicy heat, an old deck of cards expertly and paternally shuffled. A teenage pregnancy spoiling it all.

The moralistic furore over the naked genitalia of the green bronzes in the fountain where the streetcars once circled St George's Square. A man and woman, leaping after their laughing baby, which they have tossed aloft. This hot, shadeless square on summer afternoons, reeking with the diesel fumes of buses. Slender young maples under the windows of the Bank of Montreal, rectangular stone cube that as evening comes pours out light through tall windows hung like banners at Nuremberg . The fly-killer blue neon. The misshapen drunks slumped on the benches under a blue-patinaed sky.

The smell of the summer evening is composed partly of real air blowing in from the countryside, and partly of the enormous volume of subtly-mixed compounds that waft out on the air-conditioning from the shopping centre, built to bring life back to the centre of the town: spiced candles (winter-rose, vanilla, black-cherry), varnished wickerwork, synthetic fabrics, coffee-beans, apple turnovers, pet-shop cages, the waxy leaves of the ficus, the cool sterile toothpasty odours of the drugstores. Across the square, the prairie silo skyline of the insurance building which has housed its service rooms on the roof to maximise floor space; necessitated by a law that states no building can be higher than the Catholic church. See it on the hill. Silhouetted in the dusk like Batman's head.

The wild chest-high ryegrass by the Speed where it flows through the Italian Ward before the Eramosa joins it below the Ukrainian church. The twanging wire whirring of grasshoppers, the gravel path hard on your thin-soled street shoes. Going back out to the much-tarred pavement, the sleepy wind-stirred trees, the softball games in progress. The brightly-lit diamonds in the summer dusk. Players leaning against a gas-guzzler, waiting for their game. Not talking much. Their impassive, heavy faces. Their backs bulging through their striped uniforms. A few thin nervously smoking wives with them, in tight blue jeans and high heels, their arms crossed defensively. Sheer maleness of taciturn warriors with beer bellies.

The stylised, somewhat dubious stories the rummies get up to tell at the A. A. chapel on Morris Street. Waking up five thousand miles from where they last screwed the cap off a bottle of wine. The last thing they remember was standing by a jukebox listening to a song about El Paso . That's where they came to, a week later, in jail. Not in Rosa 's Cantina, not on a horse. No idea how they got there. Contrite admissions of an unholy spirit. Have to place yourself in the hands of a Higher Being.

Classes of Guelph: bohemian, university, middle, and working, which is mostly lumpen proletariat liberally stiffened with recidivists. Vast pool hall clientele. Bikers, run-away waitresses, strippers, all-night donut shop explainers. Street-ranters, drunken neighbours who can argue for one whole weekend, in between stumbling bouts at the Diplomat, above and beyond the ricocheting whine of bullets in box canyons on the eternal television, about one bottle of allegedly stolen wine, red. Middle class: bisexual, Satanic dabblers over bedroom altars. Crystal-pendant toters, skateboarders crouching around St George's Square in the dusk, gentle couples who came of age to the Grateful Dead and Thomas Pynchon waking early on Saturday morning and walking down to the Farmers' Market and not allowing their teenage son to cut his hair until he reaches the age of responsibility and can sport the brushcut that his friends wear. University: professors, students, the usual joys of brilliant youth.

Bohemians of Guelph: all of the above, plus cafe chess players, Sunday brunchers, and ten thousand musicians. Of many poses, many intentions, disputable and indisputable talent. Contextual complexity, insincere distortions, sheer faddism. If you hang a canvas in Guelph, sculpt an orange blob, or recite a haiku while kneeling on soup cans, the only people who will be there for it are those who did the same thing, in the same place, the day before. To collect a crowd of one hundred boys and girls, announce artistic event in upstairs bar of the Albion, call it a benefit gig, and charge five dollars at the door. You will make five hundred dollars in five minutes and will not be seen, listened to or set on fire, unless you do it yourself.

The dazed nature of maleducated people. Making with their crossed arms and legs a refuge from formlessness. Without certainties, but without fatalisms either. Their huddled postures, in poorly lit rooms in the middle of an endless plain of night painted by Bosch. What one admires is the courage of those who walk out into it, for reasons of their own. Unfortunately one only hears of them afterwards. And one is still enveloped by a vague dusk of fear.

The frustration on the other hand that results from being the one who makes the excuses for the others' failure to live up to their small enough responsibilities, which you in any case have also invented.

Athletes: hockey, football, baseball. Few poses, unknown intentions, varied complexity. Limited comprehensibility to anyone not an athlete.

Restricted comprehensibility: distinguishes a society of many poses, manifold intentions, indefinable complexity, and steadily diminishing mutual regard among its self-regarding tribes.

