Read The Age of Cities Online

Authors: Brett Josef Grubisic

Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Social Science, #Gay & Lesbian, #Gay Men, #Gay, #Gay Studies

The Age of Cities

for the Marks

and their inadvertence



Writing a novel turned out to be weirder and far less straightforward than I'd expected. To the friends and colleagues who offered words and minutes of encouragement, then, thank you. I'd also like to dedicate especial thanks to Carellin (for telling me that typing would be better than complaining), Michael, George, David, and Matt (for generosity tempered with criticism during and after writing group meetings), Monica (for the kind of praise only the mother of one's ex can utter), Bryan (for being a friend), and Lefler (ditto—and having a keen eye). Thanks as well to the folks at Arsenal for being good sports. Not least: my wholehearted gratitude to Meesha and Shalia for being there.


~ a literary artifact ~

edited by A.X. Palios

And yet nothing serves so well to strengthen them
As staving off the darts of heedless love,
No matter stallions or bulls your herd.
For which reason they banish bulls to distant fields,
Cut off by peaks and beyond broad streams,
Or close them in behind doors with mangers full.

The Georgics
[unpublished translation] 


And eyeless Nature that makes you drink
From the cup of Love, though you know it's poisoned;
To whom would your flower-face have been lifted?
Botanist, weakling? Cry of what blood to yours?—
Pure or foul, for it makes no matter,
It's blood that calls to our blood.

—Edgar Lee Masters,
Spoon River Anthology


Prol[ogue] S[eptember 19]58

Mrs. Pierce's Social Studies 11 class shuffled through the library door at 10:15.

Standing on his footstool at the end of the Literature aisle, Winston turned to watch his colleague's watery form through the frosted glass. A blurred left arm held the door open while the other hastened students toward his desk with a polite urgency: she'd told Winston what time they would arrive and she considered her word to be as good as law. Mrs. Pierce passed one last dawdling student through, followed him in, and delivered a shy smile to Winston as he left the stacks.

This juvenile swarm was unprecedented, the result of meetings that had taken place over the past summer. Winston had not attended even one; his interest in the school's rules and regulations ended at the library door. Yesterday in the staff room, the Vice-Principal, Mr. Westburn, had made a formal announcement about the new school policy: that teachers would lead several of their classes on a kind of field trip, one strictly limited to the nooks and crannies of the school. The notion behind it, Mrs. Pierce had explained after the Vice-Principal had turned over the floor to her, was that young spongy brains would be keen to absorb knowledge and direction from this wide exposure to options. Ideally, anyway, that was the hope.

Winston had felt thrown out of orbit by the mass of faces an hour before, but now their sudden arrival and departure seemed no different than the other routines the staff had been following for years. He knew that Mrs. Pierce would expect to hear his opinion on the merits of the tours, and stored away this realization for later use.

Delilah Pierce was a veteran committee member and a tireless promoter of schooling. She fervently believed in the high school's ongoing development (an immaculately stitched aphorism, coined by herself—


A Great Education is an Excellent Resource.

A Great School is an Evolving Organism.


—sat snug within a pewter frame on her desk, presented to her by a thankful graduate semesters before), and Winston had observed that she encountered no difficulty whatsoever in transforming ideas into action. School was fertile ground, she had exclaimed more than once, and she thrived on it. About school he agreed with her in principle, though not in order of magnitude.

Winston had heard about the school tour policy a week before summer vacation ended because Delilah had scheduled time for home visits to help spread the word. The wispy and nervous devotee of Andrew Carnegie had sheltered herself in the backyard shade as Winston lay stretched out in the sunlit lawn chair and his mother puttered about in her tremendous garden. Such standoffishness was practical: Delilah feared cats and kept watch on Grendel—sprawled under the chair, plump as a panda bear—as though his utter languor were a sly pose that hid a lion's savage heart. Delilah had dropped by the house (having telephoned well beforehand, of course, to make certain that she was not imposing on their hospitality) to fill him in on the Curriculum Development Committee's
evolutionary step
. They were practically neighbours, Delilah had chirped, so it was no trouble at all to explain the whole plan in person. And besides, the Committee's scheme would be starting up within days; she'd said with a blush that she had volunteered to talk to all the high school staff living close by. Winston called her Sister Delilah and was fond of teasing her about living too much for the benefit of others.

