ATLANTIC STREET :ANDRE NARBONNE
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Andre Narbonne is a professor of English literature
at the University of Windsor. His short stories and poetry have been
published in a number of magazines including The Antigonish Review and
Sage of Consciousness. He has also won prizes in several Canadian writing
contests including the Cranberry Tree Press fiction contest and the
Claire Murray Fooshee poetry contest (offered by Dalhousie University,
Halifax, Nova Scotia). Atlantic Street has recently won
the third prize at the Writers Federation of Nova Scotia Atlantic
* * *
The warehouse where he
works exists at the bitter end of the sort of street most lottery winners
come from. It is a low, brick building once red, now black
on a crooked road where stray dogs range wolfishly in search of affection.
It is generally understood that anyone who leaves the street moves on
to better things. Most people stay.
Stan heard about the job from an uncle who heard about the job from
a man who looked like death. The uncle was in a tavern where he met
a retiring man, and since he was out of work at the time, he was prepared
to listen to the other mans life story provided he cut
it short. The uncle didnt believe the conversation would be much
use. There might be the hint of work at the end of it, but his last
job had been with the government making thirteen thirty-five an hour,
and hed be damned if he was going to take on a meaningless job
Some forty-seven years I worked there, said the man whose
skin was a ghastly pallor and seemed riveted to his face by a couple
of pockmarks. His eyes were sunk in deep sockets and his cheekbones
protruded so that his face had the lifeless appearance of a skull. Everything
that moved by night came through me.
You were a clerk, said the uncle, and the
other waved a bony hand and said: Titles. Titles dont mean
Yes I was a clerk, but I didnt just fill
out forms. When I started during the war, the shop was in a state of
madness. Id guess every useless trinket in Europe must have been
packed in crates and shipped to us for posterity. The building was loaded
like a cannon you couldnt even open the bathroom door.
Chaos! Absolute chaos! Is there anything more frightening than
And me, well, Id just dropped out of high
school. I was only a kid when I organized the warehouse on Atlantic
Street made everything accessible. If you think about it, I gave
that job the only decent thing a man can give to this world. I created
order, plain and simple, he said magnificently. Then, in a suddenly
meditative tone he added, Every day since has been a struggle
to maintain it. Forty-seven years I worked in that place. Gave it my
Whats it pay? Minimum wage? the uncle inquired, but
he didnt care. He wore the expression most men wear when it appears
they intend great evil but in truth have no clear plans. He wore an
expression of boredom.
The other stuck out his hollow chest and said, For
a new guy? Maybe a dollar or two more. Its serious work.
Nope. Dont want it, said the uncle with emphasis,
then he brightened. Still, its good to know that its
Weve got a nephew living at our house. Hes
looking to make money for school, but if he finds a half-decent job
he might just move out and forget about school altogether which would
suit me fine. Ive been pushing him in that direction from the
start. Hes not my kid, you see, but he doesnt have parents.
Were all hes got.
And thats the real difference between the people here and
those bastards from Upper Canada, said the uncle with a sudden
flush of patriotism. Our sense of responsibility of family.
And the other made an expression that might have been a smile or some
other form of agreement.
A Monday grey and wet...
Stan stood in the warehouse surrounded by wooden boxes
that reached the ceiling at points; and he was small, a gangly, pimple-faced
boy of seventeen. He held the sum of his experience in his fumbling
hands: a double-spaced, single page resume. On it were typed the addresses
of the nearest public and high schools, a hobby (reading), a future
ambition that sounded sensible (to be somebody), and, under references,
the names and numbers of two uncles and an aunt. For good measure, an
uncle had written a letter of recommendation:
Please accept my nephew, Stan, for the clerks position I just
heard about. Hes been living with us because he has no parents.
We hope he will get this job. In fact, weve been pushing him in
that direction all along. His parents were in a horrible accident a
year ago so we hope youll be sympathetic. There were no survivors
in either car, but I dont think they were drunk.
Stan never gets into trouble and weve never caught
him stealing. We hardly notice him at all. You will find him to be extremely
eager to take the job.
Stan had arrived at the warehouse in a state of nervous terror. Hed
dressed in his best sweater, and he carried the two, thin pages he felt
to be damningly insufficient. All he felt was pain. He was young, and
inexperienced, but not so immature that he could not read the blind
insensitivity of his uncles letter.
Now he looked at it again. What had Mr. Millen seen in it? In the receiving
office of We Store It, Stan had handed over his meager history with
a trembling hand. Mr. Millen, a thin, towering man beneath an umbrella
of wavy, black hair, read the pages absently. He looked at Stan with
the emotionless gaze of an entomologist looking at an unspectacular
bug, and Stan smiled eagerly. Mr. Millen read the pages again without
Stan looked at the enormous stacks that hemmed him in while he puzzled
over his good fortune. Hed been granted the job. He might have
felt grateful, but the letter from his uncle wouldnt let him be.
