Off in the distance, thereís a dog howling. Heís big and hungry and he has a taste for small children and rice krispie squares.
Thatís OK though, heís in the distance for now and Iíve been stocking up on ammunition and last week I landed a great deal on some vintage world war two german grenades.
They should do the job quite nicely.
Iíve been spending my days on the roof lately. Combine a $14.99 vinyl weave strapped lawn chair made by some third world country with a high powered sniper rifle and a reasonably powerful scope and you get a whole new perspective to the world. From far enough away they donít even look like people anymore.
Of course, I know they are.
For some that offers up something resembling an excuse, but for others, that just provides more of a reason. You can always pick out a few that know that they are people, but they stopped caring a long time ago. Now itís just about the carving up of others like lions carve up a gazelle on a safari for them. I donít think that thereís anything wrong with picking them off, they sorta kinda deserve it.
Itís like a public service, really.
Thereís a hillbilly eating a pear to my left who agrees with me. Heís a new acquaintance of mine, but he has an honest face, so Iíll believe him for now.
So sitting here in my vinyl weave lawn chair with the nylon straps biting into my ass through my tennis shorts, Iím seeing the world in a whole new light. The sun should be coming up soon, and that will more or less render the night vision feature of my scope useless. $700 later and I only have about 10 hours a day that I can use the bloody thing. The daylight hours are stretching themselves out now, so Iím really going to have to up my productivity in order to get my investment back.
The hillbilly to my left has passed out. Seems that their renowned tolerance for alcohol is somewhat overrated. I imagine that the tar of the roof will leave some awful marks on him come morning, but thatís really not my concern.
Right now my concern is the right wing nazi masquerading as a leftist in an attempt to blend in and subvert. Luckily, I can see through him, and shortly, the hole made by a high velocity piece of highly refined metal will make it easier for those around him to see though him too.
Iím all about educating the masses.
Thereís a siren sounding, but sheís not for me. Itís the end of the month, and cops have their cycles as well. A speeding ticket means a lot more than a domestic dispute when weíre talking about a quota.
I try not to drive after 11 at the end of the month. You can get into just as much trouble on foot, and the odds of drawing the attention of an overzealous young officer dedicated to proving that his testes really are bigger than yours, or even a large African ape for that matter are significantly less.
There are monsters out there, and they come in all shapes and sizes. They come in all colours too. There are no limits to them. Theyíre hungry for you and yours.
And small children and rice krispie squares as well.
Best thing you can do? Find a hillbilly, a high powered rifle (with optional night scope), a nice rooftop with a couple of vinyly weave chairs and start taking pot shots at everything evil.
Break a rule or two, but in Gods name, donít ever let yourself forget that youíre a wild animal, just one that knows better.
So thereís a story of mine that Iíve been avoiding telling for a long time, although it is easily the one that I have always wanted to tell the most.
Iíve just been afraid of telling it wrong.
I may not get it right here, but Iíve realized that maybe I never will, and Iíve been keeping it to myself for far too long to sit around and wait for me to get the magic wording right.
Nuff said, here we go then.
I have often said to myself that many aspects of my childhood came to a screeching halt when I moved to Drumheller.
Drumheller is a tourist town if ever there was one. Built originally as a coal-mining town, when the need for coal dried up, the economy shifted to exploiting the rich fossil deposits that were spread through the river valley.
What Vegas did to gambling, Drumheller did to fossils.
Bad statues of dinosaurs and anything else that was even close to a clichť of the prehistoric were spread throughout the city. Theme restaurants were scattered everywhere, and shops selling cheap trinkets were no more than a couple of doors apart. Even more common than any of these things were the motels that had sprung up over the years in an attempt for a fast grab at tourist dollars.
My first taste of Drumheller was in one of these motels. While my parents had found a house for us to eventually move into, it was several weeks before we could actually move our things in. As such, we stayed in one of the more affordable motels available. It was aptly named ďThe Badlands MotelĒ. The name couldnít have been more appropriate.
