A Good Hand
Short Stack –1995
“Hey Kid, wake up! It’s Christmas.”
Eugene opened his eyes. The wallpaper came into focus inches from his face, splattered with a flower he had never seen in real life. There was a long strip missing - revealing pink like the skin below a scab - peeled away by some other foster child.
A hand shook his shoulder, then the voice spoke again. “Wake up, Kid. Come see what Saint Social Worker left for you.”
Eugene rolled over and sat up. He rubbed the side of his nose and focused his green eyes on the blue ones looking down at him. “Who are you?” The events of the last few days were slowly returning to his five-year-old mind and although this face inches from his own was familiar, he could not recall a name.
“Geez, Kid, are you retarded or what? I’m Eddie. Same as yesterday. Now come on, you gotta protect your presents.” Eddie was heading for the door of the bedroom. He had blond hair which he kept long enough to hide his eyes when necessary, and a lot of wiry muscles for a fifteen year old. His home-made tattoos gave his arms the look of a burn victim.
“Eddie?” Eugene’s voice was soft.
The teen turned at the door. “What?”
“Where’s my mom?”
Eddie hesitated and something brief and unwanted flashed across his face. His eyes narrowed slightly. “The old mom’s gone and the new mom’s sleeping one off. Don’t even think about waking her up, you got that?” He jabbed his finger at Eugene for extra effect, then took a step closer to the bed and squinted at him. “Geez. A green-eyed Injun. How’d that happen?”
Eugene shrugged, having no idea what Eddie was talking about. He watched Eddie leave and flopped back onto the bed. He didn’t know the name of this town but it had taken a long time to drive here so maybe it was another country. He tried to remember the names of the three other kids he’d met yesterday when he got here with his social worker, Bruce. Eddie was the oldest and the other three—two boys and a girl—all looked the same age to Eugene. Older than him but younger than Eddie.
He squinted up at the ceiling to help his brain work. There was a Devon but that was all he could remember. He turned to Reggie, who sat on the bed across from him, playing solitaire with his faded deck of cards. “Do you remember those kids—what their names are?”
“Nope,” Reggie answered without looking up. Cards kept slipping out of place on the rough landscape of the blankets. “Just go out and say hey and maybe you’ll remember them names.”
“Ya, okay. You come with me, Reggie. I’m scared.”
Reggie looked over at Eugene. “No you’re not. That’s just the ‘settlin-in-feeling’. It’ll be gone soon. Get out there—that Eddie’s gonna make pancakes.” He pursed his lips and cocked his head to the side, exactly the way Eugene did. “I’ll come out with you, but I ain’t gonna say nothing. And you shouldn’t say nothin to me. Not yet. Let them get to know you first before you introduce me. Okay?”
“What if I forget and talk to you in front of those kids?”
A new voice shouted gleefully from the doorway of the bedroom. “Holy shit! We got a nutter on our hands!”
One of the other boys was standing there staring at Eugene. “Who the hell you talking to, kid?”
Eugene turned to the boy in the doorway. He was used to people not seeing Reggie. “What’s your name?” asked Eugene.
“My name is Sean and yours is Nutter.” Sean ran off down the hallway, shouting to the other kids that the newbie had an imaginary friend.
Eugene turned back to Reggie. “Oops.”
Reggie shrugged. “Don’t worry. Better they think you’re crazy than scared or weak, uh?” Eugene got out of bed and scratched his belly. The new pajamas had come right out of the package and were kind of stiff and itchy.
Down the hall in the kitchen, Eugene could hear Eddie’s voice rising above the chaos, telling everyone to shut up. It got quiet and then Eddie’s voice came billowing down the hallway; “Hey, Kid.”
Eugene looked at Reggie, lowering his eyebrows and raising his shoulders at the same time. Reggie rolled his eyes. “Ya, you. Answer him.”
Eugene cleared his voice and called, “Yes, Eddie?”
“Get your butt out here, I’m making pancakes.”
Eugene gave Reggie a look of acknowledgement and Reggie bowed his head slightly. “Told ya’!”
Eugene heard some whispering and giggling waft down the hall with the smell of butter in a skillet, then Eddie’s voice again. “And bring your friend with you.” Eugene’s face split into a beautiful summer smile that very few people had seen besides Reggie. The little boy urged the old man to hurry and followed the smell into the kitchen.
As they passed the entrance to the living room, they stopped to admire the little silver tree leaning precariously on the edge of the coffee table. There were presents! Lots of them. Two pajama-clad boys wrestled on the couch, oblivious to the stares of Eugene and Reggie.
In the kitchen, Eddie was standing at the stove, pouring batter into the hot skillet. Beside him, the girl stood on a chair to watch. Maybe she wasn’t as old as the boys after all, Eugene thought. Or maybe she was a midget. Eugene stared at the back of the girl hoping her name would come back to him.
“Lilly,” Reggie whispered as he sat down at the table and dealt out a hand of solitaire.
“Hello, Lilly,” Eugene said, but it came out a whisper and she didn’t hear him. The two boys – one of them a Devon and the other a Sean – came tumbling into the kitchen.
“You should see your loot, dude,” the larger one exclaimed.
Eugene’s eyes widened. “Did Santa come? I didn’t think he’d find me since I just moved.” The two boys burst out laughing at the same moment and still roughly entwined, rolled back into the living room.
Eddie handed Lilly the flipper and pulled her chair closer to the stove. “Watch the flapjacks, Lil.” He pulled out a chair at the kitchen table and nodded at Eugene to do the same. Eugene walked around Reggie and struggled to pull out a chair and climb onto it.
“Some things you should know, kid,” Eddie started. “First of all, ignore the morons in there. Your friend can stay as long as you want. Does he like pancakes?”
Eugene heard his heart make a little wet sound inside his chest as it attached itself to Eddie. He nodded happily.
“Okay, but he needs to eat off your plate ‘cause we don’t have extra dishes for him, okay?”
Eugene nodded again, his eyes moving to Eddie’s hands as Eddie cracked each knuckle in succession while speaking. “Now, don’t ever wake up Gladys and Bob.”
“Who?” Eugene was concentrating hard.
“Uh, the mom and the dad.” Eddie looked at Eugene to make sure he was following. Eugene’s oval face was absent of any expression but his eyes were riveted on Eddie’s.
Eddie continued. “So, you might as well know that there is no Santa Claus because the idiot twins are going to tell you in the next few seconds anyhow.” He watched Eugene process his words and the green eyes grew a bit wider.
Eugene looked toward the living room. “They’re twins?”
Eddie shook his head. “No, but they are idiots. The point is that there ain’t no Santa.”
“Oh.” He’d had his doubts but it was surprisingly disappointing to learn the truth. “So all the presents under the tree came from Mom and Dad?” New hope emerged, then was gone with Eddie’s snort.
“No. We each got a present from them but not you ‘cause we only found out two days ago that we were getting you. You have a butt-load of presents but they are all from your social worker. That dude’s a soft touch, eh?”
Eugene sifted through this information, separating Bruce the social worker from Santa and from his new Mom and Dad. “Can we open them?”
“No we have to wait for Gladys and Bob to wake up. Bob’ll open up a can a’ whoop ass if anyone wrecks Gladys’ family Christmas photo album. We all have to open presents together and be all family and shit. Glad takes a million pictures for the agency and that’s how she keeps getting kids. The rest of the year, she ignores us.” He checked for signs of comprehension on Eugene’s face. “That is one serious little poker face you got there, kid. You understand what I’m telling you?”
“We have to wait for Mom and Dad before we can open our presents. Can we look at them?”
“Ya, why not?” Eddie got up and returned to the stove. He took the pancakes out of the skillet and put them on a tin pie plate and shoved them in the warm oven. He moved toward the living room with Eugene and Reggie close behind.
One of the boys, maybe Devon, pointed at Eugene and squealed, “You have a bazillion presents you lucky little bastard. Look.”
Eugene leaned down by the coffee table and looked at all the parcels. He had already learned to read his name and almost every tag he could see without touching said EUGENE. He was amazed. He couldn’t remember anything like it ever before. He remembered his fifth birthday because it was in October, but he only got one present and it broke that same day and Mom had taken it away and told him he should be more careful. She said she’d fix it but he hadn’t gotten it back yet. Eugene remembered Eddie’s words; Your old mom’s gone. He felt a lump in his throat and looked around quickly to make sure Reggie was still there. He was sitting on the couch and when Eugene blinked his stinging eyes at him, Reggie just shrugged and said, “Make yourself feel better. And stand up straight.”
Eugene straightened up. He looked at his new brothers and sister and knew what to do. He pursed his lips and cocked his head to the side, addressing no-one in particular. “Do you have a pencil?”
There was a flurry of curious activity and a pencil was shoved at him. “Here ya’ go, Nutter,” said Devon. Or Sean.
Eugene took the pencil and handed it to Eddie. “Could you write the names on the cards?” Eddie took the pencil from him.
Eugene picked up a present and held it toward Lilly. “Do you want this one?” he asked shyly. Lilly nodded hungrily and Eddie crossed out EUGENE and printed LILLY. On they went, dividing up all Eugene’s gifts between them. When they were done, everyone had two new presents to open, except Reggie, who said one was plenty for him, thanks.
Eugene sat down on the couch beside Reggie who asked, “You feel better now?” The child produced his angel smile and nodded. When he saw Eddie watching him, Eugene beamed at him.
Eddie started again on his knuckles. “Hey you better be careful who you flash your teeth at. What happened to your great poker face?”
Eugene relaxed his face back into its passive mask.
Eddie whistled softly. “Seriously, tomorrow I’m teaching you how to play poker. Let’s have some pancakes.” He headed for the kitchen with Lilly and the boys romping after him.
Eugene climbed down off the couch and took a last look at the tree. He only remembered his last home, although this was his fourth. But he thought this one would be the real one. He would have a family now. His heart felt like it would burst with happiness. He laid his hand on his chest to see if he could feel it. He looked at Reggie.
“Am I smiling?” he asked. He was peering intently into Reggie’s green eyes, so like his own.
Reggie grunted, gathered his cards and shoved them into the pocket of his jeans. He got off the couch. “Do you feel a smile?”
“Then you’re smiling. Let’s get some pancakes.”
Split pot – April, 2003
Eugene opened his eyes. He lay on his left side, face jammed against the wall. He pulled back a few inches and when the ridiculous circus wallpaper came into focus, he reached out and grabbed a peeling corner, angrily ripping off a thin strip. After four days and nights in this place, he was still had no idea why Bruce had come and pulled him from his home, had no idea how long he would be here in this halfway house.
For a couple of weeks, his foster mom had been weird, avoiding eye contact, not talking to him as much. Bruce came last week and said the agency was moving him again due to a “situation” in his home. Things had changed, Bruce said, and the Petersons could no longer care for him. There were no other homes available so he would stay in a temporary agency-staffed house until a foster home became available.
Bruce told Eugene a whole lot of nothing while steering his rusty blue van through rush hour to bring him here. His phone rang continuously and clearly someone else on Bruce’s caseload was having an even worse day than Eugene. Just before the social worker dropped Eugene off, Bruce gasped into his phone and asked, “Which hospital?” He practically ran up the front steps of the crappy looking brown house on Aberdeen Avenue carrying Eugene’s one bag and begging forgiveness for not being able to stay and help him settle in. Eugene hadn’t seen him since, although Bruce called every day, promising he’d be over to see him just as soon as he could. Eugene hated talking on the phone.
He rolled over to see Reggie sitting on the bare mattress of the empty bed on the other side of the room. “What’re you lookin at?” Eugene growled.
Reggie shrugged. “Wanna play some poker?”
“Hey the new kid comes today. We won’t be the only ones, uh?”
