Face, Meet Sidewalk

Archive for May 2011

This was written for an assignment for my creative writing class. The exercise was to write a story that ended with “But it must be true. I read it in the Winnipeg Free Press”. While the characters and headlines in this story are true, the events described are purely fiction, involving generous amounts of literary license. Timely subject matter, however, considering the constant NHL rumblings and false Bettman-sightings around town. It was written before the Phoenix deal fell apart, though. Remember, fiction.

 

“Mommy, is the Winnipeg Free Press real?” Jack asked me one Saturday morning as I flipped through the sports section. He said it as if it was one word – WinnipegFreePress.

“Real?” I asked. “What do you mean, Bud?”

“Do they make stuff up, like the Hardy Boys books from the library are just made up? Or are they…” he searched for the word he wanted. “Are they true?”

We had already had the fiction/non-fiction discussion, so he understood the difference. “Well, yes,” I replied. “The newspaper has to print what is true.”

A delighted look crossed his face. “Can I read it?”

“Sure,” I responded, sliding the paper across the table to him.

Jack was a precocious five-year old. He had been able to sound out words and read simple texts since he was three. Kindergarten bored him to tears most days.

Thankfully for me and for his teacher, he poured is excess energy into whatever was his current obsession. He had already been through a dinosaur phase, an airplane phase and a tractor phase. At the moment, he was passionate about hockey. He knew all the NHL team colours, could name many of the major players, and tended to retain every little snippet he heard about hockey and the history of the game.

He peered at the paper for several minutes, silently sounding out words. I watched him over the rim of my coffee cup. I could see the wheels turning in his little blond head. He was thinking furiously about something.

“Mom, what does ‘delay’ mean?” he asked.

“It means ‘slow down’,” I answered. He carried on reading.

I watched comprehension dawn on his face as the meaning of the article he was reading sank in. All of a sudden, he took off running.

“Dad! Dad! The Jets are coming back!” he hollered excitedly as he raced toward the den.

I heard Dad murmur in reply, and Jack’s sharp little voice pipe up again. “I read it in the newspaper! It said they were delayed! That means they’re coming back, right Dad? Can we get tickets?”

I looked down at the article Jack had been reading. The headline read COYOTES DELAY JETS. It was an article about some wild coyotes wandering out onto an airport runway, causing traffic disruptions. I stifled a chuckle. I could hear Dad in the den, trying to explain that the article was not about the Winnipeg Jets hockey team. Jack’s excited chatter turned quiet. By the time I got there, he was indignant. I tried to soothe his disappointment.

“Not everything you read is true, buddy,” I said.

“But it must be true!” Jack cried, devastated. “I read it in the Winnipeg Free Press!”

The cab dropped Violet at the end of her driveway. It was difficult to get out of the warm car. The air was frigid and it was dark, although at this time of year it got dark almost before she left for her bridge game. She was grateful for the spikes on the end of her cane as they bit into the icy sidewalk leading up to her house. Ever since she’d broken her hip a year or so ago she hadn’t been so steady on her feet. The extra cup of tea at bridge hadn’t helped, either. Thank goodness she’d canceled the visit from the home care nurse tonight – that nosy old bat would have been sure to say something about her blood sugar. But who could stand that chemical sweetener? Sugar was the only real way to drink tea.

It was not until she had almost made it to the front door that she noticed something was amiss. The door was splintered at the deadbolt and a small piece of plywood had been screwed across the broken part. Violet’s heart began to race painfully. She had lived in this house for 62 years, and never once had she been robbed.

She looked back down the driveway, but the taxi was long since gone. What to do? Should she go in? What if they were still there? The street was deserted and still in the chill winter night. She started to shiver, but she wasn’t sure if it was with cold or fear.

From down the street, she heard an engine coming closer. A vaguely familiar car pulled up at the curb a few houses away and idled for a moment before falling silent. A young man got out and hurried down the sidewalk, away from Violet’s house. She had seen him before, maybe at the store, or walking past the house. He lived in the apartment building around the corner.

It was eleven at night and no one else was around. She was scared to go into her house. After deliberating for a split second, she called out in a shaky voice.

“Young man!”

He looked around, obviously unsure of what he had heard.

