I wrote this short e-novel on commission from the sadly short-lived Fierce Ink Press, who wanted a story on the broad theme of assuring young adults they would survive the turmoil and travail that teenhood sometimes brings. Walking Away is based loosely – very loosely – on the experiences and feelings of a group of friends, one of them me, at the cusp of the transition from high school into the world of work. Although I used a few real names of real friends, as a kind of tribute to my old mates, the characters – their actions and feelings – are amalgams of all of us at that time.
I’m at the meet and greet reception of a conference and I’m bored out of my skull.
I’m here only because my boss, who was scheduled to attend, was called away at the last minute and asked me – i.e. ordered me – to go in her stead. I feel totally out of place, a fifty-something technical writer at a conference entitled ‘Communicational Strategies in an Age of Social Transformation,’ where all the other delegates look about school age. Elementary school age, that is. My boss, who seems about that age herself, said the conference was important and prestigious and a good opportunity for networking. I’ll take her word for it. The reception is at a smart country club and I’m sitting in the bar pretending to listen as three delegates discuss a paper to be presented tomorrow on ‘The Ineluctable Entrenchment of Gender Stereotyping in a Social Media Cyber Universe Straitjacketed by the Arbitrary Circumscription of Ten-Second Sound Bites and 140-Word Tweets.’ The bar is done up to look like a library in one of those stately homes you see in period dramas on TV, with big leather chairs, shelves from floor to ceiling filled with old books, and worn rugs that look like they should have been thrown out years ago but probably cost more than my apartment. The servers wear black pants and dazzling white shirts and they bring drinks on little silver trays. I’m trying to tune out the delegates as I gawp around at all this pretentious faux-opulence when I notice an altercation at the door and prospects suddenly brighten. Someone, a delegate I think, is arguing with the manager, who is barring him entry. I look more carefully at the detained delegate, at his pale face, the gingery freckles that match his reddish-brown hair, the stance, head cocked, one shoulder higher than the other, and I realize he’s an old school friend, Keith Mallard. I have to look twice to be sure, because I haven’t seen him since his troubles some thirty-five years ago. His hands are the giveaway. Keith’s hands alone used to reveal how uptight he was, one rolling in the other in a constant caressing motion like Lady Macbeth trying to wash the blood off her hands. He’d be calm on the outside but seething inside, and you knew sooner or later he’d either explode or walk away.
As I watch, I work out what’s going on. The club has a ‘no denim’ rule posted at the door and noted in the conference registration form and Keith is wearing jeans. Armani I think. I’m impressed, not to say surprised, but denim all the same. The only reason I notice is because I like to dress smartly, probably in a vain attempt to counteract my nondescript physical attributes, so I study designer clothes that I can’t afford, then buy knock-offs. I’d gone through a similar denim inspection at the door an hour earlier. Most of the delegates are wearing some kind of business attire, but I’m in a leather jacket and jeans, jeans which aren’t quite jeans, because they’re denim disguised as brushed moleskin. The manager, who is over six-feet tall and has a big head that hangs forward as if about to topple off his shoulders and silver hair swept back like an old movie star’s, glowered at them suspiciously as he inspected my conference pass before grudgingly admitting me. Now he waves a paper under Keith’s nose and I hear him say, “Here are the rules of the club.” Keith pauses his hand-rolling, takes the rules from the manager, tears them up, and hands them back.
He always had a habit of tearing things up. School work when he got frustrated with it, tests and exams when the teachers handed them back, or sometimes before he even handed them in, letters and notes he was supposed to take home from school, and his cartoons and drawings when he wasn’t satisfied with them, which was often. Most of the time, in fact. We’d retrieve them from the garbage and try to piece them together because they were too good to just toss away.
The manager insists, “I’m sorry, sir. No denim.”
As I watch, I’m a teenager again with Keith, and tall, handsome, rangy Gerald, shock of blonde hair flopping across his forehead, and Porter, big round head, full of brains, we used to say, on his slight, narrow-shouldered body. The four of us together against the world, constantly sanctioned or challenged for being too loud, for using unacceptable language, for failing to stand during O Canada, for standing but dancing during O Canada, for being rambunctious and raucous elementary kids, for being rude and mouthy junior high kids, for taking up too much space on the sidewalk, for not wearing our school uniforms, for wearing clothes deemed provocative or subversive.
Our strategy then was to walk away when faced with a situation, maybe an argument, or a challenge, or a confrontation, that we couldn’t get out of with dignity intact. It was like a mantra: Walk away! And it served us well, keeping us out of situations that otherwise could have escalated into unwinnable unpleasantness. Now, as I watch Keith arguing with the manager, I remember how we used to catch one another’s eye and mouth, “Walk away.” I wonder if Keith will do so now. I’ll have to hurry after him if he does.
I hear him say, “I quite understand.”
And he walks away.
In fact he walks out. I put down my drink, extricate myself from the group of delegates I’m pretending to listen to, and am about to follow my old friend when he reappears.
His legs are white and thin, and his knees are like doorknobs. His boxers are lime green and made of some kind of shiny material. Silk, I think.
The manager starts, “Excuse me, sir …”
Keith, pants in hand, holds his arms wide, twirls, and says, “No denim.”
The manager beckons one of the bartenders for reinforcement as he takes Keith’s arm and prepares to hustle him out. I’m about to move in when the conference chair, a bespectacled beanpole of a man with a shock of frizzy hair like a toilet brush, hurries over and greets Keith with, “Mr. Mallard, let me be the first to welcome you to the conference and to say what an honour and a pleasure it is to have you here.” He dismisses the manager with, “I think we can relax the denim rule for Mr. Mallard,” emphasizing Mallard with a surreptitious glare at the manager as if he’d just failed to recognize the Pope or the prime minister. Mr. Toilet Brush Hair apologizes to Keith for the “misunderstanding” and says, of course, the jeans will be just fine and if he would care to please – ahem – reinstate them, he’d be happy to get him a drink.
By now I’ve realized Keith is wearing a black silk Ralph Lauren shirt and a red Versace tie and I marvel at how well he seems to have done for himself since, and despite, his troubles. Well enough, at least, to sport designer clothes, and for the conference organizer not only to recognize him, but to fawn over him.
