“I can’ remember that,” says Mikey. One arm is draped heavily across my shoulders. A bottle of Sambuca hangs from the other. “Iss too hard. I’ll forget. Dirt. Dirt, I can remember. Can I call you Dirt?”
For the twelfth time, I say okay, Mikey, you can call me Dirt.
“Dirrt!” he says with satisfaction and a fine French-Canadian ‘r’.
“See, that’s ignorant, calling her Dirt,” says Jim. I am fond of Jim, the former dog-musher. He broke his nose six times in his amateur boxing career, and now it wobbles down his face. His hair and moustache are still glossy black, though he passes around proud photos of his grandchildren. In his overalls he looks exactly, and I mean exactly, like Super Mario. “Try it, Mikey. DAR-ve-la. Am I right?”
“Pretty close,” I say.
“Darbel…” says Mikey. “No, I can’ be doing with that. I won’ remember it. I’ll call you Dirt. You don’ mind?” He peers blearily into my face, searching for woman-hurt.
“Not at all. I’ve been called worse.”
“You’re a good woman, Dirt. Have some Sambuca.”
“Breathe on the fire, Mikey. It’s going low.”
The contractors are working on the new Visitor’s Centre at Lake Superior Provincial Park, a shiny, five-million-dollar affair that will soon hum with electronics. Motion sensors will detect your entrance and immediately ten DVD players will project across the lobby, recreating the sights and sounds of a November storm on the lake. Inside, a bronze lynx stalks a bronze merganser duck, paddling obliviously on the next plinth, while a sleek bronze otter watches nearby. Equally sleek displays introduce other park inhabitants, past and present: the Ojibway, the giant sturgeon, the Voyageurs, the black bear. You could visit the Visitor’s Centre and avoid the whole untidy out-of-doors thing. The hope is, though, that you’ll be inspired to explore.
Mikey, Scotty, Andy, and Jimmy are not much inspired to explore, though they’ve been here since Spring. The work is hard, the hours are long, and they speed back to their homes in the Soo as soon as they are released on Fridays. During the week they peer into my cook-pots in the staff kitchen while they wait for their pizzas to heat.
“What’s it tonight, then?”
“Vietnamese stuffed squid,” I say, wedging a thumbful of noodles into something slippery that might be a Victorian catgut condom. “Do you want to see their eyes?” I say, with an evil glint in mine. Scotty looks like he may vomit.
“Got the wine going again, eh?” says Andy.
“I do,” I agree. I am the only one in the kitchen who does not drink case after case of Canadian beer, and so my three-month collection of empties is conspicuous. Whenever they see me, or so it seems, I have a wine bottle clamped between my sneakers and am wrestling the cork out with a Swiss Army Knife. The contractors are puzzled about my purpose, though no more than myself. What is she up to, this Irish girl of no apparent occupation other than filling the kitchen with strange smells?
We lived peacefully side-by-side all summer, exchanging pleasantries about my bizarre culinary performances and silently united by our illicit status. They are supposed to be paying fifty or sixty bucks a night for dingy motel accommodation outside the park gates. I am supposed to be in my own country. We are all, in the nicest possible way, squatting in the abandoned buildings at Beaver Rock Cove staff complex, and so we tried not to annoy the official staff in the kitchen. I baked occasional bribes of peanut-butter cookies and hid behind Ranger Tim. The builders mostly skedaddled once their pizzas were heated. Once a week they blasted The Bear Classic Rock and swept and swabbed the floors. “Dwayne’s Crew” was written on the cleaning rota in erasable marker, where everyone else was listed by name. They didn’t mind. This way four of them got to share the chores of one person.
Now the summer staff are gone, and we are braver.
The builders doss down in an old bunkhouse at Beaver Rock, and do occasional fix-ups as payment. In the evenings they hit golfballs on the beach sand, or play horseshoes with old plastic toilet seats. They hang out at a picnic bench in front of the bunkhouse, just above the beach, where they build great fires with old construction materials and down heroic quantities of Molson Canadian and Labatt’s Blue. They smoke Drum tobacco or legally-possessed dope. They gossip about the marijuana plantation that was raided last month in the park.
I had seen them there sometimes on my walks on the beach. The flames from their bonfires were high, and lit up the growing collection of dead soldiers on the picnic table. I never joined them, though, until one night Mikey pressed Sambuca shots on me and Ranger Tim in the kitchen, on his way from the cooler to the weekly pow-wow. We decided to follow him out with some beer offerings later, and they were touchingly glad to welcome us.
“Well, it’s great to finally fucking meet you properly, eh Tim? All summer we didn’t know if you guys minded us being in the kitchen ”
“We didn’t know if you were real straight and all, workin’ for the Ministry ”
“Always nice to have a woman about the place. Makes it feel more like a home, eh? We used to go crazy with the smells in the kitchen, and all we’d have is pizza or burgers.”
