By Jennifer Turney
2019 Winner: Adult
Step, Swing, Slide, Stomp : The Tree-Planter Returns
It was another Friday in June; the day they had been waiting for all week. There had been frost on the windows that morning that had since melted away as the sun climbed. The nights were still cool enough to keep a fire burning low in the stove. For once Matty’s mother hadn’t had to rush him to finish his lunch so they could walk into town. His shoes were already tied as she came down the stairs, at least, as tied as a five-year old’s can be when in a hurry.
“Hurry up, Mum. We’re going to miss ’em!” he urged, trying to stuff his arm into an uncooperative denim jacket sleeve.
“Oh shush now, we’re not going to miss anything.” Matty’s mother, ever patient, shrugged on her own coat, sighing with defeat as it refused to zip over her expanding belly, and she shuffled her feet into a pair of worn sneakers. She hoped they matched; she hadn’t been able to see her feet in almost two weeks.
Matty was already out the door as she slung her purse over her shoulder, already at the end of their driveway as she turned from locking the door. He waited for her to catch up, hopping from one foot to the other and taking her hand before stepping onto the sidewalk. The warm scent of pine was on the breeze and she inhaled, savouring it.
The walk into town wasn’t far, which meant the walk home with the groceries wouldn’t be ‘over-doing it’. It was one of the nice parts of living in Fort Frances; nothing was too far. Along the sidewalk on neighbouring lawns the fragile noses of crocuses were poking through the earth.
They headed up their small street towards the Safeway, his mother taking slower steps to accommodate his brief distraction with balancing on the curb. She smiled as she watched him, marvelling at how such a simple thing for a child was something adults had abandoned trying. She let his hand go and stepped in line behind him, mimicking his outstretched arms that kept the force of gravity at bay.
“How many do you think there’ll be this time?” he asked, wobbling as he divided his attention between tasks.
“Oh, probably a whole bus-load. They only get to come to town once a week.”
“Because they live way out in the bush. The roads are made of dirt and really bumpy so they have to drive slow so it takes a long time to get here. They don’t want to do it every day.”
Satisfied for the moment, Matty continued his tightrope walk.
Bumpy was an understatement. The bush roads could be brutal, especially riding in old retired school buses. The dust clouds meant the windows had to stay shut and as the season went on the ruts, like the body-odour of the other riders, got worse. The most threatening of them gained fame with names like ‘Spine-Buster’ and ‘Teeth-Rattler’ when she had travelled those roads for work. When your stop came, you were always eager to get off; having so many damp and dirty workers trapped inside together with their special blend of earthy musk mixed with deet and a dash of cold camp coffee was enough to make your eyes water. The dusty air was a bizarre relief.
“I’ve been practicing, you know.” Matty announced as he stopped at the corner. “Watch me,” he said, and then proceeded with the routine his mother had shown him.
“Step, swing, slide, stomp,” he called out his clumsy actions as he performed them with his invisible planting shovel.
His mother smiled as he continued on. She remembered when she had learned it. Step, swing, slide, stomp. Step, swing, slide, stomp. She remembered struggling to keep the steps even over uneven terrain, the debris always seeming to be right where her foot should go. The shovel had, eventually, become a familiar weight in her hand, and she marveled at how cleanly it sliced through the earth, creating the gap for the infant trees she was carrying. She inhaled wistfully, still able to recall how the temperature in the side bags had felt so much cooler than the air around her and how the damp earth swaddling the little spruce trees soothed her work-wearied palms.
“Step, swing, slide, stomp….” Matty continued on. “How many trees do you think that’d be now, Mum?”
She scrunched her face, squinting her eyes while he waited impatiently for her to count. “Maybe twenty-five.”
“Is that a lot of money yet?” he asked.
His mother’s face split into a wide grin. When she had been a planter, she had made a dime a tree. To a five-year old that would seem like a lot of money.
“It’s a good start,” she said.
“How many trees did you plant ever?” he forged on, stepping, swinging, sliding and stomping.
The exact number escaped her now. “A few more than that, Matty.”
“But how many for real?”
“Oh, probably…” she hesitated for dramatic effect. He had stopped his trek and his wrinkled up nose told her he wasn’t impressed. “Over ten-thousand.”
Matty wasn’t sure he’d ever seen a number like that in his kindergarten class, though the number sounded familiar. And big.
As they approached the laundromat, Matty hopped up on the wooden bench outside and pressed his hands to the window to peer in. The machines were still asleep. There weren’t piles of bags near the door. They hadn’t arrived yet.
“Whatcha see?” his mother asked. She set her purse on the bench and slid her coat off. The sun was warm and she’d started to sweat on their walk. It was a beautiful spring day with very few clouds. She looked at her son and saw how the light caught in his curls, making them appear auburn and fiery.
“They aren’t here yet,” he answered, his disappointment heavy. She had to smirk seeing the two small hand prints he had left behind on the glass.
“They will be,” she reassured him.
