Chapter 1 of Fish and Dicks

Jim Prime and Ben Robicheau

Gurrey and Grime are fish-gutters and detectives on Digby Neck and the Islands.

1: Funeral Sandwiches

 

It was Sunday afternoon and Ben Gurrey was sitting in the front row of the small chapel at the Islands Funeral Home and Wax Museum. He was staring at the stainless-steel urn that rested on a low table next to the pulpit.

   Suddenly his old friend Jim Grime burst through the door waving a letter in the air. “Gurrey, it’s true, it’s really true!”

   “Grimey, I don’t think this is the time or—”

   But Grime wasn’t listening. He paced back and forth past the urn, reading and re-reading the sheet of paper and chuckling. Finally, he took a deep breath and spoke. “Remember that letter I wrote about a month ago?”

   “The one to that Judi Dench? How many times have I gotta tell you she ain’t interested in you? That’s twelve letters you’ve written to that poor woman and even Interpol has warned you to cease and desist.”

   “Dame Dench be damned,” said Grime. “This is the letter I sent to that company that traces your ancestry.”

   “You mean that there Twenty-two Skidoo?”

   “Twenty-Two and You. This here’s from them. Oh, Gurrey, I’m so excited I could climb a pole. Listen to this:

 

Dear Mr. Grime,

Thank you for joining Twenty-Two and You. We have completed the initial stages of our research into your family tree and have discovered the following information—

 

“They discover your family tree was a wreath?” Gurrey said.

   Grime ignored him and continued reading. “‘You come from Franco-English stock, most likely the area then known as Brittany.’ Let’s see...blah, blah, blah…‘family of sheep stealers and sheep shag’…’”

   Grime hesitated, then continued, “Blah, blah, blah…‘tried for treason’…blah, blah, blah….‘placed in the stocks’…blah, blah, blah… ‘stowed away on the Mayflower disguised as a nun’…blah, blah, blah…Oh, here’s the good part. ‘We have found a match between the DNA sample that you sent us and a sample in our data base. We are certain that you will be excited to learn that we have determined with 85% accuracy that you are a descendant of former Westport, Nova Scotia resident and nautical legend Joshua Slocum. If you wish to learn more about this family connection, please send an additional $149.95 so that we can conduct further research into this amazing discovery.’” Grime looked up from the letter to see his friend’s reaction.

   “Slocum? I’ve heard that name before somewhere,” Gurrey said, scratching his head with a hymnal. “He the fella used to work down at the fish plant? Got that Hersey girl in the family way then took off?”

   “No, no! Joshua Slocum! The greatest man to ever come off these islands! Back in 1895, he was the very first man to sail alone around the world! Wrote a book about it! Can you imagine being a pioneer in circumnavigation, the courage it took? Think you coulda done that?”

   “Ain’t really given it much thought,” Gurrey said, wincing slightly. “I hear tell it’s awful painful and at my age I don’t see the point. Besides, that ain’t a fit subject for a funeral parlour. We oughta be givin’ our respects to the recently dear departed.”

   “Yeah, of course, you’re right,” Grime said in a more subdued voice. He took a seat alongside his friend. “We’ll discuss it later. Poor old Clayton. Some say he was the worst man ever to come off this island.”

   Seeing the sadness on his friend’s face, he realized he’d gone too far and quickly tried to make amends. “Salt of the earth, though, when he weren’t liquored up.”

   An awkward silence followed until Grime eventually asked, “Had he been sick?”

   “No, no, he died in excellent health.” Gurrey leaned over to whisper into Grime’s ear despite the fact that they were the only living people in the room. “Happened while he was on the throne, if you get my drift, attendin’ to his toilette. Just finishin’ up the paperwork when he took a funny turn.”

   “That’s terrible,” Grime said, patting him on the shoulder. “Flushed away in the prime of his life. Poor Bonita.”

   “You can say that again.” Gurrey said haltingly. “Ya see, he was down to Edna Tupper’s trailer—you know, that double-wide next to the highway, the trailer I mean, not Edna—when it happened. Bonita sure put up with a lot from that man of hers. You might almost say his passin’ was a huge relief.”

   Grime’s face registered little surprise at the news. “Gotta admit, she deserved better.”

   “Still, it’s sad. I’ve known Clay all my life. Why, we pole-vaulted into puberty together when we wuz 16 or so. Hung out down by the fish plant at Roney’s Point trying to pick up the girlies during smoke breaks. You know, Bonita has asked me to deliver the urology.”

   “Quite an honour. But what do you say about a feller like Old Clay? Laziest man I ever met. Never worked a day in his life if he could help it. Never travelled more than thirty miles from his dinner table. Told me once, ‘Travel might broaden the mind, but it sure narrows the wallet.’ Cheap!? Clay could squeeze a nickel ’til the beaver squawked. And his womanizing was out of control. Why if even half the stories are true, he was the biggest philanthropist in three counties. Always tendin’ up two or three at a time.”