Keith, pants on and hands picking up speed again, says, “No need for apologies. I’m always interested in the petty regulations institutions like this try to impose on quasi-outsiders in order to bestow, through arbitrary exclusion, a false sense of importance and security on the institution and its associates and, of course, a concomitant inferiority on those excluded …”
I roll my eyes. He used to go on and on like this when we were in school, words pouring out of him, half of them not making sense. I suppose it was part of the creativity that bubbled through him constantly.
“… And how this seems to occur in the worlds of business and social establishments, but not in the worlds of the arts and popular culture. In fact if one takes the time to deconstruct the subtext of these puffed up, inconsequential regulations …”
He sees me, breaks off, and says, “Well, fuckadoodledoo, look who’s here.” He hurtles across the room, shakes my hand, hugs me, and says, “What the fuck are you doing here?”
“I work for Quantum Technical Communications. Got sent here by my boss at the last moment. I haven’t even had time to look at the programme. What are you doing here, anyway?”
Keith replies, “I’m the distinguished keynote speaker.”
I gape at him.
He laughs. “You’re wondering how a screw-up like me ends up as keynote speaker at a prestigious conference, right?”
“No. Well, yeah.”
“Heard of Mallard Concepts?”
“’Course I …” I break off. I’m staring at him now. “Don’t tell me that’s you.”
He executes an elaborate bow. “That’s me.”
I’m gaping again. Mallard Concepts is a major publisher of graphic novels.
“I can’t believe it,” I tell him. “No wonder the conference organizer was anxious to get you past the manager. I thought you were going to walk away.”
Keith gets the reference straight off and laughs again. “We did a lot of walking away back in the day, didn’t we?”
“That time in the city, a Saturday night, remember?” I reminisce. “We must have been only – what? – thirteen or fourteen. We ran into that gang from the North End taking up all the sidewalk and Gerald stood there, wouldn’t back down, and they all stopped. Then, just when we thought we were in for a rumble, you muttered at him to walk away and we did …”
Keith takes up the story. “… And we got out of it without looking like we were scared shitless …”
“… Which of course we were,” I finish.
“And that time in high school,” says Keith. “The phys. ed. teacher, Grayhorn, claimed he was some sort of Olympic athlete, got mad at Porter for walking around the track instead of running.”
“Porter told him he wasn’t going to run because he couldn’t see the point of it and anyway he was saving his energy for more important things …”
“… And Grayhorn got so mad he pushed him and Porter fell over and you got right in Grayhorn’s face, I thought you were going to punch him, and Porter, still on the ground, said to leave it, it wasn’t worth it, and to just walk away,” Keith adds.
“So we hauled Porter up and we all walked away …”
“… All the kids applauding us and jeering Grayhorn.”
We recall more incidents at school, and in the city, and at soccer games, and on weekend and holiday jaunts we took together, and laugh about them.
Then Keith says, suddenly serious, “I wouldn’t be here now, making a speech to a bunch of intellectuals like you, if I hadn’t walked away from old Nason and Co.”
I nod, remembering. It was the most famous and legendary walking away any of us did.
We were fifteen or sixteen. One year of senior high behind us, two to go. It was the end of the school term and Keith hadn’t done a stroke of work all year. Nothing unusual in that. He was always a bit out there and dreamy, doodling in his scribbler, sketching cartoons and caricatures of students and teachers when he should have been taking notes or listening or reading. But he got away with it, mainly because he was so good at BS, plus he was never a problem in class, and he was always polite and respectful to the teachers, who all liked him. The day before school ended Keith was summoned to the principal’s office. Mr. Birch asked him what he was planning to study next year, if anything. Keith said he hadn’t decided. Mr. Birch said the best thing for Keith might be to leave school, because if he didn’t leave, he was going to be put out – expelled – for “persistent insubordination and refusal to study.” Mr. Birch said he was going to make sure it happened. Then he lit into Keith. First he called him lazy, which wasn’t true, because Keith worked hard at his art and read more books than the rest of us put together. Then he said Keith was disrespectful, which also wasn’t true, the one who was being disrespectful was Mr. Birch. The principal added a bunch more insults, including that Keith lacked one iota of intelligence or creativity, which above all wasn’t true. Keith’s cartoons and caricatures were brilliant and kept us all entertained. The teachers, too. He turned stuff that happened at school into hilarious or dramatic little comic strips, and doodled fantastic figures, people and animals. He spent a three-hour biology exam writing a comic strip about a student writing a comic strip in a three-hour biology exam instead of doing the exam. It was good, too. We all read it. He passed it in as if it was his exam. The biology teacher loved it. He said he was going to keep it and apologized to Keith for having to give him 0%.
But of course none of that counted as any kind of intelligence or creativity or achievement as far as a school like St. Bartholomew’s Preparatory Academy went, not any more than Gerald’s soccer skills or Porter’s guitar playing did. If you didn’t go to university and become a lawyer, or a doctor (preferably a surgeon), or a high-up bureaucrat, or an accountant, or something in the military (officer rank, of course), or, failing all else, a teacher, then you were a failure. And leaving school at fifteen meant either you were loser-bound for a lifetime at the brewery or the shipyards or clerking in a store or driving a bus, or you were bravely setting your own course, eschewing the recognized school-approved trajectory of graduation, university and profession, the sort of progress the principal liked to boast to parents about on Welcome Night. “One hundred of our graduates are currently studying for their first degree and one hundred more for a higher degree, in preparation for joining the ranks of the thousands of distinguished professionals who have already passed through St. Bartholomew’s hallowed lecture halls, blah blah blah …”
Keith told us later he didn’t say anything back to Mr. Birch although he was tempted to give him an earful. He just walked away. He came back to class, didn’t say anything, but his hands were going a mile a minute so we knew something was wrong. He tore every scribbler in his desk to shreds, then every textbook. The teacher just watched.
When Keith got home that afternoon and told his parents he was finished with school all his dad said was, “’Spose you’ll be needing a job, then. Want me to talk to someone?”
Keith grunted, “Suit yourself.”
Mr. Mallard could have snapped at Keith for that but he just patted him on the shoulder and said, “Give me a week or two.”
Keith’s dad was some kind of manager at the brewery. Went off every morning in a shiny suit with a button-up cardigan underneath. He got Keith a job as junior clerk with the law firm of a friend he curled with and told him he’d have to wear a suit. Keith said like fuck he’d wear a suit but Mr. Mallard said he had no choice, it was expected, and took him to be measured, inside leg and all. Keith told us all this, grinning. Mr. Mallard paid, of course. All Keith had was his weekly allowance and the few dollars he got from his weekend paper route.
