Archive for the ‘Stories’ Category

How I Became a Canadian

November 6, 2009

(from No Streets of Gold,, New Star, Vancouver, 1977)

My father asked me to fill out the application for his old age application and to accompany it with a letter explaining that his original passport was taken away from him when he was about to be deported, and it wasn’t returned when he got his naturalization papers.

How could they deport you and make you a citizen at the same time? I asked.

He started with a long explanation of how a zhorna works, consisting of two specially ground rocks with holes in the middle. In English, the rocks comprising a zhorna for grinding grain into flour are called millstones and they were run by water power or electricity. However, poor people had to turn the rocks manually.

It’s women’s work, my father said, but as a youth I helped my mother grind. I would take off my trousers, leaving only my shirt on, and it would flap when I moved my arm to turn and blow fresh air on my body. It’s hard work and takes a long time.

Have we got to Canada yet?

Yes. The last farmer I worked for in Lamont during the harvest of 1930, just before we went to the homestead, offered to give me his zhorna, which he no longer needed being a first-wave immigrant. But I said we had come to Canada to find a better life and if we must still grind with a zhorna, then we may as well have stayed at home. So we went to the homestead without the zhorna.

We moved to the homestead, and you know all that, about how we built a house and started clearing land, and we had no machinery and no money, and there was no market for grain even if we had been able to clear and break enough land by hand. Besides, the crops were no good in the 30’s even if we had been able to grow some, which we didn’t. So every year I had to go and look for work, leaving your mother and first one baby, then two, alone in the house. You remember the house, the one we later used for a chicken coop.

Yeah, I replied, and I didn’t think it was big enough, even for the chickens.

In 1934, my father said, I didn’t earn anything on the harvest. I left home with 96 cents and I earned $6 and things were pretty grim. And so they said they were going to deport us because we were communists. You should know about the history of your country. Of stories such as this is your history made up.

Very well.

It’s the fall of 1934, my father said. Your mother cooked a chicken and some bread for me and I rode the freight to Edmonton.

That year the police were beating freight-riders something awful. But when my father and Selevich got to High Prairie, they met up with a group of Sunset House people, so there were no more worries. There were a lot of them and the men from Sunset House were communists and stuck together. They rode the freight like hospodars, not like bums, because no one could touch them.

In Westlock there were normally only two RCMP officers. The freight had to stop and take on water there, and someone must have wired ahead because the RCMP had reinforcements and there were five of them waiting for the freight.

Four of the mounties pointed guns out the police car windows, while a fifth was sent to beat on the men. But the first four men they met up with were my father, Selevich, Alexiewich, and Wasyl Shewchuk. The policeman looked them over and then started talking instead of swinging. He persuaded them to get off the freight to talk. The freight was manoeuvring, picking up cars and the like, so they thought they could easily get back on. But after the train took on water, it backed up for about half a mile and then whipped by them so fast they saw only sparks from the wheels flying by. And policemen laughing.

The RCMP were going to arrest them so they took them to the station. But there were a lot of them and jails were overflowing in the 30’s so the police only wrote down a few names and lost heart.

There was a flower garden outside the station and the men dropped their packs on the flowers as they went inside. It was a kind of petty revenge since they couldn’t think of anything else to do. The after the police told them they could leave, they sat around eating and talking for a while. Finally they decided to leave. They had to walk all the way from Westlock to Edmonton with a police escort. A priest in a car stopped to pick up some of them but the police spoke to him and he drove off empty.

In Edmonton, the men learned that the crop in Saskatchewan had been a disaster and there was no use going there.

There was a concert at the AUUC hall (then called ULFTA), my father said, and I don’t really like telling you this part but I have said I will tell you the truth. I had 96 cents, you will remember, and the concert cost 25 cents. But workers’ organizations are always collecting money for some cause and this woman came to sit down beside me and do a pitch for money. I told her I understood money was needed to build a workers’ organization and I told her I was a communist, but I had a wife and two babies on the homestead, left there without a penny, and they would die in the winter unless I brought home some money. The woman persisted. Finally I held out the 71 cents I had left and said: Look, this is the total wealth of a man, a woman, and two children – take it if your conscience permits you. She took it. Selevich looked over to see what had happened. Ti korova nischasna, he said, you poor cow.

They went south on a freight. My father remembered a town called Mirror where they were given water to drink but not allowed to get off. They got off at the next station, for by then it was obvious there were no crops to harvest.

My father also remembered one night when Selevich, who was a heavy sleeper, asked my father to wake him early in the morning before the sun came up so they could steal some potatoes. The provisions they had brought with them were used up by then. My father let Selevich sleep and got the potatoes himself which surprised Selevich who didn’t think my father would do that sort of thing. My father got about three-quarters of a bushel of potatoes, enough to give to all the freight-riders. But there was no work, so they returned to Edmonton and then Selevich went home. My father didn’t want to go home empty-handed, and he knew that in Lamont there would always be crops.

I knew many people from Lamont, my father said, since that was where your mother and I had worked, so I thought that if I hung around Edmonton for a few days, I would see someone I knew and get a ride with them. But no one appeared. You couldn’t get on a freight in Edmonton right then because the railway cops were being particularly vicious and patrolled the yards with dogs. All of us men carried blankets on our backs and slept wherever we could. I slept under the steps of the Immigration Hall since that was one building I knew. There were, you understand, a great many men like me walking around Edmonton and a great many women caring for lonely homesteads, waiting, but there were no crops to harvest. They gave us food at the Immigration Hall. Twice a day we lined up. First you picked up a bowl and a spoon. The first man gave you some oats porridge in the bowl. The second put two spoonfuls of sugar in the bowl and the third filled the remaining space with milk.

After two days, my father continued, I was weak and found that I could no longer eat this oats porridge. Strange. There it would be sitting in front of me, and I couldn’t eat. I simply couldn’t eat. I think it’s because of so much sugar, and maybe oats doesn’t have much food value. I gave up hope of finding a ride to Lamont. What I did then was walk around to the bakeries in Edmonton and explain my situation. The first four refused. By the fifth one, another man with the same idea had joined me and this fifth baker gave us a loaf of bread. I took my half loaf and started for the highway to Lamont.

For a long time, my father said, I stood on the highway with my thumb stuck out but no one stopped. There was a great deal of traffic on the road and dogs riding in some of the cars passing by. But I was only a man so I walked.

After a time I was tired and hungry. I stopped in a farmer’s yard, a rich farmer, judging by his possessions, and asked the man in the yard if he would give me some food. He went away and presently a woman came out carrying a can full of skim milk which she set down in front of me. I didn’t want to carry the can away because it looked like a new one, so I sat down right there and pulled out my bread to eat with the milk. The farmer had many turkeys and chickens and geese and you know how curious those birds are. They all came over to where I was sitting – and there I sat, banqueting on bread and skim milk, surrounded by cackling, gobbling, honking poultry

Then I set out walking again. By night time I had reached Fort Saskatchewan. The prisoners there worked on a large farm and they had just stooked sweet clover. I scattered some of the stooks, made myself a bed of sweet clover, and slept.

The next morning, I continued walking. About noon a broken-down truck passed me going in the other direction, then stopped and backed up. In it were a farmer and his son. Will you stook for a dollar a day? the farmer asked me. I replied I would and he motioned me to get on the back of the truck. We went to Edmonton. There I waited while they did their business and by evening we were back at their farm, which was near Gibson.

$1 a day? I asked. But you have told me that in 1928 you were working for farmers for $2.50 a day.

That was 1928, my father said, and now I’m talking about 1934. The farmer owned two binders, one of which he ran himself, and the other one his son worked on. There were two workers to do the stooking: a Czechoslovakian named Stefan and myself.

My father was very weak from walking and lack of food. In the morning his nose started bleeding and bled slowly all day. He stooked 16 hours, dripping blood on the bundles. In the evening, he spoke to the farmer.

Listen, he said, when I said I would stook for $1 a day, I meant for a normal 10 hour day. Are we going to work 16 hours every day?

We will work as long as necessary until the harvest is finished, the farmer replied.

Then you must pay us more.

Don’t start demanding things, man; you stooked only about a quarter as much as Stefan.

I know that. I am weak and my nose bled all day but I did the best I could and I stooked for 16 hours. I’ll settle for a dollar a day for a ten hour day, but for every hour over ten, I want another ten cents a day. Today I earned $1.60.

The next morning the farmer gave him breakfast and told him he no longer worker there.

All right, my father said, but where is the $1.60 I earned yesterday?

You’re getting no money, not even a dollar, the farmer replied. You didn’t do enough work.

My father started walking down the road. But the farmer’s wife yelled and then his son joined in, so the farmer came out and threw a dollar after my father. My father came back to pick up the crumpled bill and kept walking towards Lamont.

Near the river there was a large farm with many bundles lying on the ground. The farm was owned by a Frenchman who was harvesting with a tractor. My father waited for the man on the tractor to come around to his side of the field.

You’ve got a lot of stooking to do, he said to the farmer. Will you pay a dollar a day?

The farmer said he would. My father stooked there until the field was done which took five days. Now he had $6 but his clothes were ragged.

Freshly cut bundles are relatively easy to stook as they are greenish and damp. But bundles which have been laying on the ground for a while are heavy from the moisture they have absorbed from the ground on the bottom. They are dry on top. They can’t be stooked fast because if you grab them by the twine, they’ll fall apart. You have to grab them by a handful of the stalk each time and be fairly careful. The dry stalks are scratchy and destroy clothing. At the end of five days, my father’s denim jacket and overalls were a mess.

And still he had only $6. It started to rain, a heavy rain which looked as if it could last for days. What to do? The only way to pass rainy days was to find a friendly farmer who would let you sleep in a barn or grainery out of the rain. But there wasn’t anyone who would feed a worker when there was no work to do. And after the rain stopped, who knew if there would be more work? People were saying that even for threshing, the pay was only going to be $1 a day.

My father decided he had better take his $6 and go home. But how were they going to live through the winter? What were they to buy salt and sugar and flour and kerosene with?

