A Funny Thing Happened...
“Tomorrow’s basket! And I know just who should receive it, too.” Paula’s smug expression did its job and Marjorie felt a knot begin to form in the pit of her stomach.
“But it’s random,” she pointed out carefully. “We don’t usually pick our victims in advance.”
Paula waved an airy hand. “Oh, please. We usually pick the cutest ones, and don’t tell me you haven’t noticed. Anyway, it’s time we had some fun with it, that’s all.”
Paula often frightened Marjorie. There were times when she could barely remember how they ever became best friends.
“Fun with whom, exactly?” She narrowed her eyes and attempted to stare Paula down, which was always hard for people who were a good five inches shorter than everybody else.
“Ray Kowalski, my friend!” Paula announced, her grin nearly splitting her face.
“Ray? But why him? He isn’t a tourist.” Marjorie thought she could see it coming, but really hoped that, for once in her life, she was wrong. “He’s been here for, like, two months.”
“I know, I know, but don’t you want to see his face when he’s attacked in the middle of the street by a bunch of Inuvik natives?”
Marjorie adamantly shook her head. “No, that’s really kind of mean. The guy’s jumpy enough as it is.”
“Yeah, well, it’ll be like initiation into the native life, you know? Come on, don’t wimp out on me, it’ll be fun!” Paula wheedled, clasping her hands in front of her chest. “Please? Pretty please?”
Marjorie sighed and looked down. Yeah, so Paula was her best friend. “All right, fine. But I’m not gonna be the one to hand him the basket.” Because Paula wasn’t just playing with Ray – she was playing with Marjorie, too. Not like anybody in the Community Center didn’t know Marjorie harbored a bit of a crush on the man, and never mind he was fifteen years older than her, but nevertheless.
Paula squealed and enveloped her in a tight hug. “You totally don’t have to be the one to hand him the basket. You just have to be there for the moral support.”
Marjorie sighed. Moral support, indeed.
Marjorie had buried her head in her hands a while back, and was refusing to come out, because Paula was currently the bane of her existence, and nothing made her go away – not even pretending really, really hard.
They had assembled the basket, and the basket was great. The original basket was not the problem. The original basket included all the usual trappings, all the wonderful stuff – the local badges and fridge magnets, the freshly baked breads from Marie’s bakery, the power tools from Paula’s dad’s shop, the guides to Inuvik and even an old map that Miss Preston had pulled out from her own personal library, a tribute to Ray and the Corporal actually going on an adventure through one of the many outlined routes on the map, behaving like little boys from the beginning of the century, Miss Prescott had chuckled. The basket was filled with northern comforts.
And then Paula had burst in like a whirlwind, and ruined the whole thing. Marjorie had dug her feet in, and refused to accept that they were going to even think about adding the stuff Paula had dragged in. Paula insisted that Marjorie was taking things way too seriously, and in very short order, she had involved Chris, the Center supervisor, in her scheming.
Looking disheveled and under-nourished, Chris entered the room and stopped short of the display on the table, where Marjorie had tried not looking for the past half hour.
“Uh.” He blinked. “What the hell?”
Marjorie looked at Paula and said nothing. Paula cleared her throat. “Okay. We’re doing Ray Kowalski this week.”
“And you need that many condoms? He isn’t exactly eighteen anymore.” Chris picked up the three twelve-pack boxes of condoms and looked them over.
“What- huh? Oh! No!” Paula smacked him on the shoulder. “It’s for the basket, you doofus. For fun.”
“Whose fun?” Chris mumbled, flipping through the increasingly alarming pages of The Joy of Gay Sex. Marjorie seized her chance.
“Chris, you can’t let her do this. This is just – it’s obscene.”
“Well,” Chris said, peering at an illustration that, even upside down, made Marjorie want to run away and become a nun. “This is, that’s for sure. Jesus Christ, that really works?”
“Hey, do I know?” Paula asked. “Last time I checked, I wasn’t a gay man. But the book says so, and –” She shrugged.
“Huh. Interesting.” Chris flipped through a few more pages, then shut the book and picked up the final bit of insult to injury. Very lifelike, Paula had said. Even comes with batteries.
“Interesting? Interesting?” Marjorie couldn’t believe what she was hearing. Was she the last sane person in the room? “What is with you two? You’re willing to terrorize this man?” She finally forced herself pick up the bottle of lubricant and wave it in their faces.
