This happened back in the dinosaur days, in the town of Gull Lake, population 800. The gulls had all died, and if ever there had been a lake it had dried up. On the Saskatchewan farmlands, oil pumps bobbed up and down, up and down, looking like black grasshoppers on speed. Folks were fuming about the metric system and had a nickname for the new top-loading railway car: a Trudeau hopper. I had other preoccupations. A ghost had chased me out of university and had hounded me for a year in Greece, Italy, France, and Spain. And now I was back in Canada, to take a summer job in a place where I knew no one.
I had hitchhiked into town. I had come to work in the one-room station of the Canadian Pacific Railway. Hitchhikers held up their thumbs every which way back then and jockeyed for the best spots on highway ramps. As for me, drivers usually stared good and long and pressed the gas pedal harder. Eventually, a priest took mercy on me in Medicine Hat and drove me all the way to the Gull Lake turnoff at forty miles an hour. I walked up the gentle grade into town. On my left arm, balanced against my chest, was an L.C. Smith typewriter, heavy enough to be a weapon of war. Catapulted over a battlefield, it could have taken a man out. In my right hand was a classical guitar, purchased in Granada from the man who made it. On my back was a knapsack, stitched with the Canadian flag, so Europeans wouldn’t take me for an American. It was 1977. The summer job was part of my recovery plan.
The only advertised room for rent in Gull Lake was above the one bar in town. The Mad Dog. No way I was staying there. I knew, from my late father and from the men before him, that certain places would only bring trouble to a person like me. I passed the bar and walked into town, ringing doorbells and asking to rent a room. The first five doors did not stay open long enough for me to explain that I had a job and would pay for the full five months—in advance, if necessary.
At the sixth door, a woman answered. She looked like she had been born around the time of my great-grandmother. Everything about her was white. Hair. Socks. Nursing shoes. On her clothesline out back, flapping in the wind, hung white underwear the size of a parachute. She stood no taller than five feet. Blue eyes, clear as lake water. She stepped back when she saw me, but listened as I spoke. She said she didn’t mind my working nights. She said her own son Jimmy could keep a job for about as long as she could hold a spooked horse. He was a no-account, if God’s truth be told, but what could you expect from a grown man who still went by “Jimmy”? He had stayed in her basement suite for a spell. This was after his wife had thrown him out but before she had taken him back, which was about as dumb a mistake as a woman could make. She said, what can you do about foolishness but let it be? It struck me that I should nod and say nothing.
She said I was welcome to stay. Twenty-five dollar a month. She pronounced it “dollar.” In the singular. The Spaniards in Andalusia had done the same thing, dropping the final s, perhaps to shake me off the tail of their speeding words. She asked if I wanted to see the suite. It had a bedroom, a kitchen, and a bathroom. Twenty-five dollar a month. No, I told her, I would just take it. I said, here is twenty-five dollars for the first month. You don’t have to pay me yet, she said. No, ma’am, please take it. She took it. The bills disappeared into her apron pocket.
Her name was Eleanor Hadfield. She lived alone. She had been widowed long ago. Her son stopped by every Sunday for lunch after church and brought the groceries on her list. He overcharged her, she confided, but it was just a few dollar and she didn’t care. She didn’t get out much, but she still ruled over her kitchen, garden, and clothesline. As she spoke, Mrs. Hadfield kept checking out my hair.
Have you ever seen a mammoth pine tree in southern Spain? No branches all the way up, but at the top there is an eruption of foliage. I had an Afro like that. It was big, and it took over, and it buried me beneath it. Also, I was dark. Like the best part of a chocolate éclair. Some of my looks came from my father and his people. And some came from spending much of the past year in southern Europe. I had stayed in shared rooms, youth hostel style, sleeping inches from strangers, one looking clubbed and comatose, the next snoring like a purring brontosaurus. I had changed cities every night, on the run from that voice in my head. Come on, it said. Come over here. It’s not so bad. I did it. Can you provide me with one good reason to go on living? Is there one thing about the world that can justify living another day? Come over this way, it said, I’ll meet you at the door. The voice tracked me like a bounty hunter and charged like a bull. For a year, I had stayed on the move, but it hadn’t worked. There was no dodging the voice of the dead.
