“It is confirmed! There is life on Mars and it is fierce and ferocious and full of love and loneliness. Lori McNulty’s stories are wise and funny and they pound with an energy that is simultaneously physical and philosophical. Get ready to go, boldly, where Canadian fiction has never been before.”
— Alexander MacLeod, author of Light Lifting
“These narratives are fresh and startling. They confirm Lori McNulty as a writer who can roam the universe, crossing boundaries of gender, species, and even mortality, while never straying from her native terrain — that of the human heart.”
— K.D. Miller, author of All Saints
“In Life on Mars we find stoner beauty and deft fables brimming with animal grief and invective. Our characters reach slippery visions about siblings and mothers and those sad swinging doors of home that might kick you out or welcome you inside.”
— Mark Anthony Jarman, author of Knife Party at the Hotel Europa
“Each of these stories moves like a lit fuse racing towards a keg of dynamite. Life on Mars boldly excavates the darkness within to emerge with its characters’ bloodied but still pulsing hearts held high. Lori McNulty leads her teenage stoners and cutters, her conflicted widows, her mentally ill, her sentient squids and many-armed gods to the edge of the cliff and dares them to live. This is ferocious fiction from a new master witness of life on Earth.”
— Zsuzsi Gartner, author of Better Living through Plastic Explosives
Evidence of Life on Mars
Battle of the Bow
If on a Winter’s Night a Badger
Gindelle of the Abbey
Polymarpussle Takes a Chance
Two Bucks from Brooklyn
Evidence of Life on Mars
Under my cement roof, at the top of the sloped underpass, I watch cars grow fins as they sail out along the flooding highway. Drivers lean on their horns in the heavy rain, as if the sound can open up a space I can soar through.
Blunt on my lips, I inhale a head full of stars.
Dust then darkness. I keep an eye on the intersection where my father’s big rig will swing a wide arc off Albert Road. Ten tons of steel and rubber, its back end doglegging out onto the road. That huge silver grill grinning at me.
Chrome is tooth enamel for big rigs, my father said. As a kid, I used to polish the chrome-plated axle and hubs in the driveway. Got a buck a wheel.
My pocket buzzes. Il Duce again. Mars. Get home. Now.
Fascist. My sister Lizzie is a dead ringer for Mussolini, who was famous for bulging eyes and annexing Albania. She has perfect SATs to go along with Il Duce’s unplucked unibrow and military-grade temper.
Coming home, I text back. Add two kiss symbols to drive her mental.
Floating downhill on my bike, I shred roots and rocks on the trails before kicking up asphalt alongside the same two-storey houses with double-lane driveways and identical lawns buzzed to three-inch pelts. I hop the sidewalk and swing around the huge pile of sawed two-by-fours growing mould beside the old man’s shed.
If nothing changes tonight, I’ll buy a one-way ticket. I’ll buy two.
Carrying my sneakers in on shoehorn fists, I pad down the front hall in wet socks, scattering pebbles and dirt. On my knees, I moisten my fingertips, trying to pick up each fleck. The TV is blasting the news upstairs in my mother’s bedroom. Homicides at six. Natural disasters at eleven. Trauma piling up in my mother’s lap because she’s working overtime again, writing legal briefs to help the corporate drones baffle the court of justice. Plus a pitcher of something bloody to wash her sins down.
Me, I try to stay high all the time. Show up late to advanced physics, cough up all the impossible answers, and bolt whenever someone catches my glassy vibe. Right and wrong are handcuffs, my father told me. Give up on being so good and the whole world opens up for you.
Toe inched inside the kitchen, I peek around the corner to see Lizzie gather up two toppled plastic grocery bags off the floor. A pound of fresh ground beef is flopped upside down, still wrapped in cellophane. She tears at the wrapper with her pinky fingernail, gives the meat a long sniff.
“Hey, Lezzie,” I say, slow-shuffling in.
“You were supposed to be here two hours ago,” she says, and the fleshy pockets below her eyes sag, blown out by too many late nights studying the metaphysics of ancient Greece.
Squinty-eyed smiling, I notice the whites of her eyes look firm, like hard-boiled eggs, as if she’s been trapped in an existential windstorm.
Lizzie turns her back on me. Setting the slopped meat on the counter, she opens the cupboard, grabs a can of chunky tomatoes, turns, and tosses it at me.
