FIREBREAK

John Tavares

When Spirit called the reception desk for the results of blood tests, Dr. Windier insisted on a follow-up appointment at the clinic. The locum doctor said she couldn’t reveal the results of her tests over the telephone. She requested her telephone number, but Spirit said she didn’t own her own telephone, and she still lived at her parent’s house, and they were old fashioned, conservative.

The doctor pressed her for a telephone number, but Spirit was secretive about her body and affairs and worried about her privacy, and felt uncomfortable giving Doctor Windier her parents’ telephone number. The doctor requested she drop by the clinic for a visit in the afternoon, although she reminded her the clinic usually didn’t accept walk-ins. She hiked across town to the clinic, through the rain, thunder, and even a lightening flash, one of many lightning strikes that day, which, she later learned, caused several forest fires, which eventually threatened buildings and cottages at the town’s edge.

Dr. Windier summoned her to her temporary office, which contained a large comfortable leather chair, with a stately desk, beside the examining room, where the nurse originally left her, with sterile aseptic walls decorated with advertisement posters for birth control and blood pressure pills, a weight scale, sphygmomanometer, stethoscope, and examining table with stirrups. Windier assumed a matter-of-fact expression Spirit saw bored, dull, or jaded professionals, particularly medical doctors on television, assume, but then the doctor smiled, as if she bore good news, with her immaculately shiny grin, and Spirit admired her large, straight, flawless teeth. Holding a clipboard with her laboratory results, she revealed Spirit was pregnant. Dr. Windier plunged into the business of home visits from public health nurses, referrals to obstetricians if the pregnancy became high-risk or if there were physical or psychological complications.

The doctor reassured Spirit if worst came to worst, she could be flown as an emergency patient by air ambulance to the regional hospital in Thunder Bay, if complications in delivery arrived unannounced and overwhelmed staff of the small-town hospital.

            Holy, Spirit muttered softly, still in range of the doctor’s hearing as the petite figure in the lab coat leaned over the counter to write something on her pad, stationary with eye-catching advertisements for a new brand of birth control pill.

Spirit had inadvertently and unexpectedly gotten intimate with a few guys that weekend, a fateful time, in retrospect. After drinking vodka that night, she couldn’t really remember. She certainly couldn’t tell her parents what happened while partying at the Pine Island, after the high school graduation, amidst the beer, barbecues, and rock and roll, after most of the graduates left the party and accompanied chaperones home.

The party took place amidst an outdoor campground, beside the rundown cabins, amidst sleeping bags, tents, and bonfires in the parties at the secluded island in the bay of Pelican Lake near Beaverbrook, after the Queen Elizabeth District High School graduation ceremony, which saw the last class of grade thirteen students, since the province of Ontario mandated phasing out that unlucky number.

After midnight, Spirit hiked the trail, climbing over rocks, broken beer bottle glass, stubbed cigarettes, abandoned soaked swimwear and damp undergarments to a tent. She took Nick by the hand and guided him to her tent. Nick insisted on bringing along his camcorder and ended up being trailed by his friends. The tumble and frolic in the sleeping bag turned into a party, which extended into the early morning hours. When he wasn’t participating, Nick documented and recorded the action with his video camera.

Spirit lived with her parents in two large mobile homes joined in the middle, through her father’s mechanical ingenuity and resourcefulness, and experience moonlighting as a self-taught welder and plumber. As she became consumed by strange cravings, particularly for ice cream, in the middle of the night, Spirit gained a healthy twenty pounds over nine weeks and thought she needed to explain. Eventually she told her parents she was pregnant.

When her father discovered she was pregnant, he announced matter-of-factly, “You have to leave town now.” Her father said he’d arrange for her to move to Thunder Bay. She would attend a high school in Port Arthur, a long walk or a bus ride from the house of her aunt, her father’s sister near the waterfront and the harbor on Lake Superior.

            Spirit wondered why she didn’t simply have an abortion.

            “For Christ’s sake,” her father replied, “you’re Catholic.” 

            “We don’t even go to church,” Spirit replied.

            “It doesn’t matter,” he snapped. “Your mother would have a fit. And don’t talk to me about getting hitched.”

