Vancouver: A novella (Wisdom Tree Book 3), page 1
A Wisdom Tree novella
About the Author
About the Publisher
For at least a week the Calgary Tower was rumoured to be a target, but so far it’s still standing.
On the flight out, there’s a glimpse of the downtown area, the pale concrete tower and of office blocks clad in granite and glass, bright in the late morning sun, a clear cold sky beyond them all across the prairie. Then the plane tilts and turns west, towards Vancouver.
I am on my way to meet our giant again, after all this time. He is in my head like a figure in a fable, a story, one I could tell if the slightest chance opened up.
The plane is half empty. I’m in a window seat, A, on the port side, and the guy in C has his hand on the folded newspaper he has placed on the empty seat between us. His index finger taps against a black-and-white picture of someone official, as if it’s counting, keeping its own beat, tap by tap rubbing the clarity from the image and transferring the grey to his fingertip. He is wearing a khaki sleeveless jacket and an old white business shirt stained at the armpits. He has rimless glasses and his face is not built to let them sit straight. He has already asked for water to take medication, two white tablets. It is beyond him to guard his feelings even slightly. He is expecting the worst, and wondering what the worst might now be.
In plague times—and this is one, in its own way—people fled medieval cities and told stories to each other in the hills to ward off contemplation of the end of the known world.
I’ve worked out which story I would tell. I practised it in the car on the way to the airport, or at least pulled out the bits that seemed to t the conversation. Maybe it is just bits anyway, however vivid they are. A lot of time has passed. Maybe it’s not even real, not entirely. I was ten. I’m thirty-eight now.
‘So what’s on your schedule in Vancouver?’ That was the question from the festival volunteer as we waited in her second-hand Mazda for the lights to change. Across the intersection on a billboard, the cast of American Pie 2, larger than life-size, exchanged looks that promised more of the same, more of American Pie 1.
What’s on my schedule? A giant. Another writers’ festival and a giant. I used to measure myself against him. As I remember it, I wasn’t even waist high. There was something very reassuring about it, the idea that our giant was right there and looming over everything, that he worked to a different horizon. It was the safest I have been, his shadow next to my shadow. Maybe he’s not even tall, but I can’t accept that. Not yet.
The man in C licks his dry lips, then wipes his mouth with his cuff. The fabric rasps against his salty stubble. He stares straight ahead down the aisle, all the way to the cabin door, past the other dry-mouthed fidgety tablet-takers who are staring at the same spot, spooked by the change in the world last month.
In late 1969, when I was six, my father bought shares in Poseidon, the nickel miner, on a bar tip. Our giant was still several years in the future, but Poseidon is crucial to my plague story.
A few months later, early in 1970, the share price went mad and took my father with it.
He stopped sleeping, and every day when I got home from school he was on the phone to his broker, getting a final price before the market closed, watching his net worth take yet another implausible leap.
It was his second hospitalisation for chest pain that saw my mother give him the ultimatum. He sold down half his stake the next morning. Later that day, Poseidon touched an all-time high of 280 dollars a share. Then the slide began.
In my father’s version of events, the influence of luck, a well-timed chest-wall muscle spasm and a family that didn’t want him dead were soon lost from the telling. He had been the one— the only one, the way he told it, and maybe he was right—to buy at eighty cents and sell on the day of the all-time high. No matter that half his holding got trampled in the rush by others to get out over the weeks that followed. The truth was in his bank account, somewhere in the mid-six figures at a time when the average wage was under four thousand dollars a year.
He went straight from work in an ambulance to the Royal Brisbane. My mother came and took me out of school. It wasn’t until weeks afterwards that I realised his job had stopped being a topic of conversation, that he had stopped going and was unlikely to go back. He had been the manager of a plumbing supplies business, retail and trade.
My father was an evening walker, always had been, and I liked to go with him. I got to stay up later that way, and to hear his opinions about the world. He could make sense of anything. After Poseidon, though, things seemed less clear, less certain. The evening walks took on a different air, one almost of bewilderment, mad riches stashed away, waiting for the right chance to double down. Every decent house we passed got the once-over, as though he might stride in then and there and offer cash for it.
‘I could buy this street,’ he once said to me, or to himself, pulling up in the middle of it. The moon was directly above us, bright in the sky. ‘All the way from here to there. To the corner. Both sides.’
It wasn’t a boast. He was still taking it in. Anything seemed possible that year.
I pictured Monopoly houses and hotels in green and red plastic, all lined up under that moon, my father collecting rent in orange, pink and blue banknotes. No one sat me down and explained the situation. No one told me everything was okay. I had no idea what the next change in our lives might be, since this one seemed to come out of nowhere, out of nothing. I wanted my life back the way it was, my father working in a blue shirt with his name above the pocket.
