“A Bleak 2020 Begins: from Status Update” by George Toles

“They know everything. I should leave town pronto….”

–February 12

George Toles’ Status Update (At Bay Press, 2021), illustrated by Cliff Eyland and edited by Thomas Toles, collects the mini-narratives that the author has been posting on Facebook every day since 2009. Below are a selection of some of the bleaker entries as 2020 began.

January 6:

Willard was usually inarticulate and had great difficulty being emotionally communicative with his friends, so when he finally needed to say something that reduced him to tears, there was great initial sympathy and a strong inclination to hear him out. But as he went on talking, becoming steadily more tearful and repetitive in his explanations, his listeners’ attention naturally drifted, and they wondered if there was a gentle way to intervene and steer him back to polite repression.

January 17:

It had been ten years since Amelia had visited the cemetery where her brother Richard was buried. She lived half a continent away, and had no pressing reason other than cherishing her memory of him to make the trip. She was not prepared when she found her way to it for the sorry condition of his gravesite. The granite stone was covered with bird droppings and obscure stains. Someone had, perhaps as a joke, drawn a magic marker heart, with the initials J.B. and H.N. inside it, next to the phrase Dearly Beloved. There was some leprous moss and a stretch of mud instead of plant life leading up to the stone. Not far away from her brother’s grave was the larger monument commemorating his cruel, worthless, legendarily unloving cousin, Jarrett. Jarrett had been wealthy, and no doubt made it a condition in his will that an expensive shrine (plus statue) be established to pay lasting tribute to him. Amelia was astonished to see that a stately cedar tree was thriving close to Jarrett’s grave, and that an exceptional assortment of flora seemed to be reverently converging on his final home: Queen of the Prairies, periwinkle vine, yucca, peonies, holly and yew. Nature had chosen which departed man to bless with its beauty and abundance. Apparently it was not the case, as Amelia had long believed, that in death at least there was equality.

January 22:

The creditors would send their minions any day now to repossess most of Jack’s household furnishings, and who knows what else? He sat in his living room until very late at night among his soon-to-be-sacrificed “not quite” possessions that were still in the dark about their fate. For all they knew, Jack was the human continuity that held everything together, and kept conditions in this pleasant dwelling quietly stable, day and night. He tried to maintain a dignified demeanor as he moved about the room and sat. He touched his chairs, tables, quality knicknacks and drapes in a manner that he hoped did not feel too odd to them or self-conscious. He didn’t want to come across as someone excessively sad, or on the verge of a great betrayal. He made an impromptu speech to the trusting objects in his care about his beloved nanny and tutor, Frieda, who had disappeared without warning when he was nine. His parents told him she had just gone away abruptly, leaving no explanation or forwarding address.. They suspected she had a serious drinking problem and a bad relationship. Jack could never comprehend why she hadn’t found time to say goodbye to him. He had no difficulty persuading himself that his parents were lying about what happened. Frieda meant so much more to him than they did. They no doubt resented him for having someone he genuinely loved, and who loved him back. For their malignant, veiled in secrecy purposes, they had left something out of their story that might exonerate Frieda and allow him to make sense of her vanishing from his world. In any event, he forgave her for leaving him, and continued to love her and think about her with painful , ongoing devotion, years after their separation. He glanced around the room at his dear “earthly goods” and hoped that his oblique farewell address had at least partially sunk in.

February 3:

On a morning ferry trip to Terminal Island, Harvey had an important intuition. Unless his speaking found a way to join together somehow with the words and looks and body language of a person he was talking to, there could be no real conversation. It was like a duet. He had lived for thirty one years, after a fashion, and no one had ever taken the time to explain this process to him. Perhaps he had gotten to the bottom of his ongoing sense of disconnection.

February 9:

Barry had at last acquired his dream house, a mansion sitting atop a cliff with an astonishing, shiver inducing view of the ocean. His home was filled with fine, costly artworks and was impeccably furnished and decorated. But it was mainly a dream house because Barry had recurrent nightmares of the cliff beneath the palatial residence splitting apart and causing it to topple, crash and be ravished by fire on the strip of beach far below . The sound of the ghastly, rending split in his dreams was deafening. He had never before had a dream with this extraordinary soundtrack. As the crack widened, Barry was granted a view of vast quantities of garbage–a mixture of landfill-worthy objects and people–sluicing through the fissure and forming a gooey, sludgy waterfall. A therapist suggested to him that this extrusion might be guilt-induced. “Maybe you worry about the people and conditions you exploited, perhaps a bit ruthlessly, to get to the top of the cliff. And maybe you fear that your triumph has a shaky foundation.” Barry took the therapist’s description to mean that he had a conscience, and felt deeply conflicted about his current good fortune. This thought lightened his mood. Why, it might well be the case that he was like the hero in an old-fashioned Russian novel. “A conscience. Me! Who would ever have guessed?”

February 12:

  1. It had been three years since she had last wept. And now a single tear escaped through her eyelash and slowly rolled down her cheek, nearly weightless but for her seeming to carry all the weight of the world bottled within her.
  2. Whenever anyone smiled at Slim, he immediately thought “They know everything. I should leave town pronto.”

George Toles is Distinguished Professor of Film and Literature at the University of Manitoba. He is the author of A House Made of Light: Essays on the Art of Film, Paul Thomas Anderson, and the forthcoming Curtains of Light: Theatrical Space in Film. Toles has written or co-written the screenplays for numerous feature films made by Canadian director, Guy Maddin. These include Archangel, Careful, Twilight of the Ice Nymphs, The Saddest Music in the WorldBrand Upon the Brain, My Winnipeg, and Keyhole. He also wrote the story and original screenplay for Canada’s first stop-motion animated feature film, Edison and Leo.

Cliff Eyland was a curator at the Technical University of Nova Scotia School of Architecture (Daltech) and freelanced for the Plug In Institute of Contemporary Art in Winnipeg. From 1995 to 2005, Eyland was vice-president of the board of Plug In. In 1998 he was hired as an associate professor of painting at the University of Manitoba School of Art and was also director of Gallery One One One, both positions he held until 2010.

Thomas Toles is an actor, writer, and comedian currently living in Chicago, IL. He holds an M.St. in Film Aesthetics from University of Oxford. His writing on film can be read in Film International and The Film Corner.

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