A brilliant, darkly comic, and startlingly honest novel, A Week of This follows the lives of an extended family over one increasingly desperate week. At the centre of the novel is 38-year-old Manda, a tough, sarcastic woman who has yet to make peace with the town she was brought to as a teenager after her parents’ messy divorce. Her estranged mother is crazy, her father is ill and in retreat, her damaged older brother is growing restless and distant, her stepbrother is a grown-up teenager without any real friends, and her husband is a tight-lipped, depressed store-owner who has been pressing Manda to have a baby.
Full of barbed dialogue and hilariously deadpan descriptions of family dynamics and the kind of awkward social dances that get performed every day, A Week of This is a book for people who always feel a little out of place, right where they are. People who are smart enough to know something has gone wrong, but can’t figure out how to fix it. People who know they aren’t kids anymore, but are not quite ready to grow up.
“A Week of This is bleak, funny, sad, smart, and unlike any novel I have ever read. The lives of these characters are so richly imagined I could taste the furnace dust, smell the backed-up sewer, feel the thump of every hangover. It’s an authentic, unsentimental literary experiment that doesn’t read like an experiment. Nathan Whitlock has exposed the timeless heart of lower-middle-class everywhere.” – Todd Babiak, author of The Book of Stanley and The Garneau Block.
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A Week of This
A Novel in Seven Days
By Nathan Whitlock, Michael Holmes
ECW PRESSCopyright © 2011 Nathan Whitlock
All rights reserved.
Everything in Dunbridge was dead by October. The backyard gardens that had scaled old mop handles and broken hockey sticks throughout the summer, spreading up and out in a green lurch for the sky, now fell back in a withered heap. Leaves left a print of themselves on the sidewalk, looking trapped under ice. Colours everywhere were fading, as if the whole town were painted onto cement.
About a week before winter really hit, a woman walked her dog through a grey morning to the park at the end of her street. Her dog, a German shepherd with a puckered scar over its right hind leg, moved forward with its tongue out, looking like it didn't expect ever to return to the warm house and the warm blanket it had just left. Damp leaves brushed against its side, and it cheered up a little, thinking it was about to be let free to pursue the smells invading its nose – not as vividly as they used to, but still strong enough to start its tail wagging in anticipation. The woman stopped at the park entrance and tightened her grip on the leash. The air was cold and sharp; she would go no further. "Just go, sweetie," she said. "It's freezing; mummy's cold." The jacket she was wearing wouldn't close around her chest. It was her son's – she hadn't yet dug her own out from the basement. She looked at the trees and tried not to think about cigarettes.
"Come on, Diamond, just fucking go."
The time of parks was nearly up – there hadn't been any kids in this one since school started. For weeks she'd seen only other dog owners; they would stamp impatiently and look around as if worried about snipers. Locks were appearing on the doors of the public washrooms. All of a sudden no one believed in summer anymore.
A man appeared without a dog on the arched bridge spanning the creek. He wore a heavy, blue parka with the hood up and was walking fast, sending billows of agitated white breath ahead of him. The woman stepped back and pulled Diamond – who was already going into a squat – between herself and the man. He was wearing wool mittens like a little boy. He stopped when he saw her, then turned around and went quickly back over the bridge and across to the far side of the park. Wind came through after him and got under the woman's jacket. By the time they got home she'd already decided Diamond was going to have to make do with the backyard from now on.
"Watch the park," she told her son later, "there's some freaks hanging around in there."
"Oh yeah?" her son asked.
"Some big retarded guy."
"Oh," he said, disappointed.
The man in the parka sat and rested on a bench covered over in brown leaves, feeling their dampness coming through the seat of his pants. He'd walked nearly the entire length of Dunbridge that morning, tramping through every cold park like Jack Frost in mittens. Now he was feeling hungry, the side of his face was throbbing, and he still had to get ready for work in a few hours. He decided to give himself exactly two more minutes of rest before starting again, and even checked his broad-faced watch to mark the time. Squirrels ran up and sniffed at the shrunken-head apples on the ground all around him. He took off one mitt and got to work on the inside of his nose. More wind came through, bringing the last of the leaves down. The park was naked and waiting. Though it looked like it could, Ken decided it wasn't going to snow that day.CHAPTER 2
Patrick's alarm spoke up in the silence of the bedroom, coming alive in mid-sentence to promise "Hotel California" and classic Billy Joel. Patrick let it all get absorbed into the broken logic of his dreams. It always took him a few minutes to get all the way upright, drag his legs over the side, and let his feet curl unhappily on the bedroom carpet. The pull of the bed was so strong that he didn't reach to turn off the clock radio until his wife started to groan and move beside him. Then, once the world was silent again, another minute of sitting in the dark to gather strength and courage. He tried to clear some of the room's dry air out of his throat.
"Get up," Manda said from under the blanket.
It was earlier than usual. Patrick wanted to get a start on sorting the mountain of stock sitting in the back of the store. He had been putting it off for days. It wasn't as if he didn't have time – the store was open six days a week and he was alone there all six, from open til close. He couldn't really afford not to be open Sundays, too, but Manda had been ready to walk out after a year of him being there every single day, and he was secretly happy for the excuse not to be.
