Preview of David Essig’s new collection of short stories, Fair Days
David Essig has just released Fair Days, the new book and CD from one of the finest roots musicians and songwriters in Canada. The collection of 13 short stories commemorates his career as it’s based on narratives of songs he has written and performed over 50 years.
The book is accompanied by a CD of new studio recordings of all 13 songs. The music is also available for streaming online. There are signed and numbered limited edition of Fair Days is available at https://pentameter.bigcartel.com/product/fair-days.
We’re excited that David has agreed to give us a preview of his book here at Roots Music Canada. Below is one of the stories from it.
I walked out to my neighbour’s house and kicked in his backdoor . . .
The postman dropped the box of books off at the wrong house again. I know it’s a long way out here. At the end of the day, all the boxes must start to look the same. But really, how hard is it to remember that I’m the only one on this road who gets regular shipments from the CNIB? I was trying to track down a missing parcel. I had a good idea of where he’d left it—like he often did—down at our neighbour Henry’s. His post box was bigger than ours. The postman could just slide the parcel in the door and be done with it. I asked him about this once when I was out in the yard and I heard him drive up in his truck. He said it was a mistake and that he was sorry. But I thought that he was just lazy and not sorry at all. Not in the least.
Henry didn’t have a phone, so whenever I thought the CNIB books were coming, I would walk over to his place, and check his mailbox. If there was a parcel in there, I’d bring it back home. It was easy to tell if it was mine. Henry never got parcels anyway and mine always had the address in Braille. It was easy to figure out.
We are two miles in on a dirt side road—not much traffic. If there is any, I can hear it coming for a long way off. That means, most of the time, I don’t need to put Junior in his guide harness. I just let him run around free in the yard. Not like when we go into town, and he has to be all trussed up in his fancy rig. The two of us negotiate the streets in town without any bother, other than the occasional clucking tourists who, if they don’t come right out and say, “Poor dear—and so young,” are probably whispering to each other and thinking that kind of thing. At least they have the decency not to say “blind as a bat”—not loud enough that I can hear anyway.
On a sunny warm morning in April, while my father was at work and I was expecting books, Junior and I headed down the road to Henry’s. It was a dumpy old summer cottage that he’d fixed up for year-round, calling it a “chalet”—trying to make it sound like a ski resort. But really it was just the same old place with some new paint and a couple of beds from IKEA. In those first years after he fixed the place up, Henry was rarely there. He owned a sub shop down in Barrie and had an apartment upstairs. That’s where he mostly lived. He was dodging an ex-wife with a good lawyer who kept coming after him for money. Part of his strategy was to make the chalet his legal residence, complete with a local mailing address. That was the reason for the big, new, fancy-assed mailbox out in front of his place. He didn’t even put his name on the side of the box. It was like a prop.
Henry’s chalet had hydro but no phone. He didn’t have a TV or even a radio. He’d show up about one weekend a month and tuck in with a bag of frozen pizzas, maybe a couple of subs from his store, and always a case of Molson’s and a bottle of rye. Sometimes he’d stop by our place and invite my dad and me for pizza. He’d offer my father a beer, put his feet up on the chair, stretch back and say, “Isn’t this the life? Here we are, right off the bloody radar.” He said it the same way every time and it got to be like a song. He’d say, “Isn’t this the life?” and I’d shout, “Right off the bloody radar!”
My dad would laugh, Junior would snort a little at my raised voice and Henry would crack a couple more beers. After this happened a few times, he started calling me Radar. If I went by his place and he was up from Barrie, he’d call out from the front deck, “Hey, it’s Radar and her faithful hound, Junior.” He’d laugh and that meant he’d been drinking already.
Sometimes he’d call for me to come in for a sub and a coke. If I was hungry enough, I’d take him up on it and tease him a little about the cheap ingredients in the subs. “Hey, it’s all the margins,” he’d say. “Cut the marginal cost of the inputs and, Radar, my girl, right there’s your bloody profit.”
I’d say something smart like, “Still tastes like horsemeat to me, Henry,” and he’d laugh and say, “Well, aren’t you just the little comedian now? I’d have to say, you’re regular little Carol Burnett. Care for some more horsemeat?”
