Shit Box

Summer, 2007 / No. 18
Art by Ian Phillips
Ian Phillips

I am trying to balance the New York Review of Books on my lap while eating Kraft Dinner from a plastic bowl. Well, not actually Kraft Dinner, but a no-name imitation with cheese that is so intensely, unreally orange it is almost fluorescent. I am struggling through an essay about the Armenian genocide that refers to several new books and also the film by Atom Egoyan. I used to know Atom when Candice and I went to a lot of Toronto parties and openings. I hadn’t quite figured out what I was going to do—make films, write poems, or create some new cross-disciplinary form to capture the paradox of our late-capitalist, terrorized, hyper-erotic, Starbucks lives

What I actually became was a pharmaceutical rep.

I roam from medical office to doctor’s office with my square, leather sample case, meeting doctors and suggesting to them that they prescribe our antidepressant, our anti-inflammatory, our analgesic drug, our contraceptive pill, our alternative to Viagra (no hot flashes, no seeing blue). I load them up with free samples to hand out to patients—“candy,” we call them. My territory is the northern outskirts of Toronto—Markham, Thornhill, the 905 arc over the city, which I traverse like a voyageur for the good of the distant mother country, a massive German pharmaceutical corporation. The job was supposed to be temporary: Candice was already working as a lawyer for the province, and I felt bad every time we went to a restaurant and she took out her Visa. What I think happened, what I can reconstruct from certain painful flashes of memory, is that Candice was affected by watching me return every evening in my cheap Moores suit and clutching my Death of a Salesman sample bag. She started to imagine me in twenty years’ time. Receding hairline. Paunch. Not bothering to loosen my tie before heading for the liquor cabinet to pour myself a stiff one. It caused her to have panic attacks. And now I haven’t seen Candice for three months.

The Forty Winks Motel has a blinking neon eye on its sign. I am staying here because it is convenient to my work territory, because the weekly rate is cheap, because I will never run into anyone I know, and because the sheer crumminess of my present life will force me to make some decisions. As motel rooms go, this one could be worse. No smell of mould, roach killer, or someone else’s semen. The hot plate, provided—illegally—by the motel for an extra four dollars a day, is set up in the bathroom, the only counter space. The bedroom windows don’t face the highway out front, but look behind to a new subdivision going up on former farmland. Rows of townhouses disappearing into the vanishing point.

My first week living here, I drove into Toronto, crashing at my friend Aaron’s place. Aaron and I go back to high school, but Aaron has a serious girlfriend now who is eight years older and has a kid, and Aaron let me know, in an embarrassed, throat-clearing way, that it wasn’t really convenient to have me around. I understood that, of course, and I was totally cool about it, so the next Saturday I stayed at Walt’s. Walt is single and has never been known to go on a date, but he has three large dogs who were not pleased about having their sofa taken over. Every so often during the night, I could hear a low growl from behind the kitchen door. All that Walt and I ended up doing was watching the ball game while eating Pizza Pizza. Sitting in the dark room, the television flickering and the air heavy with dog flatulence, it occurred to me that all our interesting friends had belonged to Candice.

Which only made me think about how much I missed her. I will not pretend that it was a mutual breakup. Candice said that she didn’t love me anymore and that it had taken her weeks of talking with her therapist and the support of all her friends to get up the courage to leave. She said that I was a wonderful person, but that she just couldn’t be the person she wasn’t anymore and that she had to save her own life. Tears, nose-blowing. There wasn’t much left for me to do but join her chorus of friends and congratulate her for finding the courage to dump me.

I wake up in a sweat, a blade of light crossing my face, grope for the dollar-store alarm clock to see why it hasn’t rung. But even as I do I realize that it’s the weekend. A plunging in my stomach. Oh Jesus, I cannot believe I feel sickened by the idea of Saturday. Because I don’t know what I could possibly do with myself.

A grinding outside. I push back the curtain to see a backhoe tearing up the earth in front of the new townhouses. Even though the workers are still finishing the interiors, carrying in sheets of drywall and squares of parquet flooring, the trees and shrubs and grass have arrived in the back of three dump trucks. Instant neighbourhood.

I reach for my cellphone and start to punch in the code for Candice’s number.

I hit the Off button and put the phone down again. Candice is over, and I know it. I am not the sort to make useless, grovelling phone calls, and besides, I already have. On the other side of the wall, the television goes on and I hear whispers and moans. Somebody is watching a porn flick at seven in the morning. I get up, take a shower, shave and dress, put up coffee in the Little Bachelor drip machine, open a snack pack of Frosted Flakes. I sit on the edge of the bed, crunching letters, when I hear “Ode to Joy” reduced to the electronic chimes of my cellphone.

