Face, Meet Sidewalk

Archive for June 2011

They were eating dinner when a butterfly floated in and landed on the meatloaf. Dave immediately went to swat it away, but Violet stopped him.

“No!” she shouted, a little too loudly. “It’s good luck!”

“It is?” asked Dave.

“Yes, I’m sure of it!” Violet replied.

She was not, in fact, sure of it at all, but since it seemed pretty odd that a monarch would even approach the house, let alone find the one broken screen and sneak into the kitchen, it somehow felt lucky. Violet had always believed in luck; this seemed as good a piece of evidence as any.

“I’ve never heard that one before,” Dave shrugged, tucking back into his food.

Since the night Dave rescued Violet from certain death (well, from what she had thought was a burglar, but turned out to be simply a miscommunication), the two had struck up an unlikely friendship. She now knew Dave was, except for two roommates he found in a classified ad, alone in the city. He visited at least once a week, usually for dinner, and more often than not found something in Violet’s house or yard to fix.

Her house was always immaculately clean, but Violet was finding it difficult to keep things in the same pristine repair that Frank had. She was nervous about climbing on step stools, so she often left burnt-out light bulbs in place for weeks. The bathtub caulking was peeling a bit, the paint chipping here and there, even if the threadbare carpets never saw a speck of dust.

Since Dave had been visiting, though, she saw the house through the eyes of a stranger, and for a time, the house that had for so long felt comfortably worn, like a favourite pair of shoes, began to feel shabby.

Soon, Dave started doing things around the house. Maybe he felt obligated, Violet couldn’t tell. She never asked, he just rooted around in the basement or the closet looking (always with permission) for the tools. The first time, he replaced three light bulbs. Since then, he had fixed a leaky tap that had dripped for years, removed and rehung her living room drapes so she could wash them, and screwed down the loose basement stair, which he had called a “deathtrap”. Each time, she tried to pay him, and each time, he refused, so she settled for feeding him instead. He seemed happy with the arrangement, even if Violet felt it was a little one-sided.

But that’s the way the cookie crumbled, when it came to luck, Violet thought. So often, luck was fickle, almost partisan in its (her?) custom. Despite its relative austerity, Violet considered her life to have been blessed with a disproportionate share of luck. Her time with Frank, however brief, a fulfilling career, a comfortable house with a nice view. Good friends, among whom she now counted a scruffy 23 year old university student. Decent neighbours, except for that busybody, Gus. Not much to complain about, really,

The problem with an extended period of good fortune, of course, is that eventually it runs out. Violet believed that each good person was entitled to a certain amount of luck in life (bad people were entitled to none, but that was another thing altogether). If you used your quota too early, your golden years were likely to be miserable. While luck was a lovely experience while it happened, one must be prepared for the day it would end. She was always on the lookout for those omens that heralded a change. One never knew.

She never dared to tempt luck. She had been known to risk life and limb so as not to leave a found penny unclaimed, and was always scanning the grass for four-leaf clovers. She had not decided whether karma brought on fortune’s demise, or if there might simply be random, fateful forces in the universe that swung the pendulum whichever way it needed to go to even out the average. She refused to use phrases like “With my luck…” so as not to insult whatever power determined where the sun shone on a given day. She tried not to draw attention to the fact that she had really had more than her share over the years. Modesty and humble gratitude truly seemed the best policy.

So when Dave began coming around, she felt she ought to tread very carefully. It was just good to have his company, someone puttering around, to hear noise in another part of the house and know it was not just Ethel but an actual living, breathing human being who would answer her questions and eat the meal she prepared. It gave Violet an excuse to break out her battered Better Homes and Gardens cookbook for the first time in years, to make something other than toast and tea. Dave was a poor student, not quite starving, but certainly happy to have a hot, home-cooked meal now and then. In the name of luck, or karma, or whatever you wanted to call it, Violet could throw together a pot of soup or a tuna casserole.

Dave, for his part, seemed to feel the same way, although it was one topic that never came up. Even when Violet insisted he just sit and drink the iced tea she brewed specially for him, she could see he was itching to do something, to fix something. He was restless, that boy. It was almost like doing him a favour to give him a task.

