On a bright, crisp day in early October, he sped up Archie’s recently paved road and stopped inches from the twin-bay garage. He opened the driver’s door of his 1985 Chevy half-ton and swung his bad leg out first and leaned heavily on his cane.
Inside the garage, his brother stood stooped over a V-8 engine. At the sight of Moss, he dropped a piston into a valve cover and wiped his hands on a soiled cloth.
“There’s been a fire. Clara’s burned pretty bad,” Moss said, when Archie was close enough he smelled grease and dirty engine oil.
“Jesus!” Archie said, and stepped around him and out into the light. He went directly to the passenger door of the Chevy and got in.
Moss couldn’t remember the last time his brother had been in his truck, but a fire changes everything. It’s messy he’d said whenever anyone asked about the trouble between them. It is what it is.
In the years right after high school, Moss had been the handsome one and the best athlete in town. He’d gone by William then, but adopted the nickname Moss because of Clara. Gaunt and hunched, a leg badly weakened by MS, he now looked ten years older than the two he had on his wiry brother. Archie was the handsome one now. His boyish boney complexion fleshed out and manly—flecks of grey here and there in thick, auburn hair added to his appeal. He looked a distinguished and only slightly aged forty-three.
At the highway, Moss floored the gas pedal and the rear tires squealed and the truck fishtailed to the end of the first set of guardrails. He accelerated to 80 mph and held it there and firmly gripped the steering wheel with both hands.
Halfway to Kenora, Archie cranked the passenger window an inch and tossed out a live butt. He closed it again and lit another and took a long inhale and braced a hand on the dash. Bush and rock-cuts were a steady blur on both sides of the highway—the spruce and balsam needles so dark a green that at times they appeared black in the shade.
He let Archie out at the doors of Emergency and parked and waited in the truck. Clara hadn’t spoken to him in more than two decades, and today wouldn’t change that.
When Archie returned three hours later, his face and hands were scrubbed clean and his hair combed flat to his scalp and parted on the right side. He lit a cigarette.
“She’s going to be okay considering—,” he said, and then tapped the dash to signal he was ready to go.
The drive back to Archie’s passed in tense silence. Just before the turn off to Clara’s, Archie turned to Moss and said, “Take me up.”
He parked next to Raymond’s restored 1969 Dodge Charger—scorched and ruined on the passenger side and waxed and shiny on the other. Moss stayed in the truck and Archie walked the charred perimeter to the clothesline at the back. A pair of jeans and a floral dress dangled between poplars—every leaf had been burned off the tree closest to the house.
Moss recognized the melted remains of the Formica table he’d sat at on the night long ago when Clara slapped him and dishes went flying.
A bird landed on the roof of the truck and took heavy steps. He pounded a fist against the roof and a huge raven swooped off and glided over the ashes and then rose abruptly and coasted out over the lake before banking into the trees farther down the beach.
Archie opened the tailgate and tossed melted pieces of metal into the truck bed. Moss rested his head against the cold glass of the rear window and waited.
After three more trips, Archie closed the tailgate and walked to Raymond’s Charger and opened the driver’s door and poked his head inside. He ran a hand along the dash to the melted side and stopped. He looked into the back seat and reached there, but brought his hand back empty. He shut the door and slapped his hands together to dust them off.
Raymond’s German shepherd, Gracie, bolted from the trees and leapt at him. He grabbed her in his arms and squeezed until she went limp. He let go and she dropped to the ground and lay motionless until he nudged her with his boot. She circled him several times, sniffing his pant legs. She was a bit small for the breed, more the size of a collie. Raymond likely had chosen her because of that.
Gracie followed Archie to the truck but didn’t jump in when he opened the passenger door so he climbed in and whistled for her. She hopped in but sniffed nervously at the floor and seat. Archie cupped her head in his hands and pressed his nose to hers and then let go and she curled up between them.
When they reached Archie’s place, he got out and turned back to his brother, “You best take her.”
Moss nodded and Archie reached in and petted her once and shut the door.
She curled up in the spot he’d vacated and didn’t move again as Archie unloaded the back of the truck, carrying the burnt pieces in small armfuls to his garage.
At his place, Moss opened the passenger door for her, and she looked up, but didn’t budge.
“Suit yourself,” he said, and left the door open.
He wasn’t in the mood to cook so heated up a frozen dinner of Salisbury steak, mash potatoes, and corn. Normally he’d have As it Happens playing loud enough in the living room he could hear the radio in the kitchen, but he left it off tonight.
Later as he put away the dishes, Gracie scratched at the back door. He let her in and she bolted through the lit kitchen and into the darker living room. She curled up on the floor next to the leather couch and stayed there until he turned on a lamp. She jumped onto the couch and sniffed around a bit before she curled up and settled.
He set out water in a bowl and placed leftover ground beef on a dinner plate, but Gracie didn’t leave the couch. He sat across from her in his leather recliner and read yesterday’s Winnipeg Free Press. Day old news suited him today.
Occasionally, she raised her head and glanced toward the front window and whimpered or barked. He ignored her each time, so she gave up and lay her head back down.
At midnight, he folded the newspaper and placed it on the coffee table and said, “What am I going to do with you?”
She made brief eye contact and her rapid breathing contradicted her curled up indifference. Around Raymond she barked at the slightest noise and never stayed still for long. Moss had always attributed that to Raymond’s restlessness and bad nerves—his general skittishness of thought.
He left Gracie on the couch and went to bed but couldn’t sleep and lay awake thinking of that summer twenty-four years ago when he and Clara occupied this same bed and planned a very different future from this one.
Over time he’d thought he’d repaired his heart, but as he listened to Gracie push the plate along the floor, her noisy presence reminded him that hearts don’t mend.
Later, Gracie’s claws clicked back and forth on the linoleum for over an hour before she quieted.
He slept then, a dreamless sleep, broken at daybreak, by Gracie’s urgent barks. He bolted from the bed thinking a bear or wolf had come into the yard. But when he checked the bedroom window, a lone partridge scurried across the yard and into the trees.
Gracie continued to bark so he dressed and went through to the kitchen. She was at the back door, her tail straight out, ears lifted. He stood next to her and petted her and she stopped barking and dropped her tail. But as soon as he stopped, she raised her front paws to the door, scratched, and whined.
He fetched a chunk of rope from the utility room and tied it to her collar. He walked her along the dry creek at the back of the property. She stopped once to pee and then drank from a small puddle. She caught the scent of something and without glancing back to him, bolted as far as the rope allowed. He held it firmly in one hand and leaned on his cane for support with the other. She took several runs at the rope but he held firm until she tired.
He turned her away from the creek, and along the hunting path back to the house. She growled when they reached the back door.
“What’s gotten into you?” he said as he crouched down beside her even though his knee felt like it might pop. Pain shot up both legs to his hips. He rested a hand on her back for support and she dropped to her belly next to him.
He let go of the rope then. It seemed unnecessary at that point. Her ears lifted and she bolted free from him and across his narrow field trailing the rope behind her. She vanished into the trees before he could properly stand up.
There was no mystery to where she’d go, so he waited until early afternoon before going to his truck.
At the highway, he let three transports pass and thought about how the fire wasn’t going to be as simple as Archie wanted it to be. Guilt doesn’t stay hidden for long, his father always asserted whenever he’d been confident about a decision in court.
Gracie wasn’t there when he reached the site of the fire so he waited in the truck. She’d show up eventually. A slight breeze churned up ashes around misshapen bits of metal and the burnt core of the wood stove half covered in bricks from the collapsed chimney. The stone fireplace was intact except the top half chimney had toppled off and the remaining stack gaped to open sky.
He dozed for an hour and when he woke, Gracie was circling Raymond’s car and sniffed each tire as she went. She’d gotten free of the rope somewhere. She rose up on her hind legs at one point and rested her front paws against the driver’s door and sniffed the handle. She dropped down and walked the perimeter of the ashes with her nose to the ground. She stopped to sniff more thoroughly a place where the scent of Raymond must have been strongest. Close to where—
For twenty minutes she vacillated between the car and the edge of the ashes, but circled the car so often she wore a discernible path in the grass and ash. Finally she curled up near the front tire on the driver’s side. From that vantage point the car must have appeared undamaged by the fire.
She laid her head down and closed her eyes and stayed like that. He’d worked out what to do by then and eased open the door, careful to put his good foot down first, but his bad leg buckled and he lost his balance and dropped hard to the ground. He heard a snap and intense pain shot up that leg to his hip and he bit down on his lower lip to keep from crying out.
He took deep breaths to control the pain and gripped the inside corner of the open door, and worked to pull himself into the truck, but didn’t have the strength. He gave in and laid his head on the ground and called to Gracie but she’d already bolted. He closed his eyes and everything faded.
A deep, bone throb woke him. It was nearly dark and according to his watch he’d been out for more than an hour. Despite the intense pain, he sat up and reached into the cab until he gripped the metal base of the seat. He used that for leverage and took deep breaths as he inched himself into the cab of the truck.
He dragged his legs in after him and felt a sudden dizziness and nausea and closed his eyes to keep everything from spinning. The pain was unbearable no matter where he set his foot. The back of his head throbbed and he took more deep breaths until it subsided.
He felt around in his pocket for his keys and fumbled in the dark to find the ignition. He barely let the engine warm-up before putting the column shift into reverse and backing away from Raymond’s car. The high beams tracked the yard, but there was no sign of Gracie. He shifted into drive and crept toward the highway, careful to avoid potholes. He glimpsed a butt and tail vanishing into the bush. It could have been Gracie but was more likely a fox, bobcat, or brush wolf scared off by the noise of the truck and sweep of headlights.
Every vibration of the truck sent excruciating pain up his leg and it felt like someone was stabbing it with a large knife. The doctor had warned him he could have a bad fall because the MS was weakening his good leg too.
He swerved wide on the sharp corners to avoid braking too often as each time he did the jarring sent more pain up his leg. At the hospital emergency doors, he cut the engine and laid on the horn until paramedics ran out.
He woke hours later in a hospital bed, and the medication a nurse had given him when he arrived now dampened the pain to a dull ache. His first thought was how foolish he’d been with Clara all these years. How he should have made amends and insisted they talk. Yes they’d been young and foolish and did not know then the terrible toll the years would have but—. Now here he was just one floor below her, the closest they’d been to each other in years, but the fire yesterday made everything all the more impossible between them. He had no way now to make amends for his mistakes all those years ago.
He touched his left leg, bony and damaged but secured in a cast now from the ankle to below the knee. The x-rays revealed that the tibia was broken, the ankle dislocated. It will take months to heal. The doctor advised.
Like Clara, he was bedridden and must let the healing take its course. The body repairs in time, finds new pathways, forms new flesh around each wound, and eventually the pain subsides.
He thought of Gracie out in the dark somewhere heartbroken, searching for Raymond. There’d be no healing for that. In time she’d give up, but until then, she’d go on frantic and lost, heartbreak occupying her every waking hour.
Water dripped somewhere in a corner of the room. Quick heels in the hall indicated someone needing attention. He didn’t stay conscious long.
A week after the fire, Archie traded in his 1983 Ford pickup for a new Crown Victoria at Kantola Motors. At the hospital, he pushed Clara in a wheel chair to the car and lifted her onto the silk sheet he’d smoothed out on the back seat.