“Mitch, I’ve finally got you.”

“Hey, Mom.”

“I’ve been trying for two days. I was going to call the apartment, but you said not to.”

“Candice has a lot of stress at work right now. She’s really on edge.”

“Poor girl. She’s too dedicated for her own good.”

“Yeah, that’s just what I tell her. How’s Winnipeg? ”

“Mosquitoes already. Marnie Hoffman’s aunt got West Nile. She’s paralyzed. It’s like one of the ten plagues. The rabbi was saying…”

I take a sip of coffee. My mother did not go to synagogue regularly before my father died. It was Candice, a lapsed Anglican, who encouraged her to do so as a way to a new social life. My mother said that if it wasn’t for Candice, she would have jumped into the grave after my father.

“Are you going to come at the end of June like you said? ”

“I said maybe. It really depends on Candice’s work. Listen, there’s something I’ve got to do. I’ll talk to you later.”

“When? ”


“You tell that doll not to work so hard.”

In fact, I really do have something to do. My laundry. And when that’s finished, I stand by my car outside the Laundromat, trying not to look at the little kid making faces at me through the window.

Back in the car, I pull onto the highway too quickly, cutting off the driver behind me, who leans on his horn and gives me the finger. I fiddle with the radio, then snap it off again. It is a bright day, perfect early summer weather, but I’m too lethargic to wind down the window. Without thinking, I turn into the drive of the Treasure Barn, my tires flinging up stones. The car comes to a halt beside a couple of rain barrels made into begonia planters. Along with the usual rocking chairs outside are white- and black-faced lawn jockeys, several poorly carved wooden ducks, and an old baby carriage full of used videos. There’s a sign on the door, in wood type, saying, “Open” in reverse letters, and I wonder if that means the place is actually closed, but the door swings in when I push it.

Through the filter of dust suspended in the air I see dressers from the nineteen-fifties too ugly to be kitsch, an alarming rack of checked suits. Rusting rakes and shovels, imploding sofas, bicycle wheel rims, mounted deer antlers. The woman behind the desk, or rather inside a U-shape made from old jewellery display cases, looks up from her crocheting and smiles. I wonder if that’s a real gold tooth she has, or just a fake for the weekend tourists. I decide that I must buy something, no matter how inferior or useless. And then something catches my eye.

A guitar, and not much of a guitar either. A cheap steel-string with the stencilled image of a bucking bronco on its flat top. It looks as if somebody had started to scrape off the bronco with a penknife and gave up after removing a hind foot. I pick it up from the broken chair where it lies, put the fraying macramé strap around my neck, and strum a G chord. At least, I think it’s a G chord. Of course, the guitar is out of tune, but the neck looks straight so I take it up to the counter.

“I was wondering how much you want for this,” I say.

The woman peers at it over her reading glasses. “That’s a Martin. Two hundred dollars.”

“It isn’t a Martin. It’s a Marvin. I’ll give you twenty-five bucks.”

“A hundred.”


“I got a case for it. Eighty.”

“I’ll take the case. Forty.”

She sizes me up: a city slicker who thinks he can put one over on a country bumpkin. “You got cash? ”

I know a few chords, or think I do, because when I get back to the motel room and try to play, I find that my memory isn’t too good. Or maybe I don’t remember how to tune properly, but whatever the reason, all I get out of that shit box is a godawful noise. And I’m only banging on it for a couple of minutes before the porn addict next door starts pounding his hand on the wall because I’m ruining his appreciation of New Jersey Housewives. So I take the guitar and go down the hall and out the back door of the motel. I’d planned to sit at the picnic table, but it turns out to be covered in bird shit from the seagulls who seem to have gotten lost, so I keep walking, over the collapsing link fence, through flaming stalks of goldenrod, to the first lawn of the new subdivision. Nobody seems to be working today, and the little bulldozer has been left behind. I walk up the path to the third townhouse—third seems like a good spot—and sit down on the front steps since there’s no actual porch. I strum my chords again and try to pick out a scale, but the truth is I don’t know what I’m doing and give up. I stand up, and on a whim, try the front door of the townhouse. And lo and behold, it opens.

