An Irishman I once worked with used to entertain me every Monday morning as we sorted mail side by side. The source of mirth was his descriptions of all the socializing he and his family had done that week-end. He invariably referred to the other parties as “our friends.” After too many Mondays, I could endure no more.
“I've been married three times. Let me point out something. Your friends are those friends of yours that your wife approves of and the sum total of all her friends since birth.”
He looked at me hard while he processed this information and then his face softened like a boy who had just succeeded in catching an elusive frog. Then he grinned.
“You're absolutely right.”
“Now, that's according to nature and in my opinion it is wisdom. Who better to protect the nest from all perils but the intuitive mother of the offspring.”
Next Monday, I was again regaled with tales from the ski slopes but this time the protagonists were referred to as my wife's friends. It got me thinking that it had taken me until West of the halfway mark of my life to fill up one hand's worth of friends and then they had had begun to pass away. It's different with women and some could fill up both hands and feet. Wives are not infallible and once in a while it is the husband who must quarantine those who don't cast a shadow.
There have been three occasions in my married life where I disregarded the intuitive censoring of friends. In two instances, I ignored loud internal alarms and deferred to what I thought at the time was a noble over-riding of my own innate common sense for the sake of my spouse.
The first instance led to complete disaster but that is a tale for another day. The second instance is very recent by comparison and less intense. They say, “better late than never” and I have found that to be the usual case.
The situation I speak of occurred in the early days of my current marriage. As I was being introduced to my wife's friends, there was one lady I did not take to. It was just an inchoate feeling at the time, so I did the manly thing and ignored it for the sake of not having to have a pow-wow with my new wife about one of her friends.
In a short while the woman married a man with many problems. I privately predicted what the next twenty-odd years would bring that marriage. During those two decades I had the awful discomfort of watching my prediction unfurl in real time. She had two children and I had a child with my new wife in addition to a child from a previous marriage.
I attended a cycle of reciprocal birthdays, various feasts and celebrations. Between these planned events, I can recall only one single outing of the two families and it went badly. I had nothing in common with the husband and hated to watch him spiraling downwards. I felt sorry for his children and annoyed at his wife for creating an unhappy family by choosing this type of man.
In daily speech these people would be referred to as friends. There were two decades of phone calls to my wife for either of two purposes. One was to brag about any financial gains enjoyed by the woman and the other was to complain about her miserable marriage. All those hours took away my wife's ear and it is fortunate for us that I am a writer and a reader.
The husband eventually died from substance abuse and the children grew up. There wasn't much contact except for phone calls to brag about various money-making schemes and invitations to newer bigger houses as she traded up. About a year ago, I saw her at a party. It was the first time in quite a while.
My wife and I were introduced to the new boyfriend of the widow. They had been seeing each other for several years. The guy raced across the floor before we were in the door and started pumping my hand. Though I had never laid eyes on him, I had my third intuitive warning. There are always crazy people at parties, which is why I rarely attend them.
Evidently, the widow had been talking about us to the man for a few years. It turned out that they were both following the Seventh Day Adventist sect. It was at an SDA church that they had met. This was new information. Over all the years of our acquaintance I had never asked the woman which church she attended.
The party was over in a few hours. All the attendees were past fifty years old. The woman increased the frequency of her phone calls to my house and talked a lot about her boyfriend. One night it was all good and future plans and the next day it was a laundry list of wrongs he had done to her.
One day, about half a year ago, my wife and I were entertaining some new neighbors at our retirement residence in a small town two hundred miles upriver from Vancouver. As we sat at the kitchen table chatting a truck pulled up. It was the widow and her beau. What came next was bizarre.
It was told to us assembled that God had spoken to the woman and had guided the pair to our little town where the fellow had just attempted to purchased a house with money from the sale of his ailing mother's house.
I was too shocked to react and went out on my porch to have a smoke where I was joined by the SDA man. He was a tall pale-eyed Métis. He couldn't string three words together without using the ligatures Lord and Jesus. His voice had been ravaged by drug and alcohol abuse and had the timbre of a rusty hinge on an outhouse door.
Still processing the facts that a total stranger and a person I did not care for had followed me to a place that I had picked at random four years prior and had attempted to purchase a house; I tried to make conversation.
The fellow, by way of acknowledging my surprise, assured me that he had nothing to do with these happenings. He claimed that they had not known the day before that the Lord would lead them thither and he further assured me that his gal was the one who had had the divine inspirations.
“The Lord is always working, Michael. There's a reason for everything.”
“The Devil is too,” I replied, “Rust never sleeps.”
I rolled a smoke and mentioned a place nearby where St'at'imx peoples had fished consistently since before the pyramids of Egypt were constructed. It was an attempt to guide the conversation toward things mundane.
“The earth is only 6000 years old, my Pastor told me.”
My initial thought was to grab him by the belt-buckle and throat to toss him off the porch. I looked through the door, saw all the ladies talking and quelled that impulse. I continued to talk and disagreed with his Pastor's time line. The man's voice went up as did mine. The widow came to the door of the porch when our voices had reached a sustained shout. Her face had a horrible worried look and the lines it created on her countenance were already well worn paths.
I toned down my voice and went inside. The Frenchman followed. At the table in the kitchen, my new neighbors had just offered any kind of help that the couple might need while they continued to house hunt. This was done out of respect for my wife and I and was based on our four years of being good neighbors. I managed to get my neighbor outside and warn her to be wary of those two. I predicted no good would come from their recent machinations.
Soon the couple were successful in buying a house in the town. My wife and I were invited to the blessing of this house which coincided with our next trip up from Vancouver. The day arrived and we were on time. When we got inside there was one other couple we had never met and a Hungarian Pastor who did a circuit of SDA churches in the B.C. Cattle country.
The man of the house was in bed. Laid low from something he had eaten. I sat in the kitchen and had a wonderful conversation with the Hungarian, who had read many of the same books as I had and was very conscious of how the world really works. He seemed refreshed by my own knowledge and he refrained from giving me any sermon.
The Métis arose and we all held hands while the Hungarian mumbled a bored blessing by rote. Just before the Pastor left for his long drive home, he admonished the host to use his Métis credentials to bring as many St'at'imx into his sheep-pen as possible.
I wondered at the chances of success of this. The St'at'imx people were well aware of the work of archaeologists on their own local sites. These sites predated the SDA beginning of the world. When I mentioned this glitch later, I was politely told that had Satan cleverly scattered old bones and pots to mislead the scientists.
The widow had learned that I intended to pursue hunting and fishing in my retirement. Since these were two things her Métis knew, she used this as a bridge between the two of us men. I was able to focus on recognition of those skills instead of his annoying raspy voice. His knowledge on these two topics earned him a degree of respect. I decided try to make the best of Kamikaze neighbors. Perhaps we could fish and hunt together in peace and otherwise live separate lives.
Later I learned that the woman had decided to live nearby so she would have a safe place to go and sympathetic ears to listen to her latest self induced problems. She was willing to continue as a “helpless victim” as long as other people heard the complaints. These type of people usually pray aloud eloquently at the drop of a hat and never miss a day of church.
After the Métis moved in, I went fishing with him. He talked of hunting and Jesus and fishing and Jesus and substance abuse and Jesus and his fiancee and Jesus. I tried to learn something about river fishing. He gave me the fishing vest of his recently deceased father and taught me a knot for attaching hooks on a salmon rod.
I gave him the DVD of a movie we had watched at my place. It was a true story about a Cherokee boy who learns the hard way about Christian charity. He gave me the salmon rod that had belonged to his dead father. I gave him an antique Belgian wardrobe. He gave me an old coat rack from a church. I gave him a copy of my Chicory CD.
I got a three hour phone call from this man complaining about the woman. She was a suicidal, fickle Jezebel according to him. My wife received multiple calls from the woman complaining about the man. He was a selfish, manipulative control freak according to her.
We decided to not take sides. They had The Lord to guide their affair. Hunting season was looming and I was busy. I decided that a sober hunting partner would be good to start out with. I didn't consider the difference between a non-drinker and a reformed drinker.
I took the C.O.R.E. Program, passed and purchased a beautiful Finnish rifle. I took a First Aid course. My partner in this course was a boy who happened to be named Nimrod. After successfully treating the staged collapse of the mighty Mesopotamian Hunter, I passed the LifeSaver qualification.
When I had time, I went to my new little town and joined the firing range. The Métis and I went together to sight in my new rifle. He was gifted in this and within three shots we had my gun zeroed in at 100 yards. I tried standing, crouching, sandbagging, left handed, right handed, with one eye open and with two.
At the end of these experiments, I learned that I shot best standing with both eyes open using my left shoulder. In this way I was able to place 50% of my shots into the vital area of a deer at 100 yards on the first day. A Chinese salesman at the gun shop had taught me about two eyes and had encouraged me to shoot left. When using one eye, a person lost the big picture and could not follow a moving target.
