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Small Towns are Beautiful
Words by John Tavares
Image by Gretchen Gales
My name is Joan Marks, and I am proud to say I was born and raised in Beaverbrook. Having lived in this Northwestern Ontario town all my life, I still regard the sordid affair as a local scandal of the worst kind. One city-bred doctor, a valued community member and a young mother, abandoned her husband and fled our community. After a run-in with his citified wife and the police, another doctor eventually divorced and later remarried, exchanging vows at a strange ceremony with a local girl. In the midst of the chaos and its aftermath, I prayed for a peaceful, happy resolution and a return to the normal state of affairs. I wished everyone lived happily ever after in my beautiful hometown—and I do believe small towns are beautiful—but I’m not certain the storybook ending happened.
Earlier that evening at the house party, a get together after we attended a play, Hedda Gabler, at the community auditorium, Doctor Raj commented about his surprise at the growing population of the town. My husband, a paramedic who was also born and raised in Beaverbrook, asserted the First Nations communities continued to grow at an even more robust rate. But, the town bucked the trend in northwestern Ontario, where migration from towns to major urban centres occurred due to forest industry job losses, including the consequences of sawmill and pulp mill closures, in the midst of the Great Recession.
“There is certainly no shortage of police in Beaverbrook,” Raj added gratuitously.
“The police maintain law and order—keep the streets safe,” I commented, annoyed at the turn the conversation had taken. After all, I voted for the losing candidate in the mayoralty race, the retired former commander for the police detachment, even though some with liberal leanings accused him of over-politicizing municipal affairs, being racially insensitive, and not paying enough attention to environmental concerns.
“The town is over-policed and painful run-ins with cops, usually young, inexperienced rookies, overzealous, are unavoidable. You can’t visit the bar on a Saturday night without some sort of unfortunate encounter, even when you’re lawfully minding your own business.”
“That’s because of the drunks, hooligans, rowdies, and lawbreakers,” I protested. “If it wasn’t for the police, there would be anarchy in the streets and—”
He rudely interrupted me: “Anyone, including a straight A student who volunteers with the deaf and blind, can be a hooligan on a weekend night. I heard Beaverbrook is widely considered a training ground for the provincial police force. They make mistakes, learn their real jobs in this town, then move on to their next posting, better prepared for their work, leaving behind hurt bodies and bruised egos.”
I stifled my surprise and slight outrage that Doctor Raj nurtured such negative sentiment towards the police, or that his opinions were so strong and provocative. Meanwhile his wife was the second cousin of a local police officer, who was the reason she landed a position in Beaverbrook. Doctor Milena arrived at the Beaverbrook regional hospital as a newly minted medical resident. I took it upon myself, seized the initiative, to make this bright, eager enthusiastic young intern, the daughter of Central European refugees, who shared my values, welcome and at home in Beaverbrook and particularly its hospital. I tried to teach her the workings and machinations of the town and the health-care facility after she arrived, a fresh resident, a recent graduate of the University of Toronto medical school, even though I only recently graduated from nursing school at Confederation College as a mature student.
Now, her brow furrowed in annoyance at her husband’s spiel, Doctor Milena complained she thought the town had too many doctors.
“I think you’re both ignoring the fact the town is fortunate to act as a base for police and doctors working on the reserves up north,” I replied. “As a result, there’s plenty of jobs for locals.”
Looking like a police officer, like her second cousin, Milena scowled, and Dr. Raj Singh smiled primly, forcing politeness upon his discomfort with the awkward situation. Embarrassed I may have offended them both or touched on a taboo subject, I poured more homemade blueberry wine into both their crystal glasses. I am familiar with the gossip in my hometown, and I am ashamed to contribute to it, but only because I love the town and do not intend to move from here ever. I was born in Beaverbrook and, like many of my fellow residents and natives, even if I require medical care outside of town to save my life, say, intubation or ventilation, I will not seek that kind of extraordinary medical treatment or heroic intervention outside of the town’s hospital, which doesn’t have an intensive care unit. So, I will die in Beaverbrook. Still, I never thought in the end small town machinations would lead to my former boarder marrying my colleague, or, more accurately, my superior, since I was a nurse and followed the doctors’ instructions when he or she was working at the regional hospital and not on a reserve clinic up north.
