Please note this story includes strong language.
Me and Wilbur are crouched in a pit the size of a shallow grave, dug into the sand and gravel beside the boathouse. There’s no boat in the boathouse. It’s more of a shack, really. The company rents it to a fisherman we call Chinese Henry who keeps his crab traps and lobster pots in there. The shack’s crooked and rickety and looks ready to collapse, teetering above us on rotten pilings. Beyond them, the reflection of our ice barge, the Arctic King, wavers in the shallows. The air around us is filled with gnats and flies, engaged in an endless dogfight, and every so often one detaches from the fray to dive-bomb me or Wilbur. The stench down here is something terrible. It must be all those crab traps, baking in the heat of the shack.
“What a s**tshow,” Wilbur says. “What a total s**tshow.”
He picks up his magnet and shoves it into the sand. They gave us both magnets – these big red horseshoe-shaped magnets, like the kind you see in cartoons. We’re using them to poke and comb through the sand, picking up old bolts and screws and washers and ingots. We shake the scrap metal into a bucket, banging our magnets against the side to clear them off. It’s like being a beachcomber – except without the hope of finding anything valuable.
“Of all the jobs they ever saddled me with,” Wilbur says, “this tops it.”
Wilbur’s the deckhand from our sister barge, the Icecap Rider. For about a week near the end of season they moor up alongside us. The two crews work together, cleaning both the barges and offloading supplies, before a tug comes to drag the Icecap further up Burrard Inlet.
“Yeah,” I say. “They sure stuck it to us this time.”
“They stuck it in us this time, more like it. F****d us royally.”
Back in the day, the fishing company we work for dumped all this scrap iron along the shore, right next to our dock. It was their land and I guess they figured nobody would complain. They didn’t, either. Except, twenty years on, that iron is starting to rust, and some guy from Environment Canada has detected the run-off – traces of iron oxide, leeching into the inlet. It didn’t take him long to find the source, and contact the company. Roger woke me up early this morning, to break the bad news. At least he had the decency to call it that. He said, “Seems like they want somebody to clean it up. All that iron.” By ‘somebody’ he meant me and Wilbur.
“The thing that gets me,” Wilbur says, shaking off his magnet, “is that I know they’re sitting up in the barge, drinking coffee and watching TV. Sitting on their a***s.”
“Roger’s oiling the chains in the ice bin.”
“S**t – I know that,” Wilbur says. “I wasn’t talking about Roger. I meant Bob and Mabel. It would take a cattle prod to get them off their a***s these days.”
Bob is Wilbur’s boss, the skipper of the other barge. He runs it with his wife Mabel – just like Roger and Doreen run ours. All four of them are well into their sixties.
I say, “Guess they’re getting older.”
“They should f*****g retire, then.”
Wilbur tosses his magnet down in disgust. He’s a lanky guy with thick-rimmed glasses, held together by a piece of white tape on the nose-bridge. His hair is thinning and stringy, like the silken tufts on the tips of corncobs, and he always wears the same tattered pair of jeans and plaid shirt, whatever the weather or temperature. Today it’s about twenty-five degrees and climbing. His face is already slick with sweat, which the dust sticks to like make-up powder.
“Hell – I’ll retire myself if they keep giving me s**t jobs like this.”
I grunt. He says it like he means it, but I can’t really imagine him quitting. He’s worked on the Icecap for years. I get the impression that he’s vaguely related to Bob and Mabel in some way – a nephew or a cousin or something. It’s hard to tell. Maybe it just seems like that because the three of them have been stuck with each other for so long.
“Hopefully we’ll get it licked this afternoon,” I say.
“You kidding? We’ll be here for days. Look at all this.”
I don’t need to look. Our little sand pit seems to just keep getting bigger and bigger, the sides crumbling like stale cake – each layer revealing more scrap iron to be removed. I don’t know how we’re supposed to clear it all out. It could go on forever.
“What would you do?” I ask him. “If you quit, I mean.”
He pokes at the sand with his magnet, looking for answers there.
“Get a cabin up north. Could maybe grow some weed or something.”
That’s all he says, and for awhile we work in silence. I can hear a helicopter circling overhead. Probably a traffic chopper eyeing up the Lions Gate Bridge. In the shadow of the boathouse our family of ducks – seven in all – are squawking away. Roger will be happy to know they’re doing well. He looks out for them every year – frets and worries about them.
“Jesus,” Wilbur says, stretching his back. “I’m dying, here.”
