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I rode the bus twice a day for every day I attended high school. I rode at the back of the bus, not to be cool, but to be unseen and safe. Classes were bigger in high school and the school itself a hundred fold larger. I sat in the back of most classes, not to be cool, but to be unseen (unheard) and safe. Being seen or being heard at school (as at home) was an unwelcome invitation to ridicule, scorn, laughter and ultimately, rejection. Now, a hundred years later, have I still a voice?
Can I be seen?
The right mix of weather is vital to a retail nursery. A sunny spring weekend easily adds a hundred large to your bottom line, cushioning the dog-days of summer which leave sales flaccid. Weather nipped our heels all season long, dogging our best efforts to make something happen. From April until early November, frost, sheeting rain, intense heat and damp, bone-chilling gloom, all conspired against us. Then, with our last chance looming, the mercury shot upward bringing T-shirt weather to late fall, propelling our sales skyward, and my Christmas greens riding the payload.
Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus!
Maybe it’s the memory that plays tricks and distorts the past. I don’t know, but these days there never seems to be enough time to do the ordinary, needful things that seemed to take less effort in the past. Simple things like cleaning (a small one bedroom apartment), shopping (for one) and then cooking a simple meal. I remember doing it all, cleaning, shopping and even cooking for eight guests, all on a lazy Saturday. Where did that man go? The stranger staring back in the bathroom mirror, finds negotiating the breakfast dishes to be something of a Herculean task.
Suddenly, it’s Sunday again (on Monday) and with the impending start of a new work week looming large on the grey morning horizon, I consider what to do with my last day’s liberty. Wash that bottomless sink of dishes? Reorganize the closet-black hole that barely contains a dangerous hoarding of junk? Or will this be the day to tackle that tinder box of an oven? No. I retire to the gravity of my well-worn chair, to consider my action plan, to find the TV remote slips ever easily into hand. And, the rest of my day winks into familiar focus.
The supper hour is a quiet time in the nursery. The evening customers are in transit from work or sitting down to dinner. I busy myself with some mindless task awaiting their arrival. One of the carry-out boys stops by my frigid work area and asks if I have a job for him. There are boxes to break-up and plenty of ground to sweep. He obliges willingly enough, but he’d rather return to the warmth of the store and the girls at front cash. We make smoke as we breathe in the cold evening air, starting a short, awkward conversation.
“How’s life?” I ask him to start the small talk rolling.
he says then launches into the news he’s got a new girlfriend. They’ve just “had fun” at their first movie. I don’t bother to ask what they saw but turn to my standard line: “Remember if you can’t be good…” What a cliché, but what else to say? I know the broom in my hand better than the boy. He smiles and assures me that he is always safe in these situations. How reassuring, I think. Then I wonder how many reluctant fathers functioned under the very same belief.
The young man is not from Canada but is a recent immigrant from South America. He says he finds his Canadian friends very repressed about sex. He explains that at home kids are relaxed about the subject and speak freely to their parents about it all. He finds our attitude hard to understand. I shrug my shoulders. “In your country, people must have stopped listening to the Church a long time ago.” I doubt he understands. I think to myself “Of course, how laid-back would your family be if your girlfriend were a boyfriend?” Some hang-ups are, after all, international.
Bitter cold. The first really cold day sees time slow down. Eight hours gain an extra two. Layering on clothing helps, but the wily wind finds chinks in my defense. Standing between the smoky fire and the gusting wind tonight, between customers too infrequent for busyness, I found too much time to think. Near the end of a long day, stretching too far into a dark night, I recall a mythical time as a younger man, when I walked everywhere, rain or shine. The work days were shorter, the nights not so dark and the cold not so bitter then.
One of the other managers called me over to ask if I’ve had my chat with the owner. “Not yet, but I guess I should.” He scorns my reluctance to engage the enemy and asks why I haven’t made enquires about winter. “Around here, we work in a theatre of half-truths. Being laid-off is the worst scenario for me, and if it’s in the cards, I won’t find out till the axe falls. Why seek false hope?” My colleague shrugs. Walking off, I recall the old saying: When war comes, truth is the first casualty. Is work really a war-zone?
For Christmas, Margaret’s sent me a short letter she’s found, written by my mother to hers back in January of 1966. It’s no ordinary letter. The letter describes the wallpapering and painting of their newest apartment. She lists off what she’s accomplished and what still needs doing. She jokes about all the things she wants, adding ‘a millionaire’ to pay for it all. Her words have not seen the light of day in forty years but they ring with a youthful happiness. How stunned they all were when, just weeks later she lay dead in her bed, Good Friday morning.