“I didn’t talk about marriage.” 

            Realizing she erred in discussing pregnancy, abortion, or marriage with her father, she decided she might even attempt to obtain an abortion secretly, without her parents’ permission.

            “Good. There’s no way my daughter is getting married to an Arab in a town like Beaverbrook. You have to leave town now.”

            “Nick isn’t an Arab; he’s Greek.” 

            “Same thing, Arab, Greek, especially in this town.”

“No, it isn’t,” Spirit replied, her anger growing.

“In fact, if I saw him in an airport, I’d call security or the police. He looks exactly like the type who’d strap a belt of explosives to his chest, then board a plane, and blow it up in midair.”

Spirit felt ready to explode with rage, but she realized her father thrived on people expressing anger towards him, since he retaliated in kind, repaying the principal with interest thrice over with pleasure. Especially, she realized the futility of arguing with her father, whom she considered a redneck, about Nick. She figured her father assumed her friend was the father, but they argued and fought a few months ago, and she hadn’t seen him since the night of the party.

So, Nick did provide Spirit with a scapegoat, an acceptable guilty party for her father Nick—a convenient excuse and alibi for her pregnancy.

            “We just can’t have you walking around town with a swollen belly,” her father said. “You have to leave town now.” 

            Within a few months, Spirit moved to Thunder Bay and lived with her uncle and aunt. They sublet her the basement of their heritage house on Algoma Street, which had, in previous incarnations, been a bakery and then a funeral home. Spirit went to work at a deli, baking bread, carving smoked sandwich meats and imported cheeses, serving gourmet muffins, croissants, and flavored coffee for breakfast, making deli and submarine sandwiches for lunch.

The baby was born with little fuss or fanfare. Then, on a weekend, her uncle and aunt left her alone to mind the house and babysit her son while they visited a casino and hotel resort on a Native American Indian reservation in Northern Minnesota. Spirit found her aunt’s tranquilizers in a cluttered medicine cabinet and downed the yellow tablets, five milligrams of Valium, gulping several glasses of her uncle’s homemade wine.

Sitting in a chair beside the bed, Spirit started to feel a floating sensation as she momentarily grew free of anxiety and inhibitions. She stared at the carpet floor and then finished gulping the bottle of diazepam and homemade wine. She put the baby on its stomach and smothered its head with a pillow until the tiny figure, wriggling its pudgy limbs, stopped struggling, and grew limp.

Then she went to the washroom, and a sensation of bloating and nausea overwhelmed her before she coughed and hacked and vomited forcefully. She regurgitated a vomitus composed of sedatives, barely digested, blended with a partially digested blueberry muffin and strong whiskey. Her smelly vomit and bile hurtled through the washroom and splattered against the toilet, mirror, sink, and shower curtain. She vomited again and, gasping, collapsed on the toilet.

Allison held the fine print of the Norton anthology to the light of the Coleman lantern in her tent, as her fellow fire fighter listened to music on his Sony Discman. Then Nick changed compact discs and asked her when was the last time she saw Spirit.

“I tried to persuade Spirit to join me forest fire fighting last summer. She thought I was crazy. She said if I went firefighting the guys would take advantage of me.”

            “Spirit is white trash.”

“Don’t say that; Spirit is a lost soul. She’s old fashioned, or her expectations and attitude—they’re from an earlier time. She still thinks women are house wives—get married and stay at home and take care of the babies. She expects a man to provide for her; it’s the way she was brought up or was taught to think.”

“You don’t know Spirit. Do you know where Spirit is?”

“I haven’t talked to Spirit for over a year.”

“Spirit got pregnant—so much for old fashioned—and moved to Thunder Bay. She got gangbanged at the graduation party after all the goody two shoes took their diplomas and pop and chips and got driven home by their parents. I don’t know why she was at the party; she was supposed to graduate last summer.”

“Gangbanged? What are you talking about?”

“She got drunk and then her party drinking buddies started fucking her.”

“You mean they raped her.”

“She wanted to get shagged. She was saying things, like yeah, give it to me, cum on my face. I don’t know.”

