Bushwhacked

I get profiled at customs checkpoints all the time. Maybe it’s something about my aging ex-hippie look—the long hair, half-assed beard, Hawaiian shirt, shorts, and flip-flops. Or perhaps, after spending months in the Caribbean, it’s something in the way I move—with just my shitty laptop and trusty bowling bag—that attracts them like no other. In either event, they’re convinced that I’m absolutely loaded to what gunwales I have with drugs or blood diamonds or Disney merch knock-offs. So me, my shitty laptop, and my trusty bowling bag are escorted to small windowless rooms where we are all routinely searched by armed guards who can’t re-pack worth shit.

I had believed that the Dominican customs officials decided some years ago that I was an odd but harmless part-time expatriate, whereas I automatically expect the once-over at Pearson International in Toronto. There, I’ve been torn apart four times and by the same humourless customs guys. I’m a little hurt that we’re not on a first-name basis yet. I wanted to ask them about their winter in the Toronto icy cold and slush but figured it might sound as though I were gloating. Like I’d ever do that.

But on this most recent trip back north, one of these luggage takedowns happened at both ends of the same goddamned flight. It started at El Catey airport near Las Terrenas in the Dominican Republic where I usually while away my winters mangling Spanish and my brain cells. Two armed guards took me out of the check-in line and hustled me away to one of those aforementioned windowless rooms. I had a Midnight Express moment when they were having trouble unzipping my bag. I moved to help and one guard rather abruptly went for his gun. I may have muttered: “Fine. Open it your own fucking self.” Which wasn’t all that daring because none of the three searchers spoke English.

After running (that’s right—me!—running!) through the airport, I barely made my flight. I was so rattled that I actually paid the piratical price for a beer. Seven times. So I was looking and feeling my best when the plane eventually rolled up to the gate at Pearson four hours later and I rolled off the plane.

The lad at the customs booth decided I needed some extra attention. I am willing to concede that perhaps I too vocally disagreed, asking him several times (and loudly) what the fuck he thought I might’ve done mid-flight following the search in the DR that had come up empty.  He apparently wasn’t up for a debate and got quite huffy about it. I wound up in yet another one of those aforementioned windowless rooms.

This time, the rubber-gloved searchers took longer than usual because they seemed sure, absolutely, positively certain that they had me this time. So they were pissed off when they didn’t find anything more offensive than my laundry and I was pissed off because my beer hum was wearing off and because I knew Carl, my ride, had been circling the terminal like a slow-motion NASCAR driver waiting for me and a parking spot. And because I wanted a cigarette.

But just to demonstrate that I’m a glass half-full kinda guy, I was secretly grateful that they didn’t make me undress like the last time. This time, their trained eagle eyes couldn’t have missed the not one but two bullet scars decorating my paunch—the one across my gut coming last summer and the second which now decorates one of my love handles, a souvenir of this past winter. That would’ve raised some eyebrows and questions.

“Sorry, boys,” I said as I stuffed the rest of my shit back in the bag. “Maybe next year.”  

As I finally escape the terminal and frantically light up, I watched for my silver Vibe. I knew Carl wouldn’t say anything about the delay, mostly because Carl doesn’t say much ever.

Here’s one of our longer conversations—reproduced in its entirety. A phone call I made to him just before my return to Toronto from a winter in Las Terrenas.

“Yeah?”

“Carl?”

“Yeah.”

“How ya doin’?”

“Good. You?”

“Good.”

“When?”

“April 25th. Air Canada 469. Arrive 11 AM.”

“See ya then.”

Click.

And he’s always there. A big calm presence amid the bustle of the busiest airport in Canada. He drives down from the lake in my ageless Pontiac Vibe and looks sort of ridiculous as he unfolds his 6’ 5” frame; it’s almost like watching the clowns exit their toy cars in Shriner parades.

And as always, we shake hands rather formally, as if we’ve just been introduced even though he’s been a dear friend of mine for twenty years.

I know it’s a big deal for him to leave the lake and I’ve tried to talk him out of it but it’s just an inviolate habit with him now, one of many we have together, even though he white-knuckles it in Toronto traffic. He says that’s the price he’s willing to pay for me putting the NFL and NHL packages on his cable in exchange for him providing taxi service and watching over my lakeside hovel from his island a couple of hundred feet from my shoreline .

