Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Team Orange Chapter III


Then I found a place, it's dark and it's rotted
It's a cool, sweet kind of place
where the copters won't spot it
And I destroyed the map that I carefully dotted
However, every day I'm dumping the body
The Tragically Hip 
Locked in the Trunk of a Car

Brian Belanger pulled into the back parking lot of the Sudbury Jail and parked his Jimmy in the usual spot, facing Applegrove Street. He killed the engine and sat motionless for a while. This had become his ritual. The moments of silence before he stepped through the door to do his time. This was the sixth year of his sentence. Every day the same questions ran through his mind.
How did my life come to this? What the fuck did I do to end up in this Godforsaken fuckin place?
And then the same conclusion:
I shouldn’t be here.
Just eight years ago everything was different. Brian was on his way to becoming what he always dreamed of, a conservation officer for the Ministry of Natural Resources. He had always loved the outdoors, a passion he developed at a young age and nurtured by his Grandpa Jackie-bear Newman, his mother’s father who owned a cottage on Birch Lake in Webbwood.
From the time Brian could crawl he had spent every summer out in the fresh air and serene beauty of the Northern Ontario wilderness, where he learned to bait a hook before he could tie his shoes.
His Grandfather was considered a peculiar man by the rest of the family, he was tall and lanky with a shock of unkempt white hair and a permanent crooked smile on his narrow, hawkish face. He was prone to talking to himself, muttering things under his breath and giggling for no apparent reason.
Despite his outwardly eccentric jovial manner, Jack Newman was cool and distant to his wife and three daughters and positively chilly to their husbands. He had little patience for holiday gatherings and often retreated to his work shed in the back yard to putter around while the rest of them celebrated in their little house on Peter Street in Copper Cliff.
That all changed when Brian was born. Jack Newman took to the baby right away and doted on him whenever his parents went to visit. He was delighted with the boy and insisted on walking around the house with the toddler on his shoulders, squealing with glee and yanking tufts of the old man’s hair.
At the cottage Jack and his grandson were inseparable, spending their days out on the lake in the bass boat and their nights on the porch listening to the radio while gazing up at the stars that were always so much brighter out there away from the city.
Not satisfied with only having his camp buddy for the summer, Grandpa Jack went into Brian’s school and pulled him out of class for a week each spring and fall and brought him out to his little piece of heaven on Birch Lake to fish and hunt small game.
Let’s go, my little camp buddy, his Grandpa would say with a wink. Let’s go catch ‘em up.
After graduating high school, Brian applied for and was accepted into the MNR internship program. His grandfather was beside himself with joy when he got the news. His grandson was gonna be a ranger!
In 1990, during his second year of internship, things began to go very badly for Brian Belanger. Grandpa Jack had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in August and refused chemotherapy despite the desperate pleas from his wife and children to follow the oncologist’s advice.
As Brian expected, the stubborn old man packed a suitcase and headed for Birch Lake one final time. His grandson joined him after he’d finished his placement with the ministry. Brian had worked hard and impressed his supervisor so much that he was told in private he was a shoe-in for the job.
For the first few weeks at the cottage Jackie-bear seemed completely normal. Brian allowed himself a glimmer of hope despite the doctor’s dire warnings and predictions.
And then Brian began noticing small changes in his beloved grandpa. The old guy was not so quick to get out of bed in the morning and began drinking a little heavier than normal. He didn’t walk the trails for partridge anymore and had to be helped into the boat for their daily fishing expeditions. Still though, when Jackie-bear got out on the lake his love of the water and fishing seemed to rejuvenate and re-energize him. Seeing that made Brian very happy.
When things started to go bad and Jack had to lean on his grandson to make the short trek to the outhouse, he wouldn’t admit that he was in any pain.
He’d grimace and smile and insist he was simply tired.
“I ain’t young anymore, dontcha know,” he’d say. “Just a little bushed. Alls I need is a little rest and then we’ll go catch ‘em up. You’ll see”
And didn’t that tough old bastard keep his word? Every day for the next month the two of them went out on the boat, the frail old man tightly gripping his grandson’s shoulder, Brian’s hand firmly around Jackie-bear’s waist, trying to ignore the fact that his grandpa was getting lighter and lighter with every passing day.
One chilly October morning Brian awoke and saw Jackie-bear’s cot was already empty. The smell of coffee wafted through the air.  It was unusual for Grandpa Jack to be up before him these days, but Brian thought that maybe it was a good sign. Maybe the irascible old coot was feeling better.
He found him out on the front porch sitting in his favorite old chair. He was staring out the screen window at the mist rising off the glassy stillness of the lake water.
“Mornin’ Grandpa,” Brian said. He leaned down and kissed him on the top of his head, which was weird because he hadn’t kissed the man since he turned thirteen years old. Why had he done that?
“Mornin,” His grandfather replied.
