Little Pink Houses
Fiction by Robert Hilles
He’s late for school so takes a shortcut along the Bow River. Floodwaters have receded but the path is washed out in places, forcing him to jump to higher ground. Despite the risk of another detention, he stops on a steep grassy bank and takes out his pack of Export A. He strikes a match against his pant leg and cups his hand around the cigarette to light it, like his mother’s boyfriend Floyd does.
Josh inhales several times and shifts his gaze from the middle of the river to the near bank and notices a pair of cowboy boots bobbing in one place despite the current. He stands for a better view and sees a body wedged in rocks.
A fresh surge of water causes the body to undulate in the current. Any minute it will be swept downstream. He hurries to the river’s edge, where the fast moving water gurgles and rumbles like a tub as it finishes draining.
He drops his cigarette into the river, and it’s instantly gone. He takes off his shoes and empties his pockets and goes in. The water is bone chilling even through his clothing, and he has to fight the current more than he expects. He grabs the body by the belt and tugs forcefully, but it doesn’t budge. The flesh swollen around the belt is waterlogged and squishy. He uses both hands and pulls harder but it still doesn’t give. He’s shivering and breathing quick, shallow breaths.
He looks back to shore hoping for help, but the path is deserted. The corpse has rolled onto its side facing away, and he feels around under the water until he finds a hand wedged in the rocks. He works the hand free, and the body almost gets away from him before he grabs the belt more securely.
He drags the corpse out of the water and pulls it up the bank. The man’s feet and calves have swollen enough to split the heels of his cowboy boots. Josh touches a leg and it feels like a water-filled balloon about to burst. He pulls his hand away and rubs his wet fingers on dry grass.
He’s shaking from cold and can barely tie his shoes. When he gets them done up, he runs to Memorial Drive and flags down the first car.
The driver is in his late thirties and has gelled hair. He opens a power window halfway.
“I found a body,” Josh says, and points to the river.
The man nods and takes out a cell phone. His hands are manicured and not banged up like Floyd’s. He’s the sort of man his mother says she prefers but never ends up with.
After the call, the man pops the trunk and retrieves a blanket and hands it to Josh and he wraps it around himself.
“Get in and I’ll turn the heater on.”
Josh thanks him but says he’s not that cold. The prospect of having to make small talk with a stranger doesn’t appeal to him. Besides, he’s bound to ask a lot of questions.
The man shrugs and gets back in his car and turns on the four-way flashers. Rush hour traffic inches around him.
In less than five minutes, Josh hears the first sirens across the river and then along Louise Bridge. He expects one police car and an ambulance because the man is already dead. Instead three cruisers, an ambulance, and two fire trucks converge from different directions.
A paramedic steps down from the back of the ambulance and places another blanket around Josh. At least a dozen more uniformed men and women hurry out of vehicles and form a huddle near the front of the ambulance. Three German Shepherds sit waiting with a handler next to the first police cruiser.
An officer leaves the group and comes over and introduces himself as Constable Bishop. He’s roughly the age Josh’s father would be now but he has several large scars on his left cheek.
He asks Josh to lead the way, and the rest follow. When Josh reaches the first spot where he has a view of the body there are crows everywhere, some hopping on and off the body or flapping their wings as they peck at one another. Overhead, hundreds of gulls circle squawking loud enough to be heard over the din of the river and traffic. Two large vultures are pecking at the torso, and one of them pulls out something long and stringy.
He should have covered the body with branches. He raises his arms and shouts but he’s too far away. The police dogs bolt past and quickly scatter the birds and then nose the body before standing guard—their tongues out, tails wagging.
Constable Bishop puts a hand on Josh’s shoulder, and his stomach gives way, and he leans over and heaves. The constable hands him a tissue and tells him to keep his head between his legs and take deep breaths.
“You’ll be okay in a minute. Don’t worry about the birds. That happens all the time. The main thing is that you got him out of the water. Most people wouldn’t have gone in there for anything.”
