The Category of Lesser Sorrows
  Jim Read

Skip set the hand-painted sign against an overturned crate at the head of the wide grassy path that led along to his little stone cottage:

FINANCIAL ADVICE $5.

He went back down the path and circled the cottage. Limestone blocks in good condition, consider painting. He looked at the tin roof of the cottage, alright but needs painting, the shed with the sagging roof, alright needs replacing, the tilted outhouse, alright. There was a big maple overhanging the shed, and the garage that needed some removal of deadwood. The garage roof was sagging too. He looked at the tree and the outhouse and the shed and garage and he thought, you know what young fella, this place has some rhythm.

Out of the corner of his eye he saw a man coming along the dirt track. He recognized him from the Jiffy Go service station in the centre of the village. He was a wiry guy, bow legged, back-to-front ball cap, duck walk, hands in the front pockets of his jeans, maybe late thirties, a wispy little pelt of hair on his chin. Skip went along the track to greet him. They met by the Porsche Carrera tucked off to the side.

“Morning then,” the man said.

“Sure is,” Skip said.

“That’s a fine looking car. Don’t see many of those round here.”

The man looked at the toe of his sneakers, laces untied, scuffed and torn.

“Looking for some financial advice?”

“Price is right. I figure a man who owns a Porsche might know something.”

“Please, step into my office.”

“I’m Pal, Pal Druthers.”

“I’m Skip. I don’t have a last name just yet.”

Pal raised his eyebrows, but the men shook hands and went back down the track and sat on the cane chairs on the open veranda.

“How can I help you, Pal?”

Pal explained that he had inherited the gas station from his father. Times were tough, life was hard, the oil companies squeezed you, the banks squeezed and squeezed you and then they screwed you.

“Don’t get me started on the Feds.”

“Customs and Revenue send you a letter?”

“They might have.” Pal’s voice went a little quiet when he said it.

“You’re running a cash business.”

“Cash is king, ain’t it?”

“You pay for your goods in cash.”

Pal nodded. “Some of it.”

“You pay your employees in cash.”

Pal nodded.

“The companies that you buy from make you sign an invoice.”

“Some do, some don’t,” Pal said.

“Some of the goods you sell maybe fall off the back of the truck.”

Pal Druthers shrugged his shoulders.

“The Canada Customs and Revenue Agency would come down to your station and they would look at your year-on-year financial statements,” Skip said. “You have financial statements?”

Pal nodded. “Bonnie has them in a drawer somewhere.”

“They would have already looked at your tax filings.”

“Same drawer.”

“They’d maybe do an inventory, fuel, oil, tires, parts, snacks, everything. They look at your sales receipts. You have sales receipts?”

“Not so much.”

“They’d want to see your invoices for stock. If you couldn’t produce an invoice they’d assume it was black market. They hate black market. You don’t have sales receipts they’d figure you’re cheating at the till. My guess is they’ve already figured you out and it might take them an hour to prove themselves right.”

Skip laid it out for him in about fifteen minutes. He did some hand calculations on his pad of yellow legal paper. When he was done he turned it around and showed Pal what he’d owe. Pal Druthers went white as chalk.

“They could put me down.”

“They don’t do euthanasia, Pal, they prefer a live corpse.”

“Geez, eutha-what?”

“They can suck blood out of a piece of limestone.”

“No.”

“It ain’t pretty. I’ve seen it.”

He spent another ten minutes telling Pal what he needed to do to soften the impending hammer blow of a Canada Customs and Revenue Agency audit.

When Pal Druthers pulled the fin out of his jeans pocket his hand was shaking so bad the bill rattled.

Skip walked him back down the grassy track. Pal Druthers went across the road and past the Jiffy Go and up into a wood-frame house on the slope. He came out a minute later hauling on a woman with a child at her breast. A girl came out too. Pal pulled the child away from the woman’s breast and shoved it into the arms of the girl. He dragged the woman down the steps.

The woman slapped at him and tore herself away. She went and got the child. Pal went after her and thrust the yellow piece of legal pad paper under her nose. She took a minute or so to read it. When she was done she thrust the child into the arms of the girl. Then away she went down to the Jiffy Go. Pal had to run to keep up with her.

