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distant stations

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and i sang old songs from nowhere
los angeles to albuquerque

the mountain goats - distant stations


 

 

They didn’t buy a car until the cabin was mostly fixed up. The dogs and the secondhand snowmobile Fraser’s predecessor at his RCMP post had insisted on giving him had done them mostly fine until then. But...

“Old Penny’s getting rid of her truck,” Ray said, super casual, as if Penny was somebody that he’d known for years and not for less than six weeks. He rustled the newspaper he was pretending to read, as if to convince Fraser that this didn’t matter much at all.

“I see,” Fraser said, although he wasn’t sure that he did see.

“It’s only a couple years old. Not much mileage.”

Fraser nodded, although Ray was holding the paper in front of his face and probably couldn’t see. “I see, Ray,” Fraser said. He paused, hoping that Ray would get to the point sooner rather than later.

Ray lowered the paper. “Fraser. Don’t play dumb with me. You plan on living out here, you need some kind of car or truck or something .”

Fraser considered the carrots in front of him, and started to chop them up into careful pieces. Diefenbaker was watching him closely, although Fraser knew for a fact that Diefenbaker did not like carrots, had never liked carrots. “You are a wolf,” Fraser reminded him, although at this point it seemed increasingly futile. “Feeding you diced vegetables instead of setting you outside among the wild game would be an insult to your ancestors. And quite possibly your digestive tract.”

“Fraser,” Ray said. He’d put the paper down now, and was nervously tapping one hand on his knee. “I’m talking to you here. Trying to offer some advice. And it ain’t about Dief’s guts.”

“Yes, Ray,” Fraser said. “I’ll, ah, call in on Penny tomorrow.”


---


They’d had the small truck for a week or so when they had occasion to take their first substantial journey in it. Fraser had heard rumours of a small group of miners gone missing from a mine a few hours south of the town.

“You don’t have to ,” Fraser started, as Ray pulled on his coat and the woolly hat that Fraser had knitted for him on their adventure. Ray narrowed his eyes at him.

“Don’t do that, Fraser,” he said. “We’re partners. Partners means I don’t leave you to climb down some stinking mine shaft on your own, OK.”

Fraser didn’t mention that Ray currently had no kind of formal role which would qualify him to be Fraser’s partner. Because Fraser had never really been Ray’s official partner in the first place. He supposed the role-reversal was hard to argue against from that standpoint.

“Well, as long as you’re sure, Ray.”


---


On the way to the mine they were too busy talking about the case and arguing about comfortable nonsense to need any added background noise. But a couple of days later, their drive back to the cabin was long and tiring and neither of them really wanted to much discuss what they’d found.

“What d’you think, Dief?” Ray said, craning his neck back. Ray had taken the first shift driving down, and so Fraser was starting the drive back. Ray seemed less bothered by Fraser’s driving up here; maybe it was better suited to the terrain, or maybe he was just more used to the pacing of it now. “Yeah, I thought so too.”

Next thing Fraser knew, Ray was curling forwards and turning on the radio. “Tried this yet?” he asked. Fraser shook his head, not taking his eyes off the road ahead. It had started to snow just before they left, and although it wasn’t too heavy yet he didn’t want to risk skidding. He hadn’t had the chance to try the vehicle out in heavy snow or ice yet, although Ray had checked everything over and insisted it was in good shape for most any eventuality.

“Hey!” Ray said, sounding surprisingly happy. “This thing looks pretty good. You’ve got your FM and AM radio here... manual tuner... pretty big speaker...”

He fiddled with it for a while. Fraser caught a few snatches of music and talk radio and finally Ray settled on a local station with a fairly good signal. Ray and Dief howled and whistled along to some classic rock songs that Fraser only recognised from his years spent in Chicago, and although it still wasn’t the music Fraser would have chosen, he privately admitted that he was starting to see the appeal.

“Hey, Fraser,” Ray said, urgently, peering out of the windscreen, his glasses balancing precariously on the end of his nose. “Look, there’s that motel in five miles. I’m beat, I bet you’re beat. It’s too dark out here tonight, it’s freaking me out.”

