Folks in Parched River smile when they see Floyd Gray. Even if they don’t quite feel up to smiling. He’s earned it. Floyd’s a good man. If Floyd Gray never helped you build a fence, then he aerated your garden, and if he didn’t aerate your garden then he emceed your wedding down at the Legion. If he didn’t do any of those things for you then you don’t live in Parched River.
If you were looking for Floyd on a Sunday you’d do best to look down at the Tim Horton’s where he’d be with the Sunday fellas, leaning far back in his swivel chair, mouth slightly ajar on the verge of a hearty guffaw, one hand squeezing his coffee, the other free, poised ready to slap a knee if need be. Sure enough it wouldn’t be long before that mouth closed a little and Floyd would feel obliged to explain the latest of his grandson’s peculiar mischief. Eventually though, one of the other fellas— out of respect—would steer the conversation back to bullshit.
Ah, the kid’s alright, one of them might say, it’s the grandfather that’s beans. Or, Hell, I’m still amazed you were able to start a lineage, Floyd.
Then again, it only takes one swimmer, one of them might chuckle through a mouthful of fritter, and that’s sure as hell all Floyd here would ever surrender!
They’d all laugh and nudge each other, but beneath the fellas’ laughter, tucked up under their high-set ball caps, is a worry as ground and concealed as the nicotine they claim is brewed into their coffee. And the quick glances they give each other while Floyd dumps sugar in his cup are for the concern they feel—the same concern most folks in Parched River feel— that the boy might not turn out so good.
Floyd’s grandson doesn’t play right. He has…episodes. He’s scared of birds. And he’s always wandering off, sitting in puddles, eating mosquitoes in someone’s backyard. It’s a wonder the damn pound doesn’t pick him up.
It started when he was five. He walked right out of the house, turned up the sidewalk and cruised right out of town! He said later he was just lookin’ for the ocean. It gets better. The kid had been gazing out the living room window and spotted the edge of the earth. Said he’d seen the sky stretch down and touch the ground right between two hills. Said that must be where the ocean was.
When Mrs. Gray called Floyd down at the fertilizer store and said their grandchild was missing, ol’ Floyd barreled out to his truck, leaving the phone twirling from its cord. He tore up every street in Parched River, flew down every alley. Half the town was helping within minutes. After nearly an hour, they found the boy in a field, about a mile and a half up the dirt road along the McGuire land. Ethel McGuire said she saw the boy from her window, splashing around in a water trough.
Floyd asked him what he was trying to do, the boy just shrugged. Said he wanted to swim all the way out to the end of the earth, maybe touch the sky—just like swimming inside an upside down cereal bowl. Didn’t know what he’d do once he got there. Said maybe he could knock on the sky a couple of times, see how it sounded. Wasn’t sure why he wanted to do that, said it was just something he wanted.
Ol’ Floyd has a heap of patience. Lord knows what some other father or grandparent would’ve done that day. But Floyd, he just knelt down beside the boy and hugged him hard. Explained how the ocean’s 1,200 kilometres away and how you’d need to drive or fly to get there. He used a tennis ball to show how the earth is round and there is no “edge.” Likely did no good. The kid doesn’t retain a whole lot.
And damned if any other guardian would stand by and let their seven-year-old change his name to Sockeye. What kind of name is Sockeye anyhow? Granted, Floyd tried putting his foot down that time, but that kid just stood there with his huge round eyes wide and unblinking and wouldn’t answer to anything else. Poor Floyd’s had to raise the little firecracker since, well, I guess since day one.
“Could be worse, Floyd,” one of the fellas said half smiling in Tim Horton’s that weekend. “Henderson’s kid’s named Reginald. And Henderson named ’im!”
“Just a silly phase, I suppose,” Floyd said brushing some un- seen fleck from the table. The men all looked down to their fritters. “I know,” Floyd sighed, and he too looked down. “I know.”
