(This is one of those stories, mostly fiction but enough personal life included in to make it more than just fiction. It’s fairly long so I’m going to post it in three parts over the next few days)
[a short story by Sha’Tara]
I found out about him from some research I was doing, trying to piece together what happens to old people who end up living alone in rural areas, particularly in the central prairies-forgotten on homesteads of farms long ago fallen through the cracks of commercial viability. He’d shown up on police records-a man looking for his wife in the city. According to the records she had a daughter at the time. His name is Peter Breckman. Further inquiries revealed nothing else but that he’d returned to his farm in Saskatchewan, north of the Saskatchewan River, somewhere to the north-west of Prince Albert.
I was hooked. I asked my editor for some long overdue vacation time. There was no argument. With several awards, including the Canadian Association of Journalists Award, and a possible Pulitzer for a book I’m writing based on my work in investigative reporting (including a stint in jail for not revealing a source) I was not to be argued with on that point. The House wanted me happy and of course, working.
“You’re going to drive all the way into central Saskatchewan in October? You’ve never driven outside Ontario, all on paved highways, except those two trips we took to Chicago, and I did most of the driving. Why don’t you fly to Regina, take a bus north, rent a real four by four when you get to Prince Albert and give yourself time to explore the country, you know, before you’re buried under the snow or die in a blizzard while listening to Leonard Cohen? Come on, give yourself time to flush out your quarry, and regale us with another of your tear-jerking prize winning stories of people down on their luck who somehow manage to see themselves through it all. Look, if it’s money you need, or an advance, we’ll be happy to give it to you, Reed.”
Even in heels I have to look up to see his round face. I notice his hairline is receding more and more and there’s graying at the temples. We, none of us are getting younger, hah! “I know Edward. But I don’t need money; I need time alone to think.”
“Suit yourself, I know when my arguments are wasted. But stay in touch will you? Call, or email once a day-promise?”
I took a very deep breath, studied the genuinely concerned look on his face. “No promises Edward, not ever-remember? That’s why as long as we were together you were always free to be with anyone else also. I commit only to my work. This time is for me – alone. I’ll call if something warrants it. If something happens, someone will call, I’ll make sure of that. I’ll carry a note in a pocket so when they find my frozen body under a snow drift by a clump of waxberry bushes, they can contact you on your cell.”
He smirked and that was done. We kissed goodbye as two people who had been married for many years would. The romance, if there ever was any, and it was more House’s gossip than reality, was long gone between us. We were business partners and that suited me fine.
The next morning I finished packing my CRV and I headed west from Toronto, hitting the number 1 highway until I was about a hundred klicks from the city and then switching to service roads and secondary highways. I waited until the landscape became utterly unfamiliar to allow myself to relax. The land began to flatten and the roads became margin lines on the edges of graph paper, or so I imagined it would look from the air. Here and there, small rivers or dry ravines with denuded clumps of aspen, cottonwoods or willows, graciously offered a break in the scenery and let me pass, lost to their own concerns. Eventually I got around to putting a Leonard Cohen CD in the drive and I turned the volume almost as high as it would go, rolling down the side window and letting my feelings have their way and flow on the breeze. I literally flew as there didn’t seem to be any speed limits, or if there were, they weren’t posted.
Somehow it was all very fitting for as I listened to my all time favorite Canadian poet and singer my mind began to form the outline of the story I was going away to dig up and write. Yeah, I guess you could say that I am an archaeologist of sorts, digging up stories of ghosts not yet dead and giving them one more moment of light before the final darkness drives them away for good. Ok, so I’ve read too much gothic fiction, but I like it.
As I drove along and played with the words of the songs, mixing my own with them, I became convinced that whatever I found out there would not only change my life, but give me a greater awareness of myself. Here, in this endless land called the Prairies I would lose the City that had formed the city girl and this Changing Woman. Here I would find another me, one more real than this one. That was what I was after. The story was to be the frame around my new face, and I didn’t care whether the world was ever going to see that face.
I eased off on the accelerator and stopped more often, choosing my overnight stops carefully, frequenting restaurants that catered to the locals, mostly farm people. I did not hide myself and attracted quite a few hopefuls. I asked questions and they told me their stories which I surreptitiously recorded for the main story. I needed background material as I knew nothing of this land or its people. Which is a good thing actually as I had no preconceived ideas about any of it, except for the questionable I had gathered from the CBC, McLean’s and the National Film Board. I had done my desk research but now I was in it for the show-down, so to speak.
I took five days to reach Prince Albert. This is what they have to say about this town of 35,000 people: Prince Albert is the 3rd largest City in Saskatchewan. Located in the broad valley of the North Saskatchewan River near the geographical center of the province where the agricultural prairie of the south and the rich forest belt of the north meet. Much of Prince Albert is built on the sloping south bank of the North Saskatchewan River while the north bank provides a spectacular view of mixed forest, typical of northern Saskatchewan.
I set up my ‘office’ in a hotel and began to inquire as to the whereabouts of Mr. Breckman. The police were the most helpful. They cross-checked their old files with up-dated information and found me an address. I didn’t tell them who I was and they didn’t ask why I wanted to know. These people still trust strangers here and I was somewhat surprised but said nothing. Soon enough, I thought, soon enough when they will become suspicious and closed like those of us in the big cities.
