Lori trying to track down some takeout coffee, the others en route, Wayne Conklin slips into an empty Courtroom #4 and takes a seat in the back row. A morning ray spilling through stained ceiling glass illuminates the elevated bench from where, in just over an hour on this cool autumn day, he'll learn the fate of his eldest son. Though the charge--assault causing bodily harm--is a serious one, it's the boy's first offence and unlikely, if he's found guilty, to result in jail time. Yet it's the verdict rather than the severity of a sentence that concerns him, as the outcome will greatly impact the fortunes of them all. The Conklins had survived so many ups and downs over the years. Disappointments, near misses, bad breaks. How, he wonders, can it all come down to this? Before he can mull the matter further, a buzzer sounds, and the courtroom is flooded in a harsh fluorescent glare.
Their firstborn shot out of her like he'd been hurtling down a waterslide. This was Waldo. Then Lori let loose with this rumbling earthquake of a fart, and out slid his little brother. Woody, as number two was tagged, arrived "like he'd been blasted out of a canon."
Wayne Conklin must have told the story a thousand times. About how Lori's water broke that Saturday morning while she was frying up some eggs and he was in the living room watching a Blue Jays game. Olerud had just homered. "I found her on the kitchen floor," he said. "Legs spread, huffin' and puffin'. The eggs were burnt and the back of the house was filled with smoke."
"Glad ya could drop by, Wayno," she said. "Are you sure the birds can survive without you?"
He'll usually insert an aside here about him working at Alemont Timber; he'd manned the greenchain there since leaving school. "All those machines, the clangin' and the bangin', my hearing ain't too good. I'm watching some TV, I gotta crank up the volume." He considered holding the boys up by their ankles and slapping their arses, as he'd seen it done on TV a gazillion times, but there was no need. "Both of 'em were howlin' right out of the gate."
He dialed 911. An automated message told him not to hang up because "your call will be answered in the order it was received." He took that to mean his call would be answered whenever the hell some stranger ambled back to the office from a coffee break. So he bit through the umbilical cords and cracked open a celebratory beer. "Welcome aboard, lads. They call this place Earth."
They'd been trying to make a kid for several years. He quite enjoyed the effort. "To this day, Lori claims she didn't, but you should have seen the scars on my back." It doesn't really matter, though, because she didn't get pregnant. There was a problem with her ovaries. "My swimmers, if that's what you're thinkin', were just fine."
It took Lori a while to digest the news, but when she did, she got depressed. Walking-around-all-day-in-her-housecoat-with-the-lights-out depressed. Locking-herself-in-the-bedroom-for-hours-depressed. "I'm barren," she sobbed. "You want me to kick up my heels?" He was afraid she'd jump in front of a bus or swallow pills. He tried cheering her up; her friends talked to her, too, but nothing worked. "Lori had to have kids. As far as she was concerned, everything else was just a sideshow."
"Without 'em," she said, "what's the point?"
"I didn't know there was one," he said.
She turned to faith healers and fortune tellers, to mediums, numerologists, and the I Ching; "the experts," she called them. She looked into feng shui and consulted tarot cards. Read up on Nostradamus and highlighted passages of the Bible. She changed her diet, her toothpaste, and her feminine hygiene products, but still no brat. And then some kind of specialist told them about a treatment involving a new medicine and a little mucking about Down There, under the hood. The man claimed he could fertilize Lori like a new lawn "or your money back."
"When do we start?" she said.
"Do you have any questions?" Wayne was asked. He'd dropped out of school in Grade 9, and now he had to consider a lot of big words. Four, five syllables big; Latin, even. "Sounds like a plan, doc," he said. A nurse indicated a room at the rear of the clinic, handing him a stack of dog-eared skin mags and an empty vial. The way it was done before computers took over the world. Before Porn Hub.
"Fill 'er up, Dad," the nurse said.
"I should warm up the car," Wayne said. "At this rate, we'll be lucky if the ambulance gets here next week." Lori was curled up around two spastic blobs of baby meat, each of them still slathered in sludge. "Aren't you forgetting something?"
"I turned off the stove and fed the dog."
She was propped up on her elbows. "How many kids do you see, Wayno?" But before he could do the math she rattled off a couple of more farts, and there, wriggling around on the linoleum like a salamander out of water, was the trifecta. They called him Wade.
