On The Outside Of Town

Published by under Short Stories

by Michael McGrath (To the memory of Aurele, a kind and gentle man who hired me one summer when the papermill was on strike so that I could make enough money to attend college and study journalism.)

He drove the black Volvo over to the side of the snow bank and as close as he could get to Black’s corner store. Two half moon shapes of clear glass appeared on the ice covered windshield with the start of warm air that rose up from the defroster and his breath pumped out frosty air.

It was more out of ritual than anything else that he had ventured out into the winter night to pick up his paper. The Saturday edition of the Telegram was of special interest with a comprehensive international portion and a hefty literary section.

He collected himself, pulled his fedora tightly over his forehead, flipped his collar up, then sprang from the car into the frigid air where snow fell in waves of white fluffy dots. His movement sent squeaks up from the dry and crystallized snow. The familiar clang of the doorbell and a blast of warm air with the scent of burning birch ushered him in.

Yvette stood behind the counter, her winter-pale face lit up in a bright smile. She was slender almost frail looking, she had sharp features and her eyes sparkled sweetly. She was the oldest of seven children in the Black family and most often charged with the responsibility of running the family corner store on Third Avenue. The store actually sat on the corner right across from the Moose Lodge.

“I can’t let a day go by without my tele even if the news is a couple of days old,” the trim little man said from under the protection of his grey fedora and from inside a heavy but neatly fitted wool overcoat.

Yvette had decided that he had the air of a city man about him and she welcomed his visits and the lively conversation he brought to her .

He reminded her, in his worldly way, that it was not so far to Toronto or Ottawa. Perhaps it was not so far to another life, away from Iroquois Falls, a paper mill town separated from the rest of the world by hundreds of miles of wilderness.

“Mon Dieu, Benoit only you would fight such a storm for a newspaper,” she said while reaching for a row of wood shelving to pull a fat bundle of newsprint from its place.

“Ah it isn’t so bad. There was a time, as a boy, when I would work all day felling trees in this stuff so believe me driving a few miles is no great challenge,” he quipped in a voice soft and a little high for a man.

Clang, clang and their space was broken with the entrance of Tiboy, who stomped the snow off his feet in a bit of a jig and clapped his bulky moose hide mitts.

“Vierge, ce froid mes amis,” he hollered with great gusto showing signs of drink.

His face was red with the cold, his grin was wide and his eyes glazed as he stood unsteadily at the door.

Benoit knew him as a shy and withdrawn young man who rarely ventured out from the family living quarters on the second story of the store. Tonight Tiboy was alive, fire burned in his dark eyes under frosty brows and laughter and reckless freedom were his companions.

“Oh Tiboy,” Yvette cried out, with her hand to her cheek, as she quickly scrambled around the oak counter to the young man, who was unsteady on his feet owing to the affect of alcohol and sudden change of temperature.

“I told you not to go over to Belangers. They always get carried away and especially tonight. You are so naive. What will Mama say if she sees you like this?”

“A to hell with Mama,” he said meanly, waived his sisters gaze away and then trembled with mischievous laughter.

He stumbled toward Benoit like a tightrope artist reaching for safety.

“Benoit, hey how are you ? Merry Christmas,” slurred the burly fellow as he wrapped the frozen little man in his arms and then planted a wet kiss on his lips.

Benoit anticipated the dead weight falling upon him but the hug and then the kiss sent a shock clear through his body. He fought to stay put but it was almost too much.

“Shit, we never talk. I worked with you on the hay two years ago now and I had so much fun,” Tiboy bellowed as he staggered back and smiled at the light that was still burning brilliantly in Benoit’s wide and astonished eyes.

“Well, you must come by sometime Tiboy in the new year. It’s hard to believe 1962 is just a few days away,” Benoit answered with as much control as he could muster, as he fidgeted with his collar. “You remind me of my own party days, what fun those days were; savor each and every one of them Tiboy because I’ll tell you they don’t last long.”

Yvette, who had stood by in amazement at these mere neighbours suddenly turn long lost friends, shook question from her look and covered her embarrassment by pushing her brother towards the doorway on the other side of the oak and glass counter and out a back door.

“Maman will kill you if she sees you like this. Come, get upstairs and put yourself together. It’s only a few hours to midnight mass you know,” the young woman said seriously, hoping to add some levity to the situation.

At the door he let out a burp and then began to bellow with laughter. Yvette prodded him upstairs and his laughter dissipated with the creaks of unsteady feet on wood, to the second floor.

On her return she apologized, “That’s is not like him. I’m sorry Benoit.”

He was still reeling from the warm embrace of only moments before and said kindly to offset her concern, “ Ce n’est rien Yvette.” Then he grinned and added, “He is only having a good time: after all it is Christmas Eve.”

A half smile came back to her thin face, “Ah yes, well, that will be 25 cents please,” she spoke in her usual and familiar business way.