I pitch it back like it’s a live grenade. “Chill out, dinner Nazi.”
“And you’re a gassy planet with an asshole for an orbit,” she says and slams the can on the counter. More thrashing as she pulls out a lidded pot and fills it with tap water.
Slamming the pot on the stove, she turns and drops the can back into my hands. “Open it.”
Lizzie dials up the stove heat. She rips the pasta box apart, spilling strands across the counter, still furious.
My shiny head is sitting on my body like a swollen lollipop. I stand and watch the pot lid sweat then quiver over the bubbling pot. Gripping the can opener with two hands, I can’t get the metal teeth to sit right on the thin lip of the can. This I find incredibly funny.
“Shut up, Mars. Mom’s going ballistic over her deadlines.”
Ignoring my snorts, my sister slaps the quarter pound of ground beef into a large mixing bowl, adds some cereal, and rolls the meatballs in her oily palms. She pulls out a pan and sprays. Mesmerizing to watch those cornflake-encrusted brainlings strike a formation on the slippery pan.
“Look, Lezzie,” I say, holding up a soggy, flopping tomato chunk from the can. “I found your heart.”
She smacks me with a plastic spoon. “Weed is wasting you.”
When I grab her wrist, she accidentally elbows the pot handle.
“Sorry, sis, sorry, sorry.”
Holding her wrist, she shrieks, hops back as steaming water pours from the side of the stove. Then she grabs the serrated knife from the counter, turns the pointy part to my crotch, and grins.
“First I yank, then I slice,” she says, taking a theatrical grab at my groin.
Gripping the dishtowel, I slowly twist it and whip it out near her chest. Lizzie howls, dropping the knife.
When we lock arms, whipping each other around do-si-do style, still laughing, Lizzie stops with a sudden jerk. Our mother is standing over us, her cellphone pressed against her chest.
“I’ve got New York on the line,” she hisses. “They think it’s a goddamn home invasion.”
I pick up the serrated knife and lay it back on the counter.
“Call you back,” my mother says into her cell. “Gotta put my kids on lockdown.” Her tone is light, but I can see her mouth twitching before she hangs up.
My sister jolts back, straightens out her rubber knees, touching her stinging jaw after my mother slaps Lizzie hard across the cheek.
“Get out,” my mother orders me, eyeing my slow, sloppy face.
I step in front of my sister. Lizzie shoots me a look that says, It will be worse for me if you stay.
Kicking open the back door, I shove my feet into a pair of muddy boots and hotfoot it through wet woods like some scared, limp deer. What I think, as my face is branch-slapped, is that that I’m too fucked and stupid to stop the shitstorm that’s raining down on my sister.
I follow the river marsh to where the scent of rotting leaves and old pine cones wafts through my decomposing palace. Using the light from my cell, I point a low beam toward the fetid ground I’ve trampled, slept on, set fire to. My usual stump is loaded with cigarette butts. Bending over, there’s a whooshing wave in my ears, and for a second I’m ass-dumped. I straighten up. My hair is plastered to my skull like a crazy, wet wig. I grab a crushed beer can from the ground and clear away the curled leaves and candy wrappers.
The rain is spitting horizontal piss. Crouched over, I light up. A few deep inhales, cough, cough. Another few hits and the inchworms begin crawling across my skin. I lift my T-shirt, exposing my rib rack to the wind. Snapping open my father’s penknife, I scrape skin across bone, dissecting the worms three ways. My skin splits so clean, the wound looks like a parted mouth. If the next cut sinks deep enough, it won’t bleed, at least not right away.
The forest starts shuddering like a group of old men at a bus stop. From my guts an acid taste keeps building, backing up in my throat, as the night sky slackens over the bog. In my nostrils, I whiff the fungal stench of rock-bottom. I can picture my mother’s face, her arm pressing Lizzie’s chest against the toilet rim, forcing her hand to pump up and down. My mother empties more spaghetti strands into the bowl. “This is dinner. Stir it.”
Blue-lipped shivering, and my numb fingers are making it hard to get a tight seal over the blunt. Inhale and hold. My throat is thermal, like I’m a human incinerator, spilling sharp, dead flowers all the way to my lungs. Looking down, something spongy is growing between my toes. A floppy stump fungus I bash away with my heel. Bash, bash, and the leafy plants look up with their hungry mouths. The stub of my joint I toss. Chew away the bile backing up my throat with the pack of mint gum in my pocket. Then I tilt back and pitch my father’s knife as far as I can into the ravine.
