Watching the River Flow
Bad Men Who Love Jesus
Shoal Lake August 19, 1889
Big White Combine
God is At Home
Grass of the Apocalypse
Carlos Neil and Me
Watching the River Flow
Next to the Trans Canada Highway between Sidney and Austin in Manitoba I often spotted a guy sitting in a raised covered platform at the end of his lane watching the traffic go by. He was the inspiration for this conversation.
Supper’s ready! Oh you’re here. Black pepper or peppercorn?
Black, black, black. You always ask me the same question and I always have the same answer.
All right all right!
The only reason you ask me that every suppertime is because in 1978 I said I had heard that fresh ground pepper was more flavorful. Since then you have asked me that same question every…
Was that 1978? Good Lord, how time flies when you’re having fun.
And since then, in the last 10,000 years, have I ever taken peppercorn? Ever?
Never. You never have.
But you keep asking and asking and…
I do. At first it was out of love so you could have a choice. Then I did it out of habit as we settled into those. Then out of spite, and now, I don’t know why I do it at all. Just for the fun of it. I haven’t a clue, really.
Here’s a clue for you. I rented the land.
I rented the land and I’m retiring from farming.
Suddenly he’s a comedian. I have a comedian in my kitchen. My thighs are sore from being slapped from the funny stuff.
I rented the land to the Broxton boys and Reg Decker.
Those assholes! You rented our land to those inbred feeble-minded Broxtons? And Decker? He’s an alky from way back. You rented our land and decided to retire without talkin to me about it?!!
Time for what?
Tired of what?
Tired of thinking about fucking pesticides and herbicides and crop varieties that have idiot made-up names and seventeen numbers after them. Every year there are dozens of new products to “make farming easier” that I’m supposed to learn about. I’m tired of thinking about Monsanto and all the other vultures that circle endlessly over our land. I’m sick to fucking death of dealing with overpriced machinery that doesn’t ever do what it’s supposed to do. I am tired of feeding rich fucking banksters their exorbitant interest rates. I have put in my quota of sleepless nights wondering if the weather will hold for seeding, then for combining, worrying if the prices will hold but knowing they are set by some greasy suit a hundred floors above reality in some smelly downtown. I’m tired of living the lies required of us and I’m tired of getting out of bed in the morning to keep those lies afloat. So when you get this tired the only thing to do is re-tire, get out of the way of the world and be yourself.
That’s quite a speech.
There always is.
I’m wanna stop thinking about satisfying corporate bullshit, about the weather forecast and the fucking survey companies calling at the height of our year.
I deal with most of those! I’ve always been polite but firm but they still call back for you, the decision maker, sometimes three or four times a day.
Don’t you see, stuff is happening to us real fast at this moment? I changed everything for us and I’m just letting you in on it now to see how you’d do. You’re doing great.
Shut the fuck up!
Oh…my…Lord! Expect brimstone, expect Armageddon on a Shetland pony, Bernice Calmchoir said the big Fucking F word for the first fucking time in her fucking life! Hooooo leeee Fuck!
Fuck! Fuck! Fuck! It’s much more fun to say than to do. Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!
Do you want a divorce? What?! No, I don’t want a divorce but if it’d make life simpler for you Bernie, try it. See how you like it.
Now that you’re retired then, what are you going to do all day?
Watch the river flow.
The river of life, ma dear, the river of life.
The river of life? Did someone replace the real Artie Griffin with a robot in the barn today?
You know the river I mean. You’ve watched it out the kitchen window for years and often commented on how nice it is to be able to see the passing world. The river! The TCH. The Trans Canada Highway that is exactly 342 yards from here. The river of life.
What ivory tower do you plan to watch this river from, dear?
Coy never did work for you Bernie. Too big boned for coy. The kid’s school bus shack, of course, will be my new ivory tower. It’s right out there on the highway. I plan to add a second floor, a cooler for cold beer, some flags, some girlie magazines and binoculars for wildlife, you know.
Girlie magazines! Do they still work for you?
Maybe. We’ll just have to see.
You can see. What I see is the headline: Retarded farmer arrested for masturbating on the Trans Canada Highway.
You mean, retired farmer.
Ummmm. Please say this is all a joke, Artie. Please say that.
Can’t Bernie. It’s not a joke. It’s our new reality. Retired life. No money problems, no more seasons to sow, no seasons to reap, no more there is a time for any fucking thing, Bernie. Now there is time for everything. A time for us. We’re free, free as fucking birds, Bernie. Let’s fly!
And you want to spend retirement jerking off in the bus shack in front of traffic going by at 120 kms an hour, am I right?
Let go of the masturbation theme please. Not going to happen. I just need time to reflect, to go inside myself and find out what’s actually in there after trying to avoid and deny it for so many years. Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”
I’d better sit down. Someone quoted Socrates in my kitchen and it was you!
Socrates belongs in the kitchen.
Hello, hello, sir, umm, who are you? Where did Artie go?
It’s the new way, Bernie. Expect the unexpected. We could travel.
We don’t travel. You remember why we don’t travel or has that fallen through your Socrates sieve?
Let’s see, dearest. We traveled in 1565 together on a ship from Belfast, which was called Pleasantville then, to the high Arctic where we ticked off several species of pink-legged gulls and horked up some tainted seal with the rest of the walruses. Of course I remember.
You truly don’t remember it. You have erased it from the blackboard of your life like so many other things, like our children. We almost killed the children the last time we traveled.
