May 102013
 

Stephen Henighan

A little parable about race, narrow opinions, false assumptions and having your head so far up your own ass you can’t see the woods for the trees (to mix my clichés). Stephen Henighan is a world traveler, translator, activist, scholar and fiction writer extraordinaire. I put him in Best Canadian Stories when I used to edit that estimable annual volume. The characters here are mostly low end manual labour doing the traditional low end Canadian job of pulling young trees for replanting. Grading is the act of evaluating, of deciding which trees to keep and which to leave behind. Ah, yes, but in life, with people, we are always deciding which to keep and which to leave behind — it’s an ugly aspect of human society; mostly we congratulate ourselves on not being too obvious (this is called being polite). In his fiction, Stephen Henighan has an awkward (brutally honest) habit of poking holes in that facade of politeness, culture and sophistication.

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And me spit out by the city and slung down on my knees in the cold dirt. I thought I’d done everything right: got some education, learned some French – the whole nine yards. But no matter how  tightly you latch  yourself into the city, you can always end up back  in the countryside you came from, pulling trees for quick cash.

They pay us fifteen dollars for a thousand trees. The cedar I’m pulling has roots matted tighter than the threads of my grandma’s old  wool blanket.  You have to rip and tear to  get  each  tree loose. The grading—deciding which trees you keep for your bundle and which ones you toss—is supposed to go quickly since  cedars are nearly impossible to kill. But by the time you’ve yanked the tree clear of its woven carpet of roots and checked for hockey-stick  trunk, half the morning’s gone past. To top it  off,  they did  a shitty job lifting the flats. The old bugger driving  the International 84 Hydro shook each long flap of earth like he was knocking  dust  out of a blanket. The moment you  walk  into  the field, you see the white flashes of split  roots  and  slashed trunks. With that much grade in the furrows, you can forget about making good money.

There’s no escaping grade around here. I don’t know where they find these guys. Local high school drop-outs wearing  baseball caps  that  say I Live for Chev; lads whose only basis for  judging another member of  the community is: “What’s  he  drive?”   And girls,  too. Gert, the roving-eyed young woman next to  me,  complains all day about the boyfriend who jilted her for a loose little  hoo-er  he  met at the village’s new video arcade.  The wedding is next month. Gert plans to get cut,  swing  into the church and puke on the bride’s wedding dress.

Don’t  get me wrong, I’m not making fun of these folks. A  few short years ago I used to hang out with people like this. Then  I moved into Ottawa and got a job and a modern efficiency apartment with garbage disposal and central vac.  The people at the office came from all over the world, and on Fridays we all went out for drinks together after work. When the job  disappeared, so did the apartment. Now I’m country-poor, still the  proud owner of  a Chevrolet, but boxed up in a spare  room over the old fire hall that my uncle got me for free. I work in lowlife jobs. What I can’t get over is how I feel centuries away from my own home town.  From a financial point of view, I’m no better off than anybody else in this field; but an invisible shield separates me from the grade.  I’m not alone in this. There are women here paying the family mortgage, students saving for university. We all show up regularly and earn good money. The others put in a few days’ work, get smashed  on  their  first pay cheques and  never come back.  Every Monday a fresh gang ambles in. The ten or twelve of us who are regulars run a jaundiced eye over them to pick out the one or two who might still be here at the end of the week.

“Too much grade!”  the crew boss yells, closing the fingers of her work gloves around some of the white-slashed shit that  the lads are dumping on the tables.

I  bend forward, pulling like a piston. The odour of soil  and fertilizer blends in my nostrils. You’re never  so  close  to shifts in weather as when you’re hunkered down against the ground. It’s the beginning of April and we’ve worked in snow, in rain, in stinking heat that makes you peel off your shirt. The cold is the worst. It penetrates and paralyzes. Sitting on my knees,  ripping apart  trees at waist height, I spill cold soil down my legs  and shiver  as  it trickles over my workpants. If I don’t  brush  the soil away, my teeth begin to chatter. Some days my toes freeze up in  the  early morning and stay cold and numb inside  my  boots until  I  get home, no matter how hard the  afternoon  sun  beats down.

