Ray Robertson

I was there the night he died–CHAPTER ONE

What the hell, why not tell the truth?                  

            Within reason, of course.  Too much of anything is never a good idea.  Besides, number one is never to be bored.  Enlightened hedonism has rarely let anyone down.

            “Sorry,” the teenager sitting next to me says, needing to get by me in order to go to the bathroom at the rear of the train for the third time since we left Toronto.

            “Sure,” I say, standing up, letting him slide past.  Since we pulled out of Union Station less than three hours ago he’s watched half of a T & A-spiked action movie on his lap top, slayed 45 minutes worth of black-hooded cartoon terrorists on the same, and made and received several phone calls and checked his text messages often enough that there’s absolutely nothing going on out there he doesn’t know about.  And washed down a large bag of Doritos with a can of Red Bull and another of Diet Coke. 

            When Sara and I used to visit my parents—Sara driving, me in charge of changing the CDs and keeping Barney, our overweight Black Lab, from climbing into the front seat when the steaming bag of Harvey’s take-out we’d always pick up on the way out of town was finally unwrapped—by the time we’d get to Chatham I’d be ankle-deep in burger wrappers and empty french-fry cartons and soft-drink containers and crushed Tim Horton’s cups and a medium-size Timbits box, only a few dough-and-lard survivors left rolling around inside.  Travelling is a vacation from caring, where you’re going never as important as what you’re leaving behind. 

            I pull open the sports section, the only part of the newspaper I ever bother with, and concentrate on the scoring summaries from last night’s games.  Lidstrom 4 (Cleary, Zeterberg), 13.36 makes a lot more sense than thinking about Sara.  Or Barney or my mother or even my father, the only one of them still alive, if only in body, Alzheimer’s almost done with its first cruel course—his mind—and in no particular hurry it seems to devour what’s left.

            I fold the newspaper in two and slide it underneath the seat in front of me and pull the notepad and pen from inside my shirt pocket.  Even a dominating Red Wings road win can’t distract death thoughts; only doing—doing and doing, nada-negating doing—doing the trick.  And it is a trick.  There’s a hole and you fill it and as soon as you stop shoveling, it’s empty again.  Not including the rapid inhalation of an eight ball of good cocaine, however, it’s the only magic I know, so I do what I do, scribble and revise and scribble some more until I notice that the boy is standing in the aisle beside my seat.  I have no idea how long he’s been waiting there.  Now it’s my turn to say I’m sorry.

            Sitting back down and sticking in his earplugs for another go round with all those pesky terrorists, “You looked busy,” he says.

            That’s the plan, I almost say, before realizing that that’s exactly the sort of thing someone in a novel might say.  

            “Yeah” is what I do say, but it’s too late, the kid’s already got both earplugs in, his fingers are already busy at his keyboard.




Let’s get this straight.  I’m not in denial.  Nothing has been repressed.  I haven’t bypassed my pain.  And what I’m most not is haunted.  Only people in sentimental movies and over-written novels are haunted.  I’m sad.  Real fucking sad.  And because a change is as good as a rest, occasionally enraged.  But mostly just sad. 

            If anything, my grief has been too perfect—textbook, practically.

            I said goodbye to Sara seventeen months ago at a quarter to nine on a Tuesday morning, the same thing I did every Monday through Friday when she left for work at the O.S.P.C.A., and by 4:30 pm I was making funeral arrangements.  Three days later Sara was in the ground and the world went back to work and Sara was my dead wife, Sara.  That’s called Stage One: Numbness or Shock.

            I felt a tightness in my throat.  I always seemed to be short of breath.  All I wanted to do was sleep.  I sighed all the time.  The police said that the accident might have been her fault, she probably merged when she shouldn’t have, and when I wasn’t too tired, I was angry at her for that in particular and for dying in general.  I was also furious at myself because my last words to her had been a reminder to please not forget to pick up vodka when she went wine shopping on the way home from work.  That’s known as Stage Two: Disorganization.

