“Poverty Hill” by Elizabeth Ball

BLAST, TMR’s online-only prose anthology, features prose too vibrant to be confined between the covers of a print journal. Elizabeth Ball’s “Poverty Hill” is an energetic, chaos-fueled journey into the drama, the humor, and the frustration of growing up in a close-knit family beset by poverty and dysfunction. 

 

Poverty Hill

by Elizabeth Ball

 

My dog, Madonna, was buried alive. But that’s top secret. No one knows about it except for me, my brother, Randal, Mama and—well, half of Saint John. So I guess it’s not really a secret. But it was a secret from my father, Pup, who thinks she died peacefully of old age in her sleep. Everyone knew Pup could never find out. It would’ve killed him. At the time, I wished it had killed me too. Here’s why.

When I was eight, me, Randall, Mama, and our big blond dog, Madonna, moved from our downtown apartment in Saint John to a little cottage on Poverty Hill, a dirt road off the highway on the way out to the suburbs. Mama said the cottage would be cheaper than our downtown rent. She said the country air would be good for us triplets, which she called us because we were all born within a year of each other.

“You triplets won’t have to worry about the Bible-thumping neighbours and their screaming babies no more,” she said. “The country air will taste better, and you can go to school where the rich kids in the suburbs go. I can sell Avon anywhere. The rich kids at the suburban school will be better friends than your poor friends downtown,” she assured us, “because they have money and stuff.” She made us believe it.

I was good at making friends and always up for an adventure, so I didn’t mind moving. I liked the Bible-thumping neighbours’ kids well enough, but they were always on my case about being a girl with short hair and calling myself Michael Jackson instead of my real name, Missy. On the day we moved, I hopped into the back seat of our brown station wagon with Madonna, and, as we pulled away, with all the neighbours waving, I squished my lips  into hideous shapes against the window to make them laugh. By the time the smears faded, it felt like we had lived on Poverty Hill forever.

***

Ours was the first house after the train tracks. A little white one with black windows and a crooked deck and peeling paint. Because Madonna was  part hound dog, she howled every time she heard the train whistle. On the hour. All night, sometimes. That drove Mama crazy at first, and she didn’t know what to do because she loved Madonna, but she also loved the cottage and a good night’s sleep. But she soon got used to it. It became white noise. A lullaby. It turned into a joke for us to howl along with Madonna. Anyone would have thought we were a pack of feral mutts that had busted out of the SPCA, but we thought it was hilarious. I still can’t hear a train whistle without tilting my chin toward the moon and letting out my inner dog.

After we pulled into our new driveway, the first thing I did was climb the biggest pine tree on the lot. While Mama unloaded the car, Randall played on his Game Boy, and Madonna sniffed out rabbits, I reached my Michael-Jackson-glove-clad hand over the bare one until I was at the seventy-five-foot peak of the tree. “Hey, Mama!” I hollered down, “Look at me!” Oh, how that scared her! But like with Madonna’s howling, she soon got used to it because once I found out I had chipmunk genes, there was nothing she could do to keep me out of the trees. That pine tree, in particular, had a perfect fat branch three-quarters of the way up where I could spend hours reading  and spying on the neighbours. It had a hole made by a woodpecker, where I hid all my secret stuff, like my diary and letters from Pup.

The second thing I did after I went up that tree for the first time was burst into tears. Right up there, standing on the branch. I started weeping and wailing as if I’d been stung by a swarm of hornets and was about to fall seventy-five feet to my death. That scared Mama too, I think. She screamed, “Unless you’re stuck up there, you better get your fuckin’ arse down here immediately, Missy Whynaught! And if you are stuck, well, you’re shit outta luck cause the phone ain’t connected yet, so I can’t call the fire department! And don’t think I’m climbing up there after ya. I just got my friggin’ nails done, ya fucker!”

I wasn’t stuck. All of a sudden, way up in that tree, far from our old apartment, it hit me that Pup would never be able to find us. We hadn’t called him to tell him we were moving because he didn’t have a phone. We hadn’t written to him because he didn’t have an address. We hadn’t spoken to him for months because he was on some oil rig in the middle of the ocean, making money so we could afford this new house, and weren’t we the most selfish people in the world? What would happen if he showed up at our old place and found us gone? He would think we’d abandoned him. Like that stray cat we used to feed sometimes. I’d named that black cat Jackson. We hadn’t said a proper goodbye to Jackson, either, because he was also MIA in the days leading up to our move. Mama wouldn’t adopt him because she was a suspicious woman, and adopting a black cat, she believed, was just asking for trouble.

