38 Years Old (Never Kissed a Girl): Chapter One
Author’s Note: This is Part 1 of a series of posts serializing my novella 38 Years Old (Never Kissed a Girl). For more information on the origins of this novella, including all disclaimers, and a complete chapter list, please see the announcement regarding this series.
Kingston, Ontario – Spring 1973
Punching metal parts for a living wasn’t much of a career, but it paid the bills. Pop got me a job at Falcon Steel right out of high school. I did a lot of shit jobs the first few months before getting my union card: cleaning the grindings out of the presses, oiling the rollers, scrubbing the toilets—crap like that. But a card was everything in this town back then, and you did whatever it took to get one. Sure, you could work the ferries and the tourist shops in the summers, but that barely covered beer, let alone food.
Operating the presses wasn’t as bad as cleaning them. You set the steel, backed away and hit a button. Thirty-thousand pounds of hydraulic force pressed the sheet into twenty or thirty of whatever it was you were jigging, and then slid back up the rail. Old Harry Wright used to call it the tightest pussy he’d ever seen. I don’t know of anyone who ever got caught in it at our shop, though we were always hearing about accidents at the plants down in Hamilton. Those were much bigger operations—just as noisy, but a higher throughput, and shit happened a lot faster there. White collar folks in the plant got paid on Thursdays. Guys on the floor got paid on Fridays—safer that way. Last thing you wanted in a metal shop was some hung-over bastard falling asleep at one of the machines, and getting himself hurt, or worse, hurting someone else.
Falcon Steel kept fifteen of us busy, ten hours a day, five days a week, and a kept another four or five hopping all night long on maintenance and cleaning jobs. We worked seven to five, with fifteen minute breaks at 9:45 and 2:00, and lunch from 11:30 to 12:30. Most guys kept pretty tight with that schedule—we were paid by the certified piece, not by the hour. It usually took more than two or three guys to finish a piece, so a slacker wasn’t tolerated. Not usually, anyway. But in the summer of ’73, Jimmy Tolliver was the exception to the rule. His father was good friends with McGlaughlin, the foreman, and together they had somehow weaseled Jimmy’s way onto the floor full-time—without a card.
Jimmy was a royal pain in the ass. He was twenty-one, three years younger than me, and skinny as a rail, with a yap that never shut up, even when the machines were running and everybody had their earplugs in. Pop used to wonder how come Jimmy never lost his voice. The boy could talk. Worse, he didn’t know nothing about nothing, and butted into conversations he shouldn’t have. That Friday was one of those days.
“Hey, Donnie, you going down to Chappie’s tonight?” Davey asked. We sat in the lunch room at the plant, sipping on our third cups of coffee for the day, and pulling on some greasy Player’s cigarettes Davey had bought from the vending machine.
“Naw, man. I got something to do tomorrow. Gotta be up early,” I said. Davey and I had hung out since grade school. Except for Jimmy, we were the youngest carded workers at Falcon.
“Not even for a couple of brews?”
“Naw. Not tonight.”
“You sure, Donnie? Becky might be there,” Davey teased.
“Becky’s always there.” Becky Petersen and I had been flirting for two years, but nothing had ever come of it. She was always seeing someone when I was available, and I was always seeing someone when she was available. We’d get drunk together once or twice a year, and try to get something going, but it never worked out.
“What’s up tomorrow?”
“Going to see Mikey. It’s his birthday.”
“Oh.” For Davey, that was enough to know. He would change the subject without me even asking.
Jimmy, of course, was another story. He’d been lounging a little way down the table a second before, but purposefully slid towards us as he heard a topic that interested him.
“How’s Mikey doing?” he asked casually.
“Fine.” I took a deep pull from my smoke, and tried to get Davey to say something quick to stop Jimmy from talking. But Davey had also been taking a pull, and needed a second to get enough breath to speak.
“How long’s it been? Sixteen… seventeen years?”
“Eighteen.” I said as I turned my face away from the table, and released a long puff of smoke. “Just over eighteen.” I shook my head. Had it been that long?
“Long time to be locked up.”
“Go away, Jimmy,” Davey ordered. It was loud enough that guys farther down the table heard it. It wasn’t the first time that day somebody had said it, but tone meant everything. Everyone knew what that tone meant. Everyone, but Jimmy. Davey had one of the quickest fuses I have ever seen, and there were certain things you never asked about. Pestering me about Mikey was one of those things. And Davey had been looking for a reason to pound on Jimmy for months now.
“Aww, come on, Davey. I’m just concerned, that’s all.” If he had been at all sincere, and then walked away, everything would have been alright. But he smiled that little piss-ant smile of his, and Davey didn’t even get up. He lifted his elbow off the table and swung it fast and hard, right into Jimmy’s teeth. Jimmy’s head snapped back. He flipped backwards off the bench, cracking his noggin on the cement floor. The thick carpet of burned-down cigarette butts padded the impact slightly. The lunch room quieted so quickly, we all heard the second bounce of his head. Davey didn’t wait for Jimmy to recover. He flicked his cigarette onto Jimmy’s chest, and rose from the table, while massaging the tip of his elbow. The room watched to see if Jimmy would counterattack, but he just curled up into the fetal position and protected his bloody face with his arms. Davey shuffled away.
Every man in the room knew that sooner or later Jimmy was going to get it, and it wasn’t surprising that Davey had done it to him. As Davey and I left the room and headed back to the machines, we were sure we heard a little applause mixed in with the laughter.
But as we resumed pressing and shaping the steel, all I could think about was Mikey. Eighteen years. I’d been alive for twenty-four years. And for eighteen of those years, my brother had been in prison. I saw him as often as I could—maybe once or twice a month—though Mom and Pop seemed to go every weekend. He was, after all, still in the same city, up the road a bit from Falcon at Millhaven Maximum Security.
Every once in a while, I’d be working on a job, and see the work chit, and find out it was something for the prison. Steel bars. Steel Plate. A deadbolt assembly. I was helping to build the prison for my brother. I don’t think I’ll ever come to terms with that.
But I knew full well, that had I been the older brother back then, and seen what Mikey had seen, I would have done exactly what he had done. Had I not been so young, I would have been the one in that jail cell, instead of him.
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I’ve been looking forward to reading this, Joe and I’m not disappointed. I like the realism of the steel plant and its workers, and its all rings true to the era. Nice build-up of suspense by the end … what could Mikey have done that was bad enough to put him away in Millhaven yet inspire such devotion by his family?
Well done! I know what I’ll be doing each morning for the next couple of weeks …
Wow. Excellent piece. Clear voice, gritty realism, and some excellent hooks. What did Mikey do? What did he see? Great chapter ending. Can’t wait to see how it unfolds. And the chapter length is just right for something to ease myself into the day. 🙂