The Sound of Hammering in the Evening

by Mario Lowther

        Last night I heard an accident on the highway. Tires screaming Ohh shiit, the body slam of an impact, metal ripping, glass shattering, a percussive tinkling of dust and plastic. Then nothing.

        Chaos to curfew in four heartbeats, replaced by sweet silence and the labored whisper of my breathing. Sitting in my shadowy living room, star shine edging a triptych of view windows, the wood fire out and the red eye of a sensor light burning steadily in the hall, the house cooling around my big chair, the dregs of a glass of Glenfiddich tilted in my hand, it occurred to me that some poor soul down there probably needed assistance. Probably needed it desperately.

        On the mantle over the fireplace sits my wedding picture. Dalaina and I, two years out of high school, me with the awkward grin, she with the 80’s hair, forever young in front of the big arbutus tree at Cooper’s Green Park. A second later a gust of wind took off with Dalaina’s shawl and sent me loping after it, muddying my new shoes. We had booked the honeymoon suite at the Driftwood Inn in Sechelt. Next morning, we hopped the ferry and stayed two nights at the Hotel Vancouver. Treated ourselves to a dinner we couldn’t afford. Saw Raiders of the Lost Ark at the Cineplex. Hammed it up at the Gastown steam clock, asked a Japanese tourist to snap us kissing. Walked barefoot on the beach. Got lost in Stanley Park. First thing Wednesday, we were back at work. We had four jobs between us. Pretty soon, we had two kids. Someday, we vowed, we will go somewhere special, just for us.

        The scotch was smooth, hot medicine flowing south, warming like acid rain. I placed my empty glass down hard on the side table. It made a sharp, solid thunk like a single knock on the door. I wanted to hear it again. Sitting there in the belly of my house, knocking on the side table and hearing the door, closing my eyes to my wedding picture, envisioning some poor fool’s new Lexus wrapped around a tree and a headlight staring down the center line of the highway.

        Like every image I see, it mercifully faded to black. Enough already. I stood up, paused, heard nothing, and retreated to my bedroom, slamming the door behind me.

        This morning, I check to make sure my cell phone is charged. Cotton tendrils dangle from a rip in the armpit of my housecoat; guess I need to go shopping. The thermostat entrances me; the LCD readout actually goes up a notch before I realize the house is warm enough. There are no cups in the cupboard, they’re all beside the sink. I wash one and set it down, then on a whim, wash all of them and the dishes, arranging everything on the counter to dry. Then I pour myself some decaf with the first cup and set the microwave for ninety seconds. Stick two slices of whole wheat into the toaster. There’s a third of a container of margarine in the fridge, and a half of a jar of orange marmalade, and not much else. The sight of an empty fridge pains me. My coffee and toast wait while I rummage around for a pad of paper and a pen that works. As I create a list, imagination takes flight: I picture myself at Clayton’s Market, shopping cart laden, smiling and nodding, and earnestly discussing trans-fats and hydrogenated oils with similarly-aware customers. Making my list fuels me with a foreign sense of satisfaction. That done, I make my toast. The best before date on the marmalade jar premonishes me; I add jam to my list. On the back of the pad there’s my old design for a metal weathervane of a squirrel spinning in the wind.

        My breakfast is ready. Cup and plate in hand, I turn to see if I’m okay to sit at the kitchen table; every morning I wind up at the counter, perched on a stool, gazing out the French doors at Malaspina Strait, gray-blue in the distance, flowing south into a dim horizon towards Vancouver. The coffee is good. I know how to make good coffee. Sometimes I’ll have a third piece of toast.

        The house alarm suddenly goes off. But no, it’s not the alarm, it’s actually my cell phone. The ring tone is standard, the volume set to be civil about alerting me; odd that I associate it with the house alarm pealing, and only ever first thing in the hush of an early morning. The cell is over by the toaster. I programmed it for five rings before going to voicemail. That way I can stop what I’m doing and answer, because getting voicemail is cold, it’s as mean and cruel and impersonal as giving it. This time, I need two rings to get my bearings; by three, I’ve got the call.

        “Dayton’s Renovations. Dayton speaking.”

        “God sakes, Dad, it’s seven in the morning. How can you already sound upbeat?”

        My daughter, Dana, is a downtown Vancouver realtor. Twenty-five years ago, her mother and I took aim on two acres of trees with a stream ten minutes north of Sechelt. We finalized the deal over coffee in the hayseed, two-room office of Twin Shores Realty. Andy Kemp, our realtor, became a close friend; he would be one of Dalaina’s pallbearers, and soon after I would be one of his. Andy gave Dana the property bug; told her land is forever, apprenticed her in the room next to his. But she was restless. And greedy. I warned her that I’d seen the big city; she flocked there anyway. Her less-gifted little brother, Danny, followed her the first chance he got. He glides from jobsite to jobsite, a wild and carefree laborer; I can’t imagine him at all. The city pace, long hours competing with men, having a poster lawyer husband, a demanding pre-school son, and wanting a daughter while refusing to relinquish her social life, have hardened Dana. When I think of her, I think of walking with my wedding picture into the office of a starving auctioneer.

        “Good morning,” I say. When a client calls, I’m happy they chose me, I’m eager to serve. With my daughter, who’s trained to target the merest inflection in a voice, I make certain that I sound old and slow and easy-going as though nothing could ever be wrong. How you doing, I ask. And how’s that family of yours? Great, she says. Brad’s great, Justin’s great, everyone is great. How’s Justin doing at pre-school? Great. Pinged a wood block off some kid’s head, now we’re checking him out for ADHD. Otherwise, he’s great.

        “Dad, I want to talk about Thanksgiving.”

        “Right, that’s a couple weekends away, isn’t it? Why don’t you and Danny come to visit? There’s plenty of room. You and Brad and Justin take the upstairs. Danny can have the rec room. Tell him to bring his girlfriend, if he has one.” I grab the pen and add turkey to my shopping list. “I’ll get a big bird and we’ll cook it up with all the fixings. Then the next day, I’ll take you all out for lunch in Davis Bay and we can go for a walk on the pier. How does that sound?”

        I can hear Dana smile. I must have said something wrong.

        “That sounds great.” Her voice is mechanical, indifferent, inflection free; she’s toughened more since we last spoke. “But I think it’d be more manageable if you came over and stayed with us, Dad. Let’s look at why. Brad has a big case. He’s working every weekend. Justin is a handful. And Danny—face it, Dad—he hasn’t the inclination, or the money, to get onto a boat. But he will come for dinner. Sure, this means I’ll have my hands full because he and Brad can’t stand each other, but you have to understand, Dad, families are hard to move these days, and it’s just you up there. Speaking of which, are you still seeing that lady from the post office, what’s her name?”

        “Natalie.” For a second I don’t sound old and slow. “No.”

        Dana does the process. “Didn’t work out?”

        She misread me. I recover. “Never got that far.”

        “Oh. Well, that’s good. I didn’t like her anyway. She was, I’m saying, kind of too basic. So you’re not seeing anyone?”

        She would prefer to have my answer in writing; I want to go back twenty-five years first. “No, but . . .”

        “Well, give it time, and forget finding anybody on the Coast to match up to Mom. Okay, so we’ll see you for Thanksgiving. It’ll be great. And I’ll make Brad and Danny behave. I better let you go now. Love you, Dad.”

        “Alright, sweetie,” I sigh. “Love you, too. Bye now.”

        I end the call. For a minute or two I cling to my stool and what I’m thinking is not for my daughter to know. Something feels different. For the first time ever, I power off the cell. Anyone who wants me can damn well call back. The house is quiet, my day approaches. I decide I’m still hungry. Yes, I think I’ll have that third piece of toast.

