This was black like when the lights go out in a room and you can’t see anything at first. Except our eyes didn’t get used to it. The blackness went on in every direction. No stars or moon even. Blocked by clouds or pine trees growing up over the road, I couldn’t tell.
The air was cool. I could feel that on my cheeks and hands. And I could feel the road with my feet. Now and then a stone pressing through the soles of my boots. Branches of a tree we couldn’t see scraped together, right beside us it seemed.
“Ulp.” Gus’s voice, close in the dark, pronounced it clear.
“Golly,” I answered like some TV hick.
It was good to hear each other, didn’t matter how stupid.
We were still walking. Not fast. I stayed close to Gus’s footsteps and the wipe-wipe of his jeans. He was slowing down, probably sticking close to my sounds too.
“Can you see anything?” I was whispering.
“How can we tell we’re not going off the road?”
“My lighter,” Gus said.
I heard his pack hit the ground, a zipper opening and some rustling through stuff.
A little scratch and a circle of light jumped into life. It was about two feet wide, around this green plastic lighter, Gus’ hand and the top of his pack. His orange face at the edge.
He stood up and held the flame in the air. Now it only lit up his arm. He waved it at me, I think to see me.
“No good,” he said.
The lighter flickered twice and went out.
Cold black again.
When the lighter flicked back on, Gus was squatting with the flame held to the ground. The road in the ring of light was dry dusty mud with two stones. He kept the flame close to the ground and moved like a crab across to the left. The circle of yellow road floated away from me.
“Don’t fall off a cliff,” I said.
“I think it’s still woods around here. If it’s a cliff I think we’d see something out there.”
“On the way down.”
“Here’s the edge. Edge of the road anyways. That’s as far as I’m going on this side.”
He moved the flame back across the road, looked up at me when the light hit my legs, and kept going to the right side, maybe twice as far as he’d gone the other way.
“Can’t tell,” he said. He came back, found me and snapped the light out. “There’s a big rut right in the middle. We can follow that.”
We slid our feet in the dark over to the middle and moved ahead along the rut.
“Can’t you leave it on?”
“Save fluid. Might need it later.”
We walked slow at first, Gus feeling along the rut and me listening to keep close.
“Can bears see in the dark?” I said just a bit louder.
“Don’t think so. Just cats.”
“Think there’s any bears around here, like Wesley said?”
“Could be. Or cougars. They’re in mountains, aren’t they?”
“They’re afraid of light, right?”
“How long will it last if you leave it on?”
“I dunno. Five minutes?”
“Maybe we can light something.”
“We can light something. Like a torch.”
“You wanna go in the woods and find something to make a torch?”
We hiked without talking for a long time, maybe a minute.
Then Gus said, “They can smell in the dark.”
I started whistling in an exaggerated way like Abbott or Costello — the short funny one.
“Ma-aa,” Gus cried.
“Maaa-aaa,” I said louder.
Then I said, “Wait a second.”
“Tell me again, why are we walking here?” I said.
“Cause we’re fucking idiots. Cause some freaks told us it was faster than the main road.”
“I bet they’ve never even been this way before. There’s no traffic here at all.”
“So let’s go back,” I said.
“We told them we wouldn’t hang around their corner.”
“Right.” I heard him start ahead again. “Daaah de da da,” he sang like the short funny one.
We cried for Ma some more. We went on like that, getting bolder and sillier and soon we were really clipping along — singing, shouting out insane things, laughing. We did that corny whistling thing from that Bridge movie. Seemed to fit. And You Can’t Get Me I’m Part of the Union. Sang that one loud for the bears. Even did Jesus Bids Me Shine With a Pure Clear Light Like a Little Candle Burning in the Night. At the top of our lungs like that singer our parents liked who sings loud stuff like There’s No Business Like Show Business, what’s her name? So we sang There’s No Business Like Show Business too. The first two lines, all we knew, and a lotta loud da-das to fill in the rest.
We musta bopped along like this about twenty minutes. Probably not so long. Just seemed like it in the dark. But it was great. The most fun of the whole trip so far.
But we lost it. Ran out of stupid brave songs and wound down.
Then we noticed how quiet it was.
