Vancouver

Nick Earls

An extract from the forthcoming July novella
No. 3 in the Wisdom Tree series

Vancouver_CROPPED

In the year that the Super Bowl turned eight and I turned ten, my father came home one night convinced he had bought the exclusive Australian rights to American football from a man he had met in a bar.

It was late when he woke me and I was deep asleep. He was sitting on my bed and light from the hall was falling across the posters on my wall. His hand was on my shoulder. There was stale smoke on his skin, and the salt-and-mineral smell of sweat. It was summer, and pubs were never air-conditioned in those days.

He spoke quickly and loudly from the start, as if he was still talking over bar noise, or needed the ideas out in a hurry. He was already showing me a pass in the American style, but I had lost the thread and knew I wouldn’t get it back till morning, or another day, when I was properly awake and his plan was less new and he could take me through it one step at a time.

‘I’ve got something for you,’ he said. It was an empty cigar box. ‘It’d be great to keep things in.’

I had no idea what things, but he was my father and he had woken me in the middle of a school night, so I assumed he was right, and that it was important for me to have it. I still do and I still keep things in it, small things that come along incidentally, things I know I don’t want to lose. It’s Spanish cedar, and still carries a faint smell of cedar wood and unburnt tobacco. The smell was stronger back then. In the dim light I could just make out the picture on the outside: a smiling woman with a polka-dotted scarf and a basket of leaves in front of rows of healthy green plants.

I can’t say what put George Darrow in that bar on that night with his box of Cubans and a letter on American Football League letterhead assigning him the licence for the American game ‘throughout all of Australasia and the South Pacific’. He was a tall Texan with a lone-star belt buckle, and every black-and-white Western in my father’s childhood had taught him a handshake meant business with such men, and could be trusted implicitly.

George Darrow had the opportunity of a lifetime within his reach, apparently. All he needed was a partner with a head for business and some cash to float the venture. His modelling showed the finances hitting break-even in year two and profits galore by year five.

When he came to our house he wore a shoe-string tie with a silver clasp and he called my mother ma’am. He had a face with more folds than an old leather glove and teeth that suggested a childhood a long way from dentistry, an epic Texan childhood. He gave me a set of collectors’ cards with pictures of American football players on them and he told me that, once my father had sold the franchises, there would be Australian cards just like them, for teams like the Adelaide Alamos and the Sydney Titans. The players had names like Daryle Lamonica and Cookie Gilchrist. I took the cards to school. None of my friends had ever heard of them.

On his second visit, George Darrow brought a quarterback, an impossibly tall Minnesotan called Knut Knutsen, who seemed to be ours to keep. ‘Noot Nudsen’ was how his name sounded when he was introduced to us, and the Ks came as a shock to me when mail started arriving for him a few weeks later.

Knut had to duck to come in through our front door, and then almost every other door, though eventually I saw him broach some high enough that he could get through by angling his head to the side. Knut Knutsen always walked in a way that seemed to apologise for being inconveniently tall.

He turned up with a battered brown suitcase and, when he sat down for dinner, his knees bumped against the underside of the table and shook the cutlery. My mother moved from the chair opposite so that he could stretch his legs out. He was in his early twenties, though I didn’t see age clearly then. He was an adult and a boy and a giant, all at once. He had military hair and his hands were as big as dinner plates. He had a strong jaw and freckles on his face that looked drawn on. I stared. I know I did because I was told several times not to. But he hardly spoke and I thought it was okay to stare because he wasn’t the same as the rest of us and would be as used to staring as a bearded lady or a rubber man. I thought he was another gift, like the cards, and I wondered what George Darrow would bring next.

From that night, for more than a year, Knut Knutsen lived in the granny flat under our house. No bed was big enough for him, so he slept on the floor, on the longest mattress available, with his feet sticking over the edge. My mother bought foam from Clark Rubber, cut a footrest, attached it with velcro tabs and altered and resewed sheets so that they would fit. She made as little of this as possible, acting as though we constructed beds from scratch all the time at our place. Knut needed no attention drawn to his size, she told me.

