Which Finger for the Town?

Fiction by Andrew Boden

Boden“Isn’t it lovely?” the mother asked. She paused with her cocker spaniel on the edge of a barren hill overlooking the town. A cold, dry wind swept snow crystals from the ponderosas over the sunlit valley where the town lived, like a hail of pulverized diamonds. The town was famous for exporting raw logs, NHL hockey players and once an Aspergered genius—other people’s sons.

“Two grand is what you’re going to lend me over the next five months anyway,” the son said. “Two grand, I can leave this—” He had no obscenity left to describe what the town had become to him. He had gestures—middle fingers, clenched fists, canine snarls. Lately, he just clutched his graying temples over cups of cooling coffee at the employment office, where each day he could have his pick of the dishwashing jobs. “Just need a little bump to get me going. Welfare is only six ten a month.” He added “Mum,” as if calling her that for the first time in years might soften her.

“It’s a lot of money, I have to think of going into a home soon.” When the son said lend, the mother knew he meant give, but she kept up the pretence to give the son hope for a normal life—his phrase, not hers. She’d taken to complaining to her eldest son, John, that the money she gave the younger son every month was money down the drain. She might as well burn it.

The mother and the son walked north, away from the overlook. Their boots crunched across a plain of crusted snow scattered with rust-coloured ponderosa needles. They never drew too close to each other, as if they were strangers suddenly beside each other by chance, for a few seconds before one of them moved on. Now and then, they studied each other warily as if they’d each been told that, on this day, one of them would bring a knife.

“We’re on to him now,” the mother said and pointed at the snow before her. Small clumps of tawny grasses had broken through the white crust and mouse tracks wound a crazy, drunken path from one patch of grass to another. “He doesn’t know the shortest path from A to B is a straight line. Does he, baby-munchy-kins?” Her cocker spaniel licked her gloved hand and whined.

The son’s voice cut like jagged glass. “You lend me $400 a month now, so it’s the same amount of money just all at once. You know why you owe me.”

The mother staggered for a step and caught herself on her walking pole. “This damn knee just caves in,” she said.

She’d already placed a deposit on a one-bedroom senior’s apartment near the shopping mall where, in the winter, the care aides took residents to walk untouched by sub-zero cold. She planned to die in the town, because she’d loved it the moment she arrived in 1970, already pregnant. The town’s air had been perfumed with wild rose blossoms and the steeples to the north reminded her of Switzerland, where she had lived until she was nineteen. She’d settled first on the town’s outskirts in a double-wide trailer with her then husband, Dan, and six years later they had moved into the heart of the town, a street of old houses, tall Douglas firs and long, wide yards, green with grass and clover.

The mother limped ahead of the son towards a wood of spindly lodgepole pines and bare tamaracks whose first few rows of trunks all leaned away from them.

“Why do I always come running back?” the son called after her. “It’s not for nothing that I can’t make it on my own.”

She knew the dates. The son had left in 1992, 1996, 1999, 2001, 2004, 2005, 2008 and 2010; university and a second try at finishing his geography degree, and then the eternal lure of new starts in places where no one knew him. In twenty years, his things hadn’t amounted to more than what would fit in a duffle bag. The mother could discount this, if he’d amassed mental things instead: a new mathematical theorem like Meryl Barnabas’ boy who, though he had Asperger’s, thrived down at UCLA; or a newfound generosity upon retirement from the NHL. like Doctor Stottermeyer’s son who ran summer camps for kids with disabilities. The son came back, this September, with the same dirty blue duffle bag he’d owned for twenty years, because he’d flung his hammer, chalk line and helmet at his foreman’s face. He complained that a helicopter had followed him around Vancouver for the last two weeks he lived there.

The son was beside her again, sucking on a cigarette. The cloud of swirling smoke linked them, shoulder to shoulder. It stretched thin when they stepped away from each other and threatened, between the son’s exhales, to dissipate into the air around them. The son’s cigarettes started after his first time in the psychiatric unit, a few a day, and soon a pack and sometimes weed, too, when he could afford to be high and happy.

“You’ve been fighting with John again.”

“Every time we close in on the truth, you bring him up.”

John was the mother’s first born, employed at a university in Vancouver, married and independent. He called every Sunday afternoon and, twice a year, at Christmas and Easter, she stayed with him and his wife.

“So, why did John make it?” the son asked. “Connect the dots. John leaves home at sixteen.”

“He wanted his independence. A better high school.”

“John wanted to get out.”

“He worked nights at the foundry, cleaning up. He went to the best school in Vancouver. For the International Baccalaureate program. You couldn’t do that here. Then university.”

“Where he was in therapy for three years.”

“I don’t know anything about it.”

“John was fucked up because of you and Dad.”

“Don’t talk like this.”

“Say it—John was fucked up because of me and Dad.”

“$400 a month I’m handing out. I’m committing welfare fraud for you.”

“And you pick me up from the food bank and drive me to my apartment where I sleep on a hunk of foam.”

