Groceries

The next customer returned her smile. His red hair made a halo around his face. He made her think of a tall poppy. She chased that idea, tried to focus on the task at hand. She ran the cash at the supermarket. She tried to always be personable and efficient. She felt that showed best her professionalism. He had put his purchases on the conveyor belt, peanuts and other assorted nuts, chocolate bar, tortilla chips, bananas. She’d seen this before, customers buying snacks and a fruit to give themselves good conscience. She said, smiling “Quite the party you’re having”, because really, who could eat all that by themselves. She wanted to show she cared.

The customer looked at her and said slowly, meanly, “I’m not one to drown my sorry with Ben&Jerry. My lover left me, if you need to know. Not that I owe a perfect stranger an explanation for my purchases.” She had rung up his “grocery”, if you could call it that. She replied, “Nobody’s perfect,” indicating her name tag at the same time. It could be construed as an apology for her lack of discretion, but what it was is that she had taken offence at being called a perfect stranger. She resented the name tags, a pathetic gesture to personalize the interactions, when really, nobody ever bothered to say her name. Her name was Evelyn, as was proudly displayed on her tag, though everybody at home and even her friends called her “Ev”. He paid and left, without another word.

She sprayed some cleaning fluid on the little plastic window in front of the reader. She was not allowed to smoke or do her nails, not allowed to chew gum or wear perfume. The list was too long to commit to memory. She listened absent-mindedly to the music and then came ten o’clock. They dimmed the lights and turned the music off. This was a new thing – they had been primed to serve customers that were easily overwhelmed by sensory overload (she had learned the lingo to impress her relatives). Her uncles had asked what strange creatures would come out of the wood works. He was crass, but she was curious nonetheless. As soon as the lights dimmed, she saw people emerging from their cars, like zombies in the apocalypse. They staggered towards the dimmed store and suddenly she felt a bit exposed.

The crowd was quiet, subdued. She had expected a mad dash, as happened on Black Friday. She was observing the customers. They actually looked like normal people except they smiled more and talked amongst themselves, as though they now could see each other better. There was a kinship as happens during snowstorms, an acknowledged vulnerability that brought them closer. The customers took their time. They were there for real, doing their weekly grocery. The owner was walking amongst them, shaking hands and talking to them, playing the nice guy when he imposed so many rules on the cashiers. Oh, look smart, here comes a customer. She straightened and wished she had chewing gum to give herself a countenance. She missed working as a waitress sometimes, though she didn’t miss the assholes that came to the joint.

An old man came first, positively glowing. “Isn’t this marvelous? I wear hearing aids and the music and announcements just resonate in my skull. I usually dread coming here, but today was amazing.” He was gushing! She totalled his bill. She’d often seen him. Today, he’d treated himself to some goodies, probably to encourage the owner. It was good business, she thought unkindly, then chided herself. “I sound just like Uncle Bill.” She forced a smile and a nod. “I’m happy this new initiative worked for you. Is there anything more I can do for you today?” They had been prepped to sound compassionate. She would’ve liked to be an actress, had the looks and the brains, but not the cash. She swallowed a sigh. “Sure, I’ll take a winning lottery ticket.” “Good luck,” she said, kindly this time.

Behind him was a lady she knew with her strange child. He wasn’t clingy today nor “spastic.” He usually did this thing with his hands, waving them in front of his eyes, his mom looking away stoically. Today, he was looking around, almost relaxed. “How was your experience today?” she asked by herself, genuinely curious now. Tears glistened in the lady’s eyes. “Night and day. I am so grateful you’ve done this. Do you think you’ll do it again?” “If there is enough interest, we will. I’ll make sure to tell my boss. He wants to hear from all the customers.” “God bless,” added the lady as they took their bags. Now that she didn’t expect.

There was a steady stream of customers now, but no one seemed to be in a hurry. She felt as though they were travelling back in time, with actual conversations, unhurried and friendly. She realized she’d felt a bit stressed at first, but was happy now. The customers’ good mood was contagious. She didn’t see them as zombies anymore. They themselves walked straighter, no longer skulking in corners but fully inhabiting their space. She was observant, part of her training to be an actress. You had to continually research characters. The owner greeted the late comers. “We will be resuming normal operations in 15 minutes. The dimmed lights and absence of music are on purpose.” Most people knew. They had been featured on the local news and in the paper. Some were just gawkers. She blushed when she saw Uncle Billy walking in.

He was staring at the customers, with a superior grin. Nobody paid him any mind. After a few minutes, he stopped his circus and made a purchase. He stood in line at her cash, waving excitedly as though she hadn’t spotted him miles away. There was a soft announcement over the PA system. “Dear customers, in five minutes, we will turn the music and lights back on. Please make your way to the cash if you need to do so at this time. Thank you for coming today. we hope you had a positive shopping experience.” Her uncle’s presence annoyed her. She could feel his gaze on her and didn’t appreciate the interactions with the other customers fully because of it. When it was his turn, he’d bought a loaf of dark rye bread, his favourite. “I seem to have missed all the weirdos,” he said loudly. She stared him down. “They’re at my cash right now, Uncle Bill.” It was his turn to blush and fumble for his change. He slunk away. The lights came back on. She took a bow.

