Joyland

Vancouver |

Vermin

by Lori Hahnel

edited by Kevin Chong

Jurgen Koch has to be the worst cook in the world. So you wonder why he owns a restaurant, and why he cooks in it. It’s simple; he owns it because it was an easy business for him to buy in Tofino. When he came here on vacation in the '90s and did the West Coast Trail, he fell in love with Vancouver Island and saved up for the next ten years so he could move here from Germany. And he does the cooking because he’s a cheap son-of-a-bitch who won’t pay a real cook. I’d love to tell my impatient customer this, but I can’t. I love living in Tofino, too, and I don’t want to lose this job. Suck it up, sweetheart, I think. You don’t look like you’re starving to me.

            Actually, this guy scared the bejesus out of me when he first came in. He looks a lot like my ex-boyfriend Ray’s Uncle Lloyd, dead ringer for him. He spooked me enough that I wanted Dirk to serve his table, but of course I couldn’t find him. Probably smoking out back, listening to techno on his iPod. I had to reason with myself: how could it be Lloyd? Lots of old men look like that – short, leathery-faced, truck logo baseball cap, faded jeans held up around his skinny ass with a giant belt buckle. Once I went over and took his order and heard his voice, I realized he wasn’t Lloyd, couldn’t be. What was I thinking?

            “Becka!” Jurgen calls from the kitchen. He’s so cheap he can’t even spring for one of those counter bells to ring when he finally has an order up. I’ll have to get him one for his birthday.

            The pale, hard half hot dog bun Jurgen has toasted and smeared thinly with garlic butter rattles lonely and ungarnished on the oval plate as I set it in front of the man. Yes, this is what he’s been waiting for all this time. He looks at me, about to say something, about to complain. I head him off at the pass.

            “You ordered the Garlic Toast, didn’t you?” I ask, flash a flirtatious smile, flick the ends of my long, dark hair over my tanned shoulders. He flushes a little, glances at his tired-looking wife. A girl my age probably hasn’t smiled at this guy since he was my age.

            “Uh, yeah,” he says quickly. “Thanks.”

            Another satisfied customer. Another disaster averted by my exceptional public service skills. I’ll have to talk to Jurgen about a raise. Ha.

*

            I love the smell of the ocean. Southern Alberta smells like cow shit and diesel and sour gas wells. The ocean smells of life, and death. Of rot and salt. I like to walk up and down Long Beach, feel the sand between my toes. Look for whatever’s washed up today. Shells, crabs, dead seals or birds, tires, driftwood, bottles. You never know what you’ll find, different stuff every day.

            Dirk and I surf a lot. On the west coast of the Island we get some of the best waves anywhere, surfers come here from all over the world. He usually uses a board but I to prefer bodysurf. I need to throw myself against the water, feel the impact of my body against the waves. Is surfing addictive? I don’t know. I do know that sometimes I only feel alive out here.

*

            Ray’s Uncle Lloyd lived on the section of land the family owned near Turner Valley, in the rolling foothills south of Calgary. At one time the family ranched there, but by the time we moved there it was only Lloyd left. I wasn’t ever sure what he did. The yard in front of his house was full of cars and trucks that he worked on some of the time. Mostly I just saw him sit on the porch and drink beer, and watch the cars that went by once in a while. Over the years the family built different houses on the land and eventually abandoned them as they built new ones. Ray and I lived in the oldest house, on the other side of the barn near Lloyd’s house. Lloyd must have seen the people coming and going day and night.  Ray didn’t think his uncle had any idea what he did. I wasn’t so sure.

            “Becka,” Lloyd said, and grasped my hand a little too firmly, a little too long when Ray introduced us. “That short for Rebecca?”

             “Yes, it is,” I said, smiled tightly. No shit, Sherlock. And you can let go of my hand now.

            Lloyd didn’t like Ray’s dog, Junior. Junior scared the shit out of me the first time I saw him, too. He’s a Rottweiler cross. Crossed with a moose, I think. He’s black and tan, muscular, huge. Luckily Junior loved me from the second we met. He came and lay at my feet and I rubbed his tummy and that was it; he was devoted to me from then on. Followed me everywhere. I’d never had a dog before, had no idea how loyal they can be. It’s kind of cool.

            Ray decided we should move out to the family’s land after a friend of his got busted in Calgary. Don’t get the wrong idea about Ray. He didn’t always sell dope, at least not full-time. He impressed me when I first met him. He worked as a roofer, made good money. He talked about going back to school part time, picking up some courses, starting a business. I liked that he had a plan. But after he hurt his back on a job he put in a claim for compensation and waited and waited and when they did settle he got almost nothing. Hey, a guy’s got to live. Still, after a while I realized my boyfriend had become a drug dealer. I wasn’t sure how I felt about that. He always said it was temporary. But after almost a year, I never saw him look for a job. Plus, once he started working at home he let himself go. His construction worker’s physique got soft, he let his hair go wild. And he got into some kind of freaky Fu Manchu thing with his moustache. The idea was to intimidate people, I guess. I just thought he looked like Lemmy from Motorhead. Eww. Worse, unless he was making a delivery, he hung around the place all the time. He started to remind me of Lloyd. Maybe a cross between Lloyd and Lemmy. Creepy.