In the kitchen, the white countertops are blotched red. There’s a sharp stench like fat dripping over hot barbecue coals. A jagged lemon wedge sits next to a glass pitcher drained of Bloody Mary mix, the fog of tomato juice and pepper still clinging to the sides. In the singed pan, the meatballs are tiny black orbs.
I grab my backpack and load up on fridge food, then follow the red droplets to my mother’s room.
She’s hunched over her binders when I crack the door. A celery stalk flowers between her teeth when she turns and looks at me. Her eyes seem as if they’ve been smudged with Vaseline.
“You have to stop it,” I tell her, shaking my head.
She looks down at her papers, then takes a gulping sip from her tall glass that sets tears running.
“Where is your sister?” she asks, like she’s been away for weeks and can’t find her car keys.
I shake my head. “Lizzie doesn’t deserve this.”
My mother’s body lies crooked on the bed. I don’t remember a time when she ever sat up perfectly straight. Her spine twists, her hip sits too high. She wore a brace to straighten her back as a kid. Clamped in, seven days a week. Robot kid.
Her mouth opens and shuts like it’s on a spring-clip. “Nothing good ever happens anymore.”
I should have gone to Shiner’s place and blazed one by the cracked window in his basement. Coaxed Lizzie to come. She barely tolerates Shiner. Hates his mangy beard and bad manners, plus the guy is about as subtle as an oil spill when it comes to girls, but she’ll partake with us when the mood strikes.
“Your father left us,” my mother cries.
Here it is. The story. Begins and ends with my father cruising down “God knows what interstate,” leaving her high and dry. It all went downhill fast, she tells me, again, beginning with his first departure.
To me, the story made sense. All those months on the oil patch when he came home wrecked and sore. Decided to get his Class 1. Local jobs were scarce and all had shit pay, so he ended up steering north, hauling logs over gravel so rough it shook the teeth loose in his head. Came home with a bulging neck that forced him to shift gears, and persuaded my mother to take out a second mortgage to lease his own big rig. He had a plan. Go long-hauling across the US border as an independent, specializing in dangerous goods.
“It’s a license to make money,” he had told her, when he returned from his first run, eyes on high beam, fast-running mouth. He laid down a two-inch stack of photos on the kitchen table and spread them out for us. There was a classic chrome-and-vinyl roadside diner with an old couple dunking caramels into their sea of gravy. Mountain lakes full of fly fishermen. A white clapboard church with a blue neon Jesus and a huge red glowing crucifix that spelled out Jesus Saves. It was fucking beautiful.
I was transfixed by the heavy roar of the semis that tore past us on the Trans-Canada. How they kicked up dust and spit rocks as they sped by. I always got the trucker to pull the horn, and when I looked into the cab, his face seemed to belong to another age, like he’d be at home towing a wagon through open grasslands.
I remember the phone kept ringing. Fists were slamming. My mother was pulling the hair away from her face and wiping her nose with the back of her hand.
“You can’t get views like this sitting behind some desk,” my father insisted, pointing to his mountain scenes and highway sunsets.
“You can’t raise two kids and run a law practice on your own,” she shot back.
“Three weeks, then back here for two,” he replied, tapping the table. “What else do you want?”
“Help with bills. School events.”
“Give it time.”
“We gave it five years. What about me?”
“Call it quits, then, Marcella,” he told her, rising abruptly. “Do it.”
I watched them grind each other down, until my father finally dropped a tissue box in front of her and headed toward the front door with his coat in his hands.
“Forget the desk drones. This is living. Right, son?” he said to me, winking on his way out.
Lizzie was away at some brain camp. I took my father’s side as he loaded up his thermos with coffee and hugged me goodbye. Freedom is an instinct, right? You move toward it all your life. He was from people who could straighten a bent chassis in their driveway, using nothing but leather straps and a pair of scissor jacks. Third-generation truckers: part cowboys, part astronauts. Not order-takers. Not professional bullshitters. Couldn’t she just let him be? He was making a living. Paying back the loans. No one was starving.
