FATHER AND SON step from the sunless woods flanking the ravine. When their eyes adjust to the light they notice the red line running like a spill of table wine the length of Begby Avenue. Mosley, the family dog, straddles a spew of intestines. It sniffs, scowls, ambles off.
Neighbours trickle to the curb; a few snap photos of the tire tracks stamped on the hapless beaver’s leathery tail. Others, in silhouette, are satisfied looking on from living room windows. Residing across from the ravine, they’d seen this sort of thing before. Condo developments upstream had been annexing the neighbourhood’s natural habitat for years.
“Has anyone called the Pound?” Hayden hears someone ask.
“They’re on their way.”
“Looks like an adult female. It was probably foraging.”
His son Sean recognizes the mangled carcass. Hot tears scorch the boy’s pastel eyes. They’d been walking Mosley through the ravine Sunday mornings. From a birder’s blind they’d watched a colony of beavers build a dam, constructing a cone-shaped winter lodge in the new pond. They marvelled at how the fingered front paws manage the building materials, first the mud, stones, and logs, then the moss and twigs. The tender care of the kits, now orphaned.
“Just like people,” Sean had remarked.
It comes to life, wearily spying the onlookers. Attempts to crawl, but then slumps back onto the pavement. Shutterbugs leave the curb, crouching for close-ups. A man asks Sean to step back, deferring to Hayden for parental approval. “We have to put it out of its misery,” the man says. He places his boot on the beaver’s neck, leans forward. The brittle spine snaps like a potato chip.
He wakes at half past four, six days a week, cycling the ten kilometres to the store. The employee entrance has to be unlocked by five fifteen for the six o’clock opening. Erica doesn’t start work until nine, so he’s gone by the time she gets up. They hadn’t been getting along – never had, really – so he’s bunking in the garage again.
She’s well-preserved, Erica. Lets everyone know about the modelling in her teens. Delights informing him whenever one of her male colleagues makes a pass. His stoic discomfort amuses her. Erica’s parents side with her on all issues. Helen, she with a handbag under each eye and a smoker’s hack, complained about his tone the last time she’d called. Alleges curtness.
“Mom was right about you.”
“So give her a door prize.”
Since Sean’s birth the in-laws visit at least once a year. Neil is enormous, red-faced, a stuffed panda of a man. He camps most days in the living room of their modest rental, tirelessly reminiscing about his forty “wonderful” years with the towing company. On weekends, Hayden off with Sean or at his easel, mother and daughter haunt the malls. Neil parks himself in front of the golf channel. Paradise, he calls it.
Helen, who favours name brand tracksuits and designer sneakers, but not exercise, passes most days on her cellphone with like-minded friends back home about issues large and small. Like a large swath of the citizenry, he notices, she’s strongly opinionated but poorly informed. “What this country needs,” he’s heard her declare several times, “is our own Trump.”
Hayden was in the hall waiting to use their lone bathroom one morning when out shuffled a stranger with a towel wrapped Sikh-like around a shampooed head. It took him a moment to recognize her. It was the first time he’d seen his mother-in-law without the makeup.
The one interest Neil and Helen share, he learns, is eating. If they aren’t eating, they’re shopping for food, and if they aren’t eating or shopping for it, they’re talking about the next sitting.
“Food porn,” he lets slip one night, the in-laws having retired.
“Fuck off, H,” Erica says.
Hayden always wondered how long she’d accept him working in a menial position at the Buy Fresh, the paltry sums he earns from his paintings. Soon after Sean was born, it turned out. Even with the two incomes there’s less than a thousand dollars in their savings account, and her ten-year-old Hyundai is rattling. His fault, apparently.
“You have a family to take care of,” Neil says, as though Hayden hadn’t noticed. Erica piles on: “Nobody knows what your pictures mean.” Between hacks Helen tries her shaky hand at art criticism. “What’s wrong with a nice flower?”
It doesn’t help that several of Erica’s girlfriends are ambitious professionals married to ambitious professionals: lawyers, teachers, bureaucrats, et al. She enjoys sharing with him their annual incomes, whenever there’s a new car or a foreign vacation. The benefits and pension plans that will allow her friends to live happily ever after while her family “will still be on the waiting list for subsidized housing.”
He reminds her of their talks prior to the marriage. “I doubt my work will suddenly become popular.” She didn’t care in those early, lust-fuelled days, or didn’t fully appreciate what he was conveying, and therein is the rub: She’s changed. He hasn’t. He has a notion something soon will, but not how. Or when.
