Image © Mario Campos Castellano 2018
|by Terry Doyle||August 17, 2018|
When the fires stopped burning I pretty quickly realized there was no reason for me to stay in Fort Mac. The job was toast, my company truck had burned, and my ex seemed committed to remaining my ex. Her new man owned his own Ram. Owned it. Outright.
The week before I flew home to St. John’s I stayed with a friend in Edmonton. I kept seeing familiar faces along Whyte Ave, and in the mall; others displaced by fire, wandering, idling in the City of Champions. Where was Gretzky now though?
I still had a few dollars in my bank account. It was a job to spend it all while working. But once I got back home, once I bought the plane ticket, gave my cousin two grand for his old Corolla, and paid first and last month’s rent for a one-bedroom in Rabbittown, after all that there grew a monetary vacuum. Food cost more here, gas cost more, taxes were higher, even gear – which I’d recently developed a taste for – was more expensive, and by the time it was palmed to me who knows how often it’d been cut. The quality was laughable. I had three hundred dollars, a quarter tank of gas, and a near-empty fridge.
Then, on a Tuesday, as I was putting out the trash, still wearing pajama pants, bedraggled, an old friend from school walked by and recognized me.
At first I didn’t look up because since moving out west I’d started going by Chuck.
“Charles,” he said again, “What are you at?”
I set the garbage bag down and smiled in recognition. His name was Nevin. We’d been in the same class all through school and played on the same hockey team too. He was a goalie back then and he used to sit with his lower legs splayed out sideways at all times – while we played video games, when they’d have us sit around on the floor at school, he even used to lay on his back and put his lower legs against the wall in the same manner, teaching his muscles, trying his damndest to become a great butterfly goaltender. I had the urge to ask him how that had turned out, but I didn’t. I knew the answer.
“Nevin. Shit. How’ve you been?”
“Good, man. You been home long?”
I didn’t recall having him on my social media, but his knowledge of my recent return made me guess I did, but I’d probably unfollowed him, which I tended to do.
“No,” I said. “Not long.”
I’d also forgotten how politely nosey Newfoundlanders could be. I’d grown used to withdrawn Alberta. His question made me pause. He seemed to take the pause as an answer.
“If you’re looking for work we could use a hand. I can talk to my foreman, get you in probably tomorrow?”
“Yeah? Doing what?”
“It’s construction. Grunt work, basically. You’d be a labourer,” he said. “Right now we’re at the mall.”
I was annoyed at how unprepared I was for his questions. I hadn’t had coffee and my pajama pants were flapping wildly, distractingly, in the wind. But I needed dough, and if it didn’t work out it’d only be Nevin who might look bad for recommending me.
“That sounds like something I could do,” I said.
“Yeah? Okay, what’s your number?” He pulled out his phone.
When I started with the 778 area code he stopped for a beat, then shook his head and punched in the rest of the number.
The next morning Nevin knocked on my door and we walked to the mall together. I offered to drive but Nevin declined. I’m not sure why. So I got a good look at parts of the city where I’d grown up, and which I hadn’t really seen in a long time, unless they were zooming by out a window, blurred and hurried. I did my best to make small talk, asking Nevin about his younger brother, BJ, who when we were in school, perhaps inevitably, was nicknamed Blowjob. But I was careful not to ask, How’s Blowjob? Instead simply said, “How’s your little bro doing?”
“You didn’t hear?” Nevin said.
If I’d known what was coming next I never would have asked.
“Jesus, I thought everyone knew,” he said. “He was driving a snowplow for the city. Good gig. Was at it three years. Then, two winters ago he was plowing a cul-de-sac in the east end and somehow managed to bury a little kid.”
I slowed my pace. It felt like the type of thing someone should tell you face-to-face, but Nevin kept on walking.
“There was a missing persons thingy, an amber alert, all that,” he said. “Then – Jesus, it’s awful. Then in March when the snow began to melt they found him. Right in the middle of the cul-de-sac. The whole neighbourhood had been circling him for weeks without realizing it.”
There was a silence between us. The only sound was the passing traffic and the wind swaying the leaves above our heads.
“So yeah. BJ got fired, obviously. The charges were thrown out eventually, but he’s never been the same. I worry about him.”
We were almost at the mall and I couldn’t think of a thing to say to that. There was only one word. I said, “Fuck.”
Nevin led me into the mall through the entrance near a Starbucks. We slipped through a makeshift door built into a huge plywood wall that covered the entrance of what had formerly been a Sears. When I closed the door the whole wall shook. Inside we searched for the foreman, a guy named Ian. We passed men standing on ladders, arms and torsos hidden in the drop-tile ceiling. We passed clothing racks, old cash registers, and display bins. The abandonment felt dystopian. Then, from out of the men’s room came Ian. Nevin introduced me. Ian sent Nevin to his truck to fetch me a hardhat and safety glasses, then told me what I’d be doing.
“Just follow Nevin and do what you’re told,” he said. “But if I need something, you’re going to run and get it. Got it?”
“Sure,” I said. “When’s payday?”
“Friday,” he said.
When Nevin returned Ian got us started moving all the left-behind racks and displays from what had previously been the men’s wear department. They needed to tear up the floor to accommodate a sink or something.
