After 41 hours of traveling, five transfers, eight cups of coffee and 11 trips to the cramped washroom, George Goodhope stepped off the Greyhound bus.
The air outside was a mixture of diesel and popcorn with a hint of what smelled like piss. George blew his nose in a tattered handkerchief and started walking towards the world-famous “Strip.” He had never been to Las Vegas before, but he knew which direction to take. Where the alcohol flowed and the money disappeared, he would find his eldest son, Peter.
His joints ached from sitting. He breathed in, thankful to be free of the stale, air-conditioned box on wheels. At 63, George was still in good shape, except for arthritis in his left knee. Playing catcher for the fastball team on the reserve hadn’t helped.
Chipewyan by birth, George was one of the few left who could speak Dene. Shaded age spots dotted his amber face like a topographical map. His black eyes usually sparkled with amusement, but today they looked tired and sunken. He had large ears and had to cup his hand to his lower lobe to pick up most conversations.
As usual, his Petro-Canada ball cap was perched crookedly atop his head and gave away the fact that he was an out-of-towner. Three of the fingertips on his right hand jutted out at odd angles from the top knuckle. Years ago, he’d been checking traps in the bush with his wife, Louise, when his fingers had caught in an animal trap. Blood spurting from the stumps, he’d watched through a red haze as Louise had calmly ripped strips from her shirt and wrapped his fingers to stem the flow. She’d gathered up the severed digits, packed them with snow and stuffed them inside their beer cooler.
George barely remembered the trip to the clinic on the reserve. From there, an ambulance was called and he was taken to the nearest hospital about 45 minutes away. Louise, at his side the whole time, reassured and even joked with him about leaving behind the six-pack of beer. Despite her quick thinking, the surgery to reattach the fingertips had not been entirely successful.
George was a long way from his trap line now and he knew he’d have to rely on his instinct and wits to trap this animal. Six weeks ago, his son had disappeared. He’d gone to Edmonton for an all-expenses-paid golf tournament, an annual event the oil companies called “good community relations.”
His son was 36 years old, a binge drinker with a gambling problem. Once every two or three years, Peter would disappear for weeks at a time, not returning until he had drained his savings. His girlfriend was furious this time. Their son, Nelson, seven years old, had made the reserve’s All-Star baseball team. They were saving to send him to a tournament. George decided he owed it to his grandson to bring Peter home.
Although they’d filed a missing person report, the RCMP Staff Sergeant had said nothing could be done. Peter had called from a phone booth in Calgary to say he was hitching a ride to Vegas.
In his blue Labatt’s sports bag, George carried Peter’s photo. His grandson, in a red Cubs uniform, arm around his dad, smiled back from the celluloid. Also in the bag were some extra clothes and socks, a rain jacket and in case he needed to trade something for a favour, a pouch of tobacco, the traditional Aboriginal gift. George felt a pang of hunger in his empty stomach. He didn’t suppose he would find any bannock stew or even a Tim Horton’s nearby.
A surreal landscape began to take shape. His eyes burned from dust and car exhaust. He rubbed them and the road ahead came into focus. It was dusk. The neon and spotlights were glowing, giving the boulevard an overexposed look. Off in the distance he could see giant buildings reaching skyward at odd angles, festooned with bright signs, screaming “Excalibur,” “Mirage,” and “Treasure Island.” The windows in the hulking hotels looked miniature and there were so many that he thought the people must be crammed in like sled dogs in the back of a pick-up truck.
He kept walking, his bad knee radiated pain. Music blared out at him. He noticed there were people carrying drinks. He had a sinking feeling.
George blamed himself for Peter’s problems, even though he had tried to find help for him. He knew Peter would never forgive him for the car accident that had ended George’s drinking 20 years ago. After too many Club beers, he’d rolled his rusted Ford pick-up, killing Louise, Peter’s mother, instantly.
Lost in memories, George found himself at an intersection and was momentarily confused. He removed his hat to scratch his head. A woman bumped into him and knocked his hat to the ground. As he bent down to pick it up, she giggled and swayed slightly, mesmerized by his crooked fingers.
She carried a clear plastic cup that smelled strongly, appealingly of alcohol. He could see where her lipstick had left a mark on the rim of the cup. He smiled and she reached into her pocketbook and placed a five-dollar bill in his hat. He frowned.
He felt a stab of pain in his knee and sunk down to the curb. Louise’s dark brown eyes and wry smile flashed in his mind. He remembered the way she had picked up the pieces and put things back together — more than once. With his two good fingers, he reached into the hat and plucked out the American bill. He would use the cash in his search.
A giant neon clown face was flashing up ahead. He could see there was a casino. His bad knee made a popping sound as he picked himself up and started walking. It was as good a place as any to start looking for his lost boy.