I think I made a mistake when I asked my one-time boarder and house-sitter to head to the precinct jail of the Beaverbrook detachment of the provincial police to bail him out, but I felt ashamed the incident occurred within my home, and I felt embarrassed over any role I may have played in the incident. Besides, frankly, I feared the police. Some people are afraid of clowns, some of heights, some of needles and blood, some of doctors and nurses, some fear medical procedures like electrocardiograms or MRIs or CAT scans, some public speaking, but I was afraid of the police, most fearful and neurotic when they were impeccably uniformed, clean-shaven, groomed, and handsome. So, I sent Cheyenne on an errand and a mission to the jail.
Doctor Raj Singh and Doctor Milena arrived early for a party at the house, after the play, Hedda Gabler, performed by a professional theatre company from Winnipeg. Doctor Milena insisted on bringing their beautiful bouncy baby, who had to be about the cutest human being you had ever seen. Neither Ken or I as hosts had any objections to the parents, whom we were eager to get to know better as a family, bringing over their tot, even though I earlier recommended Cheyenne as a babysitter. My paramedic husband and I wanted to get better acquainted with the new doctors in town. We looked forward to encouraging them to take a more active role in the community, such as running for elected office like school board trustee or town councillor. They were actually not new town residents, but, while my husband Ken knew this doctor couple well, I hadn’t met them socially as much as I would have liked, since they were doctors for some First Nations communities, spread out further north from Beaverbrook in the northwestern Ontario.
Ken met Doctor Raj at the fitness centre, where they toned and tightened their bodies and improved their physiques with activities like lifting barbells and dumbbells and running on treadmills and riding stationary bicycles. Ken also encountered Doctor Raj Singh attending to patients in Fort Severn and Doctor Milena Radic working at the clinic in Sandy Lake when he medevaced patients by air ambulance from those reservations, hundreds of kilometres north of Beaverbrook, through the massive chilly northern skies to the regional hospital in Beaverbrook and Thunder Bay.
We decided to host the house party the Saturday night of the Easter long weekend after the concert at the community auditorium. Several nurses and staff members from the hospital, including various executives, were scheduled to attend the house party. Doctor Milena asked me if it would be okay to bring the baby, and I thought, of course, why not? I even thought that Cheyenne could look after the baby. No doctors talked about medicine and treatments. No nurses complained about patients. No hospital executives debated medical economics, or complained about incompetent, lazy workers, and difficult unions. No-one even talked about the stage play, Hedda Gaber, they just watched, but there was plenty of good-natured gossip. Everybody seemed to have a genuinely good time and got acquainted a little better, which, I thought, a healthy development. The party was a success in my mind.
As a professional who gave up trying to have children, who met my beau, a paramedic, at the local hospital, I thought many of these well-remunerated health professionals transient—although I certainly don’t mean to be judgemental. They came to work at their first job in health-care in a relatively remote hospital, which, with a catchment area of dozens of First Nations communities, served a huge area up north. They hardly had the opportunity to make friends or become acquainted with the local townspeople before they transferred to new jobs or postings, usually in larger urban centres, particularly in Southern Ontario. Likewise, I considered it important these doctors and nurses meet and socialize, since oftentimes they were focussed on their health-care careers and often saw so little of each other outside of work, hospitals, clinic, laboratories, emergency departments. Even in the hospital the same doctors, nurses, and paramedic saw little of each other because they often worked in different communities and reservations. I thought a healthy and active social life in the community of Beaverbrook would contribute to their happiness and even help them in their careers, so they might feel inclined to put down some roots in the community.
After the partygoers started to disperse and leave, Doctor Raj and Doctor Milena remained the only few members of the hospital entourage still left. Meanwhile, Cheyenne set the baby free in the kitchen, and the robust infant energetically crawled around while she cleaned up after preparing exotic party snacks, pemmican and bannock. I don’t know what had gotten into Cheyenne except that she was into feminism and progressively became more liberal and progressive in her thinking and ideology. Recently, she read about breast-feeding as part of a gender course she took at the Confederation College through distance education at the satellite campus. She smiled at the baby, picked him up, and stuck her finger in his mouth. She cooed as the baby smiled and giggled and bit her fingertip. Then, Doctor Milena went to retrieve her baby from the kitchen, where she left him in his tikanagan in the kitchen. Meanwhile, Cheyenne realized the baby was hungry and since the tot clutched at her breasts she figured he wanted to be fed. She unbuttoned her blouse and extended her breasts, even though she was not lactating. Then, Doctor Milena Jonanovic walked into the kitchen and expostulated loudly, and virtually everyone in the house heard.
“I cannot believe this girl. What are you doing, trying to breast feed my baby?” She seized the baby from Cheyenne’s hold. “I really think we should call the police.” Cheyenne’s face perspired and turned crimson as she saw the rage pent up, barely restrained, on Milena’s face. “What are you doing, trying to breast feed my baby?”
