Better Than Starbucks Fiction
by Austin Gilmour
Paul Watts was twelve the summer he left Goderich, alone, hidden in the bed of a pickup with Alberta plates. Some remember the truck because of its plates—an unusual sight in Huron County, Ontario—and for others the memory sticks because of the truck’s rusted panels and drooping exhaust and the sound it made for the three days it drove around town, stopping at all of the bars in turn, orderly and neat and systemized. The truck’s driver was a Cree man and he wore clean collared shirts that mismatched his dirty jeans and he traveled alone. He spent three nights in Goderich and slept each one through in his truck.
Paul noticed the Cree on Sunday morning, the first morning, when he pulled off Highway 21 and drove by Paul’s house. Paul and I and four others were playing hockey in the street and we had to stop and move to the side to let the truck go by. As was the unspoken custom during a paused game, we stared flatly at the driver who dared drive through our makeshift arena, forcing the players and nets to the street’s gutter. That was when Paul recognized the man’s features—the dark eyes and complexion and long hair pulled back against the wind coming in through the truck’s windows. Paul announced to the five of us standing in the grass that the driver was Indian. Don Whimby, who lived one street over and played center, asked what it mattered. He liked hockey but liked to win more and said, “Come on. Let’s play.” We followed Don back into the road and set up the nets. Paul watched the truck until it turned a corner toward Court House Square and town.
There were five of us in our group and another few who came and went depending on the season, the activity, and the attitudes of their parents. Don Whimby was one of the others who played in our hockey games and tagged along for our weekend afternoons fishing the Maitland. Otherwise he ignored us. Generally, we saw him as a loudmouth, a bully, but a necessary addition to our games. He was always a willing participant and we often needed another player. And he liked fishing, so we paid our dues at the river. But it was Don who, on that odd Sunday afternoon spent fishing the Maitland River that hugged the north and west sides of town, asked why Paul never brought his rod. The question carried a note of accusation.
“I don’t have one,” said Paul. We’d become accustomed on these afternoons to the sight of Paul reclined in the grass just up from the river’s edge. He’d bring a comic book, a deck of cards, a stack of hockey cards and he’d spend much of the time commenting on the fish we pulled from the water. It was what Paul did and we’d never thought twice about it.
“Why not?” Don asked.
“Are you scared of fish?”
“I bet you don’t like touching them.”
“No!” He stood.
“Yeah, I bet that’s it.”
“No, it’s not.” Paul was angry, which was odd. He moved close to Don’s spot beside the river in slow and deliberate steps.
“Then why don’t you have one?”
“I just don’t,” Paul said. “That okay with you?”
Don reeled in his lure—a small, bright green spoon that hadn’t caught anything all day. He didn’t send the lure back to the water but turned toward Paul and stared. There were three of us standing along the shore, separated by uneven and unsure distances, who had stopped our fishing to watch. Both Don and Paul were strong for our age and had sour attitudes, though Paul’s was what we’d call softer.
Don finally said, “You can use mine for a while.” He held out his six-foot rod in two hands as if he were handing over a sword.
Paul stood still. “Maybe I don’t like fishing. Maybe I just like watching you not catch anything.”
The three of us watching exchanged brief looks. We knew what would come next if Don pushed back. The two of them hadn’t fought one another but they were known at school as brawlers and were sent to the principal’s office frequently.
Don withdrew his fishing pole and held it against his right shoulder as if it were a bat and he was headed to the plate. He smiled. He took several steps toward Paul. There were only four, maybe five feet between the two. “Let’s see if you can do better,” Don said. His voice was light, taunting, on the verge of singsong. “Even if you don’t like it.”
Paul closed the space between them and said, “Hand it over.” He extended an open hand.
Don put the grip end of the rod in Paul’s hand. He smiled as he leaned into the exchange.
