Lord of the Fishes

By Ed Staskus

The  North Rustico beach slivers itself at the mouth of the harbor of the town, on Prince Edward Island, Canada’s smallest province. The crescent shaped island is tucked into the shoulders of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, across the Northumberland Strait. On the far side of the Gulf of St. Lawrence is Newfoundland. Europe is the farther landfall across the Atlantic Ocean.

North Rustico is on the north-central coast, on Route 6, between Cavendish and Rusticoville. Some of it can be seen from the deck of Pedro’s Eatery, where Route 6 dips and curves through the middle of town, the market and gas station, the bakery and the credit union, the lobster restaurant and the post office. The rest of it is within a few minutes, down the harbor road and up some side roads.

It’s all within easy sight of the flocks of seagulls who fly up and down the coast.

Frank and Vera Glass, staying at the Coastline Cottages just outside of town, drove the mile-or-so from their cottage along the parkway, past Rollings Pond to the parking lot at the back of the beach, where a creek empties, up the dirt road to the other lot, parked in front of a sign saying the beach was unattended by life guards, walked up and then down the path to the beach, and made fast at a nice spot on the sand not far from the shoreline.

It was sunny and fair, the sun behind them, as they unfolded their low-slung blue canvas chairs, plopping into them, pulling books from their Pedro, a yellow and black re-purposed bicycle messenger bag.

Vera was reading an autobiography of Agnes de Mille.

Frank was reading “The Durrels of Corfu.” He interrupted Vera every few minutes with something funny he had just read. Vera thought, you’re slowing me down, dude, even though she was a slow reader, anyway.

“Did you see that sign?” she asked Frank.

“No, what sign?”

“The sign beside the lifeguard cabana, the one that said, ‘Caution! Attention!’”

“There are no lifeguards, not until next week,” said Frank. “I saw that sign when we parked.”

“It’s the North Rustico Beach welcome sign, the big red and white sign when you walk onto the beach, the one that says rip currents, strong offshore winds, beware of large surf, and don’t use inflatables.”

Frank looked out at the flat quiet water, the spaghetti surf, and the wide sky dotted with puffy clouds standing still.

“No, I didn’t see that sign,” he said. “Anyway, it seems beside the point today.”

“It does, doesn’t it,” said Vera, smiling at her husband.

They read their books, watched couples walking by barefoot, children running, and a head down in a cell phone shuffling past. A family set up camp nearby, Vera took a nap, and Frank rolled out of his canvas chair and practiced a half-hour of yoga on the warm sand. He didn’t have a mat, but it didn’t matter. He turned and pulled and released and twisted one way and the other.

When he was done he rolled back into his low-slung chair.

“That felt good,” he said.

“I’m glad, honey,” said Vera. “What was that last thing you did, the twisty thing? I haven’t seen you do that before.”

“It’s called Lord of the Fishes,” he said. “It’s supposed to be good for your lower back.”

Vera didn’t do yoga in any of its forms, although she was glad Frank did. He had a bum back and the exercises kept him on his feet. The thinking behind the practice – Frank liked to call it that – also seemed to be good for him, keeping him on the tried and true straight and narrow.

“Do you remember the last time we had dinner with Barron at Herb’s Tavern, and he spent coffee and dessert railing about how steady as it goes has gone big top high wire?” Frank asked Vera.

“Yes, I do,” said Vera, remembering the carrot cake she had not been able to fully enjoy.

Barron Cannon owned and operated and taught at a small yoga studio near where Frank and Vera lived in Lakewood, Ohio, an inner ring suburb on the shores of Lake Erie, west of Cleveland. He was between young and middle-aged, married but divorced – what woman could stand living with him, Vera wondered – a post-modern sensibility with a PhD in philosophy, but a yoga traditionalist. He taught the exercise poses, but always in the context of the other arms of yoga, which he considered the essential parts of the practice.

Whenever he was in high dudgeon he complained about the 21st century western emphasis on the physical aspects of yoga.

