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Authors: Michael Winter

Minister Without Portfolio

BOOK: Minister Without Portfolio
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MINISTER
WITHOUT
PORTFOLIO

ALSO BY

MICHAEL WINTER

The Death of Donna Whalen

The Architects Are Here

The Big Why

This All Happened

One Last Good Look

Creaking in Their Skins

Michael Winter

MINISTER
WITHOUT
PORTFOLIO

But Love has pitched his mansion in

The place of excrement;

For nothing can be sole or whole

That has not been rent.

W. B. YEATS

PART ONE

1

She told him there wasn't another person. Henry watched her stand up from her kitchen table and push things around on a counter. She peeled up the foam placemats that made that satisfying sound. She was busying herself and of course he was in her house, he was the one who would have to physically leave. For three hours they talked it over and she told him how it was and he fled through the spectrum of emotions and they were both cleansed but she returned to what was not an ultimatum. I'm leaving you now can you please leave.

But I love you, he said.

He was quite proud of how he said it. He did not know he would begin a response with the word “but.” He hadn't punched a piece of furniture or raised his voice and now he said this short sentence with mercy and with confidence and honour. It might have been the voice of a messiah, the little messiah that runs each of our lives. The statement was reassuring and he could tell it had some effect. But they were broken and she knew he was a good man but who can push through the hard times of the mundane life any more? The idea of not enough on the line, he could
absorb that. But she had dismounted from the horse they were both riding. One of the things she said was she wanted to live a dangerous life.

He found his construction boots and bent his toes so the joints creaked and said so long in his head, not out loud, it would have been too casual. Also, he caught himself and understood that the previous words were the best words to leave on. But I love you. They would give him the high ground and he could really dig a good ditch for himself now and remain unshaven and unwashed and drink himself into a narrow hallway with no door at the end, he could do that and search for commiseration.

It was bright out, a very happy afternoon in the autumn. Astonishing. He put his heart on a little branch, hung it there, and then almost skipped into the street. He knew that if she was watching, that little hop would not be very attractive. But he was cleaving himself in two, something he did often for sentences at a time, but not for long days or weeks and that is how he spent his time now, split apart. A stacked cord of wood that should have been a tree.

Luckily he lived in a town that was built around a harbour and Nora's house was on top of a hill, so he had an easy walk down to the bars on Water Street. The roofs of buildings swallowed the hill and he would not have to walk past her house all the time if he just stayed downtown. That is the logic people use when they discover themselves drinking intensely. He had lived down here just after trade school in a one-room apartment on Colonial Street. He paused at the window now and the door where his mail used to come—his life before Nora.

He found himself in one bar called the Spur and a man in a corner was singing a country song which filled Henry with
loathing. The man had no right to pollute the air with that song, a song from Nashville that understood nothing of a real life. He knew the man, of course, had spoken to him perhaps three times. Henry ate a pickled egg and chewed through the overboiled cold and dull yolk and drank down a pint of pale ale and came around on the song. Stripped of the production Henry was applying to the vocalization, the core of the song was ultimately true and as he left the bar he patted the old man on the shoulder. He was humming it now, Henry was. There was a line at the end where a man cuts off his lover's head and kicks it against the wall. He sang it the way the old man sang it and walked down further towards the polluted harbour and stared up at the green and marble monument to the war dead. The men up there with their bayonets and loose helmets and kneeling and dying and forever enjoying their patina. Was it brass? No one rubbed the nose of a soldier on a memorial for good luck. Live a dangerous life.

There was the dark harbour to end his land activity. The sleeping marine transports servicing the offshore industry and a coast guard search and rescue vessel and a military tug of some kind. Pure utilitarian boats all moored on very thick hawsers. He stared at the serious hulls, empty of men, and saluted. The stink of cooked diesel. Perhaps there is something here, he thought. The thought of war, or not war but an expulsion from civilian life. Or the hell with it, there is something noble in servicing oil rigs. Oil will be the end of mankind but to be in service of it is not without honour. What was it John's son had told him? Oil was the bones of dinosaurs. Civilization was something Henry had not chosen. He was born into good manners and a life sheltered from death. He could renounce it. What had it given him? What were the benefits but a broken heart?

2

He walked around the town all night and, as the sun rose over the ocean, he found himself back at Nora's door. He sat across the road and watched the house and street slowly wake up. The sun was a magnificent thing. He had to be back at the Bull Arm site Monday morning and he knew he'd pay for it, this being up all night. But he was thinking there might be early activity at Nora's house. He wondered if he had the strength and accuracy to fight a man and win. Anyone passing him by at that hour could see he was looking to break up what is called an aubade. But Nora was asleep and there was no man with her and the alert daylight made him stagger to the house of his best friend, feeling small and without a shell. He felt himself evaporating and it scared him. He let the sun warm his shoulders and kidneys and fill him up, the sun pushed him to John and Silvia's. He found the hidden key and let himself in and their dog, Wolf, did not make a sound but smelled his hand and knew who he was and followed Henry downstairs into the finished basement. Henry felt with his hands for any sleeping kids and fell into the guest bed with Wolf and hugged the big dog.

He woke up remembering Nora Power had broken up with him.

