MONDAY: Stealing the Light

BY BRUCE MADOLE

Copyright is held by the author.

I REMEMBER the day when I heard that Dermott was dead. A long time ago, now. I barely understand it still — back then, it was beyond comprehension.

He was missing, first. By that point, he’d been one of my best friends for six, maybe eight years. You’d think you might know somebody better, after all that time, but maybe I wasn’t that good at being a good friend. One or two things, looking back, I wish I’d seen coming. Don’t know I could have changed anything, but I wish I’d tried.

We weren’t that much alike, in most respects, though we liked a lot of the same things. Derm was a farm kid, originally, and he turned into a big guy. I mean, we met when we were still young — grade eight, both new kids in a new school. He liked reading, like me, and art, which I didn’t, being no good at it, and he wasn’t much for team sports. All that rah rah. Me neither. But, that’s the thing: people grow and they change, usually. I stayed short, and kind of nerdy, and Derm, he got tall, and then he got broad, and kind of gawky, like he didn’t know what to do with his muscles, and he had a roundish face and kind of a goofy grin, like he was always about to laugh, under double-thick glasses. And he was strong, in a making-things-move kind of way, like you get when you spend each summer working on a farm, shovelling shit and pitching hay bales for weeks, and, you know . . . really working. Tom Thomson was a farm kid, too, come to think of it, and he died young tool. Don’t know what that proves. Only, Derm was an artist also, which is why it comes to mind. He was really, really good. A star, when you come down to it.

If Derm drew something, you knew that’s what it looked like, even if you never saw it in person. You knew that cause you’d seen him do it in person, all the time — quick sketches and cartoons in the cafeteria, flowers and rivers and trees. He could just . . . do it. If Derm could see it, he could draw it. Or paint it. And then, there was — were — the nudes. His sketch books were full of them. I saw a few, though he was reticent about them. This was years ago — long before the Internet, long before the world could learn everything there was to learn about female anatomy with the click of a mouse button — and there we were, Grade 11 I think it was, and Derm had these sketch books full of naked girls. I mean, all the way naked, not just wearing underwear, like the ladies in the Eaton’s catalogue. Or maybe these were naked women; he never put the faces and the bodies in the same pictures, you couldn’t tell who belonged to what, and there was no point in looking at Kelly in the cafeteria and wondering if that was her bush in the sketch book or how Derm got such a close look at it. Not that I could have told, anyway. My whole ambition that year was to get a hand, either hand, under Margaret Macdonald’s sweater, or down the back of her jeans, without reaping a black eye for my sense of adventure. The mere prospect of seeing the full landscape would have left me lost, with no real sense of how to proceed. That’s a problem that Margaret eventually corrected, but I digress.

“You’re doing nudes now?” I said at the time, and Derm just grinned, and shrugged, then took the sketch book from my hands and put it back on the shelf.

“Just a few,” he said, “getting ready for art college. I need a portfolio, to get in.”

“Naked girls, Derm,” I said. “That’s impressive.”

He shrugged again.

“None of them is Margaret,” he said, “in case you’re worried about that.”

Well, I wasn’t . . . until he said it.

The thing was, art college wasn’t a sure thing for Derm, because of his eyes. Or by this time, the end of high school, his eye. He’d had the other one surgically removed, the summer before, and the one eye left was his window to the world, the colours, the shapes. I suppose there’s a reason why people call them “the sights.” We didn’t think about it, or talk about it, back then. If we had, Derm probably would have joked, maybe described a suggestive set of female curves in the air with his hands, maybe would’ve said something like, ‘There’s always braille’. But he had to have been thinking about it: when he would run out of light.

Derm chose to go to university, instead of art college, and by the end of our first year, his eye would get so tired from reading that I sometimes ended up reading a book to him, out loud, so he could write a report or an essay about it. Even then, I’d be up late, hammering out a draft of a paper on my typewriter, and he’d finally sit down at his desk and scrawl out a paper, long-hand, with his handwriting like a seismic reading; one draft, and he’d still get As. Derm had a good mind, and a good memory. Still, he only had but that one eye left, and it was failing.

That summer, instead of working on the farm, Derm went out to see the world, while he could still see. I think it was that simple. We never discussed it, but it didn’t really need saying. Family and friends got occasional postcards with Derm’s progress — the prairies, the East Coast, Latin America, Mexico. He was working his way north again, heading for home. Then . . . nothing. Radio silence, as they say. He wasn’t being heard from, by anybody, least of all, his family. Derm was missing. We all got worried. Derm’s folks kicked off a search, then, eventually, the government got involved.

It went on for months, seemed like. I was back at school, a cold fall had given way to a grim winter, and I could look out my window and see clumps of snow whirling by in the black river current, and lowering clouds with more snow coming. Darkness before dinner. Friends would call each other, and ask, “has anybody heard anything?” But there was nothing.

I remember when I got the call. Dermott’s Dad. He said, “Dermott’s been found.” The way he said it, as broken up as he sounded, I don’t even remember if he said, or if I actually heard, the next part. But it all came out, eventually. Mexican police had arrested a person, who confessed and led them to where the body was hidden. Derm had been hitch-hiking, and the guy had picked him up, given him a place to crash for the night, then came in and shot Derm in the head while he slept. He killed him for 20 whole dollars, Canadian. Doesn’t sound like a lot — it was maybe 15 bucks U.S., those days — but the thing was, Derm would have given it to him, if the guy had asked. That’s how Derm was. The money was nothing, though in the end, that’s how they caught him, the killer, I mean. Folks who knew him, down there where he lived, they all wondered how this guy would turn up with 20 whole dollars. They wondered about it out loud, and pointed the finger, and well . . . I suppose the Mexican police knew how to ask. Killer got life in a Mexican prison, whatever that turned out to be. 20 whole dollars.

Thing is, I don’t suppose there was ever going to be a trial that changed anything, or any way to put a value on what we all lost, or the price of one last sunset. They just shipped Dermott home, and his folks buried him, and his friends mourned him, and our lives went on without the light of him, and his goofy grin. And his sense of humour. Or his pictures.

These days, Margaret and me, we watch a lot of sunsets. Whenever we can, in fact. Oh . . . and I’m not too fond of the dark.

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