SHORT STORY: LITANY

This story has been through about a dozen rewrites; it’s not quite there yet. -JRS

He was a short, squat man, my neighbour, who wore, each time I saw him, thick glasses, a navy toque, big boots and a bright yellow safety jacket. Work clothes, clearly, although what he did for a living, I had no idea. In the months since my move into that cheerless row of ready-made homes we had not shared so much as a greeting; our schedules were at odds and, I admit, my mood rarely elevated to cordial at the time, living as I was in the miserable midst of divorce and unemployment.

Like me he lived alone, that much I knew. I also recognized his car; it made this constant, tortured squeal that marked his comings and goings—which, as far as I could tell, consisted mainly of coming from and going to work. Mornings and evenings, respectively.

One such morning, as I sat sipping coffee at the table by the window, the automobile screeched up the street and stopped in front of the driveway next to mine. Out stepped my neighbour; he swung shut the door and stood, hands bracing hips, staring at his parking space. While he had been at work overnight, the plow had grumbled by and pushed a broad bulge of ice and snow into the drive, blocking his access. The same had happened to every house on the street, but for some reason it struck my neighbour as a kind of calamitous affront.

He commenced to cursing—and this is what really caught my attention. His words had a particular pattern that began at low volume and increased in intensity and frequency before crashing against that final, coarse consonant: Fucking Jesus, fucking Jesus, fucking Jesus, fucking Christ!

This he recited as he ducked back into his car and parked it hurriedly against the curb. The engine he left shrieking while he returned to the driveway to dig away the snow. I watched him stoop and shovel, stop and spit, stoop and shovel again—all the while muttering that curious chant at varying volume.

The clearing and the cursing continued for some ten minutes, after which my neighbour stabbed the shovel like a spear into the snow and returned to the waiting, wailing vehicle. Again the driver’s side door slammed shut, again the motor revved, and the car lurched and slid through slush and snow into the parking space. My neighbour cut the engine, stepped out and walked towards the house. At the front end of the car, he stopped to kick the tire with his weighty work boot, letting fly a final flurry of expletives. He then went inside, closing his door with such force that the windows in my house rattled.

In the late evening he reemerged to clean from the driveway that day’s snowfall. This he did without complaint, working up and down the driveway in careful lines, scraping hard-packed ice and scattering salt until the rectangle of pavement at his feet appeared as dark as the sky above.

There was plenty to shovel; a few days prior, a gently relentless fall of snow had started that would continue for weeks to come. Softly, steadily the city sank below the drifts. Sidewalks vanished; streets choked and narrowed until they looked like mountain passes carved through white stone. Nightly the plow passed by, swinging orange light and shoving snow from the street into parking spaces. Daily my neighbour returned from work to repeat his routine from that first morning, the shovelling and the swearing.

I soon came to expect it, to wait for it, even. From my vigil at the window, concealed in semi-darkness behind sheer curtain, I relished the break-of-day performance, a petty distraction from my own hardship. The slamming of doors, the scrape of the shovel, the thud and slap of thrown snow—and always that chorus, with its explosive outburst on that ultimate syllable: Fucking Jesus, fucking Jesus, fucking Jesus, fucking Christ! It sounded like some kind of strange and savage, inverted prayer.

Winter in time went slack; the tide of snow lowered to expose streets, sidewalks, front lawns. The roads no longer needed the nightly scrape of the plow blade, and so my neighbour’s act, lacking provocation, ended. Even his car, evidently repaired, quieted its tormented howl.

Monotony returned to my mornings, until some time later, when a particularly infuriating letter from my lawyer arrived. After reading it, I stood, stomped about the living room and spat that same string of curses, those same three words eavesdropped from my short and short-tempered neighbour next door. Fucking Jesus, fucking Jesus, fucking Jesus, fucking Christ!

My pacing stopped; my bare feet cooled on the hardwood. Embarrassment crept into my rage and forced from me a laugh, a shake of the head. At the same time, the satisfaction in those words, their elemental efficacy, was not lost on me. Simply put, it felt good to say them.

And so say them I did. Before long, with every unanswered call to my wife, with each letter from her attorney or mine, the words flew from my lungs and lips and echoed in the space around me. I would slap the cover of the laptop shut or smack the phone down onto its receiver and shout at the walls, the windows, the ceiling. Fucking Jesus Christ!

At times I experimented with the phrasing in an effort to improvise, to make it my own. An added word here or there, an alternate tone or emphasis. None worked, however; none offered the essential effectiveness of those words in that order refined by the stocky man in heavy boots next door. Who knew how long the words had been his, how long he had honed them, scraped and polished them into that bare, burnished essence of anger. It impressed me how he had so well encapsulated into those three words a kind of perfect, purgative fury.

Now and then, having flung my agitation into the air on that crude calling, I wondered if he could hear me, my neighbour, as I had heard him. I pictured him sitting at his table in the dim light of morning, his thick glasses and round head hovering over a cup of coffee. From the door hook hangs the fluorescent jacket; the work boots wait in a puddle of melting snow. I imagined how he might sit there and listen—perhaps nodding in satisfaction or solidarity—to my recital, my rendition of his mantra of rage.