When Ray had pulled up the Riv down in Racine, outside Benny’s charming bijou slumette, he’d thought he’d heard crying. Part of him, the cop part, thought that maybe it meant something bad, like some scumbag beating up his wife; but then the other part, the Ray part, said, nah, it was just some kind who’s dropped the cookie jar on his foot or somethin’. And it won, because it was still angry at the cop-brain, because he couldn’t put a wheel-lock or nothing on the Riv, ‘cause he was a cop and he might have to leave in a hurry, if the Riviera hadn’t left in a hurry first. And with no Riv, cop chases and shit would become a lot less fun; kind of hard to do on the El and Benny will let everyone through the turnstiles first and then give his counter to some guy who “lost his honest”. And they’ll end up being fed to rabid weasels by the Chicago Transport Authority or something.
When Ray had got in the door and was avoiding skeevy homeless guy no. four-oh-seven on the stairs, he’d thought he’d heard crying. He decided that it was his imagination and hanging with a guy who licked everything in sight, almost, was broadening his mind, just he’d have to get the Lieutenant to keep Benny off drug busts, because that was one mind that he did not want broadened in any shape or form. He’d beat little Tony and the girls at Trivial Pursuit last night, with his incredible knowledge of caribou, the war of eighteen twelve, and Canadian independent cinema. Though he thinks anyone with half a brain can guess the Canadian cinema, because, nothing funny happens; it’s all “shall I hang myself, or fuck other men, or hang myself because I fuck other men.” Ray still cursed Benny for taking him to that Canadian film expo the consulate had spent the last two weeks organising, it was so effing painful.
He could hear a little Benny voice in his head telling him that the weeping he thinks he can hear is actually a sign that he has become attuned to Weltschmertz, the pain and innate suffering of everything in the world. Ray knows he has nada, zip, zilch in common with Canadian cinema and the only time he feels like that is when he’s stuck in a too-small room with Canadian cinema and Fraser, and trying to act just like Mr Oblivious next to him, and view the scene of the skinny blond with bad hair fucking his boyfriend as the ultimate expression of the expression of Canadian Art.
Maybe he should ask Benny if there’s some Canadian Art that’s, you know, less with the queer and depressing, and more pretty. Landscapes maybe, or water lilies, something nice that makes him think nice normal thoughts.
When Ray had got to Benny’s door, he thought he could hear crying, but it was already established as Weltschmerz or too-much-Canadian-cinema-schmertz, so he ignored it and pushed the door. Benny never locked it, which was dumb, but then Benny had nothing to steal, ‘cept his uniform, and only a total nut would try to steal the uniform.
And for a moment, Ray thought of a man all in white, falling like a frost-painted leaf, following his snowmobile, down towards the distant ice. And Fraser looking down, and showing no pain, like only boyfriends and suicide count as reasons to make a Canadian sad. Benny was, against all appearances, a vengeful son of a bitch; or at least, then he was, and nobody in their right minds would like to look up and see that calm passive face say something like “that’s my lucky uniform, you feeling lucky, son?” and it would be all over and the guy would have just fallen off a cliff or something. And Ray, being the schmoe he was and having stupid ideas about loyalty to friends, would say nothing; just like he had then. He’d hit his one over the head. Benny had lead the man off a cliff.
Now what does that say about Constable Nice Mountie Man?
But then, what does the crying say, either?
Benny was crying, he hadn’t even noticed Ray come in, as great sobs like spun glass grew heavy from his eyes and shattered upon the bare floorboards. Ray half expected Benny’s stockinged feet to be cut to shreds as the shards fell and bounced like the decanter on the sideboard, the day he and Johnny Romero had decided to play hide and seek indoors, and it was so much more like water than the rain outside ever was. It was alive and beautiful, for that moment then. The rain in Chicago was neither, you could catch the drops on your tongue, but it tasted kinda funny, probably still does. Like you’ve just gone into a bar and ordered your rainwater with lemon.
The box lay at his feet, long and narrow and covered in alligator-skin-paper. Ray’s seen the box before, up in that damn cabin with the perforated walls. What he hasn’t seen before now is it open.