At the house, he carried her as far as the front porch and then she insisted he set her down. She looked terribly thin when she finally lay on his sizable bed. She scanned the room from there and nodded at the items he’d re-arranged for her care.
Her eyebrows lifted as they usually did whenever she had something important to say to him but this time she only smiled. The doctor had warned her against speaking for two weeks to give the damage in her throat time heal. He’d cautioned that it would be a month before she’d be back to her usual chatty self.
He went to the night table and straightened her toiletries with quick movements and then briefly rested a hand on the polished oak for balance before coming around to his side of the bed.
She patted the mattress beside her and he joined her there. She gripped his hand and drew him closer. She stroked his cheek until her strokes trailed off and she was asleep.
A brisk wind rattled the screen door and he’d usually be quick to attend to it, but waited until she was sound asleep.
He went to the kitchen and loaded more poplar halves into the stove and filled a gallon pot with water and set it to boil. On the teak sideboard, where his mother had displayed her cherished china, he readied gauze, tape and salve for when she woke.
On Saturday nights when Archie and Moss were teenagers they would listen with their father to Foster Hewitt’s play-by-play description of Toronto Maple Leaf hockey games. Moss usually sat on the left side of the radio and Archie on the right. Their father smoked a cigar and sat in the comfy chair facing them. Whenever the Leafs scored, he’d whistle and then puff furiously on his cigar. Archie still associated the smell of cigar smoke with his father.
Their father had come from old money in Winnipeg, made first from timber and then later from selling dry goods. He was the town magistrate in Kenora for nearly thirty years and being stern-faced all day in court usually carried over into the evenings at home, except during Saturday night hockey games.
Their father was six foot two but had small hands and feet that better suited a smaller man. He had his hands manicured every week and they were always free of the scrapes and nicks of those who appeared before him in court.
In July of 1959, he bought a RCA TV from Campbell Appliances so he and his sons could watch the Leaf games on TV. But a week after it was delivered he made a running dive off a dock into Longbow Lake and didn’t surface. Four days later, two tourists from Minnesota out in their canoe spotted his body floating in the bulrushes.
He woke often that first night Clara was released from the hospital. Each time he woke, he’d listen for her breathing to make sure she was okay. Once when he woke, her side of the bed was empty, and he was about to get up and check on her when he heard the hiss of her slippers on the wood floor as she returned from the bathroom. She stood briefly at the end of the bed and remained invisible to him in the porous dark. She eventually went around to her side and sat on the bed but didn’t immediately slip under the covers. He fell asleep with her still sitting there and when he woke later she was curled up behind him, her breath light against his neck.
Her brother’s reliance on her had given her purpose and Archie worried how she’d be without that. But he knew that loving her didn’t require knowing the answer to that, or understanding the intricacies of that past, only accepting it.
At first light, he rose slowly from bed so as not to disturb her. Normally she’d be up before him making coffee and fixing breakfast, but she didn’t stir the whole time he gathered up his clothes. He paused briefly at the door to watch her sleep, and except for a single bandage above the elbow on her right arm—the rest hidden by covers—she appeared unharmed by the fire.
He dressed in the bathroom and then went to the kitchen and filled a bowl with cornflakes and set the kettle on the stove to boil for a cup of instant coffee. After breakfast, he fetched the jumper cables from the garage and boosted the tractor and drove it north to the barn. He hitched the hay wagon to it, and loaded it and drove to the east fence and pitched off the hay for his nag and stallion.
Chores stitched the day together. His father thought of this as hobby farm to take his mind off his judicial work, but Archie’s recent efforts had turned it into a profitable farm. His father had wisely chosen this fertile rolling set of fields but it had been Archie who took full advantage of that soil.
A doe approached and poked her snout through the fence to scavenge hay. Normally he would shoo her away with a shout or wave, but her bare ribs and patchy hide stopped him and he let her have a few mouthfuls.
Her eyes stayed on him as she ate and after her third chew she stepped back. Her lack of hurry made him curious. In that moment he wanted to believe that allowing her to eat would make some difference. His father had believed the contrary and saw no cosmic balance of any sort, and said there would never be enough good deeds to balance out the bad ones. Archie didn’t share that view and thought his father missed the obvious: that most deeds were neither just nor unjust, neither guilty nor innocent, but are simply what was required of someone at that moment and nothing more.
He’d been tongue-tied around his Harvard educated father. In his teenage years, words crowded his thinking so he’d concentrated on images instead. They didn’t require explanation. Because of Clara, he saw all that differently now.
He sensed hurried movements at the corner of his eye, and then Gracie charged the deer at a full run. The doe dodged the attack and fled into the trees, Gracie chased after her.
He whistled and called her name expecting her to yield, and when she didn’t, he scrambled over the fence and ran after them.
Until now, he’d considered her a docile and companionable dog unsuitable for the rigors of hunting. That had been why he’d suggested Moss take her—he could use the company.
The horses nickered behind him and the stallion snorted and then galloped full out along the north fence.
Gracie howled and he hurried in that direction. When he reached her, she had the deer cornered—the drop behind her a hundred feet to a creek below.
The deer ran parallel to the edge but Gracie cut her off before she could sneak past, so she turned the other way and Gracie cut her off again. This continued until the distance between each turn shortened so much that the doe froze and fixed her gaze on Gracie.
If he didn’t advance on her, maybe she’d stand down and let the doe go. But if she killed the doe, he’d have to put her down.
She turned toward him maybe catching his scent in a shift in the wind. The doe tried to leap around Gracie, but she pounced and sank her teeth into the doe’s neck and tore away a clump of flesh. The deer dropped to the ground and her legs kicked at air.
Archie charged Gracie and slapped her on the hind-end and she bared her teeth, bloodied from the bite. He pinned her to the ground and she kicked and yelped and bit his jacket sleeve. He pressed down with all his weight. She growled and nipped at him until he slapped her on the nose and she whimpered, and went still.
The doe wheezed and panted next to them, her legs no longer kicking. Blood oozed down her neck. Gracie must have caught an artery. The doe wouldn’t live long.
Gracie growled and squirmed and kicked and tugged on the sleeve of his jacket.
“No!” he commanded, and braced his legs and pressed down more forcefully. She whimpered and let go of his sleeve, but her eyes stayed angry. He held her stare and then slapped her snout and she closed her eyes.
He stood but gripped her collar firmly and pulled her up with him. She wasn’t escaping this time. At the corral, she barked at the horses and didn’t stop until he slapped her nose and set her down. He dragged her by the collar to the tractor and fastened a length of rope to her collar and secured it to the seat of the tractor.
The stallion trotted back and forth nickering and kicking out his hind legs. He circled the nag as she grazed and then stopped. The stallion and nag lifted their heads in unison and looked at him.
He envied how for them actions were an explanation in themselves.
Gracie ran out the length of the rope and stood watching the horses. They watched back until the stallion reared up in a challenge.
Archie climbed on the tractor and drove back to the house. Grace stood her ground until the rope went taut and the full force of tractor pulled her in the direction of the house. She ran alongside then keeping the rope slack.
He lit a cigarette and wondered if Gracie had tracked the doe or simply come upon it by accident as she searched familiar places for Raymond? Such answers weren’t knowable and that brought peace of mind.
His father had faced difficult decisions in court and had been forced to choose even when no choice was right. That was the weight of presiding he told his sons. For years Archie had been convinced that his father simply based his judgments on what he’d done in the past. But since his father’s death, he’d developed a keen appreciation for how carefully and dutifully his father considered the merits of each case and rendered reasoned judgments.
He stubbed his cigarette against his pant leg, and rubbed the ashes into the fabric, and then put the crushed butt into his back pocket. With his other hand, he kept the tractor aimed for the house.
He remembered now his father’s story of marrying a man to his dead bride. They’d been high school sweethearts and had promised to marry no matter what. She’d died of typhus a week before the wedding. The groom dressed her in her bridal gown and laid her on the dining table. He wore a tuxedo and top hat and said his parts and her parts.
After the groom slipped the ring on her finger, he kissed her on the lips and then helped place her in the coffin. The groom and Archie’s father stood quietly for a minute or two before the groom closed the coffin.
“That was the happiest couple I ever married,” his father said as a punch line and then laughed so forcefully, his jaw vibrated. The bout of laughter always ended with a noisy intact of air. Archie thought the story terribly sad and wondered why his father found it funny.
At the house, he walked Gracie to the garage and hosed the blood off her and dried her with fresh rags he kept in a supply drawer. She didn’t put up any fight as he tied her to a corner beam. He expected her to growl or snap at him but she simply curled up in a ball and closed her eyes, the wild gone out of her again.
He took his .30-30 rifle from the rack in the garage and went back for the doe. She’d crawled into the trees and was sucking on a spruce sapling. He should have brought her water but didn’t take time to consider that any further, simply raised the rifle to his shoulder and fired. He then dragged her to the ledge and pushed her over. She rolled a few times and came to rest twenty feet short of the creek. Vultures and crows would find her before dark.
He checked on Gracie and she was still curled in the corner with her head down. She looked up when he came in but only whimpered and pressed her nose to the cement floor and sniffed.
Killing her wouldn’t be easy especially because Clara wouldn’t abide it. It wouldn’t matter to her what Gracie had done, and loving Clara meant he would consider her wishes above his own. He put the rifle back into the rack and made sure she had water.
On the front steps he removed his mud caked boots and tiptoed into the kitchen. He heard noises in the bedroom and found Clara sitting on the edge of the bed facing the window. Maybe she’d been there the whole time and seen Gracie trotting alongside the tractor.
She didn’t say nor did she turn to greet him as he came in so he came around and sat next to her. She reached out a hand and he took it. She smelled of salve and petroleum jelly. Her eyes were moist. She’d been crying.
“I thought I heard a gunshot,” she whispered, and when he didn’t respond said, “Raymond loved this time of year,” still in a whisper but her voice cracked this time.
He missed the warm and silky tones of her voice and the lively cadence to her sentences. It was his job to fill the silences now.
He poured a glass of water from the night table and handed it to her to cool her throat. She took two small sips and gave it back.
“Good,” he said.
She lay down and turned away from the window and closed her eyes. He drew the curtains and left the door open and went to the kitchen. His hands trembled as he collected gauze and ointments and arranged them on a serving tray and told himself that this would bring better days.
He left the house and walked the horses to the barn. He then went into the garage and sat with Gracie. He stroked her head and back. She lowered her head between her feet and stayed perfectly still and let him pet her.
At this moment her silence was easier than Clara’s. In time Clara would speak, though, but he wasn’t prepared yet to hear what she would say.
After supper, he changed Clara’s bandages and in a few areas the burns had dried and scabbed over properly, but others still oozed. Tomorrow, he’d take her to the hospital to have everything checked over and make sure any infected areas were properly treated and dressed. He peeled back each piece of gauze slowly so as not to pull away any new skin. She winced each time, but didn’t cry out.
The burns on her right arm, which had been the worst, showed the most signs of healing and required smaller dressings.
When he finished, she motioned for him to come closer and whispered in his ear. How’s Gracie?
He told her that she was fine and in the garage. Love sometimes required doing the wrong thing and not speaking of it.
The next morning he woke late and found her in the garage sitting cross-legged and her back against the wall. Gracie was curled up beside her with her head in Clara’s lap as she petted her.
