By Frances Boyle
Content warning: racist language and depictions of racism against Black and Indigenous people
“This guy she was with⸺dark? As the ace of spades.” Charlene squinched her nose as if something smelled bad. She leaned forward, hissing a stage whisper. “Miss Priss here at the office, but there she was, partying it up with this joker Saturday night at the Regent.”
“Seriously?” Anita gawped, hand over her mouth.
Me, I was surprised and kind of impressed. Mousy Evelyn, going out with a black guy. Way to go, Evelyn, I thought; she must have been cooler than I realized.
Charlene carried on as if it was 1963 in the American South, and not 1971 here in progressive Saskatchewan. “Yeah, she was with this big buck. Practically in his lap, her hands all over him. I nearly puked.”
When this happened: one coffee break, late fall. I’d been at the file-clerk job since I graduated high school in June. Not my choice—Dad told me I’d better get the sulk off my face pronto. He said I should be grateful for the opportunity. He’d seen too many educated fools. “You’ll have plenty of time for schooling, Helen. You need a taste of the working life. Maybe you’ll learn the value of a dollar.”
So, I was stuck with a temporary job at the insurance company all summer, and even when my friends started university. I tried not to let it bug me. But they were having fun, while I started my so-called working life. That part even felt like a cheat; I was only hired because my parents played bridge with the Hamlins, and Mr. Hamlin was a manager here.
Me when I started: jumpy, afraid I’d look stupid. Sometimes hungover or spacey after a late night with my friends. Trying to figure out, fast, what doing a good job meant. Wanting to be friendly, when everything that came out of my mouth felt wrong.
The order of things: head office was here in Regina, and departments were divided up by province and type of insurance—fire, auto, home. I worked in Manitoba Auto, Claims division.
I learned pretty quickly that managers stayed in their offices and only talked to each other or, when necessary, their secretaries. Even clerks had ranks of importance, coding clerks above us file clerks. Only Joanne, the head file clerk, walked the floor, delivering files to the coders.
The girls I worked with: eight file clerks in Manitoba Auto at first, three of us in Claims. The oldest was twenty-six. Most of them were married and one even had a little boy. Anita, with long dark hair and snarky mouth, was vocally single. She hadn’t worked there much longer than me, but she was sure of herself. She could shoot a look, or just say one word and make me feel I hadn’t a clue what was cool and what was cheesy.
The shape of our days: first thing, we’d search for lost files. Standing for high shelves, sitting on stools for low ones, we flipped through folders to find out-of-sequence numbers.
When the mail arrived, we’d alphabetically sort letters, renewals, changes of address. Each girl had a stack. We checked for the policy or claim number, pulled files, paperclipped correspondence to the front.
After lunch, we’d work at cabinets the size of pool tables. Information on the cards, typed but dense with handwritten changes, let us match names to numbers on the tabbed folders. My cuticles got ragged from shoving cards back into tight decks.
Things reversed at the end of the day. Joanne would bring us slippery armloads of files the underwriters had finished with, to sort and put back on shelves.
The hardest part to figure out: coffee breaks. Mine was the same time as Anita’s. On the dot, we’d grab purses from the drawer where we stashed them, and tip-tap in our high heels downstairs to the cafeteria.
The ladies behind the counter were dumpy, their grey hair tucked into nets. Some younger women bussed, clearing away cups and glasses, wiping down tables. One stared in my direction. An Indian, I thought, a tall skinny girl with a red bandana holding back her black hair. She wasn’t familiar. There had only been a couple of Indian kids in my class at school, and anyway she seemed older than me.
The conversations: Anita and her two friends from BC Fire joked and sideswiped each other. They talked about TV shows and movies, the stars and gossip, argued constantly about music. Anita was passionate in defending her top-forty station against what she called their manure-stomping music. I’d have told them about a late-night DJ who played album sides⸺Zeppelin, King Crimson⸺but could hardly get a word in. Once, when I talked about the Mashmakhan concert at the Ex, and how joints kept passing all night, the other girls gave me some dirty looks. Anita just smiled.
