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GARY sighs as the waitress passes him another chit—2lb LOB/clam start. He scoops chowder into a bowl, wipes its edge with his hip rag, and dings the bell. He looks over at Bob in the dish pit, surrounded by overflowing bus bins and steam rising from the sink. Gary walks over and pokes the dishwasher’s back with a pair of tongs. Bob turns and sprays him with the hose.

“Christ, Bob. I gotta go out front.”

Gary unties his wet stinking apron, throws it on the floor of the storage closet, and looks in the mirror. He pulls the elastic from his hair and finger-combs it back into another, then pushes through the swing doors and into the dining area. The gaze of hungry customers at table seven follows as he walks to the restaurant’s entrance. Crustaceans are piled three deep in a sixty-gallon tank, a one-last-stop on their way to the pot. Gary circles the tank, searching for a two-pounder.

“Sorry, guy,” Gary says as he plunges his arm deep into the cold depth. He carries the lobster to the kitchen, drips of water trail behind on the wood floor. The waiters used to bring them back, but Ralph the owner thought it would be more impressive if the cooks came out. He instructed Gary to take his time in choosing a lobster, “Make a bit of a spectacle,” he’d said. Gary works in the kitchen because he doesn’t want to see the upper-crusters he slaves for. Weekdays, the clientele are mid-thirties suits who come in for two-hour business meetings. He hears their big mouths bragging from the bar and doesn’t need faces to match. Today, Sunday lunch, it isn’t so bad. The locals are easier to stomach.

Gary walks through the prep area, past the long steel wash-bed for cleaning, and places the lobster onto the island stovetop. Gary has laboured before in shithole kitchens that were dark and sweaty, everyone on top of one another. Here, he can breathe. Head chef Ivan taught him to make chowders, risotto, and flambé bananas. When Gary became the only cook able to whip chocolate mousse and perfectly pipe it into champagne flutes, Ivan told him he had potential. He suggested evening courses at the downtown chef school.

Gary looks around for Bob. He doesn’t think the dishwasher’s name suits a lanky, doe-eyed kid still in high school. He’s a Robbie or Rob, not a Bob. Gary pushes open the door to the alley and finds him pissing on a pile of flattened cardboard boxes.

“I got a live one,” Gary tells him. “And wash your hands.”

“One sec,” Bob says, zipping up his pants.

Gary heads to the walk-in fridge and lingers an extra minute to cool down and admire his row of mousses. He carries out a bowl of shrimp and sets it on the counter.

“Hey, where’s the fish?” Bob asks, wiping his hands on his apron.

“He’s not a fish, or she’s not a fish.” Gary had read something about lobsters being sexless or that they could change their sex. “Not funny, Bob. The table’s already got their apps.”

“I swear. I didn’t touch it.”

Gary kneels on the floor and peers under the island. “God damn, he almost made the great escape.” He reaches under and pulls the crustacean out, reluctantly passing it to Bob.

Bob holds the lobster high above the always simmering stock pot. He cuts the rubber bands from its claws and bellows, “Any last words?” before dropping it to its death. Gary puts the lid on to suppress the hiss. He sets the timer and begins to devein the shrimp.

After the rush, Ivan and Ralph return from the airport with a van full of oysters, clams, and scallops. Ralph picks a crab claw off a plate in the bus bin and sucks out its contents.

“You are truly disgusting, my friend,” Ivan says.

Gary watches from a desk in the corner while eating corn chowder and a buttered slab of French bread. He eats the same thing every day. Staff don’t pay for soup, everything else is half-price. Gary drops his bowl in the dish pit before heading to the alley for a cigarette. Ivan stumbles out and begins unloading the boxed seafood.

“How many oysters?” Gary asks.

“A dozen boxes.”

“Fuck, that’s six hundred to clean.”

Gary walks back in and heaves on a heavy black raincoat, then steps into a pair of waders. He grabs a box, slices it open, and dumps the Malpeques onto the wash-bed’s flat upper surface. He climbs onto a milk crate and unhooks the shower-head hose from the wall. Washing oysters has a rhythm—hold a dirty mollusk flat in left hand, blast water from hose in right, then slide the oyster down the bed. Grab another, repeat. Each must be done individually to get all the grit out. Gary’s hands are covered in nicks and scratches from the sharp shells. Ivan told him to wear industrial gloves, but Gary’s fingers swim inside, making him clumsy and slow. An hour and a half later, Gary looks like he’s taken a ride on Maid of the Mist.