He was near Kostyshyn’s. Four years earlier, Kostyshyn had offered to give my father his zhorna, but my father had refused, saying he had not come to Canada to live like that. Now he went to see Kostyshyn again. Kostyshyn even gave him lunch. Would he still give him the zhorna? Sure he would, but how was he to get it home? The bottom rock weighed about 70 or 80 pounds and the top one about 200 pounds. A train ticket from Edmonton to Rycroft cost $14 just for the passenger, and my father had only $6. Kostyshyn called to his son to harness the horses. Since it was raining, they weren’t doing anything anyway, so the son drove my father and his zhorna the 14 miles to Lamont.

In Lamont, my father went straight to the store of the Ukrainian Jew named Tarnov. Everybody went to Tarnov. Ukrainians who were virulently anti-semitic in the old country discovered when they came to the new one that the only people who would help them were Jews who had arrived before. On their side, the Jews were hated in the new country the same as in the old, and they were pleased to find among all the strangers some who spoke their language and were familiar with their culture.

Tarnov had a small business consisting of a store, a restaurant and other minor ventures. He put people up when they needed it, fed them, kept their mail for them, advised them about legal matters, wrote letters, and did whatever else was necessary. He was always scrupulously honest and did not ask people for payment when they had none.

My father slept the night there. Tarnov advised him in the morning to go to the stockyards nearby since there was stock being shipped to Edmonton. Almost as soon as he arrived at the stockyards with his zhorna, my father found a Ukrainian farmer who was taking pigs to Edmonton. The farmer told my father that he could come along if he paid him $5. My father said he had made only $6 on the harvest and Edmonton was still a long way from home. They finally settled on $1.25, so now my father had $4.75 left.

The farmer was taking the pigs to 101st street in Edmonton, which is the street the Immigration Hall was on. He left my father and his zhorna there. My father hid the smaller rock under the stairs of the Immigration Hall and putting the other rock wrapped in a blanket on his back, set off for the Dunvegan freight marshalling yards five miles away.

Two hundred pounds is heavy and it was getting dark. Walking by some elevators, he stopped to rest by leaning back against the crossbar on the door to ease the weight of the rock. Down the way he saw a flashlight, but ignored it until the person approached him.

What are you carrying? the voice behind he light asked.

Gold, my father replied irritably, starting to walk away.

The man seized the rock and since it was heavy, my father was knocked over. Lying on the ground, he started cursing, but he couldn’t speak English well enough to do it properly.

What language do you speak? the man asked.

Ukrainian, my father replied and to his surprise the man started speaking Ukrainian. He turned out to be a trilingual German from Bruderheim who was in the RCMP. My father told him about how he hadn’t made much money on the harvest so he had been given the zhorna and was taking them home.

How will you get them home?

I’ve already got that planned. I tie them onto a place under the train I know about while the freight is still in the marshalling yard, then I will jump the same freight and get to Rycroft that way.

What if you can’t? What if you try to jump the freight carrying the rock? It is difficult enough for an unencumbered man to jump a freight but if you try it with a heavy weight on your back, you’ll fall under the wheels and be cut in two.

I’ll take my chances, my father said. I don’t have much choice.

Don’t be dumb, man. Go down to the RCMP station and they will give you a permit to ride on the train free.

My father laughed. The police? They are agents of the bourgeoisie. Pahnski sobaki. You wouldn’t help a poor man.

You talk like a communist. Who gave you red spectacles?

Red spectacles! Haven’t I been here for six years, working harder than in the old country and for nothing? My wife and children are waiting at home for me to bring enough money to live through the winter. Someone had to give me red spectacles? Can’t I see for myself?

Oh, things will get better. In the meantime, the police will help you out. He gave my father an address.

My father continued walking to the marshalling yards where he buried the rock , then walked back to get the other one, which he likewise hid. Then he went back to sleep under the steps of the Immigration Hall. In the morning he got in the food line-up, breakfasted on oats porridge and went to address the policeman had given him.

Did you think they were going to help you? I asked him in amazement.

No, of course not. I wanted evidence against the capitalist system.

Oh, you didn’t have enough evidence – with making no money, and that house and the farm and no roads, and…. Oh no! That wasn’t enough evidence, you had to humbly ask for more!

Never mind, my father said, taking a drink from the vodka bottle I had set in front of him. At 8 a.m. I am waiting at the copshop, forty years ago. The German policeman was not there, but instead, some kind of sergeant. What do you want? he says to me. I shake my ragged jacket sleeve at him. Then I lean over and shake the legs, one at a time, of my ragged overalls. Then I pull up my pant leg so he can see my ragged running shoes which I had mended with a piece of twine. In my broken English, I tell him about the $6, my wife and children, and the zhorna. He is very sympathetic, a good man. I even show him the $4.75 I have left. He says he understands and is appalled but that the RCMP have no funds for such circumstances. I can see he would give me his own money if he had any, but the police didn’t get paid too well in those days either. You can’t ride a freight with those rocks, the sergeant tells me, because you’ll get killed. I sympathize but if we catch you tomorrow, we’ll put you in jail rather than let your children be orphans.

The sergeant gave my father the address of the relief office and he went there next. He went through the same routine of shaking his rags and showing his twine-mended shoes. They were also sympathetic but they were the relief office only for the city of Edmonton and couldn’t give him a travel voucher beyond the city. They couldn’t even give him a meal ticket because he had showed them he had $4.75.

They sent him to walk to another place near the legislative buildings. The office had a name on it: Mr. McKenzie. My father went inside and there was a secretary. He shook his ragged jacket, his ragged trousers, and showed her his twine-mended shoes.

Mr. McKenzie! she called over her shoulder.

A pahn came in, and my father began shaking his rags but Mr. McKenzie asked him to please not repeat the story as he had been listening from his office.

How long have you lived in Canada? he asked.

Six years, my father replied.

Are you a citizen?


Why not?

I haven’t had time. I’ve been working at clearing some land, paying back debts, building a house, digging a garden. Nor had I the money for the application.

We can’t help you then. You’re not a Canadian.

But I need help.

We don’t need your kind of people here! I’ll give you a ticket back to Russia.

I need help, my father said, and I will sit here in your office until I get it.

He sat there all day and they pretended he wasn’t there. At four o’clock Mr. McKenzie told him they were locking the office and would he please leave. My father said he wouldn’t leave until he got help.

Oh, you need help, do you? Mr. McKenzie said, and he dialled on the telephone. Soon a burly cop entered the room.

Did you call? he asked.

Throw that man out, said Mr. McKenzie.

Which man, the policeman asked, although my father was the only other person there.

That one, Mr. McKenzie said, pointing at my father.

The burly cop grabbed my father with one hand by the back of his collar and the other by the seat of his pants and pushed him at a fast run down the stairs. My father ran at a tremendous speed to keep from falling, down the stairs and out the door, then finally fell on the lawn. Christ, a man wants to cry at a time like that. Crouched on the grass on all fours, my father said “sonofabitch” through his teeth and finally gathered up the strength to get up.

Well, I said handing him the vodka bottle, you had the evidence against capitalist you wanted.

Yes, I did. And heavy with the weight of this evidence, I walked again to Dunvegan. I crawled into a field near the marshalling yards and lying between the rows so no one could see me, dug potatoes with my hands and stuffed them inside my shirt, the way peasants do, you know, za pasookhu.


Then I went to a different place and started a fire over which I cooked the potatoes. I really ate a lot of potatoes.

You said before about cooking potatoes. What did you cook them in?

A tin can. There were always tin cans lying around. Most of us carried salt with us, tied in a rag. That was no problem. The rest of the trip wasn’t much of a problem either. I tied the rocks onto a freight going to Rycroft and jumped the same freight, just as I had planned. At Rycroft, I left the rocks with Roslanovsky and walked the 14 miles home. Normally, I would ride the freight to the Burnt River which was a lot closer to home, and jump off it when the train slowed down for the grade, but with the rocks this time I couldn’t do that. Andrew and Sawa Shura owned one horse each by this time, so I stopped by Andrew Shura’s on the way home and asked them to bring my rocks home the next time they were in Rycroft, which they did in return for some work. I still had to carry them home a mile from Andrew’s because there was no road yet over that creek by our place. The same day I bought some salt and some kerosene in Rycroft and spent all of the $4.75.

So we were penniless again, my father said, and winter had not yet begun. Your mother had already been to the relief office and been turned down. Selevich was facing assault charges for being thrown out of the relief office.

Nikolaychuk and I went to the relief office and got a $5 voucher each. Then they told us that anyone who got relief would be deported, so we didn’t go back again.

Well, my father said to Nikolaychuk, how are we going to live?

I know a way, Nikolaychuk replied, but it will be difficult.

Difficult is not impossible.

I know how to kill and skin squirrels, said Nikolaychuk, and I will teach you how. A man cannot go hunting alone, there must be a partner.

Bullets cost money.

I’ve got two boxes of bullets, said Nikolaychuk, and they cost 25 cents a box. I will loan you one of them. Can you borrow a .22?

Sure. Omelyan has one.

A two-bit box contained 50 bullets. No matter how careful a person is, sometimes you miss and it may take several bullets to kill a squirrel. The average was about two bullets per squirrel and the skins were selling for two and a half cents each. The first day they went hunting they killed 25 squirrels and expected to get 75 cents for them. After skinning and stretching them, my father walked to Spirit River – 18 miles away – to sell them at Harper’s Co-op. And for once, a miracle occurred! The price had gone up and he got a nickel per skin. He bought two boxes of bullets and still had 75 cents left over. He doesn’t remember what he bought with it.

We couldn’t tell anyone, my father said, that we were selling squirrels for a nickel each or I wouldn’t have been able to borrow a .22 any more. So Nikolaychuk and I disappeared early next morning and our wives told everyone we had gone to look for work. We stayed overnight this time, until all the bullets were gone. This time Nikolaychuk went to Spirit River. I told him what to buy for me with the money and he bought me what I wanted and gave me some money besides because the price was then seven and a half cents per skin. By spring, squirrel skins were twelve and a half cents each. We got through the winter all right.

What was Mother doing all this time? I asked. There was her and the two children alone most of the time.

She did whatever women do when looking after small children. She was a good mother. There was lots and lots of work to do, all that wood and water to be brought in….

