FICTION: The Log Boom by Mitchell Toews

Martin Junior and Frederick

The two stood in a hard-packed dirt barnyard, facing the end wall of an old dairy barn. The smell of cows still permeated the air. It was sweet, fetid and oddly appealing – the kind of smell that was at first unpleasant but that, over time, one grew accustomed to. After a while, it was as if your nose craved it. Marty had always found that strange but undeniable. He craved it now.

The younger one of the two – a tall boy – sniffed and peaked his eyebrows.

“Same smell,” he said.

“Yeah, there hasn’t been a cow here for six years, but…” Marty’s words trailed off as he tilted his head up to find the familiar scent.

The yard was packed hard as asphalt. On the flaking clapboards above the entrance was a white plywood sheet. Attached to it was a once-orange steel basketball rim. The white backboard bore several muddy handprints, their impressions left so distinctly that you could almost hear the slap on the flat wood.

“Highest jump gets to drive to the ferry terminal,” Frederick said, holding up a dirty palm to point at the basketball backboard and illustrate his meaning. Marty hated to be the passenger. He felt so anxious with his son driving; switching lanes and tailgating slow drivers in the left lane.

“You’re on, kid. Remember, I was born in a leap year,” Marty said, hopping up and down and wind milling his arms to warm-up. He was glad he had worn runners that day. He was glad too that Fred had asked to come to the old farm before he went away to school.

Frederick ran over to the door and pulled it open. Just inside was a bushel basket containing four or five chewed-up basketballs. He picked the two likeliest and flipped one to his father.

They shot around for a few minutes; two skinny, broad-shouldered Dutchmen. Their arms were bony and the knuckles of their large hands red, as if from scrubbing with too abrasive a brush. They began doing lay-ups until, without saying anything, Marty ran to a spot — a large flat, oval stone set flush into the dirt surface. It was like meeting an old friend. He clapped his hands and Frederick fired a pass to him. His shot was off in an instant, the ball back-spinning and falling without a sound through the naked hoop.

Their familiar competition began. Frederick, reared back like a high-jumper, then raced forward and made a feline leap, reaching with a long arm. Slap! Like a screen door slamming.

Marty eyed the white spot on the backboard beside Frederick’s mark. He approached from the left side, swooping under the rim.

“You got me by an inch, Old-school,” Frederick said, crouching down into a squat with his hands spread out on the packed clay ground. Then he stood under the rim and with just one sudden step bounced up and spanked the backboard with his palm, leaving a gray imprint.

“That’s about ten-seven, eh?” said Martin, bending over from the waist to rub a little dirt on his hand. He looked like a Blue Heron bent in half, drinking. “Tell you what,” he said with a small smile. “If I don’t beat you on this try – you win. But, if I do beat you on this one, I drive the truck and choose the radio station.”

“Deal,” said Fred, hands on narrow hips, long fingers splayed on the front of his shorts.

#

They were in the truck, rolling down the new highway beside the Fraser with Johnny Cash on the radio. The two kidded about the jumping. Frederick was proud of his dad.

“Did you ever do a jump-off like that with Grandpa?” Freddy said.

“No, he could never even dunk, big as he is,” Marty said. “He had played some soccer goal keeper back in Holland, but he said the farm was his sport. He worked every day and quit school when his dad figured he had enough education to run the farm – reading and writing and math, pretty much. Though I expect he would have made an excellent engineer.”

“He sure loved basketball though.”

“Yeah, he came to all my games and he never missed one of yours from grade six on,” Martin said to Freddie.

Freddie thought of the big man standing on the top row of the bleachers, bellowing relentlessly at the refs and the other team. Then the old man would plead for Frederick’s team to, “Pass it to Freddie, he don’t miss!” Fred secretly loved the attention – Grandpa stomping his cowshit spattered boots and leading the chant when the score clock ticked down.

“We used to be out in that yard shooting until midnight,” Marty said, in a faraway voice. “He would stand under the hoop, rebounding and whipping the balls back out to me. ‘Again!’ he’d yell, over and over.”

A light rain began to fall and they were quiet for a long while as they drove west to the ferry terminal. Frederick started school at UVIC in two days and the last of his gear — bag, backpack, and bike — was under a tarp in the truck box.

Lurching forward in his seat, Frederick turned down the volume of the radio and spoke, breaking in on Marty’s thoughts.

“Dad,” he said with his voice just audible above the hum of the tires, “I want you to know something.” He fussed with the settings on his phone.

