The bench where Danny Miller normally worked through a few pages of Moby Dick had one plank that sagged below the others and his backside was used to it, so this new bench—out front of the Anglican church and dedicated to Victoria Bingham, with whom he had attended primary school—he wasn’t even sure he liked it, let alone deserved it, it was so even and comfortable. Plus, it was too close to the route his grandson walked to the high school, not that Danny would have minded seeing Allan, of course, but he wasn’t trying to upset anyone.
Allan hadn’t even been around when Danny had done it. I mean, hadn’t been born.
Someone on their way to work threw a quarter into Danny’s hat where it lay upside down on the bench beside him. He just had it off to let his head breathe. Maybe he should have showered before he left the house.
Danny looked down at a page of his big novel, which he wasn’t enjoying really—the language was too biblical—but the parts about whaling, which seemed to Danny to be most of the book, were interesting. He marveled at an industry based on such dangerous work as harvesting oil from the heads of giant, powerful, uncooperative creatures. Danny had to be careful about who he talked to about it, though. There was that lovely, brown-skinned girl in the grocery store who reminded him of Cheyenne. That girl he would join the longest lineup just to have a reason to interact with, just so he could suffer a little, yes, remembering Cheyenne’s love, but mostly to be struck with the type of loin-tingling longing that had so thrilled him so long ago. He was talking to her, was Herdeep her name?—the other Indian, Cheyenne would have said—and explaining about whale oil burning in street lamps when Herdeep asked how old Danny was when this town switched to electric.
More change landed in his hat, a few coins this time, ringing off each other as they landed. He tried to get hold of his reflection in the large window of the coffee shop across the street, but his image danced as the unsteady pane wobbled in the breeze.
When Cheyenne disappeared, it became harder to keep her a secret. He went through all the emotions you would expect when someone you love goes missing, when no one who knows them knows where they’ve gone. Danny was retired at that point. Cheyenne’s older sister, Verna, was trying to get Danny to take the boy, Charlie, his other son. She was getting insistent about it, had trouble accepting Danny’s situation. He was sure she was responsible for the search party. Back then, Danny still lived on the acreage he’d bought after the Second World War, still lived with Alice, still kept rooms for his kids, kept them like kid’s rooms even though Alice had started sleeping in one of them. It was nearly suppertime. Danny’s hair was wet from his shower at the golf club. There was a police car blocking the driveway and a group of volunteers from the local reserve walking slowly from the front of Danny’s property to the back. When Danny asked the young officer what was going on, he told Danny that they’d received information suggesting that a woman who’d been missing for two months might be found there. Alice was standing out on the porch, watching the search party work and hugging herself. When she saw Danny she started crying again and disappeared inside. On the kitchen table there was a picture of Charlie, whose hair was black and straight, but whose eyes, except for their brown irises, could have been Danny’s icy own.
Danny never knew how the picture got there, but assumed Verna had asked one of the search party to give it to Alice.
Danny and Alice didn’t say anything to each other then. Danny sat in his chair in the living room drinking whiskey, listening to doors and drawers slam as the row of searchers came closer to the big front window, listening to Alice dragging a suitcase down the hallway as the young officer stood with his hands on his hips looking around the property, looking at Danny’s house, catching site of Danny and turning his face to the ground.
Alice and Danny had already sold the property at that point and made enough on it that neither of them would want for anything, even with their fortune divided. Alice moved into the condominium they’d purchased together. Danny found a rental unit downtown with the idea that he would buy when he found something suitable, but with the hope that Alice might forgive him and he could just move into the condo, too. That never happened. Alice died angry at him.
Danny let his son, Allan’s father, Steven, sell the condo and use the proceeds as he saw fit. Steven didn’t argue. Steven couldn’t stand his father.
Someone else threw change at Danny’s hat, only it bounced out and fell on the sidewalk. Danny started looking around for the coins, but the young man, a Sikh boy, judging by his turban, crouched down and said, “I’ll get that, sir. Don’t you worry.”
“Thank you,” Danny croaked, his voice hoarse from disuse.
“Are you enjoying that book?” the Sikh boy asked.
Danny cleared his throat. “It’s a lot about whaling.”
“Have you read it before?”
“It ends well.” The Sikh boy laughed. “I mean it is a good ending. Interesting. Worth the work.”
“It’s something to do,” Danny said.
“Yes. I suppose.” The boy smiled. “I’ll leave you.”
Danny nodded towards his hat. “Thanks.”
“Don’t mention it.”
Once the Sikh boy was sitting in the bus shelter down the road, Danny looked at how much he’d made. He had enough for a coffee, so he stood, scooped the change into his hand and dropped it into his pocket. “Thanks for the seat, Victoria,” he said to the bench. “It’s very comfortable.” Moby Dick in hand, he stretched his legs and waited for a break in traffic before crossing the road.