   “Don’t I know it! That’s why I’m really struggling to come up with something 'ceptable to say. You know, for Bonita’s sake.”

   Gurrey fished in his back pocket and extracted a crumpled piece of paper, smoothing it out on his pant leg. “I’ve jotted down a few of them, what you call bon mots, but to tell the truth, it’s hard to put him in a good light. You always had a way with words, Grimey. Can you help?”

   Grime struggled to control the emotion that was welling up inside him, thrilled that his friend thought so highly of his literary talents. After a brief pause, he answered. “Well, read me what you got. Sometimes it’s all in the way you say it.”

   Gurrey cleared his voice and read. “Clayton Young often visited with area widows until all hours and on two occasions was accused of stealing their welfare checks. He died on the crapper at the home of one of these lady friends.”

   “No, no, no!” Grime said. “That’s no-good a-tall. How ’bout this?” He cleared his throat. “Although he never actually attended church, in his own way Clayton Young was a spiritual man who believed in loving his neighbour, whenever and wherever the opportunity presented itself. He was ’specially concerned with the welfare of the weaker sex. Clay died secure in the knowledge that he had intimately touched many people.”

   Gurrey stared at Grime with childlike admiration. A smile spread across his face as he quickly scribbled the words in the margins of the lined paper. He resumed reading with enthusiasm. “He fathered countless illegitimate children all over this island,” he said, and paused to hear how his simple words would be miraculously transformed by the Shakespeare of the Tri-Island area.

   Grime scratched his beard and vigorously explored his left ear with his forefinger before replying. “Let’s see here. How about: ‘A civic minded man, he worked tirelessly to expand the tax base of Brier Island’?”

   Gurrey scribbled furiously, silently mouthing the words he’d just heard. He continued to read. “He was born tired, and laziness set in. Completely bone-idle.”

   “He was a pioneer in the conservation of energy,” said Grime, somewhat smugly.

   There was another pause as Gurrey jotted down the words. He took a deep breath and went on. “Clay could not be trusted around your money. He continually lied to your face and always embellished his few accomplishments.”

   “Pshaw,” said Grime, warming to his task. “He had the makings of a fine politician.”

   Gurrey had to fight the urge to applaud. “Oh, that’s good! That’s real good!”

   “Due to several undiagnosed illnesses that prevented him from exerting any physical effort whatsoever, his money came from welfare and disability cheques, as well as from Bonita’s 12-hour shifts at the fish factory, when she wasn’t in labour...” For a split second it looked as if Grime had been stymied. He peered upward toward the chapel ceiling as if seeking divine intervention, paused dramatically, and raised a finger.

   “The bulk of his income was derived from various high government sources and he was always a firm supporter of women in the workplace.”

   “Perfect! Just one more Grimey, but it’s a tough one. ‘His hobbies included, scratchin’ lottery tickets, eatin’ pork scratchins and plain ol’ scratchin’. Also, whittlin’, spittin’, jackin’ deer—and bingo, when his health permitted. His only cultural pursuit was watching Dating Naked on the TV...”

   Grime improvised a yawn, as if this was too easy. “Clayton Young was a true Renaissance man.”

   Gurrey copied the words, finishing with a flourish. He wiped a single tear from his eye. “Well done! You shoulda been a lawyer, or maybe a minister or con man of some kind. You got him soundin’ practically like a saint. Bonita should be some happy with that.”

   The mention of the widow seemed to shake Grime. “Er, speaking of Bonita, have you noticed any change in her since his passing?”

   “Well, other than looking like she’s had a huge burden finally lifted off her shoulders, no, not really. Why?”

   “I know this is gonna sound crazy, but I kind of got the feeling that she has the hots for me. She always did sort of give off them vibes, you know, always complimenting me on how I smell and so on. I think it’s the mixture of Absorbine Jr and Arrid Extra Dry. Well, I went to the private viewing last night and she was comin’ onta me right there in the vestry, while I was munchin’ on a funeral sandwich. I think she knows that Clay was cheating on her and wants revenge by sleeping with me.”

   “Never! Not Bonita!”

   Grime was wringing his hands nervously. “Said she don’t know how she’ll be able to go on alone, now that she’s recently become a sexagenarian and all. Sexagenarian! Now ain’t that something for a sixty-one-year-old woman to say!?”

   “Disgraceful! Er…what exactly is a sexagenarian, Grimey?”

   “I ain’t ’zactly sure myself, but I think it involves…you know…different positions. Like in that book with the pictures down at Phil’s barber shop.”

   “You mean the Karmann Ghia?”

   “That’s her!” Grime said. He lowered his voice. “Hey, Ben, what do you think about what they get up to in that 50 Shades of Grey?”

   “Perfectly understandable. Vera and me did it in the fog sometimes too. You have to if you live along the coast. Less you wanna stay celebrate all your life.”

