“I don’t mean to start a war of words with you,” said Ellen, “but I find the whole subject of Canada so boring I can barely glance at it on a world map. My eyelids droop.”
She was leafing through an old encyclopedia she’d found a few days before at the dumpster. She was always salvaging encyclopedias from the dumpster. People just didn’t hang on to them anymore. Who needed them? Who needed all that paper sitting around the house? So they left them in a box with their telephone guide knowing some romantic fool would come along and rescue them.
“You’ve got to admit, though, Canada’s a nice word,” I said. “You can’t deny that.”
She was right about me. Even though I’d never thought much about Canada, I was instantly ready to defend it.
“I just can’t get into the place is all,” said Ellen.
“Have you tried? You’ve never even been there.”
“Oh, I’ve been there. But it wouldn’t make much difference if I hadn’t. There’s just something about the place that repels me. Something boring.”
“How can you be so sure?”
She looked at me. “I find it sweet that you’re ready to give anyone the benefit of the doubt, baby. Even Canada. It says a lot for you. But some things are just indefensible.”
“You have to try,” I said, unsure of what I meant. “You should always try.”
“I don’t have your optimism,” she said, quietly.
So I was an optimist now?
She said, “Can’t you feel the weight of it? Can’t you feel all that emptiness bearing down on you from up there?”
“From up there? You’ve never been up there.”
“OK, maybe I’ve never been up there up there, but I’ve been up there,” she said, angrily. “Anyway, I can always see a place better from a distance. When you see places like Canada up close they only blind you with their irrelevancies. Instead of seeing the important things, you end up fascinated with coins and how weird the street signs look.”
It was true she had a way of looking at things. A dangerous way. A few minutes after meeting someone, some stranger, she often understood that person better than anyone ever would, including their own spouse, without knowing them at all. It was terrible to hear what she had to say about people sometimes, but she always told the truth. I had to give her that.
“When were you ever in Canada?” I asked.
“Oh, I spent a few weeks up there in the late 80s. It was nothing. We had this uncle. Me and Jimmy went to see him one hot summer. I don’t remember why.”
“You went to Canada with Jimmy?” I said. “I can’t believe it. You and Jimmy?”
“Maud wanted some peace, I guess. Shipped us off.” She laughed and said, “He was the only one of us who wore glasses.”
“No, my uncle. He wore these special glasses because of some problem he had with his retinas or corneas. I can’t remember which.”
“Canada is what happened. His plane crashed in the Yukon territory and he was lost for weeks, scrabbling around in the wild. All that snow burned his eyes to shit. God knows how he found the nerve to make it out of there. It must have been so boring!”
“Boring? He probably almost died a hundred times.”
“I can’t imagine anything more boring than having to trudge out of the Yukon territory by yourself.”
“With your eyes on fire,” I reminded her.
“Yes, with your eyes on fire.”
Why had she never mentioned any of this? If I’d spent weeks in Canada as a child I would have mentioned it by now. And now this sudden new uncle with his ravaged eyes and his plane crash in the Yukon.
Angrily, I sat up in bed. “What were you doing in Canada?”
She looked at me for a moment without saying anything. Then she said, “Swimming, mostly. In this river.”
“Some river they have up there.”
“And you found that boring?”
“I could barely keep my eyes open. That’s why I stayed in the river. It kept me awake.”
I didn’t know what to say. I lay back in bed and pulled the sheet to my chin. Ellen hefted the encyclopedia on to her lap and began to read. Or maybe she was looking at a picture. A picture of something in Canada. A grizzly bear, perhaps. An old black and white snapshot of an Eskimo, with one of those fur-lined hoods, being towed along on a dogsled. The Hudson Bay.
Well, I had to admit The Hudson Bay sounded pretty boring. But what did I know about it? Nothing except that it was named after Henry Hudson and that a part of it was shaped a bit like Florida. A squat, icy Florida made out of water.
“Wouldn’t you like to know what’s up there?” I said.
“Up where, baby?”
“In Canada!” I said. “The far north.”
She put her hand on my wrist. “There’s nothing up there. Just more of the same.”
This was intolerable. No one in my life was more curious or inquisitive. She sat around reading old encyclopedias, for god’s sake, while I watched the same dumbass commercials over and over on TV. She had a little foldout periodic table of elements in her wallet. She took it out and consulted it now and again because she was thinking about chemistry. I often saw her looking at it on the bus. So where was this coming from?
“I think you have a mental block when it comes to Canada,” I said, gently. Then I said, “Just like your uncle went snow-blind up there, Canada did something to you. Blinded you a little bit.”
“Imagine being born in Newfoundland,” she snapped. “Can you fucking imagine that? I can’t.”
“I’m sure there are happy people in Newfoundland.”
“What would a place like that do to a child? You could have been anyone, but Newfoundland would murder it out of you. Turn you into a futureless void, a zero. There’d be no way of fighting against all that boredom.”