 

            “What happened to all your plans?” I asked him once. “You know, school, starting your own business, all that.”

            “Well, I kind of have my own business now, don’t I?”

            “Um, yeah. An illegal business.”

            “Aw, c’mon, Becka. Give me a break. You know it’s just temporary.”

            “Is it? I don’t see you signing up for courses or anything like that. Or looking for another job, even.”

            “Get off my back. Okay?”

            As for me, I worked waiting tables at a diner in Turner Valley. Got me out of the house, I guess. I would have rather done something else, but I didn’t have much choice. Turner Valley’s pretty small. And it was great experience for working at Jurgen’s Tofino House, as it turns out.

*

            Ray got up early one morning in June to go to Calgary to make a delivery to one of his better customers. I didn’t feel like going with him, since he had no air conditioning in his truck and we were in the middle of a stretch of hot weather then. The days were sultry, overcast, thunder rumbled in the rainy afternoons and evenings. I thought I’d get out early in the morning and take Junior for a walk while it was still reasonably cool. Besides, I didn’t want to hang around with Ray’s pothead friends.

            When Junior and I went by Lloyd’s place I saw him take something out from under the eaves of the old barn near his house and throw handfuls of it against the wall, hard. When I got closer I could see it was birds. He scooped baby birds out of nests that lined the eaves and threw them against the wall of the barn. Dead baby birds lay all along the bottom of the wall where he’d already been, barn cats gorged themselves.

            “What are you doing?” I asked.

            “Sparrows. Vermin. I’m getting rid of them.”

            “You’re throwing baby birds against a wall.”

            I watched him shoo the cats away, fill a shovel with birds, throw them into a big slough, swollen from the rains, at the bottom of a slope behind the barn. “They’re filthy. Shit all over everything. Damage the crops.”

            “What crops? You’re not growing anything.”

            He squinted at me for a minute. “I don’t need vermin on my property.”

            Sparrows screeched as Junior and I walked away. Funny, I hadn’t noticed them before and now I couldn’t hear anything else.

*

            The sign outside Jurgen’s Tofino House says, “Best Fish and Chips on Vancouver Island”. Of course, every restaurant on the Island has a sign that says that. Some of them claim to have the best fish and chips in the world. Well, I wouldn’t say we have the best fish and chips on the Island. If it was up to me the sign would say, “The food probably won’t kill you” or maybe, “Lunch usually doesn’t take more than two hours” or something like that. It also says, “West Coast Cuisine”. Jurgen’s interpretation of West Coast Cuisine is a little, shall we say, loose. He relies heavily on frozen and processed ingredients and tends to shy away from local stuff, because of the expense of course. Dirk, loyal son that he is, claims his dad’s cooking has improved in the ten years he’s been here. I shudder to think that what he does now is the result of ten years’ work.

            Dirk and I have an understanding. He helps me out if I have a customer who’s a little too friendly or a little too aggressive. I help him out if he has trouble with English. Not that he needs it that often. He’s only been over here about a year and he’s got an accent for sure, but he speaks English well. I always think about how I’d do in German. Not well, I think.

            I’d like to meet Dirk’s mom someday. He must get his tall, slim, blonde looks from her. Jurgen always looks a little like a walrus to me: pudgy, big handlebar moustache, not blonde or red or brown but somewhere in between. It’s one of those compensatory moustaches some guys grow when they’re losing it on top. Dirk’s mom’s name is Petra. She’s an artist, lives in Berlin, works in a gallery. She and Jurgen divorced long ago. I think it won’t be long until Dirk takes off for Vancouver. Not that a gay man would have a problem living in Tofino, but I think a gay man living with Jurgen could have a problem. Which is why it’s so convenient that we can hang out together. Jurgen thinks we’re in love. It doesn’t bother me, but maybe someday Jurgen will figure it out, and I don’t want to be around for that.

*

            I have to say it didn’t really surprise me when Ray got busted. I wondered if someone had narked on him. A pissed off customer, maybe, or even Lloyd. I had a bad feeling about Ray’s court date, didn’t think it would go well for him, especially after he told me this wasn’t his first offense.

            “What?”

            “Uh, yeah, I had a prior conviction about five years ago. I swear, though, I just had a bag for personal use. Just an ounce.”

            “Why didn’t you tell me that before?
            “It didn’t seem important.”

