Article Category Archives: Fiction

A Nice Pair of Stilettos

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Fifteen years ago, my first job—real job, not babysitting. A shift at John’s Steak Place.

“Keep the tray in one hand. Make it effortless. And you’ll need new shoes.”

The shoes, black and worn, chunky in the heel. Sturdy enough to get me to high school and back. And Deb, the woman giving orders, dark hair fading to grey, permed to loose curl, early wrinkles around the eyes and a lingering smell of menthols buried in her skin.

“You’ll make enough in tips tonight. Get a nice pair of stilettos, used if you have to. I expect them next shift.”

The tray didn’t balance, wouldn’t balance. My right hand constantly darting out to steady gin and tonic, rum and coke, plates of Caesar salad and dry ribs, whatever soup was on special. The next night, new shoes made it worse, ankle twisting left and right, Achilles taken to the limit, trying not to show my weakness while Deb laughed and walked in heels like she was born in them, confident, steady, like a swan on a lake.

It took two weeks to get it right, my wrist tight, aching with new use. Fingers strong enough now to hold back the hands of my grabby boyfriend, twisting his arm away, driving ‘no’ home.

I dumped him. Like the tray. Five times in the first week.


You only get stronger, better, the longer you do it. Deb was a riot. Friendly. She never gave me any pointers after the first week, just little winks when she saw me watching, listening, admiring. They ate out of her palm. New customers, regulars, the repeats. The smile, free hand on jutting hip to playfully scold a customer. Men loved her because of that smile, that laugh. Women liked her because she was caring, inquiring, but never at the wrong time, never when they had a mouth full of food. Even John liked her. And she didn’t seem to mind him. At any rate, she never let John get to her.

The restaurant had been John’s for twenty years. He was fat, getting fatter. Stingy, getting stingier. Never slapped our asses though. New girls would start and rave about their luck. Worth tipping out, they said.

Once I started at John’s, I didn’t leave. I liked Deb, liked the food, liked the location near my house. Liked the checkered white and black floor, the fake-gold gilded mirrors on the walls and the plethora of plants. I loved being able to sleep in, to get ready for work only after I was over my hangover. I liked staying late with the staff, having a few drinks at our own private bar after close.

About a year in, I dropped a tray, first one in months. John pointed at me with his that’s-coming-out-of-your-paycheck finger. Deb slipped me her twenty-dollar tip from table three.

After we closed up that night, Deb and I were cashing out with rum and cokes, a plate of poutine set between us, stilettos on top of the bar, shining under the lights.

“You’re young,” she said.

I shrugged, letting shoulders do the talking.

“You could do better.”

“I like restaurants.”

“Didn’t say you couldn’t. But you have time. Think about aiming high.” She nodded at the shoes, laughed, took a break to refill her glass. “You can be bossed around your entire life, or you can become the boss. You really want to spend your life like I have, flirting with men you couldn’t give two cracked glasses about?”

I didn’t answer, just counted out the bills. Counted my tips. Waved them in Deb’s face. “Cash in my pocket. That’s what I like.”

“Just pay attention to the small things,” Deb said. “That’s all I’m saying.”


Oil painting showing two red, high-heeled shoes

Ruby’s Shoes by Lisa-Maj Roos


Not long after that, Deb started dropping trays, first one, then another. I’d never seen Deb drop a tray. Found her in the washroom with wet eyes. Red cheeks.

She’d had a diagnosis.

“You’ll get through this. If you drop a tray you pick it—” I started.

“Don’t give me bullshit. What the fuck am I supposed to do if I can’t do this job? You see what I was telling you. I got nothing other than this job. Nothing easier. You go to secretary school, at least you get to sit down once in a while. You become a teacher, you get the summers off. You go to business school, you can run the fucking world. That’s what I should have done. My smile could have ruled the world.”

She was right. Everyone at the restaurant did what she asked. And she never asked twice. Even stingy John was convinced to put on a large party for the staff every holiday—not just Christmas.

