Attached below is a story that was not included in BAD THINGS HAPPEN, posted here for your enjoyment. In the process of collecting stories for my first book, some had to be left behind, but they are not forgotten! Over the next little while I'm going to be putting up the ones I think people might like to read again, the ones I love the most, and maybe even some of the very weird ones nobody even knows about.
Hope you like them!
A MAN MIGHT WORK
BY KRIS BERTIN
After his fight, Fred didn’t much look like himself.
His head was uneven and lumpy like a potato. His mouth looked like it was full of food he couldn’t swallow. His forehead, too. When he talked, he honked like he had a cold. I remember thinking that he’d been transformed, like something in a fairy tale.
His first day back, we had to take a huge wooden fence apart but he was in so much pain we barely got through any of it. He stopped a lot, and I had to do almost everything, even though I was half his size. And his nose was bleeding off and on all afternoon, and at one point—when he bent over to pick up a hammer—pink stuff squirted out of his ear and onto the shoulder of his uniform. I thought:
And he must’ve seen the concern on my face:
It’s my eardrum, Fred said. He broke it.
We were broken too. Normally, we talked the whole way through a job, quietly, though nothing much was uttered in seriousness, except when it came to boxing. But there was no talk of that, either, no footwork or punches shown to me, and nothing was said of the truly fucked-up thing that had happened only days before.
I spent my shift looking at him and worrying, but also feeling some mix of emotion that made me keep my distance. It was disgust and disappointment, I think. Both for him and for myself.
For lunch, we sat at a picnic table but he didn’t take out a salad or boiled eggs or a shake. Instead he held his head like if he let go it would split in two. When it started to rain he didn’t move so we just stayed there. The next day he was gone. Quit, and I didn’t even get to say goodbye. There was a new guy there and that was that. I found out later he had been out on bail pending trial, and that he went away because of the fight.
I remember feeling frustrated, and that frustration becoming an inexplicable anger which I put on the new guy. He had heard about the fight with Fish and wanted to know about it, kept asking if I had heard about it. We were still trying to finish the fence job that Fred and I had failed to complete, so when he asked me about it, I told him to go to the other end of the fence. When he ignored me, I repeated myself, and said to go the fuck to the other end of the fence.
I was just a kid still, and it was the first time I’d said anything in a threatening manner, so I didn’t know what I was doing. I was shaking all over and I had to hold my hammer up to seem even remotely menacing. He sort of laughed at me, but did take the opposite end from me, and we worked separately until we met in the middle and I let him take out the last post on his own. I remember feeling worried that whatever had been wrong with Fish had been passed onto Fred and then onto me.
It was an irrational thought, but it wasn’t wrong. Not exactly.
The first day, when our boss Randy drove us to the job site, the first thing he said was about Travis Fish.
Don’t talk to him, don’t listen to what he says. Don’t ever be alone with Fish.
Stick with Fred, we were told.
Then he talked about safety boots and teamwork and lunchbreaks, but I still didn’t understand the first part. That there’s some guy who we have to work with, but who we can’t be around? But then we were pulling up to this building and right away I knew what he meant. Who he meant. The other new kid saw it too.
The job was general labour, where you just get sent somewhere—anywhere—and you do whatever you’re told to do. My mother had heard about the job from one of her co-workers at the grocery store and drove me out to the industrial park the very next day. Even though her and him weren’t speaking at the time (and though she only referred to him in the third person), she compared me to my father. I didn’t understand how I was supposed to take pride in being like the man she hated most.
She told me, without a note of humour in her voice:
A young man might work and earn a wage. He works for a living. You might make a man of yourself.
Then I was given over to Randy and his company and she drove away. I was fourteen, but ready for it, happy to be there. I recall wanting for years to have a real job so I could develop hands like Dad or his friends—hands like fat leather, like you had gloves on all the time—hands like a man.
That first week was a demolition job, where we had to gut an apartment, collect all salvageable material, chuck everything else. They had already been working on it when I was hired and there was a whole row of uprooted toilets out front. And Fish was sitting on one of them, smoking. There was something wrong with him, and I could almost see it. Feel it. Something was pulsing inside me. A warning.
Years later, when I started working in bars and doing security for concerts, that feeling came to be something I relied on to do my job and keep myself safe. Now, I run an entire security firm, and I tell my guys that you should never try to fight that feeling. But then, I did.
I thought being brave meant pretending you weren’t scared. I thought being brave mattered. He had a face like a Frankenstein, all forehead and chin, his jaw slack, his face loose. Talking to himself or to something that wasn’t there. Swearing at nothing. I looked at all of that and tried to convince myself there was nothing to worry about.
