The Tantric Marshes

An excerpt from Linden McIntyre's novel Why Men Lie

tantric-marshes

The knew that she was late, and her anxiety increased as she read the notice on the window of the pub: “Closing early. Christmas Eve. Have a wonderful holiday!” It was December 24, 1998, and that morning JC had called and asked her to meet him for a drink at Dora’s at five.

She knew Christmas Eve would be quiet at the university, so she’d gone to the office to confront a backlog of administrative paperwork, then lost track of time.

JC was waiting at the bar, the pint in front of him half finished. She placed a hand on the back of his neck, and when he turned, kissed him quickly on the cheek. “Sorry I’m late.”

“No urgency,” he said. Then he ordered each of them a double single malt.

“Doubles?”

“We’re celebrating. Isn’t it close to our first anniversary?”

“How so?”

“We missed it, actually. It was on the nineteenth, one whole year since our encounter on the subway platform.”

“I think more of the encounter Easter Sunday,” she said.

“Well, yes. But I still remember that first time. The innocence, maybe?” He grinned. “I’m probably more sentimental than you are. Something clicked on the subway platform.”

“True,” she said.

As they sipped their drinks, they turned to generalities. He asked her about Cassie. And she told him her daughter was up north with the new man in her life, meeting family. They planned to stay in Sudbury until after New Year’s.

“Sounds serious,” he said. “Who’s the guy?”

“His name is Ray.”

More than that she didn’t know. He frowned.

Her daughter was, like him, a journalist, and they had hit it off the moment Effie introduced them. In fact, Cassie was unsubtle in her hints that her mother and JC should live together. Maybe more. Effie would just smile and swat the notion down, suggesting that Cassie should focus more on her own love life. They were like that, mother and daughter, having grown up together, as Cassie liked to say.

At Dora’s JC was relaxed, a pleasant change, she thought. For weeks he’d been on edge whenever the subject of work came up, obviously troubled by the story he’d been working on since early summer, the case of a condemned man awaiting execution in a Texas prison.

“When will it be on?”

“Last week,” he said.

“Sorry. I haven’t been following the news,” Effie said.

“You aren’t missing much,” he said.

“Remind me. I know he got in the way of our summer and that he’s been haunting you all fall.”

“He writes to me, quite an intelligent guy. Sam Williams. From Alberta, originally. Was in on a gruesome murder in east Texas, years back.”

“But you don’t think he did it.”

He shrugged.

“It’s coming back to me,” she said. “But he writes to you?”

“We stay in touch.”

“Is that advisable?” she asked.

“He doesn’t have anybody,” he said. “He’s needy, but he’s hardly any burden where he is. Plus, I’m quite convinced that he got shafted by the system.”

“Aren’t you setting yourself up for grief?”

He laughed. “Me? Grief?”

“He’s going to die. We’re talking about Texas.”

“It isn’t quite that simple,” JC said. “But let’s not worry about Sam.”

She studied her drink. “What is it about him, then?” she asked at last. “Why would you stay in touch?”

He shrugged. “It’s nothing, really.” He smiled at her. “What about tomorrow?”

“Ah yes,” she said, returning to the safety of her glass. “Tomorrow. Christmas Day.”

They left Dora’s just after seven and decided to walk to his place on Walden Avenue. The night was cold, with a penetrating dampness. Across the Don Valley to the west, the city loomed, glittering and silent as if abandoned for the holiday. They walked hand in hand, shoulders touching. The sky was dull with amber streaks.

“Christmas should be in the country,” she said. “I miss stars and snow.”

“Maybe someday.”

She was looking at him, waiting for elaboration, but he kept walking, staring at the ground. So they didn’t see the young man approaching, didn’t notice the aggressive, shambling gait. The blow caught her by surprise, the shoulder
slamming into her shoulder as the stranger hurried by. She knew it was deliberate, or at least an act of boorish carelessness.

“Asshole!” she called out.

It was only when the stranger stopped and turned to face them, fury blazing from his hoodie, that she felt afraid. JC moved between them.

“Sorry, brother,” he said softly. And there was something in his tone, the way he’d turned and placed himself between them, both hands now raised, with palms turned outward. “Let’s all just keep on having a nice Christmas.”

The young man wavered. “Fuck you, man,” he said, but he turned quickly and strutted away, shoulders lurching in his haste.

“Well done,” she said.

JC shrugged. “Who knows what’s going on in that poor bugger’s life.”

Just inside the door, the floor was littered with envelopes, mostly Christmas cards. He scooped them up and dropped them in a large bowl, which was already full of keys and change. A cat trotted down the stairs, meowing urgently.

“You aren’t going to open them?” she asked.

“Another time,” he said. “They make me feel guilty. I never sent any.”

He squatted to receive his greeting from the cat.

“Who do you get them from?” she asked, poking through the envelopes. “Here’s one from the States.”

