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BONOBOS live like humans, sharing nests. Even have societies. I liked that, back when I first heard it in my Zoology class. Sitting beside Joey. I think about it sometimes as I work. There’s something magic about how closely related everything is. There’s also something magic out here too, in wood, in the way it looks in the summer light.

Joey uses the power auger to drill into the ground, pushing the earth aside, and I shovel gravel into the holes. He shouts at me over the sound, mostly instructions, but some chitchat too, always with that big smile of his, the one that doesn’t quite reveal his teeth. We’ll pour cement on top of the gravel before we push in metal poles. “We need a strong foundation,” Joey shouts to me. His arms are used to long hours of physical labour. His hands are the drawers of meticulously drafted plans.

The first day I worked for Joey, I hunched over all day, sanding the top of the deck so the varnish would stick. “Finishing touches should always be done by hand,” Joey told me, yet I’m the one, fresh to the sun, who ended up not being able to walk the next day, knuckles scuffed from sanding too vigorously, back pink, raw.

With this work, I don’t think about Andrea—but I don’t think about her much these days anyway—or biology, or the future. It erases thinking like lab work, probably all I’d be doing if I stayed in biology. I struggled too much in school to do anything else. A professor had taken me aside at the end of his class, placed his hand on my arm, just above the elbow, and suggested I go with him to study phylogenies of bats in New Mexico. He knew I could work hard, even if I wasn’t naturally bright or talented. But I came to Joey instead.

Joey used to live with his parents out in an estate like the house we’re working on, but his dad kicked him out when he dropped out of our biology program and went into trade school. Now he lives alone in a basement apartment in the city, not far away from me. Even with my parents, I’ve always lived in tiny places in the city. Once we get out to the country to work on these estates, I’m stunned. I’m used to people living smashed up against one another, a family of rats. Andrea and me, crammed in a one-bedroom apartment.

We tore this deck down a few days ago. Joey told me where to use the crowbar to pull down the rotted weathered wood. “It wasn’t built right in the first place,” he said, stretching and massaging his right arm. The parts I ripped free, Joey tossed into the back of his truck. Effortless. He did a couple dump runs while I worked in the slowcooker heat of the sun. I felt like a termite, chewing up wood and making something new. Termite mounds, termitaria, are called anthills in Africa, even though termites aren’t so closely related to ants. I’ve always thought termites aren’t different from people, in a way. They use their structures to collect condensation and water. They cultivate gardens of fungi. And we thought we were the only creatures that ever made anything grow.

“Joey, just rent a bulldozer.” I was tired of wood splintering everywhere, filling the air with the smell of rot. “This is taking forever.”

“Listen, Paulo, I hate bulldozers. The stupid things make too much noise and disturb the wildlife. You should know that. The people that hire me are looking for a contractor who doesn’t use those tools. And I can hardly afford gas for the truck.” He didn’t even stop working as we talked, kept tossing the scraps into the back of the truck. But after that, Joey took his turn at some of the more annoying jobs, taught me how to do some of the more complex stuff, remembered that he was the one that asked me to be around.

We put in the poles now that the holes are dug. I mix cement by hand as Joey uses a sledgehammer to drive the poles in. I pour the cement. The owner’s kids come and watch us work as we build the thing anew. “That deck’s been here since before I was born,” the little girl tells me. Her brother runs off into a corner of lawn, searching for something in the thick grass that lines their property. I don’t say anything. Just pour. The boy comes up to his sister, hands clasped around something. “It’s a toad!”

The little girl smiles and pokes her fingers into the boy’s hand. “Oh, it’s squishy!”

I stop pouring, open my mouth to ask if I can see it, if the boy will part his hands so that I can try to identify the species. Joey is already beside him. “You guys know what that toad is really called? Bufo americanus. Each male chirps in a chorus at a slightly different pitch.”

“Cool,” the girl says. “Tim’s going to grow up to be a vet.”

The little boy is distracted by the sound of his mother calling. Kool-aid and Cheese Whiz sandwiches for lunch. The little boy’s eyes light up—“With raisins to make a face!”

“Hey, Joey, remember our club?” I ask as we get back to work.

The Animal Fact Association. Usually it was just Joey and me. It was another excuse to hang out and shoot the shit, but we were extremely serious when it came to talking about animal facts. I’d bring big books—1001 Strangest Animal Facts. North American Slugs, Toads, and Frogs. Sea Creatures and How to Find Them. Everything You Need to Know about Wolves. Books intended for elementary school projects where you made a poster out of construction paper and drew six species of birds in Southern Ontario. I never got out of thinking about biology in this way. That I could be interested in animals as a living. I wanted to work in the field, study animals, crouching in the cold as I watched wolves communicate or something. Wade into a marsh in order to examine the structure of a beaver dam. Andrea’s best friend, Michelle, told me I had started off in the wrong place, that the path to that sort of work was now in psychology—animal behaviourism.

