It was Rose who found him. Rose, and not the bosses, since she’d come to work a bit early after dropping off her sister for a gallbladder operation. When she found Hughie in the stock room, he had yet to put on his white uniform. He was slumped against some boxes of Ketchup packages like a sack of potatoes. Rose was already in her purple cashier’s uniform, munching on a toasted English muffin. When she bit down hard on the last bit, Hughie could hear it crunch.
“You better not stay in here, bright eyes,” Rose said, in her singsong voice. Her hands were wrinkled and strong-looking, and seeing them always made Hughie feel a little spoiled somehow, as if he’d never had a job, never really worked ever.
“If you stay in here,” she went on, licking jam from a finger, “one of the bosses will find ya, and you’ll get the can.”
It was past six now, and Hughie ran through the number of things he had yet to get started: ovens turned on, batter mixed for French toast, coffee made.
“I’ll be ready,” he said weakly, fighting one of the worst hangovers of his life. “Just a few minutes, Rose.”
A wiry man who looked a little like Humphrey Bogart, Hughie had graying black hair and stern, tired-looking eyes. The black loafers he wore with his whites were the same ones he’d worn as a waiter a few months before; they were ruined now, mostly from cooking-oil spatter and the odd dropped watery tomato slice.
“No, you won’t,” Rose sighed. “You’ll try and crack an egg and end up mopping up your own puke. Then the bosses will come and you’ll get fired.”
“So you said,” Hughie murmured, his eyes closed.
“I guess you know,” Rose went on, wiping her hands now on a white cloth (she always managed to have a fresh one, even when the cooks were around), “that if you get canned from this place you’ll never work anywheres else. I guess you know that.”
Actually, Hughie hadn’t thought this through. Now though, opening his eyes and blinking, he began to consider that perhaps this wasn’t just another stint to see him through. He was 32 years old, a failed poet down on his luck, recently fired from a downtown bistro for swearing at a customer. The only job he was able to get after that was this one: putting out bacon-and-two in an airplane factory’s cafeteria on the city’s outskirts. When all else failed, he had always been able to work miracles with a couple of eggs, anyway you liked them. After his shift, Hughie would take the subway and streetcar to reach a room he had above a Vietnamese grocer on Bathurst Street. These days, most of his wages were spent at a bar where men old enough to be his father drank beer and watched hockey on an old tube TV. He was living like he was in his early 20s again, trying to maintain a devil-may-care image. Lately though, he had been weighed down by thoughts of going nowhere fast, not being able to write anything. Walking through Chinatown on a fall afternoon, for instance, with an Al Purdy paperback wedged in his back pocket, had lost its charm.
“Your French toast ain’t bad,” Rose offered.
“I’m going to get another job, Rose,” Hughie announced suddenly, trying to laugh. He was embarrassed by her standing there. He had come in at 5:30 hoping the headache would fade if he just stayed perfectly still in the dark with his eyes closed. It wasn’t working. He was clammy and sweating, his stomach still too queasy, even for the cafeteria’s weak coffee.
“No,” Rose sighed again, “you won’t get another goddamn job. The bosses will can ya, and you’ll never work anywheres. This ain’t the Royal York Hotel. It’s an old airplane factory. If you can’t put out the bacon here, you can’t put it out anyplace.”
In the large dining hall, which was a converted hangar, the windows reached the ceiling, as in an airport, offering a full view of a runway. Always there was the soft din of voices floating around, and in the mornings the early sun rays exposed columns of dust motes. Workers coming in during their breaks walked through these cloudy, yellowish beams, like specters in a silent film.
Exactly six years ago, a drunk drove a shuttle bus into hangar No. 4. Rose’s husband, Larry, along with two other mechanics, were killed. Everyone thought Rose would leave, but she stayed on afterward and kept her job on the cash register. Sometimes, when the breakfast shift was over and the sound of rattling plates and rushing tap water drifted out into the dining hall like a distant waterfall, Hughie would walk out with a coffee and notice Rose standing in front of those enormous windows by herself, staring out at the runway.
