Monday, 4 July 2016
“We have now entered Day 2 of Phase 1 and so far everything is on schedule,' Barkus reported. It was the next morning. He had spent half the night walking the streets of the town before finally climbing the stairs and falling into a troubled sleep. His eyes were gritty and the coffee beside him wasn't strong enough. “The materials have been delivered, the gazebo will be completed on time, the volunteer quota has been met. At this point in time, we are good to go.”
“Thank you Barkus,” Annie said, ticking the sheet of paper in front of her. It was a Square Steering Committee meeting, another one. Barkus knew how important it was to stay on top of things, of course he did. He just hated Committee Meetings. Annie seemed to have a deft hand for it though. He got up to refill his coffee and glass of water, just as Mrs. Cleary was saying that the kitchens and 'the girls' were ready and waiting to start. At the end of the table, the secretary was recording the minutes, her quick eyes noting who was saying what and her fingers keeping pace.
“Good, thank you Mrs. Cleary. Your Honour, anything on future events?”
The coffee pot was empty. Barkus sighed and, catching Annie's eye, motioned that he was going to make a fresh one. She nodded slightly and turned back to the table. Barkus stepped out quietly in search of a tap.
When he came back there was a discussion that was just short of a row. It still appeared to be about the future usage of the Square so Barkus kept with the coffee. His job was to get the Square done, what they did with it afterwards was their own business.
“...So we don't just come back around to this point again,” Annie's voice broke out of the hubbub.
*We just keep coming back to the same damn point again, don't we?* Gina's voice snarled in his head. *All the promises a girl could want but none of the goods!*
Barkus jumped and the coffee can fell from his nerveless fingers. The bang it made hitting the lino made them all jump.
“Sorry,” Barkus mumbled, in the face of the Committee's startled stares. “Bit of a butterfingers this morning.” He looked down at the coffee granules all over the floor. “Where can I find a brush and pan?”
By the time he had swept the floor and made the coffee, the table had quietened down again and Gus was speaking.
“All I know is, people wreck what they don't value and Barkus made a great point about that to me yesterday. We will have a lot of teens and kids helping out with the project and we need to make sure that after all of their work, they have a say in how the Square is used.” There were a few mutterings but Mrs. Cleary had leaned forward.
“I agree with Mr. Silver,” she stated. “The best way to alienate anybody is to make them feel unappreciated. I say we should give our young people the opportunity to organise both their own events and events for the town. Give them the chance to prove that they can.”
“What kinds of events are they going to put on though?” protested a man who Barkus couldn't remember the name of.
“There's only one way to find out,” Annie said firmly. “I designate the Hon. Peterson, Mrs. Cleary and Mr. Silver in charge of assisting our youth and kids in setting up a maximum of 3 public programmes a week, negotiable in November of next year. ” Gus, Mrs Cleary and Peterson exchanged pleased smiles as the secretary typed placidly. “Next is garbage pick-up, Marty have you gotten an answer on that yet?” The man who had questioned the youth's taste in events asserted that he had gotten verbal confirmation, which led to a remark from the retired Judge on the value of verbal contracts. Barkus let the rest of the meeting wash over him as he sipped his coffee, checked his notes and wondered exactly when Gus had come in.
“Hey, Barkus!” Barkus turned to see Gus walking across the Square towards him. It was 3 in the afternoon and the day's work had been completed ahead of schedule. He was walking around the finished gazebo, pacing off the rosebushes, the benches, the trashcans.
“How are you doing Gus?” he asked when the other man caught up to him. “What do you think?”
“Looks great. Heard the colour scheme for the gazebo yet?” Barkus looked at him in surprise, he had left the meeting after finishing his coffee and the agenda had only been half-accomplished. He had figured there were more pressing matters requiring his attention.
“I thought they were leaving it white.”
“Accents are important, apparently.”
“Let me guess, school colours?” Gus put on a look of mock-surprise.
“Now how could you possibly guess that?” There was silence for a moment, broken only by a kid playing with a dog. Gus turned to Barkus.
“What are you doing this evening?” Barkus shrugged.
“Picking up some dinner at some point.”
“Wanna meet the Boys?” Barkus shrugged again.
“What else have I got to do?”
The Camp was an hour away down roads that turned to rutted dirt. Barkus had been welcomed by men and dogs alike, offered beer and ensconced in a comfy, battered armchair that smelt of wet dog and smoke. There were about a dozen men in the Camp and as least as many dogs flopped around on the floor. A diesel generator outside provided the light and radio and paraffin lamps and flashlights were hung along the walls for easy access. A large black stove in the corner was cold, but the propane cooking stove was holding a large pan of water that was just starting to simmer. There was a porch outside overlooking the river, but it was open and the bugs had claimed it for their own while the men and the dogs lounged inside, eyeing the waning sunshine jealously.
“One of these days Slim,” one man, larger than the rest, Barkus remembered him being called Big Bubba. “You have got to close in that porch.”
“Any day now Bubba,” replied Slim. “Right after you fix them holes in my wall.” It had the air of an exchange that had been said a dozen times, and would be said a dozen more with no-one paying particular attention to it. Barkus felt himself relax gently while the time was whiled away by stories and boasts of past exploits and future prospects. The sun slipped away in the sky and the dusk settled outside and for now, no-one was claiming his attention. It was enough to be sitting there. Barkus took another pull of beer and closed his eyes, letting the conversation wash over him.
