August 2003, New York City
AJ pushes open the door to Eric's room. Eric is slumped over his desk, chin resting on his hands, listening to Johnny's voice unspooling from the cassette in the old boom box.
—Burkes are okay with it; I've finished the renovations.
I never in my whole life understood how your mom wanted to leave Gimli behind so bad, but I get it now. I feel like I gotta get away, really away. I don't know about the States. I never much liked New York. Too much concrete, no sky. Plus, the Rangers—boo!
AJ can hear Johnny's quiet "Heh!"
But I'll let you know where I am. Maybe I will hit New York just for a visit, or you can come see me wherever I end up. Guess you and your mom and dad won't be the only travelers in the family. Anyway, just wanted to let you know. You can write me at my Yahoo email, and I'll keep you posted. Good luck with getting registered for all your classes. Say hi to AJ. Love you.
The tape is nothing but empty hiss for a while before Eric finally shuts it off.
"So it's really over," AJ says.
"Yeah," Eric replies, dejected, his head now pillowed sideways on his hands.
Honestly, Eric is so dramatic sometimes. "You knew it was coming. Johnny's been at the hotel for two years and he was living in the caboose for a year before that." Johnny and Zoë had made a lot more effort while Eric was still living with them.
"I know, I know." He parrots, "Just because they love each other doesn't mean they're compatible. They're both too impulsive and they're both terrible at communicating." It's a condensed version of the speech Eric himself had given to Johnny when Johnny had dithered about moving to the hotel. "It's just weird to think of Gimli without Johnny, or Auntie Auntie."
AJ refrains from rolling her eyes. "Yeah, but Zoë already emailed you that you're welcome home anytime, and my parents are still there, and the hotel. Sam's just in Winnipeg. It's not like we ever spend more than a week in Gimli anyway." They travel to way more interesting places.
"I know." Eric finally sits up. "I hope Johnny ends up someplace cool, so we can go visit him."
AJ wrinkles her nose doubtfully. Her parents have a (ridiculous) gated vacation home, but it is in Nassau, and Eric's dad has a brightly painted B&B in Valparaiso, Chile these days. Those are cool places. "Don't get your hopes up. We are talking about Johnny here."
Eric shrugs. "I dunno. It'll be cool visiting him anyplace he ends up." AJ thinks, all right, we are talking about Eric, too.
July 15, 2010
Progress, as voters choose gay leaders
by Eric Johansson
On February 1 of this year, Iceland became famous for something besides being the birthplace of Björk: The provisional government appointed Jóhanna Sigurdardóttir as Prime Minister of Iceland, the first openly lesbian head of government in the modern era. Voters confirmed her in office in April. And June 27 she was finally able to marry her long-term civil partner, Jónína Leósdóttir, after gay marriage was legalized by Parliament.
I was in Iceland for the wedding, and attended a reception she and her wife held afterward in Reykjavik.
How I came to be there is related to the fact that, while Ms. Sigurdardóttir is the first openly lesbian head of government, she's not the first country leader to be married to someone of the same sex. And, coincidentally, there's an Icelandic connection.
The connection goes back a hundred forty years to a woman named Augusta Simonsson, who was part of a group of Icelandic emigrants fleeing the volcanoes to homestead in Canada. Their hard luck continued when the group shipwrecked, on the shores of Lake Winnipeg. But they decided to stay where they landed, calling their new home "paradise" or "home of the gods": Gimli—either the settlers were relentlessly optimistic, or they decided nothing was more bleak than late 19th century Iceland. They stuck with their new home despite being hit in short order with one of the worst winters in history, then a smallpox epidemic.
They persevered to build up a fishing industry, and later a summer resort industry for the nearby city of Winnipeg. Gimli became home to the largest population of Icelanders outside of Iceland itself.
Still there's an odd quirk in the line of old Augusta. Some of her descendants display the stick-to-itiveness of the settlers who weren't budged by that first winter, but others have a wanderlust, perhaps the same trait that urged her to leave her homeland to begin with.
Fast forward to the beginning of the 21st century and meet Johnny Johansson, the great grandson of Augusta Simonsson. His whole life he thought he was one of the homebodies, like his aunt Astrid Árnesson, affectionately called Auntie Auntie by all the town, related or not. She was so entrenched in Gimli she captained a local fishing boat, ran the local movie house, and was elected mayor of Gimli five terms in a row.
Johnny's twin sister Sigrid, on the other hand, left home at sixteen to travel Canada, the United States, and anywhere else she could find passage. Johnny had always hoped she'd blow back to town as easily as she'd left, but she fell in love with another inveterate wanderer, one Max Ortega, and never returned.
Johnny fell in love with a traveling mistress himself—hockey. NHL fanatics might have recognized the name of Johnny "Slipstream" Johansson, who signed with the Hartford Whalers in 1982. The schedule of a pro athlete had him visiting major cities across North America, but it wasn't itchy feet that kept him going, it was his passion for the ice. When he had to retire halfway through his rookie season because of a knee injury, he was devastated, but didn't hesitate for a moment before returning home.
Cue a whirlwind romance, extended engagement, and eventual marriage. Skip ahead and there's a kid, but not theirs. Me.
I was the result of Sigrid and Max's peripatetic affair. Born in New Orleans, by the time I was eleven I'd lived in Key West, San Luis Obispo, Puntarenas, Bellingham, La Paz, and Corpus Christi. Then my mother died suddenly of meningitis. My dad—off following an impulse at the time—was on a banana boat, who knew where. So I was packed up and sent to my Uncle Johnny in Gimli. For the first time in my life I experienced the concept of home as a geographical constant and, for a kid, it was idyllic.
To all appearances, Johnny was a Gimli lifer.
I grew up, though, and decided to go to college in New York. Auntie Auntie passed away of a stroke, out on her boat on Lake Winnipeg. And Johnny's marriage, long rocky, broke up. And so it was that at the age of 41, Johnny was gripped by the family wanderlust for the first time.
August 8, 2003, Long Bay
Johnny scrubs his hair dry with the hotel towel and looks down at the street from the window. His first day driving, he'd flipped a coin at Winnipeg, and turned left. Yeah, he had his passport, but the US hadn't appealed. The first night he'd camped outside of Thunder Bay; it had fit his wandering mood. But today he wants indoor plumbing and somewhere civilized to watch the ballgame. The restaurant/bar downstairs had been roped off for some event when he'd come through the lobby, but luckily he can see a likely looking bar across the street.
When Johnny takes a seat and orders, it looks like the Blue Jays game is about to start and he asks the bartender to turn up the volume.
The man obliges. "Baseball fan?"
"It holds me 'til hockey season," Johnny answers with a smile.
"Good thing you're not here in winter, then," the bartender answers. "You'd never see a game playing the same time as a bonspiel."
"Curling bar, huh? Glad I'm here in summer. The Blue Jays are having a good year, so it's not too much of a, uh, hardship."
"Well, Halladay's on fire, but the rest of the bullpen's pretty weak."
Johnny falls into a comfortable back and forth about the season with the bartender between watching at-bats and sipping his beer. An inning into the game, the bartender moves down to the end of the bar nearest the door as more customers start drifting in, greeting them by name. They all seem to be dressed for church, though by Johnny's quick mental check it's not a Sunday. He goes back to the game as members of the crowd claim various tables and drift up to the bar to place their orders.
A pretty woman in a long, shiny green dress approaches the bar next to Johnny, and the bartender is there immediately with a generous shot of whiskey for her. "On the house," he says, with sympathy in his eyes.
She pulls on whatever is holding her bun up so that her long brown hair falls around her shoulders. "Thanks, Nug," she replies, and shakes her head. "Sparkling cider for a wedding—what were they thinking?"
The bartender's eyebrows go up. "Seriously?"
"They had a single bottle of champagne for each table ... except at the head table."
Now the dress makes sense. Zoë'd had the bridesmaids at their wedding in some shiny fabric, too.
Meanwhile, the bartender, Nug, looks around the crowd, picking out the people in suits and green dresses with his eyes. "Yeah, of all the people at the wedding to not serve alcohol to ..." He shakes his head.
Johnny takes a quick glance; the bridesmaids and groomsmen seem especially set on a hard night of drinking.
The woman takes her drink with her to a table, and Johnny turns back to the game.
It gets harder to hear as the party gets louder, but the Blue Jays are choking so Johnny's losing interest in the game. By the time one of the groomsmen starts belting out "Rocket Man" like he's in a karaoke bar, Johnny's given up. The woman from before comes up beside him again and this time takes a seat, looking pissed.
Nug comes over, shaking his head. "Lennox is a prick."
"Oh, that's breaking news," she snorts. She looks like she's even more tense than when she first came in.
"Hey, can I get this one for you?" Johnny offers. "You, uh, look like you're having a bad day."
The woman turns and gives him a measured stare for a moment, and he tries not to squirm. Then she relaxes a bit and says, "Actually, yes, thank you."
Nug pours her drink and gives Johnny a nod that's either approving or a warning to be good before moving off.
