Drinking Pals and Firefighting Gals
That stretch of the Kootaney River is real secluded. No cabins. No people. Just loons and coots, maybe a few sandpipers, and placid water. And then there was us: careening into serenity. Tearing around river bends in explosions of spray, like a torpedo gone haywire. Totally out of control. Only we weren’t.
You’ve probably seen the ads online, or the brochures lying around hotel lobbies: Jet Boat River Experience. Speed. Whitewater. Thrills galore. Our boat was a short, fat wedge, glossy red, with twin inboards and this huge spoiler that rose up behind our heads. The dash rigged up with stereo speakers, subwoofers, booming out crappy pop hits.
I remember the water being so bright with sunlight it left afterimages like flares under my eyelids. And the smell: that fresh-mud stink of a river.
There were six of us on Lenny’s stag: Lenny, his brother Ray, Short Steve, Sharon, Eddie, and me, Brenda. You’re probably thinking: two girls, on a stag? What’s up with that, right? And you’d be right. But Lenny, he and Sharon had a thing, which was still going. So he wanted her along, as a way of saying goodbye, making sure there were no hard feelings. And if he invited her he couldn’t not invite me. Before Lenny and Sharon, it was Lenny and me. And along with Ray and Short Steve, we were all in the same volunteer firefighting crew, working out of Nelson. That brings you together, the stuff you see. And girls go on stags all the time now, anyway.
Still. It was a complicated situation: I grant you that.
The only one not in our firefighting crew was Eddie. He’d been friends with Ray and Lenny in high school. But the truth of the matter is, he probably wouldn’t have been along except for the fact that he owned the boat — and he knew it. So, to make up for it, he was giving us the full works, saying stuff like, ‘We going to the peeler bars later? That ain’t gonna seem like shit, after this.’ And then reefing hard on the wheel, spinning that boat in a spine-snapping 360, skimming the edges of the bank so close you could touch the fuschia bells overhanging the shallows, flowers like little red warning lights. It was really something. I’ve been heli-skiing, cliff jumping, skydiving. Done coke, speed, speedballs. Lots of things.
I mean, it wasn’t on par with those, but it was pretty fierce.
So, there we were, tearing round bends, wind clawing at our hair, shrieking like cats in heat, and after each turn we’d look at each other and laugh, like – that was a good one, right? Only then, after one of those turns, somebody’s gone. Just, gone. Quick head count confirms that: one, two, three, four, five – there’s only five of us. Who’s missing? Lenny. Lenny’s gone. Sharon says, almost rhetorically, like it can’t really be possible: ‘Where the hell’s Lenny?’
That’s when we heard the screaming. From what seemed like way off, but loud, piercing. And Jesus, the kind of screams that you knew something was really wrong.
The whole way up, in Short Steve’s transit van, we were slamming Kokanee beers, singing along to old tapes on his cassette player. River Adventure Tours (that’s what Eddie’s business was called) was two and a quarter hours north-east of Nelson. We met at our firehall at ten, as planned by Lenny’s best man, Short Steve. We call him short not on account of his height (he’s 6' 3"), but because of another kind of shortness. Cruel, sure, but Short Steve rolls with it. He just grins and says, ‘It ain’t the size that matters — it’s what you do with it.
We all got to learn to live with our limitations, and Steve’s right. He and I had a go once – just a drunk fuck, when I was rebounding from Lenny – and Steve, he was no slouch in the sack.
Short Steve drove, and Ray road shotgun, playing DJ, and us other four were sprawled in the back, pounding brews. Short Steve works construction and he uses the van for carrying tools, supplies, hardware. Most of which he’d cleared out, except for the storage boxes bolted to the panelling. After his first beer, Eddie reached inside one and got out Short Steve’s cordless drill. He held it up and pulled the trigger, giving it a whir, saying, ‘All right, who needs a filling?’ Funny, right? And Short Steve looked back, causing the van to swerve, told Eddie to put the goddamn drill away – we don’t want a freaking accident.
Later I’d think back on that: like it was an omen or something.
Short Steve was drinking, too, but only one or two, squeezing the can between his thighs on the driver’s seat. Taking furtive sips. Weren’t no cops that we could see, and that early in the day it’s unlikely they’d be looking for it, but you can never be sure. Out our way, there’s a lot of drunk driving, a lot of bad crashes, a lot of crosses and flowers at the roadside. They’ve been cracking down. Or trying to.
