This chapter is part of the ongoing serialization of The Archaeologists, the new novel by Hal Niedzviecki to be published by ARP Books in Fall 2016. The Archaeologists is being serialized in its entirety from April to October with chapters appearing on a rotating basis on the websites of five great magazines. Read the first installment here. Next week's installment will be up at Taddle Creek, Friday, June 10. See the full schedule here.
The rest home sits marooned in a sea of shopping and traffic. Actually Hal finds it weirdly peaceful. No overly enthusiastic colleagues. No danger of running into some frisky former gym rat best pal of Scott’s. Plus, let’s face it, Rose doesn’t even know there’s such a thing as gay. Hal contemplates the elderly island sedately anchored amidst frantic currents of traffic and shoppers swirling around the 73 stores of the Middle Mall—“Where fun goes shopping!” Fun is relative, Hal thinks. Rose has fun. She rarely leaves her room, but she has her fun. Her fun is Hal. He’s her entertainment. She’s always ready and waiting for him with makeup applied and hair neatly combed. I don’t know how she does it, Scott says sarcastically. Makes herself look like the million year old buzzard lady! Half dino-bird, half zombie! Yeah, well, imagine what you’re gonna look like at 100, Hal snaps. He compulsively defends Rose. He’s not entirely sure why. Scott’s right. She barely looks human. Rose’s attempts to beautify only seem to make things worse: limp grey hair thinly spread across her scalp, red blush thickly smeared against waxy yellow cheeks, orange gash of lipstick coating her shrivelled lips. After the weather as breathlessly revealed by the bodacious Sarah, Rose is their most popular segment. She’s old, she’s ugly, she’s cranky as hell, but there’s something about her. It’s the way she leans into the camera, Hal thinks, the way she licks her receding lips and unequivocally announces that things have gone to heck in a handbasket. In Rose’s world, rural Walletville will always be far superior to the quarter million commuters now busily buzzing their cars through Wississauga, a hive of rapidly growing partially built barely connected nodes. People love to hear how crap their lives are. And maybe, just maybe, it gives them some idea of how things could be better. Yeah right, Scott says, rolling his eyes. Scott doesn’t care about Wississauga.
Hello, Hal calls, pushing in without waiting for an invitation. Anybody home?
You’re late, young man, Rose announces.
Hal smiles jovially and starts to bustle around the tiny room unpacking the equipment.
I don’t have all day you know, Rose snaps.
That’s what they love about her, Hal thinks. Her grace and charm. Never mind. Rose is the closest thing cable community news has to a star. Hal adjusts the tripod, fixes the lights. He peeks into the camera’s viewfinder. Rose’s flat head sticks out of a gnarled blue cardigan.
Okay Rose, we’re just about ready. Hal draws a deep breath, reminds himself to smile and takes his seat next to the old woman.
Hello, I’m Hal Talbot and this is Wississauga Cable Community News!
Rose scowls expectantly into the camera’s lens.
Once again we’re here with Wississauga’s oldest resident, living legend and dispenser of the wisest wisdom you’ll find anywhere, Rose McCallion. Rose, it’s great to be here again, how are you today?
Oh, well, she says, I’m alive, which is accomplishment enough at my age.
Hal smiles. Ha ha. You’re not only still with us, he says, but you look great.
Well that’s very nice of you to say young man, Rose drawls in a tone that makes it clear they both know how, as Rose would say, full of baloney Hal is. Anyway, I’m still here, thank the lord Jesus. She raps brittle knuckles against her chair’s armrest. And I’ll still be here tomorrow, too.
Of course you will, Rose!
