By Ed Staskus
The week started by raining Monday and Tuesday, harder the second day than the first day. The wind picked up, gusting fast by nightfall Monday. The rain turned into a thunderstorm and lightning crisscrossed the sky. Bernard Doiron had breakfast and lunch and took a nap. He did the same thing the next day. Wednesday morning it was in the low teens at sunrise. There were only scraps of cloud left in the sky. He had ham and eggs and coffee and fired up Conor Murphy’s Massey Ferguson tractor. It was more than twenty years old and clean. Conor took care of it personally, since his father bought it new and paid almost ten grand for it. It ran like a baby buggy.
A good two-horse team could plow two acres a day back in the day. Bernie plowed with a five bottom in the fall and a 490 disc in the spring and could do 60 acres from one end of the day to the other end of it. He was going to start across the street from the white house, Sandy’s Surfside Inn, and work his way to the right. He would have his lunch at noon, since he was getting an early start.
The spring planting was running late because of rain and cold. Setting day for lobster was running late, too, because of the rain and cold. Fishermen were anxious to get out on the ocean. Lobsters were on the move. Farmers were anxious to get out on the land. Seeds were ready to sprout.
Bernie steered the tractor to the road on the side of the ocean and up the far slope at a steady 15 KPH. It was nearing eleven o’clock when he saw the red fox. It was thirty-some meters ahead of him, sniffing and digging at something. He slowed the tractor and stopped where the fox was, who retreated, stretched, showed his teeth, and sprang into the nearby trees.
He had plowed the field in the fall, straight furrows that stayed straight through November rainstorms and snow that buried the island from mid-December to mid-April. It wasn’t usually that snowy, but it had been a bad winter. He stayed snug in his small house on the far side of Anglo Rustico, opposite the North Rustico Harbor. The house was more than a hundred years old, built with island cut lumber and island made shingles. Birch bark was the insulation between the outer wall and the shingles. It cut the wind in a place where it was always windy. He had an oil furnace and a fireplace in the living room and the house kept itself cozy without even trying.
There was some ground mist. Crows he couldn’t see cawed from nearby trees. He could see a briefcase on the ground on the other side of his front wheels. It was open and attached to something. He hopped off the tractor and walked around to it. The over-sized hard-sided briefcase was empty. The inside lining was torn. There was mud and dried red goo all over it.
It was attached to a bony wrist grasping the handle. The wrist was wearing a watch and was attached to an arm that was half-buried in the ground. The watch band was gold-colored stainless steel.
“Ce que ca?” Bernie whispered to himself.
He knew the arm was attached to a dead man. He looked at the watch dangling loosely on the wrist again. The face of it was cracked. It read three-ten. He suspected he was done plowing for the day. He started walking back the way he had come, to the green house, a stone’s throw from the white house. He stopped and walked back. He looked at the arm and the briefcase again. The fox had ripped into what old flesh was left on the arm. He hadn’t imagined seeing it, not that he thought he had.
Sandy had a phone, but could be deaf mornings, not answering the door no matter what. Conor didn’t have a live phone yet, but he always answered the door when he was at home and had a fast car to get to a phone fast. It was a 1987 Buick GNX, two years old. It wasn’t sleek or refined, but next to the twin-turbo Chevy Corvette it was the fastest car in North America.
Looking for sophistication? Don’t get the GNX. Looking for max boost? Get the GNX. Looking for a pool table ride? Go with the Corvette. It doesn’t matter whether your car bounces on potato roads like nuts and bolts in a blender? Go with the GNX. There were two of them on the lot at the first Chevy Buick dealership he saw in Burlington, Vermont the day he went shopping for a new car. One of them was silver and one of them was black.
“Do you have any other colors, like red?” he asked the salesman.
“You can have any color you want as long as it’s silver or black,” the salesman said.
Bernie drove a 1965 VV Beetle. It was red accented with rust spots. It didn’t look like much and was only powered by forty aluminum-magnesium horses but ran like a charm.
Conor drove to Shearer Chevy Buick down the street and found out they had the same colors on the lot, which were silver and black.
“How about red?” he asked.
“Sorry, sir, it doesn’t come in red. GM hasn’t built many of them. When they’re gone, they’re gone for good. If you can’t decide, I can tell you the only one we have on the lot is silver and black both.”
“How long have you been in business?”
“Since 1929, sir.”
He bought it, trading in his 1977 Chevy Impala, which was losing oil and wheezing. When he reached an empty stretch of I-87 south of Champlain, he took the car up to 175 KPH. It was outfitted with a turbocharged V6 engine with horsepower to spare on top of a boatload of torque. It was an automatic but could do 0 to 95 KPH in less than five seconds. When he saw a car a kilometer-or-so ahead he backed off his one-man drag race.
