Salter reached out to hold onto the dock as he got ready to step out of the boat; in his other hand he carried his weekend bag and two fishing rods. He waited until Seth, his son, was also holding onto the dock, then let go and slowly stood up straight. Stepping cleanly from the boat to the dock is nearly as important in disembarking from an aluminum dinghy as from a canoe. If you lean forward, you push the boat away with your back foot before you have completely stepped up onto the dock. All this Salter had properly in mind, but the dock had been rebuilt since the previous year and was slightly higher than his leg remembered, thus it caught his foot as he swung it forward, dumping him face down on the dock, bending back his wrist as he hung onto his bag and his fishing rods, bruising his knees and his hip, and abrading his cheekbone.
Seth said, “Jesus, Dad. Take it
,” as if Salter had fallen as the result of failing to complete a handstand at his age.
Salter lay on the dock for a moment, then raised his head, said “Shit” and grimaced comically at Seth in an effort to reassure his son that he felt more foolish than injured. He climbed onto his knees. “They raised the fucking dock,” he said, trying for a mock-serious tone that would make light of his fall.
“I guess,” Seth said, missing the jocularity and therefore slightly shocked at the obscenity. “Be careful going up the ramp. The river's gone down and it's kind of steep.”
“I'll crawl up it, shall I?” This, too, was meant to be a joke but
there was enough irritation in his voice to make Seth flinch slightly, and Salter scrambled to get the right tone back. “Or I could wait until next spring when the river comes up again,” he said, smiling. And then a wave lifted the dock slightly, causing him to stumble, not quite to fall.
Seth grabbed him and held him steady before Salter could brush him off. Now Salter tried for one last pleasantry. “Don't tell your mother,” he said. “I promised her I'd lay off liquor after I set fire to the barn that time.”
Seth laughed politely and started to unload the equipment from the boat. Salter put his bag on top of the cooler, adjusted the rods in his hand, picked up the cooler and walked up the ramp to the marina parking lot. When he tried to haul back the sliding door on the minivan he found that he had sprained his wrist when he fell.
Seth got behind the wheel without any argument from Salter, who licked the blood from his knuckles and thought about the incident and the pattern it was part of, about what the pattern showed about other patterns in his life lately; in the process, he uncovered some things he had not been aware of.
Tripping up like that could happen to anybody, of course; it wasn't the tripping that bothered him but the failure of his reflexes to respond in time to soften the fall. He had had the same experience at the cabin. Once a year Salter went fishing, using this cabin located three hundred twenty kilometers north of Toronto, so he had a clear measure of the rate at which he deteriorated year by year. It seemed a lot this time. The rock, for example. To get to the cabin from the shore you had to climb up about thirty feet of incline, rock which in winter lay under the ice and acquired a thin mebrane of black moss. This dried in the sun and became as adhesive as a well-laid tennis court, but when it was wet it was as slippery as a coat of grease. Even Seth slowed down, moving warily, getting footholds on the tiny patches of pink unmossed rock and seeing the places on the black moss which would support a light, brief step as he skipped to the next patch of dry rock. Once Salter had been able to do that, but this year he had been roundly defeated; every tentatively placed foot shot
out from under him when he tried to stand and he had had to grab Seth's hand repeatedly to avoid sliding into the river. Finally he took the alternate route up to the cabin, along the beach to the path through the brush and the little set of granny steps that led up to the slab of rock the cabin rested on. It was like using the ladies' tee. And the route up to the outhouse, which he had once admired for the way the owner of the cabin, a colleague of Salter's in the Organized Crime Unit, had made nature yield up a path over roots and around rocks without laying concrete, now seemed a fifty-yard booby trap guaranteed to break your ankle in the dark.
So some nimbleness had gone? As they drove up to the chip wagon at Point au Baril, Salter was inclined to shrug it off until he opened the car door to jump down and found no answer when he called on his legs. Stiff? After sitting for fifty kilometers? Less than half an hour?
“It's okay, Dad,” Seth said, uncoiling himself from the driver's seat like a limbo dancer and turning towards the chip wagon as he descended. “I'll get 'em. Small or large fries? Salt and vinegar?”
Salter finished standing up. Not decrepit; just bruised, surely. He had fallen more heavily than he thought. Be gone in a day. “You want some coffee?” he asked.
“I can carry it.”
“They don't sell coffee at the chip wagon. You have to go to the gas station. I'll get it. Cream and two sugars, right?”
“Yeah, sure, but I could get it after â¦”
“No sweat.” Salter judged his legs safe and ready now. He gave them their orders and walked with hardly any jerkiness to the gas station to pick up the coffee.
They ate their chips at the picnic table and capped the rest of their coffee to drink along the highway. Back, seated in the van, Salter said, “Here, I'll hold your coffee until you get settled.”
Instead of answering, Seth pulled out the little tray under the dash. Two cup holders popped up, ready to take their coffee. “See?” Seth said.
“Right. Right. I never use it myself.”
“How long you had this van? Three years?”
“And you never used this tray?”
“I forgot it was there.”
Now he probably sounded senile. Christ! He was only sixty. Still playing squash, wasn't he? And generally beating the little gang of semiretired seniors he played with, lawyers and accountants mostly, men undistinguishedâeven unsuccessfulâby the standards of the sharks of their professions, or they would not be playing at his club but at one of the grand ones suitable for entertaining clients from out of town. These were contented, self-deprecating family men who lived in Leaside or near the Old Mill and said “Golly!” when their opponents hit a good shot. Salter himself still leaped and ran and dived for the ball when it came his way, his body reacting on the court as well as when he was fifty, unaware of any need to compensateâit did so for thirty minutes, anyway, which was all the members of his age group lasted. Three games.
