The Kendo Sword

I began saving up to buy my own big telescope the same day I started smoking weed. The first time I got high Toronto still had a functioning planetarium next to the museum downtown. When we left the planetarium, Keith and I were still high and we were both saying things at the same time. There was a giant telescope set up on the sidewalk. We got to look through it. I put my eye against the little dark window and I saw Saturn for the first time. People will point to planets in the night sky and they look the same as stars, but when you see Saturn through a telescope it looks like Saturn—a little cartoon with the rings like they’re supposed to be. The lady manning the telescope put her hand on my shoulder to tell me my turn was done. I could have stared for a lot longer though, and when I thought how that was just one little thing in the whole sky I made the decision to save up and buy my own telescope to use in the back yard on the patio. I saw myself sitting on the bench of the picnic table and my charts and snacks all spread out behind me.

I had already quit my paper route. I’d kept it longer than most people do, all the way into the summer before grade ten, when somebody saw me and laughed at me and I quit a few weeks later, but that was why. Afterwards I coasted off my savings and focused on getting Bs at school like my parents recommended. But then Keith got that bag of weed and I saw Saturn and my plan changed. I decided I would get a part-time job as soon as I could find one. Keith already worked at Lundy’s Lumber and he said he could get me in no problem, so that was where I applied. In less than a week I was given my red T-shirt and a coupon for a discount to buy boots.

I started going in and working a couple times per week and pretty fast it became what I guess you’d call a pastime. It felt like a grown-up version of going to soccer practice or taekwondo. I thought of the telescope as a sort of prize. It would be like a trophy for my proficiency.

Then after a bit the telescope went further to the back of my mind. Most shifts were good exercise and a lot of fresh air and I liked being part of this team that was getting stuff done. And we did get stuff done. We were an effective unit. When there was nothing to do we got to do nothing and we sort of knew we had it good, I think, so when we were asked to work we did it and we knew we were working hard and we liked it. Every night at nine I watched TV, but if it was after showering off all the dust and grime from a hard shift at Lundy’s somehow it would be better. It’d be a feeling of drowsiness and of contentedness and being clean.

Months passed though, and things changed. This is about the shift I got fired.

 

“Man,” Frank said to me, “working with you is like working with a wall.” He said this because I didn’t react to a joke he had made—I’d just kept tinkering with the staple gun. The joke was not funny at all, and also it was disgusting, even to me, even here, in the kiosk of a lumberyard where there was porn in a drawer.

“I wish I worked with a wall. I would love to be working with a wall right now,” I said back flatly, the best tone to deflect Frank.

“What’s that?” he said.

“I said, I wish I could be working with a wall right now.”

“What?”

“I wish…I could be working…with…a…wall.”

“What?”

Frank was often a jerk like this, but I started to not mind when it dawned on me how little he tried to hide it because that made him interesting. Picture a husky guy, white with curly brown hair.

“Nothing,” I said. “Just that fuck you and you are a dick.”

“Oh—that,” Frank said.

It was really hot, and I was really bored, two long hours into this shift. The dirty old air conditioner moaned its one note. I asked Frank where everyone was. It was just the two of us in the kiosk. Frank sat on the counter at one end, his arm resting on the computer monitor. I was on my feet leaning against the opposite counter. The kiosk was small. We could have shaken hands.

“Everyone who?” he said.

“I don’t know—where’s Keith?”

“Somewhere with Dom.”

“Is Paul around still?”

“Sleeping,” Frank said. Then he laughed a bit and he told me Paul had been sleeping for over an hour and a half. There was a plumbing shed in the very back of the yard. It was quiet there, and the dusty lines of sun made for nice sleeping on a pile of membrane sheets. I laughed and said wow because an hour and a half was pushing it a little.

I looked down at the counter where I had a pile of sunflower seeds. It was mostly shells. I found three good ones, then slid the garbage over with my foot and pushed the pile into the garbage. I looked at the time on the computer. It said 7:05. Someone had typed the word pubic in the search field.

I looked outside. A truck swung around. I said shotgun before Frank could even see it. The gate lifted and the truck honked, then whipped to the right into the p.t. aisle—p.t. as in the pressure-treated green spruce for decks and fences. Frank exhaled the word fuck, “Fuuuck.”

“Maybe Dom or Keith are already around there,” I said.

“They’re making swords in the warehouse.”

“Swords? What happened to ping-pong paddles?”

“I don’t know. Keith said they’re making swords now.”

“Nice,” I said. I definitely wanted to make a sword. I shot a staple at the ceiling. “Actually,” I said, “I think I’m gonna get in on that.”

Frank stared at me sort of like a corpse would. “You guys have problems,” he said, pushing his body slowly off the counter. He lifted and jerked open the sliding door, dropped his shoulders, and moved tiredly toward the p.t. aisle. He looked like a big floppy puppet the way he moved. I watched him round the corner, wondering if he was going to walk right up to the customer like that.

I lifted and slid the door closed again to keep the air conditioning inside, and then I lifted and slid it open, remembering about the swords. The sun had calmed down a little. There was lots of orange and bronze now in the sky behind everything. The air was still but the warmth in it wrapped around me and pressed. I went to the warehouse, into the narrow alley of moulding that ran along the inside wall. The pieces rested vertically in their bins, cut to different lengths. The longest ones went up a couple stories to the ceiling. I held my arms out as I walked, touching the moulding on either side. A hammer hung from a piece of wood dividing the bins. I took it and hacked its claw into some soft, white crown moulding. It left a nice gash. I dropped the hammer into a bin and continued down the alley. There were a lot of options for making a sword. I balanced a piece of fat, round doweling in my hand. It was a good weight—sturdy, but light enough to freely swing around. It would be kendo-style.