We were only two beers deep, maybe an hour in, when Lenny and Sharon started up with the old routine: laughing loud at each other’s jokes, leaning close on each turn, him touching her forearm, her squeezing his thigh. I seen it all before, of course. Every time we went out and got drunk, really. But I thought maybe the stag would be different. I thought maybe Lenny had been serious. He’d taken me aside, after a training session – both of us panting, sweating, weighed down by our firefighting slicks, splashing water on our faces from the hose. He’d said, ‘I’m turning over a new leaf, Brenda. Once I’m hitched, that’s it with Sharon. We’re just friends.’ I wanted to believe him.
But he was saying those things when he was with me.
So, where was the groom, right? He was two hundred yards back upriver. We spotted him, no problem. Buoyed by up his life jacket, head just above water. And we heard him, like I said. Screaming, as if he’d been stuck with a hot poker. There were no rapids or rocks or any real hazards around. We couldn’t figure out what the hell had gone wrong. Thought he’d just fallen out, right?
Eddie, he didn’t seem too concerned. The river was flowing fast but those boats, they’re built to go upstream, downstream, wherever. They can practically fly. So, he just wheeled the thing around – fanning up a huge rooster tail of spray, the drops glittering like shattered glass in the sunlight – and powered us back towards Lenny.
Sharon, she was perched at the bow. I think she knew, better than us, that it was going to be bad. As we drew near, he was just shrieking and shrieking, crazy with pain, not aware of us approaching, not aware of anything. The boat brought a wake with it and the water splashed into his face, making him choke, cutting off his screams – but only for a second.
As the wake settled, I saw the cloud in the water. That river was clear as air: just pure, cold, mountain run-off. At first, I thought Lenny was churning up mud with his feet. But the cloud was red, and rich, and bright, and when I seen that I started saying, ‘Aw, hell – he’s bleeding really goddamn bad’ and as soon as that clicked with the others, they were hollering, too, all of us on our feet. Eddie cut the engine and Sharon shouted, in a voice I’d only heard two times before, ‘Listen the hell up! We got to get him out of the water – everybody on me!’
We worked together well, were trained first aiders as part of our volunteer work. And Sharon – she was a qualified paramedic. That was what she did. So, when she started barking orders we fell in, straight off, and got ready to haul Lenny’s ass out of the river.
We gave him a hard time over her, sure. His princess. Emily. He’d brought her out a couple times. She wanted to meet us. His drinking pals and firefighting gals. That’s what he called me and Sharon: his gals. Like we belonged to him. And I guess we did. He’d had the thing with me and then the thing with her. He’d had his pick, in a way still did.
I pretended it was fine, but it wasn’t. I hadn’t been with anybody else, not seriously, since he’d dropped me. I just didn’t have the want on me.
We took his princess out to Jackson’s Hole, down on Vernon Street. She comes in wearing this little blue dress. A sweater over her shoulders. Sequinned pumps on her feet. Not the kind of thing you wear to the Hole, but there you go. Emily was a city girl, from Vancouver, moved up for a job teaching. A lot of them do that, on account teaching jobs in the city are so damned hard to get. You need some experience – a year or two in the boonies – and then you maybe got a better chance. Some find a man and stay. Others take the man back with them. Easy to tell what kind she’d be.
‘I’m doing my two-year contract,’ she said, to me and Sharon. ‘Then Lenny and I will be moving to West Vancouver. My parents have a house there.’
They weren’t even engaged at that point. She already had it all planned out: proposal, marriage, two kids (not three – too expensive, these days, she said), holidays twice a year. And Lenny doing his same work, his IT work, fixing computers in those big firms where everybody uses computers, but nobody knows a thing about them. Lots of work like that, in Vancouver. Me and Sharon listened to that, nodding along, Sharon’s grin glued to her face like a plastic mask. Her eyes hard as chert rock. Probably thinking she’d like to grab this Emily bitch by the hair and give her a rabbit punch. I seen Sharon do that, too. She’s not afraid of a scrape. We’d had one ourselves, me and her, when it first came out about Lenny. We’d put that behind us. Or mostly had.
But with Emily, it wouldn’t have been much of a fight. And besides, the battle was already lost. Sharon saw that, straight away. We all did. A real princess, from a big-money family? Hell, Emily could have had her pick of losers, and she’d picked Lenny.
