A story about colourful events and lives lived in a prairie town now past its heyday.
So what’ll you have? ... a Bo? ... Hey, Myrtle, bring us a couple Bohemians an’ bring this gent a glass. No, no ... thisun’s on me.
Time was on a Sattiday this place’d be ahoppin’. You couldn’t find a place to sit an’ now lookit ... ‘cept for me an’ you an’ them fellas in the corner, the place is empty. Two ... mebbe three owners retired rich from this hotel ... Bill Gransby who built ‘er an’ Pat O’Hara who took ‘er over from Bill ... they done real good ... but she’s changed hands over and over since then an’ the unlucky stiff what’s got ‘er now can’t hardly pay hisself wages. I bet he wishes he’d never heard of Hastings.
Yep, I was born right here in Hastings an’ I lived aroun’ here for most o’ my life, ‘cept when I was overseas in the war. Mebbe I shouldn’t of come back here, but how was anyone to know that Hastings’d come down to nothin’? This useta be a busy town ... a divis’nal point for the CNR ... we had everythin’ ... the roundhouse ... coal dock ... water tank ... an’ about nine men workin’ in the station. Now there ain’t none of it left ... even the station is gone. The whole town ... it’s all of it gone ... the grain elevators ... the hospital ... the drugstore ... the car an’ farm implement dealers ... the poolroom an’ the bakery ... just empty run-down buildin’s is all that’s left.
An’ now them Hutterite boys is tearin’ down the store where I started work. That was way back before the war when I was just a kid. Benson’s Department Store ... the best an’ busiest store between Saskatoon and Winnipeg. Groceries ... hardware ... clothes ... furnicher ... vet’rinary supplies, you name it. If they was anythin’ you needed, you could get it at Benson’s. If Tom Benson didn’t have it in stock, he’d have it in on the nex’ train, an’ we had two trains a day in them days. Open at nine ever’ morning ‘cept Sunday an’ didn’t close on Sattiday night ‘til the last customer was gone ... mebbe not ‘til midnight. That’s just the way it was. Ever’body thought it was all gonna last forever. An’ now, that store buildin’ is gonna be a pigpen or a calvin’ shed out on the Hutterite colony.
After the war, Tom Benson wanted me to come back an’ work in the store. In a way, I would of liked to, but I had got married before I went overseas an’ my wife’s folks had a nice farm northa town. They only had one kid ... my wife an’ they wanted us to help out on the farm for a few years an’ then take it over. I had some vet’ren’s credits from my time in the army, so I bought myself a half-section just down the road from the old folks an’ that’s purty well the story of my life up to now. It’s turned out purty good. But I sure liked workin’ in that store.
I still helped out there some whenever they was a little slack time on the farm. Tom Benson had quite a few workin’ for ‘im an’ some was good an’ some wasn’t so hot, but if I had a little time, he’d allus find somethin’ for me to do ... mostly in the hardware or makin’ heavy deliveries.
When I was overseas, Tom had hired this young fella from over t’wards Red Rock Valley. He was a real smart fella ... would of joined up but couldn’t pass the medical ... polio when he was a kid left ‘im with a bad leg. Not real bad, but he limped noticeable by the end o’ the day an’ he didn’t go in for no sports or dancin’. But he sure learned the store business in a hurry. It was as if that store was where he was meant to be. Just a year or so an’ he was like Tom’s right hand. He knew ever’thin’ they had to do in that store. He could set up a furnace or cut up a half o’ beef an’ he could fix anythin’ that needed fixin’. An’ he helped Tom with the books too. Lotsa times when the trav’lers came out from the wholesalers, Tom would have them talk to Willie an’ Willie would do the orderin’. That was his name ... Willie ... Willie Borowski. We worked together quite a bit whenever I was in the store an’ we got to be purty good friends.
Tom had two boys ... they was a fair bit younger’n me. Even as kids, they helped out in the store ... Tom saw to that. They started out deliv’rin’ groc’ries an’ doin’ chores arrun’ the place. The oldes’ kid, Tommy, was a bookish sort who didn’t take much to mixin’ with folks ... he did what his Dad told ‘im to do an’ be polite to the customers, but I could see he wasn’t going to be no hell of a storekeeper, an’ I think Tom saw it too. Anyways, Tommy joined the airforce right outa high school an’ after the war he never come back here, ‘cept for visits. He went to ‘varsity for more more years than I can count an’ now he’s a perfessor in Montreal ... dunno why he went there ... nothin’ there but Frenchies ... but I guess you go where the job is. The jobs don’ of’en come lookin’ for you no matter how much eddication you got.
