Sunday, August 27, 2006

Sad Week

It was a bad week in Tulita. It was a bad couple of weeks. There was a plane crash last week. All six on board were killed. One of the people was a fellow from Tulita. It all started the week before that, when several people from Fort Good Hope were killed in a boating accident. Some guy who just got out of jail thought it would be a good idea to go drinking and boating on the Mackenzie. He killed himself and two others. One made it to shore alive.

When there’s a funeral in this area, a lot of people go. So planeloads of people from the surrounding communities showed up in Good Hope for the funeral. The plane that crashed was full of people leaving Good Hope after the funeral.

So on Thursday they held a funeral for the fellow from Tulita who was killed. He had a wife and three young kids. I recognized him from the store as soon as I saw pictures. He worked for the phone company. He had even been in our old house to hook up our phone.

I also had seen the pilot around. He was one of the young kids who fly for the local airline. I think he was the guy who flew us into Tulita. Chances are it was even the plane we had flown in, because they only have one six-seater, and they only use it when the other planes are full or unavailable.

I waited on the phone guy’s daughter in the days after the accident. She came into the store, like she does almost every day, to buy candy. I used to tease her. I’d ask her for ID if she were buying Popeye candy cigarettes. You get to know certain kids (the nice ones at least) and joke with them. But I wasn’t sure what to say to her this time. So I just tried to smile and ring in her hot chocolate.

One day after the store had closed, they brought his body back to town. I saw a truck go by with the casket on back. There were about eight guys sitting on back with it, as if they were helping move furniture or lumber. That truck was followed by almost every other truck in town.

On the day of the funeral, we closed the store in the afternoon out of respect for the family. Now people from all the other communities were coming to Tulita for this funeral. I served dozens of strangers. They bought a lot of junk food and magazines for the plane ride back.

Things are slowly returning to normal for most of the town now. It’s my day off. I don’t know where the day went. I tried to get up at a decent hour so I could savour my free time. But here it is, nine o’clock. All we really did was take the dog for a long walk to Great Bear River. She is getting a lot bigger, and she is starting to behave. She was bad for biting, but rolled up newspapers have broken her of that habit.

This may be my last Sunday off for a while. Next Sunday, the store is supposed to open for the afternoon. At least I’ll get to sleep in one day a week. Legally, I think I’m entitled to 24 continuous hours of rest per week. I may have to contact a lawyer. If I was getting paid hourly and making my overtime hours, I’d already be rich. But you’ll be surprised what you’ll put up with when your employer is also your landlord. Don’t get me wrong: I enjoy my job. But free time is nice too.

I’m thinking about getting dial up. I have no other expenses, and I’d like to get back in touch with the world. Maybe this week I’ll call and get an account.

Sunday, August 13, 2006


I am the only employee in the front of the store. This means I’m manning till and office. The store is almost dead. Jim shuffles in. He comes to the office counter, and his shaking hands produce a government cheque.

“I’d like to cash this.”

His voice is raspy and hoarse. He is wearing a dirty white shirt that has the top three buttons undone. He smells of B.O and rot

“Sure thing. Would you like to make a payment on your account?”

“I can’t. I’m heading out this afternoon on medical.”

“Ok. No Problem.”

We’re always supposed to ask people cashing government cheques if they’re going to put money on their grocery accounts. They usually do.

As I start to fiddle at the computer, Linda comes back from her break. I allow her to do the cheque cashing. She asks Jim the same question. He gives the same excuse.

I move back to the till. Jim takes his money and shuffles off down an aisle with a blue basket. He returns a few minutes later with his groceries. A bag of sugar, a carton of Crosby’s molasses, a bag of raisins, and five packets of yeast.

When anyone has liquor in town, they call it shot. The homemade beer they drink is simply called brew. It’s basically made in uncovered buckets. The ingredients are simple: water, yeast, sugar, and maybe raisins or molasses. Let it sit for a few days or a week, and drink it down. You can tell when someone has been drinking brew rather than booze because, as my boss put it, they smell like stale bathwater.

