With the arrival of winter, I worked inside the warehouse, the fabrication shop and the ATCO trailer. I was the company gopher. Months earlier, Odera had assumed responsibility for the administration building housing the accountant, junior draftsmen and the administrative assistants for Hidden Oaks Design and Duraform, an excavation and cribbing company co-owned by Doug Hendricks and Robert Mansbridge. Duraform dug the foundations and erected the base walls for many of Hidden Oaks’ contracts.
Mid-November snowfalls reduced my outside duties and allowed me additional hours to complete computer projects. During the last four months, Odera had turned us into an efficient team. After spending the morning alongside her designing an inventory program, I stood and stretched. A trip to the warehouse would remove the muscle kinks from my back and I craved a smoke. Three cigarettes a day was all I allowed myself. Because it was fast becoming unacceptable to smoke, even outdoors, smoking forced me into seclusion, which suited my reasons for smoking just fine. Heading out the trailer door, I passed Robert, who looked at me sideways giving me the usual once-over whenever I worked with his daughter for long periods.
Robert stopped at Odera’s side. “How’s the flowchart coming?”
“Finished. We started coding. Bruce went for Doug’s stock rotation and defective material handling sheets. I want to include templates.” She straightened her sweater, enhanced by a pearl necklace, a gift from her grandmother. “Doug landed that fifteen-hundred-piece order. If this keeps up, we’ll need to hire again.”
“The two of you have been spending quite a bit of time together.”
“With Bruce? You can have him back once we debug. We need a LAN to link everyone. Give us a fair budget and we’ll streamline bids, production, contracts and billing practices. Tax season would be ten times easier if I didn’t have to run a paperwork marathon.” Turning in her chair, she said, “Speaking of marathons, Bruce deserves a raise, Dad. He’s way overdue for his annual. If you contracted an IT company you’d easily pay triple. Although, new hardware and software is the way to go.”
“Yes, well. I’ll consider it, but that’s why I have you. He hasn’t, ah, made any unwanted advances, has he?”
“If you don’t hurry up and do so, then I will. And Bruce has been a gentleman. You’d be the second person to hear about it if he wasn’t.”
“He hasn’t acted improperly? I know how sensitive you are around men,” he prompted gently, noting her manicured fingernails sparkled with snowflakes. She had stopped chewing them. “So long as contact is of your own freewill and you feel able to terminate association if that’s your wish.”
“I’ve never felt threatened by him. He’s hard-headed, but not forceful,” she said clasping her father’s hand. “Adapting to everyday life isn’t easy for him.”
“You’re looking stronger, by the way. More your old self. Your cheeks are rosy. Are you sleeping better?”
“Actually, I was inventorying clamps, donuts, ties and forms with Bruce under the A-frame. Doug’s swamped and couldn’t spare anyone. I volunteered. Bruce climbed and counted while I recorded.”
“Sometimes I think that I made a mistake hiring him, but Mike Beck said that none of Bruce’s reports indicate he’s likely to―”
“I know, Daddy. Stop obsessing. I’m fine. Really. You didn’t make a mistake. Doug has almost turned over all material allocation to Bruce. Half the time the guys go directly to him. You pay Mexican wages and you’re forever calling on him last minute. It wouldn’t surprise me if he quit. He’s thinking about designing an electronic publishing site,” she announced, beaming love and understanding at parental worry.
“He never mentioned anything about it to me, but then we hardly speak. And I use him weekends because he said he could use the extra money.”
“Well, of course, he needs extra bucks with the pittance you’ve been paying. What’s really bothering you?”
“The pair of you worked together Saturday. Honey, I’m concerned. I can assign him other duties. He isn’t forcing your silence, is he? If he was, you can tell me. You needn’t be afraid,” he encouraged and accompanied his words with a protective look. “You can always come to me. You know that, right?”
“Pressuring me? Of course not. And I enjoy working with him. For all of his roughness, he’s a workaholic like you. You guys share the same quirk for detail.” She realized that her father had suffered right along with her and wanted to help. “Thanks for your concern, but I’m okay.”
“I just wanted to be sure,” he said patting her shoulder. “I’ve heard about cases where the victim didn’t feel able to come forward. With your ordeal, I thought that maybe, well, you know ― it might have been a possibility.”
