Johnston is a Saskatchewan writer who works as a surveyor in BC.
The Underdog is from A Day Does Not Go By (Nightwood 2002).
The manuscript for the collection won the 2002 David Adams Richards
* * * * * * * * *
The underdog was drawing water,
with that horrible clanging and creaking machine. He was at that
terrible well, and paused to put his hair behind his ears. The
bucket was too big for him. It was too big for all of us, but
he insisted on going. We needed water.
"I'll be careful,"
he said all the time.
There were snipers all around,
in those days. We can't explain it now, but we took it for granted
then. He was at that well, and we waited for the crack of a gunshot.
"I'll be careful,"
he had said. Sure enough, he was.
It's a different kind of care,
he would say. Degrees and so on. The care in tying a shoelace,
not the care in avoiding moving wheels. The care in not breathing
second-hand smoke or wearing very tight briefs, not the care of
stooping just under the bullet.
His face was red with exertion
and we waited for the air to change sounds-a gunshot, a stop to
his labored breathing. When it did, we imagined the worst, naturally.
But it was only the platform had broken. He was all right but
for the broken ankle.
A doctor was sent for. He smiled
and sweated. We boiled our tea. We understood.
The ground is soft and wet this
morning. The movies play on. This air is fresh!
We watch the underdog. What will
he do now? And we cheer for him silently. He doesn't know he's
The preacher's wife was disappointed.
"It's a pity we loved him,"
Her hair was trim and dark. Her
narrow hips confined her movements to thin arcs, and the gestures
of her lips showed us no one knew better. When she continued speaking,
and anger sparked in her eyes, the preacher broke out of his meditation,
moved to see her as human.
"We have all been misled,"
he agreed. "Now let's begin the next part. Let's begin to
learn what this man is, if he is not an underdog."
In the antique room, with its
stale walls beaten and full of holes, the air was fresh. It came
from outdoors. The underdog sipped tea with us, keeping his ankle
carefully elevated, propped on a pile of rubble. The rubble was
on a warm wood hope chest that had been disfigured by fire.
I looked at the preacher and
his wife. He was taking it better than she was. The doctor was
embarrassed. The gunfire had gone somewhere else, but the signs
of the war did not let us believe it was gone forever.
You all think of your roles,
I thought, and look at the underdog smile. Look at how tired he
is. Look at his missing ear. See his bent ankle and its makeshift
cast, a tight bandage made stiff by dirt. How has his injury made
him less an underdog?
When he fell asleep, or when
we heard him snore to prove he was asleep, the doctor could honestly
address us all:
"Look, I am a doctor,"
he said. "My job is to make people better. My job is to heal
people if I can. I'm sorry."
None of the cowards would admit
they cared. I also said nothing.
The war is ending and there are
trains to catch. A small woman from the city, Lara, speaks to
him on the platform. We wince as we see them both smile.
She holds her tiny purse with
both hands in front of her, and looks down at her feet. He blushes
when she looks up again, catching him in full rapturous stare
at a ringlet that falls from her tight pink hat just in front
of her ear. She kisses him on the cheek and whispers her phone
number. Specific to the period, nice girls don't do that.
She comes from a nice family
and she's going nowhere, but enjoys herself. She does nothing
wrong, exactly. But when she does right, it's not necessarily
on purpose. Is it wrong?
I said it in a bar once and it
didn't go over very well, except with the preacher's wife.
"Sometimes I would like
it all to be done with," I said.
Because some of it, honestly,
is pure cruelty. There are times when I want it to be over. I
want him to be just a figure. Just an idea.
The preacher raised his head
and said we all do, then lowered his eyes to the table again.
His wife had asked for the car keys hours ago.
"I mean I want sometimes
to do it myself," I said. "I want to knock him down.
I want to see the stunned look on his face!"
I slammed my glass on the table
and pulled a cigarette from the pocket of the preacher's wife's
"It's like rubbing a sore,"
I explained. "Sometimes I can't look at him but I do."
The preacher had his eyes shut
and was smiling. His wife took my hand.
"Then next time you see
him and he's happy or sleeping-" she said.
"You can't help it! You
want him beaten and tired!"
We weren't that drunk, the preacher's
wife and me. The preacher opened his eyes. He took his wife's
other hand. He couldn't believe what he was hearing.
"He's a fine man,"
he said, mostly to himself. "You want to hurt him?"
Our waitress came by and we sobered
up with coffee. The underdog came in, in one of his good moods.
I smiled and said hello.
The preacher had enough shame
for all of us.
The preacher's wife had her tongue
in his ear and I don't think he noticed.
"Off to the movies with
Lara!" the underdog said with a wink. His poor red face wanted
his body to run, but he walked to the door without skipping.
we said, but he was already gone and he already knew.
Free, after the war, a survived
underdog, the ultimate hero, he went about it all wrong. He did
what he could. He muddled through. He eked out a living.
Lara was gone. We knew she would
be. She had found a man who, if he had ever been less than a hero,
hid it extremely well. They loved each other and who's to say?
Things are right for a reason. The green lawn and the sunshine
is what we all want. The preacher's wife should never have married
him. She wanted a man who would die, she wanted Jesus Christ,
she wanted to be a widow, and who can say she was wrong? She cut
quite a figure. She worked her way into all of our hearts. The
preacher's too-but she would not let him be human, except in his
The underdog had a crisis of
faith years after the war.
"Everyone I know measures
themselves against their reaction to me," he said.
"Your excuses for the unfinished
house are wearing thin," his wife said, applying a lint brush
to the suit on his back. She held the brush up to the window and
looked at it in disgust.
"The children cannot see
me as their father -"
"Of course you're their
father," she said. "I can't believe the way some people
"They can't see me as their
father," he said, shaking his head.
He turned to face her and she
watched him silently, the lint brush still in her hand. He walked
over to the sink, taking his jacket off and hanging it on a kitchen
chair. He turned the tap on and ran himself a glass of water.
He held it to the light from the window and waited until the sediment
settled and he could see through it clearly. She sat down in the
chair his jacket was on and watched his back. A sweat stain was
beginning between his shoulder blades.
He drank the water and turned
"My own children pity me,"
She shook her head as she rose
and walked toward him.
"That was good," he
said, and ran more water. "Cold."
She put her arms around him and
leaned on his back, clasping her hands around his waist and pulling
herself more tightly toward him.
"I loved another woman once,"
"I know. Her name was Lara.
I knew her. We were friends."
"We all were," he said,
setting his glass on the counter and turning to face his wife.
His red face trembled. "I have failed at everything I ever
tried. My boy pities me and my daughter will as soon as she's
"They envy you," she
said. "Everyone does. Your boy wants to kill you sometimes.
That's just how boys are. Your daughter thinks you made this world
and everything in it."
"We are all exceptions,"
he said, hugging her tightly. "But sometimes I feel like
. . . "
Tears rolled from his eyes down
his sore face. She kissed him on the cheek.
. . . an archetype, he thought.
The underdog was tying ribbons
around some neighborhood trees the last time I saw him. I was
on my way to Kinko's for some copies.
"Hi there," he said.
I walked over to the graying
man squinting in the sunshine. He needed a rest.
"Good to see you,"
I said. "What is all this for?"
"Lara's son is one of the
hostages," he said, nodding sadly. Then he gave me a hug.
We're all still here. We all
still live in this town. He and his wife have a new child. Nobody
thought it would happen. There is a home on the outside of town
full of people the doctor has saved. The preacher went back to
school to be secularized. His wife was secularized as a baby.
I'm plastering the town with posters, asking everyone to reconsider.