This chapter is part of the ongoing serialization of The Archaeologists, the new novel by Hal Niedzviecki, to be published by ARP Books in fall, 2016. The Archaeologists is being serialized in its entirety from April to October, with chapters appearing on a rotating basis on the Web sites of five magazines. View the schedule with links to previous/upcoming chapters, and find out more about the book.
In the school assembly hall Norm takes June’s arm, directs her to the second row middle—right in front like it’s a concert or something. The room is overflowing with concerned citizens turned out for the community meeting. Norm nods and waves, a big smile on his face. June feels her arm under Norm’s gentle grip. Her bicep is hard, ready. She’s wasting time. She needs to finish what she started.
Behind the lectern a banner hangs, proudly emblazoned with the Wississauga slogan: faith in our future. pride in our past.
What does that even mean?
That crazy old lady, June thinks savagely. The lights dim. June looks up from her lap as a sports-coat man too tanned for Wississauga’s weak spring takes the stage. He taps the microphone, speaks earnestly through a broad, generic, smile.
Hello everyone! Great to see you all here!
When this fails to get the crowd’s attention, the man’s smile seems to widen, as if trying to entrance, hypnotize, with his rows of glinting white pearls.
Hi everyone! We’re ready to begin now, if you could all please—
June realizes that the crowd’s buzzing is belligerent, a swarm of angry wasps, not the complacent worker bees she imagines her neighbours, her community, to be comprised of. They aren’t here to shut up. They’re here to be heard.
So, thank you, we’re ready to—yes, hello everyone, it’s great that you’re all here, and we just need to, yes, thank you. If I could have your full attention now, we’ll get started.
The crowd hushes reluctantly. In the silence, June feels exposed. She shrinks down into her seat.
So thanks everyone for coming tonight to this town hall meeting on the topic of the proposed parkway project. Now I’d like to start by introducing your own Councillor Lanny McLennan who’s going to introduce the project and make some opening remarks.
Heavyset, balding councillor McLennan takes the stage with a cursory handshake and a spattering of applause. He clears his throat, ready to launch into his spiel.
TRAITOR! someone in the back yells.
I’ve been called worse, the jowly councillor jokes. A few people laugh nervously.
June notices that off to one side, that same reporter, that Hal Talbot who came to her house, is unobtrusively taking notes on the proceedings. June colours, quickly looks away.
I know there’s a lot of passion around this issue, the councillor says, and I want to assure you that everyone is going to get a chance to speak about their concerns. But I do hope that we can keep things—
A murmur rustles its way among those assembled.
Please people, the tanned facilitator calls out in mock umbrage.
As I was saying, Councillor McLennan continues, name-calling and insults are not going to help solve anything. So let’s just try and—
June feels eyes on her. She burrows further into her seat. No—nobody’s—this has nothing to do with me, she keeps telling herself. Her breathing is shallow, self-conscious. She shouldn’t be here. She doesn’t want to be here.
And now, Councillor McLennan is saying, I’d like to introduce Paula Watson from Wallet Valley Integrated Regional Planning, who will provide us with an overview of the proposed parkway project.
Paula is trim, compartmentalized. She reminds June of lawyer Chris with her executive skirt suit and low-fat yogurt. Paula begins an aggressive PowerPoint presentation that moves along at a pace offering no opportunity for contemplation or interjection. Population flow charts, traffic density graphs, growth projections in spikes and valleys.
In the darkened room the malevolent crowd settles. June risks a peek behind her: blue graph forehead reflections, faces lost in data light. June feels the grainy earth in her fingernails, fights the urge to claw out of the dim room. The final slide is displayed, an artist’s rendering of a four-lane “parkway” bordered by full-grown oak trees, bike lanes, cheery pedestrians, and a blue sliver of gently flowing ribbon river replete with jumping fish.
Wississauga, the planning factotum crisply concludes, needs this road in order to ensure its ongoing growth and central role as an important business conduit in the greater urban region. At the same time, this road will be a model of conscientious development with every possible environmental and community concern addressed. Wississauga, she says with no apparent irony or change in inflection. Faith in our future, Pride in our past. Thank you for your time ladies and gentlemen.
There is sparse applause.
Now, the mediator says, casting his brightening smile over the crowd. Are there any questions?
A pause. The audience has been momentarily lulled, pacified by statistics, dim lighting, and the professional even tenor of the imported host. On stage the councilman, the planning woman, and the moderator sit comfortably at a table staring out and over. June squirms, feels like a bug pierced for collection. It’s not real, she thinks. Nothing seems quite real anymore. The hole, the hole she dug with her bare, blistered hands, that’s where reality lies. Facts on the ground, June thinks. The truth, waiting to be found.
