Chapter One

A creek flowed parallel to the road. It wasn't much of a creek, but it flowed, sometimes. The road wasn't much of a road, either, but the dusty and battered old International pickups took it to town, sometimes. The Internationals weren't very good trucks, but they made it to town, sometimes.

Olaf Sorenson was driving his International pickup to town, rattling over the washboard road parallel to the inadequate creek through a sticky July afternoon. The sky was a destitute blue canopy. It hadn't rained in weeks, and Olaf thirsted for rain. He was a farmer. Not much of a farmer, but he harvested a hundred acres of wheat, sometimes.

The town Olaf was driving to was Despond Meadows. It wasn't much of a town, just a grain elevator and a general store and a gas station and a hardware store and a tatterdemalion old hotel; but it had a grain elevator and a general store and a gas station and a hardware store and a tatterdemalion old hotel. Olaf needed lard and coal oil and the unhappy embraces of Lotta Kotznitzchuk, the tatterdemalion slattern who ran the tatterdemalion old hotel. She and Olaf were lovers. Not very good lovers, but they made love, sometimes.

Olaf had a hemorrhoid and an ulcer and an ingrown toenail and an abiding resentment of his father, who had alternately ignored and beaten him when he was a boy. As the world goes, though, he was in top shape. He didn't know, yet, about the rectal cancer that would ultimately lead to his lingering death.

Olaf's father had died a lingering death to rectal cancer. His mother had been run over by a threshing machine driven by his father, who was drunk at the time, as he so often was. Olaf had only the vaguest memories of his mother, who had died when he was only 23. He hardly remembered his father, either, who had died when he was only 24. Olaf was now 27, and it was all so long ago, especially when, like Olaf, you had a weak memory.

Olaf was taxing that memory now, as he drove to town. I need some lard, he told himself. I need some coal oil. He knew there was something else, but he couldn't bring it to mind, somehow. Lard, he thought, coal oil. What else? It was something related, he thought. Some kind of combination of the two. Something fatty and hot, but what? Then a particularly violent stretch of washboard jostled it into his memory.

"Of course," he said to himself. "I need the unhappy embraces of Lotta Kotznitzchuk."

He thought of Lotta, now, as he navigated the long, lone curve in the roadway and saw the silhouette of the Despond Meadows grain elevator heave up against the horizon, pasted like a black tumour against the anguished blue of the stark Prairie sky. But that was a stupid simile, Olaf thought. Prairie skies don't have tumours. Rectums have tumours. So Olaf forgot about the simile and concentrated on the problem at hand, which was to remember what he had just remembered.

Then Olaf forgot about what he was trying to remember and starting thinking about his wife, Ethel. They were desperately unhappy and they never made love, anymore. Not since their son had been born; little Egbert, who was a manic depressive, autistic, dyslexic, epileptic, spastic dwarf with two left hands, twisted legs and no feet. Egbert had put them off of sex, somehow. They had grown apart, and loneliness had driven Olaf into the flabby and unhappy but welcoming arms of Lotta Kotznitzchuk.

Ethel had never been happy here on the Prairie. She longed for the heaving, mountainous vistas and surging surf of the British Columbia coast, the virulent verdure of its vast, moist, primeval forests. She had become desiccated, here in the arid Prairie. She had withered like an unwatered flower. Olaf had watched in wordless helplessness as the petals of her young face closed in a droughted cluster of despair. But that, Olaf thought, was a stupid simile. People's faces don't close up like flower petals. If they did, their chins and their cheeks and their foreheads would all kind of bunch up around their noses, and that just never happened. So he forgot about that simile and kept driving.

As he drove, he thought about Lotta Kotznitzchuk, how she heaved and sweated and bleated when they made love on the frowzy bed in her room above the kitchen; how she sobbed and slobbered and drooled on his face, sometimes. Olaf could never quite figure out how, for all that he was drawn to her like a floating leaf to a sewer drain, she repulsed him, sometimes. She did repulse him; but, in some dry and loveless way, he loved her.

Olaf pulled into Mike's Gas and Auto Repairs. He had an empty gas tank and a soul engorged with erotic expectation. Mike shambled out of the decrepit, slatboard shack that served as his storefront. He was dressed in torn and greasy grey coveralls, with the name "Bob" inscribed in a small patch over the left side of his chest. But his name was Mike, not Bob. Olaf always tried to remember that, though he forgot, sometimes.

"Nice day if it would rain, eh, Bob?" Olaf said.

"My name's Mike, for Christ's sake, Olaf," Mike said.

"Sorry, Bob. Mike, I mean," Olaf said.

Mike hawked up some phlegm and turned his head to expectorate. Then he scratched his anus and hoisted his leg to exsphincterate.Then he picked some mush out of his nose and put it in his mouth. Olaf watched him and tried to figure out why it was that Mike repulsed him so. Was it because he had freckles and red hair?

"So you're back in town for the unhappy embraces of Lotta Kotznitzchuk," Mike said.

"I don't know what you mean," Olaf said. "I came in for some lard and some coal oil."

A sudden chill ran up his rectum. He thought it was fear. He did not know it was the onset of the rectal cancer that would lead him to a lingering death.

Mike unzipped his coveralls and reached down inside to scratch himself, saying "Oh, yeah, oh yeah," as he did so. Olaf watched him and finally realized why Mike disgusted him. Mike was too smart for his own britches, or something like that.

"You know," Mike said, "you really oughta save up some of that sperm count for your own darn wife, not go squandering it all with ol' Lotta, there."

"Who says I'm doing anything with Lotta Kotznitzchuk?" Olaf asked.

"Hell's bells," Mike said. "Everybody in town knows you're burying the old hatchet with Lotta Kotznitzchuk. She screams like s goddamn sick cat."

"That's not Lotta," Olaf said, a surge of protectiveness overcoming his better judgement. "That's her cat. It's sick. Sometimes we forget to chase it off the bed, and it gets all tangled up in the covers."

"Well, I'm just saying you should save some of it up for your wife, is all," Mike said. "God knows ol' Lotta's got an oversupply of the stuff as it is."

"What are you talking about?" Olaf said.

"What? You think you're the only guy enjoying the unhappy embraces of Lotta Kotznitzchuk? Hell, Olaf, half the guys in town are enjoying the unhappy embraces of Lotta Kotznitzchuk. There's guys drive in on the weekend all the way from Failed Landing to enjoy the unhappy embraces of Lotta Kotznitzchuk."

"I don't believe a word you're saying, Bob," Olaf said.

"My name's Mike, Olaf," Mike said.

"Well, I don't believe a word you're saying, anyway," Olaf said. "And I don't want to talk about it. Just fill `er up."

"Yeah, sure," Mike said. "You, too, Olaf."

Olaf pulled out of the gas station with a full tank of gas and an exsanguinated soul. He looked out through the windshield into the cerulean indifference of the sky, spread out blue and broad as a circus tent. But that was a stupid simile, Olaf thought. Circus tents aren't broad and blue; and they don't have a great big towering cumulus clouds piling in the middle of them, like the sky above him did. So he forgot about the simile and just looked at the clouds. There's going to be a storm, he thought. Maybe, just possibly, rain.

To be continued ...

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