Fraser glanced at him sidelong. He’d been prepared to argue wholeheartedly against stopping, but something about the sight of Ray, rumpled and tired and with a crease between his eyebrows... took the argument out of him. And it was very dark. It was a new moon, and the sky had been overcast all day, and seemed no better at night.

“Right you are, Ray,” Fraser said.

“What?” Ray said. “I was all ready to fight my case.”

“Oh. Well, I agree with you already.”

“I had some, uh, great points. I was going to persuade you.”

“I’m already persuaded.”

“Huh,” Ray said, and leaned back to ruffle Dief’s fur a bit. “How about that. I thought we’d argue about it for twenty minutes for sure.” He sounded... no, not wistful. But almost wistful. Like somebody had pulled the rug out from under him.

Ray got out of the truck when they pulled into the motel’s parking lot and went to pay for a room. Fraser rubbed his hands together and considered Diefenbaker. “Now, I know that this is not a five-star establishment,” he said. “But the people who work here are hard-working people, and you will treat their property as if it was, ah,” he paused as he tried to think of the name of a fancy hotel, but his mind was curiously blank. “Ah, well,” he said.

Dief snorted.

Ray appeared at the truck with a set of keys dangling from his middle finger, but before Fraser could get out Ray had clambered back in. It was cold outside, and starting to get very cold in the truck as well. But Ray grinned at Fraser and just said, “Wait a minute. I want to show you something.”

Fraser’s eyebrows shot up, but Ray just grinned, and turned the radio back on. “See, it’s dark outside and we’re in the middle of nowhere...” Ray said. He flicked the radio so that it was receiving AM frequencies. “My parents, you know they’ve always liked to travel around, I used to sometimes go with them for the summer when I was a kid. They loved, uh, Wisconsin, Michigan...” He paused as he concentrated on the radio tuner.

“Yes, Ray,” Fraser said, when he didn’t immediately start talking again.

“Right, yeah. So ma, she’s always been a bit of a radio nut. Used to sit out front when it was dark out, and she’d take out this old radio and see how far away she could catch a signal from.”

Ray caught a signal and whooped, then sat back. The radio’s volume was turned right up but the sound was still weak. “That’s a distant one alright,” he said. “Let’s just wait for the call sign then we can go in.”

Fraser frowned as he listened to the programme. It seemed to be some kind of late-night advice show. “I’m not sure that this presenter is very responsible, Ray,” Fraser said.

“Hey, it’s not about the show,” Ray said. “Though if you want I can try and find some music. Usually it’s just some loser talking. But it’s not about that. It’s about the distance. It’s like, I dunno. Driving.” He flung his arms out, as if to emphasise this, and Dief whined.

“Whatever,” Ray said, and Fraser wasn’t sure who he was talking to. “Sometimes at night you can hear stations from thousands of miles away. Ma claims she heard something from France once when she was visiting family in DC, but I bet it was just Canada. Hey!”

Fraser looked up, startled. “Did you catch that?” Ray said, leaning forwards again. “That callsign, the, the letters -- what was it?”

Fraser mentally replayed the last few seconds of sound. “WCPT,” he said.

“WCPT,” Ray repeated, and patted himself down for a notebook but didn’t come up with one. “Hey,” he said, “I think that’s Chicago. Think they sound Chicago to you, Fraser?”

“Yes, Ray,” Fraser said. Because the voices did indeed sound like they came from Chicago. And also he’d already heard them mention Chicago at least three times in the course of their discussion.

“What do you know,” Ray said. He leaned forward and turned the radio off. The lights went off with it to, plunging the truck into darkness. “A little piece of home.”


---


The motel room was dusty and small, but otherwise clean and not too cold, so Fraser found it hard to complain. Ray took a shower while Fraser allowed himself the luxury of pulling on a new pair of long-johns and lay down on the bed with the book he’d brought along for the journey. It was a new edition of Hart Crane’s collected poems. Beautiful, but dense, and not particularly happy. When Ray emerged from the bathroom, Fraser put the book down gratefully.