I shot forty rounds that week. Three days with the Métis spotting for me and on the last day I went alone. Each day the border of the range was visited by big fat mule deers that appeared immune to the racket. Each morning one or two eagles cruised back and forth several thousand feet above and screamed repeatedly.
On the last day at the range I wore a medium size K-Bar knife in an old leather sheath. While I unlocked the gate and got set up, an eagle screamed overhead and several deer came up to the fence to watch. After I had shot three rounds a truck pulled up and parked next to my vehicle.
A pretty woman hopped out and the first thing I noticed was that she wore a knife. The second thing I noticed was that she seemed vaguely familiar. She produced a twenty-two and a deer rifle. I stopped for a drink of soda while she set up some balloon targets at twenty-five and fifty yards. Soon, she was blasting away. When she stopped to reload, we spoke.
I mentioned that I was a mailman from Vancouver and had bought a place nearby. She grinned and said her Dad had been a Vancouver letter carrier. I asked his name, expecting to draw a blank. She told me the name and we both smiled. I had known the man thirty years prior when she was probably still in early elementary school. He was a great guy and mentored me at my first postal station.
The young lady had bagged her first deer a few days prior and had started to have recurring visions of a big buck when she fell asleep. I had one vision of a doe, which I later saw about fifty kilometers from where we were shooting. I had learned that it is not polite to ask where a person had taken their game. I mentioned this to the lady.
She grinned and told me she had bagged hers up on Secret Mountain. The Métis explained to me later that the woods were a big larder for some people and hence they were reluctant to tell you where their own personal meat-locker was. I understood this and quit asking people.
I also learned not to listen to this type of information when it is freely offered. The Métis was canny in this regards and by using the free information we two had gleaned that week, he sent me off one day to scout in the opposite direction. We planned to go hunting in a few weeks time.
I went the way he directed and found a plethora of tracks. Big tracks! Lots of them of all sizes. Then I saw all the droppings. Massive and fresh as a daisy. It was right near a Forestry campsite and I hurried back to give the news and congratulate my teacher on being so wise. I was asked about the size shape and color of the scat. He determined that it had to be moose sign.
When I got back to Vancouver I learned that a plan had been previously set by the Métis to have my wife cook a turkey which he would provide. His woman had called while I was away and had given all the instructions. We two couples were to eat it at my place on the eve of the upcoming hunt.
He hadn't asked anyone but had planned it down to the last detail. I was to drive his woman North as well. She stil lived in her own place in the Lower Mainland while he pined away alone in the little town. She visited up there and he visited down to her. I was to give her a ride up for this meal and was even told an alternate route to use to save a bridge toll. I used the alternate route and got a speeding ticket. During the drive she complained of the man for five hours.
My irritation was offset by my anticipation of filling the freezer with fresh game. After the feast when I was washing up the dishes, my sink clogged. The previous time the Métis had been in my house, my hot water tank had stopped working. Now I was stuck with a prodigious pile of greasy dishes in bear country. My wife and his woman were going back to Vancouver. We men were leaving to occupy a camping site we had previously scouted.
I poured various products down the ABS pipes and nothing happened. I gathered all the gear I had acquired over the previous year and got my Suzuki ready to roll. I met my teacher at his house and we convoyed out. The route we took was along the Lost River, three quarters of the way to Secret Mountain over by Lake St. Nowhere.
We gathered some wood left by other hunters who had gone home and after a few last minute changes, we settled on a campsite. My education in sawing logs, splitting logs and quartering split logs was begun. I helped my maestro to set up his canvas tent. I learned which types of wood were good and which were not.
I split logs till I broke the head off the old maul which had belonged to my friend's dead father. It turned out that my new friend had a very restricted diet due to a debilitating bowel disease. He hadn't worked for years.
We hadn't conferred with each other as to provisions. I prepared on the basis of feeding myself for the short duration and had assumed that a man with a special diet would do the same. I was quickly lectured by a man my junior on the importance of the Sharing Way.
Everything my mentor shared was busted, rusted or not to be trusted. Everything I shared was new or in good repair. My food he would not touch save the turkey and my oatmeal. He had a case of no-name vegetable soup which he freely shared. We were at five thousand feet and the ambient temperature was minus three Celsius.
We ate turkey sandwiches for dinner with vegetable soup. In the mornings we had coffee and oatmeal. I found myself devouring my Landjaegers on the sly after the second day. On the third day I was nibbling the stick of butter I'd brought. The deceased father of my mentor was always with us.
The woodsman measured everything with the precision of an aircraft technician. He had a grip-bag of medications and plenty of toilet paper. I assumed we would sleep in the tent and I was told that we would take turns. One in the tent and one in my car. I refused to ask for what should be offered so I decided to sleep on the ground outside.
I put down my air mattress and mummy bag right next to the fire. I was instructed to keep my rifle nearby with the clip in and the bolt open. After a scare with “pit-lampers” in his past, my teacher refused to camp without a weapon within easy reach. I placed my Tikka beside me in its frosty case as the fire glowed out and the stars blazed.
Things went well until a little vole decided to chew a buckskin lace I had tied around my wrist. It was to use when gutting the deer I was intending to shoot. The voracious little creature went through the leather in a few nibbles and decided it would like a little salt off of my arm as well. I slapped it over toward the picnic table.
The next morning all my packaged noodles had been ruined by the spurned rodent. I was off scouting deer beds when the Government officers came to visit. I could see the Métis showing his license to a young man and woman in uniform. As I approached I could also see that he was very upset by their intrusion.
I walked up and shook hands with the male officer.
“I wanted to meet the man who slept out here," he said. "How'd it go?”
“Good until the voles started chewing on me. Also I discovered why they call them mummy bags. Warm, but you cannot move if you have to without taking the whole shebang with you. I think I'll be swapping that bag next year.”
“I hear you. I hate 'em too. Can I see your rifle?”
I took the weapon from its frosty case and handed it over after doing the procedure I had learned in school to PROVE it safe. The man hefted the weapon and admired it.
“That's a beautiful rifle. I wish I had one like that. Did you put that eagle feather on it?”
“Yes Sir. That is not a decoration. If it's pointing at me my quarry cannot smell me. If it's pointing at my quarry, I'm going hungry. If it swings out right or left, I need to adjust for windage. I chose that rifle because I waited fifty-six years and this is the one that I will be handing down to my son. I am part Swedish and I know that the next best metallurgists in the world after the Swedes are the Finns. That's a Finnish cold-rolled stainless barrel and that's why I bought it.”
“Have you ever hunted deer before?”
“No Sir. It's my first time. This fellow is a long time hunter of deer and moose and is showing me the ropes a bit.”
“Well, I wish you lots of luck. A deer is an amazingly smart animal. Don't get discouraged. It'll come. When you're walking the roads and looking into the brush, look twice or three times, even if you have already scanned that area. All you might get is a tiny flicker of an ear before your brain can furnish up the rest of the picture, so well do they hide.”
We walked the roads dawn and dusk for a week. We saw tracks, beds, scat and chewed vegetation. The only deer I had seen recently was in town at the range and on the way to the campsite in an area off limits to hunting. That one turned out to be the doe in my dream. It stood a few feet away from my vehicle and stared at me for four minutes before very slowly walking into the pines.
On the second night I slept fitfully in my car due to lack of leg-room. On the third night I was invited into the tent. There was just enough room for the two of us and my rifle. My mate murmured, snored and gibbered most of the night. He did get up first and cook the oatmeal, however. Camp chores and incessant talk of God took the place of deer hunting education.
Soon I was ready to pull three nails from the meat pole, drive up the highway, give the Korean lady at the motel a hammer and ask her if she would put me up for the night. I informed the Métis that if he had any ideas of me or my wife joining his church, he could forget it. This clearly angered him but he fought it down.
On the last day I saw a fresh moose track broken through the surface ice of a puddle. We followed along this track to a swamp. We had located the wintering grounds. Not far away was a creek which spilled down from a lake a few hundred feet above and I was told that this was probably the summering place. We both got excited and decided to return the next season.
During all these dawn and dusk patrols, I had been cautioned to not smoke until back at camp. It was the scent, you know. On the last of these slow walks I was fifty yards in front. I heard a horrible retching sound. It was semi-human and I spun around. There silhouetted against the old growth firs was my mentor bent over with his pants to his ankles. A stream of waste arced out into the moose habitat on the down slope side of the road.
I turned around and stood guard for my stricken friend. When the noises ceased I began to slowly walk until I heard the sound again. I felt sorry for the man but laughed at the ridiculousness of the situation. I lit a smoke. Hopefully it would help the sensitive nose of the moose from being overwhelmed by the human stench. Might bring in a grizzly though, thinking something big had died there.
