What Can't Be Undone

By dee Hobsbawn-Smith

What Can't Be Undone
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In her first collection of short fiction dee Hobsbawn-Smith creates protagonists struggling to navigate the domestic troubles common to life everywhere, including children attempting to make their parents proud, the disintegrating of romantic relationships, and dealing with ... Read more


Overview

In her first collection of short fiction dee Hobsbawn-Smith creates protagonists struggling to navigate the domestic troubles common to life everywhere, including children attempting to make their parents proud, the disintegrating of romantic relationships, and dealing with death and loss. Her stories are rife with the disasters of homelessness, domestic violence, and child abuse, as she exposes the difficulties that arise in relationships between brothers and sisters, husbands and wives, and parents and children. Hobsbawn-Smith's keen observation and the unflinching eye which she directs towards her characters' flaws bring the land and its inhabitants into painful focus as they grapple with loss.

What Can't Be Undone is a collection anchored in the Western Canadian landscape, and the natural imagery which has become synonymous to the area reigns supreme. These stories are strongly informed by local colour. Horses' hooves echo from coulee walls, blue jays, crows, and eagles announce the seasons, and coyotes wail from distant valleys as Hobsbawn-Smith travels with her protagonists across rolling prairies, unforgiving mountain ranges, and along coastal highways.

dee Hobsbawn-Smith

dee Hobsbawn-Smith grew up in a gypsy Air Force family. Her award-winning poetry, essays, fiction, and journalism have appeared in Canadian, American, and International literary journals, books, newspapers, magazines, and anthologies including The Malahat Review, Gastronomica, and Western Living. Her first book of poetry, Wildness Rushing In, was published by Hagios Press in 2014. She recently completed her M.F.A. in Writing at the University of Saskatchewan, and she is an alumna of the Sage Hill Writing Experience. What Can't Be Undone is her first collection of short stories. Hobsbawn-Smith lives west of Saskatoon.

Excerpt

From the east, out of the shadows hanging over Brooklyn, a man in a tattered beige trench coat leads a little dog. The man moves with a lurching reel, as if he's been too many years in dry dock. The dog, an apricot poodle, shambles to a halt at her shin, and cocks his hind leg.

"Hey! Ger on!" The man yanks the leash. The dog reluctantly lowers its leg and disappears up the sidewalk, the man staggering along in its wake.

Breathless paces to where wires and cables coalesce. In the postcard she's studied for so long, this spot is the heart of the bridge, where workmen rubbed elbows, their rough community palpable. In the exact centre, a sax player stands alone, blowing. His music hangs, smoky as the light. Breathless stops, leans on the rail, waits for her heart to settle, watching his long fingers on the stops, listening as he riffs. He cocks an eyebrow and nods at her without lifting his mouth from the reed.

"'Giant Steps'?" Her voice is a rough whisper.

The player nods again, lips pursing around the reed. He's grey-haired, weathered, with the angular body of a basketball player, clad in t-shirt and chinos, his torso bending with the music he blows. His fingers slide from metal to metal as if the instrument is skin and soul.

When the music stops, she drops a folded bill into the open instrument case lying at his feet.

"No need," he says. "I play for my own pleasure."

Pleasure seems a long way away. Breathless turns to the view on the Manhattan side, to the Chrysler Building's majestic indifference. Tears slide down her cheeks. So many losses. Youth, lovers, opportunity, Gran, her ruined mother, hope, all the unwinding threads of her life. The tulips on the subway tracks. Then she looks up at the bridge's silver wires, spinning their own web above the city, its tugboats, stevedores and smugglers, their stowed secret cargo, broken, beautiful and tragic. Incomprehensible irony.

The music follows Breathless as she walks back into Manhattan. At the first open coffee vendor she finds, she stands next to its furled umbrella, sipping, pondering the scars on the jazz blower's naked forearms, what he has seen, how he continues to play.

She lifts her mug in acknowledgment, tells the barista, "Another, a double to go, extra hot," then strides back up the bridge, balancing both cups in a cardboard tray. He's still there, Rollins rolling from his horn as if the big man himself still straddled the bridge. Breathless sets the extra cup beside the musician's feet, nods to him, walks to the rail. Halfway through 'My Favorite Things' the sax player bends, drinks, missing barely a beat as he straightens. Notes slide from the horn, channeling Coltrane, Rollins, Parker. Breathless follows the melody into the beautiful depths, thinking about the centuries of differences between men and women, their desolations and separate longings.

She reaches behind her neck to unclip the silver chain holding her amethyst. Coffee cup in one hand, her elbow balanced on the bridge's cable, her necklace lies across her palm, fingertips fretting where stone and silver meet. All Breathless is conscious of, all she can absorb, is that its strands will tarnish and the amethyst will loosen in its setting. Letting go might be easier.

Finally he stops playing. Removes the strap and the reed, lays the saxophone in its bed. Breathless watches him tenderly wipe the metal clean, then strides toward her, his head gently bobbing, eyes blinking behind round glasses. An arm's length away, he stops.

Breathless freezes.

His hands open at waist height, palms up. Her breath whistles as he plucks the necklace from her hand, opens it. Without touching her, his arms encircle her. Deft fingers attach the clasp at the nape of her neck. "Just don't quit. You hear?" He whispers, hoarse. Smooth fingertips brush across the amethyst lying in the hollow at the base of her throat. He walks back to his sax lying in its case. Picks it up and begins to play.

Reviews

"dee Hobsbawn-Smith's stories begin when love and comfort have faded, or the fatal accident has happened, the fire has burned the house, loved ones or brutal ones are already in their graves. What is left to write about? I'd say a whole lot. Hobsbawn-Smith's characters are not life's victims but life's bludgeoned survivors. Like their earthy forebears, these modern descendants learn to live with regret, and they keep on keeping on. This kind of gutting it out is the very definition of Western grit, and these fine stories are parables of resiliency." ?David Carpenter, author of Welcome to Canada

"With these carefully crafted stories, dee Hobsbawn-Smith reminds us of why we tell stories at all: to entertain, to reflect, and to render our lives and relationships in a way that is simultaneously simpler and more complex." ? Johanna Skibsrud, winner of the ScotiaBank Giller Prize for The Sentimentalists

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