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In equal balance justly weighed

Slouching toward Democracy

Where have all the wise men gone?

By Populist Demand

When urban and rural voters went separate ways

Last Call for the Small-Town Bar

Real conversations shaken and stirred

Ian Canon

It was a crisp afternoon when Kyler Zeleny turned in to Maynor, Alberta. The roads were unplowed and almost as wide as they were long, his tires the first to break the surface in places. A winter storm had come through overnight and buried the area in a foot of flakes. It made the place look unnaturally new, uniform — each roof with its equal ration of snow. But underneath was a town — like so many Albertan towns with just a few hundred people — isolated from a changing society, clinging to its deserted lots, failed businesses, and homes scattered across a few streets like discarded Lego.

At the end of the main stretch was Kyler’s destination: the Maynor Hotel. To get there, he passed a Chinese Canadian restaurant called the Red Lantern Nook, Maggie’s Second Hand Goods, a co‑op grocery, and a tarp store known simply as Wessels. He parked. In many ways, this was a prairie village like every other. It even had, across from the hotel and on the other side of the train tracks, a castle of sorts rising up from a white plain. He snapped a photo of the scene. If there was nothing else here, he might be able to use that. He was heading to his sixth small-town bar on a four-day road trip.

Even as the villages and patrons change, common themes emerge.

Kyler Zeleny

After the grain elevator, the hotel was the tallest building around. It had three storeys, exceedingly cubic, its once alabaster plaster now a ruddy ash. He doubted the hotel was still letting rooms. The top-floor windows had been plastered over, their histories erased. The second-floor windows weren’t far behind. Some were boarded up, others cracked, and one still had curtains half disintegrated by an environment that experiences 300 sunny days a year. The first-floor windows were hardier, thick and glossy, like the glass of an old Coke bottle. Kyler took several photos of the aging structure and walked inside.

The lighting was a warm amber. Kyler once asked a bar owner about that familiar hue, secretly hoping he’d be told about a bar-to-bar lighting salesman who worked the area east of Edmonton. The lights were just from the co‑op, she’d explained.

Inside the Maynor Hotel, “All I Have to Do Is Dream” by the Everly Brothers played on low volume from an unseen jukebox. The music was punctuated by the whirling of a video lottery terminal, one of three VLTs lining the right wall. Elsewhere were a watering hole’s equivalent of liver spots: historical memorabilia of the venue and the local community, faux-oil paintings found at garage sales, drunken one-liners on plaques (“Free Drinks Tomorrow”), a toilet seat with burn marks, farmer brands on barn wood, and, of course, dead animals. The tables and chairs were mismatched, but well polished and clean. The place didn’t smell. Not of beer or cigarette smoke or bleach.

Everyone in the bar, except a woman with bottle-blond hair on the VLTs, turned to look at him. They always had the same look. They squinted, and their mouths didn’t move. It was curious apprehension. Not only did they wonder who this stranger was, but they also couldn’t fathom why he had stepped into a place like this: their home when they couldn’t stomach home. Besides the VLT lady, three people occupied the space. There was an elderly man seated alone and tucked in near a post, halfway between the bar and the gambling; a man in his twenties on the left side of the bar top, ostensibly watching a hockey game; and the bartender, a robust woman with a grey pixie cut. She stood behind a counter that was far too long for the present clientele, further evidence of what the bar used to be and how far it had come.

“What can I do you for?” the bartender asked, eyeing Kyler’s camera slung over his shoulder.

“Coors Light with Clam.”

He took a seat by the taps and looked through his recent photos. None of them were usable. He looked around again. The interior was perfect, but he wasn’t sure he’d pull a story out of the current stock of customers. He was here, though, and he might as well ask the bartender what she knew. As if on cue, she placed his pint in front of him with the Clam in a carafe. “Tab?”

“Sure,” he said. “Put it under Kyler.” He watched her write “Tyler” on an old receipt. “What’s your name?” he added.

She hesitated, unsure what he was going to do with it. “Dallas.” She looked again at the camera on the bar.

