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Authors: Frank Macdonald

Tinker and Blue

BOOK: Tinker and Blue

Tinker & Blue


A Forest for Calum
, CBU Press 2005, 2011

Longlisted for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award and finalist for an Atlantic Book Award.

A Possible Madness
, CBU Press 2011, 2012

Longlisted for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award and finalist for an Atlantic Book Award.

T.R.'s Adventure at Angus the Wheeler's
, CBU Press 2010

Illustrated by Virginia McCoy.

Assuming I'm Right
, Cecibu 1990

Adapted for the stage.

How to Cook Your Cat
, Cecibou 2003

Her Wake
, 2011

Best Canadian Play, Liverpool International Theatre Festival.

Copyright © Frank Macdonald, 2014

This book is a work of fiction. The characters and events depicted are products of the author's imagination.

All rights reserved. No part of this work may be reproduced or used in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording or any information storage or retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

Cape Breton University Press recognizes the support of the Province of Nova Scotia, through the Film and Creative Industries NS, and of Canada Council for the Arts Block Grants Program. We are pleased to work in partnership with these bodies to develop and promote our cultural resources.

Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication

Macdonald, Frank, 1945-, author

Tinker and Blue : a novel / Frank Macdonald.

eBook development:

Issued in print and electronic formats.

ISBN 978-1-927492-94-9 (pbk.).--ISBN 978-1-927492-95-6 (pdf).--

ISBN 978-1-927492-96-3 (epub).--ISBN 978-1-927492-97-0 (mobi)

I. Title.

PS8575.D6305T55 2014 C813'.54 C2014-904134-9


Cape Breton University Press

PO Box 5300

1250 Grand Lake Road

Sydney, Nova Scotia B1P 6L2 Canada

Tinker & Blue




For Tom and Beth Ryan

and all the wonderful years

In Memory:

Sextus Feehan


who would have known all the stolen stories


It had been Blue's idea that he and his best friend Tinker Dempsey drive out to San Francisco to look at hippies in their natural environment, Haight-Ashbury. At nineteen and twenty, their respective ages, Blue believed the time had come for the two of them to follow generations of Cape Breton Island tradition and cross the Canso Causeway, if for no other reason than to find a few stories they could tell as their own when their wandering ways brought them back home.

Ever since settlement, Cape Breton Island had doled out her children to the world – some to the priesthood and convents, ministries and to politics, some to the mines of northern Ontario and the factories of Toronto, some to the skid rows of Winnipeg and Vancouver – and rationed a large portion of its population to work, legally or illegally, in the Boston economy. Historically, Cape Breton was a migrant labour pool for the boom towns and prosperity of the rest of the continent. This constant coming and going kept the island well informed – if unaffected – about trends and traditions elsewhere in North America. For all that wandering, neither the island nor its people had made any serious impact on San Francisco, which was the reason Tinker and Blue decided their destination would be that far off and fabled land.

Tinker and Blue were now driving their fourth-hand 1957 push button Plymouth across Kansas heading for California.


“Fruits!” Blue had concluded four years earlier for the enlightenment of the gang of guys who had gathered in his mother's living room to watch the Beatles' appearance on
The Ed Sullivan Show
. It was a theory he had a hard time hanging on to in the ensuing years as gypsy herds of long-haired hippies began wandering north to Canada, to Nova Scotia, crossing the Causeway onto Cape Breton Island, buying abandoned farms and setting up communes. The long-haired hippies clearly travelled in the free-flowing, free-loving company of beautiful girls, taking part in a sexual revolution that hadn't quite cracked the Catholic cocoon that surrounded Blue's own nightly longings.

Adding to his confusion was the summer return of guys he knew like brothers. They had left Cape Breton with creases in their pants and parts in their hair and returned wearing braids and bandanas, patches on their arses and no knees in their jeans, and speaking a new jargon.

But none of them had ever been to 'Frisco.


Travelling for days on the wrong side of the Canso Causeway, Tinker and Blue grew homesick, remembering for each other the good times, humming fiddle tunes, singing the island's favourite sentimental songs, and butchering their way through scores of Gaelic choruses.

Tinker Dempsey, being half Irish, possessed a fine voice, and was fond of singing “real” Irish songs, always informing his listeners that the song he was about to sing was from the old country and not that popular made-in-Boston junk.

