For Floyd the winter road is both a blessing and a curse. In previous years, on a Saturday evening at five o’clock, the shelves in his supermarket would not require almost complete re-stocking. The frozen-meat counter would be half-full, not bare. His stocks of flour and sugar would be high instead of non-existent. From a sales point of view, this is all a blessing. From a work point of view, it is a curse. While Floyd thinks about sales and work in equal measure, since his livelihood depends upon both, he remains uncertain about the effects of the road upon his business.
Each Sunday morning he turns up early, and with whatever assistance is on hand, he restocks the shop, sweeps the aisles, and prepares for another day’s business. While many stores close on Sundays, Floyd’s supermarket like his competitor’s, remains open. This was the case even before the road. His staffing arrangements were already in place.
Floyd although married with two daughters, one seventeen and one fourteen years old, has various ‘dollies’ situated in different parts of the province. For instance, when Floyd says he is driving out to another Cree community about an hour and a half away on business, he only partially speaks the truth. For although he does meet with people to discuss items relevant to the grocery and hardware trade, he also meets with a young woman for intimate moments of mutual sexual gratification. Many years ago, when Floyd was much younger, he had a dolly who worked in the local hospital but came from the same community now linked by the winter road. On one occasion it was necessary for her to fly back to her community to escort a patient, an emergency case, to the hospital. She asked Floyd to accompany her on the flight. This was the only time in his life Floyd has ever been to her community, and naturally his memories of it now have little to do with business.
Floyd had not thought about this particular dolly for quite some time, but with the advent of the winter road, this new intimate connection between the communities, Floyd cannot help but think about her often. He has no idea where she is now, no idea which hospital or nursing station she might be working in if indeed she is still working. In fact if you pursue this line of inquiry all the way to its logical end, Floyd has no real idea if she is even alive or not, and oddly enough Floyd has, albeit briefly, imagined her passing away. He has seen in his mind’s eye an image of her cold dead body, and in this morbid image she has not aged since the last time they saw each other. Floyd’s dolly in the other community, however, is anything but cold. She is plump, soft, and warm, and is in possession of a coarse passion. Floyd, if he is to imagine her, would prefer to see her on all fours with her broad rump facing towards him, or her wide thighs quivering beneath him to the bucking of her hips. He would prefer to remember the wet tip of her tongue embedded in his ear, the foulness of her mouth, her engorged words.
Like most supermarket businesses, many of the employees in Floyd’s store are female. Some are young and attractive, but the worst thing Floyd could conceive of would be to find a dolly here. Almost certainly then all of Floyd’s arrangements would unravel, and these arrangements include his life with his family. Floyd is quite content to indulge in the occasional foray into other more remote locations, but home territory is sacred territory. Even the wildest of beasts know this.
* * *
To obtain a license for winter road construction there are certain terms and conditions to be considered in accordance with the Provincial Environment Act. These requirements are there to ensure that the environment is maintained in such a manner as to sustain a high quality of life. This latter rather broad term includes social and economic development, recreation and leisure.
Not having been down the road, of course, Floyd is not aware if the Licensee’s terms and conditions have been met. Even if he had been on the road, he would not have known since he knew nor cared little about these terms and conditions. The caravan of vehicles which drive up and down that road do not know or care either.
One person who does know what terms and conditions have and have not been met however is Irwin, the superintendent on the project. He was hired by the Contractor to represent him. In this capacity Irwin was responsible for receiving written and verbal instructions from various representatives of the Department of Highways and the Department of the Environment. In addition he was to keep records, sign reports etc. In short, manage the project, performing all the duties of the Contractor. Irwin had little difficulty with this. Not that he found the work easy. He found it stressful and over-demanding, but he had little difficulty in performing the duties of another. In fact Irwin would say he had spent all of his life performing the duties of others. This may or may not have been the case. It may have been more perception than fact, but nevertheless it is what Irwin believes. To make matters worse for Irwin, he learned early on that his position was considered an incidental one. His salary could not be included in the bid to the Department. Financially this does not affect Irwin in any great way. It is more the description that concerns him. It confirms what Irwin had already deduced about himself. That in matters of importance he is of no real consequence.
