Timothy Heppner is a frustrated ghostwriter struggling to make ends meet in Edenfeld, a small Mennonite community bulldozing its way towards modernity--if it's old, it has to go!
A member of the Preservation Society but desperate to keep his job with the mayor's Parks and "Wreck" department, Timothy finds himself in an awkward position when he is hired to write an updated version of the town's history book. Fuelled by warring loyalties, the threat of personal bankruptcy, and a good deal of fried bologna, Timothy must find his own voice to tell the one story that could make--or break--him.
Honest and laugh-out-loud funny, Once Removed explores the real costs of "progress" in this new Canadian classic.
They cut down twenty trees by the Co-op this week. Elms. They claimed they were diseased and marked each one with a red dot just hours before the Thiessen boys came with their chainsaws. The whole time I sat there in the truck with the engine idling and the radio tuned to the funeral announcements, waiting for Mr. Vogt to pound on the hood a couple times and say, "Na, Timothy, looks like you're good to go." Then I hauled it all off to the dump to be burned.
It wasn't a pleasant scene, all those trees coming down and the barren land left there afterwards, but I did have some reason to be optimistic. The last time a whole row of trees went down like this, there was a liquor store on the cleared lot within months. It's our first one and, rumour has it, the busiest in rural Manitoba. Now we don't have to sneak off to Ste. Adèle for booze. We can get our wine-in-a-box right here in Edenfeld. Another patch of elms was declared diseased to make way for a dollar store. Progress is progress. Katie and I have a beautiful mature tree in our backyard too, but thankfully it's behind the house and therefore in an undesirable location for commercial enterprise. I worry about those tall ones on Wilshire, though. They're oaks, remnants of a large stand that predates European settlement in this area. There's a plaque nearby stating as much, which appears to have protected them from the ambitions of local land developers and/or mayors who also happen to be land developers.
I asked Mr. Vogt about the land by the Co-op, if he knew what was happening to it, but all he said was, "Mayor's orders," and he left the rest to my imagination. I'm not sure that was a good idea, because I can envision some pretty awful things cropping up on that lot. Probably another donut shop with inadequate drive-through space. Mr. Vogt says it's better not to ask too many questions.
Edenfeld prides itself on our aggressive disease prevention program, which requires the swift removal of trees that are past their prime and buildings that, in Mr. Vogt's words, "attract vermin if left to their own devices." These are the very same trees and buildings that other towns might try to preserve for environmental or historical reasons. According to the sign on the highway, Edenfeld was founded in 1876, but good luck finding anything older than about 1990. There are some exceptions, of course, but the Parks and Rec department is rapidly making them a thing of the past.
Once things seemed under control at the Co-op, Mr. Vogt tasked me with picking the dandelions at BLT Wiens Memorial Park. BLT Wiens is actually still alive and still our mayor, but the town figured it would be more economical to include the word "Memorial" right away rather than waiting to add it in later. I was told to pick the weeds by hand, and with the three Thiessens busy felling the last of the trees, the job was mine alone. Chemical herbicides are banned in our province, a recent law that greatly upset Edenfeld politicians who feel that "weeding is a strictly civic matter." BLT explained all this in an angry memo that, for some reason, also specified that we couldn't even use citrus juice to kill the weeds, but I think that had less to do with the environmental impact and more to do with maintaining our thriving local potluck scene, which has always relied on an ample supply of lemon meringue pie, among other varieties. The new weeding process is much more labour-intensive, such that the mayor's eponymous park is the only one in town that receives this level of attention.
Mr. Vogt said I should bring my chainsaw.
"Not for the dandelions, of course," he clarified, "but if you see an elm that looks iffy, go for it!" He always speaks a little louder than necessary, which makes him a suitable candidate to run a demolition crew, but not someone to chat with for prolonged periods in the church lobby.
I didn't get all the dandelions picked, but by the end of the work day I had more than enough to fill a pail for Mr. Harder. I was supposed to meet him after work at Ernie's Diner above the gas station. I figured I could spare a pail of dandelions, since Mr. Harder's wine-making supply is always running low and he's one of my favourite clients. I've been working on his family history book for a while now.
Katie and I are hoping that eventually I can transition to writing full-time, but at the moment the Parks and Rec job pays the bills. My friend Randall says my life is "fraught with cognitive dissonance." He admits his is too, only for reasons that he never fully articulates, but which I assume have something to do with the fact that he's unmarried and well into his thirties and the pressure is on from his mother to do something about that situation.
