Face, Meet Sidewalk

Longest shift ever. It was the night that the clocks went back, and even the overtime for the extra hour didn’t make it worth it. Alvin flicked on the “out of service” sign and signaled to pull the bus out into sparse traffic for the trip back to the depot. It was always such a relief to be free of the nuisance of passengers. This was the best part of the shift.

It was a quiet night, the chill edging towards the season’s first frost. In daylight, the matte grey sky had been only slightly lighter than it was now, in the dead of night. As his watch beeped three a.m., Alvin even thought he might have seen a flake or two of snow.

He’d had only a handful of riders for the last few hours. The last ones, a small group of raucous, probably drunk teenagers had gotten off a few stops ago, much to Alvin’s relief. You never knew how those groups would go. He actually considered blowing by them, hoping they would think he hadn’t seen them, but since the last complaint, he knew he had to be more careful. He made a mental note to check the back seats for graffiti before he got back to the depot. Something smelled a little off too, an undercurrent of urine that cut through the familiar reek of diesel exhaust and body odor. He hoped those jokers hadn’t pissed in the back seat. He didn’t need that hassle again.

Alvin yawned as he pulled up to a red light a few blocks from the depot. There were no cars in sight, and he thought about running the light. A minute sooner to the depot was a minute sooner he’d be in his bed. But conscience got the better of him and he slapped himself awake. With at least a full minute to check the bus for garbage and lost items before the light changed, he threw it into Park. He got up from his seat and headed toward the rear, knowing the effort of getting up and walking the length of the bus length would also help.

He dragged his body, heavy with fatigue, slowly to the back, closing windows, checking seats and floor for garbage and damage, up one side and down the other. As he got to the back, he turned, and saw with a start a man sitting in the seat immediately behind his own. He’d missed him on his way to the back – must have been turned the other way. The man’s eyes were closed and he leaned up against the barrier that separated the driver from the passengers. He was fairly well dressed, a briefcase resting on his lap. There was no mirror that allowed Alvin to see that angle from the driver’s seat, so he hadn’t even noticed him sitting there. Shit. A sleeper. What next?

“Hey, buddy,” Alvin called as he approached. “Wake up. You’re at the end of the line.”

The man didn’t move. Not wanting to scare the piss out of the guy and have him wake up swinging, Alvin approached him tentatively.

Alvin reached the man and tapped him on the shoulder. “Wake up!” he said a little louder. This time he moved, but in a really strange way, like his whole body was carved from a solid piece of wood. His eyes did not open. The man was obviously the source of the urine smell too, overlaid with hints of something sickly sweet that made Alvin think of spoiled meat. His heart pounded in alarm. Something was very, very wrong.

“Mister?” Alvin asked again, realization beginning to dawn. The passenger was unnaturally pale, almost bluish, and still. Alvin forced himself to touch the man’s hand. It was cold and stiff. If hadn’t been looking, Alvin might have sworn he was touching the skin of a pumpkin.

Alvin felt his gorge rise and fought back bile.

The man was dead. Without the faintest idea where to place his fingers, Alvin decided not to bother checking for a pulse. He knew with certainty even before he’d touched the man’s hand. No one was that pale. The man’s skin was almost transparent, a colour and temperature that made Alvin think of raw pizza dough.

What the hell? Now what? Granted it had been a few years, but he didn’t remember covering dead bodies during his training.

The traffic light was about to change. Thank God he was only a half-mile from the depot. Steve, the shift supervisor was there. Useless as he generally was, at least he’d have the procedure manual.

Alvin breathed through his mouth and fought to get the nausea under control, feeling like something was breathing down his neck. His flesh crawled with the knowledge that his bus had suddenly become the biggest hearse ever. He floored it back to the depot, realizing only as he heard a sickening thud behind him that driving the bus like an Indy Car was probably not the best idea.

He screeched into the station, parked haphazardly in the middle of the driveway, and threw open the door. He wasn’t even down the steps and out into the cold night air before his dinner made a spectacular reappearance on the concrete. Steve emerged from the office rubbing his eyes. When he saw Alvin hunched over, panting, he chuckled.

“Dude, how many times I gotta tell you, quit drinkin’ on the job!” he bellowed, laughing at Alvin’s expense.

Alvin heaved again and looked up, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand.

“Screw off, man. I gotta stiff on my bus!” His brain refused to provide him with any other term.

“What?” Steve asked, still grinning stupidly under the orange lamps of the nearly abandoned parking lot. How this guy got to be supervisor was anyone’s guess.

