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  Ellen Davignon: Lives of Quiet Desperation

A Rudderless Ship

August 15, 2001

"Welcome home, Chris," I call out to my boss, newly back from fact-finding tour of our Dawson stores. 'So glad you're back, we were as a rudderless ship without you,' I add.

We beam at each other, I knowing that we both recognize my latter statement as the nice bit of blatant bootlicking it is; he, half-believing that we truly might have missed him but also secure in the knowledge that with Jan Owen at the helm and the rest of us scared spitless of her lectures, Mac's Fireweed, the flagship of Maximilian's Corporation, sails pretty darn well whether he's here or not.

Commerce ticks along quite nicely in our tidy, well-ordered store. The merchandise is fresh and refreshed at regular intervals, the staff is casual but reason-ably informed, and we do have the finest clientele.

This is not to say that there aren't a few waves from time to time. In spite of our diligence there is some larceny in the Literature section, erosion in Erotica, and a definite suspicion of malfeasance in Magazines. Worse yet, we occasionally find evidence that books from Spirituality have bid us fond adieu and walked.

In addition, we have, with few questions, given refunds on books only later to discover them with stickers, not our own.

On one occasion, a thief got into the back of the store and rifled the unlocked safe, lightening the next days bank deposit by a considerable chunk, a situation so unsettling and traumatic that those of us that were here at the time have never really gotten over the habit of checking and double checking the doors and locks.

And if we should forget, Jan tells us about the error. And tells us.

Jan is very good at her job.

And if Chris has ever had had any concerns as to the care and safety of his biggest store, last weekend should disabuse him of any such doubts.

To set the stage, however, I must relate two unrelated incidents.

Just as I was beginning my evening wind down, preparatory to finishing my shift, I remembered that it was my day for changing the filters in our big furnace, the one that keeps us warm in the winter and cool and dust-free in the summer.

It's not a huge deal, just a matter of flicking off a switch, removing, with some threat of mayhem to my soft and chubby person, an unwieldy side panel, extracting four large and filthy filters and replacing them with four new ones (always remembering that it's the WHITE side that goes next to the fan,) restoring, with the same possibility of damage, the cumbersome panel, and, finally, flipping the switch back to ON.

I had gotten as far as removing the filters and, hacking and coughing in the resultant clouds of dust, hoiking them off to the dumpster. On my return to the furnace room, however, I was waylaid by a customer requiring my kind assistance and the ensuing transaction, with it's verbal give-and-take and not to mention a gift-wrap thrown into the bargain, wiped all further thoughts of furnaces and filters from my mind.

Twenty minutes later, I departed the store for home and the tuna casserole Phil was keeping warm for my supper.

Later that evening, store manager Jan Owen, an hour into HER well deserved rest, got a call from her late evening crew. There had been an altercation right in front of Mac's front door and when someone had dashed in crying out, 'Call the cops', a wide-eyed clerk had pressed the panic button, thereby ensuring the swift arrival of our head accountant and representatives from Armour Security, to say nothing of a good half dozen of the RCMP’s most bright eyed and bushy tailed, hoping for a little excitement.

In a matter of moments, order was restored, the disappointed gendarmes had departed, and, being only a few short minutes from Midnight closing, the night staff did just that.

Only now, the panic light was flashing and no one new how to re-set it.

Thus the call to Jan, the plaintive I'm-so-sorry-to- call-you-but we-can't-set-the-alarm cry for direction.

Well, Jan knew how to reset the button but couldn't wake up enough to relay the info. "It'll be OK for one night, just close up and go home."

Brave words from someone whose veins pulse right along with the ebb and flow of Mac's commerce.

Jan returned to her little bed and rolled and tossed and sought her repose but finally, hearing the clock strike one and hubby Owen snarl something profanely succinct, just threw back the covers, drew on her clothes and headed back to town.


After yawning and dozing through the evening news hour on Channel 12, I decided that my day was well and truly over. I tidied the kitchen and straightened the cushions on the couch, wound the clock, put on my 'jammies, and went into the bathroom to wash my face and slather on all the creams and ointments than I fondly believe will maintain/restore the last vestiges of my youthful bloom. As I reached for the last one, the bilious green cream fulminating with ginko biloba and vitamin E, with just a soupcon of guto kola, my mind began a natural thought progression: kola, koala, bear, polar, ice-cap, cold, cool ... OMIGOD, THE FURNACE!!

I raced to the phone to call Sam, our night-shift guy but a glance at the clock told me held closed and gone home half an hour ago.

Okay, I thought, okay, okay. What can happen with the furnace turned off in the summer? No heat? It's summer, I reflected. No heat is a good thing.

No air filtering for a night, a little dust gets on things? Not a biggie, but I squirmed a bit, remembering the dust storm that had accompanied me earlier.

No air conditioning until my late morning arrival? I glanced out at the night sky that promised yet more rain. They'd all survive. They'd wonder what was wrong, that it was so warm in the store and they'd mention it to Jan who would call in Satch, our air conditioning guy and he’d come and find the furnace in parts and he’d go and tell Chris and HE would begin pondering yet more evidence that Ellen's mustard- cutting days were decidedly numbered and...

Fifteen minutes later, thrown over the pj’s, in slippers and with jean jacket I pulled up in front of Mac’s.

No loud beeping ushered me into the store. That's odd, I thought. The night shift must have forgotten to set the alarm, hmm, that was careless, no need to mention it to Jan though, I'd quietly remind them tomorrow, er, tonight, just how important it was.

I zipped downstairs to the furnace room, put in the filters, replaced the panel, flicked the switch to ON.

The motor whined and jittered for a moment, then settled down to its usual smooth operation. Aha, I decided with quiet satisfaction and some relief, my work here is done, I'm outta here.

I stopped to set the alarm on my way out but my code was rejected with a loud beep. So the night shift had not been remiss, only unable, that was good news AND bad news but there wasn't much I could do about it.

Feeling a bit uneasy at leaving the store un-alarmed,

I finally let myself out, relocked the building and drove home to a restless night wherein I dreamed of dirty filters and unset alarms and that old tattletale, Satch.

Fifteen minutes after my reluctant departure, Jan drove up, worked her magic with screwdriver and common sense, re-set the alarm and departed, bone-tired but virtuous with the knowledge that Mac's was once more safe and secure.

A rudderless ship, Chris? I don't think so.

So that's it for this time. Stop by and browse our shelves some time when you've nothing better to do. I see that Jonathon Hobb's The Catch is still languishing front and center in the Northern section. Come ON people ... it's not great literature but it IS situated in Whitehorse and it's FUN!

PS. Hands up now, how many of you use the word, “picayune" on a regular basis? Once in a while? Don't even know what it means? Well, our receiver, Jim McIlvaney used it the other day in an everyday, ordinary conversation with his brother-in-law and just blew me away.

Webster says: 'pic.a.yune /’pik-upside down e-yu (with two dots on top of the u) n noun. 1 a: a Spanish half real piece formerly current in Louisiana and other southern states b. a half-dime 2: something trivial' Also 'picayune adj. Of little value, also, small- minded, petty.’

I think they were talking about City Council’s decision not to preserve Hatch House as a point of interest on Waterfront but I can't be sure. Seems an excellent bet, though

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