With a bit of coaxing, and after a quick stop into The Red Apple bargain shop, the pair finished at the grocers and started back towards the laundromat.
His mother was busy looking over her receipt, curious to see how many Safeway Points she’d earned, as Matty exploded “They’re HERE!”
Looking up, she saw what he saw; a road-weary, dust-caked school bus parked at the curb outside the laundromat. People were piling off, dragging duffle bags behind them that looked as thread bare and stained as the clothes they were holding. The people, young men and women alike, looked to be fairing about the same, with everyone wearing dirty hats to contain their dirtier hair.
As Matty watched with fascination, his mother remembered her trips into town. First was the laundromat. Then, they’d rent rooms so everyone could shower, the hot water washing dirt from crevices the lake was too cold to help clean. She remembered scrubbing her body and washing her hair and after 3 lathers almost feeling like she’d gotten the deet off her skin and out of her pores. The cleanest shirt you had left was what you wore out so you’d make the least offensive impression when being seated at the Rainy Lake Restaurant and ordering tall, cold pints of beer to help wash down the mammoth-sized ‘Man Burgers’ they were famous for.
The driver was the last to climb off and Matty broke into a sprint upon seeing him.
“DADDY!!!” he yelled, leaping into his father’s arms.
“Hey, Kiddo,” he said, embracing him. His mother, meanwhile couldn’t help but wonder how much of the dirt would wipe off onto her sons clothes. When her two boys turned to look at her, Matty had a giant smudge across his face.
She placed the groceries down on the sidewalk as he was setting Matty down. Her husband turned to her and placed a light hand against her belly before wrapping her in his arms. “How’re my girls doing?”
“Oh, still hanging in there,” she said. “How was your week?”
He smiled at her, in the same way he had almost fifteen year earlier when they’d met at the bush camp as rookies; the same camp for tree planters that he had been in charge of for the last decade. “Got a bit sweeter just now,” he said. He handed her a dirty Tupperware container he’d filled with wild strawberries. “That patch of ours is still there.”
She smiled knowingly and she felt a weight lift from her shoulders, a weight she hadn’t known she’d been carrying. A weight that would probably return when the busload headed out again the next morning. Matty had climbed onto the bus and was examining a deer antler that had been resting on the dashboard.
“Is this mine?” he asked, holding it to his forehead. His mother made a mental note to explain to him that deer have two antlers that stuck out the sides of their heads.
“Sure is, Kiddo. Found it out in the bush this week.”
Matty’s father broke away from the family to speak to his crew before leaving them for the night. He went over the rules, and what time he’d meet them back at the laundry, cautioning that if they were late he’d leave without them. They both knew, of course, that he’d never left anyone behind in his 10 years and it was unlikely that he would.
She looked over the rowdy group; one smoothing out a rolling paper as another dropped a pinch of tobacco onto it, others involuntarily scratching themselves either from insect bites or just the dry, flaking filth.
They didn’t look much different than the crew she had been part of and shuddered at the idea that she’d ever been in public with the same severe stains and tears in her clothes. She noticed though, that they were all smiling and laughing. They were scraped up and greasy from bug repellent and she knew they were living life in an incredibly minimalist way. It was a life that fit into an 8×8 tent, with damp work boots that never seemed to dry out completely. It was where you hoped your never ran into a bear that was trying to share your lunch as they tended to be greedy dining companions with poor manners. It was a job where you found yourself alone for most of the day and you recharged your social skills and regained your humanity around campfires at night with the rest of the crew. The next morning, you geared up and did it all over again. It took a special breed of crazy to be able to endure what they were and to do the job that they did.
She completely understood how they could still be smiling. They loved it, just like she had.
At home, Matty dragged his father’s bag across the kitchen floor to the laundry room while he beat his dirty boots on the cement steps of the porch and she put the groceries away.
“So,” his father said, taking his hat off and looking like something the cat had dragged in from the curb, “another week down.”
She smiled, turning on the coffee maker for him.
“Only a couple left to go,” she said.
“I can do the work now, Daddy, watch,” Matty interrupted, proceeding to step, swing, slide and stomp his paces through the kitchen.
“That’s not half bad,” his father said, ruffling his hair and causing Matty to squirm out of reach.
“So can I go back with you this time?”
The two parents looked at each other and soon Matty was distracted enough that he let the idea drop for another week.
The trio ate dinner together, and when her boys fell asleep on the couch watching television just after sundown she couldn’t help but smile. Theirs was a dynamic that not many had; he was able to continue doing a job he loved to support his family and she held down the fort to support him. The new addition would keep her busier and her son would continue testing her patience in ways that grew in spurts like he did, but it was all part of what made theirs a happy, balanced family.
About this story
My winning MS was actually a collection of short stories. The one I’ve chosen to share is partly based on personal experience: I was a tree planter based out of Fort Frances. I came to learn the small town like the back of my hand, traveling there on stinky bush-buses with stinkier co-workers for some R&R for one day a week. I was also expecting and raising kids largely on my own Mon-Fri while my husband worked in the forest for over 10 years.