by dm gillis
It was the day he died. Jake was in his wheelchair, with the beach nearby. He tried chewing a cheese sandwich with his poorly fitted dentures, holding it in a fingery hand, fat knuckled and shiny, blue veined with ridged fingernails, ready for clipping. He was ninety, his eyes failing pale and his once thick hair, a memory of primeval mirrors.
“Is it wrong to recall a shady path I hiked as a boy?” he said, his voice like a rainwater hiss. “It lead up a hill to the stand of maples. Not the small leafed maples from back east, that go red in the autumn. But the large leafed ones, that go yellow. Even those are rare out here. It was a summertime camp. The Church sent us there, to sleep in wasp infested cabins and have the Bible read to us.
“Is it wrong to talk about that?” said Jake. “Because the nurses at the Home say I talk too much.”
“No,” I said, wondering why. “It would be wrong to remember it silently.”
“Maybe I should just keep it to myself,” he said. “How the path twisted round an outcropping and later, a small pond. The leaves made these quick round and round gestures in the wind, some falling, dying early. Maples are that way, you know, letting good leaves fall too soon.”
“It’s remembering that makes conversation pleasant,” I said. “It pulls you out of yourself, like a weed.”
He gave up on the sandwich, and placed it on a knee.
“I swam in that pond. It was a few years before I went to war.”
“The war must have been terrible,” I said.
“It was. It was a special kinda hell, assigned to boys with hunger where they should have kept their common sense.”
It was a quieting comment, unintended but necessary. We listened to the waves on English Bay.
Then he said, “I remember how my father and I would take to the wharf at the foot of Campbell Avenue, and fish off the docks for bullheads. They rarely took the bait, though, because there were so few of them then. They were the only species that could make a living in the filthy water. The Depression had made even bullheads gamefish. But still, they were rare.
“So few fish meant that our excursions were more for boat watching. There was the Anna Marie, there was the Zephyr Sound. The docks sweat creosote in the summer. It was where fishing boats tied their lines, crews smoking and mending nets. Bait was loaded there. Occasionally, there was even a steamer moored to the opposite pier – massive compared to the seiners and trollers, as large as the Great Wall of China, crewed by foreign looking men, spitting tobacco into the ocean from high on deck, leaning over the rail to watch the wads of it go splash.”
“Vancouver was different then,” I said.
Jake stopped talking, and thought.
“It smelled like coal smoke and pulp mills,” he said, coughing, barely able to raise a hand to cover his mouth.
“One day,” he said, “we arrived on the docks to see the police pull a body out from between the boats. It was June, 1935; I was thirteen. We stood there watching, holding our fishing rods. After a while my father said, That’s Buzz Turko. He said it like Buzz was the risen Jesus, Himself — all wet and dead.
“A steamer crew from across the way leaned on the rail of their ship and laughed, slapping each other’s backs. For them, it was real entertainment.
“A loop went round his body and came up under his arms, and they used a fishing boat winch and boom to hoist him out. The water poured off of him at first, then he just hung there and dripped, while they waited for the Coroner. His head hung limp and he swayed on the line for a while, so I could see his silvery popping eyes. His skin was white, and there was a clean black hole in his forehead.”
“Who was Buzz Turko?” I said.
“A gangster, my father whispered, fixes the horses, runs brothels, sells cocaine. Not anymore, said my ten year old mind. How he came to be in the water, I didn’t know. But Buzz was for the undertaker now, that much was for sure.
“The papers were smug about it — a bad guy gettin’ his. The funeral was grand, and the bullheads did without a free lunch. But Vancouver still smelled like coal smoke and pulp mills.
“Then the war came four years later and men fell like leaves, covering battlefields like a forest floor.”