Pillow, the titular character in Andrew Battershill’s Pillow, loves exotic animals, which is why he chooses the zoo for the drug runs he does as a low-level enforcer for a crime syndicate run by André Breton. He doesn’t love his life of crime, but he isn’t cut out for much else, what with all the punches to the head he took as a professional boxer. And now that he’s accidentally but sort of happily knocked up his neighbor, he wants to get out and go straight.
But first there’s the matter of some stolen coins, possibly in the possession of George Bataille, which leads Pillow on a bizarre caper that involves kidnapping a morphine-addled Antonin Artaud, some corrupt cops, a heavy dose of Surrealism, and a quest to see some giraffes.
Dive into Pillow by reading the excerpt below followed by Andrew’s comments on the passage.
The crime syndicate Pillow had swiftly and easily and sadly flowed into after his neurologist had told-not-asked him to retire made a lot of noise and very little money, and was skewed heavily to the crime end of organized crime, rather than the organized side.
The head of the syndicate was a mid-sized player named André Breton. He and his boys bought and sold drugs, made book, loan-sharked and had started two riots for fun. Breton’s syndicate were mostly recruited from his days as a Marxist firebomber in Paris. They’d done low-level hack terrorist stuff until they caught too much attention and bolted the country for a spot in the superstructure and the cash to pay for pretty paintings. Breton was supposed to be a tastemaker: rich people called him in to tell them what art to buy. He used it as a way to launder money and move bribes.
Most of the time, the Breton crew hung out and got high, talked about their dreams and played parlour games until Breton gave them something to do. And tonight what Breton had given Pillow and Louise Aragon to do was guard-dog a deal to buy some stolen coins.
As often happened, Pillow ended up having to wait around outside his apartment, kicking the toe of one shoe with the heel of the other, as he waited for his ride to some place they hadn’t bothered to tell him in advance.
Most of what Pillow did was watch people exchange money. He’d make collections and stand behind Breton at deals, watching the cash and making sure nobody got out of line. It wasn’t usually to muscle anybody. He was supposed to be a former boxer, violence just an impression he made. The heavy wet work was handled by Breton’s two favourites, Don Costes and Louise Aragon.
Pillow was in a very minor, but reasonably comfortable, spot in the organization. He knew what he was to them and what he wasn’t: he wasn’t particularly useful but he had uses; he wasn’t exactly trusted but he was liked; he wasn’t going to make much money but he wasn’t going to cost them much either. Plus, he had used to be a celebrity, which is always worth a very sad and very tiny bit.
After what felt like a long time, Louise Aragon pulled up in a car so old and so black and so heavy it might actually have been a Model T. She screeched to a stop and kicked the huge, steel passenger-side door open. Pillow swung himself into the car and settled in already slumped.
‘How do you do, Pillow?’
Pillow stayed still, suggesting a shrug with just the way he breathed. ‘You have really flexible legs.’
‘Thank you, sir. I’ve never stretched a thing. Sometimes one is just a marvel.’
Pillow nodded evenly, then turned to look at the dark sky framed by black metal through plate glass. He felt the car moving under him, in the way that you can feel things that move faster than your legs carry you and it just feels like sitting down.
Louise was one of Breton’s go-to people. She was thirty-some- thing and half-sad in that way fun people without a whole lot of luck get. She was the kind of friend Pillow had, which is to say a very friendly acquaintance.
‘Do you want to know where we’re going, Pillow?’
‘I’m more curious about those legs – you don’t stretch ’em even a little?’ Pillow feinted like he was going to tickle her leg, reached up and snapped her bra strap when she brought her hand down to defend the leg.
Louise laughed. ‘Bark like the dog you is, Pillow, bark like the dog you is.’
‘Does introducing you to your wife buy me any leeway, Louise, huh? I think it gets me a little and I take space where I find it. Space is everywhere, and we need every little, tiny inch of it.’
Louise flapped her hand like it was a talking human mouth, or possibly a very stupid and hungry bird mouth, then she put both hands back on the wheel and refocused on her incredibly erratic driving.
Pillow rolled his shoulders back and took to stretching them. His shirt lifted up, and Louise poked his bellybutton. She had her bangs pulled back tight. Her haircut looked like a wave that had been ironed.
‘So, just to get it out of the way,’ she said, ‘we’re going to Mad Love. And as always, I am deeply sorry.’
Mad Love was the bar where a good deal of the money and brain cells Pillow had held on to after fighting had gone to die. It was one of the dingiest places he’d ever seen or smelled or touched. The place, like a lot of things, gave him a headache that would make other people’s headaches jealous.
‘Well, that’s a bummer. I guess you should maybe tell me what I’ll be doing there.’
‘What you always do, my man: look tall and try not to fall asleep.’ ‘I don’t look tall, I am tall, and I don’t make any promises about sleeping.’
Louise screeched the car to a stop in an alley that looked like every other alley. ‘Can you at least promise to dream well then?’
Pillow pulled one long strand of hair loose from her head and let it flop unevenly down the middle of her face. ‘For you, I’ll try.’
Louise looked at Pillow for an extra second and smiled at him in the way you’d smile at a picture of a really cool building that’s already been torn down.
My default answer to the question, “What do you hope readers take from this book/passage?” is whatever they want! I’ve always thought that once your book-children go out in the world, they’re full-grown adults. Part of the fun of reading is the freedom to interpret books however you want to, and part of the fun of writing them is seeing what people take away from it.
So, sure, my default answer is cop out (a sincere cop out), but in this case I have another one. What I hope people take away from this book, and this passage of the book particularly, is Pillow the character. While this is a novel about a plot to steal a valuable coin from a group of Surrealist poets in a crime gang, what this book is really about is Pillow, a broken down boxing champion looking to find love and take as many trips as he can to the zoo.
Fun fact, I initially wanted to call this book You feel me?, and was promptly informed that this is an aggressively terrible name for a book. Pillow, the title, emerged after all the major edits had been done on the manuscript, and, after a long time of having no idea what to call this book, we settled on the final title weirdly quickly, and it just felt right. The longer I worked on this book the more I realized that Pillow, the character, is the emotional heart of the book.
To continue reading, purchase Pillow here!
Andrew Battershill is a novelist from British Columbia. He was the co-founder of Dragnet Magazine and the fiction editor of This Magazine. He was the 2017-2018 Writer-in-Residence at the Regina Public Library, and the 2018 Writer in Residence for the City of Richmond. He lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia.