by Patrick Doerksen


          I moved into the laneway house at the end of August. It had been a terrible summer, the heat somnolent, the sky a wide, dumb eyeball. Like one of those summers from late childhood, it laid bare the truth about time—giving you the same barking dogs, the same homeless winds and endless weedy afternoons, all that forward momentum just an empty promise. 
          After unpacking, I went out on the back steps and felt the evening breeze. 
          I was not thinking of Samantha. I was feeling the sweat dry on my thighs, observing what it would be like in my new home. The laneway house had been a chicken coop once, but the owner had slapped a few boards on the walls, put in plumbing, and now, instead of creeping across his yard in the morning dark, clutching an egg basket, he slept in; why house fowl when you could have a human in there, pushing out a monthly rent? Still, I was glad of the refuge. It felt far from things, a home that had, literally, turned away from the world to face its back alleys. In the neighbor’s yard on the left, birds rustled in the laurel hedge, and to the right a squirrel dropped from the beech tree onto a dangerously sagging garage roof, causing a tremor. I’d been awake twenty-three hours and experienced it all through sepia tones, as though I sat in a memory, present with what was gone. 
          I jerked up. A woman stood on her back porch across the alley. She was petite, with an aged face: long tapering crow’s feet, her skin like bundled linen. She called louder to me: “Dee-mee-tan!” 
          I rose, alarmed.
          “Dee-mee-tan! Dee-mee-tan!”
          Then I understood: she wasn’t addressing me, she was looking beyond, her gaze distant, unfocused. 
          Yet something about her tone made me feel scolded. Back inside the laneway, standing in the fan’s blast, my heart slowing, I was compelled to listen to her repeat that phrase over and over, Dee-mee-tan, Dee-mee-tan, like a peg knocked into the ground, until, some ten minutes later, she went back inside, and I, exhausted, let myself crash on the unblanketed bed.

          And woke to the darkness beyond midnight. 
Feeling nobody beside me, as I was used to, I was sure for one dizzy moment that while I slept I had really, truly sunk into nowhere, and that, it being nowhere, there could be no way out.

          A few days later, Aiden took two buses across the city, from East Van to Kerrisdale, to see me. 
          Of all my friends, Aiden least fit the role of consoler. We’d met in grad school, bonding at the department meet-and-greet over the simple fact of having both recently read Wittgenstein’s personal notebooks. “In philosophy the winner of the race is the one who can run most slowly...” He struck me as a mind in permanent contact with grim insights, self-occupied in the way of many young intellectuals, but without their aggression. Every week or two we got together, usually just to get high and jam for a while—him on guitar, me on keyboard—or watch a movie. We’d never once had what you might call a heart-to-heart.
          “You weren’t kidding. It actually is a renovated chicken coop.” He tugged at his hair, which he wore in a Manchu queue, and looked the place over. 
          “Gentrified,” I joked. “Another poor chicken family pushed out from the neighborhood.”
          Inside, he eyeballed the unlacquered floorboards, winced at the faint smell of urine. Two-hundred square feet, the kitchen, bedroom and study all one room; he was sympathetic. He had a friend, he said, who was living in someone’s laundry room. Rental prices were impacting human dignity. I explained then that I was benefiting from the bigotry of my landlord, who raged at the oversea Chinese investors responsible for the unreasonable housing market and was in sympathy with a born-and-bred white Vancouverite. 
          Aiden, a second-generation Chinese Canadian, glanced mildly out the window at the landlord’s house across the backyard. Then he went over to the pizza boxes on the table, which had amassed over the last three nights, and started to pick through the crusts. Finding one not too stale, he nibbled. With his other hand he held a joint. 
          “Is there a park?”
          I wondered, while he told me about the recent hunting trip he’d taken with his cousins up in the interior, how he was going to offer condolences. He didn’t. He moved on to describe the headache of back-to-school teacher prep (Aiden taught high school math). From the bench we could see the mountains across the inlet and the oil tankers on the water, and in the pauses we followed their slug-like movements, the roach between his fingers coughing sweet swampy odors. 
          After a long silence he turned to me. I looked up with expectation, thinking this was it. 
          “I just remembered,” he said. “I was going to tell you my dream.” 
          It always started the same way, he said: the idea that there is something, a presence, in the dream that isn’t part of the dream. It’s some object—a potato, an old pencil in the back of a drawer. Whatever it is, it has entered from the outside, and if he finds it he can wake up. He searches. He enters coffee shops and libraries. He peers down dustbins and into faces, looking for something more real than he’s used to.
          Aiden twined one hand around the other excitedly as he spoke. “It’s like a platonic intuition.”
          After, I watched him scuff the sidewalk toward the bus stop, trying to feel touched that he’d come to see me and only feeling lonelier than before. 