The maitre d’

« No thanks, I don’t drink, » I say, putting my hand over the top of my glass. It’s a classy joint, so I don’t get the usual stink-eye. The maitre d’ (I told you it was a classy joint) offers me a Virgin Caesar, fizzy water, fruit juice. I settle on San Pellegrino, after he rattles off a bunch of choices. He brings it in a bourbon glass with a slice of lemon and a cherry for colour. My date is not impressed, clearly thinking I failed her.

She whispers, “You didn’t tell me you don’t drink.” I whisper back, “I didn’t think it mattered.” She huffs and puffs. “Well, I’m having a drink.” This simple interaction has become my personal acid test for new relationships. It exposes the insecurities and feelings of self-worth of my counterpart in subtle and obvious ways. At first, I was apologizing for my choice, explaining my motives, pretexting health issues. The truth is, I drink when I feel like it, and that has become less and less often with time.

My vis-à-vis grabs her drink and chugs it back with a vengeance. I attack my appetizer in silence. She seems to be seething. I am curious. I feel I am conducting a social experiment. The asparagus is tender. I love the taste of vegetables in season. And this chef is amazing. I am immersed in the sensations in my mouth. I glance up to ask my date if she’s happy with her choice and find her looking at me, glass in hand. She peers over her glass, “You’re not gay, are you?” (That’s a new one!) “Why would I be gay?” “You seem pretty intent on your food.” (Oh my, wait till I tell Emily about this.)

I thought I’d kept my face neutral, but the maitre d’ quickly appears at her side, concern etched on his features. “Is the appetizer not to madam’s taste?” Olivia has not eaten a bite. She dismisses him with a wave. You can almost hear the wind as she shoos him away. He floats off with a sad look, his eyes riveted to mine, sorrowful beyond words. When mom passed away, her will stipulated her three children must all be married within three years of her death before any of us may enjoy their part of the inheritance. The spouses stand to inherit half. Emily and Burton are already married, but I am stubbornly single. They have been presenting me eligible women to choose from, in the hope they can start benefitting soon from their inheritance. Of course, I can’t just marry anyone. They’d get a say in the way the fortune is spent. So I’ve been going on these dates with random women, some of whom are quite nice, others who are more “interesting.”

I look up at Olivia, fiddling with her Belgian endives, blue cheese and date. “You seem preoccupied, Olivia,” I say kindly. She rubs her toes on my shin, playing footsies under the table. The tablecloth hides the movement, but I still blush at her audacity. (What would Mother do?) I am not quick-witted. I am slow and deliberate. I am not my mother’s son as this fiasco painfully shows. Mother had warned me about vulgar ladies. The shoddily-applied lipstick was a dead giveaway. We’re just grabbing a bite before heading to the opera. I hope she won’t be disappointed. “How about we skip the music tonight?” she says, pressing her toes to make her point clear. I signal the maitre d’. He fills her glass as she smiles broadly. Minutes later, he comes to the table and whispers “An urgent call at the front desk.”

I excuse myself and follow him. The maitre d’, Burton, can tell when I’m distressed. He’s my brother after all. “What’s happening?” I explain my predicament. “I was looking forward to my evening at the opera, but she’s saying she won’t go. She wants to… you know.” I say, mortified. “What time does the opera start?” “In another hour.” “Take my place for the next 30 minutes. Ask to leave in 30. Emily will call in a replacement” It’s Emily’s restaurant, she’ll understand. We exchange uniforms. I am a bit heftier, so the uniform is tight. My suit looks better on him than on me. He’ll have more success with her. Did I mention we are twins? Nobody ever looks at the maitre d’ or sees beyond the uniform. We’ve traded places so many times in our lives, it just feels natural. Burton’s always seeing me out of a pickle. He walks back in and picks up where I left off. I clear away the plates.


I bring my impersonator the bill, adding a generous tip for fun. I can’t tell whose paying whom with what money. As always, the lines are blurred between identities as well as fortune. We have trouble drawing lines in our family and Mother’s will has made things worse. We’re always discussing, and the family now feels like a gelatinous mass in which everybody wades desperately trying to escape inertia. Burton surprises me by handing me the two opera tickets. Of course, they were in my shirt pocket which Burton ended up wearing. That was a close one. “I hear you enjoy Barber. Tonight, Vanessa is playing. It’s your luck that we are unable to make it. Please have my chauffeur come forward. We’re heading to a nightclub.” We both keep a straight face. My chauffeur has delivered a suitable replacement suit that I will change into for the opera as soon as the couple will have left the scene.

