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Robert Sproule

All I Ever Wanted

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All I Ever Wanted

by Robert Sproule

The pool hall was dark. Three bright lights hung low over each billiard table;

their conical shades ensured that their light hit only the felt surface – making the

rest of the room seem even darker.

Four, long, bony fingers rested on the felt. Al Logan focused on the green ball,

then the cue ball and then took his shot.

Al Logan had played a lot of pool during high school; he would skip classes

to play pool. He had not liked school – it was not a world he respected – he

observed that his teachers had a greater knowledge than he, but less common sense.

High school had felt like some sort of cage to Al Logan. A temporary cage. He

thought that after school, out there in the real world – the world of business – he

would find what he wanted – all he had ever wanted – to earn his way in a world

he respected. School had been made bearable by his certainty that this world

existed and by his determination to find it.

Determination was the single, immediately observable characteristic of Al

Logan’s face – a face whose every feature seemed held together by an act of will.

A teacher had once said in front of the whole class, “Look at this face. This is the

face of a man that will not be stopped. He should be watched.” Something in the

tone of the teacher’s voice, which many students had caught, said that this was a

face that would annihilate millions in pursuit of its goal. Al Logan had taken the

teacher’s comments as a statement of fact and a compliment.

Al’s shot dropped the green ball into the corner pocket, but the cue ball stopped

with the black between it and the brown.

“You’ve snookered yourself,” said Jack Ryan.

“Bartender, another beer!” shouted Al Logan.

Al Logan was drunk.

Jack Ryan had just joined Al Logan. He knew he could find Al at the pool hall,

and he wanted to know what Al would do about today’s events at work. Al had

been here for quite some time, noted Jack, judging by the number of empty beer

bottles on the table against the wall.

Jack Ryan was born in a small logging town somewhere north of Lake Superior.

When he was four years old he stepped on a snake in the woods near his house.

This frightened him, and that night, lying in bed, he could feel the snake under

his bed. He knew that the snake did not exist, but he could not stop the feeling

that it did. He summoned his courage and forced himself to look under the bed.

There was no snake. The feeling came again the following night, but with less

severity, and again he forced himself to look under the bed. By the forth night the

feeling did not return, and, at the age of four, Jack Ryan had learned that his

conscious mind was in charge of his subconscious mind.

When he was eight years old he sat on a rock, high on a hill, overlooking his

town below – contemplating misery. He did not know if it was his misery, his

town’s, or the world’s. He wondered why there seemed to be so much suffering

on earth. He thought if nature, by some fluke, had evolved a creature that knew

nothing but pain and suffering, it would have gone extinct long ago. He concluded

that pain and suffering did not make sense. But why was there so much of it? He

had no answer.

When not in school Jack Ryan spent much of his teenage years working as a

lumberjack. He grew up as tall and as solid as the trees he cut. The town’s loggers

would hold contests of strength, and the citizens would bet on who would place

second – it was understood by all that Jack Ryan would place first. It was rumoured

among the townspeople that, at the age of sixteen, Jack Ryan had killed a bear

with his bare hands. Jack’s denials did not stop the rumours.

Jack Ryan knew what he wanted to do with his life. When he graduated from

high school, he moved to Toronto and became a cop.

------------------------------------------ * * * --------------------------------------------

Jack Ryan sat at a small table near the entrance to the bar. He sat with his legs

crossed, one heavy hand hanging limply from his knee, the other holding a beer on

the table. Jack Ryan was huge – and ugly – so ugly that his face became fascinating.

His face seemed carved out of rock. His eyes were sunk deep into his skull like

tunnels into a granite mountain; one could not see their colour, only flashes of

light deep inside the tunnels – like the headlights of an oncoming logging truck

wending its way through the night forest – trees breaking the beams into flashes

of brightness.

Across the table sat his wife. She was a woman of stunning beauty – and more –

her face seemed to be saying to every man, “I am a sexual goddess, and I want you!"

One could not tell if she was aware of this effect, but it was real, and it shocked every

man at first sight. She sat – looking at her husband.

Jack Ryan was watching a crowded dance floor. Some couples were quite good –

moving in perfect harmony with the music. They seemed to be enjoying themselves.

He liked to see people enjoying themselves.

Then he heard screams coming from the far end of the dance floor. He stood up.

He saw that two men had made their way to the back of the dance floor and were

now coming towards the entrance to the bar. They had the build of boxers, and their

trained fists were smashing the teeth of women and the skulls of men. They didn’t

care which got which. They were dropping as many as they could on their way to

the door – they were having fun.