After two days of Prince Albert, I checked out but indicated I could be back, and drove across the North Saskatchewan river and headed north, then west into what seemed to me terribly empty lands with modern machinery parked in the fields and huge ‘farmsteads’ of barns, storage sheds, silos and modest homes holding up the grey sky and keeping a vigil over thousands of flat, empty acres of cleared land. I passed a church with its front door gaping open, its steeple fallen down and a couple of weathered sheets of plywood nailed over the hole caused by the fallen construct. Well, I thought, at least now the door is open to all, at any time, even if there is only dank mildew and darkness inside. Beats religion anyhow. I know Leonard would have a poem and a song to write about this place. His words would be gentler than mine, perhaps.
I hit the dirt roads and eventually serpented my way down into a deep ravine and snaked up the other side, thankful that the road was dry as I had heard tales of prairie gumbo and I did not relish the thought of being stuck at the bottom of this twisty, steep and not too well kept road. As I crested and leveled upon the flats again I saw my destination. A clump of blue spruce and some ramshackle buildings with a broken and falling picket fence that had once been painted white, along the road. Slowly, I turned into the rutted driveway, sides and center of the drive overgrown with coarse horsehair grasses and dandelions, a few still blooming. My car being narrower than the normal, if rare, traffic that had formed this road, I had to use my four-wheel drive and some skill to not be thrown sideways. I was to learn later that the best thing to do when driving over a deeply rutted road is to straddle the ruts and create a new set in between. I am a city girl. There are things you have to grow up with; that cannot be learned overnight, or even by observation. Sometimes you have to accept your own ignorance, knowing that if the foot was in the other shoe, you’d be the one explaining and demonstrating the rules of the game.
Reaching what seemed like the end of the driveway, I turned off the engine and peered around without getting out. I had seen some sad places along the way here, but this was the saddest imaginable. There was an old Dodge van parked in front of a grey, sway-backed shack with a peeling tar paper roof. The van had once been white but now was a mixed shade of green algae or mold and accumulated wind-blown dirt. A weed with small, shriveled purple flowers grew from the windshield gasket. It had a jack supporting the front struts and the driver side front wheel was gone. All the others were flat and the tires were sun-baked and weather cracked. From a broken window of the side doors a dog of indistinct lineage, age or gender stared at me without making a sound. It looked strange until I noticed it only had one eye. It seemed to be trying to smell me and I judged its remaining eyesight was not too good. Safe to get out of the CRV? I thought it was, but I was careful to open the door wide first, then put one leg on the ground, then slide slowly from the seat to stand beside the car, ready to jump back in at a moment’s notice. The dog left the window and disappeared. I waited and I heard it jump out of the old vehicle, heard a whimpering then it limped around the front and came slowly towards me. It wagged its tail slowly, as if putting too much speed on it would detach it. It approached me and sniffed, then just stood there until I bent down gingerly and petted it lightly on the head and behind the ears. I don’t like dogs or pets in general and this was wild country. I didn’t know if Mr. Breckman was even home, but likely he would be. Obviously his supplies were brought in by someone as there was nothing around that was drivable.
The dog whined a bit and I felt sorry for the old thing but didn’t know what to do. I walked to the shack, up the two creaky steps of loose boards and knocked on the door. There was a shuffling inside and some indistinct words that may have been ‘Wait, I’m comin’ and in a few moments the door creaked open. I saw an old man, old beyond his physical years I could tell. A man who knew anguish and much suffering. I introduced myself as Reed, the reporter from the “House.”
“Did you get the message I sent you about a possible interview?”
“Yes, the message was given to me. Sorry I couldn’t get back to you but I don’t have a phone. I’m Pete” he answered. “I’m sorry about the state of this place but I don’t get around to doing much anymore. My back just won’t let me. Please come in if you care to and we can sit at the table. Then you can tell me why exactly you’re here.”
We sat at a dusty table, on two old wooden chairs that certainly pre-dated my time. A naked light bulb dangled from two twisted black and white wires that came from a hole in a yellowed drywall ceiling. I was facing the man as he sat squinting at me, holding his head in his hands.
“Mr. Breckman” I began, but he waved me to stop.
“Please miss, call me Pete, or Peter, but forget the mister. I’m no mister, just an old man waiting for nothing to happen.”
An interesting ‘tournure’ of words, I thought. But before I plunged into my spiel I found myself wondering if I could do something for this ‘old man’ before me, or for the dog.
“Your dog, Pete, seems to be in great pain, and I think it’s very hungry.”
“Who, Bean? She’s a great hunter, she doesn’t go hungry.”
“Pete, I watched her. She can hardly move anymore and she’s starving, for food and affection. Something should be done for her.”
“Ah, yes, I forgot. She’s old and she don’t complain any. There’s some chow stuff in the cupboard under the sink, I think. D’you think you could get some to her, and some water too?”