Vanessa is an obscure opera. Those are the ones I enjoy the most. It is perfect in the mood I find myself in, with endless intrigues and reversals. I feel that way about my life. Opera seems to describe me, one aria at a time. I vibrate and buzz, more than any drug could induce in me. The same cannot be said for Burton. Though extremely moral and extremely married, he considers it his duty to right a wrong. He tells me later they did go to a nightclub. Because she was looking around, he concluded she was looking for the ladies. He wanted to show her a good time and directed her to the powder room, in this club, the room with the powder i.e. cocaine. She came back sniffling and in a great mood. He had ordered champagne. “I told her I don’t drink!” “She forgave you. I said “I” didn’t drink… when I ate.” I grunt. “She loved the music, complimented me on my taste and stopped flirting with me. I invited others at the table and found her a suitable companion. I told her I had to leave but she could have my chauffeur drive her back when she was ready. The usual.”

We may be twins, but he’s the other side of the mirror, and my reputation doesn’t concern him as much as it concerns me. I’m seen as the bad boy because of his impersonations, yet I can’t manage without him. It’s Cyrano de Bergerac all over again and we all know how that ended. It wasn’t pretty. I may end up marrying loyal Mabel, whom Mother did not hold in high esteem. We’ve been to all the same schools, our families know each other, our grandfathers had a falling out after they tried to enter in partnership. Marrying her would tie our families closer than ever, which Mother did not want. I think Dad had an affair with Mabel’s mother, which would explain the antagonism. It’s a real soap opera. Maybe I should get both our DNA tested discreetly to ensure we’re not half-siblings. That would explain the attraction and the prohibition. Emily suggested I look into online dating sites. She said it in jest, but she may have a point. I am running out of suitable candidates and I am loathe to submit Mabel to the indignity of a DNA test. What if she were our half-sister? Then she should inherit too. My head spins. We only need to avoid procreating so we don’t inbreed.


I need to get this settled. I feel as out of place as an olive in a glass of beer. I move slowly, with the grace of an ocean liner, dignified and sturdy, ancient, classic. Two years have passed and time is running out. Emily and Burt don’t want to be cheated out of their inheritance. The three of us meet to discuss the issue. We bat around some ideas, a ball – I don’t dance – the Internet, I tried with no success. We’ve gone through our relations, distant cousins, younger women. None of the ideas please me until Emily lobs the tennis idea. I happen to love tennis. Emily will propose a tournament for eligible female bachelors. The cup they are competing for is my hand. At the end of the tournament, I will declare the winner. I fancy myself a good judge of character and sports to me are a great way to reveal character. In my view, mental toughness is what distinguishes the best players from the fray.

The tournament attracts thirty candidates, some unlikely, but I am willing to entertain them all. They know what is at stake and are fighting for my attention and affection. I watch every game, and take notes. The sore losers, the bad-tempered, the mild mannered, the poor players, the whiners, they all get a rating. I decide who makes it to the next round. In a game, sometimes both adversaries advance. Some get eliminated in the first round. It is exhilarating. I now have eight potential mates, all equally interesting. Some of the ladies who have been eliminated have hung around to see who the winner will be. I keep an eye on them as well. Mabel is in the rejects, which shows the high quality of the applicants. Their reactions are still interesting to me. They are all coached by their mothers, and that shows me the family dynamics as well. Every evening, I pour over my notes. It feels like a reality show. I feel omnipotent. We’re down to a quadrille. I decide to have them play double, on a whim.

It turns out to be an excellent idea. I rotate them to see how they interact. I can’t decide between Mia and Madison. They are both rated equally high tied in the top spot. We regroup and discuss strategy. At this point, Burt says to go to the one I am most physically attracted to. Emily counters that I’m looking for a life partner and that physical beauty fades, where internal beauty improves with age. I agree with Emily, but I don’t know how to proceed. I turn to her for more ideas, since she’s the one who came up with the tennis tournament. “Now you need to interview them separately. You know their temperament. They are both steadfast, tough, impassive, and display impressive sportsmanship. Now you need to know what they expect from you.” It is sound advice, as always. My twin is out of his depth, as am I. I decide not to meet them over a meal, seeing that I had so many disastrous experiences. I decide to go on a walk with Mia. We stroll on the compound and sit in the shade. We talk. I decide on Madison, almost instantly. We announce the winner.

I am asked by the mothers to explain what made the difference. I am ashamed to tell anyone, even my wife-to-be. I make up explanations. In my heart of hearts, I know it’s because Maddy is just like Mother. Strong-willed, righteous, tenacious, and so I love her and she, in turn, will love me. Both Emily and Burt rejoice. The inheritance is ours to share. Mother smiles in her grave. She will live on, through Madison’s spirit if we don’t have children. It is the perfect choice.

First Skate

Mark was a slow-moving, lumbering man. People often compared him to a bear. He didn’t have a bear’s ferocity, nor speed when he ran. At least, I assume not, because I only saw him moving at one speed: slowly. He had a great smile, an insufferable accent, and loved to hear himself speak. Come winter, he always walked around with a pair of skates over his shoulder. Manolito was a newcomer to the country and my classmate. I had gotten new skates last year. He was small so I had him try on my old ones. With an extra pair of woolen socks, they fit perfectly. I had decided to teach him how to skate and Mark joined us when he saw them hanging by their long laces on our shoulders.

