Short Story: Toad – Part 1 of 3


It was Diego’s first day on the job and he was excited.  Not so much that he found a job.  That was good too.  It was the first day he had driven his car to work.  Sunday night he texted Paco offering to pick him up even though it was 20 minutes out of his way.  Paco said he was good taking the bus.  Diego parked close enough so he could keep an eye on his car but not too close so it didn’t get splashed with mud.  At 7:30 in the site office he showed them his certifications, took his orientation and then tied up his work boots while Paco waited for him outside the trailer.  Through the open door he could see Paco outside talking with Gus the site supervisor.

Qué dijo, el jefe?” asked pudgy Diego.

Que eres un sapo,” said skinny Paco.

Raro tu jefe.” 

Mira, como ellos me pagan entonces ‘no complaints bro’.”

At 10 am the coffee truck driver honked his augmented air horn so they dropped their tool belts and Diego took off to check on his car. It’s like taking your headphones off when D leaves. The guy talks nonsense  nonstop, mostly about his car and rarely about work.

The house they are working on today backs onto an established neighbourhood with mature trees.  Standing with his tool belt dangling in his hands he breathes in and holds his breath to maximize the impact of the autumn morning fragrances of wet leaves and mineral mud.  Since they cut down the majority of the trees there are only two little pockets of trees on the site.  He is on the second floor and looks right into the back yards flaming red maple leaves and the tragic yellow from the aspen. 

You could say its not worth it walking all the way to the gate, lining up for coffee and then walking all the way back.  There is no time to even drink your coffee.  The point is to get coffee and everything that goes with it.  Giving your shoulders a break, stretching your legs and shootin the shit with Dimitri the coffee guy.  He should teach marketing classes or something because he makes the whole experience uplifting.  He wears an apron over his heavy sweater today but it’s funny to see when he wears it under his winter jacket.  He has a personaized brown baseball cap that says DC Coffee whe nthe ‘DC’ actually means dimitri’s coffee. Somehow he remembers how you like your coffee out of the probably thousands of guys he sees each week and he knows when to up sell you a sticky danish with an extra coating of heartburn.  He talks hockey with the Canadian guys but Paco doesn’t really care about hockey. 

Paco walked alone for ‘a block’ along the muddy/gravelly road towards the gate.  The smell of the mud transports Paco to when he was six and seven years old.  Swimming with his brother and cousins in the Motagua river thet squeezed the silty mud between their toes, brought it to their hand and threw it at each other.  He misses the emotional logic of being with his family, part of his land and living his culture.  If he can’t get them to come here in the next two years then that’s it – he will go back to El Porton and start a business.  Some kind of tourism because he sees there is so much money here that people have no idea what to do with it.  Just look at D and his stupid car he doesn’t even have money.  

Gus fell in step with Paco as they turned the corner and got in the short line for coffee.  Gus was great until he wasn’t.  He was cool 80% of the time and red faced maniacal when he felt he could lose his job because of some dumbass sub-contractor. 

Gus’s first ex-wife divorced him exactly because of that explosivity.  His second ex-wife would have said the same thing but she up and left him right before their second anniversary.  She didn’t need or want anything from him.  Ex-2 wasn’t going to let herself get impregnated by this guy like Ex-1 did.  Then she would be divorced from the guy but still get infuriated dealing with him about things like who is going to pick up the children from daycare.   

Ex-1 and Ex-2 knew each other because of the weekend visits with Gus Jr. so it was funny but the second person Ex-2 called after walking away from Gus was actually Ex-1.  They got together for coffee to commiserate and so Ex-2 could dish the truth about Gus.  Before he tried to micromanage the weekend visits now that he was single with no maternal figure in his home for Gus Jr.

Gus’s construction management skills had not helped him express his desire to make his wife-of-the-moment happy.  The honeymoon with Ex-2 was over before the wedding reception finished.  Six months later Gus drove solo the six hours up north to attend his grandfather’’s funeral. Gus was named after his grandfather Angus.  His grandfather was a hardass from Rouyn-Noranda, Quebec who worked the copper mines and didn’t seem to say much to his wife in French or English.  Maybe that had something to do with Rene, Gus’s dad wanting to work on the railroad – to get out of town and get a fresh start.

Manon, Gus’s sister, had already driven home because she lived close by.  Gus was staying the night and driving back in the morning.  He sat in his funeral suit on the living room couch where he watched Hockey Night in Canada on Saturday’s he opened up.

“Hey dad… How do I even say this?”  Gus moved his bum to sit on the edge of the blue velvet couch.  “How did you cross that threshold from wanting her to be happy, to making her happy?

Rene held Gus’s eyes as long as he could with a look of love that needed to be listened to.

“Son, I don’t know if the X-factor to our marriage was that I needed your mother more than I loved her or the other way around. Or maybe we were just a good match as a man and woman.”

“But there was, is an ingredient, that in the moment,”  Gus searched for the right word.  “Secretes understanding into your brain so you understand.  Or at least do the right thing.”

“Things have gotten that bad?” asked Rene.

“Ya.” Gus fidgeted.

“So this marriage is based on love… not like the last one,” the locomotive engineer drove his train straight ahead. 

“That hurts but I can’t really …” then Gus interrupts himself, “I am lost.  On the job site I tell guys what to do based on the blueprints and they do it.  If they don’t, they get a tongue lashing.  They know it, I know it – no need to argue.  No grey area.  Only blue.”

“Well, that’s useful,” said Rene, hearing his wife’s voice in his head, ‘Help Angus honey, talk to him – he’s doing it again.’ 

