LPTrendsAuthors: Susan Brainbridge. An excerpt of fiction, from her novel Hoarfrost and Cherry Blossoms, a story of a young man, Brian, his eclectic group of friends, and their journey through the tenuous relationships people have with both life and death.
Susan is a regular contributor to LP Magazine and her story about Zanzibar from her trip last year to the Eastern Hemisphere is also in this week’s issue. Her blog often covers fascinating articles on topics ranging from transformational leadership to finding balance in this life, and most recently she has been in Nepal working on her dissertation to earn a PhD helping develop new educational initiatives. Susan has lived in the Yukon, Japan, Korea, and the Middle East.
Johnny Michael’s Wake
The lounge chair was opened and Johnny Michael was placed on it. It was rather haunting to see him there, legs outstretched and crossed at the ankles, arms folded at the chest. Everyone grabbed a chair and settled down around the guest of honour.
“You’d swear to God he was just taking a nap!” observed Mary.
“Maybe that’s all death is…just an extended nap,” Brian closed his eyes and began to snore.
There was a long silence again as everyone had a drink and studied the guest of honour sitting with them. Someone commented on how peaceful he looked and another agreed that since we all have to die, this was a good way to go. Apparently freezing to death is ranked high as one of the more pleasant ways to die. At sub-zero temperatures, the stages of hypothermia move quickly so he would have enjoyed simply falling into a stupor early on in the process. And that is certainly what it looked like now…Johnny was just relaxing on the lounger and catching a few winks while his friends enjoyed themselves.
“There’s got to be more to it than that,” muttered Eddie, “I mean, nothing else in the universe just starts and then ends, why should we be any different?”
“Why do we even give a damn? Why can’t people just enjoy life and take whatever comes, without so much worry about it?” Brian looked sardonically at the guest of honour.
“For the same reason that we’re all up here in this God forsaken country, we’re curious. Otherwise people would never accomplish anything. We’d all be napping constantly, like Johnny over there!” said Bob.
“I don’t know what happens when we kick the bucket, but I know what doesn’t happen.”
“And what’s that Eddie?” asked Bob.
“We sure as hell don’t end up in some green valley, sitting in white robes with angels playin’ harps all around us. Sorry Father!”
“Doesn’t bother me Eddie. I know where most of you are going to end up!” smiled Father O’Reilly.
“Now that’s a fact!” laughed Bob. “Why do you think Father is always hangin’ around with us? It can’t be the stimulating conversation! He’s trying to save a few souls!”
“Well he sure has his work cut out for him, eh? Brian glanced fondly at the priest.
“Shouldn’t we be worried about Johnny’s soul at the moment? He’s the one on the journey as we speak.” philosophized Mary.
“Ahhhh, back to the ‘journey’ again,” murmured Bob. “You know…most people are fools. I mean think about it…all this fascination with the afterlife. I think we look too hard. All the answers to any of the really big questions we’ve asked over the years were right here on earth. You know what I think happens when you die?” Everyone leaned forward and listened intently. “I think the first thing that you do is kick yourself in the ass and say…’Why didn’t I see it? It’s so obvious! The answer was staring me in the face all along!”
“That’s damn profound!” blasted Eddie.
“It’s fuckin’ brilliant that is!” added Brian.
A heavy silence fell over the group as each person stared out at the parking lot intently, each trying to see the ‘obvious’ that was supposedly staring them in the face. After a couple of minutes most had lost interest in the ‘obvious’ thought and were back to chatting about Johnny, only Father O’Reilly continued to stare off into the distance, but he was now asking himself a different question. What the hell was he doing, sitting here, on a sub-arctic hotel porch, drinking with a dead man? This had not been one of the duties that he had envisioned coming out of the seminary. He came from a long Irish tradition of wakes, but there was something more than a little demented with this version. He knew that the powers to be in the bishop’s office would not be impressed. Yet in another twist of nature, he knew that he understood these people and their take on life; furthermore he liked it!
