Pains, Trains and Wildfires
By Neil McKinnon
This is the story of how the wife and I decided to rekindle our relationship, which had become painful and unexciting as a result of raising a family and working long hours—I, in a repetitive job in Calgary and she, as a teacher of small children in an elementary school.
Our marriage had not always been unexciting. It was once like a shirt drying on a line. It would blow into many different shapes, but when the breeze stopped it always fell back to what it was — and at one time, it was soft and wonderful. In those days she called me Twinkle Butt. But I never thought of that as gone. Late at night when my only companion was a flickering television, our love seemed as a blaze that had fizzled, leaving the ashes cold. Though she no longer called me Twinkle Butt, I was sure that if we sifted the ashes we could find a spark. I imagined what it would be like to fan the spark...not into a wildfire—the days of wildfires were gone for us. Just a small flame lit my fantasy.
So, when the occasion arose that I might accompany her, without our children, to a weekend gathering of teachers in Edmonton, I saw an opportunity for us to find the spark and rekindle our love. The convention had promise. It was in a first-class hotel. There was a welcoming cocktail party and a banquet with entertainment. She had an expense allowance; her time commitment was not great, and Edmonton has many attractions.
At first, she was hesitant to take me. She was looking forward to a weekend of fun with her fellow teachers. When I explained that to celebrate the trip, I planned on buying each of us a new wardrobe she immediately saw logic in the quest. I convinced her to cancel plans to drive to Edmonton with her best friend so that we might ride the Dayliner, a train that ran between the two cities. The journey was less than four hours and I thought it would be healing for the bruises on our relationship. Relaxing in the club car, watching the scenery, toasting each other with fancy drinks and feasting in elegance in the dining car would be important first steps toward locating the missing spark. In a flash of romantic inspiration, I booked an expensive suite, which, according to the hotel brochure, was sure to inspire notions of romance.
As we drove to the station, the wife was singing—something I hadn’t heard since the previous summer when I yanked a spacer from the deck I was constructing and stuck one end into my forehead. Our train was late. Her shoulders became stiff and she studied a crossword puzzle for the next two hours. The train, when it arrived, consisted of only one car which was reasonable because we were the only passengers. I stowed my suitcase on the luggage rack but left hers at the end of the car because it was too large to lift. She is a good planner and thinks of every contingency, even packing sheets, blankets and pillows in case the hotel was too poor to afford its own.
When we sat, clouds of dust sprang up from the seats and remained suspended around us, each speck visible in the afternoon sun shining through the dirty windows. The wife held a handkerchief to her face but it didn’t prevent a fit of choking. She was still coughing when a man in oily coveralls walked through the car. “Where can we get a drink and when do we eat?” I asked.
He looked at me as though I were unable to tie my own shoelaces. Then he laughed. “This is a short trip,” he said. “There is no dining car, no food and no drinks.” He walked away chuckling.
The wife’s shoulders stiffened again and she made her mouth into a hyphen. Staring at me, she tore the crossword puzzle into tiny pieces. In this fashion we passed the time of the trip, which was longer than four hours because we stopped to enjoy the unparalleled views of Main Street in every town between Calgary and Edmonton. I rubbed a small hole in the dirt on the window to watch the passing scenery. It took my mind off the crossword puzzle. When the sun went down I saw the city lights. We came to a stop and the man in coveralls reappeared. “End of the line, folks. You get off here,” he said.
“But we’re not downtown,” I answered.
“We don’t go downtown. We’re in the rail yard at the edge of the city,” he explained.
I carried the bags. Everything was locked and dark. There was no taxi. The phone booth hosted an out of order sign. We trudged along a dirt road while the wife spoke encouragement by spelling out my fate should I damage her suitcase. When we came to a residential neighborhood, I knocked at a house and asked to use the phone, but the lady slammed the door in my face.
After an hour, we found a corner store and called a cab, which worked its way through Friday evening traffic and deposited us at the hotel. I dragged the suitcases to the front desk. The clerk smiled at me. “You’re hours late,” he said. “Your room wasn’t confirmed. We gave it away a long time ago.”
“Then give me another room.”
“We’re filled with teachers. I’m sorry, but there’s nothing available.” He smiled again which caused him to appear not as sorry as he claimed.
The wife’s heels clicked as she marched back and forth in the center of the lobby. I handed the clerk a twenty. “You have to find a room,” I said. “It’s worth my life.”
He pocketed the twenty. “There is a conference room,” he said. “We can roll cots in. It has a basin and toilet but no bath. You’ll have to be out before eight. There’s a meeting in the morning.”
I glanced at the wife pacing like a bear in a cage. It was probably the light, but it looked like steam was rising from the back of her neck. “We’ll take it,” I said.
We rode the elevator. The bellhop opened the door, dropped our suitcases and held out his hand. “What the hell?” The wife exploded. Normally she doesn’t use foul language but she will make an exception. The bellhop looked at her face and ran.
“They gave away our room,” I explained. “This is all that’s left.”
“The cold weather has frozen your brain. I’m not sleeping here.” She marched into the toilet.
