While the Trans-Canada Highway simmered in summer heat and a parrot told of an illicit love big deals were made in the shadows of the tavern

James McNamee August 15 1953


While the Trans-Canada Highway simmered in summer heat and a parrot told of an illicit love big deals were made in the shadows of the tavern

James McNamee August 15 1953


While the Trans-Canada Highway simmered in summer heat and a parrot told of an illicit love big deals were made in the shadows of the tavern

James McNamee

TO THOSE sitting around the table at the far end of the tavern, the highway, in the breathless heat, seen through the side windows, looked soft and distorted and gleamed like mercury and, in the yard, the white poplar stood as rigid as a piece of ornamental ironwork.

While the Trans-Canada Highway simmered in summer heat

and a parrot told of an illicit love

big deals were made in the shadows of the tavern

TO THOSE sitting around the table at the far end of the tavern, the highway, in the breathless heat, seen through the side windows, looked soft and distorted and gleamed like mercury and, in the yard, the white poplar stood as rigid as a piece of ornamental ironwork.

Through the lobby of the two-storied, mustard-colored hotel, the three men could hear the parrot the owner’s wife kept upstairs in her bedroom squall, “Alec, oh, Alec,” that being the name of a former waiter of whom the owner’s wife was overly fond.

The owner, a thin, round-shouldered man whose hands shook, had not replaced the waiter, and sat with his two patrons, the middle-aged real-estate man, and the young teacher who during the summer tried to sell farms on commission and batched in a small shack at the edge of the village.

The real-estate man was talking of a syndicate that might be formed to build cottages at one of the fishing lakes, but the owner, whom the real-estate man had never been able to separate from a dollar, seemed more interested in their empty glasses and in not spilling the tobacco from the cigarette paper he held with his trembling hands.

The schoolteacher wished Alec had been with them instead of the owner. Alec would have slapped the table and hooted at the picture the real-estate man was painting of a summer resort at the lakes, and the real-estate man would have been driven to gaudier colors, and Alec would have thrown back his head and laughed, and so would they, then Alec would have put three beers on the table with the owner’s compliments, which was something of a joke, too.

The parrot squalled, “Alec, oh, Alec!”

As the owner lit his cigarette, the real-estate man watched him. “That damned bird,” he said, “sounds like your wife calling Alec.”

The owner looked at the real-estate man and coughed with his lungs full of smoke. He picked up , the empty glasses.

“Bring us two more,” said the real-estate man.

The owner brought the beer, and sat moodily at the table, squinting his eyes to protect them against the soggy cigarette cradled in the corner of his mouth.

The teacher heard a car stop. Two women in white dresses stood in the entrance to the tavern. Two men joined them, and they came inside, choosing a table far enough from the windows to keep them in shade. The older man held up four fingers. The younger immediately did the same and said, “Make it eight.” They both laid their hats on the table. Trout flies and fishhooks dotted the crowns and were pushed into the ribbons.

One of the young women had black hair, and a fine shape, and a healthy alertness in her manner. “Maybe I know them,” said the real-estate man. “The old one looks like Billy Redwood. He kept the garage in Slabtown.” When the owner came back and sat at their table, the real-estate man asked, “Ig it Billy Redwood?” The owner lifted his shoulders. “Who’s the dark babe?” The owner shook his head. “I’m going over,” said the real-estate man. “I think he’s Billy Redwood.”

He walked to the other table, and asked the older man, “Are you Continued on page 30

Two Ways to Hook a Sucker


Billy Redwood?” The man looked surprised, and so did the stout girl sitting next to him, and he said he was not Billy Redwood, his name was Walter Redwood.

“Billy’s brother?” asked the realestate man.

“Billy’s brother.”

“I thought so,” said the real-estate man. “You look like Billy. I used to know Billy when he kept the garage.”

Billy’s brother asked the real-estate man to sit down.

“Can my friend come over?” asked the real-estate man.

The man said any friend of a friend of Billy was a friend of his. He and the others in the party shufiled their chairs. The real-estate man took chairs from another table and put one next to the young woman with the black hair, and the other between the stout young woman and Billy’s brother.

rFhe brother made the introductions. The stout young woman was his daughter. The younger man was a Mr. Wadsworth, the teacher thought, or Widsworth or Woodward. The shapely young woman with the black hair was Eva, Eva Bourgeois, or Boisjoli, or some such French name. She acknowledged the introduction with the swift, natural animation of her race. The real-estate man had taken the chair next to her.

“Good old Billy,” said the real-estate man.

