Heading West©
Toronto Star Short Story Submission/ 03

by Austin Repath 

He had left everything behind, and now here he was about to go West.  Always in his youth, he had wanted to go out West.  Supposedly that was where it was all happening.  And now once again, heading West was the appropriate direction.
 Yet he remained there sucking on a cup of coffee in Tim Horton’s on a Sunday morning.  He looked around.  The place was packed.  Here was where the nonbelievers worshiped on Sunday.  Well, it was as good as any church he could remember.
         He sat there trying to imagine what it would be like.  Drive until dark.  Motel, late night television, maybe a porno flick.  Hope for a chance encounter that would bring some excitement into the trip or simply a drinking partner to chat away an evening.  Slim chance, he reminded himself, as most people were as wary as he was of strangers.
        Suddenly he was aware that people waiting at the door for a table were giving him that look – the one that said, you’ve overstayed.  “Yep, time to move on and make way for others,” he muttered to himself.”  But he was reluctant to go.
        Looking about, he saw another old man like himself hunched over his coffee.  Only instead of being bald like himself, he had a full head of silver-gray hair.
       Needing to find an approach that wouldn’t scare the other man off, Frank decided he’d walk by and spill what was left in his coffee cup over full-head-of-hair.
       After the apology and the attempt to help, Frank shook the other man’s hand. “Sorry, I couldn’t think of another way to get your attention.  I’m heading West.  Want to come?”
       “Crazy old fart.”  Full Head got up and headed for the door.  Frank went over to the counter and ordered a take-out.  He had to admit spilling the coffee was a dumb idea.  Then he felt someone shoulder up beside him.
       “No queer stuff.  No religious crap.  Split gas and food.  I’ll need to stop by the house and get some toiletries.”  Full Head laid down his terms, then added, “I always wanted to pee in the Pacific.”
        By evening they were in North Bay.  They had exchanged just enough of their backgrounds to be comfortable.  Both had lived a conventional work life, been married.  Happily, they agreed.  Both had lived long enough to know that dreams seldom came true, and that life too often didn’t live up to expectations.  It was what lay ahead that concerned them now.
       That night they walked the downtown streets, tipping their caps to corner prosties, chatting up a few street people before dropping a loonie into their Styrofoam cups.  They came upon two taggers spray painting their signature graffiti on freshly cleaned brick.  Without a word between them, the old men jumped the fifteen-year-olds, grabbed their spray paint, slapped them about the head, berated them like a pair of very angry fathers, until the kids surprised and wondering what had befallen them, picked themselves up and headed down the street.  The old guys celebrated with a beer at the renovated Empire Hotel.
       The next morning they picked up a ragged teenage girl who looked like she’d gladly put out for a ride and breakfast.  She got both at the cost to her of as much of her life story as she was willing to admit to.
       Kirkland Lake was agreed on as the next stopover, for the simple reason that Frank had lost his virginity to the station master’s daughter there.  A few queries about the family turned up nothing.  Frank said it wasn’t important.  Anyway he was beginning to think that maybe it had been in Earlton, a mere whistlestop, that he had lost his virginity, not that it mattered anymore.
       After a quick trip to the liquor store, they set up the bar on the bed table.  “We could talk,” suggested his sidekick.
       “Suppose we could.  Only it would ruin the trip.  We’d find we disagree, have opposing religious beliefs, belong to different political parties.  However, if you want to risk it...”
       “No, you’re right.  We could tell our life stories.”
       “You don’t sound very interested.”
       “Know it too well.  Anyway it’s boring." Frank admitted.  "How about what we want down the road?”
       “The asphalt one or that other road?”
       “This world I know forward and back.  I want an other-worldly adventure.”
        “You mean like a UFO experience, a crop circle, an apparition of the Virgin Mary?”
        “I’d settle for any of those, but I’d be happier with a life-changing event."
        “You mean a near-death experience, or a conversion of some sort?”
        “Yeah, that would do.  Only you can’t manufacture one of those.”
