By Rachel Muenz
The road unrolls before him, cracked and purple-grey. The pavement is worn but good, better than that behind him, cratered and half-repaired with uneven disks of tar. On either side, trees slide past the corners of his eyes, their branches reaching for his arms. Beyond the trees, the hunched forms of hills, shadowed and filmed with pale green, rise and fall. He feels the hum of the tires in his chest, right through to his heart. It is pure joy.
Landon’s right shoulder blade is warm. The sun has risen enough to nudge the tops of the hills and nose through the gaps left by his backpack. A basket rattles on the rag-wrapped handlebars. The rubber grips disappeared many towns ago from the rub of his hands. Kayla pants beside him with her tongue flapping next to her gold cheek. Her paws are in bandages but still she runs. Unwavering loyalty.
Street signs and the blue smudge of horizon drift head-on towards him: A black deer leaping across a yellow diamond, the number 50 with an arrow above it. There is a slow march of hydro poles and tall weeds too. His face breaks through the cool air. He smells damp soil and grass.
The wind’s whistle turns to a howl as he drops down a hill, then zips up another. A sweet struggle with gravity, his pedalling gets slower and slower. One final rip of his muscles and he is at the top, back on level road. He knows this place. Of all the towns he’s ever been, it is the only one he’s ever returned to.
The good old man lives on the main street by himself. He still has three of his teeth and shuffles to the old bridge every day to look at the ruins of the mill: blackened timbers, a rusted cylinder and a wheel on its side. Some young bastards burned the building down a few years ago but the remains bring back the feel of wheat sliding through his hands. The roar of white water beneath the bridge deafens him and everything becomes just a feeling, a vibration in his bones, the cool railings in his twisted fingers. The shush of the ground wheat pouring into sacks, an echo of the same sound the wind makes rippling golden fields. That is what he remembers.
For the rest of the day he fits himself into his covered porch between boxes and bookshelves and rocking chairs. He sits and thinks of his brother whose name is carved on a stone column a few trees away, squared off by a rusted chain. Jack Shane Wells. The glorious dead. Ten young men from their town went over to the war and none came back. All his mother got was a metal cross in a box. She never wanted it and gave it to him. He never wanted it and waited for someone to give it to and then Landon came. He always liked bicycles. They were good clean machines.
People come and go so much in the town. Landon has opened the door of a familiar house to find a strange man or woman or even a child staring at him. A place where just last spring he got a cold drink and a couple bucks is now full of a frowning face that turns him away. Or sometimes people who used to be friendly and needed help now don’t need anything. That hurts him. But the old man is one of the few who never change, who always stay and always will. Still, Landon is afraid he may be dead. He pedals hard.
The house appears between two maples on his left. The trees rest their limbs on the roof, pushing it in slightly. Moss grows on the shingles beneath their spread twigs. There is plastic on the windows of the closed-in porch and a huge tire in the middle of the lawn. He is calm because it is the same as last year. This is where the man he calls grandfather lives.
His shoes dig into the gravel of the driveway and he skids to a stop. He carries the bike to a tree and rests it there, dumping his pack next to it. Kayla follows him at a walk, her breath huffs against his muddy jeans. She lies in the grass near the bicycle, hacking. Landon rubs her back, then climbs the cinder block that serves as a step and knocks at the screen door. No answer. He knocks again until it rattles.
“I said come in.” The voice is loud but there’s a hoarseness that wasn’t there last spring. “Are you deaf?”
Landon pushes open the door and steps inside.
At first there is only a dark jumble and a few stains of light. Then the shapes sharpen into chairs and shelves. On the left side of the porch, Jasper pulls himself out of a velvet armchair. His eyes are scrunched up. He moves his glasses and wipes his eyes with his knuckles, then hauls his feet towards Landon.
“Still stinking, eh?” Landon has forgotten how bad he must smell. He hasn’t washed since a gas station sink just outside the nearest city.
“Still living, eh?” Landon replies.
The old man laughs, but it turns into a choke and he rubs his ribs. He winces at Landon and takes his hand. Their calluses rub. Jasper looks him up and down, shaking his head.
“Filthy as always,” Jasper wheezes, dropping Landon’s hand and inspecting his own. There is now a smudge of dirt on his palm. He brushes his hands together and shuffles into the house, returning with two glasses of water shuddering inside them. Landon sips the water, feeling the cold go all the way down his throat. His eyes move around the old photographs on the shelves. One with a little boy holding a baby makes him uncomfortable.
Jasper says he now has three different puffers to go with his teeth. His asthma is worse than ever. He pets the arm of his chair and asks about the dog, Kayla, and if she is still alive. Landon nods. He thinks there is far too much dust.
“Maybe both of us will keep hanging on,” Jasper says. His eyes go blank. He doesn’t seem to want to talk even though he must have been alone for a long while.
Jasper breaks the silence with another coughing fit just as Landon opens his mouth. The older man grabs his puffer and jams it between his lips. There is a hiss from the canister of medicine and a sigh from Jasper.