Despite the less than appealing nature of the name of the motel, I have to say that at the time I didnít mind. I was convinced that I was about to embark on a great adventure. To that point, I had grown up on Indiana Jones movies and to be in a town world renowned for archaeology I had the idea in my head that I would spend my days exploring and unearthing all sorts of lost treasures.
For the first little while thatís exactly what I did, more or less. There were regular trips out to the hills to find fossilized wood and dinosaur bones. Every little rock had a story in my mind, and my head swam with images of enormous reptiles walking the very ground on which I stood.
I never did find any biblical artifacts or fight any nazis, as much as I wanted to though.
Eventually, we moved into the house. It couldnít have had a better location for my father the entomologist and two kids raring to explore. The house was in a part of Drumheller that used to be a town of itís own, but was annexed and became simply known as Midland. Our back yard opened up directly onto the hills, and it was no more than twenty feet until you had walked far enough that you would never know there was a house to return to.
My mother found a job working at the local hospital. She worked in the emergency room and on occasion, despite the fact that she really wasnít supposed to, she would regale us with stories over the dinner table of some of the more ridiculous things people would do to themselves. Usually on motorbikes.
I always loved hearing those stories.
They have however, presented a considerable obstacle in me ever owning a motorcycle. I know full well that the day I buy one will most likely be my last, not because of some horrible traffic accident, but because mom will kill me herself.
I started school at the local elementary school. It was an old building. One of the oldest in the town that hadnít been torn down to make room for some new tourist oriented theme building. It had massive trees all around it, and in the fall, the leaves collected on the street and in the gutter along with the cotton that drifted across the concrete and the field like some kind of snow that had not been informed that it was several months too early for that amount of white.
Of course, Drumheller was never really a town that had a problem with white. It was the other colors that were generally frowned upon. Small town, small minds and all that.
I quickly established myself as the kid who wore sweatpants and had one of the more impressive mullets of the day. To make matters worse, It wasnít long before I was branded as ďgiftedĒ. To be singled out as ďbetterĒ than the other kids did not do much to improve my social standing. More than a couple of kids resented me, and I regularly paid the price of their resentment on the inside of lockers.
For an unending list of reasons, I was marked as a social outcast. I was the smart kid who used words far to big for his age. I wasnít physical, but at the same time, I had no taste for the halls of academia that the other ďgiftedĒ children were drawn to. I always managed to hang out with those that no one else would hang out with, not because I took pity on them, but because they took pity on me.
And I schemed. I was always hatching some get rich quick plan. One week I got in a spectacular amount of trouble because I bought a deer skeleton from a kid who lived on a farm and stored it in my locker. I was convinced that I could assemble the thing and sell it to a tourist.
Tourists really did buy anything.
But I lacked motivation and the skeleton sat in my locker for some time. This wouldnít have been a problem was the skeleton clean.
It was not.
It took about a week for them to figure out where the smell was coming from.
I was read more than a couple of riot acts that day. In hindsight, Iím sure more than a couple of the teachers expected me to turn into a serial killer one day. Instead I became a musician. Not much different really.
I was always the last kid picked for sporting events. I almost enjoyed playing baseball, and so I joined the intramural league. Invariably, I was the kid that everyone argued over having to take, and I spent most of my days on the bench or as far out in left field as possible.
Since my strengths did not appear to lie in sports, for one reason or another it was suggested that I join the debate team. Because thatís good for social standing.
Really, it is.
Ok. Itís not. At all.
But I joined nonetheless.
And it was there that I met the person who would have the greatest effect on my life to date.
You see, she chose me. And she was one of the cool kids. She has that rare combination of intelligence and savvy that enabled her to dance in and out of both the sides of the geeks and the cool people. She fit in with everybody. She was that girl that only exists in movies and bad TV sitcoms.
And her name was Ronalee.
Itís very hard to write about her. Itís very hard to bring justice to the person that has inspired you, and caused you to believe in yourself more than any other. Itís very hard to think that I might be able to put into words what a truly spectacular person she was.
Forgive me if I try.
If ever there was a definition of grace, it was Ronalee. She was endlessly patient and kind. She looked at me and she didnít see the pariah that I was, but rather she saw the person that I might be. And for reasons that were known, and always will be, only to her, she took it upon herself to try and make something of me.
