Thanks, Earl McRae

Earl McRae, an institution in Canadian journalism, died this past week. It was reported that he passed away at his desk at the Ottawa Sun doing what he did best, writing. And if we should all be so lucky, to die doing what it is we love most, what we do best and are most respected for, well, that would be okay with me. Of course, that would mean I’d die streaming episodes of The West Wing, but whatevs. I dig Sorkin.

I grew up in Ottawa, and Earl McRae was the first newspaper columnist I can remember reading on a regular basis, certainly the first opinion not of my parents that I cared about. He was a sports writer then, with the Ottawa Citizen, and coming from a non-sports family he was my first adult entry into the sports world. His style was unique in that it was a gonzo approach to sports writing, not simply telling the reader the scores, who got injured, and adding a handful of clichéd quotes, but instead inserting himself into the narrative. It is a style that was not common then, certainly not common in Canada, and is underused, abused, and misused now (see: Simmons, Bill), filling column inches with ego at the expense of narrative.

At a very early age I was acutely aware of the politics of sport; how the little league coach’s son got more at-bats than others, how the gym teacher’s buddy’s kid got the last spot on the high school basketball team, how what would later be affectionately labeled ‘grit’ and ‘heart’ and ‘character’ didn’t garner the same respect in a sports world made up of 12-16 year olds. Earl McRae provided me with a template for participating in the world of sports without being tainted by it, but rather inspired and entertained. He was a gateway drug which led me to Hunter S. Thomson and beyond, and then eventually to the low-paying, low-reward world of CanLit in which I now toil.

For an all to brief period in the early 1990s Earl McRae had a call-in radio show on an Ottawa AM station. This was long before sports radio, before wall-to-wall minute-to-minute coverage of sport. It was on Sunday nights and I’d listen to it while not doing my job a local restaurant called The Cajun Attic. One week, after running into Earl McRae’s father in line at a Harvey’s in Ottawa’s Westboro Village, Mr. McRae, upon his father’s urging, dropped my name into conversation during his radio show. He gave me a shout-out, long before that was a part of the lexicon. It was the first time I had heard my name outside of the context of my own little life, and I loved it. It was a feeling that’s difficult to describe, but it’s the same feeling I get when I’m introduced to read, or spot a review of one of my books, or see my name on the line-up for a reading. It’s some strange mix of pride and wonder, and it’s that same combination that keeps me writing. Or part of it, anyway.

Westboro Village is where Earl McRae’s legacy will live on, for it is there that he founded the Elvis Sighting Society along with Newport Pizzeria owner Moe Atallah. Part faith, part laugh, all in fun, the Elvis Sighting Society has raised countless dollars for Ottawa charities over the past 20 years or so. And I imagine that many a glass was raised to Mr. McRae over the past few days at the legendary local eatery, and will continue to be raised for years to come. The Elvis Sighting Society contends that Elvis Presley is still alive and well, and living in Tweed, Ontario, a small town of just under 6000, west of Ottawa.  This contention was included in a short story from my collection, Distillery Songs, called “Emulsification.”  It was a subconscious inclusion, but a pleasant reminder of how random parts of our lives make it into writing. And now that Earl McRae has passed, it feels good that something of mine will forever include something of his. Below is “Emulsification,” for Earl McRae. Thank you, sir.

