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Paul Rasmussen is a young ethnographer and academic recovering from prostate cancer. Broken, he retreats to the remote forests and towns of the Immitoin Valley. As an outsider, he discovers how difficult it is to know a place, let alone become a part of it. Then a drowned man and a series of encounters with the locals force him to confront the valley?s troubled past and his own uncertain future. As Paul turns his attention to the families displaced forty years earlier by the flooding of the valley to create a ...
Paul Rasmussen is a young ethnographer and academic recovering from prostate cancer. Broken, he retreats to the remote forests and towns of the Immitoin Valley. As an outsider, he discovers how difficult it is to know a place, let alone become a part of it. Then a drowned man and a series of encounters with the locals force him to confront the valley’s troubled past and his own uncertain future. As Paul turns his attention to the families displaced forty years earlier by the flooding of the valley to create a hydroelectric dam, his desire to reinvent himself runs up against the bitter emotions and mysterious connections that linger in the community in the aftermath of the flood.
An original debut novel that is meditative and erotic, raw and exuberant in tone, Aaron Shepard’s When is a Man offers a fresh perspective on landscape and masculinity.
When Is A Man: Chapter One
Paul slammed on the brakes. Duffle bags, books and spare boots leaped from the back seat, struck doors and windows, then settled in a heap. Ahead of him, the brake lights of Tanner’s trailer flashed, the wheels kicking up dust. The scene in front of him had appeared out of nowhere, from around a blind corner.
Emergency vehicles crowded each shoulder of the logging road, hazard lights blinking. Cops, ambulance attendants and Search and Rescue volunteers hefted tools, cases and cameras, striding from task to task with tight-lipped purpose. On the far side of the gauntlet, a stocky RCMP constable waved through three logging trucks headed in the opposite direction with their loads of timber. They inched past, the drivers flashing flinty scowls at the cop. Long after they were gone, their terse, irritated chatter crackled through Paul’s CB radio.
He’d just been imagining the river bank as a good place to sleep, sunny and warm in the August heat, open to the sky and free of the oppressively dark forest on the other side of the road. He’d been following Tanner’s truck and its swaying trailer for more than an hour. They’d left the town of Shellycoat in the early morning, driven north past the McCulloch Dam and along Immitoin River until they’d reached the upper end of the vast reservoir. There, a rusted white sign peppered with bullet holes named the collection of ruined buildings and abandoned yards Bishop, Unincorporated. They sped past the boarded-up remains of a community hall and an old general store, the occasional log house or plywood-sheltered mobile home tucked between copses of second-growth pine and power line rights-of-ways. Along the lakeside, incongruous modern summer cottages—cubes of aluminum siding, trapezoidal windows—perched above the rocky shoreline, elevated by wood stilts or concrete pillars. As the road led them to the Immitoin River, the cottages became less frequent and more rustic. From there—if not for the confusion of men and vehicles that suddenly blocked their way—it would have been less than an hour to the Basket Creek recreation site where he would spend the next forty days alone.
He felt a nagging, physical urgency, the kind that scattered most clear thoughts and deadened curiosity. But even beyond the press of his bladder, the slight dampness in his incontinence pad, and the ache above the pubic bone where the dirt road pounded the scars of his surgery, he was desperate to keep going. Hell-bent on the solitude Tanner had promised him, and deeply uneasy, as though this scene, whatever was happening here, had the power to derail him, throw everything off.
Yesterday he’d left Vancouver, where he’d lived all his life and where, for the last several months, he’d been a medical rarity in the offices of the Prostate Centre. At the first visit, the receptionists had assumed he was there to drop off his father. After that, he sensed a change in the looks the two young women gave him, the spiralling away of possible attractions, connections. He was only thirty-three.
The constable signalled again and Tanner’s truck inched forward. His friend rolled down his window and Paul did the same.
“Cliff!” Tanner called to the officer. “What’s it this time? Another rafting accident?”
The constable squinted at him, then walked over. He had white and grey sideburns and walrus moustache, a body threatening to become portly. “I dunno yet. It’s not pleasant.” He grimaced slightly, then gave Tanner a brief smile and patted the trailer with a meaty hand. “Time to count the fish again?”
