Riding along trans-Canadian highway 69, Sean had no specific place to go anymore, no one to visit. He set up goals, having not totally accepted a directionless life as yet. He picked Sudbury as a good place to stop. There was a youth hostel there. Sudbury, Ontario. Sudbury is Canada’s largest mining and metal smelting and refining center. There are 17 mines that provide about 16 per cent of the world’s nickel. The smokestacks were visible miles away. He arrived late in the afternoon the next day, and after getting directions for the hostel, headed down a steep hill. That was some hill. He coasted for miles. Then the pavement ended. Shit! I’m lost! Where the hell am I now? Fortune smiled on him, however, because there was a women picking berries by her house.
“Excuse me. I’m lost. Can you tell me the way to the youth hostel?”
“Oh sure! You just go up this hill about five miles, turn left, and you’ll see a sign for it about half a mile down the road.”
“Up the hill? O.K. Thank you ma’am.” Jeez. I’m not up for climbing that hill. He slumped down next to a tree until he could talk himself into heading up the hill.
“Are you alright?”
“Huh? What’s that?”
“I said, ‘Are you alright.’ You don’t look very good.”
“Oh, I’m O.K. I’m just real tired.”
“Would you like to come in for some iced tea?”
“How about a sandwich? You look hungry.”
“I do? Yes. Thank you. I am hungry.” He chowed down a sandwich. Then she startled him by asking: “Would you like some pie?”
“I’m making a blueberry pie. If you’d want to wait until it’s done you’re welcome to a piece.” Lord! This is wonderful! I’ve never even tasted blueberry pie, and here it is, fresh and hot!
He sat talking with this woman, drinking iced tea and telling her about the trip as far as he’d been. She wore a simple white dress over her firm tanned body. He guessed her age at about forty-five or so, and decided that she was more attractive than he would have expected someone that old to look. She bustled about the kitchen, cleaning and chatting. He had begun to wonder why Anne had invited him in. She was so friendly. His limited experience with people told him that she must want something. Could she be that lonely? No, she had told me her kids still lived with her. Is it possible that I’m attractive to her? Would we get it on? He’d had two sandwiches and a fourth of the pie, and he was washing the dishes, when she surprised him: “My husband will be home soon.”
Her husband! I’d better get out of here quick. “I’m sure he’d like to meet you,” she said, “Won’t you stay for dinner?” He wondered if all those years of dish washing at home might be paying off. Lord, I’ve done a hell of a lot of dishes – there were nine of us – by the time I’d left home. I miss my brothers and sisters. Potlucks at the Free Clinic had replaced family meals. I suppose that’s why that place had become my new home, and the staff had been so like a family to me.
Anne’s husband came home, with two teenaged boys in tow. After introductions they all sat down to dinner. Sean wasn’t real hungry, but he enjoyed the company. These people are really nice. They actually enjoy conversation at dinner, and I’m in the mood to provide some. I hadn’t eaten with too many people outside my own family before. It surprised him that he felt relaxed. There was no shouting and everyone talked. Dinners at home had been times to remain silent, “unless spoken to,” and they had to remain sitting until plates were clean. Anne’s husband Stan was a retired farmer. After dinner he took Sean out back to the sauna he’d built. Sean had cut up some wood earlier. They sat out there pouring water on the rocks and soaking up some steam. They took a breather every once in a while, and stood outside watching the stars. This is perfect, Sean was thinking.
“We have a friend from the States,” Stan said, “He useta come up here every summer. Haven’t seen ‘im for a couple years. You know, you’d be welcome to visit anytime.”
“But you don’t even know me.”
“Don’t matter, I figure we know you well enough. Anytime you get up this way, you stop by. You’re always welcome here.”