Brian thought maybe his grandfather was feeling better after all, because old Jack did look better somehow. Not healthier exactly, but relaxed. He was smiling and talking under his breath and then softly giggling, as he so often did.
“Where’s your fishing rod,” asked Brian. We’re missing prime fishin’ time out there Gramps. Where’d you put it, I’ll go grab it.”
Grandpa Jack looked up at him and smiled.
"My Brian,” he said. “My little camp buddy. I’m too tired for fishing this morning. You go on.”
Brian stopped looking around for the fishing rod. He felt all the color drain from his face.
“You know what Jackie-bear,” Brian said. “I don’t feel like fishin’ much either. Whaddaya say I make us some eggs?”
“Bullshit,” his grandfather said. “I want pickerel for breakfast. I’ll start the stove while you’re gone. You go on now and get us some fish.
“Grandpa…” Brian started.
“Ah, don’t you argue with me. Your grandpa wants pickerel. You be a good boy and get on out there. You catch ‘em up.”
Brian grabbed his fishing rod and tackle box and headed out the door. The walk down to the boat launch was the longest he could ever remember. He wanted to turn back a dozen times, but he didn’t.
He got in the boat and set his equipment down. He grabbed the paddle and then paused, looking up at the cottage again. He saw his grandfather through the screen window, smiling a waving a dismissive hand.
“You go on now,” Jack called out to him. “You come back with breakfast or don’t come back at all!”
Brian paddled out a ways and then started the engine. He navigated the boat towards some shoals in the opposite bay. It was one of the first honey holes Grandpa Jack had shown him as a boy. It was no longer as good a spot as it used to be, but Brian didn’t feel like being too far from the cottage just now.
He sat down and grabbed a leech out of the live well, breathing in the crisp autumn air and watching the last of the mist leave the lake’s surface.
As Brian was baiting the hook a gust of wind broke over the water from behind him, giving him goose bumps and rippling the water. With it came the sound of soft muttering and a light giggle.
The leech on the hook began to blur as his eyes filled with tears.
In that moment Brian Belanger knew his Grandpa was gone.
He lowered his head and cried.
Before long the loons joined him.
Brian was truly heart-broken after the loss of his grandfather. He missed the man terribly. He consoled himself with the idea that he would soon be a Conservation Officer, something dear old Jackie-bear was fiercely proud of. When the grief threatened to overtake him, Brian would imagine spending the rest of his life in the wilderness he loved, content in the knowledge that his grandfather would be looking down on him from heaven and smiling.
The first week of November Brian’s supervisor called him to offer his condolences and to tell him that thanks to NDP Premiere Bob Rae’s new Employment Equity Program, the conservation job was going to be given to a native gentleman. The supervisor was extremely apologetic and told Brian he was one of the most promising interns he had ever trained. It was a damned shame.
Brian thanked him and hung up the phone. He felt completely numb.
For the next two years Brian hit the bottle pretty hard. He worked at a steel fabrication shop in Falconbridge and spent most nights drinking at various nightclubs. He met a girl named Sherry one night at Mingles, a popular singles bar on Notre Dame Avenue in the city. She was a petite brunette with a cute little round face and tight bottom. They had slept together casually for a while and although Brian didn’t feel a strong connection to her, neither did he kick her out of his bed, either. With the recent loss of his best friend and his career plans down the toilet, he couldn’t imagine feeling happy ever again anyway. Brian also felt himself unable to spend any time alone up at the cottage. The sorrow was still too deep.  
Sherry had grown up in Massey with three brothers, and that meant she knew her way around a campfire and a fishing boat. She became a regular guest on Birch Lake. Brian appreciated her and tried to fall in love, but it just never came.
There was no conscious decision for co-habitation, but as they spent more time together, Sherry started leaving various items of clothing in his apartment. Before long Brian noticed she had claimed a dresser drawer and part of his bedroom closet for her own. And then two drawers. And then a third. In a few months the two were living as a couple on the top floor of a brown brick building on Jean Street in the Flour Mill.
And then she told him she was pregnant.
Brian was terrified. He didn’t think he was ready to be a father. He desperately wanted advice, but the man he respected and trusted the most was gone forever.
In the end he decided to seek counsel from a man he had rarely ever consulted. He went to a bar and grill off Lorne Street where he knew he’d find his own father.
“Marry her,” he was told.
“But I’m not ready,” he answered.
“Nobody’s ever fuckin’ ready. You think I wanted to marry your mom, boy? The only reason I did was because your grandfather came to see me at work with the priest from St. Anthonys parish in Gatchell. They told me what me exactly what I’m tellin’ you now:
“It’s not just about you anymore. Now you got a baby coming. You gotta make it right. It’s what a man does.”
 “But I don’t love her. I mean, I like her, she’s a good girl….”
Son, trust me when I tell you this,” His father said. “Life ain’t a goddam fairy tale. Most women are stunned cunts, just like your mother. If you can find one you can tolerate, you’re luckier than most. Now man the fuck up and do the right thing.”
Brian left his father at the bar, completely reminded why he so seldom asked him for his input in the first place.
After some thought Brian  decided he would follow his old man's advice.
Now all he needed was a better job.