"I'm Julie," she says, "formerly of Long Bay and back for as short a time as I can get away with." She lifts her glass towards him in a toast before knocking it back.
"I'm, uh, Johnny, formerly of Gimli, on the road," he answers, and catches Nug's attention to bring her another.
"Johnny-formerly-of-Gimli," she acknowledges. "Let me be clear. This has not been a good day. You have the advantage of not being an inbred idiot I've known since I was five, unlike everyone else in this bar. I'm not currently drunk, but I plan to at least get tipsy very, very soon. And then I would like to go to bed with you—unless you're married, diseased, or anything else you should disclose up front."
He gapes at her. There'd been puck bunnies who'd thrown themselves at him back in the day, but Julie seems a cut above—several cuts above—them. Plus he hadn't really been thinking about moving on that way yet. He's noticed that she's beautiful and now he knows for sure she's interested … but after twenty-one years with the same person his first reaction is to shut the attraction down. He has to forcibly remind himself he's allowed now.
Julie circles her finger, pointing out his dropped jaw. "That's not doing much to differentiate you from the inbred idiots," she says.
He snaps his jaw shut and flashes a nervous grin. "Sorry. I'm, uh, divorced. Just divorced. Uh, three days. I'm not used to ..."
For the first time, Julie's eyes soften a bit. "The swinging singles lifestyle? All right. How about if you just keep me company for a while as a decent human being of the male persuasion, and we'll take it as it comes."
Johnny relaxes a bit. "Yeah, okay. Not that ... I mean, you're really, really pretty, so ..."
"So I can hope?" she asks, and he can't help but smile at that.
"Yeah, maybe." He scratches his head nervously, and figures, okay, start with conversation. "So it wasn't a good day, and you were in a dry wedding ..." he leads.
She scowls into her drink, then sighs. "I was maid of honor for my sister today. As she got married to my ex-fiancé. Who left me at the altar eleven years ago."
That is a bad day. "Uh, wow. I can see why you could use a drink. Or three," he remarks.
"Yes, well, my sister went overboard in that direction a few years back, so she's sober now. I'm just not quite sure how well that's going to work with Chris and most of their best friends," she waves a hand at the crowd behind them, "being champion substance users. Honestly, though," she continues, "I've had a year to get used to Chris and Amy. It's usually okay—my life has actually been amazing in ways it couldn't have been if I'd gotten married. It was just strange today to see Chris show up and go through with it."
"Yeah, I get that," Johnny says. "I've done the 'what if' game. Zoë and I—that's my ... ex—" It sticks in his throat to use that word. He'll have to get used to it. "We probably would've split up a lot sooner if we weren't raising my nephew. We wanted to keep the family together for him since my sister died, right? So I've wondered, what if we'd split up the first time I moved out of the house? What about that time when Eric was in high school? But we didn't. And at least this way we really know we tried. So I figure that whatever happens is usually for the best. Like, I got divorced and I know it was the right choice. And you didn't marry this Chris guy, and your life is better."
"That's very philosophical of you, Johnny. Prairie wisdom." She smiles and salutes him with her glass. She's down to sipping now.
He smiles back, and feels more comfortable. She's obviously whip-smart and kind of intimidating, but she's more human now.
August 11, 2003, Long Bay
The rock of the mattress wakes Johnny. Julie is sitting on the side of the bed, picking up discarded clothes from the hotel room floor.
"What time's it?" Johnny asks with a yawn.
"Just after seven," she replies, and he gives a little groan and buries his head under the pillow while the shower goes on.
Twenty minutes later the bed dips again, and he peeks out to see Julie sitting fully dressed on the edge of the bed. "I'm going to take off, now," she says, giving his head an affectionate ruffle.
"Uh, to go get breakfast?" he says hopefully.
Julie gives him a smile that has a hint of sadness. "No, I'm headed back to the States."
Johnny sits upright in the bed, but he can't think of what he should say to her when the first things that come to mind are "Don't go!" "What about me?" "Can I come?" He knows none of those is right. It was a one-night—well, three-night—stand, not something that could last.
Julie says, "I already stayed longer than I expected. It was ... fun. Better than I ever imagined this trip would be."
"Thanks," is what he ends up saying. "I had fun, too." They share a last, sweet kiss, and then Julie lets herself out of his room.
Johnny flops back down and sorts through his conflicting emotions. Julie was fun to be with, and amazing, but his brain knows she wouldn't be a good match for him over the long run. They're too different. And ... well, she's just not right for him.
A long weekend when they both needed someone to reach out to, that's all it was, and there's a small sense of relief that it ended so easily. But his heart wants the long haul. He can feel the part of him reaching to fall, that wants to make it work, no matter how bad an idea that would be.
So does that mean casual sex isn't a good idea for him, because he's the marrying type? Or just no sex when he's vulnerable, which he's going to be for a while, now? Come to think of it, when he met Zoë he was devastated, and they'd spent eight hours tied together dancing at the Gimli Marathon—that was almost as intimate as sex. At one point, in the middle of the floor, he'd buried his head in her hair and cried while he confessed how wrecked he was about leaving pro hockey. Or at least part of the reason he was wrecked. Had he set himself up to fall in love with Zoë?
He buries his head under his pillow again.
National Pride continued from page 47
But now let's go back to the 1990s, and turn our focus half a continent away to where the Canadian government is cutting the fishing quotas of Solomon Gundy, a small island in Nova Scotia. It sounds like a petty, bureaucratic matter. In reality, the six thousand residents, descendants of Dutch fishermen who'd started working the local waters back in the 1600s, have an economy nearly entirely dependent on fishing. The government is effectively bankrupting the entire island, dropping their quotas in one stroke to zero. Faced with losing everything, the islanders seize on a right to independence mentioned in an ancient treaty and vote to secede from Canada.
The very night their quotas are cut, a Russian submarine limps into Solomon Gundy's harbor carrying two nuclear missiles. The Russian government really wants the sub back and Ottawa really wants to return it to them, giving Solomon Gundy the leverage they need to have their cause heard. The Canadian government drops the fishing quota cut, and Solomon Gundy is eventually recognized as a sovereign nation—that's as much as most people remember of the story.
Meet the mayor of Solomon Gundy in 1992, Augustus Knickel. He can trace his line back to the original Dutch settlers. Past mayors include his great-great uncle and his grandfather. Gus is also the local minister—a lay minister in his teens, he switched his Master's studies from Fisheries Resources to Theology when the island congregation asked him to replace their retiring reverend. All this adds up to make him triply protective of his people: they're his heritage, his constituents, and his flock.
Gus's passion for secession from Canada is catching. A lawyer for the Prime Minister, Dexter Lexcannon, defects to Gus's side when he realizes the impact the political game-playing in Ottawa has on the lives of the local people. Lexcannon becomes the Republic of Solomon Gundy's first hero when gunfire from Canadian forces kills him during a nighttime skirmish over the submarine.
Gus finds the death of someone who'd become a personal friend a high price to pay for independence, and Ottawa does agree to return Solomon Gundy's fishing rights. But the scare has been a wakeup call on two fronts: First, that the island is vulnerable to governmental fiat. Second, that the island desperately needs to diversify its economy. So Gus and the islanders forge ahead with their bid for political independence, through the courts this time.
As their own country—with their own passports, postage stamps, and currency—the island catches the interest of tourists, collectors, and the just plain curious. The islanders have to make sure they can be self-sufficient on the services side, and the Goods and Services Tax and the provincial tax are redirected to pay for new government jobs filled locally. Soon Solomon Gundy's newspaper is adding more categories to the Help Wanted page.
In order to manage the island's new national and international functions, the local government adds an Executive Council to handle the decision-making outside the regular democratic town meetings. The Executive Council is led by a President who serves as both head of state and head of government—you can guess who gets elected to that office.
Another Ottawa staffer also switches allegiance to the new republic, and stays to apply her expertise in helping establish the new nation. Along the way, she and Gus fall in love.
The relationship lasts six years until she leaves for somewhere less remote, longer than most mainlanders tolerate the rustic island. Gus's presidency will last much longer—to the present, in fact, with no sign the voters want a change.
August 15, 2003, Solomon Gundy
The wind whipping past and the thrum of the ferry feel like home. Johnny leans against the ferry railing, watching the far shore grow steadily closer. It's the smallest ferry he's ever seen, but it's taking him out of Canada, and that's all he wants.
The big cities hadn't appealed at all. It wasn't until he'd reached the fishing communities on the Atlantic coast that he'd felt alive again and suddenly the passport tucked in his jacket called to him. The Republic of Solomon Gundy—that's where he could get out of the country.
So here he is, out on the water again, watching the intricate dance of fishing and pleasure boats weaving in and out of the harbor.
About twenty meters off the starboard bow, a fishing boat is coming in ahead the ferry, a little bigger than Auntie Auntie's old Sea Wolf, but still handled by two people—one in the pilothouse and one at the stern stowing nets. Johnny can read "Providence" lettered across the back. The other closest boat to them is a dinghy with two men motoring slowly towards the fishing boat, still over a hundred meters out.
