“I am a true sea-dog with balls the size of cantaloupes!” Diedrich shouted, slashing at a snowy tree branch with a cutlass made from a broken broom handle.
“Diedrich! Diedrich Deutsch!” Doctor Rempel shouted from an open window. His breath turned to frozen vapor as soon as the words left the warm sedan. “Do you want a ride to school?”
Diedrich dropped his weapon but not his swagger. He walked towards the waiting car that sat idling on the rutted ice of the street. A plume rose from the tailpipe, fouling the blue of the Manitoba sky, and when the engine backfired, a perfect white smoke ring shot out, twirling with delight.
“Hurry up, swashbuckler!” Doctor Rempel said with a friendly smile. He hawked and spat, then tossed out a cigar remnant and rolled up the window with a pumping arm.
Diedrich got in and slammed the door. His window fogged immediately.
“Now, did you say ‘cantaloupes’ or ‘antelopes’?” the doctor asked, steel wool eyebrows wagging. His nose was a purplish red and the pores on his cheeks stood out like moon craters, complete with a coating of grey dust—the same fine material that accumulated on the interior surfaces of the round-fendered four-door.
Diedrich offered a winking reply, “Which is bigger?”
“Ho-ho! You sounded like your dad just then. You did. Looking like him too. Seen him lately?”
How likely is that? Diedrich thought. He held back the bold words and just shook his head no, adding a quiet scoff.
“How about your aunts then? They are doing alright? Still living in that farmhouse on the edge of town, right?”
“By Plett’s potato fields,” Diedrich said.
“How long you been with them now? What’s it, two years?”
“Yes. Since Grade Seven,” Diedrich said.
“Yeah, yeah. And now you’re in high school. A future matriculant in the class of ’65. Cum Laude, no doubt. Your family has a fine history of brains and determination—and not a little of either! I delivered your daddy, you know? I swear he tried to kick me after I slapped him on the bottom.” He grinned at the thought, then grunted with effort to steer the lumbering car onto the high school street. He halted, tires sliding, in front of the steps. A small knot of teens stood on the curtilage—off school property—the snow packed down with footprints, sunflower seed shells, and cigarette butts. They turned to watch Diedrich disembark, the door squawking as he pushed at it.
“Swing it hard!” Rempel hollered. “Give my greetings to Myrtle and Rosalyn, buccaneer!”
The door clanked as Diedrich flung it shut with two hands. The boys watched him.
“Hey, buccaneer,” one of them sneered, “how come the doctor has to give you a ride?”
“Yeah, what makes you so special? You sick?”
The biggest of the boys stepped forward and grabbed Diedrich’s sleeve. The old woolly garment, a refugee from the church basement, threatened to part at the shoulder seam. “Hey,” the boy said. “Us guys are talking to you.”
His name was Morton and he was the son of the phys ed teacher, Mr. Smullett, a new resident who was an “Englisher” from Winnipeg. It was only the Smulletts’ second year in Wenkler and the family was a gossip favourite, discussed by residents with mild, unspecified suspicion. Morton had earned the unfriendly Plautdietsch sobriquet, “Moazh.” It meant “ass.”
Moazh was over a head taller than Diedrich, but Diedrich was most concerned for the wellbeing of his jacket, the only one he owned. Without stopping to think, he lifted his boot and stomped down on Moazh’s foot. Protected only by a Converse basketball sneaker, the result was as Diedrich hoped. Moazh jumped back cursing, and Diedrich made a streaking getaway, churning through fresh snow and up the steps, shouting, “Moazh!” into his floury wake.
In Miss Feeblecorn’s classroom, his new home room this semester, he found his name written on a piece of masking tape affixed to a desktop. “Deidrick Deutsch”. He stared at the penned name tag as he hung his jacket on the chairback.
“Young man,” the teacher said, raising her voice and pointing at him with a ruler from her post on the raised floor near the blackboard. “You should put your jacket in your locker. I think you know that…”
He nodded and said, “Yes, ma’am, from now on. I forgot.”
She mouthed, “OK” as the announcements crackled from the loudspeaker.
* * *
He steered clear of Moazh for the rest of the day. After school he snuck out of the janitor room door at the back of the building. On his way through he scooped a handful of green granules from the paper drum marked, “Sweeping Compound”. He held the mixture under his nose, sniffing the refreshing chemical tang, and then put the crumbly concoction in his pocket. For later. Cutting diagonally across the playground, Diedrich set a course for the Thrift-T Car Wash.