It was a giant’s bed though. There was no arguing with that. And it was under our house.

Knut had started life in the Midwest, on a small farm that hit hard times more often than not. When I read The Grapes of Wrath at school later, it was Knut I thought about—Knut in black and white, folded up like a collapsed tent and fitted in the back of an old truck making its way through the dust bowl.

In high school he was pushed towards basketball, but football was his dream. He could throw like no one else. College scholarships were looming. He had the grades but it was his arm they wanted. One night, after he had been instrumental in a big win, throwing one impossible pass after another, he and some teammates did laps of their small town in a convertible. They passed around a bottle of bourbon. The others chanted Knut’s name and the ground announcer’s call of his longest pass: ‘Fifty yards…Sixty yards…Seventy yards… Touch down!’ Knut was a regular hero in that car, not a giant. As he stood up in the back, two teammates anchoring each leg, steadying himself to throw a pass—nowhere, anywhere, up into the Milky Way—they drove under a bridge and his hand struck the stonework, breaking several small bones and dislocating his shoulder.

It was the hand that people focused on that night, since it had hit the bridge—a bridge a loaded truck could pass under—but it was the shoulder that never mended.

The scholarships were lost, and the prospects of college. After that, Knut Knutsen was forever trying to get back the shoulder he once had, as if that might let him pick up the threads and return to the path he wanted to be on. But that’s a later assessment of it. All I saw at the time was what was in front of me, Knut on his back on the bare floor under our house, bench-pressing the concrete double laundry sink that had been replaced by machines and new white tubs when Poseidon came through.

Outside the door to Knut’s flat there was room for two cars, but at least one spot was usually empty. Knut would place a flattened cardboard box down on the oil stain left years before by an old Holden, raise the concrete sinks onto two neat piles of bricks and then lie beneath it doing three sets of twenty reps. When he wasn’t around and the sinks were over to one side on the floor, I tried to shift them myself. They were as immovable as a building.

He let me stand there while he lifted and even recruited me to count, so that he could focus on lifting. From my point of view it was a part of a house he was hoisting, repeatedly, a sizeable part of a house. If he had jacked up the Benz, slid under it and bench-pressed it, too, I wouldn’t have been surprised.

This was all in the hope that his busted shoulder might one day come good, that enough muscle would do it, but the problem had never been an insufficiency of muscle.

I talked while I was counting, possibly incessantly. I got into the habit of ticking off lifts with my fingers so that I wouldn’t have to say or think numbers. I ran theories by Knut, sought his views on all kinds of things, while he patiently grunted one- or two-word responses and built up a sheen on his bare chest.

I had an illustrated book on the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World and I pictured him as the fallen Colossus of Rhodes under our own house in the suburbs. The Colossus, a rendering of Helios, the titan-god of the sun, built to mark a victory over Cyprus, stood intact for only fifty-four years and then lay broken where it fell for more than eight centuries. Even broken, it was still a wonder. Travellers made long journeys to see the pieces for themselves, and to look up at the sky and picture this giant over the harbour. ‘You have to see it,’ they would tell their friends on returning home. ‘You have to see it and imagine.’ Only the tallest of men could wrap his arms all the way around the fallen thumb.

And then we would reach twenty for the third time and Knut would stand, his head between the beams, brushing the floorboards. The Colossus of Rhodes.

I mentioned my seven wonders book to him once, without even meaning to. His head was out of view under the concrete sinks, my fingers were counting, my mouth was rattling on. I talked to Knut like I talked to no one else. He was my imaginary friend, but real. From beneath the sinks I heard the names of three wonders, but then he got stuck.

‘What’s up with that?’ he said, the words almost a grunt as he heaved the concrete up for the eighteenth time. ‘Everyone should know the wonders.’

He borrowed the book from me and, in the following week, brought two more on the same topic home from the local library. We discussed them in some detail. We discussed everything in detail—everything that crossed my mind or his. That’s how it seemed. I would race home from school to do it.

