Authors: Zsuzsi Gartner
Zsuzsi Gartner is an award-winning journalist and fiction writer who has worked as a senior editor at
magazine, books editor at
The Georgia Straight
, and as a newspaper reporter and current affairs TV producer. Her short stories have been published in numerous literary magazines as well as in
Saturday Night, Western Living
The Canadian Forum
. She grew up in Calgary and has lived and worked in Ottawa, Toronto, and Vancouver.
for my mother
better a live liar than a dead hero
—Tessie Greenglass’s advice to her daughter,
he first thing he will tell you is that all the men who graduated with him from helicopter school—and they were all men—are dead. At the age of thirty-seven he was the only one left, so he quit. Now he reconstructs vintage aircraft in a hand-built hangar the size of a three-car garage.
You will ask: “How do you live with all those ghosts?”
He will say: “Every day is Halloween.”
The last thing he will tell you is that you’re welcome aboard, as he folds himself into an impossibly small cockpit to test-fly a rebuilt 1941 Tiger Moth from the East Kootenays to Calgary. An impossibly long distance that far off the ground. You will search for something in his eyes but will find only cumulonimbus clouds reflected from a turbulent sky. The impossibilities will seem overwhelming and you will get into your car and
drive, low to the ground in your bruise-blue Mazda, sturdy as a Tonka toy all the way back to the coastal city.
What will be more difficult will be what comes in between. The day-to-day survival.
Make Noise: At first it will all seem funny. You’ll sing, with a Hungarian accent, “DarlingIloveyoubutgivemeParkAvenue!” But you haven’t worn high heels since high school. You loathe miniature poodles. Penthouse suites make you dizzy The contrasts will be more a matter of belief. You believe the bush is a place to go visit, not a place to live. It’s unbearably quiet at night. But love, you will think—great big, gasping, groaning, slurping, sucking, moaning, jubilantly insane love; that waltz you dirty, hold you to the ceiling, push you up against the brick wall love; that clanking, spewing, honking, cotton candy-coloured, tuba large, tom-tom patterned, choo-choo train whooshing through the tunnel love—will fill in that silence, make a wailing mess of the coniferous, deciduous night that shrinks you down, makes you small. But his kisses will fall like moths. He will wrap you in a lazy, silky cocoon. The silence will grow more intense.
You have a friend who would be happy out there. A woman who notices the thinly veined, silvery undersides of leaves and has paddled a canoe on a Northern Ontario lake within yards of a moose. She can even name that flap of skin hanging from a moose’s neck. “Dewlap,” she tells you, but you always forget. Face to face with a canvas
of Emily Carr’s thickly barked trees, her hands reach out, wanting to touch wood. You still think of landscapes as jigsaw puzzles, something to labour over in musty cabins while outside the rain conspires to turn the vegetation even larger and more ominous.
But this friend likes women and although she’d appreciate the aviators way with wood, she would have little use for the things his hands can do once the lights go out.
It will be your cowboy boots that catch his eye. Outside Helens Grill you’ll be unlocking your bike and this man will walk by. You’ll know he’s there because his shadow blocks the sun.
He will say: “Nice boots.”
You will tell him: “They’re riding boots.”
That will make him laugh, although to you it seems perfectly normal the way the notched heels fit the pedals of your sleek plum-coloured Kuwahara eighteen-speed. Giddyap.
Later, he’ll make you leave them on, licking the rounds of your calves near the tops of the boots. That’s when he’ll tell you about helicopter school. Then he’ll also tell you that if you were a real cowgirl, you would have had to take your boots off because the smell of manure has never aroused him.
The aviator will tell you about his twenty-four wooded acres. How one particular woodpecker has made its home on his land. How the stream—Doggie Creek—that runs through the property is clean enough to drink
from. How its miles from anywhere. He will say this as if its a good thing:
miles from anywhere
. Your mouth will form the words: “It sounds so idyllic.” And, one hand cupping his warm balls, you’ll cast your eyes around your room, wondering what to take with you, wondering what you can do without.
Play the Country Wife: At first it will all seem like such fun. You will learn to chop wood, splitting it clean, watching it in the fireplace later with poorly concealed satisfaction. You will make your own soap, although it congeals into gritty little knobs best used for deterring silverfish. You will plant an herb garden, already dreaming of running a stem of Spanish tarragon along your neck, making you taste of licorice. He will be amused by all this.