I'm a ghostwriter--or trying to be, anyway. This means I write books for other people. So does Randall. We're guns for hire, so to speak, though around here gun analogies are generally frowned upon. As much as I'd prefer to spend my days preserving the memories of Edenfeld's senior citizens, rather than demolishing heritage buildings to create space for yet another strip mall, I simply can't afford that luxury. I have a mortgage to pay and a wife who's finishing her master's in contemporary philosophy and there isn't enough ghostwriting work to keep both Randall and me employed full-time.
"Not yet," Katie always says.
Mr. Harder is into trees too. There's one right outside the manor where he lives that is said to be a descendant of the Great Oak of Chortitza. It was planted by Edenfeld's pioneers using seeds they brought from the old country. Sometimes, when the weather is nice, we sit on the porch swing at the manor and he never fails to point it out and say, "That tree over there, Timothy, is frindschauft of the famous Great Oak." He asked me to dedicate an entire chapter to the Great Oak of Chortitza. I felt it was a bit much for only one tree, but he insisted. He travelled to Russia and Ukraine in the nineties on one of those Mennonite history tours where he took dozens of photos of the famous Great Oak, including at least a couple that weren't completely out of focus. He wants to include about thirty pages' worth in his book. "It'll be the most comprehensive visual documentation of the Great Oak ever put into print," he boasted. I assured him that even at one or two pages he'd still have the record.
"When I went there," said Mr. Harder, "there weren't more than a handful of branches that still had green leaves on them."
He showed me a snapshot that confirmed his assessment.
"It looks dead," I observed.
"Oh, it's not dead," he assured me. "Just dying."
I told him its prospects were about as good as any of the trees here in Edenfeld. He laughed. He gets me. I guess that's why he hired me to ghostwrite his latest book for him. It's tentatively titled The Harder Path: Problems and How We Overcame Them from Molotschna to Southern Manitoba by Dietrich F. Harder. The book is the third in a series after Working Hard and Praying Harder: Life on the Farm and a slim volume that documents his father's declining years called You Know, Quite Frankly, It's Never Been Harder. Randall wrote that one.
A large chunk of Mr. Harder's new book is based on the notes he took during that trip to Eastern Europe twenty-five years ago, only his recollection of the facts is rather suspect and his spelling is all over the place. However, checking facts and correcting spelling are just two of the many services a ghostwriter can provide. That's what Randall and I always tell clients anyway, you know, to drum up business. Our mysterious ability to boot up a computer also seems to impress the locals, and we're some of the only people around here reasonably proficient with a word processor. This is a great embarrassment for the mayor, who considers himself a real progressive. For a while, he even offered a course at the library called "Computer Usage for Mennonites and Other Beginners," but only six people signed up and most of them were just in it for the free cheese curds and rolled up slices of processed ham the town provided for attendees. The event wasn't entirely useless; BLT used a photo of his students peering with bewilderment into their computer monitors for one of his campaign mailers.
I enjoy working with Mr. Harder, but it can be confusing at times. Over the centuries, the Harders lived in three different countries in three successive villages each called Edenfeld, a name that refers to the Garden of Eden, and one that's more blindly optimistic than accurate. Given the large number of villages Mennonites have christened with that name, I often have to clarify, "You mean Edenfeld, Russia, not Edenfeld, Canada, right?" and Mr. Harder isn't always sure, so sometimes we look at the photos and guess based on what people are wearing or how much snow has accumulated in front of the houses, but even then, it isn't always conclusive. There were Edenfelds all over the place in the old country, each one of them abandoned a long time ago. There used to be more than one here too. There was another Edenfeld on the other side of the river that was labelled on old maps as "Lower Edenfeld," probably because it was a few miles closer to the American border. The whole town escaped to Paraguay long ago, where they hacked out rich farmland from dense jungle. Our Edenfeld is closer to the city, which means on weekends we escape to the mall and hack our way through dense crowds to get deals on yoga pants.
Mr. Harder also tends to mix up the Bolsheviks and Makhnovists and has real difficulty recalling what particular torture device was used against our people in what particular time period. "I don't think they used tongue screws in the Soviet Union," I recall telling him. But he replied, "Oh, yes, yes they did, to silence the heretics from preaching while they were being burned at the stake." His timeline is often way off.
