Paint splattered and battered the old radio belted out rock classics. Newspaper sunshine girls were taped to a dented refrigerator that sat next to a microwave and a terminally stained coffee pot. Three of us shared the chipped and scarred table, a relic from the old coffee room the boss had recycled. Brad and Tom sat opposite me at the far end of the table. Chairs tilted backwards. Steel-toed boots rested on the tabletop. Coffee-stained travel mugs cradled in their laps while they rehashed last night’s hockey game. Frank, a welder’s apprentice, burst into the lunchroom for the fourth time in six minutes. The door banged shut. Bounced open on its spring and crashed twice more in diminishing waves. Youthful exuberance galloped in each muddy stride as Frank trotted across the floor. Scuffed boots clip-clopped over shiny tiles. Having topped off his Tim Horton’s mug, he halted behind me, perched above my shoulder like a fourth-grade teacher. Frank canted his lanky six-foot frame forward to read my laptop screen. Onion and sardine-scented breath curled my nose hairs.
“Yo Bruce, what’s Sowen?”
“What did I tell you about rubbernecking?”
Frank shuffled foot to foot. “Said you didn’t much like it.”
“Pretty sure I politely suggested that you got out from behind me before my boot called your ass home.”
Brad and Tom laughed. Frank’s head came up from regarding the toes of his boots and hooked a thumb into his front pocket. He smiled comically.
“Are you having a crappy day, dude? Is your book gonna be like Spartacus?” grinning roguishly. “How come I never seen no books in the stores with your name on them, eh?”
Brad chirped, “Cuz you’ve never read a book that didn’t have pictures.”
“Imagine seeing yourself hanging from a coat hook,” I said to Frank and twisted in my seat to punctuate those words with a cold hard glare.
“Chill bro; I can take a hint, eh. No need to be so touchy. I was just curious.” He walked off dividing his attention between the coat hooks and my eyes, which tracked him. Collapsing into a chair, he mumbled, “Never knew it was a State secret.”
Two months earlier, suffering a death-row prisoner’s nervous twitches, I told the guys that I raced to meet a deadline; that I appreciated some privacy; that it was nothing personal. Human nature being what it is, unpredictable but keen to prove that definition, my pleas for asylum went unheeded. Five minutes ticked by when Brad parked himself behind me on his return from the coffee pot. Gusty exhalations of tobacco- and coffee-scented breath ruffled my hair and whistled in my ear. I sighted the coat hooks and decided that self-denial was a stress incubator.
“You too. Beat it.”
Brad shrugged indifferently and moved on. My frustration ebbed.
Since starting work at Hidden Oaks Design, I had purposely stayed aloof. Six years of strict parole lay ahead of me. It promised to ruin many a night’s sleep. Long-term incarceration had cultivated hermit instincts in me, but if I was honest, the writing deadline was an excuse. Solitude was my preference. Crowds were too crowded. Although the guys had tried previously to include me in conversations, the whole chitchat thing was tougher than learning to speak Spanish. Transitioning from federal prisoner to civilian parolee was difficult enough without adding cargo like human relationships and workplace politics. When a man shared his personal life, it became public, and I wanted to keep my personal life, well, personal.
With lunchtime all but gone, I tucked my laptop beneath my arm and headed outside. Bright sunny rays warmed my skin. Mother Nature produced enough warmth for me to type outdoors. Until April showers arrived, I intended to take advantage of the drought. A rutted gravel road, mostly potholes and ice, linked the lunchroom, warehouse, fabrication shop and the administration building. Adjacent to the parking lot, a sun-bleached ATCO construction trailer marked the road’s beginning. Muddy pockets and melting ice exiled further pedestrian ramblings.
March rains had reduced the dirt road to a checkerboard of semi-dry gravel scattered with brown puddles that camouflaged ice. Bordered by a gravel shoulder, a serried acre of stacked skids and metal scaffolds rose up jagged and jumbled. Months of snowfall and ice build-up had destabilized many of the steel towers. Some lay in fallen mounds while others leaned on impressive angles that seemed to defy gravity, or they tilted inwards to rest against each other. Earlier today, the boss directed me to straighten and restack those shaky towers and fallen mounds.
Up ahead, a woman walked gingerly along the gravel shoulder, delicately hopping over puddles, winding a path through firmer sections. Office personnel in general and women in particular rarely ventured into the fabrication and material storage areas. This office worker walked head down, mouth pressed tight, tiptoeing over and around muddy water minefields. Bound in a ponytail, long and curly strawberry-blonde hair that showed more red than blonde bobbed in the sun. Even pulled back tight and braided, its vibrant reds and oranges blended, except when the sun-infused a rainbow of honey undertones, reminiscent of a sunset, I thought whimsically. High cheekbones splashed with freckles emphasized a make-up-free portrait.
There was something charming about the way those features merged and mingled to produce wholesome, natural beauty that increased as time passed. It was fair to say that I enjoyed what I saw. Must not stare, I reminded myself as we drew closer, recalling that she had started working at Hidden Oaks several weeks back and had come across as a little grim-eyed and standoffish. Once or twice we acknowledged each other in the coffee truck line with a quick nod but we had never exchanged words. She chose privacy over familiarity. Wholeheartedly I supported that preference while a niggling urge to set aside my loner ways and to say hello fought to surface.
Wary blue eyes lifted, briefly meeting mine before turning away. Did she just smile? It was not a broad smile, not an inviting smile but a courteous half-smile from one employee to another. Although I still felt caged living free, twelve-months of parole had taught me that women considered prolonged glances as unspoken compliments, flirtatious, or just plain rude and unwanted. It was difficult to discern which, or what, and when each instance came true. Until I learned how to resolve those dilemmas, I practiced a roving gaze that never locked-on.
