Fiction / John Tavares
:: Toronto Life ::
Clay’s second cousin hiked the trail from the band office, where he had to deal with some kind of bureaucratic red tape and bull over his white girlfriend living on the reserve without band permission, even if she lived in town weekdays, when she wasn’t flying to reservations north of Sioux Lookout, where she worked as a social worker with the First Nations social services agency. After he cursed Clay and blamed him for letting his leg hold traps sit to rust in the shed when he asked him to oil them, and showed him his broken leg was healing slowly from the snowmobile accident he had while ice fishing on Lac Seul, he said Clay inherited a condo in Toronto from his nephew. In disbelief and distraction, Clay returned to reading the Reader’s Digest large-print condensed book, Gone with the Wind, beside the dim light from the lantern.
Then, at the reservation gas station and convenience store, Clay thought he was starting to go completely deaf, but, over the din and noise of the announcer shouting excitedly during the live telecast of the playoff hockey game from the television on the refrigerator beside the microwave oven, the lawyer confirmed the bequest in a long-distance telephone call. Clay still didn’t believe his nephew had left him a condominium; the nature of the accommodation was ultramodern, exotic, to him; the location was foreign, faraway. Later, the chief explained to him at the reservation band office a condo or condominium was a fancy city name for an apartment. His nephew, a lawyer, specializing in law for indigenous people, was killed in a fiery car crash on Highway 401 after he drove from the Six Nations reserve to help negotiate settlements for residential school and Sixties Scoop claims.
His nephew’s lawyer partner said Nodin had no other living relatives he held in high esteem, aside from his uncle Clay, who he remembered fondly. Nodin remembered the times Clay insisted on taking him on his snowmobile, all-terrain vehicle, and dog sled along the trails through the bush around Lac Seul and patiently taught him hunting, fishing, and trapping skills on the bush and lake around Tobacco Lodge reserve and the surrounding waterways, which, after the construction of the hydroelectric dam at Ears Falls, one could argue, turned into a reservoir. His nephew especially loved the skills he learned snowshoeing through the bush, along the lakeshore, and across the lakes, and fur trapping, ice fishing for walleye and lake trout, commercial fishing whitefish, setting snares and leg hold traps on the trap line in the snowy bush for snowshoe hare, fox, lynx muskrat, beaver, mink, marten, fisher, and wolves.
Nodin also respected the fact Clay never smoked or drank, or took advantage of women, or friends, or, for that matter, judged him. The lawyer called him several more times long distance. Again, he had to snowmobile or snowshoe to the reservation convenience store to use the payphone or hike to the reservation band office to borrow their landline to listen to the lawyer explain he should simply sell the condominium. The apartment was probably worth a million dollars. The lawyer, his nephew’s partner, reassured him he would help him invest the funds, purchase an annuity, set up an investment portfolio of income earning stocks and bonds, or set up a trust fund, which would provide him with a pension or monthly income.
The chief agreed with the Toronto lawyer he should sell the condo. The chief claimed he had gotten too used to, too acclimatized, to life on the reservation, and the culture shock of Toronto might kill him. She said he’d hate life in the city, especially a big city like Toronto, since he better appreciated the traditional way of life on the reserve and the surrounding nature.
Clay never liked the chief much and was mystified by her claim to speak for him. Who said he hated life in the city? he demanded. He never said he didn’t like life in the city, or preferred living in Sioux Lookout or Tobacco Lodge to the city of Toronto. He was seventy years old, and, in his mind, he felt fit and well, but he was afflicted with old age conditions like arthritis. He was suffering from gout and ankylosing spondylitis, and, short of breath, he worried about the effects of heart disease. He didn’t feel like he was in any physical or psychological condition to hunt and fish, and he was actually tired of living on the reserve. At his age, seventy, he felt like he could no longer tolerate the cold to snowshoe the trap line, or even fish or guide tourists for walleye, musky, or northern pike on Lac Seul, or hunt for moose, whitetail deer, or ruffed grouse. The chief was incredulous and so was his nephew’s lawyer, both of whom continued to try to persuade him to sell the condo. Exasperated and frustrated, they raised their voices and gesticulated as they tried to persuade him to sell the condominium, but he couldn’t possibly think of what he could do with a million dollars.