The headlights came screaming out of the eye sockets of Jack Ryan’s skull. One

boxer saw a massive fist. And like being caught in the path of a logging truck with

not enough time on earth to escape, he saw that fist drive the bones of his nose into

his brain. Jack Ryan grabbed the second boxer, lifted him horizontally, high into

the air, face up, and when gravity started to bring him back down, he placed his

hands on the man’s chest. The man, realizing his fate, screamed; it was the loudest

scream heard in the bar that night. Jack Ryan pulled him down over his raised knee,

and like a weaker man snapping a twig, he snapped the man’s spine, and his life, out

of existence.

Jack Ryan was suspended from the police force for eighteen months. On appeal,

and with the public outcry against the suspension, it was reduced to nine. For the

last seven months he had worked with Al Logan at the freight depot.

------------------------------------------- * * * ------------------------------------------

“What are you going to do about …?” asked Jack.

“I’ll come off the end rail,” interrupted Al Logan.

“No, I mean about Joe’s promotion?”

Of the twenty-seven men who worked in their department at the depot, Joe was

the most inept. He avoided any task he could. Mistakes were never his fault. But

he had been there the longest and, as the senior man, had received the promotion.

Al Logan had been there only eleven months, but he excelled at everything he

did. He looked for new tasks – as an opportunity to gain experience. To him,

mistakes were not to be denied but considered an opportunity to learn. He was, by

far, the most competent man on the staff.

“I’m going back to school,” Al said in answer to Jack’s question.

“Excuse me!”

“I’m going back to school,” Al repeated.

“You mean you’re quitting!”

A childhood question came to Jack Ryan’s mind. Was it really as simple as this?

Is this why there was so much misery in men’s lives? “I’m going back to school”

was just an excuse, and Al knew it, thought Jack Ryan, or Al would not be standing

before him – drunk. It seemed that Al Logan, the most competent man that Jack

Ryan had ever met, would rather get drunk than fight for his happiness. But why?

Jack Ryan had no answer.

Al took his shot and another swig of beer.

“Yes, and I’m going back to school. I don’t know what else to do. I can’t

believe that this kind of thing can happen. Maybe if I get more education and a

better job, it will be different.”

“Do you really believe that?”

“Well, what do you want me to do?”

Al was getting angry:

“I can’t stay here! I can’t work where the most incompetent get the biggest

reward! I can’t kill Joe and the boss like…”

Al stopped. They both knew what this meant.

“Like I did?”

Al did not answer.

“Yes, I killed two men with my bare hands; yes, I took the law into my own

hands; yes, I got suspended from the force for nine months – but I kept my soul!”

Al didn’t hear “but I kept my soul.” He heard only its clear implication – you’ve

lost yours! Al Logan did not know whether it was his anger, or the beer, or both that

made him less cautious in the face of an invincible foe. He knew only after it was

over that his hand had clenched into a fist. Jack Ryan saw a face that must have

looked like his own when he had killed two men: he saw nothing but pure

determination and hatred; both had combined into a look that would kill. Jack

saw a slight movement in Al’s right shoulder. He put up his hand and blocked

Al’s fist.

Al Logan turned and walked out of the pool hall. The last thing he heard was

Jack Ryan’s voice:

“You’ve got the right idea Al. You’ve got to fight.”

Al needed to think. Instead of taking the subway, he walked the five miles

back to the house where he had room and board. By the time he walked up the

stairs to his bedroom, he knew what he had to do.

Al Logan climbed into bed, turned off his mind, and fell asleep.

................................................. * * * -----------------------------------------

Jack Ryan walked into the pool hall looking for Al. He saw him alone at a table,

finishing a game of snooker. As he approached, Al pulled the billiard balls out of

the pockets and tossed them on the table.

“Rack ‘em up,” Al said.

Jack began dropping the balls into the triangle.

“What happened?” he asked.

“I got the promotion.”

“I heard. Tell me about it.”

“I talked to four of the best men in our department and got them to back me up.

I went to see the boss, and I told him we would go on strike or quit if he didn’t

reverse his decision.”

“What did he say?”

“He said, ‘You’re right. I should have fired that guy long ago.’ He said that I

would get the promotion. It was easy. It didn’t take five minutes.”

“Did he say anything else?”

“Well, he said that he would be sorry not to have me in his department anymore.

He said he gave the promotion to Joe to get rid of him; it seemed an easy way to

get him out of his department. I think he was trying to justify himself. By the way,

you were one of the guys I named as backing me up.”

Jack smiled and said, “Thanks.”

“You know, Jack, I owe you big time.”

This was Al’s apology and his way of saying thanks.

Jack, instead of saying no problem or don’t worry about it, said, “How’s that?”

