This job is easy enough, but I manage to screw it up sometimes. I always know when I do because Gord loses his shit. A storm of “fucks” and “Jesus Christs” thunder out of him so loud that something deep inside of me jumps, even when he’s yelling from high up in the tree, over the muting white noise of the chainsaw.
I get it, though. He’s scared. He doesn’t want anyone to get hurt. If I’m dragging my ass at the end of day, he doesn't yell at me. It’s only when there’s a chance someone might get hurt that he gets really angry. He probably doesn’t know how to tell us he’s scared, so he yells instead.
The saw is quiet right now. Gord is high up in the tree, roping up a big limb he’ll cut off in a minute and lower slowly to the ground. He doesn’t catch me staring at nothing like a retard. Lucky. I turn and dump my armload of branches onto the growing pile. Charlotte’s bright blue eyes are watching me, under the brim of her helmet and through the plastic of her safety glasses, as she dumps her armload of branches onto the pile too.
“You don’t get very dark,” Charlotte tells me through the smoke of her cigarette, which curls slowly through the August humidity. “Your tan, I mean,” she adds nervously. Her blue eyes sparkle, silhouetted by her deeply tanned skin. Her hair is cut short and she has a couple of different piercings in her ears and nose. The hint of an elaborate tattoo pokes out from under the long sleeve of her work shirt. She’s more cute than pretty, but it works for her.
“Sunscreen, I guess. I try to stay out of the sun too. It’s bad for you.”
I light another cigarette, sitting in the shade thrown by the truck, and I appreciate the irony. Charlotte is basking in the sun, hauling on her smoke. She’s young enough not to care about either form of cancer. I’m not too sure how we got here -- having this smoke break -- because I’ve been lost in my own thoughts and the sound of the saw and the weight of the wet heat. I like the simple repetitive rhythms of the work, but sometimes the hours disappear in it. I don’t like that so much. Time is all we’ve got.
“What are you thinking about, Gabe? You’re always so quiet. You get such a serious look on your face sometimes.”
Charlotte’s smiling at me, and something behind the steady comfort of my thoughts clicks. She’s trying to make conversation. Jason’s not here to fill the air with words, occupying her attention with a deluge of jokes and the kind of flirting that borders on harassment. He called in sick today.
“Nothing really.” I take a long drag off my smoke, while I decide what to say. I learned to do that growing up. I always had to think through the different ways my mom might twist the words. I had to be ready for anything. “It’s funny you say that. I used to go really dark, when I was kid.”
“Why’s that funny?” She sits up and crosses her legs, leaning in with her hands on her knees. Her smoke sticks up between her fingers like a little totem pole.
“It’s more of a coincidence, I guess.” I stall, trying to make sure I don’t say anything too weird. “I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately.”
“I knew you were thinking about something behind those dark serious eyes of yours.” Her own eyes sparkle, as she takes a long smiling drag from her cigarette. “What have you been thinking about?”
I want to say, “history,” but that sounds a bit too dramatic even to me. Really, I’ve been thinking about my mom, but I can’t blurt that out either. History and my mom. My mom and history. Me, my mom, and history. It almost sounds like a stupid sitcom. “I’m part Indian. That’s probably why I used to go dark when I was a kid.”
“No shit?” She blows smoke out one end of her smile. “You’re pretty white for an Indian.”
“Yeah, I know.” I take a drag, and savour the warm smoke in my lungs. “You’d never guess it to look at me now, but I used to go really dark when I was a kid.”
“Turn your head.” She motions to the left with her cigarette. I take a smiling drag, and do as she asks. “I can see it in your nose and forehead.”
“You think?” I trace a line with my finger from my widow’s peak to the tip of my nose, resisting the urge to tell her she’s full of shit.
“How Indian are you?” Her eyes light up with thirsty mischief. “Can you get free stuff?”
“Not a chance.” I ash carefully, using it as an excuse to look away. “I’m like an eighteenth Indian or something stupid. My great grandmother was probably full-blooded. That’s it.”
“What tribe?” She butts out her smoke carefully, and holds on to it. Gord doesn’t want us leaving them all over the place.
“Algonquin.” I follow her lead, and butt out my own. An idea pops into my head from nowhere. It might be a bit much so soon, but some part of me decides to do it before I realize I’m doing it. I hold out my hand, and offer to take her butt with a move of my chin.
“So, this is your land.” Charlotte leans towards me to pop the butt into the palm of my hand. Her smile tells me she likes this small gesture of service.
“Not my land, but, yeah, Ottawa is Algonquin land.” I shake the butts in my fist like a pair of dice, before putting them into my pocket. “I think my mom’s family’s reservation is up by Maniwaki. My great aunt had a cottage up around there anyway.”
“Did she look Indian? Your aunt? What about your mom?”
“Shit.” I say it on the inside, too, but for a different reason. “Gord’s looking over here. We better get back at it.”
“School was boring. I didn’t think university would be any better, so I started working for a living,” Charlotte tells me. It sounds like a well-rehearsed story. We all have them, I guess.
We’re having a smoke outside the Carleton Tavern. Gord wanted to go for drinks, and you don’t say no when the boss offers to buy. The rest of the afternoon went by pretty quickly, with Charlotte smiling at me every chance she got.
“You’re young.” I take a haul from my smoke. “I guess there’s no rush.”
“That’s like the fifth time you said that.” Her eyes switch from sparkles to lasers.
“That I’m young.” She takes a step forward. Not into my space, but close enough to let me know she’s ready when the time is right. “You’re not so old.”
“I’m old enough.” It’s strange to feel her so close to me. I flinch on the inside, but I manage not to step away from her. “Older than you.”
“Is that important?” It’s a question and an accusation.
“No.” I take a long drag to steady myself. “Not for me anyway.”
