Read Greetings from the Vodka Sea Online
Authors: Chris Gudgeon
Tags: #Canadian Fiction, #Love Stories, Canadian, #Short Stories, #Canadian Short Stories, #eBook, #Chris Gudgeon, #Goose Lane Editions
Copyright Â© Chris Gudgeon, 2004, 2012.
All rights reserved. No part of this work may be reproduced or used in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or any retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the publisher or a licence from the Canadian Copyright Licensing Agency (Access Copyright). To contact Access Copyright, visit
or call 1-800-893-5777.
Edited by Laurel Boone.
Cover illustration: Veer.
Cover design by Paul Vienneau.
Book design by Julie Scriver.
Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication
Gudgeon, Chris, 1959-
Greetings from the Vodka Sea [electronic resource] / Chris Gudgeon.
Electronic monograph in HTML format.
Issued also in print format
PS8613.U44G74 2004Â Â Â C813'.6Â Â Â C2004-904085-5
Goose Lane Editions acknowledges the generous support of the Canada Council for the Arts, the Government of Canada through the Canada Book Fund (CBF), and the Government of New Brunswick through the Department of Culture, Tourism, and Healthy Living.
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The Raindrops, Not Unlike Her Tears
Gris-Gris Gumbo and Mrs. Charles Bukowski at the Mardi Gras Detox Centre
Sunshine Sketches of a Rat-Infested Shitbox
t approximately eight-fifteen on a mild Montreal morning, a black LaSalle taxi pulled up to to 1279 Redpath Crescent, a large, three-story house in a quiet neighbourhood that claimed, by right of affluence, a view of the city from half-way up Mount Royal. Three men got out of the taxi, one of them carrying a wrapped present, and asked the driver to wait. There was a long flight of stairs to the front door, so the taxi driver could not see the men as they approached the door and rang the bell. He could not see the Greek maid answer the door and could not hear the young man say, in broken English, that he had a birthday present for Mr. James Cross, the British Trade Commissioner to Canada. A receipt was required.
The driver could not see the woman hesitate â why would anyone need a receipt for a birthday gift? â and missed the part where the three unmasked gunmen pushed past the clucking housekeeper and forced their way in toward the bathroom. The radio was on, and the driver could hear, but paid no attention to, Janis Joplin, who'd died that very morning of a drug overdose.
Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose
. . . . The driver was engrossed in his paper. He liked to keep up on the news.
The detail “unmasked” is not superfluous, since the gunmen were supposed to be masked â the plan clearly called for the men to wear hoods to cover their faces â but in their excitement the kidnappers forgot to put their hoods on. It was a serious mistake in an episode in which one serious mistake followed another. They'd encountered Cross just as he stepped out of the bathroom, wiping the excess shaving cream off his face with a dry towel. “Get down on the floor,” one of the men caw-cawed to him, displaying his gun like proud plumage, “or you will be fucking dead.” Cross complied.
The gunmen handcuffed Cross, then pushed him â comfortably dressed in a checked sports jacket and slacks â toward the front door. It was a mild Montreal morning, a Monday, and the three young men took it as a sign that fate was on their side. Not God. He had been exorcised from their province ten years ago and now clung only to old women and curates,
mostly: fairies. They stopped at the door and told the commissioner's wife that they were members of the Front de Liberation du QuÃ©bec and that they were taking her husband hostage. It was the twelfth terrorist kidnapping in the West since September 1969 and the first outside Latin America. It was October, 1970. Revolution was in the air.
Two details stuck in Sondra's mind. The first was the checked jacket. Every single reporter went out of his way to mention that Cross was wearing a checked sports jacket at the time of his abduction. One guy on the TV even gave great detail about the jacket, describing the size (42 short), the fabric, its texture, the brand name; he went to a men's clothing store and found another jacket of similar colour and style and tried it on for the benefit of any viewers at home who could not at that moment go to their own clothing stores and try on similar jackets for themselves. Considering that it was off the rack, Sondra thought, it fit the reporter well, accentuating the breadth of his shoulders while masking somewhat his slight hunch and little potbelly.
