Written in response to "The Man Who Stole Christmas" (by Stephen Osborne), which appeared in Geist 13.
Sometime in the late seventies Osborne and I walked down Spadina from Bloor to Front street, listening to Shein talk about the China Effect. It was a hot, horrible day and I was parched with a hangover. Had Shein already quit drinking? We ended the afternoon riding through High Park on a kind of train that was like a series of golf carts shackled end to end. Osborne wrote about that day and a friend of his read what he had written at Shein’s memorial.
Shein has been the driving force behind many of the walks, talks and missions Osborne and I have undertaken in the past five years. Death doesn’t bind us, but we act as though it does. Osborne and I walk through heat, sleet, rain and hail like a couple of existential posties with death on our breath: Don, Betty, Greg, Brian, Jon, Janet, Maxine. None of them died of AIDS.
We are both afraid of dying. The day we hunted down Timothy Eaton’s grave—a quintessentially Shein-inspired trek—I remember our talk as being festooned with corpses and disease while Osborne recalls discussions of chaos theory. Perhaps we’re both right: I know I said something about reincarnation while we negotiated subway trains. I can easily imagine making the leap from death and rebirth to chaos. I don’t believe in reincarnation.
Osborne told me he was afraid of being cremated. I understood him immediately, but was shocked to hear him say it. The men I know only use the word afraid when they talk about the possibility of future violence they might be forced to commit against their will (as in: I’m afraid of what I might do if she does that). Afraid of being cremated. Osborne almost never talks to me about his feelings. I loved him in that moment.
I remember most of our conversation taking place near the Keele subway station. I met Osborne there (he remembers taking a cab) and walked him to Kathy’s for lunch and after lunch we returned to the station to begin the journey to Mount Pleasant cemetery. Kathy has Osborne’s piece on Shein, the walk down Spadina, hanging on a wall. Shein had wanted to be cremated but lost consciousness before he could sign his will. He is buried somewhere in Hamilton.
I usually won’t talk on the subway, so it surprises me that I not only spoke, but I asked questions too, according to Osborne. He hates the subway and Toronto, but he looked completely at home, as he does everywhere. He never looks as though he belongs, but as though he’s comfortable being where he doesn’t belong. I am uncomfortable almost everywhere I go and people realize it at a glance. Is there any point in telling you this? Maybe not I think of Shein often and never more than when I’m with Osborne. Shein never talked about his feelings either.
This is beginning to feel very much in time with the decade, or at least the perception of this decade: me and the boys talking—or not talking—about our feelings. The fact is, it’s virtually impossible to discuss existence, especially your own, as a postmodern proposition. After that, all we have is thought and idea which become meaningless if there is no emotional stake in either. This is why the blues will outlive Philip Glass by at least a century. I blab to Osborne and feel the way I always feel: like an overemotional, self-dramatizing, anti-intellectual blob of mush. Shein made me feel the same way. He had a gravity, a reserve about him that I envied, and he was completely without pomposity. This is also the way I see Osborne.
Do I really need to comment on the weather that day? It was the Toronto winter. Any negative comment I make, however true, will inspire the friends I have here to leave messages on my voice mail dripping with sarcasm. Canadians usually save their defensiveness for when they travel, quick to counter any good thing observed about another country with a dubious statistic proving the superiority of their own. Maybe Americans are the same way. Toronto is like this all the time, around the clock, a tourist stuck forever at the back of the bus in Cairo.
Let me say it was cold and there was snow on the ground. It was a hateful day.
We got off the subway at St. Clair and walked up the hill, past the church and into the cemetery. I have a vivid memory of walking very quickly with my hands in my pockets and my chin on my chest, talking nonstop. No idea what the hell I was saying. There were huge dog tracks in the snow, real Conan Doyle prints that led right from the open gate to the Eaton crypt. We walked beside them, Osborne talking now as though he were speaking into a tape recorder, giving his impressions while they were fresh. I could see the paw prints disappear behind the Eaton monument and I imagined a huge, rabid hound lying in wait. Osborne was taking a camera from his bag and I couldn’t bring myself to say anything about the dog. I felt I would have to protect both of us and I was scared thinking about it.
I am smaller than Osborne and he is not timid or cowardly. Until this moment I’ve always assumed that, when he visits, I feel responsible for his safety because he is a guest. Now I remember having the same protective impulse toward Shein and he’d lived here much longer than I had. I have known Osborne for twenty years and in that time I have fought neither man nor beast on his behalf. There was no dog waiting in the snow for us.
We looked through the grill at a box full of Eatons. The light inside was spooky and I was happy we couldn’t get in. I thought about Shein in the ground. I’m a Christian and I tried to imagine Christ at the centre of death, instead of maggots. I tried to imagine Christ at the centre of Timothy Eaton. I don’t believe in reincarnation, but I don’t believe in heaven, either. It seems impossible that I said none of this to Osborne. If I did, it seems equally impossible that I can’t remember his reply. He is afraid of cremation and I wonder if he’s afraid of hell, where cremation never ceases. I know his ideas about death, but not his feelings.
I know we are afraid. Maybe that is as deep as our feelings go. Osborne took a body count and some photographs. I didn’t want to relax in case the dog suddenly appeared, the Hound of the Eatons. I had walked through this cemetery many times with Kathy in the summer, looking for places to have sex. I wanted to say this as well, but didn’t, afraid that speaking it out loud would summon the hound. Graveyards unhinge me.
Osborne and I never talk about sex. I once asked Shein why he continued in a troubled relationship and he said, the sex is great. It may as well have been my father making a lewd crack about my mother. I had to look away.
We went south to Dundas, where you don’t have to leave the station and venture into the street. You walk straight from the train into the Eaton Centre. I had a growing rage, as I worked a way through the crowd up to the Yonge Street level, and I said to myself, don’t rant. Once the rant starts, it’s impossible to stop, and I don’t want to inflict it on Osborne. I mailed him almost the whole rant, many pages of it, years ago and we both know there’s no point talking any more. I feel the way people must when they keep returning to an abusive lover: the day comes when you have to stop inflicting it on your friends. I am not angry with Shein for dying, I am angry over the way he let himself live in his last years. I don’t have his gravity, his dignity or his intellect, but I feel like Shein too much of the time.
I took Osborne to the loathesome statue and showed him Timothy Eaton’s shiny toe and we exchanged comments. I had no idea why we were there, had never understood Shein’s insistence on T. Eaton’s toe being the centre of the country, wondered why he even thought about this shit.
Shein was a man of deep thought and careful opinion and he left almost no evidence of either in his work. I had written hundreds of pages, all paid for, whole film scripts that had disappeared without sight or sound, and none of them were about my rotting liver, my dead sister or the people I love. Osborne writes slowly and with little confidence and the words are beautiful and true or are trying to be beautiful and true. Shein and I had both stopped drinking and taking drugs many years ago and Osborne apparently imbibes without restraint. It makes no sense. Somewhere at the centre of this there is something as weird and shiny as Eaton’s toe and I can’t understand it any more than I understand the toe itself. The very centre of Canada. There is Christ at the centre or maggots, but either way there is no heaven and you don’t get a second chance. That’s the way I saw it that day and it’s the way I see it now.
Osborne took a picture of the toe. He knows something about it that I don’t, or at least I believe he does. He packed the camera away and we returned to the subway, heading God knows where. Probably I was talking all the way.