I wish to acknowledge the ancestral, traditional and unceded Indigenous territories of the Lkwungen-speaking peoples, and in particular the Songhees, Esquimalt and WSÁNEĆ Peoples, on whose territory I live and play, and where this story was written.
Years later, broken-chested beneath the axle of a Ford Mustang, he’ll dream back to a night on the shores of Mimeer Lake when he amphetamined through till dawn and cracked some asshat’s nose with his elbow and gave his virginity to Isabel Crease, that ember-blooded girl who could sweat firewater and breathe napalm. God, how he loved her. May through August the two of them swanned among beach parties and bonfires piled high with shipping flats, buzzed on cheap vodka or the dope her friends grew with hydroponics in their conservatory. Isabel had cropped blonde hair and a horizontal scar under her eye and jeans lanced at both knees so the skin showed through. Irises dark as tea leaves, one dimple more prominent, sharp nose and sharp cheeks, sharp jaw – she is all angles, all edges. Starman, she called him, because the first time they got naked together she discovered glow-in-the-dark stars on the ceiling of his bedroom, constellations of his own design – the Hunting Knife, the Muscle Car, the Father Figure.
The Mustang ticks cool in the deepening night. Three tones of metal are fulcrummed on his sternum and wet dirt laps his elbows. Snowfall varnishes the earth: September, the mountains hung with cloud. The radiator lisps and conifers rustle and wind scatters windshield glass, that soft maraca of sound. Night of his death. He smells gasoline and switchgrass and the green forest zest of every childhood summer. Iron, dirt, rosewood, that brie-cheese flavour of catarrh.
Earlier, he fled a motel room and a naked woman who wanted more than he could give. Decades prior, his uncle died on the same night he trawled his girlfriend’s kid sister from Mimeer Lake – like, could a day be more dramatic? He put his mouth to hers and tasted salt and sweet raspberry lip balm. His uncle took a knee in the shower, clutched his chest. The sister survived, ghostly and aloof in that glacial town, Kirkwall, where for one short summer he – Starman – felt that he actually belonged.
That summer, twenty-four years ago, is now. He lies in a tent under a moon so bright it silvers the canvas like a movie screen. Isabel sleeps beside him, knees curled to her chin. Up and down the waterfront couples are ribboned together in bivouacs and mummy bags and great downy duvets that sponge moisture from the air. Waves slurp the beach, roused by speedboats and jet skis, by thin tin dinghies and pontooned zodiacs and hand-primed motors of the kind his uncle once owned, before they left Ontario for the lakeless prairies.
Inland from the beach, kids crack beers and uncork moonshine beakers ripe with ethanol. Truck doors open and close and boots grind gravel. An engine gurgles. Far away, ospreys shriek. Elsewhere, he hears intakes of breath and the chuckle of belt buckles like tumblers in a lock. A chinook grazes his tent and the walls croon their own shudder, a deep and monotonic ooooh.
Isabel murmurs, pillow talk. Her arms and legs give small jerks – fitful, liquor-soused dreams. Together, they’d polished off a two-four of Southern Cross Lager and a shot each of home-made wood-ether known to blind the weak. He loops an arm around her and pulls her close. When she breathes, he breathes. Her feet are cold as saucers. Her hair smells of charcoal and lemongrass and kerosene and the cabbagey musk of dope, and he cambers toward sleep staring at the tent’s canvas-turned-movie-screen.
His dreams take him back to that first trip down the TransCanada, he in the backseat of a Pontiac Firefly while his uncle gears down to pass a semi-trailer hauling frozen meat. The scene unfolds like a segment from some early colour film: the trucker throws out a wave in the predawn light, one early riser to another, and his uncle lead-foots the pedal and the horizon stretches farther and farther and they speed toward it and the eastern sky turns the colour of red wine, of borscht, of Clamato juice cut half and half with bad lager – a drink Starman will wish he never discovered. His dad had entrusted him to his uncle’s care. It’s better for everyone, he said, and pinched Starman’s earlobe with a wink.
