The North has a knack for hammering out unforgettable, one-of-a-kind characters. The unforgiving elements strip you of all pretence and what you are left with is raw and naked, but refreshing truth. Of course you have those of whom books are written and songs are sung. But there are invisible ones too; people you'd never meet, captives born into the inescapable labyrinth of blood and circumstance which dogs so many born in the North.
One such character is my cousin Timothy. With all his twisted and tortured soul, Timothy was a bona fide "character"—quick witted, happy-go-lucky, with an honest enduring no-B.S. attitude. You either loved him, or hated him.
Timothy’s mother fell sick with TB shortly after his birth, leaving her husband to raise ten kids on his own. Unable to feed another mouth, Timothy was passed from foster home to foster home, eventually ending up at my grandmother’s bush camp in the Mackenzie Delta. When she died, my uncle inherited Timothy. And that’s when he came into my life, a skinny beak-nosed kid who, even at that young age, was as cocky as a teenager.
As kids, we’d accompany our fathers on hunting trips, joined by another cousin, Patrick. The three of us became inseparable, one could not go on a hunting trip without the others. If one of us was going, then we all had to go. Our lifelong bond was forged at the feet of our fathers.
We moved about the Mackenzie Delta with the seasons, trapping muskrats in March, setting traps in the hundreds of lakes in the delta, warming our hands on the red-hot Ski-Doo muffler when the sting of the cold became unbearable. When the ice went out in May, we’d shoot muskrats by the hundreds, competing to see who would shoot the most. Once in a while, Timothy would pull off a fluke and come home with more muskrats than Patrick or I. Always one to pull for the underdog, my father would slather him with praise. Timothy would puff out his chest and swagger across the cabin floor, his little fists balled up like he was Cassius Clay, then bust out laughing at the sorry sight of two grown boys too embarrassed to concede.
In June we’d move to the Delta fish camps, running “kickers” on our own at 12 and 13, checking fishnets, and fetching firewood and drinking-water. Sometimes we’d make the mistake of letting Timothy drive that little aluminum boat with the 20-horse kicker. It moved like a Camaro on water. He’d go full out through the narrow creeks, yanking us left, then right. He drove it like he stole it. Patrick and I were holding onto both gunnels for dear life, gritting stolen cigarettes between our teeth, Timothy laughing uncontrollably as we tried not to show fear. Once we landed safely, Patrick would chase him around to shut him up from laughing. Though he got under our skin, we were proud of him and loved him just the same.
Then it would be off to the coast to hunt beluga whales in the open waters of the Beaufort Sea, our dads teaching us how to spot the telltale blow of a pod of whales off in the horizon. Then the chase was on, adrenaline pumping through our veins as we learned how to read the water as whales tried to evade us underwater. After his dad would harpoon the whale, he would yell at Timothy to grab the .30-30 and shoot the whale dead. Barely big enough to hold up the gun, Timothy would lever a round, wait for the whale to surface, and in one quick motion shoulder the rifle and shoot. He could barely lift the gun, let alone aim at a moving target in a bobbing boat, but from time to time he would hit his mark, beating his chest like a champ. My dad would dump praise upon him like it was cheap. And Timothy would be smiling and waving like he was in a crowd of fans. We were the Three Amigos, inseparable and loyal to one another. That loyalty held us steady for what was to come.
Everyone in the North, at one time or another, was on the losing end of alcohol abuse. We all saw it. It was everywhere, a part of life. People abusing it, fighting, cheating, lying, freezing, bleeding, dying. It was apocalyptic. It would be unfair to say that Timothy’s life was not affected by it either. It was just a matter of time before we fell victim to it ourselves.
Though we continued to hunt together, those trips became less and less as we moved into our late teens and early twenties. We began working in the oil fields where fat cheques rolled in and out of our hands, most of it landing in the barmaid’s trays.
Timothy’s repressed anger began to surface. He became bitter and violent when drinking, oftentimes getting in trouble with the law. As much as Timothy was given, twice as much was taken away. He sank deeper and deeper into resentment and hostility. But through it all, he never laid any of it on Patrick or I. In fact, he would protect us when we’d stray to the wrong side of town, where Timothy was becoming more and more comfortable.
Patrick was the first to move out and start a family. Timothy did the same shortly after. But his relationships couldn’t compete with his lifestyle, and he lost the small family he started. I drifted from here to there, working in the oil patch and living the fast life. Our lives were never the same. And eventually, we stopped seeing one another.
Timothy turned more and more to the bottle to ease the sting of his demons, and perhaps, the breakup of his family. He became homeless and ended up on the streets of Yellowknife, cleaning sidewalks for a few dollars to make it through another day. But he was proud of his independence. He wore it like a badge. Even at that stage in his life, it was important for him to make it on his own.
Timothy’s humour became more cutting, unapologetic, and wicked, but always funny. I remember one time running into him on the street one bone-chilling January night. He was with a group of men, walking aimlessly, looking for a warm place to rest. When one of the men sat on the sidewalk in exhaustion, Timothy said matter-of-factly, “If he dies, I claim his boots.” It was a way to protect him from his cruel reality.
