Having studied every aspect of the waving field of grain in the painting on the wall, and read all of the little pamphlets on brewing that were lying on the glass table, Simon once again adjusted his position on the plush couch and smiled at the receptionist. The nervousness he always felt on the first day of a job was mixed with an equal, or stronger, sense of dread, the residue/product of his memories of past factory experience.
‘It’s only until September. Just four months.’
Attempting to distance himself from the situation, Simon began to reflect on the extent to which life really was like fiction. He again surveyed the scene before him, this time from the viewpoint of the third person, placing the narrator’s eye in the far corner of the room, up near the ceiling, looking down.
‘Simon clashed with his surroundings, the lush hanging plants, the neatness and efficiency of the receptionist and her desk, the glowing brass of the Molson logo. The incompatibility of Simon and the lobby was slightly paradoxical, since Simon looked so much like a beer drinker.
He was dressed, as usual, in a pair of well-worn jeans and a plaid shirt, but Simon was obviously uncomfortable. He kept re-crossing his legs, sweeping the unruly hair from his forehead, and nudging his glasses up the bridge of his nose. Yeah, I’m not just another would-be-artist sacrificing his dream of a summer of writing to the lure of high factory wages; I’m the hero of a tragi-comedy about to unfold. I’m not in a lobby; I’m in the opening premise: protagonist finds himself forced into entering an alien environment.’
Having successfully amused himself, Simon was about to enlarge his analogy, when it expanded for him. The door of the lobby opened and a young man walked up to the desk and was told to have a seat.
‘Ah, a secondary character whose correlation to the protagonist is yet unknown. Is this the beginning of plot, or just a digression? Tall and thin, he had an intent, sarcastic looking face, the effect of which was slightly lessened by a ragged cut across his nose. Mystery! His hair, short and streaked with grey, contrasted sharply with his angry-young-man eyes.’
‘Here it comes - dialogue, the establishment of character, the possibility of ongoing interaction.’ thought Simon as the other sat down and introductions were made.
“When did they call you?” Ian asked.
“Just yesterday. They told me to come down for a physical this morning and then they asked if I could start for this afternoon’s shift. How about you?”
“They got in touch with my folks about a week ago, but I was out east. I called a couple days after I got back…”
‘A sign of defiance, self-assurance, or possibly just irresponsibility.’
“… and had my physical last Thursday. Same bullshit procedure they’ve put me through the last five summers.”
“You’ve been here that long?” Simon said in surprise, unconsciously setting aside his meta-fiction as Ian’s story became more interesting.
“Yeah, I lied about my age the first year. I don’t think anybody ever noticed when I readjusted it.”
As a salesman entered and approached the receptionist, Ian stopped talking and watched as the man presented his card and began his routine. The diversion gave Simon a chance to update his overview of the situation.
‘So now we’ve got a possible adept/novice relationship between the characters. A mentor to initiate the initiate. Think of the possibilities. Comradery, conflict even.’
Once Ian’s interest in the salesman lagged, Simon asked what he had been doing out east.
“The Navy and I were checking each other out, but I was only there for the ride. See, if you tell them you’re interested in signing up, they fly you out to Halifax for three days. Halifax is hardly an exciting city, but it was something to do. They put you through a lot of Navy-type stuff, but you get some time to yourself, too.”
“Sounds pretty amusing as long as they can’t corner you.”
“Oh, I screwed up a bit, purposely, and then at the final interview I just told them I wasn’t into the discipline. So they shipped me back to Toronto, and that was it.”
Simon was certain there was more to the story, and was suspicious of whether it might involve the cut on Ian’s nose, but for the moment he refrained from questioning the matter. Instead he considered Ian’s comments in light of their reflection on his fiction.
‘Aha, the earlier supposition is confirmed. He’s not only defiant, but he blatantly opposes authority. Perhaps our characters will get along just fine. The protagonist finds a cohort?’
“You must have gotten out of school early,” Simon queried.