        “I could choke you to within an inch of your life.”
        “No, a near-death experience needs to be accidental or part of a big catastrophe like an airplane crash or heart surgery.  Besides, with my weak heart it might end up being the real thing.”
       That night Frank dreamt of a dark horse galloping up the road towards them.  He woke up wondering what happened after death.  Decided not to speculate.  At that moment, finding a good place for breakfast was more important.
       They passed the Wawa Goose without comment, and Frank remembered how once long ago in his youth, he had hitchhiked to Wawa.  He had told everyone that he was going out West, that he was going to spend a year tree planting in the Rockies.  His secret plan, that he had never told anyone, was to hire on as crew on a yacht, sailing to the South Seas.
        He had sat under the Goose for most of the day.  Then, lonely and unhappy, he had hopped on a bus home.  Within a year he had finished teacher’s college and married.  He’d never regretted his decision.  But occasionally he wondered how his life would have turned out if he had kept on going, lived out his South Seas adventure.
        The next day they let the ubiquitous country & western radio stations, fading in and out like anguished souls from some other world, set the tone for the drive.  Boredom and annoyance hounded them like a pair of deer flies.  That night, they both overate, then walked off in opposite directions along the highway that streamed out endlessly from the motel.  It had not been a good day!
        Frank looked up into the heavens.  Too many stars – that much universe made him nervous.  He much preferred the walled-in cubbyhole of his room back in Toronto, and the artificial numinousness of a city sky.  Hands deep in his jacket pockets, he walked off into nowhere.
        The blinding lights of a car, the blaring horn made him aware that he had drifted into the center of the highway.  “Damn fool,” he shouted.  He told himself to be more careful.  That wouldn’t have been a near-death experience, it would have been the real thing.  He heard an animal moving in the underbrush.  Time to go back.
       Full Hair was watching the late night National.  “Never anything but darn fool politicians on the news.  Where you been?”
       “Walking the dog.”
       Breakfast, free with the room and worth no more, was tempered by the reading of the newspaper, an empty morning ritual that Frank had practised since time immemorial.  This was the stuff he had hoped to escape.
       The day that followed, twelve hours of endless prairie, was as boring as the last twenty years of his life.  He drifted off, fretting about what he had left behind.  Nothing to write a book about, that’s for sure.  Frank felt like an animal trying to escape from a cage.  Just one lucky break, one moment when the gate was left open, and he’d be off.  Like that animal he’d heard the night before, he’d disappear into the darkness, keep going, find a little valley with a stream running through it.  Hunt.  Sleep late into the day.  Howl at the moon.  He looked out the window as the flat land spun by.
       “Ever think you can change the way things are?” Full Head asked.
       “I’d like to think we could.  I read once where we could fly to Mars, change the atmosphere.  Bring it back to life with rivers, lakes and trees.”
       “Think we could do something like that for ourselves?”
       “You’d probably need to get off the planet.  Or reincarnate, if you believe in that sort of thing.”
       The setting sun was starting to come in under the sunvisor almost blinding them and making it impossible to see the road ahead.  Full Head pulled into a roadside rest area.  They sat on a picnic table as the sun sank below the horizon, and watched as a family of prairie dogs came out of their hole.
       “Know something?  Those prairie dogs live in a network of tunnels that travel for miles.  There could be over a million prairie dogs living right in front of us.  I’m not kidding,” Full Head said. “They live in communities larger than most Canadian cities, look out for each other, greet each other with affection.  I imagine that they are a lot happier than we are.  I could come back as one of them.”
       “Too boring for me.  I want to come back as a wolf.”
       That night they left the television off and went to bed early.  The next morning they could see the rising shape of the mountains offering  relief from the no-place-to-hide prairie land.  Frank remembered how he had always promised himself he would climb a mountain.  But he had kept putting it off.  Now he was too old.
       But by midday in the heart of the mountains, he found he was content to simply be surrounded by them.  They stopped the car and got out.  Leaning back on the hood, they stared up at the peaks cutting, like a jagged saw blade, into the blue of the sky.  For a moment Frank was tempted to suggest they cross the river and climb as far as they could.
