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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 Writing Contest”.

* * *

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 man’s life story – provided he cut it short. The uncle didn’t 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 he’d be damned if he was going to take on a meaningless job after that.

“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 don’t mean a thing.

“Yes I was a clerk, but I didn’t just fill out forms. When I started during the war, the shop was in a state of madness. I’d 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 couldn’t even open the bathroom door.”

“Chaos! Absolute chaos! Is there anything more frightening than that?”

“And me, well, I’d 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 goddamned life.”

“What’s it pay? Minimum wage?” the uncle inquired, but he didn’t 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. It’s serious work.”

“Nope. Don’t want it,” said the uncle with emphasis, then he brightened. “Still, it’s good to know that it’s available.

“We’ve got a nephew living at our house. He’s 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. I’ve been pushing him in that direction from the start. He’s not my kid, you see, but he doesn’t have parents. We’re all he’s got.”

“And that’s 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 clerk’s position I just heard about. He’s been living with us because he has no parents. We hope he will get this job. In fact, we’ve been pushing him in that direction all along. His parents were in a horrible accident a year ago so we hope you’ll be sympathetic. There were no survivors in either car, but I don’t think they were drunk.

Stan never gets into trouble and we’ve 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. He’d 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 uncle’s 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 comment.

Stan looked at the enormous stacks that hemmed him in while he puzzled over his good fortune. He’d been granted the job. He might have felt grateful, but the letter from his uncle wouldn’t 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 Illych’s 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. He’d 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 Stan’s skill at organization admired him for the way he’d 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. Stan’s new friends were men and he judged himself to be a man by association. He was self-sufficient, the poor man’s 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 in that.

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 bird’s 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. Stan’s 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. Wasn’t that meaningful in itself? Even if it wasn’t 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 is worse.

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. Stan’s 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.


Author’s note: “Atlantic Street” is not autobiographical in the conventional sense although it is based on the author’s 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 Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Illych by the author.

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