The Fire-Dwellers (6 page)

You do, eh? You really think you do?

Stacey looks at him, at his face in the half-light of the car, his face bitter and real.

Cameron’s Funeral Home in the prairie town, and Stacey, seventeen, coming in late from a dance, stepping behind the Caragana hedge to avoid encountering her mother, who had come downstairs and outside in her dressing gown and was trying to open the mortuary door, which was locked.
Niall – you come upstairs and quit drinking. I know what you’re doing in there. I know you
. And the low gentle terrifying voice in reply –
You do? You really think you do?

No. I don’t know, Mac. Okay, I don’t know. Isn’t it strange? I thought it couldn’t happen to me.

What’re you talking about? What couldn’t happen?

The silences

Oh God. What gimmick are we in for now?

Nothing. Look – nothing. It’s okay. Everything’s okay. I’ll do the quiz.

  — I’ve just remembered. The pill parade Mac’s on is for age thirty-five to forty. Exactly how young did he tell Thor he was? Well, whatever the game happens to be, it’s a form of solitaire for Mac. He’s decided on that.

Stacey, look – you know I don’t want to be unreasonable, but

Yeh, I know. It’s okay. I wish I knew more.

About what?

I don’t know.

Six o’clock, the dinner ready, the kids groaning about their emptiness, and no sign of Mac. Stacey pours herself a large gin and tonic and raises her glass.

  — Here’s to the god of thunder. He’s right. If I spent my life pouring myself full of vitamins and tomato juice instead of gin, coffee and smoke, maybe I would be a better person. I would be slim, calm, good-tempered, efficient, sexy and wise.

Also beautiful. Beautiful and intelligent.

What did you say, Mum?

Katie has snaked in around the kitchen door.

Nothing. Just talking to myself, I guess.

When’s dinner? Marnie and I are going to the show.

Who said? The local, you mean? What’s on?

Just this experimental film.

Which one?

Oh, you know.
Psychedelic Sidewalk
.

You can’t. It’s an A.

Katie drapes herself slenderly across the kitchen chair. She is wearing a turquoise dress with canary-colored plastic earrings.

So what else is new?

I’m just telling you, you won’t be allowed in, that’s all.

Jingle-jangle. Coinage. Ever heard of it, mini-mind? You can get in anywhere if you’ve got the price of admission.

Well, that’s pretty cynical, I must say. Anyway, what makes you think I’ll let you go?

You said I could go tonight. You
did
say.

I didn’t say you could go to that one.

  — What difference does it make? Why are we going on like this? Do I really believe it’s going to alter her out of all recognition? No. I feel it’s my duty to appear to be doing my duty, that’s all. A farce.

Katie flies up from the chair like a rust-feathered pheasant from cover.

You said I could go and I’m going. I just simply am. That’s all.

  — Such rudeness. I never spoke to my mother that way, at her age.

Stacey Cameron, fourteen, dark hair set rigidly in rolls on top of the head, transference from movie star queens to a million clumsy-fingered small-town girls. Stacey with tomato-colored mouth, regarded by mother more in sorrow than anger.
You are certainly not going to a public dance hall, dear. You wouldn’t want to be the sort of girl people wouldn’t respect, would you?
It’s a dance, Mother, for heaven’s sake, not an orgy. Mother sniffling into lace-edged hanky.
I never thought a daughter of mine would speak to me like that. Your father’s going to have to deal –
(But he was down among the dead men, bottles and flesh, and didn’t hear when she called.)

  — I stand in relation to my life both as child and as parent, never quite finished with the old battles, never able to arbitrate
properly the new, able to look both ways, but whichever way I look, God, it looks pretty confusing to me.

Katie listen, I’m sorry try to be reasonable

Why don’t
you
try being reasonable for a change? You give with one hand and take away with the other, that’s your standard pattern. It’s not only inconsistent – it’s – it’s immoral.

  — Lord assist me not to laugh. If the worst thing on my conscience were refusing to let her see
Psychedelic Sidewalk
, I would be a happy happy lady. Yet from where she stands I look unreasonable, inconsistent and immoral. And I’m not certain I’m not.

Katie gives Stacey a look filled with something deeply her own. Scorn? Pity? Then her turquoise shoulders slope a little and her long loose hair falls across her face. She turns and walks upstairs. Stacey can hear her sliding the bolt across her bedroom door. Stacey reaches for the gin and tonic and drinks it as though she has just stumbled in from the Sahara.

