Misfits by Tim Beckett

Misfits

by Tim Beckett

 
 
BC-Shots-1
 
 
T

he camp was at the end of a dusty logging road, a hundred kilometers up from the highway. The only other settlement was a tiny Indian reserve, just visible through a stand of trees from the road. The camp consisted of four portable trailers, each a city block long, and two smaller trailers, one for the administrative office, the other for the cook shack, the whole lot plunked down in the middle of a clearing shorn of all vegetation down to bare earth.
It had been a tough season, the worst I’d had in the four years I’d gone tree-planting, and I thought the camp would be a good place to go into myself, read the books I’d been meaning to read since I’d gone into the bush, prepare myself for the transition back to the city. The loggers weren’t due back for a few weeks, and we were all given our own rooms in one of the long trailers. The rooms were bare but comfortable, and the steady hum of the generator out the window blocked out the sound of my fellow tree-planters yelling back and forth in the hallway, or playing guitars in their rooms. I found the camp beautiful in a way, an echo of the Northern towns I’d grown up in and almost totally forgot about when I was in the city. The smell of oil and exhaust mingled with the sylvan-sweet scent of fresh-cut timber, and broken logs stuck out of the mud like the remains of a building after an earthquake. Next to the railway cars, a tractor with a claw the size of a small house shifted logs in and out of a twenty foot pile, while fully-loaded logging trucks appeared regularly at the opposite ends of the clearing, sending up plumes of dust, their tottering loads of freshly-skinned trees glistening in the sun. It was like a giant factory dropped in the middle of the woods.

I’d been mildly depressed for weeks. Part of it was how much tree-planting had changed since the year before: gone the free-wheeling travelers, the misfit hippies and punks that had been my solace in other years. The students were taking over, and their bright faces, so sure of their future and their places in it, gave me the horrors. In the morning, they played Van Morrison’s ‘Brown-Eyed Girl’ in the truck and at night they gathered for hippy sing-a-longs in the cookshack or even the hotel room, hauling out bongos and guitars. When they started in, I usually went off somewhere to get drunk.
But mostly I was depressed about Molly. We’d been together a couple of years, ever since I’d met her in Vancouver hanging around the punk rock bars when I’d come down flush after my first season. She’d just come back from England and a month after we’d met, she’d wanted to go back, and dragged me to London, introduced me to a whole world of squats, traveling, the London and Europe punk rock scene. We toured all over Europe, staying in hotels and squats in Paris, Madrid, Berlin, going back to London when our money ran out to join up with our pals in the squatting scene, make enough money so we could travel again. We were always in some kind of drama: we both liked to drink, and we’d fight, break up and get back together again, sometimes a couple of times in one day. We had a lot in common too: parents from the old country we didn’t talk to anymore, a couple years on the street when were kids, the right, through those same parents, to British and Irish passports. The desire to leave Canada, to move ever forward. Yet part of the reason I’d come back in the intervening years, discarding my leather jacket and Doctor Marten’s for lumberjack shirts and cork boots, exchanging the ancient grey British and European streets for a mouldy tent and cutblocks of gnarled and rotting logs, had been to get away from her craziness, to remind myself of who I was. That winter had been the worst. Not just drinking, but dope. No longer on the periphery of our scene as it had been in other years, junk moved ever closer until everyone we knew was using and we were smoking off the foil to bring ourselves down after drinking too much.
For all that I missed her, missed our life together. I couldn’t shake the feeling that coming tree-planting had been an enormous step backwards, a part of my life that no longer fit. Yet now that I was in the bush, I was scared of what would happen when I hit Vancouver, this time to no Molly. I wasn’t sure where I’d end up, if I could even go back to London without her. After awhile it was easier to lose myself in work, not think too much about what might be waiting at the end of the road.

 
 