The piece was five feet long. I brought it to the chop saw and cut off about two feet. I dropped the extra piece in the box for scrap wood that old men would come to scrounge in. But I made a note to remember it. In my hands it had asked to become nunchucks.

I walked out of the big open door at the back of the warehouse with the piece of doweling over my shoulder. I just needed to find something for the handle, and then I would need to find Dom and Keith so I could fight them.

I turned into the lane of sheds, where there was the nails shed, the metal-framing shed, the fence shed, and the plumbing shed. I went to the doorway of the plumbing shed. The sun was lower now than when its rays would slice inside, lighting the corners, and show all the dust in the air floating down like fish food. The air was empty now. I saw a body lying in the darkness. It was Paul, asleep on top of the grey membrane. Both his hands held on to his belt.

I walked to the big aisle of spruce that ran down the middle of the lumberyard. I decided to go up to the insulation mez. Mez is short for mezzanine. I don’t know what that means exactly, but at each end of the spruce aisle there was a staircase, and if you went up you were in an area on top of all the spruce bins, under a metal roof, and all around you there were big bags of insulation, and you were in a mezzanine then. On one end there was a little cubby that I figured might have tape to make a handle.

I saw Roland, far away at the front of the yard, outside the kiosk. He was talking on his phone. It was a work-site phone, yellow and dirty and massive. Roland was about seven or eight years older than most of us. He was in charge of the yard. When I saw him, he saw me, and he flapped one of his gloves and started walking down the aisle toward me, that way he walked, moving his tall skinny body with deliberate steps. His arms were always a bit out when he walked, like he had invisible muscles. I heard someone say that about him once.

I met him halfway down the aisle, preparing to nod, but Roland didn’t meet my eyes. He was still talking on his big phone. I stood there until Roland finally stopped talking and pushed a button to hang up.

“Sorry about that, Jonas. But hey, how’s it going?” he said.

“Not bad, not bad,” I said. “How’s it going with you?”

I liked Roland but we weren’t so good at small talking together. He was my boss so I couldn’t really start a plain earnest conversation with him and he never tried starting one with me, so it was always just cardboard talk between us, usually about the yard and not much else. But I never had a problem with Roland. He was definitely a nice, good guy.

“Well,” he said, “actually I can’t say it’s going super great today. I had a pretty serious talk with Adam.”

“Hm,” I said. I knew where this was going. Everyone needed to do more work.

“Yeah. Apparently Tariq’s pretty pissed off about the yard, so Adam of course has to be pissed at me. They’re right, though. We really can do better out here. I mean each one of us. I’m not just saying this to you. I have to say it to everyone.”

“Hm,” I said. “Right. Yeah. I mean, sure. But what’s he want different?”

Roland looked around. “Pretty much everything. He said everything’s got to be turned upside down so that it’s right-side up. That’s what he said.”

I made my eyebrows go crooked.

“I know,” Roland said, and he grinned.

Behind Roland I saw Frank go into the kiosk. The truck from before followed. Long, wide planks of the faded green wood were stacked up over the cabin. When Frank reached the kiosk, the gate went up and the truck honked and drove out into the parking lot, then out of sight.

“Really though, things need to change or they’re actually gonna start firing people I think.”

“Hm,” I said again.

“Take my word for it, Jonas—that is one angry little Hamburglar in there.”

I had to laugh when Roland said that. I wasn’t laughing at the joke—Hamburglar is what everyone called Adam when talking about him since he looked exactly like the Hamburglar—but I laughed because it was Roland who had said it. He grinned some more.

“I put a list in the kiosk,” he said. “Friday is the deadline so everything needs to get done by Thursday night. Doors can’t sit in the warehouse anymore. All of those doors need to be put away tonight. Same with metals if we get new metals. They all have to be put away the same day they come. Also, tonight all the tiles up in the insulation mez need to get sorted out and tidied. This is all on the list.” He flapped his glove toward the kiosk. “Oh and fence boards—fence boards are not allowed to be touched by anyone but shippers from now on. A customer has a problem with that, send them to me.”

I didn’t like that one. People would get pissed if I just started loading up fence boards, not letting them take a look. Some people got pretty serious about their fence board choosing. Telling certain regulars they couldn’t go through the fence boards would just sound ridiculous. It’d be offensive. They’d get upset and probably blame me. I gave Roland a stern nod though, totally on board.

“Where is everyone by the way? Who’s in tonight?”

“Um, Frank—he just went into the kiosk.” I scratched my chin, “Keith and Dom are somewhere. Maybe on lunch.” Paul I left out entirely. He was probably supposed to have been done at five. It was something like twenty after seven already.

“Huh,” Roland said. He seemed to contemplate something.

“Are you in tonight?” I asked.

“No way. I’ve been here since eight. I need to go home and see the family.” It took me a second to remember that he didn’t mean his aunts and uncles and parents—he meant his girlfriend and daughter. His daughter was three weeks old.

“Cool,” I said, and we said goodbye. We also shook hands, which was new.

I was on the first step up to the insulation mez when Roland called my name from down the aisle. I looked at him. He asked me what was with the doweling. Usually my quick thinking is fairly weak, but I said, “Oh, I just found it in with the pine.”

This was realistic. Roland walked away.

At the top of the stairs, I froze, because I thought I heard something moving somewhere. I looked at the big bags of insulation stacked up on both sides in perfect piles all the way up to the wood beams above. It looked like a long, high, enormous wall. Sometimes, when you took out a bag, you’d see a tunnel going right through the middle. The raccoons could ruin a whole bunch of bags this way, with a single tunnel or sometimes even with a system of tunnels. I listened a bit longer but the sound had gone. There were only the million sounds I wasn’t listening for, like a shopping cart moving on cement somewhere, and the wind going through the trees in the ravine, or the soft, sleepy sound of cars in the distance.

