Atikokan Is for Lovers

Christmas, 2010 / No. 25
Art by Matthew Daley
Matthew Daley

I met him six days ago, at a bar on Queen Street. His band had just finished playing a gig at some other bar down the street. They were from Fredericton, touring across Canada in a Kia Sedona with a roof rack. He told me his name was Pete Mars. I told him that sounded made up.

“It’s real,” he said.

We were sitting on high stools at the bar in front of the draft taps, watching the bartender pour beer after beer. This wasn’t exactly an olive-Martini kind of place. The bartender’s name was Liam, and he was wearing black eyeliner, which he always puts on in the staff room at the bar because the people in his apartment building are all old and he doesn’t want to scare them. I know this because Liam is my best friend. And I’ve seen the old people.

“It’s my real name,” Pete Mars was saying. “Well, sort of. It was originally Marsh, but when my grandfather emigrated from England, in 1872, they made a mistake on the papers. They left off the ‘h.’”

One of Pete’s bandmates pushed in between us.

“Are you actually trying to pick up chicks by talking about your grandfather? ” he asked.

He grinned at me and put his hand on my leg. He was sexy in a drummer kind of way, but I liked Pete—he had skinny arms but wide shoulders that looked like they could carry you on them for miles. I wondered if he ever grabbed the mic stand when he was singing.

“I was just telling him I liked his name,” I said, shaking the drummer’s hand off my leg. “Makes for a cool band name. The Pete Mars Rover.”

“It’s Pete Mars Attacks!” the drummer said. “What have you been telling people? ”

“We agreed on the Pete Mars Rover,” Pete said. He leaned over his pint, which was very full, and slurped back some of the head without lifting it from the bar. “After you shot down the Pete Mars Exploration.”

“That sounds like a fucking ambient jazz group,” the drummer said.

My drink was empty. I was trying to get Liam’s attention, but he was ignoring me. He doesn’t like it when I flirt with strangers in front of him, even though we haven’t slept together since high school. He says it makes him feel emasculated. I told him, “Liam, my mother has more balls than you do.” I can say stuff like that because my mother doesn’t live here.

A couple of girls pressed up against the bar beside Pete. One of them had positioned herself sideways so her breast was brushing against his shoulder. This was tactical, I decided. The laws of war applied at a bar, especially when musicians were involved. I’ve always had a thing for musicians. I think it’s because I work at a library.

“How about Pete Mars Bar? ” I asked.

The girl wasn’t looking at me, but I could tell she was listening. I laughed and bumped my shoulder against the drummer’s arm so she would know that I was part of their conversation. I was like one of the guys, but sexier.

“You know, Mars? Mars bar? The one with all the nuts? ”

“Gimme a break, gimme a break…,” the drummer started singing.

“That was Kit Kat, douche bag,” Pete said. “Mars was…wait, what was Mars? ”

I could see Liam twitching behind the bar. He didn’t want to give me the satisfaction of getting involved in the conversation, but he couldn’t help himself.

“A Mars bar a day, at work, rest and play,” he sang. He tapped his fingers against the bar then turned, pretending to wipe something down.

“Oh, yeah! Thanks, man,” said Pete. He was smiling. We were having fun. “Can you imagine eating a Mars bar every single day? ”

I laughed. What I wanted to say was, “You’d probably be almost as fat as that girl behind you!” in a voice loud enough for her to hear but soft enough so that Pete would think I was trying to be quiet. And we’d have this moment where we’d realize we had shared this funny secret, then maybe one day in the future when we were having that conversation that you always have six months into the relationship, where you talk about the first time you met and what you thought of each other and how nervous and excited you were, Pete would say, “Remember that fat girl at the bar who kept rubbing her tits on my arm? I just kept wishing it was you,” and I’d say, “Oh, Pete!” and swat his shoulder, and then he’d press me up against the wall with his hands all over me like he was making sure he’d never forget what I felt like. But I didn’t say it because when I looked over, the girl was gone, and before I could think of anything else to say, the drummer had moved in and they were talking about something that didn’t include me.

“We should totally cover that at the next show,” the drummer was saying. He had blocked Pete from my line of vision now, as far into his space as a boy is allowed to be in the space of another boy.

