That Most Loaded of Statements

Hi! My name is Mitchell Toews and I am a Canadian fiction writer. The owner of this site (the Grand Fromage, Oppsejchta, Poobah, Die Owlah, etc.) is a fine fellow, name of Sam Kandej and he has graciously offered to have me post material on Short Tales.

Quickly then, and before Sam comes to his senses and revokes my WordPress driver’s license, here are two short stories on the topic of:

Things happen for a reason.

Maybe. Maybe not. I’ll let you consider that as you read the following couplet: “A Vile Insinuation” and “Without Reason”.

I wrote these but as I get to know this vehicle (Short Tales) a little better I’ll try to pop in some of the wonderful writing I am privileged to find as I criss-cross the internet in 1500-word-or-less increments. Kind of a literary, short-form pub crawl, or a PROSE NOT BY TOEWS compendium of the convivial.

Both of the following stories appeared on the Canadian literary site, CommuterLit in 2017.

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A Vile Insinuation

by Mitchell Toews

 

I sat on a picnic table in the beer garden. The ball tournament was over and we had lost in the final to a team from the States. My head spun a bit and my lips and cheeks felt numb – too much July sun followed by too much beer.

“Manna from heaven!” a voice behind me said as four plastic cups of beer arrived on the tabletop. It was Marty, the do-it-all shortstop from the other team. He had been buying beer for our table all evening, using the bundle of tens and singles that had been his winner’s share. He reminded me of Mark Belanger from the Orioles — big and tall, a smooth infielder.

“Marty the party,” I said, sliding one of the foamy cups back towards him. “I have to drive, you know. All the way to Hartplatz.” We were near the U.S. border, in Vita, Manitoba.

“Nothing to it,” he said. “Ain’t no bulls on the highway from here to Hartplatz.”

“True. And once we get there, my cousin is on patrol. As long as the RCs are not cruisin’ around, I should be okay.”

“Roman Catholics?” he asked, his face screwed up. “You Mennonites take adult baptism seriously!”

Our shortstop, Cornie Driedger, did an exaggerated spit take, misting the table with malty spray.

“Hey! Quit wasting beer there, Milton Berle! It don’t grow on trees.” Marty said, pulling out his thick wallet.

“RCs are police — Royal Canadian Mounted Police. R-C-M-P or RCs for short,” Cornie explained.

Marty chuckled and went through his wallet. “Okay, I get it. Well, dudn’t matter anyhow — the bank is about empty.” He flipped assorted cards and pictures out as he searched for another dollar bill.

“It dudn’t, dud it?” said Cornie, an eyebrow arched theatrically. “I got a buck but I think Zehen is gonna need that for gas. Right, Matt?”

“Don’t ask me those complicated mechanical questions, Corn-pone, I am just a lowly driver, not an oil-change caddy and part-time service technician trainee like you,” I replied.

“Okay, Zehen. I accept your limitations. And also, kleiwe de!” Cornie replied, a bit drunkenly, staring at me over a poised cup of Labatt’s Light.

“Aww Geez, what the hell is KLIVE DEE?” Marty asked.

Cornie laughed. “Okay, you Yankee Martin Luther, here’s what: ‘Kleiwe de’ is ‘Plautdietsch’ — low German. It is my way of suggesting politely to Mattheus here, our stoic backcatcher and fearless late night chauffeur, that he go scratch himself. It further insinuates to claw oneself in an inappropriate place and manner. Festone? Verstanden sie?”

Marty, with a straight face, answered. “Kliewe de, hunt!”

We all laughed. Marty—his last name was Schroeder, not Luther—then admitted that his Mom was a Mennonite, a Fast, originally from Winkler in Manitoba and that he spoke a few words of God’s own language. Like hunt, which meant “dog”. We nodded appreciatively, toasting him into the brethren, “with sacramental suds,” Cornie offered, gravely. As always, his spott; a kind of mocking banter, was mildly over-the-top, but entertaining.

“What do you call it when you have too much sacramental wine?” I asked, riffing off of Cornie’s comment. They shrugged. “Being in an altar-ed state,” I dead-panned.