I looked into the cubby. On its shelves were: loose rusted nails, a dirty old level, a faded Grape Crush can, and—booya—a roll of black tape. The tape was coated in grime, but I unwrapped a couple layers and it was good.

Sitting on the floor beside the wall, I wrapped the tape around the doweling slowly and carefully, killing the whole roll. It looked badass. The handle was clean and black and the fat round blade or whatever you’d call it on a kendo sword was nice, pale pine. I held it in my hands. Some wind came in, and I looked out into the trees. It was Japan a thousand years ago.

I froze again. There was definitely movement right behind me, inside the wall. I put my ear against the wall.

By the way, I love raccoons. One time, about a year before, a friend of my family visited from Stockholm, where my mom is from, and he liked taking pictures, and I guess he liked animals because he wanted me to take him out to find raccoons. He’d never even seen one and thought they were some cool strange animal. It was funny to me when he asked if I could take him out to just find them, like I was someone who had grown up a hundred years ago instead of mostly watching television. I was hesitant when I heard through my mom he was going to ask, but then I figured sure, don’t really see why not, and when he asked me I said yes, we will go to see the raccoons.

We waited for the dark, and then when my parents were sitting down to watch the eleven o’clock news with Lloyd Robertson we said goodbye and headed out, him with his big camera and me wearing cargo pants. I aimed my dad’s flashlight under the odd car and between some houses as we walked down my street.

At the end of the block we went into the park. On the far side there’s a forest that slopes down a hill. We went through the playground, the crunching sand, then down into the darkness. I told him to watch his footing.

One thing I know about finding animals—and I don’t know if this is officially right or wrong but it’s worked for me on a couple of occasions—is to be quiet and listen. Then, sooner or later, something will make a sound, and sometimes I can see it. Deep into the trees, we tucked down under a low, leafy branch and we sat there. Ten metres or so behind us was a high fence separating the woods from people’s back yards. I knew this forest pretty well because when I was younger, when I wasn’t watching TV, my friends and I mostly spent our free time throwing different types of objects over this fence, then hiding from angry people. The two of us weren’t facing these back yards, though—we faced the darkness that climbed up through the woods. He fidgeted a bit with his camera. I just sat there, doing my best to listen.

There were a bunch of little noises, like things scurrying, and I chased the sounds with my light but the sounds ran away, too quick and small to be raccoons. As we waited I looked for the moon but I couldn’t find it through the trees. There was only the light from the houses behind us. Sometimes it would get brighter because something triggered a motion sensor, then after a bit it would get darker.

We heard another sound and I put the light on it and it was a raccoon, and it didn’t mind the light and didn’t run away—it just looked over for about two seconds, then went on with its walking, maybe twelve feet from us, slow and uncaring. He fixed his camera on it and clicked away with only the light from my flashlight. And then, behind the raccoon, there were more raccoons, even little raccoons, following lazily, strolling by. He shot more pictures and I sat there holding the flashlight, watching them all pass, maybe five of them or something. Before you knew it they were gone, and I turned off the light. I remember he just said, “Well,” and I nodded and we got up and we walked home. Probably one of my top successes to date.

So, this is why it made sense that sitting next to the wall of bags up in the insulation mez, hearing the muffled sounds of movement behind me, I paused and then immediately began my process of tracking raccoons. Probably they knew this was human territory and were prepared to flee pretty quickly but I wasn’t sure where they could go. On the other side of the bags there was the drop into the spruce aisle. It was hard to picture raccoons escaping that way when the sun was out still.

I listened. It was movement for sure, and even something sort of vocal, high-pitched. I leaned back, away from the wall of bags, looked up, and the whole thing was moving forward. I jumped like a frog to the side, but the bags were already tumbling. The first ones hit me flat onto the ground and pinned me and then others thudded on top and I got buried.

I prepared for the worst: tiny claws all over my body and little sharp bites like when my gerbil bit me but worse. Damn it, I thought, already embarrassed. How sure I’d become of my raccoon tracking after just one success. Today I’d been stupid and forgotten that I’m not a product of the real world, like raccoons—I am a product of the First World, like dogs that shake your hand. Raccoons are surviving. They don’t think twice about just murdering some fool by eating him.

I waited for the swarm and the freaky noises raccoons made when they fought cats out the window in the night. But I felt my sword then. It was still in my hand. Yes! I threw and kicked all the bags off me and swung back my sword.

“DO YOU CHOOSE LIFE?!”

I didn’t shout this at the raccoons—there were no raccoons—Keith shouted this at me, a four- or five-foot Excalibur sword hovering above my forehead. “Tell me, boy,” he said, “is it life you choose, or is it death?” The blade was square and fat, one-by-four spruce. The handle had fancy moulding on it. I don’t think it registered with Keith that I had a sword at my side because he looked surprised as hell when I swung it and knocked his sword out of my face. I jumped to my feet. Dom appeared then, out of nowhere like the next bad guy in a video game, holding two little swords, maybe half-inch doweling. I could tell they were supposed to be those things Raphael the Ninja Turtle fights with. Sai.

I attacked, bringing my sword down on Dom, but he deflected with one sai and slapped me in the ribs with the other. My momentum carried me past him though and I knocked Keith’s Excalibur to the side again and pushed him. He fell back and landed on some bags. Dom came at me but stopped when I held up my sword.

“Holy shit,” I said. “Where the fuck did you guys come from?”

Keith had a pretty good laugh, lying in the bags. He said they’d been listening to me move around for a while, trying not to laugh. I laughed, too. I could see how that would be funny, if you were hiding on someone waiting forever to ambush and bury them.

“But where were you guys? On top?”

