Caledonia Review - Scotland's international journal of new fiction Caledonia Review - Scotland's international journal of new fiction.....  












Ronnie James


In the beginning we spouted exaggerated sentiments. They sounded natural and normal and okay at the time: it almost seemed healthy to committ to comments that left our hearts hung out like a sow's pregnant belly. We came up with elaborate images and forecasts for the future, such was our needy predisposition; to carve up our lives together as though we were one person, like we were the same piece of Salisbury steak. My images were always somewhat veriginous and sharp, ominous; I said things like, 'I want you to be the only person I ever see. I want to live with you in a house on the edge of a cliff with no one else around for a thousand miles.' She was more basic, a lot of 'I love you's and 'You're my heart's, but I didn't fault her for failing to generate the same grace in her words as I. She did not think, her heart was a physical thing, completely independent of her brain, it seemed, and so trying to vocalise what she felt there was delusive. We used to take walks, long walks, walks which weren't cliched or old-fashioned; they seemed new, fresh, they seemed innovative, we were just inventing the act as an actual passtime and not an activity which simply led to something. We trekked long and hard, right over the moors, crossing rivers in wellington boots and snow shoes, right along and up the escarpment beyond the windbreak at the edge of the south field. We wore matching Thinsulate gloves and down jackets; in hindsight we must have looked positively ridiculous, gallivanting in the town, occupying the corner table at The Woodpecker which we had christened our own when the place opened in our first year, taking these long hikes across the dreary terrain, pushing through clovers arm in arm like a cartoon image of love in a children's pop-up book.
We were young. I was working on my father's farm, a Jack-of-all trades, heady and optimistic and not at all burdened by the fact that I was an only child having to keep the place running as the old man fought his way through rhematoid arthritis. I drove crop sprayers and harvested the fruit, I packed the vegetables like rubies into large boxes and even manned the abbatoir slaughterhouse. Every morning I awoke at 5 and stocked the feed troughs, looking over the landscape, the smell of manure and the wind through the trees; dad had a couple of rotties in the garden in a dog hut and they'd sometimes bark the day alive, slaver hanging from their black lips. I usually finished the day up about seven, rooted but not minding it too much. Cali came around most evenings at, say, nine, after dinner was all done and the pole barn silent, the dogs settling down, mom and dad retreating to their bedroom to watch their old RCA portable and with the door well shut. She was four years younger than me, worked reception at the doctor's a thirty mile drive away past the farms. Anyway, Cali's dad had shot a burglar trying to pillage their big old house about four years ago, caught him lurking in the night by the ell of the place and blew him away with a .410 bore, more out of shock than spite; he did not know what to do, his mind was blank, he did not decide to shoot; but shoot he did, and now he was in Dorchester doing God-knows how many years for protecting his land. Cali said she first noticed me driving a pick-up traversing the downs, maybe with a couple pigs in back under canvas sheets or just at the end of a week going for a drink, but my first memory of her was seeing her crying in the coffee shop in town, crying at a table near to the window while a boy tried to console her, some guy with a pathetic layer of adolescent stubble. I didn't say hello that time but weeks later, when we met, she was alone at the same berth and I couldn't help but be drawn to her smallness, her little hands and her little nub nose and her shiny hair. I can't remember exactly what I said, but the rest of it is pretty predictable, though I can only see that now, years later.
I could not really determine whether I had fallen in love with the girl at first. I was too busy to contemplate it, I suppose, working long days and tearing muscles, sleeping. Our attachment began with a swap of telephone numbers and continued with her visiting the house and having some home-brewed liquor my father knocks up in what little spare time he has, continued right on with her coming drives with me, with camping out near Great Bear Lake in the ice-free spell, jerry cans stocked up with petrol in the back, about four of them. She liked that I was something of a hunter-gatherer; said I reminded her of a young Grizzly Adams and, unfazed, I questioned the accuracy of her claiming to have known Adams in his younger days. She liked how I shot an elk for her and had the thing on heat before the flies had deposited their excrement on the corpse, how I scavenged firewood and sharpened my Barlow with a whetstone. I guess she had not seen all that, her father's arrest and imprisonment leading to the farm being sold and their lodgings downscaled to a nineteenth century cottage on the outskirts of town, a little hamlet which housed the old and gnarled, the retired. She liked how I read books by Turgenev and Jack London, even as she professed to finding their work 'a bit boring, too much yarning'. And I guess I liked her because she was a girl, she was beautiful and feminine and her hips felt good under my hands, her skin pressed in by my palms, she looked good in the light when she lay, after our sleeping together, naked, face down, her rear in the air. She always smelled good and looked desirable coming out of a shower, her hair jet-black and stringy over her eyes and her skin feeling soft and looking pink and her little brown freckle still right under her left eye like a tiny pinprick. She was airy and yet considerate, strong-willed and yet easy to break down if you said the right words, if you threatened her with a lot of anger.
