It’s September, before Geneva’s thirteenth birthday. Martin Fry walks into Roberts Hardware, veers past Geneva as she dusts Royal Albert cream and sugars, right to the glass covered cabinet of expensive knives. Geneva’s father is out delivering an electric heater. Her mother stands behind the counter and stiffens her back when Martin walks in. “Is there something you’re looking for?” says Mrs. Roberts. She doesn’t sound at all like she wants to make a sale.
“How much?” he says, pointing to a fish knife.
“Those are expensive.”
“I’d have to look it up,” she says then finally pulls out a price list, traces her finger downward and announces, “Fourteen ninety-five.”
Martin walks toward Geneva’s mother then stares right past her at the boxes of Imperials and Canucks and Whiz Bangs, stacked like the cartons of cigarettes in Lee’s Grocery Store. He stands there, his broad back to Geneva, arms hanging uncommonly still and doesn’t say another word. He turns abruptly and walks down the aisle. Floor boards creak, rope and cable, axes and saws, and bins of nails jangle and islands of china and glassware rattle. Martin bolts out the door leaving static in his wake.
Geneva has never encountered Martin before. He was born the year the town of Bradshaw planted Northwest poplars along the residential section of Main Street. By the time she was born, right at the end of the war, the poplars had already formed a solid column of shade and protection out her front door. They are part of her assumed territory along with the caragana hedge, the Siberian crab, the open veranda, even the moon and the stars. As a child she skipped along the sentried boulevard whenever she wished, to and from the hardware.
With hindsight people judge Martin according to their favorite view of human behavior. He developed, as small town boys do, into a freewheeling explorer with few constraints beyond suppertime curfews. But in his seventh grade picture he stands in the back row, looking like he could lift bales much easier than the gangly farm boys who were required to do so, his complexion pale, his smile ironic, like he is sharing an insider’s joke, yet his eyes are intense and estranged from others.
At the time Martin was considered a regular boy who was mainly drawn to car engines and gopher hunting. He hung out atRalph’s Motors - so often you might have thought he was Ralph’s son (his own father was missing in France) - and tracked home engine grease into Emily Fry’s spotless house. Like other boys he carried buckets of water to nearby stubble fields to flood gophers out of their holes and whack them dead. When he turned twelve he used a .22 rifle to shoot them instead, before cutting off their tails. The difference between Martin and other boys was that he always did this alone, always in private, before taking his booty into Roberts Hardware for pocket money, a penny a tail.
Mr. Roberts collected the tails in tins and shipped them off to Fish and Wildlife for compensation. Mucking with cars and gophers rankled Emily Fry who complained to both Ralph and Geneva’s father as if they were to blame for Martin’s pastimes. That her son was a loner was irrelevant.
All this Geneva has learned by listening to adults reminisce and try to make sense of Martin Fry’s life. That her father kept collections of gopher tails is the bigger revelation.
“That guy’s up to no good,” says Geneva’s mother.
“How would you know?” says Geneva who has begun contradicting her mother, turning cheeky, even though Martin Fry gives her the willies.
“He’s back from Ponoka,” says Mrs. Roberts as if this explains it all.
“So? Aunt Terry and Uncle Bill live in Ponoka.” Geneva is bating now since she knows exactly what her mother means. They sometimes drive to the grounds of the mental hospital on Ponoka’s outskirts to admire the gardens. No one mentions they might also view the patients, yet once they enter the grand circular driveway they invariably grow silent as if conversation will instigate some mad uprising.
The hospital has its own water tower and power plant with groves of trees planted here and there. Geraniums and shrubs front the brick anterior while a plotted garden and fields of hay can be seen at the back. It is a large estate with its residents seemingly mute. The most Geneva has ever heard above the hum of her parent’s Ford Fairlane is a magpie bragging or a robin scolding. The inside, she surmises, is hushed and sterile with men and women in their separate wings, secretly watching through wire meshed windows, as Martin Fry might do, though now he would be on the outside looking in.
Geneva’s father has returned to the store and Martin is peering in the window, his nose not quite touching the thick pane of glass.
“He was in here looking at knives and gun shells,” Mrs. Roberts says to her husband. “And he had a strange look about him. Maybe we should talk to Pierce.”
No one in town calls Danny Pierce constable or officer or anything like that. He’s twenty-three, a neophyte and new to Bradshaw, therefore an object of curiosity and skepticism. Corporal Jensen is, as everyone knows, on vacation in Vegas so Pierce has been left in charge.
Geneva often watches Pierce slip on his regulation hat as he goes down the steps of the RCMP detachment, right across the street from the hardware store, and into the Royal Hotel. Aside from the coffee shop (she rarely sees Pierce there) most of the hotel remains uncharted territory. She sometimes waits outside the beer parlour with her friend Darla, inhaling stale draught and cigarette smoke while Darla tags her parents for money and permission to go to the Roxy.
Geneva intends to tell Darla how Martin Fry has been staking out Roberts Hardwareand how Pierce could come to the rescue if Martin gets out of hand. She’ll leave out the part where Pierce falls in love with her, sinceDarla would be hoping for the same.
