The Incredible Shrinking, Crying Boy

by Claire Kelly

Claire Kelly’s first full-length collection, Maunder, is available from Palimpsest Press. Her poem “Mother, What Should We Do?” was recently longlisted for the CBC Poetry Prize. She lives and writes in Edmonton. Her second book of poetry will be released in 2019 with ECW.

It took an icicle falling from a second-floor roof to kill Randall McAvoy. A bleak, unpredictable convergence: his body under the eaves at that moment of melt, and pff—he was gone. It was no surprise to Max that the accident had occurred while Randall McAvoy had been shovelling his elderly neighbour’s driveway. He was a good guy like that, the best. It was also not a surprise that it was something that could not be planned against that had killed him. Randall McAvoy was a man who planned and planned well.

Max had known Randall McAvoy as Mr. McAvoy, or Tim’s dad. His memories were of Tim’s dad doing things: his legs peeking out from underneath his red Chevy truck, his mouth stretched wide holding half a dozen nails, or him kicking the snow off his huge winter boots before going inside and washing his greasy hands with Dawn soap in the basement sink.

Max’s father watched and listened to sports, but didn’t play them. He found the best mechanic in town and went to the movies while his car was fixed by a professional. He was a great believer in professionals.


One August weekend before the start of high school, as they had throughout the whole summer, Max and Tim had been in the McAvoys’ unfinished basement, steering Mario through a sky of giant mushrooms. Neither boy heard the creak of Mr. McAvoy sneaking down the uncarpeted steps and both flinched when his rough hands reached over their heads and thumped a metal toolbox on the plastic table in front of them.

“Get up,” he said. “Now.”

“But, Dad—”

Mr. McAvoy walked over to the outlet and, without anger, pulled both plugs out. The Nintendo console’s glowing eye snuffed out.

“Okay. Okay.” Tim got up and began walking to the stairs. Max followed.

“I’ll just be going, Mr. McAvoy. Thanks for having me,” he said outside.

“No, you should stay. You might learn something.”

Max looked at his watch and lied, “I’m actually late.” He grabbed his bike from the side of the house and pedalled down the street. If he was going to do chores, he’d do them at home where he’d get credit for them.


Tim had called Max just before midnight and told him about the accident. His voice was flat, almost mechanical, like he had memorized a script. Max had been reading a blog about electric cars and thinking about owning a house so he could plug a car into it. But that would mean not living in Toronto or near his job.

“Will you come back home?” Tim asked. “I know it’s been a while.”

It had been exactly that—a while—ever since Max graduated high school and his parents moved farther east into a Bowmanville bungalow. He and Tim had always met up near his place, in the Annex, in slightly seedy bars where they felt like outsiders. There they drank overpriced beer—at least by backyard suburban standards—and talked when the music wasn’t too loud. Max heard Tim breathing over the phone line.

Maybe, Max eventually thought, this was how men were supposed to respond to freak accidents.

“For sure. For sure. Just let me know when, and I’ll be there. Email or text or whatever.”

“Yeah, okay.” Max could feel Tim drifting away. “Fuck. This is so fucked up,” Tim said, hanging up before Max could properly give his condolences.

Max wondered about his friend’s inexpressive voice. Perhaps he had spent the evening crying and now had nothing left to share. Perhaps he was half-drunk or had been given a pill to keep him calm. Or maybe, Max eventually thought, this was how men were supposed to respond to freak accidents.


Winter had dropped away in the few days between the death and the funeral. Max stepped off the GO Train with his scarf in one hand and his overnight bag in the other. He was wearing his funeral suit already so that he wouldn’t have to iron it. To prevent creases, he had decided to stand.

Out in the parking lot, Tim waited for Max in a red Chevy truck. Not the same one Max remembered from his adolescence, but a newer, shinier one. It even had a pine tree air freshener hanging from the rear-view mirror. Max felt a percussive plunge in his stomach: Tim’s dad’s truck would never again be driven by Tim’s dad. Weighed down, he climbed into the front passenger seat.