“Terrorize him? Oh, c’mon, we’re just poking a bit of fun,” Paula answered, grinning. “Look, it’ll just show him that we’ve accepted him into our midst. We’re okay with him and the Corporal doing the ol’ horizontal mambo. We welcome it.”
Marjorie threw up her hands. “How is attacking him with- with this going to make him feel welcome? Chris? You got any ideas?”
“Oh, hey, I’m not in charge of these things, so I’m staying out of it.” He backed away and turned to go. He had a small smile on his lips that Marjorie didn’t like, especially not when turned on her. “Marj, seriously. Kowalski’s got a sense of humor under all those nerves. Eventually, he’ll probably think it’s funny.”
Marjorie spent another hour trying to convince her lunatic best friend that condoms and dildos did not a welcoming committee make, but in the end, the only promises she got were that neither she nor Ray would go to hell, and the nightly drinks were on the house for the rest of the week.
“I’ll even give you the best beer we’ve got on tap,” Paula promised, smoothing Marjorie’s hands between hers. “The best Canadian beer, Marj.”
Marjorie sighed and finally gave up. Some things, she now knew, were simply out of her control.
Ray gasped, reached for Fraser and clung to him as his body ceased shaking. Fraser’s lips on Ray’s chest made a soft circle around his skin, breath warming in between. Fraser had come about five seconds before Ray, and, on the whole, it wasn’t really surprising that the rickety bed wasn’t quite through rattling.
“Oh, fuck,” Ray finally managed, and blinked to get rid of the sweat stinging his eyes.
“Indeed,” Fraser said softly, his mouth still warm and wet on Ray’s shoulder, which suited Ray just fine. But…
“You gotta go, right?”
The alarm clock read 7:46. They’d been at it for almost forty minutes.
Fraser lifted his head off Ray’s chest. Their faces were just close enough to make out every detail, maybe even memorize them – Fraser’s relaxed mouth, his tongue a soft pink shadow behind his lips, his breath a ghost between them. It was one of those unfair aspects of life that Fraser had to work for a living, and Ray idly wondered if he could hold him in place with just his gaze, pin him and not let him go, because he smelled warm, like the two of them, and was watching Ray’s mouth like it held the answers to all the questions in the universe.
But Fraser stayed in place for a while, anyway, just hovering over Ray, not really saying anything at all. Ray didn’t need to talk, either. He was happy just tracing the infinite line of Fraser’s lips with his thumb, up, and over, and down, and over, the soft curve of it, the stubble all around rasping against Ray’s skin. Then he dipped his thumb into Fraser’s mouth, touched the wet on the inside, the hard ridges of Fraser’s teeth, the pliable tongue.
They kissed around his thumb, slick and warm and wet, and Fraser made a humming noise and it vibrated against Ray’s lips as he slipped his wet thumb out, catching it on Fraser’s lip for one slow moment. Then Fraser was getting out of bed, padding bare-assed to the bathroom, and Ray was left watching the ceiling, pretending like it had stars on it, so he could count ‘em.
When he got into town, Ray sensed something hovering over his head, something that, in his mind’s eye, looked like Doom! Doom! Doom! in bright neon letters.
Nobody had ever believed him later on, but he had felt the same thing the morning of the Bank Robbery, and when it finally happened, he knew that the feeling hadn’t been normal. This wasn’t normal, either. This was a strange sense of déj? vu and that thing, where you could tell the future, what the hell was it called? – fore- fore-shadowing, no, foreboding, that’s it – all rolled into one. Yeah, like he could just tell something bad was gonna happen, and his first instinct was to turn left and walk the five blocks to Fraser’s detachment. Then he remembered that Fraser was patrolling the streets to make sure nothing untoward happened in his town – Corporal Benton Fraser, Ray thought with a grin – and gave the idea up. Well, maybe he’d just run into Fraser while doing his errands and Fraser would tell him he was crazy and everything would be just fine.
So, Ray went to the IVFFA office to drop off his documents and see if they’d take him – a cop wasn’t so different from a fireman, what with the saving of people’s lives, and the volunteer part of this made the whole process a hell of a lot simpler. He scratched his ear and thought about poles, and then his mind went in an altogether different direction, and he had to cough through it as he handed Jordan Buffet his papers, shook his hand, and looked him in the eye only because Fraser had forced the habit on him.
