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Authors: Michael Winter

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BOOK: Minister Without Portfolio
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They ate cafeteria food and slept in a dorm with fifteen other men and spent the weekends in John's apartment in Edmonton. They shared it with two guys they hardly saw who worked a different shift. A woman ran the apartment and complained about how much hot water they used. She saw evidence of wastage everywhere. She would be happy, John said, if they did not use anything. It would save her washing the sheets and wiping up the toast crumbs.

They took two lifts to work, the first lift descended and the light of each floor how it passed in a streak, first every second and
then a flicker of lights as the floors sped up. Then the second lift and the flicker was even faster and the intervals between it darker and it reminded Henry of that nighttime American helicopter ride, the way the streetlights in Kabul zipped beneath them as they bulled north to the army base.

One day a drilling machine lost power in a tunnel by the jewellery box, which is a face of rock in a room that's full of precious metals and stones. Every mine has a jewellery box— you're told to leave it alone and specialists come in to harvest the rock. The drilling machine fills the entire tunnel so the only way to inspect the engine is to crawl through it. The machines don't turn around, there's no room, they just venture in and out. There were no mechanics on duty. It will take ninety minutes, John said, to fetch one from the surface.

Let's go have a look, Henry said. While we're waiting.

I say let's leave well enough alone.

I'm coming with you.

It was Jamie Kirby. And Jamie called out: This is the man who motivates me.

Jamie Kirby, John whispered, is half crazy. They packed their pockets with spare parts, a can of air, small tools strapped with flexible cord around a shoulder. You go first, Jamie said. And John gave Henry a look but it did not stop him. The men crawled into the hole and through the bowels of the broken-down machine. Henry twisted his waist inside the chassis to reach the hydraulics. He shone a flashlight on the area. He heard Jamie behind him clunking his wrenches. A rubber housing had snapped off its mounting so he replaced that and engaged the connector but he had forgotten the machine's batteries were still running. As soon as the pressure returned the driller started up automatically and
twisted its central axle. It was alarming, it could have snapped Henry in two and he turned his head into the noise to tell Jamie but all he saw of Jamie was a mouth open in agony—he couldn't hear him for the noise of the driller and there, in front of them both, the jewellery box lit up. It shone, this gold room, like some underground temple to wealth while Henry reached beyond himself to tear at the connectors, to shut it all down.

Jamie Kirby had broken both of his arms.

That was it for Henry Hayward.

I am cursed, Henry said later. I shouldn't be with people. I shouldn't work with anyone. I'm going home out of it, Rick. I can't bear it.

He packed his tote bag and John drove him to a mall in Edmonton. He bought a little tin whale that rolled on a string. Should I get two? John: They can share it. No, I'll get two. John drove him to the airport.

Give my best to Silvia.

I'll explain to her how you're a complicated but good man.

Don't be too hard on yourself, Henry. These are accidents.

My hands are responsible for these accidents.


Nothing was said of Martha. John had ploughed two roads for them to meet at an intersection but he was no police officer supplying directions. What a guy. The terrain of Canada moving below Henry's shoulder. Window seat. Three tugboats towing an offshore rig in from sea. He had stood in the ballast of that rig. Was bad weather coming? He recalled the flight home with the body of Tender. Christ what a dismal scenario was that. The realization that he had Tender's gun. The immense error because he was in a situation he was not trained for. Judge the metrics of that performance, Rick.