He’s out for a smoke when Bob leans into the alley, “Line two.”

Gary takes a last deep drag from his Export and returns inside.

“Gar, we’re in a jam,” Bruce says. “Can you look after Sammy tomorrow?” Jane’s got an interview, and I can’t take the day off.”

“I’m uh, not working, but I got a ton of laundry. I guess I could take him to the park across the street while that’s going.”

“Aw, Gar, you know what Jane thinks about that park.”

“I thought she’d be nostalgic.”

“If you come here, you can use the pool. And bring your laundry if you want, better than that hole-in-the-wall you go to.”

“The park’s fine during the day. And they got the fountains going now.”

“Let me talk to Jane,” Bruce says. “I’ll call you later.”

Gary hasn’t seen his brother and Jane since he fixed their washing machine in March, and before that to tighten the brakes on their car. In return, they bought Gary dinner. He could buy a week’s worth of groceries with the money they spent on one meal. Gary never knows what to say to Jane. When he talks about his job her eyes glaze over.

Ivan gives Gary a questioning look when he gets off the phone.

“My brother, he wants me to look after his kid.”

“Uncle Gary,” Ivan laughs. “I didn’t know you had a nephew. Or a brother. Bet you’d make a good dad.”

What’s a good dad? Gary thinks.

“Ya, what with the way you baby those lobsters,” Bob adds.

“Fuck you,” Gary says.

Gary catches a cross-city bus, bound for home. He drops a token and weaves his way past strollers and bundle buggies to find a seat at the back. He leans his head against the dirt-caked window and closes his eyes. The northern towns Gary and Bruce were raised in grew horizontally over skirting fields. Here, the only way to go is up. Ten years ago, everyone talked about the condos being built. Gary didn’t pay attention then, but now he couldn’t help to.

If people would just stop procreating, Gary muses. Disease and war weren’t doing their jobs to keep the population down. We could adopt China’s one-child policy. But no—kids need siblings. The only-children Gary knows are either fucked-up egomaniacs due to spoilage, or unpredictable loners you can’t trust. Okay, two kids max, he thinks, and maybe a small monthly cheque if you decide to have none. He keeps these ideas to himself save for Ralph and Ivan, childless bachelors for life.

A baby’s scream jerks Gary upright. He’s missed his stop and hurtles out the side door.

Gary smokes and walks along the sidewalk, his tip-out clinking in his pocket. The blazing sun dips in the west as he enters the park from its south-east corner. Boys from the Y are playing softball. Gary climbs the bleachers, sits in a patch of shade, and lights another cigarette. He hears the coach berating a player for not swinging. Asshole, Gary thinks. Bruce and Gary played together here years ago. That’s when they met Jane, who played for a rival bar team. Bruce got her pregnant, they got married, and then they bought the condo.

Gary walks behind the arena and stops to pick up a handful of snow cleared by the Zamboni. He holds it against the back of his neck, letting it drip down. At the fountains beside the jungle gym, Gary takes off his baseball cap and holds it under the spray. He flips it onto his head, water streaming over his face. He takes off his T-shirt and stretches out on a bench.

“Excuse me, mister.”

Gary turns to see a boy. “Is that your pail? the boy asks, pointing to a yellow bucket under the bench.

“No,” Gary says, pulling it out. He turns it in his hand to see a blue cartoon lobster dancing on one side. “Here.” Gary wonders how old the boy is, eight or nine maybe. “Your parents let you come to this park alone?”

“My mom’s over there,” the boy says, motioning to a picnic table by the arena.

Gary sees a man and woman sitting and smoking. The woman waves the boy over.

“That your dad?” Gary asks.

“No, he’s my mom’s friend. Be right back.”