The rough and tumble life of a roughneck got the best of me. The darkness was swallowing me and I had to pull myself out. I quit that lifestyle and went back to school to study filmmaking. I was fortunate enough to have support, and always felt bad for Timothy because I knew he didn’t have what I had. He had the intelligence and the wit to make it, but he didn’t have the support. To tell you the truth, he burned that bridge a long time ago. We do that, sabotage ourselves.
I always made a point of tracking Timothy down when I passed through town, taking him for a hot meal and catch up on all the news of the North. If I could afford it, I’d slip him a twenty, never expecting it back. One time I was passing through and ran into him in the mall. He’d just got back from a three-month camp job and he was flush with cash. He had a mob of his street buddies on his tail as he swaggered through the mall in his regular fashion, already half in the bag at 11 a.m. We spotted one another and after a big bear hug, he flashed his wallet like a rapper and peeled off a crisp one hundred dollar bill. He turned to his friends and said, “You see this bum, I feel sorry for him,” and busted out laughing as he handed me my money back.
The women loved him too. He was always flirting with them, especially the store clerks in the mall where he was a fixture. “Hey blue eyes/walk through this world with me/pick me up on your way down,” references to the country and western songs we’d grown up with. They’d blush at his one-liners like schoolgirls. He was slick. Even dressed like he just got back from the North Pole; oversized moon boots, insulated coveralls, and a dirty torn work coat over top.
I switched careers and was working at a correctional facility in central Alberta when I checked my social media account. I was surprised to see that Timothy had an account. And that he was in a treatment centre on Vancouver Island and he was getting out next week. I sent him a message and told him where I was. He didn’t reply and I thought that was that. I was just happy that he’d finally sought some help.
Then later that week, I checked his status just for the hell of it, and he said he was driving through Calgary on his way north with a used car he’d bought in B.C. I’d never known Timothy to drive, let alone through B.C., and now Calgary? I finally got ahold of him as he was driving north towards me. We met at a café along the road for a short visit. I was over the moon to see him. He looked healthy and happy, and driving a decent set of wheels. The last time I’d seen Timothy, he was destitute and homeless. Hope was fading. But now, he was full of life and back to his old self, and I loved him for that.
One of the guys he was in the treatment centre with had bummed a ride with him back to Alberta. The way Timothy described it, it was a scene right out of a movie. Timothy, who could give two shits about traffic lights or laws for that matter, and a bugged out ex-junkie fearing for his very life as Timothy drove the wrong way down one-way streets, cars honking, Timothy flipping them the bird and swearing like a sailor as he swerved through traffic like he was dodging drift logs on the Mackenzie River. The automated Google Map guide was spitting new directions with every wrong turn. Timothy finally bid his new iPhone a profane farewell and tossed it in the back seat. His passenger was ready to bail at the next light. Timothy told him to cool his jets, in not so gentle terms, then rolled down his window and asked a guy at a stoplight, “Hey, how the hell do I get to Calgary?” The guy got him turned around and pointed him east. Follow the sun he said. I was ROTFLMFAO. Timothy was in the house.
I eventually cancelled my social media account and lost track of him. Until I got a call from my brother. Timothy had died. Sadly, he went back to his old lifestyle, and his heart could not take the abuse any longer. He’d ended up in the hospital with tubes and needles sticking out of him till he was unrecognizable. When his aunt went to visit him, he told her he didn’t think he would be on this earth too much longer. He didn’t mince his words.
Later that night, while he still had some strength, Timothy yanked all the tubes and needles out of his bruised and beaten body, dressed in his street clothes, and walked out of the hospital into the cold night. If death was at his door, he’d meet it halfway, not like an invalid. He had too much pride for that. He collapsed shortly after. His life had come to a tragic end.
The news hit me hard. He was the last guy I expected to die on the streets. But the odds were stacked against him. I could just see him, yanking all those needles and tubes out, like a stubborn old gunslinger who was going to what he knew was his last gunfight. If I could have been there to provide the soundtrack, I would have made my electric guitar scream as he walked out of the hospital—like Timothy lived his life, a scream.
I dreamt of a flock of geese last night. They were flying low, just in shotgun range. Timothy snatched his shotgun and pumped a shell into the barrel, never taking his eyes off the flock. He’s calling them in with all he’s got. “Eee-yuk! Eee-yuk!” They drop and come in to land at our decoys, wings deployed at full flap. Just as the web of their feet reach for the mud, Timothy stands in ambush. “Get ‘em boys,” he yells, and lets hellfire reign. They didn’t know what hit ‘em. Rest easy, bro. Rest easy.
DENNIS ALLEN is an award-winning filmmaker and songwriter. He grew up in Inuvik, NWT “when social media was a radio.” Enter the Sally Manning Award for Indigenous Non-Fiction