“Well, Jesus,” Al was a little miffed at having to explain what he knew was

obvious to them both. “if I hadn’t gone into see the boss – because you told me I

had to fight – I probably would have gone back to school and then probably would

have got another job where the same type of thing would happen again. I can’t

believe I was such a coward about it!”

“Is that what you believe, that you were a coward?”

“I don’t know.”

“Well, did you feel fear when you heard Joe got the promotion?”

“No, I just couldn’t believe it.”

“Were you afraid to talk to the boss?”

“No, I just stated the facts.”

“And what were the facts?”

“That I deserved the promotion.”

“Yes, you stood up for what is right, you stood up for your moral code.”

Al had pocketed sixteen balls in a row and was about to shoot the last ball on the

table.

There was that face, thought Jack Ryan, the face he had always liked – hard, cold,

calculating – the only man’s face he had ever liked on sight.

“I would hate to miss that last ball after a run like that,” Jack said.

Al looked at Jack, with a question on his face. He wondered how Jack could

think that he might miss this shot. It was not an easy shot, but Al knew he could not

miss it. It was not possible to miss it. He thought that the force of gravity would

have to cease to exist – and it couldn’t – before he could miss. It was a feeling of

total certainty. He lined up, took the shot, and the black ball clicked sharply into the

corner pocket.

“My moral code?” Al asked, pulling balls out of the pockets for another game.

“Yes, your moral code. Your idea of what is right and what is wrong. In you,

it’s so strong, it’s like the law of gravity.”

Al started, looked at Jack, and said, “Go on.”

“Well, what’s your moral code?”

“Well, I guess… Don’t lie. Don’t cheat. Don’t steal.”

“You don’t do any of those things.”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“I have no interest in lying, cheating or stealing. It just doesn’t occur to me.”

“Because you want to earn your way.”

“Yes.”

“Think of it this way, Al. Those things you said were all don’ts – don’t do this,

don’t do that. A moral code should tell us more than what not to do; it should also

tell us what to do. It should guide us in our day-to-day lives. You’re the most moral

man I ever met. What is it you do?”

“I don’t know. I’ve never thought of it like that. I’ve never thought of a moral

code as a list of things to do… What’s your moral code?”

“It’s not a list – it’s a way of living – and it’s contained in one word.

“Al, we are on this earth to live our lives – to live them as best we can. To live

requires an effort. And not lying, cheating or stealing is not good enough. Man must

make the effort to think, to identify the facts of reality. He must learn what is good

for him and what is not, what food is edible and what is poison. He must build

shelter to protect himself from the elements. He must earn his living. What did you

decide in high school? That you wanted to go into business, that you would work

your way up in a world that you respected. You want to know why you don’t lie,

cheat or steal. It’s because you earn everything you get. You’re not interested in

the unearned – the unearned has no value to you. You place no value on anything

unless you’ve earned it. And how do you earn it? By thinking and doing. You think

about what you are doing and you do what you think is worthwhile. You focus on

the task at hand, whether it’s your job, listening to your friends and family, or playing

a game.” Jack pointed at the pool table. “You focus, you pay attention, it’s your

way of living. And if there is one word that identifies the essence of a rational moral

code, one word that unites reality, reason, and a proper course of action for man,

that one word is – competence.

“Al, you didn’t think of fighting for what you want on your own, not because

you’re a coward, but because of your moral code.”

“Explain yourself, please.”

Jack Ryan was seeing the answer to a question – a question formulated by an

eight-year-old boy sitting on a rock.

“You said it yourself. You said, ‘I can’t believe that this kind of thing can

happen.’ You refused to believe it. You refused to see the facts of reality. Your

moral code is a law of nature to you – competence pays for man’s survival - and

his happiness. You know it’s the only way to get the most out of living. And

when you saw the facts of reality contradict your moral code, when you saw the

incompetent get rewarded, you chose to ignore the facts of reality. You snookered

yourself. It’s as if you said in your mind: I can’t accept the facts of reality, I’ll

find another reality – a reality where competence is rewarded. And look at the

consequences of ignoring reality, of not fighting for what is right. Everyone in

your department knows you should get the promotion. You’re a legend throughout

the company – almost two hundred men and women. If you had quit, what

conclusion could they draw other than what’s the point? Why bother trying to be

better at anything if this is what happens to the very best? And the consequences

to you are worst of all: more and more disillusionment as time and time again you

refuse to see the facts of reality. Oh, what the hell, give me another beer, as you

try to keep from thinking.

“But you didn’t quit. You fought for what is right. You fought for your moral

code – competence. You fought for your vision – earning your way in a world you

respect. Al, that world, that world where each man earns his own way, each to the

best of his ability, a world where man feels respect for man – Al, you will have to

build that world.”

