Near the End of a Life

There are no lights on inside the hoPersianuse. The streetlights give off a warm light reflecting off the snow. Both of their chairs face the big window like a movie screen.

The grey Persian cat comes and sits near Wayne’s hand. He slowly works the back of her ears; she starts to purr.

 

Frank nods towards her, “She gets fidgety in winter…when it’s too cold.”

“Tough to go outside when it’s minus 25C.”

Frank nods, “Not scared of anything that cat. She faces down everything.”

Wayne looks at her with a smile, “Not her nature to stay inside.”

“She owns the neighbourhood.”

With the glass in his other hand Wayne sips his rum and eyes the wide front window, “You don’t get too much frost.”

“I changed them a few years ago.”

“Double-thickness?”

Frank nods, showing his thumb and index finger, “With an air pocket.”

Wayne nods back, “That’s good.”

A flashing yellow light starts reflecting through the window. The sound of the grader starts to arrive. The cat moves away from Wayne’s hand.

Frank takes a sip of rum, “All this doesn’t mean much in the end.”

Wayne leans in, “All this? Sorry, I missed the first part.”

Frank waves him off with a frown as though the rum is bitter, “The treatments.”

“They don’t?”

“No.”

“They can help can’t they?”

The rumble of the grader is stronger; the slow-turning light begins to flash off the walls disrupting the dark room rhythmically exposing the photographs displayed on the coffee table.

“Nah.”snowplow

The cat’s ears go back and she lowers herself into a crouch, her tail begins to twitch. Frank eyes her with a concerned look, “I’ve never seen her like that.”

Wayne tries to fill in the spaces, “What matters?”

“Death.”

“Go on.”

“We always want a better world. Sometimes it moves forward but it can be so slow. And when you die does all this really matter?”

“It could.”

Frank frowns hard, “Ah, the good part is time doesn’t exist anymore—telling you where to go what to do: You just are.”

“How do you know all this?”

“I don’t. All I know is that time seems to have an ending point so you can be rid of the damn thing.”

Wayne smiles, “You hope.”

“I hope. If everything is supposed to end at death then you’re home free. At least you don’t have to see things that way anymore.”

There are two graders now, one staggered behind the other. More lights flash off the walls, the photographs repeating like scenes in a silent film. Frank looks around the room in a loud voice, “It’s like a disco in here!”

They share grins ignoring the panicked cat.

Wayne goes on, “You’ve always enjoyed life.”

“Sorry?”

“You’re not like me.”

“You?”

Wayne reminds him, “Upset about things.”

Frank grins, “Oh that motto of yours that you keep wrapping yourself in.”

“It’s what it is.”

He smiles at him, “Nice little bubble Wayne but everything means something—everything, that’s what life and death are.”

“That’s not what I said.”

“Oh,” Frank leans forward with a frustrated look, his hands together, his arms resting on his legs; “What exactly did you say Wayne?”

The orange light of the graders begins to fade. There’s a long pause until Wayne answers, “You mean ‘is’.”

“What?”

“What life and death ‘is’—not ‘are’, they aren’t separate, they’re the same thing.”

Frank’s angry look fades into a smile, “Very philosophical.” He stands; “Time for more rum.”

“That sounds good.” Wayne looks at the cat, “It’s okay now, the graders are long gone.” She thanks him with a blink but stays crouched where she is.

Frank comes back and fills Wayne’s glass, “You’re pretty dry” then sits down with the bottle beside him, “No sense walking back and forth.”

They raise their glasses without a word. Through the window they admire the nicely aligned and even ridges of snow running down the near middle of the street.

Frank looks directly at him, “What about you Wayne—what do you really think about death and dying?” The words seem to linger, offset by the snowflake-interrupted light of the yellow streetlamp.

Wayne smiles quickly, “You’re supposed to lead with: ‘Would you mind if I asked you a serious question?’”

Frank chuckles, “Note taken. And so?”

Wayne answers without thinking, “Death does have a bit of charm.”

Frank doesn’t let him end it there, “Go on.”

Wayne hadn’t planned anything else; usually no one goes farther. He takes a gulp of rum

“Death…” Frank raises two fingers in the air “… is ‘charming’?”

The rum burns the roof of Wayne’s mouth, “Well it’s good to know that it takes everybody down—no exceptions.”

Frank responds with a twinge of sarcasm, “I suppose that helps you get through the day.”

“Sometimes…I mostly just stay away from people now.”

“True. What else?”

“Even if it doesn’t take them completely out of the picture you can pretty well leave them behind.”

“Can you?”

“I hope so.”

“You want to know anything else?”

Frank shrugs, “Whatever you like.”

“We’re always rushing off to something else, wasting time trying to achieve something that means nothing but feeling guilty if we can’t or being judged if we don’t.”

Frank shakes his head at him, “You don’t do that.”

“I don’t do it as much.”

Frank swirls his rum, “You’re just never quite happy because you always have questions” and swallows hard.

Wayne nods to him, “That’s true it could be healthier and smarter to just go with the flow and not pay any attention.”

“I don’t mean that, nothing wrong with asking questions. But there’s nothing wrong with being happy either.”

“Gee Frank, it’s a sin not to be happy? We’re told we’re unhealthy if we’re upset about something or getting more and more upset.”

“Sometimes—I thought it was the opposite?”

“The opposite?”

“Look around. Things are better all the time but it’s more fashionable to think life is so cruel.”

“It is isn’t it?”

“No, it gets better all the time. Nobody wants to admit it.”

“Why not?”

“They need to find something wrong to shift the blame.”

“The blame for what?”

“For never experiencing life, too scared to admit it’s out of their control.”

“It can be pretty scary.”

“To live?”

Wayne frowns, “We’ve gone beyond all that fantasy stuff. We see the hard cold facts and understand things better.”

“Uh-huh, if it’s not bleak it must be wrong.”

“It’s just the truth.”

“Your version. The truth is you just learn more and become more aware of how much you don’t know.”

“Fine then, fine—everything is fine and then we live happily ever after in our ignorance—”

“It’s not ignorance—far from it. You accept what you can’t know. It doesn’t stop you from learning.”

“Fine, perfect—just accept it all and live a healthy life! What about you Frank?”

He grins in a loud voice, “Happier than you and much less healthy.”

Wayne tries to hold back his laughter but can’t. With his glass held high he announces, “There, it’s all settled” and finishes with a gulp of rum, aiming it at his tongue forcing him to close his eyes with a grunt. Frank holds up his glass and follows. Wayne continues in a loud circus-like voice “Any regrets Frank—any regrets?”  Before Frank answers he pulls back and apologizes in a subdued tone: “Sorry Frank…it’s the rum.”

Frank answers with a normal shrug then pauses a long time…“Regrets, ah, lots of regrets, ah—lots of people do but ah…” He waves the back of his hand at his thoughts and quickly says, “It doesn’t matter what others do…forget about it.” With a conclusive jerk of his hand he says, “I have regrets—that’s normal. But I’m not going to spend all my time worrying about things I can’t do anything about; the moment is wonderful, wherever it may lead.”

An infantry of lights and noise begins to creep up the street. A line of dump trucks rolls by to join it.

For a moment Wayne thinks of what he shouldn’t say and hesitates; his curiosity ignores him, “How do you know what death is Frank? Everything can come crashing down.”

“Sure if you come back to life. But if you’re dead everything is the just the way it should be. Why not think of what you believe or hope for. It will be more likely to occur if we imagine it.” He grins, “And it’s more fun.”

“It’s all made-up.”

Frank shakes his head at Wayne, “There’s no cure for you.”

“It’s not what’s really happening.”

“What is?”

“It’s not true.”

Frank shrugs, “That doesn’t really matter.”

“Now you’re talking.”

They share a concluding nod. The cat stares at them in the hopeful silence. Wayne carefully taps on the table watching the ripples cross the surface of the rum.

With a yawn Frank looks down at his watch and up at the clock, “Bedtime.” He stands up slowly pushing his hands off his thighs with a muffled groan, “Make sure to NOT let the cat out.”

“Got it. What time do you go for treatment tomorrow?”

“Not till the afternoon—if I go.”

“You’re not going?”

“We’ll see.” He touches Wayne’s shoulder as he walks by, “Good night.”

“Good night Frank.”
Wayne moves towards the cat and puts his hand down rubbing his fingers, “It’s okay, it’s okay.” He pats her very gently; she rises to meet his hand.

Outside the noise builds. Wayne moves towards the window watching the massive spinning blade of the snow blower begin to turn. The frightened cat shoves herself harder against the door, stares and pleads to him with a silent meow. He whispers “I can’t let you out” and looks away. The snow fires out of the blower, smashing against the added-on backboard of the dumpster. Bits of snow grip themselves to the rough wood, other pieces clutch onto them. Clumps form until it all becomes too heavy and they all fall back into the pile below.

Wayne looks down and the cat is no longer there. He stares at her empty spot until the machinery is gone and makes his way back. As he refills his glass the rum bottle clicks against it and he abruptly looks over to where she had been. But there’s nothing there. He collapses into the heavy chair and begins waiting, anxious for her to show herself and restore things to normal.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

At the Top of the Stairs

Stairway

I heard my grandfather coming up the carpeted stairs; I proudly checked my still-pretty-new Timex wristwatch.

Everything in his life was well organised. He had to have it that way.  Eggs for breakfast followed by his walk along the shore of the river at low tide, always getting back before the tide on the Fleuve St. Laurent was all the way in. Soup, bread, cheese at lunch followed by the afternoon nap.

