Clear­wa­ter

Prairie Fire - - KAREN HOFMANN -

IN THE MORN­ING BRYAN FOL­LOWS the North Thomp­son, which is grey, slug­gishly rip­pled, like a black-and-white photo of wa­ter, north and east, to­ward the moun­tains, to­ward the head­wa­ters. The high­way clings to the moun­tain­sides, is flung back and forth in wide loops, ris­ing from the flood­plain to pre­car­i­ous slopes.

He had tele­phoned Roy Tues­day night, long enough ahead that Roy won’t feel rushed, close enough to the visit that he won’t for­get. But still doesn’t know how he’ll find the old guy. Roy had taken a while to re­mem­ber who Bryan was. Not sur­pris­ing, maybe. It’s been more than thirty years. He had just thought. He had rec­og­nized Roy’s voice right away.

Rayleigh, Vin­sulla, McLure, Louis Creek: the lit­tle towns along the high­way. Grass­land, on ei­ther side of the road and the river. The grass bleached out by the sum­mer’s heat. Sage­brush dot­ting it, that pur­ple­green colour he can’t name, and then crum­bling grey and yel­low rock, the high­way now cut off from the river by cliffs, and the black stub­ble of trees on both sides, where the fire leapt the canyon. An un­promis­ing land­scape. Stingy. He has driven it a few times now, but it al­ways im­presses him, the harsh­ness, how the trees and grass can sur­vive on so lit­tle.

The first time must have been that sum­mer he was eight. The two of them, Bryan and Jenni, driv­ing up from Van­cou­ver on the Trans-Canada, then the Yel­low­head, the land­scape, af­ter the moun­tains, get­ting browner by the mile, and Bryan chang­ing to a new ra­dio sta­tion when the one from the last town got too fuzzy. Then they were past Kam­loops, where they’d stopped at the Dairy Queen and both had small cones, and Bryan had found a quar­ter un­der the floor mat so he’d been al­lowed to have his cone dipped.

Cow­boy coun­try, Jenni had said. Yel­low­head High­way; I love it, Jenni had said. Then later: This land­scape is awe­some! Like a road­run­ner car­toon. And later still: I’m sick of this. Looks like some­one for­got to wa­ter the grass for­ever.

That must have been around Bar­rière. They were headed for Jasper, but it was al­most night, so they would have to sleep in a camp­ground. That’s how they’d ended up in Clear­wa­ter, at Roy’s.

Here he is at Bar­rière now. Another bridge, this one punched-out steel, with riv­ets and ca­bles show­ing, so you could see how it was put to­gether. Not re­as­sur­ing. Like that stuff boys used to have, the metal stuff. Mec­cano. Did kids still play with it?

Birch Is­land, Darfield, Lit­tle Fort, Black­pool. Old rail­way stops, not even whis­tle stops now, some of them: just names. He likes that the signs are still there. He likes to know where he’s go­ing. He likes to know where he is. The land­scape more lush, here: green fields, dense trees, in the deep shad­ows of the hills. Au­tumn colours and a pheas­ant scud­ding across a frosted pasture. The dull flicker un­der his col­lar­bone: re­mem­ber­ing his dream years ago of buy­ing some prop­erty, liv­ing here, and then the re­al­iza­tion he wouldn’t, ever.

And then the town, just past where the Clear­wa­ter River flows into the North Thomp­son, and the turnoff, and the short road through the trees.

The trip into Clear­wa­ter the first time, more than thirty years ago. Jenni driv­ing that Cel­ica, which was a kind of bronze-brown, a late model, and prob­a­bly, Bryan thinks now, not ac­tu­ally Jenni’s own car. He can’t re­mem­ber it much later than the trip, so pos­si­bly it was re­claimed by its real owner, who would have been Cliff, or per­haps Doug, who hadn’t been Jenni’s boyfriend, re­ally, but a teenaged boy she’d met at the mid­way, and brought home to the apart­ment she and Cliff had shared, which had re­sulted in her and Bryan leav­ing in a hurry.

The in­te­rior of the Cel­ica had been cream. Leather seats. Him­self curled up on the seat, next to Jenni. Try­ing not to drip ketchup or ice cream on the seat, not be­cause Jenni was wor­ried about it, but be­cause he had nat­u­rally liked things to be neat and clean. He re­mem­bers the sky trans­form­ing: cloud, blue, cloud. He had re­clined the front pas­sen­ger seat right back, and watched the sky through the sun­roof, and he re­mem­bers Jenni singing along to The Gam­bler, mak­ing her voice deep like Kenny Rogers’s, and the sun blad­ing through the blocks of cloud so that he was suf­fused with light, shadow, light.

