Face, Meet Sidewalk

Birds of a feather

Posted on: July 25, 2011

Grandma used to say, birds of a feather flock together. The adage came unbidden to Violet’s mind one morning as she moved along the flowerbed on ancient knees, painstakingly pulling weeds. Once in her head, it spun and stuttered like a scratched LP.  Idly, she wondered what it meant.

It was a warm, beautiful day. The dew was just burning off the grass, and the street was quiet, except for the red winged blackbirds cavorting back and forth between their nest and whatever food source they found in the area. Violet loved the sound. It was one of the only reasons she put in her hearing aid some days.

She reached the end of the flowerbed and looked around for some way of getting back to her feet. Her arthritic knees were red and swollen from the pressure but the garden was neat and tidy once again. As if on cue, she heard a voice behind her.

“Need a hand?” the voice said.

Violet turned. Gus. Of course, it had to be Gus.

“Looks like it,” she replied, trying not to sound ungrateful.

Gus reached out his hand. Seeing no other option, Violet reluctantly took it and tried to rise as gracefully as possible against his leverage.

“Thank you,” she said, smoothing her skirt.

“You’re welcome,” Gus said.

An awkward silence hung over the afternoon. Violet could tell Gus had something to say. He shuffled uncomfortably from foot to foot, curling and uncurling the peak of his cap in one hand and rubbing his shiny bald head with the other. Violet had little patience for Gus at the best of times, but tolerated him because he was her neighbour, and because she always made a point of trying to get along with her neighbours, however irritating their habits might be. For the most part, Gus was only minimally irritating, but he did have a tendency to follow her around the yard like a lost puppy. More than once, Violet had been forced to fake a bathroom emergency and dashed inside, just to get rid of him.

She hoped whatever he was after today was not another of his hare-brained conspiracy theories like the time he came over at 9:00 at night with a volt meter to check Violet’s electrical service. She had just been rinsing out her cocoa cup and heading to bed when there was a tentative knock on the door. Envisioning one of those horrid home invasions, she peeked around the corner of the front hall to spy on whoever dared knock at that hour. Through the dappled glass, she knew it could only be Gus on the other side of the door; his gangly frame and ever-present suspenders would have been recognizable even without her glasses. She flicked the light on and opened the door a crack.

“Do you mind if I come in?” he asked after they had exchanged greetings.

She did mind, of course, but opened the door and stood aside to let him pass.

“I was wondering if I could test your electrical service,” he said, showing her a little box with dials and wires sticking out.

“Why?” Violet asked, unable to think of any more tactful response.

“Well, you see,” he said. “I noticed the lights at my place are dimmer than they used to be, so I checked the electrical service. Wouldn’t you know, I’m only getting 117 volts!”

Violet wondered if perhaps it wasn’t the lights that were getting dimmer, but chose to remain silent on the subject.

“What do you need to do?” she asked.

“Just put these wires into an outlet and see how many volts you are getting,” he replied. “I just wanted to know if it was only me or if there was a problem with the whole neighbourhood.”

“How many volts are we supposed to get?” Violet asked.

“120!” said Gus with genuine chagrin. Violet pretended to be shocked and appalled, and stifled a small giggle that threatened to erupt.

“Well, by all means,” she said with a sweeping gesture toward the outlet in the hall. “Test away.”

Gus bent over the outlet and fussed around with his wires. It took only a few seconds before he straightened up.

“Just as I thought!” he exclaimed. “You’re short too!”

“Oh, dear,” Violet said, still trying not to snicker at his obvious discomfit. “Whatever shall we do?”

Thankfully, Gus was sufficiently incensed that her sarcasm floated right on over his head. “Well, I’ll be calling Hydro first thing, you can bet on that!” he replied.

He left quickly, with hardly a goodbye. Violet chuckled herself to sleep not long after.

She hadn’t seen Gus for a few days after the late night visit, and when she next did spy his peaked green cap over the fence, she couldn’t resist. “Gus!” she called. “What did Hydro say about the electrical service?”

Gus’s face flushed red and he mumbled something about “seasonal variations” or “within the normal range”. Violet didn’t catch most of it, but decided not to torture the poor man, so obviously abashed as he was.

“So we have nothing to worry about, then?” she asked.

