In the shed, you went straight for the sledgehammer. You handed me a crowbar with a grin that convinced me that being in this together was a good thing. I remember we started on the east wall. All August, I waited around for the times you’d open my bedroom door and nod toward the basement.
“Dad’s out, let’s go get rich.” Same words every time, not that the project intrigued you every day. I couldn’t even focus on anything else. I just waited for you even though the whole job was filthy in the August heat.
The wood-paneled walls weren’t so bad. I was proud when you said I was good at removing the paneling and putting it back on after shining a flashlight on the cavities in the wall, looking for the gold T. Bryant was rumored to have filled them with. It was one compliment, and I still think of myself as good at it. But the north side, the drywall, I hated that. I was terrified every time I carried a bag of debris across the street to the empty lot. I imagined the sun beating on my aching back was Dad’s eyes and whatever meanness followed. He went after me with words, and you’d say at least he didn’t hit me, so I never thought it was so bad.
Where some people would have gotten more and more frustrated as we found nothing, your hope got worse and worse. Your contagious eagerness. Bet you can’t think of a single time I complained. When we were done for the day, I liked pretending I was Dad walking down the stairs, though I’m sure it was your idea. If I could see around the piles of junk and decaying furniture we’d arranged to cover the damage, I’d imitate his rage to make you laugh. Each part of the act terrifying and full of power.
You said I looked like a ghost coming down the stairs because I was so covered in drywall dust, plastered to my sweaty skin. The only parts of me that weren’t white were the specks of blood on my hands from torn blisters. They stung enough to make me cry when I washed all the specter off of me.
At last, you said it had to be the brick fireplace in the south wall. You had reasons behind everything, that the paneling and drywall were new since T. Bryant lived here, but the brick was original. It made sense when you said it, less as you used the sledgehammer to smash the bricks to pieces. I sat by, my strength insufficient to join in on the final stage of the destruction and too afraid of being laughed at to cover my ears. Even so, you saw Dad before I heard him coming.
And Dad punched you like you were a man, no more slapping or belts, and no questions. I kept meaning to thank you for pushing me out of sight, but I somehow never got the chance. If I’d had the bruises you did, toes of boots against my ribs, I’d have found my way someplace else where the hurt wasn’t the devil I knew. You reach a point.
When I was twelve, I went through the old cassettes you used to collect and stole my favorite ones. It was the day after you just didn’t seem like you’d be coming back. The tapes are still in my car and you still haven’t noticed. Tonight, I listened to them while I drove around town. It’s worse than when we were young. Everything’s gotten dimmer. The mine shut down the year I graduated, but I think the colors started fading about the same time we didn’t find any gold in the walls of the basement.
It was after one in the morning when I got back to Dad’s. I tried to sleep, but I wound up in the basement moving box after box until the brick fireplace was out in the open. The rest of the walls have been fixed, but the brick is still wounded. It could be we were one swing away from finding the gold in the basement, but tonight, no matter how closely I shine a flashlight over the broken bricks, I can’t tell if there’s anything there.
The Sledgehammer by Cale Plett.
Cale Plett (he/they) is a nonbinary writer who lives in Winnipeg, where they are watching and listening for stories. Some they remember, some they forget, and some they turn into poetry, prose, and lyrics. Cale’s poetry and fiction are published and/or forthcoming in Grain, CV2, The Anti-Languorous Project, and Riddle Fence. Cale on his work: "As an artist, I love telling stories in any form I know how to. While most of my published work is poetry, my favorite thing to write is YA. I'm currently in the midst of a quite hopeful queer YA project which I'm hoping to have ready to begin pitching by the end of the 2021. I also write short stories, one of which, 'Queen David,' just came out in Riddle Fence #38. I've written songs since I was a teenager, and recently I wrote the libretto for a song cycle/folk opera called Storm Cycle."
I keep spilling my water lately. My psychic says I’m going on a trip soon, so Arlo must be coming back from San Francisco.
