In mid-December of 2011 Frank Kuiack awoke with a sore eye. It was his left eye, and he rubbed at it, blinked, rubbed at it again but the eye remained sore. He lay in bed trying to remember if he had done anything to the eye -- splashed it, poked it -- but nothing came to him.
When he got out of bed and stood he was surprised to discover his vision was blurry as well. Not up close or mid-distance, mind, and not far-away all the time, but throughout the morning and at times of the day afterwards that he could never tell were about to come upon him, Frank couldn’t see.
He was in Cornwall when this happened, visiting his daughter for Christmas, and because of this Frank didn’t say anything. Figuring he would be a distraction. Figuring he was visiting family and there was probably no need to see great distances.
When he was back home, he waited three months for the eye to heal. Began to compensate by walking at an angle. Approaching objects from the left-hand side. Driving with his bad eye closed and rotating his head to make up for his loss of peripheral vision.
More than one person in Whitney, Ontario, the small village where Frank lived, had told him they’d seen him driving down Highway 60 the other day and, my Lord, what was you doing, Frankie?
“What do you mean?”
“Gawd, you wuz twistin’ your head back and forth like some damn fool bobble head.”
“Yeah, some damn fool bobble head. Or maybe there was some hornet trapped in the truck with you. But it’s March. So I figure you wuz a bobble head.”
“Wuz you drinkin’?”
When the questioning became too much for Frank he went to see a doctor. It was a young doctor who had just opened a practice in Pembroke, a ninety-minute drive from Whitney. The doctor shone a light into Frank’s eyes and then started twisting his head around to get a good look inside.
After doing that the doctor started tut-tutting. He was dressed in a white lab-coat that didn’t seem to fit him and a stethoscope that hung too low on his neck. Frank thought it strange, that a boy would be standing in front of him tut-tutting.
“You should have come to see me right away, Mr. Kuiack,” the doctor said. “Don’t know if we could have caught it in time, but there’s no sense dragging these things out. This must be painful, isn’t it?”
“Yes, I would imagine. You’re going to need surgery I’m afraid.”
“It’s that bad?”
“Bad enough. But completely treatable. You shouldn’t worry.”
Which worried Frank. Although not for reasons you might expect. Frank had spoken only Polish before being sent to Whitney Public School and of all the English words the boy was soon to learn, the word ‘shouldn’t’ would prove to be one of the more problematic.
Shouldn’t was a word that didn’t stand up straight, it seemed to Frank. Always hesitant and unsure of itself. Why, the list of shouldn’ts Frank had been warned about and gone ahead and done anyway was long and ongoing and there seemed to be no consequence to most of it.
None of which he told the boy-doctor, choosing to say instead:
“What ‘bout my other eye?”
“I suspect you’re going to have problems there before long as well, Mr. Kuiack.”
“Could I go blind cause of all this?”
… …… …
Frank drove home from Pembroke wondering if he could work as a one-eyed fishing guide.
He thought he would be all right in a canoe, and for most of the stuff you had to do in the bush, but could you drive in Ontario if you only had one eye? The government seemed to be sticklers about eyes. The one thing they tested you on each time you renewed your licence.
Had Frank ever seen a man wearing an eye-patch sitting behind a steering wheel?
He kept thinking. Driving through the mixed hardwood and pine forests that lay to the south of Algonquin Park; the village of Round Lake Centre, with a community centre in the middle of town where Frank remembered going to barn dances in the ‘50s and ‘60s.
He cut through Wilno, Canada’s oldest Polish settlement, where he was born in 1934, then through the villages of Barry’s Bay and Madawaska. Not long after that he was back in Whitney.
As he pulled into his driveway it still hadn’t come to him: the memory of a one-eyed man behind a steering wheel.
He headed to his basement door, thinking his bad eye might be more of a problem than he had first thought.
… … … …
The next day Frank phoned me. The call came early Tuesday evening, when I was preparing school lunches and about to take the dog for an evening walk. There was an hour-or-so worth of work to do in my study when I came back from the walk. Frank’s call was a welcome break from this nightly routine and I sat at the kitchen table to talk to him.
I believe the first thing he said after I sat down was:
“I think I’m going blind.”
“Goin’ blind. Or half-blind. I don’t know. I can’t see out my left eye.”
“When did this happen?”
“Few months back.”
“Have you done anything about it?”
“Went to a doctor yesterday. I’m goin’ to need surgery.”
“So it’s serious. But the surgery will take care of it, right?”
“Don’t know. The doctor is twelve years old.”
While Frank talked, I stared around the kitchen. At my wife finishing the children’s sandwiches, the dog sitting by the door, our backyard, almost in darkness but you could see the last mounds of snow, the white fence around a patch of mud that would be a vegetable garden in two months. Spring was just about here.
Then my eyes passed over the stack of newspapers in our recycling bin. On top of the pile was a news story about a wooden-barrel maker from England. I reached over to grab the newspaper.
Now that’s odd.
… … … …
As Frank kept talking about his bad eye -- the doctor said he was going to pop the eye right out, like a Life Savers, Frank could watch if he wanted on a television in the operating room, would you ever want to see a thing like that? -- I glanced at the newspaper.
The story was about the last wooden-barrel maker in England -- you’re called a cooper when you do that -- and the last cooper was looking for an apprentice. His name was Alastair Simms and he had started searching a few years back, when he learned he was the last one.
Hadn’t realized he was the last one until someone told him. He had been working away, making wooden barrels, doing his job, when one day he looked up and every other cooper had disappeared.
The same thing had happened to Frank. He was working as a fishing guide in Algonquin Park, when one day he looked up and every other guide had gone.
The world around him had changed too. Algonquin Park was no longer a destination for rich American anglers but now for working families that started arriving in the ‘60s with rental canoes, Styrofoam coolers and Red Devil spinners purchased at a Canadian Tire store the day before.
After that, being a fishing guide in Algonquin Park was like being Big Foot. Something people reported seeing from time to time but most thought couldn’t exist.
A few years ago, Frank was down to a handful of repeat customers: some Mennonite farmers from London, Ontario who used to lease a cabin on Canoe Lake. A taxidermist, from Maynooth. Some dentists from Ohio; so enfeebled on their last visits that they arrived with canes and walkers. Frank finally told them they didn’t need him anymore, they should fish from the highway. He’d show them some spots.
What made him keep going? What made Alastair Simms keep going? The stories were identical right down to the questions left behind.
Strangest thing about the news story was that I had read it two months ago.
… … … … … …
“I had to cancel all my clients for May,” I heard Frank say. “Some people are not too happy with me right now.”
As Frank talked I waved the newspaper at my wife and mouthed, “where did this come from?” She shrugged her shoulders and mouthed back, “I don’t know.”
This newspaper should have been thrown out weeks ago. We live in a city with bi-weekly garbage pick-up. We never miss things.
There was an awkward pause on the telephone and I realized I had lost track of the conversation.
“So when can you go fishing, Frank?” I asked.
“I don’t know. That’s what I been tryin’ to tell ya.”
“No idea whatsoever?”
“None. I’m stuck at home waitin’ for a phone call from the doctor.”
The face of the last cooper stared out at me. Next to a pull quote that read: “I'm going to keep working as a master cooper until I'm dead but I'm very keen to pass on my knowledge.”
A month later I was on my way to Algonquin Park.
Excerpted from The Last Guide’s Guide
Copyright: Ron Corbett