He grunted a response that Violet took to be affirmative and carried on with his yard work. Violet never heard another word about the electrical service.

Today, however, she had no such luck. It was obvious that there was something on the man’s mind that he was having excruciating trouble spitting out. The only sounds were the birds chattering at each other from the trees and the burble of the creek behind the house.

Finally, after he had kicked the same patch of grass a half-dozen times, Violet said, “Gus is there something I can do for you?”

He took a deep breath. “Well, Violet,” he began in a shaky voice. Suddenly Violet was very nervous about whatever was going to come out of his mouth next. She racked her brain for any occasion when she might have offended him or encroached on his yard in any way. Did her lawn boy forget to sweep the clippings off Gus’s driveway again?

He’d paused again, and Violet felt compelled to prompt him a little, if only to get him to spit out whatever was on his mind.

“Yes?” she encouraged.

“Well,” he started again. “You know there is a dance next weekend down at the Legion.”

He said it so matter-of-factly that Violet felt she should have known this, even though she had never heard such news in her life. And suddenly it hit her. Gus was asking her out on a date! Violet blushed furiously and felt her palms begin to sweat a little. What to do? This was out of left field! She would never have expected a confirmed bachelor like Gus to be interested in her (or anyone of her gender, truth be told).

“N-no,” she stammered, mortified by the prospect of being propositioned, and by Gus, no less! “I didn’t really know that, no.”

“Well there is,” he said. “I wondered if you would like to go with me.” The words tumbled from his mouth in a rush, as if they had been waiting years to be expelled. He breathed again, apparently relieved that the hard part was over.

Violet thought frantically for a way to let him down gently. No, she mused, I would not like to go. With you. Or anyone. Oh my heavens! What do I do now? Since Frank died, there was no situation in which she could imagine herself alone with another man, under any circumstances. And for heaven’s sake! Gus? A dance? He’d probably spend the evening grumbling about how the decorations weren’t straight, or the punch was too weak. He had to be kidding!

One look at his tomato-red face told her he was not, in fact, kidding.  She considered lying and saying she had another engagement, but rejected that alternative quickly, knowing that he would likely suggest some other event instead, and that she eventually she would run out of “other engagements”. Instead, she opted for a distraction.

“Well, now,” she said slowly, as if she was considering the offer, rather than urgently seeking an excuse that would not offend. She settled on, “I’m not really sure that I would be much fun.”

It was not untrue, she told herself. The idea of a dance was ridiculous, and Gus was irritating, but still, she didn’t want to hurt his feelings.

In that moment, watching Gus process her rejection, Violet learned the true meaning of the word “crestfallen”. Even as gentle as she thought she’d been, he looked completely heartbroken. His shoulders slumped and he immediately turned toward his own house. Violet felt terrible, like she’d just kicked the little puppy that’d been following her around.

“Wait,” she said, desperately. He looked back, hopelessly.

Suddenly, a brilliant idea came to Violet. It was a perfect solution. Kill two birds with one stone!

“I have a friend,” she said. Mild interest, thinly disguised as indifference sparked on his wretched face.

“Oh?” he raised his eyebrows. She took this as a good sign.

“In fact, I think you know her,” Violet said, thinking fast. “Margaret? Margaret Klassen? From down the road? Yes, I’m sure you’ve met.”

She watched recognition dawn and knew she was home free. He had a better prospect. She was safe.

Slowly, she herded Gus toward his house. “She’s just in that lovely blue house around the corner. Always out in her yard. I’ll bet if you walk past there, she’ll be out and you can ask her. All you need to do is compliment her rose bushes, she’ll be in like Flynn!”

Gus nodded thoughtfully, thanked her, and beat the hastiest retreat to his own house since the electrical service incident. He even thanked Violet for the suggestion before he closed the door. Violet breathed a sigh of immense relief.

Violet spied Gus and Margaret out for a walk together just after dinner that night. Already, they looked like old friends. Both had the same tall, gaunt urgency that there was some injustice occurring in the world that must be reported. She grinned to herself; almost smug with the thrill of a near miss, and the hope that Gus and Margaret would live happily ever after, or at the very least, give each other something to do that did not, for a change, involve irritating Violet.

That must be what Grandma meant by birds of a feather, Violet thought, and firmly closed the curtains against the advancing twilight.

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