I’ve never been inside an unlived-in house before, and it’s a strange feeling, both spooky and alluring. This one looks just about finished, the walls painted white, the baseboards and sockets in, the oak-veneer kitchen cupboards installed. The only incongruity is a toilet, squatting in the centre of the dining room, like a work by Duchamp. The banister is still wrapped in plastic. Upstairs, the bedrooms are small but the master bedroom has an ensuite bath. Aha, the bathroom is missing its toilet, thus the one downstairs.

Back on the ground floor, I put down the lid of the toilet and sit. I wonder who will live here and what their story will be. They will eat and laugh and bicker around the kitchen table, watch television in the den, play Monopoly in the basement. The kids will dare each other to enter the dark furnace room; the parents will wait until Saturday night to have sex.

Or maybe such lives don’t exist anymore. I know they once did; that’s what I fled from in the first place.

On Monday, I use my cell to phone Long and McQuade, in Toronto. I order an electronic tuner, a set of Martin strings, a capo, a dozen Fender picks, and three instruction books. The bill comes to more than twice what I paid for the guitar.

On Friday when I come in, Fred, the motel owner, looks at me with the placidity of a man who knows that time is an illusion and hands me the package from Long and McQuade. Walking quickly to my room, my sample case in one hand and the package in the other, I fantasize about telling Candice that I have taken up the guitar, as if somehow this might impress her, the way I had hoped to impress girls when I was twelve. The fantasy is somewhat spoiled by my knowing that Candice would be confirmed in everything she thinks about me, but I’m too full of expectation to let that get me down. On my bed, I unwrap the goodies and lay them out, everything just so cool. The first thing I do is change the crappy strings. It takes me a good forty-five minutes, puts me in a total sweat, and three times I lance the tip of a finger with the sharp end of a string.

Next, I tune up, checking one of the instruction manuals. Every Athlete Drinks Gatorade Before Exercising. Finally, I take one of the fake tortoiseshell picks, smooth and pleasing to the touch, find my G chord, and strum. To my amazement, the room expands with sweet fullness. Turns out even a shit box of a guitar has music sleeping inside it. I strum hard and faster, but when I get a decent rhythm going, when I’m starting to feel good and thinking I could play this one chord into eternity, the porn addict next door starts pounding on the wall again.

I take the guitar out back, along with the instruction book and a warm beer. I head for the townhouse I now like to think of as my own. I am vaguely dismayed by a Sold sign on the one next to it, but I march right inside mine, calling out, “Honey, I’m home!” and sit on the toilet in the dining room. With the instruction book open on the floor I practise these little four-bar exercises. After about ten minutes, the fingertips of my left hand start to get sore, so I skip the next seven pages of exercises and plunge right into the first song, “On Top of Old Smoky.” Dang, I’ve always wanted to play that ol’ classic. I make my way haltingly through it, pausing for a swig of Blue, the working-man’s beer.

“Candice, babe,” I say aloud, “it does not get better than this.”

Today I have seven appointments with doctors serving the suburban Chinese community from shopping-mall clinics. I like these doctors, first- or second-generation Canadian, and less arrogant and dismissive of parasites who feed on their underbellies. Plus, at lunchtime I have my choice of Chinese restaurants.

Back at the motel I change into jeans, grab a beer and my guitar, and head out back toward my townhouse. But crossing the street, I hesitate; someone is at the house on the other side of mine, pounding another Sold sign into the ground. All I can see is that she is wearing a sweater and a knit skirt too warm for the weather, stockings, and heels. I decide to lay the beer down at the roadside and continue on. She is straightening the sign as I come up the walkway. East Indian or Pakistani, pretty but thin, with a beaky nose and a premature streak of silver in her hair.

“Hello there,” she says, reaching out. I have to switch the guitar over to take her enthusiastic, real-estate agent’s handshake. “Beautiful houses, aren’t they? ”

“Yes, I’ve been admiring them,” I say, not altogether disingenuously. “It looks like they’re starting to sell.”

“More than half are already gone. The agents are too busy to put up the signs. Everything will be finished in two months. I find it so exciting when a new community begins. It’s like instant happiness.”

“So who is moving in? ”

“Very nice people, lovely people. Mostly from Bombay. Originally, I mean.”


“The builders have some connections there. And there are a lot of Indian people living on the other side of the highway. Maybe you’ve seen the Hindu temple. It’s quite handsome.”

“Do you represent this one as well? ” I ask, pointing to my house.

“Yes, I do. Would you care to take a look? It has an ensuite master bathroom.”

“I know. I mean, I’ve been inside. The door wasn’t locked.”

