The Long Road Vol. 4: The Matchbox Ignites

Jennifer was a firecracker, and Paul was a steely, wiry box of matches. They drove from show to show, screeching hell’s fury, flanking rockets at each other as they did it. It was a war zone of hate and intimacy; but that’s how they lived their lives. Never resting for the pleasures of a warm marriage. Everything they did was hot and fast. There was no time for love, and no room for it in their beaten hearts.

Paul was a latchkey kid who watched his father beat his mother every night before bed. Jenny was a tied up bag of broken bones and bruised memories. Her parents were cold shadows in her thoughts, distant, blurred out figures in the shape of adult humans who carried no traits of parenthood. She came and went as she pleased, and they never questioned where she went. They hardly noticed her when she was around, anyway. Their teenage lives were violent retching, grabbing, snatching, riptides that pulled them under to the floor and pulled them around until they gasped for air. Until they met each other.

They met after she dropped out of high school and he left his broken home to collapse in on itself with no possessions but a few hundred dollars swiped from his drunken fathers’ wallet and an old guitar. She was working at a liquor store, and he was her best customer. He had nowhere to go and she had nothing to lose, so she snuck him into her parents’ attic to spend the night sharing a bottle of Alberta Premium, and that’s where it began. They talked all night about their hopes and fears, and he played Hallelujah in a mournful key, when she sang along in near whispers. Their flashlight lit faces swung back and forth in the shadowy attic, and in a moment of connection- the first of its kind for either of them- their eyes floated through the bruised and battered facades of their tough hides, and swept them together as they made love; or, at least, a brutal manifestation of all their lives toils and torments built up into what they imagined making love – truly making love rather than simply fucking- was meant to look like.

They left the next morning, hitchhiked to some small towns, played their music for dimes and quarters. They made barely enough to eat, but they were their best impression of happy. They made some friends along the way. And by that I mean Jen made some friends while her husband was too drunk to function. As a result of her natural talent and ability to influence, those friends joined them. They became a band. Something like a family – a foreign concept to both of them. a gruff, burly motorcycle gang looking family. But the old men looked out for the young couple like fathers or uncles, and they were happy. The band was a cast of road dogs, loners, losers. The people that life forgot. They performed and traveled together in an old beat up van that the bassist stole from his ex-girlfriend. Soon, the bassist gifted the van to young couple and took up their own vehicles to travel more comfortably. For the first time in their lives, Jennifer and Paul had a home.

Neither had ever felt the warmth of a loving heart in their lives. but they’d seen love on TV. So they produced the best version of that that they could. It was a rough and sharp-edged excuse for affection, the rage they had built up in their youths often frothed forth in explosions of volcanic ash; but the heat tempered the riptide, and they loved the contempt their bouts stirred up. They loved their reckless intimate circle-jerk of pseudo-affection that they shared with one another. They loved that they could each direct their anger with laser-precision and neither harm nor damage the integrity of their marriage. Most of all, they loved how much they hated their love.

But before that day I found her waiting on the shoulder of the highway, he had never abandoned her. He had never left her to fend for herself in the rock-hard, cold, uncaring world. As much as they threw up torrents of abuse at one another, they saw themselves as the same team. One would never leave the other behind. Her heart had never broken before; it was a calloused, grey withered thing. When he shoved her out of the passenger seat of the van, and tossed her bags out the window onto the brown grass, her heart broke. For the first time in her life, she felt true pain. She wouldn’t tell me what they fought over, but she was sure we would meet up with him in Pincher Creek.

We pulled into Pincher Creek, an old beat up agriculture town. There are only three bars – as we were told by a middle-aged man upon asking him for directions – Excuses, Leo’s, and if you’re looking for something fancy, Boston Pizza. So the venue wasn’t hard to find. By the time we got there, the show would be an hour away from starting. We walked through the door to rows of cheap looking tables and a checkerboard dance floor. There was no band. Jen walked ruggedly to the bartender as I stood by the entrance noticing the unusual arrangement of a dartboard hanging on the wall directly beside the dance floor. She came back, eyes shining with tears held back against them, trying to keep her face in its natural shape as not to let this stranger she barely knew see her cry.