In Gigi, the town’s prevailing picture show, Maurice Chevalier sings Thank Heaven for Little Girls and then Louis Jourdan, as confirmed bachelor Gaston, sings about what a fool he’s been, how the much younger Gigi, groomed by aunts to be some rich man’s mistress, has grown up before his eyes yet he’s been blind to notice. Suddenly he realizes he’s in love and marries her.Geneva imagines herself with Pierce; him waiting for her to turn sixteen and eventually walk down the aisle in a silk gown and flounced veil with all of Bradshaw watching.
“I’ll deal with him,” Geneva’s father says to her mother. “You go over and tell Pierce.”
“If he sees me over there he’ll put two and two together and blame me if he gets caught and sent back.”
“I’ll go,” says Geneva. “He won’t notice me. I’ll talk to Pierce while you keep Martin busy.”
Her parents look at each other and mull the idea. “Okay,” says Mr. Roberts, “if Martin comes in I’ll distract him while you slip over to the office. Be discreet.”
“I will.” If she could, Geneva would go directly to the phone. Darla, you won’t believe what’s happening.
“You just keep dusting over there until he has his back to you. Don’t let him notice you.”
Just then Martin walks in, straight down the aisle, straight to the counter where Geneva’s parents await him. He didn’t acknowledge Geneva earlier and this time is no different. Does he know she exists? He nods at Mr. Roberts.
Martin stares behind the counter at the stacks of gun shells. “What do you recommend?”
“Depends on what you want them for.” Geneva’s father looks over Martin’s shoulder, raises his eyebrows and gives her the go-ahead look. For a moment she freezes (Martin could turn and actually look at her) then she slips out the door, turns right to be out of view, crosses at the intersection (people only J-walk in Bradshaw) and walks toward the office of the RCMP.
Through the door’s window she sees Pierce with his cropped sandy hair, feet up on an oak desk, talking on the phone. Potent energy percolates through his fingers as he taps the desktop and flips a pencil from one digit to another. He smiles into the receiver and, when he happens to look toward Geneva, his eyes widen and his feet slide to the floor. He motions to her to enter.
“Okay. Gotta go. Ditto. Bye,” he says then turns to Geneva, his smile fading. “So, what can I do for you?”
“Uh, it’s Martin Fry…my dad wanted me to tell you…he’s in the store right now, Martin is, and he’s looking at knives and gun shells and my parents want you to know.”
“You’re the Roberts girl?”
Her face flushes. Who else would she be? She nods at Pierce and replies, “From the hardware.” Now she’s angry. Maybe those questions about Pierce’s competence have some warrant. “And my name’s Geneva!”
“Well Geneva Roberts I’ll have to make a note of this.” Pierce enters something into a log book, then goes over and peers through the venetian blinds. Martin Fry is just coming out onto Main Street. “I see he’s left the store. I’ll talk to your dad.”
“They don’t want Martin to know I’ve come over.”
“Mums the word.”
“They don’t want Martin to know he’s reported, in case it backfires.”
“It’ll be taken care of,” says Pierce in a serious tone, unlike the one he used earlier, when he was on the phone, when his voice was soft and musical. “So how old are you Geneva?”
She considers an explanation of being almost thirteen but replies, “Thirteen.”
“Hmm.” He smiles vaguely as he looks her over.
The song Gigi plays in her head.
“Thanks Geneva. I’ll see you around.”
So this is how it goes? Her stomach flutters. See you around?
There is a faded quarter moon. The flank of poplars outside the Roberts’ house wore flashy green and yellow uniforms in daylight then darkened, as evening progressed, into rogue footmen. A figure, under one expansive tree, stands aligned with the gnarled trunk, arms hanging uncommonly still.
Liver infiltrates every room of the Roberts’ house. There’s no escaping this weekly dose of butchered iron prescribed and cooked by Geneva’s mother in a frying pan with butter and onions and a sprinkling of salt. The smell has fanned out from the new electric stove to the dining and living room at the front and the bedrooms along the side. Geneva, with legs draped over the back of a kitchen chair and head and shoulders down on the seat, is on the phone with Darla. “I was right there in his office…he asked me how old I was…and he’s going to keep an eye on us, watch out for Martin Fry…ooh he gives me the willies. So, you want to go to the show on Saturday?”
Mr. Roberts is reading Ellery Queen in his green easy chair and Mrs. Roberts irons sheets while listening to Frank Sinatra on the radio.
“Will you close the curtains and blinds dear?” says Geneva’s mother. “By the way, Gladys Hartley wants you to baby-sit Saturday night. Call her tomorrow, just to be sure.”
“But I was planning to go to the show with Darla.” Geneva stands at the picture window, staring at the Northwest poplars. One of them, the third one from the end, the most abundant one, seems different.
“It’s still Gigi. And you’ve already seen it twice.”
“But I want to go again before it changes.” Her voice trails off.
“What’re you looking at?” her mother asks.
“Nothing, I guess.” She yanks the cord so the curtains swish together.
