Taylor lay in the bottom of the canoe. Curled up on his side, a fist under his chin and an elbow on a knee like that statue of a thinker he'd seen the only time he'd been in an art gallery. That is, if somebody had knocked the statue over and dumped it between the thwarts of Ryetack's canoe. The statue was a replica, the real thing was too famous and valuable to move from one of those countries he'd studied in grade ten Socials, the teacher telling them to go see the world, there's more to life than hockey and two-fours, the Vancouver airport's ninety fast miles away.
Taylor wasn't sure he was awake. He didn't know how to tell if he was conscious. Replica, he thought, and twisted his head to look at the sky. Earlier, before he blanked out, before he must have stopped paddling, his neck was on ball bearings, was Gretzky behind the net, his head could turn three-sixty and spin the stars like a frisbee. Now his head was part of that bronze statue, a bust, he thought, seeing no stars in the sky, and the first charcoal wash of dawn over Hawk Mountain. I'm a duplicate, he hoped. The real Taylor must have been somewhere else, on a tear in Vancouver, howling it up at the Cecil, then sleeping it off, on his sister's couch. Not here.
The canoe wasn't moving. There was no more wind rocking and swinging him around. Maybe he was dead. That could be it. His arms had been giving out, burning, angry and insubstantial as fire. His shoulders packed with dynamite and every stroke a fuse sizzling upward. No, every stroke was the way girls used to throw, his big sister threw, before somebody told them they could kick ass too, didn't have to take anything lying down. His hands had stiffened, frozen, fingers so brittle they kept snapping off. It was August but Coquihalla Lake was always cold, chilled by underground springs and run-off from the slopes. Bottomless, everyone said, you dropped an outdoor motor and forget it. And haunted. By a man who drowned decades ago, who was caught in an underwater whirlpool above a spring, his body preserved by the glacial depths, some said, or just a skeleton revolving at the deepest unfathomed part below the great dome rock at the base of Chief's Cliff which rose five hundred feet. You didn't want to fish there. And the motorboats and water skiers stayed away. But not Taylor.
Once a week in the summer he'd paddle the circumference, and this past June he'd been followed across the dead man's whirlpool by a pair of frogs mating, the weirdest thing, how they kept going in his wake, while he paddled slowly and delicately as possible.
Rodin, thought Taylor, staring now at the fibreglass his head was on, that was the sculptor. If I'm dead, maybe I'll meet him. He couldn't remember stopping paddling, but he was sure he'd given up. The canoe swinging bow to stern, then stern to bow, a crazy propeller out in the middle of the lake. A wind had come up out of nowhere. Okay, he knew where. You didn't live here all your life and not know where the wind came from, up the Valley from the ocean, swirling around the mountain slopes that slid into the lake on all sides but the west, where the Valley began. Usually in the late afternoon as the heat from the Valley rose, not often in the middle of the night, especially not when Taylor had seen what might save him in that gap to the west. Rodin was the sculptor. The wind caused by the motion of some tremendous beast tromping over the town, the lake, the roads into the mountains. He'd made a stupid joke in the art gallery about Rodan, the Japanese horror flick's B-movie monster. Ryetack had laughed, even though he knew it was dumb, but Ryetack was that kind of friend, he didn't want you to feel embarrassed. Taylor's sister made a face, and Marci ignored him. Marci was sketching a small statue of two naked people kissing.
She'd been drawing as long as Taylor could remember, but especially after grade ten art when Gordimer gave her the highest mark in class. He'd given Taylor a C-, which was all he deserved. Taylor took art just to be in class with Marci. That's when his crush on her was at its worst. She was better at art than him, but an A+? Rumour was Gordimer was screwing her, even though he had a wife and two small kids. His wife worked in Abbotsford and took their kids to a daycare there. Marci had been seen more than once in Gordimer's car at lunchtime. It made Taylor sick, especially since Gordimer was good-looking and everyone thought he was cool. That was the year Taylor suffered bad headaches, racked up a league record for penalty minutes, not for fighting, but for reckless undisciplined hits.
Taylor was tapping his head on the wooden gunwale, tapping harder and harder. Rodan's enormous green-black scaly legs and Marci's hands on stone and bronze, they were flowing into each other, like when the movie projector overheated and the film melted, nauseating ripples of colour on his brain screen. There were two other guys on that trip to Vancouver, the four of them crashing on his sister's floor, drinking brew and smoking dope, out at the Cecil for some raunchy blues, eating cold pizza until she booted them out. Pistol and Stan. They and Taylor were on a highway crew, filling potholes and cracks, repaving, and needed an extra-long weekend in the city.