“Naw. I’ve been on pogey since I left here last October. I got my degree in Engineering from Ryerson, but I haven’t found anything yet. I’ll spend the summer here while I keep looking, and if I don’t find anything by October I’ll go back on pogey when they lay me off. What do you take?”
It was Simon’s turn.to withhold information. His actual major was Creative Writing, but though he liked Ian so far, Simon didn’t feel he could trust him not to sneer, or go blank with incomprehension, and having long grown tired of trying to make others understand, he said he was taking English.
“I guess you have to write a lot of essays.”
“A few, but they’re easy enough. Just boring. What do you think we’ll be doing in here?”
“Something in Brewing. I worked in the filter room the last couple summers, before that I was in fermenting.”
Little of what Ian said meant much to Simon, but before he could ask Ian to elaborate someone barreled through the door, introduced himself to the receptionist as Al Wilson, and then went over to where Ian and Simon were sitting. He was big and blonde haired and looked like the type that spends more time in campus pubs than classrooms.
“Nice face, Snowball. It’s an improvement,” Al said in a strong, self-amused voice.
“Fuck you, Wilson,” Ian snarled.
‘A reunion of obvious friends. This could change everything. Protagonist shifts to observer?’
“So who’s the rookie?” Al asked, offering his hand to Simon.
As Ian answered, Al sat beside Simon on the couch.
“I don’t believe it. I don’t believe they hired you again," Al chuckled.
“They know who does good work," Ian replied, making Al laugh loud enough that the receptionist looked over.
“Have you been here as long as Ian?”
“Ian? Forget that. His name’s Snowball around here. But yeah, almost.”
Al sat back, shook his head from side to side and stared at Snowball.
“I can’t believe they brought you back. Snowball’s the only student in Molson’s history ever to get a reprimand. Students don’t get reprimands, they get fired. Especially when they put a forklift through the roof of a tractor-trailer. I’m still trying to figure out who you know in this place.”
‘The mystery grows, legends abound. Could this be a genuine hero waiting to be immortalized?’
Al and Snowball traded insults until a woman from personnel took them all upstairs to fill out forms. As Simon followed her past the receptionist and out of the lobby he realized he was moving further into introduction, on into story.
Once all of the paperwork had been cleared up, rubber boots received and work uniforms ordered from the Stores department, the secretary went back to her office, leaving Snowball and Al to lead Simon to the locker room. Simon followed them through what was to him a confusing maze of tiled hallways, stairwells, and cold rooms full of huge storage tanks. Upon arrival, Al and Snowball bolted in and frantically began opening the few lockers that didn’t have locks, trying to find one that was empty. Since they had been given a number and a combination back at Stores, Simon had no idea what all the rush was about.
“That’s just for your laundry. You’ve gotta find a regular locker," Snowball informed him.
By this time Simon was left to choose from one of two that were standing in what seemed to be a room where the workers hung their clothes and boots to dry. It was off from the main room, beside the door to the washroom and shower.
As Simon took off his sneakers and put on the boots he had been given, he realized the symbolism of the situation.
‘In the locker room, the workers’ most intimate common ground, the character is at a physical remove; an external sign of the separation he expects to confront.’
Al and Snowball were still changing so Simon wandered out of the locker room and into the adjacent-lunch room.
‘Obviously one of the major settings. The walls of the room were of green-painted cement block. In one corner stood a tall cooler, its shelves stocked with beer. On the floor beside it sat a stack of empty cases. There was a large, round table in the center of the room, a few other rectangular tables were placed along the sides and in the corners. Each table had at least one copy of the trashiest local newspaper lying on it. The far wall was, for the most part, made up of a row of dusty windows overlooking the guardhouse and gate. On the table in the center of that wall sat an old plastic radio. Its cord, unplugged, was draped through the support of a small, empty shelf. The right wall held a bulletin board full of union notices and…
Al was at the cooler, selecting beers. He was wearing navy work pants and a light blue shirt with a name patch on the left breast and a Molson insignia on the right.
