canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Ten Scotches

by Donald McGrath

Out past the roof, the mist is thick over the Skeena. I’m sitting at the window, my head shoved out past the sill. I’m chewing sodden granola, slowly, methodically. I’ve got my elbows on the window ledge, wedged between milk and juice cartons and hunks of cheese in foil. It’s a bit cramped but, hey, you make the best of it.

“I can still hear you chewing!” she snarls.

I turn my head, it bumps against the window frame—“Jesus, ouch!”

She’s awake, sitting up in bed, eyes boring into me.

“But I’ve softened it,” I protest, “I put in twice as much milk!”

“It’s just not enough!” she barks.

I turn back, remove the spoon from the bowl and splash what’s left across the roof. Plump, inky ravens swoop down on the milky mess. I jump up, grab my coat and am gone.


Rupert: her idea. “Now that we’re graduating,” she said, “we should make some money. Dan’s in Cassiar, it’s only twenty miles out. Don’t worry, he’s my brother, he’ll help us find something.”

It’s been six weeks now and she still hasn’t found anything. My guess is she’s up by eleven—at the earliest. By then I’m a full three hours at the plant, while she lies in bed, smoking, reading. Even the maid’s cottoned on to it. She’s seen the stack of People and Chatelaine, the abalone shell heaped high with butts and drawn her own conclusions. Even started dropping comments, which I take in with heaps of pretend indignation. I’m starting to like this, not doing too bad as the longsuffering schmuck of a husband.

We lied about that, took the burnished gent at the desk for some local breed of fundamentalist who might not give us a room. Didn’t know the Savoy yet—hadn’t seen the guy out cold, heels on a chair, head under a table; or the naked couple passed out on the bed, test pattern on and curtains billowing to the ceiling.

We take turns between the bed and the floor. Sometimes I think we should just be scouts, be practical, go for cuddle value. But things are not that simple. I’ve got the love bug, had it since back in Halifax. But we’ve been friends, Kate and me… it’s not easy. I’m waiting for the moment, for a sign.


Getting here. Six days, six in coach drowsing sideways, lathered in sweat, downing soggy sandwiches and coffee after coffee. A shower at the Y in Montreal; four hours on the station steps in Winnipeg; an afternoon in Jasper among the tourists and the knickknacks. Telephone poles clicking by outside, Kate wet-thumming her way through piles of fashion glossies. Myself more single-minded, downright snotty with my Marcuse and my Iliad and its hail of epithets—grey-eyed Goddess Athena, devious-devising Kronos: grease on the wheels.

And before that: two weeks candling in Halifax for the ticket. Candlers take worms out of cod. You pass the fillets over a light table, you use tweezers. At the end of the day you’ve got your little worm pyramid. A sense of achievement!

Sea to shining sea on shining rails. A glimmer of fish either side.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn gets on at Ottawa—just to make the trip truly epic. He stays aboard all the way to Rupert, en route to Alaska. Stayed in Rupert overnight and, as the local paper put it, “registered under his own name.” I brush by him once, between cars somewhere in the Rockies. He’s standing against a backdrop of mountains, a fur cap tilted on his skull. Posing for a coin.

What they didn’t print: Mrs. A. S. kicked out of Rupert Station. It closes after the train comes in. Famous writer heads up the boardwalk, scouting out the place. Leaves her in the station with the bags. The stationmaster talks to her, tries to explain. I don’t think English is the problem, the problem’s the concept. He eventually lapses into mime, flicks the lights on, off, points to the door. Now she gets the idea, drags the bags outside. A student from Madison goes after her, hauls her back in, berates the stationmaster. He knows what a gulag is now!


Six days on the train and then my boots go to crap. How did that happen? Was I not on my ass all the time? The soles flap away from the top, wag, like tongues. I gag 'em with electric tape. The boss, before he’s the boss, sees me standing there in trussed Kodiaks, in a pool of water. His swollen face hovers over me, pores and pockmarks gritty with pity.

I’m assigned to the freezers. I wear fleece-lined boots, woolen pants and shirt, a black toque, oil pants, waterproof sleeves, insulated mitts.

Someone pulls a string on the ceiling. A huge metal door slides open and we step forward into mist. I’m the rookie, so I get the broom for the walls. The first time I think it’s a joke, the kind of mindless task you’d drop on a college freshman. But it has its purpose. You swing at the hoarfrost, you sweep and sweep until you see pink—it literally dawns on you. Out come the girls, four whole walls of Playboy and Hustler, teeth a-chatter, nipples rigid from the cold.

