Magpies. That’s what my old man called ‘em.
He worked in the coke ovens. Thirty-five years facing those gaping, lock-jawed mouths of hell. Only made it three into retirement before it all caught up with him. He didn’t make too much trouble when it did, though, I suppose. Lying smack dab in the middle of that kitchen floor, on top of that peeling linoleum, looking up at those faded linen curtains. Salmon-coloured, I remember. The coroner told me he had a pack of Players still clutched in his grip when they found him. Not sure why I appreciated that. The coroner telling me, I mean. I still did.
I jogged past the ER campus of St. Joseph’s and continued up towards the James Street stairs, the night’s drizzle etched beneath the orange glow of the towering lamplights. I typically listened to music when I ran. Film scores mostly. Jóhannsson. Kurzel. Muhly. The melancholy ones. But tonight the city was quiet. A moody fog had waltzed down the side of the escarpment and swallowed up the downtown core. Foliage tiles laminated the asphalt. Traffic lights reflected on the slicked streets. I didn’t need another symphony.
Approaching the base of the grated steel steps that ran up the escarpment, I paused and caught my breath. I’d typically did the stairs half a dozen times when I was out, but maybe I’d hit more tonight. I had more coal to burn and it always cleared my head properly. Helped me think. I figured it was something like your thoughts — everyone’s thoughts, I imagined — were closed off most hours of the day, the week. Hell, most of your life. Closed off from your conscious self. And I’m talking about the real thoughts. The ones that silently define you. The ones you desperately push from the forefront of your mind lest they eat you from the inside. It might take decades, but they’ll do real damage. Like a pack of feral animals caught in a cellar, clawing to get out. So, yeah, I think you need to find time and let that cellar door wide open. Move aside and let those animals scurry off out of the basement and into the woods. And then suddenly things make a bit more sense.
But yes, magpies. There I was. That’s what he called ‘em. The loudmouths. The gossip queens. Those never-ending blowhards who just didn’t know when to quit their mouths. The magpies are squawking, he’d say. Those with zero self-awareness, always full of righteous indignation. Always the victims. The kind who’d collapse if they were ever forced to entertain a moment’s silence and actually square off with their thoughts. Carrying on as if they could keep those animals locked in the cellar forever.
I reached the top of the escarpment and turned to stare out over the city. The tallest buildings emerged from the dense fog below and I saw the twinkling lights of the harbour in the distance. I thought about my wife. She was a magpie. It was unfortunate — she wasn’t always like that. I mean, she was a good woman. I just think that maybe time is a lot less kind to women. I don’t mean physically — though there is that — but my wife was still very beautiful. No, I mean that the world is just a nasty, rugged, hard son-of-a-bitch. And a man can naturally wear that defeat better. All he had to do was carry on. Keep moving. It’s unfair if you think about it. Men are allowed to live unhappier lives. Drink heavier. Die sooner. Women don’t have that same luxury. That same exit. They’re expected not only to carry on, but to retain some kind of grace as well. And that must be a real burden. It really must be. So, maybe my wife had cause to come down on me the way she did tonight. Maybe getting it out the way she did was the only way for her to get it out. But God damn, she could be cruel. Always knowing how to say the wrong thing the right way. Cut through to the sweetbread like some ravenous surgeon. And I was brought up to never tolerate that. Never let your name be taken through the mud. I suppose, though, looking back on it, there was something to admire in her scorn. The precision of her cruelty.
She really was a good woman.
I blew warm air into my cupped hands and rubbed them together, my raw knuckles chaffing in the cold. Magpies. More and more, to my dismay, I had started to see how I really was my father’s son. He always told me you did things once. One life. One wife. This ain’t no dress rehearsal, he’d day. You don’t quit when it gets heavy. But he’d been gone a while now. And some good his code did him. Nevertheless, I felt his disappointment within me. He was always God in my eyes, right ’til the end. Even after he was gone. Even through my hatred of him. I suppose that made me Job, unhappy with his lot in life. There at the top of the mountain though, straddling the precipice, it occurred to me that perhaps I was more like Zarathustra, ready to cross the void. And while that notion penetrated my mind, something broke off inside me, something that had been breaking for years I suspect, like the face of a glacier slipping into the sea after a millennia of incremental fragmentation. I knew my wife and I needed to have a long talk when I got home.
I began back down the escarpment and about halfway down, pulling me from my reverie, I caught a man slowly lumbering up the steps. More like a kid, actually. Dark hoodie on. Hands in his pockets. Late 20’s maybe. He looked harmless enough.
Until he pulled a knife on me.
