Oliphant...Duvall
  Gary Robinson

That bastard, Duvall, has been talking behind my back again. And at the worst possible time, when my spirits have sunk to the point where I’m not sure if I can go on. Of course Duvall knows all this. When has he not taken advantage of me? When has he not used an occasion to belittle me as if I were an object of meager value (and never likely to acquire any)? This goes back a long long way, let me tell you.

My name is Oliphant. Duvall and I grew up in a small town in Ontario. For the life of me I can’t fathom why it wasn’t named Duvallville or just Duvall. His family’s power was so pervasive, reaching so far into the lives of everyone who lived there (and still do), you think they would have used that influence to change it. Nobody would have objected. How could they? It was the Duvalls who founded the area. They squatted on the land like royalty while we assumed the attitudes of vassals, with no small encouragement from them.

From the moment I first made his acquaintance in primary school he already had a swagger, an easy confidence that bordered on maniacal certainty: Duvall (the little shit) knew almost with mathematical exactitude how things would turn out (always in his favour, naturally). It was uncanny. And even when he wasn’t certain (a rare occurrence) there was a sureness to him that was like a second skin. No one ever saw him panic or even a bit ruffled.

I must also confess I owe my life to Duvall. Not metaphorically or figuratively. One winter morning years ago Duvall dove into the pond behind our school and fished me out when I was at the bottom, pretty well gone. The ice on the pond was strangely black that morning, like a huge black oval had appeared overnight. Standing there (it was where we played and hung out in the winter) it was like I was in the middle of an immense eye, and when the ice cracked and I fell through it was as if the eye had blinked and taken me, swallowed me into the pupil, into the centre of its vision – a bit like Pip, though no mermen, not even God’s foot, appeared. I just settled to the bottom and slowly spun around once or twice. The eye shut and everything was silent. A great ocular stillness, if you want to call it. Then I jerked around, like the eye was displeased and decided to void me from its sight. I climbed through layers of darkness, sensing thousands of eyes quietly watching me like an unwanted infection. Maybe I was hallucinating. I was close to drowning. But suddenly, disgorged from a nightmare, I rushed into painful, cold light. Duvall had me in his grasp, dragging me wet, limp, and frozen from the icy water, a crowd of children circling the pond, crying out, cheering his bravery. Of course it was only right he should have been the centre of attention and not me. That’s how it always was.

Growing up there wasn’t easy, and absolutely nothing like the image American movies have of small towns. Knowing everybody else’s business (endearing in the movies) was suffocating in real life. When somebody died, dropped dead from a heart attack for example, almost everyone knew before the poor son of a bitch hit the ground (like a weird communal telepathy was at work). Or take Mr. Greerson, the town queer, who went to Mexico twice a year to screw boys. He was widely known to have gay pornography in his home, strewn about like fashion or cooking magazines. Every day he took his two dogs (a border collie and a spaniel) for a walk, provoking dirty comments about other habits he might have had. He invited me to his house once (an empty sad kind of place without any obscene material I could find). He needed help to move some boxes he wasn’t able to because of a back injury. Afterwards he gave me five dollars and a soft drink. He was an architect. There were certificates on the study wall he nodded at. I recall him speaking of his past, stories that started coherently enough but became disconnected, like he was revisiting memories of great pain or surrender. He started shaking and I left, afraid he’d break into tears. For a long time I was viewed as an accomplice of Mr. Greerson, without malice of course. Small towns love their humour.

My father deserted my mother shortly before I was born. There is a photograph of him in a closet in my mother’s room. He has an expression of someone caught between thoughts. Surprised in an act he’d rather not talk about. Or the guilty look of someone who’s never committed a crime before but has been planning one for a long time. Possibly he was just hungover. All my mother ever said is that he was a drunk. I don’t know where he is, whether he’s dead or still alive and passed out in a tavern in some nameless city.

My mother (a very beautiful woman) liked to dance on Saturday nights. A neighbour watched me when I was a child. When I was older and realized there was nowhere to dance in town and that she had to be going somewhere else, I preferred staying home without a babysitter. When I walked past people a buzz would gather behind my back, and I heard it more and more as I grew up. They weren’t laughing at the dopey accomplice of Mr. Greerson. They were laughing at the boy whose mother’s affairs were everyday conversation. I became aware of a list of those she was rumoured to have been in bed with (just about every man in town, single or married, young or old). I was snickered at an awful lot, more than anyone should have to endure. Only Duvall refrained from taking part. He regarded me not with ridicule, but a sort of pity that was, in its own way, worse than taunting. I can’t explain it. And to top it off, he had saved me from drowning. Somehow Duvall got under my skin more than the crude jokes. My fists would close with anger when he strutted by with those supremely confident eyes of his, eyes that seemed to understand my predicament, saying, “Oliphant, oh Oliphant,” with a sympathetic resignation I hated.