She became my debate partner. Before everyone had been chosen, as I was so used to being the last one picked, this girl, this cool person, chose me. And she did so not out of sympathy, but because she wanted me to be her partner.
To be sure, I was a hell of a mess to work with. I always wanted to try and argue things in a way that no one had. I came up with arguments against economical issues that resulted in thermonuclear destruction of the planet. I always wanted to defy convention. I have no illusions that I was a source of endless frustration for her, but she put up with it. While everyone showed up for debates in their Sunday best, I showed up in sweatpants and a T-shirt. Ronalee would be sitting there looking like an angel, and beside her was this disaster that I was.
But she stuck with me.
She used to let me walk her home from school. She only lived about a block away, and everyone saw her walking with me. I used to intentionally miss my bus, so that I might be able to spend a little time with her. Initially Iím sure it started out as nothing more than a simple crush, the sort of schoolboy thing that happens at such a young age, but in time it turned to something more.
I canít say when it was, but at some point I began to feel something deeper than anything I had ever felt.
One spring, those of us that were in debate were ushered off to Bragg Creek to take part in a debate camp to enrich our argumentative skills. We got a weekend away from Drumheller, so I was all over it.
There was a counselor there who was stunningly beautiful. Being that I was a young kid, and young kids develop crushes very easily, I quickly had a crush on her. To make a long story short, at the end of the weekend there was a dance. I wanted nothing more than to dance with this girl, but I was only about ten and she was 18. Crushes and all.
I had it all planned out in my head. The big song at the time was ďLady In RedĒ, by Chris Deburgh. When she walked in wearing a red dress, I decided that as soon as that song came on, I would ask her to dance and we would ride off into the sunset.
She had the same plan, although my part was already cast in her mind as well. My part was to be played by one of the handsome counselors that was her age. Being so infatuated with her, I had never even noticed the budding romance between the two of themÖ
Needless to say, I didnít get to dance with her.
Instead I ran out of the gymnasium in tears. I hid out back and did the best I could to feel sorry for myself. I donít think that I was out there for more than ten minutes when Ronalee came looking for me. Thatís a wonderful feeling, being looked for.
We spent quite a while out back of that gym, talking and watching squirrels. There were a lot of squirrels out there.
And she made me feel better. She made me feel like I was worth something. And it was then that I came to realize that she actually cared about me. I wasnít just some pity case. I was someone that mattered to her. And a part of me loved her for that.
The next time that I would realize how much she meant to me would be considerably more tragic.
I remember the day she didnít come to school. Iím sure that there were many days when she didnít, but I remember the day.
It took a while for the news to filter down to me. Consequences of being as low on the gossip totem pole, as I was I suppose. As it turned out, a blood vessel had ruptured in Ronaleeís mother brain. Her mother was in a coma, and it was more than a little uncertain as to whether or not she would ever come out of it.
Ronalee came back to school, and I remember the day that class was interrupted so that she could hear the news.
Thereís a feeling that you get when you know someone is in an immeasurable amount of pain. Thereís a desire to wish you had the right words, but know that they will never come. And if you happen to be all of eleven years old, there is very little you can do. You can only feel that strange empathy that comes with closeness.
When someone is very young and just approaching the onset of puberty, life is a pretty strange place. The expression on Ronaleeís face when she was given the news was beyond description. She somehow managed to look like she had aged 30 years in just a heartbeat of a moment. It was as if someone had connected some sort of vacuum to her and she could only deflate.
She walked out of the class sobbing, being supported by the teacher who had brought the news, and I just remember this part of me reaching out for her, this feeling that seemed to start from the depths of my chest and bend my ribs out, but that was unable to escape.
I would have done anything to ease her and comfort her just a little bit.
I was invited to the funeral. I donít remember anything of the service, but I do remember the scene at the cemetery. I remember the convoy, I remember way that the wind seemed to just cut right through you. In a desert town, a cold wind is a rare thing, but there was plenty of it going around that day. And I remember Ronalee standing there with her family, trying so hard to look strong. Again, I wanted to have some magic words that would help her.
