Spain Remembers

Spain Remembers

Friday, July 4, 2008

A short story by Joan Baril

This story tells the tale of a co-op house in Winnipeg in the early 1970's. The residents want to help Americans who come to Canada to avoid the Vietnam War. The story was first published in Thunder on the Bay, a local anthology by the Writers' Circle.

by Joan Baril

When Carl told us about the draft dodger he’d met at the homeless shelter, we were all in favour of letting him move in with us. Actually Carl, Catherine and I were in favour; Maurice had reservations.

“We don’t have enough room, for one thing,” Maurice said. He was stretched out on the living room rug, his head near the wall and his stocking feet close to the door.

“There’s an extra cot in the basement,” I said. “He can sleep down there with Carl.”

“Christie, look around you.” Maurice waved one foot in the air. “There’s only three chairs in here. And the front hall is a pile of junk. It’s the Great Wall of Winnipeg out there.”

He had a point, I had to admit. The small entry was so jammed with snow boots, running shoes, text books, and skates you had to push hard to open the front door from the outside. We couldn’t use the back door; we’d covered it with insulation and plastic because it leaked so much heat.

“We don’t use this room often,” Catherine Semenek, Maurice’s partner, pointed out, “but the kitchen’s a good size and that’s what matters.” She was in her yoga pose on the rug beside him, her coffee cup balanced on one knee. She raised her arm with one finger in the air. “And why did we rent this house? Wasn’t it to take in Vietnam War resisters?” She frowned down at him. “Now, you’re backing out over a few fucking boots?” She was hitting Maurice’s ideological hot button. He sighed.

“If we’d take stuff to our rooms and leave the front for snow boots only…” I ventured, but Maurice and Catherine, who had heard this argument before, were standing ready to leave for their evening activities.

But Carl stopped them cold. “Ray’s got a Dodge,” he said.

“The guy has a car?” Maurice said.

“A ‘67 Dodge. Ray’s got it parked behind the homeless shelter. The clutch is shot, but if he had a place to work on it, he says he’d get it going.” Carl told us he went with Ray around to the back of the shelter and saw the Dodge half buried in snow. He immediately thought of the old unused garage in our back yard. And Ray offered a deal. As soon as the car was running, we all could drive it as a co-op vehicle. He’d pay the insurance and that would count as his rent.

There was a brief silence while we took in this information. “We’ve got to get ourselves together on this,” Maurice said. “Another meeting tomorrow?” He gathered up his briefcase and piles of marked French papers from the bench in the hall. Catherine raced upstairs to get her dance bag. They were heading for the Portage Bus, he to Red River College where he taught French two nights a week, and she to her feminist theatre rehearsal.

After Carl and I cleaned up the coffee cups, he shrugged into his winter jacket adding a pack laden with pamphlets, posters and hand-outs for the Waffle meeting at the university. He also carried the coffee urn. Since I was the group’s secretary, I had the minutes in my shoulder bag as well as a completed history essay I intended to slip under my prof’s office door. I also had a cloth bag packed with coffee, serviettes, stirrers, sugar and creamer packets.

On the bus, as we steadied everything on our knees, I thought about how much easier the trip would be if we had a car. When I told Carl this, he smiled. “It’s all coming down, Christie. I can feel it. First a car for us. Next, at the NDP convention, the Waffle will bring the party back to its roots.” Carl was great, I thought. Even though he was an American, he was dedicated to the cause, to use the Waffle faction within the NDP to push the party farther to the left.

Carl Rosen was a deserter from the U.S. Marines who had moved in six months ago. He slept in the basement because there were only two tiny bedrooms upstairs. He was a dark-haired, soft-eyed young man who fit in well, paid his share of the rent on time with money from a part-time job at the food co-op and, besides helping out with the Waffle meetings, he volunteered at the homeless shelter.

The next day, during my morning classes at the university and my afternoon job at the candy counter of the Metropolitan Theatre, I fantasized about the Dodge. I saw us dashing around the city with ease putting up our demo posters. I pictured us loading the car with supplies for the Waffle meetings. I imagined us driving some of the older members who couldn’t get out in the winter. After my shift, as I waited for the bus at the corner of Portage and Main, I kept warm by conjuring visions of cozy rides to school in the mornings and sleepy rides home after work. Whenever a car went by with passengers cocooned from the cold, I smiled. Soon, my turn.

Later, in our old-fashioned kitchen, the coffee was perking. I tapped my empty cup with my spoon to get everyone’s attention. “We’ve got to make a decision about this guy at the homeless shelter,” I said. Carl, who’d made challah bread and chili for supper, and was now tackling the dishes, turned and wiped his hands. Maurice, with his chair tilted against the kitchen counter, closed the French text on his lap but did not come to ground. Catherine, who’d been doing yoga poses at the end of the kitchen, flipped to her feet. I set out all the reasons why we needed a car.

“No argument from me,” Catherine said. “We need this vehicle for our political work.” That sealed it for Maurice. Carl would invite Ray to move in the next day.

“Where’s the key for the garage door padlock?” I said. “Is it still on the hook by the back door?” I was in a hurry to get the scheme going.

Raymond Burns was from Minneapolis. He was a short guy in his twenties with a narrow unshaven face and a bouncy walk like a gymnast. Instead of long flowing hair like Maurice’s or Carl’s, he had a duck cut in front and a little pony tail in back—a sort of 50s, 60s combo. That evening, Maurice filled him in on the house rules. “And there’s no smoking inside,” he said when Ray brought out a pack of Players

“No problem, man,” Ray said, putting the blue box back in his shirt pocket.

The next evening, our new resident cooked up clam chowder, dished it out and, after supper, following the house rule that the cook does the dishes, tied a towel around his waist and started in.

