Shack Stories


Mr. Maillard scared me from the moment he stepped from his red Chevy pickup. He stood six inches shorter than me and weighed sixty pounds less, but exuded tough son-of-a-bitch like cologne. A lump of Copenhagen made a grave mound beneath his lower lip. His Hush Puppies looked hand-stitched from sun-dried meat. When he spoke, his lips hardly moved and his voice came out in the eerie monotone of a man who preferred hitting to talking. As for me, I preferred silent, studious reflection—second-year philosophy student, meet your new boss.

We stood in a patch of dry scrub the rest of the sawmill crew called the “staff parking lot.” A cool breeze brought a gas-scented mist from a small lake to the southwest, which I later learned Mr. Maillard treated every spring with a gallon of diesel to kill, among other things, mosquito larvae.

“Janice at student employment said you wanted me to start today.” I struggled to sound like Clint Eastwood with a Kootenay drawl, as if I belonged on a farm at the foot of the Rocky Mountains.

“Oh yeah?” Mr. Maillard said. He lapsed into the type of silence that anticipates gunfire and stared at me, through me, deep into my spindly resolve. He must have liked what he saw, because he suddenly shouted, “Everybody, meet the new one!”

He introduced me to the Hawk brothers, Laird and Corey; Alan, an engineering student from the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology; and Festus, whose real name I learned a month later was Brian.

My boss had evidently memorized at least part of my resumé, because he said, “Andrew here is a philosophy student at SFU.”

“Well, Alan can build something and Andrew can think about it,” Laird said and then hee-haw laughed and so did everyone else.

I was relieved I wouldn’t see Mr. Maillard more than once a day. He had a farm to run and he only came by on the odd coffee break to see how smoothly Laird was “dog fucking” his operation. He left Alan and me—the sawmill greenhorns—in the charge of Festus, who would be training us in the fine art of peeling and stacking, not two-by-fours as I had thought, but railway ties, which the CPR would collect in August and haul away to coat with creosote. This was the only summer job I could get. The students of parents with connections had taken all the jobs that paid well, the ones with the unionized sawmills or the CPR or the City of Cranbrook maintenance crews. My pay? Eight dollars an hour plus sunburn.

“Light ties are maybe a hun’erd pounds,” Festus said as we walked past piles of fir and pine logs. He looked like an extra from Gunsmoke: ten-gallon hat, red checked work shirt, leather chaps to protect his legs from the chainsaw blade, a paunchy swagger, but without the six-guns to back it up. “Pitchy ones are near one-fifty. First one of them damn near kill’t me.”

The mill sat on a platform of thick, sun-bleached planks nailed down to a foundation of three-foot-diameter logs cut by Mr. Maillard’s father decades ago. A tin roof covered the huge saw blade and its operator; every other part of the mill was unprotected from the weather. A shack attached by a plywood bridge on the north side of the mill was the only outbuilding in sight. Laird went to an ancient diesel engine in the middle of the mill that looked as if it had been plundered from a grader or a Cat, and fired up the beast. Soot coughed from the exhaust pipe and the engine roared as it would for the rest of the day.

Festus gave us a fistful of earplugs. “Yer station is down here,” he shouted at Alan and me. We could only talk in shouts when the engine was roaring. My thoughts soon came in shouts, too, but mostly I thought of nothing, because my mind grew hoarse from yelling. The sound of that engine replaced the low hum of my consciousness.

Laird went behind the mill’s controls, a couple foot pedals and two long levers made from the handles of cant hooks, which sat about five feet in front of the six-foot-diameter saw blade. Festus had loaded the log deck behind Laird that morning, so our sawyer had a supply of fresh logs to cut. Corey stood opposite Laird on the other side of the saw blade and gave us a bored grimace—he’d worked here last summer and couldn’t find a better job, or life. The rest of us waited at the end of a series of raised metal rollers for the first railway tie, armed with our weapons: a metal blade at the end of a long stick for peeling bark, called a “spud,” and a short-handled axe.

The beast roared as the metal log carriage, which Laird controlled, rammed the first log into the whirling saw blade and left a long strip of bark-covered wood for Corey to throw into the back of an old dump truck parked beside the shack. The air grew thick with diesel and fresh-cut pine. Corey pulled the first gleaming tie off the carriage in less than two minutes and pushed it along the rollers toward us. It was exactly seven inches high by nine inches wide by eight and a half feet long and it reeked of pine tar. Festus let one end of the tie clunk to the floor, where it lodged against a piece of two-by-four that had been nailed there, so that the tie rested at a 45-degree angle with one end up on the rollers and the other on the deck of the mill. The beast roared again; the saw whined as Laird cut the next tie. Festus stripped the bark off each corner of the first tie and then lugged it six feet to the end of the mill, where he shouted that we should form a pile five ties high by five wide, which we’d later secure with metal strapping.

