THURSDAY: On the Line

BY ANGELA MICHAELS

Copyright is held by the author.

KEN BLAYLOCK worked on the line. Racking and unracking auto parts. Hard labour, for 19 years. He’d sometimes joke that he’d of got less time if he murdered his ex-wife. Laughed hard to show it was really a joke.

He liked Jenn. Missed her still. You could call them high school sweethearts, gone sour. Or at least Jenn was sour. She always did stuff, made things happen. Ken just did what he was told, which was racking and unracking auto parts, five days a week. Jenn told him to leave, and he did.

Ken dreamed of a better life — or at least, something else. Something away from the heat, the smoke, the incessant noise. There was a good reason why management made all the boys get hearing tests every year. Paid for by the employer, in fact. They wanted to avoid lawsuits later on.

Ken worked his way up, as best he could, in a plant of 300 souls. Made it to the dayshift. Promoted to lead hand. Nominated for the Health and Safety Committee; and sure it helped that he was the only volunteer. Management sent him away on courses. Safety in the workplace. Forklift driving. Accident prevention.

But Ken wanted more. Management gave him time off the line to do paperwork one day a month. Ken filled out accident reports in his tight cursive. With two fingers flying, pecked out memos, oblivious to typos and spelling errors, “Pleese rememmber too —”

One day Ken sat alone in the lunchroom, a pile of catalogues in front of him, small notebook at his side. Head down. Scratching with a blue pen.

Quan walked in. “Books, books, more books. What are you a schoolboy or something?”

“Picking out models for our new hard hats and earmuffs.” Points to a picture. “These ones cut the noise by 30 Db.” Looks up. “Pretty good, eh?”

Quan nodded, filling up a water bottle from the sink. Quan didn’t care. He just did what he was told, and went home to his wife and kids.

Ken went home to his dog. Shiny black lab, named Kieso. One of the guys at work had a litter of puppies and told Ken to take one home for his kids.

Ken said didn’t have kids.

Take one for yourself then, there’s no better companion. Man’s best friend and all.

Since the divorce, nearly every day was the same. Go to work, spend the day on the line, racking, unracking, over and over. Breaks, lunch, dismissal. At home, walk Kieso, and eat in front of the TV. Wake up the next day, do it all over again. And again after that.

When weekends came Ken went fishing in the nearby parks. Took Kieso along. Threw sticks in the water, admired the powerful dog swimming, laughed at him splashing in the waves. Sometimes he took Kieso out for a drive through the countryside or to the harbour. They’d watch the boats come in together.

Same one-bedroom apartment, at Brown’s Line and Lakeshore, just minutes from work. Nice view of the lake. He’d moved there after Jenn kicked him out. Said she wanted more passion, someone who was there for her.

How could he be there for her? He wasn’t even there for himself.

On one of Ken’s paperwork days, as everyone called them, he sat in the lunchroom surrounded by documents outlining the latest health and safety developments — straight from the Ministry of Labour itself. Ken poured through the documents, highlighting relevant changes.

The lunch bell rang — men surged into the room, odours of meals from around the world collided with each other. Indian curry and Caribbean curry. Goat and beef. Schwarma and falafel. Meals from men who came to Canada, looking for something better and found themselves on the line, working to support their families for not much over minimum wage.

Nigel sat across the table from Ken, unfolding a newspaper, scanning for soccer scores while shoveling curry into his mouth. Held up a forkful. “Hey Ken, you should try this. Curried goat. Wife made it for the kids. Not too spicy. Perfect for a white guy like you.” Laughed to show he was joking; pushed the container toward Ken to show he was serious.

Ken glanced at the curry, “No thanks.” Returned to the document, highlighter in hand.

“Man, you’re going to kill yourself with that stuff. What are you, a lawyer or something?” Nigel pulled the document towards himself. “How can you read this? Regulation 187, subsection 9, clause 8 states that — I mean, who cares?”

“I do. There’s no union to protect us here. So we have to do it ourselves.” Ken pointed to a Health and Safety poster on the lunchroom wall. Grim spectre of a worker with hooks on the end of his arms. Quoted, “Health and Safety is in your hands.”

“I know, but c’mon guy. It’s lunch time. Give that stuff a rest. It’s not human, like.” Nigel mumbled through a mouthful of curry. “If you’re not gonna eat, at least check out the girl on page three. She’s a hottie.” Nigel tossed the newspaper across the documents. Spread of the page-three girl obscuring legalities.

Ken glanced down, turning pages idly. May as well check the sports. What are the Leafs up to now?

An ad caught his eye. Pictures of men and women about his age. Wearing graduation gowns, holding diplomas. Red letters “Second Careers, Foreign trained professionals. Get your career off the ground. College courses to launch the future you deserve.”

Ken scanned the fine print and put his finger on blue letters. Information night coming soon. Ken started to tear out the ad.

Nigel’s head shot up. Horrified, he sputtered curried goat, “What are you doing to my page-three girl?”