This was Irwin’s first position as Superintendent on a winter road construction. It was also his first time up North. For these reasons he did not expect to get the position and was greatly surprised when he did. But in truth it should have come as no great surprise at all as Irwin was a more than capable project manager, adaptable too. He came to this position with high recommendations. And Irwin adapted to his new position and to life up North with surprising ease. He was booked in to the small hotel adjoining the bar. It also had a restaurant attached to it selling predominantly fried chicken and pizzas. Lodgings, food, and drink within easy reach. Some people could not ask for more. Irwin however would have wished for the company of Rae, his long-term partner in crime as he frequently called her. Rae had a full-time job in the City however, at a residential home, and could not see any way of making the move with him. Irwin understood this. It was not the first time they had been separated throughout their time together, and most probably it would not be the last.
“This sort of thing,” Rae said meaning the separation, “is good for us, no doubt.”
Irwin smiled in response. “The heart growing fonder and all that, I suppose.”
“Of course,” Rae said. “What else?”
Many nights lying awake in his small sparse hotel room Irwin contemplated this. It had to be true, he surmised for want of a better explanation. Irwin missed Rae, that much was true. He missed her company and the warm comfort of her body. A few times in the bar he had been approached by some of the local women. One had even wandered over with a bottle of beer in each of her hands and sat down beside him.
“Do you mind?” she slurred already too late for an affirmative response to have any purpose. She asked Irwin many personal questions and told him how hungry she was. She needed to buy chicken soon at the takeaway service hatch next door. Irwin drank from his bottle and answered as politely as he could. This lady he knew was offering herself to him asking of himself in return. Irwin did not want this exchange. He wanted to excuse himself and leave. But such a response was likely to cause an incident. A drunken row perhaps. Violence. And Irwin did not wish for any of this. Instead he waited until the woman left to use the restroom. Unfortunately she asked him to mind her drinks while she did. Irwin nodded that he would, and thus when she was gone from his table although he knew he needed to take this moment to depart he found it hard to do so, hard to break his end of the agreement. In a positively foolish way Irwin even imagined it could be considered as a betrayal. One akin to the breaking of Treaties. For a while he sat there, a growing sense of guilt over his future actions. Then he just got up and left certain that everyone in the bar was watching him, him a member of the dominant culture.
Floyd, a Métis, cares little for authority. Deep down he knows he operates better under instruction and guidance, but it makes him feel uncomfortable, nervy, angry even. He feels like an animal whose habitat is being threatened. His current situation is as good as it can get. Floyd knows this, and therefore does little which could jepordise it. A dolly in his store would certainly destabilize conditions.
To complicate matters even more, Floyd’s eldest daughter, Connie, works in the store too. This working relationship is another prone to difficulty, she being the daughter of her co-workers’ immediate boss. Yet surprisingly, this arrangement has proven successful. His daughter has to work twice as hard to compensate for her familial ties, but she is content with this. She considers it a small price to pay. She has worked for other people in the past and like Floyd has never been content with it. For now she wants nothing more, no more than this job she is comfortable with and her week’s wage at the end of it. In fact, currently she is as happy with her situation as she ever has been. Happier even, for since the opening of the road she has noticed many young men she has never seen before, and working where she does she has ample opportunity and reason to converse with them. While she has nothing against the young men of her own community, they are in a sense old-hat to her now. She has grown up with them and already has established intimacies of one kind or another, but the young men from outside are different. Occasionally in the past, some have made their way here by skidoo but nothing like the numbers they are now arriving in. Yesterday alone, she counted as many as fifteen. And they have noticed her too. She should not be surprised to hear that when they return home they make mention of her to other young men who may even make the trip in the future not solely to purchase goods in bulk but to eye her up also.
Floyd, having been a young man once, is partially aware of all of this, but as things stand he pays scant attention to it. With the increasing numbers of customers and the bulk buying necessary to justify the journey economically, he has never been busier. Still and all, on Friday evening he finds time to pay his usual visit to the bar where he fends off drunks seeking cigarettes or drink, and makes small-talk to his companions.