“Over here!” she called again, and began walking cautiously toward him, ready to whack him with her cane if this turned out to be a bad decision.

He noticed her, and she watched him shift from suspicion to wary curiosity when he realized it was an old lady hollering at him.

“Hi,” he said hesitantly, staying carefully just out of striking distance of Violet’s cane.

“I think my house has been broke into,” she said.

He looked confused. She half expected him to ask what she wanted him to do about it. To her immense relief, he nodded once and shifted his weight toward her and the house behind her.

“Do you want me to take a look?” he asked.

Gratefully, she smiled. “Would you mind?” Suddenly he looked less like a thug and more like the son she never had.

“No, I don’t mind,” he said.

As they approached the house together, Violet realized that one small fragment of her mind was utterly furious with the fact that she was at the mercy of this stranger. She did not know him from Adam, yet here she was, letting him into her house.

On the other hand, the larger part of her was extremely grateful he had come along when he did. She had not really had time to consider what she would do, alone, late, without one of those cell phones everyone else seemed to have… and ever since that boy fell through the ice, she had been avoiding most of the neighbours to save herself the awkward conversations. It would be would be a large lump of pride to swallow to have to go and ask them for help now.

The young man climbed the porch step and looked at the splintered door. “What…?” he started, obviously confused by the splinters and the plywood patch.

“When did this happen?” he asked.

“It was fine when I went to bridge at 6:30 tonight,” she replied.

He rattled the knob. It came off in his hand. Violet laughed involuntarily, a harsh cackle of poorly suppressed hysteria. She covered her mouth quickly, embarrassed.

The door remained firmly closed. The man looked at her.

“What do you want to do?” he asked. “I have a phone, I could call the police for you.”

“I don’t know,” Violet wrung her hands. “Do you think we should?”

Somehow, this stranger had become her lifeline. At this moment, she would have walked into the creek behind the house if he’d told her to.

“Well, let me try one more time,” he said, leaning his shoulder against the door and applying some pressure.

The wooden frame splintered with a crack and gave way, just as the next-door neigbour’s porch light snapped on and his front door opened.

“Violet!” called Gus, the neighbour. “Are you alright?”

Gus was obviously just heading for bed. He stepped across the icy yard in his robe and slippers. Irritation and profound embarrassment flashed through Violet, tempered only by the thought that maybe Gus wasn’t just a shameless cultivator of dandelions, but someone who was actually concerned about her.

“Yes, Gus, I’m fine,” she replied, not really trying to keep the irritation from her voice. Why did people insist on referring to her by her first name? Where Violet came from, people usually showed more respect to their elders than that.

The young man shifted behind Violet and she turned her attention back to him for a moment. He looked extremely uncomfortable, as if he was trying to decide whether to defend Violet, or run away.

“What’s your name, young man?” she asked quietly.

“Uh… Dave,” he responded.

“Very well, Uh Dave,” she drawled with momentary sarcasm. “Would you mind staying here for just another moment?” She glanced subtly in Gus’s direction.

Dave nodded, and looked uneasily toward Gus.

She turned back to the neighbour, who was by now nearly at the porch. His hairy white legs stuck out from under his robe. He looked positively frozen already.

He waved an envelope at Violet.

“Your home care nurse was here earlier, and when you didn’t answer the door, she thought you were dead or something,” Gus said. “She called the fire department and they broke down the door. You weren’t there.”

Another bolt of embarrassment shot through Violet. She wondered if her red face was glowing in the dark.

“I most certainly was not there. And I am very much alive, obviously!” Violet said indignantly. What on earth would the neighbourhood be saying about her now? She would be having a talk with that nurse tomorrow – not only did they come when she had canceled, they broke down her door, and now everyone on the block, including this nice young man, Dave, was it? knew she had home care. God only knew what that woman had told Gus about why she needed it! And how many neighbours now had another reason to pity the decrepit old widow!

“Well, er, yes,” Gus agreed. “Obviously.” He thrust the envelope at her. “Here – this is the note they left you. They asked me to give it to you when you got home. I’ve been watching for you for hours.”