“You mean they raped her.”

“No way. She was egging them on, unbuttoning their pants, unbuckling their belts, stripping.”

“Because she was drunk, you said. If she was drunk, she can’t give consent.”

“They were drunk, too—

drunker than zombies. They were all acting like zombies, except instead of brains, they wanted private parts. They were shitfaced—it was a pathetic scene, but they looked like they were having a riot. It made me vomit, literally.”

“I don’t think that is a defense, not legally, anyway.”

“So now you’re a lawyer. Anyway, those guys watch too much porn or something—her included. She sounds like she wants to be a porn star, Christy Canyon, Nina Hartley, or someone like her.”

“Where does she get porn in Beaverbrook?”

“Don’t you ever drop by the video store, even for an ice cream cone? Look in the adult X-rated section. Think about it: they have porn movies in Beaverbrook. Isn’t that the end of the world.”

“I don’t watch television or movies; it’s a waste of time.”

“Books will save the world, eh? I don’t care. Anyway, Spirit definitely has problems.”

“She said she has bipolar disorder, as in manic-depressive illness.”

“Bipolar disorder, my eye. I don’t know why you’re friends with her.”

“We grew up on the same street together in town. In Sacred Heart, we walked home and to school together. We played together in the schoolyard and neighborhood. When I went on summer holidays, she took over my paper route. We were practically inseparable, almost best friends. Then my parents built a house on the lake, and we lost touch. I read some psychology books last semester for independent study, and the most fascinating part was mental disorders. When I read about bipolar disorder—the descriptions and symptoms sounded exactly like Spirit in her senior year at high school.”

Nick held the wrapped condom up to his face, but, while Allison noticed the prophylactic in shiny steel foil, she refused to acknowledge its presence.

“How do you get a name like Spirit?”

“It’s native.”

“She half-Italian—she’s not even a full-blooded. Dad says Spirit’s father was a half-breed hippie, into peace and love, planting trees in the spring, fighting forest fires in the summer.” Nick’s father told him Spirit’s father, in his twenties, backpacked across Europe during the winter and hitchhiked to the States for rock concerts and music festivals, or demonstrations to protect the environment. He smoked pot and had a reputation as a drug runner, apparently smuggling cocaine. “Then he inherited this gas bar and convenience store and turned into this right-wing nut.”

Nick remembered the time Spirit visited his house, creeping through the back door, to ask him if she could borrow his Rolling Stones compact discs so she could record their music on blank cassette tapes for playback on her portable stereo, which had a duel cassette player/recorder, a compact disc player, and an AM/FM radio, at home. George and Sophia, Nick’s parents, drove to Dryden that Saturday to shop at the furniture and appliance store and Safeway and Canadian Tire and eat dinner at the A&W restaurant, so, alone, he invited her inside the house. Nick showed her his music collection, neatly organized on bookshelves, made from plywood and brick, inside his bedroom.

On a whim, he asked her if she wanted to get naked and have fun. The moment she started stripping off her clothes he felt the onset of a panic attack. Then she started taking off his clothes, and his fear turned to excitement, but he started trembling uncontrollably and fumbled.

He directed his penis towards her mouth, but she gripped his penis and steered it down to her midsection. She wanted to have intercourse, but he was so aroused he came while he tried to slip on a condom, he took from his father’s shaving kit.

Afterwards, he wished she would leave immediately, but she lounged and laid back on his bed and made herself comfortable, so he made a bag of microwave popcorn, seasoned it with the packet of sour cream and onion flavor, and shared a bowl with her. When she asked him if she could stay until later than night and listen to music in his bedroom, he told her she needed to leave the house because his parents would return soon, even though he knew they sometimes went dancing and drinking at a bar, which had country and western nights every weekend, in Dryden and didn’t drive home until after midnight or even the next day, if they decided to stay in a hotel overnight.

Nick gave her a shoebox with worn cassette tapes, which his George, his father, copied from his Rolling Stones vinyl records, and which he took from his basement bedroom. He led her to the back door, but she insisted on staying, and he grew firm and pushed her out the porch, saying, “You don’t understand: My mother doesn’t like Indians, and my parents will be home soon, and, if they see you here they will have a fit.”