After a while, he became aware of a warm pressure on his leg and opened his eyes to see an enormous brindled head on his lap. The dog stared at him peaceably, then then raised it's head and yawned, revealing a fang-lined maw that could have encompassed a small car. Barkus swallowed, but when the dog's head went back onto his knee, he scratched it behind the ears. His reward was a delighted 'hrummph' noise and a paw on his thigh.
“If you're not careful there Barkus,” Slim called out. “You'll have Beauty up on your lap, yep, just like that.” With one movement, 'Beauty' had climbed up with a grunt and settled on Barkus's lap, ass hanging off one side and head resting on the armrest on the other. All that could be seen of Barkus was a beer bottle, shins and boots.
“You doing alright under there?” Gus asked to general amusement.
“As long as she doesn't fart,” came the indistinct reply. There was some movement under the huge dog as Barkus levered himself up a bit higher in the chair and got his arms free. Beauty eyed him calmly as he shifted, then settled down again. “I take it I'm in her chair?” Slim shook his head.
“Everybody's lap is her chair. She's an overgrown puppy that one.” Barkus managed to kink his arm around to be able to scratch Beauty's ears again. There was a contented sigh.
“Some kind of rottweiler mix?”
“Rottie, boxer, Staffordshire Terrier, German Shephard, if you can use it to hunt, she's got some of it in her,” came the proud reply.
“She's a good mama too,” another man supplied, who had a brown and white dog by his knee. “Shine here is from her two litters back and she still takes him out and shows him how to behave when I'm around. Doesn't she buddy?” He rubbed his dog's ears and thump thump thump went the tail.
“Do you still breed her?” Slim swallowed some beer and shook his head.
“Last one didn't go that well and it took a lot out of her. I got her fixed once she recovered, didn't want her going through it again. She had three good litters, that's enough.” Beauty's head shifted on her paws, eyeing her master. “Yeah you know we're talking about you, you old nusicance,” Slim called out to the bear-dog. Her ears pricked up and her butt wagged along with the stump of her tail. “Does she have a paw on the family jewels there Barkus?”
“I don't think so.” Slim pulled a bag out of the box he had been using as a footrest. Beauty's head went all the way up and she licked her chops.
“Well, we'll find out in half a second. Come here Beauty!” The dog pushed off Barkus with all four paws at once and landed on the lino, claws scrabbling. In accordance with physics and comedic timing, the armchair went backwards with a yell from Barkus followed by a crash. When the dust cleared and dogs circled their owners, barking, Barkus was several feet away from the chair in a crouched position, the beer held carefully upright in one hand. The explosion of laughter was immediate.
“Now that's a man with priorities!” hooted Big Bubba as Beauty came sniffing around to see what happened. Barkus didn't stand up fast enough and got a face-full of dog saliva for his pains. “Get out of the wreckage with your beer intact, yes sir!” Then Beauty started licking the bottle as Barkus tried to wipe the goo off his face.
“Come over here Beauty,” Slim laughed. “I don't think Barkus appreciates your facials. Bathroom's in the back if you want to wash it off. You can leave the bottle in the box over there,” he added to Barkus while taking some treats out of the bag.
“Thanks,” Barkus chuckled and, depositing the slimy beer bottle, headed off.
He didn't quite know what to expect, but he found quite a nice little alcove with a large water barrel perched at ceiling level with hoses running to a sink with one tap and a tall shelving unit with towels and everything you'd need. He grabbed the soap and noted the water pressure before lathering up. Afterwards, drying his face and hands with a towel, he spotted a curtained-off area and peeked in. Revealed was a shower set-up with one hose coming in from the large water box with a dedicated shut-off valve. *And that box* he mused. *Would be filled with hot water from the stove and those valves are to control the temperature*
“Nice little system,” he said aloud, then nearly jumped out of his skin when a voice rumbled “Thank you.” Barkus turned, heart hammering, to see a large black man behind him with gleaming white teeth showing in a smile.
“Sorry to shock you there, I guess I move pretty quietly.” The man gestured to the pan of water in his other hand that had steam rising from the surface. “I'll shake hands after I deal with this, if that's okay.”
“Sure, let me get out of your way,” Barkus said, stepping into the hallway. He watched as the man set down the pan on the shower floor, retrieved a fold-away stool from a concealed recess, then climbed the step, pan in hand and, removing the cover, poured the hot water into the smaller box over the shower unit. He reset the cover, put the stool away, then twiddled some knobs and ran the water in the sink. Barkus watched, fascinated.
“I take it you're John Barkus,” the big man said over his shoulder as he was apparently satisfied with the water temperature and started washing his hands.
“Yes, that's me, and I take it you're more than a little familiar with this set-up.” The man grinned and wiped his hands on the towel.
“I should be, Slim and I installed this thing last year. He was sick of 'farting about with saucepans' as he put it. There's still one fart left, but there's plans to get rid of that too, just have to work the kinks out.” He stuck a hand the size of a small shovel out towards Barkus. “Jeff Cleary's my name, nice to meet you at last.” Barkus shook the hand with a wry grin.
“Nice to be met. You don't happen to be related to Mrs. Cleary, do you?”