Ray shook his head in wonder. His hair was wet and dark, and little beads of moisture shot up into the air and then vanished. “Never too tired to read, huh Fraser,” he said, and he pulled off his t-shirt and he crawled into the bed.

Fraser vanished into the bathroom for his ablutions.

By the time he emerged back out, Ray was fast asleep. Fraser only hesitated for a second before he got into the bed beside him, and swiftly drifted off in turn.

Diefenbaker waited patiently until both men were asleep, and then he jumped onto the foot of the bed, turned around three times, and fell into a deep and satisfying sleep. He dreamt of female wolves and dopey rabbits.


---


Fraser woke before Ray did in the morning, and was extremely unsurprised by this. He sat up and looked over at his friend, who was extremely tangled in the sheets. His hair had dried messily in the night, and it was sticking up even more than usual.

Fraser stared at him for perhaps a while longer than he would have liked to admit. Ray’s face was peaceful, and nice to look at.

But soon enough Diefenbaker was demanding to be let out, and the blast of cold air from outside woke Ray up. “Christ,” Ray said, and burrowed further into his tangle of blankets. All that Fraser could see of him was the sole of his left foot, and a tuft of his hair.

“Ray,” Fraser said. He was already dressed and he was starting to anxiously want to go home . He was also acutely aware that he needed to send in a full report of the mine to his superiors, and --

“OK, Fraser,” Ray said, and dragged himself out of bed. “OK. But only for you.”


---


Fraser pondered over this cryptic statement for the rest of the drive back home.

Ray was driving, but he spent uneventful stretches of the journey flipping between two different local radio stations, keeping one hand on the wheel. He didn’t need to look at the dial; he could feel it. He could hear it.

He hated both presenters, and just wanted some music. “You need to get a tape deck,” he said, but his heart wasn’t in it. Fraser had seen something new in Ray last night; he liked the serendipity of radio, the role of the dice.

“Now this is more like it,” he said, ten miles from home, when he found a song that Fraser didn’t recognise. It was faint, but not as faint as the Chicago station they’d picked up the night before. Ray started to sing along, extremely out of key, but Fraser thought that it maybe didn’t matter. “This is the perfect road trip song,” Ray said. “ I’m in love with modern moonlight--

Fraser smiled despite himself. It really was an awful racket. “ Don’t feel so alone, got the radio on...

Ray trailed off as he turned the car onto the last stretch of road. “Look, almost home,” he said.


---


Ray spent the rest of the week fixing up things in the cabin. He sorted out the television set he’d insisted that Fraser needed, and he made sure the plumbing was good for the shower (although he insisted that they get Penny’s son, Gerald, in to actually hook up the gas) and kitchen.

“When’d this place get hooked up to the grid?” he asked Fraser, one night. “The first time, I mean.” Ray was sitting at the kitchen table with some papers spread in front of him. He was frowning, but his voice was light. Fraser wasn’t sure if he needed it for some obscure piece of housing paperwork, or if he was just curious.

They’d had a local electrician visit after they’d rebuilt the cabin and reinstall the basic wiring that the cabin would need to run various modern conveniences that Fraser would ruefully admit did make his life easier.

“Well,” Fraser said. “When I was born, my father still insisted on relying on the kerosene lamps that he had grown up with...”

“Kerosene,” Ray said, with a snort. “Yeah, yeah, kerosene lamps in a wooden cabin. With a baby in the house. Great, safety first, I love it.”

Fraser didn’t mention the oil lamps and candles they’d been using, along with the torches they’d used when they were camping, before the cabin had been wired for power.

“My mother, I believe, was instrumental in making sure the more, ah, remote houses in the area were adequately supplied with electricity,” Fraser said, “although we actually get power delivered here from a local diesel generator, I believe, rather than the power grid.”

“Huh,” Ray said, and scratched at his chin. “Yeah, makes sense, all the way up here. It ever go off when there’s a storm?”

“Oh yes,” Fraser said. “Often.”

“Huh, yeah,” Ray said, almost muttering it to himself. He looked back down at the papers and made a noise of disgust. “You got any good stories about that?”