“A Stock, I guess,” Simon replied. The lady from Personnel had told them to report to the keg room, but since Al had a better idea of how the place worked, Simon decided to follow his lead.
When Snowball joined them at the large table, Simon noticed that he was wearing a pair of blue coveralls.
‘If he’s been here even longer than Al, he must have a uniform, too. A further sign of defiance.’
“So Snowball, you ready for the zoo?” Al said, and turning to Simon, kept talking,
“Our last day last year we’re down in the keg room emptying leakers on our own. So we snuck in a couple glasses, let the pressure off a keg, and poured away. Both of us got hammered, but when Bruce, he’s the supervisor, comes down to say goodbye, Snowball just holds his glass behind his back and puts out his left to shake. So Bruce stuck out his right. Snowball brings out the glass, switches it to his left, hides it again, and shakes Bruce’s hand. Bruce didn’t say a thing. I couldn’t believe it."
“He knows I’m worth it,” Snowball laughed.
Snowball, Al and Simon were sitting on a stack of wooden skids in the keg room; a cavernous room full of forklift trucks, strange machinery, and stacks of aluminum kegs that reached to the high ceiling.
“So why isn’t anything going on?” Simon asked.
“They’ll go on like this for as long as they can,” Al chuckled.
The workers were all talking and checking order sheets that were pinned to a cork board near the loading dock. Occasionally one of them would get on a forklift and move a skid of kegs from one part of the room to another.
“They’re all lazy assholes. You’ll get to know that quick,” Snowball added.
“Usually the keg room just runs in the day. These guys are all pulling overtime. I don’t know why this shift’s been added. There must be a slowdown in Barrie.”
“I’ll give you a run down on ’em,” Snowball said, and started into a speech. “They’re almost all down-homers. Brendan’s a Newfie. He’s quiet, but don’t trust him. He’ll screw you any chance he gets.”
‘Brendan was tall, thin, and had a sharply cut, rough face. Bright red hair gave him the appearance of a pirate in labourer’s clothing.’
“Basil’s from P.E.I., a real prick. He’ll sit on the forklift all day and refuse to do anything else. Sometimes he gets pretty pissed up, so watch yourself when he’s driving.”
‘Though he had more of a paunch, and wore a ball cap to cover his baldness, Basil looked younger than Brendan. The two were an obvious team.’
“What about the guy with the funny hair?” Simon asked.
“That’s a rug. They say he found it beside the highway out in Mississauga,” laughed Snowball.
“Looks it, too,” Al added. “But Paul’s a good guy. Real laid back.”
“He drives a gold Cadillac convertible, one of the last made. He smokes those brown cigarettes. Keeps to himself.”
“Get up. Here comes McCarthy,” Al said, whacking Simon in the ribs. “Wait’ll he sees Snowball.”
‘The foreman came in the room slowly, like a sheriff into a saloon, fully aware of everything that had been happening before his entrance.’
McCarthy walked straight to Al, Simon and Snowball.
“How you doing, John?” Al said in his friendliest tone, without a trace of sarcasm.
The foreman took a long look at Snowball, and turning away said “Oh, pretty good, lad. I trust you had a good year.”
As Al said he had, McCarthy said hello to Simon.
“So welcome aboard, Simon. I’d like to ask a favour of you, don’t listen to this guy,” he said with a nod towards Snowball. Then he walked over toward the regulars.
Simon followed Al and Snowball over to the group, and after a minute or so they went off to work.
“Have you had a look around, Simon?” McCarthy asked.
“Then we’ll start you on locking kegs. After break you can switch to the debunger. The guys will make sure you’re all set,” he said and walked off into the next area of the plant where forklifts were whizzing around with tall loads of beer cases.
Simon started working with Paul, who got him a pair of gloves and showed him how to use the locking key.
“Just take it slow and don’t worry if you get a little behind. Everybody’s got to learn,” Paul said, and they started on the first stack of kegs.
Break time came an hour and a half later. Company policy stated three fifteen minute breaks per shift, but they all stayed in the lunch room for a half hour.