“Get lost Reggie.” He glared. “Especially when the new kid gets here. Okay?”
“Sure.” Reggie shrugged again.
Eugene went into the bathroom to pee. He dribbled a little and automatically reached for the toilet paper to clean up, then stopped. That’s why you get the big bucks, Lydia— you can clean up my piss.
He had decided to hate Lydia. He ignored the other staff who rotated through his ‘home’ on 12 hour shifts, believing if he left them alone, they would do the same for him and for the most part, he was right. But Lydia was driving him nuts with her first year enthusiasm. She never let up on him, wanting to talk all the time, wanting to know how he was feeling. And they hadn’t put him in a school yet; transition time, they called it. So he sat in this stupid house watching movies alone and hating Lydia the Shrink.
He walked down the hallway with its walls blank except for scuff marks and the occasional fist hole. This was the case for the whole house except the living room, where someone had hung a picture of a bunch of people in the olden days having a picnic, but all dressed up. They were slightly out of focus. And in the kitchen, one wall was covered with a huge erasable calendar. Apart from the name of the day shift and night shift staff, the calendar was presently empty except for two entries. Friday, April 8, 2002, the calendar announced the arrival of Cosmo. Monday, April 11, 2002, the calendar reminded the day shift to go to the local school to register Eugene in the seventh grade.
He entered the kitchen to find Lydia making bacon and eggs. “Good morning Eugene,” she chirped. “I was hungry so I decided to make us a big breakfast.” She flicked her head to the right to get her dirty blond curls out of her eyes.
Eugene grunted and sat down at the table. He was not hungry. Hadn’t been since the move; he just fit food into his stomach around the huge rock that lived there.
The doorbell rang and Lydia jumped.
“Ohmygod, that must be Cosmo. They’re early. C’mon Eugene!” She turned off the burner and ran to the front door. Eugene sat at the table, trying not to hope anything about the new guy.
In a few minutes, Lydia returned with a dark-eyed, dark-haired kid walking behind her. “This is Cosmo, Eugene!” she said. “And this is Eugene.” She looked positively thrilled. Cosmo yanked out a chair and slumped into it. The boys did not speak or look directly at one another, but when Eugene sensed Cosmo turn his head to examine his new surroundings, he stole a glance, checking out the black clothes, the gangly body, guessing that Cosmo was probably the same age as himself. Very close, anyway.
Lydia put plates of food on the table and joined them. She peppered Cosmo with questions which he stoically ignored, shoveling food into his mouth as though he sat alone at the table. Eugene was impressed.
Eventually, Lydia grew tired and with a slightly hurt tone, announced that she supposed Cosmo needed some time to adjust. She turned her attention to Eugene, but inspired by Cosmo’s performance, he too remained completely mute until Lydia finally gave up and started the dishes with a bit more noise than necessary.
Up in his room after breakfast, he lay on the bed and stared at the bare light bulb, once again inventorying the room’s charming prison motif: no light fixtures, no handles on the dresser or closet doors, not much of anything, really, except an array of unpainted drywall patches.
Eugene listened to Lydia touring Cosmo through the house, ending with the room next door to Eugene’s. He heard Lydia clomp back downstairs to start the cleaning and then he listened to Cosmo bumping around in his room. Eugene tried to identify the sounds; putting clothes in the drawers, setting things on the bedside table, maybe, and throwing a bag into the closet. Then it was quiet.
Eugene considered his options. It was only one kid. If he went over and it didn’t go well, he only had one enemy. At his last home, with three real kids and two other foster kids already there when he arrived, he’d had to be very careful.
He got off the bed and walked softly to his door, listening. Reggie was right behind him. He turned, gesturing silently for him to stay in the room. Reggie swaggered back to the bed and plopped down. Eugene did a double take; there were three old men sitting in the tiny room. Every time Reggie showed up lately, there was an extra Indian or two with him.
At Cosmo’s door, Eugene faltered, hand raised to knock, but his dilemma was dissolved by a friendly voice calling out, “Come on in.”
Eugene opened the door. “Hey.”
“Hey. What was your name again?” Cosmo lay on his bed, looking at a magazine.
“Right. I’m Cosmo. What are you in for, man?” Cosmo threw back his head and laughed the loudest laugh Eugene had ever heard.
“I don’t really know. My last home couldn’t keep me but I don’t know why and there isn’t room in any other families yet so I gotta’ stay here till there is. You?”
Cosmo closed one eye and sized Eugene up with the other. “Seriously, man? You have no idea why you got the boot?”
Eugene shook his head.
“That sucks!” Cosmo sat up and tossed the magazine onto the floor. “I got moved due to some problems with the plumbing. It wasn’t acceptable, you know, hygiene-wise, for me to stay where I was, due to the fact that the toilet was always overflowing. Plumber had to come four times in two days. Kept finding my socks down there but I was framed, man! So here I am, also waiting for my next happy family.”
“How many you had?”
“Eight. But my new worker found out what reserve I’m from and he’s taking me up there and I’m gonna find my real family and then I guess I’ll live up there, man. Should be pretty soon, too. That’ll be awesome, man. Living on the Rez! Which reserve you from?”
Eugene blinked at Cosmo. “I don’t know. I didn’t know I had to be from one.”
“Well what’s your story? What did your worker tell you?”
“Nothing. Just that my parents are dead and I gotta live in foster homes till I get older unless someone . . . you know.”
“Unless someone adopts you?” The huge laugh erupted again.
Eugene looked down at the floor, wondering if his hot face was turning red. Before he could think of a response, Cosmo started asking him questions. Eugene, happy to have someone to talk to besides Reggie, answered them all. When Cosmo asked him what he liked to do, he had to think for a bit and unable to come up with much, he answered, “I like movies.”
Cosmo let rip his big laugh again. “You sure are a chatter box, Eugene. You always this quiet, man?”
Confused, Eugene failed to respond at all which set Cosmo off again. “You answer every question with, like, two or three words, man.”
“There you go again. And what’s with your face, man? It never changes. Check this out—I’m you.” He jumped off the bed and struck a shrinking posture but kept his face comically blank. “I’m Eugene and I’m terrified.” He jumped up onto the bed and puffed his chest out. Again his face was completely blank, eyes staring straight ahead, facial muscles perfectly still. “I’m Eugene and I’m fucking pissed off, man.” He sat back down and shook his head. “You should play poker, man. So, what kind of movies do you like?”
Eugene shrugged, now too self-conscious to come up with even two words. Cosmo carried the conversation, telling Eugene about the last few movies he’d seen. Eugene forgot about Cosmo’s depiction of him and found himself enjoying the movie talk. When Cosmo mentioned Eugene’s all-time favourite movie, the little switch in his brain flicked on and he was away. By the time he had finished carefully explaining why it was the best movie ever made, Eugene had been talking for over four minutes straight, staring at a spot on the ceiling and delivering his discourse with an eloquence few (besides Reggie, of course) had ever witnessed. Cosmo was staring at him as though he’d just sprouted wings.
“What the hell was that, man?”
“That! You don’t say nothing about nothing and all of a sudden you sound like one of those preachers on TV. I didn’t even like The Two Towers and now I think I need to go see it again, man!”
Eugene, with the switch returned to its normal position, didn’t know what to say.
Cosmo shook his head. “Hey, do you smoke?”
“Sure, but I don’t have any.
“I do. Let’s go outside and have a smoke. Is there a back yard?”
“Back yard’s the staff parking. There’s a side yard though.”
Once the boys had lit up, they sat down with their backs against the side of the house and enjoyed the warm spring sun on their faces. The streets were still full of sand and salt from a winters worth of snow removal and the boulevards, which sprouted dog shit as the snow banks melted, were not yet safe to walk on.
A truck pulled up to the front of the house and both boys leaned forward to afford themselves a view. A woman emerged from the white Jeep and walked up the front walk, checking a piece of paper in her left hand. In her right, was a gift bag. Eugene started to get up, but Cosmo put his hand on Eugene’s arm and held him back. “Don’t waste my smoke, man. Who is that?”
“It’s my teacher from my old school, Miss J. When I told her I was leaving, she promised she’d come and visit me.” He was surprised at how pleased he was to see her. He took another drag of the cigarette and listened as Lydia came to the door. The teacher introduced herself and asked for Eugene.
“I’m sorry, you can’t see him.” Lydia’s voice was dripping with fake sadness. There was no response. Eugene leaned forward, forgetting about the smoke.
His teacher cleared her throat. “Why can’t I see him?”
“Oh it’s policy with transitions like this one. It’s very difficult for a child to make a new start and we find it’s best to make it a clean break. We don’t allow any contact whatsoever with their past life when we are helping them get settled into a new one.” There was another long silence.
“What is your name?”
“My name is Lydia.”
“Listen Lydia, I promised Eugene I would come and see him. He might be expecting me and if he is, I don’t want to let him down. How does it help his transition if it starts out with more broken promises and disappointment? I know you have your policy, but Eugene is not a policy – he’s a real live boy! Don’t you think it might be of some value to show Eugene that at least once in a while, you can trust adults to do what they say they will do?”
Eugene grinned. He recognized the sound in Miss J’s voice. She was really pissed off.
The voices on the front step continued to go back and forth. Miss J’s was getting quieter and calmer, meaning she was getting more and more upset, Eugene knew. He’d made her pretty quiet a few times himself.
“Would you at least give this to him for me?” Miss J was barely audible.
“I’m so sorry but I can’t,” Lydia whined.
“I’ll come back tomorrow,” the teacher said, louder now.
“I’m afraid it won’t make any difference. All the staff will tell you the same thing.”
“Please, just tell him I was here. No visit, no gift, just let him know that I tried. He needs to know that. Please.”
“I’m sorry.” Lydia’s voice was trembling. The door closed. Cosmo elbowed Eugene and whispered that he was going in to get a drink. Eugene nodded and sat silently, listening to the sound of Miss J’s footsteps receding up the sidewalk. He inched forward to the edge of the house so he could watch her get into the truck. She slammed the door closed and started the motor with a roar. Then he watched her lay her forehead on the steering wheel. Eventually, she lifted her head, blew her nose, checked her face in the rearview mirror and drove away.
He put his hand up to his own face, let his fingers meander softly from his dry cheeks to his dry eyes.
The river – July, 2005
“Give me the map, Cosmo.”
“Go to hell, Bruce.” Cosmo danced away from Bruce with the map behind his back, tripped over a tree root and sprawled out at Eugene’s feet who sat on a log, retying the laces of the hikers he’d borrowed for the trip. They were a bit small and had caused a blister after that last portage—the source of the present conflict between Cosmo and Bruce.
Bruce snatched up the map as Cosmo rolled over onto his back, groaning. “I thought you said there were only two portages today. It’s not even noon and that was the third one! Look at me, man. I’m not built for heavy lifting—that’s Snake’s deal.” Cosmo had started calling Eugene ‘Snake’ back when they lived together at Aberdeen house. He said Eugene’s eyes were freaky like a snake’s and in spite of Eugene’s explanations about the colour of snakes’ eyes, Cosmo insisted he needed a cool nickname. But the name did not take, despite all Cosmo’s efforts, and he remained Eugene at school, at home, everywhere . . . except with Cosmo.
Bruce studied the map while scratching a mosquito bite in the patchy stubble on his cheek. “I think maybe that was the last one, guys.”
Cosmo remained on the ground. Eugene finished tying his boots as loosely as possible and stood up, cracking his knuckles. He was very happy despite his sore feet. He loved being out here in the woods; he loved canoeing, and he loved being with Cosmo again. When Bruce suggested a canoe trip up the Bird River for the three of them, Eugene had jumped at it. He’d never been camping in his life and when Bruce described a wilderness canoe trip, he was enchanted. Cosmo had taken a bit more persuasion to be lured away from the city.