By that point, our bucket is almost half-full. It takes both of us to lift it up and carry it to the parking lot in front of Chinese Henry’s shack. There’s a truck parked up there, the flatbed already covered with a rusty mound of scrap metal. We empty our latest load onto the pile – the bolts and nuts rasping out of the bucket and clanking into place. For a minute or so we take a breather. Just slump against the tailgate and stare out at the dock. Next to it, the two barges are nestled side-by-side like bloated geese, resting in the shelter of the harbour.
“I’m thinking of quitting, too,” I tell him.
“Might go see a girl I know, in Wales. On a working-break kind of thing.”
“Can’t be any worse than this.” He yawns and checks his watch, rubbing grime off the face so he can read the digital display. “Speaking of breaks, reckon it’s time for ours.”
He goes to fetch two cans of Coke from the fridge on the back deck of the Arctic King. I stay up by the truck, walking in circles and stretching my legs, wondering if I’ll manage to do it – if I’ll actually get my s**t together and go to Wales. When Wilbur comes back, we crack open our cans and hunker down in the shade of the boathouse. A breeze is wafting in off the water, fanning my face, and with my eyes half-closed I sit listening to the tinny noise of Henry’s radio. He’s hard at work up there, mumbling to himself in Cantonese. Or maybe it’s Mandarin. I’ve never asked where he’s from. I should. I should ask him what it’s like to leave home. He’d probably just smile and nod. That’s all he ever does, really. He doesn’t speak much English.
While we’re resting like that, Bob happens to waddle up from the dock to his car. In passing, all he sees is the two of us drinking pop, slacking off in the shade.
“Hey!” he calls. “Looks like you guys got it pretty good, eh?” He’s this big guy with an enormous potbelly, one of those potbellies that balloons out, pregnant with lard, right above the waist. I sort of grin and wave him off. He doesn’t really mean anything by it – he knows we got a raw deal – but of course Wilbur is raging.
“Plenty of room for you over here, Bob!” he yells back.
Bob doesn’t hear, or pretends not to. He’s getting in his car, shutting the door. As he drives off, Wilbur slams down his can of Coke. It bounces once and lays there, fizzing brown froth. Then he grabs his magnet and stabs it into the dirt, over and over, like he’s trying to kill something underneath.
“That fat b*****d,” he mutters. “Show him. Get off his fat a*s.”
I sip my Coke, watching, waiting for it to blow over.
“You know what?” Wilbur says, and jabs at his can. It’s not magnetic and won’t pick up, so he starts poking it around, leaving a slug-trail of pop. “I’m through taking his s**t.”
“You gonna grow your weed?”
“To hell with growing weed. I don’t need another job. I’ll go on E.I. for awhile. Rake in a fat pay check for sitting on my a*s. See what that’s like for a change.”
He flips the can up, chipping it towards me. It lands between us in the sand.
“I got a friend who done that,” I say. “Good money.”
“Damn right. I would have left already, if it weren’t for Jane.”
Jane is Don and Mabel’s daughter. This farm girl who works on their barge as a deckhand every season. Lean and tough and tanned. The only woman we see for months at a time. The only one that counts as a woman, anyways. I catch glimpses of her whenever our barges cross paths, but Wilbur gets to work with her throughout the season.
“I mean, without me who would help her? They’d make her do everything.” He shakes his head, like it’s a bona fide tragedy. “They’d drive her like a mule.”
“If you left they’d probably hire somebody else.”
“No,” Wilbur says. “They couldn’t do that. No way.”
He’s resting his elbows on his knees, now, staring at that can. And as he stares he starts telling me about this time, during herring season, when he took Jane out in the skiff.
“It was during a lull – one of those long lulls that bores you to tears.”
I know exactly what he’s talking about. There’s always a rush to get our barges out to sea. Tugs tow them hundreds of miles up Georgia Straight. We drop anchor near the tip of Vancouver Island, and start making the ice. Everything’s got to be ready. But after that, it can take days – weeks even – before the herring season opens, before the boats come back for water and ice and temperature readings. Hurry up and wait, Roger calls it. He and I kill that time doing woodwork: cutting patterns with his scroll saw, carving salad spoons and forks, making fruit bowls and candle lanterns and napkin holders. Roger likes to have a project.
“Took some crab traps with us,” Wilbur says. “Just as an excuse, you know. Drove Jane way out into the middle of the bay, away from the barge and all the boats. Then I cut the engine and let us drift. ‘Hear that?’ I asked her. So she goes, ‘Hear what?’ And I just look at her and say, ‘Exactly.’ How do you like that? Exactly!”
