Winner of 2017 Giller Prize

Winner of 2017 Giller Prize
Michael Redhill for his novel Bellevue Square

Sunday, July 27, 2014


J Jacobs, on the run for 27 years, ends up in Vancouver.
Subterranean Homesick Blues
(a work of fiction based on real events)
by Joan M Baril
A light step on the wooden sidewalk outside wakes JJ from the old nightmare. In it, he’s twenty-three years old, sitting with the entire family on the long couch in the rec room and watching TV.  Ed Sullivan disappears from the screen and, a heartbeat later, a picture of his New York townhouse appears.
Walter Cronkite’s words streak through his brain like a line of fire.
At first the authorities believed the explosion was caused by a gas leak but now it appears dynamite was involved, perhaps some sort of bomb.
His father, ever the news reporter, leans forward. “Oh, my God,” he says.
His little brother Bob, five years old, kicks at JJ and yells, “Hey! Put back Ed Sullivan. I want Ed Sullivan!” 
His grandmother half turns. “Don’t you live close to there, JJ dear?”
No Grandma, I do not live close to there. I live in there. My friends live there. That is my house; my dynamite. He does not say these words out loud.


But now, twenty-seven years later, JJ, in his basement room in his house in Vancouver, feels the dream shredding as he tunes into the sounds outside, the foot steps on the long wooden walkway from the street.  He lies in his lounge chair, swaddled in sheep skins, a ridiculous fifty-year-old mummy, the blessed morphine pump near his shoulder, his lap top on the swivel tray, his cell phone beside it within reach, or whatever is left of his reach.
He’s never played a radio in his basement room, never a TV. The wooden sidewalk outside tells him all he needs to know.
Steps move lightly around the house. One person. He releases a breath. The pigs come in pairs. The ambulance dudes trundle a gurney, but there’d be at least four of them after what happened last week. They’d be bringing in the reinforcements.


He hears tapping at the back door, a male voice and his wife Marion’s lighter tones and then the footsteps coming down.  He is pretty sure he knows who it is.  Max’s boy, over from Salt Spring Island. To get the scrap books.
He glances at the pile on the table, the work of years. Well, it had to happen sometime. 
“Hi,” says the young guy in the doorway.  “Remember me? I’m Keith. I came to visit a couple of months ago with my dad, Max Cameron.”
“Take a chair,” JJ says, studying the slight young man in the beige windbreaker, round-lensed glasses, collar-length hair. Max’s grey eyes.
            “How’s it going?” Keith says, pulling the wicker chair close to JJ’s sheepskin cradle.  “Are you doing any better?”  He has a gentle smile, just like his dad.
“Same, same. The melanoma has moved to my brain, that’s the big news. But I’m still making sense. I hope. I’ve got my morphine so I’m OK for a bit.  My skin is bad though. Real bad.” 
“Dad didn’t want to make another trip so soon,” Keith says. “You know what I mean. He likes to stay on the island. But he’ll take the night ferry next week. He’s thinking about you.”
“He’s right, your dad,” JJ says. “Twenty-seven years on the run, just like me, and no use getting careless. He’s got lots of life to live yet.” 
Keith gives a sheepish smile and reaches into his pocket bringing out a small paper packet. “He sent you this. There’s not much but he says he’ll get more next week.”
JJ feels his heart bound. “Oh, good man! Do you know how to fix it?”
“Well, I’ve seen them do it in the residence. I think so. Is there a razor blade in the bathroom?”
            JJ watches avidly as the young man uses the razor to chop the cocaine crystals on the shaving mirror, gathering in the powder with the edge of the blade and chopping it again and again, his head bent to the task.
            “You’re at Simon Fraser, right?” JJ says.
            “Yeah.” The young man is forming the powder into two thin lines.
            “What are you taking?”
            “International finance.”
            “Oh, Christ,” JJ says.
            The young man smiles up at him. “That’s what my dad says. He says I’m learning to be an imperialist. An outsourcing imperialist.” He laughs.
            “The primary task of revolutionary struggle is the contradiction between the oppressed people of the world and the imperialism of the United States,” JJ says.
            Keith raises his head, stops moving the white powder. “What?”
            JJ laughs. “Something I wrote a long time ago, in 1969.  Part of a dynamite speech I gave.” Had he really said dynamite? The cancer must have reached his brain for sure.  But he smiles to himself because he realizes it doesn’t matter any more. Not at all.
            “Imperialism and outsourcing are dead opposite,” JJ says. 
The young man shrugs. He takes a twenty dollar bill from his wallet and rolls it tight. “Fresh and clean from the ATM,” he says.         
“You’ll have to do it,” JJ says. “I can hardly hold anything. The skin on my fingers is peeling off.  Marion has to feed me.” He holds up his hands and sees the young man wince. “That’s nothing. You should see my back, my ass.  Pretty soon I won’t have skin, just an interior with no exterior to hold it together.”
            The young man’s face flares into pity as, with one hand, he carefully places the tip of the rolled bill into JJ’s nostril and, with the other hand, raises the mirror.  JJ takes a deep breath to contain the pain of lifting his head. Then he breathes in the powder again and again, as Keith moves the mirror so the end of the rolled bill slides along the white powdery line.  
            JJ closes his eyes. He hears Keith snort the second line. A feeling of lightness, a golden lightness, floats through his body. “The queen of drugs,” he hears himself say.  “The queen of drugs.”