“I can’t believe you drink it black,” Rose, who always took it double-double, usually said when she noticed him.
She waded into the stock room now, lightly flicking her cloth against the boxes; a short, compact woman with round shoulders. Her shoes were so spotlessly white that Hughie couldn’t look at them.
“It’s nothing new,” she said, dusting. “You’re down, you’ve hit a rough patch. But remember, Hughie — I know. When my Larry was killed I was like you: coming in early and hiding in the stock room.”
“I just told you I’m going to quit,” Hughie said, hoping she would leave. “In exactly five minutes, I’m walking out of here and never coming back.” But as he sat up and pretended to be alert, he thought of the letter that had arrived for him at his room above the grocer. It was the only letter that had ever come for him since he’d been living there. Forget us, it had pleaded. Please forget us, for we are done with everything now and want to make a new life.
“You are, eh?” Rose said. “And where you gonna go? The North Pole?”
The letter was from Hughie’s wife.
She had taken the girls back to Vancouver, again, to live with her folks, hopping a plane on the credit card her father gave her for emergencies. As Hughie read the letter, he seemed to feel that he might not see them again for a long time. Karen had written without any references to the hopes and dreams that had been dashed long after they left university: his failure to get his poems published; and him acting like some imitation Dylan Thomas while they made it to the end of each month with checks from his father-in-law.
“Are you really trying to write?” Karen had said. “I mean, seriously.”
“I’m a bit blocked at the moment,” Hughie allowed. “It happens.”
Karen sighed: “I blame that what’s-her-name, that English prof who screwed up your head.”
“She said I was a big talent,” Hughie said.
“She also called you Humph and patted your bum.”
“She only did that once.”
“Did she mention we’d be struggling financially for the rest of our lives? My dad said he’d help us if we both go back to finish our degrees. We could teach college, Hughie.”
“You can if you want. Al Purdy slogged it out in a mattress factory and lived in a shack because he believed in himself. You have to be committed.”
“Committed to poverty, you mean. Look, I’m not trying to be mean, Hughie, but have you really got what it takes?”
“Purdy didn’t start out great.”
“But there must have been some signs, early on. It’s just not happening with you. Admit it.”
“So you don’t support me.”
“We have to think about the kids.”
“I had a brother-in-law like you,” Rose said, interrupting his thoughts. “He was a dreamer. Tramped around a bit before he settled down. Even went to Australia.”
Hughie rose up from the Ketchup boxes suddenly, indignant.
“Look,” he said, “not that it matters to you or anyone else in this dump, but I’m really a poet. I shouldn’t be here at all. I’m just in a bit of a rough patch, as you said. It doesn’t mean I’m going to spend the rest of my days making cheese omelets for a bunch of grease monkeys.”
Rose dismissed him with a wave of her cloth.
“It’s past six now,” she said hoarsely. “Hardly any time before the bosses see ya.”
She shut her mouth tightly and nodded at him intently, letting this sink in. Then she said: “When my Larry was in the accident, we had an old gal here doing the baking. And do you know what that old gal said to me?”
“Five minutes,” Hughie said, “and I’m gone.”
Rose said: “Lemme tell you what she said. She said, ‘Rose, you get out there and do the cash — it’ll blow.’ But I was like you, and I thought everyone who tried to help me was full of baloney. Then one morning I thought if that old gal can come in here at half-past five every morning for damn near 30 years and put them big oven mitts on, then what the hell have I got to complain about?”
She folded her cloth, her round face revealing a flicker of shyness.
Hughie had closed his eyes again. The voice in the letter was inside his head like a lonely prayer: Let us get on with our life. A new life.
“What are you writin’ anyway,” Rose said. “Your memoirs? Bring me down that big mustard box and come out here a minute. Hurry up, before the bosses come.”
