"The Octagon" was the second of two chapters I deleted from the original line-up of Twelve Stories (really, fifteen chapters). If Twelve Stories had been seventeen chapters, rather than fifteen, this piece would have fit in between "When I Was Your Age" and "War Balloons" as the second-to-last chapter of the novel (and it should be read with that consideration in mind.)
Also: I think it is worth noting, while "The Octagon" was designed as an echo of "Easy Money", the contrast between the voice of the narrator in "Easy Money" and the voice of the narrator in "The Octagon" -- same narrator! -- shows just how far the character evolved over the course of the novel. "The full arc of a quiet, desperate life", indeed!
My wife told me she noticed men stopped looking at her after she turned 40.
Flying home from Dryden to Toronto, there was a girl who got on Bearskin Airlines in Thunder Bay, seated beside me until she hopped off the plane in Sudbury. She was talking on her cellphone the whole time, describing a recent sexual encounter in graphic terms. I definitely was not eavesdropping, but I heard it all, blow-by-blow details, the entire flight. It was the first time I realized, to the younger generation, I am now invisible; not just women, but also men in my field of business no longer see me, and aren’t interested in what I have to say. It’s no longer hurtful to me; I could be sitting right there, but my thoughts no longer count for anything.
I’m going to have to start wrapping my head in bandages, to be seen in public.
The last time I grew a goatee, this kid at the grocery store made fun of me for having a porn ‘stache. I thought I looked like Hulk Hogan, or Sam Elliott, but the kid in the freezer aisle made a reference to John Holmes, and I couldn’t pretend I didn’t know who he was talking about because I pretty obviously had been alive and loitering movie theatre lobbies in the 1970s.
That’s what I get for trying to strike up a rapport with the kid working the midnight shift at Loblaw’s: he was probably worried I was going to slip on the wet floor, fall down, crack open my head or dislocate my shoulder, and sue the Hogg’s Hollow Superstore.
You ever beat up a telephone pole, while drunk? Then how could you understand the existential terror of having been a black-out alcoholic while in your teens? Thank God I was able to straighten myself out, as an adult, with the love and support of a good woman. I’m also here to say, if you live long enough, the surprising thing is, you come to regret nothing.
But if I ever want to disappear in a crowded barroom, I’ll try talking to a cute waitress.
I still read a few comic books, and go out to the movies, but all I know about pop music now is what I hear in car commercials during the Superbowl.
Just as I was coming in to Toronto Island Airport, I got a text message from my wife telling me I needed to meet her in the parking lot because we would be driving to Ottawa that afternoon. After a 4-hour flight, I dropped my hat, and went on a 4-hour drive to visit my mother.
My mother had had an emergency, and asked us to help her: one of her dogs was sick, from eating leftover Halloween candy, and she could barely handle the other puppy. My mother felt guilty because she worried more about those two dogs than she did me and Coco, but I could understand where she was coming from, living day-to-day by herself.
Her last boyfriend (a fellow nicknamed Paco) had died from skin cancer, so Hector and Rosie were all she had left; Hector and Rosie had belonged to Paco.
What’s worse than losing your boyfriend is, losing your memories of the man. The grief process is fundamentally, forgetting the past as a function of healing. Not deliberately, of course, but that’s what happens, and I am convinced that’s why it happens. Otherwise, you wallow in the past and never move on with the rest of your life; never move forward to happiness.
The dog ended up being all right (just needed to have a good barf at the vet’s office) but my sister Jackie and I decided that Coco and I would have The Talk with my mom. My mom had reached the point where she needed to downsize some of the shit from the basement of her house or else she would continue to feel overwhelmed, every time a bird fell from the sky.
I wish my sister had got my dad to help us clean out my mom’s basement. My dad is a great guy (I’ve known him my whole life!) but he is especially good for shooting the shit with while out in the bush, partridge hunting. As a kid, you could ask him about superstring particle physics, or black holes, and he had a way of explaining things so that even quantum mechanics made common sense to me. Matter compressed so tightly, a tablespoon of lead weighs more than the sun. Astronauts going into deep space and coming back to earth as babies. The atomic theory whereby two objects in close proximity to one another trade particles of matter, like a policeman and his bicycle. The twelve dimensions of space-time, one for each month of the year. You could ask my dad what would happen if the superplague got loose, or zombies, and without even taking the cigarette out of his mouth, maybe just rolling it over to the side of his sly smirk, he’d make your blood run cold, like the end of the world was all just a big joke to my dad, bouncing around in his truck out in the forest on a lazy Sunday afternoon in Northwestern Ontario.