Here we go. The GD children again!
Yes, the GD children again! Don’t you think Evan and Rachel want a say in what happens to the farm they grew up on, the land that spawned their interests and their substantial abilities.
First, Evan is a dentist who makes nine hundred grand a year in Toronto, has three kids and a house he paid seven million for. Second, Rachel is married to a huge Samoan man and they live naked on a beach in the south Pacific somewhere. Do you know where Rachel lives?
I don’t, exactly.
My point being, Bernie, neither of our precious offspring, the fruits of our commingling loins, the spawn of our double-down dirt farm are remotely interested in or concerned about what happens to the five square miles of sandy loam they escaped as quickly as they could, “like a bullet from a gun,” as Tom Waits has put it.
They vanished, didn’t they? Our children just vanished.
They’ll call someday, maybe even today.
No they won’t.
You’re right, Bernie. They won’t. Fuck ‘em.
Fuck ‘em! Do you know how much our farm is worth?
No. In cow plop and twitchgrass. In good old lumpy Canadian dollars, of course? Take a guess.
Ummm…four hundred thousand.
Good guess dearie. Way low however. Up it.
Okay, one million and seven dollars.
Tepid. Stab again.
Two and a half million?
Your eyes are getting wider. Higher.
Don’t make me guess anymore. Just tell me. I’m not sure I’m going to believe what you are about to say.
Okay. I had Fred Oakley from Oakley Realty come out a few months back. You know Fred.
I do. He seems an honest chap. Thelma and me were in W.I. together.
Fred gave me an estimate of what we could get for the whole shebang: land, house, buildings, even the kid’s school bus shack and it blew my socks off, Bernie. We are in a prime real estate location right now, have been for years and will continue to be. Fred did a thorough walkabout of the property, noting all its qualities and benefits. He compared land sale prices in the region and arrived at a figure. When he told me, he was very dramatic about it. You know how he is. Anyway, he had a big smile on his face when he said, “I’m going to write a number on this clipboard.” So he wrote something down and turned it toward me. I couldn’t believe it! Then he said, “That’s just a number. I could get this amount for your property tomorrow.” He wrote something again, turned it toward me.
And…what did it say?!
I’ll write it down just like Fred did. The first number was two and a half million. The second number, the real value of our farm, is this.
Oh! Oh, Artie! Oh, no! Someone will pay us five million dollars for this dump?! I don’t believe you!
Believe it, sweetie. Ask Fred.
That changes everything.
I hoped you’d see it that way. But that’s not all.
We’ve saved for our blessed retirement in various ways for years and we have a substantial nest egg growing like radiation in our futures as we speak.
We talked about it a few years back and you said it was around half a million.
That was a lot of years ago, sweets. Today our investments outside the farm total about four million bucks. We’ve been very successful savers.
So we have. Yet we have never wanted for anything, nothing.
Altogether you and I are worth about nine million bucks. You seem a little stunned dearie.
More than a little. I need to sit down.
We are rich. You are rich. I am rich. We’ve succeeded where thousands of others failed. Out here on the forever Canadian plains we ascended from green newlyweds in our late teens to multi, as in mull tie, millionaires. Let’s not tell the kids, shall we?
No, dearie. You said it, our children have vanished.
And you said, Fuck ‘em.
And I still say, Fuck ‘em. This is our money. Let’s live it up.
Then live it down?
Maybe. Or we could do good in the world.
Such as the new church roof. They have gotten desperate to finish the fundraising and are just 12 grand short. Let’s contribute that much. We could donate it anonymously. I’ve always wanted to be Anonymous. Now you think of a way we could do good with our money. The GD kids are going to get what’s left anyway so sky’s the limit.
I’d like to give twenty five thousand to Emily’s Animal Rescue Centre in town. She’s found a new building that’s over her budget and we can make that happen for her and the animals she saves. It’ll be anonymous, too. Okay?
Okay. As much as I think Emily is a straw-for-brains flake, let’s give her the cash. Your turn.
We’ve spent 37 thousand so far.
It’s much too early to start keeping track. Be creative, pudding man.
Jesus, you haven’t called me pudding man for years.
Why did you call me that? I don’t think I ever knew.
You never knew! Really! I always called you that and you never, ever, I mean never fucking ever knew what it meant!
I shoulda thought about it, I guess. And whoa with the new word, honeybuttons.
Finally you get curious. Wanna know?
You had what I always wanted, really the only thing I wanted from you, the only thing I needed.
Really? What was that?
You’re a hoot! What you had was the pudding, the sperm, the creepy crawly ones that my little eggs needed to make the babies. The babies were all I ever wanted. I never wanted much more from you. We raised the babies and they fled us. But you were my pudding man with the sweet juice to incite my ychies into action.
You wanted me just for my precious man fluid and nothing more? Is that what you mean?
I liked to watch you naked. You were a beautiful specimen of a man, a young man. Your mother was an excellent cook and your father worked you like a slave. Your body was hard everywhere. Remember the time when we just moved onto the farm. I was big with Evan. Somehow we’d just screwed on the porch swing, God knows how, and it started to rain. You ran naked into the yard and danced in the downpour with lightning flashing all around and thunder rolling across the night sky, singing. I don’t remember the song. You sang and danced smiling at me like a wild man, your perfect body made translucent by the changing light. Do you remember that?
She shines with her own kind of light.
Kentucky Woman. She shines with her own kind of light. The song I sang in the naked rain.