Today, he had recaulked the bathtub, and done an excellent job of it. As usual, he politely refused when she tried to pay him, but gratefully accepted the inevitable offer of dinner. There were rarely leftovers on nights Dave came to visit. She wondered if he ever ate anywhere else, so great was his enthusiasm for what Violet considered to be fairly simple cooking.

As they watched the butterfly slowly open and close its intricately marked wings, she wondered for perhaps the billionth time when (not if) her blessings would be swept away. She felt profoundly grateful for the butterfly and for Dave, and absurdly, to her horror, tears welled in her eyes. Reluctant to look away from the butterfly, but wanting less to explain the tears to Dave, she busied herself clearing plates.

When she’d wrestled her emotions back under control, she turned back to the table. Dave was standing, leaning over his empty plate, gently encouraging the butterfly to move onto a paper napkin.

“What are you doing?” she asked, alarmed.

“I’ll put him outside,” Dave said, holding the napkin and the butterfly perfectly still, as if they were explosive. He moved toward the back door and opened it carefully with his left hand. He draped the napkin on a shrub just outside the door and came back in.

One part of Violet wanted to cry again. Her lucky charm! What was he thinking, throwing it to the breeze like that? Didn’t he realize her days were numbered? Old ladies needed all the help they could get!

But another part knew that to set it free was the best thing they could do. She allowed herself a moment to grieve, then reminded herself that the butterfly would bring more goodness being out in the world, where it belonged.

“Maybe I’ll come Thursday and fix that screen,” Dave said, nodding at the butterfly’s ingress. Violet nodded, agreeing with her head, if not her heart.

“Write down what you need, and I’ll go to the hardware store,” she replied, hoping she sounded suitably grateful.

They said goodnight. As she shut the door behind Dave, Violet glanced at the shrub where he had placed the butterfly. It was already gone. She crumpled up the paper napkin and went back inside to wash the dishes.

 

 

He drives the van slowly past, pretending to look for house numbers. Good, she’s left the curtains open. It is always so disappointing when she remembers to close them. Tonight must be his lucky night. Maybe it’s the sign he’d been waiting for – that he should finally make his move.

As he rolls through the quiet neighbourhood, he remembers the first time they met. Well, truth be told, they still haven’t actually met. But he will never forget the first time he saw her. The planets must have been in alignment that night.

It was dusk. The street lights weren’t on yet, but it was just dark enough to be able to see into houses. As was his habit, he sought the comforting snapshots of happy people inside the warm yellow light of their domestic routines. In most of the homes he passed, he could see families making dinner, chatting companionably. The familiar, bitter taste of injustice swelled in his throat and he swallowed hard against it every few seconds.

On that night, he happened to glance at her front window from the perfect angle at the exact moment she came out of the bathroom. She wore a short robe, and was rubbing her butter yellow hair with a towel. He slammed on the brakes hard enough that he nearly ate the steering wheel. Quickly, he looked around and seeing no one, made a sharp turn into the alley behind her house. To his delight he found a spot to park the van that afforded an unobstructed view of her rear windows. He crawled into the back and took the lens cap off the camera. In exactly four and a half seconds, he was in love.

She was perfect.

He watched her from behind the van’s tinted windows for hours that night, catching glimpses of skin here and there as she walked obliviously back and forth past the windows. She dressed, sipping a glass of wine and singing to some inaudible song. When she eventually locked up and went out, dressed to the nines, he decided she was going out with the girls. Nothing to worry about – he saw no evidence that a man lived there.

But he could not get her out of his mind. At seven a.m. he was back, this time parked in front of the house with a view of the living room. His patience was rewarded when she poked her tousled head out the front door around eight to retrieve the newspaper from the mailbox. Even with sleep-swollen eyes, she was beautiful. He  left only when the neighbours started walking their dogs. Despite its inconspicuousness, he didn’t want the van to draw any attention. He could tell this girl was a keeper. Even better than the others.