From my bedroom one Sunday morning, I heard Mrs. Hadfield’s son railing about me. In the small house, I heard every word. Why had she not consulted him before renting to me? What if I ransacked her house and stole her valuables? It wasn’t right for her to be alone with me. Have you considered this, her son kept saying, have you even looked at him? Jimmy, she said, he’s a gentleman—may not look like one, but he is. Mother, he said, nothing good can come of this. Jimmy, she said, eat your pie.
In the eyes of Eleanor Hadfield, perhaps the typewriter saved me. Soon she began to ask me to join her in the kitchen for pies, cakes, cookies, and roast beef. Most of all, she liked serving me potatoes. Fried, baked, cookie-thin and roasted, or boiled. Under gravy, over rice, in casseroles, or all alone.
One day while I was writing, she brought me a mug of tea and said, “I got more ways for potato than all the keys on your typewriter.”
“I bet you do.”
She ran her finger along the platen of my L.C. Smith and declared that it was as smooth and hard as her rolling pin. “What are you so busy writing? ”
“Just trying to get my thoughts out.”
“I hear you typing half the day,” she said. “Fingers coming down like rain.”
“Does the sound bother you? ”
“No,” she said. “I like that sound. I sleep easy with it.”
I had been typing since I was thirteen. On my mother’s L.C. Smith, my friend Howie and I made up our own Typing Olympics. Stopwatch in hand, he would dictate a sentence and clock me. Have you considered, my asinine acquaintance, that it would be advisable to abdicate before accentuating the world’s ailments? He timed me, then took his turn and beat me by five seconds. On the sly, he had been typing a’s repeatedly. Training his left pinkie. The last time we raced each other, it got stupid. We were seventeen. Howie wanted us to give each other lines about world poverty, time the results, toss back a shot of rum, and do it again. Toss another shot. Do it again. I gave up after two shots. He kept going. Had to get his stomach pumped. At the hospital, his mom gave me a look that said, “And I trusted you.” I carried that look in the back of my mind until I had something worse to think about.
Passenger trains didn’t stop in Gull Lake, but freight trains had to pull off onto the side tracks to let other trains overtake or pass them on that long, single track across the Canadian prairies. The dispatcher in Calgary and conductors moving all across Saskatchewan and Alberta could not communicate directly. They had to go through me—the operator. I took orders from the dispatcher and passed them along to the trains highballing east and west through town.
I worked alone in the station, starting at 7 p.m. and often working right through until 6 a.m. I had the guitar and the typewriter for company, in the hours when I was not needed. Actual work accounted for no more than two hours each shift, but I had to be perfect for every one of those 120 minutes. It was my job to know more than any person in the world about the trains that thundered each night through Gull Lake, Saskatchewan. You had to radio for permission to leave the chair and go to the bathroom. You radioed again, once back in the chair. The dispatcher in Calgary knew how often you pissed in an eight-hour shift, and how long it took you. It was a firing offence to sleep on the job. If I slept, someone could die. And I already had one person’s death on my mind. My job was to type up the dispatcher’s orders, when they came—always in a rush, always at the last minute—and to pass them along to oncoming trains. I had to be able to type them up at fifty words a minute, and typos were not allowed. It was in the rule book: if you made a typo, you had to say so. Then you had to rip up your order and ask the dispatcher to give it to you all over again, while you typed. All while the train was bearing down on you at fifty miles an hour.
From my chair facing the station window, I had a clear view of the farmlands, the bobbing oil pumps, and the sky. Usually there were no clouds, and blazing stars. “We’re burning up out here,” the stars seemed to tell me. “Would you at least have a look? ” Stars begged you to look at them for, like, five million years. And I couldn’t. I had two radios to manage. On my left, the one for incoming and outbound trains. It only worked when a train was within a five-mile radius. This radio connected me to the engineer in the lead car, who usually said nothing and just drove, and to the conductor working in the caboose. It was the conductor who did all the talking—to me and, through me, to the dispatcher. In the radio to my right, I could hear the dispatcher any time, but he could only hear me when I pushed a foot pedal under my desk.
One Tuesday in June, weeks after I had settled into the job, a conductor got in my ear at 2:49 a.m. He was on a westbound train. Number 901. I knew it. It was a freight train. Usually about 100 cars. More than a mile long. Travelling at full speed, a beast like that took ten minutes to stop.
“Gullick. You there? ” It was the voice of an old man. Some conductors liked to kid around on the radio. Others were all business. This one sounded as if he liked to hunt bears, drink beer, and watch strippers.