Spirit grew annoyed at being manhandled by him and being made a scapegoat for his mother’s prejudices. She complained, saying she should go to the police and say he raped her.

Allison heaved and jiggled her hips, thrusting her pelvis so Nick was deeper inside her. She wanted him to come quickly so he would get off her, and she could escape the stifling tent and jump in the lake and wash and rinse off his sweat, semen, grime, and the charcoal they wore like masks and tattoos from working around forest fires. She could feel his heartbeat and trembling like a cat, as he clutched her, and she scissored her legs around him. Then he finally grew hard, but he came prematurely inside of her, the mere tickle of flesh triggering the heights of pleasure and, fortunately, he wore a condom. 

Meanwhile, she could see in her mind the fragment of an idea for a story for the annual CBC Radio writing competition. Allison urged him to leave, saying she was going to be sick from the canned pork and beans in molasses sauce and the bacon slices they cooked over the campfire. Nick beat a quick retreat, clutching his boxer shorts and his fire fighter gear, to cover his frontal nudity, as he stumbled, unzipping the flaps of the tent.

She looked around for her ballpoint pen and notepaper, and hurtled the semen laden pink translucent condom, which he peeled off and thoughtlessly and carelessly dropped, into the bushes, beyond the cooler filled with water from ice cubes, in which floated pine needles, and juice boxes and canned soft drinks. She turned on her flashlight and lay down on her sleeping bag. With her writing pad and ballpoint firmly gripped, her brow knit, Allison intently wrote the gist of the story idea that entered her brain.

Nick returned to the tent for his can of Coke. When he saw Allison writing furiously in her notebook, as she lay on her stomach on the sleeping bag, he asked her if everything was all right.

“You’re not going to tell on me, are you?”

“Why would I say anything? So, I could get us both fired?”

Allision didn’t tell him she believed she had been a virgin up until then, but she thought the experience with him was the most anticlimactic moment in her life, especially since he kept going limp when she was most receptive.

Allison remembered how she managed to land a job as a forest fire fighter. On the summer after she graduated from high school, on a Saturday of the long weekend, the night of the firefighter’s social, during the blueberry festival, she showered, styled her hair, put on makeup, and decided to visit the largest social event of the year, the volunteer fire department’s social at the hockey arena, in search of that elusive man who would rescue her from her miseries and her father.

An older man in the local uniform, a plaid shirt, denim jacket, jeans, and steel toe boots, approached Allison at a table, while she read her cerebral pocketbook, The Name of the Rose, and sipped her Diet Coke. George recognized her and was about to tell her he was her father’s high school classmate and Nick’s father, but looked like she could use some company and humoring so he asked why she was reading and wasn’t dancing.

Allison said she wasn’t dancing because nobody asked. So, he asked her if she wanted to dance, but she replied she didn’t feel like dancing with him.

Nick’s father bought her a drink, a rum-and-Coke, her favorite drink, when she drank alcoholic beverages, which wasn’t often, and as long as the cola was Diet Coke. Then he asked her why she smelled like burnt wood and smoke. Despite the fact she showered, bathed, shampooed, primped, and groomed, before she left the house for the social at the arena, her jeans and halter top smelled like woodsmoke. Angry, she unleashed a torrent of verbiage, as she ranted: she smelled like smoke because her father insisted on burning wood at home. He said he burned wood to protect the environment, but she knew the reason he heated the house with firewood: he drank and drinking beer and hard liquor took priority over staples and essentials and ordinary household expenses, including paying the heating oil bill, and burning wood was the cheapest form of energy in Northwestern Ontario. Her father also chain-smoked cigarettes, despite the fact he had a lung condition, and burning wood often filled the house with smoke, which permeated the entire household, ceilings, walls, windows, food, clothes, and provoked more spasms of breathlessness and coughing. Then she went on a rant against wood burning stoves, saying they were dirty and smokey. She couldn’t comprehend how environmentalists could favor wood as a source of energy over oil or natural gas when she saw through personal experience how much pollution, smoke, smog, ash, and floating debris, wood burning produced. She didn’t know how many times she woke up in the middle of the night or morning to the house filled with smoke from the wood burning stove.

