All Stories, Crime/Mystery/Thriller

In The Hills Of The Okanagan by Harrison Kim

When you’re crawling in the dark towards a desperate destination you can’t drink or drug, you can’t play the guitar, the goal is to duck under the barbed wire fence, under the surveillance and arrive undetected to attain your purpose. You’re crawling with a swede saw round your neck, and you’ve driven all the way from the Rockies, a giant circle travel to this vineyard once again.  To exact vengeance.  You’ve filled five weeks pruning grapes for nothing, with an oral contract signed by two voices, yours and the owners.  And the owner won’t pay.  After three weeks, he said the job wasn’t complete.  You knew it was. But you wanted the cash.  So you did the extra work.  Pruning the vines down to the nubs. You laboured two weeks more. And afterwards the owner sighed and said “the field must be weeded and the debris hauled away,” and you said “No.  That wasn’t in the contract.  I don’t have a pickup to do that”

He said “OK, half the work, half the pay,”  and shrugged his leather jacket shoulders.  You turned your head, held closed even the middle finger you badly wanted to shove high. You turned and did not look back, tossed down the pruning shears, lifted your feet over them, and walked with total control back to the van, idled it up, and stepped on the gas.  And kept driving, along the windy late winter roads, slush under the wheels and blizzards through the mountains, listening to guitar recordings you made years ago, reminiscing to that music which belongs to you. You drove for eight hours, before the town of Golden.  Then, you refuelled and on again. There would be no drinking now. No trying to push anger back with the bottle. You will drive on until you find resolution.  It’s been two months since you quit the booze, and nothing will make you start that roller coaster, ever again, because it takes away your power, one bender at a time.

You commandeered the van Eastward, all through the afternoon and the night, until a small road past Canmore.  You turned down, so tired now after the hours of the adrenalin high that vanquished pain.   Worn out, like your heart would stop.  And you turn the engine off, under white prairie night. Snow beneath, dark sky above.  Your van sits beneath the stars, buffering the wind.  You collapse under the sleeping bags and blankets.  It takes hours of dreams,  with fleeting images coming and going in your mind, such wild faces, but you finally wake up.  The cold light from the sun, through the windows, makes you quick to rise and begin your mission.  In the mirror, you notice that missing tooth,  those whiskers all askew.  Later, you hear the voice of a Russian as you say hi with a fake accent at the gas station, hiding in your big parka, the curious cashier wants to know where you’re from, “Stalingrad,” you croak, ice crusts on your grey moustache.

Drifting now, over the highway miles to the Okanagan, from where you started yesterday, steering forward into a trance. You meditate on one word “payback.”  Over and over. This mantra keeps you sober, in control. You have the ability to map your plans with a clear deliberate mind.  Mapping is a very sober matter.  You want to tell the orchard owner, and his son, the one always gabbing on his cell, “you won’t do this to me without consequence.”

The road continues on so long you can’t remember how you arrived from there to here, driving on your thoughts.  Listen and fall into your own music playing on the retro cassette  given to you by your friend Fuzz  “Ella Dutoit, I think that you’re divine,” you wrote that song, when you were 17.

Fuzz lives around Penticton, you’d like to call him, and you’d also like to be alone.  You haven’t been in touch, except on the phone every few weekends. You wonder why you’re so reluctant, maybe it’s because he only knew you drunk and stoned, now there’s a different communication, from a place of really being alone. You’re not sure you’ll find anything interesting to say.

Wheel along past the skeletons of sawmills, the railroads, the pine killed forests, all the workplaces on the frontier of your previous existence. You like the old towns, the quiet towns. Wine is the growing industry these days, in the interior valleys. Apple and pear trees torn up, no longer economically viable. You went with the new way this winter.  Late January, a new year, time for action.  Pruning for three weeks steady until you thought the contract was complete. But it will never be from that Vineyard end, until you alone will make it so.

