Mere days before my brother-in-law Richie was shipped off to southern Afghanistan, and seven months before the LAV III he and two fellow light infantrymen were commanding tripped an IED along a roadside west of Kandahar City, instantly consuming all three plus vehicle in flames and thus delivering them from this earth, our family gathered for an early dinner at Jack Astor’s out in Bayers Lake Industrial Park. This dinner marked the first occasion at which both of my parents, my sisters, their respective spouses, and I had all dined together in over two years.
It was a gloomy November evening. Our booth sat adjacent to the window and the parking lot stretching uphill, wind-whipped and sheened with hard rain. Billboards hung in view: Alliant, Clancy’s, Oldies 96.
The table quickly became crowded with starters: Calamari Fritti Al Diavolo, the Cheesy Artichoke Dip, Uncle Vito's Spicy Bruschetta, tankards of ice water. My father had in not so many words implied it was all going on his corporate AmEx, so we felt unbridled in ordering.
‘I love how he’s always the same, yet his films all have their own . . . thing,’ my mother was saying. Her favourite actor had for years been Tim Allen, best known for the sitcom Home Improvement and holiday-themed comedies. Her Sunday brunch club had that afternoon journeyed downtown to watch Wild Hogs, starring Allen, John Travolta, William H. Macy, and Martin Lawrence. She was impressed.
‘Finally one that doesn’t resort to toilet humour,’ she said, lips touching her glass.
‘It was cute,’ my older sister Deb, then tectonically pregnant, said. ‘But hardly worth twelve dollars.’
My father huffed. ‘And then you sit through twenty-plus minutes of Toyota ads.’
I happened to be back East in order to clear up some matters with Agatha, some paperwork that needed to be resolved, securing a few shoeboxes of things before she and I could forever part ways, never to speak again. Holed up in my parents’ basement, it had been a difficult week; most of my evenings had been spent at the Copper Penny, drinking fountain Cokes and feeding quarters into the video poker terminals: Triple Butterfly Sevens. Southern Belle Bettor Chance. Royal Spins. Hexbreaker. The machines were relegated to the bar’s glass-sectioned smoking area, so afterward my clothes stank heavily of smoke, raising my mother’s suspicions that I’d begun smoking again despite my physicians’ admonitions, given my condition. Despite my assurances that I’d not smoked since the nineties, she remained unconvinced, and kept raising the subject to my father, who frowned disapproval. It was hugely irritating.
At dinner Richie, my younger sister Mercy’s husband of then five months, was uncharacteristically silent. Usually when he spoke his voice macheted through any surrounding din with a stridency verging on the supernatural. Never one to be muted, he was that sort of individual who considered himself an authority on everything, anything—municipal politics, the NHL, entire historical strata—but in actuality wielded no expertise on anything, and usually only backed up his provocative statements with info explicitly culled from internet message boards. To my knowledge, his only genuine areas of authority were Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, the Insane Clown Posse, and berating credit card tech support operators.
He also often made nasty jokes at Mercy’s expense, mostly about her weight, which rankled all; little tenderness was evident between the two. I noticed he made her hold onto a clunky leather-bound key fob of his, for no detectable reason. And when the rare topic fell outside the range of his imagined expertise, as when my mother and I discussed Schütz, he scoffed with a dismissive pout, a whatever. Conversations with Richie usually ended abruptly and unenjoyably.
Weeks previous to the dinner, Mercy had announced that after a courtship of three years—during most of which he’d spent in basic training in Kingston, with fuzzy yet generally inculpatory reports as far as his unwillingness or inability to toe the line—she and Richie were to wed. The news was not received well. Feigning joy, my mother was privately devastated. Mercy detected this and wept. My father was even less receptive, avoiding the subject entirely. When I called my father shortly after the announcement to discuss borrowing some cash while I waited on my next bursary instalment—a bursary that was, of course, entirely fictional—he was irate. And clearly a bit sauced.
‘He’s a tit. He talks about this, what is it, this record label he’s starting? Just last week it’s he and that fatass buddy of his are going in on an oyster bar in Niagara. And all this horse-pucky about his enlistment status? I shudder to think this is the one defending us from frigging Al-Qaeda. Kid’s a parasite and a waste. He’s a tit.’
