Roan paces around the stall, hooves whisper in clean shavings, big nose nickers as she cranes her neck toward the incoming hay. Simon opens the slatted door. Fragrant, coarse stems on his hands, the mare’s hungry thrust. The grinding of her jaws and teeth is audible from the feed box. From a tap in the alley he re-fills the rubber bucket and puts it back in place. Then Simon stands beside the horse, hand raised on the big red withers. For a moment reluctant to leave, to face the day.
Not like he and the horse know each other well. The mare belongs to Deirdre. She’s flown to Greece with her new husband. Number three, he’s got family over there. They will slap squid, break plates, bask naked on the sand. Her last husband was from Brazil, she saw the Amazon. Other men view him as an oddity more than a rival. Deirdre navigates through life by ear, or by heart, as if she’s been here before. She asked him to feed her horse while they went on their honeymoon, and he is happy to do it. He’s unemployed, unemployable maybe, at loose ends, this gives some structure to his day. Morning and evening.
Honeymoon, an odd word and foreign concept, he thinks. Pictures the galaxy made of wax and God a giant bee. Silent rodeo grounds brighten with sunrise. Yellow leaves circle and curl in a brisk wind. Halter ropes hang like dead snakes on the barn wall. Walking away, Simon scratches the tuft of red beard on his chin.
On the rim of the grandstand, in faded white western style letters it is written: Home of the Famous Williams Lake Stampede. This dry bowl’s been the centre of town for a hundred years. July long gone, dust settled, frost on the grass this morning, October comes with a rich blue sky. He walks along the outer rail of the dirt race track, thinking coffee, cigarette, and other things. He wears a Flames cap, an oversized canvas coat with deep pockets, blue jeans and worn-out hikers.
Simon’s mind holds all manner of facts about his hometown. Such as, the second of January is called Wrestling Day, a unique municipal holiday, invented by a couple of bored merchants way back when. Often the Laketown has the highest crime and homeless rates per capita, etcetera—he hears an organ, and the Chamber of Commerce choir singing: oh merciful Lord, what can be done? And then all the secret history he’s picked up on the street over the years, must stay that way, dudes he knows in the drug trade, grow-ops, meth labs, crack houses, the cries of missing girls, unsolved murders, dogs strangled with clothesline, it’s not worth him going out on a limb, when the bough breaks, you know, the cradle will fall. Must not smoke near the barns either, with the shavings and hay, tinder in waiting.
Around the track, beyond the corrals, he climbs the dirt path upward toward town. About halfway, a ways off in the sage is a spot he sits to roll a cigarette. Rubs his hands over the sun-dried brush beside him, for the slight oil and scent on his fingers. Inhales the smoke and watches the horses now below him, still dozing or pacing in the morning light, sorrel, bay, buckskin, pinto.
Slim paper smoke in his fingers, hit of nicotine, and raising it to his lips brings his nails into sight and mind. Sun feels good on his face, the horses are beautiful, but his ten fingernails suddenly weigh him right down, he begins to fidget, pick at his own skin. Auntie has told him over and over to keep them clean and short, he must clip them now, digs in his jacket pocket for the little silver clippers, he trims his nails, watches the dry white cusps and corners dropping between his legs and lost in the soil and the dry autumn grass.
Tucking tobacco, clippers, harmonica, and his lucky green stone back in his jacket, he finds the note from Auntie: See the nurse at 2:00. Are there many horses in Greece? Simon imagines more donkeys and goats picking their way along rocky hillsides, and a broad Sea below, crystal blue on the postcard from Deirdre, wine dark in history, with the distant call of Sirens, the wake of Odysseus, Onassis and Jackie Kennedy. Did Mom or Dad ever go to Greece he wonders?
Simon gets to his feet and follows the trail up toward the back lot of Lakecity Ford, where he sees two old fellows hunched on a bench.