I pulled the train mike closer. “Gull Lake here.”
“Are they robbing the cradle? ” he said. “What are you, like, sixteen? ”
You kept your mouth shut with the dispatcher, but conductors were fair game. So I said, “And are they stealing from graves these days? No live bodies left? ”
His guffaw sounded like a machine gun. “Looky-looky, we have a smart one. We have one with attitude. Heaven help us. What are you, a college student? ”
I just said, “Sort of.”
“Sort of. We got a politician in Gullick. We got a right regular Pierre Trudeau.” He pronounced the prime minister’s name “pee-air.” He chuckled into the radio.
Conductors and dispatchers could smell an operator’s panic, right through the radios. I didn’t want to sound nervous. But if I didn’t take down the train’s particulars, I would soon run out of time. So I just said, “I see you’re facing a headwind tonight.”
“Wind like this,” he said, “I lose a minute an hour.” I pictured him being sixty years old, which, at three times my age, seemed ancient. About five-seven. One hundred and ninety, with a pot belly and stick-thin legs. “So,” he added, “got anything for me? ”
He was testing me, trying to see if I would do him a favour and break the rules. He knew that operators were not allowed to reveal the dispatcher’s orders over the radio. “Should know soon,” I said. “Where are you? ”
“Five point one miles out.”
“Stand by,” I said.
I didn’t yet know who was dispatching that night. The dispatcher would have started his shift just minutes earlier. He would be feeling his way into the night, and calling me any moment. Each night was a puzzle, needing its own solution. Each night, the dispatcher in Calgary had to draw a map of the Canadian prairies, and send dozens of trains through it. Safely. Quickly. Cheaply. Fast trains had priority over slow ones. Except for slow trains carrying hazardous goods. And then there were passenger trains, which had priority over some freight trains but not others. It was complicated. And that was when there were no screw-ups. A train could hit a deer, or a moose, or even a bear, and not derail. The one animal that worried train engineers and conductors was a pig. If a sow got loose and found its way onto the track, there was trouble coming. A sow was heavy and thick and had a low centre of gravity. She was the mammal most likely to derail a train.
“Gull Lake,” the dispatcher called, “are you there? ”
I grabbed the mike and pressed the foot pedal so he could hear me. When I spoke with the pedal down, every operator between Field and Swift Current could hear me, too. Some dispatchers liked the audience. They would jack up the pressure and see how the operator took it. I kept my answer short and simple: “Gull Lake.”
He let a long, slow laugh percolate down the railway line. But I knew, before the laugh, who he was. Just about every dispatcher, conductor, and operator working for the Canadian Pacific Railway in the age of the dinosaur pronounced the town “Gullick.” So I knew, after just two words, who occupied the dispatcher’s chair. His name was Weedman, but privately I had nicknamed him Tolstoy. He pronounced the town the way it was written. Pronounced it the same way I said it: “Gull Lake.” Pausing for a nanosecond between each word.
Tolstoy was good. They said he was the most talented dispatcher in western Canada. The guy could pinpoint the location of every live train on the prairies, at every moment of the night, right down to the nearest mile. He kept an entire network of moving trains in his head, and there had not been a crash, a derailment, or a major delay on his watch. He knew how fast each train operator could type. He could squint over 300 miles of railway track and intuit, in his bones, if you had made a typo and not confessed. But he had a temper. If he was in a bad mood, he might try to make a grown man cry on the radio—while his peers listened. I’d heard him say a few nights earlier to the operator in Swift Current, Miller in case you haven’t noticed I have an eastbound train highballing your way. Three miles out, Miller, and moving chemical waste. Don’t make me stop that train, Miller, while you learn how to type. I got a girl in Maple Creek, just out of train operators’ school, who types faster than you. Willow MacDonald. You there, Willow? Maple Creek, she said calmly, quietly. Willow, is it true that you type faster than Miller? Miller’s just fine, sir, she said. Okay, Tolstoy said, enough of this. Miller, is your order paper back in your typewriter? Yes sir. Are you ready? Yes sir. Okay, here we go. And then Tolstoy ripped out a four-sentence order, knowing perfectly well that Miller would not be able to keep up and would have to confess that he had made another typo.