He found his tools in the pumphouse: a square-edged spade, a wheelbarrow, and a stout length of steel reinforcing bar bent into a “J” at one end and a welded “T” at the other. One of the pumps hummed a short electric tone and then jangled to life. The copper water pipe that led out through the block wall to the car wash stall quivered like a hard-struck tuning fork.
In the unoccupied stall, Diedrich began his after-school routine. He blocked the entrance with a sawhorse and left the waterlogged overhead door open for light. He coaxed the rebar tip into the grillwork of the steel grate. Lifting and back-pedaling, he skidded the cumbersome cover off, revealing a grave-sized pit in the concrete floor. At the bottom of the cement-walled tomb lay a six-inch thick layer of grey-green sludge. A compost reek grasped him in a foul embrace. He dug the minty sweeping compound from his pocket and took a deep Pine Sol-scented breath.
“Ahh… ambrosia,” he sighed, squinting one eye and then discarding the compound into the hole.
After placing the wheelbarrow next to the edge, and armed with his spade, Diedrich hopped down and began scraping out the half-frozen slurry of car-wash residue. The loud rasp of the shovel hid the sound of a vehicle approaching. He heard it and looked up in time to see the sawhorse lying on its side. A pickup truck rolled towards him, its crooked teeth spelling out “Mercury.” He ducked under the lowslung front axle. The truck pulled up to the wheelbarrow and then continued more slowly, the wheelbarrow chattering and screeching as it slid sideways against its will. The vehicle stopped above him and the doors opened. Feet appeared, including a familiar pair of Converse high-top runners.
“Hey, hey, little Deutsch! Who’s the ass now, eh? Eh? Now you’re the morch—Ronny, is that how you say it?”
“Yep, moarrzzzhhhh,” was faceless Ronny’s phonetic reply, emphasising the buzzing-shushing last-syllable sound.
“Ha-ha! Hear that, moarzzhh? We’re goin’ for a Pepsi now. You wanna watch my truck for me while you’re down there? Tell ya what—I’ll shut the garage door so you and my truck stay nice and warm in here, eh.”
Diedrich watched as the feet drew near to the wheelbarrow, dumping the dead-rat-motor-oil stinking muck on the sloping floor. A few seconds later he heard a quarter clink into the coin box on the wall and then the rush of water from the wash wand. Soapy water ran into the pit. He scraped a canal in the sludge so it could drain away. The wand fell with a clatter and then propelled itself backwards like a fleeing cuttlefish until it jammed in the corner of the bay. Moazh and Ronny left, their laughter echoing above the hiss of the spray.
As soon as they were gone, Diedrich began crawling out, turning his head sideways to fit under the truck. Watery slop smeared his jeans and the chest and sleeves of his black jacket. No sweat, he thought, it’ll all wash out. But once he emerged, he noticed the rip, on the seam where the sleeve attached to the shoulder.
* * *
Walking home in the failed light, he thought of all the things he could have done, retaliation planned with malicious precision: piss in the gas tank, empty the tires, or drench the pickup’s interior with the wash wand. As he cut across Plett’s plowed field, pebbly white snow capping dark furrows, he shook away his scheming and began preparing the lie he must tell his aunts to lessen their anger and dismay. He’d accept the black spot of their blame he decided, but not the punishment.
* * *
“Dear Miss Feeblecorn,” Diedrich wrote in his neat cursive. “I have hung my jacket in my locker. Thank you for reminding me. Also, I noticed that you are spelling my name wrong. There is an easy way to remember: died rich. That’s what I’m going to do, live a long life and die rich. You can remember it easy this way—I’m going to be the student who died rich, indeed. Spelled died but pronounced deed. Diedrich.”
He stuck the tape from his desk to the bottom of the page as evidence. Folding the note carefully into thirds, the way Aunty Myrtle taught him, he put it on the teacher’s desk before school started.
After the class sang, “God Save the Queen,” and recited “The Lord’s Prayer,” Miss Feeblecorn taught them about decimals, her tall, slanted numbers gathering like a crowd of bystanders on black pavement. The chalk dust lit on her green sweater and she picked bits off her sleeve as she assigned a problem to them.
Walking slowly down the aisle, arms crossed, she approached Diedrich’s desk. He looked up when the soft tap of her square heeled shoes paused beside him. She bent down from the waist and whispered, “See me at lunch, please, Diedrich.” He nodded, detecting the faint fragrance of Jergens lotion that reminded him of his mother.