“Yep, that's my Auntie Meg. She's real excited about the weekend, wait till you see what comes rolling out the back of that truck.” Jeff rubbed his belly and licked his lips. “Auntie Meg's one of the best cooks around and when she gets her team of ladies together for a social, saints would risk hell for a turn, yes sir!” Barkus laughed along with him.
“I still don't get what I'm in for, but I can't wait to see it. So, would you mind running me through this system, real quick?” Jeff beamed with pride and turned to point out the components as he talked.
“No problem at all, Barkus. Well, you saw me put that hot water in that box up there, it's got 3 inches of insulation, so if Slim is just washing hands it'll last him all day. These valves here say if it goes to the sink or the shower. Then these ones here, determine how much hot water runs at a time, and they're wired a certain way so that you can only turn 'em up full if you know the trick. The trick takes both hands, so there's your built-in safety, very important when you're this far into the woods.”
“There's only one tap in the sink,” Barkus pointed out. “Was that on purpose?” Jeff nodded.
“The cold will run on it's own, but the hot won't, not without knowing the trick. So everytime you run hot water, there's some cold coming with it.” Barkus nodded.
“And the drains?”
“They run through a phytoremedial system before hitting the lake.” At Barkus's surprised look, Jeff smiled and said; “There used to be a dreadful smell from where the drain emptied out. Slim happened to mention it around li'l Sheryl Monroe one day and she straight away told him how to fix it, gave him a list of plants and everything. That evening Slim and I were out digging holes and laying gravel and transplanting rushes and there hasn't been a problem since.”
“Is that so?” Jeff looked at Barkus, head on one side.
“You know, when I heard that you were doing the Square, I got a bad feeling. Then I heard you were paying attention to what Sheryl was telling you about the Square, then I felt good. You looking for volunteers?”
“Yes indeed we are Jeff, can I put your name down?” They had walked from the bathroom up to the main section while they talked and some of the men turned idly.
“Sure can. Best put me down as Jeff T. Cleary, otherwise you may get someone else.” He grinned. “We got to share names around here you know.” Barkus took out his notebook and turned to his volunteers page.
“Jeff T. Cleary,” he repeated, scribbling it in.
“I heard it's at 9am, on Saturday morning and Aunt Meg is doing lunches.” Barkus nodded, storing the notebook away again, but with an eye to the audience.
“ That's right. Just got to bring yourself, your gloves and your water bottle. We'll take care of the rest.”
“What's this now Jeff?” Big Bubba called out.
“The big dig on Saturday Bubba. Just put my name down on the list.” He turned back to Barkus and stuck his hand out. “Well, I got to head off now, glad I ran into you Barkus. 9am on the Square.”
“I'll have the coffee ready,” Barkus grinned, shaking his hand. Jeff nodded, then waved to the rest of the group on his way out the door, with a fist-bump for Slim. Barkus spotted an empty seat beside Gus.
“How many names you got on that list Barkus?” Slim asked, passing him a beer as he stepped carefully through the collective mat of dogs. Tails thumped all around him as he sat down and Beauty looked to have a repeat performance of the earlier fun.
“You stay down there girl, I want to finish this one,” Barkus said to her and with a reproachful look, she settled down again. “Jeff makes 12 definites and there's a half-dozen maybes.”
“Is there enough work for that many people?” Barkus swallowed some beer and nodded.
“There's enough work for 30 people actually.”
“Really?” Slim's eyes went around the room thoughtfully.
“Oh yeah, more hands means it gets finished faster.”
“Will you not have to wait on materials and that kind of thing?” someone asked from the corner. Barkus shook his head.
“The only things that won't be waiting in the Square on Saturday morning will be the trees and the flowers and they'll be packed up ready for the green light.” He felt Gus reach out to pet one of the restless puppies, but his attention was on the group. “With 12 people, they'll be delivered Monday afternoon. If I could get 30 people they'll be in the ground Sunday night.” A murmur went around the room and Barkus felt a tipping point approach.
“Well, catch me picking up a shovel on my weekend,” Bubba jeered. Barkus blinked as the mood altered.
“You're on EI,” Slim pointed out. “Every day's your weekend.”
“It's the principle of the thing,” Bubba retorted. “Also, what's this about working on a Sunday? Sunday's the day of rest you know.”
“Bubba, you ain't seen the inside of a church since last Easter,” someone else joked, but Barkus could see men sinking back into their chairs. *We really are herd animals* he thought. “And all you ever do on a Sunday is go mudding and drinking, same as every other day.”
“I head there's going to be concerts and plays and things,” Slim said, looking at nobody in particular.
“Oh yeah? And where are they gonna be exactly?”
“Gazebo's already up,” Barkus answered. “Donny Red and his boys finished it today. It's getting wired up today and painted on Sunday.”
“Will it have roses round it?” Bubba jeered.
“Yes,” said Barkus simply. “And daffodils.”
“Oh, daffodils,” Bubba repeated. “I have a use for daffodils. Was gonna buy some for my old lady, guess now I'll wait till I can pick them up for free.” Barkus glanced at Slim who was wearing a resigned expression, then at the rest of the group who were clearly considering following this example.
“Heard there's gonna be some lovely benches too,” came a snigger from the corner.
“Wonder how heavy that gazebo is?”
