Ray half-limped into the Lucky Dollar and hit his hat, like he always did, on the tiny Chinese fragrant package hanging over the door. Behind the checkout counter, Ping looked up and the pitch in her voice changed, the scolding long vowels trailing off into a hitched note of sudden consideration. Ray knew he looked like shit. Sarah was always in charge of keeping him half-assed presentable, but Sarah wasn’t here and Ping was and Ray thought that was a pretty concise summary of his situation.
He did a quick mental accounting of his physical flaws. Manure and blood on his good roper boots, from the tricky insemination Wednesday morning at Gord Sundholm’s. The left knee of his Lees blown out from where the son-of-a-bitch Charolais kicked him right through the squeeze, his arm still inside her halfway to her neck. Five—six?—days of itchy beard, the red-blond whiskers on his neck burrowing back under, caving in on themselves, already worn down by the proximate atmosphere around Ray Ellsgard.
Ray thought of her as Ping because that’s what his wild hellion nephews Cody and Dallas called her. Ping’s husband was Pong. Ray knew it was wrong to think of them as Ping and Pong, but it seemed just as wrong to ignore the humorous gift his usually thoughtless and inconsiderate nephews had given him.
He lowered his hat brim with one hand and jammed the other behind his back to tuck in his shirt. When he straightened up he saw that neither Ping nor Pong, shuffling up to the till now with his dangling cigarette and crepe-thin Montreal Expos shirt, were even looking at him. They were staring at Shane, his five-year-old, and smiling.
Shane was tall for five, even in this strange new age of school nutritionists and cartoon multi-vitamins and actual serious conversations at parties about the Canada Food Guide, and his white-blond hair would have been more exotic to Ping and Pong if they’d moved to Stavely six months ago from Canton and not Calgary. But they weren’t staring at Shane because he was big for his age and had hair like a mod Barbie, and Ray knew it.
Here it comes, thought Ray.
“You add, boy, please, you add! You add for Xiu!” Ping/Xiu said. She was hopping and grinning, her formless black blouse rippling around her non-waist, and she tugged out a customer’s monthly tab from the rows of notebooks she and Pong kept behind the till.
Shane looked up at Ray and Ray tried a smile. “Give ’er, buddy. If you want to, give ’er.”
Shane walked to the checkout counter. His North Star runners were Parks Canada colours, brown and yellow, and the toe of one tapped the heel of the other every third or fourth step. The tic was bad in town. On the farm, where hopping strangers were less likely to cajole Shane into performing feats of mathematics, the tic calmed slightly. But it was getting bad there, too.
“Here, this page,” Ping/Xiu said, and thrust the notebook toward Shane. Ray read Burnquist, L. May 1975 written on the spine in black magic marker and thought: Well, yeah, Les. That’ll be a month’s worth of Spam and Wig Wags then.
Ray ambled over to Shane and said: “You’re sure, eh? You don’t have to, right, if you don’t want.”
“It’s the easiest, Dad,” Shane said.
There were nine or 10 entries on the page in Ping’s—or Pong’s—careful handwriting. Just as Ray read $41.34 on the fifth line, Shane said “three-oh-seven-dot-eight-six.” He handed the pad back to Ping and leaned into Ray’s hip. On the adding machine beside the Lucky Dollar’s till, the ash of his crumpled du Maurier longer now than the butt, Pong tallied up 31 days’ worth of Les Burnquist’s Spam and Wig Wags and Ray looked at the total on the white roll even though there was no reason to look.
Ray Ellsgard’s farm was 11 miles northeast of Stavely, three sections of pasture and hay divided by the twisting and shallow Mosquito Creek, and one morning when Shane was three he announced that they lived five-eight-oh-eight-oh feet and six-nine-six-nine-six-oh inches from town.
The nine-volt battery in Ray’s calculator was plumb dead, so Sarah multiplied 11 miles by 5,280 feet on the natural gas bill, got 58,080 and put a quivering hand in the mixing bowl’s waffle batter to stop herself from falling.
The entire area knew he had a genius boy the likes of which Alberta had maybe never seen.
