The great lakes are like inland seas of fresh water. Lake Huron rests 100 kilometres north-north-west of Toronto and 200 kilometres west of Canada’s capital city of Ottawa. Georgian Bay, an easterly extension of Huron, is almost a lake in its own right, bordered on one side by the Bruce Peninsula and the Manitoulin Islands and wild land, giant parks, forests and smaller lakes on the eastern shore.
Making its last run of the day from South Baymouth on the Manitoulin Islands to Tobermory at the head of the Bruce Peninsula, the ferry sliced almost silently through the shimmering water. Bathed in silvery moonlight, Lake Huron sparkled like a billion jewels. Waves rippling off of the bow and the rumble of the ship’s powerful engines gently broke the silence in an otherwise quiet night.
‘Radar shows a small craft approaching off the port bow, sir,’ the watchman reported.
The skipper peered out through the window, shading the green radar reflection from the glass with his right hand. ‘Don’t see any running lights. How far?’
‘About three clicks, sir.’
‘It poses no problem, but keep an eye on her.’
The sky lit up as a fireball rose lazily into the hot night air. Resembling a clap of thunder, the boom from the explosion followed only moments later. Captain Davis peered out of the window at a burning cloud enfolding itself with blackness and smoke.
‘What d’you make of that, number one?’
‘Another careless tourist, I shouldn’t wonder, sir. Should we heave-to for survivors?’
‘See what other vessels are around first.’
The first officer gave the order and the radio operator made a call. He found that a coastguard vessel was nearby. Without any delay, the ferry continued on its journey to Tobermory, with most passengers knowing nothing of the unusual event. Whatever the incident may have been, it was all over.
Now, you might wonder what fireballs and ferry ships have to do with anything. Well, allow me to elucidate. You see, 1997 had been a bad year for me and 1999 seemed to be following the same downhill slope. It had been a particularly difficult time, partly as a result of me failing every course. Nobody has ever done as badly as yours truly, at least not at McMaster University in Hamilton. Well, there were good reasons, you could say. So there I was, “sent down” after two years’ hard work. For the unenlightened, sent down means fired, got the boot, sacked or otherwise no longer required. There was obviously no future for such a lowly being as myself. God, the world looked black, really black.
The gang threw a sort of party for me. First, we had a meal at the refectory. Yuck, no big success there. Then we all went over to John’s Tavern. There was me, a handsome, debonair 20-year-old failure, Dee, Pete, Henny and Alic. We called her Alic, as in a man’s name, but she’s no guy. Her real name was Alicia. We were known as the five musketeers until my brain crashed.
Food didn’t interest me, but drowning my sorrows in booze sounded good. You have to realize it was a very sad occasion, being my last day at McMaster University. For them it meant school’s out, but for me it’s the end. Well, I still had my job at the doughnut store, but that’s not a wage a man can live on.
Dee pushed another pint of cheep beer in front of me. ‘Come, me ol’ mate, drink up, eh! What yah say?’ He had that typical all Canadian way of speech.
I smiled and said, ‘Sure, why the hell not?’
Dee was a neat kinda guy, even if he did look a bit like an undertaker. His real name’s Dizzy. Would you believe, Dizzy Spells? I guess his mom had a thing about movie stars, naming him after Dizzy Gillespie, or maybe she just had a keen sense of humour. No one could be more kind-hearted or generous than Dizzy and if you had a motor that wouldn’t go, well … man, he could work magic. I swear he could get a car to go even if it was out of fuel.
‘I’ve got a great idea,’ Pete announced, standing up and using his beer bottle more like a baton.
I sucked at the ale and then wiped the froth moustache off my face with the back of my hand. ‘Yeah, go on, tell us, Pete. What’s this great brainwave?’
He smiled a sort of sly grin. ‘Let’s get school done with and have a frat meeting. We’ll all get together, say, er … how about the first Saturday after term end?’
‘Sure,’ we all agreed.
It was a real drag going back to my apartment in Westdale, a sort of village in the west end of Hamilton. It wouldn’t take a genius to guess that the old landlady would kick me out once she knew I was no longer a student. Sure thing; because school was out, she said my stay would be limited to a month and then I would have to go. You know, being poor is the shits, as in no car, no money and no one who cares.
