FICTION: ADAM GILES
OFF THE GRID
The hamsters in Burnaby were assholes. One was on this gluten-free, low-carb diet and even if you bought the right brand of gluten-free, low-carb diet pellets, he’d still crap in your hand if you weren’t cradling him the way he liked to be cradled. Meanwhile, because of the special treatment, the other guy, whom the ad described as “beleaguered but friendly,” squealed and thrashed in the cage. Twice a day with this. All winter. But it was a rent-free place out west. It was a start.
Mom called every day, usually when she was at the nursing home, visiting Dad.
“Any chance we’ll see you for Christmas?” she said.
“These gigs don’t come with vacation time.”
“Well, that’s not very nice.”
“Snowbirds don’t fly home until spring, Mom.”
“Snowbirds? It hasn’t even snowed yet.”
“That’s climate change for you.”
She put Dad on the phone, and I told him about my hamsters: the high-maintenance one and the angry one.
“Rodents?” he said. “I’m on my deathbed and this is what you’re doing with your time?”
Dad had been on his “deathbed” for nine years. The stroke paralyzed his whole left side and while the doctors said—with hope, hard work, and time—there was a chance of recovery, Dad was a pessimist, so hope and hard work were out. Which left only time.
The high-maintenance hamster crapped in the angry one’s bed and I told Dad I had to go.
“You remember when you were a kid?” Dad said. “When you’d ask me what I wanted for Christmas? And I could never think of anything?”
“I just thought of something.”
“A pillow over my face.”
The angry hamster took note of the crap in his bed, looked at me, and started into some lunges and shoulder stretches. Prepping for another squealing/thrashing episode.
In Surrey it was low-chirp budgies. These were normal budgies, genetically modified to chirp a little less. For rich folks. These particular rich folks were the Smuggs, 30-something department store catalogue models who spent half the year in Montreal, modeling.
The guy next door, Steve, lived in an eco-home. Solar, geothermal, rainwater harvesting, the works. A net-zero footprint. Which was great except that it reminded me of what I left behind in Toronto. I gave up my construction job for a non-profit that traded eco-homes for inefficient detached houses. Curbing wastefulness, promoting green lifestyles—luring sheep from the flock essentially. The pay was garbage and even if the dream of being self-sufficient, owning an eco-home myself, seemed impossibly out of reach, I was doing my part to save the planet, building these places for other people. Steady, noble work. Turning 40 though, living at home, earning less than one’s mother, there are existential questions one begins asking oneself.
Steve smoked weed, so I was over there quite a bit. We lounged in his backyard amongst the stray stalks and shoots of the overgrown vegetable garden. I brought over the budgies in their cage. Steve didn’t know the Smuggs even had them.
“They’re low-chirp,” I said, taking a drag.
“So they don’t ruffle anyone’s feathers,” Steve said, throwing his head back, laughing at his own cleverness.
Steve always had his Green Day playlist going, which I thought was maybe a little too on-the-nose given his eco-lifestyle.
“These guys are probably average environmentalists at best,” I said. “They’re more anti-establishment.”
“What do you think environmentalism is?” Steve took the joint from me. He pointed to the Smuggs’s house next door. “You know these pricks have a second monstrosity in Montreal? How’s that for a footprint?”
My high was coming on strong now. The Smuggs: younger than me, set for life with money, and I was taking care of their stupid birds. How did everyone get so far ahead of me?
“It’s all temporary,” Steve said. “Time is borrowed. You give everything back to the Earth when you check out. A house here, a house there—what’s the point? People gotta feel important.”
I closed my eyes, felt myself drifting.
“You know, those budgies really are pretty quiet,” Steve said. “It’s nice.”
The pygmy goat in Coquitlam was a hush-hush job—the municipality frowned upon keeping them as pets—so Mr. Jenkins and I usually stayed home. But his owners had a leash for him and said he liked walks along the mountainside. Which was perfect: after the ocean, the Rockies were the main draw for me out west.
It was surreal, the humbling perspective of seeing the endless range of wave-like peaks up close. Mr. Jenkins led the way, his little bum wiggling along a mountainside trail. He was 15—I read online that these guys live 8 to 18 years. He was just happy to be outside, looking for adventure, oblivious that the clock was ticking.
Mom called. She was at the nursing home visiting Dad.
“Your friend Derek phoned,” she said. “Apparently you cancelled all your social medias? He said you went AWOL. You didn’t give him your cell number out west?”
“Not really looking to be reached.”
“Apparently they’re planning some boys trip to Vegas.”
“Ah, the mid-life crisis tour.”
Mr. Jenkins went off road, bounding through tall grass, westbound toward the setting sun, which somehow, within minutes, turned the sky from blistering orange to an almost artificial pastel pink. I imagined Mom, had she been here, shitting on the moment, warning about the imminent threat of ticks. You’ll get Lyme, she’d have said. That’s what you get for straying from the trail.
