Thursday, 29 December 2011

Lalia ~ Between the Stops

"Are you starting today?"

She wondered what had blown her cover. Was it the white-knuckled hand-wringing? The nervous pulling at her poorly fitting uniform top? Her name badge in its perfect perpendicular position? She nodded and thought about offering a handshake, just for the practice, but opted for more shirt tugging instead. 

"It isn't even my first job - just my first new job in a long time. I bet I look like a rookie." The other woman, maybe fifteen or twenty years older and wearing a uniform that looked much more worn though just as clean, nodded reassuringly to the blonder version of her younger self. The name Lalia was embroidered just below her left shoulder. "You'll be fine," she said. "Even if you stumble through the first day, tomorrow will be more comfortable. A couple of spaghetti stains on your apron will do wonders for feeling like you belong. Deep breaths when you need them; head tall like you know what you're doing, even when you don't. You'll be fine."

"Thank you," she murmured and shifted her attention out the window. The bus had pulled over to one of the stops at the farthest reach of its route. The bus driver called back over a rather crackly loudspeaker that there was a scheduled ten minute delay in their trip, and if anyone would like to hop out for a smoke they were welcome to join him. Two or three young guys from the front followed off the bus, and a girl from their party swung her legs up to the newly vacant seat beside her, hugged her knees and nestled into a light doze like a bird. Her breathing visibly slowed in a matter of seconds; peace in the midst of chaos.

"I hope you planned ahead a bit better than I did," the older lady piped up, as though the five-minute lull in conversation was nothing more than a pause for breath. "I forgot about the stop here by this old school. I usually catch it on the return, but I was worried about it filling up with kids going off to class, so I jumped on before. By the time I realized this bus doesn't even go up to the college, I was already aboard. But just think! If I'd waited, maybe I wouldn't have talked with you! Everything happens for a reason, I say. I do always say that." 

The young woman looked down at the phone in her hand and checked the time. She tisked her tongue quietly, without opening her mouth and without looking up. The older woman was chattering like a wind-up toy that used the last few movements of its mechanical momentum to turn its own key and begin again.

"Be glad that the buses are so quiet right now. I used to work the really early morning shift; I'd be up at three and to work by five, coffees in hand. The girls and I used to take turns getting it, but eventually the task fell to me because I was the only one who didn't need it to get it with a smile! But some people are just morning people I guess. Believe it or not, those crack-of-dawn runs are some of the busiest of the day!"

"Don't work mornings anymore?" She asked in a tone barely inflective enough to confirm that a question existed at all. She wasn't really paying attention.

"No, not since my son left for school. Working in the mornings was great when he was little - gave us the afternoons together and we both hit the hay early. Then suddenly he wasn't little anymore! Got tall, like his father was, and popular in the same fashion. When he went off to school he got wrapped up in the typical college scene, staying up all hours like an owl. When he did come home, his body couldn't adjust and I ended up never seeing him at all. Since it's just the two of us, that didn't fly for long. I figured it would be a lot easier to change my life than his, so I took an afternoon shift and now, when he's home and not out drinking with friends, we stay up and talk. Unfortunately, he comes home less and less. There's a girl, you see."

Activity at the front of the bus drew everyone's attention. The guys who had gone for a smoke returned to their seats, except for the boy who seemed to be with her; he had tried to, but his seat had legs all over it and moving them proved a war. The sleeping beauty who had so peacefully drifted off minutes before jolted and snapped forward at him like a viper when he dropped one of her feet back to the floor. She shouted at him, he yelled back - not for long, but snake fights rarely take much time, once the venom is loosed. The viper had suffered the bite of a larger predator. As she stormed to the back of the bus her lightning and thunder melted into the poisoned rain of embarrassment and hurt. She curled up again, once a position of rest now an armoured shell.

Lalia sighed. The boys at the front of the bus laughed and punched each other's arms and sat down just as the driver returned to continue the route. Had he witnessed the scene he would have likely stepped in. One more reason not to smoke.

"I worry about this with my son," she said sadly. "He is so much like his father. My Rod never could see the pain he caused and I'm afraid it's a trait that Sam learned to mimic as a child. It's been a while since Rod's gone, but so much of his influence still lingers. If Sam was closer, if he brought this girl of his around a little more, then maybe I could remind him to be gentle. He tries though. At least he tries." She looked back at the girl tucked into the corner, shoulders shaking from more than the rough road beneath them. 

"It was nice to meet you today, hun, but I think that I might be on this bus for her, not for you. Will you excuse me?" With a smile, Lalia took up a seat beside the girl and spoke in whispered, caressing tones. Although she didn't move, her breathing gradually evened and she opened her eyes. Lalia put one hand on the girl's calf and gave it a pat. The girl's tears returned, but they were different -- no longer laced with anger, all toxins gone.

The bus climbed a hill and passed a Macs Milk store. Her stop was coming up, just on the other side of the highway, and in a few minutes she would be waiting on tables and talking about which special she would recommend to the complete strangers who sought her advice. She signalled her request with the yellow cord and looked back at Lalia who had the girl laughing now, cheer and tear blended and smeared with the make-up on both of their faces. Maybe that was the real difference between their uniforms. Hers, un-wrinkled and crisp was prepared for presentation and performance, as was her attitude... but Lalia's, with softened edges and smoothed creases resembled a nurse's scrub, even with the cropped black apron of the food industry. She didn't just wait on her strangers -- she cared over them. 

As the bus slowed down across from Kelsey's, Lalia took a little piece of paper from her pocket and pressed in gently into the girl's palm. Then she stood, gave the girl a maternal kiss on the top of her head and returned to the doors. 

"Fancy that," she said, rubbing mascara from under her eyes. "The same stop all along." Thanking the bus driver, she hopped off and headed toward the crosswalk. Part of Lalia's story flashed into mind; she said that her son had patterned his life after his father's from childhood. She didn't have a mom to mimic... maybe this loving, chattering lady would do. "Thank you," she called to the driver who tipped his hat and closed the door as she ran to catch up to her newest acquaintance. And the bus rattled off again.

Monday, 5 December 2011

Kelly ~ Between the Stops

Ten minutes of rain without an umbrella had let loose her curls and streaked the foundation that covered her face. Another morning wasted with the fussing of hair and careful application of liners and blush. Why did she bother? Why did any woman bother with such nonsense.

She should have seen it coming when the radio played the same song twice in a row. Even if it’s a good song, twice in a row is a bad start as far as organization of a day is concerned; it makes you second-guess yourself, tricks your mind into believing you have more time than you do, throws your subconscious for a loop as though your whole life has skipped like a scratched CD. A few minutes later she discovered the fracture in her cereal bowl, responsible for the leak that had silently soaked a pile of history quizzes that she was in the middle of marking. She had been taught early in life not to cry over spilled milk, and so she held herself together right up until she knocked the table trying to leave and her coffee cup dumped its contents into her lap. A few angry tears followed in the aftermath while trying to speedily spot clean her cream coloured cotton skirt that she eventually abandoned for denim. It was a grim forecast from the start, and the weatherman had yet to open his mouth.

It is amazing how we can survive through even in the most wearying of seasons; we learn to invest in deeper things than rouge and curls, and we find purpose that runs at a much deeper level than circumstance can determine. It was, for her, the kids that kept her going. Every morning as she crossed the threshold of her classroom door, the bright orange gateway to adventure and discovery that had been the bearer of her name placard for seven years and counting, every morning she was met with 30 brilliant reasons to keep waking up. They brought all emotion into her life: joy, grief and meaning. Students were a transient sort of family with faces always changing in season, but they were family, and she poured her heart into them without reserve.

But this morning, her heart (not yet at school and not yet focused on the more important things) tripped over her hair. She twisted the front pieces between her fingers and pinched hard, willing her locks to lock in place with inevitable failure. “It looks okay. Don’t worry about it.” The voice that came from a few rows behind had caught her off guard and she spun around with a start, scanning the seats over twice which at first glance had appeared to be empty.