At least the doughnut job was only evenings, so that gave me time during daylight hours to find a position more reasonable and suited to my talents. Did you know that there are no jobs for duffers and dropouts? Hamilton is one of the biggest cities in Canada. I mean, it has got industry up to your eyeballs, but no jobs. They even call it Steeltown.
It’s amazing how time passes. Before you can wink, it’s the first Saturday after term end and time for the frat meeting. I didn’t want to go. I knew they would all have jobs, cars and money, while dickhead here had none of the above. My money supply was getting short and feeding oneself in non-subsidized nosheries costs the earth, leaving absolutely no spare change for frivolities.
I tried to put on a good show. You know, a big smile, a swagger and back slapping, ‘how are yous?’ sort of thing. Don’t think I fooled anybody, though. I mean, a round of drinks just for the four of us at John’s Tavern costs twenty bucks; Dee paid for the first round. Everybody turned up except Alic. I figured she’d be out with her boyfriend or a facsimile thereof.
‘So, where yah working?’ Pete asked.
He looked quite dapper, even in this heat he wore a tie and looked like some kind of yuppie. Bolt upright and clean-shaven, he would pass for a councillor or a junior executive.
‘I’m, er ... well.’
‘Still pushing dog-nuts, eh?’
‘Yeah. I guess I’m sort of between jobs. What about you?’
‘There ain’t much in the arts. However, I got a neat position at the Hamilton Art Gallery: usher. You wanna job?’
I looked at him and tried hard not to show any enthusiasm. ‘Yeah, I guess so. You know of one?’
Pete smiled and thumped me painfully on the biceps. ‘Not at the gallery, dickhead.’
‘Stop being a pea-brain,’ Dee snapped. ‘Give the poor bastard a break.’
Pete punched me playfully again. ‘Alright, sucker. My uncle’s got a gas station in Stoney Creek. Pays $8.50 an hour; fifty hours a week. Interested?’
‘Pumping gas, dummy.’ He put on a hoity-toity voice, pretending to be English. ‘You know, old boy, filling people’s petrol tanks.’
I had to think about it. Stoney Creek is 10 kilometres across town. I tried to look non-committal and said, ‘I don’t have a car, how’ll I get there?’
‘Walk,’ Pete said with a big grin. Then, with a serious expression, he said, ‘Well, do you want the bloody job or not, my hesitant friend?’
I nodded in agreement. ‘I don’t have a choice.’ I figured I’d ride the buses until I moved and the smart thing would be to move to Stoney Creek.
‘Having got that shit out the way,’ Dee said, ‘who’s buying the next round?’
‘I will,’ Henny volunteered.
Henny was always a quiet sort of follower, never the leader. He came from rich parents, so it didn’t matter how many times he failed at the big “U”, they’d pay to keep him in school till he either passed or passed away. His real name was Gavin Henderson, but he hated being called Gavin. He was a lanky dork and usually the type to be teacher’s pet. You could say he was a do-gooder or just a creep.
Pete’s eyes sparkled and smiled when he said, ‘I always thought you’d make a good grease monkey. So, are you taking the job or not?’
‘Sure. When do I start?’ I managed to say with obvious reluctance.
He wrote the address and phone number on one of his business cards and handed it over to me. ‘Be there at nine, Monday morning, and the job’s yours.’
Though grateful to him, it felt important not to show it, so I put on an air of non-committal. It doesn’t pay to be too eager or people’ll think you’re soft.
‘Don’t worry,’ Dee said. ‘We’ll all stick together. One for all and all for one, eh?’
‘I’ve got a real brill scheme,’ Pete said with a wide grin. ‘How about one last meeting? Say, er ... how about the first Monday in August?’
Shaking my head sadly, I replied, ‘I’ll be working by then, I hope.’
‘No, you twit. The first Monday in August is a holiday Monday. A national day off work. We’ll meet here and drink our last farewells before we all enter the big, angry world.’
‘What the hell’s the point?’ Henny said softly. ‘We’re grown men, not kids. Life’s pulling us apart. School’s the only thing we have in common. When we leave, we’re different people in different worlds.’
‘That’s exactly it,’ Pete snapped. ‘We’ll defy the system, a fraternity for life. Can’t you see the irony in it? The five musketeers, the five banditos.’
