"Easy Money" was the first of two chapters I deleted from the original line-up of Twelve Stories (really, fifteen chapters). If Twelve Stories had been seventeen chapters, rather than fifteen, this piece would have fit right in between "Passiondale" and "The Widow Leibowietz" as the second chapter of the novel (not quite a prologue, but almost: almost a prologue...)
When the Kochans got back from Disneyworld, my dad called me over to show me the label on his package of cigarettes. He smoked Black Cats; he used the tinfoil as bookmarks for his library books. “You see that logo?” he quizzed me. “You collect enough of those labels, and you win a free trip.” “Where to?” I asked him, getting up my hopes for Florida. “Straight up the cat’s asshole!” he laughed, teasing me. To his credit, he didn’t have a smoker’s cough; his laugh was a gentle chuckle, rather than a caustic bark.
As a joke, that was right up there with tying a pork chop around my neck to get the dog to play with me when I was a baby, but not quite as good as the classic “Pull my thumb” gag.
I was ten years old, wearing a pair of Mickey Mouse ears I found in the snow bank out front the Kochan house. In the Polaroid, I am wearing a black turtleneck, and white gloves, but I don’t remember ever owning a pair of white gloves, or a black turtleneck, not even at Halloween.
As a kid, most of my Star Wars action figures came from the grass underneath the clothesline in their backyard: the Kochan brothers always had the best toys (even their leftovers).
It was just after Christmas, 1981, when the Kochan family (our across-the-road neighbours) had returned from their annual winter vacation down south, bringing home the type of souvenirs that became legendary in my schoolyard. Novelties like real laser beams, while we were still playing Star Wars with slingshots, and lightsabers made out of fluorescent bulbs stolen from the metal dumpster at the back of the school janitor’s workshop.
I had a grandmother who lived part of the year in Florida, with her second husband, but my family (father, mother, my kid sister) had never been south of International Falls, Minnesota. Each Christmas my Grandmother Harper would send us shit like a bathroom mirror (for hanging over the toilet?) covered in seashells, when we really needed a family dart board for my bedroom wall. I couldn’t expect a pool table for Christmas, but would have appreciated a skateboard.
The only great gift she ever sent me was a stack of garage-sale comic books (Superman, Popeye, Thor, Uncle Scrooge) and an American high school history textbook, from 1961. (“John F. Kennedy is our 35th president.”) That reading material was for my tenth birthday, February of 1981, so by the time Christmas rolled around, I was dreaming again of Florida, and the great gift items the Kochan brothers were able to pull out of the Sunshine State from their cousins.
Under the Christmas tree, the latest Empire Strikes Back action figures were one thing, but I loved that American high school history textbook. I loved that textbook so much, I brought it to school with me for my classroom lending library. Which makes no sense as I say it out loud, but I loved that high school textbook so much, I wanted it to be with me all day, and I wanted to share it with all of my schoolmates, guys like Kip Gordon, and Andy Bickle, and Jimmy Krantz, and James Duke, and even girls like Robin Atwill and Kimberley Cruise (the smartest kids in my classroom). When I wasn’t in school (weekends) I’d drive around town with that textbook up on the dashboard of my dad’s van, just so I could keep looking at it, out on the highway.
Weird, right? I used to stand beside my dad, reading that textbook as we’d drive out to the gas station, keeping an eye on the windshield in case I needed to let my body go loose and be thrown from the vehicle, in the event of a car crash.
I might have started panicking, if I’d forgotten my textbook at school during the holiday break: I read that textbook cover to cover, memorizing every word, during Christmas vacation: it was my Fortress of Solitude, my spinach, my Asgard, my coin vault, all rolled into one.
I was infatuated with that textbook, more than any toy I was ever able to smuggle out of the Kochan basement, which is really saying something (Boba Fett!)
What made that American high school history textbook so great? Well, it was obviously twenty years out of date, and pretty obviously, written for teenagers with a basic level of reading comprehension, but it covered everything from the Eskimos walking across ice to North America at the time of the birth of Jesus, right up to the inauguration of President Kennedy.
That textbook covered everything from the early tribes of the American continent (the Mayans and the Incas), to the arrival of the Spanish explorers; from how the Spanish colonized both Mexico and Florida, leaving Brazil for the Portuguese (because the Pope used his religious authority to divide up the world), to how the British and the French fought over North America, until the Americans finally won their independence from the British empire, in 1776.