*  *  *

        My truck is an eight-cylinder, four-wheel drive diesel juggernaut with an oversized canopy and a five-ton capacity winch. It impresses the hell out of people when they see me coming. “Help is on the way!” they joke, and I laugh politely. I’ve been mistaken for the fire department. The truck is bright red, too bright for my tastes. But Dalaina handpicked it. I preferred blue, and a vehicle that didn’t make me feel like an afterthought when I climbed out. Blue is nice, Dalaina cajoled, but red stands out.

        She got her wish. I’m a candy apple fireball driving down cedar-lined Sutherland Road. At the highway, I stop dead. It’s a country crossing: isolated, no traffic, just a road, telephone poles, speed sign and endless forest. I can turn at any time. But I’m paralyzed. A skid mark, shiny black and fresh, runs in front of me down the highway, flies off the opposite embankment toward a fatally wounded adolescent Douglas fir. The tree, a thick and solid girder, should’ve expected to live a long life here beside the highway. The driver must have slammed into it pretty hard. Okay, why the skid mark? It’s a straight stretch of road. Even on a moonless night headlights would’ve framed a bear or deer standing stiff like a wilderness advertisement. Unless the animal bolted out.

        Sun burning through cloud glitters on the morning dew, the highway glistening. About a half a mile away to the north Highway 101 rounds a granite outcropping; to the south it empties over a rise. Two ends like open doors. But I wait, blank-eyed and mind-locked, not for traffic to come; no, for my cell phone to ring. Because I have a doomed apprehension that it will, and it’ll be loud, shrill and demanding, like the house alarm. And Dana will be at the other end. In her my-life-so-sucks voice she’ll suggest that if I’m bringing the Thanksgiving turkey, why don’t I bring the veggies too. Thanks, Dad. And I’ll hang up and suffer to hear myself control my breathing again, sitting in a big red fire truck in the sweet silence by the highway.

        And sure enough, the cell phone rings.

        In one motion I rip it from the clip on my belt. “Dayton’s Renovations. Dayton speaking.”

        Nothing. No shrieking. Just ghostly hiss on the phone.

        “Dayton’s Renovations,” I say again. “Dayton speaking.”

        “Oops, sorry, wrong number,” someone says.

        The caller hangs up before I can tell him it’s alright, no harm done. Somewhere somebody re-dials. I sit, eyes squeezed shut. Big breath, I tell myself, big breath. Good. Clip the phone back onto the belt. Good. Everything is fine.

        I turn south onto the highway and into the skid mark. The asphalt is pebbly, scraped away. I feel it through my tires. The skid veers for the shoulder. Slowly, I follow it. The driver’s wheels must have locked. His drive trail leads off the shoulder and down a grassy embankment barnacled with boulders. He would have bounced, out of control. The tree he impacted is cracked, the trunk snapped backward, caught by a brother hemlock. Big tow truck tires have left a ridged imprint on the roadside and a drag mark away from the tree. At the foot of the tree a garden of colored glass and plastic sparkles in the sun.

        How awful. But it would’ve been over quickly; face it, you drive so fast, you skid so long, you hit that hard. I hope he was alone. Imagine being a helpless passenger, the world outside the windshield becoming impenetrable trees, the one fate grew for you dead ahead; bracing yourself, heroics unthinkable, telling your nearest and dearest you love them; in the final seconds feeling at peace, clutching the hand of the driver who brought you here, then again perhaps shaking it. . . .

        There’s a roar of diesel engine and an oil tanker rockets past. The air that it shovels aside shakes my big red four-wheeler and jolts me upright. My hazard lights are blinking. Funny, can’t remember switching them on. How long have I been sitting here? Not very long, according to my watch, but I’m exhausted.

        I check the highway for oncoming traffic. All clear. Just me and the grave-like stillness of the morning. The tanker has vanished over the rise. But had it been there—really? I chuckle. Well sure, why not a tanker. Whatever, I’m ready to get my day going. I shift into gear and something catches my eye: sunlight glinting off a husk of red plastic lying at the bottom of the embankment. It’s close to the image that I dwelled on last night of a headlight staring up from the middle of a road. I motor off seeing that image again, seeing it clearer and wondering why, as it has nothing to do with anything.

        The yard at Sechelt Building Supplies is horseshoe-shaped. The entrance sign says Welcome Back We Missed You; the exit sign says See You Later Eh? At the exit gate there’s a cedar-shake kiosk with a brass pipe chimney and a wood stove where Gus the cashier waddles out and tries to guess what you’re up to by the items on your receipt. If you stump him, he hands you a fish bowl full of numbered wood chips. Reach inside, pick your next discount, come back soon.

        This is where I shop. I won’t shop elsewhere, unless forced to sail to Vancouver for some specialty item. I’m known here. I always wave to Gus when I drive in. He waves back. Today he doesn’t. His kiosk is empty. I lower my hand, feel cheated, and feel worse when I see the yard.

        Archie Hitely’s big blue four-by-four is parked by the drain pipe bin. Hitely himself stands by it with folded arms, puffing on a Players Silver King and frowning in disgust at the vacant yard because minions haven’t flocked to his arrival. He sees me. Damn, too late for me to back out. He motions me over, jumps in front of me, leads me in as if my truck is an airplane, points to the ground keep coming, points again c’mon you can do it, points emphatically to stop where I would’ve anyway, guffaws. So what if it’s an old joke, it’s his and it gave him pleasure.

        He signals for me to lower the passenger window. I’d rather not, but I do.

        He leans in, cigarette ash falling on the seat, and blows smoke past my ear. Here we go.

        “Dayton,” he bellows, his voice baritone, his accent Yorkshire, “are yer still mucking about with yer sodding little rancher? Come work for me, man.”

        I force a smile. “Good morning, Archie.”

        Twenty-five years ago I was a site foreman and Hitely was a cocky young carpenter with ambitions. I moved on to build homes; Hitely went on to become the biggest contractor, and the biggest noise, on the Coast. Developers love him because he delivers on time and on budget. He does this by cracking more whips than a Roman charioteer. But he gets all the big-money jobs, so if you want steady work, you toil for Hitely. Currently he’s flicking his cigarette butts all over a megabuck, Vancouver-funded condo project that he started by clear-cutting ten acres of trees on either side of the highway. I stopped minding ages ago; frankly, I’d rather disappear into the hills with my level and saw and revitalize someone’s humble little retirement home.

        “Yer finishing inches,” Hitely says, jerking a fat thumb at his chest, “I’m putting up miles. Yer be wise, Dayton, come work fer me. Site manager. Great gobs o’ green fer yer and a signing bonus. And nowt the condos. I mean the Pedersen job. Yer heard I got it?”

        Yes, I’d heard. Fact is, I heard before Hitely. He didn’t know the truth: that I’d bid on it myself, even after laughing and telling him I had jobs lined up for two years; you go renovate this million-dollar waterfront mansion, I’ll do the next one. Just once I tried to undercut Hitely, tried to snatch one from him. I wanted that contract. Yesterday when the agent told me the Pedersens would only lay their money on the frontrunner, I said thank you and please don’t tell Hitely I put a bid on it. Then I went home, turned out the lights and brought out the scotch.

        Yer do quality work, man, but it’s all up the back streets, it’s up the arse, sodding few venture there,” Hitely says. “Yer unseen. Don’t yer want yer creations to awe the commonality?”

        Hitely would strangle on his cigarette if he knew what I want. For the second time this morning, or is it the third, what I’m thinking is not for my daughter to know.

        I just grin like a mule. Hitely rolls his eyes. “Okay, let me know, man. I’m after drain pipe. Yer good to help me load?”

        I’m good to help yer sod off, yer bastard. Funny, I hadn’t noticed until this moment that my big red fire truck is the same size as Hitely’s big blue four-by. We’re equally sizeable. Now I know why Dalaina chose it and insisted on the color.

        Remembering Dalaina cools my fire and reminds me there’s a reason I came to the yard today. Everything is fine. It’s a beautiful day. Hitely is my best buddy. I nod at the store. “I have to go inside, Archie. I’ll tell them you’re here.”

