On a dark day in January in Toronto, when the sky was much too close to the ground, I went to see the grave of Timothy Eaton with my friend Tom Walmsley. We wanted to memorialize our mutual friend Brian Shein, who had first proposed Timothy Eaton as a cultural demiurge, and whose death a few years ago had cut short his ongoing study of the sober Methodist. I took a cab from my hotel over to where Walmsley was staying, and after a hearty lunch we swung out onto the sidewalk before a bitter following wind. I took my hands out of my pockets long enough to get my collar up and we made little quick steps down a long hill covered in ice to the subway station, where we turned in just as I was beginning to regret not having suitable boots. Walmsley handed me a token to put in the box and I slipped behind him through the rotating bars into the Paid Zone.
We had gone down a set of concrete stairs and were moving out onto a platform covered in slippery yellow tiles when Walmsley said, have you any idea what a Great Attractor is? And I did have an idea, a vague idea anyway, because I had been reading about chaos theory only a few weeks earlier. A train pulled in and we stepped inside and I asked him where he’d heard about it. In the New York Times, he said, and I was surprised: I had no idea that Walmsley read the New York Times. We found two seats facing forward and Walmsley said it was something about the Milky Way, which was falling into this Great Attractor at 400 miles a second. I tried to remember what I had read about Attractors. It seemed to me that they were more like relationships than actual things. Our train was hurtling forward by now, through a long tunnel. Walmsley said, what the hell is chaos theory? and I had to admit that I couldn’t quite get a handle on it. But it seemed to me that this news about the Milky Way ought to put the kibosh on the Big Bang Theory. What did we know about the Big Bang, really? You would have had to be there in that first one-millionth of a second (the rest, of course, is entropy). We mulled this over as the train decelerated, stopped, opened and closed its doors, and pushed on again, pressing eastward beneath the freezing city. I remembered reading something somewhere about the Entropy Barrier, which is what stops us from going back in time: apparently entropy approaches infinity as you slow time down. Walmsley said: how would you do that anyway? The train continued its erratic haul, stopping and starting, as we leaned back and then forward, compensating for the Gs.
We left the train at Walmsley’s signal and he led me into a crowded warren of escalators and hallways, talking over his shoulder as he led me up, or down, and around, along corridors filled with people moving rapidly with us or against us, finally out onto yet another platform sheathed in damp yellow tiles. All sense of the compass had by now deserted me. A cold wind sucked in along the tunnel and another train pulled up in front of us. Walmsley was saying, you know what Hans Kung says about reincarnation: given one impossibility—the first birth—there is no reason not to accept another—a second birth, and so on.
A few minutes later we were out on the sidewalk, bent into the wind, and I knew that I was completely lost. It’s along here somewhere, Walmsley said, and we began working our way across and up sidehills, past the brick and glass facades of minor thoroughfares, until we came upon a hedged breach in one of them, and a low sign denoting the entrance to Mount Pleasant Cemetery. As we entered the cemetery grounds along a narrow byway, the sounds of the city fell away, and we felt the temperature drop another notch. Before us white ground rose up to grey sky, all etched over by the skinny black skeletons of indeterminate trees hibernating like the low bushes, also black and leafless, that smudged the nearby snow. We were walking into the land of the dead, although neither of us realized it at first, and soon we began to notice tombstones deposited here and there along the path, and to feel the surprise that graveyards always invoke. The road dropped down into a creek bottom and then forked at the base of a steep bluff. A wooden sign with diagrammatic markings on it poked up from the snow; when we got over to it we found it that bore numbers only, no names, and we had snow sticking to our socks. The rich would have bought the view, we reasoned, and so took the left fork up the hill. Off to one side a black marble block lay in the snow, one word engraved in its shiny surface: BLACK—a blunt, modernist touch, and then, as we gained the ridge, the larger crypts began to heave into view, first a series of modest eight-or nine-footers, then larger ones cast in a Grecian mode and bearing Anglo-Saxon names set into grey concrete. Everything was grey or white and it was getting colder with each step.
The Eaton crypt was by far the largest of the Greek temples; we glimpsed it first through a screen of gnarled black branches and knew it immediately to be what we were seeking. It was a squat, sullen version of the Parthenon, with heavy concrete pillars and a pair of concrete Roman lions crouching by the stairs. To approach it we had to break trail through an expanse of crusted snow; by now I could feel my knees aching from the cold. The mausoleum was entirely grey, and bore chiselled into its upper facade a terse legend— EATON—in the familiar sans serif of the company logo. We could find no other epitaph; indeed the company logo seemed to serve well enough, emblem of the Cash System and reminder to all who behold it that Honesty is the Best Policy, that no tobacco, liquor or playing cards are available on these premises. Where was Shein now? All that remained of Timothy Eaton, at least, was right in front of us. Cautiously we mounted the icy steps of the crypt and peered into its dark interior through a tiny hole in a grille set into the main door. In the weak light we could make out a strip of carpet on a concrete floor, a large candelabrum and, set into the interior walls, an array of horizontal doors laid out in the manner of a lateral filing cabinet—twenty-two of them, harbouring, we presumed, the bones of the Eatonian generations. We were looking in upon the afterlife of Timothy Eaton and both of us were freezing.
We made our withdrawal rapidly and without ceremony, shivering and blowing into our hands, and we slipped down the hill into the city. Back in the underground train we relaxed with our chilblains and spoke in lowered voices. There was something I was going to say, but then the train stopped and Walmsley leapt up and we disembarked into a stream of commuters carrying shopping bags and moving intently in several directions. Walmsley was talking over his shoulder again and I understood that he was expert at this; he talked and led me through the maelstrom of shoppers onto an escalator without jostling, and I realized that we were coming up into the Eaton Centre and knew then what we were looking for.
We’re nearly there, said Walmsley. Just push on behind me. We transited several departments—perfume, jewellery, men’s wear—before coming to the statue, tucked up against a pillar near the main door: Timothy Eaton in bronze and, modestly, only slightly larger than life, set stiffly into a straight-backed chair with his hands on his knees, one foot in front of the other, every inch the thrifty Methodist merchant. His chair was on a pedestal about three feet high; a dirty green rust covered him and the chair completely, save for the toe of his left shoe, which extended slightly forward, and which gleamed metallic yellow in the fluorescent light. The toe was the only thing about him that might be said to give off light; it glowed warmly before us: I reached out—as had myriad customers before me seeking Shopper’s Luck —and let my fingers rest there on the cold bronze toe of the monument. When I got home a few days later I pulled out a letter from Shein written ten years earlier, to which he had written the following postscript:
Must tell you that, using map and caliper, I spent an afternoon last week determining the precise centre of Canada. It is 43 deg 39' 22 1/2" North by 79 deg. 23' 00" West and about 83 metres above sea level. This is the still unturning point from which rises the greenish-black marble supporting the statue of Timothy E., the Man Who Stole Christmas, Born 1834—Died $5,000,000.
Click here to read Tom Walmsley’s response, originally published in Geist 15.