The Letter by Tyler Bigney
During the early fall of 1993, I had just turned nine, and was selling chocolate bars for a school fundraiser, which carried me on foot up and down the hazy, pine tree lined streets of Sunridge, Nova Scotia. It was especially hot for early fall. I had been walking for the better part of two hours, and was tired and hungry. I stopped at a run down, off white trailer with retro, half rotted brown shutters, and promised myself that this would be my last stop of the day.
I walked up the rickety steps to the screen door, briefly considered turning around, but raised my fist and knocked three times.
Seconds later the door swung open, and there staring down at me, emerged an older man, with a tough, sad face, offset by the bluest eyes I’d ever seen. He looked like a lumberjack – graying hair, untrimmed beard, and a long sleeved, red and black plaid shirt. He stepped outside, providing shade from the hot sun. I stood staring up at him, taking notice of the pale belly peeking out from under his shirt.
“What can I do for ya,” he said, breaking the silence between us.
I couldn’t speak. I stood listening as sounds of the television poured out the window – two Middle Eastern men shaking hands after signing a peace accord.
“You selling them chocolate bars for school?”
I nodded, lifting the box of chocolate bars and holding them out in front of me.
“Tell you what,” he said, drawing a deep breath. “You come by tomorrow, and I’ll buy all them bars from you. My check comes in tomorrow.”
“I’ll stop in tomorrow after school,” I blurted out.
He turned around, squinted up at the sun and then back to me.
“You hot? You want something to drink?”
I knew better than to go into stranger’s homes, but he didn’t look like much of a stranger to me. I was thirsty, so I went in.
I waited by the door, nervously shoving my hands in and out of my pockets, while he poured me a glass of orange juice.
“Here you go,” he said, handing me the juice.
I drank it all in one drink and handed the glass back to him. “Thank you,” I said, wiping my mouth with my jacket sleeve.
“You come by here tomorrow, and I’ll buy those bars from you.”
“I’ll be back tomorrow,” I said.
I was about to turn and leave when he spoke.
“Wait a second there, squirt. You didn’t tell me your name.”
“Tyler,” I said, turning back around. “What’s yours.”
“George,” he smiled, “but you call me Big George. That’s what everybody calls me.”
The next day I arrived back at Big George’s trailer with the box of chocolate bars. As I crept slowly up his driveway, I could see him watching me from the window. He came out and greeted me on the doorstep.
“Well, well,” he said, “you’re back.”
“I promised,” I said.
“I like a boy who keeps his promises,” he smiled. “Why don’t you come on in here, and I’ll get you your money.”
He sat down at the kitchen table, and pulled a chair out. “Why don’t you go get yourself a glass of juice, and come sit down with me,” he said, patting the empty chair next to him.
I poured myself a tall glass of orange juice and sat down at the table.
He reached into his shirt pocket, pulled out a pack of cigarettes, and shook one loose for himself. He lit it. “I have something I want to show you,” he said, though a cloud of smoke. He reached down in a plastic bag beside the chair and pulled out a magazine, and set it down in front of me.
“What’s this for,” I said, flipping through the magazine, full of pictures of Chinese girls.
“You buy them,” he said, unbuttoning his cuffs as if to roll up his sleeves.
“You buy the girls?” I asked.
“They’re mail order brides. One of them is going to be my wife someday,” he said, proudly. “Did I ever tell you that you remind me of a guy I knew over in Korea? He never did catch on quick either. You’re just like him.”
“How will she get here?” I asked, changing the subject.
“I’ll buy her a plane ticket.”
“And she’s going to come here and live in your trailer?”
“How do you know she’s going to want to marry you?”
“Because she doesn’t want to live in China.”
“Government stuff,” he laughed.
“What happened to your wife?”
“Where’d she go?”
“You ask too many big questions for such a little guy,” he smiled, reaching out and ruffling my hair. “I need to ask you a question.”
“Do you think girls are pretty yet?” he said, staring at me, his forehead wrinkled with concern, tapping his fingers on the table.
“Sometimes,” I nodded.
“I want you to pick out which girl you think is the prettiest. Look through the whole magazine and tell me which one.”
“Why can’t you pick her?” I said. “She’s going to be your wife.”
