The day I met Chief was all about political correctness. Or maybe it was just his size that worked against me. Mack—or Chief as he liked to be called—was huge, just a hair shy of seven feet. His weight was all very proportional, with not an ounce of detectable fat. The guy was formidable, even without the ethnic thing going for him. You didn’t have to see that man butt naked to know he was solid rock. Not your typical impression of First Nations physique, that’s for sure.
“Damn you’re tall,” I blurted out when he stood up. The wind was blowing eastward off the St. Lawrence river and his long ponytail spun around with the breeze. I ducked the shaft of dark-brown hair in the nick of time and moved off the bench we’d been sitting on, one of two that faced the water on this tiny promontory along the river.
“Is it windy down there, too?” he asked.
I laughed because the disparity in our sizes was rather vivid, “of mice and men” proportion. I wondered if he knew the story, and if so, would he take offence at the Lennie reference. I chose caution instead. “I didn’t mean to insult you.”
He walked a few steps to the water’s edge and stood as though at attention, determined to see something across the way. I sat down again and tried to imagine what he was searching for. The Mohawk reservation was just across the river’s narrow span.
“Are you familiar with the island?”
“That’s so stupid.”
If the wind hadn’t been so gusty, bouncing the sound off both of my eardrums, I might have opted to let well enough alone. I wouldn’t have been so preoccupied with listening, would have picked up that he was angry, sensed that for my own safety I needed to scram from this six-foot eleven, pissed-off individual. Instead, I doubted I’d heard correctly and I played dumb. “I’m…I’m sorry, what…?”
“Just because I’m Indian doesn’t mean I know every reservation, bro’.” When he turned towards me there was no denying the disdain in his eyes. He sat next to me again, so close I could smell his body odour. It wasn’t sweaty or unclean, nothing like that—just what Chief smelled like, a spicy citrus scent that came from a bottle. Aqua Velva? I was guessing at the aftershave brand when I realized his ass cheek, by way of his thigh, was pressed against mine. I did all I could not to be aroused from the heat transferred by the contact. The warmth of his body was conspicuous, pitted against the day’s cold and the lacklustre sun that barely peeped from behind swollen cumulous clouds.
“I…I didn’t mean it like that…bro’.” When he grinned, I thought it harmless enough to move away an inch or two, respite for some personal decorum.
“What, you don’t like me?” Chief rested his arm over my shoulders and squished me back to his side. That damned thigh of his, a giant slab of muscle against my meagre build; there, it seemed, only to toy with me.
I extricated myself from his hold and slid down a ways on the bench. “Now, I know you’re not gay so…”
“Finally, you got something right.” He held his hand out. I took it and introduced myself. “I’m Mack,” he replied, “but my friends call me Chief.”
How original, I thought, but I kept that one to myself. “Chief…?”
“Yeah, not too creative on the rez.”
“You said it, I didn’t.”
“So Jackson, you don’t have a nickname?” He moved away a bit, giving me space to breathe.
“No, not really. Not anything that stuck.”
“No Shrimp? Peewee? Not even Jackie?”
“Like I said, nothing that stuck.” He glanced out again across the river. “You waiting for something?” I asked.
I was trying not to pace, but my nerves were frayed—the result of little sleep for the last few nights. I knew what to expect inside the makeshift courtroom, but knowing something is not like being able to predict the future. This public Inquiry, into historical child abuse in my town, had spilled into chaos more than once, every time new evidence criticized the many powers that ruled here. I did not want that to happen when I testified. The decade since I had come forward with the facts of my molestation had led to this crucial day, and I sure as hell didn’t want it exploding in my face.
“I can’t believe I came here with you.” Chief’s apartment was nothing to brag about. The place was poorly furnished with only bare necessities to call it a home. There were no clichés to identify his heritage, no tribal connections, not even a dream catcher.
“Can I get you anything? Coffee? A beer?”
“I wouldn’t say no to a beer.” My host went out of the living room and came back with a Molson and a Coke. We clanked our respective containers and sat down again. “You don’t smoke?”
“Depends…” he said.
“Oh, you mean you smoke dope…?”
“Maybe… Are you a narc?”
