Stories

Salinger’s Cutpurse – Daniel Ross

The river water froze my feet up to the shins. Barefoot on rocks carved and rounded by time. This is what men are supposed to be. My brother and I were sick of skipping stones across the water’s surface–smooth and flat as the glass display cases we looked through with wonder at trading cards with prices we couldn’t imagine being able to afford.
Across the Chemainus river, a couple built inukshuks, and we watched them the same way a cat watches a mouse in the long grass from a tall fence post.
After the couple left, we took turns launching stones to destroy the three-dozen painstakingly built statues. We laughed while we did it. It started as giggles, but slowly took on the staccato rhythm of a hyenas growl.
That was a long time ago, but still I feel guilty for every beautiful thing I’ve destroyed in my life.
I lived beneath the far-away tea kettle rumble of airplanes and bullrush semi-trailers. Beneath crying ambulances and barking dogs. Even as an adult life felt like pretend. The dope-minded, everything is going to be okay attitude I held in mind didn’t help me when I was a marker-handed toddler pushing my fingers through the gaps of chain link fences and into the jaws of feral German shepherds. For all the sun’s glory it didn’t stop me from stepping into places I didn’t belong.
In this city, most big box retailers have shut down. There’s a Dollarama on every corner between a gas station and a liquor store though. It’s the Dollarama sign that makes me anxious, I think. The bright yellow on green. It reminds me of golf. A golf course on a weekend has more predators milling about than a prison. At least a convict has the good sense not to smile when he’s stealing from you.
A psychiatrist appointment can end very poorly if the doctor wants it to. Once, four stiff police with guns displayed, holding handcuffs and a legal document from a doctor forced my last hospitalization on me. I never wanted to go back. I wasn’t afraid, I just didn’t like boredom.
Boredom as most of us timed-out grownups know is worse than anything else. It’s even worse than pain. Like boredom, pain was intended to teach right from wrong, but all I learned was that it hurts–a lot.
The last institutionalization I wondered, in the hospital bed, if the worn circumstances of my birth filled my father with such disgust that I was never meant to survive. Born premature, and then delivered to a small glass chamber I almost died in without anyone’s consultation, but that’s old news.
There’s a bigger chamber for the regular-weak. Benign weak.
I saw the faces of relatives worn by strangers on the street. Everyone was acting. All the world’s a stage! Heads and hands and feet scripted to do what they do. Waiting for public transit, I wondered what it would be like to watch the world end from someone else’s perspective.
The college girl in the blue jeans and white tank-top with a forearm tattoo seemed to be one of many destinies, and luckily–she sat next to me at the bus stop.
“What’s your name?” I asked.
“Miranda,” she looked back to her phone, barely giving me a glance.
“You in summer semester? Summer school?”
“Sure,” she said.
“Where are your books?” I asked.
She put her headphones on and turned away without saying a word.
I was done being a crazy at that point. I just wanted to be a lover.
A lover is someone who loves, and a lunatic is just a person like an ocean, pushed and pulled by something much bigger than themselves.
Staring across the road the gaps between moving vehicles allows for a sort of soft focus. A non-clinical disassociation.
I always thought madness was an ocean I could sail over. There was land somewhere out there to collapse onto and finally rest–returning to the true self. Me, minus the thoughts and compulsions.
The life I had before moving back to the west coast flashed before my eyes almost constantly. It was so beautiful yet I felt as though I was dying there.
Montreal still called. Far, far away the ruined coliseum of vice and art and beauty and everything interesting.
Not much of a place for a shaman, though. The industries there have a vice grip on rejuvenation. Calculators, tubes, wires, and syringes.
Instead, my ancestors cut themselves to bloody steel for good luck. The worst I did was arrange stones in circles, pray for absolution in front of a broken mirror, and collect leaves and rocks I could identify as special. My ancestors thought stones had power, and could transfer energy from the planes to the mortal. That makes a druid. That makes a witch.
Inside every pebble were fragments of living things that died a long time ago. Before the birth of the universe…a different iteration died.
The bus arrived, and I watch my shadow shift in the window, again.
The piles of snow on the sidewalks were like the off-white lumps of skin on my grandmother’s hand as I squished them between my fingertips. I asked her why they didn’t snap back into shape like my skin did.