When the boys were young, they had a hard time telling them apart. "I smacked Waldo one time for spilling cereal on the floor," Wayne said. "I thought it was Woody. "And I spanked Woody for pissing on the dog, thinking it was Waldo." Lori gave them different haircuts and dressed them in mismatched clothes. In time, the problem took care of itself. Though the boys were unmistakably triplets, Waldo was quiet and determined, economical with words. Woody was always angry, as though there was an ongoing slight needing avenging. Wade spoke softly and kept to himself. "It was the differences we noticed," she said. "If one of them got up in the night, we could tell which one by their footsteps." Waldo sounded like a soldier on the march; when he was older, nights he'd been out drinking, "it was like he was stomping on beer cans." Despite his hostility toward the world, Woody's gait was fluid and true, which served him well as an amateur athlete. Wade trod the earth lightly. "He reminded us of a fawn in the woods."
Waldo and Woody started getting into trouble as soon as they were able. "Those two were feral," said a family friend who requested anonymity. "Waldo loved a tussle, though he was never the instigator, and he wasn't a bully. He was always the toughest boy on the block. Punks challenged him, trying to make a name for themselves. If he ever lost a fight, I never heard about it."
By the time he was sixteen Woody was an accomplished delinquent, the undisputed leader of a rough crowd. He served a year in reform school for trafficking dope and boosting a car. Said Wayne: "That's where he started working with tools, in the joint. I hate to think what would have happened if he hadn't found something he liked better than trouble."
On the day his sentence had been served he was given lunch money and a bus ticket home. He bought a hotdog and a coke at the depot, but he sold the ticket at a discount and stole a BMW, driving the hundred kilometres home without a license or insurance. He did a few victory laps around the neighbourhood--there was a girl he was trying to impress--and then ditched the wheels. "Swiping that car was like his graduation thesis," said the family friend. "He was showing everyone he couldn't be broken. To some of the other kids, Woody was their Spartacus."
Waldo dropped out of school in Grade 10. "I can read and write good enough," he said. "I don't plan to do much of either." "School's overrated anyways," said Wayne. "As long as you can count your fingers and toes, a man is good to go. You want real money, you gotta steal it or marry it."
All Waldo wanted to do was lift weights. He pumped iron every day and competed in competitions. By the time he was eighteen, he'd won a few.
Woody had been held back a year at school. Fights, vandalizing property; the suspensions added up. A counsellor referred to him as a "blue ribbon truant," encouraging him to follow other malcontents into the military. "Make yourself useful," said the counsellor. "Don't fight us, fight a war. There's always one coming up."
Woody didn't like the idea of wearing a uniform, and he wasn't about to let anyone cut his hair. "The idea of shooting someone who crosses me isn't a problem. I don't want to be told who my enemy is. I can figure that part out for myself." He went to work delivering pizza.
Wade was different. His birth had been delayed, and so was he. Schools used to have special classes for kids like him. But a round of government cutbacks was announced, and Wade and those like him were dumped in with everybody else. "After me and Waldo left school," Woody said, "kids started picking on him. They stole his lunches and dunked his head in a toilet bowl."
"I'd rather go to work like my brothers," Wade told his dad. "The other kids don't like me, and every time I open a reading book, I get sleepy."
"You and me both."
Employers offered encouragement, but not a job. Wade passed most days waiting for the phone to ring and watching TV. He liked the black-and-white reruns, shows like I Love Lucy. Westerns like Gunsmoke and The Rifleman. His favourite program was Columbo, a police whodunit. "Everybody thinks Lieutenant Columbo is stupid," Wade said, "but he's not, and neither am I."
Lori accepted her boys whatever their flaws; she didn't care what others thought. "Good or bad, they're mine," she'd say. "You play the cards you're dealt, right?" Plenty of times Wayne tried convincing Waldo and Woody to behave, but he didn't have much success. He'd been a badass himself when he was their age, and they knew it. "I love my boys; I'd give my life for each of them, but Waldo made my hair turn grey, and Woody made it go white. Worrying about Wade, the prospects in this world for a boy like him, made my hair fall out."
When he was fifteen Wade fell in love with Abbie Greenfield, a year his junior. They met in a program for special needs kids. Participants were taught skills like how to tie their shoes and heat a can of soup without blowing up the house. One day Wade and Abbie and a few others from the program got lost learning how to use public transit. They were found wandering around a park a long way from where they were supposed to be. "What the hell?" Lori, frantic with worry, said to Wade when police dropped him off at home. "I just about had a heart attack!"
