The Union of Smokers
I’m a Pine.
Or I used to be a Pine. It’s kind of a grey area at the moment. Sliver Pine was my dad, but he’s been dead for six years. And there’s a chance my mother might be dead; she was a Pine too. I should be able to call myself anything I want, in that case, but if Mom ever comes back I’d like her to be able to find where they’ve put me. Earlier today my best friend in the world called me an orphan, but I wouldn’t say that about myself either. Mary Lynn is a pretty smart cookie for someone from Quinton, but she doesn’t know everything about me. Not yet. I’m going to try and fix that before the end, by which I mean my end, which could be any minute now, so I’m going to have to hurry.
Having Mary Lynn and her mom screaming orders at the useless ambulance attendant isn’t helping my focus any, let me tell you. Nobody is going to hear a word of this if they don’t clam up. Donna Mae is keeping cool and calm, though. I know she’s listening. Maybe she can give her mother and sister the highlights later. One nice thing about living a short life: it’s gonna be pretty much all highlight.
Pines don’t last very long, is my first point, the ones related to Sliver at least. Kind of an occupational hazard of being too close to him, I guess. People don’t like to talk about occupational hazards around here, especially if they’re dependent on the source of the hazard for survival. If you worked at Quinton’s creosote plant you’d know what I mean. Its hazards leaked all over the place, up to the moment earlier today when it closed for good because of all that leaking. Nobody in Quinton talked about the creosote hazards either, because that’s the sort of conversation that got you fired, even if the creosote made you sick. And maybe there’s times when you can do nothing about the danger, like if you’re a kid forced to muck around in it whether you wanted to or not, or the guy with a huge mortgage or debt and he can’t see past his own payday to notice what’s happening downstream. People can get trapped by their own need to survive, even if it kills them.
So, lucky for my audience here that I’m a hell of a theme essay writer. Not that anybody in Quinton knows it yet—all my great ideas, especially the ones I’ve pitched at school, have gone underappreciated so far. The cold hard fact is, I could present the most killer theme essay in the world about life and death matters and some people would still come away with the same what the fuck look on their faces they woke up with this morning. For example, just because I’ve used the word smokers in the title here, you’re probably thinking, great, another cancer story, and you won’t bother to pay attention at all because you believe you already know where this is going: cigarettes are bad, or the creosote plant is a terrible polluter, and people catch cancer from either. Tell me something I don’t know, you’ll shrug. Well, guess what? This story has hardly anything to do with cancer, although there is that one guy who might have it, but he’s not too important so I don’t know why I even bring him up, except as an example of how a victim of an occupational hazard might feel betrayed and do things out of anger and/or a need for revenge.
I do have a fair bit to say about smoking, though, and why unions are important, and an exorbitant amount of information about certain dumb-assed canaries who won’t stay alive that I’d like to share. Those birds start out as kind of a big deal, so maybe I’ll begin with them, bring everybody up to speed on warning signs, before I get to all the really interesting and informative business about love, family, farming, hazardous materials, Saskatchewan, and how people should be treated no matter what’s wrong with them, where they’re from, or what kind of shit happens to them—all the stuff a killer theme essay should have. That way, when I do get to the end, by which I mean my end, everybody won’t be too weepy—they’ll accept that all things die eventually, canaries and Pines included, and see how it’s possible to live a rich, full, and well-informed life, even if it ends in your twelfth year, and more specifically, today.
I’ll start with the canaries because they are small, fragile, and depend on a lot of outside help, just like certain people I know:
One of the first things I learned when I moved to my grandparents’ farm was that animals drop off all the time. That’s what they’re born to do. Sometimes there’s an obvious reason, like an axe to the head. And sometimes death is more mysterious, like the one my pet canary Bill experienced just this morning. When I got moved here after my dad, Sliver, exploded in a ball of lightning, I was only around six and therefore pretty empty-headed when it came to taking care of anything. But during the two weeks after Sliver went up in smoke, before I got found out, I did get a little first-hand experience in what it took to look after something helpless—namely, me. Waking up in a deadly quiet house every one of those mornings was a less great experience than you might believe. Bill made sure that wouldn’t happen here, and I’d come to appreciate his singing his little throat off to let me know that life, in the farm part of the world at least, was dandy. When I walked out of my bedroom bright and early this time, I was a little concerned with how quiet things were in the Bill department. Standing on my toes to see inside the cage (I’m not very tall for a twelve-year-old), I saw Bill on the newspaper liner at the bottom, his beak open and his little chest going thip–thip–thip. Then nothing. He didn’t even close his eyes. I hollered, “Bird’s dead, Gram!” Not out of shock, mind you, but because Gram could’ve been anywhere in our very large house.
