By David Burke
Funny that, with all the girl trouble, Ben should find himself underneath a moose rack staring at a long, pointed antler and the pink cotton of a dangling pair of panties.
He’s at a lodge north of the city, hours from home, and he tugs his ball cap over his eyes as girl laughter floats by. He has no idea, really, how he got here, but across the gap between two small cottages, he spots a naked woman, skin a violet white, chased after by a naked man, patches of dark hair scattered across his back. Her breasts bob as he snaps a towel at her shrieking body.
Ben shakes his head and walks across the lot, then enters the lodge, a tall log cabin leaning precariously to one side. At first glance the room looks empty. Brown bristle-board walls scour the room, a makeshift bar by the looks of the dim lights and the smell of damp pretzels and beer. On the room’s low ceiling is a collection of hats from fishing camps and lodges, while the walls are plastered with pictures of moustachioed, flannel-jacketed men hoisting guns above the steaming carcasses of deer.
A fat man greets him from behind the bar, where he sits on a stool, fat arms folded across a fat stomach. He is wearing a t- shirt, Molson, yellowed from sweat and work.
“I take it you saw the panties hanging out front,” the fat man says.
“Yeah,” Ben shrugs, his hands in the pockets of his knee-torn jeans.
“I better grab a pool cue to get those down,” he says. “Or I suppose I could tell customers I shot the moose just like that, with the panties on his head.”
The man swallows what’s left of a beer and wipes the bar with a rag, then leans back on his stool and unleashes a big belly laugh. Ben is blown back by the sheer volume of it, and jumps when the man smacks the television, balanced on the edge of the bar, spouting grainy scores and highlights.
“What did you say your name was?” the fat man says, wiping a tear from his eye.
Ben tells him.
“Nice to meet you,” he says, extending a thick hand across the counter. “I’m Jim Bower. This is my place.”
“Nice,” says Ben, looking awkwardly around. In one corner is a pool table, the fabric torn and frayed, and in the other is a stage bordered by mirrors and a ceiling supported by a gleaming brass pole. The surrounding tables are littered with empties and overflowing ashtrays.
“We don’t usually let your type hang around here,” Jim Bower says. “Young folks like yourself, I mean.”
“Sorry to bother,” Ben says.
“What are you doing in these parts?”
“I don’t know,” Ben says, and he doesn’t. “Just kind of ended up here, I guess.”
“I understand. Heading north?”
“Yeah,” Ben says.
“Can’t do that for long, you know. Road turns west just a few hours from here.”
Ben shrugs. He figured it went north forever, until he’d see polar bears drifting on ice flows beside the highway.
“I got a telephone,” Jim Bower says, tapping an old rotary phone on the counter. “You want to call your people? Let ’em know where you’re at?”
Ben considers, but shakes his head.
“What are we talking about then. Girl trouble?”
Ben doesn’t know anymore. There was a girl, Laura. He borrowed his father’s truck to go for a drive and to clear his head. When he hit the highway he followed it north.
“Yeah,” Ben says. “Something like that.”
“Wish I could help you there,” Jim says. “I’m surrounded by women, and between you and me, I can’t figure out a damn one of ’em.”
Ben laughs a little as Jim Bower chuckles loudly, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand.
“Well, it’s getting late. I take it you’ll need a place to sleep.”
“I didn’t mean to bother,” Ben says. “I was just curious…”
“We get a lot of those.”
“I was going to keep on driving…” Ben says, and he was, but after hours and countless miles, a sign lured him off the highway, and a pair of pink panties convinced him to stay.
“I’ve got something to show you,” Jim Bower says, stepping awkwardly off his stool.
“No, really…” Ben says.
“Come,” Jim Bower says, motioning with his thick hand. “I insist.”
Ben follows Jim Bower behind the bar, through a greasy kitchen, the walls lined with deep fryers, the floor littered with french fries, and out a back door. There is a golf cart waiting under a tree. Jim Bower sits behind the wheel, the golf cart leaning under his weight.