Wilbur’s told me this story before, and I know that’s the whole point – the punchline. So I grin like he expects me to, and tell him that it’s really something. Wilbur just nods and gazes through the pilings at the flickering water, as if he’s seen something out there I don’t.
“I bet Jane likes me,” he says. “You think maybe she’d go out with me?”
I’ve seen the guys Jane dates. They pick her up some nights during the pre-season rush, when we’re moored here in Vancouver. They’re all big-boned men in jeans and tight shirts. They drive Ford trucks, drink Bud Light, and smoke Marlboroughs – the kind of guys who’d throw a scare into Wilbur, just to see him cringe. I don’t know how to answer him, so I make this sound in my throat and stare at the ground, like I’m still considering his question. Next to his can I notice this slender piece of metal, exposed by our digging. I bend down to pick it up, and find that it’s a loop of cable, half-buried in the ground.
“Hey,” I say, “what the hell?”
I tug on the cable. It’s maybe an inch thick, with thin strands woven together like a rope. I stand up, grab it with both hands, and give it a good yank. The loop comes free, and now we can see that it’s connected to a longer line. A section rises up like a snake emerging from the sand, shaking off dust. I tug loose about two or three feet before it gets stuck again. The rest is buried deep. Wilbur, who’s on his feet now, comes around to join me.
“Let’s see what we got,” he says.
Together, the two of us get a grip on the loop and really haul on it, throwing all our weight against it, leaning way back on our heels. The cable slithers out a little more, but it looks like the length we’ve freed is just the beginning. There’s more to come – except it’s not coming. We reef and yank for a good five minutes, like two guys playing tug-of-war with themselves. By the end our hands are raw and we’re both panting, sweating, fuming.
“This sucker’s huge,” Wilbur says.
“It’s the mother load, all right.”
“Worth all the ingots and bolts combined.” He pauses, wiping his brow. “It’s got to be the real culprit, here. If we get it out, we’re done. The rest of this c**p can probably stay.”
“S**t,” I say. “I hadn’t thought of that.”
He grabs at the cable again and gives it a quick jerk, like he’s hoping to catch it off-guard, take it by surprise. But it doesn’t budge. For awhile we pace around it, eyeing it up.
“We could dig it out,” Wilbur says, “with shovels.”
We get the shovels from the barge – the same shovels we use to clear ice from the bins at the end of the season. On the way back, we pass Chinese Henry working in front of his shack. Half a dozen crab traps are strewn around him, in need of mending. He’s scrawny as a scarecrow, draped in baggy blue coveralls, and to shade his face from the sun he wears a wide-brimmed straw hat, like the kind you see in photographs of rice-field farmers.
“Hot enough for you?” Wilbur calls to him.
Henry just smiles and nods, like always. I can’t tell if he gets the joke.
Back in the pit, before we take on the cable, we stand over it and eye it up. I like the feel of the shovel in my hand, the weight of it. Wilbur uses his to prod at the cable – as if he expects it to react in some way.
“We’ll get her out of there,” he says. “No problem.”
Together we set to work, digging a trench on either side of the cable. We take turns ramming our shovels into the gravel. Each impact jars my wrist, rattles in my skull. We strike at the ground again and again – setting off sparks whenever our shovel blades hit a larger stone. Every so often one of us puts down our shovel to tug on the cable, and each time a bit more slides free. For awhile it feels like we’re making progress – real progress – until my shovel comes down with a hard ‘thock’ that I feel right through to my jaw.
“D**n,” I say, dropping it and shaking out my hand.
We poke around a bit. Testing. Under the ground there’s something big and solid. Wilbur shaves more dirt away with his shovel, and I get down to dig with my hands. It takes us a few minutes of delicate work to reveal the stump. It’s about five feet across, lying on its side, with a snarl of roots sprouting out one end. The remains of an old oak or sycamore tree, maybe. Leftover from when they cleared the shoreline. The cable’s all wrapped and tangled around it – almost as if somebody was trying to use it to drag the stump loose, and gave up.
“Well,” Wilbur says. “Now we’re really f****d.”
We squat down in the sand, panting. I’ve taken off my shirt and can feel the sun searing my back, my neck, my scalp. A fly settles on my forearm, drawn by the sweat, and I swat it away. We stare at the stump. It’s huge and greyish-white and looks like a fossil that we’ve partially unearthed. Maybe the bone of a dinosaur that died a million years ago.
“Shovels aren’t gonna do it.”
Wilbur snorts. “That’s the truth.”