They’d survived their first night in the tent with minimal damage. Well, apart from Cosmo leaving the zipper open and causing a twenty-minute mosquito hunt before they could go to sleep.
This morning, Bruce had started up the single burner to boil water for coffee by the time the boys were out of the tent. Eugene emerged, took note of the blue sky, stretched, and headed for the pee tree. Cosmo got out, took a look at the packages of instant oatmeal sitting on the rock and starting grousing immediately.
“What the hell, man? I thought we were gonna eat like, bacon and eggs and shit, man.”
“I told you when we packed; you want to eat it, you carry it. Besides, if I cooked bacon on this river, there’d be twenty bears here within the hour.” Bruce had expressed concern with all the bear sign on the portages. He’d given the boys quite the lecture about taking anything with scent into the tent, even their toothpaste.
When he was finished, Cosmo raised his hand. “Um, Bruce, should I go get the steak I hid under your pillow?”
But Eugene’s heart was yammering. He was so afraid of bears, he had invited Reggie on this trip, even though lately, they hadn’t been spending much time together.
Eugene had decided that Reggie was a bad sign. That maybe there was something wrong with him. He’d looked it up—fourteen was way too old for an imaginary friend. But when Bruce told him about the canoe trip, bears had been his one concern and so he’d casually invited Reggie to tag along. Reggie had declined, saying something cryptic about Eugene not needing him if he was ‘with the earth’.
So Eugene set off into the wilderness with his best friend and his social worker. Now, it was day two and apart from a blister, everything was going great. “Can I take the stern now, Bruce? You said when it got wider I could and look.” He pointed to the river flowing gently past the point where the canoe and all their equipment lay heaped on the ground.
“Sure,” Bruce said. “Let’s get the boat loaded. Cosmo, you want to duff or paddle?”
Cosmo answered from his prone position. “Never bother asking that, man. If I have a choice, I’ll duff. What kind of lunatic chooses to paddle when he can sit in the bottom of the boat and sleep?”
“A lazy one,” answered Bruce.
Eugene’s face twitched slightly and his shoulders rose and fell once. Cosmo caught him. “What are you laughin at, Blowhole?”
They reloaded the canoe for the fourth time that day and pushed off with Eugene taking his first turn at steering the canoe. Bruce made one or two suggestions and that was all that Eugene needed. He was a natural. The boundaries between his body and the boat and the river began to dissolve. He watched the trees float by and saw the incredible variations of foliage instead of just a blur of green. The world was sun on his face and a slight wind at his back.
They stopped to rest and have a snack after a couple of hours and the afternoon heat led to a dip in the river. Cosmo suddenly came to life after almost an hour of snoring in the belly of the canoe. He stripped down and jumped in before Eugene had even gotten his shirt off. Bruce was next in and he took off with long smooth strokes, heading upriver to turn and float back. Eugene was still undressing carefully, when Cosmo called to him. “C’mon Snake, get in the water, okay?”
Eugene gave him the finger. “Don’t rush me.”
“I’m not foolin around, man. Get in the fuckin water and get over here.” Cosmo was standing in the river, the water up to his chest, and he was staring past Eugene. A black bear was no more than fifteen feet off to the right and behind Eugene. And her cub was to his left.
He froze, shirtless, shoeless, but still in his jeans. Cosmo’s voice came to him through the buzz of terror in his head. “Just keep backing up to the water, man. Come on, Snake, move your fucking feet.”
But he couldn’t. His feet wouldn’t work. He stared at the huge furry face, at the tiny dark eyes. She was moving toward him now and he felt like he might pass out or puke. She stopped, pawed the ground, threw dirt, stomped and huffed. Then she began to advance again. Eugene felt a hand lock onto his wrist and he was yanked right off his feet and dragged into the river. He came up sputtering and coughing but still being pulled, easier now, as he was floating through the water. Then he was aware of Bruce running past them, yelling, throwing rocks and whistling at the bear. It lurched into the trees, cub close behind, and disappeared. He was aware of coming to a stop, of feeling his feet sink through the water and land softly on the bottom of the river. He was aware of Cosmo’s arms tight around him, Cosmos’s voice crooning softly in his ear, “S’okay Snake. I got ya. You’re okay.”
Pocket – January, 2007
Eugene waited until Cosmo was the only person he could see through the front windows of the Dairy Queen and all the outside lights were off. Then he made his way around the block toward the alley entrance. He pulled his thin coat tight around him and shoved his frozen hands carefully into the pockets of his jeans. His feet, in light sneakers, were moving like curling rocks on the icy sidewalk. He struggled to keep his balance, blinking fiercely to dislodge the ice crystals that were forming in his eyelashes. His lungs hurt with every breath. Reggie walked behind him, oblivious to the cold. When Eugene noticed him trailing along, he turned and glared at him, not wanting to talk to him on the street, even with no-one around. Reggie held out his hands and lifted his shoulders imploringly. “What?”
Eugene looked around, then said, “Go away and don’t come back. You’re going to get me sent to the loony bin.”
“Well that’s better than jail, I guess. Or rehab. Might be a nice change from the shelter, uh?” Eugene quickened his clumsy pace and left Reggie humming softly to himself at the corner of Main.
Eugene got to the back entrance, eyed the empty parking lot and kicked carefully at the door, afraid of breaking a toe he could no longer feel.
The door opened four inches. “It’s me Cosmo. Let me in or I’m gonna freeze to death.”
“No way, man. What if Larry comes back? Go to the shelter, man.”
“Kicked me out. Come on Cosmo. I’m fuckin freezing.”
The door opened wide enough to reveal Cosmo’s lean face. He looked nervously around the parking lot, then reached out and yanked Eugene in and rammed him up against the wall. He ran and grabbed a handful of paper towels, came back and leaned down. “Lift.” Eugene lifted his foot while Cosmo slid a wad of paper towels under his shoe, then repeated the same process with the other foot. “I already mopped back here, man. What the fuck are you doing here? I told you last time, that was it.”
“I’m starvin’. Just give me some of the stuff you gotta’ throw out and let me warm up. Then I’ll go.” He was doing the pain dance from foot to foot as his toes began to thaw. He sucked air in through his teeth and swore under his breath.
“What happened at the shelter?” Cosmo grabbed Eugene’s chin and looked into his eyes. “Shit man, you said you were clean.”
Eugene pulled away. “Fuck off, Cosmo. I just need food, okay?”
“You know, if I lose this job, I’m totally fucked. And I’m on my last chance, man. Larry’s a good guy but he’s only going to take so much. I was late again tonight. I don’t need your shit right now, Snake. I got problems of my own.”
Cosmo pulled open the door of the walk-in cooler. He took the tomato slices he had wrapped up earlier and, grabbing a few pieces of processed cheese, made a sandwich on a burger bun and took it out to Eugene. He checked the window that looked out on the parking lot. Eugene wolfed down the sandwich in three bites while Cosmo got him a glass of water from the tap.
“No milkshake?” Eugene was starting to feel human again. He drained the glass of water and handed it back to Cosmo. “Thanks. How about a Dilly bar?”
“Are you nuts? They count everything. They probably know how many fuckin plastic spoons are in that bag.” He jerked his chin toward a huge bag of plastic spoons that took up one entire corner of the room. Then he snapped his fingers. “I forgot. Simone made a banana split for some brat who changed his mind. She put it in the freezer—said I could have it. You want that man?”
Eugene nodded eagerly. When he had finished shivering and chewing his way through the frozen banana split, he looked around for the garbage. Cosmo held out his hand. “Give it here, man. Don’t you fuckin move off those paper towels.” He threw the little yellow plastic dish into the open garbage bag by the sink. “You comin to Leslie’s tonight? Cause I got some news for you, man.” His dark eyes twinkled.
“What is it?” asked Eugene.
Cosmo squinted at Eugene. “Is that your curious face?” He laughed. “Just kiddin there, Snake. I’ll tell you at Leslie’s.”
“Can’t go tonight.” He looked at the floor. “Got something I gotta’ do. With Jerry.”
“Oh man. I told you not to get mixed up with that scumbag. He’s wacked, man. What are you doing for him?”
“Never mind. Tell me your news.”
Cosmo was looking at him with complete disgust. “You are headed for trouble, man. I’m telling ya.”
“Think you got talkin room Cosmo?”
“Fuck you, man. Here’s your fucking news.” He pulled a piece of paper out of his pocket, crumpled it in his fist and threw it at Eugene who bent over and retrieved it from the floor. When he opened it, he found a number written by a very shaky hand.
“What’s this?” He looked at Cosmo.
“It’s a phone number, genius.” He was still pouting. Eugene waited him out, as he was accustomed to doing.
Finally, Cosmo spoke. “It’s your Kookum.”
“Your Kookum, stupid. Your grandma. I met someone on the Rez last weekend knew you and your grandma and that number is your Kookum and she really wants you to call.”
“I have a grandma? Fuck me!”
“No need for a speech there, Snake.” Cosmo grinned. “So you gonna call or what, man?”
Eugene’s mind was racing. He remembered daydreaming about being found by his real family. In his dream, he had a mom, dad, two brothers, two grandmas and two grandpas. Sometimes, if he had a lot of time on his hands, he added aunts and uncles and cousins. Even a sister.
He looked down at the slip of paper in his hand and then up at Cosmo who was starting to pace back and forth between the window and Eugene’s paper towel island.
Eugene jammed the paper into his pocket. “Thanks Cosmo.” He looked at his friend. He pulled up the left corner of his mouth and nodded.
“Okay, okay. Don’t get all gushy on me. Are you warm?”
“Good. Get the fuck out.”
Eugene stepped back into the cold and the wind snatched away Cosmo’s last words. Eugene turned back and cupped his hand behind his ear.
“I said, are you gonna call your Kookum?” Cosmo yelled.
He nodded and turned into the wind.
Not a chance, he thought. How many families could one guy lose?
The turn – July, 2009
Eugene stared out the window of the greyhound bus headed for Goose Lake and tried to imagine for the millionth time what he would say to his Kookum when he finally met her. They had spoken on the phone many times over the past year – since he finally found the courage to call her. But somehow talking to her in person seemed so much more intimidating. On the phone, they seemed pretty similar; their longest conversation to date had lasted eleven minutes.
The first time had been bizarre; she seemed to know it was him before she picked up. She denied having call display—claimed she didn’t even know what it was. She asked where he’d been; she was waiting for him to call her for a long time. He lied, said that he had lost her number for a year and then found it again. She grunted, just like he did when Cosmo lied to him. She told him to come up right away. He explained that it wasn’t that easy and that he had to save money for a bus ticket which was going to take a while. And it did. Especially when he kept smoking it.
But he was clean now. Sober. Ready. And on this bus thanks to good old Bruce, who gave him the money the way he always did—in a poker game. Bruce was a good player and Eugene knew perfectly well that the only time he took a big pot at Bruce’s table, was when Bruce wanted him to have it. They’d played more this year, as Eugene struggled to get clean, get a job, get a life. He knew he owed Bruce. Had spent his childhood loving him and hating him and needing him and rejecting him. But Bruce was still there.
Cosmo had disappeared from the poker table and from their lives. Eugene knew he’d show up again sooner or later. But he worried when he didn’t hear from him for long periods of time.
He fought the urge to get off the bus when it stopped at the next little community along the milk run, as he had at every stop since they left Winnipeg. He cracked each knuckle on both hands and leaned over to dig in his back pack for a bottle of coke. When he straightened up again, Reggie was sitting in the previously unoccupied seat beside him. Eugene jumped. “Jesus!” he breathed.
“Nope, just me. You thinkin about ditchin?”
Eugene stared out the window, sending off telepathic Fuck off’s as loudly his skull would allow.