“When you get old it never goes back to the way it was,” she said.
There was never a time to be mournful for skin. Since eight there was an expectation I would die young. It happens after the first time you are caught trying to kill yourself. You know it’s not the last time.
I made a noose with the wire of a nintendo controller in my dad’s girlfriend’s house, and tied it to the top of the bunk-bed.
Beyond the broken blinds, the white dusted coffee table, and the garbage bags leaking on faded linoleum, there were reasons my family could be called dysfunctional.
Six years before I was born my mom decided to perform some stunts on a horse for her friend who tried to convince her not to. She spooked the horse and went head first into a telephone pole. Her right leg broke in three places, and she spent several months in the hospital. Some of it in a coma.
You’d think that would be the highlight, but it’s a footnote. It’s harder than that. It runs deeper than that.
Dirty snow along the roads. I follow the lines of muck in the gutter. Miranda was off my radar and we were both glad of it.
The first thing I recall about childhood was fear.
I remember fear asking my father if I could turn on the television. He tended to explode into a rage and make his problems his children’s problems. I still get flashbacks whenever I’m about to open my mouth in a quiet room–even in my own home. He hated being interrupted almost as much as I felt he hated me.
Dirty snow marks the end of winter, or the beginning. It doesn’t matter.
Every glance from a woman in public was validation, and validation was a bowl with no bottom.
I’m still waiting for my fill. Redemption didn’t come either. What did I have to be redeemed for? My sins were petty. Greed, sloth, lust. Still there are a string of red paper hearts fastened to my solar plexus. The other end is tied godknowswhere. All I know is there isn’t much slack between the two points. The almost two dimensional organs never graze the broken bottles and used condoms lying on the pavement. In my old hometown people drink and fuck in the gutters underneath the dim reflections of hydroponic light. It’s nothing, really. Nothing to worry about.
Rose was someone beautiful I almost destroyed, and I still thought about her every day.
In Montreal, I spilled through the doors and scraped my palms on the jagged sidewalks, vomiting out the sins of the evening. There it was all laid out before me like so many pages–kill the noise in your stupid skull. Just go! Down the steps again, don’t trip this time. Montreal was love that made you crazy. I wanted to cry when I remembered it, but I couldn’t let on in a public place. Fuck! The commercials play again on the ceiling of the bus.
Where was I? The vomit. Puke. Gak. Warm, acidic, oatmeal. There I was wild and…lost really. I couldn’t remember the reason I was in that great city, just the lights, and great bars–Club Super Sexe notwithstanding. It is our literary city. Toronto is where the artists go to grow up and get real jobs. Montreal both had those wonder-eyed women who thought vagrancy was mysterious, and sort of an expat literary culture not unlike Paris between The Wars.
It’s just my luck I was in love then. Good for me. Rose used to sweep my hair to one side of my forehead but I thought it was too Hitlerish.
I sat in the bathtub in my underwear as she cleaned up the bad cut I gave myself.
“Make it look like you want to be seen in public with me, or else I can just wear a toque.”
Rose kept quiet whenever she was at work with some project. Her lips tightened against each other like she was angry.
“There’s broken and then there is us, baby,” I hummed.
I don’t even think it was a real song. I told her it was before her time.
Regardless, there’s history in that city. The ghosts living in the brick apartments of the McGill ghetto kept whispering their truths in ways it was hard to ignore. All the voices held together like the sound of the Chemainus river. Only a strong current could keep me moving. Both places: Montreal and Chemainus–I nearly drowned.

I was on the way to the psychiatrist, trying to be good and not cold turkey my medications. On a maintenance dose, it was easy to think clearly. Higher doses meant sluggishness of the body and spirit.
In Montreal, I didn’t make any friends. You’d figure someone might have wanted to talk to me, but it was harder than it seemed. I expected my weight to be a gravity well, drawing all nearby bodies into my orbit, but my clothes got bigger the longer I sat in that Ikea chair smoking weed and drinking coffee.
There’s nothing wrong with a drug addict, said no one. Once I dropped out, the dog catchers heretofore referred to as psychiatrists were on my heels trying to inject me with structure, form, and purpose.
