Tony Fabijančić has published numerous travel pieces, personal essays, political essays, academic essays, short stories and photographs in newspapers, literary reviews and academic journals including The Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, Vancouver Sun, Calgary Herald, The Chronicle Herald, The Antigonish Review, The Nashwaak Review, Event, Mosaic and The University of Toronto Quarterly. He is the author of Croatia: Travels in Undiscovered Country (University of Alberta Press, 2003) and Bosnia: In the Footsteps of Gavrilo Princip (U. of A. Press, 2010). These are the first literary travel books on the new Croatia and Bosnia in the English language.
Report from The Casket (1)
It started at the Triangle Tavern on a cold spring night in 1979. Wally Chisholm and his brother Jim were watching the Canadiens and Rangers in the Stanley Cup Final. The tavern was full of drunken Habs fans but the Dutchman wore an orange shirt with "Ajax" in black across the front. Even though they didn't know his blood lines or beginnings (coming from nowhere like a ghost the way he did) they'd seen him and read those loud orange letters on that tin shed he'd built in North Grant – VAN DER FLIEGEN.
A skinny, hungry-looking man, he sat by himself that evening, sipped his beer slowly and watched the TV with the somber expression of someone who had just been to a funeral. Unlike Van der Fliegen, Wally was in a good mood. He was a big man, 300 pounds, his black crew-cut a flat top of quills and his eyes two chocolate chips stuck into a round hunk of cookie dough. He wore a Habs jersey and cradled a Keith’s in his lap.
“In those days,” Mr. James Chisholm told Antigonish’s weekly, The Casket, “Walter enjoyed a laugh or two with his friends. He liked to joke on occasion and he made it very enjoyable for all concerned. He was a kidder, was Walter, but he never let things get personal or out of hand.”
For example, during the second period he fired off a joke about toilet cleaners, evidently confusing the soccer club in the man's old country with the detergent. Some time in the third period and a few beers later, he yelled, “Hey Mr. Clean, you finished giving that goddamn bottle a blow job or what?”
Van der Fliegen turned around. “What you want fat man?” His voice was a baritone, surprising everyone when he spoke. "No fudge to shut your big mouth?" Somewhere in the room a woman giggled. Wally leaned forward in his chair and said, "You'll need to fill up a little if you're gonna play these games, brother." While the rest of the crowd went back to the game, Van der Fliegen downed the rest of his beer and left.
This began their long-standing feud, The Casket reported. Mr. Chisholm described that evening as a "darned shame," adding that his brother was "hardly prejudiced against having a foreign person or two in town. Gives our place an international, uh, flavour."
Seven years later all hell broke loose. The tool shed burned down to the ground one Sunday morning, walls falling in to the hungry leaping flames, smoke pluming Antigonish way. Wally and Jim stood back and made sure the fire didn't spread to the black-shuttered white house 50 yards down-wind.
They didn't see or hear him coming. Suddenly he was beside Wally chewing something as he examined the fire. He said: "Morning, boys. Wood sure go fast, eh?" He stared at the burning shed as though he'd never seen fire before, then reached into his black Levi's jacket and took out a little plastic bag. "Oreo?" he asked. Wally eyed him but said nothing. Van der Fliegen adjusted his cap, nodded and headed back to his pickup.
A week after the fire, while Wally and Jim were in New Glasgow visiting their sick sister, Betty, Van der Fliegen's new silver Chevy pickup stalled on the Georgeville Cape and had to be towed back to town. Asked about the charges filed against him and his brother, James Chisholm told The Casket that "a very unfortunate occurrence happened to Mr. Van der Fliegen. But Walter and I were wrongly accused of sweetening his fuel tank because we were away on a personal matter at the time and could not very well have done this crime."
After the charges were dismissed, he showed up at their place one morning with a silver platter of brownies his wife had baked and handed it to Wally. "For Betty," he said. "For when you go back. In your truck, I mean." Van der Fliegen was dressed in his Sunday best -- navy polyester suit, white shirt, orange tie. He looked up at Wally with that acid expression that passed for a smile. Wally stood in front of him – a foot taller and three wider, leaning back on barefoot heels, his pants hoisted by blue suspenders. They stared at each other like two people seeing their opposite selves in a funhouse mirror. Wally examined the tray as though he was weighing the pleasure of eating the brownies against the accusation and insult he knew the gift carried. He took the brownies.
When he was gone Wally sat back in his rosewood rocker with the tray in his lap. His eyes glazed over as he started eating. Later, half done, he put the tray on the porch railing, sat back and took in the view of Van der Fliegen's place. Jim ducked in to catch the Expos’ game, and afterwards brought out a couple beers as he usually did on Sundays, opened one for himself and offered the other to Wally. Wally shook his head.
Around six, Jim did some chores around the place and returned to the porch. That was when Wally went to the washroom. He came out five minutes later and sat back on his rocker. He wiped his mouth clean. His face was pale and he was sweating. After going in a second, then a third time, he dumped the brownies into the ditch and tossed the tray like a frisbee onto the road. He sat back down, said: "Watch this, brother. This oughta be good."
Ten minutes went by. The wind picked up from the east and tinkled the chimes. Bill Partridge’s black pickup came down the road, drove over the tray and flattened it into a piece of unspectacular-looking tin. Wally was still sweating when he went inside a fourth time.