When I finally climbed down, I told her why I was so upset.

“Nonsense!” Mama said, “Jackson’s got his paw out to every other fuckin’ family on that street. He doesn’t give a cat’s meow who leaves him food as long as he’s fed. That’s what cats are like. Only in it for themselves. As for your father, don’t you worry about him! That man can sniff us out from the other side of the world. He’d find us even if we covered ourselves in tomato juice and lived underground like moles. He’s like that hobo dog on TV. Believe me; he’ll show up when we least expect it. For better or for worse. Plus, you know he can’t go without seeing Madonna for too long.”

   ***       

Mama could be so gullible. She was one of those single mamas who believed the dog really had eaten our homework. Not that we’d stopped doing homework long ago. One of those single mamas who thought she really had misplaced that five-dollar bill or her pack of smokes. Not that we’d stolen it. It was hard to take her seriously when pulling the wool over her eyes was so easy.

But then, every once in a while, she’d say something so wise and prophetic that it would stick with you. Take Jackson, for instance. She was right about that cat. As much as I didn’t want to believe it at the time, me and the Bible-thumping neighbours were the same to him. Cats, I’ve learned, are about as fickle as they come.

And she was right about my father. He was like that hobo shepherd dog on TV. The one that would show up out of nowhere, just when you thought the guy who’d fallen in some hole was for sure a goner, and save the day. It’d be raining or snowing or hailing; no one would be around for miles, and then—poof—the hobo dog would appear all calm and smiling that happy hobo-dog smile, pull the dying guy out of the hole, lick him clean, and then—poof—disappear again. Everyone wishing he would stay forever but knowing he wouldn’t because it was in the hobo dog’s nature to wander alone.

That was Pup.

Except it was more complicated than that because Pup didn’t always save the day. In fact, he was often the guy stuck in the hole. Or the guy who pushed the other guy into the hole. And only some of us wanted him to stay forever. But he was calm, and he did smile a lot, and Mama always called him a hobo because he never really had a home and all he did was wander around until he decided to show up in the middle of an ice storm or Mama’s fortieth birthday party. Plus, he loved dogs—Madonna most of all.

***

I clung to that idea of Pup being a hobo dog. I was proud of it. The hobo dog, after all, was a hero. And so, so cute. In school, whenever we had to write about our summer vacation or Christmas holiday or March break, I’d write about the hobo dog. Some of my stories had elements of truth; others were bullshit. Most were combinations thereof. It’s always been hard for me to decipher the truth from bullshit. I guess I’m a bit like Mama that way.

I caught the hobo dog coming down the chimney. He was dressed up just like Santa! His bag of presents was so big he could barely lift it. He left a pogo ball for me! A yellow-and-pink one, just like I wanted. Randall got a Nintendo, and Madonna got a vanilla cake with red and green icing! That hobo dog’s some smart, knowing dogs are allergic to chocolate cake! I didn’t let him know I’d seen him. though. He’s a really sensitive guy, and I wanted to make sure he comes back next year. I hope he liked the rum and eggnog we left him. The End.

Five percent true. I was nine. It was our first Christmas on Poverty Hill, and Pup hadn’t smelled us out yet. I was sure it was because I’d eaten too many tomatoes that year. Madonna was always bathed in tomato juice after having a run-in with a skunk or rolling in something dead. I told myself, well, if it works to get rid of Madonna’s smell, maybe it’s masking my smell too. It felt like a reasonable explanation. Spaghettios, ketchup, goulash. I removed everything with tomatoes in it from my diet. I even tore the tomato plants out of the garden. Mama and Randall thought I was nuts. Just to rile me up, they poured ketchup on everything—even Christmas dinner. I blamed them that it took Pup almost the whole year to find us. The five-percent truth was in the presents. I did get a yellow-and-pink pogo ball, and Randall got his Nintendo, just like we’d asked. And Madonna got a vanilla cake with green and red icing that she puked up under the tree. The tags on the presents said they were from Pup, written in Mama’s handwriting.

