Grain prices folded, Asian Tigers yawned and I waited three hours for the phone to ring.
The import-export business: that is what I said when people asked me what I did. And I used to do it. I took orders from brokers, I specialized in Indochina, I brought in foodstuffs, I brought out foodstuffs in a great exchange. I worked in an office, one guy to one region, and the people I dealt with all wanted to get rid of their stuff tomorrow and get what they needed yesterday.
Morris was my boss. Morris thought I didn’t have the fortitude for this business, even though I had been doing it for ten years and he had only been doing it for three. It’s true that I took work home with me: the quota was a killer, a thousand dollars a day, and every day you made it, a tick box went next to your name. Morris called it “inspiration.” Days were either tick or non-tick; when Teresa used to care, she’d ask what kind of day it was, and on good days I’d click my tongue.
Morris made me his pet peeve. Dougie, howmuchyagot? Calling it out over the electronic hum of yesteryear’s computers, calling it out over the conversational rattle on phones. Dougie, howmuchyagot? And I would stammer and the other guys would smirk, and I would confess my pittance: two hundred dollars. Or fifty-seven. It was unfair: my bailiwick was small fry, only small bills. The other guys dealt in much larger orders, but because Morris didn’t like me he gave me the worthless ones. It had been this way for three years. When I did make a big sale, if someone important wanted a rush on something expensive, something numerous, then I would get one tick, that’s all. The excess wouldn’t carry over into tomorrow, and Morris’s howmuchyagot smile would be waiting for me.
Most days I scraped together the thousand dollars despite the desperation of staring at the phone, obsessively checking commodity prices, knowing all about just cause and performance and Morris’s ways. He meant to break me, and it did break me. I had no control; my job was fate.
When I said “import-export,” at first people thought I was with the mob. Imagine it: the mob, in Halifax. Or that I was a street soldier for a cartel. A gun-runner. But then they would step back and take my measure: defeat clung to my baseball cap, my eyes, my ratty moustache. And then they would not think of drugs or horses’ heads. Just a not-this-guy.
Teresa worked at the bakery. We lived on a parcel of land that technically belonged to the bakery, but we had signed a locked lease and though the management had thought about expansion, they couldn’t force us. So there was the oppressive smell of baking bread all day: Morris at the office for daily bread, and the singed odour of Wonder bread at night. Wake up, bread; go to bed, bread.
Teresa had no Morris. What she had was a union. There was a strike every five years, just like ticking a box, and when everyone had lost enough wages the company would agree to an increase and the losses were offset. A harsh word led to a grievance and Teresa had eyes of grievance, had Morris eyes, and when she came home she had epic stories of supervisor one-upmanship, of the girls in the office making the boss look like a fool and her central role in the public embarrassment. Teresa relished doing exactly what her contract set out for her to do, and no more. She bragged about not doing things, about refusing things, and about how she had intimidated her boss so much that they didn’t ask any more, they were afraid of her, they wouldn’t mess with her. I thought of no: of boxes that tick, of bread that always had the whiff of charnel.
One day I was waiting for the phone to ring. It had to ring. A man in Myanmar wanted cereal, a thousand boxes of corn puffs. I had arranged the transportation, a thousand boxes of corn puffs, a glorious tick, and all I needed was confirmation. There was probably a thousand boxes of corn puffs sitting on a pallet or two, wrapped in a glorious red bow and waiting to be shipped. All I needed was for the man to tell me, “Yes, I really want corn puffs, lots and lots of corn puffs, send me a kingdom’s worth of corn puffs, I will grow rich reselling corn puffs.”
But the man did not call. And Morris was merciless; he waited until I had fallen into despair. He knew how to get the most value from the howmuchyagots, the best time to make me say “Nothing yet” and try to stammer out a potential sale. Hawhawhaw. Morris said: howmuchyagot. I had looked at the phone for three hours, I had watched grain prices fold and Asian Tigers yawn and yawn again, and that morning Teresa had already itemized which dishes were dirty, and how I didn’t earn enough money to leave dirty dishes around. I had carried the work home with me, the exhaustion of tick, it had been years and I was tired. I thought of our wedding day and then promptly forgot it. That was absurdity. It had been a long time. There were pictures.
