Five thirty a.m. I run a palm over my eyes, my scalp, my chin. I’m growing out the stubble for when minus 40 hits.
The broadcaster has a honey-soft voice I like even when the radio’s cranked up loud and fuzzy. She swims over the freezing rain outside and stirs me. Sweetie, I’d tell her, I’m all keyed up and I’ve had fewer hours of sleep than I can count on one hand.
Reception this far north is awful—she’s the only way I keep up with the news. Most people in town are too poor for satellite. But we’re not—we’ve got money coming out of our arseholes—and the old guys keep the flat-screen stuck to wrestling and the Hustler channel. Which is fine but sort of sad, when you know all you’ve got for hundreds of miles is stripped-down frozen dirt. Sweetie.
Upstairs, my boss Ty answers the telephone after one ring. “Yeah!” he barks. Of the seven guys sandwiched in the company bungalow, Ty is always up well before we leave. A suburbia kid, he started as a safety inspector like me and moved up during his two years in the patch. He’s the only one who’s sort of civilized, who sleeps seven hours and phones his long-distance girlfriend, a nurse I think, like a normal guy even after the 12-hour shifts.
I lie back on my elbows and push up on my heels, using my core muscles to keep my body up. Contract-and-breathe. I’m getting soft.
“Friggin’ shit. Well, I’ll stop by there in an hour,” Ty yells into the telephone.
If something major happened, Ty would be wiry and pushing us to leave early. Extraction and processing facilities are on-site, so our company runs a busy operation. And when you’re squeezing as much crude oil from the earth as possible and you’ve got 20 drunks, druggies and jerks working the red-eye shifts, yeah, things go wrong. The guys always talk about last July when a fire wiped out one of the batteries and crippled the plant’s output—a hot, black fire that took three municipal fire departments and a whole day to tackle. The area is still swathed in orange tape.
“I say arson. This far north, you get crazy—the tightness, the encroaching swamps, the skeletons…”
I say arson. This far north, you get crazy—the tightness, the encroaching swamps, the skeletons and the old hotels with pink electric signs that say Flamingo, Sahara, mocking you along the sunset strip. Three hours further and you hit the territories, desolation and ice roads winding into nowhere.
Five more minutes. A cluster of white-spined feathers push from a tear in my duvet’s upper left corner. I rub them from my mouth and twist the duvet between my legs. Anne. Small wrists, big full lips—she works in the sandwich place in Fleuve Noir, the bigger town two hours south. Her accent sounds like she keeps an almond under her tongue.
See, I was like a wave all over her from the start. It was Labour Day; I’d driven to town to see a movie, to call my folks, get some air.
“That enough food for a tough guy like you?” Her cheeks were all hot from working near the fryers and talking in her high, dancing way to customers, the way that drives every damn guy up the wall. I slipped her a ten dollar tip and hung around refilling my Diet Pepsi and went for a jog along the highway and came back when she finished her shift.
Anne sashayed through my hotel room, showing off her walk for the fall Carnaval. She was to compete against other girls from the area’s French high schools, wear a ribbon, make salty tortière and answer cultural questions in the hopes of becoming Queen.
I sure didn’t make a nick in my debt that night but it was worth it. We ended up totally naked, on the precipice. Now she’s suspended in my memory, quivering, and slips into mornings, evenings, the shower and long drives home from the job. She takes the edge off.
Ty thumps down the stairs and pushes on my door. He’s a lean, tall guy, well-kept. “Man, we’re hitting the road early today.” He waves his hands awkwardly.
“There a problem?” I sit up. I slacked off hard last week—some guys had rolled dope into their cigarettes one day, and I wasn’t used to the feeling.
“Don’t know. Just get your shit together.” He runs his hand over the wall and then, aggressively, flicks the light.
I pull on long underwear, work cover-alls and thick socks. I rush, but when I get upstairs, the other guys are still shifting around in their rooms, smoking. They’re pink-faced and swollen in the morning, a lot older than me and ever-changing. I stay out of their way.
Outside, the diesel engine starts with an oily rumble. Three grapefruit air freshener packs dangle from the rear-view mirror, sharp and synthetic. Ty rubs his palms with the hand sanitizer he keeps in the cup holder and stares straight ahead as the guys pile in.
We pass the Little Vegas hotels and skeletons for new, corporate ones and industrial shops, ’til we’re clean into the wilderness. Bullrushes run thick along the highway.
