Two-man Tent

Robert Chafe
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Honourable mention for the Cuffer Prize 2012

 

When I was 17 my father and I finally went camping. It was August and I was in my last month before the big move to Halifax for school.

The weather had been unusually fine, thick days of sunlight and warm nights, and my father surprised us all one day by venturing into the far reaches of the garage and emerging with a long forgotten two-man tent.

I didn't doubt his good intentions, but readied myself for disappointment. He had been, for the majority of my life, a man heavily devoted to his work. That his family rarely saw him was of little import as long as there was stability and shelter.

"Your father is a provider," my mother told me. She would often apologize for him in the form of a compliment.

My father booked off a long weekend at his busiest time of year and bought a provincial map at the gas station at the foot of our street. He seemed to take some pleasure in planning the entire trip before leaving town, everything broken down and noted on the map to the very minute and mile.

We left St. John's early on a Thursday morning, the back seat full, and a rented and fully loaded trailer behind us to demonstrate his commitment. We were headed for Sand Banks Provincial Park, tucked into the furthest corner of the island down near Burgeo, where Dad said even good weather wouldn't draw crowds.

He never did like people very much, at least not in substantial numbers.

I watched him driving, waited for him to change his mind, to remember something more important and temporarily forgotten.

He never looked at me, and he never broke 90 kilometres an hour. My mother had told him to take his time.

We had driven this road before, countless times, when I was younger and there was more time. Me, my father and my mother, making the 12-hour drive from St. John's to St. Anthony to visit her sister.

Clarenville in the bay at the base of the hills, Gander stretching next to the lake, the great sweep of the road up and overlooking Glovertown. Grand Falls where the highway sliced fast and hard through the centre.

Stretches of road in between with a long history of silence and then slowly tourist booths and craft stores, camping lodges, hotels and restaurants now, chains with commercials on TV. But this was a road into nothing once.

He had believed and declared firmly that there was a gas station just outside the western limits of Corner Brook and when one didn't present itself before the turnoff to Burgeo his plans hit a hard wall.

The road we were to travel was a long one, a three-hour exit route with a sign posted at its entrance: No gas for 350 kilometres.

Dad eyed the gauge and cursed under his breath, rolled the car around and headed back toward the exit into Bay St. George. We were going to Stephenville in the hunt for fuel.

My father hated Stephenville, and had called it the arsehole of Newfoundland when his finger had grazed it on the map. When we found our first gas station it was dark, empty and unhelpful. There was a flipped "Closed" sign and the doors were locked.

"It's four o'clock on Thursday afternoon. People need gas." It was the most he'd said in hours.

In the distance, an electrical storm clicked its way across the top of the bay. The sky out towards St. George's looked as though night had come early with some serious flashes of warning.

In the spreading gloom the town of Stephenville was growing blurry for lack of light. A sub-routing station at the top of the bay had been hit, taking out power to the entire peninsula.

Every gas station and amenity within a hundred kilometres lay dormant, and their idle employees planted themselves at their front doors, smoking and delivering the bad news: they were not expecting power to be back up and running for hours. We drove around and around but our impatience changed nothing.

We sat in the car then, myself and my father, in the parking lot of a closed café. There was a sad kind of silence as he looked again at the map and tried to discern how it had failed him. I suggested waiting for the power to come back, and then continuing on our way down to the park.

"Your Mother doesn't want us driving at night."

"We don't have to tell her."

He folded the map and put it for the first time in the glove compartment. He sneezed then and apologized instead of excusing himself, and drove us down the road to the Stephenville Holiday Inn.

At the front desk, lit by dim reserve power, he looked for too long in his wallet, and told me that he was very tired from it all, the driving.

He booked us each a separate room. My father said he'd meet me for breakfast at eight, and that having lost a night we'd best just head back home after that.

"Fucking town," he grumbled as he was walking away.

The hotel was clean, but the bed was hard. I lay there watching the storm move off in the distance, and the darkness land for real. Around nine o'clock the power came on, and with it the television. I watched the news, and a story about a family killed on the 401 in Ontario and I wanted to call my mother.

I knew if I did I would awaken a worry in her, so I closed my eyes and let the impulse pass. I was about to move away from home for the first time, charge fully into freedom, and I had no idea of what to expect. I wanted someone to tell me.

In the whir of the outdated air conditioner I thought I heard my father's voice, distant and low behind the walls, and through my closed eyes I saw his face again as we drove around Stephenville looking for gas.

There had been an inexplicable fire in him then, given life and breath for the first time in years. His eyes were wide and his mouth was pulled into a fierce tight line.

At the time, I was sure it was anger or frustration. But now with age and distance, I can't shake for a second that his look was one more of relief.

Robert Chafe is a St. John's-based writer whose work as a playwright has been seen across Canada, the U.K., Australia and in the States. He was shortlisted for the Governor General's Award for Drama ("Tempting Providence" and "Butler's Marsh") in 2004, and won the award for "Afterimage" in 2010.

Organizations: Stephenville Holiday Inn

Geographic location: St. John's, Halifax, Stephenville Burgeo Sand Banks Provincial Park St. Anthony Glovertown Grand Falls Corner Brook Newfoundland St. George's Ontario Canada Australia

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