BY MADONNA HAMEL
“So, what’s new?” asks Ervin, as we settle into our seats at the Val Marie hotel and order won-ton.
“Well, I’m going to Swift tomorrow to get a heart monitor.”
“A hall monitor?”
“ No, a heart monitor. But a hall monitor wouldn’t be a bad idea: ‘And where do you think you’re going young lady? You still have 1500 more words to write before you get to slack off.’ “
“ Yeah. We could have used one at the meeting today.”
“ Oh, meeting report. First you tell me about yours and I’ll tell you about our Elevator Preservation Committee meeting last week!”
“Oh, just our beloved mayor being his usual self. Made some joke about how I came to council with a wheelbarrow, presumably to haul municipal money away. I replied that I could use a wheelbarrow…and a shovel…and concrete blocks…and a boat. A few good laughs with that one. And your meeting?”
“Well, Maurice picked me up and reminded me we needed to keep it short so…”
“No rambling on?”
“Exactly. At one point I was getting in a snit about how we’re now calling the ‘Seniors Centre’ the ‘Prairie Community Centre’ so as not to scare the young ones away. Like a) they’d come to coffee Wednesdays anyway and b) what the hell’s wrong with calling it what it is? Are we going to bow to an age-ist idea that ‘senior’ equals ‘boring’, and anyway, it’s the place place for gossip…. So, Maurice was sitting at the far end of the table and slowly leaned forward to get my attention and kinda pursed his lips. So I made the ‘zip it shut’ gesture and then, just to assure him I was indeed done, I mimed turning a key in a lock at the corner of my mouth and putting it in my pocket. Then I pretended I dropped it and lost it.”
“ I guess you found it….So when do you get your monitor?”
“ They want me there first thing tomorrow, which means I have to get up around six, and then drive home, do whatever it is I usually do, sleep with it on, and return again the next morning.”
“ I gotta go up tomorrow too. But I gotta do chores first. Sorry,can’t take you. But I can buy you lunch.”
Cal joined us for the rest of the evening and the men talked about the weather. I love sitting in on these stories of a rancher’s life, of a world so few of us get to experience, a world so unfairly and impersonally maligned. They worry about their cows hunkering down, huddling against the cold and the wind. Every morning when these guys drive out to feed them, in temperatures in the minus thirties and forties with the wind chill, they hope they’ve made it through the night and the feed will last. What the hell, says Cal, it’s not gonna cost me any more if I have to get feed in April than if I bought it in October. Yeah, but you gotta go further and further afield to get it, says Ervin.
I love this talk for what it is as much as what it’s not: cooler talk about traffic, the new restaurant or club or fashion or hairstyle or celebrity divorce. I like hearing older men marvel that they’re still doing what they do, at a life defined by resiliency, stubbornness, tenacity and exhaustion, peppered with self-deprecating humour. “I can’t believe what we used to do when we were younger!” they always conclude. “Yeah, and how much more we could eat!”
“Oh hey, while I’ve got you,” I jumped in. “I need you sign Avril’s birthday card. Ok, Valentine card, er, I guess it’s a St. Pat’s Day card now. Anyway, look at this.”
I pull the card out of my coat and show them a cartoon picture of a possum wearing a ball cap. Written on top is: ‘For your birthday-a hillbilly vocabulary lesson’.
“Ok.” I say, “Use this word in a sentence: ‘did’. But say it with a hillbilly accent.” They look at me suspiciously. “Ok. It’s an American card, so it’s, like, a Kentucky accent. So, the sentence would be: ‘There’s a did possum on the road’. Get it?”
“Sure. Only we’re ‘rednecks’ Madonna, not hillbillies.” Ervin informs me. “Unless you’re from Mankota way. Then you’d be ‘hill people’.”
“Got it. Ok. Next word: ‘ranch’. “
Cal responds. “Go git me my ranch outta my toolbox, will ya?”
“Yes! You got it. Next word: ‘bard’. A particular favourite of mine but, not, I presume, used in the sense the immortal bard Shakespeare himself might employ it.”
“Oh, you mean, more like: ‘I bard my cousin Jimmy’s El Camino last week? It sure eats up alotta awl!” “Wow, Ervin, two in one sentence!”
And so the evening unraveled. Until we could no longer avoid the cold and bundled up and trundled home. Ervin dropped me off, making me start my car before he left. “Sorry you gotta go up in that tin can. But it starts fine.”
Such is the way of these men, they apologize for not giving you the shirt off their back when it’s thirty below. Like, it’s their job to make your day as smooth as possible and now they’ve let you down.
The drive in the morning was stunning. On my left the moon was bright and high in the sky, on the right the hills were limned with orange. As it got lighter the blue snow turned pink and the moon faded, giving the stage to the ebullient sun. I got to the hospital and had several wires taped to my body and was given a small black box to tuck in my waist band.
“Looks like one of those post-operation bags,” says Ervin at the restaurant.
“Oh that’s appetizing, thanks,” I say, sliding into the booth. I pull out a sheet of paper. “Look, I have to keep track of my activities so they can compare it to the monitor read-out. I’ll just jot that one down now: ’12:15: Outburst of laughter at Ervin’s hilarious joke.’…You know, I was thinking, wouldn’t it be great to have a heart monitor that records ones acts of kind-heartedness during the day. Like a step counter- reminding you when you haven’t met your quota?”
Just before bed I fill in my heart activity sheet:
“ 10:15pm: Sudden upswell of affection for these people, and this village, oh hell, for the whole damn world!”