by Keith Norbury
Canada had dissolved into the parallax of the side mirrors (chrome frame) on Willie Kennedy's '69 Econoline. The red muck of Northumberland Strait beaches, Ontario muskeg, a tsunami of prairie wheat, bighorn rams with suicide complexes all swirled in his exhaust. He'd focused on nothing but the jaundiced stripes and dashes of the Trans-Canada Highway. Foot to the floorboards, fourteen, sixteen hours a day. He'd bought twenty hits of speed in a Moncton bar the last time he'd wound his watch. Now, bleary and unshaven, he drove his van off the ferry and onto an island once again.
A chart posted on the aft bulkhead of the promenade deck announced a miracle. Not five inches from the ferry terminal lay (nestled, pulsed, slept) the community of Roberts Bay, just as if a dead ringer of his home town, Bay Roberts, had followed him across the country and turned its name inside out. Had he not seen the chart, he may well have plunged his van off the other side of the island for Japan or taken the Victoria ferry to Port Angeles to try his luck in the dreaded U.S. of A.
Why the hurry? Why the fear?
The baby lolling in the live tank of his fiancée's belly wasn't his! Knocked up she was while Willie was heaving cod guts, and his own guts at times, over the gunwale of his uncle's trawler off the Goddamned Grand Banks. Confessed by those who should know, the revelation stung like inflamed turpentine on a cat's behind. The wedding was off. Willie was off. He took $976.52 in cash (half the balance in their joint account) and the van (newly camperized for the honeymoon), leaving her the house (cottage) and its $5,000 in equity.
"You're no more than a bedlamer boy, wet behind the ears, if you shirk your responsibility," his father said.
Heeding this warning, Willie took a two-week break at the peak of the fishing season to remodel the bathroom and kitchen and to transform one of the bedrooms in the cottage into a nursery. He sunk two grand into the van (propane fridge and stove) plus he had a mural of his uncle's trawler painted on the driver's side.
Responsibility! To knock up a girl is one thing. To be played the cuckold is another. Had he stayed home, he'd be a married man and miserable. Had his best man not broken down at the stag party and confessed every detail, Willie would be happily married. Had she not admitted it, she'd have a husband. He had loved her. Yet love alone couldn't pillory him to a life of ridicule. Nobody would ever say a word, not when he could hear. Just every last soul in Bay Roberts would know. Let Katryn and Silas look after their little bastard.
Willie turned off the highway onto Roberts Bay's main street. For the first time since leaving home, he peered beyond the edge of the pavement. The street ended at a federal government pier. Its red railings whispered to him like sirens, their makeup cracked and peeling.
Two decrepit buildings – a rust-streaked, galvanized-steel-sided shed and a jaundiced customs house – stood on the east side of the pier. At the northeast corner, an arthritic breakwater of battered piles curled around two strings of floats. "Seafood Today ¡Ole! glared a neon sign from high above the loading dock of the shed, and in smaller script blinked "Juan de Fuca Fish Company."
At the end of the dock, Willie sees himself peughing cod into the brailer of uncle Adam's boat. The scent of fish; the smell of cash; the aroma of prosperity. While he was running, he hadn't thought of ever again sleeping to the drone of a diesel or of gutting another codfish. Now this! This scrap heap was coaxing him into a pair of slickers, tucking his hair under a sou'wester.
Jumping from the van, Willie tore through the entrance of the fish shop and bowled over an elderly woman carrying a parcel wrapped in white paper. As Willie helped her to her feet, a man in a yellow apron glared at him from behind the showcase displaying fresh fish on crushed ice. A stocky, square-faced figure, the man in the apron could barely see over the showcase.
"What can I do for you," he asked, as if talking to the fish fillets, glistening with fresh water, piled in neat rows.
"Just looking," Willie said.
The man in the apron shrugged then he shuffled to the back of the plant where a second worker, a tall and scrawny fellow, was scrubbing a wall. Cleaning solutions overwhelmed the smell of the dead fish – like a body being prepared for a funeral. Willie browsed diligently, wiping the fog from the showcase glass, even daring to venture beyond the "Employees Only" sign swinging from the ceiling. The plant covered less than 3,000 square feet and was virtually uncontaminated by fish, except for the fillets in the showcase.
