The Death of Dr. Hook
It was the holiday long weekend my two best friends and I got one man killed, and put another guy in a wheelchair for the rest of his life: Canada Day, 1988.
This was back in the day, long before Curtis Maynard had the idea of walking into the LCBO wearing a barbecue cover as a burqa, and demanding service in Arabic.
Our regular bootlegger was in the hospital, starving himself to death on a special diet. Whiskey Jack had weighed 320 pounds at Christmas, built like a hockey goon, but he switched to french fries for his New Year’s resolution, determined to shave ten inches off his gut. He lost 220 pounds in six months, but his stomach had swollen up like a balloon. As his gut expanded, Weesageechak doubled-down on eating french fries, morning, noon, and night, taking no other nutrition. At the sweat lodge, his body odour was malt vinegar. Outside the sweat lodge, he was too sick to continue running his taxi stand, even with the help of his daughters.
He eventually passed on from potassium poisoning of the kidneys and liver.
With Whiskey Jack out of the picture, we began dealing with a fellow named Dr. Hook; Dr. Hook wasn’t as reliable as Whiskey Jack, but he also didn’t cost as much money for a bottle of Southern Comfort, or a keg of beer; all you had to do was give him $10 extra to cover the cost of a bottle of cheap cooking sherry: it was better for him than drinking shoe polish, or windshield washer fluid, or Aqua Velva aftershave, strained through a handkerchief.
We were on the third day of a two-day bender. Duke, Booger and I were sitting on the steps in front of the liquor store in downtown Nipigon, waiting for Albert Whitefish to crawl out from whatever swamp ditch he had slept in the night before, so the guy could buy us alcohol. As Duke imitated Albert’s drunken storytelling, Booger was picking shards of glass off the bottom of the steps, and absentmindedly flicking them out onto the street. He had hands like a magician, made for shoplifting, but his nicotine-stained fingers were cut, and beginning to bleed.
“One time, I caught a speckled trout, so big – it almost pulled me into the water!”
“Jesus Christ, have I got a headache…”
“Biggest speck I ever seen, fifteen pounds, easy – but – it got away from me!”
“I think I’m gonna puke!”
“That speck – it would have been a world record, for sure!”
“What time is it?” I interrupted Duke’s rambling monologue.
“Ten minutes to 12:00,” Booger muttered, not looking up from the sidewalk.
“Why isn’t he here yet?”
“He’s probably just crawling out from underneath a canoe somewhere.”
Albert Whitefish was this tough old bird who used to ride the Greyhound bus between Pays Platt and Kenora each month, but he always seemed to end up passed out on the sidewalk in Nipigon outside the LCBO, kicked off the bus for acting belligerent. During the summer he slept underneath the boat rack down at the Nipigon marina; during the winter he slept in jail. He had a hook for a left hand, because one morning in Nipigon, Albert had been hit by a train while taking a nap on the railroad tracks across from the cemetery.
My head was throbbing. I needed a glass of water, and some aspirin.
“What time is it now?”
Duker ran up the steps to peer inside the front window of the liquor store, greasy face pressed against the glass. It took a moment for his pale blue eyes to adjust to the empty darkness.
“It’s 11:52, according to the digital clock.”
Booger looked up from his crotch, where he had been resting his head in despair.
“Maybe we should go down to the marina, get to Albert before somebody else does.”
Duke and I looked at each other, both too sick to walk down to the marina.
“Nah, he’ll be here. He’s like an animal when it comes to waking up for the liquor store. Pure instinct. It’s eerie. Like watching a bear come out of hibernation. He’s been asleep for eight months, how does he know it’s springtime? Does the liquor store call his name? It must be an old Indian tracking skill, adapted for the 20th century…”
I looked over at Duke, not believing my ears. They were on fire, red hot, burning up.
The liquor store opened at 12:01. We would have been the first customers of the day, except we were seventeen years old, two years shy of the age of majority in Ontario. Booger’s father was the assistant manager of the liquor store in Nipigon, so we could always act like we were just hanging out on the steps of the liquor store, rehearsing a play. The sidewalk was empty for another five minutes. Albert Whitefish didn’t show up at 12:00 on the dot, which was out of character for him. Plan B was Booger going into the store to rip off his old man while Duke and I created a distraction out on the street, but you could only pull that trick so many times.