He dreams more scenes whose origins and meanings he does not know but feels he should: a house on the Scottish moors and a grassy knoll lit by autumn sun; the most beautiful girl on Earth who sips espresso in a cafe in Winnipeg. He dreams ahead to the night when he will dream back to this one, and so witnesses the intimate details of his own death. Now, the Mustang presses him to the damp soil. Meltwater floods his mouth and nose and wide-eyed and kicking he strains his neck – and gasps.
In the morning he stumbles from his tent and finds Isabel nonchalant on the pebbled beach, flicking stones ass-over-tea-kettle at the lake. She’s donned a baggy lambswool sweater with sleeves that hang past her hands. Between each throw, she folds the hem over her wrist. No pants that he can see, just knees and skin and legs of pure slipknot. He tiptoes to her and rocks prod his feet. Strangers’ eyes follow: new kid, city boy, outsider. In the throes of the beach party no fewer than three guys asked how, how is it possible that he’s shacked up with Isabel Crease? Man, one said, and flattened a palm to his chest, I’ve been after that tail for years.
She skips a rock across the water. Four bounces, a solid toss. All wrist, she tells him, and turns her hand one-eighty in the air. Impressed?
He reach for that hand, but it glides away.
Your eyes are like cats’ assholes, she says. Then, so slight he barely sees it: her grin.
Morning redness lacquers the sky. Isabel squints at it. Tiny lines gather at the outskirts of her eyes and the wind messes her hair. With her sleeve she rubs her shin, up and down, up and down, and if the breeze catches her sweater and if he happens to be looking, he glimpses the top of her breasts. Last night he had her nipples in his mouth, but by light of day there are rules, gestures and conventions he doesn’t know. Her long-time sweetheart, a redhead martial artist, hanged himself in the spring.
You wanna come over for brunch? she says. We always have Sunday brunch. Beer n’ Eggs Day, Dad calls it.
He gives you beer?
If we want it, Isabel says, and shrugs.
She smiles at him with her whole body – mouth tweaked and eyes alight and the rising sun in her pupils, her long athletic body unwrapping upward, so much energy and spirit even in the depths of a cataclysmic hangover. Something about her – or the way she made him feel – will take Starman a long way: out of Kirkwall in the months to come, though he will forever wish he didn’t have to go; out of the country to the United States, because it seemed like the thing to do; off the continent eventually, in pursuit of her. Edinburgh, Madrid, Prague, Thailand.
Then, twenty-four years later: September in Yahk, BC, in a motel whose rooms are defunct RVs replete with propane stoves and tables that fold to beds and an orange tomcat, unnamed, who finds his way inside though all doors and windows be locked. There, Starman shacks up with his girlfriend, who he met at a house party for kids in their twenties. She’d stumbled from a bedroom wide-pupilled and swallowing, her lipstick tongued across her cheek in a perfect parabolic arc. Short-haired, big jade loops in her earlobes he could slip a finger through, tattoos peaking from beneath her sleeves, her crop-top, her collar, her low-rider jeans. She wiped her chin. He said, Hey, and caught her arm when she tripped. You alright?
Together they kill half a year and most of his cash on roadtrips in a Nissan Sentra. When she first sees that car, she lifts her eyebrows at it. It’s a dad ride, she declares, and elbows him in the ribs. She speaks with a British accent but has never lived east of Regina. They pitch tent down logging roads and sleep on beds of grass and chaff or a blow-up mattress he inflates with great lungfuls of air. She wants to drive across the Foothills and up and down the Rockies and along the Sunshine Coast, she wants to discover anything. At the Frank Slide, she skips between boulders. Imagine all the people under here, she says, and taps her heel on a rock big as a half-ton truck.
In Kirkwall they visit his uncle’s grave, with its little tombstone Isabel’s dad paid for. Her dad was the most decent man he ever met, there’s no arguing that. What happened? his girlfriend asks between tokes. My dad shot him, Starman says, and she regards him sideways. Then he laughs. Heart attack, he says.
You are a grab bag of misfortune, she tells him, and lays her palm on his arm.
Now she sits in the RV and necks wine from the bottle and grooms the unnamed cat under whose careful guidance she perfects the mannerisms of scorn. Labour Day weekend, the official end of summer. Twenty-four years ago Isabel dumped him even though he’d saved her sister’s life. Look, she said, and rubbed a scar on the pad of his thumb with her own similarly-scarred thumb. I like you, but I can’t take on your grief. I’m full up of grief.
