May 22, 1937 ~ May 15, 2021
As you may know, George Little passed away this May. A beloved father and husband, George will also be remembered as a teacher, a leader of the New Brunswick New Democratic Party, a social justice advocate, and an author.
In 1990, we published George’s short story collection, The Many Deaths of George Robertson, which examines the lives of parents, siblings, friends, and politicians. In celebration of George Little’s accomplishments, we have selected a short story from this publication to share.
“Jack Patrick’s Story”
Excerpted from The Many Deaths of George Robertson by George Little
The four of us—me, my brother Joe, the wife's brother Pete Ward and Frank Gill—used to go up country moose hunting every year to Pete's camp, in by Summerhill Lake. Pete's boss in the refinery sold him the lot cheap, and we all helped him put the camp on it. He's a big, clumsy guy, Pete, not much of a hand with a saw or a hammer, but Frank Gill's a carpenter by trade, works with French outfit building houses on spec out by Westfield, and Joe's a good plumber, even though he is just a ticket agent with VIA. I did the wiring; even though the camp is away off the hydro line, it wouldn't have made any sense not to wire it, because, as I told Pete, you could always hook up your own generator, and anyway you never knew when they would open the lake up as a subdivision and bring the power in.
We could always count on one of us getting a Moose licence in the draw, and if we didn't, we always knew somebody who did that we could ask to come along with us. But this one year none of us got one and we were stuck for someone else to ask; it seemed that all the licenses went to Moncton that year. Then, nearly at the last minute I was talking to Bert Patterson in the Co-Op, and he happened to mention that he had got a licence, and didn't have anyone to go with. "I usually go up to Lil's Uncle Cecil's place, back of Sussex," he told me, in that funny high-pitched voice of his that some folk can't stand, "but the roof fell in last winter, and he never got round to fixing it. I was just going to drive up every day next week, but it's not so much fun on your own." I knew Bert, kind of, from playing hockey in the same league away back, and I'd wired up a house for his old man a couple of summers before. I didn't know him well, you understand, though Sarah knew his wife Lil, and didn't think very much of her. But I phoned up the others to see if it was all right to ask Bert to come with us, and they said sure, if I thought he was O.K. And that was that, more or less. We just included him every year after that.
And it was fine, eh, at first. Plenty of room in Pete's cabin for the five of us—really we built it as a complete house, with a big front room looking onto the lake; Joe had even rigged up piped-in water from a spring up the hill, and put in a flush toilet when he was at it—Bert was real tickled with that, said it was better than Lil's Uncle Cecil's place, where you just had to go in the woods—and I rigged up a generator, one of these Japanese jobs, to give us power. Those first couple of years Bert fitted in fine, nothing crazy about him. Matter of fact, he was real good company. Played not a bad hand of poker. Kept us in stitches with funny stories about his wife Lil and her Holy Roller relatives. We'd often be sore laughing about the tricks her uncle Cecil would get up to, sneakin' out to the barn after the Wednesday night services in their kitchen for a couple of belts where her aunt couldn't see him. Seems once he got his quart bottle mixed up in the dark with a specimen he'd taken from his young gelding for the vet to examine, and swore off the drink for good. We used to laugh as much at Bert's funny voice, imitating Lil's relatives, as at what he was telling us. "It was a warning from the Lord, Bert, that's what it was; the Lord works in mysterious ways his wonders to perform, even with horse piss."
Bert said his wife's whole family practically worshipped the gelding after that; he said if the accident had happened a couple of years earlier it would still be a stallion.
The first year we noticed anything different—it would be the third or fourth, eh?—was after Lil caught the religion real bad herself. Led Bert a miserable life, and didn't even want him to come with us that year at all. She did warn him off the drink though, said she wouldn't have him in the house with the devil's breath on him, and I guess when he was home he did what she said. He looked real down the couple of times I saw him at the Co-Op that summer, but none of us had any idea it would take him that bad—I suppose you never know.
I never saw such a change in a man, that hunting season. We were up there for a week, and he never drew a sober breath from one Friday to the next. He'd brought five forty-ouncers of Captain Morgan with him in a sports bag, and he drank more than half of one every night, when we were through for the day. Mostly, see, we stuck to beer, or the odd rye, but we'd never seen his like for drinking. He wouldn't play cards; after the first couple of nights he was in no fit state to play anything, anyway; and when he near blew a hole in the gate of the half-ton—that would be the Wednesday—we took his gun away from him. From then on all's he did was lie on his bunk, just a pitiful sight altogether. He was bitchy at first, then moody, then he just lay there moaning one minute and laughing the next, then crying and promising Lil he'd never do it again. It made us grouchy too, the rest of us, with him and with each other; especially me, since I kind of felt responsible for him; especially Frank, too—it was his father's half-ton.