There was a resounding, ‘No.’ It didn’t matter, friends are friends. When Mom and Dad died, they left me all the debts, bills and people with their hands out. After the funeral, selling the house and settling the debts, I had just enough to get through school. That’s before they put the tuition fees up, before inflation and before I learned to control spending. In fact, before I grew up. There was always old Granny Hubert, but only as a last resort.
It’s funny somehow. As I looked at the guys I had this feeling inside, well, you know… like after Mom’s funeral. A sort of hollow yearning, a wanting for something that’s just not there. Sometimes, when I look at the gang it makes me want to weep. I don’t know why, but it just feels depressing, a sad occasion. You could say it’s the loneliness, maybe. The gang are there in front of me, they are visible, but it’s as if I can’t touch them. They seemed to be a group of imaginary clowns in the circus of life, only there because of my imagination. That’s enough of that melancholy crap. We were no longer kids and for me, school had finished forever.
Suddenly, I said aloud, ‘I don’t know what the shit I’m gonna do with the rest of my life.’
It must have been the drink that made me say it or maybe Tourette’s syndrome. Either way, the voice came from me and I guess it’s what I needed to say, though it didn’t make me feel any better. It reached my ears as though coming from someone else.
‘That’s it,’ Pete said with enthusiasm. ‘Let’s go into business together. There’s something for all of us. What d’yah say?’
‘What the hell would we do?’ I asked in full seriousness.
Pete had obviously got the itch, something had struck him. With a big grin from ear to ear, he said, ‘I’m not sure yet, but the idea’s gelling. We’ve got to find something that has engines for Dee, some form of art for me. What’s your thing, Henny?’
He shrugged his shoulders. ‘I don’t know. How about something with accounting? I enjoy counting money and stuff like that. What about Alic?’
‘She likes men,’ Pete said. ‘So we’ll have to add something where a lot of men are concerned.’
‘I’ve got it,’ Dee said jumping up. ‘We’ll run a tour bus. I’ll fix the motor. Bill can pump the gasoline, Henny’ll count the cash and Pete can artistically drive it. Oh yeah, and Alic can amuse the customers by doing a striptease or something. Now, how’s that sound?’
‘Alright,’ I said, raising my voice. ‘Tell yah what we’ll do.’ I looked at their grinning faces. They were like a bunch of expectant kids, each with a large glass of beer in their hands. ‘Alright. We’ll all do a lot of thinking and we’ll meet here, let’s say noon first Monday in August.’
‘What’ll we think about?’ Dee asked with a puzzled expression on his simple face.
‘We’ll think about the business. We’ll start a business. I’m out of school. I can put in full time. The rest of yah’ll do whatever you can. How’s that sound?’
‘Never mind the business,’ Dee joked. ‘Let’s get thoroughly pissed. It’s a pity Alic couldn’t make it. Man, I enjoy watching her wobble. She’s got the most fascinating front end.’
I scowled at him. ‘You nutcase. Are we agreed?’
‘Then let’s do some serious drinking. Pissed city here we come.’
Chipper as a squirrel in a bag of peanuts, I was at Pete’s uncle’s place dead on the dot of nine. The sign read: Gordon’s Gas Bar. It’s a large establishment with a cafe, right on the 20 Highway. I walked into the office, where a big man with hair just like Pete’s was giving some poor kid shit for just being a kid. He looked over in my direction, with no smile, no display of friendship and hardly any form of recognition at all.
‘You the asshole Pete sent?’ he growled through his teeth.
I nodded in the affirmative.
‘Alright you got the job. You know how to pump gasoline?’
I nodded once more in the affirmative.
‘Cat got your tongue, boy?’
‘That’s better. Around here we communicate verbally, no bloody signalling. You get that, boy?’
‘Alright, ten hours a day, five days a week, $425 gross weekly. You got that, boy?’
‘Good. Piss off a customer and you walk. You got me?’
‘Start tomorrow and you’ll work Saturday this week. Clock-on time eight sharp. That’s a.m. You eat running; bring your own or buy from the cafe. Are we still in tune, boy?’
‘Never have more than fifty bucks in cash. Bung it in the holder.’
