The Fortress of Twelve
Updated: Apr 15, 2021
There’s a room in my house that I call the Fortress of Twelve.
When I was thirteen, my mom cheated on my dad with his best friend from work; my parents split up; my dad went a bit crazy; and then my grandfather died of bladder cancer. My dad was 38 years old when the world broke. I am now 44 years old, and still don’t know how he survived that year. (Actually, I do know: he took up long-distance running.)
The Fortress of Twelve is a safe spot, the museum of my childhood, the locked box where I keep my Spock ears, my Starfleet uniform, my tricorder, my USS Enterprise hanging from the ceiling by fishing line. Basically, all the stuff that was enormously important to me in the last year before girls started wearing black jeans to the first day of school, grade seven, and my grandfather went into the hospital with blood in his urine; my Dungeons & Dragons gear, my board games, my Richie Rich comics, my Super Powers action figures; it took me years to rebuild my collection of childhood toys, as an adult in Toronto, haunting the nostalgia shops up and down Yonge Street.
My grandfather, Robert Grogan, passed away the summer Ronald Reagan was re-elected President of the United States in an overwhelming landslide; Winston Smith, my 20-year-old cat, died the same day as Reagan: even though he went goofy, I still miss the dirty little bastard.
If you didn’t know me and my wife, seeing the Wrath of Khan pillow cases on my bed, you’d think I was the boy who died. Whenever she expresses a desire to redecorate my bedroom, paint it white and turn it into a guest bedroom, or a sewing room, I say, you can do whatever you want with the Fortress of Twelve, after I leave for university.
Lucky for me, my wife would rather plant tulips, than paint walls.
I had a friend in high school named James Duke. We lost touch after I left Northwestern Ontario, but in high school, he was the most popular boy in my class. Very charismatic guy, but never had a girlfriend, because we liked to get liquored up every weekend.
We once made a VHS tape called “Indiana Jones and the Lost City of Ninjas” that somehow reached the desk of George Lucas. It was meant to be a parody, but George Lucas took it serious, so nobody ever told him the difference, before he invited Duker to audition for the role of young Indiana Jones in Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade.
Duke would have shot a scene with Sean Connery – James Bond! – if he got the job. But before James Duke made it to Hollywood, he got rear-ended by a panel van on delivery, and had to spend the next sixteen months in a medical coma: needless to say, River Phoenix got the part.
Duke still lives in Northwestern Ontario, and will probably never leave our hometown.
So it was a real surprise when James Duke called me out of the blue a few months ago, and wanted to talk about Star Wars for six hours. I didn’t even know he was a fan of Star Wars. Back in high school, he never mentioned Star Wars. When we were kids, he played hockey; we never played action figures together; I played action figures by myself. He wanted to talk about Star Wars until 2:00 AM, and at first I figured it was just excitement over the new movie, but it was something much deeper than that. Something that went to his very core.
“Hey Flash: it’s Duker: how you been? I got your phone number from your mom. I said, you probably don’t remember me, but she cut me right off, she said, Of course I remember you, James! Your mother was Norma Jean Calow. You share the same birthday as my son. You were both born in February; February 16th is your birthday, and my son was born February 18th. We used to throw your birthday parties together, so all the kids didn’t have to choose which birthday party to attend. You were always the more popular kid. So handsome --”
“I remember that,” I laughed. (Nobody had called me Flash in over 25 years.)
“Is your mom alright? She posted a selfie from Niagara Falls, sitting in a wheelchair.”
“You’re friends with my mom on Facebook? That was just last weekend.”
“She’s afraid of dying alone, and nobody coming to her funeral.”
“So she joined Facebook?”
“She was smiling in the photo, but when did your mom start using a wheelchair to get around in public? Did she hurt herself? I know she’s been talking about taking early retirement.”
“Ah, she’s alright: we were just goofing around with her camera.”
“When I saw the photo, I thought I should get back in touch with you, find out how she’s doing. She really looked after us, when we were kids. It would be a shame, if anything happened to her. I remember she used to bake cinnamon rolls for you and me, playing out in the backyard.”
“Well, don’t worry about my mom. She’s got another sixteen months, before she retires.”
“Anyway, your mom gave me your phone number. So I thought I’d give you a call.”
Then, I swear to God, we talked about Han Solo, and Chewbacca, and Luke Skywalker, and R2-D2, Boba Fett, and Darth Vader, until 2:00 in the morning. The whole six-movie cycle, things I didn’t even know about Star Wars, things I never would have remembered. Not a word about Star Trek. And the only reason we didn’t talk about Star Wars until dawn was, I had to get up for work. Even at that, it took me fifteen minutes to get Duker off the phone.
But still, it was a good conversation. Completely unexpected, but I have to admit, I had missed the guy. James Duke, a guy I had known, almost since the day he was born. We had been through hell and high water together, that’s for sure. Hanging up, we made plans to talk again a week later, and I hoped to squeeze in a few questions about people we went to high school with.
