The Widow Leibowietz
Updated: Jan 31
When I was fourteen, I couldn’t get a girlfriend. Girls younger than me were too young for dating; girls my own age were dating men in college. Girls older than me? That would have been like dating somebody from Poland, or Brazil: I would have been ruined. Older women are no longer a foreign country to me, but when I was fourteen years old, eighteen-year-old women seemed twenty years older than me. Thirty years later, women who were eighteen when I was fourteen years old still seem older than me today, by some trick of the mind. Compared to some of the women I went to high school with, today’s college students are children.
For example, Kimiko Oyakawa. The girl was twelve years old the winter her boyfriend went through the ice on his snowmobile, and drowned. It was Halloween, and like most years in Northwestern Ontario at Halloween, there was snow on the ground, and there was ice along the shores of Lake Superior. The Nipigon River was frozen solid. When it comes to trick-or-treating door-to-door for candy, I can’t remember a single year from my childhood where we didn’t have snow on the ground at Halloween, and ice covering Nipigon Bay at Easter.
My high school, grade nine, you either went trick-or-treating, or else you went drinking at a bush party, because it was time to put away childish things. Halloween, 1985, my best friend James Duke and I foolishly attempted to pursue both activities. But we weren’t the only ones. It would be the last year to go out for candy in our hometown.
Grubby Dave Leibowietz had been chaperoning his girlfriend, age twelve, as she went trick-or-treating. Grubby Dave was seventeen, but Kimiko Oyakawa was one of the prettiest girls in town. Kimiko Oyakawa had this long black hair, so dark, it looked like it was always wet. She could have dated anybody she wanted, soon as she hit grade seven, but she dated the class clown, Grubby Dave, despite the fact that he had a face that looked like an over-grilled hot dog.
Duke and I had crossed Nipigon Bay for the bush party, but didn’t know the location.
We stood huddled alone together behind the Recreation Centre in Red Rock, Ontario, up to our knees in snow, shouting at each other, arguing whether it was worse to have a grandfather who was an alcoholic, or a grandfather who was dead. My point was, Duke was going to end up an alcoholic, just like his grandfather. Duke’s summary response was, all things being equal, my grandfather was dead. Needlessly to say, our nerves were frayed by a long day of drinking out in the snow of Northwestern Ontario, dodging not only cops, but teachers, and parents.
We had been drinking since 7:30 AM. I was dressed as a Ghostbuster, with a half-empty case of Old Milwaukee wrapped in tinfoil strapped to my back, attached to a discarded vacuum cleaner hose, for “ghostbusting”. Duke wore a Spider-Man costume underneath his winter parka and snow boots, teeth chattering despite his Spider-Man hood, because of the cold.
We felt like idiots, stuck out in the dark. The Rec Centre was hopping, but we couldn’t go inside to warm up. We had been out of school all day, walking around town, trying to pick up the trail of the rumoured bush party behind the high school, but for us, the whispers were silent.
It was getting late, and we were stranded without a ride back to Nipigon.
Grubby Dave Leibowietz went through the ice on his snowmobile sometime after 9:00 PM. Approximately half an hour later, the first of three dozen yellow garbage bags full of candy started washing up on the shore, dashed against the rocks where Nipigon Bay wouldn’t freeze no matter how cold it got, along the breakwater of the marina in Red Rock.
Yellow garbage bags were used by the hospital for medical waste, but a group of kids were brawling over the candy along the waterfront. The garbage bags hadn’t been tossed into the water as a prank. The air trapped in each chocolate bar, package of potato chips, and candy treat in the garbage bags had allowed the yellow garbage bags to surface underneath the ice, bubbling up, floating downstream from the scene of Grubby Dave’s accident to open water.
Kimiko had looted almost every home in both Nipigon and Red Rock twice, three times for the houses handing out full-size chocolate bars and cans of pop. It wasn’t so much greed, as pure efficiency. One last hurrah for candy, then time to get drunk and smoke some dope with the older kids back in the bush. Friday was a statutory holiday at our school, that year.
Grubby Dave had been on his way to drop off the evening’s plunder at the bowling alley and snack bar owned by his mother when the accident occurred, his snowmobile weighed down like the Grinch’s sled on departure from Who-ville. All he needed was a Jack Russell terrier with a set of deer antlers strapped to the dog’s head to complete the picture, because Grubby Dave had been wearing a Santa suit for Halloween in the snow.