End of lesson.

“Oh yeah!” Festus shouted. “Keep up!”

Festus showed Alan what to do at Corey’s station and left me to peel and stack. Keep up? Ties arrived in front of me every couple minutes. I abandoned the heavy spud for the sleeker axe; I peeled and scraped; on the ties with tougher bark, I chipped off little ovals of bark and glanced at the two or three ties now backed up on the rollers. I lugged the ties; I piled them; I dropped one and then struggled to get my hands under it to heave it off the deck. The tough ones came from the logs that had been sitting in water. I lugged them in stutter steps and prayed I wouldn’t drop one on my feet or, worse yet, off the end of the sawmill, because I would have to lift it back up six feet to the deck. I’d trained at the university gym three or four times a week, but the gym was only a feeble simulation of hard physical work. My lower back and wrists ached, but I had to keep up—not only to keep my job, but to show Mr. Maillard that a philosophy student with an affection for Heidegger’s metaphysics could survive three months’ hard labour.

Ten o’clock. Coffee break. A fifteen-minute reprieve from the constant roar of the beast, in the luxury of the shack. The shack was a hundred square feet decorated with seats torn out of old cars and a metal stand that Laird used to sharpen the saw blade at lunch. We ate and drank and Corey chain-smoked. Alan and I stuck to nervous college-boy-in-a-blue-collar-wilderness silence, which left the other three to gab. Laird bugged Corey about his thinning mullet of dark brown hair.

“It’s on account of my ex-girlfriend stealing my invention,” he said in an Idahoan drawl.

His invention was an electrical device he wore for an hour a day on his head to stimulate hair growth. Without it, he’d be bald again in a few weeks. He distracted himself from the terror of hair loss by conducting a “new experiment” on a cage of male squirrels he’d trapped. “I aim to create homosexual squirrels,” he said, with the sincerity of a physicist who hoped to find a new quantum particle in an atom smasher. Somehow, in the alfalfa fields of southeast British Columbia, he’d rediscovered the curiosity of a Victorian gentleman scientist. I marvelled that he called this a “new experiment,” because it implied there had been old experiments and I imagined a barn laboratory filled with cages of mice, crows and gophers; Corey in a lab coat about to flip the switch on a golem made from pine chips and steer manure; the Mel Brooks movie starring Gene Wilder as the eccentric Dr. Corey Hawk. Mostly I think Corey was just bored.

Unlike his older brother. Laird seemed content to cut ties for Mr. Maillard, work on his own farm and eventually retire there. He wore a wool cap, and a port wine stain covered the left half of his face. He was married (unlike Corey, who pined for a “bar maid” who left him with a rash) and had young children. Laird’s wife packed him huge lunches, always with a thick slab of cake for dessert. It was the fuel that kept Laird constantly mocking Corey or Festus and sometimes even himself. He rented horses for himself and his wife in Radium one Sunday and noted that the horses cost him eleven dollars an hour. “That’s what Maillard pays me: as much as a goddamn horse.”

“You’re being rode,” said Corey.

After every break, Corey, Alan and I switched between three stations: we peeled and stacked ties or helped Laird turn or “cant” the ties on the log carriage after each cut, or we manned the “comfort station” on the other side of the saw blade and threw the light scraps of wood that came off the ties into the dump truck. The key, Laird told me when I first stood at the comfort station, was not to drop a piece of scrap onto the saw blade or else the whirling blade would shoot it into his face. Once, long ago, Mr. Maillard had dropped a two-by-four on the saw blade and it struck him between the eyes as he stood at the helm. Except no one noticed Mr. Maillard had been hit. He fell to the deck of the mill on his stomach, unconscious, and Festus, who drove by on the loader every few minutes, thought he was fixing the mill. “Ya know, repairin’ the pulley belts,” Festus said. “Real slow like.”

Mr. Maillard stumbled to his feet twenty minutes later. I don’t know if he went right back to work or staggered home and lay on his couch or drank rye whisky for his good fortune; I like to think his wife drove him to the Cranbrook Hospital, that his farm could spare him for two hours. That even he had a chink in his armour.

At 4:30 p.m., Laird took the axe from my cramped hands and laid it on top of the planer mill. “Mill’s going to sleep now,” he said. “Rest up for tomorrow. Pray and eat Tylenol.”