“He’s not here,” She said. “The whole band isn’t here. They never showed. Called the bar and said they weren’t coming.”

She marched through me and beyond the door, sat herself on the hood of my car, and stared off into nothing. I can say with confidence that this was the second time she had ever felt her heart break.

After several minutes of silence, I finally spoke up. “What now?”

She looked up into the cloudy evening sky, “Where were you headed anyway?”

The old man in the motel found his way into my mind. Have you ever been to the Yukon? was all I could think of. Somewhere he had always wanted to go, but a place that faded away into his dreams. I doubted if he ever would

I sat down on the pavement beside the car.

“Everything looks better in the light of day,” I said softly.

“What?” she turned slightly in my direction.

“Just something my dad used to tell me,” as I drifted into a distant memory, “But I haven’t seen or heard from him in years.”

“Why not?”

“My parents stopped being a part of my life as soon as I was old enough to move out,” I said.

She pounced up off the vehicle, “Do you want to see him?”

The lonely hills become buried in the size of the mountains as you go further and yet further west. The road to Vancouver is long, and it doesn’t sing like the hills of Alberta 2; but it carries with it a sense of hope as the sun sets, turning the mountains into an unnatural shade of some unknown colour while the sky darken its hue of blue until it washes out into grey. But we drove that direction anyway.



The Long Road Vol. 3: In the Light of Day

I slept on and off all night. My consciousness drifted in and out of tune while what sounded like bottles being smashed against the wall reverberated through the hotel, and on occasion, a sudden shrill laugh from the room below mine. Soon enough the sun came up.

If there is a word for just not quite rested enough, that’s how I would describe the feeling in my eyes. White beams of light shot through tiny pinholes in the curtains. The room, which I hadn’t had a good look at the night before, was derelict and dingy as you would imagine from the state of the bar downstairs. I checked out nearly as soon as I got up.

When I came to the front desk, the old man was no longer sitting in the old wheeled chair, and had be replaced by a bubbly middle-aged woman who wore those weird thick-rimmed glasses that secretaries always have on old TV shows. She thanked me for staying the night, and told me about the continental breakfast that was set up in the corner of the office. I would’ve eaten something but I could only imagine the quality of stale, bland bread and assortment of other breakfast related goodies that were likely days past their prime.

I peeked once more into the bar.

“Bar’s closed until 11:00,” the woman at the desk said.

“Yeah, I’m just checking for…”

There was no sign of life in the bar that just the previous night had been a hive of extreme masculinity and sweat. “Everything looks different in the light of day,” I thought. Something my dad used to tell me, often after my mother had had one of her violent episodes. But that was long ago and time leaks on at a steady pace. There wasn’t much to reflect on in that regard. Not at this point, anyway. I drove for a couple hours. I hadn’t the slightest idea where I was headed. The funny thing about driving without any plan of where you’re going is that you can never be disappointed with where you end up. And there’s nothing more comforting than a familiar face, even if it’s not one you expected.

At this point I was just a little past For Macleod, another  little place that, like Nanton, forgot the mantra about time and a steady pace. Up ahead the greenish-yellow fields stretched on into the horizon. The sun still hung heavy in the sky, baking the hot asphalt beneath my tires. In the distance a single hand outstretched pointing it’s thumb at me approached and quickly  flew to my rear. I drove right past without a second thought, just another hitchhiker. That’s when  I noticed in the rear-view mirror a speck of red shimmering like a familiar jewel. I thought for a short moment about the conversation the night before, “Is that really all it takes to make a friend”  Here, a quiet, lonely man, sat alone in a bar; and a firecracker approached and flared in front of him without a second thought. It took me more than a second thought to repay the favour. “Is that really all it takes to make a friend?” I didn’t know, but I guessed it wasn’t as much effort as I had thought.

I peeled into a range road and tossed the car around, wondering if someone else might have been much more sympathetic than I and picked up the traveler.

But she was still there. And she was a jewel tarnished with bruises and blemishes.

“Well hey there,” she said, in a combination of surprise and upset.

“What are you doing hitchhiking?” I asked.