Fraser was happy to oblige with various pieces of local lore about power outages.


---


They hadn’t built a spare bedroom in the cabin. Just the one bedroom, just the one bed. Some nights Ray fell asleep on the sofa, and Fraser tucked him in with a number of blankets. Some nights they shared Fraser’s bed, resolutely not discussing it. And some nights Fraser was at work, or they were driving, or Fraser and Diefenbaker were hiking, or Ray was staying up catch a game, or...

It was a month after they’d returned back to the cabin from the mines when Fraser started to wonder in earnest when Ray was going to return back home to Chicago.

It was like he was constantly waiting for the axe to fall.

Every day he thought: I need to ask him.

But he didn’t. Every day, he didn’t ask him.


---


“Hey, Fraser,” Ray said, late one morning, when Fraser returned to the cabin from his morning walk with Diefenbaker. Dief himself had decided to stay outside and hunt for rabbits. He was holding the satellite phone in his hands, one hand cupped around the receiver. “Somebody for you.”

Fraser was on-call, so when he took the phone he was expecting one of his superiors to be at the other end. Instead, he found himself talking to Francesca Vecchio.

“Omigod Fraser, hi!” she said. “It’s really you, huh?”

“Francesca!” Fraser said. He felt much happier about talking to her from a great remove than when they were sharing, ah, physical proximity, he found.

Ray disappeared into the kitchen. Fraser could smell coffee on the air, and wondered how much was left from Ray’s breakfast, and whether he’d be making another pot. “How are you faring?”

“Oh, you know me,” Francesca said. “Busy busy, what with the baby and the precinct and Ray calling me up every five minutes about bowling pins this, bowling pins that -- oh, you know, my real brother Ray, not, you know, your Ray.”

“Your brother and I are very good friends,” Fraser said. “In fact, ah, after I left Canada he was the first--”

“Yeah, yeah, you know what I mean.” Fraser didn’t, in fact, but he found that with Francesca it was sometimes best not to enquire too deeply. “Look, I was calling to see how the two of you were getting on up there. Ray sounds pretty happy, considering, you know, it’s Ray .” The tone of her voice made it clear that she was referring to Ray Kowalski, and not her brother.

“Yes,” Fraser said, suddenly realising that he was sure that he agreed with this statement. “Yes, I think it’s agreeing with both of us very much.”

“Great, great, that’s -- great,” Francesca said. “You know, I always thought, I always used to tell myself -- Franny, if you can’t have him, and no offence Fraser but I think it looks like I never stood much of a chance--” Fraser briefly wondered at how this statement could cause offence, but Francesca barrelled on -- “I always used to say, if I couldn’t have you, at least you should find someone good, you know, who likes you, and if they’re family, I mean, my family, well, all the better.”

Fraser wondered briefly if everyone had always made such strange and cryptic statements around him, or if he was losing his ability to parse complex sentences. “I’m not sure I follow,” he said.

“I mean,” Francesca continued, as if Fraser hasn’t spoken. “I always thought that really, your Ray was better looking than my Ray, even if he’s a bit harder to get along with sometimes.”

Fraser nodded although he knew that she couldn’t see him. “Well, it’s an opinion you’re perfectly allowed to hold, Francesca,” he said.

“But you think so too, right?”

Fraser considered this for a second. “Yes,” he said. “Yes, I suppose so.”


---


“What did Franny want with you?” Ray said, when Fraser finally untangled himself from the phone conversation and emerged into the kitchen, where Ray was cooking something that involved tinned tomatoes and fresh fish.

“You know,” Fraser said. “I’m not entirely sure.”

“Yeah, well,” Ray said, with a wolfish grin. “Franny.”

Ray was taking a sip from the pot when Fraser ventured a partial analysis of the conversation. “Francesca told me that she thinks you’re very attractive,” he said.

Ray choked on the sauce, and Fraser thumped him very hard on the back.

