First Place | Nonfiction Writing Contest XLIX

49TH NEW MILLENNIUM AWARD FOR NONFICTION

JR Boudreau of Ontario, Canada for “Pale Shepherd”

Boudreau will receive $1,000, a plaque to mark the success, and publication online and in print.


Pale Shepherd

JR Boudreau


Note from the Editors: “Pale Shepherd” is a work of creative nonfiction, in which the author has changed names, blended certain characters and events, and made other compromises to protect identities and reputations, and for brevity. Otherwise, he assures us that events, personalities, and tenor of the times here are essentially true.

Out the front door, the field breathes asthmatic in the sizzling fog. Caesar, the dog that guards the wood lot, charges me, swirling around and barking madly, as is his habit when I visit. But today he’s merciful enough to not rip my pants or puncture my hand and mark me, like the twinned scars my brother wears. Instead, he distractedly hunts his own hind leg and his tongue perspires in the heat.

Adam follows me out of the house. His curly hair is in a short ponytail and he’s in a crisp collared shirt and black pants. Caesar darts for him but, learned now, my brother taps the dog on his snout to confuse and briefly disable him, and Caesar twirls again in front of the truck, panting loudly.

“I wish this bastard would learn how to sweat so he’d shut the hell up,” Adam says as we hop into his Ranger.

Caesar’s never been proper, a simple and vicious creature always. Though not the botched job of a bulldog or a pug, he is, in the end, a human experiment, a confused wolf inbred to its limits. As children, we would call his name across the property and run from him toward heavy machinery, certain that if we were too slow, we would be bitten and savaged on the gravel, partly due to his overwhelming, inherited urge to collect, to maintain order.

One time I was able to run and climb onto an obsolete tractor, but in the moment that I reached back for my brother, Caesar nipped the sleeve of his sweatshirt and spun him to the ground, tearing at him in a joyous tantrum. Adam still hasn’t forgiven me for this failure.

“Russ’s pickup’s already gone,” I tell him.

“He’ll have to meet us there,” he explains, starts the engine. “If he even shows up.”

“Probably at the bar.”

“Well, we’ll drive by and check.”

Coached by his instincts, Caesar howls at the truck and herds its tires as they spit gravel and we turn left onto the highway, to The Harrow. We murdered many hours in that bar parking lot as kids, bored and arguing in the bed of our father’s pickup. Curling on a backroad into town now, we find him barrelling toward us. He waves casually as we scrape past each other like two cogs spinning the globe. Adam throws the Ranger in reverse, pulls around, and chases him back onto the highway, a pair of motorcycles buffering us, only for my cell phone to go off.

It’s a text from him: I’m leading the pack!

He turns in back at the house, and we follow him.

“How’s she goin’, boys?” he asks as we join him in his truck, the wheaty stink of beer on his breath.

Dusty but organized, the cab’s every nook and shelf is filled with rolled blueprints and stacked cassette tapes. Something slow by Merle Haggard comes through the speakers. A dark blue button-down contrasts my father’s clean-shaven face, which is red and wrinkled from years running concrete in rain and sun. Though the work has turned his black hair white, from town to town you can see what he’s done with his life. He points to his legacy as he drives.

“We did that one in ’89—for a short fella, I remember,” he yells over the wind. “One of the first houses we ever raised. It fell over. Used to belong to Doc Meadows, though. He run me off his property one time when I was about seventeen. I wandered in at two a.m. to see his daughter, Janice, and he come at me down the laneway with a hockey stick. Said, ‘Bud-row, what’re you doin’ here?’ I said, ‘I think I’m leavin’!’ He said, ‘I think you’d better.’ The stick was just a Sher-Wood so I didn’t hold it against him. But if it’d been a Hespeler…”

Adam has taken to the same labour, which extends from our childhood. Infidelity shredded our parents’ marriage, but when we’d visit our father, he’d pair us off each morning with seemingly ancient, constantly smoking practical strangers, men with names like Diaper Dave and Tommy Two, men he would daily remind, “I give chances, not jobs. Winter rolls around, I might not have anythin’ for you.” We would help them pour footings in Gravenhurst, set up a wall in Bracebridge, or lay a slab in Huntsville, despite our entire lack of knowledge or skill at the job.

