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A little later that night, as I was packing to leave, my mom stopped by my room on the way to hers. “You are a disgrace to your family,” she said. “Look what you’ve done. Now your dad doesn’t have a job anymore. What is he supposed to do? Ever since you were a child, we tried to teach you the importance of studying hard so that you can get a good job. All for what? For nothing. You have ruined us. I hope you’re happy.”

The New Job

My dad worked for a construction company called Tiroon Masonry that specialized in building schools. The company was run by two men. The Portuguese man mostly worked on job sites, rarely coming into Tiroon’s office. An Indian man spent the majority of his working day in the office drawing up plans for schools and making sales calls and bids for future projects. One man was incapable of doing the onsite work, while the other was not the best when it came to sales and finances. The company also needed my dad, who at the time of his hiring was almost fifty-five and unemployed for several months. He was a trained accountant and prior to his coming to Canada had held good paying jobs as head accountant first in Sri Lanka then in Zambia. As a foreign trained accountant, one who was reluctant to take on further training in Canada, not a lot of jobs were available to him. This job had only come about by fluke. The Indian man’s wife worked with a friend of my mom’s and when the company was looking for an accountant the friend was asked if she knew any accountants and the friend immediately thought of my dad. I hate to think what would have become of my dad and our family if the job had not become available.

The money my dad earned from this job literally saved him and us. My mother didn’t have to be the sole breadwinner for the family and my dad had money to upgrade his car, get closer to paying off the mortgage, and to invest for his retirement. 

My parents would have loved for me to become an accountant myself. It was all I heard about growing up – that I would do well in school and become a professional accountant where doors to succeed in the business world would readily open to me because I was bright and young. That was their immigrant dream. It was why they had come to Canada in the first place. They wanted me and my younger brother to be afforded opportunities we wouldn’t have got in war-torn Sri Lanka. Unfortunately for them, I wasn’t exactly enthusiastic about the idea, although I wasn’t totally closed to it either. I was, however, enrolled in a business program and I think they were happy that I was at least in a related field. 

I didn’t get to meet my dad’s employers until I went with my parents to the wedding of Jorge’s older son, Jason, who like his younger brother Peter, also worked for Tiroon. It was Peter, who first planted in my head the idea of working with them. At the time I was set to start a part time job in the summer as a bank teller for which I was to be paid a rate that was only marginally above the provincial minimum.

“You should come with us,” said Peter. “Fuck the bank. They pay you shit anyway. With us you start at twenty bucks and it goes up in like a couple of weeks or month depending on my dad. But you could be making like twenty-five bucks at least by the end of the summer.”

I’d heard my dad mention a few times how Jorge was easily able to convince his two sons to work for him in construction. The pay was too good to pass up, the training free and work steady. For most other careers they’d have to spend thousands to earn a degree or diploma first before working in jobs with little pay and no guarantee of advancement.

I didn’t see anything wrong with going to work with Jorge and his sons. It was only for the summer and I was intrigued by the nature of the work, not to mention the potential size of my paychecks. For me it was a no brainer to take the job. 

My interest in the trades did not come from nowhere. Just a couple of months ago, in fact, I closely watched the work of a couple of men who’d come to the town house in which I lived with my parents, to build a new bathroom for us. I had even thought of asking if I could help them.

 “Guess who wants to join us,” said Peter to his father when we found him a bit later at the wedding reception that night.

“You want to work with us eh?” said Jorge, examining me from the top down.

“Yes, I do.”

“Does your dad know?”

“Do we have to tell him?”

“He’s the guy who prepares the checks so yeah we do have to tell him. Unless you don’t want to get paid.” He laughed.

If I didn’t have the job at the bank, I imagine the conversation with my parents would have gone down a lot easier. 

My mother looked genuinely surprised when I told her what I was planning to do. For a moment she was speechless. “You’re leaving the bank?” she said finally.

“It’s stupid pay and only part-time hours,” I said. “I’m done with it.”

“Working with Jorge is hard,” said my dad. 

“You said he’s a nice guy though.”

