My story, “The Chimney“, has been published on Queen Mob’s Tea House. “The Chimney” is another in the Curious-City collection I’ve been working on, in which socially or economically marginalized people encounter miracle-like phenomena as a way of conveying the sense of lost control that often accompanies their position within the social workings of the city. It’s the first of several in the series that will have no obviously magic realist elements, exploring other kinds of “miraculous” events instead. Enjoy.
As promised, here’s “Wild John”, the story that won the Elora Writers’ Festival Writing Contest. You can find another story from the same project called “Julia’s Garden” posted on Dreamers Creative Writing, a writers’ resource site based in Guelph and run by Guelph author Kat McNichol. You can also find the original version of a story (much edited since) that inspired the project, “Mister Laurence Bailey“, posted earlier on this site.
John, who was usually called Wild John, or Wild Man, or sometimes, unexpectedly, just John, which he much preferred because he didn’t think of himself as particularly wild, not in any way that mattered, sat on the bench and checked the stock in his backpack. He’d begun the day with six bus tickets (one of them youth), three food bank vouchers, two coupons for a free small ice cream cone at Dairy Queen, two tickets for the merry-go-round at Riverside Park, six packs of cigarettes (two Players and four Du Maurier, one missing three smokes), two lighters, a small bag of Doritos (Nacho Cheese flavour), three chocolate bars (Mars, Caramilk, and Twix), three bottles of water, and a can of Coke. This was more or less typical of his knapsack’s contents at any given time, although he generally preferred to have something special also, a gift certificate to a restaurant maybe, or tickets to the Guelph Storm game – you know, something he could really sell.
Checking his stock was not something John normally did. He didn’t have to. He hadn’t done terribly well in school (even in math, where he seemed to have some natural talent), but he had a prodigious memory, and he prided himself on knowing exactly what was in his backpack at all times. His great satisfaction each night was the moment when he unpacked his things to confirm the accuracy of the mental account he’d been keeping all day. Those who were close to him (or as close as he ever permitted anyone to get, which was something more than an acquaintance and a fair bit short of a friend), knew that pride in his memory could even be used to drive him out of the transient depressions he suffered. They only had to ask him to list his inventory from memory and then empty the backpack to show his accuracy, and Wild John’s mood would afterward be noticeably lighter, though this technique could at best be applied once a day, perhaps not even on two days running.
The reason John was just now taking the abnormal measure of checking his bag – as much as he hated to admit it – was that he’d become uncertain of what was actually inside. The doubt had first crept in when Terrance came by the fountain where John usually sat. “Do you have any water in there?” Terrance had asked, his hands pressed so far into his pockets that he could straighten his arms. “Sure,” said John, taking his customary look around him, just to be certain that nobody was watching, though he knew there was nothing illegal about reselling things. “I should have one more water,” he said, and that was true, he should have had exactly one more, since he’d already sold two bottles to a pretty girl in a pink tank top who’d never bought from him before. When he went to get Terence the last bottle though, there they were – all three bottles of water – as if he hadn’t sold any yet that day. It took a “Well-do-you-have-one?” from Terrance before he could collect himself and make the sale.
It occurred to John that he had perhaps imagined his earlier sale, that he had daydreamed the girl with the low cut pink tank top and the short blond hair around her face like a halo, but the memory seemed plenty real, and he’d always been able to trust his memory before. He took a mental stock of things. Assuming that he was remembering correctly, he calculated that he should have thirteen dollars: one each for the three bottles of water, plus two for the bus ticket and nine for the pack of smokes, a total that a quick check of his pocket confirmed. He considered whether he might have packed five waters instead of three by mistake. This seemed unlikely, but he couldn’t imagine how else an error had crept into his accounting, and he felt a sudden panic that only a thorough check of his backpack could allay – but again! – three water bottles remained, and a further check showed that he still had all his smokes and his bus tickets too.
This was impossible, of course, and John knew it. But calling it impossible didn’t really change the facts very far, which left him in a conundrum. And he didn’t like conundrums. He’d led his life in exactly such a way as to avoid them, to keep things as simple as possible. Everyone was always wanting to complicate their lives with families and careers and well… stuff. They seemed to spend an extraordinary amount of energy on stuff, buying it and worrying about it and putting in alarms to protect it, even though most of it was pretty well useless. Better just to take things easy. Unless, of course, water botles started showing up magically in your backpack.