I get all that. But what I wanted to ask Lenny – most days, and especially that day in the van – was why, if he was so gaga about his princess from the city, was he still messing around with Sharon?
And, of course, what I really wanted to ask was: why either of them, and not me?
I thought maybe Lenny had landed on a rock or deadhead. Cut a gash in his leg or side or back or whatever. That wasn’t it. When we pulled him clear of the water, we saw his arm hanging limp at the elbow, that whole sleeve soaked red: he was wearing a long-sleeved shirt, on account he was prone to sunburn. Pale and fair. Creamy skinned, all over. His family’s Danish, I think.
And sure, he’s not bad looking. Problem is, he knows it.
Sharon ordered us to lay him out in the boat. You got to remember we were all hammered – drunk as teenagers after their first micky – so combined with the shock, this was all happening fast. No time for thoughts, pure action and chaos. Lenny had stopped screaming when we hauled him clear and now he was looking at us, face pearly white, water dripping from his hair, body shivering and jerking from shock, blood spreading across the bottom of the boat as if we’d landed some giant fish. I don’t know how much was registering with him. He was swearing and saying, ‘What the hell what the hell what the hell...’
Sharon pulled out her penknife, snapped it open, told us to hold him steady while she cut off his sleeve. She did that expertly: sawing up the inner seam, swift and sure, careful to avoid his skin. The forearm looked fine – no sign of wound or gash or anything, not until she cut up to the elbow. Then it was hard not to react. I think I actually gasped. Like: Jesus H. Christ, right? Ray, he turned to the side of the boat and hurled.
Lenny’s arm – it had been torn off at the elbow. And I mean torn off. Only thing keeping it attached was a flap of skin, thin and useless as the shirt. And I swear blood was pumping out by the litre – squirting like a garden hose. Lenny looked at our faces, saw the horror there, and started asking if it was bad, is it bad, what in the fuck is happening?
Sharon, she grabbed his head in both hands, either side, palming his ears, and pressed her forehead to his. She said, ‘Lenny, it’s really bad, okay? But I’m not going to let you die.’
It was an alder that did it. A dead tree, leaning out over the water, grey as stone, almost invisible. We’d come in on a hairpin bend and Lenny, who was on that side of the boat and had his hand in the air, whooping it up, got snagged. Caught by that elbow. The full weight of his body — at fifty, sixty miles an hour. Flying. Eddie, he claimed he’d driven that river dozens of times, and the tree had never been there. So, either it had fallen sideways in a storm, or Eddie was full of shit.
Probably the latter. Not that it matters.
Eddie had a first aid kit on board, but it wasn’t much use, and neither was he. He had gone as white as Lenny, had to be asked five, six times to get that damned kit out. Then, when he did, we saw it was one of those cheap jobs, a little box of green plastic – the bare minimum, a toy. Just a few rolls of gauze, dinky Band-Aids, bug ointment. What Eddie needed for legal reasons, nothing more. Sharon took one look at it. ‘Are you fucking kidding me?’ Kicked it away.
Meanwhile, Lenny, our friend, her man, just bleeding to death in front of us.
She tugged the hair elastic from her ponytail and snapped it around her wrist. Then she cut the sleeve off Lenny’s shirt, and, after a split second’s hesitation, sawed through that flap of skin, severing the arm completely. She handed the arm to me. I was like, what the hell, right? What am I going to do with this? It was heavier than I expected. Cold from the water. Fingers curled in on themselves, twitching. He had a tattoo of a snake running down it, and I remember looking at that and thinking, I have Lenny’s arm, right here. It’s my responsibility now. For safekeeping.
It was his left arm, his left hand, with his engagement ring on it. You can bet we’d given him hell about that, too – a man wearing an engagement ring – but Emily had insisted.
I turned to Eddie, asked him where the goddamned beer cooler was. I knew, just needed to be shouting, moving, doing something – I was juiced up, see? Cooler was right next to the wheel. I kicked it open, fished a bunch of the cans from the ice, making room. Stuffing the arm right in there would be bad – direct cold can kill tissue – so I wrapped it in a liquor-store bag, first. Then I slammed the lid shut. One of the cans had landed on the deck and split, rolling around, spitting beer, the foam mixing with the blood, going all pink. I picked it up, cracked it without thinking, took a big, long slug, tasting Lenny’s blood, too. Sweet, metallic.
