I worked for Hart Zehen when I was sixteen, rising at four in the morning to bake bread. It was a great paycheck but my social life, such as it was, suffered. On the positive side, my muscles grew and I learned more from Hart than I might have expected.
Hart was an intimidating man. He gave the impression of violence – it seeped from him like red from a beet. Worst of all, it was like he was possessed if he sensed you were bullshitting him. Relentless questions; scornful laughter when your story fell apart; and then suddenly he’d go dead-eyed and silent as if he had entered a private fury beyond all understanding. I soon learned to avoid the experience.
“The mixer goes on at 4:30 AM and it had better be full,” he said to me on my first day. “And if it’s not, then you go home and stay home,” he added with finality as he shook a bag of flour into the stainless steel bin. Then he smiled and offered me a stick of gum.
Hart was very much a, “talk slow, talk low, don’t say much,” kind of guy and even though he had such a threatening demeanour, there were some who said he was actually quite a thoughtful person. He wasn’t much for church – that too was part of the local book on Hart Zehen.
Hart was stuffed into his white baker’s tee-shirt like a sausage in the sun. He had scars on his chin and his lips, and his front teeth were clipped off at an angle and capped with a thin sliver of gold. He would sweat profusely in the heat of the bakery, with the ovens creaking as they slowly rotated their load of loaves. Hart would pause in his work to wipe his forehead with a thick finger and flick the sweat like a fluid silver necklace tumbling through the air in slow motion. Then he would laugh, cough and begin singing in a beautiful tenor, his face red and cords standing out from his neck like taut wires.
His given names — Norman James — were seldom used; even his mother called him Hart. He earned the name in a hockey game, playing with the men’s team when he was 14. The game was a desperate one, in the spring, with the ice threatening to rot in the St. Joseph rink. Hart famously took on a tough player on the Habs and managed to hold his own, suffering only a cut lip and a ripped sweater. The “platz” portion of the felt “Hartplatz” crest (our town name) on his chest was torn off and dangling. As Hart skated off, stiff-legged and wiping the blood from his face, he noticed the torn jersey. He pulled off the loose piece and tossed it angrily into the Habs bench, loosing a further ten minutes of scrum on the ice and fights in the stands.
He played the remainder of the game without leaving the ice and scored a perfect goal with minutes left to safeguard the win. The Hartplatz Post carried a memorable picture of him, illuminated in the white glare of a bursting flashbulb and gliding on one skate with his heavy “CCM Collegiate” stick held high. The iconic, bloodstained “Hart” insignia was centred in the image and from then on he was known as Hart.
Hart Zehen would often hire a bust-up fellow called “Breezy”. Breezy was an alcoholic on his last legs. He lived, sometimes disappearing inexplicably and for days at a time, in a shack behind the Tourist Hotel in Hartplatz. Someone had built a low arch-rib storage structure behind the men’s-only pub and Breezy squatted there. The roof was rotten and he patched it with comically inappropriate and insufficient materials like newspapers and plaid woollen jackets and any number of other goods that could be had for free and within easy reach. He shared the space with spider-webbed stacks of beer bottle empties and a dim jangling sound could be heard at odd hours as he rearranged his furniture.
Breezy was hired to sweep the sidewalk in front of Hartplatz Bakery; to wash the delivery trucks; to carry bags of flour from the storage bunks in the back to the mixers near the front and other menial chores. Breezy would breeze into work — hence the name — anytime from 4:00 am to ten in the morning; more the latter. Then he’d pick up his broom or shovel and act as though he had been there all day. Hart paid him the going rate regardless. That income was invested, Mon-Sat at 11:00 am sharp, in the futures of the White Seal Brewing firm of Winnipeg, Manitoba by way of the Tourist Hotel.
“What good is giving him a paycheque? He just puts it right back into drink!” This was the talk of the coffee shops and church basements and around the woodgrain arborite tables in the curling rink. The people in the little town of Mennonites — transplanted Russians whose ancestors started life on the prairies with only sod huts and faith — had little patience for the idle and the unrepentant auf ge fallen (fallen by the wayside).
