SEPTEMBER 2007 – NO. 17
The Chore Coat
In a foreign environment, the sun has vanished but the mountain remains
My boss Sheryl has a hay delivery coming in, so I'm waiting to help out with the unloading and stacking. She looked suspicious when I offered, probably because I grew up in a Vancouver suburb and it shows.
I have just arrived in town for my new job as editor of the local newspaper, and I'm staying with Sheryl, the newspaper publisher, until I find my own place. She rents a three-bedroom house up the hill from the village, with a bear trail out back and a view of Saddleback Mountain. When I look up at that mountain I feel alone enough to wail — I know nothing of rural living. Earlier when I was moving my suitcases and boxes in, I mistakenly referred to her mud room as a foyer. The word sounded ridiculous, spoken there among rubber boots, snow shovels, washer and dryer and waterproof coats.
Sheryl needs my help, skeptical though she is. She was worried I'd damage my black leather jacket so she's lent me a different one, a pink quilted thing she calls a chore coat. I feel like the Michelin man, but the coat is warm at least, the sort of thing you need for winter in the Kootenays. My jacket is too thin for February — it was my Dad's and it's too big for me. I usually layer two or three sweaters underneath it. Mom keeps saying I should get a new jacket that fits me better, but I can remember Dad wearing this one when I was a kid. I associate the smell with feeling safe, I think. He likes that I wear it.
The feed Sheryl's getting is good quality, cut with alfalfa. Not that I would be able to tell good hay from not-so-good hay without someone else's help. We walk outside just as the truck arrives, a flatbed stacked high with bales. An older couple is in the truck, they both wave. She's driving. She parks and they both climb out of the cab and get up on the back with the hay.
The man tosses the first bale down. Sheryl catches it easily. It's like a dance, the way she does it. She pulls it from the air and tosses it into the shed in one smooth motion, and then she's ready to catch another. The sky is blue behind her. She may have an office job but she's a farm girl too, fit and impressive.
The woman tosses a bale down to me and I get ready to catch and toss it as Sheryl is doing. Hay, I imagine, is pretty light.
But no, the bale is not light.
It crashes to the ground and takes me with it. I hurt. My arms feel shaky in their sockets and I seem to have bitten my tongue.
Sheryl hoots with laughter. "We've got to toughen you up, girl!" she whoops like a true Albertan. To the couple she says conspiratorially, "she's just in from the coast." They nod and smile sympathetically, their amusement evident. I stare at a point behind them on the left side of Saddleback, just barely managing not to cry. "From the coast" means a lot of things to local people, and "handy around the farm" is not one of them.
I laugh weakly and wrap both arms around the hay.
"Use your knees, not your back," Sheryl cautions as I struggle up from my stooped position. "That bale weighs 80 pounds." She says this as she snatches another mid-air bale as it is tossed from the truck and expertly swoops it into position. I stagger toward the shed, feeling the weight in my knees, thighs, shoulders, and arms. With a heave and a grunt I add my hay to the stack.
"Why don't you stay in there and arrange things," Sheryl says kindly. I want to tell her no no, let me help you move the hay, I'm good to go. Instead I just nod. Mostly I don't want to go out and face that couple, twice my age at least and strong as all hell. I wonder if Sheryl feels intimidated by them too. To me, she seems to fit in here so well, but rural British Columbia is different from rural Alberta, she tells me. The mountains that surround the village make her feel hemmed in and lonely. It bothers her that she can't see all of the sky.
It takes about forty-five minutes for us to finish the job. While Sheryl stays outside to show her friends the horses, I go back to the mud room and throw the pink chore coat in the wash. It's covered with dirt and dust and hay and alfalfa bits. Cleaning it is probably pointless — it's only a chore coat after all — but it seems like a good way to rid myself of this entire experience.
I wish it wasn't so obvious that I am from the coast. My mother's side of the family is Ukrainian, and my ancestors were farmers, first in the old country and later near Winnipeg, Manitoba. But I grew up in the suburbs, in Coquitlam. When I moved to Victoria to go to school I thought that was a small town. Until today the only real bales of hay I'd ever seen were on elementary school field trips to Fraser Valley pumpkin farms. Back then, the flatbeds loaded with hay seemed like movie props. I never considered their weightiness in the context of rural life.
The washing machine stops and I switch the coat to the dryer. Sheryl is doing her chores now; I can see her out the front window. The sun is sinking low over Saddleback. I'm homesick. I start chopping vegetables for dinner and because I am still preoccupied with my embarrassing level of green-ness, it takes awhile to realize something odd is happening inside the dryer.
When I walk back into the mud room to investigate, it sounds like a bunch of ball bearings are rolling around in the dryer with the chore coat. I can't see anything when I first open the door, so I reach my right hand inside. Hot metal. Sheryl comes through the back door as I pull my hand out and her eyes go wide as I open my fist to reveal six or eight small, gold-colored bullets.
"Oh, damn." she says. "Don't tell your mother." And then, "They were in the pockets, I guess. One of the kids must have worn that coat on a gopher shoot."
I am not sure whether I am more thrown by the shooting of the gophers or the bullets in my hand. Neither is a simple thing for a girl from the coast to process. Am I going to blow my arm off now, or is that another misconception, as silly as my citified words or the assumption that hay bales are light?
The bullets are small darts of pain, but the longer I hold them the less startling the sensation. Sheryl watches my expression as I drop them into an empty yogurt container on the shelf above the appliances. When they hail against the white plastic, we both jump.
Seconds go by. Nothing bad happens.
We stare at the yogurt container, and then at each other. I shrug and somehow it serves as punctuation, the answer to a question Sheryl hasn't asked yet. Sharp-eyed, she reads the movement, understands it as "Yes, I'm fine."
"It's dark," she says. "I guess we should have some dinner."
I glance through the rancher house and out living room window. A dark form looms against the sky. The sun has vanished, but the mountain remains.
Original art courtesy Rob Grom.
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