I felt about 2 centimetres tall and I could feel my knees shaking. This guy could eat a fire-breathing dragon and use the tail to pick his teeth.
‘What’s a holder, sir?’
‘The safe, you idiot. It’s that concrete block in the corner over there. See, it’s got a slot in the top. Bung everything over fifty bucks in there. I’m the only one with a key.’
I nodded in the affirmative.
‘Well, do you understand, boy?’ he said, raising his voice to a crackling growl.
‘Yes, sir. Yes, I understand.’
‘Fill this out.’ He pulled some sort of employment agreement from the desk drawer and thrust it in front of me. I began to read it, not wanting to sign anything without understanding it.
‘I gotta go pump,’ he said and marched out of the office.
Man, I felt stupid. I thought slavery had been abolished, yet this guy thought he was God. I read the paper, filled out the details and signed it. Then I sat and awaited his return. I couldn’t help but notice how self-reliant he was and how really sure of himself he was. I guess you’d call it intimidating. If only I could be like that.
He marched in and snatched up the paper. After humming and hawing a couple of times, he said, ‘William Reyner, eh? What do they call you? Bill?’
For the first time, he smiled a friendly smile. ‘Okay, Bill, see you tomorrow.’
‘Yes, sir.’ I lit out and felt like whooping, but managed to control myself in a dignified fashion.
Mrs Nethercot my landlady was in the hall waiting for me to return. You’d think she could find something better to do. ‘I don’t want you about the house all day now the university is out,’ she said in her annoying tone of voice.
God, I wonder what happened to her husband. She probably had him stuffed and mounted. I’ll bet he stands in that dark living room, with a
shocked look permanently waxed on his face. She wasn’t really a dragon; least ways, not the kind St George killed. She was built like a cylinder, black dress and hair in curlers. She had a face that would grace Frankenstein’s monster.
‘I’m working in Stoney Creek for the summer, Mrs Nethercot. I just got me a good job.’
‘Good. Remember, no girls and keep away long enough for me to do the housework. I don’t want you under my feet. In fact, I would like you out of here altogether.’
‘Yes, Mrs Nethercot.’
What a life and it was going to get worse. Getting up at dawn was a new experience and taking the bus to Stoney Creek meant a transfer. I sure as hell didn’t want to be late on my first day; $425 was infinitely more than I got flogging doughnuts. Of course, I quit that job. Couldn’t sell coffee and treats by night and work all day.
A day pumping gas is not a pastime for wimps. Running up and down, sometimes three or even four pumps going at a time. God, some of those customers … I’d like to stick that nozzle somewhere other than in their tank and watch their eyes flood. One guy took 68 litres and then he got all pissed off, cos there was a slight drip when I pulled the hose out. With him, that made two drips. I tell you, if I wasn’t being paid I’d have given him a knuckle sandwich.
Mrs Nethercot jumped on my case as soon as I got back to the pad.
‘You’re filthy. I don’t like filth like that in my clean house. See to it you don’t brush against any of my walls. The last thing I need is garage grease all over my clean house. Is that clear?’
‘Yes, Mrs Nethercot.’
‘Why can’t you wear overalls and take them off outside? Don’t bring that filth anywhere near my carpets and curtains.’
‘I will, when I get enough money to buy some. I’ll be real careful, Mrs Nethercot.’
‘I’ll put your rent up if I see any trace of dirt or grease on any of my walls, floors or drapes.’
I walked into my room. Jesus! You know, after a hard day’s graft you just don’t need that kind of shit. I ripped off my sweat-soaked shirt and threw myself onto the bed for a welcome rest. Lying there staring at the ceiling I just wanted to weep. Life is the shits, sometimes. I wish I was still a kid or Mom and Dad were there to greet me home from work.
Mom was a lovely woman, kind, gentle and understanding. Dad was an okay guy, too. Sort of quiet, but still a hell of a nice guy. It was 1997, just a couple of years ago, when they both died. The insurance and the sale of the house just about covered the debts and the funeral. If it hadn’t been for Granny Hubert, I don’t know what would have happened to me.
I sat up and tried to shake off the bad thoughts. Tomorrow would be another grind. Holy mackerel. I gotta get me a real job. What in the hell do I want out of life, anyway?