Winston had listened to her and then wondered aloud if the Committee's plan was in fact
; shielding his eyes from the sun with a hand shaped into a stiff salute he asked if perhaps she ought to blaze ahead with a Pedagogy Committee. “There can never be too many committees, I'd venture to say,” he'd remarked.

“I'll deign not to answer your sarcasm, Mr. Wilson,” she'd said with disingenuous ruffled feathers. “You shouldn't scoff.” She shook her index finger in mock warning. “Really, if no one lets them know that there are choices, then they won't make any. Ignorance is not bliss, is it? Who knows, a future librarian might have his eureka when his Chemistry class is led into your corner of the building.”

“Another great idea, Delilah,” Alberta had remarked from her bower of plum tomatoes, pungent now in the late summer heat.

“Thank you, Mrs. Wilson,” she'd said, her shifting eyes showing Winston a flash of puzzlement. Winston imagined that the uncertainty resulted from his mother's bland comment. Acquaintances were rarely satisfied that they could accept her words at face value.

Social Studies 11 was the second class to pass through his library this morning. The first had been the plainly cowed Biology 10 class of Miss Mittchel (“That's with double Ts and a single L, please take note,” she'd tell her classes each year—an odd medley of prim and proud—only to be mocked for the year, renamed as Miss Dewwlapp: the Biology teacher had once been a corpulent young lady with gland problems, and in places her stretched skin remained loose long after the success of the Reducing Plan she'd share with the other ladies with the slightest encouragement.) For her students Winston had talked about agriculture, forestry, and the local flora and fauna—“Bryophyte, from the Latin words for ‘moss' and ‘plant,'” “
Pediculus humanus capitus
, the head louse, which we hope not to encounter if we value our hair”—before walking them through the modest miracles of the Dewey Decimal system.

Winston adjusted the smoothly oiled pivot of his desk chair by a few degrees, and jotted down a reminder to bring in a jar of his mother's dilled carrots to the diligent janitor Mr. Horvath. Not just anyone would remember to stop bothersome squeaks; and Winston had merely mentioned it in passing in late June. He turned his attention to the matter now at hand. Wearing her favourite white cardigan over her shoulders this morning, Delilah waded through the crowd toward his desk. When she nodded Winston quickly surveyed the class and began with words he'd prepared en route to school that morning.

“Hello, students. For those who are new to the high school my name is Mr. Wilson. This library is where you're going to find me.” He unclasped and spread his hands to emphasize the breadth of the room. Delilah Pierce hoped to offer up a world of promise and possibilities, and he would strive to introduce some of it to them.

The thirty faces were watching him, expectant. Often enough, Miss Mittchel had remarked on his sonorous voice in her efforts to have him join her choir, and he was aware that he could use its lower register to sway or—when he was much younger—intimidate. The technique worked with all manner of animal, he'd discovered over the years. He thumped his chest as he cleared his throat.

“Since class assignments from Mrs. Pierce will undoubtedly have you appearing here for many hours to come”—a low chorus of sighs and groans arose—“your teacher has had the foresight to give you a head start. Today, I will show you how the library can help you obtain an A in your Social Studies class. On all other school days until the end of June, I am here to answer your questions and assist you in getting your scholarly tasks accomplished.”

He could see and hear the fidgeting starting. A whiff of brimstone would stifle it.

“Oh, yes, I may have been premature about your A grades. As with many parts of life, success is not as easy as all that. Just as our province's economy relies on raw resources, so too do you. The library offers you such material, though what you make of it is ultimately up to you. As that pertains to a grade, in other words, your endeavours determine your fate. For the most part.” Turning to their teacher, he raised his brow.

He surveyed the faces. They were impatient for the library tour to conclude. So much for eager sponges, he thought.

“I will try to illustrate the library's usefulness with an example. Let's say you have been given an assignment that requires you to examine an aspect of your home town. Now, for those of you who have grown up here, River Bend City is as it has long been, a community of farmers and loggers who support our bustling merchants on 1st Avenue. So, then, what essay could you possibly write?”

He hadn't anticipated anyone answering his rhetorical question, but paused for a moment just in case. No one dared a word.

“Well, the official history of River Bend City is a different beast altogether, you see. Its origins, its roots are a complicated entanglement of mercantile schemes and religious devotion.”