The camouflage of an urbanite is not made of the greens and browns readily associated with the term. To blend into the city you must adopt the plumage of muted vibrancy, of patterns so outrageous that they climb over you like an artificial ivy and smudge your features into the moving mural of the city scene. Kelly had learned the art by osmosis, the way that you do by growing up in a place. She could fade, blend, almost disappear with an effortless decision to do so; she could adopt the attitude of invisibility as literally as any mystical cloak, and once under its protective shield the world could not touch her.

She had been hiding four rows behind her teacher. Hiding from her, if truth be told. To see a teacher outside of its native context is an alien encounter that requires a carefully calculated approach. She had spent several minutes in observation, watching in absolute stillness; she was a veritable chameleon in her zebra-print overcoat and retro green headphones. Unnoticed. Unnoticeable. 

The teacher had clambered aboard the bus with a furrowed brow, cursing with her eyes at a newly torn hole in the back cuff of her jeans. The hem was sopping wet and hanging on by a few frayed threads. Her emotions seemed to match. She had taken a seat somewhat absently, and Kelly couldn’t tell if she had yet noticed the tangle of leaves caught in her hair. It didn't seem to bother her; she was preoccupied with a pair of tendrils hanging down limply from her forehead. Time had come to emerge from the metaphorical foliage. “It looks okay,” she said, loud enough to get her attention. Then more gently, “Don’t worry about it.”

Recognition wasn’t instantaneous, but it only took a moment for the young teacher to catch her bearings and make the mental switch. “Good morning, Kelly! I didn’t realize you lived over here! Are you headed to school too?” Her cheerful voice might have been a semitone too jubilant to come across as perfectly sincere on such an obviously sallow day, but her smile was genuine. Kelly pointed vaguely to the left side of the bus. “Mom and I moved into an apartment a few stops back last year. City bus is faster than a school bus, so I catch this one and do my…” After a short pause she finished her sentence rather bashfully, “…my homework,” she confessed, “about twenty minutes before class. It gets done though, honest.” Professional persona in place, she suppressed a mirthful expression that might have been called a sort of chortle, had it been given the freedom of exposure. She cocked one eyebrow instead and half-rolled her eyes. “As long as it hits my desk, we’re okay,” she said, and took a red-felt seat across the aisle from her young pupil.

The bus was nearing the school, but its route would take them farther from it again and tour around the residential neighbourhood before stopping across the road from the cafeteria entrance. She could walk from the next stop and save herself between seven and twelve minutes, but nine minutes longer with this girl might be more important than coffee brewed before the bell. She resolved to follow Kelly’s lead.

It wasn’t often that a child would overlap in her classes. On only eight occasions had a student been held back in the history of her school, and only once – well, twice – under her care. The school board frowned on extremely high class averages as much as failings, and most teachers danced, curved and nudged the numbers to meet requirements if they could, but some children have a knack for monkey-wrenching even the smoothest of systematic gears and cogs. Curtis, her first rebel, was a kid bent on breaking every teacher he faced off against. He was angry and strong, like the rock-dwelling rams you might see on a commercial for the Discovery Channel. Every September he would lower his head and charge full steam into the Principal’s office. Once he did this when the door was closed, an act that earned him an overnight stay in the hospital and a month of passes to see the nurse. But he wasn’t an idiot, contrary to popular opinion and school report card records – Curt was scary smart and a talented manipulator. The first two terms with him in class were a migraine inducing torment, in mild-mannered vocabulary. He had almost broken her spirit by third term, and then a miracle happened: they studied law. Lawyers became an obsession for the boy – to twist and connive and massage truth to serve a positive end was a nearly inconceivable idea. He bombed every course except History that year, settling at a frightening 27% overall average. Arrangements had been made to transfer him into another class that would “cater better to his particular developmental needs,” and she had to fight to keep him. The paradigm shifted a few weeks into their second year together and Curtis progressed by leaps and bounds. By mid term he was rivaling the self-identified geniuses, and joined the debate team. He was sharp and competitive, and led them to the provincial championships, proudly bringing home a silver podium-shaped trophy that Curtis presented to the Principal, in his office. All three of them had a bit of a cry that day.

And Kelly was the second, although her situation was somewhat different. Last year she had taught a split class at the small elementary school. It was a seven/eight split, with only a handful in the lower grade. The schools make it sound like a random draw when students have their classes chosen, but in reality it’s a carefully orchestrated collection of kids. She had the best possible set up for a split class – the over achieving of the lower grade, and the rougher-edged older ones who might benefit from a naturally slowed pace. For the most part the lessons were divided, but on occasion when the classes could be combined for the bulk and then tailored away from the chalkboard such a set up served the greatest number at the greatest efficiency. But last year Kelly’s family took a couple of hard hits and she stumbled towards summer in obvious pain. Kelly would stay in from recess from time to time and dissolve into tears at her desk. “Teacher” became a blend of much more last June – mentor, friend, pseudo-mother, tutor, guardian and advocate were unofficially added to the list by graduation, and when Kelly requested to be in her class again this coming year, in the upper half of another split class, her request was heard and honoured by the faculty. She was the only one of the Sevens that stuck, but it had been a good decision. There was a distance between them this term, old classroom social boundaries reestablished, but this tough little girl was one of the special ones.

The bus rolled past four stops without so much as a pause. They rode on in silence for a while, both lost in similar memories. It wasn’t the strained or awkward quiet felt between two unfamiliar acquaintances trapped uncomfortably in the same taxi or cue, it was the silence that almost folds into a sigh of relief and security, and that warms with each moment gone by. Kelly looked over and smiled. “Ryan started walking a couple of days ago. Mum says that we’ll have to start locking everything up now. But he’s kind of a bit more human than he was, now that he’s standing up on his own.” Ryan was Kelly’s toddling nephew, a beautiful baby boy that she had met on a couple of occasions after school when the girl’s sister had been given the charge of picking her up. “That’s an exciting change! There are probably a million things you can’t wait to teach him. There’s definitely a bit of a teacher in you, Kelly. And coming from me, I hope you can take that as a compliment.” Kelly nodded and picked at one of the many buttons that tiled her backpack. Then she stood and pressed the red alert button on the yellow poll near the door. “Wait,” she said, and quickly walked back to her teacher. She reached up behind her a bit and with swift fingers untangled the twigs that had matted her hair. She pulled a bobby-pin from her pocket and tucked the two limp tendrils back off her face. By the time the bus had stopped, still a few blocks from the school, Kelly was at the door again. “Thank you,” said her teacher. Kelly turned, just before she hopped off the bus. “No,” with a slight shake of her head and a penetrating look that directly affected her heart, “thank you.” Then the seriousness in her eyes blinked away. “See you in class,” she said, and hopped off the bus.

A young dad with a little one clinging at his hip like a koala boarded and sat just behind her where the seats faced into the bus instead of ahead, towards the driver. The boy was buried inside of a snowsuit, gurgling and giggling as he stared out the window. Children: none of them were hers, but all of them felt like they were. She lived and breathed for these little jewels of heaven and, for their love, however sparingly awarded or fleetingly felt, she would happily walk in the rain every day of her life.

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Venus, Violet & the Edible Vocabulary of Leefy Greans

Visiting other towns can sometimes be like inter-dimensional travel. From province to province and in the space between time zones, custom and tradition can shift so dramatically that an other-world experience is the only terminology that makes any sense to those who have never been before. It is from these places, in a village or county neither here nor there, that stories of passing through a wormhole in time or living though an unusually realistic dream come. It is not imagination; it is not magical or metaphysical or mystic; it is odd, and may have been Odd, but more likely another such town by a different name.

The Venus family was one of the road-tripping kinds. They had been across the continent more times than the average person had occasion to spell the word tzatziki, and every venture they made was kicked off by the purchase of a brand new, up-to-the-date-they-left-accurate, accordion style roadmap. All three of them participated in the purchasing of their traditional navigational tool. Piling out of their station wagon and into the little general store at the corner, they walked up to the counter and smiled in unison. “Good morning, Mauve,” they chimed together. Her reply was well practiced, but it was delivered with so much merriment and warmth that it could have been the first expression of the sentiment. “Oh and a great, grand rainbow of a morning to all of you! Are you here for… your map?” And with a flourish familiar to the nimble wrists of illusionists and puppeteers she produced the glossy paper guide and grinned. “I saw the circled square on your calendar last time I came for tea and made a mental note. This one is hot off the presses in Caledonia. They sent it over by courier this morning!” She sat back on her stool and basked in their awe. “Mauve!” they bubbled, “you’re amazing!”

