by Darren Clarke
The Killer Salmon Story 1989
At a certain point one must rise up and contest apathy and ignorance. One must stand beside the sincere, the blindly hopeful, the tiny things in this world that exist not to coerce, hurt, or garner power, but rather just wish to be allowed to function humbly, to partake in something larger than themselves. One must rise up against the great disappearing act of conforming absolutely, of not sweating the small stuff. You must antagonize, remain vital, you must declare- I will not surrender any moment of my everyday life to a social autopilot in order to decrease turbulence. I am, therefore I defy.
Over the past four months, I’ve handed out forty-three resumes. I hated it every time. Here’s what I boil down to; Matt Chilton, my address, my phone number. I last worked at a Bingo factory operating a mystic, “Pohlar-Mohr Guillotine cutter.” Previously, at the Venture Inn Hotel I, “checked people in, I checked people out.” Finally, I laboured at the Pen Centre mall, “Maintenance/Landscaping.” I have my Grade Twelve diploma, I’ve been involved in my community coaching and refereeing ice-hockey. REFERENCES AVAILABLE UPON REQUEST. What I neglect to mention, what I am about to correct is that for two years, full-time and part-time, I worked at Sears Gas Bar, pumping gas, cleaning the odd windshield, but mainly hanging out with some of my favourite people in the world. It would be at this now extinct gas bar where, “The Killer Salmon Story,” occurred. Dear Sir/Madam- Instead of a less than impressive resume, I give you a story involving a killer fish.
At the time I rented a room at a friends house in the south-east section of St. Catharines known as Merritton. Doug had bought the house at the age of twenty-three and immediately it was conceived of as a hub for social activity, visions of beer commercials flickering in our imaginations. However, instead of the house ending up a Mecca of hedonism, braless women gyrating the night away while we grinned at each other conspiratorially, it was mainly one of the messiest homes ever lived in- Two bachelors sleeping alone amongst the turmoil Playboy magazines tucked beneath our beds.
It was a Monday, I was late for work so I grabbed the keys to Doug’s dilapidated pickup truck. Doug had offered me the use of his second vehicle anytime I was rushed to make the short trip from the house to the gasbar. Being that the truck wasn’t insured and was technically off the road, I rarely used it. There was also the matter of the truck never having an ounce of gas in it. Doug’s intentions were often honourable but he was sort of an absent minded Samaritan, or, better a lazy Samaritan.
It’s less than a five-minute drive from Chestnut St. to Sears Gas Bar, and on that Monday the pickup truck had four and a half minutes of gas in it. Silently the truck managed to glide to the periphery of the Pen Centre parking lot. I could see the gasbar from where I parked. The tiny glass kiosk with red and yellow panelling, “Sears Gas Bar,” in bold lettering seated before the square, cracked, cement area rug thrown upon the parking lot tar. Upon this mat, in between the kiosk and the Sears’ Auto Centre lay two concrete, parallel islands, each adorned by a towering light fixture at their center, book ended by red and yellow gas pumps. At that moment my fellow gasbar attendant, Jay Curvin stood outside smoking a cigarette, shaking his head, laughing, as I began to walk towards him.
The night before I’d worked until eleven p.m. by myself. The mall closed at five and gradually the parking lot became empty with its’ own unevenness. The incoming dusk had poured itself into the type of easy spring evening that made you glad to have a button down shirt on so that the slight lukewarm breeze could fill out your chest. I was serving one of the few cars that demanded my attention that evening, when Bill arrived. Bill “Dill” Oliver arrived as he always arrived- way too fast, his compact, navy-blue pickup truck chucking through the outside world, a marvel of hyperactive intent. Within a moment the truck had lurched to a stop beside the kiosk and Bill stood leaning against the back of the cab clad only in blue jogging shorts and tarnished white running shoes, beaming his perpetual Christmas morning in the whorehouse smile. Bill was seventeen, the younger brother of another gasbar attendants, Mark “Lame” Lane’s, girlfriend. Blonde hair, blue-eyes, square-jaw with a dimpled chin, medium height, a strong natural build, Bill would have appeared to be the All-American boy but for the fact he was from Thorold South.
Lost between Thorold, Welland, and, Niagara Falls, lay Thorold South. The town is home to three large industries- An auto parts manufacturer, a paper mill, and a garbage dump. Now, one can grow up in close proximity to an auto parts manufacturer and come out unscathed, but not a paper mill, not a garbage dump. Neither a paper mill or a dump can contain themselves: musky, pulp-flavoured emissions emanate from the mill saturating the surroundings and the inhabitants therein while similarly the dump, depending on the prevailing winds, delivers the scent of rotting, well, everything. Thus the populace is left to come to terms with their impotence in controlling their living space. While this translates to humility it also translates into a sort of bold irreverence, a cavalier approach to social behaviour that gives them, much like the paper mill and the dump, an unapologetic, off kilter, heir. For his part, Bill mostly liked to blow up pop cans.
