I only got an hour. So.
This is Mark. I’m sitting here in —
This thing working? Where’s —
—kay, it’s working.
Hey. This is Mark. As if you didn’t know.
I’m in Stanley Park. In the woods I mean, sitting here in the bushes. Trees. I got an hour, maybe a bit more.
Hope that’s enough to tell you everything before, you know, like the end.
You already know some cause you were part of it. But not all of it.
If I was Petra an hour would be enough. Start with when I was born twenty years ago and still tell the whole story in an hour. If I was Petra. I mean she’d start way back, with my parents and everything. Rhyme off the important points, class backgrounds, whole song and dance about the forces in society, work her way through me being born and growing up, causing a whole lotta new contradictions and everything. Right up to this moment sitting here in the dirt. And the amazing thing is it’d all make sense. Always did with Petra. And it’d stay in your mind forever.
Like that time in bed we talked about communes after, what was it, the second time we’d done it? I hadn’t told her she was the first woman I’d ever been with, so we’re sitting there afterwards, like naked, her hugging a knee with one arm and talking with her other hand and me with my hands in my lap, casual kinda thing, and she’s explaining why all these communes today will come to nothing, like communes had for two hundred years or for some long time before. She’s stopping to push her hair back. She always had it long enough to fall over her face when she leaned forward but too short to tie behind her head. Only illogical thing about her, except for being with me. No, that’s not true. So she’s pushing her hair back with her talking hand. Asking if I grasp what she’s saying.
So serious, wanting me to get every bit.
And I’m really thinking about this incredible fact I’m in bed with someone. That I actually made love to a woman. Someone who’s sitting there bare-naked now with all the things a woman’s body has. Just sitting there, talking to me.
And I’m also thinking how incredible it is I can follow what she’s saying about the Paris Commune of eighteen-seventy-something being this model worth studying. And how incredible it is there’s nothing else going on with us right then. The sex thing was half an hour before. Now just two people talking, except we happen to be naked and in bed. We could be talking in the kitchen or at a meeting or at Morley’s over bowls of chili. With Petra it was like that. Anywhere, any time. And I would get it for real. Grasp it, she’d say. I don’t even know who the leader or premier whatever of this place is we’re in but I’ll never forget the significance of the Paris Commune of eighteen-seventy-something.
But I’m no Petra. So I’ll start just a few months back. When I quit Cruikshanks. Before I even met Petra.
Seems a million years ago. Toronto. Million miles away.
But, weird, I do remember the exact moment I decided to quit. Middle of the afternoon, in the middle of lugging a sofa in the factory showroom. I was just reaching down to lift the end of the sofa off a dolly and it hit me sudden-like. I was quitting.
Duffy holding up the other end, saying, “C’mon, Mark, lift with me.”
I’d been at Cruikshanks since getting out of high school. Full year coming up. Supposed to be temporary till I could get a few bucks together but I could see it stretching into another year and then another. And I could see some day I’d be like Duffy, old guy stuck in the furniture factory wondering what the hell happened to my big plans.
“I’m not lifting this myself,” he said.
A guy in a suit was holding a floor lamp out of the way.
I hefted my end of the sofa and backed towards the vacant spot on the platform. “We don’t have to do this,” I said. “Not part of our job.”
The sales guy waved us away.
But Duffy stepped back and squinted at the sofa. The sales guy stopped to see what he was staring at.
Duffy always looked like he could move none too fast. Big gut hanging over his work pants, legs too short to carry the rest of him. Old circus bear on its hind legs.
But now he folded his arms across his belly and stood, staring at the sofa. Contemplating like. With that balding head shining in the showroom lights, one of those funny carved buddha things you see in Chinese store windows.
So we waited. And Duffy wagged a finger. “That a scrape?” he said.
I swiped with my shirtsleeve at the sofa arm where he pointed. “Smudge.”
He stepped forward, bent close and rubbed a finger over it. Then he took a rag out of his own back pocket and wiped all the wood on the sofa. Stood back and checked it again and shifted a leg of the sofa to line it up perfectly square on the platform. Then he winked at me and lumbered off, a bear again.
I pushed the empty dolly behind him through the showroom exit.
“We’re only supposed to bring the stuff here,” I said. “Setting it up is their problem.”
“We just load trucks for the shipping department. They send us up here, all we have to do, dump the piece in the showroom. Let them worry about setting up.”
“Mark, Mark, Mark. Your attitude. All wrong, boy. Each of us has to do our bit for Cruikshanks.”
“You a company man all of a sudden, Duff?”
