Sure sign of a class act, that. Bet he cleans behind his ears and everything.
I'll just get on, now. You have at 'er.
His nephew, Bryce, next to him on the curb, pushed a smirk at him. “What cannons?”
“God, you know what cannons. How many places got cannons?"
The first intrusions of dawn were folding a lighter blue into the black backdrop of the night sky. The men peered across the width of the harbour into the darkness. The lights around Signal Hill, the elderly sentinel of the Atlantic ocean, high above St. John's harbour, were little more than fireflies to them, but they knew where on the hill the cannons were and mapped them against the gloom.
Bryce shoved his sneakers out in front of him and tugged at his ball cap. “Oh, those cannons. I don’t know. Five bucks. Ten?”
Dicky’s thinning hair was incredulous. He swivelled to face his nephew, fifteen years younger, home from university that day. “Ten dollars? Holy Moses, Jimmy Hoskin’s got a hundred for that roll of copper he stole from the power lines, and there’s more to a cannon than there is a roll of copper.”
Nephew Bryce, with a big grin on his face, hummed, “Hmm. So a cannon?”
“Yes, a cannon. Those things up there on the hill what shoots big bowling balls.”
“Twenty? Twenty?” Dicky pulled at the bib of his own cap and pushed it around backwards, readying for battle. “Bryce, me buddy, I don’t know what to do with you.”
Bryce chuckled and accepted the bottle when his uncle Dicky — Richard, but Dicky all his life — passed it his way. His sip was too small, as were all their sips. Their shared bottle was the last survivor from a case of twelve and neither of them wanted to finish it too quickly. It was their tether to the evening, their only excuse to sit and keep talking on the curb, so they sipped slowly, and drew no attention to their dainty tips.
Bryce lowered the bottle. “I don’t know, Dicky, those cannons are way out there, you know, not by the road. They’re down and over the hill.”
Dicky nodded. “Yeah, I know where they are. We’ll drive the truck right over, hoist ‘em in the back ... no problem. Couple cannons.”
“Yeah. Couple cannons.”
“But that wasn’t the question, Bryce me buddy. The question was how much do you think we could get for the metal in one of them. If you’re so smart, then answer me that.”
Bryce was not won over so easily. “No problem? Sure you got a problem. What truck you talking about? You don’t got a truck.”
“I got a truck,” said Dicky assuredly.
Bryce leaned in drunkenly, halfway to the dirt. “Since when do you have a truck? You got that old wheelbarrow maybe, that one that’s out in the shed. Full of empties.”
“Wheelbarrow,” scoffed Dicky. “Watch me moving a cannon with a wheelbarrow now.”
“At least you got a wheelbarrow. I knows you don’t have a truck.”
“Yes, you’re right. But I never said I had a truck….”
“Yes you did. Just then.”
“My good pal, Lundy, got a truck. We get his truck. We’re set.” Dicky clapped his hands decisively. “Just like that, see. No problem.”
Unconvinced, Bryce shook his head. “Lundy? Don’t he only got a Ranger? A cannon’s probably the full weight of that old Ranger of his.”
Dicky chewed on his lip and took the bottle when Bryce nudged his arm with it. Half full, warm, Dicky pressed it to his lips cautiously. Neither of them wanted to be the one to finish it.
“Them cannons are clamped down,” added Bryce. Less than a day home from school, he could already hear his old accent returning. The beer helped bring it out too.
“You mean at night?”
Bryce laughed. Real laughter this time, not forced mockery. “No, you goof, not just at night. You think someone’s gonna steal a cannon when nobody’s looking? They’re cemented down in concrete blocks all the time.”
Dicky was impervious to his nephew’s scorn. “Well, smart guy, if no one is gonna steal a cannon, why are the cannons cemented down?”
Bryce shrugged. “I don’t know. That’s what all cannons are like. Bolted down. Maybe because of the wind.”
Dicky lowered him a disbelieving look. “The wind?”
“I don’t know. Yeah. The wind.”
“You think the wind can knock down one of those cannons?”
“The wind can but I can’t?”
“I know you can’t.”
Pushing back his sleeves, Dicky cocked his bicep and struck a pose. “You might know a bit about those guns up on the hill, but you don’t know nothing about these guns that I got right here. Check out these cannons.”
