By Attila Zønn
A short guy wearing a black coat, his head covered with a black hoodie, came to stand beside me at the urinals. The brim of a black baseball cap stuck out of the hood. He set himself up at the urinal and exhaled a gargantuan sigh. He seemed to be fumbling with his crotch.
“My fingers are so stiff it’s hard to grab my pecker,” he said. “Then usually I end up pissing everywhere mostly on my shoes.”
I stepped a little to my right.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “My hand’s blocking it so’s I don’t squirt ya. I’m considerate that way.” He had a scraggly grey beard. A waft of cigarettes came off him.
He let out a desperate sigh. “Squirts are all I get. Takes so damn long to take a piss.”
For a moment I was thankful of my ability to urinate full streams, but lately my abundance has caused me to take awhile pissing as well.
We pissed in silence, then . . .
“A word of advice, young fella,” he said. “Respect your hands. Don’t work in minus forty without gloves and if you really can help it, don’t work in minus forty at all. Get an inside job. For sure, inside jobs are the best. You might get less money but when you get to be my age you can still hold your pecker firmly.”
“I just came in from outside,” he said. “People complain this is cold. This isn’t cold. Cold is working in the Yukon in February. That’s cold. I had a friend that lost his toes. A friend that got so plastered one night he lay down on the snow and froze to death. Given the right conditions, people can freeze to death on the spot. We had a fellow helping us with a snow line. You need a snow line to move about in a blizzard ’cause you can’t see a damn thing. When we were done the line we headed back to our quarters. After a couple of hours lounging around somebody said, ‘Hey, where’s Jim?’ We looked around us. Yeah, where was Jim? So out we go again and at the end of the snow line we found Jim, on his knees, frozen to death. That’s cold! I’ve been lucky. After all those years messing around up there, all I got was a serious case of arthritis. I’m thankful I still got my fingers, stiff as they are.
“Name’s Mitch,” he said.
“Al,” I said.
“Al? That’s a good name. That’s a good strong name, son. I’ve known a few Al’s and they were all standup guys. Pleased to make your acquaintance, Al.”
We finished at the same time and strode to the sinks. I watched him lather up his hands. His hands were lumpy with gnarled fingers and swollen knuckles. I felt sorry for him.
“Listen here,” he said while wiping his hands. “And don’t take this the wrong way — I’m not faggin’ on ya — but I want to buy you a beer. Seems you’re a cordial fella. Usually, people ignore me. Some people are afraid of me. Me? Same old story about people. Only seeing what’s on the surface. But you’re respectful and quite cordial. How about it, Al?”
I felt compelled to say, “Okay.”
We found a two chair table against the wall by the pool table. He hung his coat on the back of the chair and pushed the hood down exposing long graying hair to his shoulders.
“What’ll you have?” he said as he sat down.
“Sounds good,” he said and raised an arm. The waitress came toward us.
“Two pints of Heineken, Jenny.”
Jenny stopped in her tracks, nodded, and turned around to get our beers.
Mitch smiled at me for awhile and gently nodded his head. I didn’t know how to restart our conversation.
He reminded me of a guy I knew when I was a teenager—Robbie Dale. I was seventeen, he was twenty. We worked at a full service gas station. I pumped gas, Robbie manned the car wash. He was a joker, always happy, high on marijuana and would yell in a piercing falsetto, “REEFER!” every time I ran out to serve a car. I’d look back toward the car wash and he’d be standing at the entrance with a big smile on his face, holding two fingers up for victory.
Mitch could have been an old Robbie if Robbie had been allowed to get old but he drowned on the May long weekend. His passion was fishing. I jokingly said to him on that Friday before he left, “Don’t become a statistic.” He laughed and ran off to catch a bus and became a statistic.
Jenny brought our beers.
“Thank you, dear,” Mitch said and dropped a twenty and two toonies on her tray. We tapped our glasses and Mitch said, “Here’s to new acquaintances.”
