Magazine article Queen's Quarterly

Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World

Magazine article Queen's Quarterly

Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World

Article excerpt

MARK ANTHONY JARMAN's first novel, Salvage King Ya!, was published last year, and Oberon has just published his new collection of stories, New Orleans Is Sinking. In 1997 he was nominated for the Pushcart Prize anthology and was shortlisted for the $10,000 Journey Prize. He was also included in 97: Best Canadian Stories and will appear in 98: Best Canadian Stories. He is a graduate of the Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa and now teaches at the University of Victoria.

Too great a hurry to discharge an obligation is a kind of ingratitude.

Francois, Duc de La Rochefoucauld (1613-1680)

I AM called south to the sunny counties just inches above Mexico's border where the fact of one's dying, that last exquisite border, is pushed straight down like a discreet sofa-bed, a quiet, expensive model that will never betray the fact that it has an ulterior motive, a hidden agenda, that it's guilty of being a sofa-bed.

At the Seattle airport the dedicated American customs man wonders, Why is your passport expired?

I was not expecting to travel.

And why is that?

My father just died. I'm on my way down to San Diego, help my mother.

The customs man bows his head in regret, quickly waving me through. Perhaps he remembers his father dying in a distant city. The customs man's dark uniform adds weight to his empathy. I am now sanctioned, privileged, with special rights, special rites; I am the grieving son.

Was he a black man? Looking back, I think so. He wore gold glasses, took his duties seriously, as did my father. So early in the morning: and my memory is not reliable at that half-dark hour. The alarm rang at 4 a.m. and I leapt up like a scarecrow: What? What?! My primitive heart going like a gong. Then the knowledge seeping back. I have to crawl to the foggy airport. My father's heart squeezed shut. I imagine we have the exact model of heart, perhaps the same expiry date. A contest with my father then: I must live longer than he did. The big artery or vein on the left of the heart; widowmaker the doctors call it, as loggers term stray branches that weigh a ton and drop on your head from a world above.

Why does death involve so many airports, so many orange plastic seats? There was money to burn when Hot Wheels orange was cool, but then budgets got slashed and now we're stuck with that era's hue and cry.

Too many eras to kill, too many pasty pilgrims in my way, grim shuffling travellers who could have died easily before my father had to die. Like Hamlet, I want revenge. That gnarled codger by the orange seats. Why aren't you dead? I feel like grabbing his lapels, letting him know he should have keeled over first (a rat has breath). My father would be mortified. He was never one to make waves, to complain. I, for some reason, thrive on a diet of complaint, waves, a chameleon eating empty promises. I have inherited my father's English restraint and my Irish mother's craving for strife. Cold toast and warm beer and I'm stuck in the middle of them.

Plunging sideways down into San Diego the tiny plane tilts gleefully through dazzling whiter-than-white clouds. It's a riot. I love flying, love travelling. We wear green earplugs the size of bullets; the pilot stands our plane on one wing and we gaze straight down at the sunlit ocean peacock blue against the arid waste hills just north of Mexico. How many pilgrims are sneaking through the wired arroyos, sneaking through the gaps in the clouds, thinking now their life will begin? My parents go south every winter; these ones on the ground flood north, wily coyotes leading nervous chickens for a steep price.

Good luck, I wish them. Don't be careful, as they say. The brilliant round clouds we slice through - white floors and walls and shifting beckoning halls with muscular curves and sunlit arches - heavenly. I feel I could step out of the narrow plane and look for Dad. …

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