The Headache

(For Sharon Stevenson, 1946–1978)

Christmas, 1997 / No. 1

“To build the city of Dioce whose terraces are the color of stars.” —Ezra Pound, “Canto LXXIV.”

It must have started after about two months. I honestly don’t remember how it began. I do remember standing in front of the apartment window one morning, about five-thirty, staring into the dark, wholly occupied by the pain. I could just make out the flat white field stretching to the mall invisible in the distance, and endless terrain vague at the city’s blurred edge. Large runners of ice flowed down the inside edges of the cheap windows. The pain centered over my nose on both sides. A viscous yellow mucous packed every little hole and cranny in my skull, quivering as my heart beat out its rhythm in pain. I felt like a putrefying carcass ready to burst. Claire, on her way out the door, asked me if I was O.K. I stared out through the vague reflection of my face, wondering if I could live through another day at the Institute.

After about a week, I mentioned it to him. It could have been longer. I don’t remember exactly, but it was about a week. The entire Institute was scrambling to put out a final issue of the People’s Daily News in time to get it to Montreal for a consultative conference. I was coming out of the layout room when I passed him. He nodded.

“You don’t look well,” he said. “What is wrong with you?”

“I have a bad headache.”

He looked at me with a mixture of pity and contempt.

“You people are really quite shameless, do you know that? You really are a bunch of anarchists. If you had the correct political line, this would not happen. But no. You have no interest in following the party’s line. You run around like some headless chicken, following your own line, undermining the party’s program. Then you get sick! Just when we need you. This is criminal activity, do you know that? You are just a bunch of wreckers!”

He was tall, about six-two, maybe, and heavy—two hundred, two hundred twenty pounds. His belly hung out over his belt, stretching the cheap, white dress shirt he always wore with his navy blue polyester suit.

He was a big man with an air of authority. Later, after I somehow got away and made it back to the west coast, I wound up down in California one winter watching the elephant seals on the beach at Año Nuevo. As the old bull heaved his massive, quivering bulk along the shore bellowing at the young males, I found myself thinking of him.

“What have you been doing to rectify this problem?” he asked with a sneer.

“I’ve been taking Aspirin.”

“You people are really quite unbelievable.”

A lank of oily black hair fell down on his forehead. His hand continually rose to push the hair back up.

“Unbelievable. Do you have any idea what Aspirin does to you? When I was a biochemist I studied these matters scientifically. Aspirin is just more bourgeois garbage. We need revolutionary answers—answers that come from the science of Marxism–Leninism–Mao Tse-tung thought. This is your problem. You have no grasp of science. And yet you claim to be a revolutionary, a Communist. You are truly unbelievable. In India, people like you are just wiped out, that is all.”

This is all a mistake, I felt like saying as he walked away. I must have felt like saying it. I don’t remember saying it or even thinking it, but it’s funny about memories, how they shift and twist and fade away. Once it had seemed so simple, so clearly outlined by the sheer energy of our enthusiasm. Or had it? Things change and you are somewhere else. The trees look different, and the buildings and the pale faces. But different from what? Some place of golden, rolling hills dotted with oaks, all the room in the world to just sit and breathe and watch the tall grass pulse in the wind? Or was that a dream?

I’ll change, I thought. I remember that vividly. We wanted to change things so badly. So we stayed to get denounced by J.R. again and again. It seemed to have something to do with revolution. Not the revolution we had once imagined, but we couldn’t remember that after a while. This was the real revolution. This was the dictatorship of the proletariat. Liberating the animals of Stanley Park was not going to stop men who dealt in mass death with less passion than they dealt in commodity futures. I had lived with the footage of napalm exploding, of bodies burning. We all had. Sometimes at night I would cry imagining it, myself a woman in the paddies with my child. Watching the greasy orange ball roll toward us. The heat. Nowhere to run.

But before, it had been simple. I remember that, although I don’t know if I remembered it then. In those days if you wanted to smash sexual hang-ups, and we all wanted to do that, then you had sex with someone. Maybe even with two or three people. If you wanted to change the social structure, or overthrow the state, or both, in one order or another, you just organized another demonstration and hoped that it was bigger and noisier than the last one. Sooner or later something revolutionary was bound to happen. If you bomb Laos, we will bust your windows. There was a certain simple-minded joy in it. Until they started killing us. But even then, no matter how serious it got, it was nothing like the Institute.

