III. Disquiet Philosophy
When Zeb was thirteen, he started seeing his Aunt Sicily quite regularly. That year Oliver the crow continued to make appearances every night at the window, Zeb brought a friend home after school for the first time, and Oliver, his father, began making it abundantly clear that the nick name, the one his mother had given him, should be outgrown.
Jackson Cavanaugh, in the same grade as Zeb, was the son of Dick and Frances Cavanaugh who had made a small fortune with a wholesale company that sold imported cheeses. They lived in a giant house in Vaughan’s more northerly crooks and bends and when Jackson referred to them—Zeb thought this the neatest—he never called them mom and dad. Instead, to him, and thusly to the rest of the boys at school, they became The King and The Queen of Cheese. “The Queen went to her bridge game last night with the ladies from the auxiliary club, came home drunk on sherry, and The King had a fit on her, then proceeded to slap her upside the head till she cried.” Jackson seemed to understand money, that having a lot of it didn’t fix people’s problems, sometimes even amplified them. And Zeb liked that understanding. It was a perception about things beyond most people’s awareness, a separation from most people, and a realization that we are divided from the things in our lives. Jackson didn’t seem to inherit the stuck up attitude of the King and Queen of Cheese, nor of the other kids at St. Vincent’s, the private school which he attended. And Zeb found himself naturally more pleased with his friend’s greater earthiness. Well, Jackson wasn’t earthy. But he was as earthy as could be found in that little world.
On this day, the boys, both still in their uniforms, came into the kitchen for a snack, then went to the living room to turn on the television. Jackson immediately snatched up a photo of Zeb’s parents taken years earlier, the one which sat on a shelf above books about Greek mythology and Egyptian history, and a few statuettes. “This your mom? She’s a total babe.”
“She is not. Shut up. Ass.” Zeb said back to him, thinking it was nearly the sickest thing he had ever heard from Jack. Ass, that was one he learned from Oliver who used it when he was on the phone talking to what he called an ‘underling’. If the underling did something wrong, Oliver was liable to call him an ass.
Jackson’s retort was something akin to no big deal. “Whatever,” he said. “What’s on?”
The beauty of that age is that things can be dropped as easily as they were brought up. But Zeb thought about what Jackson had said long after Jackson had let it slide away. They had been hanging out since the year before, and along with his greater understanding of bigger things like money, Jackson had a bit more depth than most of the kids in other areas too, Zeb thought. Such depth was the only reason he ever spent time with him, to be honest. Well, there was the mural. Both of them were in charge of it. That, and Jackson could maneuver a pencil well enough to produce pieces of art that looked like photographs, which always set Zeb into awe. Jackson could talk about several different things—not just about the car he was going to get when he turned sixteen or which girl at St. Catherine’s would be the easiest to ‘get’. But that didn’t stop him from saying sick things every once in a while, sick things that might have come from the mouths of Jarred Bergen and Riley Fischer, or maybe Simon Caulder and Rudy Dunlop—or any of the other guys Zeb knew.
Even though he had pushed it out of his head—thinking this was really just one of the few pale things to come out of Jackson Cavanaugh’s mouth—he saw Sicily the following night anyway. It was the first time, the most vibrant, but it was not the last. And it wasn’t a dream either; Zeb was fully awake for it. Zeb never had dreams. In his whole life he had never woke with a dream in his mind, had never sat bolt upright in bed after a nightmare, had never drifted to a state of wakefulness with the sight of anything splendid still in his mind. He just did not dream. And that never changed.
Oliver the crow had been sitting on his usual tree branch by the window, cocking and tilting his head, cawing a few times but not obtrusively. The picture of Sicily just came to Zeb, overlaid itself on top of the window frame and its contents, in front of the shiny black feathers of the crow. It became like a new room, on the other side of his window, as if it had always been there, but was only visible now. It had a depth and a capacity; it was really there. His point of view drifted closer to the sill, and he could gradually see more of that phantom place.