“That’ll be from Sam,” he said, and stood.

Then he was kissing her. And she nestled into the embrace and kissed him back, with a sudden yearning that dispelled all of her anxieties.

“I think I’ll stay awhile,” she said, shrugging off her coat.

“I was hoping you’d say that.”

“Something just came over me.”

“What’ll you have?” he asked.

“I’ve had enough to drink for now. I’ll make some tea.”

“Make it a one-bagger,” he said. “I’m going to indulge myself some more.”

They were settled at the kitchen table, she sipping an herbal tea, he savouring a small puddle of old whisky, when the phone rang.

“Let it ring,” she said.

“I’d better get it.” He reached for the receiver, said “Hello,” listened for a moment. “When did you blow in?”

She knew immediately from his tone who was on the line. She waved a hand to get his attention, mouthed, “Don’t tell him I’m here.”

“We’re having Christmas dinner here tomorrow,” he said. “Why don’t you come? It’ll just be me, Effie and Duncan.” He winked at her. “Noooo. Don’t be foolish. They’ll be thrilled to see you. That’s all water under the bridge.”

He laughed. “I can guarantee it,” he said. “You’ll be perfectly safe here.”

Then, after a long pause, “Well, bring her with you. I have a massive turkey. Is it anyone we know?”

Another pause. “I see. You’re a hard man to get ahead of.”

He looked at Effie. “Well, actually this isn’t a good time. I’m going to have a nap, then go to midnight Mass. Maybe we could meet up there.”

Another wink at Effie. “Understood. We’ll see you tomorrow. Call when you’re ready to come over. I’ll give you the
directions then.”

He put the phone down, drained the last of his drink, then stood and poured another. “He’s got a new girlfriend,” he said. “A student.”

“A mature student, I assume.”

“Oh, I doubt that. I doubt that very much.”

Early Christmas morning Effie went home to change, wrap the gifts and prepare mentally for a long and complex day.
The city seemed empty. There was a bitter chill. She flagged a solitary cab on Broadview, and the silent driver made her nervous with furtive eye contact in the rear-view mirror. She thought about how much simpler life might be if she and JC just lived together. But she quickly felt the stirring of anxiety that always came when she contemplated any loss of independence. She’d lived with three men, had grown with each of them but had also paid a psychic price that made cohabitation something she wasn’t eager to repeat.

At home she sorted through her mail. A clutch of flyers promising unprecedented bargains on Boxing Day, a Christmas card from her life insurance company and another with her name and address written in a hand she recognized immediately—John Gillis’s.

She sat slowly, with her coat still on, and opened it. It was a simple, rustic scene: a small, snowbound house by an untracked country lane, wisps of smoke rising from a chimney, a festive wreath hanging on the door. Inside the card, the simplest of messages: “Seasons Greetings.” And below it, handwritten: “Sincerely, J.G.”

She felt a flash of grief, and in its wake, confusion. In the twenty-eight years since she’d abandoned him he’d never written. Not once. No letter of recrimination. No questions. All the practical inquiries involved in ending their marriage came from lawyers. There had been no acknowledgement of birthdays. When her father died, there was no sympathy, but that was understandable, given what he knew about their history. For a long time she found comfort in John’s resolute indifference. It seemed to be a silent confirmation of what she wanted to believe: he never really cared for her; she had been a temporary refuge in a storm of personal disintegration, grasped the way a drowning man would grab at flotsam. His father had killed himself and he had needed her, but only for a while. But isn’t that the way with all relationships? They’re really only for a while. The story of her life.

This seasonal greeting was exceptional. She slipped the card back in its envelope and stood. Enough.

The afternoon of Christmas Day they worked together in JC’s tiny kitchen, both wearing aprons. There was music playing. Candles flickered. By three o’clock the bird was stuffed and in the oven.

Sitting with a drink, she was surprised when, after what seemed like a long
silence, JC proclaimed, “My problem is that I was always basically in favour of the death penalty.”

“Did you say death penalty?”

“Sorry,” he said. “I was thinking about poor Sam. Where he is on Christmas Day, that it could be his last Christmas.”

The phone rang and he stood.

“That’ll be himself, looking for directions.”

The doorbell startled her even though she’d been bracing for the gong. She stole a glance at her reflection in the window of the microwave. She smoothed her skirt but then rebuked herself for caring what the bastard thought, remembered all the treachery and settled down to what she believed was a level of calm objectivity.

Sextus looked, for lack of a better adjective, happy. She’d seen him briefly in Cape Breton in the summer looking haggard and needy, probably from guilt. She’d kept her distance. Now she told him he looked fit, that he’d obviously been taking care of himself for a change. He revealed that he’d taken up jogging.

She suppressed a bitter comment, turning to the young woman who was with him.

“I’m Effie.”