In Yakh, he swipes his wallet from the table and leaves the keys.
You’re going north? his girlfriend says.
To Kirkwall. I’ll take a Greyhound, leave you the car.
Thank you, she says, and runs her knuckles under the cat’s chin. I hope you find what you’re looking for.
Any chance you know what that is?
She smiles. Look at us, he wants to say. What have we become?
He remembers the beach of Mimeer Lake, how Isabel brushed her fingers along his spine and whistled in that way of construction workers – raised eyebrows and puckered lips. Come hither, come hither.
In truth, Isabel just needed a ride.
But I figured we might as well feed you, she says.
At her house she leaves him in the garage with her dad, a wildlife photographer who hunches on a milk crate like a man without his faith. Isabel’s brother, this squat eighth grader with crew-cut hair and a head too big for his shoulders, lingers nearby. Benson, his name – he did aikido with the dead boyfriend. Old bicycles lean six deep against a deepfreeze and crates bulge with carburettors and timing belts, with old brake pads and something that looks, honest to God, like the skeleton of a cat. On the plywood walls, Isabel’s dad has traced the outline of what ought to hang there: cordless drill, hacksaw, hunting knife, claw hammer.
In the middle of the garage an ancient Mustang, the colour of rare beef, sits on cinderblocks with its hood thrown wide, its marvellous engine scrubbed clean as an altar. On the milk crate, Isabel’s dad massages his forehead and blinks the sleepy blink of hangover. I’m Ben, he say. Iggy calls you Starman?
Works for me, he says, and shakes Starman’s hand without rising.
Is this your car, Mr Crease?
Jones, he says. Crease is the wife’s name.
Is it yours, Mr Jones?
Call me Ben, he says, and hauls himself to the Mustang where he lowers a hand within inches of the V8. Once, he says, I burned out this whole engine, near Lipton, Saskatchewan, just gunning straight forever. Me and my then-girlfriend, who didn’t see it as an opportunity the way I did. So I put her behind the wheel and pushed it to town, ten miles if it was one. There’s a lesson there, but I’ll leave that to you.
The garage smells like dust and steel and forced-air heat, like the inside of a dirty oven. The car has jet-fighter seatbelts that fasten to an X at the base of the sternum, and some nights Ben sneaks out to the garage to strap himself in and grip the wheel so it gives that leathery cringe. At least, this is how Starman imagines it. And maybe he’s right. Maybe Ben grows old with that car in the garage while Starman struggles through rehabs and foreclosures and gets divorced and sets up his own little cafe in Winnipeg when things are good. Maybe on his deathbed Ben leaves the remains of the Mustang to Isabel’s second husband – an earthy west-coaster she meets across the pond during her PhD at the University of Edinburgh, who proposes on Arthur’s Seat amid a rainstorm. There’s so much downpour it nearly drowns him when he kneels to look up. She kisses his forehead. The heavens part, the sun lances through. Yes. Yes. Yes.
In the garage Isabel’s dad grips the open hood as if to close it, but doesn’t.
The son, Benson, goes inside. For a moment Isabel’s dad stares after him. Then he shuffles toward a small fridge tucked in the corner beneath an inflatable dinghy. He opens it and palms a pair of beer bottles and swipes a coonskin hat from a hook between two fishing poles. Nobody Starman has ever met could wear a coonskin hat and not as a joke, but Ben has that look like he might trek into the wilderness and live for weeks from a tin boat: plaid shirt and weekend stubble, hiking boots specked with mud and dogshit and motor oil. Once, before everything went bad, Starman and his dad and his uncle fished for steelhead in Lake St. Clair and fried them over a firepit in a cast iron pan. His dad smelled like animal fat and sweat, as though he’d barbequed all day under the baking Ontario sun. For desert they browned marshmallows and tried in vain to make smores. His dad was so worldly, like someone who’d just returned from a European tour.
Outside, a dog whimpers. Ben opens the door to admit a yellow lab that leans its muscled torso on Starman’s shins.
My daughter’s, Ben says.
No, Beth. Shiloh’s the dog’s name.