“Thanks,” Paul said. He held the rod in his left hand and turned it over as though checking it for defects. Then, as suddenly as a fish striking one of our lures, Paul swung the rod up and back then down toward Don’s face. He swung as hard as he could. The whole thing had a comic appearance: Paul, with a two-handed grip on the short rod, swinging it toward Don with the shaft bent doubly back and making weak, slicing contact with the side of Don’s face. There was no sound on impact. Immediately Don brought his hands to his face and cradled his cheek and bent low as though he might be sick. Paul dropped the rod at Don’s feet and repeated, “Maybe I don’t like fishing.” He turned and walked up the shore and disappeared into the woods quickly without looking back or speaking.
The three of us who’d witnessed the brutal exchange watched in surprise as Don bent to retrieve his rod and resumed fishing the Maitland with a narrow, red welt forming across his left cheek. He said nothing the rest of the day and we returned home without more than five sentences passing among us.
The street that Paul lived on turned diagonally off 21 and ran southwest toward town and the lake. The Maitland River echoed the street’s diagonal as it broke toward its inlet and Lake Huron to the northwest of town. Goderich had one of the largest harbors along southern Ontario’s shoreline and was home to the world’s largest salt mine which stretched for five kilometers under Goderich Harbor and the lake. The white silos built on the harbor property afforded us hours of entertainment as boys; variously they were looming white cliffs, watchtowers of a dangerous enemy, the hard scales of a wild dragon. But as the town’s largest industry beside tourism, the mine closed only one day a week and as such we could only play there on Sundays when the harbor was largely deserted, and the mineworkers were at church or home or in boats fishing. After the Maitland and the harbor Paul’s house was our favorite refuge. On rainy days and evenings after school we would convene in Paul’s basement where his mother had allowed him an exciting collection of games. It was our personal arcade with table hockey and air hockey and knee hockey and more video games than any of us were allowed. The carpet down there was thick and cushiony and made for the best wrestling and we’d disappear, forget the world upstairs and outside, for hours until one by one our parents would phone or stop by and demand we head home. Paul’s was a second home for all of us and one or two of us would have preferred it be our first.
On the second morning that the Cree man was in town, the morning after Paul struck Don’s face with the fishing pole, I went to Paul’s house first thing. It was summer so we were out of school, as was Paul’s mother who taught several honors classes at the secondary school and had been the principal there for as long as I could remember. When I knocked it was Principal Watts who answered the door and I promptly addressed her as such.
She smiled. “Hon, unless we’re in school you can call me Susan.” She’d told all of Paul’s friends this, but I had trouble separating my best friend’s mother from the intimidating secondary school principal who had a regular presence in our own primary school’s hallways. She was taller than any woman I knew and looked younger than any of the other moms. During the school year I seldom saw her out of her grey and black skirts and pressed blouses; the contrasting shorts or jeans and t-shirts of the summer made me feel as though I were seeing her as I shouldn’t, in some intimate clothing that only the husband she didn’t have should witness. In the summer, I had trouble meeting her eyes.
“Okay,” I said, trying but failing to look her in her face, which loomed so far above my own.
“You’re looking for Paul,” she said. It wasn’t a question. She rarely asked questions. “Go ahead, upstairs.” She moved out of the doorway. “He’s in his room.”
“Thanks.” I stepped past her and took the stairs two at a time. In his room Paul was lying on his bed, the quilt and sheets flung to the floor, a sloppy mess. His door was open, and I stepped in quietly.
“I heard you at the door,” he said. “What’s up?”
I sat in the small desk chair that never seemed to be at the desk. “We’re wondering about yesterday,” I said.
“What about it?”
“What happened?” There was a momentary quiet in the room; our breathing filled up the spaces between.
“I hit Don Whimby in the face with his fishing pole.”
“Why’d you do it?”
“’Cause I felt like it.”
“And that’s it?”
We sat there for some time without speaking. Though many of us didn’t like Don, we needed him for hockey games; we always needed a center and we put up with his attitude during games because of it. Paul knew this and knew that without Don we’d have uneven sides and we hated shuffling the teams. We both knew he wouldn’t have hit Don just to do it.
“Come on,” I said. “Why’d you do it?”
“I told you. I felt like it.”
“Okay but why’d you actually do it?”