I was lucky that he was in one of his quiet, contemplative moods. That I got to start with him when he was being shy, when he wasn’t puffed up and boasting. When he wasn’t threatening to kill people or brandishing anything. He looked at us, and I didn’t say a thing. Neither did the other new kid, or Randy, who was already driving away.
Then I noticed more stuff about him—the cigarette butts around his feet, maybe a whole pack’s worth or more, and the scars around his lips and chin, and the big one, right across his throat. And his teeth, completely brown, brown like a paper bag.
Then he asked me if I was a faggot.
Looking back now, I can appreciate the danger I was in. This was a felon who was working as a stipulation of his parole, who probably should never have been released to begin with, who likely should have been institutionalized for his entire life. A man one bad day—one misunderstanding—away from real, serious mayhem. And here I was, 14 years old, 130lbs at most, placed before him in his two months between stints in prison.
But I didn’t understand any of that yet. I played it cool, sort of snorted. Gave him a playground answer to his question:
Why, are you?
And he sat on his toilet and looked at me, his eyes tiny in his head, like a bear’s.
But then Fred was there, and there was no question who he was either. He was a big guy too, sure of himself, and was coming towards us with a hand out. Smiling. Started talking to us like nothing was wrong, like Fish was a bad dream me and that other kid were having. Gave us the job specifics and ignored Fish, who had shrunk down on his busted toilet and started on a new cigarette.
I thought for a long while that he and Fish were friends, until I said something about it one day. Fred corrected me:
Nobody’s friends with that fucking guy.
But still, Fish looked at him with something close to admiration, like the look a favourite teacher might get from a kid. I didn’t have a sense of which of the two were older, and it looked like Fish was, though the way he deferred to Fred made it seem like he was younger. I found it confusing.
When we got started, Fred asked about me and the other new guy and we did our best to talk about ourselves like we weren’t little kids, like we had real lives. I tried to be mature and polite by asking about him too, but I didn’t get much. He’d grown up and gone to school across the river. Had been working this job for three years. Had been in the cadets when he was my age, almost went into the air force. Was an amateur boxer, once. Lived with his girl just a few blocks away from where we were living.
There were things he was keeping from me but I was too young to know what they were. All I knew was I could only probe so far before he’d clam up, say let’s get this end up and get us focused on the job, trying to wrestle a water heater out a door that’s just about too small for it. But the real questions, the ones that went unasked were all about Fish. What was wrong with him? Where was he from and how did he end up here? What had happened before—to other people who worked this job—that made it so Randy had to warn us?
I didn’t ask about it because I was following Fred’s lead and pretending that Fish wasn’t there at all. We steered clear of him as best we could, but would catch glimpses of him every now and then. I found it difficult not to stare—his chest was as big as a beer fridge, and his head was seated in a neck so thick they were indistinguishable as separate parts. He was like a lion walking upright. He’d usually be carrying something big, on his own, going up and down stairs, a cigarette in his mouth. Him, with two old ceramic sinks in each arm, the pipes dragging on the floor like a pair of dead cobras. Him, with more copper plumbing under one arm than I could’ve moved all day. When he saw us, he’d show us those teeth.
After the first day the other new kid was gone, and I was still there.
It occurred to me that the kid probably went home and told his mother and father about Fish and was given permission to quit. He got to take a quick look at something ugly, and decide it wasn’t for him. Got to go back to his world of basketball in cul-de-sacs, board games, and the most cursory household chores. When I went home, no one was there, and I knew it wasn’t okay to talk about my new job in a negative way when they were.
When I told my wife about it—years later—she said I should’ve been taken out of there, too, but I wasn’t sure. It was unclear how I would fare without this valued piece of my history, who I might have become if I weren’t placed between these two giants. It was a thought I’d been turning it over in my mind for years, like a polished stone.
Until that summer I’d never seen a fight.
Not a real one anyway. I’d seen kids fight. I’d done something shameful like pushing a fat kid down and kicking him in the guts for calling me a name. Felt my own lip split against my teeth at the hands of his older brother. I’d seen Dad scuffle around with some guy in the driveway for shouting shit about my mother into our window. But those were nothing compared to the fight. Now I’ve seen dozens—seen petty bar scuffles and full blown fights between bikers and maniacs and guys packed with jail muscle—but even now, even with all my experience, theirs was the worst.
It happened in a strip-mall we were painting before the grand opening. Six of us on the job, three of us out to lunch, with just me there to see it. It wasn’t like a fight in a movie because once they tangled up you couldn’t keep track of who was punching or what led to what. Right away blood showed up on their faces and hands, but you couldn’t see where it’d come from or who it belonged to. It got into the white paint, then got all over the two of them. Two pink guys rolling around on a canvas, killing each other. The next day I was moved to another crew, but the remaining guys had to clean it all up. It took all day.
