Dancing With Whiskey Jack
by Nathan Elberg
North Ontario, winter 1972
Nothing was visible through the windows except the dark forest and grey asphalt that stretched in front of the big Pontiac’s headlights. The moon tried to penetrate the broken, scudding clouds, but whatever light got through was quickly lost among the trees. The only sounds were the thrum of the V8 engine and the wind bellowing through the half-open windows.
Albert yawned and glanced over at Gary, who was slouching lower and lower in the passenger seat. “Tell me again why we’re doing this.”
Gary stretched his arms, then adjusted his seatbelt. “Mostly because we’re stupid. College students are supposed to do stupid things.”
“We’re supposed to do them at the beach with women and beer, not alone in the northern forest.”
Gary sighed. “You know the other reason.”
“We’re rushing from northern Alberta to New York City so you can watch the love of your life marry the man who stole her from you. Good reason.” Albert shook his head.
“Plattsburgh, not New York City. She’s getting married in Plattsburgh. It’s close to Montreal, which is why we’re in Canada now, rather than Illinois,” Gary said.
“Okay, Plattsburgh. Why are we doing this? Do you still love Mary?”
“I hate her with all my heart.”
Albert stiffened. “Then why are we killing ourselves to get there? I hope you’re not—”
“I’m going because I want to be a better person. To find it within myself to forgive her. Um, Albert...”
“What, Gary? You’re crazy, you know.”
“Thank you. I know I pulled you from your wildlife research.”
Albert grinned. “I’ve always said ‘a friend in need is a pest.’ I had enough data anyways.”
“I appreciate what you’re doing.” Gary punched Albert playfully on the shoulder.
“You’re not going to try to kiss me, are you?”
“You’re driving. I don’t want to distract you,” Gary said.
“If that’s the reason you’re not kissing me, it means we can’t ever stop, and you’re a fag.”
“If I was a fag, I wouldn’t have been with Mary for two years.”
“True. Can you tell me again why we’re taking the northern route instead of along Lake Superior?” Albert said. “It’s not shorter.”
Gary rubbed his chin. “Less snow than around Lake Superior?”
“We’re both crazy. What’s the next town?”
Gary pulled a little flashlight from the glove box and unfolded his map. “I don’t know. Umm... Kapuskasing. Maybe half an hour?” The wind grabbed the map and almost tore it from his hands.
“Can we maybe close the windows till we get there?” Albert asked.
Gary struggled to control the map, trying to fold it along a whole new set of creases. “We need to stay awake.”
“It’s too damned cold.”
Gary re-opened the map, trying to fold it properly. The wind ripped it from his hands, and sucked most of it out the window.
“And you might lose the map,” Albert said. “Why can’t we have the radio on instead?”
“Damn it. We’ll pick up another the next time we fill up.” Gary stuffed the remnant of map into the glove box. “The radio was boring.”
“There are other stations. What happens when the next map blows out the window?”
Gary scowled and pulled his hat further over his ears. “I won’t lose another map. All we get on the radio is mining news. We don’t get the Wolfman, Cousin Brucie, or any of the good American stations. You should have replaced the car’s antenna.”
“Someone kept breaking it off. I gave up on fixing it.”
“Your car’s almost new. You should take better care of it.”
Albert scowled at him. “Antennas cost money.”
“Cheapskate,” Gary said. He crossed his arms over his chest, holding his shoulders. “What do you think the temperature is?”
Albert glanced at his passenger. “Feeling a little chilly, are you? We should get a woman to keep us warm.”
“What do you think the temperature is?”
Albert rubbed his nose with a gloved hand. “Sudbury radio said twenty below, but that’s three hundred miles south of here. Thirty below?”
Gary nodded. “And windy.”
Albert frowned. “Isn’t the cold bothering you?”
Gary shook his head. “Sixty miles an hour. Windows open. Thirty below. Why should I be cold?”
“We’ve got another fifteen or twenty hours to Plattsburgh.” Albert said. “Are we dumb enough to keep the windows open the whole time?”
Gary laughed. “Just because we’re scientists doesn’t mean we have any brains. You’re too preoccupied with weighty matters like rodent population densities. Trivial things like keeping warm or stopping when tired are just too petty to bother with.”
“As opposed to the brilliant pathologist who dissects animals for fun. Don’t think you fool anyone that you’re looking for adverse effects of pollution. You just love dipping your hands in gore.” Albert wagged a mocking finger. “You’re a monster, you know. Even if your research ends up saving people’s lives.”
“Yes, I know.” Gary stared out the window. The raw wind dug into his flesh, irritating his eyes, making his nose drip. He thought about the animal-rights demonstrator who had been his girlfriend for three short days after Mary had dumped him. He should have told her he wasn’t ready for another relationship. It was mean to joke about the resemblance of her braised cauliflower to cat brains or of string beans amandine to intestines. The lentil comments were the last straw. She had called him a monster and walked out.
“Do you want to stop for the night in Kapuskasing?”
Gary turned from the window. “We’re both too tired to drive. Slow down, and I’ll try to spot a place to pull over and set up the tent.”
“It’s a clear night. I’m too tired to put up the tent, never mind drive. We’ll place our sleeping bags on the foams.”
“I don’t know about that. What about bears? This forest is creepy. I’d rather—”
“The tent won’t protect us against animals. Or monsters for that matter.” Albert smiled. “What if some of the critters you’ve dissected come to take revenge?”
“It’s too cold. Maybe there’s a cheap hotel in Kapuskasing.”
“We’re not staying at a hotel,” Albert said. “I have my principles.”