"You're not like some Chinese guy or whatever," she told him, "with fourteen kids in the back and your grandparents. You don't have to kill yourself."
The store wasn't killing him – not quickly anyway. He'd worked at jobs that had literally torn the skin off his knuckles and singed his eyebrows, that had got into the flat muscles in his back and into his shoulders like rust or dry rot, ruining them, weakening them from the inside out. He'd had jobs that could have been done by animals, that should have been done by animals; no one would ever let animals work under those conditions. A couple of times a year, especially when it was cold out, a serrated cough would settle into his chest, and he would think about clouds of white dust from demolished walls or rooms filling with silver-backed smoke from machines kept alive for too long and fed with syrupy homemade fuels.
Active Sports was his own, at least. There were days when, after standing behind the counter for the entire day, or restocking shelves with shoes or baseball gloves or the rest of it, he'd catch himself vaguely wishing to be sent home early, but mostly the reality that the little store was his sat with him like an animal sidekick: there to help him out and boost his mood when he needed it, but mostly just mocking him and making a mess of things. For a while, his friend Danny had helped him out, but when business died back down, Patrick had been forced to lay him off. That was around Labour Day, more than a month ago. It never used to bother Patrick to be there so much. It had always felt as though he were building something. But after letting Danny go it felt as though he were only there to oversee the place's collapse. Before, there had never been anything to it: the store was an end in itself. Now, when he turned on the lights each morning, he felt as though those lights were drawing their energy directly from him. Draining him. If one was flickering, it was because his exhaustion had seeped so deeply into him he could almost feel his muscles loosening their grip on his bones. Patrick knew he was going to fall apart in that place. It had eliminated all of his savings – Manda's, too, not that she had much to begin with – and dropped them both into a smooth-walled pit of debt that got deeper every month.
The part Patrick had been liking most lately – the part Danny had hated – was doing things like fitting a girl for figure skates or going through a bin of baseball bats with a kid who was just joining his first team. Older kids would come in and stand there talking to Patrick about different kinds of sticks, or all of the stupid new rules that had been brought in at the Junior-A level. At these moments the exhaustion would disappear, the knots in Patrick's back would loosen and uncoil.
He knew better than to talk about this to Manda. Any time he did she gave him a blast, accusing him of trying to guilt her into having kids and of having dangerously sentimental ideas about what having a kid was really like, which was probably true.
"You want the one in her little dress," Manda told him. "Or the one you teach to skate or ride a bike or some shit like that. But you don't want the one that's up all night screaming or getting drunk or getting molested or running away from home." She looked at him with a mixture of scorn and panic. "You don't get it: you can fuck your kids up so bad if you don't know what you're doing. And you," she said, softening a little, but not prepared to withhold the final judgment, "do not know what you're doing. Ever."
His sentimental fantasies remained, however, and he was ashamed to admit they were exactly the kind of thing that Manda accused him of. It was at night when he was most susceptible to these thoughts, especially while he was closing the store: he'd start thinking vaguely about what awaited him at home, and whether there should be more. But in the morning he was ready to concede that Manda was right. He couldn't imagine, as he pulled himself out of bed, trying to carry any extra weight.
He closed his eyes and put his head back as if about to sniff the air. Instead, he held his breath for half a minute before letting it seep out through his teeth as quietly as he could. He felt he needed ropes around his arms and legs, and little men pulling them like in that cartoon, just so he could get anywhere.
Patrick had to fight through three layers of shower curtain to get to the knob and start the water. Once it got going and he could sense the steam coming from behind the many plastic veils blocking his sight, he got undressed, sliding himself under and letting the water pummel him for a minute before trying to find a more gentle setting on the shower head. Patrick used to think that the awful feeling he had in the morning was a temporary state, a phase he was going though, a bad patch – in his real life he was still healthy and full of vigour. Now he knew he was wrong: this was his real life, a life of fatigue.
The water hit the cut on his thumb where he had gouged himself opening a crate a couple of days before. The sting of it made him hiss and pull his hand to his chest. The cut was clean, but it was long; it looked like a bite from something small and nasty. He forced himself to hold the thumb under the hot water until his eyes teared up, until he could barely see. Even after he pulled his hand away it took a few minutes for his eyes to calm themselves.
Hours later, Manda stood in the doorway of her stepbrother's apartment, trying to locate the source of a smell. Marcus lived on the second floor, above a store, at the top of an outdoor flight of stairs. This smell, which hit her full in the face every time she came over, was like the building's bad breath. It exhaled on her the minute she opened the door and she'd have to take a step back. A plant stood beside her, just inside the kitchen, reaching up to her knees. She had bought it to bring some colour to Marcus's life. Its leaves drooped, and the whole thing leaned forward like an exhausted child, embarrassed and wanting to go home.
"How does it stink so bad in here?" she called out.
