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by Sean Johnston

You build the factory. You make the soup the workers eat. You build a house about 20 minutes by bus from the factory. The bus route doesn’t matter to the story; all you need is 20 minutes from end to end. Those 20 minutes work either way, whether the line is crooked or straight. All you need are the facts:

A factory.

A house.

The boy’s father works at the factory and it takes him 20 minutes to get there, 20 minutes to get home at night.

Now the man’s got a son, but not a wife. Why doesn’t he drive? Why doesn’t he have a wife?

The boy’s got red hair and pale skin. He sits tapping at his computer at night, inventing reasons his father’s alone. He’s got a good imagination. It could be any number of things.

1) His mother died in the car crash that hurt his father’s eye. It takes care of the driving. It takes care of the wife.

2) His father never needed nothing that wasn’t on the bus route anyway, so . . . Safeway, the little branch of the city library, the walk-in clinic, the Credit Union, etc. . . . not needed before, but now it comes in, right?

3) But those 20 minutes he is on the bus. The boy knows his father has ten minutes at the factory before his job starts, and ten minutes waiting for the bus on the way home. In those ten minutes each way, ten minutes twice each day, anything can happen. Women must work in the factory too. Women must take the bus.

4) His father must have had all he would ever need with the boy’s mother. Her name was Linda, and she cooked exotic food. Nobody ever went hungry before she died. There was hot clear soup and creamy thick soup. There was homemade bread, fresh vegetables from the garden, and his father smiled. He took the bus to work because his mother needed the car to do good things all day—search for ingredients, feed the homeless downtown.

5) Now there are three closets filled with noname vegetables, soups, and fruit. Nobody starves even though the mother is dead.

6) The women at the factory see the boy’s father but somehow see him differently. Maybe to them he has too big a belly, though he has no belly at all. Maybe to them his teeth are not straight, though only one at the bottom is out of place. Maybe to them he is just a short man with a skinny pale son.

7) The boy himself looks in the mirror every day. He is too thin. His hair is too red. On his mother that red was beautiful. He is so pale he feels blue.

8) The women at the factory seem shy. They see his father and have heard of his mother. Who am I beside this beautiful ghost, they think. I am too thick in the middle. I am too wrinkled near my eyes and my smile seems like children compared to her smile in that picture he keeps in the living room.

9) That’s if they had come home with him one time on the bus. Perhaps it was when the boy stayed out on a winter night, working on the yearbook at school, knowing that if you take the pictures no one looks at you.

10) That time his father didn’t snore in his chair while the hockey game played. He sat on the couch beside the woman from work. She was powdered and fresh and he had just parted his hair as the doorbell rang. They drank rye and cokes from plastic glasses.

11) The boy can’t imagine this. Did he hear laughter the next morning from the kitchen? Is that how his mother sounded? This woman was likely too thoughtless to be like his mother. His mother’s laugh must have been the kind that could never be mistaken for mocking.

12)  The kind of laughter that one hides behind walls shouldn’t be so spring-like. It shouldn’t bounce up out of the still morning, as his mother’s might have. Not if it’s going to be loud and wake him up. He trusts himself when he’s sleeping—if he was startled, then it’s because something was startling.

13) He can’t remember if he was startled or if he woke slowly, smiling, and then was startled when the dream wasn’t true.

14) Then there is no factory. The bus route changes and the boy’s father doesn’t take it. On the days when he leaves the house, he walks. He’s got all the time in the world. He leaves early and walks downtown. It takes almost an hour.

15) On this hour, once a week, he may meet anyone at all. Maybe one of the ladies from work lives just along the way. She sees him coming and times perfectly her entrance through the front gate onto the public sidewalk. Hello, she says. Hello, Miss, he says, and they both smile. They speak quite nicely to each other. You are beautiful, his father even says, and she can tell by the light in his eyes that he means it.

16) The unemployment office is hard on blossoming romances and a couple of things can happen. Maybe one of them gets another job. There is no need for the long walks. They decide they will meet anyway, in the evenings or on the weekends, but the first time is too awkward. Nobody is asking for a handout, but one wants to talk about work and one wants to talk about hoping to work.

17) I will make you dinner, the woman says, but she knows the man will not walk all that way for a handout. It’s not a handout, because she wants to whisper to the man when they’re alone, and she would prefer to go to his house and eat there. She could meet the boy. They could see how it goes. But it never goes further, and the boy and the woman don’t meet. This is probably a mistake.

18) What’s more likely, because his father could get a job if the woman could—his father knows almost everything there is to know, you should see his books, you should hear the answers he tells the TV—what’s more likely is the woman did not want to keep walking. It came to be winter and the bus went right by them. Let’s take it, she’d say. But the boy’s father is far-sighted. He knows what money is worth when there is none. He knows it’s worth less when there is some. He knows nothing lasts, and anything can happen (look at the factory and how it is gone when he sees all the people still buying the things that the factory made, he reads in the paper how much money they make) so as long as his legs last he will use them.

19) She used to look sadly at the man in the street as she whisked by on the bus. She couldn’t speak to him at the Unemployment Office because she felt sorry for him—a man like that must drink his money away, or at least he could afford the bus. She decides it is best for everyone.

20) Or maybe the woman’s name was Linda, the first time she came out onto the sidewalk. His father is a decent man. He tried to be friendly. I can’t be in love with two Lindas, he thought. Linda was the boy’s mother. Next thing you know she’ll be in the kitchen, trying to make soup. Next thing you know she’ll be in the boy’s room. She won’t have red hair and she’ll be looking over his shoulder saying what’s this you’re typing? Why aren’t I in the story? Why don’t you come with us out into the sunshine?

21) The boy’s father wouldn’t let the fake Linda make the boy do anything if he didn’t want to. Whoever named you was mistaken, the boy would type, as this confused woman looked over his shoulder, you’re not Linda at all.

Sean Johnston’s latest book is Listen All You Bullets, a novel about resistance, and the human impulse to hope in the midst of violence and distortion. It’s also about the fragility of both the material world we live in and the myths our lives are built upon. He lives in Kelowna, BC, where he co-edits Ryga: A Journal of Provocations and teaches at Okanagan College