“Headed for the pond?” “Yes, have you been yet this year?” “No, I thought I might have a look.” We walked together, after introductions, Mark trailing with his shuffling gait, us boys scampering on ahead, a little excitement pulling us all along. The trail was packed by other eager feet. We heard the metallic sound of blades hitting the ice. There was not much sound apart from the scraping, other than the occasional scream and thump from falls, followed by murmurs when kids were pulling other kids up. We turned a bend and saw the pond. It was well attended with Billy and Joe and Peter and others I didn’t recognize at first glance. We dropped down onto the snow and took our boots off. Mark arrived and looked around with a smile. He was tall. If he sat, he might not be able to stand back up. He leaned against a tree and proceeded to change into his skates.

Manolito and I were done fast. I helped Manolito lace the skates tight and saw his surprise when I pulled him up. He was unnaturally tall on the blades and ready to topple back in the snow. I guided him to the edge, walking slowly. He had put both his hands on my shoulders to steady himself. I descended upon the pond and turned around to face him. “Slowly,” I advised. He put one wobbly foot on the hard surface, then another. From the corner of my eye, I could see Mark detaching himself from the lamppost and see his labored breath condensed in front of his mouth. It was probably everybody’s first time of the season. The ice was pockmarked. Here and there tall grasses broke through the surface and tripped the unsuspecting skaters. “This way, Manolito.” Bravely, he started dragging his feet, trying to walk with those contraptions.

“Glide,” I said unhelpfully, as I strode away. The new skates were amazing, sturdier and the right size. My feet were happy, I could wiggle my toes. I soon forgot about Manolito as I saw Tom and his sister Kate , Anthony and Peter, and joined them to compare skates and stories. With a pang, I realized I’d forgotten about Manolito. Mark was talking to him, with large arm movements. He put his arm out and Manolito took hold of it. Mark started dragging Manolito around. He was so graceful, even with this weight attached to his arm. For his part, Manolito’s job was to stay upright and watch the scenery. Mark was skating effortlessly, away from the rough edges to give poor Manolito a chance to keep his balance. The speed helped and Mark was talking non-stop.

Cautiously, Manolito tried to imitate him. He was scrawny but emboldened by Mark’s steady arm. He kept losing his balance, the skates giving out under his feet and pulling him forward as his head drew an arc back towards the ice, but his grip was good and his tottering gave way to a more stoic stance. They were a sight to see, Mark gliding away, followed by what looked like his tree. As Manolito started to relax, he increased his speed, and soon we were watching them circling us, like a circus act, thinking that at any moment poor Manolito would come hurtling towards one of us like a bowling ball and topple us down like pins. We could hear Mark talking and soon, still holding Manolito, he turned and started skating backwards effortlessly, all the while holding Manolito’s gaze on his own. Manolito started gliding too, imitating Mark’s long strides. I don’t know who started clapping, but pretty soon a rhythmic clapping accompanied them, muffled mitten sounds, then stomping blades and chanting. We had retreated to the edges, leaving the nicer, smoother part of the pond to the pair.

Mark said something and sent Manolito sailing in the air. The chanting stopped as we saw his body suspended mid-air, Manolito’s exhilarated face turned to the sky before pummeling back to the ice. But Mark caught him effortlessly and deposited him on the pond, before pushing him off in a straight line. He hadn’t yet learned to stop and so Tom came to the rescue and grabbed his elbow before he barrelled into someone. He expertly turned him around and started skating with him in the other direction. Kate took him off his hands. She was the same size as Manolito and their strides were equal. One by one, kids accompanied him back and forth, to the chanting and clapping of the others. He was grinning so much we thought his face would forever stay that way, frozen in perpetual glee. The light was falling and the cold was getting fierce. Reluctantly, we brought Manolito back to the edge and sat him down in the snow. His eyes were lighting up the small area where he sat. Kate helped him out of his skates and into his boots. When he stood, he looked as unsteady as when he first put on his skates and we ribbed him gently.

All the kids were now shod again and about to leave when we looked back once more at the deserted pond. Mark’s silhouette could still be seen gliding in furious circles, doing arabesques and jumps, no longer a lumbering bear, oblivious to the dwindling light, happiness lighting the way.

Rain

The rain is pouring down the full-face helmet like tears from heaven, which is where she’ll end up if she doesn’t find a refuge soon. She’s slowed down to better handle the motorcycle in the rain. It’s her first time with this bulky one, made for trips with its unyielding saddle bags. She’s lined them with garbage bags to waterproof them and put a warm hoodie on top. She’s thinking she may change into it. Bingo! Overpass. Two other riders are already there. She signals and stops in the dry, the deafening noise abating. She considers the other two. Males, of course. They don’t seem to be traveling together.

She kicks the stand, pulls the heft of the bike up and feels it going down with a satisfying snap. She’s done the manoeuvre umpteenth times, but she’s still nervous in front of others. She’s petite, so she’s clearly female. She takes off her helmet and clips it to the side to give herself something to do as the other two watch. The younger one is fretting around his bike, tussling his hair with one hand, the other holding his helmet. The other man is stationary, just watching. She approaches them, nods.