“Husband threw a tantrum and left me here,” she replied as she picked up the mess of ratty nearly handle-less bags into the back seat. “We can catch up to him in a couple hours if you’re going my way.”

Well now I had somewhere to go.

“Where’ll he be?” I asked.

“Pincher Creek. Got a show in a hotel dive called Excuses.”

“That’s on the way,” I said.

There are few things in this world more solitary than the hills of Highway 2. Though we barely spoke a word, the road sang with deep, crackling tones of loneliness while the two-passenger car bellowed its answer back, and neither felt as solitary as before. “Everything looks different in the light of day,” I thought.

The Long Road, Vol. 2: The Songstress and the Dive

I stopped at the first hotel I could find. The hotel clerk was a grey-haired man with eyes like dull, unsharpened pencils. He only sort of watched me come in with one eye half fixed on an old Canadian Geographic magazine that was rounded at the corners due to repeated use. “Looking for a room?” he asked; but didn’t quite seem to be talking to anyone in particular.

I asked him if he had any vacancies.

“What does the sign out front say?” he replied in a tired, surly voice.

I hadn’t even noticed a sign. “I didn’t think there was a sign.”

“I can tell you without even looking that is says vacancy,” he said. The clerk licked his finger, and slowly brought it to the corner of the page. He flipped pages with the same grace possessed by a grizzly bear breaking into a garbage can. “It always says vacancy. We’re never full.”

I assure you he was very proud of himself.

“Can I have a room, please?” I finally asked. My eyes were now heavy. They felt like bags of sand desperately trying to pull down the curtains after the first act of a very long, tedious play.

“Yup,” The clerk said. “Yup, yup.” He continued to peruse his magazine. “Have you seen it before?” he asked.

Seen what? I want a room! “No – uh, seen what?”

“The Yukon. This issue is all about the Yukon.” He looked out the window and his vision faded into a far off dream of the past. “I planned to go there when I was a young man,” his voice fell into a deep sigh. He reached under the table and pulled out a key. “Room 445,” he half-whispered. His eyes were glazed, transparent, and shimmered in longing for a life he would never live.

The lights in the elevator buzzed as I rode it up to the the fourth floor. It was not so loud that I could not hear the dreadful music emanating from the old muffled speakers, but loud enough that the sound was drowned out and the notes fell flat of anything resembling harmony. There was no ding when I reached my floor, and so the elevator doors startled me as they opened. As I stepped into the hall, the buzzing followed me in every light bulb which was hanging overhead. Constant buzzing filled the air ever so delicately, but yet sharp enough to slightly assault the ears. This is life, I thought. Endless minor annoyances; unavoidable; unstoppable. Then came a soft sound from below the floor; a subtle array of strings vibrating in deep harmony. The harsh percussion of drums soon followed through the paper thin floor and walls, and then a voice joined. Muffled through inches of cheap  plywood and carpet, the voice crashed vaguely familiar tones into the hallway.

I marched back towards the elevator, encapsulated by the soft melody protruding through the fabric of the hotel. Down to the first floor. The music grew stronger and louder. I could see the old clerk still sitting in his chair with the magazine sprawled across his lap and his head tilted back, dreaming of far away places. To the left there was a door which I had not noticed before. There was the source of the music. Jazzy bass notes rolled across the floor. The violent strum of guitar strings streaming through the air were accompanied by that sickeningly sweet voice. As I entered the room I saw the bar was populated mainly by rough looking men who had likely spent far too many late nights awake driving down the same road I had turned off of.

The band was an ensemble of older men with beards. In the middle of the stage, like a fiery ember, stood a young lady with her lips nearly pursed around the microphone. I can’t remember most of the words she sang; but during long nights I can often hear a few words echo through the empty air of my bedroom:

“I will never be set free

Because I hold myself in chains

Prisoner of my own ideals

Abuse runs through my veins”

I sat awhile and listened. The song soon ended. The band performed a haunting rendition of “Lilac Wine”, then some other old jazz songs; but the room focused always on the woman. The singer was the pearl of this hotel bar. Her red hair scorched the dark air that seemed to be watercoloured by cigarette smoke, and she looked deeply under-dressed compared to the rest of the band, in a tee-shirt with the words “Come at me” written across the breast, and jean shorts that barely came down far enough to cover anything. Her shoeless feet tapped as she sang, as if in tune with a completely different song.