Tanner jerked his thumb back towards Paul’s vehicle. “Not me this year. I got him. Old buddy of mine, Paul Rasmussen.”
The cop gave Paul a curt wave, which Paul returned, mentally assessing the amount of moisture in his underpants. Tanner opened his door and unfolded himself to stand on the road, lanky and bearded, every inch a fisheries biologist in his long-sleeved plaid shirt. They glanced Paul’s way, either talking about him or expecting him to join them. He rolled up his window and drummed an agitated rhythm on his thighs. His mind curled around the ache of his perineum and bladder, and he tried a few clenching Kegel exercises to distract himself.
To his left, a short driveway sloped from the road down through the trees to the river. A mossy and weather-beaten house sat along the bank, its deck perched above a broad eddy. Beyond the gently stirring pool, the main current bucked and swirled past boulders and gravel bars, the water glinting in the sun. Along the shore, two RCMP were stringing yellow tape between two poplars that flanked the eddy, while others stood transfixed by whatever was in the water. Just as Paul considered slipping out through the passenger door and seeking the privacy of the woods, two attendants removed a gurney from the ambulance. Things would turn ugly soon. Paul turned up the CB radio and found a station that played nothing but static, and cranked the volume to keep the world out. There wasn’t much else in his vehicle to distract him, no music, his laptop emptied of all his old research files. Most of his things were buried in storage. This was part of the plan, to strip himself down to the essentials, see what these might be.
He remembered his last really good August, two years ago, when he’d lived at his parents’ summer cabin on Salt Spring Island. He’d cobbled together lesson plans for an introductory undergrad course in archaeology, which wasn’t his specialty—just another hoop to jump through until his doctorate. He’d stretched on the dock on St. Mary Lake with a beer in one hand and Archaeological Theory in the other, and, while his parents lazily bickered nearby, re-learned all he’d forgotten from his own first year at university. Sometimes he would plunge off the dock and down, until he found a mind-numbing shock of cold beneath the pondy surface. He would rise, towel himself dry, and continue his list of course objectives and prescribed learning outcomes, or concoct PowerPoint presentations, slideshows of elated field researchers gathered on riverbanks to excavate an Adena burial mound or a Salish midden. Meanwhile he was quite content to let his dissertation, his ethnographic study, sit cooling on the backburner. The project seemed both ambitious and foolproof, as most ideas do at their inception. He’d always been good at beginnings, if nothing else. Most of his happiest moments were beginnings.
Meanwhile, on the banks of the Immitoin, the wall of police, SAR volunteers and ambulance attendants stirred. Some of the men turned from the water and wandered a few paces up the driveway or leaned against the woodshed adjacent to the houses, their faces pale, slack and grim. He couldn’t hear anything over the wall of radio static, but the bleakness of their expressions, so at odds with the sunshine, infected Paul with a type of hysteria, and he thought he might suddenly grin or even giggle.
On the deck, an old man had appeared, bare-chested beneath an unbuttoned flannel work shirt, pacing like a trapped animal, gesturing erratically. A young, smooth-shaven policeman followed him around with a notebook in hand. Down in the water, hip-deep, two SAR volunteers in neoprene wetsuits, dragged something between them. The clutch of officers parted, and now Paul could see the grey, bloated flesh. The body belonged to someone much shorter than Paul. A child or adolescent—no, the shoulders were too broad, the torso and belly massive. The corpse’s clothing, a green T-shirt, khaki pants and blue briefs, had been swept aside to reveal the battered, discoloured figure of an obese man. Beneath a shock of coarse white hair rusted with what might have been clay or blood, the face was pallid and bulging, amphibious. Half-man, half-salamander—a missing link.
A spasm of nausea clutched Paul’s throat just as a sudden warmth and dampness hit his pad, and he unbuckled his seatbelt and threw open the door. Tanner and the cop turned towards him, eyebrows raised, and he managed a bizarre, cheerful wave before he bolted into the trees.