We packed up and I was instructed to meet at a gas station in town so I could pay my half of his gas although we each had brought a vehicle and had also used mine for two scouting trips. I was further instructed to help him set his trailer hitch onto a new pine stump back at his house. As we packed up I commented on our fireside chats and expressed my hope that I hadn't verbalized overly much.
“I tell you Michael, I only take in 25% of what you say. It's from all the drinking and drugs.”
I drove behind him to help if he got stuck until we got on safe road. On the return journey we stopped at the tracks I had scouted a week prior. I now learned that they were cow tracks! There were free-ranging bovines in the canyon. I had driven over the cattle guard on my way up, dreaming of a buck. I was embarrassed but it had been forty years since I'd seen a cow track.
After we were on asphalt I pulled over for a smoke. After having walked a mile in his moccasins, I knew I would have to tell him and his fiancee adios. I went to his house and helped with his trailer and paid him the gas money. I went home and worked on the clogged sink for the balance of the afternoon. A bottle of hydrochloric acid gel, a funnel, a turkey baster, some safety goggles and a flashlight were the only tools required to clear the blockage. I returned to Vancouver and my busy life.
He said something to his fiancee during a quarrel within a week of my return. She repeated it to my wife in the post-quarrel phone call. It was untrue and had my name on it. That night I wrote letters to this pair of misfits which informed them that they were both no longer welcome at my house or on my phone. I would return the things given me. I would not associate with either of them. I was already gone. I had a chore to do.
I researched the founders of his sect. A young woman who had been struck in the face by a rock as a child had begun to have visions. She married a man who followed one of the various new sects spewing out of rural New York State in the mid eighteen hundreds. It was distinguished by the precise prediction of the end of the world, the keeping of the Sabbath, setting the creation date at 6000 ago and a belief in something called “soul sleep.” The date for the predicted end came and went and new adherents left in droves.
The man and his teenage wife broke away and decided to start their own branch of the sect. They changed the date based on a different approach to interpreting the Scripture. That date came and went. These complications always arise when men try to decode Scripture. Only the author knows the code.
Amazingly, with time and much technique the pool of believers increased instead of decreased and today it has millions of members worldwide. The woman wrote many a book and lived for a while in Australia. I deduced that these people may not easily be dissuaded.
A few weeks after I sent the letters I was up country unloading some furniture. The Métis appeared in the drive and came up the steps to the porch. He had his letter in his hand. I came out on the porch and did not invite him in. He handed back the letter and informed me that he did not accept it. I opened it and read it aloud to him and asked him which part he did not understand. I pointed out that there was nothing optional in the letter.
He said that he thought I was just scared of Jesus. I was scared of changing. I told him that I and my wife would no longer associate with him nor his fiancee. He began to talk of the latest thing God had told him (God usually spoke to him in his kitchen) concerning his affair with the unhappy woman and I cut him off and reminded him that I no longer cared to be kept advised.
He shook my hand for too long to be comfortable and gave me a religious tract. I asked him if he wished to have back his deceased father's fishing pole. He said no. He was certain I'd come around to being his friend again. I said goodbye. He said his door was always open. I said goodbye. He said that it wasn't just him praying for me, that there was a whole lot of people praying for me. I said goodbye.
He waddled off to his truck and sat awhile praying hard before driving off. I gathered the religious tract, the fishing pole, the vest and the coat rack by the door. I swore like a stevedore on the Lisbon docks. I smudged the whole place with sage. Things seemed to break or malfunction whenever he or his woman were around. The next morning I dropped off all the gear to his front porch with a clearly written note saying not to return them.
When I was around five down South, a neighbor took me along rabbit hunting. Our party had a half-dozen wonderful hounds and two men with shotguns. We began walking slowly from the frosty back side of the man's property and within minutes his dogs were onto a hot scent and flushing out bunnies. I was most taken with watching the canines work through the dry fall swamp and it took me some time to be able to spot the erratic, direction changing dash of the rabbits.
After only a few hours we were slowly walking back to the man's yard with a good brace of long ears. The rabbits were all laid out on some clean straw and the dogs were penned up and fed. While the man and his son were busy with this, I examined the rabbits. They were fat, sleek specimens and their fur was a beautiful gray like the bark on a sweet-gum tree.
The man and his son came over and began skinning the catch while I watched. The first thing I noticed was that the expected buckets of blood never materialized. In fact, there was very little. The second thing I noticed was the lack of smell. I have extremely sensitive olfactory equipment and have logged the smells of everything since birth. After opening the carcasses and removing the guts, I had expected an overpowering stench. All one could smell in the cool morning air was the clean smell of the fur and a very faint aroma of cooked grass.
So far, so good. While the men were finishing the process of making them ready for the pot, I was struck by a stray thought. I had participated in a few Easter celebrations in my time and was stuffed full of the Easter Bunny myth. I asked the farmer what exact kind of rabbits these were.
I felt a wave of concern shoot through me, “Hada yoo know 'at one o these uns ain't Pater? Pater Cottontail?”
My voice betrayed my concern and anger at the cavalier attitude of my hosts. The old man rolled his eyes at the pale sky, looked at his son and then back down at me.
“Son, I gar-an-tee yoo 'at none of these uns is Mr. Pater Cottontail.”
His son went through the motions of checking the ears of each head lined up on the ground.
“Welp na, I done checked 'em all, lil' Mak. Yoo kin tale by they ears, unnerstan na, cousin?”
“I'm gess I'm onna fine aout nex Easter, huh? Thank ya'll for takin' me huntin'”
I walked on home not quite sure if I could trust these men. Later, they gave me some squirrel stew to chow on while I waited for Spring. When Easter rolled around, I knew they had been telling the truth and I was much relieved.
My next hunting trip was with my Grandmother at her cabin on the Gulf of Mexico. She had spread some carrots around at night under the house. The buildings there were built up on telephone poles so the floors were about twelve feet off the ground. This allowed for the hurricanes to roll through every season without destroying the furnishings.
The lot was chopped out of thick salt-marsh grass and this is where the rabbits lived. She had seen the signs of their activities and was determined to help me to bag some ingredients for my first gumbo. She woke me up as early as my Grandfather did when we'd go fishing. We got dressed and had a coffee. She had taken two long-handled crab nets out of the shed earlier and armed with these we two crept down the long wooden stairs to the ground. We sat on the bottom step and after our eyes adjusted to the dim light, we saw the culprits! They felt safe and paid us no mind.
They were bigger and darker than Louisiana rabbits and there were four of them. They were munching up the carrots right out in the open. They were only one Texas hop away from safety, however. We tip-toed agonizingly slowly around the car for cover and took positions behind the big creosoted poles.
My Grandma tried first and she bagged one! She giggled like a girl and I swung my net down on another. My blow landed off-center and the small net covered only the hind quarters of my rabbit. Meanwhile, my Grandmother's catch used its powerful legs to buck like a horse til it succeeded in lifting the iron hoop of the net enough to join my candidate in a dash to the salt grass.
In the commotion, the other two were already long gone. Grandma said that they wouldn't likely be back for a few days and maybe we could try again. We laughed til our sides hurt and went inside. We decided to settle on a nice haul of crabs instead as my Grandfather had locked up all the fishing gear, including my own, such being his habit when away at sea. Thus ended my second official hunting trip for land animals and I had yet to put anything in the pot.
One inky night on a Texas dirt road, my father stopped the car and got out in the glare of the headlights to remove a large turtle from the path. I was in my single digits and remember watching him crouch over the big shell. From the darkness came a pair of outstretched talons beneath massive brown wings and yellow eyes into the pool of light in front of the car.
The big screech-owl had gone for his toupee. He rose to his full height and wrestled the raptor for the expensive rug. He managed to keep his scalp and avoid any lacerations. When he re-joined us in the car, it was the first time I had seen him visibly shaken. At the time I didn't know the symbolism of this event but later I learned. It was not a good omen. It was a close call and he had felt the feathers brush against his face before the silent one flew off into the pines.
We were about thirty miles west of Houston in what used to be Indian country. We lived in a modern house on three acres tucked away between some working farms. One day at the house my elder sister and I were practicing the art of tricycle riding. We each had one and we raced up and down the smooth concrete driveway all day. It had rained the night before and there were several prodigious mud-puddles off the sides of the pavement.
I discovered off-roading and modern art all at once. I would ride through the dark mud and back up onto the white concrete making Celtic woven patterns from the three wheels. The three acres had been plowed and planted in tomatoes by hired gardeners. My father had some men install a giant aquarium stocked with all types of fish he had chosen. All the fish got eaten by one voracious individual over the course of a month and that one leaped out of the water to fall victim to our cat.
The garden-makers had killed many snakes with the tines of their tillers and had disturbed the habitat of the survivors. One big Diamondback decided to cross the apron of cement during our tricycle morning. He made it halfway and we began to circle around him. He paused, checked our scent and made a dash for it. Completely unintentionally, my big sister rolled squarely across his neck just behind his large triangular head. Only this chance of physics kept her from being struck on her chubby leg. The poor fellow was dead instantly and we left it where it lay and continued our play.