Did you know that American academics still argue to this day whether, during the War Between the States, President Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves because it was the right thing to do, or because it was the expedient thing to do, during the military conflict? The North was about to lose the war, so did Lincoln free the slaves because he wanted to, or because he had to? That is the great unanswered question of the Emancipation Proclamation: what was Lincoln thinking?
That blew my mind: like finding out FDR knew about Pearl Harbor, and let it happen.
To me, that textbook wasn’t just the oldest book I had ever seen (1961!) it was all these fascinating, made-up stories about real people. Half of the book was written in the first-person, present tense! Even as a kid, I could tell the book was over-simplified, presenting all the famous names of history as pathfinders and pirates, rather than fleshed-out individual characters.
After Christmas break (that year, the Kochan brothers brought back an Atari 2600 from Florida; I got two pairs of hand-knitted socks from my grandmother) my grade five teacher gave our class the assignment of picking a famous person from world history, and writing a two-page report about them. It could be anyone we wanted (so long as Miss Demanjiew approved of your selection: no cartoon characters!) and the two pages didn’t need to be handed in until the middle of January, so we had almost two weeks to research and write our essays at the school library.
I chose Julius Caesar. I got so focussed on my essay, I didn’t think anything of lending my American history textbook to Lila Galarneau, when she slipped me a note at the back of the classroom, making the request. Until Lauren Grisham came along, Lila sat just in front of me in grades four, five, and six (alphabetically-charted) but we were never close; I can’t say we were friends, let alone buddies out in the schoolyard. I liked Lila enough to lend her my textbook, but it was more that I trusted Lila to return the book undamaged, rather than I was hoping to impress the girl with my Grandmother Harper’s birthday present from the year before.
Lila was smart, but not as smart as Robin Atwill and Kimberley Cruise, or even as smart as Jimmy Krantz (those three kids would end up skipping the sixth grade, but that’s another story I’d rather not get into, right now; let’s just say, Robin Atwill ended up breaking my heart.)
When we got our reports back after the weekend, third week of January, my research on Julius Caesar had earned me a solid B+, but something extraordinary had happened with our first history assignment of the semester: Lila Galarneau had earned an A++; something I didn’t even know was possible, until Lila had achieved the break-through.
Her essay was on Christopher Columbus, and that choice itself wasn’t so exciting, but she had written her report in the first-person, present-tense! (“My name is Christopher Columbus, the captain of the Santa Maria. The date is October 11, 1492...”)
Miss Demanjiew almost blew out her pantyhose when she shit herself, over that report. Most of the kids in the class had simply copied two pages of the classroom Junior Encyclopaedia Britannica for their essay, but Lila had turned in original work. If Lila’s report didn’t deserve the very first A++ Miss Demanjiew had ever handed out, nothing did. To hear Miss Demanjiew tell the tale, Lila Galarneau practically deserved the Pulitzer Prize. While every other kid had written their biography in the third-person, past-tense, Lila had created something fresh.
For her part, Lila actually looked confused, what all the Hubba Bubba was about.
I was smart enough to move around the paragraphs and shuffle the sentences when copying out my essay on Julius Caesar (I mean, nobody expected a bunch of ten-year-olds from Northwestern Ontario to hand in primary-source material, original research on the birth of the Roman Empire) but what Lila had done was shatter expectations, presenting her two-page paper like a document salvaged from the personal archives of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella.
Immediately after we got our grades, Miss Demanjiew gave our class basically the same assignment all over again, but this time, we were allowed to write about famous fictional people as well (no cartoon characters! And no Star Wars villains, either! Other than that, go crazy.)
I was tempted to write about Mr. Spock, but for some reason, I choose Marco Polo, can’t tell you why. I didn’t own any books on Marco Polo; hadn’t even seen him on TV. But my father told me about Genghis Khan, and the Mongols, so I decided to look into it. There wasn’t much at the Nipigon Public Library about Genghis Khan, but I found a stack of books on Marco Polo and his journey to the Far East, so decided to write about him instead: I wanted to impress my father, let him know that I had been listening when he told me about Genghis Khan and his warriors.