Lookit. They got the roof boards ripped off. Won’t take ‘em long now to knock down the rafters ... them Hutterite boys know how to work ... they sure can hustle ... special if some high school girls happen to come by.
There’s some folks what blames the Hutterites for the the town goin’ back the way it has, but I don’ see it that way. It ain’t the Hutterites what made the CN switch over to diesels an’ shut down the branch lines an’ it ain’t the Hutterites what’s buying up most o’ the land. Sure, so they bought up some, but I got a neighbour who’s got more land than the Hutterite colony ... an’ that’s jus’ one man an’ there’s lots more like ‘im.
The kid brother? That was Rocky. His real name was Wendel ... that was his ma’s maiden name. She was from Saskatoon an’ her old man was Wendel Insurance ... he was in real estate too an’ was purty well fixed. Anyways, when Rocky was just a little tad, some folks took to callin’ him Wendy. That was OK ‘til he started school an’ found out that there was some girls named Wendy. From then on, his name had to be Rocky. He wasn’t gonna answer to no girl’s name. If som’n tried callin’ ‘im Wendy, the fight was on. With a bunch of scrappy kids there was quite a few bloody noses an’ tore up shirts before ever’body understood that his name was Rocky an’ that anyone who wanted to call him Wendy had better have his fists up.
He wasn’t no bookworm like Tommy. He was all hot to get inta the airforce too, but by the time he finished school the war was windin’ down an’ the airforce didn’t need no more men. Too bad he couldn’t of joined up ... some o’ that airforce discipline might of done ‘im some good. Anyways, he went to work in the store an’ I s’pose he expected to take it over whenever Tom decided to call it quits.
In some ways he was good in the store ... real good ... had a nice way with customers ... remembered folks’ names even if they was from forty mile away an’ came inta the store only three or four times a year ... talked easy about nothin’ ... could seem jus’ as interested in the price o’ oats as las’ night’s hockey game. But when it came time to get down to business an’ gettin’ the customer what he wanted ... like mebbe a hunnert pound sack o’ flour ... Rocky would turn things over to one o’ the other clerks to do the fetchin’ an’ carryin’. I seen it an’ he done it ta me of’en enough. Then he’d go over an’ hold out the glad hand to another customer. He was all pers’nality an’ no sweat, but he got away with it. Yeah, boss’s son ....
That’s just the way it was.
Well, yeah. Another Bo sounds good. I still got the thirst an’ I still got the time. The wife’s over ‘cross town at some kinda hen party ... when she’s finished, she’ll know where to find me. A cold beer runs down purty easy, don’t it?
Times was good in them days right after the war. Ever’body ... even us farmers ... had a little extra cash an’ some o’ the business men was doin’ real good. They was makin’ so much money they just had to find ways to get rid of it ... so it was only nat’ral that they should get to playin’ poker ... in their homes at first, but when it started getting serious an’ the stakes got high, they come down to play here at the hotel. Pat O’Hara ... he had the hotel then ... Pat set up a room jus’ for poker ... but he didn’t take no rake-off or nothin’. He was a purty sharp card player hisself n’ he prob’ly won more’n his share o’ the pots.
Stakes got purty high sometimes an’ a lot o’ money ... thousands of dollars ... could cross the table in one night. The reg’lar players called theirselves The Board an’ their poker sessions was Board meetin’s. In a way, they sorta ran the town ... some o’ them was town councillors an’ just as much o’ the town’s business got talked over an’ decided here in the hotel as in the town office.
Did I play? No sir! Not me! I didn’t have pockets deep enough to mix with that crew ... I allus worked hard for my money an’ I ain’t gonna lose it in no card game ... an’ I wouldn’t wanta take money offa someone else neither. Anyways, my wallet wasn’t fat enough to get me an invite to join The Board.
Tom Benson was a reg’lar player an’ one o’ the lucky ones. One time he won a quarter section o’ land ... then he rented it right back to the fella who lost it ... a farmer down towards Stockdale ... an Tom collected a third o’ the crop from that quarter until the farmer managed to buy it back. They say the farmer’s wife never did find out that he had lost that quarter. It don’t make no kinda sense to me, but that’s just the way it was.