Bernie was wearing almost new insulated rubber boots. By the time he crossed the Gulf Shore Parkway they didn’t look almost new anymore, even though they still were. Standing on the shoulder of the road he stamped most of the mud off. The road didn’t look new anymore, either, but Bernie doubted the National Park was going to be doing anything about it anytime soon. When summer came tourists would be parking on the shoulders, leaving their cars behind to gape at the cliffs and walk along the undulating coastline. In the meantime, the natives would be slowing down, keeping an eye out for loose kids and happy-go-lucky dogs.
They never should have laid it down with shoulders in the first place, he thought.
The National Park on Prince Edward Island went back more than fifty years. It was a watercolor landscape of green over soft sandstone and shale, in the flesh. There were sand dunes and sandy beaches. There were salt marshes and barrier islands farther east. There were white spruce along exposed coastal spots. The Gulf Shore Parkway supplanted an older red dirt road along the coastline and cut through Murphy land, but the Murphy’s hadn’t sold any of the rest of their nearly four hundred acres to the National Park. The Ottawa men could appropriate land for the road, but they couldn’t take all of it with the wave of a pen. They were going to have to wait the Murphy’s out and try to buy it from a generation-or-two down the road. That was their plan, at least.
Bernie banged on the back door of the house and waited.
“What’s up?” Conor asked. “Did you run out of gas?”
“No, nothing like that. Put some boots on and I’ll show you.”
Conor was the only one living in what had been the Murphy family home. His parents were newly deceased, his mother dead by heart attack the day before Christmas followed by his father. After burying their mother, Conor and his sister and brothers watched their father giving up day after day until he gave up the ghost.
He had been living in Montreal the past ten years, but after the funerals and burials moved back to Prince Edward Island. He moved into the green house, even though it was too big for him and needed work. He was the youngest of the five Murphy’s and didn’t know he had missed his birthplace until he returned to it. He made his old bedroom his new bedroom.
Bernie and Conor walked across the road and up the slope. When they got to the tractor the fox was back. The animal glanced at them and snuck away. They stepped up to the briefcase and arm. It was nearly noon and warmer, breaking into the 20s. What clouds were left had scattered, and the sky was a robin’s egg blue.
“Jesus Christ almighty,” Conor said. “How did this happen? I haven’t been up here since I came back. Would you have seen it if it was in the field then, when you did the fall plowing?”
“I think so, but it’s hard to tell,” Bernie said.
“It’s not anybody from around here, is it?”
“We would know if it was.”
“You stay here, watch nothing gets at it, and I’ll go phone the RCMP.”
“Should we dig it out?”
“No, just stay here, and keep that fox away. I’ll drive over to Lorne’s.”
He took his time driving to Rollings Pond, up then down Church Hill Road, past the graveyard and Stella Maris Catholic Church, to Lorne’s Snack Shop. He reckoned there was no need to hurry. He parked the GNX as far away from the nearest car as he could.
“Whatta ya at?” one of the two Newfoundlanders behind the counter asked when he stepped inside Lorne’s. They ruled the roost spring summer and fall until they went home to Gros Morne. Lorne worked the shop winters. They made breakfasts and lunches in the small kitchen behind the counter, stocked and sold candy bars and cigarettes, rented out VCR movies in the back room, and cleaned whenever there was a need for cleaning.
“We’re finally getting some springtime.”
“I know, I been rotten with the weather.”
“I’ve got to use your phone”
“You know where it is.”
Conor dialed the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. They were federal police, but the provincial police, too, the past 50-odd years. They watched over all the communities on the island except Summerside, Kensington, and Charlottetown. They patrolled most of the land and served most of the population.
“I’ve got a dead man on my property,” he told 911.
“Do you need an ambulance?”
“No, not unless he comes back to life, which isn’t likely.”
“Are you there?”
“I will be in five minutes.”
“Where is there?”
He told the dispatcher and hung up. The younger of the red-cheeked Newfoundlanders threw him an inquiring look.
“I was some stunned when I overheard what ya said on the phone.”
“Yeah,” Conor said. “I’ll be back, tell you all about it.”
Back at the house he parked his car in the barn, walked across the street and up the slope, joining Bernie. A flock of cormorants passed by overhead. They didn’t look down at the two men.
“Do you have a smoke?” Conor asked.
“I thought you gave it up.”
Bernie shook two smokes out of his pack of Player’s, lit his, and passed the matches to Conor.
“You’re better off not smoking,” he said. “These things are getting crazy expensive. Ten years ago, a 25-pack cost a Loonie. Now they cost six dollars. I took another look at that watch, on the wrist, and I think it might be woman down there in the ground.”
“It’s not good, whoever it is,” Conor said.
They stood leaning against the tractor, smoking in silence, waiting for the gravel road cops.
Excerpted from “Blood Lines” at http://www.redroadpei.com.
Ed Staskus edits Theatre PEI. He posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”