I never saw that woman again

September 20, 2011

I was in a hardware store. Just out of university. Downtown Toronto. I was looking for pliers. A middle aged woman came up to me. In her mid forties. She was pretty but wore no makeup. Looked like Anna Magnani. She asked me if I did handy work. Her husband had died and there was so much work to do around the house. There was a kind of desperation about her. And I admit to being afraid of her. She looked me straight in the eye. Like she was trying to tell me something. But I couldn’t read it. It was like being in the middle of a play. Reminded me of a Tennessee Williams play, The Fugitive Kind. I never saw that woman again. Nor have I ever forgotten her.



“You know, Louie,” Mrs. Murphy cocked her head. Sideways. Listened to the bones in her back. Snap. Raised a hand. Gloved. And Waved to the owner of the dollar store. “Love is wasted on the young.”

Louie smiled. A faint almost lipless smile. Like the matinee idols of a bygone era. Louie pushed back his straight lubricated locks. His eyes crinkled.

“Viva romance.” With the emphasis on ‘ro’. And in a raspy French accent.

“Oh, I see it all the time on the television. Dear.” Mrs. Murphy continued unaware of Louie’s antics. “Couples jumping in and out. Of bed. Girls acting. More like men than men. So aggressive. Animal love.”

“Still,” Louie shrugged his shoulders continuing his parlor game, “it is romance.”

Mrs. Murphy took a deep breath. Sat down on her walker. Smiled weakly. And seemed to slip away.

Like a rose sprinkled with dew.

Louie’s eyebrows rose in parenthesis.

Oh, my God!

He touched the old woman’s shoulder. Did she die?

“Mrs. Murphy.” Louise was very concerned.

He shook the old lady.

“Don’t die.” Louie was shaken from his revelries.

Mrs. Murphy looked up from her seat and shook her head.

“I get a little dizzy when I get excited.”

“What!” Louie said turning his good ear to the old lady. She took another deep breath.

“Head spins. Feel like I’m going to swoon. That’s what old age is all about. Swooning with the wooing. But, I had my time.” The old lady looked up at Louie. Giggled. “You’re so young, Louie. You think you’ve still got time?”

Louie stepped back. The last place he wanted to be. He grinned mischievously.

“Time for what?”

Mrs. Murphy waved at Louie.

“Shame on you, Louie. I know what you’re thinking. You’re worse than the young people. Trying to make an old woman blush. You should be ashamed of yourself.”

“Mrs. Murphy!” Louie cried innocently. “I don’t know what you are talking about..”

Mrs. Murphy wagged her finger at the store owner.

“Now you’re just being ridiculous.”

“I’m sorry, Mrs. Murphy.” The smile left Louie’s face.

Mrs. Murphy waved at Louie good naturedly.

“I know.” Mrs. Murphy sighed. She paused before continuing. “Do you know what it’s like, Louie, to know that you’ll never fall in love again? That you won’t feel that skip in your heart.When. A young man looks at you. I’m not talking about… fooling around. I’m referring to something finer. Something…”

Louie heard a commotion from the back of the store. His eyes flashed on the convex mirrors in the corner of the store. Three teenage boys were up to something. Louie turned to Mrs. Murphy and put his finger over his lips. Then he turned and walked to the back of the store.

“Can I help you?” he asked the boys.

Louie’s voice had taken on a different timber. A rough, angry tone. He wanted to scare them. These boys. Who huddled in his store. Building up the courage to steal something. When they turned around to face him, Louie realized they were older than he had suspected. One of them had grown a goatee. He was the one that held the plastic gun in his hand. His name was Tony.

“How much for the gun?” Tony asked.

“A dollar,” Louie said. “This is a dollar store.”

“If we buy three,” the bigger of the three boys called Sean asked, “can we get a deal?”

Louie stared at the boy. There was a small scar dividing his left eyebrow. The third boy stood silently behind them, smiling. His teeth were yellow. He was smaller. There was a cigarette stuck behind his ear. His name was Teddy.

“Why do you boys want to buy these plastic guns?” Louie asked. “They’re for kids. Little kids.”

“We’re going to rob a bank,” Teddy responded then chuckled.

Louie smiled. Smart alecs.

