Thorin was a proofreader who preferred efficiency on the page, which is why, in his very first love letter, he called his future wife Cathy even though that wasn’t her name. When she permanently adopted the pet name, he took it as evidence of romantic sentiment. Catherine was the girl she had been; Cathy was the woman of the days to come.
Shortly after their marriage, Cathy’s mother fell ill and Cathy took a job in her Canadian hometown. Thorin had encouraged this, imagining the rural life to be quaint. His clients were all online, which meant he could work from anywhere in the world. It wasn’t long before he saw he had made an error as glaring as a typographical mistake. He was a city mouse with a mistrust of nature and a disdain for quiet living; small town Canada was no place for the likes of him. When his mother-in-law died, he hoped that Cathy would want to leave. But she dug in her heels. She adopted her mother’s books and seized possession of the furniture. This included a crimson fainting couch with rickety legs. Thorin assumed they would sell everything until the day she had the legs fixed. That was when he knew. The couch was stable; Cathy was putting down roots.
“I just don’t understand her,” he told Quinn. “She hated growing up here. That’s why she left.”
Quinn only grunted. He was face down on that fainting couch and she was giving him a massage; across his back, her hands were a moving stream. It was Canada Day weekend and Cathy was on the camping trip with some friends. Since Saturday, Thorin and Quinn had been lounging around the house, watching TV, and making complicated meals.
“She should go back to the flute,” Thorin went on. “When we met, she was playing in the pit on Broadway.”
He shut his eyes shut and recalled, for the briefest of moments, the way his wife had looked in those days: a pixie, tiny and lean with an almond bob. Quinn, as if sensing his thoughts were elsewhere, tightened her grip. Some unknown nerve burst in his neck. Quinn’s expertise was in advanced craniosacral therapy. Before meeting her, Thorin had been plagued by headaches. When his doctor had referred him to Quinn, he had no idea where it would lead.
“If you ask her, she’ll say she was a flautist. You believe that? You work for the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, you’re a flautist. You play in the pit of Cabaret, you’re a flutist. Now she doesn’t do either. It’s a miracle if she ever practices her scales. She’s reading about the emotional life of animals and making her own yoghurt. That’s y-o-g-h-u-r-t. Why do you need the h? Will you tell me that?”
Thorin worked with both Americans and Canadians, but he preferred the American way of doing things. Color. Flavor. Canadians, with their extra letters, simply wasted space. Quinn believed this hostility had everything to do with his wife; if Cathy had come from Indiana, she doubted Thorin would get a headache when he read work from his Canadian neighbours.
“Canadians go on and on about being environmental. But how much extra paper do they waste because of the extra letters?’
“I think,” said Quinn, “that I want to have a baby.”
“Have you seen the way they spell maneouver?” he asked. “It’s absurd.”
Quinn released his skull. “Of course, I don’t know if I want your baby. So there’s no need to jump to conclusion.”
Thorin tried to turn his head but Quinn had moved onto his synathrodial joint, applying pressure to his skull to keep him in place. He may have been the one named for a Norse god but it was Quinn who had the nearly-mythological grip. At last, she released him. Her hair was a tangle, the same shade as November leaves. God, she had a funny face. Her nose was too long, her mouth a little askew. Thorin met her earnest gaze, distinctly aware that they were about to diverge in the yellow wood. With the usual recklessness of lovers, they had prohibited all talk of tomorrow. Until now.
He took her wrists and kissed the bottoms of her hands. “Do we have to do this?”
“Never mind. I don’t know why I brought it up.”
She snatched the bottoms of her hands away, grabbed her robe, and stalked away. Thorin reached for the cigarettes. He lit one and listened to Quinn’s movements. On the stairs. In the kitchen. Topless and lovely beneath her turquoise robe. No doubt making coffee as she read the SCOTUS blog. That was Quinn. Current craniosacral therapist, future legal historian. A woman of ambition. It was why he liked her. Quinn did many things and did each of them well. Not like Cathy. Even her homemade yoghurt had clumps
Lording over the toilet, Thorin enjoyed a great, post-coital piss and flushed the cigarette before popping a peppermint. In the mirror, he studied his reflection – or maybe it studied him. What quality did he have that had attracted Quinn? Only twenty-nine, he was already going bald. He smoked, tired easily, and took offense to, well, those who took offence. No. He was hardly a prized catch. Thorin headed for the stairs without a robe. He would have better luck getting Quinn’s forgiveness if he appeared defenseless, without even his socks to shield him from the world.
A terrible smell hit him, as rank as rotten eggs. Or was it petroleum? Thorin almost choked on the mint. The man next door – one of his Canadian neighbours – must be doing some sort of holiday cleanse, a chemical wash of the gutters. But at the hall window, the warm summer air was clean. The stench was coming from inside. What had Quinn done? She hadn’t been gone long enough to have burned anything. Perhaps she had spilled one of those mysterious cleaners Cathy kept beneath the sink.