And he was always up early—useful in winter for adding wood to the stove, keeping the house more or less warm.

Sundays were different. It’s when he worked the hardest, getting all the kids up, dressing them warm and proper, taking them to Church with him, always on time.

But time moves forward and he was at our house now. I dropped my comic book and headed for the top of the stairs.

He gripped both banisters; I saw his cane hanging on his wrist. Grandfather was starting up the stairs from the left. Our house was big in those days, two shorter staircases, one from the front and one from the back met at a landing and turned into a long one. That’s where I was standing—at the top. The empty landing was almost an in-between floor, big enough for a card table—and chairs…if you were careful. Without permission, Ricky and me did it once. We set it up and played a hand or two of Hearts until we had to take it down because nobody could go around us and nobody wanted to play.

My grandfather was on the landing now—where the card table would have been. He paused and leaned on the curved handle of his red-maple cane looking a bit like a drawing of a shepherd. I stopped myself from waving at him.

He looked out the window and I watched the side of his face as his mumbling got louder and his face got more upset. It ended with a snarl about not being able to see the river then he turned and headed up towards me. I stood at the top, waiting; I didn’t know him that well.

Gripping the banisters on each side like he told everyone to do he made his way up and finally noticed me.  I grinned. He concentrated on the next step.

I wasn’t sure why he looked unhappy. He was always upset; it wasn’t fair that he had become old. I thought he had always been that way. I guess sometimes he would seem happy but I only saw him with a grin when he would tease my sister. I thought it was fun too but she never liked it. I was 8 and she was 15.

He was halfway up the stairs now. I realized I hadn’t really figured out what I was going to do. So I made a cross, as wide as I could, my arms touching both walls as much as I could.

He stopped and stared at me, more out of breath than he had to be.

I tried to give him a serious look but my grin took over. I still managed the words though, “You have to say the password Grandpa.”

Everything was fine up till then—well, I always thought it had been fine.

My grandfather seemed okay, sometimes fun. I had always liked my grandmother more than my grandfather but I she was always busy cooking and washing things so I didn’t spend much time with her. I had a fun uncle and aunt that I could hang around with, buy fresh corn at the market and go fishing in the little boat on the river. It was more like an ocean, maybe worse. The currents would change all the time, no matter which direction you went you inevitably had to fight it. Even dead seaweed would hit the wooden hull hard enough to make everything shake and your hands would impulsively grab the sides way too hard. Then you would get a hard-earned splinter jammed into your palm and you would leave dried blood on an oar. But you would come back to shore feeling like a tough fisherman, whether you caught anything or not.

“Move!” he yelled, the veins on his forehead pulsing faster than his breath.

He was still a few steps away. I smiled bigger, getting into it, figuring he was playing around like when he had a broom in his hand and would lift my sister’s skirt. Trying to control my grin I kept the game going, “No Grandpa, you have to say the password.”

He looked strange, upset with everything or taken over by something. I’d seen him that way before when I saw him reading the newspaper upside down and told him. Memories showed themselves, warnings started going off inside my head and I remembered the kitchen at Grandfather’s, the adults sitting around, that ugly white tablecloth with the red spots: My father reprimanding me for talking back to my grandfather, followed by my mother and my aunt and “You shouldn’t say that and you shouldn’t look at him that way.”

I asked, “Why not?”  The shock hit them, my father’s face tightened, my mother’s mouth fell open, my aunt’s eyes blinked faster. Even my grandmother stopped stirring the pot on the stove, watching everything. I looked at them all staring at me and noticed my sister in the background staring at them. And then they yelled at me.

I looked down at my grandfather by himself on the stairs. The gray vein in his neck stuck out, “Get out of the way!”

I thought it was fun. Nobody was telling us what not to say. My innocent smile had begun to form when I saw the cane coming down on me. It cracked into my arm, the sound arriving before everything else, the wave of pain answering with a scream. My hand catapulted itself from the wall shaking. My shoulder and arm tried to regain control.  And grandfather shoved by.

I rubbed the red mark on my forearm and made it burn more. The sweating kicked in uselessly trying to cool everything.  My thoughts swore at each other and the burning spread.

I yelled at his back, “It was just for fun!”  He closed the bedroom door behind him.

I stared, anxiously waiting for the knob to quietly turn from the inside and him coming back out to talk to me. I heard a creak of a bed spring and for a moment imagined throwing open the door, confronting him. But he would be having his nap, it wouldn’t be right.

I turned away and descended the stairs, the spread of the pain taking away my innocence and revealing all there ever was.

Icy Little Red Car

icy-red-car

The little red car was coated in ice. He had seen it before. Her curiosity took over; it always did. He heard her say, “Wow” as she walked ahead of him on the path to the street. As usual he cut behind her, cheating through the snow. The powder trail wasn’t there anymore: uneven, rough, old half-frozen boot-marks breaking under him: granular, almost mothballs, soft with hardness underneath. On the surface the wetness lubricated the ice beneath it, slipperier than cold ice. He almost fell but made it to the car sooner; old habits die hard. She carefully made her way.

All of the car was wavy bubbled ice. He pulled on the door handle hoping he hadn’t locked it. It cracked open nice and clean having no effect on the rest of the icy little red car.

Thoughts rushed at him: back roads that he knew well, higher in the middle, smoothed dirty ice closest to the ditch. He would be a little higher than her, his tires gripping the asphalt safely, hers rolling on the ice ready to slide if he turned too much or slowed too quickly. As long as there weren’t any others it was safe; he would have to concentrate but would still see the trees, the snow, the frozen lake, the monastery in the distance.

She was beside him now, eyes wide, paying little attention to the raindrops beginning to fall on both of them. He handed her the ice scraper/snow brush. “It won’t do much. We’ll have to let the car warm it all up a bit.” He turns the key and the engine starts, turns the defrosters on full and starts playing with the window of the door. She’s already trying to scrape, asking questions, changing her technique. He moves the window handle up and down gently, feeling it out, not forcing it, going a tiny bit farther each time. She’s hard at work, marveling at the ice, asking if it was okay that snow and little pieces of ice were falling in the vent below the windshield wipers. He told her the engine was heating up and should melt it. But he went on as he always does, adding more, telling her what problems that can cause, what happened in the past to other cars and trucks in other conditions, other places, at other times when winter was supposed to be different. Then he told her it really wasn’t different anymore; it had been happening for a long time. She worked, didn’t say anything, but he knew she had listened. He tried one more time to roll the window down, sure it wouldn’t. It might have moved more but it was too risky, didn’t make sense and he had learned to give up. He closed it to help the heat inside. He paused, “It has to warm up a bit; might as well take advantage of it. I’m getting a shovel.” She nodded, her eyes staying on her work.

A crust on all of it, not thick yet, still easy to break but should be done right away, not too heavy yet. Quick scoops—shoot it far while you still can. But today it all raced back sliding, little chunks and grains racing to a never imagined little line of sunshine that shouldn’t have been there, going past it, falling on his boots, accumulating because he let it. Another shovel-full, launched much farther, higher so it would hit harder, jam itself and stay. It worked, only a few grains raced back; the little finish line of sun must have been imagined. He leaned the shovel against the still bright green recycling bin and returned to the car.

The sheet of ice on the window showed ridges. He flattened his hand on it, felt and saw all of it move a little—more side to side than up and down. But it held on tight, sucking against the warm glass. All together it would never come off. He took his glove off, ran his fingers along the edge, found an opening and watched the crack travel. He flicked two fingers and a bottom piece the size of a paper thin hockey puck tumbled down onto the bumper shattering into something else. The largest piece was a little bigger than a coin. It stood firmly on the bumper leaning perfectly against the red metal, flexing a tiny bit with each breath, changing the sunlight.

The other pieces came off much faster, so much falling that you couldn’t tell where it had been on the glass. He pulled the wiper away, coming to its aid, removing all the ice even where it wouldn’t touch the glass. Better that way, exposing all the rubber, warming it up, making it in the best shape to do what it was meant to do in the best conditions.

He made his way to the front of the car. She had been working hard, snow was gone, headlights were shiny. The glass was warmer but the sheet on the windshield was thicker. He saw scratch marks like chalk. She told him how strong it held itself. He put one hand then the other pushing side to side, flattening more of the sheet. There was a bubble or two; he widened and separated his hands on each side. Nothing broke apart, nothing seemed to move or change. “We’ll let it warm up some more.”

She tells him, “It’s amazing how it does that, the suction.”

They smile at each other saying other things.

———

The SUV passed them on the right then had to weave back and forth launching a wave of slush off the windshield.

A half hour later on the opposite side of the highway he sees the flashing orange lights of the two parked trucks on the far side. The front end of the black car sticks up at them from the ditch. The two men in proper clothes look at it, nodding to each other, pushing on their big heavy gloves.

st-benoit-en-hiver

They arrive at St. Benoit going slower than they have to, park on the ice, get out carefully in the quiet, only hearing the tiny wind touching the branches of the bare trees. Another year has arrived.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Not Easy Being God

wasp-on-window

He carefully pours the boiling water into the glass press, stirs it gently with the rounded wooden spoon. Everything in place. He inserts the plunger, very slowly, grumbling at himself for putting in a little bit too much water. But he doesn’t hesitate, methodically, carefully separating, adjusting ‘aligning before inserting’. The dark coffee starts coming back at him, he pauses and swears, sees it close to the edge of the indented glass, starts pushing down again like a watchmaker. A small pool of coffee instantaneously forms under the metal legs onto the white counter, “Fuck off.”  Staring at it with an ugly face he wants to leave it all that way, give it the finger. In unison his reasoning shoves itself at him. “Christ” he mumbles, walks away and finds the skinny roll of toilet paper.

