Will Ferauson's Canada

TALE OF TWO CITIES

Saskatoon and Dauphin nurture a self-discovery trip

June 16 2003
Will Ferauson's Canada

TALE OF TWO CITIES

Saskatoon and Dauphin nurture a self-discovery trip

June 16 2003

TALE OF TWO CITIES

Saskatoon and Dauphin nurture a self-discovery trip

Will Ferauson's Canada

WHEN I WAS SIXTEEN, I dropped out of school and set off to see the world. I got as far as Saskatoon. Now, I’m not knocking Saskatoon; it’s a fine city. But when you’ve been raised in Alberta, well, Saskatchewan just isn’t that exotic. To make matters worse, I had—with impeccable timing—arrived just in time for winter. No matter. Saskatoon was meant to be a temporary weigh station on the road to Somewhere Else. It would act as a catapult, one that would slingshot me far away, into strange new orbits.

Why Saskatoon? I had a sister living there, and one of the benefits of being a younger sibling in a large family is that your birthright includes an entire network of couches to crash upon and refrigerators to mooch from. Margaret, my Saskatoon-based sibling, was working as a security guard at the university. She was going through a divorce at the time, and I’m not sure how much she appreciated having her brother Billy show up at her front door, but no matter. I wouldn’t be staying long. Just a few days.

Margaret was a sculptor of remarkable talent and she often worked with castaway marble, creating fluid figures and faces that seemed to be emerging from the stone itself. And although everything else about my sojourn in Saskatoon has taken on an aura of unreality since that awful winter of ’81, I still remember, quite vividly, a sculpture Margaret made of a weeping woman that she named the White Lady. The marble for it was taken from a discounted headstone, marked down because there was a flaw running through it, an imperfect ripple in the stone. My sister turned that flaw into a defining trait, carving around it, shaping and polishing it until the ripple became a woman’s tear woven into the very stone.

When I arrived, the only condition Margaret attached was that I write something— anything—every day, whether a journal entry or a short story or even a snippet of poetry. So I would sit at the kitchen table late at night as the White Lady—eyes shut, tear

frozen—looked down. And I would write.

The days turned to weeks, the weeks turned to months. My sojourn turned into a siege. The winter winds rattled the city, sweeping through it like an army of Cossacks. My money bled away. Instead of wandering the streets of Paris or lounging on a tropical beach beneath gently swaying fronds of palm, I was stuck in Saskatoon, where I was hired out like a rented mule by a temporary manpower office. I spent my days lugging heavy mud-encrusted machinery across construction sites whilst being yelled at by hygienically challenged, knuckle-dragging mouth-breathers in hard hats.

With my spirit suitably broken, I left the rewarding field of manual labour and found work instead as a dishwasher at a 24-hour restaurant on Idylwyld Drive, downtown. I spent my nights scrubbing banged-up pots and sickly grease traps whilst being yelled at by equally hygienically challenged line cooks. But hey, at least I was indoors.

The real trouble began when my shift ended, usually at some godforsaken hour, and I had to make the long trek home. My sister’s apartment was in the south, on one of Saskatoon’s alphabetically arranged avenues: Avenue M, I believe. Which was, as you may have guessed, a long way from Idylwyld Drive (a.k.a. Avenue A).

I have been back to Saskatoon many times since, and I am always taken aback by what an attractive place it is, with its green valley and wide river and its handsome university. I can’t reconcile this with the Saskatoon of my youth: with the stack of festering, food-encrusted plates; the drooping garbage bags heavy with wet refuse, dragged out and dumped like corpses at the end of each shift; and that long, soul-destroying trudge back to Avenue M as the alphabet slooowllly ticked off, one barren, ice-ridden block after another. I don’t know if hell exists, but I know exactly where purgatory is: it lies somewhere between Idylwyld Drive

and Avenue M in Saskatoon, mid-winter. Sisyphus had nothing on me.

When place names become symbolic of a larger event, the literary term for this is metonymy. “He met his Waterloo.” “We don’t want this turning into another Vietnam.” But as we go through life, we collect our own private vocabulary, our own list of personal metonyms. To this day, whenever I hear of a young person struggling and adrift, I think to myself, “Ah, she’s facing her own Saskatoon.”

As soon as I had scraped together enough money, I escaped. I fled my prairie Waterloo, bowed and beaten, on a slow train east. The winds were howling, the snow was blowing across empty fields, and the sky was grey. Which is to say, it was now springtime.

My connect-the-dots journey took me only as far as Manitoba and my next familial connection. As luck would have it, my father had recently resurfaced. Dad was always pulling wacky stunts like that: disappearing with nary a word or forwarding address, usually just ahead of a posse of collection agents, and then reappearing in the oddest locations, and as often as not with a new wife in tow. “Neilburg? What the hell is he doing in Neilburg?” At one point, we lost track of him entirely for several years, but now he was in Dauphin. “Named by the French, founded by Scots and populated by Ukrainians,” said my dad when he picked me up at the Brandon station and started the drive north. “It’s the damnedest place.”

We entered Dauphin through Riding Mountain National Park and, in doing so, crossed the Manitoba escarpment, a dramatic rise of forest teeming with predators and prey. It was the most dramatic way possible to enter a prairie town: descending from the wooded highlands, down to an expanse of fields and a wide flat valley. And there, improbably, lay a city: Dauphin, the young prince, the heir apparent.