“I just wanted to confirm that I received your note,” she began when he went to her desk at the break, after eating his sandwich.
“That’s a very creative way to help others to remember the spelling of your name. I appreciate your telling me—I use tricks like that to remember names all the time.”
Diedrich blushed. He put his hands in his jacket pocket. He glanced at the shoulder seam, now neatly re-stitched courtesy of Aunty Rosalyn. She had washed it too, hanging it to dry in the glowing orange-toothed grin of the kitchen’s portable heater. He caught a whiff of detergent and the outdoors smell of clean wool.
“Of course we don’t want to think about dying, necessarily, but it’s okay to have big dreams. We are such stuff as dreams are made on, are we not?”
“Pass it!” a high-pitched shout from the playground soccer game interrupted his consideration of her comment. He took a half-step back with one foot.
“Oh, I’m holding you up. Sure! You get out there and get into the game with the others.”
As Diedrich turned to leave, Mr. Smullett came in, a whistle dangling on a lanyard around his neck. “Anita,” he said, then glanced at Diedrich and corrected himself, “Miss Feeblecorn. Here are the sign-up sheets for the boys’ basketball team. Please announce it to your class and invite anyone who wants to try out to put their name here.”
“Shall do, Coach. Here you go, Diedrich, you could be the first to sign-up. That way,” Miss Feeblecorn added, her eyes shining, “everyone will see the correct spelling of your name!”
Diedrich shrugged but stopped and looked at the foolscap sheet. It was divided into three columns: Name, Grade, Position.
“Does it cost anything?” he asked, looking up at Smullett.
“Only your time and sweat,” the coach replied.
“When do you play?”
“We practice at noon-hour in the gym—that way the bus students have a chance to make the squad. We play in the evenings, four home games and four away games and then the championship tournament is on a Saturday.”
Diedrich pouted his lip, thinking of his job at the car wash. He could play.
“’kay give it here, once,” he said, reaching for the sheet. He took it to his desk and wrote his name and grade into the spaces provided on the top line. Pausing, his gaze passing back and forth between the two teachers, he asked, “What should I put for ‘Position’?”
Smullett held out a flat palm to the top of Diedrich’s head, “I’d say, ‘Guard’. Can you dribble, shoot and pass? Can you run fast?”
“I can run fast. I can shoot, I think.” Diedrich smiled at Miss Feeblecorn and she replied with a determined face paired with a stabbing, upward hand gesture. Shooting? he wondered. He smelled the Jergens lotion again and handed the paper to Smullett, thinking, What does he mean, ‘dribble’ and ‘guard’?
“Okay,” Smullett said, shuffling backwards, “I’ll mark you down as a guard. See you tomorrow at twelve. Wear your gym clothes.”
* * *
“When it’s this cold, it always occurs to me that some of the creatures from Hell, the ones who were the borderline cases, the ones who just barely missed going to Heaven, get a short furlough. A vacation from Hades. I imagine the gatekeeper of Hell to be wearing a sharp business suit with a tailored shirt and tie and that he would not be sweating, not even armpits or ass crack. He would just be there at the gates, surrounded by flame and molten sulfur, near the hounds. That fiend would be crisp and clean as a brand-new twenty dollar bill, frosty as a Fudgsicle,” Doctor Rempel said, his bushy Roosevelt moustache cantering as he spoke.
Since basketball tryouts started, there had been a cold snap and he had taken to driving Diedrich to his job at the car wash each afternoon. He also bought a pair of lined, leather work gloves for the boy. These were kept in the old Lincoln so that the doctor could also use them when he scraped the frost off his car windows.
Rempel continued, “‘Where the Hell do you think you’re going?’ the gatekeeper would ask—his little joke—and the borderline hellions would hand him a note. On Satan’s private stationery, stamped in blood, a short message from the devil. ‘Please allow these lost souls a brief respite from the heat. They may walk from the Wenkler Collegiate Institute to the car wash, accompanying young Diedrich Deutsch to his after-school job. Once they cool off to their satisfaction, they are to promptly return. No playing billiards, no consorting with women, no consumption of strong drink. No dancing, either,” he added with a sly grin.
Diedrich snickered, enjoying the forbidden topic as Doctor Rempel likely knew he would. The two drove in silence for a block and when the car stopped at an intersection, the doctor waited patiently for a number of boys and girls to crouch down behind the Lincoln and grab the bumper. He pulled away slowly, gradually accelerating until the kids could be heard squealing and laughing as they slid along the ice-covered street behind the car.