I was sorry then we’d made such a racket. Now it seemed we were the centre of attention in the whole dark night. I had this vision of all these animals sitting in their trees and in their holes and right behind the bushes beside the road, sitting through all the noise we’d made and now following us with their ears and eyes that saw in the dark. Watching us, smelling us. Waiting for their moment.
Gus said so softly, “This rut is flattening out.”
I said, “Sh.” But that was silly. So I whispered, “Check it out with the light.”
When the flame came back on I wanted to get into that tight, warm, little circle. But Gus dragged it back and forth across the road.
“I don’t see more big ruts.”
“What do we do?”
“Road seems wide enough. I think we’ll be all right if we watch where we step.”
“And how do we do that if we can’t even see?”
“Just sorta feel our way.”
“I think it’s still woods beside us. Listen.”
He picked up a chunk of mud from the road and tossed it into the darkness to the left. We heard it crash through branches.
“Try the other side.”
On the right side, the mud chunk made a short rustle, then splattered against something hard.
“Rock. Must be the side of the mountain,” Gus said. “We’re good.”
He snapped the lighter off. After some thirty steps he stopped to throw chunks of mud again. They sounded the same, so we were still close to the middle of the road.
Next time we went further before checking out the sides and the time after that even further. We were always near the centre, it seemed. We got to feeling we could sense our way along the road, just going by our feet on the hard dirt.
Once I said, “How far do you think we’ve come?”
“Not even a mile.”
“I think the road has been curving.”
“Around the mountain.”
“Going up too.”
“I get the same idea.”
“It’s colder,” I said.
“Seems colder to me.”
We threw chunks of mud again. Still just bush on one side and something solid on the other.
“We better crash somewhere,” he said.
“I dunno. We can’t sleep on the road.”
“There’s so much traffic.”
“A truck could come along. They probably run all night.”
So we walked another long stretch. I said, “We could be heading towards a cliff and walking right off it and we’d never know it till too late.”
“Yeah. But let’s check again anyhow.”
The next chunk of mud sailed off in the dark to the left and never landed.
We didn’t say anything or move an inch for an hour after that. A minute anyhow.
“Can we try that again?” I said.
I could hear Gus digging another chunk from the road and then a flap of cloth as his arm went through the air.
Then nothing. And then something, kinda faint.
“I think it landed,” Gus said.
“Not like over a cliff though.”
“Look with the light.”
Near the edge of the road he got down on his hands and knees. He crawled slow, holding the light in front of him.
“Watch out,” I said.
I could see in the bright circle where the dirt turned into gravel at the edge of the road. He lifted the flame but there was nothing to light up, just air. He grabbed a handful of stones and tossed them forward. I heard them land softly.
“I think it goes down just a bit,” he said.
He threw another handful further out. Their landing was scattered but not far off.
“I think it’s a clearing.”
Still on hands and knees, he turned around to face towards me and I could tell he was pushing a leg back out behind him over the edge.
“Just a little drop here,” he said. Then he pushed out his other leg and crawled backwards.
“I’ll hold your arms,” I said.
“Don’t need to,” he said.
He stood up and walked off the road, real careful, holding the light low in front of him, down a small slope onto level ground.
“It goes way back,” he said.
I followed him.
It was a perfectly flat clearing. We went a ways off the road without running into anything higher than weeds.
Ah, that felt so good, not falling off a cliff or being eaten by an animal or anything and finding a safe place we could park ourselves.
“We can camp here,” Gus said.
“We can make a fire.”
“Keep the bears away.”
So we used the lighter to step around the clearing and pick up branches. We got a good pile and started a real blaze in a clear patch of dirt.
So great, having that heat on our faces and a big circle of warm light we could sit in and see each other.
We rolled out our sleeping bags beside each other and sat in them near the fire some more. Tired but victorious. Like we’d created this this warm little world out of the darkness to wrap around us, against all those animals hiding back there in the dark thinking they’d had us.
That’s how it felt to me. I think it did to Gus too. The way we were sitting there, on the same side of the fire like that. I had a feeling that if I put my arm around him he’d put his arm around me too and we’d sit huddled together before the fire, with our sleeping bags pulled around us, buddies forever.
Gus looked up and said, “Look.”
