by James Parr
Me and Hippie Kai had managed to pull three boats that morning with no chops—no obvious mistakes that meant the kayak had to be chain-sawed in half and thrown away in the dumpsters out back. It wasn’t our best effort since we’d been put on the same oven together, but not a bad one either. Bill always wanted four before lunch, but three good ones the company could sell was enough for all concerned. We all got twenty minutes for lunch so I was headed through the break room and into the sunlight out front of the factory to try and find Becca, who was usually early.
“Blowjob time, again?” nearly yelled Garvey, a finisher who worked the details on the kayaks after we’d pulled them from the ovens. He was about to tear into some hot-dogs from the gas station up the road by the highway, the only other building out here as a matter of fact. The smell of them was borderline evil, and had taken up any empty space in the already cramped, regretful room. He was always early for lunch.
“Yes Garvey. Blowjobs and orgies and even a few sheep.”
“You should marry that girl.”
I continued through the break room and out into the parking lot, filled with sunshine and fresh air and a lot of other things that aren’t allowed inside of factories. Becca was standing behind my car holding a brown paper grocery bag. Other than a decrepit standing ashtray there was nothing in front of the building except parking spots, so I gave her a hug and a kiss and unlocked the passenger door for her. We huddled in my little beater of a Toyota, as we did two or three times every week.
“I made sandwiches and some bean salad for us.” She was busy opening up the bag and getting out the goodies inside, along with some napkins and two plastic forks. “It smells good, thank you.”
By now the break room would be almost full with the first stagger of oven jockeys and finishers. Hippie Kai never had a problem with me taking lunch first, as long as we had a new boat in the oven cooking, the granulated plastic melting down and coating the inside of the mold. When I got back we’d get the mold out of the oven for cooling, then pull the thing and walk it over to the finishers together so he could take his own break, and I would start with drilling inserts for the fifth kayak of the day.
“How many so far today? With Hippie Kai?”
I took a healthy bite from a ham sandwich that had no right to be as delicious as it was.
“No chops my dear. You know I’m here to make this company as much fucking money as possible.”
“Wow. I must be dating the most talented kayak maker in Whatcom County.”
“You are. And thanks for lunch.”
Becca worked night shifts at a local nursing home, and I always had to try and remember that lunch for me was basically the middle of the night for her. She got off at eight a.m. and could sleep for a bit before coming here, or just stay at home and get her full eight hours. Lunches were a treat, even though they were something like a midnight snack or an incredibly late dinner for her. There were plenty of times when she would just sip on some water and watch me eat. I didn’t mind that anymore.
Garvey and some other guys were coming out front for cigarettes, sipping from white Styrofoam cups of the surprisingly decent coffee we got for free in the break room thanks to Alice, the elderly lady who did payroll and answered the very rare phone call. I’d had my two cups already and was happy to work on a can of diet soda Becca had brought along, wrapped in tinfoil to keep it cool. It reminded me of being at summer camp as a kid.
I’d been working at the kayak factory here in Ferndale for about three months. Three more, and I was supposed to get hired on full time with health insurance. Becca had helped me find the job in the first place, with a tip from one of the old men she took care of at the nursing home who somehow knew Bill’s father. She’d been there for two years and worked the graveyard since it paid an extra two dollars an hour. I’d tried to get on graveyard here at the factory myself, but the pay bump was a bit competitive even with the guys who had obvious drinking or drug problems. They always hid their empty tallboys in places they thought nobody would find them, but there aren’t a whole lot of secrets in a factory running three shifts a day.
I could hear Garvey say something stupid about us, and the other guys laughed and sucked down their bargain brand smokes. I never understood the blowjob stuff anyways, because we just sat and talked and I wolfed down whatever Becca had brought for us knowing I’d need at least three minutes to use the bathroom before getting back to the oven. You won’t find that many lifetime success stories in a place like this, but for guys like Garvey this was always going to be the end of the line. He took what seemed like genuine pride in telling his bullshit stories to the rest of the guys during and after lunch, like some kind of mayor gone wrong. Even Hippie Kai had plans and dreams beyond baking kayaks eight hours a day, even if he smoked them away almost every night back at his own little place outside of town. Competent drinkers like Old Frank knew enough to never bring it in to the job or to come in fully drunk, just very hung-over as needed— “slightly pickled” he used to tell me after looking around to make sure Bill wasn’t behind him, back when I started on his oven for training.
Becca was looking up and at the rear-view mirror as she finished packing up the trash. “Is that Garvey? The blowjob guy? I can tell just by looking. Bitch is wearing a Hooter’s shirt for fuck’s sake.”
“Yup, old Garvey.”
I wasn’t sure if it was worth mentioning the lunch break sex stuff to Becca, but I had last week because I thought she’d find it funny, the notion that she only came out here so I could have my way with her and, more laughably, have it in the back seat of battered down 1999 Corolla filled with my spare hard hats and oven gloves and back supporters. Mostly she did find it funny, but of course she also thought it was kind of gross and awful, much like Garvey himself.
I had always approached work—factories, stores, offices, restaurants—as places where you just got in and got out with as little trouble as possible, with no unwanted friction or drama. But with the Garveys of the world you had to stand up for yourself once in a while, because they’d never stop trying to get to you and make you do something stupid. I’d told him a few times to knock it off with the blowjob stories, that everybody knew Becca was a nice girl and we just shared lunch together in my car because there was literally nowhere to sit outside of the factory. He would laugh and immediately start looking around the kayak he was working on, adding fishing rod holders and making sure the decals were clean, to make sure the other guys could hear him out.
“Oh, so you must go behind the chop dumpsters for real fucking I bet!”