They owe you $1800.  Just for your labor.  You counted on that money, to sleep in a hotel room awhile instead of the van.  To buy a new toothbrush, a bar of soap.  A trip to the laundry to wash all the filthy blankets you’ve slept in.  A few bags of salt and pepper potato chips. But for the humiliation, the shame and the disrespect, they owe a lot more.  You will decide how much.  Maybe you’re partly at fault. You went for cash pay, and no written contract. The advantage: No taxes taken off.  In the old days, an oral contract was a matter of honour. No one needed anything written.  It was agreed, man to man, and followed through with respect. Now they’ve set you up with promises and then pretended the words weren’t completed right.  They think because you’re a homeless derelict living in his van, a middle aged grey haired missing toothed hillbilly, they can kick your ass.  They don’t know you are smart, and crazy, like that coyote you see running with you down the side of the road, nothing there but energy and perseverance, you slow to be close to him,  he dives into the trees, and you grin and push the gas again.

It’s slushing down rain, as you at last arrive in the valley, the cold chilling up from the lake, up into the hills, maybe the rain is also rising from the lake, into the clouds, and down upon you.  You’ve always thought this lake a friend, camping by it all these years, swimming in the summer, fishing in the fall and spring.  This time, you are alone, and there is no one to share your anger with. But there’s the lake in the back of your mind, and tonight its rain will help you hide. You have the swede saw you bought for cash in Canmore, that and some doughnuts.  You park your van down the midnight lane off in a hidden glen, and creep across a few fields, then under the barbed wire.  You wear a rubber raincoat, boots, you make sure the laces are done up well, everything tight, the dark green Newfoundland hat with water dripping off,  look behind and look ahead.  Behind, the sage on the hills, the dead pines rise, the shadowy grass pokes out of thin snow patches.  You tread carefully around the snow, wherever it sticks. It’s real quiet, no birds, but are they watching?  In your dreams last night, you saw them flying, and also deer, stampeding, in the clouds above them a thunderstorm.  Now there’s a real deer in the orchard, moves, stops, and runs, it makes little noise for its size, just wants something to eat, just wants sustenance, you think of what sustains you…besides salt and pepper potato chips, you smile… it’s your integrity. Be true to yourself.  Is it wrong to do this?  To plan to destroy?  Maybe four months from now that bastard owner will put two and two together but he won’t be able to prove anything. Odds are he’ll never suspect you.  Odds are he’s forgotten you already.  Sure, he’s providing for his family, he has older children, his son just married this Christmas, a big ceremony, very expensive, you saw the photos, everyone dressed so warmly, they have everything they need to eat and a comfy bed to sleep on and a honeymoon in Vegas.

To continue going through life, you need an accomplishment, to keep you alive and reminiscing and realizing meaning from your own action.  You try to let everything go, but letting go continues the slide downhill into nothingness, into old age and fading out.  If you let this go, you might as well go back to the bottle, or crack, like so many others.  You cel phoned your friend Fuzz about the ripoff, he says you should complain to the labour board, but it’s the boss’s word against yours. Fuzz calls you stubborn.  People just won’t stop bugging you.  You’ve left most of them behind.

The deer has reached the end of the field.  You’d hoped for coyotes howling, like wild cheerleaders. You thought the one running in the ditch beside the van was a sign.  But the rain cancels out any noise. Your knees and elbows push along the ground.  You hear the watchdog.  After a few short barks through the storm, he’s running towards you silently, because he knows you from before.  You were kind to him all those weeks, and you are holding up those doughnuts. He came over to visit every day because no one paid attention. He was a lonely watchdog.   And the time you spent with him turned out to be very useful, for he’s a friendly fellow now, and he eats the doughnuts and carries on sniffing around at a distance,  then heads back to the shelter of his garage overhang, as you reach the grapevines, the older ones, the ones that are 10 to 15 years old, when the farm first became established.  The prize veterans.