He shook his head. Then sat up on his bed.
“I don’t know how to fish.”
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t know how. The lures, the line, the casting.”
I was uneasy. “You’ve watched us.”
“I don’t know. That’s not the same.”
“So why’d you hit Don?”
“I didn’t want to fish.”
There was silence again for a minute. Then Paul said, “Got it now?”
“I don’t know. It’s not that tough.”
“There’s no one to teach me.”
“I can teach you.”
We sat for a long time in his bedroom—he on the bed, me in the desk-less desk chair. A phone rang. Downstairs Principal Watts answered the phone and there was unintelligible talking. We could hear some of the single syllable words: “Yes,” “No,” “When,” “Sure.” Her manner of speaking was mostly loud, attention-grabbing. Her voice was deep though undeniably feminine. After long days of talking she’d develop a soft grittiness in her voice, and it’d sound deeper and somehow more feminine. In our adolescent years, long after Paul’s leaving and after she’d stopped teaching honors classes, when we rarely saw Susan Watts except in the secondary school’s grungy hallways or through the small window in her office, we nursed innocent crushes on our friend’s mother and spoke quietly about what we found most appealing in our principal’s appearance. For most of us Susan Watts was our first adult attraction, though it undoubtedly came out of the loss of our good friend and the singular constant presence of a woman not our mothers.
But in Paul’s room, still several years from secondary school, Principal Watts was nothing more than a teacher and a friend’s mother and the only adult I could think of who might teach Paul to fish. I’d learned from my father, but he had time for little more than work and drinking and TV. The other guys’ fathers were the same—all mineworkers who distracted themselves together at the bars and came home ready for bed or to sit in front of screens until they fell asleep in living rooms on couches and chairs. Though our fathers were there in Goderich working for us, for our mothers and siblings and all of it, we rarely felt their immediate presence. We learned to treasure the few hockey games they took us to during the season, the movies or car shows they’d bring us along for, and otherwise we lived with the varying support of our mothers and the constant, and sometimes rough, camaraderie shared between us boys. In nearly every way we made our own Goderich. There was all this but still I knew Paul would not let any of his friends teach him to fish.
“How about your mom?”
He looked over at me. He seemed to consider it.
“She is a teacher,” I offered.
“Can I borrow your pole?”
“I’ll bring it to the river,” I said and stood up. “I’ll meet you there.”
I was home, then back to the Maitland, within thirty minutes. I stopped to tell no one about my conversation with Paul and kept as fast a pace as I could without risking a fall that might break the fishing pole. We had a spot on the Maitland where we always met. It was down behind the hospital and we had to push through thick woods and a steeply sloping hill to get there. From this spot we could see the immense, curving bridge that carried 21 out of town and over the Maitland and the water stretched to the north and south of us in broad turns and there was rarely anyone else there and all this made it easy to see why Goderich was called “Canada’s Prettiest Town.” It was a space no larger than a modest dining room cleared of trees and brush that edged down to the river gradually over grass then sand then rock. The trees that bordered the clearing on three sides were tall poplars whose half-oval silver leaves contrasted sharply with the shorter and greener cedars that produced a soft, pleasant scent spring through autumn. Many of us would take girls there when we were older and had stopped fishing our usual Saturday afternoons and a few would hide there with things they shouldn’t have and imagine no longer being in Goderich. Then, because of these things, these changes forced by time, these interests, these rebellions, our spot lost much of its meaning. We stopped going. The trees overgrew. But on that day, it was bright, and the summer’s high afternoon sun kept us warm beside the Maitland’s moving water, and the world smelled of pine and grass and decomposition. When I arrived at the spot, I was alone for some time and lay happily and sluggishly in the grass.
