The Montréal Review, May 2011
"North West Blues" (oil on canvas 54x84") by
Ian McKenna's brother-in-law, Brian, was suddenly in the doorway of his study, a cigarette in one hand, a slab of Eleanor's homemade pizza in the other. Ian looked up from his typewriter, startled. When he saw that it was Brian, he sighed.
"TV says it was the worst storm in ten years. Forty-eight inches, almost, in thirty-six hours," Brian said, folding the pizza in half and inserting it whole into his mouth. He wore greasy jeans low on his hips, or where his hips would have been if he'd had any. He disposed of the pizza with remarkably little chewing, wiping his fingers on his sweatshirt whose sleeves were cut off at the shoulders. His shoulders, upper arms, and forearms were covered with bruises--like bruises on fallen apples--from pulling out and replacing foreign car engines. There was a good six-inches of hairy white overhanging belly between his sweatshirt and the unbelted waist of his jeans. "Ellie wants to know when you're coming out to eat. She says she can't keep the pizza warm forever."
"In a little while, tell her. As soon as I finish this page." Ian began typing again, forcing a serious expression on his face to convince Brian that this was important business he was up to, nothing to be taken lightly. Brian lowered himself heavily into the bentwood rocker, Ian's favorite chair, and butted his cigarette in the clean ashtray on Ian's desk. Ian hadn't smoked in two years.
"What are you writing this time, Ian? Spy stuff? Detective story? What?"
"No, none of that." Ian typed furiously.
"Not that romance shit, I hope. Polly's always reading that crap. Can't get enough of it."
Ian kept punching away without answering his brother-in-law.
"You ever read Dune? I think it's the best book ever written." Ian had not read it, but he told Brian that he had.
"Brian, be a good guy and tell Ellie I'll be right out."
"Sure thing." Brian hoisted himself out of the rocker straining its weakest parts audibly. Ian winced.
In the kitchen, Eleanor attacked pizza dough with a rolling pin; she would spread it out to a foot or so in diameter only to have it shrink back to the size of a pancake. She had on Ian's red flannel shirt, sleeves rolled to the elbow, her hands floured to the wrists. She had flour in her hair from pushing it back behind her ears. A drop of sweat poised on the end of her nose. To Ian she looked comical, but he didn't laugh. His wife did not like to be laughed at.
"Why don't you try tossing it in the air the way they do down at Angelo's?"
"Why don't you keep pigs?"
"It seems that I do. If you listen you can hear them rutting in the other room."
"Don't start on me, Ian. I'm not in the mood. Have a look in the oven. What you'll find is dried out pizza. Inedible dried out pizza that was made for you an hour ago. So now another must be prepared for his..." The phone rang.
"Olivia!" His wife gave him a look that told him she would prefer to talk privately with Olivia. It had been a long time since he'd heard her name.
Brian and his bovine girlfriend, Polly, were in a clinch on the living room floor. They paid no attention to Ian. He sat down with a magazine and tried to put them out of his mind. Polly straddled Brian's lower back and put her hands up under his sweatshirt, trying, unsuccessfully, to get him to react to her tickling. Brian apparently was not ticklish. Ian cleared his throat. Brian flipped her over and took top position. He began tickling Polly who was ticklish. She let out convulsive little yelps. Ian decided to take his chances back in the kitchen.
Eleanor signaled for a lighted cigarette. He lit one off the front burner of the stove and opened the oven door for a look at the inedible pizza. It looked dry enough, but not inedible.
"That would be wonderful, Liv, but we can't. Company. My brother and his .friend. No, you've never met him. They got stranded here last night because of the storm. Oh, no. We couldn't. It would be too much of an imposition."
"What would be too much of an imposition?" Ian whispered, inserting the cigarette between Eleanor's lips.
"Just a second, Liv." She covered the mouthpiece with her floured hand. "It's Olivia Schwartz. You remember her from Art History?"
"Of course. How is she?"
"Fine. She's at her parents' ski lodge in Vermont. She wants us to come up for the weekend. Tonight."
"So what's the imposition if she's inviting us?"
"She's inviting all of us."
"I told her all of us would be too much for her."
"I couldn't agree more. The two of them are too much for me."
"Liv? You still there? Sorry to keep you hanging on. Darling, we'd love to come up but . Oh, Liv, you're so gracious, but we simply couldn't. Liv . Are you absolutely sure? Can you hold on another sec? Ian, she insists we bring along Brian and Polly. I know her. She means it."