Cornie did another loud spit take and Marty began cleaning up the cards strewn on the beery tabletop.

Another teammate of ours, Cornie’s brother Abe, joined our table. “You guys going soon?” he asked.

“Yeah, I am huntmeed — dog-tired,” I said, directing the translation at Marty.

“What’s that?” Abe asked, pointing at a paper form on the tabletop, folded in half. “Selective Service System STATUS CARD”, he read aloud. The big first baseman stood beside me, harshly backlit by a string of naked 100-watt bulbs.

“That is President Nixon’s draft lottery.” Marty said, squinting up at Big Abe from where he sat.

“How old are you, Marty?” I asked him.

“I turn nineteen next month, August 16,” he said.

“Me too – August 22. So what does that all mean?” asked Cornie, leaning forward to study the card.

Marty pointed at a printed number near the center of the card. “44 is my all-important lottery number. That means my birthday has drawn ‘Random Sequence Number’ 44. So everyone born on that day who’s eligible to be drafted is going to go—be inducted—once Selective Services get to the forty-fourth birthday on the list. You are eligible once you turn 19.” He sipped his beer, holding the card in one hand and staring at it.

“Right now, they are projectin’ that they will call up until about RSN 130, this year” he concluded.

I lit one of Marty’s Marlboros. “So… all those born on August 16 have the forty-fourth pick in the lottery,” I began.

“See, 44 is a low draft number. I’m going to Vietnam, unless the war ends, ya know,” Marty finished the thought, and his beer. “They are already in the eighties now. I’ll be called up almost right away after my birthday. You betcha’.”

We were quiet for a minute. “Smoke on the Water” by Deep Purple drifted across the beer garden from a boom box near the bar.

“You said your Mom was a Menno from Winkler, right?” Cornie asked.

Marty sat up a bit, regarding Cornie. He did not answer.

“No doubt you’ve thought of this, but why don’t you claim C.O. status?” Cornie continued. “If your Mom is a member of the church, maybe you can use that.”

Marty flicked his cigarette butt across the table, past Cornie’s ear. He exhaled smoke and stood up, looking over at Abe who was about the same height as him.

“Conscientious Objectors ain’t popular where I’m from. Besides, my Mom already looked into it, and because I don’t go to a Mennonite church—I’m not baptized and all—so it wouldn’t work. Anyhow, it’s not what I want,” he said, folding the draft card carefully and putting it into his wallet.

“Your Mom’s a Canuck. Yer in Canada now — just stay here,” said Abe, in his deep Brer Bear voice.

Marty looked at him soberly and shook his head. “Nah, man. I’m an American, plain and simple. Besides, I gotta tell you something about my birthday. You guys are the deep thinkers,” he said, looking at Cornie, “so you should know that I was born at exactly 11:59 pm on the sixteenth. I don’t know about fate or karma and I sure as heck don’t know about the will of God. For me, it’s just a random draw – a lottery. See, the funny thing is that August 17 drew draft number 360…”

Marty reached down and picked up his glove and spikes, stuffing the cigarette pack into his jacket pocket. He walked out of the light, waving at players from his team as he receded into the forest towards the parking lot, ambling loosely across the sandy ground and through the white spruce and stunted jack pine.

#

We drove slowly along the highway, heading north. Every few miles another deer would appear, eyes reflecting in the headlights, head surrounded by a cloud of mosquitoes; tail and ears twitching.

It was quiet, the radio being no good this far away from Winnipeg. The only sound was the humming of the pick-up truck’s tires on the frost-heaved road.

“If not for the grace of God…” said Big Abe, uncharacteristically philosophical.

Cornie sniffed, “Mmmmm. Deep.”

Kliewe de, hunt!” I said, drawing tired snickers from the brothers.

“If not for the grace of the Delegates who came from Russia to choose where us Mennos were gonna wind up, actually,” Cornie said, from the middle seat. “If Zehen’s Great-Great Opa had chosen to live in North Dakota, instead of Manitoba, we would be in that Vietnam lottery with Marty too.”

