The Prescription Errors cover

The Prescription Errors

By Charles Demers
Insomniac Press, November 30, 2008, $19.95

Gary is a man whose greyness seeps and percolates from his hair down through to the colour of his face, clothing, and even his posture. He is wrapped, without fail, in a jean jacket peppered with sandy, faded patches that is constantly out of synch with denim pants always two shades lighter, or darker, than the coat. In the message he’s left me, asking me if I’ll come upstairs to see him about something, there’s a greyness in his voice; there’s a mumble, then some kind of whimper, then Gary’s back on track — whenever I get the message, he says, never mind the time, just pop upstairs.

I pick the phone up from its cradle, dialing Gary, pressing the ‘7’ harder, with my thumb, because it’s jammed. Gary’s phone, ringing thrice, can be heard through my open side window.


“Gary? It’s Daniel downstairs. Sorry to call so late — I don’t know, your message said, you know — Is it too late to call?”

“No, Daniel. Hi. No, not at all, don’t worry about it. I wanted you to call — Actually I needed you to call tonight. I’m — I’ve actually got to take off.”

“Oh, sorry. Is this a bad time? You’re out the door?”

“No, sorry. What I mean is I’ve got to take off tomorrow, so I needed you to call whatever time you could tonight. Are you, uh — What about you, is this a bad time for you?”

“No, not at all. I was just babysitting my nephew — “

“Robeson,” he says, and adds, with a light but tragic kind of sarcasm: “The Stalinist.”

“Yeah, right.”

“No, so — You think you could come up here for two seconds, Daniel?”

“Oh, yeah. Totally. Just what — up back?”

“Yeah. The back door’s open, so, you know — so just come on in. I’m in the living room.”

Gary has shared with me, albeit in truncated, scattershot instalments, the story of his political life: How one of his first memories was standing — all of four years old, and shorter than the picket signs the fellow travelers around him carried — as part of an angry ring of protesters outside the grounds of the U.S. embassy in Ottawa the night in 1953 that the Americans executed Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. His parents, Communist Party members raising Gary and his older sister Rosa in Toronto, had driven down from the city with the kids at the height of McCarthyite hysteria. My favourite of Gary’s stories, the one that had me struggling hardest against cruel laughter, was the one about his sister’s name.

The only vacation that Gary’s parents ever took had been in Italy, and in the heavy romance of the foreign atmosphere, the nonchalance about the statues and the scooters nearly everywhere, they had been moved to the act that conceived their first child, whom they named with the Italian word meaning ‘red’ — it had been a rare moment of whimsy, from what I had gathered of Gary’s family life.

Only the other members of the Party, whenever they learned Rosa’s name, assumed that she had been named for Rosa Luxemburg — an early, vocal left critic of Lenin and the Bolsheviks. His parents had explained and wearily re- explained the name’s actual origins to suspicious party members so many times that by the time Gary was born they were not only going with an apolitical choice, but the blandest, least offensive one that they could think of.

As a teenager, Gary worked out his adolescent rebellion politically, renouncing his family’s Stalinism (in fact his father, like many, had resigned from the Party in 1956 after Khrushchev’s revelations, while his mother had retained her membership and gone on to what Gary described as “some prominence” in the anti-nuclear movement), attaching himself to the various strands of Trotskyism opposing the war in Vietnam and flirting with the Waffle movement inside the NDP. In 1972, a handful of them had formed the Labour Vanguard Group, or LVG. For several years, Gary had worked at the Party’s nerve centre in English Montréal, editing and selling a bilingual Marxist weekly called Militancy/La Militantisme.

In late 1978, Gary’s left cheek was caved in by an angry and patriotic fraternity boy from McGill — a “Calice de Saint Esprit de tête carrée de marde” as he was called by the elderly francophone who tended to Gary on the cold street corner under a thick spell of bemused, slightly condescending delight at having stumbled across a bespectacled Anglo willing to be shit-kicked for selling a newspaper demanding, in a bold-faced twenty-point type, ‘Independence for Quebec Now!’ Nursing his wounds and determined to counter what the LVG had identified as the ‘growing Maoist influence among the East Indians’ living on the country’s West Coast, Gary joined the party’s new branch in Vancouver.

