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.

Hands

Bea made her living as a courtroom sketch artist, capturing in minutes the highlights of proceedings. Her renderings were exact but not clinical. She had a knack for seizing the flicker of emotion, highlighting it with a shadow or a hint of colour to the cheeks. She was a consummate portraitist and, as any artist, was always looking for a challenge. She had two sets of notebooks: the official and the personal. She did her work, chronicling each witness and, in effect, describing the proceedings. If a picture is worth a thousand words, she was surely a very quick typist.

Once her official duties were taken care of, she would often choose one person who offered challenges of some sort. She would try and feel that person from the inside. She looked at people in the general seating for inspiration. Some were regulars, others were family or interested parties. In publicized cases, there were more spectators, drawn in by mere curiosity.

One day, she was assigned a case involving an attack on the Muslim community. Bea delighted in seeing a number of veiled women as they were deceptively expressive yet more challenging to depict. She chose a young woman, whose eyes were the only visible feature. Wanting to preserve her anonymity, she chose not to draw her eyes but to focus on the tension in her shoulders, and the way she carried her head which betrayed the intensity of her concentration. Bea could not help but create stories for the people she sketched. Surely, this was a young woman. Her moves were quick, her body supple under her cloak. Bea was able to match the emotions shown by slumped shoulders or head held high to precise statements in a case. The story she invented mirrored the case – the young woman’s sympathies were for the accused, a woman suspected of having murdered her child who was being abused.

Her unwitting model was old enough to recognize when someone was wrongly convicted. She was clearly drawn to the case, not missing a single day. Like most cases, people typically arrived according to a set schedule and sat roughly in the same place. She had become familiar with Miss A., as she called her privately, and came to rely on her presence in order to start her day. She was almost a talisman, or a good luck charm.

She had become so engrossed in her personal drawings that she took to sketching in the official and personal notepads side-by-side, timestamping both as she went along. She learned so much from that study that she applied the technique to her official court sketches and made them even more valued.  Reporters came to her and asked her to extrapolate from her observations either to predict public opinion or the jury’s position. They noticed how accurate her predictions were and started arguing for or against according to her sketches, which made for lively debates in the press.

One day, Bea noticed that someone was drawing her as she sketched. It was someone from the general public. She felt a professional curiosity and went to compare notes at a recess. It turns out that artist was only sketching hands. Her own were a blur of circular moves. The depictions were amateurish and all the more interesting. They were pure instinct and had a definite naivete about them. The artist had no formal training but was intensely curious and an avid learner. His line showed energy fields as he felt and saw them. Bea saw how he was sensing the invisible and adding yet another layer of understanding. They started sitting side-by-side and learning from each other. As his drawings became more precise, hers were pared down to their simplest expression.

Her official work had always relied heavily on the accuracy of the faces, but she could see how distinctive and eloquent hands and hand movements were. She still drew faces accurately but added more details in the hands that told the story. People knew to guard their faces; they were much freer with their hands.

When arthritis attacked her fingers, she did not despair. Instead, she took it as yet another example of storytelling. Her fingers were tired of chronicling bad deeds; they longed for restful topics. She retired from her lucrative work in the court. Indeed, her protégé took over after years of learning by her side. His own style was still naïve, almost cartoonish. In a world where the general public was looking for dumbed-down news, his simpler tales sold well. She was glad to be rid of a job that had started feeling like a chore. When her protégé had last drawn her hands, the lines were square and almost static, the energy imploding.

They met occasionally for lunch where he plunged into detailed descriptions of expressions and caustic descriptions of court happenings. Though she recognized in him the passion she used to have, she now felt strangely detached from that world. When she’d retired, she had felt grief at leaving the life she had known, privately doubting her decision. Paradoxically, an intense freedom had befallen her. She was free from rigid schedules and set forms. A world of new interests opened before her. She became daring in her desires, forceful in accomplishing them. She had nothing to prove and nothing to lose. Because of her arthritis, she was no longer able to quickly sketch. She had to be deliberate and choose how she would use the few hours without pain that she had each day.

She decided on gardening. With the same precision and attention to detail she had always shown, she established a schedule. However, she quickly realized that success depended on her attitude and intention. Her first attempts resulted in crooked vegetables and stunted growth. As her awareness and comfort levels grew, her fingers sensed the seeds’ personalities and energy fields. The interplay of her growing ease and inner peace translated into larger and tastier crops. “Hands,” she thought. All this time they had been hiding in plain sight. When hands covered faces, covered eyes, covered tears, people tried to pry the fingers apart. But all this time, the body was trying to show the hands.