Gary pointed at his friend. “Yeah. You’re cheap.”
“True enough. I spent all my money buying this damned car, so don’t complain.”
“If you weren’t such a miser, you’d have bought a cassette player for it, and we could listen to music we like. Better than keeping the windows down.”
“I’m too stingy for even a good radio, never mind a cassette deck. Now stop talking, Gary, and find us a place to sleep. A five-star hotel would be nice. Can you get us one for under ten dollars?”
Gary put his hand over his eyes. “I see something about five stars, I mean five miles ahead. I think the sign says Bates Motel.”
Albert swung his arm and punched him lightly in the chest.
Gary fixed his eyes on something in the distance, swiveling his head as they drew closer. “Stop the car!”
Albert hit the brakes. The car started to slide on the cold asphalt. He let go of the brakes and pumped, pulling cleanly to a stop on the shoulder. “You found a place? Here?”
Gary stuck his head out the window and stared behind them. “There’s someone there. Back up.”
“There’s a woman at the side of the road,” Gary said.
“Is there a car?”
“Just a woman.”
“Are you sure?”
“No. Back up carefully.”
“Why would someone be out here in the middle of the night?”
“I don’t know. Back up.”
The car maneuvered slowly.
“We can’t help anyone if we get stuck in a ditch.”
Gary looked up and down the road. There was no traffic, no other car stopped on the shoulder, no snowmobile, dogsled, or anything. Just a stooped-over Indian at the edge of the woods, separated from the two friends by a snow-filled drainage ditch. She wore no gloves, had a ragged coat on her back and a thin shawl covering her head.
She didn’t pay any attention to the stopped car or the men getting out of it. She stared at a sickly thin spruce tree in front of her. She occasionally grabbed the trunk and shook it, muttering loudly.
“She must be drunk,” Albert whispered.
Gary looked around. “How did she get here? I don’t see any footprints.”
“Like now you’re a tracker? Maybe she came from the forest. She wandered away from her hunting camp. It doesn’t matter; we still have to help her. She’ll freeze to death.” Albert took a step towards her and waved his arm. “Hey! Are you alright?”
The woman continued to ignore them.
“She looks like an old-timer. Maybe she doesn’t understand English.”
Albert scowled. “’Hey’ is a word in Indian, too. She must be really wasted. Come on.”
Gary plunged into the ditch, and immediately fell on his face. He lifted himself slowly, brushing the snow from his face and clothes. “Shit, now I have snow in my boots.”
The old Indian suddenly turned from the tree. “Hey, watch your language,” she said. “There’s a lady here. Who cares about snow in your boots? I’m not complaining about mine.”
Gary looked at her feet, at her unlaced shoes that weren’t sinking into the snow. “You speak English?”
“Figure it out, dummy.”
“Are you all right?”
“I guess so.” She took a step forwards and stumbled, grabbing onto the sickly spruce for support. “It’s this damned tree’s fault. I insulted it, so it brought me here. Piece of shit tree.”
“Hey, watch your language. There’s a lady here.” Gary had managed to clear most of the snow off himself, and approached her slowly.
“Screw you. Keep away, creep. What do you want?”
“Just to help you. You’re going to freeze to death if we leave you.” Gary looked back at Albert, who nodded in agreement.
“I’ve gone hundreds of years without freezing. I can do without your help.”
The friends looked at each other again, shaking their heads.
“Hey. I’m not kidding. Leave me alone,” she said.
Gary was only halfway across the ditch, but it was close enough to smell whiskey on her breath. “You’re drunk. I don’t know how you got here, but we’re not leaving you to die.”
She wagged a finger at him. “Listen, my little brother. You’re gonna regret it.”
He peered at the old lady. Her teeth were dark and broken, at least what he could see of them. Her skin was the texture of old leather. “Probably. I’m Gary. What’s your name?”
“Wisahkeczak. White folks have a lot of trouble with my name. Some people call me Whiskey Jack. That really pisses me off. Makes me sound like an alcoholic bird.”
“I’ve never heard a name like that.”
“Of course not.”
Gary and Albert took positions on either side of the old woman. They each grasped an arm.
“Where are you taking me?”
“To Kapuskasing,” Gary said
“I don’t think so.” She smiled and tried to step back, but her arms were held firmly.
“I don’t want you to freeze.”
“I warned you, little brothers. You’re going to regret it.”
“I know that. But I’ll feel worse if I leave a nice lady like you to die in the forest,” Gary said.
“Nice lady?” She hooted as Gary and Albert led her carefully through the ditch to the car. She walked slowly, not resisting anymore.
“I hope you guys are horny. I haven’t gotten laid in three hundred years.” She shook her right arm free and swatted Albert’s butt.
Albert looked at Gary over the top of her head. “Um... we’re homosexual.”
“Really? Well... no problem.”
When they had first spotted the old Indian she had seemed drunk, incoherent. By the time they had her up the other side of the ditch, she still seemed drunk but lucid. There was a mischief in her voice.
“Yes, uh... Homos like to have sex with other men.”
“I know what it means. Well, doesn’t matter. I like to try different things.”
“What are you saying?”
She pointed at their groins. “We’ll have a go at it, the three of us together.”
Gary urgently passed a finger over his throat.
“Nothing, eh? Is that why you’re dragging me away against my will? Nothing?” She turned to Gary. “What’s next? Going to dissect my brain in some experiment?” She opened the passenger door, sat down, and slammed it closed behind her.
“How did she know about...?” Albert whispered to Gary.
“It doesn’t make sense,” Gary whispered back.
Copyright © 2014 by Nathan Elberg