What happens on the road

Russell
Russell Wangersky
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“You don’t want to see these guys

 without their masks on.”

— from “The Autopsy Garland,” one track from The Mountain Goats’ “All Eternals Deck”

Sometimes, you just want to stretch your arms, your legs, pull your muscles as far out as they can go, just to be able to feel the unaccustomed sonar they send in return, that ping-back bounce that is the furthest limit out, muscles already curving back towards rest.

It is a stretch so delicious you can imagine the feeling of it before you even start. I’ve been on the road for weeks, and the thought of writing about Muskrat Falls again makes my brain cramp. So here, instead, is a collection of travelling thoughts that might someday appear somewhere else, the product of three and a half solid weeks at and between a variety of literary festivals, readings and events.

•••

In a Calgary diner, getting breakfast, I watched a man in a tan suit sit down and stack each of the four forks and spoons into neat piles, line up the four knives in a butter-knife squadron, pile the napkins like cards — and then take one of the napkins and wipe down the entire table, before resetting the whole table and ordering breakfast. Bagel, eggs, smoked salmon, and the only thing I could imagine was what his life would be like at home. I had steak and eggs — just because I could.

•••

If you are old enough, and the light on stage is bad enough, and your eyes aren’t that great anyway, you can open a book you’re pretty proud of, get set to read from a short story and discover all of the letters have dissolved into little squiggly worms right there in front of you.

Sound like a bad dream? Sometimes dreams come true.

•••

There is something both forlorn and exposed about someone else’s laundry. In the basement of a residence, on a flat expanse of table, there’s an eviscerated coil of jeans and panties, shirts and socks — the guts of someone’s dresser, spilled out like an accident scene.

You’re startled from the sight by one of the cleaning staff asking you how much the dryers cost.

“They charge us twice as much in the staff laundry, and there are half as many machines.”

She’s standing under a sign that says the machines are reserved for guests, hands on her hips, chin jutting, like you are somehow to blame, like you are the root of this policy. Eight dryers, eight washers, and your laundry is the only one turning. The rest sit, mouths open, as if they’re about to start laughing.

“Go get your laundry,” you want to blurt out, “and I’ll run it through for you.”

•••

You don’t ever want to be next door to the room where the unseen guest is a finger-drummer.

Especially not one with one of those adjoining-room doors. Coin-

spinners are bad enough — but finger-drummers? Eventually, you find yourself dreaming hopefully of lathe accidents — but only after, to your horror, you start to actually recognize the songs being played on the dresser, the headboard, the side table.

•••

Sometimes, on the reading circuit, even the grand dames of literature find themselves stuffed like sausages into the very back row of a 15-passenger van on an hour-and-a-half ride on a bumpy highway, slung around like a Grade 4 student in the very back row of a school bus. Grand dames? They don’t always travel well. Keep your fingers out of that cage.

•••

The advent of Skype does not give you permission to yell at your computer in your hotel room because there’s a bad connection. On the up side, I now know more about your job and your boss (you call him your “direct report”) than I ever really wanted to.

•••

What is it about hotel room balconies that almost irresistibly make you want to go outside in the cold windy autumn dark, dressed only in a towel — or less? That is all.

•••

Seeing your life pass before your eyes is not solely the preserve of driving in snowstorms or meetings with moose.

When a foothills crosswind makes an entire shuttle bus change lanes spontaneously — the driver never once turning the wheel on a die-straight divided highway — or when an apparently colour-blind volunteer driver slings you through four lanes of red-light intersection without noticing or even stopping talking, the same tired film unspools.

And you are piercingly aware of how far you are from home. You push aside this thought — would the box go home air-freight, or ground?

•••

There still are, you realize all at once, cowboys on horses who actually herd great brown rivers of beef cattle down dirt roads, three or four of them with real cowboy hats, all tacked out with a couple of game dogs nipping at the hind hooves of the latecomers.

And there are writers esoteric and well schooled enough to know that there is actually an acceptable plural for beef cattle, that is “beeves.”

You know, because — stubborn as always — you look it up later. But the word is still so foreign and angular that it stops your brain in mid-thought, every time.

•••

Poets?

Remember when you were a teenager, and you could always count on the kid who was the son or daughter of a minister to be the one who would have the most dangerous ideas and get you in the most trouble?

Poets are like that.

(And in case you think it’s just me, another author cornered me, her face serious, telling me, “The poets always eat all the cheese cubes.”)

•••

One last thing, not a cautionary verse (because then I’d be one of those poets) but at least something of a cautionary tale.

If a sign on the prairies says “Irish Pub and Oyster Bar,” you just might want to reconsider.

Russell Wangersky is The Telegram’s

editorial page editor. He can be reached by email at rwanger@thetelegram.com.

Organizations: Grade 4, Irish Pub

Geographic location: Muskrat Falls, Calgary

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