“You are looking at the de-evolution of a highly educated man,” Mitch said after he set his glass down. “I was an English major, a history major. I was going to teach. But one weekend I met a woman who grabbed me and wouldn’t let go. She had me. Then she got pregnant and had me even more. That’s when life becomes desperate. That’s when my aspirations knelt themselves under the guillotine and got beheaded by the practicality of the moment. Reality is a great kick in the pants.” He took another gulp of beer, set the glass down and said, “What do you do, Al?”
“I’m in construction,” I said.
He nodded. “What? High-rise? Roadwork?”
“I’m apprenticing as a framer,” I said.
“Framer?” The word jolted him back in his seat. He grimaced. “I did a bit of that.”
“Pretty cool stuff, eh?”
He stared at me. “Framing is for foreigners and ex-cons,” he said. “You enter that trade bright eyed and bushy tailed, and leave broken and divorced.”
“The foreigners?” he said. “They’ll dumb down your English. I’m a victim of that. You should of heard my vocabulary before I went into construction. My grammar was perfect. But then you’re in a crew of guys straight off the boat you end up dumbing down your English.” He shook his head. “You can’t joke with a guy whose new with English either. They don’t get the nuances of a native speaker. Shit. One time, a Portuguese fellow I was very chummy with was talking about his home life. His wife had grown up here. Well educated. She was a chartered accountant. Made tons more money than him. I said, jokingly, ‘So you must be the bitch’. He stared at me hard. The mood changed real fast. ‘Why you call my wife a bitch?’ he said. I said, ‘No, you. You’re the bitch.’ His body jerked back. ‘How can I be a bitch when I am a man?’ Well that was the end of that. That was the end of his friendliness. You can’t go off and explain you were joking and how it was a joke to a guy like that. He won’t get it. And you’ll only dig yourself deeper. And all that afternoon any time I looked in his direction he’d be staring back with this perplexed look on his face, probably wondering why I would call him a bitch. So, Al, never joke with foreigners, they won’t get it.”
He swigged some beer. “Why framing of all things?” he said.
“I’ve always liked building things.”
“Get yourself a model airplane kit and build that. In a nice warm room. There’s satisfaction in that.”
“I did that when I was a kid. I loved models, painting them and the smell of the glue. But they don’t pay you to build model airplanes.”
“I suppose,” he said.
“I like the smell of fresh cut wood,” I said. “I like the look of the wood when it’s delivered. It’s white and clean. I like the sun shining on me. The fresh air. I like the ambiance, you know? The character of a job-site. The sound of the coffee truck when it’s break time. How we all work together, calling our neighbors over to help lift a wall. I like the whole atmosphere: a screaming Skilsaw slicing through lumber, the pop popping of the nailer and hammers hammering. I like getting things done. And then at quitting time you look back and see what you’ve done. Like an artist steps back from his painting. And where there was nothing in the morning, now there’s a structure. A solid thing that’s on it’s way to becoming a house.”
Mitch laughed. He seemed impressed.”You’re very idealistic,” he said. “That neophyte passion. I like that.”
“Yeah, and people will feel safe from the elements in that house. I like that. I like the guys there. There’s a brotherhood. I can’t see myself tied to a chair in an office.”
“There’s always a brotherhood when men work together,” he said. “That’s not unique to carpentry. It’s a rough trade though. You’ll freeze your nuts off in winter, sweat your balls off in summer. You’ll bake under the sun. You’ll have the wind blowing up your ass most of the time. You’ll destroy your knees walking on rooftops. And it’s always go, go, go, push, push, push. Yes, you’ll have good times, great times, but when the economy slumps you’ll slump with it and you’ll spend your whole career catching up financially. It’s a hard road, Al. I did that for a couple of years but got out. Save your back, save your knees, save your feet, save your wits. Get out now.”
I nodded but didn’t agree.