“But what if they did some of the things they weren’t supposed to?” Diedrich asked. “What if they played pool or drank a cold root beer from the Dairy Whip, or what if they didn’t go back? Then what?”
Doctor Rempel toggled the indicator switch as they turned onto Hespeler Avenue, towards the car wash. The bumper-shiners let go because Hespeler, freshly gravelled, was too gritty to rutsch. “Well, exactly!” Rempel said, reaching into his tweed coat and finding a cigar of reasonable length. He lit it while Diedrich waited for him to continue and the Zephyr idled at an intersection. They watched as a teacher led her line of waddling children across the street in their bright snowsuits, two-by-two.
“If the lost souls are already in Hell, borderline or not, they can receive no further, greater sentence, right? Here on earth, if you receive the death penalty, that is the maximum. In the same way, if you are in Hell, what worse place is there? If there is a Super Picante Hell, it’s not mentioned in the Bible, and you’d think they might have pointed that out!” His conversation tailed off as the car wheeled onto the car wash yard.
“So, okay,” Diedrich replied. “They can’t be punished any more; they are already ten out of ten, so they play hooky. Then what?” He looked around for the leather gloves.
“Oh, Lordy, I wish I could figure that one out,” Doctor Rempel said, puffing on his cigar. “On one hand, I suppose there’s nothing matters at that point. They are hell-bound souls that have escaped, conditionally. If they come to this realization—if they see that they have beaten the system—what then? I hesitate to say this to such a tender boy as you, youth’s impressions lasting lifelong as so forth, but that knowledge of having beat the devil might almost be better than Heaven!”
“Oh, bah nay…” Diedrich said softly.
“Listen. To get to Heaven, you play by the rules. You sacrifice some earthly pleasures, many examples of which you yourself will soon face in relative abundance in the coming years, even here in Wenkler.” He tapped ash from the cigar. “These imaginary borderline folk obviously did not fully embrace self-denial and hence, wound up in the basement suite. Now, what if these prisoners of eternal damnation, out on their cold-weather day pass, recognize the infinity-sized loophole? Imagine the joy, imagine the freedom of knowing that, for all eternity—nothing more matters. My dear Diedrich, I suggest that wondrous revelation is not only better than Heaven, but worthy of a whole new religion in support of it. What say you? Are you my first convert?”
“Thanks for the ride, I have to get to work,” Diedrich said, sliding out the door into the frigid prairie gloaming. He paused, imagining the condemned, newly released from hell. Then he added, “Yeah… The worst punishment for them would be if they were sent back to you-know-where and that was gonna happen, eventually, anyhow.” He flipped hair out of his eyes, then pulled his toque on. “They couldn’t be threatened!”
“Yes! But would they feel brave because they were safe, or because they were totally, eternally unsafe? Eh?”
Diedrich trudged to the pump room, confused by the strange conversation. He stopped and walked back to the open window on the driver’s side, from which a blue cloud of El Producto emanated.
“Yes, my acolyte?” Doctor Rempel said.
“What you are saying is you want me to be brave? Period, end of story?”
“You got it. Period, end of story.”
“Alright. I think I’m pretty good at that…” Diedrich said.
“Be better than ‘pretty good’. Be the best there is at being brave. You live in this little darp on the smooth, flat bottom of an ancient sea with your aunts, me, and some others here who know about you and the bad things you’ve endured. So you’re safe. On the other hand, the things that have vexed you will continue to do so, and new adversaries and evils will threaten you on your path. So you are unsafe.”
He stoked the cigar with hollowed cheeks, bringing the tip back to crackling life, then similarly revved the flathead when it sputtered and seemed about to stall. “It’s cold and my window’s frozen open, so hurry up,” he said, nipping at a silver flask he slipped out of his coat. “You have exactly thirty minutes before my tail lights you will see.”
* * *
Early on school day mornings, the thump-thump-thump of a basketball could be heard in the deserted hallways framing the cinderblock sanctuary that was the WCI gymnasium. Periodically, the echo of the ball dribbling would cease, followed after a few seconds by the metallic clash of the steel supports that held the basketball backboards. Diedrich Deutsch created this syncopated melody as he padded barefoot from end to end, practicing his dribbling—first lefty, then righty—and taking an awkward shot at each end of the court. Panting and red-cheeked, he stopped just before the bell rang to alert teachers and janitors that the front doors would now be unlocked. Diedrich gained early entry through the janitorial staff entrance, courtesy of Mr. Schellenberg.