Sweat filmed the upper lip of the

stout girl. She tugged at her clothes. A ball of sweat erratically rolled down the side of her father’s chin. Halfmoons of sweat spread under the arms of Mr. Wadsworth. The brassy heat seemed to have bludgeoned everyone but Eva. “Good old Billy,” said the real-estate man. Had Alec still been serving beer, the schoolteacher thought, and not the owner with his sunken, putty face and trembling hands, those at the table would have felt more at home. Alec would have looked boldly at the girls, as he had looked at the owner’s wife, and taken a crack at the real-estate man to get him talking great guns on a hundred subjects quite apart from Billy Redwood. The parrot in the bedroom of the owner’s wife squalled, “Alec, oh, Alec!” “Who’s Alec?” asked Eva. “He doesn’t live here any more,” said the real-estate man. “Who wants him?” asked Eva. “A lady upstairs,” the real-estate man said, raising his voice to be sure the owner at the bar heard him. The owner twisted his wet cigarette from one corner of his mouth to the other, and looked at the real-estate man without appreciation or any show of friendship in his eyes. The parrot squalled, “Alec, oh, Alec!” “Sounds nuts,” said Eva. “Is nuts,” said the real-estate man, “hasn’t been out of the room for two days.” Not since Alec had left, the schoolteacher reflected. “Let’s finish our beer,” said Mr. Wadsworth, Widsworth, Woodward. Mr. Wadsworth was, the schoolteacher thought, a dainty man. He had small, pearly teeth, immaculate nails and a wedding ring on his finger. He seemed disturbed at the interest the real-estate man took in Eva, and in pain, but with mind made up not to lose the brave, set smile of a perfect gentleman. He sat as close to Eva as he could. The schoolteacher asked the stout girl about him, and she said he was traveling the prairies for an investment corporation in Toronto, had met Eva about a week ago and ever since followed her around like a dog. “Eva, finish your beer,” said Mr. Wadsworth. The stout girl had said dog, and the teacher saw a trace of dog in Mr. Wadsworth’s demeanor. A gentle little dog. He waited with a dog’s patience for Eva to throw him a word. His eyes never left her. A suffering little dog. A groomed and antiseptic little dog who knew it was bad to snap and show jealousy. Eva had fun with the real-estate man. He got the idea across that he was a man of the world and she wasn’t any slouch either. He gave her a sales talk, he himself being the property involved. Eva winked at the stout girl. “We have to go,” said Mr. Wadsworth. The teacher bought the party a round of beer. Mr. Wadsworth, to make room for the glasses, took his hat with all the fishhooks off the table and held it on his knees. “We have to go,” he said. Eva gave no sign of having heard. She reminded the schoolteacher of the owner’s wife sitting with her husband and Alec in the lobby. She had not shared her attention between them but kept it all on Alec and his big, impudent mouth. “We must be going,” said Mr. Wadsworth. “Ah, tell him to shut up,” the realestate man told Eva. Mr. Wadsworth had the slightly pre-

occupied air of a gentleman being tortured.

“When I’m in town,” the real-estate man said, “I stop at the National.”

Eva winked at the stout girl. “I won’t forget.”

“1 hurt myself,” Mr. Wadsworth said. The schoolteacher saw nothing wrong with him. “Eve hurt myself,” Mr. Wadsworth said, “badly.” He raised his left hand above the edge of the table, fingers extended, the palm toward them, and in the flesh at the base of the thumb was jabbed a large fishhook. “Look!” said Mr. Wadsworth. The indomitable smile showed a sliver of his pearly upper teeth. “I can’t pull it out,” Mr. Wadsworth said. He spoke only to Eva, and held out the hand for her examination. Blood dripped off the barb, and she edged over on her chair to protect her white dress. Mr. Wadsworth said, “I put my hand in my pocket.”

No one believed him.

“He keeps a hook loose like that in his pocket?” the real-estate man asked Eva.

Mr. Wadsworth held up his hand to Eva, in the manner of a dog with a sore paw. The spectacle did not please. There was degradation in it. The schoolteacher felt unreasonably annoyed and would have kicked Mr. Wadsworth before he would have offered to help with the fishhook.

“I can’t get it out,” Mr. Wadsworth said.

To clear the air of embarrassment, the real-estate man started talking to Eva.

“Eva,” said Mr. Wadsworth, “what shall I do?”

“Ah, tell him to get a pair of pliers and cut off the barb,” the real-estate man told Eva.

