From ‘Mirrors on which dust has fallen’


By Jeff Bursey


April 21, a Friday, marks the beginning of this story, set in Bowmount, and a few introductory words about this setting are necessary. Many of its loyal citizens are adamant about the importance of their City (as they write it) and its status as entrepôt for the entire province, situated as it is on Bowmount River. Tremendous quantities of goods are shipped through Bowmount up and down the river, or along the railway lines crisscrossing the land, and any one of her many proud residents would quickly tell a stranger how vital the River, the Port, and the Railway have been in Bowmount’s brief, glorious life. Without much provocation a Bowmountian would further relate the adventures, mercantile and otherwise, of the country’s pioneers who from the first attached more importance to the deep, sluggish River than to the land, leaving the hills beyond to the labourers, who always trail the entrepreneurs. The only acreage that had interested the first men surrounded the waterfront, and this quarter became the site of shipping and commercial businesses, with a handful of grand houses installed at its outskirts. If the stranger, by now unwilling or unable to withdraw from the firm grip of his host’s monologue, listened further he would be told that Old Bowmount was born on that land, and New Bowmount is everything else – the hills and valleys east and west of the River. Rattling through a short yet overfilled history the narrator might not notice that very little of what he said meant much to the visitor, who had only inquired of a passing individual as to a certain address in the twisting streets which made up most of the city, or else had wondered aloud where the hotel, advertised as within walking distance of the railway station, actually was located. At some point civic pride would relax long enough for the resident to pay stricter attention to the stranger, and in the most helpful manner, treat him or her to the province’s fabled hospitality. This initial encounter, added to subsequent ones during the tourist’s stay, would reaffirm what Bowmount and its sister cities Carlyle and Crescent City were known for throughout the nation: affability, pride and garrulousness.

Yet the City Fathers, as some people referred to the City Council (at the time of this story an entirely male environment), knew that not every taxpayer appreciated the commercial aspect of constant amiability. Reluctantly, they concluded, there would always be some people who besmirched Bowmount’s name by obstinately refusing to provide what Bowmount required to maintain its friendly reputation. None of these people were truly loyal to the spirit of the place, embodied best in boards of trade and commerce, Rotarians, and other socially-minded citizens. This element, an ugly word, the Fathers knew, but accurate, comprised the apathetic, the pathetic, the atheistic, and many were neither Christians nor originally from Bowmount. Criminals formed a part of this other society, as one sociologically-minded councillor phrased it, but did not comprise the most part.

No, the troublemakers, the poisoners of public initiative, were those who never gave Bowmount anything but a passing thought, whose contribution began and ended with their taxes. In an address to the banking and investment community, the Mayor made it plain that he viewed such an attitude as especially selfish in these mean economic times and that all hands were needed on the deck of the ship of state for success to be assured. Clearly, for those alleged troublemakers Bowmount was not a community but a point on a map, not a City rich in varied history but a town with a grandiose self-conception. At the deepest level, the real charge laid against these idlers by the Fathers was that they took no part in the fight for City greatness. All these inhabitants cared about was saving money and getting by, never showing confidence in Bowmount by establishing factories, running for school boards or other political positions, nor beating a drum about the wholesomeness of life in the City, the province generally, to entice investors. That such a motley collection of men and women from all strains, ages and affiliations could show such contempt for this wonderful, glorious metropolis of nearly 200,000 souls (when Inner Bowmount, that is to say Old and New Bowmount, was added to Greater Bowmount and environs) scored an unforgivable insult on the sensitivities of those who possessed confidence and faith in industry, financial houses, government, public service, proper religious conduct – or, to use an overarching description, in the going enterprise called the City of Bowmount. If those people had been employees they would have been fired.

It is mainly with that despised group of non-believers that this narrative is concerned. Not being boosters, they do not appear at rallies for the city, or vote much of the time; not rich, they do not press their viewpoint on anyone through newsletters, and have no guild or association looking out for their interests; unaware of the importance of faith, they do not respond to public calls for their support, concentrating instead on making it through a day and a night without losing too much hope that tomorrow might not be as bad, all the while praying, sometimes consciously, for a different future if a better one is not possible.

One of these people not susceptible to re-education is a twenty-three year old named Loyola Holden. On the morning of this warm April day, snow melting from the hills in the freakish weather, he ascended Elephant Hill, his face damp with sweat and his mind centred on amorous adventures. The gods smiled on me last night, that girl Jennie was ready for it, like she hadn’t had sex in years. Barely kept back till I wanted to come, she had me so hot. Those beads, where’d she come up with that? Loyola wiped his forehead as the sun radiated with unseasonable intensity, making the road, buildings, vehicles shimmer. Never heard of that before, beads, jelly on them, putting them up my ass. Didn’t know what she was up to. When she pulled them just as I was ready to come I felt like my ass was going out of me, but so fucking fine, so . . . His face darkened while passing through the shadow cast by the immense white cross dominating Elephant Hill and the graves arranged around its base. Sunlight glinted off the Crucifix on the Hill, off split, whitened headstones, numerous Madonnas, angels and urns, shattered marble and uprooted final markers of the lower- and middle-classes. Often he stopped at this precise point to observe the city below and around him. Prominent in this landscape if he faced south were the churches of St. Adamnan, St. Lawrence, and most notable, St. Finnian. Its two bell towers, obscured by scaffolding and rough fabric while workmen cleaned their exteriors, made Loyola think that they resembled a homeless guy’s trouser legs. Dreary memories surfaced of his mother forcing him year after year inside that dank, drafty place during Lent for confession and prayers. Loyola shook his head, dull anger rising in him at the wasted time spent on teaching what he determined later was false. He stood with the cemetery behind him, drawn by the view again, simultaneously recalling last night’s details to prolong his ecstasy, failing to notice in the graveyard the white cross standing purer than the previous day, scrubbed diligently last evening to remove stains left by the most recent vandalism. His mind fixed on Jennie crying out as one after another orgasm uncoiled inside her and his left hand in his trouser pocket felt thickening against his fingers. He refrained from touching himself under the influence of the gentle pulsing and the early morning sun, its warmth tempered slightly by the breeze.

Popping and rippling sounds accompanied by delighted squeals diverted his attention. Across the street lay a parking lot in front of an apartment building where welfare families lived. Avoiding potholes and jagged chunks of asphalt in the tiny lot skipped a blond girl of ten or eleven enjoying the Easter break, a plastic supermarket bag held open in the air over her head as though it were a balloon. A third party viewing this scene might have first remarked on the little girl’s delight as she frolicked, before observing the young man’s intense stare. Over these two figures on this momentarily quiet street towered the Crucifix, or more accurately its shadow, its arms spanning the length of the parking area, while its thick vertical shadow absorbed Loyola’s meagre one. Shopping bag, what, no toys? Loyola advanced to the edge of the sidewalk for a closer look and a car horn cut the peaceful air. He jerked back blurting incoherently in the vehicle’s wake, the girl now regarding him, a hand above her eyes, the shopping bag hanging to one side. He suddenly felt too afraid to even nod. As he hurried to work past the graveyard he heard the child running on the lot, free from the embrace of his look.

Reprinted with permission of the publisher from Mirrors on which dust has fallen by Jeff Bursey, Verbivoracious Press, available here.

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Jeff Bursey

Jeff Bursey is the author of the picaresque novel Mirrors on which dust has fallen (Verbivoracious Press, 2015) and the political satire Verbatim: A Novel (Enfield & Wizenty, 2010), both of which take place in the same fictional Canadian province. His latest book, Centring the Margins: Essays and Reviews (Zero Books, 2016), is a collection of literary criticism that has appeared in various publications.