“It’s for my nephew,” Tony added, irritated with the response of his friend. “Him and his friends like to play cowboys and Indians.”

“Everything is a dollar,” Louie said. “You want a deal, go to the casino.”

The three boys looked at each other. They put the guns back on the shelf.

“We’ll come back later,” Tony said. “I forgot my wallet.”

The three boys sauntered slowly out of the shop. Louie kept his eyes riveted on them.

“Those boys are up to no good,” Louie said to Mrs. Murphy when he had returned to the cash register.

“I think I recognize one of them.” Mrs. Murphy was swept up in a momentary shrug. “The black boy. I think his little brother died last year. Drowned in Etobicoke Creek.”

Louie nodded. “Yes, I think you’re right.”

“His poor mother.” Mrs. Murphy shook her head. “They showed the funeral on the news. She broke down. That boy’s death almost destroyed her. You’ve got to wonder how some people survive such pain.”

Louie smiled. He still had his mind on the three boys and the toy gun.

“What would those boys want with little plastic guns?” Mrs. Murphy asked.

“Rob a bank, maybe,” Louie said.

“Oh don’t be foolish, Louie,” Mrs. Murphy said. “A person could get killed doing something stupid like that.”

“Well,” Louie nodded knowingly, “they are boys. Now, what do I owe this appearance?”

“Can’t a body just drop in on someone?”

“Well,” Louie explained, “it’s my experience that either people want to spend money in my shop or they want me to give them some money for some honourable cause. In any event, money changes hand.”

Mrs. Murphy slapped Louie’s hand playfully.

“And I want neither. Actually I do need some gardening gloves. But I wanted to speak to you about the bank leaving the plaza.”

“Yes, I heard,” Louie said.

“What should we do?”

“You could get a petition started.” Louie suggested.

“Would you sign it?” Mrs. Murphy asked.

Louie shook his head. “Not that I don’t agree with you. I think the bank should stay but it has been my experience that banks seldom listen to the voices of people. They only listen to money. But I have another reason. Not one that concerns you but one that I’m having a great deal of trouble with.”

Mrs. Murphy who had risen from her walker, took her seat again.

“My goodness, Louie, you are serious.”

“I am having trouble with the owner of the plaza. Mr. G.”

“What sort of trouble?”

“I had an agreement with Mr. G. that I would be the only dollar store in the plaza. Well, Mr. Singh, who runs the discount furniture store has opened a dollar corner in his store. His daughter runs the corner for him. I complained to Mr. G. There is barely enough money in the plaza for one of us. Mr. G. has taken my concerns under advisement. Which means that he doesn’t intend to do anything about it.”

Mrs. Murphy stood up angrily.

“This is quite dreadful, Louie. We can’t have it. Simply can’t have it.”

“Where are you going?”

“I’m going to talk to him.”

Louie grabbed Mrs. Murphy. “Please. I know you think you’re doing the right thing. But I’m in enough trouble with Mr. G. If you…”

“I’m not going to speak to Mr. G,” Mrs. Murphy said. “I’m going to talk to Mr. Singh.”

Mrs. Murphy pushed her walker out the door.

“Watch out for the daughter,” Louie cried as the door closed. “She’s a live one.”

The old lady pushed her walker out of the shop. Louie turned his attention back to some paper work he had begun when the old lady had entered. He didn’t notice the young boy standing in front of him. It was one of the young boys he had chased out of the store. The small one called Teddy. The boy was holding a gun in his hand. Louie looked down at the gun then up at the boy. The boy was smiling at him.

“I’m sorry,” the boy said, “about all that shit before.”

Louie looked down at the gun pointed at him. How did the kid manage to sneak up on him like that? He wondered if he would have enough time to reach the baseball bat he kept under the counter. Likely not. But he had to do something. The boy reached into his pocket. And pulled out a dollar.

“You said the guns were a dollar,” the boy said.

Louie took a deep breath. He rang up the sale.

“You better put that thing in a bag,” Louie said. “You don’t want anyone getting the wrong idea.”

The boy smiled. Louie put the plastic gun in a bag. The boy made his way to the door. Before he exited, Louie spoke up.