Catherine brought out the posters she had silk screened for the anti-war demo. They showed a bleeding maple leaf with the words “End Canadian Complicity in Vietnam” superimposed on it. “What do you think?”she said.

I put down my coffee cup. “Terrific,” I said. Carl and Maurice nodded in agreement.

But Ray turned from the sink and shook his head. “Not my bag, man. I hate politics and I hate the police. I stay clear of everything.” Catherine rolled up her posters with a snap.

That winter I had early classes and I ran into Ray in the kitchen most week-day mornings. He’d make me a cup of instant coffee and set it before me with a shy smile. When I headed out laden with school books, he always held the front door open for me in an old-fashioned way that I found endearing. A fondness was growing between us.

“Bye for now, Christie,” he’d say as we parted on the sidewalk, I to the bus stop and he to walk down the street and around the corner to the back lane to get to the garage. I’d see him striding along lighting a cigarette as he went. He never complained about the round-about walk or suggested we take the plastic off the back door.

We’d each chipped in eight bucks to get the car towed and another ten for parts, but Ray was having trouble with the brake pads. Since neither Maurice nor Carl knew anything about auto mechanics, he said he was going to try to find a guy he met at the homeless shelter to come over and help him. Meanwhile, he fixed the clutch so things were moving along.

Thursday night was scrub night at the candy counter. After we shut down at 9:30, we took everything apart and washed and disinfected every surface including the stinking popcorn machine. Usually I didn’t get home till close to eleven and, on this Thursday, as I walked towards the house, I saw a glint of light from the garage window. Ray must be working late. Maybe his friend came to help with the brakes. I went around to take a look at the car—I hadn’t seen it yet.

But the padlock on the garage doors was firmly closed. I pushed on one of the doors, moving it back a little to make a slit wide enough to see inside. The garage was in full light. Along one wall was a pile of boards, and along the other, a few old windows. Ray was not there and neither was a car. The space in the middle of the garage was blank. I pushed harder on the old door to expand the crack to get a better view. No tools were around, no oil cans or dirty rags or anything to suggest this was a mechanic’s shop. Obviously, he cleaned up very well.

“Hallelujah,” I said out loud, dancing in the snow. The car was finished and about time, I thought, for I realized, with a snip of surprise, it was more than two months since Ray had moved in.

Everyone was asleep in the house, so I couldn’t tell them the good news. The next morning early, there was Ray in the kitchen. I threw my arms around him.

“I’m so excited,” I said. “Where is it?”

“Where’s what?”

“The car.”

“In the garage. I’m doing the brakes today.”

I stood back and looked at him. A crumpled look was taking over his face. For my part, a big light was dawning.

“There’s nothing there,” I said stupidly.

With a sudden movement, Ray pushed past me and ran down the basement stairs. I followed. Carl was asleep on his cot but jumped up naked when he heard the noise. “What the hell?” he said.

“What did you do with the car? Did you sell it?” I yelled, but then another thought hit me. “You never were going to share that car, were you? You lied to us all the time. Carl, he lied to us—he sold the car.”

Ray paid no attention. He was grabbing clothes and shoving them into his duffle bag. Then he yanked his sleeping bag off his bed, deked around me and clattered up the stairs. I ran after him, but he was out the front door running down the street, the end of his sleeping bag trailing along the sidewalk. When I turned back, Carl was standing in the kitchen. “What the hell?” he said again. “Has something happened to our car?”

It was only after I found the padlock key under Ray’s pillow, and we went around to the garage, that we understood the truth. There never was a car. The place was too clean; the dust was undisturbed on the floor. A few footprints by the door and a squashed cigarette butt were the only signs of activity. The fact of no car settled on us very slowly. It came out that none of us actually saw the car. None of us had gone around to the garage. We were all too busy. Ray showed Carl a green Dodge parked in the snow behind the homeless shelter but Carl never checked to see if it was taken away. Later that day, Carl went to the shelter, walked around the back, and there was the same green Dodge buried deeper than before.

We’d been conned.

Was Ray really a draft dodger? Was he even an American? Where did he spend his days if not working in the garage? Why did he go out to the garage that evening and leave the light on? There was no way of knowing.

Our next house meeting had focus. “I figure we’re each down two hundred dollars or so when you total up the cost of car parts and the food that bastard scarfed down,” Maurice said.

I sighed, not for the lost money; but for my imaginary car, for the demise of my warm and happy green Dodge.

“We’ll just have to check more carefully the next time a draft dodger wants to move in,” I said. “We must keep in mind they’re not all like Ray. I don’t want this incident to sour us on helping war resisters.” I was trying for a pragmatic tone.

Carl interrupted me with a burst of laughter. “That little rat was the best bull shitter I ever met,” he said. “Last month, he told me he’d got the parts off an old junker at the dump. Supposedly, that took a week. And he said his friend, the great expert on brakes, was in the hospital with a broken foot, but he was getting out soon.” These recollections made him fall into giggles that erupted off and on throughout the meeting.

Maurice ignored him. “I’m through with taking people in,” he said. “My life is too busy to worry about house crap.”

Catherine stood up from the kitchen table. Her voice was high-pitched and shaky. “That Ray made us look like fools with everyone we know, and I don’t want to talk about it any more. I’m sick of the topic.” She ran from the room, put on her coat and boots at the front door and slammed herself out.

At the anti-war demo, I looked for Maurice and Catherine among the marshals, but they were not there. I couldn’t see Carl either. I waved my sign but I didn’t feel like chanting. The frost breath of the small crowd twisted into the air. Above us, the windows of the American consulate were blank. My feet felt like ice, and my hands were freezing on the sign handle. I stomped my boots and walked straight ahead, but my mind was twisting this way and that.

All our carefully planned political schemes were under siege, and I realized that Ray had left us with much more than an empty garage.

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