So Van der Fliegen payed them another visit. Stopped by one afternoon saying he met Bob Briand and saved him the trip. He handed the mail to Wally, who checked it out suspiciously. Next morning their mailbox was flattened to the spine of the road. From the house Jim could see Wally -- a big blue shadow in the morning looking down at a crumpled rectangle of metal. For a while he turned it over in his hands then finally flipped it into the long grass by the side of the road, where Jim found it and dumped it into the green garbage box for Partridge to pick up.
Of course there was no way of really knowing how the bolts spun off into the jimson weeds on Van der Fliegen’s way down the hill at St. Martha's. His Chevy wobbled onto the tracks at the bottom. He walked around stunned until the lights came on and the bells started clanging, which woke him up and made him run around in a panic, until he realized he could still back it off the tracks in time.
And then nothing. It was as though he'd given up the game or fight or whatever it was. He was seen driving a nickel-coloured vending truck around town, working the Oland centre after football games or the Arena after Bulldog games. Spring followed fall and summer spring, and suddenly two years had gone by.
Wally changed. Started filling out, as if his body decided independently of his will to gain two hundred pounds. On a September afternoon, he sat out front in a big wooden garden chair Frank McPhee had built for him. His head was encased in a black leather and steel cage refitted from a goalie mask, locked shut on his left jaw by a little silver bike lock. He looked asleep but his eyes were open and his right hand lazily peeled bits of paint off the chair. A lemon-coloured sun hung in a pale blue sky and a sluggish seaward wind waved the grass and poplars.
There were no cars on the road. Then the soft mutter of a truck labouring up a hill. It got louder as it neared, the screech of a fan belt marking the final climb. It revved down the hill past Wally and headed towards Antigonish. Twenty minutes later it returned, this time at half-speed, slowing a little in front of the house then accelerating up the hill and around the corner. It turned up again across the road on Van der Fliegen’s long gravel driveway, dragging a red cloud of dust. The Dutchman got out of the truck, waved at the dust with his orange cap and went around to a metal shed next to the main building. He carried something out on a rod and disappeared up the step ladder.
Wally's caged head turned, his hand stopped picking at the armrest, and he held his breath for five or six seconds as though he was going under water.
Van der Fliegen went back to the shed, came out wearing red pot holders and lugging a shiny steel tray which he lifted into the truck.
Wally ticked off the minutes by flicking bits of brown paint onto the lawn. His head didn't move. The lock dangled motionlessly. Then his hands went up to his head, hooked the steel ribs of the cage and pulled on the leather strap until it snapped. He ripped the cage off his head and threw it into the grass.
A few minutes later, the truck crossed the road and skidded to a stop ten yards from Wally. Dust whipped up and hung in the air, slowly settling a reddish coat on the hood. The silver door opened. Van der Fliegen stepped out and the two of men faced each other. It was silent except for the wind in the trees. Wally's nod made Van der Fliegen come forward and take the folded bill. The tin foil went on Wally's lap, paper plate and steel cutlery on the right armrest. The smiling piglet on the rod spanned the armrests, shiny and dripping fat. Its eyes were closed tight, its front and back legs tied to the rod with wire, its tail curled.
They admired it as though it were a revelation, a rip in the fabric of things, or as though it were invested with a kind of power. Van der Fliegen stood with his pot holder hands on his hips, looking as if he wanted to eat too. Wally held a fork and knife in his fists. He could never get enough either, but on him that always showed. “Pretty fair size,” he muttered.
“Twenty-five pounds,” Van der Fliegen answered proudly.
Heat rose from its shiny golden skin and grease dripped lasciviously off its sides. “Decent colour too,” Wally ended up saying, not caring for once that he addressed Van der Fliegen directly.
“Three hours steady roasting. Round an’ round. When it’s hotter it’s faster.”
“Sure, or do it by hand. But let me tell you, mister, you get a good tan thataway.” His thin sharp laugh was whisked off by the wind. In the quiet that followed, a few stray leaves summersaulted across the lawn as though they were in a hurry to get somewhere. The men looked at each other. And then they nodded goodbye.
Light was starting to fade as the pale sun slipped behind the hill. When Van der Fliegen drove off, Wally waved the hatchet, fork and knife over his head, shouted: "Hey man, you come pick these up, eh? There's no fucking way I'm chauffeuring them down to you, buddy."
The Antigonish Casket reported the death of a 520 pound local man, a day after he ate a whole piglet for dinner. Walter Angus Chisholm, 33, feasted on the pig last Saturday. The Casket reported that firefighters had to carry Chisholm out of the house. It said the man's relatives blamed his illness on the butcher who sold him the piglet. The size of the animal was not known.
Although foul play was ruled out by local authorities, Chisholm’s younger brother called on police to begin an investigation. James Chisholm accused Jan Van der Fliegen, owner of the Van der Fliegen Slaughterhouse, of “baiting” Chisholm by repeatedly driving his mobile hotdog and smoked meat unit past the Chisholm residence. He said Mr. Van der Fliegen recently attempted to reclaim the cutlery he had lent the victim.
At a press conference outside his home in North Grant, Chisholm, an insurance agent, announced a $50,000 lawsuit against Mr. Van der Fliegen. Van der Fliegen could not be reached for comment.
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