BC-Shots

To my surprise, Walter was in camp. Like me, he’d been working for months, starting up on the coast and moving inland with the spring. I was glad to see him and, though he tried to hide it, he was glad to see me.
I’d met Walter the year before. At first I’d thought he was just another of the small-change rednecks that came and went through camp. He was heavyset, over six feet tall, with fists the size of small hams. He covered his close-cropped hair with a John Deere cap, and spent his evenings in the cookshack, drinking beer and playing cards. During the ride to and from work, his conversation revolved heavily around cars and trucks and how to fix them.
Yet in the evenings when he didn’t play cards, he wandered the camp alone, staring pensively at the ground. His eyes were a soft blue, not intelligent exactly, but defined; set deep in his fleshy face they made him look vaguely oriental. On the odd occasion that he dropped his guard, they even revealed a degree of sensitivity.
At work he wore long-sleeve cotton shirts to keep off the bugs but one evening at dinner when he had his sleeves rolled up to the elbow, I noticed a line of fading tattoos on his forearms, including one of a half-unfurled Canadian flag and a logo underneath that read ‘Skins Forever’. Intrigued, I wanted to find out more about him, but didn’t get the chance until we were in a strip bar on a night off with some of the others from camp. It was late and the strippers had finished for the evening; we ended up sitting together at a table near the stage. The first thing he said was:
“You’re not a Jew, are you?”
I stared back, incredulous. His face was red from alcohol and fatigue and his eyes bulged a little beneath his cap. A little wary, I decided to indulge him.
“Nope. Sorry.”
Walter looked at the empty stage.
“I didn’t think you were. But you never know.”
“Would it matter?”
He leaned across the table and explained that, while he didn’t have a problem with Jews per se, they inevitably had a problem with him, and he liked to get that matter out of the way at the beginning. Unbidden, he rattled off the usual Jewish conspiracy theories, declaiming with the air of someone who had to explain the same things over and over, and yet, as forthright as he was with his ‘views’ as he called them, he lacked the fire of real conviction and I had the sense that he was explaining his views as much to himself as to me, and that on some level what he really wanted was my acceptance.
“You ever met any Jews?” I asked him when he was finished.
“Sure, lots.” He leaned back in his chair, “my old man used to talk about them all the time too. He’d say, “how could six million Jews have died in the Holocaust? There weren’t six million Jews in all of Europe.’ He comes from the Ukraine.” Walter leaned forward again, turning petulant: “I got a right to my opinions. I don’t hate Jews but I don’t like them either.”
I rarely judge people on what they say, especially when it comes to politics, and I figured if Walter had come tree-planting, he had to be different. I was already getting tired of the hippy ethos which dominated camp life. Some of the older hippies were interesting. They’d carved our ranches in the foothills of mountain country or spent the off-season roaming the backwaters of Central America or Asia. But the next generation trekked out from college campuses in Vancouver or out east, arriving complete with dreadlocks, hackey-sacks, a uniform, cloying liberalism.
As a group, they lacked edge. Walter was all edge and I needed his edge around me. We were part of the same tribe, even if my friends on the outside, Molly included, hated skinheads. Skinheads showed up at gigs in packs, getting stupid drunk and pushing people around. Some of them wore swastikas and swore allegiance to the Fuhrer. Everyone felt better when they weren’t around. But I’d been curious about them for awhile. My punk friends, whether in Canada or Britain, came from middle-class backgrounds, or upper-middle-class in the case of Molly. Even if they were dropouts, I felt separate from the sense of privelege which revealed itself from time to time, even amongst the most down and out. I wanted something more defined then believing in nothing, like so many of my friends did. Skinheads, with their uniforms, their rigid codes of behavior, seemed to be all about identity, commitment, and, from a distance at least, I admired them. But when I actually talked to them, they’d disappointed me with the banality of their opinions, on everything from society to race and I’d lost interest. Hearing it all again from Walter, I couldn’t resist taunting him a little.
“So you only like white folks?”
“No. Black people are okay.” He grinned, despite himself, “but you can’t trust ‘em.”
When I ran into him the next morning, he looked a little sheepish, like he’d been embarrassed to have revealed so much the night before. I found his self-consciousness endearing, and we hung out after that. In the isolation of the bush camp, we had a lot in common. We liked all the same music, and in the mornings, on the hour-long truck ride to the cutblock, we’d take over the stereo to play Motorhead, GBH, or Metallica while I told stories about squatting in London and Berlin, going to see the Ramones or the Damned. I could tell that he was impressed that I’d lived in London, that I’d lived the life he’d only heard about. Even if he’d never been to England, or came from a British background, he shared my enthusiasm for all things British, especially all things working class British like pubs, football, the East Ender reruns we’d watch on the hotel cable TV on our days off.
On top of that we had the small town in common. Walter was off farming country in the flatlands around Toronto. He’d been in the army a couple of years, and claimed to have been in prison, though the dates and charges kept changing as he told me about it. He rarely talked about his time as a skinhead, except to say that the skinheads got a lot of bad press, and that it bothered him that his buddies had been ostracized by the punks. “They should show us more respect,” he said, “after all, we’re tougher than they’ll ever be.”
On really hot days, he’d take off his shirt while he worked, exposing the tattoos all up and down his arms. He never did this in camp, as if worried what the hippie kids and students might think. I couldn’t blame him – he didn’t go for the trendy, neo-tribal tattoos that were making inroads then; his tattoos were the real thing: skulls, swords and spiderwebs on the elbow, all of them fading into illegibility. One afternoon, when we were hanging around between runs, he explained that the important ones marked different points in his life – friends who’d come and gone, time in the army and prison. His favorite – a dragon that curled around one shoulder and peered from the edge of his collarbone – was gift from an old girlfriend.
“Puff,” he said, his eyes becoming childlike before he caught himself.
On nights off, we usually went out to a strip bar with a dozen or so of the more adventurous people in camp. Finding a strip bar was never hard – in a lot of BC towns, the only bar IS a strip bar. Walter was a good drinking buddy. He played good music on the jukebox and had a knack for talking to the strippers – even if I wasn’t on the hunt, the strippers were usually fun. His only drawback was that he liked to drink scotch. After a couple of hours, his eyes started to bulge out of his face like they had the night I first met him, and though I didn’t think he’d ever attack me, I worried that he’d start something with some roughneck, dragging me into some fight. I became adept at slipping to another table then out of the bar altogether when I knew he was about to turn and, sure enough, the next morning, he’d appear with a bruised lip or a black eye, looking embarrassed like he had the morning after I’d met him, with some story, short on details, of a logger who’d pushed his luck or a bouncer who’d refused him entry into a nightclub. He didn’t seem to hold my lack of loyalty against me, as if, in his mind, our friendship occupied a different sphere from his violence.
A year later, he’d grown his hair out into a mullet and had traded in his John Deere cap for a Massey Ferguson. He seemed much older, more solid, yet with a slight air of sadness that he hadn’t had before. To my surprise, he’d spent the winter in London.
“It was everything I expected it to be. I stayed out in Croydon mostly, with some friends of mine. Went to all the pubs in Soho and everything, but my favorite place was the East End. I used to go down to Brick Lane and Spitalfields, hang out in the market, in all the pubs – the Paki area my friends called it,” here, he looked at me askance, “But it was cool, no one bothered me.
“I got offered a job in some fag bar in Soho. Probably coulda made a lot of tips,” he laughed, “but I didn’t want to end up working in some bar in London so I went back to Ontario. Maybe I should have stayed, I don’t know. I’ll tell you one thing – I’m not going home after this. The whole time I was back, I was stuck in a rooming house on welfare. It was a drag. I was thinking of going to school or something. Whaddya think would be a good thing for me to study anyway?”