He had seen, through the sun­roof, a hawk, and had sat up quickly, scrab­bling in his bag for his bird book and binoc­u­lars, which hadn’t of course been there.

You should have re­mem­bered them, Jenni had said. But she’d pulled him out of his bed, into the car, when they had left Cliff’s, so quickly that most of his stuff had been left be­hind.

Maybe Cliff will send my stuff, he’d said. But Jenni had made a face. I don’t think so.

Waiting while Roy stumps across the house to the door, Bryan casts his gaze to the porch roof, runs the edge of his thumb­nail along a sus­pi­cious joist. He’d no­ticed the slope of the roof as he walked up to the house. Sag­ging at the left out­side cor­ner. Maybe some­thing he can take care of for Roy. A shame to let things fall apart. The tim­ber gives spongily un­der his nail, as he ex­pected. He drops his arm, turns around just in time for the door to open, timing it by Roy’s ap­proach­ing steps.

And there’s Roy, all jut of grey beard and belly, low-slung jeans, high-ten­sion sus­penders, wheez­ing a lit­tle and frown­ing, as if Bryan were a Bi­ble sales­man, as if he weren’t ex­pect­ing him, as if he’s never seen him be­fore. But at the sight of Roy, at the rush of warm air that puffs out around Roy, Bryan feels the breath re­turn to his body, feels his shoul­ders re­lax.

They’re not the sort to hug, ei­ther of them. Bryan holds out the case he’s brought, beer in bot­tles, and Roy grunts and ges­tures to come in­side, turns and stumps back through the kitchen, Bryan fol­low­ing.

The in­side of Roy’s house has changed be­yond recog­ni­tion. It has shrunk, for one thing. And been re­dec­o­rated: the kitchen cab­i­nets from the mid-eight­ies, but an up­date, the dirty-white melamine with grooved oak trim, the beige lino and car­pet­ing. What had it been be­fore? He re­mem­bers var­nished ply­wood cup­boards, some sort of floor­ing pat­terned in turquoise and yel­low swirls. The stairs to the sec­ond floor, just off the kitchen, di­min­ished to a lad­der for dwarfs.

In the liv­ing room, Bryan’s eyes go to the pho­tos ranged along the shelves; there is the fa­mil­iar pa­rade of Roy’s two kids through the sev­en­ties, pho­tos faded so both of them have pas­tel clothes and soft brown hair, as if they’re pre­served in soft-fo­cus. Then more re­cent pho­tos of kids of var­i­ous sizes: Roy’s grand­kids, maybe great-grand­kids, ba­bies and tod­dlers in Christ­mas out­fits.

He’d for­got­ten Roy had kids of his own, grown up be­fore he and Jenni had lived here.

No pic­tures of Jenni or Bryan. But why would there be?

What’s new in your neck of the woods? Bryan hears him­self say, then winces—he sounds like an old man, older than Roy.

Roy ig­nores the ques­tion, though. He picks up a folded news­pa­per, holds it out to­ward Bryan, shak­ing it up and down as if to set­tle the words.

You see this? Roy asks.

Bryan takes the paper. Some­thing about the elec­tion. His eyes scan the half-sheet. No, it’s Canada. The en­vi­ron­ment. He scans the ar­ti­cle, com­poses a non-com­mit­tal re­ply. The thing about Roy, he’s not like the old peo­ple in Bryan’s neigh­bour­hood who can be counted on to have con­ser­va­tive views. Roy was al­ways well-in­formed, a lit­tle rad­i­cal.

They never learn, Bryan says, which is a use­ful re­sponse at any time. Bryan isn’t so keen on talk­ing pol­i­tics with Roy. Roy likely knows too much, will makes him feel like a fool, what­ever Bryan says. He hands the

paper back to Roy, still folded. Roy grunts again, al­most a dis­ap­pointed sound, and lays the paper back on the couch.

You keep­ing well? Bryan asks.

Roy nods gravely; says, Can’t com­plain. He says it with the same dig­nity with which he took his seat: a sort of pa­tient ac­cep­tance of his body’s short­com­ings.

They sit for a while.

You want some coffee? Roy asks. I got some fresh in the pot, if you want to get it. Some bak­ing from the store across the high­way, too.

I’m good, Bryan says.

The elec­tion, Roy says. We should be ashamed.

