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Xavier’s nephew was starting to visit his house on Black Bear Street more. He surmised the young man was not getting along with his parents, with whom he lived on Floatplane Street during the summer when he was a forest firefighter, on summer vacation from paramedic training at Humber College. Some nights his nephew even slept in the spare bedroom in the basement, with his girlfriend, also a forest firefighter, who studied fire and emergency services at Texas A&M, since they both preferred the coolness downstairs, even though Xavier expressed concern about their health and well-being. The young couple insisted they were comfortable and the downstairs bedroom was cozy and cool, but Xavier worried about basement dampness and mold. The clutter and disorganization of his large collections of paperback and hardcover books, comic books, and vinyl records in the basement also bothered him. He worried it would discomfit them as well.
Xavier appreciated the company of his nephew and his girlfriend; the solitude of old age led to dysphoria he found alleviated by socializing and the company of others. But Xavier had some personal items in the house, particularly in his basement, which he needed to dispose of to make his house kosher and socially acceptable for his nephew and his girlfriend.
First, he went next door to Max’s house. Max constantly reminded him that he wasn’t racist and that his mother was indigenous, an Ojibway from the reservation on nearby Lac Suel and his father was a German refugee, a veteran of the Second World War. A few decades ago, Max volunteered at the local homeless shelter, the soup kitchen, and acted as a sponsor for Xavier at Alcoholic Anonymous meetings. But he sometimes espoused odd Teutonic theories and seemed to grow angry with age. Xavier found him in the garage welding the chassis of the Jeep he was rebuilding from scratch and spare parts he recovered from the junkyard and automobile wreck part of the municipal landfill. He asked him if he could borrow his bolt cutters.
“Bolt cutters? What do you need the bolt cutters for?”
“I just need to cut a few luggage locks I lost the keys for.”
“Yes. Luggage locks.”
Max limped through his garage, his man cave, to a set of school lockers, which they both recovered from the high school, where they were students four decades ago, when the original building was wrecked and torn down to the ground by back hoes and bulldozers. He removed a pair of bolt cutters from a tool crib in a dented locker and handed the hefty rusted tool to him. Xavier thanked him and Max winced and looked in pain.
“You look like you’re having problems.”
“Yeah. It’s the muscles in my left arm.”
“Are you short of breath?”
“Yeah, I’m always short of breath. Who cares?”
“How’s your blood pressure?”
“High. What the heck is it to you? What? Do you think you’re a doctor?”
“No, but maybe you should chew a few aspirins and see a doctor.”
“Okay, Doctor, I’ll chew tobacco and drink a few straight shots of whiskey. Just don’t forget to return the bolt cutters when you’re finished inserting the pacemaker and sewing the stitches.”
Xavier clasped the bolt cutters against his thigh as he watched with apprehension while Max clutched his chest. “You sure you’re okay?”
Max shrugged, put on his welding mask, and resumed welding. Xavier strolled down the back alley to his house and stepped downstairs into the basement. He cut the luggage locks on the suitcase, and then took the DVDs from their cases. He took the blades of the bolt cutters to the DVDs and started snipping and cutting the prismatic digital video discs in half. The DVDs he compiled on his personal computer from adult videos he downloaded over the Internet a decade ago. He thought the videos plain, mainstream porn, but, if he recalled correctly, a few videos he downloaded for Max, who asked for scenes of rough sex. So a few videos he downloaded and burned to digital versatile disc for him were less mainstream: a mature porn star with a sofa of men; a muscular porn actor bound in chains and shackles in a dungeon like basement. That was edgy, but what did he know about community standards or obscenity? Who was he to judge?
The problem was he did care, and he had some intractable sense of morality and Catholic guilt to blame. He just did not want to be on the wrong side of the law over adult tapes he downloaded in exuberance over the wild world of the Internet years ago. He realized many of the video clips he never even bothered to watch. He took the bolt cutters, snipping and cutting DVD after DVD, until he chopped and rendered unplayable a dozen shiny metallic discs.
