Thursday, June 29, 2006

Who says three's a crowd?

Ladies and Gentlemen!

Introducing, the newest member of our family:

Mackenzie (a.k.a. Macky or Mac) the dog.

Coming soon: the story of the first (sleepless) night.
But right now I have to go to work.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Helen, the Cleaning Lady

Helen is the cleaning lady at the store. She has lived in Tulita her entire life, and she speaks Slavey, the language of the locals. If her writing skills were better, Helen could make hundreds of dollars an hour as an interpreter. Instead she cleans toilets. She doesn't feel comfortable on the tills. The pace is a bit too fast for her. She mostly cleans, but also interprets for some of the elders. I'm often sent to bargain with her on the price of produce.

One of the elders is there beside Helen. The old woman is wearing a shawl and inspecting a cellophane box of raspberries. They're mouldy. Helen speaks up for her.

"She says these raspberries. They're no good."

"Yeah, I think they're past due. I should take them off the shelf. I'll go see if there's any new ones in the fridge."

I turn and start off at a fast pace. Although most of the locals aren't in a rush, they don't like to wait around for stockboys either.


I stop. Helen's no's are long and slow. They go up in the middle and back down, like a kid protesting his bedtime. "NooOOO000OOOoooo."

Helen and the woman speak in Slavey for a moment.

"She says she'll pay you half price."

I look at the elder, and then at the berries. They're mouldy. The box is no bigger than the palm of your hand, and it costs $8 at full price. Even at $4, the store is ripping this poor woman off.

"Are you sure they're still good to eat Helen? I'll go find some better ones."


This is the no of a mother with several kids. It's a scolding no. The look on her face says, "stand still for a moment and listen." She talks to the elder in Slavey again for a moment.

"Make it three dollars a box and she'll buy two."

"Ok. Deal."

The stony face of the old lady breaks into a smile. She says something to Helen in Slavey, and they both laugh. I stand by with the stupid grin of someone who doesn't get the joke. Helen refuses to translate for me. I go back to work. Customer service is my first priority. It says so on my vest.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Return of the One-Eyed Brain Eater

Astronomically speaking, June 21st is the longest day of the year. But in our household, June 20th will go down in history as the longest day of 2006. That was the day I attempted to assemble and install a satellite dish.

This endeavor actually began on the 19th, when the dish arrived, and continued until the afternoon of the 21st, when it was finally up and running.

We picked the damn thing up from the airport on the 19th. It came from a store in Yellowknife. Because they decided to ship it on Canadian North rather than North-Wright Air, the supposedly free dish and cheap receiver cost us an extra $160 in shipping fees. I can only hope the dish enjoyed one of Canadian North's delicious in-flight meals and a beer on its way here.

I brought a rickety aluminum ladder home from work with me that night. Nicole already had the dish and receiver out of the box, the TV tuned to a bright blue screen, and she was doing a little dance around the rather large pile of nuts and bolts in the middle of our living room floor.

The dish wasn't one of those snazzy dinner-plate sized "bell express-vu" dishes. It was a metre in diameter, which is pretty big when you only have a rickety aluminum ladder. The dish had the red lightning bolt symbol you often see on big, abandoned, obsolete dishes. I was beginning to see why the company had only charged us for the receiver and not the dish itself.

The assembly instructions for the dish were unlike any I've ever seen. Most instructions painstakingly list each piece, including the nuts and bolts. There is a diagram showing you how a bolt goes in a hole, and a disclaimer warning you to put the washer on BEFORE the nut. This was not the case with our dish. Instead there was a list of the nuts and bolts, and a few tiny pictures of the assembled dish. It was one sheet of paper. Finally! Assembly instructions that understand and respect a man's God-given ability to assemble anything without the instructions.

There was only one problem. From the pictures, it was clear that we were missing an unnamed, unnumbered triangular piece of metal. There would be no TV that night.