“What about the forklift?” I say. Roger keeps a forklift in the shed, for loading equipment and supplies onto the barges. “We could use it to haul this b***h out.”
We look at each other, and Wilbur punches me in the shoulder.
“D**n straight. Use it like a tractor. Think Roger will let us?”
“Probably. If I explain it to him.”
I go looking for Roger alone, since he’s not so keen on Wilbur. I check the ice bin first, but Roger’s finished his work in there. So I clamber up to the galley to ask Doreen. She tells me he’s down in the aft hold, checking on the pump that was acting up all through herring season. Back there the hatch is open, and the air rising out stinks of stale oil. I squat down above it and peer in. I can see Roger lying on his side. In the dark he’s just a shadow, silhouetted by a work lamp. Instead of calling down to him, for a second I sit and watch him work. He’s struggling with something – turning a valve with a pipe wrench, by the looks of it – and grunting every so often. The other day he told me that, at sixty-seven, he’s finding it more difficult to do these kinds of tasks: the scrambling and crawling and maneuvering that maintenance work entails. He said it’s one of the reasons he appreciates having me around.
“You need a hand, Roger?” I say, raising my voice.
“I got it, greenhorn,” he yells, and rolls over. A shaft of light from the open hatch catches his face, which is smudged with grime. He squints up at me. “How you getting on?”
“We’re a bit stuck out here, Roger.”
He stops what he’s doing and lies there listening as I explain the situation to him. He gives me permission to use the forklift, but I can’t tell if he thinks it’s a good idea. He’s been hard to read, lately – ever since I told him I might not be back next season.
“Just stay out of the bite,” he tells me.
Roger always worries about the bite – the area where a snapped cable is most likely to recoil. He lost a crewmember one year, in the days when he worked on the seine boats. A tie line broke in a storm, and whipped right back at the guy standing beside Roger. Broke his neck. Nearly tore his head off. Ever since then Roger’s had this paranoia of the bite – a paranoia he’s passed on to me.
When I trudge back up the gangplank, Wilbur’s waiting for me at the edge of the parking lot. “And?” he asks.
“We got it.”
He whoops and punches the air. Neither of us has a forklift license, but we’ve both driven it before. During pre-season, we use it to lift palettes of supplies off the delivery trucks. I unlock our shed, which is next to Chinese Henry’s shack. The forklift is sitting in the middle of the floor. The grill is black with oil, and in places the yellow paint is peeling and flaking away like sloughed skin. I hop up into the driver’s cage and start the engine. It coughs diesel fumes and the whole frame starts shuddering, raring to go. As I back her out, Henry stands up to watch. I salute him, pivot the forklift around, then rumble past his crab traps. Beneath the wheels, bits of gravel pop and crackle and spit out backwards. I ease the forklift into place at the edge of the parking lot, as close to the sand pit as I can get.
Wilbur meets me there with a chain and some tie lines – sturdy lengths of three-core nylon rope. I hop down, putting the brake on and leaving the forklift running, and we discuss our various options. We could use the tie lines as tow ropes, but the stump is stuck so fast the lines would probably snap before it came free. It makes more sense to use the chain. The only problem is attaching it to the cable. We decide to use the tie lines as links – lashing one end of the chain to the loop in the cable, and the other end to the back of the forklift. There’s no hitch, since forklifts aren’t supposed to be used for towing. We tie the rope to the bars of the carriage guard instead, wrapping it around five or six times as a precaution.
“She looks solid,” I say, reefing on the chain.
Wilbur’s already climbing into the driver’s seat. I stand to one side, making sure I’m out of the bite. He pulls on a lever to lower the forks. Then he puts her in gear. The forklift inches ahead until the slack goes out of the chain and the cable stretches taut, quivering like an elastic. Wilbur half-turns around in his seat and leans out the window to get a better view.
“Keep your head inside,” I shout. “You’re right in the bite.”
He looks at me blankly.
“If something snaps, the chain is going to whip back at the forklift.”
He holds up a hand and withdraws, turtle-like. I don’t see him give it more gas, but the forklift lurches forward, straining. I watch the cable. A section slips free, then another. Each time, the forklift gains a bit more ground: lurching and stopping, lurching and stopping. Then it just stops. I can see the whole line – rope and chain and cable – quivering with the reverberations of the engine. But that stump is holding fast. Wilbur gives her a bit more juice, and the forklift wheels start to spin – slipping on the dirt and gravel in the parking lot.
“Hold up, Wilbur,” I call to him, raising a hand. “It’s not working.”