Over the next few weeks, he forced himself to ration his time in her presence. He wanted to learn everything possible about this perfect, enchanting woman, to be fully prepared before he made his move. He used every source of information at his disposal, and categorized each tidbit about her. By the time she got home from work that first day, he knew her name – Kate. Inside a week, he had her cell phone number, employer, and the minute details of her daily schedule logged in his notebook. He learned that she drank black Café Americano to keep her weight down, and that she had three payments left on her Miata (people throw the most personal information in their recycling boxes!). Several times, he even got up the nerve to speak to her, only to lose it at the last moment.

Now, anticipating their first official date, the nerves are back. To calm himself, he allows his imagination to roam lovingly across each of the photos on his bedroom wall. This is his biggest collection yet; a true testament to his love for this woman.  That telephoto lens was his best investment yet. With it, he can see so much more detail. The mole on her left shoulder blade is his favorite. In the clearest picture, it almost looks heart shaped. And even without a big lens, the buttonhole camera he installed in his coveralls produces a decent picture. The hydro poles on her block have now been “serviced” a number of times, and each time up the pole, he has managed another photo to add to his collection. On an ‘excursion’ one day, he snapped the one that has become his favourite: she is sitting just inside a restaurant drinking Cosmos with a girlfriend, laughing. A strand of hair is stuck in her lipstick. How he longs to brush it away, each time he looks at it! That night, he almost introduced himself. She looked a little too tipsy to drive home, he thought of offering her a ride. As always, at the last second, he chickened out and settled for following a few car lengths back, just to be sure she got home safely.

Anyway, he is sure she knows him by now. For heaven’s sake, he has a pair of her panties, pilfered one glorious day while she was at work. He used her spare key, hidden under a pot on the back deck, and roamed her house freely for the better part of an hour. It was an immeasurable thrill, and he couldn’t stop himself from taking a little souvenir. Just the smell of them has gotten him to sleep every night since.

And by now, she has given him enough glances, exchanged enough hellos (just the word, rolling from her tongue in his direction, breaks across him in a wave of pure pleasure) that he can tell she is into him. Maybe not in a forward, make-the-first-move way, but in a comfortable, old-friend way. How could she not be? They have so much in common – a love of sports, an absent father. She’s just a little shy, that’s all. He is so sure she is the woman for him; he even feels confident that what happened with his last girlfriend will not happen with Kate. Kate already loves him. He can just tell she would never back him into a corner like… what was her name? He can’t even remember the others now, they all seem so pale and lifeless compared to Kate.

And tonight, tonight is going to be the night. He can feel it. It is an omen that he can see straight into her living room. She is curled up on the couch. Wait, hadn’t she made a date with her girlfriend tonight? He had been planning to intercept her on the way to her car – charm her into changing her plans to a date with him instead. What is she doing in sweat pants and bedroom slippers? With Kleenex? Is she sick? Well that would just ruin everything! He’ll never make it through the good night kiss if she is sick.

No, wait, she isn’t blowing her nose or sneezing (he’d have seen that coming anyway, now that he is delivering water jugs to her office every day). She is crying! Bingo! If she’s upset about something, she’ll need some comfort. He can just take her on a drive, maybe enjoy a picnic under the stars. The basket is already in the back – chilled wine, some nice camembert, a roofie, just in case. He forgot the duct tape this time, but it should be OK, because she is already in love with him too. It’s perfect. Comforting her is even better (and less risky) than his original plan, which was foolproof – but this is better because it’s less likely to freak her out right off the hop. He hates it when they get all hysterical and beg him to let them go, it’s such a turn-off. Bad things happen when he gets turned off. He doesn’t want to risk that with perfect, beautiful Kate.

His hands start to shake with anticipation (or is it performance anxiety? He can’t tell). He knows if he waits too long, he’ll manage to find some excuse to procrastinate one more night, and end up back home, alone and frustrated again, listening to Mother berate him for failing to place the toothpaste precisely perpendicular to the counter or something. He takes a deep breath, picks up the bouquet of flowers from the passenger seat and opens the door, exposing himself for all to see.

