Sunday Stories: Standing on a Beach Canada Day, 1992

Standing on a Beach
Canada Day, 1992

by Jonny Diamond

There’s a Man in the Basement Who Smells Like a Bar
My half-brother Michael has moved into the basement. Before you worry about his access to natural light, you should know that our “basement” opens on to a tiny back patio. So it is a “half-basement.” The half-brother in the half-basement. Once you remove the two-by-four my mother is perpetually wedging into the tracks of the sliding glass doors (“to prevent THEFT!”), it’s easy to step outside for a cigarette or some semi-private, nude suntanning (I’ve never actually tried that). It’s also good for sneaking girls in after my parents have gone to bed. I haven’t tried that either. Now, with my brother down there reading Studs Terkel and drinking beer, I won’t be able to try any of these things.

Unhappy Families Are All Kind of the Same, Too
My half-brother Michael is eighteen years older than me. He has four kids, aged 2 to 11. They aren’t living in the basement with him. Though he is only 5 foot 7 and 130 pounds, he used to be one of the best lumberjacks in British Columbia (so they say). He used to be one of the best go-cart racers in Ontario (so my father says), and was one of the best rock and roll drummers in the region (his band, the Barracudas, they say, was nearly as good as the Guess Who). He used to listen to CBC Radio all day and all night when he drove 18-wheelers across this giant boring country (so he says). When he was seventeen, a year older than I am now, he hitchhiked to California to hangout with the hippie dregs of the early seventies (the bent ones, the harder-edged ex-utopians). My father asked him not to, but Michael insisted he was going, so my father gave him $1,000 and told him to be careful. When he came back, his eyes were a little less blue.

Frozen Mugs and Runner Beans.
Michael drinks a lot of milk. He likes it cold, so he stores his glass mugs in the freezer: there are always at least three of them, frosted and a little lonely, nestled between the frozen peas and Neapolitan ice cream. They offend my mother’s sense of space, their emptiness a mute rebuke of her natural packing abilities, taking up useless room that could be used for chicken fingers or runner beans. She once tried to fill with them with small bags of frozen peas, but it clearly upset Michael. I have started freezing my mugs, too. The milk tastes better when it’s cold.

The Unintended Stains of Unintended Consequences
You probably don’t know this, but I used to spend a lot of time in the basement watching television. We even had cable down there. Obviously I can’t really do this anymore because it’s Michael’s bedroom and there’s a cot where the couch used to be. It’s a little irritating because I know that he hardly even watches TV, just reads and reads. (Or I don’t know, maybe he’s sitting there in silence, pretending to read.) Now I have to watch TV in my bedroom on a small black-and-white portable that gets only nine channels. It is late on a Friday night I am clicking through the dial and the multicultural channel (channel 47) is playing an Italian movie from the 70s and before I can even switch channels a woman with short blonde hair appears naked in the shower. For, like, a full minute. There is a lot of nudity in the rest of the film, full and frontal. (I’d like to think there’s some latent store of Italian syntax in my brain, given the hundreds of Italian movies I will subsequently watch with the hope of more nudity, but it would seem that that part of the brain reserved for masturbation cancels out language acquisition.)

The Last Beer Can To Die For a Mistake
Studs Terkel and Molson Canadian. James Michener and Labatt’s Blue. Gore Vidal and Coors Light. Paul Johnson and Bud Light. My brother likes history and cheap, weak beer. The cans are piling up under the stairs, behind the furnace, cohorts of dead soldiers stacked ever closer to the ceiling in a variety of world-historical building models: the UN Building, Big Ben, The Empire State Building, The Great Wall of China, The Taj Mahal. I suspect the pleasure he derives from the precision and order of his beer-can architecture is the chief reason for my brother’s alcoholism. Well d’uh, yes, he’s an alcoholic. Why do you think he lost his job as a truck driver, along with his a-little-too-smiley-for-my-taste wife? It’s too bad about the kids, though, my nieces and nephews are nice, even if they do smile a lot. My father, never exactly tough on his children, has insisted that Michael abstain from hard liquor while under our roof so that he can A) Get up early enough to hold down a steady job and B) Save money off his U.I. checks. What Michael will actually learn is A) Beer is the perfect masking agent for liquor on the breath and C) a bottle of Captain Morgan’s fits perfectly into four bottles of Joy Lu soy sauce. (Years later, sitting down to watch an episode of Law and Order with a plate of pork-fried rice, I will pour a ping pong ball’s worth of rum on my dinner.)