He lets the engine idle for a second, and when he does the cable actually retracts from the tension, drawing the forklift backwards a foot. I stand with my hands on my hips, looking at the stump, the cable, the chain, the forklift. I’ve still got my shirt off and I can feel the slap of the sun on my shoulders. In my work boots my socks are squishy with sweat. Henry has come to this side of his boathouse to watch us. There’s a wooden railing up there and he’s leaning on it, his face shadowed by his big straw hat. I can tell he’s still smiling, though.
“What if I hit it harder?” Wilbur says.
“Like with a burst of gas?”
“Uh-huh – just give her.”
“I don’t know, man. Seems sketchy.”
“It’s all good. Watch.”
He stands up and revs the engine suddenly. The forklift pitches forward, like a horse throwing itself into the harness. The line goes taut and the stump seems to tremble.
“I think that did something,” I yell at him.
He eases up on the throttle, letting the line slacken, and then hits it again, and again – yanking on the cable, jarring the stump. It’s working, too. The stump shifts and shivers in the dirt and looks ready to rear up, roaring, like a prehistoric beast. Seeing that, Wilbur starts hitting the gas even harder, and each time the forklift throws itself forward I swear I can feel the force of the impact as it trembles through the ground. I can see it, too. Not just in the stump, but in the dirt, the gravel, the pilings. The whole area is quivering with aftershocks.
“Hold up there, Wilbur,” I call.
He pretends not to hear. He’s working the forklift like a rocking horse, forward and back, stuck in a rhythmic trance. His glasses are all fogged up, so I can’t even see his eyes. I wave my arms above my head, trying to get his attention. On the other side, Henry is doing the same thing and shouting at him in Chinese. I think I know what he’s trying to tell us.
“It’s stuck in the pilings, Wilbur!” I shout. “The boathouse pilings!”
I know he’s heard, but he still doesn’t look at me, still doesn’t stop.
“F**k it,” he yells. “Something’s gotta give!”
And he hits it one more time, full throttle. The engine roars as the forklift hurdles forward, belching black smoke. The cable line goes taut and the stump actually moves and for a split second I think he’s done it – he’s torn that sucker free. Then I hear the distinctive shriek of breaking wood, and this deafening moan, like the wail of a dying elephant. I don’t see the recoil of the chain as one of the tielines breaks – it’s too fast – but I see the rear piling on the boathouse topples over gently, slumping into the mud along the shore. The floor it was supporting comes down next, bringing the back wall with it. That whole section tears away with surprising neatness, as if the shack has been cut in half by a giant axe. The wall and floor collapse into our gravel pit, splintering and breaking apart. The impact kicks up a mushroom cloud of dust.
Then everything goes quiet.
The forklift is lying on its side. The sudden release of tension, combined with the recoil of the chain, must have knocked it over. I walk up to the cab. I have this vision in my head – this vision of opening the door and finding Wilbur lying there, headless, a victim of the bite. Blood still spurting from his stump neck. When I peer inside, I see blood – but only on his forehead. Other than that he’s fine, lying on his side in the overturned cab, looking as stunned as me. The door won’t open so I help him out through the window.
“Oh, s**t,” he whispers, when he sees what we’ve done. “Oh, s**t.”
Neither of us says anything else. We trudge back to the gravel pit, moving like the survivors of a plane crash, to examine the wreckage left behind. The floor and wall of the boathouse has formed a perfect pyramid – almost temple-like – over our stump, which looks as stuck as ever. We squat down outside it, huddled together like penitents. I hear a whoop from above us. Henry is up there, standing at the hole we’ve torn in his boathouse. Behind him crab traps and lobster pots are stacked, neat as Meccano pieces, and a light bulb dangles from the ceiling on bare wires, knocked loose in the accident. He doesn’t look as p****d as I expect. He’s laughing, actually – laughing so hard he can barely breathe. Every so often he stops and points at us and shouts something in Chinese, which makes him roar even louder.
I don’t understand any of it.
From Burrard Inlet, published by Parthian in spring 2014. Tyler Keevil was born in Edmonton and grew up in Vancouver, Canada. His short fiction has won several awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies. His first novel, Fireball, was longlisted for Wales Book of the Year, shortlisted for the Guardian Not the Booker prize, and received the Media Wales People’s Prize 2011. His second novel, The Drive, was published by Myriad Editions in August, 2013. He has worked as a tree planter and ice barge deckhand, as well as in factories, bakeries, video stores, and shipyards; he now lectures in Creative Writing at the University of Gloucestershire, and lives in Mid Wales with his wife and son.