The following Sunday night, Duke called me up, talked about Star Wars for another six goddamn hours. That time, it was his excitement over the new movie, The Force Awakens: Duke had it all plotted out, how the new movie was going to work: from opening crawl, to cliffhanger ending, Duke had Star Wars: The Force Awakens plotted out, scene-by-scene, in its entirety.
“The rumour is, the opening crawl starts with just four words: those words have to be, LUKE SKYWALKER IS MISSING. If I was making the movie, Luke Skywalker would have a daughter, then he has to go into hiding, so he stashes her on Tatooine, like Obi-Wan Kenobi did for him. The girl grows up, not knowing who her father is, until the Force awakens in her. When she realizes who she is, she joins the Rebel Alliance, and goes off searching for Luke. She joins the Rebel Alliance, because the Empire is building another Death Star, and Princess Leia needs her help…because Princess Leia’s son (Darth Vader’s grandson, and the girl’s cousin) is the new Darth Vader, having totally turned against Princess Leia, and Han Solo, his estranged father. So Princess Leia’s niece is the last hope for the galaxy, going on a secret mission with Han Solo and Chewbacca to confront her cousin, and blow up the Death Star: Leia sends C-3PO with the girl, but R2-D2 is off somewhere hiding with Luke. Anyway, Luke’s daughter and Leia’s son have an epic lightsaber fight, until all these Stormtroopers bust in and snatch their leader from Han Solo, forcing Han Solo to sacrifice himself just as the Death Star starts to blow up (sorta like Obi-Wan Kenobi did at the end of the first movie.) So everybody escapes, but Han Solo is dead, and at the funeral, Luke Skywalker shows up and says, girl, Han Solo was your father…but I will train you in the ways of the Jedi, like Yoda did in the second movie for me, let’s go to Dagobah…and then they fly off together, setting things up perfectly for Episode VIII: The Last Jedi, where Luke has to stop his nephew being trained by the Emperor Palpatine’s baby clone (basically, an evil Yoda) for a final battle between the Sith and the Jedi, pulling him back from the dark side of the Force.”
“Have they announced that Episode VIII is going to be called The Last Jedi?”
“Nah, that’s just what I’m calling it, in my head.”
“Well, you’ve certainly done a lot of thinking about the new movie.”
“It’s just, that’s what I want to see: basically, a beat-for-beat remake, of the original film.”
Duke gave me a Battlestar Galactica comic book the Christmas we turned ten years old (not Star Trek, or Star Wars, but Battlestar Galactica: I mean, come on!), but I had no memory he was such a fan of Star Wars. I remember playing City on the Edge of Forever in my backyard, but Duke might have been re-enacting the Battle of Hoth, as we beamed down to the forest floor.
“Do you ever sit down and re-watch Indiana Jones and the Lost City of Ninjas? The last time I watched that, it was on YouTube: I don’t even know if I still own an original copy. I think I put my last copy of Indiana Jones and the Lost City of Ninjas into storage, for safekeeping, and then the storage locker got broken into. So thank God for the Internet.”
“Ah, that was just something we made when we were sixteen, taking grade nine art class to impress 14-year-old girls. I can’t believe people still watch it on YouTube.”
“People loved Indiana Jones and the Lost City of Ninjas. You should be proud of that; you almost met George Lucas because of Indiana Jones and the Lost City of Ninjas. You could have been an actor in Hollywood. Think about how different things would have been for you, if you had just made it to Los Angeles. You were thatclose to super-stardom, buddy.”
“Instead, I ended up in a coma for almost two years. Big fucking deal.”
“Was it almost two years? I left Northwestern Ontario summer of 1990, when you were still in the hospital: it had only been sixteen months, at that point.”
“Yeah: I was in hospital until the summer of 1991. I missed two whole years, until I could get up and walk out of St. Joseph’s. After the accident, I lost contact with pretty much everybody from high school. You had all moved on, and I was stuck in Thunder Bay.”
“I heard you’re a big-shot banker, now. Is it CIBC, or TD Canada Trust?”
“Royal Bank, actually. Before that, Bank of Montreal. I’m a mortgage provider.”
“You’re the Don Draper of Northwestern Ontario banking, according to my sister.”
“Yeah, I do alright. What about you? Your mom says you buy-and-sell contemporary art; that you have a gallery in Toronto. What’s that like? Good money in that?”
“Well, I specialize in what they call ‘woodland’ art, by Native Canadians. Do you know who Norval Morrisseau was? He grew up in Northwestern Ontario; Beardmore, actually.”
“Sure. They’ve got one of his paintings at the airport.”
