Conversation 69

Harris Green Below the Christian Science Reading Room

Mark Anthony Jarman

This pretty town I lived in long ago. I wish to walk miles down to the water. Buoys clang as boats sail in front of mountains, cliffs riddled by surf where curious seals watch yoga poses held eternally on polished cedar decks. Now that I am back, Victoria’s world of mandated lawns and lush plants unnerves me. 

In an air-conditioned grocery gentle Tunisian techno plays and my jaundiced eye and I spy aisles of organic arugula, ginger aioli, probiotic kombucha, and a cheery sign:

Wellness is not a Fad – It’s a Lifestyle!  

These lovely grocery aisles are a spec-script of our fears: some serial killer just past the door we can stave away with a payoff, shelling out cash for detox teas, sea-salt cleanses and spas, antioxidants and scalpels. 

In the AC grocery I pay for a pretty sandwich and walk out into sunlight, walk slow miles downhill to the harbour. Passing Harris Green, I see a man trying to stand, balance just not there. Call him Stagger Lee. Beside Stagger Lee a man sits on a bench with no head, decapitated by his king or his T-shirt pulled over his head to trap a cloud of smoke to his face, to optimize the smoke, lit rock and tiny chalice hidden under his shirt, get it all, draw every wisp of the wreath and heavy is the head that wears the crown, that lights the lighter. 

Gazing over the narrow park is the Christian Science Reading Room, its Georgian curves and glowing pillars a marvel worthy of Venice or Dublin.

Katie the poet told me her ex-boyfriend, during a period of mental illness and marginal housing, was clubbed over the head in Harris Green; his skull cracked and he nearly died from his brain swelling in its shell. Remembering Katie’s story, I keep to the park’s edge, speed-walking as if my head might catch a contagion (it’s not a fad!). 

Katie said, “Zeke was living in one of the flophouse hotels downtown, sink in room, shared bathroom at end of hallway. Zeke walked with a wooden cane that had a pretty carved duck’s head atop, and someone whacked him over the head with his own weapon. The assailant was a homeless guy; he had his own set of problems. Zeke went into a coffee shop for help and behind the counter they told him he was bleeding heavily from his forehead, but they didn’t give him any help.” 

Katie says she hasn’t gone by recently, but she hears the area is gentrifying, condos bunged in everywhere, higher rents and fewer tents. Today among the condos Stagger Lee tries to stand by his headless friend, tries to stand, but ends up dancing a little jig like Adolf by the Paris rail car. 

On Harris Green citizens seem less concerned with wellness than what I saw in the AC grocery aisles. Like antiques, these faces show honest wear. Harris Green shaves life to fewer factoids, a rock, a gram, a grim belief in magic and lustral transactions involving lighters. 

Katie said, “I went to see Zeke in the hospital. They had to saw out part of his skull and his head was half-shaved: staples on one side, long stringy hair on the other. It was pretty sad: already suffering from schizophrenia and now a brain injury on top of it. You know, I feel a bit iffy on the ethics of telling you his story.”  

The park is landlocked, but way out there white sails cross the strait and on slant rocks fat sea lions bay like bloodhounds. Real estate on the west coast is hot. Their hot real estate is this scruffy park, a few shopping carts piled high as wagon-trains, pilgrims waiting and dreading a salt plain, the crossing. 

How many cross over from this little patch of ground? Fentanyl and carfentanil: a hotspot the size of a grain of salt can kill you. Like Fortinbras’ army, they are not afraid to die for a straw, an eggshell, though this Stagger Lee army has trouble just balancing. 

I wonder if anyone is reading Hamlet in the Christian Science Reading Room? Its pretty dome hovers over the park like a whitewashed skull. Hey, mixed feelings about killing a rat or a king? Forget all about it here. Need a week in an all-inclusive? Problems with IT and that Drombo Western deadline? Such matters have no place in Harris Green. 