My dad had a way of making history come alive, even when he didn’t know what he was talking about; and even after finishing Under The Dome, I’ve never read a Stephen King novel as good as the way my father summarized it for me; not even The Stand was that spellbinding.
After Lila Galarneau got her A++, I was determined to earn an A+++; maybe that was the reason I decided to tackle Marco Polo, rather than Mr. Spock, or Lincoln. If Lila Galarneau could get an A++ for writing about Christopher Columbus, I wanted to be the first man on the moon.
I didn’t just want to be doubleplusgood, I wanted to be tripleplusgood; I wouldn’t give up working until I earned the highest grade possible, 105% (with the bonus credit available).
It was difficult work, and I wasn’t getting paid for it, but I read every book I could find on Marco Polo, and summarized everything that had ever been written about the guy into seven pages of handwriting. I drew a bunch of maps, from memory, and then for the pièce de résistance I took my wood-burning kit, covered the pages in sawdust and oil, and scorched the edges of the paper to make the document look like an authentic antique parchment, rolled up in a glass bottle.
I got the bottle from down the railroad tracks, underneath the Nipigon River Bridge.
It was a Crown Royal bottle, too good to smash against a brick wall, but perfect for my Marco Polo school report. (Liquor bottles weren’t returnable for deposit refund in Ontario, until years later, unlike like beer bottles and pop bottles: beer bottles were my major source of income when I was ten years old, right up until high school.)
Did you know that there are about six different ways to spell Kublai Khan? Kublai Khan was Genghis Khan’s grandson, and so Kublai Khan never met Marco Polo, but I learned through my research that the same man can spell his name in many different ways having multiple names even fake names! (Fake names!) That was a real eye-opener. Something worth remembering.
I thoroughly enjoyed forging both Marco Polo’s signature, and the antique parchment it was written on. I probably spent an hour alone practicing that signature; it had to be just right, or else I wasn’t going to be satisfied. That document was my bliss, my joy on a cold winter morning in February, my shelter from an unreliable world; my formative addiction to winning, at all costs.
But it wasn’t so bad, when I got my mark back. Miss Demanjiew gave me an A+, not the highly coveted A+++, but that classroom assignment opened up the whole world for me, in ways that are obvious, and again, ways that are not so obvious, unless you’ve been reading closely.
After Lila Galarneau’s academic achievement, every kid in the class wrote their report in the first-person, present-tense. And I wasn’t the only kid to get out his wood-burning kit, making my report look like a document from the ancient past, or distant future. There were biographies printed on tree bark, and TV screens, and everything in-between. It was like a science fair, rather than a history assignment, the wild shit that got handed in to Miss Demanjiew after she gave Lila Galarneau an A++ for writing about Christopher Columbus in the first-person, present-tense.
“My name is Vasco Núñez de Balboa. Today for me is a proud day…” (Indeed.)
I had to accept the fact that Lila Galarneau had created something original. It didn’t even occur to me that Miss Demanjiew was her aunt, until I started to write down this story, and I still don’t think that fact had any bearing on the outcome of Lila receiving the top grade for her work.
At our Grade Five Graduation ceremony (who knows what the fuck that was all about? Everybody made it back in the fall to carry on into grade six, from what I remember) Principal Chase gave Lila a gold medal for Best Presentation of the School Year, which would have been the entire school, from kindergarten to grade eight, at St. Mary’s Catholic School. I suppose she deserved it, but I could never figure out where her moment of inspiration had come from.
Until high school: I was thumbing through my bookshelves, when I stumbled upon that old American high school textbook gifted from my grandmother in Florida. My mother’s mother has been gone a long time now, but I still have that book. And right in the opening pages of This Is Our Land are the precise words: “My name is Christopher Columbus, the captain of the Santa Maria. The date is October 11, 1492...” (I don’t know how I could have missed that, but I did.)
Lila would end up telling me she’d felt uncomfortable accepting her gold medal back in grade school but I told her to be proud of her achievement, never apologize for standing out from the crowd. Lila had pulled off the smoothest scam I’d ever seen, up to that point: and it was such a slick scam, she didn’t even know she was pulling one off.
Ignorance is bliss, as they say, but sometimes the unexamined life is not worth leading.