“There. Is. A. Dead. Guy. On. My. Bus.” Alvin replied slowly, hoping Steve could grasp the concept.

“Holy shit!” Steve said as his vacant face registered understanding. Alvin, unable to trust his voice or his stomach, only nodded an invitation at the bus, as if to dare Steve to prove him wrong, but Steve shook his head.

“No way, man!” He held up his hands as if to ward off a zombie intent on eating what little was contained by his skull.

“We’d better call the cops or something,” Alvin said, suddenly feeling like he, oddly enough, might be the one who was most in control of his faculties here. Despite the vomit splattered all over the place.

“Are you sure he’s dead?” Steve asked, eyeing the open door of the bus warily.

“He’s stiff and cold,” Alvin replied. “And I think he fell over when I floored it to get back here.”

“Jesus,” Steve said, looking suddenly paler than the dead guy.

“Come on. We’d better tell someone,” Alvin said. To Alvin’s satisfaction, Steve looked as if he might throw up too.

“Are you just going to leave him there?” Steve asked.

Alvin blinked at him. “Well I’m not going to haul him in to the office for a chat, if that’s what you had in mind,” he replied.

Alvin walked into the office, but its proximity to the garage and the oily diesel smell of a dozen silent buses made him gag again. He turned around and walked back out. The fresh night air helped. When he had regained some measure of control, he pulled out his cell phone. Steve was 100 yards away, eyeing the bus warily, as if wondering if he was being punked.

Alvin found himself thinking about how long the man had been dead. He didn’t even remember him getting on. How long had he driven around with a dead guy sitting right behind him? How many people had passed by without even realizing it, too wrapped up in their own lives to notice a man in the process of dying? He found himself absurdly choked up at the thought that maybe the man had died with no one sitting beside him. Somehow, that idea made the whole thing even worse. Alvin wondered if anyone was worried about him yet. He was suddenly struck by irrational, almost crushing fear that someone would make him, Alvin, tell the guy’s wife he was dead. For a long moment, he was paralyzed by the prospect, and when reason restored itself, he could think of no worse job than having to tell peoples’ loved ones they were dead. For possibly the first time, he was indescribably grateful to be a bus driver.

His hands shook uncontrollably and he almost dropped the phone. He rubbed his face with his free hand, and the image of the dead man appeared as if it had been painted on the insides of his eyelids. Alvin wondered if he would ever be able to sleep soundly again. It felt like a million years before he heard the 911 operator pick up, but by then his voice had returned. His knees gave out and he sank to the ground with the relief of knowing he was about to hand this gruesome responsibility over to someone, anyone.

“Hello,” he said shakily, then uttered words he’d never thought he’d hear himself say. “I’d like to report a dead body.”

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Violet’s heart gave a painful thump as she heard a loud, mechanical snap from the other side of the thin curtain, and the solid electronic squeal was replaced by a steady beep. She took it to mean that whatever crisis had been happening over there had resolved, at least temporarily. The cacophony of voices became slightly less frantic. Violet tried to focus on something else.

The air was chilly, especially for a thin old lady who was allowed to wear nothing more than a flimsy piece of over-washed cotton. Truth be told, she had rags in better shape than this gown. She smelled disinfectant and unwashed bodies, and wondered how long some of the patients had been there. Through a crack between the curtains, she saw people rushing about. Eventually, she saw someone on a stretcher being moved away and heard something about ICU. The noise level dropped considerably.

Violet felt miserable. She was cold and she had to pee. It felt like forever that she lay on the stretcher with the curtains mostly drawn. No one came by. For someone who was apparently sick enough to bypass the waiting room, it seemed strange that no one even checked on her. The elephant continued to roll around on her chest.

Slowly, though, she began to notice that the pain in her chest was not getting worse, and the abject terror she had been experiencing before began to fade. With each passing minute, she found herself becoming less afraid and more angry. With the anger, a tiny butterfly of hope wafted in to land on the boulder that was crushing her chest. Somehow, it eased the discomfort a bit.

With nothing to do but wait, she listened to the activity around her. Hospitals, she noticed, operated with a strangely ordered chaos. There were people running everywhere, but everyone seemed to be doing their job with purpose. It would be nice, she thought, if they would come and do their job with her, so she could get the hell out and go home.