Knut was studying by correspondence in his spare time, of which he had plenty. I’m not certain of the contractual arrangement, but I think he was on a retainer and free board, on condition that he make himself available any time my father needed him for a sales pitch. They made some trips interstate, but mostly stuck close to home, my father working his local business and Rotary contracts.

Knut’s room was directly beneath mine, and light from his desk—a six-seater dining table, bought second-hand—would filter up through gaps between my floorboards. Until then, I had been one of those kids who was afraid of what might be under the bed when the light went out, but that went away when I had a giant awake under the house.

He was doing a BA, majoring in writing. Whenever he wasn’t reading, he was working

on short stories, scrawling them in carpenter’s pencil into a journal. No regular pencil was built to suit his hands—he told me he’d outgrown them in the fourth grade and hadn’t written neatly since. He typed his second drafts on a typewriter using only his index fingers, his head bent low, watching each stroke carefully all the way so as not to strike four keys at once. It was a good thing, he told me, this enforced lack of speed. It made him weigh up every word and type only the ones he truly needed. He would draft and redraft, the stories often becoming smaller as he went, and then he would send them to America, surface mail, to his course supervisor or to magazines—Atlantic Monthly and the New Yorker, and the Paris Review, which wasn’t actually in Paris any more, but in someone’s Manhattan apartment.

The way he told it, New York was a Cary Grant-style place—men in grey suits and hats, with mid-twentieth-century movie voices, sitting around stuffing pipes and frowning about Hemingway. There was no writer Knut thought about more than Hemingway. He carried a paperback edition of The Snows of Kilimanjaro and Other Stories in one of his pockets, its spine hanging like a loose hinge, most of its corners turned over and fuzzed. In his suitcase he had an article clipped from a Time magazine from the fifties, an interview with Hemingway in which the writer sounded as cantankerous as anyone could have hoped for, and as brilliant in his observations about writing. Knut could quote whole paragraphs. He was ready for all the literary talk New York might throw at him, when he eventually got there. Meanwhile he would work on his craft, wear each pencil to a nub, punch each typewriter ribbon dry, night after night under our house, in a haze of smoke from mosquito coils.

I don’t know how the subject of giants came up, since I wasn’t supposed to mention it. There’s every chance I did. Knut found and told me giant stories, but his giants weren’t dangerous lumbering types stamping their way through fairytales, not many of them anyway. His giants were thoughtful, or got by on their wits, or were questing for something, some kind of peace. They helped people who needed it. They often arrived as the perfect solution to a crisis larger than human scale.

He told me about Finn McCool, the Irish giant who built a road into the sea and who fooled a particular Scottish giant again and again. The Scottish giant was bigger, and stronger, but Finn McCool always had a way of getting the better of him.

They first met when the Scottish giant crossed the Irish Sea to hunt down Finn McCool and show him who was boss. But Finn was much loved in Ireland and got word that the Scottish giant was coming. So Finn and his wife, a woman of regular size, baked two loaves of bread, one a normal loaf and one with an iron griddle inside it. And they turned Finn’s giant bed into a cot, dressed him up as a baby and lay him in it, with a milk churn for a bottle.

The Scottish giant turned up bellowing for Finn McCool to come out and fight him to see who was the greatest giant in the land. Finn’s wife pushed open the huge door to their house and politely said to the Scottish giant, ‘Sure, Finn’s out at the moment. It’s just me and the baby, but you’d be welcome to come in and wait.’

The Scottish giant was thrown by the polite response to his bellowing, and all he could do was thank her, take off his cap and go quietly inside. That’s when he saw the baby—a baby almost as big as he was. He started to have second thoughts. If this was Finn McCool’s baby, exactly how big was Finn McCool? He started to imagine a giant twice his own height, even taller, and that didn’t sound like a fair fight at all.