But the slipping started, didn’t stop. Deb’s hands shook, sometimes they’d go numb. I offered to carry her trays for her, but then she’d feel bad and slide me some tips under the table.

The only thing I could think to do was reinvest that money. Like Deb said, I had begun paying attention. One night, when I wasn’t feeling up to smiling, a man asked me, “What do I have to tip for a smile?”

Another day, when my good skirts were in the wash and I was wearing one just a little shorter than usual, I stood taking an order and felt a fork slide up my leg from behind. The guys seated at table three just laughed. Deb took over serving them. I kept hoping she’d drop their drinks, tip the spaghetti onto one of their shirts. But she was too great a waitress for that, even with her illness.

Then one day she wasn’t. She did drop the spaghetti. She fell and couldn’t get up. And I wasn’t even there to help her. By the time I came in, she was gone.

Just gone.

“It was a mess,” John said. “A fucking mess.”

I’d never been to Deb’s house before. Had to get her address from John’s filing cabinet when he wasn’t looking.

“I’ll get disability,” she said. “I’ll be alright.”

She lived in a tiny little bungalow. Two small windows in the front, a neat but plain lawn around it.

“You have someone here with you?” I didn’t remember her talking about anyone, was sure she didn’t have anyone.

“There’s Rob. He’s not great, but he’s here for me. We split for a bit. Got back together and at least I have his guilt now. And you’re here. Tell me it’s because you want to know more about my great plans for you.” She smiled and slowly fixed us some tea. She was shaking but she still had the smile and the charm. I couldn’t say no.


My fifth job, maybe my last one. A picture of Deb on my desk. Everyone asks if that’s my mom. I don’t tell them who she is. How do I explain? Can you explain in a few words the person who shaped your life, who made you grow beyond the bounds you thought you were given? Even if I could, I’d choke up. Too hard, talking about her to strangers now that she’s gone. Too easy to miss her gentle push.

I kept on at John’s for a while. Became his favourite waitress. Whenever a new girl would mess up, a tray would drop, I’d think, Deb would have straightened her out. Taught her to balance the weight. Instead, I did it.

Whenever John got that pinched face, the permanent scowl, I’d mention something about Deb’s laugh. She never came back. She never could. And of course John never said anything about missing her. But the whole place did. The mirrors less golden, the plants less green. A good business owner would have seen it, but John was just in and out, push push push. He didn’t even see me heading out the door, didn’t see me angling toward something better.

The other girls all said, “Good for you. I could never do that. How do you work and go to school?”

“Did you ever meet Deb?” I’d ask them. Make it effortless. Buy the shoes. No one likes the shoes, but they teach a good lesson. They show you that you can walk on a bed of nails, you can work through discomfort, you can put up with bullshit and turn it around. If you can work an eight hour shift in high heels, you can do anything. Just like the tray. If you get the balance right, there’s no limit to the load you can carry. You can hold the whole world on the tip of your fingers. It takes practice but, eventually, you’ll get it right. Eventually, you might even defy gravity.

Food Fights

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Bring Your Kid to Work Day and my Eighth Grader wanted to come to the cake factory with me. You can’t have kids on the plant floor when we are in operation, and to tell you the truth I didn’t want her to see me with a hairnet and scrubs on, sorting cupcakes into colours. We make sure the cakes go into the packages blue, pink, then yellow. It’s not exactly what I want her doing when she grows up. You stand on your feet the entire day, doing the same thing over and over while listening to the supervisor moaning how the line didn’t make its quotas. Halley thinks the plant is all Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but she’d think different if she’d stood for a shift smoothing chocolate icing onto cream eclairs one by one.

Best I could do for Take Your Kid day was buy a box of ‘seconds’ cakes from the factory store for Halley’s class and send her to my friend Norma’s café for the day. She wiped the tables down and folded napkins and drank so many milkshakes she couldn’t eat dinner.

