THURSDAY: Gather by the River, Part 2

BY MITCHELL TOEWS

This is the conclusion of a two-part story. Read the first part here. Copyright is held by the author.

The Margin of the River

I FINISHED shaving. A $10 Tim Horton gift card was in the car, and although I knew I should hit the weights and do my exercise routine, I also felt like a lazy day was not a bad idea.

Jan nudged me aside on her way to the bathroom.

“Wuzzup?” she asked.

Looking at her this morning, she was an unusual mixture of resemblances; 60 per cent Sally Field and 40 per cent Richard Simmons.

Bed head will do that to you.

After a quick rumble through her makeup kit, I knew she would resolve into her usual 40/40/20: 40 per cent the aforementioned Sally; then mix in another 40 of Gloria Steinem (in her outspoken prime) and the remainder, young Jane Wyman.

Jane Wyman was my fault. One of my paintings of Jan — as a painter, I am a pretty good sculptor — was nice, but a dead ringer for Jane Wyman in about 1946. Not wedding-day Jan in 1977, as I had intended. Many recall Wyman as Reagan’s first wife. Also, she appeared in The Yearling, the first movie I ever saw; a feature-film in the auditorium at Southwood Elementary School. I still remember the feeling; sitting in the dark room, cross-legged on the floor. All of us crowded together, dizzy with anticipation; unsure of what it was we were to see.

Finally, I dragged myself out of the childhood memory — enjoyable though it was. “Dunno,” I finally said in delayed response to Jan’s question while I pawed through the underwear drawer for just the right pair — supportive but not too bossy. “Oh, ca-jo-nes, in the high-est,” I sang cheerily, replacing the word hosanna in my tone-deaf, sacrilegious ode to the assembled tighty-whitey collection.

Satisfactorily exalted, I called out, “what’s Jane Wyman up to today?”

“Dunno,” she replied, peeing with morning gusto. “Buy some food. Walk.”

I finished dressing and tapped on the bathroom door, “See ya!”

At Tim Horton’s, crawling along in the drive-through, I noticed an old fellow sitting on the curb. His home was set on its kickstand next to him — a beat-up Schwinn 10-speed with a wire carrier and matching, overflowing saddlebags. I silenced the Canucks Morning radio babble and opened the passenger window. The guy sat sipping a large coffee, the morning sun shining down on him. All things considered, he looked pretty macklijch (comfortable). Mack as kack we used to say, with kack actually referring to a Plautdietsch (low-German) word for excrement. Ergo: comfy as shit.

“Nice morning!” I called over to him. His eyes were as blue as those of the most recent 007 agent.

“Yeah! Cold night, though,” he replied, many crows’ feet vying for a crinkled spot next to those friendly eyes.

“No doubt, no doubt. Hey look, I was given this Tim’s card and so I can pretend to be generous. Can I buy ya a coffee?”

“Sure, this one is just about gone,” he answered, shaking his cup in proof.

“Kay. How ya take it?”

“Double-double.”

“Yep, meetya over there,” I motioned with a tilt of my head to the front of the parking lot.

I ran the window up and turned the local sports talk blockheads back on. (Blockheads who live in West Van high-rises and have Canucks’ season tickets.) They were discussing a certain star hockey player’s “battle level.”

“I’d like to see one of those Swedes spend the night outside, protecting all of their worldly belongings, and sleeping on top of a hot air exhaust in a cardboard box. Now that is a high battle level.” I said pedantically to my car radio, jabbing my finger like Don Cherry for emphasis.

I bought the coffee and a couple of doughnuts, paying with what was left of the gift card and a $20 bill. I took the change and put a Wilf Laurier and one of the doughnuts into a bag.

“Here ya go. Bought a doughnut too — goes good with coffee they say.”

“I heard that somewheres. Thanks, eh! Merry Christmas, bud!”

I watched him walk stiffly back to his post and I wondered how many folks like me had bought him coffee that morning. No matter. It also occurred to me that he was a fellow marketer — he knew the four Ps well and he was producing results in a classic manner. I gave him a “Cheers!” through the windshield with my coffee cup as I crept the car out over the speed bumps. He pulled the blue five-dollar bill out of the bag and, with a gap-filled grin, waved it at me like a little Canada flag on July 1.