The summer after I finished grade seven, Henry started coming up to the chalet more often—it seemed like every weekend. As that summer heated up in August, Henry called me over one day as I was picking up the mail. He said, “Radar, looks like you got me for good now—I’m here to stay. OK, you can call me a lifer—just don’t call me late for dinner.” He laughed at his own joke, and I just scuffed my feet in the dirt at the bottom of the wooden stairs that led up to his front deck. “Yep, I went and done it.” He said he had sold off the sub shop to the Vietnamese guy who had been managing the place on weekends. “Turns out his wife picked some good numbers on the 6/49 and they made me a cash offer,” Henry said. “So, I guess you and your dad are stuck with me now.”
I turned my face towards his voice—he was up on the deck, just by the front door. “Well then, Henry, that’s some good news. What are you planning to do with yourself now that you’re no longer the Sub King of Barrie?” I heard his chair scrape on the deck boards and then the squeaky sound as he sat down.
He laughed, “Sub King, eh? Never quite thought of myself like that, but I guess that’s so.” I heard the snap of the seal coming off the bottle. Henry always made a big deal about sitting down to drink.
“That’s how trouble starts,” he had said once to my dad when we were over for a visit. “Every bloody bar fight in Barrie starts the same way—two guys standing there, face-to-face, calling each other names, and then, bingo, it starts. Now, you won’t see that at the Legion because everyone’s sitting down, nice, and calm and behaving themselves.” I was about to say that there were no fights at the Legion because everyone there is too old, but Henry just kept on. “Hell, the way the ex has been bashing me with that bloody downtown Mr. Brown lawyer of hers, I’m just double glad to see old Barrie’s taillights, that I am.”
“Henry,” I said, “I’ve never seen any kind of lights—so I can’t be sure—but I don’t think towns have taillights.”
“You got me there, Radar,” he laughed, and I could hear him take a drink from the bottle. “Dead to rights you are. So, where’s your old man anyway? This bottle of rye’s getting kind of lonesome—sure could use some company about now.”
“He’s still at work,” I said.
Over the following weeks, we saw Henry every few days, but there was no pattern to it. Sometimes he’d walk over to our place in the late morning, after the mail came, and drop off my CNIB parcels. If it was the weekend, he’d just sort of mill around in the driveway until my father asked him in for coffee. We had this little plunger thing called a French press—Henry said it was the best coffee ever. He’d come by around 10 or 11 in the morning, drink some coffee and then sit and talk to my dad until it was noon—exactly noon. He’d look at his watch and say, “Well now, the old Timex says the sun’s over the yardarm—who’s up for a dram or two?” He’d reach in his coat pocket, pull out a mickey and say something he thought was clever, like “You got any clean tumblers in this old drive-in?” It never seemed very funny, but we would all laugh anyway and Dad would get some glasses and maybe a bottle of ginger ale from the fridge. And they would drink. Henry called it “just a little eye-opener.”
One Sunday morning, it was the same old routine, but when noon came and Henry checked his watch and reached in his pocket, his hand came out empty. “Geez-o, it looks like I forgot my little buddy. Hey Radar, can you run back over to my place and grab the mickey off the kitchen table. You know how to get up the steps, right? OK, just go on inside the front door. The table’s just to the right and the bottle is on it. Just feel around—you can’t miss it, eh?”
Junior and I walked over to Henry’s, up the steps, into the house. There was the table. Of course, I already knew that. I’d been in the house lots of times and was a little insulted that he thought he had to tell me all over again. I could draw a map of his bloody place. But, as usual, when he started talking, I hadn’t said much—I never did.
Holding a Pistol
I felt around the table and there was the bottle. I picked it up and, turning to leave, I caught my foot on a chair leg and knocked it over. It was a cheap plastic chair he’d brought up from the sub shop. When it tipped over, I heard a loud thump on the floor—a much bigger noise than a little plastic chair would make. I thought he had forgotten something on the chair—maybe a hammer—it had that kind of heavy sound when it hit the floor. I set the chair back up and felt around on the floor. I found something right away under the table. But it wasn’t a hammer. It was metal and heavy, but I’d never felt a shape like that. I turned it my hands and realized it was a gun—a pistol. I had never held a gun before. We didn’t have one at our place—not even a little .22 rifle. But I knew this was a pistol from watching TV. I remember asking my dad what was going on when the cowboys were shooting at each other. I remember asking him if they were shooting .22s like the ones some people here on the road had. He had said, “No, it’s a little gun you can hold in your hand—called a pistol. Cowboys in the movies always carry pistols in a leather pouch on their belts, called a holster.” That had been a long time ago—back when we first got the TV and put a metal antenna up on the roof. We got Channel 3 from Barrie and they showed cowboy movies on Saturday mornings.
