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Better Living Through Plastic Explosives

By Zsuzsi Gartner

Excerpt from SUMMER OF THE FLESH EATER


Field Notes on the Tendency of Varieties
to Depart Indefi nitely from the Original Type
--AFTER ALFRED RUSSEL WALLACE

Understand that pity is not what we're looking for. We are men, we remind each other as often as we can, and we must bear that burden. Forgetting was what got us into trouble in the first place. It's a weak word, trouble. But that's what came to mind when someone finally bought the Wong-Campeau place at the south end of the cul-de-sac. Stefan Brandeis took one look at the silver Camaro Z28 in the driveway and said, "Vroom, vroom. Here comes trouble." He was kidding, of course. Who could have believed that a barbarian was at the gates?
     Their agent had priced the property before the market started to clench, but with their Ritalin-infused twins at Jean-Baptiste de Lamarck, an International Baccalaureate school we knew doubled as a rehab centre, the Wong-Campeaus couldn't afford to come down. That kind of corked-up familial stress inevitably manifests as fault lines. In other words, 2781 Chatham Close was, as Trevor Masahara succinctly put it, looking like crap. Marcus van der Houte had offered to fluff their place at a generous discount, but the W-Cs declined. (Fluff is not a term Marcus himself would use. His business card reads Art Direction for Real Estate.)
    "I should've done it gratis," Marcus later said, more than once, more times than might have been necessary, while draining the last of another shaker of his signature fig-infused vodka martinis. "A couple of orange PVC Rashid pieces out front"--one of us, possibly Karlheinz Jacobsen, observed that the designer's cordless Dirt Devil was an "isomorphic miracle"--"and the door in Shade-Grown Espresso with a
Spa-Blue casing to make the brown really pop ..." All we could do was reassure him that he could hardly be held responsible for all that had happened. Or caveat emptor, as Patel Seth, our Latin scholar, put it.
    "Damn his carnivorous soul to hell!" Kim Fischer had yelled from atop his carport towards the end, brandishing his fists like an Old Testament patriarch or modern-day mullah. It's perhaps not fair to speak of Kim, who with his unisex name and dubious tenor no doubt had more to contend with than the rest of us. His resilience was something to marvel at, though. We like to think he's running a raw-food retreat somewhere in the West Kootenays, or way out east, the Gatineaus maybe, remarried
to a woman who appreciates his way with a paring knife, who understands that taking a pumice stone to the rough skin of your heels does not necessarily make you any less of a man.
    But this isn't about Kim. You could say this is about evolution.You could say we've developed a deep personal appreciation for Darwin, the man and the theorist--his dyspeptic stomach, his human frailties, his ability to cling to contradictory desires. We've weighed anchor aboard the Beagle, if only in our dreams, charted our own Galapagos of the soul and found it wanting.

He moved in on the Canada Day long weekend. As the children circled the cul-de-sac on their Razors and Big Wheels, like planes stacked in a holding pattern, he arrived with a U-Haul hitched to the Camaro and started unloading. No moving company, just him. He wore what's commonly referred to as
a muscle shirt but what some would call a wife beater. Stefan Brandeis noted that he hadn't seen a grown man in cut-offs that tight since Expo '86. (We later had a spirited debate about
whether his was in fact a conventional mullet or ersatz hockey hair.) The first thing wheeled out of the U-Haul was a hulking, jerry-built barbecue. He seemed friendly enough. He flashed what Trevor Masahara called "a big, shit-eating grin" at those of us who'd gone over to welcome him with a pitcher of iced Matcha tea spiked with Kentucky Gentleman.
     "Shake hands with the Q," he said, patting the hood of the barbecue as if it were a loyal hound, the half moons of his prominent cuticles edged in grease. Karlheinz Jacobsen's wife later commented that he smelled a bit ripe, and the other women made a show of fanning the air in front of their faces. Kim Fischer's wife even enthusiastically snuffl ed Kim's exfoliated pits like a truffle pig. At the time it seemed they were being a trifle judgmental, but one thing we'd always appreciated about our wives was that they spoke their minds.
    It bears mentioning that he did something else that first day as we gathered around his "Q" trying to make small talk. Without missing a beat, he reached down to rearrange himself inside his cut-offs. This is something we've never talked about, not even Stefan B. Some things are better left unannotated.
    Afterwards, he sat down on his new front steps and drank beer straight from the can, wiping his lips with the back of his hand, exaggeratedly rotating his shoulders as if attempting to recalibrate himself. It had all been amusing at first, some kind of sideshow. Like having a Molson ad shot on your very own street. This was before the dog arrived, and the Dodge one-ton.
     That day is easy to recall with a great deal of clarity for another reason. We'd always been spared the smell from the rendering plant across the Burrard Inlet. But on July 1, there occurred a shift in the wind that continued unabated throughout the summer. The congealed odour of pyrolyzed animal parts would
enter the cul-de-sac and then just hang there, as if snagged on a hydro line. It came and went, some days thankfully better than others. Can you smell it? we'd ask hopefully at the gelato shop two blocks away on Mountain Highway. Didn't you smell it on Albermarle Drive as well? we quizzed our letter carrier, who took to pelting through her rounds on the cul-de-sac as if Cerberus were at her heels. It was difficult to believe we were the only ones in our North Vancouver enclave saddled with the almost gelatinous stink. There were days when even the leaves of the silver birches that edged the ravine behind our properties appeared to curl back from it. The cedars and the Sitka spruce, more stoic trees, stood their ground.
     We have accepted our confluence of bad luck not as a "sign" of something, but rather for what it apparently was: bizarre coincidence. People have driven themselves insane for millennia trying to fi gure out "what it all means." Most often things just are.
     "I know it's only a smell," Trevor Masahara said one particularly rank Tuesday evening, interrupting our book club's parsing of Clarissa's guilty rejection of the hydrangea in The Hours, "but sometimes it seems like, you know, an actual thing."

Excerpted from BETTER LIVING THROUGH PLASTIC EXPLOSIVES by Zsuzsi Gartner. Copyright © Zsuzsi Gartner, 2011. Excerpted by permission of Hamish Hamilton Canada/ Penguin Group (Canada). All Rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.