“Thank you,” she said dismissively, ignoring the subtle rebuke. Who was Gus to tell her when she could come and go? Fury ate at her as she turned back to Dave and the shattered door. Her hands shook and the envelope slipped out of her gloved fingers and fluttered to the ground. Tears of shame and frustration pricked at her eyes. Dave quickly bent and picked it up, and handed it to her. If she was going to choose one of these men to ask for help, it was going to be the kind stranger before the nosy old busybody, hands down.

“Goodnight, Gus,” she added as an afterthought, trying to cover her humiliation with suitable gratitude. Her voice quivered and she could not bring herself to look Gus in the eye. “You should get inside before you freeze.”

“Ok, then,” Gus replied hesitantly. “Do you need a hand getting inside?”

“No, thank you, Gus,” she said. “My friend Dave here will help.”

She turned back to Dave. “Shall we?”

She heard Gus mumble something and crunch back across the snow to his own house. Dave opened the door and held it while Violet entered the vestibule.

There were wet footprints everywhere. Violet fought tears again.

“Can I help you clean up a little?” Dave asked kindly, seeing her dismay at the mess.

“No, that’s fine,” Violet said. She shook her head to clear it, set her face in a hospitable mask, and looked at Dave. “Would you care for a cup of tea?”

Dave smiled. His nose was pink from the cold outside. “I would love one,” he said. “Why don’t you make it while I fix your door enough that it will close? You can call to have it repaired tomorrow.”

She hadn’t even thought of that. Gratitude toned her embarrassment. “That would be lovely,” she said. “I have tools in the basement.”

Fifteen minutes later, the floors were wiped, the door was sealed against the cold, and the tea was brewed. Violet and Dave sat at the worn Formica table in the kitchen.

“One lump or two?” she asked, passing the sugar bowl.

A man after her own heart, he plunged the little tongs into the bowl. “Two, please, thank you, Mrs…” He trailed off.

Violet clapped her hands in surprise. “We’ve never been properly introduced!” she realized. “I am Mrs. McLean. But you can call me Violet.”

They clinked their china teacups together, and Violet felt better for the first time all night.

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Violet looked proudly over her stockpile one last time. If it was coming, she was ready.

She had at least two years’ worth of bottled water, toothpaste, and non-perishable food items tidily tucked in her basement storage area, just in case. She had a small arsenal of weapons at her disposal – an aluminum baseball bat, a potato gun (and a root cellar full of ammo), and a sharpened boomerang.

Bring on the zombies. Violet was prepared.

She had always been a cautious woman, ever prepared for her earthly needs. She made sure to have enough of everything to last her a while. Over the years Violet had made it a point to lay in stores of enough tea, dry goods, and reading material to last through a small- to medium-sized apocalypse. Having it all stacked neatly in a small corner of her basement made her feel so much better. Granted, two years’ worth of food was not a lot, but at Violet’s age, chances are she wouldn’t need much anyway. Better not to leave much for the looters to sell on the black market.

And it came in handy every once in a while. One winter, there was a snowstorm that kept the city immobilized for four whole days. Violet waited it out, patiently, as warm and well-fed as ever. Eventually, the neighbours shoveled a path to her door and hammered on it, intruding rudely into her peaceful afternoon. They’d looked comically relieved at seeing she was not only alive, but well, all alone in her house. Her mildly indignant response probably put some of them off, but she’d hardly been in the mood for a visit. She decided not to let them know too much about her stockpile, fearing they’d start thinking of her as just another crazy old bat. Anyway, she never went over the top when she collected things she might need, but the idea that someone might come into her house after she was dead and imagine her lying in stores like those bomb-shelter nuts was a little disturbing.

So she was ready, just in case those wing nuts down south were right, and the Zombie Apocalypse was imminent. She scoffed at the very thought. And anyway, she was a little more concerned about the Rapture than some fictional virus.

Violet had never been very religious. The more she thought about it, the more convinced she was that religion was just a way to get people to be nice to each other. To bad it didn’t work over there in the Middle East. But really, she thought, that’s what it came down to. Be nice or God will be displeased. Smacked a little too much of “just wait till your Father gets home” to be all that palatable.

No one had ever asked her – you simply didn’t talk about religion in Violet’s circles – but if they had, she would have to admit that she probably didn’t even believe in God. At least not some omniscient controller up there watching everyone scurry around doing His bidding. Violet was glad no one had ever asked her, though. It wasn’t something she was ever too anxious to say out loud.

