Nebula (#5) Is Proud To Present



The Buckskin Blonde by John Kooistra


The Buckskin Blonde

by John Kooistra

The Buckskin Blonde is Into Blood — Part I
I'm old enough to think of them as 'girls' — females, that is, ten or more years younger than I. In this case, I'll resist the lapse into fatherly incorrectness, and say that a woman in her early twenties stopped, for no obvious reason, in front of a table occupied by Carl and me. It was a solid round table — I'm tempted to say "oak" for the sake of the allusion — but it was pressure- treated cedar, which means (I think) cedar soaked in a greenish chemical preservative, then dried and hardened in massive pressure cookers. Our rot-resistant table could have seated another three or four, but we'd long ago granted our extra chairs to polite, youthful emissaries from the herds nearby.
The Lakeside Hotel's patio was about 15 steps wide, 20 steps deep and 25 feet above lake-level, like a royal courtyard commanding the lower reaches of Port Dalhousie — from foreground to background, a small hillside parking rectangle, a much larger parking lot, a grassy park barely visible behind the glare of electric lamps, and finally the unseen but implicit lake, its existence signalled by the faint smell of rotting seaweed and the pulsing beacon of a lighthouse, round bursts of white light dwindling to little points of red.
Am I allowed to say that she took a provocative stance? What the hell.... When I looked up at her, she met my eyes and smiled, a thin cool smile on a hot and thirsty August night. I dropped my gaze to her white, buckskin jacket, her breasts thrusting against cream-white Levi's cotton, her bluejeans tight around voluptuous thighs, her white cowboy boots etched with floral tracery.
With no small difficulty, I returned my gaze towards Carl's doughy, bespectacled, non- practicing-Catholic's face, and resumed our discussion. We were talking about existentialist or Nietzschean denials of Christianity, and about the arrogance of using words like love, justice and courage when they were asserted as nothing more than individual 'values'. The woman turned away from us with a shudder of leather tassels, like a Riding Mistress choosing not to saddle the lard-ass mares, and struck a pose in front of another table.
"Time out for a second," said Carl. "Did you see, I mean, did you see that woman?"
"Did I see that woman? Did I?"
"Well?" — boyish giggle — "Whadja think?"
"There is danger afoot, my friend. However, I'm married; I'm restricted to commodifying women in my head. You, on the other hand, may pursue your inclinations as you wish." Carl ordered another round.
Ten minutes later, she was there again, looking hard and very sure, but then shading into lost, lonely and inviting. "The kind of woman who'd cut your balls off," said Carl, sotto voce.
"Indeed," I said, "but imagine..." — I cleared my throat — "imagine how good IT might be before such an eventuality came to a head." Carl had a range of laughs, from diminutive giggle to hearty guffaw to a crescendo of delighted, husky, tenor "haws". My strained puns were rewarded by something between the giggle and the guffaw, but even this was worth the pain of buying most of the beer.
I feel sorry for Carl. I'm almost positive that he's still a virgin. Women like his conversation, but he rarely, if ever, makes it past the proverbial first base, usually because he rarely, if ever, presses either his need or his advantage. As a loud friend told him three or four times one night at The Lion's, "Ya gotta start swingin' at them pitches, Carlo baby!"
Our conversation had begun, in actual fact, on the subject of sex. Carl had scored, sort of, about a month earlier. Several beautiful women had hung out with him during a party for Niagara Artist Centre types and a pack of philosophy majors. Carl listens well. Women like that — they like it enough sometimes to forget about a fat ass and swelling, spreading booze-belly.
Later in the evening, Carl took up battle aginst the philosophy students' happily drunken arguments about the meaninglessness of existence and the death of God. He was saying, "How can you say you love your girlfriends? How can you mean anything by the word LOVE when you grant no ontological ground for asserting its value over against another person's valuation of hate, or indifference? You need to say that a God exists, or something like a God, perhaps a fundamental condition from which concepts such as love and justice derive their ultimate, triumphant meaning." The majors lost ground — Carl had the attention of their women, he was drinking them six feet under the table, and he seemed to be right.
But the end result was always the same. The hot bods went home with the hot bods, and the young rivals read their books quickly and got essays in on time, and the great referees of the universe ultimately put the GAP-dressed young cynics into the winner's circle. Carl long ago had to drop out. It took him a month to read a book. He couldn't get essays done on time. He had a pathological fear of examinations.
We heard a loud crack, like a thick twig snapping, and a short, skinny kid — I mean, 'young man' — sprawled to the ground about seven feet away from us along the patio wall. "Did you see that?" Carl asked.
"The guy passing out?"
"No, no — the punch. Some guy standing right there beside him just hauled off and suckered him."
"What — were they arguing, or what?"
"I don't know. The little guy was talking up that blonde, eh? The other guy, I don't know, he just kind of showed up, and KAPOW!"
"Where's the other guy? Point him out."
"He's gone. No, wait — that's him, hopping the wall ... over there."