“What are you going to do with a plastic gun?” Louie asked.

“I’m going to kill that old lady,” the boy muttered.

But Louie couldn’t hear him. With his bad ear.

My earliest introduction to history was Peabody’s Improbable History. Okay, it wasn’t. But no one is beyond lieing. Isn’t that what a lot of history is… lieing. Written by the victors. Peabody taught me that history could be remembered as a version of today with puns. And of course there was the subject of the dog being in charge of the boy. Which fit all of the facts as I knew when I was young. And my name wasn’t Sherman.

On the edge of death

September 20, 2011

When I was having a heart attack (they called it a quiet attack) I went to a clinic. Thought I had some kind of bug. A flu. It was hot out. So I was sweating. Feeling like I wanted to vomit. Sat amongst a crowd of people. Mostly mothers with kids. A lot of pain. Felt like a prisoner of that moment. Couldn’t day dream. Which is my usual practice in crowds. They make me feel ill. I think that is why some of my ancestors came to the New World. The old one was getting too clausterphobic. One of my uncles lived in a cabin. By himself. Far from town. My other uncles lived in alcohol. One lived with an Indian woman who he beat when he was drunk. My mother said that the woman was one of the kindest people she’d ever met. And these were the genes I was carrying. Feeling crappy. On the edge of death. Without knowing it.



“Do you have any idea how long we’ll be waiting?” the woman asked. The receptionist. In the medical clinic. I’ve got things to do.

Clutching the woman’s hand was her daughter. She looked up. Her frightened eyes spoke.

Mommy! I’m not feeling better. Like you promised this morning.

The receptionist turned her radio down.

I got the sun in the morning and the moon at night.

“Can I see your medical card?” The receptionist looked up. Routine questions. Another routine day. Every one like the one before. The receptionist was chewing gum. It irritated the mother with the daughter.

“Must you do that?” The mother said.

The receptionist looked up.

“Excuse me?” The receptionist looked lost in the question.

The mother pointed to her own mouth. Open. Still. The receptionist could not gleam any clue.

“The gum.” The mother enunciated slowly.

The receptionist. She chewed on.

The woman pointed to her daughter.

“I’m trying to set a good example. To my daughter. Takes a village to raise a child.”

The receptionist blew a small bubble. Which looked a lot like an “F”. And a “U”

“Your medical card.” The receptionist repeated. Snapped her gum.

The mother handed over her medical card. The receptionist turned up her radio. The lights began weeping.

Got no mansion, got no yacht,

Still I’m happy with what I got.

I’ve got the sun in the morning

And the moon at night

The mother looked around. She felt like dancing. Were there cameras? In the room. She’d had better days. When she wasn’t loaded down. With a daughter. That was a mistake. Was no one here feeling sorry? For her. In a clinic. With her little daughter. Not even Carl’s. Who’d been away that weekend. Fishing. A day wasted. In a clinic. When she could have been with…

Nothing ever works out the way you expect.

The receptionist looked at the card. She had plastic gloves on.

You never know where these people have been.

“Have you been here before?”

The mother turned back to the receptionist. She nodded her head. She realized that the receptionist was not looking up.

She responded. “No.”

And I’m not crazy about being here this time.

The receptionist handed her a clipboard. With a form. And pencil on it.

“Fill out the form and return it to me.”

The receptionist looked at the woman. Blew another bubble. She hated these people who came in here. Begging for help. And yet still looking down their straight long noses at her.

God, I wish I was working at the cosmetic counter. Someplace where you could get some respect.

“Will it be long before we see the doctor?” The mother repeated her original question. Which the receptionist had not heard. And perhaps was never asked.

“It’ll be a while.” The receptionist’s monotone voice seemed drained of care.

The receptionist turned her attention back. To her radio.

If I was a little bird. I would fly from tree to tree.

I’d build my nest up in the air

where the bad boys couldn’t bother me.

“My daughter is very sick.” The mother’s lip quivered. A little girl. Who was frightened. Who wasn’t really expected. But who now was sick.

“I think it is something she ate. She’s had the runs. A stomach ache.”

The little girl continued to pull at her mother’s arm.

This is taking an eternity, mommy. And I’m hurting now.