“I’m a journalist,” he said. “I’ve come to make you famous.”

“Must be my lucky day.” Her laugh was partial, as if she didn’t believe there was any room for the “a” in her “ha.”

Recognizing her sarcasm, he cut right to it. “I’m looking for a very specific person.”

“Sure.”

“Old fella. Usually a regular. Knows just about everything there is to know about this place.”

Her face relaxed, and she stood on the tips of her toes as much as her body would allow. She pointed to the older gentleman behind Kyler, the one not losing his disability benefit to a machine. “Leonard Thompkins over there. Unofficial mayor of Maynor. Don’t tell him I told you that, though.”

Kyler swivelled on his bar stool. Leonard’s back was to him, and he didn’t seem to react to his name. He held on to a short glass of what Kyler assumed was a rum and Coke, staring at nothing in particular.

“Hey, Lenny,” Dallas called.

Lenny looked over. His face, once squared, had gone jowly, and his nose and cheeks were covered by a speckled crimson. He lifted his hat and scratched his scalp. The hair was peppery and thick on the sides; you wouldn’t have known he was bald on top until he removed his cap.

“This young fella wants to talk to you. He’s a journalist.”

“That so?” Lenny’s voice had a baritone quality to it, as if the air was forced through a mucked‑up hose.

Kyler stood, his clammy beer in hand. “Doing a story on small-town establishments.”

Lenny said nothing. He only nodded, waiting to find out how this concerned him.

“And I hear you’re the mayor of this small town.”

“Don’t know ’bout that.”

“Only one way to find out.” Kyler gestured toward the open seat across from Lenny, who said, without resistance or excitement, “Sure.”

Kyler sat, his back to the VLTs, and laid the camera on the table. He picked up his beer and brought it to his lips. The beginning was the hardest part. “How long you been coming here, Lenny?”

Lenny didn’t answer right away. Instead, he pointed at the wall behind Kyler with his free hand. Hanging from a corroded nail was a piece of blackened wood.

“What’s that?”

“1973. The year of the fire. I started coming here two years later.”

He always seemed to keep one hand on his drink, even when he pointed with it. They dwarfed the glass, his farmer hands, extensions of a working man, yellow and swollen at the joints. The wedding ring was swallowed by them too.

“And you come here every day, around this time.”

“Just about.”

Kyler guessed he was the type of man to not take his jacket off, no matter how long he’s been inside a place. The jacket was black and clean and covered a red and brown tartan button‑up.

“Stay long?” He always felt awkward as he drilled his questions for gas.

“Used to.” Lenny looked through Kyler and half smiled. His teeth were well set but off-colour. “Depends on who shows up now.”

“So you’re waiting for someone?”

“Sometimes they come, or they don’t. Don’t matter much to me.”

“Who might be coming?”

“Lots used to. Lucky now if even Dennis Boychuck or Robby Braithwait shows up, though.”

Kyler sensed an angle and pushed it. “And before?”

“Just a couple old friends. Fellas long gone.”

“Good friends?”

“Depends on how much I’d had to drink.”

It was a tennis match, and Lenny didn’t quite feel like returning the serve yet. Switching to more fact-finding questions, Kyler nodded toward Lenny’s ring finger. “Wife ever join you?”

“Not anymore.”

“No?”

“Buried — something like ten years now.”

“Sorry.”

Lenny must have felt bad for the kid and offered up his own question. “Married?”

“Why, know someone?”

Kyler couldn’t tell if Lenny laughed or coughed, then there was silence. No one said anything in the time it took Kyler to take two sips, so he decided to go straight for what he was after.

“Maynor must’ve been real different back when you met your wife.”

“The damn place won’t stop changing on me.”

“What about the bar?”

“This bar’s ’bout the only thing that hasn’t changed. The people, though . . .” He stopped himself.

“The people?”

He gave it a second thought. “Owner’s new. Cory Wilson. Nice enough guy, but he’s no Frank Goodman. Now that’s a man who knew how to run a bar.”

