Jamie sits on a bench in front of the candy store, boots on the thick wood slats that make up the sidewalk, sucking a licorice-root confection, and realizes he is in love.
There are green shingles siding the law office, a green that recalls the quality of foliage on fir trees but a hue washed out by time, sun and rain. He watches tourists pushing strollers, Grandmothers smiling, and wide eyed children running to the edge of the railway tracks to lean over the short red fence and wave at the engineer as the steam engine strains its gallon and slowly lunges forward, huge pistons pushing rods, pushing wheels that spin and then grab on steel rails. It’s CPR 2040, huge and black with six drive wheels and it smells of oil and coal smoke and it hauls three long passenger cars over a course that winds through the park and Jamie is in love.
“The book contains hints on how to successfully interview for a job. It is a guide to translating the words and questions of an interrogator so that one can properly impress them and gain employment.
The process is absurd. Humanity is extracted from the string of occurrences and discarded. Someone employs a psychologist who studies examples of behavior, a mysterious and inexact science, and through a process involving averaging the statistical results of questionable research, compiles a set of graphs and charts on which are plotted points of perceived certainty that are in reality only shadows of possibilities. These points and their meaning are distilled and an acceptable percentile of conformity to their speculated standard is arrived at. This percentile is deemed appropriate and anyone who answers the right amount of questions in the proper manner will fall near this percentile and be hired, an acceptable person to have in the workplace.
You have agreed to this. By necessity. There is no other way to choose the employees of a major corporation. There isn’t time. So, these entities contracted to hire employees for the corporation become hierarchies that supply the raw material for the grist of the business suit, jungle warfare game board. And the successful candidates for the job are people who read the “Sharpen Your Interview Skills” titles available in the business section of the bookstore in the nearby mall. The players are now picked based on their ability to decipher the psychobabble invented by individuals bent on making cash from a process that the business can’t possibly have time to examine.”
Jamie Bean stops typing and looks at the page. Re-reads. He feels adrenaline and anger, and knows he has hit the nail on the head.
Jamie spends all his time threading webs through the corporate world, being hired, fixing problems, watching, listening, drawing conclusions and quitting, waiting for his next contract to materialize miraculously from behind closed doors where corporate decisions incubate.
He is sick of it. It is vile to him. And on a day in early September, with nothing else to do and enticed by an ad claiming ‘Free Admission All Weekend!’, he lifts his heart to the possibility of a day of pleasant distraction at a park, a place he has never been before, The Heritage County Grounds.
The park is vast. It sits on a plateau overlooking a reservoir with a view that extends across the water to the mountains, hazy in the distance. The streets are gravel and the sidewalks are wooden slats. Horses pull wagons, tourists chatter and corral their children away from the turds littering the street. The buildings are constructed from rough-hewn lumber, a laundry, dentist office, livery, snooker lounge, bakery, lumber company, and on another street a law office, a confectionary, the town hotel, and the traders bank (Masons lodge upstairs – muted and cold).
They are not replicas. These are buildings that have been dismantled in small towns all over the Province, boxed, packed, tied, bundled and shipped on railcars to be re-assembled on a lot on the plateau, the next installation in a make believe town that mimics exactly a spirit that hasn’t existed in over a hundred years.
He feels the sun on his face and marvels at the beauty of the leaves turning color, dying, and wonders if the colors of autumn serve any purpose other than pure beauty. “No,” he thinks, “of course not, and if all of natures’ gifts represent in metaphor, lessons – then there must be something beautiful in death”.
He glances at the sidewalk and sees a tiny brown spider that has attached a web to his pants, suspended – reaching at a gentle angle on a slight breeze in the air between his right knee and the boards at his feet.
Over the next weeks he is at the park six times, and on the last Sunday of the month applies for a job as a faux shipper/receiver at the warehouse building on the end of the main street. They are happy to have him, his greying beard is authentic.
On weekends he gets to wear striped coveralls and a skimmer hat and disappear temporarily into a place untouched by departments labeled ‘Human Resources’.
Before the season can turn again, he has mapped the entire length of the chain link fence surrounding the property, all thirty four miles of it, and has cut three entrances with bolt cutters through which he can slip in the night, to gain access to “his park”, his refuge.
He plays billiards by moonlight, sits in the Dentist’s chair, polishes the painted cold steel railings of the bench seats, hears the drop of his boot-heels on the sidewalks and listens for the voices he has begun to hear;
“Bill, I need that load of shingles tomorrow. I can’t wait any longer and your excuses and your money problems make me loath to say this, but they are your problems. I have given you two months to make good on our trade. I can’t wait any longer, winter is coming and my roof won’t brave another spring without those shingles.”
The scent of fir infuses his senses – wet, sweet, and heavy on the air. The lumber yard is a maze of stacked board. Hairy, thick planks lain funereal in the moonlight, dull bladed accidents. Shards of bark in the dirt at his feet.
He comes back every night.
Standing inside the Bank in a corner away from the door in the stale, dank air, he closes his eyes to dream.
He sees a brace of sunbeams angle from the windows at the front of the building, brilliant pillars pressing at the scarred floorboards. Illuminated dust sways in the light, hovering on air and curling into the vacuum left by movement. Bars on the teller’s vestibules, rubber thimble on thumb – machine quick – counting out stacks of bills, with a crisp paper shuffle. White shirt, elbow garters and stern collar, manicured nails at the ends of pudgy hands, the bank manager sits at his huge oak desk, leather chair squeaking as he leans forward to make the point;
“You can’t have it both ways. There isn’t a chance that contraption will pay off. I say keep your money in the bank. It’s just too risky.”