(“Ray, when presenting yourself to a potential employer, it is essential that you make eye contact. They have to know that you are earnest in your interest.”
“Oh, like I don’t know what to do,” Ray had snapped, then wanted to take it back, because the look on Fraser’s face was worse than Dief’s when confronted with dry chow. He’d assured Fraser that he would look everybody in the eye, even the ones who could put two and two together and come up with queer, and find a goddamn job if it killed him. Fraser had sniffed and vouched for his country. Ray had sighed and thought that people were people everywhere.)
After the IVFFA, he turned the corner to drop off an application at the Recreation Department to see if maybe they needed a Junior coach for hockey, ‘cause he grew up in Chicago, and even though being a cop kind of took over the hockey gig, he could still get through a game with some success, and he’d coached kids before. These kids might even come gang-free, if he was lucky. He applied for the boxing coach gig, too, just in case.
All the application and paper dropping off took up a good portion of his morning, and he was already beginning to relax when he spotted two girls heading his way. Well, the town was busy, they didn’t necessarily have to be headed his way, except one of them was Marjorie Baker, and while she was a sweet girl, and nice, she couldn’t really look at him without giving him puppy eyes, and it was weird and awkward, and there was the Fraser thing, and –
And then, Ray was suddenly being assaulted from all sides, with Marjorie and her feisty friend Paula running up to him from up ahead, holding an enormous basket in front of them like it was on fire, then this guy Ray thought might have been called Chris running up to them all from the left, and then – the hell?! – the newspaper people were all around them, a camera flashed to his right, and Ray looked up at the sky, then down at his shoes, and thought, “oh, shit.”
“Ray Kowalski!” Paula beamed at him with all the crazy of Inuvik behind her eyes. “Congratulations! You’ve been randomly selected to receive this Tourist of the Week Gift Basket, courtesy of this here town!”
Ray tried forming coherent responses to this, but his brain seemed permanently stuck at the “tourist” part, because he wasn’t a tourist, not a tourist at all, and, in fact, if he had anything to do with anything, he was well on his way to becoming a goddamn permanent resident and, quite possibly, through a sheer force of will, or maybe a really big miracle, a fucking citizen, but a tourist? No. No goddamn way.
“I’m not a tourist!” he yelled, and everyone got quiet. He closed his eyes and dropped his head, because yeah, good going, Kowalski, way to warm up to the local color. He coughed, scratched his head, looked up, and put on his most charming smile. “Sorry, I’m just- I’m- seriously, not a tourist. I’m, you know –”
“Here for good?” Paula nudged him with the basket; it loomed between them like a bomb. Ray didn’t like the way she was looking at him, but he supposed that he might as well get used to it.
“Yeah, well…trying,” he answered, sounding lame even to his own ears.
“Well, that’s good, too!” She perked up and elbowed her shy friend in the ribs. “We made up this basket for you more out of, you know, solicitousness. Welcome to Inuvik, Ray!”
He finally felt a grin spread across his face, and well, this was kind of nice, he supposed. Everyone around them began making noise again, watching as Ray accepted the basket, crouched down on the ground, and proceeded to rip off the plastic covering all the goodies. When he looked up, Ray noticed a considerable crowd of onlookers already gathered round them, with more than one camera pointed his way. Maybe this was fine. Maybe this really was just a nice gesture, and his sense of doom was betraying him, because he’d been carrying the load of “find work, find work, find work, or else” with him every day for the past month and a half, and it was starting to grate. He was being welcomed with open arms, here. Didn’t want to look a gift horse in the nose, or mouth, or whatever.
So, he reached inside and took out the first thing he saw – a bag with a fresh loaf of bread inside it, which would make Fraser happy. And then there was hardware stuff, which made Ray happy, and old-looking map of the territories, which he suspected would make them both happy, and all sorts of local things that were just kind of cool to get for nothing at all. And then there were only two more brown bags left, and he reached into them quickly, retrieving a –
Ray’s mind stopped, and then his blood rushed to his ears, his toes, and the back of his neck, and he dropped the load into the bag.
