So You Think You Can Write: The Knife
24 Feb 2012 · by Brennan Storr · Be the first to comment!
For the second assignment in the 2011 Times Colonist "So You Think You Can Write Contest" we had to tell the story of an item about which we have ambivalent feelings. This is largely the truth (groan) about an angry time in my life and how I came to possess a handmade knife:
The drawer to the left of my kitchen sink contains a bizarre inventory of items: there are Ziploc bags filled with wet naps, ancient elastic bands, and various foreign coins left over from vacations past.
At the very back is the centrepiece of my little collection: a homemade knife. The pockmarked blade was machined from industrial steel; the handle from plastic cutting boards. It’s worn and without practical use yet I’ve taken it with me every time I’ve moved, from house to apartment to house, for six years.
I keep the knife because even though it represents a miserable part of my life, it’s also a reminder of the lessons I learned from the man who gave me it to me and how his sadness helped me to let go of the anger that had come to define me.
My final year of high-school was torturous; I’d always been a promising student but in Grade 12 the creativity that had served me so well was suddenly less important than being able to repeat what was in the textbook. I became resentful of the people around me, who I came to regard as little more than organic tape recorders.
After graduation I stayed in my hometown of Revelstoke, a small community five hours west of Calgary, as a kind of idiot protest. I told myself that my menial job was a thousand times better than the alternative — university and vying for Gold Stars from pedants in tweed coats. I would preserve my self-respect by living outside “the system” and pursuing my muse.
Except I never did pursue my muse; I lacked discipline, never pursuing any goal loftier than getting falling-down-drunk on weekends. It helped to dull the rage I felt at my own laziness and at my peers for passing me by. So much for self respect, then, and so much for my “promise”.
To cover the costs of living The Lost Weekend I began taking extra work as a day labourer. In December ’05 I took a job unloading trucks on a route that would eventually wind its way south into the Okanagan. The money was good but I’d have to find my own way home — a 200km journey.
Since a bus ticket would have eaten heavily into my day’s wages I decided to stick my thumb out and see what happened. I had never hitchhiked before but the $50 I’d save was good for at least 9 pints of inner peace come Friday night.
Winter’s premature dusk had settled over the highway by the time I set out for home. My first ride came quickly, a maroon Crown Vic driven by an elderly man who said only two words after hello. Those words, said 40 minutes later after dropping me off at a wooded crossroads near nowhere in particular, were “God bless.”
The moon, so bright before, had hidden behind clouds and the only light came from a single streetlamp by the side of the road.
Since it had been a mild December all I’d brought for warmth was a thin pair of work gloves that were of no use when the blizzard set in. For hours I shivered under falling snow next to an empty highway. Anyone who hasn’t lived in the mountains can never know the seeping chill that sets into the deepest places inside of you and how, in the silence, you become able to hear the Wendigo panting in hunger just beyond the treeline.
A rusted white pickup truck slammed to a halt next to me, jolting me from sleep I didn’t know I was having. The driver, who looked to be in his mid-30s, with a beer gut, and a thick horseshoe moustache, threw open the passenger-side door. He took one look at my frozen, snow-covered frame and told me to get in. I didn’t argue.
He introduced himself as Len, a 38-year-old labourer headed east in search of work. Originally from Ontario, Len said he had been a promising craftsman who split town after graduation — what he called “the dog and pony show” — and headed west. Between sentences he sipped from a can of Pacific Pilsner that he had pulled from underneath his seat. Finished cans went back underneath the seat, always to be replaced with a fresh one.
The plan, he said, had been to open his own machine shop but as the years slipped by all he got around to opening were cans like those around his feet. He laughed a little at that, a dry bark with no humour in it, and looked away out his window. His voice was thicker when he started speaking again, this time about how the little work that was available to a craftsman with no craft had dried up like the flow of correspondence from his family back home. He didn’t speak again for an hour.
Len insisted on driving me to my door. As we were saying goodbye he asked if I had anything to protect myself with on future hitching trips. Given how the first had gone, I said, I didn’t know there would be any more. He smiled then, the first real smile I’d seen on him, and reached again under the seat. This time he came back up with the knife I now know so well. Len said it was the first thing he had ever made, the project that had inspired him to think there was something bright ahead of him.
“Take it,” he said. “Just in case you decide to try again.”
Since then that's just what I’ve done — put down the booze, pick myself up and try again. I’ve done it because every time I look at that knife I remember the pride in its maker’s eyes as he talked about it, the sadness when he talked about everything else and the cold, lonely road walked by the angry and the prideful.
Wherever Len ended up I hope he did the same.