Early morning, still dark. He’s thumbing through the want ads, suitable jobs circled by Helen, when a half-awake Sean shuffles into the kitchen. He likes to breakfast with Dad and read before going to school. His tastes lean toward sci-fi and superheroes.
“Lucky Charms or Special K?”
“I had the K yesterday.”
“Whisky or gin? Neat or straight up?”
It concerns him the boy doesn’t take to sports. He’s slight, paralyzed by unfamiliar social situations. His grades are unremarkable. The two of them walking Mosley in the ravine every weekend is an attempt to kindle in the boy an interest in the outdoors. In something other than himself. Away from a screen.
“I have to write a report about an animal. Gotta build an exhibit.” He sweeps a flap of limp blond hair from his face. “Know which animal I picked?”
It had been an uneventful shift until mid-morning, which is when many seniors like to shop; it’s his responsibility to select an appropriate Muzak. But then a flimsy plastic handle on a three-pack of juice snaps in a customer’s hand. One of the bottles splits open, flooding a promotional display. “Hayden to the front desk,” Jessica, the trainee cashier, mumbles into the Customer Service mic. “Right away.”
The assistant manager finds him in the back lot retrieving shopping carts.
“Bucket and mop, pronto.”
At Fresh Buy, everything is pronto. Today, for example, price tags need updating, and several items have to be returned to the shelves. Over in Produce, and before opening, all turning fruit and veggies must be replaced. He unloads the bakery truck and stacks the bread for the after-school stock boy. Lugs a sack of cat food to a woman’s car, bags groceries, helps the security guard restrain a crackhead shoplifter – all pronto.
He catches up with Rick, the manager, in Dairy. He’s a hot-tempered ex-jock who’d been rejected multiple times by the police force – for a lazy eye, he claims, though most store employees think it’s because he’s a psycho. Hayden tells him about a dental appointment. “Wisdom teeth,” he says, but it’s a lie; his teeth are fine. He’s seeing someone about a junior management position with one of the competitors. Helen’s suggestion.
“How long will the appointment take?” Brusque was Rick’s default tone; he doesn’t wait for a reply. “We’ll have to call a temp. Shit!”
On his lunch break Hayden replies to an ad posted by the city’s minor league baseball team, the Beavers. Something he might do evenings and weekends, anything to keep Erica and her folks off his back. A number of positions need to be filled, each of them requiring “a committed, mature individual who enjoys working with the public.” He’s none of the above, but is confident he can fake it. He’d played some ball as a kid, and the stadium was nearby, on the other side of the ravine.
“You’ll have three games to show your stuff,” Ed Tyler, the Beavers’ gm, says. He’s squat, a primate, gruff. Hayden imagines a home with peeling paint, a miserable wife thick through the waist. “Brian the Beaver isn’t just a mascot. What our fans think of him is what they think of us. You get my meaning?”
The costume is made from an aluminum backpack frame, plastic garden mesh, bedding foam, and some kind of artificial fur. It smells faintly of a public washroom. The beaver head has two long teeth and large white eyes.
“Just remember: Our customers are families with kids. Keep it clean.” A club hat is pulled down over Ed’s patchy scalp. Removed, his hairless crown gleams like a hard-boiled egg.
Hayden is turned over to Jeb Horn, one of the coaches, a Yank and former backstop in the low minors. “First thing you gotta do is figure out some sort of routine,” he says, a wad of chewing tobacco bulging like a tumour from an unshaven cheek. “Watch a game on TV. This ain’t Broadway.”
Hayden squeezes into the beaver costume, follows bandy-legged Jeb through the tunnel to the dugout, where players make room on the bench. The visiting club is taking infield practice. The third baseman snags a hard shot, firing it across the diamond. On the warning track, in the shade of the outfield fence, bullpen pitchers run wind sprints. A light breeze tugs at the maple leaf atop the electric scoreboard.
The Beavers are a Single A team in the Northwest League, the bottom rung on the long ladder to the major leagues. The players are young; many have never before lived away from home. “This is their first paid gig,” Jeb explains. “For a lot of ’em, it’ll also be their last. Half of our job is babysittin’, keepin’ ’em out of trouble.”
Some of the players are recent college grads from the States, others are hopefuls from Mexico, Panama, the Dominican Republic, several of whom speak a little English, and a few who don’t. “Our right fielder,” says Jeb, squirting a mouthful of tobacco juice between his cleats, “can’t speak any language at all. Maybe that’s why I git along with him best.”
