Boca de Tomatlan, Mexico
February 3, 2011
The man coming up from the beach has my father’s gait, purposeful – not meandering as most people here. The cane in his right hand is just there for moral support. He wears a floppy Tilly hat and pale blue jeans; his beard is white. I grip the edges of the balcony as he comes closer, up the sandy road beside the river that runs into the sea. Fishermen harboring their pangas in its clement waters shout, throw their cleaned fish one by one to shore and pitch the entrails up into the air without even an upward glance. The entrails do not fall but are caught, airborne, in the mouths of the pelicans flapping great brown wings to stay aloft.
As the man comes closer, the resemblance fades, but in the time it takes to gasp I believed it was my dad, back here in Boca, the fishing village where he has lived for so many years. But of course this is not so. I have just left him sleeping in the Intensive Care Unit, his face pale with the loss of so much blood and bursts of oxygen unnaturally inflating his chest.
There is nothing I can do until morning but read another chapter in his life.
“Kenny, would you give Brad a hand out back?” I hear my father yell into the far room which serves as an office of sorts. There is a sound as if something is being pushed out of the way, hurriedly, then Kenny’s blond head emerges.
“Yeah, sure,” he mumbles. He pulls the scrunched-up baseball cap from his back pocket and goes behind the store where my brother waits with a drill press destined for the back of a customer’s pick-up truck. Kenny slides his hands, then both his forearms under the drill press. His cap slips off his head, and his muscles tremble. He can’t budget the machine.
“Never mind,” Brad says as if he is irritated, but I have the feeling he’s secretly pleased. “I’ll do it myself.” Brad, who is taller than Kenny by a food or so, and build like a slender version of a logger, looks to see if my father and I are watching, then he lifts the drill press up and over the tailgate. “Noting to it,” he mutters, but Kenny acts as if he doesn’t hear.
“Kenny’s a good kid,” my father remarks, turning away from the window. “Not much help out back, but I’ve got him working with the customers.”
My father and I are confined to a small circle of clear floorspace near the window in the main part of the store because merchandise is piled everywhere else. I don’t actually see any customers. I must step over a stack of hydraulic jacks and a used car battery to get to the office, three-quarters of which is taken up by the transplanted kitchen counter he calls a desk. My father’s version of a cash register is a calculator on top of a silverware drawer; I know if I pull open the drawer I’ll see the money he’s earned today, if any, lying in the grooves meant for forks, knives and spoons.
A sudden noise makes me jump. “Kenny, cripes, you scared me.”
“Oh, did I?” he grins. He hooks his fingers through his belt loops. He is wearying blue jeans and a black Yamaha T-shirt over a chest so thin it actually curves inward in the centre.
Kenny has freckles on his face and tattoos on his arms. Normally tattoos conjure up images of Harley Davidsons and teeth that open beer bottles, but before my imagination goes too far – Kenny is just a kid, after all – I remind myself that my father also has tattoos. I try to think what he was like when he was the same age as Kenny.
I have a picture of my father, taken at fourteen, when he was just a year younger than Kenny is now. Coincidentally, I discovered it in a trunk that survived the fire when I, too, was fourteen. In this picture my dad’s hair was was lighter than it later became, and he wore it pushed over to one side as if he’s swept it across just before the shutter clicked. His fourteen-year-old face was clear and gentle and so handsome I taped the photograph to my bedroom mirror and secretly pretended he was a boy from one of my classes. We’d just moved from Kirkland Lake, our home lost in a fire, to Brampton, a town outside Toronto. To cope with my loneliness I’d started a diary; in its pages I created an alternate life for this young boy who I referred to as H.D., his initials when he was Harry Dacre Thicke – before the army, which had too many Harrys, called him Dacre, and he changed it to Dacker. Dacker the Dasher someone used to call him, I think my mother.
In my journal H.D. was my friend. In real life, my father and I fought continually – me with the loud, irrational fury of a teenager, living apart from my mother and wrestling with my developing womanhood, him with, perhaps, the frustration of being a single father.
I have since taken down the picture of that young boy who provided me with solace in those troubled years. I mounted it on the first page of my photo album first, the one I started after the fire, yet I still cannot look at it without a pang of remembrance.