So Keith started work and the rest of us started our summer jobs. Gerald had a lawn-cutting business, Porter lent his brain to the city planning office as a summer intern, and I worked at a garden centre. We didn’t see one another all summer. It was always that way during the holidays. You think you’ll have all sorts of time to hang out and you make all kinds of plans, but then you discover how hard real work is and all you can do when you get home every night is collapse. You realize how tough your folks are, doing it year after year, and on top of that having to look after you and put up with you, not to mention put up with all the crap and baggage you drag around with you when you’re a kid.
Then suddenly it was September and we were back at school, Gerald and Porter and I, feeling strange without Keith there, three instead of four. It was especially strange at noon hour when we always snuck across the road to the rail yards for a smoke, because Keith was the one who got us into that habit. We were standing there one day late in the month huddled together, a cold wind whipping dust up from the yards and blowing smoke and ash in our eyes from the cigarettes we didn’t really like but wouldn’t say so, when he appeared in his suit, a bunch of big envelopes under his arm. The suit was dark brown shot through with a glint of green. He looked sharp, if you liked suits. Keith said he didn’t, maybe because wearing a suit was kind of the same as wearing a uniform, and in those days you had to wear the uniform if you went to St. Bartholomew’s Prep. We hated the grey pants and white shirt and purple sweater and tie, and we were always getting in shit for deliberately wearing something ‘wrong’, tie undone, shirt hanging out the back, wrong colour shirt, anything, in an effort to subvert the school’s strict uniform code. Keith didn’t just dislike having to wear a suit, he despised it. I asked him why, trying to reason with him about it, and he grumbled that it made him just a guy in a suit.
I asked, “What about when you wear jeans?”
He retorted, “What about it?”
“Then you’re just a bloke in jeans like hundreds of blokes in jeans.”
“But I’m choosing to wear jeans.”
I didn’t know what to say. It seemed he felt the suit labelled him in some way he didn’t want to be labelled.
Gerald asked him how come he wasn’t at the office and Keith explained he was out delivering packages to a couple of other law firms. The rail yards were a kilometre or two from the city centre where all the offices were, and Porter asked if there was a new law firm opened up in the rail yards, maybe in one of the flatbeds or boxcars parked in the sidings, waiting to be used or for repair, and Keith punched him on the shoulder.
He threw the packages in the dirt and said, “Who’s got a smoke, then?”
As he lit up one of my cigarettes I asked, “So how’s the job?”
He shrugged. “What’s it to you?”
Another shrug. “It’s a job.”
A week later he appeared again. This time he said he was supposed to be in court taking notes on the evidence one of the firm’s clients was giving in a claim for damages, but he said he’d get it later from the file in the office, or from the evening newspaper, or just make it up.
“How long have you been gone from your office?” I asked.
“Couple a hours.”
“Don’t they mind, the people there?”
“They don’t seem to notice. Don’t say anything, anyway.”
It was a precursor to walking away, of course, although we didn’t realize it then. He didn’t say much about work, but from the little he let drop we gradually put together a picture of his life at the office. Keith’s boss was Mr. Nason, the senior partner in the firm. There were three other partners, including Mr. Willis who was Mr. Mallard’s friend. Mr. Willis wasn’t at the firm any longer because he’d had a heart attack in the summer and was sort of retired although, as Keith’s dad explained, he didn’t want to admit it and couldn’t bring himself to sign the necessary papers. The office was upstairs in an old house in Jardine’s Alley, a narrow pedestrian walkway that linked the busy four-lane harbourfront drag of Water Street with Prince William Street, which had old-fashioned lamps and sidewalks of red brick and called itself the Fashion District because it had lots of dress stores that were all the same and a few suit stores that were about as colourful as a morgue. The Alley was narrow and dark and all cobblestones except for a strip of paving stones in the middle so you had at least a bit of a chance of not breaking your leg when it was icy. In addition to Mr. Nason’s law office, it was home to a photographer’s studio, a Vietnamese restaurant, two pubs, a second-hand bookstore, an import brokerage office, a community police office, and a massage parlour. The partners had their own rooms with rugs and big desks and chairs on wheels you could push yourself around in, and comfortable couches and armchairs for talking to clients or just snoozing in. Keith didn’t have an office, he told us, just a small desk in a hallway alcove between the partners’ offices at one end and the secretaries’ room at the other. The hallway was narrow with wood panelling painted dark brown going halfway up the wall and the other half covered in faded wallpaper with brown and green stripes. It had a stained carpet that was dark blue at the edges but colourless in the middle where it was worn right through. Keith’s desk was wooden and chipped and ink-stained. It smelled of gum and dirty socks and Old Spice and had words gouged into the wood.
Nason sucks. Ask him.
Katy 654-5689. She will.
We’re all lost. It’s just a question of degree.
Keith wondered who’d been there before him and what had happened to him or her. He added his favourite quotation. It was from Arthur Miller, the playwright.
I am trying to protect my sense of self.
He drew cartoons for us of Mr. Nason and the other partners and the secretaries. He gave Mr. Nason huge ears and squinty eyes and thin lips, the secretaries lots of teeth and big hair and ridiculously high heels. From what Keith said, Mr. Nason and the others treated him like a servant, talking to one another as if he wasn’t there, never thanking him when they got him to do something for them, calling him “Mallard,” or “Ducky Boy” or, worse, just “You Boy,” not in a teasing-like, friendly way but with a sneering, contemptuous edge in their voices. They called each other by their first names, the secretaries too, and the secretaries, all women, like all secretaries were then, started out calling Keith by his first name, so he called them by their first names, too. However, within a week Mr. Nason said it was inappropriately familiar and the secretaries were to call him Mallard like he claimed the partners did and Keith was to say “Miss” or “Mrs.” whatever because using their first names meant he was showing lack of respect. Mr. Nason didn’t say anything about how he and the others were showing lack of respect for Keith. It was a way of keeping Keith apart, not one of them.