Lizzie was already golden. Her March on Rome would take her to the top of any kingdom, and everyone knew it. It was her graduating year anyway. School was an optional excursion for me, but I always managed to pull the grades, almost as good as my sister’s unbroken row of As, despite being a year behind her. My mother told me we were touched by brilliance beyond our muddled class, that nothing was going to hold us back. I knew she meant our father. All his drifting and downshifting in eighth gear.
“Lizzie doesn’t need this bullshit,” I shout at my mother from the doorway. “She’s better than any of us put together.” In a family of disappointments, stoners, and crooks, Mussolini looks like a fluffy white kitten.
Surrounded by her binders and papers, lying on her back, my mother looks like a cargo ship run aground. More tears as she turns on her side and begins kneading the small of her back with her fist.
I close her door tight, leave her bulldozed by her Bloody Marys and grief.
After a few hits outside, I can picture the stretch of the Bitterroot River where rough waters bend like a soggy elbow, rippling up along the mountain base. In another snapshot, my father’s wearing his favourite yellow-and-black Mack baseball cap with the bulldog on it, his curly hair flying out as he leans over the front end, mouth pressed to the rig like’s he’s about to make her a promise. Feel the fifteen hundred pounds of torque twisting up through my chest, the growing rage when my father has to pull the air horn to ward off some jerk ready to cut him off on the I-20.
“You have to do the miles, Mars. Nothing good happens until you do the miles.”
He offered to take me along with him during summers, but it never happened. He still closes his annual email to me the same way: “It’s such a lonely road when you’re not on it, Mars.”
After a few more hits outside, I go back inside the house and pound down the plywood steps to the basement with my backpack, clearing my throat so Lizzie knows it’s me.
My sister is flopped on the split leather couch, reading. She draws an armful of cat to her chest, the pair either purring or quivering, I can’t tell which.
She hasn’t eaten. I can see her hair is tangled and wet from the shower. Absently, she looks over at me. Dropping my backpack on the cement floor, I approach with a stupid smile, my words too dammed up and demented to speak right away. I keep touching the place on my rib so it stings.
Lizzie scratches under the cat’s chin. He purrs and begins kneading her shoulder and arm. She winces, then draws him around her face like a muffler.
“What’s up, Lezzie?”
She examines my doughy face. “You’re so fucking high, Mars,” she says, shaking her head.
I pull out a can of Pringles from my pack and we sit in the dark, crunching for a long time.
“Wanna blaze?” I ask after a while, and show her my baggie full of primo weed.
Lizzie shakes her head.
“Come on,” I say, lightly poking her ribs. “Unwind.”
When Lizzie flinches, pulls away hugging the couch pillow tighter, I feel the familiar bile backing up my throat.
The cat stretches out, yawns, and drops to the floor.
We poke around the past, laughing at how many times we sat on this very couch together, trading punches and kicks over who got to choose the Saturday cartoons.
“Remember when Dad built us that fort up the Garry oak?” she says.
“Plywood and tin from the dump.” I nod.
“Mom in her paisley pants, making curtains for the cut-outs,” Lizzie says, but her words begin to drift.
“Then you kicked me out for farting.”
Lizzie closes her eyes.
I sit up tall. “And that road trip to the Grand Canyon. We went camping and you brought along your best friend, Heather.”
It was astonishing. We drove to where the earth was punched out, and the river running along the bottom was like some kind of ancient bloodline. South Rim running. My father made sure we were equipped for the trails, and we made it all the way to the bottom.
“The way Heather’s curly hair bounced on that walk. My first big crush,” I say.
“Making excuses to get into our tent. Bonehead move, Mars.”
“My bone was moving,” I say and finish it off with a wild whistle.
“Chicks do it, too. I saw those hairy-chested freaks in the old posters from your locker.”
For a while, we both sit back in our awkward sibling slump. It’s like an energy transformation, the fields scattering between us. My brain is a live-wire act and I’m the drunken tightrope walker. Maybe if I watch Lizzie long enough, maybe if I can catch my mother on the edge one of her moods, maybe if I flick the knife edge just right, I can make room enough to set us all free. I’m so fucking high right now, my face feels like thumbed putty.
Lizzie looks up at me, droopy-eyed. I nudge her over so she tips her head onto the couch armrest.
All we need is a route, I think. On the road with my father and Lizzie, the mountain passes we’ll climb, tunnels and bridge crossings all the way to the 101, and then up the coast to hear the sea lions bark in Monterey Bay. Three abreast in the front cab, we’ll mock the monster RVs slowing traffic in that sticky southern heat.