Cheyenne’s usually deft and talented hands fumbled as she adjusted her blouse and slipped on her strapless pushup bra.
“Milena, relax,” Doctor Raj said, as walked into the kitchen, with a bit of a stumbling gait. “Just try to relax. Why are you getting upset? I know you’ve been working long nights and you’ve had a patient commit suicide on your reserve up north, but just try to relax. This is nothing,” he said, as he dismissively gesticulated with his hands, “this is inconsequential.”
“Except she’s not a wet nurse or a nursing mother, and she certainly has no parental consent.”
“I’m sure she’s very good intentions. She saw the baby was famished and needed feeding.”
“She could be carrying the hepatitis or HIV viruses, for heaven’s sake.”
“Milena, you’re not being realistic. You’re not keeping issues and factors in perspective.”
“You don’t know how it feels to be a woman or a mother, either, and, practically speaking, you certainly know practically nothing about breast feeding. Besides, you’re drunk right now. I think you’d be the last doctor to whom I’d refer one of my nursing mothers or pregnant patients.”
“Honey, relax. You told me you had enough of patients in Toronto, the worried well, underemployed hipsters, overeducated housewives, selfish yuppies, obsessed with Botox injections, breast enlargements, labiaplasty, benign moles.”
“What does that have to do with a stranger assaulting my baby?”
“Milena, Cheyenne is not a stranger. She is the Marks’ family friend and helper. She boarded with them.”
“What? Are you telling me you care more about this tart than the well-being of your own son? Is this what you want? Another squaw with an easy manner for a quickie, another fattie with big tits for a one-night stand, another notch in your studded belt and bedpost?”
Raj’s hand cracked like a bullwhip, flying faster than my eye could see across Milena’s face, smacking her across the cheek hard, leaving a puffy red welt. I couldn’t believe what I just witnessed: a doctor slapping his spouse, over a disagreement about breast feeding, or something along those lines, after a mildly successful house party. Then, Doctor Milena lost her composure and started shrieking and crying.
“Now I am really going to call the police. I can’t believe my own husband just assaulted me.”
He clasped her by the arms. “Milena, calm down. We’ve both been drinking. We both had a good time.”
“You had a good time, slumming with the locals.”
“Stop acting like a Toronto WASP, Milena. This isn’t one of your house parties in Rosedale with politicians, corporation executives, lawyers, and assorted professionals dressed like it’s luxury fashion catalogue.” He gulped the rest of his blueberry wine from the hand that held the crystal glass and slammed down the beer bottle he held with the other. I realized I made a mistake and overserved him. “God damn it, we’re in the land of plaid shirts, torn t-shirts, toques, parkas, and scuffed running shoes and hiking boots. We’re in the north, Milena, the real north, the true north, strong, and free!”
Ken and I both looked at each other as if we had accidentally stumbled into a patriotic rally.
“You are incoherent and drunk,” Milena said, as she turned on her smartphone and called the emergency telephone number. She started to shoot a video of Raj through the smartphone camera lens, which triggered a reaction from Raj as he lashed out again and knocked the smartphone away from her hand. The smartphone went flying, bouncing off the carpet, slid to the stairwell, tumbled down the wooden stairs, and cracked the screen of the device, which, Milena had just complained cost her nearly a thousand dollars, on the cement floor. Cheyenne scrambled down to the basement after the phone to retrieve the device. Within a few minutes a red light flashed through the window, as a police cruiser’s headlights illuminated the driveway.
Milena’s second cousin David, the single police officer who didn’t make me nervous and provoke a phobic reaction, perhaps because he reminded me of a social worker, parked the provincial police cruiser at an angle to block the narrow, crowded driveway. He marched up the front door and through the house in his uniform, which had a paramilitary look, looking uncharacteristically stern, unforgiving, and indeed like a secret agent on a mission. After he asked some questions, Doctor Raj grew surly and snarly, and Constable David made a call on his police radio. Another police cruiser sped through the neighbourhood streets until its tires squealed to a stop outside the house driveway. Then Doctor Raj Singh cursed and berated and another police cruiser roared across town for backup, even though my husband complained aloud their suspect didn’t appear violent. Verbally abusive perhaps, but not violent. Ready to drive the couple to their big house on the lake—the McMansion, he joked, Ken couldn’t believe what had happened. Constable David ordered Ken to another room and insisted Raj “calm down, settle down, relax.” He led Doctor Raj away in handcuffs. One police cruiser drove Milena and her baby home, to their million-dollar house on the lake.
