MARTY AND FREDERICK, I
The two stood in a hard-packed dirt barnyard, facing the end wall of an old dairy barn. The smell of cows still permeated the air. It was sweet, fetid, and oddly appealing—the kind of smell that was at first unpleasant but that, over time, one grew accustomed to. After a while, it was as if your nose craved it. Marty had always found that strange but undeniable. He craved it now.
Marty’s teenage son sniffed and peaked his eyebrows. “Same smell,” he said.
“Yeah, there hasn’t been a cow here for six years, but—” Marty’s words trailed off as he tilted his head up to find the familiar scent.
The yard was packed hard as asphalt. On the flaking clapboards above the barn’s entrance was a painted plywood sheet. Attached to it was a steel basketball rim. The white backboard bore several muddy handprints, their impressions left so distinctly you could almost hear the slap on the flat wood.
“Highest jump gets to drive to the ferry terminal,” Frederick said, holding up a dirty palm to point at the backboard and illustrate his meaning. Marty disliked being the passenger. He sometimes felt anxious with his son driving, especially when he sped or tailgated slower drivers in the passing lane.
“You’re on, kid. Remember, I was born in a leap year,” Marty said, hopping up and down and windmilling his arms to warm up. He was glad he had worn runners that day. He was glad too that Fred had asked to come to the old farm before he went away to school.
“Nice dad joke, Dad.” Frederick ran over to the door and pulled it open. Just inside was a bushel basket containing four or five chewed-up basketballs. He picked two and flipped one to his father.
They shot around for a few minutes—two slim, broad-shouldered Mennonites. Their arms were bony, and the knuckles of their large hands red, scrubbed too often, with too abrasive a brush. They did layups until Frederick dunked, the rim sounding off like a springboard. Without saying a word, Marty ran to a worn spot—a large flat, oval stone set flush into the dirt. It was like meeting an old friend. He clapped his hands, and Frederick fired a pass to him. His shot was off in an instant, the ball back-spinning and falling without a sound through the naked hoop.
Their familiar competition began. Frederick reared back like a high jumper and then raced forward and made a feline leap, reaching with a long arm. Slap! Like a screen door slamming.
Marty eyed the backboard beside Frederick’s mark. He approached from the left side, swooping under the rim and shedding years as he leapt.
“You got me by an inch, Old-school,” Frederick said, crouching down into a squat with his hands spread out on the packed clay, a playful look on his face. Then he stood near the rim and with one sudden step bounced up and spanked the backboard with his palm, leaving a gray imprint.
“That’s about ten-seven, eh?” said Marty, bending over from the waist to rub a little dirt on his hand. He looked like a heron bent in half, drinking. “Tell you what,” he said with a small smile. “We gotta get going. If I don’t beat you on this try—you win. But, if I do beat you on this one, I drive the truck and choose the radio station.”
“Deal,” said Frederick, hands on narrow hips, long fingers splayed on the front of his shorts.
They were in the truck, rolling down the new highway beside the Fraser with Johnny Cash on the radio. The two kidded about the jumping competition. Frederick was clearly proud of his dad.
“Did you ever do a jump-off like that with Grandpa?”
“No, he could never even dunk, big as he is,” Marty said. “He played some soccer goalie back in grade school, but he always said the farm was his sport. He worked every day and quit school when Opa figured he had enough education to run the farm—reading and writing and math, pretty much. I expect he would have made an excellent engineer.”
“He sure loved basketball though.”
“Yeah, he came to all my games, and he never missed one of yours from grade six on.”
Frederick thought of the big man standing on the top row of the bleachers, bellowing relentlessly at the refs and the other team. The old man would plead for Frederick’s team to “pass it to Freddie, he don’t miss!” Frederick secretly loved the attention—Grandpa stomping his cowshit-spattered boots and leading the chant when the clock ticked down.
“We used to be out in that yard shooting until midnight,” Marty said, in a faraway voice. “He would stand under the hoop, rebounding and whipping the balls back out to me. ‘Again!’ he’d yell, over and over.”