Neither looked up when he came in. Clara was humming softly and when she glanced at him, she whispered, “What have you been feeding her?”
“She needs proper food,” she said, and petted the top of Gracie’s head more firmly.
She’d untied the rope, coiled it up and placed it next to the beam. She didn’t ask about it or how Gracie came to be here.
He stepped in her direction and Gracie raised her head and growled.
“She’s gotten all dirty. You’ll need to give her a bath.” She said all this still in a whisper, her voice cracking each time.
When she stood up, her legs wobbled a little so he picked her up and carried her outside and Gracie followed. Clara insisted he put her down and shuffled the short distance to the house. Gracie stayed obediently at her side and displayed no aggressive behavior.
After Archie bathed her, he brought her into the bedroom and Clara called her up onto the bed. He joined them and Clara’s rested her head on his shoulder and Gracie curled up at her feet.
When he woke hours later, he was alone and went in search of them but the house was empty. He found Clara out in the garage by herself. She’d set out the burnt and twisted bits of metal on the floor in the right pattern and he saw immediately what he was meant to do.
He didn’t look around for Gracie. He already knew that she was gone. Later when Clara napped he walked the perimeter of his property but found no trace of her. She’d likely been smart enough to go up the creek a ways before choosing a way in the trees. Maybe she’d follow the cut line farther back. She wouldn’t return to the site of the fire though. That life was gone out of her.
Walking back he knew that Clara and he wouldn’t talk about Gracie. The decision already made. She was still asleep when he came in. He undressed and lay next to her but didn’t sleep.
He visited Moss in the hospital a week after Clara let Gracie go.
“It hasn’t got me yet,” Moss said, as soon as Archie entered the room.
Archie sat in the orange vinyl chair under the window and Moss left the TV on but had Archie turn the sound down. They watched a singer perform two songs as she held the large microphone very close to her mouth. She looked to her left quite often as though singing to someone off camera.
Archie asked about the leg and Moss told him it throbbed constantly and that the doctor said that he’d be permanently on crutches now. He then asked Archie to look in at the lumber yard although there wouldn’t be much that Archie could do except make an appearance and ensure that lumber was still getting cut. It would be a wasted trip, but he agreed to it all the same.
“Clara up and around?” Moss asked when Archie was making noises about leaving.
“Doing very well according to the doctor.”
“I thought she would.”
Archie nodded. Those were the most words he and Moss had spoken about Clara in a long while and he planned to keep it that way because there were too many snags and traps in such a conversation.
Moss said he’d be in the hospital another week.
“Alright,” Archie said, and slapped the doorframe and turned and walked away without looking back. He didn’t promise to visit again because there wasn’t any point in that.
In March of 1965 Moss turned twenty-one and shortly after bought the house at Longbow Lake with a small portion of his inheritance. He also bought a red 1939 Ford Coupe from a farmer in Steinbeck. The car had a flathead 239 V8 that Archie rebuilt with oversized pistons so that it went from 0 to 60 in less than six seconds.
That was also the year he fell in love with Clara. The first time they met, he picked up her and Raymond hitchhiking to Kenora. It was a warmer than usual Saturday in early June. Clara pushed forward the passenger seat so Raymond could squeeze into the tiny back seat.
She sat up front with Moss and told him, when he asked, that she’d turned eighteen a month ago and that Raymond was sixteen but acted eleven or twelve. That last part she leaned over and whispered in his ear. That close, her breath smelled of Juicy Fruit gum mixed with cinnamon and nutmeg.
He’d never met anyone so manic and uninhibited. She rarely stopped talking for very long, but that suited him.
Raymond talked to himself in the back seat. At first Moss thought he was speaking to him and answered back but Clara shook her head so he stopped.
Raymond was telling a story about a dead musky on a beach and a moose with antlers only on its right side. “The other side broke off in a fight,” he said in a loud voice.
“More likely the moose shed them,” Clara corrected, but he ignored her and kept talking until she reached back and swatted him on the side of the head. He stopped for a while but started up again exactly where he’d left off.
“Hey crank that up,” Clara said, and reached over and turned up the radio when No Satisfaction was playing. “What a song,” she said when it finished. “That guitar part always gives me goose bumps.”
The Beach Boys’ Help Me Rhonda played next and she cranked that even louder. Moss turned it down a bit but she swatted his hand away lightly and smiled and said she was just playing.
“Don’t you like the Beach Boys? I just love them. When I hear their songs I can’t stop moving.” She took out a pack of Craven A Menthol from a small black purse she had looped over one shoulder and plucked a single cigarette, and put the pack back without offering him one.
She pushed in the car lighter and when it popped out she raised it to the tip of her cigarette and inhaled several times until it lit. As she smoked, she bobbed and rocked in time to the organ and vocals.
Moss had a difficult time keeping his eyes on the road.
“Do you like to read? We studied The Catcher in the Rye at school this year. That’s a book that makes you think. I don’t want to be a phony, do you?”
He said he’d liked the book in school too. Then he’d identified with Holden, but now he seemed like someone who wasted too much time thinking about things not worth thinking about. Life sped up and slowed down. So what? There was too much good stuff in it to waste time worrying about what wasn’t the good stuff.
Raymond clapped his hands and howled until Clara slapped him again. He sat back in his seat and when Moss checked the rearview mirror he was slouched with his arms folded and his head turned to the right and his mouth kept moving but no words came out. His hair hadn’t been cut in a while and had grown over his ears and blew all around his face and he let it.
At some point Clara leaned over and whispered to Moss that Raymond was getting on her nerves today. “But I’m all he’s got.”
He dropped her and Raymond at Woolworth’s and she leaned her head in the window of the passenger door and said, “He likes the sound of smashing glass the way most people like music. Thanks for stopping.” She took Raymond’s hand and led him inside Woolworth’s.
Only two days later when he was driving home, he saw Clara sitting on the guardrail halfway to town. He stopped his car and backed up to make sure she was okay.
She told him that Raymond was missing. “Dad got mad and swore at him and he took off on his bike. I followed him to the highway but he was long gone by then. I figured he’d head to town because the other way there’s only Dryden. I found his bike about a quarter mile back there but no sign of him. I’ve been hollering, but he’s not answering. He’s in the bush somewhere but it’s getting too dark to go after him.”
Moss offered to help and she nodded and he opened the passenger door for her. He drove slowly until he reached Raymond’s bike propped against a guardrail. He stopped and cut the engine but left the headlights on. He walked to the edge of the highway where the only sounds besides the ping of his engine were an assortment of frog noises and the deep drone of a locomotive somewhere in the distance.
He retrieved the flashlight from the glove box and went down a steep bank of tall grass and into bush thick with old growth spruce and balsam. If Raymond had gone very far, he wouldn’t ever be found.
The frogs were much louder here indicating a sizable swamp or slough close by. He followed the beam of his flashlight a bit farther and heard sobbing to his right. He didn’t call out though because he didn’t want to spook the boy.
He moved slowly in that direction and shone his flashlight only far enough ahead of him to light his way. The sobbing got louder and then stopped. He shone the flashlight in that direction sweeping back and forth until the beam landed on Raymond curled in the fetal position and rocking back and forth.
“Here this will warm you,” he said, taking off his jacket and laying it over the boy. “I’m Moss. You sister’s in my car and she’s pretty worried about you.”
He expected Raymond to say something but he just went on rocking. He didn’t dare leave him to get Clara, so he squatted down next to the boy and said, “Let me help you,” and extended a hand but Raymond bit down on his pointing finger and didn’t let go until Moss slapped him lightly on the side of his head.
Then he threw his arm around the boy’s middle and lifted him. Raymond kicked and screamed and slapped at the side of Moss’s head as he ran toward the car headlights.
He scrambled up the steep bank and Raymond found his shoulder and bit down and didn’t let go. Moss ran faster and by then Clara was out of the car and met him half way up the bank.
“Raymond you stop that!” She said and slapped him on the shoulder.
He released his grip on Moss’s shoulder and went limp and slid to the ground. Clara took his feet, and Moss grabbed his arms and they carried him to the car and set him in a sitting position on the gravel shoulder.
Clara opened the passenger door and pushed the seat forward so Moss could lift Raymond and lay him on the back seat. He trembled from head to toe and Moss lay his jacket over him.
He walked around to the driver’s side and started the engine and turned on the heater. He then carried Raymond’s bike to the trunk and it took some fiddling to get it to fit in the small trunk and even then it stuck out nearly two feet, so he tied the lid down with a length of rope he kept in the trunk for emergencies.
Once they were on the highway, Clara leaned over the back seat and lifted the jacket off Raymond. “What’s gotten into you? You scared me half to death,” she said.
He moved his hands away from his face and he spit at her.
She laid the jacket back over him and sat down proper in the front seat and turned on the radio and travelled the dial to WLS from Chicago just as the last verse of A Ticket to Ride was playing and that was immediately followed by the jingle-jangle guitar opening of the Byrds’ Mr. Tambourine Man.
Moss had only heard that song twice before but after that night he couldn’t get it out of his head and would turn it up every time it played on the radio.
Near the end of the song Raymond sat up and leaned forward and rested his chin on the front seat and rocked his head side to side in time to the beat of the song.
At their road, he offered to drive them all the way home.
“Here’s best,” Clara said, and she leaned over and whispered in Moss’s ear that she had matters to discuss with Raymond on the walk.
He kept the engine running and his headlights aimed up their road to light their way. They disappeared into the dark before they reached the first curve. He cut the engine and turned off headlights and rolled down the window to listen. Not for their voices but for any animal noises out there.
When he figured they must have reached their house, he started the car and backed onto the highway. He didn’t turn on his headlights until he reached the first bend. Then he gunned the engine and squealed the tires for a hundred feet. He didn’t back off the gas pedal until the needle inched well past a 100 mph and when he did the car coasted down the long hill before the turn off to his place. He held the car to the centerline with the headlights off the whole way.
The next morning at 7:00 AM, he woke to a loud pounding on the front door.
When he opened it, Clara stood directly in front of him and Raymond a few paces to her left side.
“Dad got into the whiskey again last night and threw him out. Can he stay with you until Dad sobers up? She took out a cigarette and with a shaky hand brought the filtered end to her lips.
Moss retrieved his Zippo lighter off the mantel and lit it and cupped his hand around it and offered her the flame. She took quick puffs until the tip of her cigarette was fully lit and then took a long inhale and blew smoke out the corner of her mouth to keep it away from him.
He waved them inside but Raymond only came as far as the front entranceway and leaned against wall and didn’t venture any farther.
“He’s a bit shy at first,” she said, and then exhaled a large cloud of smoke straight up.
He slid two oak chairs from around the dinner table and gestured for Raymond to sit in one but he shook his head and stayed where he was. Moss sat in the other and turned the chair so he faced Clara who now sat on the couch.
“He can sleep on the couch for a few nights,” he said.
She formed three large smoke rings and then nodded and her eyes focused on something out the kitchen window. She didn’t say what nor did she look down as she tapped the ash off her cigarette into the ashtray. She raised the cigarette back to her lips and rested her chin in her hand, elbow on the table.
He’d never seen her so quiet and wondered how often she got like that. He preferred her nervous energy and lively, direct conversation.