…and he wonders why they are talking to him.
The dry goods store is warm, fire crackling and snapping in the pot-bellied stove, the black pipe issuing a punk stench of burning birch. The shopkeeper wears her apron cinched beneath her breast, bound with laces, knotted at the back with a quick, tight bow.
“You know Elizabeth has been waiting on someone to call. She’s a fine woman, and young, you could do a lot worse there, Mr. Bean.
Look at you. You spend all of your time alone. You don’t socialize, you don’t go anywhere but that dusty warehouse, day in day out. I think you should to see her sometime. Just wander in, she’s always there, and I’ve heard her speak of you. She wonders why you’re always alone.
Anyway, you look wonderful and you’re such a generous, kind man. I see you with the children, you’re a good soul. I think you need someone else in your life. No one can exist without others you know”.
The afternoon sun is low in the sky, colored with a veil of yellow where the mountains lay at the horizon, a scud of grey cloud over the plains mid-way between.
Cigar smoke, cards and smell of old beer. The reek of piss left on straw by horses at the foot of the stairs leading up to the grey doors. Clack of billiard balls, raucous laughter and curses spilled freely.
“It’s supposed to take about six weeks, the whole trip. I’d do it in a minute if I had the passage. You take the train to Vancouver and then ship out northbound up the coast. Anchorage is the northern most stop and from there, it’s train again down through northern B.C. and Alberta.
You’d have time. I heard Mr. Dufferin from the bank did that trip, you should ask him.
Do you remember the time we went out to Seattle? Goddamn, I remember laughing so hard in that dining car that they almost threw us off the train.”
He won’t answer their questions. And he won’t talk to the issues, and he wonders where they get their ideas. Sometimes he thinks he can feel the conversations they allude to. The times, the feelings, the camaraderie.
A thought circulates just within his heart. It’s not a question. Instead, it’s a kind of request. A whim, “…but this is not real. They’re not real”.
Thick, warm shirt, fall day. The south wind is a steady breath on the leaves, yellowing and dry. Under the sun and the clouds and under the planets and the universe, under the trees where the leaves fall and under the sky where the wind blows. Under eternity and under infinity, here it all is. All there will ever be.
October kneels. Its leaves, cool air, and diffused light paint the harvest fruit. Fields are mottled brown, a certain, muted umber. Endings. He feels this, what’s more he feels that all humans can feel this, and he says aloud to the trees, “We all share a melancholy walk through this thick air, separate in our perception and joined at our hearts. There is gallantry in this great divesting of skin. Last years’ burned detritus kicked aside, naked we walk toward the grey autumn air.”
“Good lord Bean, you’re so optimistic, you always are. But I don’t know that there’s anything we can do, the cattle are too skinny to sell now. And they’d never make the trip anyway.
That damned river, it’s never been reliable. And the wells the Burns boys drilled, no wonder they left for Montana so soon after.
I’d give my right arm for a west wind with some rain on it.”
Maybe I can help them.
And then one bright, blustery winter day with the snow drifted too deep in the fields, and the shadows too long in the afternoon he notices a difference. He tries to think back, to isolate the time, or the day, but it won’t come. When did this start? It’s impossible to say. They’ve begun to address conversation not to him, but past him;
“I hope they have enough hay for the herd this year, this is going to be a long winter. The almanac said we’re in for it.”
Maybe I can help them.
“Did you read about the flu in Ontario? The papers say all the children and all the elderly are dropping from fever out there. The train will bring it, you’ll see. Just wait a month”.
They’re going to need help.
“So many people in one year, this is a cursed year and a damned winter, I tell you right now.”
“How is it we don’t see that Bean fellow anymore? Did he go back to Calgary?”
“Jesus, he was healthy last week. That cold took him by the neck, I swear. I heard him coughing the day before yesterday. By God I hope my kids weren’t in that Pool Hall. Anyway, the doctor says to be careful. This is a bad one.”
“I don’t believe it, he was always the cheerful one, and hardy. It’s so sudden. What a tragedy.”
“He was so kind. Always there to talk to.”
“Did he have anyone? I mean anyone to take care of things now?”
“I don’t think so. Maybe the church will take care of it. I heard there is a service planned.”
In the shadows between the buildings and in the cracks in the wooden sidewalks and the crawlspace beneath the floor of the sandstone pioneer mansion, dreams exist and some vital ether is bargained for and exchanged in secret. Voices whisper rumors of damned souls and eternity.
It always seems like it’s autumn at the park. The days have a Thanksgiving feeling to them, as if there is a wonderful meal waiting at their conclusion, one with relatives and smiling faces and plenty. The weather is never too hot on the sunniest day and the breeze insists that you keep a sweater on your arm just in case. There is always laughter in the air and there are always dreams to be felt if you need them and if you can find just the right frame of mind to let them bless you.
At night, when the park is empty and wind whispers between the buildings there is another voice, a new voice, another presence adding to the discussion. A fixture in a skimmer hat and threadbare coveralls, engaged in conversation, smiling, lifting spirits and holding onto hope.
Listen to The Fair – narration by Doug McCormick