A river passes through our little rural community. It’s here where further upstream navigation ends for anything much larger than a canoe or shallow-draft skiff.
The river once served as a highway for lake-going vessels, the connection to Lake St. Clair and from there, the world. Apart from the spring thaw or when there’s a heavy rainfall, the current of the clay-coloured waters are at best sluggish.
It’s a place that has for centuries been a gathering place and even permanent settlement. Around the turn of the 18th century people of African and European descent arrived to join the original inhabitants. All would gather along the banks for trade, for celebration, for nourishment of the soul.
Generations have passed and much has been forgotten of those times and yet a collective memory remains infused, part of the very landscape. At least it would seem.
A year ago, I was dealing with a pair of overgrown rose bushes on a bright Sunday morning on the river flats next to the plaque celebrating a noted civil rights activist when I was approached by a cyclist. I had seen him earlier, weaving from sidewalk to street and back again with little regard for the sparse traffic, a miniscule black dog peeking out from his backpack.
He dismounted, set his friend to the ground which approached me as his master initiated a rambling conversation, speaking as the surroundings wavered about his spare frame. I learned he was an Indigenous fellow from the north, raised by adoptive parents in Eastern Ontario, had moved here to be closer to them again. He had secured work at the town’s food processing plant and a newly renovated apartment.
A lost soul, I thought, perhaps drawn to this place, this community, instinctually. He removed, his sky-blue reflective sunglasses, revealing a surprisingly, long pale face, and small, dark eyes. A featherweight at most, he danced about a bit, one foot to the next, and took note of the hand-pruning shears clutched in my right hand and pointing towards him.
“What are you going to do with those?” he asked.
In response, I looked down, thought of my father, and offered a lopsided grin. Father called the village that lay five miles from our farm Skipper-Inn.
At the public school there, we were assigned seats. One year Roger was placed immediately behind me at the back of the room and next to Roger was Bill. The fellow next to me I don’t recall, other than he didn’t seem to have a great deal to say or share.
There was a bit of competition between the three of us when it came to tests and report cards. We’d compare the numbers. Bill, whom I suspected worked hard at his lessons, attained the higher marks though Roger and I were not far behind.
We shared what might be considered a strange sense of humour, Roger and I, and once wrote a story together, Normally Abnormal, perhaps inspired by Mel Brook’s Young Frankenstein. To my surprise, we received strong marks and even a recitation from the teacher.
Roger carried an air of reserve about him. I suspect he may have performed better with his grades but preferred a place at the edge of things at that time. As for myself, I did care, but seldom to the extent of actually applying myself.
We talked of heritage once in the school yard, the three of us, standing together. I had plenty to say, and with a great deal of pride, having not yet recognized the betrayal and abandonment that can occur within families. I looked to Roger, posed the obvious question, only to be puzzled by his one-word reply — “mongolian”.
Highschool brought change. Our lives moved in different directions. I eventually stopped asking Roger to shoot a few hoops at the start of our gym class. It came as a kind relief to both of us; one possessing a natural athleticism, the other who only would attain some semblance of graceful movement through a great deal of practice.
There was an undeserved dark interval for Roger in high school. I saw it in his eyes as we passed in a hallway, our last communication.
Yet his fortunes and popularity in my mind appear to be on the rise. I remember especially his floating passage on the football field, slipping through the line, changing direction in full stride – and once again, gaining yards before his tall lithe form was dragged down, members of the opposing team having pinpointed the best hope of a losing side. ◊