Lunch Bucket Road – 2017 John Bilsland Literary Award Winner

I have come back again to where I

belong; not an enchanted place, but where the walls are strong

                                                 – Dorothy H. Rath

 LUNCH BUCKET ROAD

The wide, packed-gravel path, somewhat longer than a football field, snaked through a scrub meadow joining two working class neighborhoods.  Every kid in the neighborhood walked it, back and forth to the two schools.  It was also used by the men who worked in the two factories, their smokestacks visible on the near horizon.

My father walked with them.  The neighborhood men emerged from their homes and funneled onto the path like clockwork as though a great magnet drew them six times a day, back and forth: day shifts, afternoons, and night shifts–a cycle as sure and precise as the movements of the sun.

My friends and I played in a scrubby meadow cut in half by the wide path.  The landscape was dotted with frog-filled ponds and stunted trees.  My friends and I often watched the factory men march along the path.  Sometimes we’d crawl on our bellies sneaking through the tall grass playing army, pretending they were the enemy.  Their faded blue and green work pants and shirts were clean and ready, the spirit in their step a reliable indicator of the time.  They were our watches during lazy summer days.  They only appeared to me when the afternoon shift started and the day shift ended, somewhere between two-thirty and three-thirty.

Some walked alone, others in groups of two or three, talking boisterously, occasionally laughing, on their walk to the factories.  Their black and stainless-steel lunch buckets, heavy with sandwiches and thermoses, swayed lightly from their hands.

At three-fifteen another parade of men, a much different group, began their trek home. These men trudged home alone, silent, vacant eyes fixed out in space; factory blackened streaks smudging almost every face to anonymity, their clothes dirty and rumpled.  Their now empty lunch buckets seemed to weigh them down, and were kept secure under their arms as if they’d drop from tired hands.  Their day was done.

It seemed the entire neighborhood–my whole world–worked at the factories.  On their way to work the men would occasionally smile or nod at me.  It was my time to wear a halo at that precise time of the afternoon, whenever I played in the field or walked the path home from school.  “That’s Andy’s boy,” they’d say, many of them knowing my father.  Their acknowledgment of my presence would embarrass me and my friends as we were doing our best to hide from, and stalk ‘the enemy’.

Older boys, some of them brothers of my friends, in time joined the procession like their fathers.  Many of these boys had dropped out of school only too eager to pick up a lunch bucket and a paycheck.

Soon, they were not the same boys.  Not boys at all. Their faces, too, had become smeared with the black grime of labor in a new world, a far different place than they likely imagined.

Their friendly waves soon ceased.

My father would come home dirty, tired and beaten, often cursing his foreman or raging at some incident.  It took some time to purge the demons before he’d cooled off enough to grab a nap, or after a night shift, plunge into a morning sleep like a bat.

By his ramblings, I thought it to be a horrible place to work, imagining it full of men no better than cruel prison guards.  I believed every factory man had a similar temperament. I didn’t care to be the object of their fury as they headed home.  Luckily, the only time we did meet on the path was when school got out at three-fifteen.  I’d walk a make-believe gauntlet among the dirty, miserable men, attempting to remain inconspicuous for fear I’d raise their ire.  It was a fine balancing act: never getting too close, hurrying to stay ahead, weaving quickly between them. The invisible man would have envied my prowess.

A double-tracked rail line cut across the path at one end with a ramshackle lean-to sitting crookedly at the crossing.  During school hours, it was inhabited by a fearsome old man the kids christened as ‘Shack’.  He was a retired guy with a permanent scowl, a bushy mustache, and clad in a long shabby coat regardless of the weather.

Shack was the ugly troll of Lunch Bucket Road.

Most of the time he hid inside the shadow of the corrugated tin lean-to as though afraid of the sun like a worn-out vampire.  His job as a crossing guard consisted of emerging just before freights roared past, hoisting his stop sign, warning kids to keep clear of the tracks.  Some kids obeyed and others dashed past.  He’d never catch any kids, but his gravelly voice scared the hell out of small kids as he wielded his sign-on-a-stick like a sword.  Sometimes, he would break up the odd fight between older school boys, taking no sides, chasing both parties away by swinging the stop sign.

But he always had a brief wave or a curt nod for the factory men, leading me to believe in some mysterious alliance in the adult world.  For years as a small boy, Shack struck a terrible fear in me; he was my bogeyman; his decrepit shack a house of horror.  My sister used to scare me, saying ‘he was in the yard last night’ or ‘looking through the windows’ or ‘he eats dead birds and kills cats’.