“I’ve always wanted to visit the Viking settlements in Labrador,” I said, defiantly.
“Labrador! Oh my God!” She laughed in my face. “You wouldn’t last a minute up there. Vinland would swallow you up, man. That’s funny. Even the Vikings couldn’t hack it–and they got by on Greenland for 500 years. Fucking Greenland! Do you think you’d be able to last 500 years on Greenland?”
“No,” I said, angrily.
“They only lasted like 14 years in Vinland before it defeated them.”
I let this sink in, wondering if Vinland and Labrador were the same place, then I said, “Did you say the Vikings lived on Greenland for 500 years?”
“More or less.”
“But isn’t Greenland mostly ice?”
“A small percentage of it is arable land, but yes, it’s mostly ice.”
“I didn’t know they were there that long.”
“Half a millennium. Then they lost contact with Europe and died out.”
“I mean, 500 years. Jesus. That’s pretty crazy.”
“Columbus was just getting started,” she said.
She looked at my face and said, “Imagine what it must have been like to be the last Viking in Greenland. The last one alive. Probably some old woman. Just standing there. Alone in Greenland. In the 1400s.”
“You think there was only one?”
“Sure. Unless it was a suicide pact. Or a massacre. But who would have massacred the Vikings? The Inuit? I’m afraid I just don’t buy it–though I’m sure the tension was crazy.”
“God, I thought they just, you know, looked around a bit and got back in their boat. Went home.”
“They hunted polar bears with axes,” she said.
“What? What did you say?”
“It’s a fascinating story. Hold on a minute. I’ll find it for you.”
She started flipping through the encyclopedia.
“Oh, forget the goddamn book,” I said, laughing. “Just tell me yourself. In your own words.”
She closed the book and set it on the night table. Then she told me the history of the Viking settlements on Greenland, from beginning to end, very concisely. It was as if she had rehearsed it, or given this little lecture a thousand times. She even threw in a few bits of Old Norse.
“You’re right,” I said, when she had finished. “That was fascinating. But if you look at a map, isn’t Greenland technically a part of Canada? I mean, don’t they make up the same landmass?”
“You and your awful Canada!”
“My Canada? So it’s my Canada now?” I said. “You’re the one who seems to have a stormy history with the place.”
She turned her back on me and opened the encyclopedia again. This made me angry. I wanted to wrest it from her and lob it out the window. Or at least make her return it to the dumpster. How many of these things did we need? Pretty soon the house would choke to death on our neighbors’ encyclopedias. The street might as well have been hemorrhaging encyclopedias, and it had somehow become our function to mop up the mess.
“Who was Henry Hudson?” I said. “And why doesn’t the Hudson River flow out of the Hudson Bay?”
She ignored me. So I poked her in the back. “Who was Henry Hudson?”
“The most boring person who ever lived!” she screamed. “Why don’t you leave me alone, you asshole?”
“Sure. Fine.” I got out of bed and walked over to the window and stepped out onto the roof. “You’re alone now,” I said. “All alone with your dusty tomes.”
As I stood there in my underwear, trembling slightly, not knowing what to do next, I thought of what she had just told me about the Vikings in Greenland. I couldn’t help it. Capturing polar bears alive without the use of helicopters or tranquilizer guns. Manhandling them into their longboats and shipping them off to Scandinavia. Making trips that lasted days, weeks, with a chained up, pissed off polar bear at the other end of the boat. Sleeping in a boat with a goddamn polar bear.
And what for? Why did they do those things?
I said, “Who the hell does that kind of crazy shit?”
Then I said, “Who the hell are we?”
I stood on the roof thinking that over and over again. One of my neighbors watched me from his window. He was bald. Had a saggy, sullen face on him.
Who the hell are we?
“Listen,” I heard Ellen say from the window behind me. “I shouldn’t have lost my temper like that. I’m sorry for yelling.”
“I provoked you into it,” I admitted. “This whole Canada thing. It just irked me somehow.”
“Won’t you come back inside? The entire street can see you, baby.”
“So you’re standing on the front roof in your underwear having little conversations with yourself about Vikings.”
“You’re right. This is absolutely crazy.”
Calmly, I ducked back through the window as if it were something I did often, though I’d never been out there before. Then I lay on the bed and said, “I want you to tell me everything you know about Canada, Ellen. All of it. Leave out nothing. Not a word, not a single detail. Not even the most gruesome bits.”
She closed the encyclopedia and set it on the night table.
“This may take some time,” she said.
“That’s all right. I need to know everything.”
She sighed and lay next to me on the bed.
“Put your head in my lap, baby. That’ll make it easier for both of us.”
I put my head in her lap and she ran her fingers through my hair. A moment later she began to speak.
Photo by Douglas Sprott on flickr