– Hi, I am Thierry, says the young man, extending a hand she shakes. It’s bloody inconvenient all this rain. I am still far from destination and I don’t like night riding. You?

“Hi, I’m Jolene,” she lies. “I’m meeting up with my husband (she looks at her watch) in an hour or so at the Wapu Inn. Don’t know if he’s stuck under an underpass too.” She lies easily for protection. There is no husband, though there is a Wapu Inn in about an hour’s time.

They turn to the third person. He’s wearing a bandana and is eyeing them with beady eyes. His muscular forearms are crossed on his torso. He’s classic bad ass in jeans, t-shirt and jean vest. He’s dry, which means he outran the rain. He’s more savvy than the two of them put together.

– How much longer do you think it will rain? she asks.

He shrugs and looks away at the sky. He’s made himself comfortable. He’s got the best spot, close to the wall. The cars slow down to pass them and gawk. Nobody dares stop. One biker looks vulnerable, two may be a couple, three are trouble. She shivers. She has no fat to speak of. She goes to a saddle to retrieve her hoodie and a toque. She doesn’t want to cool down. She checks everybody’s boots. Hers and the bandana guy’s are well worn. The boy’s are not yet broken into. The man and she exchange a look.

She can tell he’s followed her thoughts, but he makes no attempt to show if he’ll help protect the youth from himself or not. She decides he hasn’t made up his mind yet and leaves it at that. A fourth motorcyclist stops, coming from the other side of the road. They are separated by two lanes. He nods to acknowledge them but doesn’t dismount. He goes through the motions of turning off the engine, but he leaves the radio on. Music can be heard faintly from large speakers. Shortly after, another motorcyclist stops at the side of the newcomer. They exchange a few words and he goes and parks further. He’s Black, which is unusual. He nods at us, and we nod back. Again, I glance at the bandana man, who feigns not to see me. He’s staring at Thierry with a glint of merriment in his eyes, like Thierry is putting on a show for his amusement. The rain is letting up. Thierry has taken out bright yellow rain gear he’s changed into while the others have arrived. He’s getting ready to go, still agitated at the idea of being late.

– It’s different rules for bikes, she tries to explain to him. People around you have to understand you’re at the mercy of the weather. Better to arrive alive, yes?

– It’s my girlfriend, he blurts out. She says I’m always late picking her up.

– Stay safe, she offers in a worried voice.

He leaves, a bright yellow sun parting the curtain of rain. The gray soon engulfs him, and he’s gone. She’s grown relaxed in the bandana man’s quiet presence. The overpass shudders with the passage of trucks but otherwise it feels like a husk, except when the cars drive through, piercing their fragile cocoon. She’s comfortable waiting. She doesn’t feel the itch to take out a book. Well, maybe a little. The two bikers on the other side are sharing a smoke and laughing. She feels as though she’s on the outside looking in. She’s warmed up. She pulls off her gloves and lays them on the seat of her bike.

– Husband, eh?

He’s pointedly looking at her ringless fingers. He’s got a deep voice, rather pleasant. She shrugs and pulls up the corners of her mouth in a tight smile. He finally detaches from the wall and extends his left hand. She looks at the right one, so he obliges and puts it up for her to see. He’s missing the pinky. She shakes the left hand with her left. “Pete,” he says. “Jean,” she answers, off guard. The rain has picked up again, with gusts of wind. She’s thinking of Thierry. Pete says, as though following her thoughts, “He may just come back, you know.” She nods, mechanically. “You have any kids?” he asks, acknowledging her maternal stirrings towards Thierry.

She hears herself answer “Not yet,” to her surprise. She’s never considered raising a family so this is not a typical answer for her.  And why did she blurt out her real name to this man? She’s behaving erratically. “From the looks of it, I’d say we should be able to leave soon. See how the low clouds are moving fast? Above them, the sky has cleared. The sun will dry this stretch of road in no time.” He’s coherent and knowledgeable. She’s curious now. Her preconceptions had gotten the best of her. He’s not a typical Harley rider, though he’s got the half helmet, reminiscent of WWI war movies. It looks like a soldier’s helmet, on closer inspection. “Vet?” she asks. “My granddad’s,” he answers proudly. “Got him through a war. Should get me through this life.”

The men on the other side are starting their bikes. The sweet smell of gas fills the air. She hurries to her bike and takes the toque and hoodie off, puts on her high gloves and helmet. Pete is watching her appreciatively. He’s fastened his helmet and put on a leather jacket with fringes. It looks natural on him. They start their engines and slowly ease back on the slick road. He’s motioned to her to ride in front and they ride together for a while. He’s got her back.