I watched through the living room window as Constable David dragged him across the yard and driveway to the police cruiser. He pressed his head down as he pushed him into the back seat like it was one of those prep walks you watched on true crime television during coffee break at the nursing station. My husband Ken wanted to see if there was anything he could do for Doctor Milena. Then, he drove to the jail to see if he could do anything for Doctor Raj, but the officer sternly ordered him to leave the precinct station. Anyway, in the morning Ken was scheduled to work his shift as a paramedic. In fact, in an hour he received an emergency call to fly on the air ambulance north to Sioux Lookout. He boarded a second air ambulance at the Sioux Lookout airport with longer range and more advanced life support equipment, and transported a patient, critically injured during a Canada geese and snow geese hunting accident, from a reservation on Hudson’s Bay to the trauma centre in London, Ontario, over one thousand miles away by air ambulance. In the morning, I received a call from Ken at the hospital trauma ward in London, Ontario.
After several rounds of telephone tag, dropped lines and missed calls, Ken said, he managed to contact Raj at the police station in Beaverbrook. “Ken, you’re on call, transporting a patient to London, flying the air ambulance halfway across Canada, and you’re worried about Raj in Beaverbrook?”
“It was a hunting accident. They were hunting geese and one of the hunters was critically injured and got accidently sprayed with shotgun pellets.”
“I don’t need the details of your ambulance call, but you’re in Fort Severn—”
“I’m in London, I’m in London, Ontario right now. I was in Fort Severn at 1400 hours—”
“And, you’re worried about Raj in jail in Beaverbrook? I’m certain the police are taking good care of him. I hear they feed the inmates sandwiches from the local Burger Queen franchise. I like Burger Queen’s submarine sandwiches, especially with assorted cold cuts, but you never take me there, not even for takeout.”
“I believe in helping a friend in need, and I don’t want to hear about a doctor taking his own life in jail. It’s demoralizing for the whole health-care profession and hospital staff.”
“I don’t think he’ll kill himself after he has a submarine sandwich. There, too, they can put him on a close watch, if you’re truly worried about suicide.”
“Listen, Raj hasn’t slept all night and sounded as if he is on sedatives. The police want to release him, but he needs to be discharged into the custody of a mature, responsible adult.”
“What about his wife? What about the good doctor?”
“I thought you would be more understanding and sensitive. Milena refuses to answer the telephone.”
After we argued back and forth for several minutes, I promised I would handle Doctor Raj’s release, barring unforeseen obstacles, but I couldn’t sojourn to the police station myself due to my police phobia. I called Cheyenne at the new apartment she was so proud to rent. I never understood how Cheyenne could afford her own spacious place with modern amenities and fine furnishings since she worked part-time at a minimum wage job at the native communications society, operating the console at the radio station, and apprenticing in newspaper layout and design at the community newspaper. Meanwhile, she took college courses part-time at distance education centre at the satellite campus of the community college. But, David insisted she received generous grants for film-making, proposals for a series of documentaries by indigenous film-makers about addictions, housing conditions, and suicide on reservation, which never got beyond the drawing board, due to production budget shortfalls. Anyhow, she sounded enthusiastic to volunteer, but when she arrived I was mortified to discover she was dressed casually and immodestly.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t realize you were headed to the beach.”
“No, I’m on coffee break from the radio station.”
Her low cut tank top, cropped, revealed the top of her breasts and her pierced navel, from which swung a silver dreamcatcher pennant. I was concerned about her heading to the police station dressed like she was heading to the beach or a nightclub, but I reminded myself I was brought up a Catholic and Portuguese and my standards of dress were far too conservative. Besides, it was a hot, sunny day, humid, sweaty, and Cheyenne was an attractive young woman who deserved to reveal her finer physical attributes.
Anyway, if I was cynical it might plausibly explain how Doctor Raj, who probably earned more than a few hundred thousand dollars a year as a family physician with regional indigenous health authority, never spent the night at one my hometown’s hotels or motel, like The Beaver Lodge. Apparently, he went along with Cheyenne and stayed at her apartment overnight.