Ten-times a shift, “Hey Matt, wanna’ see me blow up this iced-tea can?” Not surprisingly Bill’s went on to become a stuntman. I saw him once on, Kung Fu: The Legend Continues. Bill was one of a gang of bank robbers who’d had the unfortunate luck of robbing the bank where David Carridine not only had a bank account, but was in the act of waiting in line to make a withdrawal when they burst in. Bill had one line, “LET’S GET OUT OF HERE!” delivered a moment before he was slow-motion Kung-Fu’d by David Carridine. I saw Bill a month later and congratulated him on his one line. As it turns out only the lip movements were his, they’d dubbed in the voice so they wouldn’t have to pay him as much.
Bill called impatiently over to me, “Matt come here, you’ve got to see this!” I arrived to Bill’s fully lit smile beaming down at the bed of his truck. Warily I peered in. Noting the object of his affection I looked back at his expectant face, unsure of how I should react, “It’s a…. fish Bill.” Still excited Bill corrected me, “It’s a Salmon….. that’s about an eight-pound salmon.” And so we stood, shoulder to shoulder, staring down at the motionless, eight-pound salmon. I nodded, pretending to be deeply immersed in salmon related thought, while actually scouring my brain for an appropriate response, “That…. That’s great Bill….”
Another customer arrived and took me away from Bill and the salmon. Bill restlessly hung around for a few minutes. I was checking the cars oil when Bill yelled over to me, “What should I do with it?”
I looked around from under the car’s hood at him, “With the fish?”
After replacing the dipstick I closed the hood and circled the car to top off the gas. Gripping the nozzle I looked around for an appropriate spot for the salmon. The kiosk sat before, on the tip of, a large, curbed, island of grass, bushes, and slim trees, that was roughly shaped like a miniature model of the map of Africa. I looked over at Bill, “I don’t know… toss it in the bushes over there.” A few minutes later, a melancholy Bill returned from the bushes said goodbye and left.
Three hours into my shift that Monday morning I crossed the cement carpet before the kiosk and entered Sears Auto Centre to solicit the use of a gas can. Mark Lane’s dad, Don Lane, was behind the shop counter. Where Mark looked like a sort of young Elvis and had a gentle disposition such that made mother’s (particularly mine) want to adopt him his father was another story. Don Lane was stocky and strong, he carried himself ably, almost menacingly. Upon his thick, muscular, neck, his rounding face was dark leather locked in stoicism, his grey hair cropped into a pins and needles brush cut . He scared me. He was a wonderful man, but he scared me. I imagined him lifting cars upon his shoulders, forgoing wrenches and power tools to coerce metal to his will with his bare hands. Adding to his intimidating mystique was his apparent imperviousness to the cold. It could be the most malicious of winter days, cold, sub-zero winds impaling themselves through layers and layers of my clothing to penetrate my skinny frame, and there, while I hopped from one foot to the other, would be Don Lane outside the Auto Centre, feet spread wide, planted, his wide frame attired only in navy-blue work pants, and a sky-blue, short-sleeve collared work shirt, unhurriedly smoking a cigarette that looked ridiculously small amidst his rough, thick, fingers. It would be at a moment such as this that he and I had our only non-formal conversation which amounted to Don good-naturedly complaining that he had to buy a snow blower because Mark was too lazy to shovel the driveway. I laughed what I thought was an acceptable amount then, continuing my life long fear of people who were capable of fixing things, scurried back inside the kiosk.
This would be the third time I asked to borrow a gas can. The third time I’d entered the auto Centre with my red Sears Gas Bar coat over my collared, grey and white striped Sears Gas Bar shirt, upon which was fastened a Sears Gas Bar name tag (although the name that adorned the tag was “Pedro.”). The exchange with my friends father would be the same as the other three, “Could I borrow a gas can please?”
Don seemed to briefly consider my request then, “Do you have any I.D.?”
I hesitate, look at him for a moment, trying to appear humble in my expectancy that he’ll rethink his request as somewhat absurd. Finally, I hand over my drivers licence.
Gas tank now swimming with three-dollars worth of gas I park it beside the kiosk.
It was a nice, reluctant, Monday morning. The people, the weather, were quiet, sunny, sleepy. We were all comrades in existence, sensing the common denominator of doing what you have to do. Jay and I sat in front of the kiosk on a bench normally reserved for windshield wiper fluid. We were a portrait in Anglo-Saxon diversity. Jay’s hair amped up into a bastardous amalgamation, part eightee’s glam rock, part punk mohawk, part Johnny Suede, swooping up improbably high upon his head while the rest of his mahogany excess fell well past his shoulders. This abundance sculpted about his strong, almost native Indian, facial features commanded a great deal of fuss from customers. For my part, I was the straight man, tall, skinny, hair cut short. We sat beside each other, we were quiet, we talked, we smoked. I told him about Bill and the salmon as well as Don Lane and the gas can and we laughed. The day moved on. Then, at eleven- thirty, wobbling across the undulating pond of sunlight that was the parking lot, he arrived. He arrived as all soon to be infamous people should- In black and white checkered pants.