“Yeah,” Pete said. He seemed very enthusiastic. “We could do a medley of chocolate bar jingles. Do you remember the Snickers one? ”

They were full-on ignoring me now. I didn’t like it.

“People think Sari sounds like a fake name, too,” I said, reaching around the drummer to touch Pete’s arm. “But I never fake anything. Just so you know.”

The drummer stared at my hand on Pete’s arm for a minute, then turned.

“Pete’s going home with a chick who thinks that a Mars bar has nuts in it,” I heard him say as he walked away.

The next morning, Pete told me he was really bad at keeping in touch.

“I mean, I haven’t been on Facebook in so long someone actually put up a memorial page for me.”

“Very funny.”

I licked his ear.

“No, seriously. The Internet thinks I’m dead.”

“Facebook’s for high-school kids, anyway,” I said.

I didn’t tell him I actually had four hundred and twenty-seven Facebook friends, mostly people from old jobs who I didn’t even talk to any more, but on whose walls I still faithfully posted birthday messages, even though I could never come up with anything better to say than “Happy Birthday!!” I always used two exclamation points so they would know I actually cared.

“Grown-ups just text each other.”

They were leaving Toronto that afternoon and driving west. They had shows in Sudbury, Sault Ste. Marie, and Thunder Bay, and then they were stopping in Atikokan to visit the bassist’s brother, who owned a hardware store and had a camp on a lake where they were going to spend a few days fishing.

“Where the hell is Atikokan? ” I asked.

It sounded northern, isolated. I pictured rutted roads, low-flying bush planes, bears. People in ugly coats.

“Dunno,” said Pete. “On a lake, I guess.”

“Isn’t it going to be cold? ”

“It’s April in Canada,” Pete said. “It’s cold everywhere.”

I had this picture in my head of us going for breakfast in the morning then taking a walk around Trinity Bellwoods and making up stories about all the people we saw—what they did for a living, when was the last time they had sex—maybe meeting up with the guys for a smoke in the back of the Sedona before they hit the road. Maybe Pete trying to convince me to come with them while we said goodbye on the sidewalk, our hands tangled up together, our eyes squinting in the sun. And me laughing, saying something mysterious and interesting about why I couldn’t go, but that maybe I’d see him around sometime, if he was lucky. And then he’d think about me all the way to Atikokan, wondering whether he actually would, and then one day, when he had almost stopped thinking about me (almost, but not quite), there I’d be, emerging from the shadows of some seedy northern bar, the way he’d thought he’d seen me do every night since he’d left me, so much so that he wouldn’t be quite sure it was me at first, with the lights in his face and the smoke and the noise.

I had that picture in my head, but then it was raining. And the guitarist wanted them to go check out some vintage sound equipment some guy was selling in Kensington. And Pete had to go.

“I’ll call you,” he said, as he tied his shoes, one eye out my apartment window watching for the Sedona to pick him up. Then he laughed. “That sounds so lame,” he said. Tilted my head up to kiss me, his hand balled in a little fist under my chin.

“It’s O.K.,” I said. “I believe you, like…sixty-forty.” I thought that was a cute thing to say.

That was six days ago.

For six days I tried to distract myself. It’s not like I don’t have anything else going on in my life. Liam shakes his head, like he’s seen this happen before. He doesn’t know anything.

We’re in Liam’s apartment. He is cooking dinner for three. One is Liam, two is me, three is the old man who lives on the floor below him. Every day at 5 P.M., the old man, whose name is Dom, takes a TV tray up one floor and sets it up in front of one of the benches outside the elevators and just sits there. He has been doing this since before Liam moved into the building. He also used to bring his dinner with him on a china plate covered in tinfoil, but that stopped a few months ago. Now Liam brings him his dinner.

“Bernice says Dom’s wife died a long time ago,” Liam told me once. “After that, he couldn’t eat alone in the apartment. Not even on the same floor.”

“That’s so romantic,” I said, although I wondered why Bernice didn’t feed him herself. Old people should stick together.