As he was sitting there, Finn McCool’s wife turned the two loaves of bread out of their tins. She took one across to the baby Finn McCool, who ate it in one bite.

‘You look like you’ve come a long way,’ she said to the Scottish giant. ‘You must be hungry. I’m afraid I don’t have a meal to offer you, but would you like this as a wee snack?’ She held up the loaf with the griddle in it, as if it weighed no more than bread.

The fresh bread smelled good. And she was right. He had come a long way. And he wouldn’t want to disappoint so gracious a hostess, even if he was only waiting there to fight her husband. So he said yes.

And because the baby had done it that way, he put the loaf in his mouth in one piece and bit down on it. With a crunch, his teeth cracked on the griddle and broke off at their roots. He spat the pieces out into his hand, along with the bread and the buckled iron. Across the room the baby chewed and smiled.

If this was baby food in the family of Finn McCool, how tough was the giant himself? Finn McCool was a far more fearsome prospect than the Scottish giant had been led to believe. Right then, his hands still full of his own broken teeth, he made his apologies, and fled all the way back to Scotland, fearful with every step of the giant who might be in pursuit.

‘Of course, the Scottish might put it differently,’ Knut said when I pointed out that Finn seemed to win every time. ‘We have to remember we’re only getting the Irish side of it.’

Then there was the Wrekin Giant, who was tricked by a cobbler and left a mountain behind him, and giants all over Cornwall—Cormoran who ate entire cows, Bolster who bled to death in a hole over his love of Saint Agnes, Anthony Payne who fought in a war and was wide as well as tall, but full of tales and wise ideas that came from looking at the whole world from above and seeing it as it truly was.

Knut found an American giant, too. Alfred Bulltop Stormalong was three fathoms tall at birth and grew to twice that, and whose ship, the Tuscarora, was five times the regular size and had jointed masts to avoid snagging the moon. I wanted that to be true, but I had to point out that a mast five times the regular height would still be nowhere near the moon, which is 250,000 miles away. We were in the backyard then and the sun was setting, and Knut took a long, thoughtful look at the blank sky and said, ‘Perhaps the moon was closer in those days.’

I assumed he was related to all these giants in some way, and it was family history that he was sharing. I knew he got the stories from books, but somehow that didn’t spoil it. Some of those giants were as big as hills, which Knut Knutsen was not, and I started to wonder if they might be a race in decline, slowly coming back to the pack.

He explained to me that giants were either born to be giant or had a glandular problem.

‘It’s the pituitary,’ he said, pointing to his forehead, just above his nose. I told him we called that the brain in Australia and he said, ‘Oh, yeah, we call the big thing in there the brain, too, but there’s this small thing we call the pituitary.’

The only glands I knew were salivary and sweat glands. I had real doubts about the pituitary, which sounded as if it had been made up with less than Knut’s usual attention to detail.

Some mornings, Knut and my father left early for meetings, a man and his giant, walking out into the day with a carousel full of slides, a box of folders and the ball Knut called ‘the ole pigskin’. I sat through several practice runs of my father’s pitch, so I knew how it went. The slides were photos of American players and stadiums, and graphs that kept going up, making success look inevitable for all parties. Then, at the end, Knut would walk in in his playing gear, helmet under one arm and ball clamped in his hand.

My father would announce him as a former member of the Dallas Cowboys development squad—anyone who knew anything about America knew the Dallas Cowboys—and Knut would offer his slab of a right hand for shaking. Sometimes the recipient would take his hand in both of theirs and inspect it as the wonder it was, this thing in human form but not scale, a hand bigger than the ball it was chosen to throw.

All giants, all oddities, probably endure this weighing and measuring more than they should, as if they’ve been brought in only for the sake of spectacle, and aren’t entitled to a normal-sized sense of privacy. With Knut, though, the spectacle was exactly why he was in the room.

‘They look at that,’ my father said, recounting one meeting over dinner, ‘they look at that hand and they know this is new, and bigger and better than anything they’ve seen before.’