I showed my father the picture not long ago. “See how handsome you were then.”
He was at the kitchen table drawing and redrawing some plans for a new gold machine. He took off his reading glasses to look at me. “Are you kidding – with this nose? I was never good-looking.”
It is a contentious issue with us, like so many others. I haven’t a single friend who hasn’t at one time or another remarked, “Your dad looks good,” and I have reported every compliment to him. “They’re just being nice,” he always says.
I brought up his looks again at the dinner table a few days ago. He inclined his head towards my brother and quipped, half-seriously, “I grew this beard because I couldn’t stand to look in the mirror while I shaved.”
“Yeah, Dad, whatever,” my brother replied with some sarcasm while he balanced half his piece of my dad’s homemade apple pie on his fork and prepared to load it into his mouth.
“I wish you wouldn’t say things like that,” I told my father. “It really pisses me off.|
“Lori, I don’t like you using language like that,” he said, changing the subject as usual.
“Yeah, Lor,” my six-foot-four and beard little brother chided and punched me on the arm. “I’m shocked you would use such words.”
My father’s most recent complaint concerts his height. He has just discovered he’s no longer five foot ten but five foot eight-and-three-quarters. “Christ,” he exploded into the living room one day, tape measure in his hand. “Not only am I homely, but I’m short too.”
“Oh but Dad, you’re such a cute little guy,” my brother retired, reaching down to pinch his cheek.
My father brushed his hand away. “I don’t know where you get your height from, Bradley. It must have been the milkman, because it sure as hell isn’t from my side of the family.”
The milkman theme has been ongoing in our family, yet my brother is clearly a Thicke. even though he quite suddenly, and to our surprise, sprouted into a giant, he has Thicke characteristics – a sturdy frame and round cheeks. Brad tries to hide his fat-cheeked, freckled baby face with a beard, but even it betrays him, growing in with red highlights to match his auburn hair. He has inherited my mother’s softly waving hair and normal-sized nose (if anything, it’s on the small side). I have my father’s straight dark hair, hazel eyes and round face as well as the same nose most of the unfortunate Thicke women have, not long and straight like the men in our family but broad and flat along the crest.
“Here Kenny,| my father says, reaching into the cutlery drawer. He comes up with a twenty dollar bill. “Why don’t you get us some chicken across the street. You staying, Lori?”
I nod. My father opens the back window to yell out to Brad. “Do you want light meat or dark?” The glass shudders a little as he slides the pane back into place. A piece of black electrical tape covers a diagonal crack.
“What happened?” I ask, watching him prop an axe-handle cross-wise to secure the window.
“Goddamn thieves,” he says. “I wish I got as much business during the day as I do at night.”
It’s sunny so we go out to the front of the store. Here we have to yell to make ourselves heard over the noise of the highway. My father says this is the ideal location. All the traffic out of Victoria heading either to the ferry or up island passes his door. To attract the attention of the drivers as they speed by, my father has painted the building bright turquoise. Above the door a garish sign announces $ YOU SAVE $ with a listing of his various businesses: $ TOOLS-R-US $, $ VICTORIA RECYCLING $ and $ FIREWOOD FOR SALE $.
The city council is currently trying to force my father to clean up his act or get out. Council members complain the store is an eyesore. On this particular day a lawn mover leans against the sliding glass door out front with a sign on it saying WORKS GOOD; next to it is a tall grey bandsaw with a sign that says CHEAP. Beyond it a wringer washing machine juts out almost as far as the curb – the city will certainly have something to say about that – and with the handlebars touching it is a kid’s motor bike selling for less than I happen to know my father spent to fix it. On the other side of the sire front there is a table piled high with magazines – two for twenty-five cents. Most of them are underground gay magazines. My father doesn’t remember how he came by them but he’s sure they’ll appeal to someone.
“Do you think I should put up a sign saying what they are?” he asks.
“No, Dad, I think people will figure it out.”
Beside the table out front is a hospital bed, the kind you can crank up or down. “it’s starting to rust,” I tell him.
“I know, but what can I do? There’s no room for it inside. But no one will steal it – I’ve got it chained to the building.”
