An Honest Day’s Work

Abe sat on the upturned bushel basket. His bicycle lay on the nearby grass. The gravel crunched as the dark station wagon turned into the lane-way.  Through the barn door the edge of an orange tarp was visible.

The air was heavy with the smell of ripe fruit and rotten vines from the adjacent tomato field but the normal clanging machinery and buzz of low German conversation was absent from the greenhouse and barn.

The dark station wagon stopped before the open barn door and two young men in dark suits got out.  Mr. Enns approached them, “Guess you guys are in the right business, eh, completely recession proof.”

“I suppose, but not in this case. It’s more a service – the government cheque won’t even cover our costs and the family won’t be able to.”

With that the young men walked into the barn and towards the orange tarp.

The warmth of the afternoon was starting to wane. Abe sat, alone, on the upturned basket reflecting on those long minutes when he had listened to the sirens as the fire truck made its way north from town. Those minutes when he had still hoped for a miracle.

From the yard he’d heard Elsie scream.  Jacob had shouted desperately for Simon to turn off the augur.

He had turned in time to see Tyrone, caught by the draw string of his hoodie, pulled into the augur. Simon managed to disengage the PTO and Abe and Elsie pulled Tyrone loose and started CPR but even then he knew it was useless.  The draw string had cut deeply into Tyrone’s throat and a metallic smell had filled the air.

He looked down and realized his jeans were stained brown and stiff.

Jacob had fled the barn and could be heard throwing up behind the shed even after the fire fighters and then the ambulance had arrived.

The coroner in his Blue Saab had come and gone.  The ambulance had left without a patient. That was hours ago by now.  Abe sat still and stared at the tarp.  He watched as the young men from Reid’s funeral home pulled back the tarp and, with as much dignity as possible, wrestled Tyrone’s corpse into the Ford station wagon.

His arms and back ached.

By now the police would have advised the consulate and the consulate would have made a phone call to Jamaica.  Like when Abe’s sister fell ill with a fever and died when he was just a child or like when his cousin was killed in a traffic accident in Texas he was sure that somewhere in Jamaica neighbours had gathered bringing casseroles (well maybe not casseroles) hugging the young woman who was now a widow and telling Tyrone’s young daughter that it was God’s plan even if it was hard to understand.

Why did people always need to give an answer even when it was obvious there wasn’t one. Or at least, not one that made any sense.

Abe hadn’t known Tyrone well but they both lived at the motel during the season.  Abe like the other Mennonites from Mexico was a Canadian citizen.  His people had come to Manitoba in the 1870s and then left for Mexico after a fight with the government over sending their children to public schools.  They had retained their Canadian citizenship and passed it down to children and grandchildren.

Therefore, they could travel easily back to Leamington to work in the tomato fields and greenhouses. Most brought their families and many lived in Essex county full time now.  The had their own Churches – not like the liberal churches of the Russian Mennonites who owned the farms but proper Churches.  Abe’s wife and children stayed home in Mexico and so he had lived at the motel for the summer and fall every year for the last six years.

The motel was full of Jamaican workers here on temporary visas. The Jamaican’s families, like Abe’s, were far away and so he felt a kinship with them.  He rarely made it to Church and didn’t spend too much time away from the farm with his low German speaking countrymen and he rarely joined his labouring brethren at the motel as they drank their Saturday evening away in the parking lot. But he’d gotten to know Tyrone enough to wave hello.

When Tyrone had fractured his foot working in the orchard and was let go by the farmer[1] the Jamaican Liaison Service had given him three days to find a job or fly home. His visa only allowed him to stay if he was working and the Jamaican Liaison Service was a good partner to Canada enforcing the rules (and getting injured workers quickly out of the country) to preserve the relationship and the jobs.

Abe had put in a good word last week and gotten him a job sorting produce at the greenhouse. He wouldn’t have to move around much and the doctor at the emergency room had said he could stand with the walking boot on.  Mr. Enns had even paid Tyrone one week in advance so he could pay for the boot.