"Abbie and I got married, Mom," he said. "My friend Glen was the best man. After the ceremony we went to McDonald's." Wade and Abbie referred to that day, March 11, as their anniversary. Every year thereafter they'd celebrate under the Golden Arches. Wade would have the quarter pounder with cheese meal and a chocolate shake. Abbie liked the fish burger combo. He ate her fries.
"We didn't really get lost," Abbie said, "and we didn't really get married. It was just a dress rehearsal. Something happened in the park, though; I don't know what. We found each other, I guess."
The Conklins loved Abbie and the Greenfields thought the world of Wade. Both sets of parents believed their child was safer when the two of them were together. They certainly were happier. "Wade and Abbie aren't special needs," Lori said. "They're just special."
The year Wayne started work at Alemont Timber the company introduced a new policy: Any employee with a criminal record would be let go. Also, when employees reached the top pay grade, which on average took about twenty years, they were laid off and replaced with someone who began work at the lowest rate. Of course the policy was contrary to employment standards, but Alemont was non-union, so employees didn't object. Most were young. They believed a great job would come along and save the day.
"Alemont was a family operation," Wayne said. "The owner's oldest kid didn't know a tree from a fence post, but he was named vice president and given a secretary and company car. Family members dressed like they were attending a wedding and smiled constantly. All of 'em had great teeth. They were put to good use going out for expense account lunches.
"I tried persuading the guys to sign union cards, but we had a lot of immigrants and high school dropouts. They thought being in a union made them communists because management told them so. Most of the guys didn't know what a communist was, and neither did I. I still don't know why wanting a higher wage and a safe worksite makes me dangerous."
A few years later the workers went on strike to have the layoff clause rescinded; Wayne was on the bargaining committee. Management agreed to a compromise: Employees reaching the top pay grade would still be terminated, but they could "nominate" a replacement. Those like Wayne who had sons could nominate them; everyone else was shit out of luck. The conviction edict remained. "It was strictly enforced," Wayne said. "Break the law, lose your job. Of course it didn't apply to the goofs who ran the joint. It was like they belonged to some superior species. You'd be surprised how many workers believed they were."
Waldo worked the greenchain on the afternoon shift, just like dad, which allowed him to train in the morning. There were photos of him posing in bikini trunks on a wall in the rec room, Mr. This and Mr. That. He'd twice taken home the trophy for Best Abs.
"Lori's friends were always flirting with him," Wayne said. "He did hundreds of sit-ups a day and lived on lettuce and yogurt." Woody made an image on his computer of a banana poking out of posing briefs. He gave it a title, Waldo's Wang, and fastened it to the fridge door. Every time it was removed, Woody replaced it with another: same image, smaller wang.
After Wayne received his pink slip from the mill he had a résumé made up, his first ever, and started looking for work, but he didn't receive a single inquiry. So he took out a bank loan and bought an ice cream truck. "Summers were good," he said. "I kept busy servicing the parks and playgrounds with brownie sundaes and Alaska bars. The money wasn't great, but at least I was doing something. Winters were dead. I hung around the house bothering Lori and playing checkers with Wade. I started drinking again." Lori worked several shifts a week at Walmart, and she put an application in for full time. "We were making enough to survive," she said, "Just."
So much of life, Wayne realized, is a zero sum game: Good news to some is bad news to others. He's let go, Waldo inherits a job. Lori's mother passes, Lori and her sister split the life insurance. "Just like that, this close to bouncing a cheque, we never had so much money in our lives," she said. The second house was her idea. It was a buyer's market, and the place next door had been sitting empty for months. They knew the owner, and got it for a good price. "Wade will always need us," she said. "We aren't getting any younger, and I don't want my baby going into a group home. No one will love him there."
Wayne's ice cream income slipped the following summer. Mothers weren't letting their kids eat as many bunny cones and caramel cakes, and the price of gas and insurance had increased. To defray reno costs on the new house, the basement suite was rented to language students from Korea. "Whenever it looked like we might be coming up for air, something would happen," Wayne said. "One of the boys needed dental work, the car would break down." Waldo was the only Conklin with full-time work. Asking him for help was unnecessary. Every month he turned his paycheque over to Mom, who handled the family finances. "When I wasn't working, the family carried me."
Woody wasn't making much delivering pizza, but he was finishing high school at night so he could qualify for a carpentry apprenticeship; he also did a lot of the renovations on the new house. When Wayne gave up on ice cream and started driving cabs, Woody converted the truck into a camping van. Every summer the Conklins spent a week at Long Beach. "He was slowing down and smartening up," Lori said. "I credit his new girlfriend Tamara for that. There's not much he could do about all those tattoos, but he got rid of the piercings and wasn't smoking so much dope. Boys like him need more than a kick in the ass: They need a woman with brains to kick them in the ass. Tamara's a teacher. She has a few."