It’s true there’s no room for it inside his store. What little floor space there is has been created by moving all the items outside. When they go back in at night every floor tile is taken up. On rainy days – and Victoria has more than its share of them – the store is impassable. My father has too few customers to worry about it, but he swears he’ll soon be attracting the walk-in trade. I have rarely seen people strolling this far from downtown; all his customers drive here, and they come because they know of my father and want to see what deals they can get out of him.
The man who bought the drill press emerges from around the back now. “Chuck, come on over,’ my dad calls out to him. “I’d like you to meet my daughter, Lori. Chuck – what did you say your last name was?”
The man mutters something and I smile. “Listen, Dack,” he says, “I need a socket set, too. Can you do me a good price on it?”
My father goes into the store and looks around for the socket sets. He stands on a small generator to reach them on the top shelf. “Here, Chuck,” he says, bringing one out to the front. “I’ll give it to you for cost, $8.99.”
“Geez, thanks Dack. Take a cheque?”
After Chuck gets into his pick-up, Brad comes over to us. “How much did you give him that socket set for?” he demands.
“Nine dollars,” my dad replies.
“The price went up last shipment,” Brad informs him. “It cost us ten and a half.”
My father brushes this aside. “Oh well, Son, it’s good business.” He doesn’t have to worry about nickels and dimes, he assures us – the gold machine he’s building will make him rich.
“Yes, this is the year of Dacker,” he muses. This is going to the year when all his dreams come true.
I look at him now in front of his store, a steel grey Victoria sky above him. He has his cap pulled down over his forehead, covering his bald spot. The jacket and vests to his three-piece suit hang on the handle of the lawn mower. The sleeves of his white shit are rolled up over his brown, tattooed forearms. It is not het noon but already there are smears of grease on the white dress shirt.
Brad is more appropriately dressed, wearing a sleeveless grey sweatshirt, bluejeans and work boots over delicate feet which belie his size. He rubs his hand over his beard, which really doesn’t do much to hide his baby face.
“Where’s Kenny?” Brad asks.
“Getting our lunch.”
“I don’t know why you keep him. He’s so useless around here. Can’t even lift one end of a drill press.” Brad feels around in his picket for his cigarettes.
“Now, Brad, you could have worked in the office if you’d wanted to.|
“It’s not that, Dad. I just don’t see why we need him. He can’t do any of the heavy stuff, and every time you leave he comes running to me with the stupidest questions.| Brad lights his cigarette and throws the match on the ground, careful to avoid a pile of magazines. “I don’t know why you hired him in the first place.”
“The kid needed a break,” is all my father can say.
Kenny Rodriguez was breaking into the warehouse where the first failed gold machine was kept when my father met him. He ran away, but my father recognized his face; he and his foster family live in a rundown pink house between the store, a motor boat dealership and the warehouse. It is the only residence lift in the area and there is a condemned sign out front of it.
My father went to see Kenny’s foster parents, who denied that he had been out of the house the previous night. It was only when my father said he wouldn’t press charges that the foster mother called Kenny into the kitchen. “Mr. Dacker, I mean Mr. Thicke, from the store up the street wants to talk to you.”
“Yeah, what for?” Kenny asked suspiciously from his bedroom.
My father followed the sound of his voice. As he later told it, Kenny was lying on his bed watching a small television perched on the dresser. It was the middle of the afternoon.
“Look, Kenny,” my father began, “breaking into warehouses isn’t going to get you anywhere in life. I ought to know.”
“I imagine you did it because you need the money, right?”
“Well, when I was a kid I was a pretty big thief myself. But no one ever gave me a chance at anything else. I can give you a chance though. You come to work for me and I’ll give you four dollars an hour. That’s a buck more than I have to. And I’ll teach you the business. Okay?”
“You want me to work for you?”
Once my father cleared it with the probation officer, Kenny came to work in the store. That was two months ago.
My father must see something of his younger self in Kenny. Even though he wouldn’t steal now to save his life, at fourteen my father was Kirkland Lake’s most persistent thief. Whenever anything went missing it was always said to be “that Harry Thicke and his gang.” Most of the children in town were forbidden to associate with him. But somewhere between childhood and adulthood he changed: he is now so chronically honest that I can’t imagine him any other way.