Ryetack didn't want Stan along. The Kamloops fiasco was the next-to-last straw. They'd gone up for a hockey tournament in Stan's company crew van. The first night, Stan picked up a girl in a club and disappeared for the whole weekend. A man short, they lost all their games and, with Stan nowhere in sight, had to take the Greyhound home.
Taylor's sister didn't want him in her apartment either. She'd had nothing to say to him since twelfth grade, a month after she broke up with him. They'd gone out for no more than two months, but he thought he owned her. That's why she broke up with him. He wanted her locker combination. She caught him rifling through her bedroom drawers and closet. He'd squeeze hard on her arm when he thought she was flirting with some other guy. A month after she rid herself of him, which wasn't easy, he didn't take rejection kindly, she started going out with an native boy whose father was a social worker on the reserve. Someone cut all the natives' nets on the river. Stan had the nerve to leave a heap of fishnet and fish heads on her front porch, and knew she wouldn't tell.
Still, she didn't refuse him space on her floor. A few years had passed, after all, and he was the one getting Taylor and Pistol their jobs. Stan's father was a highways contractor. He sponsored their hockey team. Taylor sometimes didn't know about Stan. But there were old loyalties. Buddies weren't that easy to come by, especially as you got older, and you had to cut a guy some slack.
Ryetack was of the opinion that Stan needed something else severed. Ryetack didn't work for Stan's old man. He was a timber cruiser who worked alone in the woods surveying for logging cuts, and fought forest fires as a crew foreman. We should find another sponsor, he said one night when they were drinking and smoking some homegrown up on Chief's Cliff. Stan wasn't with them. Ryetack was standing right on the edge, flinging stones in a long, slow parabola to the dome and the lake below. It made Taylor nervous when Ryetack tempted fate like that. Even if Ryetack was the fearless expert woodsman. Pistol just laughed crazily and rambled about hang-gliding off the Chief. Pistol sat as far from the edge as he could, almost hugging the bumper of Ryetack's truck. Another time, Stan stood right out there with Ryetack, seeing who could throw stones the farthest. Stan kept losing, so he reached back to heave his beer bottle, but Ryetack caught his arm and wrenched him over backwards, flat on the ground, the bottle smashing, then Ryetack painstakingly picked up the pieces while Stan called him an asshole fucking saint.
Marci was in Vancouver, too, on a week-long break from the Kan Yon Cafe, staying in Taylor's sister's guest bedrooom and hanging out in galleries.
When Marci and his sister talked Taylot and Ryetack into the gallery, Stan and Pistol went off to score some more dope, go to the Austin and watch the strippers and buy the natives beer. Pistol wanted to smoke up and go play pitch and putt golf in Stanley Park, but Stan called him a faggot and bullied him to the Austin. Stan bought the natives beer so that they'd kill themselves off faster.
Taylor gripped the gunwale and pulled himself up to a sitting position, tilting the canoe, and slumping himself half-over the side. One hand went in the water, the other on the ground. The bow had been beached, the canoe was a third out of water.
Pistol was getting married. A girl from the Kooteneys they hardly knew. Pistol met her tree planting the summer before and spent the winter with her in Nelson, then came back for the highways job. He got his name playing peewee hockey, from a quick little slapshot that cracked off the stick and past the goalie more often than not. But he claimed he'd named himself after the Sex Pistols.
Taylor sat himself upright, leaned back against a thwart, and stared out at the lake, toward the public beach and boat launch to the southwest which would fill with mothers and kids and teen-agers and tourists in a few hours. Then at the dome and Chief's Cliff, which would stay in the shadows of Hawk Mountain all but a few hours in the late afternoon. It had been Stan's idea to get a stripper for Pistol's stag party. That would be more special than a stack of porn flicks. Stan would even spring for the cost himself, what was a few hundred when it was Pistol's last day of freedom.
Pistol had a lot of friends, but he didn't want a huge fuss, a big party, just a half-dozen best buddies. He wasn't sure about Stan laying out big bucks for the stripper, but that was Stan's way. Like after Kamloops, when he'd left them in a lurch, he showed up at each guy's house a few days later with expensive new hockey bags. Even left one in Ryetack's backyard, but Ryetack set it on the curb for some kid to claim.
Taylor wasn't dead. His head was too stuffed, like a vacuum cleaner bag, with the start of an all-day dope hangover to be dead. His mouth was thick with styrofoam. The coaldust of the sky and lake could belong to some stark afterworld, but the dankness soaking through his levis, light coat, and shirt were all too real. He thought he heard a robin. That would be a sign. But no. And then brain echoes of Dire Straits, once upon a time, in Stan's house, Mark Knopfler's guitar, in the west. That would have been Ryetack's choice, not Stan's with his headbanging rap grooves.