The walk across the rainy street and up to the front door is interminable, and instantaneous at the same time. He reaches out and presses the bell. A moment passes before he hears a quiet rustle and the door opens a few inches. She looks blankly at him, her eyes rimmed red, her face blotchy. Her expression is closed, unfriendly. Not at all like her. Not how he pictured their first date starting out.

“Can I help you?” she asks.

He hesitates. Maybe tonight is not the night after all. She is obviously not at her best.

“Oh, sorry,” he says, sliding the flowers behind his back. “Wrong house.”

Violet settled herself into bed and clicked off the light. As usual, she sensed Ethel close by.

Ethel was a ghost. Or something, Violet was not entirely sure what. She had always pictured ghosts as floating, transparent sources of terror, but Ethel was nothing like that. She was comforting. And totally invisible. Didn’t slam doors or exert wrath or rattle chains. Not very ghostly at all, actually.

Violet first noticed Ethel (if that was her real name) just after she and Frank had moved in.  She only showed up at night. Frank never sensed her at all. When she’d brought up the surprisingly un-scary idea that there was a ghost in the house, Frank pooh-poohed her like she was a silly little woman. Of course it was the last time he ever did that. Furious, she sneaked a half a bottle of hot sauce into his dinner the next night, and watched, dainty and comfortable, as he sweated through his chicken, trying not to look like he was having any more trouble tolerating the heat than she was. He never again doubted a word that passed her lips, a state of affairs which came in very handy the few times she really needed to call on it.

Violet had no particular reason, other than a vague sense of gender, to think that the ghost was a woman. She even searched the city’s tax rolls to see who had owned the house before she and Frank bought it. There had been only a half-dozen previous owners. Ethel Sylvester was one, a single woman’s name on the deed in a time when women did not usually own property. It pleased Violet to think that a spinster librarian or teacher had once owned her house, and she quickly came to think of her ghost as Ethel.

Since Frank had been gone, Violet felt Ethel even more acutely. Many nights, missing Frank so fiercely she could almost smell his aftershave, she would feel Ethel’s warm presence nearby and feel suddenly less alone. It did not escape her notice that Frank never came to visit from the other side; she wondered more than once if things like the hot sauce incident had made Frank pleased to be rid of her. Still, Ethel helped her get through those first awful months, a close, silent friend in Violet’s time of need.

As she usually did at this time of night, Violet reassured Ethel that she would never sell the house as long as she lived. She had no intention of putting herself in a position where she might have to answer pointed questions about any “problems” with the house from some cockalorum real estate agent. She could only imagine what prospective buyers would say. Let them find out themselves, she thought, after they take me out feet first.

Violet harboured a thin hope that she might join Ethel in haunting those who would come later. And she had to admit that even though she had no intention of it being any time soon, it was heartening to think that Ethel would be there ready to greet her on the other side. Even if Frank was off gallivanting around elsewhere.

Violet flipped the pillow over to the cool side one last time and pulled the blanket up to her chin. “Good night, Ethel,” she said, and drifted promptly off to sleep.

Violet sat at the worn Formica table with her chequebook. It was bill-paying day. Every month, on the sixth, Violet sat down and wrote out cheques for her bills, an amount well covered by her pension. Ever since those cheats at the bank bounced a cheque she wrote to the plumber, she had done her very best to make sure the bank never got a single cent more than it deserved (which was nothing) for the privilege of holding onto her money. In fact, she spent an inordinate amount of time ensuring she never paid a penny more than she had to in what she cheekily called “bullshit fees”: interest, bank charges, and, for that matter, taxes. And she was good – no bank had had a single dollar of Violet’s for its own use in years.

Violet’s money-managing skills were one of the few benefits of coming to marriage late. For Violet’s generation, the sole purpose of a woman’s existence was to marry and look after her husband and children. When there was no one in town fit to marry, Violet was forced into the unheard-of option of taking a job. The War, which had created a dearth of marriageable men also meant a wide-open market. Violet had her pick of careers (if not prospective husbands). Since she was good at math, she chose accounting, and was the first woman in town to run her own business, keeping books for all the flat-footed (or otherwise unsoldierly) men. Apparently all the good accountants were on the front lines.