Emulsification                                                                                                  

Okay, there’s a goddamn dead hooker named Crystal or Shelley or Raven or something duct taped to my couch and it’s one twenty-four in the afternoon and my notoriously punctual parents will be here for dinner at five-thirty and wouldn’t you know it I’m completely out of almonds and cumin, the former which I can do without but without the latter I might as well not even bother cooking, and then to compound my problems the bastards at Lapointe’s gave me salmon filets instead of darns, the incompetent motherfucking fishmongering assholes. And I’m not even the sort who would normally pick up a goddamn hooker let alone a goddamn dead one, but it was Thursday yesterday and on Thursdays I like to watch CSI, the original not the Florida one or whatever, but it was pre-empted for some fucking Katie Couric special on teen sex, and, well, give me teen sex and two hours with Katie Couric and suddenly I’m at the kind of bar where a fat middle-aged man like myself might be able to get laid. But the place is full of other fat sorry men who are similarly disappointed in the pre-emption of CSI and similarly aroused by Katie Couric and teen sex and so it’s just a sad room filled to the rim with drunkards getting drunker so when Raven came in and sat next to me I hardly noticed. Then she grabbed one of my smokes and normally a drunk would get a punch in the fucking head for filching a smoke in a bar like this but I’m all filled with the drink and Katie Couric fantasies, so I say hi and Crystal says hello and can I buy her a drink and of course I say sure ‘cause every other drunk useless fuck in the place is jealous ‘cause I’ve got the one woman in the joint that still has teeth and I buy her a rye and ginger and she sucks it back like it’s the cure so I order two and three and four and five and ten more until I’m seeing sideways and she asks do I live close by and do I like to party, and by that I wonder if she means party like hors d’oeuvres and cocktails with fruit and conversation about rounds under par and politics and celebrities and maybe a game of Cranium but we’d need two more people but she flashes an eight-ball from her purse and I say ohhhhh, party, sure I like to party and ya I live close by so let me get the tab and the entire crooked room sneers and sways in a contemptuous envy as it sees me leave with her and I feel about nine and a half fucking feet tall.

We get to my place and I feel a little embarrassed because I haven’t cleaned in what looks like three years but Shelley doesn’t seem to mind because as soon as we get inside she’s kissing me and tugging at my crotch and grinding her tight body into mine and for a moment I’ve forgotten all about Katie fucking Couric and teen sex. And she pulls away and goes and clears off the coffee table and starts cutting up lines on Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica and I’m rooting through the kitchen trying to find anything that even remotely resembles alcohol, locating only an old bottle of what is either tequila or triple sec or bleach under the sink. Then I remember that my parents are coming over for dinner at five-thirty and I should probably take those fucking filets out of the freezer now and maybe roast some garlic and as per my parents’ request I have a bottle of Louis Righetti Pinot Grigio in the fridge because my Mum won’t drink anything else and next to the Pinot Grigio is some Coors Light for my Dad because regular beer gives him gas. So I take two glasses and the wine out to the living room and sit down next to Raven and it is then that it occurs to me that I never did get her name and if I had then I’ve forgotten it so I asked and she grunted something through a thick layer of rails that sounded like Crystal or Shelley or Raven or fuck off and then she handed me a tightly wound one hundred dollar bill and I think about how weird it is that every time you see a hundred you stop and say to yourself hey a hundred like it’s a three-headed Jack Russell Terrier that sings show tunes and while I did a few lines she sucked back a healthy portion of my Mum’s Pinot Grigio. This goes on for a few minutes or maybe hours, it’s hard to tell because of the coke and I’m really flying and a little nervous that I might have a heart attack because I’m out of shape and I can hear my heart pounding heavily against the back of my head and then we start making out a bit and my heart starts beating faster and I try to remember the last time I got laid and I can’t recall so I suppose it must have been a long time ago and Crystal is whispering shit in my ear and my cock is tearing right through my slacks and I’m nervous I’m going to come right there and then but her words start to take form and I realize that she’s telling me that it’s two hundred for a blow job and three hundred for intercourse and four hundred for the night and five hundred for something I’ve never heard of and I say you’re a goddamn hooker and she says ya what the fuck did you think you got picked up you fat fuck, and I agree that I am a little overweight and I want to kick her out of the apartment but I’m so jacked on Katie Couric and teen sex and coke that I’m fumbling around trying to see how much cash I can come up with and I’m wondering if the thing you get to do for five hundred is really worth it. And I’ve never been with a hooker before, so I’m a little freaked out and a little ashamed, however I did call a one-nine-hundred number once but the girl on the line sounded suspiciously like my buddy Dave so I hung up unfulfilled but it still cost me seven ninety-five.