“My eyes aren’t as good as they used to be.”
“Oh,” I said, nodding. I looked down, and flipped through the magazine. A silence fell over the small trailer. I had it narrowed down to two girls. I picked the girl on the second page, because two was my favourite number.
“One more thing,” he said.
“I need you to write the letter.”
“You can’t write it because you can’t see, right?”
“No,” he said, glancing out the window, and back at me. “I don’t know how to write.”
I sat in front of the window, flooded with sunshine, frantically writing the letter, while he sat in the kitchen at the table, stiffly straight, hands folded in front of him, and his eyes fixed in a tough squint, amiable and galvanized.
When I finished I brought the letter into the kitchen and dropped it on the table.
“I wrote everything you told me to,” I said, feeling very proud of myself.
“You told her I was a writer?”
“Yes,” I nodded. “But what happens when she comes and finds out you’re not a writer?”
“I told you what to write in that letter, didn’t I?”
“Well then,” he smiled. “I guess that makes me a writer.”
I walked over to the fridge and poured myself another glass of orange juice.
“One more thing,” he said. “If I give you stamps will you ask your folks to mail the letter for me?”
“Sure,” I nodded, taking a drink of juice. “I’ll ask them.”
When I arrived home, my mother was waiting for me, arms folded across her chest, lips bunched up tightly, and appraising me with a humourless stare.
“Tyler Bigney,” she said, agitated. “Just where have you been?”
“I went for a walk down to the river,” I said, turning my head slightly, and pointing out the window.
“Were you over at that trailer?”
“No,” I lied.
“I told you I don’t want you over there.”
“I wasn’t over there,” I lied again.
I brushed past my mother, and ran upstairs to my bedroom. I closed the door behind me. I listened for her footsteps, and lifted my mattress, shoving the letter under as far as I could.
When I visited Big George the next day, the first thing he asked me was if I had given the letter to my parent’s.
“Yes,” I nodded, feeling a hard lump form in my throat. “I gave it to them. They said they would mail it this morning.”
“Come here,” he said, pulling me into the pit of his cigarette smelling shirt, and hugging me. “You’re a good little man, you are.”
“Thank you,” I said, pulling away from him. “I just came here to tell you about the letter. I have to go home now. My parents are taking me to get my haircut.”
“Go on home, squirt,” he smiled. “You make sure you thank your parents for me.”
Over the next few years, Big George and I spent every afternoon together. He taught me how to fish, showed me coins from different countries, talked about growing up poor, and coached me on how to throw a correct punch. Other times we just sat there and I watched him smoke cigarettes. He always wondered where the letter went, and blamed the post-office for losing it, not once fingering me with the blame, or questioning my honesty. I never did tell him the difference. The letter was still at home, under my mattress, keeping me awake at night, knowing that I was sleeping on a terrible secret.
As time passed, Big George began to rely on the use of a kitchen chair to help him stand up and get around. He began confusing me with the other squirt – the one he knew from Korea. Often, he would forget my name altogether, until I reminded him, only for him to forget and have to be reminded again a few minutes later.
The last time I went to visit him, he didn’t answer his door. He sat at his kitchen table, unable to find the strength to pull himself up. I climbed in through an open window.
“Why’s the door locked?” I asked. “You never lock it.”
“Don’t know what’s wrong today,” he said. He sat with his head hung forward, his arms down at his sides, and fell silent.
“Is something wrong?” I asked.
“Do you remember when we sent that letter?” he said, lifting his head slightly. “I always think about it. I always wonder if she ever got it.”
“I wish I knew,” I whispered. I had the truth on the tip of my tongue, but it went unspoken.
“You know I was there once?”
“Well, no,” he said. “I was in Korea. I was in the war. Did you learn about the war in school?”
“Briefly,” I answered.
“Well, it’s not called the Forgotten War for nothing. It wasn’t an easy place to be, was it Squirt?”
“I wasn’t there.”
He laughed. “You weren’t there,” he smiled. “I like to pretend I wasn’t there either.” He fell silent again, staring out the window as a slight wind blew some maple leaves across the yard.
“Do you think I’m a bad man?” he asked, trying to control his voice.