The rawness was addictive. Yes Johnny Michael was dead. Well…we die. That was the northern perspective. What was that old adage people always say with acceptance? Oh yes, ‘there are three inevitable things in this world, life, death and taxes’. These days it seemed that many people in the south spent all their energy in an attempt to deny death. Last time he was south of sixty or ‘out’ as it was referred to in the Arctic, he had met two old parishioners in Vancouver and at one point in the conversation, one of them said, “Father, did you know that Colin Park’s grandmother died?”
“How old was she?” asked Father O’Reilly.
“Eighty-nine,” was the answer.
The two friends continued with their own chat. “What did she die of?”
“Well she smoked all her life, foolish woman.”
“We have to face the consequences of our own choices!”
“What can we expect, eh Father? We can’t expect mercy, if we don’t take care of our bodies.”
Father O’Reilly always wanted to scream when he heard these kinds of conversations. What can we expect? She was eighty-nine years old for God’s sake. At this point, what does it matter if she smoked, drank or ate a Mars Bar every hour? Eighty-nine years is a pretty good run!
The paradox of it all was that these guys on the porch lived life to the fullest. Not a day passed without friendship, laughter, good food and drink; all packaged in a very base acceptance of the fragility of life and an appreciation of each day that they survived. They enjoyed life and accepted death when it arrived. While ‘outside’ more and more people were jogging, eating bean sprouts, and following daily schedules to punish themselves and take as much joy out of living as possible, so they could live longer! What the hell was that all about?
He remembered Bob telling one of his stories a while back and had heard him saying, “Life, death and taxes, that sums it up. The difference with people up here is that we worry about what we can control. I haven’t paid taxes for twenty years! Hopefully old man death will catch up with me before Revenue Canada does!”
The dilemma that Father O’Reilly always faced with these Everet parishioners, was this: although they were all uniquely spiritual and believed in an afterlife, his ancient church description of eternal bliss did not entice them much. Eddy had once asked him to describe Hell, because he had been thinking that perhaps it might be a more enjoyable place to park himself for eternity.
He felt accepted here. People did not just see him as the voice of baptisms and funerals or the purveyor of the sacraments. They expected him to be involved in all their special ceremonies and it seemed perfectly normal to everyone to be having a last drink with a dead man, in a tavern parking lot and chatting with Father O’Reilly about the situation.
The hotel parking lot was packed when Constable Jackson Pedley drove in and hopped out of his police pickup. The fog created by all the exhaust fumes was clouding his vision and he could see that there was some activity on the front porch, but he could not make out any details. It was too damn cold for so many people to be outside, something must be up. He made his way through the maze of trucks, trying to get a clearer image of the scene.
What the hell were those jerks doin’ now? Look at Johnny Michael on that summer lounge chair. Too goddamn funny! Must be his birthday or somethin’.
He remembered his own birthday last winter, when everyone decided since he couldn’t get off to Hawaii for a break that they would bring Hawaii to him. They had totally cleared out his trailer and put in lounge chairs, a plastic kids pool, paper palm trees and sunlamps. Everyone had dressed in bathing suits, tennis outfits and one guy even came in scuba diving gear. It had been great, except for the damn sunburn! He’d had red, pealing, itchy skin for weeks after that, but it had been worth the discomfort. What a blast!
Before he reached the group, he had been spotted by Brian who was hollering at him to come over and join them. “Jackson my man! Get on over here.”
“Why wasn’t I invited to this little get together?”
“Well it was kind of a spontaneous thing,” said Bob, “We’re calling it ‘The Last Trupper’”. He was already working on one-liners for tales to come.
“Johnny looks kind of bored with it all,” observed Jackson.
“Well the company is a bit too full of life for his liking,” continued Bob.