            Days and then weeks and then months and then the lie that everyone tells you actually becomes true: minutes, hours even, when you actually think about something other than your grief.  I knew I was beginning to get better when, six months or so after Sara’s death, I was putting away my change in the dish on top of the refrigerator and a quarter fell to the floor and rolled underneath the fridge and I took out my notebook from the middle drawer of my desk for the first time since the accident and wondered why it was that anytime anything gets dropped on the kitchen floor it invariably ends up underneath the fridge, a minor mystery to be pondered right along with where the hell all the missing single socks go and why it is that obese people always own tiny dogs.  That’s referred to as Stage Three: Re-organization.

            There isn’t any Stage Four.





The old town looks the same as I step down from the train; except that J.P.’s, the strip club that for decades has been keeping it shaking next door to the VIA station, has burned down, and another Goodwill has sprouted up down the street since the last time I was here just a month ago, arson and used clothing stores Chatham’s two biggest growth industries.  Uncle Donny is waiting for me inside his idling Buick. 

            “What do you know for sure, pal?”

            “Not much,” I say, putting my bags in the backseat.

            “Well, that makes two of us.”

            It’s the same exchange we’ve been having since I was six years old and I’ve got no reason to doubt he’s telling me the truth.  I once based a character in one of my novels on Uncle Donny.  The nice thing about being a writer from Southwestern Ontario is that the people you tend to write about don’t mind your utilizing their likeness.  Of course, on the down side, they don’t mind because they don’t care, voluntary reading as dubious an adult occupation as, say, Chinese shadow puppet theatre or antique rug collecting.

            “How is he?” I say.

            “Good.  Fine.  He’ll be glad to see you.”

            We both know that’s a lie, but I don’t mind hearing it if he’s willing to say it.

            “Godamn it, godamn Kaberle, sonofabitch could go into the godamn corner with an egg in his pocket and come out with it unbroken.”  Uncle Donny thumps the dash with an open palm, punishment for the radio broadcasting the bad news of another Maple Leaf goal against, this time the direct result of a Thomas Kaberle give away.  Uncle Donny is as much a Maple Leaf fan as Dad and I are Red Wing supporters, but his anger seems a little disproportionate for just another nail in the coffin of just another Maple Leaf loss.  Four decades and counting of Stanley Cup futility have a way of taking the edge off one’s competitive intensity.  Besides, no matter who’s playing on the radio, Rat Pack casino concert tapes (and, now, CDs) have always been Uncle Donny’s car sounds of choice, Frank and Dean and Sammy’s corny jokes and schmaltzy songs as much a somatic reminder of riding with Uncle Donny as the perennial pine tree air freshener dangling from the rearview mirror.  He catches me staring at him muttering into the pop can at his lips.

            “You want to stop by the house?” he says.  “So you can drop off your things?”

            “Let’s go there first.”

            Uncle Donny clicks on the turn signal.  “You’re the boss.”

            There is Thames View Gardens, a nursing home that has a self-contained Alzheimer’s ward.  Just as hometown aesthetic indifference has its definite professional advantages, I should be thankful that Chatham’s population has actually decreased since I left for university twenty years ago, senior citizens homes and extended care units having proportionally increased.  Dad was on a waiting list for less than 48 hours before they found him his spot at Thames View.  Chatham, Ontario: out with the young, stuck with the old. 

            It’s only just after seven p.m. when we pull into the parking lot, but it’s already dark, late-January sleety too, none of which stops Uncle Donny from waving me inside so he can have a cigarette outside the automatic front doors. 

            “When your Grandmother was at St. Andrew’s I used to smoke right in her room.  You’d think that the person living there paying the bills would be the one to make that decision, if you ask me.”