On our days off, our father would leave us to wander the farmland, which was located next to the property on which he’d been born. We’d leap from the hay bales or summit the woodpiles or toy with the dogs. There’d been three at one time: Elmer the grey, Reba the red, and Caesar the pale and crazy. He would eat the ends of joints left behind after the crew had loaded up for the day, then pass out, his bowels dripping involuntarily. These were his only moments of calm. One day, Reba chased the one squirrel in all the acres onto the highway and killed herself. Elmer disappeared before that, though, run off with wolves one winter morning, or so our father told us. They weren’t wolves, really—those had long been victims of legal bounties—but the result of western coyotes, rather, who’d conquered and copulated with the remainders to become something else, as big and grey and dangerous. You’d need a DNA test to prove them apart.

But while Reba and Caesar were living, they would trek with my brother and me through the deep and mushy fields, into the still forests, and we might stumble across a shoddy fort my father and his brothers had built, or find a tree he’d carved his name into, and a girl named Sharon’s beside his. Eventually, we found what persisted of Elmer. There was nothing left but the silence, and a spiralling cavity of blood and bright bones.

*

The photographer’s daughter, Celeste, is greeting guests at the community centre. A young woman with acne scars and blue eyes that dazzle, she wears a leather vest and a kerchief that matches her eyes. She holds a tray and stands next to a flat piano that nobody’s playing, but you can’t leave your glass on.

“The man of the hour,” she says to my father.

“For a minute,” he tells her, grinning.

“Some bubbly, Adam?” she offers.

“I’m a werewolf hunter, Celeste,” my brother tells her as he swipes a beer. “I only drink Silver Bullets.”

“Champagne?” she says, not knowing me.

I suck back a flute and let it rest. My first drink in months, since I’ve been working on a dry reserve out on James Bay. You can see the Bay from the two-storey apartment, a dirty, rolling creature in the spring, kicking up mud from its bed. Home for now, my mouth waters if I even hear ice clink in a glass.

Well-infused after two more flutes of champagne, I roam the crammed gallery, taking in the portraits of select talent. The widower. The lawyer who practices anti-racism in Toronto. Her partner, the retired actor who starred in a police procedural at the turn of the millennium. The Chief of Georgina Island, my former cousin by marriage. The weathered old cowboy who isn’t a cowboy at all, but he wears the hat, so there. Framed and tacked to the wall among them is a portrait of an “otherwise unhireable individual if not for Russell Boudreau,” according to the photographer’s small printed summary beside it.

The picture is of Pike Wilson, a seventy-eight-year-old gem and my father’s best friend. Pike lives these days in a room above The Harrow and spends his nights bingeing clips of Alex Jones. He earns a living bagging firewood at a pace so slow he seems to work in reverse.

But the man himself arrives as if on cue, ragged-looking but dressed in a striped shirt and blue jeans, his thinning grey hair wet and combed over. He claps his hands together and holds them, taking in his black-and-white likeness.

“Wow. Wow, eh? Who knew?” he whispers. Then he turns, spreading his skinny arms classically, and exclaims: “Model material, all along!”

He and I shift to the next picture, a colour photograph of a toddler crawling over a truckload of harvested potatoes. We find ourselves with the lawyer and her partner. They’re discussing where the potatoes may have been farmed.

She says, “Where did those come from, do you think?”

Pike answers, genuine and helpful: “Oh, out of the ground, I’d imagine.” Pulling a joint from his shirt pocket, he turns to me. “You wanna help me kill this thing?”

“Not right now, Pike.”

“You should say yes! Three most important things in the world: the Bible, women, and smoke.”