I didn't want to think I was in a Monty Python skit or something, quaffing my beer, chewing peanut cud and talking existential theology while people around me were being dropped by round-house hooks and uppercuts from the knees, bleeding without attention on the concrete. So I ran to one of the bartenders inside the Lakeside, and he whistled up the bouncer.
We got to the young man just as he came to and started bellowing. He'd fight anybody, all of us. "Hey! Ur you the sonofabitch? I'll clean yer fucking clock, pal!" The bouncer talked him down, and our ten minutes of communal excitement shaded back into the business of the evening: alcoholic oblivion or Dionysian revelry for some, seduction or rejection for others, and, for Carl and me, determining the boundaries of ultimate meaning and personal responsibility.
I was telling Carl about a crow-feather at my feet after a prayer for guidance, and Carl was telling me about the Sufis, his conversation tailing like a comet into the impossibility of pure random-ness resulting in a world as complex ... profound ... beautiful ... and as terrifying as this one was. Then, crashing to earth, he said "Look. Look at that." He nodded toward a blond/blonde couple necking passionately in the middle of the big patio. A lot of people were staring at them. What was next? Heavy petting?
"What's the big deal Carl? You still into that weird chick when she was making eyes at you?"
My friend sounded weary now, as if the combination of beer and sex-fantasy and violence was altogether too much for him. "The guy," he said. "The guy whose tongue she's sucking on. He's the one who suckered that little guy." He took four deep-throat slugs from the second bottle he'd ordered at last call: "That's gotta be his reward."
I didn't quite get it, so Carl added: "She set that little guy up for the sucker punch.... You know, standing around like a hurricane lamp for the gypsy moths."
I broke in with a gasp of appreciation, "Carl — where do these, where DO you get these similes from?"
Carl chuckled with pleasure, "Hey, sign me up for Creative Writing at the back of the matchbook.... Anyway, what I'm trying to say is — that chick's boyfriend cuts into her dance with the little guy, you see, and draws blood. When he gets back to the scene of the crime, the buckskin blonde loves him up."
"Aha," I say. "The buckskin blonde is into blood." I swear I could hear dramatic thunder the moment I said "blood", rumbling faintly above the Toronto lights on the northern skyline.
The slim-hipped, swollen-lipped little warrior, meanwhile, was talking a mile a minute at the table next to us, entwined with a woman just slightly smaller than he was: "God almighty, I'll clean that fucking asshole's clock the next time I lay eyes on him." She nodded a lot, drank the beer he bought for her, and decided she'd go home with him, if he asked ... I believe.

Buckskin Blonde — Part II
I told this story to a bunch of the boys at the Lock Street Café on a cool November evening, the leaves of the maple and chestnut trees rusting into powder between sidewalk and curbside. Half the town called this place Lonely Libby's, because you could often see balding Libero Fratangelo, the owner, bartender and cook, watching TV all by his lonesome. Tonight the TV was off. It was Sunday. The sports world was temporarily becalmed — not even a hockey game.
My brother-in-law Matthew Neufeld, an optometrist with a practice in Niagara-on-the-Lake and a home three doors down from mine in the "Old Port", ordered a round of Hennepin Draft. We liked the stuff, partly because we wanted to like it. It was locally made, it wasn't Labatt's or Molson's, and it wasn't made with the usual shit-load of chemical additives. Matt himself never had more than a couple of drinks, except at wine tastings. There, the spirit of wise stewardship — to preserve in one's own mouth and gut all those wonderful vintages — usually won out against the taster's imperative to gargle and spit.
Beside him, to my left, was Charles Boudreau. We called him Gus or Gusto, from his middle name, Gustave. He liked that. A lot of other people, especially his fellow high school teachers, insisted on calling him "Chuckie" or "Charlie", which he hated from the moment he emigrated from the south of France twenty years ago. Even worse was to be called "Goose", which somehow caught on for about five years in the early 80's because of "Goose" Gossage, ace fireballing relief pitcher for the New York Yankees in a sport which Gus Boudreau didn't even try to care about.
To my right was David Tompkins, a school librarian with an attitude, as the expression goes, and the only one in our group of five who I am tempted to call, with an immigrant son's mock innocence, an echt Canadian. Dave can trace his family tree back to the foundation of St. Catharines, his ancestors having come to the area during the potato famine in Ireland to get a living wage, which his great great great grandfather found with the construction of the first Welland Canal. Unfortunately, great great great Grandad fathered six babies in seven years, and then his back gave out, and half a year later he'd drunk himself to death with the last of his life's savings.
Libby Fratangelo was listening in, as usual. We were his only customers. He liked it that way — it was like a living room with your friends in it, which is why he wanted to run a café in the first place. Libby took a lot of flak. Customers believed it was their prophetic duty to show how a good entrepeneur could pack the joint. Libby hated advice — he just wanted people to come in, have a few beers, eat a few mozzarella sticks, tell a few stories or sick jokes, then go home happy.
Just now, at the moment of writing, I become aware of how Libby is my kinsman. My readers and listeners are my customers. I am keenly aware of my limitations, not as a story-teller, so much, but as a truth-teller. This story, to my mind, is a true one, what we like to call 'literally true'. But I'm shaping it; I'm changing the names, making alterations to the cut of my characters, including my own, ordering some of the details to echo a few big themes. I have to do some of this — I don't want lawsuits....
