a story by Amos Tanguay
Down at Lakeside Park the geese were honking in the early morning, the way they do when they all come flying out of the fog that clings to the dark lake. They’re going somewhere, and they always seem to know where to go. I guess they could just close their eyes and they would find their way home. Me, I would probably just run into a lamppost on Vernon Street or something. There was nobody but me at the park, just the trees like faint bones, wavering in the mist. Your mother and I used to come here, before you were born and swim out underneath the bridge, let the current sweep us down into its quickening rush. In the summertime everything is green underneath the maple trees and the breeze blows all day off of the lake. You can just find a place to lay your blanket down and then watch the leaves shiver from white to green. I’m sure you would just like to run around though, once you can walk. I would like to take you for a ride on that old streetcar one day. It runs along the edge of the park and then ends near the Prestige Hotel. The conductor wears his old red cap with the shiny numbers on the front, and then that car just dings and hollers all the way down its little length of track. I know you would get a huge kick out of waving at all the people who walk by. Maybe we’ll get a chance. This morning I heard the train and I thought of old blues songs that sounded just like our life. I remembered my father sitting near the windowsill in Cape Breton, his guitar notes creeping out into the street in the evening, while the rain fell in a long, grey fog. His stubborn dreams were always revealing themselves in mournful melodies that he sang too quietly for anyone else to hear. Then there’s you, bouncing on my knee to the rhythm of an old Muddy Waters song. I wonder what a ” Hootchie Cootchie Man” is anyway. Grandpa rolls a cigarette and tells us the same stories he told the day before.
I thought of our songs, the ones that we haven’t sung yet; as the train rounded distant corners, cleared Harrop, and Proctor, with its whistle unwinding through the mountains. The rust and steel grinding, coming from everywhere in the quiet dawn. I wish I had a harmonica. I’ll tell you all about it someday, when you’ve got your own blues.
If I close my eyes I can’t picture where I’m going. There’s just that old dark and then the places that I’m leaving. I remember holding you for the first time. The morning came gently, as the rain softened each thing and its purpose. I’ve never seen eyes like yours; big empty cups, deep and dark as a well, just letting the world fill them up. You came out with those eyes open, looking at each of our faces as we crowded around the bedroom. It wasn’t like the movies, where the baby is hoisted up, squalling like a balloon squeezing out its air. You were calm. I realized I hadn’t breathed in weeks, I mean good deep breaths that actually fill you up. I finally took a deep breath as I watched you breathe air into your tiny lungs. I knew then that what I really wanted was a son. The way the light grew in the grey dawn. You should have seen it. The clouds turning orange and the rain steaming off of the leaves, the city of Nelson waking up to begin the day’s work. I sat with you for a couple of hours, while your mother slept, your eyes closed in sleep, your dark hair matted on top of your head. I didn’t have any doubts at that moment in time. The rocking chair just moved slowly, as the world rearranged itself in tiny pieces.
That was eight months ago. The leaves all fell off of the trees and the lake grew too cold for swimming. The seeds scattered in the wind and left their dried husks to rattle by the roadsides. The streets always get so empty with the lonely, bare trees, decorated with Christmas bulbs and the streetlights punctuating the four-o-clock darkness. The clouds hang low on Elephant Mountain as the sky is hidden for days on end. I never did like those big, dark-green mountains looming closer every day. I always wanted to rush off to the cold, clear prairies and walk for miles and miles and never come to a hill, or a mountain. I finally decided to do it, today, I mean get out. I had all sorts of reasons. So I went all the way down to the Greyhound station when I left the park and I bought a ticket heading west. I’ll try and explain it to you, I really will. I’m on my way now.
I can’t picture where I’m going. Not anymore. There are just shadows that the moon casts on the snow, chasing the Greyhound bus, traveling up into the metallic gleam of the stars. I can’t sleep; my ears keep popping as we approach the Paulson summit. So I decided I would write to you, even though you can’t read. I want to tell you some things, in case I never make it back at all.