Benoit had enjoyed the emotion of the scene but now it was business as usual and he resisted an urge to laugh at her embarrassment and restraint saying, “Oh, I’ll need a tin of export and some rolling papers too.”

Quakes and tremors shook up and out of him and he fumbled with the bill then met her long dainty fingers with it. He wanted out quickly.

He took the brown paper bag she handed him, headed for the door, then mid way broke his hurried stride and half turned to say, “Make sure he takes a couple of aspirin and drinks about a quart of water before he goes to sleep.”

“Ah, oui mon ami and your change don’t forget it,” she called with rekindled warmth.

Benoit waved at the door and headed out, “That’s for you young lady,” he added and with the clang, clang of the door bell he found himself once again in the flurry of white fluffs that fell through the black of the night.

The Ride Home

He moved quickly as though half his 40 years had rolled off and once inside the privacy of the idling Volvo he began to laugh and weep together at the recall of his encounter with two people he truly loved secretly. He thought how wonderful it would be to spend Christmas Eve with them. Benoit buried his face in his leather gloved hands, closed his eyes tight for a few seconds and then looked up into the frosted windshield feeling the pounding inside him that was his heart.

As he drove back out onto Main street he swore out loud with the realization he had forgotten to wish Yvette a Merry Christmas. In the confusion he had neglected his duty to be conscious of his salutations and it amazed him that here it was Christmas Eve and the only other person he had seen, other than Tiboy, he had forgotten to wish Merry Christmas.

I’m getting rusty in my old age, Benoit thought as he ploughed the heavy car through whirling snow collected in drifts on the street.

Not a soul was on the road. He imagined everyone in family groups, the young and old, laughing and singing together around food-laden tables. Suddenly he felt quite alone and moving as though in slow motion along his way. The soft glow of decorative lights looked like giant rainbows that had come down to wrap themselves around the houses that sat on either side of the road. These were homes filled with people he had known all his life. He could imagine the Lacelles, Bouchers, Girards and Lachapelles inside preparing for midnight mass.

He tried to remember the last midnight mass he had attended. It was with Memere he thought in ‘49 but he wasn’t sure. Things had changed so much since Memere had gone; he had somehow drifted away from the family and in the last few years hadn’t even exchanged gifts with oncle Gaston, tante Marie and the kids. He didn’t feel part of the town at all and he chalked a good part of that up to living alone, a few miles from town, on the farm.

I guess I’ve become quite a recluse, thought Benoit as the colorful ribbons of light were left behind at the town limits where he passed a highway sign announcing Iroquois Falls.

In the bluster, that raged all around, he drove on with caution and a skill which had developed over years of winter driving. He moved slowly over the bridge at Meadow Creek and dimmed his lights to minimize the affect of the hypnotic swirl of snow flakes that played with his sense of direction.

The road bore only a hint of the tire tracks his Volvo made on the way to Black’s Corner Store. The glow from his own sparsely lit home rose up and out of the whiteness as he followed these faint tracks to where they turned up the long drive and past the house to the barn.

These past years he had decided not to decorate with lights. Somehow, he just couldn’t feel spirited enough to pull the withering string of wire and mostly burned out bulbs from the basement. Even the thought of doing so made him sad.

Shelter From The Storm

Champ met him at the back porch, her tail wagging frantically and accompanied with sharp barks. She was anxious for the warmth of the wood stove and her place at Benoit’s feet in the living room.

Glad to be home, he removed his coat and set out his tobacco and the newspaper on the kitchen table. It was some comfort in this solitude to know he had his smoke and the company of news.

As he entered the kitchen, the dog was getting underfoot, sniffing with curiosity at his coat and trousers as though following his trip to town and back. Remembering his responsibility to the faithful border collie, he took a cookie from a tin then flipped it into the air.

As always, Champ was right on target, catching it in mid-air with a jump that showed her love for sugar and total disregard for the arthritis that had slowed her in recent years.

Benoit dropped to all fours and followed the dog to her corner to watch as she devoured the precious morsel, then he reached out and drew here to his chest in a hug, saying, “I saw Tiboy tonight. He gave me a big hug like this and even a kiss. You remember Tiboy, eh Champ? Yes, you remember Tiboy,” and he dog’s eyes blinked. Perhaps she did indeed remember him or at least the sound of his name from that summer at haying time, he mused.

On his back, against the cold floor, Benoit drew the dog up to lay on his chest and they gazed into each other. He half expected Memere to shout out at him to get up and leave the poor dog be. This scene was reminiscent of so many earlier days. But of course the kindly old woman was gone now and there was just the loud ticking of her clock on the kitchen wall and faint crackle of embers from the wood stove in the living room.

“It’s Christmas, another Christmas,” he said to the affectionate and responsive brown eyes and then jumped to his feet still light and thrilled with the recall of his sweet visit with Tiboy and Yvette.