Everyone chuckled except Jackson who had now stepped up on the porch and was taking a good look at the guest of honour. Bob, with a twinkle in his eyes, was watching Jackson intently. This would surely be one of the funnier moments in the saga, the cop realizing that everyone was gathered around a corpse. Most of the others were too drunk and having too much fun to comprehend that this might be a problem for a law enforcement officer. Bob suspected that there were alternative ways to deal with a dead man, and this particular method would not be in Constable Pedley’s official training manual from Ottawa. Yet Bob could not help thinking that this was probably the best damn way to deal with a death. Sit it right down in front of you, pay tribute and deal with it. No morbid hymns, no satin, no flowers, and most of all no undertaker arranging details, just honest lamenting done by sincere friends. Although Bob was not expecting Jackson to see it quite that way, he also was not expecting what was to follow.
Constable Jackson Pedley had walked over to the lounge chair. He had knelt down on one knee, had removed his right hand from his extremely warm and comfortable RCMP issue mitten and had placed it below Johnny’s left jawbone to take his pulse. Now anyone who has grown up in a winter climate, learns at a very early age not to place warm, moist flesh on anything that is frozen. Most kids find themselves at some point in their early years with a tongue or a hand stuck fast to a Popsicle, icicle or metal fence post. It is not a nice experience.
Throughout any given winter, fire trucks can be seen pulling up to school yards in order to carefully and slowly remove extremities from frozen items. It has all got to do with the conduction of heat. Certain things conduct heat very well such as metal and water, so when a nice wet tongue, lip or hand touches an extremely cold piece of metal or ice, the cold item immediately takes the heat from the damp, warm body part and the moisture freezes in an instant, leaving the two bonded rock solid. It does not happen with rubber or wood, because they have a lower heat conduction level than people, who are more than seventy-five percent water.
So after God knows how long, sitting frozen at that tree, Johnny was virtually a very cold icicle. Like any other well-rounded adult, Jackson knew this law of nature, the problem was he did not know that Johnny Michael was frozen solid. It was not until he began to rise from one knee that the harsh reality set in. His right hand was stuck like glue to Johnny’s neck.
“Jesus Christ he’s frozen solid! How long have you guys been sitting here?” screamed Jackson.
Brian leaned back on his chair and clasped his hands behind his head, “I know some of our parties can go on forever Pedley, but we’ve only been at this one for a couple of hours.”
Everybody broke out in laughter and Eddie added, “He arrived that way.”
“We’re having a sort of farewell party for him,” Brian said. “We’re calling it ‘The Last Trupper’.”
Some one-liners have eternal life and this one got another round of hoots from the guests.
“No more details! Just get my hand off his goddamn neck!”
“Jesus, the last time my tongue was stuck to a metal post I was three years old. I don’t remember what my mother did,” Brian was leaning forward to study the situation.
“When it happened to me the fire department came and they had some special liquid, but I was four years old, I don’t know what it was,” shivers ran down Mary’s spine as she recalled the pain.
“Maybe hot water would work,” Father O’Reilly suggested.
Bob shook his head, “No good. It has to be boiling to work before it freezes and we’d scald Jackson’s hand for sure.”
While all the suggestions were being bandied about, Eddie had stood up and walked over the Johnny’s neck. Just as Bob was pointing out the dangers of boiling water, Eddie unzipped his fly and urinated on Constable Jackson Pedley’s hand. It worked like a charm and the hand was immediately freed of the corpse. Jackson was up in a flash, and jumping around holding his hand as far from his body as possible and screaming, “Jesus Christ, you just pissed on me! You pissed on my goddamn hand!” He was off the porch and into the hotel washroom before anybody else could say a word.
They could not have spoken anyway, shock and amusement held everyone is a form of suspended animation; no one could speak. Then one of those fantastic group laughs that bring tears to the eyes, redden ear lobes and cause some to double over trying to catch their breath took hold. Only Eddie was able to lean against the hotel wall and casually take a sip from his beer.
“It’s obvious none of you work in a gas station! Sometimes when you’re fixing an engine, you need bare hands. This happens all the time over there,” Eddie told them.
“That’s why you and your guys always stink!” stammered Brian, holding his nose and backing away from Eddie.