There is a whole lot of night out here. I wonder if you’re sleeping. I’m sitting beside a woman who works as a waitress at an Italian restaurant in Castlegar. She’s a pretty sort of a girl, with dark hair and a smile that makes me feel understood, even liked. Your mother has always been so beautiful, even when we don’t get along. I’m glad she’s not riding on a bus somewhere in the mountains. When she was carrying you in her belly we fought constantly. When she’s not with me I miss her so much though. I just wanted her to be happy, in the end. When the winter came to town we had known each other for about as long as she had been pregnant. She wanted to run with all of her ends untied, just hanging loose. But now she had a little life growing in her and the clouds sat like lead atop the valley.
There were mournful nights unfolding out of the early dusk. All the tired, sad things came out in the open. I wanted the grass to be green again, and for all the birds to come back. I wanted to know what I would do when you were born. When I think of that I hear old blues suspended in fuzzy air. I see Arthur Cruddup shaking his fist at a train as it disappears around the last corner, leaving its smoke. “Well that mean old, dirty Frisco / and that low down Santa Fe / Gone and took my babe away / and blowed back out on me.” I guess he must have turned around and walked away from that station, feeling so lonely it might split his weary seams. I think I feel a little like that right now.
I hope the cherry blossoms come out when I get down to the coast. I used to pick them for your mother on my way back home from the nights shift, mopping floors at the rec. center. We wanted a garden where you could run around and be naked. There would be vegetables to eat and little paths that our feet would wear into the soil over the years. There would be a home there, to come back to in the evening, a place where we would grow old together. This morning at the bus station I saw people hug each other, trying to hold all of their loved ones, not wanting them to let go. I had stood over you and your mother this morning, after I tiptoed in through the unlocked door. I didn’t wake you, I just watched, hearing the sandy hiss of traffic off in the distance, on the overpass heading out to Salmo and Creston or Castlegar. I wanted to take you both in my arms, just like the people at the bus station and then collect your smell into the folds of my clothes. I don’t ever want to do you wrong, and that’s why I’m leaving. I knew it was time to leave when I smashed all the flowerpots on the porch and then realized where I had seen that before. I remember my father losing his temper, breaking things and hitting my mother. He would be sad and drunk, with his entire mind soaked in unhappy stories; his fingers callused after he tried to let his guitars give those stories shape.
My mother wouldcome in, drunk, after her night of serving tables at a local pub. The fights would blow in like the storms, the ones that batter the Atlantic coast, everything bending, and then finally breaking in the wind. I would stand in the grass beside the porch as they stumbled out into the dark. I remember screaming at the top of my lungs to remind them I was there. I don’t want that for you. I just wanted to give you a garden where the beans could climb, healthy and new. I wanted you to see us sing those happy songs. Take a good look at those cherry blossoms, they smell like the fruit that hasn’t been born yet. Try and be gentle, if you can.
I wish you could see these little moon shadows, just like little rabbits running away from the bus. I would like to ask the driver to stop the bus and let me off. There is an old farmhouse that I have always noticed, way out in the hills outside of Grand Forks. The windows are all broken and the doors hang crookedly on their frames. I would like to buy enough bologna and bread for a few days and just stay there. You’d love it. These hills look like smooth thighs in the moonlight, with miles of barbed wire fences leading off into the distance. I could ask the waitress to come with me; she’s all broken up too. She has a little boy too, and he’s seven years old. Maybe we could find something out in the hills; maybe we could help each other. She’s asleep right now, her mouth hanging open at one corner, and she has unwittingly put her head on my shoulder. That’s all right with me. I hope she doesn’t drool. I wish I had said a proper goodbye to you this morning. I just wanted to watch your chest rise and fall, and listen to your slow, even breathing. That was enough I guess.