He bought my mother a diamond the size of a sultana grape, and himself a Mercedes that he called ‘the Benz’. He took me to Robinson’s sports store and kitted me out for Test cricket, which I had no hope of ever playing. I was seven and could barely walk with all the gear strapped on. He bought me an entire box of first-class-standard leather balls, six-stitchers, even though my hand wasn’t big enough to grip them. They sat on the third shelf in my wardrobe, telling me I would play for Australia one day, telling me my life had taken an unexpected turn and the horizon had not yet settled.
Years later I found out that he also paid out their mortgage and wiped any debts. The rest sat in a term deposit while he courted inspiration, night and day, lost in his own thoughts or out shaking hands, meeting the kind of people who dreamed the same sky-high dreams, or painted those dreams the right shade of desirable and came looking for men a lot like him.
He read books about how money makes money and, in himself and his own luck, he had a sample of one that told him his instincts were good. There was a big idea out there, waiting for him to find it. The next Poseidon, the next three- hundred-bagger. And everyone else would miss it, but he would not.
In the year that the Super Bowl turned eight and I turned ten, my father came home one night convinced he had bought the exclusive Australian rights to American football from a man he had met in a bar.
It was late when he woke me and I was deep asleep. He was sitting on my bed and light from the hall was falling across the posters on my wall. His hand was on my shoulder. There was stale smoke on his skin, and the salt-and-mineral smell of sweat. It was summer, and pubs were never air-conditioned in those days.
He spoke quickly and loudly from the start, as if he was still talking over bar noise, or needed the ideas out in a hurry. He was already showing me a pass in the American style, but I had lost the thread and knew I wouldn’t get it back till morning, or another day, when I was properly awake and his p
‘I’ve got something for you,’ he said. It was an empty cigar box. ‘It’d be great to keep things in.’
I had no idea what things, but he was my father and he had woken me in the middle of a school night, so I assumed he was right, and that it was important for me to have it. I still do and I still keep things in it, small things that come along incidentally, things I know I don’t want to lose. It’s Spanish cedar, and still carries a faint smell of cedar wood and unburnt tobacco. The smell was stronger back then. In the dim light I could just make out the picture on the outside: a smiling woman with a polka-dotted scarf and a basket of leaves in front of rows of healthy green plants.
I can’t say what put George Darrow in that bar on that night with his box of Cubans and a letter on American Football League letterhead assigning him the licence for the American game ‘throughout all of Australasia and the South Pacific’. He was a tall Texan with a lone-star belt buckle, and every black-and-white Western in my father’s childhood had taught him a handshake meant business with such men, and could be trusted implicitly.
George Darrow had the opportunity of a lifetime within his reach, apparently. All he needed was a partner with a head for business and some cash to oat the venture. His modelling showed the finances hitting break-even in year two and profits galore by year five.
When he came to our house he wore a shoe-string tie with a silver clasp and he called my mother ma’am. He had a face with more folds than an old leather glove and teeth that suggested a childhood a long way from dentistry, an epic Texan childhood. He gave me a set of collectors’ cards with pictures of American football players on them and he told me that, once my father had sold the franchises, there would be Australian cards just like them, for teams like the Adelaide Alamos and the Sydney Titans. The players had names like Daryle Lamonica and Cookie Gilchrist. I took the cards to school. None of my friends had ever heard of them.
On his second visit, George Darrow brought a quarterback, an impossibly tall Minnesotan called Knut Knutsen, who seemed to be ours to keep. ‘Noot Nudsen’ was how his name sounded when he was introduced to us, and the Ks came as a shock to me when mail started arriving for him a few weeks later.
Knut had to duck to come in through our front door, and then almost every other door, though eventually I saw him broach some high enough that he could get through by angling his head to the side. Knut Knutsen always walked in a way that seemed to apologise for being inconveniently tall.
He turned up with a battered brown suitcase and, when he sat down for dinner, his knees bumped against the underside of the table and shook the cutlery. My mother moved from the chair opposite so that he could stretch his legs out. He was in his early twenties, though I didn’t see age clearly then. He was an adult and a boy and a giant, all at once. He had military hair and his hands were as big as dinner plates. He had a strong jaw and freckles on his face that looked drawn on. I stared. I know I did because I was told several times not to. But he hardly spoke and I thought it was okay to stare because he wasn’t the same as the rest of us and would be as used to staring as a bearded lady or a rubber man. I thought he was another gift, like the cards, and I wondered what George Darrow would bring next.
From that night, for more than a year, Knut Knutsen lived in the granny at under our house. No bed was big enough for him, so he slept on the floor, on the longest mattress available, with his feet sticking over the edge. My mother bought foam from Clark Rubber, cut a footrest, attached it with velcro tabs and altered and resewed sheets so that they would fit. She made as little of this as possible, acting as though we constructed beds from scratch all the time at our place. Knut needed no attention drawn to his size, she told me.
It was a giant’s bed though. There was no arguing with that. And it was under our house.
Knut had started life in the Midwest, on a small farm that hit hard times more often than not. When I read The Grapes of Wrath at school later, it was Knut I thought about—Knut in black and white, folded up like a collapsed tent and fitted in the back of an old truck making its way through the dust bowl.