“Be right back,” I say, leaving her curled up on her side. The cat hops up into my space to keep her warm.
A few minutes later, I’m back with her suitcase. I drop it on the floor and zip it open in front of her. Inside I’ve gathered some of her sweaters. Her favourite novels. The heavy black lacquered box she protects with a puny padlock, as if I’ve never learned how to slip a lock with a paper clip.
She screws up her face. “You touched my stuff.”
My mother’s credit card is tucked inside my front pocket. I smile, show her the wad of cash I’ve put away from my weekend job, mostly selling pot for Shiner.
“Been saving,” I say. “Dad’s not far. Just across the US border. You always wanted to see Montana.”
Lizzie shakes her head. “I’m almost eighteen, Mars,” she replies, depositing the restless cat to the floor. “Full scholarship. Then I’m gone.”
I pick at invisible curled leaves clinging to the elastic band of my socks. My mouth tastes ragged and sour, like some pissed-on paper bag.
Lizzie sits up again, so I unzip and set out my full stash of food. Doughnuts and pickles and cheddar wedges emerge like a magic show. Voila! A couch picnic. Like when we were kids and Mom would come home from work Friday nights to make our favourite bacon-wrapped wieners, then bake all weekend. Starting Saturday, me, Lizzie, and Mom would all be lying on two couches, devouring a slab of marble fudge right from the pan, no forks, waiting for the next batch to come out of the oven.
While I unwrap more carrots, Lizzie takes small, sour bites from a dill pickle. Tucked into a plastic container are two whipped-chocolate cupcakes. Lizzie picks one up, lifts the left corner of her lip, then drops the cupcake back into the plastic tray.
“She chose me,” she says quietly.
Her whole body begins to quake. A whiff of rotting bog churns in the air between us. All I want to fucking do is pound my own throat.
“Come with me. Tonight.” I tell her and slap the tent her blanket has made across her body.
She pulls at the frayed edges of the blanket and shakes her head. “We’re all going to leave her, Mars.”
The cat trots over to his food bowl and begins licking the tops of the dried food out of his green dish. I break up bits of cheese and drop them inside.
When we’ve finished off most of my stash, I pack up the leftovers. “You want anything else?” I ask Lizzie. “A chest like Heidi Klum?”
Lizzie tosses me the end of her stubby carrot. “Here’s your butt plug, Mars. Found it in the cushions.”
We laugh-snort. Lizzie removes one of her dirty socks and launches it in my face. I ball the sock up and toss it behind the furnace, next to our father’s boxes marked “Goodwill” and “Dump.”
When she waves her hand in front of my face, I notice the pads of her fingers are red and glossy. The flesh of her middle finger is peeling back, so the new skin underneath is shiny, almost liquid. She pulls her hand away and hides it under the blanket.
We watch in silence as the cat unwinds from his shrimp-in-a-plum-sauce pose. When he stretches and hops back on the couch between us, I hear thumping upstairs.
Lizzie draws the blanket up around her ears. She kicks me so I jump up to take a look.
At the top of the stairs, I slip down the hall, peek inside my mother’s room, and notice her binders have dropped to the floor. She’s snoring heavily. I slip back down again and shake my head.
“Nothing. Just your unibrow clippers recharging.”
Lizzie starts to laugh. It’s a thin one that catches the end of a sob, and she draws in a sharp breath. I grab her suitcase and agree to deposit it back in her room, will shove it into a dark corner, packed and ready for later.
The food remnants I bundle into my backpack. She lies back, slurs out a few aimless words about making her a promise to stay put. I tell her Shiner is picking me up in an hour so we can meet some fine ladies from the padded leather lounge that always let us in without ID. Tell her I’ll be back before our mother makes her first coffee. Whisper, “I’ll always be back.”
I leave Lizzie tucked in beside the cat, which is kneading her belly.
Midnight is a flame tip in my skunky mouth, loitering near the Albert Street underpass, watching cars spit out of this shadow hole. Headlights glow bright then fade away behind me. Half-frozen in the drizzling rain, I imagine how long each driver has been travelling, what loads they’re carrying, who will meet them at the end of the line.