Auntie Becky wants him back on the meds, not carving faces on his bedroom wall, mixing pot with his tobacco, staying up all night, not strikin’ fear into young cousins, stealing change, talkin’ to himself, rummaging through her underwear. Sometimes he sees it from her point of view, sometimes not. “There’s always the Review Board,” she cries, nearing the final straw, they can call a hearing and lock him up for a while. Like she used to resort to calling the principal or school counsellor, minister, social worker, probation officer, and lately it’s the doctor and nurse. He’s so tired of all their form letters and appointments, with a prescription or doggy bone for reward. Or, for persuasion, there’s always Staff Sergeant Moustache and his band of mirthless Mounties.
On the bench sit One-eyed Carter and Guitar Sam in a morning daze. No one knows when Carter last washed, he’s so char skinned he doesn’t even smell anymore. Talk about fingernails, Carter has claws. Wears a brown felt Stetson worn shiny on the crown, long thin hair and a warlock’s beard. Sam looks a bit like an Inuit who lost his dogsled, or maybe traded it for the scuffed guitar bound by duct tape he carries with him everywhere. Three top metal strings left, all he needs. Plays mostly Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings. He sees Simon coming up the trail and swings into action, aims the guitar at him, fingers the frets and does a bit of his laketown breakdown, then some “Folsom Prison Blues.”
Simon digs out his harp in cool hands, and blows a long train whistle. Puffs through the reeds for that locomotive effect as he pulls into the station, Carter wakes and grins and slaps his knee. Sam plays on, arms extended and the merest glance toward the audience in his mind.
Looks like these guys spent the night outside, in one of their cardboard hideouts in the brush, maybe with a bottle of Okanagan sherry for warmth. It’s getting too cold for that, they’re getting too old. Both have been fixtures around town, outside the mall, in the park, for as long as Simon can remember. He recalls seeing them from the window of the school bus, when he was a little kid, and never imagined he might one day know them, share their company on the juniper fringe of the rodeo grounds.
But that was before his parents were killed, and he still lived a normal life. Dad was a mechanic, and built Simon a go-cart for his thirteenth birthday. Mom taught kindergarten. The three of them took a trip to Edmonton, saw the big mall, saw the Oilers play the Flames when Jarome Iginla was new to the team. Had a house in Westridge, paved driveway, basketball hoop, and the brand new Chev pickup his parents died in the following winter. Simon went to live with Auntie Becky, missed the rest of the school year lying in bed. The Flames did nothing for five years after that. And sometimes I thought it was my fault, he shakes his head, over and over.
He crosses the street to the Petro-Can store, returns to the bench a few minutes later with three extra large coffees. Sam plays a lick and latches on to the warm paper cup nodding gratitude. Carter takes his in hand like a zombie and it makes Simon nervous, beside a man fading away. So he asks the obvious question, again.
“Carter, how did you lose your eye?”
The sun is as high as it gets in October. It’s cool though, the hot coffee feels good in their hands. Morning clouds pass in slow motion, between words.
Carter finally bobs his head, like a nutty old rooster, tongue rolling out from his beard. “I was peekin’ at an old gal through a knothole in an outhouse, and she poked her fingernail right into my skull.”
Sam grins wild, strums another fragment of his laketown breakdown on three strings. Simon has not heard that one from Carter before, and laughs out loud. Has heard a dozen other explanations for the missing eye—, staring at the winter sun, reading too much Louis L’Amour. No one knows. In the frank company they keep, after a bottle is gone someone always asks, and it has become Carter’s last best routine
.About noon they make their way to the Sally Ann for lunch. Chicken rice soup and baloney sandwiches.
Beverley sits down with them, starts crying. “They stopped my cheque because they found out Lenny is livin’ in Quesnel. … I got nothing, and the landlord says he’s kickin’ me out.”
“He can’t do that,” Simon shakes his head.
“Yes he can,” Bev wails. “He done it to my sister.”
“Finish your lunch,” Simon says. “Then we’ll go by the ministry office, and we’ll talk to your landlord.” Carter looks sideways at Sam, they will opt out.
Bev is old enough to be his mom, and from time to time Simon helps her out when he can. Her old man Lenny beat the sense and spirit out her, then ran off with a younger woman. She wears a poncho made from a striped saddle blanket, and rubber boots. They walk toward the white courthouse.