The next morning, I called the customer support number for the dish. It was made by a company called Andrew Corporation. What a great name for a company! Andrew Corporation. It almost exudes manliness. The first picture on their website was of a US soldier talking on a walkie-talkie while crouching in the desert. No wonder they've obtained military contracts with the US army. Their website listed separate numbers for "customer support" and "technical support." I forget which one I called, but I was immediately informed of my error (how stupid of me), and transferred to the other.

The fellow on the customer support line spoke not with a middle-eastern accent, but with a southern drawl. The fellow, being a man, understood my predicament. From the pictures in the instructions, it was clear I was missing a triangular piece of metal. But, being a man, he couldn't admit that he didn't know for sure what that piece of metal was, or if it was necessary. He also couldn't ask any of the other men there, because that would be paramount to admitting that he "didn't know." To make a long story short, he promised to get back to me but I never did hear from him again.

That night I attempted to assemble the dish without the mysterious triangular piece of metal. Everything seemed to hold. But now came the task of mounting it.

The locals were out in full force on the evening of the twentieth. The twenty-first is National Aboriginal Day, a holiday in these parts. I too had the day off, and had therefore already indulged in a small drink from a bottle of half-expensive scotch that I had brought with me. Around Tulita, holidays are taken very seriously, despite the high unemployment rate. It seems that even if you don't have a job, Fridays and holidays are designated drinking times. On this night, half the town had piled onto the backs of five or six trucks, and they were cruising around, yelling and hooting drunkenly. I could hear rap music coming from a house across the way. I witnessed this scene perched on top of an aluminum ladder, often while clutching a heavy and awkward satellite dish. However, whenever a truckload of locals drove past our house, they grew silent. Everyone watched in anticipation, waiting for this lone white boy to fall, bringing his dish with him.

I scrounged up a few nails and a couple of pieces of two-by-four from around the house. The log exterior of our house doesn't lend itself to the mounting of satellite dishes. Nicole tried to hold the ladder, except she tended to let go every three of four seconds to swat at a mosquito, or run from a dragonfly or horse fly. Being a biologist, Nicole KNOWS for a fact that dragonflies DO NOT BITE. But this doesn't stop her from crouching or flailing her arms each time one comes within ten feet of her. As for the horse flies (which are simply called bulldogs up here), I can't blame her for running from those. They are big suckers: fast and aggressive. It's difficult to distinguish them from hornets.

In case you're wondering, No, I didn't fall. It took about an hour, and there were times when the dish was the only thing keeping me form falling, but I got it installed. Then came the fun part: trying to find the signal. I'd like to show you an excerpt from the Bell Express-view instruction booklet which explains how one should go about this task.

Your partner at the TV set should inform you at each step if there is an indication on the meter. The conversation usually goes something like this:

"Ok I moved it."
"No Change"
"Ok, I moved it some more"
"Hold it, I see something on the meter....Move it some more"
"Ok, Moved it some more. Any change?"
"Yes, It's getting better."

....And so it goes.

As you can clearly see, the Bell instruction booklet was written by a woman and/or a group of women. It is the size of a novel.

Our conversation went more like this:

"See anything?"
(a minute of silence, while I move the dish in micrometer increments)
"Anything yet?"
"NO! I'll yell when something happens."
"I can hardly hear you!"
"Just keep going!"
(another minute of silence)
"Ok! Stop! Stop! Stop! Stop! Stop! No! Go back and do what you did before!"
"I'm trying!"
"You had it!"
"I ____ing know I ___ing had it!"
"Well you don't have to yell at me like that!"
"Well I'm ______ing sorry but this is ____ing hard to do when you're not holding the ladder!"
"Woah! Stop!!!"

And just like that, I had it. I tightened the last few nuts and bolts, and ran inside. It was one a.m. by this point. We couldn't get through to the help line to activate the channels, so we went to bed.

We were to discover the next day that I had tuned in the wrong dish. Another hour of dish tapping brought in the correct satellite. Nicole did another dance. I mourned the loss of my quiet evenings.