He’s back in the family rec room in 1970, twenty-seven years ago. Ed Sullivan disappears from the screen and a picture of his New York town house flashes on. They’re all staring at the television as he gets up, makes it to the bathroom, and flushes twice so they can’t hear him throwing up. 
He goes upstairs, gets his jacket and car keys and slips out the front door. By two in the morning, he passes through Hartford and pulls into a picnic area beside the Connecticut River, opens the trunk and tosses his latest case of dynamite into the current. He stands on the muddy bank, his body swaying towards the dark water. Beautiful Diane. Dead. She was the only one who hated the plan, said it was pointless and wrong.
 But he and Robbins were fired up for violence, for the supreme deed.  
Three friends dead and it’s his fault.
He can’t stop shaking as he forces himself to walk back across the wet grass. He gets into the car and, all the way back to Hartford, as the radio gives him bits of news about the explosion, he hears himself sobbing like a child. He leaves the Ford Falcon in the Greyhound parking lot, keeping the keys to ditch later.
            On the bus and gone.  
He never saw his parents or grandmother again.


“I used to peddle coke,” JJ says to Keith who is walking around the basement room, looking at his books, the statue of Buddha with its elaborate incense holder, the mandala posters on the walls, the scrapbook table with its scissors and glue sticks, the drawing of the Buddhist temple on Salt Spring Island which he helped to build.  He’d been a good stone mason right up to last year, and all the interior stone work in the temple, all the carved lintels and railings and deep window sills were his creations.
One thing to be proud of anyway. 
            “In California,” JJ says, his mind drifting back over the bad years, “I almost got caught. I had to jump out a window like Spider Man. Headed for Mexico. The thing about being on the run is you’re lonely all the time. No friends really. Unfortunately, I found Jose Cuervo. Coming up here and meeting Marion saved me.”
            “Why Vancouver?” Keith asked.
            “My brother Bob had started his first year at Simon Fraser.”
            He sees Keith’s start of surprise.
            “Sixteen years ago. Bob lives in Richmond now but the Mountie pigs never give up so I don’t see much of him.  A couple of times a year we find a way.”
            Keith’s voice is hesitant. “Your wife wanted me to ask you something.”
            “I know,” JJ says. “To go to the hospital. She’s having it tough looking after me.”
            “So why not go?”
            “One more week, that’s all I need. To settle the scrap books and to finish my bio on the lap top. I can only write a few minutes at a time. One more week and then for sure.”
            Keith opens the top scrapbook on the pile on the table and, without looking at him, says, “Dad told me you killed someone in an explosion.”
            “No, but I bought the dynamite. From a guy who worked construction near my parents’ place. He stole it for me and I paid him. The group had lots of money because we’d just robbed a bank.”
            “I don’t understand it.” Keith turns, frowning.
            “We were bringing the war back home.  That was the idea at the time anyway.  Bring the war home,” JJ says.
            “The war? Which war?”
            JJ feels his eyes open in surprise. “The Vietnam War.”
            “It’s been over for ages,” Keith says.
            JJ closes his eyes again, tries to find the golden heart of cocaine.
            “Have you ever heard of the Weathermen?” JJ says at last.
            “No,” Keith says.
            “Did you ever hear the phrase, ‘You don’t have to be a weatherman to know which way the wind blows?’”
            “I don’t think so,” Keith says.  He’s holding open a scrap book so JJ can see the page. “Pretty girl here.” 
            “That was Diane. The guy beside her was Robbins. He wanted to make a nail bomb and set it off at an officers’ dance at Fort Dix. Robbins knew nothing about bombs and neither did Diane.”
            “What?” Keith glares. “A nail bomb? That fucking sucks. I don’t get that kind of violence. It’s stupid. No matter what the cause. Just plain, fucking stupid.”  He lets the scrapbook drop from his hands back on the pile.
            “It wasn’t stupid,” JJ says. “It was cruel. Cruel is worse than stupid. Way worse.”
            A tiny sound outside.
            ‘Keith!” JJ snaps the name. “Get that mirror and the other stuff. Lift the corner of the carpet under the table and pull up the floorboard. Just press on the right side and the board will pop up. Throw your wallet in there too. And any other identification.”
            Keith stares at him, confused.
“Just do it, man! Move! Right now!”
            He hears Keith fumbling with the carpet and he also hears the background noise, the double set of footsteps on the walkway outside. They aren’t hurrying and, half way along, they stop. Maybe they’re trying to look in the basement window but long ago he’d painted the glass black. Another vehicle stops on the street. Doors slam but silence follows as if everyone up there is frozen, wondering what the hell they’re doing.  
Then the sound he expected, the soft clunking of the gurney wheels on the boards.  More footsteps. A god damn army out there.
            The tap at the back door and his wife’s voice from above.
            Keith stands up, his eyes round. “I did it,” he whispers. “I covered it up pretty good.”
            “Listen. Do what I say. Sit on the floor in front of the table. Cross your legs. Your name is Kama and you’re a Buddhist monk from the Salt Spring temple. You came over to do meditation with me. Got it?”
“Yeah.” The young man’s voice is all breath. “Got it.”
 “Did you get rid of all your identification?”
            “Yeah.”
            “Don’t want to give them a lead to your dad.  Now put your hands on your knees like this.”  Painfully JJ lifts one arm, his palm turned upward with his thumb and forefinger creating a circle. “Hear me now. Don’t get involved, whatever happens. For your dad’s sake, do not get involved! You understand?”
            From his place on the floor, Keith nods.
            Marion’s voice at the door of the rec room. “I’m sorry darling, but it’s time. I had to…”
            The two cops push past her. 
            He hears Marion cry out, “Don’t touch him. His skin is very sensitive.”
            But the cop has JJ by the upper arm and he screams in agony and then he flies from the chair, his raised fist connecting with the square face and the guy hurtles backwards in surprise, hitting the bookcases. JJ rounds on the second cop, pummeling him in fury. He feels the old strength flowing back, the strength of many years working as a stone mason and he knows too that the cocaine is pumping in energy and dulling the pain. Out of the corner of his eye, the ambulance guys shrink in the doorway. They’d seen him like this before. 
He grabs the cop on the floor high enough to slam his head against a lower bookshelf but he feels his arms being locked from behind and his body bent backward. It takes them a long time before they can get him into the cuffs and on to the gurney, and as the straps bite into his legs, arms and chest, he lets his body relax into the pain.
As they bump him outside, he hears Marion crying and crying. “I’m sorry, darling. I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.”