The fellas’ hearts all ached for Floyd. Kids had it tough enough trying to fit in and make good without having parents, and worse yet having peculiarities complicate things. Schools are rough these days, they moaned. All it takes is one off year and it ain’t long before a kid is shooting holes through street signs, stealing tractors, and creeping over to your night table and sneaking off with your painkillers.
“The world don’t make sense,” one man shook his head. “You’re as good a man as this town’s known, Floyd. I guess I’d expect the good Lord might give you a break.”
But Floyd just shook his head. He’d have nothing to do with such comments. “I don’t deserve a break no more than anybody else,” he said. “Sockeye’s just on a little different schedule right now. We’ll get things jimmied back into shape.”
“You know,” the eldest of the men said. “Maybe God only gives those kinds of kids to people he knows can love ’em.”
Floyd turned his lips in and held the older man’s respectful gaze. The fellas all nodded because they knew damn well and sure—however the boy turns out—with Floyd Gray as a granddaddy, if nothing else, that kid would be loved.
“I dunno, fellas,” Floyd said one Sunday when there were only three of them left at the Tim Horton’s. His jaw throbbed from grinding his teeth all night. He turned his stare toward the soup cauldron on the counter.
Floyd figured they must’ve read him in an instant. “Sockeye?” Dan Peterson said.
“Ah hell, boys,” Floyd said and turned toward the window. “I’m all in. I don’t know what to do. At home, he’s always sneaking out. At school he spends recess alone eating aphids or hiding from birds.” Floyd swallowed hard. “He says he wants …” Floyd lifted his coffee to his lips, but set it back down. “He wants to be a salmon.”
“A salmon?” The fellas exchanged frowns.
“He can’t be a salmon, Floyd,” Dan Peterson said. “Hell, we barely got any water round these parts, let alone the salted kind.”
“I know,” Floyd said. “You know. Try telling the boy.”
“A salmon? That kinda thing might go over in BC,” Randy Moulton said, “but this is Alberta.”
“The kid’s eight,” Floyd moaned, “Life shouldn’t be so complicated.”
“You know,” Dan Peterson lifted his chin and said quietly, “I heard there’s a kid over in Nilville that’s a salmon.”
“That’s just a rat-fart of a rumour,” Randy Moulton scowled and straightened himself in his seat. “Floyd, you need to get the kid into hockey.”
“Yeah, get him in hockey,” Dan Peterson said.
“I wish I could,” Floyd threw up his hands. “Last year he played hockey for three weeks. Quit. We got two games in. Lasted a month in T-ball. Two weeks with soccer. Isn’t interested in a goddamned thing.”
“Jesus, Floyd,” Randy Moulton said. “A salmon?”
Little Jenny Baker walked over with a fresh pot and topped up their coffees.
“I won’t let him end up a salmon,” Floyd shrugged. “I won’t. I just want the boy to grow up happy.” Floyd blew out some air and shook his head. “Eight years ago I swore I’d give that kid whatever he needs. But boys, I’m failing.”
The fellas looked so dejected, it made Floyd feel worse. He didn’t want sympathy; he hated pity.
It was so quiet you could almost hear the donuts cooking, until Randy Moulton finally said, “You gotta discipline him.”
Dan Peterson turned to Randy a little too quickly, and Floyd glared at each of them. “What do you guys mean?”
Dan Peterson’s eyes pleaded, but Randy scowled at him and turned to Floyd, “You gotta take charge, Floyd. And now.”
Floyd tuned to Dan Peterson who sighed and said, “He’s right, Floyd.”
“Take charge?” Floyd said. They nodded.
“Well,” Floyd gripped his coffee in both hands, “what more can I do?”
“You gotta be strict,” Randy Moulton shook a fritter at Floyd. “Strict. Severe,” he pounded the table. “Right off and from now on. Or I tell ya, he’ll either end up a salmon, or he’ll be ramming hijacked tractors into grain elevators and drinking shoeshine off in the alders.”
“That’s right, Floyd,” Dan Peterson said. “I heard down at the school they’ve got seventh graders already smoking the pot.”