On one of those evenings, Floyd tells his two bar companions about his latest idea. Due to the grade of the winter road, vehicles do not have to be registered to travel on it, and thus most are not. As a consequence, they cannot travel on the gravel roads through town. They must park at the end of the winter road and make their own way into town. Up until now taxis have been acting as a feeder service between the supermarkets and the vehicles. They have also been used to bring people to and from the bar. Floyd’s idea therefore is to supply vehicles to ferry customers to and from his store. A plan to get ahead of the competition. Floyd is quite rightly pleased with his idea. Living up in a remote and isolated community as he does, survival often requires creative thinking and approaches, and Floyd’s idea is one which does this requirement proud.
To date the winter road has been a success. Irrespective of managerial initiatives, both supermarkets are doing a roaring business, local accommodation too, and, as might be expected, so too is the bar. The native community, at the other end of the winter road, being dry, makes the latter establishment an attractive proposition. All around Floyd the bar is buzzing. For a change there are many faces he does not recognise, but Floyd knows where they have come from. Some no doubt have spent much of their money in his supermarket already. The rest if they do not exhaust their finds here, are potential customers.
Connie has only been in the bar twice. It is not a place for young ladies, Floyd tells her, although in truth it would not bother him if she were to arrive in the door right now, If that were to happen, he would be as likely to buy her a drink as to send her on her way. Connie herself prefers to do her drinking elsewhere, house parties, trucks, the quarry in summertime. Usually she drinks until she is drunk. Sometimes she may fool around with one of whatever young men are present, but often she just talks and laughs, enjoys the looseness of her behaviour. On a few occasions her younger sister, Lorna, has joined her, but Connie feels too many obligations then to truly enjoy the night. She could think of nothing worse than both of them getting inebriated together unable to recall for certain later what had taken place or who had done what to whom. In a year or two’s time the balance would change, but for now Lorna is still only fourteen and Connie feels her responsibilities. She has had three scares of her own with late periods. She does not need additional burdens.
In his room, that night after Irwin walked out on the drunk native woman, his conscience was greatly troubled. Not solely his failure to mind the woman’s drinks as agreed but her presence, the allure proffered in the absence of Rae. His standards whatever they might have been had been sorely tested.
Like Irwin, winter road construction has its standards too. The road must be able to withstand constant hauling by normal highway type vehicles of up to 36,500 kg gross loads. The surface must allow for loaded trucks to travel safely at an average speed of not less than 35 km/h although the engineer may accept a lower standard where severe ground conditions prohibit this speed. This permissible lowering of standards is of great interest to Irwin. He wonders if the conditions are severe enough if it would be permissible for him to take up with another in the absence of’ Rae. What exactly would it take, anger, selfishness, betrayal?
If Rae were to phone him for instance, filled with remorse and confess to him that she had slept with another man, or if she argued with him over something beyond his control like this their period of enforced separation, or if she were to lay the blame for this separation solely on him, would this be enough? Would he then bang the receiver back down on the hook, brusquely grab his jacket, stomp to the bar, drink his fill, and accept any offer of flesh?
The truth is Irwin does not know. It has not come to this yet, but he does not know what the future holds. He does not know his weaknesses or capabilities.
Floyd making his way on business out of town on business would have had to cross the ice bridge on the West Channel of the river, but Floyd would not have thought much about this. He would not have considered its bearing capacity, the chances of his breaking through. Out of experience he would have trusted in this surface implicitly. Besides his mind would have been on other things. His business meeting or, more likely, his dolly there. He may have noticed the ferry frozen into the ice next to the bridge which after breakup would be prised free and used to bring the vehicles across to the other side. But then again with the ice and the drifts of snow heaped against its sides, he may not even have seen it. Once early on, after the gravel road out of town was constructed and the ice bridge necessitated, Floyd had driven out at breakup to watch the explosives being laid in the ice along the ferry pathway. Most of the day he remained there watching the men laying down the explosives into three different sections before blowing them one at a time. He listened to the surprisingly quiet blast and watched the chunks of ice erupt into the air, the clouds of snow and ice particles opening outwards like an umbrella. Then when all had settled he looked at the seemingly undisturbed sheets of ice, the barely observable fractures. But now Floyd, like everyone else around, takes the bridge and the ferry for granted as though they had always been an intimate part of their lives, just as they take the gravel roads for granted. Just as someone might take a wife or a daughter or, for that matter, a dolly for granted too. But strangely enough Floyd, despite everything, takes none of these for granted at all. He is well aware that at any moment the whole intimate structure of his life could erupt, explode in a way you might hardly notice afterwards.
