Authors: Kevin Hardcastle
“Get this fucker next,” Pa said to him, pointing at his own rig.
Pa looked over at me.
“Come with me, son,” he said.
We walked around to the front of the place. Short stairwell leading to a metal security door, round knob on the right side with a deadbolt keyhole cylinder not far above it. There were windows in the front of the thing and they were aglow in the blues and reds of neon beer signs. The open sign was dark. Uncle Doug took his coat off and his snow pants, had a fire-proof jumpsuit on under his gear. He put a welding bucket on and gloved up. Pa stood there with a twelve-pound sledge dangling from his bearclaw by the handle. He looked back to the road and whistled again. The flashlight lit up and went dark twice.
“Get goin',” he said. “Quick to it.”
Dougie went up the stairs with the torch rig and opened up the cylinder valves, oxygen first then the acetylene, opened up the acetylene control valve on the torch, lit it with the striker. Fierce yellow flame fired from the nozzle. He turned the oxygen valve on the torch handle and tempered that flame to a straight and even blue line. He started the cut high up around the deadbolt and doorknob. Then went to the hinges on the left of the thing. Sparks flew wild and lit tiny glow-fires in the wooden decking that Uncle Doug worked from. When he turned off the torch and cleared out there were angry red lines in the door.
“What d'ya think?” Pa said. “Will she go?”
Uncle Doug just took off the helmet and smiled at him.
“You and your fuckin' cousin better bring those trailered sleds around front,” Pa said to me.
After that he stomped heavy up the stairs and wound up with the sledge, hit the door good and low. The whole thing shifted in from the framing and then started to topple outward.
The way back home was long
and cold and seemed like to never end, no matter the adrenaline and the whiskey we'd slung back before setting out, saddled low with case upon case of cargo. We ran in one line again and farther apart yet than we'd come. Snow fell hard around us, lonely world of ice and narrow lamp beams. Ronnie tried to hoot and holler early on in the trip but it was lost on the wind. He was awful quiet by the time we saw the opposite shore. I tried to make out our earlier tracks but they were long gone and there would not be a trace of our night travels for anyone to see come morning. Even the bonfire that we lit later in our yardâfuelled with branded cardboard boxes, Styrofoam peanuts, plastic and packing tapeâlay as but a volcano-holed mound when the sun came up to snowblind those poor working souls that rose with it.
By late winter we had gone as far as
Parry Sound for new quarry, and we'd come back and hit two of the same liquor stores again. Pa listened to the radio day and night and was often out watching the skies and the stars like they would tell him something secret about when and where to go next. In times of thaw he worked long hours on the sleds and bikes and his old Mercury. So was his claim to a legitimate mechanics business.
We ate a lot of dinners at Aunt Colette's and less and less did Ronnie provoke profanities out of my old man. Pa even took the guy out shooting and they brought home a ten-point buck with one side of its rack blown to pieces by Ronnie, a good deal of the meat ruined and lousy with buckshot. Pa cut what he could and sent it down the road to Aunt Colette. He would not let Ronnie keep the half-rack. He left it in my bed as a joke when he was drunk and I found it drunk and pitched it out into the woods while I was taking a piss off our back deck.
In the papers, they called us booze bandits. I had a chuckle at that and Pa never got tired of reading it. He would save me the clippings. After we robbed a trailer out in Port McCall, Pa had gone out for the paper bright and early and woke me up to read it. He'd drunk nearly all of a forty pounder of rye and hadn't slept a wink.
“You see our friend the chief got a statement in the fuckin' paper?”
“I do now,” I said.
“Says he's lookin' at leads. All kinds of fuckin' leads he says.”
“Then he says that they're lookin' for any information from citizens with any goddamn information.”
“You know what that means, Charlie, you little shit?”
“Means they ain't got no fuckin' goddamn leads.”
With spring we lost the ice on
the lake and the trails in the woods and there went the business for the season. The sleds were stowed and stored and what little of the booze that hadn't been sold or shipped far was wrapped and buried in a grown-over gravel pit way back in the barrens. I took a job drivin' the delivery truck for the FoodTown, our one crap supermarket. Sometimes I took extra shifts stocking shelves. I had tried for a job in the next town over, with the golf courses and marinas, but that didn't pan out. When they saw my name they'd stiffen up and ask who my folks were. So I told them. That was about as far as I got before they quit listening and tried to hustle me out of the room.
I had a busted old pickup that Pa helped me get on the road. Bought from a local fella for three cases of good whiskey and the promise that if ever the origin of that whiskey was told to cops there'd be a house on fire in the foothills with the owner still inside. I drove that truck to work every morning and it looked like hell but ran like a champ. Hotter days settled in by June and I had to drive shirtless with the windows pinned down so as not to sweat through my work clothes before I got to the fucking supermarket.
By and by I met a girl who worked at the deli counter. Dirty blonde hair and blue eyes and an anklet tattoo. She still went to the high school I'd just come out of. She said I was once her peer tutor in biology, but I didn't remember her as she would've been but fourteen and didn't ever say a word back then. Her name was Claire. We got stuck working Saturday mornings sometimes and she looked prettier still for all her hangovers and ragged ponytails and tired eyes with no make-up. One such morning I'd come in late and had to go out behind the back of the place and puke my guts out all over the fresh-laid asphalt in the backlot. I came in for a hose to wash it down and when I was done she watched me curious as I swiped a travel-size bottle of mouthwash and walked back through the store to the bathroom at back.