Eva spoke to Mr. Wadsworth. She indicated the owner. “He may have pliers. You could find a pair in the car. You should wash that.”

THE REAL-ESTATE man talked of himself and life as he knew it in the big town, and Eva inclined toward him, winking her off eye at the Redwoods. They relished every lying word.

Mr. Wadsworth sat neglected. Blood trickled onto his cuff. He watched the spread of color. He glanced at Eva to see if she, too, had noticed it, then stood up and walked toward the bar.

The schoolteacher saw the owner shake his head over Mr. Wadsworth’s hand. He found a pair of pliers under the counter, and when he snipped the barb, they shook like an animal in his trembling fingers. While Mr. Wadsworth held his hand under the faucet, (lie owner stood next to him and talked. The schoolteacher could not hear them hut twice he saw the owner frame on his lips the name of the realestate man. They looked secretive. They reminded the schoolteacher of how Alec and the owner had stood together in the bar and whispered on the morning of the day Alec had left.

When Mr. Wadsworth returned to the table, no one asked to see his hand. He dabbed it with a folded linen handkerchief and sat looking at Eva and the real-estate man, and said, “We’ll have to go. I have to write to my company. They’d he interested in the investment possibilities at the lakes.”

The real - estate man left Eva stranded between two of his deceitful words. He leaned forward and said, “Did you say lakes? The fishing lakes?” “Yes,” said Mr. Wadsworth. “Hmmm,” said the real-estate man, “a lovely spot.”

“Yes,” said Mr. Wadsworth.

“Sir,” said the real-estate man, “what is your business?”

“Property development,” said Mr. Wadsworth.

“Your company would consider development of something at the lakes?”

Mr. Wadsworth nodded. “I’m sure they would.”

“Please,” said the real-estate man to Eva, “move your chair hack a couple of inches. Sir, I hold leases at those lakes.”

“Good heavens!” said Mr. Wadsworth in a well-bred fashion.

The schoolteacher looked at the hotel owner. They both knew the realestate man didn’t have, as yet, a yard of property at the lakes. The owner’s face glowed as he watched the realestate man forsake Eva to pursue a possible dollar.

“We’d have to buy you out,” said Mr. Wadsworth.

“Look,” said the real-estate man to Eva, “how would you like to change chairs?”

“I won’t,” said Eva.

“Can’t you see this is business?”

“You’re breaking my heart,” said Eva.

“Be yourself,” said the real-estate man. “Quit interfering. Now then,” said he to Mr. Wadsworth, “how can I keep in touch with you?”

“I’ll give you my card,” said Mr. Wadsworth. “I’ll be back next week.” He took out his wallet. He carried, t he schoolteacher saw, considerable money hut not as much as Alec had had when he left. Alec, on that afternoon, in his good suit, had laid his valise on the floor, and sat with them like any other customer, and had told the owner to draw three beers. Alec had taken out his wallet and thumbed the edges of a crowd of hills, hoping, he said, to find a small ten, and had leered with his impudent eyes as he waited for their comments. But he only told them he had sold his interest in something. He had been bought out. And the owner, when he gave Alec his change, had looked sly and had seemed to be bubbling with some private excitement. The real-estate man had asked Alec if you-know-who knew he was going, and Alec had shaken his head and said it would he a surprise.

“All right for you,” said Eva to the real-estate man.

The Redwoods and Eva and Mr. Wadsworth stood up.

The real-estate man knew she was laughing at him for having paid her so much attention at the table, for being contemptuous of Mr. Wadsworth. He was heavily effusive in saying good-by to the stout girl. “Next week, then,” he said to Mr. Wadsworth.

“Certainly, certainly,” said Mr. Wadsworth.

The schoolteacher saw Eva speak to the stout girl as they stepped into the sunshine, and for some seconds he heard the stout girl squeal with laughter.

Mr. Wadsworth stopped at the door and waved good-by to the owner. It was not a next week gesture. It was finality, adieu.

“That damned girl just about spoiled my pitch,” said the real-estate man. “I sure gave her up in a hurry.”

Amusement fluttered on the owner’s face as he picked up the empty glasses.

The sun came through the side windows. In the distance the highway shimmered into a mirage and, closer, twitched like grey sand seen under inches of running water. The shadow the white poplar spilled on the burnt ground was a dusty blue paint.

The parrot squalled, “Alec, oh, Alec!”

“Why don’t you poison that damned thing,” said the real-estate man.

The owner looked at the real-estate man and shook his head.

The teacher found it hurt to keep his eyes on the reflected glossiness of the highway. *