Chicken Fingers Can Do Marvelous Things
Every so often, my mother will insist that Michael join us for one of our gourmet frozen meals in the dining room, which is just an uncomfortable annex to the kitchen. It is not easy to convince Michael to join us at the family table as none of us are particularly excited by the idea, either. My father has books to read, my mother has a baseball game to listen to, I have TV to watch, Michael has beer to drink… But we do. We pass the little bowl of plum sauce packets left over from Chinese takeout, we chew on our chicken fingers, we salt our rice and talk about the neighbors. And we watch as Michael drinks three portions of milk from three different glasses, each one delicately removed from the freezer, frosted to opacity. Dude is weird.

Dialogue with a Houseguest
Me: “Hey, are you a hockey fan?”
Michael: “I used to like the Leafs but I haven’t really followed it in a while.”
Me: “That’s cool. They’re actually pretty good this year.”
Michael: “Oh yeah?”
Me: “Yeah. Wait, is that the C.N. Tower?”
Michael: “Oh, no. That’s supposed to be the Space Needle, in Seattle. It’s a lot like the C.N. Tower. I used to drive down there a lot with Cindy. It’s a nice town. Rainier than Vancouver, I suppose. But change is good, right?”
Me: “What? Why?”
Michael: “You know, getting stuck in a rut, all that. Sometimes it’s nice to have something new, different.”
Me: “I guess. I don’t know. I like my rut.”
Michael: “I don’t think it’s a rut if you like it.”

The Beautiful Beaches of Oshawa, Ontario
If you didn’t know any better, you’d reasonably assume that this industrial town at the rusted edge of the Golden Horshoe around Lake Ontario does not cater to those who enjoy sun and sand. But no, we actually have a pretty big beachfront. Every Canada Day there’s a huge party down by the water, with face painting, bands, food, games, stuff you can buy — like a mall, except outside. My main interest in the fair are the many roving packs of teenage girls, groups of seven or eight jean-shorted creatures who smell of laundry and coconut; they are terrifying, necessary in their gum-chewing and multicolored band aids. The problem with the beach is that it takes me over an hour by bike to get there, so I need someone to drive me. And I also need money. I am able to wheedle a much-coveted twenty-dollar bill off my father after a series of vague promises but he will not drive me. And then he says: “Why don’t you ask your brother. I’m sure he’d be glad to get out of the house.”

He’s Not Drunk, He’s My Brother
It is startling how quickly a human being can commit his or her personal smell to any given room, an under-scent that personalizes a space as much as a paint job or lighting scheme. Michael’s is a cross between wet bread, burnt popcorn and the floor of a pine forest. I will later come to recognize this smell as “morning in a bar.” I call down, a little shakily: “Hey Mike, you got a minute?” He answers: “Sure, come on down.” He has the curtains drawn, and the focused light from his solitary reading lamp makes the rest of the room even darker. I catch the nervous look on my face reflected in the unplugged TV. “Dad says he can’t drive me to the beach, but he said I should ask you.” Michael puts down his book (Hard Times, by the aforementioned Studs Terkel) and takes a sip from his coffee mug. “Sure. What the hell. I can drive you.”

How to Outrun Your Blindspot Without Even Trying
We’ve been sitting in the driveway for two minutes. I have buckled my seatbelt, as has Michael. Finally, he takes a loud, long breath, says “okay” and starts the car. We pull out very slowly. Three minutes later we are pulling into the parking lot of a 7/Eleven. “I just need a cup of coffee,” he says. When he gets back he walks to my side of the car and says, through the open window, “Dad’s let you drive around before? In the parking lot?” I am fifteen and one quarter years old, and yes, my father has let me take a few turns in our Honda Accord. I tell him yes. “Alright, I think it’s time you hit the open road.” I look for signs of joking and find none. I am going to drive to the beach. Maybe girls will see!