  — Katie? Listen. Just let me explain. I can explain everything. Sure, Explainer of the Year, that’s me. How can I explain anything? How can I tell you what you should be doing? I don’t know what I should be doing. But I think if I don’t tell you, it’ll look bad. If I could level with you, would we be further ahead? Do you really want to know what I’m like? I can’t believe it.

Stacey rounds up Jen and feeds her. The boys are playing in the back yard, and the fighting is at present suppressed and undeclared. Stacey peers into saucepans, turns the stove elements lower, and pours another gin and tonic.

  — Where in hell is he? Knocking himself out for Thorlakson. He’s working too hard. Yeh, but doing well, you have to admit. Sure, doing splendid. On his way to a heart attack. If he’d finished university, everything would be all right. He’d have a
profession. How come he could only stick to it for two years after the war? It was more fun to go out drinking with Buckle. I can’t imagine Mac ever being like that. Damn you, Buckle Fennick, you ruined my husband’s life. What nonsense. Things don’t happen that way. It was Mac himself who had to quit university. Because his dad was a minister? Because Matthew was upright to the point of unbearability? If only Mac were a doctor, say, or a lawyer. Yeh, that would solve everything. Last month in this city two lawyers and one doctor killed themselves. The lawyers used the exhaust pipes on their cars, the doctor simply swallowed the appropriate pills. Come on, Stacey, let me freshen your drink. That’s what Tess says. Yes, she does. She is a very dainty type. Freshen, indeed. Let me give you another slug of this drug – she doesn’t say that. She is also wont to say, in such places as the City Hall or the Hudson’s Bay Company, that she wonders where the Little Girls’ Room is, making the john sound like a council hall for countless nymphets. I shouldn’t talk. Katie is always saying how outdated my slang is. Gosh. Gee. Twerp. Heavenly days.

Clump-clump-clump
. A man’s footsteps, but not Mac’s. Stacey thrusts her glass into the deep concealing blue bowl of the Mixmaster on the kitchen cabinet, and goes to the door.

  — Mac’s father?

But it is not Mac’s father. It is Buckle Fennick. He stands there on the front porch, grinning. For Buckle, to swagger does not mean to walk boastfully, or not necessarily. Buckle can swagger while standing still. He wears a sleazily shiny sports shirt, cerise and silver, and jeans.

  — Man of his age, I ask you. His jeans are always too tight and they bulge where his sex is, and it embarrasses me and infuriates me that it does, yet I always look, as he damn well knows and laughs at, one of the many unspoken small malices
between us in our years of competition for Mac. No – that’s unfair to all of us. I didn’t mean it. Oh?

Buckle is only slightly taller than Stacey, but he is stocky with muscular hair-flecked arms. He has a face like an Iroquois, angular, and faintly slanted dark eyes. His hair is night-black and straight. He never loses the tan on his face and arms, not even in the winter, and on the occasions when he goes to the beach with Mac and Stacey and the kids it surprises Stacey to see how pale his legs are under the black hairs.

  — Okay, so he’s sexy. It’s an optical illusion. How many men do I see? You could count them on one hand, and most of those like Jake Fogler, about three feet tall with heavy-rimmed glasses and semi-collapsed chests, talking earnestly about media or some damn thing. Buckle’s just around here half the time, that’s all. Mac’s dear old buddy from during the war. I detest him. I try to be nice to him for Mac’s sake, but sometimes I don’t try hard enough and make some private remark to Mac, very restrained, like
Why does that slob always drop in at dinnertime?
and then Mac is furious. He doesn’t know that Buckle scares me. It’s ridiculous. It’s untrue. That article – “I’m Almost Ready for an Affair,” which turned out to mean she wasn’t at all, ending in an old-fashioned sunburst of joy, Epithalamium Twenty Years After, virtuous while conveying the impression that dozens of virile men would be eager to oblige if she weren’t. She was probably like me – the only guys she knew were her husband’s friends.

Hi, gorgeous.

  — Buckle, when are you going to stop talking like that? Where do you get your lines? Old B-grade movies? Oh God, I should criticize. Here’s me, dressed in none-too-clean slacks and a blouse which Katie discarded when indelible red ink got
spilled on it, so I look like I’m bleeding severely from a chest wound. Thrice hell.