Alan gave me a ride to and from the mill in an old blue and white Ford Scout. He had graduated a year ahead of me in high school and, unlike most of his classmates, dressed in a jacket and tie as if he were in campaign mode for an election that never seemed to come. He wore acid-washed jeans at the mill and old pastel-coloured tuxedo shirts, and when I’d first met him, I thought he wouldn’t last a day. I don’t recall hardly a word passing between us, not because we didn’t like each other, but because we were both conversational counterpunchers; we let others lead conversations and worked off their words. Sometimes we talked about the job, the antics of the Hawk brothers. Sometimes I cracked jokes and Alan laughed. Mostly, back at the mill, we let Festus and the Hawk brothers do the talking.

The best talk happened in the shack. Shack life: every break was a glimpse into a world I thought existed, but hadn’t experienced. Laird told us Festus didn’t drive a pickup as I imagined, but a rusting, silver grey Horizon. “There he was in his ten-gallon hat,” Laird said, “all scrunched up behind the wheel of his little clown car in the Safeway parking lot—what you call it now?—‘goin’ for vittles.’ My wife shops for groceries and you go for vittles. You shouldn’t be drivin’ anywhere.” A few weeks earlier, Festus had fallen asleep at the wheel and rolled his car into a ponderosa pine. He didn’t want to confess to his insurance company that he’d been in a single-vehicle accident, so he went to his taxidermist brother in-law and took a handful of deer hair and stuffed into his grille. “Deer jumped in front of me,” he told the insurance company. He’d escaped this accident only to have his licence suspended for a DUI, which he ignored so he could work. He’d also steered his marriage onto the rocks. He’d shot his wife’s “yappy little dog” off a log and hid the body in his septic field. Until spring thaw, when the septic field backed up and the repairman his wife called discovered the dog’s corpse blocking a drainpipe. Strange how the body was filled with number ten buckshot, his wife said.

“Think I’ll be taking my bedroll to Barrhead for a time,” Festus said to us.

“Don’t forget to take along some vittles,” Laird laughed.

Mr. Maillard loved his dogs. When he got too drunk at the Byng Hotel to drive the twelve miles back home, he sent the dogs back to his ranch in a taxi so his wife could feed them. Laird brought his hound to work one day, and at lunch in the shack he wrote Sam across his dog’s white skull with a felt marker and said, “My dog’s name is Sam,” and then hugged the poor animal and sniffled. “Every time I come here,” Mr. Maillard said, as he stepped into the shack, “you guys are fuckin’ the dog.”

Shack life broke the robotic tedium that drove its victims, like Corey, to find relief in eccentric animal experiments. Every morning began the same way: I placed a gallon of water on the tie pile beside me, slathered on 40 SPF sunscreen and took up the axe. All day, I struggled to have any thoughts at all, other than the dull ache of today was like yesterday, tomorrow will be like today. My body moved on its own: drove the axe into the bark, ran the blade the length of the tie, parted wood from its remnant of skin. Perhaps a hundred times a day. Before tie mills, men hewed ties with five-pound broadaxes, and a good hewer could produce ten to fifteen ties a day. Some days when the saw whined a little too loud, I pined for the good old days of hand-hewn wood. But I couldn’t imagine the minds of the old tie hewers were any less blank than mine—you can’t philosophize wielding an axe. At the mill, a novel thought might visit once a day, but it vanished as soon as the next tie clunked against the mill deck. Even thoughts of self-care got lost in the flurry of sawdust. Once when I worked behind Laird as canter-man, a log rolled off Festus’s loader and across the log deck, and rammed into my thigh. Maybe there was a bruise, maybe not; maybe if I hadn’t looked up at the last moment, I would have been thrown in the path of the log carriage, maybe not. Back to the routine. Even the weather was identical. Clear blue skies, hot afternoons, Rocky Mountain peaks that changed too slowly to cause excitement or awe. The alfalfa changed colour in the fields, light green then tawny in a month or two. Everything dried up without constant irrigation.

I craved those shack stories. I craved the eccentricities work breaks let me see. I didn’t even care when Laird poked me in an obvious tender spot: “So, Andrew, what’re you going to do with that philosophy degree of yours?”

I couldn’t see my life beyond graduation, so I said, “Law, maybe.”

“Law? Corey, whatta we do with lawyers?”

“Drown ’em,” said Corey. “Then burn the corpses in Maillard’s slash pile.”

“Couldn’t you have just said ‘kill ’em’?”

“Shakespeare didn’t say how we should do it. Just do it.”

Laird looked back at me, as if his brother’s statement was too ridiculous to consider. “No, Andrew, I see you more as a cardigan-wearing gentleman lying around on a couch and snoring your way to a paycheque.” He looked up thoughtfully at the ceiling. “Bet philosophers get calluses on their brains.”