The only thing to do, he decided, was to walk around a bit and have a think. He wandered back through the tunnel by the post office and through the Baker Street parking lot, along the backs of the Wyndham Street stores, where the graffiti was allowed to linger and where the stores piled their junk beside the dumpsters. By the time he rounded the corner onto Woolwich, where the street was pretty again, with planters of flowers on the sidewalk and the war memorial on the corner, he’d decided that he needed an experiment.
He sat himself on the edge of a flower planter, almost surrounded by tall pink flowers, and he dumped his knapsack out onto the ground, gave it a shake for good measure, peered inside it just to be sure. He had no paper for list making, but he did have a sharpie in his shirt pocket, so he started writing the list in permanent ink on his forearm – six bus tickets, three food bank vouchers, two ice cream coupons, two merry-go-round tickets, six packs of cigarettes, two lighters, a small bag of Doritos, three chocolate bars, three bottles of water, and a can of Coke. It was all there.
When the list was done, he went to replace everything in his backpack, but – what the actual shit! – it was full again! As if he’d never emptied it!
A panicky feeling started to grow in John’s stomach. He grabbed all the stuff on the ground and chucked it back into the bag, just throwing it in, but when he was done it was still exactly as full as when he’d left the house that morning. Not even a bus ticket more or less.
He looked around. He didn’t normally go in for hawking his stock. Everyone knew the sort of stuff Wild John was packing, and they knew where to find him. There was no need for yelling on the street corner. He preferred to sit back and let customers come to him, and if they didn’t come, well, that was fine too. It wasn’t cool to guilt people into buying stuff they didn’t want. Might as well dance around wearing one of those stupid pizza signs – not John’s scene.
In this case though, he made an exception. “Hey,” he said to a guy waiting for the pedestrian signal, “you want to buy a Coke or a chocolate bar? I can give it to you cheap.” The man shook his head and set out across the intersection.
“How about you?” John asked another guy who was leaning against one of the planters, fiddling with his phone. “You want to buy a drink or a snack or something? I’ve got water too, Doritos…”
The guy hardly looked up. “No thanks, man. I’m good.”
Two young kids approached on their bikes, young enough that they should have been in school, ten maybe, twelve at the most. “You kids want to buy a chocolate bar?” John called. “Fifty cents. I got Mars, Caramilk, Twix…”
“I’ll take a Caramilk,” the one kid said, carefully smoothing the sides of his flat top. “You want one, Jesse?”
“Sure. A Twix.”
The kid with the flat top dug in his pocket for a loonie, tossed it to John, who handed him back the candy bars, then looked back into the knapsack, where – of course – all three bars still remained. He took the clearly impossible Caramilk in his hand, looking closely at it, turning it over, as if the secret of it might somehow be written in the ingredients or hidden in the seams of the wrapper.
“Hey, boys,” John said. The kids had already opened their candy. “Have another one on the house.” John tossed them another bar each. He grabbed the bag of Doritos next and shoved it into the chest of the guy playing on his cell phone. “Free,” he said. “It’s like a sale, or something.” The guy looked up, confused, but John was already pulling out the next bag of Doritos for a woman approaching through the intersection. He gave another to the old lady a few feet behind, offered her a Coke too, ended up substituting it for water when she said she was diabetic. He actually gave her all three waters, put them in the basket of her walker. None of which emptied the knapsack at all.
He began walking back down Wyndham Street (the front side this time), back toward the fountain, pulling stuff from his knapsack almost at random, handing it to anyone he happened to pass. By the time he got back to his regular spot, there was a crowd of people following after him, mostly the regular under-occupied inhabitants of the square, but also the business-suited denizens of office buildings, moms with strollers, just about anyone who happened to be walking through the square with enough time and curiosity to spend on a guy shovelling free snacks out of a knapsack. They pressed in on him from all sides, their hands held out like pop fans along the stage of a concert, calling out for whatever he could give – “You got Mars bars, man?” – “Twizzlers? Any Twizzlers?” – “How about some beer? Can you pull beer out of that thing?”