Just then, Turk Morgan rumbled up in front of the liquor store in his half-ton truck, skidding to a loud stop directly in front of the steps.
“Hey, what are you faggots doing here?” Turk asked, hopping out of the cab of his truck, “I didn’t know the liquor store was having a sale on raspberry wine coolers this weekend.”
Turk Morgan was two years older than us. He grew a bushy black mustache back in grade school. He was 6’2” tall, 225 pounds of muscle. He boxed, and had already gone pretty far, fighting in national tournaments, but he was a real mean prick out on the street, also.
If I’d had to describe a good quality Turk possessed, I wouldn’t have said, he knows a high-end hooker from Duluth, Minnesota who sleeps with him half-price every time she comes home to visit her parents in Nipigon; I’d have said, Turk’s single redeeming personal trait is, the guy always seems to know before anybody else when something has happened.
He was smoking a cigarette in the boys’ washroom the morning Pear took the shit that the school janitor had to lift out of the toilet and bury behind our high school with a shovel.
He had been in the weight room at our high school listening to the launch of the space shuttle Challenger on the radio, eighteen months earlier. As a result, he had been the first guy to tell the joke, what does NASA stand for? Need Another Seven Astronauts.
“Are you boys waiting for somebody to buy you alcohol?” Turk sneered at us, spitting on the sidewalk. “How long have you been sitting here? Even the Indians don’t sit around drunk out in front of the liquor store, waiting for somebody to buy them alcohol.”
“No, we’re rehearsing a play, what do you think, Turk? C’mon: can you get a bottle for us? We’ll pay you $80: $60 for two 26ers of Southern Comfort, and $20 extra for you,” I tried to appeal to Turk’s basically self-interested nature, “That’s a pretty good deal, $20 just for walking into the liquor store and grabbing two bottles of Southern Comfort.”
Turk lit up a big fat stogie, stepped forward – and blew a cloud of cigar smoke in my face. Then he laughed at me.
“Fuck you, you skinny piece of shit. You want a bottle? Give me $100, right now.”
His face that morning, the looming mustache, his mustache seemed to be threatening me with physical violence. I had an image of his black, bushy mustache head-butting me in the teeth.
Duke, Booger and I looked at each other, turning green at the gills. Waiting for Albert Whitefish had got us nothing that morning, and we were desperate to keep the party going. But $100 for two 26-ounce bottles of Southern Comfort was robbery, and Turk knew it.
Duke took an extra $20 out of his pocket, and handed it to me. I reluctantly handed five twenties, my better judgment, and my dignity over to Turk Morgan. Turk was a pirate, that’s all.
Ten minutes later, when Turk came strolling back down the steps from the liquor store, he was carrying a 128-ounce bottle of Smirnoff Vodka, what they used to call a Texas mickey. It was crazy, almost obscene: I had never before seen a bottle of liquor that came with its own pour spout, like something you would have on display in a disco nightclub, or a biker bar.
“Turk? What the hell? Where’s our Southern Comfort?” I demanded, about to burst into tears, exhausted, “What did you do with our money? Where’s our money? We had a DEAL! You MOTHERFUCKING THIEF!” I started to shake with anger, furious beyond all sense of caution.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” his mustache lied to me.
“A hundred dollars, Turk. One hundred dollars. That’s a lot of money.”
“You boys didn’t give any money to Dr. Hook yesterday afternoon, did you? If you did, you better hope the cops don’t find out. Albert Whitefish got hit by another train this morning, down by the marina. He’s dead. The train killed him! Maybe it was the same goddamn train that hit him last year when he passed out on the tracks, come back to finish the job.”
“He’s dead. If you gave any money to that bum for alcohol, the cops are gonna want to talk to you. The marina is shut down as a crime scene, I was just there. I bet you the entire town shows up to watch them scrape Albert off the tracks,” Turk laughed.
