Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Mending Fences

Chester is more than a little surprised when Marzie Coombes pulls up at his house in her thirty-year old truck, patched and plastered with four different colours of paint showing through on it. Marzie isn’t in the habit of dropping in on him. Her husband Mike and him had a bit of a set to up on that patch of no-man’s land on the hill behind the church three years ago, when Mike accused Chester of taking more than his fair share of the wood that four of the village families, now represented by himself, Mike, Georgie and Albert, had carved up between them every fall since God was an altar boy. Mike had dropped dead since, very sudden, last spring out at the cod, and he’d passed on this grudge to Marzie in his will for she’d barely nod at him at Mass on a Sunday morning.

He’s sitting on the bit of a stoop he’d put on at the front of the house a year ago, you wouldn’t want to call it a verandah as it’s short and stumpy, much like Chester himself, but built to last through any battle that would come its way, be it with weather, man or beast. It has barely enough room for the old rocker that his father built for his mother a hundred years ago, God be good to them. Chester takes his comfort out there in the late evenings, rocking away, feeling he’s entitled to it now that he has turned seventy. You wouldn’t have caught him out there in his sixties, mind you, sitting on any old rocker. A list of names a mile long was folded and tucked into the minds of the villagers and it would be hauled out and used on anyone under seventy taking it easy. You wouldn’t want to attract that kind of attention to yourself. You’d never crawl out from under it.

But now he feels he has earned the stoop and earned the rocker with his stumpy ass tucked tidily into it of an evening. He likes to look around him, down at the shop in the village, up at the church and out at the bay and over sideways at the road. He keeps track of things, does Chester. For a while there it was hard, as everyone visited the new stoop, some of the older ones bending down and poking around underneath it as if to find fault with its construction. A trail of visitors inspected that stoop, all making it look like it was an accidental dropping by. Something new in the village always caused a great commotion. Hang up a new clothesline and they were all up to finger it and run the pulleys and where did you get the fancy nails for it b’y, next thing you’ll be getting new clothes pins to match, ha ha ha. That’s the way it was. You couldn’t get away from the endless curiosity of the village. And he’s guilty himself too, God knows. When Georgie and Betty put in the hot tub, you could have sold tickets, everyone trekked up to take a look and make the kind of jokes that Chester found distasteful. The first, and for now it looks like the last, hot tub in St. Bride’s. Right out in the open in the back where Georgie’s mam and dad used to keep the chickens. Rolling in their graves they must be. And the steam coming off it. Chester couldn’t get over it, walked around and around it, looking at the little seats inside and the shelves and the churning blue water. Betty said you put your wineglass on the little shelves and then lolled about inside it with your friends. Naked? Chester had wanted to ask. But didn’t. He asked Barney at the shop instead. He had to be careful how he phrased the question and thought long and hard for a while and then asked Barney what would he, Barney, bring to one of those hot tub parties if he was invited. Barney asked him was he invited to one. In St. Bride’s you could never ask a question without getting another one lobbed right back at you. This could go on for days. There were questions asked fifty years ago that were still unanswered. So with seventy-two years of practice, Chester waded right in immediately with the next question, would you bring your own soap, like? And at that, Barney, who was a young pup of forty-five, fell down on the counter laughing so hard his big ugly baldy head flared up in a bright red. Chester just stood there gathering his dignity around him while he waited for Barney to get his breath back. Young Jimmy Nick chose that moment to walk into the shop and Barney, gasping, told Jimmy that buddy here was bringing his own soap to a hot tub party and Jimmy turned on Chester and asked him what were the plans for the soap? Could he teach him and Barney a few old tricks there with the soap? And Chester folded his arms in front of his chest and told Barney to hurry up there, he didn’t have all day, he needed to pay for his bread and milk. Jimmy howled out and what about the soap? And Barney fell over again. It took an awful long time for all that to die down. Every now and again, and it’s over two years since the hot tub went in, they come at him with soap questions and one morning he found a bar of Palmolive on his new stoop.