A tall man with a curling moustache joined the girl behind the counter and took up the second stool. “Mr. Venus, Mrs. Venus, glad to see you’re up with the sun. Violet, I must say that is quite the prettiest little smile I’ve seen all morning! With one exception, of course.” He gave his daughter a kiss on the cheek and winked across to the other girl. “I’d have to say it’s a draw.”

“Your Mauve was just showing us our new map, Mr. Mercury. It does look like a fine piece of print if I do say so... but let’s open it up and see if we can’t find our own little acreage this time. We’ve never made it to the national atlas before, but who knows? Maybe this year will be different!”

The map took up the whole counter space with corners tumbling over the spill edge as though someone had tossed a blanket over the great falls of Niagara and then pinned it down with giant elbows. They looked on with wonder at the daunting tangle of roads and highways, train tracks, perforated border marks and pepper-like scattering of picnic symbols and gas station alerts. They all poked their fingers down at a point of personal recognition and traced to where their little hiccup of land ought lie… but found only blank space for one more year. Even Rosseau was on the map. Aylmer, Powassan and Wanapitei all made the cut, but their population of one-hundred-eleven persons was off the grid again. A communal sigh followed the realization and the group repositioned their postures perpendicularly. “Ahh well,” concluded Mr. Mercury with a shrug, “by your next trip they should see us. Peach and Persimmon are due in the spring, and that will balloon our numbers one, maybe two more, assuming they stick around. Next year, friends, next year.”

Each Venus chose out one bag of sweets and lay down the crisp and colourful bill they entered with. Just before Violet tugged the door closed behind her, Mauve caught her arm. “If something cool happens,” she whispered, “I expect a good story. And maybe a souvenir.” The friends shared a hug, and with much dramatic waving and open-windowed shouts of thanks, they were off to adventure again.

“Well,” said Mr. Venus as soon as they crossed from dirt onto gravel and finally the smooth pavement of highways and cities, “what should our rule be this time?” It was an annual discussion, and each had been giving it much thought. In past travels that had decided that they would only ever make left handed turns, which had once landed them surprisingly close to the Mexican border on the way to Rhode Island. Another year they vowed to cross every bridge they could see, drive down every Main Street in three states, follow orange cars for no less than twenty minutes and so on. This year they would vote on another rule to follow, and they would hold to it religiously.

Her father continued when his women said nothing. “I was thinking it might be fun to ferry as frequently as we can… but it wouldn’t promise much when we hit the desert.” Her mother spoke second and tossed in her copper. “We could flick paint at the map and connect all the dots? It would certainly send us to places we haven’t seen – but I don’t know if it’s much of a rule, per se.” They both angled their mirrors, rear view and passenger visor, so they could better see their daughter. “Vi, honey? What do you think?” Violet pressed her thumb up against the sharp point of one of her teeth and thought. She had three ideas and was struggling to prioritize. After a moment of consideration she tipped her head to one shoulder and the other, and drew out every word for flair. “I was thinking, we should spend the nights off the map.”

The eyebrows of both her parents dipped down into an uncomprehending furrow, but only for a flash. “You mean, find other towns like us,” her mother reasoned out. “Other people off the grid.” All six of their eyes twinkled with anticipation and the mischief of innocent play. “Yes,” affirmed her dad with a laugh. “We’ll do it, and it’ll be grand.”

Their first day of driving is always rather a lazy one. Everything looks novel simply because the sensation of passing it causes a particular sort of frame to wrap every scene in a special way. They spent most of their time lost to each other and staring in wonder out of different windows. Occasionally her mother, Viridian, would lean her chair back to share the view for a while, and then she would sit back up and fix her gaze out of the passenger side once more. The stopped for dinner at a little diner with a patio and ate breakfast around eight o’clock, just as the sun was setting. They asked their waiter where the closest speck of a town was, and had to whittle him down from “an hour to the Sheraton,” to “ten kilometers and you’ll find the Days Inn,” until he finally called his sister and asked if there was a room in her B&B for the night. He wrote directions on the back of their bill. “I’d tell you what roads to take,” he smiled, “but they stop naming them after a while. I’m afraid your map won’t help you much if you get lost.” Violet responded in sum. “Perfect.”

The highway splintered off a number of times as they drove west, chasing the fiery horizon. Asphalt crumbled into dirt roads that sprouted grass in the middle parts and when they reached the tiny, lamp-lit hamlet it seemed more like a ghost town than home to the living and breathing sort. They clambered up to the front porch of the first and largest building they could see and rang the hand-held school bell that hung on a fine white cord. A faded sandwich board told a brief history of the spot and displayed a sort of menu. Violet cocked her brow at the first item on the list: One mug of warm-all-the-way-down-to-the-pit-of-your-stomach-and-back-up-around-your-brain-like-a-hug, three melt-in-your-mouth-with-that-ohh-yeah-kind-of-smile-sparker, and optional crunchy-but-soft-and-fills-me-up-just-right. Served with fresh squirt-in-my-mouth-and-tickle-my-tongue-like-childhood. Four dollars. Before she could read any further the screen door swung open and a young woman ushered them in with the enthusiasm of a mother hen. “Hello! Hello, come on in! Right on over here, can I help you take – okay, that’s right – just, yes! Great to see you!” Her words danced around the room, keeping step with her spinning, welcoming form. It felt like the sun had set outside just in time to rise again inside of this girl. She beamed like the rose-buttercup light of an early morning. “I am just so pleased to have guests around this place again. Please, come in and make yourselves at home! I’m just going to run and grab keys for you. Wow, it’s just – right? This is great!” She slipped away and left the Venus family to breathe and take in their surroundings. A steep staircase climbed up to the right, and other rooms on its far side opened to the back of the old farmhouse. It smelled of wood and the smoke of a fireplace. The kitchen stood to the left and a dining room with several lustrous place settings that seemed out of balance with the apparent emptiness of the bed and breakfast. Facing them across the front hall was a large mirror, and above it hung an asparagus coloured wooden sign with two simple routed words: Leefy Greans. The Venuses were still staring at the sign when their hostess rejoined them.

“It isn’t an error. Well, it is in a way, but intentionally so. I’ve put the kettle on for some sip-you-to-sleep, if you’ll join me in the parlor as soon as you’re settled upstairs?” She handed Mr. Venus a large brass key, and gave Violet her own, just as shiny but much more delicate. “Stories are always better with something hot in hand.”

Viridian smiled up at her husband, took his free hand in hers and picked up their suitcase. He followed her up the stairs with another bag slung over his shoulder. Violet dawdled her way up the stairs, taking time to look at each picture in the path of her ascent. She paused between the fifth and sixth step, held in place by the very old photo of a young boy. “Excuse me,” she called down to the woman who was sweeping a straw broom across the floor. “Who is this?” Leaning the broom against the wall she joined the girl on the stairs. “He’s my grandfather,” she said. “James Ian Dash was his name. My brother looked a lot like him as a kid. He lives in a city now, but this was taken just outside of this house. He grew up here.”  “It’s an unusual name,” said Violet. “What colour is James like?”

Confusion fogged the air between them. “James isn’t a colour,” came the reply. She waved her hand in front of her face as though trying to physically clear up the muddle. “It’s just a name. It means something, I think, but it isn’t a pigment like yours.” Violet shook her head. “Everyone’s name is a colour somewhere on the spectrum – Jade, Emerald, Sage, Umber – that’s just how it is. You must have a colour name. What is it?” “I’m Kathleen,” said Kathleen. Violet didn’t know what to say. “Is… is that like… orange?”