“Are – are you kidding us?” Duke croaked.
“Nope, go see for yourself,” Turk glanced down the street. “Happened about an hour ago. The ambulance hasn’t even got there yet.” Then Turk waved the bottle of Smirnoff Vodka in our faces, and said, “Thanks for the free drunk, boys!” before climbing back into the cab of his truck, and peeling out of his parking spot in front of the liquor store, tires smoking.
Well, we didn’t run down to the marina that morning; our bootlegger was dead, and we had given him the money for what was probably his last bottle of cooking sherry. We knew Turk wasn’t bullshitting us, because almost immediately after that, the town emergency siren went off, calling the volunteer firefighters together, and that could only mean bad news.
It was obvious: Albert was dead, and we had played a part in the tragedy.
Duke said nothing. Booger said nothing. I said nothing. What was there to say?
Booger took out a handful of paper napkins, and tried to wipe the blood off his fingers from the shards of glass lying at the bottom of the steps. Then he stood up, stuffed the napkins in his pocket, and we walked over to the Nipigon Cafe to get some lunch.
We were sitting in the Nipigon Cafe, drinking coffee, when the town siren went off a second time, less than an hour later. I hoped it was some sort of all-clear signal, but that wasn’t the case, because the siren continued wailing for another half an hour, calling the town volunteer firefighters back to the fire hall. All I could think was: had there been a chemical spill, too?
After the news about Albert, that afternoon was a nightmare, a nightmare we couldn’t wake up from. Duke, Booger and I were going to hell. I couldn’t think of a scenario where we’d escape blame, after hanging out on the steps in front of the liquor store all weekend. Even Turk Morgan had put two and two together. Why weren’t the cops already talking to us?
How could we not suffer terrible consequences for what we had done?
I was supposed to start work at Kochan’s Grocery on Monday: the public library only paid an $800 honorarium for the summer, but a kid named Spaz Thompson had broken his wrist waterskiing on Canada Day, so Old Man Kochan offered his summer job to me, and I grabbed it with both hands: Booger had already been working there as a stock boy since Christmas.
This was going to be worse than the winter a bunch of kids stole the key to the public swimming pool, and started partying in the lifeguard’s shack each weekend. Glenda Clearwater spotted their shenanigans, and turned it into a local scandal, as a reporter for the Nipigon Gazette.
We didn’t find out until the next day: Turk Morgan had driven his truck off the side of the Nipigon River Bridge, and broke his spine. He ended up a paraplegic, crippled from the waist down. He’d been drinking and driving. The cops found a 128-ounce bottle of Smirnoff Vodka in the wreckage of his truck, seal cracked, in addition to a plastic carton of orange juice.
Turk was sober when he walked down the steps in front of the liquor store, but he was impaired when he lost control of his truck off the bridge. Hammered. On vodka and orange juice.
Of all the Sundays to smash up his truck, Turk had to pick the holiday long weekend when most of the volunteer firefighters were out of town with their families, or already working the accident down at the marina. Nobody arrived to help him for quite some time.
Turk spent the first six months after the accident in hospital, getting strong enough for rehab. Then he spent the next eighteen months at a physio clinic, addicted to pain pills. After two years living out of town, he came back to Nipigon from Thunder Bay, and got a job at Kochan’s Grocery, doing office work from his wheelchair. Old Man Kochan got Turk trained as a software accountant. The Ontario government subsidized Turk’s salary during the training. The thing was, Turk turned out to be a wizard on the computer: who would have guessed?
It’s funny how two years (or 25 years!) can pass in the blink of an eye. I had seen him around town a few times, from a cautious distance, but the first (and only) time I spoke to Turk after the death of Dr. Hook, he was sitting in front of the liquor store in his wheelchair, waiting in the rain without an umbrella for someone to walk up the steps and buy him a bottle.
What was I supposed to do? What would you have done?
I bought him a bottle, got the receipt, and brought him back his change from a twenty.
Albert Whitefish is buried in the cemetery across from the railroad right-of-way where he fell asleep on the tracks and lost his left hand, the summer of 1987.