The morning dragged on. I hadn’t done work that physical in a long time. I was sweaty and itching from the dust clinging to my skin. At one point Nevin looked up at me from where he was sitting – legs splayed in the butterfly – trying to loosen a stripped-out bolt that held together two racks. His forehead was streaked with grey dust. In that moment I was transported back to grade five, being led single-file to the church by our nun teacher, Sister Doris, and having ashes pressed into our foreheads in the shape of a cross. At ten years old I hadn’t the capacity to see the absurdity of the ritual, but now, with my memory bringing it back to me twenty years later, I was sickened to think we’d been preyed upon like that. Me, and Nevin. And BJ too.
“Jesus,” I said. “Remember…” But I didn’t finish the thought.
At lunchtime it was declared that the new guy had to go pick up the food and bring it back. Which was fine by me. I wrote everyone’s orders on a piece of cardboard and went out through the makeshift door. Stepping back into the mall was like plunging into cold water; the contrast between the dusty grey work site and the mall’s garish enticements was shocking.
The food court was alive and sounded like a disturbed hive of bees. I watched a slack-shouldered custodian as she emptied garbage bins. People kept interrupting her to toss their uneaten food and half-full drinks at her, into the bins. Her expression never changed. I finally made it to the front of the line and pulled out my cardboard list of orders. The man standing behind me groaned.
On my way back to the work area I passed four separate cellphone kiosks. At one the two guys working there wore blazers, ties, and collared shirts, while fifteen feet away at another kiosk the staff wore neon yellow t-shirts, lip rings, and black nail polish. I couldn’t help wondering about their wages.
Turning a corner I bumped into a woman whose perfume should have warned me she’d be there. I barely managed to keep everyone’s lunches from hitting the polished floor, recovering in time to see the look of concern on her face. She was beautiful. For a moment I forgot where I was and stood staring at her until she asked if I was okay. She finished sending the text message that had made her stop. Then she smiled and continued on her way, in the same direction I was going. I tried to not be lecherous but I watched her as she walked. Her hair bounced and her heels clicked a syncopated rhythm. I felt hypnotized. Then, breaking the spell, she turned, entering a jewelry store and made her way behind the counter. I immediately lost interest.
After lunch Nevin and I got back to removing the racks and displays. I was already doubting my desire to do this sort of work. I hadn’t asked about my hourly rate but I was fairly certain whatever my cheque would look like on Friday, it wouldn’t be enough. I was in a pitiful reverie when Nevin yelped and drew back his left hand, clutching it with the right, swearing and wincing. I stepped closer and he showed me a now-blackened nail on his index finger. Again I was struck with an almost twenty-year-old memory.
“Shit,” I said. “Remember that time BJ saved up all his finger and toenail clippings for the science fair?”
Nevin’s eyes widened and his lips went straight. He turned his focus back to his finger but I took from his reaction that, perhaps, BJ was still saving them. I spent the afternoon imagining what twenty years of old toe and fingernails looked like, how you’d store them, and even potential uses.
At 4:30 I followed Nevin back out through the makeshift door, remembered we hadn’t taken my car, and we started walking to Rabbittown. We passed into the shade of the crosstown arterial’s overpass and before our eyes adjusted to the dim we were spooked by the sudden lifting into flight of half a dozen pigeons. We both jumped.
“What is that sound?” I said.
“That noise pigeons make when they fly. Is that from their wings, or is it guttural?”
Nevin said, “You’re a weird fucking dude, you know that?”
This from a guy who’s brother collected his clipped finger and toenails.
I knew then I wouldn’t be returning to the old Sears the next day. And with that decided, I figured why not inquire. I said, “Listen, man. Do you know where I can get some gear?”
Nevin’s shoulders bounced. A silent chuckle. Like he’d been waiting for me to show myself all day and now I had. He said, “Yeah, man. Go to the Tims on Ropewalk Lane, ask for thirteen donuts. They’ll hook you up.”
“Seriously,” he said. “Lucky thirteen.” And his shoulders bounced again.
Turned out Nevin was full of shit.
I went to the Tims on Ropewalk Lane and left with thirteen donuts I didn’t want and couldn’t afford, twelve in a cardboard box and one in a little bag.
I needed money bad. Not so much that I cared to be a labourer, but I had to find something. I applied for every job I could, so long as I could do it from my laptop. On the fourth day I managed to snag an interview at the Money Mart on Freshwater Road. Or at least I thought it was an interview. But when I arrived the woman working there spoke as if the job was already mine. She had me sit in a tiny room that felt like a closet, to watch some stupid training video. The room was chinched with receipts and paperwork. I felt entombed.
She brought me out front and showed me where the emergency numbers were, and the switch for the silent alarm.
“What’s with the screen?” I asked her.
There was a Plexiglas wall between the customers and the staff. In the middle was a hole, to speak through, and covering the hole was a fine mesh screen.
“That’s for when people spit at you,” she said.
“Are you serious?”
“Oh yes,” she said. “You’re gonna get spit on.”
Terry Doyle is a writer from the Goulds, Newfoundland. Winner of the 2017 Percy Janes First Novel Award and finalist for the 2017 Fresh Fish Award, his writing has appeared in Riddle Fence, Papermill Press, and Newfoundland Quarterly. Terry’s debut short story collection, DIG, is due in early 2019 from Breakwater Books.
Mario Campos Castellano, Tenerife, Spain, 1982. Manga nerd turned starving artist, living in Berlin. Play music as Señor Fahrenheit, The Phil and Monica, Los Retrasados. Paints airbrush with partner Liina Nilsson as Nemesis Air. The airbrushed fans are selling very well this summer, demand vastly outpacing supply. Can’t afford more paints and quality fans, no time. House cleaner by day, bartender by night.