Every Halloween for the last four years Grubby Dave had worn his Santa suit for the entire week of Halloween at the high school. The Santa suit was Grubby Dave’s way of making fun of all the people who dressed up for Halloween each year, even though they were no longer kids. All the adults who went to house parties dressed as zombies and pirates, superheroes, sexy nurses, lumberjacks, hockey players and mafia hit men, werewolves and vampires. Grubby Dave had worn his increasingly filthy, threadbare, dollar-store-quality Santa suit, cap and white wool beard to school since Monday. It was one of the highlights of Halloween in our hometown.
Somebody shouted, “Call the police! There’s been an accident!” from down at the waterfront.
Nobody knew yet that a snowmobile had gone through the ice, let alone that it was Grubby Dave Leibowietz, but most people remembered the day Bobby Beerman had drowned while knocking buckets of orange golf balls out onto the ice over the Nipigon River. Nobody had seen him since, not even the dive team brought in by the Ontario Provincial Police to recover his body. The garbage bags were a bad omen. As Duke and I stumbled over to the shoreline, several adults sprinted in the opposite direction, shouting for help at the Recreation Centre, panicking.
The Rec Centre had a payphone, but the town’s emergency response personnel were already there. And this was long before 911 came to Northwestern Ontario, early in the 1990s.
The volunteer firefighters hosted a haunted house fund-raiser at the Recreation Centre in Red Rock. Each year after trick-or-treating wrapped up, sometimes a thousand people gathered in Red Rock, coming over from Nipigon and in from Dorion, Hurkett, and the Lake Helen Indian reserve, to celebrate Halloween. It was a bigger event than even the Canada Day barbecue hosted by the Lions Club. Everyone would be in costume, all the adults. The firefighters dressed as sexy nurses; for their part, the ambulance crew dressed as stripper cops, and even the police dressed as pin-up calendar beefcake firefighters, topless, swaggering around the arena for laughs.
The uniform swap between three branches of the town’s emergency response personnel was a way for the firefighters, ambulance crew, and police who had to be on duty that night to still enjoy Halloween with their children at the Recreation Centre, on call in case of trouble with arsonists, poisoned candy being handed out, or drunken teenagers.
By the time the town siren went off, signalling a disaster, the volunteer firefighters had already scrambled out of the Recreation Centre, looking like a bunch of drag queens, smeared in lipstick and rouge. They’d ditched their nursing uniforms and suited up in firefighting gear. They jumped in their trucks and hopped aboard the municipal fire engine parked alongside the baseball diamonds on Lakefront Boulevard, racing off to the site of the accident.
The volunteer firefighters had to drive less than 100 metres to the accident, but the town siren still wailed for almost 45 minutes that night. You would have thought a nuclear attack had been launched on North America, missiles in the air over Hudson Bay, if you hadn’t been down at the Rec Centre for the haunted house that Halloween.
Then, the ghosts and ghouls spilled out into the snow. I’ll never forget what I witnessed.
Duke and I had front row seats for a genuine carnival of the macabre that night. It was worse than a Buy One, Get One Free sale at the Grand Opening of a baby casket emporium. The mood was grim, yet light-hearted at the same time. It was a rescue operation, but then a tailgate party broke out. We had everything except a street vendor hawking fireworks.
Within twenty minutes, the shoreline of the marina in Red Rock was lit up like a movie set. A hole in the ice had been spotted, the area cordoned off. Behind traffic cones and flares on the roadway, a crowd gathered. The Recreation Centre emptied out quick. The whole town came to watch the unfolding of a tragedy, simply to satisfy their animal curiosity. Even the old folks in wheelchairs and families with little kids stayed out shivering in the snow, stamping their feet to keep warm, rather than going home to bed, and permitting the volunteer firefighters to work the site of the accident with no distractions. Can you blame them? Nobody knew what was going on, but everybody wanted to find out. This was life and death, less than twenty feet away.