“Life’s all about the right choices,” he said. “When I was young like you, I thought the world was my playground. I was invincible. I was healthy, sound. I had a woman that loved me. I made a decent wage. I had a little boy that wanted to be like me. My boy. I know he wanted to be like me because everything I did, he tried to do too. My boy.”
Mitch took a swig then, set the glass down and stared at it. “I had the world in my hand but . . . my boy died. Choked on a fucking cracker.” He took another drink, set the glass down and stared at it.
“Oh,” I said. “Sorry, man.” He waved off my condolences and shrugged.
“He was a strong boy,” Mitch said. “My boy. The wife came home with a box of crackers. We never ate crackers. Never. Yet she had to buy that box this one time. My boy choked on them. I wasn’t there. I was earning us a living while she stayed home and took care of things that way. I rushed to the hospital and there’s my son lying there, cold. How could that be? He saw me off in the morning. We were gonna make a table that weekend and start a landscape for a railroad. He loved trains. I kissed him, said good bye. When I pulled out of the driveway he was at the window smiling and waving. I waved back and went to work with a peaceful heart. How could I have imagined that I’d never see my boy like that again — alive and happy.
“It’s funny how your perspective changes when you have a kid. I loved my wife so much, but I loved my son even more. She was a companion, but he was a part of me. Of course I blamed her for buying that box of crackers. If she hadn’t brought home that box of crackers, my boy would still be alive. She killed him with that box of crackers. Now I never said to her face, ‘You’re the cause of killin’ my boy.’ I never said that to her face. I held it in, and it kept growing, that resentment. And she must have felt it ’cause she got distant too till finally we weren’t husband and wife anymore, just two silent people sitting on opposite ends of the table.
“I couldn’t get over it,” he said and shook his head. He sat up with a sense of realization. “I didn’t have to get over it. I loved my boy and she killed him.” He fell silent. Took another gulp of beer.
“When a big paying job in the north opened up, I took it,” he said. “I gave her the house and took my freedom. Haven’t seen her since. I heard she met another guy and has a couple of kids. The house was no loss. I couldn’t stay there thinking about all those times—those times with my son. That time I set up his new bicycle. I’d hand him a wrench and showed how to turn a nut or two. He laughed because he had learned something new and kissed me as a thank you. So great was his gratitude. The time I fixed his broken toys — we sat side by side — me fiddlin’ with it and my boy with that hopeful look on his face that I could fix it. To this day I still . . . I still . . .” He cleared his throat.
“That’s sad,” I said. “I’m really sorry for you.”
He cleared his throat and shrugged. “Sad is part of life, Al. Some people get more of it than others. My boy is dust now. My boy would be forty now. If he hadn’t died, maybe we could of had more kids. Maybe we could of been a big healthy family sitting around the table Thanksgivin’s and Christmas’s. Maybe. Maybe. Maybe. Sad is part of life.”
He focused on me with a suspicious eye. “What’s a good looking young fellow like you doing in a shithole like this? On a Friday night? You should be out jigglin’ around where young ladies display their wares and young men plot to get pussy.”
“I have a girlfriend,” I said. He sat up and looked around him. “Where is she?”
“We had a fight,” I said.
He sat back deflated and eyed me with sympathy.
“Something you did, right?” he said.
“I don’t know what I did. I never know what word is going to set her off. She gets like that sometimes. That’s when I give her time to cool off.”
“Does she criticize your driving?”
“Dump her! Make a clean break now before you’re playing tug-of-war over a kid. I was with someone like that once. Jesus Christ. She was perfect, but I was flawed. Sound familiar?”
I nodded. “I’m tired of dating though. We get along great most of the time. I love her. I think she’s the one.”
“There’s no such a thing as the One. There’s only good ones or bad ones. You’ve got to shoot past the bad ones until you find the good one. She’s out there but there’s less of those than you think. Don’t fall for that unrealistic soul mate shit. That’s just more mind control. Humans are a wonderful people but their biggest flaw is they are gullible and believe because they want it to be true. You’re going to have lean times in that business you love so much. A bad one won’t put up with that. She’s going to want security for her and her brood.”
