We Become Outlaws
Our family lasted almost one year in Saskatchewan. It took the town that long to figure out that Ned didn’t speak any French.
“I always looked on it as kind of a frill,” he explains to my mother.
“Teaching,” says Ned. “I coach the girls’ basketball team and keep real good order in the classroom, so the kids don’t, you know, go out and smoke in the hallways, at least during class time, and I always help out at assemblies. I was the one who rustled up some World War Two veterans for Remembrance Day. Remember, Jane, the knack I had with the veterans?”
“Knack with the veterans?” asks my mother. She seems stunned by recent events.
“You don’t want them drooling on their shoes. And you want them to look like they’re having fun even if they’ve forgotten what they’re doing there. It takes a certain deft touch,” says Ned.
“So you didn’t think knowing French was really so important?” My mother is trying just desperately to understand Ned’s point of view.
“Not in the general scheme of things,” says Ned cheerfully.
“Well!” says my mother. “Are they angry?”
“Oh, livid,” says Ned.
“I guess they want you to resign?” asks my mother.
My heart leaps up at the thought of leaving this crummy little house on the edge of town where we have lived for the last year. None of us have warmed to Saskatchewan. We moved here from Massachusetts the summer before when my mother married Ned, who got a full-time job here. His first full-time job ever. But it turns out that there is more to life than this.
The town has financed this house for us but at great cost. There is no one very rich in town but still we are despised and pitied for the charity they afford us, giving us this house and lending us this furniture. I have no friends here. It is rumored we get our clothes off the dump. I don’t mind so much for me but it is very hard on Maya, who has never had her own friends and wants some desperately. She has one so-called friend named Katie, who lords it over Maya and her poverty-stricken state. She is always saying things like she will give Maya her dolls when she outgrows them, knowing full well that by that time Maya will have outgrown them too.
We are not really so poverty-stricken. We have not had chicken and rice without the chicken once since moving. There is always food and heat. But whereas back in Massachusetts our house on the beach carried some cachet, it is different here. No one cares that my mother is a poet. Once at a school dessert night one of the moms asked me what my mother did for a living and when I said she was a poet the mom replied, “Don’t worry, she’ll get over that.” I know that none of this bothers my mother but I am bothered on her account. The only thing that has given us any respectability is Ned’s position as the new French teacher.
“Resign? Are you kidding? They fired me. Darn shortsighted. You know I was one of only two male teachers in the whole frigging town,” says Ned.
“Oh no!” says my mother. She looks so stricken that Ned and I glance at each other. But then the stricken feeling leaves her eyes and in its place I see the warm glow of possibilities. “But maybe,” she goes on slowly, “this is a blessing in disguise. Now after the school year closes we can go back to Massachusetts. In the back of our minds, we always had that as a place to return.”
I am not so sure that this was as true for Ned, and I snap my head back around to look for his response. His eyes are flickering, full of thought, but moving too quickly for me to detect anything definite. My mother’s eyes are quiet, still waters running deep. My mother’s deep waters all lead to us. I don’t think any of us know where Ned’s waters run. Or what his deep well holds behind those constantly flickering eyes. But between the two of them, from these mainspring places, the fate of me and my sister and brothers and our six destinies will be decided.
“Well, gosh darn it, gosh darn it all to heck! I didn’t want to leave this way,” he says at last. He has cleaned up his language considerably since marrying my mother and moving in with us and I mourn the loss. His salty language was expressive and lovely—poetry in its own way. “I was a role model for boys who want to teach. Now what are they to do?”
“They still have Mr. Christenson,” I remind him.
“One male teacher means he is a blip in the natural order,” says Ned, picking up an apple and chewing on it musingly. “Two says it’s a respectable career choice.”
I also pick up an apple and munch on it musingly, one leg tucked under me. I am thrilled at the idea of movement in any direction. I have been almost a year here and it has changed me.
The wide horizons of the prairies have caused me to pull in, to gather myself about and box myself carefully inside me, the way when you are outside and cold without a coat, you hug yourself to preserve your heat, to keep your vitality within. Maybe this accounts for the stoic unflinching faces of the prairie people. Maybe what I take for coldness or meanness is just the battening down of hatches against the inevitable blows from nature. And when they come, they come swiftly, unannounced and catastrophically. Crops gone in minutes from locusts. Sudden rains turning roads to flooding and unpassable mud. Lightning. Unchallenged unbarricaded winds. And there is not the rhythm of the ocean to keep you breathing. Instead perhaps you hunker down and hold yourself in against the deadly winters. The excitement but devastation of tornadoes. The look of the long lonely flat grasslands where you are exposed and vulnerable with nothing to hide behind. These people, dried and parched and suspicious and unwelcoming, may only be each holding on to themselves to keep from blowing away or withering in this place of capricious harm.