          Weekdays I opened the bookshop in the mornings and biked back in the afternoons. I took long, mind-numbing showers. I set out on aimless strolls and lay on my back in parks, spotting eagles circling way up there in the white heights. It was true that, in my neighborhood, many of the mainland Chinese homeowners had torn down heritage homes to put up cookie-cutter lots, but many of the older generation filled yards with vegetable gardens, trellises with snap peas and squash, rows of potatoes, persimmon trees. I liked to see them digging out their rich fall harvests. 
          In the evenings I read on the hammock I’d strung between the elm and the fence post, adjacent to the alley. From this position I could see right onto the back porch of the woman across the lane.
          She emerged at least once a day. I watched her backdoor creak open like a clam shell, watched the drawn face emerge with its white straws of hair spiking out from a felt cap, watched her shuffle to the railing and begin: “Dee-mee-tan!” Now and then she went quiet to listen, peering into the alley in both directions. It lasted about ten minutes—a long time, it felt, for an elderly woman to be on her balcony, calling at the top of her lungs. 
          One day I saw a cat dart through a crack in the low wood fence into her backyard and up her porch steps. It crossed the shadowed threshold and entered the house. 
          “Dee-mee-tan!” she went on. “Dee-mee-tan!”
          “He’s already inside,” I said, going up to the fence and pointing. “Your cat.” This was the first time I’d said a word to her. A pair of surprised eyes fell on me.
          “Your cat,” I repeated. I mimicked a cat padding through the door. 
          She shook her head. Her face was old-world Germanic—square, determined—so perhaps she did not speak English; still, she seemed to understand my intention. The cat had, she made clear in that single motion, nothing to do with Dee-mee-tan. And turning her eyes again to the alley, she resumed her call. 

          I was sleeping poorly. At a drop-in clinic I was told to try 5mg of melatonin, which gave me vivid dreams. Samantha rolls over to me in bed and whispers sweetly in my ear, “I owe you nothing.” She raises her eyebrows when I ask to talk to her alone: “Alone? We’ve never been alone.” She stands in the dark apartment playing the electric keyboard, and as I approach I realize that I don’t know if I am myself or my doppelganger, or if, when I get to her, I will hug her or take her by the throat.
          Once, several years back, not long after Samantha and I moved in together, I’d come home from the bookstore in a good mood, ready to go out for a drink, and found her this way: alone with the lights off, turned away to face the window, playing long minor chords that haunted the air like aches in a body. In that moment I felt I was an intruder in my own apartment. It wasn’t just that I’d never seen her touch my keyboard before, or that she seemed sad; it was that she hadn’t noticed me at all. And if I announced myself, I knew, it would undo something precious: she would pivot easily into sociality, kiss me, ask about my day, all the while tacitly denying those private depths that had emerged in my absence. 
          I understood. An obliteration: this is what one presence can do to another. I backed out and walked around the block. When I returned, she sat on the couch, a medical textbook cradled between her thighs. 

          “You told us you were taking a break,” said my mother on the other end of the line. “This is not sounding like a break.” 
          I stood behind the counter in the empty bookshop, hoping for a customer so that I could hang up. Since I had moved out, my mother had called almost daily, and mostly I reassured her that I was not falling apart; I was working four shifts a week, keeping fit, eating lots of broccoli, obscene amounts. Was I going to church? Sure, I was thinking about it. Don’t watch too much Netflix. I don’t. I love you very much, Son. Okay, Mom. 
          I cleared my throat. “Remember me saying that the couple’s therapist recommended Samantha and I keep out of contact for three months?”
          “Who’s this therapist? Three months? Ridiculous! No, your father and I are flying down.”
She said this often. It was a cross-continent flight they could not afford. “I’m actually at work, Mom. I’ll call you tomorrow.”
          “Is it really mutual?”
          “We want to stay friends,” I said. “We want to remain in each other’s lives. Just not as… I know it’s hard to hear but really, it’s not tragic, it’s the opposite, it’s a new beginning.”
          “Oh, Sean.”
          We ended the call, and I looked around at the books. They were like so many mirrors facing away. 
          I fought the urge then, as I did every day. If she did not call, then I would not. I would not be the one. Meanwhile the pressure in me grew, so that it felt as though my inside no longer fit inside. Perhaps if someone came into the bookstore I would split open. If a woman in a summer dress leaned on a bookshelf opposite the counter and rested her eyes on mine, it would happen. With an intelligent woman you can really talk. You’re saved from maleness, you can touch the heart of things again. 

