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Monthly Archives: December 2013

I was talking to a friend at the bar one night, right at it, arms up on it.  The pub was crowded, near Christmas, one of those nights where people are all out trying to find just where the hell their holiday cheer has gone, and this guy reaches over me with his mug, his big sleeve-rolled-up arm over my head, his sweaty pits right at nostril height.

“Hey,” he says, trying to attract the waitress’ attention,  “How about some service here?”

“You’re fourth in line,” she says.

“I’ve been waiting ten minutes now for a damned pint!”

“Still fourth.”  She somehow presses five pint glasses between her hands on the way to the dining room.

“Son of a bitch,” he says, but at least his arm lowers, and I realize that my friend is saying something interesting after all, something about cell phones and the restructuring of oral culture, which is the sort of thing he talks about.

The waitress comes back in, starts filling another set of glasses, and the arm is back over my head.

“Come on, just get me a pint,” the guy says, sounding like a threat.

“Third,” she says, “third in line.”

“Just fill it, bitch.”  He reaches across me to grab her wrist, his bulk knocking me from my stool and pressing me against the bar.

The waitress breaks his hold by turning to the thumb, then grabs him by the arm and pulls him sharply forward, all in one motion.  His off balance body falls toward her, and his chin hits the bar loudly enough to stop conversation.

“Bitch?” he says, the word full of question, as if he cannot quite comprehend a world where a waitress only just on the plus side of five feet can split his face open on a bar top.  He dabs at his chin, checks the blood.  “I’m calling the cops,” he decides at last.  “That’s assault.”

“There are twenty people here who saw you put hands on me first.”  She throws him a bar rag.  “This is for your chin.  Now go home.”

He seems not to hear her over the sight of the blood on his fingers.  “I should smack your stupid…”

“Don’t threaten me,” she says, back to pouring pints, her voice even.  “Twenty people, remember.  Now leave, or I’ll call the cops myself.”

“Bitch,” he says, one last time, but defeated now, and he turns through the door.

There’s a long silence at the bar, as if everyone is afraid to go in search of their conversations.  Then my friend catches the eyes of the waitress, lifts his pint in her direction.  “Wow,” he says,  “I’ve never loved you more.”

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It has been snowing lately, for those who haven’t noticed, and I’d rather write poetry about it than bother shoveling it.

Telephone Pole

The telephone pole in the heaped night snow
with its spreading arms long-stripped of the lines
that bound it once to others of its kind
is alone now in a glow of headlamps,
and the frost has enlaced the windshield edge,
obscured the loose topography of snow,
all but the pole, long-stripped, lamp-lit, frost-edged.

Will is Shane Neilson’s first book of short stories after three books of poetry (Complete Physical, Meniscus, Exterminate My Heart) and two more of memoir (Gunmetal Blue, Call Me Doctor). Will is published by Enfield and Wizenty and is beautifully hardbound, with a sewn in bookmark and every other sign of attention to detail, the kind of book that is a pleasure even before it is opened.

Most of its stories centre around characters who have connections to Neilson’s own life (many are physicians, others are young men growing up in Atlantic Canada, a few are writers), and they are usually told in a limited, first person voice, so the effect is personal and intimate, if not quite autobiographical. There is the sense that many of the stories are alternative lives in a sense, the lives that Neilson might have lived had circumstances been different.

The prose bears the influence of Neilson’s poetic voice, attentive to tone and cadence as as much as to narrative. This tonal richness never becomes overly formal, however, because it is balanced by characters who speak a colourful and colloquial language, humourous and foul-mouthed and tender and uncertain and real, so that they seem to speak in counterpoint to the surrounding prose.

This part of Neilson’s characters also works to undermine the roles that his protagonists often occupy, especially those who are doctors and writers, those who are expected to occupy certain social roles. In almost every case, the official exterior of these figures is undercut by a whole range of vulnerabilities. His doctors are always hiding addictions or insecurities, treating patients who reject, sometimes violently, the authority of their position. His writers hide behind lies, are desperately dependent on the emotional support of the women in their lives. In both cases, his stories seem to recall for us a complex humanity, a lived life that is behind the roles to which people are often reduced, even if these roles are not avoidable, even if they are simply an additional complexity that his characters must negotiate.

For just this reason, Will is not a book to be read all in one go. It will not keep you up at night turning pages, desperate to see what comes next. It needs to be read with a little more patience than that, but it rewards patience, and it may still keep you up at night, because its characters stay with you, their vulnerabilities exposing your own, long after the book is finished.

I made this soup for a church function the other day, and people have been pestering me for the recipe, so here it is. As usual, I didn’t actually measure the ingredients, and I am giving much reduced proportions here, but I know that many of the people who asked for the recipe would prefer me to be as precise as possible, so I did my best.

First saute in butter a large chopped onion, two-inches of grated fresh ginger, two tablespoons of grated orange peel, a teaspoon or so of ground nutmeg, and some salt. When this is all very soft and browned, add about four cups of chopped carrots and continue to cook over a medium heat, stirring frequently, until the carrots begin to soften. Then add four cups of chicken stock (or just enough to cover the carrots) and cook until everything is very tender. Then blend everything and add enough heavy cream to make the mixture the thickness you want.

I think coriander and cinnamon would go very well in this also, though I haven’t tried. It tastes very good cold as well. I made some for my vegan (sort of) wife that substituted more chicken stock for the cream (we didn’t talk about the butter), and it was good but not great, because cream is, well, cream.