 

 

 

The Smell

Sir Lewis wrinkled his nose and turned his head this way and that. It smelled of animal waste, neglect and something overripe. He was wearing evening clothes, on his way to a concert. Perfume hid the highest notes of the ripeness, the rancid smell of unwashed body. Sir Lewis always arrived late to avoid the throngs. He was approaching a string of concertgoers, well-clad, the tail-end of the audience. He headed toward his personal box to which he never invited anyone. He went for his own enjoyment and that did not include offensive body odors, small talk and insincere smiles. He wore his own brand of formal wear. To an untrained eye, Sir Lewis could have been mistaken for the maestro in his black coat and tails, but the white silk cravat and elegant pin were uniquely his own.

He settled in his box for the soiree, as the lights dimmed. The concert was about to start. To his dismay, the cloying smell hit his nostrils just as he was opening himself to the first notes. He started wondering if it was emanating from himself and checked the soles of his shoes. He was relieved to find them immaculate. Other boxes were full of white-haired patrons, the ladies in evening wear sporting high-powered binoculars they trailed on the guests in the other boxes. The music was incidental to their enjoyment of the evening.

He tried to relax into the music, but he could only taste the villainy of the smell. Ten minutes in, there was the discreet knock as a bottle of champagne in its iced bucket was quietly wheeled in. Uncharacteristically, he turned to catch the wait staff’s eye. They were well-trained both in avoidance tactics and reading body language. This was a senior gentleman, soberly dressed with an impressive mustache. One expected to see him wearing a monocle. He was rotound, like the Monopoly man, and dressed similarly. Sir Lewis motioned him near. “Dear man, can you smell this foul odour?” The man inhaled, then wrinkled his forehead and nose in alarm. “Oh dear,” he uttered and raised a gloved hand to his mouth in alarm. He was momentarily flustered, but thinking on his feet he said “I will return shortly.”

True to his word, the door opened again before long and in he came accompanied by a young man with shoulder-length hair and a borrowed jacket. The young man nodded to Sir Lewis and methodically searched the floor with a flashlight, finally whispering something to the older gentleman who had been standing motionless by the door. The waiter approached Sir Lewis and murmured, “We are quite certain the smell is coming from the adjoining box on the left. We will attend to this. In the meanwhile, the dignitaries would welcome you if you so desire.” Sir Lewis was a man of action. He nodded his thanks and followed the gentleman to the dignitaries’ box where he was indeed welcome. He knew most of the faces, if not personally, then by virtue of their standing. All this movement was done in semi-darkness as to not disturb the musicians or people’s enjoyment of the concert more than necessary. He was painfully aware of the other bodies around him.

To mask his unease, he grabbed a pair of binoculars adorning his seat. Every armchair was similarly endowed. He watched the box where the old man and the youth were performing their cleverly disguised search. They had wheeled in a small cart with an assortment of drinks which they proceeded to offer. An old woman in a splendid sequined gray dress with matching pearls and badly applied lipstick was escorted out. He thought he saw a large dark spot on her backside. A lady-in-waiting accompanied her. Without waiting to be fetched, he hurried out to intercept the pair. As soon as he turned the corner, the stench hit him. He looked into her unfocused eyes. They were the colour of a stormy sea, and the fog in her mind blanketed them. She was impeccably coiffed, but missing a diamond earring. She had stuck a diamond stud in its stead. He bowed and said, “Madam” as the lady-in-waiting, crimson from embarrassment, hurried past him.

The old lady was inching by and he could ascertain without doubt that she was indeed the source of the smell.  She was shaking her head and complaining, “But why do we need to leave? I want to stay for the concert.” She whirled her cane in wild arabesques. She had stopped her progress and stood transfixed, humming with the music. He started listening through her ears and felt her performing in Venice in its splendid opera house La Fenice. He had heard her as a boy, transfixed by her virtuosity. He approached the women and addressed the white-haired dean. “Lady Daniella, I am Sir Lewis, a long-time fan. Champagne is waiting for you in my humble box. I hope you will not be disappointed with the view. I am afraid the choice of location was based on the best place to hear, not to see.” He took her arm and walked her back to his seat, and handed her a flute of champagne. The old waiter had seen the development, and he came back with canapes and extra flutes.

Sir Lewis was a true gentleman, quick to remedy his faux pas. He blocked out the smell. At the intermission, the lady-in-waiting and Lady Daniella exited. On their return, lady Daniella exclaimed, “Can you believe it? I’m wearing a diaper.” She pointed her cane accusingly towards her companion. “She said I smelled!” When he didn’t answer, she added, “My hearing is still exquisite, but my other senses fail me.” They chatted until the lights dimmed again and the music started in earnest. His charge had fallen asleep, mismatched earrings and all.

Broken Heart

I spent the first two years trying to forget and the following ones trying to remember. “Murderer,” she growled. “Murderess,” I corrected mentally. That attitude had gotten me nowhere. The cell was dingy, and it didn’t help that I had to share it with Belle. I had asked for a pail and water to at least wash my half, but the guard had laughed it off, saying something to the effect that dirt attracted dirt. I learned quickly not to retaliate in words or otherwise, and that bureaucracy is heavier than the weight of years.