“I’m feeling better all the time.” At her father’s worry-prompted good intentions and growing concern, she said in a lowered voice, “Didn’t you know about Bruce?”
“You must promise never to reveal what I’m about to tell you. A man picked him up after work Thursday. You were out back, so you didn’t see, but they seemed to be more than just casual friends.”
“Are you sure?” he asked, crinkling his nose. “He doesn’t come across that way.”
“Because he doesn’t lisp? Not everybody fits the stereotype,” she remarked, recalling the day. The man had been Bruce’s climbing partner.
“That explains why I’ve never seen him with a woman or even heard him speak of a girlfriend for that matter.”
“Remember the day by the frames? Well, he ran away afterward, as if just lifting me was uncomfortable somehow. Rather than feel unsure, be thankful he was there. He’s hardworking, competent and honest. He deserves a raise, not your mistrust.”
“I suppose you’re right.”
“That’s okay; he’s like an onion. You have to peel back one layer at a time to get to know him but doing so makes your eyes water. Adapting to life after prison holds many of the challenges I’m facing. I told him about being attacked.”
“Keep doing what you’re doing and working with Dr. Brinkman. Don’t worry.” He squeezed her shoulder. “Bruce’s secret is safe, but I may give him a raise.”
“It helps to have someone who’ll listen without judgement and who doesn’t offer advice.”
Odera had never shared the particulars of her assault with him. Although he sometimes wondered about the specifics of that night, if only to better equip himself to understand the grieving process, Robert felt unsure if he really wanted to hear every detail. What information he possessed came from hospital surgeons, police reports and the sentencing hearing. The defendant had spared Odera the ordeal of testifying when he pled guilty. It bothered Robert that she had confided in Bruce. What did she see in him to elicit such trust? What could they possibly share in common? Maybe it was what they did not share ― like a connection to the world at large.
“Should you ever feel threatened, you’ll come to me, won’t you?”
“Of course, I will. I love you tons. Shush now. Here he comes. I’ll call Mom. My turn to have you guys over. Go do whatever it is you do when the rest of us are busting our butts to make you shine.”
Light and fluffy powder snow coated my boots when I stamped them clean. I entered the trailer in time to watch Mansbridge plant a kiss on top of Odera’s head. Witnessing the warmth between them triggered a childhood recollection. Sounds and textures flared into memory. Wintertime. Snow. Two or three years old. My young arms wrapped around Dad’s knees, hugging blue nylon pants with the chrome snaps up the sides. The wind was blowing at our backs while I clung for life gliding faster and faster downwind on skates across the frozen lake.
“I’ve been meaning to speak with you, Bruce.” Mansbridge’s formal tone jerked my thoughts forward. “Our church is starting a restorative justice program to mediate grievances between victims and youth offenders. Would you be willing to meet with our Pastor? Your prison experience has given you insight into the judicial process that we lack. Many changes must happen to a person jailed for so long.”
Soft laughter floated over from the background.
“I’d be happy to share what I can.” I snatched a glance into the alcove.
A ghost of a grin faded as Odera turned back to the monitor.
“You’re welcome to stay for the service afterwards. We’re very liberally-minded,” he imparted sincerely and briefly laid a hand on my shoulder as if it taxed him somehow. “You could bring a friend.” Odera shut the door, but not before muffled laughter reached me. I granted Robert a quick nod. “Next Sunday then. How’s 9:00 a.m. sound?” he suggested and retreated two paces. “I’ll text you the address. I look forward to sitting down with you and Pastor Don. Keep up the good work.”
“What the hell was that about?” I said to Odera after Robert had departed.
“Daddy’s involved with parent/victim support programs. In the beginning, it was his way of dealing. Now, he enjoys helping underprivileged kids find hope after experiencing traumatic events. Hidden Oaks is sponsoring an inner-city hockey team this winter. I’m glad that you agreed. Your talk could potentially help change a young life.”
Twinkles of hidden mirth danced across her face. I nodded dubiously.
“I suppose so.”
“Daddy may seem a little charred on the outside, but he’s all gooey like a toasted marshmallow on the inside. C’mon. Let’s get this job done.”