“Sorry,” Sextus said. “I’m slow with the introductions. Susan Fougere. This is the famous Dr. MacAskill-Gillis I’ve been telling you about.”

A jolt of anger. Smile. Extend the hand. Susan seemed to be no more than twenty-two years old. Pretty face, nice figure, cleavage likely all the way up to just below her creamy throat.

“Welcome,” Effie said. “We’re thrilled that you could come.” Savoured the “we.”

Susan smiled as Sextus turned to struggle out of his coat. When he turned back, Effie asked, “And how is our John?”

Sextus frowned. “To tell the truth, I haven’t seen him lately. Saw him at the mall about three weeks ago. He was in the distance, but I didn’t think he looked well. Skinnier than usual. Face kind of sunken. He’s fanatic about the running, John.”

“You didn’t talk to him?”

“I lost sight of him. I called later, but there was no answer. I tried to get in touch before I left to come here, but again . . . no answer. You know the way he is.”

“I had a Christmas card,” she said.

He twitched with surprise. “No shit?”

Susan’s eyes flicked back and forth between them in perplexed curiosity.

“I’m sure you’ve met his cousin John,” Effie said to her. “My other ex-husband.”

“I’m afraid I haven’t,” Susan said. “But I’ve heard about him.”

Effie couldn’t discern from her tone just how much she might have heard. The wily Sextus had likely been creative with the details of their peculiar history and all the intermingling that might have been off-putting to one of tender years and limited experience.

Then JC was asking for instructions regarding drinks.

Duncan arrived during the second round, accepted a Scotch and insisted that he wasn’t hungry. He’d spent the day working at a homeless shelter, had handed out 479 plates of turkey and felt like he had sampled some from every plate.

Effie put Sextus beside Susan, Duncan directly across. She and JC, at either end of the table, kept busy with the carving and the serving, he liberally pouring wine. Duncan accepted a small plate of vegetables so as not to seem unsociable but insisted that he couldn’t stomach another bite of turkey. He managed to extract from Susan that she was a
journalism student at Ryerson; Sextus volunteered that he’d met her at a weekly paper in Cape Breton. He was an occasional contributor. He encouraged her to raise her sights, consider journalism school. She had a gift. She was clearly flattered.

“I became a kind of mentor,” Sextus said.

There’s another word for that, Effie thought as she exchanged a discreet smile with JC.

Susan had grown up near the causeway and was looking forward to moving back home. She found the city edgy in a good way, but she missed her friends. Effie, now up and standing by the stove, saw Sextus squeeze her thigh.

Then Sextus asked JC if he was working on any interesting stories.

“The odd one,” said JC.

Duncan wondered out loud if he’d had any news from Texas.

“We’ve been corresponding,” JC said.

Effie was surprised. “You know about this Texas stuff?”

Duncan and JC exchanged what seemed like nervous glances.

“I filled him in on some of the basics,” JC said. “Old Sam is pretty religious. I thought maybe Duncan could drop a line some time.”

“Who are we talking about?” Sextus asked.

“Nobody you’d know,” said Duncan, coldly. He turned to JC. “This petition you were mentioning. It’s quite likely that the Vatican will take a position. It wouldn’t be the first time. I’ve spoken to the office of the nuncio.”

JC was nodding.

“Is this about that Canadian guy on death row in the States?” Susan asked. “The guy they’re going to execute?”

“JC’s in the media,” Duncan said. “He’s done stories on that case. I did a little research on canon law, about the death penalty.”

“I’ve been following it,” said Susan. “But what’s your involvement with canon law?”

“Duncan here is a sky pilot,” Sextus said, smiling.

“A what?”

“A priest,” Sextus said. “From back home, as a matter of fact.”

“Oh,” said Susan.

Duncan suddenly seemed uncomfortable. “So where are you from, exactly?” he asked.

“Havre Boucher,” Susan replied.

JC inquired about the drinks. Did anybody want a refill?

“So you’d have been in Father Allan’s parish,” Duncan said.

“Well,” said Susan. “We actually left the church. Because of him. I don’t know the whole story, though. I think there was something about my younger brother.” She blushed. “They say that Father Allan was . . . different.”

“I’d be surprised if he wasn’t one of yours,” Sextus said to Duncan.

Duncan flashed a warning glance his way, but Sextus didn’t notice.

“Duncan was the guy who put a stop to all that shit. Weren’t you, Duncan? He was the guy the bishop would send out—”

“Dessert’s ready,” Effie announced.

After dinner they made small talk about home. Safe gossip, old stories that were mostly funny. Effie realized that she was drinking too much wine too quickly. She calculated that she’d consumed three stiff Scotches before the wine. Fuck it, she thought. It was one way to cope, not to care about the reefs and shoals so near the surface of every subject that came up.

JC proposed a toast: “To the second-last Christmas of the millennium.”

