Authors: Kevin Patterson
Copyright © 2003 by Kevin Patterson
All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer, who may quote brief passages in a review. Published in Canada by Vintage Canada, a division of Random House of Canada Limited, and simultaneously in the United States by Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc., in 2003. Distributed by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto.
Vintage Canada and colophon are registered trademarks of Random House of Canada Limited.
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, organizations, places, events, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Some of the stories in the book have appeared, in different form, in the following publications: “Gabriella: Parts One and Two” and “Insomnia, Infidelity, and the Leopard Seal” in
Canadian Fiction Magazine
, “The Perseid Shower” in
, and “Interposition” in
Toronto Life magazine
National Library of Canada Cataloguing in Publication
Patterson, Kevin, 1964–
Country of cold / Kevin Patterson.
I. Title. II. Series.
PS8581 .A7886C69 2003 C813.’6 C2002–904399–9
This book is for Torvald
Flight paths stretch through the air of the northern prairie, defining the place as much as the striped cultivated plain below them does. Great skeins of Canada, snow, and blue geese cross the sky in the spring and autumn. All year round, jets twinkle their way back and forth to the cities on the edges of the continent, and to European cities where there is more of a different kind of beauty. These cities are not, sensibly, the destination of the geese; they shuttle their way between the Arctic and the wheat and rice fields of the southern prairie, opposite poles on an axis that is itself the polar opposite of the cities on the edges of the continent.
For the geese, and every other prairie dweller, the Arctic has a complex appeal. It is an extension, an exaggerated version, of the prairie, similarly treeless and
lonely. The devastated beauty of the Arctic is contained within the idea of the prairie. The difference is only that the prairie has enough summer for topsoil to form. For those drawn to the prairie, the Arctic is irresistible, and for those who face away from the prairie, it is unthinkable. The geese go north to nest and to feed, and find the tundra bounteous. The loneliness of the place suits their purposes. There are few predators there, and from the top of even a small hillock, one can see for miles.
Loneliness is as much a feature of topography as are wetlands and ridges and eskers. Certain creatures dwell naturally in it, and others are propelled from it. The flight paths over this part of the world reach toward and away from the topography ofabsence: this place can be home, but it will still cast one out.
It was a Tuesday when Lester came home from work, five in the morning and the sky bled pale in the east, trailer empty. Rhonda gone, gone, gone. Lester sat down on their bed and looked at the drawers still pulled open and the detritus of fast packing. The carpet was flaked with torn paper and the rising sun lit the pressboard-panelled walls with an oblique and brightening glow. Lester felt like detritus himself. Then he got back into his truck and drove down to the Billy Burger Drive-Thru. He ate a triple Billy Buster Burger and two orders of onion rings and a piece of apple pie and an ice cream cone. Then he went home and slept. When he woke up in the afternoon he went down to Flora’s Café and ate steak and eggs. Then French toast. And a milkshake. And another piece of apple pie.
In the months that followed, Lester gained a half-dozen track suits and the profile of an engorged chigger. Never in his life had he been more than routinely bulbous. Now, when he stood straight and naked and looked down, he could barely see his penis from above. He shook his pendulous arms and watched them jiggle.
In the mirror, behind his burgeoning girth, he could see milkshake cups stacked on the table beside his bed. Walking through the house: in the kitchen the dishes leaned drunkenly and the takeout menu of every restaurant within thirty miles that had a delivery van was taped to the refrigerator door. He had not spoken much with Rhonda since she left, although he had seen her in town a few times, where they both had looked frightened and alarmed at one another. Her lawyer had written him a letter a few months ago. After he read it he had cried for about an hour, hanging on to the door handle of the freezer compartment. If things continued at this pace, soon he would not be able to turn around behind the bar down at the Rushing River Bar and Grill.
Fridays, when college is in session, the Rushing River howls with adolescent fury; mascara runs like rained-on fresh paint, cotton ribbed T-shirts cling to magnificent shoulders, and there are always some who can’t wait to get home. Angry music hollers and so does Lester: Beer is two and a quarter I said! And get your ass off the bar!
Bud and Double Diamond on tap! Thank you!” Lester and his friend Cindee, one of the waitresses, keep up a running repartee of deranged facial expressions. Cocked eyebrows, crossed eyes and pre-emetic cheek bulging has them entertained and at least a little distracted from youth, half in the bag.
On this night, Marilyn, the head waitress, was in a foul mood, and when it was this busy the kids made her steadily fiercer and Cindee was hiding from her. Apparently there had been words. Cindee’s absence only increased the number of belligerent and beer-breathed children thrusting their faces into Marilyn’s and the coming cataclysm was one well-trod path. Lester decided that tonight it would be worth the price of defusing the Cindee-Marilyn thing and maybe not getting hit with flying crockery. Lester got Harold, the bouncer, to watch the bar for a minute, which Harold never minded, as he felt it gave him licence to steal as much of Lester’s tips as he could fit in his too-tight jeans pockets.