Yes. That’s it. Ha!
You were a hot babe, glowing with our baby. Sometimes that night the lightning reversed the world into negative turning you into an angelic presence, hovering over my silly dangly dance but, still, you laughed.
Yes, you made me laugh. I laughed and laughed. You were beautiful, funny and in love.
Wow, Bernie, beautiful, funny and in love. I’m still all three of those after, lo, these many moons, doncha think?
As am I, syrup boy. And to prove our ever-lasting beauty, we should do something we’ve never done before. Let’s strip and eat naked!
C’mon. Bernie, stop taking your clothes off. We’re eating, for chrissake!
So! I am eating naked. We’re free now, free as fucking birds, if I remember your exact words. So I’m being free, doing something I’ve never done before. There. I am beautiful naked! See. Look at my fifty-nine year-old body. Look at my old dugs, drooping and large, sucked dry by life and gravity. Look at my belly. It cascades like pure white butter. Look at the dark hairy house of our spawn. The span of my ass is matched only by the span of my thighs and my feet hurt all day. Now you, strip down, Artie. Let’s see the ongoing beauty of your sixty-one year-old tank.
You are just crazy enough, Bernie.
Whoa, I don’t think I’ve ever seen you take your clothes off that fast! You’ve started some kind of avalanche of change for us, Artie, and I’m not going to stop it, can’t stop it.
Watch me eat naked, Bernie. Still like what you see, even without the lightning?
I do, Artie. We are both soft where we once were hard, and hard where we were soft. It all comes out in the wash. I like your little paunch as much as you like my saggy boobs. I like your empty scrotum as much as you like the expansive black bush of my vagina. I like your permanent farmer’s tan as much as you like my tasty meatloaf.
Your meatloaf hasn’t changed, honey pumpkin. It’s still as meaty and tomatoy as ever. Moist, warm, concedes to my tongue with easy grace and lofty aftertaste.
Everything tastes wonderful when you are naked.
Ha, ha, Bernie, you vixen!
We’re doing something we’ve never done before, Artie! After 10,000 years together we can still find new things to do together. It’s a miracle!
This could just be the start of doing new things together. We should reconsider traveling, just the two of us, no kids to risk death with. I’ve always wanted to see Tahiti.
We’d never have to wear any clothes in Tahiti.
With our bodies, they’d deport us!
Ha, Artie! Seriously, I’m frightened.
Don’t be scared Bernice. I promise not to jump your old bones at the dinner table despite your alluring nakedness.
That’s the last thing I’m frightened of. I’m afraid of…so much change.
Change is the only thing we can count on happening.
I wish you’d discussed all this with me before making your final decree and renting the land to those yahoos.
You resent me for making the decision.
I feel disrespected, Artie. All these years we’ve lived together, eat together, slept together, cried together, laughed together, all that stuff that makes up a life, none of that mattered to you. You just went ahead without me. Am I as irrelevant to you as the kids are, Artie?
No, you’re not. We did our jobs with the kids. We made good kids who are successful elsewhere. Our lives aren’t over because the kids are gone and we are staring at each other across the dinner table as usual…well, not quite as usual. Bernice, I respect you and I love you. It’s our turn to live, naked and free!
Okay, Artie. I hope we’re charging the Broxtons and Decker an arm and a leg to rent our land?
An arm, a leg, a knee and an elbow, too. It’ll be good cash flow for us.
So Artie, next stop Tahiti?
Watching you eat naked has given me some bedroom thoughts, Bernie so how about bedroom first then Tahiti?
Works for me.
Bad Men Who Love Jesus
The New Quarterly, a literary magazine published in Waterloo, ON staged a contest inviting writers to submit a story named “Bad Men Who Love Jesus.” This was my entry. It did not win but it did elicit a bemused letter from the organizers.
“Calamity! Calamity! Calamity!” shouted Corny as he ambled into Waywotowich’s Garage, wiping his sweaty forehead with an oily rag, leaving a smear of Valvoline across his wrinkled brow.
“What’s the matter Corny?” asked the cherub from its perch on the gumball machine on the counter near the window at front of the garage on the corner of Reach and Beach.
“Durn. Durn. Durn.”
“Strong language there, Corny. What’s got you so riled up?”
“Ink blots and cumquats!”
“You are angry! You okay, Corny?”
“Blasted oil definitions!! I can’t get usta them.”
“Huh? I thought you’d worked all that out with the pointy-headed Egyptians and the Saudis and the so-ons.”
“Me too Cheruby, me to. But these new rules sure make a difference. Like, No Scissors On Sunday. Hoooo leeeeee! No Scissors On Sunday!! ”
On the counter next to the gumball machine, a bright cardboard display of pink and blue rabbit foot key chains and a hardcard of cheap plastic sunglasses lay a big greasy pair of scissors.
“What about these?” asked Cheruby pointing to the scissors. “It’s Sunday, isn’t it?”
A worried look came over Corny’s freckled face. He didn’t know what to do about the scissors. He wiped more Valvoline on his forehead and stood staring dumbly at the counter. Corny resorted to his usual problem-solving tactic: he burst into song, his rich baritone filling the cavernous empty service station.
“Mine eyes have seen the glory of the three-hole punch, the three-hole punch, the three-hole punch,” he sang over and over.
“Corny. You’re stuck. Corny! CORNY! You’re stuck on the three-hole punch again.” Cheruby had to get a little feisty with the nodder sometimes. “YOU’RE STUCK” at peak volume brought Corny back to the immediate service station arising around him.
