One cold October morning, the Acadian gently shakes my shoulder.
“I don’t feel well – I have to stay home today.”
Sometimes, snuffling and croaking underneath a quilt can convince the Acadian I truly am unwell.
However, since nine kids came before me, she is more than familiar with the ways of children. Deep insight comes from years of listening to the groans and moans of various offspring.
“You’re not going to school today – Arthur is going to take you down north in his transfer truck to make some deliveries,” she says softly.
Sorry, say that again? A day with my older brother, in his big transfer truck, driving around the Cabot Trail, eating candy (pretty much a guarantee) and gazing at the Autumn leaves?
What a grand and lovely idea!
Besides, everyone in my large, ridiculous family is sad these days because something happened to Uncle Billy. Aunt Maryanne is especially sad, walking around in black dresses, red-eyed and looking desperate.
Let’s just say, in a place where there is usually lots of excitement – five girls living at home, five brothers visiting with various girlfriends or wives, four cats and the occasional dog – our little house has not been much fun lately.
Everyone tiptoes around, looking sad and bedraggled – shushing me at every turn – telling me to go brush my hair or wash my face.
And Arthur – he’s kind and gentle – but not always fun to be around. Sometimes he is just plain cranky and tries to boss me, with an emphasis on “tries.”
He is 26-years-old and he boops my nose – often. His fingers smell like cigarettes.
I am seven – the youngest of 10 children and I don’t like nose boops.
More than a little indulged, I am driven by an independent streak that alarms the Acadian more than she can say – in either English or French.
When her sister, who only speaks French and wears a nun’s habit with a large crucifix hanging down, when she arrives there is much talking en Français and I know it’s about me.
They sit together, talking in the language I have not been given and they look at me.
I try to ignore the many frowns and worried looks.
So it is that Arthur and I climb aboard the biggest, shiniest, most wonderful truck ever in the world. And, I am fine with that, despite the nose boops.
The sun comes up behind us, as we travel over Seal Island bridge. It sets the leaves on fire. The Bras d’Or sparkles blue where it doesn’t blaze with red, orange and yellow leaf reflections.
Indeed, I do have Arthur figured out pretty well.
We eat the Acadian’s sandwiches of roast beef stuffed between fat slices of homemade bread and chug a jug of warm orange juice. He is good for candies, gum and even pop along the way.
Since it is his tractor trailer, he says the music is his choice and, since it is Arthur, that could only mean country music. And Hank Snow is Arthur’s favourite.
Now, my tastes tend towards The Beatles. Well, the Scot’s big band music, of course, and the more than occasional Cape Breton fiddle music might sometimes penetrate my Beatles-infused life but country music? Spare me.
“Big eight wheels rollin’ down the track – your true loving Daddy ain’t coming back. I’m movin’ on, I’ll soon be gone,” he sings, as we reach the top of Smokey.
His hands rest on the steering wheel and his fingers - with cruelly, chewed-up nails - tap along to the music. He looks over at me with blue eyes as blue as dusty flowers along the road in the summertime.
“You don’t like Hank Snow? What’s wrong with you,” he laughs, turning the radio up louder.
“I could put on some Hank Williams if you like – I’m so Lonesome I Could Cry – it’s a beautiful song,” he says.
He laughs at my scrunched-up face.
Why are all those old, weird country singers named Hank, I ask.
Arthur turns down the radio and begins to sing:
“Did you ever see a Robin weep when leaves begin to die
like me he’s lost the will to live
I’m so lonesome I could cry.”
“The silence of a falling star lights up a purple sky and
as I wonder where you are, I’m so lonesome I could cry.”
He smiles over at me. He’s pleased with himself.
“I don’t want to hear songs about sad birds and purple skies, Arthur.”
The road veers around the edge of a near vertical slope and Arthur points out the spot where he’d launched his last tractor trailer over the cliff.
“I knew the brakes were gone so I got down on the floor of the cab and it went over,” he says. His face is serious. He shivers, remembering.
Who is this superman who can survive such a fall? I wonder at his ability to live against all odds. My brother is invincible at the wheel of the big tractor trailer.
I fall asleep on the last leg of the return trip, feeling it was a victorious kind of day. I hadn’t gotten into trouble over anything. He hadn’t gotten cranky over anything.
Day is ebbing as he backs the tractor trailer into the company’s garage, and I wake up.
“Wait until I get this parked and I’ll open the door for you,” he says.
Now, why would I wait? I can do anything he can do. Always bossing me around – never letting me do anything by myself.
The vehicle comes to a full stop, so I pull on the door handle.
I open the door and step out … into thin air.
Of course, I fall. Of course, it’s on my head.
There is screaming. No blood but lots and lots of screaming.
He gets cranky.
“Let me see your head. What did you do that for? You should have listened to me,” he roars.
I’m howling. My head is hurting, my glasses are broken and I’m mad.
“I’m telling on you,” I say. I pick up my light blue cat-eye glasses and poke a finger through the hole where a lens should be.
“See? You made me break my glasses and now you’re in trouble.”
I run down the road, towards home, stopping to drop my glasses down an opening in a manhole cover. No sense taking them back – they’re smashed and Arthur will be in trouble now.
He is holding his forehead, staring after me.
“And I know Uncle Billy’s dead too. You guys should’ve told me,” I scream.
The run back home is just half a block. I pause at the stop sign at the end of our street, then slowly walk toward my home.
A large crowd is gathered outside the window of our little brown house, and there are men heaving a long, brown box through the window. As the men at the back of the box hang on, other men run into the house and help slide it through the window.
“Oh – you’re back early.” The Acadian hurries down the front steps toward me, a worried frown on her face.
“They couldn’t make the corner through the porch and into the doorway – they had to put it through the window,” she says. As if her words explain anything.
I look at the window and then inside our living room, where the men are placing the box on a long table.
“It’s Uncle Billy, isn’t it?”
She nods, sadly.
Arthur finds me in the backyard, listlessly spinning on our swing.
“Why are you crying,” he asks softly. He crouches down beside me.
The last of the day’s sunshine catches the blue in his eyes.
The sky darkens as night creeps in and the lights come on inside our little house.
“I don’t like leaves turning. Golden leaves are sad.”
We hold hands and walk toward the house together. Not so many years later, he walks into Goldengrove all alone.