I got the pool table in their divorce, but my mother still had a lifetime of furniture in storage at the house in Ottawa. Not just her shit, but my mom’s parents as well, her father, and her mother, after my Grandmother Harper had moved back into the old house in Ottawa, when my Grandfather Harper passed away in 1992, and left the house to my mom and her brothers.
My mom and dad were at the point in their reconciliation where my mother would have accepted my dad travelling across the province to help with the decluttering, but she didn’t want him driving in the snow, in case we got a freak winter ice storm just before Remembrance Day.
When my mom comes to stay for a visit with me and Coco in Toronto, everything is fine. The problem is, when I stay with my mom, Coco says I revert to acting like a twelve-year-old, so become very annoying to be around. I don’t know why that is, but it’s true; I admit it. Something about being around my mom as a guest in her home makes me behave like a child, even with my wife in the room; I can’t help it. There’s probably a textbook that explains the relationship I have with my mother, but I never went to university, so I can’t help you with the psychology.
We were at Canadian Tire picking up packing supplies when I started to walk around like the Terminator, lifting my legs stiffly, then dropping my feet like pistons, wheeling around at the hips to point my hands like laserguns. Whirr-clank! Whirr-clank! Whirr-clank! “Come with me if you want to live,” I told my wife, “Give me your bra, your underwear, and the keys to your car.”
“What are you doing?” she asked me, mortified.
“I am a robot from the future,” I replied.
“Cut it out: you’re embarrassing me, and you’re embarrassing your mother.”
Whirr-clank! Whirr-clank! Whirr-clank!...Whirr-clank! Whirr-clank! Whirr-clank!
“Dead or alive, you’re coming with me to the automotive department, citizen.”
“Knock it the fuck off!” Coco slapped away my arms, as I moved in to give her a hug.
I avoided the temptation to lie down on the floor, humiliating both my 53-year-old wife and my 62-year-old mother by forcing them to yell at me to quit goofing around, and act my age.
Christ! Can you imagine if I had driven them out to the toy department at the last Zellers in Ontario, in Nepean? I would have spent the morning searching the action figure aisles for $20 bills on the tile floor, blissed out on the sights, sounds, and smells of childhood nostalgia.
I had once misplaced $14 in the toy department at Zellers, and never got over it.
Back at my grandparents’ house, it took my mom, Coco and I almost a full day to load up a rental van for Value Village, after sorting everything in my mom’s basement into three piles: to give away; to haul to the dump; to keep for a garage sale, next summer. To give away, was by far the biggest pile of material; the broken junk we took to a recycling plant in Gatineau, Coco never getting out of the van, not even to touch foot on the soil of her native province, to my surprise.
We were less than half an hour from her hometown of Chelsea, but Coco had no desire to show me where she’d lived as a child before leaving rural Quebec for city life: my beautiful wife has always been more forward-looking than me, even as a student waitress in Montreal.
I would have liked to see where Coco grew up, but she didn’t want to wallow in the past. For all she knew, the farmhouse she grew up in was probably torn down, or abandoned.
Sometimes there just aren’t enough rocks, as Forrest Gump said to his Jenny.
My grandfather’s house wasn’t quite that bad, but my mom had let the cedar hedge grow up in front of the porch sunroom, and the driveway needed to be repaved. Repaving the driveway would also be a ‘next summer’ project, but I returned to Canadian Tire to buy a chainsaw for my mom, and cleaned up her front yard for her as well, being a responsible adult out in the hardware store by myself, leaving my wife at home with my mother, to keep them both busy.
I couldn’t resist buying myself water balloons and a hatchet, but that’s another story.
I’ve been back to the Kochan house since leaving Nipigon at the end of high school, but never crossed the street to look in the window of my own childhood. The Kochan house is empty now, the backyard smaller than I remember it being; the slope of the hill underneath the Kochan clothesline not quite so steep. Curiously enough, the hill seemed almost flat, not a hill we could have tobogganed down as children, but I distinctly recall running sleds down the hill behind Kip Gordon’s house; as much as we all wanted to avoid going into their kitchen for hot chocolate the morning Tommy Toykalla got hit by the snowplough, the Kochan brothers, myself, and my sister Jackie still hung out with the Gordon boys, Kip and Keith, when it was snowing outside.