When we first came to Victoria, he found an envelope containing a pension cheque stb and $80 in cash. Well, he didn’t find it exactly. He was standing in a bank line-up when a woman tapped him on the shoulder and said, “Is this yours?” She held an envelope gaping just enough to reveal the bills inside. “Yes, thank you,” my father said and took the envelope, carrying the money out to Brad and me.
At the time, the three of us had just come to Victoria from Ontario; we were putting up at the local youth hostel and eating food scrounged cheap from merchants, day-old bread, slightly off meat. (“High” he called it, as in, “Don’t worry kids, that steak is only just a bit high.”) But no sooner had my father shown us that money than he went back into the back with it. He paid $2.50 to buy a money order for $80 and before he could change his mind, he sent it to the lady whose address was on the pension stub. When she wrote a note of thanks a week later, we were still staying at the youth hostel.
I wonder if the members of his Kirkland Lake gang would have thought that out of character. Some of them I know only by reputation: I’ve never met Bill Cassidy, whose mother, weighing over 450 pounds, called herself Madame Drysdale and read tea leaves, nor do I know Curley MacRae, who retained his nickname even after he lost his hair following the war. But I do know, did know, the others: Dave and Jack Maxwell, Waul Boyle, Ellis Stewart.
Ellie Stewart, as they called him, died two months ago. In the early days of the gang he had a different nickname, Stinky Stewart. I’m not sure what was behind that then, but when I knew him that nickname certainly fit. Ellie smelled of urine, hand-rolled cigarettes and vanilla extract. He lived with his brother, Wolfe, around the corner from my father’s old home in Kirkland Lake. Inside, the house was filthy and reeked, but outside it had the fresh siding my father put on one summer.
I’m not sure Ellis appreciated the siding: he came back from the war convinced “they” were out to get him through the airwaves. Ellis could only leave the house when he was drunk. His army pension was cut off for three years because he wouldn’t go to the doctor for a re-medical. It was only reinstated when my father explained that the war had made Ellis Steward a paranoid schizophrenic.
Ellis spent his whole life sitting at the kitchen table, rolling cigarettes and catching glimpses of people going past his window. He couldn’t watch television because he believed he would be influenced via the electrical waves, but he had subscriptions to magazines like Field and Stream. He’d buy items he saw pictured there – radios, rifles – sometimes paying on them for hears, then he’d pawn them for next to nothing to get a drink. Whenever my father found out, he would rescue Ellis’ valuables from the pawn ship, and tried to get the liquor store to agree not to sell to Ellis, or his brother Wolfe. That, however, only made more business for the bootleggers. I wonder if they were the same bootleggers who sold me my first tastes of rotgut wine with names like Baby Duck.
We found out just recently that Ellis had died, too late for my father to make it to the funeral. “We were inseparable as kids – he was my counterpart,” he said to Brad and me. “After the way I had my adventures, but poor Ellis never left that window. I always thought I’d be able to help him one day.”
He talked about Ellis to Waul Boyle when he came from Calgary to visit. Waul is about five foot five and wiry. He was a boxer in my grandfather’s boxing club and somewhat older than the others in the gang. Now that his wife has died, Waul comes out to visit fairly often and he and my father always reminisce well into the night about their old, and certainly criminal, escapades.
The Maxwell brothers, Dave and Jack, although never able to challenge my father’s leadership, were always the shrewd ones in the gang. Today they are both millionaires, one in Dublin, one in Palm Springs.
A hapless group they must have been then, my father the hustler with something less than the gladden touch; Dave always vying with him for leadership but lacking the nerve; Jack the younger brother, tagging along; Ellis continually worried about getting caught; and the pugnacious Waul always looking for a fight with someone bigger than himself.
Kirkland Lake was a boom town then. Now it is lifeless and dilapidated: young people on street corners with no prospect of work, old people playing checkers in Charlie Chow’s hotel on terry tablecloths smelling of spilled beer and hand-rolled smokes. The mines have all closed and the shafts are so full of water that the occasional underground belch shakes the town like a minor earthquake. Stores empty and bars full – this is my Kirkland Lake, the one from my childhood, as different from my father’s as his was from his father’s.