As soon as I figured out, I was holding a pistol, I put it down gently on the table and patted it a little like you would a puppy, getting it to behave. I took the mickey and left. Back at our house, Dad had the glasses on the table. I handed the bottle to Henry. He said, “Thanks, Radar. Here, let me show you how to bite the head off a weasel.” I heard the thin cracking sound of the seal breaking as Henry unscrewed the cap. He poured rye into the glasses. He and my dad made a toast, “Here’s to the Leafs—maybe they’ll at least make the playoffs this year.”
Little Toy on a Chair
After that Sunday, we didn’t see Henry for maybe a month. The weather had turned cold and rainy and everyone on the road was sticking to themselves. I still checked the mailbox every few days for my CNIB parcels, but Henry didn’t seem to be around. Maybe he was in there, but he didn’t come out and say hello, so I couldn’t tell for sure. But then one Friday afternoon, I was over checking the mail, and I heard Henry’s front door open and then the sound of steps on the deck. “Hey, Radar, come on in here after you check your mail. I need to talk to you for a minute.” His voice sounded strained, not the jokey way he usually talked to me. I thought maybe he was sick.
I tied Junior to the stair rail, went up on the deck, and opened the door. I heard Henry’s chair scrape on the floor as I came in. He was sitting at the table. “Remember that day when I asked you to come over and pick up that little mickey for us? It was a few Sundays back, as I remember.” I nodded, “Yes, I remember.”
“Well, as it turns out, I’d left a little toy on a chair and when I came home that day, it was up here on the table. So, you must have seen it, right?” I said, “Hardly. How the hell could I have seen it, Henry? I can’t see anything, you know that.” Henry moved his chair again. “Sorry about that. But you did find it? You did touch it, right? You must have picked it up off the chair and put it right here on the table, right? You did do that, didn’t you?” He was talking fast, and I was worried that he was getting upset.
I told him I had to check on Junior. I got up, went outside, untied Junior, and brought him back in the house with me. I told him, “I was feeling around the table for the bottle and tripped over the chair. The gun fell on the floor, so I picked it up and put it on the table. I’d never felt a gun before, but I knew that’s what it was. I could just tell.”
“Did it go off?”
“Of course, not—I would have told you for sure. I just set it down here on the table, picked up the mickey, and came back to our house. Henry, what the hell are you doing with a gun anyway? It’s not a .22 for plinking rats like my Uncle Roy has, is it? I asked my dad and he said it’s hard to shoot a rat with a pistol—also it’s not safe, he said. So, what’s the pistol here for then?”
“Let’s just say it’s for protection,” he said. I could hear a scraping sound on the table as he talked. “I got it right here on the table, right now, in fact—right here in front of me. Don’t worry, Radar, the safety’s on so it’s not going to go off any time soon.”
“Protection against what, Henry,” I asked. “In here on this dirty old side road, what are you worried about? Nobody comes in here except the mailman.” I took off my dark glasses and stared right in the direction of his face so he would have to see my blank eyes. I thought that might wake him up a little. “That’s fucking crazy, Henry—fucking insane,” I said it really calm and quiet, like whispering in church. I knew he’d never heard me talk like this before. He didn’t say anything right away, but I could hear him setting the pistol down on the table and then that thin cracking sound of the screw-top coming open.
“Fucking, are we?” He tried to laugh but choked instead and took a gulp from the bottle. “What the hell do you know about fucking, Radar? You’re thirteen years old and blind as a bloody bat—what the hell could you possibly know about anything? You’re just a little twerp.”
I reached down and pinched Junior on the balls. He barked and howled, barked again and Henry shut right up. I let go of Junior and put my glasses back on. “I know plenty, and if you ever call me blind as a bat again, I’ll sic Junior after you, I will. Do you hear me, Henry? I’m not kidding.” I kept my voice quiet, so it would sound different from Junior’s barking.