“You can’t back out. Your Kookum’s been cooking for days, uh? Very rude not to show up. What’s the matter with you? You’re finally gettin some family.”
Eugene kept his face turned away until Reggie got bored and wandered off up the aisle.
At 4:00 in the afternoon, after ten hours on the road, the bus pulled onto the ugliest, dustiest main street Eugene had ever seen. There were about ten houses in various stages of decay along the street, as well as a little store with the Greyhound sign in the window. There was also a Canada Post sign in the same window. And a Liquor Commission sign. And an Instabank sign. Nice mall, he thought as he stepped onto the street.
A small woman in huge rubber boots stepped out of the store and onto the wooden porch. Her face lit up as soon as she saw him. She shuffled to the steps in the time it took him to cross the street and mount the stairs. Her arms were wide as he reached the top step and he just walked into them. She leaned her head against his shoulder as her arms wrapped him up.
When they came apart, she didn’t release him completely but slid her strong, stiff fingers down his arms until she held his hands in hers and looked up into his face. She had liquid brown eyes that drooped a bit and her skin was impossibly wrinkled. Her hair was braided neatly and hung down her back, grey against the purple sweater she had selected to go with her best dress. Her eyes crinkled to her ears when she smiled. She was a couple teeth short of a full set, Eugene noticed. As was he.
She reached up and cupped his cheek with her hand and whispered something he didn’t catch and probably hadn’t been in English, anyway. He held her eyes, felt the rhythm of his heart slow just a bit, felt the blood in his veins, felt her gaze in his soul. She pulled her hand a fraction of an inch off of his cheek and patted it sharply. Then she laughed, deep and rich, from her belly, and the sound took him by surprise. She touched his eyes and surprised him with the tears on her fingertips.
There was more laughter, not coming from Kookum. He looked around and was surprised to see six more people standing there watching. He wiped his eyes with the back of his hand and allowed Kookum to drag him around, introducing him. She called everyone auntie or uncle or cousin. Either that was just how they called one another, or he had hit the family jackpot. He concentrated, trying to remember faces and names and knowing he wouldn’t.
The evening was a blur of food, warmth, laughter, song, dance, storytelling. He heard stories of his grandfather’s escapades – everyone kept saying Eugene looked just like his Mishom. He also heard the story of how his grandparents met, told by an ‘uncle’ named Henry but edited heavily by Kookum Mary. Eugene’s face ached with laughing when Henry described Kookum and Mishom running after the goats Mishom was supposed to be watching. They had gotten out while Kookum and Mishom were kissing, laughed Henry. No - talking, shouted Kookum Mary and everyone laughed. Eugene happily rubbed his sore cheeks.
He noticed Reggie and his three mates standing at the edge of the circle. Reggie was laughing and watching everyone with an expression Eugene had never seen before. He fit so easily into this landscape that Eugene soon forgot all about him.
As the evening quieted, Eugene also heard the story of the year he was born; of the death of his mother and father in a fire that had devastated the community. His grandfather died a few weeks later. Of a broken heart, Auntie Petal added. Eugene let the tears run down his face as his Kookum rocked back and forth on her chair, crying and explaining how she’d been unable to take care of little Eugene. How she had been in bed, incapable of caring for herself even, when the government people came . . . and they took him. “No one here could keep you, Eugene. Everybody was dead for a little while. Everybody lost someone to the fire. And then we tried to get you back but they lost you.”
Tears flowed freely around the circle. Hands touched Eugene’s back, arms, shoulders, head. He sat with his head bowed and accepted the burden and gift of his story.
That night, he lay on Mary’s couch, staring out the window at the bright July moon and wondered what his life would have been if he’d stayed here. If there had been no fire. Wondered if anyone could tell him stories about his mother and father. It seemed the stories of that evening had skipped a generation, as if they did not speak of those who walked into the fire, as Big Debbie put it. She and Little Deb were the only survivors from their family.
Eugene finally fell into a deep sleep and woke in the morning to find Kookum watching him with a cup of tea in her hand. They ate breakfast together and then he walked to the river and sat in the sun with his thoughts and the most dizzying index of feelings he could ever remember.
When he returned from his walk, an older man was sitting at the kitchen table talking with Mary. There was a stack of papers piled neatly in front of him. When he saw Eugene, he stood up and extended his hand.
“Hello Eugene. Welcome home. I’m Johnny Bear. I was your Mishom’s best friend.”
Eugene shook his hand and sat at the table to wait. Clearly the man had something to say.
“I’m the band chief,” started Johnny. “When we heard you were coming, the council had a meeting and I got some papers here for you if you want them. These are so you can go to the University of Manitoba and the band will sponsor you. We can even get you a little money to live on. I don’t know if you thought much about school but your Kookum says you’re real smart and could pass that test for high school real easy and go to University. Anyway, there’s the papers, all signed.”
Eugene didn’t know how to respond. He had never even entertained the thought of going to university. For lots of reasons, but lack of money had rendered it unnecessary to bother sorting them out. “Thanks,” he said.
“Migwetch, Johnny,” echoed his Kookum.
“Okay.” The three sat in silence for a moment, then Johnny looked at Eugene. “What do you know about your grandfather?”
“Nothing. Just what I heard last night. The say I look like him.”
“Yup. Reggie had them green eyes same as you. Came from his Kookum, he said. Metis.”
Eugene was staring at Johnny, his heart pounding against his ribs. “Did you say ‘Reggie’? My grandfather’s name was Reggie?”
He’d never thought to ask.
“Yup. Funniest son of a bitch I ever knew. We laughed our asses off, we did.”
Eugene’s olive face paled. He excused himself, saying he wasn’t feeling well and hurried out the door to gulp some air. He found himself walking toward the store and ended up at the counter buying a ticket back to Winnipeg on a bus that would be arriving momentarily. He needed to think and he couldn’t do it here. Too many ghosts.
He went back to Kookum’s. Johnny was gone but the pile of forms lay on the table where he’d left them. And there they stayed. Eugene threw his things in his bag, kissed his puzzled and dismayed Kookum good-bye, promising to call as soon as he got home, and strode out, letting the screen door slam behind him.
Ante – November, 2012
University Centre was the hub of the University of Manitoba. Eugene sat like a stone in the river as the human traffic flowed around him. There were people walking straight through the concourse without slowing down, using the building as a warming station on their way from one end of campus to the other. Others poured in and out of the bookstore. Groups sat at tables by the vending machines, talking and not smoking. Eugene recognized the restless bodies and fluttering hands of the smokers. He was fluttering a bit himself.
He walked outside and spotted an ashtray, joined the three huddled forms underneath the huge anti-smoking sign from Health Canada. He lit up and cursed himself again for not bringing gloves. It was cold.
The trip across town had started with a mad dash to find exact change for the bus and ended with a booter when he stepped off the bus into a puddle – at the wrong stop. By the time he’d arrived, he was wet, cold, twitchy, and convinced that the entire trip here was a bad omen.
He checked his watch. His meeting was still twenty minutes away. He was unfamiliar with the bus routes in the south end of the city and had mistimed his arrival dramatically, even with the walk.
He took a drag and reminded himself that every new chapter started with the settling-in feeling. He and Reggie had discussed this decision at length, after an even lengthier discussion about why Reggie had failed to mention the familial connection in all the years they’d spent together. There was a lot of shrugging on Reggie’s part. And grinning.
Eugene thought the matter of University was settled the day he ran out of Kookum’s kitchen three years ago without the papers Johnny Bear had prepared for him. But the topic came back. Reggie brought it up regularly, creating a catch phrase to go with his mission: “Go get a white education, Noshen. You can’t fight a tank with a stick.” Eugene was sick of the line already, except the part where Reggie called him ‘grandson’. That he liked. No matter how many times Reggie brought the topic back to the table, Eugene came up with reasons why it would be a disaster. When all else failed, he pointed out to Reggie that he didn’t have the paperwork he needed from the band and he wasn’t really in a position to ask for it. The gift was offered and refused, so it was over. Even Reggie had no comeback for this.
But then the papers came back. They’d arrived in the mail last month, in a box, along with a letter from Johnny explaining that Kookum had suffered a massive stroke. She’d been airlifted to Winnipeg but had not survived the plane ride. Johnny noted that it was the only plane ride of her life. Eugene was saddened but not surprised by the news; a few days previous to that, Reggie had walked by as Eugene was writing out a cheque to Kookum and told him not to bother. Then, the night of the stroke, Eugene dreamt he was in the downtown Bay, riding the up escalator. On the down escalator was his Kookum with Reggie, giggling and talking. They spotted Eugene and waved. “Hey, Noshen, look who’s here!” Reggie shouted, pointing to his Mary with glee. She threw a kiss to Eugene.
Johnny’s letter included a second invitation to attend university with the band’s help. Reggie stood behind Eugene, reading over his shoulder. Although the letter was very sad and serious, Reggie was chuckling quietly to himself as he read. “That Johnny Bear. Funniest son of a bitch I ever knew. We laughed our asses off.” He poked Eugene. “There’s them papers. Don’t blow it. And stand up straight.”
Eugene lifted the pile of sheets out of the box and found a package wrapped in a dish towel underneath. He stared at it for a bit, working through his knuckles methodically as he contemplated the possibilities. He lifted the package out of the box and set it on the table, pulled back the corners of the towel to reveal a beaded buckskin knife sheath.
Reggie moved in for a closer look. “Hey, that’s my knife!” They spent a long time admiring the beadwork, the porcupine quills, the exquisite softness of the hide. The knife seemed to have been recently sharpened and the handle fit into Eugene’s hand like the palm of a long-missed friend.
It was a work of art and Reggie talked about his memories of the knife, including receiving the knife from his own father when he became a man. The knife symbolized his family’s reunification and the end of the residential school tragedy for his people. Eugene listened quietly, running his fingers across the soft leather and letting the songs of the knife vibrate through his skin, up his arm, and into his heart, wondering if he had yet completed his own transition from boy to man.
The knife was now hanging on the living room wall in the tiny apartment. Eugene had few friends to show it off to. Staying sober had required some adjustments in his social circles. Cosmo came and went—sometimes thriving, sometimes struggling. The knife was sacred to Cosmo. “That’s serious shit, man. That’s your mojo.”
Bruce had seen it as well, whistling appreciatively. They still played poker once in a while and Eugene was slowly gaining on him. Bruce insisted it had nothing to do with skill or card strategy—only that no one could read Eugene. He was the only player at the table with absolutely no tell. When Bruce watched Eugene gaze at the knife, he laughed and said that Eugene had fallen in love at last; Bruce could tell because his left eyebrow had lifted a bit.
Eugene wished he had the knife with him now; the knife spoke of confidence he was sorely lacking today. He took the final drag of his cigarette, butted it out and scurried back into University Centre.
He was still a bit early, but he rechecked the office number he’d written on his palm and took the north stairs to the second floor. As soon as he opened the door to First Nations Student Services, he felt his shoulders relax. The receptionist directed him to a cubicle at the far end of the low-ceilinged room where he found a young woman with hair so black it looked blue. It was straight and smooth and shiny and Eugene had never seen such hair. He sat down across from her and dropped his backpack to the floor at his feet.
She finished entering something into her computer, then turned slightly in her chair and looked him over. “Hello, I’m Lori Sinclair. Who are you?”
Eugene was mesmerized. Her eyes were large, dark, and warm and when she smiled, the rest of the room disappeared. He was no longer wet or cold or twitchy. He felt calm and relaxed for the first time today. He smiled.
She nodded, let her smile roll into a small chuckle and tried again, “What’s your name?”
“It’s Eugene. Eugene Pelletier.” He leaned back in the chair and continued to smile at her, although he was not aware that he was smiling.
“So, how can I help you?”