Tim’s hair was shorter, almost buzzed. Max could see the thin scar from their first and last game of full-contact rollerblade basketball; it ran behind his ear like a ridge on a topographic map. Tim didn’t turn to face him, but popped the clutch and pulled out of the parking spot.

“Shit, man,” Max said, “I saw the truck and . . .”

“I know. I felt like a traitor when I put the keys in the ignition. But my car’s busted and Mom got rid of hers last summer.”

“How’s she doing?” They merged with the traffic and began driving north. The strip malls, car dealerships, and restaurants soon turned into a sodden, suburban neighbourhood of brown-green, puddle-swamped lawns.

“She’s a fucking wreck. She’s been wearing one of Dad’s shirts, won’t take it off.”

Tim’s mom was tiny. The shirt must have come to her knees.

“I don’t know if she’ll get through the wake at Mitch’s place,” Tim added.

“How about you? Are you holding up?” Max asked, looking at Tim’s hands to see if they gripped the wheel tighter. They didn’t and Tim didn’t answer, just turned into his driveway. He pulled the keys out of the ignition and got out of the truck.


The funeral was held in St. Francis of Assisi, the small church that would soon be sold to the city when the new one opened in the fall. The pews were packed, mostly people in their late 50s and early 60s, retired car plant workers and their spouses. Without apparent planning, someone was always with Mrs. McAvoy, a hand was always on her shoulder or her back. When Max hugged her, before they set off to the church, he noticed that she wasn’t wearing any mascara on her blonde eyelashes. He hadn’t noticed her clutching anything in her hand then, but now she had a piece of fabric. A tissue, Max wondered. No, a pocket square. Max assumed it had belonged to Mr. McAvoy, a piece of some long packed-away suit.

Max felt himself getting sentimental, but couldn’t tell if he was mourning or just getting pulled into the emotions of those around him. His emotions got clearer and sadder as the service continued.

Max felt himself getting sentimental, but couldn’t tell if he was mourning or just getting pulled into the emotions of those around him.

During the second eulogy—in the middle of a story about Randall snow-shoeing in Timmons as a kid—Max stopped worrying and started crying. Imagining Tim’s dad as a child had done it: his child feet strapped into comically large snow shoes, his cheeks reddened by wind.

Through his drenched eyes, he noticed that Tim, as if made of sheet metal, wasn’t crying, just stoically holding his mother’s hand and staring up at his uncle. Max felt a deep sense of shame. Yet he could not stop weeping. Tim’s closely-shorn head, the tense muscles of his neck. Max watched his friend so closely that he was unprepared when Tim turned around and mouthed, “It’s okay.”

Max cringed. He sensed his unpressed, creased suit growing, his feet pulling away from the wooden floor, cloth bunching around his ankles. A barker’s voice called out in his head: “The Incredible Shrinking, Crying Boy.” Immediately, his hands felt clammy.


Outside the church, Max got pulled with the family into the lead car. He wasn’t sure why he had been given this privilege, but was in no position to question the requests of the bereaved.

Turning into their neighbourhood, Mrs. McAvoy broke into sobs. Max felt his chin quivering as Tim tried to calm her down. “Mom. Mom,” he half pleaded and rubbed her neck. When that didn’t work, he began tapping her back as if she had swallowed water the wrong way.

“I forgot about Lewis!” Mrs. McAvoy wailed from behind her wet pocket square. Lewis was the young German shepherd-mix she had picked up from the SPCA after Tim had moved away. “Lewis needs his walk.”

“Lewis can wait, Mom.”

Here was a way Max could help. Something small, but concrete. He cleared his throat. “I can walk him. Then I’ll join you guys at Mitch’s house. It’s only a couple of blocks.”

 


Tim gave Max warnings about Lewis, “Don’t let him off his leash. Avoid other dogs—he kinda hates them. And bikes, strollers, shopping carts, anything with wheels. And kids. He doesn’t like his face touched. He likes running though. So feel free to do that.”