In Which I Attempt to Drive the Car with One Finger and Am Gently Rebuked
These aren’t country roads I’m driving on. We’re talking four lanes of Saturday mall-goers, golf-players, lip-synching teenage girls, hockey practice dads, wedding parties, flower delivery, and unhappy loners. And me. Michael gives me gentle prompts about what I’m doing wrong or what I should be looking for, but I feel good. He begins to say less and less. Thoughts I am having: “Fucking eh, I am driving!” “This is not really that hard.” “Wow, some of my fellow drivers are pretty ugly.” “Is this it?” A feeling that I will come to be very familiar with as an adult begins to creep over me: the profound existential disappointment that follows any kind of success, the all-too human realization that no matter what you achieve you will never quite be truly happy. And that’s when I pull up at a red light next to my chemistry teacher, Mrs. Hartog.

Because There Really is Something Funny About the Phrase “Inert Gas”
Mrs. Hartog, though indeed a “Mrs.,” is suspected of being recently widowed by the dead Mr. Hartog, a fact that the tenth grade has yet to fully grapple with. She is a stern woman, and not popular with her students. I imagine we are not very popular with her. I am bad at chemistry, so to pass the time I make jokes, doing my best to at least tie them in to the subject at hand. A particularly good one involved the term “inert gas” and was a hit with my three nearest classmates, Russell Slade, Jeff Sygo, and Mitchell McLeod, idiots all. It was not a hit with Mrs. Hartog, and she yelled at me. I don’t really hold that against her. Well, I don’t anymore. She turns her head to the right and looks across the empty passenger seat, formerly hers, and looks right through me into nothing. It looks like she has been crying. From this point on I will confine my jokes to Geography and Physics. The light turns green and she pulls away. Michael tells me to go ahead and hit the gas, “It’s the one on the right,” he says.

And There Were Jean Shorts All the Way to the Sea
We turn south toward the beach. Or really, I do, one-handed, confident, a driver: a young hero, a listener to classic-rock radio, a man confident in the tan of his sandaled feet and the length of his summer shorts (cut perfectly, two inches above the knee), a beer-drinker, a sandwich-maker, indivisible, potential, everything. Michael has fallen asleep beside me. His coffee leans perilously close to scalding his lap so I move it into the cup holder between the seats. When I lift my eyes back up to the road, the first of them appears: wondrous compositions of calico and caramel; freckles and knees and sunburnt shoulders — teenage girls in cut-off jean shorts. As I point the car with Air Hawk-like precision at the cheap strand of sad Lake Ontario, we hurtle past more and more of them, strawberry blonde Michelles carrying ruby-red beach towels, raven-haired Jennifers unwrapping popsicles, red-headed Lisas — all of them in jean shorts and flip flops, a revolutionary militia of leisure peasants marching to the sea to make cotton candy in defiance of the empire of adulthood. I slow down and sit as high in the seat as possible. The revolution, I hope, will need drivers.

The Future Is All Around Us
I am paying too much attention to the dizzying storm of bare legs and I almost run through a stop sign, but hit the brakes just in time. Michael is jolted awake. “Hey, easy on the rubber — better drivers use the brakes less, not more.” We are stopped at the corner of Ruttle and Gibney. In three years time Michael will move into a halfway house one block over, at the corner of Ruttle and Cedar. He will be estranged from his eldest son and he will owe his ex-wife thousands of dollars in child support he cannot pay because his license will be suspended, making it hard to get a job. He will collect unemployment but it won’t be enough. We will drive over with groceries (plenty of milk) and then we will drop him off at the library, where he passes his afternoons reading back issues of National Geographic. Two years after that he will get the money together to move out to the west coast, the only place his life has ever been happy. We won’t hear too much from him after that. I will invite him to my wedding, but we won’t come. He will thank me, through my father, for the invitation.