Ben heads for the backyard. Starman follows. It opens onto a vast gully – a savage place where cougars and grizzlies reign, where kids like Benson war with sticks and crude forts. The lab pads along. Ben motions to some lawn chairs and pops the bottle caps off with a trick of physics – one levered against the other. By the time Starman dies beneath the Mustang, he can open a beer bottle with his teeth, with a lighter, with a soda can, a belt buckle, a bike helmet, his wedding ring, the curb, any stone that could be skipped along a lake, a rolled up five dollar bill, a hatchet, a woman’s stiletto heel.
They sit in those chairs until the sun clears the glaciers and the sky, at last, goes blue. Isabel and her kid sister, Beth – who in a couple months Starman will find face down on the foreshore, and into whom he will breathe new life – arrive with two big earthenware bowls brimming with eggs and cheese and scallions and bacon and cumin and tomatoes and who knows what else. Isabel winks and bends down to peck him on the cheek, then she sashays inside. Her dad tongues gristle from his teeth, or pretends to. Starman waits for the fatherly talk, for all the clichés he has heard before and will hear again from brothers and cousins and best friends of lovers and flings and the woman he marries, for a time. But Ben doesn’t say anything. He taps his wrists on the armrests and pours beer down his gullet.
Ben toes a stone at the base of his chair. It falls downhill toward the gulley. Why Starman?
Some dumb nickname. Used to know my way around the night sky.
Used to? Ben says, knowing.
He finishes the beer and wonders about another. It has its uses, he says.
A bleeding heart romantic. Next I’ll catch you reciting Byron.
I watched thee on the breakers, when the rock received our prow, and all was storm and fear.
Fuck me, Ben says. I’m getting more beer.
So became the pattern: each night, Starman stayed with Isabel or her dad as late as he was welcome, then he slunk home where blue light and muffled voices spilled beneath his uncle’s bedroom door. One night Starman finds him slumped at the kitchen table, his hair greasy around his ears. His face has grown lined and ancient, like the night Starman left his dad’s care. He was between them, a boy, and his dad’s fingers dug at the skin above his collar. He had a red gash along the cuticle of his thumb. His breath smelled like pizza.
Starman has never forgotten those hands, even now, beneath the Mustang, while something knuckles his hip – tree root, bedspring, his first lover’s bony knee. Groundwater kisses his cheek. He can taste it, hearty as a beetroot. Few breaths remain. Sixty? A hundred? It is strange to anticipate that number, to anticipate the last of things. How long is a minute? How long a life? Forty-two years, by his count – but how long is that?
Above him on the highway, people call into the dark. Their headlights co-mingle so the hilltop blazes. They’ve come together to save his life, these strangers who envisioned for themselves a quiet evening: a postman en route to visit his daughter in Lethbridge; a pregnant sports surgeon who, years ago on a similar night down similar roads, found a motorcyclist splaylimbed on the hard shoulder and pushed a tube into his chest – to relieve pressure – and watched blood geyser fifteen feet into the air; a teenaged couple who pulled over to see what all the fuss was, and who between them have the group’s only working phone.
A day earlier, in Kirkwall, the Greyhound dropped him at an Esso on the outskirts and he gave the bus driver a salute. Inside the gas station he bought a bottle of water and a bag of chips and began the short hike into the town centre, along roads he once walked arm-in-arm with a girl who, he believes, loved him. Things in town had changed, but more things had stayed the same. On the horizon the glaciers were whitecapped, their peaks above the cloud screen – early September winter. The air smelled like pavement wet from freshly melted snow, more memory than asphalt, like the very ghost of summer. People he’d never met waved and touched their hats. His feet took him downhill toward Mimeer Lake, where a few families remained on the beach despite autumn’s chill. Kids paddled around on inner tubes and floating chairs while their parents watched. Some ways off two teenagers shared a bench, hands enmeshed. The water was flat as sheet metal and toothed with the reflection of glaciers. He checked his wallet out of habit. A couple hundred bucks. The plan: sleep on the beach, by that lake, because it once meant something. Then, come morning, he’d go see him.