We had gone an entire month without television. Each of us had read a couple of books in that time. Nicole, whose excuse for not reading is, "I read all day at work," said she had forgotten how enjoyable it can be. We also spent hours playing crib and Trivial Pursuit together. On the night of the twenty-first, I found myself half comatose, staring at the TV watching something called "America's Got Talent." Hosted by Regis Philbin, and with David Hasselhoff as one of three judges, it is a modern day cross between the Gong Show and American Idol. And to think I almost missed it. Thank God we are once again in touch with the outside world.

Friday, June 16, 2006

How Brodie got his Fridge Back.

I woke up Thursday morning with a certain spring in my step. It was the 15th. Rent day. Or, in our case, Fridge day. I had been trying to contact Jerry, our landlord, for 5 days now. He had been conveniently "away" that whole time. I knew that he would come knocking today, and I knew the lease was on our side.

On my way to work, a truck pulled up beside me. It was Ben, Jerry's father. He rolled down the window and offered me a drive to work. I was already more than halfway into my five minute walk, but I accepted.

"How are you today?" he asked.

"Good, thanks."

"You going to pay Jerry the rent money today?"

Ben exhaled a puff of his cigarette out the window. This had the makings of a mob movie scene, except I was in a giant chev truck instead of a big black car.

"Yeah, we told him to come by today."

"I think he's up to no good. I want you to give the rent money to me. I'll budget it for him."

I wanted to believe that Ben was doing this for the good of Jerry, in the same way that any father would try and help a wayward son. I knew Ben was a prominent member of the church. But I had also found out, as one does in a small town, that he had recently fallen off the wagon, and that he had his own problems with booze. Of course none of that really mattered, because there wasn't going to be much rent money left over after we got our new fridge.

"Well, I don't have a problem with doing that, except our Fridge broke down on Saturday. I checked at the Northern store, and the cheapest is just over $1000. But I think I get a discount, so there might be $100 left."

"Ok, well I'll come by your house at lunch, check the fridge, and get the money."

Nicole and I walk home for lunch every day. Ben's house is just across the street from ours. Jerry was sitting on his doorstep, and he waved to us as we came into view. He knocked and came in.

"I was just wondering if I could get the rent money."

"Yeah, well, we've been trying to get a hold of you to tell you the fridge is broken."

"Really. I heard you'd been looking for me. Let me take a look at it."

He inspected our very warm fridge. We told him how we'd been carrying our perishables to and from the store. He fiddled with the dials. Then he assured us this happened all the time when he rented the house out before. Did I mention he was loaded drunk as all this was happening?

We agreed that we would give the fridge the afternoon to come back on. If it wasn't working by five, we would have to buy a new one with the rent money.

"Do they have payment plans at the store? Like, can you pay so much per month?"

"Um, I don't know. I don't think so," I lied.

"Alright. Well, this afternoon then."

And we thought it was over. But it wasn't. He was starting to wrap up the conversation when he finally worked up the nerve to say something.

"Do you think I could get some money this afternoon? Like at 3:30. Maybe two-hundred and fifty so I can buy my lil' brother a bike. He's always going on about how he wants a BMX bike. He sees me on mine, right? I promised I buy him one."

"Well, as far as I know, the store is out of bikes, except for really small ones," I said. This was the God's honest truth.

"Oh yeah, well, I'm buying this one from a friend."

Then Nicole, who swore up and down that we would not be paying an advance on next month's rent, spoke up.

"OK, if you agree to take less next month, we can give you some now as long as we get the fridge."

"Yeah, that's cool, that's cool. So mebbe I'll come by your office at 3:30 or so."

"Sure, that works," said Nicole.

Jerry left and only came back once in the next half hour. As we were getting ready to go back to work, he knocked on the door again. He stuck his hand in the fridge and see if it was getting any colder, which it was not.