My life derailed on that fateful night, but to be sure it had veered off course well before. The first hint that I was off track came when I told him “we” were pregnant, and he suggested we go out and celebrate. By that he meant get drunk and I didn’t think that was a great idea. He growled and complained when I explained it would harm the baby. The random beatings started soon after. Even then, I held out hope. I guess I started complaining to a higher authority and when the prayers didn’t work, I became the instrument of justice. Well, poison did.

It turns out in the end I lost the baby, him, and myself. Poison leaves a trace and I was deemed an unfit mother after I was accused of the crime. Most of that time is a blur, coming back to me in snatches with Dr Melissa’s help. I think Melissa is a lovely name, unlike the sordid ones around me. Melissa had me read regress back to my childhood. I was born in a well-off family. I have since revised my assessment that it was a loving one. Apart from basic physical needs, I was not offered much. Had it not been for Coco, I wouldn’t have turned out human.

A dog’s love will surpass your own tenfold. We had each other and she lived as old as she could. It was clear she did not want to leave me, even when she became blind and lame. But Mother had a heart of stone, and she dispatched her when I was away at College. The best part of me shut down that day, and for years it cried by itself, hidden away in a cave/cava; the left ventricle by all accounts. It’s a small room, that chamber. The perfect place to hide and never be found. I developed an irregular heartbeat around that time and was diagnosed with a faulty heart valve. It was not life-threatening in the short term, said my appointed cardiologist, but in time we would have to remedy the situation. A faulty bomb was ticking away inside me.

Surgery is what he had in mind. For the following years, I had to follow a strict regimen and be the subject of scrutiny. I allowed it, since I did not feel I quite inhabited that body anyways. When I met Jed, I was mesmerized. He was tall and strong, with a dove’s tattoo on his neck. He believed in world peace but had trouble controlling his anger. He was tender towards me, and easily jealous. Jed and I became lovers quickly. My body wanted his, and I obviously had already taken leave of my mind by then, so I didn’t object. The baby materialized quickly, as though she had been waiting for an excuse to come to me. I hoped it was a girl and secretly called her Colette, Coco for short.

I was eight months in on the day the Earth flipped. I had just come back from bringing our car to the garage. It had died on me, all lights flashing on the dashboard, a silent cry for help. A tow truck had delivered us to our mechanic who took pity on me and drove me home at the end of his shift, grocery bags and all. I hadn’t yet settled in to make supper when Jed arrived, famished, and started yelling the usual. Instead of cowering, I stood up to him for the baby’s sake. I did not want her to learn bad habits. I knew she was taking it all in and I wanted to be strong for her. I had made up my mind that I couldn’t stay with Jed, but what to do next was beyond ne. My family, never supportive to start with, had practically disowned me when they met Jed. I could see their point, in a way.

We lived in a shack. There is no other way to describe the kitchen with a dirt floor, a typical summer kitchen that was used year-round. Empty beer bottle cases were stacked on one wall. We used them as a makeshift counter. Another stack had the full bottles. The house was tiny; we slept on a mattress on the floor of a mezzanine – hot in all seasons. We had an outhouse. I was stubborn and called it home. There was another room downstairs, for resting. It had chairs and a table, and an ax and wood for the stove. Jed had carved a few things for the baby. He got lost in himself when carving and the toys were beautiful. I could see his tender heart through the dove and the car, and the little animals he fashioned out of wood scraps. We had mice. It was easy to understand how they came in but why they stayed baffled me. There was close to no food in the house, but of course what they considered useful was different. They ran on the rafters and I found droppings on the bed. I had visions of the baby getting eaten alive in its crib. Mice like soft clothes or down comforters. We had heavy woolen blankets and I am sure those would do just fine.

I had bought rat poison. I wanted to make sure we got rid of the infestation before the baby came. I had sprinkled some in the corners, all the while apologizing under my breath. I did not wish them harm, but I saw no other way to protect my baby. It was a lengthy affair, my movements slow, my feet heavy, one hand on my tummy, the other distributing poison. I had poured it in the salt shaker, to sprinkle it evenly. Under Jed’s screams, I hurried supper. He had gone outside to chop some wood, to calm himself down. I had made the usual, soup, and when came time to salt it, my hand paused by the shaker. That’s when the thought came to my mind. I didn’t use the rat poison – it doesn’t work on humans. It’s made to be bitter and elicit vomiting. No, a girlfriend had given me herbs to induce a miscarriage and, with a knowing look, told me the dosage and the likely consequences. She had told me to be careful of overdosing, explaining the dire consequences. I had been numb but taken in the information and the herbs, letting them dry alongside the rosemary and thyme. I ground them in a fine powder and added it to his bowl, along with honey.

It was a Friday, and he always had a few drinks. I set a bottle on his side and called him in. We ate in silence. He did not comment on the soup but drank a few more bottles. He slept poorly. I felt him toss and turn. Of course, by that time, with my big tummy, I hardly slept at all. He told me he had cramps, and I feigned concern. He was sweating profusely, and I pressed a cold compress on his brow. He was feverish. I did not want him throwing up and cleansing himself. I hushed him and made crooning noises. He fell into a heavy sleep, helped by the alcohol he had ingested. Morning had come. I cautiously went down the ladder, started the fire and put the kettle on. He stirred. I brought him more soup with the special herb mixed in. He drank it all. His body tried to reject it. He vomited but choked on his vomit which is ultimately what killed him. I went out in the snow to fetch a doctor. It was a long trek and the doctor concluded he died while I was out getting help.