It was true that Richie had delusions of grandeur. Once at a Christmas brunch at my mother’s house he’d told me he was well into plans to write, produce, and direct a Hong Kong-style action movie on his cousin Terry’s ranch in Pictou: a feature film on 35mm film stock, with what he called Tarantino-calibre production values. Minutes before, I’d overheard him on the phone negotiating the loan of nine bucks from his roommate Phil for Blockbuster late fees.
‘A fucking tit. If that degenerate knocks up my daughter, I’ll wring his spastic neck.’
Yet the wedding happened. The bride wore white but no veil; he wore his cadet’s uniform and gloves. Richie’s mother Baby Clara’s mobility scooter was centred in the church’s aisle by her second husband Deryk, her gurgling and weeping filling the awkward silence during the septuagenarian organist’s multiple nod-offs. One couldn’t help but notice my parents’ contribution to Mercy and Richie’s nuptial was somewhat less generous than theirs to Deb and Wei’s two years previous, both in finances and in zeal. Tallying expenses, I estimated it fell somewhere in the ballpark of all I’d sponged from them myself in my recent years’ troubles. Hard to say.
If Deb was to be believed, over the summer she and my mother had finally laid their cards on the table, so to speak, surrounding this Richie issue. They’d confessed to Mercy how, in their hearts of hearts, they felt that the marriage had been a grievous misstep, and she could do better. Richie was callous, aggravating, occasionally cruel. His free time was entirely spent on his Xbox 360, barking orders at an online squadron over a headset mic; meanwhile, Mercy worked fifty-hour weeks at Travel Cuts and did all the vacuuming. In a long, rambling email, Deb had described to me how my mother, tearing up, asked Mercy: do you really see this as your life?
A weeks-long impasse of silence followed. I quickly lost track of where things stood, thankfully sheltered from these storms by distance, and of course consumed by gruesome concerns of my own.
Knowing the backstory, I’d naturally assumed the dinner marked a truce. Yet the unspoken tension at the table that night, Wei later quipped, was thicker than the artichoke dip: sort of an obvious gag, but I gave kudos to him nonetheless.
Despite almost universal scepticism, Richie had finally been made a full Navy seaman. For weeks he’d been holed up down in Shearwater, prepping in operational training to head off with a team supporting the renewed action of Operation Archer—this one a non-pixilated war, actual danger, far from any armchair recliner or beer fridge. Seated across from me, he brooded in a silence I took was due to nerves. His eyes—eyes I suppose my sister had once swooned over as penetratingly handsome, but to me seemed only focusless and shitheadedly angry—appeared tired, downcast.
As my father probed our waitress for details on the slow-cooked Go Big or Go Home Baby Back Ribs, I leaned across the table.
‘Must be a little anxious,’ I said to Richie.
He looked up. ‘What? No way.’
‘You’re not afraid? I’d be afraid.’
He sneered. ‘Fear . . . is not an option.’
I would hear this refrain again some weeks later, clicking channels on a snowy afternoon back at my apartment on St. Zotique. TBS Superstation was playing the movie True Lies starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, and in it Jamie Lee Curtis’s character clearly states: Fear is not an option. As useful and inane as any credo, I supposed.
It was a long grim winter, so when the thing in Ottawa meant missing out on Dirty Mustafa’s 4th Annual Timeshare Smackdown down in Key Biscayne, it was a tremendous piss-off. Last year’s Smackdown had been insane: seven kegs and three simultaneous grills sizzling, and along with all the usual schmoes and skanks from law school Dirty Mustafa’s brother had brought a dozen or so Finnish girls from the backpacking hostel where he part-timed. Plus I was, and remain, a preternaturally gifted water-skier, so after all the shit this year with the hospital and the cops and Agatha I’d been looking forward to wowing all with serious slalom cuts under the Key’s bronze sun. But I’d agreed to meet the family for the ceremony, so all those good times were nixed.