That afternoon I went out to the store's warehouse to look for more fridges. I'm sure that sounds absurd. Fridges are pretty big, and one would assume that a store could keep track of how many fridges it has. Not so at the Northern Store. There are really three warehouses: remnants of the Hudson's Bay Company. One is the old Hudson Bay Store. I'll write about this another time. The other two are basically log shacks with plywood floors and locked doors and boarded up windows. One is full of food. The other holds a pile of couches, loveseats, chairs and mattresses. When I say pile, I mean it literally. They are piled in there, and I am often sent out to climb through the pile, ripping at the industrial plastic to see what colour upholstery is underneath.

It was in this warehouse that I found our fridge. It was sitting just inside the door. A beautiful brown box about four feet high. The label said, "Bar Fridge - Black."

When I came back in the store, both Ben and Jerry were waiting with Nicole. I told them the good news: I had found a cheaper fridge. Now everyone would be satisfied. I led everyone over to the cash register at the customer service desk. I punched in the SKU (rhymes with spew) number, and the total came up on the cash register. $479.99. Ben, being the caring father he is, decided to do the talking for his inebriated son.

"How does that look?" I asked Ben.

"Good. Now can you do a payment plan? Half this month and half next?"

Anna, the girl who works the office was standing next to me. She pulled up Ben's account. She told him he couldn't.

"What about Jerry, he asked?"

More typing. Furrowed brow. Young Jerry didn't have an account at the store.

"What about you?" He asked me.

"If you put it on my account, we're paying it off right now," I told him.

I charged the fridge. Nicole counted out the difference from $1000 and took Ben and Jerry outside the store to pay them. She told me that they had split the money evenly. No budgeting. She also told me that Jerry never came by the office at 3:30. But he had been more frank with her after work, before He and his dad came up to see the bar fridge.

"I was wondering if I could get that two-fifty. I could pay you back Monday or Tuesday. I just gotta do a money transfer to Yellowknife. And my dad has to do one to the liquor store in Norman Wells. Once I get my package I'd be able to pay you back.".

"I wish I was a bank but I'm not. Sorry," said Nicole.

Our really cool black bar fridge now sits far from the kitchen in our living room next to the TV. That was the only place left with a plug.

We've left the old fridge where it was for a few reasons: the primary reason being we don't want to clean underneath it. The freezer still works fine, and the fridge side has become a storage space for things that probably should be refrigerated: ketchup, cheeze whiz, jam, carnation milk.

Bar fridges are cool when you have a small bachelor apartment, or when it is your "other fridge." The one you keep in your rec room only for pop and beer. Their "coolness" fades quickly when you have to choose between having cold beer after work, and keeping you mayonnaise from spoiling. And everyone knows there is really no choice there.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Just like a Vacation.

As soon as I woke up this morning, I thought to myself "God I feel well rested." This feeling of well-being lasted for about two seconds, and then I lunged across the bed to check the time.

8:55 a.m.

We usually get up at seven. I'm supposed to be to work at nine, and Nicole is supposed to be to work at 8:30. Granted, both of our places of employment are only 5 minutes away, but still, sleeping in is sleeping in.

Our coffee maker, which has a timer to turn on and off, had turned off only two minutes before we got up. That sweet nectar of the morn was still warm. I gulped down a few mouthfuls, cleaned myself up, and went on my way. I was about 20 minutes late. Nobody seemed to care or need an explanation.

Nicole told me the same sort of story when she arrived. Her boss is away on vacation. The other two people in the office were sitting around, drinking coffee.

I don't know how I will ever cope with the stress of real life when we move back south in a few years. People don't get mad around here. I see it every day at the store.

"Got any bread?"

"No sorry. We're sold out of bread. And the plane won't be in until tomorrow."

Now imagine how mad you might get if every store in town (ok, the only store in town) was out of bread. The basic staple of any diet. Perhaps you might not get mad, but there are people out there who would.

"Oh ok. Got any lettuce?"

"No, we're out of that too."

Big smile

"Ok, thanks anyway."

And then they head for the frozen pizza section.

Monday, June 12, 2006

I thought the North was cold.

It hasn't rained in over a week now. It's been nothing but bright blue sunny days. Because the sun is almost always up, it gets much hotter than what we're used to. I'm talking stinking hot. I'm talking, I-want-to-throw-up hot.