When I was three years old, my father came outside to find me standing next to Pike, who was lighting and flicking matches at a flaming gas can. Pike got an abrupt beating and ejected from the yard for the afternoon. But years later, schizophrenia was something. Pike had it. They found him walking naked down Bloor Street and they gave him shock treatments and, thereafter, if he got drinking, he would converse with his beer glass. He tape-recorded himself muttering one night and gave a copy to my father: “You think you’re smart, eh? What’sa matter, Red? Whatsa mat-ter? Why! They don’t like you. They don’t like you, Red…”

“He’s all right,” my father concluded recently. “Knows where every free meal is. Churches, funerals. You follow him into a bar one day and then go back a few years later, and it’ll be the same guys still sittin’ there. Except for whoever died.”

*

“Boys, boys!” The esteemed photographer, Lorne Wettlaufer, emerges from a crowd and envelopes me and my brother against his oval form. The man has a degree in engineering and a widow’s peak you couldn’t even draw on paper. He bawls in a voice as squeaky as cheese curds: “I’m glad you could make it! How’s life on the reserve? Exciting times?”

“Well, in the afternoons I go and read at the dock,” I tell him, “’til it gets dark at least, or the blackflies get too thick.”

“Fascinating,” says Lorne exaggeratedly.

The other evening, I don’t tell him, I observed a canoeist operating his boat with a motor as he zoomed up to a moose swimming across the lake. He stood with his feet far apart, raised an axe high above his head, and used it to break the moose’s back before hauling it to shore by its antlers. In the morning, a big black dog was chewing a moose’s head in the post office parking lot, snarling protectively if anyone got near.

“Okay, boys,” says Lorne, “we’ll chat in a minute. You’re coming back to the house!”

Side by side on the wall, I find two pictures of my father. The first, in color, was taken in 1998 with Jed, his eldest brother. They’re standing in front of house-sized stockpiles of split firewood—their winter source of income—each man leaning on his axe, two chainsaws in the yellow dust beside them, both wearing plaid jackets and curly black hair and moustaches.

The second picture was taken two decades later. In the intervening years, that gargantuan landscape of firewood has been cycled through, sold off, and replaced with a mountain of lumber countless times over. The work is etched in lines deep as ravines around my father’s eyes, his hair and beard the whitest things in the monochrome image. He sits in a wooden dining chair, his thick hands resting on an axe. An identical empty chair is next to him, and the axe leaning against it was Jed’s, a simulacrum of the man himself. He died of a heart attack on the wrong side of the railroad tracks while a passing train prevented paramedics from delivering oxygen to him.

Discovering my father sipping champagne stoically in the corner, I ask him, “How’d Lorne talk you into posing for that one?”

“He said, well, Jed had to go, but Russ is back,” he tells me, his eyes edgy and glassy. “I said, it’s a bit morbid, Lorne, but I’ll go along. Turned out all right.”

I hardly knew Jed, met him maybe a dozen times, mostly when I was too young to remember. My father would send me to help him strip a basement wall in Barrie, and Jed would crack and guzzle beer the entire drive. He’d dump crushed cans into parking lots each time he opened the door. There was a brown scar the size of a cigarette burn in the white of his eye from running into a tree branch as a kid, and a spider web tattooed the fleshy space between his thumb and forefinger. He’d done time in Millhaven for armed robbery of a Becker’s and once, after having had his meals stolen for days, he fashioned a weak shiv, which he couldn’t get much of a bite on, and he stabbed the thief in the throat. He survived, though.

“There were a lot of bad days in those days,” my father admits.

“Lots of good days, too,” interrupts a guy named Java as he corners us next to a photograph of a tractor. “How many good days you got these days, Russ? At our age, you’re just gettin’ closer to the grass.”

Then he threatens my father with the fresh memory of when Caesar drew blood from Java’s very own arm, and so he just might draw up a lawsuit, you see? Russ, in response, drives him off with an alternative event: Java drunkenly pulled a hunting rifle on him in the parking lot of The Harrow. Russ had replied by taking it from him and bringing the butt of the gun down over Java’s head in an act of discipline, and packing him back into his van. He kept the rifle.