By the time Frank, a client, actually, (memories of the scandal still made her blush a little) finally came along it was too late for children. Violet had managed to feed herself and keep a neat house for years. Since there was nothing else to do while Frank was out at work all day, Violet kept up her business. The reason Violet was able to attract so many clients is that she was really very good at her job. She treated other people’s money as if it was her own, and saved her clients thousands in taxes and fees. Violet had literally resurrected businesses from the brink of bankruptcy.

She had been in her seventies when the bank bounced that cheque on her. Pure carelessness on her part. Too busy looking after other people to pay attention to her own affairs. It was a wake-up call. Violet retired the business to focus on managing her own money. Besides, even though Frank was gone, her social life was heating up – she had bridge club and the morning crossword – which left little time for doing other peoples’ bidding. Violet had paid her dues. The working life was more activity than she was interested in these days.

Anyway, as a result, Violet was in pretty good financial shape now. She and Frank had socked away her money and used Frank’s to live off of, leaving a tidy nest egg for retirement. They paid off the house in a few years.  They had the first television on the block, and the first telephone. Poor Frank, he loved technology. He would have loved DVDs and cell phones. Violet couldn’t be bothered with those, but she did have a computer (for which she paid cash, of course). It helped her keep on top of trends in the marketplace.

And today was bill-paying day. It might even be time to change banks again, depending on who was offering incentives. Over the years, by cycling between banks, cable companies and telephone services and taking full advantage of their “free introductory rates”, she figured she had made back anything they might have overcharged her, even if it was mainly by aggravating their “customer service representatives” with interminable phone calls during which she calmly pestered them with deliberately inane questions until she got what she wanted. The key was keeping on top of them. Their raison d’etre was to screw nice old ladies… and this nice old lady was determined to screw them right back.

Violet finished writing her cheques and double-checked her balance on the computer. Her pension had been deposited and would cover her bills. The difference, minus a small float to cover any unexpected bullshit fees (none of which had been required of her in years) would come home with her, in cash, and be added to the painstakingly annotated stockpile in the lockbox under the floor board in the living room. She laced up her good walking shoes and tucked her purse into the basket on her walker. The Internet said the weather was nice, so she added a rain jacket (those websites were wrong more often than they were right). Since the postal workers were striking, she would have to bring her payments down to the bank herself. It wouldn’t do to make a payment late. That would ruin her perfect record. She (and the plumber) had learned that one the hard way.

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Violet heard the next-door neighbour’s front door slam so she hovered, still, behind her own closed front door until she heard his car start. As soon as the sound started to recede, she opened her door to fetch the newspaper. She timed it so she could wave, all friendly-like, as he drove off to work, but just late enough that she wouldn’t have to actually talk to him. It worked best that way. Violet was a firm believer in the old adage that good fences made good neighbours.

She stood in the glorious sunshine and took a deep breath. The first of June. Violet considered it the first real day of summer, and today finally felt like it. Even at seven thirty, the sun held warmth that promised true heat in time. The sun was well up, rising high in the east. She loved that colour of blue, the colour of a prairie summer sky. She gazed up and drank it in, wondering if it would take another eight decades of life to be able to say she’d had enough of looking at it. Even pocked by those picturesque, fluffy clouds that looked like a kindergartner’s painting, it was endless.

Once the neighbour’s car had turned the corner, the only sound on the street was the chirping of those little brown birds that were everywhere. A woman she did not know approached from the left, walking a nondescript brown dog on one of those retractable leashes that she knew made a soft zipping sound every time the dog ran back to its person’s side. Violet waved, but busied herself rooting through the mailbox for the newspaper so she wouldn’t have to exchange pleasantries. It was a pretty safe guess that the woman would say “Good morning!” or comment on the lovely weather, but Violet had not put her hearing aid in yet, and wasn’t about to fake her way through a conversation.

The faint breeze carried a whiff of the perfume from the spectacular lilac windrow that lined the west side of her driveway. White and purple alternating, they reminded her, just for a day or two each year, of the farm. Her gaze fell to the flower garden. The irises were finally looking like they might do something, but she could see a disturbance in the soil at their base. She bent closer, and swore quietly. That cursed cat!