Barkus closed his eyes and tried to breathe deeply. Around him, laughter erupted as one after the other, men threw in suggestions on how to pilfer the Square. People would try to tell him that it was all in jest, but he knew that if even one person stole one item, everyone would be at it and all of their hard work would be wasted. Worse, because if something like this fails once, nobody would try again. All of the hard work and all of the promises and energy would be ripped apart and stamped down and rendered for naught. And all of the nay-sayers would feel justified in jeering at Sheryl and Annie and Lynn, every time they tried to do something else to make their town better. It would never stop.
They all became aware of Barkus at around the same time. The man was staring at the ceiling, his fists opening and closing, his breath coming in hard hisses between his teeth.
“Why must you steal everything?” he growled softly. “Are you not men?” The audience sat back in their chairs. “All evening you've been posturing, telling stories and casting long lines. But now, as soon as you might have to do some actual work, you decide that you'd rather be boys. You'd prefer to parasite off others instead of putting any of yourselves into it. Laugh at the workers and steal their harvest.” Gus glanced at the rest of the room, without moving his head. Barkus was glaring around the room now and even Big Bubba avoided his gaze. The man was actually shaking with rage, Gus hoped he could keep it up. “There are things happening in your town that will happen with or without you. You have the chance to take part, to act like the men you're been pretending to be and create something that will make life better for the people that you call your friends, neighbours and kin. Or you can stay here in your boy's clubhouse and piss it all away.”
Silence. Then Slim cleared his throat.
“Barkus, could you step outside with Gus there for a little while? Gus, don't go nowhere.”
Gus caught Barkus by the elbow, got up and walked out the door while the silence returned.
Barkus stumbled over the broken step, his anger cooling as they hit the night air. The last 30 seconds replayed in his head and he stumbled again.
“Oh shit, what just happened?”
“Yeah, that's probably what's going though their heads right about now.” Gus pulled his pouch out and started rolling a cigarette. Voices started up in the house again and Gus glanced up, fingers still working. “Looks like some of what you said hit some brain cells, and some nerves,” he added as the undercurrent grew angrier. Barkus eyed the distance to the truck, he didn't fancy his chances of getting a second chance to speak. “Barkus,” Gus said as he licked the paper. “Wait for my signal, lets see how the Boys deal with this.” He lit up and Barkus stared at him, then at the house and waited. He remembered Sarah and took a deep breath. There was suddenly an explosion of laughter.
A few nervous minutes later and some kind of agreement had been reached. The door opened and Slim stepped out. Gus adjusted his hat and said, “Go wait in the truck, this won't take long.” Barkus eyed Slim but did as he was bid.
Whatever they discussed didn't take much, a few clipped sentences, tersely exchanged, then Slim was closing the door behind him and Gus was striding back to the truck, pulling a joint out of his silver case at the same time.
“Answer me something Barkus,” Gus said as he started the engine then lit up. “How good would you be at some mutual ignorance, do you think?” Barkus pondered this.
“What would be involved?” he asked eventually.
“Ignore some of those men while they ignore you. You've banged up against their pride but made sense doing it so while they'll pitch in for the town, they won't take orders from you.” Gus passed him the joint while Barkus thought about this.
Will they listen to you?”
“Will they be unpleasant about it?”
“Shouldn't think so, just don't stand behind 'em in a line-up.” Barkus considered, taking a drag as Gus drove back down the driveway.
“All of them?”
“5 of them.”
“Big Bubba? Slim?”
“Yes and no, in that order.”
“Well,” Barkus chuckled. “The next few days are going to be fun then.” He took another toke and passed the joint back. He didn't notice the smile that spread across Gus's face.
Friday, 1 July 2016
Barkus stood and gazed at the Square in the pre-dawn light. It was ridiculously early, but he couldn't stand to stare at the ceiling anymore. He blew on his fingers and stomped his feet automatically but in his mind, stakes were planted, spades were hefted and volunteers allocated. He watched the inner movie bustle and heave while the sun's rays crept across the roofs and the birds sang.
These were the times he cherished. When the pre-planning had been done but the first piece of sod had not yet been cut. How many times had he done exactly this? Standing before a site that would soon be a hive of controlled apparent chaos? Not too many times yet, he mused, marvelling that he still felt the thrill of anticipation, still got the nervous butterflies at the thought of the hundreds, no, thousands of things that could go wrong, that would go wrong without an experienced hand on the tiller. *When this feeling is gone* he decided, not for the first time. *Then I'll pack it up and find something new. But not before.*
The sound of a key in a lock woke him from his reverie and he was surprised to see that the Square was fully bathed in light, without him noticing the intermediate steps. But then, it was not the first time that happened either. He chuckled, remembering the time that he turned from a pre-site and jumped to see the whole work-force standing behind him, grinning at his absorption. That had been a good job, he remembered.
The sound that dragged him from his thoughts this time was Mary opening up and, with a last, lingering look, he turned and ambled towards the Cafe and the coffee, his heart lighter than it had been in a while.
“No,” he said, placing his hand on the pile of sod protectively. “We have plans for every piece of it. In one way or another, every piece of of sod is going back into the Square, Mr?”
“Johnston,” said the disappointed seeker of free sod. “James Johnston , Mr. Barkus. Here what do you mean, “one way or the other”? You're going to compost it? That's top-quality sod that is, you cant waste it like that!”
