Over the last half-year, I’ve had various friends/peers/strangers ask to read my short stories “Ballad of a Thin Man” and “Wild Rover,” which were published in Lake Effect 10. After The Queen’s Journal published my postscript, “Living honestly, writing authentically: Learning to be truthful with myself,” requests to read “Ballad of a Thin Man” only increased.
For a long time, I was selling and lending out copies of the anthology to people (which if you can get your hands on, I highly recommend doing so—all of the work published in there is fabulous), but it’s become slightly impossible considering the limited print run of LE10. I’ve included both scans of how my work appears in Lake Effect and the text of the stories themselves, so feel free to click the links below to choose your reading experience.
These pieces mean a lot to me, and it means a lot that you’re reading them.
Ballad of a Thin ManBallad-of-a-Thin-Man-in-Lake-Effect-10
Ballad of a Thin Man
Before she died, my mother gave me a record player. I didn’t know anything about music, but I always wanted one.
My father gave me his vinyl copy of Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited after Mom died, before he moved out of our old family home. He told me that he lost his record player, that he was giving me Highway 61 because he didn’t know what else to do with it and “you have a record player and I don’t,” but I knew why he really gave it to me. There was an unbearable amount of sentiment attached to that record, just as there were too many memories humming in the air of our old house for staying to be possible. The stains on the couch, the rusted door hinges—that smell—the unignorable, personal characteristics of a home. The things that weren’t just things, but the things that survived. Too many things lived. I think, generally, far too many things are kept alive for far too long.
My contribution to Dad’s moveout was taking some old furniture: my great grandmother’s armchair and my grandfather’s dresser. The base of the armchair’s fabric is green, accompanied by a light-green floral pattern: potentially hideous, potentially beautiful—depends on the angle. The fabric on the arms is ripped and I tried to cover it with blankets. I’m still not sure why we didn’t throw it to the curb, or why I took it with me. I never met my great grandmother.
I lived alone above a Thai restaurant. Antique furniture and no elevator are not an ideal combo, but I made do. I put my record player on top of my grandfather’s dresser, the green armchair by its side, put on Highway 61 and sat down with a drink.
Highway 61 Revisited, Side 1
Like a Rolling Stone
I remember listening to this song with my father—it was the first time I’d ever heard Dylan. We were sitting in the car when it came on the radio.
“Turn that up,” he said. “This is my favourite song.”
I rotated the volume knob. Dylan talked of dressing up and giving to the homeless, bums and dimes.
Dad took one hand off the wheel to turn it up more. By the end of the first verse, the car’s speakers couldn’t get any louder. Dylan’s enigmatic questions rattled the windows of my father’s 1993 Honda Civic. Notions of vagrancy and freedom bounced off the side mirrors like rolling stones… How would that feel?
My father kept readjusting his hands on the steering wheel. He stroked it with his thumbs, clenched it as hard as he could, then caressed it with his thumbs again. “Before she died, I would listen to this song… I would imagine that I was free.”
I was silent.
“I shouldn’t have said that. I’m sorry.” He turned off the stereo. “Perhaps you can relate now, too.”
I broke up with my girlfriend earlier that year. Long overdue. That’s normal, though. It would be irregular for one to throw something away before it expires. It’s human to keep things past their expiration date; it’s easier. In some ways my father and I mirror one another. In my case it was a choice, in his it wasn’t, but a muddy reflection is there, nonetheless. Why do we become our fathers? It wasn’t a purposeful act… or an act at all, really. But was it up to me? Or was the game rigged from the start?
When death did my parents part and Dylan asked my father how it felt, I wonder if he lied in his response.
I think my father is going to die soon. I keep wondering about his tombstone; about tombstones in general. Do people decide what they want on their tombstone before they die? Do they spend time making drafts? Writing, rewriting, forgetting, remembering—perfecting their engraved immortalization, what will live on long after them.
At what age does that happen? When do people decide that it’s time to start thinking about the scripture that will surpass their being? Was it just me that started thinking about it as a child? Or is it more of a gradual realization for most? Or is it instant: do people just wake up one day and think, I need to come up with what’s going on my tombstone?
It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry
I remember their biggest fight. I remember my father crying and my mother not. I remember the smell of burnt fish and the sound of the smoke detector because they were the only reason the argument ended.
From a Buick 6
My father had a 1993 black Honda Civic—no Buick 6, but Dylan’s words speak to it the same way my father would speak to his Civic. He gave it to my brother, though, and it died. My brother lived in Halifax where they tow cars off the street if they expect a lot of snow.
I remember sitting beside my father on the couch when my brother called to confess. Faintly, I heard him say, “The Civic is gone, Dad.”