The longer she waited, the more insistent her bladder became. Soon she realized that without a bathroom in the very near future, she would likely suffer an indignity worse than the time Margaret’s wig flew off at bridge. With a force of will, she pushed aside the lump of granite on her chest and sat up. A wave of dizziness nearly overtook her, but irritation at her infirmity and the absurd situation made her wait a minute before swinging her legs over the side of the stretcher. Her head cleared, and she was just about to step down to the floor when the curtain whipped aside and a sour-faced nurse in a brown uniform entered. She had a basket of equipment and a permanent frown, likely, Violet thought, from dealing with hypochondriacs day in and day out.

“Where are you going?” she demanded.

“I need the bathroom,” Violet said, feeling defiant as her anger flared. Hope and frustration pushed her to be a little louder than she otherwise might.

“Are you having any chest pain?” the nurse asked.

“No,” Violet lied. It was bearable, and she knew that she’d be on a bedpan in a second if she admitted it.

“Fine,” the nurse replied. With surprising gentleness, she assisted Violet down from the stretcher and helped her put her shoes on. They exited the cubicle and she showed Violet where the bathroom was. They walked together, the nurse never far away. Violet would have realized how strangely comforting that presence was, if she hadn’t been concentrating so hard on not urinating down her own leg.

“Just pull the string when you’re done and I’ll help you back,” the nurse said. Violet decided she was probably just more jaded than miserable.

After she’d finished and the nurse had helped her back to bed, Violet was again subjected to all the same questions she had answered at triage. The nurse took her blood pressure and temperature and placed oxygen tubing under her nose.

“We are going to hook you up to a cardiac monitor now,” she said. She helped Violet undo the gown, frowned at her bra, and helped her remove it. Violet felt even more exposed than before, but noted that the nurse had at least closed the curtain firmly. She stuck a series of foam circles to Violet’s chest, abdomen and legs, attached them to wires, and flicked on a computer screen at Violet’s head. Violet heard a steady, quiet beep and twisted around enough to see a series of numbers and squiggly lines floating across the screen. The nurse covered Violet with her gown and a warm blanket. For the first time since Bert and Elsie had dragged her in, she actually felt comfortable. Now that something was happening, she at least felt like someone knew she was there.

“I need to start an IV on you,” the nurse said, almost apologetically. Violet’s heart gave another lurch and she heard the monitor begin to beep more quickly. The nurse glanced at it.

“I’m very good,” she said conspiratorially, and actually smiled at Violet for the first time. Violet returned the smile weakly, and the nurse disappeared.

It wasn’t long before she was back with a basket of supplies. Violet closed her eyes. The nurse chattered away through the painful stick into a spidery vein on the back of Violet’s hand. As she half-listened, she decided her first impression of the woman had been incorrect, and perhaps she was human after all.

In a few minutes, Violet was tethered to the stretcher by a thin tube dripping a clear liquid into her hand. It felt cool going in, and Violet was glad for the lovely blanket, even though its initial heat had long since faded. The nurse left again, this time leaving the curtains open, and Violet was alone in a room full of noisy activity.

In spite of her predicament – tied down in the eye of a hurricane with an elephant sitting on her chest – Violet was sure things would turn out well. A comforting thought came to mind: if this was it for her, at least she’d be with people who would make sure she didn’t suffer. Even after Frank had died, she had steadfastly refused to consider the likely circumstances of her own death, and was now surprised to find that the thought of today being her last on earth was not particularly distressing. In fact, she almost relished the idea that she might see Frank again soon – she’d love to ask him where he’d been all this time – Ethel made it to visit every night, she planned to say, why the heck couldn’t he?

Violet dozed on her stretcher. Her hand ached where the IV was stuck and the tube in her nose was irritating, but the beeping of her monitor was steady and constant, and rather than irritating, it lulled her by giving her something to focus on. Every once in a while, someone would come by and ask if she had pain. Since she really didn’t (her hope continued to chip away at the massive weight on her heart, relieving it a tiny piece at a time), it was truthful when she told them she did not. She had no idea how long she lay there, what time it was, or even if it was day or night. The activity level in the Emergency Department never varied, despite what she might have expected.

As she lay there, rising only once to go back to the bathroom (a massive undertaking that required two other people to help wheel her IV pole to ensure she did not fall and break a hip), Violet began to notice her gut churning and gurgling. She wondered how long it had been since she’d eaten. The heaviness was still in her chest, but she realized it seemed to be moving lower and lower. Violet began to suspect that her own original diagnosis had actually been correct. As the minutes passed, the roiling and seething of her digestive system out-competed the chest pain for her attention.