Vernon Cooper, who was now Skip, sat in the wicker rocking chair on his porch. He sat in his chair and looked out over the bay. There were seals curving over the surf, a dozen or so, maybe more, headed south. The sky was high and blue, not a trace of cloud, and the gulls were off to the north, hovering over one of the boats that was motoring in. When he looked down, he saw a woman coming down the track. She had her head down but he thought he recognized her from the Bess Harbour Deep Fried Clam House. He was just about to go down and greet her when she abruptly stopped and, without looking up, turned and walked away.

*

The fire burned steadily through the night as a cool wind swept away the rain. The sun rose and gulls drifted in the high wash of the dawn. The sea was white with the veneer of the risen sun. He went down to the pebble beach and stirred the fire. He saw that it was cold and that the vestiges of his former life had been reduced to ashes.

He felt at rest, though the making and feeding of the fire and the vigil from the porch had lasted twenty-four hours. The sea was a shimmering gold colour. He looked at the sky for a while, interested. This new sky. Empty, full, creamy blue. He looked again at the sea, this arm of the great sea, but still the sea. The ancient sea, new, golden. Flat. The new tide from the ancient sea had begun to flood.

To the north, on the far side of the village, there were gulls jostling over the long piers that ran out into the red mud of the flats. The pillars that supported the piers were tall and thin, wrapped in green algae. There was a squat, high-prow, blue-hulled lobster boat heeled over in the red mud.

*

Skip walked over to the Food City and stocked up on provisions: dark roast coffee, 5% cream, granola, chicken wings, and a no-name brand shake and bake. The provisions seemed a little on the thin side, but he was new to the game. He bought a small charcoal barbecue and some charcoal and lighter fluid at Handy Andy’s Hardware Store, and was impressed with the wide variety of items. The woman at the checkout was friendly.

“Welcome to the Bess,” she said.

He asked her if there was a handyman or plumber she could recommend.

“You want to know anything, ask Chas Lightly in back. He’s our Reeve. He’s out there having a smoke with Scooter right now. Scooter’s the big one, our Reeve is just a pipsqueak.”

She said it with a smile and Skip took it to indicate an affection of some kind.

He went along the narrow aisle and out the back door onto an asphalt lane. There was a green, ribbed fibreglass roof that gave a watery tinge to the air. There were two men sitting on lawn chairs with their feet up on egg crates, smoking. Skip recognized the fragrance of a fine Cuban cigar.

“Montecristos?”

“Nope. Romeo and Juliets. Me and the boss—Cindy, you just met her at the cash—was down in Cuba and picked up a bushel.”

The man who spoke had an oval face and bulging cheeks that seemed at odds with his slender build. He was simply dressed: jeans, t-shirt, and sandals. The pipsqueak Chas Lightly, Skip thought.

The man next to him had all the softness of a wood block. He had a square face and grey hair that looked like it had been cut with a buzz saw. He wore coveralls over a red checked shirt. There were deep lines in his face that put him into his seventies.

“You’re our new financial advisor,” Chas Lightly said.

“Might be.”

“How can we help you?”

“I’m looking to put in a septic.”

“Jack Haggarty can do that for you.”

“Say I wanted to get a competitive bid?”

“Well, you could, but that would just make you more unpopular than you already were after a whole day and a half in the village.”

Skip watched the wisps of cigar smoke.

“You like a cigar?” Scooter said. He cleared his throat and horked out a piece of phlegm onto the scree floor.

“Well, in fact, I do, on occasion.”

“Here, you can have mine.”

Scooter got up and thrust the cigar at Skip.

“Thank you.”

Skip took the cigar and Scooter ambled past him and into the store. He looked at Chas Lightly and saw that he was being observed with some interest. Skip took a puff of the cigar and then another and it came back to life. He reckoned he had passed some sort of test. He settled into the lawn chair.

“Chas Lightly.”

They shook hands.

“Alright. I guess you know my name.”

The small man leaned back in his chair and puffed on the cigar.

Skip inhaled deeply, savouring the R & J, and heard a slight ringing in his ears. There was a fleeting vision of the moon drifting over a small bay, a small bonfire with three figures dangling marshmallows over the flame, some soft rhythmic music in the background, a slim, dark figure rising from the water.