Some time later, my father rolled up in his car and parked. He walked over to the snake. He picked it up by the tail and after making sure it was good and dead, he swung it three times over his head and flung it out into the yard. He greeted us and surveyed the mud patterns on the pavement. He asked which of us had made the tracks and which had killed the snake. We both answered with pride to each of our separate deeds. Later that night my deed triggered a series of beatings that stretched over the next several years.
It was a once in a lifetime chance. Me and Gordie were selected from hundreds to be allowed to work all day Saturday and Sunday for time and a half. That tallied up to $32 dollars per hour which was a tidy sum in The Seventies. If you factor for inflation, I haven't matched it yet in my life to date. I was broke and Gordie was saving up to visit his sister in Arizona.
We were employed by the Vancouver Shipyards and would have the whole yard to ourselves for the two days. I made two extra-big sandwiches and a giant Thermos of cafe nero. Avila, the guard let us in at the gate and we made our way to the pipe-fitters shack. From there we grabbed two bicycles and pedaled over to the tool shed.
We picked up an assortment of hand tools such as pipe wrenches, hammers, saws, chisels, hard hats, coveralls and head-lamps. We were going to be working in the dark. In fact we were going to be decommissioning an old ocean going barge. The kind you might see from a city beach, heading out to sea being towed by a monster deep sea tug.
This barge was a big one and the boss wanted all the salvageable fittings removed and all the scrap metal set aside before she was cut up or scuttled. Sounded easy enough to us on Friday afternoon. Looked a bit different on Saturday morning at six AM when we stood in front of the wreck in the chill gray morning.
“Well, uf we kin fugger oot hae ta gut unside, that's huf the buttle,” said Gordie.
I rolled a smoke and walked up and down the wharf. I jumped across the small gap of water and walked up and down the filthy rusty deck. Gordie piled the tools and gear from our bikes onto the hulk. Soon we both were aboard and tugging on our coveralls. Now we searched in earnest for what it was we were to remove. Presently Gordie, who had grown up on the River Clyde, found the hatch.
“Here we go, Mick!”
He was twisting a rusty iron wheel like the kind on a submarine hatch. It turned a quarter turn and squealed to a halt.
“Guv me a hand wi thus butch, she's a titcht one.”
We both applied our force to the stubborn wheel and after far too long and some hammer blows, we had it open and thrown wide. The stench was overpowering. It was dark as the Black Hole Of Calcutta and odd dripping sounds percolated up with the noxious fumes.
“Ut wid pit ye aff yer oats, would it no?”
“That would knock a buzzard off a shit-wagon,” I said.
“Aye, 'twood. I reckon thut's hae they talk in Aree-Zoona, no?”
“Ma suster is luvin there and I'm tae go and vusit soon as I earn ma fare.”
We shone a flashlight into the gloom. We shone both flashlights into the gloom. The light penetrated only a few yards before being extinguished. Gordie dropped a coin into the hole. After a moment we heard it plop.
“Richt! Rig yer licht and doon we gae.”
There was a greasy ladder made of steel leading down to the bilge. We descended in the cheerful glow of our head-lights. Once we were within a few feet of the liquid, we could tell that we were already several meters under the water-line. Gordie was only about five feet tall but a brave young man of good stock. He held onto the ladder and jumped off the last dry rung.
He had about four inches of free-board left on his rubber boots and giggled with glee.
“OK, Mick. Up ye gae, take the busket aff one o the bikes and rope it doon wi the tools, eh?”
I gladly went aloft, and prepared our basket of tools, rigged a rope and lowered the hoard slowly down to Gordie.
“Got 'er. Brulliant! Nae, gut doon here wi me ye bustard.”
I descended again into the murk and stepped off the ladder. Gordie had perched the tool basket on a huge valve handle. It was the main sea-cock which if opened would flood and sink the vessel in a matter of moments. We walked the length and breadth of our new work-space. We discovered that we had to be within a few feet of any part that we wished to work on.
The bilge itself was like India ink. It was a special liquid, not oil, not diesel, not sea water but an organic amalgam of all three. It stank and it clung to anything it touched. The kind of stench that crawls up into your nostrils, parks in your throat and commences to burp.
After surveying the barge, we both decided it would be prudent not to smoke in the flammable vapors, so we went top-side for a puff and a few gulps of coffee and fresh air. The sun was up but well hidden behind a thick bank of fog. Gordie looked at his watch and started to laugh.
“What's so funny?”
“We uv ulruddy earned thurty-foor dollars Mick. Ut's brilliant!”
This news cheered me up and soon we were back down the ladder and ready to give her.
Our orders were simple. Remove everything that was removable and break off what wouldn't budge.
We were allowed to go till 5 PM and that is what we did. We worked in bursts of a hour or so and scampered up top to breath and smoke. When lunch came, neither of us could stomach anything but coffee. We were burping the fumes ourselves. From time to time one of us would haul up a basket of fittings to lay on deck. There like an archeologists table at a dig site were displayed an array of valves, fittings, handles and various fixtures of steel, iron and brass.
About one o clock we heard it. An eerie, long, drawn out “Kreeeeeeeet. Klik-Kreeeeet-Tikk-Pop-Kreeeeeeeet!
It first sounded like the ASDIC used by WWII destroyers when searching out submerged U-boats. Like a handful of pebbles thrown against the hull from under water. It resonated in our chamber and we felt it as well as heard it. We both snapped into action. Was the old tub breaking up? We looked to the valves that communicated with the sea outside. They all checked out OK.
“What the hell was that?”
“I'll be uskin ye the same, Mick.”
We sloshed through the miasma toward each other and closer to the ladder. We peered up into the hatch. It was a lousy dark day up there and the circle of sky only added to our apprehension. We decided to get with it and shake it off. I began sledge hammering a stubborn flange.
“Careful o sparks doon here Mick, no?”
“Best as I can ,Gordie.”
This time it was louder.
This utterance was faint and seemed to be coming from another direction. I looked at Gordie. He stood like a man backed against a cliff watching a herd of buffaloes coming his way.
“What in the precious hell could that possibly be?,” I inquired.
After a meaningful pause and with regret in his voice, Gordie said, “Mick, I fugger ut's a Kelpie.”
“A Kelpie? What's that?”
“A water spurit. Micht be twa by the soond o ut.”
“Are they friendly?”
“A Kelpie kin gae twa roads. Save yer life or snatch oop yer soul.”
“Any roads, as long as we're no sinkin' yet, we butter gae ahead wi oor werk.”
Continue, we did. Each time we went aloft, it was nastier outside and we scanned the Inlet for any sign of the tell-tale horse shape of the Kelpie, to no avail. Through the balance of the day the sounds got farther away and eventually we decided that we had been spared. By four thirty we climbed out and set off for the gate.
I went home and tried to soak off the stench in a hot tub of water. It didn't work and I had to sleep on the living room floor so as not to ruin the bed or couch. My wife was sympathetic but had a delicate stomach which precluded her coming within three feet of me.
Next morning, I used an old Viking recipe I learned from my step-father. I took my Thermos and poured in some black coffee. Then I dropped a dime into it. I next poured Old Bushmill's into this until I could see the dime. Hopefully this would quell the nausea and make me able to chew on a few sandwiches at lunch. Just before I left my apartment, I looked up Kelpie in my dictionary. There it was, a water spirit in Scottish folklore. Folklore had to based on something I reckoned.
Gordie was at the gate when I got there and Avila let us in. We went straight to the hull where we had left out tools last day.
“I dreamed o the Kelpie last nicht, Mick. I fugger she'll be buck.”
We set to like nobody's business partly from the huge amount of work yet to be done by nightfall and partly in an attempt to forget the Kelpie. Every time we thought we were just about to get on the short-side, we discovered more pipes and valves that seemed to have grown overnight. Probably the magic wrought by the water witch. By lunch we were both fairly intoxicated by a combination of our special coffees and the fumes.
We decided to go below and have one last epic go at it. Everything down to the bilge that wasn't under the water would be unscrewed, busted, sawed, chiseled and laying on top by dark. Kelpie or no.
To cheer us up, Gordie began singing Glaswegian ribald songs, “When I was a lass o fufteen, I hud a loovly qum. I'd stund before me murror and pit me fingur un. Noo I'm twunty-one und me qum has lost ut's charm. I kin stull pit me fingur un, und haff me bleddy arm!”
I countered in Spanish, “Solomon siendo tan sabio, te pregutas a su mujer, Donde que deran los huevos cuando vamos a cojer? La mujer, que era una guera, contesta con disimulo, Los huevos que dan afuera, dandole golpes al culo!”
“I but ye learned that un Aree-Zoona, no? Ma suster luvs there un the dussurt.”
