Monday, November 18, 2013
He’d been alone a lot. Not lonesome in the sad sense of the word... he was used to it. There was that woman, once. She stayed for a while but, eventually, she drifted away. There were the two dogs, of course, so he wasn’t really alone. Just no people around regularly. He wasn’t sure if he owned the dogs or they owned him. He didn’t think about it like that, anyway. Ownership, laws, rules. Like the soldiers and media types in the boat who came by. They were so sure that it was necessary, mandatory, even, that he leave. They tried to convince him to join the rest of the evacuation. They could shout and roar and threaten but they’d never catch him. They wore gloves and masks and worried when they got a bit of water on them. And here he was, paddling, belly down, his inner tube and plastic container, to the grocery store. The water stank and there were turds floating by, but he’d seen the kids of Bangkok swimming in the filthy canals when he was there on R&R from Nam. They survived. In fact, the Thais were some of the strongest. Some of the toughest. He paddled with his right hand to turn left. Up to the park where the tops of the swings were still visible and across the submerged boulevard to the mall. All but the hardiest and most determined had given up shopping here. It wasn’t really shopping, you didn’t pay for anything, most of the valuable stuff was gone, looted. What were they going to do with the electronic appliances and games, anyway? There was no power. He drifted in the door of the grocery store. There were a few pet owners still making regular trips to the store but he doubted that many, if any, had tried the dog food. He found that it didn’t taste so bad. The cans were safe and the dried stuff, though it was hard to get down from the top shelf without wetting it, was tolerable. Full of vitamins and raw protein. Not processed to taste good for humans like everything else. The dry stuff made up for the lack of vegetables in his diet. He arranged the bags of dry dog food on top of the cans in the container. He pushed it up the aisle in front of his inner tube. The Saint Bernard breeder was struggling with a large bag, trying to squash it into the bow of her canoe. He stopped to help the woman. They exchanged nods without words. There had been nothing to talk about after the first few days. The latest gossip and rumours had become meaningless. Especially when they realized that they were stuck with the bodies. Some neighbours didn’t get along with each other, but to see them like that. Talk became trivial, unnecessary. He nodded goodbye to the Saint Bernard breeder, paddled up the aisle, out the door. The sun was hot as he headed for home. The dogs’d be waiting. It was kind of ironic, he mused, as he paddled along. There was Eric Clapton explaining his long fascination with Robert Johnson. That had been the DVD on in the living room when the water started rising. The hurricane caused more damage than usual. The generator he’d hooked up conscientiously after the last hurricane, was doing fine, until the flood. An earnest guy from England, an ex junkie, probably one of the best white blues players ever, sitting in a deserted building in Dallas, fifty or sixty years after Robert Johnson recorded there. Max wagged his tail in time with the drumbeats. Brutus perked up his ears, howled along with the song when the guy accompanying Clapton launched into the electric slide solos. Then the generator quit because of the rising water. Darkness enclosed them until he found some candles and lit them. The dogs knew right away. They appeared more anxious every time he looked at them. From the moonlight reconnoitre, the water first approaching his knees, then rising to his hips, things started looking very bad. There were the sounds of shots and shouting that night, but nothing out of the ordinary for that neighbourhood. The storm surge had lifted his van onto the roof of his stilted house. They found it a dry place, high enough to escape the water. He knew that the accumulation of a twice divorced, twice-estranged father disappeared that night, below him, saw the evidence of it the next morning. Clapton and the DVD player were under water with the tv. At least they had some bottled water and provisions. Once they had settled in the van, the dogs were their usual happy go lucky selves though they didn’t like it when he made them accompany him to an empty neighbour’s house to do their business. They smiled as they shook all over him upon their return. It was the only cheerful note on a depressing first day of the flood. More bodies appeared, floated by. The destruction reminded him of Nam. The memory rekindled the spirit of those days. They were “can do” days. Days when he and his buddies did whatever had to be done. No arthritic complaints at the size of the job. They did it then and now he felt that spirit return. They needed food and water for the future. The idea of taking the inner