Jay and I watched him intently as he closed in on our position. He was small, thin, fiftiesh. Beneath his too short checkered pants were baby-blue Velcro running shoes and, long ago white, now yellow, tube socks. From the waist up he had a tired black dress shirt beneath a similarly beaten beige sports coat. His salt and pepper beard was long and wild, seeming to have borne the face rather than the other way around. Finally he stood precariously before us, his tiny black eyes unfocused. Unsurely, but with great volume, his right arm limply flailing in many directions he slurred out his question, “Where does the bus stop?”
Waiting for our answer he wavered before our tight grins. Unsure of being able to answer without laughing I looked at Jay who motioned across the roadway behind the kiosk, “Over by the Shoppers Drug Mart… See all the benches over there?” Jay was pointing at a large, outdoor, seating arrangement against the brick wall upon which large, “St. Catharines Transit,” schedules were posted. Still staring off, the old man slurred a “Thanks,” and was off.
Here are the things you can do to pass the time at a gas bar;
-You can listen to Music-Our favourite was Minnesota’s most tumultuous punk’n roll sons, The Replacements. The music was a glorious, souped-up mess. The tunes seemed to be written for everything naive, hopeless, full of love, full of immaturity. It was the soundtrack for restless camaraderie. It was written for us. Out the permanently open kiosk door for everyone to hear, Paul Westerberg tearing the roof off of our souls, “I’m SO, I’m SO– UNSATISFIED!”
-You can paint. Using the leftover white paint used for the tiny washroom you can cover the entire kiosk roof with, “The Replacements.”
-You can staple. On Fridays when pay envelopes containing cheques to be picked up by your friends are left out you can lace them with as many staples as you feel like. (If you’re Mark Lane you can add colourful slogans like, “MATT CHILTON BLOWS DEAD BEARS!”)
-On the long, eventless, midnight shift, you can have sex with your girlfriend in the kiosk washroom.
-If you’re alone on the midnight shift you can, because of the close proximity, appreciate the sunrise upon the Niagra Escarpment. The morning light rippling down the escarpments chest beginning to lift the darkness back into the unseen heights. Then, upon distant treetops, rivers of too ripe, too potent, scarlet, emerald, and tangerine, converge upon each other and begin to dry, to loosen, into pastels, into sherbert. It’s an enormous display of beauty that invites and excludes noone. And maybe all you do is count the cigarettes, or read an article in the newspaper, and it’s gone, disappeared into broad daylight.
-You can blow up iced-tea cans.
-You can keep a chart on the varying degrees of attractiveness of female customers disqualifying all beautiful women in pickup trucks for suspicion of dating guys with big teeth and bigger belt buckles.
-You can build five tiny snowmen on the opposite side of the island behind the kiosk placing them along the curb of the mall entrance roadway. You could then place signs on each so that each car entering the mall on that busy Saturday will read in order, Snowman #1-Mark Lane, #2-Is, #3- Gay,# 4-No He Isn’t, #5, Yes I Am. Then you wait for Mark Lane to arrive for his shift.
-You console each other over dealings with the gas bar attendants natural enemies.
He was back. Staggering around the pop machines from the roadway he immediately called out to us, “Where does the bus stop?” A hopeless giggler, this was too much for Jay. I turned our friend around and pointed at the obvious bus stop. “Thanks…” It was at this point, weaving across the roadway, that our mans far too short pants betrayed him. Had his pants been long enough maybe we wouldn’t have noticed the stream of yellow liquid flowing down his ankle, his sock, pouring over his undone Velcro running shoes onto the tar.
Without getting too specific the gasbar attendant’s natural enemies are a matter of degrees. At the bottom of the spectrum we begin with people who come in to get gas. Next there’s people who ask for the windshield to be cleaned or the oil to be checked and so forth. Then there’s Sears Employees who received a special discount that entailed not only special paperwork for us but gave them that sense of entitlement that most humans commonly deal so unhandsomely with. As we move upwards on this hierarchy of evil we come to those who choose to get five-dollars worth of gas on a credit card, and those who park with their gas tank on the wrong side, seeming disinclined to correct their error. Topping the list is anyone who so rabidly participates in collecting incentives such as flower seeds, coupons, hockey pins, and, Smurfs, that they come to suspect gas bar attendants of plotting against them. Really though, we still haven’t reached the halfway point. Next comes any combinations of these (say, five-dollars on a credit card, Employee discount, and, they want their windshield done). The upper part of the chart is basically the entire list repeated only when it’s raining or snowing out. (It should be pointed out that this list isn’t Marks’ list, he liked everybody)
We’d almost forgotten about our man in the checkered pants when Jay caught sight of him strolling through the grass island behind the kiosk. Our view presented us with only his head and shoulders bobbing against the blue-blue, sky. We followed his slow progress through the kiosk window, then overtop the cab of Doug’s truck as he passed a slim beach tree and came to the bushes whereupon he instantly dropped like a rock out of sight. Jay and I immediately stood up but still couldn’t find our man. We looked at each other, I shrugged, “Killer Salmon…”
As it turned out the salmon didn’t really kill him. He’d just passed out, ending up curled around Bill’s salmon, sleeping peacefully. So there we stood over top of him on the cusp of the sweet treble hum of a glorious spring afternoon. Two young men in black jeans and grey and white collared shirts with name tags that read Pedro and Jason unbelievably, weightlessly, happy.