Susan Watts was, to my knowledge, the first and only parent ever shown where we met as boys. I had fallen asleep and when Paul and his mother stepped out of the woods into the clearing their voices startled me. I stood quickly and was embarrassed by my childishness in falling asleep; I spoke hurriedly, hoping to distract. Rod in hand I moved toward the river, all the time talking about fishing and our favorite lures for trout and bass and it wasn’t until Susan Watts walked over and placed a hand on my shoulder and politely removed the rod from my hands that I stopped. It was then that the awkwardness of the situation came to me: it was strange that a mother needed to teach her son how to fish. Stranger still to realize at that moment I was no longer filling the role of friend but of advisor—Principal Watts and I now partners in Paul’s enlightenment, mother and friend tangentially. In that wood-bound clearing we abandoned our places in Paul’s life and tore down the equilibrium that had become all of our lives in Goderich. But what sat worst of all was that I was there to witness what should have been some quiet lesson shared between parent and child, her guiding hands mimicked by his following with the actions of the fishing pole, its back and forth, the release of the line, the spin of the reel, the retrieval of the lure. Again, I felt like some criminal voyeur taking in what was not his to see, threatened at any moment by the possibility of discovery. This, and my continued though altered embarrassment, kept me silent.
Time moved, and, as we did with our friends, Susan Watts and Paul and I made our way steadily upriver to holes not yet fished and places where the water turned back on itself in a calming, simple maneuver. Paul caught nothing but grew more confident with his casting and knot tying and my awkwardness fell away. The sun lowered in the sky, but the day remained warm enough for comfort beside the cold water. I kept some distance from mother and son, watching happily with the confidence that I’d helped Paul not only with his fishing but in some other way left to go unsaid. It was pleasing and the wind blew a warm air that made it all the more so.
“Don’t cast too hard, now,” Principal Watts said. “You want precise distance, not distance for distance’s sake.”
“That’s it now. You’ve got it. Try for that hole. There.” She pointed. He cast and missed.
“Keep with it, hon. It’ll come to you.”
“Just keep going.”
“But how do you actually catch fish?”
“It’s patience and careful reeling.”
“The other guys almost never catch fish.”
“There’s some luck to it, too.”
“I hope I have good luck.”
“You will some days.”
“Some.” It wasn’t a question.
“We can’t always have luck,” she said. She was bending low over Paul. She put a hand on his back and ran it up and down and said, “That’s not how it works.”
“I wish it were though.”
His mother nodded. Smiled. She stood straight then moved back from Paul and came up the bank toward me. She plopped down beside me, uncaring about the mud that showed in the grass.
“It’s nice you thought of this,” she said. She wore jeans and held her arms out on top her knees, leaning forward slightly so that the back of her shirt came up and showed a thin line of skin. It looked right, her sitting as she was on the bank; and for no other reason I could think of than because I sat next to her I felt pleased and safe and as though I were, out of all the places in Goderich, where I was supposed be.
“Yeah, I’m happy, too.”
“You’re a good friend. Paul’s lucky.”
I looked away, far from Principal Watts’ eyes.
“Are you looking forward to the school year?”
“What’s your favorite subject?”
“Don’t you have one?”
“No. They’re all fine. Music’s just okay.”
“Paul’s favorite is history.”
“Yeah. Don’t you two talk about school?”
“Sure, but mostly about small things.”
“I don’t know. Pens and notebooks and lockers. Lunches maybe.”
“It’s never about classes?”
“Homework, sometimes. But not really.”
“Just the small things.”
“That’s a good way,” she said. “Talk about the small things.”
“Yeah,” I said. I didn’t understand.
“Thanks for agreeing.” Principal Watts smiled and patted my back. Then she laid back on the grass and shut her eyes and even with her eyes closed I felt uneasy looking her in the face. I watched Paul fish for a long time.
That night, the evening of the second day the Cree man was in town, we sat in Paul’s basement sipping hot chocolate Principal Watts had prepared for us. We suspected she’d made it with Ovaltine and after a back-and-forth between the winning and losing teams of a knee hockey game it became the topic of conversation. Paul swore it was Tim Horton’s brand.
“No way,” someone said. “It tastes kind of malted. That’s Ovaltine.”
“Tim’s brand is rich, that’s what you’re tasting.”
“No, I’m with him. It’s not Tim’s.”
“Yeah, your mom screwed up on this one.”
“Get your own next time then.”