“Yes?”

And that is when Frederick told his father. Just like that.

Marty had sometimes wondered how people react when they were told this by a child. He was quiet, holding back words – perplexed as much as he was surprised. It could have been much worse – coming so sudden and awkwardly as it did. He had been scared at first and an ice-cold wash of adrenalin had flooded down his spine when Freddy started to speak. Marty thought maybe his son was sick – cancer or some other awful thing – but that didn’t make sense. He would know if anything serious like that was wrong.

The quiet rested on them there in the cab of the truck as Marty considered what Fred had told him. The radio announcer chattered in the background about departure times at the ferry.

“A few times,” Marty said to Fred who sat still in the passenger seat, “I thought about it a few times – I wondered just a bit.” Marty recalled – no girlfriends except a second-cousin for grad; too busy with basketball for dates or dances or other teenage boy conquests. It was always basketball, school, Grandpa and the farm.

As they drove, Marty watched a tugboat towing a boom of logs on the Fraser. The logs flowed down the inexorable river, riding the current. Frederick noticed Marty studying the boom and said to his father, “That one is huge – how many separate booms are strung together?”

The log boom was like a pause button and they both reached for it. “At least three,” Marty said as he pulled the truck over on the shoulder. They sat together and watched the tug as it guided the immense weight of the logs past the pilings of the Alex Fraser Bridge.

“The boom is going downstream, so it’s controllable, I suppose,” Marty said. “But I guess you still have to be pretty careful and plan the path with care.”

“Do you think it’s harder to tow them upstream?” Fred asked, glancing at his dad, his eyes glassy.

The kid is sharp, was the thought that came into Marty’s head. Big hearted as hell. Shit.

The logs don’t pick the direction, Marty thought. He wanted to say that to Freddie, but it sounded too pat – made the whole thing a bit maudlin. It was a good thought, and true, and it made him stronger and helped him to cope with his own feelings, which were loose and rambling in his head, but he did not say it.

“I think the tug captains like it when the current and the tide cancel each other out; when the water is basically still,” Marty said, taking an easier way.

He remembered what a friend – a towboat captain – had told him, “The challenge is to move the logs fast enough to make good time but slow enough so that the booms are not pulled apart and logs lost.”

Fred had his gaze fixed on the floating logs.

“Ok, Fred,” Marty said. “Tell me everything you want me to know and I’ll explain it to Mom.”

“Mom knows,” Fred said, his voice wavering. “But maybe you can tell Grandpa?”

“I’ll tell him,” Marty said, as he shoulder-checked and pulled out into the flow of traffic. He thought about his wife Anneke, and he was surprised she had not said something to him.

“I guess I knew too, Fred. I guess I did, if I’m honest.”

“Sure, Dad. That’s kind of what I thought,” Freddie said, staring down at his hands as he spoke.

Marty said, “I’ll talk to Grandpa, but hell, Fred, you and he are close – more than me and him by far. Wouldn’t he rather hear it from you?”

“Not this, Dad,” Fred said, as the radio twanged, “Waylon and Willie and the boys,”

Martin Gerlach Senior

Martin Gerlach had run this farm most of his adult life. He had been chosen by the family in Holland, years ago, to come to Canada and find land, gather a dairy herd, and begin a new life for the family. He had done wonderfully, but his health and his stamina was spent with the effort. When the time came, he passed it to his three sons who moved the Gerlach dairy herd to a new, modern complex a few miles away. Martin senior asked them to leave the old barn standing so he could still use the workshop and store his travel trailer and a few other things. They had been happy to accommodate him.

In the weeks after he told him about Frederick, Marty became concerned about his father. Every day he drove to his parents’ house and each time his mother told him the same thing: “Where else? He’s at the old barn,” she said. “I think he has fixed every broken tool and sharpened every darn blade in the Fraser Valley. He is in a foul mood – expect a fight.”

#

On a cold morning, before dawn, with sleet slapping on the barn sash, the old man took the axe down from its place on the shop wall. The stone of the sharpening wheel whirled and pulsed in its greased traces, making a hollow, scraping noise that echoed throughout the empty barn. The grating sound unsettled the swallows that nested there. He drank a third of a bottle of Crown Royal while he sharpened the axe with the foot-treadled grindstone in the workshop.

“It’s okay birds, simmer down. Relax,” he rumbled as the tiny creatures darted through the still air of the barn.