I nodded and complied. It was simple and heartwarming. The dog was grateful to me and that was a first. And so was the man I’ll now call ‘Pete’ for clarity. I had some supplies in my car so without asking I brought in some fresh food and made us sandwiches. Pete stared at me as I worked at the counter, wiping it as best I could first. I was surprised to find running water, though not hot, at the taps and found a dish cloth that looked reasonably clean to wipe a few items of cutlery. Then I brought out a couple of cans of Canada Dry ginger ale and we ate in silence. I watched him eat. He was definitely enjoying his sandwich and I felt gratified. My heart was not just going out to the old man, but racing to him. I wondered why I was so taken and accounted it to the emptiness of the place, being tired from my traveling and a degree of nervousness I was working to overcome. My watch said it was already after 14:00 hours and the nearest hotel I knew of was almost two hundred klicks back the way I came. I’d be driving back through unfamiliar country dirt roads with no signs, re-crossing those horrid ravines and if it rained, or sleeted as it seemed wont to do, I’d be in serious trouble unless I overcame my natural reticence of asking for help and pulled into one of those modern farms. Surely, I said to myself, I can’t sleep here.
He had finished his sandwich, mine being half-eaten and he turned on the light. To my surprise I saw a set of battered blueprints which I’d earlier taken as some kind of tablecloth. He sighed, leaned his head in his hands again and stared at the drawings. I saw tears welling up in his eyes, reflected by the light.
“Ahhh!” he groaned. Then he looked up at me again and apologized. “So sorry miss, but you have no idea how much your presence is hurting me. You look like her.”
“I’m sorry Pete. So sorry. You mean I remind you of your wife?”
“My wife, yes, my pretty little Sally. My life. Yes, you do remind me and I suppose I’m an old fool who never made the effort to get over his love for one woman. I only knew Sally, no one else. We grew up around here and kind of became attached to each other. She had a bad home life and ran away to our place many times. Finally at sixteen, and me eighteen I couldn’t stand it that she’d be abused at home, so I went over there, threatened her old man and took her away. We married in the church and lived with my parents for a short while, then we moved here. Kids didn’t stay with their parents in our day, you had to make your own way in life. There’s a quarter section here, not something you can live on you know, but you add on and add on and eventually you have a real farm. It’s tough, those first few years but that’s why you do it young, when you have plenty of stamina and you know everything and you know you’re going to get what you’re after. If you have a good woman behind you, it’s even more of a sure thing. Sally was a good woman miss. A very good woman, make no mistake. But I think deep down she wanted more than life had given her and it didn’t look like we were going to hit the good times soon. Ours was going to be a life-long struggle which eventually would be for our kids. We’d see the results of our hard work in them. That’s what I saw at any rate. And I think that’s what she saw too, and she wasn’t as accepting of it as I was.”
He stopped talking and looked at me again. He took another deep breath and stared at the blueprints. I could see stains, cracked folds and rips in them. How long, I wondered, had it been since he brought them out of wherever and put them on the table to look into his past? For I had no doubt they were linked to his life with Sally. How to ask?
“I noticed a set of footings to the side of this house out there. Are these the plans for what was to be a new farm house?”
“You are sharp, miss.” It was my turn to wave him to stop.
“Please call me Reed. That’s what everyone calls me.”
“Oh yeah, Reed, that’s what you said. What’s your full name?”
“My name is Jones, Reed Jones.”
“OK Reed Jones.” He pronounced it heavily and deliberately, each syllable as if he was driving them with a sledge hammer. “I should thank you for the fresh sandwich. That was good food. You’re much taller than Sally was, an’ your hair is longer and darker than hers was, and o’ course you’re much older than she’d been, but seeing you at the counter there, preparing the food, well, no woman’s done that here since she left. I’m sorry.”
“That’s OK. I won’t patronize you by saying I understand, but I can feel some of it. I’m an empath-makes me stay one step ahead of the competition in my field, and the competition is fierce. But I’m determined to be the best at what I do, whatever it takes to get there. Look, if you’re tired or you want to stop, I can come back tomorrow and we can go on, or finish then.”
“Actually, if you don’t mind, I’d like to continue. I feel much better when I talk to you about that time. It’s like something clears up and I can see through it for the first time.”
“Well, I was thinking about the drive back to my hotel. It’ll take me over two hours if I don’t run into rain, or sleet or whatever you call it here.”
“You looked at the sky when you went out, didn’t you?”
“What do you make of it?”
“Well, it’s uniformly grey and the clouds seem a bit low. But there’s no storm that I can see, or sense.”
“Well, let me tell you. In about an hour it’s going to start to rain. Then the rain will begin to freeze. The first coulee you hit, you’re dead stuck at the bottom, no way out until you’re towed with a tractor. Gets pretty cold out there, even for us who’ve lived here all our lives. I don’t think you want to get out on that road this evening. Besides, it’s October. It’ll be pitch black in half an hour and I’d bet you’re more used to driving with street lights.”
“Yeah, driving in the dark with only headlights to go by is weird.” I hesitated. “I brought a sleeping bag and a comforter. I could sleep here, maybe, somewhere.” And I looked around hoping for that suitable ‘somewhere’ to manifest.
(end part 1 of 3)