The comments we made started about two months in. We started telling how much we loved each other, and I could tell she was completely genuine. I did not have the same clarity about my own admissions, but I did enjoy her company and feel bonded to her in some way, so I returned the words, sending them speedily at her like Luffwaffes thrown from Hitler's fist. I said how I couldn't bear to be apart from her, that I might as well cut my heart open with a brush hook if she did not feel the same. After asking what a brush hook was, Cali was overcome with emotion, tears ploughed out of her itsy eyes and she held onto me like a koala clutches the breadth of a tree.
Our relationship was fiery and flagrant from the offing. After two or three years I started to grow a little restless with my lot, dad was all bandaged up at the hands and incapable of presiding over the land at all, so my days stretched out, 5-10 and I advertised countywide for some ranch hand cowboys to come on help us out. After a couple days of waiting the offers came tumbling in, mostly from immigrants and drifters. I held half-assed interviews, the sound of birds blowing out the haymow replacing any fax machine chatters other employers'd have in their offices as I showed them the deal in the barn, as I pointed to this here and that and kicked them into touch on using the equipment we had, the post-hole digger and the tractor, etc. Eventually I got two Indonesian boys, skinny as rakes but not bad with English and basic instruction. They'd globe-trekked from working on bull sharking boats in Northern Australia to seamstressing in Taiwan, somehow had found themselves in Thurlow and at the deadest of ends when they came across the town's noticeboard and beat out of the rooming house they were shacked up in to live in our little two-roomed outhouse across the field. Dad was okay with it, knew I had turned in the work for long enough and the labour costs were low, so we set the Indos to pasture, sometimes laughing from the kitchen windows when we saw them huffing their way across the fields, blowing great chuffs of cold out of their little foreign mouths.
The employment of the two let me and Cali focus on spending time together. Her mother liked me, said I was a calming influence on Cali, who apparently was something of a rogue in her youth. On Sundays I'd show up for dinner, and sometimes, as a gimmick, we'd take the turkey out to the table and chairs round the back patio, wrap ourselves up warm for it of course, taking tea by the rhododendron bushes and the garden-hoe leaning against the brick wall. Our conversations were always dull affairs, small talk and the like, talk of ranches and raising up cattle and how tough the land is, talk of weather and music on the radio and a small amount of politics, local, see. I kept my opinions agreeable and always received a kiss on the cheek after these Sunday meetings. Meanwhile, Cali and I were becoming closer and closer. We attempted to have a baby for a while, but I grew restless and scared and brought back protection. This made her stroppy. We fought - it started to become frequent, I joined the Indos in the farm rather than let my temper wrest control in those fraught moments. Then we reconciled, took the pick-up out to a site about ninety miles off, a little enclosing by a marl pond, pitched a pup tent under the stars. I was about twenty seven at this time. Our baby worries had to be vetted somehow; she craved a kid, while I didn't mind too much, was ponderous in accepting that it just wasn't happening right now, and then altogether a little afraid of the consequences should fate fumble with us. On our first night there we ate the food brought along, turkey scraps and potatoes, a little gravy I boiled up too and a bottle of red wine. It was a glorious night, one that stands out in my memory. We peppered each other with sentiments, love: love seemed like a helium balloon which had just settled at its proper size after recent fluctuations. We ate dinner and uncorked the wine, lay by the fire which snapped and popped, the branches crumbling and falling away, the embers within lapsing and subsiding and turning black and red and then into ash.
'When you were young, did you ever think this is where you'd be?' she said, her head rested on my chest as I sat propped on the ball of the spare rolled-up sleeping bag.
'What you mean? This here, right here this moment?'
'No, in your life, in your life right now.'
'My life? My life right now? Fuck. I don't have a goddam clue I ever considered anything else,' I said. It was true. I had never had glorious dreams of space travel or of becoming a city man. Like I say, right up until we brought them boys in to help on the farm I was never dissatisfied.
She looked up at me with her avid face. 'I love it how you won't change, how you were made...just so.'