He looks down and turns the soaked wet ball back and forth in his hand examining the dark wasted grains, angrily throwing it harder into the bottom of the plastic white bag, flattening it into to the ceramic floor.

Halfway through his first cup his ears immediately lead his eyes to the buzzing. The wasp is facing the wrong way, not looking in. It crawls against the glass, going faster as it goes nowhere. At first he watches it, confident that chance will lead her back outside. A glimpse at the table shows him the open jar of sugary spread that she, the wasp, shows no interest in:  She is on the wrong side of the glass by accident, not desire. Caught in fear, denied the pleasure of danger.  He watches her some more, tries not to discourage her, not showing that he is not confident that she will escape. The buzzing suddenly get louder, she bounces against the glass launching herself harder. The thin white drapes as clear as the dirty glass keep her from launching farther, hitting any harder. She stops. He gets up, pulling the curtains slightly away, not to give her more room but to move her towards the wide opening. But she opposes it, fighting against what is guiding her. He sits back down and watches.

The swinging door-like window is open as wide as he can open it without having to pull back the heavy pot of the tall plant and first moving the other chair and all the empty bottles in its way: too much trouble, too much work. The wasp keeps leading herself up and back towards the hinges where the opening is too small even for her. She never moves to the open part; she would have to move inwards before reaching the edge that would lead her to outside, space so vast that it seems impossible. There’s another outburst of buzzing. The bursts of panic are becoming more frequent, more violent. He gets up from his chair.

With the curtain quietly pulled back he puts the oversized plastic measuring cup over her. She immediately finds the edge. He calmly holds everything in place, slowly bringing the sheet of paper under with the other hand, watching her, tilting far away from her. With the paper in place he pulls it all away. She stays on the glass. He questions himself, watches her beginning to explore; without hesitation he traps her. But she already knows more what is happening. This time with everything in place he just holds it there to clearly see where she is. Nicely inside–near the edge, but nicely inside. As long as the sheet of paper is firm, held safe, everything will work. He imagines removing the paper cover, watching her fly away.

In one movement He pulls the trap away properly. She stays on the glass. He becomes impatient, with a breath he starts again. She tries to escape more quickly but he still is successful. And now he sees her underneath the cup, going directly towards the small indentation, the spout. As long as everything is against the glass she can’t escape. Even if nothing would ever change she would be where she should be.

He finally moves everything. She forces herself through the spout and is back on the glass. He shakes his head and looks for something else—for a little while. There’s nothing handy. He sits and pours more coffee. She goes about the inanity. After a few minutes she escapes the curtain. “Great” he yells at her. She’s no longer under the curtains, seemingly proud of herself, beginning to circle him a little. He answers, “The window is the other fucking way.” She calms down in her flying a little only landing on the wrong side of the curtain for an instant. He sees the handle for the other window and twists it open.

The window bumps hard at the ceramic vase filled with 6-year-old wedding flowers. It wobbles, never coming close to falling and stops right away, as though nothing had ever happened, the crackling sound of the brittle leaves is cut off in an instant. The heavy base of the swinging window is permanently against the vase, nothing falling, everything shifting into place for another long time.

He tries to guide her; she gets excited but only buzzes his head once. He stands aside and pulls all the curtains high out of the way. Standing in an exaggerated cynical pose, his thoughts take turns  mocking all the worn out icons of freedom that he has seen, been fed with. She makes it back under the curtain safely returning onto the wrong side of the glass.

He lets go with a voice too loud, “Fuck you!—what else do you want me to do?”

He sits back down with his coffee, saying nothing, his head filled with insults, disappointed that even she had to react in confusion to him offering her the simplest of acts.

He tried to turn away, ignore the stupid buzzing, the moronic crawling on the glass, the turning back when reaching the edge of the wide open window only because there was a ridge to climb. But he couldn’t. When he refilled his coffee he didn’t hear the buzzing anymore. He leaned forward; she was gone. He had never seen her leave.

From inside he tried to track her down, looked out to the sunny faraway buildings lit brightly from a sun hidden in the background of the darker bluish-grey sky, beside him the thin curtains breathing in and out from the gentlest of air. Looking made no sense; nothing would ever show her to his eyes.

He knew she was there and smiled to himself like an idiot.

Just Happens to be a Funeral

cemetery-footprints

Even though it was a funeral she punched me in the shoulder; it was like old times, high school.

“So Emma how old was your father?’ I shook my head at myself. I didn’t really care but I was filling in the conversation with the usual questions that everybody else was asking.

“What?’ she said.

I hesitated, “Your father – Cyril – how old was he?”

She grinned and almost punched me again, “My dad?”

I did an internal eyeball roll and said “Yes” in an impatient schoolteacher’s voice.

“He was 83.”

I feel like saying ‘good answer!’  “Not bad. He always seemed to enjoy life.” I thought about his wife who died long before him. She would walk down the street from her house in her swimsuit and show up at my neighbour’s and yell ‘Hello! Bonjour! Yoo-hoo!’ up at the porch. Whether there was anybody there or not they never answered. She would head to the pool and keep waving, crunching sticks under her flip-flops.

Then my brother would steal the basketball from me and I would get pissed off because the way he scored the basket was like he was thumbing his nose at me. Thinking about it made my heart beat a lot faster and I almost spilled my drink. Emma grinned at me. I returned to the here and now, “Yeah…83…he had a pretty good life eh?”

She concentrated and carefully nodded up and down—I started remembering that you had to lead Emma on a little, “So how are you doing these days?”

“Fine.”

Question number one answered. I tried to hide my sarcasm but it still came out, “And w-h-e-r-e do y-o-u live?”

“Ontario.”

“You like it there?”

“Uh hum,” she nodded spontaneously.

“It’s safer crossing the street in Ontario.” I take a sip of wine, “Kids?”

“Uh hum.”

“That’s good.” I pause for effect, squinting my eyes, showing interest, “And how many?”

“Four.”

I nod “Four” and resisted asking their names, I didn’t really care, “Hmm…how old are they?”

She looks up at the ceiling and puts her finger on her chin doing imaginary counting, “Umm…Helen is 19…William is…”

I cut her off, “Nineteen! Jeez, nineteen! Wow! It’s amazing how time flies – weren’t we just nineteen?”  I had heard that line too many times so I blurted it out again; “Nineteen?!”

She kept going, “Jennifer is 8…and…”

Oh good, more humans, “Those are a lot of kids!” I said convincingly.

“And Doreen is…”

I cut her off in a pretend serious voice restraining myself from pointing a pretend microphone at her, “So Emma, do you like being a parent?”

She grinned and punched me in the shoulder.

“Oww!” It was like old times. I rubbed my shoulder, “I guess you really like kids.”

She nodded.

I kept going and shifted to a caring soap-opera dramatisation, “Was it important for you to have kids?”

She answers even more quickly, “Yes, yes – it’s very important.”

I shake my head at myself. I’ve almost gone too far and try to bring it back, “You think they’ll miss their grandfather?”

She looks down into her glass, “Yes.”

A dark smile invades my head: you might; they probably won’t—a little maybe, not very long. Another thought comments, ‘They have more important things to do in life’.

She catches me completely off guard, “What about you?”

My brain works fast, “One grandfather died before I was born…” I wondered why I mentioned it then realised I knew what her question really was. I innocuously stared at her, I’d been a human for a while now and lots of symbolism had died a long time ago, “…the other grandpa was a…” I saved it with a grin, “… let’s just say he wasn’t the hardest-working guy in the world.”

She politely smiled and I think she moved on, “Kids – do you have kids?”

I paused a long time and tilted my head at her and put my finger on my chin, “Kids…kids…that question gets asked a lot. Let me see if I can remember?”

She grinned and almost punched me in the shoulder, “I’m sure you want kids!”

I paused even longer and tried to resist the opportunity but I couldn’t—there was a sublime pleasure in the simplicity of the truth, “Not really.”

She looks down in a sympathetic voice and doesn’t go any farther, “Oh…I’m sorry.”

Sorry?—I never checked my sperm count but it doesn’t take a genius to fertilize an egg. In an I-accept-it-now voice I console her, “It’s okay”, almost putting my hand on her shoulder—bonding through therapy.

She’s sympathetic to me and feels better.

I speed things up in a fun voice, “You know a friend of mine, when he gets asked whether he has kids or not, usually says–” I put my hand on my hip cowboy-style: ‘–Hell no!’.”

She giggles a little.

“And he doesn’t hesitate too, ” another sip of wine; “he just says ‘No’. It’s very refreshing.”

She grins and sips from her wineglass, “I love my kids.”

That’s nice.

She contemplates the ceiling with a blissful smile, “It’s hard to describe when you have kids.”

I swallow my wine like whisky, ‘Another crop of humans coming into the world, getting ready to follow all the crap, “Kind of painful isn’t it?”

She doesn’t hear anything and stares deeply into her wineglass.

I regroup, “Tell me about your kids.”

She lights up, “Helen wants to be a doctor and William wants to be a sports therapist and…”

“Wow, they’re all pretty ambitious!” I should have asked ‘why?’

She nods enthusiastically with a smile. There’s a thoughtful pause, “What do you do?”

I hold up my empty glass, “Want a refill?”