We moved in lockstep, both in childhood and later at university, where we both studied law. Duvall and Oliphant. Oliphant and Duvall. We were bound together in some unusual way. And not just because we came from the same town. That wasn’t a real similarity as I saw it. In fact, I was surprised Duvall even bothered with university. He was heir to a fortune. If I haven’t mentioned it yet, his family was in real estate and owned vast properties, here and overseas. They had chalets and condos all around the world. Duvall could have become a millionaire playboy, which would have been more in keeping with his lineage. But no, he went to law school. And the same confidence served him as well there as when he had been a child. He graduated at the top of his class and gave the commencement speech. I couldn’t help but think it superfluous. Duvall’s future had been ensured at birth. Whatever else he did was overkill.

We were never friends, though we were never far from each other. Perhaps I suspected, given his position, I couldn’t be anything more than a factotum to him. And then I had the oddest impression that Duvall was grooming me for just that. As if all these years he’d secretly been breaking me in, polishing me like a miniature toy that can only bring pleasure if it’s shining its owner’s face back at him. Is that what he intended for me? I don’t know if he realized how much I despised him. Maybe he didn’t care. Maybe it would have been amusing to him.

After graduation (I finished near the bottom of my class) Duvall took me aside and said his family needed someone in a division of one of their companies. He had recommended me. Duvall wined and dined me at a five star restaurant I couldn’t have afforded, holding an expensive brandy in one hand while I drank beer (a pastime that had become more frequent through university). A drop-dead gorgeous blonde named Debbie in a metallic silver miniskirt sat beside him, sipping margaritas. She had giant breasts I couldn’t take my eyes off. Over the evening I became drunk and tried not to listen to Duvall. He was the sort of person who loved his own voice and could go on for hours. I became suspicious of the blonde. I had the feeling she was a whore. High class, for sure. I ogled her tits as I drank beer after beer. I could hear Duvall go on about steering a ship through stormy waters. I put my head under the table and leered up Debbie’s skirt. The blonde teased me by uncrossing and crossing her legs, showing off a powder blue thong. I might have mouthed an indecent proposal. I was on my fifteenth beer. We were the only table being served, the sole guests in the restaurant, a time past one in the morning. I turned to Duvall, whom I had been ignoring. He had that resigned look like when the town had laughed at me because of my mother. His eyes had the same understanding as before, but with this new difference: now they were the eyes of a master who was mildly rebuking a prize retriever for straying too far from his side.

Working for Duvall (I accepted his offer) was not what I had expected, though now I see the purpose behind it. I was given an office, a secretary (to my disappointment not a looker), in a glass-plated building in Toronto. Naturally Duvall’s office was in the same building but on the top floor. He wasn’t there most of the week, but he was on Fridays, arriving in a BMW and coming up to see me even though there was little to discuss. My job, not much more prestigious than a junior clerk’s, was to verify the titles of properties the Duvalls were planning on buying. It was a joke. But the salary made it difficult to evoke principle. Maybe this was all I could expect. I hacked around in the mornings and left at noon, visiting watering holes where I became a regular.

Not long after I started, Duvall threw a party at his old family residence. I’d never been there before (it was three miles out of town). As it turned out, it was a sprawling estate, larger than a farm, with a ranch house style home surrounded by smaller guesthouses, fences everywhere, and an enormous lighted swimming pool sheltered by immaculate hedges at least six feet high.

I was introduced to his father and mother, who remained seated all evening, waited on by staff in white jackets. The two greeted me formally but never bothered with further conversation the rest of the evening. By then I was on my third drink. There were friends of the family there, stuffy shirts who had expensive suntans and a well-fed plumpness that made me want to laugh. Not one of them was good for anything. Arse kissers! By this point the waiters were staying conspicuously close, offering refills almost before I had chugged what I was drinking. I was on my way to quite a bender. Then a commotion. Someone had jumped into the pool. A girl in a bikini, to the applause and cheers of everyone, myself included.

An arm went around my shoulder. Duvall led me to the pool. A crowd gathered. Everyone was staring. In a loud voice, Duvall said he and I had attended the same university, in fact had grown up in the town, gone to school together here. A murmur. I was examined like an oddity. Arse kissers! Duvall controlled them like a puppeteer, twisting them to his satisfaction and amusement. He took a step forward, they took a step back, and vice versa.

The coloured bulbs like Christmas lights strung on poles around the swimming pool were dimmed and I had an even harder time seeing. It was like everything had disappeared and I was in a place of total blackness. I was dumbfounded and wondered what had become of me. I was on the verge of tumbling down a deep hole, an abyss, when a rap on my shoulder brought me back. Duvall was steadying me, firmly, with one arm. I could hear laughter. And I knew he had told everyone how you had to be careful with me, that he had already saved my life once years back, and you couldn’t trust Oliphant around water, no, not at all. I was at the edge of the pool, swaying, the girl in the bikini was swimming, and Duvall was smiling at me with an expression in his eyes of unwavering scorn.

Duvall has stayed by my side for twenty years, good times and bad. Five stints at AA, one time a court order because of a traffic accident. Several marriages that went south in a hurry. A bar room incident I don’t want to discuss. He paid for the damages. My benefactor even smoothed over an embarrassing embezzlement episode. You might think I’m biting the hand that fed me all those years. Yes, you’re right. But eating from that hand cost me my dignity.