The Institute was under a storefront Chinese restaurant on Eglinton Avenue West. A flat slab of grey space woven in a greasy cocoon of power, telephone, and streetcar wires, it was the perfect setting for the Ruby China, with its greasy frozen egg rolls, greasy chow mein, and Coke. We ate there a lot since the owner said he supported Chairman Mao. And the Ruby China was the perfect entrance to the underground realms of the Institute that lurked beneath it.

The first time I was taken to the Institute it was a vast, open cave-like space dominated by the hulking presence of a Solna Chief offset press. This was right after we had joined the party en masse and come out east for one of the many meetings called to denounce Robert Trewe. The press was a bit like the beast in the midst of the maze, but without, at that point, the maze. Later the place was split up into four main working areas and a foyer where people waited until J.R. was available. There was a library, the press room, a dark room for photographic work, and the layout room. Running out from the pressroom was a narrow four-foot-wide space between the library and the darkroom where the headlining machine was located.

The headlining machine was primitive and had to be operated in the dark since it worked by directly exposing a strip of photographic paper to light. Actually, it wasn’t under the Ruby China, but under the Jamaican wig and record shop next door. In order to economize on time, all the headlines were done at once, which meant whoever did it got to go off into the dark alone for maybe an hour or more. The records constantly being played upstairs would boom through the floor. “I can see clearly now, the rain has gone.” There was a certain peace there, alone in the dark, developing the slimy, wet strip of paper that read, “down with the fascist police state attacks! blood debts will be paid in blood!” “I can see all obstacles in my way.” Over and over again. “Gone are the dark clouds that had me blind.” We would complain about it, groan when it started up for the twenty-third time, mumble about bad politics. But there in the darkness, images danced. Music. “It’s gonna be a bright, bright, sunshiny day.”

The headache must have started after about two months. I can’t remember exactly when it started, though I remember the headache well enough. Origins fade. And what preceded them. Then you make it up. History as fiction, which isn’t fiction at all, but some kind of truth. Like those blank spaces in the photographs from Stalinist Russia and the accounts in American high-school textbooks about “unprovoked attacks” in the Gulf of Tonkin.

I do remember getting up at 5:30 a.m. I would feed Sarah, who was just over a year old, Claire having left for work. Then we would get on the bus and I would drop her at the babysitter’s, get back on the bus—which meant another fare, a huge expense in those days—and go down the street to the Institute. On the east side of the Ruby China, a tall, green slat fence with a hole in it separated a vacant lot from the street. You went through the hole in the fence and followed a well-worn path behind the building, where a heavy, dark green metal door faced the alley. You rang two longs and a short on the buzzer high on the left-hand doorsill. The door would open. You stepped down into the cave.

Even the exhaustion and terror fade, finally. Of course they do. I mean the memory of them. After getting to the Institute at about seven-thirty, I delivered the papers. Or else I printed the papers. See what I mean? I know I delivered the papers after I printed them, because I remember the drive. First I dropped them off all over the city. Then I drove to Hamilton and Guelph, and finally to the airport where I sent off the deliveries for the rest of the country. By that time I could barely stay awake, so it was before I went home. So when I got to the Institute it must have started with the layout, the photography (though later, someone else did that, Richard, I think, after he got out of jail), then etching the plates and printing the paper. Some nights I was allowed to go home at 3 a.m., depending on who was out of jail at any given time. Not having a car, however, I rarely got home before four. Then it was up at five-thirty or six.

I started off at the Institute doing layout because of my experience on the West Coast working on the old Gorilla. But that had been a different world. We would stay up all night drinking cheap wine and coffee, playing with shapes and pictures and meanings, talking about revolution. We had a sense of community among ourselves, with the animals we once threatened to free from the zoo. A coming together in the image of something new. What happened to that? We had ben infiltrated by the police. Some of us had been beaten by them on the street at night, documents stolen. Houses had been broken into. Phones were tapped. So we had started to tighten up. But there was something else as well, some vague, growing desire to control the process, to understand it absolutely and take possession of it.

I had laid out several columns of the People’s Daily News that first day working at the Institute, and had decided to put a photograph in the centre of the page. As I was appreciating the way the various blocks of lighter and darker hues balanced each other on the page, in came J.R. He looked at what I was working on and then stared at me with open disgust.

“What do you think you are doing?” he asked. He was a true master of contempt. His voice dripped with it, intensified somehow by his Punjabi accent.

“What do you think you are doing?”

“I was just laying out this photo. It goes with—”

“And you call yourself a communist?”

He nearly spat it, the contempt was so intense. The words were bitter in his mouth. He turned to the others in the room, all of whom were standing speechless, waiting.