As I have since learned, there are times where there are no words.
At the end of the internment, Ronalee came up to me and asked me if I would like to come by her place later on that evening for a small gathering with family and friends. Without any degree of hesitation, I quickly agreed. She smiled and walked of to the waiting limo, and I just stood there and watched her go.
The young mind is a funny thing though. One of the things that pre-pubescent kids are better at than anything is to second guess a situation. It just seems to come naturally. One of the best ways that I have learned to gauge a persons maturity and self confidence is the degree to which they harbor suspicion about a situation, and the degree to which they construct worse case scenarios in their heads.
I was neither mature nor secure at the time.
It must have taken me all of about 4 minutes before I started having a complete and total panic attack. Who was I to be going to this family affair? What would I say to all the people I had never met? Even then I used humor as a way to meet people, and at that sort of a somber occasion, I was going in completely unarmed. What if I said or did the wrong thing? What if by some slip up, I accidentally upset her even further?
All these thoughts were racing through my head as my mother drove me to the florist to get a flower for Ronalee. I am told that yellow roses are a sign of friendship, all I knew at the time was that I wanted to give her something that showed her that I felt for her, and yet didnít place any ill-timed pressure.
For all the times in my life where I have tried not to pressure someone with my feelings and failed miserably, this was the one time that succeeded.
Mind you, my dad had to damn near force me out of the van. By the time the point in the evening where I was supposed to appear came by, I was a complete and total basket case. I was terrified of going up to the front door. While I had met her sister Corey a couple of times, Ronalee was the only one in the entire house that I really knew. Who was I to be entering into this very private affair? This wasnít just some get together, this was as real as real gets, and somehow I had been invited along.
For the record, at the time I was only twelve. You have to give me that.
Dad eventually walked me to the door and rang the doorbell. The few seconds between the doorbell ringing and the door opening were easily some of the longest of my life.
But it did open.
And there was my friend. She looked at me and did the one thing that could have put me to ease at that point.
They say a smile is a beautiful thing. That is true to some degree, but a real smile, a smile that comes just because a person is happy, that is something that is more valuable than words could ever do justice to. Not only did that smile break the massive anxiety I had been carrying around all day because it made me feel like she in fact did want me there, but more importantly, it was a real smile. It was a smile that said that me being there was able to put a little sunshine into one of her darker days. I suppose that she might say that I had given her a great gift by being there, but truth be told, I think she gave me the greater one.
Because in that moment I realized for the first time that if you push past whatever fears you might have, and you do so for the sake of nothing more than sincerity, you can brighten the lives of the people for whom you care about the most.
She was even happier when she saw the rose. I couldnít believe that she was happy, but she was. She quickly took me into the kitchen where she managed to find a vase that wasnít already in use by the massive amounts of flowers her family had received. I remember her watching her carefully cut the stem of the rose, and then mix in the little plastic baggie of plant food that they give you.
She then introduced me to all the people that she felt I needed to meet, and too me downstairs where what I suppose one might call the younger crowd were sitting. Mostly it was Ronaleeís two sisters and a group of their high school friends.
And we sat down there and we chatted and we drank punch and we just were. There was no talk of Ronaleeís mother, there was just a bunch of high school kids hanging out with a two other kids. I sat beside Ronalee, and I would wait for a humorous moment in the conversation just so that I could see her smile. Every now and then she would catch me looking at her, and she responded with the most perfect look that was something of a smile and a remarkable degree of coy.
We sat down in that basement for what seemed like hours. Eventually my father showed up to take me home, and as I left, Ronalee walked me to the door, and said in the most sincere voice imaginable, ďThank YouĒ.
And the look in her eyes. The sheer reality of it. The fact that she smiled.
Some things stay with you forever. That moment did, and always will. If I remember correctly, I skipped all the way to the van.
Odd considering the circumstances now that I think about it, but most fitting at the time.
From that moment on, she was my best friend. We had been good friends before, but there was a connection that was established through the harsh dealing of that day. We developed a phrase that we used many, many times. ďFriends ForeverĒ. We signed all of our letters and notes and what not to each other. That was how we always said good bye.
And we would be. Still are in many ways.