He hasn’t seen Benny cry before now, either. Even after little Tony dropped the cookie jar he was misappropriating on his foot. He’d have to watch the kid, he was learning lessons from the neighbourhood that Ray would rather he wasn’t. Like that when caught committing grand theft Chips Ahoy by a passing law enforcement type, getting some water to get away from Frannie, violence does not get you brownie points, or Canadian Tyre coupons or any of a whole world of freebies except extra time inside.
There’s a crayon picture of man in red on a horse, a kid’s picture; it takes Ray a minute to realise that it’s Benny’s picture and the guy on the horse is his old man, but then it is upside down from where Ray’s standing. And Ray’s standing there, and Benny still hasn’t noticed, and Ray knows he should move before Benny notices but can’t decide whether to move forward to Benny or back through the door. Benny’s a private kind of guy, and he has that tough Mountie mojo going for him and he probably doesn’t want his new partner to see him brawling his eyes out.
And the picture’s laying on the floor, bent from being folded too long, and Ray can see where the heedless tears are washing away the pencil. And it’s at that moment Ray realises Benny’s not crying about a paper Mountie riding a paper horse off to catch paper criminals.
There’s a photograph. Benny’s clutching it so tightly in both hands, cupping it, that it must be cutting into his skin. And Benny doesn’t notice, carried away on a tide of sadness and perhaps grief.
Benny had never looked like he was grieving.
Benny had never looked like he was grieving when he walked into his life one day, duffle in hand, seeking out Armani as if he were his man; if he had, Ray would have caught a clue and made out that he was busily chasing contacts and had him back up to freezerland all reassured and happy.
Thank God he hadn’t.
Ray sat down on the bed next to Benny, trying to be as gentle as possible, though whether that was to stop the thing from squeaking under the RCMP issue blankets, which were, quite frankly, the most hideously boring things Ray had ever seen, and try not to give himself away; or to stop the mattress folding in and pushing him too close to Benny, dressed only in his shirt and suspenders, which was practically casual really, Ray didn’t know.
Not the faintest idea, but both happened anyway, and his thigh was pressed to Benny’s thigh, just as Benny’s head swung up puffy and red with tears. He was an idiot to think Benny was made of rock with only duty and what might be sarcasm as his only outlets.
Benny was blinking into the light, into Ray’s face, and a voice he had never heard before asked, “Ray?”
It was as if Ray had done something strange and totally weird, like licking stuff off the sidewalk like it was candy, something totally alien. Benny had said his mom had died when he was a kid, hadn’t he? Didn’t he even remember people holding him while he cried? Ray remembered Uncle Leonardi’s funeral, and how he’d brawled his eyes out and all the ladies had made a fuss of him, and how they’d all fetched him plates of lasagne after the funeral and he’d ate the lot, and spent the night up with Ma crying with stomach ache. And Ma had thought him particularly touched and such a good caring boy. His old man had thought he was being a brat, but that was the way the cookie crumbled.
It was as if Ray had suggested that Benny trade in his mukaluks for Nike Air next time he went north.
It was as if somebody had told Benny to go look for a Detective Armani.
Had nobody just gone and held Benny tight when his mother died? Held him tight and let him cry, get it all out of his system? Ray wondered how many people these tears were for, so many tears, they couldn’t all be for one guy, could they?
He’d cried plenty for Uncle Leonardi, but that was mostly ‘cause he wouldn’t be around to give him candy no more. Ray thought for a moment of little Tony, maybe the fruit didn’t fall so far from the tree after all. That said, Pop would have been with it fine, if he’d said it was about candy.
Ray broke the connection and looked around the room, desperately. The good thing about Benny not having any fricking furniture was there were less places for the dearly departed to hide behind, the way they do, not that it was much of a change with Pop, not at all. He’d always hidden behind things, his fists, his anger, the fucking drinking and the fucking Zukos.