Yes, sir, Bryan says. He re­mem­bers that Roy is ac­tu­ally Amer­i­can, one of the original draft dodgers. Though that’s all over with. What’s the word. Amnesty. And that Amer­i­can politi­cian, what was his name, meet­ing them all in Nel­son a cou­ple of years ago, ded­i­cat­ing the mon­u­ment. Well, times change. When he and Jenni had met Roy, though, there’d been some ques­tion of Roy’s le­gal sta­tus. Some pos­si­bil­ity of his still be­ing ex­tra­dited, or de­ported, or what­ever it was. Which made Roy’s choice of pro­fes­sion kind of in­ter­est­ing, if you thought about it.

Roy looks like he wants to show Bryan some­thing in the news­pa­per, but then folds the paper up again, puts it down.

How’s the fam­ily? he asks.

Oh, fine, fine, Bryan says. He’s al­ways sent Roy a Christ­mas card, since he was an adult, anyway. He skirts the topic of Lori, and gives his news of the boys. Jared’s in high school now, he says. He tried out for bas­ket­ball, but I think he’s too short. Didn’t make the team. He does okay in his classes, though. Gets Bs if he puts a lit­tle ef­fort into it. Ty is another story; he can’t be both­ered. Could get As, could be a de­cent hockey player. If he’d of stuck to it, he could be play­ing rep.

I sup­pose the boys are both en­grossed in video games, Roy says, and Bryan sighs. That’s it; that’s it ex­actly. Kids don’t want to play out­side any­more, don’t want to make things. That’s some of the ar­gu­ment with Lori: the grow­ing piles of ex­pen­sive de­vices and games; the hours the boys spend im­mo­bile in dark­ened rooms, their faces lit by screens.

Roy says, Must be a lot of en­ter­tain­ment value in them.

Yes, there is, Bryan says. He does not want to talk about video games. Roy is silent for a few mo­ments, his head nod­ding a lit­tle.

So, you’re work­ing in Kam­loops now, Roy says. Up here by your­self?

Yes. Lori’s got her job at the coast.

Econ­omy’s still slow though, Roy says.

Yes. Have to go where the work is.

Roy nods and nods, as if con­tem­plat­ing say­ing some­thing.

That first trip up here, over thirty years ago now. Jenni driv­ing the bor­rowed Cel­ica, the land­scape be­com­ing green as they neared the moun­tains, as they came close to Clear­wa­ter. Bryan had found a new

sta­tion on the ra­dio, and a man’s deep voice was an­nounc­ing a song, a coun­try song, and Jenni had said, My God, I’m in love with that man’s voice! I’m go­ing to stop here and find him!

And Bryan said No, no, don’t, Mom, but Jenni laughed. Why not? And he has al­ways re­mem­bered that they drove right up to Roy’s door, and Jenni hopped out of the car, swing­ing her bag over her shoul­der, and knocked on the door, and Roy came out onto the porch, look­ing sur­prised (you could see more of his mouth then; his beard wasn’t so bushy) and Jenni said, hi, we’ve come to live with you. And Bryan had car­ried in his own bag, with his spare un­der­wear and jeans and the jack­knife that Cliff, Jenni’s last boyfriend, had given him, the one thing he’d man­aged to keep, and walked into a room with a bed and dresser and a lit­tle ta­ble by the bed with a lamp on it, and put his un­der­wear and jeans and T-shirts into the draw­ers.

Of course, it couldn’t have been like that. There must have been a space of time; there must have been a place they stayed while Jenni made in­quiries and met Roy in a bar or some­thing and fixed it up so he’d let them move in. He knows that. He re­mem­bers the camp­ground; maybe they stayed there for a few days, or maybe there was a mo­tel, or a room in some­one else’s house. Jenni was good at get­ting peo­ple to take them in, take care of them. They must have been in Clear­wa­ter some time be­fore Jenni found Roy.

But Bryan can’t re­mem­ber that. He’d swear that they’d driven right up to Roy’s house. He’d swear that Roy had opened that door, and said, Well, hey, Bryan. There’s lots of room for a boy, here. You just come right on in.

He had come to like be­ing in Roy’s house, liv­ing with Roy. He had held Roy’s hand when­ever there had been the op­por­tu­nity, though Roy hadn’t en­cour­aged this, only tol­er­ated it, surely. He’d re­ferred to Roy as his dad at school, as of­ten as he could. For that part-year.

How about some lunch, Roy says, fi­nally.