Stan was eating dinner alone after work in the Kan Yon cafe. Marci was waiting on his table. It was slow, so she let herself sit down with him. Stan told her he planned to hire a stripper for Pistol's stag party five days away. Now he had a brainstorm. How would Marci like to make an easy three hundred? Define easy, she said. Stan had his doing-you-a-favour look. Marci told this to Ryetack the day after the stag, slumped on the beat-up sofa in his basement apartment, then Ryetack told Taylor.
You like Pistol, Stan told her, everybody likes Pistol, he's a good-time guy, that's why I thought a stripper'd be a gas. Nobody there but Taylor, Ryetack, Stan, three-four other guys. They'd all be too fucking hammered to remember she was even there. Pistol had been saving some mushrooms and Stan had a block of hash so blissful, he said, it must've been blessed by almighty god. One fucking hoot. All Marci had to do was sneak in Stan's back door half-way through the party, get stoned in his bedroom, get in the mood, wait for the musical cue to come upstairs, do a striptease, give Pistol a peck on the cheek and leave the boys to pack Pistol off to matrimonial doom.
Marci had been saving money. She hadn't decided finally for what. An old friend from high school was waitressing at ski resorts in Switzerland and hanging out in Amsterdam between jobs. There was Taylor's sister, who'd finished a computer course at college and offered to share her apartment if Marci wanted to work in Vancouver or go to art school. Her brother was selling real estate in Calgary and could get her a job, but she'd need a good car. Five hundred, she told Stan. Five jesus hundred? he said. If I'm gonna take my clothes off for a bunch of geeks I've known all my life, she said, make it worth my while.
Can you believe that's what I said? she later asked Ryetack, who stared out his basement window, his closed-fist hands on his knees a set of hoofs.
If Taylor was stunned or incredulous when Marci strutted and swayed down Stan's hallway into the living room, wearing a tight black dress and fuck-me heels, with later Stones cranking out raunchy blues from Stan's huge speakers, his brain was too full of meteor showers and cosmic clouds to dwell on disbelief. Inside the semi-circle of men, Marci's waving arms and gyrating hips and legs thrusting out and bobbing head with hair swinging loose loomed in the midst of a rainbowed aurora onrushing out of a black cornucopia of magic mushrooms and hashish smoke and tequila and sparkling wine. He heard Pistol shrieking and saw his face silly with giddy delight. He heard Stan yelling at Marci, urging her on, his voice the brass bell of a sousaphone spewing red-hot lava through the smoke from a giant hookah. Then Marci started to strip and an almost invisible speck in a vastly remote galaxy of Taylor's brain transmitted a message that maybe Taylor should shut his eyes, but before the signal reached his lids, Marci's dress, bra and panties were sucked into the vortex and the music kept throbbing and Marci's body was a nebula forming right on his eyes, her skin dilating his pupils, her hips pumping sparks and her pubic hair trailing curtains of light into his brain.
He clamped his eyes closed, squeezing her out, until there was nothing left but a violent blood red, and then he heard wild cheering and clapping and opened his eyes to see Marci's naked body swaying back down the hallway, clutching her dress, and stumbling into Stan's bedroom.
Taylor looked around. Pistol was in seventh heaven and hugging Stan. The other guys were cheering Stan, too, refilling their glasses, the hookah. All except Ryetack. He'd been there when Marci appeared. Taylor went looking for him. In the kitchen, no, the bathroom, no.
Stan, where's Ryetack, Taylor asked, almost frantic and not knowing why.
You mean our dickhead virgin? Stan said, then drifted back into his own swirling galaxy.
Where'd he go Stan? Taylor persisted.
Fucking feminist I suppose, he slurred back at Taylor, took off once he saw it was Marci, gave me some high-and-fuckin-mighty stare then stomped his candy ass out the door. Fuck him, party pooper, missed the show of the year, hey, of a lifetime, wasn't she the hottest guys! Never knew she had all that in her. She'd have some career, eh, they'd have to drag the customers out kicking and screaming. That was worth a tip, eh, whaddaya say? And Stan went around the room, while everybody managed to find their wallets and hand him some cash. Even Taylor, without knowing. His brain was outside somewhere with Ryetack, walking up the road to Coquihalla Lake or even one of the trails up Hawk Mountain that Ryetack could hike in the dark, he didn't need trails, Ryetack might be cutting through the woods right now to some important spot by a stream where Taylor should be now too, his face under the freezing water, his mouth open, the clear icy water running down his throat and filling his gut, the weird creaks of the trees snapping his brain piece by piece back into place.
Richard Lemm means
only the best.