My grandfather’s Kirkland Lake was a collection of shacks sprouting up close to where promising nuggets of gold had been discovered by men whose names were later attached to mines. By the time my father was a teenager, it was a thriving, frontier town whose streets, quite literally, were paved from gold (due to the accidental use of gold ore instead of waste rock). The town was at the height of its prosperity during the Dirty Thirties. While the Great Depression, like the prairie dust that accompanied it, stifled the rest of Canada, all seven mines stayed open, attracting droves of workers from across the country. The wages weren’t high, but a regular pay packet meant meat for Sunday dinner, even if it was only bologna.
The fathers of my father’s friends like Jack and Dave were miners. They went down in to the shafts where the silence, quieter than anything above ground, actually hurt their ears. Eight hours later they emerged, carbide lamps on their pit helmets still burning, their faces blacked and hands numbed with the cold almost to frostbite. They would return the lamps to the lamp houses, shower and then fetch their clothes down from hooks on the ceiling by pulling on weighted cabled. Some of them would “high grade” the ore to compensate for the low wages, tucking it into their lunch buckets of the cuffs of their pants.
On payday Fridays, before the married men had even taken the first layer of dirt off in the camp showers, their wives would be in the lines to collect their pay to ensure it wasn’t lost when the men came home by way of the Gold Range Hotel, the Pool and Cue, or the Bellevue Beer Parlor (where my mother would later meet the man who stole her from my father). The single men might stop by the renowned Five Main Street, the rival brothel to the one about the Ritz Restaurant. Every night – but especially on pay nights – the hotels, pool rooms, beer parlors and brothels were full. Walking down the gold-paved Government Street my father and his friends could hear music, laughter and fighting. It they were lucky for entertainment they’d witness minors, hacking from their congested lunches, tumbling out onto the street to take drunken swipes at each other.
At eight p.m. the siren blew. everyone under sixteen had to be indoors. My father would return home, say good-night to his parents, then crawl out of his bedroom window to meet with the rest of the gang on the rooftops. Up there it was there town. They could walk from one end of Government Street to the other without ever having to touch ground.
When they weren’t climbing across rooftops, they hooked rides behind cars and buses in winter, sliding along streets covered in sheet ice until they reached their destinations. In summertime they would sneak across The Slimes – a gelatinous wasteland that was all that was left of the pristine lake the town was named after. The Slimes was their gold course: tin cans sunk into the solidified mine tailings that had wiped out the whole lake. In the summer as well they went joy-riding in my grandfather’s new 1938 Nash Rambler using he set of keys my father had made for himself. The Nash was fed by gas siphoned from neighboring cars and when my father returned in the small hours there was always more gas when he started, which caused my grandfather to marvel at the vehicle’s efficiency.
Once, the chief of police (he was, in fact, the whole police force), spotted my father behind the wheel of the Nash. the car was packed with my father’s friends, but as they officers gave chase they jumped out, one at a time. The car was empty with its doors hanging open when my father took a corner so fast he nearly landed in a ditch full of workers. He managed to straddle it instead. The workers ducked. One pick, raised at the time my father drove over, became lodged in the bumper.
The chief of police followed the Nash home. My father ditched the car in the driveway and took off, but it was a slow day in Kirkland Lake and the officer simply waited for his return, sipping tea at my grandparents’ kitchen table while my grandfather stormed and my grandmother fretted.
That was the first of many such visits. Before long two police officers were added to the force and the talk was that my father and his gang were the reason.
My dad, Jack and Dave, Bill, Curley, Eliis and Waul caused trouble most of the time, but on Saturdays they went all out. The gang would meet in the lane way behind my grandparents’ house. Their first stop was always the Union Bakery around the corner to snatch a couple of rye loaves from the cooling racks. Then they headed the few blocks downtown, to the Worker’s Restaurant. My father would get a boost up to the restaurant’s open window from Wauil then, with Ellis on lookout, he would spear pastries on a stick with a nail protruding from the end and pass them out to Dave and the guys below. When the young Finnish women from the Worker’s Co-Op gathered there once a week, my father and his friends were there too, peering down beyond the steam through the upper windows which they’d rigged with removable panes. This was one of their regular stops until one Saturday, a newcomer to the gang got so excited by the women in the steam bath below that he lost his footing and nearly fell through the windows. The glass was immediately replaced by plywood boards.