———

The next day I was at my friend’s house on the nice little hill in the nearby countryside. My old friend had been an adult for quite a while and moved back with his mother. The house was peaceful, far away from the road, hidden and lit up by trees covered in snow.

Barb, his mother, had been more or less Cyril’s girlfriend – the last one he had been chasing before he died.

I heard beeping noises and looked out the window. A tow-truck was backing up to the snow covered car. I yelled out like I had just spotted the attacker, “They’re coming for the Toyota!”

With no reaction, as usual, he looked down and shyly explained, “Yeah, well—Cyril had just loaned it to my mother.”

“Really? Solid little car – standard? You know about this?”

He shook his head, “No – automatic. He traded in his old one for this one.”

“Another automatic –nobody can drive a standard anymore: bunch of chicken-shits.”

We laughed. The beeping stopped.

“Why the hell did he trade it in for an automatic?” I pointed outside with my coffee cup, “So you know about this?”

He answers as though revealing a dark secret, “My mother only uses an automatic—I always told her we should get a standard but she always said no.”

Usually I would have jumped at the chance to take his mother down and call her ‘another chicken-shit who can’t drive a standard’.  But the car was being towed away and somebody had just died. “So Cyril got her an automatic and you know about this?”

There was loud metal clanging outside.

In an acting-school sympathetic voice he announces, “Yeah, he couldn’t drive anymore.”

As usual leaves out part of the answer; as usual I get annoyed, “So what? He traded it in just for her!?”

He confirms with a solemn nod, “Yah—for her, no other reason.”

“Jesus – nice fucking guy Ole’ Cyril!” I watched the front of the small car being lifted by the oversized tow-truck; “He gets her a car to use!”

“Yeah—he sure was.”

The helpless snow-covered Toyota disappears sadly down the tree-bordered driveway, the snow still in place, “Don’t his kids feel bad about this!?”

As was his habit he shrugged his shoulders, “What..?” and then understood my question; “I don’t know…maybe—good question.”

“So they know about it?”

“Yeah.”

“The family is splitting up the car or something?”

Shakes his head, “Don’t know.”

“And why the fuck are the towing it? It was running wasn’t it?”

“Ran great—brand-new winter tires too… good car…”

“Nobody could come and drive it away?”

“Guess not….So you want to play some guitar?”

I put down my coffee, “Yeah, sure.”

Bad Social Work

beer-can

The teenage boys aren’t paying attention. I go wide around them. Each seems to be correcting the way they move by imitating the other.

Up ahead I see him coming, facing forward, pulling the overloaded skid, both arms locked behind, leaning forward. I avoid acknowledging him. I know he’ll be coming right by and turn quickly down.

My helmet is still on but the bike is already locked when I nod to him, “Haven’t seen you in a while—back from vacation?”

I think of Ramadan.

He smiles back with a nod, “No vacation—injured.”

“Hurt?”

“Back.”

I shake my head, holding off on stories, “That’s the worst. Okay now?”

He smiles, “Yes.”

I notice how well trimmed his beard is. Nothing different really—he always had the beard but no mustache. Not because he couldn’t grow it; looked like he had to shave pretty often. But it was cleaner today, more distinct, more planned, it meant more.

The thought is long gone but I’m a bit surprised about what I had just thought, maybe it was just me.

I concentrate on the present. Images of people I know well appear, too many of them, walking carefully, painfully, excruciatingly slowly.

“The back—that’s the worse, I wear a belt sometimes.”

He frowns at me like a schoolteacher, “No, no, no—you mustn’t do that.”

My thoughts shake together, logic rolls its eyes: ‘Not again—another idiot knowing everything’. I go slowly, reasonably, “Yes, you shouldn’t become dependent on a belt because that can make the muscles weaken….”

He keeps explaining, “Never wear it.”

‘Fuck, I hate being a social worker’. I take my helmet off, “You’re right, it shouldn’t be overused but it can also prevent injury.”

He shakes his head, “You shouldn’t.”

The doors to the hardware store open. We smile and nod to each other and I have an excuse to walk away.

I start unlocking the doors to Only-in-Paris Bike Tours letting my thoughts go, wondering if I should ask him about Polio vaccines. It’s good that I put the keys in order so I can concentrate on other things.

I had planned that for when even I arrived early and there were anxious customers waiting. Even before the first key would go in they would crowd in behind me. With the opening of every lock, they inched and leaned more. I would get annoyed at them, having more trouble finding the right key for the next lock. When the doors were finally free, I you had to say ‘excuse me’ so they could open. The clump would scuffle a little then move back into place, becoming mesmerized by the whirring electric motor, following the slow ascent of the heavy metal curtain. I appreciated that the keys were in methodical order now, no need to think, even if there was no one there.

I hear the phone ringing and take my time to unlock the office door. By the time I’m in it stops. I count almost to six before it rings again. I look at the number and l wait until the fourth to answer in a properly false professional voice. The customer begins her long introduction of possible questions and the situation she is presently facing. I wait and listen even though I really don’t have to, not even interspersing the script with reassuring one-word comments.

Through the full window I see him coming. He’s walking slowly, solemnly, not hating the world as much as yesterday. He looks pretty bad, messed up, not much sleep, probably cried a lot. Today is a victim-day.

Too bad he isn’t just acting it out to get something. It’s all true, it doesn’t matter how it came about; it’s what’s happening. He nods to me, holding his cell phone up in one hand and the charger in the other. I nod while I listen on the phone to the long introduction to the question that could have been answered a long time ago. I watch him plug the phone in. He looks pretty wasted, moving extra slow, his hand wavering, having extra trouble plugging the charger into the wall.

The voice on the phone finishes its soliloquy; I finally get to answer, “15 Euros for the day, 12 for the half-day.”

He puts his heavy packsack down in the corner, shyly holding an index finger up, then both hands as though he’s signaling a stop, that he won’t be there very long. He looks pretty bad, didn’t sleep, red-faced from tears too. I nod to him and wait for the formalities of the descending order of thank-you s to finish in my ear. I see him walking away, hoping I don’t know where he’s going. But he turns left.

I shake my head and answer on cue: “Thank you. Yes, from 9:30 to 6:30. Yes that’s right, goodbye—goodbye.” I might have hung up before she was finished but she doesn’t call back.

I don’t think I finish one e-mail before he’s back with a beer, “No coffee this morning?”

He grins as well as he can, “No.”

I wait for him to maybe pick up his backpack and be on his way. He settles down on the bench. I can’t remember him doing that with me in the office. I’m not particularly interested in giving him therapy. Luckily the screen in front of me has a lot of e-mails in red. I glimpse over and start typing.

A few e-mails later and a quick look at ‘The Economy makes an oppressive God’ I peek over the screen. He never talks much. But he’s looking like he’s falling apart and still waiting for me to ask the questions. If he hadn’t sat down like he was settling in for the day I might have.

He puts his beer can down, looks nowhere in front of him and puts his hands over his face.

I stare at the screen and my blood pressure rises ‘I’m not a fucking social worker and I don’t feel like it today.’

He breathes hard, the bench creaks a little and he picks up his beer.

The phone rings and I grab it. I answer the usual bike-tour-in-Paris questions, starting to know something about it, almost having fun.

Then she hesitates and carefully asks, “Is it safe?”

Her cover-up makes me pretty sure what’s she’s asking. I always like to rebel and say the truth as best as I can but I put it off on purpose, giving the old answer, “The guides are experienced, they go slowly and take the safest routes. Sometimes you do have to pass through busy streets because it’s the middle of Paris, but the guides find the safest, quietest routes.”

She says, “Yes but…”

I probably shouldn’t but I smile.

She goes on slowly, in a way that hints that I didn’t answer the right question; “…Is it safe in Paris…after the attacks?”

He folds his legs in front of me, his boots scraping the rough wooden floor, taking a deep breath followed by a deeper swig of beer.

I watch him, hesitating as though I’m gathering my thoughts to respond to the question. The only thought is wondering how I can guarantee assholes won’t start gunning people down. I look out the other window, “There are military, groups of 3 or 4, that regularly go up and down the Quartier de l’Horloge, where we are, where the tours leave from. In most areas there is a lot of security. It’s reasonably safe…” I can’t stop some truth coming out, “…but nothing can be guaranteed.”

I feel like going on a tirade about being run over by a car, disease, starvation, faraway wars, and how come nobody was worried before—but I spare her.

She quietly answers, “I understand” and I feel a bit guilty. Her “thank you” ends the conversation.

I hang up and wonder if for sure she’s coming or for sure she’s not.

I look up and Le Belge is standing, looking at me. I give a pretend smile with a ‘What do you want now?’

He says a quiet “Excuse me” and rearranges his stiff pants, the smell of piss comes out. He checks his phone charging, sits back down, raises the beer can to his lips but stops and remembers why he stood up. He stands again; in not much more than a embarrassed whisper he asks if he can use the bathroom.

For me it lightens the mood; I’m glad he finally asked the question, “Sure, no rules for the bathroom.” I jokingly reprimand him, “But if there were forty of you it would be ‘No, it’s out of service’.”

He tries to smile and doesn’t move. I should have left out the last line. I assure him in a social worker’s voice, “Go ahead.”

I hear the bathroom door close and wonder if he’s going to puke or stink up the place, followed by wondering why I was thinking that way. I look across at the beer can sitting on the bench and keep myself from getting rid of it. In the past I would have done it to help him, misplace it, keep him from drinking; now it’s only because it doesn’t look too good if customers arrive. Hard to imagine even I have to pay attention to that.