He rolled his shoulders and fished out his earphones and distracted himself with a movie. Henry often went away to work but came back. Now he would have to stay and resolve a few things. He knew why he was leaving work but he wasn't sure why he returned to Newfoundland. Home. It held a gravity, some kind of atmospheric orbit that spiralled him towards the centre whenever he exhausted things out there in the world. Jesus I sound like a salmon. Like a lot of Newfoundlanders, though, he pictured an acre of land in his head that was his land. The picture
has no location, it's a floating acre with a perforated edge like a postage stamp that hovers slightly above the land, though there is, of course, a view of the Atlantic. He understands this image to be romantic and unrealistic, and yet sometimes in foreign beds, rather than imagining a woman to keep him unlonely, he will think of this two hundred by two hundred view. He was thinking of it now, just weeks after that party at John and Silvia's—an acre of land that belongs to Tender Morris, and Martha worried about what to do with Tender's heritage—as his plane flew into a dark blizzard, the airplane pounded by weather, a bright snow flurry against the tracking lights on the wings and the woman next to him, who had watched a movie with a two-dollar headset she'd had to buy with her credit card. She pulled out a black plug from the armrest and said she was prone to panic attacks and, if it came to it, would Henry hold her. Henry removed an earbud to understand her. They made a descent and the plane shuddered and the tarmac zoomed up a little too fast in the plastic porthole and the landing gear jerked out of the frozen wings—they were inches from the runway and the woman next to him grabbed his arm and gripped it tight. The seams of the plane groaned as the fuselage twisted sideways a little and Henry thought whoa so this is it. The belly of the plane lifted and the landing gear tucked itself away again under the wing and the captain on the intercom, in a voice touched with receding panic, said the computers would not let them land in this weather. They flew a thousand kilometres back the way they had come and it took every kilometre for the alarm to melt away. They touched down at three in the morning in Halifax where, as they deplaned, they were all handed a 1-800 number to rebook. The woman who had sat next to him said what do we do now. She was a novice of the airways. We get a
hotel room, Henry said. And let that hang ambiguously. They took their bags and had a drink in the lounge and Henry ate a chicken souvlaki while she made a phone call and told him about the local documentary film business and her two kids and her husband. He was surprised to hear she flew all the time. I guess she doesn't fly strapped to the bulwark with a nylon cord in the hull of a Hercules with no seats, he thought. They talked and Henry realized this woman loved her husband. He explained he had just quit work because he helped break a man's arms. Not just one arm but both of them. The man has to go back to Cape Breton to live with his mother. He can't even open a door.

They spoke about their lives. The woman was good at prying him open but it was also the circumstance of knowing he'd never see this woman again. I don't know to what I'm returning, Henry said. There is a woman, he admitted. But he didn't know. What he did know was he might be giving up on airplanes.

The next morning he found her with a cup of styrofoam coffee in the lobby and they shared a taxi like old friends out to the airport and flew again over a white clear land and underneath the plane Henry saw the contour of the land he was to love, the little bird islands he'd kayaked around with Nora Power years ago, the little cove where Tender's summer house stood. Could he see Tender's house. No, that was a roof he could not pick out. All the houses looked like heads buried in the sand. What is this compulsion to see a house, he thought. What he wanted to see, he felt instinctively, was Martha Groves staring up at him, giving a big wave.

They landed in St John's at midday. He watched the woman he'd almost spent the night with as she strode quickly away to meet her husband who had the kids, still with their winter
hoods up. No, he hadn't almost spent the night with her—he'd turned the corner on women. He was faithful, as this woman is. I'm a changed man, he thought, and allowed the cab manager to shepherd him into an orange taxi that drove him downtown to John and Silvia's where he was still renting that room but not for long.


He phoned Martha.

That house, he said. Let's go look at it.

She couldn't that day as she had to be in town to finish up with a patient who had hip dysplasia—she was helping the man with his adductor squeeze. Henry waited for the weekend. He drove her down the shore to Renews and they spent the night in John and Silvia's summer place. In separate beds. It was freezing. There was a darkness in some of Martha's silences, a realization that things could not go on between them because of what had already happened. It was almost misery, is what he saw in her. But there was something brand new too, like the swipe of window wipers refreshing the glass. Her eyes pushed away the darkness and she was with him again. He was ready to give over even though the idea of sleeping together seemed perverse. One thing had led to another which led to the beds and they were both relieved about the beds and their easy independent access to them. I want to be good, Henry said to his own stomach as he undressed and climbed into the sheets.

In the morning they walked over to the cemetery and visited
the new grave. It looked ugly. Cold and wet and the snow didn't even cover things. The soil had settled and frozen and heaved up again. He was buried in there like an improvised device. They would have to groom it in the spring.

Then they visited Tender's house.

The doors were locked and Martha did not have a key. Henry sized up the interior the way Tender trained him to do reconnaissance. The house, from the outside, looked to have good bones. He stepped back and stared at the eaves and the corners of the house were plumb. He fell back into the snow and stared up at this thing that someone he had no connection to had built. The front and back porches, the sills were gone and the porches were falling away from the heart of the house. The electric service cut off. The doors and the porches made it easy to defend from the inside.