Various men and women in uniform circle the body, and several get down on their knees to roll him over. The rest wait as paramedics manoeuvre a stretcher over the uneven ground. It’s slow going and the taller man at the back is breathing heavily as he goes past. A woman spreads out a body bag next to the corpse and opens the long zipper.
Constable Bishop offers him some water, but Josh shakes his head. He straightens and doesn’t feel as queasy. The constable leads the way back to Memorial Drive and stops at a cruiser.
“We can come by your place this evening for a statement if you prefer.”
Josh tells him that he’d rather do it now while everything’s fresh. But in truth he really doesn’t want them giving the neighbours something to talk about.
After he takes Josh’s statement, Constable Bishop says, “I’ve seen champion swimmers pulled under when the river is as high as it is today. If you hadn’t come along there’s a good chance we would never have found the body. Some days everything works out.”
When he gets home from school that afternoon, his mother is still at work. Her shift at the Airliner Hotel ends at 7:30 PM. She’s worked at the front desk for eight years and says she’s “gotten used to it” whenever anyone asks about her job.
His mother is all the family he has. His father and two uncles were killed in a car accident just north of High River the week Josh was born. They’d been celebrating his birth with alternating shots of tequila and whisky, and his father was too drunk to be driving and missed the one sharp curve between High River and Calgary. All three brothers were still wearing their seatbelts when the police hauled the car out of the Bow River. Once a farm boy always a farm boy, his mother often says when someone asks about the accident.
His mother mentions his father nearly every day, even when Floyd’s around. If it bothers Floyd, he never says. According to her, his father had the sweetest smile. “Sweet enough to get me pregnant,” she says.
He cooks his own supper and then does an hour of homework before his mother calls to say that her replacement is sick and she has to work until her boss’s wife comes in to relieve her.
For the rest of the evening Josh plays computer games online. The computer is a cast off from work that Floyd bought for cheap and gave Josh for Christmas. All the time he’s playing he can’t get images of all those birds out of his mind. Where did they come from? He never realized there were so many crows in the middle of the city. He should search online for news but can’t bring himself to.
He’s still playing online when his mother comes in at half past eleven. She smells of cigarettes and beer, and he suspects that she’s met Floyd for drinks afterwards, but he doesn’t ask, as that’s her business. Floyd works as a toolpush managing rigs for Rascal Resources. He makes more in a week than his mother makes in two months. Floyd’s generous with his money, though and nearly every day takes her out for dinner at some fancy restaurants she can’t normally afford.
He pays Josh to do odd jobs such as washing his pickup. He does a thorough job, first cleaning off all the mud and dust and then scrambling up into the back to clean the large red tool box bolted to the truck bed.
Floyd met his mother when he stayed at the Airliner on company business and soon after moved from Red Deer to Calgary. They went out for several months before she told Josh about him.
“Floyd says he’ll take us to Elbow Falls on Saturday for a picnic,” she says now, when she checks in on him.
As his mother stands in the doorway framed by the hallway light, Josh is reminded that she’s barely twice his age, and sometimes, like now, when she talks, she doesn’t sound much older than him. Other times she knows so much more than him he’s compelled to listen. He only knows some of the trouble he’s caused her and wonders if some day he’ll learn the rest. But knowing his mother, he doubts it.
“That’s the way it floats,” Floyd would say and likes to apply to everything in life. He drives a new Dodge Ram crew-cab with four doors and roomy enough in the back seat that Josh has ample legroom. It’s a company truck with four-wheel drive, which he needs because of all the dirt roads.
Josh’s not terribly keen to spend all day Saturday with them but will because it’ll make his mother happy.
She says Floyd helps her forget all that has gone wrong. “Love is about taking detours,” she’s told Josh during one of their many serious talks. That’s always stuck with him although he figures it will be a few years before he knows exactly what she means.
He switches on the TV in his room, and a boy is riding a tricycle in a crowded living room, and a small black poodle follows behind. He keeps the TV muted and lies on his bed and closes his eyes. But all he sees is the man’s bloated body, and there is again the thunderous sound of water.
