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The Way of the World by Mike Florian

The Way of the World by Mike Florian

Fiction, Vol. 3.4, Dec. 2009

Gaston Tardif was the handyman and jack-of-all-trades at Carmelo’s Lodge in this northeastern corner of Quebec. He did everything Josephine Carmelo asked him to do. He made sure the Evinrudes were running each morning before the guests started their fishing day. He would feed the chickens in the chicken coop and pick out the wounded ones from the night before. He was always disgusted at the violence of the pecking order. The pheasants were more civilized and the Hungarians lorded it over the ringnecks in the pheasant coop. He emptied the traps of the mink and skunk that tried to hunt the birds. When the guests left for fishing after breakfast, and with their lunch baskets full of sandwiches and thermoses, Gaston had many other chores.

He and his beloved wife Marie-Hélène worked at the Lodge for years. They met there as teenagers, fell in love, married in the adjacent town of Guerin, and lived at the Lodge. During the tourist season they stayed in a small cabin not too far from the chicken coop. In the fall, after all the guests left, and at the invitation of Mrs. Carmelo, they would pack their meager belongings and move to the larger of the guest houses overlooking the lake. In return for this favour, and all the eggs they could eat, Gaston would take care of the complex while Mrs. Carmelo vacationed in Palm Springs, California, from mid-October to the end of April. He regularly flushed the toilets, repaired the door and window screens, and most importantly, he filled the ice barn with blocks of ice that he cut out of the frozen lake. The blocks of ice were used in the coming season to cool the iceboxes of the guests. Most of the guests travelled from Youngstown or Columbus, Ohio. Carmelo Lodge was the destination of choice of the blue collar families from that hard-working area.

After leaving the Lodge and cabins in the fall, when the leaves of the maple trees splashed their colours around the lake, Josephine Carmelo would not think too much about Gaston and his wife. From her spacious, airy home in the desert, she would send him a twenty dollar bill every month as she had done throughout each winter. When the money arrived, Gaston and Marie-Hélène would attend the Guerin auction held on Wednesday nights. They would sit patiently on the old pine church pews and wait as the auctioneer, a Mr. Bouthellier, sold his way through the lots. In those days pine was the rage among the gentry in Montreal, and antique buyers would easily pick up an armoire at the Guerin auction for five dollars and sell it in Montreal for five hundred. The Guerin auction did not sell only antiques gleaned from the surrounding area, but it also sold livestock during a lively exchange following the sell-off of the furniture, after all the dealers left with their treasures. Gaston made certain that sometime during the course of the four auctions held in a month, he would bid for and buy an old, bony horse with the twenty dollars he received in the mail from Mrs. Carmelo. She expected him to do that and over the years he unfailingly did his duty.

During the cold winter months, when Guerin and the Lodge were surrounded in swirling snow, the lake would freeze. By Christmas the water was as solid as concrete. That was when the real work started for Gaston. He would hitch a horse to the wood sled used just for that purpose. With catgut snowshoes, Gaston would walk across the frozen lake to an opening in the ice. He used a pick and saw to cut blocks of blue ice, load the sled, and trek back to the Lodge complex. At the end of the day when he came home during the dark hours of four in the afternoon, Marie-Hélène made dinner for the two of them. After dinner they would watch the old news broadcasts on the television set because the town of Guerin and the surrounding environs as yet had only the promise of receiving live television.

Once a month, during the four or five months in which the lake was frozen solid, Gaston had the duty of cutting ice holes in a variety of locations on the lake. These locations were determined by Mrs. Carmelo before she left for Palm Springs.

“Let’s see,” she would start during their end of the season talk. The conversation was unilateral. Gaston stood in the doorway, his cap in hand, and agreed to the spots on the wall map to which Mrs. Carmelo was pointing. “I think that next year our guests would enjoy Buck Point, the Sand Bar, Windy Bay, the Ohio Island spot and Granite Bank. What do you think?”

“I think it would be fine, madame,” answered Gaston.

“Very well, then,” continued Mrs. Carmelo. “I’ll send the money as always and you do the right thing, my boy.”

Josephine Carmelo was a sly one. She learned some time ago that the northern pike and muskellunge inhabiting her vast lake had a taste for horse flesh. Long before Gaston, and long before Emil, his predecessor who drowned years ago when the ice broke unexpectedly during an early March thaw, she was using horse meat to attract the fish. It was Gaston’s cross to bear to work with these animals, hauling ice from the lake to the ice barn. At month’s end he led the horse out onto the lake where the ice hole glowed azurely in the sun. Marie-Hélène watched sadly as her husband walked away, rifle in hand, leading the animal by a rope tied around its neck.