With a seven-day beard and sleep-starved eyes, Willie stunk of a desperation that his smile couldn't conceal. The glowing optimism in his squinting eyes wasn't any match either, under these circumstances, for his gangster-movie bodyguard physique. His friends used to compare him – particularly when he had a hangover – with Jack Nicholson's character in The Shining. Willie's eyes now gazed covetously at the fish peughs hanging on the far wall. The workers pretended to ignore him, but glanced occasionally, warily, at the row of knives atop the stainless-steel filleting table.
Willie skated across the water-slicked floor to check out the table, the crab cooker, the empty brine tanks, and the ice-room (through a partially opened door) as closely as if he were a fishery inspector. Adjacent to the ice-room was another identical door, its latch shut. He reached to open it, looking over at the shorter worker as he wheezed a cautionary cough.
"Nice plant you have here," Willie said, dropping his hand from the latch. "Not quite like the ones back home, but nice just the same."
"I suppose you're from the east coast," the cougher said, winking at his colleague.
"From Newfoundland," Willie said.
"Never would have guessed." The cougher winked again.
"Arrived in town not five minutes ago," Willie said. He winked as if to honour a local custom. "And I'm looking for work. Think I might even settle here."
Willie paused for a response, a wisecrack, anything. Hearing none, he kept going, skating and talking. "Do you guys know of a skipper who needs a deckhand? I've got six years experience."
"It's between seasons," the tall one said, pointing at the empty fish bins. "The coho run starts next week. But any skipper worth a shit already has a crew."
Hells bells! Willie would work for a skipper worth no shit at all.
"How about a job here when things pick up? I'm pretty slick with a knife," he said, carving fillets off a make-believe codfish.
"You'll have to ask the boss, Frank Sullivan, about that," the short one said.
No sooner were those words spoken than a man who could only be Frank Sullivan slammed open a door opposite the showcase. He clutched a multi-coloured stack of papers an inch thick.
"Bad news," he told his charges, slapping the papers a backhand.
Before Sullivan could elaborate, Willie skated over, extended his hand and offered his services. Sullivan listened, his hand pinching his chin as if his head would otherwise float away in boredom. Then he folded his arms across his distended belly before raking his fingers through his thin thin thin silver hair.
"You should try your luck at Fishermen's Wharf," Sullivan said.
Willie descended the gantry to the first float and looked across the forest of masts and stabilizer poles. He had skippered a trawl boat that could swallow in its hold the largest of the boats at this dock. Not to worry: the ocean is waves and fish have scales . . . everywhere. And a net is nothing but knots and Willie had fixed many. Wishing to make a good impression on a seine-boat crew making repairs, he picked up an errant net needle and went to work.
"What do you think you're doing, kid?" the skipper demanded before Willie could make two stitches.
"You look like you could use a hand," Willie said. "I've got six years experience."
"Doesn't matter if you've caught Charlie Tuna, I barely kill enough fish to keep these two from driving me to the poorhouse," the skipper said.
No point in gaining a reputation as nuisance. Willie continued down the float, meekly offering his skills to every fisherman he saw. His experience, knowledge and eagerness earned him nothing other than a few laughs. Charlie Tuna!
The next day, after spending the night at a provincial park campground, Willie again visited fisherman's wharf. And the next six days. He also called daily at Juan de Fuca Fish. Not a minnow had bloodied its floor since Willie's arrival in town.
"Mr. Sullivan, Mr. Sullivan, isn't there anything I can do?" Willie would say.
"I'm a little feller, not Rockefeller," Sullivan would reply.
On the seventh day, Willie overheard Sullivan and the customs officer discussing (in whispers) the dock's depressing condition. Something about the cracked paint on the railings. Willie turned his better ear toward them and distinctly heard one say, as the other nodded, "Something has to be done."
Willie required no further signal. He sped to Cowall's Rent-All and plunked down a $20 deposit on a belt sander. He buzzed across to Link Hardware and bought five gallons of marine undercoat, ten gallons of deck enamel, a paint tray, a galvanized steel pail, and two quarts of solvent. He asked for, and received, hand-written, itemized receipts.
"Hey, Randy, Jake," Sullivan called to his crew. "You've got to see this."
Randy, the taller of the two, and Jake hurried outside, where they squinted and smirked as Willie ground the old paint (what he could reach with the sander) to a red powder. From the window of his office, the customs officer also watched (through binoculars).
By sunset, Willie had finished sanding and had begun to apply the undercoat. He was still painting long after Randy, Jake, Sullivan and the customs man had gone home. Couples on after-dinner strolls, children dangling shrimp traps from the pier, and teenagers at the wheels of cars paused occasionally in their diversions to watch Willie paint.