Seabirds are gathered over the fishing boat, just like back in Gimli, hoping to find a handout. Johnny watches the guy at the stern—boy it looks like—ignore the gulls as they drop down by the ones and twos to squawk at him and search for anything to scavenge from the deck.
From his vantage on the ferry, Johnny sees something out of the corner of his eye moving fast from above, but the boy is concentrating on the nets and doesn't see it at all. A bald eagle swoops down with talons outstretched and snatches up a tern currently hovering at the stern, speeding away before the rest of the riled flock can react with anything more than outraged noise. The boy, startled at the explosion of feathers and noise right in front of him, loses hold of part of the net in his arms and it spills into the water. The next thing Johnny sees is the fallen net pulling taut and the boy flipping over the stern.
It feels like a full minute while his brain processes what he sees, but it can't really be more than a half second before he's yelling, "Man overboard! Man overboard!" and pointing at the last position he saw the boy. An older woman standing near Johnny on the deck snaps alert at his cry, sees where he's looking, and also starts pointing. The handful of other people on the ferry turn towards them, but have no idea what happened.
The Providence isn't underway anymore and is just drifting on its former course, but Johnny can see the silhouette of the pilot looking down at his instruments, not realizing yet what's happened. Meanwhile, the boy hasn't surfaced.
Johnny runs the few steps to the ferry pilothouse. As he passes the woman on deck he pats her on the shoulder. "Keep pointing!"
He sticks his head in the door to the ferry pilot and explains, "Man overboard, fishing boat," jabbing his finger in the direction. The ferry pilot nods and cuts his engines immediately, then gives three long blasts on his horn. Before the first blast has ended, Johnny's back on the deck, pulling off his jacket and boots and diving over the rail towards the boat. The last thing he sees before he's swimming through the chilly water is the pilot from the Providence finally moving towards the stern, realizing his mate is missing.
Instead of heading towards where the boat was when the boy first fell in, Johnny swims directly to the boat's stern; he's pretty sure he knows what happened. He takes a deep breath and dives, and sure enough, the net has wrapped around the propeller and the kid is tangled in it. He's not even that far below the surface, but he can't make it up. He's still conscious, though. Johnny pushes forward through the water and pinches the boy's nose shut before sealing their mouths together and breathing into the kid's lungs.
Johnny kicks up to the surface and takes another big breath, while feeling in his pocket to pull out his Leatherman. Fortunately he's had it for so long he can pull up the blade he wants by feel. He ducks back underwater and starts feeling for where the net is tangled against the kid, following the ropes to where he can get his blade in to cut. It takes two more dives, with two more transfers of air, before enough net has been cut away for the boy to get free. They both break to the surface, the boy gasping for air and coughing. Johnny's eyes sting like they never did in the lake.
"Arne! Arne!" There are voices shouting from the boat and from the dinghy that has pulled up next to them. Then a voice calls, "Can you get him over to the port side?" and Johnny tugs on the boy, Arne, and helps him swim to the side, where he can see the pilot has rigged a rope pulley from the overhead hook for nets, ending in a loop. Johnny helps get it around Arne, so he can get pulled aboard.
Then there are hands reaching over from the dinghy and someone urging him to give one last push to get over the side.
Johnny lies on his back, breathing hard. The sun looks especially bright through his eyelids, and when he squints them open, the sky is blue and sparkling.
A face leans into view over his, upside down, so beautiful it doesn't seem real. Oh. He's lying across the lap of the man who hauled him in.
He closes his eyes again and wonders if he's hallucinating, oxygen deprivation or something. A shout floats across from the boat next to them. "He's all right! Barely a scratch on him!"
"It's a miracle!" says an awestruck voice from closer by. "He's an angel!"
He looks like an angel, Johnny thinks, of the face he glimpsed.
"He looks like one," he hears from right over him, and he squints his eyes open again. Huh. The man above him is still gorgeous, and gives him a wry smile when he catches Johnny peeking. "Believe me," he whispers, "it's better than him thinking you're a witch."
Johnny's a little too buzzed on adrenaline to puzzle that one out, so he just lies back and rests, trying to soak up sun.
Once he hears the motor being throttled back as they approach the dock, he sits up. The angel guy ties an expert flying bowline and steps gracefully out of the boat with the rope to make them fast. Then he reaches a hand to help Johnny step out, and the elderly gentleman who'd been manning the motor follows. They stand on the dock, looking out to where the Providence is being fitted to be towed in.
Back on the quay, two figures are making their way towards them—a middle-aged woman carrying a black bag and towing a wheeled suitcase, and the older woman from the ferry behind her. Johnny looks at the next dock over, the ferry landing, to see his truck being driven off and pulled over to the side to let the car behind it off. The volunteer driver catches his eye when he gets out and gives a wave and a point to indicate the keys are still in the ignition. Johnny waves back.
The angel from the dinghy turns to him and holds out his hand. "That was ... well. Welcome to Solomon Gundy!"
Johnny puts out his own hand and it's clasped in a two-handed shake. "That wasn't the way I was expecting to, uh, enter the country. I'm Johnny, Johnny Johansson."
"Johnny, you're more than welcome. I'm Gus." He finally breaks the handshake to wave to his companion. "This here's Bunsy." Bunsy turns from his single-minded lookout for the fishing boat to take Johnny's hand in another two-handed clasp.
"Thank you. Thank you."
Johnny feels a little shy at being the focus of such intense attention, but he understands everyone's emotions are still high from the close call. He smiles back.
"And that out there," Gus continues, waving his hand towards the fishing boat, "are Bunsy's nephew and great nephew. They've been out for three weeks." He turns around at the sound of footsteps, so Johnny does, too. "Hey, doc."
"Frederick radioed from the boat. What happened?"
Gus passes her off with, "This is Johnny Johansson. He knows better than anyone."
The doctor takes one look at his soaked appearance and says, "Let's get you off your feet, first," which sounds like a great idea to Johnny.
They head up to the quay, where there's a bench Johnny drops gratefully on. Gus sits next to him, close enough to prop him up if need he needs it.
"Now, then," the doctor says, "What happened?"
Johnny clears his throat. "Um, I was on the ferry and I saw Arne, I guess it is, drop the net when that bald eagle—" He swoops his hand down like the eagle's dive. "Did you see that eagle?" he asks Gus. Gus nods and Johnny continues, "So part of the net went over the stern and got caught in the propeller. I guess the net had tangled with Arne a little; it pulled him over and trapped him underwater. I breathed into him, uh, three times to give him air while I was cutting him loose. It was maybe a minute and a half before I first got to him? He was still okay."
"A minute and a half is about right," says the woman from the ferry, joining them. She has a quiet voice, but the kind that makes everyone stop and listen. "You did a remarkable job, young man; you kept your head in extraordinary circumstances. Young Arne is quite lucky you were nearby." Johnny flushes again. Diving in and cutting the kid free was easier than hearing other people make a big deal about it. "Now, Melinda, perhaps he can get warmed up."
"Of course!" says the doctor, and she tells Johnny, "I'd like you to pull off that wet shirt while you finish your story. Did you or Arne get seawater in your lungs at any time?" She unzips the suitcase and pulls out a dry blanket.
Johnny feels more embarrassed than ever, but he follows her orders and replies from inside the shirt going over his head, "I don't think so. Not the serious, breathing-in-water kind."
The doctor wraps the blanket around him. "And did Arne sustain any injuries from the propeller?"
Johnny shakes his head. "I didn't see any blood in the water, anyway. I think the net fouled the propeller before Arne got close."
"Frederick said that Arne barely had a scratch," Gus adds.
"That really is amazingly lucky," the doctor says. "Propeller injuries are a nasty business." She looks out to gauge the distance of the approaching boat. "Let me just do a quick check on you, Johnny, while we're waiting for Arne."
Johnny obediently stills while she checks his pulse and listens to his lungs through the stethoscope.
"Everything seems to be okay. I'll want to take another look tomorrow, but let me know sooner if you develop a persistent cough, fever, or any skin irritations." She turns to Gus. "In the immediate future I'm more concerned about the chill and adrenaline crash. Can you keep an eye on him? As soon as he's rested a bit, you and Zita could get him something hot to eat. A hot bath or shower and dry clothes, sooner rather than later, would be best." She pulls a bottle of water out of the suitcase and hands it to him. He's surprisingly thirsty; maybe it's the salt water.
"Got it, Melinda," Gus says, while the other woman, Zita, says, "Of course, dear," in a way that sounds like she can conjure soup and a warm bed out of thin air. The doctor heads back down the ramp to the dock to wait for the Providence.
"That's your truck from the ferry, isn't it? I put your jacket and shoes in it." says Zita. Johnny looks up to see the truck still parked over by the ferry landing and nods. "Would you like to head into town?"
"I'd, um, I'd like to wait and see how the kid is, if that's okay," Johnny says. The fishing boat has finally arrived and the doctor is helping them make fast.
