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Love in the Time of the Tragically Hip

Ian Orti (2018)

Do you see me?






Check me out.

It’s 1992 and I’m cutting up the left side of the driveway and have just taken a clean pass from Charles Barkley off the aluminum siding of my house and I’ve got a clear lane to the net which I’ve lowered to eight feet. Maybe seven. My feet have just left the ground now, nearing the nine-and-a-half-inch apex of my vertical with the ball and I’m Shawn Kemp or I’m Hakeem the Dream Olajuwon or I’m Clyde the Glide Drexler or I’m Magic Johnson. Yes, I’m Magic Johnson coming in for a Shawn Kempian Tomahawk Dunk because my USA Dream Team jersey says Johnson on the back and I know this because I got it at the Salmon Run Mall in Watertown NY, the Beverly Hills of Kingston, Ontario.

See me now?

There’s a wind coming in from off the lake and I can feel it coming up under my shiny nylon checkered Umbro shorts as I’m in the air as Shawn, or Hakeem or Clyde the Glide in a Magic Johnson jersey, as the wind takes the wisps of my mullet and lifts them from my neck the way a Disney prince lifts the dainty gloved fingers of some newly minted princess from the sticks. Inside the house with the aluminum siding my mother is dying a slow bed-ridden death to cancer. Only she won’t die because she’s my mother and there’s still enough child in me that makes her death impossible. So my back is fully arched, my arm extended behind my head with the ball like the steel arc of a field scythe.


Hold it there.


Hold it.


You could just freeze it there forever. You could just freeze all time right there and there’d be just me there hanging in the air between the Cold War and the Gulf War above Meech Lake and the rubble of the Berlin Wall and the sound of Baywatch coming through the tinny speakers of the floor TV with the wind in my hair, pre-epic-dunk off a pass from the aluminum Charles Barkley siding of my home.

In a second I’ll be on my ass and a split second before that the ball will go hard off the back of the rim and soar into the neighbour’s yard, but right there, back arched, nine and a half inches above the planet earth, flying, mid-air, suspended, I am perfect.


A Portrait of the deity Mitch, of Kingston Ontario: twenty meters deep into a catwalk across the Portsmouth school yard with the handlebars of his ten-speed curled up as the shorn threads of his jorts tickle his amber legs.


For a second I am him. I am MitchGod, the slender townie teen-god whose silhouetted body I watched tearing through the old schoolyard to get to what can only be some shag-carpeted basement full of Calvin Klein underwear models ready to watch him shatter the high score in Pole Position. It was 1986 and I was breathless as the sun hit his bare shoulders and when he turned in my direction and our eyes locked, the Space Shuttle Challenger just exploded right there in the Holysphere where I too hang just right before exploding at the rim of the altar of Awesome Foreverness.

I’m young, when pain is a just a thing that takes a rain-check, so after staring into the sun and the blue sky I get up. Soon, I will climb the fence and put up a three from behind the hedges at the last second to save the universe but it will be a brick and the blue sky will fill with black smoke over a highway of death. It will be a brick and we’ll all die, but for those two seconds before it all goes to Hell I am airborne and as that Lake Ontario wind kisses my mullet, there is no such thing as a cancer or death or AIDS or famine and the world is just David Hasselhof in a black leather jacket adorned with neon lights singing about freedom on a crumbling Russian wall where people in tight jeans and mullets are clutching beers and hugging soldiers.

Except it can’t be 1992. The Dream Team doesn’t do its thing until 1992, the Hof is over the wall and my mother dies a very real death in 1991 in a kind of slow 80s cancer way that prematurely bestows on me a sorrow I’ll confuse for some perfectly fatal teenage ontology. On the night she dies she will drown on dry land. A blood clot will form in her lungs and as she’s gasping for air I’ll tell her everything will be okay and she will look at me and roll her eyes and then her eyes will roll to the back of her head. There’s no beating an eyeroll like that. When you tell someone everything will be okay and they roll their eyes so far back into their head that they die, doubt just becomes you. That night I’ll fall asleep in our dank basement and wake up motherless for the first time. In the days before her funeral for God knows what reason I’ll pick out a charcoal silk-looking suit from Randy River at the Kingston Center, with wide pleated pants and a matching  tail-less blazer. There’ll be a busy silver polyester tie to match. At the funeral the priest will stare at me I’ll think he’s trying to nose out the sorrow. But it’s the suit. He’s wondering who in Hell would dress like Huey Lewis to honour such a devout woman’s life; he will not be looking into my eyes but into the blow-dried mullet on my padded shoulders. Later, in the middle of the night I will walk down the street from the Church of the Good Thief, between the lakefront penitentiaries that house Canada’s most notorious child killers and I’ll sit on a rock jutting out from the shore of Lake Ontario listening to the calm waters and think that sometimes the devil sends killers for the kids but it’s God who comes for the mothers and he can be just as cruel and from that day on, it will just be easier to leave God out there on the rock where the waters quietly lap the shore.



Did you see that?


Because just like that it’s two years later and it’s you and me together at a party on Wolfe Island and your head is hanging out the shotgun window of a Chevette as you race to catch the last ferry back to Kingston, then maybe test the fake ID’s the girls from Gan hooked us up with.

In Kingston, in 1993, a Chevette is 1.4 Litres of freedom from the freshly unshackled bonds of your childhood and the black veil over the gruesome reality of what your country and your God, if one finds you, are going to reveal to you with age. Your head is hanging out of that window and you’re still too young for the world to harden your heart though it’s doing its best and there’s all kinds of tragic waiting for you around the bends of your wild townie youth. But you can see only as far as tomorrow, where there’ll be breakfast at Morrisson’s and when the waitress remembers your order from last time you’ll feel like you’re Wayne Newton getting steak in Vegas because you’re a townie and this is your town: your brother has the hood up on the Camaro in the parking lot at Timmies on his third double-double and your sister is lining up a candy-apple red pack of DuMaurier Lights up at Becker’s with her boyfriend who’s dressed like Vanilla Ice. You’ll sink your teeth into that grilled cheese and close your eyes but when you open them you’ll be 35 years old, standing at a tram stop in East Berlin, only there’ll be no Hof, and there’ll be no wall, there’ll just be you there with your headphones on listening to an old band from home singing about the prairies on something called the internet.