'What bout you, were you made just so? Where'd you see yourself?' I asked.
'I dunno.'
'Do you ever think about that, even in your sleep?'
The orange flames were swirling over her face. 'I only think of you.'
I kissed her on the head. Things seemed just too right. We lay still and I heard her drift quietly off to sleep. The wood burned itself and the teepee of branches I laid caved in on themselves, growling insultedly.
This break seemed to stand out in my mind almost as the point where our past made all sense, everything arranged, everything that needed unfolded now laid flat, but the future was some kind of swirling mist we could not see through. It seemed like everything before had led up until now, our fights and arguments, her tantrums, even my labour days, our Sunday dinners, our jaunts through the quarrys. Now, it was as if someone was asking from my head, what next? I couldn't really figure. Dad was in pretty bad shape, now moped around the house with his arms like twisted pipe cleaners out in front of his body, and mom just kept up her routine, taking the plates and pots out of the cherry wood cupboard and setting the table at night and sounding worried with every word she spoke. We had them boys taking care of affairs in the field and they even came up for dinner a couple nights a week, rather than heat up the Kraft pasta or frozen microwave meals they'd been used to. Cali, for her part, I saw a lot of her friends heading out to Toronto or Ottawa or even further south, for college, for better work, for less sky, for whatever. She never made apparent her intentions for the future, though when the days would creep by I'd get the sense she wanted to leave. I was sure that if I had not met her, she would already have quit Thurlow, probably sold her car for a plane ticket and went to live with relatives she had in New Jersey.
These doubts troubled me on our little break by the marl pond. On the second morning I cooked up some bacon on the Trangia stove, had it sizzling and spitting at my fingers as her body moved softly under the sleeping bag at the open mouth of the tent. 'It's freezing,' she groaned, getting up.
'Get your lazy ass out here,' I laughed, poking the fat-skinned strips with the polypropelene scraper. She always looked good in the morning. Her hair was growing out long again, curled inwards across her neck at the shoulders like the bottom of a sled. She wrestled out of the bag and threw on my grey and black polar fleece.
'Hey, will ya look at that?' I said, pointing forwards over towards the peat land before the woods. A hefty whitetailed deer was cleaving at the edge of the bog, lowering its head to lap at the water.
'You gonna shoot it?' Cali asked, stifling a huge yawn. Her eyes were all half-closed and lid-heavy, a little dry skin around her mouth. She pulled down the sleeves of the fleece so they cuddled her knuckles.
I lifted up the old flat-sided Winchester and double-checked the stock. It was loaded. I considered the deer for a moment, holding the rifle over my shoulder, before replacing it on the floor aside the pan. 'Nah. We got enough for later, and this is a trophy spot anyhow for tomorrow's feed. Don't wanna waste game.'
She shrugged her shoulders. 'I thought boys wanted to kill every damn walking creature out in the wild they seen.'
'You saw me pass up game before,' I told her. 'Anyway, do I look like a boy to you, sweetheart?'
She laughed as I doled out her breakfast on the tin plate. We ate. Food always tasted especially good when you were out in the butt-freezing cold, the grass and ground all hard and brittle with the ice, the wind toboganning its way out from the east in great licks. We always used to find these spots, these little sites to pitch our tent when life got a little monotonous back home, for her all the time. It didn't take much prep, maybe a couple days' notice for her boss is all; we beat along the roads by flat bush and maybush, past irrigation ditches and chokecherry trees and toolsheds and broken down old Ford 3600s, the cooler fan hosing us down, whole grain elevators near indigo at the end of some outward drives, mountains' reflections black and jaggedy on unmoving lakes.
After food we stuffed a couple clean rocks inside the tent, should the winds intensify and blow it to high heaven. We cut around the large, mostly-drained marl pond to the woodland, encircled that for a couple miles led us up a slanted hill, led we never knew where. Most of the trees were shaking lightly, discarding their half-formed frost, and I kept the Winchester slung over my shoulder in case we should come across one of them American black bears, the like of which, though rare, tend to find themselves in areas like this, a lot of leafy spurge, shrubs and not too far out some ridgetops beyond the forests, conifer swamps and lakes, wetlands to lumber down and feed after winter. When we hiked like this we didn't say much. Occasionally, panting at my rear, Cali would stagger out, 'I love you, baby pie, love you so,' and I'd laugh and hang back or twist the gun on her, saying, 'You better do,' with a villainous laugh. We scaled the first hill and took break, viewed the scorched and iced landscape, a culvert in the distance like a black eye staring out at us. I'd brought a book in my rucksack, but when I went to open the page at the dog-ear Cali sulked, threw a vacuum flask at my head, heavy with coffee. These were the things I cannot shake off now, later; unmarked plains, buzzards and geese viewed from wide distances, shouldering through clotbur and circumambulating mobs of snacking deer, the sky like a huge, encompassing bowl laid over and above our heads, the endless stretch and flow of country, the sultry shoogle of the cold wind ignoring the heat, which never came thick enough.