Hughie blinked once, then reached for the shelf mechanically, for lugging boxes of mustard or vinegar from the stock room was something he did for her sometimes. This was supposedly because of her bad back, though Rose looked strong enough to put his thin frame over her shoulder. As they shuffled through the empty kitchen, Hughie heard the hum of the oven exhaust fans, as Rose had remembered to turn these on. The old gal that had given Rose a talking-to all those years ago was retired and gone. Everything came in from an outside bakery now.
“I like walking out here when she’s quiet, before anyone gets here,” Rose said as they entered the big dining hall.
Outside it was getting bright enough to see the hangars and the tarmac. Huge cereal-bowl lights overhead were still on, just like the ones in the old-fashioned streetcars he used to see downtown. In 20 minutes, the first shift of mechanics and maintenance crews would creep in for their toast. Rose had remembered to put the coffee on, too, and the aroma seemed to relieve Hughie’s throbbing head slightly. The mustard box was balanced on his thin hip.
“Set it here, Hughie,” Rose said. “Not on top of my cash, mind.”
Her workstation was in the center of the gaping hall. It was military green, about 10 by 6 feet, and at one end was the cash register. More than 500 people would file by before Rose’s shift was over, most of whom she knew by name. All the condiments — tiny white packages of relish, ketchup, and salt and pepper — were in shiny stainless-steel containers. Every afternoon at two before she went home for the day, Rose scrubbed these out with Mr. Clean.
“There — see how I’ve got it?” she said, prying open a box with a butter knife. “Everything all laid out, eh? And every morning I come in and make sure it’s nice for the whole day. My salt, my cutlery, my Sweet’N Low.” She indicated the pink packages almost with affection, as if the whole world depended on a shiny container of coffee sweetener topped to the brim.
“Almost done,” she said, shuffling around the station.
Hughie watched in silence. He glanced at the grill where he should have been by now, wondering, of course, if he really would quit this morning, and whether he would try to make it out to Vancouver to make yet another pitiful apology. He was also wondering what kind of person people had seen these last few months as they filed by for their breakfast. Last week a tired-looking security guard in his 60s brought his plate back to the counter and shook Hughie’s hand, saying it was the best bacon-and-tomato sandwich he’d ever had. Hughie had felt a bit embarrassed, but the compliment stayed with him.
“You do your eggs nice,” Rose called to him. “The guy before you kept the grill up too high. Maybe you can write a cookbook. Here’s a title for ya: The Egg Man.”
She came over to him wiping her hands.
“Now,” she said, “you’re gonna go back there and make sure I’ve got enough eggs so I don’t get short while I cover your shift. And while you’re doin’ that, I’m gonna get your bacon started. Then I’ll tell the bosses you got sick.”
Hughie kept looking at her as she quickly and expertly got both workstations ready at once.
“And then tomorra’ you’ll come in all bright-eyed,” she went on, “and this will never happen ever again. Now get out of here before anyone sees ya, the state you’re in. Christ almighty, ya look like a dog’s arse.”
She let out a cackle as she bent down to shove a box of mustard under the counter. When she stood up she blinked at him.
“What ya’ starin’ at?” she said.
“I was just wondering who’ll do your cash this morning,” Hughie said, “if you’re going to be the cook.”
Rose shrugged, giving him a sly wink.
“That’s for the bosses to worry about.” She started moving briskly over to the grill. “You gettin’ me them eggs, or aren’t ya?”
It was very late. The big cafeteria would soon be filled with the hubbub of workers clamoring for coffee and toasted Westerns. So Hughie went into the walk-in fridge to get six cardboard flats of large eggs. After he brought them out, he silently made his way to the exit, breaking through the columns of dust motes among the din of distant voices.
He could hear Rose, who was in front of the grill with a shiny metal spatula in her hand, talking to a customer.
“He ain’t here today,” she said in her singsong voice. “He’ll be back tomorra’.”