Straight above us was this small patch of sky with a mess of stars. You could see the edges of clouds shifting around it, until soon they covered it again. But if you kept looking, there were other patches of stars in parts of the sky. The clouds were breaking up. No moon though. Unless that smudge in the clouds over the road was it. Below them was a dark outline that never drifted, maybe a mountaintop.
“You hear water?”
It coulda been a small stream in a ditch nearby or a huge river far away, we couldn’t tell. The more we listened, the more it could be different things.
So we sat near the fire and watched the sky and listened for water.
Everything was all right now. Sheltered by this fire, surrounded by dark. Close to each other. No problems. Everything in some kinda balance.
Gus slid down in his bag. He’d fall asleep soon.
“Okay to talk about something now? Something old?”
“I thought we’d talk about it some time before this but I didn’t know if you wanted to. So I never brought it up.”
“Is this about Cruikshanks? Like when I got fired?”
“I don’t wanna talk about it,” he said.
I stared at the fire so our faces wouldn’t meet.
He laughed. “I’m kidding.” He propped up his head in his sleeping bag facing the fire again. “I’m too revved up to sleep anyways. But I thought you weren’t interested in that stuff. All you wanted was getting outa Toronto, couldn’t care less what went on back there.”
“That was weird, eh?” I said. “Like who’d figure when we worked at Cruikshanks that me and you would end up out here, middle of nowhere, like a week later.”
“We really are nowhere,” he said and rolled over on his back to look up at the sky. “And it feels kinda good.”
“Just what I was thinking.”
“We ain’t in St. Mary’s no more, Toto. Or Toronto. My folks weren’t nuts about me going to Toronto in the first place.”
“My parents weren’t nuts about me leaving Toronto,” I said.
“Said I was a ignorant kid, Dad did. Just when he thought I was growing up. Didn’t know anything about anything. Probably get myself killed. Turn into some hippie and get mixed up in drugs and get myself killed. You know. Mom too but she was different. But I wanna hear about Cruikshanks that day....”
“You tell me yours, I’ll tell you mine.”
“Mine isn’t anything. Just the usual parents going nuts kinda thing.”
“That’s the deal.”
After I’d told my parents I was going, I’d avoided them around the house, though I could feel they were watching me. Mom had been crying. She had that look, though I couldn’t see the tears. Specially the night before I left. They’d been watching me as I got my gear together and made some sandwiches and talked to Gus on the phone. Even as I watched TV. Then when I went to the fridge for a pop, I heard them come into the kitchen together behind me.
Dad started by saying I was old enough to do what I wanted, they accepted that, but they wanted to make sure I knew what I was doing. For my own sake. I was leaning on the kitchen counter, trying to act normal so it wouldn’t seem that I knew this was a heavy talk, and I remember wondering whether I could jump up to sit on the edge of the counter without seeming too obvious about trying to be casual.
Dad was staring sorta at me, then past me, back and forth like that. Mom wrinkling her eyes, cause she didn’t want tears to come out and didn’t want me to see her wiping them away with her hand. And me acting supernormal but kinda bugged that they put me in this situation of having to act any way. I just wanted to say it shouldn’t be that big a deal for them. Tomorrow I’d be gone, was all. I’d go and start my life, my real life. What was wrong with that? What was so heavy that everyone had to get worked up about it and I had to go through this whole scene?
It started off with Dad sounding sensible, then getting into how I didn’t understand anything about the world and looking past me and asking how was I gonna get by when my money ran out and then looking at me and so on until somehow we were both shouting. I was shouting I was going and they couldn’t stop me. And he was shouting they weren’t gonna take me in if I came back full of disease. Really. He said that. Almost those exact words. “Don’t expect us to take you in when you come back full of disease like some goddam filthy hippie.”
Mom told him to stop yelling. But she wasn’t much better herself. She didn’t yell but she used those tears held back in her eyes. “Of course we’d take him back,” she said to Dad. Sorta chased him out with that. So he stomped out and I got worked on by her for a while.
It didn’t come to much except we settled if I was stuck somewhere without money I could call home any time. And if I got in trouble, any trouble at all, I could call collect, day or night. Course I wasn’t gonna do that. She didn’t understand what I was doing. She was worried and she couldn’t understand none of it. And neither could my father but he couldn’t talk to me about it cause we’d just fight, she said. So explain it to her and she could tell him and maybe they could both understand.
