I was sitting with the storekeeper on a bench in his backyard, drinking beer. I had finished mowing his field, the horses were standing in the shade switching their tails at flies, and it was time for a rest and a chat.
"Do you know a guy I often see along the road fishing? Big guy, tall, barrel chest. Somebody said he was called Two-gun."
"Oh, yes. Two-gun."
"Why's he called that?"
"Big mouth, always spouting off. Steer clear of him - he's owly."
"Owly? What's that supposed to mean?"
"You don't know? I thought Americans knew everything."
"Cut it out. What does 'owly' mean?"
"Hang around Two-gun and you'll find out."
That was all I learned from the storekeeper - then.
I had seen him fishing at the Cove on my way to town, and also on the road to the sawmill a couple of times, and the last time I had stopped the horses and asked how the fish were biting.
His only answer, with a sweeping gesture, was, "I'm enjoyin the beauties of Mother Nature!"
I laughed and drove on.
On the way home from the storekeeper's that day, hauling the mowing machine on the wagon, I saw him at the Cove. I stopped, asked about the fishing again, but his attention was fixed on an eagle that had just landed on a tree across the Cove. Pointing to it he proclaimed, "The monarch of the skies!" An eccentric of some sort, I thought, as I started the horses; maybe that's what "owly" means.
The following Friday evening, just after dark, a car drove in. I turned on the porch light and opened the screen door. It was Two-gun, wearing a jacket and tie, all spruced up, a formidable figure, and behind him was a wizened old man wearing a windbreaker and a railroad man's cap. Two-gun took the kitchen by storm. "Hello! The House!" he bellowed. "God bless all here!" He shook my hand, shook Jo Ann's, and sat at the head of the table. "My friend, Richard Matheson," waving at the little old man at the end of the table.
When anyone enters your house in Cape Breton you immediately pour him a cup of tea and offer him a slice of bannoch if you have it, otherwise cookies will do. I went to the stove for the tea while Jo Ann got out the cookies.
"I'm Bob Morrison, down from Sydney to pursue the finny tribe and have some fun."
I knew what "fun" meant in Cape Breton spoken with relish like that: drink and plenty of it. When we first came I had innocently let it be known that I made beer and wine, and we had been plagued by alcoholics, so now I never offered anyone a drink. But they seemed content with tea and cookies; in fact, Bob cleaned the plate and asked for more.
The conversation was largely about people on the peninsula, mostly scandalous rumors, the usual countryside talk. Bob dominated the conversation, but Richard maintained a persistent running argument about someone who'd promised to get a bottle but hadn't, while Bob insisted that he hadn't promised a bottle, but said he'd try to get one. We did learn that Bob worked at the steel mill in Sydney, had a wife and two children, but spent most weekends on the peninsula, fishing and hunting, but from the way they spoke of their endeavors, mostly stories about missed opportunities and disasters, I gathered that these things were really only excuses for jolly weekends of general carrying on. This was an old story on the peninsula: bums from Sydney came to the area because it was wilder, sparsely populated with the Canadian equivalent of hillbillies and you almost never saw a Mountie there. I had encountered men like that over the years - they were always curious about our beautiful farm in the depths of the empty Backlands - and I kept out of their way, but Bob seemed a happy-go-lucky version and they didn't stay long, perhaps an hour, and we enjoyed the visit. We had friends here and there, but they were mostly farmers and woodsmen, not people who would come by for an evening visit.
Thus began the first year of our friendship with Bob Morrison, a year of Friday evening visits of an hour or so, maybe twice a month, and every visit was more or less like that first one, with two exceptions. Once they brought along a woman Margaret MacNeil, in whose house Richard had a room. She was remarkable for her aloof reticence - she hardly said ten words - and her appearance. She looked amazingly like an aged Dragon Lady from the old "Terry and the Pirates" comic strip with her dyed black hair, her long cigarette holder, her heavily powdered face and vivid lipstick.
(Parenthetically, I had a funny conversation with a friend when we were dismantling a barn some years later. Margaret MacNeil had just died and my friend noted it. I said the only time I had seen her she looked like a black widow spider, to which he replied that she was "a handsome woman in her day," and I answered, "We were all good looking in our day." After a long moment he said, smugly I thought, "Some of us were, and some of us weren't.")
The other exception was the night he came alone with a schoolbook he had found in a derelict shack, an anthology of the poetry taught in schools a century ago. Bob wanted me to read some aloud because, he said, "You got the education to bring out the poetry." I turned the pages, looking for the sort of poem I thought he'd like, lots of resonance and spirit: "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," Tennyson's "Blow, Bugle, Blow," a couple of ballads, "Invictus," Blake's "Tiger," "O Captain, My Captain." I put all my expression into it, and he seemed to love it.