I've even avoided the physical descriptions, but, what the hell — I'll make amends for that on the spot. Matt is exactly 6 feet tall, and is a Rock Hudson look-alike. Libby, who is at least 10 years younger than all of us forty-somethings, looks like Detective Whatisname on NYPD Blue, the 5 foot eight balding roly-poly played by Dennis Franz, but without the mustache. Gus, about 5 foot 9, is a near dead-ringer for Julio Iglesias. David Tompkins looks like Bruce Cockburn, with curly honey-blond hair atop a well-muscled, 5 foot 10 frame, and with a belly suggestive of the no- man's land between "Abs of Steel" and "onset of beer-gut."
Something else — I am aware of how different my story is when I speak it, as opposed to this writing. I've told the buckskin blonde story at least twice already to Matt and Gusto, so I've been switching back and forth between the faces of Libby and David Tompkins. But I've left out the stylistic tricks, and most of the conversation I was having with Carl, even though it contains, to me, the Big Ideas. After all, bumping into deadly blondes at a bar is not so unusual. But having an idea that puts the world into some semblance of order — that is extraordinary, isn't it? The intellectual stuff, though ... it's hard to get on that platter and deliver it. As a friend once said, it gives lousy head....
Anyway, as I finished my story, Libby Fratangelo lifted his chin out of his powerful, underused forearms and said, "No ... fucking ... shit! She was rewarding that son of a bitch. I mean, she's the son of a bitch when you really think about it." We were all laughing. Libby could have made big bucks as a clacquer for comedians. You know, the guy or woman who gets paid to laugh like a herd of hyenas, which gets an audience going.
I felt good —my story had made the room explode with conversation. It was like asking the right question, or speaking the right anecdote, in the seminar-leading I do up the hill — suddenly, a roomful of students is ablaze with ideas.
Gus said he'd met a few women like my buckskin blonde. His smile, a subtle mix of delight and slyness, implied that he was only too wise in the varieties of womanhood.
Matthew said the only woman he knew like that was his ex, or soon-to-be ex — my wife's sister, in fact — but he took it back immediately, aware of the cruelty. "Seriously", he said, "Think of ALL the arguments you've heard from feminists about men as the instigators of violence. Women are always the victims, never the perpetrators."
Libby, appealing with his palms upturned, shouted out: "But we ARE the perps, the perspitraitors, most of the time." Everyone was laughing again, so Lib turned to me, "What'd I say? John, help me out here. Your point is, like, this blonde is different, right? I mean, how many women — come on, be honest — how many women really like to fight?"
Davey Tompkins now entered the fray, his first words immediately stopping the laughing chatter of males bonding in a haze of alcohol and tobacco: "Gentlemen — listen to this.... I think I've met the very same woman."
Tompkins said it just right, with perfect timing. We got the little shiver down our spines, then leaned toward this wild man of the library, expecting another good tale.
"Platinum blonde, right?" Right.
"Down to her shoulders?" Yes it was.
"Bangs — straight bangs across the middle of her forehead?" Yeah — I think so — I'm not sure.
"Beautiful? Fairly big up top?" Oh, yes — that's for sure.
"What did her boyfriend look like? About two inches taller than me? Say, 5'11, 6 feet? Blond hair too, kind of like a cross between, mmm, mouse and yuppie?"
"Dave, I'm impressed by the eye for detail. But, I must confess -- I can't remember very much about what he looked like."
"Well let me tell you -- I got a very good look at him. This happens about a month after your story, and it happens at the Lakeside again. This time, it's inside. I'm standing opposite that long bar they put in a couple of years ago, near the door heading out to the patio. Got the picture? I'm just hanging around — Desirée was at that conference in Ottawa I was telling you about — and I'm just hanging around, looking at these gorgeous strippers from the Welland House having some fun with a couple of drunk American kids. This blonde mousie yuppie walks right up to me and dumps a beer on my chest out of his big plastic cup. I'm telling you: I was royally pissed off. I'd just washed and ironed that shirt. My best going-out shirt, understand?
"So this guy starts bouncing up and down in front of me, saying, 'okay, let's go. Come on asshole, let's go.' All I say is, 'I know what your game is, my friend. It's not going to work.'
"He says, 'What the fuck you talking about?' And he has a fist half ready to go from about waist level, not all the way up to his shoulder, because he sees that I haven't even dropped my cup of beer.
"He says, 'Yer scared, arencha chickenshit?' And I say, 'listen, my friend, I'll fight if I have to. But I'm warning you.' Meanwhile, a small crowd's gathered round, and I'm feeling a bit of heat from all of these ... voyeurs. It's like the schoolyard, you know, when someone shouts 'fight' and then everyone's shouting 'Fight! Fight!' and no one knows why the fight's happening but everyone wants to see some action, to see blood.