“The doctor will get to you as soon as he can.” The receptionist looked at the little girl. With regrets. Something in the little girl’s eyes. Like she knew. She wasn’t expected. Wasn’t wanted. Wasn’t needed. The receptionist knew the feeling. She didn’t want to look at it.

“Take a seat.” She said.

When am I going to get a coffee break? I have to pee.

The woman looked around at the other patients in the waiting room.

“I’m sure that these people wouldn’t mind if my little girl…”

“I’m sorry, mam.” The receptionist intervened. She enjoyed that. Interruptions. “You’ll have to wait like everyone else.”

The woman took a deep breath. Turned around. Looked for a seat. They were all taken. A red headed man stood up and offered his chair to the little girl. The woman nodded her appreciation and sat down, her daughter climbing onto her lap.

The little girl looked at the red headed man. She decided to call the red headed man… Walter. Walter was an uncle. He had died in Vietnam. One of many Canadians who served in the American forces. Her mommy was always taking out pictures of him. And crying. Over a glass of wine. While Carl made dinner.

Walter leaned against the wall. The air-conditioner droned on. Music squeezed out of the small radio. From where Walter stood it could hardly be heard.

I spoke last night to the ocean. I spoke last night to the sea.

And from the ocean a voice came back

‘Twas my Blue Jacket answering me

The dingy green painted walls shot arrows of pain. Into Walter’s brain. Sweat ran down. Walter’s forehead. His breathing was. Shallow.

God, I hope this is the flu.

Walter’s father had died from a heart attack. As had his grandfather. The family talked about it. At Christmas. At Thanksgiving. On Labor Day. All the time. Like it was the curse of the family. But no one told Walter what the symptoms were.

I like eggs and bacon served by the one I love.

They only said it was inevitable. Walter would die. And soon. Walter undid the top button of his plaid shirt.

Gotta get out of here.

Turning, he stepped out of the clinic and into the pharmacy. He needed fresh air. Stumbling through the aisles, he apologized to an old lady who pushed her walker across his path.

“Why are the young in such a hurry?” Mrs. Murphy shook her head.

Walter headed for the front doors.

Once outside, Walter leaned against the glass walls. Of the drugstore. He took a deep breath. A few yards away. An Asian kid with a Fu Manchu moustache sat Buddha like on the cement. Bumming money. Reading a book. Nietszche. And listened to headphones. Ella Fitzgerald.

“You alright?” Fu asked, removing his headphones.

Walter slid to the cement. He shook his head.

“Food poisoning. I think?”

“Vomiting and diarrhea?” Fu asked.

Walter nodded. “I thought I was dieing.”

“Drink a lot of liquids,” Fu suggested. “Especially water.”

“I think I’m over the worst of it,” Walter said.

“A guy gave me his lunch one day,” Fu said. “Instead of money. I was sick for two days. I think the guy tried to poison me. You’d be surprised about the amount of rift raft you meet in my profession.”

“What’s your profession?” Walter asked.

“I’m not sure there’s a word for it,” Fu responded. “Beggar is too pejorative. If I lived in the middle-ages I’d be one of those guys who lived for years at the top of the pole. A sage. I think they were called sages. Can’t be sure. What do you think they were called?”

“Nuts, maybe.” Walter took a handkerchief out and wiped his neck.

“My father was a magician,” Fu said.

Walter looked at Fu wondering why the beggar had parted this information to him.

“And my mother was a lawyer,” Fu added.

“Your mother was a lawyer and your father was a magician?” Walter asked.

Fu nodded.

“How did that work out?” Walter asked.

Fu smiled. “They had me.”

“I’ll bet you were a blessing,” Walter said. Feeling better.

Maybe all I needed was fresh air.

“You would have thought so,” Fu responded.

Just at that moment, the doors of the drug store opened. The little girl who had been in the doctor’s office with her mother, ran out. She looked back and forth. She couldn’t decide where she was headed. Her mother rushed to the door. Almost reached her. The little girl made her decision. She stepped over to Walter. Sitting on the sidewalk. She opened her mouth. And gagged.

“Please! No!” Walter begged. And threw up his hands.

“No Tara, not on the man!” Her mother cried. Too late.

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