In the morning, after – of course – one hell of a breakfast, Anne and Stan’s kids put his bike in their pickup, and drove to the top of the hill. He decided to pass on the local hostel, and check out one in the next place he came to. He wasn’t really sure where to go next, and he didn’t know how much longer he should stay in Canada. He spent that night by the side of the road, and woke to find a tent next to him. There were three young women in it from Virginia. They were packing up already, ready to hit the road again, but in the direction he’d just come from. They talked about traveling. Sean talked about bicycling. He gave them directions to the hostel he’d passed up in Sudbury and they invited him to come visit them in the Appalachian mountains. They were beautiful. There was the quiet, serious, dark-haired one, the light-haired one with the directions to their place who insisted he visit, and the blonde bubbly laughing one. They were all living on a farm, growing organic vegetables. “We can all kinds of food,” they said, “and we’ve got chickens and a cow, and horses.” That sounded pretty ideal to Sean, and he promised he would visit, if he could get down there. As if anyone could keep me away from such a vision of paradise. He traveled on that day, reluctantly, since all he could think of was a farm in Virginia and three lovely young women.
He found another hostel that night and checked in. It was Sunday. He took out a book, Prairie Fire: Notes from the Weather Underground. He thumbed through it, looking at the drawings of women holding guns high in their hands, reading the quotes of famous revolutionary rebels, and day dreaming of utopias. But I’m not helping to build any perfect society anymore, I’m running away. True, I had revolutionary ideals, but I‘m not there anymore, I’m not where it’s happening. He spent the day and night at the hostel, lazily, dreamily, in perfect isolation from all that he had been. He didn’t know who he was anymore.
Here I am – on a bicycle! – riding across Canada. Am I the same boy who had to run to the sink with the hot water running – so many times – and stand under a towel, trying to suck in the delicious steam that might open my paralyzed throat and kickstart my lungs? The same eight-year-old boy lying in a hospital bed recovering from blood poisoned by a ruptured appendix? The same seven-year old pushed into the darkness of a cellar in a half-built house? That was Eddie. How could I ever forget? We were friends. Pick Up Sticks and serious checker games. Me and Eddie Knight and my brother John walking through the field to the new apartment foundations. Picking up stones and throwing them into the muddy pool of water at the bottom of new cellars not yet filled with concrete. We had to hunt for stones that got bigger and better as we competed for bigger and better splashes. Eddie found a big one. The foundations of the apartment were almost as high above the ground as we were, so he had to put the rock up first and climb up. I couldn’t resist. I grabbed the rock and dropped it in. Eddie was mad. He came towards me. “God damn you!” he screamed. I fell. Did he push me? I remembered nothing except Eddie’s parents carrying me across a field, then lying on a couch, then the urgent whining of an ambulance, then stitches in my head. I never saw Eddie again. I guess he ran for his parents. My brother had pulled me out of the water. He said I had been laying face down and he thought I was dead. I would have been, except for him. I read every rescue story I came across after that. The Boy Scouts taught me how to save drowning people, give artificial respiration, stop bleeding and make a tourniquet.
I learned more from John. He had been scared out of his six-year-old wits, but had saved my life. No medal for him, we weren’t in the scouts then. He was too young for speeches or flowery words, but I paid him back, I did. Years later, he slipped off the concrete by a sewer outlet, in a deep pool of trash-filled water, and panicked. We were teenagers then, we could both swim, but he couldn’t get his footing, couldn’t get out of that slimy hole. I found something for him to grab and I held on to a pole until I had half pulled him, and he had half crawled, out. I missed him now, on this great adventure, so mature in his family responsibilities, so far away. I’m still the boy I’d been, I’ve never grown up. I still believe in rescues and heroes, in revolutions and saving the world.
“I’m sorry. You’ll have to go now.”
“What? I thought I could stay here?”
“Well, you can stay on weekends and overnight, but on weekdays this is a day camp for boys from town. If you’d like, you can leave your bike here and take the shuttle bus back to town.”
Sean had a bowl of oatmeal that the camp provided, and took the ride to town, to downtown Sault Sainte Marie. There wasn’t much to see or do, that he could find, so he stopped at a park. He had brought his sleeping bag with him. “Always be prepared,” was his motto, and not coincidentally, also the Boy Scout motto. He looked out west across Lake Superior. It looked like an ocean, although part of Michigan was visible to the south, back in the U.S., which he had hoped to be farther away from. There were factories there, spewing out clouds of smoke. Lenny had told him about the fight between Canada and the U.S. over pollution of the U.S. side of the Great Lakes. The U.S. was unwilling to spend money cleaning up a shared resource. The Canadians had already cleaned up their side and had strong nonpartisan legislation that prevented further pollution.