She was lying on a bed in that room, on her back, long white legs spread haphazardly on an angle, one arm dangling from the mattress like a long exposed root. Her dark hair was messy, strewn out from her skull which lolled sideways at the head corner of the bed. Her upturned ankles made unkempt dimples in the fabric beneath her at the bed’s foot. She was fully naked and under her was a wrinkled and messy brown and orange bedspread on top of the sagging motel mattress. As Zeb approached, he realized the whole room was shades of gold, brown and orange: the curtains, the carpet, even some towels lying on a wooden chair in the corner.
It felt like the scene was one he had stepped into, like he had passed through his bedroom window without even a whisper of breath across the glass and was able to take silent steps closer and closer, alongside the bed towards his aunt’s face, where her eyes were closed gently. As Zeb got painfully closer, he realized she was heavily made up. Fuchsia and blues were smeared on her porcelain face. The makeup looked like it had been wet and smeared deliberately. Her mascara was thick and black at her eyes and it ran down her cheekbones in thin, crooked, gray lines. And there were bruises and welts on her neck, shoulders and arms. Her head lay sideways, one cheek pressed against the orange material beneath... He approached and put out a hand, gently probing the tight air around her. The edges became blurry, fuzzy, blackened. Her eyes cracked open, locked on him, and the arm that hung from the edge of the bed extended and reached out for him—
The crow’s wings flapped violently, in a generous arc, immediately replacing Sicily and that flaccid motel mattress. The two scenes, real and unreal, dissolved together in a flash that startled Zeb. He was alone in his dark room, the door drawn closed, letting only a crack of light seep from the hall and fall across him as he lay in his bed. He realized he was sweating. At his window Oliver the crow was gone and the fading blues and dark shades of night were all he could see again. The golds and browns of that other room, the one with the naked girl, were gone. Zeb closed his eyes then, tried to tame his galloping heart, and tried to shake the image of her reaching for him from his mind.
<> <> <>
He guessed the scene had formed in his mind after reading a newspaper clipping he found in his mother’s things. She, like Zeb, had her own baby book of memories. Though hers wasn’t a blue scrapbook, and further unlike Zeb’s, it was not neatly organized with single pages representing specific years and holding photos and signatures only from that year. Hers was a mismatched drawer filled with different things from different time frames: a hodge-podge of photos, movie stubs, a few plane ticket vouchers, letters, a corsage pin. Like Zeb’s it told a story of the living of life too. And of those no longer living.
Zeb knew he shouldn’t be snooping in it, but it gave him so many clues to people in his family that he never knew about—people his mom and dad had never spoken about. Sicily was one of them, and, according to Sadie, she was the one with whom Zeb shared his special Gift from God.
Some time after Zeb started seeing his aunt, the one whose special gift was similar to his own—and spurred by Jackson Cavanaugh’s off-the-cuff remark—Zeb managed to find his dad’s collection of old things. It was a shoebox in the upper shelf of his closet behind sweaters and folded dress shirts, and Zeb located it one day after school hours but before Oliver would get home. Like his mom’s, this historical capsule contained newspaper clippings. It also held a couple of eight track cassettes: Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road album, The Beatles’ Yesterday, The Moody Blues’ In Search of the Lost Chord. But the most startling and interesting thing he found in the box was a stack of yellowing photographs. They were of a naked young woman. Her skin was porcelain, her hair dark, and Zeb was sure it was his aunt Sicily until he realized that, despite similar appearances, the naked lady in the pictures was actually his own mother, Sadie Nadine Redfield.
Jackson Cavanaugh, son of the King and Queen of Cheese was right: his mom was a babe. A total babe.
Zeb guessed the pictures were taken before the wedding, during a courtship that lasted less than a year, he knew. She was smiling and giggling, clearly pleased, maybe even drunk. Some shots were from behind her, over a shoulder as she smiled at the lens, some where from the front as she lay in a hammock that looked like it was stretched across an apartment’s living room. Across her in some shots fell the shadow of the photographer: undoubtedly his father. Oliver had taken, or at least saved, nearly seventy shots of his young and darling soon-to-be bride. Some were Polaroid and some where color prints from a 35 mm. Some were in black and white and some actually showed great skill in their composition. It was stunning for Zeb to see all that flesh, nipples, hairy parts. In his mind’s eye, his mother wasn’t a woman. She was a face, a kind and loving one, but just a face.