But what did she think about it all? Summer is precarious enough, but winter? All my life she told us we would freeze to death if we once stopped that continuous getting and chopping and carrying of wood. Was she bitter then? Those years that fear was taking over her mind, was she bitter?

I don’t know.

Did you talk to each other?

Oh sure, we talked. But…

He beat her the day he got home from the relief office. He came home tired, hungry, angry. They have each told me different versions of how it started so I include neither version since I don’t think the details matter. In both versions, for no good reason, my father beats up my mother.

I have been insulted and starved and degraded, my father said. None of those pahnni treated me like a human being, but like some beast of burden, but no matter… I was still boss in my own house, and I could still beat the shit out of my wife and so I did.

I started to hand him the vodka bottle but then thought I better have one myself first.

But you’ve already told me…, I said. She was just as degraded and insulted and peasant women always had to work harder than men, and on top of that she had you to deal with? Was she bitter?

Maybe she was, but she was never afraid. I have never known another person like her. She was never afraid. Even, I had gun to her once and she spit in my eye. How are you going to look after the children if you kill me? she asks. She was never afraid.

He was only her husband so he wouldn’t know. Like all peasant women, my mother never accepted the inferior role handed to her. But I was her daughter and I knew she was afraid. Afraid of freezing, afraid of starving. No, that’s not right for death itself never held any particular threat for her. What she was afraid of was cold, hunger, illness…

In the spring, my father continued, another one of them pahns arrived. He said we would be deported because of that $5 relief voucher. They couldn’t deport Soviet Ukrainians because of the political situation, but our part of the country was still ruled by the Polish empire at the time. They deported thousands of our people after the Winnipeg General Strike, yet they were still fearful of the poor for they might become communist. Nikolaychuk wasn’t a communist so he wouldn’t be deported but the pahn told me we would be deported. Then we didn’t know what to do. It didn’t seem worthwhile to clear any more land because we wouldn’t be planting it the following spring, and people all around us were being deported. So we just sort of dragged around, still working, but mostly waiting.

In the summer, this policeman arrived, my father said. We had planted a garden but it yielded poorly that year. I was out clearing land, sort of half-heartedly. Who knew what might happen? The policeman spoke to your mother, walked around the house, then pulled out one of the poor carrots from the garden and ate it. Then he came to see me and said: I’ve been watching you for two hours, you know. Oh? All these mosquitoes, the policeman said. It was all bush and swamp, the area around there before we cleared it, and mosquitoes bred in unbelievable masses. Wherever a person went there would be a cloud of mosquitoes so thick you couldn’t see him.

I know, I said. My mother once told me she couldn’t take little Rose outside because she would get bitten by mosquitoes and get infected and babies could die of it.

Yeah, well, I don’t know anything about children, that was her job. This policeman said he had been watching me work, surrounded by mosquitoes. He asked me what I thought about being deported. I told him I didn’t care one way or the other, but that I wished they would make up their minds. The policeman said we hadn’t been deported yet because of the previous police report, but I didn’t know anything about that report.

Why don’t you care about leaving? the policeman asked my father.

You saw my house, my father said, you saw how my children are dressed, you saw what furniture we have, what food we eat? Tell me, do you think it’s possible for life to be any worse?

No, the policeman replied.

Then why should I care about leaving it?

All right, the policeman said, why don’t you want to go home then?

It isn’t much better there. It would be better because we then we would be with our own people. On the other hand, I left six years ago to go to America and if I go back now, they will call me “the American” for the rest of my life and talk about how I left to find a better life and came back ragged and hungry…

I see, the policeman said. We won’t deport you if you sign this form which says you will never apply for relief again.

But my father refused. You do whatever you want, he told the policeman, but I can’t sign any such form. For myself I might, but if my children are hungry, I will do whatever I have to do to feed them.

Soon they received word from Haig, the storekeeper who was also the postmaster, that their deportation had been postponed. They were tired of hanging around like that, not knowing if they would be allowed to live here or not.

I still had some money from the squirrels, my father said, and that summer I went to the court in Grande Prairie and paid the $5 necessary to apply for naturalization papers.

The court was full of people waiting to be called. I was about second. The secretary tells the judge I don’t speak English, but the judge says he will talk to me and find out for himself. He asks me about the relief and I tell him I had made no money on the harvest and had no way to live through the winter. Then I tell him about the squirrels.

Naturally, the judge says, as soon as you had some money you rushed down and repaid the $5 to the relief office.


Why not?

I don’t have $5 to spare. I made only enough money to keep myself and my family.

But you had $5 left over to make this application.

Yes, I judged it important because I don’t want to wait around to be deported.

The judge says I speak very good English and he had enjoyed speaking to me so much that instead of granting me naturalization now, he will ask me to come back later and speak some more. There is a buzz in the courtroom, all the people there having been curious to see how a communist would be dealt with.

I went home and stopped in Haig’s store on my way. You got your papers, Haig says, and I tell him no, and tell him what the judge said.

But I’m a government agent, being a postmaster, Haig says, and I know better than the judge. I know you got your papers.

I tell him he’s crazy. But only a week later when I went to the store, he waved an official envelope at me. He wasn’t supposed to be opening the mail, but he knew what was in it.

And that’s how I became a Canadian.

Naturalization for wives of citizens was almost automatic, so my mother got her papers soon after. And that’s how I came to be born a Canadian about five or six years later.



May 27, 2009

(First printed in A Flight of Average Persons, New Star, 1979 and reprinted in Yarmarok, Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies, 1987)

I’d like to tell you a story I know that no one wants to hear.  I have told enough such stories to disgusted and bored audiences to know that nobody is interested in hearing them.  There are millions of such stories, of which I know only a few hundred, and of which I wish to tell you one right now.

The story concerns an old man who was born in Polish-occupied western Ukraine and suffered the oppression of serfdom under Polish lords.  While Ukrainian peasants rebelled against serfdom every generation, they were never successful.  So like a lot of other people, this man left the country between the wars and came to live in Canada.  As he was a communist, he rejoiced when he heard the news that his homeland was freed from Polish imperialism and was to be converted to socialist prosperity and made into a classless society.

Like a great many old men, this one wished to visit his homeland once before he died.  So he went back, all these decades of socialism later, still remembering as old men often do, every detail of life as a youth under the Polish oppressors.

Many old men and some old women are now going back for such visits.  The women talk about it a little when they come back, but only because it doesn’t matter very much what women say.  Very few women were communists anyway, politics being men’s work.

The men do not talk because if they did, they would be shamed before their peers.  If you are an old communist, it is better that you should die than that you should slander the Soviet Union.  I am not going to explain that because I can’t.  It is simply a fact.  So they all go and they come back with colour slides of approved showplaces, and pictures of the relatives dressed in their Sunday best, and pictures of the monuments to the heroes who died defending the great fatherland during the great fatherland war and they repeat the official statistics.  If you get them drunk and insist they tell you the truth, some will cry, others will whine about customs officials, but no one will slander the Soviet Union.  They’ll tell you where they went and what the food on the plane was like and what museums they went to and insist that you look at those pictures of the relatives in their Sunday best and they will quote official statistics at you.

If someone has a relative who is a worker or a bureaucrat, no matter how minor, then they can tell a little about how they live really, without slandering the Soviet Union.  But forty-two percent of the population is still engaged in agriculture, and almost all the immigrants from western Ukraine to Canada were peasants and it follows therefore, that their relatives still in western Ukraine are peasants rather than workers or bureaucrats.  So there are only two choices: they either keep quiet about how those relatives live or they slander the Soviet Union.  Most people choose to keep quiet.

The old man, whose name was, I think, Petro (although it may have been Ivan), understood the rules followed so carefully by thousands of others.  He went to the Soviet Union to visit but when he came back, he transgressed and asked a question.  He was not very descriptive and he certainly did not intend to be malicious.  He was, quite simply, in a state of shock and needed help in understanding.

The question he asked concerned haying.  Haying is itself a fairly simple matter but the social situation under which it is done is very often not.  In order to understand the old man’s babbling, it is necessary to understand a little about collective farms.

How it works is, to use milk as an example, none of the milk produced on the collective farm is available to the peasants.  I don’t know where it goes.  “Out there,” they tell me, pointing up or around.  “They” drink the collective farm milk.  It is all collected in proper containers, properly sterilized, properly pasteurized and it is all a miracle of technology, they tell me.  But the peasants don’t get any.  “Those in higher classes,” they will finally say, “pahnni”.  But they hasten to explain that there are, of course, no classes in the Soviet Union.

In spite of this lack of classes, if the milkmaid who milks the collective farm cows wants some milk, she must own her own cow kept in her own private plot, beside her own private house.  As the collective farm belongs to the people, you would think she could help herself to some milk while milking.  If, however, she gets caught, she would go to jail for stealing.

In addition to all the above, it should be noted that the cow has a quota for the butterfat she must produce.  There isn’t much you can do to a cow who doesn’t produce the required amount of butterfat one day – due perhaps to some minor illness, poor quality grass, or maybe even the weather.  It is unlikely the cow even knows she has a quota.  The person who gets the blame if the cow does not produce the requisite amount of butterfat is the milkmaid.  So as well as guards for making sure the collective farm workers don’t eat what they produce, there is an inspector who takes a sample with a syringe out of the milkmaid’s paid and tests it for butterfat quantity.  If the butterfat content is too low the milkmaid gets criticized, loses any bonus or award she might otherwise have earned, and ultimately, if the cow doesn’t shape up, gets transferred to a worse job.  (I asked if the inspector was one of the “they” who actually got to drink some of the milk but did not receive a satisfactory answer.)

That is why the milkmaid must own her own cow.  If you have a cow, you must also feed her.  As no one owns any land apart from their garden plot, the only place to get hay is from the collective farm.  In order to get hay for her/his cow the peasant contracts out a piece of land with hay on it from the collective farm.  The peasant then cuts all the hay on this piece of land and for every four bundles she/he turns in to the collective farm, she/he gets to keep one for her cow.  That is, every fifth bundle is theirs.