Oh hi, Buckle. Come on in. I’m just getting dinner. Mac’s not home yet, but he should be here any minute.

  — My good-wife-and-mother voice. I can’t seem to talk to Buckle in any other way. I always sound so prim. Sometimes I wonder what kind of person he imagines I must be.

I just got back from a haul north, so I’m off for a couple days. Thought I’d drop in and see how the guy’s getting on with the new job.

Mac’s getting on fine.

You don’t sound too pleased.

Sorry – I’m tired. End-of-day bit. Want to stay for dinner?

Twist my arm.

  — Will I, hell. Your arm needs less twisting than anybody’s I know, you cheap bastard. Don’t you ever have a meal at home?

Sure, do stay. There’s plenty. Let me get you a drink. Gin and tonic?

Don’t mind if I do.

  — Buckle, can’t you vary the response from time to time? I once said this –
Don’t mind if I do –
and Mac told me later it was vulgar. I didn’t tell him it had been a takeoff. I was too overcome with shame at my spiritual acidity.

Jen is playing with her plastic tea set on the kitchen floor. Buckle picks her up and swings her around above his head. Stacey, preparing one drink, having adroitly lifted her own out of the Mixmaster bowl, gazes in the hope that Jen will scream bloody murder. But no. Jen chortles for more.

Hey, how’s my girl friend, eh? How’s the champion pisser of the neighborhood?

  — Just once. Only, for heaven’s sake,
once
did Jen wet on him when she was a very young baby. He still thinks this is the wittiest remark going. Take your hands off my kid, you ape.

Here’s your drink, Buckle.

He sets Jen down and picks up the glass.

Here’s looking at you.

How was the trip, Buckle?

Buckle is a trucker. He drives a diesel dinosaur, a steel monster, innumerable great tires, heavy as a mountain, roaringly full of crazy power. Buckle loves it. It is his portable fortress, his movable furnace. It is his lover and himself all in one. He mainly goes north, up the Cariboo Highway and the Alaska Highway, up to the Peace River country where the forests grasp the ancient moss-covered rocks, to the last little towns raw in the mud of new clearings.

Same old shit. Bananas this time. Had to unload along the way, but the last of them had to get to Fort St. John before they rotted black. So what happens?

What?

Ten miles out of Williams Lake the steering goes. She’s supposed to be serviced before each haul. Those buggers of mechanics at Ace don’t know a spanner from their own cocks. Lucky it was me driving. Slightest thing happens, Harvey’s nerves go on the blink. I’d slowed to light a cigarette, and that was lucky, too. My luck’s still in – I make good and sure of that. If ever I go, it’s not gonna be that way, some dumb thing like the steering going.
Doing!
I brake. Hard, but not too hard, see? She shudders and skids and finally comes to a standstill. Oncoming car nearly swerves right off the road. Terrified tourist climbs out and screams
What d’you think you’re doing? Listen, bud
, I tell him, very calm,
it’s a lucky thing for you my reaction time’s pretty good and this crate decided to go for the verge
and not for you, or you’d be strummin’ your motherfuckin’ harp this very second, and don’t you forget it, eh?
Harvey’s sleeping in the back all the time. I swear that guy’s made out of plasticine. Six and a half hours we’re held up.

What about the bananas?

They got there okay. I never lost a load of anything yet. Harvey keeps peeking away at them, like he’s a hen with unhatched eggs or something. I tell him,
Relax, I’ll take the night shift and we can make time
.

I bet that pleased him no end.

He’s no good any more. Too slow. He’s getting on, and he gets jittery. I’m trying to work a change. I’d like to go by myself, if they’ll let me.

You never get jittery, I suppose.

Look, Stacey, I’ve told you. Nothing can happen to me while my luck’s in. See?

No.

No what?

I don’t see.

Well, like I know every inch of that goddam highway, and I know my vehicle, see? I know how she responds, and what she’ll do and won’t do. She’ll do what I want because I
know
. Anyway, it’s always Russian roulette to some extent. That’s not bad. That’s just the way it is. You know that before you start out.

  — He’s never consistent. He contradicts himself all the time, and there are things he only hints at, or else mentions as though you were bound to know all about them – as though they were commonplace. His luck – something apart from him and yet within his control, like the steering wheel, although with the possibility of abrupt change. His head must be full of unnamed gods meshing like a whole set of complicated gears.
He’s as superstitious as a caveman, but he always denies having any superstitions.

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