 
 
BC-Shots-2

On the first day off, I followed a logging road that led behind the railroad tracks and on into the forest. I wanted to at least try and connect with the country before I left. I’d heard a man made lake was a kilometer down the road, formed in the 60’s by some huge hydroelectric dam, but the sun’s heat beat down so relentlessly on the hard-packed gravel that I began to feel sluggish. When, after half an hour, I still couldn’t see or even taste any sign of water, I decided to take a break inside the shade of the tree line.
The forest spread out like a blue and green painting, the air rich with sap, wood, under growth. If, from the road, the forest had seemed like little more than a bundle of sticks capped with tufts of needles, then inside the pine and spruce trunks melded into a greenish haze, and sunlight filtered through the canopy of tree branches in beams of silver, green, and even a soft, peacock blue, playing over the moss carpet covering the dead trees, the forest floor.
I hadn’t seen anything so beautiful in years. When I was at work, I hardly thought about the forest: it was just there, a dark space beyond the treeline. Like any job based on piecework, tree-planting is a march against time, a race to compound tree score against tree price, a competition against yourself and anyone who might put more trees in the ground than you. Tree-planting was pure capitalism, and in the ruin of the cut-block, you soon forgot there was anything else.
As I shifted deeper into the forest, I remembered going skin-diving with Molly. We’d been out on some coral reefs off an island in southern Thailand, and as we broke the water’s surface, there had been this same sense of being surrounded by nothing but color. Yet the forest was different. I’d grown up with these colors; seen them every day. As the cold air hit my skin, I remembered how I’d felt as a boy walking through forests like this one, marveling at the contours of the trees, the way the myriad ferns and mosses covered fallen logs and mounds of earth on the forest floor, the sounds of the birds and small animals scurrying through the trees. When I was travelling, I almost never thought about this part of my life. Occasionally, when I tried to tell Molly about growing up in a small town, how I’d felt walking in the woods, she’d glaze over and make some joke about rednecks and how boring it must have been to grow up in a place like that. The idea scared her I guess: there was so much about both our pasts that scared us, and that’s why we fit so well. Yet sitting in the forest, I realized that part of what had separated us had been her dismissal of this part of my life and I resolved to visit the forest whenever I had the time, and the energy. I’d try to put my feelings about the forest and growing up in small towns in a letter and send it to her. Maybe then she’d understand.
A twig snapped somewhere out of sight. I stiffened, nerves popping as I tried to see into the green. The snap hadn’t been loud enough to come from a bear – but I couldn’t be sure: sometimes bears made no more noise than a squirrel. I peered through the mass of tree branches but all I could make out was a limitless green haze, as deep and forbidding as the bottom of the ocean, and I was relieved when, in the opposite direction, I could make out a silver of dusty yellow road. If a bear did appear I wasn’t sure what I would have to do – I remembered enough to know that running away would just make it attack. This not-knowing was even worse than fear, because it cut me off from that part of my life – and from the joy I’d felt about being in the forest. However much I’d loved the forest as a kid, I no longer belonged there: I had to recognize that.
I stepped carefully toward the road, glancing backward as I went.

 
 

When I made it back to camp, a dozen kids from the reserve were hanging around in front of the pool hall, chattering in Cree. The reserve held a tribe of a hundred people or so. The tribe been nomadic until twenty years before when the government decided they’d be better off all in one place. From the road, you could make out a collection of wooden houses and a rec centre with a corrugated iron roof. In the one store, a can of baked beans cost three dollars. The rec centre was always closed.
The teenagers dropped by in the afternoons to play pool, and watch the big screen TV. As I staggered up the dusty path, wiped out from the heat, they peered at me from beneath their ball caps. Finally, one said:
“You make it down to the lake?”
Like his friends, he wore a mac jacket with the sleeves cut off, his face half-shielded by his ball cap. His friends listened without looking at me directly but he stared straight at me, disdain flashing behind his almond shaped eyes.
“No,” I said, “I thought about going for a swim but it was too far.”
“Can’t swim down there anyway hey.”
“Really? Polluted or something?”
The kid peered at me with just a hint of malice while the others laughed and nudged each other gleefully.
“No mercury in that water hey. Just fucken cold.”
The kid smiled triumphantly then ended the discussion by turning away. His friends followed, and they marched along the dusty logging road, their raven-black hair and checked jackets shifting brightly past the logging trucks with their towering cargo pulling in to the weighing station by the tracks.