“Actually, it's 3rd rate sod Mr. Johnston,” Barkus replied. “And as I said, none of it will be wasted. we need every piece of it. So you just keep it damp and happy Susan.” This was to the teen who had been the target of the opportunistic Johnston. “And you figure out a different source for your your lawn replacement Mr. Johnston because this is all spoken for.” Johnston looked to argue, but the look in Barkus's eye made him nod and shuffle away instead.
“We'll need a padlock to keep it safe,” Susan said quietly. “He's the third one since I've been standing here.”
“Don't worry Susan,” Barkus assured her. “I know a trick or three for tarps and bungee cords.” Susan shrugged.
“You're the boss Mr. B.” With a smile and a nod, he walked off again.
All over the Square the demolition process was going on. Benches, path and edging stones were being removed and assessed for damage. A large truck was guided backwards into a parking space, its bed almost overflowing with mulch and covered with tarps. Behind it, 3 more were patiently waiting their turn. Trailers of compost were already sitting in their designated places, ready for the first shovel.
An increase in the shouting made him look round to see a truck with a builder's logo on the side trying to enter the Square. He hurried over as an older man climbed down from the cab.
“Mr. Smith?” he asked, extending a hand in greeting. “I'm John Barkus.” The man seemed a bit taken aback, but then he smiled and clapped Barkus's hand in his in a bone-crushing grip.
“Call me Donny,” he boomed. “Donny Red. My real name is Smith but there's so many Donald Smiths round here people call me Donny Red to keep me straight in their minds.” He laughed and shook his hand again. Barkus grinned and wondered if he'd be able to keep the use of his hand, or his shoulder. “Though now of course, they may start calling me Donny Silver,” he grinned, lifting his hat to reveal a mop of, yes, pure silver hair. He grinned at his own joke and turned towards 3 other large men who had squeezed out of the truck cab like clowns from a mini cooper. “And these are my boys, Donny Jr., Shane and Steven, if they have nicknames, they haven't told me them.” He laughed again and the sons smiled as they shook hands with Barkus, all exhibiting the same firm grip as their father.
“So where you want this Gazebo of yours Mr. Barkus?” asked Steven.
“Right there in the middle, I have it stalked out for you already. Annie said she gave you the plans?” Barkus not quite asked as he led them to the spot. Donny Jr. nodded and held up a tube of paper. Barkus could see that numerous notes had been made on it.
“We've a clear plan of attack here Mr. Barkus,” he rumbled. “We just need a clear battleground.”
“Do you need stakes? Or string?” All 4 heads shook, but the eyes were already assessing the ground before them. As per Annie's specific advice, he had started the sod removal under the eventual Gazebo location and left 3 times as much clear space as it would eventually need. There was clearly some mental mapping going on as the eyes darted in all different directions and, one after the other, all 4 men nodded slowly.
“Looks like we can get started straight away then Mr Barkus,” Donny Red said, as his sons peeled away back toward the truck. “How far up can we bring the ol' girl?”
“You can bring her up to here to unload, but then she has to back on the asphalt,” Barkus told him firmly. “I don't want the soil compacted more than I can help.” If Donny Red thought that was an odd thing to be concerned about, he didn't show it, just nodded agreement.
“Fair enough, we'll have her unloaded in a trice and then get to work.” With a nod, he strode back to join his sons.
“Looks like the wheels are turning then,” came a voice from beside Barkus. He looked to see Sol standing there, smoking peacefully. There seemed to be some kind of increased internal pressure in the man though, as he rolled back and forth on the soles of his feet and there was an extra gleam in his eye.
“Starting to anyway,” Barkus agreed. He had decided that his strange, fiery experience was some kind of dream but now looking at him, the image of a burning Sol kept butting for his attention. “The initial breaking down is always that bit that people forget about but it's necessary to get a properly finished result.”
“Cant make omelettes without breaking eggs,”Sol commented. Barkus nodded, eyes scanning the progress of each task. They had estimated that this stage would take the full day with the gazebo and material recycling taking the rest of the next 2 days. By the look of it, they would be on schedule, barring any great mishaps. Sol had just asked him something.
“I'm sorry, that was rude of me, I wasn't listening,” he admitted. “What did you say?”
“I just said that it's been a long time since the Square has seen this much action.” Barkus frowned.
“You know, you're not the first person to say something like that and I wonder, why? It's right in the middle of everything, it's fairly flat ground, it has benches.”
“It's completely open so no chance of privacy, the old paths were supplanted by the flower beds, pardon the pun, so people had to either walk right up to each diagonal corner to cross it or run the risk of suffering the wrath of the community watchdogs who are always on the look out to embarrass somebody. There was no shade or shelter whatsoever unless you brought it yourself which meant in the summer you melted and in the winter you froze. They used to allow sports until someone complained about the muddy patches not being aesthetically pleasing and they used to encourage the kids to build snow sculptures until the porno-snowmen and the “Incidents of the Yellow Snow.” “ Sol rolled his eyes and sighed. “Its almost as if someone wanted a silent town center.” Barkus looked to where Sol's eyes had briefly flickered and saw Paul Taylor's shop, it's garish store-front dominating the street.
“Oh yes?” he asked. “What would be the point though? Surely if more people were walking back and forth they would....”