My question is what purpose can a well read human have that doesn’t account for entropy? What purpose could you conceive for someone as supremely fucked up as I? I didn’t promise anything to anyone. I made pacts, bonds, or covenants–but no promises.
Through the bus window, a native couple walked through stopped traffic with a sign and a crumpled Tim Hortons cup between them.
Maybe there were broken promises somewhere along the girder lines of industry through time. The foundations that are all buried six feet down on the sacred land of murdered aboriginals.
In Montreal General, there was nothing forgotten as much as those quiet moments in the far away wars. Patients said I’d leave with a giant bag of pills that made my eyes grow dollar signs. Some patients said I didn’t need to take up a bed because I wasn’t that sick.
I lost my equilibrium somewhere along Avenue du Parc. Birds followed the tall dark haired woman with the large nose across the intersection and disappeared into a coffee shop. I remember a Kurdish girl staring at me. She wore an olive drab army jacket, like the one I was wearing. She smiled, turned her head and crossed the other way.
Icicles formed above our patio by the time the leaves fell, and I found the perfect one. Still pure green, barely any aphid holes, with the stem intact. I put it in my pocket and brought it home to show Rose.
Her eyes narrowed and her forehead wrinkled like the tinfoil my grandmother saved in a drawer.
“Why are you collecting leaves?”
“You wouldn’t understand,” I said, taking the vaporizer from atop my desk. My mind was a tree on fire. So many branches of thoughts. So many burning leaves falling–I couldn’t possibly catch them all.
There was a broken hearted sound that fell out of her and shattered on the ground. Like she knew she was falling away from her. I cut the cord binding us at the waist and then just floated there like a two-day old balloon, sometimes orbiting, sometimes spinning, but I always came back to her. Always. Always.
Her parents divorced, and were not good to her afterwards. That’s why I think she feared abandonment. Her parents both remarried and she was shuffled back and forth between them with her suitcase. Rose spent most of her childhood in daycare.
I didn’t want to think about it too much at that point in Montreal. I spent a lot of time thinking about hanging myself from the balcony. Thinking about my lovers broken childhood reminded me of my own. It felt fated to be together.
A few days before she left for Christmas break. She played a song for me. Little Waltz by Basia Bulat. On the line “two lost little birds”…fuck I can’t even think about that line without crying. It felt like we were both new place, without anything binding us to family. She had more to fear than me. She was in school, had a job, had friends. She could lose them all if I did something stupid like hang myself from the balcony. People disappear after suicides. People throw their hands up like enough is enough. She told me later that she expected to one day come home to find me dead.
I’m over it now. Over everything sad in my life. I’m sure I’ll have more sadness, more depression, more defeat–that is inevitable.

In the waiting room of the mental health centre, there is the sound of people breathing through their nose that makes you want to jump up on your chair and scream.
The psychiatrist came through the glass double doors and waved me in. I sat down in a well-padded chair and waited for him to fold his hands in his lap and cross one leg over the other.
My mouth opened, and the psychiatrist’s eyes turned to static.
“My father reserved his kindness for women he wanted to fuck. It took him awhile to find a home for us. My brother and I slept on the floor of spare rooms that belonged to my father’s friends. The adults did cocaine off a glass coffee table while we tried to sleep.”
Madness is one thing I’ve never been able to shed my addiction to. The memories, the feelings I get when I remember the way snow curled off the awning above the emergency room entrance at Montreal General Hospital are as beautiful and as out of reach as week old dreams.
In the hospital they force a higher power on you through the beveled edge of a needle. It’s not what you’d expect because for all the crusty old bat nurses with crucifixes around their necks there is knowledge that your body and mind no longer belong to you. It’s like being conscripted in that sense, but you aren’t given gun on arrival, so if you find yourself in a locked padded room, you can’t even shoot your way out. You are now in the service of keeping the study of psychiatry afloat. Good luck and Godspeed.
I wanted to love. I wanted to love the world–all of it. Down to the atom. Down to the meaningless pain. The sharp stone at the bottom of a shoe. All of it is necessary. Nothing out of place.
At a quiet moment in the Montreal General’s cafeteria I said, “I want to get hit by a car.”
The walls echoed back:
We all do.