Violet acknowledged that her spiritual beliefs tended more towards superstition than any kind of organized religious doctrine. More real to Violet than God was black cats,  or the prohibitions against passing someone on the stairs, or opening an umbrella in the house. Those were practical things. So much more useful than God. She was hard pressed to concern herself with the existence of an afterlife – the idea was simply unimaginable. She much preferred to operate on the assumption that this was all there was to life – and if it turned out otherwise, well, she would just have to cross that bridge when she came to it.

Still, there was always a niggling little doubt in the back of her mind. What if?

When rumours of the Rapture started floating around at Thursday bridge club, she listened with a quiet self-satisfaction. Although she outwardly ridiculed  the idea of Judgment Day (this Saturday, coming soon to a street corner near you), the fact that her little stockpile might come in handy was immensely pleasing.

Her bridge buddies seemed a little flustered by the whole idea of the Rapture. The religious ones got all smug, but those who were the Easter-and-Christmas-only crowd at church almost seemed a little panicked by the idea. She wondered how many churches were a little fuller than usual on the Sunday before Armageddon. How many last minute repenters would this whole ridiculous thing bring out?

Either way, Violet figured it was a win-win situation for her. If there was a Rapture, and she was wrong, then it should be over pretty quickly. If not, no harm, no foul. And she still had enough toilet paper to last the rest of her life, zombies or no. Still, she hadn’t made many plans for next week. One never knew with these things.When you looked at everything that had happened in the last 100 years, you had to admit, anything was possible.

Violet minutely adjusted a can of tomatoes so that its label lined up precisely with those of its neighbors, and clicked off the basement light. Slowly, she climbed the stairs, feeling every one of her 89 years. In the living room, she turned her favorite recliner another inch closer to the picture window, sat down, and picked up her knitting. Might as well be productive, she thought, as she settled in to wait for something to happen.

The chill air blew straight down Violet’s sweaty neck, making her skin clammy. She chopped at the ice in front of the back door, swearing she would not let it build up that high next winter. She hadn’t been able to open the door for months.

The days were getting perceptibly warmer now, and the air no longer had that bitter, violent edge that made her want to curl up and sleep for weeks. Even shuffling around to the back yard to attack the ice jam took less insulation and less mental effort than it had a month ago.

Around her, the air was quiet, muffled by snow. A bird called, another tiny light at the end of winter’s interminable tunnel. She stood on stiff, arthritic toes to peer over the snow bank into the neighbour’s yard. It had to have been a record snowfall this year. In her 89 years, Violet had never seen this much snow.

She kept her focus on the areas of the yard that were blanketed in perfect, smooth whiteness. Footprints disturbed her sense of order. When Frank was alive, she insisted he use the snow-blower to clear the walks. It made such lovely, precise edges and corners. You almost couldn’t tell where the snow had naturally fallen and what was thrown there by the machine. The boy she had hired to shovel for her this year, though, he refused to use it. She wouldn’t be hiring him again next year, that was certain. He made huge, messy piles that blocked her view and disturbed the symmetry of the yard.

Worse than footprints, Violet couldn’t abide when the neighbours from three houses down, the ones with all those unruly children, shoveled the creek behind their houses for skating. They made such a mess, flinging the snow all over, in unnatural hillocks and humps. It just wasn’t right. Even though the creek was probably frozen solid, she told herself she was worried about a child falling through the ice. She even caught herself wishing for it to happen, once or twice. Teach them a lesson, she thought. Even now she could see one of them, a boy too young for school, no doubt, sliding around the patch of bare ice, his jacket undone and his feet shoved haphazardly into boots three sizes too big. Where on earth was his mother? she wondered idly.

Violet had just picked up her shovel to continue pounding away at the ice when she heard a crack so loud, it made her jump and nearly lose her footing.

Catching her balance, prickles of fear and relief reminded her that the prospects of an octogenarian widow with a broken hip were slim at best, especially when lying in one’s own back yard under a late winter sky.

