It’s a few days after the riots at the Capitol and a jacked-up, camo-painted Dodge Ram drives past me on my evening walk. It’s the kind of truck where you’d expect the driver to be a card-carrying member of the NRA. I feel vulnerable, anxious. But this isn’t the U.S., I remind myself, and a decal on the truck indicates a landscaping business—which I don’t immediately believe.
It’s a wet, wet night, following a series of wet, wet days, the sound from every direction of water running, down drainpipes, gutters, storm drains underground. The sidewalk is little more than a dock. It isn’t really rain when it’s like this on the West Coast—not the sudden, quantifiable rain of books and movies. It’s more a kind of drapery. It’s as if the clouds have ruptured and will never empty; they’re inconsolable. The rain falls so constantly it doesn’t really meet the ground, only merges into the current.
No one’s on the breakwater on nights like this. They’ll show up on stormy, vivid nights, to get a kind of charge, standing their ground as the wind launches at them and waves burst over the guard rail. People want that invigorating sting of salt, but they don’t want this relentless, colourless constancy.
Where I grew up, you can see the rain coming from miles away. It passes over you, exactly as a cloud does. You can wait it out under an awning, with strangers, the same feeling as an elevator ride. When I lived in a rainforest in Central America, I learned that “rainy season” was less a season made of rain than a few weeks where rain arrives daily, late afternoon, ten sudden minutes, each drop full and heavy, one unto itself—like a bowl of pebbles being emptied onto the sheet-metal roof. The village would be changed in its wake--duck pools refreshed, a singing network of galloping rivulets—but the rain had fallen—past perfect tense. Comparatively, the rain here has no tenses. In fact, calling it rain puts semantics on the table.
Semantics has to do with meaning. It was a favourite subject of mine until I discovered hermeneutics, which is about interpretation. Hermeneutics is the game when you re-read a book you loved in your twenties and now it is more layered, or funnier, sexier. Recently, my friend and her family watched the Steve Martin movie Planes, Trains and Automobiles. It had not aged well, she said, describing an early scene where a woman gets drunk on a date and falls asleep. When she wakes up, the man has his hands on her breasts. Ha ha. They had to turn the movie off—her daughters, 21 and 23, could see no humour in it. The question is: is it still funny? Hermeneutics would say no: it isn’t just that we see things differently, the text (or movie) has changed, absolutely.
The jacked-up truck wasn’t the first time I’d been startled by a vehicle in the wake of violence. It was deep summer when I left that Central American village where the rain fell heavily each afternoon for three weeks, and where the military was a real and present threat that would not move into the past, which in any case it had defiled irreparably. As a human rights witness, my system had been on high alert for months. When I buckled myself into my airplane seat, and the seatbelt clicked, an ocean of tension gushed away. Back in Winnipeg, I slept a few hours in my childhood bedroom, which was like a theatre set, then ventured out into the heat, to Winnipeg’s Little Italy, which was noisy with jubilant crowds: Italy had won the World Cup quarter-final. A spontaneous parade moved down Corydon Avenue—people spilling out of convertibles, drivers honking their horns. Then an army jeep appeared, filled with men, all in sunglasses, some seated high on the roll bar and shouting, and some at ease, watchful. I was petrified, and confused, as if this vehicle had pierced the space-time continuum to infect the summer afternoon with terror. I talked myself out of it, identifying details of celebration not violence, of consumerism (the family Jeep) not militarism, of sport not war.
Lately I read a fairy tale every evening, from an old book I loved to shreds as a child. It’s amazing how well I remember the stories, sometimes down to the sentence, the pattern of the words falling one after another. Tonight’s story is about a traveling merchant who needs a room for the night. The innkeeper hates to tell his regular customer, a kind man, that the inn is full. He says there is one unused room, but it’s haunted. The merchant says give it to me, I’m too tired to worry about ghosts. Soon after he falls asleep, there’s a knock at the door, and a small man enters the room. With a key, he opens the door to a safe and takes out a razor, soap, and shaving-brush. He offers the merchant a chair, then lathers and shaves his face until there is “not a single hair left.” As the man heads to the door, his work done, the merchant calls him back and returns the favour, shaving the little man’s face until there is “not a single hair left.” The little man is happy, and before leaving gives the merchant the key to the safe. When the merchant opens the safe, he finds "immense treasure.”
But the story only reminds me of the rioters who, to avoid detection, shaved off the beards they’d grown in anticipation of the day. It’s a laughably futile tactic, to hide by revealing one’s face. Downstairs, my son turns off the shower and the bathroom door opens. Steam will be billowing out, and my son’s tall, lean self will be wrapped in a white towel. I hear his girlfriend giggle. Then she coos, “Ooh, perfectly smooth. Like a baby.” Then she adds, “You know, the way they space the blades now, the razor removes the top layer of skin.”