31 Days of Stories 2011, Day 18: “The Loop” by Alexander MacLeod

May 18, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

From Light Lifting

Alexander MacLeod’s story The Loop is about borders: between young and old, between safety and danger. It is narrated by Allan, a 12-year-old boy who makes bicycle deliveries for a local pharmacy. The title of the story refers to the boy’s delivery route, which usually begins with Barney, a shut-in who “had everything wrong with him. Diabetes, high blood pressure, kidney problems, a liver thing and some kind of circulation issue that made his feet swell up so badly that he couldn’t wear shoes and could barely walk.” Rumours swirl around town that Barney “had a thing for kids and couldn’t keep his hands off little boys.” MacLeod’s descriptions of Barney are grotesque in their detail: he is “horrible, fat, nearly naked,” usually clad only in “a pair of nylon track shorts that almost disappeared when they got sucked between the folds of his rolling gut and his wide, hairy thighs,” and in the humid summers his “whole body would get this greasy sheen.” But Barney is renowned for one thing in particular:

He was famous mostly for his hernia. It was this red pulsating growth about the size of a misshapen grapefruit and it bulged way out of the lower left side of his stomach. It seemed like something impossible, like one of those gross, special effects from an alien movie that was supposed to make you think there was a smaller creature in there. Just the shape of it, and the way it stuck out of him, and how it seemed to come right at you, could make a person squirm if they weren’t used to it. But he refused to get it fixed and he was always making a big deal about how tough he was and how it didn’t bother him at all. He thought it was funny to pull back his shirt and scare the little kids as they walked by.

It is perhaps natural that a 12-year-old boy should fixate upon the hideous physical deformities of an older man: this is, after all, exactly the kind of thing that captures a pre-adolescent male’s attention and imagination. Still less comfortable is the boy’s admission that he is charged with taking new issues of various skin magazines with him on his rounds, magazines that Barney has no compunction about sharing with his young visitor: “‘Look at that one,’ he’d say and he’d hold up some crazed picture of an orgy that was supposed to be taking place in a working garage with five or six people, men and women, all tangled up around each other and bent over the hoods of cars.” The fact that Barney devours heterosexual porn tends to suggest that the rumours about him are exaggerated; nevertheless, there is something creepily disconcerting about his willingness to engage the 12-year-old delivery boy in discussions of sexual subject matter (one of many borders that get crossed in MacLeod’s story).

Although Barney’s behaviour around Allan is clearly inappropriate, he is by no means the only person to transgress the boundaries of good taste or propriety. Old Mrs. McKay, for instance, exposes herself to Allan and forces him to examine a boil on her breast; the distressed boy admits that this is the first time he has seen “those hidden parts of a woman’s body” anywhere other than in Barney’s magazines, which “didn’t count for anything.” Mrs. McKay’s ailment is described in close, clinical detail similar to the description of Barney’s hernia:

She’d pulled back her shirt far enough that I could see nearly her entire breast. It was a thin, used-up looking thing and almost the same white colour you’d link up with one of those ugly fish that live in some deep trench at the bottom of the ocean and have never seen light. The skin was criss-crossed with a purplish-blue network of veins and there were long, very long, black bristles growing around the nipple. Just below, you could see the problem – a big, yellowish cyst, like the biggest pimple you can imagine, but circled in a dark red sore colour. It looked very bad, almost ready to burst and there was a shiny liquid film oozing out of it.

“What do you think I should do?” Mrs. McKay asks. “You work for the doctor’s, don’t you? What do you think?” Mrs. McKay is only one of several people who treats Allan as though he were of a much more advanced age and level of experience. His employer, Musgrave, sends the boy on rounds with no thought to whether the cycling will be treacherous or the area of town he is being dispatched to might be dodgy. After a particularly bad accident on his bike, Allan returns to the pharmacy, where Marlene, one of the clerks, tends to his wounds.”There’s no place he wouldn’t send you,” Marlene says. “Nowhere is too far. Just the thought of it. On a day like today. You’re lucky you’re still alive.” Marlene, we are told, speaks to Allan as though they “were suddenly the same age and … had both been in [their] jobs too long.”

The final border that gets crossed is physical: the threshold of Barney’s house, which Allan had sworn to himself he would never set foot over, just in case the town’s rumour mill was accurate. But one day he goes to make his usual delivery and spies Barney through the window, collapsed and unmoving on the floor. The boy’s first thought is that this is how Barney entices his young victims into the house before assaulting them. But he quickly realizes that the man is in deep trouble, and against all his instincts, he ventures into the house and performs mouth-to-mouth while waiting for the paramedics to arrive. When the ambulance attendants show up, they too treat Allan as though he were an adult and assume that he will follow them to the hospital to care for Barney.

The end of the story has the boy deciding to leave Musgrave’s employ and try to recapture some of his lost innocence. “More than anything,” he muses, “I wanted to go home and be exactly my own age for as long as I could.” Having crossed the threshold into Barney’s home, however, having voluntarily taken on such a profound responsibility for another human being, it is impossible to return to his previous existence. In a real way, he has left his childhood behind – prematurely, no doubt, but irrevocably.

When he returns to Musgrave’s after his bicycle accident, Marlene helps him by applying rubbing alcohol to his abrasions. “It’s going to hurt, Allan,” she says. “But what can you do?” MacLeod’s story of borders and lost childhood is in many ways a comment on the travails of life itself: it’s going to hurt, but what can you do?

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