From the summer of my nineteenth year to the spring of my twentieth, I was known almost exclusively as “Zippy.” As in, “Zippy, get me that wrench,” or, “Zippy, nail down that line,” or, “Zippy, get me another rum and coke,” or, “Zippy, you’re about as useful as a frozen cunt”. I wasn’t special though, this wasn’t a term of endearment.
Every winter across northern Alberta, the oil-and-gas industry created a small army of “Zippies.” Skinny, zit-faced, high-school graduates (or dropouts) complete with fibreglass-toed winter boots (moon boots), full-brimmed hard hats (skid lids), and navy-blue insulated overalls (skivvies). Making well over two-hundred dollars a day and trying to save money for a trip overseas in the spring, I initially felt very lucky to have the job. That was, until mid-January, mid-season, when it was about as cold and dark as it gets in northern Canada, and the isolation covered me like the thin layer of dry snow that seemed to appear without ever having fallen.
Our crew of four had been driving from High Level, Alberta, since seven that morning and turned north onto a forest-service road just outside of Rainbow Lake. In two white, heavy-duty pick-up trucks with chains on the tires and the transmissions in four-low, we were a satellite team roaming from gas well to gas well, testing to see if any of them were worth putting into production. From one truck, Ben and I towed a double-axle trailer full of metal piping and testing equipment, and from the other, Kelly and Dave pulled a tag-along camping trailer.
Ben was from Cape Breton and he liked me because I was from Nova Scotia too. Beneath his round, hairy exterior, he was an easy-going guy with gentle eyes. I could imagine exactly what he’d been like as a child: a pudgy little dark-haired boy with a crewcut, an easy smile, and a chipped front tooth. Like many of the guys working this job, he had a problem with the bottle, rum specifically, dark rum. The cab of the truck reeked of it from the night before.
The clay road was passable only in winter, when covered in a thick layer of ice. On any decline in the road, our truck threatened to slide out of control. When Ben braked at all, the weight of the trailer caused it to jackknife, threatening to take the truck, trailer, and all into the deep ditches on either side of the road. For four hours, we slid the two trucks and trailers slowly down that white line carved through the thick boreal forest. For four hours, I held the rubberized “oh-shit” bar protruding from the dash, white-knuckled and ready for impact. For four hours, we said nothing at all.
The work block was a four-hundred-square-foot frozen clearing marked by a small white sign with a serial number, just north of sixty into the Northwest Territories. The wellhead, a steel pipe ten inches in diameter, rose straight out of the ground in the middle of the clearing and ended with an elbow joint at waist height. It was surrounded by a aluminum fence with warning signs on every side and a gate facing west. We positioned the camping trailer near the road and dropped the testing trailer and equipment in line with the wellhead, fifty feet off.
“You and Kelly get this rigged in under an hour and I’ll get ya a hooker next day off,” Ben said. “A real dirty one. But you have to share.”
I laughed because it was expected of me, because it would be bad for me if I didn’t. After months of the worst kind of misogyny, I had become numb to it. In the beginning, I thought that I could condition them, that if I ignored them, they’d realize they were behaving like animals. But it only made their ribbing worse. In the back of my mind, I constantly tried to remind myself of the money swelling my bank account, the months I would have in exotic places while these arseholes pissed it all away on drugs, booze, prostitutes, and houseboats on the Okanagan.
Kelly still hadn’t emerged from the other truck. While Ben and Dave unhitched the tag-along, I peered in through the passenger-side window. He was splayed out on the bench seat, fast asleep.
“I wouldn’t wake him if I were you,” said Dave. “A bag of smashed assholes, liable to puke all over ya.”
Dave had a small afro that stuck out around the edges of his hard hat. He was thin and angry all the time, waiting for anyone to make a mistake so he could complain or curse and swear. He’d been fired from three previous well-testing companies over the years and was already on a short leash with our outfit.
“Alright, Zippy, quit dog-fuckin,” said Ben. “Dave and I’ll give ya a hand when we get the trailer and safety gear set up. Start layin the pipes out.”
The natural gas had been sitting in the ground under pressure for thousands of years until a pipe was drilled into it like a straw. The business end of the pipe was fixed with a valve that opened or closed to unleash the heavy flow. Before dark, we’d installed fifty feet of metal piping from the wellhead into our testing trailer and a hundred more feet from the trailer to a vertical stack that would direct the spewing fumes safely into the atmosphere.