“At the start of my career, I stumbled upon a large collection of work by Morrisseau, and used that to get established as a dealer in Toronto. It doesn’t take long, if you’re willing to hustle. Once you get a reputation, the market bows to your expertise. It’s a virtuous circle. Success leads to opportunity; opportunity leads to success: all I needed was a lucky break, to get started.”
“But didn’t Norval Morrisseau drink himself to death?”
“He had a lot of health issues, yeah. And at the end of his career, he disavowed many of the pieces he supposedly painted. But that’s part of his mystique: I established my gallery selling original work by Morrisseau, then drifted into forgeries; now I sell fake Morrisseau forgeries and the prices keep going up, because in some ways, legitimate Norval Morrisseau forgeries are more desirable than the originals! People actually go to court, to get their legitimate paintings declared forgeries, because owning a verified forgery means it’s a uniquely one-of-a-kind item!”
“The front of your gallery is legitimate ‘woodland’ art, but the back of the house is grey market knock-offs? That sounds crazy, completely insane. How do you manage the risk?”
“There’s no risk: you’re selling something that has a value only because people want to believe it has a value, and will appreciate in value as an investment. It’s the only business model I can think of, where you slap $10 worth of paint on a $40 canvas, and earn tens of thousands of dollars, because people are inherently greedy: you can’t cheat an honest man.”
“So, it’s obviously a scam, but you make your victims complicit in the rip-off?”
“It’s not like we let them choose their own colours!”
“But still: how do you keep the two sides of your business separate?”
“Duke, a really good rule-of-thumb is, if a guy asks you, Would you like to see my other warehouse? you tell the guy, Yes. Yes: I would like to see your other warehouse. Because, isn’t it kind of obvious? I realized a long time ago, people believe what they want to believe.”
“How’s that?” Duke remained skeptical.
“When I was in high school, my dad gave me an autographed copy of Stephen King’s It, signed in my dad’s handwriting, and it took me years to figure out it wasn’t authentic because…I didn’t want to figure it out; I just wanted to believe they had met each other, while on vacation.”
“Isn’t it only a matter of time before you get caught, cheating people on a daily basis?”
“There’s no misrepresentation involved: people collect ‘woodland’ art, because on some level, it speaks to them personally. And Morrisseau forgeries are only a fraction of my business.”
“Nobody says shit about you being Irish-Catholic, rather than Native?”
“Well, when he was starting out, nobody would even look at a painting by Wolford Borg, let alone his drawings or sketches. From our first meeting, I showed him and his work the respect he deserved, and we’ve been friends ever since. I’ve been loyal to him, so Wolford’s loyal to our business arrangement. Same with the Odawwa Brothers, and Margaret Mend-a-Wagon, and with every other artist I represent: I may not be Indigenous, but I understand being on the outside, and having to fight for a seat at the table, kicking the establishment to the sidewalk.”
Then (I swear to God!) we talked about Star Wars for another five hours, almost until the crack of dawn: I should have known better than to answer the telephone, after midnight. No good had ever come to me by picking up the telephone, after midnight. Especially not with the echo of a long-distance telephone call, from the 807 area code, ringing in my ears.
I could have asked Duker about the new Star Trek movie, but all he wanted to talk about was Star Wars: Star Wars, Star Wars, Star Wars. As if, the film was the formative experience of his life: but I didn’t even remember seeing the movie with him, when it first came out.
I didn’t get a chance to tell him the story of how I met my wife, or ask if he had kids, or ask if he was even married: none of the adult topics you might expect to come up, getting back in touch with someone after a 25-year break in the conversation.
I never even found out if he still had his collection of Spider-Man comic books.
A week later, Duke sent me a photo of the Styrofoam packaging from a microwave oven, claimed it was a home-made Star Wars Battle of Hoth playset, a vintage toy that came out during The Empire Strikes Back, in 1980: the “Imperial Attack Base” playset, sold by Eaton’s.
He also sent me photos of his lightsaber, his Jedi cloak, his Star Wars action figures, his Landspeeder, his Millennium Falcon, and the blaster rifle over the mantle in his apartment.
I have a Star Trek phaser rifle on the mantle over the door to my bedroom.
Sure, it’s made of scrap wood, leftover pieces of backyard lumber nailed together and spray-painted chrome grey, but that phaser rifle has been a part of my life for almost 35 years: I put it together when I was nine years old, grade four, hammering a spike into the muzzle of the rifle and painting it death-ray red with my mother’s glossy crimson nail polish.
I never mentioned the rifle on the mantle over the door to my bedroom at the start of this story, because it’s not important: I got that basic advice from reading the short stories of Chekov (Anton, not Pavel) and trying to follow his guidance on the principles of drama.
“So, what’s the deal with you and Star Wars?” I asked Duke, calling him Saturday night at a reasonable hour, 8:00 PM, rather than midnight. “Let’s talk about Star Trek tonight: did you see the trailer for the new Star Trek? It looks pretty rockin’! Maybe better than Star Wars!”