        Hitely shows his teeth like a bully hearing uncle and flicks his butt off a stack of concrete blocks, throwing sparks. He knew in the first place I wouldn’t help him load. Hitely scores again. Now he’ll holler “Go fetch!” and go into his trademark yard wolf howl. Before he can, Dalaina’s truck and I drive on and leave him royally unattended.

        I didn’t come for supplies today, I came to see Helen at the customer service counter. No matter what I need, she helps me out. The last time we lingered in the paint aisle, Helen smiling shyly. I had just broken off with Natalie, an old school friend, my first attempt at a relationship since Dalaina had passed, which concluded with a handshake and Natalie sadly saying hey, glad we tried, we owed ourselves that much. Comparing color samples, I blurted out that I needed stripper. Helen giggled. Gawd, I thought, that was stupid. Grinning, Helen answered Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays, eight till five.

        So it’s Thursday morning, here I am, but Helen’s not at the counter and the aisles and the cashier are empty. First my day lost its routine, now I’m alone in a deserted store. Suddenly the store alarm sounds, shrieking and whooping. But no, wait a second, that’s a telephone ringing. I check my cell. I’m confused. I see bodies huddled, the staff crowded around the glass panel door of Rick the manager’s office. Seeing people is a comfort. They break formation, old Gus leading the way. I’m glad. I wave, thinking he’ll wave back, we’ll pretend we’re outside. He shuffles past me, looking mournful, pats me on the shoulder and says God Bless. Helen appears wearing a tool belt and a company tee shirt, her long greying hair in a ponytail. She motions to me, and we meet off to one side by the hoses and fittings.

        “Good morning.” My greeting simmers with anticipation. “I need to see your—uh—paint. Oh, by the way, Hitely’s outside, you better send Tim after him before he starts howling.”

        I scan the shop for Tim, the yard dog, the go-fetch-it guy. Thirty-something, roly-poly Tim, bad hair, enormous glasses, lives for his job. Scrambles around filling orders, the staff, the customers, even me yelling commands. Rin Tim Tim, Hitely calls him, laughing and howling.

        “Tim can’t go fetch today,” Helen retorts, mocking her own words. “He had an accident on the highway last night. He died.”

        Shock plucks me out of the moment. There’s a flash. The store falls away like a backdrop removed and I’m standing on the highway. There’s nobody else around and that headlight is lying in the middle of the road, so close I can almost touch it. Then a million orchestras strike an over-loud chord, and as quick as a film cut the store walls rise back up and I gape a cinematic double-take. “You can’t be serious,” I gasp. “How?”

        Stone-faced, Helen assesses my reaction. Can’t fathom why. I feel genuine, perhaps she doesn’t. She throws the same grim glance at Calvin, the assistant manager, who walks by, going about his duties, head down. He speeds up, hurries away.

        “The cops are calling it a single vehicle collision with a tree,” Helen says in a monotone, like a badly-read recording. “They tell us he skidded to avoid a deer or whatever, and everyone wants to go with that. But I think he fell asleep at the wheel. He did a full shift yesterday, and then he hauled a rush order up to Egmont. It would be just like Tim not to drop the goods and dash, he’d lug them wherever the customer wanted, so it would take him longer than expected.”

        Helen’s voice cracks and her cheeks flush crimson. She covers her mouth. Her fingers are long with pink callouses, the skin rough and lined, one knuckle knobbly: a laborer’s fingers, not pretty. Helen is a divorced mother of two. I’m attracted to her world-weary grin and her smoky grey eyes, like shadows dancing behind frosted glass. I want to untie her ponytail, and I wish we could hug each other in consolation right here in the middle of the store.

        “But where was the accident?” I’m pressing, I’m panicky. I have to know. “Did they say that it was near Sutherland Road?”

        Helen nods into her hand. “They asked us if we knew any of Tim’s friends or next of kin, and we all shrugged. Rick confirmed his home address.” She shakes her head, tears in her voice. “We could do that much.”

        Calvin hustles past us again, balancing a couple of tins of paint atop a shop vac in a box. Guess he’s the interim yard dog now. Everyone stops what they’re doing and watches him head outside, as Helen throws them all a frown that seems to say wow, how did it get so quiet in here, why don’t we liven things up, start bossing Calvin around and shouting orders indiscriminately.

        “That’s where I live, up Sutherland Road above the highway,” I tell Helen. Her eyes snap onto mine. I think she thinks I’m inviting her. Stuttering, I explain, “I saw the accident scene this morning. Awful.” Before I can stop myself, I add, “I went to bed early last night and didn’t hear anything. If I’d heard something, I could’ve helped him.”

        Helen recoils as though wounded, drops her gaze, slowly makes a fist and shakes it. She nods, I sense, not in sympathy, but in acknowledgement and surrender. I’d planned to ask her to lunch, and then to come to Vancouver with me for Thanksgiving with Dana and Danny. Instead, I’m shamefaced and I curse myself for not knowing Tim better, and Helen better, for she and her co-workers not knowing me better. Everyone’s hangdog expression seems to say bring Tim back so we don’t all stand here like floor mops in the painful silence of the store.

        Which is the very moment the door slams open, Hitely entering, Calvin exiting, arms full. Amused, Hitely looks at Calvin, then at our collective melancholy, and thunders, “Where’s Tim?? Where’s that yard dog, Rin Tim Tim? Here boy, here boy!”

        And he howls.

*  *  *

        Ed Hansen is a Vancouver diesel mechanic; his wife, Raylene is a hockey mom. They’ve coached three large sons all the way through trade school, they’ve worked hard all their lives, now they’re retiring and they want their summer home to match their life effort.I am happy to oblige, and it’s a privilege to motor through Hitely’s condo clear-cut on Highway 101 to get to their quiet little rancher on Mason Road, off in the back streets.

        I’ve wallpapered the master bedroom and guest room and laid new carpeting. Erected a split rail fence up the driveway. There are gutters to replace, kitchen cabinets to install, French doors to go in off the patio, a hardwood floor to put down, and paint and moulding throughout. Anything Ed and Raylene desire. So much to think about, yet today I pull in and all that’s on my mind is the lie I told Helen. I really said I fell asleep, didn’t hear that accident on the highway.

        My foreman, Randy, is offloading framing from his cargo van and into the rancher. He’s built like a bull, and moves like one. Every minute counts with him. He’s young, keen to learn, and sticks with me because he endured Hitely once and I take the time to teach him. But he has dreams of his own, so he won’t stick with me long.

        “Good morning,” he says. “Wayne’s a no-show.”

        I notice the empty space beside Randy’s van where a battered Toyota pick-up should be parked. Wayne’s our laborer. Long-haired, in his mid-thirties, affable, semi-reliable, can swing a hammer, says he drank at one time, swears he won’t again.

        “Fire him, get someone else,” Randy says, walking to the back of my truck and peering inside. “Where’s all the pipe?”

        The question rouses me. I’d been wondering if I’d actually heard the accident after all. “What?” I ask thickly.

        “We’re short thirty feet of drain pipe. You’d get it this morning. Wayne would put it in.”

        I remember Hitely standing by the drain pipe, not me needing any. Or wait, Randy and I were discussing it yesterday when the agent called to tell me that the Pedersens were going with Hitely. I was hoping to surprise Randy with that contract, show off my skills in a big way, keep him with me longer. . . .

        “Tim died,” I blurt.

        Randy flips his cell phone open, I’m guessing to check the time and speed dial the supply store to order pipe. “Tim who?”

        Damn. I don’t know why I mentioned Tim, but I’m caught. Now that Randy knows that Tim has died, it irks me that he has to be told who Tim is. So I tell him who, and I tell him how. Randy closes his cell phone, shakes his head ruefully, and leans against his van, granting me a personal moment, it seems. “Aw hell, that shouldn’t happen to anybody,” he says.