Four months later, Shane pulled Blood and Henderson’s Veterinary Medicine off the bookshelf, scrambled up onto Ray’s lap and read aloud the section on Post-weaning Multisystemic Wasting Syndrome. Ray twisted Shane around so he could look for the secret, maybe, in the boy’s brown eyes.
“Where in the hell did you learn to do that?” Ray whisper-laughed.
The census said Stavely had 426 people. Maybe 200 more lived in the surrounding country. By April 21, 1974, Shane’s fourth birthday, the entire trading area knew that Ray and Sarah Ellsgard had a genius boy the likes of which Alberta had maybe never seen.
Even Stavely’s newest residents knew. While Shane walk-tapped down the middle aisle to snag his usual Lucky Dollar ration of a half-dozen Mojos, Pong pinched out another smoke and Ping watched the boy, her hand rubbing the little Amitabha Buddha statue kept by the battered till. She was still smiling.
It was rare in these parts to be an atheist, but that’s what Ray was, for a variety of reasons, none particularly sound. And so the Buddha-rubbing created a deep unease in Ray. Stavely’s tongue-speaking Pentecostals, the pious Catholics in the dusty new subdivision by the rink and even the mild Lutherans scattered everywhere created a deep unease in Ray, too. But that Buddha seemed especially odd, like an International Harvester combine would seem, gear-grinding and spewing flax dust by the Forbidden City’s Gate of Divine Might.
Of course, for every thought Ray had about Ping’s and Pong’s otherworldliness, he figured they must have a dozen about how a man like Ray was managing—or not—with a boy like Shane. So Ray hurried, as always, to get his minute steak and Chef Boyardee ravioli and iceberg lettuce.
“Pitter patter, let’s get at ’er,” he yelped, and Shane plinked four Mojos down on the counter. “Dad, I ate two already; is that OK?” Shane said, and the boy’s hesitancy had a sad density that made Ray wince.
Outside was better. It was always better. There was sun and wind and the intangible light, diffuse with dust and pollen and smelling of blown chaff from the elevators by the tracks. Ray and Shane walked down 50th Street to Ray’s beet-red ’68 Crew Cab and Ray shouldered the groceries into the back seat, shoving the .22 and the case of hydraulic fluid onto the floor. Shane hadn’t hopped in yet and through the truck’s passenger window, Ray could see the boy’s little left arm moving in slight circles.
“What are you doing there, bud?”
“Seriously now, you’re not writing on my truck, are you?”
“’cause you know what I do to little boys who write stuff on my truck, right?”
Ray hopped around the front of the truck, the pain in his left knee a transient thing, and Shane was already giggling and running around the back.
He’d written on the rear quarter panel: Wash me please cause I a’m diry. Ray started laughing, too. He finally caught Shane and closed his hands around the boy’s shoulders and rag-dolled him playfully.
“You’re missing a T there, bud.”
“Yeah, but you rushed it, so I didn’t finish.”
“Well, get up in there before you get run over.”
“There’s no cars, Dad.”
Shane was right about that. Fiftieth Street was a good quarter-mile long and the only other vehicle on it was Glenny Davis’s ’58 Chevy. It was the colour of rotten plums and its rear fenders flared like an ugly child’s ears. The Chev had been accumulating gradients of filth since Watergate. Glenny hated that car and believed a demon, an actual tire-flattening, carburetor-gumming demon, had inhabited it in 1973, causing it to sputter and lurch and ooze. Glenny had seen The Exorcist six times and would not touch that car. He believed Pazuzu would lay waste to him if he touched that car. This is how he said it: “I go and get in that Chev? Pazuzu will lay waste to me.” Unfortunately for Glenny, Bruce Redford, the town manager, refused to tow the car because he hated Glenny and knew the dirty Chev vexed him. So it sat there, marring the aesthetics of the grandly intentioned promenade engineered in 1905 by the railway barons who built Stavely.
