Across from an old metalworking shop, on the other side of a rusty chain link fence, was a clump of apple trees that once belonged to an orchard. They were our secret trees. No roads led to them. No one knew they were there, other than a few foxes and feral cats. Nestled in an industrial neighbourhood that grew up all around them, they were the last survivors.
Eighty years ago this part of the city was farmland. When World War II came along, the government turned it into a military production zone, where factory workers made bombs and artillery shells. Most of the workers were women, because most of the men were gone. People wrote books about them. I guess they stuck this zone out in the middle of nowhere so Toronto wouldn’t explode if there was an accidental detonation.
After the war was won, the classified compound shifted to commercial manufacturing. They called it an industrial park and it was booming. The Queen of England was at the grand opening of a grocery store up the street. Think about that. German immigrants opened this shop in 1958; if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.
The economics of the neighbourhood had changed, but some original tenants still held their ground. If you followed the ghost of the old railway line that used to lead to the dearly departed GM plant, you could make stops at a few other solitary apple trees clinging to their stakes. They existed in isolated plots next to big-box retail outlets. IKEA had an apple tree. Best Buy had an apple tree. Canadian Tire had an apple tree. The orchard must have been pretty big because that was at least a fifteen minute walk from the shop.
During the summer’s dog days, the shop was humid and stifling. When the bell buzzed for lunch, workers headed for a crumbling cement shipping dock showing rebar in patches, climbed down its crooked metal ladder and snuck through a suspiciously worker-sized hole in the fence. Relaxing for half an hour under the trees’ branches, we sat down on the grass and took our boots off to dry, airing out dirty socks. We ate sandwiches with greasy hands, smoked cigarettes and chirped.
Brian, the new guy with clean hands, still wearing his boots, asked, “Who do you think cuts this grass?”
“Who gives a shit?” Ron answered between pulls. A predictable response from the shop steward.
Nixon, was intrigued, “Fuck if I know. Eh Paul, who cuts this grass?”
“Some old guy who lives in one of those houses that back on to the other side of the tracks,” I told them. “He mows there too. He mows all kinds of crazy paths through the bushes and shit. You know those cats that are always running around here hissing at everything? He built them houses. He even paints them.”
“I seen one of them purple boxes down the tracks behind the scaffold place,” Golden chimed in. “That a cat-house?”
“Yeah, and he leaves them food and water and buys them toys.”
“Fuckin’ weirdo,” exhaled Ron, drawing a roar out of Nixon.
“He is quiet and he leaves us alone so just stick to this side of the tracks,” I said.
“Pretty nice of him,” said Brian, admiring the turf. He untied his spotless boots with well-moisturized fingers.
“Pretty boots too, they come in men’s?” Ron blew smoke through his nose.
Silver always had the best stories. Escaping a civil war. His adventures at sea in a Greek freighter. Escapades in seedy ports at cat houses of a different type. Lately he was quiet. He sat up against a tree trunk with a blade of grass in his mouth and something on his mind.
“How do you know some animal didn’t shit all over that grass?” Nixon snapped him out of it.
“The bottom of the blade is white,” he said, squinting at the narrow leaf.
“It’s called an emerging tiller,” Brian explained. He freed a stalk of grass from the ground and pointed at whatever the fuck he was talking about.
“What the bumba?” The cloud trapped in Ron’s chest nearly escaped.
I worked at a golf course last summer, said Brian.
Golden nodded at him smiling and Nixon was quiet.
Sometimes I watched the men talking and eating and wondered what the important people in the city’s towers were doing for lunch. Eating steaks in their business attire at a revolving restaurant in the sky, solving problems more complicated than a mysterious lawnmower man and the anatomy of that which he mows. I caught myself wanting to be like them once in a while. As often, I was happy to be right there, spinning in circles on the ground.
When the heat faded and green leaves yellowed, the apples were ready and we had been waiting. The low-hanging apples were good, but when you tried climbing for the higher, shinier bait, the trees made you pay with skin. I never once jumped back down without a couple pockets full of fruit and a few bleeding body parts.
Silver drove a truck for the shop. Sometimes, we tried to skirt the system; drove the truck over the train tracks, around the rusty fence and under the trees. I climbed on top of the cabin and reached for red. It made things easier, not as bloody, but the apples weren’t as sweet.
Our secret trees gave up more fruit than we could ever use, and you better believe a bunch like us did our best. The soft, green carpet beneath the branches became a swampy mash of fallen apples we couldn’t stomach, because the lawnmower man did not rake. Centipedes, wasps, ants that bit, field mice and fat rats moved in on the rotting spoils, evicting us from what felt like our private resort. Everyone except old Ron. He pulled a piece of cardboard through the fence, tossed it on the fermenting ground, fell on top of it like it was a beach towel, smoked his cigarettes and sipped his ginger beer, vermin be damned.