“Check it out, man,” Keith said, jumping up onto the pile. I looked into the section of wall that had tumbled. It was empty. There was insulation in the back of it stacked up, and on either side, but then there was nothing, only the bags all over the floor that must have been the fort’s exterior wall.

“Sweet, right?” he said, looking into the hollowed space.

“Wicked,” I said.

A lumberyard is not that bad a place to be stuck in a boring job. Lately Keith had for sure been making the most of it. I guessed easily that it was him who had initiated all this—both the swords and the fort. Dom was down for swords and forts and stuff too, only more as a passenger. But Keith just a week earlier had introduced ping-pong paddle-making. We both crafted our own paddles with sandpaper for the surfaces and challenged everyone. We had a four-by-eight of m.d.f. (medium-density fibreboard) up on the forks and then a plank of two-by-six pine as the net. I had come across an orange ping-pong ball in the parking lot, and I threw it at Keith’s head in the kiosk. That was what started it.

“But how the blood-clot do you have a sword, too?” Keith asked me. I told them how Frank had filled me in.

It took the three of us no more than maybe twenty-five seconds to have it rebuilt with us on the inside. We lowered the wall at the back so if we stood we could see through the green bars into the spruce aisle. We sat down. I took one of Dom’s wooden sai.

“Nice,” I said.

“Thanks,” Dom said.

“How’d you get them pointy like that?”

“I used the little handsaw,” he said. I knew the one he meant. I’d seen it floating around. “I had to cut it four times. See?” The point was like a tiny pyramid.

“Nice,” I said again.

I looked up at Keith’s Excalibur. It was leaning beside him. I laughed at it. It was a ridiculous sword. It must have been heavy. And Keith’s pretty skinny. I shook my head.

I should give more physical description. Keith’s super white. Both his parents are Finnish. His hair is like white paint if you stirred into it a couple drops of yellow. Dom’s half-Italian, I think, and half-Vietnamese with dark hair shaved short and a sturdy build.

“Hey, see if Roland’s gone,” Keith said to me. I stuck my head through the green bars. The sun was low enough that the shadows were gone, I guess covered by one big shadow. The sky still had warm colours mixed in, oranges and pink. I looked to the kiosk. The sliding door glowed white. I could see the back of Frank’s curly head through the little window. He was sitting on the counter, alone.

“Don’t see him,” I said, sitting back down. “Actually I just had a little talk with him and he said he was gonna go home.” I licked my bicep. It was salty.

“Yeah,” Keith said and he smiled. “We could see you guys from here the whole time, fool.”

“Oh,” I said, a bit disappointed in my presence-detecting. “Well, he asked where you guys were.”

“What’d you tell him?”

“I said you were eating. But he told me Hamburglar reamed him out and we have till Friday to make everything in the yard good or else he’s worried they’re gonna fire him, I think.”

Fire him?” Keith said. “Bullshit.”

“I don’t know. That’s how he was making it sound.”

“Nobody’s getting fired,” Keith declared. “What is it—Tuesday?”

“Yeah, but still,” I said, “there’s a big list for tonight and I think that’s how it’ll be all week. Oh and fence boards—now we’re supposed to load up for people without letting them pick through. That’s nuts, right?”

“Yeah don’t worry about that,” Dom said. “That won’t last through the weekend. They’ve tried that before. Doesn’t last.”

I asked Dom, “You think they would ever fire Roland?”

“Doubt it,” Keith said.

“Yeah, they always say stuff like that,” Dom said, “but the guy just had a kid. I would think that would keep him his job for at least a couple months no matter what. I mean as long as things out here are going good enough.”

I agreed. Dom usually said things you could agree with, or that I could at least. It was hard to picture them firing Roland. He was a real insider. Before he worked outside he’d been the main guy at the Contractor’s Desk in the store, where all the contractors got their invoices made up before coming across the parking lot to the yard.

But people did get fired. Since I’d started there, seven months earlier, they’d fired a couple of guys. Really a lot had changed in that time, like I said before. The culture of the yard was different—that’s how Dom had articulated it to me once. It seemed like a good way to put it.

It was Luis running the yard back when I first started. He was cool. You could know he was cool just by looking at him. You’d notice the serious tattoos he had on his neck. He had four dog heads on his neck, and they were the four dogs that he owned. He brought them to the yard once on his day off. He was wearing sunglasses and clean clothes and had his four Dobermans and he looked like a gangster dude. I was feeling pretty cool that day too, leaning back on his black Integra, talking to him about his dogs. I remember wishing someone from my school could’ve witnessed the moment somehow, so they could tell others.

Among the shippers there was universal respect for Luis. Aside from him being cooler than everyone, it was also because Luis always worked the hardest, so we all worked hard just trying to keep up. Luis did ironman shifts almost every day it seemed, twelve hours, so it was hard to even think about the yard without including his presence as a part of it. This was probably why there was an unspoken respect back then between all of us for the yard. It was a given that it had to be kept unshitty.

When it was announced one day that an inventory count was coming up, suddenly every single task would have something to do with it. We prepared weeks in advance, pre-counting everything, always considering how the movement of any material in the yard would impact this upcoming inventory count.

When the night arrived it was actually a bit exciting. We didn’t get started till the yard was almost closed and it was dark. Someone brought out the big, yellow, tube-shaped stereo. Wu-Tang rap music thumped melodically. When the team of counters showed up there was a bit of that feeling like parents arriving to watch a big school play. Everyone even seemed to be in costume because only the guys who had worked that day wore Lundy’s uniform stuff and everyone else was in their everyday clothes, something that was weird and different. The night was colder than the day had been. The counters all wore grey golf shirts with long sleeves underneath. They took their counting gadgets out of plastic briefcases, then dispersed.