“I just focused on work when it was time to work and on family when it was the priority.  Maybe it skipped a generation but you turned out more explosive –  like grandpa.”

“This is the kind of stuff I need to hear, I need to know this.”

“Maybe my work gave me the kind of satisfaction that allowed me to be the man I needed to be.  I know you like getting stuff done, but does your construction management, in the city, bring you satisfaction?” 

“It’s a little late to be asking that.  I mean I bought into the whole industry, the training, the contacts I’ve made.”

“You can pivot.  Picture it – you’ve got the puck in the slot but you don’t have a clear shot so you send a quick pass off to your winger down low, pivot on your back heel to get around the defenceman and he passes the puck right back to you and boom it’s in the net – top cheddar.”

Gus was reliving the rush of his hockey days from his dad’s analogy and losing the whole point.

“Have you ever tried skating in figure skates?” Gus figured that his dad knew that the answer was no.  Gus had been a good hockey player growing up in New Liskeard and his parents would drive literally hours in northern Ontario from town to town through crazy snow squalls at all hours.  Because his dad was away for work a fair amount his mom did the bulk of the driving.  Sometimes other parents would give Gus a lift so his mom could stay home with his sister instead of dragging her along on school nights because she wasn’t staying home alone.  

Rene continued,

“Figure skates have a coupe of sharp points in their pick you can use to do graceful twirling jumps.  Manon wasn’t a poster child for graceful figure skating but she did quite well.  My point is you can use the pick to fly up, or if you catch the pick on the ice you fall flat on your face.  Or you can kick someone in the shins if you really get angry at them.”  Rene paused again, waited for the light to go and then he spelled it out.

“It depends what you want.  What kind of man you want to offer those in your life”

Gus nodded his head as he was impressed at the clarity and poetry of his railway engineer dad. 

Rene felt guilty that he didn’t know his son and that his son had no inkling of how emotional scrabble worked.

“I don’t know if you ever met Mark, he drove train too.  Way back in the early days we would go where they sent us and sometimes have a layover at the same time.  Well, he said the funniest thing to me, and this was some 30 years ago now.  He liked games n actually brought a mini scrabble board with him.  If you didn’t keep yourself busy on those layovers it just became a booze fest and that was not a good mix with having to drive a train the next morning.  So we were playing Scrabble which he would always win n so he is gatherin all the letters, those littlewood tiles, n he says, ‘but I think you are better at emotional Scrabble’.  Obviously I asked him what the hell is that.  So he says,

‘Emotional Scrabble is when you want to communicate something of value in the moment so you access the resources available to you.  In emotionally Scrabbling, you share your resources and it helps others as well as generating fresh ones for you.  If you don’t use your emotional energy creatively and sincerely,’  He paused as he sorted through the tiles, turned a few over as he searched for the letters he wanted, and then put them on the two wooden tile benches and showed me, ‘then you get random letters like: n,o,l,o,s,t,w and u,b,i,t,t,e,r.  ‘I have seen it happen’ he says.

So when it came to dealing with Gus, Paco just kept his head down, his mouth shut and did his work.  His dark green hard hat has his name on the back was his security system so no newbie can show up hungover and steal it.

Gus fakes remembering Paco’s name but actually just reads it on his hard hat.

“Hey Paco, how was the weekend?” 

“Love this weather bro, not too hot, not too cold,” said Paco.

“It’s the bugs man, hardly any.  That’s why I moved to the city.

“Where you from?”

“New Liskeard.”

“New What?”

“New 6-hours-north-of-here.  Hey, how’s the new guy workin out?” asked Gus.

“He knows his way around a job site.”

“Cuz if he is any good you can bring four more guys like him tomorrow.”  Then Gus lowered his voice a bit as if he was privedeging Paco with the inside scoop, “We gotta fuckin knock this one out fast and dirty if you know what I mean.”

Paco and Diego met last year at the Plaza Latina when they both went to get their haircut Saturday morning.  

“Que tal.”

Diego stepped into the barbershop with his untied work boots and unzipped orange winter jacket with its hi-viz reflective stripes.  Even though he wasn’t working he wore his work clothes.  Diego did it as a signal to his girlfriend Maritza, that he was serious about getting a good job.  It didn’t fool her.

The basement barber shop was a tiny 10’ x 20’ space with two red barbershop chairs. The two plastic chairs for the people waiting were squished together in the corner so it was easy to see what the person next to you was looking at on their phone.  Paco was watching videos of high speed trains in China going 400 km/h.  Diego was watching the construction bloopers of building materials falling off of a forklift.  How do people catch that stuff on video?

“Nada más se están filmando los forkleaf con la esperanza que algo se cae o que?” Asked Paco peeking at what Diego was watching.

“Si guey.  No trabajan – se quedan con el pinche celular en la mano todo el día para hacerse un famoso Youtuber.” 
The Carpenters’ and Allied Workers Local 16 strike had just ended.  Neither of them had been allowed to work as a framer for almost two months.  Paco wasn’t never going to risk it and take on any non-union jobs. So in the meantime his buddy squeezed him onto a crew working commercial demolition.  He liked the change of scenery and it gave his wrists a rest from swinging a hammer.  But he needed more money and wanted less dust so he was happy when he got the call to go back to work. Diego picked up work here and there, mostly painting.   Paco was back at work the day after the strike was called off but Diego was still looking.  Which was strange considering the need for framers.  Paco should have taken it as a sign.

_____

from the Short Story Series Tool by Kevin McNamara

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