“Everywhere you go, everywhere you look, it’s asana on the mat, in a hot room, an hour of hard work and it’s back to whatever else you are up to. When did yoga become work hard, no pain, no gain? When did it become just another something on the checklist, getting fit, staying ahead? When did it become competitive, a race to the finish, another rat bastard in the rat race?”

Barron was Frank’s friend. Vera tolerated him for her husband’s sake. She didn’t dislike Barron, but she disliked it when he said things like, “Nobody worth their salt is nice.”

“I was going to tell Barron about Eric Young, mention his ideas, but I didn’t,” said Frank. “We would never have gotten out of Herb’s, at least not until after closing time, if then.”

“Who’s Eric Young?” asked Vera.

“A Baltimore guy, a lot like Barron in some respects, teaches some yoga, aerial style, a big fan of the Baltimore Orioles, which is too bad,” said Frank.

“Why were you going to bring him up to Barron?” asked Vera.

“Because he’s on the other side of the teeter totter,” said Frank.

“What’s too bad about the Orioles?”

“You don’t want to know.”

“Competitive yoga started in India, not the west, but that’s a minor detail,” said Eric. “I am curious, though, at the idea of the physical becoming the more dominant focus, and so many people feel the need to tell other people that’s not yoga when there is no agreed upon definition. If we are all properly practicing an inward journey, shouldn’t that remove the need to be concerned what others do and what they call or label the activity in which they are doing it?”

“That makes sense to me,” said Vera.

“There’s more,” said Frank.

“Setting aside the definitions of yoke and some of the more deeper translations and interpretations of yoga from the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, and setting aside the atman and seer ideas, for the average practitioner they will have no understanding, or care to,” said Eric.

“In my yoga teacher training class, I would say half had no idea there was anything beyond the physical. To many, yoga is a down dog, a bird of paradise, with a glass of wine after, and for some, a puppy or a baby goat wandering by. I say more power to them, for at least two reasons. First, if they are truly in the present, they are doing a lot of the work, even if not labeled as such, and if they do it enough, the work will pay off one way or another. Second, if I am doing my yoga, in whatever form that means to me, then I should not be bothered one way or another. As no one owns the term and there are so many different facets, it’s arrogant for me to say you’re wrong.”

“I’m not sure Barron would be good with that,” said Vera.

“You know how Barron is. He would have plenty to say,” said Frank.

“I will concede if your business is teaching, and I set up shop next door spouting I know as much and am as good a teacher, which I don’t and am not, you have every right to be bothered by this, but that’s business, not yoga,” said Eric. “I don’t think the gurus of yore were bothered by what another one did on the other side of the country. But for those who say because it’s not four thousand years old, only two hundred years, and it’s not authentic, I call that bullshit.”

“He speaks his mind,” said Vera.

“There is wisdom and there is gray hair,” said Eric.

“I wouldn’t put Eric and Barron in the same room,” said Vera.

“I don’t know about that,” said Frank. “They’re both on the same yoga planet.”

“What planet are you on?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, don’t put them in the same room, for God’s sake. They may be on the same planet, but they’re not coming from the same place. That would be a head-on collision.”

Vera and Frank heard a sudden loud squarking from the shoreline, and when they looked towards the sound, they saw a herring gull dragging a rock crab out of the surf. The crab latched onto the bird with large claw, swinging side-to-side as the seagull flapped up. The bird shook the crab off, dropping it into the surf, and going after it again, pecking and pecking. When the seagull dragged the crab out of the water it began to slash at it, killing it, if the crustacean wasn’t already dead, pulling it landwards whenever the surf rolled it back towards the ocean.

“I thought their shells protected them from birds,” said Frank.

“Maybe the shell was cracked already,” said Vera.

“One of the guys at the harbor told me that gulls will pick up shellfish, fly them up in the air, and drop them on rocks so their shells crack when they land.”

“I didn’t know seagulls had it in their pea brains to be able to think that out,” said Vera.

“It’s a dog eat dog world,” said Frank. “Seagulls are intelligent. They can unlock trash bins. They’re omnivores and they’ll eat anything. I read about a black-backed gull down on Cape Cod that snatched up a miniature chihuahua, right off the beach, and the dog has not been seen since.”