“Hazard of the profession,” said Corey in a dead serious tone. “I keep the calluses on my hands soft with a pumice stone.”

“You see a pumice stone around here?” Laird held up one of the long files he used to sharpen the saw blade. “You feel a little brain callus coming on, Andrew, you just let me know. We’ll soften it right up.”

I was too normal to remain in the shack spotlight for long. Corey chain-smoked, but as we only got paid once a month and he’d always run out of money, he spent the last few days of each month smoking the butts on the floor, which he lit with Mr. Maillard’s acetylene torch.

“How are the squirrels doin’?” Festus asked.

“I caught ’em goin’ at it last night,” Corey said. “Another experimental success. Just gotta write it up in my notebook.” I half-expected to open the September issue of Nature and read “On the Sexual Proclivities of Sciuridae in Rural Confinement” by Dr. Corey Hawk.

Several times a week at lunch, Corey, the man who hounded Mr. Maillard for a fresh box of earplugs so he wouldn’t go deaf before his hair fell out, went into his Maverick and cranked up his tape deck and chain-smoked. The music was so loud I could hear Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’ ” over the mill. What was important for Corey was that he couldn’t hear the mill. “Goddamn mill,” he said. “Goddamn fuckin’ mill. It’s in my dreams. I hear it at home when everything is quiet. I hear it when I’m drunk. I’ll hear it when I’m dead.”

By mid-June, I’d begun to dream of my return to university, of mental stimulation. At first university came to me as long columns of numbers, which I added in my head as I peeled ties, so my mind didn’t leak out my ears as sawdust. What I missed most of all was the books university put in front of me: old books authored by men and women long dead, their ideas resurrected before me for a few days, as if part of me had slipped back in time. I went to the local college library and took out Martin Heidegger’s What Is Philosophy? and struggled with the first few impenetrable paragraphs. I focused on my future. Come September I’d move in with my girlfriend and I decided to build a futon frame rather than buy one of the cheaply made Ikea ones. I needed wood. I asked Mr. Maillard if I could buy some two-by-eight fir planks from him and he said his price was a case of Kokanee. Laird cut the planks for me and ran them through the planer and I stored them to dry at home by August, I hoped, when I’d start building the frame. Until then, shack stories kept me going, which I wrote about to my girlfriend in long letters.

One morning the Hawk brothers came to work smelling as if they’d bathed with a skunk. We wondered what had happened, because all morning we smelled them over the fresh-cut pine, fir and diesel. At break they explained that they’d trapped a skunk that had terrorized their chicken coop for the last week. They threw the trap and the skunk into their pond to drown. Except they’d made the trap, a cage, from wood and it floated instead of sinking, and so the skunk had sprayed them at will as they tried to shove the trap beneath the water with their tools of choice: hockey sticks.

Or there was the day Festus stayed up until 4:30 a.m. drinking with friends, slept for an hour and came to work to buck logs as he did every day, an hour before we arrived. He trudged around the landing like a zombie cowboy armed with a Stihl chainsaw. But our cowboy still had to drive the loader and feed logs onto the log deck for Laird to cut. By the 86°F heat of the afternoon, Festus fell asleep at the wheel of the loader as it sped across the landing toward Mr. Maillard’s tank of diesel. The four of us stood on the mill deck in disbelief and then shock when he didn’t wake up and we screamed at him to avoid the explosion, but he couldn’t hear us over the mill or the loader. Just before the tank of diesel was a little rise and when the loader’s front wheels struck it, Festus bounced about a foot off his seat as if a dream horse had bucked him. “I woke up,” he said later, “and holy-yyyyy shit if I didn’t steer somethin’ hard.”

Twice a day we had to empty Mr. Maillard’s old dump truck of wood scraps, bark and sawdust. The dump truck was an ancient, rusted thing and the air brakes only stopped the truck if you began pumping them to the floor thirty feet before your anticipated stop. Mr. Maillard dumped everything in great mounds beside his little lake, and judging by the charred ground, he’d burnt the piles as smoke offerings to the fickle gods of lumber prices. The rudimentary road to the lake was on a shallow slope and the first time I emptied the truck, I sped down to the lakeside, but misjudged how soon I had to begin pumping the brakes and finally stopped with the front wheels immersed in water. Down below the blue-black depths of Mr. Maillard’s lake was Laird’s ’72 Mustang. A couple winters ago, the two men had been falling timber and one afternoon of a little too much ennui, they were deciding whether they should cut more trees, or—“How far do you think your car would git across the lake, Laird?” Mr. Maillard asked. “I mean across the ice? You think it would make it to the other side?” A case of Kokanee was the wager. Laird parked his car facing the downhill slope to the lake and put a cinder block on the accelerator and sent the Mustang racing toward the icy lake. The car hit the ice at about forty miles an hour and spun into the centre, and then a large hole opened up beneath it and the cold water claimed it. “Guess I win,” said Laird.