Floyd remembers the engines of the ferry grating and roaring as they came back to life, the prow clearing through the debris with remarkable ease.
* * *
In late November when the ground is solid enough to permit the use of lightweight low ground pressure equipment, the initial compaction for frost penetration commences. At first the workers drive over the ground in power toboggans to accelerate the frost penetration. Some even walk over it in snowshoes. Then the lightweight equipment is brought in to induce freezing. As soon as the frost penetrates sufficiently to allow the use of heavier equipment and motor graders, the road begins to be shaped. A narrow lane to facilitate the movement of equipment to locations within the project limits is compacted. Snow, debris, and surface vegetation are bladed to the tree lines. Preliminary leveling begins, and all overhanging tree limbs are removed.
Flooding then commences on the rivers and streams. Holes are drilled in the ice and the water below pumped across the frozen surface. In this way the layers of ice are built up until the thickness is sufficient to support the maximum load. On the lakes, once it is confirmed that the ice is at least 300 mm thick the lightweight low ground pressure equipment can be used. An initial pass, 15 m wide, down the centre is made to induce frost penetration. Then as soon as the ice is capable of supporting the snow clearing equipment the snow is cleared to the required width.
Irwin engaged in all of this work as completely as he could. He was determined to do a good job, determined to keep Rae off his mind. He enjoyed the novelty of the experience - watching the ice bridge build up, the acceleration of the freezing process by pressure, a road emerging through the boreal forest. At night Irwin still thinks about this, and he thinks about the roads he and Rae have made through the desolate terrain of their relationship.
During the day he looked hard at the map, at the splodge of rivers and lakes amidst the thick forest which divided the two communities he was to join. Two small pockets of Reserve land amidst this vast boreal region. He charted the road weaving its way through this inhospitable terrain. How did anyone end up here be wondered, and why did anyone stay? When his time was up he would be glad to leave. But Irwin knew this had as much to do with Rae as anything else. He enjoyed working on the road. He enjoyed the wildness, the feeling of intense isolation which hit him often when he stood facing a new section of forest which had still to be cleared, a portion of the Earth as yet unspoiled. Despite the heavy clamor of the machinery around him cutting and scraping, the grating of motors, the clanking of engines starting up, the roar of raised voices, Irwin felt then, facing the unknown, a possibility of salvation. It was easy to close his ears to the noise and his eyes to everything else but water and vegetation as though he was seeking out stasis in a world of flux.
Connie knows about her father’s dollies. It would be impossible not to in a place this small. Her mother knows too. It is one of the constants in their relationship. Floyd himself is not sure how much they know. He knows they know something, they would have to, but he does not know the extent of their knowledge. He would be surprised in fact to learn how much Connie, in particular, does know. Her mother he would expect it off, but his child? He had always thought it possible for adults to keep things secret from children. There must, he reasons, be a wealth of things he did not know about his parents. He would like to ask them, but they have passed on. He dreads the day when his children will feel the need to ask these things of him. He only hopes he will have passed on before then too.
So when Floyd says he is going out on business he knows his wife is suspicious, but he believes his children suspect nothing. Floyd is wrong on both accounts. Floyd’s wife has no doubts whatsoever as to the nature of his business. It is his children who are suspicious. Connie on the latest occasion even turns to her mother after he has gone and asks her, “Why do you put up with this?”
Connie’s mother turns from the table she has been preparing vegetables at. She holds a sharp peeling knife in her right hand in such a way that it does not resemble a weapon in the least, in a way that renders it harmless, in the same way her response renders her daughter’s question harmless. “Business,” she says and nothing more.
After the road was completed Irwin was asked to stay on as Superintendent for its maintenance. It was an awkward offer but one Irwin was anticipating. Yet he was unable to respond to it. He had said all along he would be glad to leave when the road construction was complete, but this was not wholly true. Plus there was the matter of Rae. He could not imagine how she would react if he decided to remain. It was just for a few more months, the Contractor argued. Hardly a lifetime. And in one way of looking at it, this was true.
