He labored his pale and lanky frame painful step by step from the men’s locker room to the hot springs. Dowagers hump, crooked neck, swollen knees and flaccid muscles suggested an old man, but he wasn’t. He used an old-fashioned cane of bent and varnished wood. His face was of a much younger man, a basketball player in his prime perhaps. He was tall, seven and a half feet by the pool depth markers. Tall and blond, he could have been one of those Poles or Russians who play in the NBA. But his body was not that of an athlete, but a freak of nature. And breasts. He had breasts under his blue T-shirt; a hormone imbalance no doubt. Eyes of both sexes found his chest and recoiled, afraid even to talk among themselves about this giant entering their pool, their world.
His slow progress was watched by the dozen or so people around the pool, collective breath held, eyes averted, furtive glances, inwardly both hurting for him and wishing he would go away. He paused at the shallow stairs leading to the pool, changed hands with the cane and grasped the polished stainless steel of the railing with one hand, then bending to the rough concrete of the pool’s edge with the other, everything in slow motion.
I looked at his legs; his femurs were as long as my legs to the hip, his arms hung long and at an odd angle to his shoulders. Swimming goggles hung from his twisted, thrust-forward neck. Time slowed, the watchers still frozen in thought and fear, “What if he wants to talk to me?”
He laid his cane on the pool lip and settled slowly onto the sitting ledge near Claire and me. He turned to survey the pool. Heads turned away, eyes averted. He found mine and I smiled, “Hi.” Then Claire said hi and we were talking small talk.
“It’s been a long travel since that last campground,” He shook his head. ‘We been on the road all day.”
“Where are you traveling?”
“We’re coming back from a family reunion in Alberta. We thought we’d stop at these springs.” His long fingers found his cane, wrapped around it, released it, patted the pool side. “We’ve come by here lots of times, but never stopped, so we decided we would this time.”
“Do you like the hot water?” I asked.
“I’ve got some arthritis in my knee. It just gives out on me at the oddest times. It’s something about where the two parts rub together and they can’t fix it.” He made a knee-joint with his fist and palm. “I’ve got a brace that comes up to here.” He pointed mid thigh. “They make a shorter one for athletes, but I’m not an athlete, so they made a long one for me.”
He didn’t mention the condition that had given him such a large and weakened body. At one point he told us he was born in 1959; that makes him aged 38. He is a giant because something went wrong before birth. I later saw him walking between his parents, and they barely came to his waist, and at an advanced age of mid-seventies, they had to walk slowly to stay with him.
After we had recognized him, and indicated we wanted to talk, he made sure he didn’t lose our attention by keeping a steady dialog going, and he did have a very interesting story to tell.
“We had quite a family reunion, I tell you. It was really something.” He rolled those pale blue eyes back. “My cousin got his name in the paper. My boy cousin. There was a wedding too, and that was my girl cousin that got married”
“After the wedding they had a reception and they were all camped out, planning on an all night party I figure. We wanted them to come over to my aunt’s place, but they already had a place all picked out and were planning to party.” He shrugged to loosen his neck, and rubbed his knee with the hot water. His skin was very white, almost albino under the pale green water.
“Everything was going good, until the hard rock came in, and they started to mix the booze and the alcohol. (I think he meant drugs) Then it got bad and my cousin got his name in the paper.”
I wanted to ask what his cousin did to get his name in the paper, but waited.
“The wedding was real nice, and my cousin, the girl one, had a pretty dress and everything went good. And my cousin, the boy cousin, was dressed up and acting good and everything. And then he ruined her wedding and got his name in the papers.”
“What happened?” I finally asked.
“It was in the Edmonton papers and the Calgary Herald too,” he said, and looked around the pool. “There was a big fight.”
What I figured.
“My cousin killed somebody and got his name in the papers.”
Not what I thought!
“And when we got the papers it was on page seven. My cousin goes and kills somebody, and it isn’t even on the front page.” He rolled his eyes back again. “Page seven.” He leaned forward, “My cousin, the girl one, won’t even speak to her brother, won’t even go to the jail to see him.”
“They say he’ll get 25 or 30 years for it. It’s bad. There was a fight. He got jealous or something. He picked up a beer bottle and swept his arm down a whole line of bottles and broke them, and then swung it back,” he showed how the jagged broken bottle arched toward the victim with his cousin’s hard backhand. “Right across his throat.” He slashed a finger from ear to ear. “Bled to death on the table. Ruined my cousin’s wedding.”
It’s been a big week for James; most weeks aren’t. He told us about the small hill behind his house that he manages to climb most every day. There is a pile of concrete blocks and he can rest and look out over the town of Enderby, BC. The short slow walk with his cane is perhaps the highlight of his day. He watches television, listens to the radio. His is a small world; has been always, will be always.
I am reminded of an Andrew Wyeth painting, Christina’s World: A field of dry broom-sedge slopes to a gray farm house; all is pale and lonely; a woman crawls in the field, she leans on one elbow and looks to an indistinct distance. I imagine that as James’ world too.
When we left, a woman came forward to talk with him, others quit staring and he became one of them, there for the healing pools, no longer a spectacle. I hope it was because we spoke to him first, welcomed him.
After a long stop in Revelstoke for groceries, lunch and a look at the Railroad museum, we turned south on a hot day for a surprisingly hilly ride to Halcyon Hot Springs, with a free ferry ride across the Columbia River (Upper Arrow Lake). The pools are clothing optional, Steve and I opted no and Claire yes. Shy girl. Had a long soak and then camped in the woods.