Luis was calm, but he sent me and everyone else in sight off to do some last-minute little thing. He wanted me to make sure all the sheds were unlocked. I took the keys from him and walked the length of the warehouse to the dark lane of sheds outside. Four of them were locked. I hurried with the keys. I could still hear the bass from the stereo. There was the feeling that I had left something fun.

Afterward we sat in the big open doorway of the warehouse and we ate what was left of the cold pizza. It was the middle of the night. The grey-yellow haze from the city stretched over the yard and faded out to a darker sky. Some guys were lying flat on sheets of drywall. I was in the comfy seat of the bigger forklift. I had my hood up and the strings pulled tight. A cool wind came through the open door. A couple of rides idled in the parking lot on the other side of the fence. Luis told us that he couldn’t believe how we all had worked. He didn’t even make a joke out of it.

A couple weeks later Luis was gone. He’d been fired. It was some bullshit about a cousin using his discount card when it was only supposed to be for your immediate family, like your parents or siblings. Then a couple days later Edgar was there, in charge of everything in the yard. I’d seen Edgar around. Until then he’d worked inside the store, in Paints. He was a nice enough guy, but he got on people’s nerves fast.

The problem was his eternal strategising and planning of things when it wasn’t really necessary. He would come up to you with his clipboard and start with “Okay” and then tell you annoying things like what order everyone was going to take their breaks and which tasks you were supposed to do. Before, you’d just hear from word of mouth what needed to get done and join the guys who were already doing it. Or if nothing needed to be done, you could do nothing and not have to hide it. With Edgar, this was not the way. Pretty soon the yard got messy, and none of us shippers gave a shit.

It was after Luis was gone, during Edgar’s month and a half, that the culture I mentioned changed so abruptly—from one where you tried to be the hardest working guy to one where you just fucked the dog all day and did your best to get away with it. It became truly normal for guys to go out back of the sheds and smoke weed during their shifts. I don’t even just mean the stoner guys—like Dom, who had always been high all the time and still worked hard—I mean three or four out of the four or five guys working any given shift. The odd evening we’d all get drunk, too. By the time Roland took over this had all become ritual. Wasn’t Roland’s fault. There just wasn’t any feeling of duty. That was over.

I can only explain my own transformation. The problem was the work got boring and annoying, basically, even though the tasks were exactly the same. I don’t know why, but it had never annoyed me before to constantly get up and walk somewhere in order to lift something up and then put it down. But then one day, simply, it did. I guess I can’t explain it.

It probably was good strategy when Edgar requested to go back to Paints. I only saw him once after that. I passed by the counter and he was on his elbows staring at the blur of a shaking can of paint. I left without saying anything. After that I avoided Paints.

“Well anyway,” Keith said, “it’s fucking Tuesday so nobody needs to freak out. I say we chill tonight and then kill it tomorrow and Thursday. I’m in on Thursday. What’s gotta be done? Doors? What else?”

“Trust me, a bunch of shit, man. There’s a list in the kiosk,” I said.

“Okay—so there’s a list, and it’s in the kiosk, and everything on the list will get done in due time,” Keith said, entirely sure, as though the conclusion were natural and inevitable. I could tell he had already committed to not working much that night. I understood—when you make that decision sometimes it can’t be unmade. He changed the subject by asking me if I was still saving up for a telescope. I said of course—that’s why I was there. I asked if he was still saving up for a car. He said not really because he seemed to spend everything he made so now he stopped trying. Dom already had a car. He said he was saving up to get it fixed, and then he was going to save up for a motorcycle. Keith and I both said, “Cool.”

By the time I saw Dom put his finger on his nose, Keith had already done the same thing. I put my finger on my nose even though there wasn’t any point.

“Nuts,” I said. “I didn’t even hear anything. Where’d they go?”

“Somewhere in the back,” Dom said.

There was the sound of a horn. I stood, stretched a little, put my head down like Juggernaut and barrelled through the wall. I lost my balance and landed on the bags as they fell, and I got laughed at, but it was awesome.

“Hey,” Keith said, putting the first bag back in place. “Hurry ’cause I got a joint rolled up already.”

When I got down into the spruce aisle I saw through the racks of lattice Bob Julia sitting in his truck with the door open, next to the bags of ready-mix concrete. The engine was off but there was the baseball game on his radio. Bob Julia nodded to me. A little piece of brown paper towel rested in his hair by his temple. He had a cigarette in his mouth and he lit it with a match. You weren’t allowed to smoke in the lumberyard. “You don’t mind, hah?” he said after inhaling. “Hah” is how Bob Julia said “huh”. I just shrugged. He reached into his truck and handed me the invoice. It said fifteen bags of ready-mix concrete. He told me to add a two-by-four to his bill and walked away.

When he came back I was almost done. He put the two-by-four onto the concrete bags I had piled. I dropped the last couple on top. He said I should refill the bin and cull what was in there because it was all shit. He said, “That stuff is pretty much good for taking slap shots and not a hell of a lot else.” In case this sounds witty, it’s not. Everyone said it. Contractors, I mean. They couldn’t help themselves.

I rode on Bob Julia’s tailgate to the front of the yard where I hopped off and slammed it closed. I reached inside the kiosk, felt for the buttons and put in the code—one, two, three, four. The gate went up. Bob Julia honked and drove away.

I stepped down from the kiosk, then paused. Earlier the cement had been too hot to touch for more than a second. I put my palm against the ground. It was warm and felt nice as the warmth went into my hand. The saw cried out from the warehouse. I stood, turned, and Roland’s note hung there tacked to the wall in front of me, colourless in the darkened kiosk.

There were six tasks on the list. Each task had been numbered, each number circled. Dots of ink marked where the circles had started and then finished. I folded the list once and slid it into my front pocket.

