The first time I spoke with Ray Kowalski, he punched me.
I'd been ready, or at least had thought so, but he caught me off guard and knocked me backwards. Behind me, my friends were laughing; I swore at them, but that only made them louder.
"Hey!" Ray cuffed me on the side of the head—only a tap, really, but no less embarrassing to a boy of 15. "You kiss your mother with that mouth?" The laughter redoubled, then cut off suddenly when Ray glanced over my shoulder at the crowd of boys. "You guys—you shut it, okay? You'll get your turn when I'm finished with Mr. Tough Guy, here." He looked back at me, head cocked and arms spread in invitation, and I flew at him, enraged and humiliated and desperate to regain my honor.
I missed, of course, once and then again, swinging wildly and never connecting. Ray dodged and ducked, staying just out of my reach, until I stopped, panting, and let my arms fall to my sides.
"Okay," he said. "So, okay—you kind of suck, on account of you're about twelve years old—"
"Fifteen!" I shouted over a chorus of snickers, and Ray waved his hands dismissively.
"Fifteen, five, whatever—the point is, I can see your punches coming three weeks ahead of time. Like, okay," he said, stepping closer, grasping my shoulder and my elbow and gently moving my arm through the motions of a punch. "That's how you're doing it, right? Only it looks like this—" he stepped back again, miming a blow at the air next to my head, "and if you watch my shoulder, see? It's all right there."
"Yeah," I said, "I guess?"
He raised his eyebrows at me. "So, come on, you gonna try it again or what?" I stared at him, and he grinned. "Come on, kid—hit me, already."
So I did.
I learned later that the boxing classes had been the idea of Mrs. Martin, the head of the Community Activity Committee, who'd learned of Ray's boxing background and asked if he'd mind running a few classes for the local boys. Ray had refused, initially, saying that he wasn't good enough to teach, that he only did it to keep in shape. Over time, though, his afternoon "practices" gathered more and more boys, and eventually girls, until he was teaching his "sweet science" to classes of fifteen, four days a week.
If it had been a class, if we'd had to make firm plans and consult our parents, we would never have done it. Watching the new guy—for so Ray Kowalski remained, even many years after his arrival in town—was fair game, however, and if he took the time to show us a few things, well, there wasn't anything weird about that. We hung around (we were always good at that), and we learned, and if sometimes Ray yelled at Mary for coming in late, or gave Joey a hard time for smoking before class, well, whatever.
We could always leave, and so we never did.
"I'm worried about the Yank, son."
"Excuse me?" Benton keeps his face turned toward the dishes in the sink, so that his father won't see his expression.
"Huh?" Ray asks, on the other side of the kitchen. "What'd I do?"
"He's fidgety," Robert Fraser simply talks over Ray's question, as he usually does. "Well. Fidgetier than usual."
"Nothing, Ray," Benton says, turning to smile at Ray. "You simply seem a little—energetic."
"Yeah, sure, fidgety, whatever," Ray shrugs. "Just—you know the kids at the community center, the ones Debbie was saying maybe I could teach to fight?" He smiles, rubbing his shoulder. "They came up to me today, asked me what I was doing, skinny guy like me punching a bag." His grin widens and he leans back against the counter. "Seriously, Frase, you could have warned me that even the teenagers up here are built like brick shithouses."
"I hope that they didn't do you any harm, Ray," Benton says, but Ray seems fine—if anything, he's moving more easily than usual, bouncing on the balls of his feet, turning quickly around the small kitchen. Benton turns back to the dishes; the big pot will want to soak overnight.
"Nah, don't worry," Ray grins. "They're big, but I'm fast—got a few good ones on them."
Benton raises an eyebrow at Ray. "So instead of the classes Mrs. Martin proposed, you simply...started a fight?"
"It makes sense, Benton," his father puts in, nodding approvingly. "Boys that age are like wild animals—you have to tame them slowly, gain their confidence first."
Benton is uncertain, but Ray nods. "Exactly! I picked a fight with the leader, then showed him a few moves, which got the rest of them interested; I figure I'll go back tomorrow, see who's there, show them a little bit more." Benton glances between Ray and his father, frowning (had Ray been responding to Fraser père or fils? Only one possible answer, and yet—) but Ray's grin is contagious, and Benton smiles back, then moves forward to embrace him.
The dishes can wait, and his father—as usual at moments like these—disappears.
Benton Fraser had been back in town for some time before we ever met. Oh, I saw him around town, picking up onions at the store or tipping his hat to Ms. Gunderson at the library. I was, despite my anger, more or less a good kid, and he was The Mountie, and so I never crossed paths with him in his professional capacity.
And Benton Fraser didn't seem to have much else, for the longest time.
I knew, of course, that Ray (Mr. Kowalski, my mother would admonish me, but every time I tried he'd just make me do pushups, so Ray he was and Ray he remained) was living with the Mountie, out in some old cabin in the back beyond. I knew, and yet I didn't know, not until the storm hit.