Things my mother wanted to know: what my friends at work wore, whether skirts were getting longer, dresses A-line or flared. If any of the girls were daring pant-suits. If their hair was flipped, or in pageboys.
I didn’t know what to tell her. I could care less about clothes and hairstyles. As for friends, maybe Anita was starting to be one. I was less intimidated by her now. She had a mouth on her, as Mom would say, but she was smart and funny. And she could be nice, when she wanted to.
One Friday in September, Anita asked if I wanted to see a movie after work. My friends Jess and Darlene were preoccupied with university stuff⸺orientation or something. Even though I wanted to accept Anita’s invitation, I almost lied and told her I had plans. I was afraid she’d needle me for my lack of a social life, but she seemed as glad of the company as I was.
Afterwards, we went to A&W. Across the booth, Anita dipped fries in ketchup. “I shouldn’t be eating these. My skin’s total rat-shit; nobody’s ever going to ask me out.” She looked fine to me, with just a few pimples showing through her makeup. Her hair was centre-parted like mine but glossy and smooth.
“Anyways, the movie was kind of funny,” Anita went on. “I’m not into that snobby New York stuff⸺Plaaa-za Suite⸺so whiny! But better than that piece-of-crap duster Laurel wanted to see.
“Great best friend, eh, ditching me for a Mountie.” She slurped her Coke. “It’s such a cliché, that only nurses will date RCMP recruits. And Laurel’s in training at the General. She’s actually seen him twice this week. Honestly, Helen, I’d rather blow my brains out.”
I agreed the recruits were awful. “Aren’t they all clodhoppers, from little towns back east? They look like total dorks with those brush-cuts.” I liked long hair on guys.
“Well, it’s not just that they’re dorks, they’re baby cops. And not just any cops: Mounties. God, my granddad was gassed and beaten up by those queen’s cowboys in the Regina Riot.”
“There was a riot? In Regina?”
“Yeah, back in the 30s. Dad’s always talking about it, and the On to Ottawa trek—It sure convinced him that we need ‘government for the working people.’ Well, he convinced me too, I guess. I voted for the first time this election. And I made it count.”
Politics was pretty much off-limits at coffee break. I was relieved to know that Anita and I had something in common, that she’d voted for what my dad called the pinko party, the NDP, like my friends and I did. Or would have, if I’d been old enough to vote.
But I’d never even heard about the riot. The stuff Anita knew was pretty impressive.
On 11th Avenue as we walked to my bus stop, two men stumbled out of a beery yellowish light. They were weaving, and one raised a shaky hand to us. Anita jerked me out of his way. My heart was thudding. I wasn’t sure if it was because the men appeared so suddenly or because Anita had grabbed me.
“Watch yourself,” Anita hissed. “we palefaces gotta keep a look-out.”
“You’re kidding around, right?” I said once my heart settled down. “They’re just drunks, it’s not....” Anita rolled her eyes and I trailed off.
I wasn’t friends with anyone who was Indian, not the girls in my class, let alone their sisters and cousins, or the skinny grade 10 guys who hunched their shoulders and kept to themselves. Anita understood how things were on this side of the tracks, since she lived here.
I let it go.
After a while, I felt less awkward about chiming in on coffee-break conversations. When someone said, for the umpteenth time, how sexy Ryan O’Neal was last year in Love Story¸ I started to tell the girls about the cool movie I’d seen when my friend Jess let me tag along to her film studies class one evening.
“Talk about tragic love affairs—you should’ve seen it! Doomed lovers in Brazil, with fantastic costumes. Blues and oranges, golds. All the characters are black. It had amazing carnaval scenes, crowds of people dancing, glowing, with the heat. And the music, drums and tambourines, guitar⸺ ”
“Yeah, sounds terrific.” Charlene sneered. “Sweaty jungle bunnies? Come on, Helen, admit it. A skin flick. In spades.”
