Canterbury Tales has always been the standard by which I have measured all fiction. Characters that are real because their preoccupations are basic, food, sex, shelter, company. And laughing at life. It is difficult to take anything else seriously even though I think that most of my work has dealt with the big questions, why are we here? etc. But a lot of writing deals with those questions in between. Those conflicts between men and women, the vices of ambition, greed, teen pregnancy, etc. They all seem to pale when faced with the ultimate fate of all of us and how we deal with it. It’s like there is only one question. On the exam. And I can’t get passed it.
The three men sat at their table in the Canadiana Restaurant, filling their mouths with hamburgers and French fries and spewing out resentments. All three men looked alike. Large vase like faces with sweat trickling down their temples. Guts that hung over their belts. Nestling up to the table like hogs at a trough. Hands pink and dainty. And tiny mouths that flickered between grins and scowls. The younger of the three men was Pete.
Pete was an angry man. The bar they were sitting in made him angry. It was well constructed. With the best wood. Brass and glass. Fine finishing. Why didn’t he get to work on expensive sights? He was sick of cheap renovations. And the woman sitting at the bar. He looked around. A fleeting glance. So beautiful. Never attainable by men like him. Men with big guts. And small wallets. And the terrible feeling inside him that this was as good as it was going to get.
“He can’t do a frigging thing right.” Pete wiped his lips with the back of his arm. There was a tattoo on his arm of a rose. A gesture to a woman he had once loved before he’d met his wife. The pink of the rose had turned a dirty blue. Pete turned to Bart on his right.
Bart was his boss. The foreman of their jobs. Bart was the oldest of the three men. He had begun to lose his hair in his late teens. Now a few spirited hairs celebrated their survival in curls on his forehead. Question marks. Bart was content with life. Had curled himself up in the soft loving arms of mediocrity. Bart did not like to shake the status quo. Just wanted to put in his time, go home, eat and down a few beers in front of the television. Bart’s happiness infuriated Pete.
“Everyday, Bart,” Pete said, the burger in his cheek looking like a pregnant belly. I think it moved. Can I feel it? “Every frigging day, I’m fixing up his screw-ups. What’s the difference between a Philips and a flat head? Ask him? Ask him what a spanner is? You don’t dare because you know that I’m right. The other day we put that floor into the Wilson’s kitchen and he forgot to take out the corner round first. It never ends, Bart. And I’m fed up. I don’t know how much more of this I can take.”
As Pete talked, he ate. Fat from his burger trickled out of the side of his mouth as he spoke and splashed on his rose. Like sunshine.
“I’m telling you Bart,” Pete continued, “you’re going to have to do something about him. He’s costing us money. This job would have been over by now if we had a half-ass competent bugger working with us.”
Pete looked at Bart who seemed to ignore him. Bart took the top bun off his hamburger and daintily plucked the dill out and dropped it onto his plate. Bart didn’t care for dill pickles. Told people that he was allergic to them. Just so that he wouldn’t have to justify his distaste for them. Bart put the top back on his hamburger then rubbed a finger across his moustache. His finger turned a mustard colour. Like sunshine. As Bart munched on his hamburger he lost audio contact with Pete. All he could make out was Pete’s lips moving and Pete’s finger thrusting back and forth at him like a piston. And the sound of his own mouth composting his lunch. Pete was upset about something. That much was clear to Bart.
Frank, the third person at the table, leaned back in his chair and looked at Pete. Frank had only started working with the other two, nine months previously. There was a lot to learn. Frank was not sure that he was capable of learning as quickly as Pete would have liked. And he didn’t care. Pete was always blowing his top. If he hits one of his kids again he’s going to have hell to pay. The only person Frank was concerned with was Bart. But he couldn’t get a fix on Bart. Was he happy with Frank’s work? A shrug and a smile was all he got. Was he patient? He seemed happy enough. The day previous to the last day they worked, it has rained on the two days in between, Bart danced across the crest of a roof they were putting on the Wilson’s house. For a big man Bart sure was light footed. Frank was afraid that with Bart’s prodding, Pete could turn and fire him on the spot. Frank didn’t care. He’d worked long enough to collect unemployment insurance.
“I’m right here, Pete.” Frank glared at Pete. “Right over here to your left. You don’t have to talk to Bart about me as if I’m not here.”
Pete looked at Bart and grinned.
“Did you hear something, Bart? Something in the air. Maybe I should apologize. I might have farted.”
Frank rolled his eyes as he picked up a fry and dipped it in the ketchup.
“You’re so immature, Pete.”
“Blow me, Frank!” Pete said then placed his hamburger back on his plate and picked up his mug of beer, taking a swallow. And felt that cold golden gurgle as the beer flowed down his throat like a cold northern stream over the rapids. He licked his lips and in the process cleaned his teeth with his tongue. He turned back to Bart.
“I don’t know how we can expect to finish this job on time, Bart, if Frank can’t hold up his end. That’s what he’s being paid for. Holding up his big fat end. The guy is about as useful as a tit on a bull.”
Frank laughed, almost choking on his burger. He turned to Bart.
“Pete’s just pissed off because the wife cut him off last month.” Frank belched then continued. “A woman likes her man to take a shower now and then.”
Pete glared at Frank.
“You keep my wife out of this.”
“Why should I?” Frank responded. “She’s my sister.”
Bart wiped his lips with a tissue. The blood had drained from his face. Something in his chest. Lodged there. He took a sip of beer. Goddamn beavers!
“You alright, boss?” Pete asked.
Bart shook his head. “I don’t know what hit me.”
“Maybe we should call it a day,” Frank suggested. “It’s awful hot to be up on those ladders.”
“Oh, you’d like that,” Pete responded. “Take a day off.”
Bart shook his head. “I can’t believe you two are family.”
Bart pounded his chest. And took another bite of his hamburger. Where a pickle was hiding.
Frank laughed. “You think this is bad. You should see Christmas dinner.”
Pete turned to Frank with a grin on his face. “Remember a couple Christmas’s ago when your old man almost took the turkey knife to us.”
Frank howled with laughter, slapping his hand on the table.
Bart pounded his chest again. He moaned. Bart tried to rise out of his chair.
Pete turned to Bart, a look of concern on his face.
“You sure you’re alright?”
“Feel all flushed,” Bart explained. Sweat began running down his forehead.
“Indigestion,” Pete suggested.
“Shit,” Frank said looking at this boss with closer scrutiny, “you don’t look too good.”
Bart smiled at his two colleagues. Then his eyes rolled up into his head and he collapsed onto the table.
Pete looked at Frank.
“Oh, shit!” he said.
Frank leaned over the table and tried to take Bart’s pulse. He looked up at Pete.
“I think he’s dead.”
“What are you talking about?” Pete cried. “Go get a doctor.”
Other patrons of the restaurant began to gather around the table.
“Where?” Frank asked.
“Call an ambulance.”
Frank stood up. One of the other patrons reminded Frank that there was a doctor in the clinic back of the drug store. Frank looked at Pete who was attempting to raise Bart from the table.
“Well?” Pete cried.
“What should I do?” Frank asked.
“Go to the clinic!. Get a doctor!” Pete cried.
Another patron helped Pete raise Bart’s head from the table. There was hamburger lodged in his mouth. They laid him on the floor. A minute later Frank returned.
“What?” Pete cried looking for the doctor.
“Where’s the clinic again?” Frank cried.
“In the drug store!” Pete cried.
Frank smiled weakly.
“What!” Pete cried.
“And the drug store,” Frank asked. “Where’s the drug store?”