“John would’ve bought you that bed.”

The son stopped. “Don’t you get it? Those assholes at Furniture Mart lied. Two hundred for a twin mattress, the photo in the flyer looking like a big queen bed. You know what the sales lady shows me? A child’s bed. I’m a forty-year-old man. I’m not sleeping in a fucking child’s bed.”

“John said he’d buy you the double for a hundred more.”

“From liars? Come on.”

The mother and the son left the open plateau and crossed into the forest. At first the dimmer light here left soft, blue-tinged shadows on the snow, but as they walked further into the wood, a deep shade smothered the last splotches of sunlight. The mother’s cocker spaniel tested the winter air and then sniffed at a faint, two-legged shadow frozen, until spring, against a large granite boulder. The dog smelled an old, animal fear and pulled back against the mother’s leg, too frightened to whine.

“It’s like when I walk from my apartment to your house,” the son was saying. “What happens? Those little shits in the park heckle me. Psycho, psycho! Can’t even get a paper route!”

The son described how he’d chased them until his lungs hurt. He said he wanted to quit smoking and take up swimming again. He’d excelled at swimming until he quit at age fourteen.

“Just ignore those kids.”

“Use my Tae Kwon Do. That’s what you said when Dale Fercho beat the shit out of me every day in grade eight. Use my Tae Kwon Do.”

The mother made a mental note to call Pam, the son’s social worker, tomorrow morning. He was getting more and more agitated—he didn’t even want to be seen with her in Wal-Mart so she could replace his shabby jeans. Last month, Pam tried to convince him to see a psychiatrist, but he refused to ever see one again after what they’d done to him, when he was twenty-four, with Haldol and Risperidol, and, as he yelled at her, the rest of their “poisons they dole out like candy.” Pam said that she should stop giving him money each month, to force him to get help.

“You should see him with animals,” the mother had replied to Pam. “He was wonderful with the dogs and the cats at the SPCA. But after three days of volunteering, he swears at the woman who runs the place. He said she spoke to him in a disrespectful tone. Always the same thing.”

The mother could hardly believe that the handsome, blond young man girls used to follow home from high school had transformed into a thin, chain-smoking vagrant with a mouthful of crooked teeth a shade darker than jaundice. The only time he shaved was when Pam called him in for monthly meetings, which he described as “pretty fucking useless.” The son quite properly located the source of all his problems outside himself, because if for one brilliant, illuminating minute he located them inside his head, he’d kill himself.

“What does two grand mean to you?” the son said. “You get four grand a month from Dad’s blood money.” He called the pension and Worker’s Compensation settlement she’d got after Dan died in an accident at fifty-seven “blood money.”

“The cost of everything is going up,” she said. “Strata fees, my medical—do you know how much a private senior’s home costs a month? If you’d take medication you could get disability. A thousand a month.”

“You just bought yourself a new iMac last month. I went to Staples and they run fifteen-hundred. Then I saw this website where John is volunteering to help poor Palestinian kids, but won’t lift a finger for his own flesh and blood. You raised a selfish fucker.”

The mother couldn’t explain to anyone why she endured these conversations. Her doctor said she had no responsibility for him; he’s a grown man, he should get a job. Which job? Which one of the twenty-eight jobs he held in the last ten years should he have kept? Stock boy? Doughnut cook? Janitor? The Bengalis he had worked with laughed at a middle class, white man scrubbing mall toilets. “A white doing brown man work? What’s wrong with this one?”

“He’s my son,” she had told her doctor and then fell to sputtering. How to describe seeing the child who had emerged from her womb become a man who looked entry-level homeless? The psychiatrist said that her son had a biochemical imbalance. She knew in her heart that was 50 percent of an explanation. That the other 50 percent of the equation was her and Dan, how savage they’d been to each other in front of their kids. Dan had been granted death mercifully early. Most nights she prayed to trade places with him.

The mother said nothing to the son. They walked in between the thin pines, dark green ones and rust-brown ones, dead from the beetle kill. The snow began to fall like eider down. The mother pointed out how the snowflakes balanced on the long dark moss on the end of a branch as delicately as a soap bubble and with the lightest exhale you could blow them back on course to the ground.

“Why the fuck are you talking snowflakes when I’m telling you this town is out to get me?”

The son didn’t exist where she did. He talked as if in a dream in which the only subject was himself and his war with the town and its inhabitants across four decades. How about when he turned six and she and Dan had fought on his birthday? She’d gone after Dan with a cake knife and he had defended himself with a chair. Broken glass littered the kitchen floor. There was blood spatter in the bathroom sink. What did she think that did to a developing mind? Did she see the red drops on his birthday cake before she gave him a slice? His words didn’t matter; she just heard the sound his voice made, a raging animal howling in a murky pine forest. The fox that wakes up with its leg crushed in a steel trap. He didn’t know to gnaw his own leg off—or to let her do it.