It was his brother in law who first brought up the idea of a career in corrections.
Brian had invited his new extended family up to the cottage for the May long weekend, and while sitting in the old porch drinking beer that humid Saturday afternoon on Birch Lake,  Brian had told them he was looking for a more secure occupation. He didn’t mind working at the little machine shop in Falconbridge, but staying there meant his family’s financial stability would be at the mercy of the boom or bust nature of the mining industry. That worried him.
Why not work at the jail? Sherry’s oldest brother Darwin asked him.
If you’re looking for job security, you can’t go wrong in corrections. There will never be a shortage of criminals to lock up.
Brian had to admit it didn’t sound like a bad idea.
If only he knew then what he did now, sitting in his truck in the parking lot of the jail, psyching himself up to face another day working in a place he had come to utterly despise.
The Sudbury District Jail was the polar opposite of his life’s dream.
Instead of spending the rest of his working life in the vast majestic beauty of the Northern wilds, he toiled inside the dirty, run-down claustrophobic walls of this out-dated provincial remand center.
Where once he pictured riding the trails of old growth forests on an ATV, the air around him redolent with the scent of fir, poplar and spruce trees , now his future consisted of dingy, stuffy corridors and the rank smell of body odor, cigarette smoke and institutional cleaners.
Daydreams of studying the wonderfully diverse flora and fauna interspersed along the rocky plains of the Cambrian Shield transformed into waking nightmares of inspecting the rectums of naked convicts for evidence of contraband while they bent over for random searches.
Lately he found himself experiencing a new kind of dream. That of starting the truck’s motor again and speeding out of the parking lot, careening right onto Lone Street and driving west as fast as he could to Webbwood Ontario. He knew a little shack on the eastern shore of Birch Lake where he could hide out. A peaceful, sweet spot where he wouldn’t worry about mortgage payments, credit card bills, car payments and saving for little Jacqueline’s college fund. He wouldn’t need money at all, He’d plant a garden and fish the lake and he wouldn’t ever come back to this miserable building ever again.
Brian knew better though. Sooner or later the wife he didn't love would track him down with his daughter in tow, the daughter who never spoke to him and wouldn’t even bother to remove the ear-buds from her CD player when he tried to communicate with her.  

Back to jail you go, they’d tell him. Bills to pay and promises to keep.
You have nineteen more years to go of your life sentence, Brian Belanger.
Now pull the fuck up and go do your time.
He sighed, got out of the truck and went to work.

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