Xavier looked at the mess sprawled on the basement floor and thought it a waste of blank DVDs. Nonetheless, he needed to get rid of the debris. He had no use for porn anymore and had a sense of urgency about it, insisted on immediately getting rid of the junk. He had a mess of cut DVDs scattered on the concrete floor and wondered if he should cut them completely to bit and pieces, but it hardly seemed worth the effort. He could see criminalists in a forensic lab taking DVDs to a computer expert to analyze the fragmented material and try to read the videos encoded on DVD, but thought the probability unlikely and even then the stuff was legitimate—as far as he knew. He loaded the DVDs into a backpack and then grabbed his riding gear, leather jacket, cowboy boots, chaps, and a helmet, and mounted his nephew’s noisy motorbike. Then he took off on the dirt bike.
He did not have his motorcycle license any longer; he allowed the license to expire, but he decided to ride along the boulevards of the highway and through the trails that ran alongside the highway. He found himself gazing into the rear view mirror at a police cruiser. He thought the police officer was pursuing him, as he drove on the trail alongside the highway. Then, he saw in the rear view mirror, the police cruiser turn into the trailer park. He continued to drive along the highway, worried that the police would pull him over when he didn’t have a license to drive a motorcycle, having allowed his motorcycle license expire. He drove along the highway until he reached the landfill gate. Since it was a Sunday, the gatehouse and gate was closed, and he merely drove along the roadway. When he came to the dump, he spotted the eagles and black bears from a distance. He took out his smartphone and started taking pictures. Then he dismounted his nephew’s trail bike and walked warily around the black bears to the dump. He came to the spot where the dump workers appeared to be dumping the most recent garbage and tossed the DVDs down in a microwave oven box, in front of the parked bulldozer, as a black bear cub crawled over the cab.
He hoped the bulldozer would crush and plow under the waste and evidence of his past indiscretions and evidence of his miserable bachelor existence. Then a black bear started ambling towards him. He took several pictures of the huge ambling bear before he simply mounted his nephew’s motorbike and drove away, back down the dirt road from the dump to the gate, and the highway back to town. That night he dreamt of all the articles and newscasts about men caught with videos on their computers. While he drifted in some abyss between sleeping, dreaming, and wakefulness, he thought of the dump workers arriving at the dump and finding the DVDs, labelled adult videos, and calling the police. He thought he made a mistake, leaving the labelled DVDs in front of the bulldozer for any landfill worker to stumble across. The times had changed; though porn was considered acceptable, in some circles it was still socially unacceptable in some circles, was how he perceived it. He decided he would return to the dump in the evening when the gate closed.
He took his nephew’s dirt bike and raced down the trail that ran alongside the highway and turned onto the dirt road to the dump. When he arrived, the configuration of the landscape changed. He could not find the damaged DVDs he dumped. In a panic, he searched the huge boxes and bags of trash lying on the ground.
Then he came about a body spilling out of a huge cardboard box, beside what looked like seized contraband, liquor bottles, tagged with police receipts, dumped at this very site. He gazed at the body of an aged woman, wearing blue jeans, a plaid shirt, and a jean jacket, hanging out of a refrigerator box. He thought he recognized the person, with her long dark braided hair, who appeared indigenous, spilling out of a box for a refrigerator, as Cheyenne. He had gone to elementary and high school with her. She appeared to have a bug crawling across her lifeless face. She was dead, judging from the insect climbing on her skin, her pallor, and the fact she did not appear to be breathing.
Then he did something he later regretted. He took out his smartphone and took several pictures, as if to confirm what he did not want to believe or acknowledge. That was the story of his life, though, he thought: disbelieving the evidence of his own senses. This woman who groped him and pressed herself against him in the high school gymnasium during a dance and at the bar decades ago—a university student studying physiology and anatomy in medical school—was actually quite attractive physically then. Now he was a lonely old man, with an enlarged prostate, hemorrhoids, aching joints, and a yearning for companionship, not lusting, just seeking company and the love of a good woman. He took photographs with his smartphone against the backdrop of the landfill, with the bulldozer, and mounds of garbage and discarded washers, dryers, chairs, and tables, in the background. He mounted the dirt bike and sped down the road from the landfill. He drove the motorbike home and he thought he should call the police, but he had done nothing wrong, and he lost respect for the police following a few recent incidents.