“What?” she shouted from the back porch. Everybody screamed “what” at everybody around here a lot. Most of our conversations began that way.
“I said the damn bird’s dead.”
“Tongue, please,” Gram called as she bustled in through the mud room and set down a cucumber-and-beet-filled basket on the kitchen table. Today was pickling day. She wore a flowery print number, and a black-and-red plaid shirt over that, her typical look for pickle work. Swaddling her hands in the grey dishtowel she’d plucked off the hand pump beside the basin, she made a beeline for the cage.
“Sorry, Gram.” Gram took a fit whenever I swore. On the other hand, Grumps didn’t give a shit how I talked. I poked at the bird through the wires.
“Stop that… Is it cold?” Gram leaned in for a better look.
“How the hell should I know?” I mean, Bill was covered in feathers.
“Tongue, mister,” she scolded softly, so close now that her breath bounced against the back of my head. When you have a brush cut, you notice things like Gram’s warm breath.
Where I came from, beating a kid was as natural as lightning. Maybe if Gram’d been firmer with me, took a swing at my head once in a while, I’d have been less of a curse machine around her. Except she’d already told me that nobody hit anybody here, which actually turned out to be the case, so I knew I was in the clear as far as beatings went. Oh, don’t get me wrong, I did feel bad whenever I made her cross, and tried to limit my swearing to out of her earshot. Problem was, thanks to Grumps, I knew so damn many great words, and sometimes they just slipped out. “Sorry, Gram. Yeah, it’s cold, I guess.”
She stared at the little body and, like Bill, didn’t blink an eye. That’s how farmers are. Staring and not blinking—at the fields or the sky, or the fields first and then the sky. Whatever the attraction is—crops, animals, weather—their expressions don’t say much. Whenever Gram looked at me with a frown, though, I could read that crystal clear. It usually meant one thing—worry. I don’t know why. I hardly ever worried about me since I got to the farm, because except for swearing, I hardly ever stepped out of line with Gram or Grumps.
“Okay then,” she said, after giving Bill a ten-count to snap out of it. “I’ll get you five dollars. You’d better go get yourself another one.”
I looked at her like she’d gone simple. I really didn’t want to make that long hump into town just to get a bird, even if it was dead quiet without Bill. “How am I supposed to get a canary home on my bike?” I had an ancient one-speed that used to belong to their daughter—my mother, apparently—and I didn’t think we lived close enough to downtown for me to transport livestock with it.
“I don’t know.” Gram shrugged. “Can’t you stick it in your pants?”
Grumps, having just ambled into the living room to catch the CHEX farm report, tossed in his two cents—“Jesus Christ, the boy can’t stick a goddamn canary in his pants. Give him the goddamn cage or something”—right before he flipped on the TV.
Big help. Now I’m supposed to haul the goddamn cage around too?
“Hush,” Gram scolded as she lifted the cage from its stand. She raised the tiny latch that kept the door closed and shook the deceased bird into a trash can nearly full of crushed cage linings and bird crap. Bill perched there on top like the yellow king of Crap Hill. She handed me the vacant cage. “Same thing. Same as Billy.”
Don’t get the wrong idea about me not wanting to do what I was told. I’d have been perfectly happy humping into town if it was to buy myself a horse or a goat and drag that home on my bike. A real animal I could raise from scratch without anybody’s help. I thought I’d done a pretty good job with Bill, up until today at least, and kind of hoped for bigger challenges, where I could be of more use to Grumps around the barn. A horse or a goat couldn’t live in the house, of course, so wouldn’t be much company in any “pet” regard, and I’m one hundred percent sure neither one can sing, so I’d miss hearing that first thing when I woke up. And, because keeping my farmhouse life as worry-free as possible was Gram’s department, buying another canary as soon as possible made some sense to her, I guess.