“Welcome to the Bess,” Chas Lightly said.

He tapped his ash on the edge of the chair.

“I hear you overcharged our Pal Druthers for some of this financial advice.”

Skip looked over at the small man, but he had his hands up, palms out, and was smiling.

“What Pal don’t know is it’s a local boy does the CCRA audits. He also happens to owe me a favour or two. I reckon our Pal might find a few irregularities but it ain’t the Armageddon you were preaching.”

Skip took a long puff of cigar and enjoyed the smooth release from his lungs and the pungent fragrance in his nostrils.

“You’re saying I owe Pal Druthers a refund.”

“Not necessarily. Good thing for Pal to know there’s a real world out there. Pirette LeBlanc is another matter. She was halfway down your path yesterday but chickened out.”

“The woman who owns the Clam House?”

“Well, half owns it. Donny Plummer owns the other. He’s in jail right now, but he’s due out soon.”

“What’s he in jail for?”

“I think it was a carjacking this time. He’s a mean kind of fella. Pirette’s scared to death of him. Don’t ask me how or why they got involved. I don’t think even Pirette knows.”

Skip heard laughter from the front of the store and the clanging of the old-fashioned till. Chas Lightly tapped his cigar ash on the edge of the chair and leaned a little sideways.

“He wrote Pirette telling her he’s coming after his half of the restaurant. Let’s just say there were some veiled threats put forward in the letter. Your advice would be…”

“Show the letter to the RCMP, to start.”

“She done that. They said they’d keep an eye on things.”

“Is there a clear joint title to the restaurant?”

“Far as I can tell. Fifty-fifty on the business. Pirette owns the land, three acres, and the structure.”

Skip puffed on his cigar. “So Ms. LeBlanc maybe refinances and puts a buy-out offer in place.”

Chas Lightly shifted in his chair. “It ain’t that simple.”

“Well, in my experience, it usually is. People just don’t see it.”

“What is your experience, if you don’t mind me asking? Five-dollar financial advice don’t exactly inspire confidence in a worldly man like myself.”

“I had a little business, more of an agency. I was contracted to a large law firm. I looked into things. The five-dollar financial advice was sort of a loss leader, a proven marketing tool to encourage traffic.”

“I just thought you were nuts. A private detective who owns a Porsche. Business must have been good.” Chas Lightly gave Skip a little nudge with his elbow.

Skip gazed at the little glow from the cigar. The small beginnings of acceptance from a man of some stature in the local community gave way to a twist of sorrow in his stomach. His eyes began to swell up.

“The car was a gift.”

“I don’t mean to pry,” Chas Lightly said.

“I was a chartered accountant, but my business was more on the forensic side.”

Skip rolled the cigar along his lower lip and inhaled. He exhaled a cloud of smoke, the moon over the bay again, the marshmallows over the fire again, the figure in the water again. Just as quickly, the vision dissipated in the cool air.

“A little military time thrown in,” Chas Lightly said.

“A little.”

“Being Reeve of the Bess I have a few modest resources. I looked you up.”

Skip looked at him. The Reeve merely nodded and puffed on his cigar.

“My guess is the problem is the boyfriend’s expecting a larger payout, and so we have a serious potential for quick escalation from a simple negotiation to violence,” Skip said.

Chas Lightly leaned forward and rested his elbows on his knees. “I appreciate you saving me the trip. I’d call this synchronicity. Like that Sting fella said.”

The Reeve reached into his back pocket and took out his wallet. He handed Skip a five-dollar bill.

“I don’t know that I’ve given you any advice.”

“This ain’t for advice. It’s more of a retainer. Pirette LeBlanc took her mother’s name after we divorced.”

“I’d say right now it’s a police deal.”

Chas Lightly blew a wad of smoke out of his lungs. He coughed harshly and then composed himself.

“The Mounties don’t live next door to my daughter. You do. Maybe you could pay her a courtesy call. I’d appreciate it. You do that, I’ll call Jack Haggarty about your septic and get things moving on that.”