When five o'clock rolled around, I took my dandelions and went over to the diner for our meeting. I have an ongoing arrangement with Ernie to save the table that overlooks the street so I can observe the locals and document their idiosyncrasies for future writing projects. Since Ernie very much appreciates the volume of plautz I consume, he's willing to reserve this prime spot for me. He even puts one of those triangular signs at the edge of the table that says "Reserved for a Valued Customer," which is usually covered in grease and always makes me feel appreciated.
When I arrived that day, however, the greasy sign wasn't there and I saw that Ernie had given my spot to City Sheila, who has lived in Edenfeld for two full decades, but has maintained this nickname due to her English surname and liberal use of eyeliner. Ernie apologized to me and said he would ask Sheila to move. It was a simple oversight--no big deal--but Ernie seemed quite eager to move Sheila to another spot. I imagine he didn't want her well-made-up face, with her fiery red lipstick, greeting customers as they approached the building. She sells cosmetics from the trunk of her car, and the fact that her ostentatious pink convertible was parked in Ernie's lot was probably not to his liking either. He spoke to her in Plautdietsch and she had no clue what the man was blathering on about, but with me standing there awkwardly and Ernie flapping his arms, she must have gathered there was an issue.
It was an issue for Ernie anyway. I told them both that it was fine and I'd find another table, but by then City Sheila was already standing with her cutlery in hand, ready to move, and I felt terrible about the whole situation.
I asked her for a catalogue and promised I'd order a few nail files and a cuticle trimmer for Katie.
"I feel awful about this," I said in English. "I really didn't need the table."
City Sheila sighed. "It's no problem," she said. "I know how Ernie can get."
I sat down and ordered a coffee and piece of rhubarb plautz, my favourite. I left the menu open in front of me in case I wanted to order more, the whole time wondering what on earth was keeping Mr. Harder. He was already twenty minutes late and that didn't even factor in the twenty minutes by which he was usually early. We were supposed to discuss his older brother David and the time he spent in the World War II Conscientious Objector camp out west. He claims David single-handedly built nine miles of the Trans-Canada Highway with nothing but a pickaxe and a shovel, including a stretch that went right on through the heart of the Rocky Mountains. Mr. Harder even showed me a piece of rock that he'd kept as a memento all these years. "Blasted straight through that mountain, he did." This was yet another story that could probably use a fact check.
I glanced down to the street below, anticipating Mr. Harder's arrival. The server with the tongue piercing came to warm up my coffee, even though I'd hardly touched it. She's new; one of Ernie's nieces he's trying to persuade to stay in Edenfeld by offering her a few hours at the diner and turning a blind eye to her perforated tongue. When she saw that the cup was still full, she raised an eyebrow and asked if there was something wrong with it. I said it was fine and smiled, trying to be pleasant. For a moment, I considered making a comment about her mouth jewelry, but quickly thought better of it. The urge to make small talk with strangers is something I have to suppress and, thankfully, at my age I still can, but I'm sure in twenty or thirty years I'll be the guy chatting up the server. "So, Rebecca," I'll say, leaning in to read her name tag. Then I'll tell her how her piercing reminds me of our distant ancestors who were tortured for their faith, and I'll ask her how it feels to have a piece of metal in her tongue and if it prevents her, in any way, from sharing the gospel. For now I kept quiet, though, and instead peered out the window to the street below, watching Edenfelders go about their daily lives.
It was hot that day, well above thirty, or what Mr. Harder would call ninety, but despite the near-suffocating temperature, Ernie was too cheap to turn on the AC. "Once it hits a hundred, then we'll talk." The windows were wide open and I could hear cars honking and cattle lowing in the distance. Is that the right word? Lowing? Whatever it's called, they were making the noise that cows tend to make when they're in distress or mating or whatever and, though I could not confirm it with my own eyes, I imagined that the two sounds, that of the cars and that of the cows, were somehow connected. The cars, I assumed, were honking at the cows, or the cows, perhaps, were expressing their displeasure at the traffic. Whenever a cow breaks free from its pasture, the Parks and Rec crew has to go out there and scoop manure off the street.
The corner of Sunset and Main is the commercial hub of town, or it once was anyway. However, since almost everyone does their shopping in the city these days, at one of those massive stores where they load the puffed wheat onto the back of your truck with a forklift, Edenfeld's Main Street is not nearly as bustling as you might expect. BLT is desperately hoping to attract exactly such a facility to Edenfeld, which will keep some of that puffed wheat money in town, he says. He's even constructed a new road called Megamart Way, which tends to confuse out-of-towners when they discover that it's nothing but wishful thinking at the moment. It does, however, lead to a very attractive ditch.