“No work boots on the gym floor!” Janitor Schellenberg scolded on the first morning, kneeling as if in prayer to apply a wetted thumb to one of the black heel marks left behind by Diedrich’s boots.
“Vedaumpt groota oabeit Steewel!” he had said, rising up and glaring down at Diedrich’s dirty footwear. He followed this pronouncement with a blast of air through his thin nose and a translation for Diedrich who looked puzzled. “Shucks-darn, big work boots!” Then he beckoned for the ball and with unexpected skill, banked it into the basket directly above him, spinning it like a top off the backboard.
“English, not Low German!” he said, winking and retreating quickly to continue his morning chores.
After a few weeks, Mr. Schellenberg paid him no attention. Alone one morning under the buzz of the blueish lights, Diedrich sat on the bleachers and rubbed at the soles of his feet, pink and blistered in places from their taxing laps on the polished hardwood. Just then, Coach Smullett came into the gym on the way to his small office.
“Hey-hey!” he shouted. “Look who’s here early workin’ on his game!”
He pointed at Diedrich’s bare feet. “It looks like old Schellenberg gave you the heck for wearing street shoes on the floor, eh?”
Diedrich nodded. He was on the team’s “Spare” list and although still allowed to attend practices, he had not yet made the team, officially. Being discovered in the morning by the coach was a happy accident that he had patiently contrived. He wasn’t a particularly guileful boy but knew that extra effort could not hurt his chances.
“Why don’t you have your runners on? Forget ’em?”
“No. I don’t have any. Ernie Froese lets me wear his old ones, but I can’t keep them ’cause he has to save them for his brother Jake. They don’t really fit me anyway.”
“Hmm. What size you take?”
“My boots are tens, but they are a little big, yet. A lot, actually.”
Smullett spun on a creaking rubber heel and walked swiftly to his office. He swung the door open and reappeared a minute later carrying a pair of worn Converse All-Star high top runners. One lace was red and one blue.
“These old clod-hoppers—they’re eights—have been in the lost and found since last year. You are welcome to them. Also, we have a game on Friday night in Plum Coulee. Can you go?”
Overcome with excitement, Diedrich held the shoes as if a priceless, fragile treasure. He flopped down on the gym floor and immediately began trying them on, first holding the dark gum sole of one flat against his bare foot. Tying the laces, Diedrich took some rapid stutter steps, each squeal like music to him. He licked his fingers and cleaned the rubber soles the way he had seen older players do at practice.
“Grippy!” he said to Smullett. “Thanks, Coach! Danke seea! Thank you!” With that, he peeled away across the floor at top speed, rounding into a U-turn and flying back to Smullett, finishing with a bounding lay-up—sans basketball—his fingers riffling the dangling cotton string of the net.
* * *
The sweaty starters sat on the bench while the second string stood in an encircling crescent. Crouching low in front of them, Coach Smullett swallowed his excitement and carefully went over his notes. “We are behind by only four points and their big guy…”
“Number five, that groota Schanzenfelder?” Ernie Froese asked.
“Yes, yeah, five, he’s got four fouls. One more and he’s out!”
Diedrich listened, arms folded, weight on one foot above canted hips. He stared intently into Smullett’s eyes as, arms waving, the coach described how they would pressure the guy with the ball in the second half. (“Dutch Blitz!” was Ernie’s uninvited translation.)
As the scoreboard clock sounded and their huddle broke up, Diedrich spoke. “Not to change the subject, Coach, but when do I get in? I can take the ball away from those guys, easy.”
Smullett ignored the comment and sent the team out onto the floor.
When Diedrich turned to sit down, he found no room on the player’s bench. He could stand or choose instead to sit on the first row of bleachers in the midst of the Plum Coulee fans. Several of the nearby spectators recognized his predicament and began mocking him, laughing and jeering.
“Hey, number nine, why don’t you sit down? Ride the pine!”
“Yeah, you make a better door than a window, not? Sat die dohl, Jung!”
Anxious to get out of the spotlight, Diedrich spun around and backed in, wedging himself on the crowded bench right beside the coach. Smullett slid sideways, hanging one chino’d cheek over the end.