“Quinn? Do you smell something or am I having a stroke?”
The smell reached its apogee when he reached the kitchen. Quinn had indeed made coffee. But Cathy was there too; she was the one steeped in that terrible, sulfuric smell.
“You’re not having a stroke,” she said. “I got sprayed by a skunk.”
Thorin braced himself for an assault but the only thing she wanted to know was whether they had any tomato juice. Thorin knew that they didn’t; he and Quinn had been drinking Bloody Marys since Saturday afternoon. But he didn’t say that. He didn’t know what to say. Buck-naked, Thorin was exactly as he had intended to be. Defenseless – or defenceless, as the case may be.
Once upon a time, Thorin and Cathy had been united in their shared a passion for stories told in song. At the same time she had been Catherine the Flautist while Thorin had been at a publishing house which specialized in the sort of thick biographies that could double as weapons. It was a crowd of elite intelligentsia for whom the Broadway revival of Cabaret could never compare with six hundred and eighty-eight pages about the publisher of the Washington Post. Catherine the Flautist had delighted Thorin with her love of theater – or, rather, theatre. He certainly hadn’t cared about her spelling preferences then. Yes, he had altered the spelling of her name. But he had ignored the fact that in many of her love notes, she had called him her new favourite thing.
“Favourite,” he said now, emphasizing the u. Thorin was alone in the car, driving through the silent town, searching for a drug store that would be open on this, the anniversary of Canada’s birth. He drove with the window open and a kerchief over his mouth. Cathy had left the campsite out of kindness to her friends and during the return trip, the skunk’s oils had seeped into the seats. Would he ever be able to get them clean? Thorin knew very little about skunks. Until this morning he, like Cathy, had thought tomato juice was the only cure when they attacked. Quinn had been the one to explain the truth: the juice only masks the smell. She had stated this with a clinical air as they had stood in that kitchen, awkward both because of Cathy’s smell and the fact that she was the one who was fully dressed. Quinn had been the one to send Thorin into the world to find a special shampoo. Cathy couldn’t do it – her own stench had made her ill. And Quinn didn’t drive. It was a small town; she rode a bike everywhere she went.
The small town only had two pharmacies and they were both closed for the long weekend. Everything else was closed. This is why Thorin loved the city. In New York, nothing could stop the metropolis pulse. Alone in the empty parking lot, Thorin called the house and was surprised when Quinn answered the phone.
“Why are you still there?”
“I wanted to help.”
“She doesn’t want your help.”
“Did you find the shampoo?”
“Everything’s closed. Where is she now?”
“On the fainting couch. She said she’d be touching everything if she knew you wanted the house. But she intends to keep it. We get the car.”
Thorin closed his eyes. So. Cathy was already preparing for the end. And Quinn for the beginning. We get the car. Leave it to Thorin the proofreader to notice the important words. Was it worth defending himself? Could he hope to make her understand how badly life in that small Canadian town had cleaved him in two? Sleeping with Quinn hadn’t been about cruelty. If he had wanted to be cruel, he wouldn’t have taken such great pains to ensure he’d never get caught. But this wasn’t an explanation Cathy would accept. He could only consider the act of groveling. No. Grovelling. If he begged Cathy for anything, it would have to be with Canadian words.
“I looked online,” Quinn went on. “As it turns out, we can do it with hydrogen peroxide, baking soda, and vinegar.”
“Okay. Tell her I’m on my way.”
“She was saving the skunk.”
“She was saving the skunk from a bear. The skunk wasn’t trying to spray her. It was trying to spray him.”
Finding baking soda and vinegar was easy compared to hydrogen peroxide, which eluded him like the Holy Grail. At last, somewhere along the highway, he found a rest stop that offered a single shelf devoted to pharmaceuticals. At the register, Thorin fought the desire to grab other gifts for Cathy. Dark chocolate. That magazine she liked. Rewards for her foolish heroics. What sort of person tries to save a skunk from a bear?
As he returned to the car, Thorin became aware of a new thought transversing a synapse in his brain. Several seemingly unrelated incidents suddenly became connected. Cathy’s donation to the Humane Society. Her vegetarian cookbook. That documentary about the emotional life of dogs. One morning, while heading out for breakfast, they had discovered a wounded bird in the weeds of their overgrown lawn. Thorin had urged her to leave it be. “The breakfast special ends in twenty minutes,” he had quipped. The remark had elicited a look of such venom that Thorin had wilted. He became a crucial part in the adventure that followed: guarding the bird, placing it in a shoebox, slaking its thirst with an eyedropper, and, at last, driving to a bird sanctuary two hours west. A week later, Cathy learned the bird had died from its wounds. The entire incident annoyed Thorin precisely because it had proved so useless. Yet Cathy had not been dispirited. She had done her duty; the fate of the bird was irrelevant to the fact she had tried.