The hobo dog took us to Florida for March break! We drove all the way there and slept in the car by the side of the road. It was so hot that we didn’t get cold at all sleeping in the car. We went to Disney and saw flamingos and ate oranges and ice cream for every meal! Then I got so sunburned that the hobo dog had to rent us a motel so I could soak in the cold bathtub all day. At first, he was mad that I made us lose two days’ vacation, but it ended up raining so much that we couldn’t do much sightseeing  anyway. Instead, we watched movies in bed and ordered room service. It wasn’t a waste at all! Even Madonna had fun. She didn’t get carsick like she usually does. The End.

Twenty percent true. I was ten. Pup had finally sniffed us out a few days before March break. He showed up at the schoolyard, driving Mama’s station wagon, with Madonna riding shotgun. Apparently, he’d gone to see Mama on Poverty Hill first, but she’d told him he had another thing coming if he thought he was staying with us after taking a month’s vacation in Thailand doing only God knows what with only God knows who on his way home from his eight-month gig offshore. She packed up a week’s worth of clothes for us and threw the suitcase at him. along with her car keys. “Take the fuckin’ dog, too!” She said, “I need a break!” We begged him to take us to Disney, but because of some dodgy business involving a hitchhiker and a stolen passport, we went to visit one of his buddies down in Nowheresville instead. When we got there, his buddy was on a holiday of her own, so we had to sleep in the car for the night. It was so cold Randall got frostbite and had to get his left ear amputated. After he was discharged from the hospital, we spent a few days hanging out at the motel, watching movies and ordering room service, until Pup got bored and took us back to Mama. It was me who got carsick. I always wondered why Mama let him use her car.

The hobo dog built us a pool this summer with his bare hands! It’s so big, all the other Poverty Hill kids came over to swim with us every day. He’d just come back from Africa, where he rode on an elephant, so he made the slide in the shape of an elephant’s trunk! The hobo dog said he’s never seen such a good swimmer as me and that I should try out for the Olympics. He said I must be part mermaid. I even outswam him sometimes, and hobo dogs are excellent swimmers. I got it from his side of the family, he said. When he comes back next time, he’s going to bring his diving gear and teach me how to use it so I can get a job on an oil rig like him one day. The End.

Thirty percent true. I was eleven. Pup showed up after a six-month gig at a construction camp in the Congo. He brought me back a little elephant sculpture made out of ivory. He was devastated to find Madonna so decrepit. Her hips were all bony, and she had difficulty getting up the stairs. Her eyes were milky-blue blind. She spent most of her time sleeping, and she’d gotten really fat. At eleven and a half years old, she was an old woman. Pup only had a two-week leave, and he spent most of it trying to rehabilitate Madonna. He took her to the vet. He put her on a diet. Then he dug a grave for her in the middle of the yard. He was sure she was going to croak while he was away. He thought he was doing Mama a favour, so she wouldn’t have to dig it herself, but clearly, he didn’t know Mama at all. When Mama saw the hole, her face turned gravel grey. I was sure she would faint or run for the hills, but she didn’t do either because Pup was so busy crying that she had to console him. We all did. Even Madonna hauled herself up from where she was sleeping and hobbled over to cuddle him. She was a very intuitive dog. On the day before Pup returned to the Congo, we went to the beach. I spent hours in the water flippin’ and dippin’ like a little dolphin while Randal, who hates the water, sulked under a tree. But Pup did say I was part mermaid. And he did say I must’ve gotten it from his side of the family. It’s true; I am an excellent swimmer. As for other kids on Poverty Hill—that was bullshit. The Whynaught triplets were the only ones under twenty for miles and miles and miles.

***

Mama wasn’t worried when my fifth-grade teacher, Mrs. Walker, called her in to talk about my hobo-dog stories. I know because I overheard their conversation while I waited in the hallway outside the classroom.

When Mrs. Walker said, “I think Missy’s confused,” Mama said, “No, she’s just creative.” When Mrs. Walker said, “I worry Missy might find herself in trouble one day,” Mama said, “Really? I foresee that she’ll be in the circus one day.” When Mrs. Walker said, “So, let me get this clear, Mrs. Whynaught. You’re not worried about Missy? You don’t want her to see the guidance counsellor?” Mama responded, “Mrs. Walker, I like to live in the here and now. What’s the point of worrying about troubles that haven’t happened yet? Shrinks are for crazy folks. Missy’s a free spirit. Like her father. You should see how fast she can climb trees! But I appreciate your concern.”

