My great-great-grandfather came to visit us at the lake. This was unexpected because he died 110 years earlier.
He spoke in a Mennonite brogue that featured sure-footed enunciation with short demanding sentences and syntax reminiscent of a buggy ride over frozen stubble. Clear eyes stared you down into the frost-blackened remains of a failed Turkey Red wheat crop.
“That’s some beard you have there,” I said after we got settled down by the water’s edge.
“Call me Opa,” he said, sensing my hesitancy. “Why don’t you have a beard?”
“Too itchy,” I replied.
He stared at the lake, frowning. “Why are you living here? What’s wrong with town?”
“We like it here, Opa. How is it where you are?” I asked, curious but scared I’d say the wrong thing.
“It gets beastly hot and smells like sewer gas, but the women sure are sporty,” he said. Then he took a long sip of his drink, eyes merry over the rim of the glass while he regarded me.
Janice, standing behind my chair, misted me with lemonade as she burst out laughing — a spit take for a dead man.
“That John Candy guy told me to say that, if you asked,” he said. “He is jost terrible funny!”
In life, Opa was a church Deacon, a farmer, a part-time inventor, and a beer maker of some renown. He was also known for his service as a church delegate, one of twelve chosen to come to Canada in 1873 to choose the land the Molotschnan Mennonites would settle. Bearded and bonneted, my ancestors left in a staggered diaspora when the friendly steppes of Catherine The Great became unwelcoming. Following his journey, the migration continued until 1924, more or less.
Strangely, death agreed with him. He looked exactly like he did in the crinkled black and white pictures from the shoe box in our closet. He even showed off a fine set of store-bought teeth.
I kept playing it straight. “You are with the Lord?” I said, earnest and tepid.
“Well, it’s not exactly like that, but I’m not supposed to tell. They don’t let.”
“Nah jo,” I replied, slipping into Plautdietsch — the language my antecedents developed with Dutch, Polish, Russian, Yiddish, Ukrainian and of course, German provenance. They adapted the jargon to their needs as they fled tongue screws and beheadings in the Netherlands and lived in social banishment among Jews and Gypsies outside the city walls of Danzig. They ended their European sojourns in isolated colonies in Southern Russia. This “Low German” patois was Opa’s native tongue, and I spoke it for his benefit.
“There’s no language where I am,” he said in his matter of fact way. “No religion either.”
As I considered this and wondered who the mysterious they were, he hawked his throat extra loud and regrouped. “Derwin says goondach. He says you guys were buddies.” It came out sounding like ‘bodies’ because of his accent; the vowels flattened like fresh horse shit under a cart wheel.
I thought back to my friend Derwin. I remember him sitting in the pub with us after basketball one evening. He had come out to join us—his first and last time—and sat in his new, tight-middled tracksuit drinking rye and Coke. Derwin had been a historian before his untimely passing and he told me stories about our shared relative, this ‘Delegate Zehen’ who sat in a lawn chair in front of me now. Larger than life or death, my reedy, stiff-necked Opa (seea denn oba nijch schwack—“very thin but not frail,”) was a revered part of our family history.
Opa hummed and smacked his lips, looking again at the far shore. He seemed restless. “Got any smokes? Dere’s no smoking up dere,” he said, jabbing a crooked thumb skyward. “I miss tobacco, a bit.”
Janice began walking towards the cabin, “I’ll get you one,” she said over her shoulder.
We were quiet until she got back. Opa stared at me the whole time. I could hear him talking to himself, but his lips weren’t moving. His hoarse voice rumbled in my head, rolling along in bull-low, “This woman smokes, but not him? Äwaroasch!” I heard him say.
For some reason, I was not disturbed by the telepathy, but I struggled to translate it. My Plautdietsch was like a favourite hat plucked from my head by the Salish Sea wind, floating away in the breeze beyond the fantail of the Tsawwassen Ferry, my B.C. cousins laughing.
“That’s it!” I said aloud, remembering that äwaroasch meant “backwards”, or maybe “over-ass”, more precisely.
Opa leaned back and scanned the water. A thin chop roughed the surface here and there. He seemed to relax a little. “I missed you. Did you know that?” he said, those small serious eyes drilling at me.
“But Opa, we never met. I mean, you died before I was born.”
“Yeah, I know. That made it worse!” he said, rocking forward in his chair.
He did seem lonely. But it was hard to judge. I felt headachy and my chest hurt.
“It’s not really lonely,” Opa’s voice continued in my head. “More like a strange longing. Desire for the familiar; a fierce craving for people and things you loved well.”
I stared unseeing at Opa, a vision in my mind of a middle-school friend, waiting on a pile of discarded tires beside the shed where we took turns feeling Tina’s breasts, her blouse unbuttoned, lips moist. Oh my, I thought, where did that come from? Janice would understand, I was sure, but would Opa? The old memory, long-buried, conjured itself in flickering, smeared images — like when the strip of Super 8 film on the school projector broke.
My hand, I discovered, now inexplicably held my favourite hammer; the one with the wood handle and the shapely, cleft bell made of delicately patinaed steel. It was as if I could feel each of the thousands of tiny dents on the face. Each one a minute proof of nails struck firmly, one at a time, a lifetime’s worth. I could feel each strike; how they coaxed out a fleeting pepper flake of satisfaction as the nail plunged in, not splitting the woodgrain, nor bending a precious store-bought noagle with an inaccurate blow.
I suddenly grasped what I was being told about longing and it was the longing I began to fear.
“Nah jo,” Opa said as he sat up to accept a light from Janice and inhaled with sudden urgency, the tip of the cigarette crackling. He nodded a grave thank-you to her before turning back to me. “Do you have skates?”
Puzzled, maybe even a little bit äwaroasch, I glanced at the dragonflies darting above us. When I looked back, Janice was gone and Opa was surrounded by a team of hockey players. They had emerged from the cattails. Derwin, my dad, John Candy and my father-in-law were there with my uncles, Ken and Ernie.
“We got a game today at two,” Opa said, pulling on a ragged hockey glove. The palm leather—already thin as doeskin—was cut out with painstaking care, so he could grip the stick with his bare hand.
The air was taking on a coolness. It smelled like our old rink; wet leather and exhaust fumes from the Massey tractor that flooded the ice. Dreamlike, there was the hollow boom of a puck hitting the boards. “A cannonading drive!” I thought I heard an announcer shout in the background.
“That John Candy guy, he’s our goalie, so… here, ” Opa said, eyebrows raised. He handed me a nicked-up old wood stick, stamped “CCM Collegiate”, and a roll of hockey tape.
“Okay,” I said. “I guess I can play out, if you need another guy… ” And then I let a question linger in my mind, like the tobacco smoke drifting up above Opa. I set the thought there for him to consider. “But what about Janice? Where are all the women?”
“Well, we’re gonna talk about it, but I think maybe we brethren kind of made a mess outta that. It’s complicated.”
And with that, we joined the others and headed out onto the fresh ice under a swaying string of light bulbs, bright in the winter night.
Away Game is written by Mitchell Toews. Mitchell lives and writes lakeside in Manitoba. Visit Mitchellaneous.com to learn more about this awesome writer.