“From Russia with love,” Abe said.

We were quiet for a while. I glanced at the two stoic brothers who sat beside me, their faces dimly lit by the dashboard lights.

“Things happen for a reason, they say,” Abe said. “Our dad figures God was protecting us Mennonites when that all happened.”

I coughed, retching, and spat a salty cheek full of sunflower seeds out the window. The wet seed hulls spattered the side panel of the truck and stuck.

We drove in silence again. Cornie worked to repair a torn leather lace on his ball glove, concentrating and breathing noisily through his mouth as he pulled the fingers back together.  He looked up as we came towards a pair of deer who stood chewing cow-like on the shoulder of the highway. They stared at the truck as we approached and then the smaller of the two gathered its legs and suddenly stotted straight up in the air, like an African gazelle.

“They do that to dissuade predators,” Cornie said. “It’s like, Hey, I’m small and agile, hard to catch! Don’t bother with me – take the bigger, slower one.

“Hmm,” Big Abe mumbled, “don’t think that’d work for me.”

“Nor Marty,” I said, staring ahead into the yellow light of the headlights on the straight road before us.

End

#

Without Reason

by Mitchell Toews

 

The man was broad across the chest and shoulders. He wore an ironed plaid shirt and his hair was trimmed neatly — salt and pepper gray. His expensive eyeglasses suggested he had exercised some preference — no $20 Safeway cheaters for him.

He sat in the school library on a metal folding chair. His seat was one of a dozen or so arranged in a circle. Other men, his age and older, sat with their heads down and eyes closed. Most held Bibles, resting on blue jean laps in their large hands — the hands of older men. All of them were Caucasian, save one Asian, most had gray hair and all wore expensive running shoes. A row of ball hats and lightweight jackets hung on hooks near the door.

“Amen,” a gray-bearded man said, drawing his feet under him and taking a breath to speak.

“Welcome here. I am Dick Penner. Today, we are honoured to have two new members. Art and Diedrich. Guys, please stand up and tell us just a bit about who you are and what brings you here,” he said to the group, nodding to a tall man wearing a new golf shirt.

“I am Art Von Ast. I am from Bethel Christ Mennonite and my wife Mary and I are retired. I have throat cancer.” He sat down and crossed his arms across his chest.

Diedrich stood and took off the expensive glasses, self-consciously. “I’m Diedrich Rempel. Call me Died.” He pronounced it “Deed”.

“Why are you here, Deed?” the leader asked, just as Diedrich began to sit and was putting his glasses back on. He stood again, abruptly, dropping his glasses.

“Cancer. Just cancer,” he stammered, then retrieved his glasses, inspecting them carefully before he sat. He was not yet comfortable describing the specific type of cancer — his personal variety. Would he ever become as glib and off-handed as these men? he wondered to himself.

They took turns going around the circle, sharing. When it was Deed’s turn, he politely deferred, suggesting he would prefer to listen because it was his first time. He blushed as he spoke these few words, his fingers clasping and releasing nervously.

After coffee and saskatoon berry plauts, Dick Penner rose and read a Bible verse. He held the book confidently in one hand in front of him, the soft-from-use cover flopping open like a rabbit pelt in his hand.

When he finished reading the verse, Penner unfolded a photocopied sheet of paper and read the story of a cancer patient. The article described how a man—a retirement age Canadian named Jake—with stage IV cancer had, with the support of his church and a massive online call for prayer, defeated the disease. This anonymous Jake went into a completely unexpected remission and had been cancer-free for two years. Benefiting from a strict diet and exercise routine and the unflagging underpinning of his family and church, he had met his third cancer objective. The third of four for Jake – the last being to stay cancer-free.

The group was then led, following an outline emailed to them earlier in the day, in a collaborative encounter session. It was difficult and frightening — as if they needed to be reminded how serious their conditions were.

After twenty minutes or so of the group session, Deed was exhausted and felt ready to unravel. He texted his daughter, “Call me now!” She did and he used the phone call as an excuse to beg off. Leaving the meeting, he retrieved his jacket from the Shaker-neat row on the wall. He pushed open the glass door and skipped down the concrete steps, short-cutting across the lawn to his minty 1968 Chevy C/10.