With his grin on auto pilot, Hal guides Rose through a series of predictable and popular dialogues: Rose on the weather (too cold, too hot, too wet, too dry), Rose on politicians and bankers (liars and thieves), Rose on people these days (so rude, where are they going in such a big hurry?), Rose on her childhood (we didn’t have so much as three wooden pennies to rub together). Hal steers away from other subjects Rose tends to veer into, topics that make Rose look less like a cranky seer and more like an attack dog gone senile. These include the rest home staff, anything to do with what the cable community news team officially calls multiculturalism, and, of course, Rose’s daughter. Get onto any of those themes and Rose goes bitter and rancid. The rest of the time, Hal thinks, she’s acting, playing a role, hamming for the camera, sure, why not? But when she gets really angry, she forgets herself, forgets the camera, and the results are not particularly pretty. People want the cliché, Hal’s tried to explain to Scott. Not the real person. When things go bad, Hal ends up back at the office in front of his computer, laboriously editing together Rose’s sporadic congenial moments. Plus, Hal thinks, it can’t be healthy for the old bird to get so worked up.
All the same, he can’t resist throwing something unpredictable into the mix. He waits until the end so he can easily edit out her response when things inevitably turn sour. It’s become tradition to show some of Rose’s more, uh, contentious pronouncements to Sarah. They sit in one of the small conference rooms and ohh and ahh and I-can’t-believe-she-just-said-that as Rose blames the China people, the homosexuals (as she calls them), her daughter, and the lazy rest home staff on any number of her misfortunes. Hal always feels sullied after these sessions with Sarah. He’d rather just press delete, consign Rose’s misanthropic ravings to the netherworld of erased data. But Sarah’s so eager, so excited. She gets the room all set up and practically drags him in.
So, Rose, he says, after patiently nodding his way through a discussion of how, in Rose’s day, an orange was an annual spherical marvel carefully peeled and sectioned out to the entire family over the course of the Yuletide season. So Rose, this week the City’s unveiling their plans to build a new road down by the river.
Another road? Rose barks. When I was a kid the Cartwrights were the only family in Walletville that even had a car. It kept getting stuck in the mud! Not much good, that’s what we thought of cars!
Then you’re against the road?
I didn’t say that, now did I? After all, men have to work, don’t they?
Yes they do Rose.
But I’d be careful, if I was them. I’d be very careful.
What do you mean Rose?
It’s an old graveyard down there, isn’t it? Everybody knows that! Some things, young man, are best left alone.
Hal takes a sip from his tea. Actually it’s just water, but the tea cup makes the whole thing look more homey. Where’s she going with this? Is she acting or serious? The problem is that when Rose is at her best, it’s usually a bit of both.
So you’re saying…
They’re cursed you know. Those Indian bones! Men have to make a living, but it’s a foolish thing if you think you can just pave over all of that. Damned if you do and damned if you don’t, I’d suppose.
What do you mean Indians bones, Rose? There’s no way he’ll be putting any of this on the air, but he might as well find out exactly what she’s getting at.
These days people don’t put much stock in things like that. But it still happens, believe you me. Even just the other day the girl who comes to see me—nice girl, a little bit queer—she told me that she’s got, may Jesus help her, an Indian ghost right there in her backyard just above the river. She lives on that old Grove Street, the one with the big houses. It’s the second oldest street in Wississauga after Main, and I bet you didn’t know that Mr. Reporter.
Hal puts on a sheepish face. No Rose, I certainly didn’t. You got me again. Now Rose, do you really think she’s being haunted by…uh…Native spirits?
Of course she is dear. She came to ask me what she should do about it, didn’t she? That’s what happens! Those bones are cursed! Oh all those doctors and science folks they have today, they think they’ve got an answer for everything. So how do you explain it then? People still get the evil eye, don’t they? People still get the curse, Jesus help them. I told her, you move out of that house. You get out of there right this minute.
On the way back to the cable community access van, Hal stops at the nurses’ station. Two women in pink look up from a lackadaisical game of cards.
Look at that, one of them says dryly, it’s that reporter.
Hal flashes them his best broadcaster smile.
Good afternoon ladies.
They nod crustily.
I was just wondering if you could help me out for a story I’m working on.
More on that dried out frog! one of them exclaims. The other nudges her sharply with an elbow.