“Ah, I was never a fan of Star Trek. But all the pivotal moments of my life, I can trace back to Star Wars; every tragedy I witnessed had some connection to the movie. Remember how Tommy Toykalla got his head hacked off by that snowplough, playing Battle of Hoth?”
“I remember Boyka got his head hacked off by a snowplough, the day after Christmas, but I didn’t realize you guys were playing Battle of Hoth, when the snowplough murdered him.”
“We found him at the end of the curb, all mangled up with some metal garbage cans.”
“That was just plain bad luck, you guys being out in that snow bank on Boxing Day.”
“What about how Andy Bickle was murdered, strangled to death, on our grade six class trip to Thunder Bay? We had just seen Return of the Jedi, at Victoriaville Mall.”
“I forgot all about that! That was just after we turned twelve, summer of ‘83!”
“They found him stuffed in a fridge, killed for his Revenge of the Jedi t-shirt!”
“I remember Mr. Markham freaking out at the church, shouting, If that boy doesn’t have the goddamn common sense to not be wandering around downtown Thunder Bay by himself after midnight, he deserves whatever happens to him! But then, when Andy’s body turned up murdered, nobody ever again mentioned what Mr. Markham had said, in the church basement.”
“We had to cancel our tour of Old Fort William,” Duke reminded me.
“I don’t think Mr. Markham even lost his job, despite losing Andy at the bus terminal.”
“At least they found his body: the weekend Episode I: The Phantom Menace came out, Mademoiselle Cunningham went missing while camping with a friend, and they still don’t know what happened to her. She just disappeared, like, swallowed up by a landscape painting.”
“Mademoiselle Cunningham went missing in 1999? She never married?”
“Nope. She was on a canoe trip, her and another lady. The friend turned her back to pick some blueberries, or maybe take a dump, and Mademoiselle Cunningham vanished. Nobody ever figured out what happened to her. The RCMP searched that forest until the end of August, taking over from the Ontario Provincial Police and their dive team right after Canada Day.”
Mademoiselle Cunningham had taught grade nine French at our high school, but neither Duke nor myself had been one of her students: we were all roughly the same age, way back then.
“Weren’t you in love with Mademoiselle Cunningham?”
“Janet and me, it wasn’t sexual: I mean, sure, Cunningham taught me how to give head, but other than that, she was in love with your dad. She never stopped talking about him.”
“She took you to Florida for March break, grade eleven!”
“She was trying to get me to stop drinking, join Alcoholics Anonymous with her.”
“Not every tragedy growing up had something to do with Star Wars. I can give you almost a dozen examples, just off the top of my head: Grubby Dave drowned; Dr. Hook lost his hand; Turk Morgan smashed up his truck; Butch Reynolds went gay for Jeffrey Joseph; Steven King shot himself; David Locker’s garage burned down; you got rear-ended by a panel van on delivery; Booger lost the use of his left arm; the Schmidt brothers went MIA/POW; and that’s just some of the people we went to high school with! Five years of death and disaster!”
“What about Kip Gordon? After The Assassination of Julius Caesar, and Marco Polo’s Journey to China, he wanted the drama club to stage Gettysburg for the grade eleven Christmas pageant, and nine kids ended up trampled by horses. Sure, they were cardboard horses, but after that, Kip Gordon never wrote another original play, never became the kid from Rushmore.”
“I used to come home with diarrhea, every time I went over to Kip Gordon’s house.”
“Indiana Jones and the Lost City of Ninjas was his only movie,” Duke sounded wistful.
“Either diarrhea, or scabies. Every single time I went over to Kip Gordon’s house…”
“Ah, his house wasn’t that bad. You just had to wash your hands, before eating.”
“The point is, sometimes shit just happens. Like when Booger rolled over in bed, and his left arm had gone dead. Booger had the raw talent to be a great artist – hell, Booger could still be a great artist; just look at the career of Maud Lewis – but he never pushed himself to see just how far he could go, find out what he was capable of achieving, before he hit rock bottom.”
“You know Booger’s dead, right? The funeral was almost ten years ago; he was the first Facebook group I ever joined.”
“He got hit by a transport truck; knocked right out of his shoes. He came back to Nipigon for Christmas, first time anyone had seen him around town since the year before.”
“Why was he out on the highway, middle of winter?”
“Apparently, he was walking back from the gas station in Red Rock: he’d tried to rent a VHS copy of Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, but had no luck. Sad, really. I’m pretty sure they never even released the third movie on VHS.”
Well, that pretty much killed the conversation for the rest of the night. In fact, I may have never spoken with Duke again, just left him buried in the past, except he called me up again three days later, middle of the week, at 4:00 in the morning, unable to sleep.
“Listen, Emmett, I’ve been thinking: I remember the first time I saw Return of the Jedi, and I remember the first time I saw The Empire Strikes Back, but I can’t remember the first time I saw Star Wars. Isn’t that weird? What night was that? When did Star Wars come to the Plaza?”