My father’s brow furrowed. “What do you mean it’s gone?” He stood up and moved to look out the window. “Impounded? … Well, can you get it back? … They’re asking how much? … Oh, dear…”
As a kid, I was so comfortable in that car. My father would put me in the backseat and drive me around the block to get me to fall asleep. The vibrations, the movement, and that sensation of someone moving you from one place to another—where you’re suspended in time, without worry—gave me a certain peace. It still does, which makes me wonder whose sake he was really driving for.
I have memories of sitting in the back, in a booster-seat, after he picked me up from school. I remember the materials: the grey, unclean, fabric finish on the seats and the fake leather on the steering wheel. I remember looking at his hair, straw hat, and oversized sunglasses that fit over his real glasses as he swivelled his head, trying to focus on the road.
When I lost my sunglasses, he insisted that I get a similar pair to his, but I didn’t want to look old like him. I didn’t want to die too soon.
Ballad of a Thin Man
I’ve never put on any consequential weight. I can’t say that I’m dissatisfied with my metabolism—it could be worse—but I can’t say that I’m satisfied either. “Ballad of a Thin Man”: I think thin men tend to write ballads because of their inability to do otherwise. Big men can play sports with their big male friends.
My father was thin too.
Highway 61 Revisited, Side 2
Queen Jane Approximately
My mother had a friend, Clara, who would often babysit me when my parents were away. I was five years old when my father went away for a weekend. I asked my mother why Clara was coming over when she was here.
“Clara has no family, few friends. I like to make her feel like she has a friend,” my mother said.
I was woken up that night by the T.V. downstairs. I remember inching closer to the stairwell and sounds of rustling becoming clearer. Shadows were moving around, separating, becoming one, finicking. I never poked my head over, just saw the shadows and heard the movement and knew that I was too afraid to see what was happening. Even at such a young age, I knew that there would be no coming back if I went down the stairs.
Queen Jane never came over when Dad was home.
Highway 61 Revisited
God told Abraham he wanted his killing done here.
I got up to pour myself another drink.
Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues
Another shot. My fingers are numb.
The doctor won’t tell Dylan what he’s got. Maybe it’s impossible.
I am a record player. If you put an ear close to my needle, a faint, haunting squeal of music is all you can hear. A dying, desolate ringing. The noise that the heart attack machine on Desolation Row makes. A noise that all of us make, if you listen close enough.
Things die. They come, and then they go. Forgotten, then remembered. There were three record shops within five minutes of my apartment. Records: forgotten, then remembered—revived, revisited. When will they die again? When will the cycle stop? When was my mother going to tell my father that the record player he lost was the one that she gave to me?
There it is.
It looks at me through the cage. It looks at me like it knows what I’m thinking, but I know it doesn’t.
It disturbs me. I feel bad for it.
“Here he is!” Carla, my wife, places the cage down. It barks. And then it barks again.
My daughter, Rosie, runs toward the cage. “A puppy!”
It is springtime, the time for new beginnings, for growth—for Rosie’s birthday: her tenth.
I argued with Carla for weeks over it. I told her that I do not want a dog and that I don’t like them. I am allergic and they trigger my asthma. They bark and they poop and they can’t take care of themselves. Rosie is still learning to manage her own barks and poops, let alone another’s. She is too young to take care of it herself, I said. I tried to use money as an excuse but we both know we can afford it, at least I can. But Carla thinks it’s a good lesson and something that will teach responsibility.
Worst of all, it’s a pug. It has short hair, stumpy legs, and a pig’s tail. Its face looks like it has been flattened by a waffle press. Look at that fucking thing.
“Isn’t he cute Dad?”
“He’s adorable, honey.”
It has been a week since it arrived.
Its name is Rover now, apparently. Why Rover? Rosie thinks it sounds cute. All I can think of when I think “Rover” is that Irish folk song “The Wild Rover”:
And it’s No, Nay, never,
No, nay never no more
Will I play the wild rover,
No never no more.
It barks and I lose track of the song in my head. Motherfucker.
Rosie tries to pour food in its bowl, but the bag is too heavy and she pours a mound of kibble that spills onto the floor. “Oops!”
It looks electrified, storms the mound, and uses its smashed skull to bite through as much food as it can before I start scooping it off the floor and back into the bag. I’m not supposed to help her.
Three weeks: that’s all it took for it to become my responsibility. Rosie sleeps in, as she has been doing for the last few days, which means I don’t have to put the purple sweater on it this time. I think Rover and I are both happy about that.
It is yanking, stopping, starting, and jumping, completely oblivious to the tragic length of the tether. We walk for about three minutes and it is already panting. I am panting in my own way, too, and take a puff of my inhaler. I haven’t wheezed like this in years.