        I’m sorry too, in my own way. “How well did you know him?”

        “I didn’t. He was the funny-looking guy who stumbled around the yard while Hitely did his dog bit. Beyond that, he was basically okay.”

        “Yeah, he was that,” I echo. “Tough for his family.”

        “No kidding. How are they doing?”

        “Fine. As well as can be expected.”

        I’m lying again. Or am I? I can’t be. Why would I? This is so confusing. Scary too, a bit. Stop and think: have I met anyone in Tim’s family? Have I? Last summer? In the yard, there was an older lady talking to Tim. Coat and purse. As I drove by, she turned and left on foot. No car, no purchases.

        Randy re-opens his cell phone. “Well, that’s a downer for sure, but you know, we should probably get cracking. I’ll go get the pipe, if you want to start on the French door frame.”

        He’s right. Buck up. Still have a job to do, can’t stand around all day. Randy and I share values. Makes me wonder how I’ll replace him when I lose him.

        “No, that’s okay,” I say, “I’ll handle it.”

        Randy nods, glad that we’ve recovered. He goes to continue hauling in the framing. I rev up my truck, swerve around Randy’s van to back out of the driveway, see something, and freeze.

        Instead of a headlight on the passenger’s side of Randy’s van, there’s a metal crater and a filament poking out. I blink.

        I’m speeding down the highway. Up ahead, I see the headlight—Randy’s, I realize—lying across the centre yellow line again. A landmine I’m going to drive over. I blink

        I’m in Ed and Raylene’s driveway. Tell myself to keep calm. Get out my cell, pretend I’m talking, should Randy see me. Okay, now think hard: when did I first notice that Randy had lost a headlight? Yesterday, it was yesterday afternoon. The agent called with the bad news about Hitely winning the Pedersen contract. Randy and I had just agreed to get more drain pipe. Before that, Randy had come back from lunch in town cursing that the tailgate of a reversing 5-ton had punched out his headlight, freakin’ fine, more time and money lost. I recall the gaping socket gave me a chill, this hole where something had been. So I must have put it out of my mind until I heard Tim’s accident last night. Makes sense. And I did hear the accident, I’m positive of that. . . .

        Randy stands in the front door of the rancher, drill in one hand, circular saw in the other, packing like a gunslinger. “We’re getting behind. Don’t want to have to start working nights.”

        I wave back. I’ll get help, I’ll find somebody Hitely has no use for. No problem, we won’t be working late regardless, because I don’t like the sound of hammering in the evening.

        Randy goes inside. One final shudder at the missing headlight, then I put my big red fire truck in gear and head down the driveway towards the road.

        I’m stuffing my cell phone in my pocket when it rings. Thing goes off in my hand like a church bell. Swearing, I nearly drop it, and slam on the brakes.

            “Dayton’s Renovations!” I yell. “Dayton speaking!”

        Nothing. No earthly response. There’s something in the background though: a buzzing sound, close and loud, faint and far, circling around.

        My phone hand trembles. “Dayton speaking,” I whisper.

        I wait. A slightly supernatural moment passes. Everyone gets miscalls, I assure myself, convinced that nobody is on the line. Still, I can’t hang up the phone. The buzzing continues, round and round, louder and louder, like the snarl of an agitated bee.

        Then the house alarm goes off, shrieking emergency! emergency! I practically laugh. My house has called me. I picture the four walls of my kitchen, see smoke rising, hear the alarm cry and the bee buzz back and forth, unaware of what it’s done.

        Cold morning sunlight beats down on the yard at Sechelt Building Supplies as I brake in front of the drain pipe bins. I fly from my big red truck as if there’s a fire and I’ve babies to rescue. Don’t know why I rush. Don’t care. My issue is there’s damned little pipe left, now that Hitely has had his fill. What remains I hurl like spears into my truck, cursing Hitely, goddamn Hitely, goddamn Ed and Raylene, goddamn everyone, to hell with you all, I won’t hire a new guy or call Wayne back, and Randy can go if he’s impatient, because I don’t need help, I do my own work at my pace, I said I don’t need any help.

        My chest goes tight, the muscles gripped by a fist and turned like a dial. My heart thrums. I gulp down air and resist a sick urge to gag. An unseen brutality presses on me. What the hell is going on, what am I thinking, when will this day end? I object. I don’t need assistance. I’ll prove it. I will relax. Breathe. I will lean against my big red truck and appear to be basking in the sun.

        Behind me, Calvin says, “Hey, Dayton, if you’re waiting for Helen, I sent her home.”

        I’m good at not letting on. You have to be strong for people who expect it from you. I turn slowly and give Calvin a long dry look. Inside, I’m churning. Goddamn, it makes no sense. Helen having been mentioned, I want her to come out; right now, I do. If I had her cell number, I’d call her. This very minute, I’ll ask her out to dinner. Yes, give me Helen’s number, I want it.

        “What makes you think I’m waiting for her?” I ask.

        Calvin is young but old-looking, white-haired with a face full of lines and a grin that’s already tired first thing in the morning. He stands holding a bag of elbows and tee-joints that presumably someone has needed him to fish out of the back of the pipe shed.

        “Thought you two were connecting,” he answers, frowning. “She could use a call from you. She’s taking Tim’s death pretty hard. Says she has to make amends. Says we should too.”

        I hide a smirk. Poor dead Tim has affected Helen, has he? So badly that she’s been sent home, meanwhile the rest of the staff stays and works? Well, that’s good, I’m relieved that the yard dog’s death has had an effect. That might also explain why the assistant manager is behind the pipe shed with an elbow bag, not ensconced in the shop with his clipboard and receipt book.

        “So Tim’s bent you all out of shape.” I can’t completely conceal the sneer in my voice. “Everybody took him for granted, now he’s dead. Accept yourselves and move on.”

        Sounds cold-hearted, but goddamn, Tim wasn’t my friend, yet I’m the one who heard the accident, I’m the one who’s saddled with the memory, I have to handle the responsibility. And I will handle it, as well as everyone has handled me. Just don’t expect me to pretend it’s anything bigger than it is, okay? People die all the time, without recourse. Ignoring Calvin, I hoist another pipe into my truck, inserting it into the bundle like an acupuncturist sliding a needle into a cheek.

        When I turn for the next, Calvin is there, offering it to me and chuckling under his breath. What’s he doing? Don’t do that. He lets go of the pipe, which falls into my hand, and reaches for another. Startled, I load what Calvin passes, telling myself it would be impolite to do otherwise. But I didn’t ask for help. Don’t want any help. Goddamm, I’m sure I told him so.

        Between us we empty the shed. Calvin thrusts the last pipe at me. “I’ll order more,” he declares, as though he’s won an argument.

        “Don’t bother, it’s more than enough,” I mutter. Actually, it’s half of what I need. Geez, what an awful day this is.

        “Oh, too much? Sorry, I’ll help you put some back.” He grabs for the pipe.

        I pitch it into the back of my truck where it makes a bang. “Leave it alone, Calvin! Damn it, I don’t need a yard dog. Go make your amends some other way.”

        Calvin whips out his receipt book and counts my pipe as forcefully as I loaded it. “Think I’m making amends for Tim? Helen thought so, too. Said I should’ve appreciated Tim while he was here, said we all should’ve. Had us all feeling guilty. Can’t operate that way. That’s why I sent her home. She’s right, we should’ve showed Tim our appreciation. But how does she know he didn’t feel appreciated, so it’s not our fault if he never let on about something he never got.”

        I don’t want Calvin’s sorry-assed explanation, I don’t need it. So he feels bad about Tim. Tonight he’ll go home in a semi-state of shock and lament to his wife about the good people he’s known who deserved better. Tomorrow he’ll go out and do zip all for them. Not that they need his help. Not asking for it, don’t need it. That’s it, enough said, issue over, already told him that.