BULLSHIT! someone shouts from the back of the room. The bubble of passive silence is burst. The crowd rumbles to life, some calling out, some muttering. Hands gesticulate in the air. June feels lost, bewildered. Who are these people and why do they—how do they—care? Words swirl as citizens yell their questions: property values, air quality, taxes, pollution, traffic, and what about our goddamn property values?
What’s the value of their property? June stares at her fingers. She needs to go home. Her work is there. He’s there. Waiting. He’s waiting for her. She’s been at it all day, digging and loosening, gently pulling yellowed bones out of the ground. Parts of a man, slowly cleaved from the dirt. And the rest, still down below, waiting. Waiting for her.
Five more minutes, June thinks. Then she’ll tell Norm she has to go. She’s feeling sick.
One at a time, please! the moderator says. I know we’re all excited about having our opinions heard and recognized. But that can only happen if we all—
The moderator points to a baby boomer in a white dress shirt and bright Looney Tunes Bugs Bunny vs. Martians tie.
Yes, you there, sir, please go ahead.
Looney Tunes has the Ben and Jerry’s vibe, big money off a granola image masking upscale predatory business sense.
I can’t tell you how important this issue is to me and my wife and our three wonderful children. We live right next to the river and that’s part of the reason that I—that we—bought here. To lose the river would be a significant quality of life calamity. It would make me seriously consider relocating to a community that better reflects my family’s values.
There are murmurs of agreement in the crowd. Planning lady quiets them with a long complicated answer about how a new riverside path and park will not only benefit the community, it will create more useable community space than had previously been available.
But, Looney Tunes points out, there will be a road. We’ll be cut off. We’re losing the river!
No one’s talking about losing the river, the councillor pronounces congenially.
Oh get real, the man retorts.
June glances at Norm. He has his hand up in the air. He’s looking straight ahead, eyes glittering with insistent conviction. God, June thinks. He’s one of them. What’s he got to say? Who are these people? These are her neighbours? Her community? She doesn’t recognize anyone. Why would she? Her legs burn, muscles urging a return to the squat and crouch of the narrow pit.
Looney Tunes is replaced by an older guy in a tan blazer, face ruddy red. He says he’s a practical man; he’s losing too much money paying staff to just sit around twiddling their thumbs in traffic. This used to be a great place to do business, he says. But now he doesn’t know. We need the road, he tells the crowd. How do you think we keep your stores so full of—
USELESS CRAP! comes an angry cry from the back.
Norm doesn’t even twitch. Arm stiff in the air, pink slightly stubby fingers stretched skin tight.
People, please, it’s great that you are so responsive and passionate about this issue. But, people, please, if we could try not to call out of turn so that we can all have a chance to be recognized. The moderator grins over a crescendo of chorus complaints. Please! The councillor looks on with benevolent concern. Watson makes a notation in her laptop. People! I know that you all want to contribute to the discussion! But we have to—
A woman pushes her way through, marches to the front of the stage. Oh my god, June thinks. She has to resist covering her eyes with her hands and peering at the sight through her fingers. Beaded buckskin vest, dark feathers in her curly red hair, some kind of animal tooth necklace lying feral yellow against lily-white skin. June feels personally offended, like the real thing being confronted by its Halloween dress-up fake.
I’m very disturbed! the woman repeats over and over again, her voice a methodical monotone cutting through the hubbub. I’m very disturbed. I’m very disturbed. She keeps saying it, over and over again, her words getting louder as the crowd’s buzzing slowly starts to focus on her repetitive mantra: I’m-very-disturbed. I’m-very-disturbed.
Please, the moderator shouts, making quiet-down motions. Please!
The crowd finally quiets.
The woman fills the momentary lull, speaking loudly and earnestly: Hello, she all but bellows. My name is Susan. Susan Proudfeather. I grew up here in Wississauga. And I’m very disturbed by what I’m hearing tonight! I’ve VERY disturbed. These are precious sacred lands! Before us settlers came, these riverbanks were home to the Wississauga people! Their ancestors are buried here! To build a road over them would be a sin! There are ancient remains everywhere in these neighbourhoods! In your backyards! Is that what we want, remains to be dug up like a bunch of old garbage for the sake of some road? The Wississaugan people have a saying: That which you do always returns to you. Is that what we want? To one day have our own bones just dug up and dumped to make room for some road? I’m very disturbed! I’m very disturbed!
June presses sore fingernails into the metal edges of the chair’s frame. She looks over at the reporter. He’s scribbling furiously.