Before it started—before Fred started it—he gave me twenty-five cents and motioned to a cluster of payphones.
I don’t know if you’ll call an ambulance or the police, Fred said. But if it’s the police, it’s important to let them know that he pushed me. I was just minding my own fucking business up there, right?
Then he went over to the twenty foot ladder that Travis Fish was on and kicked it as hard as he could.
When Fish landed, Fred did this running field-goal kick to his head.
Then they were up and feeding each other one fist after another down the entire length of the place.
I settled on calling the cops, and not the ambulance, because, I decided, the police at least had guns.
Fred had begun picking me up for work in his truck.
I remember feeling proud about it. Proud that I was with a grownup who would talk to me as an equal, who was tough but smart and good, too. I never had friends to begin with, just guys who were sort of around, waiting to get in with a better group of people. So I was proud that I had made a friend, too.
I wanted mom to meet him so she could see I was on a good track, but I was also worried that she’d be in one of her moods where nothing impressed her and she didn’t have a nice feeling about anything. Didn’t want him to see my father, who might’ve been drinking or drunk. When my father did finally see him he asked me is GI JOE your fuckin boyfriend now, because Fred was muscular and had short hair, but mostly because he was jealous that I had found an adult to emulate and ask questions. I remember feeling sick that my father’s question sounded so much like something Fish might ask, a question that put you underneath him for one humiliating moment. I didn’t know then that I was heading towards a collision with him—just like Fish and Fred were—but moments like these were groundwork laid.
I liked Fred, but I liked the job more. You went all over the city and you never knew what you’d be doing until you got there. I learned things like how to pack a moving truck or put shingles on a roof, how to use a crowbar or drive a forklift. It could be hard—almost every day was hard—but I liked it. It was precisely what I was looking for.
Fish added something to it, too. I learned to read him and see when he was going to lose it, and got to witness any number of displays that were truly breathtaking. Saw him throw a 200 pound industrial air conditioning unit off the top of our demo building and into dumpster. Saw him go through doors at multiple demolition sites like they wasn’t even there—like they were a soda crackers—ripping them in half, then four pieces, until it all just fell away from him.
One day, he gave me the guts of the doorknob and lock, probably because he saw how close I was watching.
He asked me, in the friendliest way he was capable of, if that gave me a hard-on, and I said only a halfsie, which made him laugh. It was a weird sound, a wheezing scream full of malice. Everything was faggot this, nigger that. Every object was a cunt to be moved, or a cocksucker to be broken apart. Every one of us was a shithead or a homo or a punk.
Only a halfie, he says!
He showed Fred with his thumb and finger. They were like his teeth. Orangey-brown from too many cigarettes.
By that time—a couple weeks in—I thought I was used to Fish. Still scared of him, still unsure of what exactly he was or where he came from, but convinced he was done picking on me. Convinced he wasn’t so bad.
You hear that one Fred? Only a halfie.
Almost everything he said was for Fred, who barely spoke to him except to say stuff like lift or turn it that way. When Fish would tell us a bad thing he said or did, he acted like Fred was in on it. Like they were best pals. And Fred just kept his mouth shut and his eyes forward, like my father did when a cop was talking to him.
At the end of June we were doing a big job for a liquidator, emptying a warehouse of its contents. There were maybe nine of us working, including this one guy, George. He talked out the side of his mouth and did everything slow and deliberate, like maybe something was wrong with him. I see his type now, too. People who can’t stay away from danger, and who can’t help but announce it to the world. Born victims. We were loading these erasers with Disney characters on them—boxes and boxes of them into a truck—and he was having some trouble with it. Complaining about it, groaning as he worked.
Fish was on him, doing what he did to new guys—muttering threats, blowing kisses at him, and rushing him when he struggled with a load or had trouble opening the larger container boxes. Fred had looking out for new guys down to a science, and had done his best to keep Fish away from George all day, but at some point it got away from him. Fish made his way up the assembly line so he was the guy at the top of the chain, the one tossing boxes down to the next guy. And just like that—when Fred had taken a moment to gulp down some water from a squeeze bottle—Fish threw a twenty pound box at the kid’s head.
The corner got him in the eye socket, took him off the stepladder. His head made a sound like a frozen ham on a grocery store floor, but he stood up right away, nodding his head and insisting he was fine, one fist pushed into his face.