A few guys thought it was funny, like the KGB brothers in from Kendall. Ivan and Dmitry were young though, just out of high school. It was always easy to make them laugh. Other guys just kept on with their work. A few even had less patience with Garvey than I did, but rarely let it show. Short of a fight that would get us both shit-canned it wasn’t worth dealing with.
The guys who mattered to me, who I worked with on the ovens—Hippie Kai, Old Frank, Ramon—were of the same philosophy as me. Jobs were places for making money and going home when you were done. For guys like Garvey, they were a second chance at missed high school greatness, or the only eight hours of the day they didn’t have to deal with a screaming spouse or lover or a bunch of kids. Hippie Kai fried himself with drugs on the weekend, Old Frank worked on drinking himself to death, and Ramon liked to fish with his three sons. (Ramon was the only guy in the factory who actually liked to kayak himself, which came as a genuine shock to all of us.) At the very least there was some sort of taste of an actual future—not necessarily a very bright one, but one nonetheless—that didn’t involve this place, the sad stink of people who’d rather be somewhere else every shift, three shifts a day. For the Garveys though, who had the incredible ability to talk even when they knew nobody was really listening, there was just the endless stream of pain disguised as repeated jokes, or insults against ex-wives (two, in his case)—insults against women in general, really. Old Frank knew how to play the game though, and once asked Garvey in the break room how two separate women had let a catch like him get away.
“Well, I think they must be the two craziest and loneliest women in all of Whatcom County now, Frank.”
Rebecca liked this story infinitely more than the lunchtime blowjobs one.
“He’s just jealous. You’ve still got a life ahead of you,” whispered Becca, taking the plastic sandwich bag from my lap to use the next time she brought in lunch for us. I knew I only had about seven minutes left of break, so I tore into the bean salad and took some more swigs of the cola, figuring I could leave a little in the can to wash my mouth out after work.
“How’s the nursing home?”
“Oh, pretty bad I guess. They need to hire like five more people for my shift but they’re too cheap.”
“Hire Garvey. He could tell his dumb sex stories to all those horny old men.”
Becca chuckled and threw the napkins into the grocery bag. “Oh, they’d like that. Not Garvey though. He doesn’t care about anyone.”
“I don’t know. He’s got four kids.”
“Four kids and two ex-wives, I know the type.”
Becca leaned over and kissed me on the right cheek. I smiled back and told her I loved her and she gave me that look that meant I could make it through the rest of the shift, maybe even the rest of the week, without hating myself too much. Garvey and the mob had gone back inside and I realized I’d probably have to wait in line a bit for the bathroom, but then again Bill was usually in a nicer mood after his own lunch, since he’d gotten all the yelling out of himself during the morning and the first chops of the day.
Becca got out of my car and walked off toward the county road, which she would travel on for about ten minutes before getting to her grandfather’s house and getting the rest of her sleep for her next shift. This coming Saturday I hadn’t picked up overtime, so I’d drive over to her place and the three of us would have a nice breakfast and sit on the porch and read and enjoy the weather, listen to her grandfather tell us stories about his time working as a local cop. The best ones were about chasing Canadian pot growers all over the county decades ago. Later she’d watch me eat some lunch and drink some of her grandfather beer or wine, then get her own sleep. We’d head upstairs together and maybe I’d lay down beside her and run my hand through her long but thin brown hair as she fell into a good sleep, or even a bad one. Maybe I’d lie on my stomach beside her and read a new paperback from the tiny library up in Deming, across from where the Indian casino used to be before it got shut down. Maybe we’d have sex. (If her grandfather had any sacred Christian morals he’d never announced them to either of us. At his age he probably just didn’t care anymore.)
Before falling asleep, the real sleep she needed for her shift that Saturday night, Becca would want to have “the talk” with me, the “finally getting my shit together” talk as we both liked to call it. She was taking part-time courses at the technical college for a nursing certificate, and she saw no reason for me not to be doing the same toward an HVAC or electrician’s degree.
“It would just give us more options, maybe get us down to Seattle or Portland.”
She was right. But three more months and I’d get health insurance and a small pay bump, for starters, then think about school again.
“Garvey could help you with your homework at break time, when I’m not there.” Laying on her side, face toward me, she smiled and blew some strands of hair away from her eyes.
“We’ll see. You know how I feel about school.” Where she found the patience to put up with me, I’ll never know.
“I mean, the longer you’re there making kayaks with Garvey the more I’m worried you’ll run off and make me the third loneliest woman in all of Whatcom County.”
I never wanted anything more on those Saturday afternoons than just to lie down and listen to the wind, listen to her snore a bit, look out at the back garden where her grandfather had once spent hours growing beans and squash and lettuce but had given it all up to the dandelions and the wild, uninvited rhubarb once it became too much work for him. I could hear the Mariners game on the TV coming up from the living room downstairs, another losing effort of course even with as much as those guys must make. I could feel my heart clenching and unclenching and knew that I’d never love Rebecca more than I did at that moment, and that I wanted to inhabit that moment for as long as the kayak factories and the nursing homes and the Garveys of the world would allow it to be so.
I hated my job, the bad back and my arms full of new bruises and cuts and burns at the end of every shift. And I needed my job because it brought me closer to Rebecca and her own loneliness, our shared loneliness, which is love as far as I could ever tell. That night I’d drive home and tomorrow, Sunday, I needed my own sleep, and Rebecca would have to do chores for her grandfather in town and around the house. She says she’ll come visit me this Tuesday again for lunch. And I honestly feel guilty for having so much as this, for having so much as I do already. I’m not sure if I deserve any more.
After a decade living and teaching English in South Korea, James Parr returned to Bellingham to help take care of an older relative. Before moving to Korea James did, in fact, work at a kayak factory in Ferndale. You can find James on Twitter @wetcasements or via http://wetcasements.blogspot.com/.