“I’m stuck.” Corny took a small hammer from his belt and struck his right elbow with a light tap. Innumerable ones and zeroes unraveled inside his head and spun back onto a digital plate.
“I’m stuck.” He brought a wavering hand up holding a blue screwdriver and tightened a few screws along his left leg.
“They’ll be makin’ us register our screwdrivers next, blastomycosis or not. I’m still a little stuck, Cheruby.”
“That’s okay Corny. You stay a little stuck and I’ll keep an eye on the store.”
“Would ya?” said Corny.
“Sure thing, little stuck buddy, buddy, buddy, buddy.” Corny tapped his elbow again but the word didn’t stop. Cheruby was having some fun with him, is all.
“Clown pants and romance and bright shiny kittens, eagles in snowsuits, mufflers and mittens, porridge with tycoons, shamblers and foes, these are the ways of the world I suppose.” Corny’s song filled the garage once more. Cheruby peered through the dirty window into the lot and the street beyond.
Corny’s song was interrupted by the resonant clang of the bell hose – a pleasant, ringing tone that bounced around inside the big room.
“Cadillac,” said Cheruby. “Cad eee lack.”
Corny paused in mid chorus to peer through the grime.
“A customer,” he whispered conspiratorially to Cheruby. “What do we do?”
“What we always do. Serve them!” said Cheruby.
“Oh yeah,” was Corny’s astonished reply. It was triumph.
“Still a little stuck,” Cheruby said under its breath as Corny went to serve the customer.
Cheruby seldom left its perch in the window of Waywotowich’s Garage. It wasn’t because it was naked, winged, pink and chubby; it was because the small plastic children sometimes called it “fat”, “fleshy”, and “organic” as they walked from their day boxes to their night boxes.
“Organic! Pah!” Cheruby would scoff. “How can a cherub be organic? Idiot plastic children!” It resented the small plastic thoughts of the children in this little tourist town.
All true cherubim are hermaphrodites – they possess the genitalia of both sexes, lingam and yoni. That is why Cheruby is an IT and not a HE or a SHE. It could be a BOTH or a THEM, I suppose.
Across the street at the QuikDikWhipSlik Dairy Isle, they were advertising ICE CREAM HATS. The line-up was half a block long.
Corny reluctantly approached the long black Cadillac and the driver’s window slid down two inches.
“Hello,” said Corny hopefully.
“Fill’er up,” a gruff voice said from inside the car.
The metal nozzle slipped into the side of the Cadillac. Corny noticed the bumper sticker that read, “I ♥ Jesus”. He peered into the car to see who was driving as he washed the windows. He could barely reach the top of the front windshield with the squeegee. Due to the smoked glass, Corny couldn’t see inside the car but he did notice the puffy face of Cheruby peeking out the garage window. He waved to Cheruby who flapped its wings excitedly in reply.
As Corny moved around the car washing the windows, the passenger door opened and a large man stepped out onto the concrete service pad. He was well over six feet tall, barrel-chested and thick-limbed with piercing blue eyes, a winning smile and a red goatee. He was completely naked, his white skin covered in curly red hair of varying textures and densities. His bald head sported two stubby horns. His voice was loud and clear.
“Hey there, my little buddy, which way to the pisser?”
Cowering, Corny said “You’re…you’re…the Devil.”
“Yup. I am the Devil but you can call me Satan, all my friends do. And Satan needs to take a piss.” The Devil gestured for directions with question-mark arms and a shrug.
“Through the door to the back on the left.”
The Devil grinned at Corny. “Thanks little buddy.”
Corny was transfixed by the small red-haired tail jiggling at the base of the Devil’s spine as the naked man disappeared into the shadows of Waywotowich’s Garage. When Cheruby recognized who was coming toward the garage it slipped down into its hiding nook beneath the counter.
Corny finished the fill, replaced the gas cap and told the driver it was twenty-five dollars. He never saw the face of the person who paid him. As Corny was walking away, the Devil came out of the garage.
“Much obliged buddy,” he said to Corny.
“Okay. Then, answer me a question.” Corny was quizzing the Devil! “How come, if you’re the Devil, you have a bumper sticker that says, “I ♥ Jesus”? Do you love Jesus?”
A wry smile came over the Devil’s face. “Yeah, about that bumper sticker. That’s my sense of humour. Some kid stuck it there. I thought it was funny so I left it.”
“So you don’t really love Jesus?”
“No, my huckleberry friend, I don’t. Jesus is a dickhead. But I do love the idea of his bumper sticker on my Cadillac. See ya, little buddy.”
For a minute it looked like the Devil was getting back into his car but instead he just dissolved through the door and the car sped away. The clang of the bell hose echoed through the empty garage. Emerging from its hiding place, Cheruby saw Corny standing next to the bowsers with $25 in his hand singing at the top of his lungs.
“Bee stings and coil kings and spaniels in tartans, claptraps with dewlaps, bingo and cartons, glimpses of turtles, myrtles and woe, this is the way we all need to go.”
The line-up for ICE CREAM HATS at the QuikDikWhipSlik Dairy Isle was now two blocks long.
SHOAL LAKE AUGUST 19, 1889
Shirtless, Rainer Slate stumbled through the open front door of Batter’s Apothecary in Shoal Lake, fell face down onto the oiled wooden floor and passed out. Borden Batter paused at his mortar and pestle, peered over his round glasses and surveyed the prone lout.