        Why doesn’t the man listen?

        “Maybe Helen’s trying to say that Tim didn’t have to ask. Should’ve come naturally.”

        Calvin rips out my receipt, holds it up. “She also says you should’ve heard the accident last night, because it was near your place. But you didn’t, and you feel bad about that, and you want to make amends too. Helen has a good idea how you can. So call her. Or call her because you want to, Dayton.”

        Yes, I want to call Helen. Right now I want to say hello, how are you doing, I miss you, let’s go somewhere, do something together, tell me what you’re feeling, I’ll listen. Yes, give me her number, I have to call Helen right now. Right. Now.

        I hesitate too long. The sunlight of realization lights Calvin’s gaze. “Come into the shop when you’re done,” he says gently, “and I’ll give you her number.”

        Yes, I’ll do that, I can already picture Helen taking the call at her kitchen table, smiling, asking how are you, Dayton?

        I’m fine, I will say. Never better.

        I glare at Calvin. “Already got it,” I say.

        He jolts back in surprise. I jump into the fire truck and drive away. I’m not following the posted speed limit. I round the horseshoe-shaped lot, making for Gus’s kiosk. There’s something lying on the ground up ahead: a hunk of metal flashing, dented and discarded, poised upright like a battered bridge. It morphs into a headlight in the last second before I drive over it. I’ve no time to stop. As it passes beneath I grip the wheel and pray that none of it gets caught in my tires. It’s awful, just lying there unwanted and alone. Somebody should pick it up, somebody really should, and put it back where it belongs, with whatever it got detached from.

        I bump over nothing, and arrive, relieved and mystified, at Gus’s kiosk. An inviting wisp of smoke wafts from his chimney. Gus is waiting with his fishbowl full of numbered woodchips, ready to reward a bonus discount. He left Italy years ago; Italy has never left him. Gus is old and cured like dry prosciutto, walks with a limp and wears a heavy coat and a wool cap. He pockets my receipt without a glance, and extends his woodchip bowl.

        “Aren’t you going to guess what I’m doing?” I ask.

        Earlier, Gus looked sad-hearted. Now the way he beams, angels could be singing to him. “My friend, today I no guess, I justa know,” he says warmly. “Take-a two, onna da house.”

        Because he’s Gus, I collect two woodchips off the top.

        “Thassa good,” he says. “God bless. Go be happy.”

        There’s a paper cross taped to the window of the kiosk with Tim’s name on it, and in the center of the cross a photograph of Tim: buoyant, bad-toothed grin, hair askew, glasses crooked. I remember all the times Tim eagerly toted goods around the lot for me, Helen barking at him to slow down, watch out for the forklift; Tim would arrive laden at the kiosk, Gus welcoming him, helping him unload, retrieving his glasses when inevitably Tim whacked himself with something and knocked them flying. You crazy son of a gun, Gus would say, why you always so hurry, and Tim would laugh and say it’s what I do, it doesn’t hurt anybody.

        But you’re so wrong, Tim, because it hurts people after you go. Calvin plays yard dog, Helen is banished home, the staff turns rueful and edgy, and I wind up sitting here pensively with the engine running. If you could see us now, you would’ve been stronger, more careful, and you wouldn’t have left us alone. Only Gus seems to have it right.

        He sets aside the fish bowl and pats me on the hand.

        “I want . . .” I hesitate, confused. I don’t know what I want.

        “Yessa, my friend,” Gus says. “Tella me whatta you want.”

        “I want . . . I think . . . to make amends.” There, I said it. I mean it. Life-changing words.

        And Gus looks overjoyed. He nods. “Calla Dalaina,” he says. “Dalaina willa help you.”

        Two apocalyptic changes in a row. I go completely rock hard. “What did you say?

        Bewildered, Gus backs away. “Calla Helen,” he repeats. “Helen willa help you.”

        Gus can’t understand what he’s done wrong. I can’t either. He’s innocent. He’s a good guy, a solid guy. Gus has manned this kiosk, and we’ve been waving to one another, since I first picked up a hammer. If he meant Helen, he’d never say Dalaina. Which means only one thing.

        It means I’m never shopping here again and I’m not waving Gus goodbye.

        I hit the accelerator and burn out of there.

        I have to park, I have to park, I have to catch my breath, I have to slow down, I have to stop and breathe and think. I have to park. I have to find a wide open space. To park. To breathe. To . . .

        . . .wait wait, wait a second, I’m already parked, what . . . I’m in the back row at Trail Bay Mall, farthest from the mall entrance, no vehicles nearby. How did I get across Sechelt? I don’t remember. But I’ve arrived in good order, and nobody has chased me. Geez, I hope my driving didn’t attract attention. Geez, if anyone recognized me, I hope I waved like a good neighbour.

        And geez, everyone leave me alone for awhile. Don’t get curious, don’t think something seems odd and knock on the window to politely inquire, because I don’t want to have to explain that everything is alright and that, contrary to what you think you’ve seen, I’m not acting weird.

        Nor do I want to explain why I’m sitting here, I realize this very moment, squeezing Gus’ woodchips in my hand like stress balls. I picked them out of his bowl. Yes, that much I recall. I turn them over, find the number seven written on both in black marker. Double 7% discounts, highest award. Lucky me. I’ll use them later. For now, I’ll store them in the glove compartment with all the others.

        I’m calm now. Had I curtains in the cab of my truck I’d draw them and catch some sleep. Instead, I lean back and the dome light stares at me and we wonder what just happened. Why the hell did I hear Gus say to call Dalaina? Hearing her name spoken aloud felt for an instant like I’d never lost her. I miss her. But of course I do, I miss her badly. Could I just touch her hair again, just hold her hand one more time, could I? What I’d give to do that. Not too much to ask, is it?

        But I shouldn’t ask, because that’s not fair to Helen. When she greets me at the store, and we chat in the paint or the plumbing aisle, I feel like I matter again. I’m nearer to telling her how much I respect her, how fond I am of her, but until then it isn’t right to consider another woman. She deserves better of me. Calvin says she can help me make amends to Tim. I don’t know how she plans to do that. Truth is, I’m not keen to make amends to a guy I can’t recall saying hello or goodbye to. But if Helen thinks it’s important, okay, I’ll call her. As soon as I take the pipe in the back of the truck to the Hansen’s place. And Randy wants me to replace Wayne, I should do that before calling Helen. While I’m at it, I should advise Hitely I’m unavailable for the Pedersen job. I should drive back to the building supply store too, wave at Gus, give Calvin hell for leaving flashing lying in the yard because it can be mistaken for a headlight on the highway. Oh, and what about the goddamn cell phone, making buzzing bee noises, who can I talk to about that? Who do I talk to about any of these things? There’s so goddamn much happening. It’s all Tim’s fault, that goddamned accident changed everything. Goddamn you, Tim. Goddamn you, Dalaina.

        Goddamn it all, because I’m not calm anymore. I could be that flashing, twisted and torn from the roll I came in, dumped on the asphalt to be run over, nobody to notice, nobody to care.

        Through the deafening vacuum of the cab of my truck, I hear faint laughter. Up the lot a ways, two long-haired guys wearing dusty work clothes emerge from between vehicles, followed by two girls in leather jackets and high heels. The guys carry a case of beer each; one of the girls grasps a bottle in a paper bag. No matter that it’s too early for quitting time; they’re into partying and whatever comes after. The grinning guy, the one saying something funny, making the women cackle, is Wayne. They vanish amongst the parked vehicles and a minute later Wayne backs out his battered Toyota pick-up, four in the front seat. I hear their happiness long after they’re gone.

        And I’m not angry anymore. I feel nothing at all. I take stock of myself; and yes, I’m truly a chasm, I’m arid and empty, I’m cold deep space, haven’t an emotion, haven’t a blessed thought in my head. My breathing is short, regular, rhythmic and pleasant to listen to. I’m comfortable in my big red fire truck; here I will remain. I need nothing, I am divinely at peace and without care.