“If you asked anyone over in Korea that question, they’d give you a different answer.” He curved his lips into something resembling a smile, and lit a cigarette.
We didn’t say anything for awhile. I watched him chain smoke cigarettes, lighting one off the other. When he finished his fifth cigarette, in the same amount of minutes, I told him that it was time for me to get going.
“Go on,” he said, waving his right hand.
As I lifted my foot to step toward the door, he slammed his hands down on the table, shoving it against the wall, and knocking pictures down. I could see tears in his eyes.
He raised his fist and attempted to say something, but it took him a minute to get the words out between his staggering breaths. “Get the fuck going and don’t you come back,” he said, pointing his shaking finger at the door.
I ran halfway up the driveway before I turned back, and tip toed across the lawn to the trailer. I stood atop the crumbling flowerbed and peeked my head up to the window. His fury seemed to have disappeared, sucked up into the spring air and its scent of lilacs and sunflowers. At that moment, Big George looked shrunken, so light and frail that he might blow away and he brought a trembling hand up to his shock of tangled gray hair.
“Goddamnit,” he said, in a faint unsteady voice, drenched in misery.
Watching him, I felt an abrupt, shivering sadness worm its way through me. A gust of wind blew up from the north, and I shook at its touch, and climbed down off the flowerbed and crept across his yard to the road. I took off in a panic, forcing my legs to move in ways they never have before, until reaching my front step. I sat down and breathed in deep, inhaling the scent of my mother’s homemade chicken noodle soup simmering on the stove.
After that day, when I told my mother I was going for a walk down to the river, I wasn’t lying; I was going for a walk down to the river. It had been almost a month since I’d been to Big George’s. I made a point to walk by his trailer at least once a week, and when seeing me from his window, he’d lift a heavy hand, give a little wave, and plead with his eyes for me to go in. To sit down and to talk. To listen.
I moved away to university at the end of summer in 2002. I drank with friends, called my mother every couple of days, and slept with whoever was willing to sleep with me. It wasn’t until April, one night, when I was supposed to be studying for finals that I picked up the phone book and looked up Big George’s number. It rang four times before picked the answering machine picked up. It was the first time I’d heard his voice in years. I left a long, rambling message, telling him about girls, fishing, university, and anything else that happened to pop into my head and fall out of my mouth. I apologized for never seeing him, that I hoped everything was well, and that I missed him.
I waited by the phone for five days, hoping it would ring, and for his voice to be on the other end.
The next time the phone rang, it was September, and it was my mother.
The sky had been sad for two days prior to the funeral – a constant gray, and a pouring of rain. The funeral home was empty, besides me, and three others I didn’t know.
“How’d you know old George?” one of the men asked me after the service.
“He was my neighbour growing up,” I said.
“He was a good man, wasn’t he?”
“He was,” I nodded.
“A little misunderstood, is all,” he said, half grinning. “He never could get over the war. It’s a shame what war can do to a man. You know he has a daughter over there?”
“No,” I said, shaking my head. “I didn’t know that.” Unable to say anything else, I stood suffocating in my silence and wishing I was somewhere else.
Upon returning home, I ran upstairs to my room, and shoved the mattress off my bed. I picked up the fading browned envelope, and shoved it in my pocket. I took off out of the house, and followed the beaten path past the gold birch trees to the woods. I pulled the envelope out of my pocket and held it outward, staring at it, before dropping it onto the dampened ground. Everything was quiet. A crow circled the pale sky. The smell of pine and spruce drifted around me. I picked the envelope up and opened it, and read it out loud. When I finished reading, I set it down on the ground. I struck a match and held it up to the letter. It burned slow, almost going out, before catching, and expanding, as the flames fully engulfed what was once hope. I watched the smoke rise above the trees, and get caught in a western wind, carrying the smoke over Big George’s trailer, before disappearing into the sky forever. At that moment I couldn’t help but notice, that the sad sky had passed, and what once was rain, was now the most glorious shade of blue I had ever seen.
Tyler Bigney was born in 1984. He lives, and writes in Nova Scotia, Canada. His short stories, travelogues and poetry have appeared in Poetry New Zealand,Underground Voices, Iodine, and Nerve Cowboy, among others.