Late in the summer Isabel takes him beyond her house down to the gully, along a path beaten through brushwood by four generations of feet. She wears a backpack and footballs a big towel under her arm. She points to makeshift driftwood forts and two-by-fours nailed among the branches of trees. Benson’s work, or the work of his friends. She doesn’t know the rules or the goal. Her ex did: sometimes he ran with those kids, twin sticks held akimbo. They called him the Gato – the Cat – but she’d never asked why. You still could, Starman tells her, and she shoots him a look that says, You’re an idiot. The trees rustle, that pine-needle hush. With her thumb Isabel flintlocks her shirt’s topmost button, and the swell of her breasts appears.
They pass a hollowed tree, big as a wardrobe, where years ago the police discovered a body. They never solved that one, Isabel says with exaggerated gravitas, perhaps to draw his attention from the nearby rope swing and its cradle like a noose. He smells the water and its fishy undertone of vegetation on the rot. A motorboat, out of sight, peels away from its dock. The foreshore rounds into view, and Isabel takes his hand.
On the beach she spreads her towel. He sits down with her, knees pressed to knees. From her pack she produces a tallboy of Southern Cross and cracks it and drinks in desperate gulps, and he watches her neck, the sway of her hair in the lake’s cool breeze, the way she cringes when she finishes – brain freeze maybe, or how carbonation grates at the elbow of the throat. The evening sky rouges her cheeks, and her teeth are mesmeric.
My dad likes you, she says, and wipes her mouth with her wrist. He calls you Poetman. How’s Poetman, he’ll say. Then he’ll laugh.
Starman touches the stud in her ear – a simple lump of jade.
He’s such an idiot, she says, and offers the beer. As he drinks Starman imagines the taste of her mouth among the suds.
We were in the grocery store, Isabel says, me and Dad, and he grabs a melon and goes, What do you say to two people who aren’t allowed to run away and get married?
He lays his palm between her legs. What?
Your dad’s jokes are the best, he says.
He votes Conservative, she says, and swipes the beer off the ground and squeezes it until it buckles with a crunch. He thinks they’ve got family values.
She seems, then, to notice the hand between her legs. He sees her blink.
Do you love me? she says.
He know her calves, her ribs like corrugated iron, every curve of her body. Better, even, than she does. She smells like pine needles and cut grass, like a hot sidewalk cooled by fresh rain that one summer in Hamilton when he played in a sprinkler with his dad. In a month or so he’ll take to the open road, more alone this time than he ever thought possible.
She reaches again into her pack. Beneath him, the rocky beach dampens the towel and his jeans. The air cools. A jet ski kicks up waves, but nothing momentous. She does not say: I love you too.
From her pack Isabel produces her dad’s hunting knife – nine inches of reinforced carbide steel, curved and serrated in turn, a strong Gore-Tex handle – and Starman can see clearly the empty outline in Ben’s garage where it once hung, and he wonders how long Isabel has had it, and how long she’d been planing whatever it is she has planned.
Okay, she says.
She parts the skin of her thumb. Blood, red as a tail light. She turns her hand over and a band of it eddies down her wrist. In a second he will lunge for the knife. He will pin her to the ground and endure whatever blows she lands. He has to. Very possibly, their lives depend on it.
Then she offers him the knife, handle first.
She holds up her thumb for him to see. Mouths: If you love me.
Pupils big as dimes. Either she trembles, or he does. He makes a half-inch incision along the pad.
She shudders – a release, a great exhale – and takes his hand. Her touch is featherlight. Her fingers lift his wrist, the sensation a tingle, like the finest sandpaper on Earth, like an itch at long last scratched. She slips his thumb into her mouth. His cock goes hard.
He does the same. He tastes her blood and he tastes iron and dirt and all the vegetation the two of them walked through to get there, he tastes water and salt and pine and beer and everything from her life and his – and when he looks at her she’s crying. Mascara runs down her cheeks in two parallel lines. He feels her her tongue and her lips and the warm dew of her inner cheek. Arm’s length, the two of them, a full circle. She closes her eyes. He does, too. Right then, right there on that beach in July, they’re everything to each other.
His life will become a quest to repeat this connection with another human. Even now, on that beach, he senses it, just as he senses that it’s a quest he can’t help but fail. Oh, the places he’ll go: a party barge in Edinburgh hosted by this maniac Glaswegian girl who makes him smoke hash though an apple and who promises that Isabel will appear; endless hours in a hospital bed after he wades big-chested into a domestic, in Montana, and some eighteen-year-old empties two barrels of birdshot into his sternum; a bathroom stall in Fort St. John where, for fifty bucks, a ponytailed sixteen year old, Shiloh, gives him a blowjob that haunts him till the day he dies.