“Hey. You want a beer?” distracted him from his reveries. Two men, Indians, were waving him over. They looked to be bums, but then again, so did Sean. They were pretty friendly. They talked about Canada, the Lakes, and pollution, and Sean had a beer. He figured that it would help fill his stomach until he got back to the hostel for a free dinner later. They offered another beer, and for some reason, Sean drank it. Then they pulled out the wine, and by then Sean couldn’t think of a good reason to refuse, so he helped them finish the bottle. He was pretty loaded and they suggested coffee. They went to a cafe together. He looked down at the cup of coffee in front of him – and ran for the bathroom. He dumped the contents of his stomach, repeatedly. He couldn’t stand up. The owner came in after awhile.
“You’ll have to clean this up.”
“I can’t move.”
“If you don’t clean up, I’ll have to call the police.”
“Go ahead,” he said. He didn’t care, he couldn’t move.
“The owner says that he asked you to clean this mess up?”
“Yes, but I can’t get up.”
“Sir, if you don’t get up, I’m afraid we’ll have to arrest you.” Sean thought about that. He tried to get up again, but just couldn’t do it. He knew that he was in trouble. “Go ahead,” he said. They pulled him up and took him outside. Air! Thank God! But he couldn’t stand up without supporting himself on the dirty red bricks wavering in front of him.
“Sir, if you’ll go back in and clean up your mess, we’ll let you go.” He moved, and the world was spinning, his head was too heavy to hold up, and he tasted stomach acid. “I can’t,” was all he could say. They dragged him to their car and drove him to a jail. He was led into a single cell. It was comforting to Sean, just to lie down. He never got to sleep, however. It was cold. There were no sheets or blankets on the steel cot, and then he noticed it. Or rather, it noticed him. It was a camera. On an oval track, it slowly traveled the length of the cellblock, checking out each individual cell. He could hear it whirring along all night. He was shaking, shivering. He focused on that camera, waiting for it to reappear, waiting for it to pass. He never saw another soul. There was nothing else in the cell except a toilet. The walls were freshly painted, there was not even the usual graffiti to read. He was thirsty as hell. He was dirty, covered with bits of oatmeal puke. He felt wired, somehow. The appearance of a guard in the morning was blessed relief, but he was taking Sean to a judge.
“Can I clean up first?”
“No, I’m afraid not.”
The judge fined him twenty bucks for public drunkenness. Since all his money was with his gear back at camp, he convinced the judge to let him go to the hostel. He did. He went back to the cafe first and apologized to the owner. The owner apologized for calling the police. He didn’t have Sean’s sleeping bag. He said one of the Indians took it with him, that he didn’t know it was Sean’s. He went back to the hostel for his bike. I need that bag, he whined to himself, but he had little hope of ever seeing it again.
He bicycled back into Sault Sainte Marie, and headed for the park to see if those guys were there. Before he even got there he saw one of them.
“Oh, yeah, I remember it. Thomas has it. I can give you his address, if you want it. That Thomas is a mean one, I wouldn’t want to mess with him. I don’t think you’ll get it back.”
“I’ve got to try.”
Amazingly enough, he found Thomas’s place quickly. Thomas had a room on the second floor of a house in a quiet, pretty city neighborhood.
“Thomas?” God, he does look mean. “I was drinking yesterday with you and your buddy.” He started to lose his nerve – the look on the man’s face was anything but friendly. “He says you have my sleeping bag.”
“Yeah? What of it?”
Summoning up his courage he said, “I need it back.”
“I like it, I’m using it as a pillow.”
“It’s all I have to sleep in, I really need it back.”
Thomas laughed and slammed the door.
Nice. Sean went back to the hostel that night. In the morning he packed up one of their blankets with his gear.
I have to have something to sleep in, he reasoned.