His mood dampened until she giggled and asked if he was always serious.
Before he could answer, Raymond moved to the middle of the kitchen and stood at attention but swayed back and forth as though in time to some piece of music.
“His mother drank too much when she was pregnant. That’s why he’s like that. Dad’s little mess mom calls him when she’s in a bad mood, which is pretty often now that Dad’s hours have been cut at the sawmill for the summer lull. Dad fools around on her. She said she doesn’t want Raymond living with us but Dad says she can’t have him without Raymond.
“When Dad’s sober he’s a sweet man and will do anything for Raymond or me. Won’t he?” She turned to his brother and he smiled but kept swaying.
“But when he drinks he complains about every mistake in his life and Raymond most of all. This past week he’s been drunk almost every day. Mom says if he doesn’t stop going on benders she’s going to kick him out. He says it’s his house so she better not dare try that.”
Some of this Moss knew from gossip he’d caught here and there in town or from Lorne at Redden’s Store.
“His mom was killed in a car accident when he was three. She’d been out drinking all night with friends and the car she was in swerved to avoid a deer and hit head-on with a pulp truck. Car parts were strewn all over the highway Dad said.”
Moss must have been away when the accident happened so hadn’t heard it until now and had always wondered how the boy had come to be living with Clara’s family.
“Dad always asks Mom what else could he do whenever she complains about Raymond. He says he couldn’t turn away his own flesh and blood that wouldn’t be right. She’s kind to him sometimes but whenever she’s in one of her moods she calls him, that creature.
“Whisky will be the ruin of your father, she says. When Dad drinks she locks the door to their bedroom and ignores all his knocking and pleading to be let in at first but eventually yells that he better find somewhere else to sleep it off. That’s usually when he smashes dishes or attacks the furniture turning over the table and chairs and sometimes even the couch. Swearing at the top of his lungs the whole time. I don’t know how she could sleep through such a racket.”
Later she said, “I better get home and deal with him,” and kissed Moss on the cheek at the door and then hugged Raymond but he kept his arms stiff at his side and looked away.
That evening, he attempted to teach Raymond to play cribbage, but he had difficulty grasping the play of the game. He did like adding up the points at the end, no matter how tricky it got. Moss let him count his cards too and he marveled at how quickly Raymond could calculate the correct totals.
Later when Raymond fell asleep on the couch, Moss placed a light blanket over him to keep off any chill.
In the middle of the night, Moss woke to the banging of pots and pans in the kitchen. When he came out to investigate, Raymond had tossed all his pots and pans on the floor and was kicking them around like soccer balls. Moss couldn’t believe his eyes at first and watched stunned as Raymond got more and more worked up with each kick.
Moss had no idea how to stop him except to throw his arms around the boy and hold him. But Raymond went on kicking until Moss walked him to a safe corner and held him there. Raymond screamed and kicked at his legs and stomped on his foot until Moss released him.
Raymond ran in circles around the large kitchen and kicked at the base of the cupboards with severe enough kicks that boards cracked. After circling the kitchen three times he collapsed on the floor sobbing and calling for Clara.
“It’s okay Raymond she’ll be here in the morning. You need to go back to sleep.”
Raymond’s eyes looked through him at first but then came into focus and he half smiled and returned to the couch and lay down without so much as another word. Moss covered him again with the blanket and returned to bed. He lay awake listening for over an hour to make sure Raymond didn’t have another fit.
Shortly after eight the next morning loud knocks woke him again. This time a man stood there. He was considerably shorter than Moss, no more than chest height on him, but broad shouldered. Both hands were in tight fists and his eyes were very bloodshot.
“Where’s my boy?”
“I’m here for him. I don’t know what Clara told you but I’d like you to mind your own business. It’s between the boy and me. Don’t stick your nose in where it don’t belong.” He stepped forward, but Moss blocked the doorway.
He took a few steps back and then ran at Moss lowering his head to ram him in the chest. But Moss had been in enough bar fights to know how to block the attack with his hands. He slapped Raymond’s father on both ears, and when he raised his hands to defend himself, Moss grabbed an arm and forced it behind his back and pressed him against the door jam. He reeked of whisky.
“When I let you go we’re going to talk about this in a civil manner but out here on the porch.”
He nodded and Moss released his grip fully prepared for another attack, but Raymond’s father stepped back and sat in the closest wicker chair on the porch. Moss closed the front door and sat in the next chair and introduced himself.
“I know who you are. I know all about you and your hotshot father. I went before him a time or two when I was your age. I’m Deter in case Clara hasn’t told you that already. You know about the boy?”
“Clara’s got a vivid imagination. Her heart’s in the right place but she’s unnaturally attached to the boy. Whisky may be the death of me but until then I’m all the boy’s got. I’ve owned up to my mistake and claimed him.” He leaned forward in the chair as though about to get up but didn’t.
“I behaved badly a moment ago but no matter what Clara might have told you, I love that boy as much as I love her. He’s not an easy boy to love but if I don’t love him who will?”
Moss recognized the toll of the whisky on him, not just in his jaundiced eyes, sunken cheeks, and grayish skin, but also the noticeable gaps in his thinking.
The front door opened and Raymond stuck only his head out at first and then came all the way out onto the porch and continued to where his father sat and stood next to him.
Deter rose and pulled Raymond to him. Raymond threw his arms around him and squeezed. They hugged for a long time.
Deter let go first and said, “Thank you,” to Moss and offered a hand.
Moss shook it and Deter’s grip was firmer and his palm dryer than he expected.
Raymond ran to Deter’s pickup. His father, several strides behind, staggered a bit. Raymond flung the passenger door open and didn’t look in Moss’s direction, even when he settled in and closed the door, waiting for his father.
The engine backfired twice before it started and had a very rough idle until Deter revved it a few times. The muffler had that deep throaty sound mufflers get just before they go. Deter stopped alongside Moss’s Ford Coupe and Raymond hopped out and ran to the car. He opened the driver side and pushed the seat forward and reached into the back. He lifted Moss’s jacket from two nights ago and ran it back to Moss handing it to him at the front steps.
Moss thanked him and Raymond made brief eye contact and then ran back to the truck.
Once he was in the house, Moss noticed the neatly folded blanket that Raymond had placed in the middle of the couch. He retrieved it and returned it to the hall closet.
A few nights later he woke in the middle of the night and went to the kitchen for some milk and Raymond was sleeping on the couch.
He went out into the porch to cool off and Raymond’s bike leaned against the banister. When he went back inside moonlight fell on Raymond as he slept. Moss stood over him for a moment and took in the serenity of the boy’s face. In sleep, he looked like an average sixteen-year-old.
Moss lay awake a while thinking about the boy’s predicament and wondering what brought him here tonight. He didn’t want the boy coming over every time he had a run-in with his father and so considered locking the door in the future but quickly decided against that because Raymond wouldn’t have come here without Clara’s urging.
He slept until 8:30 and when he woke, the boy was gone.
That night and every the night for the next week Raymond appeared at some point during the night but was always gone by morning.
Just when Moss was beginning to wonder how long this would keep up and what he’d gotten himself into, Deter went missing. Moss heard the news first from Lorne when he stopped at Redden’s for gas.
Lorne told him that Deter had gone out in his canoe two mornings ago for a day of fishing and hadn’t returned. All day yesterday, helicopters circled Longbow Lake and then out over Lake of the Woods. There were no sightings of Deter or his canoe. The newspaper reported the chief of police as saying that Deter likely had gone ashore on some island to do his business and may have been the victim of some mishap.
For nearly a week the official search continued but no trace of Deter or his canoe was found so the search was called off.
The very next morning Clara and Raymond appeared at his door each clutching a suitcase. Her hair was pulled back in a ponytail and she wore slacks and a yellow short-sleeved blouse.
“Mom said Raymond’s got to go. With Dad gone she can’t afford to feed us both. She said that she wasn’t going to put up with Dad’s little mess any longer. I said if he goes I do too. So here we are.”
He invited them in and they set their suitcases in the living room. Clara said she could cook them breakfast. He said he’d help.
She prepared a large omelette and bacon and he made toast and hash browns.
When Raymond looked up from his breakfast, his eyes were all blotchy.
“Mom said it isn’t natural for me to choose Raymond over her. She says I’ll be considered no good if I stay with you. But it’s okay with you, right? I’ll do the housework.”
He couldn’t say no to her and especially not now. People might talk but he didn’t have to listen.
The more Clara talked the faster Raymond ate, shoving so much food in his mouth that his cheeks swelled.
“You eat properly for Moss.” She’d given him that nickname two weeks earlier because of all the moss that grew on the rocks around his house. “I love that green, don’t you?” she’d said the first time he walked around the property with her. “You like moss, don’t you?”
He’d said he did because seeing it cling to the rocks meant nature knew what it was doing. Nature has a place for everything. He took comfort in that idea. Nature wasn’t messy the way people were messy.
That day she’d smiled and pulled him toward her and kissed him on the cheek. That was the first time they’d touched beyond a handshake. She told him not to get ideas but he did all the same.
That night and every night for the first week she slept on the floor next to the couch where Raymond slept. Moss would lie awake wishing she’d come lie with to him but each night he fell asleep alone and woke alone.
Clara told him she was certain her father was gone for good and although she’d found that idea terribly difficult at first, she’d get used to it. “He’s either drowned or run off somewhere and won’t be back. He loved to fish Big Storm Bay on Lake of the Woods and would have crossed the Blindfold dam from Longbow Lake to get there. The winds can be rough on Big Storm Bay and he would have been stubborn enough to think he could cross it in his canoe all the same. He usually fished off Professor Island. That’s where I told the police to look if he’s drowned that’s where they’ll find him. The police said some bodies never show up.”
She seemed remarkably resilient and strong willed in a way he hadn’t been when his father drowned. Still if it was their fathers shared fate that united them, so be it.
“You’ve got his face.” She said at one point when she’d asked about his father and then added, “A judge’s face. Someone who weighs matters carefully, handsome too in a grown-up way, mature. Older than your years.”
He didn’t feel mature or older than his years, but he did own a house but that was because of his inheritance. Having money made being a grownup a lot easier.
His falling out with his father had been so final that he didn’t like being compared to him. But having Clara point out the resemblance in such a positive way made him wish he’d been more attentive to his father’s wishes when he’d been alive. Instead for years now, he’s cursed the arbitrary cruelty of biological inheritance.
Only a week before his father died they’d quarreled over his future. His father wanted him to go to the University of Toronto when he was old enough and get a proper education so he had a good start in life. “ Money alone won’t do it. There is much you’ll need to know. Don’t let life creep by on you. Only fools are taken by surprise.”
Moss insisted he had no interest in leaving Kenora, which was all he knew. His father had called him a fool and said staying here would be the waste of a good life. He’d called his father a bastard and stormed off. They never spoke again before his father died. He’d only been sixteen and felt the weight now of his young foolishness.
It was agreed that she’d cooked the meals and Raymond would wash up after. Moss would help Clara in the kitchen when necessary and set the table and of course bought groceries. She’d had some savings from before she quit her job as a waitress at the Panda Café. She’d planned to get a summer job but hadn’t got around to it yet, so he said he’d provide them with pocket money. She thanked him and said that would do for now but she’d keep track and pay him back later. He said that wouldn’t be necessary that he was amply provided for but she insisted because it kept matters straighter in her mind.