Before I could answer we received a blast from the Kelpies. There were two for sure and they were having a wizard's dialogue. The sound was so loud we could see ripples running through the inky bilge around our boots. The entire hull vibrated. This time we froze. After long anxious moments we heard a new more threatening sound. A hellish blast like a steam valve bursting. This sound came from above through the hatch and was very close. Only our ears and noses retained any colour. That was the whiskey. We stood fast, blanched and stalwartly awaiting what ever shape the fiends took on. As we gripped our big wrenches and made the sign of the cross the sound grew intolerably loud and quickly, blessedly, faded as rapidly as it had come.
“I think they're gone for good now.”
“Mick, let's funush oop thus tub and gut hame und dry, eh?”
We summoned the last of our energies and had the hull stripped by three o clock. We agreed it would be best to keep our visitation by The Kelpies to ourselves, so we didn't spook the other men. I was allowed to tell my wife, however and Gordie was allowed to tell his sister in Arizona. We shook hands at the gate and went our ways.
As I lay in a tub of hot water, baking soda, salt, lemon juice and some cedar sprigs to counter the bilge smell and the Kelpie magic, I heard my young wife calling me from the living room.
“Michael, you'll never guess what's on the news. Two killer whales swam in under the Lions Gate Bridge on Saturday morning and got lost. They went all the way up to Indian Arm before turning around and finding their way back out Burrard Inlet to the sea. They just got clear today at about one o clock.”
Some people drink because they have tragedy in their lives. Some people have tragedy in their lives because they drink. There are worse things than drinking and some reformed drinkers have merely replaced their drinking with another addiction. As long as the dopamine crosses the neuron gaps, life goes on. Modern colleges have bars right on campus.
Drinkers can be guilty of ruining and endangering the lives of others but that is only if others allow it, with the exception of children. I had a step-father, my first of two, who drank like a galley slave. He had been at it quite some time when he came into my life. He was in his latter thirties when I met him and one drunken night, after we had polished off the ales, the wine and the Aquavit, we were musing on life.
He pulled an old card-board box out of the closet and rummaged inside. He extracted a newspaper clipping with an Oregon masthead. It was dated nearly two decades earlier. There was a photo of a young man in a hospital bed. He was in traction, wrapped in layer upon layer of bandages and a half body cast. There was a small inset photo of another young man with an accompanying obituary.
The story told of two young Danes who had come to Canada to receive jet pilot training in the Royal Canadian Air Force. The boys were also accomplished tennis players and my step-father was a dab hand at jazz piano. The pair were authorized to represent their base in these two capacities and traveled around to competitions by plane and by car.
On these excursions there was much prodigious drinking engaged in by the boys. My stepfather had been driving along the highway that runs through The Dalles. He was three sheets to the wind and lost control of the vehicle. His best friend was killed and he was crushed, particularly his two legs.
He woke up just before they took the picture in the paper. He is smiling in the picture and hadn't been told the news about his friend yet. When he rose from that cot, he began to punish himself and continued this until his death, several years ago. I believe I was the only person to receive his story since the tragedy happened. He never spoke of it again.
After my mother divorced him, I saw him only once. He was living in a funky dilapidated house with raccoons and squirrels running across the keys of a broken piano which a friend had gifted to him. He broiled a steak for my new wife and I and fell asleep in a urine soaked chair.
One of his friends, another Dane, was a car mechanic. This man had a brother who was a disheveled falling down non-functioning drunk. The mechanic had a son whom I ran with for a while. The mechanic was also alcoholic but the functional variety. His booming business kept him in the dough and he had a nice house, a strong wife and expensive clogs. As an auto mechanic, I found him to be less than honest and not overly talented.
One day, I was having some work done on one of my clunkers and I saw a secret. A customer had brought in a big luxury car that had an undiagnosed problem. The shop-owner pulled his his indigent brother up from a chair in the back and gave him some liquor. These two got in the car and went for a drive. They were back in ten minutes.
While they were gone, the customer, another Dane, intimated to me that the sloppy drunk brother had an incredible talent which the other brother was able to use. The delirious one could ride in any vehicle and by using his incredible sense of hearing and knowledge of mechanical things; he could diagnose with 100% accuracy what was the problem with any car. Then the functioning brother would perform the work and write the bill. Other than this, the gifted addict was shunned by his family.
When my ex-step-father passed away, I was invited to a wake at the Army and Navy Club in North Vancouver. It would be a Viking binge to be sure. I declined to attend for two reasons. One was because he had made my mother and baby sister miserable for many years. The other reason was that I had ceased drinking alcohol three decades earlier. The friend who phoned me with the news has never spoken to me since that time.
The night of the wake, I went out onto my front porch for a smoke. I was instantly and completely enveloped in a choking cloud of alcohol fumes. There was no visible source and I knew within a minute what was up.
“Lasse, I know you have come to say goodbye. I bear you no ill-will and I know you will understand why I didn't come tonight when you sober up. You will have to go on your way, you are dead now.”
I went out into the yard and cut a cedar branch and lit it up. I wafted the smoke around the yard, the porch, the doorway and also the interior of my apartment. To put it simply, this act gets the attention of those stuck between realities and signals them that they may continue saying goodbye to others in this world. The person doing the smudge has acknowledged their presence and has waved farewell. The smell disappeared as rapidly as it had come.
Several years into my second marriage I took on a mortgage. I paid ten thousand dollars down after saving the proceeds of daily overtime I worked at the Post Office. I built closets, stripped six layers of wallpaper, painted, gardened and repaired. I had my first-born son strapped onto my chest in a baby harness as I did all these repairs.
The boy was in his first year and loved the contact. He soon grew used to the noise and sawdust. Like a Yanomami mother, I had him with me unless I was sleeping or at work. When I got to the point in my endeavors where some carpet laying was to be done, I phoned a tradesman. It was a task I had never done on my own and I lacked the little tricks of that trade as well as the special tools.
A fellow came over to estimate the job and I chose the color. The next day a carpet layer pulled into the driveway and we had a brief meeting whereupon I showed him the rooms to be done. I was busy dry-walling, changing diapers, fixing bottles and baby meals. The man who was about my age by the look of it, shook hands and patted my boy on the head.
For the balance of that day we worked at our various tasks and passed each other in the house and in the yard. I had to rebuild some stairs in the bedroom so he could finish laying the underlay. We parted ways that afternoon in the driveway and he said he would likely finish by the next day. I was thrilled at the prospect of seeing the end of a long hard year's work of renovation.
I had a week off from the Post Office and was already up with my son strapped in when the carpet guy pulled up in his van with the royal blue carpet I had chosen. We had coffee and talked about my son and then both got to work. About noon, the fellow came to tell me he was missing some items he needed to complete his job. He said he would just pop back to the warehouse and pick them up.
He didn't return that day. The next morning he showed up at eight AM and told me a complicated tale of a day gone wrong. We had coffee and talked about sons. Then we got to work. At about noon, the carpet layer showed me where he had done half of the hallway and had run out of staples and such. He said he would run out to the warehouse and grab some. He didn't return that day. Nor the next. I phoned his number and left multiple massages which were not answered. My wife was furious and called me a fool. The hallway was half bare and one other room to be done was clad in underlay only.
After a two days absence, I saw the familiar van pull up bright and early. The carpet guy jumped out whistling. His plaid shirt was clean and he had shaved. He called me over to the truck and lit a cigarette. I walked over with my ubiquitous baby chest-pack. Daniel, my son was chewing on an animal biscuit.
“Mike, lookit, I'm sorry for the delay. To make it up to you, I fixed this paperwork so you get the underlay for free. You're just gonna pay for the carpet and half of my time.”
“Wow. OK. You don't have to do that. I know it is hard to keep several jobs on the go at the same time. Happened to me when I was retro-fitting oil-burners.”
He looked at me hard in the eyes, his expression tightened up as if he was wincing in pain and then it softened like when a man is holding a baby in his arms.
“I gotta tell you the truth... What it was, was this. I got married a few years ago and we had a little boy. He's got to be just the same age as your Dan there. My wife took off with him and got custody. They left town and I ain't seen him since. When I saw you with your boy, I couldn't bear it. My trips to the warehouse were trips to the bar. I'll finish up right now and I'd appreciate it if you'd work outside til I'm done.”
He did an extra special job and the carpet was laid with perfection. Dan and I wished him well and watched him back out of the long driveway. Less than a year later, I was standing in the street out front of that address. There was a huge mud hole in the ground where heavy equipment had wrecked the house. I saw a scrap of blue carpet poking out of the debris and thought of my son, whom the Court had ordered into the custody of my estranged wife. I missed him with a pain like a root canal of the soul. I remembered the carpet guy and knew I wasn't alone.