Yesterday, Paul had begun his drive from the coast, heading eastwards from the Fraser Valley onto the Hope-Princeton highway and then beyond. He navigated the switchbacks and winding passes slowly and cautiously. The approach was queasily intimate, uterine. The landscape held the vehicle close to itself, and Paul was drawn forwards and upwards by the loops and convulsions of the rivers and mountains.
He shouldn’t have been driving. “It’s a little early in your convalescence for such a road trip,” his doctor had said. “Sitting for too long, getting jarred around.” Nearly every gas station became a pit stop. Once he pulled over along the beetle-ravaged clear cuts above Princeton, where the hillsides were stripped bare, and tossed a damp incontinence pad into a slash pile. At the edge of a vineyard outside Keremeos, he leaned against a fence and massaged his perineum while he dribbled urine into the sagebrush and wiped frustrated tears from his cheeks. Each stop was a battle between churning, sobbing brain and spastic detrusor muscle that clenched in search of the prostate gland. The body alien to its damaged self, the mind shamed by passing traffic, quick stares.
He’d been released from the hospital in late June, and had emailed the department of anthropology and his supervisor, Dr. Elias Tamba. He told them what they needed to know, or in Dr. Tamba’s case what he already knew: the only thing in worse shape than Paul’s health was his dissertation. Nor would he come back to teach in the fall. He spent some time with his parents, who had driven him to the hospital and then stayed for his first difficult night of intravenous drips, drain tubes and morphine. His mother, who’d worked as a receptionist in a doctor’s office for many years, arranged his apartment to make it more comfortable for him, and bought what she felt would be the best foods. She was much calmer about the whole thing than the two men. His father, a civil engineer, was close to retirement and well past the age at which the prostate ceases to be an abstract idea—Paul knew he’d been tested several times. He acted puzzled and guilty, as though he believed that through some strange karma or bad thought he’d passed on his own inevitable fate to his son.
Paul’s ex-girlfriend, Christine, showed up to play nursemaid, and this had been hard. She provided sympathy, a voice, but said nothing about her own life, how her research was going, if she’d fallen in love again. They’d barely spoken in months. He suspected she might be secretly dating Dr. Tamba. She’d cut her hair and her body looked fit and toned, as though she were no longer losing sleep over her thesis or career and had started rock climbing again, her skin radiant with success or sex. All this hinted at the happiness she hid from him as he lay on the couch with his catheter and collection bag.
He’d phoned Tanner two weeks after coming home from the hospital. They’d been friends since an undergrad biology class several years earlier, but had only spoken a few times since Tanner had taken work as a fisheries biologist. Paul had been caught up in research and teaching, while Tanner started a new life in the Immitoin Valley. The last time they’d talked had been after Paul’s trip to Sweden, the year before his surgery. Tanner had moved in with Beth, a girl from Kitsilano he’d met when he and Paul were roommates. They’d bought a house on two acres outside Shellycoat. He had steady work, long-term contracts with Monashee Power, a hydroelectric company, and the local Streamkeepers Association. But—the weirdest change of all—Tanner had just become the chairman of Shellycoat’s new film festival. Had Paul heard of it?
“Of course not,” Paul had said, sighing into the phone.
“Set to run in November. I’m slammed.” Dozens of films to screen before the final selections, volunteers to organize. “And meanwhile, this contract buries me in the boonies for two straight months, starting in August. August! Like, fuck me, you know? What’s up with you?”
Paul offered up some vague details about the cancer, and his decision to abandon both his PHD and his teaching. He and Tanner were college buddies in the truest sense, only comfortable talking about sexual conquests or personal disasters that were sort of funny in retrospect—like Sweden, or Naomi, or even Christine. Anything else was off-limits.
“So you won’t be well enough to teach by September?” Tanner asked.
“I could, technically, I guess. Sure. It’s just?.?.?.”
Tanner didn’t probe too deep. He phoned Paul back a couple of hours later to offer him a job. “It’s the perfect gig,” he said. “You need some down time, I can tell. Time to reflect.” Paul almost snorted: reflect. That didn’t sound like his old friend. It sounded like Beth, who had always struck him as the flaky type. Still, Tanner wasn’t entirely wrong.