The other day we had a call to the store. It was a well-spoken woman on the other line.

“Hey, My plane isn’t flying out today because of the weather. Do you have any mouthwash or hairspray for sale at your store?”

In other words, she was stuck in town for another night and wanted to get drunk.

We only stock a non-alcoholic type of mouthwash. We only sell artificial vanilla extract. And we do not sell hairspray or Lysol in aerosol cans. That is just the way we operate up here.

Summer Hiatus

Nicole printed off some e-mails for me the other day. I must say it is nice to know people are thinking about me. There is no excuse for not writing in so long. Ok, there is. I’m in the freaking Northwest Territories. I work 12-hour days six days a week. I no longer have internet. I have a puppy to take care of. Pick one. But it is good to be back. I’ll try and make this a weekly event. Lord knows I have enough stories to relay.

What a long strange month it has been. Shortly after my last post, the store offered me the company house where Nick and Anna had been living. That same morning, Nicole was flying home to be with her grandmother, who was sick. For the fifth time in ten months, I packed up our stuff and moved it up the road.

Our new house is great. Our oil, electricity, water and basic phone are all paid for. What this house lacks in character, it more than makes up for in things like insulation, a working fridge, and a dryer to go with the washer. And the pool table in the basement is a nice addition as well.

I was on my own with Mackey the dog for three weeks. With the real manager back from his vacation, the hours suddenly got a lot longer. We worked a lot of fourteen hour days. A twelve hour day suddenly became a luxury.

One Saturday, I started work at 8. Around two o’clock, the freight plane came with about 200 cases of frozen food for the freezer. This shipment included everything from ice cream to frozen pizzas and TV dinners. We put most of it to bed by the store’s closing time of six. Then we worked another two hours trying to put more from our walk-in freezer out on the floor. At 8, I was loading up on groceries to come home. While grabbing some potato salad from the meat cooler, I noticed it was unusually warm. The digital thermometer read 22 degrees. I yelled for the boss. Two coolers had given out. We spent another hour and a half throwing meat and milk into carts and parking them in our walk-in coolers. Then we took a load of cardboard to the dump. Then we had to deliver a couch. As we were driving home from the delivery, the 10pm curfew siren sounded.

After a day like that, most people would go to bed with dollar signs dancing in their head. An emergency came up at work and suddenly you’re making time and a half. Not so for me. I’m on salary. You can’t just say “to hell with this” and go home when your employer is also your landlord. Yet I am strangely smitten with the grocery business. As my boss put it, “I never come into work and say ‘gee, I’ve got nothing to do today.’” There are always at least three things that need to be done. Customers are constantly asking you for one thing or another. If I get bored of paperwork, I can grab a cart and load it up with anything you can imagine to go out on the shelf. If it gets busy around supper, I go out on the till and talk with the customers. And at the end of the day, when I feel run off my feet, I can sit down and do some more paperwork.

I am already the acting grocery manager. It is my job to place most of the orders. If we run out of milk or bread, it is now my fault. There are a million little details to remember. When half the town left for vacation, I had to cut back orders. School will be starting soon, so I’ll have to increase my bread order, as well as snack foods. As the weather turns colder, I can start to change my produce order: less salads and berries, more apples, oranges, and things like squash and sweet potatoes. There are always prices to consider, and deals offered by suppliers.

There is a strange satisfaction that comes from keeping the shelves full. There is a secure feeling when you’re in the warehouse with seven feet of flour and sugar towering over either side of you. It reminds me of the fall, when the firewood is stacked. And fall is coming. They say it comes early here. Last night was the darkest I’d seen it in months. I had to stay up until midnight to see it, but it was pitch black, and cold too. We came to Tulita after the ice had broken in the river. We’ll soon see how idyllic this town is when it’s forty below.