“Glynnis!” he shouted. “Someone’s here to see you!”
Glynnis knew exactly who her visitor was by the tone in Batter’s voice. With sweat trickling into her eyes from a mid August heatwave and a swollen lip she’d bit minutes earlier throbbing angrily, Glynnis paused, listened and slumped her shoulders in resignation.
“Idiot,” she groaned to herself.
She felt only slight relief at getting away from the stubborn nut press that was supposed to extract oil from almonds for salves and unguents but fought her every turn. Glynnis split the heavy brocade curtain, peered into the store and saw her half-naked unconscious husband.
“Idiot,” she said stepping around him. She bent and turned him over; a small trickle of blood ran from his lip.
“Rainer. Rainer!” She shook the unconscious man, his big head lolled back and forth on his broad shoulders, tongue slavering his chin.
“Rainer!” she shouted. There was a flicker on Rainer’s face, a sliver of consciousness passed through him. She shook him again. Blood from his lip spattered on his bare chest.
Borden Batter stood over the sorry pair, pudgy hands on his hips protecting his kidneys from the sad tableau he saw below him.
“Rather like a large drunk puppy, wun’tcha say, Glynnis? I can smell the hooch from here. The Portuguese have a saying…”
She cut him off. “No more sayings Borden! You’re not helping. Rainer! Rainer!” Her voice become more frantic, her cut lip turned purple.
Rainer’s eyes flickered open ever so briefly then their brown richness disappeared again into stupor.
She let his head drop heavily on the floor. It landed hard with a loud thud.
The knock seemed to bring Rainer around.
“What’s burning?” he asked, sniffing the air, becoming more alert with each whiff. “Smells like wood smoke. You smell it too?” He was trying to get to his feet.
Glynnis and Borden both sniffed but smelled nothing, no smoke.
Rainer slumped back down onto his side. “The fire is making me warm and sleepy,” he said. He started to curl into a fetal position but Borden interceded.
“Oh no, you’re not passing out here again, ever!” Borden gave a quick boot to Rainer’s shoulder. This caused his body to unfurl enough that Glynnis could get him to his feet.
“Out the door. Come on, Glynnis. Let’s move him outside.”
“Yes, yes.” The disgust in her voice was undisguised.
Between the two of them, they managed to deposit unconscious Rainer with his back against the alley side of the livery stable two doors down. Before he turned back to his store, Borden Batter peered over his spectacles at Glynnis.
“You’ll never get out of here if you stay with him and he keeps up like this. As sure as there are pork chop bones at an Anglican picnic, you’ll be stuck in a shack with him and his gruesome family all your life. With how many babies? Oh, right, none. Because this one,” he pointed a haughty thumb at Rainer Slate, “can’t plant a seed.” Borden pursed his thin lips into a smile, which evolved into a leer as he walked past her.
“Don’t malinger. Store’s open,” he spat.
At that moment Glynnis couldn’t decide which of these two men she despised more.
“Ouch.” Coming to, Rainer suddenly grabbed the back of his head.
“That was five minutes ago. You’re just feeling it now? That’s how drunk you are? Idiot. Where’s your shirt?” Glynnis could barely look at her husband.
“Don’t get going on about that again. Nothing is…”
“If it’s not burning now, it will be.”
“You are just trying to spook me, Rainer Slate, you devil. You always have been good at that.” She ran her hand over his chest.
“I smell smoke. There is something else mixed with the smoky aroma, something subterranean, mysterious, even sinister. Something that tastes like it came out of a thousand-year-old bottle. Elegant mischief. I can’t actually name it. I am not able to name it.” He gently rubbed the back of his head. A small lump was forming. “Ouch.”
Glynnis was more than a little spooked now. Subterranean? Sinister? Elegant mischief? She had heard her husband speak mainly in monosyllables in the four years she had been married to him and the year she knew him before that. He was an uneducated lout, a description Borden Batter had applied, accurately, pathetically, to her hapless husband on every appropriate occasion.
“Why can’t you name it,” she asked, curious where this would go.
“Smelling the smoke is a memory. A memory from the future. A burning bush with berries hanging red and delicious, temptation’s fruit luring us back and forth, swinging like a pendulum.”
Slate suddenly stopped talking, his mouth agape. He looked at his wife. She saw a little fear in his eyes.
“Somebody is going to burn down Shoal Lake.”
He said it without thought or inflection, a voice from a subtle wise place within him.
“Somebody is going to burn down Shoal Lake.” His words echoed in the narrow alley.
“Damn that hurts.” He rubbed the growing lump on the back of his head and pulled his hand back to see if he was bleeding. There was a small red smear on his fingertips. “I’m bleeding. How did I get this?” he asked Glynnis.
“I don’t know,” hoping her disgusted tone would hide the lie. It didn’t.
“You must have gotten it when you fell in the store. Luck had it, there were no customers when you came in. Or dropped in.”
He knew she was still lying but chose to let it go. He laughed instead.
“I did drop in, didn’t I?” He smiled his unabashedly cute smile at her, which always melted Glynnis’ heart in an involuntary way she’d come to recognize as love.
Glynnis stared at her handsome half-naked man.
“I have such a headache,” Slate said wrapping his hands around his head as if it was a delicate glass bowl.
“Who’s going to burn down Shoal Lake?” she asked.
“I don’t know who but it’s because of politics, land, jealousy, greed, the usual reasons. I must lie down.”