When I was just twenty I met a gal by chance down in North Las Vegas while attending a Texas friend's wedding. I had been summoned to play guitar at the reception. She was pretty, jolly and played guitar too! I heard her sing by chance and she had the voice of an angel. Her songs were all her own compositions and her rhythmic strumming combined with her haunting sweet voice wove a bind-rune around my young heart.
Her father was a retired Colonel who managed a department of the MGM Grand Hotel. I didn't much like hotels or motels and my first paying job as a child had been cleaning display houses, so it really didn't impress me much. Her mother was a secretary of the law firm of Jack Lehman, Esq. That name meant nothing to me at the time. They had a horse in the backyard but the backyard was desert as far as one could see to Sunrise Mountain. None of that stuff impressed me much but I was sure stuck on that blue-eyed blond-haired gal.
Her elder brother tried to scare me with high speed night driving on a long wash-board road into the city. The Caddy got big air on each bump and the shocks began to bottom out. Like the character Dwayne in one of Woody Allen's movies, he asked if I had ever felt like just ending it all and driving into an oncoming car. I told him no but that there were plenty of other people out there who did. I didn't tell him that my father used to suddenly swerve into the wrong lane, smash the dashboard, hit the brakes and shriek, “Christ, we're going to hit!” during our obligatory Sunday drives.
Big brother couldn't find my scary-button and got flustered when he'd exhausted his repertoire. We were out of desert and coming into the city lights. He wound up nearly losing control and scared himself when he knocked over a traffic sign. The Caddy got hung up and a crowd of Vegas street urchins came out of the neon night and rocked the big green boat off the bent metal before the cops could arrive. I just held the girl's hand who was genuinely scared and suggested that he take us home. I'm pretty sure he reported to his Daddy that I had kept my cool.
The girl had been born in California and I decided to just overlook that but she had lived most of her childhood in Panama. I had two Colombian born half-sisters I'd never met, so I scored that jungle time in her favor. One day, during the week I first met her we were sitting at a Taco Bell in her father's Caddy and she said we ought to get married. I hadn't even kissed her except in my mind and I immediately said, “Why Not?”
I drove her home and made the announcement to her folks and her siblings. A carton of Marlboros later, the Colonel put an end to the questions that I had been fielding from his family. I vowed I would go to Canada, get a job for $800.00 per month at a restaurant I knew, rent an apartment and send a one-way ticket to their eighteen year-old daughter ASAP. We shook on it and next morning I was off to McCarran International early.
My plan went as almost as outlined above and I sent a ticket to the gal. She arrived with only a guitar and a Navajo blanket. I got a second job so I could get out of my step-father's extra bedroom sooner than later. The immigration officials had told me that I would have to marry her within six months or she would be deported. I rented a nice flat in Deep Cove with a view of Panorama Park.
I made wedding rings from some big hex nuts which I ground smooth and filed the threads and four of the points off. I later had custom gold rings made to my own design by my new sister-in-law who was a budding jeweler. On a lunch break from my cooking job, I got married by a justice of the peace on Lonsdale Ave. It cost ten dollars with the single photo. I went back to work and the gal went to my step-father's place to share the news.
The Dane got her rip-roaring drunk and she was sick all over me and the taxi on our way home to the apartment that wedding night. It was nothing like the movies. During our brief marriage of thirty months we had many trials. My father committed suicide, her sister was killed in a motorcycle accident and we lived in a haunted house. I went through a dozen jobs and we moved many times. We hitch-hiked across Guatemala for our honeymoon.
My mother left the Dane and her and my sister came to stay with me. My mother went back to the Dane and my new wife let my sister stay. I brought my sister back to her mother. I prayed she would understand why someday. I was having trouble finding career type employment and my wife wasn't allowed to work due to the immigration rules in force at that time.
Eventually I got hired as a manager trainee by a big bank. I put my pipe-threader in storage and dressed up and cut off my hair. This was coming along fine and we got a nice basement suite in Lynn Valley way up Mountain Highway on Kilmer Road. The owners and landlords were newly arrived Scots with a bright baby boy and I loved living there. Then it happened one Saturday.
For the second time in my life up to that point, I made an unwelcome discovery while perusing some poetry and lyrics. I became rightly suspicious of my little wife. A short time later I stumbled on damning evidence of a broken vow and confronted the girl. She didn't deny my allegations and confessed to cheating with another man.
You can't glue a vow back together but the Irishman in me decided to give her one chance more due to her young age. I asked my wife if she loved me or him. While she cogitated on this the Cherokee in me told her the answer had to be one or the other. She replied that she wanted time to ponder the answer. The Welshman in me asked her how much time. She said about a month and that she would like to go to live at his place while she pondered. The German in me told her she could have fifteen minutes starting NOW and the Swede in me began packing her suitcase. The phone rang. It was her mother calling from Vegas.
“Michael, I have wonderful news. You'd better sit down. Do you have a pen and paper?”
“Well, I'll be brief. My husband and I just concluded some investment deals and had a windfall. You are about to move up quite a few notches in your position in the bank. I have already spoken to your bank manager there in Vancouver. You will be in charge of doing some financial transactions for some people down here on a regular basis. We have opened up trust accounts for you two as well as all our other children. Each of you will have a million dollars. You cannot touch the principal but the interest is yours to do as you see fit. Now first, give me a name for your trust.”
“Cedar,” was all I could think of.
“Fine. Cedar it is. Now, write this down. Mr. *** and Mr. *** will arrive Monday on flight *** at ***-o-clock and you are to pick them up and take them to your bank. They will have all the necessary papers for you to sign as well as instructions for you and your manager at the bank.”
As she spoke, I was doodling on a piece of paper where I had written the information. The interest at the time for savings accounts was over nine per cent and the monthly take of interest was over seven thousand dollars. I was making about seven hundred dollars a month as a trainee at the time. A spiritual owl swooped down and snatched the part of my brain full of ideas which had no means to see them realized, shot up through the Van Allen Belt and kept on going. Cocaine is but a raggedy, feeble, distant cousin to this feeling. I began to drip water from my armpits. I was visibly shaken after being emotionally stirred. I could hear my wife sniffling in the bedroom.
“Mom?”, I said flatly.
“Yes, honey? Not a bad day, huh? Take a deep breath. It's all real.”
“Mom, there is something I think I need to tell you.”
“Sure honey. What is it?”
“It's about your daughter.”
“What about my baby girl?”
“Mom, I think she's going to leave me and that we are going to split up. Does that change all the things you just told me?”
“Michael, Michael. You are honest to a fault! It certainly does change everything. Put her on the phone.”
I called my wife to the phone. She hadn't given me her answer yet and as I watched her face, I saw the sliver of a chance that we might have had to remain together disappear quick time. My owl of dreams and ideas did an abrupt about-face and reentered the atmosphere of my situation. It was like falling asleep on warm sand and waking up on a sheet of sea ice.
I staggered out the door mumbling to myself and went with gravity until I reached the intersection of Lynn Valley Road and Mountain Hwy., where there was a service station. A mechanic had noticed my erratic walking style and rushed out from the service bay.
He grabbed my arm and towed me into the shop. He sat a bucket upside down and made me sit. He yelled at another mechanic to get a mug of coffee. I took the offered drink and muttered something about losing a wife and a million dollars at the same time and all before lunch.
“Talk,” he said.
I reiterated that morning's events and my mother-in-law's call.
“Sweet and holy fook!” said one mechanic.
“She sure pissed on your Cornflakes,” said the other.
I wound my way back uphill after thanking the fellows. When I arrived my gal was gone with the suitcase and the instructions. Three days later, I woke to the sound of my Scottish landlady's voice. She was tugging something out of my grip.
“Makul, up ye gae lad. She'll nae be back. Look, man, ye huv nae luft aff klootchin' her shairt sunce Saturday as uf she'd died. Fling it awa. She's oonly a wee gell. Ye'll soon find anoother. Dinna worrit, aye? I've made ye a posh brekkie aloft and I tole the bank ta guv ye anoother day's grace afore ye show oop. ”
I was told three years later by my ex-mother-in-law when I was signing the divorce papers that there had been no fortune. She said her and the Colonel had been conned by pros and had lost everything.
If I include Vacation Bible School and Kindergarten, I attended thirteen schools by the end of Grade Twelve. Two different schools in Grade One, two different schools in Grade Six and two different schools in Grade Twelve. Two different cities in Texas, two different cities in Louisiana and one city and one village in British Columbia, for a total of two different states and two different countries and three distinct accents. I lunched on red beans and rice, chili con carne and fish and chips.
Spanish was a must in Texas and French was a must in Canada. Down South, the teachers were ladies and Up North the teachers were men. Down South there was a dress code and a boy's hair could not touch his shirt-collar and a girl's skirt couldn't ride above her knees. Up North in Lynn Valley, the children wore whatever they wanted and were cussing, smoking and drinking by Grade Six.