It stops to defecate and looks at me, still breathing hard. It looks like it’s smiling, but its eyes tell me something else: they are embarrassed. I turn away.
As we pass a man on the street, it makes sure to smell him.
It wags its tail faster.
“What a good boy! You’re such a good boy!”
I don’t know what to do. I look at the man and smile.
“New to this?”
He points at the bag of poop in my hand. “Those bags suck. They leak. Pay the extra buck for the others. It’ll save that from happening next time.” The bag is tearing.
“What’s his name?”
How long do I let this go on for? “His name? Oh, yes. His name is Rover.”
Rover looks up at me with a mindless smile.
“We have to go now. Have a nice day.”
“Buy those bags!”
We walk away. I mutter “fuck off” and Rover looks happy.
“What do you mean it can’t swim? Can’t dogs swim?”
“Not Rover! He’s a pug!” Rosie screams.
He wouldn’t stop following me, so I decided to put him in our pool. I don’t know why, I guess I was bored, thought it would be funny.
Rover is sprawled out, panting beside the pool. He is a little stunned. I scooped him out when I saw his little legs couldn’t keep up and he started to sink.
“You almost killed my dog!”
“Oh, come on, I was here the whole time! He’s fine!” Rover looks at me with his waffle face, affirming that he has no idea what has happened and holds no grudge.
Rosie’s eyes begin to water.
Rover pants. Is he smiling? Do we think they’re smiling because of Disney movies? Is he just trying to breathe? He walks over to me and starts licking my leg.
Carla comes outside and scolds me.
It has been months now since his arrival. I spend 45 minutes in the shower thinking about how I want to go far, far away and find something new even though I have it all right here—all that we look for—dog, wife, and daughter. It’s all perfect.
In the living room I find Rosie and Rover on the couch.
“Look, Dad, he’s snoring,” Rosie whispers. “Look at his tongue.”
He is sleeping. His small tongue hangs out of his mouth and his eyes are left slightly open. He makes a horrid, congested noise repeatedly. Rosie giggles. “He’s so cute.”
I can’t help but smile. “He’s something!”
He wakes up. I’ve spoken too loudly, but he looks at me adoringly and runs to my feet. He licks my legs.
Rosie looks astonished. “He sure does like you.”
“I guess so.” I look at him. We meet eyes. I can’t tell if he knows everything or nothing at all. I look away.
The snoring wasn’t cute. After the swimming incident I decided to do some research and read online that pugs have extreme breathing problems: they suffer from Brachycephalic Obstructive Airway Syndrome (BOAS). His waffle-pressed face and compact skull make it hard to breathe. The breed’s nostrils are too small for it to get sufficient air or something. That’s the reason he can’t swim—that in combination with stubs for legs. Pugs have to tread so fast that they run out of breath almost instantly. Staying afloat is too stressful.
He pants—gasping because he will never get enough. This animal is bred to suffer.
We meet eyes again.
“Look, listen to this: ‘Neutering eliminates the occurrence of testicular cancer. It markedly reduces the incidence of benign hyperplasia of the prostate gland, prostatitis, and perineal hernias in dogs. Male dogs display hormonally influenced aggression toward each other…”
Carla and I are lying in bed. I am reading The Power of Positive Thinking by Norman Vincent Pealewith with a Rover-like look on my face and she is on her phone looking at “Top Ten Reasons to Spay or Neuter Your Pet.” What would it be like to have my balls chopped off? Would it feel the same as having to live with Rover?
“…male dogs will cease roaming to find a mate because the hormonal urge to do so has been removed.’ It’ll help. He’ll be less work. He’ll be easier for Rosie to handle.”
“No,” I say, surprised by my own words.
“No. I don’t think we should neuter him.”
“Because I wouldn’t want to be neutered.”
“Yeah, but, honey, you’re not a dog. You are a human being. It’s different.”
She chuckles. Her brow furrows. “How so? Hmm… you can love. You love me.” She puts her hand on my thigh.
“I think so.” Her hand moves up.
“He’s not getting neutered.”
She caresses my crotch.
Rover loses in the morning.
I don’t know how long it’s been. I sit outside in a lawn chair by the pool, staring into the water. Someone opens the back door and closes it. I hear a pitter patter coming toward me: Rover appears and lies down. I start to put the leash around his neck, but he just sits, staring. I stop and pet his head. He looks fine. He’s been fine. He’s changed since the chopping, but not to an extreme extent. More docile, but he still pants. He still suffers.
He doesn’t even know what’s happened to him. He doesn’t even understand that he can’t have sex anymore, that he can’t reproduce, that he can’t grow—that he can’t breathe.
I pet his head some more. He looks up at me with those eyes. Does he know everything or nothing at all? I pick him up and walk into the pool. We can barely stay afloat.