It now lives against the doorframe of the house and loaded with one round at all times, because residing in a location with a predator problem affords one that precaution. Caesar could kill a coyote, but could he kill fifteen? They’ll ambush him if he doesn’t stay near the barn light and bark. The coyote is smart. It knows where there is light, there is man.

*

Later, while I’m looking at a photograph of Lorne’s daughter in a straw hat and dangling her feet off the front porch, Java introduces himself to me. We’ve met many times.

“You’re a Boudreau,” he whispers. “I can tell. Which one’s your dad?”

His voice is hushed as if the person concerned must be absent or his attention diverted, lest the knowledge of his own deeds destroy him. But I remind him, and now he eagerly confides in me, bragging of tales about my uncle George that are largely unknown.

Six-foot-two and soft-voiced, George has been married twenty-five years now to Monica, a patient half-Chippewa woman. They have two indoor dogs, no descendants, and cigarettes always. But, says Java, despite modern appearances, George was the brother truly feared. That’s why there are so few stories told about him anymore. They’re too brutal to dredge up.

“Russ or Pete would knock you down, but they’d let you get back up. George?” says Java. “George would try and kill ya.”

There are accounts of uneven barfights when one of the brothers would phone George to make up the numbers. He would roar in loaded and tie the door closed with a length of cord so that nobody could escape the carnage that was about to descend upon them.

Inevitably, someone would mutter with hesitation, “Jesus Christ, George…” But he would turn on them frothing: “Don’t call me unless you’re fuckin’ serious!”

Still, cases of mistaken identity were common. When you’re drunk, five dark-haired men with moustaches and related features tend to blend together. Russ once had his jaw broken, for example, by a guy who confused him for George. Instead of verifying that he had the correct brother in his sights, the man climbed up on the bar, took a short run at him, and kicked his chin off its hinges.

On a roll now, Java says he was even there that notorious evening in The Harrow when a pack of Satan’s Choice were getting drunk and growing obnoxious.

“I think one of ’em had dated Diaper Dave’s sister and mistreated her,” Java says, “but the last straw was that they just kept goin’ in and out of the bar. The door constantly swingin’ and bangin’, like. That was it. Your uncle Jamie got up and went to the door and waited behind it. Well, the next time it opened, he kicked it like a mule and busted one of their noses. The biker goes, ‘Who the fuck are you?!’ And Jamie tells him, ‘I’m the doorstopper!’”

It was a bloodbath, by all accounts. After they dragged Jamie out back and six of them jumped in to put the boots to him, the call went out: “They’re killing him!”

My father arrived first, but entered through the front door to find a crowd choking at the rear exit, where one of The Choice waved a blade and threatened to eviscerate the witnesses.

Uncle Pete showed up next and parked across the road. With a set of scars across his chin and lips from where a chainsaw jumped back on him as he was cutting up some bushes, to this day Pete has an air of jeopardy about him. Back then, he was known for resolving disputes with a hickory axe handle, which he grabbed from his truck bed before he ducked down an alley to come out behind The Choice. He simply said, “Hey.”

When the biker turned, Pete smashed his forehead, unleashing a flood from the bar. Then he set to demolishing motorcycles.

*

As the community centre closes up and before the sun spends itself, Lorne invites his many subjects and their respective entourages back to his country house. My father and my brother and I ride back in the pickup, a mere three-man wrecking crew.

Just outside of town, a mouse crosses the truck’s dashboard. Adam screams frantic and we both do our best to avoid the rodent as it risks the window frame and then scurries along the headrests. Mindful of the road, my father reaches across with a hand like bundled rope, grabs the mouse bare, and lobs it into traffic. He pulls over calmly and stands on the gravel, eyeing the cab with suspicion. Finally, he lifts the floor cover to reveal four tiny, pink babies. He draws out his exact-o knife, extends the blade, and begins flicking them onto the road, one by one, cool as a tombstone.

“That’s a mercy,” he says with heartless logic. Without their mother now, the babies will surely die.