When I was fourteen in Grade Nine I announced at dinner one night that I was done cutting my hair. My parents looked askance and told me that I must continue for the sake of school. I would not be moved. I asked my mother to meet my little sister and I at the Lynn Valley Dairy Queen after school where all the children and some of teachers hung out. She complied and acquiesced to my hair growing after seeing the teachers' flowing locks and the Mackinaw jacketed sons of loggers in torn jeans. I never cut it again until I was twenty years old. Ten years later I balded on top like an Appalachian hill.
During High School in Lynn Valley I worked as a broiler man at the first Keg and Cleaver Restaurant from four PM til the wee hours. I ate free Teriyaki Baseball steaks, lobster tails, salad bar, onion soup and cheesecake. I began to drink liquor for the first time in my life. Most of the waiters were attending University and some of them showed up at my High School in the role of teachers in practicum. It was a great learning experience to work all night with a guy, sit in the bar and get drunk and stoned with him after and then have him as your English teacher a few hours later.
At the end of Grade Eleven my family split up for the second time. My mother had found a new man. I was told about it in a tearful interview and asked if I still respected her. I told her that I was happy for her. A meeting was set up for me to see him. He was to come for dinner at the Keg and wait til I was done my duties whereupon we would retire to his apartment and get acquainted.
Twenty beers and a stack of old jazz records later, I could say I had met the Dane. He was about thirty-seven at the time and a divorced father of two girls. He could speak about five languages, was a semi-pro tennis player, a pilot, a jazz piano player and earned his keep as a gas-fitter. My mother had meanwhile taken my baby sister back to an undisclosed location in Texas for fear of my father. I remained at the rented basement suite with my father. I was supposed to find out later the whereabouts of my mother through the grapevine.
This meet happened in the last week of school and when I got home from the last day of school, there was a brand new Westphalia camper van in the driveway where there used to be a Delta 98. I went to the bathroom to have a piss. I flipped on the light switch and looked over at the bath-tub. There passed out in the warm water was a girl about my age. She woke up and introduced herself as my father's new girlfriend. She looked part aboriginal and part Caucasian. She had old track marks on her dainty arms.
The next day my father and her took off for Mexico after stealing a 22 rifle a friend from Texas had given me as a gift several months before. There was no note nor discussion as to whether the basement was to be kept rented or not. I cleaned up the place, quit my job and went to track down my mother. I had two months to do this.
I pulled into Beaumont, Texas, on a Greyhound and soon learned from my Grandmother that my mother and sister had been through there but I had missed them by days. She said they had likely gone to Houston. My elder sister lived there after having recently gotten married and I decided to check her place out. I took another Hound to Houston and arrived to find out I had again missed the ladies by days. There destination had been kept secret and it was anyone's educated guess where they might have gone.
I stayed on for a few days. Next door to my sister's little house was a Navy Recruiter. I combed my long hair and walked in. I asked where I could sign up. The man at the desk started asking lots of irritating questions. How old was I? Where were my parents? Where did I live? Had I graduated high school yet?
I told him that my father was a merchant sailor from age fifteen and my grandfather was a merchant sailor from age fourteen. I reminded him that there was an unpopular, unjust war on at the moment and that I was a long-hair. That almost brought him around but he only was willing to play if I could get the signatures of both parents. My visions of three squares a day, a clean warm bunk, a structured environment and beautiful wahinis rapidly disappeared like a rabbit into a thicket.
I told him in grave tones that he had blown his chance to get one of the few good men all his TV commercials talked about and not to ever expect to see me come begging around his door again. I bid him adieu, bought a pack of Marlboros and a bus ticket to Vancouver. I had three dollars to keep me til I got there three days later.
I had a plan. I decided to sleep when everyone got off at the million little whistle-stops to eat. My only luggage was my guitar and a couple of clothes. The first second day I was awakened by the feeling of something dropping into my lap. It was a brown paper bag. An old man smiled at me as he waddled down the aisle to his seat. I opened it up and found a pound of peanuts, a can of Coke and a ham sandwich. I made them disappear.
I walked down the aisle to thank the man and he invited me to sit in an empty seat next to him and his wife. He was an Aussie and had been in a Japanese prison camp in Burma. He told his story of being starved to the brink of death and tortured on a daily basis for four years. He said he had noticed that I hadn't eaten or drank for two days and couldn't bear it. He began to cry and his wife got angry at me. He was a ham radio operator and had invented a method of bouncing signals off the moon to reach farther than was thought possible. He called it the Earth-Moon-Earth Group. We swapped addresses and he gave me his call sign, if I ever should need it.
I got to Vancouver and headed for the Keg and Cleaver to claim my shifts back. I slept on the summertime roof and in a waitress's van until she thought I was snuggling up a little too close to her during the night. Later that summer, I checked with Beaumont and was given instructions to find my mother and sister and the Dane.
I took a train from North Vancouver to Alpha Lake near Whistler. I was supposed to go to Alta Lake and had to walk the ten miles with my gear. At the end of the road was a nice apartment with rooms for all of us. The air was so clean it hurt to breath. I was given a lecture by the Dane and my mother that things were going to be tough and that I would have to pitch in and help. I said let's get to her.
Before long we moved to Squamish where there was more work for the Dane. He had an old station wagon, his tools and his records. I began Grade Twelve. I still enjoyed catching minnows in a slough that ran along our apartment complex. I had begun my poetic phase and used to cross the railroad tracks behind my building, run the gauntlet down the dike past the dump with its feasting black bears to sit beside the Squamish River and muse.
I had taken up smoking full time now and had been introduced to Old Port Cigars by my Danish mentor. I smoked them like cigarettes due to the brevity of the lunch break at school. One night at a party of the Danes friends held at our apartment a little shifty little Danish man I had been speaking to over copious ales took me aside into a corner of the packed living room. He told me a very strange story of his bush-pilot days.
He had been flying a dead man out of the wilderness and the corpse had filled with gas and after letting out a thunderous fart at 12,000 feet, it sat bolt upright in the small plane due to the interaction of the pressure drop and the temperature. He had thrown a jacket over its head so he could concentrate. We cracked another ale and were joined by his pretty wife. She was a raven-haired French lady about the age of my Mom, that is thirty-seven or so.
The bespectacled aviator introduced us and then suggested that I would find it much better to smoke cigarettes and lose the Old Ports. More debonair. I reflected on this and agreed. Next, he asked me if I would like to go upstairs and have sex with him and his wife. I nearly spewed my mouthful of beer. He looked hurt, like a puppy does after getting scolded for peeing on the carpet. He countered with an offer to watch me have sex with his wife. I declined his generosity and went for a walk in the dark down the railroad tracks to clear the ethanol out of my young head.
At school I made two acquaintances. One was a pretty Squamish Band girl who never spoke and always had a new Herman Hesse book in her hand. We sat and read together outdoors when the weather permitted and never spoke to each other but I know she enjoyed those peaceful moments before returning “home” just as I did.
The other was a effervescent Russian lad who showed me what to do on weekends. We would secure a bottle of Scotch and bring it to a small rusty green trailer. There inside was a strange old man that the Russian had befriended. After the three of us had killed the bottle he would recite Baudelaire. It was an epic oration every time but I hated that twisted poet's work. I would usually salve my soul with some Robert Service after one of these sessions. Dal, my school-mate gave me my first copy of the Communist Manifesto. I saw the truth behind that tripe faster than you could say, “Flowers of Evil.”
On weekends I took my little sister to the picture show at the tiny theater on Cleveland Avenue. It was always an old John Wayne flick. Sister loved it because the owner had a cat with a bell that roamed the theater and jumped from lap to lap during the movie. Sixty percent of the crowd were Squamish Band and every time there was a shoot-out scene where a cowboy bit the dust, this contingent rose to their feet and clapped thunderously, joined by us two Cherokees.
I was very bored in my classes and only looked forward to English and Literature. Not for the curriculum but because I had devised a way to do my own writing without getting caught during class. I had the same teacher for these two classes and the poor man tried valiantly to catch me and was never quick enough. I was building up a tome of poetry. I would catch the tubby white whiskered Hush-Puppy wearing gentleman coming up the aisle and quickly palm the papers and replace them with the pathetic mandatory reads.
One day we had a fire drill and it happened during Lit class. We had to leave all our stuff in the room and the teacher had opportunity and motive to look at my private writings. He kept his cool til Christmas season rolled around. At home there was talk of our having to move back to Lynn Valley at Christmas due to a lack of gas-fitting work for the Dane.
Just before school broke up I was summoned by loud-speaker to the office. Due to my up-bringing I automatically assumed I had done something wrong, though what it could have been surely escaped me. I was on the ultra-defensive due to the hormonal changes going on inside me with physical maturity completing itself.
I went in, straightened my shoulder length hair and glare at my tormentors like a Chiricahua brave facing a party of Comanches prior to being roasted alive. There was the principal of the Howe Sound Senior Secondary School, the English and Lit teacher and two men in black suits. These guys had briefcases and hadn't cracked a smile in years.