Mr. and Mrs. Venus returned from dropping off their bags and soon all four of them were sitting around a small table with full teacups. “Kathleen,” said Vermillion, leaning forward just a little to focus his question, “what’s the story about that sign in the entryway?” She smiled and sipped at her cup. “Our little town – and I do mean little in a literal sense, I think there might be thirty of us living here permanently, and you’ll meet most of them in the morning – well, we used to be called Leafy Greens.” She walked to the refrigerator and took the pen and note pad to spell it out for them. “Some of the best provincial farming land is around these parts, or used to be. A couple of major highway companies bought up most of the land lot by lot before locals caught onto their project, and when we realized what they were trying to do the papers were already signed. They plowed up the farms and paved their paths, and five years later rerouted traffic and skipped our town all together. Most of the folks had to leave, to start up again somewhere else. Those who’ve stayed have done what we can to keep each other floating along and have worked out a kind of subsistence recycling of goods and labour. We don’t even really need tourists anymore, not that that we don’t love company,” she smiled. “All the kids get picked up from my place in the morning and go to school about a half hour away. A few years back there was a kid from the high school who missed the bus and decided he would walk. Foolish, maybe, but I think he made it by the last bell. Anyway, when he hit the town limits and passed the sign, he stopped for a rest and saw that one of the letters had come loose from the board. Long story short, he switched the letters as a practical joke. Nobody in town noticed for months, but one day a stack of letters came by a blustery mail courier. The post officer told us that about thirty letters had come in with the misspelled name, and therefore hadn’t been delivered properly. It was mostly fliers and trash, but someone had apparently driven by the sign, informed someone in a government office somewhere and all the records had been officially changed. If we wanted to continue life in Leafy Greens there would be a lot of paperwork in our future, and a misdemeanor fine to pay. We held a town meeting at what used to be our library and voted to keep the bumbled version to save the kid his summer money. We spent a few hours walking the streets, now mostly abandoned, drawing arrows where the letters ought to be switched. It’s all just a joke now, just a story to tell. I had that sign made up one Christmas. Other than the one on your way into town, I imagine it’s the only one you’ll find with that spelling and not just the arrows.”

Kathleen held the mug up to her nose and breathed in the warm spell. The Venus family, reflective and growing drowsy, absently mimicked her movements. “Ahhhh,” sighed Viridian, “That hits the spot.” Kathleen held up her hand in correction. “That’s hits-the-spot,” she said. Mrs. Venus looked a bit puzzled but she smiled, nodded and yawned. Bidding their hostess a good night and cheerful dreams, each Venus climbed up the stairs and snuggled into their beds, thick with comfort and down.

Morning came swiftly, and waking abrupt.

“Aaye, lass! It’s rrroll call! Seven thirrrty-thrrree and not a moment to lose!” There was a Scottish man pounding at Violet’s door. She assumed herself still swallowed in sleep until the bright twittering of a bird caught her attention outside and she remembered her setting. “I’ll give yerrr bonny face to the count of fourrr, lass, and mind you be quick to drrress!” Violet leaped out of bed and drove her hands into her tightly packed suitcase, resurfacing with a navy tee and light jeans. The whole process of un-and-re-clothing her body took less than ninety seconds. She opened the door to the sight of a rough looking man knocking sharply at the wall of her parents’ room. “Venus, Virrridian! Venus, Verrrmillion! Venus, Violet!” He read loudly from a list in his hand, with a curious sort of barking tone. “Yerrr expected to find a seat at table in a flash! The lady of this fine home has been labourrring all morrrning overrr the stove! If yerrr not quick, the I-can’t-believe-how-fantastic-this-hot-oozing-mess-feels-in-my-jaw will get cold!” And he vanished down a thin flight of stairs at the end of the hall. A moment later she could hear his holler again, slightly muffled by the floorboards between them. “Jones, Cha! Jones, Po! Yerrr expected at table!”

Mr. and Mrs. Venus stumbled out of their room with sleepiness clinging around them, rubbing their fingers against their face in the hope of massaging their eyes alert. “Did he say something about food?” Viridian asked in mid stretch. Her arms pulled taught and she made tiny, involuntary squeaking sounds and she attempted to suppress a yawn. “I didn’t quite understand, actually,” said Violet’s father. “But I know we’re intended to go down. Shall we?”

A rumbling noise grew in volume and power as they neared the dining area. Last night it had felt so quiet and empty, but upon turning the corner at the bottom of the stairs, all such adjectives fled the mind. It was like a radio playing ten stations at once – a cacophony of conversation from a room full of vastly varying characters. “Oh, my,” said Violet. Nothing more need be said for the moment; the thing to do was look on. All along the twenty-two foot table sat the strangest collection of people they had ever seen. Some were colourfully clad, but the garb of others was muted and gray. Some hair stood tall in bouffant or curl, and some lay flat and pin-straight or wrapped back in a bun, or combed over or gone altogether, skin shined. Several gentlemen wore felt hats, and around the shoulders of a particularly tall woman was a feathered boa. Correction… the draping tail feathers of a quetzal bird that hopped from behind her head to perch atop it. There was a gentleman in the formal tuxedo of another era and a set of three children sat in highchairs. But even stranger than the look of the lot was the language that flowed from their lips.

“Dear, mind your elbows; you’re about to knock over the slides-down-your-throat-and-gives-every-nerve-a-caress-as-you-swallow! Spill that and you’ll spoil something else.”

“Marta, kindly pass over the you-know-what-that’s-just-the-kick-in-the-taste-buds-I-needed? No, sorry, I meant the fizzles-at-the-top-of-your-mouth-and-ohh-it-reminds-me-of-the-east-coast-sprays. That’s it. Yes, thank you.”

“Here sweetheart, this is maybe-not-the-best-of-the-bushel-but-sweeter-than-you-might-think-for-how-healthy-it-is. Open up like a good little man.”

“Mom! Is this holy-scrape-that-out-of-my-mouth-galhhhgreeeahh again? I’m begging you: please don’t make me eat!”

Kathleen danced over and sat them down at the table. It was… well, a little anticlimactic. Each place was set with a cereal bowl, a plate with three pancakes, a small pile of orange slices and easily within reach of each seat was a toast tray and several open jars of jam. Here they were expecting some kind of strange feast, made up of absolutely inexpressible varieties of food… but it was simple. It was breakfast for breakfast and little more.

“Thank you, Kathleen,” said Mr. Venus on behalf of his family. “It looks lovely. Does your town come over for pancakes every morning?”

“I’m sorry, sir?”

“Pancakes. Every morning?”

“I’m afraid that I really don’t understand what you’re talking about.”

He picked up a pancake between his fingers and pointed at it. “Pancake.” She picked up a menu from the counter behind her and pointed at it. “Melt-in-your-mouth-with-that-ohh-yeah-kind-of-smile-sparker. You get three.” His mouth fell open, flabbergasted. She continued. “Your term might be shorter, but it says nothing of essence. I’ve heard the word before, once in the city – maybe my brother mentioned it at the diner – but please understand, there is so much more that you can learn about a food than what it is. Pancake: a cake made in a pan… you know what it is, but what is it? Our word tells you that.”

He sat back and chewed the thought over with the rest of his fluffy mouthful. It was a kind of right-brained logic so unfamiliar to the rest of the world. But it made him smile, and he tried it out. “Darling,” he said lifting his shoulders in measure with the edges of a growing grin, “Will you pass me down that… quench-my-thirst-and…. some-other-delicious-adverb?” She laughed and poured him a glass of orange juice.

The meal was indeed a daily affair. Twice daily, actually: a breakfast and a “lupper” that was hosted around 4:30pm. As a community they had realized that a mass grocery bill for thirty would be much less expensive than fifteen or twenty people cooking for one or two mouths. The farmer contributed a portion of his crop for free and therefore did not contribute financially, and Kathleen as the hostess, lead organizational hand and primary chef was also exempt. Everyone else pitched in on a budget and they feasted together, most every phrase an affirmation of appreciation and delight. Between meals there was much to be done; the theatre in town opened for a matinee, the grocer set up a snack stand for those who missed a meal or decided on a treat; hair salons and liquor saloons opened up for a few hours, the doctor walked around and visited everyone and their pets, and the children, when not in school, set up forts and played in the square. Leefy Greans was a beautiful little spot, for all of its quirks and strange names. In many ways it was akin to the small town they had driven away from, but somehow extraordinarily different.