The Plaza Theatre was our hometown movie house. Duke was drunk, confused.
“Why don’t you just look it up online? The Nipigon Gazette has back issues archived as digital files. There’s a government website with all that information. But also, who gives a fuck? It’s the middle of the night. It’s a good thing my wife is in Montreal, visiting her sisters.”
“I searched online; there’s no information. I went to the newspaper office; their archives are missing the years 1977 to 1979: three whole years have disappeared. This is important! I feel like I’m having a nervous breakdown. Why can’t I remember the first time I saw Star Wars?”
“Well, I don’t remember the first time I saw Star Wars, either. Why don’t you ask around online? Somebody must remember the date Star Wars played at the Plaza Theatre.”
“I already tried that. Your mom was the only person who replied. She said, I’m not sure, but I think it was the summer of 1977. Yeah, thanks, Brenda: that’s a big help: really narrows it down for me.”
I looked at the clock on the wall; it was 4:15 AM. Duker couldn’t have known I had seen Booger just six weeks before Booger died, broke, and on the verge of eviction. That Booger was dead, explained a lot: I had thrown away his phone number, and never heard from him again.
“OK: I’m flying up to Sioux Lookout next month, to spend a week with Wolford Borg, before pushing on to Dryden for Halloween with my sister’s family. I could stop for 24 hours in Thunder Bay, come down to Nipigon, we could drop in at the public library, do some research.”
“You’d come all the way back to Nipigon, just to help me out?”
“Jesus! This sounds like the softest midlife crisis on record: so I promise, if we can’t get this figured out in a single night, I’ll buy you a motorcycle!”
Eleven days later, James Duke met me at the airport in Thunder Bay; or rather, I met him at the bottom of the escalator up to the arrivals area exit gate: Duke stood blinking like a goldfish at the mural by Norval Morrisseau, hanging between the men’s and women’s washrooms.
I always thought Duke grew up to be Aaron Eckhart, the actor who played Two-Face in The Dark Knight, but after 25 years, he looked more like Meat Loaf, than Harvey Dent: the rock singer, not the diner lunch special. To be honest, James Duke looked like twelve pounds of shit stuffed in a 10-pound bag: obviously, a hard-core alcoholic, for the last 35 years.
The first thing he said to me was: “You’re going to have to drive us down to Nipigon: I’ve been drinking.” Which was a dirty trick, because after three hours at Toronto City Airport, then two hours in the air over the Great Lakes, I was ready for a drink myself.
We drove straight to Nipigon, not even stopping for lunch. We drove past Silver Islet, Ouimet Canyon, Dorion, and Hurkett in less than an hour, reaching downtown Nipigon just as it was starting to rain for the rest of the day. Across the bay was Red Rock, and nestled in between the two towns was the Lake Helen Indian reserve, a good place on the highway to buy gas.
In the car, I asked Duke if he had ever been married. He had: four times in fact, divorced each time. As the Don Draper of Northwestern Ontario banking (basically, a charming drunk), he had nailed more than a few of his colleagues (my sister hadn’t called James Duke Don Draper as a compliment; he had a reputation as a walking sexual harassment claim.) Duke openly admitted: “I’ve spent a few nights on No Daddy Avenue; skied down Bra Tree Hill more than once.” Then he proceeded to describe all the ways you can fuck up your life by having sex with a vast variety of women, getting your first blowjob when you are twelve years old, but never finding love.
Twelve years old! I mean, is it any surprise the guy was a shaggy blonde dumpster fire?
Duke never asked me about Coco: I would have told him, even though we’d been married fifteen years, she still had the capacity to surprise me. Just that Sunday, she’d revealed, You know I never went to high school, right? I dropped out to run away from home, live by myself. I wanted to be a model, before going to college. Other than that, Coco was basically the Black Widow, or Spider-Woman in the sack: cobweb gitch, and other cool goth girl gimmicks.
Pulling into Nipigon, it was pretty grim. There were no dead dogs on the street, but the Nipigon Cafe was boarded up tight, the Plaza Theatre still had Terminator 2 on the marquee, and the newspaper box in front of Kochan’s Grocery was five months out of date, like something you expected on Manitoulin Island, after New Year’s. The town smelt better, since the plywood mill burnt to the ground in February 2007, but after the plywood mill burnt to the ground, suddenly the only major employer left in town was either the Ontario Provincial Police, or the MNR. Not even the LCBO had more than a dozen employees; maybe the two schools in town employed as many people as the O.P.P., both put together: it was a ghost town for employment.
First stop was the offices of the Nipigon Gazette. Sure enough, their archives were missing the years 1977 to 1979, a three-year gap in the record, with no reasonable explanation.