So the old man, Petro (or Ivan or Stepan), went back to visit his homeland after all the years of socialism.  The trouble with him was that although he was a communist, he was also a peasant and understood nothing of Leninist dogma and had no opinion at all on Marxism and the National Question.  He saw that under Polish oppression he had worked for the landowners for every third bundle whereas now people were working for every fifth bundle.  He was aware there were now schools for the children and there was some medical care, for which people ought to have been grateful.  I’m sure he had the tonnage of steel production explained to him, and that he saw at least some of the monuments to the great fatherland war but he either didn’t remember or didn’t care about that.  He saw and remembered that peasants worked for every fifth bundle.

So he came home, a bewildered old man, and he made the rounds of all his old friends and asked each one of them how it came to be that under Polish serfdom, peasants had worked for the landowner for every third bundle and now they only got every fifth bundle.  He made no mention of the militarism, the fact that you have to speak Russian to get a job in a Ukrainian city, the position of women, the absence of consumer goods, or any other stuff that constitutes slandering the Soviet Union.  Nor was he critical, vindictive or malicious in his questioning.  He was simply confused.  At first he visited people at their homes but as he was always unwelcome, he hung around East Hastings looking for people he knew.  He went from person to person, seizing them by the lapels to prevent escape, and said that peasants now got only every fifth bundle whereas he had worked for the Polish lords for every third bundle.  How am I to understand this? he asked over and over again.  Please, can you explain it to me?

People brushed him off as one would an old man.  When he nevertheless persisted in his questioning, they began avoiding him and if he caught them anyway, people told him they were tired of his nattering about the fifth bundle and couldn’t he leave them alone.

The old man died; whether his death was at all connected with his failure to understand is unlikely.  All old men must die some time and most of them die confused.

All the old communists came to his funeral, for one must do one’s ritual duty in death as well as in life.  It is unclear whether they came to mourn or simply to see if he really had ceased slandering the Soviet Union.  In any case they were relieved to find that while they walked within touching distance of the old man in the open coffin, not once did they hear him make any mention of the fifth bundle.

That’s the end of the story.  The reason no one wants to hear such stories is that they are interpreted as slandering the Soviet Union.  For those who are against such activities, any notion of imperfection in the USSR is sin.  For the others, slander is insufficient unless it includes mass starvation and lice.  But I swear that my intention at this time is not to slander the Soviet Union.  My intention, while slanderous, has quite a different target.

October, 1977


Copyright 2009, Helen Potrebenko. For permissions please visit


May 17, 2009

(First printed in Riding Home, Talon Books,1995)

Supervisor – any person given small power
Andrea – 20’s, Canadian
Evelyn – around 30, Canadian
Frouida – 40’s, from Uganda
Annette – 40’s, from Fiji
Gudrun – 30’s, from Hong Kong
Alice – 20’s, Canadian
and 19 others of varying ages and colours.
One man in a suit and about three men in coveralls.

Time: 1982

Scene: Office with 25 typewriters lined up – 2 rows of 10 down, the middle at an angle and 3 on each side, one of which is larger and separated by a screen. There is a low screen between the two rows of ten desks.


Andrea and Evelyn walk to opposite front edges of the stage.

Andrea: That summer of the layoffs, I was trying to organize us into a union…

Evelyn: And I was chasing men…

Andrea: Without much success…

Evelyn: Without much success, until….

Andrea: We work, that’s what we do; We dream, that’s what we do. In good times, we dream of better jobs, more pay, a nice boyfriend. In bad times, of any job, even this one.

Evelyn: Some of us just want the nice boyfriend.

A large clock shows 8:45. Women are drifting in, some chattering together, some coming in singly. They put their purses and other bags in their desk drawers, talking while doing so, and then gather at the three desks at the top end. They are saying things like:

…family dinner…
Bobby had a sore throat…
…got all my baking done…
…sewing a new outfit for my niece…

Andrea and Evelyn walk over and join the group. Andrea hands out union leaflets but no one reads them. They drift around talking and put the leaflets in purses, drawers or pockets. Andrea starts talking to Evelyn. Soon the background voices diminish as Evelyn and Andrea’s conversation attracts their interest.

Andrea: Well, I thought about putting an ad in the paper, but have you seen the ads lately. Ugh!

Evelyn: Dolly is bugging me to go to an agency. They’re supposed to match you with one guy a week. Dolly just wants to do it to get lots of dates. You know how she is…

Frouida: Why don’t you just go to those singles places?

Andrea and Evelyn laugh.

Frouida: Aren’t there those nightclub kind of places and pubs and that sort of thing? Sometimes when we go with my husband, there seems to be a lot of men by themselves.

Andrea and Evelyn laugh again.

Andrea: Have you ever met any of them?

Evelyn: First of all, they’re married. You can’t tell the married ones from the single ones. And they’re after one thing. Right now. Before they even tell you their name, or instead of telling you their name….

Andrea: I always ask them for their phone number when they ask for mine. They get really upset.

Annette: (shocked) Whatever would you do that for?

Andrea: That way you get some clue if they’re married, if they won’t give you their home phone number. Although one did and I called and a woman answered the call and says I’ll give my husband the message.

Evelyn: They talk about chains and things. They say they’re not ready for commitment. They’re just ready for one thing.

Andrea: And if you ask them who do they think they are anyway, they start calling you names. Or they cry. Or they cry and call you names. Have you ever met one who didn’t cry, Evelyn?

Evelyn: Then there’s AIDS. There’s still herpes. They’re all drunk.

Andrea: So what? So are you.

Evelyn: Shut up! Witch!

Frouida: I thought AIDS was only for those men, you know…

Evelyn: I don’t know, they say not. They used to say that if you slept with a person you slept with everybody he slept with in the last year. Now they’re saying five years. I heard seven years the other day.

Frouida: (patting Evelyn comfortingly) Well, it’s not something to worry about.

Evelyn: All very well for you to talk! You’re not on the front lines!

Andrea: Speaking of front lines, we should join the union before…

Annette: It’s already too late. I heard it’s starting this morning.

The clock shows 8:59. The women all sit at their desks and turn on their typewriters. Each typewriter has a pile of forms sitting beside it all lined up exactly and all exactly the same height. Each of the typists puts a form in her typewriter and exactly at 9:00, they all start typing.

The supervisor comes in, goes to her desk and surveys the room from there. The typists are all typing away, heads down, backs straight. Supervisor walks up to five women one after the other, leans over and says something quietly to them. Each stops typing, and stands up, and then they all follow the supervisor out. The remaining typists do not look up or pause in their typing.

The supervisor comes back and takes the piles that were beside the typewriters of the five women who have left and distributes them among the remaining typists.

Some men in coveralls come in and dismantle five of the desks and carry them out. The typing does not pause.


8:45. There are now only 20 desks and the right hand partition has been moved to make a smaller space.


Frouida walks to the centre of the stage.

Frouida: And so it began, the summer of the layoffs.
Each of us hoped we wouldn’t be next.
Even when my best friend was laid off,
all I thought is I hope I won’t be next.
The trouble is, the piles of forms
block the view. And even dreams
shrink to fit onto preprinted forms.
I dream that my crippled child will walk;
I dream my other child will excel
in school or in sports.
I dream my husband will make a lot of money.
And all the time, I type the forms
and think that with no job security,
the dreams are faded and dirty
like a form with too many corrections,
and you have to tear it up,
enter the number in the book
and start again clean,
if you can.

The women come in as before, talking to each other, but they are not animated now, they move slower, and, of course, there are fewer of them. Frouida joins them.
She cried and cried….

Alice has a new job already….

…..severance pay, unemployment insurance….

Gudrun wishes she had left earlier….

Andrea and Evelyn stroll in, looking happy and relaxed in contrast to the tension and depression of the others.

Annette: All very well for them – no family to support.

Frouida: But they’re trying…they’re trying.

Everybody laughs.

Frouida: You found the one yet?

Andrea says no but Evelyn looks smug.

Evelyn: (to Andrea) Don’t tell them.

Andrea: Oh no! I wouldn’t dream of telling! After all, it’s disgusting to have gone to a dating agency. It indicates a certain level of desperation you’re never supposed to admit. I know! Tell them you met him while he was dead drunk on the pub floor. That’s respectable. (Turns to the other women) So there’s this guy, dead drunk on the barroom floor, Evelyn picks him up, hoses him down, drives him home and now she has a date for every night this week.

Frouida: What’s he like? Is he nice?

Evelyn: As nice as any drunk on the pub floor can be. Laughs) Actually, he’s very nice.

Frouida: Not married.

Evelyn: Well, he is actually. His wife doesn’t live with him though. She was really the drunk, not him.

Andrea: He left her because she was a drunk?

Evelyn: No, actually, she left him. She ran away with the next door neighbour, I gather he was a drunk too.

Frouida: Any children?

Evelyn: No, not John. The next door neighbour had children though.

Andrea: I hate to interrupt this romance here, but we should talk about layoffs and union.

She hands everyone a leaflet. The women take them but don’t read them, just stand around awkwardly holding the leaflets. The supervisor comes in, there is an immediate silence and the leaflets disappear into handbags or under piles of paper. They sit at their desks and promptly at 9:00 a.m., the typewriters all start up.

A man in a suit comes in and calls away seven of the women. The typewriters falter now and then as the remaining ones watch the typewriters being moved out and the desks dismantled. The supervisor patrols the aisles. Whenever someone turns their head to watch the desks being moved, the supervisor walks over and raps her fingers on that typist’s desk. Every minute or so she shouts: GIRLS! TALKING!


8:45. Partition has been moved to shrink the typing space some more. There are only 13 desks left now.


Annette goes to the front of the stage.

Annette: I would have liked to join them,
young, white and energetic,
talking union, talking men.
But each day starts too early
and ends too late.
My only goal is to stay awake.
So that’s all I do all day,
think about raising children
on a typist’s pay
and concentrate
on not falling asleep.

The women come in studying leaflets. Sighs and paper rustling.

…we should have done it earlier…
…other departments won’t join though….
…too scared…..

Andrea: We could still join. There are still thirteen of us left.

Annette: By tomorrow there won’t be.

Frouida: Union means strike.

Andrea: Strike is better than layoff. Strike means a job, more money, more job security.

Frouida: Union means strike.

Andrea: There were no strikes in Uganda, were there? No strikes, no hospitals, poor roads, no schools…and everything that goes with no union and no strike. No old age pension, not even a telephone system. That’s what goes with no strike.