You are a man of the old times.  Of the hewers of wood, back in the resource years, when to be unskilled was no shame.  You know well how to cut with a saw. A swede saw is sharp and efficient.  You lie down before an eight inch thick vine and move the saw, with pressure and time, back and forth, and you feel the wood give easily.  It doesn’t take long to cut the first one clear through.  There’s little sawdust, and what there is washes away in the rain.  The stem remains standing, held up by wires under the two remaining branches.  The wires will keep the dead plants vertical.

You move to the next plant.  It will take weeks, maybe months, before the owner finds anything amiss.  The plants will appear the same, they just won’t grow any buds or leaves.  You first decided to cut every second one, to prolong the discovery time, but you’re feeling more tense now, and the night is moving fast.  You decide to take out a whole row of ten, for efficiency.  It takes less than a minute to cut each one.  It’s the moving between the plants that’s hard on the joints. You have timed yourself for at least two hours of work.  Each hour of work will cost the owner $900, plus compensation for disrespect and humiliation.  Fifty plants, that’s the goal.

You are alert and know exactly what you are doing. It is taking longer than expected.  Anxiety slowly overcomes rage.  That is trumped again by cool deliberation.  You work with purpose, but also detachment, to operate at maximum capacity. Your awareness is on the cutting, and again, like the driving, it becomes a meditation, you’re so wet and cold it doesn’t matter, it’s what’s in your heart that must be done, done and done until you don’t even remember how you arrived at your destination. There is a sense of how much you’ve cut, but it’s again like driving, you look up and wonder “how did I get here?” and that’s how it is with the cutting. When you look up and see the rain has stopped and it is time to go.

You stand up this time, and back away across the fields, using the stems as a barricade between you and the windows of the farmhouse.

You have scored.  You admire the look of the grapevines, so deceptively vertical,  like tiny sentry soldiers all in a row, in shadow poking up over the night scene. Back at the van, start it up easily, you made sure the points were tuned, and the battery ready.  Without lights, coast down the curving roads, towards the lake, a long hollow spoon of water, black, larger and more defined as you approach.

“Thanks for the rain,” you say to the lake, as you stand on the pier and toss the swede saw way out into the water, at the end of Kekuli beach.  It’s a long underhand toss, you note the satisfying splash and the end of that episode.  You chuckle, like the bad guy in the movies, but you deserve to. You have no home, and little money. Just enough for coffee, laundry, maybe gas.   It’s the middle of winter.  You drive on down to Penticton, and enter a 6am coffee shop.  You’ve driven for sixteen hours or more with maybe four hours sleep, but you don’t feel tired.

Now you have visions of a turkey sandwich with hot gravy and fries, all those things you planned to buy with your earnings start circling round like two dimensional television advertisements, like the tarp you planned to put over the van windows at night. You imagine it should be blue.  “Payback” you say to yourself, over and over.

Homeless people take drugs so they don’t feel the rain.  You’ve stopped all the booze, all the smoking.  You’re aware you’re soaked. All that water, you understand the reason, the purpose for it being there.   It’s there because you persevered, you kept going until the job was done. You’re your own boss now, a sober wet success.

You change your clothes before going into the coffee shop.  You’ll dry them at the laundry later.  It’s time to act like a regular person now, after the night alone. You and your van are now at the beginning of a long journey.  There will be other places, besides the vineyard, in which to enact change, to improve your life for the better.

Who to share this grapevine story with? Nobody.  Too risky.  Some people might understand, and nobody wishes to keep their accomplishments to themselves.  But this time you have to.  It’ll be between you and that vineyard dog and the deer and the invisible birds.

It’s when you are sitting there with your clothes going round the dryer that your friend from tree planting days walks in.   It’s Fuzz.   Maybe you phoned him, while on that long circle journey, saying you’d be in town.  You might even have told him the place and time.  He says so, anyway. Something you’ve forgotten must have given you the confidence to call. Fuzz knows you well, from the times you tree planted, side by side for many summers way up in the Northern Woods.  You played music together, back in the day, long improvisations, no practice, just dual guitar playing.

