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The Spitting Image

Powell River writer and singer-songwriter Pat Buckna began his music career in Calgary in the 1970's, spent a number of years in the Arctic including a stint as a photographer-reporter for a community newspaper, and was responsible for bringing over 750 performers to the NWT pavilion at Expo '86. In 2019, he wrote and published Only Children - A Family Memoir - and runs a small recording studio on Texada Island. He lives in a small Canadian coastal community two ferries north of Vancouver, BC. 

A glowing red W hovered above the Vancouver skyline and turned slowly like a beacon or the lamp on a lighthouse—a signal of danger or promise of safe harbor to all within sight, like the freighters anchored in the shallows of English Bay. I saw all of this through my telescope from the balcony of a second-floor room at the Colonial Motor Hotel on Kingsway Avenue. I was 13.

The next morning, I was back out on the balcony. The ships were still there, rising out of the silver waters, nearly as tall as the downtown buildings. The W was still crimson and revolving but no longer lit, supported by an ugly steel tower on the roof of the Woodward's building that glinted in the misty grey morning light.

I loved being in Vancouver on holidays. The air tasted like salt and the rain was so soft you could walk outside for hours and never get wet. There was so much to see—the ships, the ocean, gigantic trees and mountains that fell right into the sea. There was nothing like this back home in Alberta, not even close. Sure, we had pigeons and gulls, and magpies, but not big squawkers like these who danced about and fought over scraps, oblivious to the crowded sidewalks and traffic. We had ravens too, back home, but not gigantic glossy black-beaked ones that harangued you from the tops of light poles or perched in the uppermost branches of giant cedars and Douglas fir trees.

Even though Mom and Dad always said they would move back to the coast someday, I didn't think that would ever happen, not after Dad's disastrous interview last year. Mom said it wasn't fair that they wouldn't consider him because he was nearly 50, and I agreed. He was old but not that old, not too old to load ships. Too bad. I could see myself living here. I'd like that.

I was prepared to spend all day just scouting out everything through my telescope, but then I heard Dad.

"Jeezus-Christ Mary, tell the kid to get the lead out."

"Hold your horses Johnny, we're supposed to be on vacation."

"Not today woman, not today. Don't start."

Dad stormed out of the room and slammed the door. "You'd better hurry, you know how he gets."

Dad was in a particularly crabby mood today, likely still tired from the long drive the day before.

When Mom and I went downstairs, Dad was in the Impala, staring straight ahead, nicotine-stained fingers thumping on the steering wheel. He said nothing when I crawled in the back and Mom climbed in the passenger seat, but he slammed the car in reverse almost before the doors were closed. Mom shot him a look as he sped off down Kingsway.


"Small things amuse small minds," Mom would often say, and shake her head. If Dad was in earshot, he'd often add something like, "Jeezus-Christ kid, haven't you got anything better to do?" Most of the time the egg timer sat abandoned on the back of the kitchen stove. The last time I saw Mom use the egg timer, she cooked eggs for Dad and me, but by the time every grain had fallen through the narrow vortex of the glass, the yolks of the eggs in the double-boiler on the front burner of the stove had turned rubbery, then hard and dry.

When Dad griped about his overcooked eggs, Mom said, "It worked just fine at the coast," the same coast she had fled to by train from Saskatoon during the war, where she met and married Dad. The same coast my doctor had said we must move to in order to cure my asthma, and the same coast Dad dragged us to every summer in search of lost children I knew nothing about.

A few years ago, I sailed around Lunenburg Harbour on the real Bluenose, which looked nothing like Mom's egg timer. Now, whenever I see Mom's egg timer, I think of Alberta and summer clouds that drift in from the mountains, then grow into giant galleons which slowly sail eastward toward Saskatchewan and the farm where Mom was raised. The same farm on the South Saskatchewan River that she left behind along with her young son Gerry—long before I was born—and moved to Vancouver.She must have thought better of it. What was the big rush? Maybe he wanted to beat the crowd to Stanley Park or had something else in mind. Maybe this would be the year we'd finally go to the beach, but more likely he was just in a bad mood. He'd been like this back home even before we'd left on our trip.