 
 
BC-Shots-3

The next day off, Walter drove us into Fort St. James.
Fort St. James is an unremarkable northern town. A dozen church steeples dot the skyline, competing for the souls that inhabit the myriad reserves in the area. Wooden bungalows look out over a greenish lake and city centre consists of a block-long strip mall, the most prominent buildings being the RCMP, the liquor store, and the Ministry of Human Resources – the triple pillars of Canadian colonialism.
We checked into a room upstairs at the downtown hotel, a box-like structure covered in white stucco and faded blue siding. Downstairs was the town’s only bar, named, like every dive northern bar, the Zoo. The cook had warned us against going there before we left camp.
“No whites allowed hey. Get the shit kicked out of ya.”
The entrance was a single wooden door with a smashed window. A couple of very drunk native men hung around outside, bumming change, cigarettes, beer. We lay on our beds in the hotel room drinking beer and watching videos on Much Music. I soon got tired: the bands were boring, the videos all the same. I wanted to go to the bar, but Walter wouldn’t even consider it.
“You heard what the cook said. Indians are a violent people.”
“You’re bigger than any of them.” Then, when he wouldn’t even get up off his bed: “I’m going. Send in the task force if I’m not back before doomsday.”
Walter pulled himself up, anxious not to be shown up.
“Okay, I’ll go. Nothing else to do, I guess.”
The drunks by the door clamored for change, and I handed out my loose coins while Walter gave an old guy a loonie, holding himself aloof with a look of mild distaste. Inside the bar was no more dark and seedy than any other bar in small-town Canada. Big bay windows looked out on the lake and beneath the windows cushioned benches half-surrounded rectangular wooden tables, and a a single battered pool table took up the middle of the room. The air was choked with cigarette smoke. The patrons, all native, sipped glasses of draught and chattered in subdued voices. A few turned to look at us when we entered but only, I realized after my eyes had adjusted to the light, because Walter was so much bigger than everybody else.
We sat by the window. The sun sent shoots of vermillion red across the lake’s metal-grey surface and I settled easily into the click of pool balls, the solemn native faces framed by jet-black hair, the magnificent view out the window. After the waiter, a grizzled white man with greased white hair and white shirt, had brought us four glasses of draught, Walter relaxed as well, putting out his feet.
“This isn’t exactly what I expected,” he said, “bet it’s not this quiet on the weekends though.”
We watched an old man at the pool table. His face was as gnarled as the bark of an old tree and he was so drunk he could hardly stand; every so often he picked up his cue and took a shot, not seeming to care whether he hit the ball or not. Then he appeared at our table, weaving as he tried to focus on first me then Walter.
“One of you guys wanna play pool?”
Despite his slurred words and rheumy yellow eyes, he had a vitality about his features that indicated he wasn’t so far gone as he looked. Walter shrugged indifferently.
“Sure. I’ll play with you.”
Walter followed the old man across the room, swinging his shoulders stiffly. The old man let Walter break, then stooped to take a shot. At first Walter looked bemused, then puzzled, then incredulous. Walter took one more shot, then the old man sank all the balls on the table; he and Walter talked for a moment, heads together and Walter went to the bar, bought a beer, and brought it to the old man. At the table he said:
“The old guy cleaned me out. I don’t know how he did it – the old fucker can hardly see.”
The waiter came over bringing four more draught.
“Does that all the time eh,” he said, chuckling. “Keeps him in beer.”
The sun disappeared behind the lake and outside the windows it was dark. The room flowed around us in bursts of Indian voices and clinking glasses, and the whine of country music from behind the bar. I looked around at the faces so familiar to me from growing up in the north: the high cheekbones and tawny skin, the stillness, even in the drunks. Their eyes fascinated me: hooded, watchful; as much a part of the land as the lake out the window and the forest being cut down all around them. Faces that were shaped by the land, guided by it, even if their owners themselves had lost the means to remain in contact with it. Looking over these faces, I knew how far we white men were from being a part of the vast territory we were trying to stamp in our image.
Three girls occupied the next table. Somehow, Walter began talking to one of them, a thin girl with a flat Indian face and dark eyes and hair that fell in bangs over her forehead and had been tied in the back with a blue elastic. She wore dangly silver earrings and a white t-shirt with a flowered emblem on the front, and tight jeans with a white pattern sewn in along the pockets. A small gold crucifix hung above the open neck of her shirt. Her eyes were expressionless and watchful except when she smiled – then her whole face lit up. She smiled at Walter often and when she did, Walter had a look of boyish innocence. I heard him say:
“What happens if you repent then fall back into sin?”
“Repent again and try and overcome your sins.”
Walter rubbed his chin while the girl ran her fingers along the edges of his tattoos, pointing at the Canadian flag and the ‘Skins Forever’ logo before asking Walter a question. Walter shrugged and they both laughed. I’d never seen him this loose before.
When I caught up with him in the can, he was glowing.
“Her name’s Rosie,” he said, “She’s up here visiting some relatives on a reserve just out of town. She has a kid who’s staying with her grandmother or something. She said she doesn’t drink too much but once in awhile she likes to get fucked up. She’s a Catholic – we were talking about religion. I haven’t talked about that with anyone for awhile.”
Back in the bar, Walter sat with Rosie and I sat alone, watching as they edged closer until Walter had his arm around her shoulders. Next to Walter, she seemed almost waif-like, yet they had a basic same-ness about them, each toying with their bic lighters as they chatted, glancing up warily each time the bar door swung open, coming alive when they laughed and shrugging off their wariness, as if only through laughter could they forget the forces pressing in around them. Watching them, I wondered if I’d have turned out the same if I’d stayed. And if that would have been a bad thing. Going abroad had changed me in ways I didn’t understand, and not necessarily for the better.
One of the Rosie’s friends glanced at me. She wore thick make-up over her heavy features and when I met her gaze she smiled shyly and looked away. Despite the make-up, she didn’t look too bad but a burst of self-consciousness made me freeze up and I couldn’t think of anything to say. I didn’t want a one-night stand with some anonymous native girl – in the morning I’d wake up thinking of Molly and hate the girl because she was there in Molly’s place. So I let the barman bring me beer and I drank and watched Walter and Rosie, content to contemplate their improbable romance at a distance. I scanned the room, wondering if anyone took offence at Walter being with Rosie but no one seemed to pay them any attention. I soon reached the point where I wasn’t sure if I was going to make any sense when I opened my mouth so I decided to leave. Walter waved offhandedly when I tapped his shoulder and said he’d catch up with me later while Rosie took me in for a second, then turned back to Walter. I lurched outside, welcoming the cool air against my face. Moths and mosquitoes buzzed beneath a streetlamp. A fight had broken out in the corner of the parking lot, between whom I couldn’t tell. I went upstairs and lay on the hotel bed and fell asleep.