The phone rings and I recognise the number. I could let it ring forever but it could be fun talking to the other end. I prepare myself and let it go until the fifth.

“Hello, Only-in-Paris Bike Tour.”

There’s a long drawn out refined, “Yes it’s La Capitale Travel…” Her voice has already shifted into a polite French-reprimand, “…Yesterday we were discussing the particulars of the upcoming tour…” She stretches the last word, setting up the long pause, waiting for me to interject the customary forgiveness for not calling her back. I breathe in the silence, listening to her blinking faster. It doesn’t last very long, “…And I have unfortunately not yet had the opportunity of receiving a proper response,” adding an exclamation point with her breathing.

I add, “That’s right, yesterday. Hi, how are you?”

In a firm upset voice she goes on, “Could you please confirm reception of the e-mail—I sent copies to both you and your colleague.”

I ignore the screen and wave out the window to the security guard, “Yes we did. I see my copy here.”

She hesitates, surprised, waiting for me to add more. In upper-class shock she continues, “It’s critical that we have an answer today.”

My thoughts push at the corners of my face ‘What do I care—you’re all assholes and I don’t hold management’s hand.’  In a concerned professional voice the words come out at the same time, “I clearly notified him yesterday. He has yet to get back to you?”

“No…and we would like to print out the documents with the exact route.”

There that’s good, we seem to be teaming up now, “I understand completely, that can be frustrating—I’ll contact him.” I hear her feeling better on the other end of the line and continue, “Everything else has been finalised—you now would like the details of the route?”

“Yes, so we can print it out for our clients.”

The toilet flushes.

I think as I talk, ‘One-hour tour, Christian Financiers, with experienced guides…’ “I’ll contact him today to finalise. Thanks.”

A relieved thank-you echoes in my ear.

He’s back; picks up what’s left of his beer, settles in again and stares forward.

I let out a reluctant breath, push back my chair, give in, and tell him why I wouldn’t mind visiting Belgium one day.

He starts to talk a bit.

 

03h35 Paris: Noise from Outside

Man looking out office window at night --- Image by © Monalyn Gracia/Corbis

He hears something; it probably awakened him. Could be a scream, could just be yelling. Could be out of fear, could be fun that means nothing. Nothing is certain except that it comes from outside. He props himself up on his elbows, waits and looks.   Soft city light creeps up the faraway buildings, weaker at the top–nothing coming from within.  He recognises the black shape of the bushes on the highest floor, never to be noticed if you’ve never seen them.

His head turns towards the clock but he stops it halfway. He tries to stop listening to his thoughts but they don’t lie back down. It’s not time for that. With a pretend glance he eyes the numbers: 03:35.

It happens again: a scream, a yell, from outside.

Part of him complains, knowing what’s coming. Too late, his head is buzzing, racing through the possibilities, ignoring the mood and simplicity of the night.

‘It could be nothing, teenagers being excited about nothing.’

‘The ‘screaming’ sounded like a girl—something bad could be happening. How do you tell?’

The competition in his brain starts: ‘Forget about that—what do you do? Yell out the fucking window that the cops are coming!?’

‘It’s better than doing nothing.’

‘What if nothing bad is happening—how would you feel having some asshole yelling out the window at you that he was calling the cops?’

A shrug of a thought answers.

The other one continues. ‘And what do you tell cops? “…somebody screamed somewhere and something could be happening.” ?’

His head runs through it:

‘“Could you pass by and see what’s going on please. My address is…”

“Where exactly did it happen?”

“I don’t know, I heard something from the window.”’

‘What the hell would the cops think of you?’

Another scream interrupts.

‘Great—what kind of scream is that? Having fun? Happy? Scared?’

Another thought intervenes. ‘Bring the phone, go outside and see what’s happening.’

He tries to smile to himself, he’s hasn’t even made it out of bed yet. ‘Why did he have to hear it? Why couldn’t he just sleep through it?’

If he does nothing he’s what he hates, ‘…another useless bastard who just talks nice when nothing is on the line.’

These days his need to help faces tougher opponents. ‘Forget about it, walk around it, don’t let it bother you; there’s nothing you can do. It’s just another fucking complicated mess of trouble and everybody will hate you.’

He’s too awake now, shaking his head, hopelessly trying not to hear anything.

Complicated… Other thoughts start taking advantage, ‘And there’s all the fucking terrorist shit going around and the idiots saying “I told you so!”

‘What’s the use dealing with this—they’re too stupid to ever change. It’s a fact of life.’

He stares at the ceiling. But they keep going.

‘A wacko runs over 84 people believing whatever the fuck he wants. You find out what you can, put all the pieces on the table and everybody picks what suits them.’

Take it or leave it. ‘Out of national pride the public doesn’t understand why any of this would happen. Terrorist acts hitting France, fertile banlieues, refugees flooding Europe, dictators, 100 000 soldiers losing their jobs wandering around with nothing to do…money…control… There’s not much point discussing anything of that.’

Too complicated, too many layers, too much contradiction. ‘It’s better that it doesn’t make any sense; it’s just bad people.’

The thoughts continue; he doesn’t even try to stop them.

‘The official declaration that revenge will be sought against an evil enemy that is ready to take false credit for any violent act. No questioning please—leave it alone or you’ll be attacked for having no sympathy for the victims.’

‘Better to pull away from society—go on to more important things.’ He closes his eyes.

The outside comes again. A short yell; then a male voice yells back.

His eyes are forced open, “Fuck.”

He gets out of bed.

He stands at the open window with the lit up phone in his hand, looking everywhere, hoping he’ll be seen. ‘Whatever good that does.’

Maybe he was just telling her to stop making noise and bothering everyone?’

There’s no answer.

He’d rather hear nothing but leans more out the window, his curiosity forcing his hands down onto the cold concrete ledge.

He looks across. No apartment lights, nothing coming out of the building except for one with the wide screen that’s always on. What looks like a twelve- or thirteen- or fourteen- year-old girl is on the couch working the remote, rearranging her hair, watching nothing. Her hand puts the remote onto the table and replaces it with her I-pad. Her face glows, offsetting the surrounding chaos of light.

He tries to see down the streets. But day or night you can never see down there, not even the top of a head. He’s been down there so he pulls props out of his memories, arranges them, tries to put them in order. Imagining the present he goes up and down the street. Nothing happens that he hasn’t seen before; he loses interest and stops. His thoughts slowly lead him back to the night sky.

His habit of hunting for the weak light of the Eiffel tower takes over. All the confusion is pushed aside as he searches for his prey, anxious to mock the romance and the nationalistic pride.

Focusing on the usual spot in the sky his heart speeds up but nothing happens. He waits. No light, no flicker, nothing.

Nothing tonight—no clouds: ‘Just the darkness escaping the fake light.’

His vision is lead away by his thoughts as he listens and waits. Nothing… He tries harder, listens closer, trying desperately to hear anything a dog would hear.

Nothing… Time passes; a part of himself reminds him of why he was there. He acknowledges the thought and the others fade away. The reassuring image of a wolf patrolling the neighbourhood takes over his empty space and a smile pushes him away from the window.

He savours the fresh cool water, empties the cup, puts it in its place and returns to sleep.

 

Remembrance

Richard

Can’t remember when being with Uncle Richard formed into memories. I’ve seen black and white pictures of him when he stayed at my parents’ apartment. Don’t remember the dates marked on the pictures or if there were any. I was probably born; maybe not.

I should start somewhere…as far back as possible. First memory…tough one—vague memories of an apartment building on Montreal Street that I never went in, a bit farther down the hill and across the street from the synagogue. A couple of churches a bit farther down, all of them were walking distance from Uncle Richard’s place. Even the stinking factory where he worked, Ingersoll Rand, wasn’t too much farther. There was only one other factory that stunk worse and made me want to vomit more.

Maybe it wasn’t so bad. Don’t know what Uncle Richard did there; maybe he got to make things, manufacture something…

Uncle Richard made all sorts of stuff.

I don’t remember when my sister got the telescope he made for her, maybe on her birthday, maybe not. She remembers.

And then there’s the stereo. When we moved into our extra-big house there was the ‘music room’. That’s where the Heathkit stereo was (and a piano that nobody wanted to play). The Heathkit was the top-of-the-line; Uncle Richard figured it out, soldered all the wires, put it all together for us.

What Uncle Richard made for me was better than the stereo. A small black box, not quite as tall but a little thicker than a paperback; bulky, hard plastic, sturdy, with small flathead screws holding the top panel in place, keeping the speaker snug. There was a little sliding on-off switch and a nice bright white push button. Everything was indicated, he made it for me, for my bike, with white lettering: ‘POLICE SIREN’. There was nothing like it.

When I first went to use it I tried to stay calm. I turned on the main switch, got ready. And then I saw them on the sidewalk. I pushed off and started pedalling; my thumb was shaking a little as it hovered over the big white police siren button. I got close, held off, waited…then I pushed the big white button. Billy, Mark, Moliner and even Westman jumped. I was grinning so hard I kept my thumb jammed against the button. The sound got louder and louder, the bike started to wiggle. I had to really grip the handlebars, forcing me to take my thumb off the big white button of the Police Siren. The sound went down gradually just like a real siren. And then I remembered Uncle Richard had explained how to use it, how not to hold the button on too long, release it, let it go, wait, then get it to wail again, ‘make the sound go up again like another music note’.

Billy, Mark, Moliner—and even Westman—came racing over. They all wanted to see it. I calmed them down and explained how to use it. Nobody had anything like it, never seen anything like it.