“What’d Frank do differently?”

“He had it packed elbow to elbow, Monday through Sunday.” Lenny scratched his scalp again. “They had magicians and — what do you call them fellas? — hypnoism or something.”

“Hypnotists?”

“Ya, hypnoists, and comedians. Music. Gambling. This was the place.”

“And now?”

“It’s all gone to pot.”

“And that was the height of the bar?”

Lenny looked at Kyler like he was the village idiot — who Lenny would have told you was currently Paul Bartley — then said, “I don’t think the height of the bar has changed all that much.”

As Kyler tried to figure out whether it was a joke or a misunderstanding, the woman on the VLT cackled. Kyler looked back at her. She hadn’t taken her eyes off the screen or her gnarled paw off the spinner. He’d always thought of the men and women on the machines as automatons, decorations in the background, forgetting at times that they were breathing, thinking humans. It surprised him to find out that she was listening. When Kyler looked back, Lenny had finished his drink, and Dallas was already dropping off a fresh one.

“Would it bother you if the bar disappeared?” Kyler asked, once she’d left.

“It might.”

“Where would you go?”

“Hardisty, or, hell, I might just stay home.”

“Would it be that important?”

“You can only do what you can do.”

“That’s true.” Kyler bit the inside of his cheek, unsure if he was going to get any more out of Lenny. This one-sided date was starting to bore him. Then Lenny served something at Kyler.

“Why’s it important to you?”

Kyler didn’t like to put himself into the stories. He felt himself a visitor in a familiar land but was uneasy about his own connection to these places. The academic answer might have been that they interested him from a sociological perspective, as an ethnographer of small-town stories traded over damp coasters. But, more than that, the local bar was the gathering ground for a voice, a person, a man that was quickly disappearing from our urbanizing world. That time in the past came to mind, before the Tower of Babel, when there was only one world language, a singular consciousness that contained a perfect representation of what it meant to be human. That perspective was then turned upside down as humans colonized the world, causing us all to drift from a shared truth. As meeting place after meeting place disappeared, people became a puzzle that was increasingly uncompletable. If Kyler could only get out there and document each one, he could rebuild a part of the puzzle. That wasn’t what he could share with Lenny, though.

“I’m from a small town too. Mundare.”

“Damn good sausage.”

“My grandfather’s. Ed. Ed Stawnichy.”

“That’s you?”

Kyler laughed. “We’ll be forever living in a shadow he created.”

For the first time, Lenny let go of his drink. “Tell me about him.”

Lenny’s sudden openness wasn’t lost on Kyler. “When he walked into a room, or our very own Corner Pub, the temperature of the room lifted.”

“Don’t make men like that no more.”

“They were all characters down there, each one full of rum and life, surrounded by friends and family, a belief that the future was theirs and that it was unwritten and waiting to be lived. He was either outside of the bar creating stories, like staying up all night playing the accordion to the pigs, or inside the bar telling them.”

With his newly freed hand, Lenny fiddled with his wedding ring. “Where else ya going to go to?”

Kyler wanted to say less, to hide this part of himself, but he sensed an opportunity. “And that’s where he conducted all his business. He was fearless, lived for the now, the story, the party, and I guess I admired him and that generation for that. I remember when I was a boy, I couldn’t wait to be over at the Corner with him. I could listen to him talk for hours, and I wanted to share in whatever it was that made him special to everyone around him. Maybe I’m still that little boy going from hamlet to hamlet looking for Gido, but the more I look, the more I realize I was too late back then and I’m too late now.”

Kyler had never told anyone that, but Lenny was now sloping over the table, his drink pushed aside. “Too late for what?” he asked.

“A good time. Or a story, I guess.”

“Hell,” Lenny said, sitting up straight. He lifted his drink to his lips. “I can tell you some stories.” He shot it calmly and talked. “Back in the ’70s and ’80s, we were always getting into trouble. I remember one time Bill Pulver came in here and told us about a Frenchman working on an oil rig a couple miles away. We all agreed — me, Woody Streicher, Tom Stoltman, and Henry Kryskow — that if that son of a bitch stepped one foot in here, we’d hang him from a pole.”