I shrugged. “It’ll work,” I said.
“My old dad was Irish,” Mitch said. “The Irish have a saying. ‘When poverty enters by the front door, love goes out the window’. . . or something like that.”
“I’ve heard that one,” I said.
“It’s your life, Al. Not hers. Now, Jenny here. She’s a good one.”
I glanced at Jenny sitting on a bar stool, looking in our direction. She smiled.
“Well?” Mitch said.
“Well what?” I said.
“You haven’t noticed?”
I shook my head.
“She’s been eyeing you ever since we sat down.” I glanced at Jenny again. Her smile grew bigger.
“Maybe she’s eyeing you,” I said.
Mitch went into a fit of laughter, coughing, his face flushed, his eyes watered.
“My God,” he said after he’d settled down. “I wish it were so. But that boat has sailed and sunk.”
“You never settled down again?”
He shook his head. “Time flies and then you’re sixty-six. What prospects do I have now? Somebody my own age? What’s an old woman going to do for me? Make me a cup of tea? I don’t want to suffer through someone else’s emotions at my age and unless she’s a childless widow, you’ve got her side of the family to deal with. Her kids? Her ex? Fuck that. Nope. I prefer to be a solitary man.”
I looked back at Jenny. She was cute. There was a calm simplicity about her.
“Waitresses can be deceptive,” I said. “They act like they’re interested in you but really they’re just playing for a good tip.”
“Not this one. She’s genuine,” he said. He sighed. “Yup. We’re just particles in this great universe, Al. Seize the moment. This could be the moment that changes the direction of your life. Break up with that cooling off girlfriend and get out of that rough trade. Now, I gotta go out for a smoke. If you don’t mind, call Jenny over and order us another couple of these Heinekens.”
Mitch stood and stepped outside. I motioned Jenny over.
“The same?” she said. I nodded.
“Is he talking your ear off?” she said.
“He’s alright,” I said.
“Yeah he comes here every Friday,” Jenny said. “Sits by himself and stares at his beer. I’ve never seen him talk to anyone till now.”
“You’re Jenny right?”
“I am, but only when I’m waitressing,” she said. “I’m Jennifer to people I like. You can call me Jennifer.”
“Alright,” I said. “I’m Al.”
“Al?” she said. “Is that short for Alan?”
“No it’s Alf—”
“—Jesus Christ,” Mitch said coming back to the table. “Can’t do any smokin’ without cigarettes.” He reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a pack.
He stood there and unwrapped his cigarettes, smiling at the both of us.
“I’ll be back with your beers,” Jennifer said.
“Did you get her number?” Mitch said.
“No,” I said. He shrugged and stepped outside.
Watching Mitch outside puffing and coughing, I hoped my later years wouldn’t be like his. Sad is part of life.
I looked at Jennifer standing at the taps, pouring our drafts. The lights behind the bar seemed to cast a halo on her head.
Mitch and I sat for that other round and then it was time for me to call it a night.
He followed me outside to my car. His rusty white pickup was parked next to my car.
“Look at that! We were meant to meet tonight,” he said. “You needed some of my advice.”
I pulled out the FOB and started the car.
“Fancy,” he said, pulled out his keys and shook them at his pickup. “Mine needs batteries,” he said.
We stood there as my car warmed up. “Well. . .” he said. “It was a pleasure meeting you, Al.” He took three steps towards his pickup, stopped and came back.
“Just remember. There are two important things you gotta know in life, Al.” He stuck up his thumb. “One: God does not care about you.” He stuck out his index finger. “Two: You are God. It’s your life.” And with that he walked away, saying over his shoulder, “Have a nice night.”
I’ve been to the bar many times on Friday nights, sitting by myself, studying to get myself to a better place. In between customers Jennifer sat with me, offering her silent support and when her shift was done, I’d drive us home.
I never saw Mitch again.
Copyright©Attila Zønn 2021