“How do you think I made it through twenty-five years? Company wants something delivered to the showroom, show it off nice, Duffy Wortzman obliges,” he said. “And, goshdarn-fuck-it-all, if that means I’m away from shipping, say, a real long time, the price I gotta pay.”
Okay, goofing off I could understand. I was all in favour of cutting down our time in the shipping department. Duffy was a good guy really. He liked his little rebellions now and then, his little goof-offs, same as the other old guys here. Long as it didn’t go no further than that.
Now I know how Petra would analyze it and explain it to me. But I didn’t know her yet. All I saw was the men in shipping were trained bears. Snarl and snap, complain to each other, make fun of the company big shots, swear under their breath at McIntyre who only had the supervising job cause his old man was a director or something at the head office in Chicago. Stretch out a break. Sneak a smoke. But they’d never really bite back.
Like we would just finish loading a truck, me and Duffy, cram the trailer right up to the gate, Duffy pushing the last stack in with his back so I could put a bar across it and pull the gate down, and then McIntyre would come running up with a new list of furniture to fit on the same run. We’d have to unpack and reload half the truck. And Duffy would just shake his head and say kinda cheerful, “A bitch, ain’t it?”
Strong guy though. Wouldn’t think it to watch him plod around. But when he had to, he could swing a swivel chair up over his head and plop it on top of a seven-foot stack of furniture all by himself. I tried once and folded like a blade of grass. Duffy caught the chair before it fell on me. He laughed over it for a week.
That was near the beginning. That first month of work with the aches running across my shoulders and down my back and arms. By the second month the aching had stopped and I tossed the furniture around easier. Though I was still scrawny compared to most guys in shipping.
Ahead of me, Duffy almost swaggered back through the factory. It was an old place, like a hundred years old, lots of newer old equipment crammed in over the years, kind of a mess. I just tried to stay inside the yellow lines, keep from getting hit by wood chips from the drills and lathes and stuff. Sawdust and a kinda scorched smell stuck in my nose.
But Duffy swayed through it all like he was privileged to be at the centre of all this important activity, where the real work of the world was done. Like he was responsible for it.
The men all knew him. They nodded or called out to him. Someone shouted at me too but with all the noise I couldn’t tell what. Probably someone hassling me about my long hair. One of the stupid jokes ending in “honey” they found so hilarious. Or some garbage about me being Jesus Christ — Brissette had started that one in shipping, cause of the hair of course. Or someone telling me the sixties were over, time for a haircut. Something original like that.
I called ahead, “Pick it up, Duff. McIntyre’s waiting for you.” But he couldn’t hear me tease him.
In the packing section, Raj and Goose were slamming cardboard boxes over easy chairs and driving in staples with the guns that coiled down from overhead. Others wheeled the crated chairs into the warehouse.
A new packer was supposed to be working here now. Sounded like a young guy, about my age. But I couldn’t see him. In shipping Brissette was telling jokes. When he spotted us, he had to say, “Nice timing. We just finished loading the last truck”
“We got lost.”
“Next time take me. I’ll be your Indian guide.”
That was supposed to be funny cause Brissette claimed to be some kinda native person. Chippewa or something I think, though he didn’t look or sound like what I thought an Indian was like. And he was always joking about it. Like when Raj was getting hot over Goose ribbing him about his turban, Brissette put his arm around him and said, “We Indians gotta stick together against these rednecks, eh?” Everyone laughed, cause Raj was the other kind of Indian, like from India.
The three trailers in the bays were closed. A cab was being hitched to haul them out and bring in empty ones for us to load. Duffy took a clipboard off a hook outside McIntyre’s office and flipped through the shipping bills for the next coupla loads.
McIntyre hadn’t seen us come back. If he didn’t make a scene, I might have to give my notice without an excuse, just quit quietly. And why not? What did I care about impressing a buncha trained bears? Give my notice and be out of here in two weeks.
I stuck my head in McIntyre’s office but he wasn’t there.
Brissette laughed. “You boys missed the excitement. McIntyre and the new packer. Kid told him off but good. McIntyre couldn’t believe his fucking ears. I thought he was gonna pop a blood vessel.”
“Fired him?” I said.
“Can’t. McIntyre’s just shipping supervisor, not packing.”
No one had seen how the spat had started, just the ending with them swearing at each other. “All we know is McIntyre was on the phone right after that, then he shot off like a dog’s fart,” Brissette said. “Up to the front office probably.”
I was gonna hang around and wait for McIntyre but Duffy grabbed my arm, “C’mon, we’ll get a jump on the next run. Be out of Mac’s way when he gets back.”