With the game tied and only a few minutes left, Moazh fell heavily. He limped off the floor and when Smullett turned to look down the row of eager replacement candidates, Diedrich shot up, yelling, “I know what to do!” and sprinted out onto the court. Smullett sputtered, but the referee blew the whistle and the game resumed.
Red and blue laces flashed and Diedrich was everywhere at once, frantically chasing the ball, his slim form darting in between and around the taller players. Within seconds he stole a pass and despite missing the open shot and the subsequent one he gained off a scrappy rebound, he was there when one of his teammates scored. The same thing happened twice more. Diedrich did not contribute directly to the score, but WCI pulled ahead and the buzzer blared to signal a timeout by the home team.
“Nine is fine!” said a pretty girl with bright blue eye shadow, calling from the stands. Diedrich hid behind the coach. Steve, a skinny boy who scored twice thanks to Diedrich’s rabid-dog antics, slapped him on the back. “Way to go, there, Deutsch!”
* * *
Doctor Rempel’s breath wheezed in and out. He concentrated on the Converse All-Stars that sat in a box on the Lincoln’s bench seat between him and Diedrich. He peered through smudgy glasses perched on his rutabaga nose.
“And that’s how you found them, in your locker…”
Diedrich nodded, his chin lifting off his chest.
“Yeah. I could smell something was wrong, right away. The melons are totally rotten.”
“Right, I’m getting that,” the doctor replied, sniffing. He used the red tip of a wooden match to pull back at the tongue of one of the runners. They were packed with a viscous, runny filling of rancid fruit. The shoelaces were slit down the middle and the canvas uppers were in ribbons.
“Kind of funny, don’t you think, that cantaloupes were the weapon of choice? Eh? Remember?”
Diedrich snuffled in reply. Rempel quickly said, “Coulda been worse, coulda been rancid antelope!”
Diedrich laughed then, despite his best efforts. He forced himself to look serious. “What should I do?”
Rempel mused. He retrieved and offered a clean folded hanky to the boy, who took it and blew his nose hard.
“Hey! That’s for polishing my glasses!” Doctor Rempel said, feigning anger. “Okay, look. What do you want? Justice? Revenge? A get out of jail free card? What?”
“I just want my runners,” Diedrich said.
“Really? Whoever did this deserves some knuckle justice. Me? I’d want to kick his ass.”
Diedrich blew out a puff of air.
“I’ll take you home. Leave the shoes with me. Get a good night’s sleep and I’ll see you in the morning. Sound good?”
After a long, clearing breath, Diedrich hummed, “Um-hmm,” and wiped his nose on a jacket sleeve.
“Here. Keep it,” Rempel said, tossing back the hanky with a pronounced wrinkling of his sea lion nose.
* * *
The next afternoon at the car wash, Cornelius James Rempel, MD, sat in his rusting ’46 Lincoln Zephyr and smoked. He watched the boy work, a study in efficiency and diligence. After scraping up a shovelful of sludge, he rocked its weight back and used the pendulum momentum to heft the load up to the apogee. Up and over the lip of the barrow it went, with a sudden twist of the blade at the last to spill the sodden cargo.
Still so young, he thought. Whip smart. Mature too—a stoic. Unlike his weasel of a father on that count.
“How far that little candle throws his beams!” Rempel said aloud. His speech disturbed a chickadee that pecked at cigar ash.
He had asked the boy the day before what he wanted—justice or revenge. “What about you, Rempel?” the doctor said now to himself, eyes regarding his reflection in the mirror. “What do you want?”
The chickadee, satisfied that there was no nutrition in the black bits on the snow, beat a whirring retreat. Rempel watched it go. What do I want? To have no regrets—free as a bird, he thought.
Leaning back in his seat, he remembered Rosalyn, back in high school. A year after him, she had the best marks in her grade and beat him in the school spelling bee. He faltered under her confident stare and added a fatal extra “n” to “panache” giving her the win.
Diedrich hurried towards the car, whacking the leather work gloves against his dirty pants and the sides of his boots, as if challenging them to a duel. “All done, record time!” he called out. Swirling back into the old Zephyr together with a shock of cold air, he rested a hand on the box that held the rotted evidence, his defiled All-Stars.
“Okay, Doctor, what did you decide?” he asked, applying his hanky to his reddened nose.
“I think you and your aunts—not me—should be the ones to decide. Not me, sir. But I have an idea.”
Diedrich waited for the doctor to continue as Rempel pulled the car up onto the macadam esker that was Hespeler Avenue. “Myrtle and Rosalyn will be home now, yes?” he asked.
