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Aaron Tucker | Issue 28
He didn’t realize that the windows had been shaking until he inserted his key into the door of his apartment, locking it.
Excerpt from Soldiers, Hunters, Not Cowboys
He didn’t realize that the windows had been shaking until he inserted his key into the door of his apartment, locking it. He can’t remember exactly how he got to his door, the small weight of the key flexing in his hand, but he pivots down the hallway, past the familiar dark marks scraping the light walls, past the doors of his neighbours, equidistant from one another, repetitive and modular. He does remember late last night: he drank beer until he started yawning and nodding in front of his TV, was jolted awake by yelling out on the street, a fight rising up to the window of his apartment, her voice at him, and he thought of Melanie from two nights ago, her bright lips, the snick of her lock after she closed the door on him. He got up then, fought his way through the bottles piled around the couch, to his bathroom; he remembers inspecting his features, a bit sunburned, hard, drunk eyes, while he was brushing his teeth, and the lingering mint in his mouth. There had been a text, a few hours earlier, that still made him angry, telling him they didn’t need him for his Monday shift, and that brought him down to only twenty-five hours that week. Then a chasm of missing time before he remembers being awake at his door the next morning, rotating his key in the knob. Now he is walking down the hall to the elevator and bits of sensation emerge from his fugue: his bedroom windows were vibrating loud enough to wake him up, a tuning-fork frequency, drawling and low, that first resonated in his chest, then dipped to his stomach. Then, in his memory, he is at his door again, awake and in his hall.
A door opens behind him, then another, and when he turns the corner to the elevator there are already three people waiting. A couple about his age lean against one another: he has a healing cut above his right eye and his hair is uncombed, and he hasn’t put his right foot fully into the shoe, his heel is slipping out; she wears a plain large T-shirt that expands and swallows her and nearly all of her shorts, just the hem of denim visible, her over-thin wrists disappearing behind the man as her arm wraps around his waist. He sees that the man has a scar running from his eye to his lip that quivers when he talks; they whisper something he can’t hear before the man nods and they both eye the elevator in anticipation. The third person is facing away, her hair grease-wet, and she turns back to the elevator, then away from it, looking down the opposite hall, pacing. He pauses and looks at the trio, then makes brief eye contact with the woman pacing, her eyes spooked in semi-panic and her mouth stretched into a giant empty grin. She stops and her eyes recede slightly as if she is withdrawing into her own mind. Through her eyes, he realizes, he must look large and intimidating, his wide body, the spread of his large hands.
He decides then against the elevator, navigates around the couple, toward the staircase, the suction of the door’s light resistance. Then he’s descending, gripping the metal handrail before the stairs flatten to the third-floor entrance. As he makes his way down, he can hear footsteps above him, other people voicelessly flowing downward through the concrete echo of the stair- well, the rumbling vibration of the windows still wormed into his body, making him unsteady. The hangover that had been crouching quietly in his body unfurls itself and he has to watch his feet carefully, and the footsteps, doubling, tripling above him as more residents descend, he feels them chasing him and hustles past the second-floor door. He reaches the first floor as the chorus of people coming down grows; he can hear voices now among the echoes as he enters the open lobby. Eyeing the glass and sunlight of the front doors, he crosses past the security guard’s empty station. The elevator behind him sounds and begins to open as he pushes outside, toward the sirens, two fire trucks, then an ambulance, that are blurring past, toward the city centre.
To the left, along Dundas East, there is a streetcar stopped just past the Sherbourne intersection; the driver has opened the doors between stops and people are spilling out onto the side-walks. He looks to his right, following the undulating walls of emergency vehicles’ wailings; there is the top of a column of darkening smoke rising above the skyline, a sheer formation, solid, and yet, as he keeps watching, he sees how it drifts apart at its edges as it disperses into the hot summer morning, the colours of a desert sunset against a mountain horizon, almost beautiful if it were not so terrifying. The cloud spreads, a palm unbunching from fist to flat, but a total view is semi-obscured by the low buildings and the western curve of Dundas. There is a group of men at the corner of Pembroke, men who he sees only late at night when they stumble out of the bar as he comes back to his apartment. They are usually glassed with beer, arguing in clumps and smoking each other’s cigarettes as they sit in the doorways of the neighbouring businesses stringed along the north side of the street: a bodega, a dry cleaner, a beauty salon, each with barred gates and iron shafts over their windows. The few times he has gone in for a beer, the men immediately turned to him, predator eyes glinting, marking him as foreign; they moved deliberately away until he hunched over the bar and finished whatever bottle was the cheapest.
These same men were now out in late-morning light, and in that brightness he moves toward them. One man, sweaty with dirt-smudged socks, dark-skinned from sun, stands next to him holding a bottle that he swings by the neck to his lips. The slope of the street gives him a clearer view, and the crowd around him all look together along the same sightline: past the tall, new condo complex, advertising central air conditioning and a free parking spot, past the construction cranes crossed and mid-use; they look past the half-glass skeleton of another new building, the bright windows along its bottom against the concrete bones of the top. If not for the buildings to give it scale, the smoke might be rising from the ruins of a horse stable or some small cabin; the intensity of the billowing cloud suggests the burning of hay and dry wood, raging upward in a tight, pitch-coloured monument, and now he can also see lighter, sporadic puffs around its column that are parallel to the main pillar and cement grey. He wonders if the dark smoke isn’t a fire and the silvery bursts aren’t something collapsing. The late summer months of his childhood were filled with forest fires, which looked like this one, he thinks, and the smoke rising from downtown is like the burning that would smother the valley, turning the sun fluorescent and apocalyptic.