Down on the street, a jogger ran past, his head high and smiling like his favourite Phil Collins song had just come on through his headphones or he'd beat his personal best for most laps up and down Main Street. He ran on the spot for a while, waiting for the light to change, then carried on past a woman in a long floral dress who was rollerblading in front of the café. I wrote all this down. The rollerblading woman stopped to chat in Plautdietsch with another woman in a similar dress who was wearing white sneakers instead of rollerblades and so seemed very short in comparison. Both were wearing headscarves. The rollerblading one seemed upset about something and was speaking sternly and using her height advantage to tower over the other woman. I wasn't sure what exactly they were arguing about, but I gathered from the frequent use of the word "heena" that it had something to do with chickens. I didn't want to lean too close to the window, though, because even though my Plautdietsch isn't that great, I didn't want them to know I was listening. Instead, I gazed into the distance, like I was looking past them at that huge stack of cabbages across the street at Frugal Frank's Groceries and More, but I kept writing what I could glean from their interaction. I record details like this in my notebook hoping that if I ever write my own book, and not just other people's stories, this material might be of some value.
When the server in the kerchief, not the one with the pierced tongue, came up and asked me what I was writing and if I'd like a hot bowl of borscht or maybe a lovely schnetje with strawberry jam, I said I was fine and that I was writing an obituary notice, which was the most plausible answer I could conjure at the moment. I didn't want to reveal my penchant for eavesdropping on the locals.
"Oh, I'm sorry to hear that. Was it someone close to you?"
I nodded and she offered to pray for me even though I said it wasn't necessary. She kept it brief, reciting something from memory, presumably because there was a table full of elderly women in red hats who needed her attention.
When Mr. Harder finally showed up, I greeted him from the window, then readied my notes as he made his way up the stairs. I had brought along a stack of history books and a few issues of Preservings. I figured this stuff would be useful source material for our project. I'd done a lot of research. I even got my hands on The Harder Book, which was packed with genealogies and baptismal records and maiden names of each and every person in the family tree since the mid-eighteenth century. Each Harder family has their own book because, as I'm sure you know, not all Harders are closely related. Some came in the 1870s fleeing the tsar and some came in the 1920s fleeing the people who replaced the tsar. Some are jantsied Harders and some are ditsied Harders and some are from the mysterious Scratching River settlement. There are even the Mexico Harders and a few branches of those too. This particular volume was thick and brown and embossed with gold lettering that said "Descendants of Heinrich B. Harder and Anna R. Funk (1723-1980)." It was the hardcover edition.
You can tell a lot about the relative stature of an Edenfeld family by examining the quality of binding used in their family history books, a practice that has continued despite stern admonishment from local churches. According to Reverend Broesky, hardcover bindings are a symbol of worldly pride. "How presumptuous!" he exclaimed. "These books are not the Bible. There is no need for these stories to be preserved for all eternity. No, brothers and sisters, in most cases a simple Xerox on the church copier will be more than sufficient." Despite the warning, many Edenfeld families continue to showcase their status with hardcover bindings. The Harders, the evidence would suggest, are among our more prominent citizens.
It took Mr. Harder a while to get up the stairs, even after Ernie went down to give him a hand. When they entered the room a few minutes later, Mr. Harder had Ernie firmly gripped at the elbow and they were muttering to each other in our language and it seemed that neither man was too pleased with how the other one was handling matters. I stood to greet Mr. Harder. He was well dressed, as always, with a clean collared shirt, pressed pants, and a brand new pair of black suspenders. He waved enthusiastically, buoyed by Ernie's ability to keep him upright, then shuffled towards me. I shoved the bucket of dandelions out of the way with my foot so he wouldn't trip over it.
"Jo, oba, how are you?" he said. "Sorry I'm late."
He reached for a can of Orange Crush from the cooler and raised his index finger at the server. She added it to his tab. There was a tray of plautz in the cooler as well, each piece individually wrapped in plastic, which he scanned very skeptically before saying "jauma" loud enough for the serving staff to hear.
"Good idea," I said. "They're not so fresh."