My eye twitches and I flatten it with my pinkie. I’m shivering—that vanilla whey shake barely cuts it. Ty keeps the window cracked open to get rid of the stink of smoke. He sits jumpy and straight and yells on his cell phone. “Dammit. Yes. I’ll check it out. Keep the night shift. Yeah, one hundred barrels, I see your point.”
On the site, it’s wet and freezing. Pipefitters and welders from the night shift are still at work in fire-retardant suits, while bulldozers groan as they clear brush for drilling on the next lease. Cigarette smoke rises and tangles against the gray sky and the web of fir trees. We’re so deep in the bush it’s perpetually sunless.
Crossing the frozen ground to the next work station, I curl my toes to keep them from going numb. What’s worse is I’m thrown into the site to rubber-stamp designs and protect the company’s ass, testing air quality for licks of propane and signing off on crude designs. The guys don’t much like having me around and I do a lot of odd jobs.
After I’ve strolled around a bit, someone lets out a loose, throaty laugh. “Here’s the motherfucker.”
Ty’s truck roars and emerges from around a corner. I press my clipboard into my ribs.
He rolls the window down and sticks his face close to mine. “Hey. This is big. A water pump went out on a 3516 and they have a new pump in Fleuve but no truck to deliver.” He looks over my shoulder. “Guys!”
He squares out his voice, face red. “We’ve got to get that by tonight. No messing around or the whole field could be frozen by morning.”
I nod quickly. Ty has to bring a second guy because the parts weigh a ton and there’s no way he could lift them into the pickup. I’m the most dispensable. He doesn’t mention that.
One thing I am is a lover. That doesn’t stop.
Anne. I type fast on my cell phone with my gloves pressed between my knees. She works every night so we should collide nicely. Maybe she’ll sneak me into the staff room or something hot.
I saw her the second time when I ran a delivery into town. She had highlighted her hair with thick white chunks for the Carnaval and hadn’t been going to school. We got stoned by the river and sucked on chocolate-covered peanuts. I remember the deceptive, hidden smell of swamp from the grass. The lake was flat and blue-black and inviting.
“Nager?” I asked her, fumbling.
“Non, non, it’s full of algae and leeches,” Anne said, laughing. She stretched her palms open to imitate how long they could be. The boys in her class used to catch them in the fall when they were fattest and bring them to school in clear water bottles.
I stick my safety helmet under the seat of Ty’s truck. My temples ache.
He looks straight ahead and slams his palm against the gearshift. The air fresheners swing and tangle with the motion. “Did you tell them to go fuck themselves?” he exclaims suddenly, a wide grin on his face. “Giving you a hard time? Tell them to go fuck themselves.” Then before I can answer he says: “So, we’ll get in and out in no time. This is important. The whole field could get rock-ass hard if it dips below minus ten.”
Logging and transport trucks cast their beams along the highway in the dwindling afternoon light. Sunlight is increasingly scarce out here and it’s only getting darker.
“I like getting out of there. Man, there’s nothing to do,” I say to Ty, who fiddles with the satellite radio dial.
Then he says: “A couple more years. So I can make the money I need.” He adds: “You could do this, man. You could do well.”
Coming into Fleuve Noir, we pass pastel-coloured bungalows so new the wood looks blonde and stark. Faded Canadian flags and the fleur-de-lis hang in some basement windows and paper bags clutter the sidewalk drains. As an outsider you see the sad slowness of it all, the graying at the edges.
Ty finds the shop at the fringe of town in a muddy industrial area. The guys have left the parts and cables for us on wooden pallets on the garage floor.
“Damn,” Ty says, grunting as he tries to lift one end. The parts are heavy, and we both bend and push with our forearms to get them in the truck. My hands chafe against the wood.
“I’ll lift, and you push the bottom,” Ty suggests. He stands on the tailgate so it clatters. I flex my wrists back and push. Splinters dig into my palms. All my arm and upper back muscles feel engaged, and heat spreads like a rash under my T-shirt.
With a large, decisive thud we have done it, and the oily cable coils like a snake at Ty’s feet. We move fast with the next two and don’t take breaks.
Ty jumps so he’s sitting on the tailgate and his long legs swing loose.
I go straight to her, past the clustered lineup of guys and overweight regulars and touch her. I get this curve of a feeling, excitement, but also like the thought of methane gas leaking from a pipe, unfurling.
His face is flushed and I smell his deodorant. “Damn.” He whistles and holds a greasy palm up to my face. He grins and yells: “Good thing we never went to school for this!”