Then we went to the Nipigon Public Library, and asked to visit the basement, which was kind of awkward, because Kimiko Oyakawa worked there. I didn’t figure it out immediately, but it turned out, Duke had hooked up with Kimmie at her brother’s funeral, then never returned her phone calls or text messaging. I suppose it’s a little late in the game to be revealing that Kimiko Oyakawa was Booger’s kid sister, but there you have it: full disclosure.
“Yeah, I banged her out. It’s a small town, and there’s people here that have been married since high school. I was lonely; she was lonely; and it was a nice weekend getaway to Ottawa, to celebrate New Year’s Eve.” Excuses, excuses: well, so much for the Widow Leibowietz.
The library was no help: their archives were also missing the years 1977 to 1979, which explained why there were no digital files on the Ontario government website, either.
As a boy, I had dreamed of going down to the basement of the Nipigon Public Library, and finding stacks of adult magazines on the tables: Hustler, Swank, Club International; not that boring shit, like Playboy: but all they had was National Geographic, and Reader’s Digest.
It should have been simple to look up the date Star Wars played at the Plaza Theatre: the Plaza Theatre ran a small ad on page seven of the Nipigon Gazette each Wednesday, announcing the following week’s movies, starting on Thursday. Most of the movies that came to Nipigon ran only two or three days; it was the rare movie that played at the Plaza Theatre for a full week. But after visiting the library, I felt like me and Duke were dealing with the Ministry of Truth: could it be a coincidence that both the Gazette’s archives and the public library were missing newspapers from 1977 to 1979, not just a few random issues, but three whole years of small-town life?
Out on the sidewalk, I asked Duke: “When you were a boy, did you ever dream of going down to the basement of the Nipigon Public Library, and finding stacks of adult magazines? Shit like Penthouse, or Gallery, or Juggs? Just endless piles of filth to look at, and enjoy?”
“Are you kidding me? I still have that dream, every once in a while. Speaking of which, we should drive over to Hebert’s, steal some pornography, for old time’s sake. He keeps the skin books in the basement, these days. There’s also a freezer, with Popsicles.”
So we rode our bikes down to Hebert’s Grocery, and lifted a big stack of dirty magazines from the basement. (Just kidding: Duke drives a 2005 Toyota Corolla, but at least he doesn’t tool around town in a 1979 Lincoln Continental, pretending he’s a big-shot, like Lord Zechner.)
“How do you make any money in this town?” I asked him.
“I don’t. I collect disability, for my bad back. The last guy in this town to buy a house, he put his mortgage on a credit card. There are over 80 unoccupied homes and businesses for sale in this community: I haven’t written a mortgage in almost two years.”
Pull back the camera: Mrs. Hebert (Tommy Hebert’s scatterbrained wife) is standing right there with us, hair in curlers, smoking the same cigarette she had in her hand when I left town the day after high school, in 1990; she must be at least 80 years old. “Hiya, Mrs. Hebert: Emmett and I are going down to the basement for a couple of hours, to get some cherry Popsicles. You need anything?”
We went straight to the pornography. Old Man Hebert had stacks of High Society, and Screw, and Big-Ass Titties down in his basement. Most of the pictures had already been stripped out (all that was left were a few detached covers) but we managed to find a few centrefolds that weren’t covered in decades-old jizz…underneath a mountain of newspapers, back issues of the Nipigon Gazette, dating from the late-1960s to the present day.
As Duke rustled us up a couple of Popsicles, cracking them in half against the basement doorjamb, it didn’t take me long to figure out that the years 1977 to 1979 were also missing from Tommy Hebert’s personal hoard of faded newspapers. Surprise, surprise!
By the time we made it back upstairs, Tommy himself was waiting for us, beard down to his knees, sitting in a wheelchair. As Duke tried to make small talk, Mr. Hebert patted him down, accusing him of stealing: “What do you have stuffed down your pants? Huh? What have you got in there? Huh? Huh?” and he wasn’t too friendly about it, either: just like old times!
“Jesus H. Christ, Tommy! Get your fuckin’ grubby mitts off me! We just came to ask you about back issues of the Nipigon Gazette! How come nobody in this town has newspapers for the years 1977 to 1979?” Duke yelled at him, almost bursting into tears, ashamed of his body.
That got Tommy’s attention: at first he didn’t want to say, but after much humming and hawing, he told us: a group of concerned parents came into the store, about 1982, and took away all the newspapers from 1977 to 1979. Tommy couldn’t stop them; but they hadn’t known about Tommy’s back-up collection of the Nipigon Gazette, owning two copies of every issue.
“Your dad was here,” Tommy pointed at me, “and your mom,” he pointed at Duker.
Duke’s mom taught grade nine English at the high school, but I read George Orwell in 1984. Next to Lolita, and The Godfather, it’s probably been the most influential novel in my life.