Tender wanted to do this place up.

He had ambitions, Henry said.

I've been inside.

You've walked through it.

I like it.

Henry turned around. To be next to John and Silvia, but I don't know.

He tried to touch her shoulder the way a friend would, a caring person. He thought of the woman on the plane. Someone not sexual. Martha was overwhelmed with what had occurred and what her life was now to become. She needed and enjoyed distraction. Henry tried his best. He was exercising new ways of arranging his limbs. It is possible to be someone else, or the portion of you that doesn't get exercised often. He thought too about that artist and how he should return to her and tell her that
the way she was falling was not anything like how a soldier's legs break from under him and soldiers rarely are killed in open fire. Soldiers are blown apart, their uniforms are shredded at the site of wear, and the stomachs are pierced, the neck ripped and the feet torn off as are the hands. What you find are torsos in full battle rattle and the torsos will collapse if run over, a body will dry out very quickly and turn into flattened rags.


John came home and dancing broke out at three in the morning—a spontaneous call for a taxi to deliver a forty-ouncer. Silvia woke up at dawn with the kids, exhausted and accepting, and said they wanted to go skating. It was Saturday. Henry fell into a car with a bag of cheese sandwiches on his lap, a car that drove to Dead Man's Pond. Martha was driving as she hadn't been drinking. John held an open jar of green olives between his knees, shoving his fingers into the wide mouth, trying to fish them out and hand the olives over to any mouth that would open. You mean, he said, you put up with all of us all night long completely sober? It was trying, Martha said. The jar was empty when they got to the pond and John poured the brine out on the snow. Henry helped shovel off the pond, hungover, and just lay there next to the aluminum shovel with John Hynes still drinking American cans of pilsner as there was some brewery strike across the country. It felt like anything he looked at was made of aluminum. They watched the women in their white leather skates flash in the dull sunlight. We used to do this, John said, with hockey sticks.

With Tender Morris in goal.

Tender Morris, John said, was a loyal man.

A deep sadness crept into Henry's shoulders as he realized his own tendencies made him a shit. A shit but hell he was doing the best he could.

Tender accompanied them when they hit the red light district approved without paperwork by the generals. He oversaw things. Tender Morris loved the army life though he did not partake in the tender vittles.

Martha overheard them. He loved it more than he loved civilian life.

They made a bonfire. It was heartening to see Martha's friends circle around her and include her in the social gatherings to make sure she was not alone. She was distracted and liked to laugh and was game for anything that came up. Henry counted off three fingers. But it was almost like she was religious or had some secret pact where she had to live a righteous life

She's involved, Henry realized, in some impossible truth. Tender has been dead, what, three months. It was something else in her that was giving off a physical manifestation. Sometimes you see loyalty in the air like that. When things are hard you adjust the dial on your emotions and learn new, complicated emotions that work over the scar tissue of torment and allow the face and hands to convey a manner of grace. Thanks be to god for that.

Martha, skating backwards—trusting the surface. After his breakup with Nora, Henry's friends had taken care of him and now that Tender Morris was gone they were doing the same for Martha. That was obvious. But what suddenly occurred to Henry was that his friends were impatient with him, urging him to pursue a scenario with Martha. He thought this was a private
instinct but he understood now the visible traces of intent in the air. They had allowed Martha and Henry to leave that party together at Christmas. The knowledge of this stalled him. What was romantic about an arranged marriage? But he liked looking at her mouth. She has this fine hair down from her navel and she was self-conscious about it. Tender had an idea of airbrushed beauty. Tender, in Afghanistan, had once discussed his perfect woman while they played crib. But what about Martha, Henry had said. Martha's going to get fat, he said. It was a quick remark that blurted out of Tender and ran against all the grain of what seemed to exist on the ground between the two of them. And that struck Henry as a hard and salient fact, and it worried him, that all the beauty in the world could be ground down by emphatic, cruel statements like that. It made him feel loyal to the things he'd already done with Martha Groves, if Tender felt this way. But perhaps ten percent of a man's thoughts run this way—can you still blame him for them? Henry was alone, but he'd seen Martha in all the ways that nominal virtue allowed, and he felt guilty about it. He did not know if he could ever get along with a woman, to be honest.

BOOK: Minister Without Portfolio
3.89Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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