I walked into the warehouse. Frank was at the chop saw. A lady and a boy stood back and watched him. The lady had her hands over the boy’s ears. The boy hugged her leg and he stared at Frank with his eyes wide. I nodded at the lady and she smiled back, and I looked at the kid but he ignored me. We all watched Frank cut the wood. I noticed the paper next to the saw with the scribbles on it. I figured he was going to be a bit pissed since he had to get two customers in a row and now this one was a homeowner and she brought a paper.

Frank noticed me and stopped his cutting halfway through. “Well, hello,” he said.

“Yeah, sorry. We’re all working in the insulation mez. We’re gonna…eat some…candy…up there. Do you want us to save you some…of it?”

Frank shook his head at me. It was fine though—the lady was listening to the kid say something about the saw. “Yes,” Frank said.

The electric forklift was parked outside. I drove it to a back corner of the yard where the extra skids are stored. I left it there out of sight.

Upstairs in the mez it was funny to see it empty and quiet while knowing that two people were hidden somewhere. I jumped and grabbed a beam overhead and swung myself onto the wall of insulation, crawled, then dropped down into the fort. Keith and Dom sat the same as before. Keith had a joint. I watched it hop around in his fingers. He put it between his lips, straightened one leg and pushed his hand into his pocket. He pulled out a white lighter. I told them that Frank was down to join us. Dom said we might as well start up the first joint since he had a second and a third rolled already anyway. Keith smiled and sparked the lighter. He burned the twisted bit of paper off the end, looked at the cherry a moment and pulled. I watched the flame meet the joint like a stream of water flowing back up a faucet. When it was my turn I held the smoke in my lungs. I held it as long as I could, and first Keith and then Dom pushed smoke out into the silence, each one like a burst of water spraying from a whale. Nobody spoke. It was peaceful. I passed the joint back to Keith. It was almost dark now, especially in the fort.

“At home I make these sick hot chocolates,” Keith said then, “in a massive mug with three broken chocolate chip and marshmallow granola bars in it. I mash that shit up and eat it all with a spoon.”

Dom looked at Keith and then looked at me. He laughed.

“Trust me. You guys gotta try that.”

The quiet came back.

Fuck,” Keith said.

“What,” I said.

“I just fucking miss smoking where all my amenities are at, you know?”

Dom laughed again.

Before too long we heard Frank say “Uhh—guys?” on the other side of the wall. Dom jumped to his feet and pushed the wall forward and Keith held his giant sword over Frank demanding to know if he chose life. We laughed like maniacs. Even Frank laughed like a maniac when he saw the fort and he couldn’t pretend it was stupid instead of awesome.

The four of us smoked the second joint. We decided to save the third one for later. I pulled out Roland’s list from my pocket and showed it to Frank. He said he’d seen it. I held it out for him to take but he wouldn’t touch it. I put it back in my pocket and picked up my kendo sword. Keith held his Excalibur lazily over his shoulder. Dom had his sai tucked into his belt. I said we should try and get the doors put away at least. Everyone nodded.

Eventually we got up and I led the way toward the stairs. Our boots knocked hollowly on the plywood floor, then going down they made each metal step sing a dull chime that cut off behind me again and again like something tumbling. At the bottom we all stood there, quite high, speaking for myself at least. Dom said, “All right, guys,” and in the quiet moment that followed it was agreed that we’d stop standing there and we would all go.

I went straight to the electric forklift. I tucked my sword behind the seat, feeling pretty clever. I knew everyone was probably searching frantically for one of the two forklifts like they were Easter eggs. And speaking of chocolate and also of excellent foresight, I took a paper bag out of my pocket, unrolled it and pulled out a Nanaimo bar. The chocolate and icing were mushed together, flattened inside the plastic. I put the crumpled bag in my lap and rested the Nanaimo bar on top and it was like a bird sitting on a nest. I moved the gear thing up and down. Lights came on, and there was the hum. I put it in reverse.

It would have been fun to do a quick lap of the yard, but I couldn’t risk getting waved down or honked at by a customer. Instead I stayed where I was—back behind the concretes, tucked away pretty good where all the skids were stacked ten feet tall. Skids are those wooden platform things forklifts carry around. From a bird’s eye view these towers would’ve formed a square, minus an opening to drive through.

I got to work right away, sliding the forks into a skid, lifting it, then laying it down with precision so that soon all the towers were perfect and tidy. This was pointless obviously, but it was fun. I started thinking about other possibilities of how I could arrange them, like by colour, some towers just blue skids and other ones only red—but then I had a random impulse and I followed it and turned the wheel all the way to the left, flooring the pedal. The forklift spun on one spot. There was exactly enough room to do this. Afterward to neutralize my dizziness I spun it again with the wheel to the right. I stretched my legs out over the sides as the spin eventually slowed. The forks came to a stop facing north, where there were big trees beyond the train tracks. The tracks separated the lumberyard from a deep ravine where the Humber River goes and the trunks of the big trees were down in this ravine. I could see the tops of the trees through the wall of skids in front of me.

The orange was almost out of the sky. There was only a thin strip to my left. The horizon glowed behind an empty lot full of weeds like the sun was buried there. Straight ahead the sky was the blue of black hair in comic books. I could barely detect the greens that were in the tops of the trees. I watched as birds popped up from the canopy like grasshoppers in the grass and then fluttered back down. I saw a hawk in the sky. It was in the air with its body about perfectly still. I stared at it while my mind was racing through thoughts. How the fuck did hawks come into the universe? I let my mind go limp and just get pushed and thrown.

