miss e

she landed in our cornfield.
not, like you may have heard, in the bermuda triangle or somewhere in the pacific,
but in a soft patch in auntie’s north 40.

and she liked it so much, she just stayed.

our house was small, and nothing fancy; just some wood and brick and not even indoor plumbing — but there was always room for one more, auntie said. and feeding another mouth? heck, back then, we all knew how to stretch a meal.

at first she didn’t talk much. not at all, really.
so we made sure she wasn’t hurt and then we left her alone.

we fed her air and light and quiet time when she seemed to need it — which was often — and soup and bread and hot, hot tea, with honey.

auntie told me to let her be, to not follow her around or disturb her with talk unless she spoke to me first. i was full of questions, but tried hard to be patient and waited for the answers to float down from the sky.

she slept on a cot in the tool shed — one tattered blanket was all we could spare — and she seemed to like being close to the ground. but she looked up a lot, squinting & frowning at the clouds.

our dog lucky was drawn to her. she smiled when he would come around, and let him sleep at her feet.

after the first week miss e started to talk. by then we’d figured out who she was but didn’t let on we knew anything except what she’d told us. which was nothing much, ‘cept that a storm came up, she lost her bearings, prayed hard, and … woke up in our corn.

auntie thinks she lost her confidence along with her bearings, but she didn’t say that out loud to her, just to me. “people sometimes go from bold to bashful overnight. ‘specially women,” is how she put it. “this gal, she’s known false comfort, and betrayal, and lately she’s known more pain than anyone else. the pain of losing herself. she got caught up in something, and is trying to find her way back.”

back to where? i wanted to ask. but auntie just shushed me and told me to go get a nicer pillow from the couch for mel’s head. that’s what auntie had taken to calling her, and she called auntie a dear, and eventually she called auntie a lifesaver, and eventually auntie called mel to her bed.

and lucky’s heart took flight ’cause after that he got to keep both their sets of feet warm.

and i breathed easier, though i wasn’t sure why. i still missed my dearly departed uncle jake, but never since the day he died had i seen a grin on auntie’s face like the one miss e put there.

it wasn’t hard, keeping miss e a secret from the neighbours. we said she was auntie’s long-lost cousin, recently widowed, penniless and heartbroken. and that we’d put her up ’til she got back on her feet. everyone knew that mean forever, ’cause where else was she gonna go?

and my grinning aunt continued to feed her soup and tea with honey. miss e, er, mel helped her with the corn. she detested the cows. said they wasted the wings that god gave them. whatever that meant.

she taught me to catch a baseball, patch a tire, and could mend the tractor even better than uncle jake used to do.

she told me that the answer to just about anything would come to you if you stared at the clouds long enough. sometimes she would walk to the end of the lane at night, look up at the stars and just sigh.

she and auntie always seemed to get along real fine. the closest they ever came to having an argument happened one day when auntie came home from town with a newspaper tucked under her arm. she showed it to mel and they tried not to let me see, but i made out the words “called off” and “presumed dead.” they talked for a while in low voices, stern but calm.

i asked what was going on and they sent me to the pump for water.

when i got back, auntie was at the stove and mel was sweeping up the shards of our brown betty teapot that lay broken on the kitchen floor.

then she took lucky for a long walk, and they didn’t return until suppertime.

auntie didn’t say a word, just cut her a slice of bread, set a bowl of soup in front of her, and went to bed.

mel picked up her spoon, twirled it in her hand a few times, set it back down and then followed auntie into the bedroom. lucky and i went out on the porch and sat until the stars came out.

the low murmur of their voices wafted through the window. i didn’t want to eavesdrop so i threw stones at the shed and tried not to hear what sounded like my auntie crying.

i curled up on the porch swing and was whistling an unhappy tune when mel came out a little while later. she told me she had decided it would be best for all of us if she left.

auntie came out and said the only thing that was best for all of us would be if mel stayed.

i looked from auntie to mel and back to auntie.

mel took her hands out of her trouser pockets and placed them gently on my auntie’s shoulders.

“you sure?” she asked softly.

“absolutely,” auntie whispered.

“then i guess i’m not goin’ anywhere,” mel smiled.

“except to town tomorrow, to buy a new teapot,” auntie grinned.

lucky howled at the moon.

Advertisements

believers

I am seven years old.
This is the first lie.
And so it begins.

The first time was the hardest. I told my new classmates that I was royalty.
That we had moved here from across the sea. That my father was a duke
and my mother a duchess with a huge fortune. The other kids did not want
to believe me at first but they were young and easy to fool.

I showed them a ring I found in the dirt. I said it was a thousand years old,
handed down through gypsy grandmothers until it was mine. They believed me.

The lying got easier. I said I was born with two hearts; that there was nothing
they could do; that even all the duke’s money couldn’t fix it until I was much older;
and that each day my mother the duchess cried and prayed that I would live
long enough to have the operation. They believed me.