It was not until ninety minutes later as we passed through Peterborough and then by Trent University—one of my alma maters—in the north end that he started to relax.

We didn’t speak much on the drive but then again we never speak much. Carl can make Keanu Reeves seem like Robin Williams on a manic roll. Except where the NFL is involved.  I think I love the game as much as he does, but our approaches are radically different. I go on hunches and baseless hopes and then scramble to justify why they invariably don’t work out. Really, my predictions are just a notch above Lisa Simpson’s winning pool entries for Homer based on uniform colours. Whereas, Carl is a goddamned computer, the original moneyballer. He memorizes college combine scores, knows completion percentages on rainy days and can honestly tell you how often a quarterback of Polish extraction has been sacked more than three times on Monday Night Football in the modern era. I’ve learned a lot from him. Mostly I’ve learned to despise him because he’s right a whole lot more often than he’s wrong.

We didn’t talk again until we went through the small town of Buckhorn, the last outpost of civilization (because it has a liquor store) before we reach the lake.

“See the game?” he asked, referring obviously to the Super Bowl.

“Of course.”

“Turned out alright.”

“Fuck off.”

Carl broadly grinned. Another thing he doesn’t do very often; he usually has a slight restrained Mona Lisa-type half-smile of contentment. He now wears this wide shit-eating grin because his one and only e-mail to me over the winter was his Bet on The Game. Which he had won. Again. I think that makes twenty in a row for the big bastard.

We reached the turn-off road for our lake. On the corner of County Road 507 and our elegantly named Fire Route 162, I saw a construction trailer and a billboard showing an up-scale log home and a happy-looking LL Beaned, aging yuppie couple in a canoe. That hadn’t been there when I left last fall. The sign said “Coming Soon - Edgewater Estates” with a Toronto phone number.

“Hear about The Development?” Carl asked.

“I did. Read the Examiner on-line. Article said the township planning committee had approved it. Whaddya think?”

“Bound to happen sooner or later.”

He concentrated on a winding bit of dirt road following the south shore of the lake.

“Just wish it was later,” he eventually added.

“The article said east side of the lake, around the corner from us. Where exactly is it?”

“Starts here.”

We were passing The Angler Arms, the best cottage country bar in the world™, where all spring and summer Carl and I religiously attend bar service, a ritual we call going to AA.

“What?!”

“Figured you should hear it in person.”

“Must be a fuckin’ mistake!”

“Takes in this empty lot, then these two houses…,” Carl says by way of slow commentary, “and then…”

“…And then my place!”

“And then mine right after.”

“Must be a fuckin’ mistake,” I repeated, my alarm growing.

“Mebbe. Don’t think so.”

Carl’s not a real sugar-coaty kinda guy. I was stunned.

We came to my laneway. The only way you’d know it’s mine is my mailbox with The Lydons’ painted on it (not The Lydon’s, because the apostrophe there is wrong and fuckin’ dumb). It has survived twenty winters of snow ploughing along our road. Every so often, I touch up the paint even though it’s been about ten years since there has been home mail delivery.  Or plural Lydons, for that matter.  But I feel obligated to keep it up. Call me an optimist; maybe they’ll start delivering again. I saw the black sign with ‘Private Property’ spelled in fluorescent orange letters was still tacked to the post.

The laneway winds for about two hundred yards after it plunges into the bush by the road. At the end of the driveway the land opens up. After we passed the storage shed I built a couple of years ago, I got the full view and I was gladdened, despite the news of an alleged development.

As expected, the yard looked early spring-pathetic. The wispy lawn was dun-coloured; fallen black skeletal branches littered it and yellowed hosta leaves limply drooped over the low pink granite retaining walls that ring the grounds. I smiled at the only real blight on the landscape: Carl’s battered blue F-150 pickup off to the side facing the island he lives on, a couple of hundred feet from my shoreline.

Carl, me, my shitty laptop, and my trusty bowling bag climbed the low stairs to my house. Calling it a house is being excessively charitable. It’s a three-season hovel of a log cottage. But it’s my house. We walked through the front door and saw nuthin’ but lake out back filling the picture window. It was not the image of the lake I routinely recall; the water was greyish white because it was still iced over.

There’s always an element of suspense when I return to the place after five or six months south. I completely shut the house down when I fuck off in the fall. It’s not a big deal: Turn off the power and the water pump, blow out the lines, toss some antifreeze in the toilet and I’m gone. The house is not even close to airtight so there’s always the chance that gangs of squirrels or mice have partied like drunken frat boys in the place while I was away.