Martin lifted the axe, feeling it for balance. Then he stared for a time at the door jamb and all of the names and measurements. Already drunk, he opened a tall can of beer and drank half of it. Then he placed the can on the workbench, putting it next to the other – the brutish thing; malevolent and oily.

Martin set his feet and, swinging the axe like a baseball bat, lodged it in the jamb board, above the highest two names. The blade was plunged an inch deep in the faded wood. The names Marty and Frederick were on the splintered chunk of board just below the axe blade.

The tall man felt in a few pockets, then brought out a cellophane wrapped package of Players cigarettes. He opened it, wadding the inner foil in his hand; his red-skinned fingers braided from arthritis. Smelling the tobacco, he went back fifty years in an instant. He saw himself shouting and tugging at a hoe in the wet cement as a truck poured the footing for the barn he stood in now. Martin lit a cigarette, tasting the burnt brown sugar and sweet caporal flavour, the same way he did that day so long ago.

“The best cigarette was always the first one in the morning, with kaffe, just before milking,” he said out loud, talking to his herd as if they were still there. The cows back then would smell the tobacco and know their urgent pain would end soon – knew that he was there to relieve them.

Martin smoked and thought back to how it used to be. He thought of those mornings, the cows stirring and lowing in their stalls. He would make his plans for the day in those peaceful moments. All those uncles and cousins and brothers back in Holland – all counting on him to get things going. He needed those quiet moments, just to shed the worry and think of other things.

He flicked the cigarette away and pried the axe head loose. Martin aimed and swung again. The next chop was lower, striking at the height of Freddie’s 18th birthday mark. Cut free, the piece of wood with the two names on it fell as the second blow went home, shaking the wall and scattering the birds. The old man left the axe where it struck and leaned over. He dropped one long arm down, like dangling a length of chain, and picked up the fragment. He rubbed over the names with his thumb, his eyes soft and his gaze far away.

Martin Senior held the envelope — “To Marty and Frederick” — written in his best Leeuwarden schoolboy handwriting and gripped it along with the piece of wooden jamb.

He smelled the good dairy barn smell for the last time. He picked up the dark, sinister thing in his free hand and hefted it. It fit the form of his palm and he could feel the sharp, cross-hatched ridges of the handle grip. The steel was cold and it drew the heat from his hand like a wick.

A moment later it was quiet again and the swallows resumed flying in the yard, near the open door where the tall man laid.

#

Marty and Frederick stood in front of the barn in their funeral suits, the backboard and the rain-streaked handprints above their heads. “That was quite a day,” Marty said, looking up.

Frederick stared at the handprints on the basketball backboard. He wandered towards the door.  “I want to see the door frame,” Frederick said.

Marty noticed the boy’s stride — slightly pigeon-toed — copying his own awkward waddle.

That’s what they taught us, Marty thought, remembering his high school coach on the bus, explaining. “There’s so little room in the key, down low. So many big feet… you’ll trip less if you turn your toes inward – fewer sprains too.” Martin, then the enthusiastic rookie, adopted the toed-in stance and he walked that way still.

“Drink as little water as you can during games – it improves your wind. Toughens you up. You can re-fill after the game.” Marty thought back to what his college coach had said – it was irrefutable then.

Not everything they believed was right. Not everything they taught us was good for us, he mused.

“You sure loved your birthday parties,” Marty said to his son.  At the parties, every Gerlach child’s height, name and date were recorded in carpenter’s pencil on the frame of the workshop door in the barn.

Frederick opened the door and a sharp squeal came from the rusted triangular hinges.

“Quit complaining, vee all got shit to deal wit’,” Frederick said, in a voice and accent mimicking his grandfather’s. He swung the door the rest of the way. All of the old markings were there; his dad’s, his uncles’ and aunts’, his cousins’ and his own. From one through 18, the level pencil lines showed steady progression. Up through the grades and years they went; a sapling rising from the understory. The lines, like the outer growth rings on a cedar stump, became closer together as his height neared its pinnacle and his annual growth slowed.

Frederick remembered the excitement of those childhood measuring days. He recalled his parents standing with Grandma and Grandpa as the tarnished builder’s square was used to position the line on top of his head. He enjoyed thinking of their cheers as he exceeded his cousins and some years — not many — his dad’s mark for the same age.

“Dutch men are tall and straight and true,” Martin Gerlach would say with ceremony, handing over one of the little bags of black liquorice, the candy salty as a deer lick. Frederick thought of his mom laughing, watching him as he pretended to like the Dutch candy, his face in a grimace. It was Grandpa’s favourite moment.