“This man calls himself a communist! Do you believe it?”

You could almost hear their hearts beating, frightened and distant. The fluorescent air quivered with it. I had come here with some of them. Jill and I had almost been lovers once. Steve and I had spent hours drinking beer in the Waldorf with the loggers and longshoremen, trading stories about being twenty years old and running from the F.B.I., sneaking over borders, living on the edge. With that one question it all ended.

“Do you want to know what you are doing? I will tell you what you are doing. You are sabotaging revolution, that is what you are doing. Like some fascist thug. Just like some fascist thug! What do you have to say for yourself? Well?”

I looked at the page again. Were the columns crooked?

“Well . . . what’s the matter exactly?”

I realized immediately this was the wrong thing to say. He looked like he would burst with contempt.

“You are such a fraud,” he said with quiet intensity. “You have the nerve to come in here, into this centre of revolution, claiming to be communist, act like a C.I.A. agent, and then ask me what you have done! You are shameless. What have you got to say for yourself? No, never mind. Just get out of here.”

I was halfway to the door, restraining myself from breaking into a run when he said, “No, wait.” My heart sank.

Another time, sitting in the Ruby China, I was toying with one of those greasy egg rolls while he explained to us why we should never trust our first response to anything: “Your feelings are hopelessly mired in the corruption of your class background. This is a scientific party, a scientific ideology. What is wrong with you that you cannot grasp this simple fact? Dialectical materialism is the science of the masses. It is the science of proletarian revolution against the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie. There is no room for your petite bourgeoisie feelings here. If you cannot grasp the science of revolution, then you should just get out!”

It certainly seemed like science, so clear, so simple, so absolute. What you felt was wrong. The science of Marxism-Leninism was right. Class consciousness was manifest in the selfish feelings that threatened to undermine the commitment to change and revolution, whereas the science the of Marxism-Leninism was the logical, analytical tool whereby you could make sense of the evil and suffering in the world, and finally get rid of it forever. And the scientific line would change and change again. And what was scientific one month was opportunist the next. And it was always so logical, so scientific, you had to agree. And agree. And agree.

I don’t remember much about those lines now, but I do remember being bent over the headlining machine, listening to Johnny Nash in the dark. “I can see clearly now the rain has gone. I can see all the obstacles in my way.” And I do remember the headache. I finally went to a hippie free clinic somewhere around Spadina. One of the comrades told me about it, though somewhat unwillingly. I went secretly. It was the first time I snuck around behind the party’s back, but hell, my head hurt too much to worry about principles.

It turned out to be an advanced sinus infection on the verge of becoming extremely dangerous. Brain damage, the doctor in the clinic said. She was kind. She gave me free penicillin and 222s with codeine.

“Why did you wait so long,” she asked, incredulous that I had borne the pain.

I was speechless. How could I explain to her about the dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasant woman and her child? The clinic reminded me of San Francisco, where I had almost been shot by the National Guard during the Fillmore uprising, and of Vancouver, where the soldiers had surrounded the whale tanks. The sunny, hazy past. Leaving the clinic I felt the urge to run back inside and tell her. But tell her what? That I wanted immunity? That I wanted an isolate golden hill to sit on? What could she do? What could she offer?

It was a sunny day in the early spring. I remember that. The rows and rows of dirty, dingy brick houses with their peeling, crumbling facades and occasional lifeless trees seemed almost festive. To be outside in the sunlight was a rare treat. There was something about the doctor, something about the sun and the spring that nagged at me, wordless, pulsing with the blood and pus in my head. But no way to find the words. What could she do other than give me pills. She couldn’t stop the war. She couldn’t get rid of the men whose lives were dedicated to profits and death. Only we can do that, I thought, as I headed back to the cave, not yet aware of the thread she’d handed me.

[Correction: In the short story “The Headache,” by Michael Boughn, in the Christmas, 1997, issue, the lyrics to the song “I Can See Clearly Now” were a bit off, and the song was credited as being sung by Jimmy Cliff, which, given the timeframe of the story, would be impossible. It should have been credited to Johnny Nash. Mao Tse-tung’s name also was missing a hyphen. Taddle Creek wasn’t really fact checking back then. It regrets this, and the errors.]
Michael Boughn is the author of numerous books of poetry, fiction, and non-fiction. Cosmographia: A Post-Lucretian Faux Micro-Epic, was short-listed for the Governor General's Literary Award for Poetry. His most recent book is City, Book 1: Singular Assumptions. City, Books 1-3: The Whole Enchilada, is forthcoming.Last updated summer, 2015.