No green tea or yin yoga in the park, but a strangely effective fitness plan, not an ounce of fat. These are citizens sans water view and Filipina nannies, sans tax lawyers and lawn mowers and no need for the TCM wine club. A life stripped of weight, sanded down to the Repeat button, iterations of one musical riff, a grain of rock, Blake seeing the world in the weight of a grain and the weight of a soul sailing free of a body like smoke.

Such admirable jeweller-focus, one true faith instead of a dozen false idols; they are true to themselves and to erasing themselves while a nervous ambulance waits beside the park to create their death.

Kate said, “From the coffee shop Zeke made it to his hotel; a resident found him unconscious in the communal toilet and was smart enough to call in paramedics.”

On occasion the ambulance siren and lights fly our street to give us a jolt, a flashing mime show of grief’s rocket. The Queen says Hamlet is fat and has a blonde comb-over. Among these poor shades I should be a plump target, my skull next to be cracked, but they don’t see me. I am the ghost on the ramparts; it’s my world that is no longer real, I’m a figure on a lunar rock past the edge of planets, past the edge of focus.

Distant glass mountains form blurred monuments to our smoking forests, our lifestyle, our summer of fire and ash and bloody lingering moons. This headless man holds his private smoke under his T-shirt, his fire, his investment in property. Feed your head, delete your head, take this from this, take this communion. 

And where stands Christ the Scientist in this calm mayhem? Science: some users are genius scientists, canny chemists, like my old neighbours on Crease Avenue, discovering ways to extract a high from a tire or blade of grass. Bootface, Gold Car Guy: can they still be alive? 

Lacking charity, I grew to hate those puking addicts and jonesing prostitutes crossing my yard, wanted to kill the dealer next door with piano wire. I was influenced by the 1960s, thought I was non-violent and disliked authority, but on Crease Avenue I learned I lean toward violence and preferred the sight of the bumbling SWAT team and their joyous dogs, got to know them well. 

“Zeke was in the hospital a long time,” Kate said. “He got the chunk of skull replaced, but had to wear a bike helmet until his head healed up.”

Steppenwolf sings, You don’t know what we can find, and in the Dakotas they find they can hoover fuel from rock, splintered lessons in shale gas. Chinese factories feed us fentanyl and carfentanil in the mail. The bells of the sea ring out past the safe harbour, but no swimming sirens appear to Zeke or to Stagger Lee and the body of his headless buddy. 

Once women bathed in the mountain river and my eyes lingered on Teresa’s body, my high school girlfriend in her high school skin. We were cold and pure, we went back to the land in our pearl button shirts and roughout cowboy boots. I painted Fred Radomski’s barn in a swap for his cool buckskin jacket; we listened to the Grateful Dead and looked like extras on Bonanza. Our lost summers of hitch-hiking and mescaline and picking fruit by easy lakes. Sprinklers came on in the night to drive us from the Penticton park, we were the unwanted figures in the park, and, baptized by whirling dervishes, we rose to drag our sodden sleeping bags to the dark beach. 

The Youngbloods and Steppenwolf sing on the car radio, but on Harris Green the magic carpet ride is not going so well. An ambulance has so many tiny windows and an eagle with a habit flies over the condos to peck at your liver. Your body opened. Does an emoji exist for, Hey, they cut out a chunk of my skull? An ambulance at Harris Green like a food truck waiting on its best customers. It’s not a Fad — It’s a Lifestyle.

Blue straits roil, snowy peaks rise above us; in ancient worlds seafaring kings and spies dreamed such blurry visions. Out on the water, past the periodic table and cold tides, sea lions moan on rock islets, sombre as Grubski trombones, and Belgrade or Botswana, every rental car pre-set to classic rock. Our orchards on fire and we crack shale to combust a rich intersection of ingredients in our smoking chalice.

From Touch Anywhere to Begin copyright © 2022 by Mark Anthony Jarman. Reprinted by permission of Goose Lane Editions.