Dispatches

Hiatus

Stephen Osborne

During the hiatus, a man in a black suit appeared in the Geist Gallery in Toronto and identified himself as a builder of ornithopters, or perhaps he said he was a promoter of ornithopters (this was during the hiatus, when nothing was clear; in any event his field was ornithoptery). I couldn’t remember what an ornithopter was but I could see one in my mind: the question was, what did an ornithopter do? The ornithopter man was accompanied by a well-dressed woman who never stopped smiling. Smiling seemed to be her work, what she did, in the sense that one is expected to be doing something during one’s time on this plane: what exactly is it you do? we imagine asking, and we imagine her reply. Her teeth were white; they gleamed; at least they gleam now, in memory. Her smile was not unpleasant but it was continuous; it never went anywhere; it was always there in the room. The earliest ornithopter was designed by Leonardo, of course we knew that and also that it never left the ground, it never flew, it never got off the drawing board is what we mean to say. What we don’t know is whether Leonardo called it an ornithopter, an unpleasing word that feels cobbled together even in Italian: it makes a lump in the mouth. The ornithopter man said that he, or perhaps he said his people, were determined to fly their ornithopter at Turin in Italy at the 2006 Olympics. He had no business card with him so he wrote his name on one of the index cards that I keep in my pocket in case I get an idea. The smiling woman gave me her business card in return for mine, and the next day I flew back to Vancouver, but not in an ornithopter; later, when I remembered all of this, when the hiatus was over, I looked in my shirt pockets and the laundry basket and the pockets of my grey corduroy sports jacket and found neither the index card, which I am pretty sure had a good idea written on the other side, nor the business card of the woman who smiled. All of the evidence had vanished, during the hiatus.

Hiatus is defined in the dictionary as an interruption, a rift, a gap, a blank; something is missing in a hiatus, where a lacuna has formed in the continuum. One does not go on hiatus as one goes on vacation; rather, we are overtaken by hiatus, which might be described as a vacancy that encroaches from the rear. The hiatus that I speak of caught up with me in the spring, when the world was waking up but seemed to me to be falling asleep. A world in hiatus is a world without qualities: things register with decreasing effect, with the synesthetic result that all of the qualities of the world take on shades of grey. One grey evening on a talk-radio show a famous psychic and bender of spoons at a distance challenged his listeners to bring their broken clocks over to the radio and then, at a given moment, to command them to begin ticking again. I took my broken clock from the mantelpiece and put it next to the radio and tried to clear my mind, and when the moment came, I repeated the incantation given by the man on the radio. Nothing happened; I uttered the incantation again. I was alone with the sound of my breathing and the voice of the man who could bend spoons with his mind. Soon calls were coming in to the radio talk show from excited listeners whose broken clocks were starting up everywhere in North America, but not where I was, in the hiatus. I went out into the grey streets of the city, pursued by the grating sound of a skateboard approaching from behind, louder, urgent, rhythmic, step scrape, step scrape: my ankles began to prickle with anxiety, and finally the skateboard swept past, bearing a ominous shadowy figure in baggy pants and a hood that made him look like a creature from one of Brueghel’s paintings.

It is impossible to send messages from within a hiatus. Only later, after the hiatus has withdrawn, can one construct an account of what was happening, a series of fragments such as the index card I found while searching for the card with the ornithopter man’s name on it, on which I had written: "Mens Room, 6th Floor, Hudson’s Bay Company: Sign above the mirror: NO LOITERING." When is the last time loiterers appeared on the sixth floor of the Hudson’s Bay Company, near the expensive furniture? A sign appeared in the window of the post office down the street: “Regrettably Closed,” it said; above the front door another sign, freshly painted, had been fastened to the brick wall. It read: “Seattle Police Department.” Police cars with Washington state licence plates filled the parking lot. One resigns oneself easily to such transformations, during a hiatus.

Toward the end of the hiatus (as it turned out), clouds began to break up over Trout Lake park, and sunlight fell in bursts over the weeping willow trees, making them gleam in shimmering tones of gold. A siren sounded in the distance, and nearby the pathetic maddening chime of the ice cream truck. The sand on the beach was damp from an earlier rain. I wanted to register the scene, to take note of it: sunlight setting beach and trees aglow. A group of tourists appeared with a video camera. They took turns looking into the camera and slowly panning the vista for the whole 360 degrees. What would be the dizzying effect when they returned home? What language were they speaking? They were two men and two women: they sat down on a log and began taking pictures of each other with a still camera, three of them in each picture, obscurely struggling with the fundamental problem of photography: the photographer is never the one in the picture. Then dog walkers began to appear, and buggy pushers, teenagers, strollers, a wheelchair pusher pushing an invalid in a red anorak slouched deep in the chair. The wheelchair pusher stopped at the edge of the grass and moved away from the wheelchair and began performing exercises that looked like Tai Chi in the movies; a small group of aging power walkers marched across the sand, and now the boing boing bounce of basketballs could be heard from the tennis court up the hill. A few days later, a man balanced on the rail of a shopping cart laden with heavy pipes and other junk rattled through a downtown intersection against the light. He was smiling grimly and soon he was moving at terrific speed down the hill and across the streaming lanes of traffic. An hour later, a younger, less grim-looking man on rollerblades said good morning to me as he passed by, pushing a shopping cart filled with black plastic bags stuffed to the bursting point. He too was moving at high speed. I had walked no farther along than another block when a third man appeared with a shopping cart heaped with small bulging suitcases and leather handbags. He was moving slowly; his shoes were worn down to the last bit of leather and he was wearing no socks. I watched him move wearily along the sidewalk and around the corner. What obscure significance lay here, among these three men and their shopping carts? I felt my attention come to a focus, and then I felt the centre of the hiatus passing over me like the eye of a hurricane. All I had to do now was hang on and wait.

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Stephen Osborne

Stephen Osborne is a co-founder and contributing publisher of Geist. He is the award-winning writer of Ice & Fire: Dispatches from the New World and dozens of shorter works, many of which can be read at geist.com.


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