Fables of Elbow Drive

When I was 23, I had a weekly, weeknight DJ gig in an alternative bar in Calgary. Well, the alternative bar in Calgary, not by dint of being the best but the only. I was a regular there, had been for years, so I knew most of the patrons. Weeknights in a dance club were for students (as I was), people without office jobs ("industry workers" as they were called), the underemployed, the artists and musicians, and the gainfully employed who really like to drink. The weekday crowd was less boisterous, more friendly, more willing to be silly, more likely to request a lesser-heard track. There was no pressure to pack the dance floor — it wasn't possible with a quarter-full bar — so I'd happily oblige with a flurry of odd songs. It was on one of these nights a fellow DJ friend wandered up to the booth. "I've taken six hits of acid," he said. He was probably exaggerating, but he was definitely tripping balls. "My friends have all left. Can we hang out?" (Acid, by the way, is one of those drugs you don't have to be on to find hilarious. People on acid are hilarious on their own.)

When the club closed for the night, my friend wanted to go through Mount Royal to where Elbow Drive follows the curve of the Elbow River. He told me he'd grown up around there. So we drove south and east from the club, to the outskirts of downtown. I'd never spent much time in this part of the city. It was relatively old, and far away from my parents' house in the north. Unlike the rocky banks of the fast-moving Bow, the Elbow River was bordered by flat and manicured grass, parks, and stately homes.* I could just barely hear the water moving along in the moonlight. He told me stories of being a kid around the area, where he used to play, the place where he kissed his first girlfriend. 3 a.m. on a summer Wednesday night is a pretty great time to discover a place in a city you've lived in all your life.

It was a picture of that night that entered — and stayed in — my mind reading "Home for Good" in Katherine Govier's Fables of Brunswick Avenue. I picked up the collection after it was mentioned a couple times by friends, one of whom quoted the axiom "Everyone lives on Brunswick Avenue sooner or later." I was apartment hunting at the time, and my library request for the collection came in the same day as a viewing of an apartment on Brunswick. A good omen, I thought. I didn't get the apartment, and I didn't exactly get what I was expecting from Fables either. The title of the collection is a bit misleading; very few of the stories take place in Toronto at all. However, a couple take place in Alberta, one of those in Calgary.

"Home for Good" begins with my nightmare scenario: a woman, Suzanne, returns to Calgary after many years of living in Toronto. While the job she has secured in Calgary is a step up and the ostensible reason for her move, the truth is that her life in Toronto was in utter shambles.
She walked over to the dormer window which made an alcove in her living room. She was a tenant in the attic of the kind of old house she had grown up in. The house had been painted and papered and divided into “heritage” apartments, although only fifteen years had passed since she left. Surely things happened too quickly in this town. Everything was a mistake, including the apartment. It had reminded her of a Toronto apartment, that was why she had taken it. But in Calgary it didn’t seem so choice; it made her feel as if she couldn’t afford anything better.
(I live in one of those third-floor Toronto apartments currently, by the way.) Suzanne visits friends who live by the Elbow, "From the window [of her apartment] she could see over to the riverside park." Suzanne remembers sneaking out to that park at 2 a.m. as a kid. I probably sat in that same park at 3 a.m. Govier captures exactly how it would feel to have to go back, to have to stare that feeling of failure in the face, to have to relive every moment everyone back home failed you, and the ways they've changed in your absence to fail you now.

It's true, things happen really quickly in Calgary. It's a city that really likes to knock things down and build new things as fast as it can. Yet when Govier's character remembers her 1968 student apartment near the university (probably still called an outpost of the U of A back then), I can picture the whole neighbourhood perfectly. The LRT I took to that same university cut through Motel Village. That Denny's saw late-night milkshakes in high-school. The bar I got into underage was right there. It's the same city. Some things never change.

I was kind of spooked by "Home for Good." I've still got my Norton anthologies as Suzanne does; they go where I go. I know I'm not the only one who takes all her school books with her through every move, but I could so perfectly see everything in "Home for Good," understood Suzanne's want for "a book somewhere that said how you were supposed to feel when you were no longer young, but you were not yet dead." There was a moment a year into living in Toronto when I almost went back, when everything seemed too hard and too expensive. I always fear I'll be forced to go back, that some misfortune will drive me there... When I picked up Fables of Brunswick Avenue I expected a fictional primer on my new stomping-ground. I didn't move to Brunswick Avenue; I was moved — thankfully, in time only — back home.

*Image found through Google; click on it for the site it came from. I suppose it being broad daylight in that photo takes away from the image I'm going for there, but so be it.


Nicole said...

Huh, I lived on Brunswick Ave in Toronto, and my sister just moved to Calgary. I might have to pick up this book. :)

Emma said...

"Govier captures exactly how it would feel to have to go back, to have to stare that feeling of failure in the face, to have to relive every moment everyone back home failed you, and the ways they've changed in your absence to fail you now."

Jesus woman, get out of my life/head!

Panic said...

Ha ha, me or her?