“Dad’s going downhill,” Mom said. “I try to keep his spirits up, but he checks out, isolates himself.”
“He’s got stuff to process,” I said. “Things to come to terms with.”
“He shouldn’t be doing it alone.”
“We come into this world alone…”
“Ugh. Please come home,” she said, her voice breaking. “I can’t keep this up by myself.”
I could have moved away from home before 40. Living with one’s parents until one was nearly middle-aged wasn’t exactly the path most travelled, but somehow it was always easier to stay. Comfort, fear, whatever it was, I just went with the flow, let life happen to me.
“I’ve got my own stuff going on now.” It was weird hearing myself speak up, risking ruffled feathers. “I have my own things to process, to come to terms with.”
Mom cried. “Is it selfish that sometimes I wish the stroke killed him?”
It was a Sunday morning. Mom was at the butcher’s for her monthly haul of resource-intensive animal flesh. She came home and found Dad slumped over the living room ottoman. Doctors said he was 20 minutes from being a goner. So close, Dad said.
“You’re allowed to put yourself first,” I said.
She gave Dad the phone. He told me about bingo night at the nursing home.
“Won six dollars in change,” he said. “You know the difference between me and this handful of coins?”
Here we go.
“They’ll still be in circulation next year.”
Mr. Jenkins veered back to the trail and stopped to pee under an enormous tree, a lone Douglas-fir, set apart from a dense patch of other Douglas-firs higher up the mountain. Probably a hundred feet tall, this tree. Been around forever. Pissed on by generation after generation of domesticated animal to walk this trail. Resilient though: growing despite urine-soaked roots.
I was supposed to be a veterinarian. Couldn’t get the squeamishness under control though. I failed Grade 11 Biology because I passed out when they set the scalpel and frog corpse on my desk. This was a disappointment for Dad. He worked at an oil and gas company with the dads of my classmates: he heard about it at work; I heard about it at home. I was the “bleeding heart.” Every family had one, a sheep of a different colour.
In Vancouver, I walked Jericho Beach. The ragdoll at the duplex near the university was a social guy, ran with a gang of neighbourhood cats. Self-sufficient.
This was it: the ocean. I guess not technically. An inlet of the pacific? A connected waterway? A manageable sampling of ocean: to ease sheltered people into the experience, to curb the stupefying awe.
Guys in camping chairs fished off a pier. A lapdog—a Shih-Poo or otherwise genetically-modified animal—curled up in one guy’s lap.
My bare feet sunk into the sand, granules filtering up through my toes. The sands of time. Time slipping. Slipping between the cracks. All those nice clichés we use to process such things. And then of course the surf rolling in, erasing every footprint along the beach, smoothing over all traces. Like no one was ever there. Profound stuff.
One of the camping chair guys reeled in a fish, a huge thing. Out came the camera. Photos of the impressive catch. Then the clever idea for a photo of the thrashing fish next to the Shih-Poo—for scale. The fish, hanging from the line, hook still through its face, and the dog, pink bow on her head, locked eyes. Then posed for the camera. And the guys, they were just happy to be outside, excursioning, oblivious that the fish wasn’t having a good time. Which was fine. Because maybe they’d have strokes one day and forget about happiness altogether.
The entire flight to Toronto I was trying to calculate my share of the emissions, reconciling necessity with hypocrisy. What would Dad have said? Old Bleeding Heart’s polluting the skies.
It was probably selfish to give up the non-profit job, to stop fighting the good fight so I could “find myself” out west. But saving the planet was never about saving the planet anyway. Try self-preservation. Animal instinct. Convincing myself I had a say in avoiding carbon suffocation, heat wave incineration, etc. Because a lone wolf stands a chance against the pack, right? Because creatures of habit are eager to change?
It was shoulder-to-shoulder through the terminal. At the baggage carrousel, I stood amongst fellow cattle. Outside, I waited in line for a taxi. I was back. Back in that pack.
Was it selfish to wish an end to your fear? Or maybe the fearful just weren’t supposed to survive.
Dad died yesterday. Mom was there. She was always there. For everyone. I used to feel guilty for letting her take care of me so long. I thought leaving would unburden her. It never occurred to me that taking care of people wasn’t a burden. It was instinct.
A cab idled at the curb. Spewing exhaust. I could have taken public transit, but I was done wasting time. The sun was going down. There were arrangements to arrange.
Mom would ask me to stay. I had a return ticket. She’d offer to take care of it though—everything.
Adam Giles’ short fiction has appeared in The Saturday Evening Post, The Feathertale Review, The Humber Literary Review, Riddle Fence, The Dalhousie Review, and other journals. His story “Corduroy” won the University of Toronto Magazine Short Story Contest in 2013. He lives in Mississauga, Ontario with his family. Find him on the web at www.adamgiles.ca.
Comments are closed.
© Copyright 2023 | Watch Your Head
Sign up for our Newsletter
Buy our print anthology Watch Your Head: Writers & Artists Respond to the Climate Crisis (Coach House Books, 2020).