Out of nowhere Roland’s list came into my head. “Hmm,” I said quietly to myself. This list had worried not-high Jonas quite a bit. But I really didn’t want to leave that square fortress of skid towers. I didn’t want to see anyone who wasn’t high. I took the list out of my pocket and unfolded it. I reread the six tasks. They were all equally impossible—it was unfortunate but certain. I looked at the paper for a while, only thinking how cool it was that someone could write words on a paper and then later I could be sitting here alone and the words could go through my eyes into my brain.

I put big chunks of chocolate and yellow icing into my mouth. I ate happily, taking my time, looking at the sky. It got dark.

Eventually I got my courage up enough to head out. I made the forklift go as fast as it could and I held up the list in front of me. If there were customers I wanted to look like I was on my way to something crucial as I whipped by them.

I leaned forward, trying to see through the bins of pressure-treated if there were any humans the next aisle over. My plan was to sweep the warehouse. That was something that needed doing every night and if you stuck to the back area you had a good chance of running away from people before they saw you. I made it to the rear door of the warehouse, parked, and then I saw Paul. He came from around the corner where there were the sheds.

“Jonas,” he said in his deep voice. Paul was average height but he was sturdy and he looked shorter than average somehow. Usually he combed his hair fifties style, with gel. Right then he looked sort of a mess. He had bags under his eyes. His hair looked perfectly combed in some places and in other places all broken and sharp.

“Hey, man. Good sleep?” I said.

“Yeah. I have no idea what time it is.”

“I think it’s coming up to nine.”

“Are you kidding me? It’s nine o’clock?” Paul exhaled and pushed his fingers through his hair. It made it much, much worse.

“Yeah, man,” I said.

“Fuck. Wow.”

“Why you so tired?”

Paul looked past me. “Because,” he said, “my girlfriend Rio.”

I didn’t know Rio because I never knew Paul had a girlfriend. It was a bit hard to picture Paul with a Rio. In my head I saw a super tall Spanish woman with really long hair. She was dancing.

“Nice,” I said, not sure what else I could say.

“No…She locked me out. I had to sleep in the car. I slept in the fucking parking lot.” He pointed to the parking lot. He sort of laughed but not really.

“Shit,” I said, and he nodded. I asked him what he was going to do.

“I have no idea. I guess if it’s already nine I might as well close with you guys.”

“Yeah, man. Do that,” I said.

Paul turned toward a bin of pine two-by-fours and started levelling. I did some nearby cedar. A piece got stuck in Paul’s bin. I stopped levelling to watch him fight with it.

“Kick it,” I said.

He didn’t kick it. He tried pushing it with the heel of his palm. Eventually it gave and all of it rumbled down. He turned and leaned. He asked who was here.

“Me, Keith, Frank, and Dom,” I told him. “We all smoked a bunch a bit ago.”

Paul considered all of this.

“Well,” he said finally, “I’m going to the L.C.B.O.”

He asked if I wanted anything and I told him to get me a big bottle of Heineken. Usually I would have made sure other people were going to get something too, and then I would think about it, but Paul asked me right at that time when your highness is low enough that you want a bit of beer but still high enough that you want beer instead of tea or hot chocolate mixed with coffee. He went around and everyone ended up putting in an order.

Thirty minutes later he walked back into the yard. He passed by the kiosk and then he passed by me saying only “Plumbing shed.” I went into the warehouse so I could walk the length of it through the moulding alley. The hammer was there. When I exited the back door I saw Keith and Frank through the bins of pine. They were loading a truck. I went and helped and when the truck left the three of us headed to the plumbing shed. Dom was already in there with Paul. Paul sat on the ground, leaning against the plywood wall. He was drinking a can of American beer. Dom was on top of the membrane with an open bottle of red wine. I sat next to Paul on the ground. Keith and Frank each cracked open a bottle of Ex. I gave Paul two toonies and he handed me my bottle. I tried to open it with the claw of the hammer over my knuckle but I wasn’t doing it right. Paul had an opener on his keychain. He took the bottle and opened it for me and then he held up his own, and he said, “To Greg Lundy, boys.”

When you walk into the store, you pass by a big cardboard cutout of Greg Lundy. At Christmas I got a fake Christmas card from him. The five of us knocked our bottles together. I couldn’t tell if we were cheersing him for real. I had no idea if we hated him or not. “Cheers, guys,” I said. I could already hear Paul’s gulping.

I waited to see how we were going to choose who would be first to go out and watch the yard. That’s the way it always worked. One guy would go out and if they needed help they’d come get someone, and if somebody from the store was coming they’d shout the word “nothing”. Keith had insisted nothing was the perfect warning since that way when they asked what the hell we were talking about we could just keep saying nothing until they gave up.

That evening, though, nobody suggested a way to figure out who should go. Nobody brought it up and nobody went anywhere. I can’t explain it. We sat only, and we drank, and Frank and Paul smoked cigarettes. Keith had a blue Sharpie and he scribbled something on the wall.

“That supposed to be your name?” Frank asked him.

Keith shrugged, “My old tag. Jonas, you remember?”

“Ha,” I said. I did remember. We used to tag up everything. Keith’s tag, incidentally, was also the word “nothing”. I raised my hammer and brought it down on the wall beside me. It scuffed it. I brought it down again and it chipped the wall pretty good.

It was getting close to closing time. I tried to think of a couple things I could do after leaving the plumbing shed that would make some difference. I considered forklifting the skid of doors from inside the warehouse up to the door mez. With luck Roland wouldn’t go up there.

Soon there were a few empty bottles standing in the middle of our circle. As we sat and talked everyone looked at them like they were a campfire. I still had about a third of mine left.

It dawned on me to ask Paul if he was going to sleep in his car again. He said we’d see. Rio wasn’t answering his calls, but he was going to knock on the door to see if she’d let him in.

“You don’t have a key?” Frank asked.