There are probably more stories I could tell you about Drumheller. I could tell you about the kid down the street who had a Doberman that he enjoyed threatening all of the neighborhood kids with. I could tell you about the one time that I went to an older friendís house and we leafed through his fathers Penthouse magazines, and how I was equally repulsed and aroused by the pictures I saw. I could tell you about the fake wars that the neighborhood kids and I used to stage in order to run around with plastic machine guns and feel like we were in some sort of movie. I could tell you about the man down the street who had a stockpile of weapons that would easily have armed a small army. I could tell you about how at the age of 12 I held an AK 47 and was amazed at how heavy it was.† I could tell you about how he had guns layered upon walls and how it was an amazing thing when my friends and I would be let into that locked room.† I could tell you how I used to sneak over to friendís houses to watch horror films.
I could tell you a lot of things.
But thatís not for the here.
I learned just before that summer that my family was going to move to Calgary so that my father could pursue his PhD. The only thing that made my move from Drumheller to Calgary tolerable was the fact that she was moving as well. She was going to live with her father. I was going to live in the big city.
At this point my family was living in a rented house. The only reason that this is important is the simple fact that there were the oddest concrete little steps that lead to the house. Pre-formed steps that werenít actually a part of the house, and that no matter how hard they tried to look like they were could never really pull it off because a bunch of the dirt beneath them had eroded and they sat on an odd angle.
Beat that for a run on sentence. And MS Word let that one go, go figure.
She stood on those steps as we said our good-byes. There is a part of me that wishes I had known that would be the last time I would see her.
The things I would have saidÖ
Instead we simply waved as I was carried away in the family van. A Hollywood moment if there ever was one. Sunsets and all.
Iíve spent a long time trying to figure out how to write this next bit.
After more than two years, Iíve come to realize that Iíll never actually be able to write it properly. Iíd like to, but I donít think that Iíll ever be able to, and given that, I think that maybe it means more that I try to and fail rather than simply not.
It didnít take more than a month before Ronalee sent me her first letter. To the best of my memory, it took the third letter before I responded. It went that way. It wasnít that I didnít want to write her, it was more that I didnít know what to say.
On one hand, I knew that she was less than happy and more than a little lonely in her new life. On the other hand, I didnít much know how to deal with it. She sent me a lot of letters, and in all fairness, I probably only responded to only a third of them. I lost a lot of them, but a couple of them I still have. Theyíre laminated and safely in a steel box. I only take them out once in a while, but thatís for a lot of different reasons.
When my family got to Calgary, my mom got a job at the General Hospital, just outside of downtown. A bunch of years ago, the provincial government decided that the General Hospital wasnít worth keeping open, so they did what any self-respecting governing body would do.
They blew it up to make room for condos.
I remember that day quite clearly, because I was working at a gas station and I wandered out into the parking lot after working a graveyard shift to hear the explosion. The gas station was a ways away from the hospital, so by the time the sound reached me, it was nothing more than a dull thudding noise. I remember it quite clearly nonetheless.
There are three major events in my life that took place at the general hospital. On was my first AIDS test (which at the time was more than terrifying, this was before the days of the 24 hour test results, I had to wait two weeks), the other was the dragging of a pseudo girlfriend of mine to the emergency room whilst she was in a state of hypoglycemic shock and alcohol poisoning.
But those are stories for another day.
So my mom was working at the general hospital.
One day, and Iím reasonably sure it was a Saturday because I slept in and wasnít woken up by my parents telling me that I was late for school (I was thirteen at the time, so being late for school was something of a hobby of mine), I wandered out into the living room to find my dad on the couch. I remember that I was wearing a blue felt caftan that my mother had made me for Christmas the year before.
Thinking about it now, I canít even begin to imagine how hard the next bit must have been for him. My father is an incredibly strong man, but I can remember seeing the fractures in him that morning. The list of seeing my father with fractures is a very short one.
In the movies, just before someone delivers some really bad news, they always tell the recipient of said news to sit down. Now usually, when they do so, the person receiving the bad news knows something is up.
I was thirteen, so I didnít have a clue.