“Jesus,” Ray said, when he could speak again. He was rubbing his chest and backing away from Fraser. “Jesus, that was worse than the choking.” He didn’t look too pained and he had, at least, stopped choking, so Fraser wasn’t too concerned by this statement.

“My apologies,” Fraser said. “She also said that you’re hard to get along with. So all things considered, I’m not sure if she was making, ah, indirect overtures in your direction.”

Ray rubbed at his forehead. He looked tired. “Yeah, I don’t think so, Fraser,” he said. “Want to get out the plates?”


---


After they’d eaten dinner, Ray got out his stack of paperwork again, and Fraser retired to the fireside with a book. He’d moved on from the Hart Crane -- he was trying to decide between some Beethoven sheet music and one of his grandmother’s much-loved Walter Scott novels. He’d never quite understood the appeal of Scott as a younger man, and he wondered if it would make more sense to him now.

He was carefully not considering what Ray’s paperwork could be. He was fairly sure that it did not relate to the house, despite Ray’s odd questions about various features’ provenance. Fraser was, after all, the homeowner. It wouldn’t make sense for Ray to fill out paperwork concerning Fraser’s home, especially without Fraser’s assistance.

No -- Fraser suspected, with a heavy heart, that Ray’s paperwork concerned his surely imminent return to Chicago, and active service in the Chicago PD. Ray had received various thick envelopes postmarked Chicago over the past few weeks, and surely they couldn’t have agreed to him going on indefinite leave.

After an hour or so of silence, Ray collapsed into the sofa next to Fraser and briefly rested his head on Fraser’s shoulder. Fraser tensed up, then made himself relax. “Fraser,” Ray said, and handed him the stack of paperwork.

Fraser looked at it. He blinked. It was not paperwork concerning Ray’s return to active duty in Chicago. It was --

“You’re applying for residency,” he said. He didn’t know what else to say.

“Yeah,” Ray said, and he started to fidget with his hands and wouldn’t meet Fraser’s eyes. “Yeah, I thought -- you know, that first month we were travelling was like the hardest thing I’ve ever done, ‘cept getting divorced and shot. And maybe it was harder than one of the times I got shot. Anyway. Sometimes I hated you, I hated me, I hated Canada. All I wanted was a hot shower, a game, a pizza. Even found myself wanting to do the, what is it, wordsear-- no, the crossword in the paper. And Fraser, I do not do crosswords. The clues do not agree with me.”

There was a long pause. “You’ll forgive me,” Fraser said, “If I say that this speech does not make me think you’ll be ideally suited to living in the Northwest Territories.”

“Shut up,” Ray said. “No, so after a month I thought that’s it, I’m done, I’ve given all that I had and it’s not enough. And I’m kind of bummed out because I thought this was it, when we set out I thought wow, this is my adventure, I’m going to do it, my life is going to be something interesting, not just some loser with one borrowed friend and a hotshot ex-wife.”

He paused again. Fraser tried to make an encouraging noise, but what came out was a cough.

“And that’s the night when you got pissy at me because I didn’t want to turn in, and you finally left me outside and you were asleep by the time I got into the tent. And you were real cold and I felt bad but I was cold too, so I snuggled up and after a while we were as toasty as usual. But before then -- what I wanted was to just look up at the stars without you there to tell me about them, or what they’re called, or whatever. I just wanted to look up at it. I don’t know anything about it. But it’s really something, you know? And Dief was there with me, and I’ve got his head on my knee, and he smells disgusti -- really gross, by the way. And there’s something kind of blue-green, like bottle glass in the sky too, and I don’t know if it’s the northern lights or whatever the thing that you call them--”

Aurora Borealis ,” Fraser said, even though he didn’t actually want to interrupt Ray, because that's who Fraser was, and they both knew that by now.

“Anyway, I’m cold but Dief is making sure I’m not too cold, and I’ve got this hat on that you’ve just finished knitting for me, and I’m aching all over but maybe I think that you’re right and it’s getting a little bit better each day. And that morning I was so sure, I was thinking I couldn’t do this, any of this. Like, you’re the worst, you make me think you hate me, like I'm an A-grade idiot if I try to do anything. And I kind of hate myself too because I can’t do it. But I’m looking up at the sky and I think, I don’t hate you .”