Zita nods agreement and Johnny can see her mentally ticking through some highly efficient list. He's more than happy to let her do the thinking. "Did you have travel plans? Reservations somewhere? Or were you just coming over for the day?"
Johnny shrugs. "I didn't have plans. I've been traveling and just wanted to get out of Canada, you know? But I didn't have reservations or anything. I figured I'd come over, get my passport stamped, and if there was a room available I'd stay; if not, I'd ferry back and find a motel. I'm kind of going about this entering a foreign country thing all wrong, though."
"Well, I think the President can take care of your passport," Zita says with a poorly concealed smile, "and I imagine a place to stay, too."
Johnny's eyes go wide. "No, you don't have to bug the President! I mean, my passport's in my jacket. I can just go through Immigration like anyone else."
Gus is actually laughing. He holds out his hand to Johnny again. "Augustus Knickel, President of the Republic of Solomon Gundy."
Now Johnny flat out gapes, shaking hands on automatic pilot. He kind of remembers seeing photos in the newspaper back when the court case was going on, now that he thinks about it. A regular, good-looking politician. But in person Gus seems so much more, well, rumpled and windswept. And not so serious.
"And Minister of the United Church of Solomon Gundy, and proprietor, Harbor View Mini-Putt," Zita adds.
Johnny raises his eyebrows and Gus zips down the top of his windbreaker so Johnny can see his clerical collar. That's … well. That's about as many hats as Auntie Auntie wore, except she stayed a mayor instead of becoming president.
Gus says, "And Caretaker for Drenched Heroes. Zita, do you think you can get some hot soup for Johnny?"
"Certainly," she answers, and heads briskly towards town.
Johnny checks down the dock. Since Melinda seems to still be on the fishing boat with the Bunsy family, he picks up their previous conversation. "So, president I get. How did minister happen?"
"That came first, actually," Gus says. "Back when I was a teenager—this is when it was still the United Church of Canada—I gave the eulogy when my uncle died. The congregation and Reverend de Vries seemed to think I had a gift for ministry." He rubs the back of his neck, the first sign of bashfulness Johnny's seen in him. "They chased me down when I was in school in Vancouver when de Vries started planning to retire, and here I am. And here you are, too," he adds with a gentle nudge.
"Yeah, middle-aged gypsy," says Johnny, with a laugh that sounds forced even to him. But Gus takes the hint and doesn't push. The day's been enough of an emotional roller coaster, and Johnny doesn't need to bring that into it. "This is nice, though," Johnny says. "Feels more like home than any place I've been yet."
"It gets right under your skin," Gus says, "as long as you can be happy living in a small fishing community, anyway." Johnny thinks he hears a hint of sadness, but Gus goes on, "You're more than welcome to stay as long as you like. We'd be glad to have you."
"How do you know I'm not some kind of layabout bum?" Johnny teases.
Gus shakes his head. "Anyone who dives into action like you did—hah, literally—can't be a complete layabout."
"I don't know, it sounds like you've already taken most of the local jobs," Johnny teases. "What other work is left?"
Gus snorts. "Believe me, I don't do anywhere near most of the work. Actually there's all kinds of jobs on the island. We're an independent country, so we have to do a little bit of everything. It's probably easier to ask what kind of work can you do?"
"Well ... a little bit of everything," Johnny answers. "I'm a carpenter. Just finished up some major renovations on Gimli's biggest resort hotel. I know my way around boats and fishing—on the lake, anyway. Never been out on the ocean. When I was a teenager I had just about every job you could have in a fishing and tourist town. I can do basic repairs on outboard motors. Car engines, too, as long as they don't have a computer in 'em. Pretty much anything that needs doing in a bowling alley. Coach hockey."
"Hockey!" Gus exclaims. "Johnny Johansson—you played pro, didn't you?"
Johnny has to nod yes.
"Damn! I saw you play! I had season tickets to the Canucks." He shakes his head, grinning. "Isn't that a crazy thing. Welcome to Solomon Gundy, Johnny Johansson."
A stout woman is coming down the quay towards them, carrying a thermos.
"Luba!" Gus calls, then shouts something in Russian to her and smiles at her reply.
"Okay, president, minister, mini-putt guy, and Russian translator?" Johnny says.
"A little bit of everything," Gus says with a grin, and then introduces as she arrives, "Luba, Johnny. Johnny, Luba."
"Dabro pajalavat v Solomon Gundy!" she says, then adds in a thick accent, "Welcome." She pushes the thermos into his hands with a smile. "Eat. Be warm."
"Thank you," he says. Gus takes the thermos and pours soup into the cup for him, making sure Johnny has it cradled in both hands before letting go. The soup is hearty, grounding, and Johnny takes small sips, one after the other. "'S good," he tells Luba with a smile.
She beams and pats him on the back. "Eat. Be warm. Take pants off."
Johnny nearly spits out his mouthful and Gus laughs uproariously. Luba laughs as well and winks, and Johnny gets the idea she's better at English than she's letting on. "I see you later," she tells them, and heads back the way she came.
"Everything? What else? You're a rocket scientist, too?" Johnny asks.
Gus laughs again, and it's a great sound. "That would have actually come in handy once upon a time, but no. No, the Russian was ..." He shakes his head. "My grandfather was a bit of a Cold War nut—well he was a bit of a nut every which way. But he had all of us learn a few useful words and phrases for the 'imminent' Russian invasion. Then I lived next to the Russian Orthodox church in Vancouver and I wanted to learn something a little more friendly. I also figured Russia has third largest coastline in the world—big fishing industry. Too bad in the eighties there wasn't a lot of information sharing between our scientists and the Soviets. I could do a hell of a master's thesis now, though."
He pours more soup in the cup, then looks up. "Ah. Here they come." Melinda and the Bunsy family are making their way up the dock. Arne's walking, though he's leaning a bit against his father. From the bare legs peeking out from under the blankets he's wrapped in, Johnny's guessing more than his wet shirt got stripped off.
The group stops in front of them and Johnny has to put down the cup as Frederick reaches to grasp his hands. "Thank you. Thank you so much." Arne's holding on to the blankets with both hands, but he says an earnest "Thanks," as well.
"Are you okay?" Johnny asks him.
"Yeah," says Arne, "just need a hot shower and sleep."
"It's a miracle," Great Uncle Bunsy says again. "He's an angel!" The others look like they're holding in laughter while Johnny fidgets.
Melinda takes pity on him and rounds on Gus. "Speaking of hot showers," she says, "this doesn't look like one."
"He wanted to see if Arne's okay!" Gus protests.
"Arne's okay. He's seen. Shoo," Melinda says and she herds her group towards town.
"All right, all right," Gus says, and carefully helps Johnny up. Johnny's jeans are starting to stiffen from the salt, and a hot shower sounds like heaven.
"Do you mind if I drive?" Gus says as they get to the truck.
"No, please," Johnny says and pats him on the shoulder to send him to the driver's side. Johnny's rapidly running out of brain power.
When they get to the border crossing's drive-through station, Gus talks to the border agent and gets Johnny's passport stamped, as promised, but Johnny's half asleep against the truck's passenger door by then.
Somehow he manages to function on auto-pilot as Gus leads him into a house, a bathroom, and eventually a bed.
August 28, 2003, Solomon Gundy
Gus is buried in the dust-covered filing cabinet out in the shed looking for last year's reports because he can't find them in the office file drawer, the to-be-filed basket, the shelf over the desk, on top of the bookcase next to the desk, the junk drawer, or the other junk drawer. At this rate he'd have better luck finding the email the report was attached to and printing it out again, and that would be a pipe dream.
He hears Johnny calling out something, but it's muffled by the walls. He steps to the shed door and squints into the sun that's silhouetting Johnny next to the house. "What was that?"
"Sorry. I said, is it okay to use your computer to check my email?"
"Yeah, sure!" Gus waves him to go ahead and ducks back in to the shed. It's completely hopeless, though, because he's sure he hasn't transferred any files out to this cabinet since ... Wait, there's a box by the door.
Gus opens the top flaps and digs through a few layers of papers and magazines that he's pretty sure are from the right archeological stratum. And, yes, there are the reports he was looking for. Now he can only hope that in the half hour he spent digging these up, this year's reports haven't gone missing.
Fortunately they're in the house, right on the side table where he thought he'd left them. He settles in at the kitchen table with the reports, pen, calculator, and legal pad, to take an objective look at what they've been sensing at the Visitors Bureau board. The sound of Johnny across the room clacking away at the keyboard is comforting in the background.
When he hears a quiet chuckle, and is feeling a desperate need for a break, he puts down his pen and asks, "What?"
Johnny twists the desk chair. "Oh," he says, still grinning, "just this link Eric sent. This kid's doing a Star Wars lightsaber thing ... here, you just have to see it." He turns the monitor so Gus can see better, a kid spinning nearly out of control with a long pole in his hands, then pulling himself together and solemnly walking off camera with the kind of dignity a cat has after falling off a windowsill. When he comes back on camera and becomes even more uncoordinated, slipping on a cloth on the floor, Gus can't help but chuckle.