"Why don't we send them home and go up by ourselves?"
"She knows they're here with us. She wouldn't hear of us not bringing them along."
"How do you think Olivia is going to react to Brian? What'll she think when he starts to break wind, when he reaches down the front of his jeans ."
"Ian, just shut up."
"Do you really think Olivia would want to put up with their antics?"
"We'll warn them beforehand to behave themselves. They're nineteen years old, for God's sake. Look, I can't keep Olivia hanging on the line forever. What do you want to do? It's all the same to me if we don't go. I really wouldn't want to impose on Olivia and Todd. You make the decision."
"Friend of Olivia's. I think he's a homosexual. One of her offbeat friends from New York. What do you say? Whatever you decide. I mean it."
"What the hell. Why not? The roads are clear and anything's better than being trapped here with them. But you've got to lay it on the line to Li'l Abner and Daisy Mae before we go. And get good directions. I don't want to end up in Ottawa?"
"Are you sure, Ian?"
"Yeah, yeah," he said, taking the pizza out of the oven.
"Hello, Liv. I guess you can expect us, then. Are you sure this won't be too much for you? Absolutely sure? How wonderful! I've thought about you so much lately. You'll have to give directions. You know Ian. Yes, I know where Killington is ."
Ian returned to the living room to find Brian and Polly writhing in a passionate embrace.
"Do you think you guys could break clean for a minute? Something has come up. Sorry, poor choice of words." They fell apart and looked impassively at him. Polly, one dimpled arm draped across Brian's substantial middle, turned an adoring gaze on his face. Brian was recumbent, his upper lip dirtied by a post-pubescent mustache, his head resting on his fist. "Something has come up, indeed, dear hearts. But don't let anything I say influence any plans you might have to return home this evening."
"So what's come up?" Brian asked. "We don't have any plans." Polly stroked the inside of his thigh. This tender gesture had no visible effect on Brian.
"A friend of your sister called to invite us up to Vermont, to her ski lodge for the weekend. All of us, alas."
"Cool," said Brian.
"Cool," echoed Polly.
"Yes. How nice. There are a few things we have to talk about before we leave, however."
"Like what?" Brian rolled over on his back, Polly moving with him like another appendage.
"Your sister will explain everything."
Ian returned to the kitchen just as Eleanor was hanging up. She had a nervous smile on her face.
"I'm so excited." Eleanor embraced herself. "It's been so long since I've seen Olivia. I was beginning to think she'd forgotten me."
"She still a professional student? Still bedding down the faculty?"
"No," Eleanor said in a cold voice, and walked out of the kitchen. Ian sensed another impending argument that needed averting. He had been dodging arguments with her for the past three or four days. He had begun to worry, to think that there was something deeply wrong, so wrong that he was afraid of looking at it square in the face.
Yesterday, for example, he had asked her in all earnestness what she was reading. She told him it was none of his business. When she caught him peeking at the cover she slammed the book shut and stalked out of the room. Later, she told him that he was always criticizing everything she read, maybe not in so many words, but his attitude, an attitude she likened to a curled upper lip, told her he was judging, and she was tired of it. Lately, if he asked her to read something he had just written she would change the subject, chastise him for not picking up after himself, or remind him that he wasn't pulling his weight in the "division of labor" they had agreed upon in the discharge of household chores. If he didn't eat like a starving Asian a meal she had spent hours preparing, she accused him of being precious. If he complained about her, pointed out to her that she never flushed the toilet after peeing, always squeezed the toothpaste from the middle of the tube, never replaced the cap, he was characterized as a prig. Everything he did, or said, it seemed, inspired her to argument or to tears. When he expressed dismay at her behavior, his wife told him that for a person who aspired to be a writer, he was sorely lacking in perceptiveness, in introspection.
Now, Olivia was back on the scene. He thought he had seen the end of her when they moved away after college. Who but Olivia would call after all this time to casually invite them to her house for the weekend?
"I broke the news to the love birds. Told them you'd be chatting with them about decorum. They didn't decline the invitation, of course."
"Wouldn't you have been pleased if they had," Eleanor declared. Ian reached for a hunk of dried pizza, more to keep himself from saying anything than to satisfy his hunger.