In the aunt’s small 1-1/2 storey house, Rempel sat across the kitchen table facing Diedrich and his two spinster aunts. Following small talk and tea, he told the whole story to the sisters. He answered their initial questions, then laid out his plan.
“First, I believe we need to confirm, with absolute certainty, who did this. It seems quite obvious to me that the vandal is the coach’s son, Morton,” he looked at Diedrich, who affirmed with a nod. “His father should be given the evidence and…”
“Morton said something to me,” Diedrich said. “Sorry I didn’t tell you before, but at school today he bugged me about the shoes.”
“Who else knew about them, about your runners getting wrecked?” Rosalyn asked.
“No one. Only Doctor Rempel, and now you and Aunty Myrtle. Today Morton, he said to me, ‘How do your shoes smell?’, or something like that.”
She looked at Rempel, “Go on, please Corny.”
“Fine. That’s out of the way, then! Morton’s as good as confessed. He’s our man. That’s no surprise to me. And that makes me even more certain that what I have in mind is the right thing to do! I say it’s best to force a confrontation. I want Diedrich to challenge Morton to a fist-fight. After school, just the two of them.”
The room was quiet. The sisters looked at each other, then both at Diedrich.
“That could get him in a lot of trouble,” Myrtle said.
Rempel nodded without commitment.
“And what about ‘turn the other cheek’? Don’t answer violence with violence.” she added, fretting with her napkin.
The doctor sat still. The mantle clock ticked from the parlour.
“He could get expelled.”
“Not to interrupt,” Diedrich said, waiting for his aunt to approve before he continued. “But not if it’s before or after school and off school grounds,” Diedrich explained. “Helmut Reimer and Fats Wall had a fight behind the pool hall and they didn’t get kicked out.”
“But Morton’s dad is a teacher,” Rosalyn said, smiling at her nephew and adding, “not to interrupt…”
“Also, that Morton boy is three grades ahead of D’rich! He must be way bigger, not?” Myrtle said, her tone trembling, fragile as the mismatched plates on the table.
“All that is true,” said Doctor Rempel, taking a slow breath and worrying with fat fingers the pocket holding his cigars. “That’s why I went and talked to Coach Smullett earlier today…”
All eyes in the kitchen were on him as he continued—bedside manner activated, his voice rumbling like an advancing tank. “I believe Smullett is a decent man. I met him this morning where he gets his coffee before school. I went to his car and showed him the shoes. As soon as I showed him, his face turned bright red and he said, ‘Morton!’”
“He knew right away?” Rosalyn asked.
Rempel nodded slowly, a hand cupping his beard, fingers combing the grey whiskers. “He did. Smullett was convinced. Is convinced. He said that he would get the truth out of Morton, and that the boy would buy new ones and apologize in front of the team.”
Doctor Rempel drew himself up and adjusted his glasses.
“I said no to that…”
“Why?” Myrtle and Rosalyn said simultaneously.
“This kid is a bad egg. He’s not gonna take his medicine; he’ll blame Diedrich for calling him names; he’ll blame anyone else but himself. He’ll plot a revenge too. I reckon that the only way to get him to lay off Diedrich, now and forever, is to push him right to the edge. Diedrich should challenge him to a fight.”
“Oh, my. But it’s the coach’s job to manage the team and it’s also his job as a father to discipline his son. Right? Plus,” Rosalyn said, shifting in her seat, “the shoes were free in the first place. A gift from the coach. A very thoughtful one, too.” She looked hard at Rempel.
“You’re right, Ros,” Rempel stammered. Eyes that could stare an eagle blind. “But, in this case, I think this misery will visit us again if we don’t cut it out entirely. Now’s the time to excise it.”
The tiny kitchen was quiet again. This time the muffled clatter of the sump pump from the crawlspace below broke the nervous silence. It jumped to life with a throbbing beat.
“You think that if Diedrich challenges Morton to a fight, the other boy will back out?” Rosalyn said, her voice raised slightly to overcome the rattling pump.
“If I know my bullies, yes, that’s what I think will happen. Between his guilt and his weak character, yup. One hundred per cent. I can be around—I am a doctor, remember—to make sure it’s just a little dust-up. A cut lip never killed anyone.”
“How will that, excise the problem for good, as you put it?” Rosalyn asked, one eyebrow hitched.