She frowns. “The tradespeople can be so irresponsible. Did you see the basement? Unfinished but very easily done. It would make a good playroom for children. Do you have any kids? ”

“No. Not yet, anyway.”

“It’s best to get into the market as early as you can. In housing, prices are always going up. Of course, it is more than an investment. It is your home. Do you know what mortgage you are able to carry? ”

“I’m not really sure. I mean, I haven’t worked out the fine details.”

“What kind of down payment can you make? ”

I think of the money from my grandfather’s estate, which was invested in blue-chip funds. I haven’t touched it except for taking Candice to Cuba last winter.

“I’ve got about sixty thousand dollars,” I say, although actually it’s closer to forty.

“That’s quite good. Better than most who buy here. With the low interest rates, you would have only nine-hundred-dollars-a-month mortgage, plus the tax, heating, and other usual bills. Could you manage that? ”

“If I was careful.”

“It is good to be careful, I think,” she says, and smiles. I’ve never seen a lovelier smile. I’m convinced she really wants me to be happy. “I must tell you that several families have come to see this house in the past two weeks. It won’t last long. Here, let me give you my card.”

She snaps open her purse, takes out a card, and hands it to me, just as her cellphone starts to ring. I nod to her, but she is already too involved in a conversation about plot surveys to notice, and I retreat back across the road, swiping up my beer as I go.

I consider telling every doctor I visit of the various symptoms I have been experiencing lately. Depression, punctuated by fleeting moments of desperate exhilaration. On my last call of the day I give in and confess to a family physician called “Doctor Dan” by his patients. Without a word he takes his pad, writes a prescription, and hands it to me.

Rexapro. “This is one of our competitor’s products,” I say.

“I think it will suit you better.”

“Ours has fewer contraindications.”

“This one is more generally effective, a wider umbrella.”

“Really? ” I’m disappointed. Our vice-president had said that ours worked the best for the most people.

“You know what their rep gave me? ” Doctor Dan asks. “A cappuccino machine. Makes pretty good foam.”

Back at the ranch, I tuck the prescription into the Gideon Bible in the drawer by the bed. After the usual sumptuous dinner, I head out for a night on the town. Along the strip of highway, cars sliding past, their lights receding in the dark. It takes me no time to reach Bob’s Place, and although it’s early in the week, there are a dozen Harley-Davidsons gleaming in the lot. I climb the chipped cement steps and open the door. The music that has been vibrating though the glass windows now blasts me in the face along with the rank smell of beer. In the dark I can just make out the bikers at their tables, big guys with greying ponytails, leather vests or jackets, beefy hands around their mugs. Also a few women who match them in bulk and smoke-scarred voices when they laugh. I wonder if they’re pissed off about tattoos becoming so popular. The band is crowded into the far corner, thrashing away at some Rush song as if they’re playing Maple Leaf Gardens. Most of the bar stools are empty and I pull myself onto one. The bartender, a woman my mother’s age (although I doubt my mother would show that amount of cleavage), gives me a friendly smile as she wipes down the bar.

“What can I do you for? ”

“I’ll have a Blue.”

“You got it.”

The band takes a break. Only when they come down to join the bikers do I realize they’re not young guys. I don’t think the bikers are Hells Angels, at least it doesn’t say so on their jackets. The beer is so cold it hurts my teeth. Suddenly, I have to pee, and find the john down the hall from the grease-stinking kitchen. It reeks of piss and marijuana. I relieve myself, decide against touching the sink, and head back to the bar, where I down half my beer. My hands are trembling, God knows why, and I slip my right hand into my pocket for some change to jangle, but instead my fingers touch the smooth side of a pick. I must have put it in my pocket after practising. I bring out the pick and press it into my palm so that I can feel its rounded corners. I place it on the bar and admire its triangular shape, like it’s one of those basic forms of nature.

“You play guitar? ” the bartender asks, spotting the pick while she taps a beer.

“Just started really.”

“We got an open-mic night on Mondays. We could use a fresh face. What’s your name? ”

She is already taking a clipboard down from a nail beside the shelf holding the hard stuff. I say, “Mitch.”

“What’s that, a nickname? ”

“It’s short for Mitchell.”

“O.K., Mitch, you’re on for next Monday. The eighth slot. We start at about seven-thirty. You get a free beer.”

“All right,” I say.