Halley would probably hate this place anyway. That heavy, floury sweetness and the hissing of the machines and the hairnet elastic itching your neck. Plus, she’s a real social kid. We work in teams on the lines, but we’re spread out and can’t talk to each other. We’ll use hand signals if we’ve got a problem—like we need the machine slowed. You gotta concentrate super hard on what you’re doing. People think industrial food production is all automated lines and robots, but they still need workers. Women have nifty fingers, so my line is women except for Rob, who pours the icing into the spreader.

Even though we stand apart on the factory floor, we are a good team. We’ll pick up the slack for someone who’s not at their best. I can tell if a girl’s tired by how she holds her hands over the cakes on the conveyor belt. Sure and quick if she slept well, shaky and slow if the baby cried the whole night. There’s a way a woman’s belly settles into her hips when she’s been on her feet for six or seven hours that means she’s feeling it in her back. We know when one of the Bangladeshi girls gets bad news from home, too. Somehow the others tilt towards her, even though they’re spaced out eight feet.

I’d like Halley to meet the girls here one day. She’d get a kick out of them—we’ve got some characters. Tammy and Paula use body language a lot. Tammy is top of the line and Paula right at the end. Their relationship is rocky. If they’re fighting, they’ll sit at the table at lunch, elbows propped, and slant their heads together rigid as an A-frame, chowing down on their food like they’re tearing into each other’s throats. When everything’s good, they sit relaxed on opposite sides of the table and tease each other. Once they were having a tiff and Tammy turned up the production speed of the cakes bit by bit through the shift. Eventually cakes were piling up at Paula’s section and she’s flailing around all panicky, trying to work out why she can’t keep up. Wicked, that Tammy. That’s as bold as it gets for pranks on the line though. No one wants to lose their job.

installation art showing colorful cake

On the Table (Dainties) by Aralia Maxwell


Then there’s tiny Joyce, mid-line and constantly glancing up and down it, checking, checking. I swear she knows the cake colours without looking down. She adjusts the machines and supervises the line. Been doing this for 35 years. Back in the day this was a hard place to work, according to her. No daylight or fresh air circulation, and the noise of the machinery was incredible. I guess we’re lucky to have big windows now. It’s bright and we don’t have to wear ear protection. There’s an outdoor relaxation area. The cafeteria’s clean and warm.

Joyce sticks up for her line. The Line Manager carped on about hairpins and earrings that Quality Control found dropped into the packages and glared at the Bangladeshis with their beautiful long hair. Joyce gathered up her five-foot-nothing and said management should get better hair coverings then. After, she reminded the ladies on the qt to leave their pretty jewellery at home. All the rest of us have short hair. I’ve been a single mom for eight years, no time for anything fancy. Halley could make it in management. She bosses me like crazy. Us line workers are literally the end of the line in the pecking order. Head Office issues orders and sends them to the Regional Directors, who push them on to the Line Managers, and they dump them on the Supervisors, who squeeze us line workers like toothpaste out of a tube.

Joyce may be a softy with her team, but she and her hubby go hammer and tongs. He’s retired. Joyce has two years left. They’re saving for a trailer in Florida. Joyce decided Jeff could make her lunch sandwiches every day since she did it for him for forty years. You can tell how they are getting along by the sandwiches he packs for her, and what she buys for him from the Seconds Shop. Most of us don’t eat what we buy at the shop—you lose the taste for sugar here—but it’s a big perk of the job. They sell anything slightly damaged or not quite up to standard at a deep discount. I get cakes, buns, tarts, all kinds of good stuff, for practically nothing for my mom and my friends. Jeff loves the sweets. The bigger he gets from eating them, the smaller he likes his treats. It used to be chocolate rolls and pound cake, but now he goes for those fancy little squares covered in ganache, and lately he’s been crazy about mini cherry tarts with whipped cream dabbed on top. But Joyce hasn’t bought him any for a bit on account of The Sandwich Wars.