Another one of the local characters came into the store today. Walter comes in every day, sometimes two or three times a day. He stops to talk with just about everyone he meets, wearing his ever-present smile and his ever-present navy blue ballcap. It's not really a ballcap. It's more like one of those trucker hats that were in style for about three days a few years back.

Walter only goes at one speed: slow. He walks slow, talks slow, and drives his truck (which is the same color as his hat) slow. I always greet Walter by name. I don't think he knows my name yet.

"Hello Walter."

His ever-present grin gets a bit wider.

"Feels like we're under siege out there."

"Yeah. it's pretty hot. Supposed to be like this for the rest of the week."

"Like the movie, Steven Segal. Under Siege. That's a joke."

"Ah, haha. Yeah. Good movie."

Maybe you had to be there for that one.

We discovered on Saturday that our fridge is dead. I wasn't sure until after I ran into J, our landlord, on the road. Luckily we still have a deep freeze, and the freezer on the fridge still works. Because there is so little fresh produce in town, the only thing at risk of rotting was our milk. I'm fairly sure it has rotted by now, but I'm afraid to check.

Nicole and I have to pay our first month's rent on Thursday. We decided to go to J and offer to take care of buying and setting up the fridge. The cheapest fridge at the store is just over $1000, which coincidentally is what we will owe in rent.

You would think that tracking down one person in a town of four hundred would be easy. Not so. At lunch, J was "uptown." We live "downtown" in Tulita. Uptown is anything south of the store. His mom said he had broken some ribs on the weekend while doing stunts on his bike. I am not making this up. I don't think she was making that story up either. It would explain why J was rubbing his ribs while hanging of his girlfriend on Saturday.

She told me he would be home soon. I left my number. After supper (chicken that we took out to thaw yesterday and was starting to smell funky), I went over to his place again. His mom still hadn't seen him. She thought he was uptown.

"Any idea where 'uptown' he might be?"

"No. Not sure. He'll be home soon."

I think she's covering for him.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Be it ever so humble..

Tulita is starting to feel less like a town and more like our home every day. In a town of 500 people, it doesn't take long to meet the major characters. The people who want to keep to themselves do so, and the friendly folk waste no time in introducing themselves. I'll introduce them to you. One of the first I met was Nellie, the elder. Picture the quintessential grandmother in a brown coat, long skirt, and shawl on her head. She comes in the store with her cane and her limp, although she usually walks off without her cane, leaving the store employees scrambling to find it. I don't think she remembers my name, but I always say hello to her, and she replies with her own sing-song "hello."

One day, myself and another employee gave her a lift to the store. She complained about the doctor in her broken English. Slavey is her first language.

"I want to go out in bush. Doctor says, 'no, have go Yellowknife. Get x-rays.' Get x-rays no good! Take x-rays, do nothing. Leg still hurt. I rather go in bush."

Then she said something, although neither of us could make out what she was saying. It sounded like, "you got eats?"


"Yeah. Eats. Eats in can. For bread."

"Oh, yeast! Yes, we've got yeast. Jars or packets."

"Good. Need to make bannock. For bush."

Going "in the bush" is what locals do when they want to escape the hustle and bustle of Tulita. Most have cabins accessible by boat or skidoo. This is a world not yet open to myself or Nicole, mainly because our jobs do not permit us to take a week off work to escape into the woods.

Walking home from work yesterday my five minute walk turned into fifteen. I stopped twice to talk, first with Tim the foreman, and second with my landlord.

Tim and his wife moved here around the same time as Nicole and myself. He looks a bit intimidating with his bald head, broad biceps, biker shirts, and tattoos. But he is great guy to talk with. He was sitting on his deck, reading a book when I walked by. He said this was his first job where he always gets an hour for lunch, and every Saturday and Sunday off. I think he's starting to like Tulita as well.

