Herewith a short fiction, a short modernist fiction, terse words carved out of the white space of the page, a dramatic meditation on fathers, marriage, and history splashed against a screen of absence, a gem of concision which is yet replete with place (that Ontario landscape reeling by) and literary reference. rob mclennan is a Canadian writer, indefatigable blogger and critic; we are both, coincidentally, in the current issue of Fence, a serendipitous conjunction. It’s a great pleasure to introduce him to these pages.
There is no such thing as fiction.
Richard Froude, The Passenger
In 1968, my father and mother drive west along Highway 401, towards Upper Canada Village. They have been married less than a year. He wants to show her something.
This happens in real time. They drive.
Both his hands rest on burgundy steering wheel, their cherry-red Ford. For the length of my memory, he owned and drove only Fords: the family car and the truck for the farm, upgrading every half-decade.
The wind through the open driver’s side window. His hair so black it shone metallic blue. It sparkles. A trick of the light.
It begins with a silence, seeking its source. With occasional birdsong, the pant of the dog, a tractor rolling along in the distance, the silence holds deep in its core.
We establish the fixed points: his daily routine, the pair of his and her Fords in the yard, the black Labrador mix.
Much of my childhood was punctuated by silence. Inherited.
The silence remains, holding court amid tenor. At first, you might imagine it is waiting for something to be said, or to happen, but it is not.
Their stretch of Ontario highway a madness of trees, awaiting development. Pitch-perfect birds and occasional deer. They pass farms and villages two centuries set. They drive west, into history. My father cities 1812 facts from half-remembered textbooks, mumbling dates and locations.
No, not awaiting. What’s the word? Dreading.
They are newlyweds, still. My father rests his left arm across the ledge of rolled-down driver’s side window. Air scrapes the length of his forearm.
My mother breathes deep, enjoys smokeless air.
This quiet between two is not absence, but slow comprehension. Each suspects what the other might say.
Years later, my mother would translate him, offering: your father is very angry at you for that thing that you did.
But for now, they are still learning. They react to cues, whether real or imaginary. They can’t yet read each other’s thoughts.
We could speak of the father as imagined figure, since he is not yet my father, or anyone’s father, beside she who is not yet anyone’s mother.
We pause, on the obvious: their youth, their half-restrained enthusiasms. One can’t help but compare. Basket of apples and peaches each nestled on the backseat. She has been wanting to replenish their supply of preserves. Applied correctly, wax seals freshness in.
Cellar shelves by the cistern. Fresh cobwebs and field mice.
The seven villages along the St. Lawrence Seaway he witnessed, drowned due to the Long Sault hydroelectric project, as he was mid-teen. Villages shifted, erased and rewritten, for the sake of the water. Buildings broken, and sold for parts.
A shed his father built from a former gas station, additions to the farmhouse made from what once a single family home.
The site of the War of 1812 Battle of Crysler’s Farm, half underwater. Inventing a pioneer village as a place-marker, upon the remains. A shoreline redrawn, by the flood.
They brought in buildings from across the area, including half a dozen from a two-mile radius of my father’s homestead. The cheese factory where his great-great uncle once worked, the one-room schoolhouse his own mother and aunt attended.
We shuffle history around.
The house he was born in, a century old by the time he was new.
A marriage: two merge, inasmuch as they individually change.
From the state of the farmhouse years later, it was as though she married, and left home with only the clothes on her back. Her wedding dress asleep at the back of a closet. She had little to nothing else pre-dating this, from her homestead to his. What did she bring but herself? What might she have left? What might she have meant to bring, but somehow didn’t?
A house sprinkled with archive: his rusted Meccano set, his preschool plush lamb.
In silent 60s-era Super 8, colours are brighter, illuminated. A particular era’s nostalgia in bright hues, glossy light. A quilt, stitching squares of mere minutes. They drive. The highway itself less than two decades old. So close to the lip of St. Lawrence River, a sequence of edited farmland and family estates scalpeled and shaped into two and four lanes.
Their fathers are both still alive. His, living years with cancer treatments, the three hour drive into the city. My father at the wheel, since his mother never learned.
He understands, distance.
He knows what lies across horizons, having been over every one.
Her father, chain-smoking. The entire household. It hovers around family portraits, Super 8 by the lake, where they cottaged. My mother, once married, would never light up again. She later frowned upon my own youthful folly. Looked upon with derision.
Her once-mixed thoughts on the move, shifting city to country mouse. Now she marvels at farmland, the open green stretch.
Rewind. Leaving the farm, the truck kicks up dust from the gravel, two miles to blacktop. She twitches from crunch and the dust cloud, anew. Mixed thoughts, but this, she loved from the offset: a jolt to a small, giddy leap as they start up the laneway. A schoolgirl glee and excitement the city could never provide.
My father, his hands on the steering wheel. The tan we now know as permanent. Melodic stretch of dirt road and gravel, of sonorous blacktop, that defy description.
From the Robert Creeley poem. Drive, she said.
Born in Ottawa, Canada’s glorious capital city, rob mclennan is the author of more than twenty trade books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, his most recent titles are the poetry collections Songs for little sleep, (Obvious Epiphanies, 2012), grief notes: (BlazeVOX [books], 2012), A (short) history of l. (BuschekBooks, 2011), Glengarry (Talonbooks, 2011) and kate street (Moira, 2011), and a second novel, missing persons (2009). An editor and publisher, he runs above/ground press, Chaudiere Books (with Jennifer Mulligan), The Garneau Review (ottawater.com/garneaureview), seventeen seconds: a journal of poetry and poetics (ottawater.com/seventeenseconds) and the Ottawa poetry pdf annual ottawater (ottawater.com). He spent the 2007-8 academic year in Edmonton as writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta, and regularly posts reviews, essays, interviews and other notices at robmclennan.blogspot.com. He currently lives in his hometown, Ottawa.