At first, Jeff made Joyce these fantastic sandwiches. Thick whole wheat bread with layers of cold cuts and cheese, garnishes of pickles, and the best mayonnaise. We were all jealous. But then they had a big set-to. The next day it was an egg salad sandwich, the day after that bologna without ketchup. When she got a lobster roll one day, we joked that she got makeup sandwiches instead of makeup sex, but the next day she pulled a slice of Kraft cheese out of two pieces of thin white bread. Not good. Last Monday she opened her sandwich container, pulled apart the floppy bread slices, rocked back on her chair and laughed.

“What? What’d he put in it?” we asked.

“That’s what’s so funny. Nothing,” Joyce said.


She opened the sandwich in her neat little hands like a book. It was just two pieces of plain bread that looked like they’d been sucker-punched. Joyce slammed them down on the table and set off for the cafeteria line. She bought herself fish and chips and scarfed them, scowling the entire time. Storm brewing for sure.

Tuesday, she went to the Seconds Store at lunchtime and bought a tray of the cherry tarts Jeff loves. I watched her cut away the cellophane window of the box. It had a tear in it, that’s why the box was in Seconds.

“Made up with Jeff, did ya?”


Something was up. Joyce carefully scooped the whipped cream off the top of each tart with a spoon and put it on a plate. Next, she took a spray can out of her bag and started reapplying cream on top of the cherry filling, so the tarts looked just like they did before. By this time, she had an audience standing around our table. Tammy and Paula were A for Anger, peering over Joyce’s shoulder. Other line workers started gathering to see what was going on. The Bangladeshis were whispering together with their hands over their mouths, and even Rob wandered over. Things were edgy, like a union meeting.

“I don’t get it, Joyce. Why are you taking the cream off and putting it back on? Don’t make no sense.”

She handed me the can and squinted up at me fit to burst while I read the label. It was men’s shaving cream. Next thing I knew, Tammy lunged right over the table, snatched the can from me, and sprayed it over Paula. Joyce burst out laughing like a steam release on the sealer machine, and suddenly it was complete chaos. Shaving cream schooshing, screams and giggles and the whole cafeteria tizzy with silliness while Jeff’s precious little cherry tarts sat still and red and perfect on the cafeteria table.

Maybe Halley should work here in the summers when she’s older. She’d learn a thing or two.

A Feast to Die For

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Today, Amarjit was making Hardev’s favorite dishes. She wanted to make them perfect. She would prepare his favorites, masalah chicken with red and green peppers, lamb kebabs with yoghurt and mint, moong dhal, Aloo Gobi, rotis, and for dessert, she would spoil him with gulab jamuns. Peace offering.

Amarjit sautéed the onions, garlic, and ginger in the hissing oil in the frying pan. She looked at the washed pieces of chicken in the sinkah, the henand recalled her reaction at the butcher shop when the young man said, “Very good choice. Fresh young hen!” Amarjit started at the description. That was what Amro, her mother-in-law, had said about her all those years ago: “Just like a fresh young hen,” and cackled, showing her betel-stained lips.

Amarjit vividly remembered that rainy December in her village in Punjab. Barely sixteen, she was making chai for her father when the lazy afternoon was disrupted by the arrival of the foreigners from Canada. She heard her name lovingly called out by her father. With her dupatta covering her head, she barely raised her eyes to catch a glimpse of the smiling face of Amro and the leering look of the man, ten years older than Amarjit, that she was destined to marry. Just like that, her voiceless fate was sealed in the arranged marriage proposal. Those were her last days in Punjab before she became the wife of the rich Canadian wallah, Hardev.

“Lucky,” everyone in the bleak village had whispered, their eyes flashing with envy. “Going to Canada!”

Now Amarjit brushed her tears, still bitter, with the back of her hand and turned her attention to tossing the perfect proportion of pungent spices into the masalah chicken.

Twelve noon. Hardev banged the door open and thundered in, sitting down at the dining table, looking older than his sixty years. She noticed his deep wrinkles and bushy brows. With bulging but approving eyes, he surveyed the food she had slaved over all morning. Hardev piled his plate and noisily began shoving his mouth with pieces of roti wrapped around chicken, pausing to bite into the lamb kebabs. He noisily slurped the dhal from the bowl, scooped the cauliflower and potatoes with his fingers. A beast.