There was a phone on a table in the corner. On my sixth call I was successful—a Holiday Inn on the other side of the city. I shouted the news. After a wait, during which I thought I heard glass breaking, she emerged and paraded out the door. I grabbed the suitcases and followed. We hailed a cab, and an hour later we were in our new room. The temperature of our relationship rose a few degrees. I relaxed. The cocktail party beckoned. Drinks and snacks were exactly what we needed before a late romantic dinner. We returned to our original hotel.
The ballroom was quiet. A man swept the floor. Two ladies gathered glasses and stacked chairs, “Excuse me. Isn’t this where the teacher’s party is supposed to be?” I asked.
“Yes,” the man answered. “But it’s over. Everyone’s gone.”
There was nothing for it but to return to the Holiday Inn, where the wife again went into the bathroom. I called room service and ordered a bottle of champagne and a late dinner. She came out and I went in to wash. When I returned, she was in bed with her back to me.
I started to take off my clothes. I had no idea it would be this easy to recover the spark. “Dinner is on its way,” I said. “Let’s share an appetizer before it gets here.”
She didn’t answer.
“They’re bringing champagne.” I lifted the blanket and prepared to slide into bed.
She spoke to the wall. “Take your champagne and sleep in the bathtub.”
There was a knock on the door. I kept the champagne and sent the dinners back. Then I found a blanket and tried to get comfortable in the tub. I sipped the bubbly liquor and shifted from one side to the other. The tub made my back and neck sore. Sleep was impossible. I started to feel that perhaps the spark was dead. The more I drank, the more I despaired. Finally, with my back so sore I could hardly get out of the tub, I decided to go for a walk.
The bar beside the lobby was open. Why not? If I could dull the pain, I might be able to sleep. I went in and ordered a double whiskey.
The drink burned all the way down. I ordered another and looked around. There were two men at the bar. One was tall with a black moustache. “Drowning your sorrows?” he asked.
“Yes, I am,” I replied. “The wife told me I had to sleep in a bathtub.”
The man laughed. “Sounds serious,” he said. “My wife hasn’t slept with me for five years. I understand how you feel. Let me buy you a drink.”
“Me too,” his friend said. “My wife doesn’t talk to me.”
Two more doubles arrived. They tasted wonderful. Everything was wonderful and the world was marvelous. I forgot about the bathtub and bought more whiskey, then a round of vodka to return the men’s generosity. Later, we drank brandy and smoked cigars while I related the tale of our train ride.
“You should have hitch-hiked,” Black Moustache said.
I found the idea incredibly funny and laughed until tears ran on my cheeks. My companions floated in and out of my vision, astounding me with their fabulous conversation. I was on the edge of great things, but felt completely tranquil. The wife might be angry, but these men understood. I drank some more.
Then something happened. My euphoria collapsed. I remembered my wife, alone upstairs, and my happiness turned to guilt. My new friends sympathized. Yes, the world was unjust. Yes, marriage was fraught with danger. Yes, we were unlucky in love. After that, the evening became murky. I remember feeling ill and going to the bathroom. I also recall riding in a car. I came to myself in a booth in a café. Someone was shaking me. There were plates and cups on the table.
“Wake up,” a woman’s voice said. “Your friends have gone. They said you’d pay.”
Warm sun shone through the window. My hair hurt and my teeth itched. A hundred tiny devils pushed my brain against the backs of my eyes. “Where am I?” I asked.
“Right where your friends left you,” she answered.
“I have to get back to the Holiday Inn. How far is it?”
She laughed. “You’re nowhere near.”
Somewhere, in the depth of my hangover, a light bulb went on. I felt my pocket. Thank God, my wallet was still there. So was my room key.
“They said you’d pay,” the waitress repeated.
The bill took every cent I had. I went outside and began walking. I dreaded going back. I’d never been in so much trouble. I loved her and didn’t relish the idea of spending the rest of my life alone. There was no doubt she would order me to leave. She’d probably already returned home to throw out my belongings and tell her friends about my treachery.
It was mid-morning and my feet were sore by the time I entered the hotel. Perhaps she hadn’t left. Maybe she was in the room waiting to kill me. I had no excuse and no speech ready. I turned the key and opened the door.
The curtains were closed and the only light came from a desk lamp. My wife was sitting in the shadows on the side of the bed. She looked up and I saw she was crying. “Twinkle Butt,” she whispered. Then she stood, ran across the room and threw her arms around me.
My mouth fell open. I had expected a flying water tumbler. The words poured from her. “You scared me half to death. I thought you’d gone. Please don’t frighten me like that. I’ll never be mean to you again.” She shivered and sobbed, making my shirt wet.
I couldn’t believe it. She thought I’d walked out because I was angry—left everything: her, my children, my home, my job. A lump formed in my throat. I opened my mouth to tell her the truth—that I’d got drunk and spent all my money.
“Don’t cry,” I said. “It’s not like that. I didn’t leave you. I … I …”
I opened my mouth but something made me stop: those years together, our children, her belief that I could actually take off like the good guy at the end of a cowboy movie. A tear rolled on my cheek. She’d called me Twinkle Butt after all these years. Maybe it was better if she thought I was angry instead of stupid.
I pulled her close. “I won’t leave again,” I said.
She stretched up and kissed me. “I love you, Twinkle Butt,” she said.
We held hands as we walked down for breakfast. I was tired and I had a hangover, but life was good. Oh yes...that spark...it became a wildfire!
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