So I come up with around three hundred dollars and a Chapters gift card for forty bucks but I think that I should really save some cash for the almonds and cumin I’m going to need to pick up in the morning and she says that’ll be fine, the money not my grocery needs and that she won’t stay the night which suits me fine and we can’t do the thing I’ve never heard of and I still owed her for the coke so I give her my watch and we call it even. After another line or two we start making out and I think to myself that hookers aren’t supposed to kiss but maybe that’s just in Pretty Woman and was that all I knew about hookers but she seems to know what she’s doing so I try not to think about it too much and get this she tastes like, well mostly cigarettes and rye and white wine but also a bit like raspberry Jolly Ranchers which reminds me of Jill Forrest who I used to make out with during third period in grade eleven even though she was chubby, and once she’s out of the skirt and blouse she’s wearing she really does look like a goddamn hooker, like in the movies with intricate and complicated undergarments that somehow interconnect with each other. And then she starts undressing me and whispering dirty freaky shit that sounds nothing like my buddy Dave, and she puts the condom on me with the grace and style you’d expect from a goddamn hooker and it just then occurs to me what I’m doing and I start to think about Katie Couric and teen sex and for just a minute William Petersen and my Mum but that thought doesn’t last long and she says do I want to play a fun game and I say like Boggle and she slaps me across the face, hard, and I think shit I got me the wrong goddamn hooker and she asks again do I want to play a game and I say I don’t really have many games lying around the house except a chess board my cousin Phil brought me from Denmark which has all the members of the Danish royals and the blue guards and such as pieces but I don’t really like to use it all that often and then she slaps me again and I ask if we’re playing the game now and I’m still a little nervous that she may be a little more than I can take and that’s when she pulled the duct tape from her purse. The game goes like this: I duct tape her to my couch and duct tape her mouth closed and then fuck her and that’s the game. Doesn’t sound much like a fun game I say to her and she slaps me again, harder, and I say that I’d like it very much if you’d stop hitting me please Shelley and just then I think I’d like to call her Jill and she will stop hitting my face if I play her game and I say again that I don’t want to and she slaps me again and I say that I’d love to play her game but only if I can have my Chapters gift card back because it was a gift from my Mum and I really don’t like to pass a gift along like that, even something requiring as little thought as a gift card. She says fine and completely undresses and I’m glad she did it herself because it all seemed very complex with snaps and clasps and looping and I never was very good with even the simplest of bras let alone a fetish shop type setup like hers that seemingly requires an engineering degree to dismantle. Once she’s naked she lies down the length of the couch and instructs me as to how to tape her properly and so I do as I’m told because I’m kind of afraid and within a few minutes she’s secured tightly to the couch and with her last instructions she says to cover her mouth and I ask if that’s safe and she says just do it fatso and I say on television they usually have safe words like Oklahoma or Banana or something to signal that the game is no longer fun and I ask what our safe word should be and she says how about shut-your-fucking-pie-hole-and-fuck-me-fat-boy and I say it sounds like a mouthful and she says she’ll be duct taped and unable to speak and I feel a little embarrassed for having missed that obvious of a fact. So I do as I’m told and I duct tape the goddamn hooker’s mouth shut and then I’m immediately struck with the need to puke which I explain to her by saying I need to freshen up and she rolls her eyes and I go to the bathroom and remove the condom for some reason and I’m spinning drunk like my grandmother on Christmas morning and I wonder what kind of a hooker lets you tape her up, I mean isn’t that dangerous, and I start to believe that maybe she’s not really a hooker just a fucking whack job like my friend Dave. And I start to puke and it makes me light-headed and my eyes are watering and I wonder if I have any Scope but do I care or should I care that the hooker might complain that I smell like vomit and with all these thoughts going through my head I’m met with the notion that I may be out of condoms and I hope the goddamn hooker has another which I’m sure she does but if she doesn’t then that’s it and she’s going home ‘cause I don’t care how drunk or high or filled with thoughts of Katie Couric and teen sex I am I’m not fucking a goddamn hooker duct taped to my couch without a fucking condom. And through this haze of thoughts and puking and another quick inventory of my grocery needs I realize that I’m losing my balance and puking everywhere but the bowl and I still need cumin and now some more Pinot Grigio and I crawl into the tub and turn on the shower because I’m desperate to clean up immediately because my parents are coming for dinner at five-thirty and vomit is quite difficult to clean the day after cause it becomes sticky and the smell is rancid and I wonder if I have any cleaning products and the tub is so comfy and the water is warm and I start to drift off and I guess I passed out.

