Took me a couple of summers to get to like Duke. Not as if I’m too finicky or something. Hey, the guy who sits next ta me, Ross, burps all the time, and I don’t say nothin’. But Dukey, he’s a piece of work, he is. Short, squat, dapper, with a pencil mustache and rich white hair swept back, an unlit stogie sticking out of the corner of his mouth, Duke is a carbon copy of the Tasmanian Devil in a suit.
‘Ignis fatuus’ is a good way to describe Duke. While everyone is hard at work making Pratt and Whitney proud, Duke flits in and out of the office with quick strides, looking straight ahead, eyes focused on a point 20 meters in front of him, his head bent sideways, hissing into his cell phone, “No, No, you won’t do anythin’ of the sort, you schmuck. Listen…no, you listen ta me, shithead, the rotors have ta clear customs taday, OK? I told the boss they would.” He slaps the cell phone shut so hard, you cringe.
Duke’s legs are bowed, really bowed. From his rodeo days out west in Red Deer. His Dad ran Alberta’s biggest rodeo show, which had big sturdy horses that he kept crazed, with gallons of beer and gin. Duke’s legs are so bowed, grapevine has it that he has to have his huge wife, Helga, on top while making love, with his legs easily wrapped round her ample waist. Now don’t get me started, okay? What Dukey does with his bow legs is his business, not yores. When Duke stands up straight, his feet together, he looks like an ellipse with hardly any difference between the major and the minor axes. Don’t know what I’m talking about, do you? …Heh.
While we grunts don’t have nuthin’, Dukey walks around with a company provided cell phone and an Ipad and even has his own company-issued laptop with all kinds of security clearances. Round his neck hang half a dozen access chip cards. Except for the ladies’ loo, Duke can swipe his way into any room in these parts. He is a quintessential fixer and he loves what he does. Blue eyes, the one next to the cell phone open and has that eyebrow perpetually arched, while the other eye is slit conspiratorially always. You’ll find him this way in the corridor or at the Atrium cafeteria, chatting up some brass, waving and gesturing with his hands or screaming into his cell.
The only time you see this guy sit down is at the lunch table. It’s clear that, to him, lunch is time with the boys (us). Turkey-bacon club on brown toasted rye bread with a box of strawberry milk is the only food I’ve seen him eat. Day in and day out. Lunch is also the only time his brow is not arched and his cell phone switched off. If one of us says something particularly funny, you’ll discern a faint fleeting glimmer of a grin. If it’s really very funny, he’ll shake his head from side to side and go,” You’re fulla shit, y’know that?” or “Geet oura hee!”. And if what was just said is side-splitting, he’ll stop masticating, bob up and down and give off a high-pitched,”Aha..aha..aha”, like one of those squeaky toys after it’s been squeezed.
Don’t know if it’s the strawberries in the milk but Duke farts like one of his Dad’s rodeo horses while he’s eating, his face deadpan. He won’t apologize for it or go sit someplace else. Instead, you’ll see him tilt his torso sideways, to let loose. When you see him do that, you’ll brace yourself. “Incoming!” you’ll scream. If you’re sitting to his left, you’ll say,”Portside, Duke.” And he’ll oblige by moving his weight to your side, never once pausing in his eatin’. Lunch is always punctuated with us around the table, screaming, “Portside, Duke”, “No! No! Starboard side, Duke!” And if you think you’re being smart not sitting downwind, forget it. Duke does not have a downwind side. The exhaust velocities are much too high to make any difference. And no one, but no one, sits toward his stern or bow. It gets noisy in those places. Every time Duke goes up in Bonnie Bertha, one of our 747 flying test beds, all the charcoal air exchangers have to be replaced after the flight, I’m not kidding.
OK, if you’ve come this far, guess this piece has done its work already, enlightening you. Up until now there has been a little maths, a little physics, a little ship nomenclature, a little sex and even a bit of Latin. And you didn’t pay a dime for all that wisdom. No, maybe there wasn’t any physics but what the heck. Everything has physics in it.
Duke’s fixing prowess is well known and awe inspirin’. If you have any problems: inter-personal, personnel, union, boss… anything, you don’t have to even go to Duke. Duke’ll hear of it and soon you’ll be paid a visit. He will bustle in, head tilted, screamin’ into the phone as always. He’ll screech to a halt by your side. “I know all ’bout it. Gimme the guy’s phone number.” You’ll pass him a slip. He’ll reach into his breast pocket, take out a thick wad of slips, add yours to the wad, wheel around and take off. After that you’ll never be sure if he really did anything about it. But the problem you had won’t be there no more. Later, if you walk up to him and try to thank him, he’ll brush it aside impatiently and hurry away.
No one knows anything about Duke on a personal level. He doesn’t encourage conversation in that direction. There’s talk his wife is a janitor at the Forum, downtown, and that they have a fully grown son with Down Syndrome. Some say he has a brother who moved to Jasper years back. You ask any personal questions and it’s not that you’ll draw a blank; it’s just that you’ll get an intelligible reply and decide to let it rest. As I did once. Until I saw him in the Pointe Claire food bank, last Christmas. None of us knew Duke runs it. Right through the Christmas break.
Let me explain. There are these awesome institutions in Canada called ‘food banks’. Folks who can, leave perishable and non-perishable food items here, to be distributed among people who are on welfare. The stuff which goes around in the food bank is really good. Every food and grocery item you can think of. Poor folk (yeah, Canada too has poor folk) come by with grocery bags, produce their welfare slips and go away loaded with eggs, bread, macaroni, rice, breakfast cereal, baby food, you name it.
The day I spotted Duke, it was Dec the 24th, 5pm. I was in the neighborhood to pick up my jacket from the seamstress right next to the Pointe Claire food bank. A big Arabian grocery chain, Marché Adonis, had dropped off Homus, falafels, feta cheeses, baclavas, pickled olives, frozen turkey and cans of all kinds of stuff on the sidewalk outside the food bank. All in huge containers. There was a crowd waiting there for handouts. Single mothers with prams, old folk, deadbeats, addicts. It was a subdued, motley crowd. I didn’t get the feeling Christmas was ever a big deal for these.
Duke emerged with two volunteers and began picking up the stuff and carting them in. Stunned, I stood by not more than 50 feet away, and watched. It was a completely different Duke. He was smiling and nodding at the folk linin’ up. A hug here. A kiss on the cheek there. A pause, to listen to a man on a wheel chair, a fleeting look of concern on that same face that was no longer deadpan but animated and radiant. His smile touched every corner of his face as he bustled around. A woman appeared after a while. It was Helga, an apron tied round her waist. People moved to crowd round her, some hugging her, some giving her a peck on the cheek.
I’m not sure why but I didn’t want to be seen. I skirted the joint and walked in from the other end when they were not looking. Inside the food bank there were around 20 volunteers packaging stuff, loading them into bags and handing them over to the folk lining up. There was an air of such laughter and gaiety as I had seldom witnessed.
I left the same way I came. Didn’t want to let him know I’d seen him.
After that day, when Duke farted at the lunch table, I didn’t care if I was on his port side or the starboard side.