The middle floors of the building hold the offices of Health and Housing. Bev does not like going there when she doesn’t have to, has a hard time with any paper work. Simon talks with a worker who knows him from his own disability file. He has his own issues with bureaucracy, but was an A student his first and last year of junior high. He can fill in the blanks. Helps Bev fill out an application for crisis funds. The worker says she’ll phone the landlord if she finds the time.
“Simon?” a big voice crackles over a speaker.
“What?” he turns his head.
“I said, I’ll call the landlord when I get time—”
“No, no,” he looks at the ceiling, “What was that announcement for?”
“What announcement?” the FAW grows impatient, others are waiting. “Simon, we don’t have time for this today.”
Bev touches his arm, guides him to the elevator. He hears it again as the doors shut, as they descend from the voice.
He did tell Bev he’d talk to the landlord, so they trudge fourteen blocks out to the tail end of town, where she’s got a mouldy basement suite in a six-plex that should be condemned, and it’s a waste of time anyway because the guy’s not around. At least she’s safe and sound for now. She’s makes them a cup of instant coffee, which is almost the only thing in her cupboard. He rolls them smokes, then finds the note.
“Shit, what time is it? I gotta go.”
He heads back downtown at a dogtrot. In a sweat when he reaches the community services building where the psych nurse has her office. He lays the empty blister pack on the counter.
“It’s after four,” the receptionist says. “Yourappointmentwasattwo, andthisistheseondoneyou’vemissed—”
“Simon! Watchyourlanguage! Thenursesaidyoumustcomebacktomorrow—”
He heaves himself out the door, down the street. He doesn’t want their goddamn Fix-it-dol pills anyhow. Watch your language! Watch my language. Private Simon reporting for duty, Sir! I’m on language watch.
Getting dark, the horse will be hungry. Out on the slope behind the rodeo grandstand is a single grave inside a weathered picket fence. Simon stops by there on his way toward the barns. From this standpoint he watches the slow wave of evening come down the lake, east to west.
William Pinchbeck was one of the first white settlers, the only one allowed to lie here at the site of his ranch. The rest of the corpses were herded off to the cemetery.
“What’s it like to be dead?” Simon wonders aloud. Remembers his parents.
“It is not so bad as some believe, son,” comes Pinchbeck’s gruff voice up from the grave. “But it can wait. Don’t you be in any hurry.”
“No sir,” Simon laughs, and somewhere across town Sam is no doubt pickin’ his strings.
Roan paces and nickers when Simon arrives. He fills the feed box with hay, and, while she’s eating, he gets fresh water, and cleans the stall with a shovel. It’s dark now and he works by the light of a bulb twenty feet away.
A big Dodge diesel 4 x 4 rumbles by, the driver’s face turns briefly in the open window, one hand rises to his cigarette which then disappears.
The sound of the horse eating, her smell and big warm presence are all a comfort to Simon. He considers curling up in a corner of the stall himself for the night, some do far worse.
Smoke, he can smell it. That guy in the truck, the cigarette disappeared! Fuck. It’s his watch, the horse is in his care, how could he ever face Deidre if the roan came to harm?
He pushes open the door and scoots along the other stalls toward the gravel lane. Other horses lift their heads, spooked by his hurry. Where is it? He can smell smoke. Oh shit. It’s smouldering somewhere in the dark, he knows it is.
He runs back to the roan’s stall, flings back the door, hooks it open. He goes behind and slaps her shoulder to get her out of the feed. Startled she side-steps, her big flank knocks him on his ass.
“Come on girl, get out!” he cries. She won’t, but at least the door is open.
“Fire! Fire!” Simon yells, and moves from stall to stall opening the doors. The horses grunt and whinny, some cower, some break out at once into the yard.
From the indoor arena suddenly half a dozen women riders appear, their drill team practice interrupted. “What’s going on?!”
The grounds caretaker runs up the lane, “I called it in, they’re on their way!”
“I don’t see any fire!” one rider exclaims, “Where is it?”
“Fire!” Simon yells, over and over. He’s frantic now, and waves his arms at the others, as if they are deaf and cannot hear his voice.
Published On: September 14, 2010
Permanent Location: http://www.forgetmagazine.com/100914c.htm