Their second night was just as pleasant as their first, but this time when Kathleen invited them for a soothing-crack-your-neck-kind-of-tension-release and one or two ohh-so-good-chocolatey-fresh-out-of-the-oven-hunk-a-hunk-of-almost-burn-your-mouth-love, they knew what she meant.

They drove away the next morning after a very complicated set of breakfast foods that boiled down to eggs, hashbrowns, bacon and a couple of beverages, both hot and cold. “If you ever find yourself around these parts again,” smiled Kathleen as she helped carry a box of lupper out to their car, “there will be a couple of brass keys waiting and a mug of… is it tea?” The Venus family smiled. “Something sweet and hot to sip, call it what you will,” said Viridian.

Their trip lasted five weeks and one day. When they returned, Mauve ran over and knocked at the door. “She’s upstairs,” called Violet’s father, but the girl was half way up the flight before he even noticed her entrance. “So?” sang Mauve with a prying inflection of her voice. “Tell me a story!” Vi swung her legs over to the other side of her bed and pulled a laminated sheet out of her backpack. “I don’t know if you’ll believe me, but I remembered your souvenir.” She handed her friend a table menu. Mauve cocked an eyebrow at the first item on the list. Violet smiled and pulled the backpack off of the floor, spilling its contents across the bed and revealing a jar of sand, tiny keychain animals, a wooden ruler, some kind of handmade taffy and a dozen other trinkets and bobbles. “Make yourself comfortable, Miss Mercury. You can’t imagine how crazy this world is.”

Wednesday, 16 November 2011


One shoe was tipped over on its side, halfway down the dock. The other shoe dropped, standing up on its heel for a moment before it wobbled down beside its match. It was a pretty good throw, especially without looking, but the girl's attention was out, across the lake, and she didn't even notice.

An early summer heat wave had driven her to the water's edge that afternoon. Twenty-seven degrees with no mention of humidity, and the temperature was supposed to keep climbing. She stripped off her socks, one at a time, letting them drop without much thought. One rolled right to the edge, stopped only by a large metal ring that would soon be used to tie an assortment of watercraft to the little port's only floating dock. The other tumbled over the side and was caught by a wave. The sound it made was so soft that, had it been heard at all it would have caused no alarm. But the girl didn't hear it fall. Her mind was occupied elsewhere. Out... across the lake.

The wood of the dock had worn smooth from years of running children and their pacing, nervous parents. She walked out to the ladder that hung into the lake. It was an old aluminum frame, the kind with tall handles that arc from the dock to the water, the kind that made backwards somersaults so easy. The girl balanced herself against the rusting metal bars, memories pulsing through her with every heartbeat. The ladder was strangely cool to the touch, just like it always was, just like it had been. She ran her fingers over the freckles of erosion, the red-orange spots that betrayed the age of this much-loved place. She sat down. With her legs swinging gently below her, her spreading toes almost grazing the surface of the lake, the girl drew in a deep, slow breath and closed her eyes.

It had been three years.

The water lapped against the dock and rippled back again. She couldn't see this with her eyes closed, but she could feel the air changing direction if she focused intently on the pads of her feet. It was extraordinarily light, the wind, like the breeze of a fan from another room that you only perceive because the wisps of hair that frame your face are moving gently, as if by a will of their own. Very slowly the girl pointed one foot, extending it according to the muscular instruction she had received in her one-and-only dance class. She lowered her toes towards the water until they hovered, motionless, barely an eighth of an inch from the surface.

Two summers past, she and a friend had borrowed a paddle-boat from the little marina, if you could, in good conscious, call it one. Three canoes, one flat-bottomed rower, and the vessel they had set out on were the sum of their options -- unless you counted a stack of Styrofoam flutter-boards propping up one of the shack's side windows, which they did not. The girls dabbled out on the water for hours that day, talking about everything and nothing all in a moment. They took turns dozing off in the sunshine, rocked gently by the undulating rhythm of another's wake. Once they both woke up only to find that they were drifting not ten feet from a fisherman, quietly casting his line almost right over them. They tumbled into laughter as they pedaled as fast as they could back to the paradoxical safety of open water.

The same water had been the cleansing agent of a messy heart the summer just past, when she and her depression took a literal dive. She floated in the lake for hours until her anxious feelings seemed to seep out of her, down into the dark sediment, down to the deep. It took her days to unwrinkle from the water's raisining effects, but by the time her skin smoothed again emotions had followed and the rest of August passed by without another tailspin.

She was dragged back to the present moment by the flickering dance of a dragonfly, flying back and forth from knee to knee, never allowing itself settle more than a second before flitting off again. There was a canoe of people over by the cliff, a few half way up the rocky path, and one at the top fighting the battle between fear and thrill, deciding whether or not he should leap into the water. Even standing so high was a brave thing. As she listened, she could hear his friends taunting and encouraging him to jump. The climbers had reached him now and seemed to be threatening to toss him, if he wouldn't step out on his own. He was signaling boldly and with the determined stiffness of anger just before the boil. He harnessed it, and jumped. They cheered.

So much of this place felt the same: the wood as smooth, the air as hot, the flecks of rust as red. But something had settled into its essence that was unfamiliar to her now, and it seemed to wash her reveries with a pastel of commonplace. The lake had memories of its own; hers were significant only because they were hers... but that knowledge didn't dull the memory nor undermine it's importance, especially not today.

Three years had past since she had sat in this space and watched him run off the dock, sprinting and leaping like some wild deer, then diving underwater with the grace of a loon. Three years since they had spent the afternoon hauling a sunken fishing boat out of one of the little bays. With the help of some friends they had hoisted it into a tree in the little public park downtown. Their prank had made the front page of the little daily newspaper twice -- once upon the discovery of the boat (and one strategically placed home-made mannequin), and again when the police uncovered a stash of fifty dollar bills sealed in Ziplock-safely in one of the tackle-boxes tied under the front bench. The second article announced that the reward proposed for those individuals who had found the money would exactly balance the threatened fines for the crew responsible for the prank. The reporter called it a clever truce; the giggling teenagers who met up at Pizza Pizza to watch the show called it forgiveness, and were never turned in by the all-knowing store manager for their shenanigans.

That spring and summer had been a beautiful gift for the pair and they had become a couple by the time the first leaf had fallen. But her blue sunshine skies thundered into rain the day he didn't knock on her window. He had knocked every morning from May through September - he would wake her up, and together they would walk down to the shore - but the morning he didn't, another knock roused her from dream. It was heavy, determined to be heard throughout their small country home, and loud enough to wake everyone. The Sheriff, and yes, some small towns still have one, was talking to her mother in low whispers at the front door. The sky and her emotions crashed simultaneously with the weight that comes from shock and grief. She ran through the deluge to the dock and fought against the urge to let the water swallow her whole, resisted the clawing desire to find a place as dark and cold as she felt. She screamed out her pain at the roaring waters. She stayed at the ladder all night, slowly calming as the clouds exhausted their store. The gales hushed, the thunder rolled on and the dock rose and fell steadily, setting pace with her own breath, coaching her soul with what was left over of the wind-piled waves.

Three years ago she had taken her place between their families, standing beside his sister at the far east end of the little graveyard that overlooked the lake. She could see the spot from her perch; it was a fitting space for his body, she thought, but his spirit spent much more of its time haunting her here, at the dock. Either he was in heaven, as he had believed, or he was with her, as her heart was inclined to hold true.

She had only returned to this place on a handful of occasions in the collapse of time between past and present. On each visit the lake had reflected her state: tempestuous, numb and lifeless, foggy, grey, covered in ice... and this time was no different. As she sat by the water in the early summer heat wave, barefoot with toes hovering just over its surface, the lake reflected something new. She had found peace. She was content.