I had hardly taken twenty steps down the road when I ran into our landlord and his girlfriend. I'll call him J. He is younger than me. His father gave him this house, and he agreed to rent it and live with his brother. J was standing there in the road, his arm around his girlfriend, who was smiling. J kept rubbing his side and wincing, but he talked with a smile. I told him we're happy with the house, although talk soon turned to how cold it would be in the winter. I mentioned I would probably buy some firewood.

"Oh, I can get you firewood. We can go out. I got the gear. I mean a chainsaw. We could go right now with dad's truck except I've been drinking a bit."

It was getting onto seven o'clock, and the sun was beating down as we stood there. I had just gotten off work, and had no intentions of cutting wood, today or tomorrow. I hope he doesn't just show up on the doorstep some Sunday and announce that we're going to go cut some wood. I'd rather snag some of the driftwood that floats up the Mackenzie all day. You can't look out in the river without seeing a tree, it's roots sticking up like a sea-serpent's head, floating close to shore. I'm sure I could spend a hot Sunday like today dragging this wood to shore. I asked J if anyone burns the driftwood.

"Well, only her crazy uncle," he said, nudging his girlfriend. "But he's the only one. Everyone else cuts theirs."

I don't see what would be wrong with driftwood, as long as you left it to dry. Perhaps they know something I don't.

Nicole and I watched a movie last night. After that was over around midnight, we went out to sit on the deck. It was an eerie atmosphere outside. The sun had sunk lower in the sky than I had seen in days. It was finally a bearable temperature. The wind had picked up, and was gusting close to thirty out of the south. It seemed to be pushing the swift-moving Mackenzie along at a faster than normal rate. The town was silent, except for the occasional cry from a party down the street, the wind, and the sound of the river passing by. Across the river, the setting sun lit up the snow-capped peaks of the Mackenzie mountains, giving them a golden glow. I realized it was past midnight, and therefore my birthday. It is one I doubt I'll ever forget.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Say hello to my little friend...

The night before last, Nicole and I woke up in the middle of the night to the sound of small feet scurrying around the house.

"Did you hear that?"
"Is it in the house?"
"No way," I assured her, knowing damn well the rodent was probably in our room. "Sounds like its underneath the house."

Our house isn't on a foundation. Like just about every other house in town, it is propped up in the corners on a stack of 4x4 boards stacked log cabin style.

My empty promise was enough to get me a good night's sleep, but I would pay dearly for it later.

Yesterday evening I set the two mouse traps that the landlord had left in the house. I placed one in the furnace room. I wanted to put the other in the porch, but Nicole insisted on placing it in our bedroom. For some strange reason I didn't protest. I set the trap in one corner of the room.

We went to bed around eleven. The trap was sitting less than five feet from our slumbering heads. I was just at the point of dozing off when the crack of the trap woke us both. Nicole jumped about two feet straight up and then latched onto me, not entirely sure what the noise was at first.

"Relax, relax, it's just the mouse trap."

"What?! Brodie check it! Turn on the light!"

For someone who spent four years working as a biologist, Nicole is an absolute wimp when it comes to bugs or rodents. I grabbed our alarm clock off the bed and tried to aim the indiglo light in the corner. It was too dark.
So I got up, barefoot, and turned on the light.

The trap was empty. It took a moment for my eyes to adjust to the light before I spotted him. He was cowering against the wall, next to Nicole's hair dryer and curling iron; a little ball of fluff looking up at me with the smallest set of puppy dog eyes.

"I see him! Don't worry, he's just little."

"What? Where is he? Kill him Brodie! Here."

From her perch on the bed she handed me one for her fuzzy green slippers. Both the slipper and my heart were too soft to kill the little thing in front of me.

I took the slipper and moved in closer. I could see that the trap had wounded our little friend. A small trickle of blood was running down one side of his face, as if he were crying tears of blood. I think my own heart started to bleed a little at this point. How in the hell was I going to bash this little thing to death?

"This will never work Nicole. I'm going to get a pot."

The little bugger decided to make his move. Before I could get to the kitchen, he ran along the wall, past our closed bedroom door, and into the closet. Nicole was flipping out. I went to grab a pot, and she ran for the safety of the living room.