His rum was all gone by the Friday, and he slept from about breakfast time right through to Saturday noon. You should have heard him when he woke up, swore he didn't remember a thing about the whole week, thought he had been sick all the time; well, what could we do, we just had to go along with him. He said he felt fine now—you'd have thought he would have had the worst hangover, but he didn't have as much as a sore head. In fact, he was all for staying another day to make up for lost time, but we talked him out of that pretty quick.
He was on the wagon all the next year, or so everybody said, and when it came to Moose time again, we thought he would be all right, eh? Such a decent big fella, he was, when he was sober, we all liked him; to tell the truth we were sorry for him, seeing the dog's life that Lil led him. About the only pleasure she left him with was the hunting, and she wasn't too keen on that. She told the wife that she only let him go with us because she knew we were decent, and not up to any foolishness. And you know, it was the same as the year before—worse, if anything, because he brought more rum this time, and drank it faster. It was the remorse that was the worst, after the rum was finished, lying in his bunk sobbing and moaning like Jimmy whatsisname on the T.V. after they caught him with that woman. "Oh, I've sinned, I've sinned," and "I'm not good enough for you, Lil," he was just whining, over and over again. It was enough to make you sick, it really was, and it made us determined to have no more to do with him.
The following year the four of us made up our minds to leave him out—I got a licence myself that year in the draw. They left it to me to tell him, but I kept putting it off, hoping maybe he wouldn't want to come anyway; but wouldn't you know—the day we were in the Co-Op stocking up for the camp, didn't he come right up and put down his usual share of the groceries money. I mean, what could I do—I couldn't just tell Bert we'd had enough of him, you just can't, eh, not on a stone-cold sober Thursday afternoon. As I say, he's not the kind of fella you want to be mean to, and there was that trouble with his wife and her religion. Anyway, the end of it was that he came along with us that year too. I think if Frank Gill had had his rifle with him that day I'd be speaking with a kind of high-pitched voice myself now, if you know what I mean.
It started raining just as we arrived at the camp, and it never let up all week. There were high winds, too; cold and miserable it was, more like early December than September; one day we even had sleet. We never got out of the cabin, hardly, just played cards, drank a lot of beer—Joe said it was the only Moose we were going to see that year. Well, you may as well laugh, eh? At first Bert was fine too, didn't drink at all, and was back to tellin' funny stories about Lil's relatives. He gave us quite a demonstration of their services—a lot of shouting and eye-rolling and falling about on the floor. I remember even Pete saying it was just like the old days.
Then about Wednesday he started into the rum—I don’t know how many he had with him, but his bag looked awful heavy when he brought it out. More than enough, anyway. By the time we turned in that night, he was pretty near miraculous—he had quite a time getting into bed, but he fell asleep right away. We thought that was a good sign. The next day it was the same—never quit drinking all day, just kept tossing it back, one glass of neat rum after the other. He wouldn't listen at all when we tried to warn him he'd had enough; him such a skinny big rake you wouldn't have thought he could take what he did without falling over, but by night time he was still knocking it back when all the rest of us went to bed.
The middle of the night, I woke up to this god-awful thumping and crashing. In the light from the fire embers I could just make out Bert tramping around the floor with these great big clogs on his feet; he was muttering something about having to go, and not knowing where the bloody place was. When I dragged myself out of bed and over to him, I could make out what his trouble was; he had stepped into two empty twelve-pack boxes in the dark, and was dancing around with one on each foot, without the sense to kick them off. Aside from the boxes he didn't have a stitch of clothes on.
I helped him out of them, and steered him to the toilet, in by the kitchen—like I say, it's a real posh place, Pete's camp. As I was getting him back to his bunk, the other three were sounding real owly about the row, so I told them to shut up and go back to sleep, and went back to bed myself.
It didn't take me long to doze over, but I must have had one ear kind of half-open, because a while later—it must have been an hour or so, I suppose—I woke up again. I could hear the rain just pelting down on the roof and against the windows, and at first I thought that was what had wakened me; then I heard this weird slapping and a muffly kind of moan—it was a bit scary in the dark. Joe must have heard something too, because I heard him stirring around for his flashlight, a big square one he got through his work with the railroad. As I sat up, he flicked it on and did a sweep round the room. I whispered "What is it, Joe?"
"I dunno." The beam swivelled past Bert's bunk, then quickly back. It was empty. "Where the hell—he's not there." Joe sounded some disgusted. "What in hell's he up to now? Get up and see if he's in the john, will you?"