In high school he was pushed towards basketball, but football was his dream. He could throw like no one else. College scholarships were looming. He had the grades but it was his arm they wanted. One night, after he had been instrumental in a big win, throwing one impossible pass after another, he and some teammates did laps of their small town in a convertible. They passed around a bottle of bourbon. The others chanted Knut’s name and the ground announcer’s call of his longest pass: ‘Fifty yards...Sixty yards...Seventy yards... Touch down!’ Knut was a regular hero in that car, not a giant. As he stood up in the back, two teammates anchoring each leg, steadying himself to throw a pass—nowhere, anywhere, up into the Milky Way—they drove under a bridge and his hand struck the stonework, breaking several small bones and dislocating his shoulder.
It was the hand that people focused on that night, since it had hit the bridge—a bridge a loaded truck could pass under—but it was the shoulder that never mended.
The scholarships were lost, and the prospects of college. After that, Knut Knutsen was forever trying to get back the shoulder he once had, as if that might let him pick up the threads and return to the path he wanted to be on. But that’s a later assessment of it. All I saw at the time was what was in front of me, Knut on his back on the bare floor under our house, bench-pressing the concrete double laundry sink that had been replaced by machines and new white tubs when Poseidon came through.
Outside the door to Knut’s at there was room for two cars, but at least one spot was usually empty. Knut would place a flattened cardboard box down on the oil stain left years before by an old Holden, raise the concrete sinks onto two neat piles of bricks and then lie beneath it doing three sets of twenty reps. When he wasn’t around and the sinks were over to one side on the floor, I tried to shift them myself. They were as immovable as a building.
He let me stand there while he lifted and even recruited me to count, so that he could focus on lifting. From my point of view it was a part of a house he was hoisting, repeatedly, a sizeable part of a house. If he had jacked up the Benz, slid under it and bench-pressed it, too, I wouldn’t have been surprised.
This was all in the hope that his busted shoulder might one day come good, that enough muscle would do it, but the problem had never been an insufficiency of muscle.
I talked while I was counting, possibly incessantly. I got into the habit of ticking off lifts with my fingers so that I wouldn’t have to say or think numbers. I ran theories by Knut, sought his views on all kinds of things, while he patiently grunted one- or two-word responses and built up a sheen on his bare chest.
I had an illustrated book on the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World and I pictured him as the fallen Colossus of Rhodes under our own house in the suburbs. The Colossus, a rendering of Helios, the titan-god of the sun, built to mark a victory over Cyprus, stood intact for only fifty-four years and then lay broken where it fell for more than eight centuries. Even broken, it was still a wonder. Travellers made long journeys to see the pieces for themselves, and to look up at the sky and picture this giant over the harbour. ‘You have to see it,’ they would tell their friends on returning home. ‘You have to see it and imagine.’ Only the tallest of men could wrap his arms all the way around the fallen thumb.
And then we would reach twenty for the third time and Knut would stand, his head between the beams, brushing the floorboards. The Colossus of Rhodes.
I mentioned my seven wonders book to him once, without even meaning to. His head was out of view under the concrete sinks, my fingers were counting, my mouth was rattling on. I talked to Knut like I talked to no one else. He was my imaginary friend, but real. From beneath the sinks I heard the names of three wonders, but then he got stuck.
‘What’s up with that?’ he said, the words almost a grunt as he heaved the concrete up for the eightee
He borrowed the book from me and, in the following week, brought two more on the same topic home from the local library. We discussed them in some detail. We discussed everything in detail—everything that crossed my mind or his. That’s how it seemed. I would race home from school to do it.
Knut was studying by correspondence in his spare time, of which he had plenty. I’m not certain of the contractual arrangement, but I think he was on a retainer and free board, on condition that he make himself available any time my father needed him for a sales pitch. They made some trips interstate, but mostly stuck close to home, my father working his local business and Rotary contracts.
Knut’s room was directly beneath mine, and light from his desk—a six-seater dining table, bought second-hand—would filter up through gaps between my floorboards. Until then, I had been one of those kids who was afraid of what might be under the bed when the light went out, but that went away when I had a giant awake under the house.
He was doing a BA, majoring in writing. Whenever he wasn’t reading, he was working on short stories, scrawling them in carpenter’s pencil into a journal. No regular pencil was built to suit his hands—he told me he’d outgrown them in the fourth grade and hadn’t written neatly since. He typed his second drafts on a typewriter using only his index fingers, his head bent low, watching each stroke carefully all the way so as not to strike four keys at once. It was a good thing, he told me, this enforced lack of speed. It made him weigh up every word and type only the ones he truly needed. He would draft and redraft, the stories often becoming smaller as he went, and then he would send them to America, surface mail, to his course supervisor or to magazines—Atlantic Monthly and the New Yorker, and the Paris Review, which wasn’t actually in Paris any more, but in someone’s Manhattan apartment.
Other author's books:
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