by Bryce V. Giroux
part 1 of 2
It was about 7:30 pm when I drove into Pleasant Creek. Never was there a more ironic name for a town ever created — except perhaps for some of those dismal little towns along the southern coast of Australia like Mount Hope or Coffin Bay — towns obviously settled by convicts or castaways.
I was a castaway in my own right, running from my terrible past. The news hadn’t reached the local radio stations yet, and for that I was grateful.
Pleasant Creek was a hunting town nestled somewhere in the heart of northern Ontario. Where exactly wasn’t much of a mystery to the townsfolk as it was the mapmakers who placed all the towns and villages on those impossible-to-fold sheets. It seems as though someone neglected to include Pleasant Creek on the map. I found it just off the Trans-Canada Highway, somewhere about sixty kilometres north of Kapuskasing.
I stepped out of my rapidly aging Intrepid. I had put many miles on it and it was beginning to show. The transmission had begun to overheat and after driving any distance now, I felt like something kicked me in the ass when I slowed to a stop. The poor old beast needed her beauty rest. After every hour of driving, she would need to rest for at least twenty minutes before I even thought of getting out of first gear. Driving it had become a nightmare, but it served me well in the past and I was not quite ready to part with it just yet.
I stretched my arms high in the air and took a deep whiff of air. The smell of asphalt and gasoline mingled with the sweet odour of pine needles and ripening blueberries. Some days I really missed the north.
I craned my neck and surveyed the locale. It was a quaint town on the outside. Probably only about two dozen or so families lived in the dilapidated houses. The town’s only business was a gas station that was also a grocery store and a hunting lodge. Only one gas pump, with globe atop cracked and faded, provided service to the locals. It looked as though it had transported through time from the 1950’s. I half expected a team of sharply dressed gas jockeys to come pouring out of the store. “Check your oil, sir?” one would ask as another checked my tire pressure and another cleaned my window.
There was no pit crew for my gasping Intrepid. Instead, I had to flip open my own gas door and unscrew my gas cap. I lifted the nozzle from the pump. Ancient dials on it still read the last amount of gas that the last customer had pumped: forty-eight litres at a heart-stopping thirty-five cents a litre. That couldn’t be right. I placed the nozzle in the mouth of my car.
There was something almost erotic about pumping gas. A phallic-looking nozzle forcibly inserted into an opening just slightly big enough for it somehow seemed wrong. A gentle squeeze and liquid would issue forth filling the belly of my old girl.
Only this time when I pulled the trigger the pump refused to give up its golden treasure. It didn’t even sound as if electricity powered the unit. I looked over the pump; searching for a knob or dial to turn the pump on. Nothing. I returned the nozzle to its holster. My old girl would just have to go unsatisfied for now. I took a deep breath — I didn’t need this, not now — and headed into the store.
Joseph Currant, a francophone whose family had been in Canada for almost as long as the natives, was the sole-proprietor. Joseph — never Joe — was an elderly gentleman possibly in his late seventies. He looked as though he hadn’t seen a barber in a decade or a dentist in just as long. He smiled a gummy, toothless smile when I entered the store.
The place smelled of pemmican and petroleum at the same time. It was almost rancid. Pale sunlight drifted in through a grimy window providing very little illumination to the store floor. Dust danced and swirled in the artificial breeze generated by a small electric fan on the counter.
“Something I can help you with?” His accent was unmistakably bushwhacker-north.
I looked around the store. Very little stock filled the shelves. The goods were sparse — too sparse unless you dedicated your life to curing and smoking meat.
“I’m just passing through, I’m afraid. I was looking to gas up but it doesn’t seem like your pumps are working.”
“They ain’t worked since eighty-eight. Ain’t had much call for them.”
I picked up a bag of seasoning salt and looked at the price. I wasn’t interested in seasoning salt; I just felt as though I needed to touch something. I gingerly placed the seasoning salt back in its place careful to try to line it up in the void of dust where it had been sitting. I quite possibly was the first person since eighty-eight to have picked up that bag.