They watched the seagull rip legs off and pull goopy innards out of the crab, until there wasn’t anymore left to be had. The big white and gray bird arched its neck, cawed several times, and flew away. The remains of the crab slowly but surely rolled back into the ocean.

“What time does Doiron’s close?” asked Vera.

“Six,” said Frank.

“What time is it now?”

Frank looked at his iPhone.

“Quarter of six,” he said.

“Drive me over me there” said Vera. “You can drop me of and I’ll walk back to the cottage.”

“All right, maybe I’ll drive up the parkway, go for a walk around Orby Head, and we can meet back at the cottage,” said Frank.

He dropped his wife off at the fish market.

Doiron Fisheries is on the wharf on Harbourview Drive. It’s been there since the 1950s.  It’s a small storefront with a big sign over the door, a long shallow front room chock full of haddock, hake, halibut, salmon, mackerel, oysters, mussels, scallops, and cooked crab.

Frank drove up Church Hill Road, past the Stella Maris church and the graveyard, and down to the National Park kiosk. They had a seasonal pass attached to the stem of the rear view mirror of their Hyundai Tucson, and when the attendant in the kiosk glanced up and waved him through, Frank swung the car to the left up the hill into the seashore park.

He had once stopped and asked the teenager in a National Parks shirt behind the drive-through window, “What do you call this building?”

“We call it the gate,” she said.

“The gate?”

“That’s it, yup, the gate.”

Frank drove past Doyle’s Cove and the Coastline Cottages. The cottages are in the Prince Edward Island National Park, but aren’t a part of the park. The Doyle’s kept their land, in the family for a dog’s age, not selling it to Canada when the park was established. There are a handful of their houses, one nearly a hundred years old, another one newly built last year, within sight. They are the only homes in sight.

He drove the two miles-or-so up the Gulf Shore Way, pulled off the road at Orby Head, and went for a walk along the red sandstone cliff. He lay down face forward on the other side of the rope fence and looked down at the waves churning and breaking on the narrow rocky landing far below.

A group of cormorants in a v formation flew past, nearly at eye level. He closed his eyes and breathed evenly for a few minutes. He heard a car pull in, its tires crunching on the gravel. He opened his eyes, got up, and walked back to his car.

When he stepped into the cottage the lowering sun was lighting up the kitchen window, and Vera was at the stove.

“What are you making for dinner?” he asked.

“Crab cakes,” she said.

Ed Staskus posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Ohio Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

Opening Act

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By Ed Staskus

Before they turned the Victoria Hall into the Victoria Playhouse, and before they spent the next thirty years transforming the theater into ‘PEI’s Longest Running Little Theatre’, Erskine and Pat Smith bought a house in Victoria. The house, in which Pat Smith lives to this day, had bathrooms, running water, and electricity.

Their house in Point Deroche, where they had been living for three years, had no bathroom, no running water, and no electricity.

Victoria is a village on a sheltered harbor on the south shore of Canada’s Prince Edward Island. It is an arts community of family-run businesses. The year-round population is just a few heads above a hundred. Point Deroche is a pocket-sized community on the north shore. There are some summer cottages and a quiet gulf-side beach.

No one knows exactly how many people live in Point Deroche.

“Erskine and I homesteaded there,” said Pat. “We lived in a house that had been built in one day.”

Reggie and Annie McInnis, a brother and sister whose home burned down, built the emergency house in Point Deroche. “They were subsistence farmers. They had no money. They were poor people, but kind and generous.”

The McInnis’s gathered driftwood, had it milled, and cobbled the house together. They nailed the roof down when the sun was shining. It served as shelter against a rainy day.

“It was unfinished on the inside,” said Pat. “You could see all the wormholes from the sea worms that had eaten into the wood.” As small as the house was, there were three rooms and two more upstairs. There was a well and the Smiths built an outhouse.

“Erskine hauled in a Silver Moon wood cook stove.” In the wintertime the stove never went cold. “That’s how we heated the house.”