Tim handed the dog leash over to Max. “And thanks, man. I mean, my Mom nearly had a meltdown there.”

Max nodded. “It’s no problem. At all.” He paused, thinking Tim was going to hug him.

 


The weather was still holding. Lawns were beginning to emerge and dry. Max considered opening his jacket, but he was still wearing his suit. He had never personally seen someone walking a lanky mutt in a suit before. People who dressed that soberly always had purebreds.

Max made a mental map in his head and began following it. He cut through Westney Heights’ school yard—the closest school to the McAvoy’s house, but not the one the two boys had attended. Lewis, his pink tongue lolling, tugged at his leash and whined. And so Max took off in a jog through the soccer field. The two of them propelled right through the goal posts, his and Lewis’ feet smacking against the compact ground, the grass over the years trodden and kicked by bored goal keepers.


After the school, coming to a newer subdivision, Max readjusted his mind-map, planned the rest of his turns accordingly. He turned left and right, left and left again, thinking he was approaching his old elementary school. He wanted to see what pen-knife graffiti had been cut into the jungle gym poles, hoped his own marks hadn’t been painted over. Scratched out was okay, he thought, but not being painted over. He and Tim had scrawled their favourite flowery curses into the metal, getting anonymous revenge on their asshole classmates: “John X. is a lover of donkey flatulence,” “Sam Q. mistakes raisins for his testicles,” “Adam A. licks pig pussy for quarters.”

Wanting to smile, but stopping himself, Max turned right at the next block. His school wasn’t there. It was gone. A bunch of two-storey houses stood in the place where it should be. Flummoxed, he rotated in a full circle and Lewis leapt around him like Max was a fleshy maypole. Did they tear her down, he thought. No, Tim would have mentioned it. But Tim’s upset; he could have easily forgotten. Max stood and stared at the houses that shouldn’t have been there—small houses on big lots built a good distance from the road, garages with fading paint, driveways that needed to be resealed. They were too old to have been built in the last couple of years.


Max walked the suburban streets, wondering why no one was outside. In Toronto, there was always someone, and they usually knew the general layout of the neighbourhood. There, Max had the look and fast pace of a city-dweller and very often gave directions himself. He’d take a moment to consider the lost person’s query. He’d point in the way they should go and elaborate, giving street names and landmarks and warning tourists not to get distracted by the handless keyboard player busking across from where Honest Ed’s used to be.

Ask Tim directions and his eyes would glaze over slightly while he answered in that same monotone voice he used when telling Max about his father’s death.

As he turned onto another similar street, Max kept thinking how Tim would know the way. Tim, the geographical wunderkind. Ask him directions and his eyes would glaze over slightly while he answered in that same monotone voice he used when telling Max about his father’s death. Thinking on it, Max realized that Tim never gave additional tidbits of information when he navigated. With him, there were no warnings about amputee buskers. But his recall was 100 percent accurate. Like his dad, Max thought.

Max remembered being at Tim’s house and the phone ringing, and Tim’s dad picking up the receiver, his tone growing frustrated. It was Mrs. McAvoy and she was lost, having gotten off the highway at the wrong exit, trapped in a world of strip malls. She recognized the stores but was sure that she had never been in those particular ones. The boys listened to Mr. McAvoy guiding her back, watched him roll his eyes about his scatter-brained wife.


It had been at least 45 minutes of repetitious, unpeopled surroundings. Lawn. Driveway. Lawn. Driveway. Lawn. Tree. Lawn. Driveway. Lawn. Hydro box. Lawn. Driveway. Max was thirsty. He began looking in between the houses for a hose he could drink from. But all the hoses were locked behind tall, distrustful wooden fences.

Lewis panted and looked up at Max with concerned dog eyebrows.

“It’s okay, boy.” Max patted Lewis’ oily flank. The dog was fit; Max could feel his ribs, the steady intake and outtake of breath.

Max would give it 15 more minutes, he silently promised Lewis. Then he’d knock on a door and get help.