“Sorry, kid,” he said, taking another swig. “I’m a little tense, right now. It’s nothing personal, eh? I’m just kind of worried about things.” A mouse was gnawing through a floorboard in Henry’s kitchen. “Hear that?” he asked, and we both stopped talking. We listened for a long time—both of us using it as an excuse to take a break from talking. Junior smelled the mouse and jumped on top of the spot where the mouse was gnawing. He barked at the floor and the noise stopped.
Hole in the Kitchen Floor
“Why do you have the gun?” I asked again. “Why do you think?” Henry said. I took a breath and said, “Henry, you can’t hunt deer with a pistol, and you’re sure not going to use that thing to shoot a mouse through your floor, are you?”
The sound was deafening I had never heard a gun go off inside a house before. Junior tried to get under my chair and, for a second, I wanted to be under there too. Instead, I said, “Holy shit, Henry. Did you just shoot a hole in your kitchen floor?”
I could hear Henry put the pistol back on the table. “Well, if the little bastard was down there, he’s sure not there now,” he said. He sounded sad like he’d lost the fight.
“Henry, are you crazy?” I was now yelling, so I swallowed and said in a quieter voice, “Have you been kissing that mickey all morning?” I thought if I asked him in a quiet voice, he might calm down enough to not shoot off the pistol again.
“The mickey,” he said, “yes, we’ve been getting to know each other here this morning.” His chair creaked but he didn’t get up. In a small voice, he said, “I’m in some deep shit, Radar—deep shit. She and her bloody lawyer have cooked up this plan to rip me off for all the money from the sub shop. They think they can go to some dipstick at the Ministry of Labour and convince him that I screwed people out of their pay. What a crock of shit. I paid fair and square . . .” his voice trailed off as he picked up the bottle again.
“Sounds like you need professional help. Have you talked to a lawyer?” I asked.
“What do you know about lawyers, anyway?” he said. “You’re thirteen—you wouldn’t know a lawyer from a left defence. Besides, we got no lawyers around here. OK, maybe a couple of old boys running deed mills down in Huntsville. But they’d be no match against her and Mr. Fancy Pants down in Barrie. I feel like I’m done, Radar. I’m going to lose everything. It’s the end of the line, the end of the rope, the end of . . .”
I interrupted him. “It’s not the end of anything, Henry. Just take that piece of rope and tie the ends together. Now you’ve got a loop, a circle—no end to it. It just goes around and around. It’s not the end of anything. Try looking at it that way, Henry.”
“You sound like a stoned-out little hippie girl to me, Radar. What’s all this talk about going around and coming around? Have you been into your dad’s wacky weed or something?” I heard the scraping sound of the pistol moving across the table—Henry had picked it up again.
“Henry, please put the gun down,” I said. I heard it go back onto the table with a little thud. I thought that the longer this went on, the more dangerous it could get. I knew that if I asked him to pass me the pistol, he’d refuse. And if I just reached out onto the table with my hand and tried to grab it, I’d probably miss, and he would reach for it in a panic and the stupid thing might go off again—and maybe not into the floor. Instead, I did the only thing that made any sense to me in that half-second I had to think.
A Special Secret
I held my hands out, palms up, and said, “Henry, put your hands on top of mine. I want to show you a game.”
“What? What the . . .”
“Just do it, Henry—it’s a blind kids’ game I learned at camp last summer. Just put your hands on top of mine and I’ll teach it to you right now. It’s a good game.”
I felt his large hands settle down on top of my palm. His hands were a lot bigger than mine, but I managed to work my fingers through his so that they were kind of locked together. I knew he was stronger than me and could get free any minute. I thought if I got him to believe me that it was just a dumb little game, then he wouldn’t let go and the pistol would stay put.
“OK, now close your eyes and I’ll pick a number between one and ten. You have to guess my number by squeezing your left hand the number of times you think it is. If you guess right, then I’ll squeeze back to your other hand.”
This was not a real game. I was just making all this up as I went along. I was trying to get him to hold on and not let go of my hands.
“OK, if you guess the right number in three tries, I have to tell you a secret.” I felt his right hand pull away and heard his chair scrape on the floor. Don’t mention the gun—I thought to myself—instead, I said, “What’s the matter, Henry? It’s a good game. Do you have to pee or something?” I thought that might make him laugh but it didn’t.
“No, I’m OK that way—just need a little lubrication if I’m going to play this complicated game of yours, Radar.”
I heard him open the mickey and take a long drink. “Want some?’ he said.