"And this guy says again, bouncing up and down, 'Yer chicken, arencha little asswipe?' I just say, 'If I fight you, my friend, I will kill you'.... He says, 'bullll shee-it,' but he pauses a second before he says it, and he doesn't throw the punch. Meanwhile, I'm leaning back against the stucco pillar with a three-beer killer smile on my face and beer number four in my hand. I say, 'I'm very.... Very serious.'
"There's a pause, and some woman in the crowd says, 'You guys gonna fight or fuck each other?' My dancing partner looks over to this voice with a look that's kind of angry and scared at the same time, but I keep my eyes fixed on his face, and I say,
'I have a black belt. I'm insane.'
"He takes a step back. He's totally confused, sort of, but he's smart enough to believe me. But that's not the end of it — not at all. This platinum blonde steps out of the crowd and starts yelling at me: 'What's your problem, little man? You gay? Paul spills a beer all over your nice white poet shirt and you wanna suck him, doncha little man?' Words to that effect, anyway. Now it's my turn to stare her down, and I say with this same smile that's on my face right now, I say, 'I don't want to fight your boyfriend, little girl, because I would kill him.'
"You know, it's amazing what karate does for a guy. It even changes your voice. I mean, I'm not that tall, and I wear these round John Lennon specs, and people figure me for some kind of pacifist.
"This platinum blonde turns on the guy who spilled the beer on me, and yells at him. It's not hard to hear what she's saying, because the DJ is rounding up the bouncer instead of putting another song on. She's saying, 'You're a loser, Paulie — fucking loser.' "
Dave paused for a sip of his Hennepin, so I broke in to say, "Remind me, gentlemen, never to offer David Tompkins an engagement in fisticuffs." Libby and Gusto were laughing, and Matt Neufeld was saying "Unnnbelievable."
Dave wanted to get back to his original thought. "The point is, I think John and I met the same woman and the same guy. This platinum blonde is into blood. She wants guys to start fights, and she's sweet on them if they do. Especially if they draw blood."
Matthew filled the room for about the fourth time with his big, deep, conspiratorial laughter. "This is so unbelievably, politically incorrect," he said, "it couldn't possibly be told in a public venue. I mean, I'd be crucified by the women I know if I tried, you know, to draw any conclusions from this. About men and women, I mean."
Gustave said, "Oh for God's sake. All kinds of women like fights. They start fights, they watch boxing on TV, they're half the audience for the World Wrestling Federation, for thousands of years they've been mating with the best warrior-protectors, etcetera etcetera." The old argument was about to start, the one which took an hour of example and counter-example to reach our usual, uneasy truce: women were obviously not violent in the same quantity or degree. They were obviously much less likely to physically kill or maim. In Dave's words, their forte in the violence mode was "emotional castration".
Libby headed us off at the pass by asking, "Dave — what's this about being a librarian? I thought you were a teacher for Lincoln County."
"I am a teacher for Lincoln County. Librarian is a kind of teacher, dig?"
"Well, not really. I mean, librarians are supposed to be wimps, aren't they? I mean, you have to admit...." Libby burst into raucous caws of laughter — "I mean, you're a black belt, but you're a fucking librarian, like Sister Rosalita — HAW! HA-HA! But then, you're a fucking black belt, and you don't punch the shit out of this little asshole? HAW! HAH! I mean, what's goin' on, Dave?"
Matt Neufeld cut in: "Libby — think about it. Say it happens right here, in your place, where your Dad's sunk all his money. Dave breaks this guy's jaw. The guy sues Dave, and you. You waste years of your life in court, and you lose all your money and your Dad's, because the other guy's got a better lawyer."
"Lawyer!" shouted Dave. "You spoke the wrong word, Matthew. If that little prick who threw the beer at me was a lawyer, he'd be a dead man." We laughed at the contradiction. Dave insisted, "He'd be a dead man for fucking sure, and I'd be in jail for a long time."
We settled back into another good story, a classic in the Divorce Court genre. In this case, we have a heartless wife and a deadly female lawyer — that's an awesome combination worth any man's respect, even if some of the details are, as a social scientist might say, beyond the limits of probability. Dave's anger is still a bit on the hysterical side, but the story is safely embedded, now, in the garden of fiction, and because his nasty women are happily metaphorized into praying mantises, or killer bitches, or castrating nymphos, each telling helps to diminish the rage.

Buckskin Blonde — Part III
Most of us had heard the story at least once. Seven years ago, Dave and his wife Sharon had been worth 400 grand, based mainly on 20 years of Dave's 'hard labour' for the Board of Education and clever investments in mutual funds, including about 50,000 dollars' worth of spousal RRSP's. They had two teenage kids. Sharon worked fulltime as a homemaker. Six years ago, Dave suspected something, hired a detective, and found out Sharon had taken not just one, but two lovers, including Dave's best friend.
For months, Tompkins tried to forget the 100% foolproof evidence. Sharon had never said she was unhappy with him or with the marriage or with their lifestyle. After several attempts at alcohol suicide, he sued for divorce. She counter-sued, pleading emotional cruelty, and pointing to the alcholism for proof. She got $200 grand in the final settlement plus $15,000 per year for alimony and $10,000 for child support until their second daughter turned 21. She did not have to split the spousal RRSP's — the judge likened them to an insurance policy, or to a dowry. Sharon also won full custody of the kids, and Dave was forced to sell the ancestral Tompkins home on Canal Street — part of the family for seven generations — to raise the necessary cash.