Blue had no voice at all, which didn't disturb him as much as it did his listeners. To avoid the barbs of his best friends and worst critics, Blue abandoned singing other people's songs and began writing his own – gems wrestled in rhyming couplets from the depths of his own soul. Who better than he to render his songs in the fullness of their beauty. Discovering the poet within, Blue bartered a broken bicycle for an un-strung guitar, which he eventually did string, learning three chords, “You know what the other fellow says about three chords, don't you, Tinker? That's all Hank Williams ever knew,” he was fond of pointing out, and waited for destiny to discover him.

Armed with birth certificates and baptismal certificates, they crossed the border and began their journey across the United States of America, roaring their haphazard harmony above the ping-ping-pinging of the Plymouth's engine. The birth certificates bore all the vital information relevant to the day and place of their births, everything that is except the nicknames they travelled by.

In Cape Breton, where nicknames stick like barnacles, Tinker Dempsey was a natural. His Acadian mother had christened him Aloysius Dempsey, but four years later, when he had disassembled the family's only alarm clock, his father had unintentionally re-christened his son, complaining to anyone with the time or interest to listen that all his son ever did was tinker, tinker, tinker.

Tinker went on tinkering with things mechanical whenever an object of interest fell into his hands. Gradually, his interest reached the car motor stage, and a mechanic in his hometown took the willing young man under his wing. Unfortunately, the mechanic who taught Tinker to tinker with engines was himself self-taught – and he had not taught himself particularly well. But what he knew he passed along and together they crippled most of the vehicles in western Cape Breton.

A neighbour who had brought his aging third-hand Plymouth into what local people called Charlie's Guesso Station to have it serviced, returned several times to retrieve it only to find some new part of its anatomy strewn across the garage floor. Eventually, getting a glance at the growing bill, he abandoned any hopes of ever operating it again, bought a second-hand Chev, and Charlie claimed the Plymouth as salvage against the unpaid bill.

With a lot of head scratching and puzzling random pieces together, Charlie and Tinker managed one afternoon to turn the key and hear the motor turn over. Charlie, whose mechanic business had a lot of unpaid receivables from irate customers in its desk drawer, traded the Plymouth to Tinker in exchange for oft-promised but rarely produced wages. Tinker thought it was a hell of a deal.

Blue had acquired his name because virtually everything he owned and wore was blue. There was no sound reason for this fetish that Blue could explain except that he liked the colour, which for Blue was the only sound reason for doing anything.

As the approaching Kansas night finally lulled them into quiet reverie, Blue strummed his guitar and hummed the melody of “The Red Lobster,” his one-hundred verse work-in-progress. Cocking his battered blue hat down over his eyes, he allowed one of the verses to rise to his lips.

Your beauty traps me

like a lobster in a pot

And I turn red

when the water gets hot

But you wanna crack me

break my shell

So what I gotta say is

Go to hell

Red lobster, red lobster

Don't you dare sob, sir

'Cause love is you, and love is her

You're the meat. She's the but-tur

So far, Blue had composed thirty-seven verses of “The Red Lobster,” fashioning it, as he was always anxious to explain, after the Gaelic songs sung on Cape Breton, some of which tended to go on for a night and a day in a language few understood any longer, and to which the rest were culturally conditioned to appreciate. Blue had a scribbler full of other songs composed in moments of pure inspiration.


They had cleared one state after another, driving into a series of sunsets while erasing the world behind them with a cloud of black exhaust from the oil-hungry Plymouth which ate away at their not-so-well-thought-out grubstake. July, they were beginning to realize, wasn't the best time for this business. Summers in Cape Breton did nothing to prepare them for the real meaning of heat. A couple of weeks of breezy beach days and evenings that required nothing more than a sweater was the way they handled the season in Cape Breton, which had never known too much of a good thing – work or weather. The Kansas heat itself, with a bit of polishing and editing, was already shaping up to be the first story in an anthology of tales they planned to carry back home with them, one of the many they would be telling friends in tag-team fashion come next summer.

What Cape Bretoners sought most on mainland North America was not wages so much as stories. They spent their entire time away from the island telling strangers stories about Cape Breton, then returned home to spend the summer telling stories about the strangers they met while away. Those stories, when told to people they met elsewhere, were credited with being more imaginative than true, but at home all stories were accepted as gospel, their success or failure judged solely on the telling. Even in the modern society of 1968, a good storyteller wouldn't go hungry or sober on Cape Breton Island.

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