Dinner is rice and salad and Swedish meatballs that Liam bought at Ikea when he went there last week to order new shelves for the kitchen at the bar. He had been so excited that out of everyone else he could have sent, the manager had sent him on the errand, even though it turned out the real reason was because Liam was the only one with a car. The rice is just Minute Rice, but Liam has chopped apples and walnuts for the salad, which he says Dom will just pick out and leave on the side because they are too hard for him to chew. The Swedish meatballs are in thick gravy, and I try not to picture it dribbling down Dom’s chin.

“Maybe there’s just no cellphone reception up there,” I say to Liam as we walk down the hallway.

“It’s northwestern Ontario, Sari, not outer space,” Liam says.

We reach the elevators. Dom isn’t there yet. Liam checks his watch. He looks worried.

“Dom’s never late,” he says.

“Maybe there’s something wrong with my phone.”

I pull the phone out of my pocket and flip it open. It looks the same as it always does: “sari’s phone” suspended across a picture of me at Canada’s Wonderland, posing with the guy who played Joey Jeremiah on Degrassi Junior High. We had met in the line for the Behemoth. We were both by ourselves. I made a security guard take the picture for me, and afterwards we stood around awkwardly for another forty-five minutes. I had thought maybe we would get to go on together but as soon as we got to the front he went and stood with another guy who was by himself, and I ended up riding alone. He looked a lot older in person than I thought he would, although I guess I was just remembering him from when I was a kid.

“I don’t even know which apartment he lives in,” Liam says. “I can’t even go down to check.”

I put my phone back in my pocket.

“Does anyone else know? ” I ask.

Liam shrugs. We both stand there, side by side, staring at the elevator doors, trying not to think about it. A piece of walnut falls from the plate Liam is holding and onto the hallway carpet. Then the elevator doors open and there’s Dom, with his white hair and liver spots, his TV tray under his arm.

The next day on my lunch break I take my phone to the Telus store at the Dufferin Mall. I wait in line behind a young mother in too-tight jeans and Ugg boots, whose baby had somehow managed to make a two-hour call to North Carolina. The woman’s jeans have very elaborate gold emblems stitched over the back pockets, and I stare at them while the guy behind the counter tries to explain to her that she will still be held responsible for the long-distance charges.

“But I don’t even know anyone in North Carolina!” she says. “Why wouldn’t they just hang up? ”

“I don’t know why,” the guy says. He is blond and very tall and looks like the type of guy who gets really annoyed if you ask him if he plays basketball. “Maybe you should call and ask them.”

The girl shifts her weight, and the gold emblems twinkle.

“Would I have to pay for that call, too? ”

“Well, yes.”

“Are you kidding me? Why would some random-ass person talk to Jayden on the phone for two goddamned hours? He only knows, like, ten words!”

I can see this is going to take a while, so I wander through the store. I look at some phones that are all much nicer than mine, and at a display for BlackBerrys, which apparently now come in pink. I am not really the type of person who is into getting new gadgets, but those pink BlackBerrys make me think that I might want one. At the back of the store there is a computer set up, which I guess is there so people can look at the Telus Web site while all the guys behind the counter are busy. Since no one is around, I bring up a search engine and type in “Atikokan.” I click on the first link and it tells me Atikokan is less than three hours from Thunder Bay and is the canoeing capital of Canada. Underneath there are little tabs that tell me who Atikokan is for: Atikokan is for boaters, Atikokan is for anglers, Atikokan is for golfers, Atikokan is for lovers. I click on the last tab, but it looks like the link is broken. Suddenly, a Telus guy is standing next to me.

“These computers are really for setting up your accounts and stuff,” he says.

It is a different guy from the one behind the counter, who is still arguing with Jayden’s mom. This guy is short and dark and speaks with an accent, Spanish maybe or Portuguese, and wears a gold chain around his neck. I smile at him even though he is really not my type. Then I think about Pete and it knocks the wind out of me for a second.

“Sorry,” I say. I grab on to the table.

The Telus guy takes a step back.

“Are you O.K.? ”

“Yeah,” I say. I reach for my pocket, but my for some reason I just can’t find the opening. “It’s…my phone. There’s something wrong with my phone.” I finally jam my hand into my pocket and pull the phone out so fast it flies across the room.