Sharon was gripping Lenny’s upper arm by the bicep, one-handed, and with the other feeling around in the gaping wound, raw and red, like when you lop the head off a fish. Lenny started screaming and bucking again – the blinding pain of those exposed nerve endings. Sharon yelled, ‘Hold him still, hold him still.’ Short Steve took hold of his head, cradling it, to keep him from cracking his scalp on the deck. Ray sat on his legs, and I got down there, pinning his shoulder, told him, ‘Lenny – drink this,’ and poured beer down his throat.
Sharon found what she was fumbling for – the artery – and pinched it hard with her thumb and forefinger, cutting off that jet of blood. Still holding it, she slid her hair elastic over it, looping the band over and over, and let it go. Snap. It snugged up on there, limiting the blood loss. She looked over her shoulder and pointed, her forearm coated red, like she’d dipped it in a tin of paint. She was pointing at the cooler.
‘Gimme some of that ice!’
I grabbed big fistfuls of it, brought it to her. She packed it into the wound – shoving it right inside. Lenny went taught, his body electric, spasming, but held in place by his friends. Part of me wondered if a little bit of Sharon, that dark bit deep down, was thinking: serves you right, you bastard. Suffer a little. Suffer a lot. For our love. Each handful of ice like torture. Being cruel to be kind. When she’d created a kind of casement of ice – the blood soaking through, turning it slush-like – she covered it with Saran Wrap from our sandwiches and then looked around again.
‘Need a proper tourniquet,’ she said, ‘None of this shitty gauze.’
‘Belt?’ I asked.
‘Yeah, yeah – belt’s good.’
I stood up, unbuckled and tugged my belt out in one quick jerk, passed it to her. She lashed it around his bicep, slid the strap end through the buckle and cinched it tight, then wrapped the loose leather around a few more times. The belt did double duty: restricting the blood flow, and holding the Saran Wrap in place. By then, Lenny had pretty much blacked out. His eyes had rolled to the whites, and he’d started to moan like a prophet having visions.
Sharon told us to prop him in a seat, keep that arm elevated. Put ice around the area, too, and keep replacing it. Then she turned to Eddie, but Eddie had gone bye-bye. He was sitting in the driver’s seat and staring into the beer cooler, at the arm in the bag.
‘I don’t think I can drive,’ he said.
‘Jesus Christ,’ she said, and shoved him aside. Then, ‘Ray – you got a boat, right? Can you steer this one?’ Ray said he thought so. She said he better learn, fucking quick. His brother was dying.
And Ray, he fired up the engine, palmed the wheel, and spun us back upriver.
It was twenty minutes to the boat launch, but more like half an hour by the time we got Lenny out of the boat and into the back of the van. It was going to be touch and go – we all knew that. Even with the work Sharon had done on him, he’d lost a tonne of blood, was losing more by the second. The question was: how much could he lose and still live?
If Sharon hadn’t been there, he would have been dead already.
We rattled down a dirt track – each jolt shocking Lenny so he let out a little cry, before sinking back into his stupor.
Sharon sat with his head in her lap, stroking his forehead. She had a bottle of water and gave him sips, and also poured some on her shirt, used that to wipe his face. She had blood all over her – in her hair, on her swimsuit, soaked through her shorts. More blood than you’d think could be in a human being.
Me? I was sitting on the cooler. I was guarding the arm. That was my job. I didn’t want that to get left behind, or lost – like in those stupid stories you read in the news. Plus, I had this feeling that it was the only time, ever since the very first time I’d been with Lenny, that any part of him was actually mine. Crazy. The kind of thing you only think when you’re in shock, like we all were.
Eddie had it worst. He was whispering, whimpering, like he was a head case. Just curled in the corner, in his own world. I understood that. But I also wanted to slap him, tell him to get a grip.
Sometimes, when Lenny woke he’d be lucid. He’d look up at Sharon and hear her murmuring, encouraging him, promising him he’d be okay, and he’d say something about loving her, about always having loved her. It was like they were alone, but at the same time it felt like he was talking to me, too. To all of us.
At one point, he even said, ‘I don’t know why I’m marrying her.’
Then we hit a bump and he cried out, and this time, once the pain dropped down, he began to weep – face creasing up, tears streaming from his eyes, down his cheeks. And him saying, I don’t want to die, Sharon, I don’t want to die, and her telling him he wouldn’t, he wouldn’t, and sounding convincing even though none of us were sure, least of all her.