Tolstoy had been the lead instructor in my two-week train operators’ course in Calgary. He was six-three, had a goatee, and was as thin as a fence post. He was twenty-eight, which seemed ancient. Tolstoy had dropped out of philosophy at university, but he knew his trains. His most memorable contribution during training had been a two-hour talk he titled “How Not to Piss Me Off.” He didn’t speak much to me during the course, but took a good, long look at me on the first day. Before the day ended, he said, “Where are you from, man? ” He didn’t use “man” with anybody else in the course. But nobody else in the course looked like me. I told him Toronto and left it at that. He asked where I was studying, and I said UBC. “You’re from Toronto, and you study in Vancouver, and now you’re taking a train operators’ course in Calgary? ” It didn’t seem wise to tell him about Spain. Or France. Or the rest of Europe. So I just smiled. The course lasted eight hours a day, five days a week, two weeks straight, at no pay. That’s how it worked, in the dinosaur days. No pay for training, and you brought your own lunch. At the end of the course came a test with three parts. You had to memorize the location and spelling of every train station between Field, British Columbia, and Swift Current, Saskatchewan. Wetaskiwin. Pemukan. Glamis. Tompkins. And on they went. Easier than Spanish verbs. You had to memorize the train operators’ manual. There were fifty rules. And you had to be able to type fifty words a minute. They dictated 500 words to you, and you had to finish them in ten minutes. You were allowed five typos. But you were penalized twelve seconds for each one. The typing test was to blame for the average failure rate: 75 percent. But I found that part easy.
At the end of the test, Tolstoy checked the results. Out of fifteen students, two of us passed. The other was Willow MacDonald, my age, who came from Maple Creek. Tolstoy shook our hands. Quick, he said to me, where is Gull Lake? It’s in Saskatchewan, I said, between Maple Creek and Swift Current. Good thing you memorized the railway map, buddy boy, he said. Get yourself to Gull Lake tomorrow. You’ll be on the night shift, and you start Monday.
“Hello, white boy,” Tolstoy said to me through the radio. “I could spot your voice 300 miles off.”
“Calgary to Gull Lake, 286 miles,” I said.
Tolstoy had never called me “white boy” during training, never to my face. For that, he waited until he had me on the line, where our conversations would be commented on by the other operators. He waited to trot out “white boy” until I had a train bearing down on me. I didn’t care what he called me. I had coped with worse.
On Christmas Day of my second year at university, my best friend’s mother called and begged me to come over. She wouldn’t say why. Stepping into their home felt like sliding into a casket. I sat so terrified of their pain that I didn’t know how to touch my own. They poured endless mugs of tea, in the hope that I could tell them something about their son—chess player, world traveller, hobby Marxist. They didn’t know, and I didn’t tell them, that their son was a long-time book klepto. Howie Rosenbaum had read more books than you could shake a stick at, but he had not bought even one of them. By the age of thirteen, he kept a list, pencilled on foolscap, of donors and donations. Coles Books in the Don Mills Plaza had donated Crime and Punishment to Howie’s private collection. The Wretched of the Earth had come courtesy of Third World Books on Bathurst Street. I asked why he didn’t just ride his bike over to the Don Mills library. Then he wouldn’t have to steal, I said. He grinned and made me stand, pulled the blanket off the plastic fruit crate I’d been sitting on, and unveiled a collection of library books. Never borrowed, and never returned. In my dreams, I became accountable for everything Howie had stolen. Even his own life. It was my responsibility to explain it, to make up for it. In my dreams, he would accuse me of living a phony life. I would reply weakly that he had given up too soon. Come over here, he said, and I’ll prove it. Come this way. I’ll meet you at the door.
“Any word from 901? ” Tolstoy said.
“He’s just in radio radius.”
I glanced at my watch. “One minute ago, he was five miles east of Gull Lake.” That meant I had four minutes to take down Tolstoy’s order, arrange the original and the carbon copy, clip one each onto wooden hoops, and get myself out the door and onto the platform.
“Where’d you learn to type so fast? ” Tolstoy asked.
“My mother taught me on her L.C. Smith.”
“That takes the cake. White boy’s mother taught him to type? Who does that? ”
That hit a nerve. My mother was white. But, white or black, you didn’t make fun of somebody’s mother. Not where I came from.
“I’m going to be a writer, Tolstoy,” I said. It slipped out. Before I knew it.
“What was that? ”
“I am going to be a writer.”