Portrait of the deity Christine, of Kingston, part II. at the Kingston Tennis Club on Napier street and she tosses the ball into the air for a second serve. The sun takes to the blond hairs on her dark golden arm stretched high into the air as though this is why suns were created. It being the second serve the toss is slightly behind her head so she can get the necessary topspin to curl the ball elegantly over the net and give it the kind of snap that will lunge the returner wide and floppy, and her legs, her long golden legs take seven years to bend below her arched back and seven more years to elongate and when she makes contact with the ball both feet will simultaneously leave the ground with her toes pointed downward and hanging above the earth, and when they land another seven years later, buildings will crumble to the ground in New York City.


I can still smell the dust.  I can still smell the dust from the damp gravel outside Richardson Stadium where I carved my name into the parking lot thirty years ago with the locked back wheel of my BMX after a rainfall. The Greeks have a name for that smell: Petrichor. It sounds like a Transformer. Or someone from He-Man. Only Petrichor is far more powerful. No one on He-Man or Transformers ever time traveled home with just one breath.




Then explode in a snow drift up at Fort Henry as Nelson Mandela walks out of prison after John Lennon has been shot, and Reagan’s been shot, and the Pope’s been shot and J.R’s been shot and fucking Crocket has been shot and the GT Snowracer is buttered up and pointed straight for the pines once again because the frontal lobe of the brain isn’t yet fully formed so this makes perfect sense. Slice it between a few snow dusted tree-trunks until the front ski clips a sapling and there’s a cloud of fresh powder and it’s all airborne.


Hanging in the air.


Over a cliff.


A friggin cliff, bud.


A friggin cliff and my gangly arms are swinging like a pair of loose windmills and fifty feet below me she’s in the water. Helen Coltrane. Helen Coltrane with the morning sun cutting through atmospheric dust and coming off her glistening face as she treads water naked in the summer waters below.


Portrait of the deity Helen Coltrane of the Cosmos: with the morning sun cutting through atmospheric dust coming off her glistening face as she treads water naked in the summer waters below.


Naked in the still quarry waters below, at a townie watering hole out past Frontenac High School. Or behind it. My feet are muddy from a warm summer downpour that came in the evening and so jumping off the quarry cliff is a half suicide pact because it’s slippy as fuck, and if you slip you’ll die because even though you’re not high up enough for the fall to the rocks to kill you outright on impact, you’ll slide into the water and you’ll die there, somewhere down this hole no one has ever seen the bottom of.  While I hang there in the air as the grassy fields of the townships cradle that hot summer sun, it’s seconds before Helen Coltrane teaches me about the cosmos with her lips and sets me off on a journey from which I’ve yet to return home, and those same Umbro shorts flap in a tree-branch above the quarry like some monochrome pirate flag of Invincibility as the purple sky trades day for night, and my heart is in my mouth staring down at her but when my feet touch down it’s in the shallow puddle of a tram stop in Berlin, decades later. Decades later. An ocean away from home but in the reflection of those tinted windows of the tram as it slows before me on the platform, I see her face, galactic in the July waters before she vanishes from thin air.


But I am still there.


In the town that never had a coliseum or an Eiffel Tower but had Division Fish and Chips and the M Center where if your name was Dougie or Kirk you were Caesar. I am still there at 8am on a Saturday playing house league hockey at a frozen Jock Harty Arena with a mother who will never die looking on, I am still there with sweat running down my back and neck deep in the wreckage of my perfectly teenage anguish when the world looks to its future like a teenager in fatal love when time is a thing that brushes so quickly past you it tears the skin right from your bones.


And feel the MDMA coursing through the bloodstream, 21 years old in the fruit belt and the music coming through the basement speakers as the single bead of sweat coming down her forehead as she dances is gives you pieces to the sacred answer you’ll never know the question to.


Stare straight into the sun on the shores of Picton beach before there’s email or Instagram, when documenting a memory means staring out at the thing until it’s burned so hard into your mind that you still feel the embers decades later alone somewhere in the silence of a supermarket checkout line, standing at the castle gate of youth with the door ripped off the hinges with the past in plain view.


Reach your arm inside your childhood home before the hook of the screen door catches on the latch. Stick your head inside and listen to the music that still plays there for the ghost of you and me, hand in hand with our heads hanging out your old man’s Oldsmobile, gorgeously unscathed by the people we look up to letting us down, the people we trust most betraying us the worst. Blissfully unaware that the ones we love the most will die on us first, but aware somewhere deep down in our mitochondrial DNA that the terror and the fear and suffering and disappointment are not the headline act but just part of the price of admission to the main Townie show – Us, the beautiful sublime Us skating over the frozen Cataraqui river that is also Us and will never be the same when we leave, beneath a wide open sky – Us – while the sun –Us– rises over the pines – Us! – above the lakes –Us again!–  where the loons (who else but Us!) – sing on the still water while the wind lifts our hair from our shoulders as we take a pass off the aluminum siding from Charles Barkley, where we are mid air, jumping off a cliff into a bottomless quarry staring into the eyes of Home before landing in the cool waters next to her naked body before the cold October wind hits your face as the tram door closes and leaves you standing on the platform and it’s just you there, bud, all alone with nothing but the sound of those loons coming over the headphones.



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