Up to a point: because two years ago he had faced a new tragedy on one of the few occasions he had behaved prudently. In the course of a routine visit to his optometrist he had let her know, bragging a little, that he still played squash without glasses. She was appalled, delivering a lecture on the possibility of a smashed eyeball that could result from being hit by a squash ball that exactly fit the eye socket, never mind the wounds that your opponent's racquet could cause. Salter humbly bought some gogglesâall his opponents had been using them for yearsâeven paying a hefty premium to get prescription lenses. The first time he used them he found himself in an unfamiliar universe, like someone on a mood-enhancing drug. His perception of distance especially was awry, and that, combined with the consciousness of this new structure strapped to his head, caused him to jump back too quickly and too far in pursuit of an overhead ball and smash his shoulder against the back wall, which was much closer than he had judged. That night, one side of his body was dark blue with a rosy edge where it met the uncompacted flesh in the middle of his chest. The diagnosis was a rotator cuff injury. But in a month his normal coloring returned and he started to play again, finding that in spite of the clicking sounds and the feeling that he had exchanged
some of the small bones in his shoulder for a bag of marbles, he found his game was about the same, and when he discarded the three-hundred-dollar goggles in favor of a six dollar pair with plain lenses that didn't interfere with his peripheral vision, he could still play at about the old level. That was a great relief, because playing squash was now about the only activity that completely wiped out the world for thirty minutes a week.
In the mirror, without his reading glasses on, he thought he looked pretty good, and he was able to dismiss the fact that well-mannered high school girls, especially black ones, now occasionally offered him a seat on the subway. To them, everybody over thirty is doddering, right? He had a bit more trouble with the knowledge that several times lately he had been offered seniors' discounts in dry-cleaning stores and cinemas, again, especially by West Indian women, but here too he was able to surmise that all white men in their prime must look old to young black women, the white skin only shrouding the skull beneath.
Salter tried to tell himself that he was being silly. He had been feeling his age for as long as he could remember, but he was still not about to join the growing band of his peers seeking eternal youth in Viagra and hair transplants and weight lifting. Accept what is natural to the age, he told himself, and discard or at least stare down the rest. So, sure, be a bit more careful stepping out of boats and lifting rocks. But don't worry if you can't remember the movie you saw last nightânot just its name but anything that happened during the whole two hours, even the genre. War? Song and dance? Jane Austen? Ah, fuck it. Look, talking to Seth over the weekend he had found, effortlessly, the name of Petrucchio from
the Taming of the Shrew,
a play he had seen only once twelve years before. It was all in there somewhere.
He went into a light doze and woke up as they passed the sign for Honey Harbor with the real problem on his mind, the problem of whether he was finally all washed up, and what he should do about it. And now he made the shift from pondering his condition to realizing he was not alone in being aware of the damage. Now he consciously brought to mind (instead of unconsciously repressing) all the small signs that he and his deterioration were being daily discussed by his nearest and dearest, by his acquaintances, and certainly by his
enemies. Now he realized that Seth had gone to some trouble to come fishing with him, silent as to the inconvenience, although Seth's need to fish had decreased steadily since he was twelve. The very smoothness with which the weekend had come together indicated a conspiracy which had begun as soon as Salter had announced he wanted to go fishing, and expected to go alone. What Annie had seen then, Salter realized now, was a vision of her tottering husband surrounded by large rocks and larger waves, breaking an ankle on his way up to the outhouse at night, and thus trapped until daylight when a passing boat might see his feeble signal. So Seth was recruited without fuss because they had all been discussing behind his back for some time the roles they would soon be playing in alleviating his advancing senility. Right?
Which led him once more to the realization that the same thing was happening at work. Salter was head and sole member of the Special Affairs Unit and worked on special assignment directly for the deputy chief. The unit had been created to deal with some specific unusual situations, such as investigating crooked politicians who were members of the Police Commission. Salter had handled several such sensitive cases, and in between times he had assisted Homicide, which was always understaffed. But for a year now, although the unit had remained in existenceâin name, at least-he himself had been in fact the deputy's personal assistant. His
assistant, his office boy, earning his pay by doing the deputy's desk work and listening to the deputy, who liked to talk his ideas out before he went public. Even this role had shrunk lately, and Salter now came to the conclusion, about fifty kilometers south of Barrie, where Seth pulled in for gas, that Deputy Chief Mackenzie was waiting for him to accept the fact that under the rules this was Salter's last year-sixty was the limit for active police work-and he became filled with anxiety.
He had even sought out former Staff Superintendent Orliff, his old boss, who, though long retired, still kept in touch because he was a political animal and that's what he liked to do. But in the matter of Salter's situation, beyond flicking away as paranoia the idea that there was any kind of conspiracy to keep Salter in the paddock, Orliff had
no advice or understanding to offer. “You've gotta retire this year, that's the rule. Unless you're a deputy, you have to be street-ready, which means not over sixty. In the meantime, Marinelli doesn't need you, and Mackenzie likes having you around. If you were ten years younger, the chief would try to get his money's worth out of you. But my guess is that if they think about you at all, yeah, they're glad Mackenzie is looking after you until you go away. Nobody's got it in for you, but if you make a nuisance of yourself, you'll finish up in Public Relations.”
So there it was. Salter played a little golf in the summer, and squash twice a week, and he could not imagine what he would do with the rest of his time if he stopped work. His situation was thus frightening, and banal.