When I first met Arlo, he brought out my most aspirational self. Ever since I met him, I’ve been a more attentive person. I play my guitar again, even write a few lines once in a while.
Arlo’s got a condo and he cleans it,
I rent a hole, but I dream big.
Arlo, man from San Francisco. The kind of guy who deliberately chose a job that requires a three-piece suit. I met him at a bar on a rainy Friday night. I asked him if he was from the city and that’s when he told me he travels a lot of work. I didn’t ask what kind of work it was so I would seem aloof and unattainable. He stayed with me at the bar all night, admitting later he’d been waiting for a blind date. I was wearing a low-cut blue dress, totally unsuitable for the weather. He asked if I wanted to come back to his place. I agreed without hesitation.
I had no interest in falling in love with Arlo, but I was caught off guard by his condo. Once, months later, he took me on a business trip to Milan. The hotel was on a hill a bit out of town, full of sunlight, with terracotta walls and climbing roses everywhere. But it wasn’t as nice as his condo.
By the time we grabbed a cab to his place, I was getting tired, so I didn’t notice we were making our way through the old money part of town. His condo was in a refurbished warehouse and it took up a whole floor. The front door opened on the living room, and the back wall was all windows. The living room had a fireplace and two grey couches facing it. When you sat on them, it was like sitting on a cloud.
The kitchen was new, all stainless steel with dark wood accents, and opened towards the living room. The two bedrooms were enormous yet cozy, with a view of a nearby park. Both had walk-in closets and antique-looking dressers.
The bathroom really did me in. All done up in greys and ocean greens. There was an infinity pool in the second bedroom ensuite. You stared out at the city like a god floating above it. There was a small watercolour of St. Paul’s Cathedral above the toilet. Arlo had to tell me about that, because I’ve never been to London. He said he’d take me one day.
I stayed over, and then stayed the rest of the weekend. I could tell he was happy about it, but to keep him sweet I made pancakes in the morning, ran out to get coffee and fruit, wore his shirt while I lounged on the couch. I didn’t ask him to make a fire because he’d mentioned before it was a pain to get wood in the city.
When I left Sunday night, I vowed to do everything I could to get back into that condo. It was everything I’d ever wanted in a home. As I walked down to a busier street to grab a cab, back in my blue dress, I was already imagining the tasteful abstract art I would put on the walls, the fine bottles of wine I’d buy to sit pretty on the oak butcher’s block.
The following weeks were difficult. I spent too much time with my psychic, trying to figure out when Arlo would be coming back. He tended to be vague in texts, so I feigned detachment right back. I had dreams about his condo. I dreamed we were having sex on the clean white carpet in front of the couches. I dreamed I was cutting fruit and placing it perfectly in a blue pottery bowl that sat on the kitchen’s marble countertop. I dreamed the sun shone in through the floor to ceiling windows like it was welcoming me into a new day.
I am usually able to focus in my classes, but I became scattered and distant with my students. While writing out the Dorian mode on the chalkboard I thought of where my guitar would fit in the condo. It matches everything so well.
Arlo comes back every month or so, though he never makes promises. In the early days I practiced my seduction patiently, until he asked if I’d like keys to the condo, “just to keep an eye on it while I’m gone.” I said I’d think about it. I did a dance in front of my students the next day. No better way to practice your rhythm than dancing, I said.
Now it’s been four months since Arlo’s last visit. We’ve been seeing each other for about two years. He’s been really busy with work. “The big wigs want me here,” he says when I call to let him know his ficus is improving with more water. I’ve never heard a real person use the term big wigs. It makes me wonder if the condo actually reflects his own tastes, or those of someone else.
I don’t think about it too much. His absence means I get to spend more quality time with the condo. Right after I hang up, I knock a glass of water on the floor. Even the glass on the hardwood floor glitters like its meant to be there.