       He imagined them climbing skyward, looking back at the road as it shrunk to a pencil thin line, their car looking like a dinky toy.  Up they would climb, ever higher, until they got beyond the trees; then hand over hand struggle up the rocky ledges, push up to where the snow never melted, reaching the highest point possible before the day ended.  There they would sit and watch the shadows sweep across the valley below until the cold night took them in its embrace, and they found themselves among the stars.
       Full Head brought him back with an elbow in his ribs.  “Let’s get back in the car.  We ain’t there yet.”
       They stopped to watch a huge brown bear amble across the highway, stopping traffic from both directions.  “Should have brought a camera.” Frank muttered.
       “Why? Everyone in the whole world has seen this picture.  Bear stops traffic in Rockies.  Big deal!”
       “Doesn’t it do anything to you?  Make you think about, I don’t know, beauty, nature, coincidence.  Something?”
       “I need to pee and this isn’t helping.”
       “All you do, it seems to me, is urinate.”
       “Hey, I’m an old man, and you don’t hold yours much better.” Frank felt he knew what living in a senior’s home would be like.
       Full Head stopped to relieve himself at the Great Divide.  “Want to see if I can beat my pee to the Pacific.”  Then they sped off along the Trans Canada though Revelstoke to Kamloops and down the Fraser River through Hell’s Gate, where they drove by a young hitchhiker.  Frank, partly wanting to slow down Full Head’s race to the sea, and partly because he was reminded of his long vigil under the wings of the Wawa Goose, suggested they go back and pick up the kid.  And so there were three by the time they reached Hope.
       The kid had all sort of great ideas of what he was going to do.  Couldn’t stop talking about what he was planning.  Get some money, head up to the Territory. Work in oil exploration.  He had made a bit of money working the oil sands in Alberta, but it wasn’t enough.  He needed more to stake a claim.  He had heard there were diamonds north of Yellowknife.
       Frank found himself fidgeting with his seat belt. He wanted the kid to shut up.  It was so obvious he was heading for disappointment.
       They made up a story about staying over and dropped him off on the far side of Hope.  But not before Frank had offered to buy the three of them lunch.  When they parted, he even shook hands with the kid. 
       “Funny how the world looks different when you’re young,” Full Head muttered. 
       “Yeah, I guess” Frank agreed, feeling a little better about himself.
        They had no plan except to head for the glow of Vancouver lights that reflected off the cloud banks.  The traffic slowed them down, but they weren’t in a hurry anymore.  They passed a Tim Horton’s drive-through, but didn’t stop.  Frank turned on the windshield wipers when it started to rain – a soft West Coast mist, that hazed the highway through Burnaby where the pink overhead lighting gave an other-wordily feel to this last stretch of highway.
        Following the road signs to Stanley Park, they parked in the large parking area and guided by the sound of the waves headed down the trail.  Standing on the rocks, they breathed in the softness of the ocean, then climbed down to the water’s edge, and gingerly stepped into the sea.  It was one of those warm nights with clouds blanketing the sky.
       They stood shoulder to shoulder, listening to the splashing of their pee as it mixed with the saltiness of the great western sea.
       The relief of journey’s end and the peacefulness of the night gentled them into silence.  The water came up over their boots.  It was of no matter.
       “Well, was the trip worth it?” Full Head asked.
       The clouds cleared suddenly to reveal a rising moon, that shimmered across the wave tops.  Frank felt like he had walked into a seascape painted on black velvet, like the ones his folks had hanging in their living room.  He found himself remembering them, in a way he never had before, as sweet old souls.  He even forgave them... their poor taste in art.
        He cleared his throat, “I gave the kid a cheque.”
       “For how much?” Full Head in the darkness sounded more like a voice in his head than anything else.
        Frank stood there, letting the western sea draw him into her warm embrace.  He was glad he had taken the trip.
       “Enough to stake a claim.”

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