Morris said, for the final time, Dougieboy, howmuchyagot, and the stench of bread was on me. It is like formaldehyde, it permeates the clothes. The calendar with its names of salesmen was strewn with red. I wondered how much Morris had, how much Morris made in import-export. When Morris said “import-export,” he said it in a way that suggested underhanded dealings, midnights and sleazy ports. Morris had a fat wife and scurried around whenever his boss, Mr. Prawn, the owner of the company, came by. Mr. Prawn came by to scare Morris, for he was a shrewd man and understood that Morris, an enforcer of non-complacency, needed to be gulled out of complacency himself. Morris’s chief act of complacency was asking me howmuchyagot, and I wished I could take pleasure in his toadying, I wished I could enjoy it. But I humanized Morris; that was my problem. Better to be Teresa, better to instill fear in Morris, better to growl back at him, howmuchyawant, or howmuchdoesyourwifeweigh, or IseeMr.Prawnbehind you,peekaboo!
I looked up at Morris and thought of screaming Bread!Bread! or Teresalovesme but then I simply walked over to the calendar and ticked all the boxes for the rest of the year. It took a few minutes, and the guys started to laugh, and it was not the laugh of the boss being embarrassed. They were laughing at me. When I was finished I walked out, and now when people ask me what I do, I simply say: “Nothing.” It’s more believable anyway.
My daughter died. She was twenty-three, and in a car crash. She was driving and the car hit a bridge abutment. It wasn’t drugs or drink. For a few days after the tox came back clean, the coroner thought it might have been suicide; but there was no note, and she was a happy girl, she had a boyfriend, she was going to school. The cliché: there were no signs. Her sisters were devastated.
In the living room there are three pictures: the oldest on the top, the youngest on the bottom, and Jeannine in the middle. I argued with Teresa about taking the picture down, it was perhaps the only thing I had fought for with her, but she needed a daily reminder and I guess we can call that grief. I never told the guys at work. I never wanted sympathy and I don’t think that this was a part of life Morris cared about or respected. Yet I kept a picture of the three girls on my desk, the eldest caring for the youngest as Jeannine smiled for the camera. There were things I wanted to hold or at least keep safe, and it was something to look at other than the phone. I am not a brooding man.
When Teresa browbeats me for being a deadbeat, for quitting my job with no thought of the future, for being lazy, I think of that picture on my desk, the picture I forgot to take with me, the picture they probably threw out with the rest of my things. Here on the flower-print couch, which has been here since we moved into this house, I look up at the dead picture and I refuse sentiment: I am waiting. I am left with all there ever was, and the mystery of that death and the acceptance of this life.
It was probably grief that led me to quit my job. Not the middle-aged, stuck-in-a-rut-midlife-crisis kind, or even the grief of losing a child. I don’t blame Teresa. I don’t even blame Morris, who had no pictures on his desk and who looked embarrassed when his wife visited him at work. I blame the accumulation: I blame myself. It was momentary, and seemed right, but I knew that any gesture was futile, that somehow I had to walk out that door, that the time had come.
Teresa and I still argue about taking down that damn picture. I think of it as the removal of memory; she thinks of it as allegiance to memory, as reckoning, and she is probably right. So I have taken to removing the picture when she walks to work, and replacing it when she walks back home. It is my own little rebellion, my own tending, my own tallying of loss. And when I put the picture back up, it is my daughter again. Sometimes I have the perverse wish that I had a picture of Morris ticking the boxes for the men, that I could put up that picture as a replacement. Or a picture of Morris trying to hide his wife from his subordinates, or me walking out the door of Mr. Prawn’s office with my ball cap tight on my head.