“You wanna get stuck? I said give me your fuckin’ wallet and phone, old man,” he barked through gritted teeth, the knife shaking in his outstretched hand.
We were face-to-face on the steel landing and I glanced around, up the stairs and down, trying to find somebody, anybody, whose mere presence would help diffuse the situation. I was frozen to the spot, my dry mouth unable to release a word. I raised my hands instinctively and was overcome with a wave of shame at the emasculated position I found myself in. My eyes began to well up from fear and embarrassment and the kid’s face contorted with rage, his blonde whiskers shining as bright as the blade beneath the lamplight.
“You dumb mother fucker!”
I felt an explosion of sharp, hot pain in the side of my abdomen. It burst outward into the rest of my body in a frigid chill as the bottom dropped out from under everything and the moment slowed to a crawl. I felt the blade being ripped back out and with it, a sensation of something bursting out of the wound, like air escaping a slashed tire. The kid stuck me again, in between my ribs this time, pushing me back against the steel rail of the landing. My hands shot up instinctively and I grabbed his forearm just above his wrist. He looked at me, his eyes wide with shock and anger and he gritted his teeth harder and jammed the palm of his free hand into my face, arching me back over the railing. I let out a primal scream and lunged forward, kicking off the railing and overpowering him. I squeezed my hand as hard as I possibly could around his wrist, digging my nails deep into his skin, and his grip loosened off the handle of the knife still stuck in my side. We toppled to the ground and I began striking him in the face with awkward, desperate punches. But he was able to free his hand and tear the knife from my side, blinding me with pain. I slammed both of my fists down upon his wrist before he could stick me again and scrambled to grab the knife once I’d freed it from his hand. I sat over him for a moment, straddling his waist, carcinogenic steam rising off the both of us as he writhed in agony below me, clutching his broken wrist, swatting at me pathetically. From somewhere beyond I heard my father whisper out to me not to do it. But I didn’t listen. I jammed the knife into the kid’s side. Again and again and again.
And then all was silent.
I rose to my feet slowly and nearly feel backwards. I steadied myself on the railing and looked down at my side and pressed my hand to the wound. It was a sideshow of horrors. Warm and dark and malevolent. I pulled my hand away and raised it towards the lamplight and saw the glittering crimson and doubled over and vomited. I stood and looked down to the bottom of the stairs and was hit with a wild vertigo, my focus pulled, my knees weakening. I thought about dialing for help on my phone, but became conscious of my swooning and realized they wouldn’t make it in time — there was no in-road for an ambulance to pull up. I realized I had to try and make it to St. Joseph’s myself and, very carefully, focusing on my feet one step at a time, began the descent.
The mist of the evening had turned tragic and wept heavier upon me. I gripped the slippery steel railing with quivering forearms and felt blood run down my leg and flood into my shoes. I held down the call button on my earbuds, realizing how foolish it would be for me not to call for help — I could at least meet the EMS personnel at the top of the hill. But I must have not held the call button long enough because instead of engaging Siri, my phone began shuffling music, landing on Andy Williams’ “Up, Up and Away.” The campy horns screamed into my ears and I nearly lost my footing in surprise. I fiddled with the call button several times, but only managed to pause and re-play the tune over and over again. Frustrated and realizing I was running out of time, I gave up and allowed the music to continue and focused on making it to the hospital.
I reached the bottom of the steps and hobbled down the concrete pathway that snaked through the shallow woodland at the base of the escarpment, my head swimming in nausea.
Up, up and away in my beautiful, my beautiful balloon…
I emerged from the shelter of the overhanging tree canopies into the open air of downtown and felt the hard rain come upon me in full now. I looked up James Street and saw the demonic eyes of rear headlights and heard the taunting hissing of cars calling me out as they passed by. In the distance I heard the screeching of a train breaking and, further out, the collective guttural hum of faceless industrial behemoths sighing with laborious production. Further still, out in the great beyond, somewhere among all that din, I caught the disapproval of my wife, of my father, berating me for taking so damn long. I continued and inched down the sidewalk and saw the glow of the EMERGENCY marquee in the distance. With painful slowness, I descended the awkward concrete steps, ripping the buds from my ears after conquering a few of them, spiteful at Andy Williams for having the luxury of being so carefree and gay while the reserve tanks that held my survival instinct were running on empty.