The end of the line for me will be a ten-hour straight shot across the border, following my father’s favourite route into the upper plains of Montana, easy as pie crossing from Alberta at Coutts-Sweetgrass. I’ll track down the US trucking company from my father’s last email. Call that dick dispatcher my father described. The phony bastard with the Texas drawl and sweaty JC Penny T-shirts, who started him on the worst routes, tearing down interstates with loads of diapers, telling him to suck back on more energy drinks and screw the logbook. Two years riding as an independent, trained for dangerous goods, yet he’s still hounded by bottom-rung bastards. Or maybe now he’s keeping the wheels turning for one of the bigger outfits. I’ll stop in at one of those shiny truck stops with showers and 24/7 laundry. How hard will it be to find a Canadian trucker named Getsky with a son named Mars? Like the famous hockey player? they’ll ask. Like the planet, I’ll answer.
I yank my zipper up to my chin, pull on my blunt, until my head is so loose it’s directing traffic. Back on the road, I hold my thumb out to hitch a ride. Save my stash to catch a paid lift across the border.
Just watch. My father and I will hit the road together, hauling cases of freeze-dried noodles, whole pallets of sealed Xboxes. On twelve-hour stretches through the Dakotas and down, I’ll catch my father up on Mussolini. How Il Duce cozied up to Hitler and his Nazi pals at Munich, screwing over Chamberlain. The old Brit thought he’d negotiated peace with honour but ended up being frog-marched right into World War II. Concessions, appeasement; Christ, look what happens when you give in to a hard-liner? You’re hopeless. Steer your own path, that’s what my father followed. The old man could change his own oil when he was ten.
The rain is rattling hard against my backpack. Noxious fuel combusts in my lungs as I walk along the roadside, thumb out toward the trickle of cars motoring through the underpass. Mostly, I’m invisible, and the drivers keep their eyes steady on the road ahead. Then for a while, it’s nothing but SUVs plus the odd out-of-towner looking lost on the road from the airport. They think we’re all golden wheat fields and peeling grain elevators, not football-obsessed face painters with a fucked-up taste for pouring beer over Clamato juice.
The shaking starts in my shins. A tremor sent from the highway up my chest before I see it. A big rig, the size of Texas, roaring down Albert Street. I sprint further down the road so the trucker has enough time to see me under the street lamp. I try to look harmless, or at least not so stoned, even manage to smile. My thumb shoots out. The crystal-and-chrome headlamps flash at me. I can’t believe it when the truck slows down and pulls up ahead onto the shoulder.
The massive engine idles, and I can make out a large man leaning over to open the passenger door as I run up to the rig. Climbing up the aluminum steps, I smile as he powers the window down.
“Where to?” he says. He’s got a Midwestern accent, telling me he’s going to drop two loads along the ring road off Highway 1, then head straight down Highway 39.
“Montana,” I say, diesel fumes plugging my throat on the running board. I explain that my father is also a long-hauler, en route from Montana, and we’re supposed to meet up just over the border.
The old guy looks me over and squints as the word long-hauler drops and swishes around in my skull. My tongue feels slack, weirdly thin. I keep smiling.
Finally, he says he can get me within spitting distance of Coutts-Sweetgrass and waves me inside.
Doors shut, we pull out. I thank him, then tip my head against the foggy passenger window, using my knapsack as a pillow for a while.
But the trucker’s craving company, because as we drive on he curses the price of diesel, laughs about the polite Canadian prairie folk with their wide-open vowels.
When I point out that he’s just missed the ring road turn-off, he leans over, promises to take me as far as I am willing to go, and strokes my wrist.
I pull my arm back, slowly, trying to keep things cool. He’s just friendly, I think. Midwesterners are like that, my father said. Sunny, breadbasket folks, main street people, loaded up on so many carbs they’ve gone comatose. He reaches out toward me again. This time he grabs my knee and squeezes.
All right, I think, and pull the backpack from the window down to my lap. I fish inside. The penknife? Gone. All I’ve got is some boxers and a frosted cupcake.
Trucker shoots me an eager look. Door locks. Automatic. Can’t even roll my own window down. He’s got an antsy look, while I go through my knapsack mumbling about cookies. He releases one of his hands from the wheel and lets it crawl over his own lap.
So I tell him how Mussolini had a pet lion cub named Ras that he took everywhere. Mussolini’s driver, a Hitler look-alike, would chauffer the dictator around town, his gloved hands tight on the wheel, glancing over in fear every once in a while at the front-seat passenger, because Il Duce always kept that restless lion on his lap.