The work was easy, Tanner told him. Live beside Basket Creek where it meets the Immitoin River and count the bull trout trapped in a set of weirs each night. Measure, weigh and tag ’em, let ’em go, write it in a notebook. Done.
Eight hours after leaving the coast, Paul reached a junction where the main highway continued east, towards Christina Lake and over the Paulson Summit to the West Kootenays, while the smaller highway cut north, following the Immitoin to Shellycoat. The sun was low on the horizon, filtered through the smoke of distant forest fires, and the light flickered orange and pink across the turbulent, shifting waters. He arrived in Shellycoat at sunset, greeted first by the towering stacks of a pulp mill that seemed too quiet and empty, even for this time of day. Only a handful of trucks sat in the parking lot, and lumber lay stacked and forgotten in the far corner of the yard. He passed a row of service stations, an industrial yard full of yellow highway maintenance trucks, an A&W, and then arrived in what he took for downtown—a handful of streets and avenues, the main street lined with mom-and-pop stores, a saloon-styled bookstore, a Mexican-themed coffee shop. Tanner had found him a room at a hotel instead of offering a spare bed or couch at his place, though Paul would have said no anyway. After that drive, the last things he wanted were questions, curious stares and sympathy. He was haggard and wasted, especially between the legs, and was ready for an Epsom salt bath and some television.
He used to enjoy road trips, rolling exhausted into places he’d never been. Sparked by the unfamiliar, his mind would organize people and things into broad categories, even consider possible ethnographic studies, like the working lives and relationships of the female flaggers who controlled traffic at highway construction sites. Once, he would have been fascinated by the grab-bag of characters who wove their way between the hand-painted signboards that cluttered Shellycoat’s sidewalks: forestry workers covered in a film of sawdust and chainsaw oil, unabashedly filthy as they sauntered into the grocery store; the dreadlocked and sandalled, filthy in their own way; tourists dragging their children behind them and gazing through the windows of closed galleries, trinket shops and outdoor equipment stores. A dozen questions flashed through Paul’s mind, an assortment of connections and possibilities presented themselves—ethnographies of resource-based communities, tourist economies—and faded. Something inside him had been snipped out, excised.
In the brown-curtained hotel room, he flicked through television stations and finally settled on the local weather network. He left the station on and ran a bath. Immersed, he stirred the water and contemplated, as he had hundreds of times in the last few weeks, his body invaded and altered.
He still resembled himself. He’d undergone no chemotherapy or radiation, so the retreat of his black curls from his forehead was natural, maybe stress-related. The unilateral prostatectomy—the removal of his prostate, including his seminal vesicles—hadn’t shocked his body into complete weight loss. In fact, he’d packed on a few pounds from lying on his couch all summer. If not for his paleness, the atrophy of his arm and leg muscles so out of proportion with his expanding gut, someone might have mistaken him for a healthy man. Enough, though, of this timid circumnavigation—a bath always came down to his groin and incision site. All summer he’d carried out the doctor’s measures of hygiene, done his Kegel exercises to help with bladder control, cleaned his scars and limp genitals as he might an infected toe.
The echo of sloshing water reminded him that he hadn’t stayed in a hotel since Sweden more than a year ago. There was—had been—something erotic about occupying a hotel room alone. Anticipation lingered in the air, like a psychic residue left by the previous guests. No matter how drab, each room hummed—along with the bad wiring, dodgy light fixtures and haunted air ducts—with a promise that his surroundings were a type of moral tabula rasa. In Skinnskatteberg, he’d heard a woman come into his room while he showered, a cleaning lady there to drop off fresh linens and towels. Her voice (“Housekeeping? Sir?”) carried the unmistakable inflections of someone young and new to the job, a teenager or immigrant. As he stood under the torrent of water, he’d imagined her sitting on the corner of his bed, waiting?.?.?.
He heard laughter, an uncontrolled hacking cough from the streets below, men and women spilling in and out of a pub, the twin slam of truck doors. There should have been a small thrill in this, like so many times before, listening to the voices of strangers drift through the clouded glass of a bathroom window. The unknown night, the unknown town. The only real possibilities in life lay in the erotic. Something he’d said once, and it frightened him now, because he still believed it.