Dicky hadn’t done an honest day’s work in months. His arms were pasty tube socks.
“We’ll see who’s got peashooters when we bust up that concrete.”
Bryce scoffed again. “Bust it up? With those arms? It’d take years.”
Uncle Dicky shrugged. “Well I don’t know about that. From what Rose tells me, you’ve been lifting ten thousand bucks worth of books all year long. A cannon shouldn’t no problem for the likes of you.” He followed his shrug with another delicate sip and passed the bottle back.
Bryce shifted on the cold cement curb. “I’ll smash those blocks like the Hulk. Carry a cannon down the hill on my shoulders. Two of ‘em. One on each.”
The blue of the sky had raised high enough to silhouette the fort watching over St. John’s harbour against the dawn. It would be a rare fogless morning, clear and sunny.
“Yep,” muttered Dicky with a nod, “good ‘ol Lundy with his truck. He turned to his nephew. “We should head over his way now. Get a start.”
Bryce shifted his ball cap. “Now, hold on now. You don’t think things through, Dicky. You never does. Lundy’s arms are like two skipping ropes. We’ll need more than just us three to move a whole cannon. The two of us plus ... maybe fourteen more of Lundy.”
Dicky tapped at his teeth pensively. “Hmm. Yeah. Might need to cut another guy in too. Still, plenty of metal on a cannon to go around.” Dicky pushed himself to his feet. “We should head on over to Lundy’s now.”
“Probably need a couple guys,” said Bryce with a grin. “You aren’t that young anymore.”
Dicky laughed. Finding the nearest scraggly rose bush, Dicky unzipped his fly and bowed himself, talking over his shoulder. “Any day you wants to pit yourself against a real man, little buddy, you know where to find me.”
“I knows where to finds you — in bed.”
“Damn right. No need to get outta bed to drop a skin-bag a bones like you. You’d think they didn’t feed you at all up there in that school.”
“Then I’d let on that you were trying to rope me into something illegal.”
Dicky feigned shock. “Sweet Jesus, you’d set the law on me, your own dear uncle?”
“Worse. I’d tell mom on you.”
Dicky straightened. “Yes, lord, that’d be worse. Rose’d kill me. Don’t you be talking to your mother about none of this. She don’t like your drinking, especially not with me.”
Bryce laughed and picked up the bottle where Dicky had laid it on the curb. The beer was low now, the foam resting against the brown bottom.
“Illegal,” muttered Dicky, zipping up his pants. “Hardly illegal, taking one of those cannons. Not like anybody’s using them.”
“What if pirates attacked the harbour? Then what would we do?”
Dicky sputtered, “Pirates? Pirates? There hasn’t been pirates around here for what … fifty years.”
Bryce wasn’t even trying to keep a straight face anymore. “You steal those cannons and we won’t have any cannons to defend ourselves if they come back.”
“I don’t want all the guns, just the one.”
“That’s not the point,” said Bryce animatedly, leaning back to talk to his uncle who was stretching his legs. “Besides, what would you do with it?”
“Money me buddy. Money.”
“What money? You bring a cannon to the recycling place and they’d knock you over the head and call the cops.”
“As long as they don’t call your mother.”
Bryce laughed. “I missed your foolishness when I was away, Dicky.”
“No foolishness about it,” said Dicky. “I’d take care of it.”
“You’d melt down a whole cannon?”
“I might. I can’t say.”
“You can’t say?”
“I know a guy. He’d take care of it.”
“A guy? What guy? Some guy with a wood stove?”
Dicky tapped the side of his nose and looked down at the bottle in Bryce’s hand. “Finish that off now. I don’t want no more of that backwash.”
Bryce tipped the bottle up, made a face as he swallowed the last of the tepid foam, and placed the bottle down gently on the curb with a hollow click. “Must be one hell of a wood stove,” he said after a burp, “fit a whole cannon.”
Dicky pushed a smirk out to one side of his face. “Must be nice being young, having all those brains. But you’re not half so smart as you thinks you is.”
Bryce smirked back at his uncle. “Smart enough to know you’d be better off melting down the stove and using the cannon to have fires instead.”
“Smart enough for that to be sure,” said Dicky, arching his back; “a woodstove’s no thicker than the tinfoil inside a pack of smokes, but not smart enough to know that Lundy hides a case of beer in his garage in case of emergencies.”