First Lester checked the stairs below the kitchen and listened for weeping. Then he went into the kitchen and asked Donna, the cook, if she had seen Cindee. Finally he climbed the stairs to the roof and looked out. He sat down on a ventilation shaft and panted. The sky was very clear and very black. The roof shook from the music. The ventilation shaft shook from Lester. When he finally caught his breath he heard the soft mewing of
Cindee crying. He stood up and followed the sound through the maze of ventilation ducts on the rooftop. He sat down beside her. She was holding a bottle of Molson Canadian between her legs and looking off toward the falls. “Hey,” he said, wheezing.
“Hey yourself,” she said, between sobs. The floodlights were shining purple and green against the falling water and they both studied them.
“She’s cranky, hey?”
“No, she’s fine.” Cindee and Les sat there. The music thumped below them and the Rushing River Falls roared faintly at the edge of town.
“So … you thought you’d set down your tray in the middle of a set and come up here because …”
“I feel awful, Les.”
“I gotta move out from Sam, I think.” Sam her live-in boyfriend of the last three years, quiet guy, employable, came to the bar now and then, never said too much. Handsome too—looked like a billboard ad for plaid shirts. To Lester they had always seemed like deer together, graceful and quiet and attentive. At ease with each other.
“I’m not what he thinks he’s headed for.”
“What do you mean?”
“He thinks he’s bound to marry some six-foot tiny-assed blond woman who doesn’t smoke, never loses her temper, and shaves her pubic hair.”
“I don’t know, he doesn’t either, I don’t think. But he keeps waiting and waiting. In the meantime he hangs out with me.”
“What makes you think that’s what he wants?”
“Don’t be naive, Lester. That’s what everyone wants.”
“It isn’t what
“Of course it is.”
“What’s happened lately?”
“Nothing. Nothing has happened lately. We both go to work and eat breakfast and we play pool and go to movies. He pays off his truck loan. He likes me, feels comfortable around me, but wonders when his ship is going to come in. One of these days he’ll win the lottery. He’s optimistic like that. When I first met him it was part of what I liked.”
“Does he say this, that he’s waiting for someone better?”
“No, of course not.”
“Then what makes you so sure that’s what he thinks?”
“Sometimes you just know things, you know?”
The falls roared on and on. Lester didn’t have any reply for that. He seemed to rarely just know things. He had been so astonished at Rhonda’s departure that he
wondered afterwards if he understood anything about her and what she had wanted. But Rhonda wasn’t six feet tall and blond, and he wanted her. The only thing she was was gone. Cindee and Rhonda had become friends through Lester, and though he knew the women still spoke to one another, Cindee never talked with Lester about Rhonda. He had wanted a hundred times to ask her what she knew of Rhonda’s reasons for leaving but had always bitten off the question. After a while he stopped always wanting to ask, but he still wondered why.
“Do you think anyone ever knows why anyone else loves you, or stops loving you?”
“Lester, it was good that she left. And it will be good when I get it together enough to leave Sam. Those two don’t want us.”
The Rushing River Falls were visible from nearly anyplace in Rushing River township and audible anywhere out of doors; they were the whole reason for the town to exist. In the 1880s the falls had become a tourist destination, and the train was put through expressly to take advantage of the anticipated visitor traffic. Since then, representations of the town had been spread through the continent in a thousand glass bubbles of water and miniature snowy waterfalls and tiny perfect houses abutting the cataract. Even now the town could no more be thought of as existing independently of the falls than Banff could be thought of without mountains and lakes.
Or Wawa and its giant goose. Twenty-six feet, eighteen inches, total height.
The first man to attempt to ride over the falls did so in a rum barrel the day after Armistice Day, 1918. The barrel was shattered on the rocks and his pulped body was gathered up with dip nets in the pool below. After this there was a succession of attempts in steadily more elaborate vehicles—the first nonlethal ride was made by a twenty-two-year-old man named Roy Bodner in 1932 in a steel ball. He nearly asphyxiated, and spent the remainder of his years in the Rushing River Memorial Hospital drooling into a towel. He died in 1976, a local hero. Following his lead, there were episodic rides made throughout the forties and fifties, in balls and barrels of different designs. One man alone had made five successful trips over the falls, in a vehicle he called the
. In an effort to discourage these stunts the town council had passed an ordinance that dictated that survivors of the trip would be fined ten thousand dollars upon their rescue. Making the trip illegal of course only made the undertaking more attractive to the folks who were drawn to such things anyway, and soon the river was filled with drifting and bobbing cylinders and spheres and pyramids with snorkels protruding. It wasn’t until a hydro diversion upstream nearly doubled the water flow in the river that the problem abated. In one weekend in 1973, eight barrel riders disappeared. Concerned about the tourist traffic, the town rescinded
the ordinance, but word was out: the falls were no longer passable, spoiled like so much of the country. Rushing River was nearly forgotten overnight.