The second detail was the birthday present. Was there actually something in the gift-wrapped box, Sondra wanted to know, or was it empty? And if there was something in the box, what was it? These were the sorts of questions a man would never ask. They were more interested in times and dates and jacket sizes, the measurable data. Objective reality.
She was studying the Polaroid picture of James Cross in the paper and thinking of the difference between photographs and statues. He was seated on a wooden crate, looking up at the camera. He wore a dark work shirt, obviously a gift from his captors, and played a game of solitaire. Sondra would have liked him to move the jack of hearts onto the queen of clubs. Statues, she concluded, are an imposition of history, an attempt to lock the past into the present, the past imperfect, so to speak. Photographs, specifically snapshots like the Cross photo, freeze the present and pull it outside of history. (There are, of course, historic photos, that is, photos of historic significance â the Cross photo is only one example â which exist almost wholly outside history.) Photographs are a kind of literature, in which attention must be paid to character and setting and voice and tense and the powers of light and darkness. Cross was looking up, neither smiling nor frightened, appearing, in fact, a little peeved for having had to stop his game and pose.
James Cross had laid his cards on a battered storage trunk used as a makeshift table and sat on a wooden crate turned on its end. On closer inspection, Sondra saw the word “dynamite” stencilled on the side of the box. She wondered if the photographer had asked Cross to smile or say cheese, or did he just call his captive's name and catch his subject, as lovers sometimes do, off guard. She wondered if James Cross was comfortable, seated on the box, and thought that perhaps he might like a cushion.
. . .
People assumed, when they heard Sondra was a feminist and unmarried, that she was a man-hater. Of course men reacted this way, particularly the older ones who'd grown up when notions of paternalism went unquestioned, but women too, and not just some women but most women. That she had been married was irrelevant (indeed, it only offered further proof of her hatred, or better yet, it clarified her bitterness â not that she was bitter, but she'd heard the talk and mapped the logic on her own). The fact was that Sondra was not a man-hater. The fact was that she loved men. Her own father, for example, she'd loved dearly, although he'd died when she was barely a teenager. And others, many others. The only difference between her and other women was that she'd made a conscious decision to free herself from the archaic thinking that allowed a man to behave as he pleased while a woman had to suffer by another standard. Her decision to take a married man for a lover, for example. She was not Ãtienne's mistress, as no doubt others (and no doubt he) thought. She chose him exactly because he was intelligent and elegant and
, and in that way could offer her everything she wanted from a relationship without bringing into it expectations greater than she was prepared to manage. And the others. Her position at the university, not to mention her private practice, afforded her plenty of opportunity. No. She wasn't a man-hater. She loved men, and she respected them. If they saw something they wanted â a job, a car, a lover â they didn't pussyfoot. They took it.
She was discreet and as honourable as she needed to be. Patients â clients, as she preferred to call them â were generally off limits, as were students. Generally. Avram was an exception, and there had been other exceptions who typically fell into one of two categories: men who were particularly together, who entered the relationship, like her, with their eyes wide open, expecting pleasure and novelty and temporary companionship and nothing more; and those who were apart, who seemed in need of the sexual attention of a woman who was particularly sexually attentive. These were not, to use the vernacular, mercy fucks, but carefully crafted therapeutic interventions. Then there was a third, much smaller category, which in actuality consisted entirely of Avram, a category reserved for men (and, up to this point, a man) who, unlike men in general, whom Sondra loved, not despite the fact they were men but because of it, she found herself loving in the particular. To be clear, these three categories applied only to men with whom Sondra had relationships, as opposed to men (like Ãtienne) with whom she had
relationship. So while she was in love with Ãtienne, a respectable heart surgeon with a quiet, sturdy wife, a man with whom she was having a relationship in a very specific sense (and within the very clear, in her mind, criteria she had set up) and was comfortable with that, she had found herself falling in love with Avram, with whom, by her own definition, she was not having a relationship, and with whom she would never, for a variety of reasons (his age, her intellectual needs, their long-term sexual incompatibility), have a relationship. This was unprecedented, and it concerned her. More than anything, she disapproved of the indiscretion. The photograph. That was a mistake. A tactical error that captured Sondra in a moment of weakness and froze it in time. She had resolved to get the photograph back. Not ask for it back, as a woman might. She had resolved to go to his apartment herself. She would go to Avram's apartment and take it back, like a man.