“I don’t get around like I used to,” Jim says, patting the vinyl seat beside him. “Hop on.”
They drive along brick pathways, the whirr of the golf cart and the roll of the tires sounding against the log cabin walls, some cabins wild with music and laughter, some quiet, the lights turned off and red curtains hanging in the windows.
The path leads past the cottages, where they drive the length of a long dock thrust into the river, small aluminium boats in the dark water on each side. There are beer bottles and wine glasses tossed about the boat hulls, along with tackle boxes, a spool of line and a can of worms. Ben also spots what he thinks is a scattered box of condoms.
They sit in the golf cart at the end of the dock. The night is cool and brilliant.
“Let me tell you a story,” Jim Bower says, leaning over the edge of the steering wheel. “You know anything about hunting?”
“Not really,” Ben says, his fingers picking at a piece of stuffing bursting from the seam of the vinyl seat.
“Ah,” Jim says. “A city boy. Anyway, these two guys are sitting up in a tree stand, waiting for a bear to walk by. Good pals, these two, work at the lumber mill, and when they’re not working they go hunting. They’re up there all day, however, and they don’t see squat. You follow?”
“Yeah,” says Ben, looking beside him at Jim Bower’s belly hanging over his blue jeans, his boot dangling over the dash while a golf ball circles in a cup holder.
“So the one guy decides that his friend has been talking too much, scaring all the bears away. He’s always been a bit of a talker, this other guy, and his friend means to fire a shot to shut him up. A joke, you know? But his hands are cold and he’s drunk, and he misses.”
Jim throws back a slug of beer, then runs a fat finger over the mouth of the can.
“Shoots his friend’s head clear off,” he mumbles.
Ben imagines a body smeared with dirt and blood, covered by leaves and picked at by animals. He imagines a man with no head.
“That’s terrible,” he says.
“Tell me about it,” says Jim Bower.
“So what happened?” Ben says, tucking his hands under the seat of his jeans.
“The guy doesn’t know what to do,” Jim Bower continues, “so he crawls down from his tree stand and runs. Now meanwhile there’s a big manhunt. Search planes and helicopters flying overhead. Search teams and dog teams trampling through the bush. They look for two weeks, but the guy was a survivalist. He carried his gun and killed partridge until he ran out of shells. Then he fed himself on ants and tree bark, and once in a while he cornered a fish in the shallows and ate that, too.”
“They ever find him?”
“Sure did. One day he just walked out of the bush.”
“Just walked out?”
“Just walked out,” Jim says. “Want to know what made him surrender? I’ll give you one guess, and it wasn’t guilt.”
Ben thinks for a while, but nothing comes to mind.
“What was it?” he says.
“Bugs,” Jim Bower says.
“Bugs?” Ben says.
“Bugs,” Jim Bower says. “The guy could have lived out there all winter, if he had to. But this was prime bug season, and he couldn’t stand ’em. Bugs drove him nuts.”
“Huh,” Ben says. He can imagine the black flies and mosquitoes crawling under the man’s sweaty collar, the sound of their swarm and the frantic slapping. He knows how confused the mind can get. “This guy was a customer of yours?”
“No,” Jim Bower says, his eyes frozen on his hands, hanging like meat hooks around the steering wheel. “He was a friend.”
They are silent, Ben staring into the black water at his side while Jim Bower takes a long pull from his beer and leans back in his seat. He throws the can at the far side of the river, but the can, emptied of its weight, flutters and falls, landing with a cold clank in the bottom of a boat.
“Am I gettin’ through to you?” he says.
“What do you mean?” Ben says.
“I guess not,” Jim Bower says, shifting the cart into reverse and spiralling down the dock. “Come on. The tour continues.”
They drive down the pathway until it spits them onto a dirt road, and they drive to the edge of the forest where a pile of rusted machinery and mangled aluminium canoes sits, encroached by a pile of leaves and overgrowing weeds.
“The end of the line,” Jim says with a smile.