“Good,” Fraser said, when Ray paused again. “I don’t hate you either. You know I don’t hate you.”

Ray swatted his hand away when he tried to touch his arm in reassurance. “It’s just maybe I’ve never known anyone like this before. Not other than Stella, and we did not do all of that stuff over the space of one month. She would have killed me, you know that Fraser. She needed more space than that, than I did. Like, we had years to hate each other and love each other and crawl all over and into each other.”

Ray paused again, and Fraser didn’t know what to say.

“And I’m thinking it then, and I keep thinking it for the next two months. And if you’re gonna make me say if I don’t know if I’ve got the words left.”

Ray picked up Fraser’s glass of water and drained it dry. Fraser watched him closely. And Fraser hated himself for it, but he had to ask for it.

“Ray. Ray, I need those words. I need to know what you’re saying.”

“Fraser,” Ray said. “Fraser, if you want, because, you’ve got to let me stay.”

“Ray,” Fraser said. His voice felt strange, in his throat. “I don’t want you to go.”

It was a strange conversation to have, sitting side-by-side. Fraser looked sidelong at Ray, and found Ray staring straight back at him.

Fraser wondered if it had been that Ray was avoiding his gaze, or if he had been avoiding Ray’s, all along.

Somewhere outside, Dief was barking. Not an alarmed bark; more of a hello, how’s it going . Maybe he’d found another wolf, or maybe he was saying hello to an arctic fox, or a family of birds.

Fraser put his hand onto Ray’s arm, and Ray let him this time. Ray still hadn’t managed to say it, but Fraser was hopeful that he knew what Ray meant.

“Oh,” Fraser said. “Is this what Francesca was trying to tell me?”

“Yes,” Ray said. "We're dumb."

“Oh, thank god,” Fraser said. He covered his eyes with one hand for a second and then he looked up at Ray and --

And Ray was leaning forwards, and he kissed him, briefly, and broke away, and then when Fraser tried to go back in for another kiss he found that Ray was kissing his neck, his ear, his eyebrow, a hand snaking in against Fraser’s waist --

“Stop,” Fraser said, and his voice cracked. Ray jumped back like he’d been hit.

“No,” Fraser said. He bit his lip. He just needed Ray to slow down; he needed Ray to realise that he didn’t have to rush it. This was not his only chance. “We have time . Please kiss me again.”

Ray looked at Fraser, and edged back towards him. “This mean I’m staying?”

Please ,” Fraser said, out of clever things to add or amendations, and he cupped his hands against Ray’s jaw. Ray’s face was rough with stubble, and when he kissed him, Fraser’s upper lip tickled. It was a new sensation; all of this was so new.

“This mean I can keep sleeping in your bed?”

Please .” Fraser felt like it was all he could say; and Fraser loved saying it as an answer, as an answer to everything. If the question is will Fraser have Ray? The answer is yes, as long as you are willing, as long as it’s what you want, and I am grateful. He is so overwhelmed at being asked; he is overwhelmed by the answer that he is able to give.


---


Fraser wakes up in the night, and finds that Ray is tangled up in the blankets again. He seems to be incapable of sleeping calmly. He strokes Ray’s hair, and for a second he feels electricity crackle in his fingers. It’s almost enough to light a dark room by.

And outside, the milky way is laid out across the sky. No northern lights tonight, and the galaxy is clearer for it.

And Dief is sleeping outside, as he refused to come inside, full and happy from a dinner of wild game and a half-finger of carrot that Ray gave him when Fraser was pretending not to look.

And in the absence of daylight, radio signals travel much further than they do when the sun is up.

And Fraser knew the physics of this already, but he had not connected it to the big radio on his dashboard until Ray showed him how to work it; and how it’s technically best with headphones, but is actually best with two people listening together.

And there’s snow to come, and more paperwork. And Fraser thinks of the shape of Ray’s mouth. And he strokes his hair again, and there are more sparks, and Fraser can almost see them this time.