The landscape always seems to understand the way that I’m feeling. I just want something that passes by right now. I don’t want to be a part of anything, or anybody. I like these towns, their streets empty, but for a few people passing by my face in little vignettes. The windows are sometimes lit, and I see little living rooms, or kitchens that hold the private lives of people I’ll never meet. People look up at the windows of the bus, curious for a moment, and then they go back to just being on their streets, in their yards. Then I pass out the other side into the place where the streetlights end. These empty fields look like my insides, bare and waiting. I can see my face, reflected in the window, mixing with the fields whipping by. I look young, but I can see my father in me, somewhere. The waitress said the smell of the exhaust makes her sick to her stomach. She fell asleep again and rested her head on my shoulder as she slept. It was nice to have a strange, pretty girl and her small breath nestled against my shoulder. I had to wake her up though, so that I could go back to that smelly little bus bathroom. We got to talking and she finally asked my why I was leaving Nelson. She said she loved that little city and its mountains protecting it. I felt I should tell her the truth, so I told her about this morning.
I told her how I walked out into the cold air after I left your house this morning. I told her how everything holds a memory in Nelson, nestled in each bush, under each stairwell, on Baker Street in all its seasons. I tried to tell her just what you and your mother looked like, with the blankets twisted around her knees and you up against her chest, your lips puckered. I tried to remember the room, the smell of milk, dirty laundry and lavender. How I felt like a thief in the museum at night, stealing something I had no right to. The further I got from that room, the more my memory of you just diffused, like thin smoke in cold air. When I got coffee at Wait’s News, after I left the house, I looked around at the lonely faces of retired, overworked, maladjusted people. I realized I looked just like all of them.
I told that waitress how I took my piece of toast outside and sat down on a Baker Street bench to feed the pigeons. The way they walk cheers me up. The way they fly, well that just makes me feel good. I hope you and me get a chance to feed the pigeons one day. I love those stupid, simple birds, all their pettiness worn on their feathers. I’ve noticed, however, that the humans streaming in and out of the stores, jostling each other, we don’t look all that different from those pigeons chasing down scraps of my toast. Take a look sometime.
That waitress listened to me speak. She had that way of listening that made me want to say a lot. Finally she looked at me with her brow furrowed; her dark brown eyes were heavy with sleep, and seemingly concerned with my well being.
“Do you really want to go? I mean….. is this what you want,” she asked, looking intently at my eyes.
I looked away, out the window. We were starting to hit the lower mainland traffic, collecting like a slow river into the final hurtling rush into Vancouver. “I don’t want to. It’s just…..well….. I have to go. I’m too fucked up and I can’t give that to my son.” I looked away again as I said this, and I almost felt like I was going to cry. I really didn’t mean it. As soon as I said this out loud it sounded so false. I wanted to stuff those words back into my throat
The waitress was silent for a moment. I kept looking out the window, listening to the deep roar of the bus engine underneath us. I wished I hadn’t told her the truth, but just said I was visiting my aunt, or getting a passport; anything but my own story, and my actions that I have no good reason for. As I thought this through I felt a huge strain in the engine of the bus, and a grinding that shook my seat. We ground to a sudden halt on the side of the highway, as the overhead lights stabbed into the darkness. The driver told us to hang tight until they could find reinforcements.
“ What the hell. I guess we have to get off,” the waitress said. “ So close to my stop too. I’m just going to walk the rest of the way. It’s only about ten or twelve blocks. The bus station is really close too. It’d take you an hour or so to walk there. You’d may as well walk. Who knows where you’d end up though.”
“Now that we’re not moving, I don’t even know why I was heading west anyway. I hate this place. ” I knew those words were true. I really did hate it.
I kept looking out the window. People were getting off of the bus on this corner as a gentle coastal rain enveloped the streetlights. When I looked back at the waitress, she was halfway down the aisle. I uttered half a goodbye and then let it hang in silence. The engine was dormant, no more humming or rattling, just a sudden stillness; and that feeling that I didn’t know exactly where I could go in this strange night.
