WEDNESDAY: Gather by the River, Part 1

BY MITCHELL TOEWS

This is the first-part of a two-part story. Come back tomorrow to read the conclusion. Copyright is held by the author.

Zero to Sixty
I STOOD in front of the tall bedroom mirror, still hot from the shower. The puncture wound on my thigh, bruised purple around the edges, looked vaguely savage, but disappointingly small.

“It’s just like I’ve always said,” I called in a basso voice to Jan, who clinked in the kitchen. “I’m tougher than a pit bull.”

No reply.

I thought about how this strange day had played out. I had walked up the hill from our condo early in the morning, looking back at the cloud filled valley. The crown of Little Mountain poked oddly up through the white sea of fog like a desert island in a Saturday Evening Post cartoon.

As I came up to the junction with the main road above our house, I decided on a different route home than usual. I’d head down and to the north, coming out on the Fraser River side of the hill and then follow the road around and back up to the house. Then back up to breakfast. Cheap coffee beans charred to French Roast flavour in a pan on the gas range. Two fried eggs, and flax-and-chia seed bread dipped into the orangey-yellow free range yolks.

Might even wolf down half a grapefruit. Live dangerously.

I came down the slope, walking gingerly and plotting a course along the scattered bits of gravel. The asphalt was slick with ice. Rare here — even in December — on the extreme south of the west flank of mainland Canada. The same Canada that had stretched out on wall maps in my grade school classrooms in distant Manitoba. A red push pin, a fraction of a compass point east of the horizontal center of the country, marked us and pink expanses extended strong and free to the east, west and north. (Canada and the British Empire was pink; the U.S. was blue.)

A lifetime of Manitoba winters qualified me for a little Fraser Valley ice. No problem, although I was careful, seeing as I was not wearing elbow pads on this day.

Making it down to the flat road that cut back towards our fussy gated residential development, I walked briskly. I calculated about when I would get back and whether Jan would be awake yet. Suddenly, two big dogs came bounding at me from behind an older two-story house. Their barks rang out in the sharp air. Putting a friendly hand out and clucking my tongue, I was sure that they would pull up and wag their tails.

But the big reddish pit bull skidded up and immediately bit me on the thigh, shocking me. I lifted my left hand out of his range and spun back – a goalie retreating on a breakaway. I held my right hand in a mitted fist above me, ready to punch down. This made the aggressor wary. The other dog, a white mixed-breed, was barking happily — oblivious to the terrier’s darker intent. I backed slowly along the road, my eyes on the snarling dog, keeping it just out of reach to prevent another bite. The two dogs barked in a frenzy.

Finally, after 100 yards or so, the dogs sprinted away, sneaking looks back at me as they returned to their home yard. Safe at last, I straightened and bellowed, “TIE UP YOUR DOGS!” I hollered again, my voice much louder than I thought it could be, “TIE UP YOUR  DAMN DOGS!” The rough words echoed in the scruffy alders growing in the ditch beside the road. The dogs, surprisingly, cowered slightly and retreated closer to the house, scared by my shouts. I had kept quiet during the attack, thinking that yelling would only enrage them further. (Note to self: yelling can work.)

A heavy woman, her dark hair tousled, slid open a window and called out, a bit annoyed, “I heard ya.”

“Tie up your dogs. I got BIT!” I yelled. She stared blankly, tugging at her nightgown.

“Take it easy,” she said, looking sideways at the two-storey house next door.

“Yeah, right,” I said. “I’d like to see how you would be after being bitten. I’m calling the cops!” I meant to say dog catcher, or as I learned later, “animal control.”

“You’re on RESERVE LAND,” she replied coolly, with her voice elevated just slightly as she began sliding the window shut. But it stuck before she could close it. Meanwhile, the dogs had trotted around beside the house and vanished into the back yard.

“Oh, pardon me!” I shot back, and then, “So YOU can just let your dogs bite people. MY mistake.”

That last comment of mine didn’t make too much sense. I sputtered and walked away, as hot and mad as I could be. The adrenaline of the prolonged stand-off with the big pit bull still had me operating at high revs, like a brake-stand, smoke billowing from my spinning tires. Battle mode.

At home, I grabbed my phone from the charger. I roused Jan and had her follow me to the front deck, to take pictures of the wound in the bright morning sun. I explained what had happened as I gulped down water — thirsty from the long walk. My throat was slightly ragged from the shouting.