In the third week of July, Moss woke in the middle of the night and Clara lay asleep beside him. She was naked and her head rested on his shoulder. He did not disturb her but lay staring at the ceiling trying to slow his excited heart. He did not move for more than an hour even though his arm went numb.
She eventually stirred and he could sense her staring at him in the dark. “Are you awake?” she whispered. “I hope you don’t mind—” she said, but didn’t wait for an answer. “We have to be quiet so we don’t frighten Raymond.” She kissed his cheek then and said, “Show me. But take your time.”
With her he felt inexperienced even though he’d been with other women already. Mostly tourists he’d met in the bars in town or at parties. Those encounters never lasted more than a few days. He’d been in no hurry for love, saving it for when he was more grown and ready for roots.
But that first night with her stirred what had been dormant and unready in him as she let him guide her and neither of them resisted or held back. Near the end her eyes caught his and were so fiery he could not look away.
She slipped out of bed before daylight and when he woke later and dressed, she was under her blanket again next to the couch. Raymond was already gone from the couch and out in the bush somewhere doing his business. He didn’t like to use the bathroom in the house no matter how often Moss reminded him it was there. Clara said he was used to the outhouse at home even though they’d had a proper indoor toilet since he was five.
“It’s what he’s used to.”
By late July, the heat invaded indoors in the afternoons and he’d change into shorts and t-shirt and escape to the screened porch where there was usually a crosswind. Clara would join him and they’d pass a cigarette between them. He rarely smoked the rest of the day, but liked sharing one with her. She always wore pink or yellow polka dot shorts and one of his white shirts with the sleeve rolled up past the elbow and gathered in an appealing knot just above her belly button. The first time she dressed like that she said, “Bright colors perk me up.”
She’d sit in the wicker chair closest to the door and prop her feet on the glass and metal coffee table and blow smoke rings. A trick she said that her father taught her.
He’d sit across from her and despite the stale heat her presence always raised his spirits.
They didn’t talk much, but listened to the transistor radio she usually cranked to full volume. Sometimes when one of them preferred quiet she would turn off the radio leaving only highway noise or birds in the eves. Other times she’d read to him from To Kill a Mocking Bird or Lord of the Flies. Books he remembered from high school and thought past by now, but her readings highlighted valuable lessons he’d missed.
Her legs were tanned while his were hairless and white.
“You’ve got sexy legs.” She said the first time she saw them. “Most men’s legs are too hairy for me.” She giggled after saying that and then took a matter-of-fact drag on her cigarette and tilted her head back and held the smoke in.
Lethargy from cloistered heat allowed him to believe the days ahead would be as easy as these.
In the evenings, when the house finally cooled some, they’d play cribbage. Raymond would pull up a chair to watch. Clara let him shuffle for her and occasionally he’d lose his grip and the cards would scatter on the floor. They’d make a game of it then, crawling on their hands and knees to see who could gather up the most cards.
Raymond would sit quietly as they played and at end of each hand tallied the points and moved the pegs. He’d then collect the cards and hand them to his sister even if it was Moss’s deal.
For the first two weeks in August, he and Clara made love often, and then, without warning she stopped coming to his room. The next day he asked her what was wrong. She said she couldn’t talk right then as she had chores to do. He expected her to seek him out later but she didn’t.
They didn’t sit in the porch either or play cards later. Instead that evening, she read to Raymond from Charlotte’s Webb. A book for younger children but the one he picked from those she offered.
Moss sat across from them in his leather wingback chair reading the newspaper. He’d glance often in her direction trying to catch her eye, but she stayed focused on her reading. When he got bored, he went to the porch hoping she’d follow him.
Surrounded by dark, he lit a cigarette and nursed it. But all he could think of was how he wished Raymond wasn’t here. Life would be much easier for the two of them. He’d never felt jealousy before and had always considered it weak, but no matter how many times he told himself that, he couldn’t shake those feelings.
The next evening after dinner, he took the bush trail behind the house and went as far as the nearest creek. It was completely dry by then from lack of rain, so he walked the stony creek bed holding his arms out at times to steady his balance. Away from the house, he could see clearly that Raymond would be lost without her. What else could she do? What he’d most liked about her in the beginning had been her loyalty to her brother. How could he fault that now just because his feelings for her had gotten complicated?
He returned to the house with a fresh resolve to have no more jealous feelings, but he’d soon learn that such feelings weren’t easily commanded. The next day she acted as though nothing were wrong and didn’t ask about his walk or what was troubling him. This caused his anger to boil up again and he had to take an even longer walk.
After a week, the walks no longer did any good so he’d sit in the porch instead. It was out there that he decided it would be best if he found them a place in town. Clara wouldn’t like it at first but she’d come around. He was determined that he couldn’t live another day with them under his roof. He’d see to it that they had everything they needed.
He went inside all decided but Clara stopped her reading and looked up at him and smiled. He almost broke down and told her his plan but smiled back and went to his room.
Hours later, she nudged him awake. When he opened his eyes, she stood naked in the vague light of a quarter moon and he reached up to make sure she was really there. She took his hand and placed it in the small of her back and arched to his touch. In the dim light, her ghostly movements contrasted with the heat his hand pressed against.
She joined him in bed and said, “Let me,” and tossed the cotton sheet off him. She ran her tongue down one arm then the other and continued the length of him and up the other side stopping only to kiss his neck.
“Let me,” she whispered again and then later, “Do you like that?”
When it was her turn, she lay on her back and closed her eyes and kept her legs together. She told him to surprise her and then didn’t react to anything he did.
He worried that he disappointed her, but she locked fingers with his and squeezed each time he did something she liked.
Later, she said, “Hold me,” and then later still, “You’re steady in the wind and I like that. Dependable. True to yourself. Not like my father.” She rested her head on his shoulder. He fell asleep holding her and when he woke after several hours she was asleep.
He went to the bathroom and before going back to bed sat in the porch knowing his desperate longings proved he wasn’t steady in the wind. In truth, especially with her, he didn’t feel steady at all but as though he was always standing on shaky ground. He’d been in love before, briefly, but it hadn’t felt confusing like this.
Until now he thought of love as something solid and safe but that hadn’t been love at all, because love was dangerous and easily lost. Not something to count on but was like standing on thin ice that could give way at any second. The tenuousness of it surprised him. He thought of Deter. A weak man in love does what his heart wants without regard for those he might hurt.
When he came back inside the boy had turned onto his other side and the blanket had fallen onto the floor but he left it like that and returned to bed and inched as close to Clara as he dared without waking her. He listened to her breathing, the only other living sound in the dark.
When morning threatened in the east window, she kissed him and slipped from bed and pulled on her nightgown. She paused at the door briefly and then closed it.
That was the last time they made love.
The next day started with buoyant promise like most mornings in late August—the month of least resistance filled with blue skies and sustainable heat.
When he woke he’d already abandoned his plan from the night before, thinking it unnecessary after their renewed intimacy. During breakfast she was warm and friendly and took his hand, even though Raymond saw. Later she suggested to Raymond that he weed out the dandelions in the front yard while she and Moss had coffee.
The two of them read at the table and took unhurried sips of coffee. Neither spoke nor did there seem any need to speak right then and Moss basked in the glow from last night.
When Clara finished her coffee she closed her book and took his hand. “I know it isn’t easy having Raymond here, but you see how he is. He’ll always be with me,” she said. “You know that, right?”
He said he did but his words sounded hollow and he hoped she didn’t notice.
“When it comes to family we don’t get to choose.”
The certainty in her voice jolted him. These were not the words he wanted to hear after last night. He wanted her to offer hope, no matter how slim, that they’d eventually be free of Raymond. He didn’t wish the boy harm, just wanted him to be happy elsewhere.
Even as he wished that, he knew that she’d never share that wish. But his young heart was impatient and impulsive, and he foolishly mistook boyish wishes for deep love. Only when he was much older would he understand that being in love meant being resilient.
“What’s wrong?” she asked, tilting her head slightly so that her eyes were at an affectionate angle.
“Nothing,” he said.
After Raymond finished weeding, Moss drove the three of them to Primmer’s Beach near her mother’s house for a late morning swim before the heat fully took over the day. Raymond finally got the hang of how to float on his back and squealed with delight and splashed them both with water. She turned and kissed Moss a long time on the lips. The first time she’d done that in public.
Later Clara and Moss swam the length of the beach going as far as the rocky shore to the south and then back to the floating docks near her mother’s house.
Moss looked up at the house several times expecting to see her mother peering down, but each window reflected cloudless sky.
Clara and her mother had stayed in contact this past month and half but she wouldn’t allow Raymond or Moss in her house. She phoned Clara at least two or three times a week. Sometimes they talked for a long time but other calls were brief. After those calls, Clara would ride her bike over for a visit. She was never gone long nor did she tell Moss what she and her mother talked about.
When they returned from the lake, she said she wanted to visit her mother and left on her bike.
She hadn’t been gone more than a half hour when a four-door, 1963 blue Chevy Nova stopped next to the Ford Coupe. Moss was in the kitchen cleaning up the lunch dishes and Raymond was in the bathroom showering off sand from the beach. The woman driving stayed behind the wheel and Deter opened the passenger door and stepped out. He wore a baseball cap and favoured his right leg as he approached the house.
Moss opened the front door but kept the screen door closed. Through it, Deter appeared gaunt and older, his cheeks sunken.
“My boy here?”
“Half the town was looking for you. We thought you’d drowned.”
Raymond made noises in the bathroom and Moss hoped he’d stay there.
“Got cancer in my right leg. They might have to amputate. I’m here for my boy.”
“Clara’s at her mother’s.”
“This has nothing to do with her nor does it concern you. She always thinks she knows what’s best for him. But I’m his father.”
“If it hadn’t been for Clara—”
“I’d have thought you’d be happy to be free of him.”
“Raymond’s always welcome here,” he said, but should have told Deter to piss off.
Deter smiled. “A man will do crazy things when he’s facing death but I’ve worked through it all and want to put it all behind me start over with the boy. He belongs with his father.”
“This is as far as I am letting you go until Clara gets back.”
Raymond came out of the bathroom drying his hair. When he saw his father he dropped the towel.
“Don’t be afraid, son. It’s your Daddy come for you. You’re glad to see me aren’t you? Come here. You’re a sight for sore eyes.”
Raymond inched forward a few steps but when he was beside Moss he stopped.
“Don’t be shy. You forgot all about me already?” Deter stepped closer to the screen door but Moss blocked the doorway.
“I’d appreciate it if you didn’t interfere.” He opened the screen door and reached past Moss and put his hand on Raymond’s shoulder. “Your Daddy had to go away but he’s back now. They’ve been looking after you have they? Clara means well but she doesn’t love you like I do. Nobody loves you as much as I do. I’m your Daddy and I’ve got to love you. That’s the rule. Madge is out in the car. You’re going to love her and she’s going to love you. Wave to her. She’s eager to meet you.”
Raymond raised his hand in a half wave.
“Madge wants you to come live with us. She’s not like Clara’s mother. She’s got more love in her than a man deserves. She’s going to spoil you.”
The picture Deter painted presented a logical solution to this mess. Moss succumbed to the harmless vision of a father and son reunion. Besides, Clara was fresh out of school and not properly established to provide for her brother. She meant well but love alone wouldn’t do.