“Women are supposed to serve us.”
Paul stared at him. Then he shook his head, but his eyes never moved off him.
“Yeah, my dad says, ‘never get your own when a woman can get it for you.’ It’s the only way to go.” He laughed.
Paul said nothing but maintained his challenging stare. His mouth stood open and his teeth showed through in bits. His breathing was quiet. It was unclear if he was going to speak and as time grew between the comment and the moment at hand, I became uneasy. Minutes passed and the tension among us grew and Paul remained silent. Why no one else said anything, why that comment caused such immediate tension, we couldn’t begin to guess. But it was there, and in the room and palpable, and everything seemed off. Paul was quick, always ready with an insult or argument or even a teasing punch, but nothing came, and I grew all the more uneasy.
Finally, filled with the confidence of sharing something secreted from the others—a bond that felt then stronger than any other Paul and I had encountered—and enjoying a sure sense of collusion between us, I spoke. It was quick and unthinking and meaningless. But it broke the silence.
“Principal Watts has more balls than your dad.” It came out quickly and without the assurance such a comment warranted.
“Yeah? She’s got balls?” He was laughing. Then everyone laughed. Not Paul.
“Yeah,” I said. Now Paul stared at me—any collusion gone.
“Is that why his dad left?”
I sat without speaking, defeated. Paul couldn’t say anything and no one else would; there was nothing. He stood with his empty mug and took the stairs up one at a time and closed the basement door behind him. We knew what it meant, and I felt ill about it and my share in its cause. We finished our cooling hot chocolates over talk of the coming hockey season and when we took our mugs to the kitchen Principal Watts sat at the counter. She smiled and thanked us as we set the mugs beside the sink, but she knew why Paul had gone to bed and what was said, and we retreated from the Watts’ house in an uneasy single file. Our guess, that was the night Paul first considered leaving.
The next morning at the Square was dark and wet and a heavy wind blew in off the lake that challenged the courthouse and sent trees into dangerous bends. We sat on a bench facing the courthouse—Paul and I. Little had been said between us while we watched the effects of the wind in the trees. We’d met up on the way to the lake. When storms came in and swells grew, men with windsurfers and short kayaks came out for the white water. We liked watching. When a light rain began, we found a bench under a tree. We’d been sitting for a half hour.
Paul was still sour about the night before and I wasn’t happy about the way things turned out but couldn’t say so yet. I’d been working my way up to it for some time on that bench. Rain had come and gone several times and the grass was shiny with it but we stayed dry under the tree and in our heavy jackets. We watched the weather and it felt nice to be outside.
“I thought you’d tell about the fishing,” Paul said.
I looked at him quickly. “No.”
“It’d be okay, I think.”
“If I’d told?”
“I don’t care if they know. It’s just something.”
“I’m sorry about the dad thing.”
“You didn’t say it.”
“It’s just something.”
“Not having a dad.”
We were quiet then. The conversation was no good and nothing could come of it. A mass of gray clouds moved in over town. The wind gave a little and the coldness of the day seemed to let up. This seemed inappropriate given the dark clouds. We sat in our spots, warm in the jackets. We’d forgotten the men in the waves.
“You remember the Cree in that truck the other day?”
“We were playing hockey.”
“At your place?”
“He was in a pickup.”
“I saw it parked outside a bar there.”
“What about it?”
“Have you been to Alberta?”
“I’ve only been east. I have cousins in PEI.”
“They came the year we did the three-on-three tourney.”
“I remember. We won it.”
“I broke my wrist and one of them played.”
“Didn’t he get your trophy?”
“Yeah. I guess he played more than me.”
“What about Alberta? Have you been there?”
“You want to or something?”
“I don’t know. I never thought about it. The Cree’s truck has Alberta plates.”
“There are a lot of Cree out there.”
“And not much else.”
“Maybe that’s why they’re there.”
“I don’t know. I think I’d miss the lake.”
“Yeah, I guess,” he said and then he shook his head.
“Never mind it.”
“You all right?”