In high school Hayden had been something of a class joker. He’d worked on a couple of foreign accents and got so that he could imitate the voices of several well-known personalities long-since forgotten. It never got him the girl, but it did earn some laughs.
Ed buzzes the dugout. Jeb picks up. “You’re on, Beaver.”
Anxious, perspiring heavily in the airtight outfit, he skips across the infield grass just as the home team begins its pre-game warm up – and just as a line drive is drilled to the shortstop. The ball clips his ankle, throwing him to the turf. The first sound to reach his ears is laughter from early arrivals in the box seats. He sells the stumble as a scripted pratfall, rolling over on his back and lifting his legs, letting them flop back down onto the grass. Through the eye slots in his bow tie he spots Ed scrutinizing him.
Between the middle innings a popular rock number is blasted over the public address system. He races around the infield, dancing with whichever players are willing – the Latins and Afro- Americans mostly, who drop their gloves and shake their hips. Some of the fans cavort in the aisles and along the concrete walkways. Ushers and members of the ground crew also get in on the fun.
He hams it up with the fans, the players, the umps, whatever zany idea pops into his head. Over the course of the game he begins to get a feel for the beaver; a persona begins to emerge brazen and cocky, a loveable buffoon. After the top of the seventh, the crowd singing Take Me Out to the Ball Game, he stands on home plate cajoling the different sections to sing more boisterously than their neighbours. Boxes of pizzas are tossed like Frisbees to the loudest.
The Beavers take a drubbing, and the mood in the locker room afterwards is subdued. Players change and exit quickly, before the manager can vent about miscues. Out of costume, Hayden is bagged and dripping wet. But he’s also exhilarated. And all because of the most unlikely of beasts. The beaver is near-sighted, with small ears, beady eyes, and prominent teeth. Not many creatures are uglier.
Ed waves him into his office. “I heard a few chuckles out there. Let’s see how you do tomorrow.”
He takes Jeb’s advice and studies mascot videos on the Internet. He’s most impressed by Max Patkin, a kind of visiting entertainer known in the decades after the Second World War as the Clown Prince of Baseball. A former minor league pitcher, he performed each night in an ill-fitting polyester uniform. He had elastic limbs and a long, sharp nose. Someone once described him as “looking like he was put together by someone who forgot to read the instructions.”
When he packed it in after more than half a century of barnstorming his act in small-town ballyards, Patkin was a beloved figure in professional baseball; he’d even had a small role in the Kevin Costner movie Field of Dreams. Hayden felt an instant kinship with him, perhaps because Patkin, too, had an unhappy marriage. “In all the years we were together,” he’d said in a memoir, “my wife never saw me perform. For all she knew, I was an airline pilot.”
In his second game, another loss, Hayden pretends to field foul balls and run the bases. He swats imaginary homeruns, tickles youngsters, swipes the ump’s hat. When it’s over, Ed glides into the locker room wearing a grin wide as a river. “The fans have spoken,” he shouts. “You’re our Brian.” The players swarm Hayden, congratulating him. He tells the family he’s shuffling paper in the team’s ticket office.
His confidence grows over the summer. He tests new routines, keeping those that work, ditching those that don’t. There’s a magic to the disguise, he realizes; people respond to a grown man in a silly costume urging them to do silly things. No matter the score, he sets the mood. Zipped into the suit, anonymous, he isn’t Pronto Tonto, the grocery store factotum, or the abstract painter whose work doesn’t sell. He’s not Erica’s estranged husband or Sean’s concerned father. He’s a beaver. Brian the Beaver.
When a manager strides onto the field to remove an underperforming chucker, he slips in behind him, mimicking every step. If the manager twitches, Brian the Beaver twitches. If he scratches his arse, Brian the Beaver scratches his. Light-hearted mockery, mime, extravagant gestures, theatrical flourishes – it all becomes part of his shtick.
Days the team’s in town he can’t wait for his shift at the store to end. All he can think about is suiting up. In the standings the Beavers are the worst team in the league, but when he’s on the field it doesn’t matter. “People who work all day want to relax,” Jeb says. “We have to give them their money’s worth. Excite the kids, entertain the adults. Make a dang fool of yourself.”
One rain-threatening weeknight, the crowd small and restless, the visiting team’s pitcher is delayed in the clubhouse. A broken lace, constipation, a call from his girl back home – no one knows why. The boo birds begin to bray, so Hayden sprints to the mound and improvises hurling warm-up pitches. He kicks the rubber, spits, scoops up a handful of dirt. He fumbles the resin bag, grabs his crotch. The catcher plays along, returning an imaginary ball. The organ player provides the sound track, stretching a high note to match the time it takes the ball to fly between the battery mates.