Abe pictured the blood staining the concrete floor as Tyrone’s eyes bulged and clouded.  He knew that most of the machines were still running and that voices had been shouting in English and low German as people sprinted to help or ran to protect themselves from the sight.  It must have been loud as the barn always is but, in his memory, there is no noise except Elsie counting in German. He couldn’t even remember Tyrone trying to gasp or breathe. Abe had pushed on the dead man’s chest pausing for Elsie to breath into his mouth. Elsie had counted and breathed.

What could have only been minutes from when Abe first heard the sirens of the fire engine until the firefighter took over for him felt, in his memory, like hours.

The hours that had followed until now, as he watched the boys from Reid’s load their cargo, felt like a few minutes.

He knew that the man from the ministry had come in his white Ford F-150. He’d stood close by as Mr. Enns had told the investigator that it was farm policy that the guard be in place at all times.  It was the policy. It was also true that they were paid by the piece in the sorting barn and the guard never stayed in place long as it slowed the work. From time to time Mr. Enns would insist the guard be replaced but he rarely noticed when it was removed. That morning Mr. Enns had spoken to Tyrone telling him what was expected of him.  The conversation took place three and a half feet from the unguarded augur.

Why on earth had Tyrone been wearing a hoodie? It made no sense. The calendar said September but the sun insisted it was still August. Stupid. It was careless to have a draw strings around the machinery. He must have known that from working in the orchard.  Surely, someone had warned him about the augur – just last summer it took two of Anita’s fingers.

There would be a fine for Mr. Enns but nothing more. The investigation was easy and quick.  Workers had removed the guard.  “The removal was unauthorized but management should have been more vigilant” the ministry of labour lawyer will advise a justice of the peace six months from now.  Mr. Enns won’t be there but his lawyer will agree and the fine will be set and ordered paid within 30 days.

Tyrone’s red Ohio State hoodie wasn’t even torn.  The string had caught and the augur wound it tight first choking Tyrone and then tearing into his skin and finally severing the artery and yet the fabric of the sweat shirt remained completely intact.

Earlier – as the fire fighters and the paramedics continued pro forma CPR while awaiting confirmation from the coroner that the victim was dead – Abe heard the voices, “Ya well you got to be more careful around the tractor for sure” but he lacked the energy to tell them to shut the fuck up.

Later Simon addressed him directly, “since we’ve got the afternoon off we are going to the Family Kitchen on Erie street. Do you want to join me and the girls – it will be a nice afternoon you should come”

“No. It’s not a damn vacation day the body is still lying right there” is what he remembered saying.  His indignation both justified and clear. A mumbled “no, thanks” is all Simon remembered hearing.

He couldn’t help but think of the house or apartment in Jamaica filled with grief.  He didn’t even know what part of the country Tyrone was from.  Abe didn’t know Tyrone’s wife’s name. Tyrone had shown him the picture of his two girls – 9 and 4.  Abe couldn’t remember their names but much later tonight as he helped to pack up Tyrone’s belongings at the motel he will sit and hold that photo and think of his own little Maria and Ruth.  It would be then, with his girl’s blonde hair in his mind, that he will cry.

The station wagon pulled away. Mr. Enns closed the barn door.

“Everyone else has gone Abe, you’d best go too. The days are getting shorter and the sunlight won’t last. You know it isn’t safe biking in the dark and I can’t be down two men Monday morning.”

Mr. Enns’ voice trailed off.  Enns swallowed hard. “I know you knew him, I didn’t mean anything – just be safe Abe.”  With that Enns turned and walked back towards the house.

“I know sir”

Had Abe actually answered or only thought the words, he couldn’t be sure.

He mounted the old CCM Supercycle and pedaled up the lane. He could see Mr. Enns pushing his young son on the swing and Mrs. Enns was hanging laundry on the line.