I demanded to know why the hell I was called into this conclave. My English teacher wore a mischievous grin all the while and nodded to the Principal, who looked distressed. The MIB sat like statues, briefcases poised on their laps and their faces expressionless as lobsters.
My English teacher took the floor and gave a little speech looking right at me.
“Michael, these men are from the MacMillan Bloedell Corporation. I have summoned them here. The purpose of their visit today is this: I have arranged for you to receive a full scholarship to attend university in Vancouver. It will be paid by MacMillan Bloedell and these gentlemen have the necessary papers for you to sign. The only condition is that you must pursue Literature in your studies.”
I choked with tears and could not speak for some tense moments. My emotions were several and inextricably entwined. I was deeply honored at my great luck and realized the great gift that had just been handed me. I was relieved to have a direction pointed out. I was also profoundly conflicted by some programming I had received via my grandparents and my father. I had been drilled since quite young that it was my job to care for my mother.
I finally managed to speak.
“I am honored for this gift you offer and thank you very much for it. Unfortunately, I will not be able to accept it.”
The businessmen looked at my teacher who demanded to know why.
“My family is going through some rough times and need me to be with them. They are also moving to North Vancouver in a short time.”
“That is ridiculous, let them move. Look, you can live in my house for the next six months and rejoin them when you start University in Vancouver. I have only one rule. You cannot smoke in my house.”
After hearing this, I asked if I may give my answer on the morrow. My teacher convinced the two men, who were clearly upset, to let me have this chance to consult with my family. We agreed to meet on the next day.
I went home from school and told my step-father-to-be and my mother of the offer. The Dane congratulated me and then kept fairly quiet and my mother burst into tears. She made it emotionally clear that she needed me to be with her and my sister and that was that. I made up my mind.
I met with the same contingent next day and gave my answer, which was thanks but no thanks. A few days later I was driving a U-Haul full of our stuff down the Squamish Highway with my baby sister riding shotgun. My mother and the Dane were in the station wagon ahead of us. We arrived at the address of the house they had rented and I set to unloading boxes straightaway.
I carried a few of my mom's boxes to an obvious master bedroom. I carried a few boxes of my sister's stuff to a smaller room. I hefted a box of my books and went down the hall to drop it in my room. I cannot describe my feelings when I discovered that there was no room for me. Disappointment, anger and a feeling of betrayal coalesced into a white-hot rage.
I spoke not a word to anyone and continued to move the boxes and furniture. I saw the owner of the house standing in the yard and went to inquire as to who lived in the basement of this house. He told me that there were three Quebecois but they had skipped the rent for two months and he hadn't removed their things yet. I asked him how much the rent was. I asked him if he'd rent to me. He said yes and I said wait a few minutes.
I ran the eight blocks to the Keg and Cleaver and demanded my broiler man job back with full forty hours of shifts per week. I got this and went by bus to a friend's house and ordered him to move out and be my room-mate. He agreed. I went to the bank and got the cash for the landlord and paid him.
I went inside and began to vent my rage by cleaning up the premises. The three people had basically left all their possessions in the suite and slipped in at night to get their mail and perhaps sleep and cook. There was a big fireplace and I began with the clothes and paperwork and stoked a big fire. The furniture was next. I rent it into pieces over my knee and burned everything that would fit.
Meanwhile the Dane's friends had begun a drinking party upstairs. I had pretty much burned all the former tenants possessions when they decided to pay a visit. I heard an angry French explicative and turned from my stance at the fireplace to see two men and a young woman peering into the living-room. The woman was hysterical and the men began to advance in a threatening manner. I calmly kept tossing their things into the fire and stirring it with the poker.
They surrounded me and began screaming and gesticulating in French and English. I ignored them but I was wondering when they were going to become physical. It would be sooner than later. Then I heard a hellacious whoop from the foot of the stairs leading to the upper floor. A woman I had seen at one of the Dane's parties had made the sound. I didn't even know her name.
She was a Squamish Band woman married to a Danish fisherman and she spoke in English. She was was drunk and her tone of voice was the most threatening thing I had ever heard down to this day. She told these people that she was going to take bites out of their livers if they touched a hair on my head. That was just for starters. My blood ran cold as did theirs. The trio muttered, ”Zut Alors!” and vacated the premises.
The warrior woman gave me her hand in greeting and introduced herself. Her voice was as sweet as cinnamon toast with honey. She said she understood what I was all about that day and to carry on. As a show of solidarity she grabbed a piece of the furniture I had smashed and chucked it into the flames before winding her way upstairs for the party in progress.
Thus began life at my first rental suite. I checked into my eleventh school in twelve years and cooked at night. I didn't bother trying to make friends and I remember being very irritated when observing carefree individuals acting their age. At work they called me the thirty-seven year old seventeen year old. I took an interest in gardening and plowed up the entire back yard.
I planted corn, marijuana, okra, pintos, tomatoes, squash, green beans, onions, green onions, lettuce, carrots, leeks, zucchini and spinach. I used a book my grandmother had given me and the crops came up perfectly. As the school year drew nearer to a close I became more and more disaffected with school. I had already completed all the required courses for graduation save one essay in history. I was filling my time with non-academic fluff courses.
I tried to complete the final essay. The topic I had been given was the Education System In Nazi Germany. As I researched this topic, I became struck by the similarities in the system then current as I was writing on the topic. This really made me angry. I found that when I spent time among my plants, I was happy as a raccoon at a duck pond.
When my elder sister had graduated two years earlier in Texas, I had been playing with our attack trained Malamute while the folks were getting ready to go. My grandparents had driven in from out of town and it was a dress-up occasion. She was graduating summa cum laude. I hated to dress up and I hated to wait so I began to wrestle on the floor with the dog which outweighed me at the time.
He had bitten a neighbor's face several months before and the attack was unprovoked. The neighbor let it slide and life went on. While I was rolling on the floor with the animal, its ear came close to my mouth and I gave it a nip just like a dog will do when it is play fighting. When I became aware of myself I was standing in the bathroom looking into the mirror.
My face was numb and had holes from the top of my skull to below my jaw. Where my natural smile lines once were I saw rips that laid the skin open down to the bone. I was a mess and looked like I'd walked into a buzz saw. My father had to miss the ceremony in order to take me to the emergency room for many, many stitches and lots of Novocaine. We arrived late but we got to see the handing of the scroll.
I wasn't aware of thinking of this first experience with graduation when mine was only weeks away but with hindsight I can say there was a good chance that it was percolating in my subconscious. As the day drew nearer, I became very agitated. Finally, I couldn't take anymore. My alarm clock rang one morning til it dropped off the shelf and spun around on the linoleum. When it ceased, I rose and wrote out a notice of my intention of withdrawing from classes. I gave a copy to each of my teachers and was walking out the hallway when one of my teachers summoned me in to see the Principal.
I went in and spoke to the man. I had heard his speech when I first arrived after Christmas and I liked his words. He had a good reputation with the students and enjoyed their respect as well. I was asked what I was up to. I explained that I was done with school and that nothing and no man was going to change my mind.
He had my records pulled and went over them. He noticed I was lacking only a single essay in completing my requirements for a B.C. Diploma. He pointed this out and said if I was having troubles at home, with family, or getting up for school due to work that I could complete the work at home and just bring it to him before the last day. I told him that would make no compromises and that I refused unequivocally to finish that cursed essay. He said that he wasn't empowered to just sign diplomas and hand them out like pop-corn. He pointed out that I would not get far in the world outside with out that document.
I told him that I didn't think many doors would fling open because of it. He was stubborn and I was adamant. We reached a crossroad. Someone had to give way. I tried out something.
“I'll make you a deal, Mr. C. In my “spare time” when I am not doing important essays such as the one in question, I write poetry. I have compiled a book of these poems. I will bring you this hand-made book to read. I will come the next day and if you think that based on my poems that I am worthy of a Grade Twelve Diploma, then give me one. If not, I am still out of here.”
He agreed and we shook on it. I went home and got the poem book. I brought it to his office and returned next day to get the verdict. He smiled and handed me a crispy Diploma signed by his own hand. He asked me what I planned to do next. I told him I would likely be a deck-hand on the tug boats in a short time. Two or three days later, I was busking with my guitar in front of a Bank of Montreal on Lonsdale Avenue in North Vancouver and Mr. C. walked past into the bank. He asked how it was coming with the tug boats. I assured him I would likely be sailing soon. I never saw him again.
Six years later, my baby sister and her best friend were summoned into Mr. C's office for some misdemeanor. As the girls sat awaiting their fate, my sister gazed up on the wall behind Mr. C's big desk. There on the wall, suitably framed was one of my poems. Here is what it said:
Shoe of the soul
Always too small
So we cut out
The painful parts
Michael Hawes was born in Texas, raised in Louisiana and lives in British Columbia.