Foreigners who speak the same language. Do not know each other unless they profess the same idolatry. Drugs, crystals, live bands imitating dead ones.

To measure--to guess at--your own limitations in attempting to judge this: the right hand that draws the left, which draws the right....

One begins with a sketch, a street shaded in with the edge of the pencil lead, and ends up with the Albion, the outdoor tables with the view of the top of the lilac-stuccoed wall sloping down to Carden Street, bottles of beer on the shaky plastic tables; faces whose confusion and joy we can only afterwards, when this has all collapsed into tourism, trace by the vaguest of lines.

Where are the streets still overhung by ancient groves. Named after the old country: Oxford, Dublin, Glasgow, Cork, Edinburgh. Stone houses. Autumn fog. Rocking chairs on verandas. Stained glass windows diabolically inserted by Freemasons. Creaking hardwood floors, archways dividing rooms, bats chittering in the upstairs hallway.

Other streets handed over to commercial traffic: concrete and asphalt sluiceboxes. So that a cookie made in Toronto can be sold in Windsor. A city that boasts of its calendar scenes in fall, its mist-in-the-maples beauty while simultaneously destroying that beauty.

The intention of City Hall to widen Gordon Street to relieve the congestion caused by heavy trucks using it as a short-cut to Kitchener rather than the Hanlon by-pass to the west intended for just that but whose utility was spoiled by stop-light intersections introduced after strip development spread not only beyond the Hanlon but on its banks as well thus preventing overpasses to the suburbs, in short botched by the hottentots in City Hall. Widening Gordon Street will only drain even more traffic off the Hanlon and into the city. Sophisticated intelligence, or crude manipulation by the construction and realty firms who ruined the Hanlon and now have naked shining visions of the infinite: three miles of fried chicken and rubber tire outlets through the heart of the town.

Gordon Street splits the university in two, therefore the university opposes this scheme. Unfortunately they cannot be counted on for ethical or moral guidance in general as their faculties for abstract reasoning nowadays tend to studies in pragmatism. Corporate structure. Profit motive. Referring in brochures to their agro-industrial graduates as products of a four year program. No one minding this. Blue-suited round-bodied men with eggs for faces. Gaga. Hallucinatory. The government you deserve.

The sweltering afternoon at a holistic festivity out in the Arboretum behind the university when the doors of the pavilion were locked thus sealing off the water fountains inside in order to increase the sales of the refreshment concessionaire.

Trying to eat lunch at the University Centre, built by student subscription, then pirated by the Administration, who now rent it to various profit-gouging chain stores. Red plastic chairs at red plastic tables under red plastic lights hanging in red plastic grape clusters. Caesar salad: bitter, juiceless lettuce ends, artificial bacon bits, artificial powdered parmesan. The pale smiling girl in her synthetic uniform standing under tube-lights who transacts this onto your paper plate. For a good twenty percent more than it costs at the Student Co-op in the smoky, crowded basement of Massey Hall, whose food is real, abundant and juicy, and whose profitable operations the Administration, simultaneously engaged in battling the Co-op Bookstore over the unprofitably low rent gotten from book sales, is trying to seize by threatening not to renew its lease.

Outside the heat, and the uninterpretable crowd.

The disintegration of the sense of belonging to a community, which gives a person ethical perspectives. The diabolical ugliness of places like Kitchener. Parking lot after parking lot around shopping mall after shopping mall. How can anyone feel rooted in that. Government by real estate speculators.

The woman researcher at the university who remarked on leaving her house outside Heidelberg early on winter mornings while it was still dark, not returning until after dark in the evening, and so never having to see or speak to her neighbours: how pleasant that was for her.

The American proverb: after three days, fish and guests stink.

The possibility of a book without an audience. Any audience. Any book.

To sit quietly in a monkish pose, a cool spring wind at your back, a view of maple woods on pale blue hills. Self-absorption and yet selfless devotion of the ascetic. Lie back on a pillow of apple blossoms as white as the bitten fruit. Chilled white wine sparkling, a winter sunset in a breast of glass. Forget this evening walk down abandoned streets, through deserted parks.

Rainy summer nights. Dripping from the trees, running down the plastic awning thrown over the outdoors patio of the Albion .

Upstairs in the dance bar, Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet. Their fast clean guitar, something like The Ventures. No lyrics. The crowd swaying at the back, the bartop wiped down, a few forty-fives laid out for display, covers designed by the band. Coming down to fog in the streets. R., who lives in the hotel when not swabbing barges in the Arctic, stumbling up in ragged greenish sweat-pants, a thin checkered cowboy shirt, fresh from a dance at the Ranch Stampede. The two bottom buttons of his shirt undone. No t-shirt. His broad rough good-natured face sweaty, wild, unfocussed. Brushcut. Sturdy knees pressing together no matter what. Thinking the bricks extruding from the wall were part of an abacus. Shouting like a half-back, throwing himself head-first against the orange wire-mesh fence keeping passers-by from falling into dug-up MacDonnell Street. An hour later, in front of the Chinese restaurant, he lies on his back on a manhole cover, shakes his legs, and waits for it to rise forty feet into the air on a blast of steam.