He stands and watches the scene, and it barely moves: it is a film still, then a movie in extreme slow motion where minute parts are morphing. One block down, he sees the tableau outside Filmore’s strip club, its facade with the towering neon letters, the ‘O’ and ‘R’ refusing to light. Past that, there is the hotel out the back of the club that he has heard snickers about, the dancers or other women who will bring clients back there, grabbing their hands and pulling them out of the lights and poles and music of the space. He is pulled from this fantasy back into his body by a young woman, blond hair tied in a long braid down her back, bright yarn interwoven, talking to what looks like a bouncer; both of their backs are to him because everyone is facing the same direction, to the city’s core, toward the surreal near-stasis, a warping limbo moving in slow motion. When he pulls his eyes upward to the smoking cloud, continuous and strong and dark, he realizes how hot it is, the breeze lightly blowing but humid and gritty, as if a fine dusting of sand is settling on his skin. He reaches his fingers up and they come back silty and slick, and then he is suddenly aware of the small streaks of wet dampening the mid-back of his red-and-blue-checkered shirt. His headache expands, blooms in this heat; the sky is a fake overblue, Technicolor, and the sun burns in the middle of it. The whole summer has been like this: days, weeks of people waiting for evening cool, the ever-present smell of proximity, to others, to rotting food, to garbage, the smells amplified by the heat. The air still retains the humid weight of the day before’s early-evening rain, when he had been out getting tall cans of cheap German beer, the bag against his thigh as he ran through the storm, rushing inside and upstairs – his shirt was soaked through and he threw it into the corner of his bathroom, stripped off his socks, pants. The rest of the night was spent drinking and moving around his apartment in his underwear, watching the movie, her movie, both hot and chilled, the foam of the beer fading after the first few sips, then another beer, another. On the street, he remembers, there was a couple fighting in the rain, a woman pleading for the man to leave, and he thought of Mel then, now, and wanted to apologize. Then, just as suddenly, he flashes to a moment during his furious walk home from her apartment two nights ago, east along College, when he seemed to pass under the shade of a large tree, a respite from the swelter, where the heat and the fever of his anger broke, and he exhaled with relief. He paused then, his head swimming with bourbon and residual fury: an orange-and-green cab drove by with its light on, and then someone laughed on a street somewhere just south and out of view, a woman, and everything rushed back, Mel describing the movie, her handing him his coat, his leaving. He stamped forward home again and woke up the next morning determined never to text her again, but to watch the movie, John Wayne, that night and get very drunk. The desert of the movie hangs in his mind, its vistas and harsh architecture of monumental stones that backdrop Ethan and his horse as he rides, an image that lingers as he brings himself back from the memory, blends with the present, the heat of this morning, the crowd around him, and the glistening and growing cloud rising from the city’s centre.
Excerpt from Soldiers, Hunters, Not Cowboys published with the permission of Coach House Books, 2023.
Order Soldiers, Hunters, Not Cowboys from Coach House Books
Aaron Tucker is the author of three books of poems as well as the novel Y: Oppenheimer, Horseman of Los Alamos (Coach House Books) which was translated by Rachel Martinez into French as Oppenheimer (La Peuplade) in the summer of 2020. He is currently a PhD candidate in the Cinema and Media Studies Department at York University where he is an Elia Scholar, a VISTA Doctoral Scholar and a 2020 Joseph-Armand BombardierDoctoral Fellow.
Soldiers, Hunters, Not Cowboys by Aaron Tucker Coach House Books, 2023
‘Cat Person’ meets Station Eleven in this apocalyptic depiction of toxic masculinity.
An unnamed man is spending the evening with his ex-girlfriend. She’s obsessed with the 1956 John Wayne classic The Searchers, and she recounts the story as a way for them to talk about their histories, their families, maybe even their relationship. But as he gets more drunk and belligerent, she gets more and more uncomfortable with him being in her home.
And then, two days later, a mysterious catastrophic event befalls Toronto, and our protagonist must trek across the city to find Melanie. His quest spirals into increasing violence, bloodshed, and hallucinations as he moves west through the confusion and chaos of the city.
Using the tropes of both the Western and the disaster movie, Soldiers, Hunters, Not Cowboys looks at the violence of our contemporary masculinity, and its deep roots in shaping our culture. A suspenseful and thought-provoking evocation of our current moment.
"Ask the right questions and a conversation about the movies becomes a conversation about your life, family, past, and everything you value: Aaron Tucker’s novel, which starts chatty before turning deeply, unexpectedly inward, grasps the ceaseless, sometimes terrible relevance of violence and troubling art." – Naben Ruthnum, author of A Hero of Our Time
"In Soldiers, Hunters, Not Cowboys, Aaron Tucker refuses the easy projections of masculinity from film history. Instead he gallops into the screen to sift out how drama collaborates with the bloodiest of truths. That this novel shifts from dialogical treatise into a thriller proves that Tucker is well on his way to stealing the weird fiction mantle away from Don DeLillo." – Emily Schultz, author of The Blondes and Little Threats
"Sad, smart, innocent and wise. A relentless retelling of a movie and a life, full of hope, if there is any." – John Haskell, author of The Complete Ballet: A Fictional Essay in Five Acts
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