I come to and peel myself from the tub and I’m soaking fucking wet and covered in bits of dinner from yesterday and I check myself out in the mirror and I have a huge welt on my head and I don’t recall where it came from and I know exactly what my mother’s going to say and I have no idea how I’m going to explain it and the entire bathroom is now encrusted in puke and I search my throbbing head for what the fuck has happened and then I remember Raven is in my living room duct taped to my couch. I burst out of the bathroom and into the living room and I’m thinking all the while that all of my shit is going to have been stolen by a clever and sadistic goddamn hooker with a Houdini-like talent of escaping from being duct taped to an Ikea couch and I just hope she hasn’t taken the Danish chessboard because it really is my favourite thing and I should’ve taken the salmon out of the freezer and I still need almonds and more Grigio and maybe a vinaigrette and oh shit is that sunlight I wonder what time it is and the clock in the kitchen reads one twenty-six and the goddamn hooker appears to be dead and my notoriously punctual parents will be here for dinner at five-thirty. And Crystal is pale, not quite blue like the stiffs on CSI but pasty and I wonder if maybe it’s the drug abuse and scandalous lifestyle that’s made her so and I’m afraid to touch her because ever since my second cousin Roddy made me touch my Grandpa Bert at his wake I have a horrible fear of the dead which my therapist says I can attribute not to Roddy’s mischievous funeral parlour games but rather to an incident in my childhood where I mistook a dead squirrel for my teddy bear and slept with it for a week. So I throw an afghan over the goddamn dead hooker and go to the kitchen and take the filets not darns out of the freezer and I hope that they’ll be defrosted in time because if my parents don’t eat exactly at six o’clock after half an hour of nagging small talk my father’s stomach will explode and my Mum will tell me I’m a failure at dinner and every other damn thing in life and the world will end. I run the salmon under some cool water because I don’t trust microwaves or Catholics and luckily I find some frozen almonds in the freezer and I’ll have to live without cumin but I’m not thrilled about it and I toast the almonds with some olive oil and salt and pepper and begin the various other prep required to impress my mother’s palate. Once my almonds are toasted, my potatoes grated, my pancetta crisped, chives chopped, lemon zested, and the garlic is peeled I return my attentions to the goddamn dead hooker underneath my Aunt Wreatha’s afghan on the couch in my living room. I brave a closer look and see that she must’ve experienced some sort of OD or other trauma because there’s a fair amount of blood on the couch which immediately angers me because for forty dollars more I could have had the charcoal cover which would hide goddamn dead hooker blood stains but Ikea doesn’t accept Chapters gift cards and I’m a cheap bastard and now the ecru cover is stained in goddamn dead hooker blood and I didn’t even know what ecru was until I bought the couch and now I wish I didn’t and nothing gets that stain out and I don’t know whether I should call the police or not and even worse I don’t have time because it’s three o’clock now and I still have to clean the puke off my bathroom floor and tidy the rest of the apartment and get out of my wet puke-stained clothes and make bruschetta with spinach and toasted almond pesto and chevre on focaccia and a potato encrusted salmon with crispy pancetta and a lemon chive sour cream not to mention a salad of some variety with a vinaigrette not so tart that it will upset the delicate balance of flavours within the salmon dish and figure out where to hide the goddamn dead hooker. The phone rings and I’m afraid it might be my neighbour Mitch who has a multiple personality disorder and on differing days comes to pick up mail which ends up in my box for Mitch on Tuesdays and then Kevin on Wednesdays and then Janice on Fridays and who complains about not the volume of my music but rather the genres and who may have heard the goddamn dying hooker thrashing about while I was unconscious in a puddle of my own vomit asleep in my bathtub but it’s my Mum and she says she’s been calling all morning and where the heck have I been goodness gracious she was going to call the police and I think motherfuck thank God she didn’t and are we still on for tonight she demands and I think maybe there’s a way out of this and so I say I’m really not well and could we do it another time and she says no you can’t live your life cancelling plans and that’s so typical of me and when am I going to get married and have some children like my brother Terry and did I hear that Terry got another promotion at work and my father has some kind of bowel obstruction this week so she hopes my bathroom is clean and can she bring anything and I ask her to bring herself some Pinot Grigio because I forgot and she says she will but she’s pissed off about it except my mother doesn’t say pissed off she says disappointed or a synonym thereof and in the background I can hear my dad yelling hurry hard at either curling on TV or his bowel obstruction and I tell my Mum I have to go bury a goddamn dead hooker named Crystal or Shelley or Raven and she says not to take the Lord’s name in vain and hangs up. I tidy the entire apartment, except for the couch with the goddamn dead hooker duct taped to it which I’m very careful not to touch though every once in a while I take a peek to see if she’s alive which seems less and less likely with each passing minute. I make my spinach toasted almond pesto and I make it with canola oil and some people will tell you you have to use olive oil but that’s bullshit because olive oil loses its flavour when it emulsifies and I slice up the focaccia, which until recently I thought was the same as olive bread but it isn’t, for the bruschetta and the salmon is in and it’s exactly four fifty-eight and everything is perfect except for the dead goddamn hooker on my couch who appears to be moving all of a fucking sudden.