“Grandpa always measured with the old folding wooden ruler,” Frederick said touching the pencil marks. The ruler was imprinted with beautiful cursive — the words of his grandparents’ native language. A language prohibited by Grandpa – “English is the language of the new land. So be it,” he had said to the family, prohibiting Dutch and insisting on high marks in reading, spelling and literature.

Someday, you can be bigger den me, Grandpa always told me,” Frederick said, thinking of his grandfather – a loving, baggy-eyed giant.

#

Frederick stood staring at the door frame. A few inches above his eye-level was a heavy axe. The tool’s head was rusted and the handle gray; as rough as bark. It had been imbedded in the jamb and stood out sideways as if it had grown there. He looked down at the concrete inside of the doorway where the floor was scrubbed and whitish. Bleach had been used to clean away his grandfather’s blood.

Martin came up behind his son and put his hands on the boy’s shoulders.

“Like the poem Aunty Agnes read at the funeral, One more is gone. Out of the busy throng.  Remember the good in Grandpa – there was a lot,” Marty said in a whisper.

“He never could get over it, could he? Me living in Victoria with David… ”

“Don’t think that. Grandpa was very sick. His back hurt him every day and he had chronic bronchitis and diabetes. His heart was weak and he had started smoking again, on the sly, but Grandma knew. He had hardly any feeling in his feet. Grandpa had not been right for a while. His body had abandoned him at the end,” Marty said to his son.

“Grandpa had been strong for a long time before that and he wasn’t any more,” Marty continued. “He felt cut off from the rest of us. He was lost without the family looking to him to lead and – being who he was – he wanted to control things. So that’s what he did. Your news was just one more piece in the puzzle and he would have got used to it in a big hurry and then challenged anyone who thought different to a fight.”

Frederick smiled, thinking of his fearless grandpa, testy and self-assured as he scrapped and pushed his way through life. He loved that part of him and a wave of blackness overcame him for a second.

“Put ‘em up, put up yer dukes,” Frederick said and his father nodded, his breath coming out in a hitch, a wave of regret running through him and tears bursting.

They were quiet for a time, standing in the doorway and hugging and crying. They shared Marty’s hanky, each blowing their nose until the little square of cloth had no more dry in it.

Martin Junior thought with guilt that since Fred’s birthday – almost a year ago – they had not shot any baskets together or competed in any way. Not even ping pong. They used to do something like that together almost every day.

“Listen, Fred,” Marty said. “The night I told Grandpa about you coming out, he was upset. He was a mess.” Marty remembered the old man sitting in the farm shop on an upended Coke case, the little wood stove crackling – spitting boiling resin every few seconds as the fatwood cedar chips burned. Martin Senior’s face was dark and horrible; he was like a caged bear. Tears of frustration rolled down his blue and red, blood-veined cheeks.

“When I told him, he said, ‘Never. Frederick is like me and like you – he’s the same!’”

“I told him that you weren’t the same but that it was OK, that it didn’t matter. Then I asked him if he remembered when the small barn burned down, years ago when I was a boy. I asked Grandpa, ‘Do you remember what you said to me that night, with all those cows dead and the insurance a big jumble and everything so terrible?’”

“He said to me, that night after the fire, he said, ‘Marty, this changes everything and this changes nothing.’”

Then Marty pulled off his suit jacket and wiped his eyes. He grabbed one of the old basketballs. “C’mon,” he said, “quick game of 21.”

The End

Page 5 – “Waylon and Willie and the boys,” from the song “Luckenbach, Texas” by Waylon Jennings, Ol’ Waylon, RCA Victor, 1977.

Page 8 – “One more is gone. Out of the busy throng.” The opening two lines from the poem, The Funeral Bell, by Henry David Thoreau.

Mitchell Toews

Kits mitch zoom

Mitchell Toews lives and writes at Jessica Lake in Manitoba. When an insufficient number of, “We are pleased to inform you…” emails are on hand, he finds alternative joy in the windy intermingling between the top of the water and thebottom of the sky, or skates on the ice until he can no longer see the cabin.

Mitch’s writing has appeared in CommuterLit, Fiction on the Web, Literally Stories, Red Fez, SickLit, Voices Journal, The Machinery, and Rhubarb Magazine. Details at mitchellaneous.com

If you enjoyed The Log Boom, leave a comment and let Mitchell know.

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