Our half-mile lane was blocked by snow, so we didn't see him in the winter. The next summer he turned up, along with Richard, on a Friday in April, and we didn't see him again until the beginning of June, on a Saturday afternoon, and ever afterward we saw him only on Saturday afternoons. I hadn't thought about it, but on Fridays he was fresh from Sydney, all dressed up, and dissipation had not yet taken its toll. Now all the Friday clothes were gone, replaced by shabby country clothes, and Bob himself, unshaven with bloodshot eyes, was a different man. He'd drive in, alone or with Richard or someone else, and stay for lunch, and it was obvious from his raucousness that he'd been drinking, though I wouldn't say he was drunk. It was obviously a demotion, a diminution in respect, when we descended from Fridays to Saturdays.
Bob drove in one day with a new pal I had never seen before, horribly obsequious, who kept calling me "Sir." I was working in the shop filing a six-foot crosscut saw while Bob prowled around the shop and the other guy asked questions about how the forge worked. Finally Bob asked for a bottle of my wine. I told him we served it only at meals. He muttered something and kicked about the forge. I went on filing. Bob said in a surly tone, "You think you're hot stuff, don't you?" Holding the file poised over the saw, I looked straight at him and said quietly, "Is this how you got the reputation of being owly?" By then, I had figured out its meaning. He couldn't look at me. "Ah, to hell with you," he weakly grumbled as he slouched out. Mr. Obsequious was distressed. "Oh, sir, don't mind Bobby, sir. That's the drink talking. You know Bobby's got a heart of gold, sir."
I thought that was the end, but a week later I was asleep on the couch in the living room with a mild case of flu, when the blanket was pulled away from my head and I woke to behold Bob, his dirty pants held up by baling twine, no shirt, looking as if he'd just crawled out of a coal mine. "John, gimmie some wine."
"Oh Bob, I'm sick, go 'way."
Jo Ann was 80 yards away at the barn, but she recognized Bob's car and headed for the house. We were still arguing when she walked in and ordered Bob out. She was standing by the door, and as he went out he deliberately brushed hard against her.
We didn't see him again for three years. We were running a hostel then, and sometimes hitchhikers would get a ride in. It was after supper, guests were sitting out on the porch, and I was washing the dishes. A vehicle drove in with a hosteller, and Jo Ann went to sign her in. The driver opened the screen door. It was Bob, utterly changed. The barrel chest had dropped to his waist, and he looked old and haggard. "Hi, Bob. What's new?"
"I retired, John." There was a pause, and then he said, very lugubriously, "I'm dyin', John."
"What?" What is it?"
"I'm dyin' o' loneliness," again very plaintively.
I laughed so hard I dropped a plate. "See what you done?" he said happily. By the time I had picked up the plate, he was gone, pleased with his small success, no doubt, but wary of pushing his luck. That was our last encounter. Over the next few years I heard about him occasionally. Tolerated when he was in his prime, now he found it very difficult to find a berth. Finally he tried to move in on some of the crabby old pensioners, squatting in shacks along the back roads, living from one glorious drunk each month to the next, but he got short shrift there. Last I heard he was living in his car, parking in the overgrown lanes to heat coffee over a campfire.
Once again I had mown the storekeeper's field, and once again I was sitting on a bench drinking beer with the storekeeper as the horses stood in the shade, switching their tails at flies.
"I wonder what happened to Two-gun last winter. Last I heard he was living in his car. He couldn't've been doing that in the winter."
"He stayed here."
"Oh, not in my house. There's a little building not much more than a shack, out behind the barn. We used it when we were rebuilding after the fire."
"You told me to stay away from him, told me he was owly."
"Well, I didn't have him here in the house. His wife kicked him out, you know. And no one would put up with him. . . . you've got two cabins empty all winter, you could've put him up."
The storekeeper smiled. "You entertained him in your house, you told me how he liked poetry, how funny he was."
"That's before I knew how owly he was."
"Oh yes he was owly all right - but he was a human being."
"You amaze me."
"The feeling is mutual."
A year or so later I got an envelope in the mail from the storekeeper. Inside was a clipping from the obituary column of the Sydney paper with notice of Robert Morrison's death. He was survived by his wife and two children. Also in the envelope was one of the storekeeper's billheads, and on it he had written "Now let God judge him."
I folded the billhead and stuck it in my wallet. And there it remains, its worn creases showing where it has been unfolded and folded again and again. *