I sat down on the couch, the texture of which I only remember because of this moment, and listened to what my father had to tell me.
My mother had worked the graveyard shift the night before. She hadnít gotten home yet, but she had called ahead. Seems that half way through her shift, the victim of a spectacularly serious car accident had come through the doors of the General Hospital.
You hear health care professionals talk about how the greatest fear they have is having to try and save someone they know.
Well mom knew this girl.
Ronaleeís sister Corey had suffered very serious injuries in a car crash of epic proportions. On a road north of Calgary, Coreyís car had been hit by a man in a rather large pickup truck, and the resulting impact decimated the car. Corey was in very rough shape and had suffered multiple fractures.
I remember visiting Corey later in the hospital with a gift basket of soap. I remember not knowing what sort of a gift you brought someone who was in as rough shape as Corey was, and mom advised that hospital soap sucks, and that a gift basket of good soap would be greatly appreciated.
I canít remember the part where dad told me that Ronalee had been in the car too. I canít remember the moment where he told me that Ronalee never made it to the hospital. I canít remember the moment where he told me that she never woke up.
All I remember is the feeling that someone had taken a shotgun to my chest, and that they had connected some sort of vacuum to me and that I could only deflate.
That and the feeling of tears on blue felt.
I went to her funeral. It was in Drumheller as well, in the same cemetery as where her mother was laid to rest. Corey couldnít go. Between the crushed bones and the painkillers, she could hardly move at the time. Although I probably have no business doing so, Iíve always felt very badly about that.
I was the last one to leave her gravesite that day. I waited until everyone had left before I went to the car where my mother was waiting and retrieved a single yellow rose. It was a long walk back to the gravesite, but I fought my way through the tears and the guilt of more than one too many unanswered letters to rest that rose one her grave.
For a good long time, I made sure that every year I made my way back to lay a yellow rose on the anniversary of her death. The last couple of years, Iíve gotten a little more slack on that tradition. There are a lot of reasons for that, but I suppose the biggest came in the form of my very first CD release.
I dedicated my first ďrealĒ CD to Ronalee. Even after her death (and quite frankly to this day) her memory, and the memory of her belief in me has been one of the few things that has kept me going in my darkest hours. More importantly, I needed her to be remembered. A spectacular person like she was cannot simply be allowed to fade away into memory.
And I wanted Corey to know that.
It took me a good long while to track Corey down. When I finally managed to get her number, I got her husband who was more than a little concerned with the idea of some strange guy calling up his wife, but eventually I managed to get a hold of her.
I couldnít say all the things that I wanted to say, mostly because I knew that there was no way that I would make it through everything without falling apart, so I wrote her a letter.
A couple of weeks later Corey, her husband, and a good chunk of her family came out to the CD release. I was setting up my gear when she came up to me and reintroduced herself, and I damn near fell apart when I realized who she was.
It was strange in a way, but at the moment, the fact that I was releasing a CD lost all importance. I sat down and I talked with Corey about all of the things that had happened, and she told me the whole story, first hand. That was something that I had never allowed myself to ask about, and hearing all the details from her gave me a closure of sorts. I was able to let a lot of it go.
Itís still hard for me to think about, let alone talk about. In a lot of ways, I still measure most of my failures and successes by what Ronalee would think, and when I really need to pick myself up from the mud, I remind myself that she would want me to. Thatís a precious gift that she gave me, that unfaltering belief, and itís one that I hold on to.
One last thing.
When I first started writing, after I realized that maybe I could, the second song that I ever wrote was my attempt at a tribute to Ronalee. I was eighteen at the time, and the best access to recording that I had was a four track tascam tape recorder in the basement of a friend. Itís amazingly lo-fi, and the fact that I was still heavily influenced by years of singing in a church choir is painfully (and it really is quite painful) evident. The lyrics couldnít be clumsier, but I donít think that at that age and considering the subject matter thereís any way that they couldnít have been.
Ten years later, and Iím still trying to write something that might come close to doing her justice, but looking back, I think that maybe this snapshot best illustrates what she would have wanted. I tried, and I still am.
Although now Iím doing it in stereo. And digital no less.