“Very funny!” Eddie feigned a few punches at his buddy.
“Well I guess we’re in big shit now.” Brian began to pace the porch. “We didn’t call the police and when he did arrive someone pissed on him! Jesus Christ Eddie, I can’t believe you did that!”
“Now we’re not only sitting with a dead friend, but he has yellow icicles hanging from his hood!” Mary backed her chair away from the guest of honour.
Everyone was roaring again when Jackson came back on to the porch.
“All right you idiots, the party’s over!”
There were moans and groans from everyone, but most were actually ready to go to bed. Jackson made everyone leave in three-minute intervals. His logic being, that since the roads were empty, if they were far enough apart, there would be no accidents unless they simply drove into the snow bank. So it took about half an hour for the last of the guests to depart. Then he hopped in his truck and drove around town to ensure that everyone was home and safe inside their abodes.
He had purposely kept Brian, Mary and Eddie back since he would need some help with the body. Of course Bob was also there to offer his services. When he returned to the hotel, Johnny was lounging on the porch alone, while the others had gone into the tavern to warm up and have a coffee.
It was about one in the morning and Jackson paused on the hotel porch to enjoy the view of the empty parking lot, with no exhaust fumes to cloud the scene. It was seriously cold tonight. After about thirty below zero, it was hard to differentiate the temperatures, cold was cold, but a good measure was the smoke coming from each chimney. Until minus thirty-five degrees Fahrenheit it billows out in a cloudy pattern going in various directions, but below that temperature it streams straight up in a narrow line and no movement can be detected. That is what the constable could see on this chilly night; perhaps a hundred thin, still, perpendicular lines rising from every building. He stood gazing at the town for a few more minutes before he turned to the problem at hand, the frozen trapper.
It used to be quite common to find a body frozen in the forest, but these days not too many people made a living off the land. It was more the norm to find someone in a vehicle on the highway, frozen at the wheel. It was common practice to carry at least twelve candles and a box of matches in the vehicle glove compartment. A candle will not keep a truck cab comfortable, but it will keep the temperature high enough to maintain life if someone is forced to wait for help to arrive.
Unfortunately, circumstances sometimes culminate with an unlucky traveller stopped on a lonely stretch of winter road without a friend awaiting the arrival or candles and matches in the glove box. It’s a grim reminder of the fragility of life and the importance of minor preparations.
Mounties spent a good portion of their time on duty driving the Alaskan Highway and looking for stopped vehicles or worse, tire tracks going off the road and down embankments. Just last summer, Jackson had been out driving and had stopped to enjoy a particularly impressive view on one of the thousands of sharp curves the highway offered. He had his binoculars out and was scanning the mountainside for wild mountain goats when he happened to look down below him and spotted what looked like a car fender. Two days later, they finally were able to hoist the car up and onto the road. It was an old Buick with Illinois licence plates from 1956. The vehicle held the skeletal remains of a man, a woman and a child.
The details of the incident were recorded with photos and endless reports, and then the human remains and paperwork was sent off to FBI headquarters in Chicago. It would probably be an open file forever. In 1956 people did not use credit cards, so it was hard to trace movement. Middle class people were not accustom to telephoning long distance and often people going north in those days did not even tell others where they were heading. Usually it was to begin a new life or run away from some difficult situation.
Eighteen years later in the summer of 1974, when Jackson Pedley found the old Buick, forensic science did not include DNA testing or any of the other advanced techniques that were to aid investigations by the turn of the century. He had tried to lift a few finger prints off the interior of the car. It was obvious that they had not all died on impact, because the moisture created by at least one of the passengers breathing inside the closed chamber had created dampness and everything had been washed clean in the last few hours after the tragic accident so many years earlier.
This particular incident had haunted Jackson for the rest of the summer and into the autumn. Usually skeletal remains were easier to deal with than flesh and blood, but in this case, the child’s remains were found huddled on the woman’s lap. That in itself was not upsetting, but being an investigator, Jackson had also noticed that the woman’s arms were not around the child.