Slate rolled onto his side and stretched out on the rutted dirt in the alley. He carefully placed his head to avoid contact with the swelling and closed his eyes.
Glynnis made no effort to keep her husband conscious. She let him go, let him sink to wherever he needed to be at that moment. She was spooked, truly, abundantly spooked. Who was this unconscious man at her feet who looked like her husband but talked like a professor? How can a fool be cured? What change had occurred in the past few minutes? What will happen next? These questions all suddenly, overwhelmingly, flooded into Glynnis’ mind.
She had to sit on her folded legs to accommodate the dizziness. She touched her husband’s trousers. They were damp and crumbly. She tasted the contents of a thousand-year-old bottle. Her vision became hazy, details dissolved in a fog of unrecognizable shapes. She heard a fond humming that made her feel nostalgic and happy. Some old songs all in a jumble, tumbling, crumbling then…she passed out.
It was the shrill voice of Borden Batter at his most furious. His hands gripped his sides so tightly his knuckles turned white.
“GLYNNIS! WAKE UP!”
Three weeks later, on September 10 1889, a stiff northwest wind propelled a fire from one end of North Railway Avenue to the other, wiping out eight businesses including two hotels, livery stable, general store and Batter’s Apothecary. The fire changed the shape and destiny of Shoal Lake, provoking businesses to open along Station Road, south of the tracks.
BIG WHITE COMBINE
Bruno Insinger is having The Dream again. He started having it before Christmas and here it was the middle of summer.
Though seeding was delayed by a cool spring, the rains came at an opportune time and Bruno’s 1600 acres of barley and oats germinated into a promising crop. When the crop was about six inches high, the heat started. That was six weeks ago. Not a drop of rain had fallen since and his stunted crops wilted in the fields. Every day was above 80 degrees. The crop wasn’t able to hold the earth in place to counter the erosion; even light winds lifted top soil into hazy blusters. A crop yield 10% of the average was what Bruno expected to get this year. It was a disheartening depressing prospect, a waste of time, energy and money.
In The Dream, Bruno is surveying his fields. For miles around the pale parched green of his stunted crop matches the dry grey earth. The highest point on Bruno’s farm is a rise. Though somewhat precarious, it is tillable and harvestable. He is looking toward the rise which is shrouded in an impenetrable white mist. Above the hill, clouds have formed, billowy and white; from behind them, the sun is sending glowing shafts of light toward the white mist. Gold tinged and subtly moving the heavenly shafts penetrate the mist. Slowly in deep spirals from the bottom of the rise, the mist begins to ascend into the sky. As it clears the top of the hill, a huge white combine appears. It stands enormous against the sky, glistening with clean bright light. The machine is blindingly white, so bright Bruno can only take brief glances at it, a glistering gem against a blue velvet cloth.
Accompanying the vision is the rat-a-tat-tat of tin drums, children’s toys beat with determination and clamorous intent; toy pianos tinkle, plastic clarinets wheeze, a tambourine finds no rhythm. The cacophony increases in volume when the big white combine fires up, perceptibly shaking on the summit. The noise becomes louder as The Dream goes on.
There is a sudden flurry of diagonal white motion; the combine is moving, traveling over Bruno’s acres, eating them up like a starved deafening goblin. A man Bruno doesn’t know steps up to him and writes something on a small slate board. No matter how hard he tries, Bruno can’t make out what the man wrote. That’s when The Dream ends.
The next day was hot and rainless. That evening Bruno sat on the porch swing. He was alone, something that rarely happened on the farm. The kids were vacationing with his relatives and his wife was visiting her sister a day’s drive away. The cold beer sure tasted good, ‘100% good.’ He thought of The Dream.
At first, it sounded like loud electrical static, a broken buzzing that seemed to come from around the side of the house. Bruno cocked his head. From the other direction, a crackle came that sounded close and dangerous, then another from across the lane. He thought he was about to be hit by lightning. An explosion on the cement porch steps made him realize it was hailstones.
He got up and looked behind the house toward the west. The sky was black with roiling clouds, pierced by near-continuous lightning. Suddenly the air was full of ice. It pounded off the roof of the porch, battering the flower and vegetable gardens into pulp, smashing the windshield of the half-ton, careening and shattering off everything. As Bruno watched, his yard, his lane, his fields all turned white. Hailstones, ranging in size from marbles to baseballs, fell for seven minutes over an eleven square mile area. Bruno’s farm was in the middle of that area. The temperature dropped seventeen degrees in ten minutes. In places, the hail was a foot deep. A day later, there were still pockets of hailstones in shady areas.
The following afternoon the hail insurance adjuster inspected the damage. When he was done Bruno asked, “Well, what’s the word? Big white combine?”
The adjuster wrote “100%” on a clipboard and showed it to Bruno.
“Big white combine,” said the adjuster.
Bruno was relieved. It was over.
For this year.
Sherry Hudnut is about to change her name. After today she’ll be Sherry Blunder aka Mrs. Buick Blunder.
In an hour she’ll marry Buick Blunder who drinks more than she likes, who never talks about his work (he always says he works in “security”), who keeps a trunk in the basement she is “never ever” to open (it is double padlocked just in case), whose penis tastes funny. She watches her doubt in the mirror.
Her mother tarnished Buick by hiring a PI to check out his background. She doesn’t like what she found. He has a past!
Tempest Hudnut stands outside the door to Sherry’s room holding a blue envelope. Inside is the PI’s report. It is her wedding present to her daughter.