Illustration of a woman holding a tray of food

Food Plate by Ildiko Nova


Amarjit never ate with him. He complained she was too noisy. He complained she was eating too much. He complained she was eating too little. She just sat across from him and watched like a sentinel, noting each approval and recoiling at any dissatisfaction. Sitting back, Hardev pushed his plate away and said, “I knew that when I saw you in your father’s kitchen all those years ago, it was a good omen. You must have learned to cook from the gods.”

Amarjit could hardly believe her ears. Praises. Hurriedly, she waddled into the kitchen and brought out a big bowl of warm, fragrant gulab jamuns. His eyes widened in appreciation. He knew that she had been too busy all morning to have gotten into any mischief. “Acha. Wonderful,” he spat out. She glowed. This one day of praise was akin to months of bliss. Hardev washed his hands and left. No goodbye. No word.

With a sigh of relief, Amarjit cleaned up the mess, humming a Hindi movie tune. She silently savored Hardev’s praises. Thankful that the thali did not fly at her in unprovoked anger. No bitter words slammed into her gullet. Now, she looked forward to solitary bliss. First, she relaxed in the prayer room and chanted the beautiful scriptures from the Adi Granth that transported her to her father’s house where she sat at his feet as they prayed together. Then, she sang a hymn on her waja, turning her head towards heaven, forgetting her worldly sorrows.

Suddenly, the peaceful afternoon was shattered by the angry shrill of the telephone. Amarjit grabbed the receiver. For a few brief moments, it appeared that Amarjit had frozen into time itself. Her face drew a blank look, and her mouth kept gaping. There was not a single sound from her. When she put the phone down, she hung her head for a brief moment. Then she ambled into the kitchen.

She went to the leftover ball of atta and turned on the flame to heat up the pan. She slapped the atta between two palms and doused it in flour. She put it on the counter and deftly rolled it out to the size of a dessert plate. Again, she gingerly lifted the flattened roti and tossed it from one palm to the other before placing it on the hot black pan.

Amarjit watched as the brown spots emerged on the outer side, and she flipped it over as it puffed. With a dishcloth, she pressed the outermost sides of the roti, making sure all parts were nicely browned. She tossed the perfectly speckled roti onto her thali. She reached out for her homemade jar of mango achar on the counter and heaped an overflowing tablespoon onto the compartment next to her roti. Then, she opened the fridge door and took out the leftover bowl of fragrant chole and homemade creamy dhai that she had made the day before. Hardev had refused to have any because she had not made chicken to go with it; he had stormed out, as usual.

She never cared for the fancy food that Hardev craved and insisted that she cookall that never-ending preparation. Amarjit loved the simplicity of her village food: roti, chole, dhai, and achar. Divine. For the first time since she had arrived in Canada, Amarjit ate with gusto in Hardev’s house, their house. She savored every bite as if it were her first. Only when she had satiated her hunger did she finally allow herself to think about the phone call from the emergency room of the hospital barely ten minutes away. The caller told her that Hardev had collapsed in the parking lot of the shopping center. The voice on the other side of the phone whispered, “I’m sorry. It was a heart attack. Just like that. He died immediately. He did not suffer.” Could she please come down to the hospital and make the necessary arrangements?

With a deeply drawn sigh, she put on her sandals and decided to take a slow and leisurely walk to the hospital. She wondered if she would miss cooking.

This Day

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We have a mouse in the house this morning. It found the bread I’d left out to thaw for the boys’ toast. Spring is a strange time of year to be invaded by mice. Maybe her food source ran out. Maybe she has a litter. Too bad. I take some butter and smear it on the trap. This is a day for killing. The mouse may as well go too.

I wonder how many laboratory mice are dying in the fight against COVID-19. Hundreds, if not millions, I guess. Not to mention the ferrets, and cats and chickens and maybe a dog or two. At least they are dying for a purpose.