          Autumn turned to winter. The rains came, the days shortened. In November there was hail, melting as it touched the ground. I wasted my hours writing songs on the keyboard, streaming Wim Wenders movies, reading through my bookshelf. I had a collection of essays on Wittgenstein, and lately I’d become interested again in his ideas about language: if he was right, a language game was a delicate thing, based on good faith and shared history, a mysterious contract without which words became nothing but vibrating air. It took two to play the game, but it only took one to end it. 
          A horrible asymmetry—the other, always wielding this immense power to make it all mean nothing. 
          One Saturday night, Aiden came by again. I brought the chess board out and we made our moves in silence, the rain’s hundred hammers loud on the laneway’s tin roof. Aiden had a courteous, almost catering manner, but given the chance he would slaughter you in a game of chess. When it was over he sat back and began to roll a joint. 
          I said, “Does the phrase ‘Dee-mee-tan’ mean anything to you?”
          He took a drag and passed it. 
          “It’s something this woman says. Across the lane.” I told him how she emerged onto her back porch every day to call out, and how I’d been puzzling it over. I’d even asked the neighbors about it, once, while they were raking leaves; she’d been at it for years, they said, and I could see it in their eyes: crazy woman. True, maybe, but it didn’t satisfy me.
          Aiden shrugged. “Sounds like gibberish. Hey, careful, this joint is strong; I sprinkled it with dry sift.” I kept dragging. He stared at me for a moment. 
          “Give me that.”
          I did.
          “Dee-mee-tan,” he said, considering. “Could it be her husband?” 
          “Nah, sometimes I see a man moving around the house while she’s on the porch.”
          Aiden made a thoughtful face, and I leaned back on the chair, feeling the weed kick in. Why him? I wondered, as I often did. Of all people to step up as a companion in grief, why Aiden? I’d done it to myself, of course. My other Vancouver friends were friends of the relationship, they could not be confided in without a general awkwardness, and my friends elsewhere—Montreal, Halifax where my parents were—were, well, elsewhere. No, there was only Aiden. It was monstrous of me to be ungrateful, yet I could not help looking at him and thinking, What, right now, between the two of us here in this tiny laneway, what could possibly happen that would change the slightest thing? 
          “You’re all green,” he said. He was looking at me with concern. He seemed miles away, getting further each second.
          I stood.
          “I need some air.”