“He is nice, but the work is tiring. And very dangerous.” He emphasized ‘dangerous’, which I actually found a little comical. “It is not our type of work.”

“What do you mean it’s not our type of work? You think I can’t do it? I’m a big boy. I’m tough. I work out.”

“I know, but we are more academic. We are not meant to do that type of work.” There were so many things I could say to this. On one hand he was right, no one on either side of my family had ever worked in the trades, but that didn’t mean that we weren’t meant for that type of work. And who was he to say what I should do for work? 

“I’m going to talk to Jorge,” said my mom. “Give me his phone number.”

“Don’t worry I will talk to him,” said my dad.

“I’m going to work for him,” I said firmly. “There is nothing you guys can do about it. It’s only going to be for the summer anyway.” 

My parents looked at each other. I saw that I had made an impact on them. They weren’t used to me making a stand on major issues. Usually I went with whatever they wanted. “Okay if it’s just for the summer,” said my mother. 

 

For my first shift, Jorge came to our house to pick me up in a white pickup truck with the company logo painted in blue on either side. The job site was a little over an hour away with traffic. On the way we talked about the business and about what I would be doing. First on the agenda for me was to learn how to work with mortar, which is just a fancy word for the mud that worked as adhesive when making a brick wall. Because of this, within minutes of my arrival on the job site, a school called St. Clara’s Catholic School in Vaughn, my hands were covered in mud. The rest of my overalls and my face followed within the hour.

I watched with interest as the others laid down the bricks with the mortar and took frequent looks at the drawing of the school extension we were building. Then I noticed the forklift in the corner. Jorge told me that if I learned to drive the forklift I could get paid as much as his sons. As I watched the forklift, I became even more drawn to the idea of operating one, one day. It wasn’t about the money for me. The idea of driving a machine like that thrilled me. It would be fun, unlike accounting or anything I had done so far in university.

“How was the work?” said my dad at home that evening.

“It was good,” I said. “It was hard work for sure, but it was good. It wasn’t bad.”

“It’s only one day. After a few days you will realize how hard it is to keep up.” 

 

I was given my first paycheck the following week and it was, as I had expected, the largest amount I had ever been paid, certainly more than I would have been paid at the bank. Even though I often smelled of mortar, brick and paint and my hair always had dust in it and my hands and knees often ached, I was liking the job the more I did it. It helped that I enjoyed the company of my coworkers. It felt like I was part of a team.

I had just come out of the bathroom after the show, leaving the bathroom stained from the remnants of my work that day on the white tub, when my dad asked, “You’re still working with Jorge?”

“I am,” I said proudly. His question annoyed me. Didn’t he know that I was still working with Jorge? Wasn’t he still printing out paychecks for me? 

“It’s hard work, isn’t it?”

“There is no job in the world that is easy, Appa.”

“I was looking on the internet and there are some nice office jobs there. Have you seen?”

“I’m really not interested, Appa.” My response was immediate which I think took him aback. I didn’t even look him in the eye as I spoke.

 

School was starting next week. During a break, I told my coworkers how I would much rather work with them then go to school.

That night, I looked at my financial statement online from the university. Each half year course cost me around seven hundred dollars and each full year course cost double that and I was taking a total of five classes a semester. Then there were my living costs which were about the same and books which would no doubt run me at least a thousand for the year. To pay for my exorbitant school fees I applied for a student loan which was set to arrive on the first day of classes. Also, around this time I received my latest check for my summer job. It was the highest amount I had received yet. For me the choice was clear. Continue working with Jorge and the others who had now become my friends and put off going to school for at least another year. I went online right away to drop my classes and give up my spot in the residence across the street from the university. 

Over dinner that night I told my parents what I had done. 

“You are not going to work with Jorge again!” my mother screamed.

“Why not?” I said. “I like the work and it pays well.”

“You have to get your degree and get a proper job”

“I don’t care about getting my degree now. I can always get it later, that door is always open. Right now, I want to work. I want to make money.”

“We won’t let you go,” said my father.