It has amazed me, as much as anything, that anyone would settle here forever and even try to keep such a town alive when letting it die might be best for all concerned. Then they could move to the seaside. Why would they spend a lifetime by choice in this dry place? It has been fascinating for comparative purposes. To see what people have and what they miss. To see what we have had and what we have not. But interesting is all it has been; it has never been an us place, it is a them place.
Maya hasn’t been very happy but the boys, who are only six and four, fit in. They love the drifts and the cold. They love putting on their heavy snowsuits, pretending to be from space and building forts and rocket ships of snow. They love the dust storms and the lightning that flies across the prairies and the sudden thunderstorms and being sent home during tornado watches. The first time we heard prairie thunder rumbling far away on the horizon, Hershel said the sky was growling at us. It is a joy and wonder to him, a place where the sky takes note of us and speaks. Even in anger. He and Max are completely captivated by prairie dogs. They go out with their friends onto the grasslands to the prairie dog colonies and wait beside one of the many holes, guessing where the next prairie dog will emerge. I realize if they grow up here they will be prairie boys. This will be their place memory of growing up. It will separate us in a fundamental way. As if we will then belong to different places, they to the prairies and me to the ocean. As if at some stage of our early development, our hearts take root in the landscape that surrounds us and remain rooted there all our lives, even when we’re not.
I do not want them rooted somewhere different from me. Families drift so easily anyway—look at Ned’s. He says probably nobody in his family even knows where the other members are. Perhaps it is an extreme case. I can’t understand how someone as nice as Ned could have lost track of his family so easily and not seem to care. Could this happen to me and Maya and Max and Hershel? I would like us to make a pact saying it never will. I would like to know that, even if it does, at least we are united in the same memory of landscape.
“But didn’t you learn French in school?” asks my mother. How could Ned not know any French when it is mandatory in Canada?
“Well, as you know, I didn’t get much schooling. At least in the early years. I managed to move around often enough to avoid it.”
Ned’s mother had taken her eight children and moved to Fort McMurray, Alberta, in the far north after Ned’s father took off one morning without a word. Ned said his mother explained their father’s speedy exit with “You never know what someone will up and do.” As if an unpredictable universe were the one thing you could count on, and humans the most unpredictable element therein. Then she demonstrated it herself by moving them all from the civilized town of Edmonton to the wilds of Fort McMurray with seemingly nothing to offer in the way of employment for her or opportunities for them. In fact, it appeared that she had moved them for no reason at all. “She was true to her maxim,” Ned said about his mother. “We could never tell what she was going to do.”
Ned used to hitchhike to wherever he guessed his father was and visit him and then hitchhike back to see any brothers and sisters who were hanging around the house at the time. His mother hardly paid attention to anyone’s comings and goings. They had been ripped out of a good Edmonton school and placed in a Fort McMurray school not so much bad as uninterested.
“Yep,” said Ned when he related all this, “after my dad left she was pretty oblivious to the family in general. Mostly I came back when I ran out of money and needed a place to crash, although I generally preferred my father’s when I could find him. On the other hand, Fort McMurray wasn’t without any merit. You could go outside and see the northern lights any night in winter. Down south we had studied the northern lights but in Fort McMurray we experienced them. That’s when I decided that experience is everything. That there was little I could learn in a classroom that was as worthwhile as seeing it for myself. So I hit the road and have been hitting it more or less ever since.”
I am thinking about this conversation now. How Ned has managed to stay in one place with us for almost a year but how his feet must be itching for new experiences and that this business of being fired is a good excuse to go off and have more adventures. The problem is he has my mother to think of now and my mother clearly wants to go home.
I don’t think putting down roots in Massachusetts is going to satisfy Ned and I am curious to see how he will resolve things but at that moment the phone rings. Ned picks it up. When he gets off, he says, “That was the oddest phone call. That was one of Mary’s grandsons. Mary is dying.”
“Who is that?” I ask.
“A friend from a long time ago,” he says. “A long, long time ago.” He stops and stares across the kitchen. He looks pale and strained.
“That woman who took you in all those years ago?” asks my mother.
“Yeah,” says Ned.
“However did her grandson find you?”
“Through Canada 411. He’s lucky. Any other year I wouldn’t have had a fixed address or phone number.”
“Why did Mary have to take you in? Why were you out?” I ask.
“I was lost. It’s a long story. She must be about ninety now. He said she’s really ill and drugged up and out of it but she keeps saying my name. They don’t know why. They said that if I wanted to, I should come and see her because they don’t think she has much time left.”