Zeb looked at those shots for a long while, shuffled through them. They made him embarrassed at first, later even made him aroused, but most importantly they made him witness to a new side of both of his parents. His mother was vulnerable. She was open and content. And his dad could actually take time to do fun things, even showing skill with the camera. Zeb could nearly hear his father’s voice beside his mother’s giggles: Put your arm this way, Sadie-babe. Look back at the camera. That’s it, Sadie-babe. He pictured Oliver laughing along with Sadie, laughing right along with her behind the camera. Over your shoulder, yeah, just like that—he said in Zeb’s mind as she laughed and teased—you look so beautiful. Zeb looked at the pictures and he saw them happy, both of them deliriously happy. And that was something he had not remembered from his whole lifetime. Not ever.
<> <> <>
Zeb’s outward existence, he realized, moved along in big sloppy intervals that interchanged popularity with solitude. Almost without any help from himself, it seemed.
When he was little, his world consisted of his mother and his water paints. Then he found complete solitude.
Or, perhaps, it found him.
Years before these figurative curves had claimed him, though, years before he even cared about such sloppy up-and-down waves, Zeb’s mother took him to Wonderland, a premier theme park in Vaughan, a drawing point from all over the country and the Atlantic states as well. Families that were closer to Toronto than Disney World in Florida planned their summer holidays around trips to Wonderland; it was a big deal to go.
Zeb was eight, his mother just twenty-nine, and on that crowded, sweltering Saturday he begged her to take him on the Bat, a corkscrew rollercoaster that launched its passengers up and down in a series of extreme curves before sending them through a vomit-inducing loop. And when she finally succumbed to his pleas, that notorious loop made Zeb feel like his insides were going to rip loose too. But it was that last part, that part when the coaster finally slows, when the thrill feels like it’s slackening up, when it instead hurls its victims backwards, sucks all the blood in their skulls smacking into their foreheads, and sends them through the loop and into the corkscrew ass-backwards, with no vision to ease the mind, no way of calming the heart or the head—well, that was the most thrilling part, and simultaneously the most excruciating part. It was the blind ride backwards that promised the most—it was also that ingredient that threatened the most.
His popularity cycles didn’t bother him much, certainly not back in the days of the Bat and his water paints. But later they slacked and the result became almost painful. That was, until Jackson Cavanaugh made art seem okay again. Zeb had put down his 2B, B, and HB pencils, his pencil crayons, and even the paints his mother had started him on, but Jackson, who could sketch like no other person Zeb had ever met, brought the passion forward anew. And Jackson was popular, cool even. So when Zeb picked up a paintbrush again, spent time with Jackson and Jackson’s other friends, doors opened. And a new, rounded period of popularity and fun began. The pain eased. Thankfully.
He and Jackson were commissioned to paint a mural on the long interior wall in St. Vincent’s gymnasium and they managed to stretch the work out and take up most of the last year the two spent at the private primary and junior high school. But working on that project kept Zeb more in touch with the goings on at school than it did the inside-world of the mural. Before the project arrived in his life, he had generally gone straight home at three to spend his evenings alone, but now he stayed on sometimes until six to work on the project. The basketball teams and volleyball teams practiced while he painted, sometimes even paused to watch as they sat out on the benches. And, as coincidences of location and time will dictate, he made friends through the process. Jackson and Zeb became the two art boys of St. Vincent’s. They ran the art club and were generally perceived as the two greatest artists the school had ever seen. Their pieces hung in the hallways near the staff room and even teachers had definitive respect for their abilities, it seemed. In a strange way, that alone made him known. It made him something unique. And unique has its own special badge.