“No! It’s a classic, it’s great⸺ ” I wanted to explain why she was wrong, tried to remember what Jess’s prof had said. But the words got stuck. Charlene was already talking about something else.
Charlene, from Saskatchewan Fire, had started coming to coffee. Lackadaisical, with overly-teased bleached-blonde hair, she wore tight skirts and sweaters my mother would have called trampy. Her makeup was thick, and she kept reapplying sticky-looking lipstick.
She was snarky like Anita, but her sarcasm had a meaner edge. She could cut down anybody in seconds. That day, she pulled a sheaf of photos from her wallet, snapping them onto the Formica table-top. We all watched, rapt.
“My gal pal Nikki.” Snap. “My slimy ex. My brother.”
“Cute!” Anita picked up his photo.
Charlene plucked it back. “You think? I’ll introduce you some day. If you’re lucky.”
“So, the rats are leaving the sinking ship,” Anita announced. “Three more girls applied for transfers, including Joanne. Nobody wanted her job, so I’m head file clerk, until Manitoba Auto shuts down anyway. Which will probably be before Christmas.”
“Why are we shutting down?” I asked.
“Doofus, don’t you follow the news?”
I knew about what was going on in the States⸺bussing and school desegregation, Kent State, protests against the Vietnam War. And I was glad that the NDP had won the Saskatchewan election in June. But provincial politics was mostly boring.
Anita filled me in. “We have public car insurance here, which is why there’s no Saskatchewan Auto, right? Well, the Manitoba NDP is doing the same thing: no more private car insurance. So, our department’s gone, once the policies are wound down and the claims paid out. Other places are following Saskatchewan’s lead again, just like with Medicare, back when it started.”
I’d be gone soon, so Anita’s history lesson didn’t mean much to me. Charlene and the others didn’t care; their departments weren’t about to change. Talk shifted back to the new night-club that had opened in the south end.
The cafeteria lady called out that a toasted teacake was ready. I jostled the table getting up. Cups and cutlery clanked, drinks slopped. Charlene glared, “Jesus H. Christ, Helen!”
When I got back with my teacake and a fistful of serviettes, an attendant was already there with her rag, wiping up the spills. She straightened. It was the Indian girl I’d noticed looking at me before.
“You’re Helen, eh?”
“Yeah,” I replied slowly, trying to work out how she could know.
“Yeah. You were at Crestview. In my sister’s class. Katy.”
“Right. Katy Larocque.” I nodded, as if I’d known all along. I remembered Katy; shy but nice enough. She’d been my lab partner in grade 9 science, but I never talked to her outside of class. The girls around the table watched. “Uh… how is Katy anyway?”
“Oh, she’s good. Real good. She’s back home right now, helping our mom out with the little ones. They’re a handful, especially with Dad away.”
“Your father? Is he…?”
I wished I could sink into the floor. Why was I asking about her father? He might be in jail, for all I knew, or on skid row.
“Yeah. He’s great, almost done his course up in Saskatoon. Sheet metal, at the college. Me, I’ve got my name on the list for nurse’s training. Soon as it comes up, I’ll be out of here, for sure.”
She smiled, teeth white against her reddish-brown skin. I mumbled something, relieved when she nodded and moved away with her loaded tray.
Charlene jerked her chin, raised an eyebrow. “That wagon-burner a friend of yours?”
I felt myself blush. “Not really. She was at my school.” One of the BC Fire girls bent her elbow so her hand was shoulder height, grunted “how?”
“Nice bandana, eh?” Charlene mimicked the accent. Anita laughed, but turned it into a cough, covering her mouth. I managed a weak smile once I was sure Katy’s sister wasn’t looking my way.
My mother asked about “those nice girls at work,” whether I wanted to have them over, maybe pop some corn or play Scrabble. I could just see Charlene’s lip curl at that.
I had invited Anita for dinner one time, but she’d cancelled because she and Charlene were going bar-hopping. Anita had less time for me now that Charlene had broken up with her latest boyfriend. We still worked side-by-side but she didn’t lecture me about history anymore, or even argue about music. Nothing seemed funny or smart to her unless Charlene had given the nod. I missed talking with her even if she could be a know-it-all. Maybe I was even angry at the changes in her.