*

This is Skip, who was Vernon Cooper before the Bess, before he met the dark figure who rose from the lake in the haze of his Romeo and Juliets in the green air back of a hardware store in Bess Harbour, who rises in his dreams only, ancient as myth, who rises no more in this land of the living:

In the run up to the war I was inserted along with some SAS boys and a guy from Delta Force. I was JTF2, Canadian bad-asses. We were up in the hills near the Pakistani border. There was a village about two kilometers below us. There was a dirt road that went through the village. We had been monitoring a lot of traffic on the road. That morning we had been ordered to pull out to our fallback position for a retrieval. I was in a forward position below our main position. I saw this little girl coming up into the hills. She kept on coming and she was calling out to someone or something. At the same time a military convoy of trucks came along the road from the direction of the Pakistani border. Taliban or Al Qaeda, no idea. They were firing off their rifles. AK-47s and it looked like they had some RPGs. Not a good scene. It was clear there were over a hundred fighting men in the convoy. I called it in. I told the Major about the little girl. The Major said to hold my position. I asked him about the little girl. The Major said our retrieval was no go for the time being, sandstorm or some other kind of fuckup. The Major told me to take her out quietly if she approached my position. Tactically we were suddenly on very shaky ground. She approached my position. She walked right by me. She was calling a name, something like Safi. Maybe a goat or a dog that had gone missing. She’d gone maybe a few paces by me. Then she turned and she saw me. Her eyes went wide and she seemed about to scream. I said shush, shush. She did. She shushed. She stood there looking at me. Her eyes wide. Then she smiled. She had a beautiful smile and beautiful dark eyes. Then she put her hands on her hips and frowned at me and she said, bad American. Then she waggled her finger at me. Bad, bad American, she said. I swept the knife across her throat. It was quick, efficient, textbook.

After he met the dark figure who rose from the waters he was alright. After the dark figure or the figure who maybe wasn’t dark but rose from the dark waters and shone with a radiance that made his heart fail only to revive again in the flood of her beauty, he was alright. After she visited him with the handful of beings, a real handful of chaotic entities, a trio roasting marshmallows over a hazy fire, he was alright. He wasn’t alright in Bess Harbour.

*

“You ganging up on me there, sweetheart?

Skip studied the man across the table. Donny Plummer was fortyish, maybe six feet tall, well toned, with an unshaved, angular face, trim prison hair cut greying at the ears. He had pale grey eyes that shifted from side to side, a white t-shirt that fitted tightly over a muscled chest. He seemed relaxed. Not a care in the world.

Alright then, Skip thought, let’s play it out.

Pirette sat next to Skip. She was squeezing a damp cloth that she had used to wipe down the table moments before her ex-boyfriend and ex-business partner entered. She introduced Skip as her financial advisor. That information produced a sharp, mean bark from Donny Plummer.

“You ready to write me a cheque?”

“I already have.”

That seemed to take the man by surprise.

“Show me.”

Pirette let go of the cloth and opened the yellow file at her elbow. She slid a single-page document across the table.

“This is your share of the business. You sign at the bottom and you get your cheque.”

Donny Plummer took a few seconds to scan the document and pushed it back across the table.

“This a joke.”

“It’s no joke.”

“What’s your financial advisor have to say?”

Donny Plummer gave Skip a nasty smirk.

Skip kept his voice low, neutral, with the expected result that after a minute or so of explanation he would have Donny Plummer leaning toward him. An easy target.

“Maybe I’ll shop around,” he said.

Skip explained that according to the original partnership agreement, Ms. LeBlanc had right of first refusal and the right to match any competing offer. He also explained that Ms. LeBlanc’s offer was higher than fair market value and that the offer expired in about thirty seconds.

“Well, I might just start a bidding war, mightn’t I?”

Skip turned to get a sense of how Pirette LeBlanc was taking the encounter. The look of disgust and fear was unmistakeable.

The man reached into the knapsack under the table and produced a package of cigarettes and a lighter.

“This is a no-smoking venue,” Pirette said.

“Like I give a shit, and there ain’t nobody here but us, is there?”

“Would you please not smoke,” Pirette said.

“Yeah, and who’s gonna stop me?” Plummer said and looked at Skip.

Skip slapped him across the side of his head before he could raise the cigarette to his mouth. Pirette gasped. Donny Plummer’s mouth fell open. The cigarette fell out of his hand. He blinked, shook his head once, and then put a hand to his left ear where Skip’s slap had produced a red welt. Pirette pushed the document back across the table.