At my lunch break I lay half-awake in the driver's seat of the truck, windshield blocked out by a cover that reflected the sunlight back out. It was still goddamned hot. I'd found a warm bottle of beer underneath the seat and had it in my hand with a ball cap over top. I took a drink and then looked out the window to make sure there wasn't anybody out there who'd dime me out. As I was scoping the place I heard the small shuffle of sneakers on the pavement but it didn't register.
“Hey,” she said loud.
I near leapt out of my skin and grabbed hold of the wheel with my free hand. When I turned Claire was standing there in the passenger window, slender fingers on the window frame, pale blue eyes staring at me.
“Jesus fuckin' Christ,” I said.
“Rough one today, huh?”
I shuffled in the seat and waved the beer around like I might find somewhere to put it.
“Can I have a sip?” she said.
“Warm as piss,” I said.
“Lovely. But I'll give it a go.”
Claire reached over and took the bottle from me and took a good pull. She didn't look around to check if anyone saw her. She handed the bottle back and I rested it on my leg. She had faint sweat marks on her shirt where her collarbones met, little wisps of hair stuck flat below her ears.
“When you workin' 'til?” she said.
“You think you could give me a lift home?”
“Don't you need to ask where I live?”
“Where d'you live?”
“Just on the south side of town. Near the grain elevators.”
“You live out in the harbour, right? You sure it ain't out of your way?”
“I'm not in no hurry to get back out there.”
Through that summer I drove
Claire home every shift we worked together. Never straight there. We often drove out to the pier-head at the far end of town, where the fishing was bad from the factories and thick treecover blocked you from the road. She kissed deep, fast-tongued. Sometimes so hard it hurt my top gums. I'd put my hand down her pants and try to work at an angle with the cab armrest in the way. Sometimes she'd let me figure things out myself by the way she moved and the sounds she made and how hard she took hold of my forearm when I got it right. Sometimes she'd tell me what to do and how and she wasn't shy about it. And when she climbed over and sat straggle-legged on me, hair hanging down at my ears, warm breath at my forehead as we tried to get the necessary garments off, I could barely stop my heart from beating a hole through my chest. Whether you called that feeling love or not I could still live off it for a good long time.
Summer stretched long that year.
Too hot and dry enough to nearly rout bumper crops on farms at town's edge. Sunbaked soil under row upon row of stunted plant lines between concession roads. There was a fire ban on. Boats had their outboards torn out in shallowed channels around the bay. When fall came at last it stayed but weeks and then cold rain started to fall. Colder and colder and the first snowfall early in October. Snowbanks two feet high aside the town roads while kids trudged brave through the white on Halloween, ghouls and goblins in winter boots. I went to work at the FoodTown still, hammering the heater with my palm when it stalled out. The truck never took more than two turns of the key to fire the engine. When I left in the mornings now, Pa was not in the garage at his cars and he wasn't in his bed sleeping it off. He was either down the road at Aunt Colette's and Ronnie's or he was at the kitchen table in his skivvies, listening to the radio.
Me and Ronnie were sent to the scrappers, deep in the backcountry. I had to put chains on my truck tires. It took the whole day but we made it back around suppertime with a bed full of parts. At the house the sun set red through gaps in the wood, lit the frozen roadway in weird colours. Thick woodsmoke rose from the chimney cap, hanging like a fog. The garage door was open and Pa sat a deckchair at the head of the drive with a beer in his hand, the shop stereo spitting news and weather. He wore just his boots and coveralls, wool sweater underneath. Watched us come up like we were travelling salesmen.
“How'd we do?” he said.
“Got everythin' you told us to.”
“He would've took a case less for it, but Ronnie piped up.”
Pa's bottom lip curled so that his beard covered all of his mouth. He turned to where Ronnie stood in the garage, already at the shop-fridge with his hand on a bottle of beer. Ronnie straightened up and his mouth opened a little.
“Good,” Pa said to Ronnie. “Good for you, son.”
Ronnie nodded and cracked the beer. He couldn't help himself from smiling. I just shook my head. Pa turned to me.
“Why would ya pay a man less than he's owed if he's fair to trade with and a friend to fuckin' boot?”
“I wasn't tryin' to stiff the guy. Just tryin' to get us a better trade.”
“Well, next time just follow Ronnie's lead and trade what yous are fuckin' told to trade. Alright?”
I was about to say something else but it just gave up halfway and came out as a puff of air over my lips. I went to the fridge and got a beer and Ronnie leaned up against the dropcloth of the Mercury. I thought he would catch a slap for that one but Pa barely bristled. I started for the garage stairs to the house and got as far as the first step.
“We got work to do startin' early tomorrow,” Pa called to me over his shoulder.
“I'm at the FoodTown in the mornin'.”
“Nope. You are retired.”
“I can't just fuckin' not show up ever again.”
He sat up and turned.
“You go there tomorrow an' I'll come in bare-assed and knock the teeth out your manager's head in front of all your buddies. And your pretty girl.”
“Fuck,” I said.
“Now both of you pull up a chair here with the old man. We got plenty to discuss before the mornin' comes.”
We hit the first store toward the end
of that month. Three in the morning with a portable halogen lamp shining eerie light from the underside of the trailer. Uncle Doug cut through the wooden baseboards with a jigsaw and pulled the insulation matting clear. Cut through the actual flooring and climbed inside. I went in after. We lowered boxes down through the opening onto long sleighs made from the hood metal of old cars. They were pulled clear and emptied and slid back until the tow trailers were half-sunk to the ground. Before we let out, Dougie got back under the store with a pair of two-by-fours and set the flooring again, bolted it in. He shovelled the insulation back into the gap and wedged the sawed base panel back before shimmying away.