She had come into their bedroom about two weeks ago and, he realized now, tried to break up with him. Henry had been watching hockey on a small colour TV, with a bag of roast chicken chips on his chest. He had worked hard all week at Bull Arm and sometimes he just liked to lie around and be a table for a bag of chips. She sat on the floor with him and wiped away her tears and put her arm around him and he gave her a good hug and she ate his chips. She was wearing a white sweater with red sequins sewn into it and the chip crumbs clung to it. She had beautiful skin and she was a big woman with a gorgeous body that he loved to stroke.

He went to work. He drove his car to the site—it took ninety-five minutes—and every weekend for the next three months he tried to convince Nora Power otherwise. The word otherwise, he thought. Otherwise I will throw myself in the drink. It was edging into winter now and the drinks were frozen over. Sometimes, on a Sunday morning, he'd watch cartoons with John and Silvia's two kids while Silvia made pancakes. Clem: Did the milk walk away from my mouth? The boy was using a straw in a small glass of milk. His sister Sadie explained the milk was running back down the straw. Then they ran around the house with their Star Wars lifesavers.

3

Henry's buddy John Hynes had a contract with Rick Tobin and was gone to Fort McMurray for three-week stretches. It was mining, not oil. Henry had been thinking it was the work at Bull Arm that had made Nora stray from him, but Silvia didn't mind John in Alberta. They managed to foster a love at a distance. He examined his friend and his friend's wife. Fostering, he thought. I will foster this love. He spent the money he made and attempted to convince Nora. He found himself one evening pressed up against her frosted window pane saying please, Nora, please until her father's waist arrived and said Henry, Henry. Her parents were over for dinner—it was one of the family things Nora did that Henry loved. He stared at her father's belt through the window that Henry had caulked the year before, the yellow wool vest Nora's father wore in winter—Henry knew her father loved him but her father also understood his daughter. Or at least—because no one can understand Nora Power—he backed her up in her dismissal of Henry Hayward.

It took five failed efforts for him to turn the corner on Nora. The corner was tall and sheer and almost so acute it might have
been an eighty-eight-degree angle. It had taken a hundred days to have Nora agree to go out with him in the first place so he felt another campaign of a hundred days would convince her to let him return. But it was Christmas and no return occurred. John Hynes and Silvia took care of him. It was John who asked Rick Tobin to hire on Henry for an overseas contract. John was home for two weeks to get his buddy back in shape. John, his hair dark and thick and cut short and his handshake arriving just before a generous hug, his lanyard ID still around his neck, the little slap the lanyard gave as he walked towards you, touching him under each armpit in a self-affirming manner. John loved people. He always found something in you to love. That nose that had been broken on the job several times, set by John himself. This job isn't an Alberta job, he said. It's in the Middle East. You're through with Nora now you need to break your relationship with the land. The land is her land or it's your land together and you can't walk it any more alone.

The contract started in March. Springtime, Henry—start anew.

This logic of land and season reminded Henry of those Sunday school sermons of ancient times when men walked with giants. The only thing keeping you standing, John said, is fresh air. Get that out of your system and you'll be set to go again.

John, not a big man, but with strong shoulders who had been in construction his entire adult life. A man used to turning slowly. He spoke of Henry as if he were an old shed built with found wood. Which he was. Which we all are. Henry had worked with John out in Kelligrews hauling busted cinder blocks into a rolloff container. They had lined up at coffee shops covered head to toe in spackle. If you sat in a car with John you realized his torso was
long (his head touched the ceiling). He was telling Henry that Rick Tobin had won this contract in Afghanistan. It's a big one and it'll be hilarious and we get to hang out with Tender Morris. Tender Morris was in the reserves and now he's stationed in Camp Julien. Oh my god Tender Morris. They had gone to trade school with Tender and then Tender had joined the reserves.

Henry returned to work in Bull Arm and took an elevator every day down the leg of a module four storeys underwater to conduct stress tests on the concrete being poured there. It was a routine and he enjoyed how busy he was and how distracted he felt and insulated from the truth of Nora Power having left him. This enormous pillar underwater protected him from that truth and he could lick his wounds. It was when he came back to the surface that he was vulnerable. Sometimes on the weekends, when he could not sleep and he knew he was deeply alone in the world, he'd check Silvia's computer and there'd be an email from John out in Alberta telling him of the crazy things going on in the mining sector.

Henry spent his weekends in St John's. He continued to have drinks in bars, but one early morning a man next to him called for a pint and the bartender told him there was none left. Can I take the keg home on my bike? No. Okay let's have five tequilas.

Tequila's the only thing that's true, the bartender said.

Man: She is hard and cynical about everything except a deep sentimental attachment to anything dealing with animals.

Henry paid his bill and left. He promised himself not to hear that type of language again: caustic truths with no self-mockery. He did push-ups and vowed he would get his life together. He remembered the man who had lived in this finished basement for a few weeks during 9/11. Noyce was his name. A stranded
passenger that John and Silvia had befriended through Colleen Grandy. This man Noyce fell in love with Newfoundland and bought a house around the bay near John and Silvia's summer home in Renews. Noyce was strong in the way a bird is strong, big chest and hollow-boned. Ready for perky flight and a ruddy, round, sunburnt head with just a horseshoe of golden hair at his ears, hair that he kept a little long. He wore torn T-shirts and necklaces children from the Amazon had made for him—strings of wood and feathers and beads and strips of black rubber from sandals perhaps.

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