Dauphin was in the middle of nowhere and the centre of everything, located at the very crosshairs of a continent, in the geographic centre of North America. When I arrived, the snows soon gave way to spring flowers. Dauphin, a city of 8,500, is home to Canada’s National Ukrainian Festival, the largest such festival in North America and an event that causes the population to swell. But Dauphin handles this annual summer influx with great aplomb, and I quickly found

work at a local pizza parlour, where the community’s rich cultural heritage was celebrated with a special “Ukrainian pizza” featuring (a) sauerkraut and (b) kolbassa. “You’re kidding, right?” I asked the cook who was training me when he first explained what went into a Ukrainian pizza.

“Wish I was,” he said. “You should be here in February. They have this Valentine’s Day pizza, in the shape of a heart, right? But the crust sort of loses its shape when it’s cooked, and with the tomato paste and cheese and everything, it looks like a real heart.”

“And this is considered romantic? ” I said.

DAD WAS always pulling wacky stunts, disappearing and then reappearing in the oddest locations, often as not with a new wife in tow

He shrugged. “Apparently.”

My initiation into the world of fine cuisine continued. Summer bloomed and life was good. I even became something of a hero for developing a subtle new technique for dealing with particularly obnoxious patrons. Whenever a group of yahoos tumbled in, usually after the bars closed, and started giving the waitresses a hard time, I would carefully cut only the cheese on top of the pizza, leaving the crust below in one solid piece. Watching a table of yobs cursing each other as they tried, in vain, to messily tear a pizza apart with their bare hands—and along imaginary lines—was great fun.

Dauphin’s wide Main Street angles through the city, all the way from the mall at one end to the leafy green streets and courthouse at the other end. The domes of a his-

toric Ukrainian Catholic church, the angular rise of grain elevators, the winding Vermilion River and its quieter, green-water offshoot; the open, summery feel: the days were long and drowsy, the homes were tidy and the yards unnaturally trim. Pink flamingos and garden gnomes adorned the lawns of Dauphin like snapshots from an archetypal suburb of the 1950s.

Which was a shame, because my dad wasn’t much of a groundskeeper. True, he owned a rusted old push mower, more rumour than real, that was lost somewhere in the overgrown grass, but it would have taken a machete to get to it. I suppose I should have tried—cutting grass being a sonly duty, after all—but dad didn’t care. “It’s just grass,” he’d say. “You can cut it or not. Doesn’t matter to me one way or the other.”

It did, alas, matter to his neighbours. They had two Dobermans that ran rampant through the neighbourhood, and yet they considered my father’s unkept lawn to be a nuisance. How shall I put this? Dad was a bit of a crank. So when the neighbours came striding over in full snit, demanding to know “just exactly why” dad had allowed the grass to get so long, he snarled, “I let it grow to hide all the dog shit that your two friggin’ mutts leave behind.” Except he didn’t say “friggin’.” Dad then sat back down and poured himself a glass of Boodles gin while the neighbours stood, mouths open, on the front porch.

Did I mention that my father was a teacher, entrusted with shaping young minds? He was a lot of things—a would-be importer/ exporter, a salesman, a vanity press publisher—but teaching is what he did best. It was his default position; he could always find a job teaching somewhere; in this case, a small rural school outside of Dauphin.

In my memory, it is always summer in Dauphin, and the grass is always overgrown and green. Often, after an evening shovelling pizzas in and out of ovens, we would tumble out of the restaurant, still reeking of dough and pepperoni, and drive the streets of Dauphin, up and down, shouting our youth from the windows, shouting ourselves hoarse. With waitresses along for the ride, we would drive up the escarpment for a full view: the sky full of stars, the forests at our back, a small prairie city glowing below.

It was an interlude, my stay in Dauphin; I knew that even then. It was a detour, not

a destination, and it came to an abrupt end when my brother Sean phoned to say, essentially, “What the hell are you doing?” “I’m working in the very demanding field of food preparation services,” I replied, somewhat defensively.

“You’re making pizzas. Listen, Billy. Come back to Alberta, stay with me, finish school. I’ll cover your costs.”

There are, as noted, advantages in being a younger sibling in a large family; everyone has to take care of you. So back to Alberta I went, having never made it out of the Prairies, let alone to Paris or Tahiti.

Margaret left her job with university security and began work as an adult education consultant, but not before she was awarded a plaque from the Saskatoon police for a campus crime prevention program she designed and implemented. (My youngest sister, meanwhile, now works as a prison guard. Perhaps it has something to do with having an absentee father who was, if not lawless, at the very least creative in his interpretation of what the law allowed.)

My father left Dauphin soon after, chasing some scheme or another, and a few years ago he performed his final vanishing act, from which he would not re-emerge. And in one of those odd little coincidences, my sister Margaret left Saskatoon and now lives in a small town just outside of... Dauphin. She goes by her middle name now, Georgena, just as I have left Billy behind—or tried to. The arc from Billy to Will, from Margaret to Gena, from Saskatoon to Dauphin, from winter to summer: it is such a small trajectory, and yet is all the more profound for it. It’s the small things we remember.

Gena laughs when I tell her that in my mind Saskatoon will always be a synonym for winter, and that Dauphin will always mean “summer and rebirth.” “Try Dauphin when it’s minus 32 and a blizzard is blowing,” she says. “You’ll change your mind.” “Whatever happened to the crying woman?” I ask. “I loved that sculpture.” She is surprised that I even remember it. “That was so long ago,” she says.

But a few weeks later a package arrives and when I open it, there it is: the White Lady with its single tear: imperfect marble, and figures defined by their flaws. fi'il

Will Ferguson’s debut novel Happiness has been published in 26 countries, and was short-listed for the 2002 Commonwealth Award: Canada & the Caribbean.