The other two big winners were, as always, the lawyers on both sides — both women. But this was the capper — Sharon's lover, Dave's ex-best-friend, is also a lawyer — a crown attorney — and he buys her all kinds of stuff, including a brand-new BMW, and pays for long vacations with her and the kids, but he maintains a separate residence. That means there's no chance of a reduction in the support payments.
"This is getting complicated," said Libby. "You musta done something to turn your wife against you."
"I'm telling you everything I know. I did nothing to harm her. I didn't cheat on her, I didn't beat her, nothing."
"Okay, then you didn't turn her on. Something like that.... I mean, no offense, Dave, but... know what I'm getting at?"
"Then she must have been an awfully good actress. I mean awfully good."
I suggested, "like that woman in When Harry Met Sally?" Libby and Matt didn't know the movie, so we took a five minute timeout to hear Gus tell it, including an awfully damn good impersonation of a woman faking orgasm.
Libby said, "I wanna get back to your divorce. Like, I'm still totally fucking confused, you know what I'm saying? I mean, what IS the POINT of your story?"
Gustave Boudreau cut in with a sharp laugh. When I try to describe Gus's mannerisms, I want to trot out the old clichés, like, he had "a knowing twinkle" or a "wry sparkle in his eyes". Keep these in mind, and then add terms like "dry" and "droll"and "packed with irony." Let's call it a 'postmodern twinkle'. He said, "Dave is trying to say, there's a lot of killer bitches out there."
"Killer Bitches!" said Matt, laughing his big, crazy laugh. "Great title for a B movie."
"I will agree with you," said Dave, "as long as we keep this in proportion. I would say 1 in 20 women are, as you say, killer bitches. But, let's face it, every one of us — I'm talking about guys, now — every one of US has a killer inside. Just plain killer."
Another happy argument. Matt stays on for a third draft of Hennepin, although he only drinks half of it before heading home. He doesn't really want to leave, but he's got an overbooked appointment schedule to start on first thing in the morning. Dave, looking at the half-full glass, said, "In the old days, you know, in the days of pass-the-bottle brotherhood, one of us would have said, 'Saints preserve us — there's a free dollar's worth of booze in that mug, and down the hatch!'"
Gus said, "Yeah, but now it's, 'sanitation preserve us', hein?" We looked at the mug as if it were a deadly killer, right in the midst of our pleasant colloquy, in the midst of a clean, well-lighted, small-town bar.
Gus and I head over to the Emporium. We say we're going to look for the buckskin blonde, and that we want to hear the band, but mostly we just hate saying good night at the responsible, suburban time.
Dave says he's got a hard day at the library coming up. He means that Desirée is between the covers, waiting up for him. She's what a lot of guys would call a free spirit, but she would love to hitch her Camper permanently to Dave's Jeep. He's totally gone on her, too, but he will never, ever again put himself in a position to 'lose everything'. He calls it, "covering yer assets."
Earlier, I called David Tompkins' story a classic out of the Divorce Court genre. Years later, two other terms that come to mind are "castration myth" and "Apocalytic Terror story", when a man's world comes slashing down like a guillotine on his loved ones, or his livelihood, or his manhood. When someone tells a 'good one', we shake our heads with an odd mixture of shivering anger AND quivering pleasure. I mean, think of the way you felt when you read the climactic scene from The World According to Garp, or, if you're into Shakespeare, when you read MacBeth or King Lear. The worse the details, the greater the aesthetic roundness.
We're like a bunch of farmers who say, "Yessir... I remember 1982 very well. First we had that drought. Then we got the praying mantis plague, and after that the tornado. And then, when the Insurance Company went belly up, the Bank came after us. We lost every last penny." The men (or women) in the circle all shake their heads with memories of the quivering anger they once felt for the malevolent face of both humanity and nature. But it's safely in the past, now, and there is something satisfying in the contemplation. The worse the disaster in 1982, the bigger and better the shivers in 1993.

Buckskin Blonde — Part IV
April 16, 1992, Kristen French is kidnapped. That same day, a Thursday, I travel with my hockey buddies to an LCBO tournament in Sault Saint Marie. The following day, at noon, a total stranger at the arena says to me, "You're from St. Catharines, eh? Whadja think about Kristen French?"
That's how big it was, how big it is. Something in this case taps into our most profound fears, the ones that crouch deeper than the shivers, the quivers ... the ones that smash the smooth golden bowls which safely preserve our life-stories.
When police found Kristen French in a Hamilton ditch, and when they tied it to the murder of Leslie Mahaffy, huge numbers of Ontarians made conscious and unconscious alterations to their world-views. Most of us lost at least some faith in the goodness of our neighbours, and most of us re-doubled our protectiveness towards our children, especially our daughters.