“You want another? ”

“I’ve got to get up early for work.” I take out my wallet and put down a bill and some change. Outside the door, the night air caresses my face, the black star-filled sky sprawls above me. Going down the cement steps I hear grunts, and coming round the building, see a couple of bikers beating up some guy, each taking a punch at him in turn, hauling him up for another. I realize the guy is the lead singer in the band. They let him drop in the dirt and walk past me as they go back into Bob’s Place. The singer is up on one knee, spitting blood. I head back down the highway.

On Friday the product reps have a conference at the airport Delta. The star reps are all men in their fifties who never wanted desk jobs. The crowning moment of the day occurs in the conference theatre, where a sleek video advertisement showing sunsets and mountain vistas and waterfalls is projected on the huge screen. And then the name Sopora, our new sleeping pill. The Canadian vice-president of marketing walks out to a standing ovation, our fists punching the air.

I get back to the motel about eight, pulling onto the gravel lot. It isn’t as dark as it was a week ago; spring is moving into summer. I drop my crap, throw off my jacket and tie, and pick up the guitar from its case. While listening to the vice-president’s speech I suddenly decided what song I wanted to perform at the open mic: Leonard Cohen’s “Bird on the Wire.” I’d loved the song when I was sixteen. It was so melancholy and cool, and it implied that the singer had experienced a lot of sex and that there would be more in his weary future, but that he would always be moving on. Plus, I could still remember the words.

It takes me a full hour to figure out the key and the chord changes. Finding the A, D, and E chords aren’t too hard. It’s the B minor that takes me so long, but when I get it, the melody falls into place. I can’t imagine what it must feel like to create something so yearning, so egotistical, so perfect. I sing and play it over and over, trying to keep in time, make the changes cleaner. When I finally go to bed, the tune goes round and round in my head.

Saturday morning and I am standing on the steps of the townhouse, wearing a jacket and tie with my jeans and running shoes. It is a stunning day, the sun bright, and buds opening on the spindly trees that have been planted and those still with their roots bundled in burlap. Two blocks down I can see a moving van backed up and two men hefting out a box-spring mattress. The truth is, I wanted to stand here holding a bouquet of flowers, something modest like daisies, but didn’t have the nerve. So, empty-handed, I watch as Shanti Bhaskar, the real estate agent, pulls up in her Ford Escort and waves to me as she gets out. To my surprise, she isn’t wearing her real-estate agent’s outfit, but jeans and Converse runners, and she looks really great.

“Hi, Mitch,” she says, like we’re friends, “I’m really glad you called. This whole section is selling out much faster than we anticipated. I know there’s another agent in my office showing this one today. Shall we go in? ”

“Sure,” I say as she comes up. “Of course, I’m not quite ready to decide.”

“I understand,” she says, touching my arm. “It’s a problem. You see something you like, you want to take some time over it. But if you do, you’ll lose it. You need to accelerate the whole internal process.”

Well, I couldn’t decelerate any more than I already have. She opens the door and ushers me in. “So,” I say, “any chance you’re thinking of buying one around here for yourself? ”

“I already bought last year,” she laughs. “In the subdivision just south. I wasn’t sure that I was ready either, but my husband really pushed it. A good thing too, they’re already reselling at ten percent higher.”

Only now do I see the ring on her hand. Stupidly, I hadn’t looked. Inside the house, the toilet is gone from the dining room and the plastic has been removed from the rails. Shanti turns and smiles gently as she looks at me with her brown eyes, as if she knows everything I’m thinking, as if my own skin is as cheap and transparent as Saran wrap.

“I have tried in my way to be free,” I say quietly.

“I’m sorry? ”

“It’s from a Leonard Cohen song.”

“Oh, right. ‘Bird on the Wire.’ Great song.”

Monday. Open mic tonight. I pull into my gravel spot, throw myself out of the car, fumble with the key to open the motel room, yank the guitar out of its case, and start to practise. I fuck up totally. Calm down, calm down. I put the guitar onto the spongy armchair, take off my suit, and step into the shower. I decide not to shave again, but dress in jeans, lumberjack shirt, untucked, sneakers. I heat up a can of Campbell’s Chunky beef soup and, taking the pot, perch on the bed looking out the window to the townhouses across the way. The street lights are working now, casting overlapping circles on the street and the little front lawns. I eat a few spoonfuls before putting down the pot and taking up the guitar again. But now the time is already gone, and I put the guitar in its case, wondering why I don’t just chicken out. I go out the door and walk along the highway, holding my guitar case, like the figure on the cover of some pathetic folk record.

The parking lot of Bob’s Place has half the usual number of motorcycles parked out front, Monday not being the most popular night of the week. Inside, I have to let my eyes adjust to see three young guys already setting up their Fenders and a small drum kit. I make my way to the bar, where the bartender is filling ketchup bottles.

