Excerpt from The Bear in The Yellow Scarf [in progress, DRAFT ONLY]
Ben Farlon is a successful photographer who returns to Detroit after receiving a terminal diagnosis. He wanders the streets of a struggling city, collecting abandoned items and trying to come to terms with his own mortality. When a stuffed bear at a child's memorial triggers reminiscence of a past romance, he can't help but take it. But doing so draws him in to the investigation of the child's death, and in to the family's inescapable grief.
Chapter 1 - Home
When Ben was 12 years old, his father was given a Polaroid camera. It was a gift from co-workers at the Chrysler plant where Ben’s father had worked most of his life. He’d started there at the age of 18 and spent 21 years on the line before a press took his finger and most of his thumb, forcing him home. The day after his surgery he went back to the factory and signed buyout papers that he was too proud to admit he didn’t understand, and he was replaced within a week. He walked out the factory doors for the last time and waited in the parking lot for the shift to finish. He crossed the border into Detroit with a few of his former co-workers and bought rounds of whiskey and beer at Old Shillelagh until his stomach turned sour and he didn’t remember crossing back in to Canada that night.
Ben woke him too early the next day. His father, still in last night’s clothes, was tangled in a bloody sheet. The wrapping on his hand had partly unravelled and he had somehow torn a few stitches out. There were brownish-red smears marking the path of his flailing during the night. He had pulled a pillow on top of his head, so that only the feathery tail of his pre-maturely greying hair was visible beneath it. Ben shook him gently several times, then less gently, until his father groaned and removed the pillow and rose, ignoring Ben, to walk into the bathroom with the sheet still tucked under his arm. Ben heard a retching sound before the shower tap drowned it out.
The camera was in its box on the bedside table. They hadn’t bothered to wrap it, but there was a card taped to it that read simply “We all chipped in a little.”
Ben’s father only took one photo. It was later that morning when he pulled it out of the box and squinted at the instructions before tossing them aside. His head still pulsing, he sat Ben and his mother on the sofa. He steadied the camera as best he could on the bandage-wrapped club of his left hand and held the button down, waiting for the flash.
The photo discharged with a faint chemical smell. Ben stood and peered over his father’s shoulder as he shook the exposure with his good hand. The colours came into focus slowly, like something fading in reverse. It was a poor photo by any measure. Ben’s father had been unable to keep the camera still, and the image was a blur of colour. The white foam rupturing from a tear in the arm of the sofa looked as if someone had scratched the photo with a coin. Ben and his mother had no defined edges. Their shirts were blots that bled into one another. Their faces were indistinct. Ben sat slightly taller than his mother after a recent growth spurt, and his shoulders and jaw were beginning to take on the set of an athlete. His hair was long, black, and thick, cut just short of his eyes, which in the photo looked like little more than two dark holes poked through with pins. Little in the photo would have been recognizable to anyone who didn’t already know what it was.
Ben thought it was magic.
Ben used the camera compulsively. He took photos of the duplex they lived in beneath the shadow of the Ambassador Bridge; of the trucks lined up along the highway waiting to cross the border; of the frogs in the backyard and the squirrels along the fence. He took photos of the stack of shoes beside the front door from people who came to check on his father, something that happened less and less as he deteriorated; photos of the empty beer bottles on the railing of the porch that accumulated earlier and earlier in the day as his father drank through his settlement
money; a photo of his father, a beard growing in moss-like patches on his weathered jaw, his eyes dull and unfocused; a photo of his mother, the week before she left them.
His mother did not leave a note, and there was little taken. Ben could see in his eyes that his father knew from the beginning that she was gone, but it took Ben longer to accept. Anytime he walked through the front room, he would pull aside the curtain and peer out to see if she were standing there, on the step, waiting to come in. At nights he would lay awake, and every stray sound that reached his ears he interpreted as some movement of his mother’s. He would hear a clanking noise, and slip out of bed to walk swiftly but silently into the kitchen, knowing that she was there cleaning the dishes that had piled up on the counter, and knowing as well that he had to approach quietly to avoid scaring her back into whatever hiding she had emerged from, but then he would reach the kitchen, find it empty, and see the neighbour’s wind chime through the kitchen window, making soft pots-and-pans noises in the slight breeze.
He was walking home from school one afternoon and thinking how she used to have a warm muffin waiting for him as an after school snack and he understood in that moment that he would never see her again. He scanned his memories for some hint from her in the days prior to her leaving, but he could not recall anything that seemed odd. It could have been that she could no longer bear to see his father’s decay. It could have been a breakdown. It could have been another man. It was the not knowing that made it most difficult and it was the not knowing that made it bearable. That allowed him to tell himself any lie and accept it as truth. He imagined that it must have also been the same for her. He pictured her sitting at the kitchen table in the quiet hours before dawn, writing and re-writing and re-writing a letter before realizing that words were inconsequential in the face of such an action. That explanations would only weaken her resolve
to go. Ben learned early that your life can change in a moment, and that the moment is rarely one of your own choosing.
He took photos of her absence. The bed she used to lay in. The garden, now gone to weed, which she used to tend so fastidiously. Her sewing table. Initially, Ben’s photos rarely turned out better than his father’s first half-hearted attempt, but still he carried the camera everywhere. He learned to be more patient with his photos. He learned to use a rock or a piece of furniture to steady the camera. He learned to make small adjustments to the settings despite the fact that his father had thrown away the instructions. He worked after school doing deliveries for a flower shop and he spent nearly every cent on film cartridges and batteries. His photos improved.