Joey drives a pole deep into one of the holes we’ve dug. “Yeah, the AFA, how could I forget? A narwhal’s tusk is full of sensory nerves.”

“A blue whale can produce sounds up to 188 decibels.”

“Armadillos spend almost 80% of their lives sleeping.”

Fact trading soon becomes a game of best, and that’s really what it always was in a way. Who remembers more. Who knows more. Who cares more. And yet, the way that Joey holds a hammer, his hand wrapped around it full of purpose and direction, is what really defeats me. The fact that I’ll never be able to hold anything with that tenderness and force.

We grow tired of this game, the one that used to light us up and get us talking louder and louder. I used to come home from a club meeting, my throat sore from straining to be heard. Joey stops talking first, consults a few drawings he’s made up. I’m embarrassed suddenly—did I keep the game up too long? The taste of wood fills my mouth.

• • •

When I get home, I can hear the Food Network from the apartment hallway. My toolbelt I drop by the door, and my arms are aches. From her plate on our TV table with toast crumbs left over, her coffee cup with dried brown drips staining the sides, I can tell Andrea probably hasn’t moved all day. Or, who knows, she could’ve been out all day, left the dishes from breakfast behind. I clear them off and start to wash them in the sink. “How was work?” she asks me, and she asks me this every day, and I don’t want to answer anymore.

“I’m tired,” I say. “We just were laying the foundation for the deck today.” The first night I came home from working with Joey, I lay on the couch and didn’t move. She brought me a bowl of rice with bits of chicken in it and a cup of herbal tea. Raspberry. She massaged my back, and we went to bed without sex or embrace or a goodnight kiss. Like most nights. When I’m working on the decks day after day beside Joey, it feels like all nights that are like that, but neither of us says a thing about it.

Sometimes I think about how funny it is, that I met Andrea through Joey. Back when he was dating Michelle, and I’d tag along with them after class. Michelle was the only girlfriend Joey ever had, as far as I know. Soon, I guess tired of me being the third wheel, she brought along Andrea and observed the way we acted together. I wasn’t used to the way Andrea treated me, joking with me, trying so hard to keep my attention. Didn’t know what to think, except I remember being deeply flattered, and things fell into the way they are. Michelle and Joey only dated a couple of months, and I live with Andrea. And that’s the way it happened.

Michelle’s kind of pretty. When Joey and her first broke up, Andrea tended to watch me around her, I guess to see if I would attempt a switch, but I never did and eventually Andrea stopped watching. As if I could ever leave stout, angry, challenging Andrea after so many years. Like a toe or that place you can’t reach on your back, you start to forget it’s a part of you.

The girls see each other all the time, although we’ve never attempted to make a new foursome again with any of the other guys she’s dated. One day, after she left, I asked Andrea about it. “She’s just never been able to be serious with anybody. She goes for the wrong guys.”

“Was Joey one of the wrong guys?”

Sometimes when Michelle came over, especially if it was late at night, and they poured glasses of wine, Michelle would talk to Andrea about Joey. She never really spoke to me—I was just there, a part of the furniture or something. One day she asked me, “Does he ever talk about me?” But Joey’s never asked about her or talked about any girl, not even when he and Michelle were dating.

“Don’t worry about that,” Andrea told me. Sometimes when I’d talk about working with Joey, her eyes would stop looking at me and watch TV, unseeing.

• • •

Michelle comes over as I start dinner, the first time she’s come over this summer since she’s been travelling so much for work. Andrea talks about it all the time, but I can never seem to remember what Michelle’s job is or where she’s been. Andrea’s words don’t stick with me sometimes. “Hey, Shell. How was your trip?” I ask as I husk corn.

“It was good to get away. What’re you up to these days?”

“Just working with Joey for the summer. You know, deck building.”

She picks at a fingernail, and Andrea doesn’t say anything, but she gives me the usual shut up look. I shrug at her.

“How’d you get hooked into that?” Michelle laughs, but she’s still looking down, at the fingernail.

“Well, he needed someone and asked me right away.”

“To be part of his team?”

“Nah, just an assistant… it’s just the two of us.”

Michelle stops asking me questions after that, and I feel obliged to offer her dinner, but she says she’s got to be going anyway. I start rustling around pans, and they jumble about, clanking and creaking. Michelle and Andrea resume their conversation.

Through the clutter, I hear, “He never was interested in me, you know, as more than a friend.”

“Oh, I know,” says Andrea, and for some reason, I feel like she’s looking right at me. I don’t turn around to face her, and I don’t say goodbye to Michelle. As I fry up two chicken breasts, I concentrate on remembering more animal facts for Joey.