As he tried to focus on watching the Breaking Bad boxed set he bought on television, he started to form the belief and conviction that Max was somehow behind what had happened to Cheyenne. However, what had happened to Cheyenne? He looked at the picture on his smartphone and saw the bruise beneath her eye and the mosquito crawling across her cheek. She could be merely sleeping rough in the worst way conceivable. He went to bed, thinking of Cheyenne, remembering events from over a half century ago. How she had cornered him at a high school graduation party, after she won numerous scholarships and bursaries, and huddled close, cheek-to-cheek, and spoke and murmured softly to him, but he had not succumbed to her advances. In fact, he had pulled away from her, one of the more physically appealing young woman in the graduating class. She might have even been among the most popular, but she was indigenous, and the students were not colorblind then the way they were today. The following evening he was still plagued by a sense of guilt and self-reproach, but he could not report his discovery of the corpse to the police. He even started to doubt the evidence of his senses.
In the early evening while there was still light, he took his nephew’s motorbike and drove out to the dump again after the gate and tollbooth closed. He wondered if there were video cameras there. He could not conceive of them, but it might be possible. The area of the landfill where he dumped the DVDs and then come across the corpse of Cheyenne in a box for a refrigerator was leveled and flattened again. There was no sign of Cheyenne.
Unable to sleep, Xavier stayed up late looking at the images of Cheyenne’s body on his computer, enlarging the image, magnifying the pixels until they were blurred and the figure of the body and the landscape of the dump was unrecognizable. He zoomed in and gleaned over details and the thoughts and worries kept repeating themselves. Unable to decide, indecisive, several times he picked up the phone and dialed the police, but he hung up at the very last second. Then he decided to print the series of photographs of the body. He loaded the desktop inkjet printer, which he never before used, except to print some business documents, with a stack of photographic quality paper, and printed the images. He put the photographs in a folder and slipped the folder in his backpack.
In the morning, he realized he experienced the obsessive-compulsive symptoms his family physician warned him about, even though he did not believe the diagnosis because he was not a helpless repetitive brusher of teeth or hand washer. He called the clinic to make an appointment but his family physician was on an African safari and would not be returning from vacation for another month.
Later that night, he decided to return the bolt cutters to Max in his garage, his man cave, up the back alley. Shrouded by stagnant clouds of cigarette smoke, Max smoked a cigarette by himself while he listened to classic rock on the radio and tinkered with the carburetor for a souped up engine for a customized car for his own nephew. In a snarky, surly, snarling mood, he immediately asked him what he wanted and why he was there.
“I just wanted to return your bolt cutters.”
“So you cracked your luggage locks, eh?” Xavier nodded his head and Max grunted. “You probably could have used wire cutters.”
“I forgot where I left my wire cutters.”
“It’s old age. Guess what I saw at the dump?”
“Seagulls? Ravens? Black bears?”
Holding the screen of his smartphone beneath Max’s smoldering cigarette, he showed him the pictures he had taken: photographs taken at the landfill where he discovered Cheyenne’s body. “Try Cheyenne.”
“Cheyenne? What the hell are you talking about?”
“I saw Cheyenne at the dump, looking like she’s dead, inside a big refrigerator box, at the landfill.”
“Cheyenne, medical school Cheyenne? Doctor Cheyenne?”
“She was the first person from Beaverbrook I knew who went to medical school. She earned her degree but choked during her residency after her sister died of a drug overdose in Vancouver and her brother froze to death on his trap line all in the same year. She started drinking in the middle of exams and practicum. I think in her grief she suffered a nervous breakdown. They found her wandering around in the subway at night in her underwear in some kind of fugue.”
“She wasn’t in a fugue. She was probably drunk. How did you know all this stuff? Were you her boyfriend, too?”
“No. But I hear from her youngest brother. I lend him books, and sometimes he sells me paintings and drawings, or he buys the books I have left in my collection, or I swap books or records or comic books for a drawing or painting.”
“A sixty-six year old man with a comic book collection. Hah!” Max chuckled as he dangled his cigarette over his crossed legs and spilled ashes on the knee. “Did she make a move on you?”
“Years ago and then years later again, yes.”