But for Irwin it was not that simple. Irwin thought of the vehicles, filled with people from the cut-off community, he had regularly seen during construction traveling out to test how much of the road had been completed, then turning around and driving home. This was how he felt, a remote inhabitant testing new ways of departure. He wondered what those drivers thought about, what they told their friends and families when they returned. He thought ahead to when the road was finished, how people would travel out to purchase winter provisions, how they would get drunk in the bar, drive back inebriated, skid off the road even. He thought of the Elders, of young men and women, taking a path they had never taken before, seeing a part of their landscape they had not previously seen, their eyes not on the waterways, not on the trees, but the way ahead.
Irwin simply did not know what to do.
The contractor is obliged to maintain the roads to the same standards of width, surface smoothness, and truck weight capacity as required by the Specifications for Construction of a Winter Truck Road. The road must be kept free of loose snow, holes and ruts. The minimum maintenance coverage the Contractor is permitted to provide on overland roads is one pass in each direction every ninety-six hours, including turnaround areas. Additional passes are required during adverse ground and weather conditions.
Upholding these standards requires snow plowing to remove excessive snow from the surface of the road, widening to maintain the constructed width, dragging or patching to maintain the riding quality of the surface, and repairing ice bridges and ice roads. If necessary, when requested by the Engineer, roads over rivers, streams and lakes may need flooding to increase the ice thickness. In addition, in order to prevent snowdrifts from forming on the roadway, snow may need to be windrowed on lakes at a distance of approximately 60 m from the centreline of the roadway.
These were the Contractor’s concerns and as a consequence the Superintendent’s too. This is what Irwin needed to talk to Rae about. He was needed there to uphold the necessary standards, standards designed to maintain the road, protect the population. Irwin could not simply walk away.
* * *
One night when Connie is
returning from a house party, one of her friends drunkenly suggests turning left
onto the winter road instead of driving straight past. Everyone laughs. Besides
the person who has spoken and Connie, there are two other girls in the truck.
One of them is the driver. The truck belongs to her brother, and she has taken
it without asking him, but drunk or sober she does not care. The other girl is
Lorna, Connie’s younger sister. This is one of the occasions when Connie has
ended up having to take care of her. Her mother thinks they are just visiting
friends. At least she hopes this is what they are doing. At first because of
this, Connie did not want to go to the party, but finally she gave in. Now she
is drunk and happy and does not mind. Her sister is drunk also. It feels to her
as if her head is trying to leave her shoulders behind. She talks, but she does
not hear whatever it is she is saying. Everyone else is saying what a great
idea this would be, to go to the other community. They make ribald remarks
about the young men there, and before they know what is happening the girl
driving the truck is turning off the main road, and they are headed out onto
the winter road.
Still they are laughing. What they are doing does not, and will not for some time yet, sink in. At the moment they are having a howl and they do not want it to end.
Their concerns right now about the road are vastly different from Irwin’s. They do not care about the conditions, whether its surface has been maintained or not. The safety of the ice-crossings are the furthest things from their minds. This road is bound up in the smell of alcohol and the frivolity of sexual encounter. They are entering into a part of the country they have never been before. A part which has been more or less up until now, despite its proximity, cut off from their existence. If they make it safely, they will be there in four hours time. There, the end point of their journey. But of course it is not an ending at all. Whenever they reach there something more will have to occur, and undoubtedly they will have to make the return journey home. All the same their reaching of this specific location will be a benchmark in their lives. For those concerned, it will represent more than they can ever articulate.
Although Irwin is asleep a part of his unconscious mind still thinks about the road, converses with the Contractor, the Engineer. The Contractor’s set of standards is often at odds with the Engineers. Irwin frequently has to mediate between them and set new standards acceptable to all. The method of measurement of maintenance is in kilometer-days. It is expected that one kilometer of road will be maintained in one day. A kilometer being measured to the nearest tenth of a kilometer since rarely is anything as accurate as the science which determines it.
In reality the measure of maintenance is in unit price per day. Failure to keep the road, or a portion of the road, or equipment maintained to the required standards can result within twenty-four hours in the suspension of maintenance payments. If the Engineer is required to bring in additional equipment to perform the necessary maintenance, the cost of mobilizing the equipment to and from the project and performing the work is deducted from the Contractor’s progress payments. This is what the Contractor is most concerned about. This is the language the Engineer is forced to speak in. This is what will determine ultimately the success or failure of Irwin’s position. So while he sleeps a part of his unconscious minds turns over and reassembles all of this. In the same way, his mind turns over and reassembles his relationship with Rae seeking out their ultimate success or failure too.