Next on my father’s gang’s Saturday visits was the Paris Cafe. The Chinese proprietors left their boiled chickens to cool on the back stairs, and my father’s gang would life one or two, never more. With their chicken, rye bread and fresh pastries in hand, the boys went next door to the Strand Theatre, which had just begun to show talkies. They’d climb in through the boiler room, pass under the curtains, and crawl between the seats, sometimes having to ask people to raise their feet so they could squeeze underneath. When they found a good spot, the other movie goers would suddenly see their heads would pop up suddenly in the middle of a row. They’d eat their smelly picnic lunches while watching a Buck Rogers serial, then walk out with the rest of the audience.
Not all their activities involved thievery: they did have legitimate businesses. My father, always the wheeler dealer, arranged for each of the boys to sell sawdust to certain butchers, who layered it on their floors to soak up blood. The boys rose early to deliver to their accounts, pulling the bags of sawdust along in wagons commandeered from younger brothers – until one morning when Dave Maxwell shocked my father by getting up ahead of them and stealing all their accounts.
In spite of my father’s code of honesty among thieves, he and his gang stole whatever they could and sold it to whoever would buy. They unscrewed lightbulbs in public buildings and sold them for a nickel each. They grabbed milk bottles (and whatever change was there) from back porches, wiped baskets and potato sacks and egg crates and sold them all at the new farmer’s market. But their first foray into the big time came when some men who said they were ex-members of Chicago’s Dutch Shultz gang came to town, and hired my father and his friends as lookouts when they robbed a hotel of its liquor.
Encouraged by the success of their employers, my father’s gang broke into a tobacco wholesaler’s, using a car jack to pry open the windows, and cleared out the entire stock of cigarettes. They hid their stash in a cave in the woods until they could decide what to do with it, covering the entrance with poplar branches. Before they could come back for their loot, however, the leaves dried and fell off, and a hunter easily spied the cave. All the cigarettes were returned to the wholesaler.
Another robbery flopped when my father reached into an open shoe store window and grabbed the shoes, planning to distribute them among his friends. When he got home he discovered they were all for left fee. To make the situation worse, the store clerk recognized him. That misadventure led to the first in a series of charges against him.
Kenny is on the other side of the street now with our lunch. Cars are whizzing by although some do slow down to gawk at the store. My father waves to Kenny to cut right into the traffic, but fearing for his safety he hesitates, so my father steps into the road and halts cars to let Kenny run across.
There is more chicken than we can eat. My father pulls out enough for us and puts the rest back in the bucket. “Here, why don’t you run this down to your family?” he says. Kenny shrugs and takes off down the street. “I was in their house the other day and there wasn’t a goddamned thing to eat,” my father confides to Brad and me.
“Have you talked to Kenny’s probation officer lately?” Brad asks?
“No, why should I?”
“I was just wondering how he’s been getting along since you gave him this job. That he doesn’t deserve.”
My father is about to reply when Brad angrily sweeps his chicken up and goes into the office. My father and I go out onto the back steps where we can watch for Kenny to come up the hill. In the back yard the gold machine is slowly being dismantled sot he parts can be used in its next incarnation, the one that’s going to work.
Brad comes out on the step behind us. “I guess I should tell you this,” he says. “I met a guy last night who told me Kenny spent six months in juvey.”
“Brad, you’ve got to stop bringing up a man’s past. I was in reform school too, you know.”
“Oh forget it,” Brad says and stomps out into the yard.
My father spent not six but ten months in reform school. The first time he appeared in court he was Kenny’s age. He had been caught sneaking into a movie; when the usher reached out to grab him, my father held out his old hunting knife. He made a dramatic sweep with his arm just as the usher stepped forward, and the tip slashed the man’s long underwear from his neck down to his chest. For that my father was handcuffed to a chair with his pants pulled down and given ten whacks. The next time he faced the judge a number of charges had accumulated, including the shoe store fiasco, and he was sent down south to the Bowmanville reform school. Dave Maxwell was already there My father was sentences to ten months, Dave Maxwell to two years. The gang disintegrated, until they met up less than two years later to go to war.