“What’s next?” she asked, pulling eggs from the fridge.

I dabbed at the bite mark with hydrogen peroxide dampened gauze, then handed her a band-aid to apply to the side of my leg, where I could not reach. “I’m gonna go take a picture of the houses. If I’m lucky, I’ll get a picture of the dogs too.” I replied. I had a feeling I would need to know the address of the house with the jammed sliding window.

My planning, reviewing the situation in full, had been done during the angry, 25-minute walk from the “dog bite scene” to our house. Pictures of the wound, pictures of the place; the dogs. If the bite had broken the skin, I’d go to the hospital. Lockjaw? I couldn’t remember what to be worried about.

It was Saturday morning and the Emergency Room would be crowded; the process slow. I made a mental note to bring my cheater glasses and the book I was reading: Sixty, by Ian Brown. My daughter had given it to me; she almost as much in disbelief at my age as I was. Almost.

The last stage of my plan, was to call the “dog catcher” and see to it that the incident could not re-occur.

***

With the passenger window open, I drove by slowly in my car but could not see the dogs. Perhaps they had been tied up. The sound of ice crunching under the tires was muffled as the window hummed back up. Stopping a short way up the hill, I got out and rubbed mud on the rear license plate. My thought was that if they saw me snapping pictures, the people in the houses might know it was me — the guy who “got bit.” I didn’t want reprisals after the authorities came by asking questions; possibly taking their dogs away.

After doubling back down the hill and taking some pictures I drove to the Emergency Ward. Parking, and feeling suddenly foolish, I walked around to rub the mud off the back plate. On the drive from the small Reserve to the hospital, my anger had subsided. I thought guiltily of the potential repercussions for the dogs, innocent in so many ways.

The woman’s staccato comments and how she appeared so unconcerned about the dog’s actions and her abrupt, “You’re on Reserve land” declaration had brought out the worst in me. I had climbed the mountain of liberal tolerance for so long and suddenly — in under a minute — so many ugly racial stereotypes had come up in my mind. I felt myself sliding down the slope of my carefully constructed beliefs, rocks and gravel clattering as I slid clumsily down the slippery slope. Like the dogs, once freed, my ugly base instincts ran wild. I felt I had betrayed my ideals. And over what? A careless thing that could happen anywhere, caused by anyone.

I felt cheapened by my apparent latent racism. So, good for me, right? That makes it OK and I am OK; a moral person. I am not a useless slug of a double-hidden racist because, I get it — it is wrong.

Too easy. I could see my Grandma Zehen standing at the stove, stirring a pot, and smiling at me. She would quietly wait for the rest of the story — the part where I gave in to that merry-eyed look of hers and took the blame that I deserved. The part where I admitted that I threw the stone, or the punch or the baby with the bath water.

Maybe the woman in the nighty and the broken window was just a flat-out bitch? Sure, Grandma Zehen would have had patience for her, but that didn’t mean I had to meet that standard. Maybe it’s OK for me to dislike a person, regardless of colour, creed or religion — guilt free — and not cut her any slack. “Period, end of story,” as my redneck golf buddy says 10 times a round. (Oh, wait — that’s actually me who says that all the time.)

I stood in the line at Emergency, alternately tightening and loosening the noose around my neck. As usual, at times like this, unresolved issues rose up — ganging up on me. But, in honesty, they did not arrive uninvited.

I thought back to the ’60s. Natives — simply “Indians” then — coming to Hartplatz in the summers. They camped annually in a clump of bush behind the flour mill. Smoke rising hazily in the still of evening, they stayed in tents made of blankets slung over strands of rope. I remember a small group of us kids sneaking up close to the camp — hearing the tinny transistor radio as they listened to rock and roll music. CKRC from Winnipeg; the same station my older cousins listened to. The Indians sang along quietly with John and Paul: “Hey! You’ve got to hide your love away.” A spoon rapping on an empty tin can mimicked the tambourine beat in the song.

And their campfire crackled melodiously.

The band would gather up their wares in the buggy mornings, trudging slowly from house to house. They were incongruous in the Mennonite tidiness of ticky-tacky yards and neatly painted bungalows. Door-to-door, they sold their “Indian” goods — cheap woven baskets and blankets, some plainly marked “Made in Japan.” At night, the jingle of beer cases announced their return to the trampled clump of “struck” (bush) in the weedy field between the mill and the sewing factory.