Her cocker spaniel barked and jerked forward on the leash. A splash of pink red drops stained the snow on the ground. The mother followed the blood with her eyes to a larger patch of it shot through with short, dark fur and a fine layer of fresh snow. The dog ran towards it, to the end of his leash and dragged her forward and she leaned back, struggling not to shoot ahead. The son took a dozen steps toward the blood and fur and prodded at it with his boot and, when he didn’t find a carcass buried under the snow, he turned away and casually put a fresh cigarette to his lips.

The pink-red snow trailed behind the bloody patch for twenty feet and stopped at a mound of freestanding rocks about five feet high and six feet in diameter, the top of which had a cap of snow about a foot deep. The rocks were one of the stone ovens the mother sometimes came across in the bush. Dan told her that the Chinese had built them, when they worked on the railways in the early 1900s. This oven had a crescent opening on both sides that, a long time ago, the son had crawled into and said that it was like a little cave. She gave the son the dog leash and told him to hold it short.

“You’ve seen blood before,” the son said. He lit the cigarette as if he didn’t have a care in the universe and talked about Tom Borgardt, Mister Borgardt he still called him, his grade nine shop teacher who’d done nothing to stop the bullies who tortured him. He said if he had money—real money, more than the miserable $2,000 she might lend him—a few goddamn assholes in the town would pay.

The snow began to fall in a continual sheet. She edged up to the oven, the dark opening on the side that faced her.

“What, we’re playing CSI now?”

The snow had piled up, so she could only see the top three inches of the entryway. She pulled some of it away and could smell nothing out of the ordinary, but the weather had been too cold for anything to rot. Inside the oven it was too dark to see and she fumbled with her keys until she shone her little LED light. The cub had crawled into the oven alone or the mother had chased it there to protect it from the hunters. The thing looked maybe six months old, about forty pounds. The crows had made two scarred hollows of its eyes. She followed the blood trail back to the central patch and could see old boot prints under the snow and a single brass rifle shell.

“What was she doing outside?” the mother asked. “It makes no sense. They should be hibernating now. You can set your watch to it.”

The son stared at her as if her astonishment was the convention of an alien race. “Didn’t you hear what I’m saying about Borgardt?”

“The last few nights have been minus twenty-five.”

The sow must have been starving. There had been no rain all spring and summer and the berry crops had been wretched. She didn’t have enough fat to hibernate or nurse her cub. The terror of the creature—she would’ve felt her end in her bones; her child’s end. The end of everything.

“We should bury it,” the mother said.

The son snorted two tusks of turquoise smoke. “You know how frozen that ground is?”

“There are lots of rocks around here for a small tomb. It could be shallow. We could use some of the rocks from the oven.”

He pushed the dog leash back into her hands and began to walk the way they came. His fists were rammed in the pockets of his jeans and he hunched his shoulders and back as if he laboured under an immense burden. He’d wait, she knew, at her Lincoln, for her foolish impulse to traverse from empathy to shame. And they’d drive back in silence to the town and she’d drop him off at his apartment and neither would say anything. And then next week a different walk. The same plea for her money. Another little death.

The snow whirled around her head, stung her eyes. She couldn’t bury the cub herself. Her hands and shoulders were scourged with arthritis and, even if she were loaded on anti-inflammatories the pain would last weeks. There was no one else she could call up who wasn’t her own age and condition or worse. With a pickaxe the son could break through the first eight inches of frozen ground. Two feet was all they needed.

“Get back here and help me.”

Her cocker spaniel yelped as if it had been kicked. She’d made her demand too loudly, too sharp. Too much like when she and Dan had fought on the son’s birthday and she had to order him to get out from under his bed. Help her clean up the broken glass, upright chairs, find the new roll of goddamn gauze.

The son’s head snapped around. The fear in his eyes hadn’t aged since he’d first felt terror in her presence forty years ago. He looked as if he might bolt. Hide.

Her voice softened, as it had always softened when she tried to coax him out from under his childhood bed. But the bribe had changed. “If it’s that $2,000 you want.”

She regretted her words before she’d finished. He pulled his hand out of his pocket as if he was about to shake his middle finger at her, but then he dropped his fist and spat and shook his head as if she hadn’t understood anything of what they’d just seen. She’d give him the money, all right—if not tomorrow, then the next week or the week after. And he wouldn’t have to dig a grave or mow her lawn or promise not to return broken again by the city. He just had to exist as her son.

It would be like this for all time. The time they had left.

 

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About Andrew Boden

Andrew Boden's short stories, essays, and poetry have appeared in The Journey Prize Stories 22, The New Quarterly, Prairie Fire, Other Voices, Vancouver Review, and Descant. His story “The Parts of Ourselves Without Names” was a recent honorable mention in Glimmer Train's "Family Matters" fiction contest. Andrew is also co-editor of the anthology Hidden Lives: Coming Out on Mental Illness, which will be re-issued in spring 2017. He lives in Burnaby, British Columbia with his wife and three calculating cats.

Andrew Boden

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