        Eyes open and staring straight ahead, I fall into a deep sleep, silent and warm; a relaxing, restful sleep such as I have never known, and which I anticipate will last forever.

        No cares, I have no cares, I have no cares, I have none.

        I begin to dream, and in my dream I gaze out across the parking lot, then up a brick wall, to a big white-on-blue sign that says Clayton’s Market. The sign gives me a positive feeling. This will be a good dream. Because this is my supermarket, in my hometown. This is where I shop. People who are my friends, who know me, whose homes I’ve touched, greet me here.

        Hello, they say. How are you?

        That’s what they always ask me. And I always respond.

        I’m fine, I say. Never better.

        Come on in, says the Clayton’s Market sign. We want to know how you’re doing.

        The sign smiles. I smile back and reach into my pocket where, it seems, in a prior dream I placed a piece of paper containing a list. Of the items on the list, the last jumps out at me: turkey.

        The dream propels forward as dreams do and I’m revving up in the doorway to Clayton’s Market with two hands on a shopping buggy like I mean to do business. But first I pause, should anybody want to say hello. People I might know, and people I’m sure I don’t know but who look friendly nonetheless, busy themselves at the cashier or wheel their buggies around purposefully. I grin. Here I am! Anybody want to talk? Anybody? . . .  Guess not. Goddamn . . .

        Well, no matter. I push my buggy ahead and, because it’s a dream, a heartbeat later I’m looming over the turkey freezer, pondering cold birds. Rap my knuckles on a couple. Somebody could get hurt with one of these things. How big of a bird do I want? How many of us are there? Enough leftovers to stuff ten freezer bags, that was the damage when Dalaina did Thanksgiving.

        Luckily, I don’t have to choose. Because it’s a dream, I picture the same spot once twice three times, and a colossal bird appears atop the pile where one wasn’t before. Maybe I moved a couple around to get to it, I don’t know, it’s a dream, it’s hazy, it rarely makes sense until maybe later. The weight on the tag jumps out at me: twenty-two pounds. Looks great in the buggy, too. Fire up the oven, I can hear Dalaina whoop, and let’s get cooking.

        And veggies. Can’t stop now, I need to get veggies too while I’m here. I steer my buggy across the market like an ambulance through traffic. The produce section is a walk-in still life of greens, browns and yellows— but the apples, pomegranates and blood red peppers catch my eye.

        Never mind! What do I want? Carrots, peas, corn and yams. Into the buggy. And sprouts, Brussels sprouts, they’re for me, everyone hates them but they’re my favorite, Dalaina serves me my own bowl dousing them in butter with minced bacon.

        Done. What next? I scan my list eagerly. . . . Bread! Not on the list, but I remember Dalaina needs bread for the stuffing and rolls to sop up the soup—not the soup, the gravy. So where’s the bakery? Beside the meat department. Back where I came. I’m so exhilarated, I may need oxygen. The market in this dream just flies by. People I pass stand and gape. They should be in a cartoon. A rack of kitchen knives zooms into sight, the blades shiny and sharp. Don’t need more knives, I’ve plenty. Have I got bread yet? Yes, it’s there on top of the noodles and the sandwich meat.

        Such a big list. How did I get so many things on my list? Where will I find them all? Oh, there’s cranberry sauce, flashing before my eyes. That’s not even on the list, grab some anyway, Dalaina will want that for the table. Bandages, I see bandages, do we need bandages? Check the list—no. So many things. This is Dalaina’s job, she can find all these things, how I don’t know.

        I know—I’ll ask for directions. A guy that I recognize appears out of nowhere, he’s not a market guy, at least I don’t recognize him from the market, still he wears a Clayton’s apron, and that’s odd. He’s young. His stressed expression says he’s in a hurry and he’s sorry for me. Before he speaks, I shake my list and rattle off the things I need. He fires back the aisle numbers. At the end I notice over his apron he now wears a black jacket bearing some sort of official insignia, and his face is different, he’s a dead ringer for a young market staffer who always says hi to me.

        I wave my list in his face, and complain, “Can’t you put all the aisles one after another?” Somehow I’ve become angry.

        I leave both of these guys standing there astonished, not knowing what to say. I figure I’ll begin at the top of my list. Jam. In another dream a world away I wrote jam at the top of my list. And hey, here it is, here I am in the aisle with the jam. Now we’re getting somewhere. What kind of jam doesn’t matter. Dalaina and I always have jam on our morning toast when we’re sitting at the kitchen table gazing out the window and she wouldn’t want us to run out, so I fill my hands with flavors including peach, her favorite, place them gently in the buggy, thinking won’t she be pleased. And jam leads to peanut butter and that goes in the buggy. And peanut butter leads to honey. And peanut butter leads to honey. And honey comes from bees, and bees buzz at you on the phone, and they sting people, and people who have no idea they’re allergic to stings collapse from anaphylactic shock and crack open their head on the kitchen floor, then the pot boils down, and the smoke sets off the alarm, and neighbors hear the alarm, and they call the fire department, and they call you, and everyone converges to find soup scorched in the pot, and a box of noodles open on the counter next to a sandwich waiting for you, and a pathetic sight lying on the floor in a widening pool of blood, and the love of your life can’t be resuscitated, and the house alarm screams, and it rips you apart. . . .

        And it just hasn’t ever stopped screaming.

        I hear it right now. Even in aisle some-number-or-other at my neighborhood market, it shrills. Even as people give me sidelong glances and tiptoe their buggies around me. From long experience, I know that the worst dream is a waking nightmare: it unfolds around you, but you’re trapped, you’re at the mercy of the dream, helpless to wait for it to make your next move.

        In this dream, I reach automatically into my pocket for my cell phone, which happens to peal on cue. I say, as I have countless times before: “Dayton’s Renovations, Dayton speaking.”

        But today, I also add: “Hi, honey.”

        “Dad!” Dana erupts in my ear. “Will you please call Danny this fricken second and straighten him out? He is so useless!”

        I’m glad to hear from my daughter again; she makes me smile.

        “I invite him over for Thanksgiving,” she fumes, “and what does he say, he says, ‘Sure, I’m eating with a realtor and a lawyer, is there enough room at the table?’ So I say, ‘That’s your attitude; fine, go line up at the mission,’ and I hang up. I mean, Justin had another episode, Brad and I slave twenty-four seven, my townhouse deal is going down the toilet because the builder’s busted and the buyers are suing . . .”

        Her voice cracks; this is monumental, it never happens. “. . . and I’ve worked so hard for this.” Dana sobs once—hard. Somewhere far from here, I think it’s awful to hear your little girl in pain. “So I can’t handle Danny’s shit right now,” she roars, so loud the phone line distorts. “You call him, Dad. If you don’t, Thanksgiving is off!” There’s a clatter as desk items are swept to the floor. “Or maybe I can cook for you,” she sniffles bitterly. “I’ll try.”

        Dana awaits my forgiveness. I rush back from long ago thoughts. “Okay, honey. I’ll call.”

        “Thanks, Dad.” My daughter sighs. “You’re a prince, you know that? I want Danny to come over. It would be great. How are you doing?”

        “Oh, fine.”

        She laughs. “Never better, right, Dad? That’s great. You always make me feel great. Okay so, see you in two weeks. Can’t wait. Call me when you get off the ferry, okay?”

        “Okay. Bye, sweetee.”

        “Bye, Dad. Love you.”

        The line goes silent. For awhile I’m comfortable standing there with the cell phone in my ear, listening to the bee buzz.

        “Love you too,” I say.

        And I hang up. I power off the phone. I unhook the back and remove the battery. And I stuff it all in my pocket. In this dream I feel lifeless. In this dream my shopping buggy is full, but who filled it, there’s nothing I want, I’ll just leave it here in the honey aisle, and walk out of the market and into another dream.