The crowd hushed. Sure, the handful of condoms and the bottle of KY hadn’t quite made it out of the brown paper bag, but it’d been enough of a giveaway that his ears were practically on fire, and oh yeah, the package with the dildo in it now peeked out, too, glinting in the sun, and he might as well have been wearing a neon sign saying “Ask Me About the Joys of My Own Gay Sex” on his forehead, and everything was kind of crashing all around him, and he really couldn’t lift his head even if he tried.
When Ray first fell in love with Fraser, he wouldn’t have known it from a hole in the wall. He’d only known that he was waking up to something that made him feel like he was covered in a warm blanket all day long, something that made his heart race a bit too fast as he pulled into the station, something that had him forgetting that on this day, so many years ago, he and Stella had gone out for ice cream after her bar exam and exchanged sticky kisses in the dark of their hallway.
When he’d hurtled himself through walls and windows and crevasses for Fraser, he’d thought that he was doing it for honor and justice and putting the kids safely to bed at night the world over. It was only when it came time to maybe even say goodbye that he realized that honor, justice, kids, blankets, and sticky kisses all had a singular point that connected them. And that point was Benton Fraser, Royal Canadian Mounted Police, Ray’s partner and Ray’s friend. And then, Ray was in over his head, he was crazy, messed up, he was out of his mind and delirious, and he never wanted to feel any different for the rest of his life.
Thus, since their first time in a musty, blackened tent, Ray had dedicated himself to finding any means necessary to stick to the point. He’d known it’d be hard, and he’d known it wouldn’t be a straight shoot into the basket of life, but he had never really anticipated crouching on the ground in the middle of downtown Inuvik, Northwest Territories, Canada, surrounded by half of its residents, trying to figure out the best maneuver out of revealing a bag with a dildo, condoms, lube, and a well-illustrated guide to his sex life, the eighth edition, with a new foreword.
This was worse than being caught with his pants down by a Thatcher look-alike and her sleazy camera crew. While he certainly knew that he and Fraser were more out than in, there was something to be said about not waving the lube and dildos around where everybody and their six year-old could see them.
“Uhm.” Ray heard a male voice above him and let out a series of his own uhs and uhms, covering up a too-long silent minute with too much action. Bread, screws, old map, crazy glue from the crazy store – all disappeared inside the basket quicker than you could feed Dief. “So, uh, Mr. Kowalski –”
Ray grabbed the basket and shot up to his feet. If he was going to start explaining himself, he wouldn’t do it lying down. He knew how to shoot a perp at fifty feet and knock him off balance. He could do this.
Finding himself face to face with an ancient-looking mic, Ray felt his eyes cross. The male voice, he now saw, belonged to one of the newspaper people – he’d seen them on the streets before, harassing other innocent bystanders, but had never given them more than a passing thought. He found he missed his standard-issue CPD handgun more than ever.
“How are you finding Inuvik?” the guy asked, face completely blank, with every other possible expression clearly outlined on the faces behind him. Ray took in the almost-giggling Paula, the mortified Marjorie, the outraged-looking old lady in the back, the exasperated car mechanic who’d fixed Fraser’s Mountie jeep a little while back, and, concentrating on watching the mic, cleared his throat. The weave of the basket snagged against his bare arms.
“Fine. I’m finding it – fine.”
“Were you expecting this kind of, uhm, welcome, when you first came here?”
Ray’s ears throbbed. What a lie about this place not getting as hot as Chicago – he was burning up under his t-shirt. His neck prickled and he couldn’t even scratch it.
“Tell you the truth, I wasn’t really expecting much at all.” Wait. “I mean, I—I wasn’t expecting the people to welcome or, um –” he glanced briefly at Paula, then darted his gaze away. “—not welcome me at all. I just kind of…got here.” Lame. Definitely lame. But at least Paula turned a bit pink and stopped giggling. He saw Marjorie elbow her in the side. Well, he knew the perpetrators now.
“Yes, the Tourist Board in this town is alive and kicking, as you can tell,” the guy chuckled, and Ray wanted to punch him. Instead, he clung to the basket and didn’t say anything at all.
“Well, uh, Mr. Kowalski, we are certainly welcoming here, and we hope that your stay at Inuvik, however long it may be, is a pleasant one.” He extended his hand for a shake and Ray could barely believe the bozo, but he kept hearing Fraser’s voice in his head, telling him to play nice, so he extended his own to meet and greet, and his palm squelched against the reporter’s. He wiped his hand as soon as it was free and looked around.