We drink cold beer from coolers on the porch and sip good scotch passed out to us through the kitchen window until our faces are hot and loose. The actor’s here, sitting cross-legged on a bench. And the false cowboy, he shambles around making talk.

My father yells out at him, “The great imposter!”

He just walks away.

Retying his hair, Adam puts considerable, impaired effort into seducing the Great Imposter’s wife, a blond, British sexagenarian who restores and sells art in Muskoka. Knowing and beautiful, she laughs at his determination. She loses him in the crowd.

We each take a shot of whiskey, and my mouth waters. I need a moment of silence, but glossed over and unsteady, Lorne wails: “Did I ever tell ya how I met yer dad?”

“I delivered him a load of wood,” Russ intercedes. “Then he said he needed a window fixed, so I got Jed to do it for him.”

“Now he’s all off-topic,” says Lorne.

Once the party has thinned to nothing, the four of us—my blood and the photographer—embark on a long drive down the backroads, windows open, rolling through the sweet, sticky fields as the sun settles and the earth cools.

Adam spouts nonsense, stream of consciousness, as if identity itself is a joke: “Yeah, my brother’s a bloodhound,” he says, laughing at his own yarn. “Drop of booze around, he’ll find it. I spilled a two-four in the back of my truck one night, woke up and found him lickin’ between the grooves! Terrible horseshit. Had a stiffy like a roll of quarters.”

In the dark at the farmhouse, the cars passing on the highway sound like waves at the beach. Turning the headlights on, my father guides us over a world of potholes, far down the laneway, past the eroding barn, to the rear of the property where the dirt meets the field and the field meets the forest. We leave the truck running and the radio on. “Yesterday When I Was Young” by Roy Clark comes from the speakers.

“Make sure someone plays this at my funeral,” my father says generally.

“Price of admission,” says Adam, “is your best Russ Boudreau story.”

“In the public domain at last!” yells Lorne.

“Then after, lay me out on a rock out back,” my father says. “Let the birds have me.”

He produces a case of warm Coors Light from the truck bed, so we put together a fire in the burn barrel. Adam puts on a work glove and stirs the fire with a tall piece of rebar as we drink. The smell of smoke and wheat hang in the night air.

The song ends with a rattle. Silent and orange, we orbit the barrel. The truck’s high-beams reach across the acres and suddenly catch the many eyes of a pack of coyotes glowing yellow against the treeline. It’s a magnificent and startling sight.

But abruptly, my father points to the shade just beyond the fire’s range and screams, “Wolf!”  Before Lorne can even register, Adam bolts one way, and I go the other direction in an automatic, animal bid for safety, and in that instant my father kicks my legs out from under me, dropping me to the rocks, the bottle of Coors smashing somewhere in the darkness. I roll onto my back, winded. His hands on his knees, my father laughs wholeheartedly. The coyotes howl in the distance.

*

As a child, I watched him throw Pike Wilson into the deep end of a pool while he was fully-clothed in boots and overalls. He did it only to amuse himself, I suppose. After we fished Pike out, he stumbled over to a boulder and puked up chlorine angrily while my father made jokes about how he’d looked like Flipper the dolphin.

When Pike was in the hospital years later, my brother and father and I loaded up his one-tonne truck with firewood to deliver it to the shack where Pike was living then so he’d have fuel when they discharged him. The woodpile was covered in a fine layer of frost, each piece slipping from my hands like a greasy baby, and I struck my father on the skull with an errant block. He collapsed instinctively, terrifying us by pretending he’d died. Once the gag wore out and he stood up, wearing an inverted crown of blood, he asked who the hell threw that. Then he forced me to complete the load alone while he supervised and tended to the gash with a rag in the truck. Visiting the hospital afterwards, the nurse at Pike’s bedside eyed my father worriedly. Though there was no doubt he required stitches, he refused care.

Then last summer, he farmed me and my brother out to work hay for some local old-timer. It was a sweltering, itchy task, unloading and stacking square bales in the barn, until my father showed up and began helping us with work that was not his own. I believe he considered this bonding. But suddenly he stopped, climbed down from the loft thoughtfully, and stood at a strange angle in the merciful air of the barn doorway, clutching his own shoulder. After a few minutes staring at him in this foreign position, I followed him down.