There are sand­wich things in the re­frig­er­a­tor, meats and cheese wrapped in butcher paper, and fresh, un­sliced bak­ery bread, and soup that Bryan heats up in a saucepan. They sit at the ta­ble, Roy low­er­ing him­self into his chair with a kind of dig­ni­fied heav­i­ness, and slices the bread, makes Bryan’s sand­wich, ask­ing him what he wants: but­ter? May­on­naise? Salt and pep­per? The soup tastes home­made. Beef, bar­ley, veg­eta­bles. A woman comes in, Roy says.

Bryan fin­ishes too quickly. You went to town on that, Roy com­ments. Roy is eat­ing his own sandwiches slowly, sip­ping his soup slowly, still with that dig­nity. He al­ways had that, Bryan thinks. That slow­ness, that de­lib­er­ate­ness. As if he were a rock. That’s how he’d seen Roy, when he was a kid. Solid, fixed. Jenni, er­ratic as wa­ter.

When they’re fin­ished eat­ing, Bryan washes up the plates and bowls and cut­lery, the saucepan, and stacks them in the drain rack, then joins Roy, who has headed back to his chair. Roy has not picked up the news­pa­per. He looks sleepy, now. Is he older than Bryan thinks?

That last week­end home: he hadn’t meant. Only Jared, so mouthy. So full of him­self. Didn’t mean to do that. But the kid pour­ing half a six­dol­lar box of ce­real in the bowl, the bowl nearly over­flow­ing, the kid slack-jawed, blank-eyed. The num­ber of half-eaten bowls of ce­real he’s car­ried up­stairs from the play­room. Obliv­i­ous.

Hey! Dad! That’s my ce­real!

Look. Just. Look how much.

I’m gonna eat it!

He hadn’t meant to get into it, the tus­sle. The kid’s fault, grab­bing the box back. In­so­lent. He’d fought off ev­ery in­stinct to shake Jared’s silly stub­born head off his shoul­ders.

Dad! Let go! I’m try­ing to get some break­fast! Do you want me to go to school or not?

The room sud­denly crowd­ing him small.

Have it then!

His own face nose-to-nose with his son’s. The mo­men­tary rush and re­lease of let­ting go, let­ting his vocal cords ex­pand fully, his clenched hands move, tip­ping the bowl of ash-brown flakes, of blue milk, over his son’s head.

Lori: You have no idea how to be a fa­ther.

Roy looks out of the picture win­dow now, and Bryan, fol­low­ing his gaze, sees that it has started to snow, sud­denly, very heav­ily, flakes of snow com­ing down big and flat as torn paper, waste­bas­kets of the stuff, lac­ing through the bare weak yel­low branches of the wil­low. Big, wet flakes, gluing them­selves to the ground, oblit­er­at­ing the lawn with a star­tling quick­ness. It snows so much more up here, up against the Rock­ies, than where he’s liv­ing now, and the snow is so much wet­ter, heav­ier.

It had been his first real snow, that win­ter he had lived in Clear­wa­ter—it hadn’t snowed much in Van­cou­ver. He and Jenni had played in it like kids, snow­ball fights, snow an­gels, snow­men. Roy com­ing in, from shov­el­ling the drive­way, snow in his beard, watch­ing them, smil­ing in his dig­ni­fied way. Solid, apart.

What had it meant for Roy, hav­ing him and Jenni there? That’s what he’s al­ways wanted to know. What had it meant?

He re­mem­bers, sud­denly, the Christ­mas tree in the cor­ner of this room, crowd­ing the fur­ni­ture, the sofa with its tufted cover. The big opaque bulbs of the lights, not like the sharp mini-lights they have now, and the metal col­lars like flow­ers around the bulbs; the heavy tin­sel gar­land; the paper chain he’d made in school; the cel­lu­loid or­na­ments, must have been from the ’fifties, that would fetch a good price on eBay now, if Roy still has them.

He can re­mem­ber what was in the gifts, too. He’d make a bet that he can re­mem­ber ev­ery last ar­ti­cle. From his mom to Roy: hard­cover book. Tom Wolfe. And a hand-knit sweater, a Si­wash sweater. Well, half of one. Or maybe just the back and part of a sleeve. Jenni’d had to knit it in se­cret, when Roy wasn’t around. From Roy to Jenni: tall suede boots,

new, and a por­ta­ble stereo and an Ea­gles tape. From Bryan to Roy: a mug he’d picked out him­self and paid for with money earned stack­ing kin­dling. And for Jenni, from Bryan, a hand-painted fake-silk scarf from the Angli­can Church craft fair. And from Roy and Jenni to Bryan: an elec­tric car-rac­ing set. A pocket knife. A Star Wars lunch­box. A Turbo-Racer sled.