   “No, no, I mean, er, like, did you ever tie Vera up?”

   “Why would I do a fool thing like that? She wasn’t in any danger of drifting away. But they do say it’s good for a marriage to mix things up a bit…er, in what they call the boudoir. What, eh, position do you favour, Grimey?”

   Grime raised his eyebrows. “On sex? Oh, I’m all for it, acourse!”

   “I assumed that, I mean what position do you favour, you know…in the carnival knowledge sense?”

   “Oh, I see. Well, it’s been a while, but me and the missus didn’t go in for them meringue de trois and such. We only ever had but the one position—the trusty old missionary. Those people do wonderful work. I figure if it’s good enough for Mother Theresa it’s good enough for Jim Grime. A place for everything and everything in its place. Eyup, never heard a word of complaint from Edna in the 38 years we were married, not a word! Right up to the day she up and walked out the door and never came back. Was spoutin’ some nonsense about being unappreciated and unsatisfied. Mumblin’ something about me not listening to her or some such foolishness! I'm not really sure, I only heard bits and pieces. I was watching The Wheel at the time. As I recall, somebody was buyin’ a vowel.”

   Gurrey grew wistful. “With me and Vera you could set your watch by it—every Saturday night after the first period of Hockey Night in Canada. When Coach’s Corner comes on. That Don Cherry feller is a regular aphrodisiac to Vera. I think it’s them suits. You know, the ones that look like seat covers for a 1992 Dodge Dart. The louder the suit the better the... you know. And that 12-minute show is just the perfect time to do our thing, have a cigarette and re-polish the coffee table.”

   He stuck his chest out proudly. “Yep, over the years, I figure I’ve scored more often than the Toronto Maple Leafs. Anyways, I’ll be glad when the burial is over. It’s cold up there to the graveyard. Freeze the you-know-whats off a brass monkey.”

   “Cold don’t bother me,” said Grime.

   “Why’s that?”

   “I wear them there Stanfields. Not only was the man a great premier, but he made wonderful long johns. Stanfield’s Trap Doors, that’s the name. STDs for short. Been wearing ‘em for twenty years. Buy ‘em by the case every few years up to Digby. Irregulars, but who’s gonna tell? Even give ‘em as gifts sometimes.”

   He stood up and stretched. “Excuse me, I gotta go see a man about a horse. Be right back.”

   Moments after Grime left for the washroom, the chapel door opened and Bonita came in, dabbing her eyes with a tissue. She nodded to Gurrey and sat down beside him.

   “Hi, Ben.”

   “Hello, Bon. How you holding up?”

   “It ain’t easy. I loved Clay, but you know what he was like. Hard to forgive him. He had a wandering eye, you know.”

   “That’s true. He really could’ve used some corrective surgery.”

   Bonita gave him an annoyed glance and blew her nose. “I know he was seeing other women. I overheard someone talking about him and it made me so ashamed.”

   “Oh, Bon…”

   “I know you were his oldest friend, Ben Gurrey, but don’t try to deny it.”

   “No better or no worse than most men, I s’pose, Bon.”

   “I don’t believe it. He was the worst man to ever come off these islands! Look at that Jim Grime. Now there’s a nice man! Respectful. Clean-livin’. Smells like laundry that’s been on the line all day. That’s the kind of man I shoulda married. Where is he anyway?”

   The words were hardly out of her mouth when she felt a hand on her shoulder.

   “Hey, Bonita. Sorry again about Clay,” Grime said. He sat down on the other side of Bonita and patted her hand.

   Bonita looked at him meaningfully and clutched his hand in hers. “Thanks, Jim. You’re a good man. A decent man.” She paused, examining his face with concern. “You all right? You’re perspiring something terrible.”

   “Oh, it's nothing, just my STDs. They make me sweat something fierce sometimes. But I tell you, it’s worth it! I don’t mind putting up with a little sweating and itching. I was just tellin’ Gurrey here how I got my first case of STDs twenty years ago from that pretty young red-headed clerk who used to work at the Metropolitan store in Digby.”

   Bonita put her hand to her mouth, stifling a gasp.

   “Yup, then I got my second case from the old lady that mostly worked in Women’s Whatnots at Zeller’s.”

   Bonita’s eyes grew large and her mouth fell open.

   “And the third time it was from that Bruce fella at the Walmart in New Minas, the fella with the Popeye tattoo on his arm. Now it seems I can’t hardly go up the Valley without coming back with a new case of STDs. I pass them along to friends, too. It’s the gift that keeps on giving.”

   Aghast, Bonita leaped to her feet and slapped Grime across his face. She moved quickly to the urn, hugged it close to her breast and headed for the door.

   “I take it all back, Clay,” she said to his ashes. “You wasn’t the worst man on these here islands. Not by a long shot. Let’s go home.”