“Did you call me something? ”
It was ridiculous, this rule of having to take all manner of trash talk from the dispatcher but not being allowed to talk back. “Tolstoy was a fine writer. But don’t take War and Peace to work—you might fall asleep on the job.”
He laughed. “You have some nerve, white boy. Is Johnson conducting the 901? ”
“I’ll find out.”
I pushed away the dispatcher’s mike and pulled the conductor’s radio closer.
“Dispatcher wants to know if it’s Johnson conducting.”
“Yep. And let me guess who’s in the chair in Calgary,” the conductor said. “It’s Weedman, right? ”
“Yup,” I said. But I never thought of the dispatcher as Weedman, even though it worked with his goatee. If Tolstoy had any sense, he would go back to school before he flamed out. They said five years was the longest any dispatcher had lasted. Nervous breakdowns. Ulcers. What thinking person would take a job that was known to drive delicate souls to suicide?
The conductor said, “Pass on a message to Weedman. I had been stuck in the Peg so long that I thought I’d been sent to jail. That’s right. But I’d break out of Stony Mountain Penitentiary faster than this train was crossing the prairies. No more fooling around! Tell Weedman I want to highball right through Gullick and Maple Creek.”
“Got it,” I said.
I could hear the conductor laughing on the radio. He was laughing for my benefit, and for that of the engineer up front in the first car of the train.
I told Tolstoy that Johnson was conducting the 901.
Tolstoy said, “Stand by for orders, white boy.”
The conductor said, “Did you tell Weedman what I said? ”
“I communicated your whereabouts,” I said.
“Communicated your whereabouts,” the conductor said, mimicking my voice.
The dispatcher got me again. “Gull Lake, are you ready? ”
I rolled the order paper with the carbon copy into the typewriter. “Ready.”
Tolstoy fired off a message I had learned to decode and type, at top speed and with no mistakes, in training. He said it once. I heard it and kept listening while blasting away on the typewriter keys so the carbon copy would look clear. In a nutshell, this is what he told me:
“Westbound 901, take siding no. 2 at Maple Creek July 23 at three hours aught aught minutes and allow Westbound no. 463 to pass at three hours aught eight minutes. At three hours twelve minutes, continue westbound, maximum thirty miles per hour, direction Calgary. Prepare for more orders at Medicine Hat.”
I finished a breath after his last word and read it back to him. There was a mistake in the word “Medicine.” I had typed it “Mecicine.” But now it was too late. I had no time to start all over again. I banked on the theory that the engineer and the conductor wouldn’t notice it or report it, so I told Tolstoy that the sheet was clean and I had made no mistakes.
“You’re good, white boy.”
Thirty seconds later, the conductor buzzed me on the radio. “Gullick, whaddya got for me? ”
If I revealed the orders and the dispatcher got wind of it, I would be sacked for violating rule no. 21, which Tolstoy had summarized in training as Don’t tell the conductor a single thing on the radio, because if he gets it wrong you could be looking at two things: a train derailment and lifelong unemployment. But if I didn’t give the conductor something, he might report my typo. So I said, “Prepare for a long order.” Then I pressed down the foot pedal to the dispatcher, so he could hear the conductor hollering at me through his radio.
“Tell that college dropout dispatcher I’m going rip his head off and pitch it to the seagulls,” the conductor said.
“901, where are you now? ” I said, still with my foot down for the dispatcher’s benefit.
“Two point four miles east of you,” the conductor said.
Now Tolstoy was at me again. “Was that Johnson yapping at you? ”
“He’s piling up one or two adjectives,” I said.
Tolstoy laughed for the benefit of all the operators listening in on our conversation. “Tell him to fire up his coffee pot,” Tolstoy said.
Turning my mouth to the connection to the conductor, I said, “The dispatcher says to enjoy the coffee in Maple Creek.”
“There is no coffee in Maple Creek,” the conductor said. “Tell that goateed golden boy—” He kept ranting while I prepared the hoops. I kept the pedal down on the dispatcher’s line so Tolstoy could hear Johnson ranting. And then I cut off the dispatcher and said to Johnson, “901, I will be hooping you up.”
I could hear Tolstoy laughing, but had to interrupt him, putting my foot down on the pedal again.
“Permission to hoop up train,” I asked.
“Get out there, white boy,” he said. “Steady against the wind. And watch out. Reports of a Trudeau hopper with a loose wire. Stay back, but try to give me the exact location of that hopper.”