“Me, too.” She blushes, smiles, and ashes her cigarette as an excuse to move to a safer distance. She also steers the conversation towards what she thinks will be safer territory. “You grew up in Ottawa, eh? Are your parents still around?”
“Yes and no.” I’m speaking before I’m thinking, deflecting instead of hiding. Something in those eyes of hers draws it out of me before I even realize I’m saying it. “It’s a long story. Not a very happy one either. I’m fine telling it, but you won’t be fine hearing it. You know what I mean?”
The light in her eyes goes out for like a microsecond. They go matte, flat, blank. Like she’s gone somewhere else -- somewhere dark and full of hurt -- but then she’s back as quick as she was gone.
“Yeah, I get that.” She takes a long pull from her smoke and looks at her feet. “I totally get that.”
Gord bursts through the door, saving us from going any further. “Sorry, guys. The wife needs me. The tab’s taken care of.” He senses the edgy uncertainty hanging in the air between Charlotte and me. “Does anyone need a lift?”
“Yeah, me, Gord.” I flick my butt to the curb. Charlotte’s eyes flash me a frightened invitation that I ignore. Playing dumb is easier than going where she wants me to go. My well-rehearsed story suddenly feels risky. I don’t know why. I just know. “I’ve got some stuff to take care of.”
I open the freezer door and pull out the bottle again before I realize I’m doing it. Not much left. I’ve only had a couple drinks, but they must have been bigger than I thought. I fill my glass with what’s left. It’s another big one. Good. I lick the threads of the bottle, getting the drops hanging in there. Waste not, want not.
It’s a short trek to my living room, and the couch, in this shitty little apartment. Calling it a couch is also a bit of an exaggeration. It’s a secondhand futon that folds up into something like a couch. I found the coffee table on a curb somewhere. There’s a couple of cardboard boxes in one corner for my books. In the other, an old garage-sale TV sits on a milk crate. There’s nothing on the walls. I haven’t even put the curtains up yet. It’s like I’m squatting or something. Fucking hobo.
Beyond the shadowy reflections in the windows, there’s a big milky moon hanging in the sky. The reflections are there because I keep forgetting to turn off the light in the kitchen. If I focus on the moon, I don’t have to look at the reflections. Nothing in there worth looking at.
It’s weird. I never really thought of myself as an Indian, but I can’t stop thinking about it now. I’m not sure why. I must have seen something on the news. Something that reminded me about it. The job sure doesn’t help. Too much time to think. I need something to distract myself.
The rum tastes good, sweet, and rough. I’m moving through it faster than I meant to. I’m on autopilot, even though I’m watching myself do it. I don’t get hangovers, so it’s OK. I can thank the Indian in me for that, I bet.
One of them might have gone to one of those schools. Never thought of that before. I’m not Indian, but they sure as hell were. I don’t remember anyone ever saying anything about it, but it’d explain a lot. About my mom. Not the sort of thing you’d tell the grandkids, I guess, but, my mom sure was angry all the time. There had to be a reason for it. People aren’t born angry.
My glass is empty again, and I’m having a hard time focussing on the moon. I think it’s moved too. My stomach is turning over, but it’s not exactly my stomach. The feeling is higher up. I close my eyes to steady myself. I’m breathing really heavy. I don’t feel right, but it’s not the booze. It’s something else. I light another smoke to steady my nerves.
I better not go to work tomorrow. Feeling like this. Something’s not right. I’ll call in sick. I never do, but Jason did today, and Gord didn’t give him any shit for it. Fuck it. Maybe I won’t go back at all. The job is the fucking problem. Too much time to think.
The harsh bathroom light steadies me. The mirror, clear and bright, reminds me that I’m not a fucking Indian. It’s history. Generations old. It has nothing to do with me. I’m white. It happened to them. Not to me. I’m white and the world is my fucking oyster. Fuck history.
I should text Gord. Let him know that I’m not coming in. He’s always been good to me. That’s the problem. He loses his shit sometimes, but that’s nothing. That I can handle. It’s all the time to think, waiting for him to lose his shit for real. Like he’s supposed to. Like I’m used to. It feels easier somehow. Not going back. I should probably tell him, though. He’s always been good to me.
I pick up my phone to text Gord. There’s a text from Charlotte, and I read it before I realize I’m reading it.
Gabe, I like you. I’ll tell you mine, if you tell me yours. :)
It comes out of me like puke, violent and hard. Anger and sadness and hurt and loneliness and hopelessness. All at once. I’m crying like a fucking baby. I can’t stop it. I don’t want to stop it. Tears and snot are rolling down my face. Like a baby. Alone. Away from the anger. Like I did back then. Trying to swallow the tears. Learning how. Being strong. Too fucking young for that. Now, it’s gushing out of me. In tears and snot and sobs. It’s coming out of that big black darkness inside of me. It’s choking me. The only thing I can do is cry. But, I want to this time. I really want to. I just want to fucking cry. I just want to be allowed to cry.
It stops, as quickly as it started. Like a safety valve kicked in somewhere. There’s plenty more where that came from, but some part of me must know it doesn’t have to come all at once. There’s plenty of time. It’s all we’ve got.
The moon’s moved again. My head’s a little clearer, too. I was crying longer than I thought.
I read Charlotte’s text again. Something deep inside me says, yes. Something speaks up from behind the darkness for the first time in a long time. Something that’s a little less frightened than before. Maybe, for the first time.
I text her back: I like you, too. It’s a deal. :)
One more smoke than bed. I guess I’ll be going to work tomorrow after all.
The moon is still up there. Waiting almost. Some part of me wants to thank it for keeping me company tonight. It seems strange to do. But, for some reason, I speak the words of thanks out loud. Something about doing it makes me feel a little better.