Dancing With Whiskey Jack
by Nathan Elberg
The windows were starting to frost over from her breath when they climbed into the car, Gary sitting behind her. Albert reached over her as he started to scrape the frost from the passenger side of the windshield.
“Trying to cop a feel? You’re okay, for a fag.”
Albert tried to pull back.
Wisahkeczak grabbed his wrist. “Are you sure you want to do this?”
“We can’t leave you here.”
“Why the hell not?”
“Too risky,” Gary said. Maybe they should leave her. She seemed quite lucid now, with no scent of whiskey on her breath.
“How do you know it’s not risky to take me? I’m not drunk, little brother. It’s the tree. I need it to take me home.”
“The one I was arguing with. It brought me here.”
They couldn’t abandon her to a spruce’s mercies. Maybe Wisahkeczak wasn’t drunk, but she was something.
“I live that way.” Wisahkeczak pointed to the woods. She was smiling; her rescuers weren’t.
Gary sighed loudly.
“You don’t believe that Indians live in the forest? You’re really ignorant. I thought white boys with university educations were smarter, that you would know something about Indians.”
“We know a lot. We just spent three months in northern Alberta, protecting animals from the white man’s plans to pollute the ground with his oil,” Gary said. “By protecting the animals we help the Indians.”
“So you think we’re animals?” Wisahkeczak chuckled. “If you knew anything, you’d understand that the oil in Alberta was all over the ground before you foreigners arrived. It’s not your oil. Don’t tell us what to do with it.” She folded her arms across her chest. “Your so-called help makes it worse. Leave us alone.”
Albert laughed. “You sound like that big Indian we met in an Edmonton hotel lobby. I was afraid he was going to rip Gary’s head off.”
Gary nodded. “Yeah. He must work for an oil company or something.”
“Or he’s really naïve,” Albert said. “What was it he claimed? That living off oil extraction was the same as hunting and trapping. That both were ways of living off the land.”
“Stupid comparison. I was actually scared he was going to hurt me.”
“You know, Gary, you have to learn when to shut up. He really didn’t like it when you told him he should follow the old ways.”
Wisahkeczak turned towards Gary. “You really said that to someone?”
Wisahkeczak shook her head. “Such arrogance. You don’t believe where we live, but think you can tell us how to live there.”
“I don’t doubt where you live,” Gary replied. “I just don’t think you’re in any condition to find your way home.”
“So where are we going?” she asked.
Albert turned around to look at Gary. “Where are we going?”
Gary sighed again. “The police station in Kapuskasing.”
Wisahkeczak frowned. “The food there is terrible. Can we first stop at Reilly’s Bar and Grill? They’ve got great steaks and beer.”
“You’ve been to the police station before?” Albert put the car in gear and pulled back onto the road, driving slowly.
“The police station is dumpy and boring. Reilly’s sometimes has strippers.” She scratched her chin. “Though probably not now.”
“I wouldn’t mind watching strippers,” Gary said. “Would warm me up. Why wouldn’t there be any now?”
“Homo, eh?” Wisahkeczak sneered. “Most girls are superstitious. They don’t like taking off their clothes inside when it’s thirty below outside. Gives them the shivers. They should try taking a crap in the woods. Then those prima donna pussies would understand what winter is about. They wouldn’t complain about getting naked in a heated bar.”
Gary leaned forward. “Prima donnas? That’s not an expression I expect from an elderly Indian lady. You sound like you’ve spent a lot of time living with white people.”
Wisahkeczak rolled up her window. “I was already old when you guys arrived in the Americas. Doesn’t mean I’m ignorant, though. Can you shut all the windows, please?”
“I thought the cold didn’t...” Gary cut his retort. There was no point. He and Albert rolled up the car windows.
Wisahkeczak reached over, turned the heat all the way up and the fan to maximum.
The Pontiac’s big V-8 hadn’t lost any of its warmth. Within minutes the temperature in the car was stifling. Albert pulled off his gloves; Gary unzipped his parka. Wisahkeczak kept her shawl loosely wrapped around her head, but her coat buttoned tight.
“It will be summer by the time we get there if you drive so slowly,” Wisahkeczak said. “I’m hungry. Hurry up.”
“There might be black ice. We’ll be in Kapuskasing soon enough.” Albert gripped the wheel tightly, staring straight ahead.
It didn’t take long till the glow of the city lights was visible in the sky.
“I thought Kapuskasing was a small town,” Albert said.
“Not anymore; not since the Ring of Fire,” Wisahkeczak said.
“Ring of Fire?”
“It’s a series of chromite mines, the biggest in the world. They feed the Chinese economy’s massive demand for stainless steel.” Wisahkeczak sounded like a teacher explaining something to a particularly slow student.