In the centre of the chamber stands a vat and, above it, a metal grille hanging from heavy iron chains. For halibut heretics. We hack off their fins with machetes, pile them on the grille, lower them into the darkness of the vat. They arise lustrous, glazed. Transformed into good Christians.

When an order for shipment comes in, we go to a back room piled to the ceiling with them. We climb on the piles, grab onto ceiling pipes and kick. A row of us, running along and kicking. A toque hits a lightbulb and sends out a shower of sparks. Curses, shouts, the rumble of southbound halibut.


Now my brother’s here, hitchhiked from Newfoundland. Hard to believe, but he is in the room, sitting right there on the bed with his empty pockets and mouthful of stories. Had an escaped convict for company in New Brunswick. Got put up by the cops. Saw a car roll over near Wa-wa. Old lady pulls up, makes her way into the ditch. Sees two guys hanging upside down in their belts. “Jesus Jesus Jesus” and a strong smell of gas. The old lady pokes in her cane, jabs the talker in the ribs. “Mind that tongue, sonny!”

Harry: lovely impecunious twin! Breathless, excited, with two bucks left to his name. Walked past the desk clerk, as me. Another mouth.

The sleeping arrangement’s simple, symmetrical. Kate’ll have the bed, one twin on either side. The Queen is ecstatic, just loves her eunuchs to bits. That Egyptian haircut makes sense now.


The Savoy is wearing but there are no apartments. The few got snapped up early in May, a month before we got here. There’s one highrise in all of Rupert, an eight-story building, eight stories of pure daydream material with toilets and bathrooms and dining room tables and—best of all O Holy Mother Murphy—a stove to cook on.

We know a guy lives there. The Pharmacist. Met him at the Rupert Hotel the night of the crutch race. There were two guys in casts, both on the left leg—different accidents, though.

There’s not a whole lot to do in Rupert.

The Pharmacist. He was the one who talked us out of the Savoy—for one night. “I’ve got this place,” he said, “above the drugstore.” Used to live there, company paid for it. No furniture, but we’d make do. Sure we would.

So we tell them downstairs, stash our bags and go off to meet the Pharmacist. We’ve agreed on the town hall fountain.

We wait for hours. When he finally ambles up we’re exhausted. He’s all good cheer, he slaps us on the backs as if we’re pals of a lifetime. Been drinking. Toddles ahead of us, around to the side of the drugstore. Coaxes a key from a pocket, prods for a lock. We’re going upstairs…

“Didn’t I tell ya!,” extending his arms and smiling the broadest of smiles.

We’re seeing but we’re not believing. The room’s empty, except for some cardboard boxes in a corner, a table by a window and a yellow plastic tricycle on its side. Not a sign of sink or toilet.

“It’s a storeroom,” says Kate.

“And a damn big one at that!” He’s bowing left and right. “More than enough for two lovebirds!”

“Planning to join the party?” she snaps.

“Oh not me,” he laughs, not quite catching the tone. “I’m comfortable where I am, wouldn’t give it up for the world.”

“Jesus,” I say, “do you really expect us to stay here?”

“Where will we PISS?” says Kate.

“There’s a bathroom downstairs,” he says. “I’ll give you the key.”

“What about bathing, showers?”

“I don’t know... you… you could go to the Y, I guess…. I think there’s a Y.”

How did we? This crackpot…

“Well if that’s how you feel!,” he says, self-sorry.

“We’ll stay,” I say, “We’ll stay just for tonight. You can have your key back tomorrow.”

“No hard feelings.” He slaps my arm. And to Kate, wagging a finger in mock admonishment: “Now my little lady, sleep tight and no hanky panky!”

We haul a large collapsed cardboard box out to the middle of the floor. Pry the sides apart, slip in. We plump up our jackets for pillows.

I wake in the night, it’s cold in the room. The box slants from my shoulders down to a flatness where Kate… Perhaps she’s downstairs, in the bathroom. The key…

Time passes. I slip out of the box, pull myself up with the table leg. In the faint light from the window, I see Kate take shape. On the other side of the plastic motorcycle, she’s breathing deeply, knees drawn up, back to the wall.