With Tommy’s blessing, Duke and I went back downstairs, and began our search for the screening date of Star Wars at the Plaza Theatre, in Nipigon, Ontario, summer of 1977. Or, 1978. Or, 1979: who could remember, really? That’s why we had to look it up!
Every other set of newspapers in town had gone down the Memory Hole, but somebody at the Ministry of Truth forgot to search Hebert’s basement from top to bottom. If they had, they would have destroyed all of Tommy’s newspapers, of that much I was certain.
It kind of made me wonder, what secrets did our parents want to hide from us?
Turns out, nothing ever happened in our hometown, except bowling, curling, and hockey tournaments. The paper kept mentioning some guy dubbed The Van Man, a serial kidnapper who stalked Northwestern Ontario back in 1977, but I didn’t remember anything about that guy. I had heard about this dude we called the Reamer Man in high school; I saw the crazy pegboard full of wigs in the back of his van; but I wasn’t sure if the serial kidnapper was the same guy.
Flipping through the newspapers was tedious work, so I handed Duke a $20 bill, told him to go get us some dinner. He stepped in a garbage can on his way up the stairs; tried to blame his drunken tumble on a migraine brought on by the rain pounding against the basement windows.
The Van Man’s M.O. was abducting boys from outside movie houses, holding them for less than 72 hours (drugged-up) – then releasing the boys along the side of the highway, between isolated communities in Northwestern Ontario. According to the Gazette, the boys kidnapped by The Van Man always made it home, but with no memory of what had happened to them.
“Sorry I took so long; I blew up the microwave at Mac’s Milk, heating up a can of soup; had to hitchhike out to Tim Hortons on the highway. I’m pretty much banned for life from Mac’s Milk, after this. But I got you a toasted Persian, with a turkey bacon clubhouse, on whole wheat.”
Just as Duke made it back from Tim Hortons, I found the ad in the newspaper: according to the Nipigon Gazette, Star Wars screened at the Plaza Theatre for three nights only (two shows nightly) from Thursday, February 16, 1978, to Saturday, February 18, 1978, at both 7:00 PM and 9:00 PM, “no passes” – almost nine months after its initial release, in May 1977!
“But that’s…hmmm,” Duke paused to let this information sink in, processing it carefully. “It’s funny, very weird, but I just don’t remember anything about that weekend in February.”
“That’s our birthdays,” I said it out loud. “If your birthday is February 16th, and mine is February 18th, we probably split the difference, and saw the movie Friday night, first show. Can you imagine how big of a deal that would have been, seeing Star Wars for our seventh birthdays? A rowdy group of kids, dressed up like for Halloween in February, throwing popcorn and candy around the theatre, no parents in the audience? What could possibly have gone wrong?”
It was pretty obvious what had happened: I think Duke might have got his first blowjob when he was seven years old. But why couldn’t I remember anything about that weekend, either?
I mean, Star Wars: everybody remembers the first time they saw Star Wars, right?
When we were seventeen, a guy named Dr. Hook (because he only had one hand, having fallen asleep on the train tracks the year before) got hit by another train, and killed. One of the local assholes had blamed a freight train hell-bent on revenge, but it had really been us: me and Duke.
I thought of The Van Man, and Duker, and Duke getting rear-ended by the panel van on delivery in 1989, and in the back of my mind, I heard Turk Morgan joke, Maybe it was the same goddamn van that hit him over ten years ago, come back to finish the job!
Like Ronald Reagan, and my grandfather, and Winston Smith (my cat), everything was all mixed up in my head: my emotions were betraying me, starting to crack, crumble like pieces of the Berlin Wall under a thousand sledgehammer blows of memory.
I thought I was safe, hiding my childhood in the Fortress of Twelve, but it turns out the Fortress of Twelve is only a room: a room buried deep at the base of the Ministry of Truth, with no doors, and the lights never turned on…unless somebody stumbled against the switch.
“Fuuuuck: now what are we going to do? I don’t have to be back at the airport in Thunder Bay until noon.”
Duke had the right idea: “Let’s get a bottle; drink away the pain.” (I got the impression that was a saying he uttered often, joking around with whoever was left in town to get drunk with, but the gravest truths are often uttered in jest.) “You’re going to have to go into the store, because I’m barred, self-excluded, as a member of AA: they won’t serve me at the LCBO,” he admitted.
The rest of my triumphant return to Nipigon was just as anti-climactic.
I wish I could say we went skinny-dipping at the Nipigon Lagoon, or rafted down the Nipigon River with Injun Joe, but none of that sloppily sentimental Tom Sawyer/Huckleberry Finn bullshit happened in my hometown. Even if I wanted to whitewash growing up in a small town, my childhood was filled with the same heartbreak and disappointments as any childhood, apparently.
Duke and I went to the liquor store, and found Turk Morgan sitting in front of the steps, waiting in the rain for somebody to buy him a bottle. Speaking of Turk Morgan, there’s another fucking asshole who can’t walk into the LCBO and get his own liquor.
