Winter 2023-2024, Volume 44, No. 4
This issue features the 2023 Anne Szumigalski Memorial Lecture by Joshua Whitehead called “On Paranoid and Reparative Writing” as well as scenes from Dale Lakevold & Darrell Racine’s play “She-She Quois Rattle”! Plus all the fiction, creative non-fiction and poetry you expect from Prairie Fire. New work by Deborah Schnitzer, Scott Randall, Elana Wolff & more!
Cover image of Joshua Whitehead by Tenille K. Campbell
Anne Szumigalski Memorial Lecture
Steven Bryan Bieler
Me and my brother, Paul,
perched on the edge of the rock wall
in the fish smell of the reservoir—
lines cast, worms impaled on hooks
sinking into the dank grey waters—
learned to fish without a father.
Bluegill nibbled, but took no bait
as we waited for decades, growing old
—always the sun on our backs,
always, the dark night of the soul
—always together in this memory
as each, in his time, dies alone.
(Full poem in issue)
by Deborah Schnitzer
Sorrel takes the call. They have found her mother’s body. It had been lost in transit somewhere between Thunder Bay and Rainy River and Nanci, her cousin, has been up half the night with morgue and railway officials. Instead of transporting the body to Rainy River, it had been dropped off in Wawa by mistake. Sorrel would laugh, but as she has not lifted a finger to help, laughter is not hers to savour. That possibility belongs to Nanci—if Nanci should wish to note the absurd. All Sorrel might do is get on a plane. Bear Skin from Winnipeg to Thunder Bay, then backtrack to Rainy River and her mother, Ina Louise, “resting comfortably” in the Rainy River Community Centre. That’s what the lay minister says when he greets Sorrel. As her mother has never done “resting comfortably” before, it’s sort of special for Sorrel to hear it.
Sorrel’s husband won’t go. She might not have either; taped Don’t You Dare to the fridge door, posting it immediately after Nanci called. “Gone,” Nanci says. “Your mom’s gone.” Sorrel thinks, My mother’s been gone since the day she birthed me, but Sorrel doesn’t say so out loud. Instead, she says, “Okay, I’ll come,” and then she thinks, Why. Her mother, sick as she was, chose Thunder Bay and Nanci in her last days. Of course, Nanci would open the door, wouldn’t she, set her mother up in the downstairs den, tend. Nanci is a nurse; Sorrel’s own mother was lunatic. Sorrel has the practice with lunatic, but not the nursing. Nanci remains the logical choice, but the question about going paces back and forth in Sorrel’s kitchen.
Does she get on a plane? Does she not? Pulling daisy petals—her go-to game.
It takes Sorrel some time before she will wake Anselm.
One look and he knows what’s coming. At least an hour of what he calls Sorrel’s Heigh Ho and then maybe, if they’re lucky, bits of common sense.
“Your call, Sorrel. You go or you don’t. But, you live with it. Not me. Not the cat. Not the mailman. You live with it.”
Creative Non-Fiction Preview
Names on the Allen Expressway
by Scott Randall
Shortly after Scott Randall turned two years of age, his father left his mother, and shortly after he turned four, she met the man who would become her second husband. They would not marry until Scott was eight, so depending on how we do the math then, his mother was a single mother for two to six years. Her name was Sharon.
Still in her twenties, Sharon had two preschool sons and a townhouse mortgage in North York, and she carried these responsibilities without the safety net of a career or any post-secondary education. In fact, aside from inner resources, she had little to rely upon other than a series of irresponsible babysitters. Given her precarious situation, it is little wonder that when the divorcée in the townhouse next door offered her a soothing and minty Craven A menthol for comfort, Sharon accepted and developed a twenty-year addiction that would last until her death from cancer in her mid-forties. In a what-a-funny-old-world twist, the cancer didn’t start in her lungs, but in her breast, and it grew and reproduced so quickly and so efficiently that such distinctions were moot.
But we don’t really want to talk about death here.
We want to talk about names. Sharon’s first husband was named Allan and her second was named Alen. She replaced Sharon and Allan with Sharon and Alen, and years later as an adult, Scott couldn’t help but wonder what his mother thought of the coincidence. It must have given her pause, certainly. It must have made her stop and wonder if fate were playing some sort of joke at her expense. But no. Scott knew his mother wouldn’t have believed in such nonsense as fate. Perhaps the coincidence made her stop and wonder about her own predisposition, though, forcing her to question her own psychological makeup? But again, no. His mother wasn’t given to such thinking either, and these fanciful imaginings were Scott’s own. He’s given to them.
In the midst of one of his imaginings, Scott couldn’t help but think of his mother’s vulnerability during that two-to-six-year period. Like single mothers the world over, she wasted little time building upon her inner resources. She sped through part-time college courses, earned herself a registered nurse’s assistant designation, and settled into a fulltime position at the Baycrest Hospital. Though not physically strong, she took on a physically demanding job, caring for elderly and bedridden patients at Baycrest in order to care for her two young sons at home. And yet, whatever RNAs were paid at the time, it wasn’t enough. She did not have the means to keep up the mortgage payments on the North York townhouse that she and her first husband Allan had purchased. She had to move Scott and his older brother to a rental apartment in a somewhat seedy high-rise, and even this compromise turned out to be a losing proposition. Not sustainable in the long term.
It must have occurred to her that a second husband could certainly help her achieve financial security. In such a situation, any self-aware single mother would question herself and her own motives, and Scott’s mother might well have hemmed and hawed and prevaricated before agreeing to marriage. She might well have dragged her feet and second guessed herself. She might well have wondered if she was replacing an Allan with an Alen for the wrong reasons.