tube and the plastic storage container to the grocery store came to him when an old man’s body floated by and turned toward the park. No use sitting, feeling sorry for himself. They needed supplies. Thirty years ago he would’ve just got them. Now, he would do the same. They see a pathetic old man paddling an inner tube through the shit. They see long grey hair sticking out of a battered old hat and a grin with some teeth missing as he looks up at them in their boat. Some had life jackets on, some, with weapons, wore kevlar vests. Who was going to attack them? Some of the young ones with their bulging muscles and square chinned aggression were probably glad that he refused their help. They couldn’t understand his smiling replies, his rapt attention as he listened patiently to their many reasons why he should join the evacuation. Maybe he was judging them too harshly. But they didn’t look like they wanted him near them when they heard his refusal. No way they would take the dogs. He realised that he was smiling at his own joke: it was an evacuation all right. Like everyone in New Orleans had a dump, relieved their bladders and puked at the same time. Then left. Or maybe it was God. Or Mother Nature. He preferred to think that the earth was taking back its own. Like weeds that grow up through neglected concrete and asphalt. The older guys in the boats frowned disapprovingly when he refused. They warned him that they’d be returning with a body bag tailor made for him. They couldn’t help it. Saving people in emergencies was their job. They did it every day, all year round. They had to believe in it. Mr. Johnson’s tv, at the corner, way up in the attic, gave him a glimpse of the situation as it was portrayed by the media. It ran off a car battery for a while. Mr. Johnson had gone with the rescue workers in the boats. He was a stubborn, old pain in the ass most of the time. He complained all the time he was being rescued. He put his faith in the system and its compassion for veterans and seniors. The dogs greeted him with a tail wagging, slobbering frenzy until he yelled at them. They all enjoyed the dog food as the night fell. He had been living under the radar, out of sight of the system, for so many years now, that it wasn’t a great strain on him. He would have paddled around the city to see how old friends were doing, but from the dying images on Mr. Johnson’s tv, it was obvious that there were too many nosy media types, soldiers, national guards and cops. Too many guards guarding untouched neighbourhoods. Those who believed in the system were now stuck at the Superdome and Convention Centre. Viet Nam cured him of “my country right or wrong” patriotism. He learned, by experience, that smooth assurances from the powerful weren’t to be trusted. His doubts were confirmed many times over the years. People with power often deceived in the name of freedom. He contemplated the devastation of New Orleans. Only fools believed them. He surveyed the interior of the van, lit a joint. Billy would have been making his run just when the flood hit. He wondered if the shipment got through.
Sunday, November 10, 2013
I firs met Bubba an Stone one midnight when dey was gettin chased across de Interprovincial Bridge by Andre St. Pierre an is karate club. Dey flag me down an I elp em out, giv em a lif. I booted er to Ottawa, lef a buncha drunk black belts pantin an cursin at de moon. What dey did in de tavern to piss off de karate club, I dunno, but I seen St. Pierre an is boys get some guys, after a few beer one night, an it weren’t no pretty sight. So I give em a lif an we ad a few beer in de Market. I never see em again till las mont when dey come in de club on Elgin Street where I work behine de bar. “Frenchie!” Bubba roar an crush my an like a big, drunk bear. E’s even bigger now dan den. Stone, got a black eye but, as usual, e got a good lookin girl wit im an cement on is boots. I don tink Bubba an Stone learnt much in school excep ow to drink an fight an play football. Dey could play football cause dey were real tough an Bubba strong like a bull an mean when e put on de pads. Stone, e was jus mean alla time. After dey cripple some guys in university ball an fail all deir courses, dey end up in de construction business. Stone learn ow to build ouses from is fadder, got is own company. Bubba started out as a labourer for de city. Now dey give im is own truck. Dey’re bot pissed off at de wedder dis winter an, like mos people, dey’re about to crack aroun de end of Fevrier. Dey want to go to Florida an look up an ole football buddy. Dey invite me along dat night at de club. An I say yes. Tabernac. Stone, e bin through a couple marriages an lotsa udder women an got some kids scattered aroun. E says e can handle everyting excep women. Bubba got no kids an e’s fightin wit is girlfrien. De one Stone call “de douche” when Bubba can’t ear im. I shoulda known better when Stone tole me to bring an extra suitcase. One of is wives got