“Mom, these girls aren’t nice. They’re petty, even mean. They don’t like books, and they couldn’t wait to finish school. Some of them could get into university if they wanted to. But they aren’t interested.”
My mother’s face was easy to read. “I never went to university, Helen. I suppose that makes me uninteresting? Not smart, like your university friends? Who I haven’t seen much of these last months, just to mention.”
Mom couldn’t possibly understand; I wasn’t really part of the same world as Jess and Darlene any more. Like at the office: I wanted the girls to include me, but I never had much to contribute. At break time, I’d ease one sling-back off my heel and listen to them go on about Harvey Wallbangers and James Bond. Katy’s sister didn’t talk to me again, but if she was nearby, I’d lean in as if I was deeply involved in the conversation around the table.
Another girl transferred out of Manitoba Auto. I was the last clerk in Claims. The mail stack got smaller every morning, and my felt pen stroked out more numbers on the missing-file list. So, I was surprised when another temp arrived.
Evelyn was short, her dark-blonde hair frizzed from a growing-out perm. Like me when I started, she seemed nervous, and barely spoke.
At least I hadn’t slowed everyone down on the way to coffee, whispering “half a sec.” We waited outside the washroom until she finally pushed open the heavy door.
“Jeez,” Anita said, “tinkle on company time, not ours, for cripes sake.”
Evelyn’s cheeks went blotchy red, and she gripped her purse. “Sorry, I wasn’t sure I was allowed. My last job, we got docked the time.”
“Christ, how stupid can she be,” Charlene muttered. Anita stifled a giggle.
Evelyn didn’t hold us up again, but she never became talkative with our group. She switched her break to join a crowd of married girls. In the file stacks, she would answer any questions I asked with whispers and tight little nods.
How the last few weeks went: my list of lost files was down to five. Every day, less work. I recopied the list when the ballpoint numbers got lost among thick lines. I stapled the fresh page to a new cardboard backing.
Mom and Dad agreed that I’d saved enough to register for university the next term. I read course descriptions and phoned my friends with questions until I realized I was being a pest.
Anita and I went for fries after work. It had been a while; I didn’t ask what Charlene was up to. I told her about some guys I’d met, who were in classes with my friends.
“Two of them are in Poli Sci. You might like them, they argue about politics like you used to. Nonstop in fact.”
“Nah. Don’t you know anyone in pre-Med?”
“Yeah, I could get into dating a doctor. Except, with my luck, he’d probably be another loser.”
Charlene’s brother had turned out to be a huge jerk, she told me. And Anita’s nurse friend, Laurel, was getting serious about her Mountie.
“Luc’s an okay guy, even if he’s from a hick town in Quebec. But he’s got some friend—also from the boonies—that they want to introduce me to. Holy crap!” She mimed a pistol to her temple, crossed her eyes and stuck out her tongue. “Just shoot me if I ever start dating a pony soldier.”
“Deal,” I said. It was dark when we left the restaurant, leaves crunching in frost underfoot, bits of sleety snow hitting our faces.
At work the next week, I crossed three more numbers off my list. Few of the shelves still held active files.
Charlene’s big reveal: she plucked at Anita’s sleeve a few minutes early that Monday morning, smirking. “Something to tell you—Out-rage-ous!—get a move on!”
Charlene blurted as soon as we sat down. “Guess what Evelyn was up to on the weekend?”
No one tried to guess. Charlene whispered about seeing Evelyn at the Regent, a bar downtown. Making out with some dark greasy guy, her hands all over him.
A black guy. That took some style. There weren’t many black people in town, and most of them played for the Roughriders. But pro football players wouldn’t hang out at a dive like the Regent. Not that I’d ever met a football player, or anyone who was black for that matter.