Benny was still staring into space when he turned back. Clearly Benny was upset and now had been confronted with something that was no kind of normal. No kind of normal for a Mountie boy. Instead, what? Hide yourself away and cry and look embarrassed when you get found out, like you’re stealing the cookies that are for bedtime? The pinkness in Benny’s face was growing through something that wasn’t tears, which made it look like a hundred percent of our survey said, “yes, absolutely, would you excuse me, thank you kindly.”
How could you tuck your feelings away like they belong in a box under your bed? The medals in the box, Benny’s old man’s maybe, caught Ray’s eyes for just a second before he leaned in and looked at the picture.
A bunch of kids sitting, standing, scrabbling over what must be a Canuckified forest ranger’s truck, with a Mountie leaning against the side in his best fire engine impersonation of a uniform. Ray didn’t get the Canadian rank insignia, but he was sure he could get Benny to some other time, and anyway, he still couldn’t see too good, Benny’s hands had uncurled some, but they were still holding the picture like it was some kind of diamond.
“Which one of them’s you, Benny?” Ray bet that Benny was a cute kid, but these were all cute kids, maybe the pensive one near the top. Plus, he was wearing Red, like a little Mountie-in-waiting.
“None of them, Ray.”
Benny sounded so broken, though more broken than Ray felt right now, he couldn’t doubt that. And Ray had taken Benny, had taken that glass decanter, and swung it around and it had fallen and shattered into a million pieces. Imagine your father, and then imagine him surrounded by happy cheerful smiling kids, and none of them are you. If you believed this picture, Robert Fraser RCMP was father of the Canadian Brady Brunch.
Only, Ray knew otherwise, Benny was an only child, sent off to his grandparents after his mom died. Ray wasn’t sure how young “young” meant when Benny said it, but he never talked about her or said anything about her, so Ray had a sinking feeling that it was exactly why Benny never got any sibs or nothing. And Ray was praying to God, promising to go to Mass with Ma every time he didn’t pull a Sunday shift, that the picture was before then.
But he already knew it wasn’t.
And Benny was still talking, short, faltering words that sounded as if they were about to break into sobs any moment, “None of them, Ray, none of them are me at all, he was in British Columbia, and I was in the Territories with my grandparents, and I shouldn’t feel jealous of them, I shouldn’t feel jealous of them, but I do.”
And Ray didn’t know what to do, this didn’t sound like any Benny he knew.
This sounded like a little lost kid, who wants to know why daddy’s not coming home no more. Only, not now, then. It was as if Benny had lost his father thirty years before the event.
“I didn’t want much, I didn’t want much at all; just for him to come and tell me stories; and the other children would ask me why I didn’t have a father, and how can you prove it when he isn’t there. I wanted him to teach me to shoot, to fish, the names of the stars, but even when he came home, he wasn’t really there at all.”
Ray swung his arm around Benny and held him closer, he didn’t know what else to do. He thought for a moment, of so many times he’d wished his father would take a hike, leave his Ma alone, go and find his own hole and not come out. One night he’d actually said that, in a fit of adolescent fury, that why didn’t Pop just drop dead, because he just sucked at anything, as a breadwinner, as a husband, as a father. He hadn’t regretted that until now, not even the bruises had made him regret that, just made him think he was right.
Benny’s babbling had dried away for a moment, like there was no water in the brook anymore. There was sure as hell no water left in his face, not with all that crying, or at least Ray hoped so, silk shirts and tears could be a nightmare.
“You’re angry at him, Benny, there’s nothing wrong with that,” Ray began, still sweeping the room with his eyes for ghostly intruders, “nothing wrong. I’m sure if he were here and not in the great log cabin in the sky; he’d say he could have been better, could have been around more,” not that Pop every says anything like that, but then Pop’s a deadbeat, nothing changes that, and he’s probably just a hallucination anyway. And that’s not what Benny needs to hear, not at all.