Sometimes in the summer evenings, Uncle Richard would pick me up, or my and brother, maybe my sister, and take us to his garden on the edge of town. It was a community garden, I guess, or maybe everybody rented a square of land. It was nice to head out there with him, getting out of the house, going somewhere. It was fun to ride in the square little Renault 8, listening to the little engine, watching him change gears and turn the bus-sized steering wheel.

Just a bit before where we were going I would keep my eyes peeled for the mini-golf. Sometimes he would take me. That was weekends usually, after going to the garden. We never stopped when we went to the garden in the evening. I still kept my eyes peeled and couldn’t help telling him when I saw it. But I never asked him to stop. One time we went in the evening; it got dark and we never made it to the garden.

Uncle Richard seemed at home with his hands in the dirt, showing me a nice big earthworm or pointing to where the toads might be. When my older brother would come they seemed to have more serious discussions. I would go exploring then look back seeing him bending over the plants, his funny dirty-white hat bobbing here and there even when the sun had pretty well gone down.

On some weekends he would sometimes play Frisbee with my brother and me, or we would take our gloves and the baseball bat out into the field to play ‘Flies and Grounders’ where a ‘Fly’ was worth 100 points and a ‘Grounder’ was only 50 even though it was lot tougher. Uncle Richard didn’t seem to care how he looked hitting the baseball or anything. He wasn’t the best at it and didn’t seem to care how many points he had even though he seemed to always know the score and tell me it was my turn to go to bat. Sometimes he hit the baseball pretty good.

A couple of times we made it to his apartment in Richmond; he taught music at the regional high school. As soon as we went in my brother turned on the TV to watch golf because he was a lot older than me. I don’t remember if Uncle Richard liked golf but he would take junk off the couch, lots of sheets of music, part of an apple. We would sit down and watch a bit with a sandwich and a bag of chips trying not to get any in the open trombone case.

Once at the cottage, Fairview Cottage on the lake, I sort of heard him play some trombone. I didn’t like it much and it seemed too complicated to get a basic note out of it. It looked neat though when he would slide it back and forth, even though Uncle Richard had funny shorts and sandals on.

I always wondered if that was what inspired my sister to make a poster of Uncle Richard. I still see it hanging on the wall in Fairview Cottage. I don’t remember if it was for his birthday. She drew a big neat cartoon, black ink on shiny glossed paper I think… It was Uncle Richard smirking with his usual goofy smile holding a plug in his hand that was the end of an electrical cord coming out his bum. It said ‘Tricky Dicky’. He seemed to like it. Maybe it inspired him.

The next morning he showed up at the tree-house with pieces of wood connected together with two bright yellow ropes, the kind we would use for the boat and if it slid in your hand it burned the skin off. The pieces were sanded wooden bars with holes drilled through them. I always wanted a rope ladder. You could pull it up after you. Nobody could get to the tree-house except for visiting birds and spiders.

But when Uncle Richard tried to go up he had a tough climb. It was free hanging so when he got on it was hard to go up straight. He made it up three or four or five rungs hanging backwards with his head aiming back and his legs far forward. But if he stayed on the same rung too long he seemed to slowly get closer to the ground. And it became harder to get to the next rung because everything was getting farther and farther apart. The rope kept stretching and stretching. I was disappointed it wasn’t working; getting worried Uncle Richard would fall but still holding back laughter.

He came down safely with a grin, sweating pretty hard, his hair even messier. With self-mocking  sarcasm he said, “I think we’ll have to modify it a bit.”

That afternoon we turned the TV on but couldn’t catch much. Uncle Richard went up the post and starting rotating the antenna. My brother and I intently watched the screen. We shouted to Uncle Richard when enough of the baseball game appeared. Sometimes you could almost see the baseball.

That night Uncle Richard connected the antenna to his big shortwave, tuning it in, adjusting the frequencies. And then we heard: “This is the BBC World Service. In Nigeria today the…”

My brother’s eyes lit up, “Nigeria! A world away…”

Uncle Richard chuckled, keeping his ear to the shortwave.

————————————————————————

At the end of that summer my parents had already started divorcing. We didn’t see Uncle Richard as much.

In late November I showed Mark McBean a still-favourite present that Uncle Richard had given me a few Christmases before: ‘101 Electronic Experiments all in 1’.

I told  McBean without thinking, “You can make all sorts of circuits—parallel or in series.”

He sneered at me, “I knew that—kid’s toy.”

I went along with him, “Yeah, I know. I don’t ‘play’ with it anymore.”

McBean saw the little black motor, “What’s this?”

“An electric motor—pretty cool, you connect it to the rheostat.” I set it up with a neat pattern on the motor shaft. “And this creates a kaleidoscope effect.”

I started it, slowly increasing the speed, looking wide-eyed at the effect of the spinning pattern, “The rheostat is like a variable resistor.”

McBean complains, “Puh, I like it when there’s real juice in it.”

I turned the motor off and acted tough, “Yeah, I wonder what it would do if I plugged it directly into the 110 coming out of the wall..?”

A sarcastic McBean asks, “How would you do that? You couldn’t do that.” He smirked, “I wouldn’t mind doing that.”

A few days later I was alone with the ‘101 electronic experiments all in 1’. I tried a mixed circuit—series and parallel. It didn’t seem to work. I tried re-wiring: nothing. I unscrewed a bulb; it was burned out, Uncle Richard had showed me with Christmas lights that if you looked closely enough “You can see where the filament is broken.”

I didn’t have any other bulbs and tried something else; it worked a little but the batteries were dying. I didn’t have any more and looked at the wall outlet. I remembered what I had told McBean and went to get an extension cord. Pulling open the female plug I slowly wound the little electric motor wire around the thick multi-stranded bare power cord. I held the little motor steady as on the counter top protecting it from falling. Carefully moving the far end of the long power cord towards the outlet; I took my hand away from the little motor.

I didn’t really want to plug it in. A big spark? A flame? It wouldn’t do that.

I went ahead, the little motor burnt out with barely a puff of smoke; I sadly put it back in the experiment kit feeling guilty and slowing blaming McBean.

A year or two later—it was early Spring, one morning I was going up the stairs at my school, Sherbrooke Elementary. As usual there were a lot of kids. Mr. Champoux-the-Principal was coming down the stairs talking with another man. I hugged the wall like I always did. It wasn’t until I was at the top of the stairs that my brain told me who the other man was. I rushed to the railing and stared down the stairs. They were already gone.

Class started as usual. We sat back down after finishing ‘God Save the Queen’. In those days I was still singing it a bit, mumbling really, getting dirty looks from Mrs. Rich.

Mr. Champoux politely knocked on the doorframe and came in with his friend. All of a sudden I was awake; it was Uncle Richard!

Mr.Champoux introduced Mr. Smith and announced that there will be a concert at 10:30 pm in the gym with “Mr. Smith and the Richmond Regional High School Band.”

Everybody clapped. I was in shock.

Uncle Richard nodded to all of us with his smile and they went on to the next classroom. Mrs. Rich told us to open our books; telling us what do. I kept staring through the doorway. All I could hear was Mr. Champoux knocking on the next doorframe.

Mrs. Rich yelled, “Stephen! Pay attention.”

I blurted out, “It’s Uncle Richard!”

 

A few months later we were in Uncle Richard’s little square Renault 8 heading down the 401 to visit my grandmother. He had invited us to come.

I hadn’t ridden in the little Renault for quite a while. In the back seat I moved the sliding window towards me. I always like those sliding windows—it was so simple. I looked up at the dangling hand strap and grabbed it. A semi went by and the Renault wobbled. Uncle Richard steadied it with the oversized steering wheel. My mother looked at him but nobody said anything. It started to rain harder.

We finally arrived at Granny’s—a nice little house, well kept. She argued with me about who had a longer driveway. I was still a kid so I didn’t know where she was going with that so I kept to the facts, “Our driveway is longer than yours.”

She insisted that I was wrong, turning away with a trace of a smile.

I had started noticing things a little more. Uncle Richard seemed to know her very well.

When I played with her cat, Siamese with eyes changing colour, always looking at you twice, Granny started playing with us. Apparently news went around that she was on her hands and knees playing with the cat. Apparently that was news.

As far as I know, we were all well received.

On the way back there was a bit more talking in the little blue Renault.

 

I have a vague idea that I was probably twelve or thirteen when I last saw him. It was cold, snow and ice. He visited us for ten or fifteen minutes, not much longer, he couldn’t; he had to keep his car going. After the first five minutes of tea and cookies at the kitchen table the conversation shifted to boring adult stuff.  I put my coat on, my mother told me “Hat and a scarf!”

As I went out the door I answered “I can’t find one.”

I was always excited about a new car, or at least a car I had never seen before. And Uncle Richard always had a small car; that was pretty innovative in thse days.

It was a green Toyota Corolla. Uncle Richard had it for a while but it was the first time I had seen it. It was idling away making a proper exhaust stream in the cold winter air. I paid close attention; Toyotas were pretty exotic in those days. I could see heads turning in all the passing cars on our busy street. Most of them seemed to be smirking and making fun of the little car, especially the ones with Delta 88s and Plymouth Furys and Buick LeSabres.

Then again, maybe they weren’t and it was just me.

I anxiously looked inside at the Toyota Corolla. It was an automatic! I looked at the t-shifter: ‘P R N D L’.   I looked down at the pedals: no clutch. The disappointment started to set in. I kept staring in frustration.

