46-down-east-550.jpgIllustration by Bernie Lyon
My old pal Chuck asked me and my sister Stella to drive down east with him. We weren’t doing anything else at the time and so we jumped at the chance. We left T.O. at around eight in the evening and pulled into Montreal at three the next morning. The snow was about a foot deep and the air was a fine haze under street lamps in the dark. Kept on driving, taking naps from time to time in the car, at truck stops. Arrived Quebec City at eleven.
I yelled at Chuck to look at a waterfall and he missed the turn to Rivière- du-Loup. This threw Chuck, who’s dyslexic but one hell of a driver, from his memory of the trucker’s route he knew by heart. Wandered aimlessly, with French songs pouring from the radio. Finally pulled over and asked for help, using smiles and sign language. A friendly guy handed us a map with marks on it.
Hit New Brunswick and more snow, everywhere. Stopped at the home of Chuck’s ex-wife’s cousin Lynn. She and her son Lance welcomed us with homemade bread and sweet preserves. He’s a chemist, with ambition to go to the States and then marry his girlfriend. Lance hung off the cupboards, fetching and serving for his mother. You got the feeling they didn’t often get company from Upper Canada.
Lynn’s husband Rob is a ne’er-do-well who is currently in jail on his umpteenth impaired driving charge. Chuck confided to us that Lynn likes her men and doesn’t get bored when Rob is in jail. She’s a large, pleasant-looking woman whom Chuck assured us once had quite a good figure on her. Chuck said he’d stopped here so that when we left the place Lynn would get on the blower to his ex-wife and describe the two exotic dames he had with him.
Drove many more miles before fatigue set in. Chuck left the main highway as if he knew where he was going and pulled into the woods on what looked like a logging road. Stella froze solid. “Afraid of animals?” grinned Chuck. “Only the two-legged kind,” she whispered to me. I assured her that I trusted Chuck with my life, but she sat up straight for quite a while till he was asleep, sure that an axe murderer hid in his heart.
We dozed for a couple of hours and then took off again. At one in the morning we arrived at the seaside town of Buctouche. Chuck took us to his friend Randy’s cottage on Pender Beach. We unloaded the gear. Stella and I got the room with single beds while Chuck took the living room sofa. When I slipped out to use the bathroom, Randy crept into our room and tried to paw my sister. He was very drunk.
Next morning Stella and I dressed quickly and walked into Buctouche. We stayed there for the day, walking the desolate roads and sitting around in the library. Hoping Randy would be sobered up when we got back. He was not. He was even worse. However, by a stroke of luck he had to go to jail that night for impaired driving. The judge had originally sentenced him to weekends in the county bucket, but it was bursting at the seams so they offered him only two weekends if he would do them in the Dorchester pen.
At around 6:30 p.m., three of Randy’s pals arrived to drive him to prison. He was nursing another bottle of wine and didn’t want to let go of it or get into their car. His wife Brenda tried her best to talk sense into him but to no avail. By seven the guys were still trying to get him into the car. He’s a big man, over six feet and all beef. No one wanted to touch him in case the sparks flew. Finally he unwrapped a bandana and took about eight valiums. At 7:20 he staggered down the stairs, having been the centre of attention for nearly an hour.
Chuck drove me and Stella to Moncton to calm our nerves. We had not seen the city for thirty years and we were astounded. He showed us a shopping mall, some high-rises and modern architecture that hadn’t even been imagined back in ’63. In fact, the whole province seemed incredibly prosperous to our eyes, compared with the poverty we remembered. Chuck said that the provincial government had given everyone the dough to put aluminum cladding on their homes and that’s why it all looked so neat.
Then we took off for a roadhouse where Chuck said they had real country and western music, live. Before you knew it, the waitress had plunked three drafts apiece on the table in front of us. Chuck must have ordered them while we were powdering in the Ladies. We were mad as hell because we had inherited a liquor problem, even though we knew Chuck was just being polite. We poured salt into the beer and they didn’t taste too bad. By the end of the third glass, me and Chuck were aswirl on the dance floor. Stella said later that she thought for sure we’d both turn to butter. Chuck’s mild demeanour hid a virtuoso dance man when the beer was in his blood.