It was a bad one, bad even for us, and for once I didn't need my mother's phone call to keep me in the building. Ray had stopped the lesson halfway through and set us all to running laps around the gym while he talked with Mrs. Martin, the two of them glancing out at the gathering snowdrifts.
"Okay, so," he said, leaving Mrs. Martin to the telephone and the window. "Class is canceled on account of there's a big damn snowstorm coming in, but you're not dismissed yet, so hold your horses." He glanced around at the group, considering. "I know Robbie and James live here in town—are your folks home?" Robbie nodded and James shrugged. "Right, okay, anybody else?" A few other boys raised their hands or tipped their heads, and Ray nodded. "Okay, greatness: you guys go talk to Debbie, she'll get you home." They grumbled and dragged their feet, and Ray raised his eyebrows at me. "Robbie, get them moving, will you?"
"Come on, guys, let's go," I said, wading into the crowd, grabbing Sandy Michaels by the collar of his shirt when he tried to slip away. I delivered them all to Mrs. Martin, who pulled her head away from the phone and smiled.
"Thanks, Robbie," she said. "Can you get them ready to go? Their folks should be getting here soon, and I don't want them to wait any longer than they have to." So I helped them all find coats and gloves and hats and, once adults started showing up, parents.
When the crowd was dispersed, I turned back to the main room, only to find Ray standing with a much smaller group of kids—the ones, I realized, who lived on the north side of town.
"Fraser's already been," he said. I had seen Constable Fraser, in fact, but in the tumult of missing mittens and fussing children, had let him pass through the crowd and out of my thoughts. "Took the jeep and the south-side kids. He'll be back in a bit, and then we'll drop you guys."
It was more than a "bit" before Constable Fraser returned, however, and Ray paced the room anxiously, miming the occasional punch at the bag in the corner. When the constable finally arrived, Ray was at the door before he'd even finished shaking the snow from his boots, both hands on Fraser's shoulders, looking intently into his face. They spoke softly to one another for a moment or two, and I saw Fraser smile. It wasn't the kind of smile he'd had when he came to school to talk about the RCMP, though; this was more like the smile my mum gave my dad when he came back from the oil fields.
"Okay," I said, turning towards the little kids, "let's get your stuff."
"I'm not sure about this, son."
Benton sighs, resting his head against the wall of his father's cabin. "To what, precisely, are you objecting?"
His father snorts. "Take your pick, boy! I'll admit, you and the yank get on better than I'd have thought, but raising a child together—well," he finishes, "it's not exactly the usual thing, is it."
"I hardly think that you're in a position to talk about what's usual," Benton points out, turning around. "You're dead, after all."
His father waves that point away; death, like so many other things, only matters to Robert Fraser when he wishes it to. "Still, you have to admit, Benton—"
"What?" Benton crosses his arms over his chest, squares himself to meet his father's doubts head-on. "What do I have to admit, dad?" He raises his eyebrows. "You don't object to Ray, surely? Last night you were saying how much you appreciate his attitude toward the criminal classes." It had been a trying experience, arguing with two people at once without letting on, but Benton has had a great deal of experience in the matter.
"No, no," Fraser Sr shakes his head. "He seems to be settling in quite well, actually." After three years, Benton would say that Ray is rather comprehensively settled in, but that's beside the point.
Benton persists. "And it can't be the idea of children that bothers you, because just last week you were talking about how much you'd like a grandson." He's not sure what his father expects to do with a child, who most likely wouldn't be able to see his grandfather anyways, but that, too, is tangential.
"Well, that is," his father blusters for a moment, then comes out with it: "Are you sure you're ready, son?"
"No," Benton says, finally. "No, I'm not—" There's a knock at the door, and he pauses, turning back. "Ray?"
"Fraser?" Ray's worried, although he's making an effort not to let it show.
"Just a moment, Ray," Benton calls, facing his father again. "As I was saying—"
"Benton, you don't have to—"
"Yes," he interrupts, "yes, I do." He takes a deep breath. "Am I sure I'm ready? No. In fact, the idea scares me more than I'd have thought. But—" he looks his father in the eye. "But I love Ray, and I trust him, and I'm willing to try."
"Frase?" Benton spins around to face Ray, who has opened the door just enough to poke his head in. "Sorry, sorry—just, are you gonna want dinner soon? Cause if you two are gonna be in here for much longer, I'm just gonna eat." He waves at Benton—no, at Benton's father, who, when Benton turns his head, appears to be waving back.
Benton's life has never been ordinary, but this is—well.
"Fraser?" Ray looks worried, and Benton gropes for the words to reassure him.
"We're done here, Kowalski." At his father's hand on his shoulder, Benton turns; his father looks at him for a moment, then nods in what seems to be approval. "Just had to give Benton here my blessing." He hesitates, then looks at Ray again. "You too, er. Son."
"Um, thanks. Sir." Ray nods, then steps back from the door, opening it further and beckoning Benton forward.
Benton looks between his father and his husband, shakes his head, and steps through the door.
It was Ray I turned to, of course, on a spring afternoon when Inuvik almost seemed hospitable. Tuesdays were the beginner class, by that point, but Ray didn't blink when I showed up, even though I towered over the twelve year olds.
