“Life After Death” The Antigonish Review, vol. 139, 2010
“The Man who Couldn’t Swim”, The Antigonish Review, Vol 129, 2004
“A revolution in the dark” The New Quarterly, XXI, 2001
“Distance Education” Creekstones; words & images. Creekstone Press, 2000.
“The Butcher” Grain Magazine. Vol 27, 1999
The Man Who Couldn’t Swim
Jameson stood on the muddy bank and gazed down at the reedy shoreline of the lake. The water was low even for August with a bloom of green algae. He’d have green stuff plastered all over his legs and up inside his bathing suit by the time he’d waded out to his boat. The whole of Lake St. Louis was putrid and festering. It reeked of rotten fish. And those kids from the housing development swimming in it for god’s sake. There were five of them down on the public beach pelting each other with frothy green scum and shrieking with glee. Glee. There was no other word for it. And no point going down with them around. A person couldn’t think straight with the racket they made and he had a decision to make.
They were setting off finally, five of them in a leaky flat-bottomed rowboat submerged to the gunwales and not even a tin can bailer. Two long skinny girls in the middle seat, each jabbing at the water with an oar, and the two bigger boys in the stern thwart, shouting instructions and shoving each other. The small one teetering on the bow with a paddle in his hand – watching for sharks probably as if anything could survive in this cesspool. The noise alone would scare them away. Well they were gone now; might as well start hauling down his gear.
It wasn’t a decision really. An offer like that was a godsend whether it came from Hal Banks or the devil. His wife Linda was dead set against it for no reason that he could fathom. She wouldn’t explain, only called him a hypocrite. She blamed him for the loss of her own job most likely but that was hardly his fault. He had no quarrel with her working if it kept her happy till a baby came along – heaven knows they could use the money. But to work for a bigot and there was no other word for George Jenson. He had called her a squaw straight to her face. And in front of her own husband too though at the time he hadn’t known who Jameson was. In the entire café there wasn’t a soul who hadn’t heard him. No way a man’s wife ought to put up with that kind of thing. He had insisted on taking her home right then and there at the height of the noon rush. Jenson had watched slack-jawed from behind the counter; then, realizing that Jameson was serious, had slammed his fist into a plate of fries and stomped into the kitchen. Linda hadn’t wanted to leave at first but she had given in when the cop car pulled up. She wanted nothing to do with the police and anyone, man, woman or Indian, has a right to quit a job. But she was still furious with him. She liked waitressing and she was used to the name-calling. Hardly even noticed anymore or so she claimed. But just because you were used to something didn’t make it right.
Jenson had called her up a week later and apologized; said he hadn’t realized how it might sound to her. He had begged her to go back to work. Swore she was the best waitress he’d ever had. He hadn’t offered her a raise though. There was no need for her to slave for a jerk like that now that Jameson had a chance to make a decent wage. And God knows he didn’t want to spend the rest of his life under a car.
With this new job he could easily save enough to buy an inboard, nothing showy, two bunks, a little galley and a head – something he could take out overnight. Get himself a captain’s hat and rent a berth down at the yacht club. No more wading halfway across the bay with all this gear. Set one foot wrong and everything was in the water. It had happened more than once. But Linda wasn’t one for boats and he might as well save his breath to cool his porridge as try to talk her into anything. She’d made up her mind to go back to work. She was starting today or so she said. Well it was her own funeral. She wanted to buy a house in the new development. As if they could afford that on a few measly tips and his salary from the garage.
The kids were way out now, well over their heads and still shrieking. They had stopped rowing and were taking turns diving off the boat. You could see they were having fun and at least the water was cleaner out there. He had never learned to swim, not properly, though he had spent the first years of his life in a house on this very lake. As a youngster he’d had a mild fear of the water. Nothing he wouldn’t have outgrown if his father hadn’t undertaken to teach him to swim.
“The human body floats,” his old man had proclaimed in his beery Saturday morning voice, picking up Jameson by the scruffy elastic of his bathing trunks and dangling him over the edge of the dock. And it does. Eventually. Bloats up and floats to the surface unless you encase it in cement. There was a rumour that Banks was in with the Mafia. Linda believed it. But that had nothing to do with Jameson. The man had offered him a job in good faith, hauling concrete for the Seaway. Hardly a step up, Linda said, but with any luck he could work his way into something better. And a union job was nothing to sneeze at. A lot of guys would sell their souls to join the Teamsters. All Jameson would have to do was work hard and mind his own business.
He remembered the skin-shrivelling shock of sudden immersion and that terrible high-pitched whine in his ears which even then he had understood to be fear. And then water rushing up his nostrils, his lungs swelling and his heart seeming to pump water instead of blood. His eyes, the only part of him he could control, he had kept tight shut. He had sunk like a stone. But his father had refused to give up. After the first fiasco he had waded out with Jameson from the shallows, one arm under Jameson’s belly and the other supporting his chest, promising on his honour not to let go.
“Relax,” he had boomed as Jameson thrashed his arms and legs in a panicked dog-paddle.
Over and over again.