The barons were either drunk on gin rickeys or they actually believed Wilfrid Laurier’s prediction that the 20th century would belong to Canada. They built 50th Street wide enough for military parades and four lanes of traffic and other eventualities that Stavely would never realize. The street came closest to realizing its potential during the ’50s and ’60s, the decades when a younger Ray was not predisposed to care whether his hometown would thrive or die. Now, Ray was 31, he did care and the street was desolate.
Ray boosted Shane’s bum up into the Crew Cab and said “Well, what do you figure? Should we wash this beast or wait for the rain to do ’er?” Shane loved to wash the truck. He gripped the sprayer like a pistol and rolled the words “carnauba wax” around in his mouth like a chunk of Mackintosh’s Toffee. But today he frowned.
“It’s not gonna rain.”
“Don’t start,” Ray said, pointing and walking around the front of the truck to the driver’s side. “It’ll rain when it’ll rain. What did we say? Right? I get to worry about the rain. You don’t get to, though. Not till you’re 13.”
It hadn’t rained at all in May, and snowed only once all April, a mocking mini-blizzard that spat stinging pellets as dry as baking soda. Shane badly wanted it to rain because he thought farms needed rain, which was a natural and logical obsession for a farmer’s son but not a healthy one to harbour in a drought. Shane often jerked his head toward the sky with an involuntary snap, scanning for clouds, a troubling new companion tic for his tapping feet. Tourette’s Syndrome, Ray would think when he saw the tics. Nervous breakdown. Muscular Dystrophy. Cancer. Stop thinking about it. Stop it. Just stop.
“We need the rain,” Shane said, and shifted around on the thick Calgary phone book Ray had put down on the seat so Shane could see.
“You sound like your Grandpa.”
“It’ll rain. June’s big for rain. Huge. What’s tomorrow, again?”
“There you go.”
“Where the hell did you learn to do that?” Ray whisper-laughed. Sesame Street.
Ray rolled the key and the Crew Cab’s big block rumbled and shook the chassis in that way that would always please Ray, and the two of them wheeled east. At the corner, Albert Van Langer hunched in the middle of Stavely’s lone four-way intersection, sweeping the gravel in a precise pattern of increasingly bigger concentric circles. Albert swept the intersection for several hours every day. It was not his only lovable eccentricity. Shane loved Albert because Albert had managed to snare and tame several gophers which lived with him above the derelict, long-closed antique shop on the corner. Ray loved Albert because, at night, when his sweeping was done, Albert would call old horse races that ran in his head, mimicking the staccato intonation and precise vernacular and whiskey tenor of Chic Anderson and Clem McCarthy. He kept voluminous track reports clipped from the Calgary Herald—the gophers slept in beds of torn-up Business and News sections—and knew every thoroughbred that had run at Stampede Park since the 1940s. He was either retarded or a savant and the good people of Stavely had long ago stopped caring which.
Ray eased into the middle of the intersection and put the Ford in park. “How’s the sweepin’ going there, Albert?”
“Oh, can’t complain, can’t complain. I guess I could but nobody’d listen.” This was an old routine, well-worn as the 10 and 2 positions on the Ford’s black steering wheel.
“Me and Shane’ll come in some night, you could call a race or two.”
Albert tugged on his mesh baseball hat, which advertised Duke’s Trucking out of Nobleford and exhorted those with various and sundry trucking needs to Trust The Duke.
“Yeah, yeah, sure thing. Sure thing. Tonight’s a good one, hey.” Albert’s voice dropped an octave and assumed the announcer’s jaunty rhythm. “Race eight, six furlongs, claiming $2,500. Pageant Queen should challenge here. Bomb Rickles rates a look. Big Red usually gets a share.”
“Big Red in the eighth. Got it. OK there, Albert, we’ll be on our way. Wanted to say hi. We’ll come in some night.”
“Sure thing. Sure thing.”
Albert hunched again, the broom did its work, and Ray headed east on the road out of town. He leaned over to roll down Shane’s window and Shane tickled him under the arm with bunched fingers. Behind the truck, the road pointed due west to the famous flat butte that attracted tourists from Montana and nature photographers and teenage boys who drank Pilsner and cussed and snap-hooked three woods into the coulee below. When Ray got his driver’s licence, he and his high-school girlfriends would drive to the butte and sit together in the timothy and watch the setting sun, blood-red and ovoid and throwing magic-hour light on their smooth faces.