Gaston was sad as well. He did not like doing this. But given the state of affairs in his life, where he had a job, a roof over his head and steady wages in the summer, Gaston and Marie-Hélène did not have much choice. When Gaston was working on the ice with pick and shovel and saw, loading and hauling the blocks to the barn, Josephine Carmelo was lounging in a deck chair, enjoying the desert air and the hot, warming sunshine. It was the way of the world and an ancient separation of the haves and the have-nots. Although Gaston was aware of it, he did not covet anything. Mrs. Carmelo was what she was and he was respectful as was most of the town of Guerin. What really bothered Gaston, and it started the previous year, was the Guerin auction and its consequences to him and his Marie-Hélène.

As derelict as the horses were, they worked with him, and even after he shot them and winched the carcass into the ice hole, they continued to serve the Lodge in the cold waters of the lake. This winter Gaston had enough. The barn was almost three quarters full of ice blocks. The blocks were well separated and covered by sawdust. The lodge and cabins were in excellent shape, Marie-Hélène and her husband were warm and cozy in their surroundings. There was a problem and it gnawed on them both. There were four horses in the barn along with the ice. The summer hay that was saved to feed one animal at a time, as past practice permitted, was almost gone. The twenty dollar bills that regularly arrived from Palm Springs were used to buy oats, and bales of Timothy hay.

Josephine Carmelo did not live in the sunshine and the expansive residence by being naïve. Although she enjoyed the accoutrements of the desert life, and the fact that she was protected from the blasts of Canadian winters, she kept in touch with what was going on in the small town of Guerin. A short time earlier she received a call from Robert Bouthellier, the owner of the Guerin Auction House.

“We have not seen Gaston for some time now,” he said to her during the course of the conversation. “He bought four animals for a very good price as you know, Josephine. There weren’t any other bidders. We let them go for the one dollar minimum. But no, we haven’t seen Gaston at the last auction.”

Josephine was irritated. What is it with these people, she thought. The last one, Emil Fortin, was the same. The struggle on the ice that day was not her fault. Emil was much smaller so she wrestled the rifle from him quite easily. After she dispatched the horse there was another struggle with ‘Petite’ Emil as he was known in the town. The police from the city of Rouen were satisfied after their investigation but she didn’t enjoy the look in Emil’s eyes when he broke through the ice and as the heavy raccoon coat pulled him under. There was nothing she could have done.

She had to tend to her business interest and set things right. There was still time and Josephine Carmelo decided to fly to Montreal on the next available flight. She would stop there and pick up some winter clothing and furs from her apartment on Atwater Street in that city. The following day she would fly to Rouen. From there she would make ground arrangements. There was no time to waste and she found herself quite irritated.

At the same time that Mrs. Carmelo was landing at Montreal’s Dorval airport, Gaston was enjoying a cup of dark tea Marie-Hélène made for him. With a wooden spoon he stirred in some honey and gently rubbed his fingers along the smooth pine dining room table. He thought that he should rub another coat of Johnson’s wax into it before the season and the guests arrive. His thoughts drifted over to the barn. The horses were well taken care of for the night. In the morning he would take one of them back out on the ice and make two trips to finish off the last layer of ice at the back of the barn. There would only be room for a couple of dozen loads to have enough for the season. The idea of sinking the horses, let alone killing them as he had done for years, was now remote. He would deal with the issue when he plead his case with Mrs. Carmelo in the months ahead.

“You should tell her now, Gaston dear,” said Marie-Hélène. “You should tell her so that it is you who speaks the truth and it is you that is not afraid to do so. We have no idea what she would do. For sure the worst is that she will force you to do it. If you talk to her or send her a letter, she will understand.”

“You know she’s as cold as the ice, Marie,” answered Gaston. “She will not take no if I disobey. Even now Windy Bay and the Sand Bar are too thin to go out and sink the horses.”

“There are many other spots,” suggested Marie-Hélène.

“Yes, but they are not her spots. But you are right, I will muster the courage to tell her before it gets very bad. I am not sure if I fell in love with the animals this winter or if I fell out of love with what I am doing here every year,” said Gaston.

“Gaston, you can do anything you want. You can log or repair machines or even work over at Lac Chevreuil with Monsieur Carbonneau at his lodge. You know he always wants you when we see him in church. They don’t shoot horses there.”