“Not be spending their time and money inside,” Sol finished and then shrugged., “But what do I know, I'm just a lil' ol' banjo player who pokes his nose into other people's business.” He sighed. “I remember when I first came here, there were concerts once a week, and people threw frisbees and children played and couples lingered and then they tore down the trees for making the streets slippy with leaves.” He brightened again and slapped Barkus on the back. “But now, thats going to change, yes?”
“I hope so,” Barkus replied. “But thats up to the people, not me. I'm just here to supervise the change, not what they do with it afterwards.” The two men stood in silence for a moment, lost in their thoughts before a hearty voice pealed out.
“Unless you want to add some extra traction to the wheel, you boys had best step aside.” It was Donny Red and they both stepped aside with a laugh to allow the full truck to pass.
The younger Smiths waved off all offers to help and, faster than Barkus had expected, Donny was reversing the truck back the way it came. Sol nudged Barkus.
“Watch this,” he said. “I'll bet you've never seen anything like this before.” Barkus wondered how building this structure could be different from all of the others he'd seen, but dutifully paid attention to the Smith sons bustling about with lumber and hardware and tools. He frowned.
“Why are they stacking them like that?”
“Just wait,” Sol chuckled. “They've got quite a crowd already.” And indeed, everyone who had been working on the Square's dismantling now stood in the loose circle around where the Smiths had set up. There was a definite feeling of anticipation and Donny Red ambled back to the Square with the air of a magician about to delight and astound.
Steven, Shaun and Donny Jr. stepped back from the materials which had been arranged like points on a clock. They lifted their toolbelts and cinched them into place, then let their hands hang loosely by their sides, almost, Barkus realised, like gunfighters waiting for the signal to draw.
Donny Red turned in a slow circle, assessing each pile and son as he went. Barkus marveled at the sense of theatre the man could bring to the occasion, they were not just building a gazebo, they were creating a show. Slowly, deliberately he lifted his own toolbelt from his shoulder and pulled it tight around his hips.
“Mr. Barkus,” his voice rang out, cutting the murmured conversations short like a knife. “You say you want a gazebo right here.”
“Yes sir,” Barkus replied, aware of the need to match the tone. “The best one you can give the town.”
“Hear that boys?”
“We hear Pa,” the sons boomed out in unison.
“Then let's get 'er done!”
“Unbelievable,” Barkus said later in Jim's Place. “Simply unbelievable. I've never seen anything like it.” The Smith boys smiled and Donny said;
“Once you find your best way to work, things just go smoother, haven't you noticed?”
“But you were juggling and throwing pieces of lumber to each other, it was like something from a movie, or a circus!”
“Well we're 3rd generation builders,” rumbled Steven. “But before that we were circus clowns. Great-granddaddy felt that his youngest should try something different and apprenticed him to a carpenter during the Great Depression. But he kept his circus skills and found that they helped him get jobs where others could not. A Master Carpenter that makes your family laugh so hard that they're sick tends to stick in the mind, you know.”
“And he made sure that all his kids and grandkids learnt the fine arts of clowning around,” Shaun supplied. “And they are fine arts, believe me. Misjudge a catch or a fall and you're lucky just to be badly bruised.” He shrugged one huge shoulder. “After that it's about how to handle an audience, how to tease them out like a guitar string, how to let them laugh from their deepest corners, how to turn a groan into a gasp. Daddy is a master at it as you saw today.”
“He was something else,” Barkus admitted.
“People remember that,” Donny Jr. nodded. “There are plenty of other builders around here, too many sometimes. But we're the first ones that come to people's lips because not only do we create a beautiful product, we give them a show too.” Barkus nodded, remembering again the wonder he felt at watching those 4 big men manipulate pieces of lumber like they were matchsticks, tossing tools to each other and swinging up and down the ladders like monkeys. They didn't go faster than other builders he had known but they had dazzled. And a few times his practised eye had noticed when one Smith or other had lingered over an unimportant spot then whirled away to reveal a carved post, or a textured place for fingers to rest. They added in beauty where others would have left it plain. He mentioned this and it was like the sun rose again when all three men grinned as one.
“Grandaddy always said that it wasn't enough to just build something, anyone can do that. As descendants of circus folk we have to be able to make people pause, to linger and see things that they would otherwise have not,” Donny Jr. told him proudly.
“He said there was enough darkness and ugliness in the world, that our tools should only create brightness and beauty,” Steven mused. The men stood in silence for a moment before Barkus raised his glass.
“To Grandpa Smith,” he said. “And the creation of beauty.”
“To Grandpa Smith,” the Smith boys chorused and their glasses met with a clash.
“My, my, my but things are looking mighty fine out there,” came a cheerful female voice and the men turned to see Sarah walking over with a smile and a beer in her hand. “Progress is happening. Evening Barkus. Hullo my favourite physical comedy amateurs, long time no slapstick!”