“I’m the one who came here with the promise of illegal smokes, right? Do I sound like a narc?” I hadn’t meant to be defensive but the tone still came out that way.
“You can’t ever be too careful, you know. It doesn’t take much to get busted in this small town.”
“Every week, if you believe the local paper…”
Chief was gone for a few minutes. I could hear shuffling, and what sounded like boxes being moved down the hallway. When he came back, I noticed the dust bunnies stuck to his knees. Whether it was his size or just the silliness of that grey moulting dangling off the denim, the sight amused me. When he approached, I made a point of cleaning off the smudging. “You been digging under a bed for those?” He handed me the sealed bags of contraband. “Thanks. I’ve never done this before. You’re my first time.”
“Welcome to Eastern Ontario. The land of Indian weed.” I paid him for the packages and opened one to sniff the product. He tossed me a lighter and pulled a few grocery bags from under the sofa in one sweeping curve resembling a golf swing. He used one of the bags to dump the overflow from the ashtray while I lit up. I dragged long and hard to get my nicotine fix.
“Ahh… I could’ve used these this morning.”
“Dad, it’s a bit late for me to be backing out now. I’m testifying in two hours.” It’s never too late were the only words of his that stayed with me as I entered the packed courtroom. I kept from looking at all the lawyers by pretending I was somewhere else, anywhere but this court of opinion. All the parties “with standing” at this Inquiry—the Catholic Church, the OPP and local police forces, the children’s services, and more. I couldn’t even remember who all was represented; organizations with the authority to cross-examine me once my testimony had been laid out for the picking. Had I been wrong to trust this process? Had I made a pact with the devil here? If all the allegations of corruption within the system were true, did it even matter when it came to someone as insignificant as me? What could they do to me now, even if they dared!
“I just took up smoking again. About an hour before I saw you by the river.” I lit up as soon as I’d put out my first cigarette. Fifteen years apart did make the heart grow fonder, I concluded. It felt good having this prop to rely on, even as I made a determination: I’d smoke the three cartons I’d just purchased and then quit again cold turkey. I had done it before. I could do it again, right? The cheap tobacco seared my lungs and I savoured the rush the haze brought to my head.
Chief took my empty, about to replace it, but I gestured that I was okay. “So why today?” he asked, sashaying the bottle through the smoke I’d exhaled. I thought of old westerns with cowboys and Indians and the clichéd smoke signals. What was he doing…?
The Inquiry staffers congratulated me on a fine job. Everyone appeared so pleased. “You really think it made a difference?” I asked them.
“You heard O’Malley, the OPP rep. He meant what he said.”
“Yeah, well I had only praise for them, right? What would they have thought if I’d said differently?”
“But you didn’t, that’s all that matters.”
I wasn’t so sure of that prognosis. I was feeling claustrophobic and needed to get out.
“Can I bum a cigarette?” I asked one of the Inquiry lawyers as soon as we were outdoors.
“I didn’t know you smoked.”
“You follow the local papers?” Chief looked at me warily, as though I’d just accused him of being illiterate. “You following the Inquiry stuff?” I said in order to clarify.
He sized me up. “You part of all that?” I nodded. “That sucks.”
“Yeah. Big time.”
“Something happened? Today?”
“I was on the stand to testify.”
“I’ been in court before. It’s no fun knowing what you don’t know.” He played with my beer bottle on the coffee table. The neck pointed back at me as it finished spinning. “You been in jail before?”
I was ashamed to admit it so I went on the offensive. “You?” His nod was hardly any movement at all. I had to decide if he’d actually confessed to it or not. I took it as a yes, so I added, “Me, too.”
He went to the window and closed the drapes. Though the night sky was darkening, the need for artificial light was still optional. Our eyes were visible, which was all that mattered. “What were you in for?” he asked. When he sat down, I was reminded once more of his scent, only now, the sweetness was mixed with some perspiration and my tobacco smoke.
“You were waiting for something today, by the river, right?” I asked, some hesitance behind wanting an answer. “I wasn’t imagining things. Did you expect a signal…some deliveries maybe…?”