“Yes sir, for all kinds of emergencies. Floods. Earthquakes, or two good fellas with grand plans who don’t got no beers to bring it all together. All Lundy needs is a good emergency for waking him up. Even a bad emergency that sounds good at the time would be good enough for Lundy. He’s not particu-lar. But, I don’t know ... I can’t think of none right now. No emergencies at all. Certainly not no emergencies to do with cannons.”
Birds were yawning noisily in the trees around them.
Dicky peered out over the harbour. “No sir, I thought there for a minute that I had a dilly of a yarn about stealing some cannons to make a few dollars off of them, but now I knows the error of my ways. You’ve convinced me, Bryce ol’ buddy. Stealing cannons, it simply ain’t possible. I ain't keen enough to know what they’re teaching you up there in that school, but I guess it’s working, because you got me convinced — and I’m hard to teach, I am. That’s what the ol’ nuns used to tell me mother.”
“Yes sir. You’re one smart lad. We would need a dozen stout men to move a cannon, probably a backhoe with a driver, a crane with an operator, and the man from the Department of Works who oversees all the stealing done in the city, just to take a one of them. After a crew that size got their cuts there wouldn’t be much left of our little cannon for us, and hardly enough beer to wet our lips for that matter. Lundy don’t keep no more than twelve around at any one time ... a good measure, that. So no buddy, we can’t be at no cannons. Not this night anyway.”
Reconsidering in the light of new information, Bryce shuffled. “We could —”
“Nope, nope,” said Dickie, “I’m already sold, smart feller. I think it’s time we should be moseying inside now before Rose sees you’re out and strings me up.”
“We could call Lundy. I got my cell.”
“Well I hope you knows Lundy’s number, and can figure out where he stashes his case, because I’m going to bed. Goodnight, me boy.”
With that, Dicky took a circuitous route across the street and disappeared up the concrete front steps of the house. The door slammed – it had been sticky, opening with suction, for years – and Bryce heard Dicky thump over the coffee table in the living room.
His mother’s light flicked to life in her bedroom window, first a dull yellow, then brighter.
Bryce looked out over the water one last time. A little blue fishing boat was making towards the narrow mouth of the harbour and the choppier cradles of the ocean. Bryce could see the colour of the morning now, the dark green bushes of Signal Hill, the white froth candles of the far waves. The little boat squeezed between the rocks of the harbour mouth, raising higher with each passing second against the lightening sky. Down at the docks, the thrum of huge motors was building.
Bryce picked up the bottle they’d perched on the sidewalk. He threw it into the bushes and sighed. No way to sneak in unseen now, not with Dicky stumbling about the living room like a frightened bird. Bryce waited a few moments for the light in his mother’s window to darken, but it never did.
Born of good ideas which just didn't quite pan out, they sit in the literary junk drawer for months and years. Every so often, in moments of boredom or with pulses of meandering creativity, they're taken out and turned over again, and they're never quite BAD, failed stories, they just don't quite deliver on what they originally advertised.
Inevitably, looking at the story again, it's thought, Well, this isn't so bad. A few words get added here and there to strengthen images, dialogue gets a bit of a tweak. I'll just make this chap a bit sassier. Generally, any alterations are chalked up as being telltale for personal improvements in the craft since you last looked.
Yet ... something about the story still doesn't quite work, and again it goes back into the dusty drawer with old bits of overheard conversations and correspondence which you once thought was clever.
For me, The Cannons is my failed story. I have bigger failures, but The Cannons is the most successful failure. The other failures don't even have the luxury of a literary junk drawer. They're bricked up behind a wall down in my dank literary basement, never to see the light of day.
I don't dislike The Cannons, but something about it never quite works for me either. I wrote it for the Cuffer Anthology Contest in St. John's a few years back. The contest basically wants a pretty written advertisement for the island, geographic masturbation if you will, but when I think about Newfoundland I think of the widening separation between the generations, the grizzled old beards with hands like baseball mitts down on George Street passing the pink Republic of Newfoundland headscarves holding the ipods. I wanted to reflect upon that in some small way, but the constraints of the original context -- 1200 words -- might have squeezed it a little too much.