So he had determined that the mother had probably died first, and the poor child had crawled onto his dead mother’s lap before dying. The scene of a small child sobbing on his dead mother’s knee and slowly dying would wake Jackson from a sound sleep for years. It is odd the memories that eat at the brain and the ones that are easily forgotten.
Jackson would have been about the same age as this unknown child in 1956, so while he was playing with his brothers in Winnipeg, this poor kid was sobbing on his Mommy’s knee and begging her to wake up. Pedley had seen far more gruesome and severe accidents, yet this one had stuck and would not be released until his unconscious made the decision. Jackson would have to deal with the memory of this child until his brain had processed it and come to terms with its meaning and worth to him.
A tap on the tavern window broke the silence and his thoughts. He turned to see Brian waving at him to come inside. He took another quick glance at Johnny then went into the bar to sit with the others.
“What were you doing out there for so long?” inquired Brian. “It’s too damn cold to be loitering around.”
“Just thinking about Johnny and whether he has a mother.”
“I think that I can say unequivocally that he definitely has a mother!” Brian smiled.
“You know what I mean. He wasn’t that old, what…maybe forty. There’s a good chance she’s still alive. Must be awful to lose a child,” Jackson sat down with a coffee.
“Well we’ll know soon enough won’t we? I’ll need to write up everything tomorrow and I also need to take you two back to the scene so I can complete all the paperwork. I swear this job is ninety percent paperwork!” groaned Jackson.
Mary and Brian looked at each other, both dreading the trek back in to the scene.
“That’s all fine and dandy,” added Bob as he set the coffee pot back on the hot plate, “but what about right now? What do you want to do with the body? I don’t need him greeting customers for breakfast in five hours!”
Mary turned to Bob. “That would make for a few more stories,”
“Now Mary, don’t go and take things too far and ruin it for everybody!” This was one of Brian’s favourite lines when he was with friends and joking around.
“I know, I know. I have a tendency to go to the extreme. Thank God you’re always around to hold me back.” Mary often used sarcasm when dealing with her partner.
“That’s what keeps us together Babe. You’re so unstable and I’m so sane.”
Jackson ignored the sparing of his two friends, “I’ve got to get him into a body bag, and then into the freezer at the station.”
As he spoke he suddenly realized that he had a serious problem. The RCMP freezer served as the local morgue. Bodies needed to be held somewhere official and besides that, no one could be buried in the winter months because the ground was rock hard. Even a small, coffin sized hole could not be dug until mid-spring, so bodies were kept in the makeshift morgue until then.
Pedley’s office had only one freezer, as he never accumulated more than three bodies in any given winter, and his freezer held three corpses quite nicely, one stacked upon the other. He already had one individual in the freezer and that was now creating a problem. If the freezer had been empty, then Johnny could have been placed inside sitting up, but with one body already inside, the freezer would not close unless Johnny was lying down, as a normal corpse should.
He explained this to everyone and Eddie offered a suggestion. “Something like this happened a few years back,” he said.
“So what did they do?” Jackson was hoping to find a viable solution.
“You’ve been through quite a lot tonight Jackson. Are you sure you want to know?” Bob grimaced over his coffee cup.
“No I’m not sure! But I’ve got a corpse sitting out on the porch of this hotel on a lounge chair and I’ve got to do something in the next four hours. What did you do to the other corpse?
“It only took about thirty minutes, start to finish. Wouldn’t you say Bob?”
“And it really wasn’t as bad as it sounded later.” The two men nodded in agreement.
“It was the best decision under the circumstances,” continued Eddy.
“Good Lord, if you two can’t even spit it out, it must be up there in your top ten repertoires of Everet outrageous events,” Mary walked over to the window to check on Johnny.
Bob thought for a moment and then bellowed, “By God I think it might top the list!”
“Weirdest thing I ever did!” Eddy murmured.
“The clock is tickin’ guys. Spit it out,” demanded Jackson.