They talked some more before retiring to bed and the bravado and confidence of the discussion masked the underlying dread of the consequences of Gaston’s inaction. Filling the barn with ice was one thing, an important one, but creating the sizzle for the experience of catching trophy fish is why Josephine Carmelo’s guests returned year after year. Both Mrs. Carmelo and Gaston knew this, and what made it worse was the shrinking ice on the lake.

The next morning, when Robert Bouthellier’s Fargo truck pulled into the compound, the crunch of the large snow tires startled Gaston and Marie-Hélène . They looked out of the small paned kitchen window just in time to see Mrs. Carmelo get out of the passenger side and walk directly to the barn. They were finishing putting on their clothes when Mrs. Carmelo stormed into the spacious one-room guest house. She did not bother to knock.

“So, Gaston, I see that you have decided to strike out on your own,” said Mrs. Carmelo. She turned and shouted to the auctioneer, “Thank you Robert, you can go. I’ll be here for a few days.” She wheeled and stared at Gaston, waiting for an answer.

“No, madame, that is not so. I am having a very difficult time this year with that job.”

“We all have a difficult time with that part of the job. But that part, my friend, is what pays the bills and pays your wages. The least you could have done is let me know that you contracted a new conscience. Get one of those animals ready immediately and let’s you and I go out and finish what you didn’t start. And you, Marie, I expected more from you. You should be the one to steer this man on to the correct road. Now both of you get rid of the winter’s comfortable life and do your job.”

“But Madame,” said Marie-Hélène, “the barn is almost full with beautiful blocks of ice. The Lodge is clean and dry and the birds are surviving well.”

“Yes, and that is what I expect at the least. Why do you think I pay you and take care of you. Gaston,” she addressed the man. “You are still here when I told you to bring the horse? And my rifle, where is my rifle?”

Mrs. Carmelo and Gaston and one of the horses walked on the well worn path in the snow toward the lake. At the edge of the lake Mrs. Carmelo experienced a momentary hesitation and then stepped out on the ice. Gaston and the horse followed. The woman led this trio, walking along the sled tracks toward Ohio Isle. She was tough and the easy life in the desert did not round off any hard edges of her character. With rifle in hand, she was as determined as the coming of spring. They reached the ice hole in an hour.

Marie-Hélène watched them go and waited. An hour or so later, when she heard the echo of the gunshot she winced and thought the worst. At the distant sound, two crows flew from their perch by the barn. Somewhere in the distance a white-tailed deer lifted its head and then returned to nuzzling the snow searching for food. On the lake by Ohio Isle, the weight of the falling horse broke the ice and the woman and Gaston were in the deadly water.

Josephine Carmelo felt the gun drift out of her hand as she tried to keep herself afloat. The weight of her boots and clothing dragged her under. For a few seconds Gaston too was gone. When they surfaced, almost simultaneously, the cold constricted their lungs instantly and both Mrs. Carmelo and Gaston could not breathe. The horse was gone. The man and the woman looked at each other. They saw crystals already forming around the eyes and on to the eyelashes. With mouths open in a frozen smile they couldn’t talk. Josephine’s struggle slowed as she watched Gaston stroke away from her towards the ice’s edge. She saw his bare hands grab at the jagged blue edge. He turned to see the woman staring at him. Slowly, Josephine sank out of sight.

Without knowing why, when Marie-Hélène heard the gunshot she wanted to go out to calm her fears and her curiosity. With trepidation she ventured onto the ice, following the tracks of Gaston and Mrs. Carmelo. Occasionally she had accompanied Gaston during his ice work. With him alongside she didn’t mind the cracking sounds and the pools of melting water when the temperatures changed. Today however, like a stickleback fish, Marie-Hélène anxiety increased with every step she took away from her home. Thirty minutes later she stopped walking and her fears froze her immobile. With tears making it difficult, she scanned the white horizon. A lone figure, far along the tracks in the snow, emerged in the fading purple light of the winter afternoon.

*

The chill in Gaston was dissipating as he sat by the fire. The hot, sweet morning tea felt good.

“There’s enough in the hot water tank for another bath, Gaston dear,” said Marie-Hélène. Everything that needed to be said was done so during the night. She was ecstatic that she had her Gaston off the ice.

“I will call everyone today and inform them of what happened,” said Gaston.

“Yes, of course,” said Marie-Hélène. “Tell me, is Lake Chevreuil full of pike and muskies or do Mr. Carbonneau’s guests fish for lake trout?”

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