I read the letter again, carefully. It’s like a time capsule with references to me as a three year-old and Dad returning to Wales on a job. Even Gary get’s mentioned; I haven’t thought about him in years. She writes as she speaks, in clipped sentences to save space, turning grammar on its ear and frequently spelling words wrong. She writes in an old-fashioned hand that is neat but unsteady, as if here thoughts do not entirely flow. I see a bit of myself in that hand and begin to understand why my spelling and penmanship leave much to desire.
The letter continues to leave me uneasy. I can read my mother’s words but can’t hear her voice nor imagine her alive in any way. At three years of age, the mind is only just learning to lay down permanent memories. What I do recall is weak and unreliable. My childhood does not include her. Children know their parent’s by more than sight alone and bonding goes deep. Yet, my mother is a hollow space. She is a black and white photograph that does not speak and cannot move. Even the last letter she ever wrote remains mute to me.
Retailing is feast or famine to me. You’re either run off your feet or desperate for something to do. Last night, Creag and I were outside in the nursery waiting for the next wave of customers when he happened to say how much I probably wished for a job with more actual gardening in it. “Not really,” I replied, never having really enjoyed labouring. “I kinda figured you weren’t the type to go in for landscaping…” His candor took me aback. I asked if it was that obvious, hoping he had keener than average insight. He just shrugged and turned.
I must have reset the alarm accidentally. It went off at five instead of seven. I lay tossing for an eternity before falling asleep again and into a marvelously strange dream. A twisted tale, it began at work, but not really work, segued into a bit of strangeness involving a river or perhaps an old canal, then a farmhouse in which a group of us chased something (someone) around a dark garden, sped through the streets of London (that wasn’t London) in the basket of a bicycle (maybe), to end up in a restaurant waiting for a meal of slugs.
Yesterday’s dream continues to fade but its strangeness lingers. In particular lingers the vision of a bright, smiling face, the face of a younger man that I’m sure I don’t know. Perhaps he is a composite of many faces of those forgotten few, I knew too little, too long ago. In my dream his affection for me is a clear understanding between us and I feel no fear. I feel instead a magnet’s pull. He is not the first such apparition to appear. Like him, all strangers to me, they vanish with reality’s return, to eventually return another night reinvented.
I’m sick again. I had thought myself finally immune; that years of exposure should have somehow built within me a resistance to its attack. True, the infection is not so acute, nor the symptoms of tightness in the chest, queasiness and moodiness, so severe. Yet, I’ve fallen in love again. I dread love above all illnesses. I dread the elation it brings, the silly excuses I make to be near him, the constant attempts to bribe or negotiate for some crumb of reciprocity. That reciprocity never comes and it’s the anguish that follows me around that I dread the most.
He is young, lithe and lovely. My affection for him grows, only tempered and contained by the fact this is a secret only I will ever know.
He lies like a desktop image below the business of the day. I fight the urge to fabricate a longed for reality in which my desires are met, joined and magnified in their communion. Soaring upwards, my heart, my head in tow, my body lost below, I wax poetic before the fall!
A serpent lies in every garden, a rodent in every larder. A too familiar dread returns to lay my spirits low.
Dithering about today, like every Monday now as long as I recall. Chasing my tail to accomplish the smallest of chores! I did get that hair cut. I did browse Chapters to find three more books to buy at less than the cover price. Yet, still the day spun out of my control and I was left at 10 p.m. with only a sense of much that had yet to be done before the week began in earnest. It’s a perception thing. I’m sure, it has to be. The year has but 365 days, 24 hours and 60 minutes. Still.
Things have slowed down to a crawl at work. The fastest part of the day was surely the panicked drive from home, for I had not noticed the advancing time and made tracks late. Now, time hangs like cool honey on the end of a spoon, oozing itself over the mortifying molecules of the evening as if to mock me. Only days earlier did I complain (so uncharacteristically) about being left alone in the nursery to face the crowd! What crowd, I ask myself as I stand in a dark, deserted tree lot with only the hissing fire for company?
More of the same, time on my hands God damn it! Trade has fallen off yet again and I once more do curse the ebb and flow of the business in which I find myself! This morning, my morning of freedom, flew past me so fast that I could not fully grasp or use it.
Days merge and blend into routine days and the framework of this routine collects the mud of passing time. It builds constantly, like the dam that the beaver builds. He builds his for sustenance, as do I. This much has he, and I in common.
Yet more of the same, again, but now I have been given a refuge inside! The signage project is resumed and once more I begin to beaver away at creating a description of every living item on our manifest. I am heavy with the task, though. I watch as others busy themselves outside in the smoke and bluster and wonder how they view my performance? The guilt, borne of being warm and dry, cuts into an older and more deeply rooted insecurity. I still feel the need to justify, explain and pacify those around me. Surely, my talents are sufficient?