Well, how could I explain? She’d never get it. Cause she was too old and you had to be young to really get it. Or maybe cause they’d lived such a different life and it was like there was nothing in common with my life. Not really. Or maybe they couldn’t get it cause they only saw it as stuff on TV. Somewhere out there in the world that existed on TV news and reported by people their age. That was the only way they could see it. But I could see it from inside. Not the whole thing, but I got a glimpse of it from inside. Cause of my age or the music or something.
And that was it, the whole big teary scene, I told Gus. Except for when Mom gave me the notebook that night.
“They must be outa their minds now,” he said.
“For Dad it was good riddance. He sorta said that.”
“Probably didn’t mean it. Mmh.”
Gus was dropping off again. I’d been doing all the talking.
“That was weird too when my dad let me take the car to work. When we thought the strike was on? That was a weird day too, eh?”
“Come on. Your turn. You gotta tell now.”
And so as we laid in sleeping bags beside a campfire in the middle of a black nowhere, he told me what happened one morning in a furniture factory in Toronto in a former life.
It was confusing to him. Still confusing, talking about it now. All the workers had been so fired up the day before about Duffy getting sacked for defending himself.
When Gus got to the plant that morning, some man was getting everyone to go in. Mark remembered that part himself, sitting out in the car, seeing someone holding the door open. Gus didn’t recognize the guy. He was wearing casual clothes but acted kind of official, like he knew what he was doing. So Gus went along, figuring there was a meeting or something inside.
But he found the whole factory running as usual. Guys were working at their lathes or lugging cartons around just like a regular work day.
He stopped Raj in his packing, asked what was going on.
“We’re back at work, kid.”
“What happened? The company give in?”
“I dunno.” Raj lifted his gun to staple another box over an easy chair.
“Haven’t seen him.”
Goose, who hadn’t slowed down, shouted across a sleeper. “Duffy’s gone but good.” He opened a box, banged it over the sleeper. “He ain’t coming back no more, no more, no more. Eh, Raj?”
Raj helped him flip over the sleeper box. They drove staples into the flaps.
“What the hell happened?” Gus said.
“Dunno,” said Goose. He went on to the next piece.
By this time another packer had wheeled his dolly up to take the box. He paused to stare at Gus.
Gus said, “Does anyone around here know anything about what’s going on?”
Some others came, attracted by the commotion he was making.
“Brissette. Why the hell is everyone working? We were gonna have a meeting. To do something.”
“We were told to go back to work, Gus.”
“I thought we weren’t gonna go back till we got Duffy back.”
McIntyre was hanging back by his office. The stranger who had let everyone inside was heading this way from the woodworking section. With him was a more official-looking man wearing a loosened tie, carrying a briefcase.
“They told us it was for the best,” said Brissette.
“Management tells you to go back, you do it? I can’t believe it. You guys are well trained all right.”
“Get off it, kid,” said Goose.
“Just like that. Forget about good ol’ Duffy. Screw him. Company told us we have to take it —”
Brissette interrupted. “Gus, it wasn’t management told us to go back.”
“I’m a shop steward, right? So last night I get a call. The local guys talked it over with the head office. We walk out in the middle of a contract we could be in big trouble. So.”
He stopped as the two strangers walked into the crowd that had formed around Gus.
Gus said, “These guys are union? Union guys are making us bend over for the company?”
“Hardly,” said the man in the loose tie. Everyone got quiet at the sound of the stranger’s voice. He was an older man, in his fifties, but his voice was strong. “That’s hardly how I would characterize a strategy to assure the success of our long-term struggle.” The man in the casual clothes stood behind him with folded arms. “And I wouldn’t call filing the most serious grievances in the history of this local, I wouldn’t call it bending over for the company, would you?”
He looked at Raj. Raj didn’t react.
“That’s it?” said Gus. “Wow, we filed grievances.”
“Listen, brother. I’ve seen this situation dozens of times. I’ve been in it dozens of times. I was in the labour movement before you were born. Believe me, I know. You walk out now. it’s a wildcat. The company will have scabs in here before you hit the front gate. They’ll have police protection too.”
“So we fight them.”