“None of the above…maybe…”
Our breathing was all that could be heard in the entire building. I was convinced of that. There were no noises inside or out. I thought this strange, given the size of the complex, and the poor construction I supposed had gone into it when it was built back in the sixties, if the outside façade was any indication. Chief put his arm around my shoulders and leaned in. “It must have been real tough being molested.”
My heart skipped one, two beats. It was doing calisthenics, so skewed was it by the suddenness of the shift in the room. I didn’t know this man who had just sold me my illegal smokes. I didn’t know who I was sitting next to, this enormous fellow who had said he was straight but who now seemed very open to intimacy. Or was I just reading way too much into this!
“You did say…you were straight, right …?”
Chief took me into his arms and placed me on his lap. He never said a word and I never complained. He just held me there like a father would a frightened son.
I’d never been by the river this late at night. Every rippling wave, every bird and insect doing whatever nature called on them to do, was all foreign to me. I might as well have been lost in the African Serengeti. When the time came to act, I watched as Chief moved out of the shadows and went towards the craft. My job, simple as it was—to watch for unexpected cars stopping—was complicated by the fact that I’d never broken the law like this before. My sole arrest had been for public sex, the unintentional effect of entrapment by a rogue cop who had wanted action on the side. A request, I had naively declined, that had gotten me busted.
I tried to tap out a song in my mind, something to calm me. All I wanted, really, was another cigarette. In the dusky background I could see two people unloading objects. I was counting the distance to our parked car when I was spooked by a whispered “Jackie!”
Jackie? What the hell was that! Then I realized it was Chief being stupid. I almost didn’t respond, but when the voice came back, now with the force of a salvo full of alarm, I ran down the embankment. “What?”
Chief’s palm hurled its substantial mass over my mouth as he spoke directly into my ear. “Someone’s out on the river. Gotta be the cops. You need to walk on off and get lost. Real quick.” He patted my back and before I knew it, I was slinking away.
I never asked “What about you?” I never thought it; didn’t even wait. I just did as I was told and hastened off. At first, I followed the shoreline but found the swaths of bushes and trees too hazardous, certain that I would trip and fall into the water. The idea that searchlights could be set upon me from a boat on the St. Lawrence never entered my mind until it was too late.
The sound of “Stop! Police!” came simultaneously with the bright light silhouetting my position. If I’d ever felt foolish, this was of an entirely new degree, one to compare notes with forever more. I briefly entertained the thought of scurrying off in the underbrush, but being the object of a manhunt, with the image of me crouched, Saddam Hussein-like in a makeshift shelter, made me reconsider.
At the police station, after the humiliating legal rigmarole and my promise to appear had been satisfied, I kept an eye out for Chief. My arrest had gone speedily; with the police cruiser driving me off before I could see who else had been caught in the raid. Did I dare ask about others? What was the proper etiquette in cases like these?
I walked outside the station, more desperate than ever for a cigarette, and saw O’Malley before he saw me. I made a beeline onto the lawn in the opposite direction of the officer. “Jackson! Jackson, wait up!”
I wanted to die. How could I face the guy who’d just congratulated me for doing a good job earlier on that day? “Uh, oh…hi…”
“Jackson, what were you thinking?”
He knew! How could that be? “I didn’t…do…know…what…” That obviously hadn’t worked. “I wasn’t thinking, I guess…”
“I put in a good word for you.” The OPP Sergeant leaned right into me, not Chief-like at all, not one bit friendly. “Don’t make me regret that.”
He looked finished with me, in a disgusted sort of way. I backed up a few steps. “I… I won’t…”
“You owe me one…”
“Yeah, okay. Right…” I walked on over the lawn and across the road, and down some dark side streets. All I wanted was a cigarette. All I could think of was Chief. Was he back, safely on the rez? In the cold waters of the St. Lawrence, hiding away till the coast was clear?
I went into a neighborhood store and bought a pack of Rothman’s. I was standing in front of the bay window with the first glimpse of dawn creeping up. The OPP cruiser drove by slowly and stopped at the red light. I recognized O’Malley’s profile instantly. I was about to retreat behind the rack of chips when I saw the large figure sitting beside him in the front seat. The two men were laughing.
Old Spice! Finally, the name of the aftershave brand had come to me.
The light turned green clashing against the azure sky.