I sat in the driver’s seat worrying whether I was in the right place. The warehouse’s sliding bay door was closed and there were no other vehicles in the lot. Beyond the wharf, the harbour was a blackness stretched to the far shore, where the fog glowed industrial-park orange. Whitecaps chugged in the arc of light from the floodlamp above the entrance. The Macdonald and McKay bridges stood to either side, faint rails above the sleeping city. A tiny red bulb hung from my rear-view mirror like a miniature mechanic’s lamp. I plugged its cord into the cigarette lighter and pulled the directions from my pocket. They were no clearer in the red light of the cab.
Headlights turned off the main road and rolled slowly down the steep gravel driveway. I unplugged the light and watched an old Sierra with a broken grill park waterside, its lights extinguished before they could sweep over my small truck. The passenger door opened as soon as it was stopped, spilling four men yawning and stretching into the pre-dawn air. They stood around and kicked rocks, laughing, their hands in their pockets. One removed his ballcap, bent the bill tightly before pressing his hair down and refitting the hat snug on his head. The driver’s bearded face was lit for a moment in the fire of a cigarette before it was passed out the open door to the others.
I felt relieved when Stan’s Ford Taurus pulled in and they stood aside to let him park. I grabbed my bagged lunch and got out. When I approached, Stan was leafing through a pile of documents with the car door open and one leg outstretched. The boys gathered together and faced me silently. Stan pulled himself out of the car, introducing me, telling them all I’d just returned from India. They nodded and raised their eyebrows before shooting each other glances. I made the rounds, extending my hand to Darren, Billy, Claude and Pat. As the driver quit the truck beside us, he flashed a smile. “Let’s go Stan my man, wanna get started before I sober up.”
Although Stan had the keys to the warehouse, it was clear who the leader of the outfit was. The driver looked sixty, but as he locked the truck and moved towards the building I saw the motions of someone much younger. While we waited to get inside, Claude sidled up beside me and adjusted the round glasses on his face. “Whydnya come over to say hello, stead a sitting in your truck, ya spooky fucker?” he said, then looking to Billy. “Billy, we gots a fucking weirdo here.”
“I hates fucking weirdos. Specially mainland weirdos.”
They laughed and slapped me on the back. It wasn’t hard to tell they were Newfoundlanders, the lot of them.
The building was simply erected over the cement wharf and stretched out into the water. Inside, a rough foundation extended from the wharf to support the walls and the square bit of harbour they contained. The lights went on over a makeshift wooden pier that ran the length of the back wall, housing six work stations fitted with electronic scales, styrofoam boxes, large metal trays and lobster-claw banding tools. Hundreds of grey plastic crates were half-submerged in the water, tied together and tied to lines that fed each station. Except for Stan, who walked into the closet-office halfway down, the boys entered the small housing-trailer acting as a staff room in the back.
I waited outside the office as Stan pawed over the mess of paper on his small desk. My stepmother babysat his children and told him I was recently home from a trip overseas, looking for work. She told me he’d played pretty high-level hockey in the States before his knee gave out. He spent some time as an assistant coach for a junior team before he got married and had kids and had to give up life on the road. Then it was odd jobs around the city, beer rep, furniture assembler, delivery driver. He turned on the cheap stereo and Bruce Springsteen hooted sexually about a red-headed woman. When the phone rang, he turned the music down and picked up. I could tell the person on the other line was giving him shit, so I made my way to the trailer.
Inside, the kettle was trying to whistle while the men stepped out of worn sneakers and into their rubber boots or pulled on dirty rubber aprons, everything orange, black or camouflage. I sat at the folding table with the driver, but he didn’t look up from the week-old newspaper in his hands. He suddenly turned his head over his shoulder without removing his gaze from the paper. “Claude.”
He pronounced his name clod, as in a clod of dirt.
“Says here there’s a zoo in the valley has a Zonkey, part donkey, part zebra.”
“I don’t believe it.”
“Yup, yup, says there’s a problem, though. The donkeys don’t like the poor Zonkey, the Zebras neither. So the poor feller sits by hisself all day, growing lonely.”
“Takes after you, me thinks. Like, yous only got some of your mudder’s looks and little of my brain, so you strikes out heavy with the females. You think?”
“Makes you a donkey then, does it?”
“Should start calling you Zonkey.”
The others laughed and repeated the word while Claude adjusted his glasses and ballcap.
Stan entered the room, looked at me and put his hands on his hips. “All right, then, let’s get you set up.”
The others stirred or sipped their coffees, orange rubberized gloves half in their pockets. Stan turned to the driver, “It’s already five-after, Jean.”
Jean folded the newspaper and raised himself from the chair with a groan. “Let’s go, you fucking turds, ten hours ’til one day less and we can go home.”