To his surprise, nobody had “Go Home, Yank!” written anywhere on their person, and he was met with various degrees of smiles, all over. He let go a little, felt a smile tugging at his lips – maybe he’d passed? – and hefted the basket, still heavy in his arms. And when a new kind of hush fell over the crowd and he whipped around, Fraser’s blue gaze met his own, and he knew that the slight crinkles in the soft skin around Fraser’s eyes were meant for him and him only, and screw everybody else in this whole town, because Fraser loved him.
Ray ducked his head. Fraser was wearing the blue uniform – no dressy red in this little town, not on everyday patrol – and watching the whole thing quietly, with his hands behind his back, a wisp of hair curling at the forehead. Ray tapped his foot and thought for a moment. He turned to Paula – and they’d have words later on, once he could trap her behind the bar during her slow work hours – and plopped the basket directly into her arms, while she looked at him with eyes as big as saucers. He caught a glance of Marjorie, barely five feet off the ground, wanting to disappear into four, it seemed, and turned back to the reporter guy.
“You’re supposed to take a picture or something, right?” he asked, and the reporter nodded his head vigorously, then jerked it at one of his lackeys, the one holding the camera. “All right, do I have to have the basket, or what?”
“Well, technically –”
“No!” Marjorie’s voice piped up for the first time that afternoon, and whoa, she was short, but those eyes sure could send spikes through you if they wanted to. The spikes were darting between both the surprised reporter and Paula, gaping with the basket in her arms. Ray stifled a smile. Just then, Marjorie reminded him of Frannie, and for one wild moment, he almost felt sorry for both Paula and the reporter. “No,” Marjorie rushed on. “It’s fine without the basket, and just—just take the picture and write your article and be – yeah, just do it.” It all came out of her in one breath, and Ray sent wink in her direction, which forced her freckled face to turn beet red in two seconds flat.
“All right, no basket.” Ray extended his hand to pull Fraser inside the circle. “How ‘bout a Mountie?” Now it was Fraser’s turn to turn a faint shade of red. Ray slid his hand into Fraser’s for a moment, then slid away and stood apart, barely even leaning toward him. Fraser nodded at the crowd, a shy smile forced out of him, said a couple of polite hello’s and turned his gaze to Ray. Ray gave a small nod in return and finally faced the camera. The photographer – no older than nineteen, a kid, really – hid his face behind the viewer and the flash worked for a full minute, snapping pictures left and right, leaving Ray blinder with each new click of the shutter.
On the tenth click, Ray lifted his hand and waved it in front of the camera. “All right, all right, that’s enough.” With some surprise, he found the kid listened to him, didn’t even look at the reporter for permission. The camera disappeared, and Ray came face to face with Paula, Fraser’s frame flanking his left side, a warm, looming presence.
“Seriously, Ray,” she began, the usual irony gone from her voice. “Welcome.” She thrust the basket back into his arms and barely looked him in the eye as she mumbled, “Hope you stay a while.” And, for the first time in two months, the enormity of his decision came crashing around his ears, and, just like that, slid down, away, and disappeared. He breathed in and nodded at her, a friendly weightless pat.
“Thanks. Me too.”
He stood on the corner of Centennial St. and Inuit Rd. and shook random strangers’ hands, barely hanging onto the basket. And the whole time, while brown and grey and old and young eyes met his with a smile and withdrew, he could feel Fraser standing behind him, quiet and patient, waiting his turn.
Inuvik’s newest resident, Stanley Raymond Kowalski (left, pictured with partner Corporal Benton Fraser, RCMP) received a traditional summer basket from the Inuvik Tourist Board yesterday afternoon. Adamant about not being called a tourist, Kowalski accepted the gesture gracefully, and with good humor. The citizens of Inuvik extended warm wishes along with the gifts. Ellen Marshall, an Inuvik resident of fifty one years, was quoted as saying, “This town could always use new blood. I just hope that he stays long enough to fix all of my windows before the fall frost. A very helpful young man.” When asked about his plans for the future, Kowalski admitted to a job search close to home, for the foreseeable future, that being Inuvik.
- Thomas Smithers (photographer Eric Newman)