Raymond with Deter and Madge and Clara with him— that was the more natural order of things.
“Go pack,” Deter said and didn’t make eye contact with Moss.
Raymond looked to Moss and waited. It wasn’t too late, but he nodded or at least remembered nodding although in all the years that followed he could never be fully certain he did nod.
Raymond spun around and faux-marched to the living room.
“Silly boy,” Deter said.
Moss turned to face him and closed the screen door and said, “I’d appreciate it if you waited outside.”
Raymond collected his suitcase from the hall closet and grabbed his clothes from the dresser and tossed them in his suitcase undoing the perfect folding Clara had done with each item. He closed the suitcase and walked stiffed armed with it through the front door.
“That’s all you’ve got?” Deter said. “I suppose she threw the rest out. She could never abide that I wanted you to look presentable. Madge and I will get you new clothes in town.”
Moss followed them down the steps but stopped at the bottom.
“Thank the man,” Deter said.
Raymond set his suitcase down and threw both arms around Moss’s waist. That’s when it hit him that the boy’s leaving was all his doing.
Madge got out of the car and came around front. She was much younger than Deter and likely still five years shy of forty. She recently had a perm in her auburn hair so that it was in tight curls that clung to her scalp and made her round face look even rounder. The effect was not flattering as though she was keener for middle age than someone her age should be.
She wore a peach color summer dress hemmed three inches below the knee and gathered in by a wide flowery belt snug to her thin waist. That was her best physical feature and the belt showed it off. She was not a plain woman or homely but one whose slim chances at beauty she seemed content to ignore or not embellish.
Moss recognized her from somewhere in town but didn’t immediately place her, maybe the movie theatre or one of the bars. Some place dark enough that her bad features blended with her good features.
“Say hello to Madge,” Deter said and Raymond held out his hand for her to shake and she threw her arms around him and pulled him close and held him a long time before letting go.
“We’re going to get along just fine aren’t we, sweetie?”
He nodded and picked up his suitcase and walked it to the rear passenger door. Madge opened it for him and carried the suitcase to the open trunk and set in on its side. She shut the trunk lid but the latch didn’t catch so she had to slam it down two more times.
“We’ll need to get the dealer to fix that,” she said to Deter but looked at Moss.
“You tell Clara the boy will be fine with us,” Deter said from the passenger side and waited until Madge came around to her side of the car before getting in.
Raymond sat stiffly in the back seat, hands folded in his lap. He didn’t roll down his window despite a spoiling heat.
Madge turned the car around, spinning up large clumps of the grass and earth as she did. When the car faced the highway she honked and sped off. The car braked briefly at the highway and turned west toward town.
He stepped back inside and as soon as he saw the half-open drawers of the dresser he knew his error. He closed them all and immediately ran to his car, but even with the needle buried he couldn’t catch them. Deter must have guessed he’d have a change of heart and follow after them and so had gotten Madge to take one of the many side roads that curved for miles around the lake. He went as far as Hilly Lake and then turned back. He’d never find them now.
Back at the house, he went into the kitchen and wiped the counter although it didn’t need wiping. He wasn’t prepared yet for life’s harsher lessons, but as he stood at the counter he got some inkling of what lay ahead for him. By his fortieth birthday he’d accept that ignorance shaped lives more than wisdom. Only in maturity do we gain the wisdom needed in youth.
He opened the fridge and took out the container of chocolate milk Clara had recently purchased for Raymond. Even though it was more than half full, he poured the contents down the sink and ran cold water after it for a minute or so and then set the empty container in the garbage just as Clara’s hurried footsteps pounded in the porch.
She kicked the front open and it slammed hard against the door jam.
“Fuck! Fuck!” She didn’t look at him, but went to the bathroom and stood in the doorway briefly and then walked out the back door and into the yard. She didn’t stop until she crossed the narrow field to the tree line. She stood with her back to him and shouted something he was too far away to hear.
When she returned to the house her hands were shaking. Sweat beaded on her forehead and soaked the underarms of her blouse. She must have pedaled hard all the way from her mother’s.
It was then that Moss realized that Deter had gone there first.
She left the house without saying a word to him. By the time he reached the doorway she was already on her bike and headed back toward the highway. He watched her go exactly as he’d done only a couple of hours earlier but now she was hurrying away from him.
He stood on the porch with the door open letting in flies and mosquitoes but couldn’t bring himself to close it. When he finally went inside the sun was already below the trees.
He changed to clothing more suitable for evening and drove over to her mother’s house. He parked on the shoulder and walked the rest of the way. Without knocking, he went straight in.
Clara was talking to her mother in the living room and stopped mid-sentence and turned to face him. He continued without a word to the dining table, cluttered with dirty dishes, and pulled up a chair and sat facing them and then said, “Can we talk?”
She remained where she was on the couch with her arms folded.
Her mother nodded and went to her bedroom and shut the door. Clara came to the table and sat directly across from him. “So talk,” she said. There was no warmth in her voice.
“I can hire someone to find him. We could then file charges, get a good lawyer and take him to court. Sue for custody. Several friends of my father are top-notch and would take our case. I’ve had a chance to think it through and I’m certain—”
“I don’t want your help or money. Besides, I saw in your eyes today that you didn’t want Raymond around. I didn’t want to believe it then. I wanted to believe you were a good man and different from him. A man I could love. But you’re not. You’re both alike. You’re as selfish as he is. You put on a good face but underneath it all you’re no better.
“That son-of-a-bitch was likely holed up with her the whole time, reading her the headlines even. He’s got a sweet mouth when he needs one. Promises come easily to him because he has no intention of keeping them.” Her words were more final and decided than he was used to, and hardened by anger.
“Don’t— I suppose he told you some lie about having cancer. That’s the one he always uses when he needs sympathy. The bigger the problem the bigger the lie he’s prepared to tell.”
“Please forgive me. Give me another chance.”
“This is too big for forgiveness. I can’t believe you have the nerve to walk in here and expect another chance. Well, I don’t give second chances especially when it comes to Raymond. There’s nothing more to say. I’ll get our things tomorrow. I’d appreciate it if you weren’t there.”
He reached across the table to take her hand.
She pulled hers away and swung at him, but he ducked and her hand grazed his shoulder and then slid across the table and sending dishes crashing to the floor.
He looked from her to the mess and then back.
“Leave them and go! Now!”
Moss would learn in the months that followed that she tracked her father and Madge to Vancouver. Then one night when they were out, she slipped in and coaxed Raymond to go with her. She brought him straight back to her mother’s house and stayed. Deter never came back for the boy nor wrote or phoned.
When her mother had a stroke five years later and died, there was just the two of them. Deter died in a car accident ten years after that. Moss heard all that third hand as he heard all of what happened with Clara and Raymond over the past two decades.
A few months after Clara returned with Raymond, Moss invested a small portion of his inheritance in the lumberyard. He didn’t know the first thing about lumber or lumberyards, but he needed a daily distraction.
A few times when he was driving through town or walking on Main Street he’d catch a glimpse of Raymond who was over six feet tall by then and half-handsome in the way Deter had been, the ears too big but rest of his face well portioned enough to get attention. By then Moss was convinced that Raymond would have been better off in Vancouver away from all the small town gossip and prying eyes. Yet any time he saw Raymond he smiled often and from a distance appeared happy.
Clara worked as a waitress in the restaurant in the Kenricia Hotel, so he never ate there. He only saw her once five years later. He was at the bank making his daily deposit and she walked past on the street, eyes straight ahead. He went to the large front windows to watch her cross Main Street. She looked as lost to him as ever as she took quick purposeful steps and then slowed when she reached the other side. He had by then accepted that she was true to her word and would never forgive him.
She stopped to chat to another woman. They didn’t speak long before she continued on and disappeared in Johnson’s Pharmacy halfway down the block. He never saw her again.
The first time Raymond brought his Dodge Charger to Archie for repairs, he’d torn the muffler off on a gravel road. Archie bought a new muffler from Dufferin Chrysler in town and installed it. Raymond offered to pay him for everything but Archie told him that he didn’t charge friends.
They sat in the car after and listened to the radio. A pair of fluffy white dice and a pine air freshener hung from the rearview mirror.
“Ever buried the needle?” Archie asked between songs.
“Clara doesn’t allow me to drive past here.” He pointed to 60 on the speedometer.
The white vinyl seats felt cold to Archie’s back. Raymond had polished the interior so every surface gleamed.
Gracie was stretched out on the cramped back seat and only looked up when Archie reached to pet her. She sniffed his sleeve briefly and then set her head down and closed her eyes. He’d never seen her so still.
A month later Raymond brought his car to Archie’s again. This time Clara came with him. They drove into the yard just as Archie was finishing a dinner of left over pot roast.
Raymond stayed in the car while Clara came to the back door. Archie hadn’t talked to her since she and Moss had their falling out.
“He’s worried he’s bothering you too much but his engine’s leaking oil so bad he has to add a quart every couple of days.”
“Tell him he’s no bother. I’ll take a look,” he said, and then scraped what was left of his dinner into the garbage.
She took the empty plate from him and said, “I’ll clean up.”
When he lifted the hood, oil was everywhere, even on belts and hoses. He told Raymond that it wasn’t anything serious, just a blown valve cover gasket. “Bring it back in the morning and I’ll fix it.”
Clara had come outside by then and was leaning against a pillar watching them.
A few days later, just before dinner, she brought a tray of meatloaf, veggies, bread and salad.
“I thought you’d like to share a meal.”
He set out plates and opened a bottle of wine he had handy.
Later they sat on the couch and he put the first side of Let it Be on the RCA record player his father had bought two decades prior. He set the volume low enough they could talk comfortably.
She did most of the talking though and he was fine with that.
“The bigger world does what it does with or without us so we might as well be a part of it,” she said.
He hadn’t paid much attention to the bigger world in years. At some point after his mother died, he’d settled for the confines of his parent’s house and the farm.
Partly that had been Moss’s doing. He’d convinced him after their mother’s death that he should continue to live in the house and work the farm. “You’ve put a lot of work into the place. It’s only fair.”
Until tonight he’d thought he’d made the right choice. This life suited him, but the more Clara spoke the more he felt that notion slipping away.
She moved from topic to topic with an ease that he followed well enough but sometimes her opinions left him lost for words. She saw connections he didn’t see but wished he did now.
After he opened a second bottle she asked if he liked to read novels. He said he hadn’t read much since high school. She looked down at her glass then and he could tell by how she went quiet then that he’d disappointed her.
Working the farm and repairing cars tired him out enough so that most evenings he watched TV or skimmed magazines. In honour of his mother’s memory, he’d kept up all her subscriptions including Time and National Geographic, but rarely read them in depth. As the years gained momentum he looked for ways to slow down time and not keeping up with current events was a good way of doing that.
“I can recommend a few you might like,” she said, and asked for a pen and paper.
“You could start with these.” She handed him a list.
When he asked about them, she briefly outlined each plot, the story’s merits, and why he might like it.
She pointed to the book at the top of the list, Love in the Time Of Cholera. “Start with that one. I just finished it and think you’ll like it. It’s set in a very different place and time from here. But it’s the love story that matters. I can lend you my copy.”