The frenzy seemed only to grow, and John’s panic grew with it, into euphoria. He no longer handed snacks to individual people, didn’t even throw them in any specific direction, just scattered them like edible confetti to anyone who managed to catch them or pick them off the ground. People scrabbled on their knees to stuff chocolate bars and cigarettes into their pockets, bumping into one another, getting so caught up in the amazement of it all that they started shaking Coke cans and spraying them into the crowd. The air was full of misted malt sugar, people turning up their faces to catch the drops like snowflakes on their tongues…
And then, in the midst of everything, he saw the girl – the one in the pink tanktop. She was tilting her head back to drink from a waterbottle, the sun haloing droplets of cola around her face. She finished the bottle, looked straight at him with a little check-you-around-some-time smile, and then she disappeared through the crowd.
Wild John had paused when he saw her, and when he returned to the backpack, he discovered that it was now, suddenly, entirely, emptied. All of it gone, and only fourteen dollars in his pocket.
It took only a minute or two for the delirium to subside, as people gradually realized that the bottomless backpack had finally found its bottom. A few remained behind to gather the last of the coupons and the bus tickets that were sticking damply to the sidewalk, but most soon moved on with looks of bemusement. Wild John jumped up on the edge of the fountain, looking for a glimpse of the girl again, but she was gone, and soon he was alone – open-palmed, soaked in soda, treasuring up in his heart all that he had seen.
My short story, “Wild John”, just placed first in the open category of the 2018 Elora Writers Festival Writing Contest.
I don’t know if they do anything with the winning stories (I should probably check these things before I submit), but if I’m allowed I’ll post a copy of it for people to read at some point.
Dreamers Creative Writing, a new writers’ resource site based in Guelph and run by Guelph author Kat McNichol, just posted a little story of mine, “Julia’s Garden“. It’s one of several pieces of wildly different lengths and styles that I’m writing for a project called Curious-City, in which socially or economically marginalized people encounter miracle-like phenomena beyond their control. Have a look.
I’ve had a short story called “Neve” posted in this week’s edition of Bewildering Stories, the long-running Guelph-based online magazine of eclectic literature.
When Devon turned eighteen he went to the bank and withdrew the entire trust fund that his grandmother had set aside for him, all thirteen thousand and change.
The clerk was a friend of his mom. “What will you do with all that money?” she asked. She had taken off her glasses to show that she was concerned.
“I’m buying an airplane,” he said.
Her eyes brightened, and she put her glasses back on. “I didn’t know you were a pilot.”
“So why are you buying an airplane?”
“I’m just gonna sit in it.”
“Maybe smoke some weed.”
He put the envelope of money in the back pocket of his jeans and used the disability buttons to open the doors on the way out of the bank.
His buddy Cranston, the one whose dad ran heavy equipment, gave Devon a ride up to the airport that afternoon. Mr. Ross was waiting for him at the back, where the old planes were kept, the ones too broken for service. “They’re all pretty much junk,” said Mr. Ross. “You don’t want one of these.”
“That’s the one there,” Devon said. He pointed to a little two-seater, white with a red stripe.
“It doesn’t even have an engine,” said Mr. Ross.
“I don’t need an engine,” said Devon.
“What the hell good is it then?”
“I’m just gonna sit around and smoke in it,” said Devon.
Mr. Ross looked at him oddly. “Right,” he said. “Well, I couldn’t charge you more than a grand for it.”
Devon took the envelope from his back pocket and gave Mr. Ross a crisp new thousand dollar bill.
Cranston took Devon by his house on the way home. Cranston’s mom asked Devon to stay for ham and scalloped potatoes.
“Can you put an airplane on a pole in my backyard?” Devon asked Cranston’s dad?
“What?” asked Cranston’s dad. His mouth was full of potatoes. “An airplane?”
“Yeah,” said Devon. “I bought an airplane, and I want you to put it on a pole in my backyard.”
“On a pole?”
Cranston’s dad swallowed his potatoes. “How high?”
“As high as you can get it. With one of those circle ladders that you climb through.”
Cranston’s Dad drank about half his beer in one go. “I guess I could probably manage that,” he said. “But it wouldn’t be cheap.”