Before we drove back to Toronto from Ottawa, there was one last job my mother needed help with, something I had been avoiding (dreading, to be completely honest) since stepping into her house with Coco. In her living room, my mother had this eight-sided walnut coffee table that she thought was the cat’s pyjamas, but Coco thinks is ugly; for the last fifteen years, ever since I got married to Coco, my mom has been trying to give the table as a wedding present to my wife.
First it was going to be an engagement gift; then a bridal shower offering; then a wedding present; before being offered as a belated wedding gift; then a family heirloom. Even when Coco and I got remarried by reaffirming our wedding vows in 2007, my mom tried to get us to take the coffee table off her hands, as her wedding present at the Chateau Frontenac.
She brought the coffee table with her to Quebec City, swaddled in blankets. We only got away with not taking the coffee table with us on our honeymoon because Coco and I flew out of Quebec to Belfast early the next morning, and couldn’t fit it in our carry-on luggage.
You’d think my mom had paid for the coffee table with her own money, but she didn’t start working as an assistant butcher in the meat department at Kochan’s Grocery until she split up with my father, so maybe the coffee table had been a wedding present to her; or maybe she’d bought the table by carefully saving up her first year of baby bonuses, after I was born.
The coffee table isn’t ugly, so much as it is very 1972, and Scandinavian. Like, if I said ‘ABBA’, you’d think of my mother’s eight-sided coffee table; the eight-sided walnut coffee table just sitting in my mom’s living room, waiting for Coco to accept it as a wedding gift.
After fifteen years of marriage, I’ve learned the biggest difference between me and Coco is, the difference between being determined, and being stubborn: I will, versus, I won’t.
The problem isn’t so much that Coco doesn’t think the table will ever fit in with any of our furniture, as the coffee table is over forty years old, and still in pristine condition. Would you take on the burden of protecting the coffee table for another forty years, if you lived with six cats and four dogs, in 2015? Where will the coffee table be, in 2055, after the cats get at it?
For years I’d plotted to secretly drop off the coffee table at the McMichael Art Gallery in Kleinburg, Ontario, and say it had once belonged to Norval Morrisseau as a wedding gift from an art dealer in Toronto (anybody else except me!) but I had finally reached the day of reckoning.
I always worried that it was going to come down to Sophie’s Choice between my sister and I about who would have to end up with the table (my sister didn’t want the burden of taking care of the coffee table, either!) but if I could sneak my mother’s coffee table into the McMichael Art Gallery, then The Octagon would live for another thousand years.
It had been a long time since anyone at the McMichael Art Gallery had returned any of my emails, but I planned to use that to my advantage. The last few times I walked into the public section of the gallery, I had been completely ignored by staff, so I was free to wander around the building, unchallenged, and find a nice display area for my mother’s coffee table.
It would be like the time I went down to Toronto City Hall and added a sticker from my DYNO label-making gun to the 3D model of the city of Toronto in the lobby of the building. The sticker read ‘MAPE BY EMMETT GROGAN’ and I still figure I got away with defacing the 3D model only because when security showed up, they couldn’t determine if I had been trying to say MAP by Emmett Grogan, or MADE by Emmett Grogan, and decided to let the issue go, as I was probably an illiterate teen not worth pursuing for criminal charges.
It’s amazing what you can get away with in the arts community, if you act boldly, and push your way past the gatekeepers. Most people will ignore you but nobody will call your bluff.
So Coco and I bundled the coffee table in about ten layers of fabric, and stuffed it in the trunk of our car. No promises were made, but my mom finally got us to take the coffee table off her hands, as part of decluttering her basement after the loss of her boyfriend Paco.
I got my friend Matt to drive the getaway truck to the McMichael Art Gallery.
“What’s the plan?” Matt asked me, as I loaded the coffee table onto a handcart.
“I haven’t been in a shopping mall for over ten years, but I am pretty sure I am invisible to anyone under the age of thirty. I’m going to walk right into the gallery, and hold up the place without a gun. In an hour, they’ll have a new permanent exhibit in the Algonquin Room. It’s like shoplifting, but in reverse; I just have to make sure nobody wants to see me, while I do the drop.”
“Why can’t I come into the gallery with you?” Matt watched me kick off my shoes.
“Because, I’m going to get caught,” I unbuttoned the fly of my blue jeans, in preparation.