I would have rather been in Death Valley, throwing blunt sticks at dead cows. That’s what we did after school when there were stiff livestock to torment – which admittedly wasn’t all that often. Occasionally though, the odd Holstein squeezed through the wrong barbed-wire fence and into a field of alfalfa where she’d promptly eat herself to death. That’s what they do – cows - when given the chance. They gorge themselves until they bloat to lethal proportions. If we were lucky, Janice and I had a few days to monitor their decomposing bodies before that truck from Edmonton came by to haul them off. We had big fantasies of successfully deflating just one bloated stomach with a few dinky twigs. We imagined our makeshift javelins arcing elegantly through the blue-pink sky before a no-nonsense descent into the abdomen of our dead prey. Then we’d sit back and witness the newly freed gas waft up to the heavens as the beast slowly relaxed into the earth. The satisfaction was almost palpable. But we never actually made contact with any part of our target. First of all, I couldn’t throw and secondly, neither of us dared get too close to anything dead. The threat of reanimation was too much.
That’s where I would have rather been. Instead I was on a baseball diamond, reduced to shortstop and sweating into an oversized cap in a town called Lloydminster. It’s well worth mentioning that along with not being able to throw, I also couldn’t catch, bat, bunt, run, spit, slide or even say “softball” without an accent but without me there could be no team. It was a matter of numbers. Without me, there weren’t enough farm girls to fill a diamond and we needed a diamond to win gold at provincials. At that point, we weren’t anywhere near provincials. At that point, Janice was on first. Her cousin was the catcher and the catcher’s dad was our coach. He was also a drunk. Everyone else on the team was somehow related to Janice, the drunk or both. I was outnumbered and daydreaming of safer places.
Our Death Valley wasn’t dry at all – nor was it a valley. In fact, it was a markedly swampy area in the far corner of a marshy field at the edge of the farm. I’d never heard of the real Death Valley, I was convinced that Janice had made it up the first time she laid eyes on our little necropolis.
“This place is so spooky,” she’d said, “It’s like…Death Valley.”
“Yeah, Deaf Walley,” I repeated, hoping to duplicate the same cool magic that Janice had breathed into the words.
The name stuck. Eventually everyone called it that – my brothers, our classmates, the school-bus driver, even my parents. Our weekend playground was soon infused with the dark sophistication of legends.
Janice was up to bat. After a couple practice swings, she made her way to the plate, wobbly-kneed beneath the weight of her helmet. It always took a small miracle for her to raise the bat above her waist. Somehow though, she’d manage to settle into position, reserving just enough strength to rotate her eyeballs to the drunk for guidance. He’d give her some illegible, sweaty-palmed hand-signals that inevitably translated to “hit”. Janice’s aim was great; it was just her swing that was delayed. She never hit anything. It didn’t seem to faze her. Later in the dugout, I heard her tell her cousin that she planned to become a political scientist and to get a perm. I had no idea what she was talking about but her cousin seemed very impressed. She also mentioned she would name her children Elizabeth and Victoria. She had it all figured out. I suddenly had no idea who she was.
If Death Valley didn’t provide any dead treasures to play with, we’d resort to some equally thrilling activity. This often meant drawing compromising pictures of naked people. I knew that I was interested in naked people but I didn’t have any concrete ideas of what they looked like. My attempts at the pornographic produced little more than sketches of enlarged babies gazing upon each other lazily. My nudes never graduated to the next level. Their only exposure to disgrace was their sloth. Janice knew so much more. Her drawings filled me with equal parts fascination, embarrassment and denial. They contained pubes, speech bubbles and surprising perspective. In fact, they were downright dirty and eventually we’d have to bury them in the ground and never speak of them again.
After losing the game, our coach stumbled to the pub. The rest of us raced to Bonanza for all-you-can-eat buffet. For Janice, all-you-can-eat meant three teaspoons of macaroni salad. We carefully balanced our trays through the snake-pit of grass-stained brats. We almost made it back to our booth when a local boy blocked our path.
“Hey you,” he targeted me but I was too focused on coordinating all my limbs to look up.
“YOU!” the young gentleman then screamed in my face, causing me to jump and my mashed potato volcano to explode, gravy running all over my carefully selected 16 different kinds of pasta.
“My brother and I are wondering,” he paused for dramatic effect, “are you a boy or a girl?”
It wouldn’t be the first or last time I’d hear this question but, years later, I would come to appreciate the finely tuned details of this particular encounter. How our team filed out of that restaurant in Saskatchewan and made our way towards the hotel a few blocks down the street. How on our walk, we crossed a thick yellow line painted across the sidewalk to denote the border. How Lloydminster carefully straddles the provincial divide, it’s city slogan being Lloydminster: Your Gateway to Alberta AND Saskatchewan. How amusing we found it to jump from one province to the other, or balance in the dead centre, enthralled by the thought of being either nowhere or two places at once.