My mom told my dad to call Jorge right away to tell him that I wasn’t going to be working with him anymore. Not surprisingly the conversation did not go well. It lasted just five minutes and ended with my dad slamming the phone down.

“What did he say?” said my mom.

“He says he still wants Saru to work with him.”

“I won’t allow it.”

“I’m going with Jorge and there’s nothing you can do about it,” I said.

 

The next morning Jorge pulled up to our house in his truck and I ran out the door to meet him. My parents, however, were not far behind me. Just as I was about to climb into the truck, I heard my mother call my name. I got in the truck anyway, but Jorge stepped out to confront my parents who were standing outside. 

“What’s the matter?” Jorge said.

“He’s not going with you,” said my mom. “He needs to go back to school.”

“He’s supposed to start classes this week,” said my dad.

“Leave the boy alone. He likes the work.”

“No!” My mom waved a finger at Jorge. “He’s not going. He’s going to school.”

“Why don’t you want him to come work with us?”

“He’s not going to work in that field, right?” said my dad. “He’s going to go into business. Maybe accounting. Aren’t you Saru?”

“Let him come with us,” said Jorge. “He’s happy working with us and he’s getting good at the job.”

“But he’s only a boy!” shouted my mother. “He doesn’t know what is good for him.”

“He’s not a boy anymore. He’s an adult so he can make his own decision. And who are you to say that it’s not good for him to work with us? I think it is good for him. He’s doing well!”

“He is not supposed to work in construction. Not my son. No way.”

“What’s wrong with construction!”

“It’s for people who can’t study. Most of you are dropouts. My son is not a drop out.”

“Wooow Mrs. Siva, that’s not fair to say. My sons and I finished school. So did a couple of others guys.”

“Yes, high school. Saru is going to be a university graduate.”

“He told me he was going to drop his courses which I think he did already, didn’t you?” He turned to me and I nodded.

“He has to re-enroll,” said my dad.

“I’m going with Jorge!” I shouted from the truck.

“Saru is not going to work with you!” my mother screamed, her voice so loud that I’m sure we had neighbours watching us now, if they weren’t already. “He can do better! He has to do better!”

Jorge stared at my mom.

“He has to go to school,” said my dad. “He’s not supposed to do that kind of work. No one in our families has ever done that kind of work.”

“So what?” said Jorge. “First time for everything right?”

“I knew we shouldn’t have let him go,” said my mom in Tamil shaking her head.

“We made a big mistake,” said my father in English.

 “Come back Saru! You’re not taking my son!” My mother grabbed my arm and pulled, but I wouldn’t budge. Finally, she let go and began to cry.

“Your problem is you look down on people who work with their hands,” said Jorge. “That’s wrong.”

“I’m going with Jorge and that’s final,” I said. 

“No, you can’t,” said my dad.

Jorge and I entered the car and drove away. In the next hour I was told that my dad was let go from his job at Tiroon. The words stung me. I had expected something bad would happen, but I tried not to think about what that could be and now that the bad thing had happened, the matter could not be ignored anymore. “How could you do that?” I said.

“We had to do it,” said Jorge. “You saw what happened this morning. You can take a break if you want. I know this is hard for you.”

I stepped away to a corner and thought things through. Was my happiness more important than my parents? I realized that it was too late to salvage my father’s job whatever I did. Even if I were to quit the job, he probably wasn’t going to get his job back. When I returned to work, I moved slow as my body was held back by the pain inside of me. 

When I got home that evening, my mom presented me with an ultimatum: either I stopped working with Jorge and went back to school or I moved out immediately. So I picked up my phone and called up one of my coworkers who had offered me a place to stay if I needed it. 

A little later that night, as I was packing to leave, my mom stopped by my room on the way to hers. “You are a disgrace to your family,” she said. “Look what you’ve done. Now your dad doesn’t have a job anymore. What is he supposed to do? Ever since you were a child, we tried to teach you the importance of studying hard so that you can get a good job. All for what? For nothing. You have ruined us. I hope you’re happy.”

There was so much I could say back to her, but I saw no point as she wouldn’t listen. So I continued packing and in the morning I was gone.

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