The News And A Cigarette

Picking up his tobacco and newspaper, he went into the living room to sit at his place in Memere’s old armchair. He felt comfortable and secure there with the glow of the brass table lamp at this side. It was warm and cozy and his immediate surrounding sufficiently lit to roll his cigarettes and read the news.

He opened the tobacco tin and pulled up just the right amount of golden shreds to roll expertly in thin white paper. Content, he lit up then sank back into the soft belly of the corduroy covered sofa and sucked with great pleasure on his smoke.

“Jean-Noel Bedard would be proud of this one,” he said to only space. He remembered that first day at work, in the bush, up near camp 27, where the good natured foreman had introduced him to the delicate art of rolling. It was around a campfire he recalled and the scent of burning pine and work horses came back to him.

It wasn’t that he was thankful for the introduction to what had become an overwhelming addiction. How could he be? A nagging cough that now woke him in the night and also demanded he leave his place at his desk in the main office to empty phlegm into the toilet was not what anyone might call a healthy legacy. Yet, the comfort of this smoke had helped him through countless freezing coffee breaks in the snow, amid felled trees when he first began to work for the company as a teenager. It had stifled the hunger in his stomach and terror in his mind that filled so much of his time during his days in the second world war as an ambulance driver. Since the end of the war in ‘45, this smoke had served as a diversion in the vacuum that was life on his return to the outskirts of the small northern Ontario town and a position as a junior accountant in the pulp and paper company’s main office.

As it was with most nights, these memories and thoughts started out with a sense of soft nostalgia then rushed in and rolled around out of control inside his skull like ball bearings that threatened to wear away and at some point punch out a hole that would mean his end. Tonight, he could console those staccato visions of memory and thought with the comforting image of Yvette and Tiboy still about.

“Oh God what a beautiful young man,” Benoit spoke the words aloud, trying to accept them and the pleasure he derived from the memory of his brief encounter. A longing opened like a cavern inside him, a depth he had never been able to fill. He reasoned now, as he had always done, imposing a vision of purity when carnal feelings took hold.

This was true art, he thought. That creative and natural spontaneity had poured from the young man in his setting, on his stage, in dance and unrehearsed to the word. It was of no consequence there was no record of the moment, it only mattered that it had happened and made strong waves through short space and went deep. Benoit wished he had someone to share this realization with and then he thought of Franklin, yes Franklin was the only one who could have truly understood. Franklin would have known.

“Let’s have a nip, eh Champ? After all it is Christmas,” Benoit said to the dog at his feet, then walked to the maple buffet and poured a hefty drink of cognac into the fine crystal glass he had purchased on his last trip to New York.

At the window, he peered through thick frost designs to see periods of white dots punctuate the dark. Wind rattled at the pane and he felt good to be warm and inside.

Recollections Of War

Back in his favorite place, he picked through the layers of headlines and dissected columns of print. The paper was his crystal ball. From these pages he played his nightly game and sharpened his wit with the effort of reading between the lines to decipher the latest articles on his favorite topics. He believed that the media published only surface reports of most occurrences and this led him on a quest for the real story. Stories that lurked between the lines of so-called good journalism and truth.

The last few years had convinced Benoit that an other war was in the making and new recruits, with no memory of what terror war holds, would be ready for another go at this deadly pursuit. He worried that new fodder, wonderful young men like Tiboy, would end up a splatter of blood and guts in mud and live on only as names etched on the cenotaph in the middle of town, near the railway station. The cenotaph that people rarely ever noticed. The cenotaph where Franklin’s name was a bitter and painful reminder of what war really meant to him.

Anger built inside Benoit after reading the political beat and world news. He had grown to despise politicians and the few but powerful members of the industrial elite, who he felt really made the decisions, no matter what the words reported.

He wished there was something he could offer, something he could do or say that would make it better. It was frustrating sitting alone and reading about the world from his place in the north, far from where it all happened. This made him feel helpless, so he smoked and drank too much and mechanically went back and forth to work stuck between his own words and the facade he sometimes felt he had created.

Hours passed in cognac, smoke and print and he found himself sad with the tragedies he had witnessed in his reading. He looked into the deep wells of brown that were the eyes of his dog and said bitterly, “Christmas, some miracle eh Champ? War, murder, starvation and cheap tricks, that’s what it is all about today.”

Benoit had never really grown accustomed to being alone on Christmas Eve. Sure, there were invitations from oncle Gaston and the family in town but he felt as though he had drifted apart from the rest of the family, since the passing of Memere. It seemed difficult for him to find anyone who had time and who really understood who he was.

He found himself at the telephone and thinking. Perhaps he could call oncle Gaston. He picked up the phone and shouted into it wildly without dialing, “Hey Gaston have you prepared your kids for the coming war? Did you know three thousand people died yesterday in India in a flood?”