Fred shouted Travis, but went over to the kid instead of Fish. Held him up and made like everything was okay, even though George’s eye was swollen shut, the entire back of his shirt was drenched in blood and his scalp looked like an open change purse. A couple guys who’d seen it shouted what the fuck was that for, and Fish just shrugged and said:
It was an accident.
I saw that I just happened to be someone that didn’t bother Fish, like a radio station he didn’t mind on in the background. I think it was my age. When other kids came to work with us, he would say fucked up shit to them, but he’d never do anything. George was different. Right between a kid and a grownup, maybe 19 or so. Right on the line where Fish said fair game. And black, of course.
After he did it, Fish kept looking around, waiting for us to say or do something, but we didn’t. No one called an ambulance, but the guy called his mother to come get him early, and when she asked us what happened, all of us, and even George himself—with a towel on his head, red with his own blood—agreed it had been an accident. The look on her face told me that she’d seen all of this before, from our kind, and from her son.
When Fred drove me home, I asked him why can’t we get Fish fired or put back in jail. It was the first time I’d seen any ugliness in him, the first time I’d seen him as anything other than a square-jawed hero. He’d squinted and looked straight through his windshield at all the road ahead and said:
You don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about.
When I got home, I stayed at the end of my driveway and watched the cars heading for the highway, trying not to cry. I remember thinking I’m going to quit tomorrow, but the next day I woke up and got dressed with this thought sunken back to the bottom my mind, a new barrier grown between me and Fish. A hard silence crystalized between us.
When they started fighting, I ran down the length of the mall to watch.
When I got there I stayed back, not sure what to do with my hands. I’d put them in my pockets, or on my hips, but no matter what I did it felt wrong, like I should be breaking it up, or else getting in close to really scope things out.
I don’t actually know what started it.
For years I’ve tried to decide, looking for clues in my memories, things that I couldn’t perceive at the time. Had Fred gotten bigger throughout the summer? He’d started out looking athletic, but by the end, he was bigger. Had he been training for this, packing on muscle, getting himself ready, day-by-day for this confrontation? He’d quit smoking at some point, started eating better—was that the start of his plan? Or had he just woken up that day and said this is it? It was maybe a week before that Fred had shaved his head clean, so there was nothing to grab onto. Did he decide then that something had to be done?
At first, Fish really beat the shit out of him.
Punched and strangled and shoved him around, moved him anywhere he wanted him to go. It was like when a gorilla takes its baby around with it, scoops it up and runs it up a tree. Like Fred weighed nothing. It stopped near the little green water fountain, where he got on top and head-butted Fred so many times I lost count. Then he put both hands on Fred’s neck and closed his throat.
Fighting—boxing—was the one thing Fred would answer all of my questions about, on and off the job. He’d talk about his matches in the amateur circuit and his record and fights on the street. I was listening out of selfishness, looking for any little tip that might serve me well if I needed it. He was happy to talk, and I had used this openness to try and connect it to Fish and all those unspoken questions I had.
How would you fight him? I had asked once, pointed at him like a creature in a cage.
His answer was about fuel, about how if someone had some stamina, it’d be a matter of time. Talked about how you’d just have to protect yourself, take it, then dish it back out once he was out of gas.
And commit, he said. You gotta commit to it once you start.
That was three weeks before the fight. I wondered if he’d decided by then. If he’d been imagining it, laying down a narrative like a track in his mind. Looking at himself, in the mirror, watching himself for changes, just like I was. Convincing himself what kind of man he was.
Before the summer ended, Fish was dead. He’d been shot by police outside a bar called The Rodeo.
I’d heard about it in my final week of work before I started the tenth grade. I was still working weekends and one of the fulltime guys told me ‘Fish got killed’. I felt something when I heard it, and was surprised to feel that it was painful. I found a newspaper article about it in the school library soon after. The story went that he’d been forcibly ejected from the establishment for bothering female patrons, and when confronted by the police, went berserk.
I read his list of crimes and felt scandalized by words like assault, arson, theft, breaking and entering, rape. But even after I learned it, I still felt sad. It didn’t make sense to me, either. I was scared of him, didn’t like him, and knew he was awful. Why should I feel anything but relief?
When these feelings left me, I was left with some pride that I had stood next to—worked with—a real hardened criminal, and survived. I thought it was special. The next summer I worked for Randy again, and learned quickly that almost every man he hired was an ex-con. Learned that Fish wasn’t unique; he was a bad one, but there were plenty more like him.