"I'm pretty sure I did the same thing when Star Wars came out, but I'm glad nobody filmed it!"
"Oh, yeah," Johnny says. "Louis and I had epic Jedi training sessions, blindfolds and everything. Turned out we were better at whacking each other's knuckles than using the Force."
Gus grins. "That sounds familiar."
The video ends and Johnny rotates the monitor back and returns to his email. Gus ponders for a minute, mind still on the Visitors Bureau.
"Somewhere in your jack-of-all-trades skill set, you wouldn't happen to be any good at making websites, would you?"
Johnny turns back around. "Me? Sorry." He shakes his head. "I know a few tricks for getting around on the Internet, mostly what's been banged into my head by Eric and AJ, but not making websites. You'd want AJ for that. She's actually getting her degree in Computer Science, even though she's already a whiz. Here ..." He stops to type something in, then turns the monitor again.
Gus gets up to take a closer look. It's an attractive website for a resort hotel. He asks with a gesture whether Johnny minds him reaching in for the mouse, and Johnny waves for him to go ahead. He crouches next to the chair, resting his left elbow on the armrest, and Johnny lays a hand on his back for balance.
While he's clicking through the menus, Johnny says, "This is AJ's parents' hotel. Eric did the photography." He points out some of the pictures, which really look professional. "She finally agreed they'd do it when her parents agreed to buy her an apartment in New York, the one where she and Eric are living."
Gus was just thinking that this website was perfect—much more attractive and modern than most sites he'd seen—when Johnny dropped that bomb.
"That's ... whoa." He shakes his head. "That's way out of my price range."
Johnny just laughs. "No, that's just AJ and her parents. They're terrible at negotiating with her. And she knows they have the money. She wouldn't charge anyone else that."
Gus looks up into Johnny's eyes, dancing with merriment. He really is one of the most good-humoured people Gus has met, almost always ready with a quiet smile or laugh or bit of silliness.
"Do you think they'd do a website for the Visitors Bureau for their weight in fish?"
There's that boyish grin, the big one with the dimples. "Lobster, maybe," he jokes. "No," he says more seriously, "I know how to deal with AJ, and Eric's gotten pretty good at it, too. Believe me, if AJ's parents had said they were going to have some second-rate hack do their site, AJ would have insisted on taking over just to make sure it gone done right. Or if they'd asked Eric to do puppy eyes at her that he really wanted to do the photography for his portfolio, but only if she was doing the site. But like I said, they have the money, so I don't get in the middle of it. And it means Eric has free rent while they're at Columbia. Anyway, we can talk to them, see if they'll do it."
"I'll talk to the board and see what kind of budget there is, and let you advise me on the negotiations." Gus gets up, knees cracking as he stands.
"I promise it won't cost an apartment," Johnny says. "Though it might cost a free B&B stay whenever they want to visit Solomon Gundy."
Gus nods, mentally adding barter to the options he'll discuss with the rest of the board. He pulls the chair from the kitchen table over closer to Johnny and reverses it, straddling it so he can lean his arms on the back and rest his chin.
"So AJ is Eric's roommate, but not his girlfriend." He's heard bits and pieces of Johnny's story—the ex-wife, the nephew, Auntie Auntie, the twin sister who died—but he's still building the mental scorecard of the players in Gimli.
"Oh, God, no," Johnny says. "She'd eat him alive and they both know it. In fact—" He starts laughing quietly, already caught up in a memory. "There was one time a bunch of the kids were playing some party game. Not Spin the Bottle, but some thing where it ended up Eric had to kiss someone, and next thing I'm walkin' in the door of the caboose to see him making out with his buddy Sam and all the rest of the kids looking up at me, frozen."
Gus shakes his head, grinning, at that mental picture—every teen's nightmare.
"So later," Johnny goes on, "I pull poor Eric aside to give him 'the talk' about how it's okay to be gay or bi, and how I was in love with one of my teammates while I was pro, and how that made it so hard to leave when I was injured out." Johnny stills for a moment, then restarts as if he'd never stopped. "And Eric's getting redder and redder, and finally says he's not gay. It's just that when he had to kiss someone, AJ gave him the look of death, and kissing Sam was safer."
Johnny's smile has frozen, the revelation in his story apparently having slipped out unplanned. Gus finds the whole thing hilarious, though, and laughs until his eyes water. "Oh, man," he says. "I'm so glad I'm not a teenager anymore. It's just one awkward thing after another." He sees Johnny relax a bit, and adds, "It was a good opportunity for you to talk to him, though. Gays, and especially bi's, can be invisible in small towns. There were maybe ten people here who knew I'd had a boyfriend in Vancouver, until I gave a sermon where I came out as bi to the whole congregation."
Johnny's eyebrows climb towards his hairline.
"What, a minister can't be queer?" Gus teases. "They can in the UCC."
"No, it's just ... You came out to the whole church? And they were okay with it?"
Gus squirms a shrug. "More or less. The ones who didn't like it didn't like me 'pushing it in public.' People here were more used to accepting that old aunt Margrit and her 'roommate' were going to be roommates for life, without making a big thing of it."
Johnny nods. "In the past few years, it's gotten more talked about in Gimli, and it's going okay. Especially with the mayor of Winnipeg being gay, things are changing. Back when I was in the NHL, though ... no way. I only told Auntie Auntie, after I came back to Gimli and I was a mess. Then I met Zoë and she knew I was upset at losing my dream to play pro. I didn't tell her the other part because I didn't want her to think she was a rebound thing." Gus flashes Johnny a questioning look and Johnny twists his mouth a little. "Okay, maybe it was kind of a rebound thing. Maybe I wouldn't have fallen so fast. But I really did love her. She's beautiful and smart and kind, and all these great things. We just weren't very good at being married to each other. It's like ... we didn't talk about the things we should've and we fought about the things we shouldn't've. Eric says we're too much alike, which, who knew that would be a bad thing in a marriage."
"No, I can see that," Gus says softly. He'd realized he shouldn't have gotten involved with Noël in the turmoil of the submarine crisis. Falling in love had felt better than the pain from Dexter's death. And their similarities had hurt them, too, their quick tempers often combining to trap them in a downward spiral of vicious sniping. "It's always good to have someone who can see your blind spots, and they can't if they have the same ones," he muses.
August 30, 2003, New York City
"Are you on speakerphone? ... Well it was either that or you're calling from the bathroom."
AJ's trying not to listen to Eric's side of his conversation with Johnny, but he's flopped on her bed while she's trying to work.
"Really? Okay, hang on. Hey, AJ."
She sighs. "What?"
"Doesn't that phone in the kitchen have speakerphone on it?"
They've never used the function before but, "Yes."
"Johnny says Gus wants to talk to us. Well, you, and me too."
The latest tape from Johnny had come with a newspaper article about him saving the life of a local teen, complete with photo of Johnny looking more embarrassed at having his picture taken than anything else. Pull out a camera when he's on skates, or just reeled in a big fish, or hanging out with family, and he's a huge ham. Anything else, and he hates people "making a fuss." On the tape, he'd said that he's staying with Solomon Gundy's president, "but it's not a big deal." Now the president wants to talk to them?
AJ goes out to the kitchen and picks up the phone there, then pushes the speakerphone button before putting the handset back. "Can you hear me?" she asks.
There's a clatter of something falling on the other end, and then she hears Johnny's voice, slightly echo-y. "Hey, AJ."
Eric wanders out with the cordless phone, and she motions for him to turn it off and join her.
"Hi, Johnny. We're both here," he says as he settles on the stool next to hers at the counter.
"Okay. Um, Gus Knickel, here's AJ Burke and Eric Johansson. AJ, Eric, this is Gus."
Eric looks nervously at the phone. "What can we do for you, Mr. President?"
A new voice comes on the line. "Thanks, Eric, but just Gus is fine, really."
He sounds friendly enough.
"I'm calling because the Solomon Gundy Visitors Bureau needs a new website, and I'd like to hire the two of you for the web design and photography."
Eric pokes her in the side and whispers, "You should make that your semester project! I'll bet no one else in your class is getting an invitation from a country. I could do my photojournalism portfolio on Solomon Gundy, too."
"Shh!" she whispers back. "We don't know what he wants to pay us."
"Our class projects can't be work for pay, though," he says, and she glares at him with her finger to her lips.
"Besides," she whispers, "What about Kris?"
Johnny clears his throat. "Uh, guys? Are you there?"
"Sorry, Johnny, Gus. We were just discussing our semester workload and whether we can take on such a big project." She gives Eric another glare for good measure.
"Well if it helps," Gus says, "the Bureau could fly you up for a weekend soon to talk things over and get some photos with the summer foliage. Then we'd host you again over your Thanksgiving holiday. We don't have a hard deadline, it's just that we know we aren't meeting our visitor growth projections and that our current website is, well, it's not helping."
Eric slides off the stool and disappears into AJ's bedroom.