Annette: Gudrun got another job. If we join, we’ll never get another job.

Andrea: Susan and Eileen and Sarah haven’t got another job yet.

Annette: They get unemployment insurance.

Andrea: How long will that last?

Frouida: Union means strike.

Andrea throws up her hands in rage and stamps her feet.

Evelyn comes in, looking so smug they all have to smile.

Annette: What love does for you!

Frouida: Getting married yet?

Evelyn just smiles smugly and puts down her purse on her desk.

Annette: Is your mother pleased?

Evelyn suddenly loses her smugness and collapses into a chair.

Evelyn: She hates me. She hates John’s mother.

Andrea: Does John mind?

Evelyn: Oh, she loves John. None of it is John’s fault. It’s me who’s going out with a married man. She goes on and on.

Andrea: Why does she hate John’s mother?

Evelyn: John’s mother lives in John’s house. Or maybe John lives in her house. Or maybe they share it. I don’t know. John’s mother has two dogs and a boyfriend named Tiger.

Frouida: She’s not married?

Evelyn: No, and in fact she’s trying to get rid of Tiger. But she can’t because she co-signed a loan for him. So it must be her house, I just realized, otherwise, how could she co-sign a loan? So if she throws Tiger out and he doesn’t pay the loan, she’s out about $15,000.

Annette: This Tiger sounds delightful.

Evelyn: So she has to buy him food and clothing and liquor – and how that man puts away liquor! – just to safeguard her investment.

Frouida: Hm. $15,000 to throw him out. How much to keep him?

Evelyn: She’d lose the house, you see. I know she doesn’t have that kind of money.

Andrea: What about John?

They look at the clock and sit down at their desks and start typing. After a while, a man in a suit comes in and calls seven of them away again. The remaining ones keep typing. Men come in and start dismantling and rearranging desks.


8:45. The desks have been rearranged to fit the smaller space. There are only six desks left now. The other side of the partition is being used for storage and is full of boxes.


Andrea walks to the front of the stage.

Andrea: And I saw that the job was over
and I thought maybe
the next one would be better,
if there was a next one at all.
And I thought of all the years
and all the jobs
and of the years and jobs
yet to come.
If we don’t make a stand,
they will all slip away like this.
We will always be going away like this,
one by one,
with only tears
to light the way.

The women walk in silently and silently deposit purses and coats as appropriate. Evelyn comes in. They all turn to look at her hopefully but she is just as depressed as they are.

Evelyn: He’s gone quiet. He watches and waits.

No one says anything. They stare at the floor or out the window.

Evelyn: He’ll find something wrong with me, won’t he? He’s sure to find something. He’ll say it’s this or that, won’t he? I’ll believe him, won’t I? There’s always something.

Annette: Are you being nice to him?

Evelyn: Does it matter what I do? He’ll find something, won’t he?

Evelyn sits down and stares at her typewriter. Looks around, seems confused that there are so few desks.

Evelyn: Where did everybody go?

Andrea: We’ve got to plan our lives. Are we just going to let it happen? Are we going to drift along, let our jobs disappear and not lift one little finger?

Frouida: Union means strike.

Andrea: Non-union means layoff.

Evelyn: John says they lay off at union places too.

Andrea: There it’s an orderly layoff with orderly recall.

Evelyn: That would be nice. To know… (She trails off and stares into space.)

Andrea: Why won’t you consider it then?

Annette: You have to sign up everyone, not just the typists.

Andrea: (grimly) I’m working on it.

Annette: You can’t do it though.

Andrea: I could if you helped.

Evelyn: You don’t understand. I don’t give a shit about this job. This one or any other one. They’re all the same. Those people who got laid off get a rest, while we get more and more work piled on us. No more coffee breaks now. Now the supervisor says we can’t leave at 5 if there’s still some typing left.

Andrea: Those issues can be covered in a union contract.

Evelyn: I don’t care about this job!

Andrea: (stung) What about of those of us who do care? And what about John? I suppose you don’t care about him either.

Evelyn: Don’t be a creep!

Nine o’clock and they all start typing.


Another 8:45 but the office is still empty. The six typists come in about 8:56. They exchange brief good mornings but do not talk, going straight to their typewriters and to work.

Evelyn comes in last, defeated and depressed, goes to her typewriter.

Andrea: Gone, eh?

Evelyn nods, chokes. Andrea reaches to pat Evelyn but just then the supervisor strides in and seeing Andrea reaching towards Evelyn, veers to stride menacingly towards them. Andrea’s hand drops from patting Evelyn, back to her typewriter. Evelyn has apparently not even noticed Andrea’s small attempt at a comforting gesture.
Evelyn: So it was gone,
my time for summer dreams.
I hadn’t been laid off then yet.
Hundreds, no, more likely thousands by then
but not yet me.
I was special.
Aren’t we all special?
I fell in love.
Don’t we all fall in love?

At 9:05 a man in a suit comes in and Andrea is called out. The others don’t even look up. Other men come in and remove Andrea’s desk. The others keep typing without a pause.

Evelyn turns towards the front of the stage and walks forward.

What I wanted was so ordinary.
How did ordinary desire for love and home
become an impossible dream
that summer of the layoffs?

Eventually, of course,
they came for my desk, too.
I guess I’ll be reading the papers now –
want ads, the ones for jobs,
the ones for men,
the ones for cheap rooms.

I guess I’ll get by somehow.
Don’t we all get by somehow?
Dreaming of the past and future,
never of the present.

Never once did we,
do we,
look at each other,
talk about important things,
that summer of the layoffs.



Copyright 2009, Helen Potrebenko. For permissions please visit


May 15, 2009

(First printed in A Flight of Average Persons, New Star, 1979)

Just before I woke up, I heard my mother calling. Although she has been mute and in a hospital for years, she still calls me frequently, looking shadowy but whole – unparalyzed, able to speak. I don’t know what she wants and have long since ceased trying to figure it out. Poor old lady, I yawned that morning; there she is, mute in Winnipeg, so why doesn’t she stop calling. When she first began calling, I thought it was some kind of portent of disaster but it had happened so often now it just seemed like a normal part of life – if life had been normal.

Life hadn’t been normal for months. I was unemployed for one thing. And Jason was gone. Months already. How long, I asked the doctor, as she wrote another prescription for tranquillizers. A long time, she said. How long? She looked at me with cold and unsympathetic eyes. Never, she said, never.

Shaking off the drugged sleep, I got up to make coffee for Jeanette.

What are you doing up so early? she yawned.

My mother called, I yawned back.

I know, she said, coming awake. Since you’re up you could drive me to work. It’s cold.

Not that cold. I don’t drive people to work.

You could stop at the Manpower office on your way home.


You think I’m going to support you?

UIC won’t cut me off. I’m unemployable.

So what you gonna do? Sit around another two months? Wait for Jason to call? Listen for your mother? Your mother was telling you to get a job.

Won’t. My mother worked all her life. Now she’s paralyzed, unable to talk, unable even to die. That’s where it got her.

Maybe she’ll get her reward in heaven.

Shit. She’s already got her reward – hoping mutely to die. Only sinners get saved.

Nevertheless, I had been sufficiently guilted that I got dressed and took Jeanette to work. I almost went to the Manpower office. I did stop, in actual fact, having to my great annoyance, found a parking spot. But I only got as far as the first door and fled again, shaking with terror, covered with sweat. I sat in the car muttering, then drove away.

It was a cloudy morning and not as cold as Jeanette had pretended. There must have been only one patch of ice in the whole city. I hit it. The tail end of the car ahead of me swerved a bit but before I could appreciate the significance of this, I hit the ice. I didn’t brake because I was too surprised. The car swerved in a sickening fashion; I turned the wheel in the direction of the skid, then went flying across the road into the path of the oncoming traffic. I saw a man’s startled face as the missile I was riding hurtled past him. Another car braked before it hit mine, and I was flying sideways towards a large green car in the right lane. The driver, looking straight ahead, drove along as if everything was normal. My missile didn’t reach him. There had been only one patch of ice and the car, having slid sideways across two lanes of dry pavement, came to a stop.

I rubbed my forehead, then looking around to see other drivers rubbing their heads in bewilderment. The green car was gone, its driver presumably never having noticed how close he had come to getting blasted. I got out, checked the tires, then found to my amazement that the car started immediately. So I drove away again, in the direction the car was facing, which was back downtown again.

But once again, I didn’t make it to the Manpower office. Was I really obligated, having been so nearly dead? At least I made it home without further mishap.

Mr. Moysiuk, the landlord, invited me in for coffee. I refused but after getting upstairs and finding we had nothing to drink in our suite, went back again to accept. He poured out a vodka as well as coffee.

The woman wasn’t there. She had been old and broken, hopelessly addicted to cigarettes, coffee and alcohol., shaking all over, makeup slightly awry, her soul long since shrivelled by a long succession of horrors. Dyadya, don’t hurt this woman, she’s already used up. He had said she was his friend’s wife but that did that mean these days?

Grinning, Mr. Moysiuk handed me a letter, written on a scrap of brown paper by a shaky hand.

Dear Dennis. It’s 2 a.m. I’ve called a taxi. I won’t be back. You’re not the man I thought you were. I see now that I never meant anything to you. Goodbye and god bless you. Love.

She wash the floor, Mr. Moysiuk said, still grinning. Then she leave.

I poured myself another drink of vodka.

You look for a job today? Mr. Moysiuk asked.

None of your business. I almost got killed today. You sleep with your friend’s wife?

None of your business.

I write letters like that.

You? No, not like that.

Sure. Humble letters of love. All women do. Bless the men who screw them.

Don’t be foolish, he said angrily. You’re my relative. She alcoholic, Indian….

I left my coffee unfinished and went back upstairs. Crying. I had written Jason a letter like that once. Probably my mother wrote my father a letter like that.

I hadn’t eaten anything and the vodka felt warm in all my blood vessels so I crawled back into bed. But as soon as I closed my eyes, the sickening swerve started again. How long, Doctor? Never. Never? The car stopped eventually. But the swerve goes on and on, and I’m flying and flying out of control.