“It’s a million dollars before taxes, but after taxes and fees,” the lawyer said, starting to sound officious, like an accountant, “the bequest will be far less.”
Even after taxes, the chief said, how could he possibly spend a million dollars when he lived on a reservation like Tobacco Lodge, if he didn’t smoke, or drink, or chase women. If he lived in the city of Toronto, though, Clay argued, he would be close to medical specialists like rheumatologists and cardiologists who would be able to help him with the aches and inflammation of his rheumatoid arthritis and ankylosing spondylitis and the shortness of breath and chest pains associated with angina pectoris. He didn’t really have any close friends or relatives on the reserve, or even in the town of Sioux Lookout, nearby, anyway. He always enjoyed his visits to the city of Toronto and staying with his nephew. He liked visiting the gay bars and strip clubs, and he especially loved the coffee in the exotic variety of cafes, full-bodied, strong flavoured, not water-downed or diluted like in the local café, in Sioux Lookout. At the Roundhouse Café in Sioux Lookout, if you lingered a little too long, or said the wrong thing, or talked a little too loud, or didn’t smell like eau de cologne, the owner, who hovered above customers like a stage mom, might kick you out and ban you.
Once again, the lawyer and the chief tried to persuade him not to live in the condo in Toronto, warning him about the high cost of living in Toronto and the high cost of property taxes. When he compared the property taxes for the house he owned in Sioux Lookout with those in the city of Toronto, though, he noticed the property taxes weren’t that much higher, even though the Sioux Lookout house was worth much less. You could buy several houses in Toronto for the price of that condominium, and then you would have a real property tax problem on your hands. So, he reassured them he had squirreled away sufficient savings, from the money he earned on the trapline, from his full-time job on the green chain and the planer and as a filer for the huge saw blades in the Northwestern Ontario Forest Products sawmill in Hudson, and from the summers he worked as a fishing guide on Lac Seul and the autumns he moonlighted as a hunting guide for Americans anxious to shoot a moose or black bear.
Likewise, he could sell the small house he owned in Sioux Lookout, where he lived for a decade while he worked as a night watchman at the Department of Indian Affairs Zone hospital for indigenous patients from the northern reserves. Besides, he didn’t even own the cabin he lived in on the reserve in Tobacco Lodge. He didn’t even feel like shoveling the snow on the walkway—he didn’t want visitors and, if anyone was intent on visiting him, they could trudge through the snow—or fixing up and doing maintenance work on the cabin.
Beginning to think a condo might suit him after all, the lawyer reassured him fees would cover maintenance and upkeep for the condominium. The lawyer explained he was a close friend of his nephew and would do what he could to help him when he flew to Toronto.
“Fly to Toronto? I’m not flying to Toronto. I don’t need to be hassled by metal detectors and security guards.”
Clay preferred to take the passenger train, which was slow by modern standards, taking over a day in travel across the Canadian Shield of Northern Ontario before the train even started travelling south to Toronto. The Via Rail passenger train was often late, falling behind the right of way of freight trains, but the travel was hassle free and the dome car and large window seats allowed him to sight see the Canadian Shield landscape, the lakes, the forests, the rivers, creeks, muskeg, swamps, rock outcrops, and small towns and camps and outposts along the northern route.