She was not overwhelmed by the welling of tears today. One shaky breath in, one out, repeat. Despite the temperature she shivered slightly. The tremor was the only thing that betrayed any hesitation or residual fear. Her heart was healing; she was finding peace.

She opened her eyes to the sun and smiled, out, across the lake.

Monday, 7 November 2011

Heart on Hand

Wendy, Moira, Angela Darling.

In a few paragraphs, my introduction will come into its context - but we must grow to the conclusion, so if you have a few minutes of freedom, come with me to the roots.

I went home this weekend, out of the city and back into my native northern land. We spent Friday night and most of Saturday in a trip down memory lane that felt like someone had injected us with a concentrated shot of summer right through the heart. I saw faces I hadn't in months, reconnected with friends I hadn't had any time to talk with and collected hugs from all the right people. It reminded me of every wonderful thing about my May-through-September life, and I have to tell you, I felt my fingers trying to close. (This will also make sense in a little more time.) I sang again, I praised my God, I danced a little dance and I walked around my Muskokan sanctuary, and when the weekend came to a close on the long drive back to Hamilton on Sunday, God had finally shaken the last of my resistant fingers free.

About a month ago, the MoveIn team was challenged to consider a new idea: long term change is often partnered with a long term commitment. That night I wrote out a long response, so far unshared. A segment of that letter to myself now follows.

"...If I am going to MoveIn right, I can't treat it like an idling zone until Camp begins again. I've been living in transition for the past four years - I never intended to stay in North Bay, so I didn't root myself there, didn't invest my being. But here... Why did I move here motivated by the same year-to-year mentality? Why did I come here expecting, waiting, to leave again? If I am going to move in right, get involved with a school program or community shelter, or with families at the YMCA or with ministry at church... if I am going to really do this, then I can't plan to pick-up and ditch-out come May. I need to be willing to stay.

Several weeks ago I had a meeting about summer with my bosses. During the meeting (both planning and review), John Friesen said something that changed my life. It was simple, and probably something that he's said to fifty other people as they learn to grow up in their faith: he said I needed to learn to live with an open hand to God. I'm going to tell you something that I've only shared with a few up to this point. While John was explaining what he meant, the LORD was doing the same. I don't know how to put it otherwise... this was the closest thing to a vision I have ever experienced.

I saw myself, vividly, in a worship concert, surrounded by people on all sides, each with somber faces and eyes closed. As quickly as it came, my awareness of the crowd fell away and I was standing, one-on-one with God. My hands were lifted up above my head and I was holding out my heart - my physical heart - like a six year old holds up a new drawing to their parent, seeking approval in a smile. Look, Daddy, look what I've made. "Look what I'm doing with the heart you have given me, with my skills, my mind, my time, my passion, my effort, my friendships, my study, my art... Look, Father, aren't you proud?"

I did feel God smile, but it was with a sigh and a slight, slow shaking of His head. "Child," He said to me, "I don't want you to show me your heart. I want you to give me your heart."

Anxiety flooded my body as I saw myself standing there, arms up, staring at the pump-pumping life in my hands. I knew instantly, instinctively, that it represented some very particular element of my life that I was holding on to. I realized that I had given up control in almost everything - in career, in geography, in love - but not in Camp. I had a tight grip on Camp, and I wanted to show off, not let go. I said this. "But look at what I have done with everything you have given me! I haven't buried my talents, they have multiplied! Aren't I doing a good job? Aren't you pleased with me?"

The Great He smiled again, with gentle redirection. "It is the offering that gives me pleasure. It is your vulnerability that delights me."

For the first time in my life I understood the implications of "living sacrifice" in my own realm. Trusting God meant lifting my hands in worship, but it also meant holding my heart out to Him with an open hand - heart on hand, not heart in hand - so that He can do what He likes with it, even if all He wants to do it watch me hold it out to Him.

I believe this means that I have to leave Camp behind me. I feel like Wendy Darling, looking at Peter in the moment that she understands that he won't be coming with her - that to grow up, she must leave him behind. Muskoka Bible Centre has been my beautiful Neverland. I have learned so much, I have been so supported, so trusted, so safe. I have come into myself on its grounds... but like Wendy, I believe I need to let it go to grow more. I need to be brave, heart on hand, and grow up."

I am confident that Miss Darling, though her story is not formally secured for us by her author, grew into a magnificent storyteller with a vast repertoire of tales reaching far beyond the borders of the Neverlands. She saw things that the boys who stayed lost never would... and I believe that Wendy grew into womanhood wiser and stronger and more imaginative for the time she spent in the company of Peter Pan.

It will be a struggle, for a while, not to worry about the mermaid and pirates and young people of MBC, and it will be a heart wrenching, tearful farewell when the metaphorical golden ship finally sails out of sight... but it is time for a new kind of adventure, new bravery, new challenges and renewed, reservationless commitment to my Author.

Heart on hand.

Thursday, 3 November 2011


Sit in one place long enough and the world stops passing you by. Oh, it does pass, don't get me wrong - but it passes slowly, pausing before you, awaiting your observation, occasionally bowing majestically to your senses and giving you a knowing wink before strolling along once again, merrily on its way.

When you stop to simply witness the world's movements, when you sit back on the banks of life with open eyes and baited pen, the fish will come. Tall, business oriented fish with wide-brimmed European wedding hats and large clutch purses en route to an afternoon rendezvous organized in whispers an hour before; balding, bustling fish with a phone to his ear and a fire in his eyes that betrays the passion that lies latent in his lawyerly labours; a school of toddling fish following after their mommas in a grocery-store-shopping line of almost-trouble; a couple of exotic, brightly coloured teenaged fish engaged in some kind of mating ritual that, however fascinating to the lookers on, should have remained secreted away in the deepest parts of the sea.

It's a veritable reef of witnessed moments and tested poses, here in the flurry of stillness. Every trivial moment is an exposé, every distant action a silent film with subtitles so vividly implied; it's a beautiful world, from the wallflower's post. Would you join me?

Friday, 28 October 2011

Eleven Hours in Transit

I’m not a huge fan of Jones Soda, but something about their berry-lemonade blend appeals to every tongue bud I have. This is not the most important of personal revelations in my life, or even in my week, and while such a fact is unlikely to spark much conversation or inspire a comment, I feel compelled to share. I have also never before sat for so long against and escalator, but this particular perch might make it to my favourite list of places. There is something reassuring about an unchanging rhythm of movement to your back and strong dark tile under your butt. Curiosity satisfied.

I’m waiting for a Northland Bus to take me home for the night. It’s a tricky thing, traveling North in this province – to catch a train, you have to make it to Union by eight of the clock – to jump on a bus, you have to wait around for one of two (maybe three) trips up. My options today were four hours or ten hours from my arrival time. Oh Huntsville, both beautiful and vexing.

So, what miracle has freed me from the Library’s deceptively passive-looking security guards, the fever-inducing anxiety of employment’s cold shoulder, and the shackling commitment to clicking “Refresh” on job site after job site, again and again and again? An offer, that’s what! Thank you the pray-ers (and success-wishers, and thinking-of-you-ers, although I believe your efforts significantly less helpful, however well-meaning). I am now the proud (and surprisingly pumped) new employee of a marketing firm based out of the Hamilton City Centre (aka Jackson Square). Details will follow as I learn more about what I will be involved with, but I was greatly encouraged by the friendly, small staff, and the charities that they support and promote. The three partner charities (Special Olympics, Maple Leaf Camps, and Help a Child Smile) really strike a cord with me, and I am excited to get behind what I believe to be truly important programs. If I’m going to be telemarketing in any degree, much better a life-experience for a worthy kid than fancy soaps or some rip-off insurance… or vacuums (right, Care?). Job starts on Tuesday, so I have one more weekend of freedom, and I am seizing that opportunity to move.