What Mama did worry about, however, was the grave in the middle of our yard. Not because it was one hell of an eyesore— no, she was used to Pup’s holes. Pup was known all over the country for them. He was notorious for showing up and offering to dig holes for things he rarely finished. We had a partially built septic tank in the backyard that we used as a hideout. Pup borrowed a buddy’s bulldozer once and dug out half a basement for us. We had a six-foot pile of dirt for a whole year, until one of the neighbours offered to drag it away. Pup started on a goldfish pond for Mama once, but when he abandoned it halfway through for a job out West, she turned it into a firepit. Strangely enough, despite his reputation, people kept asking Pup to dig holes for one thing or another. That Pup Whynaught, they’d say, he can dig a hole with his charm alone!

No, it wasn’t the hole per se that was a problem for Mama. It was the hole’s purpose. She was convinced that by digging Madonna’s grave before she croaked, Pup had put a curse on our family. “It’s worse than naming a baby before it’s born,” she said. “Worse than adopting a black cat. Worse than complimenting a beautiful child.”

“Did you know that in India, parents can ask the person who gave the compliment to spit in the child’s face?” she said.

“Did you know that in Russia, if you change your underwear between Christmas and New Years’, you’ll get boils?”

“Did you know that in the Philippines, you can’t go straight home from a funeral? They need to make a pit stop somewhere like McDonald’s to shake off the bad spirits first.”

She took out a bunch of books on witchcraft from the library and painted so many evil eyes all over our property—on the front door, on my pine tree, on our station wagon’s rear window—that it felt like we were living in some kind of Big-Brother movie. She racked up a huge phone bill calling a psychic named Pinky.

“Pinky said you should never have a mirror facing your bed. Spirits from the other side are just waiting to suck your soul out through it.”

“Pinky said not to refill the grave because it might tempt the devil even more.”

“Pinky said we should beware of the letter D, the number seven, mysterious rashes, and the colour purple. But good fortune will come to us from someone else’s misfortune when we least expect it.”

Randall and I would tease her. “But, Mama,” we’d say. “We’re not Indian/ Filipino/ Russian.”

“Hey, Mama, did you see that lonesome crow staring at you from the kitchen window this morning? I’m sure he had a purple bow around his neck.”

Once, in the middle of the night, we put all the mirrors in the house in her bedroom. When she woke up in the morning, she was sure she’d died and gone to hell. “Laugh all you like, ya fuckers,” she cried as she rubbed the Avon lucky horseshoe pendant she wore around her neck, “But believe me, bad luck is on the horizon.”

Outside, Madonna dozed next to her grave, content as a well-nursed baby.

***

Now, as I said, Mama could be surprisingly wise sometimes (and maybe Pinky really did have a knack for divination). When my skin broke out in acne so bad that I stopped keeping my hair short so I could use my hair to cover my face, Mama took me to the doctor. When the doctor said, “This is acne, ma’am, and it’s genetic, not a mysterious rash,” Mama said, “Genetics, my ass. Nobody on either side of the family ever had skin like that.” When Mr. Duncan got run over by the train and everyone said it was an accident, Mama said, “No accident there. That old soul knew the train schedule like I know when I’m about to get on the rag. Timed right down to the minute. D for danger; D for death. D for Mr. fuckin’ Duncan.” We got a thousand-dollar compensation when the neighbour’s oil spill contaminated our water supply. Mama used it to pay off her enormous phone bill and said, “See? Just as Pinky predicted.”

 As for my hobo-dog stories, I stopped sharing them at school. I was too old for that. I was no longer proud of them. They ended up in my diary, which I hid in the woodpecker hole in my pine tree.

