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Bill Gaston is the author of several works of fiction, including the Scotiabank Giller Prize finalist Mount Appetite, the Governor General's Literary Award finalist Gargoyles, and the acclaimed novels, Sointula, The Good Body, and The Order of Good Cheer. Gaston was the inaugural recipient of the Writers' Trust of Canada Timothy Findley Award, for a distinguished body of work. He lives in Victoria, British Columbia.
Doing seventy, pointing north, window wide open and elbow on the edge. The falling night rushed and pounded the left car like loud flux, like chaos itself Here we go, what's next.
Good to blow out the cloying perfume reek -- yesterday he'd hung a second pine freshener from the rearview, and this morning in the car's enclosed heat he'd snapped its string and tossed it, wincing in the smell. It was like someone had spilled Mr. Clean in the seats. He'd left the old one up and dangling. Drained of scent and almost grey, a cardboard antique, it was a talisman that had come with the car, with him a decade now. Longer than any one person.
The old tree cut-out twirled in the car's night wind. Bonaduce looked higher into the rearview itself, the dark Maine interstate rushing away in the wrong direction, back to his old life. His gut flipped at the notion of steering with this sight alone.
North out of Bangor, five hours to go, there began a whacking on his roof so he pulled over to check things. The autumn cool felt okay on his neck. Stars were out and glaring in this clean air but he had no time for them. Funny how on trips you relax less the closer you get. He stuffed the flapping tarp under a suitcase comer and tightened the bungee cord, thinking he probably should have crammed more of this stuff in the back seat. But he loved using this roof rack, the gypsy load up there straining full, giving him a feeling in his body he could not name. Something like, home was where the car was. Something like, he was free and life was lucky. Loose Bonaduce.
When next he floored it to pass a car, the tightened cord howled in the wind. Hepassed another car and there it was, a shrieking steadiness, loud right over his head. The next time he passed he opened the window, reached up and grabbed the cord, but his grab only changed the tone, upping it an octave. He decided then to hear it not as noise but as a note, and smiled at the possibilities of this, the kind of smile rare to him since he'd heard his news and made his decision.
Playing the bungee cord meant he had to stay at speed, at least eighty for a clean tone. The road slicing the middle of Maine was fine and straight, but when he found himself falling into a downhill curve it took some teeth-clenched cool to keep the speed and the music going. It also cost him two tickets. These he tossed the second the cop was out of sight, for they were American tickets, and he was leaving for good. Between tickets he learned, by pinch, the cord's nearly three octaves. Its lowest notes were lost in the engine's drone, while its highest shriekers, buzzed and thrilled his fingers in a way almost ticklingly sexual. By the time he crossed the border, and got his first Canadian ticket, which he kept, he'd roughed out "American Woman" and "Blue Christmas." He wondered if Jason would like, or even know, either song. He was well into the stupid arena-pleaser, "La Macarena " (he hoped Jason didn't like this one), when up came the lights of the small city he had decided would be home again.
Fredericton, there it was. He could admit he was nervous. The good butterflies. Only amateurs aren't nervous.
When to call Jason, when to announce himself? And would he call Leah at all?
But here he was, Bonaduce back in town, after twenty years. Middle of the night, guitar on the roof, skates in the back, maybe two months' grace in the wallet. In the head, a doctor's news jockeyed for space with his plan.
At passing speed, squinting into the next few months, he hit the city limits, playing on his howling bungee an improvised, humble, speculative tune.
He woke. It was a Monday morning. He knew where he was, even the motel's name.
He did his stretches in front of the window, hanging on to the air conditioner. Okay. So what was all this worry about school? He'd done it before and always got himself over the hump. Ten, fifteen years had passed, so what. He had the way with words. Half Irish, half Italian -- if that didn't make a poet, what did? If it took a while to get the pen looping and the tongue flapping, he could fall back on profs' mercy. Sir, I haven't thought seriously about literature or any of this in, let's see. Haven't really read a serious book in, let me think now.
Sir, it'll take a while to get the brain in game shape.
Start on push-ups today. He dropped to the brown shag, deciding to begin with two reps of thirty, add five more each day. Good it was a Monday. Monday was when you began something. And fall. A fall Monday was when you started school, or training camp, where -- one of his favourite things -- you put on the new uniform and looked down your chest at the unfamiliar colours of your new second skin. You read the upside-down emblem, which in the old days was embossed with heavy luminous thread: Express, Americans, Indians.
The secretary looked decent. Thirty, lanky, henna in the hair, baggy sweater, string of clunky wooden beads. She threw him a little smile while she dealt with two younger types ahead of him. He smiled back, meeting her eye over these kids keeping two adults from doing business. If he was a "mature" student, then by extension these two in front would be immature. Maybe she'd laugh at that.
Profs buzzed through, heads down in sheets of fresh xerox, rolling their eyes at some nuisance or other.