I went into labour. His sister made the funeral arrangements. They were simple, in keeping with our means. I attended, with my newborn girl, dazed all the while, getting condolences and congratulations all in one breath. It would have made me crazy if I had been sane.

 

 

Bird

I am with my new friend Karen from school. She hung out with the not very popular girls. If I’d taken a minute to think about it, and shamefully, furtively, I did, I knew that the class divide ran along money lines. We lived in a suburb and the self-assured ones were rich. I was never quite sure where my family stood, where I stood, because we did not discuss money at home. To make matters worse, our home stood in a no-man’s land of a few houses, neither here nor there, but close to the bus stop where everyone congregated. Because of that uncertainty, I hung out with everybody. The popular ones were nice and friendly, but their easy familiarity made me cringe. The bulk of us were regular friendly. We had our gripes and our loud laughs. We did not try to be proper. The third group was flotsam, held together by chance and currents. They seemed rather sad, rather shy, a little bit slow and dull. They wore hand-me-downs from a long line of siblings. One girl always tried to look perky. She wore new clothes from a discount store, and accessorized but was not a full member of the middle group. I don’t remember the boys. They were just an unkempt, dusty, noisy mass with its own divisions. In class, we worked together, the bright and slow, the boys and girls, in teams of three that varied by subject. The teacher broke down our carefully constructed order to create teams of equal strengths. Nobody objected. We didn’t know we were allowed. We tested the waters, made do with the new friendships, the boys not that bad, the outcasts a good lot too.

I head out to Karen’s after class one day, to do an assignment there. She lives on a side street on which I’ve never set foot before, in a three-storey apartment building I didn’t know existed. The apartment has its own smell, as dwellings do, but my nose does not recognize what makes it different from ours. I am ushered in the family room and introduced to the adult there, an aunt, surely not the mother, as mothers are active and working. I don’t have a stay-at-home mom, but I do know that stay-at-home moms offer us kids freshly-baked cookies or healthy carrot sticks. I look around the tight space, cluttered ceiling-high with porcelain figures in coy positions. They are funny-looking, none of those high society ladies with pretty dresses. No, these are unfamiliar models, dwarf-like in their desire not to take up too much room. I stare at them curiously, wrack my brains to find something pleasant to say, come up with a lame “I love their colours,” which seems to do the trick. They’re all shiny, clearly loved, and I respect their status in the family. Knick knacks are not welcome in my home. “They gather dust,” says my mother dismissively. That’s not true, of course, only if you don’t love them.

On top of the massive television, an older model encased in wood, sits a bird cage and a bird called Tiki. Before she married, Karen’s mom was a waitress at a snazzy downtown bar called the Kon Tiki. “We served the best Mai Tai in town,” she says. I nod, suitably impressed, though I have never seen a live Mai Tai. “It’s an exotic drink, with an umbrella stick.” I smile and nod, feeling like a fool. “That’s where I met her father.” Her voice trails off. I’m not sure if the story is finished. I turn back to Tiki. We watch him jump from perch to perch, in a dizzying dance. Maybe I am making him nervous, my voice too loud, my smell offensive, my thoughts foreign. Wrong, wrong, wrong. I certainly feel I don’t belong, looking in from outside, navigating an unfamiliar terrain mined with unknowns. I don’t know how to be myself, so I resort to being polite which also feels wrong but safe. I look at Karen, who beams back at me. “Isn’t he funny, jumping like that?” she asks. “Does he do that often?” “Only when Tiger wants to play with him.” Tiger is a tabby. He’s lying on a frilly pillow, tail twitching, eyes unblinking. His ears perk up when he hears his name and he lets out a meow. I think the bird is sensing my unease as I watch it trapped in its cage. It’s a real cage, with bars, a small mirror, toys, a feeder with hulls swimming on the surface. The water may not have been changed recently, as debris mar the surface. Tiki is molting but I don’t know that. I see feathers littering the bottom of the cage, and half feathers poking through the bird’s plumage. Tiki seems to be pecking his wings as though he’s mad, like those girls who cut themselves. Or perhaps there used to be two birds and only feathers remain. I shudder at the thought.

I look for their bookshelf so we can swap stories but I see none and I suddenly suspect there is something deeply wrong with this place.

On my walk back, I can’t get the bird out of my mind. My friend laughed when I suggested we open the door. “Tiki doesn’t want to leave its cage, not with Tiger around. When we clean the cage, he grips our finger and never lets go. Poor Tiki bird! His wings are clipped so he won’t fly away.” I dream of Tiki, free, singing from joy, with other birds for company, doing what birds do. Instead, his best friend is his reflection in a mirror, his universe his toys inside, the cat outside. There is a rock in my stomach, and it weighs heavily on me.