I ran outside with the two hoops that allowed, in the age of dinosaurs, for formal communication between the train and the dispatcher. Each hoop was shaped like a number nine. A loop and a long neck. The big one had a loop about eighteen inches in diameter and a neck about four feet long. The short one had the same loop, but a neck of just a foot or so. At the intersection of the loop and the neck was a metal clip. Into the clip of each hoop, I attached the message from Tolstoy in Calgary. Using the hoops, I would have to pass up the fresh copy of the train order to the engineer leaning out the front car of the train. Then I would have to step back and wait for the train to thunder by, stepping back up to the edge of the platform in time to hoop up the conductor in the caboose at the back of the train.
Outside, the sky was lit with stars, and the wind pushed hard from the west. I stood by the edge of the track and saw the train’s headlight, like a burning star itself, growing brighter. The train whistle wailed like a broken man. Distorted, dopplerized, it came at me like a parent, mightily aggrieved and forever offended. The rails shook by my feet.
After Howie hanged himself from the branch of a tree in High Park, his mother glued herself to me, desperate for explanations I couldn’t offer. But Howie also stuck to me. He didn’t care where I slept, or how much I paid for a cot in a youth hostel. The dead had an unfair advantage. They could hector you all they wanted through the deepest, darkest Saskatchewan nights, where there was no movement but oil pumps bobbing in agreement. When the dead spoke, it was always a monologue. There was no changing anyone’s mind.
I held my ground against the rumbling rails and the judgmental train wail and the wind that swirled under the belly of the train. As the locomotive drew 200 yards, then 100 yards, then just fifty yards away, I hoisted the long hoop high some twelve feet overhead, angling it ever so slightly toward the path of the train so the circle in the number nine became a hole through which the engineer could punch his arm. The train barrelled forward. I saw the engineer lean out the window, bending his arm into the shape of an L. I released the hoop at the instant the engineer put his fist through the hoop, caught it, and lifted it up and away from me. He plucked out my message and threw down the hoop.
I stepped back to avoid the swirling wire, wherever it was. I counted back from the lead locomotive. Car one. Car two. Car three. Starting at car eighteen, a string of Trudeau hoppers. They irritated some farmers, because you could only load grain in them, and only from the top. Car twenty-five was a black Trudeau hopper, dragging a loose wire and intent on laceration. I danced back and jumped. The wire swirled and hissed underneath me. I thought of my mother, and how she would have freaked out if she knew I was being paid seven dollars an hour to dance out of reach of slashing wires. And I thought of Eleanor Hadfield, sleeping in the night. The day before, she had come down to my room, sat down on my bed, and placed her hand on my shoulder. I jumped as if I’d been shocked by the paddles of a defibrillator. I opened my eyes. She invited me upstairs. It was one in the afternoon, she said, and I had been screaming. Something about my shoe caught in the railway tracks with a train coming on. Come upstairs, she said, for potato with more character than the prime minister of Canada. I followed her, and slid into a chair at her table. The potatoes were steaming and ready, on a china plate. Eleanor Hadfield had tugged them straight from her garden. They were scrubbed, halved, and boiled to perfection: just a hint of resistance against the tines of my fork. I smothered them in butter and fresh parsley, salted them to taste, took the first bite, and thought, I have never eaten a potato before.
The train stretched more than a mile long. It had slowed to thirty miles an hour. I got ready, stepping closer. I could see the last Trudeau hopper, and then the caboose. The conductor was leaning out, taking a good look at me. I was all lit up on the station platform. He was calculating the height at which I held the hoop. He was 200 yards away. One hundred. Fifty. Johnson was closer to the ground than the engineer, and easier to hoop up. No need to reach high in the wind. The conductor was up just a foot above me, so it was practically an intimate encounter. As he bore down on me and stuck out his arm for the catch, I heard him call out, “By Christ, it’s a nigger.” And then his mouth fell. He knew I had heard him.
Johnson caught the hoop. The wind blew his hat off. The 901 drew away, and I hunted for the two hoops among the grass and stones. I also found the conductor’s cap. I made my way back to the station and told Tolstoy in Calgary that I had hooped up both ends of the train, and that the loose wire was twenty-five cars back from the locomotive. But I did not tell Tolstoy that the conductor had radioed me, from his position a mile west of Gull Lake, while he was still inside radio radius.