AJ hears Johnny, half muffled, "Visitor growth projections?" and Gus's mumbled reply, "Shut up. We have people who do ... things like that."
When Eric comes back out with her laptop, AJ fishes up the end of the Ethernet cord on the DSL modem and plugs it in while Eric flips the top and wakes the machine up. "What's the URL of your current site?" she asks, and types in the reply. "Dot c-a?" she says, as she's typing. "Don't you have a country code top level domain?" When there's nothing but silence, she adds, "Like dot c-a is Canada, or dot u-k is the United Kingdom."
"Uh, no?" says Gus.
"Well you need one. Let me check." She opens a new browser window while the Visitors Bureau page is still loading. "You would have gotten an alpha-two code from ISO when you were added to the United Nations database ... Yup. Looks like you're r-s."
"How come Solomon Gundy isn't s-g?" Johnny asks.
"Because Singapore already has that code. I guess they went with Republic of Solomon Gundy as the next best option. So now you need to apply to the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority and let them know who will administer the root zone."
Gus's voice turns pleading. "Please tell me you'll come for the weekend sometime soon. I may need two full days just for the translation of that."
AJ closes the ISO database so she can go back to the Visitors Bureau window. "It's not really that compli— Oh my God." She's speechless with horror. She turns the screen towards Eric so he can appreciate the full impact, too.
His face screws up, then he gives her the begging eyes. She doesn't need convincing on this one—she's affronted on behalf of every sentient being who uses the Internet.
"Mr. President." She requires the formality to convey the seriousness of the situation. "Your website has an animated gif of a rotating fish on it."
"That's our flag," he reports. The wince she sees Eric give in her peripheral vision matches hers.
"There's another animated gif of a fishing boat going across the bottom of the page," she continues. "There's"—she has to pause to catalog them all—"blinking, sparkling, and marquee text. Six different fonts, including Comic Sans and Webdings. Eight different text colors. The text is in three columns with no padding between." She clicks links. "Half your pages have a blinking cartoon of a man who looks like the Mario Brothers' idiot cousin, digging with a shovel. This is a website emergency."
She looks at Eric and they have the kind of silent conversation made possible by a friendship of nine years.
"All right. Book us a flight—not this weekend, the next one."
"Thank you!" Gus's relief is audible. "What do you think it would cost to redo the site?"
AJ thinks, but she knows what she really wants. "I'd like to do the site as my semester project for class. If it's a school project I can't charge, but it'll be guaranteed to be the best project in the class. The thing is, I already told Eric and Johnny's cousin Kris I'd do his website for him. He just finished the summer at New Burbage, and wants a site to impress casting directors."
There's a pause, and AJ can hear some muffled whispering.
"Tell you what," says Gus. "We want you to come up for at least two trips. We can cover all your hotel or B&B stay while you're here. Meals."
"Lobster!" Johnny interrupts.
"Including a lobster dinner," Gus agrees. "All local transportation covered. And we can buy both of you an airline voucher. If it so happens that the voucher is big enough to cover a trip to New Burbage, too, well, I won't be auditing what you do with your expense coverage."
AJ and Eric do a silent high five. "I believe those terms will be acceptable," she says, as coolly as possible.
"Excellent!" says Gus, sounding satisfied as well. "I'll reserve your flights and lodging. I'm looking forward to meeting you."
"It'll be so great to see you guys!" Johnny adds. "I think you'll really like this place."
"We'll see you soon," Eric tells him.
September 6, 2003, Solomon Gundy
AJ puts on cotton gloves to leaf carefully through a fragile set of papers. "I know a girl working on her Master's in Library Science at Pratt—Nisha. She's specializing in digital archiving. You might be able to get her to do an internship here next summer. If not, she'll be able to post an internship opening to her department."
Zita nods. "That would be very helpful. I did a Master's in Library Science myself, on the side while I was getting my PhD in History. Of course it was long before computers." AJ's glad Zita understands the importance of digitizing.
Eric had been enthusiastic about photographing the Solomon Gundy Cultural Center, a gorgeous old building housing the Natural Science and History museums and Historical Library and Archives. Johnny and Gus had been fascinated when AJ was describing for Zita how to capture fragile historical items as high-resolution photographic virtual reality objects. With VRs that can be turned three hundred sixty degrees by viewers online, everyone from tourists to schoolchildren to scholars could examine the pieces from any Internet browser in the world, saving wear and tear on the items themselves.
When they got to the various types of document scanning and archive management techniques, though, Eric and Johnny escaped down to the harbor for photos of Solomon Gundy's Fish Market, modeled after the one at Seattle's Pike Place, and Gus let himself be pulled into conversation by a local worried about tuna catch figures.
AJ's happy to have Zita to herself, anyway—she's by far the smartest person on the island.
"Your physical preservation looks great," AJ tells her. There's a sealed glass case with climate control for displaying the Treaty of Utrecht side letter—the legal foundation for the island's independence—and additional controlled environment storage for other historical manuscripts. "Just add the digital archives and you'll be completely set."
Creating a website for the Cultural Center isn't part of the project AJ's doing for the Visitors Bureau, but it would be really cool. AJ will have to encourage Zita to write a grant application for it. She'll even help with describing the scope of the project and what they'll need.
A bark of laughter from across the room makes them both turn.
Gus is still grinning openly at whatever the other man said, giving him a pat on the arm in appreciation.
Zita's face softens when she sees them. "Johnny's been good for Gus, you know," she says.
"How?" AJ has to ask. Gus seems to be his own force of nature.
"He's ... less cynical," Zita replies thoughtfully. "His usual defense mechanisms involve distancing himself with irony and sarcasm. If he's earnest about anything he could be hurt, you see. The last adult I saw him be truly genuine with was Mr. Lexcannon before his unfortunate death. I hate to think how Gus would be if we hadn't had our independence recognized. But then he became involved in a relationship with someone who was also disillusioned and they both reinforced that negativity in each other. It wasn't any easier when the relationship broke up." Her slight frown turns into a soft smile. "Johnny, on the other hand, is a very genuine person, very in the moment, and tactile with his affection. He's been a good influence on Gus since they've been together."
AJ's thoughts on what Zita's saying derail at that last word. "Together?" Hadn't she seen Johnny sleeping out on the couch, instead of the bedroom? He'd even said something about it beating the caboose. Although as far as AJ could tell there's not much difference between Gus's house and the caboose except for it being larger, and thus able to hold more crap.
"Oh, not 'together' in that way, at least as far as I know," Zita explains. "Although I think they'd be well matched if it came to that. I don't think Gus is entirely uninterested."
AJ's going to have to talk over that possibility with Eric. They've both agreed that they like Gus. Still, there's one thing she does know. "I think it's too soon for Johnny to be thinking about that. His marriage has been over for a long time, but the divorce is pretty new."
"Of course," Zita says. "It takes time." She starts filing the documents away, and AJ watches Gus talking to his constituent, studying him with a whole new perspective.
Johnny's slumped down on the sofa, the one he doesn't sleep on, measuring the loft with his eyes. The stairs up to it are little more than shelves for random stacks of books, but he'd made his way up the other day and could make a beauty of space out of it, he thinks.
Gus's old girlfriend had had him wall off a space underneath the loft as a bedroom. Johnny thought it was kind of claustrophobic, but Gus'd said she'd gotten tired of having a bed in the main living space and Bunsy walking in on them in the mornings. Maybe a woman wouldn't like that so much, waking up to someone coming through. Johnny was used to it, from living in the caboose and the kids coming around all the time. Even better, here Bunsy just says, "Mornin', Johnny, old son," and starts making breakfast and coffee—Eric had only done that on Father's Day or when he wanted a favor out of Johnny.
He's thinking about whether he'd gable some French doors off the loft and build a deck when Gus leaves off his paperwork and flops down next to him.
"What are you thinking about doing, now? Paint job? Cupboards? Trapeze?"
Johnny tenses, and he immediately denies, "No, nothing."
Gus lays a hand on his knee. "No, really, what were you thinking about doing? You've been taking apart the north end of the house with your eyes for the past twenty minutes."
Johnny winces, and he feels a plummeting in his stomach. It'd seemed like they were getting along so easily, but then he had to go and jump three steps ahead like always. Of course he shouldn't even be thinking about renovating the loft—it's the man's house.
He should've learned his lesson last week when he'd made a little house for the huldufólk in the yard and Bunsy'd practically had a heart attack over the idea of anything supernatural on the property. Gus had jumped in and told Bunsy Johnny had put a cross in the elf house so that only Christian elves would come—a complete lie, since the huldufólk hate the church. It was never a big deal in Gimli; people bought all the elf houses Eric could crank out at the Forever Ducks fundraiser that one year. Bunsy's a little different, though—won't even have a conversation when a cat's in the room for fear it will spread gossip.
So Johnny'd screwed up with Bunsy and now he's screwing up again. He never, never learns. He closes his eyes and drapes his arm over his face.
Johnny really doesn't want to fight with Gus.