The  cedar pulls like molasses: the totals the tallyman  reads out  are pathetic. On a good day I can make  over a hundred bucks, but today I’m going to be lucky to hit sixty.  The crew boss, a Forestry woman with ruddy cheeks, tightly  curled  blond hair and a hoarse, cackling voice, tries to calm the punters  by promising that tomorrow we will be pulling white spruce.

“Yeah!”  I  say. But Gert, alongside me, groans. White spruce are tall trees, with short roots that grip the earth like  leeches.  A  guy with big hands can whip them out of  the ground as fast as picking up sticks. But for a woman, unless her hands are unusually large, white spruce hardly pulls any quicker than  cedar.   Red  pine is the woman’s tree.  It’s  prickly and twisted  and shelters close to the earth; the  long roots fall together like horse hair when you clasp ten trees into a  bundle. A  woman with nimble fingers can pull eight thousand red  pine  a day.

“Tomorrow,” the crew boss shouts, “new pullers will be coming out from the city. Looks like we used up all the grade  around here.”

Pullers  from the city! The announcement  combs  through  the crouched hordes like a ripple of unwelcome wind. What will  these new pullers be like?

Next morning we see what they’re like: they’re black.  Or at least two of them are. Husky young guys with an easygoing,  jokey manner.  The burlier, friendlier lad is called Reg; his thinner, quieter friend is Deon. Having been away from the  country for a couple of years, I can’t believe the reaction they get.  In this stretch of eastern Ontario you can drive forty klicks without meeting anybody who isn’t Scots-Irish or French-Canadian or maybe Dutch or German. For the first two hours  the  flats  are silent.  Only  the croak of the tallyman and the honk  of  Canada geese  winging home overhead break the scuffle and grunt  of  men and big-handed women feasting on the fast cash offered by a field of white spruce.

The spruce grows amid knee-high grass that ruffles like  water when the wind kicks up. As the breeze reaches the edge  of  the clearing,  it unveils the light undersides of the leaves in the groves of mature poplar and maple. There are moments when you can feel happy to be working outside. Glancing up, I catch the  glint of  Gert’s dark eyes seeking out mine. I turn away,  exchanging grimaces with Reg. Gert has been sending too many long looks in my direction.  I  try to figure out how, without hurting her, I can make her see the differences between us. I’m not the same guy I used to be.  When I was working in Ottawa I had a girlfriend, a big-city girl who screwed me purple for ten months without ever breathing the word marriage.  Since I came home, the girls seem like grandmas in training, the wedding dress the main thing on their mind. Gert can’t be more than twenty; and even when I was growing up around here, would  I have given a hoot about a girl who hung out in arcades?

Gert, meanwhile, is busy ignoring an admirer of her own.  Kev is a lanky, long-jawed, red-haired lad who talks even more like a farmer than most of the people working here. He’s been smitten by Gert’s pushiness. The more mouthy she gets with him, the more he acts like her slave. He fetches her water bottle, he lobs spare  trees in  her direction; he’s even offered to carry her bundles to  the table. I had Kev pegged  as grade, expecting him to  vanish after a week; but love has transformed him into a hard worker. He arrives at the crack of seven each morning, his watery blue  eyes scanning the furrows for Gert.

We  pick  our way forward in closed  formation,  swabbing  the field clean with hungry hands. The crew boss’s yells clang in our ears; her bright, laundered blue jeans glint in the corner of  my eye.  Gert and I lead the pack of pullers. Kev is closing in  on Gert from the right; Reg and Deon head up the next row.

By mid-afternoon the silence is making me sick.  I figure it’s time to set an example by acting naturally. I go back  to teasing  Gert.  “I  bet you’re getting  thirsty,  Gert,”  I  say. “What’ll you do if you need your water bottle?”

“If I need my water bottle,” she says, with a savage  sidelong glance at Kev, “I’ll get my nigger to bring it to me.”

For  five  seconds not a single tree gets pulled.  Everybody stares at Reg and Deon. Reg and Deon look  at each other. In the distance, I hear Canada geese honking.

“That was a pretty ignorant thing to say, Gert,” I tell her.

“You  go fuck yourself. You just think you’re hot shit ’cause you  lived someplace else.”  She bows her head into the chest  of her jeans jacket, her cheeks shaking.