At the shack, as we finished lunch, Corey interrupted his brother’s story. “Of course the ice was thin, doofus,” he said. “The earth is heating up.”

One morning, Mr. Maillard came to the mill and told us to shut it down. Alan and I thought we were about to be laid off, but no: Mr. Maillard drove us all up the paved road past his place, to a distant field he planned to seed with timothy. The field was a clearing, maybe the size of a football field, surrounded by ponderosa pines and tawny grasses and, in the distance on the north side, the vaulted peaks of the Rocky Mountains. Festus drove up in the dump truck from the mill and all that hot, dusty day the four of us followed whoever was driving the truck and picked rocks from the ground and threw them into the back of it. We ate lunch on the back of the dump truck. We ate in silence for the first time ever. Only one of Laird’s occasional jibes at Festus or Corey broke the long lull in our conversation. But Laird’s jibes seemed lame and forced. The stories that flowed so naturally in the shack couldn’t come in the open air. They needed walls, a closed door and shade. They needed to be off to the side of the main action, like the shack was to the mill. “Fuck, it’s dry here,” said Corey. “Nothin’ll grow.”

Another day after work, Mr. Maillard asked Alan and me if we wouldn’t mind working overtime in a field adjacent to the mill. Alan and I followed Mr. Maillard’s tractor as it towed a flat-bed trailer. We picked up irrigation pipes from the soggy soil, which was knee-high with green alfalfa, and lay them on the trailer for deployment in another field. The mosquitoes bred here in the puddles. As soon as the field fell into shade, they began to bite and Mr. Maillard sprayed us with Off and maybe one in ten of these farm-hardened mosquitoes didn’t attack. I didn’t mind for long. The field was cool and ripe with loam and I could see every muted orange and violet layer of the Rockies to the north of us. I told Mr. Maillard how beautiful the view was and I guess I expected him to shake his head at such a “pussy remark,” because I was surprised when he smiled and pushed the brim of his baseball cap back and said this is what it’s all about, these little moments.

By early August, the alfalfa was light green, almost ready for the second cut. Our well of stories was dry and we ate in the shack in silence or listened to Laird file the teeth of the saw blade. We felt done. I’d finished coating my newly built futon frame with linseed oil a few days earlier and I’d arranged to have my things shipped to Vancouver on the Labour Day weekend. In mid-August, Festus moved the stacks of ties to the railway tracks near the confluence of the Wild Horse and Kootenay Rivers. CPR had left several rail cars on a side track into which we had to load the ties. Laird gave us short cant hooks and we waited in the creosote stink of the rail cars for Festus to dump the ties into them off the loader. Two of us hooked one end each of the ties and tossed them into a neat pile. The three months of peeling and stacking had made us strong and we flung the heavy ties as if they were pillows. A steel-rail bridge nearby boomed in the afternoon heat. The willows and aspens bent with a cool breeze off the Kootenay River. By four o’clock, every tie we’d cut had been loaded into the rail cars ready to make their way to a creosote bath in a distant rail yard.

Mr. Maillard drove up in his Chevy and congratulated us. “I didn’t think you dog fuckers would do it.” There was bonus beer all around, new stories and old stories.

I’d never see any of these men again. In September, I returned to university with about half the money I needed for the year. I took a part-time job in the university library, where I shelved books at an unheard-of rate. My summer job had toughened me to physical work, I said to my new boss. I wouldn’t find the comfortable rhythm of academic life for months. I couldn’t concentrate for long on Descartes, Kant or Heidegger. I couldn’t sit through Last Year at Marienbad at the university theatre. It was as if there was a shack in my head, where I retreated from the main action, because I kept hearing Laird mock my professors and fellow students. When I finished the fall semester that December, I opened my report card to a neat column of As and Bs. There were no celebratory beers, no stories—just letters on a paper sheet.



Toby Sharpe


I don’t know where a person can go when they disappear, apart from underwater.


Young Earle Birney in Banff: September 1913¹

what a day!at the Basin2 dove from the tufa overhanginto the water, playing my trick ofseeming to drown, not coming up until I finish wrigglingthrough that underwater chimneyand burst into air. always startles the tourists.


Zamboni Driver’s Lament

i know hate, its line-mates. believe me. you kids have, i’m sure, wasted—all early morning anxious and weak-ankled—their first impatient shuffle-kicks and curses on me.