            I don’t ask him—just tell him I’ll see him inside—and leave him to his Player’s Light Unfiltered.  He could have smoked on the way over, but he’s here almost every day, meaning I haven’t had to be, so let him have his five minutes of cloudy quiet.  Aside from me, Uncle Donny is Dad’s only living relative, six other brothers and sisters Chatham-born and Chatham-buried, most from cancer.  No one’s bragging about it, but Chatham is Canada’s cancer capital.  Instead of the sign on Highway Six that announces WELCOME TO CHATHAM, ONTARIO: HOME OF BASEBALL HALL OF FAMER FERGUSON JENKINS, maybe the Chamber of Commerce should change it to: CHATHAM,  ONTARIO: ALL THE PROBLEMS OF A BIG CITY WITH ALL THE INCONVIENCES OF A SMALL TOWN.

            I’ve only been to Thames View Gardens once before—when we moved Dad in over Christmas—but I’ve been inside the building itself plenty of times, most unmemorably May 15, 1969, when I was born here, when instead of exclusively seeing lives out, Thames View Gardens was St. Joseph’s Hospital and routinely saw them in.  You have to walk past general reception to get to the Alzheimer’s ward, as well as the empty dining room, the locked exercise room, and the recreation room where, behind a closed door, someone at a piano is competing to be heard over a chorus of cracked voices singing “Camptown Racers.”  As hard as it is to get used to your father being a mute, expressionless, staring stranger, imagining him joining in on an after-dinner senior-citizen sing-a-long is even more difficult.  Even novelists have their limits.

            Dad and his three roommates (fellow residents? lodgers?) have been fed and cleaned up and are pillow-propped-up in bed and settling in for their evening’s indifference to anything but the six inches or so directly in front of their faces.  There are family members gathered at two of the other beds, but since I’m here so rarely there are only stoical nods from the men and sad, knowing smiles from the women, the children—or grandchildren, more accurately—probably at the vending machines in the basement, if they’ve been coaxed into coming at all.  I give Dad a hug that he endures like an unexpected but surprisingly painless back spasm and sit down on the chair beside the bed.   

            If Uncle Donny was here we could shoot the breeze and I wouldn’t feel as if I was ignoring Dad, that Dad, as usual, was just letting his older brother blather, happy to not get involved.  This suffocating silence still feels new—everyone knows the rudiments of the Alzheimer’s patient’s shutdown countdown, a little less of the loved one a little more each day until there’s no missing person’s report that’ll ever bring them back—and I don’t know what to do other than what I’m doing, rest my hand on Dad’s forearm.  Until I realize it looks like I’m pinning his arm to the bed, so I don’t even do that. 

            I stand up and Dad doesn’t notice, doesn’t even blink, eyes open but dull and seeing nothing, or else something no one else can see.  I’m going to be back tomorrow, and the day after that and the day after that, so I excuse myself for leaving early tonight, lean over and give him a hug goodbye. 


            Somebody has remembered to dab some of his favourite cologne, Brut, on him.  My mother used to buy it for him at Shopper’s Drug Mart.  $3.99 bought you a year’s worth of smelling like what a man smelt like.  My Dad, he was a Brut man.  

            I kiss him goodbye on his cheek, something I’ve never done before, and breathe in deep the cheap cologne, and there you go, there you are, a K-Mart red light Proustian special, one stiff sniff and right back where you started, his guiding hand on your very first bike ride and a skinned right knee but that’s all right, and how cool would it be if it pours tonight because the sound of the rain beating on the roof of the tent pitched in your parents’ backyard is so incredibly, totally awesome.

            Everything that matters already happened.  Everything since then is just the same thing but different.  The decades and decades since your first Pixie Stick and purple Kool Aid high and your last strictly-against-doctors-orders rye and ginger ale only seem like several persons ago, are only the really nice fib we tell ourselves about how everybody – everybody including you, too, of course – grows up.

            Look: when Jerry Garcia died of a heart attack while detoxing from years of heroin abuse at some California get-well nightmare called Serenity Knolls, they found him curled up in bed in the fetus position cuddling an apple and with a fat smile on his face.  The guy was 53 years old. Yeah, sure he was.