And suddenly, Violet determined her own problem, just minutes before the doctor came in to see her.  It was with utter certainty that she shifted one cheek off the stretcher and squeaked out a small diagnostic test. It was as quiet as possible; despite her age and the rights and privileges inherent, Violet preferred to behave in a ladylike manner as much as possible. Anxiously, she glanced around wondering if anyone had heard the backdoor breeze. But no one appeared to be in the least concerned about the little old lady breaking wind in the third stretcher. The test was successful, and as the pressure eased a noticeable fraction, she abandoned all pretense and let them roll, figuring there was no time like the present to empty the tank. Thankfully, she had never had to deal with the curse of odiferous wind, and felt quite certain she was exacting her cure unnoticed by anyone. With each expulsion, the crushing weight lifted and her breathing eased.

Finally, the thunder subsided and Violet felt like new. The chest pain was gone and her breath came and went easily. She made an attempt to sit up, so she could find someone to help her dress and leave. As she shifted on her bed, she noticed a young man– younger even than her own doctor, who barely looked as if he was old enough to be out of high school himself– in a white coat standing a step or two behind. He had an incredulous look on his face, giving Violet the impression she might not have been as quiet as she had thought. She considered pretending the Sound and the Fury hadn’t come from her.

“Better out than in,” she shrugged, blinking innocently.

“Yes, indeed,” he responded drily. “Well, Mrs. Maclean, I came to tell you that your EKG and blood tests are fine. You are not having a heart attack. We think it was angina.”

Angina brought on by gas, she thought. Thanks, son. Violet was indeed relieved, but completely unsurprised to hear the news. “Then I can go?” she asked.

“Well, we’d like to run a few more tests…” he began, but Violet stopped him with a hand.

“I’m fine, young man,” she said. “Help me get dressed, please.” She said it in such a way that the poor thing was unable to do anything but help. He pulled out the IV and taped a cotton ball over the spot. Violet herself yanked off the oxygen tube and disconnected the wires attached to her chest.

As soon as she was dressed, she walked purposefully toward the doors they had brought her through all those hours ago She waved at the gum-snapping triage nurse on her way out.

“Good bye!” she said cheerfully.

She could see out the front doors that it was near dark. The presence of that same miserable nurse at the desk gave her hope that it was evening and not morning. Walking straight through the waiting room – still crowded – she saw Bert and Elsie sitting there, where she had left them all those hours ago. It irritated her beyond reason that that nice Eduardo had failed to send them away, but aware that she had no ride home, she marched briskly up to them. Covering her embarrassment at the whole situation – her weakness in front of the bridge club, her “escort” to the hospital, stripping and enduring the indignity of performing all those bodily functions in front of strangers, the utter certainty that she was about to die – she announced, “I’m fine.”

Realizing from the looks on their faces exactly how imminent they, too, had considered her demise, she added, “Thank you for waiting for me. I’m sorry to have caused you any trouble”

Elsie spoke first. “Violet, we’re so glad you’re all right!”

“Thank you, Elsie,” Violet said, truly, if reluctantly grateful for her friends. Bert looked like he wanted to hug her. She pretended not to notice. Hopeful for their sakes that she was, indeed, cured of her affliction, she herded them toward the exit. To prevent rumours from flying through the bridge club, she decided to cut (ahem) her losses and tell them what happened.

“As I suspected,” she said. “It was just a little gas,” She held the door and let Elsie and Bert lead her through the doors and into a lovely, fresh evening.

It was just a little gas, that was all. Violet couldn’t figure out why the folks at bridge were making such a bit thing about it. So she was a little sweaty. It was eighty-six degrees in the gym. Everyone was sweaty. It certainly didn’t help that everyone crowded around her as soon as Bert mentioned how pale she was; it made her even more anxious and shaky.

Violet was a private woman, so she found the attention quite embarrassing, and even started to get a little short with Bert (whom she had always suspected of having a crush on her), as he bustled about with cups of water and a chair to put her feet on, demanding she allow him to take her to the hospital. As adamantly as she could from under the clammy cloths he placed on her forehead, she refused.

Still, in the back of her mind, a vague sense of unease floated around. This wasn’t the usual kind of stomach ache, and besides, she hadn’t really eaten much other than tea and toast today, certainly nothing that would give her indigestion. What if this was something that deserved some medical attention?

Violet dreaded doctors, since every time she went she seemed to come home with a new prescription. The last one was to fix the problems caused by the prescription before that. It seemed silly – perhaps, if, as she had suggested to the impossibly young doctor, she simply stopped taking the drug that was causing the problems (all of which were worse than the original condition it was meant to treat), she would have less trouble. But he’d insisted on yet another pill and Violet, reverting to some long-buried instinct to defer to an authority (such as he was) complied.