Before he left, the chief called him to the band office and his office for one last meeting. He said he just wanted to make certain that there was no hard feelings. He tried to reassure him he wasn’t trying to tell him or order him what to do, especially with his own personal life, but he was only thinking about his best interests and what he thought might make him happiest. He still didn’t think he would be happy over the long term living in Toronto, especially compared to life on the reserve of Tobacco Lodge. That judgement, she said, was based on her own personal experience with fellow band members, particularly younger people, who moved to the city and became addicted to opioids, intravenous drugs, and pills, or resorted to the sex trade or found themselves victims of human trafficking or trapped in a criminal lifestyle, drug trafficking, smuggling, robbery, because of poverty or addiction, or got caught up in the wrong crowd in urban centres like Winnipeg, Thunder Bay, or Toronto. Still, she understood he had a life and mind of his own, and he was free to learn through experience how hard life could be in the city, particularly in Toronto, and he would always be a member of the band. He didn’t tell her he wouldn’t allow her to decide what was good for him, but he thanked her, even though he thought she was overeducated and a bit too condescending and overbearing.
When he arrived in Toronto, the lawyer friend of his nephew met him at Union Station, hired a limousine to drive him the short distance downtown home, and helped him set up house in Aura, the condo high-rise at Gerard and Yonge Street. He told him the Aura Building, where his nephew owned a condominium, which he now owned, was stacked seventy-nine stories high, with more floors than any building in Canada, and was taller than any residential building in Canada.
Then the lawyer friend of his nephew said he was gay. The reason Nodin’s father or none of his brothers or sisters inherited the condominium: Nodin was gay. No one in Nodin’s family accepted his sexual orientation or lifestyle. Born-again Christians, Nodin’s family had difficulty accepting their sibling’s and son’s homosexuality and disowned him.
His nephew said Clay never had an issue with his sexual orientation. Live and let live, Clay said, and he didn’t know what to add because he still thought the fact his nephew was gay wasn’t his business, and he couldn’t pass judgement. He was family and another person, no more, no less, except he was smart and talented and had special skills as a lawyer, all of which he admired. Then Josh told him that Nodin actually died from AIDS.
“AIDS? I thought you told me twice over the telephone he died from a car crash on the freeway.”
“After he was diagnosed with an HIV infection, Nodin started drinking, and he stopped taking his medications, which were also making him sick. Eventually, he contracted pneumonia caused by the HIV virus, and he died a painful death. But I couldn’t say he died from pneumonia related to AIDS to the people on the reservation. Then the gossip and rumour mill would go crazy, and his brother might drive all the way down to Toronto to shoot me.”
“I don’t think they care.”
“Possibly because they already know.”
“They know he’s gay, but Nodin doesn’t exist for them anymore. Nodin was already dead to his closest family before he actually died. He’s been dead to them since they discovered he was gay, when he was caught by an OPP officer with a teacher from Queen Elizabeth High School, in a car parked overnight in Ojibway Park. The teacher was fired, but Nodin was expelled from high school and went to Pelican Falls Residential School when it reopened.”
But, Clay said, he knew he couldn’t mention Nodin’s name around his family because immediately his mother flew into a fury or his father threatened to drive a thousand miles to Toronto to shoot him. Or his brothers joked about taking him to downtown Sioux Lookout to the Fifth Avenue Club or Fathead’s sports bar and tying him to a tree or utility pole and allowing a loose woman from the rez or trailer park or living on the streets have her way with him. They even joked about driving to Dryden and the strip club and locking him up in a motel room with a stripper who would give him more than a lap dance.
“You should have an easy time living in Toronto,” the friend said.
Clay said he hoped he would. The first several months he busied himself with adapting to the city environment and setting up house. He kept the television and the computer his nephew had in the condo, but he barely used them, except to watch a few movies and videos online and fishing and hunting shows on the outdoor television channels. In fact, he found the living quarters so empty and bereft he spent as much time as he possibly could away from the high-rise apartment, with its spectacular view of the city, especially at night, and its amenities and luxuries, including the weight room, the swimming pool, and the gymnasium. He busied himself with medical appointments with the cardiologists and rheumatologists, and diagnostic tests at the hospital, but once he was placed on suitable medication at the proper doses, he was stable and required little medical attention. As he settled into city life, he busied himself with visiting the library to read the newspapers from around the world or large-print bestseller books. Then, in the evenings, he visited the restaurants and coffee shops and the odd time adult video shops and strip clubs sprawled across the city, but what he found peculiar and more interesting were the buses, subways, and streetcar rides across the city to visit different establishments, including a few art galleries and museums. He felt, in fact, he had become what subway riders called a straphanger.