“I know.”

.................................................... * * * ....................................................

It was Jody’s first day on the job. He had already learned that he and his trainer

would have only a moment before the next trailer would be shunted back flawlessly

to their dock. While waiting with their load, Jody took that moment to look around.

He could see clear to the back of the warehouse where a freight train had dropped

off a string of cars from the west coast. He marvelled at half a mile of freight cars

sitting inside a building. He could see electric forklifts running in and out of the

boxcars. There were so many of them, moving so fast and in so many directions; it

seemed they should be continually crashing into each other. But they never did.

Jody could not see to either end of the warehouse; it was too far with too much

racking and too many machines blocking his line of vision. Outside, he could see

the tractor-trailers mirroring the activity of the forklifts. It was an endless line of

trucks, pulling fifty-three foot trailers, being loaded and unloaded at an endless line

of loading docks that stretched off into the distance in both directions.

Jody liked the trucks, their giant wheels, and shinny silver saddle tanks. He had

never seen such a wild variety of tasteful colour combinations: lavender with purple

accents just went by. A woman with long, black, flowing hair was at the wheel.

Most of the cabs had extended quarters for sleeping, making the tractors look like

land yachts, he thought. And like yachts, they had been named: “George,” “Road

Warrior,” “Intrepid.” One simply said, “It’s Mine!” With that, and the fact they

were so incredibly clean, Jody concluded all of them were owner-operated.

Jody turned and saw a man standing a short distance away. The man seemed to

be watching the activity with enormous interest. Jody didn’t know if it was the way

the man stood, the expression on his face, or the lettering on a truck, but the words

“It’s Mine!” came to his mind. Jody tapped his trainer on the shoulder and said,

“Look at that guy. He looks like he owns the place.”

The trainer chuckled, “Oh, yeah, that’s Al. He gets that way sometimes. And,

yeah, he does own the place.” A trailer gently touched the cushions that surrounded

the dock opening, forming a perfect seal. “C’mon, let’s get to work.”

Al Logan had been paged to the loading docks to solve a problem. He had solved

it, noticed how busy everybody was, and took a moment to watch. It was like

watching a giant living machine that had taken him twelve years to build, and he

was now free to watch it function. It functioned on its own, he thought. Although

he was the boss, he didn’t control it like a puppet on strings. This machine had earned

its independence and these men knew what they were doing. The machine functioned

flawlessly – no, beautifully, he thought – each man, each piece of equipment, every

action – all united in a single purpose. He watched intently, one thought burning

in his mind – “God, I love it when it’s busy.” His feeling was becoming so intense it

occurred to him that it might be visible to those around him, and he was beginning to

feel embarrassed. He was thankful to hear the page:

“Al, line four please, Al, line four.”

Al took the call on one of the dock phones.

“Al, I’d like to borrow about two hundred of your trucks.”

It was Jack Ryan. He had worked his way up in the provincial police and was

now in charge of combating gang violence.

“What do you want done?”

“I want the Ontario-Quebec border blocked – every main highway and every

secondary road from the St. Lawrence to the Ottawa river, and every bridge as far

up-stream as Arnprior. And I need it done overnight. I’m sorry to ask on such short

notice, but I just found out about this now: three of Quebec’s largest biker gangs are

going to come into Ontario, en masse, tomorrow morning. They want to make a show

of their strength; they want to make us nervous. Now, we can’t stop them – it’s a

free country. But we can have a rolling blockade and make them obey the law,

starting with the speed limit. I’ll have cruisers and motorcycle cops with all your

trucks. I want to show them who it is that has the strength, and who it is that should

be nervous. Can you do it?”

“I can do it.”

“Thanks,” Jack said, and hung up.

Al turned to walk up to dispatch; he knew they would need his help with this.

But something Jack said stopped him for a moment – “It’s a free country.” Al had

heard this sentence used often. It meant that we were free to do whatever we

wished, so long as we didn’t violate the rights of others to do whatever they wished.

Al had always appreciated the fact that he had been born and raised in a free country,

but, like most, had taken it for granted. But, in this moment, the vision of Jack’s

lifelong work to maintain our freedom hit Al’s mind with its full meaning. In this

moment, he saw that without freedom more than this business could not have come

into existence. He saw that he could not have come into existence. He knew that

just as he had built this business piece by piece, he had built his own character day

by day – and he was proud of both. And now, he saw that neither his business nor

his character were possible without freedom – the freedom to build – the freedom to

create – create a business and a man. Al stood still, and, for the first time in his life,

he offered his thanks – thanks to his country – “Thank you, Canada.”

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Thank you for posting your work Robert. I enjoyed reading your work and also liked very much the grit your characters have.

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