My mother could have told me. My mother knew. But my mother was silent and spoke only in my dreams. She probably wouldn’t recognize me this year. She recognized me last year but there was no joy in the recognition. Anna said the same thing. Anna visited more often but there was never any joy in my mother’s eyes. So why did we go? We just went. Year after year, like pilgrims. All my generation, in the annual mystic trek. Maybe if I had made a home with Jason, there wouldn’t be any more pilgrimages. But Jason was gone. How long, Doctor? Never.

What did I do? Why? Why? Why?

No reason. It just won’t work. You’re too intense, it’s your Slavic temperament. I’m not ready to be tied down.

It’s so difficult nowadays to find even a one-night stand. A few hours, if we’re lucky. A baby, if we’re lucky, to bring up in a shabby basement suite. No baby, but I’d got to wash Jason’s floors for some years, not just once while waiting for a taxi.

She doesn’t know how to hate. Women are taught love and men are taught hate. Fuck off, Jason said, just fuck off. And I had said I loved him.

I fell asleep and didn’t wake up until the afternoon. In my dreams, the car flew and flew. Just before I woke up, I heard my mother again. She was in a long black dress and black kerchief – whole and walking, hands clasped in front of her. Proschai, she said. That means good-bye but it also means forgive. I didn’t know which one she intended. I hope she meant good-bye. There is no possibility of forgiveness. She never killed anyone, or drank up her children’s money, or molested a child. She only laboured all her life and never had quite enough money to live on. There is no redemption for those who have not sinned.

February, 1975

Copyright 2009, Helen Potrebenko. For permissions please visit

Midnight Shift

March 31, 2009

(This story was broadcast on CBC-FM March 3, 1991 on the program “Writers and Company”. It was rebroadcast on CBC-AM on Peter Gzowski’s show October 23, 1992. It was printed in The Capilano Review, Series 2, No. 6/7, Fall, 1991.)

It must have been the winter of 1972/73 that I was locked in that cage on the midnight shift.

In 1971, when I had only one semester to go to get my university degree, I owed the income tax, car insurance and several personal loans as well as, of course, the student loans.

I was already driving cab weekends for Henry Olson. Nobody would give me a weekday car because I was only a mediocre driver. About February, 1971, I got a job driving a delivery truck for B.C. Piston and Shaft for $1.75 an hour. (A friend went around telling people I worked for Vancouver Screw and Gear.) The reason they hired women was, to quote the manager, because “women are better drivers and you pay them less”. So I carried around tailpipes and mufflers and carburetors and crankshafts and drove all over Vancouver for $1.75 an hour while men doing the same work earned $3 or $4 an hour. I still drove cab for Olson on weekends. It was the winter it snowed a lot and they only put snow tires on my truck after much argument. Snow tires don’t help much in wet Vancouver snow. But women are safe drivers.

My feet were always wet but I thought I should pay off the most urgent debts instead of buying boots. I also thought it would stop snowing soon.

My best jeans, then my second-best jeans got ruined by grease from the stuff I was carrying around. So did my ski jacket. I was working seven days a week, I was always tired, and my feet were cold. I asked for a raise. Don, the manager, told me I couldn’t get a raise because the other driver had been working there for five years and only got paid $1.95 an hour. “You can be replaced by a boy, you know,” Don said.

Both us drivers quit about the same time and were replaced by boys. Both the trucks were smashed up within a month. (There are always a few joys left in life!)

Then I worked for three months for a women’s group run by the Young Socialist League and the League for Socialist Action (Trotskyites) who had been granted an OFY grant (a government grant at the time that was to assist in youth employment) to find out about the availability of abortion and birth control. Someone else got this job for me and I accepted because I thought at least my clothes wouldn’t get wrecked from carrying crankshafts.

The YS/LSA had at the time decided that the abortion issue was the way to draw women into radical politics. Through their abortion, women would begin to understand the exploitative nature of capitalism. The OFY grant was to be used to do mass politicization of women through education about capitalism as evidenced by the lack of choice on abortion, and cause them to accept Trotskyite leadership in overthrowing the capitalist system.

Us employees, however, denounced the absurdity of leading women from abortion to revolutionary socialism on a three month government grant. We tried merely to fulfill the grant requirements which were to collect and compile information on the availability of abortion and birth control in B.C. and Yukon, in itself quite a job at the time. We didn’t earn enough to live on because we had to pay all the attendant expenses out of our pay.

At the end of the three months, I was so completely demoralized by my inability to find a decent job that I got another student loan and went back to finish university; while still driving cab for Olson on weekends.

Olson was the only good boss I ever had. He spoke to me only once in the two years I worked for him. I can’t remember what he said. I can, however, remember some of the volumes the YS/LSA spoke at their employees. It mostly had to do with them being true revolutionaries as opposed to me and my ilk who were holders of bourgeois values (like wanting boots in winter).

So I went back to university and did a brilliant Honours paper and got a first-class Honours B.A. I rushed into the Driver’s Room one day waving the notifying letter and announced to the backs of the drivers who were there filling out their sheets that I was now a Hon. B.A. First Class. Nobody said anything. I repeated the stupendous news. Still silence. Finally one of the drivers said: “Guess you’ll be asking for a steady car now, eh?”

And so it proved to be. But although I asked for a steady car, I didn’t get one and for most of 1972, drove cab on a spare basis which was only about 40 hours a week. Another driver once asked me what I did with the rest of my time. I said, “You know, most workers only work 40 hours a week and get coffee breaks and like that.” He looked embarrassed; I don’t suppose he did know. He never even went to the bathroom the whole nine or ten hour shift. Unlike me, he turned in really good sheets.

I applied for all kinds of jobs but nobody wanted to hire me. Several university professors propositioned me but none would give me a job. Nowadays you don’t hear so much about “overqualified” since most people are overqualified for the jobs they do. To me, in 1972, it became the dirtiest of all words. I was overqualified for everything I applied for. So I continued driving taxi.

In the fall of 1972, I fell in love with an owner/driver named Bob. He drove nights and I drove days. I started work around 4 a.m. whereas he finished work around 4 a.m. This had all sorts of comic possibilities which I must admit I didn’t see at the time. I must admit I don’t see them now either.

I asked Jeanette for a job on the switchboard. At first, I only spared for others a few afternoons a week, while still driving for Olson on weekends. Then Olson sold the car I had been driving, which occasioned the second conversation I ever had with him. I don’t remember what was said although he must have told me he was selling the car.

Jeanette said the only opening for a permanent switchboard job was on the 12 to 8 shift. I thought that was all right because I’d see Bob more often than if I was a cab driver. And that’s how I came to be locked in a cage.

The phone rang constantly. I wrote down addresses and slid them down the chute into the dispatcher’s smaller cage. His cage was to prevent the telephonist’s voices from interfering with his dispatching. The reason for locking us all in was that drivers going off shift turned in their money envelopes through the slot in the driver’s room. But there was a ground level window behind us through which any thief could leap, or simply point a gun. We were below ground level in our cage and could neither escape nor catch the thief, so the whole thing was ludicrous. There was, in fact, no necessity to lock us in for safety because this lay in the dispatcher being able to call for help on the radio. If we had ever needed help, dozens of cabs would have been there in minutes.

After getting trained, I found I could read while answering the phones. In fact, I had to read in self-defence against the way customers spoke. At first I thought it was just the pre-Christmas madness, then that it was an expression of the joyous season, then that I was somehow personally to blame. At least every fifth person said either “shit on you”, “piss on you” or “fuck you”. (A few years later, the night telephonist told me it was about every third call by then.) Often it was because the customer was told that the cab drivers were neither pimps, dope pushers nor bootleggers. Or the cab didn’t arrive within 30 seconds, or the driver didn’t grovel sufficiently to suit some drunken macho jerk. But mostly it was because a taxi telephonist is, by definition, nonhuman, along with waitresses, telephone operators, domestic labourers and other categories of women service workers. All the decent citizens, nice family men, promising young men on their way up, budding entrepreneurs, and not excluding true revolutionaries with raised consciousnesses, feel free to pour filth all over women workers without fear of retribution. I went home in the morning out of that begrimed cage feeling like I was wading through heaps of excrement.

The first weeks in the cage, I read a biography of Leon Trotsky who apparently was a brutal and arrogant person. While very depressing, this biography did do me some good in connection with Lorne, the regular night dispatcher. Lorne held something resembling a fascist philosophy and was anti-communist. So one night when he was raging about “get the bums off welfare” and how people should be forced to work or get put in concentration camps, I was able to tell him he agreed with the great communist, Leon Trotsky, and read him relevant quotes from Trotsky.

But soon I got too demoralized to read. I cleaned the part of the cage I could reach while attached to the headset but the cage grew filthier. Bob grew drunker and more destructive. I developed a sore throat which grew slightly worse each week and began to be accompanied by a mild fever. I was being paid $2.40 an hour. We got no lunch breaks or coffee breaks and as the junior telephonist, I had to get the senior’s permission to go to the bathroom. The only break was when Bob brought us coffee in the middle of the night. He was, of course, driving cab and when he found himself downtown during a lull in business, he would come down to the dispatch office with coffee, handing it down to us through the ground level window. It was wonderful.

There were three of us in that cage on the midnight shift. Half the time, these three were Lorne on dispatch, Cora as the senior, and me. Lorne made suggestive jokes until he found out I was an owner’s girlfriend and then he even had to forgive me for calling him a communist.

Cora was a happy woman and she was kind to me. I never talked to her about politics, afraid to lose the one kind person I knew on that job. She was a buxom laughing woman of about 55. Now long dead.

The other half the time I was on with Milton Felgar and Danny Ravetti. Milton was a part-time dispatcher and full-time graduate student at Simon Fraser University. I was delighted when I first learned Milton was a student but he soon put me in my place by listing all the professors he was close friends with and explaining that he was a radical, revolutionary socialist who knew all about internationalism and correct lines and had nothing but contempt for mere women, mere junior telephonists with unraised consciousnesses. Thereafter, he ceased speaking to me altogether.