"Hey." Gus's voice is quiet, at least. Johnny feels a gentle tug pulling his arm down and a hand smoothing the hair at his temple. "What is this?"
Johnny manages to peek a look and Gus looks honestly puzzled, not pissed at all.
"Sorry," he says. "I won't actually change anything. I was just daydreaming, you know?"
"Well, yeah," Gus says. "It looked like you were picturing something … magnificent. I want to hear about it."
"You sure?" Johnny asks.
"Jesus Christ!" Gus exclaims. "Yes!" Oddly the explosion makes Johnny feel better. He remembers that this is Gus—he says what's on his mind and isn't shy about it.
Johnny sits forward on the sofa and Gus tells him, "You can say anything to me. I'm pretty hard to offend, but even if I do get angry—I'm not going to, I don't know, kick you out, or exile you off the island, or anything. I know you well enough to know you couldn't do something deliberately malicious. Anything else is negotiable."
"Okay," Johnny says. "Okay." It hits him that he really isn't living with Zoë anymore and Gus might be someone who wouldn't mind the house being turned into a construction zone for a while. Or might at least consider it.
There's a sound at the door, and Johnny cranes his neck around to see Eric and AJ coming in. Eric has a look of deliberate innocence on his face that Johnny recognizes after years of parenting; it's a good bet that they were in the doorway for a while before making a noise to announce their entrance. Well, it's not like Eric hadn't overheard enough of Johnny and Zoë's fights.
November 28, 2003, Solomon Gundy
Gus brings out another round of beers, the kids taking advantage of Solomon Gundy's drinking age of nineteen. They'll be a little buzzed after this round, but they'd earned it after the presentation to the Visitors Bureau board, who were unanimously enthusiastic about the direction the website was taking. All the little details, like whose pictures got to be on what page, he'll deal with—it's not AJ's job to handle internal politics.
They settle in, and Eric says, "We need some entertainment! Dancers, singers, storytellers …"
Okay, maybe Eric's buzzed already, perfect for messing with. "I love a good story!" Gus says, and leans forward, his chin resting on his hand. "I know—Johnny, why don't you tell the one about the time you saw a polar bear on the ice floe?"
Eric and AJ gape at him, betrayed. "No!" they both say at once. "Not the polar bear story," Eric wails. Gus and Johnny snicker at them.
"Hmph." Eric slumps and folds his arms across his chest when he realizes he was set up, which makes it even funnier. Even AJ starts laughing when she sees his expression.
Eric leans forward and glares at her. "I know, you can tell us all about Josh." He draws the boy's name out in a singsong.
"Like I would even," AJ shoots back angrily and pushes back from the table. She heads out the door, letting it slam in her wake, leaving the room in silent shock behind her. One of the one-by-fours leaned against the wall slides slowly sideways until it hits the floor with a loud clack.
"So … what's up with AJ?" Johnny finally asks.
Eric scrunches his nose. "She won't admit there's this guy she likes. She's totally fallen for him, but she won't do anything about it."
Johnny puzzles over that. "Because she's afraid he doesn't like her back?"
Eric snorts. "Of course he likes her. Besides, when have you ever known AJ to be afraid of anyone? I think it's more falling in love itself she's afraid of."
Gus considers this. "Love is a powerful force. It's worth being careful around," he adds with a glance at Johnny. Johnny's looking at him and quickly drops his eyes.
"Yeah, well, AJ's just going to pretend she's too strong to fall in love like the rest of us mortals," Eric says, flopping back in his seat. Johnny's little smile says he finds that a pretty accurate statement.
Gus thinks it over then excuses himself with a nod to go after AJ. He grabs her coat from the hook by the door.
As he suspected, she's sitting on the little dock out back, swinging her feet and radiating a frustrated pique.
Gus drops down to sit at her left, leaving a foot of space so as not to crowd her, and hands her coat over. "You know if you really like this Josh you should go for it," he says without preamble.
AJ goes even stiffer with defensiveness. "Of course I don't like Josh. He's from Nebraska. And he's a Finance major."
Gus makes a sympathetic wincing face. "Oh, Finance. They're the worst. Well, them and Law."
"You see?" says AJ, "There's no way!" She slips into the coat.
"Actually," Gus says, "I think that makes him perfect."
AJ whips her head towards him, betrayed.
"No, no, hear me out," he says, holding his hands up before him. Then he gathers his thoughts before going on. "Love"—he ignores the snort she makes at the word—"is ... overwhelming. It comes with a stew of chemicals that can make us as stupid as any drink or drug. It takes over your body, your brain, and you find yourself doing and saying things you never imagined."
AJ gives her head a disbelieving flip. "And you want me to go through that? With Josh? Believe me, I've seen plenty of people stupid with love. No, thank you."
"Like Eric's first big relationship? Maybe a few other friends in high school, people you've seen in college? It's horrifying, right? The mushiness one day, the tears the next, all the drama."
"Exactly!" she says with a shudder.
"But just imagine," he says, and pauses until she turns to him. "Imagine someone acting like a hormonal teenager, with all the stupid drama, in their thirties. Or forties." Her eyes widen. "Believe me, I've seen it happen—to people who've never fallen in love, never had a relationship like that until later in life. The thing is, the first time you fall in love, you'll make mistakes. Lots of them. It's the nature of the beast. Like the ocean, or a blizzard, or a ... a wild mustang, love is too big to control, especially the first time. But it's a learning experience."
AJ twists her mouth wryly. "You're not doing the best sales job here."
"Ah, well, I left out the good parts. When you're in love, you ... expand. You understand infinity, the universe. At the same time you're in a bubble of intimacy with the other person ... Well, the sex is fantastic," he says with a wicked grin. "But really, my point is, fall in love with your Finance major now, while you're still in school and expected to go stupid over losing your heart. Find out that you do have a mushy side when he smiles at you, and a side that can have a screaming fight in a crowded restaurant, and a side that can cry all over Eric's shoulder when things are bad. Experience that amazing high and that scraped-out rock bottom. Make mistakes. Learn more about yourself. You can't learn this any way but by doing; it has to be experienced. And if by some miracle it does work out with Josh, well, you'll have found a man you love that you made it work with."
"And if it doesn't work?" AJ asks, eyebrow raised.
"Well, I expect it won't—he's a Finance major," Gus replies with a grin. "And in that case, you go your separate ways. You'll have your degree and your friends, and you'll have valuable lessons learned. More importantly, when you meet someone amazing later on, you won't be caught flat-footed by the emotional whirl and make rookie mistakes. You'll make new mistakes, of course," he admits. "That'll always happen, but they won't be as cringingly embarrassing."
AJ tilts her head slightly and stares out silently over the water for a while. Then she scrambles to her feet and watches as Gus heaves himself up from the dock, too. "You're pretty good at this minister thing," she informs him solemnly.
"Thanks," he replies, quietly amused.
"So what about you and Johnny?" she says. Her arms are folded across her chest, making her the very model of an immovable object. "Afraid of making mistakes or are you going to take your own advice?"
Gus runs his hand up the back of his neck and ruffles the hair there. For a twenty-year-old girl she can be remarkably unsettling sometimes. "Ah, well. I've, ah .... I've made mistakes in the past by jumping into something new too quickly, and from what I gather he has, too. We're getting to know each other as friends."
AJ frowns at him. "Johnny's been here for over three months, you know. He's not that complicated of a person—what you see is what you get. A blind person could see you like each other, and you already fight better than he and Zoë ever did."
Gus gives her a questioning look.
"Zoë did kick Johnny out when they fought." Ah. So the kids did overhear that conversation. "And the worst part is, the longer they tried to hang on, the more she hated hockey."
"That's ..." shocking for anyone who knows Johnny. "If you hate hockey, you might as well tell Johnny you hate him."
"Exactly," says AJ. "Don't get me wrong, they really did love each other and when they weren't fighting they were great. But I think you're better for him. You should make your move before it turns into this long, dragged out 'thing.'" She starts walking back to the house, then stops and looks back at him. "By the way, you will probably have to be the one who makes the first move." She turns and continues back to the house.
Gus ruffles the hair at the base of his neck again, amused. " Yeah, I'd kind of guessed that," he says to the empty air.
December 21, 2003, Solomon Gundy
When Johnny comes down the stairs with the broom and bucket of cleaning supplies, Gus is crossing his path and does a double take.
"Oh, are you done? Is it done?" He nearly pushes past Johnny to go up the stairs and Johnny has to stretch out his arms to stop him.
"Whoa, whoa! Wait a minute."
Gus obviously isn't going to wait long, though, so Johnny gives in to the inevitable. "All right. Just, hang on."
He stashes the cleaning stuff against the wall and goes to grab the plastic bag he's been hiding. He pulls out a big puffed bow of wired ribbon and places it flat on the highest step he can reach from the floor.
"Uh, merry early Christmas." He rubs his neck nervously. "Sorry, it's not much of a surprise."
Gus pauses at the foot of the stairs, and he's giving Johnny an intent look, eyes shining, that has Johnny shifting his feet.
