For my birthday last year I received four — count ‘em, four — lovely plaid flannel L. L. Bean shirts. I was tickled to death to have four more of my favourite shirts in the world.
Yesterday, praying they would find good homes, I stuffed them into a recycling bag for the Canadian Diabetes Association’s Clothesline folks. It was Robert Chafe’s fault. I had read this line about Grant, a character in Chafe’s collection of short stories Two-Man Tent (Breakwater Books): “His gut was testing his shirt, an unfair responsibility to put on a few buttons.”
Since my birthday my own manly flab had increased — as it had done since many birthdays past — and exerted undue responsibility on my L. L. Bean buttons. I decided to act responsibly and offer my shirts a chance to find less demanding owners.
I called Clotheslines — 1-800505-5525.
Of course, Two-Man Tent isn’t really about portly gentlemen and the stress exerted on button-binding sewing cotton.
Among other things, it’s about the distances between people.
And, to some degree, it’s about bears.
The young narrator of “No Swimming” struggles to come to grips with the death of a friend’s mother and in the process discovers it’s time to distance himself from his own mother, to let go of restraining apron strings, so to speak. He finds it’s time to grow past the quotidian rules of childhood and disobey mother. He decides to speak to a stranger, old Bertie the hermit.
Addressing his friend, he says, “I wanted to tell you all that, but I couldn’t. And so I told old Bertie instead.”
Life creates distances that aren’t measured in miles. Yes, miles. Frig kilometers, “measured in kms” doesn’t have the same ring, eh b’ys?
In the title story a family tragedy has created the distance between the characters, along with the impending physical distance — in miles — that will exist when the narrator moves to Halifax for school.
An aside: I wish storytellers would imitate ol’ Herman Melville and name their characters from the shuff-off, whether they are called Ishmael or not. Then I wouldn’t have to wonder if I missed a name and have to go rooting around back-tracking in search of it, or saying “the narrator” and perhaps sounding more stund — stunder? — than I am actually.
Frig, what was about?
Okay, “Two-Man Tent”, the story that contains the best line in the whole collection: “Mom cursed the whole idea of camp- I talking ing and whoever’s idea it was in the first place.”
Like Mom, I curse the whole idea of camping. Along with the brutal discomfort of sleeping in a lumpy-bottomed tent when one has a comfortable bed at home, there is always the possibility of being eaten by bears. Truly. The cover of Robert Chafe’s Two-Man Tent is basically a sketch of a bloody great grizzly, or some such gargantuan carnivore.
Another aside — kinda. When I was a wee bay-boy child Pappy invariably used bears as symbols of Something- BadThat-Would-Happen if Daddy’s Little Boy misbehaved.
For example, if DLB went deeper into the woods — for a picnic, or whatever — than was permitted … well, the bears would eat him.
So, paternal conditioning still strong in my noggin, the moment I saw the humongous Kodiak [?] on the cover, I thought, “Oh my, the bears surely will eat folks in these stories.”
Okay, no real bears eat anyone, but there are dire situations well able to devour people.
The final story, for instance — “The Pigeon Caves”.
A teenage couple — no, I couldn’t find any names — skip school, go roaming around Signal Hill and eventually wander into some caves where they are almost immediately trapped by a cave-in.
The story’s — and the book’s — final line is heartbreakingly scary: “The darkness not so dark because they were walking into it together.”
The line is sad because the youngsters are oblivious to the danger in the caves … in which there are bears. Perhaps not tooth and claw carnivores, but bears nonetheless, eh b’ys?
My favourite funny bit is in “Waygook”.
Joanne and the narrator — ya, ya — have put some mile (!) distance between themselves and home and gone teaching in Korea. In their Korean lodgings Joanne is soon shrieking because she spots a cock-a-roach “the size of a Newfoundland pony.”
Now that’s a cock-a-roach, eh b’ys?
Thank you for reading.