His mother lay sprawled on her chaise longue, hugely pregnant with Joaney – deathly ill with Joaney was how she always put it – and entirely indifferent to the plight of her first born. Inevitably, when they were nearly to the end of the dock, his father would let go and Jameson would begin to sink. After the umpteenth attempt he had somehow contrived to stay afloat convinced that if his foot touched the bottom one more time, he would be sucked down into the black ooze. And so he had curled himself into a ball and floated face down. For how long he didn’t know. Aunt Ernestine had pulled him out blue and goosepimply. She had thumped him on the back a few times and thrust a bucket under his nose. When he had stopped vomiting, she had given him her cure-all, a peanut butter cookie. To this day he couldn’t bear the taste of peanut butter but he loved Aunt Ernestine better than his own mother.
A death wish, his mother had said, the only comment she had ever made on the episode. He’d had a death wish at the age of five. Perhaps he had one still. He had come back after all, the moment he was old enough. He had landed a job at the garage in Valois straight out of high school and he’d been there ever since but there was no future in it.
He hardly recognized the Lakeshore nowadays. The farmers had all sold off their acreage so they could retire or else pay their back taxes. Every last field was paved over and dotted with prefab houses. His own childhood home had disappeared behind a barricade of fancy cement monstrosities. It wasn’t even on the waterfront any more. The lawn ran straight into another house cut off in mid-sweep. The boathouse had collapsed into the lake and the dock was rotting away.
God he hated wading out to his boat. This late in the summer the water felt like warm pee and the bottom was a kind of prehistoric muck composed of layers of industrial sludge, rotting fish and any amount of French letters; booby-trapped with pop bottles, fish hooks, old tires and somewhere off the point, the keys to his grandfather’s Buick – that was prehistoric now too. And he couldn’t see one foot in front of the other. Last week he’d stubbed his toe on a big stone. Somewhere right around here. Jesus what was that? Something sharp on the bottom of his foot. A tin can maybe; probably rusty. He ought to fish it out; save someone else from the same fate but what with the gas can under one arm and the cooler on his shoulder, he didn’t have a free hand. Have to hope it hadn’t broken the skin.
Those brats had been snooping around his boat again. Their muddy paw prints were all over the tarp. No respect for other people’s property. At least they hadn’t dared to climb inside and there was no harm done really as long as they hadn’t fooled with the engine. His foot was bleeding all over the floorboards. There was a cut on the instep. No way a bandage would stay on even if he had one. Jesus, he’d probably need a tetanus shot.
Banks had the right idea, dredging a channel from his own dock straight across the bay. Never had to put a toe in the water. But it wasn’t right doing something like that just because you could. And now there was a long muddy hump just below the surface and not a single buoy to mark it. You couldn’t troll along the shore without going aground. Well, if you’d done something illegal you didn’t like to advertise it. The man had been friendly enough when Jameson had marooned himself. Roared up in an enormous cabin cruiser – forty feet long if it was an inch – tossed him a line and pulled him free in a minute. Then he had leaned over the railing, squinting under his captain’s cap, and invited him aboard. All in one breath he’d offered Jameson a beer and a union job, wages triple what he made at the garage. It was a serious offer. Sitting there on the Lady Luck with a bottle of beer in his hand, there had been nothing to think about. The guy was practically in charge of the entire St. Lawrence Seaway. And he had been more than pleasant. “Call me Hank,” he’d said. Nothing like the Mafia.
The engine started on the first pull for once. Have to take it slowly on the way out though. The Royal Saint Lawrence was having a sail-past. There was the commodore in his fancy hat, jacket dripping with gold braid, standing stiff as a poker in the stern of the lead yacht. Behind him the lesser vessels like giant moths fluttering after the light. The Sea Scouts were out in their dinghies now too, scooting in and out like water skaters. One was stuck on the mud bank over by Bank’s place, sail flapping like mad, and now the rescue launch with some old geezer in a pea jacket and a wool tuque racing to the rescue. A wool hat in August. What was he thinking of? And there goes Banks on the Lady Luck charging through the lot of them. Heading out for the weekend with his girlfriend or wife or whatever she was. Dinghies jibing all over the place. The old geezer shaking his fist and shouting into a megaphone. Good for him. Must be the head Sea Scout. Now the yachts all coming about and bowing out of the way. He’s heading straight for the kids. Jesus, they’ve flipped. And he’s not even slowing down. Bloody irresponsible. And the commodore is saluting for god’s sake and Banks is waving his cap. Jesus, isn’t anyone going to pick up those kids? They’ll be out in the current in a minute and over the rapids. The Lady Luck’s halfway out to the channel already and everyone else afraid of getting stuck. Leave it to good old Jameson to go to the rescue. Well, he knew what it was like, getting tossed in the water like that.
Better cut the motor and drift in slowly; make sure none of the kids comes anywhere near the propeller. Four of them hanging off the side of the upturned boat but there should be five. The fifth one is underneath for god’s sake, breathing trapped air. It’s a dare or something. They’re taking turns. Jesus, not a single life jacket in sight. They have a painter at least so there’ll be no problem giving them a tow. The little one’s climbed on top of the boat now, directing operations in a soggy captain’s hat. Must belong to Banks. Thinks he’s bloody Superman. Doesn’t even realize he’s in danger. Have to take them all the way back to shore. The day’s shot anyway. Stupid foot’s bleeding again. Might as well head home and wave Linda off to work if she’s going. Maybe see about that tetanus shot. No point tempting fate.