“I don’t know. Put in the pole – pick up the plane – attach it somehow – install the ladder.” He shrugged. “Maybe ten grand.”
Devon gave him ten of the thousand dollar bills from his envelope.
“Hell,” said Cranston’s dad. “You’re flush.” He left the money on the table. “We’ll need a permit though. When they ask me what it’s for, what should I tell them?”
“I’m just gonna sit in it,” said Devon, “way up there, see the whole neighbourhood while I smoke my weed.”
Cranston’s dad shook his head. “That’s messed up kid.” He finished his beer. “I’ll just say its a weathervane.”
They installed the pole and the ladder a few weeks later. Devon’s mom was away visiting her sister in Arizona that Saturday.
“We’ll let the concrete cure for a couple weeks,” said Cranston’s dad, “then backfill and hoist up the airplane.”
“How high is it?” asked Devon.
“As high as the boom can reach,” said Cranston’s dad. “Almost eighty feet.”
“That’ll do just fine,” said Devon. “Just fine.”
Devon’s mother didn’t think so though when she came back from Tucson.
“Why can’t you be like other kids and just have parties when I’m gone?” she asked.
“Sorry,” he said.
“What’s it even for?”
“It’s for my airplane.”
“My airplane. I bought it for my birthday.”
“With what money?”
“With my trust fund.”
“But that was for your education!”
“No,” Devon said. “It was for my airplane.”
Devon’s mom went to her room and cried. Devon talked to her through the door. He told her not to cry, that the airplane would look great in the back yard.
“Why the hell do you need an airplane anyway!” she yelled.
“To sit in,” he said, “and smoke.”
She opened the door and looked at him with her hair hanging in her face. “You can sit and smoke on the couch,” she said. “It’s all you do anyway.”
“Sure,” he said, “but this will be higher. Much higher.”
She slammed the door again, but she didn’t try to stop Cranston’s dad when he came to install the airplane a few weeks later. She just went right on folding the laundry and reorganizing the basement and making lunch.
“Can I try it now?” Devon asked once the plane was bolted into place and the boom was lowered.
“Sure,” said the inspector. He signed the papers. “You just going to sit up there and look around?”
“Just gonna sit up there and smoke my weed,” Devon said.
“I’ll pretend I didn’t hear that,” the inspector told him.
Devon climbed rung over rung, opened the door of the airplane, and sat in the cockpit. He took a green and speckled glass pipe from his pocket. Filled it. Lit it. Took a hit.
He could see the roofs of the houses below, his neighbours going about doing whatever it was they were doing. The wind swept beneath the wings, and the body of the airplane moved just enough for him to feel it.
He exhaled. “Yep,” he said, “that’ll do just fine.”
The fire had almost burned itself out, and the forest sounds were emerging where there had been song and talk through most of the night. Only Sully remained. He laid his head back in his deck chair and closed his eyes, the last beer of the night still half full in his hand.
Jill came almost half way down the hill behind him before she was betrayed by the forest litter. He turned to her, and she stopped, her arms folded across her chest against the night cool.
“Sorry,” she said. “I thought you’d all gone to bed.”
“I’m on my way,” he said, raising his beer, “in three sips and a swallow.” He took the first of those sips. “What are you doing out so late?”
She scrambled down the last steepness of the path and sat in the chair opposite him, pulling her legs up under the skirt of her dress for warmth. “I like it down here at night.”
There was a long quiet filled with nothing much but the night breeze in the canopy and the gurgle of small waves under the dock. Sully added a couple of logs to the fire. “You could come down earlier, you know. Have a beer. Talk to other human beings.”
She shrugged. “I’d rather not.”
“You used to hang out with us when we were kids. Me and Todd and Rowland, and what was their little sister’s name?”
“Yeah, Janice. We’d sneak sips from the adults’ drinks, then play tag in the bush or go night swimming.”
“I remember.” Jill half stood, pulling her chair closer to the fire, then sat again.
“Do you remember when Janice wanted to play spin the bottle in the boathouse? I was the only guy there who wasn’t her brother, so she had to kiss me every time.”
“And Todd and Rowland had to kiss me.”
“Yeah. But we kept playing anyway. A pretty long time.”
There was quiet again.