Floyd’s face soured at the thought of it.
“You know, little Brent got caught swiping hockey cards from the Mac’s,” Randy said. “I took the belt to him.”
Floyd shifted in his chair.
“Son of a gun did it three more times” Randy said, “from the Sobeys and the Esso. He got the belt three more times, too. You can’t give in.”
Dan Peterson nodded. “Randy was right to use that belt.” “Floyd,” Jenny Baker called from behind the counter, holding the phone to her chest. “There’s a call for you. It’s your wife.”
Floyd looked Dan and Randy each in the eye, then walked over to the counter.
“Yeah?” he said into the phone. “You better get home,” his wife said.
“Is he alright?”
“He’s fine,” she said. “Physically, anyhow. He’s in his room. This time he tried driving the Silverado—”
“Yup,” Floyd’s wife said. “There’s some damage to the front—”
“Damage to the Silverado?”
“Yup. And the fence is pretty much firewood.”
Floyd rubbed his thick hand all over his forehead, lifting up his cap. “I’m coming,” he said and passed Jenny Baker the phone.
On the way home Floyd did something he’d never before done on a Sunday. He stopped at the tavern for a drink.
Sockeye lies on his bed, knees locked to his chest with tiny fists. He closes his huge round eyes from the tiny islands and bays and inlets in the great sea of stipple. And though he desperately wants to turn his gaze outside, he holds his eyes from the window, too. He hears the front door open and his grandfather’s heavy sigh. “Well, he’d got out into the yard,” his grandmother says. “Says two gulls landed in the cottonwood outback. Apparently, they were eyeing him. We’re to understand the gulls were about to make for him, so he ducked into the Silverado. Keys were in there, as usual, and he said it seemed the quickest way to get to deeper water.”
“That’s what he said.”
“I dunno, the ocean again, I suppose.”
“Christ,” his grandfather says.
“Floyd, what’s that smell?”
“On your breath?”
“I said it’s nothing. Just tell me what happened to the damned fence.”
“Well,” she continues hesitantly, “He starts up the Silverado, tries pulling out of the drive. He makes it about twelve feet before he rolls smack into it. I didn’t…” his grandmother’s voice cracks, “I didn’t even see him leave the house, Floyd.”
“Ain’t your fault,” his grandfather says. Sockeye hears the kitchen blinds rustle. “Didn’t even make it out of the yard.”
“We can just thank the Lord the Silverado stalled when he hit the fence. That fence is about as good as a spoon at a steak dinner now.”
“Just a fence.”
“Yup. I guess it can be fixed.”
“Yeah,” his grandfather says quietly. “You pick it up and hammer a nail into it. Maybe that’s how we need to fix things around here.”
“Floyd…are you okay?” No answer.
“You gotta be strict, severe,” he pounded the table. “From now on. Or I tell ya, he’ll either end up a salmon, or he’ll be ramming hijacked tractors into grain elevators and drinking shoeshine off in the alders.”
“Never you mind.”
Sockeye keeps his eyes away from the window and the ceiling and turns to the walls, focuses hard on the walls, on the patternless, unadorned walls—walls as beige and flat as dry prairie ground. But then suddenly a peculiar thumping sounds, a gentle slapping, rising from the floor.
Thump, slap, thump, slap. His eyes widen, he holds still and listens. Thump, slap, thump, slap. Sockeye creeps toward the side of the bed, his fingers grasp the edge, his timid eyes inch closer, peeking over gingerly. Then those eyes nearly bust right out of their sockets, because on the floor, beside his bed, twisting and flipping—is a large, crimson red sockeye salmon.
From the floor on the other side comes a thump, slap, thump, slap. Sockeye whirls around to see another salmon, slightly larger, wiggling and writhing, thumping and slapping. He scrambles to the centre of the bed and his mouth plunges open at the sight of several salmon, all around the room. There’s one in each corner, one by the closet, three next to the door, there’s two in the open drawer of his dresser, one in the wastebasket; there are dozens of them—dozens of thumping and slapping salmon!