And one thing which I try not to dwell on, try to remove from my memory, is later that very evening. After our nine mile wander, during which we made love on a barren and frostless avalanche chute, gave up after five in the intensity of the cold and gust, we found ourselves back at camp and no dinner awaiting but cold steak in an eski due for the fry. The sky fell low and dark, like a cover of purple tarpaulin and stars the occasional salt sprinkle in the expressive sky. Took us about thirty foraging for firewood, hearing every loud crackle and grunt from the woods as some bear woke up and not liking the injustice, but saying, 'Maybe geese, an owl...' But sure enough, after finishing off the feed, there were rumbles and roars coming from the trees that no small pest could muster. Cali scrambled up onto her knees, almost cricking her neck, and her eyes alive with pure terror in the firelight. 'You get that gun cocked,' she instructed me real fast, staring out towards the black, shapely sparks of the shadowed trees.
'Calm yourself now,' I said, standing up slowly, but like I meant business. We anticipated yet more sounds from the woods, and when they didn't come I took cautious steps towards the marl pond, told her to wrangle the flashlight from the bag and aim it out where she heard the sound.
When she did, I saw it after a few seconds, after the light scratched out its bulk just along the edge of the trees, a big full-grown boy about four hundred pounds, hunched on all fours. The light dropped, as if Cali had been scared in apprehending the beast and it'd come straight for her.
'You put that damn flashlight where it was,' I told her, then softer, 'sorry but that's a big boy and I gotta have something to aim at.'
Trembling, Cali lifted the torch once more upwards, peeling the bear visible again. It hadn't really clocked us, was moving with its standard shuffled gait along the rim of the pond now, maybe scouting for carrion it wouldn't find, me not having popped that deer earlier when the chance arose. It was a good hundred or so yards from us, on the opposite end of the pond. Even from that distance its razored claws serrating the dirt were noticeable, forking out of huge plodding paws. 'Rogue son bitch,' I cursed under my breath, knowing it'd take a good three or four to even slow the thing down. I told Cali to keep her light where it was, roving with the bear's every move. Then I walked slowly to my right, a sort of diagonal trajectory to get closer and a better aim. I've never been a great shot, average, a little above, but especially when the stakes were high and you were needing a half dozen clean to kill. I got to where I wanted to be and saw it nuzzling some rocks on the grass. It was truly enormous, I now saw from closer inspection, a real brute with a cinnamon-brown nose and thick black shaggy hair. Its forelegs were like the trunks of chestnut trees and the girth of its chest, its sides heaving out and in with every breath, damn near made me soil my jeans. But it was moving slowly. Settled, I cocked my rifle and took aim, aware that my first shot was important and if off target could make it run to high heaven or maybe make Cali scream out and drop the light. I squeezed the trigger, the sharp .308 blasting out the barrel and, I saw in a second, ripping the big boy on the shoulder, round about the deltoid. It didn't make a sound, just got knocked off balance. 'Keep up the light, git it!' I shouted to Cali, and she did as she was told, flaring it over the injured bear again as I got ready for another shot. When I did, I caught him again, this time in the belly, and squeezed off again as quick as I could with a powerful blast which only just shaved the bushes at his tail. He was moving now, realising he was under sustained fire, powering away in a straight line and not towards the trees, obviously agitated, but his ruptured delt was causing one foreleg to buckle a little and slow him down. He moved like an injured football tackler. I jogged a little forward, cocking again, and sent one for his neck, catching more on the cheek, this time felling the beast.
'Is he dead?' Cali called, terrified.
'Not sure...' I stalked, panther-like, forward again, still cautious of him. He was wheezing. Undeterred, I got off another shot, this one pinging into his temple and I heard it crack and shatter off some bone. It slumped to the ground on its side, slack-jawed, and finally rested. The silence sounded bunched-up, like air trapped in the pinched pipe of a balloon.