He said he’d liked that.
“I hope you don’t mind me being so forward. I’ve gotten used to speaking my mind. Some men don’t like that.”
He said that he preferred it especially given that he was a bit shy on such matters himself.
“Shy? Really? I don’t see it. But maybe that’s how you like people to see you.”
That sounded like a question to him but when he looked into her eyes he could see it wasn’t. Her words surprised him and he didn’t have a quick comeback.
“I told you I take some getting used to.” She took his hand and squeezed it briefly and went onto another topic.
Later she talked about his father. “Everyone I’ve spoken to says he was a good man, stern but fair. I wish he’d been tougher on my father though. Maybe if he had been events would have turned out better. Our fathers grew up in a different time with fewer choices. Your father made the better ones. ”
By then, the distance of his father’s death had altered Archie’s perceptions of him solidifying him into a loving father and a generous man, who praised more than criticized.
When they were halfway through a second bottle of wine, they sat close together on the couch. At one point after she paused for a sip of wine, he leaned over and kissed her. He expected her to pull away but she put her arm around his neck and pulled him closer.
“I’ve missed that,” she said, after they kissed for a while. “I hope you don’t think—” and then kissed him again.
Later they held hands and walked to his bedroom. She stood next to the bed and he undressed her one article of clothing at a time. He folded each garment and placed it on the chair next to him.
When she was completely naked she didn’t cover herself with her hands and arms but stood upright in her nakedness.
He stepped forward and kissed a breast taking the nipple in his mouth and flicked lightly with his tongue and then circled slowly. She closed her eyes and dropped her head slightly backward and giggled once.
They moved to the bed and he slowly slid a hand along the length of her, lingering each time she inhaled or sighed. She stayed quiet then and didn’t talk again until they rested.
He liked the softness of her voice and listened attentively as she talked the whole time she carried on exploring him. Her red hair over him was thick with curls.
Later he slid his tongue down one side and gradually moved inward toward her navel and then slipped lower.
She told him then in a quick whisper that she liked how assertive he was and said yes ever so lightly and that was no more than a puff of air.
At some point, much later, they made love properly. Not quick but over a full hour stopping often. Later they dozed in each other’s arms.
They didn’t sleep much that night and in the half-light of early morning she said she had to go. After she dressed, she seemed to have a change of heart and climbed back into the bed with him.
“Raymond’s with me for good. He takes getting used to but he’s easy to love. He doesn’t have a mean bone in him.”
“He’s a good man. You can be proud.” He had few complications in his life, and he realized listening to her how empty his life was because of that. Next to his, Clara’s life seemed abundant and overflowing.
“I am proud,” she said and then said she really had to go.
He walked her to the front door and they chatted for a long time at the top of the front steps and at one point she moved her hand to the small of his back then and pressed there ever so lightly.
Before turning to go she squeezed his elbow and then briefly stroked his cheek then said, “Right,” and hurried down the steps and the short distance to her car. She didn’t say if she’d be back.
That afternoon as arranged he drove to her place to borrow books. He’d passed her beach house often but this was the first time he’d been inside.
The cabin was much larger than it appeared from the front and wasn’t a cabin at all but a substantial three-bedroom house, the back extended an additional forty feet toward the lake. She’d added a screened-in veranda back there with peek-a-boo views of the lake between poplars and spruce that had grown substantially in recent years. She gave him a quick tour and he stepped inside the veranda long enough to get a whiff of cedar and pine, forest smells brought indoors.
The whole house was very tidy with nothing out of place and no clutter anywhere except in Raymond’s room, which she quickly closed the door to. Their shoes were lined up at the front door and next to them on an eye-level row of hooks hung coats ordered by season—the winter ones at the very back.
In the kitchen, the sink was empty and spotless and all the dishes put away and pots and pans neatly organized on shelves or hung from hooks next to the wood stove.
A breakfast nook with an oak table and two pine benches on either side had the best view of the lake through the adjacent window.
“I had that put in a few years ago. Raymond and I eat breakfast here on Saturday and Sunday mornings. The rest of the week we’re too busy getting ready for work.”
She said the cabin hadn’t been designed for all-year-living, the walls too thin and not properly insulated. Her father had installed a stone fireplace the first year they moved in but it didn’t throw enough heat so the second winter he bought the cast iron wood stove next to it. That kept the house very toasty even on the coldest of nights.
Three floor-to-ceiling bookcases lined the east wall of the living room.
“Raymond built those for me last summer.”
They were made from unfinished ¾ inch oak plywood, the shelves thick enough that didn’t bend under the weight of even the heaviest books. Every shelf was crammed with books and more books lay on their sides on top of the others.
“My education,” she said.
He asked if she’d read them all.
“Most. Only those I haven’t got to yet.” She pointed to a few rows in an otherwise empty bookcase next to her bedroom door. There couldn’t have been more than a hundred books on it.
“I order them from a great bookstore near St. James in Winnipeg. All my savings go into books. Foolish, I know, but they bring me much pleasure.” Her eyes lit up when she said that and little lines formed at the corner of each eye. That softened her face and he didn’t want to look away.
“Here it is,” she said, and pulled Love in the Time Of Cholera from the nearest shelf and then picked a few others without needing to consult the list she’d given him last night.
“Will you have some tea while I read aloud from it?”
She fixed Jasmine tea for them and they sat side by side on the wicker loveseat. She smelled of rose and lemon and where the sun through the living room window caught her neck her tanned skin was even browner.
Before starting to read, she gave him a bit of background about the story set in Colombia in the late 1800s.
He hadn’t given Colombia much thought since high school geography. He could pick it out on a map and knew they spoke Spanish and that the Andes formed a spine down the center of it and that it had coastlines on the Pacific and Atlantic like Canada. Dull facts he realized as she gave him a more in-depth accounting of the place.
She picked up the book and quickly leafed to the first page. She lowered her voice as she read and embodied the words so that when he closed his eyes he was there on the sweltering streets of Cartagena. It was his grandfather’s time and like his grandfather’s Winnipeg, Cartagena was a city beginning its second flourish. Harsh climates produce cities like those; hearty cities that drew people back.
Beyond the similarities of cities, the lives depicted were foreign to him. He felt unsettled at first and wasn’t sure if he could stick with such a story but the more she read the more he wanted to know.
After a few pages, he eased his arm around her shoulder and drew her to him. She stopped and smiled and said, “okay,’ and then kissed his cheek and continued where she’d left off.
He listened as the doctor set aside his initial emotional disturbance at the death of his friend to perform his professional duties confirming the man’s suicide. Later, he described the living quarters with the care and reverence given to the possessions of those newly dead.
That scene brought back memories of the day his mother died. He’d brought her breakfast on a tray as he did every morning but before he could set it down he saw on her face that she was dead. He sat with her for an hour and then covered her with a sheet and phoned his brother.
Moss came straight in the house without knocking but only went as far as the doorway to his mother’s room. He stood looking in for ten minutes or so and then went to the living room and sat at the dining table while Archie fixed them coffee.
“I’ll take care of everything,” Moss had said, which he did with a single-mindedness Archie had never witnessed in his brother before. In all the years since, Archie hadn’t forgiven his brother for how calmly he went about the next few days, arranging everything with a precision that made grief little no more than a set of tasks to get done. That had been one of the roots of the trouble between. It might appear, simple on the surface but ran very deep in him. He could have forgiven his brother for anything except indifference.
She stopped reading when she got to the part about the parrot and the doctor on the ladder and said what was about to happen was too sad for her to read aloud.
On the front steps he balanced the stack of books she’d given him under an arm and knew he looked out of place, his age giving him away. He wasn’t a schoolboy giddy with love but felt like one as he stood there slightly off-kilter. He sensed too that the days ahead would not crawl past as before but would take on some impossible momentum that at first would take getting used to, but he would.
She threw her arms around him and kissed him and none of that mattered. Her lips tasted of honey and lemon.
“I’ll have more for you when you finish those,” she said, when he reached the bottom of the steps.
He turned and nodded. Standing in the open doorway in bright summer light, she appeared to be both far away and right up close. Both perspectives were tricks of his brain but he allowed them for an instant because he wanted her to be everywhere. By the time he got into his truck, she’d already gone inside and everything was as it should be again.
The stack of books fell into a loose pile on the seat so he set them in neat pairs on the floor for the drive home.
At the house, he stacked them on his father’s desk and took Love in the Time of Cholera to the green leather recliner in the corner.
After the scene where the doctor died, he set the book down and went to the kitchen for a cup of instant coffee. He sipped it in the front porch and watched a large buck saunter across the narrow field north of the house. He counted fourteen points before the deer disappeared behind the garage. When he emerged out the other side, he didn’t look in Archie’s direction but maintained the same unhurried pace, head up, scanning from side to side.
Archie hadn’t seen such an impressive animal in nearly a decade. When he was a boy, bigger bucks than that passed this way with regularity. But by now hunters had killed off most of deer population around the lake. He stood at the window for a better view but the deer ducked below a large spruce bough and was gone.
He rinsed his cup under the tap and dried it with a fresh cloth and hung it in the cupboard with the others, a tidy row of them on hooks. What good did such order do when the world was going to hell outside his door?
He returned to the book, and as he read, he envied the doctor’s long marriage. None of Archie’s relationships had lasted, and he’d resigned himself over the years to being alone. He filled his days with work instead. How had he arrived at such a life? He couldn’t rightly say except that love doesn’t usually appear out of the blue. It needs nurturing or coaxing. It’s precarious and fleeting. Gone almost before it is noticed if he wasn’t careful. It was easier to not be in love than to be in love. Miraculously that was where he’d gotten to in his life without really paying attention. He supposed that was Clara’s point in lending him the book.
The characters in it worked, schemed, betrayed, fought, argued and lied but always in the pursuit of a great love. True they lived by customs, beliefs, and mores foreign to him, but there was no mistaking the necessity of love in it all.
The characters’ courtships were protracted and mercenary but netted an enduring love. As he read he argued with himself that this was just a love story and not bound by the necessities of flesh and blood. It could be whatever the author needed it to be. Despite those reservations, by the middle, he saw that every relationship had messy parts but it was those very parts that made love work.
He read late into the night, not stopping until he finished. It was three in the morning by then, but he couldn’t sleep and sat up for another hour pleased but perplexed by the ending. He understood that love was both the means and the ends and could only be arrived at, not pursued. But did Marquez truly believe that love was only strongest late in life, when death loomed—all that came before mere diversion? He hoped not.
He wondered too what Clara made of the ending. It was meant to be a happy one, but with condemnations. Did she believe, as the book implied, that the deepest love came from patience and biding time?
He didn’t ask her those questions the next evening when they discussed the book. Instead, she asked him which of the two men he would prefer to be. He said neither. When she asked why, he said they weren’t like him. An obvious answer he realized later but the best he could come up with, and it was how he truly felt as he read the book. The doctor did remind him of his father except that his father rarely spoke of love.
“You surprise me,” she said.
He didn’t ask her how or why or what that meant but simply thanked her, sensing that if he said more the spell would be broken.
For the next week he finished a book a day and in the evenings they ate dinner and later discussed the next book over wine.
“This is so pleasant. It’s bound to turn out good. Don’t you think,” she said after a few such evenings.