As of next week, Loreen and I will become official Hamiltonians (which will be easier on the vocabulary than “Burlingtonians” which just sounds plain silly). We have our keys, we’ve moved the fridge, we’re dreaming curtains and mason-jars and wall decorations and Bible studies and having people over for dinner and baking and Internet access (which we have learned to appreciate as a precious luxury), and in sum it’s been a very exciting few days with the promise of many more to follow. I have several cardboard boxes waiting for my careful Tetris-refined packing skills tonight, and tomorrow I will see everything I own (or most of it) piled into the back of my Dad’s red truck for the sixth time this year. It’s more moving than I had planned… but it finally feels like forward motion, and I have found both hope and peace in that.

Keep a weather-eye to the digital horizon; more stories to come.

Monday, 17 October 2011

Isaac ~ Between the Stops

She had imagined this conversation somewhat differently; his look should have been more disarming, perhaps – or her words more full of life, or more charming, or cleverer. It wasn’t an unpleasant dialogue, but the magnetic attraction she had prepared her heart to resist was not there. He was simply a friend, and it seemed barely that.

What had she expected, then?

…Static. The kind that prickles down your spine, that you can feel in your knees, that sparks an involuntary smile and a slight tremor in the heart. Instead she had experience the sort of static that comes with a radio station just off frequency, the distracting grey blur of bad wiring in a television set, and the immobile static of a long, uninterrupted, uninteresting wait.

And then silence had fallen upon them like the layer of gelatin glaze on a cake or flan; everything that was to be said had been. It was nice, and now it was concluded. Topped off. Only the consumption of the cake could change it now… or the dropping of it.

She averted her gaze. She had been staring at him as she thought these things, and he looked back at her with a passive curiosity, without saying a word. Wordlessness was a bad sign.

The bus lurched forward and she let her bag down to the floor. She picked it back up. A bag on the floor implied something – a desire to stay still, an exhaustion of strength, apathy, a defeat of some miniscule measure. Slung over one shoulder, the bag returned to its accustomed home. He looked on. No words.

The silence echoed itself and seemed to stretch their shared five minutes into unbearable epochs of time. He shifted from one foot to the other and casually said nothing. All of her thoughts, carefully edited and processed, sounded flat and mechanical to the audience of her mind, and so remained unspoken. The bus stopped again and the people crowded on, pressing them a little closer to each other.

She had been waiting for this moment for nearly four years – to talk with him alone, to have his full attention – but all this time she had thought him so different: chatty, inquisitive, energetic, funny… she thought he would be everything she remembered about him from classes and group gatherings. She thought . . . she had hoped . . . but maybe not.

The bus made three more stops before Riah climbed aboard. She waved enthusiastically from the front, paid her fare and danced her way through the people to meet them. She brought with her an incredible flurry of conversation.

“Ah! Girl, I was hoping to meet you today! Did you get my text yesterday? My phone has been acting up like the three-year-old it is and I can’t believe how many messages it has decided not to send, just to spite me, I swear. I hope yours works better than mine! Wow is the bus ever stuffy today, and not just with people, I mean this air is so… I mean, thick, you know? Like a musty old sauna but without all the cute swimsuits, unfortunately. Seriously, someone ought to crack open a window in here! Oh, that reminds me! Guess what I found stuck under one of my windshield wipers this morning? A parking ticket! The city booted my car! Outside my own building! That’s why I’m on the bus, you see – set off the City Hall. But… sorry, am I interrupting something?” She took a breath, barely pausing long enough to flick her eyes in the general direction of the boy standing near by. She continued with a shrug.

“Well anyway, I paid for that spot right before I went in, just to shower you see, and then I came right back out! Must have caught me just a minute after it expired, but then those parking signs can be so confusing to read, never you mind how long I’ve lived there. I think the traffic people will see it my way. I have a knack for persuasion, you know. Mother always thought I’d make a great actress, but I told her, ‘the Law is for me!’ Pretty similar in the long run, I suppose. Just a different sort of stage,” she winked. “By the way, have you seen the advertisements for the new Shakespeare flick? You really must go with me – I can’t think of a single other person who would care for the right reasons. Say you’ll come?”

Riah’s hand darted into her pocket and pulled out her phone. She read something quickly and began to type a reply. Her lips moved along with her mind as she wrote; it would take a few seconds for her to reorient herself.

“Riah, this is Isaac,” she interjected as soon as the phone snapped shut. “He’s a friend I met at school; Isaac, Riah. I can’t remember just how I met her, but she’s a doll. Not a bad cook either, but if she ever offers you a cookie, pass.” She winked at her friend who threw her hand to her forehead in a playfully dramatic pose.

Alas,” Riah proclaimed, “My one major flaw and you just won’t let that story die! One time, and it wasn’t even that much garlic. I didn’t realize it was flavoured margarine, you see.” He laughed freely, and the two girls joined in: a moment of pure relief.

Her friendship with Riah worked well; Riah was a wild gypsy of a girl, if gypsies would ever be caught in stiletto heels. She wore feathers in her hair, bright makeup and dark lips; she gave you three doses of caffeine just by proximity; she was a prattling fool, an exotic beauty and an adventurous, head-spinning mystery; she took life in both hands like a microphone and rocked-out. She was awesome.

Isaac seemed simultaneously mesmerized and overwhelmed by the creature that had burst into their quiet encounter. He also seemed to be weighing his options of whether to interact or simply observe their conversation. Riah decided for him. “So, tell me a story, Isaac. What brings you to the bus today? I’ve got to get off in a few minutes though, so you’ll have to keep it brief.” He looked up and to the right for a quick recall. “I’m on my way to meet up with a couple guys from class. Were working on a project all day.” She tipped her head to one side, just a little. “What are you working on?”

It was the same polite blueprint that had begun their conversation ten minutes ago. She was feeding him questions, leading the dance, modeling each step with the graceful nod of her head. He followed each move perfectly: a good dance partner, except that he was on the back-step.

How many nights had she mooned over Isaac Lamb? How many hours tracing his name like a child, day dreaming of a few minutes company? In her secrets she imagined his confession that he too had been watching, that a secret somewhere in his heart there was a place reserved for her. What a fantasy. What a nonsense it all seemed now.

Riah was tugging at her sleeve and saying her goodbyes. “Nice meeting you, Isaac. Good luck with your group thing. And – hey, space cadet – yes, hi. Text me back some time, okay? Talk soon?” And she was off.

“Your friend is …well, kind of intense, isn’t she?” he smiled at her. She searched his face for any sign of a hidden subtext in the words but found none. No codes in his eyes today.

“Yes,” she replied with a wave out to her friend. “She’s a bit of a crazy, but in a good way. I met her at a protest of all places. She was protesting, I was trying to get to work. I don’t know how it happened exactly, but I ended up holding a picket sign for nearly three hours. Ended up being pretty late for work, too. We hit it off so quickly that we’re nearly convinced we must have met before, so it’s a bit of a joke between us that I don’t remember. Truth is, of course, she’d be a difficult person to forget.”

“I believe you,” he said. “She definitely leaves an impression.”

Stop, stop. A woman pushing a stroller squeezed past them and Isaac helped her lift it off like a gentleman. The mall was coming up soon and they would both be getting off. She looked at him and smiled. He smiled back. No words.

She wanted to tell him everything. She wanted to confess the past four years of wishing he would strike up a conversation, that he would send her a letter, walk her somewhere, sing her a song on the guitar she knew he could play. She wanted to tell him about the talks she had had with her sisters and friends in which he so often took feature. She wanted to tell him she liked him, but instead she just smiled. “See you later,” he said, pleasantly. “See you,” she said.

Off the bus and walking away, their whole lives seemed to be going in different directions. But …maybe there would be another day for words. 