'That him?' Cali called again, her flashlight all over the place giving an odd, carnival style manicness to the scene of the dead bear.
'Gimme a minute, goddamit!' I was only a couple paces away from it. He had stopped breathing but I put another one in him, to be sure. Behind it, in the trees, birds and owls were delirious, flapping and jawing and disrupting the stillness of the branches. I got back to the tent. Cali was still shaking like a leaf and making a kind of whimpering sound. It was too late to drive out, I realised, at least the whole way, but maybe we'd find a little motel or inn a hundred miles down the road, she recalled seeing one.
Concentratedly, we collapsed the tent and packed and bagged our shit, lugged it in the truck and made pace out of there in about half a frantic hour.
That was it. In my mind, now, I see that as the pivot, as the line in the sand, as the point where things began to change, despite small successes and propositions for the rest of our lives together. We drove hard back the route we had came. Five or so miles off destination, the rain began to pommel down, layers of sculpted clouds passing over the car's roof, Cali pushing her head forwards to squint out of the smeared windscreen, the wipers like curtains swinging open and closed, both rain and hail carousing out of the sky, drumming insistently on the metalwork of the pick-up.
'Are you okay?' I asked, clutching her arm. She nodded.
'Big bastard,' I ventured. She nodded. I quit it. The wind was up now, rain was falling down in great sheets, the droplets huge and not quiet, the side panels taking a thumping as it torrented in at a ten per cent gradient, lashing, heavy, calling out a rhythm of pressure, polishing the hood of the dust and smear and scouring the windsheilds clear. We shacked up in a little clapboard inn charging $60, the landlady meeting us at the door in winter raiment, a thick knitted scarf, a fur-hooded coat. She fed us some vegetable soup and we retired to our quarters, a small but cosy room aside the upstairs bathroom, in silence, at last affected by the terrain.
Cali fell pregnant a couple months later. There was a sultry feeling of acceptance about the matter, as things hadn't quite been right since our incident camping; there is not a lot to tell save for our meetings became less frequent, she confessed to depression and I holed up in the room reading most nights, hitting hay for about nine or ten. Displays of affection felt forced and we were equally polemic, looking to snipe and castigate out of bitterness, about what I didn't know, nor do now. Every time I wanted to touch her there was a forcefield radiating from her eyes and even, spectrally, from her body, which stopped me; I felt like my wrists were duct-taped behind my back and affection through vague facial gestures never drove home any sincerity. There was nary a word about aborting the child, but the pair of us neglected to inform family, saying we preferred to run the first lap by ourselves, make sure things were in order and the initial scans satisfactory before widening the loop. We browsed baby clothes and prams and she bought knitting needles and wool and instruction manuals, setting up shop for what would be a motherly role, her job from this point forth. Our arguments decreased slightly, but Cali was still stroppy and complained that I never showed her enough attention, she said she felt ordinary and cumbersome to me, that I didn't flash any signs of love any more. When she came into my room and lay on the bed often I'd continue slumped against the chest of drawers reading a book, or if she came by the field after work I'd be talking to the cattle-buyer McGregor, or pulling milk, or cleaning the pens or fertilizing the crops. One night the gun went off, we had ourselves a ruckus upstairs in the lounge room and even my mother and father were drawn into the conflict, eventually siding with Cali, the three of them forming a picket line, chorusing facts I was keen to ignore, saying I should be investing and purchasing a place for just the pair of us, them boys had the land covered and I just liked the comfort of keeping maintenance. Cali settled down and stayed the night, but when I woke up next morning I felt dampness on my arm and the cow girl had scratched her name with some kinda shiv, blood was running out of the ridges. The cuts weren't deep, looked like little red staples, but it boiled my blood, that lunatic carrying around a baby and all, still cracking the shits and pulling stunts, violent to boot.
Things were rotting, I could tell. Barely a fortnight after the good news, Cali had a miscarriage and quit her job. This all but killed off any hope of getting our own place, me having never saved and with her, in any case, needing the comforting qualities of home to bounce back. Six months drifted by like a coal truck, leaving just smudges and the ringing of a disaster we could never outlive. I visited her lots, in those weary weeks when we seemed cursed and her body shrunk and retracted. I would show up at her house in a chambray shirt with flowers and a card, but she'd barely look up, barely let me get close. I told her how much I loved her, starting to feel, again, like I really would rather take that brush hook to my vitals, but it didn't provoke the desired reaction, only served to show that our formerly plain and motiveless statements were products of a different time, belonged to different moods, lush and gratuitous, like etiquette or dinner party parlance would be to folk downscaled from high society to the breadline. When she did speak to me it was to tell me to fetch her something or to boil the kettle or to drive her into town to pick up a prescription. Her first thought was to blame Thurlow, to blame the cold and the covered creeks and the lack of proper hospitals and the isolation, as if in some way the prairies and farms and panhandles had altered some alignment in the cosmos and soured our fortunes to prevent overpopulation. Her edict was difficult to alter, and gradually I felt her breaking apart, like an oatmeal cookie held too tight.