They all murmured excitement at the vastness of the thought.

“Here’s lookin’ at 1999,” he said. “A last great year.”

“Speak for yourself,” said Sextus. “Every year is a great year.”

“You know what I mean,” JC said.

“Nooo,” everybody said in chorus. “We don’t know what you mean!”

“Whatever,” he said. And they clinked glasses merrily.

“So how long do you plan to be around?” Effie asked Sextus.

“Who knows,” he said. “I’m playing it by ear. We should get together for a coffee, or a drink. Catch up.”

Right, she thought. As if. But she said, “Absolutely. Give me a call. I assume you still have my office number.”

“Know it off by heart,” said Sextus.

“Have you been talking to our daughter lately?”

Sextus looked at her, pointedly, it seemed. “Ahhh, the darling daughter. On the phone, before I left. She said she was going to be away. Probably just saying that so she could avoid me.”

Susan caught his hand, squeezed it loyally and said, “I doubt that.”

“She’s away but back a week tomorrow,” Effie said. “Did she mention anything about the new guy in her life? This Ray?”

Sextus looked surprised. “Not a boo. Who is he?”

“Haven’t met him yet. But it seems serious.”

“Well, there’s another reason to stick around,” he said. He was clasping Susan’s hand in his.

Effie’s head was buzzing. Thoughts and words were scrambling to be heard, but she knew it would be prudent to keep most of them inside. JC was overgenerous with his booze, she noted. She’d speak to him. Hospitality isn’t entirely about how shit-faced everybody gets.

She smiled at “shit-faced,” a word her students liked to use. Her father would say “pissed to the gills,” and that too was apt. She was just about to offer coffee when, in the babble of words and laughter at the table, she heard a word that sounded like “fidelity.”

“Fidelity,” she said. “Now there’s a topic I could write a book about.”

There was a sudden silence, but she didn’t really care. Everyone was piss-gill-shit-faced. “I have one basic rule about fidelity,” she added merrily. “JC can sleep with anyone he wants to as long as she’s older than I am.”

She was the only one who laughed. She turned toward the kitchen counter, lined up the coffee mugs, turned again. Saw four round, blank faces staring at her.

“One rule only, that’s all,” she repeated. “Older than me . . . she has to be. That’s the bottom line.”

“Well, that kind of narrows it down,” Sextus said.

Susan giggled.

The room was suddenly and overwhelmingly hot.

“Excuse me,” Effie said.

In the bathroom she studied her face in the mirror but saw a stranger looking back. Older woman, well turned out but plain. Face pale, hair needing care. Maybe I should cut it, she thought. She squinted and the image became sharper. Maybe I need glasses. Then she told herself, Stop fretting about your looks. Think of aging as maturing, growing wiser. What did Daddy used to say? No point getting older if it doesn’t make you smarter. But still she wondered. With an extended finger, she stretched the skin below an eye. What else did Daddy say?

Overwhelmed, she dove toward the toilet.

She rinsed her face, restored her lipstick, then went to sit for a while on the edge of JC’s bed, head light but stomach feeling better. Loud laughter came from downstairs.

She sighed and stood. Her head spun, then stabilized.

In the darkened hallway near the top of the stairs, she saw Sextus standing, hands in pockets, a concerned look on his face. When she tried to brush by, he blocked her with a suddenly extended arm.

“Please,” he said. Then placed his forehead on her shoulder. “I’m so, so sorry.”

“About what, exactly?” she replied.

“Everything,” he said. “Tonight. Last year. 1977. My screw-ups, one and all.”

Then he was facing her, hands gripping her shoulders. She just stared at him. At that moment her entire life seemed to occupy one clear, sharp quadrant of her brain, like a Mozart composition, one of Einstein’s theories. Fully formed and ready for articulation.

“I just wish I could explain,” he said. “There was nothing—”

“Move, please,” she said.

He dropped his arms and she brushed by him and walked downstairs steadily, suddenly dead sober.

The next day being Boxing Day, she spent the night.

~~~

The battering wind seemed to scream, flattening the high brown grass in the marsh of Tantramar—the tantric marshes, Sextus called them, laughing wickedly; the wind pushed their small car onward and away from yesterday and toward tomorrow, a force as reassuring as the grass they’d smoked in a service station toilet back in sober Amherst, dispelling fear and purging all misgivings. She was singing farewell to Nova Scotia, the sea-bound coast, with the brown marsh grass undulating all around them and the sky dipping and swirling and clouds racing headlong with them toward an unseen finish line, the future. Laughter throbbed in her veins, the fear and anger falling far behind; faster, faster, through the Isthmus of Chignecto. “Isthmus be love,” she screamed, and wrapped her arms around his head so he could hardly see to drive, and the Chignecto wind now hurried them on, now tried to turn them back, as if it knew the future.

 

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