all deir luggage an Bubba’s girlfren got de cops to keep im away from de apartment. My brudder, Guillaume, e’s smart, but e’s stupid. Smart wit money, stupid wit women. E always know ow to make a buck but insteada bein appy wit a nice little business in ull, e get tangle up wit a good lookin woman from Montreal. E moved down dere an got busted wit six keys o toot. I figured my brudder won’t be needin is suitcase for a while. I get it from my mudder’s an bring it along. It was a Monday mornin, not too early. We bin on a tour of de otels upriver in de Pontiac since we lef ull some time Saturday mornin. So our stomachs not de bes when we jump in Bubba’s new Corvette an ead for de border. Wit me an de suitcase in de back seat. Bubba, e’s big and tough, but e loves is Corvette. Is girlfren’s mad at im cause e spent money on de car e was spose to spen on er. He yell an take a slap at me an Stone if we spill somethin in de Corvette. Bubba can eat tree family size bags o chips, while e’s drivin, witout spillin a crumb. E takes a big paw fulla chips an stuff de whole ting in is mout while we ‘re bootin it outta town. De boys are ungry when we get to Kemptville an we all need a beer so we stop at de otel dere to join de farmers an rednecks in de tavern. Dey make de good meatball sandwich in de otel in Kemptville. Pretty soon, Stone gets inna game a pool wid some rednecks. De waitress, Katie, she’s stoppin longer to talk to me at de table, every time she bring de beer. It ain’t so bad bein small an French wit de long eyelash. Women love de long eyelash an get real mudderly when dey’re bigger dan you an tryna speak French. So dey usually come onto me firs. Sometime, it work, sometime, it don. Dis one came onto me firs. Definitely. Me? I’m small, but I’m wiry. A lover, not a fighter. I never tot trouble would start in Kemptville. I get up to go for a leak an ear bullfrog noises. I look aroun to see Katie arguin wit some rednecks. By de time I see it’s me dey’re talkin about, a bottle’s comin my way an de fight’s on. A couple jump Bubba from behine, but dey’re flyin over de pool table in a urry. I kick one guy in de back, Stone breaks is cue on a guy’s ead an we make it to de door. Bubba spins dat Corvette tru de gravel a few extra times to spray dose farmer trucks an we boot it for de border. We stop at a gas station to clean out de car, ave a piss, get ready for de USA. When we pull up to de border crossin, Stone sees some guys over to one side watchin guards tear deir truck apart, an laughs. We answer all de questions from a young guy in a uniform an e says to wait a minute an goes to get an ole guy. Dis guy looks like a state trooper from Texas, almos big as Bubba, wit de gun an de badge an de sun glasses. E takes one look at Stone’s black eye, wants our i.d. I tink we woulda bin o.k. if Bubba din take off is sun glasses to look in de glove compartment. Dunno why e’s wearin em anyway, it’s almos dark. I’m watchin de ole guard examine de i.d., but I see e’s really lookin over top of dem at Bubba’s eyes, in de side mirror. I could see is eyes too. Dey were red, real red. In fac, dey look like dey avin internal emmorage. De ole guard put is big, fat ead in de window, smell a real deep breat an tell Bubba to pull over beside de guys Stone laughed at. Bubba takes one look at de guys’ truck gettin torn apart an de back of is neck gets red as is eyeballs. We’re all pretty cool cause we know we’re clean. We go into de office wid de president’s picture on de wall beside all de wanted posters an answer more stupid questions. Bubba’s lookin out de window while some guards look unner de Corvette wit mirrors, open up de ood. De ole guard keeps smellin real ard while dey ask us who we gonna visit in Florida an if we ever take drugs. He stops sniffin so ard when Stone rips a real loud beer fart. Finally, jus when I tink we’re finish, de young guard march into de office wit Guillaume’s suitcase an a look like e jus won de lottery. E pull de plastic on a little panel in dere I din even know about. De ole guard reach in wit is big, fat fingers an pull out a baggie wit is udder han on is gun. E looks at us wit a big, ugly grin an opens de baggie. Ten seeds fall out on de counter. Couple udder guards, in de room behine us now, got deir hans on deir guns. Bubba turns red, Stone turns to me. Everybody looks at me. I try to give em a shrug like Trudeau, tell em it ain’t my suitcase. De guards smell blood now. Dey take me an Stone to one room, Bubba to an udder one. De young guard gives us some pamphlets an leaves us alone. Stone’s blamin me. I can ear Bubba roarin. Stone looks at is pamphlet, looks at me. “Uh oh” Dese pamphlets about some new law dey made in de States, ‘Zero Toleration’ I agree wit Stone when e say, “Uh oh” Dis new law means dey can take Bubba’s new Corvette an keep er cause of ten ole pot seeds even my brudder forgot. Collis. I never knew my brudder could write. It never come up. I guess everybody can write deir name