A light rain began to fall, and they were quiet for a long while as they drove west to the ferry terminal. Frederick started school at the university in two days, and the last of his gear—bag, backpack, and bike—was under a tarp in the truck bed.
Lurching forward in his seat, Frederick turned down the volume of the radio and spoke, breaking in on Marty’s thoughts.
“Dad,” he said with his voice just audible above the hum of the tires, “I want you to know something.” He fussed with the settings on his phone.
And that is when Frederick told his father. Just like that.
Marty had sometimes wondered how people reacted when they were told this by one of their children. He was quiet, holding back words, perplexed as much as he was surprised. But he appreciated the directness. He could deal with that. He had been scared at first and an ice-cold wash of adrenaline had flooded down his spine when Frederick started to speak. Marty had thought maybe his son was sick—cancer or some other awful thing—but that didn’t make sense. He would know if anything serious like that was wrong.
The quiet rested on them there in the cab of the truck as Marty considered what Frederick had told him. The radio announcer chattered in the background about departure times at the ferry.
“A few times,” Marty said to Frederick who sat still in the passenger seat, “I thought about it a few times. I wondered just a bit.” Marty recalled—always too busy with basketball for dates or dances or other teenage conquests. For Freddie, it was always basketball, school, Grandpa and the farm.
As they drove, Marty watched a tugboat towing a boom of logs on the Fraser. The logs flowed down the inexorable river, riding the current. Frederick noticed Marty studying the boom and said to his father, “That one is huge. Look how many separate booms are strung together.”
The log boom was like a pause button, and they both reached for it. “At least three,” Marty said as he pulled the truck over on the shoulder. They sat together and watched the tug guide the immense weight of the logs past the pilings of the Alex Fraser Bridge.
“The boom is going downstream, so it’s controllable, I suppose,” Marty said. “But I guess you still have to be pretty careful and plan your course with care.”
“Do you think it’s harder to tow them upstream?” Frederick asked, glancing at his dad, his eyes glassy.
The kid is sharp was the thought that came into Marty’s head. Openhearted as hell. Shit.
The logs don’t pick the direction, Marty thought. He wanted to say that to Freddie, but it sounded too pat—made the whole thing a bit theatrical. It was a good thought, and true, and it made him stronger and helped him to cope with his own feelings, which were loose and rambling in his head, but he did not say the words.
“I think the tug captains like it when the current and the tide cancel each other out, when the water is basically still,” Marty said, taking an easier way.
He remembered what a friend—a towboat captain—had told him: “The challenge is to move the logs fast enough to make good time but slow enough so that the booms are not pulled apart and the logs lost.”
Frederick had his gaze fixed on the floating logs.
“OK, Fred,” Marty said. “Tell me everything you want me to know, and I’ll explain it to Mom.”
“Mom knows,” Frederick said, his voice thin. “But maybe you can tell Grandpa?”
“I’ll tell him,” Marty said, as he shoulder-checked and pulled out into the flow of traffic. He thought about his wife, Arlene, and he was surprised she had not said something to him. Freddie probably swore her to silence. He swallowed hard, wiped a moist palm dry on his jeans.
“I guess I knew too, Fred. I guess I did, if I’m honest. I just—you know—just didn’t dwell on it much. There’s no, uh, rulebook—”
“Sure, Dad. That’s kind of what I thought,” Frederick said, staring down at his hands as he spoke.
“I’ll talk to Grandpa, but—Fred, you two are close. More than me and him in many ways. Wouldn’t he rather hear it from you?”
“Not this, Dad,” Frederick said, as the radio twanged.
MARTIN GERBRANDT SENIOR
Martin Gerbrandt had run this farm most of his adult life. He had been sent by the family in Smithers, years ago, to come to the Fraser Valley and find a way to improve their lot. Their aging dairy had been flooded out three years running, and they were on the edge of failure.