Eugene noticed that it was quieter here at Lori’s desk than anywhere else he had been on the campus so far. He pursed his lips and cocked his head to the side. “I’d like to go to school here. I’ve got these papers from my Band.” She nodded and held out her hand for the stack as he continued. “I didn’t finish high school but I’m 21 and heard you can register as a mature student. Don’t know how mature I am, though.”
She was looking through the papers. She asked a few questions which he answered as fully as possible, trying to say more than what he considered necessary. She jotted the occasional note on the yellow legal pad in front of her as she listened to his answers. “What made you decide to go back to school?” Her eyes latched attentively to his face.
He considered telling her he’d been pestered into it by his dead grandfather but instead, muttered that he’d decided it was time.
They filled out a series of papers together. When they got to the stage of choosing an actual faculty, he asked what faculty she was in and she told him she was in the Arts program, majoring in political studies and that she hoped to get into pre law next year.
Eugene was impressed. He was even more impressed to learn that both Lori’s parents were trained as lawyers; her mom had never practiced, graduating into motherhood instead. But Lori’s father had been very successful and had moved quickly through several appointments and now sat on the Court of Queen’s Bench.
Eugene stared at her. “You mean your dad’s a judge? No kiddin?” He pictured himself as a lawyer. That would be a nicer view of a courtroom. “Sign me up for Law!”
Lori laughed, explained the route and they made his application to the Faculty of Arts. She gave him a course calendar and showed him how to use it. They discussed some of the political science courses that Lori was taking. Eugene was intrigued with the things she was saying but even more with her passion. She talked openly about racism and discrimination in Winnipeg and even here at the University. She was involved in a campus political group that was, as she described it, “very active and usually angry.”
The conversation flowed easily between them and Eugene never felt at a loss for things to say or ask. They were finally interrupted by one of Lori’s colleagues who knocked on the soft side of the cubicle. “Excuse me, Lori. Jackie needs to see both of us before her 11:30 meeting with the ombudsman. Remember?”
Lori jumped a little in her chair. “Right. Sorry, Gail, I lost track of time. I’ll be right there.”
Eugene started to push things into his back pack, wondering how to make sure he saw Lori again soon. He looked up to find her smiling at him. “Hey, Eugene Pelletier – do you wanna go out sometime?” She raised her eyebrows endearingly.
“Yes,” he managed, his face warming quickly.
“Well don’t look so excited,” she laughed.
“My face doesn’t get excited,” he explained. “But the rest of me definitely is.” As he heard it, he grimaced.
She laughed again and the sound of it eased his embarrassment. They made a date and he left, walking back to the bus stop through the throngs of students. Soon he would be one of them.
Eugene was wandering down the dark hallway of a building that looked very much like one of the hotels he had lived in when he was sixteen. The doors to the rooms were different though; they’d been painted. Really painted. He stopped at one and admired the strange and wonderful colours, some he had never seen before, in bold random strokes in every direction with no repetition or pattern.
Then without being aware of moving, he was at the next door which was covered in a solid panel of pink with dozens of tiny, perfectly articulated black and white birds in flight, painted over the pink. He stood and stared and after a moment or two, he saw the birds begin to move, slowly, wings opening and closing, reaching and pulling. He smiled but did not touch.
The next door had hundreds, maybe thousands of the tiniest stripes he had ever seen running perfectly straight from top to bottom. Every colour imaginable was here. He pursed his lips and cocked his head, contemplating sitting down on the filthy carpet to count the stripes, but the door swung open suddenly and there was Reggie, standing ankle-deep in mist, grinning wildly.
“Where you been, Noshen? We been waiting. You like the clouds?” He indicated the swirling mist.
“It’s nice, Mishom. Is this a dream?”
“Of course. Come on in. It’s time you got properly introduced to the ancestors, uh?”
Eugene entered the room, much bigger than it should have been. A shabby poker table with duct tape winding up one leg sat in the middle of the room and around it, the three elders Eugene had seen from time to time, now in full ceremonial dress. Each elder sat on a magnificent dark wood chair, hand carved with animal heads and beautiful markings and symbols he’d never seen before.
“Okay, you sit, Noshen. I gonna introduce the ancestors. You pay attention, uh? This might be really important. Or maybe not.” He sat down in the chair to Eugene’s left, pointed to the man sitting on Eugene’s right. “This is Long Feather. He is your great-great-great . . . how many greats, Long Feather?” The man shrugged, reached over and touched Eugene’s hair.
“Who cares?” he said to Reggie, then turned back to Eugene. “I’m your grandfather too. We all are. We been looking out for you.”
“Tell him why you’re called Long Feather, uh?” Reggie laughed, leaned in to Eugene and whispered, “Liked to tickle the women with his long feather, that one.”
“Jesus.” Eugene shook his head.
“Nope, just me.” Reggie pointed to the next player at the table. “Beside Long Feather, that’s Billy Two Leg. Kind of a long story, that name. He’s from your mother’s people. He’s real smart like you. And over there, that’s Martin. Watch out for him; you got that poker face of yours from him, uh? He can bluff like a son of a bitch.” All four men burst out laughing and Reggie picked up a tattered deck of cards—which looked familiar to Eugene—and started to shuffle.
“Okay we gonna play the way Noshen likes so everybody gets two cards and we share the rest.” He dealt each player a two card pocket and laid the deck down in front of himself. “Now everybody gotta ante up.” There were groans from every chair. Eugene looked down and realized there were no chips on the table. He looked at Reggie.
“You gotta say the pledge of allegiance to that Queen, uh. That’s the ante. Gotta give something up to play. Gotta’ hurt a little. Ready?” The others all nodded glumly and began in unison:
“I, (and here there was a cacophony of noise as four different names were muttered simultaneously) do swear that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second, Queen of Canada, Her Heirs and Successors. So help me God.”
Eugene laughed. He couldn’t stop laughing and the four others soon joined in with him and they all laughed until Eugene’s sides ached deliciously. When he caught his breath, he asked, “Is that it? Is that the end of the dream?”
But it wasn’t.
Reggie turned to Martin. “You bet first, Martin.”
Martin took another look at his pocket cards and rubbed his chin. “I bet earthworms.”
Reggie nodded sagely. “Good bet. Billy Two Leg?”
Billy’s two cards were face down in front of him on the edge of the table. He slid the edges up just far enough for him to peak at them and put them back down. Reggie leaned over to Eugene and whispered, “That looks pretty professional, uh?”
Billy saw the earthworms and called with Rock & Roll. Reggie whistled softly.
Long Feather called with the people’s languages. The four elders nodded solemnly.
“Your bet, Noshen.”
Eugene checked his cards again, pursed his lips and cocked his head to the right.
“I’ll bet Vancouver Island.”
Reggie looked at every player carefully before calling—with every sweat lodge in the country.
“Okay, everyone’s in. Here’s the Flop.” He burned the top card and turned over three in the middle of the table. Not particularly impressive. He looked at Martin who knocked on the table for a Check. Everyone did and Reggie burned one and flipped up the Turn. It was an ace. Eugene looked at Martin. Reggie was right. Martin had absolutely no tell. Long Feather was sitting so still he was hardly breathing; he surely had an ace. Billy was stroking the back of his pocket cards and stopped when he saw Eugene watching him; he had something. Reggie was giggling; he had nothing.
Martin checked again and the table followed. Reggie burned and turned and there was the River card – another ace. Eugene’s eyes went immediately to Martin but there was nothing to read. Martin, he noticed, had also looked immediately at Eugene.
Reggie was muttering and chuckling and wiggling all over his antelope-themed chair. “What’ll it be Martin?”
“I’ll bet Eugene’s integrity,” he said without hesitation.
“Too rich for my blood. Fold.” Billy tossed his cards onto the table.
Long Feather also folded and in his excitement to watch the showdown, Reggie tossed his cards in out of turn. “Your bet, Noshen!”
For effect, Eugene took another peak at his pocket cards before calling with the family honour and then raising with the world wide web. Martin didn’t miss a beat, called with Niagara Falls and Reggie’s knife and said, “What you got Eugene?” he laid his cards down on the table. A three and a six.
There were exhalations of awe from around the table. “Nice cards,” breathed Reggie. Everyone turned to look at Eugene. He looked into Martin’s eyes as he laid down his two blank cards. A roar of appreciation rose with the laughter and all five men got up from the table and began to chase each other around the room. With Reggie hot on his heels, Eugene opened the door of the room and shot out into the hallway, laughing and looking back for his Mishom. But Reggie didn’t come.
Eugene stopped and went back to the doorway to look. The men were gone and so was the poker table. Just the beautiful carved chairs remained and Eugene went back in and sat in Reggie’s. He sure liked poker, he thought as he drifted deeper into his sleep.
He was awakened by Reggie, poking him in the kidneys from beside the bed. He rolled over carefully, trying not to disturb Lori. “You’re not allowed in here Reggie – you know what Lori said,” he whispered.
“I know, Noshen. But get up, uh? I want to talk about our dream.”
Raise – September, 2017
Eugene placed his hands on either side of the podium and let his eyes drift up over the crowd to the buildings on the other side of Main Street. The sun reflected off the dirty windows of the hotels and stores. He brought his gaze back and glanced at Lori, in the front row of the crowd sitting on the grass in front of Thunderbird House. When their eyes met, she nodded at him and he turned the last corner in his speech and headed into the ending they had written together.
“This centre behind me has become a place of learning for all those like me. We come to these elders and this place of ceremony to regain what we have lost—what has been taken from us. This is where we hear the stories and sing the songs and dance the dances that tell us who we truly are. This is where we meet the Ancestors and come to understand our place with the earth.
“What little we have to connect us here in the city is centered in this building and in these programs. And every dollar that the government withdraws is a door slamming in the face of people like me, wandering the streets, looking for connection, for belonging.
“When I look out at your faces, I see strength. I see survival. We have survived everything that has been thrown at us from Small Pox to Residential Schools to politicians who speak out of both sides of their mouths. We are still here.
“We have survived the loss of our language and our way of life. We have survived all attempts to make us invisible. We are still here.
“Now we lift our heads and see that another harsh winter has passed and we are still here. But we must get up now. Survival must become growth. It is spring for Anishanabe and for the sake of our future and the future of the earth, we can afford to be idle no more.
“Today, we leave behind the shame taught to our grandparents as children, we leave behind the hopelessness that leads to addiction, we leave behind any man or woman who does not believe in our right to govern ourselves, educate our children, and participate fully in the creation of a new country where all people live in dignity. Today we stand together, whatever our name and people. We are all Anishanabe. We are still here and now we move forward together. Migwetch.”
The crowd responded enthusiastically to Eugene’s cadence. As he turned to look at the Thunderbird House behind him, he heard people getting to their feet. He quickly nodded at the rally organizers to indicate they should mobilize the march right now while they had momentum, before people started to drift away.
He jumped down off the makeshift stage and joined Lori. She kissed his cheek, her eyes glowing. They walked the length of Main Street to Portage with their arms around each other’s waists, surrounded by the flow of people, listening to the call of the drums and the songs being offered.
At the Legislature, other speakers shared their stories, passing an eagle feather from hand to hand as they took turns speaking over the portable public address system that Lori’s dad had purchased and donated to Thunderbird house. It was almost dark by the time the rally organizer took the feather and pronounced the evening over. Almost dark in July meant it was quite late and the mosquitoes were having their way with the crowd. Lori checked to make sure all the clean-up details were present and ready to do their jobs, and then she and Eugene headed towards Osborne Street to catch a bus to the north end.
They sat together at the back of the empty bus and talked quietly about the upcoming exam schedule. Lori, high on the adrenalin of the march, outlined her plan to alleviate the stress of exam week; they would spend tomorrow morning cooking food ahead of time. She was chattering away about things that would freeze well when she noticed Eugene had lost his focus.