I said that as a baby I was taught a special ancient language that only certain people could know; that you had to have a magic kind of tonsil to speak this mystical language. They believed me — and begged to hear me speak to them in this special tongue.
I said I could, but that they would all be struck dead if their common ears heard it.
They believed me … and begged me not to speak it.

I said I had a horse with wings that could only be seen at night; that came to my window at midnight and spirited me away to the stars, and brought me back home just in time for breakfast each morning. They believed me.

I said I had a cat with three heads and three tails that transformed into my bed at night; that purred me to sleep and tickled me with its whiskers. They believed me.

I said I had a wise old aunt with a magic mirror that could tell the future —
and that it had told her a big, red ball would fall out of the sky and destroy the earth before three more moons had come and gone. They believed that, too.

They believed and became frightened and told their parents about all the things
I had said. Their parents said I was a witch and that I must be punished.
They came for me with stones. And sticks. And fire.

I told them it was all lies — that there was no duke and duchess, no gypsy ring,
no double heart. There was no magic language, no winged horse, no catbed,
no all-knowing mirror and, especially, no big red ball about to fall from the sky.

They did not believe me.

barrie me not

“how can a free spirit ever possibly take flight living in a place called BARRIE?”

i scream this at my mother who cannot seem to understand why i am packing up my ’75 datsun b210 rustbucket and driving 2,000 miles away to take a job in alberta.

my mother isn’t getting it, but my 22-year-old gut knows that after three years as darkroom technician and general reporter at the bi-weekly bugle, it’s time to move on.

barrie soccer shirtbarrie is suffocatingly safe. it’s vanilla. it’s boiled potatoes and wonder bread and piano lessons on monday afternoons. it’s church rummage sales and junior B hockey. vodka smuggled into high school dances, labatt’s blue at the underage skating parties. april wine and foot in coldwater at the college pub night piss-ups. it’s an excruciating hour’s drive from toronto, which at least has a pulse. it’s waking up greasy and groggy after all-night poker games with the guys in the bullpen.

barrie is so boring that we don’t actually play poker at our poker parties — we play hearts and euchre. but we do eat chips and drink beer and smoke cigars in an attempt to invoke the sleaziness quotient of poker. still, barrie is so boring that we don’t even smoke real cigars, we smoke colts — which involves very little actual smoking and is more about sucking on the wine-flavoured tips.

my mom doesn’t seem to get this but barrie is so boring, we drag ourselves down to the lake and sit on the dock and just sit — sit and watch motorboats pull up to the docks and wonder why anyone with money enough to buy a boat would bother to come aboard at kempenfart bay. because there is sure nothing to do in our sleepy little town. no good restaurants — unless you LIKE cigarette ashes with your sweet & sour chicken balls from lem cho’s — and only two rinky-dink movie theatres — the roxy and the imperial, which never show anything good, just sappy walt disney stuff like hayley mills fighting off some guy trying to kiss her, or hayley mills smoking cigars in the boiler room of a convent. four-star bopperfests.

barrie is so boring, there isn’t even a mall. all we have is mother’s pizza and towers department store. when i was in high school we didn’t even have a freakin’ mcdonald’s, just root beer and teenburgers at the dub; and it was all we could do to convince the waitresses at the crock & block to serve us draft beer in their frosted mugs, because we were only 16 but not bad enough girls to have fake I.D.

back then it was firenze pizza and tom collins chasers, and midnight tokin’ with our steve miller LPs in molly jackson’s basement. back then the air was always oppressively humid and even the liberals were frighteningly conservative. now it’s jogging on the track at the Y after work, and lunch with harris and timer and richie every wednesday at the town & country lounge — where the soup is always french onion and the special is always beef dip — except on fridays, when god help you if you don’t want fish & chips.

no, a free spirit couldn’t possibly take flight in a boring place called BARRIE.

but my mom still doesn’t get it.

“you remind me of me,” she says. “when i was your age i wanted to move to alaska and have six kids. i never did that. but you …. you figure out what you want and you go after it.”

then why won’t she let me go?

i may not know exactly what it is i want, but i do know what i DON’T want: i don’t want to live my entire life in a white-bread, tim hortons-and-beef-dip town and end up sixty years later being buried in a place called barrie.

i don’t want alaska or six kids, either, to be sure … but whatever it is i do want might just be waiting for me in alberta.

i hear the weather’s good there in the fall.

the writers go for breakfast

breakfast cafeSkim milk latte?

We don’t do that

OK, eggs florentine then. That’s with spinach, right?

Um usually yeah but we’re out of spinach

OK, without the spinach then. Are soy lattes any good?

No

Another latte, then, but this time without caffeine, please

Hmmmm …

Oh, do you not do decaf?

Well, yeah, we “do” (makes air quotes with fingers) it,
but I just don’t know if we “have” any

No spinach, no decaf … how about herbal tea?

I don’t know if we “have” that either. I can check.

No thank you. Never mind. Just water, please.
So anyway, as I was saying, personal transformation is not always a poem.
One man’s therapy is not necessarily another man’s sonnet.

