Captivity Tales – Canadians in New York | Excerpt

This is June. The windows are open, screens in place, one onto the street, the other to the air shaft—that screen in contact with grey light, the soft material of trapped air. Light flicks the edges of grey brick, illuminates the dust, makes a line similar to mine as I move from one end of the apartment to the other. Soft out there, and so hard, so dismal, so much misery in that pearl grey.

Throat of pigeons, long throat of the air shaft, the dead of light.

They’re gutting the buildings on either side of this one. Boards, pieces of glass, chunks of plaster crash down the air shaft and bounce off the walls. Every so often rubble bounces off our windows with a bang that makes my head snap around. This morning a workman hung his long white dink out the window and sent a huge stream of yellow piss in my direction. “This is for the lady,” he said. “Yeah, lady, come and fuck my dick.”

I backed into the shadows. Animal grey. Feminine grey. Pearl grey—fur.

My body scissors its way the length of the apartment, to the right around the desk, then a sharp left, then sharp right around the head of the bed, sharp right at its foot to avoid the crib. I walk the length of the living room avoiding chairs three feet apart. Left around the edge of the sofa, sharp right to get between the table and the sink. Cutting the air, making a dress of it, soft, funeral grey, dress.

Each time I pass my daughter’s bed, she seems to be lying there in her light blue dressing gown—the hump of her back, and the bedclothes thrown to one side. It’s the doll. I remind myself each time I pass—a doll.

Our apartment is a railroad flat with windows at either end. A long spaghetti, Alec calls it. At night it’s a long, long walk to the bathroom.

I lean over the sink to splash water in my face and smell the smell again. I’ve already looked for a forgotten sock, a dropped diaper.

I hear the ruckus in the wall. Rats, I thought at first, but no—pigeon wings, the pigeons nesting on the sill outside, the window bricked in.

Alec identifies the smell. He comes into the kitchen and says, “Pigeons. Their smell is coming through the cracks in the wall.”

“No,” I say, naïve, small-town, unfamiliar with pigeons and close quarters. But he’s right. I put my nose to the wall and nod. The strength of the smell is determined by the direction of the wind.

I write home about it. The sad bad pigeon breath of New York. Bertrand Russell without the brain.