Sunny cool days that follow. Sitting at the outdoor patio of the Albion . Smell of gravel and dust from the torn-up street. The late sunlight on the blue wall sloping down to Carden. R. happening by in Tahiti shorts and green prescription sunglasses. A friend talking about her four years in a small Saskatchewan town. Hoping to find a community she could belong to. Fighting to be accepted. The ice-box winters of Watreus.

R. butts in: What's Watreus? A thawed-out waitress? Har-har for three minutes. His hippopotamus laugh, mouth wide open and little glinting eyes atop a hot-whiskey flavoured roaring.

Out in the street again, you see people who have been in traffic accidents.

Reasons to be cheerful.

Saturdays in summer bicycling through the sunny park by the Speed towards the Hanlon, pushing your police auction clunker where the crushed gravel path ends in tufty grass peeping out of golden pitch-forked cattle dung. The wind ripples the river, turns parts of it into coppery sheets; a dead basswood stands grey against the blue sky, shading a trickling ditch spanned by a large cement pipe crossing it only inches above a dozen tadpoles sunning in a shallow pool. You crouch, lay down the bike; on the grass sloping to the water, the white breasts of the gulls ruffled by the breeze that moves the shore reeds, their bellies grey as slate in their own shadows: twelve or thirteen gulls standing perfectly still, staring back at you. It's like The Birds. Beyond the green tops of the trees, peacock tails in the wind, across a road down which motorcyclists in black leather speed, the church on the mapled hill.

Walking in the Arboretum. Through sunglasses, the oat-coloured fields studded with silver maples, birches. The sky green as the algae-covered pond at the edge of the wood where zoology students are sent with butterfly nets and vials to collect samples of murky, teeming water. The sun hot on your neck, it scorches your back through your t-shirt. When you turn your head to take in the meadows, the coppery willows sticking out of the matted straw, it slices your face, your cheek, and you raise your hand as though shielding yourself from a hot wind.

In the shade of the wood, the silvery white bark of the poplars, pushed into everbending bows by the prevailing wind. Faint, rustling mysticism of the unexplained that draws you there.

Later, when you have come out into the fields, you can walk with your hands in your pockets, down through the fields to a creek spanned by a wooden footbridge much too big for it. The mists pool there in the evening. You wade into it, your calves chilling, knees, chest. Across the creek, the fields sloping up to a hillside behind which hunkers the heating plant of the university. The sun sinking behind the hill in winter, lighting up the feather of steam from the chimney, leaving you in a sudden dusk: your nose tingling, your jaw stiffening as you look up at the darkening hillside the snow bluish-white between the spruce, crowned by a sky of incandescent azure. Like something from De Chirico, a tremendous elemental perspective that takes you bodily into a sense of the infinite.

The eclipse of the moon. August, 1989? Sitting behind the Ukrainian church, by the delta of blackening water broken by the stalks of reeds. Looking aside while the sun crackled and rustled into the fiery maples. Later the moon, the white-dusted moon. The shadow of the earth, darkening the blue, until the moon was as blood-orange as the leaves of the maples.

Guelph and its share of eclipses, of every kind of half-darkness.

The impossibility of writing about this without falsifying, distorting, or revealing the wrong things. Following someone who is too far ahead on the Escher staircase.

But: the early morning summer sun in the currant-jelly leaves over the clean white steps down the catholic hill when even the taxi dispatchers have gone to bed.

Spring, and the light changing. Especially in the evening walking home from the university, down across the bridge and through the park, the snow wind-hardened around the trunks of the maples. First, dazzling and molten off the rotting ice, pitted under the splashing splayed webbed feet of the ducks waddling dripping after handfuls of corn snatched from the laboratory seed sacks. Then, off the barely rippling current, beginning to blacken and smoulder.

With true spring, and the snow gone, it was warm enough to stop there, to lie on your back on the stone embankment, fold your arms over your chest for the extra warmth, and through the tiny new leaves unfurling above you watch the sky darken into a renaissance blue, a blue that needed a touch of gold that never came.


Anton Baer's (http://about.me/AntonBaer) work has appeared in Zymergy Literary Review, Prairie Crossing and A Capella Zoo. His short story "Germany, 1946" was broadcast on CBC Radio. Born in Canada, Anton Baer currently lives in Czech Republic.


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