The rest of us sat on the dock, taking in the last of the autumn sun, our legs dangling over the side with our boots untied, tongues out, laces hanging, daring gravity with our steel toes. They’d be ruined if they fell off. The drive below was uneven and cratered, its asphalt riddled with holes. Backed up wastewater collected deep in its pockets. We took turns launching broken pieces of the dock’s concrete skin over the fence and through the trees, like a mortar crew trying to land rounds on Ron.
“Would you eat a worm sandwich for a hundred bucks?” Nixon asked, taking a break from a ham and cheese, his black fingerprints showing on whitbread.
“It’s not a lot of money”, said Brian.
“Alright, a thousand then,” said Nixon.
“Like earthworms? Or larva and shit like that?” I asked, leaning back and looking up at the sky.
“Watch your fingers,” said Silver from a beeping forklift, narrowly missing mine as he loaded his truck. He had started working through lunch so he could punch out earlier.
“I don’t fuckin’ know. The kind of worms they grow in the unit at the top of the driveway,” said Nixon, “the kind you go fishing with.”
“Is that what they do in there? I was wondering what the soil was all about,” asked Brian.
“Actually it’s not soil. It’s castings. Worm castings. Yep. It’s a worm farm,” said Nixon.
“Who the hell decides they want to be worm farmers?” Brian wondered out loud and flicked a pebble through the chainlink with his cruddy fingers.
“How do you even think of that?” I leaned forward and looked at my reflection in a dirty puddle.
“Greek people I guess,” said Nixon, staring into his sandwich. “Gus is cool, it’s his place. He roasted a goat for that Orthodox Easter or whatever. He invited everybody. Did you go, Paul?”
“Nah. You didn’t?”
“He invited me, not all my kids,” said Nixon. “If they saw a goat they’d either throw-up or eat the whole thing, or eat the whole thing and then throw-up.”
“That sounds bah-ah-ah-ad,” I said.
“Sounds a lot better than a worm sandwich,” said Brian.
“Yea, Ron says there’s a guy who used to work here that did it for a hundred bucks.” Nixon pulled his heel up on the dock and tied a boot.
“Ron’s been here forever hasn’t he? A hundred bucks was probably a down payment on a house back then,” said Brian.
“You three put dirtier things in your mouth for less,” Ron pulled himself up on the dock. The bell buzzed to get back to work and winter rolled in behind us.
On a damp spring morning, I found Silver standing on the dock shaking his head. Usually he was out there making sure no raccoons had gotten trapped in the dumpster overnight. If he found any, he’d lean a piece of scrap timber against the side of the bin so the trash could climb out. Once in a while those potentially rabid little bastards started climbing up the wood before it was out of his hand, and we’d run back into the shop screaming and laughing. Not today.
It took me a minute to figure out what he was looking at before I noticed the yellow bulldozers edging up to the trees. I read that apple trees can live for two hundred years. I don’t think people know this, and I bet these surly ones had lasted at least a hundred. They were old and they were mean. Their bark was dark and sharp. If they’re not taken care of, they’re supposed to stop producing fruit. Yet they always produced. We loved those trees but they weren’t beautiful.
Nobody would be picking apples on break this autumn. Yellow steel began laying waste to red. The seasoned wood was no match for hydraulic claws and tears laid waste to Silver’s face. He’d just lost his daughter. She’d been buried Thursday and he was back to work on Monday.
“This is life, Paul,” he said, and I started crying too.
The shop was a great place to hide from yourself. It was dark and hot, the work oily and heavy. Machines broke down, things went wrong. You hurt yourself. You could glare up at the rusty steel roof, blame God and release your favourite profanity into the universe without anyone looking at you funny. Go ahead, throw a wrench. Kick a bucket. It’s when you stopped swearing that we might worry. Who needed bereavement leave when you worked in a place like this?
We must have been a sight. Two grown men on a shipping dock, looking like we’d climbed out of an oil pit, crying over a few old, neglected apple trees. When the dozer made a pass near the property line I threw my palms up at the pilot. The Cat hissed as he shut it down and everything went quiet. He flicked his chin and shouted, “What!”
I said, “Those are our trees.” Then this asshole says, “Not anymore.”
I jumped off the dock, kicked a rock at the Cat, stomped ankle-deep into the mud and dragged the biggest broken limb I could handle to safety, to some kind of imagined dignity. The dozer pilot looked at me like I was crazy. Silver didn’t blink. He nodded, wiped his eyes, and helped me carry it inside.
So now, across from this old metalworking shop, on the other side of a rusty chain link fence, is a pile of earth and dead wood that used to be a clump of trees which once belonged to an orchard. It looks like a mountain to me and it’s freckled with footprints, all of which are mine. When the sun comes up, you can stand on the shipping dock and watch robins combing torn roots and broken branches for worm breakfasts. When our star sets, crows will ascend for the evening shift, some sifting for nightcrawlers, most just being obnoxious. When the sun is highest, in the time between the corvids and the thrushes, you can climb to the top and see the city’s towers to the west, the prison to the east and the hydro field’s wires connecting both in the north sky. All I see to the south is a grown-over railroad track and this shop, but your view would be different.
We love this shop but it isn’t beautiful.