So the goddamn thought-dead hooker on my couch springs back to life and starts screaming and twitching helplessly like a cat wrapped in tinfoil trying to open the dryer door. I run to help. Our eyes meet, and hers are bloodshot and angry and she begins screaming louder, but her cries are muffled by the duct tape. A sound like Velcro separating from steel wool fills the apartment as she peels her right leg free. With a movement so graceful that I was sure she had done it before she shoves her foot in my face launching me backwards and through the coffee table. The smell of half-cooked salmon and crisp pancetta lingers gently in the room as she expertly peels each and every piece of duct tape off her body as if they were children’s band aids. She says nothing and grabs her purse, her clothing and my Chapters gift card then kicks me again, thus assuring that no measure of Katie Couric and teen sex will arouse me for a while. She disappears into the bathroom yelling obscenities that I have never heard before. It’s five-eighteen. I do what I can to fix the living room, throw the afghan back over the couch. The goddamn reborn hooker comes tearing through the apartment at full bore, slaps me across the face gives me a little peck on the cheek and leaves. It’s five twenty-nine. The room is acceptable, dinner is thirty-one minutes from being ready, I am not guilty of manslaughter and my balls ache like they’ve been chewed by a rabid dog. A knock. My parents enter. My mother says there was a nice young girl exiting the building as they came in and why can’t I find a girl like that to settle down with, and have I been to Chapters for a book yet, and is the bathroom clean because my Dad needs to go, and the crazy man in the dress downstairs looked at her funny, and why do I look so dishevelled can’t I even clean myself up for my own mother, and how’s Dave have I spoken to him lately, and is that Aunt Wreatha’s afghan because she wants it back, and who on God’s green earth buys an ecru couch,  and the vinaigrette better not be too tart because last time it was too tart and it ruined the taste of the grouper, and where was my watch, that was Grandpa Bert’s watch and I’d better not have lost it I lose everything I shouldn’t be trusted with heirlooms, and Terry’s going to have another kid, and Roddy’s in jail again, and my breath smells like rye and cigarettes and am I still smoking, and she called me all morning and where was I because I certainly wasn’t at work because I’m a lazy unemployed sod, and what is that funny smell, and I hope that’s not our dinner.