“She took it,” Paul said.

“What do you mean she took it?”

“I mean she fucking took it.”

“Aw man—so she acts all calm so she can steal your key and then locks you out?” Keith said.

Paul said no. He said she locked him out first. We all looked at him confused.

“Wait wait wait,” Frank said. “So she locks you out—and then what? You send her your key in the mail?”

It took us five minutes to get Paul to explain that she had locked him out and then somehow from inside got him to slide his key under the door. Frank laughed the hardest and Paul whipped his glove and hit him right in the face but Frank kept laughing. We all laughed, at Paul and then at Frank, and then all of the laughter slowed together and there was a general calm. Everyone had lazy smiles, including Paul. It felt like the conversation was enjoying a sigh that we all contributed to. And you know what I saw next? I saw Dom’s eyes go big and he sat up straight on the membrane so I looked where he was looking and it was Adam, the Hamburglar, from out of nowhere suddenly standing in front of us at the head of the class. He had murder on his face and his hands on his hips, and Keith, instantly and naturally and in a normal voice, for no reason that I’ll ever know, said “How are you, Adam?” And then there was silence. And intensity. And there was us looking at Adam and Adam looking at us and the bottles in all our hands and the little group of empties in the middle. And then just like that he was gone. He had turned and gone back around the corner. Nobody moved. Everybody looked at everybody else.

Adam’s voice came in then, calm and precise like some kind of maniac: “You guys might want to fucking follow me.” I looked at Keith. In his face was the same fear that I felt in my stomach.

Dom stood up and held his bottle of wine in front of him. He chugalugged the whole last third, stopping briefly to catch his breath, but we all waited for him and he made it to the bottom. He put the bottle down gently with the others. We all stood up and we all chugged the rest of whatever we had, and when the last of us was done, Dom said, “Let’s go, boys,” and we walked out of the plumbing shed. I don’t think anyone was scared then.

Adam stood next to the gate at the front of the yard, holding the big padlock. He swung the gate closed behind us and locked it. He followed us across the parking lot into the store, up the steps that led into the area where the cubicles were. The few people who were there had familiar faces and names I didn’t know. They all looked at us. Adam told us to go into Tariq’s office. He brought in some chairs and told us to sit down.

 

I unlocked my bike from the fence and wrapped the lock around the handlebars. I turned on the front light and the back light. I rode toward the entrance of the parking lot and turned left on to the sidewalk. There was a gap in the stream of headlights and taillights. I crossed diagonally, into the stream. Cars passed, pairs of red lights, and I rode across the big bridge and up the hill and past the giant supermarket. I turned away from the noise into the darkness. This was always a great turn. From there to my house was all back streets.

I pedalled, listening to the whirring sound my tires made on the asphalt. I put my weight into some quick turns from one side to the other, back and forth, the heavy pulsing sound like a slow washing machine. I wanted to put Lundy’s out of my mind but it kept going back there, into the office where Roland had appeared holding in his arms an Excalibur sword, two sai, and a kendo sword. Adam stood up then and walked over and sort of silently greeted him, like we were all at a funeral. Roland dumped the swords on the desk and took a quick look at us. I don’t know whose eyes he met but it wasn’t mine. Adam put his hand on Roland’s shoulder.

I turned into the laneway. I was getting close to home but I didn’t feel like going yet. The laneway ended in a fork between my street and the way to the park. I went into the park. I rode across the bumpy grass field. On the diamond the gravel crunched and hissed under my tires. It was the static sound of snow on an old TV. I went down the steep road that cuts into the valley behind the forest where we saw the raccoons, and I kept riding down hills until I got to the Humber River. I got off my bike and sat on the concrete at the river’s edge. I was alone. Up a bit on the bank across the river there was a new condo building. It was dark except for two windows. I looked from one lit window to the other lit window to the water. The water moved slowly and looked heavy.

Roland didn’t speak to us at all, not even at the end when everyone was told they could go. He just stood off to the side leaning against the wall. Adam did all the talking. He said we were jerks and that we were fired.

I took a small bag of weed out of my backpack’s secret pocket. I broke some up on the lap of my pants. I rolled a pinner, and then not until I bit off the twisted paper and put the joint between my lips did the thought hit me that I didn’t even have a lighter. For some reason it worried me. I felt like a jerk. A day earlier I had forgotten my bathing suit for gym class. I had to sit on a bench by the side of the pool and didn’t get a mark. It was unrelated, but somehow all of this together made me feel like I might be someone who was not proficient at jobs.

I watched the water moving by. I tried to clear my head. I read once in a book about karate that it’s good to empty your cup. You need to think about things with an empty cup. It’s not actually that easy like it sounds. Everyone’s always getting shit poured into their cups and then leaving it there, basically. Adam, for example. He could fire me and he could think I was a bad worker, but that didn’t have to mean anything about who I was going to be at that moment sitting there by the water. Adam only seemed extra important because that idea was in everyone’s brain. All the time stuff like that got poured into your cup. That’s why the river was good. There weren’t any ideas with it. It was always only the river without needing to pretend anything. You could put things next to it in your mind and see what was real. Just watching it your cup could go down.

I thought about Roland. I thought about him walking around the lumberyard and finding my taped-up piece of doweling on the forklift. We’d embarrassed him. I didn’t even say sorry. That was something real.

I got on my bike and rested my elbows on the handlebars and looked at the water, coming from the right, moving along. I tried to tune my mind so I could take it with me, real versus pretend, the feeling of looking at the river. I tried this every time but then I’d always have to come back.

I left and rode up all of the hills. I bought an orange lighter at the gas station.

Daniel Moore was born in Toronto in 1981 and raised there. He is currently in Bogotá writing a novel. He can be emailed at crumbiest@gmail.com.

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