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The nature of holy

By Heather O’Neill

Goldstein, Zuuzuu and I are driving back to Montreal from the beach. There is a baby shark in a blue jar of formaldehyde in the back seat of the car. I bought it in a store the size of a closet. When I am eighty, before I die, I would like to be able to have something to donate to a natural history museum. When I die, I would like to die a Victorian death.

My nephew Gabriel does not believe that sharks exist and so I am looking forward to showing him what I’ve bought. “What are you saying!” he yells. “It’s not real.” If sharks exist, then so do dragons, pirates and skeletons that walk around in tuxedos.

On the way home from the beach, we stop to photograph peacocks behind a barn in a little ramshackle town outside Montreal. It’s important to have proof of everything to bring back to Gabriel. It is raining and my adidas are soaked through. Nobody takes their clothes off the line even though it is raining. There are filthy tricycles on the lawn with price tags on them for fifty dollars each. Everything is for sale in this town. And everything is ridiculously overpriced. They don’t seem to quite believe that cities exist and that we have thousands of these items there.

There are strip joints in barns along the highway to Montreal. You can tell that they are strip joints because they have Christmas lights and decorations on them even though it’s summer.

We stop in Burlington so that Goldstein can try on vintage suit jackets. They have tags with names on them like SPARROW or GOLDEN CROWN. The only things that fit Goldstein are outfits that were made before 1965, from an era when men wore suits all the time, even to the swimming pool, even when robbing a depanneur, even when riding a bicycle. That was before the terrible Death of a Thousand Salesmen of 1964.

When we get back home, the landlord is standing outside our building with his head tilted to the side. He’s trying to decide whether the building is crooked. “When things roll in your house, do they roll to the left or to the right?” he asks. This is how the world would work if the ruler had never been invented.

The next morning, I go to visit my father. He bought himself a wheelchair at the church rummage sale. He carries it down the stairs and sits on it on the sidewalk. My father says that when he was little, he once went to a circus and there was a bear dressed in a tuxedo jacket. He says that if you get a chance, you should buy a bear and train it. “There will always be money in that. Everybody wants to see a dancing bear.” His advice has generally kept me from being successful.

The tenants in my father’s building keep dying. One fell off the bleachers at a little league baseball game. One had a heart attack at the zoo. One was in a bus and he fell out when the door accidentally opened. They are cursed to die Edward Gorey deaths. They die the way that clumsy children die. Since I lived in that building for twenty-five years, I can only imagine that my own death will be silly and sad.

A fortune teller at Cony Island once told Goldstein that he would be killed by an explosion. He never turns the lamps off, because he is nervous about turning them back on. He doesn’t trust the toaster.

My father says that when he was little, at least you were allowed to believe in God. “Now all you can believe in are coupons,” he exclaims. He takes his coupons out of his pockets and throws them in the air. For a second, he is a nihilist, a magician, and there are hundreds of red and blue and green butterflies flying all about our heads.

My father gives me a box of rusted frying pans. He is always rooting through the garbage and then claiming that what he finds is brand new and that he bought it at the store. For my seventh birthday, he gave me a rubber monkey that I called Edward because that was the name written in marker on its foot. I carry the frying pans home because I can’t throw away anything my father gives me. It is a curse.

We go to the movie theatre at the library the next Sunday with Goldstein’s entire family. They only screen movies about nature. Goldstein’s family goes because it is free, but they have talked themselves into believing it shows the best movies in town. They make popcorn beforehand and put it into plastic shopping bags. A flower blooms in stop animation and they snicker loudly at that.

The most beautiful thing that I have ever seen at the Library Film Society was elephants swimming under water. It was like watching a big bellow of smoke that comes off of a house on fire. They are like the balloons that lay on the floor, the morning after the birthday party.

We run into my father’s friend Itchy as I am cutting through the park on the way home. He says the other night he saw a little man on the wallpaper design walk right off the wall and out the door. Now he is against any sort of wallpaper and is taking it all down. What he should be against is drinking so much.

My father says that if you kill a butterfly, you will go to hell. He also thinks that people who eat frogs will go to hell. He eats steak every night though. The neighbours are always yelling at him because he throws his leftovers on the roof next door, but he misses and it goes all over their windows. He thinks that he will go to heaven for feeding the birds. The rest of what he does during the day doesn’t matter.

On Monday there is a letter in the mail from my friend Miwah. She is talking about how she rode a bicycle all the way across Vietnam. She was spoiled as a little kid. She went to finishing school and drank from pink tea sets with blue roses on them. Now she can’t get enough of poverty. She loves it. I don’t know if that makes her like Jesus though. She sends me a picture of herself in Vietnam standing next to some villagers. She has her hair in braids with two big red ribbons tied at the bottom of each. She looks like a French colonizer’s daughter.

Tonight, there is a dark cloud around the moon – as if it fell asleep with its mascara on and now has raccoon eyes. Everyone fell asleep without praying again.

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