Tough Enough

By Taryn Pawlivsky

He stares at his reflection in the mirror with mixed emotions. Regret, sadness, disgust and shame. Age has hardened him but the result is a near handsome ruggedness. He traces the indents in his forehead with his index finger. Lack of sleep has cast dark shadows under his eyes – those dark, wide-set eyes. Once luminous, they now hold a somber sadness to them.

He wonders out loud, “What the hell happened? How did I get here?” 

His voice is thick, low and hoarse.

He picks up his trusted Smith & Wesson. Heavier than expected always, the sleek black and silver weapon. Anxiety and heightened anticipation ripple through his core. Although shaking uncontrollably, he does his best to steady his right hand. He positions the pistol at his temple.

He’s going to do it. Today is the day. He’ll die because there are no other options. He’ll die because the world is better off without him.

Tears begin to form. He puts the gun down quickly but gently. Grief is streaming down his face, as he begins to sob. He’s a loser. When did he turn into such a loser? Steadying his hand with help from the other, he reaches for the half glass of Crown Royal on ice. Liquid gold. The courage he needs to get through another day.

“Hey Rick, let’s grab a beer,” suggests Steve, the most efficient derrickhand he ever had on a crew.

Steve worked tirelessly from a platform at the top of the towering oil derrick.  How he was able to steady the pipes being inserted into the well with such precision, and at such height, blew Rick’s mind. 

“Next time, I promise,” he replies. “Gotta get home to the wife and kids.” 

Rick had earned the respect of his crew and was quickly promoted to rig manager. He was a natural fit for a leadership role, having played high school and some college football. He took pride in his job, managing every aspect of the drilling operations, and took the health and safety of the guys seriously.

He can almost taste the tantalizing mix of apple and cinnamon that fills his senses when he opens the front door. Little Josh comes running into his strong embrace. Aaron, the older brother, who’s caught up in one of his favourite after school TV shows, shouts “Hey dad!” With Josh clinging to him, he moves to the kitchen, and nuzzles the back of Jen’s neck. She smells like pot roast and pie.

He had met Jennifer on a tropical vacation where they stayed up all night on the lounge chairs by the pool – and that was it. A year later they were hitched, settled into the house of their dreams in a prosperous Northern Alberta town, and had the perfect nuclear family. He drove a cherry red half-ton pickup truck and took the boys snowmobiling during the winter. 

Life was idyllic. And oil reached an all-time high of one-hundred-and-forty dollars per barrel.

But no one, at least nobody he knew, had prepared for the bust. When the industry tanked, the big wigs slashed and gashed jobs and ruined lives. His marriage was over and he felt lost and alone. He still did.

Get a grip, he barks at himself. He splashes cold water on his face and dresses in haste. He throws on faded jeans, a white T-shirt and a well-worn motorcycle jacket. He then does what he does every day: catches the subway downtown, grabs a coffee from Tim’s and heads for the job centre.

At the second stop, a young girl gets on the train and takes a seat across from him, in the next row. She’s fresh faced with long dark brown hair, just below her breasts, which he imagines are small and perky. She’s dressed anything but provocatively, in rolled up jeans, street runners and a baggy bomber style coat. She gives off an air of innocence combined with mature sexiness. Her backpack most likely means she’s a student, starting out in the world, really. She’s a gentle reminder of better days.

He picks up the line drive punt at the 40-yard mark. He runs with the ball at top-notch speed. Both sturdy and agile, he manages to maneuver around four (four!) near tackles. 

A few of his teammates have surrounded him, forming a secure, protective shield. He dashes to the end zone, eyes on the prize. Those bright, adrenaline fueled eyes.

Holy shit, he’s going to make it. Yes, touch down! 

The crowd is chanting his name; his chest is pounding, and his teammates are high-fiving and hugging him. 

It’s unbelievable. Without a doubt, it’s the play of the year. It might even go down as one of the best plays of all time.

He sees Kimberly, the teenage boy’s wet dream, cheering ecstatically from the sidelines. Her overly large breasts are firmly tucked into her white knit sweater, partially hidden by the red and white pom-poms. She’ll be at the victory celebration down at the Irish pub, where he’ll get her tipsy on a couple of vodka cocktails. Then they’ll make out like crazy in the first truck he ever owned, a second-hand short bed Chevy.