My feet were half off the bunk when I caught sight of this shadow against the big window. I drew my legs up again, and whispered, "Joe, what's that—over by the window. Shine the light—no, the picture window. For the sake of—"
In the beam, and through the reflection, there was a sight I'll never forget. Stretched out against the window was this bedraggled-looking thing, shivering, naked, arms and legs pressed against the glass—all the rest of him against it too, as near as he could manage. He was like some kind of a crucifix in a display case. Most of him was shrivelled up, you know, from the cold, for the rain was beating down harder than ever, and he must have been frozen, his hair plastered down to his skin like that. We could see his lips moving, but could hardly hear him pleading to be let in.
"Leave the stupid son of a bitch out there all night," Pete said from his bunk, "it'll serve him right." He never did like being disturbed in his sleep, and this was the second time in the one night. "He must have got lost looking for the john again," I said, "and locked himself out. What a state he's in." Joe saw the funny side of it. "God, if anyone ran into him, wandering around like that out there, they’d think he was some kind of monster, the old man of the woods or something." Frank Gill mumbled something, then laughed out loud. "The Summerhill Sasquatch, more like." Joe was tickled with that, and he was still laughing all the time we were towelling Bert down—we couldn’t really leave him out all night like that. Until we got him stuffed into his sleeping bag he kept muttering about going in the trees, and not telling Lil. Then he gave a crazy laugh, and gradually his teeth stopped chattering; there was one big shiver, and we heard no more from him all night. The rest of us settled back to sleep, but I heard Joe laughing quietly to himself. "Summerhill Sasquatch, that's rich."
We had some laugh about it on the Friday with Bert taking some rough razzing. Joe had no mercy on him at all, giving him a real hard time about the twelve-pack clogs, and how puny certain parts of him had looked against the glass. Said he had never known before the rain could shrink them like that. Bert, though—he didn't remember a thing about it, and said we were just making it up—didn't take kindly to us calling him Sasquatch at all, and just got drunker than ever that night. As a matter of fact, we were all so fed up with the weather that we all had a bit too much, otherwise we would never have gone along with this crazy scheme of Frank Gill's.
He got a piece of leader—off a fishing line on an old rod that Pete kept in the camp—and tied it round Bert's big toe, once he was sound asleep; real funny-shaped big toes he had, kind of like claws, splayed out and crooked. As he was tying it, Frank was laughing, and saying that if Bert had left any footprints out in the mud, it would look right enough as if a monster had been on the prowl round the camp. Anyway it made it easy for Frank to get a good grip with a loop of line—and he was none too gentle with it either. Then he slipped the reel back on the rod, and stood it up by his own bed. Now Bert was out cold, so he didn't move much, just snored like a pig lying on his back. But every time he stirred the ratchet on the reel would click out a few notches; the rest of us just doubled over at that. Every click would send us into fits—you know how it is when you're hysterical drunk—and trying to keep quiet only made it worse. "Just let the dumb bastard try to go on the tear tonight," Frank wheezed out between spasms, "I'll reel him in like a trout. I've never yet let one away that big." Pete was in pain. "When's the Sass, the Sass, the Sasquatch season?" By the time he got this sneezed out he was on his knees, holding his ribs, with the tears rolling down his cheeks. "He'd look good stuffed," and he was gasping for air at this, "over the bar in the rec room." And that set us all off again.
Even when we crawled into our bunks, just bushed, we nearly wet ourselves every time Bert moved and the reel gave a rickety click; but pretty soon we were all sound asleep. He likely wouldn't have wakened us if he had set the camp on fire. As it happened, he didn't move till morning—not that we knew of anyway. But you should have seen him hopping around the floor with his pants down round his ankles trying to get the line off his toe. Even hung over, we got a big charge out of that—funny enough he had a wicked hangover too. His language must have scared away all the moose clear into Albert County, for we never saw a trace of one, even though it cleared enough for us to be out after them all day.
That was Bert's last year of hunting with us, the poor devil. Got born again at a tent meeting up in Maugerville the next summer, and swore off the drink and card-playing for good. Then they moved away, Lil and him, to Oakville, that was a couple of years back, when there was a slack time and the mill was laying off. Never heard from them since. I see her Uncle Cecil every once in a while in the Co-Op, but he says he never hears much from them either. Cecil's back on the bottle again, I hear, but he tells me they say Bert still won't touch a drop. I wonder what the hunting's like, though, in that part of Ontario.
Excerpted from The Many Deaths of George Robertson © 1990 George Little
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