Max and Lewis turned onto the next street that wasn’t a crescent or a court and he immediately heard the sound of a kid playing. Across the street, there was a very blond boy shooting garden pebbles into the branches of a birch tree with a slingshot. He was maybe seven or ten; Max was bad with kid’s ages. Truth was that he found them to be boring until they started appreciating good music and reading books that weren’t about wizards. Max was impressed, though, that this child was playing with a slingshot. He had assumed no one made those anymore, that they had gone the way of slap bracelets and lawn darts.

Max tied Lewis to a fire hydrant and walked across the street. He kept a ways back from the boy so he wouldn’t seem creepy. He cleared his throat as the slingshot’s elastic thwacked, sending another pebble into the tree.

“Ahem, ’scuse me? Do you happen to know how to get to Westney Heights School?”

The boy barely looked up, like he hadn’t heard. After a moment, he shook his head. Max’s shoulders fell. It was time to ask for directions, from an adult who could judge him for being lost in his own home town.

“Are your mom or dad inside?” Max asked.

The boy nodded and reloaded.

As Max began walking up the driveway, he noticed, hanging off a branch, a large grey wasp nest. There were already small holes torn into it. Direct hits. Before Max could react, the boy’s thick elastic thwacked again. Max watched the white pebble flick through the air and hit the thin connective tissue between the tree and the nest—and infuriatingly fast, the papery globe landed at the boy’s sneakered feet.

“Shit!” Max yelled as he raced towards the already swarmed boy who, feeling the first sting, screamed. Max felt a prick behind his knee, but he kept trying to help. Across the street, Lewis barked madly and strained at his leash. Max was too busy swatting at the insects to notice the front door of the house open behind him or the palm which burst against the side of his head.

“GET AWAY FROM MY SON!” A grown woman was smacking him and tearing at him.

“WASPS! WASPS!” Max screamed flailing his arms at both attackers: mother and insect.

Squawking, the boy, still in an angry cloud of wasps, wrapped himself around his mother. The woman saw the nest at her son’s feet and stopped striking Max. She grabbed her boy and sprinted back into the house calling, “Sorry. Sorry. I thought you were . . .” and what she thought was lost as the front door swung shut and another stinger plunged into the flesh of Max’s thumb.

Max quickly retreated in a stomp to the other side of the street, and sat on some stranger’s lawn. He breathed heavily and felt like crying again, like Mrs. McAvoy, just nobly letting the tears come and letting everyone else stuff it. His ear, thumb, and knee hurt—even his scalp, where the woman had grabbed a chunk of his hair and yanked. For the second time that day, he cried.

His last girlfriend had taught him breathing exercises and he gave them a go—whooshing deeply in through the nose and slowly out the mouth. Soon his thighs stopped shaking and he no longer tasted pennies. On the seventh inhale, he began to see the humour in what had happened—that stupid kid and his lack of entomology knowledge. You don’t fuck with wasps. On the ninth exhale, a few yards down, Lewis pulled away from the hydrant and snapped free. The panting dog ran toward Max, but stopped just shy of contact. When Max stood up, Lewis backed away. Lewis wagged his tail and cocked his head. When Max lunged, the wily canine jumped away.

Max laughed and cried at the same time. He didn’t know what to do. Shrugging, he tried to take it all as a sign; he half-followed, half-chased Lewis home.


Mrs. McAvoy stood in her small kitchen holding a red kettle that had seen better days. An open box of fancy black tea sat on the counter. Mercilessly, Lewis pushed past his owner to get to his water bowl. She didn’t seem to notice, just stood frozen by the fridge. The scene would have been pleasantly domestic if not for the funeral clothes, and for the fact that the house smelled of burnt plastic. A modern, plug-in kettle sat blackened and melted in the sink, the water running on it to cool it down.

“Mrs. McAvoy, you okay?” Max asked, standing next to the guzzling, slurping dog.

“Tim told me I should come back here and change into something more comfortable.”

Mrs. McAvoy wasn’t wearing her dressy shoes, the ones she had been wearing at the church; instead she had put on faded tartan slippers that were far too large for her feet.