Martin was sent to gather a herd and begin a new life for the family. He had done very well, but his health and his stamina were spent with the effort. When he felt the time was right, Martin passed it on to his three sons who then moved the Gerbrandt dairy herd to a new, modern complex a few miles away. Martin Senior asked them to leave the old barn standing so he could still use the workshop and store his travel trailer and a few other things. They had been happy to accommodate him.
In the weeks after he told Martin about Frederick, Marty became concerned. Every day he drove to his parents’ house, and each time his mother told him the same thing: “Where else? He’s at the old barn,” she said. “I think he has fixed every broken tool and sharpened every darn blade in the Fraser Valley. He is in a foul mood. Expect a fight.”
On a freezing morning, before dawn, with sleet obscuring the windowpanes, the old man took the axe down from its place on the shop wall. The stone of the sharpening wheel whirled and pulsed in its greased traces, making a hollow, scraping noise that echoed throughout the empty barn. The grating sound unsettled the swallows that nested there. He drank a third of a bottle of Crown Royal while he sharpened the axe with the foot-treadled grindstone in the workshop.
“It’s OK birds, simmer down. Relax,” he rumbled as the tiny creatures darted through the still air.
Martin lifted the axe, feeling it for balance. Then he stared for a time at the door jamb and all the names and measurements. Already drunk, he opened a tall can of beer and drank half of it. Then he placed the can on the workbench, putting it next to the other thing—the brutish thing, malevolent and dark and oily.
Martin set his feet and, swinging the axe like a baseball bat, lodged it in the jamb board, above the highest two names. The blade was plunged an inch deep in the faded wood. The names Marty and Frederick were on the splintered chunk of board just below the axe blade.
The tall man felt in a few pockets and then brought out a cellophane-wrapped package of Player’s cigarettes. He opened it, wadding the inner foil in his hand, his red-skinned fingers braided from arthritis. Smelling the tobacco, he went back fifty years in an instant. He saw himself shouting and tugging at a hoe in the wet cement as a truck poured the footing for the barn he stood in now. Martin lit a cigarette, tasting the burnt brown sugar and sweet caporal flavor, the same way he did that day so long ago.
“The best cigarette was always the first one in the morning with a hot cup of prips, just before milking,” he said aloud, talking to his herd as if they were still there. The cows back then would smell the tobacco and the coffee and know their urgent pain would end soon, knew that he was there to relieve them.
Martin smoked and thought back to how it used to be. He thought of those mornings, the cows stirring and lowing in their stalls. He would make his plans for the day in those peaceful moments. All those uncles and cousins and brothers up north—all counting on him to get things going. He needed those quiet moments, just to shed the worry and think of other things.
He flicked the cigarette away and pried the axe loose from the jamb. Martin aimed and swung again. The next chop was lower, striking at the height of Freddie’s eighteenth birthday mark. Cut free, the piece of wood with the two names fell as the second blow went home, shaking the wall and scattering the birds. The old man left the axe where it struck and leaned over. He dropped one long arm down, like dangling a length of chain, and picked up the fragment. He rubbed the names with his thumb, his eyes soft and his gaze far away.
Martin Senior held an envelope—“To Marty and Frederick”—written with his old fountain pen, the one his father passed on to him. He gripped the letter together with the piece of wooden jamb. With a shudder, he stuffed it all in his pocket.
Standing still, he inhaled, straightening his back. There was the good dairy barn smell, and he lingered on it for the last time. “Forgive me, God,” he said as he picked up the dark sinister thing in his free hand and hefted it. It fit the form of his palm and he could feel the sharp, cross-hatched ridges of the handle grip. The steel was cold, and it drew the heat from his hand like a wick.
A moment later it was quiet again, and the swallows resumed flying in the yard, near the open door where the tall man had dropped.
Marty found his father. It was close to suppertime. He had become concerned when there was no sign of him at any of his regular haunts, and Mom had no clue either. He’s been a mess since finding out about Freddie, he thought. With all of his health issues, feeling like an outsider on the farm he started, and then not knowing what the hell to do about the grandson he loved so much. Dispossessed, Marty thought. Bereft and maybe even betrayed is how Dad must have felt.