I wondered if Evelyn’s guy was sharp like Sidney Poitier or Sammy Davis, or afro’d and funky. I remembered the jazz musician my grade 11 class had gone to see⸺the high winding music, and the way the perspiration on his forehead gleamed like his saxophone.
Anita’s mouth twisted. “How’d she meet up with him, d’you suppose?”
Charlene shrugged, with a gesture like she was trying to get something foul away from her hair. “I dunno—he probably just crawled out of the woodwork on Welfare day. Whatever, she was in the thick of it, with him and his nitchie pals. A couple of squaws too, all decked out.”
I started to understand. Charlene had said ‘dark’ not ‘black’. The guy Evelyn had been making out with was an Indian.
Those men I’d seen with Anita outside the beer parlour; the guys in noisy cars who used to pick up the Larocque girls from school. My stomach felt squirmy, queasy ropes of discomfort moving around, poking me from the inside.
Charlene called Evelyn a blonde teepee-creeper, and Anita said something about circling the wagons. I didn’t say anything. But that sick feeling I had when I realized the guy was an Indian—was I just as bad as them?
A nest of snakes twisted below my ribs, prodded me. A black guy, sure, I thought that was cool. So what’s different? I glanced around; the older Larocque girl didn’t seem to be working that day. But I almost felt as though Katy herself was at the next table, frowning at me like she used to frown when our chemistry experiments fizzled.
We got official notice: the department would shut down the following week. I never did find the last two file numbers on my list. Anita got another file clerk position, and Evelyn must have found a job somewhere else. I just left.
Freed from the routine, I pushed the skirts far back in my closet, and switched back to jeans. I pored over calendars, and registered for my classes in January, still weeks away. I got together with Anita once for coffee. The calendars were in my bag, and I showed her some of the courses that were offered.
“Look: ‘Politics and Society,’ ‘The Making of Canada’—you love that kind of stuff. If you wanted to apply, you could start next fall. There are scholarships, and lots of people I know have student loans.”
Anita stared. “Why would I go into debt? My job’s permanent now, I’ve got benefits. And I’m twenty-four. As everyone keeps reminding me, the quarter-century’s just around the corner. If I’m ever going to get married and have a family, I’d better get a move on.”
We both said we’d call. I meant to, but Christmastime was busy, then classes started. I spent my days on campus—in class, or talking, and watching the card players. Some evenings I studied, but there was often something going on with my girlfriends and the other students they’d met.
A bunch of us ended up at A&W one Friday the week of midterms, after the student union pub had closed. The guys wore green army-surplus jackets. Some of the girls, me and Jess included, were bundled up in thrift-store furs and hand-knit scarves. We crammed into a booth, laughing and talking.
As everyone shrugged off their winter wear, and scanned menus, I noticed two couples near the cash, the guys waiting to pay. They weren’t much older than we were, and their brush-cuts marked them as RCMP trainees. But they didn’t seem like dorky guys from the sticks, they looked more like movie mobsters, tall and bulky in topcoats like the one my old boss wore, The girls wore light coats and nylons, despite the minus twenty degree weather, and leather boots with high heels. Their makeup was smooth and identical. I did a double-take but was somehow not all that surprised: it was Anita, with Laurel the student nurse.
Anita saw me, waggled her fingers. One of the Mounties took her elbow with a grip that looked more like he was arresting her than escorting her from the restaurant. She stiffened for a second, glancing my way, then slipped her arm through his and leaned into his shoulder.
I started to wave back, but she had already turned away. I curled my fingers to make a gun, took aim at her departing back, and softly said “pow.” The guy sitting next to me gave me a strange look.
It was Anita’s joke; no one else would get it. And she was out the door and gone.
Frances Boyle is the author of the poetry collections Light-carved Passages (BuschekBooks) and This White Nest (Quattro Books), and of the novella Tower (Fish Gotta Swim Editions). Her short story collection Seeking Shade is forthcoming with The Porcupine’s Quill. Her poems and short stories have been published throughout Canada and in the U.S. and have received a variety of awards. For more, see her website: www.francesboyle.com.