At eight the next morning I heard a neighbour bawling and thought, how awful, must have been a Saturday night scuffle with her husband. Then Chuck burst into our room. From the look on his face I knew Stella had been right, he was an axe murderer and we were about to get the chop. But no, Chuck just hustled me to the living room where Brenda lay in a wet heap, sobbing her heart out. I helped her into dry clothes and she told me she’d been drinking all night and then some guy had knocked her over the head in the rain. Chuck got the woodburner going and I made coffee.
Then Chuck went for a drive to calm his nerves and I sat with Brenda. She told me her dad had been a barber in Newcastle for thirty-eight years. She worshipped him. He cooked at home for the ten kids and also knitted their mitts and socks. Brenda’s mom was a spoiled girl who couldn’t fry an egg and became an alcoholic shortly after the marriage. One of Brenda’s brothers came out of the closet and his wife left him to raise their three kids on his own. Shortly after this, he found out that his male lover had AIDS. Brenda assured me that her brother had looked like a movie star before he wasted away from the dreaded virus.
Brenda herself had become pregnant at seventeen (quite the miracle, she said, because she had been praying to God since she was fifteen not to get pregnant and it had worked for all that time). She had to marry the boy, also seventeen, and go live in Newcastle with his family. After the birth of her last child, she left her husband and raised the young ones on her own. She married Randy last year at age forty-six. He kicked her out after six months of marriage and she ended up in hospital with a nervous breakdown. Then she moved in with her daughter, who had just given birth to her first child, the father having absconded.
Gilda, sixty-nine, is the mother of seven, including Randy. Chuck says she spoils her boys rotten and the girls have to look after themselves. Gilda married Old Joe, the farmer, twenty years ago and they now have a sixteen-room home and extensive properties. She gave Randy the family cottage and she supports another son, who lives with her. He is a heroin addict and alcoholic and he has fathered three children.
Gilda is feisty and foul-mouthed and goes for any man she can get her hands on. When we visited her, she could hardly keep her paws off of Chuck, right in front of us. She is proud of her wild boys. They’re the terrors of the county. The youngest boy got drunk down the St. Valentine’s Road two years ago and jumped onto his skidoo, heading for the highway at great speed. He figured he could make it easy and gunned the motor, only to be hit broadside by a car and thrown thirty feet in the air, breaking every bone in his beautiful body. He died later in hospital. It turned out that the driver of the car that hit him was his best friend. The guy never recovered.
People who live here say that the jails are bursting to the point where they had to build a new maximum security prison just for New Brunswick. They say most of the crimes are alcohol-related or alcohol-induced. Buctouche fishermen work maybe four months of the year, then go on pogey and work under the table. There’s a lot of time to kill and they love to drink and party with their pals. I guess the women are left to mind the homes.
Chuck says that everyone in New Brunswick gets a home first, with family and friends helping to build it. When it’s finished, everyone who gave a hand is always welcome to come and stay, long as they have a twelve-pack in their arms. Chuck took us down the St. Valentine’s Road where the bootleggers have their cabins and where the guys party in shacks with their women.
We hit the hay early on Sunday night, hoping to get some sleep and be up at six to head back to Ontario. Stella promised to wake us before Randy got back from his time in the slammer. We knew he’d be mad at Brenda and we didn’t want to be around. But Stella slept in. The first thing we heard was stomping boots and a loud voice and we knew Randy was home.
Chuck calmed him down. Stella and I dressed and gulped a coffee. Randy was quiet, with not much booze left in his body. Chuck had warned us that Randy is two people, Jekyll and Hyde. Randy said he had one hell of a headache and tried to get out of a farewell arm-wrestle with Chuck but finally succumbed. They were at it all over the kitchen table. Chuck won by a mile. We tried to keep things light till the car was full and we could slip away. Brenda cowered in the bedroom.
Finally we said goodbye and slipped into gear, heading back to Quebec, the only place I’ve ever been where you can eat off the floors in the public toilets. The snow came down like marshmallow and we knew we’d have to race to climb the steep hills of New Brunswick before we got stuck. But Chuck was equal to the task. This guy changes gears like a hot fork carving through Crisco. I put on the radio and Chuck lit up his pipe. What is it about the smell of fresh tobacco and a broad-shouldered guy?