He enjoyed taking the buses, subway rides, on expeditions across the city. He enjoyed people watching, amazed at the wide variety of people who commuted and travelled across the vast city of Toronto. What amazed him even more, though, was the way the transit commission police followed him across the city.
The transit enforcement officers seemed forever interested in where Clay was travelling, what he was reading, usually the Toronto Sun, the Toronto Star, or the Toronto edition of the Globe and Mail newspaper, left over by another commuter, and they were usually interested in what or who he was looking at. When they stopped him and asked him where he was going, he was a bit embarrassed to say he wanted to go to a flea market sale and see if he could find videotapes and DVDs of Marlon Brandon movies on sale cheap at his favorite video store before it went out of business. He decided to tell them he was visiting The House of Lancaster on the Queensway and observed with bemusement how they reacted.
The officers tried to persuade him not to take the bus from the Keele subway station platform to the Queensway. They told him he was too old for a titty bar. Another time they called him a dirty old man and tried to order him to go home. Once they followed him because they thought he was a fare jumper and didn’t believe that he could afford a transit pass. They even double and triple checked his identification and monthly transit pass because they said he looked too young to be a senior and worried he might be an illegal immigrant. Another pair of transit enforcement officers told him they thought he was suffering from dementia and prone to wandering aimlessly and dangerously. The transit officer, whose turban he admired, said, if Clay was from an Indian reservation, maybe he should return to the north and live there again.
An officer said there had been complaints about him, and that he might be happier on the reserve. “Traditional and ancestral lands is where it’s at, eh?”
He asked him to tell him about the complaints, but the officer shrugged, shook his head, rolled his eyes, and crossed his beefy arms. “You don’t understand women in the city,” he said. “Don’t you know it’s rude to stare?”
Later, Clay even decided to buy a smartphone, from the electronic retailer in the Eaton’s Centre, and, even though he didn’t learn how to completely use the phone, he liked to read books, newspapers, and magazines on the screen because he could enlarge the text to a size large enough to suit his blurred and failing vision. Once, when he put down his smartphone and forgot to pick up the device when he rose for his stop at College Station, a transit supervisor seized the cellphone, and, when he tried to take it back from him, he said it was lost or stolen. He said he was turning the smartphone to the fare collector, who would turn it in to the lost and found if no one claimed it by the end of his shift. Since Clay didn’t use the phone that often, anyway, and even then the calls to the reservation were costly and depressing, he decided why bother complaining and attempt to have the smartphone returned when his nephew had left him e-book readers, full of books, which only needed to be recharged every second or third week, instead of everyday like the smartphone.
Then, one evening, when he returned from a visit to a Starbucks in the suburbs, and he entered through the automatic gate, the burly pair of security guards insisted on seeing his identification and his transit pass, insistent that he was fare jumping. When he showed them his transit pass, they insisted it was stolen. When they asked to see his identification, to confirm the name on his transit pass matched my ID, he realized he forgot his wallet with his identification in the strip club. No worries, though, the doorman and security guards in the men’s club knew him and would hold his wallet for him until his next visit. The big burly bald security guard insisted on seeing his identification, immediately, and put him in a headlock, which turned into a chokehold grip, when he tried to pull and twist away. He decided to test the strength of his new dentures on the man’s hands, biting the flabby fold of flesh between his thumb and fingers. He didn’t see what choice he had since the man was choking him, suffocating him. He knew the man was a security guard and not a police officer, so he didn’t see how the man was justified in using such force, but, after he bit him, the point was moot since the second security guard, initially anxious his buddy was using excessive force, pounded his head with a baton.