I agree totally, but some people seem to think they have to incorporate
every fucking little breakthrough they have with their shrink
into a piece of performance art. I have gossip.

Dish!

J is sleeping with K.

I already knew that.

Yes, but did you know that K use to be with Q?

No! But i knew that T and S just had a three-some with D.

D? When did D get back?

From where? I didn’t even know that D was away.

Oh, yeah, you know, that annual Spa and Stanza retreat at Papyrus Hills. Somehow she always manages to lose 20 pounds of cellulite and gain 30 pages of manuscript.

I hate that about her.

Yeah, it’s incredibly annoying to those of us with perpetual writers’ block.
How are the bennies?

Good, but they would be better with spinach.

Yeah. How’s the latte?

Fine but I think I should’ve gotten the skim.

But they don’t “do” skim, remember. Like, they have some kind of conscientious objection to a skim milk latte. They’re “anti-skim.”

You’d think that if they object to skim they’d have a similar moral objection to decaf.

Well, yeah, of course. I mean, of the two, which is the most obscene?

They’re both an abomination, if you ask me. What’s the point of the special coffee if you’re going to remove the caffeine and de-fat the milk? Why bother?

I agree totally. And eggs florentine without spinach — well that’s just bad breakfast karma.

It’s kind of cold here, you know. By the door.

Yeah, but this is a great bagel. What is this fruit that they’ve used as a garnish?

Damned if I know … some kind of a pumpkin-lemon cross? Weird.
Maybe a cumquat sort of thingy…

More coffee, ladies?

Um, no thanks. Just the bill.

Autographed copy

She is traveling downtown on the bus.

She is reading his novel while traveling downtown on the bus.

She wonders if the other passengers are aware it is an autographed copy she is reading on the bus.

She is reading his novel and wants the other passengers to know it is an autographed copy that she is reading. She needs them to know it is not a lame, generic signed copy, “Best wishes to BLANK,” but a unique, intensely personal copy that he has signed JUST FOR HER: “To Barbara, thank you for your brilliance, your understanding, your support, your loveliness.”

He has written these words to her because he thinks she is Brilliant. Understanding. Supportive. Lovely. He has picked up on her loveliness and her brilliance and immortalized these qualities by writing them on the acknowledgements page at the beginning of his novel.

She bought the novel at a garage sale but he doesn’t need to know that. She bought his novel at a neighbourhood garage sale out of a big cardboard box for 50 cents but it was in not too bad condition and he had no way of knowing that she hadn’t even read the book when she asked him to autograph it. She held it out to him slightly dog-eared and coffee-stained like she had carried it lovingly in her knapsack for two years when in fact she still hadn’t read it, but he didn’t need to know that.

She is reading it now, and she hopes the other passengers on the bus can tell, can somehow sense that it is a special, personally autographed copy she holds; somehow know that his exceptionally nimble, slender writing fingers had touched the nib of his pen to this fine debut effort that critics had called a tour de force, a promising new literary voice and had written her name — Barbara — leaving no doubt that his creative, tortured soul had been touched (supported, in fact) by her brilliance, her understanding, her loveliness.

She wishes she could nonchalantly let the book slip onto the floor of the bus and have it fall open to the page with his name on it, flaunt the page that has been blessed by his blue felt marker, the page on which the author revealed that his tormented, unfulfilled life had been touched, altered, forever changed by her. By her loveliness. By her brilliance. She had been Chosen. He had signed it For Her.

She wonders if the book is loosely based on his own life (of course it is.)
She wonders if he has used her as inspiration for any of the characters (of course he has). She wonders if he has really left his wife. She wonders if there is any place for her in his library. (Of course. Of course.)

She looks up from his novel and discovers there is no one else left on the bus.
She has missed her stop. She is in a different part of town.
She becomes aware that she is in his neighbourhood.
She becomes aware that she is seeking him out.

She feels her heart beat faster.

She becomes aware that she has to see him: in his house, in his garden, in his car, walking his dog, speaking to his children. She has to be near him. Watch him. Study him. Thank him. He will see that she is engrossed in his book. That she is worthy.

He has to see her. To recognize her genius. Her beauty.
He has to realize she is the only one for him.
She is the only reader. He is the only writer. His are the only words; hers are the only eyes. She must make him aware that she can see inside him; that she understands him like nobody else.

She can read him like a book.

She becomes aware that she, and only she, can fix him. Edit him. Save him.

She sees herself massaging his spine. Restoring his binding. Extending his shelf life.

She sees herself lulling his muse into a false sense of security, then smothering her with a pillow. Poisoning her. Drowning her. Burying her in a shallow grave. Burying his tired old muse so that she, the brilliant, the understanding, the lovely Barbara, can be there for him. She will be there for him because he is The Word. And also because, she has decided, he has nice handwriting.

She glances out the bus window and notices that night has fallen. Night has fallen and she is overcome with a sad awareness that she knows nothing about this man. This author. This stranger. Nothing except that he is a teller of stories.

All lies, probably.

It doesn’t matter. She is not ready to turn the page on him just yet.