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, October 21. See the full schedule here.
The mayor’s looking good, Hal thinks. She’s in a summer chartreuse pantsuit, augmented by a simple but elegant strand of pearls. She smiles radiantly, addressing the modest crowd of thirty or so geriatrics bussed in from the senior centre for the photo op. The air is bright, the sun shines, a gentle breeze blows off the river. There could hardly be a nicer day in the Cartwright Falls Riverfront Park: green grass, maple trees, and picnic tables framing the river right before it drops off into the gully. Here in the northernmost boundary of Wississauga, the mayor unveils a plaque dedicated to Rose McCallion.
She was one of Wississauga’s great founding matrons, the mayor intones dryly, a woman of courage, wisdom, and what they called, back in Rose’s day, pluck.
The gathering chuckles. Hal doesn’t join in the subdued laughter. After all, he isn’t a participant in the ceremony. The Boss made that very clear. He’s not to get “personally involved” she said. Of course not, Hal thinks. I’m just a mouthpiece. I’m just supposed to tell it like it is. How is it? He knew Rose better than anyone here. The racist, misanthropic old lady hated the mayor, couldn’t stand the city bureaucrats, and considered present-day Wississauga a concrete Sodom and Gomorrah of shopping centres run by dusky shysters hell-bent on tricking old ladies out of hearth and home.
But Hal’s just a reporter. He doesn’t have opinions. He doesn’t want to have an opinion. At least he still has a job. He stands to the side and surveys the scene through the viewfinder of the Cable Community News camera. The mayor utters one last platitude. There is a smattering of scattered applause. A velvet cover is pulled back to reveal the plaque. It’s an antique-looking copper signpost with gold raised letters saying simply, In Memory of Rose McCallion. Accompanied by the chronology of her birth and death, the memorial already looks suitably old, already conveys the authority of authenticity that all good plaques should exude.
The plaque unveiled, everyone claps again. Instant history, Hal thinks. Cake and coffee are served on an already erected folding table. After an appropriate interval, Hal approaches the mayor. He’s a bit tentative. He hasn’t spoken with her since the protest. But she greets him warmly, grasps his hand in both of hers and effusively thanks him for coming. Hal plays along, lobs a few softball questions for the nightly news. Rose deserves better, but his heart isn’t in it. He’s Hal Talbot, community news reporter, in charge of ribbon cuttings and plaque unveilings. He thought he’d be fired, reprimanded, promoted…something. But nothing happened, no grand inquisition, no major debriefing, no nomination for journalist of the year or unexpected job offer from the city. Just…nothing. Did they find bones? They claimed they didn’t. Hal’s not sure. Nobody’s talking about it. A report was released. Apparently they found something, stone fragments, maybe old, maybe not that old. That archaeologist at the university is studying them, taking his time. The road’s going full speed ahead, in the meantime. Mean time, Hal thinks, politely thanking the mayor. They shake hands again. Any time, Mr. Talbot, the mayor says merrily. She looks him in the eye and he looks away. Poor Rose. He did what he could, didn’t he? If it wasn’t for Cable Community News, who would have known the old bird even existed?
The ceremony is already breaking up. The seniors are being herded back to their bus, and the mayor is glad-handing her way over to a waiting town car. Hal trudges back to the news van, starts packing up the equipment.
Need some help there?
He looks up, sees Scott standing over him.
Hey! Hal can’t help but smile. What are you doing here?
My last appointment cancelled. Scott’s also smiling, his big white teeth flashing in the sun. And I remembered you said you’d be out here. So I thought I’d see if I could find you. It’s such a…beautiful day.
Great, Hal says.
Two weeks ago they started talking again. It was no big deal. Hal’s phone chirped. A text from Scott: Hey. Whassup? Later on that night, they talked on their cells. The conversation was light, upbeat. There were none of the awkward pauses that had come to dominate their once easy-going relationship. They didn’t discuss it. They didn’t even mention it. The Incident. That’s what Hal has started calling it. The night sky roiling. Mournful ghost creature in the pit, the way he looked at them and through them. The way the air all at once filled with the scent of rotted spring nectar as if the coming season, and Hal, and Scott, and the pit, and whatever it was that lingered—that lived—down there, had suddenly been trapped under glass, left to slowly rot then dry out and die in some stifling specimen jar. Hal hadn’t forgotten what he’d seen. But The Incident went grainier and grainier every time it replayed in his mind. Now when he watches the scene, images shoot by in a whirlwind of accidental angles and sightline shadows. It’s over in a matter of seconds like a camera dropped then hurriedly picked up again, still filming. It’s not that he’s avoiding anything. It’s more like—
what’s the point?
So, uh, Scott says, you wanna go for a walk?
Hal takes a quick look around. The mayor is being helped into her car by her driver, seniors are loading into their bus, various city employees, bureaucrats, and low level politicians are idly chatting near their vehicles, finishing their coffees, taking final drags on their cigarettes, sending texts.
Uh…yeah, sure. He folds the tripod away, closes up the van. They stroll leisurely down the paved path toward the river. Hal resists the urge to look behind him—the mayor and her functionaries staring, noting, revising. In the distance, you can just hear the faint sound of trucks—men at work, Hal thinks. It’s the new road, already under construction. The road will peel away from the river right before the falls, emerge from the gorge and head north and west to connect with the highway. It won’t open for another year-and-a-half, but Hal’s heard that progress is good, work is on time and on schedule. Trevor’s covering that beat now.
So, Scott says. How are things going?
They’re walking close to each other. Hal feels Scott’s presence, a reassuring undeniable bulk. Their fingers brush. As if by instinct, Hal grabs and holds onto one of Scott’s huge paws.
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.