The hobo dog took me and Madonna camping for a week. We had a great time. We slept in a tent with Madonna smack dab between us to keep us warm. We went snorkeling in the ocean and ate periwinkles with safety pins that we picked off the rocks ourselves! Delicious! We met some other campers and had a party around the bonfire. At the end of the party, Pup was worried about the bears getting at our leftover food. One of the guys said, “Hang it up in the tree!” So Pup said, “Go on, Missy, you do it. Show ‘em how tree climbing’s done.” So I took the garbage bag and climbed the highest tree on the campsite. On my way down, I tried showing off by doing it one-handed, but then I fell. My leg got caught in a branch, and I got a nasty cut on my thigh. The next day we went snorkeling again. Boy, did the saltwater ever sting my cut when I first got in!  But I didn’t let it stop me. The minute of pain was worth the hours of fun I had in the ocean. I can’t wait to go again next year. The End.  *

Seventy percent true. I was twelve. Pup spent more and more of his time in the tropics, mostly Cuba, between jobs. He would call and tell me he’d send for me to visit soon. “We’ll go on bike rides to the beach and go snorkeling,” he said. “I know this woman who will braid your hair. And a guy who will drive us around on his motorbike. And another who will cook us anything we want for a few bucks a pop. Come to think of it,” he said, “You can pay just about anyone to do just about anything for a few bucks a pop over here. You can even buy yourself a boyfriend, Pet! You’ll love it!” Meanwhile, Mama had changed the locks so he couldn’t show up whenever he wanted. To keep his Canadian residency, though, he had to come home every six months. That summer, he rented a trailer on a campsite by the ocean with a bunch of other construction guys. Randall was too busy being thirteen to hang out with us, but me and Madonna spent the week with Pup. And we did have campfires with marshmallows and ghost stories. And we did eat buckets full of periwinkles that we picked ourselves and ate with safety pins. And one night, some guy did suggest that we hang our garbage from a tree, which I did, but then fell and hit my head so hard on my way down that I was knocked unconscious. Apparently, Madonna wouldn’t stop howling, and everyone thought it was really quite amazing how concerned she was. But I didn’t fall because I was showing off. It was because Pup gave me a few beers, and I could barely walk a straight line, never mind climb. I guess that’s why we didn’t go to the hospital right away. We didn’t go until the next day, when my head wouldn’t stop pounding and I kept having this scary-weird feeling that I wasn’t real anymore. I was sure I had brain damage, but when I asked the doctors about it, they said, “No, you just need some rest.” When it didn’t go away a few days later, I asked Mama if maybe I should get checked out again, but all she was concerned about was the number of stitches to my head. “Seven stitches? Did you say seven? Sweet Jesus, it’s all downhill from here. It’s all downhill from here.”

The hobo dog bought Randall an electric guitar for his first big show. His band is the coolest in town! They played at the school dance, and it was the biggest turnout ever. I danced so much I got blisters on both feet! During a slow song, the most popular boy at school asked me to dance. I couldn’t believe my luck. At the end of the night, he kissed me and asked for my phone number. Everyone crowded around us and cheered. I think he might ask me to go out with him, but I’m not sure because he seems kinda shy. I won’t write down his name because I don’t want to jinx it. The End.

Thirty percent true. I was thirteen. Randall was fourteen and in a band. Every day after school, his band rehearsed at one of his buddy’s houses. Randall didn’t have his own guitar, so he borrowed one from said buddy, whose family had lots of money. Once, buddy’s mother called Mama and offered to buy Randall a guitar and pay for lessons. She said, “Your son’s got natural talent. A real Jimmy Hendrix he is.” But Mama wouldn’t take any charity. “I got my pride,” she said. “Plus, if your father can afford to gallivant around the fuckin’ tropics on his time off, he can afford a fuckin’ guitar! Go ask him!”

So that’s what Randall did. The next time Pup called, Randall asked, and supposedly Pup agreed. The next week, however, Pup said he didn’t remember the conversation. “Another blackout,” he said. “Sorry ‘bout that, son, but money’s tight at the moment. How about a ukulele instead?” Randall vowed never to speak with Pup again. Then he went and stole money from the school cafeteria to buy a guitar for himself and got caught. Then he got suspended and wasn’t allowed to play with his band at the dance. I went to the dance, though. With a bunch of kids I’d been trying to hang out with for months. I stole a bottle of peach schnapps from Mama, and we drank it in the woods. I got so drunk that I didn’t care anymore that nothing felt real and ended up giving my first blow job to the most popular boy in school. His name was Dirk. When we eventually went inside the dance, everyone saw the mud on the knees of my white jeans. They formed a circle around me and chanted “Miss Piggy! Miss Piggy!” Until one of the teachers came over, saw the state I was in, and called Mama to come to pick me up. I got suspended for a week, too. When Mama saw that the guitar Randall had bought was purple, she sighed and said, “Of course, it was purple. The writing’s been on the wall all along.” I didn’t dare tell her the boy’s name started with D.