"Yeah, but it's exactly what I want," Gus says in a soft, low voice, and takes the stairs two at a time before Johnny can register how that makes him feel.
He follows Gus up the stairs, and sees him turning around in a circle, arms outstretched, beaming at the new drywall, one side of the room painted with a deep, rich red, and the other three bright white. Gus stops to look up at the peaked ceiling, covering new batts of insulation and punctuated by sky tubes for daylight and recessed cans for night lighting. He crosses the hardwood floor to the new triple-paned gabled window to admire the harbor view.
Even though he'd known what Johnny's plans were and had poked in from time to time, the wonder never leaves his face as he takes in the finished product. Johnny's relieved he likes it, and proud of the work—and somewhere deep inside is wondering what he can do next to put that look on Gus's face, because it's a rush.
Gus finally turns to Johnny. "It's gorgeous. Thank you." He steps in and wraps Johnny in a full body hug. Johnny's never seen Gus do that with anyone before, and it's … an overwhelming experience. Johnny hugs back and finds his nose filled with the wild scent of salt and fish and sweat that seems to follow Gus everywhere.
Eventually Gus steps back but drops his hands only far enough to take both Johnny's hands in his own and lightly pulls down, encouraging Johnny to follow as he sits cross-legged on the floor.
They're so close they're practically knee to knee. In the wide open space of the loft, it's like they have their own private space, just big enough for two, and Johnny feels strangely light-headed with anticipation—for what, he doesn't know.
Gus reaches a hand over and lays it on Johnny's arm. Johnny's ears are buzzing now.
"Johnny, there's something I want to ask you. You don't have to answer now. You can think about it; or you can say no. I just want to— When I move up here, move my bedroom up here, would you move up here with me?"
Johnny's brain must be stuck in slow motion because it's taking forever to make sense of what Gus is saying. "Uh, do you mean …?"
Gus runs his fingertips down Johnny's arm and across the back of his hand, leaving a trail of sensitized nerves. He lightly curls his fingers around Johnny's and lifts and turns so that he's holding Johnny's hand. He slowly brings it towards his mouth, watching Johnny's eyes to see whether it's okay. Johnny's too drugged on the sensation to say no, not that he'd want to.
Gus presses Johnny's hand to his lips for a full two seconds that stretch far longer in experience. I must smell like Windex, Johnny thinks inanely, at the same time the feel of the soft padding of Gus's lips is causing a warm glow and slow swell below his waist.
Then Gus wraps Johnny's in both of his and says, "I mean, I'm asking whether you'll come live with me and be my love."
Johnny knows he should answer, but his mind whips so fast between Yes! and No!" that it ends up completely blank.
Gus has Johnny's hand sandwiched between both his hands, and is lightly rubbing it. There's a small furrow between his eyebrows. "It really is okay to say no. I value our friendship too much to lose it over anything. I've just been ... attracted, and I thought I saw signs that maybe it might not be completely one-sided. If I was wrong, though—"
That breaks the verbal logjam. "No, no you're not wrong," Johnny says. "At least— Well, you're gorgeous—I've got eyes. But I like you, too."
More than "like"—Gus is funny, smart, amazing to listen to. That's not even getting into his easy grin that goes all the way to his eyes, or the way the clerical dickie frames his shoulders and arms like it was designed for male models, not ministers.
Gus's face relaxes. "I like you, too. You're … real, God, just real. And fun. The way your smile lights you up. You're"—Gus tilts his head with a wry smile of apology—"beautiful. You really are."
Johnny ducks his head at that, because he's not the beautiful one here.
His mind is racing to process his thoughts, while his body is loud and clear about what it wants. He doesn't want to jump into something again, though, and screw it up. He has a laundry list of faults he's had to answer for again and again, the two main ones being rushing into things too thoughtlessly, like buying a caboose or a full set of kid's hockey gear, or being too indecisive, not wanting to ask for anything until he knows what other people want first.
The impulsiveness, well, experience—too many fights—has mostly trained him to check before he leaps. As for holding back his opinion, that doesn't seem to be an issue with Gus. He generally knows what Gus's opinion is right off, and if Gus notices him dithering about something he'll just flat out ask. It's … refreshing.
His last concern—
"What's going on inside that head of yours?" Gus says, right on cue when Johnny's hesitated too long.
"I'm just worried I got the travel bug now, like Eric, or Sigrid. I love it here in Solomon Gundy, but I loved Gimli, too, and for most of my life. What if we start something and then I get itchy feet, and I gotta be somewhere else than this island? You're not going to leave."
Gus squeezes his hand gently. "All kinds of things could happen—we never know. Maybe I could get invited to be some sort of, I don't know, special envoy in … Switzerland. You could be recruited to coach on the mainland. Or say Eric ends up moving to New Zealand, you might want to go live there. There are no guarantees in life; you have to go where your heart leads. Yes, if we're together and your heart leads you away, it'll hurt. But I don't want to not have any happiness we could have in the meantime."
That's— Fuck. That's perfect. Gus really does always know just how to reach him.
"Yeah, okay," Johnny says in a hoarse whisper and leans forward in slow motion. Gus mirrors him, their heads tilting slightly so that when they meet in the middle their lips touch and then give slowly into an open meld. Gus brings one hand up to cradle the side of Johnny's face as they learn the feel of each other's mouths, warm and welcoming, and electrifying at the same time.
When they pull back for a moment, Johnny whispers, "Yeah, I'll move upstairs with you," and Gus gives him that beaming look of wonder again, shining from his eyes, and this time it's for Johnny alone.
National Pride continued from page 86
It was 2003 when Johnny Johansson, struck by the travel bug, finally crossed paths with Gus Knickel. If you ask either one about their first meeting, he'll say, "He looked like an angel," then collapse into laughter.
As love stories go, it seems simple: Boy meets boy. Boys become housemates. Boys become more.
It's not that simple, of course; no love story is. It is simpler than many gay couples experience, though. Both had realized they were bisexual in their youth, and had some experience dating men. Each is extremely well respected in his own right on Solomon Gundy. The local population tends to split between the openly accepting and "none of my business" individualists. And Gus had long preached messages of tolerance from his pulpit in the United Church of Canada, later the United Church of Solomon Gundy, including his own coming out to his congregation when he was just twenty-seven. In the end, the realization that their president and Johnny weren't just living together, they were living together, left the small country mostly unfazed, with a good number of friends who were pleased they'd found happiness.
Same-sex marriage had been quietly built into the country's civil structure back in 1992 by virtue of not including gendered terms on the forms. Though he hadn't imagined it at the time, Gus was able to benefit when he and Johnny were married in 2008 by the minister who handles services on the other side of the island, in front of a very small gathering of family and friends. Other than the addition of rings, there was very little noticeable change.
Solomon Gundy is full of hard workers, practical people, who have little tolerance for pomp and circumstance. The only people Gus insists address him as Mr. President are "the pricks who think that if you don't have a title they can run you over." Johnny's one condition for marriage was that he never be called Solomon Gundy's First Gentleman.
The couple have never hidden their relationship, but they've never shouted about it, either. When there's a parade, Gus and Johnny walk the route together amidst a knot of Council members. When Gus travels for reasons of state, Johnny's home working. When heads of state visit the island, they're dined at a solid table laden with fish stew. The presence of plaid shirts and jeans in the group is often so distracting the visitors miss the clues in the way Gus and Johnny interact.
Jóhanna Sigurdardóttir, visiting when she was Iceland's Minister of Social Affairs, is one of the ones who noticed.
And so in 2010, the first married gay head of government and his husband were invited to the wedding of the first lesbian head of government to marry.
There is a smattering of high-profile gays and lesbians on the world stage: Bertrand Delanoë, mayor of Paris; Klaus Wowereit, mayor of Berlin; Corine Mauch, mayor of Zurich; Ole von Beust, First Mayor of Hamburg; and various members of congresses or parliaments. National leader is the next big step.
An openly gay president in a postage-stamp country like Solomon Gundy is literally a tiny step. Iceland is just over fifty times larger, and is still not seen as a major player on the world stage. Interestingly, the country just over fifty times larger than Iceland is the Netherlands. It's a progressive and tolerant country with legal same-sex marriage. They have an openly gay representative to the European Parliament and openly gay Minister of Finance. It would not be shocking if they elected a gay or lesbian head of government and it would definitely make the world take notice. I'm rooting for them for the symmetry: a trend for gay world leaders spiraling from the descendants of Icelandic and Dutch immigrants out through the homelands of their ancestors. But I'd be happy with any major country taking the step.
From one standpoint, it's a private matter. Who it is that President Knickel and Prime Minister Sigurdardóttir love makes no difference in their strength as leaders. On the other hand, that's exactly the point. How many leaders through history denied themselves a personal life, or hid it, because the public wouldn't accept a gay head of government? How many potential leaders were never given a chance because they were known to be gay? The voters of Solomon Gundy and Iceland have broken the barrier. Their nations are the better for it, and so is the world.