Breath & Shadow
Winter 2019 - Vol. 16, Issue 1
"Ride with The Heroes"
Kenna Mary McKinnon
If you ride with the Marlboro Man like Bogie and the Duke, over and after the soft, sweet
music of their films you may die like a hero, yellow, sick, bold, and daring, as they did.
But it was never my intention to die, nor to watch a loved one die. And my son did not
smoke. I want to reiterate that. Steve Wild did not smoke, and he died of a virulent
aggressive esophageal cancer that spread to his lungs and every organ in his body
except – miraculously – his brain. I don’t know how the blue-black cloud of Heaven
enveloped the Porsche Spyder convertible that killed James Dean, nor burned anew the
corpse of Humphrey Bogart, or the bloated remains of John Wayne. How they came to
be, strong like steel again. Strong like my son.
But the fact remains that Steve followed a spoor of mist to a thrill in the clouds with the
men who killed themselves with smoke and oil slicked tires, and my son had seen, on
Earth, something beautiful. This was the last day of summer in 2012. Now it’s October
2018 and I am an old woman.
On January 14, 1957, I was an eighth-grade student in a one room schoolhouse with a
potbellied stove in the back on which the teacher cooked up hot soup from a mix
(chicken noodle soup was her favorite) to supplement our lunches. Dry crust jam
sandwiches and unwashed apples we brought to school on horseback, wrapped in wax
paper in brown paper bags. The noodles in the hot soups we made on the potbellied
stove looked like thin white worms. The soups consisted mostly of these sparse noodles
and turgid golden liquid swimming with chicken fat. The water for the soup came from
the barrel in the small lobby, where the big boys in grade Eight gathered before
The cloakroom smelled like wet wool coats and mittens, and old leather boots.
There in class one day I learned that Humphrey Bogart had died, a cinematic idol I
knew of but vaguely, as my parents didn't go to movies nor take us to movies, other
than Song of the South and, later, The Snows of Kilimanjaro. We didn’t know about The
African Queen or Casablanca nor any of the great movies of the 1940s which pre-
existed our little community's narrow timeframe. When Mrs. Bates, our teacher,
announced that Humphrey Bogart had died, the class sat immobile, stunned not by
disbelief and anguish, but by ennui and ignorance. Our schoolhouse held at most twelve
or fourteen students, from Grade 1 to Grade 8, and we were the products mostly of
Norwegian and German immigrants; my parents of Scottish origin outcasts in our little
We read comic books and listened from Seattle on clear nights to our battery-operated
wooden radios, especially The Lone Ranger and The Shadow Knows. World news of
the Korean War conflict also crackled into our home, but it was not instant news as it is
today. One old crank telephone in the house across from the school served the whole
community, and thus the flash that Humphrey Bogart had died reached our ears before
our parents knew.
Bogie smoked – a lot – a cigarette perpetually drooped from his lips like a wet diaper.
He smoked like John Wayne or, in my time, James Dean, and only Dean escaped the
fate of a heavy smoker back then; Dean was killed in a car crash before the cancer got
into his blackened lungs like it did Bogie and the Duke.
Years after that, I saw Bogie in the iconic The African Queen and later, Casablanca,
and with Peter Lorre in The Maltese Falcon. All made me wonder why my parents had
neglected this magic to muck in the soil of their farmyards during the day and read
science fiction and nursing paperbacks at night by the light of a kerosene lamp? Why
the stories had all been of war as far as I could remember, our father shell-shocked but
diverting. Our mother was piqued at me as the firstborn for dragging her to this outback
of the Peace River country, but glad World War II had spared my father and granted her
not one but four lively babies for the company she had craved since an orphan raised
by grandparents in the faraway and mythical land of Ontario.
Of course, I smoked. It seemed that everyone smoked back then. All the cool kids in
high school. I was not cool but tried desperately to fit in with classmates two years older
than I, due to a somewhat delusional idea in fourth grade that children could be
escalated in school before their emotional maturity. So, I was in Grade 12 at sixteen
years of age, not fitting in with my peers, and too proud to accept less than solitary
defiance. I married at eighteen.
Before my son was conceived, I quit smoking, though, and he was born healthy and
stoic. He grew eventually into a kind and large man, through the dangerous nineteen
seventies and into his own during the eighties, an era he would always cherish. His
name was Steve. I say his name was Steve because he no longer strides on the
pathways of Earth.
That, and he did not smoke, though cancer inevitably killed him quickly at forty-four
years of age.
Somewhere in the darkness Steve’s father waited, dead in a motorcycle crash for all
these years. Forty-one of them. Long and difficult years for Steve without a father.
Difficult years for the growing boy ten years later, whose mother was an alcoholic and
mentally ill, and whose stepfather abused him emotionally and physically. Happiness
eventually trickled up from high school friends, work friends, school, work, play, and
2012. The apocalypse. He loved to sit in his boxers after work and be a geek. He loved
robots, video games, expert tunes on his guitar, computers, and reading sci-fi. Some
kind of genius with computers and electronic devices, Steve as a child told his cousin a
story of a robot in our garage. The robot was a symbol of sorts in later years, a kindly
automaton bridging the crossover between worlds.
I want you both to know I love you very much. Steve sat hunched between his sister
and mother on this bright summer day, with the news of the terminal illness which would
take his life within a few weeks. His sister, his closest family member and best friend,
courageous and supportive, irreparably suffered. His mother, stunned and mute.
The robot’s eyes glowed in the black outside the open curtains where Steve lay in pain,
the cancer snaking throughout his entire body from the original source. We were made
for each other, the robot said, and spread its arms. Steve stepped into the void
between them, kindlier than the world, full of stars and darkness.
Cancer waited to claim him on the last day of summer, September 21, 2012.
