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.