Creaking wet wood and scraping steel drew my attention to scaffolds on my right. The tall metal stack leaned worse than Italy’s tower of Pisa. Aware of the lurking danger, I walked clear of the ice-coated towers. Shaded from the sun, ice and snow between scaffolds had melted unevenly. Winter’s freeze and thaw had offset the towers like a Jenga tower on steroids. Unlike me, the sunset secretary wearing the ankle-length, hip-hugging skirt travelled the shoulder alongside those towers either unconcerned or intentionally taking the route farthest from me.
I said, “I wouldn’t walk too close to those.”
Two simultaneous events occurred: the snow- and ice-covered tower slewed toward the ground, and the woman turned an ankle on dirty ice when she followed my outstretched arm to view the leaning stack. Executing a little half-hop on one foot to regain her balance, she aligned herself with the tilting metal. Sheaves of steel scaffolds would soon peel off like windblown playing cards or stick together and fall in one crushing heap of ice, snow and steel. Reflexes catapulted me forward using a step-lunge-slide combination, which brought me close enough to lean down and to wrap my right arm around her waist. Fully committed, I clamped her firmly to my chest and lifted her cleanly as though she was a figure skater.
Sometimes I acted impulsively. Part of my nature. This scrap of insight occurred to me as I manhandled the woman without her permission.
“What? Wait. Put me down! Stop!” she protested and pushed at my shoulders.
Ignoring her plea, I pivoted on my front foot, using our momentum to win free, spinning sideways and out. At some point in our spin, she stopped pushing and grabbed my shoulders for balance as centrifugal force pulled at her torso. At the end of our compulsory movement, while her eyes unleashed alarm and fear, scaffolds clattered and clanked to the ground. They landed heavily in an icy puddle half the size of a toddler’s blow-up swimming pool. Cold, muddy water sprayed the backs of my legs, soaking my coveralls.
She flinched at the sudden clink clanking of crashing metal, jolted out of her fright. The realization that she had been standing where the scaffolds had landed drained the trepidation from her eyes. Despite receiving the brunt of the cold spray, only two sensations occupied my thoughts: the presence of soft breasts sliding along my chest and the marvellously clean herbal scent rising from her hair. Once inhaled, that herbal elixir spread rejuvenation throughout my body.
Shiny low-heeled leather shoes touched the earth. Naturally grown eyebrows furrowed inward, creasing her forehead. Light blue flecks peppered the edges of her otherwise dark blue eyes where laugh lines had formed at the corners. When I shook myself free of that hypnotizing blue ocean, I realized my hands yet rested on her waist, as though they had been uniquely fashioned to cradle its curvy contours. Soft and yielding warmth graced my palms. I released her and stepped back.
“Sorry to startle you.”
She tucked a shirttail and smoothed a ruffled skirt. “I’m fine. And thank you,” she said establishing eye contact.
Two or three seconds passed. Her candid and open scrutiny turned prickly. It rapidly degenerated into just plain rude and unwanted. Blood rose in my cheeks for no good reason. An urge to depart built and built. Despite a small and hesitant smile that revealed a tiny gap between two rows of white teeth, which invited more conversation, I longed to escape her company and to avoid feeling the social ineptitude racing through my head.
“Good. Alright then. Fine.”
She said, “Yes. Right. Thank you again.”
A heartbeat later, I discovered our contact had aroused me. Cold showers were the traditional cure to address such situations, but after thousands of cold prison showers, just the sound of rain invoked a reflex erection. On the heels of that quirky thought, I wondered what her laugh sounded like, what it would be like to spend an afternoon together, and what her interests were? Immediate and unwarranted frustration sparked inside me when I reminded myself that none of those quandaries could ever reach maturity. There was no room in my life for distractions. In the very next instant, I condemned her by thinking that if she had more common sense she would not have walked so damned close to those scaffolds.
“Fine. Later,” I mumbled inadequately and hurried off feeling like a schmuck who lacked the wherewithal to be gracious. “Judas Iscariot body,” I said sotto voce.
Had she suffered physical injuries, Robert Mansbridge, the company’s owner, would have demanded an explanation. If she filed an Occupational Health and Safety complaint, I would be forced to explain why I had procrastinated to follow the boss’s orders to make the field safe. Blame the rock-stupid parolee. Haul ass into the forklift and complete Mansbridge’s task, I thought. An unsatisfactory work evaluation would be enough reason for Mike Beck, my parole officer, to crash down on me like skyscraper rubble. Rather than continue to feed my pity party, my energies would be better-spent posting ‘Caution’ signs along the road, and then I’d ask one of the administrative personnel to circulate a company memo that warned of the potential risk.
When the briefest female encounter elicited a strong physical reaction, it was time for an extra kendo lesson. Although I had hired a hooker my first week out, her professional demeanour had felt inexplicably unsatisfying. After twelve years without female company, dissatisfaction was the last sensation I had expected to feel. Since my encounter with the raven-haired working girl, I had sworn off hookers. The palm sisters were my only dates, and I would gladly divorce them for Kira, my kendo instructor, but I had yet to crack her defences. I was the one she cracked with her shinai. It was an S&M (smooth and mindless) thing.
A small grin played at the corners of my mouth as I recalled the alluring scent of the sunset secretary’s hair, and how rewarding that little smile she fired at me had felt. My father’s wisdom whispered, ‘Life’s little treasures make all the difference; you just have to pay attention.’ Dirty water pooled in my left hand. The one holding my laptop. Tiny bubbles popped as muddy fluid seeped into the edges of the screen. My smile dissolved. Thinking about the Katana Dojo, remembering my first two weeks of kendo instruction, did not assuage my displeasure.