I recalled too being a raw Hartplatz teenager, on a volleyball trip to a tournament in far-away Thompson. I was billeted with a native family and given a room in their trailer home. At night, the dim drone of late night conversation slowly rose to a crescendo — a crashing tympani of flying glassware and shrieking laughter, cross cut with insensible angry shouts. I bundled my gear and snuck out into the ancient cold northern night to knock on the nearby door of one of my team mates — his billet still and dark; peace declared.

“Fetch,” a teenager from Hartplatz explained to me in another reminiscence, “is where you drive up to the New Occidental Hotel on Main, and all the drunken Jigs are standing around outside. You pick an Indian for a target and then throw a stick at him. If you miss, you have to fetch the stick.”

In Hartplatz’s arcane code, a racist viewpoint for some groups was perfectly allowable — even preferred; somehow comfortable. Natives, Jews, Doukhobors —- it was politic to voice public doubts — right on the Church steps — about these peoples. I had fought to overcome my small town prejudices, but they were clearly more deep-rooted than I would ever have supposed. I wrestled to control these unwanted emotional tendencies and return to the sanctuary of the rational.

Later, after getting home, my resolve was tested again. I had reported the incident to the local animal control office. They responded with an email about Aggressive Call #21177, stating that because the dogs’ apparent owner, and his property, was on First Nation’s land, they could not do anything about the situation. The officer in charge of my case stated politely that if they could determine that public safety was at risk, they would be able to act, but only within a tightly prescribed set of rules.

I stood looking into the mirror the next morning, getting ready to shave. Like Ian Brown, I saw in great detail and with an unavoidable scrutiny the changes in my face. I saw the way it had aged and those few remaining places of refuge where time had — for now — been held at bay.

Tests had met me as I entered my 60th year. Harshly tested by a fierce dog and by a subtle but powerful challenge to my beliefs. Or, maybe more accurately, a challenge to what I thought my beliefs were.

I held my fists up towards the reflection in the glass and thought of a profound picture — shot artfully by a Dutch photographer I had worked with in New York. His photo was of a hobo, the out-of-focus face weary and drooping — not unlike mine this December morning. The man held up his battered fists to the camera and tattooed in blue ink on the eight fingers was H O L D   F A S T.

In woodworking, I had often seen benches with curved steel “holdfasts” protruding up from holes in the tabletop. The work piece was positioned under the clamping jaw of the holdfast for sanding, carving or planing. The more the work was pulled or pushed, the tighter the grip of the tempered steel holdfast device. Adversity increased the security of its grasp. Strong and simple.

Like a wood shop holdfast, I had faced the fury of the pit bull in the way I had managed so much of life — with an equivalent, retributive fury, the fire of survival burning hot and fueling my reaction. But my other challenge, the one that tested my good, unbiased and sweet self — the more difficult challenge — there I had wavered. I had not held fast in hard times, as the tattooed fists urged.

“Hold fast to the good,” I mumbled, thumbing the switch on the razor, eager to clean away the grey bristles, as if that would bring back the unequivocal optimism and generous sincerity of days past. If only it were that easy.

Come back tomorrow to read the conclusion of this story.

5 comments

  1. Jan

    I just felt like this story was all over the place.
    Perhaps, ditch the political correctness and go for the gut feel.

  2. Pingback: THURSDAY: Gather by the River, Part 2 |
  3. Jan

    Mitchell,
    The PC reference didn’t bug me, I just think you should have edited out the none essential information. Your MC was struggling with his personal association with racism he had observed as a youth, and perhaps was involved in, with his grown up and hard won liberalism.
    The incident with the dogs brought out anger and resentment but he didn’t feel justified and basically gave the dogs’ owner a bye because she was a native on a reserve.
    P.C…….?

  4. Mitchell Toews

    Jan! (I love comments.) The “bye” reveals flaw in MC’s shallow lib’rlism. He sees himself *giving* tolerance to others. He’s just disguising his still-rooted biases. In the very end, he glimpses a true unbiased understanding of the dogs. His deep (unwelcome but there nonetheless) bias twrds natives and homeless will take more work. To show this (not tell it) is my challenge as writer. Thx again.

Post a comment

You may use the following HTML:
<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>