“Did I ever get to kiss you?” he asked. “I don’t remember.”
“No,” she said. “You didn’t.”
“Funny. We must have spun that thing like five times each.”
She shivered, looked out across the lake, almost still. “I’m going to bed,” she said, and she stood, began climbing the path to her cottage.
“Me too,” he replied, though too quietly for her to hear him.” He kicked the fire apart, unzipped his fly, began pissing on the coals.
I am pleased to announce the publication of Island Pieces, a collection of short fiction, poetry, and photography that recall the summers I spent on Manitoulin Island as a youth. Many of the pieces were posted as early drafts here on From Word to Word, so if you want a flavour of what the book is like, just check out the Stories category in the navigation bar.
The book is available at Lulu.com as a hardcover, a trade paperback, and a .pdf. The paperback will be available from major book sites like BarnesAndNoble and Amazon in six or eight weeks, but the Lulu prices will always be cheaper, and they get me a better cut as the author as well. Also, because of the way that I have arranged distribution, I need to charge a minimum of $2.00 for the ebook on Lulu and who knows how much on BarnesAndNoble or Amazon, so here is a link to a free version, and there is also a link on the Longer Works page. Those who are looking for a true ebook format will probably get what you want in a couple of weeks, so be patient.
The observant among you will notice that the book has been released through a publishing company called Vocamus Press, which is a co-operative publishing venture that I am starting with a few friends. We are by no means ready to launch the project formally yet, but we will be publishing a few titles under that name over the next few months (including a new edition of Lindy that has already been released), hoping to have a nice big launch and party in the fall, so stay tuned for details.
There is a turtle in the hoopnet, I can see right away, a snapper, almost always, lured by the fish through the narrowing hoops, one after the other, its claws now gripping the netting. We aren’t supposed to kill them, and prying them out of the net is impossible, so we will have to cut the net, take the turtle out, mend the hole before resetting the trap. My uncle would have been impatient, but he isn’t with us today, just my grandfather and I, pulling the nets for pike.
We lift the front end first, funneling any straggling fish through the hoops, deeper into the net, but I don’t see any fish yet, just the broad round hoops bound one to the other by a sheath of netting, like old-fashioned dresses sewn in a line, or like a sea-serpent with its ribs showing. The netting is covered with silt and algae, tangled with waterweeds, slippery and cumbersome and heavy with wet. The smell is of fish and shallow waters and mud and rot, but somehow wholesome, the sort of smell that promises growing things, not cultivated, but fecund and burgeoning and profligate. It settles over the boat, tangibly fertile, as if shoots might sprout from it in the warmth the of the sun, cover the boat with vegetation, make an island of it in the shallow bay.
The last hoop, square, larger than the others, lies just below the surface, the turtle clinging to the top of it, and below, in the mote-filled water, the fish hover, slim, quavering, mottled. Their broad tails are like fletching on loosed and darting arrows, and they are most beautiful now, in mid flight, before they are surfaced, to lie flapping and and breathless.
The nets lift from the water, suddenly lighter, and fall into the boat. I untie the closure, dump the fish onto the deck, no longer quavering, just slithering. There are only three, and the snapper has been at the smallest of them, almost severing its head and eating away most of its belly. The larger two, still struggling, are tossed into the totes.
I take my knife and cut the net around the snapper’s claws, pull the turtle, with the patch of net it has claimed, from the the hoop and toss it into the prow. It’s no good putting it back into the water here to catch again next time, so we’ll take it with us when we leave, drop it far from the nets somewhere. It’s a male, I think, because the tail is so wide, but it’s harder to tell with snappers. Their tails are longer than other turtles, tougher to gauge. He pulls himself along the deck, his claws rasping the metal, his shell knocking the sides of the boat.
My grandfather is looking at the hole I have made in the net, seeing if it can be repaired now or if it will need to come back with us. He has tipped his hat back on his head to see better, the rounded brim tilted skyward, the mesh back almost slipping off the baldness of his head. He pulls from his pocket a yellow plastic mending needle, the same colour as his slicker, threads it with twine, and makes the attempt, though the hole looks quite large. This might take him some time, and we are drifting toward the shore, in among the reeds, so I toss out the anchor, watching it descend out of sight into the shallow murk.