Knut stared at the table and his cheeks started to flush. He picked up his fork, then put it down quickly before anyone could comment, yet again, on what a tiny thing it seemed to be in his hand.

‘I’m paid by the yard,’ he once said to my mother when she asked him how it felt.

It was my father who persuaded Knut to wear the Dallas Cowboys strip. I remember the discussion, Knut saying he only wanted what he was entitled to, his silence when my father told him to think of it as a costume, something to make a point. The uniform came from America, and I watched as my mother picked another name off the back and tacked on the letters that made up ‘Knutsen’. Somehow this act of fakery made their plans all the more authentic to me, as if a pro quarterback in Texas had just stepped out of these clothes and my mother was at work on them while they were still warm. Knut was subbing in for the final quarter.

Their presentation routine was my father’s, but built around the failings of Knut’s shoulder. After the potential backers had taken a close look at the uniform—touched the ball, tried Knut’s cavernous helmet, their skulls rattling around inside like dried peas—he would get Knut to throw a few short passes in the meeting room, all from the elbow. There was always competition to see who could catch the hardest pass. These were sport-loving men, all with the instinct to out-jock each other, quickly on their feet and away from the platters of sandwiches, arms ready.

At the moment he judged to be right, my father led the troupe outside for the pass that, he said, they all wanted to see.

‘This is the one you don’t get in Aussie rules,’ he told them. ‘The one you don’t get in league or union. This,’ he would calmly say, ‘is the biggest pass in the world. I think Australians are going to want to see the biggest pass in the world, aren’t they?’

He was proud of that part of the script.

I could imagine him delivering it, and Knut staying quiet and slouching his way down the stairwell or crouching in the lift, inside his helmet with his own thoughts. Which were back on the night of the bridge, maybe, or on the stadiums he might play around this country or his own if all his work could only fix his shoulder, or maybe on nothing more than the pain immediately ahead.

One pass. He was good for one pass. One bomb, seventy yards.

If the car park was big enough, my father would do it there. If not, he would find a park nearby beforehand, or some other appropriate space. He would tell the men—it was always men—to go as far back as they wanted. It would seem as if it was all their choice, but somehow he would marshal the one he most needed to impress into the right spot. And Knut would steady himself and throw.

With every one of those passes the ball spun a perfect spiral, lifting from the ground as it travelled, more missile than pigskin. It went long and fast and was still travelling with bone-cracking force when it hit its mark. More than one potential catcher, when he weighed up the likely impact of the incoming ball, stepped out of the way.

My father then did a round of pumping handshakes and turned the men back in the direction from which they had come, all of them starstruck, talking and mapping out the ball’s trajectory in the air with their hands.

The moment they were gone, my father put Knut’s shoulder back in. When the two of them got to the car, he replaced the padding in Knut’s uniform with an icepack custom-made by my mother to fit the space. Back at our place, Knut cradled his wrecked arm with his other hand, took painkillers and lay on his giant’s bed. I wasn’t allowed to talk to him until he came upstairs.

***

I talked about Knut at school, of course. I didn’t mean to, but no one else had a giant at their house. When my teacher, Miss Krebs, heard about it, she took me aside and told me not to lie. Each term we did two five-minute lecturettes, one on a set topic and one free choice. That day, on my walk home from school, I chose giants.

‘I’ll need Knut for a couple of hours on Tuesday in two weeks time,’ I told my father over dinner.

‘I think that might be Knut’s choice,’ he said, looking across at our giant. ‘What do you need him for?’

I explained and he said, ‘Did she call you a liar? Did you actually say giant?’

Knut leaned towards me. ‘I’m in.’ He turned to my father. ‘If you can spare me that morning, Frank.’ He waited for my father to nod before continuing. ‘What’s she expecting? We might have to put some thought into this. What if I’m just tall to her? Not gianty enough?’

‘But you’re…’

I couldn’t say it, in case anyone contradicted me. He was our giant. He wasn’t just some tall guy at one end of a range. Anyone could have a tall guy under their house. No one was going to do a lecturette on the topic of ‘just tall’.