He had waited, too, for cruel death, morphine, needles, the end in his hospital bed at home. He took a breath then did not take another one – and was gone. The night closed on a light snuffed out and a little bit of love gone from the world.
"Our memories keep him alive, but the apocalypse came—as inevitably, for all of us, it
will. Take it to the Limit." - The Eagles 1976
Bogart and Wayne looked askance at the robot on Heaven’s roiling cloud.
“What the hell you doing here, mechanical man?”
“I’ve come with him,” whispered the little piece of electronics, holding the hand of the
James Dean, a later incarnation than Bogey but he waited for the Duke, sauntered up to
the men. Behind him, a Porsche Spyder convertible roared to shuddering life.
“That’s some horse you got there,” drawled John Wayne.
“It’s beautiful,” Steve murmured.
Bogey flicked a thin long finger at nothing in particular. “What’s beautiful, son?”
Dazed, the recently deceased cast his cerulean gaze past the corridors of turbid cloud.
“I saw it,” Steve murmured, sturdy legs planted on the shifting surface of the sky. His
thighs were pillars of oak and his upper arms corded with muscle. Well over six feet
three inches tall, his new body was a furnace of strength. “I saw it before I left. It was
beautiful. I’m an atheist, Dean.”
James Dean settled into the driver’s seat of his burrowing Porsche.
“There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio…”
Steve grinned his old grin and said with a dry humor so like his former self, “Now take
me to your leader, puny Human.”
“Never stop exploring, Odds and Ends,” Dean replied, and the Porsche became cloud.
A star dips in the eastern sky; the star Odysseus followed. Steve’s sister follows that
star, as well, to the depths of the cerulean oceans and the ends of the jungle screaming
lion where the monkey beats on monkey chests and somewhere in a European city the
smoke stacks belch new contamination to a new world not the old.
She follows on a fissure of lava to an opening in the dawn where a sliver of white moon
hangs over a pink and blue mountain. This new moon appears surreal, as though three
or four moons ought to hang in an alien sky alongside it. Her name is Kristine and her
father wanted to call her Kenna, but her mother did not love her name as her father did,
and so her mother said no. That was enough. No is enough in any relationship or
language, or should be, and now Kenna regrets the decision, but she really did not like
her name at the time. Now she likes it. If her daughter were named Kenna (the second
name) then Kenna would think the syllable misplaced. That was one of the reasons.
Their daughter would be beautiful and brilliant, and she was. Her name was chosen for
that future and it is a good name. Kenna is proud of the name Kristine as it is Christ
centered without the Christ, as her father wished, and it is a Latin baby name that
means follower of Christ. They could have called her Christel. They could have called
her Shannon, but again, her father did not like that name because he had known a boy
called Shannon, and this was his cherished daughter. Shannon was her great, great
grandmother’s name. But as it happened, Kristine was named after no one because she
was going to be proud, independent, and wise, and her own woman, likely in a career of
her choosing. And she is.
The robot took Steve by the hand and led him to the turbid roiling clouds of Heaven.
Maybe it is Purgatory, if one were Catholic in faith. James Dean is there, Humphrey
Bogart, and John Wayne. Also, my son sees swooping from the upper reaches of
Purgatory a figure who looks almost like him. Neither are wearing eyeglasses, as they
were constrained to in life; both have perfect vision, and his father now approaches him
on the wing of a 5.72-meter Sopwith Camel. The Camel is piloted by a boy in a yellow
and green striped shirt. His father wears a dark green poet’s shirt and white bell
bottoms. The year is 1971. There is a dark stain on the back of his father’s head.
That brings Kenna to the point where she does not intend to grow older but she won’t
die, either. She will simply stay twenty in her mind and sixty in her body, and that is that.
She has a fine, strong body. Like an ox.
Her mind wavers at times but is interested in the dark stain on the back of her
husband’s head. He does not know she suffers now from paranoid schizophrenia, first
diagnosed five years after he died. Its signs were apparent during their marriage, but
they did not know that.
Some time when she was in the eighth grade in the country school and the “big boys”
bullied her little sister, Kenna took up a poker and smacked the long useless sock of the
bully so he stopped. Kenna’s sister didn’t fear the bullies when Kenna was around. But
Kenna did not remember that, she had to be told, and her memories are besmirched by
black clouds. Her sister is very helpful in clearing the clouds away.
Two dates are important and nothing is important. August 8, 1970 when her daughter
was born. And September 21, 2012 when her son died. There is nothing else. Oh, there
are other dates, but they all blend and blur into one finally. The birth of her eldest. The
death of her husband. Her own birth, and there’s always the existential question: the
No, not the date of Kenna’s death. But the dream she had once of thousands of people
gathered together in an outdoor stadium. Blue-black clouds boil and thunder through the
sky, the people look upwards, a shaft of light beams through the cloud and the clouds
open up. The people gasp and some cry “Hallelujah!” They are sure the Lord is coming
in glory. Then the airships arrive, striking with deadly accuracy the hordes of humanity,
with pinpoint and horrifying laser warfare from alien crafts and alien death weapons.
The people all fall to the ground bloody and mortally wounded. The Lord has not come a
second time. They are visited with destruction.
The dream ends.
One death is like the death of millions. A million deaths are like the death of one. We
cannot imagine life without our individual candle glowing in the darkness of a multitude
It was never my intention to die, nor to watch a loved one die.
Kenna McKinnon is a Canadian freelance writer. She graduated from the University of
Alberta with a BA with Distinction. Kenna is a member of the Writers' Guild of Alberta
and the Canadian Authors Association. She has three children and three grandsons.
Her hobbies include fitness, reading, walking, and entertaining friends. She was first
diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia in 1978.