Now, you know, and I know, that a mouse can't really hurt you. It can get into your food and shit on your silverware, but the mouse itself is harmless. That's why I went for a pot and not a frying pan. I would at least be able to trap him.

Our closet doesn't have a door. It's filled with packing tubs full of clothes which act as makeshift dressers. I started to pull these out, one by one, hoping that our little friend would be hiding behind one of them.

I found him at the very back behind a pair of my boots. He was running from one side to the other, peeking out each time as if I couldn't see him. If this were a sitcom, you would hear the "awwwww" from the studio audience right about now.

I pulled away one boot and then the other, ready to strike, when he took off again, this time for the door.

"He'll never fit under that," I thought to myself. But sure enough, he squeezed under the door.

"Here he comes!"

From the other side I could hear Nicole yelling. You have to remember that it was still as bright as anything in our living room. She saw him coming. When I came out, she was standing on top of the kitchen table.

"Under the couch! He went under the couch!"

I retrieved the mousetrap from the room and placed it in the middle of our living room floor. Then I somehow coaxed Nicole back to bed. This morning it was still empty. Part of me was glad he had escaped.

Nicole is now asking me if the Northern store sells rat poison. I'm not sure, but if it does I'll have to break the pellets into tiny pieces for our little friend and hope to God the poison kills him after he's outside the house. I couldn't stand to look at that thing after he's dead.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Synopsis continued

That morning we awoke to a freezing house. Well, it wasn't frozen, but the thermostat said 10 degrees. Still pretending that we were camping, we managed to get ready for the day. Nicole went to work and I went to the Northern Store.

The Northern Store is the only store in town. It's like any other grocery store trying to branch out beyond food. There are about four aisles of food, but like Superstore on the east coast, they also sell hardware, camping gear, electronics and clothing. It almost has the feel of a general store. It is geographically and sometimes socially the center of the community.

As far as food goes you can get almost anything, as long as it comes in a package or is frozen. But it's basic stuff. They don't stock any cheese beyond cheddar or mozzarella. You can't get sun dried tomatoes, or even black olives. There is NO fresh meat. The produce section is one small fridge display, paired with a table for potatoes, bananas, and onions. About the most exotic thing I've seen is cantaloupe.

What they lack in fresh and exotic food, they make up with processed goods.

I suppose you can get lots of processed food back home, but I rarely pay attention to it because I avoid it like the plague. It's my own personal theory that the mono- sodium-hydroxoid-glucomate type ingredients are what will lead you to an early grave. But after a week in Tulita, those frozen chicken meals, fish sticks, and TV dinners are starting to look pretty tasty.

Ten A.M. Tuesday Morning. The store opens. I walk in and meet Nick, my soon-to-be boss. I ask him if he's still looking for an employee, and he says yes. We go to his office. He tells me about the company and it's benefits. They dangle the carrot of cheap housing and cheaper food to east coasters and Saskatchewanians looking for work. I bite. By that afternoon I'm shelving Pepsi and loading mr.noodles from a warehouse onto a truck.

It's not as bad as it sounds. I haven't sold my soul to some mindless job. First: I enjoy the work. It's more than just stocking shelves. I haven't been near a cash register yet. Instead they're grooming me for a supervisor position. I'm already doing orders and paperwork. Nick went from stockboy to store manager in two years. There's no reason why I can't do the same.

Second: it's this, or sit at home, do the occasional freelance story, and read. If I'm here, I might as well make a bit of money.

It is only "a bit" of money. I started at ten an hour. After the first week, I spoke with some higher-ups and negotiated a salary. Still not great money, but I'll be able to pay rent and eat well while Nicole banks most of her very large cheque. We've done the math. In six months we will be out of debt. In two years we will have enough for a significant down payment on a house. If we stick around for three or five years, we will be able to buy a house with cash.

We still don't have the housing or food benefits yet. But they should be coming along in a few months time. Until then I'll be spending six days a week busting my hump at the store.