Skip readied himself in preparation for some kind of kickback from Donny Plummer. It never came. Instead his voice took on a whininess that Skip found irritating.

“It ain’t fair.”

“It is fair. You read what it says,” she said.

“I don’t need to read anything. It’s not fair. I ain’t signing anything. We’re still partners.” Donny Plummer crossed his arms across his chest and looked defiantly at Pirette. “Your financial advisor touches me again I call the cops and charge him with assault.”

The second slap was harder and knocked him off the bench seat and onto the floor. Skip felt Pirette’s hand on his arm. Donny Plummer pushed himself up halfway before he fell back on his arse. Skip waited for a few seconds and when Donny stayed put he went around the table and pulled him up and got him straddled on the bench seat and went back to his own seat next to Pirette.

“What my financial advisor is advising, Donny, is that you sign the goddamn document.”

“He broke my ear.”

“Use the other one unless you want some more advice.”

“I ain’t signing,” Donny whined. “You’re stuck with me.”

Skip almost laughed when the man flinched. Donny Plummer reached down under the table and retrieved his cigarette. He put it in his mouth.

“I can take a girly little punch,” he said.

Skip slapped him with his left hand. It was more of a cuff. Donny Plummer began to whimper. Skip got up and came around the table. The man put his arms up in an attempt to ward off the oncoming blow. Skip slapped him on the back of the head. Donny Plummer lurched up and stumbled toward the door and then made a break for it.

“What do I do now?”

“Let’s go see.”

They went around to the side of the restaurant and watched as Donny Plummer did some fast walking down Main Street toward the county road.

“Look at his elbows flying,” she said.

“C’mon.”

They went back inside and Skip sat down across from Pirette Leblanc, who seemed on the verge of tears.

“What do we do now?” she asked.

“For starters, it is almost time to open, and I would appreciate a plate of clams and chips. You can take it off my fee.”

“In that case, you owe me three dollars plus tax.”

“Fair enough. Now you do what you should have done in the first place. Have a judge dissolve the partnership. I told your father that.”

“Alright then, that’s what I’ll do.”

*

Skip settled into the rocking chair on his porch and looked out across the bay. The chairs had come with the cottage, and they were old but they were new to him and he liked the feel of the softened cane. The dark sky was filled with tears. There was a fat moon directly in his view, close enough to touch. The moon began to keen. It was a high-pitched keen, close to a shriek.

To his left the Northern Lights were green and faint as they pulsed over the dark line of the horizon. The bars of light began the wail of agony that was fire on flesh. The surf hissed on the pebbled beach and Skip was reminded of the fine sound of a knife sliding out of its sheath.

The air was cool and heavy with moisture. He saw something flit past and thought it might have been a bat. He puffed on his Romeo and Juliet courtesy of Chas Lightly and took a sip of Lagavulen courtesy of Pirette Leblanc.

To the south a group of lobster boat lights moved with the gentle swell of the incoming tide. The land and sea were quiet, serene, calm against the suffering of the sky. He breathed in deeply. The image of the Afghan girl rose up before him. Even in death, even as her surprised eyes fluttered and her blood poured out onto the rock and her knees crumpled, she was implacable, fearless, safe in death, safe in the arms of Allah. Bad American, she would tell him until the day he died.

And a dark figure rose from the water, and three marshmallows danced over a fire he hadn’t lit and the tear-filled sky broke open and started to cry. The dark figure melted into a blurry, rain-blotched video of a car swerving on a mountain road, swerving to avoid a semi that had come across the centre lane, sliding off into the ditch and then, like it hit a trampoline, in the air—the car rolling, rolling, exploding when it hit the ground and a tight, hard, orange-black, oil-tinged mushroom puff of death.

Mom and the kids driving to the cottage. The YouTube video of the car, fast rolling, exploding, billowing orange-black. Over a million hits. Death. Mom and kids. Over a million hits. One from him. No. Two? No. Three? No? How many until death is just a number?

He wiped his wet eyes on the sleeve of his t-shirt. The incident with Donny Plummer wasn’t anything to be proud of, but he reckoned it was something to consign to the category of lesser sorrows.

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