I bought him a bottle, got the receipt, and brought Turk back his change from a twenty.
I tossed Turk’s handful of coins into the gutter; watched them roll away in the rain.
Two weeks later, when I got back from Northwestern Ontario, I decided to visit my dad in Sauble Beach, Ontario, on the Bruce Peninsula. I hoped to talk to him about The Van Man, get his perspective on what might have happened to James Duke, all those years ago.
I had a few questions for him, seeing as how he was part of the group that destroyed all the copies of the Nipigon Gazette in town: him, and Mrs. Duke, and Dick Kochan, Doc Winfield, Tanker O’Neill, and Jimmy Chronopoulos, owner of the Nipigon Cafe, way back then.
“Dad, I found out about The Van Man: James Duke and I stumbled across the articles in the Nipigon Gazette, at Hebert’s, when we went looking up the release date of the first Star Wars movie at the Plaza Theatre. It was an accident, but I read all The Van Man headlines, and items.”
“What did you find out?” my dad could have been a professional poker player, displaying no emotion.
“I found out Star Wars screened February 16th to February 18th, 1978, around the same time The Van Man was stalking Northwestern Ontario: Duker couldn’t remember where he was, the first time he saw Star Wars, and the gap in his memory left him feeling unsettled.”
My dad visibly clenched up: “That’s impossible. All those newspapers were destroyed.”
“Not so; Tommy Hebert keeps two copies of everything. I didn’t figure it out until just before I left town, but every magazine, newspaper, or comic book shipped to Hebert’s Grocery, Tommy used to keep two copies just for himself; one for reading, one for collecting. The fucking guy is insane. I missed out on a lot of comic books, because I got to see only the comics that they had sent at least three copies of, to Hebert’s Grocery; Tommy cheated me out of a lot of valuable comic books. And it turns out, he also hoarded the Nipigon Gazette. My question is, why did you remove all the newspapers in the first place? What were you trying to hide?”
“Well, The Van Man got a lot of people riled up. The Gazette ran a pile of Letters to the Editor, threatening The Van Man, things that shouldn’t have been spoken in public, when all was said and done. So after your friend was abducted, we had to go back and clean the record.”
“Was Duker the only kid abducted that weekend in February? Or was I in the van as well?”
My dad lowered his voice. “Emmett, if you don’t remember being there, you weren’t there: trust me on that.”
“That’s not much of an answer, and the question is kind of important. Please: I feel like I’m having a nervous breakdown, trying to remember that weekend.”
My dad sighed, not quite ready to unburden himself, but getting there.
“Your mother and I did our best to protect you, growing up in a small town. We made you take swimming lessons, the winter Bobby Beerman drowned underneath the Nipigon Bridge; she got you excellent medical care at the hospital; I kept the police from talking to you, on more than one occasion: but there was not a whole lot we could do about The Van Man.”
I didn’t have the heart to tell my father we referred to The Van Man as The Reamer Man, when telling ghost stories around the campfire, sharing urban legends in high school, so I just left it at The Van Man, as we talked about The Reamer Man that morning in Sauble Beach.
We were out in his truck, looking for beer bottles along the side of the road, moving at 110 kilometres an hour, chasing a mirage down the highway.
“Alright: I trust you. It was just Duke kidnapped; not me also. But whatever happened to The Van Man, anyway? Did they eventually nab him, or did he just get away with it?”
“Well, nobody’s sure, but there used to be this creepy old bastard who drove back and forth across Northwestern Ontario each summer. Shortly after the FBI solved the Atlanta Child Murders, pinning the crimes on Wayne Williams, somebody ran the old creep off the road: they found his van at the bottom of Lookout Point, and the kidnappings stopped. Whether it was him all along, or just somebody who got wise, I don’t know, and it really doesn’t matter. As soon as the old creep was dead, The Van Man disappeared as well: mission accomplished.”
For some reason, our cable television provider in Northwestern Ontario pulled channels out of Atlanta, Chicago, and Detroit. Growing up, we had CNN, Superstation WTBS, WGN, and whatever the local news station was out of Detroit (not the network affiliates out of Minneapolis-Saint Paul, or even Duluth) so I was well aware of the Atlanta Child Murders of 1979-1981, and how the cases ended up considered “closed” by the police in Georgia, without even a conviction.
I used to be a fan of the Atlanta Braves, on Superstation WTBS. I still have one of their baseball caps, on display in my bedroom: I stole it off a dude named Dirty Norman. Probably the most out-of-place item in the Fortress of Twelve, all things being considered.
“What about Andy Bickle? Was he The Van Man’s last victim?”
“No, that was one of your teachers. They fried him in the electric chair.”
But that’s not my story to tell, and so I won’t even go near it: not today, not ever.