The promise of intrigue and mystery had grabbed their attention.

“Our thriving town also has two points of origin.” He turned his hands palm upward, as though he was Justice come to life and holding out the two possibilities for them to examine up close. “On the one hand, Oblates of Mary Immaculate founded a mission here in 1862—at the time, our local volcano”—and here he angled his face toward the window directly behind his desk—“was still sending up plumes of smoke like an angry Samoan god.

“Now then, one Father Pourguet led these men just east of here, aiming all the while to rescue the Indians from themselves, or, to be more accurate, themselves after gold rush fools and agents of government had trampled them and innocent carriers had spread smallpox to them. Smallpox alone made their population in the area shrink from 30,000 to 6,000—that's a reduction of eighty percent, as any of your mathematically skilled peers could tell you. To give you a clearer picture, that would be similar (if our 1956 census is at all reliable) to the current population of our fair city suddenly dropping to just over 2,000 souls, many of their lives in ruin.”

He heard some murmuring and ran his eyes along the group.

“And yet—on the other hand—not too many years later, and a few miles to the southwest, the town's second history began. Presto, just like that. So you may not have heard of it, but our city was the invention, from noon to two p.m. on a mild spring day in 1891 to be precise, of an inspired land speculator, who sold exactly 300 lots—the same thing he'd done a decade earlier, but this time in the Prairies.

“Here. You see. It was advertised as an auction, come one, come all.” Winston held up a piece of paper, a facsimile of an actual newspaper advertisement—


GREAT Auction Sale of

300 City Lots


on Tuesday May 19

Tickets for the Round trip

From New Westminster and Return, Same Day 75¢

From Vancouver and Return, Same Day $2.00


He reached across his desk and handed it to Mrs. Pierce. “Please be careful,” she whispered when she passed it to a nearby student.

“The man had an auction pavilion—washed away by spring flooding decades ago—built down on the flats, and folks from all over the new province and Washington State came up to buy up a lot or two. For months before, our secular founding father had been promising that this unexceptional stretch of green along the river would soon be an important hub of economic prosperity. Once auctioned off, he'd apparently tell anyone he met, it would grow faster than the Royal City had some years before. A bonanza for the businessman with vision.”

“How do I know all this, you might ask.” He supposed most of them would never ask such a question. They were restless, he could see, lost in their skittish teenaged thoughts—conjuring pierced hearts, patterns for autumn outfits or souped-up cars in their heads—and looking over his shoulder and through the window into September's washed-out blue sky. “The answer, of course, involves the books and materials that are available right here in the library. Any questions?” He gave his attention to Mrs. Pierce in the ensuing silence.

Instantly hawkish, she surveyed her class. “It would seem that you might have something to say, Miss Schmidt.” Everyone turned to look at a willowy black-haired girl standing at the rear of the group. She shook her head and stared at the floor, hands clutching her plaid skirt.

“Mr. Gruber, then? You two appeared to be involved in quite an in-depth conversation, whispered though it was. Perhaps you'd care to share it with us?” Although Mrs. Pierce kept her hands primly folded at her waist she brooked no disruptions.

The youth was solid and swarthy, Winston noticed, and the gleam in his assured green eyes hinted that he could become a trouble student any time soon. Likely born with a hockey stick in his hand.

“Well, Mrs. Pierce,” he replied in a baritone steady and insinuating, “we were just wondering about when and why this town became such a backwater. That would be an interesting essay, wouldn't it?” He started to say more, but stalled.

Mrs. Pierce gave him no reply. “Any other questions,” she asked. She instructed the class to thank Mr. Wilson for his time.

Winston did not believe the young man's question was rhetorical. He spoke to the Social Studies teacher for a moment before she shepherded her group back to their classroom.

“‘To each thing there is a season?'” he said, thinking of the youth's provocation. Each time he stood close to her he marveled at their difference: she was so compact, her body seemed to take up no space.

“As we all know, it is perfectly lovely here.” Her face gave him no reason to doubt the sincerity of her affection for the town. “The boy was just showing off for that suddenly bashful Miss Schmidt. If he owned an automobile, he'd be revving the engine. The business of birds and bees never ceases,” she continued, tut-tutting with a nun's bride of Christ puzzlement.

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