***

Madonna was buried alive. I wish it was me instead. The kobo dog can never find out what happened. It will kill him. The End.

Here’s what I know to be true:

I was fourteen. Mama was so fed up with my lip that she called Pup and told him he better take me, or she’d put me in a group home. Pup agreed. “Sure,” he said, “I’ll send you some money, and she can come to live with me in Cuba for the summer. A little fun in the sun is exactly what she needs.”

Also true: I was so excited. I told everyone I was moving to Cuba. I planned a going-away party when I knew Mama was gonna be away for one of her Avon training weekends.

Also true: Pup changed his mind. “I got a last-minute job on the Miramichi,” he said. Money’s too good to pass up. Maybe next year.”

Also true: I had the party anyway. It was supposed to be ten kids: five girls and five boys. We had a couple of two-fours and a pill bottle full of blotter acid someone had stolen from their brother’s friend visiting from Nowheresville. We sat around the kitchen listening to Pup’s old Black Sabbath records. The boys took turns doing their best Ozzy impersonations and the girls got Madonna howling in exchange for Cheetos. I told them all about Pup and Madonna’s grave, and we laughed and laughed. I was so messed up that my voice sounded squeaky and echoey like a cave bat. I thought I really was a cave bat. Everyone around me looked and sounded like cave bats, too.

Also true: Suddenly, it was like a crazy train pulled up and let loose fifty suburban teenagers on our front lawn. They were everywhere. Stomping through the house in muddy Doc Martens. Putting out cigarettes on the floor. Raiding the fridge. Making out in Mama’s bed, right under the evil eyes. When I went outside, there was a lineup of cars parked from our driveway all the way down Poverty Hill, right to the highway. One guy was pissing on the deck, and another was breaking a window with a baseball bat. At one point, I found myself lying on my back under my big old pine tree with Dirk’s hand down my pants. Up above, cave bats flew in and out of the branches like an orchestrated air show. Any doubts I had about my brain damage went out the window.

Also true: Madonna died that night.

***

Mama refused to believe the truth about Madonna. When I told her, “It’s true, Mama, the boys threw her in the grave,” she said, “No, Missy, that’s fuckin’ impossible; she must have fallen in.” When I said, “Seriously, Mama, that’s what happened. And then she must have broken her back because she couldn’t get up, so they all freaked out and started throwing dirt over her until she couldn’t breathe,” she said, “I’m glad your friends were there to help you put her out of her misery. I don’t know if I would have had the strength to do the same.” When I cried and cried and cried and said, “But, Mama, it’s all my fault, I did nothing to help Madonna. And I’m pretty sure I really do have brain damage because everything still feels so unreal, and every time I speak, it sounds like I’m in a cave. And I wonder if maybe I’m really dead and this is just an afterlife kind of dream state?” she said, “Oh, honey, all teenagers have brain damage. But, as for Madonna, she had a good life. And there wasn’t a fuckin’ thing you could’ve done differently to change her fate. But if you have to blame someone, blame your fuckin’ father.” I said, “But, Mama, Pup wasn’t even here.” Then she looked at me long and hard, with more conviction in her eyes than I’d ever seen and said, “Exactly.”

Concerning Pup, he was better off not knowing. When he came home four months later, just after the first snowfall, and found out Madonna had died, he was devastated. He didn’t know what to do with himself. He kept crying and going on long walks that made him miserable because Madonna wasn’t with him, but still, he wouldn’t let anyone join him. He complained about the cold weather and said, “Why on earth people live here is a mystery to me!” For the first time, I wished he’d hurry up and leave already.

Just before Pup left, he organized a funeral. He invited his buddies and the neighbours and some of me and Randall’s friends from school. He made a big pot of chowder and sang a sad, sad song about a man and his son who fought all the time and the son only realized how much he actually loved his father after the father died and it was too late. I don’t know why he chose that song. It was really inappropriate. Randall kept rolling his eyes, and Mama tapped her feet the way she did when she was waiting in line somewhere and the person in front of her was taking forever to count their change.