Of course if you’d asked him if he wanted to be one of them, Keith would have scoffed and said, “No fucking way, man.” But he would have liked to be invited to belong, all the same. And who knows, he might have come to enjoy being one of them, joined the Rotary Club and the Kiwanis Club, gone to cocktail parties and charity auctions, taken up golf. Maybe they just didn’t know what to say to him, since he was younger. They couldn’t talk to him about their do-good clubs, or the golf club, or what their wives were planning to wear for the Law Society social, or what was the best daycare to send their kids to, so to them it was like he didn’t exist outside the office. The only thing left for them to talk to him about was stuff they wanted him to do. He had to sort the incoming mail – this was before emails, of course – and put stamps on the outgoing mail, and record who each letter was going to and how much the postage was, as if anyone cared. The partners had him run errands around the city for them (which at least gave him the chance to hang around with us at the rail yards) and carry suitcases of papers to court for them. He also ran personal errands for them, like picking up clothes from the dry cleaner, getting them cigarettes (hard to believe it was okay to smoke in an office then), even picking out birthday and anniversary cards for the partners’ wives, sometimes flowers. Usually he didn’t mind because, again, it got him out of the office. Often he was sent down to a little bakery on Water Street to get muffins and pastries and coffee for the partners and the secretaries. He didn’t mind that either, except they never thought to ask him if he wanted anything, their treat for waiting on them. But his main job seemed to be the filing. This was in the days before everything was filed on hard drives and discs and clouds. Lawyers and court cases, it seemed, generated a lot of paperwork, and it all had to be saved. It was a lousy job and of course Keith, being the newest and youngest one there and having no experience, was the one who had to do it. First, while a case was on the go, he had to put the papers in filing cabinets in the secretaries’ office. Then, when a case was finished, all the documents associated with it went in a big brown envelope which he had to file away, alphabetically, of course, in a room located at the very end of the hallway. It was more of a filing closet than a filing room. Keith said it was about five-metres long and two-metres wide, lined with rows of shelves that reached to the ceiling. As the shelves got higher they seemed to lean inwards, so it was like entering a tunnel. They were filled with dusty envelopes containing cases going back probably to when there were dinosaurs wandering up and down Jardine’s Alley. They had to keep every case’s paperwork for years and years before they were allowed to shred it. Keith did a cartoon of himself cowering at the entrance to the filing room, his face like the one in that famous painting, The Scream, and the room itself like an endless black tunnel with an unnamed horror lurking in it. Quite often the partners would need an old file when a client came back or a case reopened, so Keith was sent to get it and to put it away again when they were done. He’d be stuck in this little filing closet for hours, dust spilling into the air, getting in his hair and up his nose every time he moved a file because they were shelved in such a way that he had to pull them out to see the name on the envelope. It got to the point that he couldn’t stand it, so when he had to return a file first he just stuffed it in anywhere, and later he took to throwing it through the door onto the floor thinking, Who cares? He was the only one who went in there and what were the chances that particular old file would be needed again?
Keith said he felt obliged to stay on at the law office because his father had found him the job, and not yelled at him when he was put out of school, and bought him the suit. He felt he owed his father and didn’t want to embarrass him by screwing up, because Mr. Mallard was still friends with Mr. Willis. In fact, Mr. Willis often dropped by to pick up Keith’s dad for bowling or curling and he’d always say to Keith, “How’s the old firm doing without me, boyo? I hope you’re keeping all the guys and gals at the office in line. Maybe you’ll be a partner there one day like me, eh?” Keith always thought, “Like fuck I will.” But he didn’t say it because Mr. Willis was being nice and Keith appreciated that. Despite what he said about the office, Keith seemed, if not happy, at least okay. And anyway what did it mean, being happy? We always had plenty of laughs, Keith and Gerald and Porter and me. We laughed so much our faces and stomachs hurt sometimes, but that wasn’t being happy so much as staving off not being happy. Most of the time we were worried sick about schoolwork, and life after school, and what was the difference between our folks having an argument and a discussion, and pimples and pubic hair and bodies, ours compared with others, and muscles, or lack of them (I looked like an etiolated stick insect beside Gerald’s athletic frame). And, of course, girls. Were we the only teenagers in the world who didn’t have sex at least a dozen times a night, and how could we tell if what we were feeling was love or lust, and did it matter?
I suppose we should have been more observant, should have seen the signs, especially when Keith told us about writing that quotation on his desk – I am trying to protect my sense of self – and how it sort of stuck in his head through the day, through every day, like it was on an old-fashioned tape loop. He showed us a sketch of himself sitting at his desk, the quotation on it. He’d made his eyes clear and wide and staring but the rest of his face, I don’t know how he got the effect, kind of fuzzy and undefined, as if it was disappearing. That should have told us something, but we didn’t notice because we had too much stuff going on in our own heads muddling us up. Porter was playing in a new band called Fusion Junction, with a bunch of musicians who were all older than him, and he was getting into some heavy drug stuff I didn’t want to know about. Gerald was afraid he was gay – he was, we all knew that, tried to tell him but he wouldn’t listen – and was convinced he couldn’t be a gay soccer player. I was pathetically infatuated with, of course, the most heart-stoppingly-drop-dead-gorgeous-and-kind-and-sensitive girl in school, long blonde hair and crooked nose and azure eyes. She was so nice to me it was obvious she found me about as alluring as last night’s vomit on the sidewalk, which is why I’ve been on my own ever since. I know that sounds like something out of a corny romance novel, but it happens to be true. We were all crazy and lost in one way or another. It was just a question of degree.
The first incident occurred when Keith had been with the law firm about eighteen months and the rest of us were in our last year of high school. Mr. Nason sent Keith to get an old file that he’d returned to the closet six weeks before. Of course Keith couldn’t find it because he’d just tossed it on the floor not thinking it would be needed again, at least not so soon. Instead of waiting or starting to do something else and forgetting about the file, Mr. Nason got impatient and did what he’d never done before. He went looking for it. He stomped down the hallway and peered in the closet at Keith and said, “Where’s the file I sent you for, Mallard?”
Keith was leaning against the shelves. “I’m getting it.”
“You’re taking your time.”
Keith didn’t answer.
“What are all these files doing on the floor?” Mr. Nason demanded.
“I put them there while I was looking for the one you want,” said Keith.
Mr. Nason picked up a handful of envelopes. “This is the Yates file. You’re looking for Atkins. How come you took out a ‘Y’ file when you’re looking for an ‘A’?”