They turn around, and as they head back towards the lodge they spot a woman, despite the fall cold, stumbling barefoot in the grass. Ben notices through the moon’s half-light that she is wearing a pink bra, but nothing else. The white globes of her buttocks shake as she walks.
“Traci!” Jim Bower says, squealing the cart to a stop. “Good to see you. Say, you wouldn’t happen to be the owner of those panties hanging on the moose antlers, would you?”
“I don’t know whose those are,” Traci says in a smoky voice, her speech gurgling with drunkenness. “Who’s the young stud?”
“This is Ben,” Jim Bower says, reaching to pat him on the shoulder. “He’s lost.”
Traci stumbles around the cart. “Little man,” she whispers, “I know exactly what you’re looking for,” and pinches his arm between two pink fingernails before slipping into the dark.
“That’s Traci,” Jim Bower says as he steps on the gas. “She’s in Cabin 14, for future reference.”
Ben follows Jim Bower back through the kitchen and into the bar. He has seen all the cabins, all the boats, the lodge and the boat house and much of the grounds, and he has listened to Jim Bower tell him, when he first began this business, how he tried to make a living as an honest fishing and hunting lodge, but that didn’t work, so he added some spice. He added the girls.
“Business has been booming ever since,” he says.
“What about the name?” Ben asks. “Beaverland?”
“It was always called that,” says Jim Bower.
Jim reaches into the fridge, pulls out a beer, and flicks off the television’s frosty reception. “I’ve done a little running myself, you know,” he says, half out of breath and leaning against the bar, wiping it dry with a towel. Ben sits on a stool across from him, his fingernails sinking into the wood underneath the countertop, picking away slivers. “I came out here on a night like this. Back then, I wasn’t much older than you.”
Ben stuffs his hands in his pockets. His eyes wander to a yellowed clipping above the bar, the headline MANHUNT in black letters, and a picture of a field full of uniforms, police dogs digging their noses into the grass, a helicopter hovering above a ragged forest of pines.
“You need money?” Jim says, leaning on the counter.
“I could give you a job, you know. Since you’re up here. What do you think of coming to work for me?”
“Doing what?” Ben asks.
“I need someone to help winterise the cabins, take care of the plumbing, haul the boats out of the water.”
Ben looks at his hands, velvet smooth and ivory white. He doesn’t know anything about that stuff, but making money is never a bad idea.
“And once winter hits,” Jim Bower continues, “I need someone to help me tend the place for all the snowmobiles coming through. You ever shovel snow off a roof? It can get pretty thick come February.”
Ben shivers at the thought of a winter up here, but he says, “Sounds pretty good,” and the words surprise his mouth.
“It’s settled then,” Jim Bower says. “You start tonight.”
“We don’t waste any time up here, son. You gotta earn your keep.”
Ben watches Jim Bower pull a strip of paper from a note pad and grab a pencil off the bar. He jots down a few instructions then folds the paper and hands it to Ben.
“That should keep you busy.”
Ben glances at the paper, then stuffs it in his pocket the way you do when taking cash, without counting, from a friend who owes you.
“You’ll be staying in Cabin 14,” Jim says, and nods towards the door.
Ben gets the hint, and his boot heels click as he steps outside. He walks across the grass and over the gravel lot. The truck is quiet under the trees.
He sits in the cab and turns the key. The truck coughs to a start and settles into a familiar rumble between his shoulders, the rumble that began the moment he started the truck in his driveway, and followed him all the way here. But why here? Is he really staying? Can he go without seeing Laura again, and without her forgiving him?
Cabin 14 is just around the corner. He looks back at the neon lights of the lodge, then digs into his pocket. He unfolds the slip of paper and reads the message under the dashboard lights:
There are two kinds of people here, kid. Those who were born up here, and those who are running.
Ben drops the paper to the floor, puts the truck in drive and heads for the road.
David Burke lives in Windsor, ON, and was recently published in Carousel, Kiss Machine, NOW, UpFront, and has work forthcoming in Front & Centre and The Nashwaak Review. He is currently plugging away at a novel called The Essential Joe Gunn.