My 12 year old Emily had a flyer delivery route that she had to follow every Wednesday. The boundaries of the route did not go beyond two blocks from our house in any direction, but that implied no safety whatsoever. There were a couple of low-rent apartment blocks on the route, and who knows what kinds of scum lived in those places. Perverts, rapists, killers — they were in the shadows of our own backyard.
Kristen French is a date, now, in Canadian history. We say, "Before Kristen", and "after Kristen." In our case, we decided "A.K.F.", or "After Kristen French", to accompany our daughter on her route. My wife and I took turns, and rather than just follow her, we delivered half the flyers ourselves. Our daughter got five dollars per run. The deal was that we'd get an hour of free babysitting per delivery, which saved us all of two bucks per hour.
Ten months A.K.F., on Feb. 17, 1993, Emily and I were just finishing off the route. We decided to stop in at Avondale's, a store in the dominant local variety store chain. A woman named Betty not only ran the store, but was also the local news anchor. The first thing she said was, "Didja hear the news? Some guy was in here ten minutes ago; he said they caught the guy."
I knew exactly what she was talking about. "Where?" I asked.
"Just down the road from here — on Bayview. Apparently they had the place staked out the last couple of days, and today they moved in. Geez, there musta been twenty cop cars and an ambulance and everything but the kitchen sink. But they got the bastard, it looks like."
Emily was very excited, "I've got to run home to tell Katie, Dad." I didn't speak my permission, but I let her go, trusting her to the safety of the 500 yards from the store to Matt Neufeld's house. Katherine was Matt's daughter, and Emily's best friend.
Betty and I talked on. This was great, great news. They got the bastard. They got the son of a bitch who killed Kristen and Leslie.
I said, "You know, I knew they had some kind of stakeout going on Bayview. I was driving to Gracefield School yesterday morning, and I saw this guy parked by the lover's bench at the corner of Anne and Bayview. His car's right on the bend in the road, where no one ever parks, and he's standing on the passenger side, staring down the road. I have to drive down Bayview again at one o'clock and the guy's still there. I'm thinking, 'I've gotta call the police. This guy might have his eye on the pretty little Grade Sixers coming down the road, you know what I mean? When I drive by, though, the guy looks me straight in the face — I'm staring at him, eh? — and he smiles, and kind of salutes me with a half wave.' So, I don't think about it any more, but I memorize his features, his license, and the make of the car. I'm thinking, if I see him again, I call the cops."
Betty said, "Half the city knew there was some kind of stakeout, except the guy they arrested. A guy I know — Freddy Milosevic — you know him? Anyway, Freddy says half the fish in Lake Ontario are stoned, because all the dealers and users up and down the road flushed their stuff down the toilet."
I run home to turn on the radio. We always listen to the CBC, but today I turn to one of the local stations, certain they'd be covering the arrest in greater detail. Sure enough, we get a steady stream of announcements, although most of them say that further details will be announced at upcoming news conferences.
My wife crashes through the side door about half an hour later. "Did you hear the news?" she shouts. "They caught him!"
"Yes," I shout back, even though she's no more than three yards away. "But have you heard where they caught him?"
"Well, you'd better sit down." My wife looked at me, scornfully, thinking that I was being melodramatic. "Okay," I said, "don't sit down.... They caught him on Bayview. Three blocks from here. A block from the edge of Emmy's flyer route."
Marilyn had a stack of books in her arms, research stuff for her Ph.D. at McMaster. Her knees buckled, and the books crashed to the floor. "You're kidding. You can't be serious."
Later, it was one hell of an exciting night. Half of southern Ontario, and hundreds of people from upstate New York, even, jammed the streets named Bayview, Elgin, Anne, Dalhousie. Several dozen police officers were on guard, making sure that no one crossed the yellow ribbon surrounding the upper middle-class pink house. Reporters were stalking the neighbours and anyone who claimed to know something of importance, and the bright lights of the TV cameras were everywhere. A big mobile home, containing the Emergency Task Force detectives, was stationed near the front boulevard. Everyone was abuzz with talk of of the great, unfolding drama.
I have accompanied my daughter and niece, Emily and Katie, to the scene of the crime. They, too, are both thrilled and horrified. My son, just turned nine, did not want to come along, and was trying hard not to think about what was going on. He buried himself in Lego spaceships for the better part of not just this evening, but for three nights in a row.
Later, at home, I was boiling water for a coffee when the doorbell rang — a reporter and a photographer from the Hamilton Spectator. The reporter, Bernard Duvall, asked if I was a friend of Paul Bernardo's, and could he interview me. I laughed, and asked what kind of shoddy sleuthing had led him to my door. It turned out he'd been directed to a house on Main Street, not Dalhousie Avenue, so it was all a big mistake, but could he interview me anyway for a local reaction?
Over hot coffees, and a hot chocolate for Sven, the mute photographer, Bernie Duvall and I gossipped like a pair of old euchre buddies. We made a deal — he'd come calling on me sometime in the next couple of days, and we'd trade stories. He'd give me some of the inside dope he hoped to get from the cops, and I'd tell him what the neighbours knew about Bernardo and this woman he was living with — the one who'd turned him in.