He sees the gifts now, com­ing out of their wrap­pings shiny and smelling of new plas­tic and clean metal and ev­ery­thing be­ing okay.

Roy says, you’ll want to be hit­ting the road soon; it’s re­ally com­ing down.

Yes, and he hasn’t put the snow tires on the pickup yet. He ought to be go­ing. He’ll go, in a minute.

A boy needs a dad, Jenni had said, be­cause she had fallen in love with Roy’s voice on the ra­dio an­nounc­ing Rhine­stone Cow­boy. Roy ran a lit­tle in­de­pen­dent ra­dio sta­tion, in those days. He was a draft dodger, an Amer­i­can, and there still hadn’t been amnesty, but Roy had been on that ra­dio ev­ery day, talk­ing to the peo­ple around Clear­wa­ter in his deep, slow voice, in­ton­ing the names of songs, or maybe im­por­tant in­for­ma­tion, like I highly rec­om­mend the blue­berry pie be­ing served down at Char­lene’s to­day, or Would the own­ers of the chartreuse Pinto please move it as Chuck can’t get his Jimmy out of his drive­way. Roy, dis­pens­ing moods as he saw fit, the slow songs like Tequila Sunrise and Can I Have This Dance for the Rest of My Life; the quicker ones like Cin­na­mon Girl and Could Have Been a Lady and Your Back­yard. Roy wind­ing the day up and slow­ing it down. Here’s one for all of you folks out on the east cut.

To hear Roy’s steady bari­tone on the ra­dio and think: That’s my dad. He had worked at that; he had pol­ished up that thought.

At first the snow seems to have let up a lit­tle, but then the high­way is nearly whited out, and Bryan slows to fifty, wipers go­ing full blast, fog lamps on for ex­tra light. Even dimmed, the head­lights seem to bounce right back from the snow in bright nee­dles. He turns the ra­dio on for the dis­trac­tion; then de­cides, af­ter a short cor­ner skid, that he needs to con­cen­trate more, and turns it off.

Then sud­denly there are shapes up ahead and he brakes, slides, grips just in time to haul up safely be­hind the last in a line of semis. He’s on the in­cline above the bridge; the line snakes for­ward ahead of and a lit­tle be­low him, so he can see the white-caked ob­longs of ve­hi­cles, their tail­lights spaced be­tween them. He can’t see the head of the line in the fall­ing snow, but he gets out of the pickup, af­ter a minute or two, and walks up to the truck ahead of him, raps on the door.

Semi jack­knifed across the bridge, the driver says. Re­ally wedged in there. Bet­ter turn around if you can—my rig’s too long.

So there it is. Might as well go back to Roy’s. Bryan thinks about call­ing Lori, even gets out his cell, but then re­mem­bers she’d still be at work, not even close to leav­ing. Not that she’s likely to worry where he is, anyway.

He makes a U-turn and heads back north. He al­most feels that he should try to get home, but he can’t think of an al­ter­nate route. Anyway, Roy’ll likely be glad to see him, have him spend the night, even. For all he doesn’t show it, Roy must be lonely some­times. You want any wood cut, he’ll ask Roy. Gro­ceries? He can stay and shovel the drive­way, maybe, so Roy’s care­taker, the woman paid to clean up and pre­pare his food, can make her way in.

The snow is com­ing down as if it can’t stop it­self. He hasn’t seen it snow any­where else like it snows here, in these huge, heavy flakes, like the snow is be­ing poured over the edge of some­thing.

He knocks, but there’s no an­swer, so he lets him­self back in, takes off his wet shoes, walks back through the kitchen into the liv­ing room, say­ing, Roy? Roy?

Roy has fallen asleep, his eyes closed, his head held up­rightly against the back of his chair, his big body per­fectly im­mo­bile, as if he’s been rooted in one place for years and years.

It’s a com­fort­ing sight. He takes off his coat as if Roy has in­vited him to, and set­tles back on the sofa.

That year, that al­most-year. Of course he re­mem­bers ev­ery­thing about his Christ­mas gifts. That had been his only fam­ily Christ­mas, his only real Christ­mas, maybe, un­til he and Lori had got mar­ried and made Christ­mas them­selves, or more usu­ally, gone to her fam­ily’s. Of course he re­mem­bers ev­ery­thing about his gifts.