“Of course you should!” says my mother.
“Yeah, but now I’ve got this whole firing thing hanging over my head,” says Ned.
“Oh, Ned,” says my mother. “What’s done is done. This is more important, surely? Besides, now you don’t have to take a leave of absence. You’re fired!”
She makes it sound as if this has turned out to be fortuitously lucky.
“Let’s all go!” says Ned, and he suddenly perks up. “Let’s leave tonight under cover of dark!”
Finally, I think, an adventure. Ned had promised me nothing but adventures when we got to Canada but this is the first whiff I’ve caught of them.
“Leave like outlaws?” asks my mother.
I think she means it as a bad thing but she has chosen the wrong word for Ned. His eyes glow. “Like Jesse James!”
“Like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid!” I say. I imagine us all on horseback with masks, robbing trains and making our way to Mexico. Ned gives me a wild look and I can tell we are having exactly the same fantasy. Life has been a little too mundane of late.
“But school!” says my mother.
For a poet she can be terribly prosaic sometimes.
“What school? You know what the last month of school is like. There’s nothing but cupcake days and field trips, right, Bibles?” Ned started calling me Bibles back in Massachusetts because I helped a mystical preacher deliver them for a while.
“Very true,” I say.
“Besides,” says Ned, “the children can hardly go back to the school that fired me. Think of the stigma. There’s gonna be some stigma!”
“Oh, major stigma!” I say.
“The stigma,” murmurs my mother, looking abstracted. This is all happening so fast. He was just fired this morning and already we’re wearing masks and robbing trains.
“Let’s leave tonight! Ned loves to drive at night,” I say. We discovered this on the trip from Massachusetts to Saskatchewan. He says the roads are quieter and he likes to drive under the stars. “Let’s take nothing but our clothes!”
But in the coming days my mother insists on packing up the house properly and notifying banks and schools and the post office and other dull things. Even Ned gives up his outlaw role and apologizes to the school for not knowing French.
“The board said they thought I was a darn good teacher anyway,” Ned tells us later when he returns from school with his things. “And they didn’t really care. Heck, they said, they’ve known for years that Mrs. Cunningham doesn’t know any math despite her degree. No, you know who wanted me fired? It’s that lunatic fringe! That darn tiny group of parents who actually care what their children are learning. Let me tell you something, Jane, everyone is responsible for his own education. You can’t teach anyone who doesn’t want to learn and you can’t stop a person who does.”
This is such a stirring speech that we almost forget that the reason we are leaving is that in actual fact, you can’t teach anyone something you yourself don’t know.
“But you’re still fired?” I ask hopefully.
I don’t think Ned is paying attention to me. He is staring off into space ruminatively. “They should have hired me to teach Japanese. I speak Japanese.”
“I didn’t know you spoke Japanese,” says my mother as she comes barreling through the room, her arms full of clothes to pack.
Ned breaks into a torrent of Japanese words.
“I’d love to learn Japanese. I always wanted to be better with languages,” says my mother as she bustles up the stairs.
“I know a little Samoan too . . . ,” Ned calls after her, and then he goes back to packing.
“Let’s put bandanas on the lower parts of our faces as we drive out of town,” I say to Ned, following him around and trying to recapture the spirit of our outlaw adventure through these never-ending closing-up chores.
“I think your mother is being flexible enough,” says Ned, winking at me. “Letting us traipse here and there across Canada in a car. Let’s just be costumed in our minds!”
“Sometimes I don’t think you take this fully seriously,” I say.
“Au contraire, au contraire,” says Ned, and then, whistling happily to himself, goes into the kitchen to help Max and Hershel, who are trying to pour themselves some milk and are about to spill it all over. “That’s French, boys,” he announces, jauntily opening the cookie jar.
“I told you he speaks French,” says Max.
“I know,” says Hershel solemnly.
They are like dogs, aware of so much and yet not, and at any rate, happy to follow the pack.
Maya is happy to leave because my mother says that after we drive to see Mary we are going back to Massachusetts. Sometimes I sense in Maya not just a desire but a real desperation to get home. I can never remember her being as cranky as she has become recently.
We all help my mother finish organizing and finally we find ourselves packed into our beat-up old station wagon, two adults, three children, me, my mother’s box of books and a few suitcases.
We already live on the edge of town so in minutes we are beyond its tightly crossed legs and before us stretches the flat unforgiving land, the grass standing frozen and forlorn. There is nothing ahead but the horizon and the endless wintry road.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Northward to the Moon by Polly Horvath. Copyright © 2010 by Polly Horvath. Excerpted by permission of Yearling, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.