            My parents didn’t ever like Ray. They’d have flipped if they’d known he was in jail for trafficking. I thought at first I’d tell them he was travelling. In Europe for three to five. Then again, the more I thought about it the more it seemed like that was my cue. The end, time to go. I decided I’d head out to Vancouver Island for a while; I’d always wanted to live by the sea.

            So I bought a bus ticket. Ray’s sister Julie, who lives in Turner Valley, agreed to come by that day to take me to the Greyhound station in Calgary. She was also taking Junior, said she’d keep him until Ray got out of jail. As I finished packing, Lloyd came by.

            Sometimes I’m not even really sure what happened. It all seemed to happen so fast. I’ve thought about it thousands of times and after a certain point I just don’t know what happened, exactly. It was another hot, humid day and I took Junior out for a walk, our last walk, before it got too hot. Even before we got back to the house, black clouds rolled in, the temperature dropped a few degrees. There was a big storm on the way, you could feel it in the air. Just as we got in the house, big, cold raindrops started to fall, hard and fast. I was about to change my sweat-damp clothes when I saw Lloyd standing in the kitchen, grinning. His green plaid shirt was stained, a film of sweat and a two-day beard covered his leathery face.

            “Why are you here, Lloyd?”

            He dangled a key in front of my face. “Lots of keys to this place around. I got a few.”

            “I didn’t ask how you got in. I asked why you were here.”

            He just smiled. “You miss Ray?”

            “Sure. But it’s time for me to move on. I’m leaving.”

            “He should have been more careful. He shouldn’t have been selling drugs on the family farm. Guess he thought I didn’t know, but I did.”

            “So you called the cops?”

            “I didn’t say that. All’s I’m saying is he should have watched his step. Now he’s losing a pretty girl like you. The boy’s always been a fool.”

            A flash of lighting illuminated the windows for a moment and the tearing roar came close behind. Lloyd ignored it, slowly made his way toward me.

            “You need to go back to your place now,” I said.

            He came closer. “You wouldn’t make me go out in the storm, would you?”

            He wrapped a hand around my forearm. The more I tried to pull away, the harder he hung on. Black grease stained all the creases in his hands and around and under his thick, yellow fingernails. I smelled his sweat, the alcohol on his breath, his grimy clothes.

            “Junior,” I called quietly. I immediately heard the click of his claws on the floor behind me. I looked into Lloyd’s eyes for a second before I said, “Get him, Junior.”

            As soon as Junior growled and started to lunge, Lloyd flew like a greasy little rocket out the front door , headed toward the barn. I didn’t think he could move that fast.

            He wasn’t fast enough for Junior, though. I watched out the front door as the dog caught up with him. Junior’s jaws caught him by the back of his upper thigh, pulled him to the wet, slippery ground. Lloyd screamed, “Call him off! Call him off!” He screamed like a girl. I had no respect for that.

            He screeched as they rolled down a slope, and then I couldn’t see them anymore. I heard a splash, so I guess they got into the slough. I pictured Ray thrashing among the bloated corpses of baby birds. Then thunder drowned out any other sound for a while.

            I started to wonder whether I should go outside and see what happened when Junior appeared in the doorway, soaked to the skin, panting.

            “Poor Junior! Poor baby. You’re all wet. Let Becka dry you off.” I got a towel and rubbed him down. I didn’t see any scratches, or blood on his fur. Which would have maybe washed off in the slough and the rain. There was something that looked like a long shred of cloth stuck in his teeth, green plaid. I pulled it out and threw it in the compost outside.

            Junior had a drink of water and stretched out on the kitchen floor. Poor guy was exhausted. He’d had a busy morning. But when I woke him a little over an hour later so we could get into Julie’s truck, he was fresh and ready to go. Dogs are funny like that.

*

            The sea looks like the sky looks like the sea. Gulls screech, circle overhead, divebomb the surf. I watch one dive in, dip, come out with a long shred of cloth stuck in its beak. But when I look again it’s just a piece of kelp.

            Dirk and I have our usual 11 - 8 shifts today. We’ll need to get moving soon. But right now we lay side by side, dry out in the sun on Long Beach, listen to the birds, warm up after surfing all morning. Today I feel like I could lay here forever. I don’t want to go in to work, don’t want to deal with Jurgen, with the customers.

            “I’m thinking about moving to Vancouver,” Dirk says.

            “You’d love it there. It’s a very cool city.”

            “You want to come with?”

            “Maybe. When are you going?”

            “Soon. Pretty soon.”

            “Can I think about it for a couple of days?”

            “Of course. Take your time.”

            “Thanks. I’m not surprised, you know. You’re from a big city. You must miss big city life.”

            “I do. Yes. What about you? Do you miss Alberta?”

            I think about that for a minute before I answer him. “A little. Sometimes.”

            I don’t miss much about Alberta, really. Except for maybe Junior.