“That’s what I get for working in dirty air my whole life.”
The house groans and something hums inside. Landon taps his shoe on the floor without noticing. He has always worked outside. Maybe that means he is safe.
His grandfather lets him use his shower and washing machine. He gives him some of Jack’s old clothes to wear while Landon’s tumble around in the dryer. Landon has decided to clean the porch for him this year. Slowly everything in the space becomes more vivid, the smell of moss replaced by Murphy’s Oil soap. The old man clatters and bangs things in the kitchen. He spills a lot of water getting a bowl for Kayla. Through the window, Landon watches him ease himself into a bow and put the bowl before the dog, who gets to her feet almost as slow and starts to drink. The man puts his hand on Kayla’s head and is still. Across the road, the sun is speared on the tops of the trees and Jasper is framed with white light. Half of Kayla’s coat becomes flame. A blue pickup truck rumbles past and the old man’s hand jerks away. He moves up the driveway back into shadow, his head swinging to his left where the war memorial is. Landon’s fist slides a cloth across a side table. The wood is red.
It’s what you love that kills you. Or you kill what you love.
He finishes by noon and Jasper lets him have another shower because he can’t pay him and Landon is full of dust. The air is delicious on his open pores. Landon rinses his mouth and spits into the sink until it comes out clear, not brown. He changes back into his dry jeans and T-shirt and the jacket that Jasper calls a neon nightmare. Landon didn’t think he was smart enough to think up something like that and feels guilty for it. They eat sandwiches on the clean porch and Jasper talks more about his health and the town. Landon knows he could still use his company but he stands up.
“Well, I better get going.”
“Look after yourself.”
Jasper holds out his arms and half-steps forward but Landon turns away, batting the screen door out of his path and returning to his bike and the dog.
If Jasper was his real grandfather maybe he would live here. Maybe he would start Jack’s antique shop up again to honour his memory or be a farmer with fields of wheat. But he hasn’t stayed in one place since he was eight and even then he walked circles around his house, checking locks and making sure the stove was off while laughter erupted in the basement. And he still wouldn’t have hugged him.
Landon mounts his bike and pedals off, Kayla in his wake.
Most people shut their doors in his face but by the time he gets to the north side of town he has worked for three people. One new, two from last year. They are generous enough that he now has $70. Just two streets over is where the woman he calls mother lives.
She loves to tell stories. Her voice mimics the spirit of things. Maude feels the deepness of the earth, the wild sprawl of its forests and the songs of its people. She cannot help but share all of this in the rise and fall of her voice and the wave and chop of her hands. Her home is where the town’s children go. During the week, she watches seven children but even on the weekends they come to be read to. The back door is always unlocked and children tumble through, leaving mud and a heap of shoes in the corner and calling hello. Maude’s stories drove her own children away when they got old enough to be embarrassed by her. She sings at midnight and eats her cereal with a fork. Behind her back, her neighbours call her home a greenhouse with furniture because it is full of potted plants. They say she is a little insane.
Even in her wicker chair with a child and a book in her lap, she still feels abandoned. A month ago, her oldest son sent her a birthday card with a rude joke. The younger ones call sometimes but only give her a handful of syllables. They get mad when she asks about their lives. The phone calls often end with her heart stinging from sarcasm and the sense that she is a failure. She had once thought about moving away but then Landon came.
At first she was nervous. Fleas were jumping all over the dog and she didn’t want those two anywhere near her. But the boy’s bent shoulders and the bandages on the dog were too painful so she let him rake the lawn and gave the dog a bath. Kayla twisted and flailed in her arms and soaked the front of her shirt. Landon couldn’t stop laughing and then she couldn’t either.
There is still the memory of ice in the breeze, crystal cold. Landon glides past the red-brick school. It’s old enough to have a bell tower. Low, rectangular additions branch off the sides, clean bricks next to ones worn smooth and dull. Kids he calls brothers and sisters run along the chain-link fence, screeching and jumping and climbing. He cannot hear what they are saying. They are a mass of movement.
He rides off to his mother.
Her house is in the middle of a street with hardwoods on the front lawns and pine trees in the back. It is blue and well-cared for. She is crouched in the garden with a spade and flats full of plants beside her. He puts his hands in the earth next to hers and she jumps.
“Landon,” she cries. “How have you been?”
She holds out her dirty palms but doesn’t touch him. He doesn’t mind. The cool soil soothes his skin.
“Business is good.” They share a smile and keep digging.
“That’s good,” Maude says.
For half an hour they work in silence, getting used to each other’s presence. The slight chemical smell of fertilizer drifts up into his face. Maude’s spade bites the ground, sometimes clinking off a rock. She thinks of blades and sticks. Worms curl back and forth in the clumps of dirt. He picks one up and sets in a safe place behind a bush. Maude hands him a plant for the hole and begins a story.
