WEDNESDAY: The Jackknife


Previously published in Canadian Stories. Copyright is held by the author.

“Wheredja get it? That’s so cool,” I said looking at my cousin enviously.

“In the store,” Tim said, “behind the cash register. You have to ask the lady to get one for you.”

“Wow!” I said looking at the jackknife with wonder. How had I missed this buying opportunity? I had blown my allowance on a comic and some chips. If only I’d seen those miniature jackknives for sure I would have got that instead.

Back at the cottage on Grandad’s island in Georgian Bay I lived in a state of envy for days while my cousin Tim carved his initials in logs at the water’s edge, stabbed ants clean through, picked his fingernails, cleaned his teeth and flung his miniature weapon at trees with the expertise of an axe thrower. For an excruciating week, all I could do was look on, green-eyed.

When we were out of milk I got my chance. Mom sent the men out in the big boat, The 55, we called it, for the Johnson 55 outboard that hung on the transom. A marina outing — yes! We didn’t need propane, they weren’t taking the hundred-pound canisters that ran the fridge and stove, this was just a milk run. There’d be plenty of room for us kids. It wasn’t just the boat ride we loved, it was another chance to blow our summer allowance at the Marina’s General Store. I still had a two-dollar bill and some change left and that money had jackknife written all over it.

My Uncle Trevor eased the Cedar Strip runabout alongside the worn wooden docks at Killbear Park Marina. Trevor said he’d take care of the gasoline fill up.

My Dad hopped out, tied up, and, with his list from my Mom, headed straight for the shop, telling us kids in no uncertain terms, “Trevor won’t be long at the pump. You’ve got ten minutes and I want to see you back at the boat.”

There was no time to lose. We were a blur of fluorescent orange as we struggled to pull life jackets off over our heads and toss them back in the boat. Crumpled bills in hand and change in our pockets, our summer-browned legs scrambled up the dock and across the dirt parking lot to the store. We wrenched the screen door open and let it slam with a bang behind us.

We were in. Consumer’s paradise. Let the big spending begin. As far as I was concerned, there was no need to look at the raspberry jellies, the Cinnamon Stix, or the Double Bubble. Ha! Candy was for kids! I was there to procure my weapon!

I got in line and when my turn came at the till I pointed to the cardboard display behind the cash.

“Can I have a jackknife please?”

The middle-aged cashier handed it to me — what a thrill. Tim had the one with the Canadian flag on it, I chose one with a tiny image of a Mountie on the side. A dollar, 99 plus tax. There was no doubt this was a premium cutting tool, a never-dull Swedish stainless blade. I was in heaven.

My sisters and my cousins took their time filling penny candy bags from the boxes that lined the shelves beneath the counter and perusing the comic stand for new issues. Not me — I was already outside holding my new knife in the palm of my hand, unfolding it slightly to see the blade gleam in the sunlight, refolding it to its neat little pocket size.

I sauntered down the dock. My Dad was already waiting in The 55 with Trevor.

“Whatcha’ got there?” my Dad said as he jammed the Mae West-style life jacket over my head nearly taking my ears off in the process. “Oh, I see, you’ve seen how much fun Tim was having…”

“Oh noooo . . .” I let out a mournful exclamation. To show my Dad my purchase I had pulled the blade fully out from its folded position. Only then did I realize that the mechanism didn’t work. The blade would not unfold all the way. Something inside was jamming.

“What’s happened?” my Dad said somewhat harshly, he had no time for whining.

“It’s doesn’t work!” I said crestfallen.

“Let’s see,” he said.

I handed him my prize with slumped posture, my chin sinking in to the head hole of the life jacket. I was drowning in a sea of buyer’s remorse.

“Cheap Chinese junk,” my Dad announced. “You’re right it doesn’t open properly, looks like there’s a faulty rivet in the hinge.”

He could see how disappointed I was. I’d blown most of my remaining summer money on this Mountie-adorned weapon. I hadn’t carved one single initial into one piece of wood and already my knife had let me down.

“Take it back,” my Dad said, handing the jackknife to me.

I looked from the tiny toy in my hand and stared up at my Dad in horror.

“Take it back to the store and get your money back,” he said.

I hesitated.

“Just tell the lady it doesn’t work.”

My feet remained frozen to the dock. Take it back? Confront an adult? Make demands for reimbursement? The thought of it terrified me. I was just a kid. Surely, they wouldn’t believe me. Adults didn’t just give money to kids with broken toys — did they?

“Come with me?” I said, in a weak plea for solidarity.

“You can do it. Come on now, hurry up. And while you’re up there tell your sisters and cousins to hurry up too.”

I turned and walked back to the Marina store my terror building with every step. I passed my posse at the door.

“Dad says hurry up,” I told them.

“Well where are you going?” Tim said.

“This knife’s broken and my Dad says I should take it back.”

This Tim had to see. I opened the screen door more slowly this time and took my place in the checkout queue, cousin Tim close behind me.

When my turn came I gingerly placed the jackknife back on the counter and looked up at the checkout lady, my pink face the central disc in the safety-orange flower of my life jacket.

“This knife’s broken,” I said as politely as I could.

“Do you want another one or do you just want your money back?” she said monotonously.

“Can I have my money back?” I said, amazed that my declaration had gone unchallenged.

She counted it out, two dollars and 14 cents. I jammed it in my pocket and got out of there, chuffed at my coup. I swaggered back down the dock, my head held high. Cousin Tim, owner of cheap Chinese junk, in tow.

“Well?” my Dad said, “Did you get your money back?”

“Yes,” I said proudly.

“See, I told you you could do it. Good stuff!” My Dad beamed at me.

And I beamed myself. My hair flew in the breeze as my Uncle Trevor gunned The Fifty-Five back to Spruce Island. It was the only time I ever came back from a trip to the Marina Store with money in my pocket. I didn’t get a jackknife, but that was okay. That day I got something better.

  1. Great story. I can totally relate with your protagonist. I remember as kid always having a tough time trying to figure out how to divvy up my own hard earned money – and later regretting what I had purchased.

  2. A gripping insight into a different lifestyle and at the same time, comforting similarity between awkward aspects of human childhood everywhere.

  3. Totally real and well written … nicely done Jennifer … brings back summer memories of days gone by.

  4. Love this story! The terror of confronting adults and “proving” that you didn’t do anything wrong – love this!

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