He bought his first point-and-shoot with money he stole from his father. Ben had him sign the back of one his settlement cheques during a drunken stupor, knowing he wouldn’t remember. He cashed the cheque and bought a Konica with auto-focus and wore it on a strap around his neck. He photographed every member of his graduating class, but he declined to cross the stage himself, preferring to maintain his position crouched at the base with the Konica. The pictures were much easier to take, but they didn’t have the same magic for him as the old polaroids. He kept the polaroids in a shoebox, but the new photos he took, he printed, then threw away.
By the time college started in the fall, his father had all but abandoned his usual spot on the porch. He stayed in the lazy boy in the living room instead, drinking and watching TV and occasionally groaning in pain. Ben studied journalism and took photos for the school paper. He finished top of his class first semester. He met a girl. His father had an emergency colostomy.
Ben refused to bring the girl home, so they rented rooms in a cheap strip motel beside the 401 that catered to tired truckers and visiting strippers. They’d spend a few hours sweating and moaning beneath stained sheets, then he’d return to his house, which smelled of shit and whiskey, and help his father change his colostomy bag and then cry to himself before falling asleep. When his father finally passed, it was a relief. He brought his camera to the funeral and took a photo of his father in the casket while the small number of attendees whispered in the pews behind him. With his eyes shut and his beard shaved, Ben’s father looked years younger in death than he had in life, but they had been unable to get the sickly yellow tinge from his skin.
Ben sold the house and married the girl. He graduated, and got a job doing photos for the Windsor Star. He wouldn’t let the girl help him pack. He threw out all his father’s things, donated the furniture in the house, and when it was empty he sat on the bare floor with the shoebox and looked through the polaroids. They were the last thing he packed moving out and the first thing he unpacked moving in.
He bought a small farmhouse on the edge of the city. He posed the girl around the house, taking her picture in each room, then fucking her after in a sudden rush of desire. He took her photo again when they were done. When the photos were developed he studied them, looking for some difference in her before and after, but there was none. He had her anyway, in every room, on every surface – bodies slick against the porcelain tub of the bathroom, itchy from the fibres of the thick living room carpet, scraped and bleeding from loose nails on the hardwood floor in the hall. The textures of the house became inextricable from their lovemaking, so that he couldn’t run his hand along the kitchen counter without thinking of her there, clamping her thighs around his fingers as she moaned and came.
Between bouts of passion, they rarely spoke. They divorced after two years and knew little more of each other than they had when they had married. The split was amicable – there was not enough between them to cause any hurt.
He moved often after that, toting the shoebox from the farmhouse in Windsor to a hotel room in Detroit that he lived out of for 6 months, then an apartment in Dallas, a bigger apartment in New York, a condo in Los Angeles. He shot soot-covered soldiers in the Middle East returning from battle, children in Central America sorting through items at garbage dumps, actresses in thousand dollar dresses smiling in front of billboards.
An editor told him once that there was no such thing as a perfect woman or a perfect photograph, and so he stubbornly searched for both and thought he found one – a jumble of multi-coloured houses in the dawn light on a hillside in Nicaragua, a young girl in a dirty dress sitting out front of one, her legs dangling over the edge, one hand wounded and bleeding and the other pressed beneath her thigh, looking thoughtfully towards the pending sunrise, something in her eyes both desperate and radiant. He intentionally blurred the exposure, removing the sharpness of the image, giving it a dreamlike quality. The borders of the individual pieces were rendered indistinct, much like the single photo that his father had taken with the old polaroid. It earned him his first of several prizes.
He had less luck finding the woman, though they came easily to him. He worked his way through the entertainment industry with his camera and his cock, bedding models and actresses and want-to-be’s and has-been’s. He went to parties where the sole purpose seemed to be to raise the level of debauchery. He did lines of cocaine and stripped naked and showered with women he didn’t know, then, still wet and high, put his clothes on and walked back out into the party for more. He woke in strange places with pounding headaches and stains on his clothes, and he
thought of his father drinking himself to death in the reclining chair in the living room and he went in search of more drink, more drugs, to clear the image from his mind, and he never had trouble finding someone willing to help him with both.
He was accepted amongst those with whom in truth he had no place. His shoes cost more than 3 months mortgage on the old farmhouse. He had shirts in his closet from designers whose name he didn’t know and couldn’t pronounce, and a car in the garage that he was afraid to drive. He disdained the excess of LA, but also craved the acceptance that only excess could grant him. He was aware of the hypocrisy, and it became just one more thing he had to push out of his mind, to obliterate.
He woke one morning in the hospital. They ran tests and had him come back several times. They showed him x-rays and MRIs and used words he didn’t understand. They spoke of options. They spoke of likelihoods. They spoke of making preparations. They spoke of months, not years.
He left everything in LA and got on a plane. He returned to Detroit, still only 34, divorced, successful, famous in some circles, but bereft of friends and family. His hair was still black, but thinner and cut close to his head. His jaw had thinned and his once-athletic shoulders now sagged but his eyes were still dark, deep and watery. He rented a run-down apartment above a restaurant in Mexican town. He moved in with just a bag of clothes, a shoebox full of decades-old polaroids, and a peanut-sized tumour in the center of his forehead that promised to take everything from him.