Milton and Danny talked to each other all night. Danny was brutal and racist and sexist and not sane enough to hold down any job but a supervisory one. He told me that if I spoke except in answer to a direct question, I would get punched out. He told me to keep my head down and not look at him, Milton, or Milton’s dispatch board, or I would get punched out. If I was forced to ask the dispatcher a question as a result of a telephone query, Danny would yell SHURRUP and Milton would look pleased. So the customer waited on the phone while I wrote the question on paper and slid it down the chute to Milton who would then tell me the answer which I would then relay to the customer. Before Danny found out I was an owner’s girlfriend, he tried to drag me into the washroom to “cop a feel”.

Milton had been taught at university that this brutal, half-crazy man represented The Working Class so he fairly worshipped Danny and they talked all night.

Danny complained a lot because he didn’t own the taxi company and told Milton long involved stories about how he got cheated in the early days of the company when it acquired a multiplicity of owners. Milton agreed that the company needed one strong man to run it instead of a group of small shareholders.

But, Milton, you said you were a socialist! I said in horror once when Danny went to the washroom. Milton said of course he was a socialist, but what’s that got to do with the cab business? I couldn’t argue because Danny had returned and would punch me out if I talked to anyone except the telephone, from whence emerged all those myriad voices proposing to relieve themselves on me.

I tried to talk to Jeanette in the front office about the situation but Jeanette said adults should learn to get along and went away on holidays. I didn’t talk to the manager, an ex-cop with rotten teeth who also wished to drag me off to the washroom. I didn’t talk to the union because I didn’t know until later that I was in one. Bob was no help; he went to bed drunk, woke up and drank, and carried mickeys around in a brown paper bag to drink from all day.

I left that job in about March. Staggered away sick and dizzy and sweating, out of that filthy cage. Everything had turned grey. Leaning on the UIC counter, dripping sweat, I explained to some grey persons about being locked in a cage with madmen.

Then I went to see a doctor who said I didn’t have infectious mono and filled in a form for UIC. I spent the next six weeks on UIC sick leave because I didn’t have infectious mono, or so it seemed to me in my dazed condition.

Cora is dead. She was killed by a car driver while crossing the street at a marked crosswalk. The next junior telephonist did talk back to Danny and got beat up and lost his job. Danny was promoted. I’m sure Greta isn’t around. About once a month, Greta used to call for a cab in the middle of the night, drunk out of her mind. She never knew where she was. It’s Greta, I would write on a note to the dispatcher and he would tell the drivers who would drive around looking for her from whatever clues I could obtain from her on the phone. She was always found and taken home. Drivers are a different bunch. I should have stuck to driving. Sheila might still be there; she was afraid to leave because the only other job she’d ever had in her life was worse. Years and pain later, long after Bob and I split up, he quit drinking and got married.

I got my UIC sick leave cheques and lay in bed, a mess of debts and fever and fear. After a while, a friend brought me some crocuses. I carried this pot of crocuses with me from the bed to the couch and even to the bathroom. I discovered it was spring.

When I got well, I started writing a new book and went to help picket Denny’s and was finally with people who were not paralyzed by fear as I had been in that cage – people who cared about struggle and worker’s rights without questioning whether or not individual workers had the correct line.

Then I was notified of acceptance of my application for a Canada Council grant, and that was a good year. After that, I got office jobs.

I had been a fervent student at university; bad-tempered and arrogant, but eager to study and read and discuss with those who said they knew. Much of what I was taught was just plain wrong, but in aggregate, it wasn’t so much that it proved wrong but that it was inadequate. Nobody explained about cold feet or cages.

I learned a lot about politics, or thought I did. But I didn’t know from university that the difference between working for the Trotskyites and working for B.C. Piston and Shaft was that the Trotskyites paid less. The difference between Danny Ravetti, the aspiring capitalist, and Milton Felgar, the aspiring revolutionary, was that Milton used better grammar.

I have got good jobs since and spend most of my days blissed out with the pure joy of life and work. I don’t remember any more how it felt to be locked in that cage. I remember the physical details but I don’t remember how it felt; I should remember because there are many people locked in many different cages. But all I remember clearly is that my feet were cold when I drove the delivery truck. There I was one day in the snow, sliding uncontrollably down a steep hill towards Marine Drive, and there was all kinds of traffic on Marine Drive and I was sliding uncontrollably down towards this traffic and all I thought about was how cold my feet were.

November, 1984

Copyright 2009, Helen Potrebenko. For permissions please visit

Seventeen Years and a Coffee Truck

March 29, 2009

TO: T_______, Barrister and Solicitor
FROM: S_____, Secretary
RE: Vacation Time

I haven’t seen you since this case started. As you have another trial coming up soon after this one, I shall probably never see you again, which is a pity because you are as worthy an example of Womankind as ever crossed the bar.

Although this is clearly an inconvenient time, I need a vacation. I suppose you think that those few days off I took before the performance should have been sufficient but I assure you, you would be wrong if you so supposed.

First there were all the practices. The less said the better. Then for three days, I would rush home from work every day to eat, change, try to stay calm, take tranquillizers. Rush, rush, rush to the hall to pack in equipment (without mussing performance clothes) and stand around while microphones and instruments are set up. Run up and down rickety steps with faltering steps to smoke. Ignore singers la-la-la-ing. I had gouged my thumb because of that over full filing cabinet. Blood all over, constant change of band-aids, no time or leisure to heal. Then getting off the bike one day to drop the mail in the mailbox, I touched the exhaust pipe of the bike and burned my leg. Ointment and gauze wrapping.

And always the clients want things. They want so desperately. I think of all the years I was filled with hunger and decide I will be grateful to the Great Goddess that She has given me this opportunity to repay the world for my own desperate years of desperate wanting. Nevertheless, have difficulty being grateful.

Then after each performance, there are people lining up to tell me I’m wonderful. I have to help carry equipment, try and go out for a smoke, get home as fast as possible to prepare clothes and be ready for another day of wanters at work. But there is that line-up and they tell me I’m wonderful and I smile and say thank you and tell them I think the singers are terrific and all the time, I just want to get out of there.

I told the sound man that I had maybe made about $93 off poetry over the years and what right do people have to stand around telling me I’m wonderful? The sound man said with extreme respect: “gosh, 93 dollars, eh, how did you make that much?”

By the third day, I was completely certain that if one more person told me I am wonderful, I would barf. So I frantically searched for the Belorussian flag pin that K____ had given me. Finally found it. Pinned it on my blouse. Now instead of people telling me I was wonderful, people would say, oh, what’s that pin? and I would say it’s a Belorussian flag pin. There are probably four people in all of Canada who know where Belorussia is or even what it is. So when I say it’s a Belorussian flag pin, they will look at me blankly and go away and I will have smoke and help carry out the equipment and rush home. Alas! Either the pin was too small or nobody cared what it was.

And besides all that, I wake up at 4 a.m. and wonder why I don’t just shut up. The profit came to $19.33.

Only one of these phone messages has to be dealt with today and that is the professor. You will recall that she is living with grad student. The student is penniless and the professor owns the house, the yard, and quite a good income. He has a car and the gas in it. They had come in and given preliminary instructions for a cohabitation contract last year but did not follow up, in spite of my letter requesting further instructions. So when she phoned I thought that they were going to finish the contract but she says it is something else and she has to talk to you.

And there was also a call from some man in a hotel. He says he talked to you while you were waiting for your trial books to get bound at the Jiffy Print. He is now in love with you and wants you to call him at his hotel. He says he has to leave town soon so would you call today please.

TO: T_____
FROM: S____
RE: Vacation Time

So big deal, the memo wasn’t dated; I am writing for a vacation, not posterity. And the reason I am using initials is that it is one of the traditions of old literature that I greatly admire, so I am turning everyone I know into initials. I gather your court case is not going well and you are yet again thinking about quitting law. What would Womankind think of that?

I only remembered later that other than the re: line of my previous memo, I never actually mentioned vacation because I was frazzled and overworked and greatly in need of a vacation. If only the phone would stop ringing. Maybe the real problem is that I haven’t understood the world since 1967 and now I haven’t had any fun since February. Of course, E___ is a great source of comfort but what can one do against so many?

I think things went wrong after I lost that job at T__________, Z______, U_______, P____, M_ and J_______. Possibly I never told you about that one. It was before the one did tell you about. I don’t mean the most recent one I told you about, but the one before that; well, it was just before that one. Or maybe it was just after that other one, although possibly I never mentioned that one either. In any case, nothing has been the same since. Of course, nothing was the same before, but this is different. It took me weeks to remember the Ukrainian word for beets. I could remember the words for turnips and radishes, but not beets. Since I never did know the words for broccoli, I couldn’t forget that one. But can you imagine? I couldn’t remember how to say beets. I still can’t. What do you think? It is possible to live the remainder of my life without once referring to beets in Ukrainian?

Of the telephone messages, the one most desperate to speak to you is the professor. Since she didn’t get to talk to you, she has told me a little about the problem. What’s apparently happening is that although they are very happy together, the student feels bad because he doesn’t contribute financially to the household. He went to see a shrink about it and the shrink told him to get on with his studies. (It’s unusual to find a shrink with brains, don’t you think? We should get her name.) So this man is now going to a psychologist and that’s not covered by B.C. Medical. The professor paid the first bill in order to humour the guy. Apparently, she loves him or something like that. But now she thinks that she shouldn’t have to pay the bills for a man who is troubled only by the fact she pays his bills. Don’t you think that’s reasonable? Does she have to pay his bills?

Note all the other messages as well. I think I might be having a nervous breakdown but as I am wearing the bright yellow socks my mother knitted for me, it seems inappropriate. You can’t have a nervous breakdown while wearing bright yellow socks. I mean, how would it look?

You will note there is a letter in the mail from the man from the Jiffy Print. I should also remind you that the man at the photocopying place – not the stationery shop, the place farther down the street where I go to get photocopying done only when we need something shrunk or enlarged, that place – is in love with you and wants you to stop by one day so you can meet him.

I told our computer equipment salesman about the performance and he asked what it had been about and I told him and he said “Oh, you’re Making a Statement!” And I agreed that perforce, we were making a statement, or trying to. He said I should write a poem about a computer equipment salesman. (My publisher, of course, wants me to write a poem about a publisher.) The salesman is pleased to know a poet but, on the whole, he is more impressed with you.

