The city I’m from is discarded logging country, train terminal country, second-class port country, once upon a time gateway to the west country. Not quite the ragged edge of the continent, but the last bit of civilization before the endless wet tangle of mountains and water. Ruined west coast strike it rich dreams left a series of vacant lots and empty buildings with blind eyes, wild lilacs blooming from the windows. People once came here to make their fortunes. We ran through its deserted streets trailing echoes. The city remembers all of what it once was: woods to stone to dreams.
My family came here to kill a man. That was always a satisfying answer, when family history was broached in school. I liked to lean back and try to look like someone descended from gun toting killers, like someone you’d maybe not want to mess with, though actually in all respects I presented an easy target.
The gun I inherited, though, was unimpressively small, like a very heavy toy. Could you kill someone with this? I’d pull it out from its drawer in our house, look at it and wonder, the tiny hole for the tiny bullet, the daintiness of it. Along with the gun, my grandfather left behind sweaters and suit jackets that fit my five foot tall frame perfectly. I wore them to school – I was weird anyway, so fuck it. The wool, the story, my armor.
The gun would fit my hand perfectly too, so this story about killers and heritage is about very small dainty killers and a heritage of short people with small wrists and tiny hands.
Size is not relevant though, when taking into account lethality. My great grandfather’s sister married a man who left her and their children, the story goes, in winter, with tuberculosis, the killer which started this saga off: a tiny spore carried by laughter, by shouting, by coughing, by all the loud and reckless vocalization I can only imagine my Irish farming ancestors carried on.
He came west to escape the sludge of sickness and dairy farming, to seek his fortune in the gold rush, in the half fantasy lands of the west. What happened to her, to them? My memory has not held this part; unimportant to my always impatient mind. What always happened. They died, as everyone dies eventually. The important part of the story is revenge, which leaves little time for mourning.
Once we trekked to Ontario in August, to see where this story had begun, this story we too were brought up hearing, even though everyone involved had been dead so long there was no point any more in remembering his name — which was always rendered in full in my father’s telling — or remembering the why of the gun. The heat was unbelievable to me, like walking inside a giant hostile sponge. My teenaged sister and I dumped ice into our shoes and sullenly rolled our eyes as my father rhapsodized over fields of corn.
So my great aunt’s faithless husband came here, the end point of the railroad, a city full of hope. Maybe he thought he’d start over. Go to Alaska, strike it rich. I don’t know what he was thinking because this part of the story we never heard. Just this: my great-grandfather bought a gun and came out after him.
This is what you do when someone takes off and leaves your sister to die.
My great grandfather followed his brother in law here, gun in hand, made it all the way to the right town on the right coast, but died too soon. The gun and the duty of vengeance passed to my grandfather, who despite seeming like a fairly normal person with a dental practice, a baseball hobby, and three children, took the matter seriously to heart. My grandfather kept the gun in good working order. He knew the name of the man they were looking for, all three names, recited in rolling syllables. And someday, they would find him.
This sounds pretty good, but as the 20th century settled around my family, bringing sidewalks and grocery stores and automobiles and policemen, murderous frontier vengeance became a trickier proposition. At some point the brother in law was found and invited to the family home for dinner by a well meaning cousin – someone who believed that now things were more settled, and that we were now people who could deal with blood debts in a more civilized fashion. The dinner was strained: the gun an unmentioned but heavy presence, and even the youngest children, having been born and bred to this story, shooting their guest deadly looks over the johnnycake and salad greens. After he left there erupted a great whiskey fueled debate about the ethics of shooting a guest, under your own roof, someone who has eaten at your table. Was this a worse sin than missing your chance to right the wrongs done to your family?
The debate resolved itself shortly thereafter when the brother in law, perhaps worn out by his cross country trip and the constant weight of my family’s implacable hatred, possibly haunted by tubercular ghosts (who knows?), possibly tipped over the edge of no return by a family dinner in which he read murder in the eyes of his hosts, stepped in front of a streetcar. Typical, my family said. Selfish of him to pawn off the responsibility for his death on some poor streetcar driver just trying to do his job. Cowardly. My family’s scorn followed him to the grave. The gun, however, remains.
It fits my hands perfectly.
This city, my city, the city we washed up in, was a different place when it was young and my great grandfather came here hunting his brother. It was raw and ambitious and new, carved bluntly out of the hillsides and forest. The city planners dreamed fanciful dreams, of stately garden plots, of graceful streets in the shape of fruits. They hauled marble statues over for the parks and foot-pumped organs from England for the churches. They built a tudor style hotel with a billiard room and long curved wooden bar, made from the finest smoothly polished old growth timber.
I’d say our collective relationship with the past is ambivalent at best. Our possibilities soured. Our mountain lost her name, and got stuck instead with the name of some old British man who never even got this far. People did terrible things here to each other, one after the other. The army came and forced the meandering river into a tidy concrete channel, from which it erupts yearly during flood season, wiping out trailer parks and car lots. We kept a real live gorilla behind glass in a shopping mall. We like to think we are really tough: still wilderness people. Gun toting street hardened people. Survivors. No one liked us and that was fine: the city smelled bad, was full of dangerous thug types, was a tractless wilderness full of bears. If only they knew how we cherished these insults, the magical improbability of these undesirable traits all coexisting in one place, resulting in a city simultaneously too urban and too wild, too dangerous and uncivilized.
It’s always been a city full of bars. Beer is still our favorite breakfast drink, we will tell you. And into one of these bars, when the town was young, came a young bear, from somewhere in the woods that engulfed the small defiant burst of buildings.
This part isn’t so strange or hard to believe. Even now the occasional bear turns up in a yard, having swum across the bay, maybe, or traveled up from the wooded wastelands fringing the military base. It might wander through a neighborhood investigating garbage cans and the miracle of wading pools, ambling along the sidewalks like a tourist in to gawk at city sights. If anyone tells you a bear is more afraid of you than you are of it, they’re lying.
And so picture this little bear in a great big bar of polished wood and a crowd of hard drinking men. I heard this story from my family, and the story I remember seems different from the version that is documented, in the way things we tell ourselves about who we are always differs from what other people tell you about yourself. Here is what I was told. They gave it some beer, which is only polite, and as all creatures do, it liked it a lot. The bear became a regular fixture in the bar, with his own beer mug, became a point of pride for our town, full of urban pretensions and yet still – visibly – part of the wild. He grew up in the bar, the years passing and his frame bulking, changing, the town growing around him, his serving of beer getting larger. A truce, maybe, I’m embroidering here, a peace between people and beasts otherwise hunted, here we all came together. Beer, the great uniter.
No story of peace lasts long in this world.
Maybe this was an early sign of things to come, of the ruin that would shipwreck us here in a town with no jobs and no stores, of time and lilacs eating the bricks of buildings bereft of purpose, an early symptom of our inability to hold up to our end of any bargain. The bear, sleepy and warm with beer, wandered out into the street to take a nap. Maybe a little snappish, as who isn’t when they are trying to take a nice warm drunken nap while people persist in trying to walk or drive around them, making so much noise. For whatever reason, he was shot by an overly enthusiastic police officer (probably from out of town), which failed to kill him but certainly agitated him enough so that he had to be put down.
There was great mourning. The shooter would never live down the disgrace. The bar patrons had him respectfully taxidermied, in a suitably regal pose, with his beer mug propped between his paws, mounted in the bar for all time.
Except that’s not how our stories go either. The bar burned down and took the stuffed bear with it, maybe finally freeing his spirit, along with the beer mug which lured him in, the old timber wood of the bar, the stains of beer and blood and heartbreak, along with all of our dreams.
We dream new things now.