The girl has caught him staring. It takes a few seconds for her to turn away, cheeks flushed – as if she would consider him. Even if she did think he was somewhat attractive or eventually let him touch her, it might be a wasteful endeavour. He would want to tear her clothes off and take her from behind but what’s the point? He probably couldn’t get it up anyway. It’s like his manhood has been stripped from him; rendered useless. Not that it matters any more really, he reckons, she’s no Kimberly.

He wasn’t contemplating counselling or anything of the kind until he picked up a flyer on a table underneath the bulletin board on his way out of the job centre. He had folded it in half and stuffed it into his back pocket. At home, after pouring himself a whiskey, he takes the paper out, smoothes over the creases and reads its words, over and over. It’s an advertisement for a men’s drop-in group, offered by the suicide prevention centre. 

Now, two days later, he unexpectedly finds himself outside the door of the community hall that hosts the session. He fidgets nervously, rubbing his hands on top of his bristled brush cut. Once he dares to enter, Graham the facilitator of the group, welcomes him and encourages him to get a cup of coffee. There are eight other guys in the room and because he’s late, this is probably it. He’s right because the session starts as soon as he takes his seat. As they go around the circle with introductions, he notices they are all middle-aged. 

Graham asks if anyone would like to share anything about their week, or if there have been any obstacles or challenges. As the stories are told, most of the men divulge their insecurities and struggles. Rick realizes he’s not alone. Other guys, some who look much tougher, have felt like running their trucks into a tree or ditch. He doesn’t say anything and better yet, Graham doesn’t pressure him to talk. Afterwards, when Graham asks if he’ll come back next week, his voice cracks at an attempted reply. He clears his throat and promises that he’ll try.

In bed that night, his reverie is a fishing trip with the boys.

They’ve set up camp at one of their preferred spots in the heart of the Rockies, just a short hike from a magnificent, thundering waterfall.

“Dad, dad! Wake-up, I hear a strange noise,” pleads Josh, panic stricken. 

He quickly awakes from his slumber, ready to take on the threat.

Aaron jumps out of bed too, flashlight in hand. 

He takes the flashlight from his son, opens the camper door and shines it through the screen. There it is, the beast, almost blending into the night. He’s thankful his family is safely tucked away in the camper trailer rather than the flimsy pop-up tent they shared during their first trip.

The black bear stops in its tracks, surprised by the change from darkness.

“Get outta here,” he warns. “I said, get!”

He claps his hands and yells louder. He sucks in the cool, crisp air. 

As if contemplating how serious the danger, the bear finally turns and saunters back into the thickness of the forest.

“Wow dad, that was scary… but so cool,” says Aaron, who’s right behind him. 

Josh is crouched behind his brother, quivering.

They would retell that story, over and over again at family reunions and around campfires for years to come. He swore he would always protect his boys from wandering wild things or anything else they find daunting. He promised he would always be there for them.

He bolts up, fully awake. It’s 2 am.

He climbs out of bed and heads for the bar. He pours himself a strong one, well over a double. His reflection in the mirror tells the bitter truth. He rubs his eyes and looks again. He’s a failure. He failed at taking care of his family and now he’s failing in general. 

The thing about finally getting help or making the first steps to recovery is that it’s a slippery slope. There are good days and bad, still. Do people really believe someone can be “cured” from depression or thoughts of suicide just because of a few drop-in counselling sessions?

“What a bunch of bullshit,” he says, out loud.

The mirror seemingly mocks him.

“Loser,” it taunts.

Far too accessible, in one of the bar’s cabinets, is the gun. He takes it out, laying it down on the hard oak surface. He downs his drink. When he picks up the pistol for the final time, his hands are steady. He looks at himself triumphantly. He’s no failure. 

He pulls the trigger.


Nothing. It doesn’t fire.

It doesn’t fire!

Relief transcends shock.

He doesn’t want to die. He wants to live!

He’ll never know why the trigger failed. Maybe the primer, the piece responsible for pushing the bullets out, was defective. Or perhaps the primer had massive carbon build-up and needed a thorough cleaning. It doesn’t matter why. All that matters, he decides in this very moment, is that he’s tough enough.

He’s tough enough to go back to the men’s group.

He’s tough enough to go the doctor and talk about it.

He’s tough enough to get help for his drinking.

He’s tough enough to tell his boys the truth.

He’s tough enough to get through another day.

He’s tough enough.

Photo courtesy Andrea Piacquadio/Pexel

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