I sit myself on the tote, put my feet up on the spare nets, then remember my coffee set beside the helm, but I decide to leave it, pulling my cap down over my eyes against the water’s glare. I am well enough caffeinated by now, and warm too, though it was cold this morning when we untied from the jetty, early enough that the sun was only an orange dye tinging the black-blue of the water. It had been still this morning too, the water barely stirring the dock, twisting it gently with the irregular rhythm that only waves can keep, and the thermos had been hot in my hand, while the rest of me was morning-cold, waking-cold, waiting bodily for the sun to warm the world beyond the power of the thin cool breezes.
It is well warm now though, my hat ringed with sweat around the brim, and the corners of my mouth tasting salt, and it is bright, the sun striking obliquely on the faces of the low swells, on the aluminium of the boat, on the whiteness of the rocks. It is a brightness that comes from everywhere, that leaves no true shadow, only infinite numbers of tenuous, quivering shadows, like the spots on the sides of pike as they hover, refracted, just beneath the membrane of the water, like schools of minnows swarming the shallows with their shadow doubles, like whirligig beetles running the stillness of the water to riot.
The snapper is in the front of the boat, trying to climb the aluminium sides, but the metal is too slick, and its legs are too short to reach even the tie bar, never mind the gunwale, so its claws rasp futilely, merely polishing the metal to shine more brightly in the sun, to cast brighter gleams, to make more vibrating shadow. It never pauses in its labour though, scratching a steady counter rhythm to the irregular slapping of waves on the hull and to the gurgling wash of still other waves against the shore.
The shore is rocky here, long and rock strewn, flooded in spring but dry now. The trees, back a hundred yards or so from the water, are stunted and tortured, as though they now regret having put down roots here, clutching at the rock through the thin soil just to survive the winter storms and the spring floods and the summer droughts. Their lower branches are all dead. It is only their uppermost limbs that have any life in them, springing green and surprising from the desolation below them.
We stopped to eat here once, making a fire from the dead wood in among the dry, pebbling stones further up the beach, where the trees begin, gutting the unsaleable fish, the carp and the catfish and the suckers, then frying them quickly in butter, our only condiment. They taste good, the garbage fish, as long as they are eaten like this, immediately after they are killed, before they have time to grow fishy, even better if I can find wild leeks around, as I sometimes can.
We threw the guts in the lake, and the crayfish were soon clambering over it. I sat on a shelf of rock to watch the lake as the fish cooked, smelling the woodsmoke and the butter, and then I saw a northern water snake come out from under the rocks away to my left, nosing about for the fish guts too. Most snakes won’t eat carrion, but northern water snakes will, or they’ll eat dead fish anyway, and they’ll sometimes eat their food tail first too, which I’ve never seen another snake do. The bands on this one were still very red, though it was an adult length, red and deep brown, alternating, like a row of saddles for miniature riders. It reared its head a little and circled past the discarded fish, then slipped wholly into the water, making the water ripple convulsively as it gulped its meal, little splashes disturbing the pattern of the lapping waves.
The snapper’s churning claws return me to the boat. My grandfather is bent patiently over the net. He has cut a patch from a piece of spare netting kept for just this purpose, and he is sewing it in place, firmly, methodically, which is his way. There is never any fuss about him, never any hurry. Now and again he wipes the perspiration from his head with the sleeve of his plaid cotton shirt, but he never looks up, sewing steadily in big looping stitches, until he is tying the line off, testing it, holding it up for my inspection.
“Let’s get this set then,'” he says as he stands, and I am about to stand as well, when I hear the sound of the snapper’s claws suddenly stop.
Standing in the front of the boat, the turtle is stretching its neck toward the tie bar, stretching to a remarkable length, looking more like a snake slipping out of a crevice than a turtle at all. It closes its jaws around the bar and begins to pull itself upward, incrementally, by the strength of its neck alone, drawing its body after it, dangling by its jaws. Its feet hover above the deck like a prophet ascending into heaven, until its shell is almost level with is beak, high enough that it can reach the tie bar with its claws. Then, with remarkable ease, even grace, it pulls itself the last few inches over the rail and slaps into the water, disappears into the reeds and mud.