She felt a little giddy all of a sudden – she sometimes found herself invigorated by failure, even the failure of the air to smell good. Her hair was wet from the rain; it slumped and made her look older than she was. She was only two years away from turning forty and nearly done shedding all resemblance to her younger self. In the last couple of years she had stopped letting her bleached dirty-blonde hair snake down her back, cutting it herself to just below her shoulders. It was almost a relief not to be girly anymore, to trim off that last connection. She had always felt hard, so now she looked hard.
"Marcus, it really stinks! What is it?"
There were empty cases of beer on the landing. Marcus hardly ever drank: they had been there since before he moved in. The boxes were faded, warped, and broken at the seams. Brown bottles leaned out of the split corners, their clear bellies full of cigarette butts. Nothing frustrated her more than this, this wilful paralysis. She saw it in Marcus, she saw it in Patrick, she saw it in everybody she knew. She tried to hunt it down and kill it in herself, but it gripped her from the inside and slowed her down. She wanted to cough hard sometimes, to cough up this fog. Instead, she shouted it down.
"These are so gross, Marcus. You're gonna have to get rid of them sometime. Get Patrick to help you."
She walked through Marcus's apartment into the living room, staying clear of the couch where Marcus lay, and of his long, pink feet pointing crookedly at the ceiling. It looked like he'd been on the couch all morning watching TV. It was almost noon; the fishing shows were starting. Manda walked deliberately in front of the TV to see if Marcus would object, to see if he was even watching it anymore. She kicked at a pair of socks that were mashed together on the floor and held her keys defensively out in front of her, as if ready for something to peel itself from the wall and fly at her. The air was like the inside of a scuba tank. Manda liked to make clear how awful she thought the place had become – how awful he'd let it become. "This used to be a cool little apartment," she'd tell him. She hardly ever came over anymore, and when she did, she couldn't help but condemn it.
"This is why your mom doesn't come around. She thinks it's full of mold and doesn't want to get sick from it."
"She doesn't like the stairs," Marcus countered sleepily. "She doesn't give a shit how the place smells – her house is like an ashtray, you know that. She just can't get up the stairs easy. She almost went down on her back a couple times."
Marcus's hair flopped down over his forehead like an omelette. He didn't get up.
"She told me that, too," Manda said. She pulled at the living room window, and her fingernails crunched the baked corpses of wasps and flies. The window wouldn't budge.
"It smells dead," she added. "Do these windows even open?"
"Oh, but wait!" Manda said suddenly, and out she went while Marcus hid himself further under his blanket. He was sure she would bring in some new thing for her house, and he was so sick of looking at chairs and paint samples. Instead, she walked back in with her whole upper half magically transformed into a plant.
"Move all that," she said from behind the thing's leaves. She bent her knees in the direction of the trunk he used as a coffee table. Manda flopped the plant on the trunk and stepped back without taking her eyes off it. "For colour," she said in a serious tone, as if colour were something he was being rewarded for, like bravery. "You need some green in here."
She went looking for some water for the plant, expecting to find evidence of a week's worth of meals in the kitchen and maybe a few dark things running under the fridge, but there was just one plate and a knife in the sink. The cupboard doors were all closed.
"Has Kelly been over?" she asked through the door.
"She's in the shower right now," came the answer.
Manda came back fast into the living room. "Is she? Why didn't you tell me? I almost walked in there."
Marcus only gave her a sarcastic look.
"Oh shut up," she said.
"As if I wouldn't have said anything."
"You probably wouldn't have. I only asked because it's so clean in your kitchen," she said. "It's a miracle." f Marcus had been seeing a woman for a few months now, a little blonde. Manda was surprised at first at the difference in their ages – he was thirty-six; Kelly looked at least ten years younger. The only real problem with Kelly was that she had a kid, a little boy whose father had fucked off long ago. Manda tried to hold her tongue – she wanted Marcus to be happy; he hadn't been in a serious relationship since just after high school – but she just couldn't do it.
"Can this go somewhere else?" Marcus asked, pointing at the plant. It looked pathetic sitting there, as if waiting to be thrown out the window.
"Oh, you're so friggin helpless," Manda said and lifted the plant again. She carried it to the bathroom. "You're sure Kelly's not here now," she shouted over her shoulder. Marcus threw his hand up to give her the finger, but let his arm drop back down without following through. On the TV a man in a camouflage hunting jacket had just landed a huge bass that kicked water at the camera with its tail. "Nothing to it," the man said, the whole heavy fish hooked by the gill onto one of his fat fingers. By the time Manda returned he had thrown it back in the water.
"So keep it somewhere where there's lots of light."
"How about outside?"
Manda had her jacket on and looked ready to go, but she made no move to leave. She was still holding her keys in her hand. She looked almost as though she'd forgotten the way back out.
"Are you supposed to be working?"
Manda lay her palms flat against her forehead. "Oh fuck, when am I not?" she said.
"So what's going on with Ken?" Marcus asked her through a yawn. "He doesn't like his new place?"
Manda had her keys out again and almost dropped them. "What? You were talking to him? When? He isn't calling me back."
Excerpted from A Week of This by Nathan Whitlock, Michael Holmes. Copyright © 2011 Nathan Whitlock. Excerpted by permission of ECW PRESS.
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