“Yeah, of course. Let’s get to the shore and see what’s up,” he said and then he stood from the bench and started toward the lake.
That night we were all holed up in our houses, hiding from the weather and kept out of its reach by the thin glass and rotting wooden beams of our old Goderich homes. The lake’s storm had grown worse as the afternoon came on and it forced the men in the kayaks out of the water to pack their gear in a rush of frustration released in harsh movements and yells and spinning tires. The lightning started over the lake and moved in gradually so that everyone knew the worst was coming and the mass of clouds thickened until it blocked out nearly all the sun’s light. When night finally fell, we’d already made our individual retreats. Because of the weather but also because of the things that had occurred between us over those few days we were largely left alone in our summer freedoms. We were free from classrooms and teachers and homework and even some of us from chores, but what was more, that we couldn’t yet know, was our happy ignorance of the fact that without warning we could be forced out from the busy haze of boyhood and launched directly into the world of adult concerns and fears and worries for which we had no preparation and from which we could not retreat.
Sometime that night, maybe during the storm or maybe when it cleared in the early morning hours, Paul left the warm comfort of his bed and snuck out of his house and climbed into the bed of the Cree man’s pickup. He hid under something so he wouldn’t be noticed—a tarp, a stack of crates—and he stayed there until the Cree returned, the previous night’s drinks still on his breath, and started the engine and left town without any more warning than when he had arrived three days earlier. Paul left and had said nothing of his plan to any of us; we couldn’t say if his actions were based on some long-lingering idea or if it were mere convenience. We were left to wonder these things and to whisper our theories hurriedly across lunchroom tables and think somberly of Paul at night alone in our rooms when we should have been sleeping. It had happened and it changed most things and we didn’t know what to think of it. We were left quite simply without.
I learned of Paul’s disappearance when Principal Watts came to my family’s house that next afternoon. Two officers of the Ontario Provincial Police accompanied her. Days later, when the clarity of time lent me the confidence to return to the morning I heard of my friend’s disappearance, I was surprised by Paul’s mother’s reserve. She was calm in a way that in retrospect seemed unnatural and unnerving. Her son was missing, gone unexplained, but her eyes were clear, and her voice was calm and she seemed no different than when we fished the Maitland with Paul. But then Susan Watts was a woman unlike our mothers, and I came to understand her calmness as a byproduct of this strength our own mothers didn’t know.
When Susan Watts came to my house, she told my parents the news. My sister and I had been up for hours and were sitting in the living room when she and the OPP came in through the side door into the kitchen. Susan Watts knew my parents through my friendship with Paul, but they never socialized as some of our parents did and because of this I was more surprised to see Principal Watts at my side door than I was to see the OPP behind her. I wondered about it for a long time. Going to a side door somehow seemed less official than the front. I thought maybe it was the only way she could manage.
She and my parents had been on the phone before then: “No, Paul wasn’t at our house. No, we hadn’t seen him. He said he last saw Paul when they left the lakeshore. Paul was heading home.” That had been early. No one went back to sleep.
They sent my sister upstairs and told me to come to the table. Susan Watts said, “No, that’s okay,” and asked if she could speak with me alone. I might feel more comfortable that way. We sat in the living room—me on the couch, she awkwardly on an ottoman. I knew enough to be sad, to look scared. She put her hand on my knee and I thought that I should be the one comforting her.
“Are you doing okay?”
I nodded. Like always, I avoided her eyes.
“I want to talk about Paul. Can you do that?” Her hand moved away.
I nodded again and said, “Yes.”
“It’s been a bad morning. We’re all worried and there’s not much we can do. I think that’s the worst of it.”
“Worse than not knowing?”
“Maybe not. I don’t know. I don’t want to think about it now. I want to find him.”
“I wanted to ask about Paul. How he’s been recently. With you. With your friends.”
“He hit Don Whimby the other day.”
“Yeah, I heard. Don’s mother called. Why?”
“Why he did it?”
“He wouldn’t tell me. He said it was nothing.”
“Don tried to get him to fish.”
“And then we went fishing.”