Uncle Richard came out.

“It’s an automatic?!”

He was still far away, saying good-bye to my mother.

In a shiver I heard her say, “It’s cold Richard, I have to close the door.”

“It’s an automatic?!”

He chuckled and got into the car, knocking his toque a little more crooked.

I felt the warmth escaping, “Why do you keep it running?”

“If I stop it probably won’t start.”

“Are you going to the cottage?”

“Going to Granny’s in Brantford.”

“When are you coming back?”

“I’m moving.”

I noticed the suitcase and the piled up boxes that made it hard to see out the back window.

He put his seatbelt on and reached for the door. I saw the big heavy shortwave radio on the passenger seat.

He hesitated, “Got to go. Say hi to Dave and Carol.”

I nodded and he closed the door. The car jerked a little when he put the automatic transmission in ‘R’.

I watched him eventually hurry onto the busy street. The annoyed rushing cars had to slow down. I saw a Buick Riviera after he was gone, nothing much else. The back door opened and my mother yelled at me to come in and have some hot soup. I took a step or two towards the house but turned to look again. I noticed the tiny drips of oil beginning to freeze in the icy snow.

From behind I heard the doorknob turning again and headed in.

I never saw Uncle Richard again.

 

Forty-one Years Later

Richard Murray Smith was born in Bury, Quebec on June 4th, 1938 to Margaret and Wallis Smith.

His growing up years were varied and interesting and he eventually reached his goal of becoming a teacher.

Richard taught for a while in Quebec then went back to further his education and obtained his masters degree.

After this he moved to Saskatchewan where he taught for a short time at Macklin and Denzil before taking a teaching position in Prince Albert, SK where he taught until his retirement.

Richard started his music career in his teens and was very involved in music having played in a trombone quartet, The Jazz Band, as well as the Prince Albert City Band.

His involvement in the Anglican Church in Prince Albert which I believe was St. David’s found him to be a dedicated choir director for most of the years he lived in Prince Albert.

Richard and his teacher friend Ed joined together to become known as the Knotty Krafters, making countless toys and other woodworking projects which they sold at the local craft shows. Sadly Richard lost his good friend Ed a few years ago.

Richard took great pride in his vegetable garden and numerous flower beds and his greenhouse usually over flowed so he shared many of his beautiful plants with others.
In July of 2007, Richard decided to move to Nipawin where he continued to love gardening, flowers, woodworking, feeding the birds and going to church. He especially liked the fact that he could just walk down to the church and he walked every day to the post office for his mail.

Richard leaves to morn his passing his brothers Donald and Stuart (wife Earla); sisters Christina Betcke and Mary Ellis; nieces and nephews Suzanne Betcke (David Northcote), Martha Betcke (David Joy), Laura Betcke, Katherine Horney (Rick), Susan Magliarisi (Angelo), Jennifer Ellis, Jeffrey Smith (Bo Cheyne), David Smith (Elaine), Stephen Smith, Carol Smith and numerous great nieces and nephews, treasured friends and his special friend Dorothy Wark.
 
                           Rest in Peace my forever friend!

Moments pass by but never end.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Campground

He just kept grinding ahead away ahead of me, small pieces of hot black asphalt sling-shotting off his back wheel, the shrapnel pinging off my bike, sometimes sticking to my legs for a moment, making me pedal faster. It was July in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, the rays of the sun raised the temperature to ninety-five degrees in the shade and kept the fresh asphalt from cooling. The tires on our bikes were rock hard, yet they stuck to the road, peeling away like Velcro with every turn of the pedals. It was five in the afternoon, the sun was slowly fading yet the heat would remain throughout the oncoming night.

I was hungry, “When are we going to stop for the night?”

He looked back at me, annoyed: “When we get to a decent place to camp.”

My butt was sore from six hours of riding and I felt a sharp pain.

The sun had almost set by the time we came upon it—an open area with a large wooden building off to one side with a big sign that said ‘Flea Market Every Sunday’. There was a large overgrown area rich with the burps of frogs and the rhythm of crickets, but there was a big picnic table with chairs and a couple of bright green portable restrooms featuring the bright cartoon of a beaming old man with the logo ‘Mr. Jiggs’ in big letters. I couldn’t decide if Mr. Jiggs looked more like Uncle Sam or Colonel Sanders. But he was a welcome sight.

We started to unload the bikes, anxious to feed on peanut butter, raisins, peanuts and dates. Sitting at the picnic table we enjoyed the satisfaction of the day’s progress.

“Almost a hundred miles today, not bad when you’re peeling the road off as you ride,” he chuckled.

I laughed too, and joked about how many white-haired tourists must nursing sore necks tonight from staring at us as they slid by in their air conditioned cars with the white sidewalls and imitation spoke wheel covers.

“We should get one of those pine-tree air fresheners to hang off the handlebars,” he snorted, choking on the smoke from his pipe.

“Pine-tree air fresheners—remember those goddamn Sunday drives with the old man,” I said, “those shit big company cars with the… What the fuck did they call the suspensions on those cars…’air flow’ or something?”

He was smirking and coughing, waiting for the next line.

“You gotta’ give him credit though, with the air-flab suspenders system and the chemicals from that rat-shit pine-tree air freshener I was puking up in ten minutes, pissing him off until Mom made him stop and I’d get a Coke and burp all that shit out.”

He was walking around in a circle laughing with his back to me, Amphora smoke attaching itself to the humid evening air.

It was night now, but we were bathed in the glow of a mercury lamp nailed onto the boards of the Flea Market just below the peak of the roof. My whole body was drained of energy but the lingering heat would not it rest. We decided to lay out the sleeping bags near the overgrowth—it seemed cooler there. Within minutes we were both asleep.

I awoke panting, my body drenched in sweat. As I lay there, my mind and body desperate for sleep, I could hear quiet, almost calming, buzzing.

The buzzing would start out quietly, slowly increasing, until I would feel the light touch and the annoying bite. I was waiting, anticipating; the mosquito would be lured into my trap and I would slap at it and kill it. I was killing most of them, but the drone of the frogs and crickets was becoming louder. In the dull light I could see a spot on my arm where the sweat had mixed with the blood. The blood seemed brilliant in the semi-darkness. Suddenly a car sped by on the highway above and my heart pounded making me touch my forehead. My hair was damp as though I had been swimming, there was blood on my hand. I heard a slap and he swore. Again the buzzing came; I slapped my face with rage. We tried moving away from the light.

But the buzzing seemed to be getting louder all the time. My head pounded. The pain in the middle of my brain got worse. I looked at my watch; it was nine-thirty…  I took the sleeping bag and zipped myself inside of it. It was a little short; it wouldn’t cover all of me. I curled myself up and tried to cover my head. The heat of the night had not subsided and I couldn’t stay trapped inside the bag. For a moment, as I unzipped the bag and felt the air wash over me I began to relax. But the buzzing returned, burrowing inside my ear, making me helpless.

I saw the smiling face of Mr. Jiggs in the light and ignored everything else. Dragging the sleeping-bag behind me I slowly made my way towards the portable restroom and heard mumbling behind me. I turned and complained as I gave advice, “I can’t take this anymore, I’m going to see if it’s better in there.”

He got up and followed.

The door screeched as I opened it; I sat down and locked it. There wasn’t much room inside, but I couldn’t hear any buzzing. Time passed and I began to be hopeful. The sound returned. I wished I had imagined it. I felt the tickle and slapped my leg. I put my head in my hands wanting to scream as the sweat poured off of me. I heard him swear. There was nothing we could do. The drone of the lamp was overcome by the crickets and frogs, driving through me until the buzzing came.

Only daybreak would end this. I looked at my watch; it was eleven-fifteen.

The Usual Workday

People going up and down the pedestrian street, half of them sad-looking Parisians, the other half stressed out tourists. Quartier de l’Horloge was named after a clock that stopped in 2003. Parisians want it restored but nobody wants to pay for it.

The Camerounais

It’s sunny—nice day, I go out and set up the bicycles for another tour. And then I see the big stocky tree-stump black guy coming down the hill too fast on his bright white matchbox bike yelling “Canadien! Canadien!!”

He gets off and parks; the bike looks normal again. I admire his wraparound sunglasses and his French-looking beret. He gives me the power handshake. I’m getting better at using my skinny long fingers. His smile gets bigger, “Ow ow ow!” I wink back and ask if he needs anything inflated. He shoves me around with an ear-to-ear grin and an arm bigger than my leg, answering me with “It’s just a visit!”

I flicker my eyebrows at him, “With you it’s always more than that.”

He chuckles with a good-bye shrug-off, waving his hand like he doesn’t want to hear anything I have to say, “You have work to do.”

 

The Broken Sandal

A little while later I’m swearing at bike parts I can’t find.  I look up as though as though I’m peering over glasses and see her coming. She’s waving the pink and yellow and green plastic sandal above her head.The colourful waves of her brilliant fancy African-looking-but-really Parisian dress arrive before her.  For some reason I pretend to not notice and half-hide behind the small workbench in the corner.

She belts out a “Bonjour!” to announce her arrival. I’m forced to return a ‘bonjour’; it gets trampled by her impatient question. It’s really an order; I look for a screwdriver.

I tell her I don’t really have anything that will work. She straightens out her arms and wiggles her fingers. I hand over the screwdriver. I try to fight off the urge to help her but I can’t and show her what might work.