And that’s an actual fact, that’s the truth, that’s exactly the sort of thing I’m talking about.  Lives of the Poets (with Guitars) is what I’m calling it.  Picking up where Dr. Johnson left off 250 years ago, I’ll add ample electricity and put a good goosing to the good doctor’s definition of our shared subject so as to include more than what’s merely written down vertically rather than horizontally, real poetry really being about greater rather than lesser heat.  And what could be hotter than the buzz-saw assault of Johnny Ramone’s Mosrite Venture guitar or Howlin’ Wolf’s larynx-shredding voice or Gene Clark’s grievy minor-key mood pieces?  And just because any book composed of 100% facts is as limiting as one woven entirely out of lies—as well as sounding suspiciously a little too much like work, something I’ve industriously avoided the majority of my adult life—I’ll include a little make-believe dollop on top, each chapter beginning with same elegiac incantation, “I was there the night he died,” the lament of my remarkably well-travelled sixty-something ex-roadie narrator uniquely qualified to comment upon not only the lives but the deaths of all of my musical subjects.  I’ve even got an epigraph ready, a compositional compass to help keep me on track, from Ford Maddox Ford’s The March of Literature: “For it is your hot love for your art, not your dry delvings in the dry bones of ana and philologies that will enable you to convey to others your strong passion.”  Hot love.  I mean, really, how can anyone go wrong with that? 

            Because what I’m not going to do is write a novel about Sara dying.  And not because it’s too painful to consider or too difficult to do or because it’s wrong to wring ink and paper gladness from flesh and blood sadness.  Novelists are nervous vampires who depend upon the busily living for their sedentary livelihood, and Sara was always a very willing victim.  Our lust, our lies, our love: all of it is in there in one fictionalized form or another in one or another book, Sara only really objecting once, when, out of laziness or puckishness, I can’t remember which, I’d called the character based on her Sarah.

            But you don’t even  spell your name that way.  Anyone who knows us will understand that it’s not you.

            This is what is called looking the victim horse in the mouth.  As in vampires should be content to make it alive and still sucking in the morning.  As in vampires should learn not to push it.  I changed the character’s name to Mary.  

            I’m not going to write a novel about Sara dying because writing a novel makes things go away.  A novel is one long delicious scratch that makes the itching stop for good.  A novel is a two year puke of pleasure that cleans out all of the sweet poison inside entirely, at last. 

            But if you lose the poison, you lose its root cause, too.  I don’t want to lose my roots.  My roots are mine.




Dropping me off from Thames View Gardens, Uncle Donny doesn’t offer to come inside to help get me settled or to wait idling in the driveway to make sure my key works, doesn’t even give me a good luck wave good bye.  He does what he’s always done, races into the street in reverse without bothering to look behind him and honks, once, when he’s almost out of sight.  I hear it after I’ve set my bags down and am closing the front door.

            Not that there’s much reason to bother—locking up is a Toronto tick, where there aren’t subdivisions named Butter Cup Village and people occasionally wander further than their front doors on the way to their cars—but I bolt the door anyway and let the streetlight out front light my way through the living room and into the kitchen where I know there’s a switch.  My parents moved here three years ago, just before my mother died of a stroke, just before the first signs of the Alzheimer’s afflicted my father, and I’m still not used to the layout of what was supposed to be their dream house, large, unlandscaped front and back lawns for him to work and worry over, three floors of brand new appliances and shiny fixtures and wall-to-wall spongy fresh carpeting for her to happily wear herself out cleaning.  At least she died in action, the vacuum cleaner still humming when Dad found her collapsed on the bedroom floor.  He hadn’t been so lucky, had only gotten as far as laying down the sod before he began peeing off the front step and not remembering why he’d brought his shovel with him into the bathroom.  

            The lights work, the taps and toilet too, but the heat vents deliver only cool air, so I go down to the basement to check the furnace.  It’s not the pilot light—there is no pilot light—the furnace almost as cold to the touch as the inside of the freezer still three-quarters full of uneaten rump roasts and snow-entombed bags of frozen peas and corn.  Uncle Donny has been looking after Dad’s bills for the last year and a half, but apparently the gas bill hasn’t been on his to-do list.  Ignoring Dad’s power tools and Mum’s souvenir spoon collection and the boxed and electrical tape-shut plastic Christmas tree that’s seen its last Butter Cup Village Christmas, I go back upstairs where at least it’s only cold, not damp and cold.  One of the reasons I’m here is to decide what to do with a lifetime’s worth of valuables that aren’t valuable anymore, but difficult decisions are what tomorrows are made for.   