All this digging up the sacred dead is wrong! We should be turning the riverbank into an international memorial to the first peoples! Has there been any discussion with the Wississaugan people? This is a matter of federal law. We can’t just forget about whatever part of the past is no longer convenient for us. We have to teach our children to remember!
The government? Jesus. Jesus Christ.
Resisting the urge to bury her face in her hands, June sees that Norm hasn’t moved, eyes headlight ahead, arm ramrod ready to defend his home from bone diggers and road warriors alike. Not in my goddam swampy ugly cold extremely expensive backyard.
She can’t get any lower in her seat.
The audience reserves its applause. They don’t know what to make of this woman who is clearly not one of them. What is she saying? Whose side is she on?
June notices that she seems to have acolytes—several scruffy-looking college kids handing out some kind of flier. Amidst all this activity there’s a deepening silence, the crowd watching I’m-Very-Disturbed and her helpers move through the room.
June’s sweating. She’s barely breathing. Her fingers methodically claw at the metal frame of her seat. Her rib cage presses in on her.
The moderator glances at the planning lady who seems bewildered, confronted for the first time that evening with a question that hadn’t even been considered. The councillor smiles at everyone congenially, dismissively. The moderator half shrugs and quickly searches the audience for a normal counterpoint to the crazy red-haired lady. He points at Norm. Yes, you there, sir. Please, stand up, yes, you, go ahead, sir. Please.
Norm lumbers to his feet. June stares into the dark gap between the chair and the floor, her burning legs disappearing.
I live on Grove Street, Norm begins, and I don’t know anything about ancient burial grounds or anything like that.
But I will say that the community is clearly distraught about this plan. Now, I’m a dentist who just set up his practice a year ago, and I moved specifically to Wississauga for its quality of life and its ability to provide lovely secluded neighbourhoods and all the comforts of a growing modern city. And I have to say that what the council is planning is really very misguided. It makes me feel like we aren’t really being consulted at all. I only got the letter a few days ago, which hardly gives me the time to respond in a meaningful way. I’d like to ask that the City consider delaying the decision until we’ve all had more time to study the needs of the community and come up with a compromise that works for everyone.
Norm sits down. The moderator looks at the councillor, an expectant grin on his face. Compromise is his favourite word.
Councillor McLennan smiles too. Yes, thank you, he says smoothly, I think we all agree that no one wants to find themselves in a situation that seems to have been unnecessarily expedited. And I’m sure that we can arrange to—
Let me finish please, McLennan says, his voice still amiable but his cheeks showing a tinge of red.
Moderator: Now people! Please do show Councillor McLennan the courtesy your community is known for. I’m sure that you wouldn’t want to—
Let the councillor speak, someone else yells.
Let me speak, another voice blurts.
Shut up!—a reply directed at no one that everyone takes personally.
I’d really like to respond to the gentleman’s question, McLennan says loudly. For the first time he seems genuinely annoyed.
Don’t you tell me to shut up, one man yells at another above the general murmur. In the middle of the auditorium, a fight breaks out, a shoving match, really. The throng gapes and necks are craned for a better look.
McLennan says something to the others on the stage. Planning lady closes her laptop. The moderator speaks quickly over the crowd’s angry buzz. His smile sweats. We think it’s best if—given the circumstances—thank you for coming everyone please do take the time to fill out the questionnaires we’ve made available on the way out. And please drive home safely! On behalf of the Wississauga Wallet Valley Department of Regional Development I want to thank you each and everyone of you for your—
McLennan exits stage left followed by a tight-lipped Watson. Main lights are switched on. The Faith in Our Future banner dims. June shoots up, scans for a view of the reporter, but he’s disappeared into the throng. Norm is talking loudly to her about the meeting. It’s crazy. They aren’t listening to a single thing we’re saying.
Norm, I’m—I’m not—feeling—
June, are you okay?
She’s gone white.
The air is thick with the scent of bodies and lies.
Norm. Get me . . . out of here.
The garage door slides open. Norm drives in, puts the car in park. He looks over at his wife.
June? He gently pats her knee. June? We’re here.
She stares out the side window. She doesn’t want to get out of the car.
Are you okay, June?
I’m—I—she puts her hand on her belly. It’s a . . . woman thing.
I’ll just, maybe . . . go and . . . get some fresh air.
June? He takes her arm. A woman’s—like you mean your getting your—?
Because I just thought, I was hoping you—I thought you might be—
She pulls away, jumps out of the car and slams the door shut. June marches through the house into the backyard.
This was an excerpt from The Archaeologists, to be published by ARP books in fall, 2016.