"Okay, great," he said, when the clock had ticked a few minutes past four. "Looks like we've got everybody—" He frowned. "Hang on, anybody seen Sarah?"
"Oh!" Jake Diamond looked up. "She can't come, because she has to watch her brother while her mom's in Yellowknife, and Jessie was going to do it, only—"
"Only Jessie broke her ankle, right, okay." He nodded. "So no Sarah—Jake, you'll show her what we've been doing?" Jake rolled his eyes, but Ray just rolled his back. "What, you think you can't do it?" Personally, I thought that Sarah didn't need help from anybody, but eventually Jake nodded, and the class began.
Ray took them through a few basic moves, hitting and blocking and dodging in slow motion. I was his sparring partner when he needed to demonstrate things, and walked up and down the line of kids as they practiced, correcting their posture and their stance. Afterwards, I helped him haul the mats back into a pile in the corner, the two of us panting slightly with effort.
"Gonna have to open some windows in here soon," Ray said. "So, you coming up to the cabin?"
I shrugged. "If you don't mind."
"Yeah, sure," he said. "You know the kid loves you." He grinned, pushing the doors open and stepping out onto the street. "Did I tell you what happened yesterday?" As we made our way to the jeep, and from there out to the cabin, he told me about young Dorothy's artistic efforts in front of the cabin.
"See, there," he said, as the jeep rattled to a stop. "A freaking hamburger, right?" It was indeed a hamburger, painstakingly sculpted from snow, about the size of a small child. "Fraser blames Dief, of course," he says. "And, you know, he was out there with her all day, so—hey, speak of the devil!" The front door of the cabin had opened as we walked towards the house, and Ray's daughter shot across the packed snow to leap into his arms.
"Ra-ay," she said. She glanced over his shoulder at me and waved; I waved back. "That's not a nice thing to say."
"Aww, you know I don't mean it, Dot," he said, carrying her up the stairs. "It's just a, whatchacallit, a figure of speech. Hey, Frase," he added, handing the squirming girl over to the man in the doorway. "What, now we're letting her outside without a coat?"
"I hope Jessie's ankle heals quickly," was Fraser's only response. "Here, Dorothy, let's see if we can get dinner started." The two of them headed off into the kitchen, and Ray and I settled on the couch.
"So," he said. "Talk."
I laid it out for him: the school, the scholarship, the rapidly-approaching deadline. The urge to go, the pressure to stay—I hardly had to tell him of those. After five years in Inuvik, Ray had heard all of the stories of local kids gone "down south" for fame and fortune, finding only exclusion and uncertainty.
"It's a tough one," he said, when I'd finished. "I mean, Chicago's a great city, and I can give you some names, people who'll help you out, no problem—but that's not why you're here." I shook my head; though I knew Ray could offer me the resources of Chicago, that wasn't why I was on his couch. "Far as that goes," he sighed. "I don't know, Robbie." He shook his head. "Could be great, could be rotten, and there's no way to know until you're there."
"Yeah." We sat in silence for a moment or two, listening to the quiet sounds of Fraser explaining breadmaking to Dot.
"Thing is," Ray said, slowly, looking into the kitchen, "thing is, sometimes you don't know how it's gonna work out, but you try it anyway, because—" he shrugged, then seemed to catch himself. "Who knows why? Because you're stupid, maybe."
He grinned at me. "Brave, stupid, what's the difference?" He looked at me, scratching the side of his face. "That answer your question?"
I looked in to the kitchen, at Fraser's hand on Dot's shoulder, and I knew that he had.
There's a thump, and Benton turns from his book to see his daughter from the armpits up, dangling from the back of the couch. He raises an eyebrow, and she drops to the ground, coming around the side to fling herself up to the middle of the couch.
"Hey, watch the feet," Ray says from the other end, grabbing the offending limbs and tickling them gently; there's a brief scuffle, which Benton knows better than to try to resolve, and then Dorothy is perched securely in Ray's lap, her small hands holding his wrists to his sides.
"Dad, can I go play with grandpa Bob?"
Benton looks past her at Ray, who shakes his head quickly; clearly he has no more idea than Benton what is going on.
Ray takes the bull by the metaphorical horns. "With who, honey?"
Dorothy wiggles in his lap, unimpressed. "With grandpa Bob!" she says, impatient with her parents. "In the closet!" She looks back at Benton. "He said I could as long as I asked first, so I'm asking, so can I?"
"...yes," Benton says, finding no better response. "Yes, go ahead."
"But be back by six for dinner," Ray calls as she pelts down the hallway. "Jesus," he adds, once she's safely out of earshot. "I have to say, I was not expecting this."
Benton looks at him, at their house, at the picture of Dorothy on the mantle and her crayons on the table.
"Which part, exactly, Ray?"
And they laugh, and they go make chili.
Gagnon, Robert. Unfamiliar Season: A Memoir of North. Muskrat Jamboree Press, Yellowknife, 2011.