Barkus felt a tug on his elbow as the quartet of laughter-seekers fell to exchanging insults and observations. There was a wizened old lady there, clutching what looked like a hot toddy in an oven glove. She motioned and he bent down so she could murmer in his ear. But that was all he heard, a vague murmer, with complimentary overtones. He stared into her red-rimmed eyes, mind racing as he desperately tried to pull meaning from her voice, to not embaress either her or himself. She seemed to take pity on him, for she murmered again, patted his arm and wandered back to the bar, the steam from her cup tracing her path like a flag. Barkus watched after her for a few moments, then turned back in time to see Sarah finishing the delivery of a saucy line to Steven, his brothers buckling with laughter. “Oh come here you insufferable tease,” Steven cried in mock consternation as with one hand he deftly extracted her glass and held it out to Barkus who grabbed it quickly and with the other arm spun her around and up in a surprisingly balletic movement, until he stumbled and fell. She hung at the top of the arc for a heart-stopping moment then, just as she began to fall, Shaun's arms were under her, he held her tight against his chest and spun her up and around once, twice, three times like a dancer before he lobbed her through the air back towards Steve, but he overshot and as the youngest Smith opened his eyes wide in horror and ducked to avoid her feet, Donny Jr. stepped in at the very last second and caught her securely in his broad arms. He raised her up over his head and all 4 participants struck “Ta-daaa!” poses to the whistling and rousing applause of their audience.
“Did you know they were going to do that?” Barkus asked Sarah as, beaming and breathless, she took back her drink. She shook her head and looked to where the Smith boys were getting their backs slapped and hands shook.
“Not to that extent no, but there's always something in the first ten minutes. Did they tell you that they're from circus folk?” Barkus nodded. “Then you'll understand that they're always on the lookout for an opportunity to astound and amaze.” She grinned ruefully. “I guess doing the gazebo today got their blood up cos thats the most exciting turn they've used me for yet.” She wiped her forehead and laughed. “For a split-second there even I was worried and I've known them and their ways for years.”
“But they tossed you around like a ragdoll!” Barkus exclaimed. “And you're, you're,” he faltered, aware that he may have gotten himself into real trouble. She laughed.
“Not the smallest girl in town, eh?” she laughed, stretching herself to her full height proudly. “But I was a dancer for years and there are ways of holding yourself to make it easier for someone to pick you up. Or more difficult of course,” she added. “Where's Papa Smith?” she asked Steven who had turned back to them. A momentary cloud crossed his face.
“He didn't want to leave Mama too long. She's not had an easy time of it this week,” he sighed and Sarah nodded sympathetically. “Although she asked me to tell you that the liniment you gave her has helped a lot.”
“Oh good.” He grinned again, eyes sparkling.
“And Papa said to say thanks as well, he's enjoyed applying it.” Sarah burst out laughing.
“Then work was not in vain, that's good to hear,” she chuckled. “Mama Smith just had a double hip replacement,” she explained to the amused Barkus. “Which is a good thing because the old ones were driving her nuts, but its a lot to recover from and she's an impatient lady.” Steven nodded agreement.
“She's been making rag-rugs like there's no tomorrow.”
“I thought she was photo-collaging,” Sarah said, surprised.
“She's finished that, then she finished the sweaters she promised us all ten years ago, then she decided what colours she wants all of the rooms in the house to be, now she's on to rag-rugs. And she's starting to complain that it's getting boring.”
“Oh wow,” Barkus said. “How long has it been since the operation?”
“4 weeks,” was the reply. “She gets up and walks around and does the exercises she's supposed to do, but she gets tired a lot faster than she used to. She's an active lady and and doesn't like spending all her time staring out the window.
“Does she crochet?” Steven paused, then shook his head. Barkus continued; “When my mother was laid up with a broken thigh, the only thing that kept her attention was crocheting. She made blankets and cushion covers and everything.”
“I don't suppose she taught you how to do it,” Steven asked. Barkus shook his head.
“She tried, but I was completely ham-fisted at it. Couldn't get it to work at all.”
“Mary crochets though,” Sarah supplied. “She comes by sometimes and her pieces are just beautiful. Maybe she'll come up to Loretta with a spare hook?”
“It's worth the asking,” Steven agreed. “If Mama can't find something to occupy herself, she'll do herself an injury and then we'll be back to square one again.”
“Hey Steven, you coming with us?” came the call from the door.
“Be right there Shaun,” Steven called back, before draining the rest of his drink. With a hug for Sarah and a handshake and “see you in the morning,” for Barkus, the builder walked out through the door into the early evening.
“What time is it?” Sarah asked, checking her watch. “Just gone six, good I'll make it for supper.” She drained her own drink and set the glass on the counter. “If I'm late again I won't hear the end of it.” Barkus nodded.
“Yep, you have to be careful about punctuality when a hot meal is waiting.” She laughed.
“Don't I know it. Have a good evening,” she said as she headed for the door.
Barkus blew out his cheeks in a sigh. Jim passed him a menu on his way past.
“Chef's burger and fries please Jim. And another beer.”
It was 8pm and Barkus was back in his apartment. The envelope Deputy George gave him was torn open and three sheets of paper lay on the sitting room table, Barkus was standing by the window. He didn't see the view, but the handwritten lines instead. He blinked, rubbed his face, then grabbed his jacket and keys and walked out, closing the door carefully behind him.
Sol was in the corner store when he walked in, leaning on the counter and making the young man on duty laugh so hard you could see the bands of his braces.
“Hello Barkus,' Sol called cheerily as the youth wiped his eyes with his sleeve. 'Do you have any comment on Marxism vs. Anarchy?' Barkus shrugged and pasted on a smile.
'Only that you should never count your revolutionaries until they're cracked.' A weak one, but it got smiles from his audience. 'Pack of DuMauriers and a lighter please,' he said to the attendant. Sol's eyebrows rose.