Tempest taps lightly on the door.
October 16, 2002
A white haired man is sitting in a comfortable chair off in a quiet corner of the Winnipeg library. He has taken off his wet shoes. His sock feet rest flat on the floor, two paper towels from the men’s room spread under each.
Chin tucked into the open neck of his shirt, an atlas splayed at South America on his lap, he is sound asleep.
This morning it rained in Bolivia, too.
October 16, 2002
“For Beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror
we’re still just able to bear.”
Rainer Maria Rilke
“The greater the depth of transcendence,
the greater the burden of inclusion.”
A languid drop of soup slips away from the bottom of Eleanor’s spoon making a slow splash in its thick warm homeland. A man’s hand reaches for the metal door handle. Eleanor’s eyes follow it.
“He is perfect.” She says the words to herself. Motion slows. Everything stops.
Immobile, she holds the spoon in midair an inch below her chin, her mouth open and ready, her eyes wide and hungry. She is in a tableau vivant, a still life posed in a Tim Horton’s diorama, holding her tightly in the moment.
The roar has come again. The roar replaces the ambience of her surroundings with an enjoyable floaty hum that grows in intensity, cementing Eleanor to her place in the set piece the world has become.
Eleanor studies him for the length of three slow breaths. His face is partially hidden by the doorframe. Another breath and the world resumes.
McKinnon reaches for the metal door handle of the Tim Horton’s. He thinks about his health choices everyday at noon and often chooses The Horts; people are calling it The Horts. As he pulls on the handle, his index finger twangs with pain, tenderness from slamming it between two heavy boxes in the van first thing that morning. He shoulders through the washroom door and disappears from Eleanor’s sight. Her spoon continues to her mouth, followed by a quick wipe with her paper napkin.
As the washroom door closes behind McKinnon, the roar stops. Like a radio snapping on, her friend Pansy’s words return loud and near. Eleanor smiles, seemingly fascinated by Pansy’s two-year-olds’ bowel movements. She is hearing none of it.
Eleanor surveys the eyes of her three lunch companions. None of them appears to have noticed her interlude; if they did, they’re being cool about it. The topic changes to gossip about one of the men at the office. She wonders if later she’ll be the topic of their gossip.
Eleanor’s eyes wait impatiently at the washroom door. In a minute, it will open and he will appear. Eleanor makes a comment about the soup to reinforce her presence at lunch with her office friends.
Gossip is more interesting than Eleanor’s eyes so no one notices them bloom with delight when he emerges from the washroom, rubbing his damp palms on his uniform pants. His uniform is blue. It suits him. He strides to the counter and stands third in line, his back to her. Eleanor says to herself, “Third in line.”
She has seen him once before as she stood at her second floor office window looking into the parking lot. He got out of a delivery van carrying a package for a store on the main level. She caught the barest glimpse of his face, more a quick charcoal sketch, fluid strokes suggesting hairline, eyebrows and mouth. It took her breath away.
A minute later, he returned to the van, pausing to look up at the sky above Eleanor’s window. He didn’t see her standing there, transfixed as she was by his simple act of wiping his sweaty forehead with his bare forearm, shielding his eyes from the sun.
“Keep still,” Eleanor said under her breath. He did.
She studied the tall lean man: his tanned handsome face, squinting eyes shaded by his arm, high definition lips twisted into another squint, half smile, half grimace, his mouth bright with teeth, the arch of his hairline, his broad blue shoulders. Eleanor transposed his image to the special gallery in her memory, a place populated by the most beautiful people she had ever seen.
Eleanor knew you seldom get the chance to re-encounter true beauty so it’s best to make the most of every encounter. Eleanor indelibly implanted her images of the deliveryman among her beautiful people. His arm finished the motion and he pulled open the sliding van door. A quick step and he disappeared from Eleanor’s sight.
She often summons her portraits of the deliveryman, first the fleeting caricature with its knowing smears of darkness, then the detailed version as he posed for her. There is wistfulness about his face, an incompleteness that yearns to evolve out of the shadows of his arm, the coil of his mouth, the dampness of his skin, just to be – plain and perfect in the world.
“Second in line.” Eleanor watches him rock slightly, impatiently as he stands behind two elderly women taking their time. She watches him turn to survey the room, checking for other deliverymen, checking out women. Their eyes never meet. As he scans the room, she catches glimpses of his face that set off brittle flares of desire in her heart.
McKinnon notices the women at the small table. They seem oblivious to him so he pauses only briefly in his glance, checking for recognition, finding none. Their conversation turns to a weekend shopping trip over the line as McKinnon steps to the counter to place his order.
She watches him fish his wallet out of the right rear pocket of his uniform trousers, digging with surety, the way men’s fingers do in familiar places. His wallet is slim, black leather. It is warm, Eleanor thinks. She smiles broadly at what Sue is saying or so it appears. Eleanor is dancing with the thought of his warm wallet.
The only other occasion Eleanor encountered one of her beautiful people for a second time, she married him. Elger, the magnificent man with the ugly name, first stepped into her awareness in the grandstand at the racetrack and a week later in line at the Safeway, taking her breath away both times. They started talking. They got married. They were doomed.
They had been married just over a year when Elger was involved in a fiery car crash. That was eighteen months ago. These days he sits in a wheelchair, staring out the living room window. Spinal damage took away all feeling below his waist. A bulky brace rubs against the burned areas of his neck and face. The narcotics keep him still and quiet. His once-firm sculpted body is a mangled, oozing mess in a chair, his classic visage made grotesque by fire, grafts and infection.