The country was beautiful west of the highway, but Ray was glad he didn’t live west of the highway. Ray’s people were from east of the highway. They’d always lived out east, from Ray’s Grandpa Riley right on through. An Ellsgard west of the highway would feel as home as a Jew in Gaza. Men who lived west of the highway rode roughstock, kept their hair short and listened to Glen Campbell. They had more cattle than sense and didn’t know shit about them. Men who lived east of the highway farmed on the hardscrabble flatland, grew their hair out and listened to Waylon and Willie and maybe a little Black Sabbath. Sarah always said she liked her man from out east but wished he lived out west. Every time Ray travelled this road now and checked his rearview mirror, he thought of that.
It was so dry that the trees near the farmhouses—poplars, always poplars, with their swaying foliage shaped like teardrops—were only now starting to leaf. Ray figured Shane would notice this on the drive home and worry. Shane could calculate the diameter of a circle and he knew that Angola was now independent, so he would notice that the trees were barren.
“What do you figure there, bud?” Ray said.
“I’ll put in an eight-track if you want.”
Shane brightened. “Could you do ABBA?”
It killed Ray to do ABBA, but he did ABBA, knowing that Shane wanted S.O.S. without him saying so. It was Ray’s birthright as a Swedish-Canadian to choose to adore or scorn ABBA, and he chose the latter. But Shane did a hilarious thing when he listened to ABBA, biting his lower lip and closing his eyes and nodding his head in imperfect time to the kickdrum on the downbeat, so that almost made it worth the brain-damaging high harmonies and baby-talk lyrics.
“ABBA’s the best band, hey?” Ray said.
“Why hay? Straw’s cheaper,” Shane said. Out their respective windows, they grinned at the old joke.
Halfway home, Ray turned onto Fireguard Road and hit gravel. The Crew Cab whipsawed and fishtailed over the ruts, churning up a wake of fine dust that fanned out behind them three storeys high. They passed the Bancroft place, and Ray mentally wished that a stray tomcat would bite and scratch Brenda Bancroft somewhere on the upper torso. Every night, when Ray telephoned his sister, Brenda eavesdropped on the party line. Like everyone else around Stavely, Brenda had been eggshell-walking nice to Ray for the past six months, but Ray wished she could extend some neighbourly courtesy in the direction of the goddamn telephone.
Two miles down the Fireguard, S.O.S. ended and Ray backed the eight-track up a program to play Mamma Mia. He watched his five-year-old genius son mouth the line “There’s a fire within my soul” and laughed out loud. He was still laughing when he turned the corner around his own hand-planted laneway of poplars and regarded his converted double-wide. His and Shane’s.
The shop next to the house was leaning a bit and needed paint, but Ray hadn’t set foot in it since November, when brain chemistry and the relentless wind drove Sarah there to pick up the halter rope and cinch it crudely to a railroad-tie rafter. When Ray cut her down, he pawed her frozen hands down his shirt and through his hair and in his mouth until he could no longer bear the smell and the taste of the creosote.
Ray skidded to a stop on the gravel driveway, thrilling Shane, who asked Ray to burn a donut, though Ray said he would not.
Ray was looking at the draped bedroom window and already playbooking their nightly routine, the dark a magnet for the dread the sweeping day-sky kept at bay, Ray crumpled sleepless in the bed where he and Sarah once memorably came together during the dissonant one-note solo in Cinnamon Girl. He would roust Shane from his tic-less peace under the usual whispered pretense—You OK, Shane? I thought I heard you cry out, bud—and fireman-carry him to the big bed.
The two of them would lie there together, Ray stroking Shane’s baby-fine hair, one of them dreaming about sideways rain, and one of them thinking maybe it wouldn’t hurt to try praying.
Edmonton’s Shawn Ohler is author of 100 Days in the Jungle and a former journalist. This is his first published work of fiction.