He draws Isabel close. Her shoulders judder. In a few days her dad will hold Starman this same way – awkward, big-hearted – while he weeps like a man reprieved.
Isabel curls her head to his chest and skid-marks make-up and snot across his T-shirt. He cups her hair. He touches her ear, the loveliest little corner. Then, entwined so close their breath mingles – exactly as it all started, months ago, years ago, lifetimes ago, exactly as it all must start and end again – they lay down on the beach of Mimeer Lake and fall, exhausted, to sleep.
When he wakes up he’s twenty-four years older, on a bench on the lakeside, and his neck is so kinked he has to grip it on both sides to ease it straight.
Someone kicks a spray of rocks behind him.
He’s got grey in his beard and fat belting his gut, has softened in an I’ve-bloody-well-earned-it kind of way. Same coonskin hat.
Starman gestures at the hat. Is that for my benefit or yours?
You want it?
Sure, when you die.
His mouth lifts at the corner. He shuffles forward, and Starman drags his backpack off the bench to make room.
It’s good to see you, Ben says.
Lights appear on the lake – houseboats, maybe, or tourists out to reap the hours of their holiday. Beyond them the glaciers are snow bare. Their edges have softened and blued, like a child might draw them. He wonders if that means the water level has risen, if the creeks and rivers run white, if that threatens the wild games of children who play in gullies.
I never thanked you, Starman says, for the gravestone.
Ben turns his palms up, half-way to a shrug. You were a penniless kid. And Iggy saw some good in you.
How is she?
Happy, he says, but he’s answering a different question.
I’m not obsessed, Starman says. I’ve never been.
I know that.
She still in Edinburgh?
Ben scratches his neck, chin raised. He squints at the lake, the sun. Starman pulls a deep breath. He’d forgotten how morning smells in the mountains, not wet so much as new, as if he is the first person on Earth to breathe that air. He lets himself look at Ben, the dad he wished he’d had. You’d have been a good father-in-law, he says. A good Grandpa.
Water laps the beach. Ben flips a rock into the lake with the toe of his boot. I am those things, Starman.
Across the lake, on a distant shore, a coal train emerges from an underpass, and Starman waits to hear the warble of the rail tracks. Elsewhere, bassy speakers thump a country-rock ballad, all broken hearts and minor redemptions – ex lovers and bourbon for dinner and pick-up football games snatched from the mouth of defeat.
He catches the last snippet: Babe you always said we’d make it, but I knew we never could.
Ben taps his foot to the beat. Never knew we could, he says.
And Starman feels a sudden weight on his chest. His mouth fills with the taste of rainwater, dirt, dirty steel.
What? he manages.
The lyrics. It’s I never knew we could. It’s positive, Starman. Optimistic. You misheard.
Ben brushes his thighs, once, where he has always brushed them.
How can I know that you misheard? he says, before Starman asks the question. How can I know what you’re thinking? Really, though: can dead men tell stories? No teenager could quote Byron on command. Not even you.
A pause. A lifetime. A minute –
Come on, Ben says. Let me show you why you’re here.
There are no endings. One moment differs from another only because we deem it so. He is forty-two years old. He is eighteen years old. Over and over, he returns here to this lake in ever larger loops. For all he knows he was born here and will be reborn here. We live and relive our pasts: he knows this more than most.
He follows Ben off the beach and over the railway where he and Isabel once sat baked off their gourd and flipped pennies at passing train cars, up through the gully where rope swings once dangled and boys played at war and in the distance – in the heavy, bellowing expanse of forest – dark things moved and the wind was chill and he felt the presence of something he’d always wanted but could never quite bring himself to ask for.
Ben leads him to a sliproad where the Mustang is parked. Rare-beef red, tooled out with original parts, a hellbeast of chrome and steel and gasoline that will ferry Starman to his death some few hours away, when he’ll briefly be reunited with Isabel, in memory or in life – as if anyone can tell the difference.
He lays his hand to the frame.
Old friend, he says. It’s been forever.