He and Jenni had left, had pulled out, in the spring. The rac­ing set had been left be­hind; he’d not had time to pack it. And the sled—that had been in the shed, and left be­hind too. Jenni had brought the tape deck Roy had given her, but her next boyfriend had stolen it, sold it to buy dope, likely.

He has never been able to call up the de­tails of their ex­o­dus. Had it been day or night? They had hitch­hiked, but had there been a sud­den fight, had Roy kicked Jenni out? Or had there been an ul­ti­ma­tum, Jenni fum­ing silently, then mak­ing tracks while Roy was down at the sta­tion?

There’s a leap to be made over some­thing deep and cold and dan­ger­ous, and he can’t trust that he won’t fall in.

His lost sled, his car set. They have al­most lost their shine, now; he’s brought them up too of­ten, used them to shame his sons, when they’ve left one of their per­pet­ual messes of toys or games un­cared for, un­val­ued. The im­pa­tience in Jared’s voice, just this last week. We’ve heard the story a mil­lion times, Dad. Your de­prived child­hood.

It oc­curs to him now that his sled and rac­ing set could be still here. Why wouldn’t they be? Roy prob­a­bly never throws any­thing out. He puts his shoes and coat back on, goes out­side. There’s a shed, a de­tached garage, ac­tu­ally, fifty feet from the house. It’s got a sag to it now, but looks in­tact: it’s prob­a­bly still in use. He re­mem­bers the key be­ing kept on the top of the win­dow frame, and it’s still there, the pad­lock on the door a lit­tle stiff, but not im­move­able. The light switch still works.

When he flips it, a dark high wave of shapes looms over him, and he steps back in­stinc­tively. But it’s just stuff. Fur­ni­ture, ma­chin­ery, lum­ber, old car­pet­ing, rolled or folded care­lessly. The grey metal desk from Roy’s of­fice off the liv­ing room. Cases of eight-tracks, disks. The old brown­ish scratchy sofa—he’s sure it is the same one. A mo­raine of soft­en­ing card­board boxes, must of old cloth.

He moves a few things ten­ta­tively, not want­ing to bring the whole she­bang down on him­self, just try­ing to make a path through. Stacks of comic books. Two strange lamps he might rec­og­nize or not. A pile of lawn chair pads, dec­o­rated with mouse turds, and un­der­neath them a wooden kitchen ta­ble, the kind with turned legs, painted turquoise. He re­mem­bers the ta­ble, for sure.

And be­hind that, some­thing he takes to be a pile of wooden boxes at first, but then sees is a stack of kitchen cup­boards, white, with round con­cave cop­per knobs. They’d been var­nished wood, be­fore. Jenni had painted on the doors, he re­mem­bers, sud­denly: a flock of birds, yel­low and green, wing­ing across the maple. Their bills had been open, their eyes held light. At the lower edge, she’d put in the moun­tains, with their rich dark spruce.

Roy, he re­mem­bers, had said: you’ve got the scale wrong. Those birds would be two hun­dred feet across.

The birds are big­ger be­cause they’re more im­por­tant, Jenni had said. The ghost of the paint­ing must be still there, on the wood. He brushes a fin­ger­tip along the white paint, but there is no sign, no dis­rup­tion in the flat sur­face. Sanded down, first, likely. But un­der the white enamel, would the colours still ex­ist, stain­ing the wood?

He thinks he’d bet­ter go back to the house, even though he hasn’t checked in ev­ery sin­gle box that could hold a sled or train set. He locks the shed, re­places the key, steps deeply into the heavy snow. But Roy is still asleep, his head tipped now, his lips blow­ing out a lit­tle with his breathing.

The things could well be in his old room.

He tip­toes up the steep nar­row stair­case in his sock feet. The stairs creak. He freezes, but Roy’s breathing doesn’t al­ter.

Two rooms up here un­der the eaves, and each con­tain­ing, at first glance, only a stripped-down metal bed frame and mat­tress and a small dresser. Roy must sleep down­stairs now, in his old of­fice. The rooms look bare, un­used.

The clos­ets, though. And be­hind one of the clos­ets, he re­mem­bers, there’s a crawl space, an at­tic. Could be stuff stored in there.

He can barely stand up­right in the room that was his. The sloped pa­pery ceil­ing brushes his head. He looks out of the sash win­dow into the yard.