When she called the house around suppertime, Doctor Milena sounded as if she recovered her senses and composure. Admittedly, she also sounded tranquil and said she had taken some Xanax, which she saved whenever she was called to treat motor vehicle accident victims, but I was relieved since the medication probably helped her regain her poise and equilibrium, her dignity as a competent professional. She asked what had happened to her husband, but I was slightly irked and miffed since earlier she hadn’t answered my urgent and pressing telephones calls or replied to my voicemails messages. I said I sent Cheyenne down to the police station to act as a surety, to post bond, to release him on his own recognisance, or whatever the legal terminology was. My understanding was that that night Raj spent the night at Cheyenne’s apartment, but I deliberately misled Milena for her own good, saying I believed he spent the night at The Beaver Lodge. Later that evening, having finally calmed down and deciding to act, Milena drove across town to the neighbourhood with social housing. When she discovered that Raj spent the night at Cheyenne’s apartment, there was another domestic disturbance-type scene. Raj insisted he spent the night on the couch; the sleepover was perfectly innocent. But, Milena started pelting her husband with slaps and punches and seized the baby from Cheyenne’s arms,
That was the last time I saw Milena in person. She came to the house for the baby’s tikanagan and took the next flight from Beaverbrook on Bearskin Airlines to Thunder Bay Airport. Agitated, she paced the airport terminal with her smartphone and Bluetooth earbuds with a microphone and the baby in tow in the tikanagan until she finally purchased a ticket on WestJet Airlines to Pearson airport in Toronto. She packed no luggage, except a backpack and duffle bag with snacks and a single change of clothing and diapers, and for meals ate bagels and Starbucks coffee and pudding and breast milk for the baby. I even received a call from a Thunder Bay police officer who said there had been calls about a woman in distress, but the person in question insisted he call me. I was mystified, but I surmised she should be well enough to travel; she was, after all, a medical doctor. She faced worse crises, including, I remember particularly well, a cardiac arrest in the hospital emergency room where a patient’s heart went into a fatal arrhythmia, a ventricular fibrillation, and the aged nurse who initially attended to him suffered a myocardial infarction. I thought she handled that situation extremely well: in fact, based on my personal experience as a nurse at the hospital, I thought the patient who suffered the cardiac arrest would have died if it wasn’t for her heroic efforts.
Milena flew on the next plane to Toronto, to stay with her child with her parents, retired insurance and bank executives, in Rosedale. Doctor Raj tried to intercept her at the airport, and flew to Toronto, leaving the Cadillac SUV abandoned in the parking lot. After Dave persuaded him to keep his distance, reminding him of the restraining order imposed by the justice of the peace as a condition of his release, he returned on the next flight, but he was in no condition to drive. After an air ambulance trip to Thunder Bay, Dave drove them both in the luxury sports vehicle home to Raj’s place in Beaverbrook.
“Milena is in crisis,” Raj said, and the phrase became his mantra.
Milena resisted most attempts from her husband to communicate with her, though. When she filed for a divorce, Raj sounded resigned to fate. When she petitioned the family court for sole custody of their child, Raj made no effort to contest her claims. He said he wouldn’t even bother haggling over visitation rights. He courted Cheyenne, who travelled with him on weekend shopping trips to Thunder Bay and Winnipeg and ski and snowboard vacations in British Columbia.
I took him aside during an informal get together. “Cheyenne isn’t even a pure bred aboriginal,” I insisted. Later, I realized I may have been motivated by a tinge of malice or worse, but I was upset at him for disrupting the natural order of local society, the beauty of the small town. “Her mother was Portuguese and worked as a cook at the federal government hospital before it merged with the current hospital; her father was hunting and fishing guide and worked as a night watchmen at the hospital. He was an Ojibwa from the Lac Seul reserve. Her mother was born in the Azores and immigrated to Canada as a child. I know this because my mother was friends with her father and mother in high school.”
“Joan, what are you trying to tell me?”
“I’m just trying to tell you more about her background. She’s not purebred, she’s not one hundred per cent native, so if you’re thinking…”
“Joan, please, I don’t know what you’re thinking—except…enough said.”
Later, after a powwow on the Lac Seul First Nations reservation, Cheyenne and Doctor Raj were married in a Christian-style matrimonial ceremony, with aboriginal and Lusitanian influences and overtones, conducted by a priest who remarkably managed to articulately speak and recite verse in English, Portuguese, Oji-Cree, and Hindi languages. Filled with consternation and incredulity, I attended as a bridesmaid to Ken, pleased and proud to act as best man to Doctor Raj. Ken said it was the best wedding he ever attended. It was only my first time on a First Nations reservation. When Raj and Cheyenne exchanged vows, all I could think about was Doctor Milena, calling me on her smartphone from the airport terminal in Thunder Bay, sobbing in my ear over the telephone as she, distressed, agitated, talking a mile a minute, bounced her baby in the tikanagan and bemoaned her fate and family.
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