Albert shook his head. “There is no Chinese economy. It’s a country of a billion impoverished socialist peasants.”
“Was. I tell you one thing though, Reilly’s better be open. I hope I’ve got the timing right. Are you boys as hungry as I am?”
Albert glanced quickly back at Gary, rolling his eyes. “When’s the last time you ate, Wissah...Whisk-”
“Try saying it again, Albert. Carefully. You don’t want to piss me off.”
“When’s the last time you... hey! I never told you my name. How did you know?”
Wisahkeczak shrugged. “It was obvious.”
Gary put a hand on her shoulder. “When’s the last time you had something to eat, my friend?”
“About three hundred years ago, when I last got laid, little brother.” She turned towards him and smiled. “I’m not your friend. Don’t make that mistake.”
“Okay, whatever you say.” Gary pulled his hand back. “You’re not my sister, either.” Maybe she wasn’t drunk, but there was something not right with her. Drugs? Some Indians sniffed airplane glue or even gasoline fumes to get high. The lead additive was said to cause brain damage, which you could actually see in autopsies. His experiments exposing cats to lead produced similar results. He knew it couldn’t happen, but Gary dreamed of getting leaded gasoline banned.
Wisahkeczak pointed ahead. “Reilly’s is on McPherson Avenue. Go left a little after the river. Have either of you been to Kapuskasing before?”
“No. We usually take the southern route from Edmonton, down through the States.”
Wisahkeczak smiled. “Oh. You should have stuck with what you know. It’s safer.”
Gary pointed at the dashboard. “Do we need gas? It’s my turn to pay.”
“We may as well fill—”
“Oh, no. You don’t want to fill up. It’s way too expensive now, and they only have unleaded,” Wisahkeczak said. “Your Pontiac needs leaded gasoline.”
“What are you talking about?” Gary struggled to keep himself from shouting. She must have brain damage. How else could she come up with something like that?
“Trust me on this one. Don’t stop for gas, at least till you’ve dropped me off. The police station is just down the street from Reilly’s. Feed me, kiss me goodbye, and then do whatever the hell you want.”
Albert glanced back at Gary, his eyebrows raised. Gary nodded back at him.
“Whatever you say, lady.” Albert fidgeted with the rearview mirror.
“Lady? What a nice thing to call me. Better than Whiskey Jack. Much nicer than mister, or even sir. Okay. I’ll be a lady. I’ll be a lady who can make a couple of handsome guys like you very happy.”
“I told you, we’re homosexuals,” Albert said.
They drove the rest of the way to Kapuskasing in silence. A sign on the outskirts of town announced a construction project.
“Hey!” Albert yelled. “What was on that sign?”
“I don’t know. Shopping center or something like that,” Gary said.
“Yeah, I saw that, but I could swear it said ‘Opening Autumn 2015.’” Albert turned to Wisahkeczak. “Did you see that?”
She shrugged. “I’m just an old Indian lady from the forest. Why ask me?”
“You must have read it wrong. We passed it pretty quickly,” Gary said.
“I guess so,” Albert said. “Some important people must live here. Look how smooth and wide the highway is, with paved shoulders.”
He slowed down as he crossed the river along Government Road. They passed a gas station, but it was closed.
Albert whistled. “Wow. That is expensive. A dollar thirty a gallon.”
“What?” Gary asked.
“That weird looking gas station charges a dollar thirty a gallon.”
“Liter,” Wisahkeczak said. “I warned you.”
“What are you talking about?”
“It’s a dollar thirty a liter. That’s five-ninety per imperial gallon.”
“That’s insane,” Gary said. “I mean, I know prices have jumped. But five ninety a gallon? And why’s it priced in metric?”
Wisahkeczak smiled. “Well, it’s four-ninety if you use American gallons. Is that any better? Why are you slowing down? It’s another few blocks to Reilly’s.”
Albert pulled up to the curb. He turned off the motor and turned to Wisahkeczak. He trembled, either from fear or anger. Maybe both. “Canada isn’t expected to go metric for years. Where are we?”
“Government Road East, Kapuskasing, Ontario.” Wisahkeczak smiled. “You want to drop me off at the police station after we have a bite to eat. Remember? It’s your plan.”
“What’s going on?” Albert asked. “Where are we?”
“I told you already. Don’t you believe me?”
Albert stared at her, breathing loudly, his teeth clenched.
Gary squeezed Albert’s shoulder. “It’s true. The highway signs confirm it.” He tapped Wisahkeczak’s arm. “Why is the speed limit in kilometers instead of miles, the gas in liters instead of gallons?”
“You boys keep asking the wrong question. Come on. You’re both scientists. Construct a hypothesis,” Wisahkeczak said.
“Prima donna, hypothesis, talking to trees... Who are you?”