Oh, ha ha, no, Hal laughs. No, it’s something different. I’m doing a piece on volunteers in Wississauga, like, for instance, how you hardworking ladies mentor volunteers in fine institutions such as this one. And I heard that one of the volunteers right here on this floor was telling our Rose over there just how much she’s learned from her work here. I didn’t catch her name, but I’d sure like to get in touch with her for the story.
Volunteers…one of them says, puzzled.
Let me see, the other says, flipping through a binder.
That would be fantastic!
Ah, let’s see now…the volunteer on this floor…that would be…June Littlewell.
Never heard of her, the other lady says.
Sure you have. She’s the quiet one, pretty girl, with the ponytail.
Oh yeah, her.
June Littlewell, Hal says, scratching the name in his reporter’s pad. What’s she like then?
Nice enough girl.
You should ask our manger.
Of course, Hal says. I’ll do that. Thanks so much for your help.
They pick up their cards.
Anybody home? Scott yells. He’s got his own key. He likes to just walk on in and plop himself down on the couch. Home, Hal thinks. That word keeps coming up. Grubby bachelor apartment on the ninth floor of the Victory Colonnades. Hal’s in the dark tiny kitchen, his face illuminated by the glow of the open refrigerator. He’s holding a carton of milk in his hand. He quickly licks froth from his upper lip. His tie hangs loose around his neck. Moores-for-Men knock off. Just temporary, he thinks. Everything is just…temporary. Hal wipes his face with the tie. Stupid. It’ll stain. He’s only got three. He pulls the tie over and off as he takes the four steps from the kitchen to the living room.
The living room is the biggest room in the apartment with just enough space for a second- hand couch, a scratched coffee table and a pathetically oversized tube TV. With Scott standing in the middle, the room gets even smaller. Scott’s six-foot-four, muscled like a jungle cat—lithe and perfectly proportioned. Add to that a tousled shock of brown hair and a perpetually boyish grin and you get what Hal thinks of as The Scott Factor: an irrepressible, larger-than-life carefree buoyancy that instantly fills up a room—infects it, Hal thinks. Today Scott’s wearing an Adidas tracksuit. He should be the one drinking from the carton, Hal thinks. Like in one of those milk ads.
Hey, Hal says. He sighs and throws himself on the couch.
Scott nimbly lowers down beside him. The couch’s springs creak. Hal cringes, half expecting the whole thing to collapse. Scott offered to buy him a new one. Leather. And a flat- screen TV too. Hal said no. Thanks but no thanks. Scott earns $75 an hour. Hal’s making $27,000 a year.
Hard day? Scott puts a big hand on Hal’s neck, squeezes gently.
Hal just exhales.
I had Mrs. Crabapple today, Scott offers. She told me the exercises are making her arthritis worse. She told me her doctor says I’m a fraud.
What’d you say?
I said she was in remarkable shape and that with a little more effort she would look like a woman half her age.
You said that?
She booked another appointment for Friday. Scott giggles. His hand tightens on the corded muscles in Hal’s neck.
Hey! Take it easy!
You’re really tense.
Yeah. Well. We can’t all be…Hal doesn’t finish. Be what? Nothing bothers Scott. His life just happens. He pushes Scott’s hand away and stands up. He surveys the apartment again. The building is only ten years old but already has a distinct air of decay. Scott lives in a spacious, brightly lit penthouse condo. In the city it would be right downtown, minutes from the party district, fancy lounges, pricey restaurants. Hal imagines Scott’s place full of gorgeous girls with long blonde hair and impressive bosoms, a post-millennial Three’s Company knock-off from the people who bring you the Wississauga Cable Community News.
So whadya wanna do tonight? Scott says uncertainly.
Next door is playing dance music. The guy upstairs rattles his throat again, can never seem to get it clear. Somewhere a TV’s on, the news broadcast. Not mine, Hal thinks. Network news from the city.
We can go out, Scott says, sounding worried. If you want.