Floyd sits in the bar still speaking of business opportunities the winter road has opened up. He does not know where Connie or Lorna are. It is not something he normally has to concern himself with. When he was Connie’s age he had already left home. What would he do now if he did know where Connie and Lorna were? Would he wait anxiously for them to return or would he set out after them? Would he laugh since it is exactly the same sort of thing be might have done himself when he was younger? Even Floyd would not be able answer these questions. There would be only one way to find out. Someone would have to walk into the bar right now and tell him that they had seen his daughters set off down the winter road in a truck driven by someone else in a not too sober state of mind. But the person who walks into the bar right now does not know of any of this. The person who walks in has other things on his mind.
Floyd looks up when Irwin enters. Like all faces white, Irwin’s stands out from the crowd. He stops by the counter to buy a bottle of Molsen then he finds an empty table and sits down. Floyd loses interest in him and resumes his conversation. Just as Irwin has no way of knowing about Floyd’s daughters or the situation they are in, Floyd has no way of knowing about Rae or the current situation between her and Irwin. And it is precisely this current situation which has brought Irwin out to the bar this evening, the first time he has been back since that night the woman joined him at his table. Irwin is not looking for a repeat of this scenario, he just feels strongly in need of a beer.
Rae was angry when she called, furious. She was fed up she said of always being the one to have to make contact. If she did not bother, she said, she might never hear from him again.
Irwin denied this, said that he honestly was just about to call her. This was true. But all the same Irwin knew Rae had a point. He did not call her as often as he ought to. This did not mean he loved her any the less. He was just distracted by his job. It was late enough in the evenings by the time he got home. He was tired. He had taken to watching hockey games over at the Multiplex for relaxation. Frequently he just went to bed early and lay there thinking. Rae was on his mind throughout, but he knew she needed confirmation of this. It was always easier to be the one away from home. It was harder on the one who had to remain. For them nothing was new other than the loneliness.
He should have said all of this to Rae when she rang. But he did not, he got angry, told her she was over-reacting. Things got to a head and Rae hung up. Anything could happen from here. A relationship could break-up unnecessarily depending on how each party conducted themselves. Irwin was only too aware of this. He did not want Rae and himself to break-up. His maintenance contract would soon be at an end. He would soon be heading south. Already the nights were not so cold. The road would begin to thaw out. All the same Irwin drank quickly from his bottle, and Goddamn her he thought.
The vehicle Connie and her sister are in bounces over the ruts in the road Irwin is maintaining. The vehicle is probably going far too fast so when it skids off a patch of road which has a less than adequate surface it makes it difficult to ever apportion blame. For sure the driver was drunk. The rest can only be assumed. There are no fatalities in this particular instance. But both Connie and her sister suffer serious injuries. The driver too. The other girl miraculously escapes with barely a scratch. Connie loses the sight of her left eye. Lorna will walk forever afterwards with a noticeable limp. The driver is confined to a wheelchair for over six months. The vehicle which careened into the trunk of a pine tree is not quite a write-off but almost. For the community, it is another one of their small daily tragedies.
But right now in the bar everyone is unaware of this. The building is raucous with the sound of laughter, anger, loud talk, VLTs, pool balls, country music, glass bottles banging heavily on Formica tabletops. The beer has eased some of Irwin’s anger, but strangely in this calmer moment he is not thinking of reconciliation but of the opposite. He is foolishly wondering if he should not remain up north indefinitely. At this time he is proud of his road. He has no idea of the guilt that lies ahead.
Floyd although he is speaking to his friends, his mind is elsewhere too. Oddly, it is back in the community his daughters were headed to. Way back, when he still had his young dolly from there. He thinks of them approaching the airstrip the time he accompanied her on her emergency evacuation. He can see himself now looking out the window of the aircraft catching his first glimpse of this community which has suddenly appeared from amidst the boreal forest like a lost civilization. He looks down at the houses scattered along the shores of the lakes. A people who are his neighbours. He squeezes the knee of his dolly, and she smiles the smile of someone arriving home.