 
 
BC-Shots-4

The next morning we bought enough beer and vodka to last two shifts and started back. Off the highway the road turned to gravel then narrowed until it was just wide enough for two vehicles to squeeze through. Logging trucks rumbled past, their carriages piled up behind them like oversized accordions, sending up clouds of dust so thick we had to pull over to wait for them to clear.
Other than to complain about the truck’s shocks, or about the ridiculously circuitous road, Walter was silent. Occasionally, he’d check the rear view mirror, but mostly he sat with one arm out the window, squinting against the sunlight. I felt the resentment building inside him, and as the road wound on, I felt my own hangover pressing in on my head and body, compounding the ache in my limbs, making it so I could barely stand Walter’s sullen tension. Opening a can of beer from the case at my feet, I knocked it back in one go. Beside me, Walter came to life.
“Gimme one of those, wouldya?” I handed him a can and he downed it in a few pulls then threw it out the window. “Thanks, I needed that. Pass me another one. The road straightens out from here on in. Jesus, I wish I was in bed with Rosie somewhere.”
I glanced at Walter, trying to read him. His face remained blank, but I knew he’d been thinking about Rosie since we’d left town. Still, I was surprised. He didn’t seem like the kind of guy who could ever reveal those kinds of emotions, at least not in male company.
“You miss her already?”
“Kinda. She was cool. After you left, we went down to this spot by the lake and sat there ‘til dawn.”
He took another drink, watching the road.
“She was the first Indian I ever talked to. Before, I thought they were all just drunk or fucked up. But she told me she grew up in the bush and didn’t even see a town until she was a teenager. Her old man trapped and hunted in the wintertime and she helped her mother raise her brothers and sisters until her mother died when she was ten and then she had to raise them alone. Her old man didn’t drink or nothin. . .
“She was all over me after awhile, rubbin’ my back and giving me a massage. But she wouldn’t go any further than that – kinda cold I guess. I fell asleep in her lap while she was humming some kind of song, like a lullaby or somethin’. She had a nice voice.”
Detaching himself from his last sentence as soon as he said it, he asked me for another beer and sipped at it moodily, peering into the sunlight. Finally he said:
“She gave me her address in Squamish. What kind of job do you think I could get on an Indian reserve anyway?”

 
 