an address dese days. Dat’s what saved us. Guillaume wrote is name on de tags an inside de suitcase. Dey ask more questions an finally fine out dat my brudder’s in jail in Montreal. Dey bring us all togedder in a room to tell us what we gotta do to get Bubba’s Corvette back. Bubba’s real red an starin at us like e’s gonna explode so I stay behine Stone when we go in. I feel better when I see some guards wit deir hans on deir guns. Dey probably woulda let Stone and Bubba go back to Ottawa cause it was my brudder’s suitcase, but Bubba explode right dere. “You idiots” e yell an make a dive for us. E knock alf de guards down an roll aroun on de floor wit de fat one till one young guard it im on de ead wit a night stick. Stone jumps in an pretty soon dey’re cuffin dem an draggin dem away. Me? I jus stan dere. A young guard notices me an point is gun at me. “Resume dat position” e say. Stone uses is phone call to get a ten tousand dollar bond on de spot. I gotta go, according to Bubba’s call, back to lawyers in Ottawa to get affidavits signed dat we don know nuttin about drugs. Maybe it weren’t fair, in a way, but me, I was appy to catch de nex bus dat came tru de border to get away from Bubba till he cool down. So de nex day is Tuesday. Instead o bein alfway to Florida, I’m gettin off de bus at de station in Ottawa an lookin for dis lawyer, Kenny Nelson, who use to play ball wit de boys. Turns out, is office is in a big, new building on Elgin Street wit igh speed elevators an lotsa plants. My brudder, Guillaume, e don like lawyers an e always say be careful wit dem, but dis setup looks o.k. to me. Dere’s lotsa good lookin women, all dressed to kill. I talk wit a sweet, blonde receptionist till Kenny Nelson shows up. E takes me to is office an I tell im de story. E asks me some questions. E’s laughin so hard, e’s almost cryin. E phones some udder lawyers oo played ball wit de boys. Dey all laugh an finally e tells me to come back tomorrow morning, de papers will be ready. Me? I’m tres fatigue by now an dis blonde got me tinkin bout some relaxation. I go for a breakfas special in de unnergroun fas food joints where Theresa works. Theresa, she’s big, wit lotsa poing. She love de long eyelash an take real good care o me from time to time. Theresa got a real good job in de government building on top o dese fas food joints. She comes down for a coffee wit me an gives me de key to er apartment. I got to know er about a year ago when she came into de club wit er government friens. So I go up to er place after I pick up a few grams from de stash. I ave a sauna an a swim in er pool, get some relaxation till she comes home an we hit de sack. She cooks a nice Italian supper an I feel guilty when we’re sittin in fron de fireplace wit de wine an smoke an listenin to er jazz records. Guilty about de boys, I mean. Me an Theresa ave a good time an she ‘s tryna talk me into movin in wit er like she always does. I don tink she really wants me to move in, it’s jus sorta a game we play. We bot know it would spoil all de fun. In de mornin I see Kenny Nelson an e’s still laughin an phonin more guys oo played football wit de boys while I sign papers sayin I don know nuttin about seeds or dope. Finally, e gives me all de stuff we need an I get a bus back to de border. We musta got lucky cause one a de young guards was a Corvette freak like Bubba an dey spen lotsa time talkin bout em. Bubba’s mellowed out, but e’s still mad. E lets us in de Corvette when we get everyting straightened out. Pretty soon, we’re bootin er sout on 87, lookin for six packs. De boys jus don feel right widout a cold, American beer between deir legs when dey’re drivin in de States. De only words Bubba says to us, excep “Put on Van Halen”, was “You idiots!” Every so often, while e drink is first six pack, he looks across at Stone an in the mirror at me an shakes is big ead. After de firs couple o six packs, Bubba let Stone put on Dire Straits. I don pay much attention anymore. Since I met de bands at de bar, seem to me de guitar players are jus as crazy as ousepainters. Well, de trip goes pretty good after dat. By de time we get to de sout, we figure out dat we only got one day to stay in Florida if we’re gonna make it back to Ottawa on time. “No way!” Bubba says. “Red says toot’s thirty five a gram in Miami. We’re stayin for a vacation. We deserve it” Red’s deir football buddy. E runs some kinda tourist resort where dey specialize in parties. We ad a real good time, stayed for two weeks, till we ran outta money. Guillaume always says dat de only people dat party like Quebecers, is Americans. I believe im now. We end up alfway to Cuba wit dancin girls an gangsters an almos get shot outta de water by de coast guard, but dat’s anudder story. My brudder, Guillaume, he’s comin into de club for a drink tonight. Is woman in Montreal got im a good lawyer an dey trew de whole ting outta court. E’s comin in to pick up is suitcase, too. Nex week, e’s goin on vacation.