They’re all sitting on the couch.  Ed Sullivan disappears from the screen and a picture of his New York townhouse flashes on. Walter Cronkite opens his mouth; but, with an effort, JJ forces himself out of the recurring dream and into the hospital room. A light voice in his ear. Keith is bending over him.
            “How did you make out?”  JJ whispers, trying for a smile.
            “The monk thing worked fine. They just waved me away. I panhandled the money for the ferry and Dad picked me up last night. Then I came back over this morning.”
            JJ tries to raise his head to look around the room but he can’t do it. “Your dad isn’t here, is he?” His voice emerges as a far-away panicky whisper. He’s aware that Marion is standing at the foot of the bed and that Keith is bending closer, his sweet face blurry in the dimming light.
            “No,” Keith whispers.
            “Good man,” JJ says. “Tell him to stay away.”
            “They roughed you up.” Keith says.
            “I’m OK,” JJ says.  “A bit battered maybe but basically OK.”
            “My dad sent you a message,” the young man says. “But I don’t understand it.”
            “What?”
            “It doesn’t make sense.” Keith says.
            “What?” JJ says, a little stronger.
            Keith sighs. “OK.  He said first you were right about the outsourcing.  I can’t figure that out but he said he’ll explain it later. The main thing is I’m supposed to say this sentence to you.  But it’s silly, just gibberish.”
            “Tell me anyway,” JJ whispers.
            “OK. It’s this.  ‘The pump don’t work ‘cause the vandals stole the handles.’”
            “Say it again,” JJ says.
            The young man does so.
            “Again.”
            As Keith says the sentence for the third time, JJ feels himself laughing and laughing along the entire length of his body, but no sound emerges as he laughs his way down and down into the darkness.

Subterranean Home Sick Blues was originally published in The New Orphic Review.
             
           The Weather Underground. ABC's reaction to the bombing.



           
           
           
           

                       

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