“Move  it!”   the crew boss shouts.  “Anybody who  doesn’t  pull forty-five hundred today is outa here.”

I veer away from Gert and almost run into Reg. He and Deon are putting a broad patch of white spruce between themselves  and the  rest  of  us. As everybody else sinks into a silence even sicker than it was before, Reg and Deon can’t stop talking. They pull  like fury, exchanging stories in a jargon we can scarcely follow. Within thirty minutes a wheel of clean-picked dark  brown earth  has opened up around them. Trussed bundles lie  heaped  at their heels. They pull barehanded, the only workers in the  field not wearing gloves.

I glance across at Gert. She ignores me. Kev, put off  either by Gert’s rudeness or her tears, has drifted away to the  fringes of the field.

“Whoah!” the crew boss shouts. “You’re gettin’ way too  spread out. You’re missing good trees–  And you two,” she says, turning to  glare  down the laughing West Indians, “do you plan to shut your traps when I’m speaking?”

“No,  we  don’t,  ma’am,” Reg says. “We work  better when we talk.”

“You’re fired, mister,” she says. “It’s your fault this crew’s got screwed up today.” She plants her right hand on her hip  and gestures  with  her left for them to quit the field.  Red  blush-points break out high up on her cheeks.

The two men shrug their shoulders and saunter away towards the poplar grove.

“You’ll  be  paid for the work you’ve done,” she  hurls  after them. “Now the rest of yous get back to work or you’re next.”

Silence  splinters the crew. Nobody talks; nobody works  close to  anybody else. After more than a month of  pulling  trees  six days  a week, my body is aching all over. My joints creak and  my kneecaps click when I walk. My tiredness has outrun my ability to sleep  it off. At the end of the afternoon I stumble away  to  my Chev  without saying goodbye to Gert. Kev has  disappeared.  The sight of Gert kicking across the field, her head lowered and  her work gloves  dangling  from her fingers, tugs at my chest.  But  I recognize  the  tug  as guilt, not love. I turn the  key  in  the ignition.

My Chev rumbles over two kilometres of rutted dirt road winding between the fir plantations. When I turn onto the  highway, Reg  and Deon are standing holding their thumbs  out.  Reckoning that they must have been there for almost three hours,  I pull over onto the shoulder.

“I’m  only going ten minutes up the road,” I say, “but I’d  be happy to give you a lift.”

“Thanks,  but we need a ride into the city.”   Big Reg has slipped a woollen hat onto his head. Behind him, Deon issues  me a shy smile.

“I thought what she did to you was really shitty,” I say.  I take a breath. “Actually, I thought it was racist.”

“Aw,  we  knew we were rubbing that lady the wrong way,”  Reg says.  “If we’d really wanted the job, we would have  acted  more docile.  We just came out here today for fun.”

“Fun?”  I say.  “Don’t you need the work?”

For the first time Reg looks shy.  “We’re grad students in biology in Ottawa. We’ve got internships at a lab but it don’t start until two weeks from now and we were kind of bored.”

“We’d never seen the countryside,” Deon offers. “We always lived in cities.”

“I can’t believe how lazy people are out here,” Reg says. “Don’t they care about making something of themselves?”

The two of them stare down at me with the stare you save for a furrow full of slashed roots. Deon shakes his head.

“No offence to you,” Reg says.

“None  taken,” I reply.  “I know who I am.”   I roll up the window and  shift  my Chev into gear.

 —Stephen Henighan

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Stephen Henighan was born in Germany and grew up in rural eastern Ontario. He is the author of three novels, three short story collections and half a dozen books of non-fiction. His forthcoming titles include A Green Reef: The Impact of Climate Change (Linda Leith Publishing, 2013), Sandino’s Nation: Ernesto Cardenal and Sergio Ramírez Writing Nicaragua, 1940-2012 (McGill-Queen’s UP, 2014) and the English translation of Ondjaki’s Granma Nineteen and the Soviet’s Secret (Biblioasis, 2014).

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  2 Responses to “Grade | Short Fiction — Stephen Henighan”

  1. So many reasons I keep coming back to this, not least the loaded language of work, how keenly it encapsulates othering. Thank you.

  2. Lovely story. Sets up the reversal at the end just perfectly.

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