        Now I’m out in the cold sunshine, moving across the parking lot toward my big red fire truck. Poking out of the back of the truck is a bundle of light blue drain pipe twice as big as one might think would fit in the back of a big red fire truck.

        Now I’m at my truck. I’ve got my hands around a length of pipe. I’m getting set, and I’m smiling, and I’m betting that I can hurl this blue javelin all the way back across the lot and directly through the doors of my hometown supermarket.

        Ready. Set. Keep breathing regularly.

        Here goes . . .

        Wait . . .

        . . . what just happened? . . .

        . . . well, will you look at that . . .

        How come people are pushing buggies around Ed and Raylene’s rancher?

        And why am I holding this drain pipe? This stuff is expensive. I need it. I’ll lay it down here, by the house, on this patch of grass between this curb and these bushes. And I’ll stack the rest here too, nice and neat and ready for Randy and Wayne to install. There, done. Good job.

        Well, I wonder where Randy’s got to? Left early. Doesn’t matter. What an awful day this has been. But it’s over now.

        Think it’s time for me to get into my truck and head home.

        Yes, after such a day as this, I think I’ve earned a drink.

        Twilight falls, black on blue. The house is cold and resonates with long-ago laughter. I sit in my cozy chair in my living room where I once enjoyed watching television. In one hand I’ve a glass, in the other a near-empty bottle of Glenfiddich. The lights are off, and shadows like half-finished paintings are thrown across the walls.

        Every so often, I let out a hard sob.

        It wasn’t supposed to be like this.

        The scotch hasn’t helped. Each shot leaves a trail of burn marks, a reminder I lost hold of my day. I thought I was handling life; I wasn’t. Thought I knew myself; I don’t. Believed I didn’t need help; I do. I’d be sitting here still convinced my day was just a bad dream, but going home I had to drive past Tim’s accident site again. Saw his black snake of a skid mark, his battered tree. Heard shrieking tires and exploding glass. But the spectre of a one-ton truck didn’t materialize to launch off the highway; rather, that damn headlight, that relentless anxiety reappeared, straddling the center yellow line. I was twisted by a fury I didn’t know I owned. This time I’d run the damn thing over. My big red fire truck accelerating ninety, one hundred, one twenty. In a few seconds, I’d crush the detached eye, scatter its debris for good. Then I blinked. It vanished. I slammed on the brakes. Overshot my turn onto Sutherland Road. Swerved. Laid down a twin skid mark.

        Now I’m out of scotch. And I feel connected to Tim, first time ever. We’re sharing a life experience. He’s dead, and I feel dead. He died alone, time passing before the police found him; I am alone, and could die in this house and not be missed for days. Tim’s and my death will cause a small ripple that will smooth out. People will feel sorry, but there’s nobody really to mourn for us, I realize through the scotch, because people are shallow, otherwise, they would’ve respected Tim while he was alive, and they wouldn’t leave me here sitting in my coat, hungry, tired and all alone.

        Goddamn, I need rain to fall or wind to blow: anything to shatter the six-feet-under silence of this house.

        Off in the direction of the front hall a boot heel thuds on the hardwood floor.

        I half rise, heart pounding. Oh crap, did I close the door when I came home? I don’t recall. Maybe I didn’t. I think somebody has come into the house. I didn’t hear anybody drive up.

        A massive shadow enters, darkness moving against darkness. It turns left, turns right as if combing the area, then freezes at the sight of me, sitting waxwork still in my chair. This is it, I tell myself, I’m going to go meet Tim now.

        It steps forward into the indigo twilight, cross-hatched by silhouetted window frames like a killer in a B-movie. . . .

        Geezus Christ, it’s Hitely.

        As I sag, blowing an angry sigh, he puts out his hand, warning wait a second, he’ll explain. He thinks hard. “Strangest thing,” he says. “Strangest goddamn thing.” Raising his other hand, he shows me that he carries, of all things, a wooden cross.

        Hitely the converted. Go ahead, pound it through me. Loudly I plunk my bottle and glass down onto the end table beside my chair, and lurch to my feet.

        “You want a beer?” I head into the kitchen, switching on lights along the way.

        Hitely follows. “Thank yer no, I . . .” He pulls out a chair at the kitchen table.

        “Don’t do that.”

        “Do what?”

        Too late. For three long years I have been trying to take my morning toast and coffee, or any meal for that matter, at the kitchen table. Every time a nauseous wave of bitterness flings me back. Still I try. Now easy as you please Hitely sits at Dalaina’s place at the table. I have to turn away, can’t bear the injustice. My cell phone lies on the counter, the backing and battery beside it. Clearly, I dismantled it, though I don’t remember being in the kitchen. Randy would’ve called to complain, hey you left to get pipe, did you get any, we’re falling behind. How many times would he have tried to reach me, I wonder.

        I wave my hand dismissively, shake my head. “Nothing. Bad day. You know my foreman, Randy? He lost a headlight, no big deal, but I can’t stop thinking about it. Just a car part. Crazy.”

        Hitely waves his cross, looks excited. “Yer and I, mate. I put this sodding thing together, forgot to carve it a point. Worse still, there’s bugger all in the truck to drive it home with. Can’t fathom it. Strange day, indeed.”

        He sits there in my wife’s chair, assessing his handiwork. That wasn’t what I was getting at, and I’m about to tell him so, when I realize. “You mean you came here because you forgot to bring a hammer?”

        “Aye,” Hitely nods shamelessly, “and because I want to make amends.”

        For twenty-five years, Archie Hitely has stolen my projects and pocketed my dignity, and I’ve stood up to him in my own tiny way, and now he waves a wooden cross at my table and says he wants to make amends for Tim. Did Tim’s death throw me, he asks? It threw him. All Tim did was try to help, he says, and isn’t it daft how you don’t know some people exist till they’re gone? It vexed him all day, it did, like a phantom poking him on the shoulder, he says, until he reckoned the yard dog had been a good bloke after all. Was I aware he had seen Tim oftener professionally than his mates socially? That was a fact. All too easy to ignore such a bloke.

        “You want a beer?” I ask again, popping open a Red Dog and offering Hitely one.

        He thanks me and declines again, then notes that he never once thanked Tim, never once acknowledged that he had personal value beyond his ability to tote and follow. Hitely feels simply awful over the way he treated Tim, bossing him around and howling at him. Not that Hitely feels sorry for Tim, mind you, but just once he could’ve let the yard dog know how he felt about him while he was alive, you know. It wouldn’t have killed him to ask how things were going for Tim in general, and lend an ear if Tim had any problem. Did the yard dog have problems, did I think?

        “Oh yeah,” I say. “Big ones.”

        But Tim never let on, did he? Tim was a good guy, Tim was square. After all is said and done, Tim certainly was square. And his sudden passing has changed Hitely. He’s going to make amends, treat people better, sense when they’re troubled, ask if they’re okay, show that he cares.

        “Such as yerself, for instance,” he says.

        Another second and I would’ve tilted back my beer, swallowed and choked. Across the kitchen table, Hitely and I lock gazes. I blink first. “What about me?”

        “C’mon, mate,” Hitely says, the soft, sympathetic glint in his eye a revelation to behold. “When I came in yer had to switch on the lights. Yer was sitting in the dark. Don’t be shy, don’t be huggin’ yerself, just admit it.”

        In the silence, my heart thrums. “So?”

        “So yer was thinking about Tim too, weren’t yer now?”

        Hitely’s voice seeps with import. He nods as if to indicate that he’s pierced me, and that I should be grateful and consider this the first day of the rest of my life. In deep thought I appear to mull this over. But few men have ever been so wrong with so much emphasis, and what I’m truly thinking while Hitely glows at me is that I just want to ram my beer can through his skull.

        I sigh hard. “Yeah, I have been thinking about Tim.”