“Nonsense. I called your old school when Mr. Willis recommended you work here and your teachers would have mentioned it.”
“I’ve always kept it secret.”
“I’ve seen no sign of it before.”
“It comes and goes. Like your bad back.”
“My bad back is related to weather conditions.”
“So’s my dyslexia. It’s worse when the weather’s wet, like today. Two rainy days and I can’t tell a B from a P.”
We laughed as Keith related this. I imagined his hands going and the conflict in his head: keep talking and get more and more wound up, or walk away?
“I don’t believe you, Mallard,” Mr. Nason snapped. “Clear this mess up and find my file.”
Mr. Nason stalked out. Keith stood there for about ten minutes, nothing in his mind, he said, no anger or anxiety, no thoughts or feelings, just emptiness.
Then he walked away.
I don’t mean he handed in his notice and a month later he was finished. He literally just walked away. He walked down the hallway past Mr. Nason’s room, past the other partners’ rooms, past the secretaries’ room, down the stairs and out into the street. No-one saw him go. He said it was like he was invisible. He stood outside the door for several minutes expecting someone from the office to suddenly realize he’d gone and come after him and ask him what he thought he was doing, but no-one came. Then he kept walking. He headed towards Water Street, skulking past the community police office as if he was breaking the law. But smiling. When he told us this, how he found himself smiling, I couldn’t believe it.
I said, “But you must have known the shit was going to hit the fan sooner or later, walking out like that. Why didn’t you get another job lined up then walk out?”
He shrugged. “I wanted to be free. Right then I wanted to be free.”
“What do you mean, free? You were free all the time. Free enough to come and hang out with us at the rail yards when you were supposed to be at work.”
Right off I was sorry I said that, but at the time I didn’t realize how troubled he was, and anyway Gerald and Porter and I still had our own problems, plus our parents were now on our case telling us we better graduate brilliantly so we could get a good job and reminding us they were already working when they were our age, paying their own way and not getting free board and lodging, and our teachers were loading the work on because they were worried we’d fail our final exams and make them look bad. Meanwhile, I was getting marks that would hardly qualify me for kindergarten let alone even a backwoods university, Little Musquodoboit College of Rural Arts, or Upper Dildo School of Edwardian Bell-Ringing, or somewhere equally distinguished. Beside all that, Keith’s job, with money coming in and the freedom to get home as late as he liked because he was paying his own way, and to be able to wander around the city half the time, sounded pretty good.
Keith struggled with how to reply and I was about to tell him to forget it when he said slowly, “There were these guys, working in the Alley the other day, they’re still there, putting up staging, ready to repoint the old bricks, working hard but kidding one another all the time and laughing, with the wisecracks and the put-downs and the come-backs, you know.”
“Like banter,” I said.
“Yeah. And I thought, why can’t I be like that?”
“So be a scaffolder,” Gerald joked.
Keith took him seriously. “I don’t want to be a scaffolder but I do want to be like them. I want to carry on like that, easy with everyone and bantering, but I can’t. I don’t know how. I mean of course I can’t imagine being like that, being easy, with Nason and the others, but the thing is I can’t imagine ever being like that with anyone now I’m working. I envied the guys on the staging so much, envied them their … their … freedom, and how easy they were with what they were doing and with one another.”
“You’re easy with us, aren’t you?” Porter asked quietly.
“But I’m not working with you. And when you leave school it’s like working’s suddenly your whole life, which means I’ll never be easy with anyone else, not ever.”
He sounded so bleak I felt I had to change the subject quickly so I asked him what happened the rest of that day. The extraordinary thing, he told us, was that although he knew big-time trouble was coming, “doom about to fall” was how he described it, he was wonderfully happy for the first little while after walking away. More than happy.
He told us he crossed Water Street and set off on the sidewalk overlooking the inner harbour. There were benches every few metres so you could sit and watch the activity on the water, fishing boats, tour boats and whale-watching boats, visiting yachts, sometimes a cruise ship, the sleek heads of harbour seals bobbing up here and there. It was the lull between the frenzy of people getting to work and the midmorning coffee break, and there was no-one around. He sprawled on one of the seats thinking of all the people at work in offices and factories and at the shipyards and the brewery and on the buses, and he felt he was the only person in the world not at work. The only person who was free. He thrilled at his uniqueness, wrapped it around himself, a cloak of distinction warding off any thoughts of the consequences of his walking away. He climbed over the harbour wall and sauntered to the edge of the water on the strip of mud and pebbles exposed by the retreating tide, no-one and nothing around except a few gulls and a couple of seals. He sat on the rocks, watching and listening to the gentle slap and slurp of the waves on the shingle. He was the only person in the world. Relishing his aloneness, he realized his euphoria derived from it and he wondered if working alone was the answer. No obligation to be sociable, no need to worry about not being easy with colleagues because he wouldn’t have any. He tried to think of jobs he might do alone, came up with lighthouse keeper and long-distance truck driver, but all the lighthouses were becoming automated and he didn’t have a regular driver’s license, let alone a trucker’s license.
It’s easy, looking back, to wonder why the thought of being an artist never crossed his mind. But like I said, we were all brainwashed into thinking anything outside one of St. Bartholomew’s approved careers was irresponsible, almost demeaning. It’s why Gerald struggled so much with his decision to try out for the pro soccer clubs who came after him when he was such a success at the college level. He thought his soccer skills were good only for scholarships, not a career. And it’s why Porter gave up his music career in favour of being a university professor just when his band was on the cusp of hitting the big time, consigning himself to the status of a footnote in pop music history, the Pete Best of Fusion Junction. He quit the band a few weeks before it had a monster hit with a song he wrote the lyrics for called – you guessed it – Walking Away. But with Keith there was more going on over and above St. Bartholomew’s brainwashing efforts. He was always dismissive of his artwork, putting it down and criticizing it, saying he was useless at it. For some reason he had no confidence in his ability, certainly not enough to consider making a living from it.