Worse than doctors though were hospitals. People died in hospitals. Violet hated them with a passion. When Frank passed on after a mercifully short stay in one, Violet vowed that it would take a serious condition indeed to get her back there for any reason. And a little gas certainly was not serious enough to warrant a trip to the gallows, despite Bert’s persistent wheedling.

Violet tried hard to ignore the burning in her chest as she finished the rubber match. Unfortunately, Bert was her partner for that game, and Elsie, a retired nurse, was also at the table. After the third discreet burp, she saw a worried glance exchanged between Bert and Elsie, which made her heart thump just a little faster. What if they were right? What if it wasn’t just gas?

“Violet,” Elsie said, touching her arm. “Maybe we should just take you in, just for a little check up. They’ll listen to your heart, check your blood pressure, and probably send you right home.”

When another quiet belch failed to quell the burning under her sternum, Violet felt her defenses crumbling.

“Fine,” she said crossly. “I’ll go on the way home.” If I get out of here and feel better, I’ll skip it altogether, she thought to herself.

Of course Elsie and Bert would hear nothing of it, and insisted on driving Violet to the hospital themselves. Within ten minutes, Violet found herself in front of the Emergency Department, being helped out of the car by Elsie while Bert ran to find a wheelchair. The really were making too much of a fuss. She was already feeling better.

Until Bert pushed the wheelchair through the sliding glass doors and Violet saw the waiting room. It was packed to capacity with what to Violet looked like a sample from every walk of life: tired, irritated parents and their hyperactive children, exhausted and ill-looking old people, young ones holding bloodied rags over various limbs, homeless people sleeping in chairs. The noise and the smell were horrible. If Bert hadn’t been hurtling her chair toward the triage desk at the speed of light, Violet would have turned around and walked straight out.

“Excuse me,” Bert said loudly to the back of a nurse in a hot pink smock. “My friend needs to see a doctor.”

The woman turned around in her chair and shot a skeptical glare over the desk at Violet. As if it pained her, she pulled out a computer keyboard and snapped the huge wad of gum in her mouth. One pierced eyebrow rose lazily.

“Health card?” she demanded. The shrieking of a bored child had obscured the woman’s request.

Violet cupped her ear with her hand.  “Pardon?”

“Do you have your health card?” the woman asked, this time with exaggerated emphasis.

Feeling it was pointless to respond verbally, Violet rooted around in her purse and fished out her wallet. The smells wafting over from the waiting room were beginning to make her feel ill enough to actually be there. Finally, she freed the health card from its plastic sleeve and slid it over to the woman, who took it and wordlessly began typing on her computer.

Violet turned to Bert and Elsie, who were both hovering nervously behind her. “Why don’t you two take off? I’m sure I won’t be long, and I can take a taxi home from here,” she suggested. The last thing she wanted was for Bert and Elsie to hear her conversation with the nurse.

Bert opened his mouth, looking like he was about to pitch a fit. Elsie silenced him with a hand on his arm. I’m sure you will be out soon, too, Violet,” she said. “We’ll just sit over there until you know how long it will be.” She indicated the waiting room.

Somewhat mollified (and secretly pleased that the two busybodies would be subjected to the zoo in the waiting room), Violet nodded and turned back to the woman at the desk, just as she spoke through her gum.

“What seems to be the problem?” she asked briskly.

“I have gas,” Violet replied. And pushy friends, she added silently.

“Oh…kay?” the triage nurse asked skeptically, as if to suggest Violet might be insane for bringing such a trivial issue to an overcrowded emergency room.

“It’s indigestion. Worse than usual. Right here.” Violet indicated the spot in the centre of her chest where the burning was worst.

The nurse leaned forward slightly, as if she was suddenly slightly more interested than she had been the minute before.

“Any chest pain?” she asked.

Reluctantly, Violet shrugged a little. “Maybe some.”

There followed a rapid series of questions from the nurse. Any nausea? Vomiting? Sweats or chills? Cough? Tingling anywhere? Headaches? Diarrhea? Constipation? Violet got the distinct impression she was being tested – a wrong answer would sentence her to hours in the crowded waiting room. The correct responses, however, meant a trip into the back, where those who were actually ill thrashed and wailed on stretchers (Or maybe it was the other way around – the correct answers meant she was free to go, the wrong ones meant an immediate future filled with needles and drugs and who-knew-what-else. Glancing back at Bert and Elsie who were watching her nervously, Violet wasn’t sure which prospect she relished less).