So it came to pass Clay was hospitalized with a head injury in the intensive care unit of Toronto Hospital, and then he, in a coma, was transferred to the neurology and the neurosurgery ward. The neurosurgeon operated, drilling holes in his skull and removing a sawn segment of the cranium to relieve the intracranial pressure and stem the bleeding in his brain. After multiple surgeries, the doctors didn’t expect him to recover: he was taken off the respirators and feeding tubes.
He was returned to Sioux Lookout in a hardwood casket in the cargo hold and luggage compartment of the passenger train, which, delayed and forced into rail ridings by an early winter blizzard, arrived sixteen hours late. Their breath turning to clouds of smoke, the conductor and engineer cursed in the cold as they unloaded him from the baggage and luggage car, behind the locomotive, at the site of the abandoned train station in Hudson. Clay lay in the coffin alongside a piece of lost and misplaced luggage on the broken cement platform near the railroad crossing in Hudson, at the intersection with the road to the sawmill, until the chief sent his cousins to pick him up in the blowing snow and freezing cold. The chief reassured his cousins they needn’t worry, his estate and the sale of the condo would provide more than enough money to compensate them and to provide funds to bury him in the reserve cemetery in Tobacco Lodge, if no one wanted him buried in the Evergreen Cemetery in Hudson, or the cemetery in Sioux Lookout.
An empty brown beer bottle and a few stubbed cigarette butts on the freshly packed soil marked the plot on the snowy landscape in the chilly cemetery where he was buried. With a few days, the late leafless autumn turned harsh, winter grew dark and frigid and froze the lakes and the Canadian Shield rocks, and the earth turned hard and the snow heaped high.
From the writer
:: Account ::
“Toronto Life” is, in a sense, a narrative realization and actualization of my own skewed observations of individuals’ personal experiences of life in public spaces in the city of Toronto, including my own as a mature student. Toronto is a wonderful, vibrant, cosmopolitan city, but at the same time there is a certain pressure to conform to what I’ll call Metro norms, ideals, and standards. If a person, particularly an outsider, finds they don’t adhere to these social codes and conventions, they may be profiled and targeted, or become ostracized and outcast, not necessarily overtly or blatantly, since oftentimes the bias is subtle. (A few media pundits, including beloved Canadian broadcaster Peter Gzowski, have noted that racism tends to be polite in Canada.) Outliers in a sense, or those considered The Other, these same persons may also find themselves intimidated and bullied by authorities, the gatekeepers of the city. Of course, some more independent minded, self-reliant, and individualistic persons who reject these conventional ideals or subscribe to different beliefs may be content or happy to occupy positions at the fringe. However, what I find fascinating about life in a big city like Toronto is that sometimes those who have led the most successful and at the same time the most transgressive of careers and existences, harming people in the process, are those who tend to blend in best with the crowd, say, behaving in precisely the most socially acceptable manner, wearing what is fashionable at the time, outwardly adhering to social convention. Three former Torontonians come to mind in this context: David Russell Williams, Paul Bernardo, Bruce McArthur. In any event, “Toronto Life” is an attempt at contrast and juxtaposition—dramatizing a cultural gap and divide between north and south, skyscrapers and forests, rural and urban, indigenous and expatriate or non-native, and how these contrasts may clash with less than ideal outcomes. A city like Toronto may be most fascinating and appreciated by an individual who arrives from a place which is in many aspects, its exact opposite. The title, and indeed the story, is also a bit of an ironic play on the title of the leading magazine in Toronto, whose readers might be forgiven for thinking all Torontonians are extremely wealthy, well-dressed, well-educated, and members of high society, a very different vision of everyday life than that provided during, say, a walk through a town or a reservation in the middle of winter in Northwestern Ontario.
John Tavares was born and raised in Sioux Lookout, in northwestern Ontario, but his parents immigrated from Sao Miguel, Azores. He graduated from Humber College (General Arts and Science), Centennial College (journalism), and York University (Specialized Honors BA). His journalism was printed in various local news outlets in Toronto, mainly trade and community newspapers. His short fiction has been published in a wide variety of magazines and literary journals, online and in print, in Canada and the United States.