Streams of sunlight thrust in through the window, Sockeye shields his eyes with his arms. Tiny particles slowly drift through the air, illuminate in the brightness of the light, gently push forward on the same tender breath of wind that brushes the back of Sockeye’s neck.
Water bursts in from the open window, splashing across the floor, filling the room. Sockeye flounders off the bed, down into the rapidly rising water, into the wakes of the now cruising salmon. The light intensifies, the water streams in, and suddenly, as though an alarm has sounded—pods of salmon begin to thrash and porpoise and jump for the window. One by one, each salmon jumps into the gushing water, out of the room, up into the light. Sockeye Gray also begins to move. First, skittish thrusts toward window, then leaps, lifting himself out of the water, toward the light, arms flailing, body twisting; leaping in the rising water, vaulting closer, closer…
But abruptly the bedroom door opens and his grandfather steps in.
Sockeye whirls in mid leap, crashes into the wall and crumples to the floor. His grandfather is standing in the doorway. He says nothing. He’s nodding—only slightly—and doesn’t speak. Just nodding. One hand tugs up his coveralls, the other is held behind his back. His face is as red as the salmon that are no longer swimming around the room. The normally open mouth is strangely closed. Barely a slit. His lips are tight, rubbing over each other, white.
Finally, he says, “What were you doing?” He speaks so quietly, Sockeye has to check himself that he heard anything at all. He peers up at his grandfather’s flushed face, but Sockeye’s limp gaze can’t hold; it flops to the floor, slides across to the wall. “What were you doing?” his grandfather says again.
Sockeye pinches the fabric of his jeans “There were salmon—”
“Dammit, Sock—” but his grandfather’s voice cracks away into a strange high-pitched squeal, like the Silverado made when it jerked forward into the fence. He’s never heard his grandfather make this sound. It’s a sharp sound and it ends quickly when his grandfather pushes the back of his wrist against his mouth.
He stands like that for quite some time, one hand behind his back, the other clenched in his teeth. Outside the wind jostles the windowpanes, the dry brown grass waves at the sky.
His grandfather bends down and reaches for Sockeye, lifts him up and holds him hard and tight. He brushes Sockeye’s hair with thick heavy fingers and says, “You’re not gonna be a salmon, Sockeye.”
Sockeye keeps his eyes fixed on the wall.
“I don’t want to hear you mention it again.” Sockeye nods slightly.
“Some people might think you need to be punished. But I don’t give a turkey’s spunk what other people say,” his free hand stuffs something into his coveralls. “We’ll get through this fine. They’re all full of beans.”
Sockeye nods again.
“I mean, do you know any other salmon around here?” Sockeye rolls his lowered gaze over to the closet.
“Look around the room. Are there any in here?”
Sockeye scans his room. Checks twice. He shakes his head.
“If there were salmon here, there’d be an ocean. Wouldn’t there? There’d have to be,” his grandfather says. “You know of any oceans in Parched River?”
Sockeye says nothing.
“Well I know there ain’t. Lived here my whole life. Fifty-six years. I know where each pebble of ant shit is in this town. If there was an ocean, I reckon I’d know about it.”
Sockeye peeks up at his grandfather’s mouth, sees it curling slightly up one side.
“I’d feel like a bit of a jackass if there was an ocean in this town, and I’d missed it all this time. Can you imagine?” Sockeye’s grandfather steps over to the window. “A big ol’ mess of blue and I never seen it?” His gaze holds a few moments longer, scanning the prairie, almost as if checking to be certain. Then he gently shakes Sockeye in his big arms until Sockeye lifts his eyes full up, and soon enough they both begin to smile.
“Just play like other kids, okay?” his grandfather says. “You do that and you’ll be a good boy. And you’ll grow up to be a good man, too.”
Michael Davie is a Calgary writer whose stories have appeared in the Victoria Times-Colonist, Peripheral Vision, and WordWorks.