I laugh so my shoulders shake and I release it all. My muscles feel loose and strong, like I’ve been lifting at the gym with old, loud iron.
Slush, seedy with highway dirt, slaps against my boots. Yellow light flickers behind the restaurant’s glass doors. Ty hangs back to check his tires—maybe he knows something’s up, maybe he wants to eat fast and hit the road.
Anne waves from behind the counter. I go straight to her, past the clustered lineup of guys and overweight regulars and touch her. She kisses me heavily and both our bodies are tight, watched by others. Her armband’s spikes press into my pec.
“You!” she laughs and runs her hand from my crown to the back of my neck. She smells very sweet, like lilywhite syrup.
“Yeah.” And there are other girls—eating, sipping, taking change, pressing microphones to their lips. Like bees they fill the room and my body, soft, bringing to mind high-octave pop singers, cities, crying.
“I didn’t get it,” she murmurs. I breathe into her neck. I don’t understand, I say. “You know. Queen.” She laughs as I touch her arms. “I’m too wild for these old French families, I think.”
I get this curve of a feeling, excitement, but also like the thought of methane gas leaking from a pipe, unfurling.
She blinks. “I’m working, okay? I’ll come by in a bit.”
I nab a good seat by the window before Ty gets in. The lights are hot overhead. All around me I see guys like us, in the drive-thru, in the plastic tables all around us and smoking in thick plaid jackets outside.
As I unravel the wax paper and pluck the wooden picks from my sandwich, Ty bows his head and takes a huge bite and then a messy pull at his Coke; his white teeth glint. “So the shitheads at the province are doing a bunch of inspections in the orange-tape area,” he says after a while. “We should start clearing the brush when the ground thaws.”
Anne calls out to customers in a self-conscious voice over the loudspeaker.
I can get the girls with A-bodies. I am hot like the pillow some girls heat at night, the kind with rice and lavender.
I say: “More engineers, more techs?”
“Y’re goddamn right. More pipe is what it means for you, if you can stand the winter.”
Soon, Anne comes by anyway, twisting a long necklace of red round beads in her finger as she wipes crumbs a few tables away. She eyes us both evenly. Her shoulders and breasts sway.
And here we are, eating blindly.
Ty yawns, burps and heads to the washroom straight after eating. Anne straddles the plastic chair in the booth next to ours and gathers our trays, our wax paper cups. “He’s nice,” she whispers. “What’s his name?”
“He’s a hardass.”
Anne looks down and fingers the damp rag stretched across the table. “You think you can take me back with you?” She looks at me flat with her brown, French, fuck-me eyes.
“What do you mean?” I kind of laugh. I picture her, a strung-out teenager with bright blond hair, kissing my neck from the back seat of Ty’s truck. It hits me in an odd way.
“I’ll stay in your room for a while. I’ll hang out and practise my Queenie walk for you. On peut nous prendre un lit au Flamingo.”
On the drive back, I curl against the seat and watch the trees thicken, wait for the soft pink glow of hotel signs. My cell phone vibrates but I don’t check it. I’d stay up all night with her, gently bring her to the crescendo where we do it all day and she flutters across the bedsheets, make promises, all that stuff I’ve aced before, but maybe I never will.
Ty blasts his heavy metal through satellite. Briefly, when he cuts it off to take a phone call, I hear the voice on the radio. “Watch those ditches for mule deer,” she croons. “They hear you but don’t always listen.”
I get out of the truck with Ty on to the black, busy job site and help the swarms of guys in headlamps unload the pallets. I’ve got splinters in my palms. It’s not freezing weather anymore, so the workers don’t thank us.
When we arrive at the bungalow, I go straight to the washroom, tilt my head forward and press my forehead against the tiles. My urine is dark and concentrated. It feels good, like the first good piss I’ve had in decades. I think briefly of Anne, the way we couldn’t stop touching each other and how my heart pounded into my throat when we got high.
“You fuck-ups and your overtime,” someone laughed when we came in. The guys are all upstairs playing Texas Hold’em and smoking.
I get a look at myself: wrinkles and dark oil streaks cover my T-shirt. My eyes are bleary and red. Still almost bald, I am shrunken, but hard.
Maybe this is what makes you a man: when you harden and calcify. When you learn to pin it down.
Kristjanna Grimmelt grew up in northern Alberta, edited the Peace River Record-Gazette and now teaches at Northern Lakes College.