Now, there is no mystery for me about Fish. I see him everywhere. Men with no impulse control, men who think they’re owed something, or worse, that they have already been cheated out of it. Men who exist in such abundance that we’ve created entire programs and protocols and systems to mitigate their damage to all the regular people around them. I refuse entry to anyone who gives me that feeling—that fear and unease, cascading from my throat to my balls and back—and tell my employees to do the same. I tell new hires:
You aren’t going to be liked. The sooner you get over needing to be liked, the sooner you’re going to be a good doorman.
I tell them:
With unreasonable people, you’re always going to be the bad guy. So go ahead and be the bad guy from the get go. Do yourself a favor and discriminate.
The real difficulty was Fred. Men who could fight—and liked to fight—weren’t the same thing. Guys like him were dangerous too, because they came in with a smile, looked innocent enough, but there was an edge to them that you could miss. They were all around us, too, and you might go months without ever noticing it in them. A hunger for confrontation, and something worse—a belief that they’re doing what’s right. I was one. Nearly everyone I hired was too.
At the mall, once Fred got up, it was all over. He was shaky, but he managed to start putting combinations together. Crosses and jabs and then—once he staggered Fish—big lazy uppercuts and haymakers that took him apart. I thought that Fred had found it in himself to win, summoned up courage like Hulk Hogan, and defeated his foe. Now, I think it might’ve been something else.
Sometimes you push yourself into these situations in order to test yourself. Stand up to a seemingly insurmountable foe and see how long you can last. I’d seen it in men who had some vague sense of failure or disappointment, men who had to find some way to get around hating themselves. I had done the exact same thing, many times, all under the pretense of a lie that always made me the hero and my victim a villain. When I took my father on in our kitchen, only a few years later, it wasn’t about his drinking or my mother, or how he treated us. It wasn’t even about him. It was about me. The older I got, Fred was the one I spent the most time thinking about, because I was the same thing as him.
I told my son, once:
The right thing to do usually seems like the craziest thing. That’s why so few people do what’s right.
Later, I remembered it wasn’t even something I had come up with. I’d heard it somewhere. Now I was using it, carrying it forward, handing it off to my child. And even though I had decided to change things, and was trying to raise a son who wasn’t going to be like me, I didn’t correct myself. It was something I believed necessary, whether it was true or not.
Did I hear this from Fred? If not him, then from my father, or some other person who needed justification for otherwise unacceptable actions.
Another time, I told my son:
Often there is no right thing to do.
And I hated the expression it produced on his face, and how hollow it sounded. I hated that I had lived this long and come this far and this was the best I could give him. Most of all I hated that no matter how cheap it sounded, how simple and basic a thought it was, it was true.
I remembered—just recently—that when the fight was over, blood dripped off Fred’s face and I was so worried I collected it in my palms like he needed it for later. It filled those dry cracks and made little red branches in my hands. I kept looking down at Fish’s open mouth, expecting whatever bad thing was inside of him to crawl out. Fred was wheezing like Fish used to. We didn’t say anything, because Fred didn’t have anything to say and I didn’t have anything to ask. I believed for a long time that everything I had ever wanted to know was right there in front of me.
ABOUT THIS STORY
Though this story was published in the Fiddlehead and was anthologized in Oberon's Coming Attractions, this is a story that I have never felt was actually finished. Even posting this latest version I found myself tinkering with it, not yet satisfied. It's actually the first story I decided to pull from the collection even before I started working with Alexander MacLeod and Biblioasis. The difficulty I had writing it is part of that. Another part was that it was a little too bleak and negative for my taste. Though I like these kinds of stories--which is to say frightening, visceral and violent--I understood that there was an important balance to be maintained in the collection, and something like this might tip it over.
The impetus for writing this story comes from being a bouncer, from being around scary and menacing people, and from growing up relatively poor and feeling pressure (from my very hardworking mother) to go and make something of myself. The central difficulty with this story is that I wasn't quite able to convey the things I was obsessing over at the time, which is the strange nature of masculine strength and the way it is both stupid and destructive while at the same time very useful (because others are stupid and destructive). At the time when I wrote this, I was working as a bouncer and kept marvelling at how brutish and cruel my own instinct were while at the same time utterly necessary in order to do the job well. I wrote and rewrote this story several different ways--sometimes focusing on the narrators home life, sometimes going into great detail about Fish and Fred, sometimes whittling it down to nothing-- but was unable to truly capture what I was trying to say. This was before I had begun to employ the Blank Page Method, which is, of course, throwing the whole thing out and starting from a blank page. It would've helped a lot here.
The things I like about this story is the actual writing in the fight scenes, the retrospective passages as an adult, and some of the jobs they worked. I thought, despite my trouble with this piece, that it deserves to have at least a little bit of attention before I leave it behind forever.
Thanks for reading,