Why don’t you put down “stick and string”?
Standing on the public side of the counter, pen in hand, I glance up at the speaker. She is standing on the working side of the counter: what some would call the pointy end of the stick in this business, I guess, but I’ve pretty much had it with sticks at this point. As it were.
Her sally is greeted with broad smiles from her colleagues, of whom there seem to be an unreasonable number, milling about amid stacks of flat cardboard boxes, bags of Styrofoam™ peanuts slung from ceiling hooks, toffee-coloured towers of packing tape, and waist-high metal tables with stray bits of toffee-coloured packing tape adhered. Do all these people really work here? And if so, why aren’t they, you know, working?
Although my answering smile might be a bit forced, my annoyance is not really with the smart-aleckette but, rather, with myself. How did I let it come to this? My mind drifts back to the previous day.
This final cleanout of my mother’s Calgary storage locker before her 2012 move to Vancouver has, amazingly, turned up a bow that my brother made about 55 years earlier. Amazingly, I say, because we had cleaned out my parents’ bungalow quite thoroughly when they moved into a senior’s residence five years earlier. Board games missing pivotal pieces, rusty tools, half-sprayed cans of Deep Woods Off!, half-applied tins of now dried-up shoe polish, old purses, 30-year-old receipts—all had gone. Yet, somehow, this bow had not only survived that relentless purge, but been moved to the storage locker and carefully tucked away in the darkest corner, thereby guaranteeing its safety from subsequent throwing-out fits.
As I held that unlikely survivor in my hand, I made a tactical error: I admit it freely. The right response—as it usually is in cleaning out storage areas, whether at home or at work—was to chuck first and steadfastly disavow all knowledge later.
A bow? No, I didn’t see a bow.
Instead, amused and momentarily bemused, I decided to show this childhood relic to my mother. Then I would chuck it.
Not so fast.
Two hours later, at my mother’s insistence, I was crafting an email asking my brother if he wanted his handiwork couriered to him. An hour after that, I was reading a forwarded email from my niece, who wanted her father’s bow kept for posterity. I wondered whether that meant she wanted it kept in her house.
Not so much.
My instructions were to courier this four-foot curved branch, slightly scraped by an evidently dull penknife and with two shoelaces knotted together and affixed at either end, to my brother’s US address.
And so it is that I am now standing at a counter, hesitating over a Customs declaration form, wondering how to describe this thing. And the helpful suggestion is anything but. How is “stick and string,” accurate though it may be, not going to alert, not to say alarm, American Customs inspectors? I have visions of my brother being put on a watch list. Actually, never mind him, I have visions of me being put on a watch list. Surely shipping apparently harmless and worthless objects across the border at great expense must indicate some nefarious scheme.
I finally settle on the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. The bow heads off in its custom-made container—there being not much general-purpose packaging that will accommodate four-foot bows—with a green Customs declaration form affixed that simply states, “Homemade child’s bow.”
But my attempts to allay suspicion are to no avail. When the package arrives at its destination, it is with an additional Customs form affixed, this one indicating that it has been opened and inspected.
The mind’s eye presents the scene. Sniffer dogs sniffing, suspect packages piled high, steely-eyed inspectors carefully slicing through packaging to avoid triggering any mechanisms or destroying evidence that might later be needed in court. Off to one side, the result of their searches, sequestered on Army-surplus-style metal shelves: illegal drugs, conch shells, elephant ivory, fruit cake.
And in the middle of all this, my brother’s bow.
I can see the broad smiles as they pass it around and then stuff it back into its one-off package. I can see two names being added to a database under the “Weird/Watch” category. But that woman at the back is speaking, and I have to strain to make out her words. What’s that she’s saying?
Why didn’t they just call it “stick and string”?
As a communicator, my default assumption is that a situation gone bad—whether at home or work—is all about the medium selected, the words chosen, the tone used. But the failure here was not one of communication, but of nerve. The nerve to admit to having thrown out something that someone, someday, might ask about. Even the nerve just to chuck first and steadfastly disavow all knowledge later.