“And I went to make some tea. Mitch’s wife has terrible tea. It tastes like ashes—oh, I didn’t mean—” Her hand holding the kettle began to shake.

“It’s okay, I got it.” Max took the kettle from her hand. “Just sit at the table.” He shut off the faucet.

Max made the tea with the efficiency of someone who had paid for his university textbooks by working at Second Cup. He placed the steaming mug in front of her, provided a teaspoon and milk, even found the sugar bowl and replaced the stale sugar that had all lumped together. He sat down next to his friend’s mother with his own cup.

“I didn’t know you drank tea,” Mrs. McAvoy said.

“Never liked coffee,” Max replied, “Couldn’t get used to the difference between the way it smelled and the way it tasted.”

Lewis moved himself into the living room and clumsily pulled himself onto the couch, groaning with effort. Mrs. McAvoy laughed and then frowned. The old grandfather clock in the hallway chimed five o’clock.

“Is it really that late?” Mrs. McAvoy asked, “Have you been walking this whole time?”

Max sighed. “I kind of got lost.”

Mrs McAvoy laughed, this time loudly. “Aren’t we a pair.”

“I also got stung by a wasp.” Max held up his red thumb.

‘People get lost and burn water. They fucking get killed by fucking icicles. It’s too fucking ridiculous.’

“I tried to kick a bee when I was little. It would’ve been fine except I was wearing sandals. It felt so silly limping around a birthday party because I attacked a bee.” She scooped two teaspoons of sugar into her mug and got a strange look on her face. “Bees. Wasps. Stupid shit happens all the time.”

Max had never heard Tim’s mom say “damn” before, let alone any of the upper-level curses. It was oddly nice. He had never felt like an equal with someone his parents’ age until now. Although, he still didn’t know what to say. He hoped she didn’t want him to say anything. He poured milk in his tea and listened.

“People get lost and burn water. They fucking get killed by fucking icicles. It’s too fucking ridiculous. I just keep crying and Tim keeps shushing me. Crying and shushing. Crying and shushing. I just . . . dunno.”

“Neither do I.” Max took a sip of his tea, thought for a moment and said, “I’m a crier too.” He waited for her to laugh at him, to point and laugh, but nothing happened. No barker barked in his head. He could still reach the floor with his blistered, sweaty feet. He kept feeling the almost too-hot tea heating up his insides when he swallowed it down.

“That’s good. Crying’s good. Tim won’t even talk,” she continued. “D’you know if he’s okay?” She clutched at her cup like it would save her from his answer.

“Tim’s not a talker,” Max replied, “but he’ll be fine. Remember when Chico was put to sleep and he just tried to make sure everyone else wasn’t upset? I remember he came to my house and made me sit down before he told me. We were like seven. It’s just his way.”

Tim’s mom shrugged and pulled herself to her feet. “You’re probably right.” She put her cup on the counter and went to change, her slippers making slapping noises up the stairs.

Max finished his tea, took the broken plastic kettle out of the sink, poured out the charred water, and trashed it. He washed both of their cups and sat them on the drying rack. Then he wiped down the stove and counter tops. Lastly, he squeezed the suds out of the dish cloth and left it hanging over the faucet to air out. Tim would be okay, he thought.

Mrs. McAvoy came down the stairs in a pair of jeans and a dark sweater. She looked at the clean kitchen. Her eyes watered, but she steadied herself. “Thanks Max. You’re a good kid.”

Max didn’t wince at the word kid.

“They’ve probably broken out the whisky over there. I could use a drink,” she said, beginning to quietly cry as they made their way outside. Max felt tears drip down his cheeks as he closed the door behind them. Lewis lifted his head from the couch as the screen door wacked shut, and then he settled and fell back asleep.

 


Claire Kelly’s first full-length collection, Maunder, is available from Palimpsest Press. Her poem “Mother, What Should We Do?” was recently longlisted for the CBC Poetry Prize. She lives and writes in Edmonton. Her second book of poetry will be released in 2019 with ECW.

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