• • •

The day I let all the grad program deadlines pass, I bought two hermit crabs. It was a few days before Christmas, and freezing rain was coming down hard, the way it always does if you live close to Lake Ontario. I had to go out. I had forgotten to buy a present for Andrea. My labs had been going late every night, and I’d been studying, struggling to pass my exams. There were wreaths made of plastic pine boughs hanging in the entranceways of the mall. The air smelt stale—slowly molding carpet. Jostled, flustered, exhausted, I wanted to grab the first thing I could and go home. A kiosk was selling silk scarves. “Are these one hundred percent silk?” I’d asked the vendor as I picked out a lime green one for Andrea.

“No. Only part.” I didn’t have time to reconsider, paid the man and gave him an extra two bucks to wrap it for me. As I waited, I saw young children crowded around an aquarium in the middle of the kiosk. A girl held out her hand to the saleslady, and she put something gently into it. I headed over and watched the small pink crab creep across the girl’s hand. It cost me $150 for the crabs, extra shells and aquarium.

When I brought them home, Andrea watched them digging into their playsand. “They’re kinda cute,” she’d said, “but I don’t really want to touch them.” I gave her the scarf, and she wore it right away. Days later, lying beside her in bed, I remembered she hated the colour green. She kept the scarf folded neatly at the top of her drawer and wore it all the time.

• • •

Some nights when I can’t sleep and it almost feels like something is keeping me awake—an itching along my sunburnt skin—I get up and flip through the pages of my old biology textbooks. It’s as if I expect to see P-A-U-L written on one of the pages, an itemization of my own body. Yet, that’s not what I’m looking for, not really. My hands hold the textbook covers, and I know most of the bones underneath the muscle underneath the skin. If my mind were sharper and steadier, I’d remember all of them. In these early sleepless hours, I distract myself with diagrams of a mating ball of snakes, with charts discussing gestation periods of different species. Some nights I fall asleep in the chair—a big soft reading chair Andrea bought me for our third anniversary.

• • •

That night I dream of Joey. He’s in science class with me, and we’re learning fast, just like in first year. He’s holding a hammer. He leaves and walks outside. The wind blows his dark hair forward so that it almost covers his face. His hair looks like the shimmering feathers of a raven. A crow flies overhead. My feet are bare in the grass. It’s hot outside, I can feel the heat. Joey starts building. I still can’t see his face. His narrow frame expands. He becomes stronger. It’s too hot outside to work. He calls over to me and begs for me to help. I walk to him, it’s the frame of the deck. It’s my first day working with him, and I’m nailing boards onto the top of the deck. The hammer cuts into the soft flesh of my hands. It’s too hot to wear shirts. Bare-backed, we continue to work. Joey tans, I burn. My skin stings all over. A prickling heat. Joey is smiling. He knows exactly what to do. I drop my hammer—

I wake up, my body covered in sores. I examine the bites covering my skin and shake Andrea awake. “Hey, wake up. We got bedbugs.”

Andrea doesn’t even open her eyes. “I’m sleeping here. I’ve got class tomorrow.” Just like she still goes.

“And I’ve got work. Get up.”

Andrea gets up and strips off her PJs before heading into the shower. I go into the kitchen, grab garbage bags, and shove all of our sheets, pillowcases, pyjamas in. I seal them with duct tape and leave them in the hall to deal with in the morning. I vacuum both sides of the mattress.

“You probably brought them in from work.”

I want to tell her that bedbugs would never live in wood. They prefer clothes, other people’s sheets. They travel from bed to bed that way. Entrapping adulterers, sneaking up on sleepovers. I want to ask her if she knows any other names for bedbugs. Like redcoats. I laugh to myself as I vacuum the mattress. We were attacked by a redcoat army. Andrea changes into new PJs and goes back to sleep on the couch. My hermit crabs, nocturnal, push around woodchips in the corner of their tank. One looks too big for its shell, its body pokes out, flesh pink, but it hasn’t traded shells yet. When I turn on the vacuum, they retreat under logs. The tank looks empty.

I’ve done as much as I can do for one night. It’s my turn to shower. The water doesn’t get hot enough; Andrea used all the heat up. Lukewarm water won’t kill anything. The water smacks against me, Andrea’s already asleep, and I can’t see any bedbugs. Entirely alone.

As I towel myself off, a fleck of reddish brown on my arm moves, slips off me, perhaps disappearing into some dark crevice. They must be in the towels. I get a garbage bag and shove the towels in, seal the plastic with tape. After the bag’s sealed, I start to shiver. My skin itches, I can still feel them, but they aren’t there anymore, they are in the garbage bag, opaque black, light and fresh air kept out. I still feel them, I can still see them, filled with visions of the little death inside.


Jess Taylor is the host and founder of The Emerging Writers Reading Series. Her work has been published in Little Brother, Great Lakes Review, Emerge Literary Journal, and more. In 2013, she received the Gold National Magazine Award in Fiction for her short story, "Paul," and was named “one of the best alt-lit reads coming out of Canada” by Dazed and Confused Magazine. Her debut short story collection, Pauls, is out now from BookThug.

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LF #044 © Jess Taylor. Published by Little Fiction | Big Truths, July 2013.


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by jess taylor