Boy scouts, why can’t we...


Three days after splashdown my brother has found himself work. I introduced him to my boss. Clyde likes bookends, I guess.

Harry has his own room now, down in the Annex. I knock on the door and the casing falls in across his floor. His bed’s so lopsided, so alpine, he keeps his little finger curled around a nail in the wall. The roof outside is dotted with beer bottles and Kentucky Fried.

It rains all the time. We work, drink, play bingo.

We go to the bathtub races.

Their hour come, the brave little tubs don’t shirk—they’ve got a job to do. Drainholes plugged, overflows plugged, sterns dragged low by outboards, they’re out to upset accepted notions of bathtubs. Their work is not in the house.

People see this and they like it. Something in them responds to these spastic cartoony craft with their outlandish ambitions and outrageous names—Titania, Nemesis, Nelly Baby—with their helmeted pilots and racing stripes, their makeshift pontoons and airfoils. Away they go, buffeted silly, banking, loving the water. It’s more than civic spirit, more than any fondness for popular mechanics. It’s the method of a public madness, madness brought on by water, by relentless rain.


And Kate’s working—wonder of wonders! In a cannery across town. I’m eating my granola dry now, dry as a bone. Things are falling into place.

Then I nearly buy it.

I’m out of the freezer for awhile. We’re sorting abalone. The forklift’s got the aluminum buggy hoisted up to the ceiling, sidewise on the forks. There must be a ton in it.

I have to push the shells through the tailgate onto a wire screen below. I climb up, in. I release the door lock and start poking away with a shovel. There’s a right way of doing this: I should be evening out the load as I work. But nobody tells me, and I’m not thinking. I’m mesmerized a bit by the height, the racket of shells on wire.

I feel it tip. The shovel leaves my hands, which clamp themselves somehow, any old how, onto the frame of the lift. I flip out straight, sidewise.

The buggy is metal, 240 pounds empty. And there’s that half ton of shells. And the floor’s concrete.

I take two days off. Kate’s brother lends me the use of his trailer in Cassiar. I buy groceries, a block of ice and go down to the Rupert Hotel to wait for the bus.

The ice’s in a cardboard box, it’s melting by the time the bus arrives. I stow it under my seat. When we go up a hill, a pool of water flows toward the back; when we go down, it rushes to the front. But it never really reaches either end.

Cassiar’s a row of green clapboard shacks built on stilts over the Skeena. This is the old-growth forest with its head-high ferns and its cathedral light under the canopy. I see bald eagles glide over the river and, once, a heron standing in reeds at dusk.

Train tracks run right by the trailer. In the morning, Native kids drop pop bottles into the grooves and run laughing into the woods to wait.

I sleep late, I’m happy. I remember how much I love trains, the yards in Halifax. A world, it was, of strange forms: bug-eyed lanterns that, when you put your eye to them, showed darts of flame or blue, liquid depths. A gate into my art college world of de Chirico, Rousseau and Ernst. I find a pad of paper, take inventory: fire-breathing shacks, képi conductors, wrought-iron foliage. Or moonface clocks, matchstick boardwalks, red-wheeled baggage wagons groaning with luggage and nostalgia. Tremendous couplings, hellish steam...


I get back from Cassiar and the United Fishermen and Allied Workers Union goes on strike. It’s a big one, all up and down the coast.

Three weeks pass, I’m close to broke.

I decide to leave. I’ll take the train back east while I’m still liquid. Harry’s going to wait it out.

A parting spree’s in the cards. We go out. I down ten scotches, spend the rest of the night propped up straight against the headboard. Merciful God, it’s my night for the bed!

I get up in the dark, pack my bags and, somehow, tidy up.

Later in the year, I run into Kate in Halifax. She’s stone-faced, sphinxy. And she’s got a riddle for me.

“What, tell me, is the asshole conjugation of to check out?”

I stare blankly, blinking.

“Give up?” she says, her voice thin and high.


“It’s chuck out, you jerk! Why the fuck did you throw out all my make-up?”

“Ten scotches…?” I venture, after some seconds. But I can’t be sure.


Donald McGrath is a Montreal-based writer and translator who has published a book of poems (At First Light, Wolsak and Wynn, 1995) in addition to articles and translations on art. McGrath has completed a second poetry manuscript (which is currently trying to find a home) and is working on a short-story collection.







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