A day later, the citizens of Port Dalhousie and of the world see the first pictures of the monster, Paul Bernardo, a.k.a. Paul Teale. A day after that, we see pictures of a woman, Bernardo's wife, someone named Karla, with the maiden name Homolka. At first, we believe she is innocent. Then we find out she is involved, although we're not sure how, or to what extent. The rumours are amazing, unbelievable, thrilling, horrible. The few hard facts we're given suggest that Karla Bernardo Teale Homolka is hardly an angel, but we're also led to believe that she was a victim. A victim of abuse, of a terror campaign waged by the monster, Paul Bernardo.
When her picture appeared in the Globe, the Star, the Sun, the Spectator and the St. Catharines Standard, I was stunned. I've seen that face before, I think to myself. How could I not have seen it? — she lived three blocks away. "Aha," I think at last. "She looks a hell of a lot like the buckskin blonde." The first thing I do is call up Carl. "Carl, did you see the pictures in the Standard tonight? Okay, I don't want to lead you, but who does that woman remind you of? Nobody? Come on, think a bit. Remember the Lakeside Hotel?"
"I see," said Carl. "You're thinking about the kid who got sucker punched that night. You think the blonde was what's-her-face, this Karla chick. I don't know, John. It could be. But I'm lousy with faces, you know? I'm sorry, I've got shit for a memory. You might be right; you're a lot better at this kind of stuff than I am...."
That was depressing. I was convinced, but I wanted confirmation, like a UFO observer desperate for a camera. In the meantime, Bernie Duvall came by for another "cup of java". Neither of us made any pretense about our love of 'the buzz', the hot gossip, the late-breaking developments. Yes, this is a confession. I feel guilty, but not entirely — I know that I'm mouthing incorrect sentiments, but I had them, I have them, and I will continue to have them. I am one of the vultures, one of the vampires.
Duvall was talking about the links between the hacksaw filings in the basement at 57 Bayview and the filings on Leslie's body. Then he started into the soundproof room where Bernardo was working on his rap recordings, and where he kept the two girls, which explains why no one, even visitors to the house, could hear anything unusual. Then I gave him what I thought was the really big news. There were connections between the French and Mahaffy murders, I said, and a couple of murders in Merritton Ward, a few miles south. How did I know this? One of my sisters lived near the Homolka house, and she said everyone out that way was talking about Karla's younger sister, and about another woman who knew Kristen and Karla, a woman who'd been killed by some Italian guy.
Bernie told me the gossip about the infighting between the Toronto cops and the Niagara cops, and I told him how the Bernardo house had recently been fully renovated and painted pink by an ex-con. He was hired by a group of real estate speculators, some of them Mennonites, and one of them a cousin to Gus Boudreau's wife, Susannah. This fellow told Gus about how they gave the ex-con a break, and how they let him live in the house with his girlfriend during the renovations. They had a devil of a time trying to find a buyer, so they decided to rent it out until the market improved. When it came time to conclude the deal with Bernardo and Homolka, the speculators did a brief inspection, and guess what Susannah's cousin found in one of the basement rooms? A huge mound of pornography.... We're not talking just Playboys and Penthouses here — it was really raw stuff. Animals, S & M, all ages....
Another great piece of gossip, which old Cassandra Pawling sent my way, was that the original 57 Bayview was a "Dream House" from the Home Show at the Canadian National Exhibition. The Home Show ran a contest each year, in which the winner was awarded that year's version of the ultra-modern Dream House, and could have it built anywhere in Ontario. Well, in the early 1950's, a Scarborough woman won the contest, and wanted her prize to be erected in Port Dalhousie, her favourite summering place from an idyllic childhood. I said to my enthusiastic little reporter friend, "There's your headline, Bernie — 'From Dream House to House of Horrors — The Tale of 57 Bayview.'"
Duvall replied, while scribbling madly, "Interesting, very interesting stuff. Another big irony, of course, is that bit about Scarborough. I mean, Bernardo was the Scarborough rapist, eh? And the deal there is, they had this guy dead to rights. I mean, they took some sperm samples, blood samples, and they had his name on their suspect list, etcetera, but for some reason they never put two and two together. Not in Scarborough, not here. And yet the Toronto boys think the local boys are the idiots."
About a week later, David Tompkins calls me up and asks if I remember the story I told about the blonde in the buckskin jacket. "Of course", I say. Now I'm really excited — I have some hope of proving that my buckskin blonde was Karla Homolka. Dave asks if I would mind telling the story to his sister in law, who is a freelance reporter. I say I can go one better, because I wrote it all down back in '91, and it's even been rejected already by Canadian Fiction Quarterly.
Tompkins and his relative know of about five stories like his, and mine, in which a blonde with a boyfriend named Paul tried to set up these fights in the summer of 91. The 'Tompkins Twins' are pissed off because no one seems to be talking about Homolka's role. I say, "Now hold on — I never said there was somebody called Paul in my story." We talked a bit further, and then I said, "I'm not as sure as you are, but — yeah — I'd love it if the blonde in my story really was Karla Bernardo."