He said yes although he didn’t completely grasp her meaning, but liked the sound of it. He did understand from his reading that not knowing everything was the point of love.
The following week, she brought a small leather bag with her and said that she’d like to spend the night. They read in bed together and at midnight turned out the lights and lay together talking, aimlessly, not about books or anything in particular just whatever came into their heads. He talked as much as her now or she held back.
Later, he woke from a deeper sleep than he’d had in a long time and went to the kitchen for a glass of water. He saw Raymond’s Charger parked next to Clara’s Corolla. Raymond sat behind the wheel and had the interior light on and tapped the steering wheel in time to a song on the radio. Gracie sat alert in the passenger seat, as though sensing something moving in the dark. He dressed and went out and invited them in.
By December, Clara spent most days out of bed. When she felt exhausted she’d lie on the couch doing crosswords or reading as Archie did chores.
On the decided upon morning, he served her an extra hearty breakfast of scrabbled eggs, applesauce, orange juice, and toast and afterwards arranged all she might need within easy reach of the couch. He prepared a lunch tray for her and set it in the fridge to keep until she needed it. To save her from getting up too often, he put a dozen of her favourite albums on the stacker, starting with, Let it Bleed.
He hesitated at the front door not certain he should leave her alone yet, but she looked up from her reading and insisted he go.
After getting what he needed at Fife’s Hardware, he parked out front of Frazier Memorials across from the paper mill. He took out the folded piece of paper Clara had given to him. She’d written: The Sweetest Boy and below that: A hero’s life is short.
Archie hurried past all the displays of headstones and crosses and went directly to the back where Rob Hanson was working.
“Pink marble’s not so easy to get this time of year. We don’t have any in stock. It’ll take at least a week to get something delivered.”
“A week’s too long,” Archie said, and set ten one-hundred-dollar bills on the counter and suggested he phone around.
Raymond would have turned forty next week and Clara wanted the headstone in place by then. She’d chosen pink because Raymond always gravitated to the pink stones whenever she took him to visit his mother’s grave. He said that color made him feel happy. Her stone had been a plain grey slab of granite with just her name and dates on it. No final message. Raymond said he wished there had been something written there so he’d know her a bit better. Anything would have given him some clue.
The next morning, Archie slipped out of bed early, careful not to wake her, and by six a.m. he was already at work in the garage.
He cut new pieces from the metal strip he’d bought at Fife’s Hardware to match each damaged one. He sanded those and laid them out strategically to match the sketch Clara had drawn for him. When he had them all cut and ready he started to weld.
He worked quickly once he got the basic shape in place. Some pieces were missing and still buried somewhere in the ashes.
For the next two days he worked long hours in the garage. When he was stuck he did what made the most sense. He spray-painted it with yellow enamel paint when he was finished.
During dinner, he told her it would be dry by tomorrow.
When she went out to the garage first thing the next morning, he opened both bay doors to let in the most light. She ran a hand along each railing. “Lovely work,” she said, and had tears in her eyes.
He left her there and attended to his daily chores. She stayed in the garage until nearly noon. When she came inside the house, she asked him to lie with her. They held each other and didn’t talk for the longest time.
“You did a fine job,” she said, “But now that I see it—”
He knew what she would say and when she did he agreed and said that he understood. Re-building it had been the point and now that it was completed what was there to do with it?
Put back together, it was little more than a curiosity or worse an eyesore—a monstrosity even.
“Thank you,” she said.
He took that to mean for everything.
And with that it was decided.
He woke earlier than usual and dressed even though it was not yet light. After a slow breakfast, he drove out to Archie’s as promised.
Archie’s tractor was parked against the house but the Crown Victoria was gone. He eased to a stop next to the garage like he did the day of the fire, months ago. That day he’d been so focused on telling Archie that all the rest of it blurred except for the heavy smell of oil and grease as he entered the garage.
He waited before getting out of his truck, because there was no hurry. The snow wasn’t shoveled or packed down to either door so it would take longer with his crutches. He opened the door and set the crutches wide apart from each other and then swung both legs out and between the crutches. He was getting used to them but it would take more time before he’ll be completely comfortable on them. The physiotherapy improved the healing after the broken leg but didn’t help with the MS.
He secured each crutch in the snow before positioning it under his arm and trusting it with his weight. He rested between each step making certain that each crutch was securely planted in the snow. He couldn’t risk another fall.
Once on the veranda he brushed snow off the nearest wicker chair and sat to rest his leg. His mother had always sat here in the summers. The few times he’d visited she’d wave enthusiastically when his car reached the house and tap the chair next to hers when he came up the stairs. He usually sat with her for a while unless there was some pressing matter he needed to discuss with Archie.
Conversation never came easy between him and his mother. His father had been the talkative one in the family and everyone else just listened. After he died the three of them sat through most meals in silence.
He’d sit with her and take in the view, as there were always horses moving out in the field to grab his attention. In time he’d get up and go in search of Archie. He’d usually be in the kitchen preparing a meal for the three of them. He and Archie didn’t talk much either but then at least their silence was bearable as neither needed to please the other. And when they did speak they knew how to get to the point. Only later, after his mother died, did Archie stop talking to him. In truth, he still wasn’t completely clear why he did nor did Archie say. When Clara and Archie became involved, silence between brothers seemed the best choice.
Rested, he used the crutches to pull himself up. He pressed his face to the bay window next to the door and the house looked untouched inside every piece of furniture exactly where it should be. He could leave now and report that everything was fine, but he’d promised to do a thorough job.
He used the spare key he’d had for years and let himself in. His crutches sounded too loud on the hardwood floor as he crossed the living room to check the kitchen. Everything was neatly cleaned up and put away. He opened cupboards just to be sure and each was neatly organized. Not a glass or cup or other dish was left out on the counter. Everything was in its place.
He took stock of each room and found nothing disturbed. He should go down into the basement too to check for leaks and what not, but someone else would have to do that. He couldn’t manage those narrow stairs with his crutches.
In the living room the usual copies of National Geographic were on the coffee table but next to them were issues of The New Yorker and Harpers. Not the sort of magazines his brother typically read. He picked up an issue of Harpers and thumbed through it. The crossword puzzle had been filled in and he recognized Clara’s handwriting.
The walnut HiFi has been closed up and all the record albums stashed in the shelves below. He opened the top and looked inside but none had been left on the turntable.
The bathroom had been thoroughly scrubbed and smelled lemony. He opened the cupboards and they were empty except for a half-used toothpaste tube and a nearly dissolved bar of soap.
He flushed the toilet and waited for it to completely drain and refill before going to the bedroom. On the way he passed his parent’s room. He didn’t go in because nothing would be changed in there.
He expected the usual house noises but it was remarkably quiet except for his crutches and the occasional creak of a floorboard.
At Archie’s room he stopped but didn’t immediately go in because once he did this detached present would be all he had left.
When he tried the door it didn’t budge and he thought at first it was locked until he pushed harder and it opened, the hinges squeaked. He’d attend to that. The bed was neatly made and the covers folded over in a welcoming way for the next occupant.
On the nearest night table several stacks of books caught his eye. He perused them and recognized a title or two that he’d read recently but most were new to him. He couldn’t imagine his brother reading these, but there they were.
He checked in the drawers and took mental inventory of the few items of clothing his brother had left behind.
Ointments, creams and dressings were still neatly arranged on the other bedside table next to where Clara must have slept. He collected those up and put them in the trash as instructed.
He returned to the kitchen and picked up the receiver of the wall phone and listened. The line was dead so that was in order. Everything looked in order for the movers.
He had called a few times in December but no one picked up. Then when he called to wish Archie a Happy New Year she answered.
“Hello,” she’d said. Not the voice he was used to—deeper and raspier, but recognizable still.
He almost hung up but the change in her voice gave him the nerve to say, “Clara?”
He expected her to pass the phone to Archie or hang up, but instead she simply waited on the line.
“How are you?” he’d asked.
“Better,” she’d said.
He waited for her to go on but she didn’t.
“I’ll get Archie,” she’d said and there was a long delay before his brother finally came on the line.
He went to the garage next. Archie had cleaned it and organized everything as promised so that what was left could be easily hauled away and dumped. The faint amalgam of oil and grease still hung in the air.
The crib was near the side door. It was smartly painted with bright yellow enamel paint but looked a monstrous contraption, the welds uneven and very noticeable. It was certainly neither safe nor functional, but he’d never made anything quite so marvelous.
He couldn’t take is eyes off it and walked around it several times and ran a hand here and there over each smooth surface stopping now and then to feel a sanded weld.
He’d figured out the day of the fire what Archie had collected from the ashes but hadn’t discussed it with Archie. In fact, the presence of the burnt crib in the back of the truck deepened the silence between them.
Rebuilding it and making it presentable was Archie and Clara’s way of claiming something of Raymond from the fire. Nothing could bring him back, but here at least, thanks to his brother’s significant efforts, was a memorial to Raymond’s goodness.
Archie had instructed him to take anything he’d wanted because everything would be carted away or left for the new owners. As he stood here now, he realized the crib was the only item he wanted. Archie must have guessed that given how he’d left it in plain sight. He couldn’t manage it on his own today so would arrange for someone from the lumberyard to come for it.
He locked the garage again and made the slow trip to his truck. From behind the steering wheel he surveyed the yard and buildings, all freshly laden with February snow and knew he’d never be back.
Gracie was still out there somewhere although he suspected she might have perished by now. There had been a few sightings after she first disappeared but none lately. He half expected to see her tracks near the house but there were none. Only a single set of deer tracks and those not fresh. In any case she wasn’t coming back. Gone for good. Dead or feral by now and forever on her own. If she were still alive, the loneliness would have turned her to skin and bone, and then, soon enough, nothing at all.
Covered in snow the field and bush looked more barren than usual, the poplars and birches bare presences between snow-swollen evergreens. Here and there brown tuffs of grass and hay poked through snow and were reminders of what spring would reveal. The horses were gone. Moss sold them off to another farmer weeks ago.
Nothing left for him to do now but leave. He couldn’t think of anywhere else he wanted to be so drove straight home.
Archie drove through the night while Clara slept beside him on the front seat of the Crown Victoria. He didn’t stop until the first motels east of Moose Jaw. He checked into the most stylish one and then without waking her up carried her from the car to the room and laid her on the bed.
He watched her sleep and it came to him then that he and Clara were going to be just fine that the worst was over. He knew it was dangerous to think such thoughts because they tempted fate, but he did so all the same.
On the day of the fire, Clara had told him that Raymond had saved two lives. She also told him that two days earlier she’d broken the news to Raymond, needing to tell someone. He’d been so excited to be an uncle that he’d driven to town right away and bought the best crib at Woolworths. He’d carried the box in from his Charger and spent the afternoon putting it together.
“When he finished, he was beaming,” she said.
It hadn’t ever been like that between Moss and him. Their love was weathered, ragged, standoffish and hardened by neglect. It was a love that neither spoke of and remained an unacknowledged current beneath everything between them.
Looking at Clara now nearly healed, he smiled and adjusted the covers over her. The baby hadn’t been far enough along to be harmed by the fire and would be just fine the doctor assured them.
They would begin again in Calgary. In time they might go back to Kenora but only for a short visit and not for many years to come, and only to show their child where her parents came from. Content with that thought, he turned off the light and was soon asleep.