        “I know yer have. We’re brothers. Yer feeling as I’m feeling, thinking as I’m thinking.” Hitely slaps the table and jumps up, cross brandished. “Right, let’s do it.”

        “Do it, sure.” I dread what’s coming next. “Do what?”

        “What do yer think, mate? C’mon, fetch yer hammer.”

        And when we get to the highway, we aren’t alone.

        Hitely whistles. “Will yer look at that!”

        It’s like a roadside convention. At least a dozen vehicles crowd the shoulder on both sides of the highway. Smoke plumes from running engines. People mill about in the glare of headlights. Flashlights from down below the embankment slash the darkness under a star-filled October sky.

        Hitely parks, and jumps out with his cross and his cigarettes. I trudge after him, hands in my pockets. Most of the staff from Sechelt Building stand along the shoulder, looking down the embankment at those already congregated at the accident tree, who illuminate the safer routes to descend. Only Calvin hangs back, chugging on a cigarette by his Jeep, the smoke wafting away like lace in the night air.

        He sees Hitely, cross in one hand, my five-pound mini-sledge in the other, and sniggers, “You’ve come to make your amends too, I see.”

        Hitely’s eyebrows arch and his stone-grey eyes glitter. He comes right up to tower over Calvin, who’s no small man himself, and tilts his head knowingly. The same piercing face-full of import that he laid on me inquires: is something troubling you, and would you care to discuss it?

        It has the desired effect. That or Hitely is a far more important customer than I am. Either way, Calvin makes a nervous yikes face at the Hitely he thought he knew, and gestures at the accident tree.

        “Yeah, I don’t know,” he backpedals. “I came. Tim was a good guy. This is the decent thing to do.”

        Calvin convinces himself. About every fourth word, he checks Hitely’s reaction. I get no sense that he’s concerned what I think; neither of them, in fact, pay me the slightest attention. It hurts like powerful cough medicine after the swallow. They’re my neighbors. They could include me. They could acknowledge my involvement.

        Hitely stuffs his cross under his arm and thrusts out his hand. Calvin shakes it, his grin mystified. Smiling, Hitely puts a forefinger to his temple, makes a cocky salute, then turns and gingerly starts down the embankment, assisting staff members along the way.

        A car door closes behind us and a woman begins to cry. The shop manager, Rick, escorts an overweight, middle-aged lady who covers her mouth and wails at the sight of the accident tree. Rick nods at Calvin, and I think at me, as they pass by. To honor the deceased, it seems, the lady has overdressed for the occasion, her high heels precarious for the embankment, her leather coat shining in the headlights. She looks familiar. Then I recall. She was in the yard with Tim that day.

        “Not the girlfriend.” Calvin leans over and mutters in my ear, startling me. “The landlady, for Christ’s sake. Says Tim’s family owns a ranch in Alberta. He left home, was a street kid for a while in Vancouver, came to the Coast to find a new life. Tim the rebel. You just never know.”

        Calvin hurries after them to lend a hand. While he spoke to me, I felt wanted, connected. Now I’m left alone, the last man on the shoulder. And I realize that if I do something to myself, vanish say, this minute into the forest, that would be my last contact with another human being. Suddenly, I feel in total control again. I feel free. I start trembling, because I’m scared to death.

        The first step is the hardest, but I make my way down the embankment to join the crowd at the accident tree. The mood is upbeat, almost festive. With quiet dignity, Hitely accepts praise for attending. Tim’s landlady dabs her eyes, Rick sticking with her for support. Calvin graciously fields staff suggestions that the company should donate to a local charity in Tim’s name as well as contribute towards returning his body to Alberta. Gus smiles and nods and hugs everybody, and they share Tim stories with him. Helen stands nearest the tree, looking beautiful in the moonlight like Dalaina used to when I could really see our children’s resemblance to her. She picks me out of the throng, brightens, touches my arm, thanks me for coming. She has a hammer in her hand.

        “Okay, everyone,” she says, the staff hushing, a whiff of wind rustling the attending forest. “We’ve gathered here tonight to bid farewell to our dear friend Tim.”

        We form a semi-circle around the accident tree. The shattered adolescent Douglas fir is a frozen scream, the trunk caught up in a sturdy hemlock, the wooden flesh of the stump exposing dainty brown aging rings. A trough-sized gash from a truck fender scars the bark. Our flashlights reveal shiny souvenirs of plastic and metal embedded here, fused upon impact. Last night I heard the explosion of that contact. Three wreathes have been placed at the base of the tree, atop a bed of glass nuggets that someone tried their best to sweep away with their feet. A row of handmade crosses, each bearing Tim’s name, leans up against the wreathes. They await placement.

        Time will tell whether the accident tree becomes a genuine cenotaph. Tonight, Helen tells us that we mourn the passing of Tim and a piece of ourselves. Around the semi-circle we display our grief by the degree of the intimacy of our relationship with Tim: Rick grimly shakes his head, Gus closes his eyes and prays, Calvin fidgets as if he wants a cigarette, Hitely concentrates on the tree as if searching for meaning, Helen gazes at the stars dew-eyed, and others wear expressions of heartfelt retrospection. Six including Helen and Hitely carry hammers, identifying them as the memorial builders. As for myself, I’m the one, the only one, it occurs to me, who carries nothing that anyone can see. I’m unaffected by the tree, the wreathes, the crosses, the mourners, even by Tim. I didn’t know the man. He didn’t know me. I’m unconnected. I’m a bystander. I’m free.

        Woo hoo. Freedom is a story without resolution. Freedom is a dead-still night. Freedom tastes like goddamned cold leftovers. My dark and goddamned cold and empty living room, and my wedding picture atop the mantle piece, flash before my eyes. Dropping my chin to my chest, I burst into tears.

        Everyone turns to me, surprised. “Awwww,” they chorus.

        Tim’s landlady grasps my hand. “You poor man. It’s okay. Tim’s in a better place now.”

        And where would that be, I want to roar, Bermuda? You wish, you hope, he’s in a better place! Are you goddamned kidding me? I’m where Tim is right now and there don’t have to be a thousand places better, there just needs to be one.

        I wrench my hand back and cover my face, sobbing at their memorial through my fingers.

        “Wow, he’s taking it really hard,” someone remarks.

        “He’s upset,” Helen says, rushing to me, adding with a touch of pride, “because he cares.” I’ve dreamed of her embrace, but when she throws her arm around me it jolts me as though I’ve been clubbed. “Dayton, honey. C’mon, it’ll be okay. Help us put up the memorial. That’ll make you feel better.”

        But Helen doesn’t understand. Nothing to do with dead Tim will make me feel better, not now, not ever. I shake her off. “Don’t worry about me. Just leave me alone.”

        “But I do worry about you, Dayton,” Helen says. “C’mon, you shouldn’t be alone. Help us with this. You know you want to.”

        “Yer unaware what he wants,” Hitely disagrees, staring at me with what now will be his trademark all-knowing look, which says he knows better.

        And he does know better, damn him anyway.

        He picks up his cross, shows it to me, then shows me my sledge which he still carries. This, he tells me, is what you need to do. Turning, he places the cross against the accident tree, places a nail against the cross, and raises the hammer high.

        But I can’t bear what’s about to happen. I throw my hands in the air, spin on my heel and start back up the embankment.

        Behind me, Hitely says, “Lass, yer should go after him.”

        “No, let’s do this first. He’ll be okay,” Helen says. She calls after me, “Dayton, I’ll phone you, okay? I’ll phone you!”

        She promises.

        She had her chance.

        I flinch as the impact of a hammer on a nail busts the night air. That’s what I was waiting for, the most painful sound in the world. Then another hit, and another. There will be many more before they’re finished.

        I put my head down, ascend the embankment, shove my hands in my pockets, and hurry across the highway towards home, to somehow try to breathe again.

© 2022 Mario Lowther  All rights reserved.

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