And now another mem­ory: it must have been just be­fore they left. A group of hip­pies camp­ing down by the river, so it was sum­mer. Early sum­mer. Only they weren’t re­ally hip­pies—it was a decade and a half

too late. They were just a group of campers, tree planters in town for the week, maybe.

Jenni had been ex­cited about them, had taken to hang­ing around their camp; a cou­ple of times Bryan had come home from school to find her gone. But Jenni had glit­tered, there, talk­ing, laugh­ing, to the men in their long hair and beards. He’d been afraid: he had rec­og­nized her glit­tery stage, what it meant. She’d laughed a lot; she’d in­vited them to come up to the house, to use the shower. As if it had been her house, Bryan thought: and then, of course it’s her house. Hers and Roy’s. We all live there now. But it had seemed wrong for Jenni to be invit­ing the hip­pies.

Then he’d wo­ken in the night to mu­sic, and looked out the win­dow into the back­yard, the yard where he played and Jenni said Roy would build him a tree house, the yard that seemed to go back miles, through the meadow and trees, through the whole town, to the river.

There was a bon­fire, a big one. From the win­dow it looked like they had piled onto it half of the win­ter wood­pile they were build­ing, Roy was cut­ting up, out of trees washed up in the spring flood. And peo­ple—at first he thought it was strangers but then he rec­og­nized the hip­pies from the camp­site—were danc­ing around the fire, and they were naked.

He’d run to his mom’s room, to her and Roy’s bedroom, but the bed was empty, not even mussed. Of course Roy was still at work at the sta­tion. He could see by the clock that it was just past mid­night. And Jenni? He’d run to the win­dow again, and now picked her out, naked as the rest of the dancers, her long hair swing­ing to her waist, but in no way cov­er­ing her boobs or her bot­tom.

What had he done then? He can’t re­mem­ber. Only he must have gone out­side, sat on the back porch, be­cause he re­mem­bers the stars, and the smell of liquor and the sweet­ish smoke of the mar­i­juana. The mu­sic was com­ing from Jenni’s por­ta­ble stereo, the one Roy had given her for Christ­mas, which was on the back porch be­side him, a long ex­ten­sion cord feed­ing back into the kitchen.

And then Roy was home, com­ing out through the back door, stop­ping, his large bearded body still but not afraid. His hand to his beard. And then the mu­sic stop­ping, so Roy must have turned it off. The dancers all paus­ing, and then one of them, one of the men (Bryan can see him now, skinny, his long pe­nis hang­ing) shout­ing out, mock­ingly, it had seemed: Jen, I guess your dad’s home.

What had hap­pened next? Bryan doesn’t re­mem­ber. Yes; he does: the hip­pies gone, with much sar­casm and flipping the bird; shout­ing, from Jenni and Roy. Him­self cry­ing, but un­no­ticed, swept with them as they moved from room to room, Jenni yelling mean things, Roy re­spond­ing with heavy—what? Pa­tience, logic, it had seemed to him, then. Not anger. Him­self burn­ing with shame for what Jenni had done.

He can’t find the panel that opened to the at­tic space, in ei­ther closet, and now he doubts that he re­mem­bers it cor­rectly. It might have been in some other house he had lived in, when he was a boy.

He goes back down the stairs to wait for Roy to wake up.

Roy hasn’t ever asked him about Jenni. Not all the years he’s been send­ing Roy cards, not this visit.

Jenni must have been what, twenty-three, when they came to live with Roy. And Roy? He can’t tell, doesn’t know Roy’s age now, even. Maybe he’d been in his for­ties then, or even his fifties. To chil­dren, all adults look about the same age, un­til they’re old.

He doesn’t re­ally re­mem­ber Jenni’s mother, his grand­mother, who they’d lived with be­fore Jenni moved in with Cliff. He re­mem­bers a smoker’s rasp, a pitch and tone that scraped. Granny in a chair, feet up, look­ing up at him, yelling: You’d bet­ter get that kid, he’s go­ing to fall down the stairs. And then him­self fall­ing, com­ing to grief at the bot­tom, sore all over, mouth full of blood where his teeth had gone through his lip. His mom cry­ing hys­ter­i­cally, and a nurse say­ing, you’re not help­ing him, are you? Jenni say­ing later: she wouldn’t lift a fin­ger. Mean­ing her mom.

Of life with Cliff, more: Cliff car­ry­ing him on his shoul­ders, in the park. Walk­ing him to the school gate, in the morn­ing, while Jenni slept in. Cliff had not talked much. He’d given Bryan things, though. That’s for you, he’d say, tak­ing some­thing out of his pock­ets. Take care of it, you hear? Bryan had never lost any­thing.