This is another of the Manitoulin stories. As usual, I have added it to the Island Stories file on the Longer Works page for anyone who would like to read all the stories together.
The diner is just across the border of the reserve, filled about equally with local residents and with the cottagers who lease property from the band. The laws against smoking in public places don’t apply here, and many of the cottagers come here just for that reason, so the dining room is filled with smoke.
There are three officers from the reserve police in the corner closest to the kitchen, farthest from my own table. They speak to the cook through the open doorway with the ease of regulars. They are tall and well-built, all of them, with closely cut dark hair and handsome faces, wearing very clean, very sharp uniforms, complete with bullet-proof vests and hand guns and brushed caps set carefully on the table beside their plates. They know they are the symbols of a new kind of reserve that takes care of its own business. Much of the reserve is lagging behind them, of course, but they are a symbol of what is possible, law and order and beautiful uniforms, all with a native face.
They are drinking coffee from white diner mugs, and one calls into the kitchen, “Hey, Susan, has that Barbeau kid come around since we picked him up?”
“Nope. Haven’t seen him,” a woman’s voice replies, disembodied, emerging throaty and sensual from the kitchen, a smoker’s voice. “You guys didn’t rough him up too badly did ya? He’s really not a bad kid.”
“He took cash from you at knife point, Susan. He’s a bad kid.”
“He just steals because his mother steals.”
“Maybe, but she steals for booze. He just does it for kicks. He’s gonna be a mean one when he gets older.”
“Maybe. Band should have done something earlier, placed him with an auntie.”
“That’s what they’d do now, for sure.” He sipped from his mug. “But times were different then.”
“Says the boy talking to his grandma.”
The three officers all laugh, bright and handsome.
The girl in the next booth looks up at them and then away again before they can meet her eyes. She is sipping from a mug of coffee also, staring across at an elderly woman in a pink, floral hat, humped over a pot of tea. The girl is thin, not like an anorexic or an athlete, but like someone whose body only ever bothered to grow upward, spent all its energy on height and had nothing left over for roundness, for breasts or hips. Her eyes look past the old woman without interest, past the pink hat with its white and blue flowers, past the hand-knitted pink shawl and the blue dress with its delicately scalloped collar. She looks at the same time fierce and bored.
“How’s your soda, lamby?” the old woman asks.
The girl’s eyes focus for an instant on the elderly face and then drift into the distance again. “It’s not soda Grandma. It’s coffee. And nobody calls it soda anymore. It’s called pop.” She fidgets, running her thumb along the inside of her necklace, rearranging the salt and pepper shakers, spinning her rings on her fingers. Her eyes drift across the restaurant toward my table, so I look down to my breakfast until her gaze passes over me, just another teen boy eating his breakfast.
The older woman seems either not to hear or not to care. She sips daintily from her teacup, the perfect caricature of a grandmother.
“Will you need me this afternoon Grandma?” the girl asks. Her mouth hardly ever moves, even when she speaks.
“What’s that?” The older woman tilts her head to the left and leans toward her granddaughter.
“I said, “Do you need me for anything this afternoon?”
“No, not today, lamby. I think I’ll have a bit of a nap after lunch. You go ahead and have the afternoon to yourself.”
The girl takes a cigarette from her purse and puts it between her lips but leaves it unlit. “Can I have the car?” she says. The cigarette twitches in time to her words.
“You know I never let anyone drive it without me,” her grandmother replies, “and you know I can’t abide smoking, so put that dirty thing away.”
“It’s not lit, grandma.” She takes the cigarette from her mouth and turns it between her fingers until it breaks. She tosses it into the ashtray. “Please, grandma. Daniel’s parents won’t let him use the car anymore. And he says he shouldn’t come into town for a while. Can’t I take it just this once?”
“I certainly will not send you off unattended with my car to see some, some Indian. Certainly not.”
“Native, Grandma. He’s native. It’s rude to say Indian.”
“I don’t care what you call him. You may not take my car.”
The girl stood up and grabbed her bag from the seat. “Fine,” she said, “I’m going for a smoke,” and she stalked to the door, her heels clicking hollowly on the linoleum floor.