When I come into his living room, Gary is seated on the floor, back up against the couch, staring with dead eyes at a blank spot on the wall in front of him, just underneath a framed photo of Thomas Sankara. There’s half a bottle of red wine on the coffee table next to a book written by the General Secretary of the LVG, and when Gary realizes that I’m inside, he drains the glass he’s drinking and refills it.

“Hi, Daniel. How are you?”

“I’m good, fine. You doing okay?”

“Uh — I’ve been better, actually, Daniel. Do you drink wine?”

“I’m actually not supposed to.”

“What do you mean? You’re not religious, are you?”

“No, Gary, no,” I say, laughing lightly. “No, I just — it’s the antidepressants, actually. The medicine.”


“Yeah, no. It’s — I think that it’s because alcohol is a depressant, and anyway, whenever I do drink, I get quite nauseous the next day.”

“You should always follow doctor’s orders, Daniel. I try.”

“Yeah, no. For sure.”

“A lot of this herbal stuff is quite reactionary.” Gary is drunk. I notice that there is another, empty, wine bottle down against the side of the couch, resting on the hardwood floor between the TV with its vaguely ethnic cloth covering and the spot where Gary is sitting. “It’s — a lot of it — it’s this same sort of petty bourgeois, you know, very middle class kind of stuff. Dalai Lama.”

I let “Dalai Lama” — used here as some sort of strange, expletive, Trotskyist punctuation — hang in the air before passing unchallenged.

“What’s up, Gary? Are you okay? I got your message.”

Gary gently exhaled a muted burp as he leaned forward, laying his once-more half-empty glass on the table next to the bottle and raising his eyebrows.

“Tomorrow morning,” he said, “I’m leaving for Halifax for several weeks.”

“Oh,” I said. And then (idiotically, and knowing from the drunken tone that it couldn’t possibly be for any good reason): “That sounds great.”

Gary shook his head without closing his eyes.

“No, it won’t be great. I’m going — family. It’s — my brother has leukemia, Daniel. He’s started chemotherapy, already lost all of his hair, his eyebrows. So I’m going back there because of that.”

“Jesus,” I said in a half-whisper, speeding past the obligatory thoughts of my mother at the mention of leukemia.

“Jesus, Gary, I’m so sorry. I didn’t — ” I stop, questioning the appropriateness of this question, and then proceed with it anyway. “Gary, I didn’t even know you had a brother.”

“We haven’t, ah — I haven’t spoken to Travis since 1982, Daniel. Not since the Malvinas War.”

I tried, unsuccessfully, to figure this riddle out on my own. Gary had a way of speaking in Trot history, using it as shorthand for his feelings. ‘Dalai Lama,’ ‘Social Democrat,’ ‘Moscow,’ ‘reformism,’ and ‘Kronstadt’ were all words that he had used at various times, each symbolic of whole swathes of information, struggle, disagreement, and even, though he’d never approve of the term — too Hegel, too early Marx — zeitgeist. I knew by ‘Malvinas’ that he meant the Falklands War, but I still didn’t get what that had to do with his brother.

“Gary, I don’t understand.”

“Daniel,” he said, looking up at my eyes for the first time since I arrived, “Would you please drink some wine with me?”

Charles Demers is an author, comedian and political activist, as well as a regular performer on CBC Radio One’s The Debaters, and co-host of Citytv’s comedic panel show The CityNews List in Vancouver.

Charles Demers

Charles Demers

Charles Demers is an author, comedian, and political activist, as well as a regular performer on CBC Radio One’s The Debaters, and co-host of Citytv’s comedic panel show The CityNews List...