Waldo was walking home from the gym when he came across a guy roughing up a woman in an alley. It appeared to be a boyfriend-girlfriend thing. Waldo hadn't been in a scrap for a few years, and he didn't want to be in one that night, but he was a Conklin, and a Conklin didn't abide hurting women. "Leave her alone, man," he said. "You've made your point." Most people glimpsing his brawn took the advice. Bud Kimpke wasn't most people. "Keep walking, asshole," he said. "Ain't none of your business." And then he punched the girl in the face.
"Once he decides it's on," Wayne said, "Waldo pulls out all the stops." The next face punched was Kimpke's, twice. Waldo helped the girl up. "The nose looks broken, Miss," he said. "Let's get you to the hospital."
"Way to go, asshole!" she screamed. "Now where am I gonna stay?" When Waldo was checking on Kimpke, she ran off.
Someone saw the fight--or part of it--and gave police descriptions of the combatants. "Waldo passed that way almost every day," Woody said, "he's hard not to notice, so the police didn't have any trouble finding him. We had to put up bail."
At the time of his arrest Waldo was on the shortlist for a night foreman's position at the mill. If he did good, he was told, there might be a place for him in management. But if he was found guilty, given the company's policy on criminal convictions, he'd lose his job, and if he lost his job, the Conklins would lose the second house.
Wade and Abbie recently had their first child, a girl; they named her Emma, after Lori's late mother. She appeared to be normal in every way. The official marriage came later. The two families chipped in for a honeymoon stay at a resort on the Sunshine Coast. Abbie's sister and her husband chaperoned; Wayne and Lori babysat. On their return to town, Woody's renovations complete, the nuptials were presented keys to the house next door.
"I've never lived away from my parents," Wade said that first night. He was hearing sounds, having trouble sleeping. "That's why we live next door to your parents," Abbie said. "You wanna talk to Mom, open a window."
Wade had found a job bussing tables at a food fair in a downtown mall, part of a government program encouraging businesses to hire the challenged. When the program was discontinued, he was kept on. "He loves his job," Wayne said. "Loves getting up and going to work, loves turning on the lights and greeting customers. When they need people to cover weekend shifts, he's the first to volunteer. It's hard to believe he's my seed."
The witness to the beating was a Mrs. Marlene Drew, a widow; the altercation happened in the alley behind her low-rise. The walls of her apartment were lined with framed scrolls featuring inspiring Christian messages. The scroll at the foot of her bed said, "Read the Bible, it'll scare the hell out of you." Another, above the kitchen sink, said, "It's hard to stumble when you're already on your knees."
"My eyesight," she told police, "is excellent for a woman of my years. I only need glasses to read scripture. I'm 20/20 for everything else." Waldo was brought into the station for a lineup. Mrs. Drew identified him right away. "That's your man. Now what about that reward?"
Wayne found Ludmilla Karpinsky through a lawyer referral service. She was an affable, big-boned woman, a former shotput champ. Waldo felt comfortable with her right away, one jock talking to another. There was a photo on her desk, Ludmilla in a crouch, the cannonball-size shot tucked into her neck. A fierce glint blazed in her eyes. "The only shot I lift these days comes in a glass with plenty of ice."
She went through the evidence folder sent over by the prosecution. Kimpke was claiming he was alone in the alley that night. That Waldo jumped him without cause. She read aloud from his statement to police: "There was no dame. The beefcake should be tested for steroids."
"Our problem," Ludmilla explained to the Conklins, "is Mrs. Drew. She didn't see anyone else in the alley, and police haven't been able to find a girlfriend. We can probably plea bargain to a lesser charge, but you'll still be stuck with a criminal record. I should also point out that Kimpke is probably hoping to use a guilty verdict to backstop a civil suit. He smells a payday."
The first few rows in the spectator section of Courtroom #4 were occupied by Waldo's friends. A snarling Kimpke, a bandage covering one eye, sat alone, off to the side. A motley assortment of homeless types snoozed in the back row. A few awaited the proceedings, a trial by judge, like a daily soap. At 10 a.m. a short grandmotherly sort in a black silk robe strode in through a side door. Judge Kathleen Walding seemed unimpressed by the size of the audience. It was she who allowed the indigenous to shelter in her courtroom. She didn't mind if they were too tired to come to attention. "I'm not the Queen of England. If they should need some shut-eye, what's the harm?"