When Danny ordered a double-double, the young man working the cash had to fight the urge to roll his eyes. “I just put the coffee in a cup for you.” He gestured to a table with a troop of milks and sugars, standing in their cartons and silver-topped dispensers. “You dress it how you like. I’ll leave you enough room for lots of milk or cream, though, okay?”
“I can help if you need.”
“That won’t be necessary.”
A fierce, pleading saxophone melody burst crying from the speakers. The young man was saying something.
“What’s that?” Danny asked.
“I said, which roast would you like?” The young man put his hand on one of five black silos barricading the staff from their customers.
“What’s the difference?”
The piano, and was it chimes? had joined the saxophone. “This one’s our lightest roast,” the young man told Danny. Someone was waiting behind him now. The young man walked to the other end of the row of coffee silos. “This one’s decaf. This one’s our darkest and these ones are in between.”
“I want a regular coffee.”
“I’m not sure what you mean by regular.”
“Like what you’d get anywhere.”
“I suggest our Columbian roast.”
“Fine. Thank you.”
Danny set his book down on a dry corner of the serving station. While he was figuring out which of the milk cartons held 2%, the saxophone started screaming like it was angry at God, the other instruments a chaos behind it. The young man who had served him was finishing a transaction. Danny could barely focus, his mind rioting with the squall of notes. He realized he was holding his breath. Eventually, he got his coffee looking like he wanted it. He turned towards the counter. The young man had his elbows resting on top of one coffee silo, his wrists crossed and his hands hanging limply.
“What’s this music?” Danny asked.
“Yes. What is it?”
“You like it?” The young man smiled, a child in his pleasure.
It’s terrible, Danny had wanted to say, even though that wasn’t really what he meant either. “It’s something else.”
“It’s Pharoah Sanders.”
“That’s the man’s name. Pharoah like king, Sanders like Colonel Sanders. KFC.”
Danny nodded, thinking he understood. “Pharoah Sanders.”
“I love this CD.”
“That’s good.” He meant it.
“See you again,” the young man said.
“Thank you again.”
Danny stood outside, his coffee burning his fingertips through the paper cup. He looked at his watch. It was nearly nine o’clock. Allan wasn’t coming. Danny wondered if maybe since the last time—when Danny had introduced himself to his grandson and Allan had backed almost onto the road before breaking into a trot—that Allan’s parents had suggested Allan take another route to school. If that had happened, though, Danny figured Steven would have called and confronted him. Steven loved to confront him.
“You forgot your book, sir.” The young man from the coffee shop was holding Danny’s copy of Moby Dick out to him.
“Have a good day.”
Danny walked down to the river. In the decades since Cheyenne had disappeared, other women like her had gone missing. He didn’t know Charlie enough— Well, he didn’t know Charlie at all, really, so he couldn’t say why the boy had volunteered his boat to search the river, but Danny would guess that Charlie’s mother’s disappearance was the primary motivation. On the radio, Danny had heard other members of Charlie’s team, volunteers, talk about why they went back and forth and up and down the river dragging hooks along the bottom. The police wouldn’t do it, was one reason. Year’s ago, they’d found some poor soul’s bones turned up by the spring melt and people speculated that maybe there were others down there in the mud. That was another reason. But both the volunteers they interviewed had lost someone close to them—an aunt, a family friend—and their voices got hooked on the names of their lost loved ones.
As a boy, Danny had paddled a canoe on this river. There had been fish then, and he’d fished for them and caught them. He’d always found it eerie, though, that you couldn’t see the bottom, so when his friends went swimming, Danny had always watched from the shore. There was no path along the bank, then. No lawn. No benches.
Danny sat down.
The boat was near the King Street Bridge. Charlie was in it, standing up. He wondered what work Charlie did that he could be in a boat searching a river at nine on a weekday morning. He’d be in his thirties, now. Thirty-five.
A couple, dressed all in white, walked their West Highland Terrier along the path and stopped to say hello to Danny’s son. Danny was too far away to hear what they were saying, but something in the way the woman put her hands on her hips and the way Charlie stood facing them suggested that they’d bumped into each other like this before.
Danny wondered if he were to walk by, stooped as he was now, his features obscured by loose old flesh, if Charlie would even recognize Danny, see in Danny some premonition or promise, some future self.
The walk back up the hill was harder. He passed the Anglican church, so beautifully placed to watch over the life of the town. The stairs up to the threshold would be a challenge for Danny, but it was what he feared he would find inside that kept him from going through the doors.
From his apartment he could hear the bells anyway. Ringing at 6 a.m., they said good morning. At noon they reminded him to eat. At 6 p.m. they told him he could pour a glass of whiskey.
Danny spent the rest of the day sleeping and reading and wondering at Ahab’s courage, chasing the thing that haunted him. Charlie’s courage, too. Danny knew how Moby Dick ended and still he admired Ahab for not sitting around ninety years like Danny had, a coward waiting for time to kill him.
Toronto, November 2015
Emoji Sequence: Julie Birrell, writer and educator
Story: Lee Sheppard