A loud game of Forty-Five was started up at one of the corner tables. There were a few men that Simon hadn’t yet been introduced to. Most of the men were talking sports, and as Simon listened to the reports of scores and plays he started feeling as much like an outcast as he looked.
‘More symbolism. Besides Snowball, I’m the only guy here without a uniform.’
But though he often had to remind them what his name was, Simon was hardly excluded; the men kept insisting he have at least a couple of beers.
‘Initiation by drink. A time honoured tradition.’
“So let’s have it about your nose,” Al said to Snowball, and the others called approval.
“I was at this bar in Halifax with a bunch of other guys from the Navy post and…”
“D’ya hear that, Basil?” Brendan called to the card table. “Snowball got the shit kicked out of him by a sailor.”
Basil let out a wild, high pitched cackle, and said something that, due to his accent, Simon couldn’t understand. A lot of the men’s accents were hard to understand.
Snowball just smirked and continued with his tale.
“There was a whole group of us, some had uniforms, and as I went up to the bar one time some guy walked into me.”
“So you told him to fuck off,” someone interrupted and again the men all laughed.
“No I didn’t tell him to fuck off. I just looked at him and he said ‘You wanna go outside?’ So I said sure. I was pissed up and wasn’t going to be pushed around. I followed him to the door, but he turned and walked off. I went on through and, I hardly know how, some other guy started something. This dyke he was with pushed me, so I shoved her back, and then I was on the ground getting my guts booted out.”
All the men roared, but Snowball just kept grinning, a sharp look in his eye, refusing to be embarrassed.
“I don’t remember too much more, but after a while I was at the hospital with blood and boot treads all over my face.”
The room resounded with laughter and the banging of bottles on the table. As another man entered the room, Brendan said “Eh, Frankie. You just missed hearing how Snowball got his nose smashed by a down-home girl.”
Snowball looked at Simon, shaking his head.
By the end of the night Simon had learned a few more jobs, met a few more of the regulars, and half-drunk, felt a little more at ease.
The entire first week went like that. Simon found working with Snowball and Al hardly work at all. No matter where in the keg room he was stationed, Simon would have to keep dodging the bungs Snowball would fire at him. On breaks they would have a beer or two, trade stories and get to know each other. Al turned out to be a bit jockish and collegiate, but at the end of shift on Friday, Simon and Snowball went on to a tavern. As they sat there Simon thought the summer might not be that bad after all.
The news about Snowball reached Simon soon after he punched in for the midnight shift the next Monday.
“I tell you in ten years you’ll be able to walk in here, say ‘remember Snowball?’ and the stories’ll go on for hours,” Al said.
The night before, Snowball had started the week with them, but he had come in that-afternoon to clean out his locker and tell the supervisor he was quitting.
“Think about it. Bruce must have really pushed to get him hired again, after the forklift incident and the time he told McCarthy to shove it. But the regulars liked him, and some of the guys are saying he might have made it into the union this year. Might have been able to swing a desk job upstairs after a few years. But after a week and a free pair of boots he just quit. What a joke.”
“So what’s he doing now?” Simon asked.
“He got another job. An engineering job that could get him a permanent position. A damn fine wage and straight days. Nine to five, real white collar,” one of the regulars said.
Simon listened as the story was repeated when some new men entered the lunchroom.
‘The stories of Snowball will be history. No, not even history, not even legend. By leaving the worker’s realm he’s made the ultimate ascension into myth. Snowball’s become the archetype against which all student employees will be judged.’
Simon looked around at the tables of men in blue uniforms. He felt disappointed to have lost a friend, and realized his game had been cancelled.
‘I’ve become the victim of a plot-twist in my own fiction. Fooled by the oldest trick; protagonist wakes from dream and finds himself back at the beginning.’
Simon almost wished he had never met Snowball, had never enjoyed that first week. Now he would have to learn to stomach the job, with Snowball’s shadow making the whole task grimmer.