All this time Willie was plugging away in the store there ... workin’ hard an’ not makin’ no fuss. Most people took him for grannet an’ couldn’t bother to see that he was runnin’ the whole caboodle. Tom was away to the city quite a bit an’ he was tied up with a dozen diff’rent clubs an’ org’nizations. So Willie was the real manager, but nobody ever thought o’ him that way. He done the work, but didn’t have the name or the pay
It seems he didn’t expect much for hisself ... he wasn’t married ... never had a girlfriend ... mebbe he thought ‘cause of his bad leg girls wouldn’t be interested in ‘im. I dunno. Anyways, he lived real quiet in a little house he rented from Tom Benson ... bought a second-hand pick-up an’d drive out to see his folks on a Sunday or sometimes out to my place for supper. You’d think he had all he wanted in life in that store, even though nothin’ in it was his an’ never would be. I useta wonder how things’d work out after Tom quit and turned things over to Rocky.
That day came sooner’n anyone expected. Early one mornin’ ... before breakfas’ even ... I get a call from Willie. He asked if I could go inta Saskatoon with him. They had got word that Tom had dropped dead in there ... hert attack or somethin’ they thought. Rocky was out at the coast on ‘is honeymoon an’ missus Benson asked Willie to go in an’ make ‘rrangements to have Tom’s body brought back to Hastings. Willie wanted me along so’s I could drive Tom’s car back.
Tom’s dying so sudden like that was a shock to ever’body, but that was only the half of it. Tom’s body was still at the hospital. We iden’ified it an’ all that an’ was about set to go find an undertaker when Willie remembered to ask about Tom’s clothes an’ stuff. But they told us there wasn’t none. They said the am’blance had brought Tom in with no clothes ... only a blanket was all. We knew he allus stayed at the Bessborough so we went there. When we told the manager what had happened, he took us up to Tom’s room, but there wasn’t nothin’ there but Tom’s suitcase an’ half a bottle o’ rye. The manager told us there hadn’t been no am’blance at the hotel for a month an’ that Tom must of been picked up somewheres else. So Willie called up the am’blance people to find out where they had picked Tom up from. They gave us the address, but the guy said that he thought he’d better warn us that the place was a hoor house ... but o’ course we still hadta go there. Willie didn’t have no comment about Tom conkin’ out in a hoor house ... all he said was it was lucky missus Benson hadn’t come along.
We found the place all right even though it didn’t have no big electric sign out on the roof ... Tom’s Buick was right there on the street. The woman inside was expectin’ somebody to come ... she had Tom’s clothes folded up neat with his hat on top o’ the pile. Then she handed over car keys an’ wallet. Willie took the wallet an’ started to look inside, but the woman said that Tom’s money was all there an’ they wasn’t thieves in that place. They was just hoors. Then she said that Tom was a nice man an’ that she was sorry he died. When we left, she said we should come back again.
Humpin’ that hoor was one helluva way for Tom to conk out, but the send-off Hastings gave him was somethin’ else too. It was the biggest funeral I ever seen ... the church was overflowin’ an’ the pr’ade out to cemet’ry was near a mile long. Willie and me didn’t tell nobody where Tom had took his attack. It was nobody’s business an’ both of us had allus got along good with Tom. Like the hoor said, Tom was a nice man.
So anyways, Rocky figgered now that he’d be fillin’ his dad’s boots. An’ not jus’ Rocky. Purty near ever’body did. Only a few of us knew that Rocky was all flash and no bang an’ that it’d be up to Willie to hold things together. An’ that’s just the way it was.
Rocky would roll inta the store mebbe aroun’ nine-thirty ... just in time to go out for coffee. Then he’d be back in an hour or so just to amble in an’ out an’ give orders an’ talk big deals.
An’ Willie was workin’ twice as hard as before. He told me he had to set Rocky straight a couple o’ times ‘cause he was helping hisself to a few big bills right outa the cash drawer. Willie told him to go ahead an’ pay hisself whatever wages he wanted, but to quit raidin’ the till. There’s no way Willie could keep a good set o’ books if the boss wasn’t playin’ straight.
An’ that’s just the way it was for the next year or two. The two o’ them seemed to get along okay ... at leas’ as far as mos’ people could tell. Willie cared too much about the store an’ the Benson name to right out quarrel with his new boss an’ Rocky was smart enough to see how much he needed Willie.
What happened nex’ I wouldn’t of believed in a million years ‘cept I know it’s true. They was a fella in town ... name of Gord Kimball ... had played perfeshnal hockey ... was up there with the Leafs for a few years. You might o’ heard of him, but this was all a long time ago ... way back before your time. Anyways, he got hisself set up in the machinery business ... had the John Deere here in Hastings ... an’ that for sure was one helluva dealership. He had a dozen salesmen out on the road all the time ... fannin’ out all over hell’s half acre an’ he was puttin’ out carloads o’ machinery. He was a mean cuss an’ was rough over ever’body ... wouldn’t give nobody a break ... not like Tom Benson.