“Do you know where else I can get some gas?”
Joseph scratched his hairless head with rough fingers. Even ten feet away I could hear the coarse scratching. “You could try Farquarh’s up the road.” He hummed to himself. “Nah, the Farquarh’s have been closed for over ten years. How far are you willing to go?”
My gas light had just turned on when I came into town. I had another sixty kilometres or so, but for some reason I didn’t want to let Joseph know that. “I don’t know. Probably about an hour or so.”
“Kap is just up the road, don’t you know? Why don’t you go up there?”
“Thanks,” I said. Then added, “I just came from there” under my breath. Joseph hadn’t heard me and turned back to his well-worn magazine.
I left Currant Goods and Outfitters and stood on the stoop looking at the dense forest just beyond my tired old girl. An unnamed county road wound its way through the foothills of the Canadian Shield and disappeared into the dark wilderness. Back the other way — the way I had come — was my old life. I wasn’t too eager to head back that way.
I walked back to my car; dragging my heels into the dry earth, watching the wisps of dust kick up from my feet and tiny pebbles scattered their way, tracing little roads in the dirt before of me. A cool breeze found its way down the road and across my back despite the mid-July heat. Autumn was on its way early for up here. Even though it was late in the day, the sun still hung high in the sky.
I got back in my car. After a few minutes idle, the air inside began to warm up. The coolness of the air conditioner would be a welcome feeling. I turned the ignition. The engine whirred and sputtered but did not catch. I groaned. I could already feel my blood pressure beginning to rise. I tried again.
Again, there was nothing. The engine just sputtered like before.
I tried again. The engine still did not respond. “Damn!” My fists flew into the air. I caught the rear-view mirror with my right hand, bruising my knuckle. “Goddammit to hell!” No matter how much I cursed, the car wouldn’t start.
I suddenly became aware of eyes upon me. I looked out my side window. Two urchins, a boy and a girl, stood gape-jawed and dirty faced. They looked apparently stunned by my poor choice of language. I forced a smile on my face, telling them in my head, “I’m all right. I’m just fine. Don’t mind crazy ole me.” The children fled behind the store the moment I opened my car door.
I stomped back to the store, reminiscent of the way I had done almost twenty years ago when my mother dragged me some place I didn’t want to go. I slammed open the door and the cheery bells above rung out. Joseph looked up from his magazine, indifferent to my dramatic entrance.
“Do you have a phone?” I could tell my tone was gruff but I didn’t care. That damned car caused me so many headaches in the past year; I almost wished I hadn’t bought it.
“Na-ah,” Joseph said quite matter-of-factly.
I squinted at him. He was lying. I could tell. I could always tell when someone was lying just like the way some one can tell when it’s raining when they’re standing in the middle of the street during a thunderstorm. “My car won’t start. I need a tow truck.”
Joseph beamed at me for the first time and soon to be the last. “Ah, my petit-fils has a tow truck. I’ll telephone him and he’ll be right over to fix you up good.”
I slowly walked towards the counter. “I thought you didn’t have a phone,” I reminded him.
He smiled toothlessly at me. “It ain’t for public use.” Joseph disappeared into a back room concealed by a dusty red curtain. He hadn’t disappeared far as I heard him pick up a telephone receiver and dial.
Bonjour, Alan? C’est ton pe-père.
I almost wished I had learned French in high school. I opted to take biology and other science classes instead.
Il y a un homme ici, il dit que sa voiture ne fonctionne pas.
There was a pause. It was probably ‘Alan’ talking. I knew they were talking about me.
Non, j’sais pas comment il a trouvé cet endroit.
After a few moments of talking with his petit-fils, Joseph emerged from the back room. The smile had disappeared from his face and he looked almost worried. “I’m sorry mon ami. My grandson is unable to bring his truck over right now. He said he would be here in about trois heures.” He held up three bony fingers.
Copyright © 2007 by Bryce V. Giroux