She tells him how she always wanted to be a hockey star. Her whole winter used to be made of cold-bitten toes in pinching skates and an ice-battered body as she fought her four brothers for the puck. Alex, Tom, Cedric and Dan, who is now dead.
They went red and scowled every time she wanted to play with them, but she was just too good. Maude had a check that would leave them picking splinters from the boards out of their faces and she once launched the short kid who lived two doors down into the snowbank on the other side. Almost every time she got the puck it ended up between the posts. Once, an older boy had called her brothers sissies for bringing their sister along. She hooked his skates out from under him and they got into a fight that ended with two of her knuckles split and the boy’s teeth sticking to her mittens as she slid on all fours, trying to push herself back up. The bigger kid bawled from the seat of his pants a few feet away, his hands cupped under his chin, filling with blood. She hadn’t even gotten in trouble because he never told his parents what really happened. After that, everyone in the schoolyard was afraid of her. They thought she was crazy.
Maude’s voice is full and loud, dipping and diving. She shows him the silver crescents on her knuckles. Scars.
Landon is still, the plant in his hands. He has forgotten where he is. The taste of ice and wood smoke from the shack by the rink is in his mouth.
That rink was the only place Maude could play because there wasn’t a girl’s hockey team back then. When they tore it down a few years later, they ripped out her heart.
“Why did they tear it down?” He sticks the plant in the hole and scoops dirt in after it.
“They said it didn’t meet safety standards or something.” She pushes the dirt down around another plant that looks like a weed. “That’s when I started telling stories.” Half a smile lifts her face.
The sun lowers itself behind the house, sending stripes of black and gold down the sides of Maude’s lawn. It’s time to go. She washes the blood from the cracked pads of Kayla’s feet and winds clean bandages around them. Landon gets $50.
If she really was his mother he’d make the NHL. He’d be a speeding winger and thread the puck through skates and legs and she would feel like she was deking and shooting with him every time he played. She would be so proud. He would get angry with all the pressure she put on him but then come to admit that it made him a better player. They would raise his number to the rafters when he retired and she would watch from a carpet at centre ice with his wife and children.
Maude watches him disappear over a hill, the gold dog loping behind his back wheel. She is happy.
The girl he calls his true love and the one called son live at the very end of the street in a small white house circled by a noose of pavement. There is no lawn, only trees and weeds. Kayla whines.
“It’s OK. It’s not far now,” Landon whispers.
Bluebell is the first to see him as she leans on her rake, picking a curl of hair out of her eye. It’s the flash of sun off his spokes that pulls her gaze to the road, then the colours of his jacket streaming out behind him. Purple with fluorescent orange stripes. The muffled pad of the dog’s feet on the road. He appears in pieces between the trees. The black smudge that is his hair and beard, the backpack, the pattern of green triangles on his shoulder which tips as he turns into the driveway, bringing him close enough to show her the hollows in his face, his brown hands, his lean body. Kayla barks twice. That means she likes Bluebell. She only barks twice for people she likes, Landon once said.
The chain buzzes as he coasts and the brakes screech a little when he stops and puts out his feet, his shredded shoes. White leather gone yellow.
The little boy comes running because he just learned how. He runs for pure joy. The knees of his pants are green. He collides with Landon’s legs and falls back.
“Luke, be careful,” Bluebell says.
Luke holds his arms up to Landon.
“Land,” he shouts.
“Hey Landon,” she picks up the boy just as he means to. His arms fall to his sides.
Kayla bumps Bluebell’s shins. She rubs the dog’s greasy head, thumbs the pointed ears. Luke writhes in her other arm and she shakes him back into place. He keeps twisting. She sighs.
“Fine,” she puts him down and he runs back between the trees, his black hair flapping. She stares at a row of crows crossing a patch of sky, then the ground. Landon takes a step closer. Bluebell turns away from him and picks up the rake. There is a twisting in her chest and stomach. The last time he was here he asked to stay. She likes not being with him so much and she knows it’s the same for him. He can never stop moving. Her mind turns him into something perfect when he is away. Whenever he is here, she’s disappointed.
He has no money and his ribs show. Yet she cannot keep from smiling when he is here. He rides through the curves of her brain the whole rest of the year. Bluebell’s hands tighten. She drags the rake across the dirt, drawing rows of dark lines, soil-scented wounds.
The leaves rustle. She feels his breath on her hair and smells sweat. Bluebell finds herself looking into his eyes: Blue with gold flecks. Landon is holding something made of paper. Muscles jump in his face. He cannot keep it blank.
He gives her all the money. She gives him her hand.
If she really was his true love and the boy really was his son, he’d be so scared he’d have to ride from town to town on his bicycle and work wherever he stopped. He’d come back when the grass was pale and the black flies biting but never say a word about his love. The town would treat him like a king and he would feel both comfortable and disturbed. Luke would fly to him with enough force to bruise his knees and she would turn her back to him. And somehow he would feel alive.