          Outside, I flipped open the umbrella and took a few steps down the alley, splashing through potholes, expecting the cold to clarify me and instead feeling that Cannabis fog thicken. 
          I was recalling a winter, several years back, when Samantha and I had taken an impulse vacation to a cabin in northern BC. We went snowshoeing along a lake so large we never saw the other end. It’s a loud activity, crunching through snow, and every now and then we went completely still, careful not to let our mitts brush our jackets, in order to access the galactic northern quiet. During one pause we heard a noise from the lake. A demonic wail, mournful and protracted. We looked at each other, hair standing on end beneath wool sweaters. 
          “Ice yowling,” the host back at the cabins called it. When the temperature drops the ice contracts, forming cracks miles long. The crack happens in a single moment, but the ear hears a long cry, first from the ice nearby and then from the ice further out. 
          “What would it sound like,” I’d said, “if we heard it the way it happened, all at once?”
          “You’d shit your snowshoes.” 
          I hit the end of the alley and made my way back. What was I doing here? Why had I moved into this laneway house, this chicken coop with no address? Had I thought solitude would give me what I needed? Who knew introspection would be so ineffective. I dove into myself and found, again and again, the same inner blankness. What did I want? Twenty-eight years old and without a clue. There was only the distinct impression that I’d missed something, that somewhere along the line I’d failed to learn some lesson. My choices had led me here to this precise moment in a back alley, in the rain—what else could have?—yet, even knowing this, the causation was unclear. Suddenly it felt intolerable. I had gotten to my end too early and now there was this endless moment with no shape at all, an abundance of void just there to be lived through. Why was there no other way to find out how your life would go, apart from the anguish of living it?
          When I returned, Aiden was messing around with the electric keyboard, cycling through its various timbre settings—chimes, flutes, synth, drums. He turned to me, holding a low note like a sigh of pleasure.
          I sat on one of the two chairs at the table. The space heater kicked in and I enjoyed a blast of heat on my damp socks. The air filled with their sour odor.
          “Wouldn’t it make everything easier,” I said, “if there was someone out there with the answer?”
          Aiden took his hand off the key and the note died. The rush of heavy rain swelled up to fit the silence. 
          “Pretend there’s a guy,” I said, “just a regular dude with a regular job, this John Smith somewhere in the world, who knows something we don’t. He knows the thing that we’re all trying to find out. He looks at life and he gets it. Only, he can’t talk about it. He can’t get the answer out, can’t put it into words. So it all falls to pieces around him. He watches it all go wrong, all the while just holding onto the key.”
          “Sean,” I heard.
          I drew a hand across my eyes and it came away wet. I laughed. Then I felt a wave of nausea, and I ran into the bathroom and vomited. Aiden fetched me a glass of water and stood over me awkwardly. 
          “You’re stirring yourself up,” he said after a long while. “You’ve just got to give yourself time. It’s all you can do. Just wait it out.”
          I glanced up at him, and by the way he turned from me, self-conscious, I knew he was talking about more than the nausea. We had entered the moment, I realized, in which we might at last speak about Samantha, the moment in which, after suffering for so long Aiden’s apparent incapacity to ask the proper questions, I could tell the whole story to a willing ear. And I realized I didn’t want to. I don’t know if it was spite or if it was reverence; I simply did not want to organize it, to utter it, to make it into a thing that Aiden—that anyone else outside Samantha and myself—could understand. 
          It was one a.m. Past midnight the buses ran every half hour, a long time to wait in the blasting rain. I told Aiden I had a camping mat and a sleeping bag he could use, then, still embarrassed, I took a shower to avoid him. The hot water softened me. It felt like a dog’s tongue. When I got out the whole place was filled with steam and Aiden was asleep in the corner. 
          Out the window, in the empty alley, the same raindrop fell a hundred thousand times. 

          When I woke that morning, the rain had reduced to a drizzle. For a while I lay there in the lichen-colored light, wondering if today I’d call Samantha. 
          I wondered this every morning. I played it out in my head. She’d pick up on the fifth ring, her voice cautious, surprised, and, maybe, a little relieved, and we’d arrange to meet in a brew pub when she got off work. I’d get there early, and she would too. Already, in my body, I could feel the new unease of sitting across from her. Her skin would be pale from long hours at the clinic, her hair done up in a lazy high-bun, her fingers tracing the handle of her beer mug up and down in an unconscious caress.
          A voice from the alley broke into my thoughts. 
          I checked the clock: it was seven in the morning. Aiden was lying on his back, asleep, with an expression akin to concentration. I wondered if I should wake him, but a moment later he jerked up onto his elbows and squinted around. 
          “She’s out there,” I said. “The woman I told you about.”                    Aiden frowned. Then, not leaving his sleeping bag, he hopped over to the window. I joined him. 
          It was a placid scene. She stood under an awning that spilled water at its edges in rhythmic bursts. Her voice had the regularity of a birdcall, insistent, inflected with a subtle hope. 
          “I see what you mean,” Aiden said. “She sounds desperate.” 
          “I guess she’s senile.”
          “Right. But she’s out there, in the cold. It has to mean something.”  
          Seeing an earnestness in Aiden’s dark pupils, my heart dipped toward him. I had spent the autumn wanting Dee-mee-tan to mean something. I had listened to her every day, listened expectantly, guarding the possibility that her call might really summon something, while at the same time knowing that of course it wouldn’t, that soon she would return, alone, through her back door, and the ritual would continue the next day, and the next. 
          I put the kettle on. A bag of fresh-roast coffee stood tall in the cupboard. Its scent was fruity, intolerably alive; it made me feel almost brave. 
          “Dee-mee-tan is gone,” I said. “That much I can tell you. Whatever it is, it’s gone.”
          I ground the beans and poured the water. I felt, at least for the moment, absurdly light, as though plunging the French press would send me floating up to the ceiling. A minute later the clouds parted. The woman returned indoors. 
          And when I opened the blinds on the east window, the sun laid itself gorgeously down on the counter in a blazing square, like a gift no one in the world could pick up.