I made it to the parking garage at the southern wall of the campus, only a block shy of the ER, when my legs began to teeter for a brief moment before completely giving out. I collapsed sideways into a narrow, muddy ditch that hugged the side of the garage, my gaze pitched up towards the sky. I watched as steel raindrops feel down upon me with increasing rapidity until soon I was plunging forward, rocketing through hyperspace. I let out a low groan of deep relief and shut my eyes and gave myself over to the calming white noise of the rainfall and the whooshing of unhurried cars and the babbling of the collected eavestrough water that escaped steadily from the downpipe the near my head, feeling numinous evanescence of the struggle inside me.
The world’s a nicer place in my beautiful balloon…
I stared past the salmon-coloured curtains and focused on the full moon shining brightly beyond the kitchen window as I wiped away tears, wincing as my hand brushed across my throbbing cheekbone. Somewhere out in the neighbourhood, a portable FM radio played a familiar campy duet. I swallowed hard and slowly turned to see my father still lumbering over me, his fists still clenched tightly. He grabbed a cigarette from the kitchen table and stuck it in his mouth and held the pack up in front of me as I cowered on the cold linoleum.
“You don’t respect other people’s property. I paid for these. These are mine. You hear me?”
He tossed the pack back on the table and grabbed his Zippo and lit the cigarette. I straightened up and tasted the lingering of one of his Players still deep in my lungs. He inhaled and stared down at me, his face silhouetted by the sixty-watt fixture behind him. He shook his head at me.
“My boy, the little magpie. Ya know, I’d go easier on ya if you weren’t always talking back. But there you are, always squawking.”
He finished his cigarette and butted it in the overflowing ceramic tray on the table. My chest heaved quicker in dreadful anticipation and I turned my mind to the coming morning. Of riding bicycles with Tommy Bishop and trading Upper Deck cards at recess with Reggie and Chip and Denny and stealing a glimpse of Bethany Mayfield’s big, beautiful, sea-blue eyes.
I turned and focused once more on the white moon beyond the curtains as my father wrapped his brown leather belt around his hand and pulled it taut in front of his chest.
My eyes shot wide open and my back arched upward as my lungs purged themselves of their death rattle, the stars above reforming into reassuring points of light. I turned on my side, now soaked to the bone, and crawled up the muddy, shallow incline to the sidewalk. I heard my father telling me to lay down, lay down, but somehow I found myself on my feet and lurching forward. A twirling kaleidoscope of amber and red and green blinked ahead and I stumbled forward drunkenly, clutching my side and crying out incoherently. I smelled the sour wet street and pungent damp cigarettes and felt the warmth of a bright light calling me home. I floated towards it and the gates parted and a booming voice overhead called out a list of names, directing them all where to go.
I collapsed in the foyer of the Emergency waiting room amidst gasps of shock and horror, my wound emptying blood and mayhem all over the sticky beige floor. Two nurses in turquoise scrubs quickly came to my aid and turned me over and within moments I was on a stretcher, glaring up at the flickering fluorescent lights, everything all white and hazy. I heard a familiar voice call out and with some strain I turned my head and was astonished at who I saw.
There, with her hair unkempt and her face red, stood my wife, rising from one of the waiting room chairs on the other side of the foyer. I called out to her, relief on my face, but was bewildered by her expression. It was an ephemeral combination of fear and anger and confusion and it was then I noticed she was sitting next to a uniformed police officer. The young officer pointed at me as he spoke to her, surprise on his face, and jotted down a few things in his notebook.
“Hey, what’s going on?” I cried out.
“It’s okay, sir. We’re moving you right now. Stay with us.” The nurse shined a thin flashlight in each of my eyes before placing a respirator mask over my face. The stretcher lurched forward and I was rushed out of the waiting room and towards urgent care.
I passed close by my wife and cried out for her, but she could not hear me behind the muzzle of the respirator. I began screaming louder and louder, angrier, as I drifted past her. My fists clenched tight and I felt the raw, bruised skin crack around my knuckles. I looked back and stared at my wife, at her black eye and split lip, and watched as she began to weep. I saw the young officer put his arm around her and became incensed at the ease in which she’d let him comfort her. She would probably tell him everything too. She could never keep her mouth shut around attractive men. And it would of course only be her side side of things. Nothing about how hard I worked or how I’d quit smoking or drank less or channelled my anger into positive outlets like jogging. Nothing about how difficult it was to be a man in today’s world. Nothing about my struggle. It would all be about her being the victim, her being neglected, her taking zero responsibility for all the times she’d pushed me over the edge. Yes, it would be all about her, like it always was.
Her. My ungrateful wife, the magpie. ∞
Kyle Caldwell is a writer and musician from Hamilton, Ontario. He is currently working on a collection of short stories and a crime novel and has released several albums under the pseudonym The Cold Atomic. Follow @thecoldatomic.