When the fish plant opened the next morning, Willie had already been at work for two hours. He smeared on the paint as though it were pizza sauce, pausing rarely, and continuing until sunset. The job finished (at noon on the fourth day), he wrote a bill (on a requisition pad purchased at Spooner's Stationery), charging only for the paint used (less than five gallons) and eight dollars an hour (no overtime) for labour. He presented the bill to Sullivan, whose laughter could be heard across the water on the U.S. side of the strait.
"You can't expect me to pay this," he told Willie. "The government owns the wharf. Nice job, though."
Damn straight it was a nice job. Undaunted, Willie took the bill to the customs house.
"It's the government's responsibility," the customs man said flatly, in a fine Oxford (or Cambridge) accent.
What is Canada Customs if it isn't an arm of that octopus his father called "the Crown"? Back home, Willie had taken no interest in affairs of the state. On this side of the continent, he had no reason to suspect the bureaucracy was any less a tangle of knots. Despite his apprehension, Willie resolved to slice through the tangles. He started at the Roberts Bay town hall.
A wicket marked "cashier" hooked his eye. He slid his invoice to the cashier, a plump-faced girl with a smile that looked as if she'd cut it out of a magazine. She promptly fetched the town clerk. The clerk told Willie to go to the public works office in the basement and have the works superintendent approve the expenditure.
"What's this for?" the superintendent asked.
"Wharf? I don't recall the town letting any contract for a wharf."
"Yes! Do you have your copy?"
"I haven't got one."
"Never mind. I'll look it up," the superintendent said, tugging his earlobe. "You don't recall the file number by any chance?"
"File? . . . No . . . I never signed any contract."
"Impossible. All extra-departmental work must be certified by contract, awarded after a call for tenders or receipt of at least three sealed, select bids. We'd have a scandal otherwise. Are you with the local newspaper?"
Newspaper! Scandal! Certified! Contract! Tenders! Select Bids! Were they discussing the same thing? Willie suspected not. He explained.
"You mean the wharf at the foot of Haro Street," the superintendent said slowly. "Not our jurisdiction, I'm afraid. You want the federal ministry of transportation."
From a pay phone across the street, Willie called the nearest ministry of transport office (Vancouver). He talked to several people in succession. All expressed deep sorrow in admitting they couldn't be of assistance, but each assured him the next person he'd hear would have all the answers he sought. Ultimately, a baritone-voiced man, identifying him as Len McDuff (or Ben Duffy or Glen Fairclough), harbour engineer, explained everything.
"That particular wharf is the property of the provincial ministry of environment. However, prior to ownership being transferred to that department – in the late '60s or early '70s, I think it was – the property was under the title of the federal ministry of transport. The MOT also transferred jurisdiction of that Crown foreshore to the province. Nevertheless, the federal government, namely the MOT, still maintains certain riparian rights, in case of national emergency, on the foreshore upon which the wharf is situated. Consequently, the MOT is responsible for structures erected on that foreshore, through a complex agreement with the environment ministry of this province. Do you understand what I've told you thus far?"
"Yes," Willie said, not wishing to reveal his naiveté, even if the engineer had missed his point. "But what about the paint?"
"Five gallons of marine undercoat and ten gallons of deck paint. With rollers and brushes it came to $347.74. Then there's my labour . . ."
"And you have a contract from the public works department for this job?"
"Not as such, but Mr. Sullivan at Juan de Fuca Fish and the customs man on the wharf both agree the work was long overdue."
"So you seized the opportunity?"
"That's right, sir. I seized it. If I do say so, I've done a fine job too . . . cheap at half the price. A professional painter would have cost the taxpayers a small fortune."
The phone line hummed for two minutes, leading Willie to suspect the MOT man had dropped dead, or gone to some other higher authority. The operator demanded another sixty cents.
"Son," the MOT man said, "I'm sure you did a marvellous job. Unfortunately, you didn't proceed through the proper channels. We simply cannot have people going around performing untendered work and then demanding payment. Why . . . why, suppose I came by your house, saw it needed painting, went out and painted it, all without your consent, then gave you a bill?"
"I'd never let it get so shoddy," Willie said.