“Gullick,” the conductor said, “what’s your name, anyways? ”
“Got a first name? ”
“Well, Joel, don’t mind an ignorant old man, and don’t take offence. I’m not prejudiced. I just never saw the likes of you before in Gullick. You hoop up like a pro. Don’t be mad.”
“No sweat,” I told Johnson. It all came down to dignity. And the easiest way to retain my dignity was to act like it didn’t mean a thing.
“You’ve got a loose wire twenty-five cars back from the front,” I told Johnson.
“Did it hit you? You okay? ”
“It’s swirling around. But I’m okay.”
“I’ll check it out at Maple Creek,” he said, pronouncing it “Crick.” And then he continued, “After all, we don’t want to be taking out our college students, irregardless of race.”
I didn’t call him on the word “irregardless.” I just said, “I found your cap.”
“Hang onto it for me. And son, I won’t tell Weedman about how you spell ‘Medicine.’”
“Thanks,” I said.
“You a university kid? ” he asked.
“Yup,” I said.
“Where you going? ”
“UBC,” I told him, “if I make it back there.”
“What on God’s green earth is UBC? ”
“The University of British Columbia.”
“Are your parents proud? ”
I didn’t tell him I had lost my daddy months before my best friend went and ruined Christmas Day for the rest of my life. I said my mom wanted to see me back in school.
“Then do it,” he said. “Train jobs are going the way of the dodo bird.”
“I’ll make a deal with you. In September, on one of my overnights in Vancouver, I’ll come out to UBC and make sure you started up again.”
“It’s way out on a peninsula. Point Grey.”
“Son, I know every city in Canada that has a train station in it. I get a day or two off, and I go walking. What’s the name of the building you study in, out there at UBC on Point Grey? ”
“I’ll bring you a back-to-school gift, high noon on the first Saturday after Labour Day, and I’ll meet you at the door.”
There was some kind of gravel in his voice that felt good to hear. He sounded like an old fart of a grandfather in that moment. Something in his voice made me feel I’d soon be getting through the nights again. Dream-free. Or free, at least, of one particular dream.
“Okay,” I said. “Thanks. What’s your name, anyway? ”
“Ed Johnson,” he said.
“Well, hello Ed.”
“Knock ’em dead out there and come back to CP Rail and become vice-president or something, you hear me? You can do better than me. I’m just a dumb-ass who says stupid things to the first black kid I’ve ever seen at three o’clock in the morning in Gullick. I only noticed you were black from a distance, ’cause of your hair. Man alive, that is one head of hair you got.”
So he wanted to banter before disappearing into the night. I obliged, and told him his head looked like a baby’s ass and that it was time to lay down some sod.
He came back one last time. “If I was your daddy, I’d whip your ass and cut your hair.”
I was going to offer to set him up with Bert, my Jamaican barber in Toronto, who was trained in the art of waxing bowling balls. But Johnson was gone, out of radio radius. I didn’t know if he would make good on his promise to visit me at UBC, but he would come back through Gull Lake a week later, on the Eastbound 902 out of Calgary. So I planned a little surprise for Johnson. I would go to the city on my weekend off. It helped, even that summer, to stay on the move. The voice was coming at me less and less, but my legs twitched and shook in bed. I figured it was Howie, out walking with my legs when I had no need of them. In the city, I would go shopping. I planned to buy a gift and rig it to the bottom of the hooping stick. On his next trip through Gull Lake, Conductor Ed Johnson was going to catch the hoop and pull out his message and find his cap tied near the bottom of the stick. Under his cap, he would find some black thing hanging like a trapped raccoon. He would be startled and take a second look and find himself the owner of a massive Afro wig. That would give him something to talk about, next time he came into radio radius in the age of the dinosaur.
This appeared in the January/February 2011 issue.
Lawrence Hill is a Canadian novelist, essayist, and memoirist who writes about identity and belonging. He is the author of nine books, including the award-winning novel The Book of Negroes and the non-fiction works Blood: The Stuff of Life (which formed the basis of his 2013 Massey Lectures) and Dear Sir, I Intend to Burn Your Book: An Anatomy of a Book Burning. He has co-written a six-part television miniseries based on The Book of Negroes, which appeared in 2015 on CBC TV and BET. He is currently completing a new novel.
Selena Wong earned a gold National Magazine Award in 2012 for her work in The Walrus.