So there he was, strolling along the water’s edge, trying in vain to think of a job he could do that didn’t involve other people, but not letting his lack of inspiration get in the way of his happiness at walking away from Nason and Co., when the strip of open shore came up against an outcrop of rock. He climbed back over the harbour wall. And encountered the Fat Man. He was on his usual bench near the end of Water Street. His home was in some kind of assisted living place a block from where he spent the day begging. His real name was Teddy but most people called him the Fat Man not to be rude but because he was, well, fat. And not just fat. He was immense, a triangular blob with stubby little legs that could hardly support him. He sat all day with his hand out, smelling of onions and arm pits and urine, greasy black hair hanging over his ears and the collar of the heavy wool jacket he always wore, even through the summer, and grey sweatpants hanging loosely despite his elephant legs.
He shouted at Keith, “Got bus fare?”
He was belligerent and defensive, almost apologetic, at the same time, his voice aggressive even as he shrank back on his bench as if embarrassed by his begging. Keith shook his head. He knew the routine. We all did. We often wondered how many bus fares the Fat Man managed to collect each day. He didn’t spend the money on bus fares, of course.
“A smoke?” the Fat Man tried.
“Fuck you, then.”
Keith laughed. “Take care, Teddy.”
“Nice talking to you,” said the Fat Man.
The exchange was all it took to prick the bubble of Keith’s euphoria and shred the cloak of uniqueness that had shielded him from any thought of the consequences of walking away, sending him back into the gloom Porter, Gerald and I had only glimpses of as we wallowed in our own self-centred anxieties. He wandered on thinking bitterly and, he admitted, self-pityingly, how he and Teddy were alike, both ashamed of themselves for doing what they did every day, both trying to preserve a few scraps of self respect, Teddy by swearing at people who didn’t give him money or cigarettes, Keith by at last walking away. Viciously down on himself, Keith told me he decided the difference between them was that while Teddy had no choice, not having the physical or mental ability to do anything else, he, Keith, had stayed at Nason and Co. for a year and a half because he hadn’t the guts or the drive to make a change.
At the end of Water Street Keith turned and tramped across the causeway that cut through the tip of the peninsula that most of the city stood on. Marshes and pools of brackish water stretched away on one side, the harbour on the other. Two tugs shepherded a container ship into dock, lobster boats set out in the distance, and a ferry nosed out of the terminal. The oil refinery spiked the horizon like a space station. Sky above it the colour of cement. Cold wind from the sea making his eyes run tears.
He said as he walked he was attacked by a bout of sanity – that’s how he described it – and wondered briefly, was it too late to go back? Slip into Nason and Co., creep up the stairs, sit at his desk in the alcove and say, if anyone asked, he’d just stepped outside for a breath of fresh air because he’d felt a headache coming on. He checked his watch. He’d been gone over three hours. Too long to explain away with no reason for being out of the office in the first place. Not like when he visited us in the rail yards and at least could say he’d been out doing a delivery and could make an excuse, like he couldn’t find the office because the address was wrong, or he’d had to wait for a signature, or something like that. So he decided he might as well be hung for a day as for three hours. And he didn’t want to forsake his freedom.
On the other side of the causeway, Keith stopped and gazed at the concrete wasteland of the closed sugar refinery, thinking of the hardship and enforced aimlessness of the laid-off workers but also wondering if any of them were secretly grateful to be forced out of doing something they probably never wanted to do in the first place but had to do because of circumstances and background and expectations. He asked himself was that what he wanted, someone or something to make his decisions for him, to relieve him of that responsibility, to force him to quit, saving him from having to blame himself for his failure.
He turned inland and headed back towards the city centre. He cut through Woodland Estate, a maze of town houses and apartments interspersed with patches of grass strewn with kids’ toys and bicycles, rusting barbecues, battered picnic tables, unopened bundles of flyers, plastic shopping bags. In a corner lot playground three preschool children, watched over by their mothers, ran shrieking between the climbing frames, slides and swings. He tried to remember what it felt like to be that age. Was life as fun and carefree as the kids in the playground made it seem, or was it, even then, full of secret dread and worries? He sauntered from the estate into the Heritage District, one of the areas of the city in transition, no longer sure of its identity, hardscrabble dilapidation grudgingly giving way to upscale renovation, in the morning young professionals in finance and insurance and oil leaving for work in their BMWs among the trudge and tramp of men and women setting off for the brewery or the rail yards or the few jobs left in the shipyards, artists just beginning to make a name for themselves nursing lattes on their porches, houses with peeling paint and refrigerators and car parts in their yards morosely holding out among their tidily renovated neighbours sporting woodwork that glowed with heritage colours and front yards landscaped into sterile immaculacy.
Head down, he turned into Horsefield Lane and immediately heard, “Hey, Keith.”
Down the street a raw-boned man with a long, mournful face crowned with a thatch of curly blonde hair sat on the tailgate of a pickup eating a sandwich, a Thermos of coffee beside him. The truck was parked by an old townhouse, two-by-fours lying in the open doorway, new windows and mouldings leaning against the wall beside it. A panel on the door of the truck read ‘Town and Country Renovations’.
Keith swung himself up on the tailgate. “Hey, Tanner.”
Tanner was about twenty-five going on forty-five. He was so responsible he made our folks seem childish. I think he was born mature. We’d all played soccer for Lower Cove United until Tanner gave it up because he didn’t have the time or energy for it after work. He’d left school without graduating, defying convention and pressure, and had immediately started a renovation business, using the skills and knowledge he’d picked up working summers for a small construction company. Keith had worked for him a few weekends and holidays.
“Why aren’t you at work?” Tanner demanded.
He’d advised Keith to stay at school, to stick it out and get the qualifications that might be stupid and meaningless but made life easier.
Keith thought about saying he was out on a delivery or on his way to court, but knew he couldn’t lie convincingly to his friend. Tanner was too honest to lie to.
“I walked out,” he muttered.
“Couldn’t stand it.”
Tanner nodded slowly. “So?”
“What d’you mean?”
“You walked out. Good for you. So now what are you going to do?”
“Mooch off your folks?”
That was the unsettling thing about Tanner. He was practical, as well as mature.
Keith protested, “’Course I won’t mooch off my folks.”
“What then?” Tanner persisted.
“Haven’t decided yet.”
“Better decide fast, what you want to do, who you want to be.”
Of course Keith didn’t know what he wanted to do or who he wanted to be any more than Porter or Gerald or I did at that time. But he sure didn’t want to be who he was when he was working for Nason and Co. Truth was, at that moment, sitting there with Tanner, Keith was thinking he wanted to be like his old friend. He told me this months later, after the second incident. He said he remembered thinking how much he envied Tanner the freedom to sit and drink his coffee and have a cheese sandwich, it was always cheese, in the middle of the day, no-one to hassle him, no-one to have to talk to, apart from Keith dropping by (and he didn’t count), nothing oppressing him, no-one telling him what to do.