“You could try. But you’d have everyone against you. The public, politicians, the courts. And in the end what would you accomplish? I’ve seen this a hundred times —”
Gus wanted to say something to shut him up. He didn’t know what. There must be an answer to all this.
“— these men have a lot more at stake than a young buck like you. They’ve built up seniority. They have families that depend on them having a regular income. You want them to jeopardize that? When you can’t win anyways? We don’t have the strongest case here. A brother member physically assaulted a supervisor. We’re arguing he was provoked but that’s a tough one. You know they found a piece of product all busted up, a chair in a box, that he’d been working with? I’m not saying he did that, but they call it industrial sabotage. Doesn’t help. Do you know all the facts?”
“Not all of it.”
“Is this the case you wanna fight on? You wanna risk getting the union decertified? We’d lose everything. All the gains we’ve made over the years.”
“We gotta do something,” Gus said.
“And what we gotta do is use the system to our advantage. It takes time but you’ll see, all the little gains through grievances, the bargaining, the strikes — legal strikes — they add up.”
“Fucking trained bears. You’re the fucking trainer.”
Gus had actually used Mark’s words. But he said he felt odd afterwards, when he looked around. He saw Brissette and Raj and everyone looking back at him. But he was too far gone. Goose said something about a punk. Gus shot back something, he couldn’t remember what.
The guys started back to their jobs, ignoring him. McIntyre finally ventured out, asked what the trouble was. Gus told him to fuck off. McIntyre told him to keep it up, he’d be out on his ear like Duffy.
“You firing me?” asked Gus.
“That’s an idea.” McIntyre looked nervous though.
The union man said to McIntyre, “You’ve had enough problems, haven’t you? We’re just settling a little confusion among our younger, inexperienced brothers here.”
“Confusion, my ass,” said Gus.
Brissette took Gus’s arm and tried to lead him away, speaking in a low voice, “Hold on, Gus. You aren’t on permanent yet. You get fired, the union can’t protect you.”
Gus laughed, said he was walking out. Anyone coming with him?
The union man said, “You don’t know what you’re doing, son.”
“I do. So do you.”
Gus thought of some other brilliant things to say and next thing he knew he was on his way out of the building, escorted on both sides.
“You were waiting for me in the car,” Gus said. “Ten days later I wind up laying around a campfire in the mountains somewhere with another loser.”
“In another life.”
“And I’m wide awake now.” He sat up in his sleeping bag.
“So what was so bad that you couldn’t tell me about it?” I asked him.
“Beats me. A feeling I didn’t handle it right. When I think about it, when I’m not mad, I can’t blame the guys. They had a lot more at stake than me.”
“That’s unfair. I’d handled it smarter, some of them might even have joined me and we coulda made a difference. Mighta helped Duffy some.”
My turn for confessions. “It wasn’t Duffy who wrecked that chair.”
“That don’t matter none. It doesn’t matter now, that's for sure.”
Then he said, "Hey, I almost let out I have another big secret I can never tell you, about being an undercover cop following you across the country to trace your drug connections."
“Saying you’re a cop now? ”
“No, I'm an undercover cop, so I can’t tell you I'm a cop.”
“But you are a cop?”
“As a deeply undercover cop, I have to deny it.”
“Are you really following me?”
“No, man. I’m messing with you. C’mon, man. I didn’t think you’d take it serious. You must be tired. ”
“A joke? ”
“I'm sorry, guy. Look, it’s a bad joke. Not paranoid much, are we?"
I could tell by how much I suddenly relaxed he really did have me going there. I laid back and other things to talk over with Gus who was not an undercover cop flooded into my head. Cruikshanks. Winnipeg. Something Wesley said. That guy with the star on his cap. That math teacher smacking me with a ruler in grade nine. Insane things were drifting and mushing together like the clouds. Three bears singing in a kitchen, walking across a black river....
Then I was falling off a cliff and jerked awake.
“Sh,” said Gus.
I guess I’d shouted.
“I fell,” I said and closed my eyes again to drift back.
Later a chill woke me again and I found the fire almost out. Gus’s sleeping bag was bunched up, empty. His lighter flickered faintly off in the blackness, dipping up and down. If he was okay collecting firewood on his own, I wasn’t gonna stop him. I pulled my bag over my head.