A Boy Gets Into a Car, and Gets Out a Man
We approach the lake and traffic slows as cars are pull over and park on the soft shoulder. There are all kinds of people crossing the road and cars are pulling u-turns and driving up on the sidewalk of one side of the road. It’s making me nervous, but at least it’s slow. “How’re you doing?” asks Mike. “I think I’m fine. Maybe we can stop soon and I’ll just walk the rest of the way.” “Sure.” A heavy-set man in a football jersey and baseball cap, carrying a cooler with a minor hockey team sticker on the side, jumps out in front of me and I almost hit him. He glares at his own reflection in our windshield and smacks his palm down hard on the hood of the car. Michael yells “asshole” out the window, but the asshole has already drifted into the crowd. “This is as good a spot to stop as any, I guess.” I pull over to the soft shoulder, tight to another car. Too tight, in fact, as I can’t open my door. Six more feet and it’s fine. It’s good to be on solid ground again and I realize that I’ve been tense for the entire ride. I thank Michael for letting me drive and he says we should do it again some time. We won’t. I join the crowd to walk the final distance to the beach. I turn back to say bye but Michael has his head fully torqued round as he tries to reverse back up the street around the incoming cars. He doesn’t see me wave.

Crowds and Power (and the smell of charred hot dogs)
I drift in behind a group of four girls about my age. I can see the outline of their brightly colored bathing suits beneath their loose t-shirts; one of them has badly sunburnt calves and I try not to take my eyes of them as the crowd spills out from the sidewalk into the street. I’m supposed to meet my friends at the lake side of the BBQ Pavilion but I am transfixed by the painful redness of the burn and follow the calves as far as the women’s public restroom; I wait a few moments before I realize how creepy that is and then move back into the crowd as a random actor, following nothing. I have already forgotten about Michael and the strange smell of the basement and the beer-can architecture and the fierce blue of his bloodshot eyes. The smoke of a thousand carbonizing hot dogs hovers over and through the whorling crowd, a bone-deep catalyst for the primitive muscle of men moving through men, staring at women, in search of meat. I look for my friends.

Ten Gets You Twenty Gets You Nothing
We lean against the fence, just so—uncertain, meaningless teenage malice expressed in the cocked angle of a head here, an arm there, a pouting scowl shared among the four of us.  Of the four, two have faint pubescent mustaches and two have razor burns from over-shaving — it is hard to imagine now that any of this is remotely attractive to anything or anyone, but three of the four of us will meet young women today who at some point will consent to being kissed and/or groped. The hot dog line moves very slowly, giving us plenty of time to reconfigure our adolescent pose with each shift closer to the giant half-barrel BBQ pits, like some endless poster shoot for a Karate Kid knock-off. As the flames come in view, manned by fat middle-aged men in aprons, fire chiefs and businessmen, local celebrities and jowly politicians, I reach into my pocket for the twenty-dollar bill given to me by my father. It isn’t there. I check the other pocket. Then I reach down to check my sock, where I occasionally keep larger bills, but I am wearing sandals. I try not to let on to the others that I have no money. I’m pretty sure that none of us actually like each other and that the only reason we hang out is because we think we look cool. These guys aren’t going to lend me money. I make up an excuse and walk back out into the crowd to retrace my steps, realizing immediately how unlikely a recovery is. The back of my neck is hot with shame and anger. I am lost.

A History of Kindness
My eyes focus on the churned up ground: sandaled feet with bright red toenails, worried turf, empty beer cups, half-eaten hot dogs, a quarter (!), today’s paper open to the page 2 girl who is definitely not hot… but of course, no twenty dollar bill. I let the crowd take me where it will. I let myself stare at all the faces hovering in and out of my visual frame, pleading with each for pity or generosity. And then Michael’s blue-eyed, stubbly head appears before me, small, kind. The pressing crowd instinctually makes space for him as if it can sense his failure. I call out to him. He sees me and lifts his hand, moves over to where I have stopped. “There you are. This must have fallen out of your pocket.” He hands me the twenty, a brief smile passes across his face. “Try to have a little fun.” I thank him and he slips back through the crowd. It’s been an hour since we parted ways and he has been looking for me the entire time. I do not return to the hot dog line. I do not return to my quartet of malingering teenage boys. I walk slowly northward against the flow of bodies, until I reach the main road. I get on the bus for home. I hope Michael is ok to drive.

Jonny Diamond is the editor of The L Magazine. He lives and works in Brooklyn (where he also writes fiction, more of which can be read here). “Canada Day” is from a forthcoming collection of interconnected stories (or novel, or whatever).