When he opens his eyes, the boy and dog are gone. Instead, a car passes through an intersection and is T-boned by a half-ton truck. Glass flies in every direction. The camera zooms in on the passenger side of the car as a woman stumbles out. He turns the TV off. No point getting caught up in that. He already knows how it will play out. Still he’s curious about the woman and who was driving the car. Where were they going?
The next morning he’s up earlier than usual and fixes coffee and toast and sits at the kitchen table. When he finishes, he walks his empty cup and plate to the kitchen sink and rinses them with hot water and sets them on the grey plastic dish tray to dry. The tray has numerous soap stains and it is something his mother bought on sale at Walmart but it does the job.
He retrieves the newspaper from the front steps. When he unfolds it, there’s a large headline: Teen finds billionaire’s body. The story about the dead man takes up most of the front page. His name is Theodore Mann, and he’s the richest man in Calgary. There is no mention of Josh only that a student from Crescent Heights High School found his body.
He checks the obituaries, and Mann’s is first. There’s a grainy picture at the top, and Mann isn’t smiling. The caption says that it’s from a recent board meeting of Best Way Oil and Gas. Mann is survived by his second wife Patricia, daughter Jess, son David, and grandson Lance. He is pre-deceased by his parents and first wife Dawn.
His father started River Flats Petroleum in the late 1950s, but by the time Mann was twenty-two it had gone belly up before the boom of the 1970s. A very young but eager Theodore Mann walked into the Royal Bank on the 8th Ave. in June of 1982 and managed to secure the credit to buy a faltering Best Way Oil and Gas for a million dollars and bought two new oil leases at auction. The first one proved dry but the second turned out to be the famous White River Deposit, the single largest reserve of crude oil to be discovered in southern Alberta. When White River was fully on stream they used the money to purchase more leases, many of then in northern Alberta and the Northwest Territories. Today Best Way Oil and Gas has a market capitalization of forty billion.
The front-page story says he went missing four days ago while walking his prized Irish setter not far from his Canmore ski lodge. The dog came home without him. That had been when flooding in the Bow River was at its worst.
Mann’s net worth is plastered all over the front page—seven billion dollars—an incomprehensible amount to Josh. Until today he thought people that rich lived in Los Angeles or New York.
As he walks the dozen blocks to school, he’s not thinking of a cigarette but of how even with all that wealth Mann ended up dead in the same river as his father, although from opposite directions. He knows there is some significance to that but isn’t sure yet what beyond the fact that touching Mann’s body is as close as he’ll ever come to knowing his dead father.
Because of yesterday’s events he senses a shift in his thinking. What that shift is he doesn’t know yet, but knows his future has irrevocably changed.
He’s early so takes his time. Morning traffic flows without any noticeable snags. Crows lurk singularly or in groups in the trees. Before yesterday, he took no notice of them but does today, stopping once to count eight in one tree.
At school he doesn’t linger outside like he usually does but goes straight in. The main hallway is empty except for a janitor mopping up near the cafeteria. Josh stands in front of his open locker, and its contents are foreign, although exactly as he left them yesterday. He no longer wants to be who they say he is.
He closes his locker and presses his back against it. He knows already what the day has in store but feels estranged from it as though he’s just moved here from a city far away.
© Robert Hilles
[This piece was selected by Jacky Taylor. Read Robert’s interview]
Robert Hilles lives on Salt Spring Island in Canada and has won the Governor General’s Award for Poetry for Cantos From A Small Room. His second novel, A Gradual Ruin, was published by Doubleday Canada and now is in paperback. He has published fifteen books of poetry (including Higher Ground), three works of fiction (including A Gradual Ruin) and two nonfiction books. The story included here is from a collection in the works also called, Little Pink Houses. His next poetry collection, Line will appear in the spring of 2018. He is currently working on a novel set in Thailand and tentatively called, Our Silken Finery.