Dad was always in hurry to go places, and always wanted to leave early. I'm not sure why, because we never did much in Vancouver. Dad would drive once around Stanley Park, only stopping for a few minutes at Prospect Point to gaze out over Burrard Inlet, then drive over the Lion's Gate bridge and back. The rest of the time was in the Motel watching TV or parking downtown where my parents would window shop. We'd wander up and down the streets and stop to peek in store windows. They seldom went into any of the stores or bought anything, just browsed the windows. It was such a bore. At least this year I had brought my telescope and would have something to do.

Dad sped down Kingsway and merged onto Main Street. The red W continued to turn. As we drove closer, it loomed above us. At Hastings, Dad made a left turn then parked a few blocks further down, right beneath the giant W. We shopped at Woodward's in Calgary, perhaps we were going shopping here. Dad got out of the car quickly and took off down the street by himself. Mom and I had to hurry to keep up with him as he went inside.

"What's his big hurry?" I said.



Mom didn't answer. Her face was grim. Dad rushed into the store and took the escalator down to the food floor. In the produce section, he stopped next to the lettuce.

"You two wait here."

I could tell he meant it. Mom and I stayed put. I had no idea what was going on. Mom grabbed my hand. Normally I would have pulled my hand free, but I didn't.

"Don't worry, nothing's going to happen."

What wasn't going to happen?

My father walked up behind a store clerk in a white shirt who was watering the vegetables. He said something to the man, but I couldn't hear what. Mom tightened her grip. The man turned. He looked identical to my father, only younger. The same black hair, same bushy eyebrows, same nose.

"What's going on?"

"Don't worry, it's between them."

Mom's eyes glistened as she clutched my hand even tighter. I watched Dad and this carbon-copy stare at one another. I wanted to get closer, to hear what they were saying, but then Dad's voice grew louder. Soon he was shouting and his double shouted back. It was as if Dad was yelling at himself.

"They told me you were dead—how was I supposed to know?" said the man.

"Do I look dead to you?" said Dad.

"Well they said you were dead. How would I know anything different?" Who was this doppelgänger that sounded so much like my father? This made no sense. Dad was yelling again, almost screaming. People stared at him.

"Why did you change your name, isn't my name good enough for you? What kind of ungrateful punk son are you?"

Punk. He spit out the word and his look-alike—his son?—yelled back "I didn't even know your name, they never told me your name. My name is my name."

"Well you have to change it back. I want you to change it back," said Dad and then his son shouted back, "NO! This is my name, who the hell do you think you are, barging in here like this?" Dad closed in on him, moved forward, raised his arm as if he was about to hit him, and the store clerk—this stranger who must be his son—just turned and walked away through the swinging doors into the back of the store. Dad started to follow him, then stopped and stormed back toward us.

"C'mon Mary, let's get the hell out of here."

I looked at Mom. Tears were streaming down her cheeks. She clenched my hand so hard it hurt.

No one said a word on the way back to the motel. I had questions but didn't know how to ask them. Why hadn't they told me what was about to happen? Was this stranger really my Dad's son? Who was his mother? All I felt, sitting in the back of the car, was alone and angry. Alone because no one had said anything ahead of time and angry for the same reason. Back in the room at the Colonial Motor Inn, Dad grabbed a beer from the tiny fridge, turned on the TV and plopped down in the chair. He seemed almost relaxed, almost normal. How had Dad known where to find his son? And why the hell wouldn't anyone tell me what was going on?

I figured both of my parents were in on the whole thing and knew exactly where we were going that day. They probably had known even before we left on holidays, but neither let on. "Oh yeah, by the way kid, you have another brother. We were going to tell you but wanted to surprise you."

That afternoon all I could think about was the injustice of what they had done to me and how awful Dad had been to his son. Later, Mom told me the man's name was Bobby and that he was my half-brother, and that Dad had spent several years trying to find him.

Dad picked up the remote control and starting flipping channels. He stared at the television set as if this was just another day. Mom sat at the tiny kitchen table and rolled cigarettes, as though nothing had happened.

There was a knock at the door. Dad sat up, looked at me.

"You'd better get that."

I opened the door. A woman, a younger version of my Aunt Mary, stood there. She had on a white sweater, dark skirt and high heels. She smiled and leaned forward, held out her hand.

"Why, hello there, young man. You must be Patrick. I'm Sharon. Your sister."

~ Pat Buckna, from his e-book: Only Children: A Family Memoir.






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