"I'd be willing to let them have the apartment to themselves for the weekend. They could screw themselves silly and we could go to Vermont by ourselves. Who knows, maybe we would even have a good time," Ian said with his mouth full.
Eleanor's floured nostrils actually flared, and her upper lip quivered as she brushed past him. He followed her into the bedroom and watched while she silently packed an overnight bag.
Brian and Polly had nothing to pack, having brought nothing with them except their hearty sexual appetites. They were still going at it on the floor when Ian came in the room to remind them that the car would have to be shoveled out before they could go anywhere. They assented cheerfully, and got into their coats: Brian's, an oil-stained jacket adorned with patches advertising shock absorbers, spark plugs, oil filters, and head gaskets; Polly slipped on a red and black checked wool poncho. They frolicked down the stairs, carefree and libidinous as puppies. From the window, Ian watched Brian pick up Polly and hold her over his head like a wrestler preparing for a body slam, before depositing her gently, head first, into a snow drift. They played in the snow for awhile, then Brian, under Polly's loving eye, began to dig out Ian's Renault.
The world was swaddled in the record snowfall Brian had said the TV had reported. Eleanor was impressed:
"It is just so beautiful, so pristine! Look at the sky! Every star in the galaxy is out tonight."
"They're out every night, Ellie. And every day. This is a good seeing night," said Brian the astronomer and literalist. Ian, who always had to have the Big Dipper pointed out to him, saw the sky and the stars as so much chaos.
"Squelch the romance, why don't you," Eleanor said, good-naturedly.
"Where's the Big Dipper, Brian?" Brian earnestly directed Ian's attention to Polaris, the North Star, which constitutes the first star of the handle of Ursa Minor, the Little Dipper, then to look east to find the Big Dipper, Ursa Major. Part of the constellation Draco, which means dragon, separates them. Brian knew his constellations, and Ian feared he would share all he knew on the trip north.
"And a little later, in the western quadrant, we should be able to see Pegasus, Pisces, Aries, Cetus ."
"I'm an Aries," Polly chirped. "What are you, Ian?"
"Penguin. What do you say we get going. It's got to be a two, two and a half hour drive."
Brian had done a first-rate job of clearing the driveway, cutting a tunnel just wide enough for Ian's car. Brian's own car, a VW, remained buried in snow. From the road he waved Ian out between two hillocks of snow like an aircraft carrier flagman. The engine turned over on the first try, but Ian had to work hard to get the car in gear, worrying that the shift lever might break off in his hand if he tried to force it into reverse. Brian assured him that this was not likely to happen, and Brian knew his foreign cars as well as he knew his constellations.
In the street, they piled into the creaking little car, breath frosting up the windshield. Ian scratched it off like mica with his fingernails.
"We ought to have heat in a hundred miles or so. In the meantime, it might be best if nobody breathed." Turning to the back seat, he said, "And that goes double for heavy breathing." Brian's attention was on the southern horizon; Polly attached herself to his back like a red and black panda.
"Ian, we really should stop as soon as we get to a high point and take a look at the southern quadrant. We should see Orion, Lepus, Columba, Canis Major, maybe even Canopus."
"No time, my boy." Ian had a maniacal aversion to stopping for anything except nature or fuel before he reached his destination. Eleanor and Brian, on the other hand, would have him stop whenever anything along the road-a constellation in the southern horizon, an animal Eleanor suspected of being injured, or any shop advertising antiques-caught their fancy.
"You are such a bore," his wife said. He put his hand on her lap and whispered,
"Still angry at me?" She looked straight ahead, and did not reply. He took his hand away and said, "You sure you got those directions straight? What exit do we take off I89?" His sense of direction was as acute as his knowledge of the stars, and he was forever getting lost, sometimes even in familiar surroundings. To prove to his wife that he wasn't a bore, Ian pulled the car over at the rise of the first steep hill, and they all got out for a look at Brian's southern horizon. Brian explained like a college professor the configurations of all the constellations he had promised they would see, ticking off Orion's stars-Betelgeuse, Rigel, Saiph, Bellatrix-as if they were the names of his buddies down at the garage. Ian was grudgingly impressed. Eleanor was proud of her little brother, and Polly, of course, adored her man even more.
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Michael Burns is a retired teacher living in rural New Hampshire. He is the author of three novels in print, "Gemini", "Where You Are", and "Gemini's Blood." His fourth novel is being edited at present.