Ian comes in for breakfast as I’m hiding the trap behind the stove. Levi is with him of course. He follows his father everywhere—to the barn to help with the pigs, to the shed, to the fields. I keep telling him he has do well in school if he wants to be a farmer some day. He tells me he just has to watch Dad.

I send Levi back to wash his hands again and I look at Ian. “Not today,” I tell my husband.

He doesn’t look at me, just sits down, reaches for the milk and pours it onto his oatmeal. “He has to learn some day. It’s not like he hasn’t seen it before.”

“Levi’s only nine. He’s staying in the house. It’ll be hard enough without having him watching.”

“It doesn’t matter who’s watching. Anyway, he can help.”

“Don’t be like this.”

No reply. Just the sound of the spoon scraping the empty bowl.

Of course, the fight doesn’t change anything. We raise pigs. Right now, there’s no place for them to go. There’s no place for them to stay even if we had the money to feed them. There’s no relief in sight. There’s only one humane answer.

My cousin’s son is a chemical researcher in the US. He had to scale back his mouse colony because his students are not allowed to come to the lab. Scale back. That’s a nice term. We’ve all had to scale back at one time or another, haven’t we? Nothing to get upset about. Maybe that’s what I’ll call it.

Breakfast is over. Ian tells Brian to put down his phone and get going. He tells Levi to stay in the house. I try to thank him with my eyes, but he’s not looking at me.

As the three of us walk to the barn, I wonder what my older son is thinking. I wonder what my husband is thinking. I wonder what I’m supposed to be thinking right now.


photograph showing a rustic, barn door looking out to a field

My View for the Afternoon by Anne Macleod Weeks


According to our On-Farm Written Euthanasia plan, veterinary approved and meeting all the requirements of our national standards of care, we humanely euthanize very young pigs using blunt trauma. In other words, we pick them up by their hind legs and crack their heads against the edge of the concrete pen. It takes force and determination to do it right, but it’s quick. When an animal is sick or suffering, it’s only right.

Today is not right. That’s what I’m thinking.

“How can you?” they ask. My non-farming friends, the students in my grade 11 class, the anonymous voices on Facebook and Instagram where I share information about our farm, trying to educate the consumer as we’ve been told to do by the experts. Sometimes the question comes from genuine curiosity. More often it’s from horror and disgust. “How can you kill those creatures you are charged with protecting?”

I used to try and explain that farmers accept death as a part of life. That we believe the animals have a purpose and are there to be used. That there’s tremendous satisfaction in knowing you’ve given your animals the best care possible and in knowing they are going to feed others. Now I just say lots of animals eat other animals and we take pride in making sure our pigs are well looked after. Neither answer seems to make much difference.

The warmth hits me as I walk into the barn. Quickly we change into our coveralls and boots and pull on our facemasks. Then we head down the hall to the nursery.

Brian is lagging behind a bit. He’s fourteen. So far, he’s been all bravado about this. I wonder if it’s starting to sink in. “You doing okay?” I call back.

“What? Yes.” He catches up. He’s grown again and his coveralls are short. I tell myself to pick him up some new ones the next time I’m in town.

Brian wants to take over the farm someday. He’ll need to learn many things. About animal care. About business. About running machinery and leading people and whether to plant today or hope the rain holds off so the field can dry just a little bit more.

And he’ll have to learn there are times when you are revolted or even terrified by what you will need to do. Times when, no matter how much you want to walk away, the voice in your head will remind you there’s no other choice and no one else is coming to help so you might as well get on with it. Times like now.

What will this day do to him, I wonder? To my husband? To husbands and children across the country, all who are in the very same situation? According to the rumours, tens of thousands of pigs will be destroyed. Pigs that were raised for a purpose, but in the end had none. We are at the door now. I look over my shoulder to see if Ian is ready. He nods. His face is hidden by the mask but I can see his eyes. He looks tired. No. For the first time, he looks old.