When the nurse had finally asked every possible question, and then some (When was your last menstrual period? 1968, Violet replied. The nurse did not crack a smile), she said, “Hold on.”

Violet was not sure what, exactly to hold on to, but waited as patiently as she could while the nurse typed on the computer, pressed a button, and pulled a page from a printer nearby. She pushed her chair back from the desk, snapped her gum again, and walked through a set of swinging doors behind. As they snapped shut behind her, Violet heard the nurse holler, “Hey Ed! I got one for ya!”

The next thing Violet knew, a huge man wearing baggy scrubs in an ungodly pale blue colour was beside her. He pushed her wheelchair through the swinging doors.

“Wait!” Violet yelled. He stopped. Suddenly, she felt scared and quite alone. Something about those swinging doors felt awfully one-way.

“Can I at least say goodbye to my friends?” she asked.

He came around in front of Violet and squatted down so they were face to face. His nametag said “Eduardo”.

“Well,” he said in a thick accent. “The nurse is worried you have heart attack. Can you be quick?”

A heart attack? Now, Violet was quite terrified. She shook her head. “C-can you just please tell them to go home?” she asked. As a silent and grudging thanks for bringing her here, she added, “Tell them I will call when I need a ride home.”

Eduardo nodded and pushed her into a larger room with about eight stretchers separated by curtains. Most were occupied by old people who already looked half dead. People in scrubs and lab coats bustled about. Monitor screens flickered and strange beeps and dings came from every direction. It was chaos.

Eduardo, the first kind, caring person Violet had encountered in this place, pushed her chair to the edge of an empty stretcher. He pulled the curtains closed around it and helped Violet from the wheelchair to the bed. She sat on the edge and Eduardo handed her a hospital gown. Violet looked at the limp blue rag in disbelief. This was really happening.

“You can take all your clothes off and put this on. Opens at the back. They see you soon.” Alarms and shouts sounded from the next stretcher. Eduardo backed out of Violet’s cubicle with an apologetic shrug. “I go tell your friends you say to go,” he said. Violet nodded, more preoccupied by the distressing sounds of gurgling and suction coming from the other side of the curtain. Her heart pounded a little against her ribs and her chest ached more than it had a few minutes ago. Eduardo left, pulling the curtain almost closed behind him.

She wrestled her shirt and pants off but decided she wouldn’t remove her underwear. Surely that could stay on. She pulled the gown over her arms, and reached behind her neck for the ties. She couldn’t reach them, and it occurred to Violet that it had been decades since she had been able to do up a bra in the back. Frustrated and scared, now feeling every on of her eighty-nine years, Violet lay back on the thin, hard stretcher and let a few tears escape as she arranged the gown to cover as much as she could. She closed her eyes. It felt as if the weight of a boulder had settled on her chest and she took a few deep breaths, just to be sure she still could.

Never had she felt so helpless and out of control. It wasn’t just gas. Violet was a patient.

 

 

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It was Tuesday, so Violet headed out to drop off her library books, as usual, and pick a few new ones for the week to come. One never knew what might happen. It was always good to have some reading material on hand.

The last batch had not been very good. The first book Violet had tried was hardly worth her time; a whodunit that never left any question of whodunit. Violet felt strongly though, that once something had been started, it ought to be finished, and stuck it out despite its utter predictability, even when it was tough to drag herself through it. The second was marginally better, but she had not been able to finish it before it was due, since the first was so difficult. She would have to renew it today in order to get to the end of it. She hoped she’d have better luck with her choices this week.

As she stepped off the bus and began the trek across the parking lot, she heard someone call her name.

“Yoo-hoo! Violet!” came the singsong voice. On a mission, Violet briefly considered ignoring the voice. She generally timed her visits to the library to within a half hour of closing time. A slight rush meant she was more likely to judge a book by its cover, so to speak… with the luxury of time, she had a tendency to get bogged down by the choices available. But when the librarians (especially the one grumpy one) had one eye on the clock and one glaring witheringly at the malingering patrons, Violet felt compelled to choose something, almost anything. She’d had some stinkers that way, certainly, but more often than not, she found herself enjoying books she never would have picked otherwise.

In any case, she was already quite short of time today, there was not even half an hour before the library closed and the return bus arrived at her stop, so the thought of chatting with some old biddy (for Violet was sure the voice belonged to an old biddy) was not very appealing. Besides, she really needed to renew the interrupted second book, so she had only a few precious minutes to browse.