She hadn't noticed him at first. He was one of those boys who sat at the back of the class with his head down and his mouth shut. He had never once raised his hand to ask a question, and Sondra had quickly learned not to bother asking him one. He would stare at his notebook without answering. Not that he wasn't attractive. When you finally noticed him you realized that he was beautiful, with fine features and smooth skin, still wrapped in the androgynous petals of adolescence. But he was shy to the point that Sondra suspected he was suffering from some manner of neurosis, perhaps stemming from a deep-rooted sexual conflict. He was, no doubt, a virgin. And she was content to let him remain one, deciding almost consciously to pay no attention to this student who clearly did not want attention to be paid. There were plenty of other young people in the psych survey course, many of them quite eager and a few of those, she suspected, rather brilliant.
One morning, though, on her way from her car to her office, she noticed him â Avram â sitting at the edge of the fountain. He had his head lowered, as if he were reading a book in his lap, and remained almost motionless. His long hair fell before his eyes, and Sondra had the feeling that he was peering through this brown veil, watching her.
He was there again at the end of the day when she walked from her office to her car, and again the next morning, and so on and so on for days, his head down, the invisible book open. She began to notice him in class too, not that was he taking a more active role, but that he seemed to concentrate his energy on not looking at her. But, and this is critical, she did not sense any aggression on his part. There was this tremendous, pervasive passivity in his body language, which reminded her of clients who were victims of physical or sexual assault. He shared the impassive affect, the lack of eye contact, the centripetal gravity that drew all the extremities inward, sucking him into a fetal ball. There was one significant difference between this boy and her clients, though. What they lacked was the aura of innocence that encircled Avram. They had been corrupted, spiritually speaking, by their experience with the world; he had yet to open up to that experience; he had yet to be corrupted.
In the beginning, Sondra overlooked the boy's attentive non-attention. She was almost flattered in her way; one never knew how to react when a student had a crush on oneself, and surely that lay at the root of his behaviour: an adolescent, biochemically charged infatuation, perhaps inflaming his ambiguous sense of sexual self. In time â and not a long time, frankly â she found herself growing more irritated with Avram. She'd catch him in the middle of class with his head lowered and turned away from her. If she was on the right side of the room nearest to the door, he turned his head left, toward the window. If she strolled to the back of the class, as she now sometimes did almost to observe to what absurd lengths Avram would go to avoid looking at her, he would avert his eyes to the front of the room, concentrating on a square of tile near the blackboard or the metal wastebasket by her desk. And then she found herself angry at him. It was Ãtienne who first pointed out the significance of this. They were having lunch at the hospital commissary â they were very open about their relationship, or as open as one could be when one was having an extramarital affair in Toronto's airtight atmosphere â and she was going on about Avram. She was saying that she might report him to the department head or even ask to have him removed from her class when the elegant doctor, beads of potato soup condensing on the tips of his old-fashioned moustache, remarked that she had now been talking about Avram for, by his watch, a full thirty-eight minutes.
“There must be something very special about this young man that he should arouse,” Ãtienne spread the word like warm butter, “your passion so.”
That stopped Sondra cold.
“I'd suggest,” he said goodnaturedly, “and bearing in mind that I've seen inside more hearts than any man I know, that you're harbouring some feelings for this student, and I'd suggest further that your anger stems, as anger usually does, not from the boy's behaviour per se but from your inability to control his behaviour. No â I see that look and I agree. Control is not the right word, or rather, it is the right word but the wrong connotation. Let me put it this way. You are frustrated because he is just a child, yet he has out-manoeuvred you through the deliberate manipulation of his inattention. By not wanting to look at you, he has made you want him to look at you. Of course, he has carried it to a ridiculous extreme because, I think, as you do, that when you get right down to it, he is rather disturbed.”