He noted that City Sheila seemed to be enjoying hers, but then commented that she'd only lived in Edenfeld for two decades and probably hadn't yet developed a sophisticated enough palate for such things.
Mr. Harder motioned for me to sit down. He even put his hand on my shoulder briefly and I found the physical contact to be rather out of character. Again, he apologized for being late and said I could charge him for an extra half hour. He shook his head.
"What passes for plautz these days ..."
I cleared a place at the table, brushing aside my crumbs, and put The Harder Book in front of him. I was excited to hear what he thought about my new discoveries.
"This should be useful, shouldn't it?" I asked. "Found it at a garage sale. They wanted ten dollars, but I got it for half that. Can you believe it?"
He inched his chair forward, opened the book, and paged through it indifferently, glancing up at me from the top of his glasses. Then he pushed the book back into my hands without bothering to close it.
"I'm familiar with The Harder Book," he said, pausing for a moment in an unsuccessful attempt to open his Orange Crush. "Listen, Timothy, I think we need to make a few changes."
"To The Harder Book?"
It was a stupid question. The Harder Book was already in print and had been for decades. It was hardcover. It was on the shelves of every Harder family in town. There simply was no changing The Harder Book.
"I don't think you quite understand me," he said.
I sure didn't. I closed the book. Perhaps he'd be interested in the article I found about his uncle who'd been in the Selbstschutz back in Russia. I had the page ready to go and marked with an insert from the church bulletin. Before I could show it to him, though, he reached out to stop me. His hand was cold. Mine was a little damp.
"Listen, Timothy ... I hate to tell you this, but ..."
At this point, the server checked in and, noticing that Mr. Harder had still not opened the can, offered to pour it into a glass for him.
"Need a straw?" she asked.
"No, I won't be staying long," he said. "I'll take it with me."
"Well, anyway," I said, "I was thinking about chapter four where David is standing before Judge Adamson and--"
"You're not hearing me," said Mr. Harder.
"Was it Judge Adamson or Judge Embury?"
He shook his head, slowly and with great difficulty, then rubbed his neck as if he wished he hadn't been quite so vigorous with the head-shaking.
"No, I mean you don't understand. We can't continue like this," he said. "The book you're writing for me."
I leaned back in my chair and motioned for more coffee. I thought maybe another cup would put this conversation back in a more productive direction. She arrived promptly and topped me up, but Mr. Harder covered his cup with his hand and stared at me.
"I'm sure you don't want to be bothered with this project anymore, do you?" he asked.
"What do you mean? Of course I do," I said, then clarified myself. "It's not a bother. I'm enjoying it."
He stood up, which took quite some effort, and turned his attention to the window. His wife was waiting in the car below, the seats packed full of watermelons.
"Well, Timothy, I wish we could continue, but we have to consider other factors," he said. "Today will be our last meeting, I'm afraid."
"Seriously? Why? I thought things were going well."
I couldn't figure it out. Had my Iron Maiden T-shirts finally set him off? Perhaps he'd found a more affordable option, a willing relative who could hunt-and-peck their way through a manuscript.
"What should I do differently?" I asked. "I'd be glad to hear about any changes you'd like me to make. Your feedback would be very useful."
Mr. Harder didn't answer, but handed me a cheque.
"I think this should cover the work you've done so far," he said, then rummaged around in his pocket for a five-dollar bill. "And this is for the Orange Crush ... and the coffee."
I slipped the cheque into my wallet without looking at it. Mr. Harder took his unconsumed beverage and ambled over to the door where Ernie helped him down the stairs. I glanced out the window and saw his wife slide the watermelons over to make room for her husband. I waved as he left, but I'm not sure he noticed. By that time, the women in the floral dresses were gone too.
I waited for a while, finished my coffee, and paid the bill. I hadn't been able to give Mr. Harder the bucket of freshly picked weeds. As I made my way out of the building, I told City Sheila that she could take the table, and keep the dandelions too, if she wished.
An affectionate pastiche of small-town Mennonite life, replete with duty, folly, irreverence and joy. -David Bergen, Stranger
Hilarious as Schitt's Creek, sinister as Hitchcock, Once Removed gives us Timothy Heppner, the quintessential non-resistant Mennonite, in a comic tour de force that exposes the friction between progress and preservation, ethnic pride and ethnic embarrassment, commerce and heritage, truth and boosterism, and the coercion and acquiescence that is as real to the big city as to a small town. -Armin Wiebe, Grandmother Laughing