'Didn't you quit?'
'Yeah, well, some evenings are easier than others,' Barkus hedged. Sol nodded.
'Well, if its only for the evening, how about I open my shiny new packet of tobacco and give you a few rollies instead? That way, you've still quit cos everyone knows that you only start up again once you actually buy a pack.' Barkus wavered, then nodded. The youth put the pack back in it's place. Sol stood up.
'Right, lets officially break the seal on this baby,' he said, then winked. 'As the High Priest said of the Vestal Virgin.' The youth guffawed and waved them off as Barkus followed Sol out of the store and to a bench a ways up the street.
'Can you roll your own?' he asked once they got comfortable in the evening sunshine.
'I used to be able to, my roommates loved to have me around in college. It's been quite a while though.' He smiled. 'Like almost everybody it seems, I used to roll together what ends of tobacco I could find. Well, I say 'I' but really it was me and my older brothers and it was really only because our Uncle smoked rollies and we were all a little in awe of him.' Barkus swore as his fingers proved to be even clumsier than he expected. The shaking in his hands had nothing to do with it of course.
'Of course,' Sol said and Barkus frowned before he continued. 'It's usually a mysterious, older role model that starts the younger ones on something. Smoking, drinking, wearing pants that make you look like you missed the toilet.' Barkus chuckled and licked the glue on his paper before attempting to smooth it into place. 'Okay,' he admitted, holding up his creation. 'It's a sleeping bag, but at least it's not a camel.'
'Does your Uncle still smoke?' Sol asked, passing him the lighter. Barkus bent his head to shield the flame from the wind and lit up.
'Car accident when I was fourteen,' was the short reply. 'Winter. Plough came around a corner over the line, Jimmy served to avoid it, flipped through the trees and got pinned underneath his own car.' Inhale, exhale. 'Died of exposure in the dark.' Sol shook his head in sympathy.
'I don't think my father ever got over it, really. I remember the look on his face any time any of us forgot to call and let them know we arrived somewhere.' Inhale, exhale. 'The only time I ever heard him and my mother have a real, flaming row was when she had insisted on driving through a storm. I can't remember why, but she wouldn't budge. He was as tight as a bowstring for the whole day and when we got up the next morning and she still hadn't come back or called he was in pieces. He had spent the whole night beside the window with the phone at his elbow. When she walked in the door at lunchtime he alternated between screaming at her and hugging her.' Inhale, exhale. 'They were the first people to get cellphones, you know, the original bricks with the lift-out antennae? Dad got two, one for each vehicle.' *And they still ended up dying at home* came the new, now hated voice. Sol's eyebrows rose, but Barkus didn't notice.
Barkus stared at the empty yet cluttered square as the shadows began their long slide into night. His hands mechanically cupped the rollie from the wind, raised it to his lips at the proper intervals, his lungs worked to deliver the nicotine to his blood but he himself was on the other side of 30 years ago, when his Uncle could be found under the chassis of a car, whistling through his teeth, or occasionally groping for a tool that one of his nephews would hurry to hand him. James would eventually join him under there, using his skateboard to wheel himself in and out.
'What happened when your Uncle died?' Sol asked, breaking smoothly into his thoughts, Barkus blinked and realised that he was down to the end of his rollie.
'It was like someone ripped a hole in us.' He leaned back and shredded the little rectangle of paper before stuffing it into the half-empty flower pot beside him. 'When he died, nothing stayed the same.' He sighed. 'Poor James.'
'Your Uncle, or one of your brothers?' Sol asked. Barkus grinned mirthlessly.
'Both, technically. My Uncle's name was James but he preferred Jimmy. My older brother, the second son was named after him but preferred James.'
'At least it cut down on the confusion,' Sol observed. 'So why poor James over everyone else?'
'He idolized Jimmy. James was a very smart guy but he couldn't read all that well. No problem with numbers 'so long as they didn't get stupid,' in his words. But reading?' Barkus shook his head. 'Nowadays they'd call it dyslexia and give him a different method to learn. Back then in that school they called him stupid and made him the laughing stock of the classroom.' He accepted the rollie Sol passed him and lit up. 'By the time Daddy found out what was going on, it was too late. Nothing could make James set foot in a classroom ever again. So Jimmy started showing him the mechanical ropes. He told Daddy that reading didn't matter as much as understanding in the mechanical world and James had that in spades.' Inhale, exhale. 'James was supposed to start as apprenticeship with a company when Jimmy died. He had arranged it all for him, right down to the boots.' Pause. 'That's what he was driving back from when that plough came around the corner.' Silence.
'Poor James,' Sol said. 'What happened to him?' Barkus shrugged again.
'He went and did the apprenticeship, got his Red Seal, made a name for himself, got other young ones apprenticed and set on their way.' Inhale, exhale. 'He told me that anything else would be an insult to Jimmy.' Long, hard breathe. *'I just can't be as strong as you John, I'm sorry.'*
'When did you see him last?' Sol asked gently.
'Six months ago.' Barkus stood up abruptly. 'Thank you for the ciggarettes,' he said, grinding the second one under his boot. 'You're right, much better than buying a pack myself. I feel like I should go for a walk though. See you round.'
'See you round,' Sol answered, but Barkus was already gone.