What could he say?

There was a Christmas once, he remembered. Here in this room the entire family would be dancing and singing a simple and crazy chanson a repondre. Mamere, was in the kitchen with the girls, surrounded by pots and pans of bubbling meats and sauces. The table was full and presents stacked under the lighted tree. Strings of Christmas cards and dangling ornaments put colour in every corner of the house. The kids played games that took them laughing from room to room, the babies cried for attention and the men made music and drank beer in the dense cigarette and pipe smoke.

Dance With The Fiddle

On the spur of these memories, Benoit stumbled over to the oak china cabinet at the foot of the stairs and pulled a violin and bow from inside one of the drawers. One pluck of a string told him it was hopelessly out of tune but he cared little and played as though once again he were entertaining the entire family.

“Allez mon petit gars,” he could hear Papere cry as he stepped in a jig and strung out a tune. “La da deedle la da dee, la da deedle la da dum, la da deedle la da deedle, la da dee,” the violin squeaked, as Benoit stomped unsteadily about the room, whipping up dust and with Champ in hot pursuit and barking in bizarre harmony.

Benoit danced crazily, in swirls and the room went spinning about him, then everything came together in one mad flash and he fell exhausted against the back door. The yellow kitchen spun slowly to a halt and his focus returning, he cursed himself at the sink full of unwashed dishes and a stove piled high in dirty pots.

Where he lay fallen was garbage spilling out of an overflowing can. He put the fiddle and bow aside and struggled to pick up the filth. Drunkenly, he yanked open the kitchen door and against a blast of frigid air, hurled the can out into the storm.

“Aiee, aiee,” Benoit cried and with a sudden madness raced out into the swirling sea of white.

He leapt and bounded through the drifts behind the house, then lurched past the barn and out into the field, where the snow was deeper. It soon became very hard going.

There was no sense of time about him as he struggled knee deep in the freezing and blinding snow. Finally, with great gasps and starting to feel pain penetrating the numbness produced by the cognac, he lay down and could hear the exhausted gasping of his body as though it were not his own. He felt outside himself. Then a weakness came over him and his eyes became heavy. It was so peaceful now where he lay and the silence behind the storm beckoned his spirit.

He talked to himself, “It’s no use Mamere. It’s no use. I can’t go on.” Then he answered too. “Yes you must move Benoit. This is no way to die. Surely, you are made of better stuff than that.”

He shook himself free from the deep dark sleep threatening to engulf him and struggled to stand in what now he realized was a deathly environment. Where was he? Which way had he come from? Where was the house?

Franklin And The Light

Then he broke down, “Franklin, Franklin,” he cried and began to fight his way through the drifts and confusion all about him. He became stuck and fell forward. Drained of his energy the snow again seemed so inviting.

With all his might, Benoit drew on an inner strength that had been built up over years of hard work in the lumber camps and on the farm, to find the spark to rise up and pull his way along on his knees.

“Be calm now, be calm. You won’t last another ten minutes in this if you don’t pull yourself together,” a voice inside told him. He then began to think of how it must have been for Franklin in the icy waters of the North Atlantic. Young, scared and doomed Franklin. He understood then for the first time just exactly how his best friend had gone. He remembered now the look in Franklin’s eyes as they shook hands, then fell into an embrace at the dockside in Liverpool.

It was too much, “Franklin help me. Please help me Franklin,” he hollered and in a mad panic rose up to thrash his way through the frozen snow that pulled him down with every move.

In the peal of this panic he fell against something and it hurt. Then he it dawned on him, “Oh my God, Oh shit, Oh God the fence,” Benoit screamed. Everything changed in that one instant. He had a chance. He felt as though he had just been thrown a life line in a violent sea, with the lightening realization that the shaky old fence would take him back to the house.

As he followed the rusty wire and rotted wood on his knees, a determination grew in him that he had not known for years. The will to survive led him on with voices calling from out of the storm, familiar voices, long gone and lights pulsated here and there, bright then dull. Finally a faint light hung still and the entire scene before him spun in circles around it. He felt as though he was being pulled into what he knew must be the porch lamp. A hand broke through what had become a raging blizzard.

“Mon Dieu Benoit. what are you doing? Are you crazy? You will die out here,” Tiboy said as he lifted the weakened and terror stricken Benoit up and into his arms. Benoit saw only Franklin in his navy blue uniform, his blond locks tussled by the storm.

“Good Lord, how I’ve missed you Franklin. I love you so much Franklin. I never did get the chance to tell you. Please don’t ever leave me again, please Franklin,” he cried as Tiboy carried him to the house with Champ barking frantically at his heals.

The End

Comments Off on On The Outside Of Town

writingintune.com Copyright © 2020 All Rights Reserved

Site Admin