Attempting Archaeology


By Struan Sinclair

‘So I’m right into your old lady,’ Murray says. He palms his phone, flicks his fingers over its illuminated keypad. ‘It was an accident waiting to happen.’ He laughs at this; his freckles knit along his brow and form pinched reddish galaxies. The boy doesn’t say anything. Just watches Murray’s phone. The phone beeps like crickets and Murray talks. When Murray isn’t on his phone, he talks like he’s on it. Murray is always buying something, or selling something, or buying something to sell on, or selling something to buy something better. The boy watches Murray’s phone and forms a dull hope that it will ring, right now, and release him. Murray sighs and hitches up his shoulders like he can’t believe his luck or something, tousles the boy’s stiff buzzed head. ‘Hey hey,’ Murray says. ‘Right?’


The boy leaves his apartment at ten past noon. At the door, he turns to his mother. ‘Gotta shoot,’ he says, like Murray does. He waits for her to notice this. ‘Be good,’ she says, simmering up from her TV chair. ‘Cable’s gone buggy,’ she complains, lobbing a Molson coaster at the set-top box and in the very same motion pressing the favourite button on the one-for-all remote. The onscreen volume bars rise like temperature as he pulls shut the door and stands in the hallway. From behind other doors, he hears plates being stacked and scraped an, settling like sump oil around these noises, the same dark television din.

The boy does not go to school as he is supposed to. Instead, he ducks into the alley behind a for-lease Mr. Transmission and changes some items of his clothing, climbing into the grey flannel shirt and red-and-green kerchief he’s kept from two years ago, when he was a Boy Scout. In his shoulder bag, the boy carries fourteen large chocolate bars, each containing over eighty grams of high-quality milk chocolate. Also in the bag is a clipboard with a pen and several sheets of paper, some with bold-face headings, one with a list of names. He empties his pockets of change except for a few nickels and pennies. Under the rim of his beret he tucks a compact aerosol screamer. Young kid in uniform—you never know.

The boy walks quickly but carefully down his own street for several minutes, crossing a busy intersection, nodding to the palsied man who collects for the Sally Ann. He continues fourteen blocks west to a street where the houses are nicer, bigger lots and bigger buildings with periscoping sprinkler systems. As the boy walks, he is alert. He watches for cars. He avoids stepping on the worms which wetwool the coarse pavement. Stepping on worms will shrink your willie.

The boy hits a good patch right away. He sells two chocolate bars to a young woman with a baby on her hip. She is a nanny and she loves chocolate. She grins while the boy goes through his routine: Good afternoon. May I interest you in a chocolate bar, a delicious way to build a better world. By purchasing this quality confectionery, you will assist in many important projects. You will help send an inner-city kid to camp; you will subsidize jobs for kids who really need them.

‘Four dollars per,’ he tells her. ‘Half goes to charity.’

The nanny laughs, and says, ‘All this delicious chocolate—and me just putting on my winter fat!’ She tells the boy he is temptation in trousers and never mind the change—last thing she needs is a pocketful of pennies.

The boy doesn’t sell anything at his next house, but the woman there asks when they will be calling round with the apples. Raw apples have never agreed with her, but thankfully this is not the case with pies. The boy says he’ll be sure to call round again, with the apples, and he carefully takes down her name and address. Beside it he writes, in his neat square hand: Apples? He is thinking ahead.

The boy rings at three houses where no one answers the door. He notes the street numbers, adds: Try evenings. He thinks of the palsied man, his coins ching-chinging in time with his weird inside rhythms. He wonders where the palsied man got himself that bucket.

The boy has a little trouble with a man on a construction site who tries to bargain him down while waving a high-torque drill. No sale. Then he has a string of luck and he sells six chocolate bars, all of them to nannies who are not white. He also sells one to a big, oily-bellied man who complains about nannies who are not white and tells the boy he hasn’t moved house and home all the way from North Bay just to end up in the Philippines. The boy has no opinion. Opinions are bad for business.

The boy takes a moment to transfer his earnings to a zippered pouch under his shirt. Then he thinks about where to go next. He can’t decide between two houses across from each other that both look good. The first is a red brick with coach lanterns on each side of the door. The second has a real-estate sign on the front lawn: For Sale. The boy thinks someone who is selling might also be in the mood for buying. But the red brick house has tended window-boxes, and in the boy’s experience this means that an old person lives there. He checks his watch. Game shows and soaps—prime time for old people. He tugs his beret further back to emphasize his youth, reaches delicately down and fingerballs a little dirt on his cheek.  An old person will spot the dirt and offer him a tissue and buy some chocolate as a kindness. The boy looks at the house with the real-estate sign. A man gets out of a car in the driveway and stands by the door. He turns around as if to leave, then turns again and walks into the house. The boy sees that there are no blinds on the front windows. Through a bare window, he watches the man walk slowly around a big bare room. He glances back at the red brick house, at the Neighbourhood Watch decals, at the neat, very green lawn.

Inside the red brick house, an old man is watching but not watching Wheel of Fortune. Three people behind three podiums jump wildly up and down while the massive wheel ticks round and round. On the wheel are numbers and dollar signs and exclamation points. There is a loud ding! and the old man thinks, It is all over. There is a loud ding! but the wheel has already stopped. There is a loud ding! and the old man uses the arms of his chair to haul himself upright, waits a moment for the blood to swab back down into his feet, shuffles to the door, steadies his hand long enough to tuck back one of the lace curtains dressing the windows, peers out at the boy peering in.

Excerpted with author’s permission from the short story Attempting Archaeology, from Everything Breathed by Struan Sinclair, Granta Books, 1999.


Struan Sinclair

Struan Sinclair's short story collection, Everything Breathed, was published in North America and the UK by Granta Books. He won the 2001 New London Writer’s Award for fiction and was the 2002-03 writing fellow in Orkney, Scotland. In 2009, Doubleday published his debut novel, Automatic World, to critical acclaim. Like most gifted writers, he lives in Winnipeg.