Unlit, a fifty-foot flare stack unleashes enough gas to poison wildlife and make lighting any flame in the vicinity a suicide mission. Lighting the stack was the scariest part of the job. I quickly tied a rag to a wrench and dunked it through the bung-hole in a drum of methanol.
“Get your shit together, Zippy, I’m openin this fucker up,” said Ben as he released the valve on the wellhead.
I ran to the flare stack, which was screaming toxic natural gas into the grey sky, and lit the rag with my lighter. I checked closely for the waves of heat from the methanol’s colourless flame, then lobbed the wrench over the stack. The gas ignited like a jet engine and I cringed under the explosion.
With his chipped-tooth smile, Ben stood on the sideboard of his truck and yelled over the constant blare of the stack, “Every thirty minutes, Zippy. If you’re gonna jerk off, keep it to under half an hour and don’t get any on the datasheets. Tell Kelly not ta puke in the truck. We’re outta propane for the tag-along, just stay warm in the truck tonight, we’ll bring more out from town in the morning.”
Dave stuck his middle finger out the window from the passenger side as their truck fishtailed on the ice and turned south.
I walked to the tag-along and pulled open the flimsy door. A thin layer of frost covered the fake-wood table bolted to the floor between benches with corduroy cushions on either side. The white sheers over the windows were yellowed from chain-smoking. A deck of nudie playing cards, work papers, the alarm clock, and other odds and ends were tossed all over the floor from the drive. I began picking them up. Beneath a clipboard and some datasheets, I found a worn paperback copy of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Flipping through the first pages, the darkness of the writing drew me in, mirrored the bleak landscape outside. I stuffed the book into the pocket of my skivvies. Under my layers of clothing, I found my wristwatch and set the timer for thirty minutes.
I climbed into the cab of the truck to the warm scent of sickness. I pushed my cold glove hard into Kelly’s face.
“Fuckin cock-suckin motherfucker,” he coughed, sitting up in the driver’s seat.
This was the first thing I’d heard him say all day and it composed most of his vocabulary. Kelly was a high-school dropout with no prospects, lucky to have this job, any job. He followed the boys around like he was on a leash and did anything to impress them. Though his sunken face was still recovering from adolescence, he looked ten years older than he was.
I leaned forward to look up through the windshield into the clearing night sky. “First shift or last?” I said.
Kelly sat with his eyes closed and burped something marshy that blended with the air in the cab. A flush of white shimmered in the sky. I took his open-mouthed silence as an answer. “See you in a coupla hours. Brush your fuckin teeth or somethin, it’s sick in here,” I said.
I picked the case of testing gauges off the floor and opened the door. Kelly pawed at the copies of Hustler on the dash and slid back onto the bench seat as I stepped out.
The steel grating of the testing trailer clanked under my ice-covered boots. The whole thing hummed with the flowing gas. I attached the gauges to various hoses and logged the results before putting the gauges back inside my overalls to keep them from freezing.
Returning to the truck, I climbed the wheel well and positioned myself on the hood with my back against the windshield. We ran the trucks twenty-four hours a day to keep the motors from seizing up in the cold. The warmth of the diesel engine under my legs forced me to switch positions every few minutes. I crossed my arms and waited for my alarm to go off. Every half hour for five hours, the watch chirped, and I slid myself off the truck, grabbed the datasheets, and recorded the pressure and purity of the gas in the petrified pocket beneath my feet.
The heat of the flare stack had melted the ice into a thick mud thirtyfeet in diameter. Every so often, the fire would spit and sputter a blue light from the impurities in the gas or flare so hard I thought the whole unit would blow. Staring into the ten-foot flame led to near blindness when you looked away. Everywhere, the snow and metal glistened in its unflickering beam. It diminished the night for kilometres, rendering the stars barely visible.
Lying on the hood of the truck, I thought of the night before, in the motel-lobby bar. The boys had been indulging in rum, cocaine, bigscreen hockey, and slapping the waitress’s ass.
“It won’t be the same without Gretzky,” said Dave glancing at the tv.
“I don’t know. I’d take a team of Joe Sakics over a team of Gretzkys any day,” I said.