“He can’t handle his liquor,” the men would say. “I think he has Indian blood or something.”
“Yeah, he’s a Hindu,” Hart might reply quietly, snapping his Winnipeg Tribune to attention as he sat reading at the horseshoe bar in the coffee shop.
“Look,” Hart would say when he got wound up, a puff of smoke from a Buckingham cigarette accenting every syllable. “Breezy is a grown man. He can think not half-bad when he’s sober. I have no right to tell him how to live. Nor does anyone else have the right to tell me what to do with my own money. End of story.”
On one occasion, Hart met a thumpingly-stern but unlucky town leader, just before the pub closed down on a stormy Monday night. The red-handed man carried a dainty six-pack of Labatt’s Blue, his car idling in the back parking lot, pointed in the get-away position. Stammering, he explained, recovering his nerve with a used-car salesman’s aplomb that he was just getting beer “for those Kinsmen,” who were coming over that week for a company event at his house. Kinsmen of course being a kind of code for those with non-Mennonite names – the Mc and Mac of the Englander welt (English world) who had seeped in along the crusty edges of Hartplatz’s brethrenly Main Street. These misfit round pegs were bankers and pharmacists and other secular necessities.
Anyway, the six-pack man was flustered and embarrassed but as is the case when recovering from the high-speed wobblies on a motorcycle, he figured the best thing to do was “give it more gas”. So he did.
Pushing his Kinsmen case up under his arm, he invited Hart to look inside the pub. He held the door open to show the baker a sprawling, passed-out Breezy, front and centre, his khaki pants stained dark where he had peed himself as he sat. Chiding Hart for funding the debauch, he urged him to give the same amount but re-route the cash to the Six-Pack Sneaker’s church, “where it can do some real good,” he said.
“Nah,” Hart said, looking at Breezy. “It’s better here, where I can see where my money is going.”
The bartender, Cornie, had wandered over to the two men and had heard the last few comments. He chuckled and Hart threw him a wink.
The Six-Pack Sneaker was a big man of about six-four and maybe 260 pounds of loose packed glums (cottage cheese). He looked at Cornie, the skinny little Mexican bartender and then he looked at Hart Zehen. He felt so belittled by Hart’s insult, even though he knew that was not really possible. He was — after all — a businessman; a member of the Chamber of Commerce; center-aisle usher for Sundays and weddings at the Landmark Gospel Bethel Tabernacle; a member of the University of Manitoba Extension Library and a Toast Master.
Slowly, with Hart and Cornie watching, he walked out towards his waiting car. He stopped just before he reached it and turned back. Seeing them in the light near the door, he called back, “You don’t do that old drunk any favours, you know. He’d be better off with some tough love!”
Hart sighed and took a short step forward. Cornie brushed past, looking at Hart as he went by and asking, “Hey, what’s that guy’s name?”
“He’s a Wiebe,” Hart said.
“Ok, thanks” Cornie replied. Then he trotted a few steps into the pot-holed gravel lot and called, “Hey, Wiebe! Come here once.”
Wiebe paused, his car door open. He leaned in to put the six-pack on the front seat and then, after looking in both directions, shut the door and walked back to the pub where Hart and Cornie stood.
“Look, there’s no need to apologize, Hart. No hard feelings,” Wiebe said, slightly out of breath.
“Listen,” Cornie said, interjecting. “Breezy’s name is Arnold Plett. He came up from Mexico the same time my parents did. He’s a few years younger than my Dad. Arnold got a job at an implement dealership in Winnipeg. Back then, that guy was a genius with motors. He made good money and had a nice house in the city. He only came out here to Hartplatz once in a while. Mostly to see my Dad and sometimes a brother, who lived on a farm south of town.”
Wiebe’s confused face cleared slowly as he listened. He knew the man only as “Breezy”, like most people in Hartplatz. Cornie continued with the story.