“And you know about the other night in the basement.”
“Why don’t you tell me?”
“It was just an argument and I tried to help.”
“What was it about?”
“I said you had more balls than Mitch’s dad and he asked if that’s why Paul’s dad left.”
“I don’t talk much about Paul’s dad. I guess there’s not much to say.”
“Does Paul know him?”
“You can’t really know him. But yes, Paul’s met him. He doesn’t live close by.”
“Does he live in Alberta?”
“No. Quebec. Why?”
“Because yesterday Paul asked if I’d been to Alberta.”
“And he talked about a truck from Alberta. A pickup with a Cree man driving it.”
“The police say that truck left this morning.”
“Do you think that’s where he is?”
“I don’t know. The OPP think they’ll find him walking down 21.”
“Why would he do that?”
“I don’t know.”
“So he ran away?”
“Paul would have a plan.”
“And walking down 21 wouldn’t be it.”
“I don’t think so.”
“No. Neither do I.”
When we were well into our teens and almost done with school we finally stopped talking about Paul. We didn’t get tired of the conversation. We couldn’t. And it didn’t make us sad any longer; it was too much a part of our lives at that point, ordinary and expected. There was simply nothing left to say. We’d heard all the OPP had to report—that he might have run off, but it was unlikely and that though it was hard to accept Paul had probably killed himself. The OPP said the storm had given him the opportunity. That it was a suicide by convenience because he hadn’t left a note. That he stole a boat and went out and drowned himself. The storm was bad enough and the tide strong enough that his body might have been washed far from Goderich’s shore and might never have even surfaced. We didn’t accept this, and we didn’t think Susan Watts did either though none of us ever asked her about it. There were boats missing and Paul had shown signs of depression and distancing and so on, but we thought that didn’t sound like him. We were sure that if he had killed himself, he would have left a note, probably one to each of us and to his mother and that he wouldn’t have left any doubt as to what happened and why. We thought all this, and we talked about it but we finally understood that we’d probably never know. And when we got that far there was nothing left to say. It was just something.
Susan Watts and I talked for a long time that afternoon. I think she thought I’d have an answer to where Paul was. She made it so I thought I did, too. We talked so long the OPP had to leave. New officers came to take her home. We talked about why he might have left, why he wouldn’t have told anyone, how I would have stopped him if I had known. It went on too long. Only when my mother finally came in and said we should stop for the day and eat, and all get to sleep early did Susan Watts stop talking. She was invited to eat with us but refused. She said she needed to let us be. She’d imposed enough and asked enough already. And when she left my parents spoke about how they didn’t want to imagine what Susan Watts felt, how she worried, how she could do so little. They talked to me about Paul and asked many of the same questions, though they’d heard most of the conversation from the kitchen, and they proposed their own theories and repeated what the OPP officers had said. It was an awful thing and they’d do anything to help. I didn’t think there was anything we could do. Not to help Susan Watts and not to find him.
Sometime before my mother put an end to my conversation with Susan Watts I was asked if Paul and I ever talked about his favorite childhood story.
“No,” I said. He never spoke much about anything except the stuff we were doing or going to do.
“He used to like one about Davy Crocket.”
“You know who he was right?”
“You know about the Alamo down in Texas?”
“Well, Paul always got it wrong. I mean, he knew who Davy Crocket was, but he always asked me to tell how he moved his family west and built a house by hand without help and hunted and fished for food. When I’d tell him Davy Crocket fought and died at the Alamo, he’d ask me to tell it the way he liked. So I did. I made up things according to Paul’s imagination. I’d have to ask Paul for the details. It was always more his story than mine, once we got down to finishing. And they always ended the same way. He’d say, ‘How’s it end, Mom?’ And I’d say, ‘You finish it.’”
“What would he say?”
She shook her head. “He never wanted to tell me.”
Austin Gilmour’s short fiction has appeared in the Marquette Literary Review, American Literary Review, and Still Point Arts Quarterly, with critical work in the American Book Review and Broadview Press. He is currently at work on a debut novel and resides in Providence, Rhode Island.
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