Violet stirred up the soil with the tip of her cane. Sure enough, two fat cigar-like cat turds appeared from beneath the dirt. Furiously, she glared around the neighbourhood. Where was it? One of these days, she’d find a way to kill that beast, sure as anything. With the number of calls she’d made to the City to complain about it, you’d think someone would have done something by now, but it was looking more and more like it would be up to Violet.

There it was, content as anything, lounging in the sun on the front step of its home across the street and down one house. Figured. Anyone who could paint their house Pepto pink would be the kind that let their cat roam the neighbourhood, fouling other people’s gardens.

The cat groomed itself lazily. She shot it a withering stare and wished for it a gigantic hairball. Violet turned to go back inside, her enjoyment of the lovely quiet morning ruined by that damned cat. When did the City open for business again? Today seemed a good day for another pointed phone call.

A fluttery movement in the grass caught Violet’s eye just as her hand touched the latch. A dry leaf or something twitched on the lawn, just past the edge of the garden. Irritated  by the cat anyway, Violet decided she might as well tidy things up before all the kids started their migration to school. If she was quick, she’d be back in her sunny kitchen with the crossword and her morning tea before she had to watch them tromp down the street, hauling those awful oversized backpacks that made them all into noisy little Quasimodos. She dropped her paper on the stoop and carefully picked her way across the nearly immaculate grass. Stopping once or twice to pull a weed or stray blade of grass, she made a mental note to catch that boy who cut her grass and remind him to weed-whack all the edges next time.

As she got a little closer to the fluttery leaf, she realized it was not a leaf at all, but a small brown bird. It shook its little head and fluffed its feathers pathetically. It must have hit the big picture window, she thought. Well, at least it wasn’t dead, although it looked like it was… what did they say these days? circling the drain? Yes, this one was probably not long for this world. She glanced up at the window. Indeed, there was a small feather stuck almost dead center.

Violet had never been a big fan of birds. They were flighty, and they tended to dot one’s belongings with poop. Her instinct was to let it expire naturally in the grass, and leave it for the lawn boy to deal with later.

But she was momentarily distracted by another movement just at the edge of her peripheral vision. She turned and saw that horrid cat slinking greasily across the grass, positively salivating at the sight of a helpless little appetizer twitching almost within paw’s reach. Not on my watch, you scavenger, Violet thought, suddenly filled with purpose.

Swallowing her discomfort, Violet picked the little bird up in her hand. She could tell it was frightened by her contact, its little heart almost bursting out of its softly feathered breast. She struggled to her feet, one hand on her cane, and stepped carefully across the garden until she could steady herself against the house. She reached up to the sill below the picture window and gently placed the tiny bird on the ledge. She smiled a little, imagining a bewildered look on the cat’s face when it realized that breakfast was now going to require a little work. The bird was safe, for now.

On the way back up the walk to the front step, Violet picked a few stones from the garden. She glanced at the cat, now crouching under a parked car as if plotting its revenge.

She hurried, as fast as Violet ever moved, into the house. Inside, she quickly made her tea and gathered a folding chair, bringing both out onto the front step. She opened the chair, placed it in reach of the small pile of stones, and sat down. Might as well enjoy the sunshine, she thought, hefting a stone in one hand and her teacup in the other.

She stayed there for an hour or two. It was a beautiful day, the perfect temperature. Most of the neighbours went off to school or work, and she wasn’t bothered by anyone. Only once, the cat got brave and crept across Violet’s lawn. Violet had only to heft one surprisingly accurate stone in its direction before it yowled angrily and sprinted back to its own yard. Although she was not lucky enough to have a car go by at that moment, she was quite certain the cat would not be messing in her garden any time soon.

Eventually, to Violet’s surprise, the little bird flew off, chirping as if to thank Violet for her assistance. Violet picked up her cold tea, unfinished crossword, and folding chair, and headed in, her mood restored and feeling like she had done her good deed for the day.

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