It is Friday once again. The day drags out like a sticky toffee candy that pulls at sore teeth. I busy myself as much as possible, if only to make the hands of the clock sweep by faster, but to no affect. Anticipation of seeing him haunts my concentration and hinders my salvation. My heart beats acid through my chest. I push the thoughts away with all the conviction of a drunk passing up a free shot. Perhaps just this once the stars will align themselves to answer my earnest longing? Of course, this is the antithesis of the outcome.
Finally, the end of the week! I pray for a simple day. As it happens, he is working today and my world moves sideways! I had not expected to see him. We work close by each other all day, in earshot nearly but out of sight. I am heavy inside most of the day with the dread: I am invisible to him even when we are in full view of each other. Five o’clock arrives and I realize he is gone, 20 minutes later...gone without saying good night, merry Christmas or happy New Year. Another scene, of another act, fulfilled.
Christmas Eve again and I’m grateful to have a few days off. I push myself hard to buy a couple more gifts, in stores that are busy, but I am unmoved by the time of year. Finding a book for Dad is like pulling teeth from a marble statue. I drift from aisle to aisle before finding something, anything, suitable. If Christmas has a spirit, it is surely dead within me. I frame yet another thin Christmas without joy or happy anticipation, just dutiful observance. The season seems too tired and overwrought. I walk on like one who is dead.
I’m due in Brooklin sometime today. Christmas dinner lays waiting as does a movie, then bed, then breakfast then home again in the afternoon. It is our way. It is the tradition of the holidays that people cling to. I find myself detached from it all. We are just having dinner and having a few drinks. My lethargy toward Christmas is not confined to me as the folks admit to having feelings of indifference this year. Maybe it was the lack of snow that damped our spirits. Or, perhaps we’re all burned-out and hitting the bottom of the holiday hard.
I turn the engine over and pointed the car for toward the highway. The Chronicles of Narnia proved a universal disappointment that not even four litres of wine could manage to remedy. I loitered about Brooklin a little longer but with nothing new to do, the time passed slowly and awkwardly. We tried the other movie I brought, Sin City, but it lasted even less time than Narnia. I took stock of Christmas quickly in my head and realized something that had almost escaped me. Not a single harsh word was spoken – a Christmas without a fight. How miraculously strange!
I awoke early in the morning as I’ve a habit of doing. The world outside was quiet except for the ever-present hum of the city beyond my street. My room was quiet too, the stillness broken only by the short, precise snap of my quartz alarm clock. I began to search my mind for the order of the day. Which day? What routine? How heavy the traffic, and so forth. I tossed a little teetering on the edge of falling over. It was too early to rise and start the day but too late to sleep again. Or, was it?
The Arches are transforming from Christmas mode to that of winter. The stock that did not sell is consolidated beyond a temporary wall that divides my part of the greenhouse, which goes cold tomorrow. I sit at the computer at the Info Booth, typing. Around me, the other workers beaver away at preparing for winter. I wonder if they resent my apparent comfort. The lights that lie beneath the blackout come down. As they do, darkness falls across the broad empty floor and soon I sit in a small pool of light, in the aftermath as my first season ends.
My nightmares have changed. Bad dreams once forge themselves along very familiar lines: of being late, for an exam in a class I’d never taken, getting shown-up by someone and laughed at by others, or the ever popular attempt to run while hip-deep in porridge. Such visions gave way to a wakeful sense of relief as another mundane day lay ahead, that rendered fear, terror, dread or shame safe, and the experience entertaining. Today, nightmares are more subtle and convoluted but ring with schemes and specters that are just as familiar and frightening. Now however, on waking, the dreaming continues.
Growing up in the New World there was one Scottish tradition we observed for many years. We’d clean the apartment from top to bottom, paying attention to cupboards and other neglected spaces, paid off outstanding debts and ensured we had food and drink for “twelve chiming”. This year, as hard as I’m trying to motivate myself for even a good old-fashioned cleaning -- which is a wonderfully practical exercise that can do wonders to settle the mind, the feelings just won’t kindle. My mind is a heap of green wood that stubbornly molders. I guess traditions, like dreams can become threadbare.
New Year’s counting down again and I have a simple plan: make a nice meal, drink a nice wine and lose myself in a movie. I long ago discovered that trying to create an event from the outside doesn’t really work, and the loneliest man alive is found at the centre of a crowd. New Year is about new beginnings. Tonight is all about ending. I think, no matter how hard you clean and tidy, chaos remains; all debts revolve and the daily dance shuffles on. Later, unseen, I discovered that New Year had arrived more than thirty minutes earlier.
The Tip Jar