She raised the shovel again, but dropped it abruptly as she heard a thin yell. She made her way gingerly to the back fence and peered over. At first she saw nothing amiss, but as her eyes slowly adjusted to the brilliant reflection off the snow, she could make out a darker shadow on the creek, about where the neighbour boy had been playing. Of course, he was nowhere to be seen. Another panicked holler from the direction of the creek confirmed it – the boy had actually fallen through the ice.

What to do? She wasn’t exactly superhero material – a gnarled, bent woman whose weight in pounds about matched her age, wearing Frank’s old parka and galoshes over a worn cotton housedress. And these things never ended well. But shouldn’t she at least take a look? Maybe she’d be able to slide a subtle I-told-you-so toward the mother when the dust had settled. She shuffled carefully – the adrenaline still tingling from the near fall a second ago – out of the gate and toward the creek, using the shovel as a kind walking stick.

The snow was deep, but the boy’s family had shoveled a little path from their gate to the skating rink. Violet made her way toward the path. Over the huff and puff of her breath, she thought she heard another cry, but when she stopped and looked around, no relief was coming. She carried on.

It took five long minutes to get to the edge of the frozen creek. Violet was exhausted, and those tiny twinges were fluttering in her chest again, the ones where she was supposed to take her nitro. Her nitro, which was back in the house, warm and safe, where she should be. She was about twenty feet away from what she could now tell was a gaping hole in the ice.

The boy’s father had flooded the creek, to make a skating surface as smooth as glass. Not a good situation for Violet’s fragile old bones. Her joints popped audibly as she used the shovel like a staff, easing herself down on painful knees. She crawled gingerly toward the hole.

At the edge, she peered down, expecting icy, rushing water. Instead, she saw a small, towheaded child standing in water up to his ankles. He was in an odd kind of ice cave whose perforated roof was inches out of reach of his mittened hands. He was shivering and crying, with snot running out of his nose (although she couldn’t tell if it was from the crying, because those children always looked snotty to Violet).

Inexplicable relief washed over Violet.

“What are you doing in there?” was all she could think of to say.

“I f-fell in,” he replied timidly between sniffles.

“Where’s your mother?” she asked.

“Inside, with the baby,” he said.

Fiddlesticks, Violet thought. Now what?

“Hold onto this,” she said, pushing the shovel, handle first, into the hole. His little mitten grabbed the handle. Violet held onto the other end. “I’m going to call for help.”

She sat up as straight as her protesting knees and hooked back would allow and started hollering. If there was one thing Violet could do, it was yell. It didn’t take long before someone walking a dog along the creek path heard her and came over to help. He reached down and hauled the boy out, then helped the two of them to a bench along the path. The man called 911 on his cell phone and ran off to get the boy’s mother, leaving Violet and the child alone for a moment.

She looked down at the boy, who was still holding fast to the shovel.

“Can I have my shovel back?” she asked. Wordlessly, he handed it over. Violet got up and marched as proudly as she could back to her own yard. She would rather be on the couch watching Coronation Street with a cup of tea than watch the hordes descend and trample what was left of her perfect snow.

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Another creative writing exercise – this was meant to help us develop our skills in describing sensory input.

Today, as soon as I get on the bus, I can see it would be best to avoid the seats at the back. Three dark-skinned young men in ridiculously baggy pants are busy completing a fairly obvious drug deal, which the driver is pointedly ignoring. The choices for seats aren’t great, anyway – the first three rows are taken up by a teenaged mother and about a zillion identically snot-nosed, grubby kids. I choose a seat next to a businessman with an e-book reader, who, with an irritated huff, squeezes past me and heads for the door about four seconds after I get settled. Lucky for me, he is quickly replaced by a gorgeous redhead who folds her impossibly long legs into the seat next to me, and places a green backpack on her thighs.

I can smell her hair. She must have come from the gym; it is damp, despite the cold, and fragrant. She sips from a paper cup, and the scent of an expensive dark roast wafts over, mingling with a whiff of wet wool mittens and the ever-present stench bus exhaust. A breath of fresh air, next to the reek of cheap wine and BO that rolls off the homeless guy sprawled on the seat in front of me.

The song playing in my ear ends and in the silence between songs, I can hear tinny music from the earbuds of someone behind me. The man up ahead mutters something about the government to his uncomfortable-looking seatmate. From the back, a woman bangs on the door and yells to the driver that he missed her stop. One of the teenaged mother’s zillion kids whines tiredly in a tone that reminds me of a mosquito buzzing past my ear.