Eventually the room got quiet when the band stopped playing, and packed up. Most of the patrons went back to their drinks and guzzled away whatever troubles they happened to be facing. I sat alone. Soon the speakers played fuzzy rock music that was barely legible, and the customers became rowdy, laughing with one another. I sat alone. The bartender asked me if  I wanted anything else. I said no. “It’s last call, you know,” he told me. I assured him that my answer was not changed. He wandered off to offer last minute hangovers to the regulars.

I sat alone, looking into my empty glass. Suddenly, a sharp, yet delicate voice appeared out of the space immediately next to me. “Never seen you before,” she said. I looked up as I nearly pounced out of my stool. “Where are you from?” she asked.

A bonfire flowed like liquid out of the top of her head and just past her shoulders. “Not here,” I said.

“Everybody’s from there,” her ocean blue eyes were a little too big for her face, but nearly seemed to make up for the size of her lips.

I stirred my straw around my glass as she leaned forward.

“That’s my husband,” she said, pointing to a skinny man wearing a snapback turned slightly to the side.

I sat unsure how I was expected to respond.  Better say something. “Congratulations.”

“Thanks,” she said. “He’s an idiot.”

She hopped up out of the stool, and bounced onto the floor. “But I love him,” she said as she leaned back against the bar.

“I don’t get to make many friends,” she told me, “He only lets me talk to people when he’s drunk and not paying attention.”

Had I been watching him, I would have seen her husband suddenly and without any premeditation throw a shot glass across the room, which happened to cross the path of a rather burly man wearing a wife-beater. It crossed his path in the head. That’s when the woman said, “Nice meeting you, friend” and sauntered out into the lobby. That’s also when the burly man threw a punch, missed, and landed himself on the floor. I don’t know what the husband screamed as I left the bar looking for the woman; but I didn’t find her. I returned to my room lost in thought. Is that really all it takes to make a friend?




The Long Road, Vol. 1: The Golden Hills at Twilight

There are few things in this world more solitary than the hills of Highway 2; but the setting sun has a habit of hitting them in just the right way – and they shine in a deep magnificent golden hue with silhouettes of hay bales and barns burning their forgotten mark into the horizon – then it plays with your mind.

It happened during the summer after she left. I was left with an unbearable emptiness; I was a jar with the last remnants of sweet red jam scraped out and left on the counter to be forgotten. The house was empty, too. The world felt empty. So, I drove. With no idea of where or when I would stop, I drove. Just hit the Highway 2 and headed south. There are few things in this world more solitary than the hills of Highway 2; but the setting sun has a habit of hitting them in just the right way – and they shine in a deep magnificent golden hue with silhouettes of hay bales and barns burning their forgotten mark into the horizon – then it plays with your mind. You feel as if you’re being relieved of the broken pieces of the past that weighed so heavily on your shoulders. The hills carry them away with the light of what was once a scorching, burning heat-filled summer day. Your eyes widen as you drive on, clouds hang mercilessly like glowing red embers fresh out of the fire. The cold air moves through the grass – now dark grey with anticipation of a new night – it produces a sense of helplessness, yet not of hopelessness. there is hope still that the sun will rise once again and paint the hills in majestic copper tones of tall grass leaning against the breeze. There is still hope that the peaceful calm of twilight will remain indefinitely,and cleanse your mind and body. There is still hope that there will be an end to this emptiness that is so tirelessly shunned by the hills beside Highway 2.

And so I drove on. I drove until black shadows overtook the horizon. Until the beams of light protruding from my car could no longer pierce the unsavory darkness of the empty void surrounding it.

There is a town called Nanton, where the world stopped forty years ago. It is a place that has no concept of time. The world outside carries on, pushes forth; but Nanton is trapped in thick molasses. It knows what it is, and what it shall be forever. Sleep drives deep into the mind when in Nanton. “Rest. There is no hurry,” it whispers in your ear. “There will always be another day.”