This story was selected for Best Small Fictions 2021
Grinding straw between crooked teeth, he spat in a can he was angling to have replaced, tipped discreetly at volunteers scurrying past. He muttered, hobbling to the cooler next to trays of food he’d been instructed not to touch—hadn’t had an assistant in years, and didn’t need one, but could recall decades he’d never asked for a drink. It’d allowed him to do what he did best: strum, blow, and holler timeless rebel-songs about railroads and voyageurs. Some called him the pillar of his generation: a fifty-year career spanning coffeehouses to halls on most continents, periods ranging from a dabble with the blues to an ill-fated foray into punk rock, and more women than he’d known existed during his youth on the farm. Never married, miraculously childless, he’d been a loyal servant to the road but escaped after an obscure festival appearance—done as a favour to a prospective business partner—went something his old assistant had called viral. He called it cracking the Wild Turkey a little early, but quiet years followed till bad investments in two breweries, a minor league hockey team, and an unscrupulous money guy forced him back on a circuit where he was now Grandpa’s music—playing a Canada Day picnic, and the cooler was empty. He kicked it, hard enough to feel vindicated without causing a fuss.
Ready, Mr. Coffinberry?
A teenager stood behind him, peering through thick glasses. Tapping her clipboard.
Call me Jay.
I’d like another drink.
No time, she said. People are waiting.
He peeked around the stage. From where he stood, folks nibbling salad and hotdogs seemed pleased continuing their days without ballads about caribou migration. She cleared her throat, and he lifted his guitar, slung his rack around his neck, pocketed his harps; she led to the wing, held up a hand for him to stop, then pointed at the emcee in the opposite wing, who burst onstage.
Heya folks. Tom Edwards here, from your KCLA Morning Medicine. Really honoured to be your host this evening. Nothing going on, anyways. No, I mean it. Wouldn’t be here if I had a single excuse.
He laughed, mugging for the unresponsive crowd.
I kid, folks. Come on. Hmm, lemme see here. The festivities are brought to you by Banana Split Bonanza, Hank’s Collision, and Lucy’s Café. What’s wrong, couldn’t nail down Horton’s?
He chortled, scanning his card.
So, he said, the reason we’re all here. You know, besides the grill skills of the Optimist Club. Am I right? Give those guys and gals a round of applause.
A few clapped half-heartedly.
Tough crowd, Jay said. The girl shushed him.
Put your hands together for the Titan of Trad, the one, the only…who, I must admit, I thought had died twenty years ago. Glad to see you’re okay, man. Ladies and gents, Jay Coffinberry.
The girl whispered, You got till sundown, then shoved him onstage.
Uh, hey, he said, adjusting the mic. Name’s Jay Coffinberry, from Davidson, Saskatchewan. Don’t worry, won’t be Coffinberry much. Mostly singing.
Crickets chirped. People gnashed egg salad.
He launched a tribute to the beavers’ sacrifice in the fur trade, fingerpicking the elegiac intro, through pounding verses, a rousing chorus, soaring bridge. Hammering the final chords, he blew a tailing screech, ending sharply, expecting a mild rumble from the mesmerized crowd, at least. He heard his own breath, an offstage yawn.
This next song’s about another true Canadian beast, he drawled, tuning his guitar. Got the idea driving cross-country in sixty-two, when I stopped in Wawa for fuel and seeds. All I could afford back then.
He smiled sadly, strumming the opening chords to the highest-charting song he ever recorded. Halfway through the second verse a child squealed, inciting three others, then two dogs. He finished but skipped the banter; they stared at phones or chatted, anyways. Eyeing the darkening sky, he had a choice. Soon they’d kill his mic, cut his piddly cheque, and kick his ass down the road. He could squeeze in two or three hits—a reasonable choice by a wily vet who knew how to work an audience—but this wasn’t the sixties, and these weren’t flower-haired folkies. He had an ace, so experimental he’d never recorded it—but if there was ever a time, this was it. Choosing to claim what the road usually took, he tuned up, switched his G for a C, blew a few notes till he heard it, then leaned to the mic.
Gonna finish with a special one. Inspired by a big prairie presence. He paused, breathing cool evening air, breeze tumbling off the waterfront. Embracing silence.
This is Diefenbaker.
It began: an opus, epic, ten-minute rollercoaster of rifle-fire harp, blowing till his gums bled. Knobby fingers stretched to unreachable chords, cramping, fearful he’d be forced to stop but pushed, fought, desperate to finish. He couldn’t hear chatting, laughing, crying, barking—he was young, wowing Innsbruck and Wellington, putting Canada on the map like a lifetime ago. He slammed the strings, fingers dancing, harp wailing—eyes closed, but when they opened the sun had set.
Fireworks burst, crackled. The silent crowd shuffled to face the waterfront, away from him. He played on, so close to the end, but his mic was cut. The stage lights died. He finished, muted, in the dark, then slunk offstage. A sharp, sparkly pop, and the crowd oohed.