“Violet!” the voice called again, more persistently. It would be difficult now to pretend she hadn’t heard. Reluctantly, she turned. It was Anna.

Anna was a short, plump, white-haired woman. She was just getting out of her enormous, elderly Cadillac (the one she and her husband Bert had bought new when they moved to the city – Violet had heard the story more than once). Violet wasn’t entirely sure how Anna could see over the steering wheel, but somehow she’d managed to pilot it around town for decades without piling it up. Idly, Violet wondered if she sat on old phone books or had blocks tied to the pedals. In any case, Anna was the last person Violet wanted to see at that moment. Anna was a chatter.

“Hello, Anna,” Violet said in what she hoped was a friendly, but brief tone. She waved, and set off toward the library doors, hoping Anna would take the hint.

No such luck.

“How are you?” Anna asked. Violet sighed, and turned reluctantly back to her. Although it sounded like Anna really wanted to know the state of Violet’s health, experience told Violet that her concern was more likely to be a soap box from which to expound on her own difficulties. For the first time in her nearly nine decades, Violet actually wished for some kind of anomalous meteorological event, a plague of locusts, or a tempest or something. At least then they’d have to take shelter inside the library, under the strictly imposed shush of the librarians.

“I’m fine, Anna,” Violet replied. Despite her better judgment, Violet asked, “How are you?”

“Well, you know I haven’t been well,” Anna stated. Violet had heard, but was not terribly interested in the past or current state of Anna’s colon. She kicked herself for asking.

“Oh, I’m so sorry to hear that!” She said, trying to sound sincere. Again, she turned toward the library, and again she was drawn back in. Silently, she wished that the illness was laryngitis, but had no doubt that she was about to hear exactly what it was.

As Anna launched into the story of her difficult diagnosis, Violet’s mind wandered. Tying not to glance at her watch, she planned and re-planned her route through the library, trying to guess down which row she might have the best luck. Fiction, or non-fiction? So many decisions.  She could still make it in, choose her books and renew the old one, as long as the crabby librarian was not there.

“And of course, you remember my boy Gerald?” Violet heard Anna ask. She nodded and murmured something neutral. Gerald was fifty-three and had just moved out of his mother’s basement. At Violet’s nod, she veered off into a detailed description of Gerald’s new boss, who was apparently a tyrant. Violet was certain that the story itself was excruciating, but was having trouble paying attention to Anna over the sound of a very large clock ticking in her head, one that sounded remarkably like that one from Sixty Minutes. That Mike Wallace, now that was one attractive man. Violet sighed, and began listening for opportunities to extract herself from the conversation.

At the first pause, Violet sighed. “Well, Anna, you have been having quite a time, then!” she said sympathetically, and hopefully with a hint of I-need-to-go-now. She was pleased with having remembered to leave off the usual, “haven’t you?” suffix, for fear that Anna would answer the rhetorical question. Unfortunately, Anna heard the unspoken query, and went off on another tangent.

Fine, thought Violet. I’ll just have to be more direct.

“Well,” she said at Anna’s next intake of breath. “It was nice to see you.” Violet began turning her body away from the little prattler and moving in the direction of the library. She had less than twenty minutes now.

“Oh, it was just lovely to see you too, Violet,” said Anna. “We simply must get together for tea soon. You know, it’s been just ages since I saw everyone, what with my stomach and Gerald’s move and everything.”

Before Violet could take another step toward her week’s reading material, Anna had begun reciting a long list of people she hadn’t seen in ages.

“You should come to bridge club,” Violet said insincerely during a brief pause in the tirade, knowing Anna would never do such a thing. Too much silence was required, and too much silence was likely to give people like Anna a coronary.  It only took so long to share all the intimate details of her life (which, for Anna, never took more than about fifteen minutes – everyone even knew about Bert’s erectile dysfunction) so she’d get a run for her money with any of several others at bridge club. The thought made Violet stifle a chuckle.

“Maybe I will. Where do you meet?” she asked, much to Violet’s dismay.

“At the school on…” She wasn’t even able to finish her sentence before Anna was on to the next idea.

If there was one thing that Violet could not abide, it was interrupters. They were bulldozers. They forced one to leave thoughts unfinished in an attempt to shoehorn their own agenda to the attention and adoration of their captive audience. It was simply disrespectful. Violet could see Anna planning her own next utterance even as Violet spoke, and a scornful flash of irritation at the entire episode cracked in Violet’s chest. A taste of her own medicine, Violet thought.