Kyler turned his head just to get an ear an inch closer. This was what he was here for. This was why he did this.

“A couple weeks later, in comes this froggy-looking feller swimming in his work overalls. We all took one look at each other and got up. Hung him from an electrical pole right outside.”

“Jesus.”

“Ah, he was fine. We’d only hung him by his trousers for half an hour. We did buy him a beer when it was all said and done. I tell you one thing, though. We sure gave that bastard a warm western welcome.”

Kyler thought, in these moments, it was best to let them talk. Most of the time, once you got them to open up, they were like a fire hydrant. They wouldn’t stop until they ran out of water.

Lenny obliged. “Nope. They don’t make men like that no more. Some of us would come in from working the field, have a beer with lunch — hell, maybe we’d have a couple too many and wouldn’t go back to work. The curses that might come out of our ol’ ladies’ mouths when they called the bar . . . My God.” He leaned back, his arms crossed at his chest, and didn’t seem to be talking to Kyler now. He was simply rediscovering his memories of this place, with Kyler as witness.

“Reminds me of Mary and Mike Korchinski. They were husband and wife on paper, but you’d be damned to see them both here at the same time. Be a good bet that one of the two was usually here though. Well, Mary was just about the strangest woman I ever met, and she had a peculiar habit of making up stories about herself. It was some sort of game she played. She’d count the days it took for the secret to get back to her. One day, Dallas there told me her new secret was that Mike had been cheating on her. I didn’t think much of it, but in comes Mike ten days later looking like a bat out of hell. He goes from table to table, asking just about every able-bodied person if they told Mary about him and a woman named Barbara Beckings. Apparently, the fool had got himself mixed up with another woman a town over, and Mary’d accidentally caught him. All he had to do was keep his big mouth shut and it would have blown right over.”

Lenny stopped to look at his half-empty drink. Kyler knew there was more to the Mike and Mary story, but Lenny simply went on to something else.

“Henry Kryskow, a bachelor until the day he died, used to ride his mammoth mule right through the bar. ‘The ladies like it,’ he’d say. Must’ve done that a half-dozen times. Another time, Frank Goodman promised us strippers from the city. Talked about it all month. It was all we heard of. Some of the men even took time off work. And there were strippers all right. Four men from Edmonton walked through that door with Stetsons over their peckers, and every man in here just about lost it. I thought they were going to kill Frank. That was probably the fullest I ever saw it. A second later, it was about as empty as it is now.”

Lenny looked around. “Those were the days. Back then, a man would look you in the eye when he shook your hand. We weren’t lost in cellphones, and this place didn’t have one damn VLT. It’s all gone now.” He looked around again. “This is all that’s left.”

“Change.”

“That’s right,” Lenny said, his voice cracking. He looked Kyler in the eye, then glanced away. The well seemed to have run dry.

About a year and a half later, while doing research for a new project, Kyler came back to Maynor to see if he could get the full story of Mary and Mike. The bar looked no different in the spring, and Dallas was still behind the bar. She didn’t recognize Kyler when he came in.

“What can I do ya for?” she said, same pitch and tone as last time.

“I’m looking for a regular of yours. Leonard Thompkins. He been in today?”

She looked over at Lenny’s spot. There was someone else sitting there. “Lenny passed a few months back.”

The camera fell a half inch from Kyler’s hand, the strap heavy on his shoulder. “Sorry to hear that.”

She looked at the camera. “What’d ya need him for?”

“Met him a year ago. Thought I’d see him one last time before it was too late.”

She just shrugged.

“I bet his funeral was something, though.”

Dallas tried to remember, but then she said, “You know, I’m not even sure if there was a service. I wonder why?”

Ian Canon is the editor-in-chief of the literary magazine Quagmire and the author of the novel It’s a Long Way Down.

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