We went to the warehouse, just a gigantic room next to shipping. Duffy wanted to start pulling out the furniture for the next shipment, so it’d all be lined up to be loaded when a trailer was ready.
Just like him. After goofing off maybe three minutes in the showroom, we were gonna make up for it by working harder than we had to for the next hour.
We looked through the shipping bills on the clipboard. The next shipment was all to one department store downtown. Not one of the tricky runs through southern Ontario, where everything had to be loaded in reverse order of the route.
But Duffy said, “I dunno. I don’t like it. They’re cutting down their order. This store used to take two trailers of stuff every month. Now this is only their second or third order this year and we’ll fit it all on one truck.”
“So that’s good for us, right? Less work.”
“Fifteen years ago half of us were laid off when the big stores cut back.”
Laid off. Huh. I’d collect unemployment insurance then. Some extra cash before I took off.
Duffy said, “Won’t affect me none, I got seniority this time round. But some of you young fellows....”
“Don’t worry about me.”
We searched through the warehouse for the items listed on the shipping bills and when we found them we pulled them into the aisle. Later we’d haul them out to the dock.
The popular pieces were stored near the front of the warehouse. We worked on them until we hit a bill for a loveseat that was no longer being made. Duffy went to the back of the warehouse to dig one up.
Five minutes later he was still gone. I began to wonder what was keeping him. I could use his help with the bigger pieces.
I’d just decided to go after him when some angry voices exploded at the back of the warehouse.
I hurried towards them. I thought I heard Duffy and Brissette.
I slowed down near the back. I didn’t wanna walk right into a fight. In the second-last aisle I looked through the shelves, between some small boxes, to see what was going on.
A young guy — must be the new packer — was waving his arms. His face was red. Duffy and Brissette had their backs to me. Brissette was muttering, in French I thought.
Fights and those kinda things always affect me weird. Like I’m okay if I’m in a scrap myself. When I’m threatened, then something just kicks in and it’s like I’m not myself, my body just takes over and my head’s somewhere else. When I was a little kid I had my share of scraps and I did all right. Except I’d get too worked up and my nose would start bleeding without anyone even landing a blow on my face, so afterwards everyone would think I’d lost the fight.
But watching other guys going at it always made my stomach do loops. I don’t grab onto something, the ground kinda tilts and slides away. Once in a schoolyard I passed right out. Whenever a fight broke out I tried to stay near the building or fence so I’d have something to lean on.
As I watched through the shelves, I had the clipboard in one hand. I reached out my other hand for a shelf to steady me.
Just then the new packer grunted and brought his arms down angry. My feet floated forward and my hand missed the shelf. I reached for the edge of a box on the shelf below and knocked it on the floor.
The three of them turned at the noise. Duffy and Brissette had smiles frozen on their faces. They’d been laughing.
I stumbled into their aisle.
Brissette draped an arm around the new packer’s shoulders. “Mark, you gotta hear. Gus here made an ass outa McIntyre.”
“I never made an ass outa no one,” the new packer said. “Your basic clash of personalities. A difference of opinion.” His face was still red but he was laughing too.
“Difference of opinion,” Duffy repeated.
“McIntyre thinks he’s the great white god of the shipping department cause he’s supervisor,” said Brissette. “He’s only here to learn the business so he can go back to Chicago or run a bigger department and twenty years from now sit on the fucking board of directors in his old man’s place. Cause the old bastard owns twenty-three percent of the company.”
“How do you know that?” said the new packer.
“Through the union. I’m shop steward, remember? I dunno if it’s twenty-three, something like.”
“God help us.”
“Gotta go,” Brissette said. “Tell Mark the whole story. Give him some spunk too.”
Duffy said he had come back here to find something, if he could remember what it was.
“Loveseat,” I said. “A-24, hunter green.”
“That rings a bell.” He left with Brissette.
The new packer was a bit shorter than me but broader. Face fringed with a beard, if you could call it that. The wispy thing kids grow on their faces to look older but makes them look like kids trying to look older. But he was about my age. Close up he had almost a baby face, except for that fringe.
“You got McIntyre good?” I said.
“It didn’t seem all that funny at the time,” he said. “He comes up to me when I’m waiting for recliners to be boxed, you know? Says he wants me to move stuff in his office. I say I gotta get the recliners. He tells me just do what he says. So I tell him he’s not gonna push me around, he yells at me, I say you’re not my supervisor, so he yells at me some more, I say bite on this.”
“That’s the short version without the sound effects.”
“I thought a fight was going on in here.”