I reach for the door handle. From the other side, I can hear soft grunts and movement of the pigs. There’s a tiny squeal. My hand drops. I start to shake. I clench my hands and close my eyes. Through the roaring in my ears, I hear Ian. “Are you okay?”

“Give me a minute.” I reach for air.

“I’ll do it. You go back to the house.” His voice is brusque.

“Go ahead, Mom. Dad and I can handle it.”

My son sounds like his father. I look at him and see worry in his eyes. I will not. I will not make a day none of us will forget worse for my son or my husband. I will not make them doubt. We are looking after these animals in the best way we know how. We will not fail. I will not fail.

I make my eyes smile. “I’m fine.” I say. And I open the door.

Later, I head to the house while Ian and Brian finish cleaning up. I pull out the mousetrap and put it away. Just for her. Just for today.


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Their footsteps had disturbed the morning dew and left a long trail of dark green in the grass. I breathed in, exhaled slowly, and trudged up the hill following one of the wet paths. My inner voice echoed with every step. It was the sound of my mother: keep your head up, your back straight, careful of your words.

Years ago, unsuitable soil was dumped here during road construction and pipe excavations. This rolling hill was left wedged at a fork in the road between two streets, both named Beverly. Later, a few random trees were added, an afterthought, no doubt.

It was an unused parcel of land but that day the project team had gathered to kick off the “first of its kind” green infrastructure facility in our city. The team stood in two separate groups at the top of the hill: the field workers and the office folk. The groups had not yet met face-to-face, though introductions had been arranged through emails and phone calls. I was the lone female engineering designer on the team. For this project, I was also stepping into the role of construction inspector.

Stopping halfway up the hill, I took another deep breath. One of the land surveyors had laid out the project on the ground with white spray paint. I hopped over a white line, then another, to the group of my familiars: the office folk. We were the project administrators, designers, planners, and engineers. I nodded, offering friendly hellos. We made small talk about the weather and family. We listened politely to each other’s news. I answered questions from the engineer about the facility and we discussed its construction.

In the other group were the field workers: the land surveyors, machine operators, inspectors, and labourers. They didn’t seem to use birth-given names to talk amongst each other. New monikers had been appointed over time, likely through a slapstick event, shortening of a last name, or as a token of their skill. Their plaid jackets hung loosely over worn-out, orange t-shirts branded with big reflective Xs. Overstretched jeans partly covered their moulded, unlaced boots that were caked with old mud and splatters of oil.

At some point, Keith, the machine operator, broke off from the circle of field workers. He walked over and tapped my shoulder with the back of his meaty hand. A few guys from the field glanced my way.

“We have a few questions, too.” Keith said and he walked up the hill. I quickly followed at a pace that was double time to his natural stride.

“Well, over there, runoff from the road will flow off the pavement through the grass,” I said, catching my breath. “Then it will flow through a strip of rocks over there. Water that flows through the rocks will filter down through the engineered soil, about here.” I waved my hand over the land, stopping at the areas of importance and making circles in the air. I looked up to his face for clues that he understood. A full set of rolled design plans were tucked neatly in the pit of my arm. I held the heavy tube of paper tightly against my coat. Its length balanced my small frame.

“I’m used to laying pipe” he said, “now, I’m buildin’ gardens?”

“No, it’s not a garden, really. It’s an engineered bioretention facility. There will be pipes underneath.” I squished the grass with my shoes as I began to unroll the plans, firmly planting my heels in the ground. “It’s designed to filter…”

Keith walked away as I was showing him the design and casually joined back into his circle. My eyes squinted after him as if there were a glare from the lights of an oncoming car. I waited, watching to see if he would return. I was left frozen in no man’s land for what felt like several minutes. Winding up the plans, tighter than before, I snapped the elastics forcefully at each end to secure the roll. I walked back to my group with my blood simmering, replaying the scene over again in my head.

photo of bioretention area showing rock, trees, plants

Beverly Street Low Impact Development Area photo by Gail Willis

Conversations began to fade and the two circles dispersed. The office folk walked away, one by one, to their cars and waved good-bye. The field workers continued to linger on the street. One guy talked to another in a truck. A few workers gathered outside the excavator, and one had his foot raised, resting on its tracks. Some were leaning on shovels, while others organized tools. I walked alone down the hill towards my car. When I stepped off the grass onto the pavement, I was signalled by a raised arm and a backwards wave.