By now the excitement of the stoop is over and he can sit there and think and watch and rock. So as not to give the impression he’s a damn fool idler, he always has something with him, his toolbox is sorted regularly, and he sands a bit of wood for down the road, you’d never know when you might need a nice bit of wood for a corner of a cupboard or a tobacco shelf. As he watches the sun go down of an evening he feels this is the best time of his life and he would damn well enjoy it, rocking on his bit of porch. There was Albert Deacon, three lots over, in the hospital and dying. All rotted up inside, Barney said. Not a garter of a healthy organ anywhere in the body. It’s in his gut. And everyone knew what that meant. In the gut was the death warrant, days to live. He and Albert had words over the wood three years ago too; Albert had been on Mike’s side in the whole barnie. Chester had lost it completely and told them to count his stack back at his house. They could count every damn log and then their own as well to see who had the most. It all wound up in a right kettle with Mike and Albert taking all this offence and the fourth man, Georgie of subsequent hot-tub fame, saying he was not saying anything at all. He wanted nothing to do with any argument. Of course Betty had always worn the pants and removed his backbone for good measure on the day that they’d married. So there was an awful strain between Chester and Albert, they’d stopped speaking even when it was now just the three of them up at the wood last fall and they did all their communicating through Georgie. Chester made sure he took far less wood than Albert and even tossed a few logs out of his truck and back on to the ground before he jumped into it, and then made an even bigger point by glaring at the big load on Albert’s truck before he squealed out.

Albert was a fool about his property. He had seven acres, just like the rest of them, original lots divvied out when Newfoundland was doing such things way back. The only difference was Albert had gone to the trouble of putting a white picket fence around his whole property, all seven acres of it, and it was just about a full time job maintaining that fence. There was always a picket loose or rotting, or even falling down completely, or needing a fresh coat of paint. Daily, Albert would pace around the perimetre of his property, inspecting the fence, carrying his tools in a wooden hod, bending down, hammering here and there and putting on a dab of paint when it needed it. There was always a cigarette in the corner of his mouth, smoke curling up and over his bushy eyebrows. Nobody ever saw him light a cigarette, or throw a butt away. Legend had it that smoke came out of his mother’s canal a minute before he was born with this very same original, magical cigarette stuck in the corner of his mouth. He was a rake of a man who’d had a big fat wife by the name of Annie-the-Balloon who spoke French better than she did English and had dropped dead in their bedroom seven years ago and it took four men to get her down the narrow stairs and out the front door into the ambulance. Albert’s children were all to the mainland but it didn’t seem to matter for the pickets were his family. Every day he circled the property, smoke unfurling over his fine thick head of white hair, which had a slight tinge of yellow from all the smoke, he never washed it and he bragged about this, he said washing hair made it all fall out. Hammering, painting, aligning and replacing, it never stopped. Every new picket he cut by hand. He had a little template of plywood and he’d go up to no-man’s land behind the church and cut four or five new pickets and they would do him for a few months or so. The inside of the house was falling down around him, they said, but the picket fence was a showpiece.

So here was Marzie now getting out of her truck. A fine, strong woman. She’d given Mike six strapping boys, all to Alberta for the oil. Nineteen grandsons they had too, all born in Alberta, some half-breed. Mike would brag about them. It took real men to have real men. Chester wondered how Marzie felt about all those men. No one to keep her company. Chester’s two big sisters had been great company, God rest them. He’d been a change of life baby. His mother kept him close to her side until she died at ninety-five. Twenty years ago now. Too late for him to marry then, not that there had been anyone out there waiting for him. His fine qualities were all worn on the inside, his mother would say, and would last a lot longer than that fancy schmancy outside stuff. But no woman had ever taken up a pickaxe to dig up all that gold that was inside Chester.

Ah Chester, says Marzie now, squeezing on to the stoop, how are you and all. She hoists her hip on to the rail and looks down at him in his rocking chair, now stilled. Chester squints up at her in the fading light, letting his penknife fall into the toolbox and wiping his hands on his shabby old coveralls.
No complaints, he answers briskly, and yourself there now, Marzie?
Ah, she tells him, I was in town with Albert up in the Waterford?
Right, answers Chester, right, how is he? It’s in his gut, I hear.
In the gut alright, says Marzie, shaking her head sadly, he was a great friend to Mike, God rest his soul. And here she blushes, looking as if she’d like to bite the words back out of the air and swallow them down her throat.
Chester acknowledges her discomfort, waves his hand about, no offence, Marzie, no offence at all.
The thing is, Marzie continues, he wants to see you Chester, he says it’s very important, he has to see you.
No, says Chester, shocked, sure we haven’t spoken since let me see, three years ago now? The wood…
She cuts him off. Ah I know all about that, you silly boys, fighting over a few sticks, will ye ever get a bit of sense, my four year old grandson has more sense than the pack of ye.
Chester sits and takes on the shame of all three of them, Mike now dead, Albert’s guts riddled, and he on his stoop rocking. She’s right.
Are you sure there now Marzie? He says slowly. Positive like?
He says it plain as the nose on my face here, Chester, he has to see you, he says. Immediately, he says. Urgent business, he says.
Well, says Chester, still baffled, will I head in to town tomorrow, so? And see him? What floor of the Waterford?
The fourth, says Marzie, and then puts her head to one side and looks knowingly at him; it’s for the hopeless cases, the fourth, Chester. Chester knows all about the fourth on the Waterford as his sister Clara had died there a few years after his mother. The first time he walked in there, the nurses knew him before he opened his mouth to ask where Clara was, they just nodded at him as he got off the elevator and pointed down the hall to her ward. For Clara and Chester and their sister Isabel had all looked alike, short and stumpy with big heads.
A thought strikes Chester out of the blue. Ah, now Marzie, maybe… and he can’t find the words but touches a finger to his skull and twists it hoping she’ll understand.
Oh, as sane as the pope, she picks up on it right away and then laughs a little, why his marbles are as good as yours or mine there, Chester.
Ah good, good, says Chester, his mind already on his few bits of decent clothes upstairs and how much gas was in his truck.
What would I do with the truck once I gets there? He asks her.
She understands what he means.
You drive along Topsail to the Waterford and into the lot where you gets a ticket and you pays on the way out, she says and adds, it cost me three dollars.
Three dollars! Says Chester, his mouth falling open and you’re parking here and I don’t charge you a red penny!
Ah, its town and they’re all stunned! Marzie is dismissive and unhitches herself off the railing.
You’re all set so then are you, Chester? He nods, his mind now on the three dollars and should he buy some oranges for Albert, but they might be wasted if his gut was all rotted.