His popularity slumped again the next year when he began attending Wilt Marin High School. From St. Vincent’s only nine boys came to Wilt Marin, which was a little further out of the district, and so the circle he had built up was emptied in a mere moment. Zeb protested attending the school when nearly everyone else from Vincent’s had gone on to attend Vaughan Collegiate. But Oliver insisted he attend Wilt Marin, as it was generally believed to be more appropriately appointed to post-secondary goals than Vaughan. And at that point, every supper hour seemed to be built on what would get Zeb more easily into a suitable business university. Appearances, Oliver told him, had nothing to do with it. The end result, the presentation, is what mattered. And the end result of Wilt Marin was a university of his choice.
His social status remained bleak until the eleventh grade. He attended parties before that, was a part of the photography club, and produced visual art pieces for every student show and for the yearbook. But real popularity—even popularity based solely on his talents in the arts—eluded him. As a result he spent most of his time in the dark half of the basement where an easel and some drop clothes were set up. He painted and painted and painted more. Stacks of his works—pieces that were brightly colored, beautiful and majestic, sat in piles under the crawlspace or leaned against a pipe beside the wine cellar. It made him come alive to see the colors in his head sprawled on the canvas. It seemed to make everything he felt, everything he saw and heard, the stuff no one else had ever experienced, real.
Vivian Leland, a gold-haired beauty of Wilt Marin’s finest caliber, was passing out flyers in the hall on the last regular class day of Zeb’s eleventh grade. They had never spoken, Zeb and Vivian, despite the fact that he knew who she was all the way back from St. Vincent’s days when she was at St. Catherine’s Girls Prep. Their generation had no protest marches, no anti-war campaigns, and no unified will to support or overthrow any government leaders, so Zeb, curious, had no thought as to what the flyers might announce. They were a bit overdone, he decided when he finally got a glimpse of one, as she popped them in vents of selected lockers and handed them to certain people as they passed. A neat thing and something he would have thought to do for his sixteenth birthday party, too—if he would have had countless guests to invite like Viv Leland. Yet it seemed a completely uncool thing to do. Would anyone want to come to a party after hearing about it on a flyer?
Zeb supposed the flyers, peach with white text shadowed in black, were for three reasons: One, the Leland family was rich, could easily afford stacks and stacks of these professionally designed flyers for all of Vivian’s classmates and they would undoubtedly do anything to make their daughter happy. Two, her birthday was July third, over the long weekend and more than two weeks into summer vacation. Without something written down, maybe most kids would just ignore it, forget it, maybe stumble across other plans. Out Of Sight, Out Of Mind. An empty party for Viv’s sweet sixteen just wouldn’t have made the princess altogether happy, now would it? And three, because, as Zeb found out when he picked one of the stray sheets from the hallway floor to read it, there were complicated instructions on how to arrive at the party. It was, he discovered, to be held at the Leland summer cottage. Lake of Bays, two and a half hours from the city. A posh and roomy estate on the water front in Dorset Township. This would be a big to-do all right. And Vivian wanted to make sure it was as filled as could be.
In her flyer-handout trek, Vivian crossed back towards the east wing, unbeknownst to Zeb who stood in the late afternoon sun-glow of an end hallway window, staring down at the peach flyer in his hand. It had the Dorset township address of the Leland home and even a map with driving instructions. She startled him with her words as she came up from behind, turning sideways, and continuing to pass. But she only had to say one thing, one thing that made it all right to be standing there like an idiot in the empty east wing hallway holding her flyer which he had snagged from the dusty floor.
“—You can come too, Sebastion...if you want...”
Ah, Christ. It was just that last bit. “If you want.” Why did she have to add that? It was like, Hey, you’re not really invited, but since you picked the flyer up off the floor before the janitors swept it into the trash, I guess you can come. It’s not like I can un-invite you. I can’t grab the invitation out of your hand, can I?
July long weekend, the summer following his eleventh grade, Zeb Redfield went to Lake of Bays for Vivian Leland’s sixteenth birthday bash. Backwards and blind, his open-air rollercoaster ride was just beginning.