“Morton will be shamed, of his own doing. If he declines to fight… if he fights and loses… and—especially—if he fights and wins over Diedrich, who is smaller and younger—he is shamed. If, however, his father, or the school, or I, or you and Myrtle step in, then Morton will be off the hook.”
“Why?” Rosalyn shot back.
“He’ll become the victim and our Diedrich will be nothing but a tattle-tale. Plus,” he said, taking in a breath and tapping his fork handle on the tablecloth, “it will leave the door open to future animosity from Morton. Reprisals against Diedrich that could be even more serious.”
Rosalyn drummed her fingertips on the table top, almost as if a Morse code reply. Her brow crinkled in concentration. The others watched her for a reaction.
“Diedrich,” she said, turning to face her ward. “I never thought I would push you into a fight. That is not our way! But Doctor Rempel thinks it may not come to fighting. What do you think, Jung?”
“What took you guys so long?” he said.
Rosalyn touched Diedrich on the shoulder. “It’s your decision. Still, I’ll pray on it.”
* * *
The old Zephyr gurgled asthmatically, shuddering in place on the street in front of WCI. A small flock of chickadees took turns flitting to and from between the open driver’s window and a cluster of young elms across the street.
A shoebox under his arm, Diedrich was one of the first to skip out of the entrance doors after the final school bell rang. He trotted towards the gurgling car with a light gait and popped the passenger door open in a smooth one-handed motion.
“So? How’d it go with Morton? What happened?” Doctor Rempel asked in a rush of words as soon as the Diedrich got in.
“Oh, no big deal. At lunchtime, Morton bought me new shoes with Christmas money from his Opa in Altoona and he’s gonna come to the car wash and help me for a week.”
“Huh! I hope you mean Morton, not his Opa,” the doctor said, unable to resist the jab and using it to hide his surprise. He turned away and then kicked at the accelerator, suddenly annoyed with the halting idle. “I thought you were going to challenge him to a fight?”
“Who, his Opa?”
“Ha.” Doctor Rempel slipped him a dour, side-eyed look, buttered with a smile.
“I don’t mean to change the subject, but Morton an’ me are going to go to Winnipeg with his cousin on Saturday. To the U of M. They have glass backboards in the Bison fieldhouse. We’re gonna shoot around and then watch the team practice.”
“So—what?” Rempel said. “That means you two are friends now?” The big V12 grumbled and Rempel adjusted the choke lever on the dash.
“I guess. You said be brave. You said be the best at being brave. Period. End of story.” Diedrich said this plainly, all the while with his eyes on Doctor Rempel, a frank expression on his young face. “It wasn’t as scary as you guys figured.”
“Sure,” Rempel said, imagining how this resolute young boy, the ruined shoes brandished like loaded pistols, would have approached the bully, pushing down his fear, looking up at his stronger, older foe. He could not have known what to expect but he emerged with the best of all outcomes. “…for I am gentle and humble in heart,” the doctor thought, the passage clear in his mind.
“Anyway,” Diedrich said, leaning forward to tune the radio dial. “You get the Stones on this old bucket?” He grinned playfully and then shoved the shoebox at his chauffeur. “Take a look, these runners are really neat! One lace red, one blue. Chuck Taylors!”
Doctor Rempel put the car in gear and began up the street. The engine fell into synchronization, dropping down several octaves and then spitting out a white smoke ring that spun rearward, rising gracefully into the Prussian blue of the winter sky.
Mitchell Toews lives and writes lakeside in Manitoba. When an insufficient number of, “We are pleased to inform you…” emails are on hand, he finds alternative joy in the windy intermingling between the top of the water and the bottom of the sky or skates on the ice until he can no longer see the cabin.
Mitch’s writing has appeared in a variety of literary markets in the U.S., the U.K., Ireland, India, Australia, and Canada. Details at his website, Mitchellaneous.com
Mitch is currently at work on a novel set in the Noireal Forest.
WHY WE CHOSE TO PUBLISH “Died Rich”:
The title alone is compelling, even if it totally misleads the reader about the story’s content. After the first couple of paragraphs, the reader is hooked on the character and anxiously wondering where the story is headed. One mark of a great story is that opening hook and promise, and with his opening author Mitchell Toews promises a good story and does not disappoint with his different take on how to handle a bully, even if we never find out what Diedrich did to convert Morton.
One thing we loved about this piece was Dr. Rempel’s story about the borderline cases in Hell. At the time, this seems like it a sidebar to the story without much relevance, but by the end, we realize that Diedrich learned from and applied the doctor’s lesson.