Albert looks worse than what he’d expected, is Chester’s first thought when he stands at the bottom of his bed in Ward 419. They must have surgically removed the cigarette and poor Albert looks stark naked without it. Tubes are running into him from everywhere. And out of him too, God knows. And his hair must have been washed; it is almost lost in the whiteness of the pillowcase that he’s propped up on. And his bushy yellow eyebrows are bleached as well. His face is all sunk in, his nose and chin peaky and lonely above it. Albert wouldn’t know himself if he fell over himself.
Come here, he says in an awful, raspy, whispery voice as soon as he sees Chester, hurry up will ya?
Chester moves around the bed and up to the side of it, leaning over the person who used to be Albert.
I counts three of them before they took me away. The words are painfully slow as they crawl out of Albert’s mouth.
There is a long silence. Marzie’s been all wrong. The marbles have all rolled away taking the original Albert with them. Chester looks around at the other three beds, each bearing its own burden of misery in various stages of decay, with tubes running hither and yon. Just like Albert. The smell in the room is appalling. He thinks longingly of his stoop and his rocker, after he’s been up to Barney's of course, to tell them what shape Albert’s gut is in.
And what do you want me to do? Chester says next in the most patient and kind voice he can muster.
For God’s sake, man, wheezes Albert, don’t torture me here, I’m dyin’, can’t you see?
Distressed, Chester feels his heart rate increase and once again looks desperately around the ward for inspiration, but nobody’s listening to the crazy conversation.
Suddenly, Chester feels like a character in the comics that he loved when he was a boy. As if a light bulb shines over his head and the answer to a problem flashes on and off like a neon sign. With huge relief, he takes Albert’s tubeless left hand in both of his and squeezes it gently.
Right you are, he says now, confidently, right you are, man, I’ll see to it, you can rest aisy. I’ll see to it the minute I gets home now.
Grand, says Albert, his voice fading, his hand going limp as his eyes close.
Chester watches the sleeping Albert for a minute and then leaves; delighted he only has to pay a dollar on the way out. One up on Marzie, he’ll have to tell her.

Right after he pulls into his driveway, Chester goes back to his shed and carefully puts his supplies together and heads on up the road. He spots them right away at the side of Albert’s house. Three of the pickets have loosened and are leaning to one side. In no time at all, he hammers them back into place.

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At September 25, 2007 at 7:20 PM , Blogger gayé said...

Hello www, sorry I have only just seen this one. Maybe because I haven't visited your profile since the day I found myself at your blog, blissfully lost in reading older posts trying to catch up. How long has it been up here?
Is this part of work or up and coming project?
I need to go sleep now but I will make sure to come back and read it.

At December 1, 2007 at 4:26 PM , Blogger Deborah said...

Wow! I just got lost in your story - found this blog by linking from your other. Tell more - what is this? part of a larger work? You have a great ear and a captivating storytelling voice. Where can I read more?

At February 9, 2008 at 9:35 AM , Blogger Wisewebwoman said...

Gaye & Deborah:
Sorry to be so late in checking comments here.
This story is part of a collection that will soon be published (fingers crossed). It is currently at the publishers. About fourteen stories all based in Newfoundland.
Thanks for your kind comments.

At July 26, 2011 at 9:51 AM , Blogger Linda said...

Really enjoyed this story - it rang so true having summered in a small Newfoundland outport for the past 5 yrs. Just surfed here from your other blog which I somehow arrived at the other day. Did your book ever get published?

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