I’ve asked my father what it was like in reform school, but he doesn’t like to talk about it. I only know that when he first arrived he was sent to the infirmary where he was checked over then issued reformatory clothes. Since his allotted swather had several holes in it, he stole a better one. It belonged to one of the toughest guys in the reform school. Despite being the town’s ‘bad boy”, it was the first fight he’d ever been in, and he lost it badly. He returned the sweater but must have learned to be a better fighter, because he became Dave Maxwell’s protector. Dave Maxwell never spoke about those years either, but every once in a while I receive a $1000 cheque from him in Dublin, with a note, “Don’t tell your father this is from me.”
When my father returned to Kirkland Lake at fifteen, he got a job working on thwart was to become the Park Lane Hotel. His job was to shovel sand into a cement mixer and then to push the cement in a wheelbarrow into the building. He was so tired at night he’d fall asleep as soon as he got home, before his mother could serve him dinner. But he was proud of earning money at his first real job and saw himself the envy of the other kids. That is, he did until he heard a teacher remark to her class as they passed him at the Park Lane job site, “See, if you quit school you’ll end up just like Harry Thicke.”
It was summer. He left Kirkland Lake to ride the railed, hitching a lift on the top of boxcars or behind engines. In the areas just off the railway tracks, known as jungles, drifters left permanent stashes of cooking utensils to make meals over the fires that blazed there continuously. every town had a jungle in those days, and when my father arrived hobos would already be there from a previous freight train, drinking tea laced with rubbing alcohol which turned milk-white when it hit the boiling water.
Drifters usually foraged for themselves, begging door to door for food, but my father organized them: one would ask only for carrots, another for potatoes, one would stop at a butcher shop for dog scraps, and so on until they had enough for my father to make a stew. But the faces at the doors were not as generous as they had been during the Depression. There was a war on now. “Why don’t you join the army?” was their new refrain.
He was three months short of sixteen when he enlisted. Through a series of mishaps, largely engineered by himself, he landed overseas not long afterwards in spite of being a full three years underage. Along with him were 19 other Kirkland Lake boys, including Waul Boyle.
Lunch is over now, and I have to go to class. I have been thinking too much about my father, and Kirkland Lake, and about Kenny and his lunch.
“Thanks for the chicken, Dad.” I give him a kiss. He is watching Kenny come up the hill; Kenny pauses for just a second to glance at Brad lifting part of an engine block, then he looks uneasily toward us. “Don’t work too hard, Bradley,” I yell down and my brother grimaces.
About five o’clock, on my way home from University, i drive past the store again, and I glance over, as I always do. All three of them are out front. My father, angry at something jabs a finger at Kenny as he shouts words I cannot hear. Kenny’s palms are open, but he doesn’t flinch. Brad looms behind my father with his arms crossed over his chest. I pull a U-turn and park around the side of the store.
“I counted $500 this morning and we’ve made at least a hundred bucks since then. Now there’s only $400.” Brad’s voice is rising. He starts to go for Kenny, then shakes his head and steps back behind my father, rubbing his clenched fists along his jeans.
“Kenny, I trusted you.” My father’s voice is incredulous. Kenny says nothing, just stands there with his hands open. “I’ve never even checked the cash – you could have been doing this to me all along.” A sudden thought seizes my father. “That’s why I haven’t been able to make a profit.” His voice has gone very soft. He leans back against the table with the magazines on it. “When a man trusts you, you don’t screw him,” he says to Kenny quietly, fiercely, his voice wavering with emotion. “I was giving you a chance.”
Kenny looks up at my father almost defiantly. “You’re not going to tell my probation officer, are you?”
My father hesitates. “No, that wouldn’t do any good,” he says finally. He reaches for the vest and jacket on the lawn mower handle and puts them on, slowly. “Just get out of here.”
“Yeah Kenny, beat it,” my brother adds but does not bring his clenched fists any closer to Kenny.
Kenny tears down the hill toward his house. Neither my father nor brother have noticed me yet. In a surprising gesture, my brother puts his arm around our father’s shoulders. I stand and watch as they move toward me, my father walking just a little more slowly than he usually does.