My eyes water and I taste coppery blood as a particularly big bump makes me bite my tongue. I take a swig of my ice-cold coffee, and the roasted bitterness is a pleasant contrast. Now, the smell of wet wool is so thick, it is almost chewy. Bile rises in my throat when one of the hoodlums across the aisle spits on the floor. To clear the coffee and hot sick from my mouth, I pop in a piece of spearmint gum. I think about offering some to the redhead, but lose my nerve. Almost my stop.

Acutely aware of the girl, I suddenly notice nervous sweat running between my shoulder blades. I rub the condensation off the icy window so I can see where I am. I press the smooth plastic of the stop-requested button and rub past my seatmate’s knees to get out into the aisle. When the bus finally stops at my street, I grind my fist against the grubby yellow strip along the back door so it will open, and it discharges me into the night.

This was a little piece I wrote for an assignment in a Creative Writing course I took. At the end of the course, we had a little reading at a local cafe. I read this one, and people actually laughed a little. I was encouraged.

Betty looked up from her drink when a movement from the street caught her attention. She peeked through the window and rolled her eyes. Bob. Her dedicated husband was coming up the walk, a paper-wrapped bouquet of flowers in his hand. Not again, she thought. When would he notice she never even touched the breakfast trays he had brought her every Saturday morning for the last 32 years? She had to admit, the flowers made it beautiful, but all she ever took was the mimosa, and only because the alcohol dulled all the edges just enough to keep her from stabbing him with her fork.

Sure, he cooked her dinner every day, and it had been years since she’d filled her own gas tank, but sheesh. There was only so much syrupy sweetness that one could take before it started to cause cavities. The last straw was a while ago, when he’d interrupted a meeting she was in to bring her coffee at work. Didn’t he realize how embarrassing and disruptive that was? And to think, she used to keep all the little love notes he would pack in her lunch bag each day. These days, they went straight into the recycling bin before she even read them. If he would only take a hint, she thought. Even when she knew he’d made one of his “special dinners”, and she worked late so she wouldn’t have to face him over the table, he just flashed that irritating, benign little smile and left her a plate in the fridge. It (along with everything else about him) made her want to kill him.

They now rarely went to bed at the same time; but at least Betty no longer had to spend such a disproportionate amount of time figuring out how to turn down his awkward advances. They hadn’t slept together since she had “accidentally” run over his foot with the car (she wouldn’t have been sorry to cause more massive injuries, but under-swerved due to the regrettably reflex-dampening effects of the vodka). At least now, he hardly ever bothered her for sex anymore, and when he did make a half-hearted try, she would pull one of the ready-made excuses from her rotating list, and turn in early.

Betty was so done with Bob and her marriage that she made only a token effort to hide her relationship with Jeb. Granted, she hadn’t exactly come out and announced that she was having an affair with the disgraced Catholic priest she’d met at an AA meeting, but there were only so many times a wife could fall off the wagon with the “girls from work” before any normal man would start asking pointed questions about the efficacy of AA. Not Bob, though. No, sir, he just smiled in that infuriating way and asked her if she’d had fun.

In contrast to Bob, Jeb, was a one-man religious experience. Finally, she understood what she had been missing all these years. He was her very own saviour. Betty knew some might find Jeb’s personal style off-putting, but she was sure that her girlfriend, who had referred to him as sanctimonious and arrogant, would never have said a word if she just knew him better. Those comments were borne of jealousy, pure and simple. But there would be plenty of time for getting to know Jeb, once Bob was out of the picture.

As Bob plodded predictably up the sidewalk from his car, Betty practiced her Tragic Widow face. Since the massive stroke she was hoping for when she replaced Bob’s heart pills with sodium tablets didn’t seem to be forthcoming, rumours of his bizarre behaviour and increasing forgetfulness would overshadow her own. That way, when they pulled his body from the mangled wreckage at the bottom of the ravine, no one would think to inspect his brake line for cuts. And when the well-wishers paraded past his casket, she could truthfully slur, “Yes, he went downhill so fast. Have you met Jeb, my spiritual advisor?”


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