            There’s nothing in the refrigerator except for an opened box of odour-absorbing baking soda, my mother not letting even death get in the way of keeping a clean house.  I never noticed before how many framed photographs my parents had of me.  Of Sara and me.  After Barney died, the discovery of an old tennis ball long-forgotten underneath the couch could instantly wound.  Of course we knew he was gone; it was the sudden stab of remembering that ached.  I did my best to make sure that every errant ball, every half-chewed bone, every well-gummed, stolen sock of mine was collected and boxed and waiting for the new dog we were going to get once a proper period of mourning had passed.  Around the same time that the house began to seem just a little too quiet and we’d begun looking on the Humane Society’s website for a new four-legged family member, Sara was killed.  I walk from room to room turning picture frames featuring Sara and I face down.  

            I sit on the couch without taking my coat off and pick up the remote.  Without the cable being connected, though, there’s no picture, not even angry fuzz, nor even—like when I was a kid and we got our signal from the antenna on the roof—mute ghost people hidden behind the silencing snow storm filling up the screen.  I click off the T.V.  I should probably smoke a joint.  This is probably a perfect example of one of those times when I should a smoke a joint.

            Marijuana has never made much sense to me, no more than non-alcoholic beer.  Just like why someone would want to get fat without getting drunk, if you’re going to get high, why choose a drug that makes you lazier, dozier, even more slow-witted than you already are?  Unless, perhaps, you have an admittedly debilitating psychological predilection for jumpy drugs in general and dextroamphetamine sulfate in particular; in that case, pass the doobie, brother, and let that soothing smoke do its dumbing-down job.  It was either that or take up yoga.  I bought my first quarter ounce of weed just before I left Toronto.

            I stand over the kitchen sink and light the joint and inhale and hold it in as best I can, but still cough a non-smoker’s cough until my eyes begin to water.  I tap the ash that’s accumulated in the hacking interim into the drain and blast the tap until the sink’s as spotless as how I found it.  Even if I can manage to get this shit in my lungs, I can’t do it in here, my Mother at any moment about to float into the kitchen with a dustpan and a broom.  Besides, it can’t be much colder outside than it is in here.

            Because my parents were among the first to buy a lot in the new subdivision, they were lucky enough to get what is perhaps Buttercup Village’s premier location, a corner lot right next to the postage-stamp-sized park that separates their house from their nearest neighbor.  I sit down on the single bench which is located directly underneath the single tree which stands right beside the small sign that tells you where you are and what you should be doing. 


            I stick the joint between my lips and cup my mouth with one hand, pull the lighter out of my coat pocket with my other.  I’m only worried about the wind, not nosey neighbors, people willingly on foot in the daytime in Chatham an anomaly, after eleven o’clock at night downright abnormal.  Just to be sure, I look left and then right and see all there is to see, identical darkened house after darkened house only occasionally interrupted by the throb of a flickering television set.  I manage to get the joint lit and inhale, less deeply than before, but with more sucking success.

            “I won’t tell if you don’t.”

            I palm the joint and turn around on the bench.  A girl, a teenage girl with a nose ring, underdressed in a too-big hooded sweatshirt over top of black wool tights and white running shoes is sitting in one of the two swings still hanging from the swing set, the other one wrapped around and around its top.  She must have been sitting there the entire time.  I’ve managed to carefully extinguish the joint on the edge of the bench and am about to ask her what she means when I see the tiny orange glow of her own joint as she lifts it to her mouth.

            “Good luck,” I say, standing up, going back the way I came.  Good luck.  What a ridiculous thing to say.

            She’s busy inhaling, obviously knows what she’s doing, only nods.

            “You, too,” I hear, and then I’m home.