Benny looked up, which was good, Ray decided, and he didn’t look like he was going to start crying again. Better start building on those foundations before water gets into the concrete or something. So it was a sucky metaphor, were these a builder’s hands? No, the only thing he was building was a nice little castle in the sky for Benny, somewhere safe from the pain, somewhere he could believe in a marvellous childhood that was real, rather than the one the other kids in the pictures got. Benny hadn’t said anything about living with his grandparents, probably never would, the guy was that closed down; but Vecchio knew librarians, librarians scowled at you when you returned your books late, librarians told you off for reading comics, librarians corrected your grammar. Benny’s grammar was perfect.
“Benny, your dad still made you, still made you the guy you are today, still made you the great Mountie you are today,” Ray thought he might be laying it on a bit thick, but he knew enough about Benny to know where his buttons were, or at least some of them; and he didn’t know what else to say, for all he knew everyone in the Fraser family tree of weird was a Mountie, “he gave you a target, a goal and advice. And you learnt stuff from him whether he was there or no.”
“Ray,” Benny began, and he looked like crying again, he looked like Frannie after the kids had painted Ante purple, “the only thing my father really taught me was not to chase a man off a cliff.”
Ray didn’t want to think about that, didn’t want to think about the cold-blooded guy who set his dogsled down just right, so the guy on a snowmobile behind got a head start in getting to the spirit in the sky. Distraction, that was what he needed, like when he was dealing with perps, “And don’t forget the bit about your wallet and your underwear, Benny, that’s a keeper,” he forced his mouth into his best goofy grin, the one Ange said used to make her heart melt, and then he decided to knock off some of the sugar coating, “all my old man taught me was never hit a kid, and that was learning by experience, hands on and all that.”
“Ah,” sounded Benny, and Ray hoped this didn’t mean that he’d tidied away all those messy disturbing emotional bits and was just about to stick them under his bed and only take them out again when he was old and grey and wanted something to show the grandchildren.
“What about the licking stuff? That’s got to be a…” he’d already realised he’d said the wrong thing, even as Benny told him, “no, that was a local shaman, though I didn’t know he was a shaman at the time; he taught me to track and I was foolhardy enough to teach myself to hunt.”
And that speaks volumes. Foolhardy? What went wrong so badly that Benny still wants to cover it up and leave it alone? Though Ray supposed it was better than picking at it like a scab.
That way it never gets better, it just gets rawer and sorer, Ray knew that, but he also knew wounds needed some air, but not now, that would be too much, he didn’t want Benny to crumple and fall, he wasn’t used to getting things out in the open, it’s like he lives in a little closed-in Mountie city and the big emotional snowplains scare him.
“Benny, wherever he was, your father was an okay guy, he had his principles, he had his reasons, and I’m so sorry,” Ray hadn’t meant it to come out like that, not at all, making out that Benny was ungrateful or something. He could see Benny’s hurt and could turn it into his hurt if he squinted a bit. He could see himself, mourning a father who was only really fatherly in name. Mourning before he went, and just coldness when he did.
“You didn’t like your father, did you, Ray?” Now that was one out of the blue.
“Not much, he was kind of sucky,” and right now, that sounded so damn small, when had he and Benny swapped places, and Benny become the one trying to understand, and Ray the one who was hurting?
“Understood,” and Benny did, he was using his I-tell-no-lies voice, but not quite, because Ray had already realised that Benny could spread a whole lot of bull that way, nobody could know that many boring nearly-identical folktales; but this had a real edge, a warm edge.
“You know,” he began, “every so often I get this urge to go dance on his grave,” and he had, but he wasn’t telling Benny about that, because that would mean telling him about Pop, and he had no intention to do that; so he kept it as a joke, “Where did they bury yours, Benny?”
“Actually, Ray, he was cremated.” And there was a little flicker of a smile.
“So, where did they put the ashes, we could always make a road trip and go dance up in the frozen north, plus it looks less kooky than dancing around in a graveyard.”
“The Mackenzie River,” said Benny, slightly too matter of factly, he was into this, this was making things better.
“Ah,” Ray said, supposing he might as well try out Benny’s favourite expression for size, “that might make the dancing a little difficult.”
“Only in summer, Ray, only in summer,” and there was the smallest of smiles and maybe they had found normal again, or something close enough.