I was maxed out on all my cards, so I had to once again endure the humiliation of asking my father to front me for the car rental, which for the billionth time brought up questions of why I refused to fly, and where the frig had all that money had gone. It was a discussion I refused to have; I reminded him of Dr. Elkas’s edict for patience and leniency. All I needed was his number, expiry date and authorization. After the usual grumbles and delays, he agreed.
Once on the 417 west out of town, the morning’s ride was actually fairly pleasant. A cool mist clung to the road, then shifted to heavy rain, freshening the highway and keeping the flow of traffic cautious, the way I liked it. In an old shoebox of receipts I’d located a CD-R of Black Sabbath’s Master of Reality, which I hadn’t listened to in years. I kept that on repeat and did my best to prepare for what would surely be a long day.
Past the stars in fields of ancient void through the shields of darkness where they find love upon a land a world unknown where the sons of freedom make their home.
The thing was as expected: a confusing layout of makeshift barriers formed by traffic cones around the cemetery gates, nowhere to park in sight. After circling forever I finally located a space marked for staff near the crematorium. If the Aveo was ticketed, it would probably just go to Dad, so I was unconcerned. Security lunks patrolled the entrance, murmuring into walkie mics pinned to rainjacket collars; when asked for instructions, they waved me away. Luckily some other attendees were pulling up at the same time, other families better-dressed and armed with stronger credentials, so I tagged along. They seemed to know the itinerary.
It happened. We gathered in rows adjacent to a vast, freshly-vacuumed carpet arranged perpendicular to the gravesite, then paraded together to the burial plot. Mercy clung to my father, wearing his new transition-lens glasses. My mother was at my right, Wei at my left; he and I had worn the same mauve Donald Trump Signature Collection necktie—embarrassing, since we expected to be photographed.
Expanding clouds threatened, but held off. Rainfall earlier that morning had mudded the path leading from the meeting hall to the ceremonial gravesite, and en route Baby Clara’s mobility scooter became hopelessly stuck. I hadn’t seen her in what, two years, and time since had not been kind. Her brownish hair had greyed, even yellowed in parts, and frizzed eruptively. Deryk, as always, followed her at a pace; he hadn’t changed at all except for a reddish stain on his neck: a severe shaving burn, or the onset of decay—impossible to say.
There was the national anthem by an eleven-year-old soprano from Sudbury. Then a speech by an old pink-faced Shriner who’d fought at the Battle of Kapyong, then the Governor General, briefly speaking about context and a collective want. She looked well-rested and spoke with what seemed to be sincere and total regret. They draped flags over the coffins; Richie’s was third in the sequence of seven being memorialized. Then ‘Taps’ and a solemn dwindle. It was a well-paced thing. In the crew of military personnel attending, I thought I recognized one as a black dude I’d knuckle-slapped at a party in twelfth grade over some girl or something. I couldn’t recall the circumstances. It wasn’t him anyway.
By the time we made our retreat to the main fieldhouse for the coffee reception, back through those creepy skeletal birches, the mud was deeply saturated. There was no hope for Baby Clara’s scooter, so we waited while the event staff retrieved a golf cart. Even when the vehicle had been secured, it took three of Richie’s cousins to shoulder the transport of their mother into the cart. Then one of the cousins, I think his name was Shawn, was left to work the bulky chair from the mud and captain it back to the parking lot; it looked like a difficult job. I wondered which of these cousins was the one with the ranch, where Richie’s John Woo-inspired celluloid warfare should have gone down.
The families gathered at the fieldhouse, graves’ mud caking hems and heels, soon joined by the rest of the attendees—mostly federal and military functionaries, some local newsmen, maintenance staff. I heard a local bakery renowned for its croissants had been seen pulling up a well-laden catering truck, but the tables lay bare. No one seemed to know the procedure.
Ozzy sang: Leave the earth to Satan and his slaves leave them to their future in their graves.
Over the following week I saw Mercy twice on the evening news, totally by chance. Though both items comprised only brief scopic shots of the thing and its attendees, the effect was alarming—as if she’d done some dreadful wrong, been implicated in a crime. As if her widowing had been a scandal.
I had a dream that Richie was leaving messages on my voice mail, vivid enough that I’d wake with my chest thumping, freaked by auditory hallucinations. But there was no call, no reason to worry.