He rode slowly south.  The air was heavy but cooler now that the sun was setting. The road side stands offered cucumbers and tomatoes for sale.

He was angry at the line of cars that snaked around Tim Hortons waiting in the drive thru.

In fifteen minutes he’d be back to the motel.  Word will have already spread but the men at the hotel will want him to repeat the story.  And, he’ll be happy to relive the day’s events surrounded by Tyrone’s friends.  He’ll feel a real kinship with men that for years have lived beside him separated only by the thin walls of Rymal’s motel. For an hour or so they will all be bonded by Tyrone’s death and Abe will belong.

An hour and a half from now he’ll be helping to pack up Tyrone’s room.  It will be then that he will hold that photograph of two small girls on a beach. In the photo one has her curly hair held back by an orange headband and the other is wearing tight braids and a white dress. It will be then that he’ll quietly excuse himself.  It will be then that he will stand behind the motel and think of his Maria.  He will recall Ruth, as a baby, falling asleep on his shoulder. He will cry.

He won’t sob or make a scene. He will quietly indulge a few tears as he thinks of his little girls and those two other girls posing for a photo on the beach.

Now he is simply pedaling his bike. He is surprised to see that life is going on normally throughout town.

Later the men in the parking lot will invite Abe to join them, to toast Tyrone’s memory.  He will politely decline, reminding them that he doesn’t drink.  He wouldn’t be able to think of anything to say in any event. He’d lived in a room next to Tyrone for three and a half months now. He’d waved hello. He’d remarked upon the weather and Tyrone had told him that even July wasn’t hot enough for him. “Sure, is humid enough, yet” Abe had replied.  Then Tyrone had gotten hurt and needed a job and Abe helped him get work at the Enns farm. Not really enough material for a meaningful toast even if Abe had wanted to join in. Other than the details of Tyrone’s death Abe won’t have anything else to say.  But that won’t be until later, after sunset, after Tyrone’s room has been packed up for the men from the consulate who are coming from Windsor in the morning. For now Abe simply pedaled his bike towards the motel and focused only on the road in front of him.

Hours from now Abe will realize it is too late to call his wife and he will send a serious of text messages instead.  He will also text his uncle and invite himself to Church.  He hasn’t been inside a Church for over a year but looking down at his phone he will realize that he has made a plan for the morning and asked for a ride.

He will fall asleep to the sounds of music in the parking lot of the motel as the once somber gathering gets louder with each drink consumed in Tyrone’s honour.  The quiet embraces and condolences of the evening will turn in rowdy and bawdy stories by midnight.  The music will be turned up.  The collection taken up for the widow will be forgotten, at least for the night, and laughter will roll in waves as the men recall Tyrone’s adventures.  Abe doesn’t have any stories to tell and he will listen to all of this from his bed behind a closed door. 

Tomorrow is Sunday and he will join his uncle and aunt and his cousins at Church.  He will even stay for the potluck lunch and join the game of softball. He is really too old to be playing baseball but he will play all the same.

He will wake in the early morning hours, the parking lot quiet, the old Sunday school hymn Gott ist die Liebe playing as the sound track to dreams of Tyrone’s lifeless body. Except it was his face not Tyrone’s that he saw in his dream.  In his dream the photograph at the beach was of Maria and Ruth. He will shake himself and get out of bed to piss.

Tomorrow afternoon after he is home from Church and the potluck and the softball game he will call home and the conversation with his girls will seem more sacred and special than usual.

Monday he will ride his bike north on Highway 77 and go to work.

[1] The apple farmer in Ruthven, Tyrone said, had made it very clear he didn’t believe that Tyrone was hurt at work. The farmer insisted that he hurt himself in the evening and came to work trying to get benefits. Well he wasn’t going to give him the WSIB forms because he knew Tyrone’s type and Tyrone wasn’t hurt even hurt, he could tell. If Tyrone insisted on pretending to be hurt to get out of work he could take his last paycheque and go because he was fired.

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