"Suppose anyway, Goddamnit. Face it . . . you'd be angry . . . no matter how good a deal the painter gave . . . if you didn't hire him. I know you meant well, son, but there's no way we can accommodate you. About all I can suggest is that you write off the cost of the materials as a gift to the Queen on your next income tax return."
Willie slammed down the receiver and punched the dial. Like a miracle, a jackpot of quarters tumbled out of the change return. The clanging of the coins awakened an idea. He scooped the money and ran to the hardware store where he bought five gallons of paint stripper and a scraper as wide as a snow shovel. Moments later, ribbons of soft paint were curling into streamers which wafted onto the water like resolutions cast at a New Year's party.
He scraped all afternoon without distraction. Had he worked only in daylight, he would surely have finished in three or four days, barely drawing any notice, and that would have been the end of it. But his zeal compelled him to keep working after dark.
He didn't notice the RCMP cruiser as it coasted to a stop beside him.
"Looks like defacing public property to me," said the driver. His partner got out of the car and searched the wharf with a flashlight for evidence. Willie looked up, saw the silhouette of a Mountie's holster, and dropped his scraper.
"It's not what it appears, officer," Willie said.
"Things seldom are, my man," the officer said. "How about telling us all about it at the detachment office."
"You've got to understand – it's my paint. I bought it just the other day. You can ask anybody. Ask the customs man, the fish men . . ."
At the police station, the officers (the younger hailed from P.E.I.) listened, the occasional chuckle rippling their coffees, as Willie told his story. When it was over, they were smiling too rigidly to press charges. They even promised to speak with the appropriate authorities to see if something couldn't be worked out, provided he refrained from further scraping.
Following the interview, the cops resumed their patrol, dropping off Willie at his van back at the wharf. While the Mounties were still in sight, Willie got behind the wheel and drove to the campground, where he quickly crawled into his sleeping bag and immediately fell asleep. He had been a teenager the last time he'd had any whisper of trouble with the police. How they had changed. They had all become so young, as young as he was. And with their neatly cropped moustaches, they all looked alike.
As a rule, Willie snoozed like a cat, having learned how to steal winks on the Grand Banks' swell. But not even a deaf man in a coma could have slumbered through the colossal thumping that shook his van at sunrise. Willie jumped into his trousers and peeked through the curtains. Another copy of that perfect moustache. Willie opened the window.
"I told your buddies everything last night," Willie told the cop (whose sunburned face looked about to shoot flames). Another cop waited in the car.
"That's why we're here. You know about the Roberts Bay wharf."
"Yeah, I know," Willie said wearily.
"It burned to the water last night."
"I get it," Willie said. "Maritime humour. I bet you're a Newfie too."
"It's a serious matter," the red-faced cop said. "Seems you were the last one seen on the wharf before the fire."
The words "I didn't do it, honestly" scraped at Willie's palate, trying to escape his mouth, still fuzzy with sleep. Silently, he put on his pants and shirt and agreed to accompany the officers.
On the way, they detoured past the ruins of the wharf, the red-faced cop sniffing Willie closely for signs of guilt. All evidence of Willie's labours had vanished. He didn't so much as quiver a lip.
At the station, the officers escorted Willie to the same windowless room he had visited the night before (at which time he hadn't noticed the lack of windows).
The red-cheeked Mountie told Willie to empty his pockets. Then the other officer frisked Willie to ensure he had complied. When the first cop picked up a book of matches, Willie again resisted blurting the truth: "They're for the propane stove." The cop seemed less interested in Willie's wallet, which contained precisely $296. After listing the contents on a sheet of foolscap (which he had Willie sign), the cop stuffed the objects in an envelope. Then he left the room.
"How do you suppose the wharf caught fire?" the second cop, who had just come in carrying a notepad, asked Willie. This one was more like the RCMP officers Willie had encountered as a teenager. This Mountie was square-shouldered and square-jawed with straight lips and a face as blank as . . . Oh, oh – it's the bad cop!
"I don't believe this," Willie said.
"If you can't do better than that pretty quickly, we'll have no choice but to charge you with arson. Do you know how much time you can get?" the second cop said with as much feeling as he would scribble a parking ticket.
"I think I want to call a lawyer."
The first cop threw him a phone book. "I doubt if any of them are out of bed yet. But take your pick. We're going out for a while. By the time we return, every lawyer's office in town will be open for business."