“What are you thinking about?”
“I’m thinking about how small our kitchen is.”
“It’s fine. There’s never a problem as long as you follow orders.” She squeezed his knee but he did not respond. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing. I’m just tired. It’s getting hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel. We work and study all the time, we live in a crappy little apartment, we can’t afford a car, we spend all our energy on everybody else’s problems. We can’t even afford to get married.”
“That’s not true. We agreed to wait until we both graduated. And what do you mean, “everybody else’s problems”? The people’s problems are ours.” Her eyes flashed and he sighed.
“I know. I’m just tired. I just want my life to be about making money and babies and see what that’s like.”
“We’re not making any babies until the world is a little more welcoming. And we need our law degrees to make that happen. Don’t forget about your story, Gene. How the aunties buried your cawl. You have a special destiny.”
He sighed again. “I don’t feel special and I don’t want any destiny besides a quiet happy life with you.” He kissed her nose just as the bus swerved and ended up smearing his smooch across her cheek. They both laughed. The sound of hers relaxed him a little. She hooked her arm through his.
“Don’t lose faith Gene. I know you’re going to make a difference. I know it.”
She was silent for several blocks. Then she continued. “I feel like I have so little to offer. I haven’t survived all the things you have. I’ve had it so easy and yet I’m the one who’s mad. That’s weird, huh? My mom always says that most things in life are just rhetoric until they enter your bloodstream through a wound. You’ve had all the wounds and I’ve got all the anger.”
Eugene looked at her, wondering what kind of wound it would require to have her passion enter his bloodstream.
They rang for their stop and stepped off the bus into a moonless dark. It was only a few blocks to their apartment so when they noticed they’d gained an entourage, neither of them was particularly concerned. When they were just steps from their building, Eugene felt a knife point in his back and was shoved into the alley. He reached out instinctively for Lori and had his arm smashed away. She was also being held from behind, an arm around her neck and a knife pointed at her throat.
Eugene reached slowly into his pocket and retrieved his wallet, his eyes locked on Lori’s the whole time.
“Fuck. Nothing. Don’t you even got a fuckin credit card, Chief?” Eugene broke his eyes away from Lori’s long enough to look into those of the speaker. He shook his head and returned his eyes to Lori.
The small, dirty man holding his wallet slapped Eugene’s face suddenly. Without any change to his expression, Eugene fixed his gaze on the eyes of his assailant and noted a brief flash of fear there.
“You speak English there, Tonto? Does your squaw?” Eugene looked at Lori, willing her not to speak. He glanced at the other two men in attendance. They were both slightly taller and heavier than the mouthpiece, but they looked completely strung out. If he was alone, he’d have made a run for it by now. None of these guys would move quickly enough to stop him. But Lori stood fuming in the grip of a madman.
The small man was getting too close to Lori. “Hey.” Eugene waited for the man to turn toward him and then kicked him as hard as he could in the groin. He grabbed Lori and pulled her behind himself quickly, backing away but not taking his eyes off the other two men. If they could just get out of the alley into the street.
Eugene had underestimated the speed and agility of the men. He was on the ground, being kicked viciously. He rolled frantically, trying to find Lori. She was still on her feet, kicking and punching wildly. He wrapped his arms around his head, and as he began to lose consciousness, he saw Lori fall to the pavement. He screamed from deep within, although it surfaced as a whimper.
Eugene woke up for a few minutes in the ambulance, Reggie sitting quietly behind the attendant who was busy trying to stop bleeding in several different places.
“Lori?” he whispered and Reggie gave him the thumbs up. He blacked out.
He didn’t regain consciousness again until late the following afternoon. When he did, Lori was sitting beside him and tears of relief squeezed past his restraint and made their way to the white pillow. She shushed him and covered his face with little kisses, her own tears rolling freely.
He was sore all over and his attempt to sit up failed. He lay back, examining Lori carefully and found only one bandage, on her left forearm. He touched it gently and looked at her.
“A cut,” she said. “Twelve stitches. But that’s it. We were lucky Gene – a cop car was cruising by. Who knows . . .” her voice caught and she touched each of his bandages, briefly explaining his injuries.
He took her hand in his own and kissed it. He touched the bandage on her arm again. She touched it too.
“Maybe this is it, eh?” She looked up at him. “Maybe this is ‘the wound’ for me.”
“No,” he said, still touching it. “It is ‘the wound’ for me.”
All in – November, 2021
Eugene leaned over his in-law’s kitchen counter and watched Lori make his chicken sandwich exactly the way he liked – no butter, extra mayo, pickle, black pepper.
“I’m not sure I can eat that. My stomach is going crazy.”
“You have to eat. It’s almost two in the morning and you haven’t eaten since dinner and either way, you still have one more speech to make tonight.”
“Either way? You’re supposed to be the optimist.” He took a small bite of the sandwich. The crowd in the living room had grown progressively quieter as time went on. There were about fifteen people in there – his campaign manager and team as well as the Judge’s friends who had been Eugene’s financial supporters for the whole run, right from the nomination to tonight.
“I don’t think I can stand this suspense much longer. Why is it taking so long?”
“I told you, it was less than a one hundred vote difference so they can’t legally declare a winner until they’ve counted twice.” She straightened his tie as he munched disconsolately on his sandwich and wished for some nicorette gum.
“Do you remember the day we decided to run?” she asked.
“Not really. All the days in which you have talked me into doing something insane are starting to blur together.”
“Seriously, Gene. Do you remember what you said when you came to tell me you were in?”
“Was it, ‘Wouldn’t it be fun to live in Ottawa?’”
“You told me that with your poker face and my taste for danger, we could bluff our way right into Sussex Drive. Remember that?” She came around the counter and slid her arms around his waist.
“I think I was anticipating a longer build up. Like another twenty years or so and maybe an actual political job of some kind on the resumé.”
“Take a breath, Gene. You’re ready. Dad thinks so and so do all those men out there who have forked out the bucks to help get you here.”
“Why me, though? I can’t be the only Aboriginal lawyer with devastating good looks, can I? How am I going to face them if I lose? All that campaign money, all that work. And what if I win? What if I win and completely screw up? Oh my god why did I ever get into this?”
Lori grabbed the sandwich plate and put it on the counter. She put both hands on the middle of his back and pushed him towards the door. Out on the step, the cold November air was a relief from the stuffiness of a house crammed with expectation.
“Breathe,” she ordered. He ran his hands through his hair and sucked the frosty air through his nostrils.
“Listen to me, Gene. It doesn’t matter that you are young and inexperienced. It matters that you are smart, really smart. And you have really smart people working for you, people who know how this political world works. Carl is a genius and he loves you like a son. He will never give you bad advice. He knows this city, this country, and he knows what we need. Don’t you remember? You used to come home from his lectures all fired up. He inspired you and guess what, Gene? You inspire people too; they listen to you, they respect you. You have something special already and it’s only going to get stronger. All you have to do is get your foot in the door, listen and learn . . . and never be out of cell phone range with Carl,” she added, laughing.
Eugene didn’t even smile. “But, Lor, I feel like a fake. I feel like actual politicians who know how to do the job got ripped off tonight because the biggest money in the Aboriginal circle decided to buy themselves an MP.”
“Money gets people’s attention, Gene but it can’t buy a person’s vote. You did that part all by yourself.” They stood quietly looking up through the branches of a poplar at the few stars bright enough to shine through the glow of the city lights. She touched his arm. “It’s been so busy . . . I’m sorry about Cosmo.”
She opened the back door and disappeared into the light and warmth, leaving him alone to the night.
Cosmo. He’d learned only yesterday that Cosmo was dead and his life was so maxed out he hadn’t yet been able to find out what happened. He clenched his jaw. What kind of life did not allow you time to grieve a brother?
He walked down the steps and paced along the yard. There was no snow yet, but the grass was crunchy with frost.
The back door opened again and he turned hopefully. “Still no news.” It was Carl, his tall frame silhouetted against the light from the kitchen. His perpetually disheveled hair was graying quickly now, Eugene noticed as he returned to the back steps.
Carl put his huge hand on Eugene’s shoulder. “How’re ya holding up, kid?” He squinted through his dirty glasses.
Eugene looked at the craggy face he had grown to love. Carl was like a father to him. “I’m getting seriously cold feet, Carl.”
Carl’s laugh boomed across the yard. “Well, it is November!” He slapped his thigh. Literally. He did it all the time and it was one of the many things Eugene loved about him. “Ah shucks kid, of course you’re scared. Us old guys railroaded ya into it because we’re all too tired. But you did great – better than any of us expected. We thought you might be the right guy for the job but guess what? Turns out, not only can you do it, but you’ve got the gift.”
Eugene looked at him and shook his head slightly. Carl continued. “Anyone can learn how to say all the right things at a debate; be smart and eloquent. But every once in a while, someone comes along who reaches out and snags the imagination of every person who can hear his voice. That’s you, Eugene. You’ve got that.” He laughed. “I know what you’re thinking. But people have a hard time seeing true gifts in themselves. I know you doubt what I’m saying and I know you doubt yourself. But sometimes you have to move forward on faith, Eugene. Lori doesn’t push you because she is blinded by love, she pushes you because she can see the gift more clearly than any of us. Always has.”
Eugene spoke slowly. “So what is it exactly? This ‘gift’.” He blushed.
“Well I don’t have a name for it, it’s just the combination of your particular qualities with a little magic fairy dust or something.” He thought for a few seconds. “It’s the way you see the world and how you help us see it through your eyes. And I know you won’t believe this, but it’s that damn poker face of yours, too.”
“Come on. Do you know how many people have been working with me to get more expression on my face?”
“Well if they had any sense at all, they’d just tickle your armpits because your face is perfect the way it is. You just need to smile more. You already smile more than when I first met you. That’s Lori too, I imagine. When I look at your face, it makes me feel calm. You look in my eyes nice and steady and then when I manage to make you happy, I am rewarded with that big smile. You have the kind of face a leader needs. You know, so when the aids come and tell you there is no more money in the coffers and you happen to be on national television at the time, no one will panic. Everyone will just look at you and go, ‘Well, how bad can it be? He looks pretty relaxed.’”
They both laughed, Eugene silently and Carl probably waking the neighbours. “Anything else on your mind?” Carl put his hand back on Eugene’s shoulder.
“Do you remember my friend Cosmo?”
“Sure,” Carl answered.
“Well, I found out yesterday that he is dead and I haven’t even had time to find out what happened or if there’s a ceremony or where the body is . . . What kind of friend am I?” He covered his eyes with one hand and let his tears come. Carl’s hand stayed on his shoulder but he said nothing.
Eugene sniffed and pulled a hanky from his pocket. “Did you know that Cosmo saved my life?”
“No, I didn’t. What happened?”
“We were kids and my social worker took us camping and I got myself trapped between a bear and her cub and just froze. Cosmo grabbed me and pulled me out of the way. He was a loyal friend and he should have been here with me tonight. He saved me and I couldn’t save him.”
He wiped his face. “How’s my makeup?” he asked, turning to face Carl.
“Good as new. Win or lose, I’m proud of you, son.”
“Jesus, Carl, I just fixed my make-up.”
They laughed and embraced. As he opened the back door, the phone rang and a cheer rose up from the living room like a cloud in the desert sky.
Check raise – May, 2029
Lori sipped her beer and watched the door for Carl while Eugene recorded a few reminders to himself. He put his Messenger back in his pocket and asked for a warm up on his coffee. The Toad in the Hole was the oldest pub in town—the last of its kind—surrounded by bars with techno music and coloured drinks with stupid names. He liked the dark wood and the dark beer and the fact that a few personal steins still hung from the bar.