“Hey there,” she says. “No. 8 on the list, right? ”

“I think so.”

“You want a Blue? On the house.”


“I remember what everybody drinks. It’s just a memory thing I have. Even if you don’t come in for three months, I remember. Not that it’s going to do me any good, with the place shutting down.”

“What do you mean? ”

She slides the beer in front of me, a line of foam slipping down the cold glass. “Going to be a Valu-Mart here. Groceries and shit. For the new subdivision. And a half-mile down the road there’s going to be a mall with six movie screens—Hey!,” she shouts to the band suddenly. “Why don’t you stop messing around with the damn mics and start playing? ”

But the band takes another few minutes. The lead singer does this weird snake motion while he sings, and then their three songs are over and two women in suede vests are already coming up. One has a regular guitar and the other a Dobro, and they sing two Loretta Lynn songs and sound all right, like they’ve been playing in crummy Nashville honky-tonks for years. Louder applause from the bikers. The bartender slides over to me.

“You’re on next, honey.”

“But I’m No. 8.”

“Well, No. 3 has pussied out and No. 4 is changing his strings, so I’m slipping you in. You go and rock this place, tiger.”

It takes a total refutation of all my instincts to get myself to pick up the guitar case and carry it across the room. It knocks against the arm of a biker, who shoves me back hard. By the time I reach the stage I am shaking like a man pulled out of an icy river. I pull the macramé strap over my head, take the pick from my pocket, and perch on the stool. The glare from the small spotlight turns the audience dark and menacing.

“Get the fuck on with it.”

Which they actually are.

My cellphone is chiming on the night table by the motel bed as I unlock the door. I take my time putting down my case, dropping the keys, walking over to pick up the phone. The numbers pulsing on the little screen are Candice’s. I stare at them as if I’m looking at the winning numbers of a lottery ticket I’ve already thrown away.

“Hello? ” I say tentatively.

“Mitch. I’ve been phoning all night.” I can hear the shakiness in her voice, but also the annoyance. “I need to talk to you. Come over.”

“It’s midnight. I’m a forty-five-minute drive away.”

“It’s kind of important, Mitch.”

“It’s over then, the new thing? ”

“I was an idiot. No, not an idiot. I mean, I understand myself better now, what I had to put myself through.”

“Us. Put us through.”

“Yes, us. I need you, Mitch.”

“I just played a song,” I say.

“What? ”

“In a bar. A biker bar, if you can believe it. I got up with a guitar and sang ‘Bird on the Wire.’ When I got down again, the bartender, this older woman, she had tears in her eyes. She said to me, ‘Bob used to sing me that song.’”

“Mitch, I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

A tulip bulb looks like a little onion, like you could bite into it. I put one into each of the small holes I’ve dug with a spoon and pat down the earth. It’s too late for them to bloom this year, but they’ll come up next spring.

On the next lawn, two young boys are tussling over a soccer ball. Their names are Daya and Rajif. Some older kids have made a ramp out of a sheet of plywood and some blocks left by the construction company and are taking turns jumping on their skateboards. It is an absolutely beautiful morning, like the sun has risen for the first time over the world.

I hear my name, and look up to see Mrs. Kankipati crossing the street with a plate in her hands. She is a handsome woman, with greying hair and large brown eyes, whose husband is an importer who flies to Kashmir every six weeks.

“Mitch, I just made some pakoras,” she says. “I think you will like them.”

“Oh, I love pakoras.”

“But in the restaurant it isn’t the same. You try one of these.”

She holds up the plate and I take one. It is almost too hot to hold, and leaves oil on my fingers. It is savoury and delicious.

“Amazing, Mrs. K.”

“You need a wife to cook for you. Maybe a nice Indian girl. What do you think? ”

“I need to learn how to cook. Then I’ll bring you over something.”

We both laugh, and she puts the plate down on the grass and retreats back to her own house. I return to my gardening, knees pressing into the still-new grass, the smell of the earth in my nostrils. The cries of seagulls and the steady hum of traffic from the highway remind me of the ocean.

Cary Fagan lives in Dufferin Grove. His collection My Life Among the Apes was long-listed for the Giller Prize, and his short story “Shit Box,” from Taddle Creek’s summer, 2007, issue, was nominated for a National Magazine Award. His books for kids include The Boy in the Box, Mr. Zinger’s Hat, and I Wish I Could Draw. Last updated winter, 2014–2015.