Cathy probably felt the same way about the skunk. He pictured her on that fainting couch, full of pride as she lay prone with her sulphuric smell.
For the first time since meeting Quinn, Thorin felt one of his headaches return. He was still rubbing his temples when he gave Cathy her cure and his head was throbbing when Quinn rode away on her bike. While Cathy bathed, he threw his clothes in the trash, convinced the drive had infused them with stink. In the living room, the awful smell had not disappeared. It was coming from the fainting couch. Thorin bent and searched for Cathy’s smell beneath the skunk’s. Her sweat and her stink, like the way their sheets had once smelled after a sex-infused summer night.
Cathy appeared in the doorway, now scrubbed clean. The peroxide had turned her blonde. The color suited her. She had youth; she had glamor too. Glamour, he thought with misery. He did not grovel in either the Canadian or American way. She had the same venomous look she had worn the day they found the bird. It told him what he needed to know.
Thorin moved in with Quinn. Later, Cathy began to volunteer for the animal shelter and could soon be spotted walking ownerless dogs. Thorin knew where this would lead and was not surprised when, not long before he and Quinn moved away, Cathy adopted a black Labrador Retriever. She named it Thorin. Thorin wasn’t sure what to make of this but when he told Quinn, his new lover began to cry.
“Thorin the Second!” she said even as she wiped away the tears.
Thorin the First, certain he was missing something, listened to her weep as he packed up the truck that would take them back to New York.
A second marriage is a second draft, thought Thorin. It’s a revision of your own life. It’s more polished than the original, but hardly ever as raw. The first draft is who the writer is; the revision is the writer they want to be.
Thorin the Second would be the last of the line: although Quinn eventually had her babies, there were never any sons. Thorin insisted this didn’t bother him and yet, as he raised his daughters to prefer checks over cheques, he found himself following the life of that mysterious dog. Of course, this meant he had to follow the dog’s owner. In the years that followed, Cathy went on to own five other dogs, one of which had lost a limb to the undercarriage of a Winnebago. She posted pictures of this new family online. Thorin saw it all. The internet kept them tethered; he could not bring himself to cut the cord.
His oldest daughter was seven when Thorin the Second was put down, an incident which drove Thorin into a period of grief he did not try to explain. He had no reason to keep following Cathy and tried to quit cold turkey, as he had with the cigarettes shortly after returning to New York. But Cathy was stronger than nicotine. He scrolled through her pictures and read, with enthusiasm, every article she shared. “Why I Gave a Turtle Mouth to Mouth Resuscitation,” went one headline and Thorin obediently read of the ecologist who had done more for wildlife than anyone since Noah. There were never pictures of Cathy with anyone except animals. First, it was a Sumatran Tiger. Next an elephant, then a silverback gorilla. At last, he saw the logo on her shirt: she now worked for the Toronto Zoo. She appeared to be reading more books and played her flute in a Celtic band. She had lost weight, hired a trainer, and never fixed her hair. She was still the platinum blonde – still that revised version of who she had been. She had edited herself without him. She had returned to her maiden name; she had returned to Catherine too.
Thorin studied Cathy’s life with equal parts fascination and disbelief. He still could not shake his impression of Cathy the Failure, who had saved neither a bird or a skunk and whose yoghurt had lumps. He searched for this Cathy, as if expecting to see her on the street. While in Toronto on business, he studied faces with religious intent. Later, on the TTC, he studied both travelers and travellers alike. It was no good. Catherine might still be around but Cathy was gone, like all those endangered animals she had never saved.
By this point, Cathy had been his ex-wife for almost ten years. Yet he could not stop thinking of her any more than he could stop being angry when he encountered an E in the word gray. Why had Cathy traded him for the animal world? He felt he had driven her to it, that she had turned to animals out of disgust with the behavior of not just men, but one particular man.
One spring, Thorin found himself attending a conference on Prince Edward Island, and he decided, on a whim, that he would drive through the Atlantic provinces and return to New York via Montreal. After renting a car, Thorin crossed the Northumberland Strait and set off down the Trans-Canada Highway. He remembered the day he and Cathy had moved here. He saw the color of the moving van and recalled the mud which had stained her virgin Keds. Their first meal in Canada had been a meat lover’s pie. The exact sort of thing Cathy would never eat now. Pizza from another world.
Thorin was an arrow now. Shot from the shaft, he really could only fly in one direction. Arriving on the street where they had lived, he saw their house as he had seen it in his sleep. He knew Catherine was in Toronto, yet he couldn’t shake the idea that Cathy, his Cathy, might suddenly emerge. But when someone did emerge, Thorin saw only a man full of fat and teeth. He was somewhere in his thirties and lugged a garbage bag which dripped a narrow stream that followed like a dog’s tail.