Eugene had been here as a boy. Well outside, hanging around the Village, waiting for Foster Dad #5 to finish his “one quick one” and take them both home for dinner. Judging by how well Eugene knew Osborne Street, Foster Dad #5 had been a slow drinker.
He touched Lori’s hand. She looked at him, smiled absently and looked away. It had been a few years since they’d sought Carl’s council on a decision. In his heart, Eugene knew what he had to do. This meeting was for Lori. He hoped she would be able to accept his decision if she could talk it through with Carl.
The heavy oak door squealed open and Carl blocked out the rectangle of light with his wide shoulders. He stood for a moment while his eyes adjusted, then strode to the table. The crags of his face had grown deeper still since they’d seen him last. He ordered a beer and slid into the pew beside Lori.
Eugene plunged in. “Carl, I’m flying back to Ottawa on the red eye tonight. The Prime Minister has scheduled a surprise vote on repealing the same-sex adoption law for first thing tomorrow morning. He’s ordered us to vote with the party to push it through the House. And he’s handed out his ugliest threats yet for anyone who votes against.”
Carl shook his big head. “I can’t believe we are back here again. What is it with this guy? When is he going to climb out of the pocket of the radicals and start running the country?”
“He won’t. It’s a deep and plush pocket. We’re stuck with this crap for as long as he’s the leader. But I’ve had enough, Carl, and I think this is the time to make a stand.”
Lori looked at him with surprise. “So you’ve already decided?”
“No, but that is how I feel. It’s ridiculous to be debating the basic rights of one entire segment of society because the Prime Minister and his bankroll buddies don’t like their lifestyle.”
“Gene, that’s not the issue here. Everyone knows it’s ridiculous! The question is, are you willing to end your career for the longest running unresolved issue in Canadian politics since . . . since Quebec separated?”
Lori let her head drop back on her shoulders and exhaled loudly. “Yes. It will end his career and it won’t change anything. The bill will go through. Again. And we’ll fight it back in. Again. It’s happening with or without your vote, Gene. Johnson’s been waiting for this configuration. You will be throwing away your career for nothing. Look at all the good things we’ve been able to do for the north end since you’ve been in Ottawa. For the environment, Gene. You are making a difference and there’s so much more to do for our earth and for our people. You’re going to throw it away for a lost cause.”
Eugene turned slowly to his wife. “Did you just call our next door neighbour a lost cause? Your cousin Denny? Our friends?”
She cut him off before he could get rolling. “I’m not talking about the people—I am talking about the issue. We’re never going to finalize this one with Johnson in the driver’s seat. But taking yourself out of the game is not the answer.” She wiped the condensation from the beer glass with a napkin. “Or perhaps that is the issue, Eugene? Are you looking for a way out? Is this political suicide by vote of conscience?”
Eugene shook his head. “You can’t expect me to go in there and step on the heads of another group just because I have boot prints in my own hair. I didn’t get into this to become one of the oppressors.” He shoved the coffee cup away, tepid and undrinkable again. “Besides, I thought my job was to represent the people of Winnipeg North. Lots of them are same-sex couples who want children. What am I supposed to say to them at the next fundraiser?”
Carl leaned forward. “In politics, there inevitably comes a time when a person has to go back to the beginning and ask some simple questions like the ones you’re asking, Eugene. Simple to ask of course, but very difficult to answer. Why are you doing what you’re doing? Who do you answer to? And can you live with your actions?”
Eugene looked straight back at Carl. “I cannot live with supporting a bill which denies basic rights to my constituents. I got into this job to equal the playing field for all Canadians. I answer to myself, my family, and the people of Winnipeg North.” He took his wife’s hands in his. “I can’t live with this, Lori.”
She sat quietly for a moment, head bowed. “Okay. So when he votes against, what will happen?” She turned her body toward Carl.
Carl explained all the possible scenarios that would follow and none of them were good. He felt their best option was to get as much publicity on the issue as possible. Perhaps some good would come of it. Lori nodded and made a note on her pad of paper. She’d always been the one with the connections.
“I don’t think publicity will save you, Eugene. The public is just so sick of this issue being recycled. But you may be able to get the attention of another party or another leader; put yourself in the mind of someone who could be an ally down the road, if you decide to run again.”
They talked with Carl for another half hour. As they got up to leave, Carl put his huge mitt on Eugene’s shoulder and looked down at him. “I’ll be very sorry if we lose you over this, but I’m proud of you. And my friends and I can be pretty noisy when we want to be. I’m going to head over to see Chuck at the Free Press right now.” He checked his watch. Too late for the morning edition but Saturday would be good, dontcha think?”
In the car on the way home, Lori stared out the window at the little clusters of kids on the street. “Do you think you might like to work with me at the Coalition? You are still a lawyer, you know.” She put her hand on his knee.
“Well I’d need some help, I barely practiced before I switched gears.”
“Did you talk to Reggie about this?”
“He said, time to up the ante, Noshen.”
Deal – June, 2030
Eugene tuned off the car and checked his watch out of the corner of his eye so Lori wouldn’t notice. He had ten minutes before he had to meet the reporter here in the parking lot. He could help Lori set up the picnic and be back here to meet Janis, or Janet, Longridge. He should have written it down. His memory was not quite as sharp as it used to be, he’d noticed recently. This was the sort of thing he never had to think about before; names and details usually stuck to him like Velcro on Velcro.
He pulled the picnic basket out of the backseat and looked around. “Where should we set up, Hon?”
Lori shaded her eyes from the sun and looked around. “There?” She pointed across the grass field to a shady spot under a stand of birch. It was far away from any of the little out buildings scattered here and there across La Barrière Park.
They walked across the field talking about the weather, and the food they had purchased for the picnic, the blessed absence of mosquitoes after the long dry spell this spring. They did not talk about Eugene doing a Free Press interview in the middle of their last day together before he had to fly back to Ottawa.
He looked across the field and watched a car enter the parking lot. “I better go. That’ll be her.” He kissed Lori on the cheek, checked in her eyes to gauge how much damage control would be necessary later, and walked back across the field.
It was Janet, which he remembered just as he stuck out his hand to say hello.
She was young and energetic and was happy to walk with him along the river as they spoke, recording their conversation and commenting regularly on the heat, which she had clearly overdressed for. Eugene was in shorts and a golf shirt – not what he would be wearing if he was sitting in his own back yard with Lori right now, but he was cool enough. Janet was wearing slacks, shoes and socks, and a black long-sleeved blouse.
She started with the usual questions and he answered by rote. Then she told him that she had wanted to talk to him since the second he’d been offered a Cabinet post, but apparently his office had put her off for several months in the chaotic scramble to get up to speed on his portfolio.
He apologized, saying he would never put off a Winnipeg reporter unless it was absolutely necessary. He gave her a brief and surface picture of what had occurred for him in the days following the bombshell of his appointment to cabinet.
She had indeed done her homework and alluded tentatively to the ‘show down’ between Johnson and Eugene when Eugene ‘voted against the Prime Minister.’ He corrected her language gently, shifting the focus from the politics to the issue of rights and the bill’s violation of those rights. She nodded and went right back to the conflict between him and Johnson. Eugene had to admit that he was interested to hear how she had interpreted the bizarre turn of events last May that had taken Eugene from the edge of the political void to a cabinet position.
“Janet, I can’t talk about the conversation I had with the Prime Minister. I’m sure you can appreciate that his privacy must be respected. I can tell you that I was as surprised as anyone with how things turned out. I assumed my decision to vote against the bill would have some pretty serious repercussions for my career. The events of those few days and, incidentally, I gratefully acknowledge the huge roll the press played in those events . . . those events are such a blur now.” He really wanted to get out of this territory but she was a dog with a bone.
“After the incident in the House, you were instantly dubbed ‘the Iceman’ by the press. What do you think of your nickname?”
“I’m well aware of my somewhat stoic face,” he said, looking at her and freezing his face comically to make her laugh. “I didn’t think of it as being a factor at the time. I just said I was voting against and the look that passed between the PM and myself – which admittedly dragged on a little – was not any kind of ‘show down’ in my mind.”
“What was it? In your mind? Do you remember what you were thinking?”
Eugene remembered exactly what he was thinking as he stared at the PM that day, but it certainly wasn’t anything he wanted to read in the Free Press tomorrow morning.
“I don’t really know,” he bluffed. “I think I was trying to stay focused on the people who sent me to Ottawa, on doing what I believed to be right.”
“Hmm.” She let the answer stand. “So, it had never occurred to you that everyone who voted after you might throw their votes with yours when you voted against?”
“No, it honestly hadn’t occurred to me. That must sound silly.” He pursed his lips, cocked his head and studied her for a moment. He liked her.
She grinned at him. “So any chance you could give me a hint about the conversation in the PM’s office after session closed?”
He grinned back. “Not a chance. But I’ll tell you all about Winnipeg North and how great it is and all the fabulous people I’ve met there. How about that?”
She laughed. “Sure, we’ll get to that. Tell me about being in the cabinet. The inner sanctum. What’s that like?”
“We have better vending machines.” They walked for another 40 minutes chatting amiably about things of interest to Janet, things of interest to her readers, things of interest to Eugene. As they said good-bye in the parking lot, she surprised him with her last card. A veteran move, if ever he saw one. They were laughing at her broken down car and saying good-bye. She shook his hand, looked right into his eyes and said, “Is it true you’ve been asked to consider the leadership when Johnson retires?”
He wasn’t sure if she caught his reaction. He looked back at her steadily and smiled gently. “Ah, Miss Longridge, well played, but you’re bluffing. It was truly a pleasure to meet you. Be well.”
He turned and headed across the parking lot, thinking about the question. He heard the muffler of her little car roar to life and turned to wave. When he did, he saw her writing furiously, a notepad jammed up against the steering wheel.
Yup. He definitely liked her.
Fold – August, 2039
Eugene paddled for three hours without stopping. He wanted the ache in his arms, the sunburn on his face. He’d brought no electronics with him, but he played Robbie Robertson over and over in his mind: understand me fully with reference to my affection for the land.
Eugene felt his muscles and skin burn and watched the trees sway together, moaning over departed ghosts. Bird River had changed since his last visit.
Great swaths of dead trees had been visible on the banks yesterday and he had not seen a single eagle or hawk in the day and a half he’d been on the river. On the first day, he kept lifting his paddle out of the water to listen. The silence used to mean something interesting. A moose on the swampy shore, perhaps. But the crickets and birds were not silenced with caution. They were not out there listening with him; they were gone.
He had cleared his schedule for four days, an incredibly difficult task. Tomorrow morning he would complete his paddle and head home to face Lori who had far from forgiven him for using these rare free days to go on vigil without her. But she didn’t know that these days were so much about her. He’d told her he needed a break, that he wanted to go back to the river and be with Cosmo again, that he needed to go and talk to Reggie and the ancestors – even though Reggie had never appeared at Bird River.
In reality, Eugene had come to the river to make a decision. Things were shifting. Tilting, in fact, and he was losing his balance. Ever since his appointment to Cabinet, since that bizarre twist of fate when his political death song had turned into a rebirth, he had felt himself being pulled further and further into his work. He’d always been immersed, but Lori had always been right there with him, totally engrossed, up on every issue ahead of him and as full of opinions as when they were law students planning the New World Order. But lately, when the pull of work came, he felt stretched, felt his fingers being pulled from Lori’s. When had she stopped coming to Ottawa with him? The burden of their separation had been getting heavier, certainly, but there was something more lately. A wall he couldn’t define.
The impetus for planning this trip had come two months ago. They’d been eating a late dinner and watching the news. Eugene had just gotten home from a grueling day while Lori had been home for a few hours already. He ate in silence, running snippets of the day’s meetings through his mind. Finally, he turned to Lori and asked how her day had been. She told the television to mute and turned to look at him. “Do you know that you have been home for an hour and a half and that is the first thing you have said to me?”