We chatted and drank, figuring each other out. When it was my round I scrabbled desperately in the walk-in cooler for beers that weren’t poncey Hefeweizen or Czech Pilsner, and eventually redeemed myself with some good Canadian Sleeman’s Ale. Mikey, now half-way down his Sambuca bottle, was slurring when I got back.
“We never knew your name.” I knew that. Most non-Irish people don’t get it right away if they haven’t seen it written down. People I’ve known for some time often get a desperate look when they have to introduce me to someone else. “And this is ”
“Dervala,” I say.
“Dervala. With a D.” My brogue lives on in alveolar fricatives.
“What kind of a name is that?” says Mikey. He sounds affronted.
“Irish. I’m Irish.”
“From Ireland Irish?”
“When did you come to Canada?”
“But you don’ have an accent.”
“I do, though. But Northern Ontario sounds very like the west of Ireland accent.”
“You’re not Irish. If you’re Irish, where did you learn English?”
This may be a lot of information to present at once, I decide, and since Mikey is now quite drunk I don’t want to tax him. “In New York,” I say, and he seems satisfied.
“I knew you couldn’t be straight over from Ireland. Your English is too good, eh?”
Tim helps Scotty throw a large armchair on the fire, and we watch it go up. It is entirely itself as it burns, sitting with dignity as it shimmers in the flames. I picture Shelley’s cremation on the beach in Italy.
“So Tim,” says Scotty with a backslap, “you’re the big naturalist, eh? We were watching the geese fly south earlier, in that V like they do. Tell us, why is one side of the V longer than the other?”
Tim thinks for a bit. Scotty and Jimmy hoot.
“Because there are _more geese_ on that side!”
They discover that in me they have a virgin audience for ancient Northern Ontario jokes, and they spar to tell them. Mikey launches into an endless ramble about the Soo woodpecker that goes to Toronto (“And this Toronto woodpecker, he’s a big fucking cool dude and he’s walkin’ around in sunglasses
”) Jimmy tells me how Two Dogs Fucking got his name. Then he then tells me how much he adores his second wife, how they hate being separated while he’s working up here. “She’s Croatian. Speaks it and everything. And a great cook, as good as my Italian mother.”
“Do you know why Italian men learn to cook?” I ask him, an old Brooklyn joke my landlord used to tell. He shakes his head. “So they can marry Irish women.” This pleases him greatly.
“The one you want to have cooking for you,” he says, “is Mikey’s mother. Makes his lunch and dinner for the whole week and sends it up with him in Tupperware. Five lunches, four dinners, every fucking week.”
“He never even knows what he’s going to have until he opens it,” Scotty hoots, ” ‘What’s for dinner, Mikey?’ ‘I don’t know yet,’ he says.” I laugh. Mikey is at least forty years old. Now he’s glowering through swigs of Sambuca, but they won’t let it drop.
“Little fucking Tupperware boxes,” sputters Jimmy. “He doesn’t know what’s for lunch til he opens them.” It is a great joke. Mikey doesn’t think so.
I jus’ can’ get your name. Do you have some kind of nickname?’ he says, leaning on my shoulder now.
“Sometimes people call me Derv.”
“Derv. No. I won’t remember that either. I can remember Dirt. Dirt, I can remember. Is it terrible if I call you Dirt?”
“Not if it makes you happy, Mikey.”
“Dirt. My brother, see, he remembers everyone’s names. I jus’ remember faces. My brother would get your name. He’s in business, eh? Has to remember names.” His elbow is now wedged painfully into my neck. “What these guys don’ get, eh, Dirt, is why my mother makes my lunches that way. The psy-cho-logical aspects.”
Jimmy and Scotty are still throwing Tupperware barbs. The fire is roaring. Mikey tells them to shut up, he’s explaining to me.
“See, my mother was not my mother. She was my grandmother. The woman I thought of as my mother was really my grandmother.”
“Then your birth mother was your sister?”
“Right. She lived with us. But my grandmother was my mother.”
“You never knew this growing up?”
“I knew. I didn’ care. My mother was my mother, and she was my sister. She had other kids later, too. I liked her, but she was my sister.”
“Jack Nicholson found out the same thing about his family just a couple of years ago. You’re in good company.”
“Huh. So anyway, I moved to the Soo, built a house. And my grandmother died. Then my birth mother, she needed to move to the Soo to be near some of her other kids. And I had space in my house, so she said could she come and live with me. And I said fine. But now it’s like she wants to start being my mother for the first time. And I’m 41. And I had a mother already. So she makes me fucking crazy with where are you going and here’s your lunches. I tell her, stop trying to be my mother all of a sudden. But she needs it. She makes me fucking crazy, but she’s lonely and she needs it.” He swigs his Sambuca and jerks a thumb at Scotty and Jimmy, who are standing back so they can’t quite hear. They’re still laughing. “These guys, they don’t get the deep stuff behind my lunches. They just think it’s funny.”
For a moment he looks so lost that I can fully understand the urge to mother Mikey.