“Arnold loved fishing. He bought a nice boat and him and his wife were out fishing at Big Whiteshell this one time,” he said. “She was four-months pregnant and Arnie had just been made a manager at the Case dealership. Life was good, y’know?”
Wiebe nodded, looking through the smudged glass lite in the swinging pub door, where he could see Breezy – Arnold – sleeping in his chair.
‘So, it starts to rain,” Cornie said, carrying on with the story of Arnold Plett. “The midgj (mosquitoes) are getting bad and his wife says they should go. Arnie says goodbye to some guys he knows who are fishing near them and goes to start the boat, but he can’t get it running. The battery is dead. He pulls the cover off of the outboard and winds a rope around the flywheel and is gonna pull-start it. It was a Johnson 40, so he has to really give it a tug, y’know?”
Wiebe looked down at the short man. Cornie had a Fu-Manchu moustache and his teeth were completely rotten – black stubs. He had Paul Newman blue eyes and a small gold ring in one earlobe. He could have been a stand-in for Edward James Almos, but he would have had to keep those awful teeth covered up. “Yeah, I had a forty Evinrude,” grote (big) Wiebe said, looking at Breezy as he spoke.
Cornie glanced at Hart, who nodded. Cornie took a deep breath and continued. “So, Arnold gives it about three good pulls and it almost starts. Then he gives it a super hard yank and he slips and falls back. His wife Tina is just then standing up to stretch and he stumbles backwards, right into her. She gets knocked over and falls out of the boat. Arnold is down in the bottom of the boat and he scrambles up and looks over the side, but she is under. He could see her yet, just under the water. Sinking.”
The three of them stood in the plywood shelter attached to the stucco wall of the hotel. A one-hundred-watt bulb lit the enclosure brightly and it was cold enough for them to see their breath. Cornie put his hands down into the front pockets of his jeans.
“Arnold kicked off his boots and dove into the water. He was a shitty swimmer though and he came up again almost right away. Plus, it was only a few weeks after ice-out. The guys from the other boat came over too, but by then Arnold had gone down many times and he did not get her.”
Cornie stopped and got a smoke off Hart. He spat, then hugged his arms to his chest and finished the story. “Arnold stayed there in the boat with some of the Hartplatz guys and the other boat went to get the cops and the Conservation officers. They got her body the next morning and a snapping turtle had worked on her a bit already. The cops said her nose was busted and she probably got hit in the face with the back of Arnold’s head. She was out cold when she hit the water, the cop figured. Arnold could not forgive himself for taking off his boots. He said he did it without thinking and it only took a few seconds, but maybe that was the difference. That’s all he could talk about. It drove him crazy – that and why he couldn’t get the motor running and why he was so clumsy.”
Cornie stopped talking then and smoked his cigarette.
“I knew Arnie from hockey,” Hart said, picking up as Cornie stood quietly staring down at the ground. “He was the equipment manager for the Winnipeg Clubs when I played there. We hit it off. Arnold went back to Mexico after the accident. He quit his job, sold the house and disappeared. About three years later he came back and he was Breezy. The Arnold Plett we knew stayed in the boat at Big Whiteshell.”
It was still for a while. The moon came out, shining on the puddles in the parking lot. Dozens of miniature moons shone back up at the night sky.
Wiebe nodded his head slowly. He patted Cornie on the shoulder and said, “Thanks, you guys.”
“Just keep it to yourself, Wiebe,” Hart said, his voice threatening. “Arnold Plett doesn’t need no sob story. Just mind your business.”
Wiebe looked stonily at Hart, then pulled his coat tight and walked through the puddled lot to his car.
The two men watched Wiebe go, then Cornie said, “Ok, time to clean Arnold up,” swinging the door open and holding it for Hart.
“OK,” Hart said, adding, “nice touch with the boots, Cornie. If we keep this up long enough, people are gonna genuflect when Breezy walks by. But I think the snapping turtle part was a bit much, though.”
“Fine,” said Cornie, with a black smile. “It’ll be your turn to make up the story about ‘your old hockey buddy’ next time.”
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