“I thought so, but, you know, she made a move on everyone. Why you so concerned?”
“How does somebody with her talents and smarts end on up the streets?”
“She was an Indian and she liked to drink.”
“She was supposed to have been a doctor, a family physician.”
“I agree. She was the smartest woman and Indian I ever met, but booze definitely had a hold on her.”
“I think she had mental illness.”
“I think you’re right: she was an addict. But what the hell do you expect or want me to do?”
“What should I do? She was at the dump, lying in a refrigerator box, looking dead, a corpse. I couldn’t believe my eyes and even took pictures.”
“Of course she was there. She was drunk. She had been drinking, on a binge, and somebody dumped her there. Or she went scavenging, and collapsed, or she had no place to stay and was homeless, living at the dump. I’ve seen her there before when I go to the junkyard for spare parts.”
“She lived on the streets of Beaverbrook. The smartest girl in our class was homeless, a lost soul. I remembered passing by her downtown and seeing her sleep in the doorways of the stores and shops or around the train station when I was still working as a locomotive engineer and decided to walk to work because of the nice weather.”
“She was sick, alcoholic, addicted, mentally ill. What do you expect?”
“What do I do?”
“What do you mean: What do I do? Go to the cops, if you like and see how far that gets you.” Max smirked as he took a drag on his cigarette, and Xavier frowned and glared intensely and involuntarily, so Max turned away and chuckled. “Oh, so you’re still hung up on the cops because they tried to arrest your nephew.”
“They didn’t arrest him. They harassed him, because he banged a cop’s ex-girlfriend. The cop even admitted it himself when I bought him a coffee and doughnuts and talked to him. Still, he put the kid’s mother through hell because she worried he was going to jail over some jealous cop being overprotective about a girlfriend he broke up with a few months earlier.”
“You sound surprised or shocked. They’re cops. It happens all the time. What do you expect?”
“He was harassing the kid out of jealousy—an inexperienced rookie—”
“More balls than brains, with a cocky attitude?” Max said, forcing a laugh through his wincing face.
“He was unprofessional at the very least, if not guilty of discreditable conduct, or conduct unbecoming police officer.”
Max took a long drag on his cigarette, hacked, and coughed. “So you’re the disciplinary committee and the judge and jury.” He coughed, hacked, and spit green sputum through the large open garage door on the cement pad. “You amaze me. Welcome to the real world, where cops have human emotions.”
“Yeah, you should know about pissing off cops; you’ve had enough run-ins with them yourself.”
“Your nephew, that punk, should just give up going to college and get a regular job.” Max turned around, spat, and stomped on his smoldering cigarette butt in a pool of motor oil. “So are you trying to make this my problem? Are you trying to give me a
heart attack? Forget about it and get the hell out of here. I don’t want to hear about it. Why do you tell me your problems? I have enough problems of my own. You’re trying to frame me for murder or make me an accessory because of something you saw at the dump?”
“I don’t know if she was murdered. But she looked dead. I mean, in the pictures she looks dead. She had a bug crawling along her face.”
“We? You mean you! I don’t want to be a party to any inquiry for missing and murdered indigenous women. Forget about it before you give me a heart attack. Can’t you see I’m in pain?”
Xavier thought Max did look in pain and could not remember his friend being so abrupt, short, and cutting with him—so angry and outraged—at least more recently. “Maybe you should go see the doctor. You don’t look well.”
“You know what you should do? Get the heck out of here. Delete those pictures before you get snared by something totally beyond your control, like murder.”
“We don’t know that she was murdered. She could have been, say, scavenging and decided to nap. She could have been sleeping. She could have simply collapsed from natural causes.”
“That sounds outrageous. If you have so many theories, call the cops. Listen: I don’t want to hear about this; I didn’t hear this. You’re crazy for getting me wrapped up in this mess. Now get the fuck out of here.”
“Thanks for letting me use the bolt cutters.”
“Thanks for nothing.”
“Max, see a doctor. You might be having a heart attack.”
“Caused by you. Ok. Caused by you coming to my garage and trying to make something you saw my problem. I told you: I gave up trying to counsel people with alcoholism and suicidal thoughts long ago.”