“But you’re not afraid of fire?” Nick’s father asked.

“Absolutely not,” she practically shouted, realizing the third rum was starting to take effect, making her loud, gregarious.

“And you know how to start a fire?” Nick’s father queried.

“I’m an expert fire starter. Give me some discarded newspaper and dry kindling, and I can start a fire in fifteen seconds flat. Heck, I don’t even need the paper; birch bark will do fine.”

“And you know how to put out a fire?” George asked, leaning forward. She could see in rich detail the cavities and fillings in his teeth and the foam on his walrus mustache and smell the beer on his breath.

“Yes, I used my summer job savings—I work at the library—to buy not one, but two, fire extinguishers. I read the operator manuals on the toilet.”

Allison didn’t know he was a fire warden, a supervisor for the Ministry of Natural Resources. Giving her his business card, he told her if she needed a job and wanted to work as a wildland firefighter to call him. He told her the fire season was winding down since it was the middle of summer and currently he had enough crew, but, if the dry weather continued, as the meteorologists forecasted, he expected a surge in fire activity, and no fire fighters would be idly mowing the lawn around the base, or winding hose or maintaining pumps in the warehouse, and he would be shorthanded.

He preferred hiring locals’ residents over college and university students from the city, who sometimes came unprepared for small town life and bush living. Once she handed in her resume, she was hired. When she discovered the wages she would earn, he quit his job shelving books at the municipal public library.

In the morning, when they woke to smoke clouding the tent and the campsite, drifting from the forest fire, she was not alarmed. She managed to stay calm, as flames licked the fringe of trees that surrounded the encampment.

Nick panicked and could not resist the urge to flee. He forgot his fire fighter training, as a wall of flames raged at the fringes, the stand of trees around their campground. Nick waded into the lake, dressed in his orange fire gear, while Allison crouched in her bikini on a huge flat rock on the shoreline and read her thick Norton anthology of modern prose, with onionskin pages, which she took care to keep dry.  

While the forest around the encampment burned, Nick finally managed to calm down. He tried to warn her she would be fired for not wearing her safety gear and work clothes.

“More likely somebody at the district office will be fired for leaving a few novice fire fighters abandoned—stranded so close to a fire.”

“The plane was overloaded.”

“I get it now: You’re apologizing for management because your father works in the upper echelons. Oops, I better watch what I say.”

“Yeah, watch what you say. He made the mistake of hiring you.”

As the clouds of smoke grew thick and dark, billowing, pluming, they covered their mouths with cloth they wrapped as masks around their mouths and noses, they finally managed to establish radio communication through their walkie with another fire crew. Landing dramatically, steeply descending below the tree line on shore, a chartered bush plane from the floatplane base on Pelican Lake arrived to evacuate them from their dangerous proximity to the fire. The plane flew them across the lake and surrounding forests, stricken by fire, shrouded by flames and various hues of smoke, until the skies turned blue and the forest green again. The pilot banked steeply, causing Nick to exclaim, as he feared the plane would lose control and plummet into the lake and crash, but the landing on Abram Lake beside the Ministry of Natural Resources fire base in Beaverbrook went smoothly, as the pontoons skimmed the cool water and the floatplane cruised towards the weathered timber docks. Staring across the passenger seats at Nick, his head tucked between his knees, she realized his fear of the plane crashing, and of innumerable other unfortunate circumstances, happenstances, persons, and situations, was not only unrealistic but genuine.

Born and raised in Sioux Lookout, Ontario, John Tavares is the son of Portuguese immigrants from the Azores. Having graduated from arts and science at Humber College and journalism at Centennial College, he recently earned a Specialized Honors BA in English Literature from York University. His short fiction has been featured in many media outlets, including community radio and newspapers, as well as print and online journals and magazines in the US, Canada, and overseas. Following a long fascination with economics, he obtained certification in the Canadian Securities Course. His many passions include journalism, literature, photography, writing, and coffee, and he enjoys hiking and cycling.

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