Tanner seemed to read his mind and said, “You’re thinking you want to do something like what I’m doing, right?”
Keith shrugged. “Maybe. Something like it, anyway.”
“Because you think it’s easy and fun.”
“I didn’t say that.”
“Up at 5:30, say ‘hi g’bye’ to Kath as she gets in from the nightshift at the hospital, like we said ‘hi g’bye’ when I got home and she was leaving at six the night before, worrying all the time about where the next money’s coming from and will it be enough to cover the mortgage and the payment on the truck and stuff for the baby, not to mention food and gas and paying back the loan the bank gave me to set up the business.”
Keith muttered, “Sorry.”
He must have looked like he’d been kicked in the nuts because Tanner said, “Don’t mean to be hard on you. Just – you have to know nothing comes easy, whatever you do, whoever you decide to be.”
Tanner turned and gave Keith a gentle punch on the shoulder, like we all did when we wanted to say we were glad we were friends but knew it would come out stupid if we tried. Keith realized, looking at Tanner, how tired his friend was. His eyes were bloodshot, their old mischievous sparkle gone, dark circles under them. His whole face seemed to droop. Keith thought of Tanner being up all hours with the baby and hardly seeing Kath and lying awake at night worrying about money.
Tanner swallowed the last of his coffee. “Gotta get back to work.”
Keith walked on.
Tanner called after him, “Hey, don’t sweat it. You’ll work it out, find your way.”
Back in the city centre Keith lounged in the entrance to the King Square Mall while the evening rush hour swirled around him, offices emptying, brewery whistle and dockyard siren signalling shift-end, bus lineups snaking down the street, cars stop-start creeping. He was happy not to be part of it, the way he usually was. Two hours later the street was quiet. He went into the mall and got a coffee and carried it down to the harbour. He sat on the harbour wall wondering where to go, his earlier euphoria seeming like a hundred years ago. He said he nearly came looking for one of us, Porter or Gerald or me, just to talk.
You’re supposed to learn from a day like this, from experiences like Keith had, talking to the Fat Man, contemplating the closed sugar refinery, meeting up with Tanner. You’re supposed to learn to be grateful for what you’ve got, realize how lucky you are, that life doesn’t owe you anything. Stuff like that. But the only places you learn in that neat, facile way are the movies and stories. Keith certainly didn’t learn much that day. He knew he didn’t want to be like the Fat Man and he didn’t want to be a laid-off sugar refinery worker and he didn’t want to be a scaffolder. He thought he wanted to be like Tanner, but after what Tanner said he wasn’t sure. Trouble was, he didn’t want to be like himself, either. He didn’t know who or what he wanted to be. That was all he learned and he knew that already. He didn’t end the day with some kind of corny epiphany and suddenly appreciate how lucky he was and resolve to buck up and work hard so he was a credit to his folks and Nason and Co. and St. Bartholomew’s Prep. He ended the day bleaker than he’d started it.
He was going to keep walking all night, he said, keep on walking away, I suppose, but late in the evening he found himself heading for home. He walked in the back door around ten o’ clock and about one second later the shit hit the fan. Mr. Nason had called his folks saying Keith had disappeared and Mr. and Mrs. Mallard had been calling the police and the three city hospitals all day, worried sick.
“Jesus Christ you’ve been missing in action since nine-thirty this morning,” Mr. Mallard yelled. “Had your ma and me half off our bejesus heads and your ma crying since Mr. Nason called asking if we’d seen you because no-one at the office had one foggy fucking clue where you were and what you were doing so us thinking you’d been in an accident or got yourself drowned or kidnapped or mugged and between us we called the police and all the hospitals ten times over and …”
Keith said, “Sorry.”
His dad hadn’t finished his rant but something about the tone of Keith’s voice, something sad and resigned and defeated, stopped him. Mr. Mallard sort of shrunk and put his hand on Keith’s shoulder and said, “Are you okay? Where have you been?”
His mom hugged him and said, “D’you want a cup of tea?”
Keith shook his head and went to bed and stayed there for a week not talking to anyone, not even his folks. Not a word, like he’d totally lost his voice.
Then he went back to work as if nothing had happened.
You’re probably wondering why he did it. Why didn’t he just quit?
Obvious, isn’t it?
Why does the petty criminal persist in his life of crime, although he gets caught again and again? Why do unhappy couples stay together? Why do the lovelorn cherish their passion, knowing it will never be requited?
Simply because it’s easier to than not to.
And why didn’t Mr. Nason just fire him? Keith said he didn’t know. He thought maybe his father had persuaded the partners to keep him on, or he’d got Mr. Willis to put in a word for him. Maybe Mr. Nason had a kindly side and felt sorry for him, although that seemed unlikely. Whatever the case, Keith went back and all that happened was Mr. Nason and everyone at the firm looked at him as if he had two heads. But no-one said anything, although the secretaries treated him as if he was ill, which I suppose he was, in a way. He heard two of them whisper something about him having a nervous breakdown. He didn’t know what a nervous breakdown was, and after he looked it up he still wasn’t sure. I’ve looked it up a few times over the years, too, when I’ve worried that I might be having one, and looking back I’m pretty sure that’s what he had. I mean, you couldn’t pull a stunt like Keith did, walk away from work and disappear for a day then stay in bed for a week and never say a word, unless you were pretty seriously messed up, could you? But maybe it wasn’t a nervous breakdown at all. Maybe he suffered from claustrophobia and didn’t know, and all the time it wasn’t going to work that was driving him crazy like he thought, but having to go in the filing closet. Who knows? It doesn’t matter. He was seriously messed up, whatever the cause.