Near the end of the funeral, the train went by and whistled. Me and Randall and Mama instantly snapped our heads to look at each other, as if an invisible Pavlovian button had just been pushed by some God of the Canines. Like the three of us knew we were the only ones who heard Madonna’s ghost howl, and wasn’t that the weirdest, most magical moment ever? We burst into laughter. We howled, we laughed; we howled, we laughed. At one point, I wondered if it was maybe another one of my unreal moments, but then Pup yelled, “Show some respect!” so I knew it was real. But we kept on laughing and howling anyway. Rolling around on the ground, holding our chowder-filled bellies, tears streaming down our faces, bonding in a way we’d never bonded before and knew we might never do again because that furry blond glue that held us together was gone, gone, gone. It was hysterical, and we knew Madonna wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. Poverty Hill, forever.

 

***

A photograph of the author, Elizabeth Ball.About the Author:

Elizabeth Ball’s writing has appeared in Riddle Fence, Qwerty, Prism International, and elsewhere. She was shortlisted for the Glass Buffalo 2017 Writing Prize, long-listed for the Room Magazine 2019 Fiction Prize and the 2022 Commonwealth Short Story Prize, and nominated for the 2019 Journey Prize by the Dalhousie Review. “Poverty Hill” is a chapter from her recently completed first novel (supported by the Conseil des arts et des lettres du Québec). She lives in Montreal with her husband, three children, and two lazy cats. When she isn’t chasing after one of the above, she is working on her second novel (supported by a Canada Council for the Arts grant).

 

 

Goodbye, Opus

My apologies, folks. My TMR blog this week was going to be a comic strip, but Berkeley Breathed — my favorite cartoonist ever — is retiring his Opus character tomorrow, and, frankly, I’m just too sad.

If I may, a few words in remembrance of a beloved friend. Image by Berkeley Breathed

Farewell, gentle penguin. Many will remember you as funny and a little shy. Those who really knew you will remember you as existentially troubled and frequently conflicted, but always modest, concerned, and supportive. During the last three decades, you showed us how to hunch down and waddle along in a world where everyone else is louder, taller, and pushier. Through your exploits, we learned that when life hands us lemons, we should make lemonade and pretend it tastes like herring slurry. 

But wait. It gets sadder. Breathed says he’s not only finished with Opus, but with comic strips, period.

It’s easy to see why he’s bummed. Few among us can fathom the ambivalence of widespread exposure and accessibility in a time of widespread indifference and amnesia. On second thought, maybe many of us can imagine it; Pushcart Prize nominees, for instance, who have to explain repeatedly what the Pushcart Prize is, what small presses are, and so on.

For sure, Breathed knows all too well how demoralizing it can be when the hard work of creating satire goes largely unnoticed and the very source material on which it draws is instantly forgotten. Here’s a perfect example. Close to the wrap up of Bloom County in 1989, Opus somberly declared that the strip, like the late comedienne Gilda Radner, wasn’t supposed to end. Today, Breathed’s target demographic — 13-30-year-olds — for the most part neither remembers Gilda Radner nor recognizes Opus the penguin.

Breathed told Salon that he doesn’t want his disenchantment with American political rhetoric to poison Opus, whose innocence and naiveté are the qualities that make him enchanting. Therefore, he’s leaving comic strips and moving to creating books and films for children — a move I can only view as disappointing, similar to the speculative withdrawal to Canada many say that they’re considering from time to time. But we all know any such exodus to Canada would leave the U.S. populated exclusively by jerks. The same applies to the landscape of national rhetoric. If the political climate really is getting ornerier, as Breathed believes it is, how unfortunate it is to lose Opus, who has long been good company in bad times — a source of comfort, sweetness, and meek optimism. Likewise, if national discourse is growing more garbled, how terrible that a clear, confident voice should go silent.

So in a sense, farewell to you too, Berkeley Breathed. Good luck on those children’s books of yours, and on the upcoming non-Opus animated film with the Polar Express motion capture technology … hopefully minus the Polar Express creepiness. You want to prevent the venom of the current national discourse from spreading to your cherished character — which is less cherished than ever since newspaper readership has withered so much in the last decade and a half. Who can blame you?

I can’t blame you, but I also can’t help but think that Opus isn’t supposed to end.