“I think it’s best if we just do it. If we talk about it first you young guys will wimp out.” Bob stood up and put on his parka.
“He’s right. Let’s go. Let’s give these young punks a little ‘life’ experience, eh Bob?” Eddy was a little more emphatic than his usual self. He was obviously trying to prime himself up for a challenging deed.
“Jackson, you and Brian each grab a couple of cement blocks from the side of the hotel. Four blocks should be all we need,” instructed Bob.
Eddy and Bob were out on the porch and picking Johnny’s body up before the others could zip up their parkas and go for the cement blocks. By the time Jackson, Brian and Mary were out of the hotel, Bob and Eddy were halfway across the parking lot and placing Johnny on the ground with his feet up against the only lamp post in the area. Brian and Pedley grabbed the blocks and ran to catch up with them.
The two older men were walking toward Eddie’s gas station when the other three arrived at the spot. They were standing there, silently studying the corpse which was lying on its side, when Bob returned with a heavy rope. He took the cement blocks and placed two on each side of Johnny, so he was sitting up again and facing the post. Then he knelt down and began to tie Johnny’s ankles securely to the base of the lamp post. “There! That should do it.” said Bob, standing up again. “Ready Eddie!” He hollered.
Jackson was about to ask just what they were ready for, when a loud roar broke the silence. At three in the morning without a vehicle on the road or a person on the street, Eddie’s backhoe made a horrendous racket. It came out of the station’s warehouse slowly, but then turned and came towards the group amazingly quickly. It was not until the old, yellow machine was bouncing along over the parking lot that Brian and Mary realized that Eddie was going to use this monster to flatten Johnny. They looked to Jackson for a reaction, but the officer had already turned his back and was walking towards his police truck. Brian ran to catch up with him, while Mary stayed with Johnny.
“Where are you going Jackson? You can’t just leave!”
“Of course not! I’m getting the body bag out of my supply box.” Jackson was already up on the box of his truck, and opening the large container that ran along the back of his cab wall. He tossed the folded black bag at Brian and then locked up his supply case again.
As he jumped off the truck, he took the bag from Brian and walked back toward the others. When they were back on site, the backhoe was slowly positioning itself behind Johnny’s back.
“Ready?” Bob looked at Jackson.
Jackson nodded at Bob. Bob nodded at Eddie. Eddie nodded back to Bob. He gently lifted the arm of the backhoe, folded the shovel of the hoe up so he could use the back of the scoop and raised the arm, moving the scoop over Johnny’s head and resting the back of the scoop on Johnny’s lap. Then he slowly and gently manoeuvred the scoop towards the backhoe pushing the corpse into a lying position. One final little tap on Johnny’s chest and it was over.
As the backhoe trotted off back to the gas station, Jackson and Bob quickly placed Johnny in the black body bag and zipped it up. Jackson shouted at Brian to help him carry the body to his truck and Bob untied the rope and walked over to the station. The roar of the backhoe still filled the night air, as Brian and Jackson left in the police truck to deliver the body to the police freezer, and Bob entered the gas station.
When Eddie turned off the machine, the silence was almost deafening. Mary stood alone at the lamppost digesting what she had just witnessed. She was gazing silently across the parking lot when she tilted her head to look at the night sky. That’s when she saw it. There on top of the lamp post was the largest, most majestic snow owl she had ever seen. He was a metre high and sat silently looking down on her.
Snow owls are magnificent creatures and few people are ever privileged enough to see one. Mary had heard the odd story of a trapper or prospector seeing one, and sometimes even a parliament of them, always on a very cold winter’s night and always in an isolated location. She had never heard of a sighting in town. This silent, almost fluorescent white bird sat motionless on its perch. Its enormous round eyes were penetrating Mary, but it was not disconcerting, it was more soothing. Mary suddenly realized that she was crying. She stared at the owl as it silently spread its wings and glided away. She smiled and wiped her tears with the arm of her parka. Ecstasy, joy, pain, agony, there was nothing placid about this place she called home.