The pitcher eventually bounds onto the field, but the Beaver waves him off, and a make-believe dispute ensues. Both dugouts empty in a pretend almost-brawl. The ump ejects the furry instigator, but the fans reward him with a rousing standing O, the perfect ending to the skit. On his way to the showers he notes the loudest cheers are from a party in the reserved grandstand seats back of first base – from Erica, Sean, Neil, and Helen. He meets up with them after the game in his street clothes. They hadn’t suspected a thing.
To maintain interest when the team is on the road, Brian the Beaver makes appearances at shopping centres and auto malls, at seasonal festivals and community events. He signs hundreds of autographs on a 4×6 glossy handed out by a couple of promotional girls with toothy smiles and short skirts. Fans want a high five, a selfie. They want to stroke his urine-splattered fur. He tells the family he’s at the stadium, catching up on paperwork.
Outside a sporting goods store one Sunday afternoon a wisp of a boy in a Little League uniform enters the Styrofoam beaver lodge and steps up to the autograph table. Hayden hands him one of the glossies and a couple of bleacher tickets to the next home game.
“I don’t want your signature,” the kid says.
“My paw is cramping anyways.”
“I wanna ask you a question.”
Behind him stands a woman Hayden assumes is the mother. She grabs the boy’s arm, tries hustling him away, but he slips her grip.
“What I want to know,” the kid says, “is where does the poo come out?”
They return to the ravine in the early evening. It’s like entering a prehistoric world: steep walls lined with great slabs of granite, dense foliage, the soothing clatter of water splashing over ancient limestone. Hayden studies the beaver lodge for activity through his field glasses. It sits in the centre of the pond like a remote volcanic island. A pair of kits are stuffing themselves with plants and branches, then diving out of sight. They remain underwater for ten, fifteen minutes. A few others are frolicking on the far side of the pond. He counts five in all.
Sean’s science project is due in two weeks.
“Let’s review what we know,” Hayden whispers. “Inside the lodge there are passageways leading to a larder and a nursery chamber. They stay there until spring. The older kits are known to babysit younger members of the litter. These ones are probably still waiting for their mother to return.”
Sean’s flips the pages of his notebook.
“According to Wikipedia, their four orange-coloured front teeth never stop growing, and are self-sharpening. Their jaws are strong enough to fell trees. They eat leaves, tree bark, twigs, roots and plants like cattails and water lilies. Beavers don’t eat fish.”
Sean lays aside his notebook and recites from memory, as notes are not permitted during the class presentation. He wears the Beavers cap Hayden had brought home. “In early Canada, the pleasant-smelling goo secreted by its anal glands was used in vanilla food flavouring, and for perfumes and medicines.”
Darkness seeps into the ravine. The sultry summer air cools. Birds withdraw to their roosts, mosquitoes feast on their uncovered arms and legs. They follow Mosley up the switchback trail. Under lamplight, traces of blood are still visible on the road. Sean toes the stains. “Are they really waiting for their mother?”
The Beavers finish the campaign in last place. The gate, however, exceeds projections, and parking and concessions revenues are up – the reason for the high-spirited, season-ending party. Hayden normally imbibes moderately, but he drinks heavily this night. Ed tells him fan surveys rate Brian the Beaver “the best thing about the season.” The gm pulls him aside. “But don’t go expectin’ a raise. You are coming back next season, aren’t you?”
He walks part way home with some of the Latin players who are billeting with families in the area; each of them takes a spin on his bike. Though he works in the morning, he considers calling in sick, something he’d never done. Earlier that day a lawyer at the free legal clinic tells him that because of his income, his dearth of assets, Erica will probably be awarded primary custody of Sean. Her petition is bolstered by the support and financial resources of Neil and Helen. “You’ll probably see the boy a couple of times a month.” The news obliterates the one bit of good news he’d had that day. Sean got an A-plus on his school project, his highest grade ever. For the presentation, he wore his team cap.
Most nights he crosses the stream at the well-lit pedestrian bridge, but tonight he hides his bike in the woods and climbs down into the ravine. A sliver of light from the street falls through a breach in the canopy, spotlighting, as though a prop in a stage play, the lodge. He hears the nocturnal whines and squeaks, the plaintive mewling of the orphans.
The next morning, a lady walking her dog finds a set of clothes folded neatly on the shore. A tree branch the length of a baseball bat has been inserted into the mud. A ball cap hangs from it.