“What?” Dave said, a mittful of fries hovering before his mouth.
“Well, maybe not Sakics, but Bobby Orrs or Gordie Howes for sure. There’s definitely better all-around players.”
“What the fuck are you talking about,” Dave said angrily. “Wayne Gretzky’s the best fuckin hockey player who ever was, or ever will be.”
“He’s the best goal scorer, the points leader, for sure, but I don’t know, there’s more to hockey than that.”
Dave looked to the others for support. Ben was turned toward the bar, trying to get the waitress to bring him another rum. Kelly was staring, slack-jawed, at the tv.
“You’re a fuckin asshole,” Dave said finally when no backup came. “If I asked every single person in this bar....”
“Listen, man, it’s just my opinion. It’s not a big deal.”
Dave dropped his fries onto his plate and pointed at me with a greasy finger. “You’re a real fuckin asshole, you know that? Think you’re so fuckin smart. I’d fuckin teach you a thing or two, you little fuckin shit.”
I could tell he was serious. I tried to laugh it off.
“What the fuck are you laughing at?”
I stopped laughing. Ben turned around, and I stared at him.
“I said, what the fuck are you laughing at,” Dave repeated.
“Nothing, man, Jesus Christ,” I said.
“What’s the fuckin problem?” Ben said. “Just shut up and eat yer fuckin food for Chrissakes.”
“Asshole thinks Gretzky’s not the greatest hockey player ever.”
“Ya but, Chris also got a big lumpa shit between his ears. Between his legs too, I hear.”
Kelly laughed. Dave stood down, shovelled a piece of steak into his mouth. “Fuckin asshole.”
I lowered my eyes and focused on the game.
When they started talking about picking a fight with a couple of First Nations guys at a table in the corner, I became afraid. Without a word, I stepped outside. Looking through the exhaust from the empty, running trucks that lined the street, I thought about how easy it would be to jump in one and drive south, back down the Mackenzie highway; I wondered how far I could get before they caught me. I heard more unforgivable language from the bar and wandered back to my room, only to lie awake until Kelly stumbled in hours later.
My watch alarm startled me. I re-set it and leaned back on the windshield with a sigh and an hour left in my shift. I couldn’t have been transported far enough away from where I was. Staring into the giant flame, I couldn’t remember a day without it. Everywhere I looked there was only fire and shadow. My body felt deflated under the cold and burning, punctured by beauty and its ruin. If I had had a button to sink it all, I would’ve pushed it. In the corner of my eye, a white light billowed from the northern horizon. I tilted my head back and looked up from the gurgling mouth of flames.
The white light quickly faded, but was replaced by tinges of tropical green and neon ocean-blue, appearing first at mid-sky and then above my head. Descending like ghosts into the surrounding forest, it was as though the fire had been doused. The northern lights flowed into the distance with no end or beginning, creating and destroying themselves continuously. My frosted eyes blinked slowly.
I began to hear a deep drone above the roaring of the stack. I knew the lights didn’t make noise, but it seemed to get louder as the colours grew more brilliant. I rolled onto my side, away from the stack, and listened. The rumbling became clearer and seemed to come from the ground, not the sky. Within seconds, I heard what sounded like thunder coming north on the road. The noise grew until it was all I could hear. The ground started shaking and the truck began vibrating. I looked for the headlights of a large vehicle on the trees, but saw nothing. I waited, motionless with fear, for what was coming too fast up the icy road.
In a tangle of muscle, they appeared and stopped abruptly in the light of the flare stack. Their dark manes, twisted and matted, fell on their grey and black sweating skin. The small herd stood wild and brilliant, puffing clouds of thick breath; a row of black, marbled eyes burning orange in the firelight. They held their heads perpendicular, transfixed. And as quickly as they arrived, they reared up in defiance with high-pitched whinnies, continuing north toward where the rivers of colour emptied into the sky.
The roar of the stack gradually returned, filling my ears with its static. The lights above slowly dissipated to their original white shimmers. The fire and shadows returned. But not before the world had shrunk down to the very skin covering my shivering bones, not before I was good and lost again under the big dying stars, under the tree tops, under my hovering breath.
Kelly stepped out of the truck an hour later. “What’s goin on, shithead?”
“Nothing, man. Nothing at all.”