In her silent prayerful moments, Eleanor becomes aware she was the true instrument of Elger’s loss of beauty, she was the tool fate used to manipulate circumstances. He was on an errand for her, nothing complicated, just a few items at the grocery. He could have walked, she suggested it, he considered it, it was a beautiful day but he changed his mind. He even dropped his car keys and kicked them underneath the car so he had to get down on his belly and squirm his way under to reach them. Yet he still got in and drove away to his destiny. Nothing could have stopped him, Eleanor says to herself every day, still feeling unabsolved. Jill is going on about a new coat she saw at Fairfax. It is blue.
Will he get his lunch to go or is he a sit-down-kind-of guy? The question bounces lightly in her mind as Eleanor waits for him to turn. He turns holding a tray. A sit-down-kind-of guy!
There it is, his beautiful face, calm but discerning, selecting the best seat among the welded metal maze of colourful tables. With the shadows lifted and the caricature detailed, she sees his face is exceptional, unrelentingly handsome. There is a small halt in her breathing.
“Keep still,” she thinks.
She waits for everything to stop, for the pause to pose him perfectly for her momentary cause, her beatification, her hungry ogle. She anticipates the roar. It doesn’t happen. He keeps moving and sits.
McKinnon decides on a two-seater against a far window, on the other side of The Horts from Eleanor’s table. Once he sits, she cannot easily see him from her seat without gawking. Everyone would notice immediately. Outwardly, it appears as if Eleanor is enthralled in the near-whispered story Sue’s telling about her neighbours’ fights. Inside she is a storm of indecision, furiously confused. Should she get up, go over to him and introduce herself?
“Hello, my name is Eleanor. I’ve been mentally stalking you and I have a personal policy that if I see a beautiful person twice I have to marry them and cast horrible doom upon them.”
Nevertheless, she can’t just let him leave without…
Salami, whole wheat bread, milk and romaine.
The list of groceries Eleanor sent Elger to get for lunch, the errand he was on when he crashed. Suddenly she loses her appetite.
Eleanor takes a slow deep breath.
She turns her full attention to the trick for cooking whole chickens in a crockpot that Pansy is explaining.
Eleanor never even notices when McKinnon leaves.
GOD IS AT HOME
“God is at home.
We are in the far country.”
- Meister Eckhart
Here in the far country we are inundated. The plague of pestilence.
Like stuttering, clattering machines they scramble and skutter up from the grass before our bootsteps, or what’s left of the grass and our boots. They eat and eat, brittle winged forces of continuous digestion.
They eat the whitewash off the walls, the hides off our cattle, thatch from sodden roofs, every tuft of horsehair between the chinks in the logs and winter is coming. The sky has been blackened with them for days now as they pass. We can only sit in the shadow of their passing and watch the sun flicker through their thick clouds.
Some people call them Mormon crickets.
October 16, 2002
Prince Philip presents gold certificates to achievers assembled in clusters.
“What did you achieve?” the woman standing next to me asks. She smells of expensive perfume and gin. Her wild green eyes are suspicious of my turban.
“I delivered food to starving Ugandan children. And you?”
She stares at me. Her nostrils flare wide, her mouth opens to speak but she says nothing. Huffily she turns away as I notice a tiny patch of bright green leaves sprout in the hair on her left temple.
“What did you achieve?” she quizzes the short man on metal crutches on her other side.
“I started a public awareness campaign that led to the provincial government recognizing the special needs of disabled employees. And you?”
Turning away, a look of disgust traces across her lips as a short green stem pokes out of the collar of her green dress.
She demonstrates her distaste for the other achievers in her cluster by exuding a slightly rotted vegetable smell. I take a step away from her, as do others.
When the Prince hands her the gold certificate she is visibly shaken and he has to grasp her arm to steady her. At his touch, she recovers instantly, becoming gracious and humble.
“What did you achieve?” the old prince asks.
“I’m the missing link between the plant and animal kingdoms,” she says.
“How nice for you, dear.” The Prince smiles and moves on.
A tiny red rose blossoms behind her ear.
On a high hill in southern Saskatchewan next to a stone buffalo effigy, I met Carlos Castaneda. He was alone and naked except for a guitar. He sat cross-legged on the dry dun grass and strummed, trying to remember the words to some old Neil Diamond song.
The sun was in his eyes. He clenched them shut against the heat, the fury, the bullshit!
He asked if he could have my car. I told him it was rented.
“Rented!” he exclaimed. “Everything is rented!” with a wave of his hand to express inclusion. “We’re all rented!”
I gave him the car.
When he started it, that old Neil Diamond song was playing on the radio.
“I am…I said, to no one there,” sang Neil.
Carlos left me two bags of groceries and drove away.
“Everything is a circle,” said the buffalo effigy.
GRASS OF THE APOCALYPSE
“…down from the mountains and up from the valleys will come men as bitter and implacable as the grass of the apocalypse.”- Jean Giono
Now, the nameless…
The mountain men are broad, strong and enduring, fleet on the steep and the flat. In their contemplative practice, they encourage encounters with inorganic beings in imaginal places. Agape Descending, The One into the Many.
The valley men are lean, fast and cantankerous, always hungry even after a large meal. They are in possession of the moment through practice and discipline. They have constant access to the Witness. Eros Ascending, The Many into the One.
September 29, 2002