Gary thinks about Sam, that he’d like the park. Then he looks across to the diamond, follows the arc of a fly ball sailing up and over, and dropping into a kid’s mitt. After Gary takes care of Sam he’ll turn down Bruce’s dinner invitation and ask him for a loan. He’ll mention the cooking classes and maybe what Ivan said about potential.

“It’s good,” the boy says, returning with a ball and glove.

“What’s good?”

“I told my mom you weren’t no pervert or nothing.”

“Gee, thanks,” Gary says.

The boy runs in circles, wind-mills his arms, and hangs his head under the fountain’s spray. His black stringy hair is plastered to his cheeks and forehead. He shakes it loose like a dog fresh from the lake.

“You want to see how high I can go on the swing?”

“You don’t want to throw the ball first?” Gary asks, standing to follow.

The boy sits on the swing and pumps his legs. “Keep watching.”

“I’m watching,” Gary says.

“See, it takes a bit. You know you go high if your bum comes off the seat. See?”

“I see.” Gary says. His brother once launched himself off a swing going that high. Bruce broke his arm and Gary got a beating for letting it happen. “Be careful.”

The boy stops pumping, then jumps and rolls onto the grass.

Gary picks up a branch, walking-stick length, and uses it to drag out litter collected in the fountain’s drain. He hoists the dripping garbage and drops it into the trash bin. Gary catches a whiff of hash. The park has always been a haven for dealers, but they only come round at night. Bruce knows that, Gary thinks.

“Can I do it?” the boy asks, holding his hand out.

“Sure,” Gary says, passing him the branch.

Gary pulls his shirt on and watches the kid clumsily maneuvering an empty pop can.

• • •

Gary thinks about the last time he saw his dad. He sat in his mother’s blue Ford, parked on the grass of their front forty. Gary was in the passenger side, his mother behind the wheel, and Bruce strapped in a car seat in the back. It was dusk, later in the year, but just as hot. No one spoke until his father’s pickup swerved into their long winding driveway and screeched to a halt under the big oak. “Quiet,” his mom whispered.

Gary’s dad went into the house and a minute later reappeared on the porch. That’s when he saw them. “Jude! What the hell are you doin’ out there?” She had her hand on the door handle. “No, Ma,” Gary said, as she pushed down and opened it. Gary turned to see her walk to the trunk and take out his dad’s shotgun. He was sure his mom was going to shoot his dad, who had recoiled into the porch shadow. She held the gun upwards and pulled the trigger. There was a clap like thunder and then a sharp snap. A lower branch of the towering tree fell onto the hood of the pickup. Gary recalls his mother’s laugh—long and hard. He had never heard her laugh that way, not before, not since. They left his father frozen on the veranda.

• • •

“Look, look” the boy says, tapping Gary’s sneaker. “It’s all cleaned out. That branch was a good idea.”

“Ya, it was,” Gary smiles. “You wanna play catch?”

The boy grabs his glove and ball off the bench.

Gary thinks about teaching Sam how to play, the way he taught Bruce. He could probably get a plastic ball and bat at the dollar store around the corner.

The boy sends the ball over Gary’s head, and well past. Gary runs it down, and stops at the picnic table. “You got a nice boy,” he tells the mom. “What’s his name?”

She answers, holding her joint beneath the table.

“Little Hawk,” Gary calls out, jogging back. “You got a good arm.”

Gary feels his phone vibrate inside his jeans’ pocket.

“Bruce, hey, I’m at the park right now. There’s all sorts of kids here, they got—”

“No worries, Gar. Jane found a neighbour to take Sammy.”

“Oh… okay.” Gary wonders if he should ask about the loan anyway but Bruce is gone.

“You gotta go, mister?” Little Hawk asks. “I can come back here tomorrow.”

Gary pockets his phone. “I’m not going anywhere,” he says. “Let me show you a curve ball.”


Julie McArthur is a writer and freelance editor. Her stories have appeared in Broken Pencil, Dragnet Magazine, Echolocation, Front & Centre, Joyland, The Nashwaak Review, and the fable anthology The Lion and the Aardvark (Stone Skin Press). Men and the Drink is her first (yet to be published) short story collection.

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LF #047 © Julie McArthur. Published by Little Fiction | Big Truths, August 2013.


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little hawk

by julie mcarthur