“I just want this ad. Look, it’s not even near your girl. See, it’s just on the back of the Raptor’s page.”

Nigel feigned mock horror, “What are you doing to my Raptors?”

“Awe, c’mon, they suck anyway. A nine game losing streak? And that last trade? C’mon. What’re they thinking?”

“Hey, that’s my paper you’re cutting up, boy. What’s this ad for anyway?” Nigel scooped up the scraps of his newspaper.

“Information night at the college.”

“Ooh, college. Now you’re Mr. Big —”

The lunch bell rang, silencing Nigel. He swept the remnants of his newspaper and lunch into a plastic bag, and joined the sea of men emptying the lunchroom. Waved at Ken, “See ya on the line.”

Ken looked at the torn ad in his hand. The information night was tomorrow. May as well go, what’s he got to lose? And really, it’s not as though his evenings are busy anyway.

***

Ken glanced at his watch. The information night started in half an hour, and here he was already squeezed into a wooden desk with his legs sprawled into the aisle. Desks in rows, all facing a chalkboard. Empty classroom.

He fidgeted with a leaky ball point pen, folded and unfolded a couple sheets of paper. Should have brought an extra pen.

Wiped sweaty palms on freshly ironed khakis. Twisted in the desk, could feel his shirt coming untucked. Worried about sweat stains.

What was he doing here anyway? This was for foreign trained professionals, guys like Trang or Dhaval, guys who had degrees from another country. Trang was a chemist, Dhaval an engineer, both stuck on the line until they got Canadian experience, or something.

Heck, Ken barely finished high school. And when he did, much to his parent’s relief, he managed to get a job on the line and stayed there.

He looked up as two tall women, a blond and a red head walked in, toting enormous leather purses. They sat together at the back and chattered in Russian. Cell phones beeped. One of them laughed. Ken stared at the creased paper on his desk. Blank, with a few ink smudges.

Slowly people drifted in. Single men in business suits checked cell phones. A tanned 20-something flipped open her laptop. A cluster of middle-aged women cackled together, talking about other courses they’d taken. Most others were in some kind of business dress, and everyone had some kind of electronic gadget.

Ken was in over his head. He didn’t belong here. Ken stood up, scooped up paper and pen and walked out.

Standing outside the classroom in the empty hallway, Ken unfolded the newspaper clipping. Second careers. The future you deserve.

Yeah right.

The click of high heels echoed down the hall, as a woman in a suit approached, carrying a stack of papers. She grinned when she saw Ken. “Don’t tell me you’re here for the information night.”

“Uh . . .” Ken stood open mouthed, his ballpoint pen clattered to the ground.

“C’mon in. We’re starting shortly.” Jenn put her hand on his arm. “Looks like you already met your teacher.”

Ken followed her inside.

6 comments

  1. Frank T. Sikora

    After reading this story numerous times, I wonder if I am missing something. Where is the foreshadowing that Jenn was a teacher? If there wasn’t, then this ending came out of the deep, cobalt, PMS 300 blue. Why was Ken surprised that Jenn was a teacher? Wouldn’t he had known that even though they were divorced? I rather have an emotional solution to the story than a tricky ending, especially one that fell from heaven, wasn’t hinted at or teased.

    I liked the basic premise of the story; the challenge of reinventing oneself. Although, it took Ken a long time to strap on a pair of pants and get off his self-pitying butt. What finally prompted this change? Didn’t really see a conflict to spur on this development. Also, Ken’s co-workers behaviours and reactions to Ken’s goals seemed clichéd and rooted in plot contrivance rather than the interaction of characters with their own motivations and psychological backgrounds.

    The story kept me interested and the words flowed effortlessly. Still, that ending……

  2. Frank Sikora

    Yes. He should. Heck, he’s been on his own for a long time, and to go into his wife’s class is a step sideways — neither forward nor back.

  3. Michael Joll

    I agree. The “nice” ending seemed contrived. Ken had shown all along that he had the wherewithal to make a difference in his life by taking on the extra responsibilities at work. Why then the self doubt at the end? As for his ex being a teacher, although this snippet came out of the blue, I didn’t find any reason for Ken to know, or even suspect that she might be teaching this adult education course. A coincidence? Maybe. But not one that I found insurmountable.

    All in all I enjoyed the story (if saying so amounts to valid critique) and it reminded me that even the toughest amongst us need a little help and encouragement from time to time.

  4. Wizard

    Ken’s coworkers don’t sound brown and in this country for a better life, they sound white. I can see their baseball caps. I don’t smell the curry in their words. Nigel, I’m assuming by his name and the curried goat, is from the Caribean but there’s no hint of the islands when he offers Ken a taste. Even a cliched ‘mon’ would have given him some authenticity. And I don’t want to beat a dead horse, but the ending was contrived as it was was unrealistic. I can’t see how Ken, with his ex having booted him out of her life, would sit in a class and be schooled by her. Or maybe he is a rarity.

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