Written by Giles Blunt
Format: Trade Paperback, 336 pages
Publisher: Vintage Canada
ISBN: 978-0-679-31442-4 (0-679-31442-3)
Pub Date: November 1, 2005
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Anybody who has spent any length of time in Algonquin Bay will tell you there are plenty of good reasons to live somewhere else. There is the distance from civilization, by which Canadians mean Toronto, 250 miles south. There is the gradual decay of the once-charming downtown, victim to the twin scourges of suburban malls and an unlucky series of fires. And, of course, there are the winters, which are ferocious, snowy and long. It’s not unusual for winter to extend its bone-numbing grip into April, and the last snowfall often occurs in May.
Then there are the blackflies. Every year, following an all-too-brief patch of spring weather, blackflies burst from the beds of northern Ontario’s numberless rivers and streams to feast on the blood of birds, livestock and the citizens of Algonquin Bay. They’re well equipped for it, too. The blackfly may be less than a quarter-inch long, but up close it resembles an attack helicopter, fitted with a sucker at one end and a nasty hook at the other. Even one of these creatures can be a misery. Caught in a swarm, a person can very rapidly go mad.
The World Tavern may not have looked too crazy on this particular Friday, but Blaine Styles, the bartender, knew there would be problems. Blackfly season just doesn’t bring out the best in people — those that drink, anyway. Blaine wasn’t a hundred percent sure which quarter the trouble would come from, but he had his candidates.
For one, there was the trio of dorks at the bar — a guy named Regis and his two friends in baseball caps, Bob and Tony. They were drinking quietly, but they had flirted a little too long with Darla, the waitress, and there was a restlessness about them that didn’t bode well for later. For another, there was the table at the back by the map of Africa. They’d been drinking Molson pretty steadily for a couple of hours now. Quiet, but steady. And then there was the girl, a redhead Blaine had never seen before who kept moving from table to table in a way that he found — professionally speaking — disturbing.
A Labatt Blue bottle flew across the room and hit the map of Canada just above Newfoundland. Blaine shot from behind the bar and waltzed the drunk who’d thrown it out the door before he could even protest. It bothered Blaine that he hadn’t even seen this one coming. The jerk had been sitting with a couple of guys in leather jackets under France, and hadn’t raised even a blip on the bartender’s radar. The World Tavern, oldest and least respectable gin joint in Algonquin Bay, could get pretty hairy on a Friday night, especially in blackfly season, and Blaine preferred to set the limits early.
He went back behind the bar and poured a couple of pitchers for the table over by the map of Africa — getting a little louder, he noticed. Then there was an order for six continentals and a couple of frozen margaritas that kept him hopping. After that there was a slack period, and he rested his foot on a beer case, easing his back while he washed a few glasses.
There weren’t too many regulars tonight; he was glad about that. Television shows would have you believe that the regulars in a bar are eccentrics with hearts of gold, but Blaine found they were mostly just hopeless dipwads with serious issues around self-esteem. The stained, shellacked maps on the walls of the World Tavern were the closest these people would ever get to leaving Algonquin Bay.
Jerry Commanda was sitting at the end of the bar nursing his usual Diet Coke with a squeeze of lemon and reading Maclean’s. A bit of a mystery, Jerry. On the whole, Blaine liked him, despite his being a regular — respected him, anyway — even if he was an awful tipper.
Jerry used to be a serious drinker — not a complete alky, but a serious drinker. This was back when he was in high school, maybe into his early twenties. But then something had sobered him up and he’d never touched alcohol again. Didn’t set foot in the World or any other bar for five, six years after that. Then, a few years ago, he’d started coming in on Friday nights, and he’d always park his skinny butt at the end of the bar. You could see everything that was going on from there.
Blaine had once asked Jerry how he’d kicked the bottle, if he’d gone the twelve-step route.
“Couldn’t stand twelve-step,” Jerry had said. “Couldn’t stand the meetings. Everyone saying they’re powerless, asking God to get them out of this pickle.” Jerry used words like that now and again, even though he was only about forty. Old-fashioned words like pickle or fellow or cantankerous. “But it turned out to be pretty easy to quit alcohol, once I figured out what I had to do was quit thinking, not drinking.”
“No one can quit thinking,” Blaine had said. “Thinking’s like breathing. Or sweating. It’s just something you do.”
Jerry then launched into some weird psychological bushwah. Said it might be true you couldn’t stop the thoughts from coming, but you could change what you did with them. The secret was being able to sidestep them. Blaine remembered the words exactly because Jerry was a four-time Ontario kick-boxing champion, and when he’d said sidestep he’d made a nifty little manoeuvre that looked kind of, well, disciplined.
So Jerry Commanda had learned to sidestep his thoughts, and the result was him parking himself at the end of the bar every Friday night for an hour or so, with his Diet Coke and his squeeze of lemon. Blaine figured it was partly to deter some of the young guys from the reserve from drinking too much. Pretty hard for them to cut loose with the reserve’s best-known cop sitting at the bar, reading a magazine and sipping his Coke. Some of them, minute they saw him, just did a 180 and walked out.
Blaine swept his wary bartender’s gaze over his domain. The Africa table was definitely getting boisterous. Boisterous was okay, but it was just one level down from obnoxious. Blaine cocked his head to one side, listening for warning notes — the gruff challenge, the outraged cry that was inevitably followed by the scraping of a chair. Except for the bottle tosser, it looked to be a peaceful night. The bottle tosser, and the girl.
From the Hardcover edition.
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