Everyone was in costume. Zombies and pirates, superheroes, sexy nurses, lumberjacks, hockey players and mafia hit men, werewolves and vampires mingled on the shoreline, waiting for something to happen. Beers were passed around. The dank smell of dope wafted through the air. Kids gorged themselves on candy. Somebody brought out a barbecue and started grilling hot dogs for the crowd. Babies were breastfed. More than a few people were taking photographs of the accident scene. Some people dragged wooden benches from the arena. Others unfolded lawn chairs. Most people just stood around, talking. As Lakefront Boulevard filled up with vehicles, looking like a drive-in theatre, a few cars headed for Highway 11/17, the road between Nipigon and Red Rock, and parked on the Nipigon River Bridge to openly videotape the rescue operation.
By the time the firefighters pulled Grubby Dave’s body out of the water, Grubby Dave had lost his Santa cap and white wool beard, but the bright red suit and leather boots gave away his identity immediately. A gasp went up from the crowd, followed by laughter. Then weeping. Then even more laughter. Finally, a stunned silence that could have been mistaken for boredom, if not disappointment. A complete letdown. The ambulance crew went to work, performing CPR, but there wasn’t a whole lot they could do. Grubby Dave was gone, baby, gone.
Then the angry murmurs started. Where was Kimiko Oyakawa? Hadn’t she been with Grubby Dave all night? Where was she hiding? If his snowmobile went into the water because it was weighed down with too many garbage bags full of candy, whose fault was that? He wouldn’t even have been out trick-or-treating, if it wasn’t for Kimiko. This was her fault.
As the town waited for his family to arrive, the whispers were deafening.
But the cops didn’t bring Grubby Dave’s father, Popeye Leibowietz, or even his older sisters, Scabie Baby and Butt Breath (I swear to God, those were their names!) to attend the scene of the accident. You’d think a member of the immediate family would have been brought over from the bowling alley to identify the body, but the cops had a different idea.
Before the crowd could break up, Kimiko arrived at the scene of the accident in a police car, lights flashing, but with the siren turned off. It was eerie. You could hear the snow crunching underneath the car’s tires. It was like a one-car funeral procession, but at 2:00 in the morning. In the dead of night, the police car came off the highway, crawled down First Street, before turning onto Lakefront Boulevard. There was something majestic about that moment.
What had they told Kimiko? What was someone supposed to say to a 12-year-old girl who’d just lost her boyfriend, a 12-year-old widow – especially a 12-year-old widow dressed as a forest fairy? Where were her friends? Where were her parents? How long had she been alone that night, waiting for Grubby Dave to come back from dropping off the candy at the snack bar across the river from Red Rock, in Nipigon? Who broke the tragic news to her?
Kimiko stepped out of the police car, and walked into an exhausted, drunken, stoned, sugar-addled, senile, small-minded, hysterical mob that somehow blamed her for the tragedy of Grubby Dave’s drowning. She was a small girl, 98 pounds soaking wet, but she took the weight of an entire town on her shoulders that night. She stared down her accusers, standing in the snow without a jacket, fairy wings fluttering in the breeze. She didn’t cry. She kept her head up, dark eyes moving over the crowd, as she thanked the volunteer firefighters for their efforts.
Not surprisingly, it was the single event that would come to define the girl for the rest of her life; two months of casual dating that would cast a shadow over her entire future. Mature for her age, I imagine like most girls Kimiko Oyakawa wore black jeans and a black blouse to her first day of school, grade seven; but after that night, Kimiko Oyakawa would find herself obligated to wear mourning clothes every day until she finished high school, lest people start talking about her behind her back again.
More than 30 years later, I still think of her as the Widow Leibowietz. Granted, I didn’t know Kimiko Oyakawa all that well. I sat beside her for exactly one class, one semester in grade eleven, Introduction to Keyboarding 9A. Kimiko must have noticed the way I smelled after gym class each afternoon, but she never said anything. I still type with three fingers, and both thumbs. These very words, hunted and pecked. We never spoke about what had happened that night. Not even condolences were exchanged, because we weren’t friends. I doubt she even knew my name. Also, it was two years after the fact, so, enough with the bullshit.
The night Grubby Dave Leibowietz drowned, I got home after 4:00 in the morning, still drunk: my father was waiting in his car, ready to look the other way. It was the first time he had ever seen me intoxicated: he carried me to bed, tucked me in safely back at his apartment. That’s just the way things would be between us, going forward, and there was no going back, especially not after we’d both seen the true face of our community: a small town behaving very, very badly.