Carl doesn’t clean up but he re-starts everything before he picks me up. And I am grateful because it’s a busy time for him, opening up houses and cottages for at least twenty other returning fellow snowbirds on this lake and two others nearby.

 “Beer?” Carl asked after my silent survey.

That’s another key part of the ceremony when I return. He had stocked the fridge with Molson Export ale—another thing we have in common besides football and cantankerousness. He snapped a couple open while I changed out of my Caribbean uniform, pulling on a fleecy, sweat pants, and fucking socks. We headed out to the deck and parked ourselves in the pair of Adirondack chairs facing the hardened water. And then we shivered.

Last week of April and it was cold, jeezly cold. About 45 degrees Fahrenheit (even though my country inexplicably went metric over forty years ago, I did not). In the deepening gloom of late afternoon, it was colder still and I bet we’d probably have frost that night. There were still small piles of snow under the pine or spruce or whatever the fuck they’re called.

Now we could have just as easily gone inside, fired up my propane-run fireplace, and huddled around it but we didn’t. We never do. Carl thinks it’s an abomination unto his eyes and we never speak of it, not since I replaced the wood-burning stove a few years back because I got sick of hauling firewood. Carl’s a traditionalist, plus he makes part of his meagre living cutting and selling firewood.

“Good winter?” I asked.

“Yup. Spring, not so much. Hadn’t counted on moving.”

He sounded like the fatalistic Eeyore droning: “Oh, well. Better find a new home,” and I was saddened. Carl lives large in the material world around him, completely comfortable in his skin and confident in his outdoorsy element. It’s the world of paper and lawyers and officialdom that fucks him up.

Carl stared at the lake. I could see the fear in his eyes. His face is creased and lined by a hard life in the sun, by cigarette smoke, by laughter, and now by anxiety. He tapped his size twelves nervously on the pine needle-strewn deck. I really felt for him, afraid of the idea of finding himself this far down the road—he was somewhere in his mid-70s—being displaced.

I actually patted one of his giant paws splayed out on the wide armrest.

“Carl, don’t worry, buddy. Who gives a shit about their plans? It’s our fuckin’ land. It’s real simple. If I own something and you want it and I don’t want to sell it then too bad, so sad for you; that’s the end of it.”

“Ya figure?”

“Yeah, I figure. We’ll just tell them to go fuck themselves. Right? We agree?”

“Yup.”

We shook hands and clinked beer bottle necks. As far as I’m concerned, that’s about as iron-clad a contract as you can get.

Carl drained his beer but declined another one.

“Better get goin.’ Gettin’ dark,” said Eeyore on the move.

That time of year, the ice is treacherous. Not quite thick enough to walk on, but too thick for a vessel. Carl has devised an ingenious way to travel back and forth from his island.  He rigged up an iron hook—something like a shepherd’s crook—on a proverbial 10-foot pole and he either sinks the hook into the ice in front of his canoe to drag it or reaches back to push himself forward. He does all this while standing up, displaying Wallenda-type balance. He looks, for all the world, like a giant ice-bound gondolier.

I went inside, turned on some lights and was at least psychologically warmed by the glow of the honey-coloured log walls.  Actual body heat came about half an hour after I flicked the switch on the gas fireplace.

I walked from room to room which didn’t take very long. The whole shebang is about twelve hundred square feet not counting the screened-in porch. About the same size as the two-bedroom condo I bought in Las Terrenas three winters ago. Size matters up here more than it does down there because up here I will mostly be confined indoors for the next four or five weeks while Canada takes its own sweet time to warm the fuck up.

 

And I will be antsy until then, an extended version of pacing the kitchen waiting for a slow toaster to pop. This hump period of weather-enforced house arrest is not an issue in the Dominican Republic where you’re always outside and your three choices for temperature settings are warm, hot, and hot-hot.

I shuffled around the kitchen, opening drawers to find the reminders of a mouse infestation—small black granules that look like multiple pepper mills had exploded. I was bagged from the travel and decided that the producers of that excrement would live to shit another night and that I’d set the trap line the next day. Last year, I almost caught enough of the little bastards to make a bomber jacket.