“This isn’t about alcoholism.”
“Give me an effing break. Go to the cops, for Christ’s sake.”
As he left, he could not escape the conviction Max was somehow complicit in her death. Later, that night, he looked at the picture he had taken on his smartphone to confirm what he saw was not a delusion or visual hallucination and indeed not a case of mistaken identity. He deleted the pictures, but then realized it had been saved to his email account in the cloud, and he did not know the steps to delete the images there. He thought he would return to Max’s man cave and try to apologize to him and consult with his neighbour the angry Renaissance man about his smartphone. When he awoke, he found he missed a call from Max on his caller identification, but thought it best to allow tempers to simmer and visit him in person at the man cave later.
When he dropped by the garage in the following evening Max’s nephew ignored him as he knocked on the large frame of the garage door. Max’s nephew cleaned and organized the interior, sweeping the oily cement floor, loading tools into the back of his truck.
“What do you want?”
“What do you mean? What do I want? I’m here to see Max.”
“Max is dead. He had a massive heart attack.”
“Exactly what I said. Ok, now, see you later.”
Max’s nephew told him years ago he hated him, and Xavier kept his distance. Years ago, he briefly dated his mother, but her son succeeded in breaking up their relationship. The youth called him names, vandalized his car, and argued and fought with his mother and him constantly. Xavier did not think his mother, a wonderful caring woman, the sole woman he had been intimately involved with in a long time, worth the trouble or family discord. When he left her, she made a self-destructive gesture, overdosing on sleeping pills. Eventually, she went on to marry a retired police officer in Winnipeg, and the couple both made an annual seasonal migration from suburban Winnipeg to a trailer park in Arizona during the winter. But Max’s nephew, Xavier guessed, still nursed a grudge against him. Max’s nephew jangled a chain with dozens of keys and started to lock up the garage.
“But how did he die?”
“How did he die? I heard him in the hospital complaining you stressed him out with some bull and he figured that triggered his heart attack.”
“You’re bullshitting me.”
“Ask my wife. She’s a nurse at the hospital. He had a myocardial infraction and then he had a lethal arrhythmia, ventricular fibrillation, and went into cardiac arrest. I was right there visiting him when they scrambled with the crash cart into his hospital room, but they couldn’t resuscitate him. He wasn’t alive more than twelve hours from the time I took him to the hospital yesterday at midnight.”
“What about the funeral?”
“What funeral? You know how anti-social Max was.”
“He wasn’t always like that—a recluse.”
“Well, he was always a difficult person to get along with and then he retired and became a hermit. Who’s going to show up to his funeral: The cops to make sure he’s finally dead?”
“He has friends.”
“I’ll let you know about funeral arrangements, if there are any.”
Amazing: His lifetime neighbor, co-worker, and classmate passed away, and the man’s nephew pretended the day and event was like any other. He went home and remembered the pictures of Cheyenne. He tried once again to figure a way to delete the jpeg photographs from his smartphone and e-mail account and online storage, but he still could not figure the instructions online. Standing in front of his desktop computer, he tried to figure out the procedure for synchronizing files and erasing backup copies remotely stored in the cloud. He simply decided to delete his whole e-mail account and the contents of his photos folder. Humans were just as dispensable as e-mail accounts. They were there and then you hit the delete button and they were gone. Such was life. It almost appeared to him a metaphor for memory in an advanced and mature age, each day a repeat of the previous one, quickly erased from human memory, like Cheyenne, like Max, and no doubt he would eventually join them.
Later in the evening, out of habit, as if about to visit Max, he walked along the back alley. As he stood outside the closed door of Max’s garage, almost expecting to rise and open, and to reveal Max sitting on his wooden stool smoking a cigarette, he came across a familiar solitary figure. In a red plaid shirt, faded blue jeans, and scuffed sneakers, with long black hair in braids, the aged unmistakably female figure moved slowly down the gravel lane, seemingly lost. Standing in the back alley, he contemplated the woman slowly moving down the back alley towards the dead end, which led to the dock and lake shore and the lookout point. He realized as he stood in the laneway he had just passed Cheyenne, haggard and weary but alive, a true survivor.