“How are these garden pipes gonna connect to this catch basin, here?” Keith shouted. He was standing on the street beside the surveyor and pointing at the metal grate in the road. Beaming, I made short quick strides in their direction.

“Under the layer of engineered soil, there will be a series of subdrains. Each length will connect to a monitoring well,” I said, glancing toward the hill. “Any water in the subdrains will flow towards the outlet pipe.” I paused and tapped my toe a few times on the grate. “And the outlet pipe will connect to this catch basin with a sixteen-inch pipe.”

“We’re gonna be taking out a lot of dirt then, eh?” Keith said. “Any idea how much?” Without waiting for an answer, both men turned and walked up the hill. In the distance, I heard the surveyor answer: “I’m guessing several truck loads.”

The guys started to dig before dawn on a Monday morning. I drove by their dump truck, already full of dirt, on my way to the site. My mind raced. I kicked off my shoes and stomped into heavy boots. I shrugged on an oversized plastic safety vest and fastened the Velcro straps around my waist. My hard hat perched loosely, a bright orange dome tightened to the last notch. I stuffed my calculator into my back pocket. With my arms full of equipment, I leaned forward up the hill. I forced the legs of the tripod into position in the ground, bouncing heavily on each leg. I plunked the “one-man operated” automatic digital laser level on top of the tripod. Marking the measuring rod with penciled lines, I checked the level against the benchmark and headed to the work area. I stood on the edge of the excavation.

“You should’ve been set up before we arrived!” Keith yelled, stopping the excavator. “If I was a contractor, you would’ve lost your job already!” All eyes fixed in my direction. My stomach turned. I hopped down into the trench. In a hurry, I flattened a spot in the dirt with my foot. My lips pursed in a thin line and I felt my cheeks flare red hot. Placing the rod on its end, I raised the metal sections of the ruler until the automatic level beeped.

“Keep digging, Keith,” I announced. The bottom elevation of this trench had to be precise for the facility to work.

“I don’t think so,” he said, staring intensely.

“You need to dig more, about twelve inches or so.” I matched his stare.

“Nope. Check again, did you set up the laser level right?”


But I immediately began to second guess myself. I reexamined the pencil marks on the rod, then grabbed the calculator from my back pocket. I punched in the numbers again to double check.

“307 millimetres. That’s roughly twelve inches. You gotta dig another foot,” I said. The area between my eyebrows tightened.

“Check the plans!” he yelled. “You want one of the guys to do the measuring?”

“I designed the facility, Keith. I know what the plans say!”

Keith shook his head and shut the door of the excavator. The machine roared back to life. The teeth of the bucket combed the earth, quickly and methodically, making a small pile. The bucket scooped the pile, curling under, and swung the sandy clay loam into the back of the dump truck. The other guys grabbed shovels and rakes to level and smooth out the hole. I checked again and signalled with a horizontal wave then a thumbs-up when just the right level was reached.

The work stopped at midday for lunch. The sun glared against the back of my sunburned neck as I dismantled the laser level from the tripod. I placed it neatly in its plastic briefcase before gulping down some water. I descended from the hill and sat in the grass under a tree near my car. Keith’s truck rolled up and stopped before me at the edge of Beverly Street.

“We’re goin’ for lunch,” he said, nodding in the direction of the guys sitting in the back. His arm hugged the outside of the truck door. “Come on, let’s go!”

“Ok,” I said, rising up and letting the warm air fill my lungs.

“You need a nickname,” he said, grinning. “What should it be guys?”

I walked over and joined their group.