For a few weeks now. Montréal has been suffering the effects of lingering polar air. Daytime temperatures on average a bitter -28°C (Google it up America). And I've limited leaving this drafty old apartment to the essentials. Intoxicants and groceries.
In an effort to forget the frigid world around me. I wander through time. To my ancestral stomping grounds. When I was a teenager. School was out for the summer. And I spent it working on the docks of a small Ontario fishing village.
I spend the months in a fishplant along the pier. Basically a warehouse. With sliding metal doors that open up onto the dock. Sunlight pouring through in the mornings. Fresh crisp air from Lake Eerie. The floors are always wet. And the stink of Yellow Perch becomes my own.
It's an easy job. Or at least I treat it that way. My main function. Simple. A fish tug pulls up to the dock. Cursing fishermen get the large grey totes
After that a man in a forklift. A slightly disabled cousin of my father's wife. Brings them over to my station. Where I have one empty tote. Another filled with ice. With the lift truck he dumps the fish into the empty one. While I feverishly shovel ice into it. Evening it out. Readying the little fuckers to be shipped up the lake for processing.
Sometimes. A grisled fisherman might hop off the boat. Swagger across the dock to where I'm working. Then stand and smoke. Watching me hustle to keep up with the falling fish. Laughing at my sweat. Then calls me a pussy or faggot. Flicks his butt on the ground at my feet. And hightails back to the tug before it leaves without him.
Strangely enough this is when I felt the most accepted.
Other than that. When boats weren't pulling in. Easy ride. People leave me alone. Not a whole lot to do. I sit a lot. Sneak out onto the dock to smoke cigarettes. Head to the bathroom and jerk off into the filthy toilet. Not what you call a model employee. But I do my bit.
One morning. I'm hiding on the dock. Smoking a cigarette in the shade of three empty fish totes stacked on top one another. Quiet solitude like the sound of the water lapping against the concrete pier.
Until I hear the boss calling. Breaking my reverie. Stevie, he yells out in his booming voice. Which even when speaking is enough to make me step back from him. Reluctantly I leave my hiding spot. Tossing my smoke in the water before he sees.
He's sitting atop an orange forklift. Like a general on a horse. And he asks me what I'm doing. I say I'm sweeping up. He eyes me suspiciously. Then before he can say anything else. I ask him what he was bellowing about. It does the trick. Oh Stevie, he says, have I got a job for you.
I don't like the sound of that. He commands me to grab a shovel. And jump up on the lift truck. But nothing I can do to get out of it. So I do as I'm asked. Climb up. Hold onto the roll cage. Hang on for my life as we race down the dock. Towards the end of the pier.
I wipe my forearm across my brow. Its not even first break. But the heat is unbearable. A nasty stretch of humidity. Gone on for days and nights. And it doesn't seem like it's going to break.
Had a little accident last night Stevie, my boss yells. Tote fell over in the back of a truck. Someone's gotta clean up all that fish. I turn my head from him. Stare off out passed the end of the harbour. Where the horizon and Lake Eerie meet. Dissolve into one another. The breeze in my hair. Thinking why me?
We drive up to end of the pier. Stop in front of a chain link fence. My boss passes me some keys. And asks me to unlock it. When I do he whizzes right past me. Towards three trailers unattached. Sitting in the hot morning sun. Big tin ovens. How nice.
Let's go Stevie. We ain't got all day. I look at him with uncertain eyes. Curse him in my head. And when I get close. He explains things to me. There's a long metal ramp. Antique I think. Pushed up against one of the trailers. The mess is in there, he tells me. I follow him up the slow incline. He undoes the latch. Swings the doors open like a ringmaster.
The smell of dead fish is thick and hot. Like a fog. And then comes the cloud of flies. We both step back. Fucking Christ, I say without thinking. And he asks me not to swear. My eyes are watering.
He says the fallen tote is near the back. That the pump truck in front of me is to pull the others out first. Walk them down the ramp. And then shovel all the rotten fish into an empty tote outside. Yeah sure. No problem.
He smiles at my docility. Turns to waddle away. And for a second his body odour overpowers the stink of dead fish cooking in the tractor trailer. Bravo.
He climbs back up on the forklift. Spins it around to leave. But before he peels off. He threatens he'll come back to see how I'm getting along. And he better not catch me smoking.
Yeah sure. No problem.
When he's out of sight. I pull my pack from my pocket. Light one. Stand in the open door inhaling. Staring through a stream of smoke at a cloudless blue sky. At perfection. Wondering how I got myself here.
Because it's hot as fuck. And I'm young. I have a lifetime to waste working. I should be at the beach. Swimming and chasing girls in bikinis. But here I am. With a shovel. Stinking like fish and it ain't even noon.
I finish my smoke. Flick the butt out into the empty lot I'm in the middle of. Well, I say to no one but the empty trailer and the fish and the hundreds of flies, I gotta start sometime. I grab a hold of the pump truck. Maneuver it under the first stack of totes. Jack the handle. And get to work.
The closer I get to the fallen tote. The harder my life becomes. All the ice is melted. And the floor is grooved metal. Wet. There's fish everywhere. They get stuck under the wheels of the pump truck. I push and pull and heave and grunt. Grinding the bodies to mush under the wheels.
I get all the totes out into the parking lot. Grab the shovel while lighting another smoke. It hangs from my lips as I trudge up the ramp to my future. Without the totes. I can see that the humidity inside has accelerated things. I notice movement in the mess. Maggots writhe.
I gag with every remaining shovelful .
But things are going as good as they can. I've shoveled about half of the rotten fish. The tote outside has attracted seagulls from up and down the shore. Squawking. Cawing. Laughing that awful cackle.
And then with a shovelful of shit. One wrong step. I slip. Fall backwards. Toss the shovel away from me. Land heavy on my right hip and elbow. A sharp pain runs up to my shoulder. But I barely notice it. More disturbing is the squish I hear as I land.
I sit up. The lower back of my shirt is wet. Sticks heavly to my flesh. I think of oatmeal. Or rice pudding. And without looking. I wipe it away with my bare hand. The texture alone makes me gag. I look down at my palm. The floor. I start dry heaving with violence.
Because the squish I heard. Was fish. Rotten with maggots. Swarming. And now they're all over my hand. While gagging I wipe it along the wall. Leave a smear. Wash up with ice from another tote. Then dry off on my shirt. Which this morning had been white. I sigh. While trying to flick off any remaining larva from my back.
I finish shoveling. Do the best job I can without a firehouse. Push all the totes back in. Then lock the chainlink fence behind me. I walk along the pier to the plant smoking. In through the sliding door. The boss asks me how it went. I tell him terrible and that I'm going home to change my shirt.
When I do. Instead of in the garbage. I toss it in the dirty laundry hamper. To be washed. To keep. And when I get it back. There's a wild stain where I fell on my hip. I wear it with pride. Because in my mind. A maggot stained t-shirt is punk as fuck.
 a commercial fish tote stands about waist height. durable plastic construction. the ones i am more accustomed with are grey. when i was a kid. we used to go to these family reunions on a farm in the middle of nowhere and there was one of these in garage full of beer.