That night the foreman assigned the student’s their jobs. Simon and Al were given different sections and shift rotations. Simon had been put in the fermenting department as a tank cleaner, training with another student. He and Jimmy got along fine at first, but slowly became wary of anything like friendship.
Just a few hours into their partnership, Jimmy had left Simon to wait while he went off to get supplies. Simon wandered along the row of storage tanks looking over the machinery and systems of pipes he had to memorize.
‘The fermenting department occupied four floors of the west end of the plant. Every floor was divided into A, B, and C cellars, each of which had a main floor and a mezzanine for accessing the tops of the huge tanks. There were up to twelve tanks to a cellar, depending on their size, and each was connected to a header system consisting of thousands of valves and miles of pipe that spread all through the complex. One line of pipe was used to move the fermented beer, another carried the caustic solutions used to clean the tanks. Yet another system of, oh, fuck it.’
Simon put his foot on a pipe and leaned back against the cool, tiled wall.
‘Where the hell is he?’
It didn’t take Simon long to grow bored of watching his breath mist as he exhaled, then he started listening to the circulation pump he and Jimmy had just set up. Simon found himself less concerned with what the pump was doing, than he was with its sound. The more he actually listened, Simon started hearing its rhythm, a repeated SCHunk-TAK, SCHunk-TAK sound.
‘Sounds like a dance tape.’
Simon put on his gloves and started whacking various pipes. He worked out their tonal differences and began an accompaniment to the pump. With his knuckles he expanded the range of sounds he could make and worked his beat into a counter-point. Simon slipped deep into the rhythm and didn’t notice the door of the cellar open and close like a coda.
A minute later, as he followed Jimmy out of the cellar and down the stairs, Simon tried not to laugh.
‘Simon hadn’t seen Jimmy enter. He was still banging on the pipes, shaking his head to the beat of his hands and the pump.
Jimmy stood transfixed, unable to fathom Simon’s actions. His face wore a puzzled, almost frightened expression.
Finally, Simon noticed Jimmy’s presence. He stopped drumming. The pump rattled on. Without a word, Jimmy handed Simon a bucket of tools and walked off.’
That Friday, on last break, Simon was sitting in the lunchroom with a beer and a book. He was tired and wanted to relax on his own. During the evening he had cleaned five tanks. The tanks were totally enclosed except for the two-by-three door and an even smaller porthole up top. Though anyone even mildly claustrophobic was bothered by the job, Simon didn’t mind climbing into the vast, foot-deep field of heavy sludge. In fact the task almost amused him. Armed with only a broom-like tool that had a tall, plastic squeegee instead of a brush, he would crawl through the small door and begin pushing the nearly immovable first sections of yeast towards the hole that lead to the pump. Thirty minutes later, when the job was almost finished and the yeast before the suction hole grew thin, the pump would begin drawing air, and vibrating the metal of the tank, create loud, groaning noises. The first time in, Simon got the image. He pictured himself in a dark, cavernous pit shovelling food into the mouth of an insatiable monster. As the food ran out the beast would howl and gronk for more, until the food was gone and the noise was deafening. Simon made a game of it, testing his speed, trying to keep the flow of sludge constant until the last minute when he would escape into the cellar and, shutting off the pump, slay the beast.
Despite the humour he saw in the chore, Simon hadn’t worked so hard in years. He was using his muscles in ways he rarely did, and as his forearms swelled from the exertion, his fingers tingled in a manner that unnerved him. The regulars said it was normal for a new man and that as he got in shape it would go away, the job would condition him.
As well as being tired, Simon felt he was being abused. He was doing all the work, but when he talked about it he had been told that Jimmy’s job was to show him what to do. The fact that Jimmy had three summer’s friendship with the men, and that his father was one of them, made Simon suspicious. He felt he could learn the complexities of the job just as well if Jimmy also did a share. Most nights their work order would be three tanks. That night Simon had pushed out five. Two of the tanks had been lager yeast which was so thick that when he stepped in it, the walls of the hole his boot made did not even collapse.