“Il Duce loved to cradle that cub on long drives,” I say, grinning, and then begin to pet the backpack on my own lap, wild-eyed and paranoid, an exaggerated stroke, my eyes popping.
“Oh yeah?” trucker says, his voice getting ragged and low. From the corner of my eye, I see him fishing under his shirt flap at the fly of his own jeans.
“Cub was a gift from the Minister of the Interior,” I inform him, and my mouth is a desert, my whole body seizing, trying to keep things steady. “Il Duce rode up front in his bowler hat, flashing his bulging eyes at the cub, who had his one paw draped over his arm and the other around the man’s neck, like some kind of house cat.”
Jesus Fuck. Trucker looks like he’s trying to one-hand juggle his own nuts.
He leans my way and reaches over with his right hand as if he’s pointing to something out my window. He lets his arm drop between my belly and the backpack. I squirm in my seat. He’s trying to grab hold of my cock. The trucker keeps smiling at the windshield.
“Crazy how fast that cub struck!” I shout.
The trucker howls, the rig pulls a hard right. “It was a fucking bloodbath,” I say, and launch another fist at his throat.
He takes his foot off the gas, tries to cover his face, and we slow-crawl toward the red light. I unlock and kick open my door, the rain staining his custom butter-yellow leather seats.
Before he can grab a piece of my shirt, I jump out.
The rig stops. I notice all the placards in their metal frames on the side of the rig, the orange diamond with the flaming head that says “Dangerous Goods.” Trucker is about to blast from his cab, come after me, but the light changes and a half-ton rolls up on his back end, honking. The old man curses at me out the window, holding his pulpy face as he rolls out.
I wave him off with a middle finger.
My knees give out. My mouth is a howl as I sink on the field and begin to bawl. And I can’t stop. Snot. Shoulders heaving. Chest caving in. Like some whining coward.
It’s so cold out. Trying to bust up this night in my brain, I light up. My fingers keep jumping when I set my blunt tip aflame.
I’m not in the middle of nowhere, but close. Drained of light, this far from the city core, it’s like someone has dragged the constellations up to the end of my nose. The stars are so bright, hovering in this reckless void, I can almost smell hydrogen, like rotting eggs filling up my lungs. The stars will still be up there come daylight, but invisible, hidden by sunlight scattering across the atmosphere. Block out the sun, darken things up, and the whole damn sky would still be filled with stars. Like my father and me setting out on the road, looking out behind that curved windshield, breathing life into the eternal, starlit sky, nowhere to go but on.
In a week, I’ll meet up with him on the road, and we’ll be cruising together through Montana’s pine-covered mountains on Route 93. My father in the upper bunk; me spread-eagled on the floor next to our growing laundry pile. We’ll joke about traffic cops, Saskatchewan winters, and those damn trailer-swayers. One day I’ll even tell him the one about the dumb-ass trucker and the killer cub.
If I hoof it over the railway tracks and across town, I can make it to the bus station before dawn. I’ll join the mobs of students and drifters on the early bus heading out of town. All the way to the US border, my Greyhound seat will smell like flat Coke and old farts. Will cost me half of what I’ve got. The border guys will make a fuss, but I’ll give them the signed consent letter that says I’m meeting my father at the other end. It will be a slow-grinding, six-miles-per-gallon crawl to the US crossing, and the fifty-five-seater coach isn’t going to catch up to my father’s big rig any time soon. But my trip is ten hours from empty prairie, and my dreams only travel one way.
Battle of the Bow
Two years after Marcus died, a man arrived in a blue sedan.
It was the Flood in reverse, Noah spilling out from his ark with his supporters, extending his peachy-pink flesh to the prairie faithful assembled on the church steps. They came in a blizzard. Five soft-jowled men in city suits stepped into the November chill. As snow gusted across banks three feet high, the reverend leaned into the wind, blinking frost from his lashes. The church committee encircled the men; their white fingers gripped around cups of powdery hot chocolate.
The idea had come to old pastor Sherman in a vision. Needing to bring his lagging congregation back to life, barely a trickle above twelve on a snowy Sunday, the pastor had sent his prayers south from Vermouth County along the latitude of the Lord.