Marty held his phone in his hand. He wasn’t ready to call 911 or tell his mother. Or tell Freddie. He delayed by driving the truck slowly through the valley, listening to western ballads on the radio. He just kept circling: past the overgrown ball diamond in Yarrow, southwest to the old powerhouse where his father had liked to sit and smoke cigarettes, then all the way west on Vye Road, looking across the ditch to the United States, waving at the border patrol cameras on the boundary. Back up to Abby and then east along the Trans-Canada. Start over.
Finally, with the sky darkening, he knew he had things he could no longer avoid. He returned to the barn, hoping he would find things different, would find the old man cussing about some crooked politician or a dumb trade the Canucks had just made. But instead, of course, he found his father, crumpled and alone on the floor.
MARTY AND FREDERICK, II
Marty and Frederick stood in front of the barn in their funeral suits, the backboard and rain-streaked handprints above their heads.
“That was quite a day,” Marty said, looking up.
Frederick stared at the handprints on the basketball backboard. He wandered toward the door.
“I want to see the door frame.”
Marty noticed the boy’s stride—slightly pigeon-toed—copying his own awkward waddle.
That’s what they taught us, Marty thought, remembering his high school coach on the bus, explaining: “There’s so little room in the key, down low. So many big feet. You’ll trip less if you turn your toes inward. Fewer ankle sprains too.” Marty, then the enthusiastic rookie, adopted the toed-in stance, and he walked that way still.
“Drink as little water as you can during games—it improves your wind. Toughens you up. You can refill after the game.” Marty thought back to what his college coach had said. It was irrefutable and, then, accepted.
Not everything they believed was right. Not everything they taught us was good for us, he mused.
“You sure loved your birthday parties,” Marty said to his son. At the parties, every Gerbrandt child’s height, name, and date were recorded in carpenter’s pencil on the frame of the workshop door in the barn. Grandpa was the proud registrar for this family ritual.
Frederick opened the door, and a sharp squeal came from the rusted triangular hinges.
“Quit complaining, we all got shit to deal wit,” Frederick said, in a voice and accent mimicking his grandfather’s. He swung the door the rest of the way. All of the old markings were there—his dad’s and uncles’ and aunts’ and his cousins’ and his own. From one through eighteen, the level pencil lines showed steady progression. Up through the grades and years they went, saplings rising from the understory. The pencil lines, like the outer growth rings on a cedar stump, became closer together as his height neared its pinnacle, and his yearly growth slowed.
Frederick remembered the excitement of those childhood measuring days. He recalled his parents standing with Grandma and Grandpa as the tarnished builder’s square was used to position the line on top of his head. He enjoyed thinking of their cheers as he exceeded his cousins and some years—not many—his dad’s mark for the same age.
“Gerbrandt men are tall and straight and true,” Martin Gerbrandt would say with ceremony. It was Grandpa’s favorite moment, and Frederick savored the memory of those days.
“Grandpa always measured us with the old folding wooden ruler,” Frederick said, touching the pencil marks. The ruler was imprinted with beautiful German cursive—the words of his grandparents’ native language. A language prohibited by Grandpa—“English is the language of life in the Lower Mainland. So be it,” he had said to the family, prohibiting Plautdietsch and insisting on high marks in reading, spelling, and literature.
“‘Someday, you can be bigger den me,’ Grandpa always told me,” Frederick said, thinking of his grandfather, the loving, baggy-eyed giant.
Frederick stood staring at the door frame. A few inches above his eye level was a heavy axe. The head had already begun to rust and the handle gray. Imbedded in the jamb, it stood out sideways as if it had grown there. He looked down at the concrete inside of the doorway where the floor was scrubbed and whitish. Bleach had been used to clean away his grandfather’s blood.
Marty came up behind his son and put his hands on the boy’s shoulders.
“Like the poem Aunty Agnes read at the funeral, One more is gone. Out of the busy throng. Remember the good in Grandpa—there was a lot,” he said in a whisper.