I got off the bus finally and asked the driver for my bag. He told me we would be leaving soon, as soon as they got a replacement bus. But I felt all that damp air cleaning out my pores, and going through my lungs. The restlessness I felt compelled me to keep
moving. I knew I had to decide which direction to move in. I asked the bus driver when the eastbound bus came through the station.
“Buddy,” he said, “ I don’t know why you’d take the westbound all the way back here and then turn around to go east. But it does pass through here at six forty five. The station is maybe twenty blocks in that direction.” He pointed with a thumb towards the road fading off into the red and green of traffic lights.
I thanked him and then I shouldered my bags. I have to tell you, all the momentum was gone. I felt like a marble that had rolled down a sloped floor, only to come resting, still in the middle. I only wanted a blanket, and the sound of someone breathing, not too far away. I even wanted the mountains over Kootenay Lake to be around me like soft fortifications. The rain smelled of wet dust. It didn’t smell like anywhere I had ever called home. Ever since the city had begun to collect us, into its outskirts, I knew I couldn’t go any further. Sometimes you have to go pretty far to really see your home and the people you share it with. You have to feel like a tiny piece of driftwood, caught in a quickening current, just hurtling towards a darkness in the distance. So I walked towards the station, happy to breathe the wetness into me, knowing that I would be heading towards you as the morning arrived.
The Husky truck stops and Tim Horton’s shops, the strip malls, they all passed by, bright and empty. I could have poured all of my loneliness into that place and left it. I didn’t want to go any further into the Fraser Valley. I wanted to fall off the edge of the map, or just be a lone bird, like those Canada Geese, with all of my mysterious travels demarcated in the darkness of my mind. I could see your face, smiling and unaffected, looking up at me from the last vestiges of sleep. I remembered the road maps, tangled off into space like red and blue veins. Then the rivers, the Lardeau flowing into the head of the lake, from the long, quiet flats, out into the world, collecting places, smells, garbage. Then, Kootenay Lake narrowing into a confused rush. Then, the confluence, where the Kootenay meets the Columbia, and collects all of that force into a current that swims out into the land, in one rushing, the dark whirlpools beneath the bridges of Castlegar. I could see them all leading back to their single points of origin. The map finally unfolded in my mind. You were there, when each other thing fell away. You were there, hoping I would do the right thing.
I’m heading east, son, towards Nelson and Kootenay Lake. I’m heading past the Okanagan valley, into the evergreens and the silence. I watched that big, grunting bus pull out onto the streaming nighttime highway while the train sounded again. Maybe the same one I had heard not so long ago in Nelson. I waited all night, shivering outside the bus depot, until that early morning eastbound pulled in and I paid my fare. I never want to forget your face and have it be replaced by these empty places or my own loneliness. The thin metallic blues sounded in my mind, the old harmonica huffing and shuffling, the reedy voice harmonizing with foghorns and train whistles. I could see me and you shuffling bare feet across the kitchen floor and out the open door, into the tentative light of spring. When I get a harmonica, I’ll tell you all about it. I promise. The towns are rolling by in the early morning. The bus is half-empty. I finally know just where I’m going, like those geese. It’s all somewhere in me, my own folded and unfolded, torn and repaired map that leads back to you.
Just wait until you see the cherry blossoms, and taste your first summer fruit. I bet the buds will burst into leaves, and pretty soon. It will be your first spring, and I have known you since you took your first breath. There are bells nestled in the peaceful air of Sunday, there are umbrellas that keep the raindrops off of your head, there are funny, strange pigeons on Baker Street. There’s so much to show you, so much to explain. When you get your own blues I’ll give you a harmonica. Then you can breathe out all of that sadness into the air and make it into something that blooms like a cherry blossom, fed by everything you know. The bus is crossing the bridge, out of Castlegar, towards Nelson. I see the Kootenay River, where it joins up with the Columbia. Then all that water just flows down into the broad, wide world. I won’t get a chance to send you what I’ve written. I’ll tell you all about it someday. When you get your blues.