Back at camp, we found the cook sitting on the steps of the cookshack.
“Start prayin’ for rain boys,” he said, “they’re puttin’ everyone on the early shift.”
I stared at the sky. I’d downed five beers on the way up, and I was already pretty drunk. The sky was a pitiless blue. I knew the score. By early afternoon, the sun would be hot enough to singe forest, earth – even the air itself. It had been hot before we left, but I hadn’t thought about it; you had to expect heat with the passing into summer. The rising heat quickly became just another of the miseries of the workday. But this was serious. Sometimes it got so dry with the heat out on the block even a spark from a shovel striking a rock was enough to start a fire in the underbrush. In these conditions, everyone had to be off the block by two in the afternoon, and make up the time in the early morning.
Which meant getting up at 4:30 am.
In the cookshack’s naked light, we gulped down bacon and eggs and canned fruit then rode through the purple dust clouds billowing up in the headlights. By the time we made it to the cut-block, the sun had just cleared the horizon. The first couple of hours were cool, the mosquitoes and blackflies buzzing around in great swarms in the stillness, attacking eyes, nose, mouth. When the heat came, driving away the haze, it was almost a relief, but by noon it beat down with the force of an anvil. Back in camp, we showered, slept for an hour, then, almost stupid with heat and fatigue, had dinner. Everyone was in bed by nine.
Anyway you look at it, tree-planting is a shitty job. Make a hole with a shovel, close the hole with your foot. Repeat, a thousand times over. Everything from bits of song to half-remembered snatches of conversation play over and over in your head like a tape loop. AT the end of the day, your body hurts so bad it hurts to move.
You push yourself through pain heat boredom because you know that if you do, you’re going to make money. But the inverse is, if you know you’re not going to make what you want to make, it’s all too easy to give in to the pain and just give up.
I knew from the combination of the heat and the truncated day, that I’d only make half what I usually made. Even if that was still more than I made in the city, it wasn’t enough to motivate me. I worked the first couple hours when the bugs made standing still impossible, but by nine, when the morning coffee had worn off and the bugs had disappeared, I headed back to the little foil tent where they stored the boxes of saplings. Walter was usually there before me.
“How’s your ground?”
“Bad.”
“Mine, too.”
We sat by the road drinking thermos coffee. We started off talking about how much we hated the job then Walter would start talking about how much he wanted to see Rosie again. I indulged him, encouraged him even since listening to Walter talk about Rosie took me away from the cutblock, back to some London pub where I was drinking beer with Molly close beside me, so that even as I asked questions, or dispensed advice, I was somewhere else entirely. Maybe I wanted to believe that he’d go off with Rosie; more likely I was just helping Walter help me waste as much time as possible.
Soon I regretted it. Walter’s longing turned to bitterness and instead of talking about Rosie, he complained, incessantly: not just about our ground but the company and the other planters; about existence itself. Behind his complaining was a helpless, inert plaint that began to alter my image of him. He’d claim he was about to quit if the company didn’t raise the prices, but if the foreman came round he was the first to jump up, saying he was just tired, everything was fine. Yet afterward, he’d been even more bitter, and in the truck on the way home, he’d clamp on his Walkman, playing No Remorse and Skrewdriver, answering in monosyllables if I tried to talk to him.
It got even worse when he started talking about politics. He’d dated a Jewish girl somewhere over the winter and since decided that Jews had gotten a bum rap. Instead, he’d thrown his weight behind the Reform Party, and espoused the values of hard work and the Hidden Hand of the Market.
I needled him just to listen to the absurdity of it.
“How come you were on welfare then? Face it, socialism and health care are in your best interests.”
“Welfare and health care aren’t socialism. That just means our culture is superior enough to take care of its own. Immigrants come here and take advantage of that.”
“We’re both the sons of immigrants.”
“Yeah, but our parents worked hard. Jamaicans just go on welfare.”
“This country needs new blood. The white race is dying, you know that as well as I do.”
I’d blurted out the last without thinking. I’d been struggling to articulate this to myself since the winter in England but I wished I hadn’t articulated it then. Walter glared at me, eyes blazing form his red face with such intensity I wondered if he wasn’t going to attack me. But instead he reigned in his anger.
“You might be right,” he said finally, “I thought that way sometimes when I went to the Jamaican or Paki parts of London. Everyone there seemed a lot happier than the white people.”
Even if I hadn’t seriously thought he was going to attack me, I was surprised at the abruptness of his turn of thoughts. I realized Walter was influenced heavily by whoever he was around. He continued with his train of thought.
“I remember last year this Indian guy who came up to me and my buddies in Vancouver. He said, ‘You skinheads better stop picking on them immigrants. We let you in here now you gotta let other people in here too.’ Then he just walked away. We laughed about it but I thought about that guy afterward. He was really big and had a mean-looking face and he wasn’t even drunk. I guess that’s when I got tired of being a skinhead. That guy was pretty cool and my buddies just made fun of him ‘cause he was an Indian.”
He rubbed his chin, squinting against the light.
“White people don’t do stuff for themselves anymore. All my buddies do is get drunk and watch TV.”
He began to lose himself in the choices ahead of him, taking one path for a day, changing it, returning to his original choice before coming up with another one entirely. He kept asking if he should go to Mexico, or London, or join Rosie on the rez, or any of the other half-dozen options available to him, until his indecisiveness covered us both like a fog. I told Walter what I thought he wanted to hear, then backed off until he came up with something else. By the end of the week he seemed oblivious to anything but his own confusion: even Rosie had been catalogued among the dizzying array of possibilities awaiting him at the end of the road.

 
 
BC-Shots-5

One night off everyone went down to the lake and built a campfire. The foreman had bottles of tequila and flats of beer brought up by one of the loggers and by the time it was dark the whole crew was glassy-eyed drunk. We stood around the campfire passing the bottles around and trying to stay out of the smoke. The hippy kids brought their guitars and their harmonicas; a drunken version of ‘California Dreaming’ echoed off the hills across the water.
I circled the fire, drinking recklessly, not caring what I said or who I said it to. After the brutality of the previous weeks, alcohol was a relief, and as soon as I was drunk I was disgusted with the whole profession and wanted to be back in the city, away from trees, cutblocks, heat, the hippy kids with their fucking guitars. I hadn’t even realized how exhausted I was until I started drinking.
I spotted Walter sitting alone by the water, headphones strapped around his head. Tired of the guitars and the conversation around the campfire, and I brought over a half-full bottle of tequila and offered Walter a drink.