As he sat with his beer, Simon felt a touch bitter.
Jimmy came out of the washroom, took his brown bag lunch from the cooler, sat across from Simon and started talking between bites.
“They really blew it last night, huh?”
Simon put his book down on the table.
“The Blue Jays. Detroit killed ’em.”
“Yeah. It was all over by the sixth.”
Simon, realizing he was supposed to ask the score, or in some other way further the topic, paused and then took a pull on his beer.
“ ‘Living By Fiction.’ You reading that for a class?”
“No, just for myself.”
“Really?” Jimmy said, letting out a ‘huh’ of disbelief. "What’s the story about?”
“It’s not a story. It’s criticism.”
“Really? What are you taking at school?”
“English?” Jimmy repeated in an even more bewildered tone.
‘Jimmy had a head of red, wavy hair. His skin was pale and freckled and his bright eyes looked incredibly blank. At times his constant, red smile, floating over his thin neck, seemed to make his whole head teeter precariously above his shoulders. He looked like a human replica of Howdy Doody. How easy to be cruel, in such a cowardly way.’
In no mood to continue the discussion, Simon commented on how Jimmy’s sandwich was making him hungry and that he thought he would check what was in the vending machines upstairs. Downing the last of his beer, Simon picked up his book and left Jimmy alone in the lunchroom.
Simon wound his way up to the cafeteria and as he walked from the warmth of the stairwell and entered a cold cellar his glasses, as always, steamed up.
As he walked through the cafeteria Simon considered sitting on his own, but went over to the table that territorially belonged to the workers of the brewing section. It hadn’t taken him long to notice how each faction of workers had their own little section, just as their uniforms were of different colours. The mechanics wore green, the lab men had long red coats, and the non-union office staff wore business suits. Simon liked the fact that his clothes didn’t quite fit any of those slots.
There were only a handful of men at the table. Basil, Brendan, and a couple of men that Simon hadn’t met. They were all at one end. Simon took a chair a little further down, said hello, and received a nod or two in reply. The workers went on talking, taking little notice of Simon, so he opened his book and drifted into it.
“Evening, Jimmy. Not working too hard, I hope,” Basil said. Jimmy pulled out a chair one over and across from Simon, who glanced up and then returned to his reading.
After a few minutes Simon realized he was being discussed, but he didn’t pay much attention.
“Tell ’em what you’re taking at school,” Jimmy said, nudging Simon’s book.
“I’m taking English literature.”
“So what do you do?” Brendan asked.
“Read a lot, write papers.”
“So you’re going to be a teacher?”
“I doubt it. I didn’t really go to school to get a job.”
“Then why did you? In times like this a man needs a trade.”
Simon looked over at Brendan, trying to choose what to say. He considered asking the men what their trade was before they joined the union.
“So you think you’ll get a job,” sneered Basil.
“Yeah, I do. I’m not sure at what though. What about you Jimmy? Are you gonna get a job? It took Snowball a year.” Simon’s tone made his full statement clear.
“Jimmy’s got a good shot at getting his time in here,” Brendan said in Jimmy’s defence.
“And he really needs a degree for that,” Simon fired back, immediately realizing he could hardly have said anything worse.
“School’s wasted on fools like you. What are you even going for?” Brendan growled.
‘This is it. The time for truth, conflict, the confrontation of opposite natures. Simon sat forward in his seat, locking eyes with Brendan. If the men refused to accept Simon as he was, then he welcomed their scorn. He was through hiding, lying to himself, but if he was to be rejected, Simon wanted the men to hate him as he actually was. Without any masks. The anti-hero accepts the role of outsider, shunning the values of a society he cannot call his own.’
“You want to know why I’m going? I’m going because I get paid to do what I enjoy.”
“What? Who pays you?”
“The government. I get grants. Actually you do. It’s your taxes. And I’m not really taking English. I take writing workshops. I sit in on classes three days a week and make up stories.”
Brendan looked away and didn’t say any more.