When we got onto the highway, Short Steve opened it up like you wouldn’t believe. He popped the clutch, threw her into fifth and stomped – stomped that gas pedal – going full bore, tearing up tarmac. I could only really see sky, but could feel the speed. Later, he told me he’d maxed out the speedometer, pushing two hundred klicks. Other cars flying by like they were standing still. People honking, screaming at us.
By the time we pulled into the hospital, we’d picked up a tail: somebody had called us in, or we’d passed a speed check without noticing. Either way, an RCMP car was tearing after us, siren wailing, cherries whirling, and since we hadn’t pulled over he’d called for back-up: another three, four cars. All of them thinking they were going to get on TV. Real- life car chases. Hunting down outlaw bank robbers or other desperados.
But by the time they arrived, we already had the back doors open, were loading Lenny onto a stretcher. Sharon still in charge, even though the A&E guys were helping now, too: two newbies, fresh out of college, one boy pimply and greasy faced, eyes big as fucking baseballs when he seen what was coming out of that van.
‘I’ll deal with you later,’ Sharon shouted to the cops. ‘We’re trying to save a life, here.’
And we did. Or she did. It was a team effort, but there’s no pretending it would have panned out any other way if she hadn’t been there. Lenny was right on the brink, flickering, leaking life, and she’d brought him back.
They reattached the arm. They can do that. They can do a lot, these days. Lenny’s got a hell of a scar, like a rope around his elbow, and not much grip in that hand, but it’s an arm and it belongs to him again.
Still. I like knowing that it belonged to me, and only me. Just for a little while.
One of the A&E nurses, he said it was quick thinking, what I done. Not just putting it on ice, but bagging it. I said it was plain common sense. He smiled, gave me the once over – furtive, like a schoolboy not wanting to get caught. Later, he bought me a coffee, and sat with me while we waited for Lenny to come out of surgery. He had sandy hair, was maybe a year or two younger than me. Sort of bucktoothed and funny looking, but also funny.
Ever notice how all men think they’re funny, but only maybe one in five hundred is funny?
This guy was actually funny. Making sly jokes, cracked sideways, as if he didn’t expect a laugh. He asked me if I’d like to get a bite to eat sometime, go out dancing. I held up my hands, told him I wasn’t looking for anything serious. He smiled, showing those teeth. Neither am I, he said.
When Lenny came around, after the operation, he told Sharon he’d meant all he’d said to her in the van. I was surprised he remembered, but he did. It was her he wanted to be with: he wasn’t going to marry his princess after all. Sharon had to think about it, but then told him to go straight to hell. They were through. That surprised him — surprised us all.
Lenny, he considered his options, and in the end he did marry Emily, even though the wedding had to be postponed, for obvious reasons. She was none too happy about it. Not just the delay to her big day, but the whole fiasco. She was full of plans, and a fiancé who got drunk on his stag and lost his arm wasn’t part of them. That wasn’t how it happened, but that was how people would talk about it, and for somebody like her that’s one and the same.
But she married him. Couldn’t really back out, on account of that. And they moved to the city. That much, at least, went according to plan.
I asked Sharon – of course I asked. On one of our drinking nights at the Hole. Just the gals. We’re doing that again, now Lenny’s out of the picture. She said, ‘It hit me the same way it hit him, only in reverse. Took a moment like that for him to realize he loved me? Him on the brink of death? Screw that. That ain’t love. I don’t know what love is, but it sure as hell ain’t that. And it ain’t what I was feeling for him, neither.’
As for Eddie, I haven’t seen him since. Who the fuck cares about Eddie, right?
But the rest of us are still tight, still working at the firefighting unit. Sharon is seeing Short Steve, who may have his shortcomings in that one area, but it’s an area that don’t count for much, in the grand scheme, and besides, like I said, he knows his way around the bedroom.
And me? I’m running around with that bucktoothed A&E boy. First fun I had – that kind of fun, anyhow – in two, three years. Since Lenny dropped me for Sharon. It ain’t love, but love is hard to come by, and I figure there’s no use wasting time, pining after things gone by. That ain’t no great revelation. I should have known that, should have known better. But sometimes it takes a little bleeding out, on all sides, before you’re ready to let go for good.
'Burrard Inlet' by Tyler Keevil is published by Parthian
Photograph by Alan Waterman / Alamy