Erskine Noble Smith, a native PEI-man, lived the length and breadth of Canada. His father was in the Armed Forces and was routinely transferred from base to base. Military brats are time and again drawn to the stage because they’ve learned how to make a fast impression at the drop of a hat.

Pat Stunden Smith moved to Prince Edward Island from Montreal to work at the Confederation Centre in Charlottetown, the provincial capital. “I applied to work in the art gallery, but ended up as a tour guide,” she said.

After graduating from university she applied again and was accepted as an assistant curator. She worked at the gallery for several years.

“Then I got itchy feet.”

She traveled, lived in Toronto, and returned to Prince Edward Island. She enrolled at Holland College School of Visual Arts and trained in weaving and silver work. Erskine Smith met his wife-to-be the one and only time she ever appeared on stage.

“I had just moved back to the island, and I thought I needed to meet people, so I joined the Drama Club. I never wanted to be on stage after my first show, which was Brigadoon, but Erskine was in the audience, and we met at a party afterwards.”

Brigadoon is a musical about a mysterious village that appears out of thin air only one day once every one hundred years, and where a man and woman stumble onto each other and fall in love.

“There’s a nice little house in Victoria for sale,” Erskine said to his wife one night after work. He was working in children’s theater, lunchtime performances, and cadging shows around the island. He had taken on the role of Ronald McDonald, as well, becoming the jump suited big shoe big heart clown character for the whole of the Atlantic Canada region.

“He went to every parade and every hospital for seven years,” said Pat. “Kids loved him and he loved kids. He could just touch people. He had children die in his arms.”

The next day the family drove the family car through the heart of the crescent-shaped island to Victoria.

“After my daughter Emily turned three, and I got pregnant with my son Jonathan, no running water became an issue. We were young, but I was tired of washing diapers by hand, and my parents were desperate to help us find another house.”

The Smith family looked at, walked through, and ran the taps in the house. “Yeah, this is a good move for us,” they all agreed.

Victoria is a handful of blocks one way and a handful of blocks the other way. The Victoria Hall, built by a local carpenter between 1912 and 1914, was built at the exact center of the village. It is a wood shingled building with a gambrel roof. For more than seventy years it was where lobster suppers, quilting bees, and community council meetings were held.

It was home to the Red Cross and the Women’s Institute.

“The identity of Victoria is in the buildings that have been here for generations,” said Stephen Hunter, for many years the chef and owner of the Victoria Village Inn.

But, the Trans Canada Highway bypassed Victoria in the 1960s and many businesses left. The village declined as people moved in search of work. “It went into a lull for about two decades,” said Henry Dunsmore, owner of the Studio Gallery.

“When we moved here the hall was a community hall, but it wasn’t being used by the community,” said Pat. “It was empty.” Except for the New York City performing arts troupe that came some summers and put on shows.

“The village loved them, but they left a mess. They were kids, renting an old house, and living the life of Riley, although they had nothing. They raided the Women’s Institute room in the hall and took everything, dishes, silverware.”

While Erskine Smith tromped up and down the Maritimes in his red oversized Ronald McDonald shoes, Pat Smith started up a kindergarten, which she soon moved into the basement of the Victoria Hall.

“Don’t quit your day job,” play-actors are often warned. Pat went on to teach kindergarten for fifteen years. Since so many entertainers are the voices of cartoon characters on TV and in the movies, her classroom might have been a kind of informal inadvertent in-house training ground.

One day in 1981 Frieda and Loren McLelland, who owned a craft shop in the village, visited the Smiths. “Is there any way you could get the theatre going again?” they asked. “It would be good for the community.”

“It hadn’t occurred to us,” said Pat.

“Yeah, I think we can do it,” said Erskine.

“Actor people, do we want any of them?” asked the community council cross-examining the proposal.

“It wasn’t all easy sailing. What made the difference was that we were living in the community,” said Pat. “If they weren’t happy they knew where we lived.”

Where they lived was a few minutes walk from the Victoria Hall.