That same week, Agatha called. That was no dream.
‘Did you talk to Laddie?’
Laddie Bryce was her attorney. ‘I don’t recognize this number.’
‘This isn’t my phone. I need you to do me a favour.’
‘I have a cheque coming there that I really really need. You need to deposit it into my chequing account the second it arrives. It’s crucial. You have to.’
I said no again, then said okay. After flossing and warming up the kettle, I headed upstairs to check the mail for the first time in several days. There were four envelopes addressed to our apartment. One was from the hospital, persisting in billing me those fiftyish bucks for my ambulance ride. Another was a windowed envelope addressed to Agatha, presumably the cheque she was talking about. Then a few notices from Videotron, and finally a larger envelope with an audacious postmark. After burning Agatha’s cheque in the toaster and rinsing the ashes down the sink, I opened this curious document. Inside was one stiff page: a signed letter from the prime minister, addressing the families and loved ones of all servicemen lost defending our nation’s honour in these recent actions. My address had mysteriously ended up on some list. The letter was well-honed in its brevity and goodwill, and the signature was handwritten, not Xeroxed, as far as I could tell.
I tried to explain my inner conflict to my sponsor Wayne, a brawny Trinidadian dude, over sandwiches at his cousin’s deli after the Monday meeting. Staring at my fingernails, grinding my jaw, I admitted I loathed Richie; we all did. In dying he improved the lives of those I loved. But equating this guy, this jackass, with the idea of a heroic death, the cold finish, the utter incontrovertibility of such a thing, didn’t sit well. It seemed to make it harder to bother aiming for whatever it was we were all supposed to be aiming. And dwelling on such thoughts had previously led me down some dark paths.
‘Just hold in there, bro,’ Wayne, whose advice I trusted less with every week, told me.
Thanksgiving at my mother’s meant warmth and strenuous lamps, an oven working at 425°, a furnace always raging. Why exactly she kept the house at such a suffocating blast, despite our repeated complaints, remained beyond all of us. There were fewer of us this year, a lighter crowd, though I was still happy to be back, as I was temporarily staying at my friend J.P.’s place in Parc Ex, and it was not going well.
My father’s fight against late-diagnosis prostate cancer was taking a lot out of him, but even slumping and weary he subjected us to his characteristic assholery; it should have been endearing, but wasn’t. Deb and Wei’s baby Wolfey lightened the mood, bumping into walls, giggling like a drunk. My mother’s Alzheimer’s-afflicted brother Ted was there too, occupied with the Argos game in the living room. Mercy and I both arrived alone.
We assumed our positions around the hot plate, each timid about being the first to fill a plate even as my mother, still adjusting pots, commanded us to dig in. Conversation came tentatively. I was asked if I’d experienced any transit delays on the way here. For a change, I said, it had gone pretty smoothly, though in truth the Porter plane had been swept in gales of early freezing rain and turbulent winds so severe many of us, the passengers, feared for our lives. An older woman across the aisle had wept hysterically; I’d had to hold her hand until we’d touched down, but I knew no one wanted to talk about that.
In the next room, Ted cheered an interception. We praised my mother’s stuffing, a sage-based and incredibly salty Pacific Northwest recipe. Mercy said something about her spinning classes at Curves, relating this to the giblet gravy being ladled. I could see she’d lost a few kilos. My nephew farted; we all laughed.
As the first tray of dark meat was passed around, I excused myself from the table. Remembering my mother was having the upstairs washroom retiled, I headed downstairs. The den lay dark, but this was the house we grew up in; I navigated it on automatic, like a sleepwalker.
The washroom’s ceiling fan roared to life as I flicked the bathroom’s switches. An Anne Geddes print was mounted over the towel rack: a child as a cabbage.
I stared into the mirror. What I found there was disheartening. This upper lip, newly shaven, was glazed with perspiration. Veins throbbed in the sclera of these eyes. These cheeks were flushed and this forehead was again breaking with acne. I opened my shirt, finding several deep, raw scratches across this stomach, and couldn’t remember how or why this flesh had been broken. The face in the glass spoke of deep anger, but I couldn’t figure out why.