As I grew older and bolder, my friends and I often chucked stones or mud or snowballs at his lean-to, laughing, watching him charge out only to confront our retreating backsides.

We’d never do this with any factory men in sight.

I often wondered if someday I would follow Lunch Bucket Road to the same factory as my father and the scores of men.  The men and factories were invisible to the schools and academia, totally ignored as if those massive, noisy, smoke-belching buildings four blocks away never existed.  Maybe their code of silence was their way of encouraging the students to seek a future elsewhere.

I had never seen the inside of any factory until my later years, or knew how the grime came to smear every man’s face.  There was only the one time I had seen my father at work.  I was a very young boy and unfortunately, the experience, although not quite terrifying, was certainly unsettling. The odd feeling stayed with me for some time.

One day he was unable to come home due to working overtime.  Mom took my older sister and me along.  Mom didn’t drive, so it was a long walk down Lunch Bucket Road and along the high wire fence that straddled the factory.  Men hollered indistinct instructions to a crane amidst mountains of long pipe that filling the yard surrounding a wide gray building.  Pipe was everywhere: skinny pipe stacked like black match sticks with colored chalk or paint on their ends.  Others resembled fat brown cigars large enough for me to walk inside without ducking my head.

Sharp clangs and clanks, like out of tune bells, hurt my ears, frightening me.

Diesel rail cranes roared back and forth sorting and loading.  Late evening shadows gave the towering factory building an ominous appearance.

This was the place my father got dirty and cursed the world when he got home.

Behind the fence a group of men sat on large square timbers at the base of a mountain of pipe.  A teenager from a nearby cafe lifted a large paper bag over the fence to them, took his tip, then scooted back across the road to the café.  The men ate heartily, tearing at their food, and drank from steaming paper cups.  They were like animals in a cage feeding.  Others talked and smoked, their faces unshaven, dirty and sweaty, as if they’d emerged from the earth’s core.

Mother slowed our pace and examined their soiled faces.  One stood up–my father, I think–barely recognizable with a welder’s skull cap tight on his head.  His filthy face looked at us through smudged safety glasses.

He’d never come home this dirty.  Shocking. What were they doing to him in there?  He stood and greeted my mom beside the fence.  She beckoned me with nudges to say hello.  I wasn’t able to say a word to this strange man.  He didn’t look at all like my dad.

With the banging and ringing of pipe and the strange carbon smells, my senses were overwhelmed.  I gripped my mother’s arm tighter, staring at this vaguely familiar man.  The other men cajoled me to speak, but their sooty black faces scared me.  I shied away.

Finally, Mom pulled us away to safety across the road to the café. I looked back, noticing it was much darker now.  Dim orange bulbs cast eerie pools of light against the massive building.  Brilliant floodlights shone from towering poles, bathing the stacks of pipe in white as bright as a ball game at Burgar Park.

For some unknown reason.  I was afraid to ask my mother what was in the brown paper bag the men ate from.  Sometimes Dad returned home with a half-empty lunch bucket making me wonder if he had eaten that day from the large brown bag.  Raiding his lunch bucket was a special treat for my sister and me, devouring the peanut butter and jam or baloney sandwich.

Ricky, a friend of mine down the street, had a father who drove home from work at five o’clock every day.  The man appeared exactly as if he just left for work: clean suit and tie, scrubbed face, and not a hair out of place.

I asked my friend what his father did at work.

“I don’t know,” he said, shrugging.  “He works in an office.”

I pressed him further but could only elicit vague statements about his father like “sitting at a desk”.  It sounded unusual to me, as I did the same at school or home. His dad came home at 5 pm and never growled up a storm or cursed like my father.  The man sat calmly in the kitchen reading a newspaper or taking off his tie while staring out the front window at the neat backyard.

I asked my dad what he did at the factory.  He sat at the table in a sleeveless white T-shirt, the stubbled hairs on his face creating a dark shadow.

“I’m a welder,” he said, pride evident in his voice.  “I make pipe.”

Whenever we drove past the plant, the long stacks of pipe sat on the earth like mountains of steel as if they’d been there forever.  And I knew my father’s hands had fashioned them all at the end of Lunch Bucket Road.

Lunch Bucket Road only lives on in memories.

The End