Tonight, when water spills out of the infinity pool, I know to expect another call. He’s got a surprise for me, he says. All I can think of is new light fixtures, flowy drapes for the windows, a silk robe that matches the bedsheets. I smile and say I can’t wait to see him. I dim the bathroom lights. I turn the infinity tub’s jets on. I think about the condo’s new locks and feel a wave of calm slip over me. I watch the city dreaming.
"Dream Big", by Emma Bider.
Emma Bider is a writer and PhD student living in Ottawa. Her poetry has been featured in Unpublishable Zine. She's currently trying to identify all the trees in her neighbourhood. Emma's collection of short stories We Animals is available at Octopus Books in Ottawa and on Amazon.
"Thirty" by Megan Wilson
I’ll admit I’ve been avoiding its eyes and the call for self refection in its gaze. Can’t we do this later? I’m busy.
Thirty was always a distant marker in the sand. Raising her hand to her forehead, squinting her eyes against the sun.
She turns her head away and makes her way towards the water. It’s deep and cold and all consuming. It bites against her warm skin as she throws herself in deeper and deeper until her toes no longer graze the soft and comforting floor. She kicks into its vastness.
I crossed the threshold of my thirties peering back at my twenties with the warm fondness reserved for a small child. A tender sigh when they stumble on their own feet and drop clumsily to their hands and knees. Okay, come on now. Upsy daisy we have somewhere to be.
I’ve crossed the threshold of my thirties carrying with me a much different perspective than I did in my twenties. It’s lighter to carry. At times I wish I could return to her, stop her in her path, and trade perspectives with her. Here, take this one. It’s easier to hold. I’ve got this one, it’s fine. No really, I got it.
But if she wasn’t forced to carry it herself, where would she be today? So, I don’t stop her. I let her walk on by without so much as a cursory nod. I turn around to watch her go – because what else can I do but know. Know that her hurt and her mistakes will swallow her whole. Know that she’ll turn her back on loss and pain, stuff it into a box and push it into the corner, buried beneath the clutter in a long-forgotten space. Know that loneliness will be an acquaintance she doesn’t care to be acquainted but who will continue to knock at her door and see himself in. Do you want a glass of wine? I have a bottle open. She pours a glass and brings it to her nose. Still good.
Know that her triumphs and glories and moments that will carve out the shape of her soul will come. Know that she’ll find a world with arms so wide that she can close her eyes and throw herself backwards into it. A world so sweet she’ll continuously run the tip of her tongue across her bottom lip just to make sure the sweetness is still there. It is. It’s still there.
As I take these first few strokes into this foreign body of water, I ask myself what I intended to ask myself all throughout my twenties. Does thirty look like what she envisioned? What she wanted? Well?
But before I can catch my breath, a new question bubbles up to the surface. Does it matter? No, it doesn’t. What matters is what thirty feels like.
I feel loved and am full of love. I feel proud of what I’ve done and a drive to do more. I feel spontaneous and adventurous. Rooted and nestled. Healthy and whole. I feel filled up by the living I’ve done and charged up for the living ahead. I’m full to the brim with laughter and remember whens.
Happy tears come easy these days. I stand in the corner of a light-filled room, balancing on my toes, my friend leaning into me in giddy anticipation. I look around at the happy faces of my friends and family, gathered in the name and act and spirit of celebration, and the world slows down just for a moment as I think to myself – when did we get here? The infinite conversations and decisions and efforts and complete and utter chances that tip-toed us towards where we are today. I feel grateful.
I want to grab onto these moments. Lodge a stick into the wheel of the universe and hold them in my hands. Turn them over. Feel their softness on my fingertips.
Truth be told, I don’t know how thirty looks for me or where that image stacks up against whatever cultural metric of success. Whatever staircase of social constructs. What I do know is that I feel happy.
I can feel the bottom again - the murky mud beneath my toes.
"Thirty" by Meghan Wilson.
Meghan Wilson was born and raised in Ottawa. She has a degree in business from Western University and works as a management consultant in Ottawa.