I told you over lunch, where Kaiser buns seemed to sprout cucumber through a sheet of spinach, what I thought about Alec Melnyk, the man who measured headstones with a candy coloured yardstick and took the dead out of their tombs. He was gaunt inside roomy flannel, neatly tucked into a good pair of Levis, with the cheekbones of a lettuce eater. I said he was in love with Mrs. Chenets.
“Yeah, they must have had a secret affair” I said as midday light bounced around the cafe.
You were unimpressed.
“Before or after she married Mr Chenets?” you asked skeptically.
“All along” I said. “I mean he must have had a high school sweetheart. He couldn’t have just lived alone at his father’s farm and worked the fields all his life. At some point he started grave digging. There must be some mystery to him and he doesn’t seem tragic or sad enough for a lover to have died on him I can guarantee Alec Melnyk is or was in love with Mrs. Rebecca Chenets.”
I met Alec Melnyk in Saint Paul, Alberta when he opened the doors to the Blessed Mary Ukrainian Orthodox Church so I could take pictures. Gold leaf detailed the important saints on the iconostas. You were with me, remember? A series of ornate doors separated the altar from the congregation. The ceiling was sky blue. Gold stars and bodiless angels floated up and up to the steeple where Jesus looked down with his almond eyes. Melnyk switched on tiny lights which were made to look like candles in copper candelabras. He opened up the curtains, and I found my way into the choir box to look at the icons. Melnyk stuttered and pointed out things that he thought might interest me. “Th-th-th-this is s-s-s Saint St-an-an-an-i-slaus.” He probably went weeks without exchanging more than a few sentences with another person. “And this altar cloth is new” he said, one hand in his pocket, the other holding his baseball cap. “We bought it after the arson”.
“Oh really” you said, “Arson?”
“Well, folks snuck in and tried to burn it down”.
“Really?” you said.
“I think some Satanists tried to set the altar cloth on fire. Luckily one of our members, Mrs. Kowalchuk, caught it before it spread. They must’ve got out quick. Shit! If I was there . . .” he started to mumble a little as if he was alone. “I’d string ‘em up, stretch ‘em from the ceiling. Someone needs to teach some manners these days...”
All you could say was Oh, that’s so horrible. I can’t believe it. Maybe you were frightened by a man who could so easily conjure up an image of how to lynch his enemies.
Mrs. Chenets showed us the Catholic Church on the other side of town. It was flanked by groomed bushes and stood across the street from “the giant mushrooms” - the town’s main tourist attraction and source of pride.
Saint Paul and its giant mushrooms competed with Mundare’s more famous “giant sausage”- a giant coil of kielbasa with a heart shaped welcome sign at the base. The heart is perfectly stretched back so it seems like an under view to the world’s biggest Ukrainian sausage in mid arousal. Intended to advertise the well known sausage factory the Mayor’s family had run for generations, it never failed to point out the resemblance sausage had to penis. There was also the so-called “UFO landing pad” built in the sixties to attract “tourists and martians” and still took imagination to be considered anything more than a parking lot.
There was the giant Easter egg of Vegreville, and the giant duck next door at Betty’s Grill. In the end, the mushrooms and kielbasa, although sweet like a grandmother’s collection of porcelain pigs, were just more unimpressive entries in the assortment of overgrown plaster sculptures that littered the prairie.
But because we told Mrs. Chenets that we loved them she told us the history of the mushrooms construction. How the town restored the pool hall so it resembled the saloon it once was - swinging doors, cluttered with historical relics, barbershop chairs, framed sepia photos next to an embryo of a three headed goat a curious farmer had once pickled and stored in a shed until his daughter discovered and donated it in the 70s.
On the drive back to the city I was trying not to sleep. The road looked like a string dropped in front of us. You paused and looked over at me “That pool hall had a nice façade” you said.
At least you didn’t always have to lie to make people happy.
Mrs Chenets had short red brown hair, wore acid-wash jeans and a white blouse. A gold cross dangled in her lush and sunburnt cleavage. “Well you know” she said “we have a service about once a month. The priest goes from church to church, we have a choir. Oh did you hear about the deconsecration down at Kaleland? Mr Chenets swears it will be the end of them all soon. It’s a good project you girls are doing. We need to document our history. The churches might disappear now that farming isn’t what it used to be. Mr Chenets will be so happy. He loves this place. Tells the same story every Sunday about how his Mother dragged him out before sunrise so he could fuel up that little wood stove for everyone.” She lived across the street from the mushrooms and next to the church. Her children had gone away to school leaving her with ziplock bags of leftover roast spilling into the basement freezer, competing with her husband’s canned moose. The drought gave her an excuse to water her lawn twice a day so she might be sure to get those yellow patches near the sidewalk.
She confused me. I felt that beneath the buttons and the god fearing there was something more unconventional.
“I am certain that Mr. Melnyk was in love with Mrs. Chenets” I said again. All of our lunch was gone, and the surprise of chocolate pudding from your purse started its rounds between us. You raised your eyebrows, adjusted your skirt to cover your knees and laughed. The sun came through the nerve-like cracks between the branches leaving shadows across your face. “Maybe Mr. Chenets was a popular football player” I said. “He won her heart when the prom was interrupted by a tornado warning. Alec left her standing in strapless purple satin while he went to buy some sodas or Molson cans, too nervous to dance. The power went out. That was the opportunity Mr Chenets needed. The two were separated. He held out his dad’s oversized suit jacket like a parachute, wrapped Rebecca up so that she might feel protected from anything, even the purple twister circling above, though he knew he couldn’t protect her from a thing”.
“So, then what?” You asked. “Or does it matter when we already know the end of the story?”
“Well imagine all the frightened teenagers marching into the school basement, the confused principle mumbling something about where he had stored the emergency candles.”
“Hold on, imagine Melnyk and his brother huddled with the others in the corners of the basement on bags of deflated basketballs, worried about what was happening to the canola. Rebecca had left his mind but it was still the beginning”.
You looked at me mockingly. “Does that count as a love affair?”
“Of course it counts” I said. “What do you know about love anyway? Of course it counts. What would matter more? It counts because after that -whether her family approved of Mr Chenets or not - she started to meet Melnyk secretly. She knew a place. An abandoned barn crouched between two hills. Destitution serves secrets well and the prairie is filled with the ruins of urban flight. Maybe it was a homestead squatted by hawks, elk, lost to a scourge of Depression era grasshoppers. Maybe it was a forgotten tool shed. That’s the prairie”.
“I don’t know” you said. “Who cares about two old crazies from Alberta?”
“But listen” I said, “can’t you see it. An eighteen year old practicing the Elvis hip twitch in front of a mirror to woo a girl with dance. So later when she sits on a hay pile, holding a half bottle of whisky watching his uncontrolled desire creep to the surface of his skin, she might blush realizing that all she wants is to see him orgasm. Aren’t you curious about it?”
“Like I said” you pulled your skirt down past your knees again, suddenly cold and irritated at me “what does it matter when we know how it turned out?”