Saturday, November 2, 2013
We were snowed in as usual. The cabin fever began to grow. There was barely room for all of us and the animals. Nothing could be left out in this cold. The wind shrieked and howled while the snow buried our houses with us in them. The digging started right away, of course. Those of us who were nearest the door were given shovels and plows whether we wanted them or not. Granny sat by the wood stove. She was blind but she was knitting. There would be a long scarf for the children by the time we tunnelled to daylight. Children howled and shrieked with joy as they buzzed through the crowded residence. Families and extended families with their neighbours and their extended families sheltered in the humble abode. Gramps saw it once. One time, so they say, before he passed away, Gramps emerged from the snow tunnel the day before the winter snows descended again. He looked upon the homestead that day, without snow on it and never spoke another word. Caribou jerky hung from the ceiling. Wood stoves kept the stew stewing. We took it in shifts. We hoped, in our modest way, to make it out before the snows came again. We aimed to see what Gramps saw. Farmyard beasts mated in the back, among the hanging furs. Birds sat in the rafters and dropped droppings as we dug for many days. Once, it became lighter and we thought we had reached the end in record time. We were wrong, of course. A cave-in deprived many of consciousness. Lively Irish fiddle music replaced lively Scottish fiddle music which replaced lively French fiddle music. Then they reversed. Stew and beer awaited those who participated in the digging. It wasn’t an occupation which promoted good health, but as our neighbour, Mr Clark said, “Up, up and away! ” Children were born, old ones passed along, the population’s size expanded and shrunk. The digging went on, but it was slow work. We were sure to reach the end by the return of the snowstorms, but what then? Did we always have to do this? Is this what life was about? It was in this frame of mind that I’d become separated from the main group. I don’t know how it happened. I wandered through a shiny crystal tunnel. I was lost. The temperature was all right but I had no food or water. A mysterious tugging kept me walking on without fear. Then it was over as soon as it had begun. I emerged into a warm field full of sunshine and trees and grass and birds. A small man dressed in green sat with his back up against a towering oak tree. He was fingering a flute, trying out different notes by covering different holes. I sat down in front of him and watched. His bushy grey eyebrows flickered as he stared at his fingers in concentration. He blew a few notes, wrinkled his nose and placed the flute in an inside jacket pocket. From this he withdrew a deerstalker pipe and tobacco. When he had lit up and enjoyed the smoke, he smiled and looked at me. ”Well now, how are you and the Canadians you know?” I wasn’t sure what to say. I felt good right then, at that moment. But how was I really? And the Canadians I knew? This flashed through my mind in a nanosecond, but the little man’s eyes showed that he was waiting for me to catch up. It seemed that he was reading my mind. I only had to think something and he would chuckle to himself. It made me examine every thought. “Fine” I said. “Fine? Fine?” he chuckled, drew a good draught on his pipe. When I looked into his eyes I could only think of the digging. Stew, beer and digging. It wasn’t a happy fate that awaited Canadians. The reality of it struck me in the face like a cold mackerel. “Well, you seem to have caught me unawares, so I’ll grant you the wish you desire” said the little man dressed in green. He produced a wand and stood at the ready. He rolled his eyes, checked a pocket watch in his vest, tapped his toe, sighed and looked impatient. I could think only of the digging as I made my wish. The little man doffed his green fedora, pocketed his pipe and disappeared with a smile and a twinkle of the eye. I found myself walking along the crystal corridors again, pulled onward by an unknown force. Sounds of the digging greeted me as I joined the digging assembly line to the envious oohs and ahhs of my coworkers. They were admiring my brand new shovel. More stew, beer and digging. It began to look dubious that we would reach the end of the snow tunnel before the snows returned. We dug harder and faster to make it through. Then, just when things were darkest, we began to see a little light. As we dug toward the surface, there were hoots of jubilation among the grunts of work. The sun appeared as we emerged a year after the last snowstorm, but a snow cloud quickly hid its warmth and light. We realized, as we looked upon the homestead, that big lump of snow, that the snowstorms had returned. We were late by a few days. We resolved to beat the snowstorms next year as we filed back into the tunnel.