“You’re allowed to smoke in here, you know,” said a man as she passed his table. She ignored him and pushed her way out through the door. He shrugged and leaned on the table, its edge pressing deeply into the heavy flesh of his bare forearms.
“Did you see that?” he demanded. The woman across from him never bothered to look up, kept her eyes on the paper, almost tenderly tapping the ash of her cigarette in the ashtray. Her silence didn’t deter him. He lit a cigarette of his own. “So rude,” he said, brushing his long hair out of his face, his eyes squinting in the smoke as he exhaled. “First we almost hit that one kid. Runs into the road right in front of us. Then gives me the finger when I slam on the breaks, like I didn’t just save his life.”
He leaned back in his chair, pulled his t-shirt down over his belly. “Then that skinny chick…” he stopped himself and looked at the old lady across the restaurant. “Then that skinny chick, ” he continued, his voice lower, “gives me a look like that. For trying to be nice.” He shook his head and idly moved his homefries around his plate. “Are you listening to me, Jessica?”
The woman made no sign that she had heard him. Her blond hair hung long on either side of her face. It swung slightly as her eyes followed the print in front of her.
“Hey!” the man said suddenly, and something in his voice seemed to register with Jessica enough for her to look up as well. “It’s that kid!” he hissed, half-whispering. “The kid we almost hit!”
Jessica turned in her chair, looked behind me to the back door, and I turned too. A teen boy, a bit older than me maybe, stood just inside the door, peering around the angle of the hallway into the restaurant. The couple by the door could see him, and so could I, but the wall hid him from everyone else. He seemed intent on the booth where the girl had been sitting, then noticed the three officers and pulled further back into the door jamb. His dark hair was long and pulled into a ponytail.
The front door opened, and we all turned to see the girl walk in, her jeans hanging low on her thin hips. She looked to her left, past the couple by the door, past my table, to the boy hiding in the back hall. Her eyes widened, and she smiled shyly, checked to see whether her grandmother was watching. “Um, grandma,” she called, “I’m just going to the bathroom, okay?”
Her grandmother looked over the top of her glasses. “Sure, lamby.”
The girl crossed the diner to the hallway and threw her arms around the boy’s neck, her shirt pulling up to show a bird tattoo in the small of her back. She tried to kiss his face, but he looked distracted, whispered something in her ear. She looked over her shoulder to where the three officers were leaning back in their chairs, coffees in hand. He tried to lead her outside, but she opened the door to the bathroom and pulled him inside. There was lettering on the back of his leather jacket. Grizzlies, it read, over a logo of a bear, and then underneath, Daniel Barbeau, Left Wing.
“I should’ve known,” said the man by the door. He scratched the stubble on his face. “Those two were meant for each other.” Jessica had already gone back to her paper.
I finished my food, but the waitress hadn’t been by in a long while. I thought about going to ask for my bill, but the reserve police got up first. “Bill please, Susan,” one called.
“Separate?” came the throaty voice.
“Naw, put it all together. And put my coffee tab on there too.”
“Thanks, Eric. I’ll get it next time,” one of the others said. “I’m just gonna use the can.” He left his hat on the table and strolled across the restaurant to the bathroom, tried the handle. There was no sound from inside. “Hey,” he asked, “is anyone in there?” There was still silence. He tried the door again. Susan?” he called, “I think someone locked the bathroom on you.”
“Could you open it for me?” she called back. “It’s just a toothpick lock.”
The officer knocked again. “I’m coming in, ” he said, “so speak up if you’re in there.” There was the sudden sound of glass smashing from inside the bathroom, like a window had been broken out, and then a scrambling noise. “What the hell?” he said. He didn’t bother finding a toothpick, just stepped back and broke the door in with a kick. It swung open on its hinges and banged against the inside of the wall. A girl’s voice started screaming, and I could see the skinny girl pressed into the far corner of the bathroom, her face in her hands. The officer leapt to stand on the rim of the toilet, peering out through the broken window on the opposite wall. “It’s no use running, Barbeau, ” he yelled. “You’ve got no where to go!”
He came back into the restaurant. One of the other officers threw him his cap, and all three dashed through the door.
“Be gentle with him!” Susan yelled after them, then quieter, so only we could hear, “He’s really not a bad kid.”