“Maybe I shouldn’t be alone, with just a baby, in someone else’s house. You know, with Martin Fry around.” She moves to close the venetians on the side windows.
“The police will take care of Martin. Your dad talked to Pierce and he’ll handle it.”
“Maybe we should lock the doors.”
“If it would make you feel better.” Mrs. Roberts sets the iron on its end while Frank Sinatra sings a Gershwin tune about wanting to be watched over. Mr. Roberts keeps right on reading while Mrs. Roberts goes to the front door, turns the barely used lock then lifts one corner of the lace panel to take a peek. She immediately screams her head off.
Mr. Roberts drops his Ellery Queen and runs over to her. “What in heavens name…?” Geneva stands frozen, her hands to her mouth.
“He’s out there. His face was right up to the window - looking right at me. Oh my God, lock the back door, call Pierce.”
Frank continues singing about someone who carries a key to his heart.
“Turn that damn radio off,” says Geneva’s father as he hustles to the back door and locks it up. He calls the operator. “Get me the RCMP. What do you mean he’s not there?” Eva Shantz, the operator, knows how to reach everyone in town. Between her rubber necking and people treating her like an answering service she has the goods on most everyone. “Yes it’s important, dammit. Why else would I be calling? Well put me through to the hotel then, if that’s where he is.”
Geneva is almost in shock but not to the point of missing this tidbit on the whereabouts of Danny Pierce.
Her father mutters, “Why would he be there, just when we need him?”
Her mother answers, “I heard he’s got a love nest.”
Then he’s back on the line. “Hello. Hello Pierce. We’ve got problems with Martin Fry. He’s looking in our windows. God knows what he’s up to. You gotta come and get him. Well get some backup! I don’t give a damn who you get, just get over here.”
“Next thing you know he’ll have her pregnant,” says Mrs. Roberts.
Love nest? Pregnant? Geneva stares at her parents.
“He’d better get here soon,” says Mrs. Roberts. “Martin must know we reported him. He must have seen Pierce come over to talk to you. That damn Pierce! Oh my God, close all the windows. What about the basement?”
“I am calm. I am calmly thinking of all the possibilities. And don’t just stand there!”
Mr. Roberts goes around to the bedrooms then down to the basement while Mrs. Roberts waits at the top of the stairs. “He’s crazy. They never should have let him out,” she natters into the stairwell.
Geneva stares at the enameled front door. Suddenly there’s a knock, hard and persistent. “Someone’s at the door.”
Her mother hollers down. “You’d better get up here. He’s knocking at the door.”
Mr. Roberts comes up out of breath; his eyes dart as he gauges the situation. He goes over and pushes aside the lace curtain to face the knocker and Geneva and her mother lean forward to see what they can see.
Martin’s face is contorted; his mouth forms words they can’t hear. He points toward the driveway at the side of the house.
“What? What’s that you’re saying? You’re calling me a fat liar?” Geneva’s father hollers through the glass; neither one can hear the other.
Martin yanks at the door and raises up his hands, exasperated. Suddenly two figures emerge from the shadows of the caraganas: one small and hunched, the other broad, bold and in uniform. There’s a thump on the door and scuffling on the veranda. Voices fade and a car door slams. Then comes an officious knock and Mr. Roberts opens up.
“Okay we’ve got him!” Pierce looms in the doorway, “We’re driving over to Ponoka tonight,” he says to Mr. Roberts. “By the way you have a flat tire.” He points to the side of the house.
Geneva and her mother rush to the front window and push aside the curtains. As Pierce opens the cruiser door and the interior lights flash on they spot his backup, Emily Fry.
“Thank God,” says Mrs. Roberts, “and poor Emily. So it’s true about Pierce and Shelly Walsh?”
“Who cares,” says Geneva. “Who cares?”
Mrs. Roberts has proved prophetic. Shelly Walsh got pregnant while her husband Dennis was in Drayton Valley working on the rigs - Darla’s mom said everyone knew that he cheated on Shelly right from the start but just the same she shouldn’t have gone and got pregnant. Shelly has escaped to her sister in Red Cliff and Pierce has been transferred to Medicine Hat, which, according to Darla’s mom, is a move up the totem pole and only about ten minutes from Red Cliff.
It’s spring and the tulips are in bloom. The Roberts take a Sunday drive to Ponoka and invite Darla along for the ride. The girls giggle and whisper in the back seat of the Ford Fairlane and sing Great Balls of Fire, then they all fall silent as Mr. Roberts turns into the hospital driveway.
“I wonder what room he’s in,” whispers Darla. “Look, there’s someone watching, up on the second floor. It could be him. My mom says they shocked him with electricity, cleared out his brain, so he wouldn’t recognize us anyway. Won’t remember anything. Can you imagine?”
Geneva remembers the last thing Pierce said to her - Here’s looking at you kid! - when he stopped at the hardware to say goodbye. She can barely conjure up the faces of Martin Fry or Danny Pierce nowadays but she can still see the look, fleeting as it was, on the face of Emily Fry: mouth pinched and curled into an ironic twist, eyes intense and estranged from everyone…including her son.
- Barbara Biles