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Libraries and Sometimes Books

This is my first favourite spot in Hamilton. I anticipate a long list of such places, each with a unique perspective for observing this ever-changing reality we call our home. My current perch, though flooded with more light than I usually select for a place to think and write, is a splendidly active corner of the Hamilton Public Library. It's on the first floor, in a corner where all the walls are made of glass. I'm overlooking the indoor farmer's market and have the pleasure of seeing into the picnic-like selection of baked good, fresh produce, friendly laughing conversations as the customers pick through the leeks and apples, the pottery merchants, the ambitious florists, the wanderers, the samplers, the penny-counters, the wrist-watch-watching-foot-tappers, the cheese... It's a perfect beginning for a million stories, all in the pantomime of distance and thick glass. From this place, too near the children's centre for hard-thinking and much grown-up work, I can hear the chanting songs of a sing-along Dora the Explorer video (with many four-year-old sing-along-ers). "Do you need to go potty? Did you finish your apple juice?" There are two or three tales to tell from that phrase alone. Just to my right there is a bank of individual desks. Right now, each is filled up with a sprawl of somebody's life: coffee, muffin, laptop, notebook or perhaps a day timer, backpack, cell phone, person. He's a young guy with a go-tee and a cool hat. Who is he, though? What is he reading, thinking, planning, hoping, forgetting? These are the sparks of truth that my imagination is so excited to fan, to encourage, until a story catches fire. This... this is a good spot.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Rachel ~ Between the Stops

The little girl looked up at her father with a smile in her eyes.

“Rapunzel had pets, you know.”

They were on their way home after going to town for cereal. It was Mom’s birthday tomorrow and both of them were determined for everything to be perfect from the moment she woke up. The day had been completely planned out; breakfast in bed, a morning of board-games and old movies, and in the afternoon they were off to Grandma’s and Grandpa’s for dinner and tea. In the business of getting the day all set up and trying to make sure that Mom didn’t make any conflicting birthday plans of her own, Dad had forgotten to pick up the most important part of their special day breakfast routine: Cap’n Crunch. It was the little girl who had noticed the problem, and so, right after Dad got home they made a special father-daughter trip into town.

“What kind of pets does she have?” her father asked, returning her smile.
“A rabbit and a dragon!”
“Oh, wow! I wish I could have a dragon! Then I could ride on his back instead of taking the bus home.”

The little girl gasped aloud and her eyes opened widely. “Daddy! Dragons have fire!”
“I’m not afraid, sweetie. I could bring lots of water with me. And I think we might get home a lot faster if we had a dragon to ride.”

The little girl seemed to ponder this for a moment and in the space before she wrinkled her nose and shook her head slowly, time seemed to lean back, as it sometimes does, and he marvelled at his daughter. Her long lashes seemed to batt open and closed in slow motion, concealing and revealing again the deep, bright blue of her mother's eyes. It was like staring into a whirlpool of thought, those eyes. He swallowed a sudden urge to well up and dropped his gaze to her pink-velcro sneakers. He smiled. When it came to footwear, there weren't two tastes more opposed. Her mother would never have been caught in stockings and shoes in this weather. He shook himself back to reality in time for the inevitable nose wrinkling.

“No," she resolved, "you can't come. It’s a purple dragon.”
Her father laughed. “Well, that’s okay,” without missing a beat, “I’ll just spray-paint him black.”
“Black! Oh, no Daddy, not black!”
“Not black, eh?” He chucked gently at his daughter’s horror. “Well, what about... what if we colour him like the rainbow?”

Suddenly all of the concern in the little girl’s face melted away, revealing the wonderful smile of childhood’s simple joy and a laugh that danced through the air between them.
“Yes! That is a good idea! That would make the dragon very happy!”

The little girl’s laugh was contagious. A couple across the aisle from them couldn’t help the smiles spreading across their faces as they glanced over at the child, not-so-secretly eaves-dropping on their conversation. The creativity of such an innocent heart is hard to ignore.

“Well, I don’t know about happy, but he sure would be multicoloured.”

The girl’s gaze dropped from her father’s and down at the large, colourful cereal box tucked between them on the seat. Then she took a moment to smile at the bus-driver who smiled back with a grandfatherly grin.

“Could we colour the dragon Daddy? Could we draw pictures on it and colour it however we want?”
“Of course we can, darling.”
“And it will have pink!”
“And blue?”
“For Mommy’s birthday!”

They were talking about Rachel, of course. She had jumped into the role of both wife and mother only two years ago - a leap of faith, both feet and full heart. His baby girl didn't know anything different, as far as mothers go, but hearing the title come from his little one with such love still caught him. Her mother had died when she was only eighteen months old. She had barely learned to use the word, but his precious first wife had heard it a few times, tumbling out of their toddler's mouth with the stumbling, crinkled concentration of a first year Latin student. Oh, the blissful laughter of those first few weeks in the world of words. And then she had gone. The doctors told him that she had been carrying the aneurysm in a dormant state all of her life, unaware. They said it had been a "merciful death," quick and without suffering; but his grief and shock did not heal quickly and he suffered for years, alone and lonely... except for his little girl. She kept him going. She gave him hope in his despair and strength in defeat. She revived in him the will to love.

He met Rachel a few days before his daughter turned three. Tipping and toddling no more, his little girl deserved to graduate from his often lopsided attempts at birthday cake to something that more physically reflected the celebration at hand. He flipped through the yellow pages, checked on Google, scanned the paper and eventually determined to wander the shops downtown until inspiration found him. And she did. Rachel was a veritable muse in her apron. With dark hair, dark eyes and dark skin, "muse" might be a misleading title -- until you saw her art. It framed her as you entered into the little patisserie; towering cakes and sugar flowers so life-like you can almost smell them, marzipan models and modelling chocolate figurines, cupcakes with whole paragraphs of script in the icing, and a hundred other delights vocabulary can't capture. And she stood, smiling at him as his eyes took in the room. She welcomed him to the counter with the same familiar airs of a hostess, ushering personal guests into her living rom and telling them to make themselves at home, and would anyone like a lemonade? She was warm and friendly, and she had honest eyes.

Ordering the cake took about four minutes, but he hovered there at the cash in happy, easy conversation until the bell over the door chimed and another customer came in with three children underfoot. When he stepped back onto the street an hour had passed and the rest of his errand-running was a scramble. Forgetting the Cap'n Crunch during a pre-birthday shop seemed to be as much a tradition as eating it for breakfast on the morning a year is gained in the life of this growing family.

The last-minute make-up trip to town that followed in the morning proved to be as much of a distraction, taking another hour longer than he had planned; thirty minutes were spent pacing in circles around the corner from the cake shop, deciding whether or not it was silly to check on the progress of an order that she promised would take her two days. He decided it was silly, and the next ten minutes were spent walking laps from the corner to his car, changing his mind back and forth. Eventually he had gone in, with almost no reason and with little to contribute but a blushed nodding in the presence of the beautiful woman behind the counter who was pointing at sketches for his daughter's cake, and prattling on about one or another new recipes she was going to try.

When it came time for the little party he had arranged -- mostly friends from work, their wives and kids if they had any -- the bakery masterpiece was shimmering with sugar dusts and looked like an elaborately embossed Christmas card. "Are you able to come and pick it up? Or, if you'd like, I could come and drop it off for you? I've got some extra time on my hands today, and I really wouldn't mind." So she came, and stayed; she played with the kids, made friends with the women, made fun at his expense, just a little. He liked her.

And so did his daughter. This now five-and-three-quarter-year-old lass by his side had taken her time to adjust to a "Mommy" in the home, and even after they were married it wasn't a generously used name. This little exchange on the bus wasn't the first time he'd heard the title used with so much love, but each instance was still so special to him. Little girls have a way of melting even the most grown-up of hearts.

Her father reached high up above the little girl’s head and tugged at the yellow cord.
“What do you say about making Mommy a card when we get home? A birthday card, out of really big white paper and I’ll draw a great big dragon on the inside? Then we can colour him like the rainbow with pictures of whatever we like for Mom’s birthday, and no black anywhere.”

The little girl laughed a wonderful, happy laugh that seemed to light up the whole bus. At the next stop, the little girl’s father stood up tall, took their box of Cap’n Crunch under one arm and offered his other hand to his daughter.

Hand in hand father and daughter marched up the aisle and thanked the bus-driver for their ride. Then, with a quick smile to each other that glowed of great friendship and mutual adoration, they hopped off the bus and onto the sidewalk, both dreaming of Mom’s special surprises and the stories they would be able to tell in the morning.