“What’d you drop?” I asked.

He shouted, “My heart!”

*

He and his brothers never knew where they stood with their old man. He might be joking with them one minute. Might be knocking them out the next. They had to hide under the kitchen table to avoid the bottles being thrown, or he would park out front of the house and make it with young women for his family to see from the windows. His liver rotted inside him and his skin yellowed and he expired in agony the year I was born. And though they’d shared hatreds for years, and she would live an extra quarter-century in the world without him, his widow would demand to be buried next to him in the end.

Every fight, to their old man, was a war. All those years ago, he’d come home from Italy with his leg partially blown off and one testicle taken with it. He still fathered five known sons. They grew to be islands of men, tough to navigate, bullied into their jagged form by the winds of life and the waves of family. They broke others against their edges.

The finishing details of the brawl and the ensuing feud with the bikers are still and intentionally obscured by all involved, except that many men had their faces implanted in the brick walls, the stairs, and the sidewalks of The Harrow that summer. Jamie didn’t do any time for his part. He had to spend weeks surviving in the hospital. But Russ and Pete—and even George, for reasons I’m not in touch with—were sentenced to forty-five weekends in Don Jail because Pete had decked one of the cops who’d eventually swarmed the parking lot. Jed was already locked up by then for the robbery.

“The trick was to get loaded Friday night and to bring a book when you went in,” my father once confided. “Then you’d pass out and sleep Saturday. On Sunday, you’d read ’til they released you. Louis L’Amour usually. He was good.”

*

My father decides to sleep in his truck so he can be ready for work immediately. Lorne calls us a cab back into town. The keys scratching drunk around the lock, he engineers our way into the community centre. We raid the fridge in the back and drink a half-bottle of champagne each and stumble around, discovering nightmarish abstract paintings we didn’t notice before in an antechamber behind the main showroom.

“Yeah, your dad never went searching for trouble,” Lorne informs us. “Never had to! But he’s incorrect, you know. He did fix a window for me. But he’s too much of a gentleman to admit the first time we really met. Still a total bastard though.”

Lorne recalls how he himself was initiated into “The Uppercut Russ Club.” In his late teens, his twenties, even his early-thirties, my father apparently used hands like mallets to induct men into an elite pantheon by punching them into oblivion with one strike.

“I heard about his reputation, so I sought him out in the bar one night. There I stood, drunk as a skunk in front of him, poking out my chin, and going, ‘Gimme your best shot, Russ! Gimme your best. Gimme your best…’ And then I made the fatal mistake of swatting him on the forehead with my baseball cap. Fuck, did he ever absolutely uppercut me. I left my feet and laid down in mid-air before going to sleep on the floor!”

He says trustworthy witnesses have since claimed that my father leaned over him then, fists shaking, and demanded, “That good enough for you, Lorne?”

Then the esteemed photographer pulls himself, fat and clumsy, onto the piano in the centre of the showroom. He stands and, waving his hands like a conductor, he begins to explain each of his pieces to us.

“I took that one in ’94,” he squawks, “before the subject developed an extraordinary tumor! He died last year, a genuine shame, really. He was a very talented musician. And that one, the brothers with the tractor, it’s from this year. I’m quite proud of it. It’s not perfect, but nothing is! And this one…”

*

Hungover in the vapour of morning, Caesar doesn’t charge me or shred my pants or scar me. The dog doesn’t do anything because he isn’t anywhere at all. But there’s a trail like flower pedals from outside the garage, down the laneway. I track it to the boom truck, beneath which I discover a garden of blood in full blossom, the apparent work of coyotes, growing gutsy. It’s too bad. Caesar was all right.