For the first time since he had packed his van (the only time), the steel blade of loneliness scraped Willie's skin. He pictured Katryn, smelled her perfume, recalled buying it, remembered the first time she dabbed it on her wrists, and tasted her lingering kiss of thanks. On summer days, a year ago, two years ago, no time in particular, they stretched on the blanket in the back yard. One evening they drove along the beach to a movie in St. John's and spent the night overlooking boats in the harbour.
She no longer seemed like such a slut now that the aches she must have endured during Willie's long trips at sea had tunneled into his stomach. Had she suddenly appeared, a supplicating lover wringing the bars of his cell, he'd have promised her anything, forgiven everything.
How could it matter whose sacred sperm had invaded her? Silas doesn't want children or Katryn. She was vulnerable. He was drunk. Their grief. Her grief: sequestered in that house. It would harm the baby. What hateful soul could hate a baby? Silas and Katryn hadn't committed evil. The sums of modern insensibility – all-seeing, questioning eyes, and whispering – were to blame. And pride. He'd made his move – proudly (never understanding why it's a sin).
He told his pride to go to Hell.
He'd write her as soon as he found work. Or a house on the water.
It certainly was terrible about the fire. Nearly (from Willie's perspective) as tragic as hours of wasted of labour. Sunburned, sweaty, creosote-covered arms had toiled before him. At least they'd been paid.
Better not let that leak through an unguarded smirk in the courtroom.
He had wanted that paint destroyed. So what if someone else did him the favour. Yet he knew that by condoning the action, he might just as well have struck the match. Guilty, Willie. He sat straight and stern, prepared to suffer his punishment like a man, not wet-lipped like a screaming bedlamer. It's what his father would have wanted (demanded).
"Live by your whim and pay for it. (Which also meant: 'Don't let your pecker do your thinking for you.') It's the only way to learn to think sincerely, unless you're content to remain forever a howling bedlamer."
Admit it, Willie, you'd love to have watched the flames, whiffed the smouldering creosote. Of course, you will do your utmost to prove your innocence (if it takes forever). Patience. He meditated, stalled in the continuous present, waiting, forever waiting, waiting bravely as if there were no wait at all. Is this what ambivalence does? Replaces indecision with limitless patience? Even a razor loses its edge eventually. A fire stops being news.
He inhaled deeply, straining for traces of Katryn's perfume. He listened for her laugh, squinted for her gap-toothed, raised-brow smile, which peered through her black hair entangling her face. He reached for her. She had never appeared so flawless. His storm-weathered hands would surely mar her fragile tanned, taut skin. Yet she embraced him with the strength of a cat, so sinewy and sinuous.
When they rose, tears of sweats streaking their trunks, he put on the baseball shirt she had bought him as a souvenir of their trip to New York. They had gone anxious and callow. Their hearts hurt their ribs as they treaded carefully through the glass canyons. "You look so sexy in it," she said. They returned kindred cosmopolitans, unfastening each other's zippers beneath an Air Canada blanket on the flight home.
"You can go now," the red-faced cop told Willie.
He had waited less than two hours, studying the mortar cracks of his cell walls, ignoring the business section of a day-old Globe and Mail the police had given him. And now the red-cheeked cop was unlocking the cell.
"You're a free fish," the cop said. "When we spoke with the customs man, he folded like a cheap tent and blurted out the entire story. Sullivan set the fire. Seems his business was dying and he figured he'd collect the insurance money. He promised Dunlop, that's the customs man, ten per cent of the four-hundred grand claim if he'd just keep his mouth shut and see that nobody was hurt.
"And then you came along. Sullivan figured that was perfect – you would be the fall guy. But Dunlop's stiff-upper-lip British conscience couldn't take it."
Willie squinted suspiciously, wary this was bait for his own confession. Like a horse in a burning stall, he balked at leaving the cell.
"Shake a leg. You can go. We've got our suspects. What more do you want? An apology? Hey, we've been playing by Hoyle, no differently than in any other investigation. Tell you what – we don't usually do this – but I'll drive you back to your van. What do you say?"
Willie said nothing, but proceeded silently down the hall, his eyes avoiding the floor, stopping only to pick up the envelope from the watch commander. With one huge breath, he stepped out of the police station as if sleep walking away from a dream. He stopped on the steps to breathe again and opened the coin pouch of his wallet. It contained at least four dollars in quarters. He flipped one in the air and watched it land (flat) without bouncing, magnetized (Queen's head up) on the sidewalk. Then he went to the pay phone across the street and had the operator connect him with a familiar number far, far away.