“You’re Mark, right? Gus.” He lowered his voice and said in a kinda pretend mysterious voice, “The new guy.”
“This place is a bummer, eh?”
He shrugged. “Pay’s not bad. Not great. Good folks. Duffy seems a great guy.”
“He’s all right,” I said. “Like all the trained bears.”
“How’s that?” His head tilted forward and to one side.
“All the old guys. Been here years, like forever. Duffy’s done twenty-five.”
“Twenty-five years of jumping through hoops. Or whatever bears do. Like in the circus, you know?”
“I dunno. I just started here.”
“Well, it’s different nowadays, eh? For us, I mean....”
He was looking at me sideways like I was a real case. I knew what was happening. I’d been thinking all this garbage, going on in my head for so long that when I finally got the chance to tell someone like me, my own age and everything, I didn’t know how to speak it.
“Anyways.” He looked away. “Three o’clock. Love to stay for tea but I gotta get this stock checked.”
He took a pencil out of his shirt pocket and inspected the tag on an armchair box.
“Me too,” I said. He was walking away.
When he was gone, I looked at the tag he’d checked and I tore it off the box and crumpled it in my hand. But right away I felt bad for doing that. I couldn’t put it back. So I crumpled it tighter and threw it up onto the high shelves where no one would see it.
I returned to the front of the warehouse. So much for hitting it off with the one other person in this hole who might see things my way. Who wasn’t gonna take any shit. That was a laugh. The fools here wouldn’t know a real shit-disturber if it came down the assembly line with a label on it. Shit-Disturber, D-49, avocado green. Give this Gus guy a few months and he’d settle down like all the others hanging onto their jobs. A few years, he’d be trained like them. Boasting about the time he’d told McIntyre off, but not boasting too loud in case McIntyre overhears.
Well, they wouldn’t get this boy.
So what was I still doing here? I was quitting. To hell with two weeks notice. I just wouldn’t come in tomorrow. What’d I care what they thought? Just tell Duffy. I had plans.
But I couldn’t find Duffy at the front of the warehouse. I saw the loveseat he’d pushed out. Probably in the washroom.
I dragged out the next half-dozen pieces listed on the clipboard. By myself it was slow going. I could handle the smaller pieces and I could move around the bigger ones on the floor. But I needed help getting the big ones from the second-level shelves. I put them off until everything else was pulled out. Duffy still wasn’t back.
I tried getting a recliner down myself. I inched the box over the edge of the shelf and tried to take the brunt of its fall to slow it down. But it came over on an angle and I couldn’t control it and it crashed on its side.
The corner of the box was crushed. Through the gash I could see the recliner’s leather was scraped. Now I was in for it. I shouldn’t have tried to get it down myself. That’s what McIntyre would say.
If he found out. I could hide the recliner, shove it away in the stacks somewhere, and get another one like it for this shipment. Switch tags on them.
I pulled the box upright and tried to push it from the aisle towards the shelves. But I had to stop. It was heavy and I was getting exhausted.
I nudged the side of it with my foot. It didn’t budge.
It was starting to bug me. I kicked a little harder. Made another dent in the cardboard.
Then I gritted my teeth and gave it a harder kick. This time my foot went right through the cardboard.
I shoved the box over on its side again and kicked a hole in the back too.
I walked a few steps away. No one had heard me. Where the hell was he?
I turned and made like a kung-fu guy, giving it a flying kick. Another hole. I put my boot through the hole another three or four times, maybe more, before I felt something in the back of the recliner give. Then once again to make sure.
“God damn,” I said as I booted it. “Damn damn damn.”
I think I said more than that. Then I was walking up and down the aisle trying to settle down.
I know, I know, that doesn’t sound like me, like the me you know and love. And it wasn’t. I wasn’t usually like that. I didn’t get it either.
Least no one saw me. Duffy was still gone and no one else was around. No one’d heard me. I walked back and looked the box over. What’d I do that for? Duffy would ask what happened when he saw it.
I leaned against the box, stared at the warehouse ceiling. My foot and my throat hurt.
I’d tell Duff I dropped it cause he wasn’t there to help me get it down.
I inspected it again. I’d have to say I dropped it off a cliff. It was a real mess.
I had to hide it. A corner where they’d never find it. Not until I was long gone. I tried to shove it again.
I got the bad sides turned away when Brissette rushed in. He was huffing, almost out of breath. “Seen Gus?”
“Still at the back I think.”
“Get him. We’re walking out, kiddo. The whole plant’s going out.”
“Duffy’s been fired. Him and McIntyre got in another one of those differences of opinion and he smashed McIntyre in the mouth.”