Winter swelled the fields with snow, piled up at the lap of the hills and thinning on top but killing off calfs and old hogs, parched snow clung to their patchy bodies like lead-blue blisters, the whole landscape agleam with an unnatural whiteness. It was a rough patch we struggled to ride out, no chain wrapped around the tires breaking enough surface in the snow slog to carry the pick-up farther than a mile off base, the sky still depositing mammoth lumps of slow-melting snow, the walls of the barn creaking more and more, the nearest swamps all buried and bludgeoned. A torpor set in; people stocked up, holed up, let the sky keep curdling for all they could do, make tea and long-distance, do as good as with the Hiniker, its robotic blade and hyraulic scissors working overtime to part the build up. When the clouds began to clear and whole formations opened paving the way for the sun to brush the grain again, I tried to mend my life, reached out to Cali, got estimations on the farm with a view to setting the parents up in a retirement community in Dawson, my mother increasingly unable to minister old Tobe in his last stand. It was too late. The girl came over one day and said she was clearing out to Edmonton, had a little cousin there ran a steak house, she'd get a job bussing tables no problem. I tried to make assumptive comments to include me in her sojourn, but they were quickly dismissed. 'I need to get my life back,' she said, walking across her bedroom floor with the aimlessness of a born foal, with breathless vapor as I leaned with my hands on the doorway lintel. 'It can't be here and you can't be anywhere else.'
I protested, but she was right. I had ends to tie up, was looking at another eight to twelve months before I could cut loose, if I even wanted to. It felt impossible to break free, to scrape at any place new. She had her shit packed in a big old cargo bag that very next day, when I showed up unexpectedly to see her a final time. I was a shambles. She was taking tea in the kitchen, her eyes never really placing me, but being cordial and polite with her words, like I was a person from her life she had discluded on a whim. The red carpet absorbed my footsteps as I paced. I had a powerful urge to rush forward and wrap her in my arms, bodily escort her back to the times when a thing like this seemed far-fetched, seemed incomprehedible. There was no stillness now, not even for a moment; she was moving around the room, I was moving; we were circling that final conversation, that parting moment, we were hesitant and tremulous with fright and uncertainty. At the kitchen sink she stood still and glanced at me, but I was destroyed by her face's insouciance. No tears welled in her eyes like in mine, her face showed no tics, no transgression. I told her I loved her and she sat down at the table, crossed her legs and studied my feet.
'I'm sorry,' was her anticlimactic rebuttal a second after, the moment cruelly not even past.
Next morning's light flooded the windowpanes, melted the frames. I could hear a rambling foreign voice from the field, I could hear one of them carrying wood to the smokehouse and I could smell something like sulphur. There were no clouds in the sky, just a swarm of gnats, the sound of a far-off turbocharger, the arcane emissions of birds who flocked west and out of sight.

It all happened a long time ago. In two months I'd be off, driving south, but a collision with a double-wide trailer gave me a broken collarbone and reversed my route back home, laid up with a sling and the use of only my bad arm for eight weeks. The old man passed in the interim, and back to full-fitness I was staring down the barrel of three years graft, the better-working of the Indos departing for a fanciful Alaskan adventure, his buddy trailing six months behind him like he caught on late. By that time I had mellowed. I had priorities, shipped the farm to a professional keen on the lot as a tax shelter, fair price, moved mother and me to the little cottage hamlet Cali's mother had long since vacated, probably peeling for Edmonton too, else staying lonely and keeling reading tax notices and local newspapers in her penultimate year. I still think of it, days, every damn day if you want the truth, but I'm old and time distils you in a way that's difficult to avoid. We're still there, in a way, by that pond on the first night, her hands fishing in her pockets for the muffler, laying into me, the fire smoking and blurring the wintry gloaming above our heads. I look up for a moment, letting the fire keep up, and the cold northern darkness shutting around us.


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