I shook my head. “OK, hands back on mine—here we go. I’ve picked my number. Now squeeze what you think it is with your left hand.” I felt him squeeze three times and thought I should keep him going, so he wouldn’t think I was just making this up.
I put on a big fake voice. “Sorry, sir. That’s not it. Try again!” I tried to sound like one of those guys on the midway at the fall fair. I felt him squeeze five times with his right hand and I squeezed back to his left. “Congratulations, Mister Henry Chason of Emsdale, Ontario! You’ve guessed correctly and you win the big jackpot!”
He laughed and said, “Radar, you should be on TV—you’re a natural. You could be on Let’s Make a Deal or something.” He laughed again.
I kept the big voice going. “And now, sir—since you got the correct answer, you get the big prize! Today’s grand prize is that I tell you a special secret. Are you ready?”
“A secret—really? And a special secret, too?” He put on a high, silly voice like he was making fun of me, and I just went along with it. “That’s right, sir—a special secret will now be yours!” At least he wasn’t reaching for the pistol again.
“Here it is. Did you ever hear of Einstein?”
“Sure,” Henry said. “He’s the guy who invented the atomic bomb, right?”
“Not actually, but he was just about the smartest guy who ever lived. I heard a show on CBC about him. They said he figured out how time works. He said a lot of stuff about time and space and how they go together with complicated math that I couldn’t get, but he did say one thing that made a lot of sense to me and that’s the secret—the special prize.” We let go of our hands and I pushed my chair back a little. “Einstein said that, since you don’t get to decide for yourself the time when you’re born, then you don’t get to decide when it’s time to die either.”
“I guess that sort of makes sense,” Henry said. The game was over now but I kept going.
“It makes a lot of sense, Henry. So, you’re not going to go and shoot yourself today or tomorrow or any other day.” I was scared, talking like this, but I knew the pistol was still sitting there in front of us. I reached out onto the table to where I thought the gun might be. I was lucky and my hand landed right on it. As soon as it did, I felt his hand come down on top of mine. I thought maybe this would happen and I said, “OK, so now we’re both holding on to the gun, right? I want you to take my hand and show me how to take the bullets out. It’s not your time, Henry. Let’s just get the bullets out right now, put them on the table, and see how many we’ve got.”
I heard a clicking sound. The bullets dropped, one by one, onto the table as he rotated the barrel of the gun. I carefully gathered them up in my hand and said, “Alright, that makes six.” I put them in my pocket and leaned forward. “Now I know you can go to Canadian Tire tomorrow and buy more bullets and then you could come home and shoot yourself, but you’re not going to shoot yourself today. OK? It’s like Einstein said, Henry, it’s not your time.” I heard my voice start to rise and I stopped.
“OK, I get it, Radar. You’re saying that Einstein said it’s all about time and today’s not my time—is that right? OK, I guess I can go along with that.”
“Do you have any peanut butter,” I asked.
“Right next to the toaster on the counter,” he said. I got up and found my way over to the counter and picked up the jar. There was a loaf of bread next to it and a butter knife. I made two peanut butter sandwiches. I walked back to the table and handed one to Henry.
“Let’s eat up,” I said. “All this Einstein talk has got me hungry.” Henry ate his sandwich and took another drink from the bottle of rye. “Want some?” he said.
“No thanks, Henry. I’ve heard that peanut butter and whisky together make your pee stink and then you think you’ve got the clap.”
Henry laughed, “Is that so? I never heard that one before.”
I didn’t really know what the clap was, but I’d heard my dad and his friends talking about it one night and I remembered they said it made it hard to pee.
“Well, that’s the truth, Henry—peanut butter and whisky—especially rye—it does that to you. You could even call it the claptrap!” Henry laughed again, took another swig, and choked a little. He coughed and wiped his face with his shirt sleeve. “Well, that’s the funniest thing I’ve ever heard—the claptrap, eh? Radar, aren’t you just the little comedian now? I’d have to say you’re a regular little Carol Burnett!”
On my way home, I stopped at the creek that ran along the edge of our place. I’d heard that if you look down at the water, sometimes it’s like a mirror and you can see yourself. I wished I could have done that but instead I listened to the plopping sound as I tossed the bullets one-by-one into the creek. I guessed that would have to do for now.
The song that this story is based on is available here https://soundcloud.com/david-essig/7-declaration-day.