Hal looks at Scott. He doesn’t have a clue, generally speaking.
What do you think? Scott says, putting on an encouraging grin.
Hal’s suddenly filled with tenderness towards him.
Let’s stay in, he says, as if that’s some big shakeup of their routine.
Okay. Scott smiles, relieved. So what’s up with you? Bad day? Boss yell at you?
It’s true. Hal doesn’t feel like himself. He’s restless, edgy. Normally he’s fine with it. Their routine: take a shower, order in, wait for the 10 o’clock broadcast to come on. Hal watches himself intently while Scott fidgets and tries to get a hand down Hal’s pants. Quit it, Scott, I’m watching this!
But eventually Scott succeeds. By 10:30 they’re going at it, Sarah’s weather forecast a familiar soundtrack to the main feature.
I’m just…Hal pauses. I don’t know. He shrugs. I’ve got a lot on my mind.
Oh, okay. That’s cool.
The boss thinks I’m too serious or something.
Like when you’re on TV?
Yeah. And in general.
Oh, well, we’ve just go to…loosen you up. Scott looks up at him expectantly.
Hal catches himself almost grinning. Scott’s enthusiasm makes it seem true. He just needs to…relax. But he finds himself thinking about something else entirely. That thing with Rose, and her volunteer. Indian graveyards, curses, ghosts, the new road. It all fits together somehow. He can close his eyes and practically see it. Hal’s going to be the one to make a picture out of the pieces. Relax, he thinks contemptuously.
You know what we should do? Scott demands, bouncing up and down on the couch in excitement. We should do a weekend in the city! That would be so fun!
He’s like a puppy, Hal thinks. One of those little dogs with big feet that you bring home without even realizing how huge they’re going to grow up to be. In the city they can go out. Dancing.. Clubbing. Gay stuff. Hal doesn’t want—doesn’t need—to go back to the city. He was supposed to hate Wississauga, a sprawl of nothing where nothing ever happens. But, he thinks, things are happening here. It’s hard to explain, exactly. That’s the challenge. To show what’s actually going on. New buildings and stores and subdivisions and condominiums spring up practically every day. Immigrants pour in from all over, not just from other cities, but from all over the world. Anything could happen, the place is a blank slate, tabula rasa, land of opportunity. Everybody at the station says it won’t be long before head office realizes their mistake, sees how fast this area is growing and starts a real network affiliate. They’ll be looking for someone young, someone pretty but smart, someone who knows the local issues. With real resources Hal could do real stories. Cameramen, editors, cutting-edge equipment. Not to mention a six-figure salary, move out of this shithole. What does Scott want? To go to the city? Sure, why not? Party central: clubs, restaurants, bigger gyms, more clients. He could market to the gay village; they’ve got lots of money, especially the older guys. Just imagine, Hal thinks, how much those sixty-something yuppie queers would pay to work out with a strapping young buck breathing encouragement all over them. He’d make a fortune. And there’s that other thing: being out. Hal’s done that already. The lifestyle. Clubs and hook-ups and summer parades. It’s just another kind of hiding, he wants to explain to Scott.
So what do you think? Scott says again.
C’mon! It’ll be totally fun.
Let’s order a pizza. I’m hungry. You want to order a pizza? Hal’s legs are hot under his polyester blend. Spring is coming. Things are warming up. He’s got to focus. The new road they want to put in, that’s going to be a big story. And…Indian bones. He’s going to look into that. That could be huge. If there’s some kind of burial ground near the river, that could scuttle the whole deal. Bones. Hal’s onto something. He’s onto the kind of story he’s been looking for, the kind of story that changes things, that actually matters.
Hal? Earth to Hal?
Scott is still sitting there looking up at him with those big brown boy eyes. Hal tugs at the button of his pants.
You order the pizza. I’m gonna—get out of these clothes.
Hal Niedzviecki is a writer of fiction and nonfiction exploring post-millennial life. This was an excerpt from The Archaeologists, to be published by ARP books in Fall 2016.