After one reading I did somewheres or other, a woman who had previously ignored me although I sat next to her at dinner, clutched my arm, saying “I discovered you, didn’t I, I discovered you.”

TO: T_____
FROM: S____
RE: Vacation Time

Leaving me a note drawing my attention to a course on managing secretarial stress is not an appropriate response. I do not wish to manage stress nor go to a dynamic seminar. I wish to go to bed. I do not even wish to “master the magic of manager-employee synergy” nor am I interested in “escaping the approval trap”. I don’t have secretarial stress anyway, I have poet’s stress, a much more delicate condition. Poets are not expected to manage stress but to write passionate poetics as a result of it, and succumb to either stress or consumption, whichever is most popular that year. You should have noticed by now that stress has gone the way of masturbation in terms of being the major cause of death and illness. E___ has now informed me that all illness is caused by smoking which, of course, caused me to light up yet again. Of course, as you may not have time to notice, all illness is possibly caused by obesity, even the illnesses that stress used to cause.

At the end of this brochure there is a “word to the boss” telling him: “the development of your people is crucial to the success of your organization”. While I hate to quibble with a “nationally acclaimed” course with “satisfaction guaranteed”, I am not your people and I do not wish to develop. I think it is more crucial to your organization that judges develop. By the sound of it, judges are shrunken little persons for whom a little more stress and some development would be very useful. So let them take courses. I just want to go to bed.

What I really want from this job is 17 years and a coffee truck. I know there isn’t 17 years left before retirement age and I know you are momentarily quitting law, but when people say to me: so how long did you work there? I want to say: 17 years. I’m not sure how one would that, possibly with a judicious mixture of self-satisfaction and self-pity. Certainly you’d never say it in the same tone of voice that I say: I’ve had 22 jobs in 28 years, or whatever my job count is now. Seventeen years would sound, you know, significant.

And a coffee truck. You know those places where the coffee truck drives around more or less the same time every day and blows its horn and everyone downs whatever they’re doing and runs out to the truck and some are stopping others to give them money to get them something, and like that. I could leave you memos saying things like the truck was early this morning, or the coffee truck was out of blueberry muffins, or whatever it is people say about coffee trucks.

Then when I retired, I could complain the cinnamon buns in the nursing home aren’t as good as the ones on the coffee truck and I could say stuff like: in view of my 17 years with this one company, I think this, that, and the other. I know you think you’re a liberal employer because I’m allowed to type B.C. on addresses instead of spelling out British Columbia, but this is neither here nor there and what I really want is 17 years and coffee truck.

TO: T_____
FROM: S____

I gather from having seen you briefly yesterday that you are definitely quitting law this time. It’s probably just the bad air in the courtrooms. That time I was making notes of a court case for you, I found the chairs in the court room contemptible and I had terrible backache the whole week. The stale air gave me a headache and dizziness and then I got bus sick. Besides that, my teeth hurt. After I got my glasses adjusted so I could see the expression on the Judge’s face, my nose hurt. I can’t remember what else but I know there was more. So there’s all those judges with sinusitis and itches and sore ears taking out their irritation on poor women.

I don’t know why you are complaining because your client shouts at you. If you tried to quit or something in the middle of the trial, the same person who shouts at you would crawl after you, kissing the hem of your skirt. See? Shouting is better. You also lack understanding about the man from the photocopy shop when you ask how can he be in love with you when he’s never seen you. He’s in love with the idea of you. Possibly he thinks lawyers are rich. In any case, walk through there one day, okay?

You haven’t called the professor back either, I note. She called again today. The student has now been to see the psychologist eight times at $150 per hour. The professor only paid the first two visits. When I asked her was the student feeling reconciled to her paying the bills, she said she would not talk to him about it. They are still living happily ever after; they just don’t talk about the psychologist. However, she feels it is too much, everyone has a limit, and she is not paying the bill for him to be reconciled to her paying the bills.

I somehow sense you are not interested in this problem. Most women are poor and our clients’ problems arise from this simple fact. This problem does not seem to grip your interest in the same way as poor women raising poor children while men play.

TO: T_____
FROM: S____
RE: Yet Another Reading

I was so nervous I barely made it through, and lost my audience. While Audience likes a little tension, it does not like you to be quite that nervous. During the break between readings, a Ukrainian man originally from Toronto asked me if I would address a meeting of his local writing group. I wondered who are the people who have time to go to meetings. A young woman told me she was writing a book synthesizing all the belief systems and pointing out the errors in people’s attitudes both historically and in the present. I said that seemed ambitious and she took that as a compliment. The Ukrainian man said in Ukrainian: so wise for one so young. Later, the bartender told me my reading was terrific and I said he seemed to be the only one who thought so but what the hell, you only need one. And so, without any particular fanfare, passed my 100th reading.

The only thing that has pleased me in the last while was one day after work when I took some Vitamin C to P____ who was sick. She was suitably grateful and is now better which is very gratifying. So what I should do is become a person who runs errands of mercy, bringing succour to those in need. P____ thought I should have a little barrel around my neck but upon consideration, we decided it was my motorcycle which should be equipped with the little barrel.

Do you know anyone who wants succour? I know you’ll tell me the clients all want succour but you don’t provide that, you provide lawful remedies. You have explained to me that there is justice and there is law and that our system deals only with the latter. It wouldn’t count in any case because we get paid to do this, whereas it seems to me that succour has to be freely given.

TO: T_____
FROM: S____

Well, sure, the amount you get paid is laughable but it’s income just the same. And I know I could have taken a vacation in the summer but I didn’t have time. Fall or winter is a better time for vacation. The names of the months are longer so when I’m typing information on forms and altering the dates on precedents in my computer, I don’t like typing November for, for example, June. You have to type the first four letters on the replace mode and then change over to insert for the rest of the month. It’s faster and less stressful to change November to June because you leave it on “replace” and delete what’s left over. I don’t need a seminar about how to deal with stress, I just need not to work during the months with the longer names.

I have now given succour in several ways. One day I went to the drugstore on behalf of a sick friend. Another day I went and changed the light bulbs for a short friend. (How many poets does it take to change a light bulb? Just one, so there.)

The professor is now being sued by the psychologist. She just got served with the papers. She says it is too much. Does she have to pay? Besides the professor, there are several calls from clients which I rashly promised you would return this evening. Their problems are much more urgent than the professor’s, therefore, they are much less insistent. They do want to speak to you, nevertheless.

Oh, did you know the lawyer on the other side of C_________ v. C_________ is in love with you? He hasn’t seen you yet as the case hasn’t been to court but you have talked on the phone and exchanged letters and he told me that he is dying to meet you and questioned me closely about all your habits. I didn’t tell him. Have you remembered to walk through that photocopy shop yet?

TO: T_____
FROM: S____

This giving of succour has proven most difficult. Of course, I didn’t expect it to be easy. If it was easy, the Great Goddess would have assigned the job to a lesser person. Discounting the sheer difficulty, there is the unexpected problem that I am too pale. Pale is not the right image for a giver of succour. Robust and bosomy is the right image. Possibly I should use a little rouge? How does one apply it? Do people use rouge any more? (I have got to this age and have no idea how to use makeup; I must remember to mention this in my memoirs.)

And then there’s the simple fact that most people do not desire succour. They desire discreteness and dignity. This is not compatible with some pale person offending them with mercy.

However, I did not ask for the job, it was given to me and so long as the Great Goddess sends me tasks, I shall do them, to the best of my ability.

TO: T______
FROM: S____

Yes, I am aware that you are quitting law forever and there is no use babbling on about coffee trucks and 17 years, nor even succour and rouge and certainly not about some idiot professor and her spoiled spouse. I gather that the trial is not going well.

I suppose you need a holiday as well but I asked first. So there. I hated it the last time you took a holiday. You came back indolent and unwilling to work. Of course, like an old horse, once the harness was put on, you went on working anyway.

I don’t suppose this would help but I once convinced one of my minor bosses that I was an attack secretary and he could sic me on anyone who was threatening him and I would attack on command. I was lying as I am not capable of attacking a flea but I talk a good line and maybe J_______ believed me. He was kind of a loser, poor J_______. He was born in Burma to imperialist parents who owned a plantation until the imperialists were thrown out of Burma. He said they did great things for Burma and it was a shame the Burmese were so ungrateful. I said imperialists never mixed with the natives and he said they did so, they once had the Sheikh to dinner. He kept insisting his parents did great things for Burma and I sneered and said yeah, but they needed a lot of unpaid native servants to live off of. How many servants did you have???? I demanded of J_______. And he said counting the dependents of the servants as well, it would come to maybe two or three thousand. I had expected him to say two or three, or maybe twenty or thirty, so when he said two or three thousand, I couldn’t think of anything to say. But I still pretended to be an attack secretary since he was such a loser.

I realize that having described it in this fashion, I cannot now offer to be your attack secretary. You don’t need an attack secretary. However, should you ever feel so down that you might need two or three thousand servants, the offer is there nevertheless.

I am also aware that you do not wish to hear about any more men falling in love with you. Since they have not seen you, they are only in love with an invented image and not with you at all. It is probably because they think all women are heterosexual and all lawyers are rich. I can attest that poor writers don’t get swamped with lovelorn swains which is the only advantage I can think of right now. I’m afraid this may all change after I get the Governor-General’s award. Possibly I should mention this to E___. Also perhaps I should do the filing right now. Whenever the G-G announcements are made, I will be too busy to do the filing.

I passed on your message to the professor about estoppels and course of contract. She will write to the psychologist and tell him she will never pay so at least the student quits going for any more sessions at $150 an hour. She doesn’t know what she will do about the bills he has already run up. She is thinking of throwing the bum out. Or she thinks she might go to see the psychologist herself.

Oh, before I forget. You remember the window washers were here some weeks ago? One of them, the taller one with a blue shirt, came around today hoping to see you again, but you weren’t here.


The above story is entirely fictional, implying as it does that T_____ is a hard worker while S____ is a poetic layabout. In real life, as everyone knows, S____ does all the work and has no time to write poetry at all, not even $9.35 worth. T_____ sits on the back porch smoking and dreaming of Volvos.

Copyright 2009, Helen Potrebenko. For permissions please visit