“Hmmm,” I said to the radio, one cynical eyebrow raised, “Maybe he actually works for Tim Horton’s.” Now that would be a master marketing set-up, I thought. Specious, but masterful and perhaps game-changing, in a bad way. The store manager arranges for a homeless person to hang out near the drive-through, looking a little rough. Good-hearted folks buy him stuff. Homeless person gets fed; Tim’s sells more coffee and the patrons get to feel good about their power-window Samaratism. “Kind of like I just did,” I said aloud.

“How good is ZAT?” asked one of the radio hosts, as if listening.

The car drove, I sipped the coffee, the radio droned on. I thought some more about the old guy and his ratty Schwinn bike. Wonder what he did or didn’t do, to get there? Same goes for me, I guess, every bit as much. I was probably a little older than him, although his life out of doors disguised that, in my favour.

I found myself accidentally-on-purpose driving by the house where the pit bull bit me the day before. There was a pick-up truck on my tail, so I went by the place a little faster than I wanted to — peering sideways and bobbing my head as I was, to see if the dogs were out, loose again. The truck passed after a while — roaring by impatiently on a shallow curve — as I reached the point where the road came down beside the river and then cut south, towards the Trans-Canada highway.

Without meaning to, I touched the tender spot on my thigh where the dog had bit me. Quite a chomp — piercing through two pairs of sweatpants (it had been cold yesterday). I felt shitty about the event — I had made a fuss, shouting at the dogs’ owner and sending a text to the local animal control.

I wish the damn dogs had been tied up, I thought, slowing as I neared a sharp curve in the road ahead.

Cautiously, I pulled the car off the road and down a gravel trail that led onto the sandy riverbed during low water levels. The narrow path was only three or four car lengths long now because the river was so unusually full for this time of year. I thought of my friend Jake up north and how he liked to — pointedly — call the Fraser a “nice stream.” He lived near the Skeena. “Now, that’s a river,” he would say, expelling smoke from his Player’s Light. False idol, I mused.

I wanted to take my coffee down by the water’s edge. It was quietly thrilling to be next to the Fraser when it was running this high. Being close to it let you feel the might — to sense the weight and the vastness of the water — how it is immeasurable; beyond human scale in its capacity to give or to take.

A large cedar stump made a fine seat, there, on the margin of the river. I stopped counting rings after 100, resting my coffee on the long-ago sawn surface and checking emails. After a while I stood up, looking across at the opposite shore. The moving mass of grey-green water in the foreground made me dizzy and I focused on a nearby tree trunk to regain equilibrium.

Next to the tree was a small white object. It stuck up oddly and looked out of place. I strained to see, but there were too many alders and willow whips and too much tall grass in the way. It looked somehow familiar.

Hopping down from the stump, I took a last draw of the coffee and left the cup there to pick up on my way back. I stepped from a hump of matted shore grass onto a good sized fallen poplar log. Walking along its length, I stopped when I was about 10 feet from the mystery object.

From where I stood on the log, I had a strong vantage point. Looking down in the good morning light, I could clearly see the two dogs that had attacked me the day before. They lay stiff-legged in rigor mortis, held by death in the tall grass a few feet from the unstoppable current. The white dog lay atop the other. His thin neck was broken and his head faced north, across the water to the far mountains. The reddish pit bull, young I could see now, lay staring up at me with unblinking black eyes as I balanced on the log above him.

A shuddering sadness grasped me. I stood precariously on the wet tree trunk and saw where the bullet had gone into the skull, his forehead stove in and the lovely red fur singed black around the bloodied hole.

In a glance, I saw the dogs and knew what had happened and why. I felt the cold cruelty that had allowed it to be done, there beside the wide winter river. This sadness was like an alien being — a damp, formal figure that held me upright on the log, its ancient grip pulling the warmth out of me and slowing the beat of my heart. It had waited with the two dogs; crouching there patiently and protecting them throughout the night. It came to me now, the sadness did, and passed along its grim burden.

And in that instant when I accepted the terrible weight the sadness placed on me, I could love the dogs. I could love the pit bull and how it raced out to challenge me and protected the yard and the people in the house. I could feel the joy in the white mutt, his laughing face and bright eyes.

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