It was true. All true. And he was perceptive enough to know what it
meant. He counted crates like sheep until he wept.
Stan Illychs job involved menial labour with no hope of promotion,
and therefore it had no dental plan.
The new clerk learned all the ins and outs of his job
in a day easily mastering the complexities that were to challenge
him for the duration of his employment. And the owner of We Store It
repaid Stan handsomely after two months with a fifty cent an hour raise
to thoroughly dissuade him from returning to school. A year later, Mr.
Millen gave him thirty-five cents, and the next year twenty. Every raise
was taken as a mark of recognition something he had been denied
during his stay with his uncle. Stan bathed himself in the happy conceit
of a man who makes no excuses for himself, but feels he deserves what
he gets, however unrewarding. Hed made friends with the drivers
who passed through the shop delivering and removing crates. They found
Stan to be very agreeable, polite and helpful an honorary brother
in predicament. Even the ones who could not appreciate Stans skill
at organization admired him for the way hed listen to their stories
without bothering to invent any of his own.
A man would travel five hundred miles, struggling just to stay awake
with nothing but a cargo of mattresses for company, and arrive at the
warehouse in dire need of a recording angel, some divine biographer
to make his life real: not that the conversations were much use. The
drivers returning from the road were like empty-handed pearl divers
breaking the surface after too long without a breath. They talked rapidly,
desperately, gasping for plots to liberate them from the monotonous
futility of their journeys (and their arrivals). They could not help
but respect Stan. He would listen attentively, never diluting their
accounts with his own perspective, so afraid was he of the sound of
his own voice. Stans new friends were men and he judged himself
to be a man by association. He was self-sufficient, the poor mans
substitute for success. Stan rented a bachelor which, because of its
size, had the advantage of not needing more than a second-hand table,
a second-hand dresser, and a second-hand bed to completely fill it.
It looked cozy. Stan adopted an adult interest in the world. When there
were elections he voted, and he felt his maturity confirmed by the fact
that his candidates always won.
He had bartered his freedom for immediate independence. Was it worth
it? Stan had at least as much as many. Somebody would find something
The day the bird came into the shop was a day too cold for life. Outside,
the grey attached itself to trees like leaves on shivering limbs. And
it was a summer bird that popped into the shop then blasted about like
a rocket while Stan gaped open-mouthed with wonderment at the grandeur
and confusion of nature. Stan never saw the bird again after that day,
but it remained his secret companion in the shop, as invisible as God.
The reason Stan lost sight of the bird was because it was dead. It had
crushed its skull coming to an understanding abruptly, decisively, with
one of the limitations of its confinement. One of the drivers spotted
it in a corner and tossed it into a trash bin with the stenciled words,
METLE ONLY. Still Stan heard the birds carefree chirping when
the wind blew and the building creaked, when the rusty hinges on a door
moved, when someone, exhausted, leaned against a crate. In time he realized
that the bird had built a nest somewhere in the warehouse. It must have.
Stans happy romance with the dead bird helped him to overcome
his suspicions about the lack of meaning in his life. It made him feel
that he was a part of something larger and he felt important by association.
Anyway, his job provided him with security. Wasnt that meaningful
in itself? Even if it wasnt a glamorous position he held, Stan
had cheated unemployment, and unemployment enslaves just as ignorance
does only the neighbours are more likely to notice, so unemployment
That was a lesson he had learned from an uncle. Stan had been convinced
not to pursue his education further because his strength was, regrettably,
in English and it had no future beyond minimum wage. We Store It, on
the other hand, was serious work. Stans own conclusion was this:
the ways of the world were wise and therefore unpredictable, but if
a man carefully structured his life in the same way that Stan routinely
structured the warehouse, nothing could touch him.
And so the clerk stood in his brick building with his confidence and
his clipboard, knowing that he could face anything and that surely anything
must happen; it was just a matter of time. He waited, expectantly, like
a groom on his honeymoon. And he waited like a lion. He waited, and
he waited, and he waited. Each passing day numbing his imagination,
his shadow growing crooked, still he waits...like a miser for something
worthy of his wealth.
Authors note: Atlantic Street is
not autobiographical in the conventional sense although it is based
on the authors experience during his first career as an engineer,
where he sketched an outline of Atlantic Street while working
in a solitary, 12-hour nightshift in a Dartmouth Nova Scotia oil refinery.
The narrative is a reworking of Tolstoys The Death of Ivan Illych
by the author.
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