“He never could get over it, could he? Me living in Victoria with Graeme. . . . ”
“Don’t think that. Grandpa was very sick. His back hurt him every day, and he had chronic bronchitis and diabetes. His heart was weak, and he had started smoking again, on the sly, but Grandma and I knew. He had hardly any feeling in his feet, and the doctor was talking about possible amputation. Can you imagine that? My God. Grandpa had not been right for a while. His body abandoned him at the end,” Marty said to his son. He felt Freddie shiver.
“Grandpa had been strong his whole life before that, and then he wasn’t any more,” Marty continued. “He felt cheated. Cut off from the rest of us. He was lost without the family looking to him to lead and—being who he was—he wanted to control things. So that’s what he did. Your news was just one more piece in the puzzle. He would have gotten used to it in a big hurry and then challenged anyone who thought different to a fight.” He paused, then stepped forward to face his son. “Seriously, there would have been fist fights at the Tim Hortons up on Lickman Road. Guaranteed.”
Frederick smiled, thinking of his fearless grandpa, testy and self-assured as he scrapped and pushed his way through life. He loved that part of the man so much, and a wave of hurt overcame him for a second.
“Put ’em up, put up yer dukes,” Frederick said, and his father nodded, his breath coming out in a hitch.
They were quiet for a time, standing in the doorway and hugging and crying. They shared Marty’s hanky, each blowing their nose until the little square of cloth had no more dry left in it.
Marty thought with guilt that since his son’s birthday almost a year ago they had not shot any baskets together or competed in any way. Not even table tennis or racing to be first to wash up before dinner. They used to do something like that together almost every day.
“Listen, Fred,” Marty said. “The night I told Grandpa about you coming out, he was upset. He was a mess.” Marty remembered the old man in the farm shop, the little wood stove crackling—spitting boiling resin every few seconds as the fatwood cedar chunks burned. Martin Senior’s face was dark and horrible; he prowled like a caged bear. Tears of frustration rolled down his blood-veined cheeks.
“When I told him, Grandpa said, ‘Never. Frederick is like me and like you—he’s the same!’”
“I told him that you weren’t the same, but that it was OK, that it didn’t matter. Then I asked him whether he remembered when the small barn burned down, years ago when I was a boy. I asked him, ‘Do you remember what you said to me that night, with all those cows dead and the insurance a big jumble and everything so awful? So ruined?’”
Marty paused, waiting for Frederick to look up.
“Grandpa said to me, that night after the fire, he said, ‘Marty, this changes everything, and this changes nothing.’”
Then Marty pulled off his suit jacket and wiped his eyes. He grabbed one of the old basketballs. “And listen,” he said. He made his tone firm and did not let his voice waver. “Grandpa had some struggles with you being gay. Let’s not pretend about that. But like I said, he would have come around. And remember this: God,” he paused knowing how his son’s faith, like his own, had been tested these last few weeks. “God is holding you now, holding you tight. Holding us all in his hands. He’ll continue to. He is holding Grandpa too, and he held him through everything. We were not created only to be cast aside. Believe that.”
Marty looked down and bounced the basketball hard on the packed earth. Spreading his fingers wide on the pebbled surface he thought to add a last promise.
“And the other thing is, it is that for Mom and me and all the rest of the family, and I mean everyone, it won’t make a difference.”
Frederick broke in, “Well,” he said, a faint smile showing in his gaze.
Marty acknowledged, smiling back, “OK, you’re right. It’s not gonna be exactly the same, but everyone is open to it, open to the change. We might screw up, but we’ll get it right eventually. Heck, you want me to march with you right down Yarrow Central in a pair of satin hot pants, I’m in! Fuck it!”
“I’d pay to see that!” Frederick said, a wide grin on his face, fresh tears on his cheeks. He took the basketball from his father’s hands and slung it behind his back, letting it drop and bounce away. “But first,” he said, crouching, “beat this!” and he sprang up and slapped his hand against the backboard, scattering swallows from their nests, their delicate black bodies vivid against the lucent sky.
 These are the opening lines from Henry David Thoreau, “The Funeral Bell.”