Knut sat back in his seat and folded his arms, giant arms. He rearranged his feet, and the toe of one of his shoes bumped against the fridge door. He smiled.

‘Finn McCool,’ he said, in an accent that was supposed to be Irish. ‘Finn McCool and the bread.’

On the morning of the lecturette, Knut shaved closely.

He put on a white collared shirt, with short sleeves and a bow tie. He and I had talked it through, and he was dressing the way an American boy would for church, or as close as he could manage from what was available.

Knut towered over the gateposts as we walked into the school grounds. Handball games stopped. Hopscotch stopped. He took the steps up to the verandah three at a time, and ducked under the beam at the top. The floorboards creaked beneath his feet as we walked. Everyone paused.

With the sense that something was up, that no silence could be trusted, Miss Krebs opened the classroom door earlier than usual and saw Knut making his way towards her.

‘Yes, well,’ she said to me as we got closer. She was stroking her throat, smudging some of her make-up onto her collar. She had a skin problem, and always used too much make-up on her face to cover it up. ‘I can see your friend is over two metres tall, but…’

‘Knut Knutsen, ma’am,’ Knut said, holding out his hand before she could bring up any of the claims I had made. He was not the height of a hill. He was unlikely, ever, to captain a ship with moon-scraping masts.

Miss Krebs looked up at his neck, at his Adam’s apple jumping up and down as he swallowed.

We did lecturettes early that day, straight after rollcall, since Miss Krebs told the class, an edge of criticism to her tone perhaps, that she couldn’t see us concentrating while my friend was in the room. Our desks had fixed bench seats for two, but there was no way Knut could shoehorn himself in there, so he found himself a spot by a side wall, standing in front of a map of the world, trying to look inconspicuous while his shoulders spanned from Brazil to China and his head blocked out all of Europe.

I opened with my version of his distinction between pituitary giants and people who were born to be big. I had copied a picture of the pituitary and its location deep in the head from an encyclopedia, and coloured the pituitary pink so that the class could make it out from the surrounding brain and the bone it was perched on. It was not a picture any of us could make sense of, but it seemed important to begin with some solid facts. I talked my way through historical giant tales, corroborated and otherwise, but my audience were all waiting for my own giant to step away from the wall and become part of the action.

‘We still have giants among us today,’ I told them, ‘though some people doubt it. And I have brought along as evidence a young giant from home. Knut Knutsen is twelve years old. By high school, he tells me, his older brothers and sisters were too big to fit in their classrooms and would listen to lessons through the windows. By grade ten, they were tall enough to listen at the windows on either the first or second floors.’

Knut nodded. The class stared at him, scaling him up to picture someone too big to fit in the room, someone who could walk past our second-storey windows, face as high as the fronds of the palm trees outside. Miss Krebs leaned against the edge of her desk, her arms folded, fixing me with a hazelnut frown that I pretended not to see.

From my manila folder, I produced my final piece of evidence. ‘And here is Knut’s father in their home town in Minnesota,’ I told them, and held the photo up.

It was indeed Knut’s father, and in their home town, but at a model village. All the houses were thigh-high and he was standing nonchalantly with his hand on a chimney. The photo was black and white, and his braces were pulling his baggy grey pants as high as a nearby shopfront.

In the front row of the classroom, mouths actually gaped. People from further back left their seats to get a closer look. Miss Krebs’ eyes were on the photo, too, and I could see the muscles of her face working beneath her make-up, though no clear expression broke through.

‘All right, all right,’ she said, signalling for everyone to sit. ‘I think all that remains is for us to thank Paul and his friend, Newt, in the customary way.’ She held her hands ready to clap, as she always did, and waited for someone to start.

From that day on, no one at school doubted me. I could lie to my friends about my uncle’s pet gryphons, and the baby Loch Ness monster that we kept in the downstairs bath. One well-placed giant gives you all of that.

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