You knew he lived in Penticton, not exactly where, but here he is. You chat awhile among the dryers and washers.  His face appears very lined now, his eyebrows grey, you trace a hand along your own cheek.

You tell Fuzz that it’s better to feel good through action,  not drugs.  Action helps to escape that artificial high, where you lie in your van for hours reading best sellers and eating salt and pepper potato chips, then slowly fall into the musty, crumby embrace of soft, beer scented blankets.  Fuzz laughs, and asks about the contract breaking, and how you’re going to deal with it.  You don’t tell him specifically that you’ve already settled accounts, but you say you’ll go to the labor board, maybe.  He seems empathetic, and gives you a hundred fifty dollars, unannounced.  “This will help you out some.”

2

Continuing on is important.  What to do after the deed is done.  Rebuilding from the bottom.  People move around, shuffle their bodies from place to place.  Their minds work within and without to find purpose. The driving circle is complete- the Okanagan to Calgary and back. There has to be a new place to start, maybe Vancouver, you could head for a late winter beach, feel the Kitsilano ocean breeze. It’s usually warmer down at the coast. There’s a variety of casual labour jobs.  You regard your face in the van mirror, weathered and grey whiskered, the face of the old Canada, that frontier face.  You pull your toque down over your forehead. Your hands rest on the steering wheel, the hands that chain sawed giant cedars for the shake mill up at TumTum Lake in 1997, and dug holes on the sides of precipitous mountains in the Kinbasket country, planting new firs for ten cents a tree.   Your legs feel restless and aching, the legs that pushed you up and down all the stairs in thirty years of warehouses and roundhouses and value added wood product lunchrooms.  And there’s those arms that over the decades pruned ten thousand apple trees, aching, burning from all the last midnight vine cutting.  But put those thoughts and pains on pause.  Now you’re a pioneer in a covered van. Time to roll and sing to your own music once again, all the way to Vancouver and beyond to the Pacific sea.

 

Harrison Kim

Image by Ramon Perucho from Pixabay

 

6 thoughts on “In The Hills Of The Okanagan by Harrison Kim”

  1. Although the styles are different, this author effectively tells of the sort of person once told by Steinbeck. Yes, the poor and the homeless are often screwed over by money. But the abused often set up the terms of their own victimization–not getting the job in writing, for example. No matter how intelligent a person in such a place might be, long term exposure to poverty conditions a person into not only expecting the worst, but arranging a way for it to happen.

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    1. Thanks, Irene Allison. This story is indeed based on a true incident, and although the main character may have quit drinking and drugs, he’s still within a certain mind set, as you aptly describe. At least, at the point in time the story is told, the protagonist had hope, and a sense of power, a sense even for a short time perhaps, he’d reclaimed his dignity.

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  2. I spent a summer in the Okanagan valley, stayed in a trailer in Penticton all that time. This piece really captured the town, the geography and gave a fantasic sense of place.
    I enjoyed the character created, and well done on working in second person narrative, always a challenge as it’s built on empathy and identity and where they meet. It was well handled.

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    1. Thanks, Martin. I re posted this story on various British Columbia writing sites and it has been well received. Wow, what could be better than a summer in Pentiction? Sun, sage, and swimming, and if you’re single, lots of opportunity.

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  3. Hi Harrison,
    I always think the phrase ‘Smart and Crazy’ is worrying for all involved.
    What I really enjoy with your work is there are many common themes but every single story is as individual as the character that you are focussing on.
    That’s the way it should be, no generalisation – Just a story telling a truthful characterisation, outlook and consequence.
    Excellent!!
    Hugh

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    1. Thanks, Hugh C. This fellow represents for me a certain type of individual….the itinerant worker who was central to the Canadian working frontier and to all the ways that are passing, the ranch hands, lumbermen, miners, farm workers. I like the very apt vineyard depiction the magazine put up top.

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