He loved that old truck. Deed had it just the way he wanted it. His one prideful excess—Lord knows he could afford it—was the retro Cragar chrome mags. There were two other customizations: he had one handle from a favourite pair of ski poles as the knob on the stick shift lever. Also, the kids had given him a Reggie Jackson autographed number 44 Louisville Slugger bat. He had mounted a gun rack in the rear window for the lovely wood bat to reside, riding shotgun with him on the still streets of Hartplatz.

Deed stood looking over the old pick-up as a light rain fell on him and the truck. “God causes the rain to fall on the Chevs and the Fords alike,” he said quietly, walking to the front of the truck and wondering how he could mount some fog lights without changing the look of the grill. He shook his head, getting into the waiting truck, thinking, if it ain’t broke…

Diedrich Rempel sat slumped in the truck listening to the sound of the idle as the engine warmed. How could they say that Jake—the Jake in the story—had received a blessing? Why this anonymous Jasch and not any of them, the fellows in this group? Why not Art—scared shitless but not showing it—with bloody throat cancer? How come he didn’t make the cut?

He rolled the window down; a few revolutions on the crank handle.

The fellows in that little group were surely no less devout; no less confident in their individual walks with Jesus as their personal Lord and Saviour. And, BTW, seeing as He was in the Saviour business, how about it? How about me? I could use a little saving right about now, Deed thought. Why does Jake the Snake get a tütje sack full of goodies and I don’t?

Do I not deserve a blessing? Or am I being punished?

He inhaled, then blew the air out slowly, thinking some more: Or is it that I have already had too many blessings — used up my quota? Is there an accounting system or is it random selection? Is there a lottery here too? If so, I hope Tricky Dick Nixon is not running this one, he thought, remembering the oft-retold story he had heard from his friend Matt—the last time just a few nights ago at their grandkids’ T-ball game—about that long-ago American guy from the beer garden at one of those Vita ball tournaments. The Vietnam draftee. Wonder if he made it? he thought. Martin Luther, we called him, joking that he played for the “Reformists” and that they nailed their lineup card to the dugout door.

“Bible school humour,” Deed said aloud, touching the bat behind his head, remembering those wonderful days; that bunch of guys. He thought of the smell of his ball glove—sweat and sun-baked leather—and his heart lifted and ached; both. Oh, to go back there, to play again — hang out with the boys, spitting seeds, drinking beer, talking about girls and cars and jobs.

Deed sat in the truck, quietly waiting for the heat gauge to tick past the red-shaded low end of the range. He thought dark thoughts, struggling to hide them from God.

“Thank God for all I missed / ‘Cause it led me here to this,” Deed sang along softly to the radio. He thought of all he had been led to; the prosperity and his peaceful, fulfilling life. Or, had he just stumbled ass-backwards into it all? Like Jake in the cancer remission story, or—less fortunately—the squashed bugs he had just wiped off the headlights? Now, when he needed his faith most, he was not sure. He felt, in spite of his best intentions, abandoned and alone.

“Did he make it, Lord? That shortstop?” he prayed aloud, entreating.

I guess maybe I’ll find out, he thought as pushed down on the stiff clutch pedal and checked the mirror before heading for home.

End

Note: The lyrics quoted in the third from last paragraph are by Darius Rucker, from his song “This”. Songwriters: DARIUS C. RUCKER, KARA DIOGUARDI, FRANK MANDEVILLE V. ROGERS Published by Lyrics © Warner/Chappell Music, Inc., Universal Music Publishing Group, Kobalt Music Publishing Ltd.

 

3 thoughts on “That Most Loaded of Statements

      1. Too fast. Vietnam was in the first story, and that preceded Rucker who was on the radio years later when the MC of the second story was having a rough day (and texted his daughter). And you are right, IMO, that was a stupid damn war and I’m pretty happy I did not end up there, through the grace of my forefathers landing further up the Red River of the North than Marty the shortstop’s father’s did.

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