“Thanks, buddy.” He said, without taking off his headphones. As he pulled on the bottle, I could just make out the tinny guitars and monotonous backbeat of one of his skinhead bands. Walter’s eyes glowed in the reflection of the fire and I realized that he too had been thinking of what a shitty couple of weeks it had been. When he was finished drinking he took off his headphones and said:
“Ever listen to Skrewdriver? No? They got some good songs, mellow stuff like CCR or something. They’re all nice guys, not racist like everyone says. One of them even lives in a black neighborhood up in Tottenham. The people there know it’s not a racial thing, it’s about pride and living a certain way.”
“That’s who you hung out with there?”
“Yeah. I had to leave after a couple months – I went through four grand. Every time we went out, they made me pay for everything cause I was from North America and I had lots of money. I got sort of sick of it.”
Behind us, the hippies broke into a formless jam session, complete with flutes, bongos, harmonicas. Walter glanced back at them and shook his head.
“Why’d you get into being a skinhead anyway?” I asked. Walter looked out into the lake.
“I dunno, I never thought about it. There was a guy, Garth, back where I came from. He was older than me and he’d been in and out of jail for years. He was a real skinhead – he didn’t give a fuck about anybody or anything. You’d be having a drink with him and all of a sudden he’d decide he didn’t like someone and just walk up and beat the shit out of them. He lived in total squalor and would rip off anybody he could. Even his mother wouldn’t let him into the house. But I kind of looked up to him for awhile. I used to do a lot of stuff I wouldn’t do now, beat people up for the hell of it, take their money, whatever I could get away with. My old man was pretty violent – I lived in group homes for awhile.”
“Yeah, so did I.”
Walter glanced at me, eyes glowing with a fever that went beyond drunkenness and I couldn’t tell if he was annoyed at being interrupted, or if his mind was somewhere else. He took another drink from the bottle and stared back out over the darkened lake.
“These places were pretty bad. This one place they used to feed us hot dogs and beans every day, for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I heard later they were getting the money from the government and stuffing their pockets. One time I was raising hell and one of the staffers tried to tackle me – I hit him with a steel rod I kept wrapped up in black tape and broke his arm. They put me in jail after that. I got into so many fights they put me into solitary. I used to throw food at the guards through the window.”
He stared out at the lake as he was talking but I knew he was observing me. He was like me, he didn’t talk about his past much.
“So I got into being a skinhead,” Walter continued, “it was alright at first. You get respect. Then I started going out with this girl in Toronto. She was the first girl I was ever serious about. Her name was Anna. She got me that tattoo on my shoulder, the one of the dragon. Her mother was Jamaican or something. A lot of my buddies, Garth especially, put me down for going out with her. They said, ‘how can you go out with a nigger? You betrayed us.’ But she wasn’t no nigger, she didn’t even like her own people. She was a Chelsea – a black Chelsea! That really freaked people out but no one said anything ‘cause she had no fear, she could take on anyone.”
He stopped. The story seemed to have drained him. I’d never heard him talk about someone like that before, not even Rosie.
“So what happened to her?”
He shrugged and I thought he was going to retreat into a show of indifference. Instead, he went tense.
“She started doing gear and giving guys head for money. She got into it ‘cause she thought it could make us a lot of cash. She used to make me watch her, get on top of a building looking down in an alley, or hide around the corner, to make sure the guy didn’t try anything. Then she disappeared. I didn’t see her for a couple of months and when I caught up with her she was strung out, pulling tricks for real. I didn’t see too much of her after that.”
He took a drink off the bottle. I thought of how hard it was for Walter to have the feelings he did. He didn’t ask for them, but there they were, guiding him away from the person he wanted to be.
Walter stared back out at the lake.
“You don’t have any gear, do you?”
“Hell no.”
“I thought it was worth a try. You said you were fooling around with it. All the skinheads in England are using it now. They say they’re anti-drug, but they all use it on the sly. I started using when I was over there, it was around so much.”
The hunger I knew all too well, that intense, disembodied need I’d seen in friends’ faces – sometimes even my own – flickered across his heavy face.
“That would feel pretty good right now.”
From the darkness above the lake’s still surface came the haunting trill of a single loon.