Waldo, freshly scrubbed and deodorized, sat to the left of Ludmilla at the defence table. She had overseen his makeover. The tight T-shirt and jeans had been replaced with a navy blue suit and red necktie. His hair was cut short and parted. A pair of horn-rims were filled with clear glass. She got the entire costume at Value Village. "We hardly recognized Waldo," Woody said. "He looked like a funeral director."
The first day of the trial featured opening remarks by the defence and prosecution, which were followed by incomprehensible procedural discussions. When one of the homeless began snoring, Judge Walding pounded her gavel. "We'll resume in the morning. If it's as boring as it was today, you should all demand a refund."
The Crown's case, presented in the a.m. by a weary career prosecutor by the name of Lemon, unfolded just as Ludmilla had said it would. The police responding to Mrs. Drew's call testified first. The paramedics who attended to Kimpke followed. Prosecutor Lemon then called Mrs. Drew to the stand. He asked if she saw anyone else in the alley that night.
"Just the good guy and the bad guy."
"It must have been very upsetting,"
"I've had worse disagreements with my cat."
Ludmilla asked, "You told police you were on your balcony pruning your rose bushes when you heard a commotion."
"What of it?"
"And how are your roses doing, Mrs. Drew?"
"God damned things are starting to die, if you must know."
"Is it possible there was a girl in the alley, but that you couldn't see her from your balcony? It was late, and the lighting was poor."
"How would I know what I can't see?"
Ludmilla didn't have any luck breaking down Kimpke's story either. He was a petty thief who'd had plenty of experience with the justice system. He wasn't intimidated by threats of perjury. "This hulk stepped out from a shadow and started walloping me for no reason. If he hadn't got the jump on me, I would have taught him some manners." Waldo's supporters in the front rows roared.
Ludmilla was composing her summation when Wade called.
"I have an idea.
"It happens to everyone. Take two Aspirins. Get some bedrest."
"Do you watch much TV? I do."
"I like Game of Thrones," she said. "I identify with Brienne of Tarth. You know, the big one everyone makes fun of."
"I like her, too," Abbie, listening in on the extension, said.
"Ever watch Columbo?" Wade asked. "It's on Thursday mornings--tomorrow. Have a look; I know the episode."
Even more of Waldo's workmates and gym buddies turned up for the final day. Judge Walding allowed standing room only. "Don't make so much as a peep back there or I'll toss the lot of ya. Big muscles don't scare me."
Prosecutor Lemon was confident he'd scored his points. "We rest our case, Your Honour." Ludmilla recalled Mrs. Drew to the stand. "You said you had a good look at the person who attacked Mr. Kimpke, and you've identified my client, Waldo Conklin."
"He's guilty, that's why."
"That's my line," said the judge.
Ludmilla asked Waldo to stand and face the witness. He was wearing the same blue suit and red necktie he'd worn throughout the trial. "Please look at the people in this courtroom one more time. It's important that you're absolutely certain about the individual you saw assault Mr. Kimpke."
Just as Mrs. Drew was about to name Waldo, a figure near the back stood and removed a raincoat. Like the accused, he was wearing a navy blue suit and red necktie. His hair was neatly parted, and he wore horn-rimmed eyeglasses. A murmur rippled through the courtroom; a deep blush spread across Mrs. Drew's pallid cheeks. Her confusion deepened when a second man on the opposite side of the courtroom stood. He, too, was wearing a navy blue suit and red necktie.
"You've testified that your eyesight is 20/20," said Ludmilla.
"You might have warned me it was going to be multiple choice."
Several of the homeless in the back row shook off their slumber and sat upright. Many of the spectators, none more anxious of the outcome than the Conklin clan, inched to the edge of their seats. The Crown's star witness lifted her crooked index finger, aiming it at each of the navy blue suits, but then, inexplicably, her expression changed, her body stiffened. To some who witnessed the proceedings that day, Mrs. Drew's accusatory digit wilted, her hand fell to her side, as though, like the roses on her balcony, it had been denied water and sunshine. To others, the old woman appeared to have been stricken by a mysterious spell. She seemed bewildered, frightened. "Like a small girl," Wayne Conklin would say, "lost in the woods."
Vancouver writer Don McLellan has worked as a journalist in Canada, South Korea, and Hong Kong. He has published two story collections, In the Quiet After Slaughter (Libros Libertad, a 2009 ReLit Award finalist) and Brunch with the Jackals (Thistledown Press, 2015). More at donmclellan.com.