 

High Noon

Chet stopped the pickup truck in the middle of the road. The red one coming along surely was Bernie’s. Bernie idled alongside him. They lowered their windows and shook hands. They were shooting the breeze amicably when a car they didn’t know came along. It sat behind Chet. Neither Chet nor Bernie paid it any mind. The driver of the car turned off his engine and waited. They were amused. They leisurely ended the conversation and left, each pickup going its own way, resuming travel. Looking in their mirror, they saw the car hadn’t moved. Chet turned in the first dirt road he came to and sat there to observe. Bernie was doing a U-turn. He drove back and stopped his truck behind the stranger’s car. The stranger didn’t move. The proper thing to do when two vehicles visited was to wait politely for their drivers to finish their conversation. When one person stopped in the middle of the road? He didn’t know what the rule was. The stranger had been polite and shown no impatience. He hadn’t honked. Was he from those parts? Bernie didn’t recognize the car. It was one of those imported vehicles with sleek lines and tinted windows.

Curiosity had gotten him this far. He turned off the engine and walked over towards the driver’s side. The driver started the engine and inched forward as Bernie was walking towards the car. He called out “Hey, Mister!” but the car kept going, just a little faster than he did on foot. Frustrated, he retreated to his truck, started the engine and proceeded to follow. The car stopped again, unexpectedly, in the middle of the road. Bernie had seen the move coming. He passed the car and stopped in front of it. He got out of the truck, but the car passed him slowly in the empty lane. Chet was looking at the whole dance. At first, he had been laughing heartily but he was growing as frustrated as Bernie. He backed his truck to block both lanes in front. Bernie saw what he did and maneuvered the same way behind. The car was now sandwiched, both its front and rear escape routes blocked. It sat there, forlorn.

Neither Chet nor Bernie wanted to get out of the truck. It was a question of honour now. They had started this game of cat and mouse and were not about to give up. Bernie was already preparing the story he was going to tell the guys around the pool table. He couldn’t wait to see how it was going to end. Chet was the first to move. He saw the police flashing lights from afar. He had lost his license on a DUI charge and should not be on the road. But it wouldn’t be manly to back down. His indecision cost him. It was Constable Conway, who had it in for him. They stared at each other from afar. Conway’s radio was crackling under the hot summer sun. It was midday, when things get resolved. No doubt “piggy” Conway was on his way to lunch. Maybe his stomach would urge him on. Chet moved his truck aside to let the cruiser through. Conway rolled down his window. “Got your license back?” “I’m not driving. Just waiting for my cousin to come back and move the truck. Thought I’d listen to the radio.” Conway narrowed his eyes. He motioned to the car with his chin. “Dunno,” answered Chet. And then, “I hope my cousin’s coming back soon. My stomach’s growling like a dog seen his shadow.”

The fat man opined and rolled his window up. Beads formed on his forehead, a crown of thorns miraculously appearing during the exchange. He wiped his face and turned the air conditioning up a notch then drove over to the car. You could tell he was wary of the tinted windows. Conway spoke to the dispatcher over the radio then extracted himself from the police cruiser. Hands hooked on his belt, badge in evidence, he walked over to the car. The window did not slide down. He rapped on it and tried to peer through it but saw only his own reflection, his mirrored sunglasses repeating his likeness to infinity. Conway shifted his weight from one foot to the next. He cleared his throat and looked at Chet. Chet was watching using the oversized side mirror, non-committal. He avoided eye contact. The constable made a big show of taking down the license plate and proceeded back to his car. The mystery car purred alive and slowly started rolling. Conway hurried to the cruiser and put the flashers on, tailgating the offender. The two pickups followed in a slow procession, large soul-expanding western music blasting out of Chet’s truck. He loved western movies, and his heart was dialed into “High Noon.”

The car with the tinted windows cruised at low speed, the pursuit reminiscent of O.J.’s. They were too intent to realize the absurdity of the situation. At last, they made it to their destination. The lead car stopped in front of the emergency entrance of the hospital. Staff in white erupted from the large doors pushing a wheelchair. The car door opened slowly. An elderly Asian man faltered out. He waved weakly at Conway and was wheeled away. Conway, quick as a whip, followed them inside mumbling “We were escorting him.” The businessman was treated for heatstroke and Conway hailed as a hero. Mr Chen had been expected earlier but presumably got lost, turning at the wrong field, rows of corn mocking him until he got dizzy and lost. He did not know to turn on the air conditioning, his body clad in a black suit did not register the intense heat, did not know the sweet release of perspiration, the coolness of the wind.