“I like to travel around a lot and get laid. Do you think I’m a monster, little brother? We can be sister and brother monsters together.” Her laugh sounded more like a hiss.
Gary shivered at the sound. “You said you haven’t gotten laid in three hundred years.”
“True. Start the car and turn left at the corner. Reilly’s is on McPherson Avenue. Get going.”
Albert continued to stare, both hands clamped firmly on the wheel. Wisahkeczak grabbed his right hand and pulled it. He resisted, but to no avail. She placed his hand over the key. “Now.”
Albert started the motor and pulled back onto the road. His hands trembled on the wheel.
Wisahkeczak turned to Gary. “Hypothesis?”
Gary shook his head.
“Come on, little brother. What’s the right question?”
He shook his head again.
Wisahkeczak turned back to Albert and pointed ahead. “There it is. Pull over.”
They parked across the street and got out. Albert stood next to the open driver’s door, looking at the other cars next to the curb.
A driver slowed and beeped his horn. He rolled down the window, shouted “beautiful car,” and drove on.
Gary grabbed Wisahkeczak’s arm. “Why are all the cars so small? Why do they all look so strange? What’s so special about ours?”
“So what’s your hypothesis?”
“I asked you why all the cars are so small!”
“It should be obvious. When gas is almost six dollars a gallon you buy a smaller car, which uses less gas.”
“Yes, but they look different, too. What’s that one?” He pointed to the car parked ahead of his. “What the hell is a Hyundai? I don’t see any Chevrolets or Pontiacs.” Albert pointed to a nearby store window. “Look how much milk costs per liter.” His last two words sound like a plea for mercy.
Wisahkeczak smiled and patted his cheek. “So what’s your hypothesis?”
Albert stretched his arms out and banged on the Pontiac’s roof. His eyes were round and unfocused, swimming this way and that. “In the half hour we’ve been driving with you, we’ve travelled maybe a quarter of a century, maybe half a century forward.”
Gary turned to Albert. “Are you nuts?”
Albert walked around the front of his car to join them on the sidewalk. “None of the cars have radio antennas, at least not like we know them. They have strange headlights, strange shapes. The metric signs, like you said. Look at the streetlights, at the prices in the store windows. Look at everything!”
“You’re crazy.” Gary turned back to Wisahkeczak with a frown. “Is he?”
She grabbed both their arms and started crossing the street. “I’m starving. It’s a long time since I had a couple of handsome gentlemen like you take me out for dinner. Let’s enjoy ourselves.”
The menu was posted in the window, headlined by the words “No Cover Charge.” Everything besides the entry fee was unaffordable.
“Am I crazy?” Albert said.
“Everything is! Thirty dollars for a steak dinner... Look: even a hamburger plate with fries and a soft drink is almost ten dollars.” Gary pointed at the menu. “What the hell is Coke Zero?”
Albert turned to Wisahkeczak. “We can’t even afford one meal, never mind three.”
“I thought you guys were so brave, stopping to pick me up in the middle of the forest. And here you are, big worrywarts. I’ll take care of things. Don’t worry.”
They walked over to Reilly’s door. Albert and Gary both froze as it slid open by itself.
Wisahkeczak dragged them in. “Pretend we’re on Star Trek.”
She smiled. “TV show, got cancelled a while ago. Never mind.”
“What’s it have to do—”
The maître d’, or maybe he was a bouncer, looked at the bedraggled old woman, then at the two frightened-looking men dressed in strange clothes. “Sorry. No tables available.”
“Let’s get out of here,” Gary said.
Wisahkeczak glared. “Make one available.”
The maître d’ grabbed Albert’s arm. “I think it’s time for you to leave, like your friend suggested. Make sure you take the old lady with you.”
Wisahkeczak grabbed the maître d’s arm and squeezed. He winced; sweat started to form on his brow as Wisahkeczak forced him downwards. “I think it’s time for you to find us a nice table near the front, and then go.”
“Lady, I will teach you a lesson, and then I’m calling the police.”
“Really? Let’s go to the stage, so an audience can watch you get beat up by an old lady.”
The maître d’s breath was coming hard through clenched teeth. His forehead was wet, his eyes glaring. “You don’t want to fight the bouncer, lady. I’m being—”
He gasped as Wisahkeczak’s lips tightened, as her hand tightened around his arm. It made a slight cracking sound. The anger disappeared from his eyes.
“Are you ready to leave?” she asked. “I think we can find our own table.”
The maître d’ nodded, breathing hard. Wisahkeczak released him and he fled, his arm dangling by his side.
“I told you I’d take care of things.” She took both their hands and led them from the vestibule to one of the empty tables near the front. They didn’t resist.
Copyright © 2014 by Nathan Elberg