Walking the halls of the ward felt like riding my bike down a dark road. The clean linoleum could be water for all I care. It snowed for days–my room had a window. I was a pincushion with all these needles full of haldol, clozapine, invega. The names of drugs came with the deceptively sweet sound of music. HAL-dol, CLAW ZAA PEEN. INH-VAY-GAH
“I’ll wait for the noises in the walls to stop and I’ll call myself a liar. It might be warhawks doing it. They want to keep you up all night thinking there are islamic fundamentalists in your ceiling,” I say to the psychiatrist.
I know I was not making my point clear, but my point was lost everytime the first phoneme flew from the tip of my tongue.
In Montreal, I felt the words. I didn’t hear them because they boomed in my body emanating from my solar plexus.
A boy learns from his father how to disappear, and when to re-materialize. My grandfather was a homechild, a nice way of saying unwanted offspring turned slave and shipped here from Scotland. He spent most of his life as a travelling salesman. I remember the smell of rye on his breath, and how dry his hands were. He rubbed his thumb and forefinger together to make the sound of a dying frog, but he couldn’t fool me.
A cloud of tobacco smoke preceded my father ringing the doorbell to my grandparent’s home. He’d take us to his bachelor suite, where we’d be told to clean up and earn our keep before dinner.
He’d be stoned before the meat finished cooking. It would burn, or turn rubbery, and his mood would send us to bed immediately after dinner, where we’d watch the headlights on the street reflect through the window onto the cobwebs at the corners of the room. Every 15 minutes a siren started in the distance, some crime or accident in progress.
My father once tried to apologize for the person he was, but there’s nothing beyond the words of an apology from a narcissist. It is the outside layer of chocolate rabbit. Sweet, but it mostly conceals empty space.
He spoke in cruelty, and it’s true that most poor and addicted father’s do. There’s an ambulance you hear every time a baby interrupts a man’s life. That siren, in all contexts, is the death of something.
The psychiatrist nods and writes on his notepad.
“Do you still lie in bed a lot?”
Spending four years wanting to peel the bloody skin from my body and let it drop to the floor in a pile in front of a mirror was how I coped with depression.
Through the dark glass was bright coloured noise from all angles. I remembered the sound of static in my ears. Swallowed by unwet water. Breathing through my hair like octopus tendrils, while I sank in no direction.
I leave the mental health centre and walk downtown. I’m beginning to get a hold of my disassociation. VIewing myself in third person. Another me questioning my choices with what little free will I have left.
A truck’s ramp slams onto the concrete, and I’m trapped in my body thirteen years ago.
The noise is people. A door opens to a grim silhouette. Footsteps—a downtown drumbeat echoing against concrete walls and vibrating glass windows revealing fake green plants. Chic. Nature is chic, but we don’t ever taste the dirt, chew the bark, grip the dying bird in our hands and squeeze.
My feet melt crossing the street, I run out of time as the amber hand flashes.
I was raped. It took ten years to say it. In the middle of the intersection, I wail the words so loud.
Time freezes. A bus, stuck in the air with the driver’s mouth open and a scream stifled.

I remember tulips in the earth bed around a dying dogwood tree. A wide brimmed baseball hat keeping the sun from my new eyes.
I remember sneezing from the light, touching the ground without shoes and feeling each blade of grass against my feet.
I remember pushing my brother’s stroller along a gravel sidewalk. The road cracked beneath our feet, and the colour of the field faded.
I remember tying four corners of a sheet together like cartoons and hanging out a second storey window before feeling hands pulling me back into the dark.
I remember lying in the bottom bunk with my grandmother stroking my hair singing ancient lullabies.
I remember waking to the shadow of a skull floating above my bed, and a floor tiled with gravestones.
I remember pissing against the wall of my school.
I remember pointing a toy pistol at my great grandmother. Feeling the impulse to kill, but without knowing the difference between life and death.
My family’s bible was in mint condition.
The mind drifts like plastic in the oceans. Why is life so mundane on Play, and so wonderful on Rewind.
My aimless wandering produced nothing but footprints.
I’ve had rapture build from my feet to my skull, then it left. In its absence I stared at a belt and imagined what death was.
I’m taking pills like they’ll cure me even though I know they won’t.
Even the pills can’t stop the waters from rising.
I say to my father, “you don’t deserve my memory. You don’t deserve memories of me” but he doesn’t hear.
He isn’t there.