That afternoon on the tractor in the field behind the barn, I snag something on a rotor and turn up a plump garbage bag. I hop down to unhook it, but the bag splits and gushes on the dirt, the fur within pale-pink with blood. Flies steep themselves in its stink. I climb back on the tractor, unsure of what to do. I watch the wind ripple along the tall grass while in the distance my brother reverses the boom truck, which looks like a toy lost in the field. Then I plough the land until it graciously consumes the shepherd again.

“I guess he got hit by a car,” Adam tells me back at the yard as we slip concrete forms into a cage. “His back-half was broken, apparently, but he dragged himself under the truck.”

Getting on his belly to aim, as Caesar gnawed the barrel of the .22, my father put a bullet in the rifle, then he used the rifle to put that bullet in the dog. The first shot didn’t take, so he had to do it again. It was an act of mercy. Or maybe our father had just stepped into the steam that morning and decided he’d had enough of that damn dog.

I stare at the rainbows of gas in a puddle as my brother tells me this. It’s difficult to reconcile with that grade of violence. But the blood on the gravel is my father’s autograph.

*

Even after he was freed, Jed slept only on the floor, accustomed to all the comfort of a prison cot. He couldn’t tolerate crowds. He hardly left his house the last year of his life.

George doesn’t drink these days, but his lungs are wet paper. For now, he drives for film crews. He spends his summers reviving himself at a trailer park in Florida with Monica. They bring their dogs.

Jamie had a stroke a few years ago in his car, parked by the river. He closed up his carpentry business, moved out on his wife and kids, and started looking for the Lord. He gets up at six a.m. each day and drives to Toronto to stand in front of shops and preach the gospel. In his pockets he carries passages from the Bible on thin slips of paper, which he hands out to strangers. His wife remarried and his four children don’t know him anymore.

My uncle Pete is a sports nut who lives alone. His wife died in a car accident years back, after she’d left him due to abuse. Some say she’d been seeing my father at the time. He refuses to talk about her. Pete sold all his furniture and his TV, because he didn’t want anyone crashing at his place, though no one ever had, or even threatened to. Now he comes over to my brother’s apartment to watch hockey.

I believe my father can’t convince himself that he was undeserving of the cruelty his old man inflicted. He throws in with people who are otherwise pitied, because they understand what it is to be unwanted, and to distrust what’s offered. I know nothing of the love that once existed between my parents—they don’t speak of it, except in speaking of my brother and myself—but I believe, even in my mother’s leaving, he concluded that she’d merely been insightful enough to prove him right. Some things can’t be cured. They must be managed.

*

My father waves me down in the laneway as I prepare to drive back to the Bay. They’re going to operate on him next month, to cut him open and hopefully salvage the pumps of his chunky heart. Standing at the open window, he leans a leathery forearm on the frame. He thanks me for visiting and tells me he’s proud of me, and we say we love each other. We say goodbye and we say good luck.

Then he asks, “Am I a good dad?”

I tell him, “You’re a good man,” because I don’t know about fatherhood yet. But I’ve learned not to be picky in life. I can turn over any rock and find what I was looking for. And he is a good man, for a father.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

JR Boudreau is an accomplished reader, an amateur writer, and a struggling educator. His work has appeared in The Dalhousie Review, The Puritan, The Antigonish Review, and Echolocation.

Pale Shepherd © 2020 JR Boudreau
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4 thoughts on “”

  1. Kathryn Gessner

    This piece broke my heart. In a good way. Made it possible for me to turn back inside the rib cage of years to my own upbringing.

    I don’t know you, but I know this is good. I can’t resist saying thanks for this essay.

    1. Alexis Williams

      You nailed it, Evelyn. JR’s piece gave us nearly the entire arc of these larger-than-life men’s existence, and I was riveted throughout. Thanks for reading and for sharing your compliments!

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NMW needs your help to ensure the future of literature is not homogenized and dumbed-down by the zero-sum game of corporate data and profit. It’s a fight we can win, but it’s a fight.

We’ll keep showing up — NMW Literary Journal & Awards, Sunshot Press & Book Awards, Musepaper.org, and more — as long as you keep showing up.

POETRY | FICTION |  FLASH FICTION | NONFICTION

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