They say he was hard on his wife too ... she was from down east ... Tronna, I think ... and they got hitched while he was still playin’ hockey. Quite a looker she was, but she might of been even better if she didn’t hafta live with Kimball ... like I said, he was a mean cuss ... hard on ever’body.
I dunno how Willie an’ her ever got mixed up together. Likely Willie had to go over to fix the furnace or somethin’ an then fate just took hold an’ tumbled ‘em both right inta bed. Was prob’ly the first time Willie ever got laid ... an’ when he found out what it was like, he was sure snortin’ for more.
But the trouble with a place like Hastings is that it ain’t big enough. Ever’body knows who ya are an’ where ya been an’ where ya goin’. There wasn’t no place in town where they could meet and Willie couldn’t keep makin’ services calls forever to Kimball’s house. What they hit on was to meet on Sunday afternoons out on some pasture land not far from where Willie’s folks lived ... it was along the river hills where there was clumps of trees and lots o’ places that was nice and private.
That was fine ‘til berry pickin’ time. Then one nice sunny afternoon, Willie and his lady frien’ ... she musta been forty-five or near about ... a good fifteen years older’n Willie ... they was out in their special spot carryin’ on as usual. The thing is, they didn’t know that Jessie Hyde was already out there scoutin’ for Saskatoon berries. She had walked in from a differn’t road an’ was just amblin’ along when she came roun’ the bush an’ there they was. If it had of been me, I’d of just backed off an’ and left ‘em to go to it. But not Jessie ... Jessie was a screamer ... if a flea farted, Jessie’d scream ... so o’ course this time she let out a humdinger that would of stopped a war.
Jessie didn’t announce it in church or nothin’, but mebbe she told her best friend. We hadn’t had a rich piece of gossip like that for a long time an’ before the week was half over ever’body in the country had told ever’body at leas’ three times. I dunno how Kimball and his wife settled things ... but Kimball hisself had a purty spotty record ... he couldn’t throw nothing at her that she couldn’t throw right back at him. I guess they managed to work something out.
But it was differ’nt with Willie. The poker-playin’ crowd was all in Kimball’s corner ... Kimball was one o’ them ... a member of The Board. An’ they couldn’t let no gimpy-legged little fart from Red Rock Valley get away with bangin’ the wife of no Board member. Willie would have to go.
It was settled at a Board meetin’ ... Kimball wasn’t there but most o’ the others includin’ Rocky was. Rocky didn’t have the guts to face up to the others ... he let them tell ‘im what to do even if it meant big trouble for Benson’s Department Store. The whole gang went over to Willie’s place an’ roused ‘im outa bed. They gave ‘im twenty-four hours to get outa town or risk gettin’ hisself gelded. Willie was gone before daylight.
It was like from that day the town started goin’ downhill. First, it was the store. Rocky couldn’t run it without Willie. He still had to play the big shot with cigars an’ booze an’ long trips ever’ summer ... and that wife o’ his was just as good at spendin’ money as Rocky hisself ... an o’course he had to keep on playing poker an’ he wasn’t no good at that either.
You wouldn’t believe that a good business could be run inta the groun’ so fast, but Rocky managed it in less’n two years. The clerks was quittin’ ‘cause they wasn’t getting paid ... an’ the wholesalers cut ‘im off an’ the banks wouldn’t bail ‘im out. He hadta close the doors. That’s just the way it was.
Then it was the railroad cuttin’ back an’ the gover’ment buildin’ a new highway to Saskatoon ... you wanna kill a town like Hastings, all you gotta do is build a highway to the city ... maybe folks get bargains in the city, but now they can drive a hunnert miles for a loaf o’ bread. The car dealers all went ... the hospital an’ the drug store an’ the bank. We still got the school an’ the credit union, but that’s about all. There ain’t enough curlers left to pay even the light bill in the rink ... I s’pose it’ll be the next building to be tore down.
Hey, Myrt, let’s have a couple more here. We still got a long day ahead of us.
Willie? Oh Willie’s OK. He landed on his feet. All the wholesalers knew him for a good man an’ right away, they was steerin’ job offers his way. He wasn’t out o’ work hardly at all. He’s done real good for hisself. Gettin’ fired an’ run outa town was the best thing ... nex’ to getting laid ,.. that ever happened to Willie. He’s out at the coast now ... married with growed up kids ... has the Handy Hardware franchise for three stores out there ... he’s a millionaire over an’ over again. An’ to think that he got his start in that wreck of a buildin’ across the street. But that’s just the way it was.