 
 
BC Shots
 

Days passed of piercing blue skies and sullen heat. By mid-day the sun beat down with such force that it seemed that the whole block might burst into flame and on the way home, the road was choked with clouds of yellow-brown dust. Only in the late afternoon, after the crew was back in camp, would a few clouds appear, too high to bring rain.
The contract dragged on, one week, then two. I began spending my evenings in the TV room. Watching TV kept me from thinking about Molly, of what I was going to do when I was back in the city. It also fed long periods of circuitous daydreaming where I would imagine being rich and able to go wherever I wanted, or that I was on some spy mission in enemy territory, or that I was going to bed with some girl I saw on the screen. At night, my dreams were tight, constricted, and sometimes I came to in the dawn with a faint metallic taste in my mouth, some nightmarish foreboding pulling me into the iron grey dawn.
Even the hippy kids began to quit, and the company began hiring whomever came along. Hicks mostly, up from the BC interior or Vancouver’s outer suburbs – spiritually bereft, lacking humour or culture, clinging to Bic lighters and packs of cigarettes as if these objects alone constituted their identity. In the evenings, they fought over the plastic chairs in front of the TV and when they’d finally settled in, they had a kind of interactive relationship with the action on the screen, vying to outdo each other with a sort of underfed bravado. They were too much even for Walter. He retreated to his room to drink and listen to skinhead music. And read – he had a thing for HP Lovecraft.
“These new guys fuck up everything,” he said one morning, peering out at the cutblock. “It’s getting to the point where I think of this job as just like being in the army.”
Two crews of loggers moved in and suddenly the camp was full and we had to wait in line every morning for breakfast. The loggers were big men with hard faces and the sagging guts that come from a lifetime of eating nothing but meat. They weren’t exactly friendly but they kept the yobs in the rec room quiet – they didn’t want their TV time interrupted by any idiot routines and didn’t hesitate to say so. I started watching TV again, glad to be able to escape my room. One day I heard a couple of loggers talking about the kids I’d met coming back from the lake:
“You hear about the old guy who got shot last week? Those kids who come up for doughnuts were hanging round the rec centre they have there makin’ a racket late at night and the old guy went over to tell ‘em to keep it down. So when he’s leavin’, one of the kids got him in the back with the shotgun. Too bad, the old guy was one of the last good guys they had left, used to take us fishin’ on the lake.”

 
 

As soon as the foreman told me I had a letter, I knew it was from Molly. I’d written her twice, once from Vancouver when I was on my way out, and once halfway through the season when I was at my loneliest. When she hadn’t written back, I’d been disappointed, even angry, then I’d just felt empty. I even felt relieved: every time I thought about her, I was filled with restlessness, a desire to be anywhere but in the bush. The longer I went without hearing from her, the easier it was to imagine that I could reinvent myself and start a new life when I left.
But as soon as I saw the London postmark and her handwriting, it was like a dam had burst inside me and I longed for her again. Holding the envelope, my hands actually trembled and I had to knock back a beer before I could open it.
“Hello, how are you?” She started before reciting some of her troubles, the same ones she went through whenever we separated. She’d been kicked out of her last squat, found another place then had to move again. She’d gone back to Berlin but gotten depressed because it reminded her too much of me.

 

“I’d try and write about it more but I have to go. I just wanted to say I care about you and I will be back in Vancouver mid-August so if you haven’t left BC yet and you want to meet up maybe we could go to the Railway or even the Savoy I hear they’ve opened again . . .”

 

The Railway was where we always met when I came down from the bush, and she knew as well as I did that as soon as we met everything would be just as it was before.
I decided to leave the next day. I had about a week before she’d be back and I wanted to get myself cleaned up and reasonably sober before I saw her again. I couldn’t stand the dirty pick-ups, the cutblock, the heat or the yobs, not even for a day. The foreman wasn’t too happy when I told him but he could hardly keep me against my will.
“One of the loggers is goin’ in tomorrow afternoon. I’ll drive you in from the block.”
I told Walter the next morning that I was leaving. To my surprise he gave off a barely contained resentment, as if he thought I was betraying him, and wouldn’t talk to me at all. Then, around noon, he said:
“The next contract’s supposed to be better. Think I should stay?”
I stared back, irritated not only by his resentment, but by the helplessness implied by his question.
“Fuck Walter, how would I know? It’s your life.”
Sorry to have displayed my irritation so openly, I tried to smooth things over by making conversation, but when we started working again he wouldn’t answer in anything more than monosyllables. Even if I knew he wouldn’t start anything after asking me such a stupid question, I could see that he was having a hard time controlling his anger, and when the foreman showed up, I jumped into the truck with some relief. Way out on the block, Walter staggered under the weight of the trees loaded up in his bags, growling with frustration and rage as he threw his shovel into the ground. I waved goodbye but he ignored me. As I looked out the window at the lines of tree-planters bobbing up and down with those ridiculous white bags, all I could think of was the motel room at the end of the road . . . cold beer in the fridge, water glasses in wrapped paper on the desk. The next morning I’d catch the bus and be back in the city, and the city would be no more than a gateway, a crossroads where Molly and I stopped for a drink before setting out over the water. And I was immensely relieved to belong somewhere again. UG

 
 
me_and_codyTim Beckett has been a cook, tree-planter, road-sweeper, documentary researcher, housepainter and many other things besides. He grew up in Edmonton, Alta, and Uranium City, SK, with side trips to Port Radium, NWT and Vancouver, BC. He has lived in Montreal, London and presently hides out in New York City. He edits and contributes to Sensitive Skin Magazine, and has been published in a few places. He is working on a novel, ‘Uranium City Return’. He has received two Canada Council grants and would like to receive many more.

Posted on by urbangraffito Posted in Daily, Fiction, Tim Beckett, Writing

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