After depositing his trash, he caught sight of Thorin watching from the car. Thorin immediately reached for his roadmap and pretended to be very interested in the Miner’s Memorial Highway.
The man tapped the window. “You here for the couch?”
“I was in the basement. Did you knock?”
“Yes, that’s right. I was just about to call.”
Thorin was disappointed to find the house held no memory of him; it had been revised without his permission. Walls had been knocked down, carpets torn away. The kitchen had exposed brick. He felt like the intruder he was until he reached the living room where he saw his old friend. There was the fainting couch, sitting where it had always been. It startled him as a misplaced word.
“Vintage,” said the man. “It was here when we moved in. Some lady left it behind.”
Thorin knelt to inspect the legs. They had held up; Cathy’s roots were still in place.
“The guy who bought the place from her liked it,” sighed the man. “But he renovated and now we can’t get it down the stairs. We’ll have to lug it out through the window. We’ll pay for that, of course. We just want it gone.”
It surprised Thorin that two generations of ownership separated him from this man. The house was on its third draft; his first marriage was the distant past. He leaned closer and, under the pretense of inspecting the upholstery, breathed deep.
The front door opened and the owner’s wife returned home. She had a head full of curls which seemed to quiver with annoyance when Thorin said that he wouldn’t be able to take the sofa after all.
“Nobody wants it! Nobody should want it. You know why they built those? So women would have someplace to go when they were being hysterical. It’s disgusting.”
“It’s worth money,” said the man.
“It smells,” said his wife. “I just can’t figure out what it smells like.”
Thorin knew she was right. He had, upon smelling the couch, found the faintest hint of something in the periphery. Cathy’s mother mixed with his own cigarettes. There was Quinn’s perfume too and the skunk and, most likely, Cathy’s grief. It was all here but it also wasn’t and that was the problem. The woman with the curls couldn’t name the smell but Thorin could: it was the smell of decay.
Thorin thanked them and left. It was already six o’clock. If he drove through the night, he could reach Montreal and be back in New York by tomorrow afternoon. Instead, he drove around town, making his way down the old roads. The path to the liquor store. The way to the university. Thorin wasn’t completely seduced by the nostalgia. He loved his children and was glad for where he was now. Yet there must have been another way to get here. Just as he didn’t have to take Church Street to get to the hardware store, he wanted to believe there was another path he could have taken to his daughters, a way of writing the story of his life he hadn’t explored.
Thorin took a room at the Maritime Inn and lay on the bed for a full hour before calling the operator. It didn’t take him long to find the number for the couple who were selling the couch; after all, he already knew where they lived.
“I’ve changed my mind about the couch.”
“Look I don’t know what your game is,” said the man. “But the guy you were pretending to be already came by and paid for the couch in cash.”
Thorin had a miserable drive to Montreal and was glad to abandon the rented car, which now seemed to be plagued. The plane seemed to crawl through the sky and when he reached La Guardia, he treated himself to a taxi so he could return home in record time. Bounding towards the front door with suitcase in hand, he stopped in his tracks when he heard a sharp animal bark. Then came the ambush: the door opened and out came a black beast. The children were close on its heels, trailed at last by his second wife.
“My sister’s dog had puppies,” Quinn said. “She was going to put them down.”
The girls laughed as they chased the dog through the yard. Thorin felt the sting of betrayal: they had adopted this pet without a consultation. He understood, in a way he never had before, that his life was not a page whose grammar and spelling he could control. He was not, and never had been, the lord and master of this, his tiny and unimpressive domain.
All the women in his life – yes, the black dog was a girl too – closed in around him. His wife grinned. His daughters danced. The dog leapt up on her hind quarters and tried to crawl into his arms.
“She already has a name,” said Quinn. “You’ll never guess what it is.”
The children had already taken to calling the dog Cathy but when it came time to put a tag on the collar, Thorin told the man at the counter to spell the name in full. The extra letters annoyed him, as they always did, but it seemed to him that giving his wife a pet name had started him down this road and so, by giving his pet a wife’s name, he was doing something to sooth the ache of the past. Fastening the collar around the dog’s neck, Thorin read the wife name aloud and experienced the same sensation he had when he finished editing someone’s work. This, for good or bad, was the final draft. It was a moment of certainty. All the choices had been made; the time for corrections was done.
Joel Fishbane’s novel ‘The Thunder of Giants’ is now available from St. Martin’s Press while his short fiction has been published in a variety of magazines, including 87 Bedford, the Saturday Evening Post, and upcoming issues of New England Review and Litbreak He is pursuing a MFA in Creative Writing at the University of British Columbia. For more information, you are welcome to visit www.joelfishbane.net.