Cliff and Jenni ar­gu­ing. About Jenni go­ing out, about money. About Bryan’s teeth, which Cliff said needed more care, brush­ing and a den­tist. They’d lived in an apart­ment; Bryan could hear ev­ery­thing from his bedroom. At night he agreed with Cliff: Cliff’s ideas were safe. Cliff wanted to look af­ter him, Bryan: to keep things the way they were. In the day­time, though, in the af­ter­noons, af­ter school, Jenni had turned his mind in another di­rec­tion.

They made cookie dough and he was al­lowed to dye it blue and eat it raw. Don’t tell Cliff, she said.

Jenni painted her toe­nails, and then his. Green, me­tal­lic gold, black. They watched movies on TV, Jenni ly­ing on the puffy leather sofa, him­self stretched out on Jenni, like bologna on a slice of bread, Jenni said. Both eat­ing potato chips out of a bowl, drink­ing Coke, till Cliff came home from work, grumpy, spoil­ing the fun.

His stom­ach had hurt, some­times. He’d stay home from school. Then it seemed bet­ter, seemed the Jenni half was grow­ing big­ger, and he didn’t feel so much that split, like a long tear run­ning through his guts, run­ning right up the mid­dle of him.

Where had Cliff been, when they left, in the mid­dle of the night? He had been more care­ful when they had ar­rived at Roy’s. He had asked for what he wanted. He hadn’t let him­self take sides. He had tried to be what­ever Roy wanted, and he had tried to keep Jenni happy, so that she wouldn’t want to leave again.

He re­mem­bers hur­ry­ing home from the ele­men­tary school, not stop­ping, as the other kids did, to crack the first fall ice on the pud­dles,

or roll snow­balls so big they took sev­eral kids to move them, or pick the first catkins, the furry pods the other kids called pussy­wil­lows, from the road­side bushes. He’d al­ways run straight home to make sure Jenni wasn’t get­ting bored or into trou­ble. To make sure she was still there.

Af­ter the bon­fire night, though, they’d left Roy’s place in a hurry too. He’d been bit­terly an­gry at Jenni: the anger had filled him up, had seethed and licked his in­sides so that he felt changed. He could never trust her again. Could maybe not love her again. He’d felt him­self grow a hard cara­pace, tight pro­tec­tive ar­mour. His chest had been squeezed by it. He felt its weight on his shoul­ders and thighs. He had walked stiffly, apart. A trucker had given them a ride, Kam­loops to Hope. He had re­fused to sit in the mid­dle of the seat, next to the trucker. Had looked away, out the win­dow, at the pass­ing trees, the moun­tain alders still leaf­less, the dirty road­side snow. Had not been able to speak when spo­ken to. His face felt like it had be­come a stiff shiny mask. Darth Vader’s mask. She’d said: I should have left you be­hind.

Without turn­ing his face from the win­dow, he’d said: Yes, you should have.

Bryan had been born when Jenni was fif­teen. They’d been only fif­teen years apart, he and Jenni. He thinks, now: she was the same age his son Jared is now when he was born. A child. Fif­teen.

Jenni had never had other chil­dren, though she’d tried, he thinks: when he was in his late teens, when she’d mar­ried Ron, when she’d been sober for a while and found Bryan again.

Lori said once that likely his birth was re­ally hard on Jenni’s body; she hadn’t been ma­ture enough, and had been dam­aged some­how. Lori knew that kind of thing; she was a nurse. Though it pissed him off, when she said things about Jenni. Jenni had been a mess, sure. It was bad. But Lori didn’t know ev­ery­thing. She didn’t know.

It had been just the two of them. Like two kids to­gether.

Fif­teen. Who gets a fif­teen-year-old preg­nant, leaves her to deal with it?

At Hope they had slept in a camp­ground near what­ever place the trucker had dropped them, on some news­pa­pers and a tarp, Jenni curled around him, her breasts against his back, her breath in his hair. He’d wo­ken to find her gone, to find him­self alone in the dark empty place. He knew he’d never see her again.

But then she was back: You’re not cry­ing, Mon­key Man? I just had to take a piss.

And he had thought: How can there be just the two of us? For the first time, he had thought that. He had tucked him­self back into Jenni’s body, but he had felt, for the first time, that he did not, could not melt into her. That she was too small to hold back the cold, to pro­tect him from the dark, the empti­ness, the night sky.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Canada

© PressReader. All rights reserved.