He will say: “We do have stores around these here parts,” popping your soap into his mouth, pretending its candy.
You will say: “Its more fun when its not so easy.” For a moment, you might even believe this.
The CBC will come to the East Kootenays, having learned its chock-full of interesting characters. Vicki Gabereau will romp through the area, interviewing a woman who breeds wallabies and a playwright whose works demand that the audience sit high up in trees. Then she will come to interview the aviator, this man who reconstructs vintage aircraft miles from anywhere. The morning she’s due to arrive, he will take longer in the bathroom, shaving carefully, knowing the botched
job he usually does, the blood stemmed with little pieces of tissue, just won’t do. And although you know that if it wasn’t for you liking clean-shaven men, he wouldn’t shave at all, you decide to be nasty. “It’s only radio,” you’ll tell him, as if he didn’t know.
When Vicki arrives, breathless and larger than life, touching the well-fitted corners of the log house and exclaiming loudly, you will play the country wife. You’ll make soup and serve it wearing an apron. Sighing heavily, she will tell you, “I wish I had time to make homemade soup,” knowing full well she wishes no such thing.
She will say: “What do you call this?”
You will say: “Campbells.”
Its not so much that you will miss working. Designing marketing campaigns for flavoured mineral waters does have its challenges, but you will find yourself becoming more and more preoccupied with the quality of lettering on the bottles. You used to dream of writing the great urban Canadian novel. Now you try to think up visual metaphors to convey sparkling clean taste. “At least its not hurting anyone,” your father always says, happy that you’re earning a living. Your brother writes poetry, which makes your father curl his lips inward until they disappear.
Celebrate: The aviator will throw you a party, decorating the airplane hangar because it’s more accommodating than the house. He will winch up the Tiger Moth so it sways suspended over everyone’s heads, still a skeletal
frame, too fragile to be airborne. He will not have made the wings yet, so the shadow the plane casts will resemble a lace cigar.
Susannah, his ex-wife, will be there and you’ll prepare yourself to hate her. You will know these things about her: the woodpecker, the one you will hear but never see, used to calmly look over her shoulder as she read on the porch; she is a qualified ranger and speed rock climber; she speaks Nepali like a Sherpa; and she knit the Cowichan sweater he’s seldom seen without. But when she shows up, tiny and delicate in a brown poncho and holding a casserole of steaming lentils towards you, with wise child eyes, you will want to gather her up in the palm of your hand and tuck her under your armpit for warmth.
Later, when you’ve drunk too much Canadian Club, you will start calling her Lady Pinecone and the three of you will dance arm in arm under the belly of the unfinished plane. He will be pleased you get on so well and you’ll feel sad that their marriage failed. This will make you want to jump up, grab tight hold of the planes frame and just dangle there kicking your legs while the guests gasp and the Doobie Brothers
play some funky Dixieland
. Of course, he will catch you mid-leap and pretend it’s part of a dance move. That night you’ll hunch over the sink and cry, “How could you have left that wonderful little Lady Pinecone?” He will splash cold water on your face and tuck you in.
Write Letters: You will let your friends know it’s not just desire keeping you there, but that you’re reaching inside of yourself, finding inner resources you never thought you had. You’ve planted herbs, you’ll write, and corn. What you won’t tell them is that there are so many trees the plants don’t receive enough light. They are stunted. Dwarves.
What you will write them are funny, ironic letters that describe you doing battle with the wilderness, as if the wilderness were a surly bank teller or a waiter who’s brought your Corona without the requisite lime.
You won’t write them that you often stand for long hours at the front window, squinting out beyond the hangar where ferns curl under cedars, their spores loud inside your head. The mushrooms, out there where you won’t venture, moist like skin, will spread their fungal roots for miles under the ground, rumbling, forever rumbling.
To be fair, the aviator will try to be understanding. He will see the real you—the you that walks in the city with a bounce in your step, cocky, stepping out among moving vehicles, not bothering to cross at intersections; dodging cars in some mad, happy dance or yelling at drivers who cut you off on your bike. Places to go, people to see. Out of my way, hombre! The insistent hum in the air addictive music to move by. Adrenaline snaking through your body like electric light, the voltage so high in your eyes the lashes burn to the touch, vibrating until you practically lift off.