Simon knew he had hit on an argument the workers could hardly dispute. A good portion of their daily talk was the discussion of their monies and miseries. But Simon also knew he had fortified the wall between them.
Simon was glad he was finally working on his own. It meant he could work at the pace he chose, take his breaks when he wanted, and if he felt like it, he could avoid the other workers. Which he did. On the weekend he had had to leave town to see his parents. His father had been taken to hospital with severe stomach cramps, the cause of which still hadn’t been diagnosed by Sunday evening. Simon had gotten a late train back to the city and he’d almost been late for work in the morning.
Near the end of the shift the foreman offered him four hours of overtime in the keg room. He’d hardly wanted to, but Simon knew that if he refused, the offer might not be repeated, so he said he would work the extra time.
Though Simon had spent his first week in the keg room, because his placement there was only temporary, he hadn’t been trained on ‘the hammer’, the machine that filled six kegs simultaneously. He also was not allowed to drive the forklifts, on the grounds that he didn’t know the routine well enough to stay out of the second driver’s way. This gave the workers an excuse to keep Simon on the more boring or heavy jobs while the others rotated positions. Brendan saw to it that the opportunity was fully exploited. He assigned Simon to the loader, and positioned himself at the hammer.
It was called the hammer because the operator had to slam a bung into the filling hole with a rubber tipped mallet. Then the full keg was rolled onto a conveyor which carried it to a platform where it was loaded onto a skid. Simon had taken enough turns on the loader to know what Brendan was up to.
A mechanical arm lifted each keg from the conveyor onto the loading platform. At the right pace the man on the loader could keep the keg in motion after it was tossed up onto the platform, minimizing the amount of muscle he had to exert. If the keg stopped, the loader had to stoop over, push the keg on its side and then jerk it upright again once it was positioned on the skid. If the man on the hammer kept a proper flow of kegs, the loader could synchronize his movements. Too slow and he would be constantly bending and straightening up. Too fast and he would never get a chance to rest or get out of a stooped position. Brendan was filling kegs as fast as the hammer would go, keeping the conveyor and loading platform fully loaded. As Simon struggled to keep up to him, Brendan could rest. By break time Simon was exhausted and his lower back was aching. As soon as Brendan left the hammer Simon shut down the conveyor and started for break.
“Simon. Hey, lad,” Basil called from behind him.
“What d’ya want, Basil?”
"McCarthy says there’s a call for you. Y’can take it by the fountain in the hall.”
Simon just wanted to sit down and have a beer. He couldn’t imagine who would be calling him at work. He turned and walked towards the phone, then he thought of his father.
Simon’s nervous system turned to fire, the blood in his ears pounding out alarm as the rush of adrenalin hit. He ran, trying not to slip on the wet floor, but he did. When Simon reached the phone it was dead. His nerves rang again as he tried to figure out how to return the call. And to whom.
Slamming down the phone, Simon walked back into the keg room, his panic turning to anger. One of the workers was still on the shipping dock.
“Basil said I had a call. Was there one?”
“A call? I don’t know. Calm down.”
“Look, my father’s really sick. I just want to know if there really was a call?”
“I don’t know what you’re…”
Simon waked out into the hall and through the cellars, tearing off his glasses.
“What’s wrong, Simon? You look flushed,” Basil said, and the room erupted with laughter.
“Can’t you take a joke, boy?” Brendan sneered.
“Sorry I missed the humour, asshole, but my father’s in the hospital.”
The laughter dropped off a touch but Brendan’s eyes held indifference.
Simon stood by his open locker, quickly drinking a beer, his rage turning inward. He felt he had made himself an easy mark, like the lonely child in the schoolyard.
Paul walked over smoking one of his brown cigarettes.
“Is that true about your father?”
Simon didn’t answer.
“It was just a prank. There was no way they could have known. If they did, they wouldn’t have.”
“Are you sure?”
Paul gestured toward the neat stack of blue shirts that lay at the bottom of Simon’s locker.
“It’s hard in a place like this. Really hard. Just realize that.”