She pushes, pulls and turns it the wrong way then holds it up and stares, “This one doesn’t work”. She hands it back. I give her a smaller one and tell her it won’t work either. She doesn’t understand my Quebec accent. It doesn’t matter—she’s absorbed in the drama. Out of the corner of my eye I look at her sandal, wondering if she had sent away for it or got it on special at a dollar store.

I still eventually have to ask her if her sandal is fixed—even though it will never be.

She waves at me to go away, “Almost, almost.”

I try not to shake my head. But I watch her.

A few minutes later she’s still working on it. I give in to my nature.  “Let me see it.”

Without hesitating she hands it to me. It’s even crappier than I thought—cheap plastic with a grommet that could be cheap metal but it’s plastic too. I try pushing the end through the too small hole. No good. I get the long nose pliers and hold the string firmly and try to push the grommet over it with my fingers. No good. I reset the pliers and push harder with two fingers. Snap! –the cracked plastic breaks­.

She doesn’t hesitate, “You broke it! You broke it! You broke it!

I eye her with my embittered sorry-for-helping-you-look.

She goes on with “How could you break it! How could you break it? What am I going to do!”

I hold up the transparent jar, “We can use a big tie-wrap.”

She raises her chin and defiantly looks at the ceiling, “No, no, no…that’s fine!”

Maybe I was too sarcastic.

With puts her hand on her hips with the sandal in her hand. She leaves with a loud “Merci” and follows with an authoritative “Au revoir.”

I’ll never learn. I put the tie-wraps back on the shelf.

 

Braces-girl

Hugues is the guy who answers the phone and explains everything to everybody, imagining he’s telling customers what they want to hear–like he’s learned in Marketing class. He excitedly  shows me images of his new girlfriend waiting for me to be amazed. I do my polite best and say nothing–encouraging him to talk. They met on Saturday; today is Monday.

By noon she’s there. He tries to introduce us but she keeps staring at him. I get an icky feeling.

A few minutes later she’s comfortably sitting in our office picking at the brochures as seductively as she can, asking questions about each one, picking up another before Hugues has explained the previous one. I didn’t know why he bothered then I realized that despite his self-made sophistication and his advanced age of 21 he was as innocent as she was—maybe more. I smiled inside, politely watching her sipping on her milkshake while she clicked on pictures of clothes, making them bigger filling the screen. I noticed her braces and went back to work.

At coffee break time she was sitting on his lap in front of the computer.  I verbally shoved them off just before customers arrived. After seeing the customers off to explore the sites of Paris, I asked braces-girl what her job was like, hoping she was just on lunch break—not staying long. She smirked at me because I was completely ignorant of her world; it was a ridiculous question, “I don’t have a job.”

It didn’t matter to me but my heart sunk a bit. I pretended proper adult shock, “Never?”

“No!”

“How about picking strawberries or vegetables or apples or something?”

With a snotty grin I received a mocking, “No, I’d never do that; not in the dirt and everything…”

I try not to think of the shame of not being proper and stare into my coffee, “Yeah that would be pretty bad, growing food.” With a last gulp I escape back to work.

I tightened and re-set the bolt on the now permanently bent rails of the seat-post that had never been installed properly by another 23 year-old kid who was always offended if you showed him anything he didn’t know.  I usually shake my head because of all the time wasted re-doing things that others screwed up. This time it only started after a long reflection about modern society where everyone presumes they are God and vehemently argue that they never do anything wrong. I tried to ignore it and took the bike out for a test drive.

Hugues, the supposed employee, was at the keyboard pretending to manage e-mails, carry out customer relations, fulfilling the work requirements of his Tourism Logistics Management diploma. Braces-girl was beside him looking at the planning schedule for bike tours excitedly asking him questions and staring at his answers, feeding his pride and propelling him forward into his endless explanations.

Two customers show up; she excitedly receives them in her new role. It reminds me of when I was a kid and we would play at being secret agents.

I let it go for a second… But she was getting everything wrong and answering questions by telling the customer they were wrong. I had to play my official role and forcefully intervened, hoping that was subtle enough to influence future behaviour.

I wasn’t quiet for very long; Gabrielle, the guide returned with the tour. There were enough people and small talk to keep my mind off things.  And despite my usual prejudice against image-first-and-nothing-much-else French culture, I smiled when Braces-girl told the young male guide-in-training how to arrange his clothes to better present himself.

Then the tourists, the guides–almost everybody, left again. The place was pretty well empty.

When I ended up in the office, she was sitting on his lap behind the desk, looking through the drawer, flipping open the red cash box. I rather loudly had to communicate what the rules were. Then I  ordered them outside; they hurriedly conformed. Braces-girl still managed to mutter and repeat ‘we weren’t doing anything wrong’ and ‘I didn’t touch the cash’.

 

Alain Arrives

He’s always well-dressed, fedora-style hat, almost always black pants and shirt. Alain says he’s just dropping by. We talk and he tells me that Holland is a region, the Netherlands are a country, and Flemish is just Dutch—just like, he holds up one finger, ‘American’ is English. Then, because of my questions, we talk of type 1 and type 2 diabetes. Strong memories of a friend watch and listen, telling me ‘see what he has to say’.  He tells me when he was diagnosed at age 35 with type 1. “That is much more rare; but the healthcare system in France is very good.”

Soon he’s talking about others in pharmacy line-ups getting upset when he goes to get all his insulin and leaves with a bigger package than everybody else. But everything is completely paid for because he’s a diabetic. And often when he needs medication for something else, or he has to go to the hospital for other illnesses, the pharmacists and the doctors write it all off under his diabetes so that he won’t pay anything. But he still wonders when their goodwill might finally catch up to him.

Often I would find ways to cut him off, be busy with something else; he usually hangs around a bit too long and talks a bit too much even though it can get pretty interesting.

He tells me about settling in France and trying to get an apartment but nobody will rent it to him because he doesn’t have a French bank account and a thing called a ‘RIB’. So when he goes to the bank to open an account they don’t want to do it because he doesn’t have a French address.

I get him some more coffee.

I ask him about his parents. His father died young, “Fifty six—cancer, metastasized…” without hesitating; “He was vomiting shit.”

Sounds lovely. He pauses, anxiously waiting for my question. Usually that would keep me from asking it; today I make him happy, “Actual shit?”

He makes his favourite playground face, “Shit–came right back up…out of his mouth.”

I say and think: “Lovely.”

He goes on. “My mother died more slowly at an older age.I would go see her and she would tell me that I looked a lot like her son…Alain.”

I tried to steer things a bit, “Did you get any gossip on yourself?”

He smiled, “No,” shook his head and puffed on his cigarette.

“It didn’t bother you?”

He shrugs, “I understood…”

“It affects you doing that doesn’t it?”

He nods, “My sister would visit and lock herself in her room. I spent day after day organising everything—hospital, doctors, nurses. After two weeks I was burnt out. But then we got a lot of help, nurses would come, everyone got well taken care of.”

I think to myself, ‘Not a bad system—some good stories.’

From there we go straight to suicide as though the other stories were just an introduction.

He was suicidal for a while (I didn’t ask when) and he hated himself for not being able to go through with it—jump in front of a truck, a train, drowning…he could just do it, take the initiative—and get everything over with.  The inability to go through with the act made it worse. With every moment he hated himself even more; it became, to say it lightly… unbearable.

He finally presented himself to a centre which eventually helped him. And he also got out of the place in time, just the right moment before you turn the corner but if you stay you’ll miss your chance, get the livable chonic depression, stay fucked up enough to never leave, the challenge turning into a mountain inside your head.

“There was another patient there who had tried to kill himself by getting run over. He lost most of one leg and part of an arm. Now he was permanently in a wheelchair, it was much more difficult to commit the act and it drove him insane trying to figure out how to do it. He never could so he blamed it on his uselessness and gave up.”

He paused with a street-smart grin “I’m well prepared. I’m not going to wait until I can’t do it. Pointing at his skinny arm under his fine quality black coat he pretended his cigarette was a needle and motioned to me how would give himself multiple injections, “I always have everything I need to do it.”

I tried not to be shocked or impressed, to encourage him. The memory of an old friend surfaces a little, “The advantages of being a diabetic. .” I unreasonably wait for Alain to ask me questions. He just smiles and clients arrive; Japanese customers with two friendly kids. Alain attaches his cane to his big elegant Dutch bike and bids me a gracious farewell.

I thank him for the conversation.

He rides away. The lady exclaims, “Wow, that’s a nice bike—can we get that one?”

I shake my head with a smile, “Sorry, it’s reserved for him.”

 

Closing Time

At the end of the day Hugues is leaning against the wall and posing with his cigarette. I politely ask what Braces-girl’s name is again.

He aims a long cinematic puff of blue smoke at the sky, “Céline”, then professionally flicks the butt away as he stares at himself in the store window. I want to yell ‘Cut!’ but the  yelling from the top of the hill doesn’t let me, “Eh Canadien! Canadien!!”

I squint and pick out Mr. Cameroon  coming on foot, “Canadien!!” Without his usual sunglasses his little eyes stretch out of their sockets, vibrating a little as he yells even louder. The small lady he passes shivers with the noise and tells him to quiet down. He stops, gently bending over, offering his hand for forgiveness. She tries to maintain her serious schoolteacher face but her cheeks begin to show themselves. She puts her hand into his; he smiles and majestically kisses her hand.

He’s still elegantly holding her hand when he yells at me again, “Canadien!” Her shoulders react again; she walks away shaking her head. He glances back for a second then starts heading down the hill with his grin. It was time for another happy visit to close out the day. I flex my fingers.