The job I’ve had all these years in one of Duvall’s companies has been the classic dead end. I’m in the same office in the same glass-plated building, and while the secretary has changed a few times (and the carpet, once), I’m still doing what I did that first day I started: checking property deeds. In all honesty, the secretary’s done the bulk of the work. When we got computers I played Solitaire most of the day, and the Internet brought me into chat rooms and porn sites. On Fridays Duvall would jump into my office, beckon me with a wave of his hand, and off we’d go to lunch. In the beginning I would mumble about work and Duvall would nod. When it later became clear he didn’t care what I was doing, I would keep silent while he crowed about profits and trips he was planning on making to augment his holdings, or described his photo shoot for the cover of a prestigious economics magazine for rising entrepreneurs.

One day we were at a swank restaurant where all the staff knew Duvall and literally bowed at his every gesture. The owner himself (an ingratiating species of bipedal locust) came by to perform his own disgusting bit of groveling and subservience. A bottle of brandy was carried like a chalice to our table, and I got into it quickly. Duvall, I should say, didn’t drink much at all. In fact, I’d never seen him really drunk. Alcohol was only an ornament that enhanced his image, like tailor-made clothing or beautiful women. By then he had grown a moustache, little shining machetes of hair that gave him a deadly seriousness.

I was on my third brandy, Duvall carrying on, when I felt a stinging on my face, the left cheek, and almost spilled the drink. I recoiled and realized Duvall had slapped me! I was too stunned to react. But Duvall kept on talking, as if the slap were unimportant, not even worth explaining let alone apologizing for (which he never did). Afterwards he drove me back to the office, where I went to a mirror in the washroom and looked in vain for the imprint of his hand.

The bastard!

I should have seen it coming. And I knew this was only the beginning, that whatever Duvall had in mind, this was only a taste of what was to come, the first installment. This was when I was first able to put into words the idea that had been festering in me for many years: one day (and there was no longer any doubt) I was going to kill Duvall, plain and simple.

We’d been inseparable all these years. Duvall and Oliphant. Oliphant and Duvall. Inseparable and despising each other at the same time. The slap in the restaurant was often repeated. He would be waiting for me, like a hunter hiding within a blind, waiting for a duck to come into sight, lifting the rifle carefully when it does, and exeunt one duck. It was when I was drinking that Duvall would be in camouflage, usually behind an innocent conversation, sometimes alone with me, but later with others present who witnessed the events, much to my shame. The slapping happened in public places and at Duvall’s home. Or he would tell stories meant to humiliate me as much as possible. There was nothing Duvall would hold back for the merriment of his companions. I was his fool, after all. Everyone knew it. Oliphant the drunk, who had a menial position at Duvall’s company only because of Duvall’s generosity. Everybody came to laugh at me.

I visited my mother one day (in a taxi, since my license had been revoked) who still lived in the town the Duvalls built. She was sixty years old but could have passed for thirty-five. Even at her age, she would have had no trouble picking up men half her age. I didn’t ask if she was still going out and getting screwed on a Saturday night.

After dinner we began speaking of our respective lives. My mother asked if I were happy. I lied and said yes. Then, and I don’t know why, I asked if she had ever known Duvall’s father. She looked very tired, though maybe it was the wine in me that made her blurry. She shrugged and said she had known him on one occasion, which made me feel creepy. What does knowing somebody on one occasion mean? My mother’s former reputation didn’t assure me, but I didn’t push it and she didn’t elaborate. I kissed her goodnight and left in a taxi.

It consumed me. The idea Duvall’s father had a relationship with my mother, if only once, and I had been the result. But did this explain Duvall’s treatment of me? Did he see me as a half-brother and therefore a possible threat? Or was he just resentful of my presence? Was I his father’s mistake, one that Duvall intended to correct as long as we both lived?

I raised this with him on a Friday when we were about to go to lunch. He reacted as if he’d been the one slapped this time. For the first time since I had known him, he seemed dazed. That supernaturally confident man who never had a doubt about his abilities, who had never panicked, was unsure. And I could tell he hated me for it. But he recovered (as I knew he would).

“Oliphant,” he said at last, “you and I are as related to each other as a rat and a grapefruit.” But there was doubt in his voice. Yes. Duvall wasn’t sure. He knew his father had likely screwed my mother once. After that the certainty went vague and hazy on him. He was wounded and hated me for it. From that day on he snarled at me with increasing ferocity and I knew what I had to do.

You think it would have been difficult buying a gun, but it wasn’t, surprisingly. A monstrous thing too, obscenely large. But I was promised it would do the trick.

I’m waiting now with a bottle of Duvall’s own expensive brandy, in the basement parking garage (a damned cold place, I tell you). Duvall will be along soon for our Friday get-together. When he leaves his car, I will not waver. I will calmly approach, point this enormous gun at him, and just before I pull the trigger I’ll smile and say, “Hello, brother.”

Past Issues Contact and Submissions About The Steel Chisel Author Profiles