“What?” He thought back. “Are you sure?” He pictured himself walking in to the house, kissing her cheek, going to the bedroom to shower, coming into the kitchen and helping dish up the supper, turning on the TV. It was possible. “I’m sorry.”
But sorry hadn’t been enough for Lori that night and they’d had a huge fight. Eugene had been slightly off balance throughout, desperately trying to ascertain what exactly Lori wanted but it was like juggling jello. She wanted him around more but when he suggested she come to Ottawa, there were the usual reasons why that didn’t work. When he suggested it might be time for him to retire, she didn’t want that either.
She bounced around like a chaotic electron, and he felt assaulted by the barrage of emotions. They had resolved nothing, talking in circles for hours.
As he’d pondered that night in the following weeks, a single question slowly began to emerge, at first just strings of fog and cloud slowly taking form, but by the time he had booked and planned this trip, his quest was clear to him. He could not do justice to both the people who elected him and to his wife. It was time to choose. Of course the complicating factor was not the decision itself – that was easy. The problem was that if he gave up politics to focus on his marriage, and his wife believed so strongly that his destiny lay in political life, what effect would that have on their relationship, on her respect for him? On her passion for their mission as a couple? He was caught.
So he had come to the river. He stopped for lunch and ate on a rock in the shade, giving his skin and eyes a break from the sun. He ate slowly, mindfully, gratefully. He remembered this spot. He looked around at the landmarks. Different but the same. It was here that he and Cosmo had tried to catch the big river turtle so many years ago.
When he was done eating, he pulled out the small book he kept in the map pouch. It was half the size of a paperback but had a hard cover. The red cloth covering was worn completely off in places revealing the cardboard beneath, the edges worn and frayed. He opened to the index and looked up, ‘Turtle.’ He read aloud to the river. “Truth comes to each of us in our own way. Truth is held by the Turtle, who lives many lifetimes and is patient in learning and teaching us about life. It is the turtle who helps us see that although we may live our lives in different ways, no life is more or less important than another.”
He placed the small book carefully in the map pouch and sealed it, packed the food back into the blue Baja bag, got in and pushed the canoe off the shore.
He camped that night in his favourite spot. This was the one camp sight he had used on every trip up Bird River. He took his time setting up the tent and then went off to look for firewood. He walked along the river for a while, then found a bit of a trail leading back into the bush. He gathered as much dry stuff as he could carry and returned to his camp. He crouched over the pit to set the fire when suddenly voices out of nowhere startled him so badly he fell right into his fire.
“Jesus!” he shouted.
“Nope, just me,” said Reggie.
Eugene composed himself. “I thought you didn’t need to check on me when I was out here on the land.”
“This ain’t ‘on the land’. Look at all this stuff. You got a house and a stove and you brought food and enough clothes for all of us. I thought you said you were goin camping?”
Eugene pulled a lighter out of his pocket. “That’s nothing. I even brought fire.”
“Ya, me too.” Reggie pulled a lighter out of his pocket. So did Long Feather. And Billy.
Eugene looked around. “Where’s Martin?”
“He hates campin. ‘Course we didn’t know it was gonna be so fancy.” Reggie poked his head into the tent. “Kinda’ small. Guess we’ll sleep out here.”
“Guess so,” Eugene said.
Reggie lowered himself to the ground beside the fire pit. “So what’s up with you Noshen? You’re miserable, uh?”
“Yup. Getting there. Lori is unhappy.”
Billy, still examining the tent, muttered, “Shoulda had kids.”
Before Eugene could respond, Long Feather smacked his lips in disgust and Reggie said, “You shut up, Billy. You know she couldn’t have kids.” He turned back to Eugene. “You think that’s it, Noshen. Why she’s sad?”
“No, I don’t think so. Well maybe that’s part of it, but she’s always said she was okay with not being able to have kids. She said it didn’t fit the plan anyway.”
“You know, Mishom: Lori still thinks we can change the world by being in parliament.”
“You don’t?” he said to Eugene, then turned and told Billy and Long Feather to come and sit down and stop making so much noise. They were pelting each other with wild blueberries.
“I don’t know if I ever believed that. I think I just believed in Lori and she really believed it. Believes it. But what if it’s too hard, that goal? What if it comes between us? Would you have let your work come between you and Mary, Mishom?”
“Ah, Noshen,” Reggie’s voice softened the way it did when he spoke of Mary. “It’s not our job to clear the way before someone else, only to watch our own feet and make sure we don’t trip. Mary had her path and I had mine. You walk together for as long as you’re given and take care that your own path doesn’t get messed up.”
Eugene stared at Reggie. “I have no idea what that means.”
The ancestors laughed. Long Feather gave it a try. “It means you can’t make this decision for both of you and you’re not the boss of Lori’s happiness. You make a decision that’s right for you and then she will have to do the same.”
Eugene’s stomach dropped. “Okay, so I choose to quit politics because I’m afraid it will eventually destroy our relationship. Then what?”
“Then you choose a new path together and try to make sure it is a good one for you both.”
“But what if she still wants this one?” Eugene put his head in his hands.
“You’re right, Noshen. That’s a tricky one. Maybe Raven was involved.” The three men launched into their favourite Raven story, interrupting each other and getting up to strut around the fire in character.
When they were done, Eugene asked, “What should I do?” and Reggie said, “Hey, did you guys notice there ain’t many ravens around here?”
When Eugene got up the next morning, he was alone again. He packed up his camp after a simple breakfast of coffee and oatmeal and headed downstream on the last stretch of river back to where he’d put in. It was a bit cloudy, and cooler than it had been. Eugene examined the sky as he paddled, trying to determine whether or not he would be loading the car in the rain.
The canoe floated along with such ease, Eugene was envious. He paddled slowly, letting his mind wander with the currents below him. As he rounded a bend, an outcropping of rock came into view. Near the water stood a man and a boy, looking back at the campsite there. As Eugene drew closer, he could see evidence of an animal having been in the camp; a few things were scattered about on the ground and the food cooler lay on its side by the tent.
The man looked up, saw the canoe and waved with the hatchet he held in his hand. Eugene pulled onto the rock and said hello. The man introduced himself as Cole, told his grandson Brum to say hello. Eugene introduced himself and asked what was happening.
Cole scratched his head. “Looks for all the world like a bear was here, but I can’t see that happening.” Eugene nodded. He’d heard the bear had not survived in this area.
Just then, a snuffling sound drew their attention and all three of them gasped as a large but lean black bear lumbered out of the trees and headed back to the cooler for a second look.
“Holy shit.” It was the eight year old who found his voice first.
Cole put Brum into the bow of the canoe and pushed it off, then turned and started yelling at the bear, waving the hatchet. Eugene and the boy added their voices to the din and eventually, the bear wandered back the way he’d come. They left Brum in the canoe and Eugene and Cole broke camp, taking down the tent and cleaning up the site while keeping an eye on the trees.
Once the canoe was loaded and ready to go, they pushed off and the two boats rolled along for a half hour or so, then pulled up again on a tiny island in the middle of the river. Brum ran off to look for frogs and the men sat to talk. Cole was clearly shaken by the experience with the bear. He told Eugene he lived not far from here and had been camping on the Bird River since he was a boy himself. He’d brought his own kids here and now his grandkids. He talked about the Bird River that Eugene remembered from his first trip here with Bruce and Cosmo, with bear scat everywhere. Cole talked about the raccoons and turtles and deer and elk and moose and ducks and birds and fish. His eyes filled with anguish as he looked across the water to the silent bank of the river. “I do believe that I have been watching this river die. What a terrible thing. Everyone talks about the death of the environment but I see it clear as day. And a river this size dying in one man’s lifetime seems pretty damn fast to me. Pretty damn scary.” He wiped his eyes with the back of his hand. “It’s been fourteen years since I last saw a bear. That guy didn’t look too healthy but he’s still here. I can hardly believe it.”
Eugene listened to Cole until Brum came back, anxious to carry on. They shook hands and Eugene shoved them off, then went to the map bag and pulled out his little red book. He looked up ‘Bear’ and read to the moss.
“Courage to overcome our fears is a strength that comes from the West. This strength of spirit is taught to us by Grandfather Bear. When the bear speaks to us in a dream, it means there is a new teaching for us. And so we must use courage to learn what it is the bear is teaching us. We must learn to understand our fears to help ease the weight of our life’s journey.
Each of us has a spirit that we can nourish with the bear teachings in our times of growth and understanding. We must use these teachings to help finish the things we start.”
No Limit – January, 2044
Eugene checked himself in the mirror. Not bad for a 54 year old. He straightened his tie and glanced at the black garment bag he’d hung on the hook behind the door. He looked back at the full-length mirror, a testament to the vanity of the Speaker of the House whose antechamber Eugene and his aide had commandeered.
“I look awfully white,” Eugene said.
His aide Peter, who was himself awfully white, looked up anxiously. “Sir?”
“Never mind, Peter. Could you give me a moment alone, please?”
Eugene wondered if Lori had arrived. He wished he could talk to her right now.
He poured a glass of water from the pitcher on the desk and drank it down. He went to the door and unzipped the garment bag, reached in and pulled out his great-grandfather’s knife sheath. He stood for several minutes touching the soft leather strap and tracing his fingers along the bright beads and porcupine quills. He pulled it over his neck and felt the satisfying weight of the knife against his side. Returning to the garment bag, he withdrew a magnificent buckskin jacket. The leather was like a baby’s bottom and the beadwork was unparalleled. He pulled it onto his shoulders for only the second time; the first had been a fitting in the kitchen of Auntie Bella in Goose Lake.
He admired the jacket in the mirror and checked to be sure no part of the sheath was visible. There was a tap at the door and Peter poked his head in and said, “It’s time, Sir.” He registered the jacket and every bit of colour drained from his face.
Eugene patted him on the shoulder. “Don’t worry, Son. Protocol from here on. Promise.”
He stepped past Peter and saw Lori standing in the tiny alcove which separated the Speaker’s room from the chamber. She had barely enough room to stand without being visible to the entire House. He took her in, heart aching and singing. They embraced for as long as possible before he heard the beginning of his cue. He pulled back and ran his hand down her cheek. “We did it,” he whispered.
“No,” she whispered back. “You did it. And now the real work begins.”
He pulled her close again, breathed in all he could before releasing her. He leaned forward again and whispered in her ear, “Migwetch.”
He heard the Speaker proclaim the House to be in Session. “Ladies and Gentlemen, I am honoured to present to you the Prime Minister of Canada, the Right Honourable Eugene Pelletier.”
Eugene stepped to his place beside the speaker, shook her hand and turned to face the House. Every member was standing and applauding or banging a desktop. He looked up to the Galley which was packed.
The line of people across the back of the galley were not applauding. The ancestors stood tall and straight and silent. In the centre stood Reggie, in full ceremonial dress, as were they all. His Kookum was there, smiling happily beside Martin, Billy, and Long Feather. Some faces he knew, some he didn’t. And tall amongst them, shoulders straight and strong – Cosmo.
He forced himself to look away, to look into the faces of his colleagues and friends, acknowledging their welcome. When the applause subsided, the Speaker introduced Loretta Spence, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations to open the session with a prayer of blessing.. She finished with a short song on her drum. Eugene stood with his head bowed throughout the prayer and song, staring at the green carpet of the chamber, imagining it to be grass. He pressed his elbow against the knife under his jacket.
In the wake of the final drum beat, Eugene spoke quietly into the silence. “All my relations.” He raised his eyes to the galley and locked his gaze with Reggie’s. Reggie raised his hand, palm toward Eugene. Eugene raised his own and the ancestors were gone.
The Prime Minister smiled.