On a stream of perdition and penance came the answer: the Reverend Evan Nack.
“Welcome to Vermouth,” I hear Pastor Sherman say, holding out his hand, slipping his pocked skin into the young reverend’s firm grip, then leading the men to the church basement.
Their buffed oxfords clack, clack along the polished floor I mop after Thursday bingo. The reverend can’t be more than thirty-five, his tawny skin bright as a new penny.
I see the pastor’s face pinched tight. Beneath the reverend’s tan overcoat is a cotton shirt buttoned low, revealing an unwelcome wilderness. The old man averts his eyes, invites the city folk over to a folding table for tea and refreshments.
They say Pastor Sherman arrived in 1914 with a group of believers who came west along Alberta’s Bible Belt, a straight shot from Highway 21 to heaven. They set up on the south bank of the Bow, where they built the church Gothic style, with a front-gabled roof, heaven-lit by one circular stained-glass window. When the droughts hit Vermouth soon after, few locals were interested in bearing witness. Then a later spiritual resurgence awakened weary hearts, and word spread like wildfire from Alberta to Saskatchewan of the coming glory days for lush fields and well-fatted cattle. By the time we arrived in 1962, the fierce summers had once again ravaged farms, leaving behind dry creeks, grasshopper infestations, and faith grown as parched as these prairie fields.
I listen to Pastor Sherman lead the young reverend through our town’s dusty facts. A decade of drought. Farmers forced to sell their cattle or face a shortage of feed grain.
“No good, sir,” he intones, his cracked lower lip trembling. Marcus always referred to the pastor as Bog Man, a repository of dead things.
Then the herd erupts. Mrs. Dodd and Joannie Peen with their “Praise the Lord” and “Pass the Judgment,” just one everlasting wail from the Pentecostals.
“There’s tuna and pickle here, Reverend, and cream cheese,” Joannie chirps, pointing to her array of pinwheel sandwiches set out on the folding table.
“Fine, ladies. Just splendid. Thank you. We came straight through. Didn’t stop to eat for a good five hundred miles,” the reverend says as he smooths a dovetail of fine auburn hair along his nape, where a white stripe fringes his hairline, betraying the golden edge of a Utah tan. He drops two ham-and-cheese pinwheels on his paper plate.
“Always nice to see a caring Christian woman.” The reverend turns, extending his smooth hand to me.
“I see you’ve met the Widow Thérèse.” Miss Morris steps in between us. She hated Marcus. Blamed him, like all the rest. When Marcus died, she showed up at our house with a half-eaten casserole. Told me to repent, told me to pray. Told Zane that Marcus had met an early grave because his father would not summon the Lord’s faith. Closed casket. And there she was yelling about the blessed Father. Not the one who came up bloated and raw.
“Blessed friends,” the reverend turns from Miss Morris to address the crowd, “we hope you all come out to the Meeting tomorrow. And please bring your neighbours!”
Then he lays his hands on the pastor’s sloped shoulders and, in his impassioned bass voice, promises the Meeting will change things.
They say change comes along when you give up fighting or are humming along, thinking you’re doing just fine. Sometimes it comes towing an old utility trailer. Marcus cruised into my life in a rusted half-ton truck, his slate-blue eyes swallowing light. I was a seventeen-year-old mess of a girl pouring coffee in a highway truck stop outside of Calgary, owned by Edna Mildar whose famous bloody roast beef dinner attracted folks far and wide. Marcus ordered fried liver and bacon with fries, not once bothering to pick up his knife. I could tell by the state of his split, shorn heels, his leather boots were older than me. I winked, refilling his water glass for the third time. He kept his head down and tucked into his meat.
There are men who move mountains. Men who conquer the world, soil clinging to their heels. Marcus was a broken bridge over a spent creek. He held the hum of misery in his hands. In time, he told me terrible things. His father hauling him and his younger brother out into the woods with a length of chain. Each of them bent over a fallen tree, their bottoms parted to the wind to pay for some imagined mischief. Marcus remembered the dog barking at his father’s heels. Without a penny in their pockets, the two young teens would pack up one morning and make their way to the foothills, carrying nothing but two hard-framed suitcases with brass fasteners. Marcus remembered his weeping mother had pitched in sweaters, dirty jeans, and all the folded money she kept hidden in the toe of her heavy wool socks. Two brass clicks, and off they went into the pitch-black.