By that time we were just about finished school and deciding where we’d go to university and what we’d do after that. Gerald was getting offered soccer scholarships in the US, and Porter, who was still playing with Fusion Junction, had his pick of universities wanting his outsized brain. I was just hoping some institution somewhere, anywhere, would accept me. We still saw Keith, but less and less, and he got quieter and quieter, and the few cartoons he showed us were violent and so dark the page was almost black and you had to look closely to distinguish the people from their surroundings. To our shame, we didn’t know how to treat him. We didn’t dare kid around because the things we kidded around about usually had to do with the strange things people did and that seemed a bit close to the mark, and all we talked about those days was what kind of work we’d do after university, and that would have been like a slap in the face to him, so when he was around we fell into a kind of dreadful false heartiness as we searched desperately for something innocuous to talk about, like sports, and what was in the news, and even the weather, like you do when you’re talking to someone who’s seriously ill, and it was almost a relief when he went away.
The second incident, the one that brought Keith’s legal career to an end, happened six months later and was similar to the first, but worse. Mr. Nason sent Keith to fetch an old file. When Keith didn’t return Mr. Nason went in search of the file himself, like before. This time he found Keith sitting in the closet in the middle of a pile of shredded paper. Since resuming work, Keith hadn’t been just opening the closet door and throwing the envelopes in. Before tossing them in he’d been tearing all the papers in them to shreds, letters and documents and affidavits and court records and invoices, as well as the envelopes themselves. Mr. Nason called Keith immature, ungrateful, lazy, incompetent, mentally and emotionally unstable, maladjusted and a bunch of other names. He finished with, “I’m shocked that Mr. Willis recommended you although I suspect he did it only as a favour for your father.” Mr. Nason waved his hand dismissively at Keith as he added, “I suggest you join your father at the brewery and waste your life working there like him.”
That was over the top. Maybe it was okay for Mr. Nason to get mad about the files, because who knows what difficulties and how much extra work Keith caused the partners and secretaries having to deal with all those destroyed papers, but there was no need to bring Keith’s dad into it. Keith might have told Mr. Nason where to go and what he could do with his files, but he just sat there, in the heap of torn paper, not even his hands going. And when Mr. Nason stormed out he kept sitting there. It might have been for ten minutes, Keith told me, or it might have been for an hour.
Then he walked away.
Just like the first time, no-one saw him go. And also like the first time, he expected at any second someone, Mr. Nason or one of the partners or even one of the secretaries, would realize he was missing and call him back, Mr. Nason and his associates to excoriate him further, or one of the secretaries trying to be kind. Out in the Alley the guys were still working on the staging, further down now, but they were too busy to take any notice of him. No walking around the city this time. He went straight home and started tearing up stuff. First he ripped up everything his folks had saved in a box they called ‘Keith’s Box’, all his school report cards starting from kindergarten, his school leaving certificate, bits of schoolwork going back to primary and elementary grades that his mother kept because she said one day they’d all enjoy looking back at them, the letter Mr. Willis wrote recommending him to Nason and Co., a letter Tanner wrote saying Keith was a hard and reliable worker with a strong rudimentary knowledge of construction, and a stack of cartoons and drawings starting from when he was not much more than a toddler. He shredded everything. It was like he was trying to destroy himself. Then he moved on to the wallpaper in his room. His mother told me this, months later. She came home and found him sitting on the floor of his room, staring at nothing, surrounded by hundreds of bits of paper, the kitchen scissors beside him, gouges in the walls where he’d used them to start peeling the wallpaper off in strips.
This time he didn’t, couldn’t, go back. He spent another week in bed in silence, then for weeks he just wandered around the city, still walking away, I guess, not talking to anyone, not seeing us because we’d all gone our various ways. My mother sent me news about him from time to time. She said he was making progress. First he was driving a milk delivery truck, then a forklift truck in a warehouse. A few months later she wrote that he’d moved out and was sharing a room in a boarding house in the city. I wondered if he’d had any more nervous breakdowns, if life for him was now one long nervous breakdown. I even wondered if he’d end up like the Fat Man, unable to work, reduced to begging. I should have checked, of course, but you know how it is when you’re in a new place, new challenges and new friends, lots of girls and plenty to worry about yourself, let alone an old friend, like how every girl I went out with was an intolerable, heart-battering disappointment compared to the Girl with the Azure Eyes. I went dutifully and dully through university and by the time I started work for Quantum Technical Communications, Keith had disappeared completely off my radar until there he was, in person, at the conference.
As we reminisce I glance at the conference brochure where there’s a note about him. Keith is the writer and illustrator of one of the first graphic novels for adults, Fugitive Ephemera, which became a bestselling series. Eventually he launched Mallard Concepts, publishing a slew of comic books and graphic novels. I ask him how he progressed from milkman and forklift truck operator to major writer and illustrator and publisher.
He laughs and tells me how the bloke he was sharing the room with in the boarding house had been recently divorced and had two little kids, Marvin and Felicia, who were often there too. Keith drew them, cartoon-like, during one visit and put them in a comic book story just like he used to with Gerald and Porter and me at school. He turned the kids into superheroes, Magnificent Marvin and Fantastic Felicia, who rescued their father from a dragon called His Boss who wanted him to work all the time so he hardly got to see his kids. Marvin and Felicia took the comic home and showed their mother. She took it to work and showed a friend who photocopied it and put it on Facebook and tagged it back to the mother. One of the mother’s friends showed it to the friend of a friend who worked in promotions for a new publisher of comic books and graphic novels. The publisher contacted Keith and asked him to do a full-length graphic novel and suddenly he was a serious writer and illustrator. Within six months he was big. He didn’t know what to do with all the money that had started coming in, he’d never had so much, and the publisher suggested he buy into the company. A year later the publisher wanted to get out of the business, so Keith bought the company outright and called it Mallard Concepts.
“Congratulations,” I tell him.
“Well – everything.”
“On getting my shit together, you mean.” He grins. “I suppose in a weird way I should be grateful for old Nason and his God-awful office.”
“If it hadn’t been so bad I might have stayed. Then I never would have done the comics and stuff. I should probably thank him someday.”
“You mean you still see him?”
“Sometimes. He’s retired and in his eighties but he staggers into the office now and then to do some consulting for the firm. He can’t let it go. The other partners are still going strong.”
“But how come you’re still in touch with Nason and Co. after all these years and when you hated it there so much?”
Keith grins again. “When I formed Mallard Concepts, I needed a legal department. So I bought the firm. Nason and Co. work for me.”
I shake my head, marvelling at how he’s turned his life around. Then I laugh and punch him gently on the shoulder.
He says, pretending to square up to me, “Do that again and I’ll walk away.”
But I know he doesn’t mean it. His walking away days are done.