Erskine Smith recruited himself as actor and Artistic Director. “He looked after everything that happened on stage. Storytelling was who he was.” Charlene McLean and Bill McFadden came on board. Pat Smith became the General Manager, running the box office, searching for funding, writing press releases and programs, and everything else. “It’s a small community theatre. When things need to get done everybody needs to be on board 100%.”

They strategized, developed a mission statement, and opened a bank account. They recruited a Board of Directors.

Then they took a close look at the hall.

“It looked completely different,” said Pat.

The stage was painted black. The Women’s Institute had been using the stage for their suppers. The walls were painted, too, and the ceiling was false. “They had an oil furnace up in what is now our parts room and they pumped the heat down through the ceiling. We took that false ceiling out.“

The seats were hardwood pressed-back chairs. They were attached to two-by-fours because the floor was raked. The back legs of all 153 seats had been sawed down three inches and bolted to the two-by-fours. “The back legs had to be shorter so the seats would be level,” said Pat.

“We had a fund-raiser and auctioned off those chairs. I don’t know where, but they all actually went.”

The theater lacked a proscenium, which is the arch that frames the stage. It is the metaphorical fourth wall, a kind of window around the set. They are helpful to actors because on the other side they can pretend to not hear what the audience is saying, or not saying. It helps the company to mind their own business.

The proscenium was fashioned by chain saw and grinder. David Bennett, a set designer, did the job on his own after everyone else had gone home. “He was a creative guy. He marked the pine boards with a magic marker, did the initial cuts with a chain saw, and then used a small grinder,” said Pat.

“Everybody pitched in to make sure things worked.”

They tracked summer sunset times to make sure they knew when the theater’s windows could be opened during a performance. “We didn’t get air conditioning until 2004,” said Pat. “The windows were darkened and as soon as it got dark outside we would open them so there would be a cross draft in the auditorium.”

The Victoria Playhouse mounted its first show the summer of 1982. “All there was on the island at that time was the Confederation Centre of the Arts in Charlottetown, and then we did what we needed to do and there was the Victoria. It was a very different landscape back then.”

Opening nights only happen once. After all the preparations and rehearsals you’re on your own. The lights go down and the curtain goes up. It helps, however, that opening night is for your friends and community. There were just enough seats in the new theater for them.

The Victoria Playhouse’s first season ran two months. It featured three plays running in repertory. The plays were Dear Liar, The Belle of Amherst, and The Owl and the Pussycat. “The Owl and the Pussycat want to get married – but they’re in the middle of the sea! They reach the land where the Bong Trees grow, and alight to find a vicar and a ring.”

Everybody was on board and everybody was all in. Everything came alive. Pat and Erskine Smith pulled it off.

Theatergoers go to plays because they want to have a great time at the theater. The best show halls, like the Victoria Playhouse, are more like verbs than they are nouns. It’s an event as much as it’s a place. It’s where the drama comedy musical happens, bold funny truthful. You can’t bail out of a story once it’s gotten going, even though most shows at small theaters are just a few characters in a room living it up.

What happens in a lifetime can sometimes be random and disordered. The walk of life is learning about the going by going. In performance on stage the story about what’s happened is put into order and fleshed out. When the season ended Erskine Smith went to work reading plays for the next season, which in time came to mean eighty performances seven days a week all summer long. He continued to do so for thirty years until his untimely death in 2013.

“Erskine was a real storyteller,” said Pat. “Oh, yeah, he loved stories. As long as I knew him, we would go to parties and all of a sudden everyone’s in the kitchen and there’s Erskine telling stories.”

Erskine Smith was the glow in the kitchen, the man in the smoke of the campfire, the storyteller who loved the stage. Pat Smith made sure the nuts and bolts were in all the right places. Today their son and daughter, Jonathan, set carpenter and scenic painter, and Emily, Assistant General Manager, spend the off-season on Prince Edward Island getting ready for the next season.

Standing in the wings Erskine Noble Smith would be happy to see who’s working in the wings. 

Ed Staskus posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Ohio Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”