The Telus guy jogs over and picks it up.

“I think it’s O.K.,” he says.

He flips it open. I wonder if he recognizes Joey Jeremiah, but he doesn’t say anything about it.

“What’s the problem? ”

“It hasn’t been ringing,” I say. “I mean…I haven’t been getting any calls.”

The Telus guy stares at me. His hand goes up to play with the chain around his neck. At the front of the store I can hear Jayden start to cry. “Shut up!” his mom yells. “You’re the reason we’re here in the first place!”

“Never mind,” I say, grabbing my phone from him. “Never mind. It’s nothing.”

I tell Liam we are going to Atikokan. “It’s the canoeing capital of Canada,” I say.

“I hate boats,” Liam says.

Today he is making pork chops and apple sauce. I wonder why everything he cooks for Dom has to involve some kind of sauce.

“You know I’ve hated boats ever since my dad made me take that stupid water safety class.”

I have heard about the water safety class, about how none of the other kids would be Liam’s partner for the mouth-to-mouth lesson, how he had to do it with the teacher. I find it hard to believe that this still bothers him.

“Whatever,” I say. “There’s lots of other things you can do there.”

I hand him a stack of pages I printed off the Web at work. I know Liam likes things to be on paper. The Lovers tab was still broken, but I printed out Boaters, Anglers, Golfers, Antiquers, Hikers, Birdwatchers and History Buffs. One of these has to appeal to Liam. I’m thinking Birdwatchers.

“History buffs? ” He stares at the page. “That’s a pretty specific demographic, don’t you think? ”

“Lots of people like history,” I say. “It’s the second most popular section of the library.”

This is a lie. The second most popular section of the library is the kids’ section. The most popular is the magazines.

Liam puts down the pages. “Sari…” he says.

“It’ll be so fun,” I say. “We’ll have this awesome road trip, just you and me, some really good Sari and Liam bonding time. And then once we get there, maybe Pete will teach us how to fish. Maybe we won’t even have to go in a boat. Or you can stay back on shore, go birdwatching with the drummer. He’s really nice, you’d totally like him. He said the funniest thing, at the bar—”


Liam takes my hands. I pull them away, hard.

“What, Liam? ”

He closes his eyes.

“Nothing,” he says. “I’ll just go pack.”

Later, I’m sleeping in the back seat of the car when Liam shakes me awake.

“Sari. Sari,” he says. “Fucking wake up, will you? Jesus Christ. I just saw a U.F.O.”

I sit up and rub my hand over my face. I have a feeling we haven’t travelled very far. I’m guessing we’re on the shoulder somewhere, probably somewhere very rural, but it’s too dark for me to see anything. It’s darker outside than any darkness I’ve ever seen before.

“Can you turn on the lights? ” I ask.

“No,” Liam says. Even in the dark I can see his eyes are all lit up, shining. “Then you won’t be able to see.”

We both get out of the car and I follow Liam along the shoulder. We’re next to a field, but I can’t tell what is growing in it. Straight ahead I can see a yellow light belonging to a house. It’s probably only a mile or so off, but it seems very far away.

“Look!” Liam says.

It’s a cloudy night, no stars, no moon, but I see what he is pointing at: a row of about five lights, slightly curved, moving slowly across the sky. They blink on and off, one by one and in a random sequence. For some reason it makes me think of playing a piano. That was something I used to know how to do.

“Did you ever take piano lessons, Liam? ” I ask. I’m still half-asleep. Then it occurs to me that this is something I should already know about him, and I am immediately sorry I asked. But he’s not paying attention. He’s locked in on the lights in the sky. I wonder what percentage of him actually believes he is looking at a U.F.O.—how much of him is up in the sky with those lights and how much of him is down here on the ground with the world. My guess would be about sixty-forty.

Amy Jones lives in Thunder Bay, Ontario, and recently published her debut novel, We’re All in This Together. She was the winner of the 2006 CBC Literary Award, and her first collection, What Boys Like, won the 2008–2009 Metcalf-Rooke Award and was short-listed for the 2010 ReLit Award. Last updated winter, 2016–2017.