Think about it. We believed we knew what kind of a person she was even before the videos, before the trial. We were the gossips, the free exchangers of information, a lot of it ugly, some of it untrue. The police and the courts wanted secrecy, and publication bans, and nothing but facts to support the operative theories. It was the Family Compact all over again — the elite, alone, were allowed to process the important information. The rest of us were expected to rest in awe of the fearful workings of a mighty system of justice.
Bernie Duvall and I once talked about this. We had started to feel guilty, after all, about our juvenile enthusiasms, and we were trying to work it all out. At one point, I said, "I can understand the cops and the judges when I think of the French and Mahaffy families, and their close friends ... when I see writers and photographers and ancient videotapes literally repeating the molestations."
Bernie was all over me like a dirty shirt: "Yeah yeah, I hear what you're saying — but personally, the only way I can understand the silent treatment is that they're all covering their asses up there. Lookit, we need to know why they're making their judgements. I mean, if Karla gets to walk in four years, we have to know why, right? Like they always say, 'justice must be done, AND seen to be done.' Not only that, but I mean, Jesus! A society's got to know what happened, and we have to try to figure out what's gonna happen."
I gave Duvall an example for his argument. There were several rapes of young girls in the Port Dalhousie area in 1991 to 1992. Henley Island was the scene of at least one of them. Only a handful of gossips knew about these rapes, and were able to give their daughters suitable warnings. But thousands of us were kept out of the loop by embarrassed families and sensitive cops. The rapist, rumour now has it, was Paul Bernardo, and Karla may have been with him. Another hot rumour is that she acted as both a lookout and decoy in his Scarborough hits.
When the local police had identified Bernardo as one of about 20 prime suspects in the French/Mahaffy murders, they sent a couple of detectives down to 57 Bayview. They rang the doorbell, but Paul was sleeping. They were about to leave, when Paul called them back. He figured he'd have to face it out sooner or later, and he wasn't feeling too nervous. He had a friendly chat with the detectives, and offered them tea or coffee, and gazed honestly straight into their eyes at every question. How could a polite good-looking kid like that, surrounded by family photographs, and living in a nice new pink house in old Port Dalhousie — how could a kid like that have anything to do with murder? Saints preserve us.
The photographs that may have impressed them the most, the ones that the Sun and the Star fought over, were the ones where a ridiculously happy Paul is arm in arm or cheek to cheek with his young bride, whose beauty seems buoyed by a creamy froth of wedding silks and blonde curls and baby's breath.
Postscript: June, 1995
Right in the midst of yet another trial of the century, I am living in a new city, North Bay, where the talk about Bernardo and Homolka is about as common as it is in St. Catharines, the city that has "lost its innocence" according to the would-be poets in the Toronto media. I am in the Twin Pines Grocery Store on Trout Lake Road, and am moving towards the cashier in Aisle 2. There, on the newsstand, flanked by the Star and the Enquirer, is the Globe of June 27, 1995 — not to be confused with the Globe and Mail. On the front cover is a big bold picture of a blond and a blonde. They are swapping tongues, as my buddy Carl would say. The man is wearing a white sweater with a black sectioned diamond on the chest. The woman is wearing a black slip of a dress, and both are looking very happy, very much in love. The giant white and yellow words above the photo read,


All the shocking
details from
chilling court
Inside, on pages 36 and 37, are several more pictures. One on the right side is a repeat of the cover shot, but inverted, so that right hand becomes left hand, and the tongues are now at a 10 o'clock–4o'clock angle, not 2 o'clock–8 o'clock. An angled insert just below this shows Paul wearing a T-shirt with a cartoon shark appliqué, and he's in a boxing pose, both dukes up. The caption reads, "Paul muscles up for the cameras: He likes to hurt women, say cops."
Way over to the left hand side of the total spread is a pool-side picture of Karla riding bareback on Paul. She is wearing sunglasses, a white halter top, and either a string bikini bottom or nothing at all. Paul, also wearing sunglasses, is on his hands and knees, and bearing his burden with a wicked grin. The caption reads, "Wife Karla playfully rides on hubby Paul — but in bed, he dominated her brutally and brainwashed her for his kinky escapades, say prosecutors."
Just beside the Globe, crowning a mound of papers on my desk, is a photograph of the Dijkstra family at our first party in North Bay. An interesting juxtaposition, I think, the kind that can only be generated out of what I like to call "a civilized mess", in this case lecture notes, short stories in the fictional biography genre, and a poetry project entitled "Dijkstra Family Album". At the left edge of the photo, I'm looking rather bleary-eyed, but I've got an ironic smile. We're all smiling, looking relaxed in jeans and denim jackets — Marilyn, professor of English, 15 year old Emily, and 11 year old Johnny Junior in the middle, who is giving both Marilyn and Emily two-fingered horns with a hand behind each head.
You look at this photograph, and glance over to the photos of King Paulie and Karly-Kurls, and back again.... Look at the sunshine in our eyes, all of us. There isn't a scrap of real proof that anything is — in any way, shape or form — truly out of the ordinary.