I heated up a can of soup, retrieved another, beer and grabbed the stacks of mail that Carl had neatly placed on the table in two piles marked by little signs that I made in that artsy-crafty way I have: “Shit” and “More Shit.”

In front of the fake, blue-tinged flames, I rummaged through the paper. There wasn’t much. Carl had my permission to junk all the junk mail including any light brown envelopes from the Canada Revenue Agency. I thought I’d phone them in a couple of days to renew our feud—letters can be so impersonal, can’t they?

Prominent in the pile was a large envelope from Lakeshore Developments Inc. I ripped it open.

There was a cover letter that looked more like a brochure—lots of white space, bolded sentences, and a couple of outdoorsy photos.

“Dear Landowner (at least they spelled my name right) [the letter began],

Lakeshore Developments Inc. is pleased to announce the launch of Edgewater Estates, the new gold standard in leisure living.

Edgewater Estates is a unique opportunity for everybody to win!

First off, you’ll win. I think you’ll find that we are prepared to make very generous offers to existing landowners as we pursue our dream of a prestige community in West Kawartha.

Your community will win with this anchor development as it will create hundreds of jobs for your neighbours and not just during construction but for years to come.  At the same time, everybody’s land value will increase, while generating substantial new tax dollars to improve your township’s services.

The environment will win by hosting our sustainable, totally “green,” locally-sourced natural building materials and advanced construction techniques respectful of the natural landscape.  

Very shortly, I’ll be getting in touch with you individually to more completely describe our vision and just how much you’ll benefit. At the same time, we can discuss an exciting investment opportunity that will richly reward you for years to come.

In the meantime, please take a look at the enclosed general plan for Edgewater Estates to get just a taste of the exciting things we want to do on the Mississauga Lake property you so very wisely invested in.

And please do not hesitate to call me personally with any questions.

Sincerely,

Stuart “Stewie” Woodson”

Except for the “do not hesitate to etc.” bit, (who the fuck has ever hesitated? ), a few too many adverbs, and the superfluous use of “very” in front of “unique”, oh, and the “personally” (as very few people ask to be called impersonally), I had to concede it was a pretty good letter which pissed me off more. It had punched all the right buttons—appeal to personal greed, appeal to community, and there was even a vigorous nod to tree huggery.

I unfolded the glossy plan and spread it out on the coffee table. It was one of those stylized maps, all jagged and colourful, mid-blue lake, mid-green land. Around the outside of the map were inset photos and drawings depicting an idyllic and wealthy lifestyle. Quality stock shots of attractive people playing golf, tennis, and canoeing, their attractive kids swimming near a dock, a fucking attractive loon or two. I decided that every photo had been doctored because the real-life omnipresent clouds of horse/ black/deer flies had obviously been airbrushed—I mean Photoshopped—out.

I snorted at the artist’s rendering of giant log mansions where all these attractive people would find shelter. “Locally sourced?” Sure, buddy. Unless they had been cultivating a secret woodlot of BC firs for the last hundred years or so, there wasn’t a goddamned chance in hell they’d find logs that thick around these parts. And by these parts, I mean every square inch of Canada not named British Columbia.

The vast majority of the development took up the uninhabited eastern shore of our lake right around the corner from my place on the south shore of the squarish lake. All in, the map said, Edgewater Estates was to be about four square miles of rock and bush bounded on the west by the shoreline of Mississauga Lake and on the north and east butting up against 145 square miles of wilderness that is Kawartha Highlands Provincial Park. Then there’s narrow strip leaking around to the south shore. Identifiable on that narrow strip was my little thumb of a land (Carl calls it a middle finger) jutting into the lake near his island. There were two unmarked purple rectangles spreading across my land and the empty lot beside me in front of Carl’s island. Then two more smaller rectangles representing the houses already there, a break for another empty lot, and then AA.

 

Dominating the map in the main body of the development was a golf course outlined with houses sprinkled around it and inside it.

Another beer and I was ready to turn in. I just couldn’t seem to nod off even though I’d been away from my mighty comfortable sleepin’ couch for almost six months. When you’re married—as I once was—you’re told to not go to bed angry. Same’s true for single guys. I was working myself up into a recumbent lather over the arrogance of these fucks who just pick a piece of property and decide that’s where they want to make a piss-pot while driving out or complicating the lives of the humans who currently live there.

I’ll deal with the mouse turds tomorrow, I thought. Oh, and the droppings in my kitchen drawers as well.

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