“Well we shall have to see what the fall brings…” Anna was saying. Violet was not sure quite what she was talking about. She’d not been listening, but neither had she interrupted Anna’s oration. Somehow, she felt entitled to do so now, a bit of retribution for what would now be an almost pointless trip to the library, so little time was left.

Angry and irritated, Violet stopped Anna. If hinting wouldn’t work, maybe a taste of her own medicine would. “Well, it was nice to see you, Anna,” Violet lied again. “But I need to get to the library before it closes.” She indicated the book bag in her hand. She turned away and began walking toward the safety of the front doors.

She heard Anna, still talking behind her, but kept walking. It felt quite rude, leaving the woman standing there in the parking lot. Without looking back, she raised a hand in a half wave and stepped across the cool threshold into the dusty, book-perfumed hush of the library. The librarian (the crabby one) was just making the announcement. “The library will be closing in ten minutes. Please make your selections and proceed to the checkout counter.

Still irritated, but strangely elated, Violet dropped her returns at the counter. In record time, she checked out two new books, quietly buzzing from her parking lot coup. It had been years since she’d interrupted someone! She shuddered to think of how many hours she had spent just listening to people babble on about things when she was too polite to stop them. Apparently, interrupting may actually get you what you want, she realized – in this case, an escape! She wondered if Anna was still in the parking lot, chattering away to herself – it was easy to think, during a conversation with the likes of Anna that perhaps her audience was not really necessary. A moment of guilt caused Violet to flush with shame, but then she shook her head. No, she would not feel badly about this, she decided. Anna had no compunction about shoving chitchat down one’s throat; this was simply playing by the same rules.

Violet was last in line. The librarian glared at her as she glanced at her watch. Violet checked out and headed toward the door. Anna and her car were gone, no doubt to talk the gas station attendant’s ear off.

Violet’s pleasant mood continued even as she watched from the lobby as the bus went straight past her stop. Oh, well, she thought as she exited the library. There was a Tim Horton’s just across. She could go get a cup of coffee and have a look at her new books while she waited for the next one.

Violet remembered the book she had meant to renew just as the librarian clicked the deadbolt shut behind her. It was sitting on the Returns counter with the other one. Violet sighed. An interruption had already saved her from one unpleasant experience that day. It looked like it was about to save her from finishing the second dreadful book this week. It seemed interruptions could be beneficial after all.

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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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There is a site I go to sometimes when I want to write but can’t think of anything to write about. It has a quick writing exercise for every day of the year. I went there tonight, but since I didn’t really like today’s challenge, I scrolled back through a few days and found the one that inspired this post. The directions were to take the same dialogue and apply in in three different scenes. So here we go!

In a cafe:

“It’s impossible, you don’t want that,” he said, taking her hand and guiding her toward the counter containing the less opulent desserts.
She stopped and pulled her hand from his. “Why not?” she asked indignantly.
“Can’t you see?” He looked pointedly up and down her body, settling his gaze on her flat stomach.
“Shut up,” she said sulkily. She knew he thought she could stand to lose a few pounds, but honestly, here? In public? What a jerk.
“Why should I?” he asked, louder than necessary, blinking with a false innocence that made her want to strike him.
“Shshsh,” she said, and when he opened his mouth to speak again, she stalked out of the café.

 

In an office:

“It’s impossible, you don’t want that,” she whispered, shocked and not a little titillated by his risqué suggestion.
“Why not?” He looked around the acres of cubicles at all the drones hunched over their computers. He would be willing to bet that none of them had had the nerve to ask Shelley for a quickie in the janitor’s closet.
“Can’t you see?” she said, pointing at her ring finger. A large diamond glinted there. He was sure it hadn’t been there yesterday.
“Shut up,” he said with exaggerated disbelief. His tone dared her to prove she was actually in love with Pedro, that dildo from across the hall.

“Why should I?” She straightened up, now offended and apparently ready to launch a verbal assault on his manhood.
“Shshsh,” he repeated, desperate now to head off an attack brought on by his own stupidity.

 

On a hiking trail:

“It’s impossible, you don’t want that,” she said her neck craned so that she could see the top of the rock. It was at least fifty metres high.

“Why not?” he asked, his eyes alight with the prospect of an impossible challenge.
“Can’t you see?” She gestured helplessly at the cliff’s face, worn almost smooth by generations of climbers.
Suddenly, he stopped, instantly alert, and looked over to their left. “Shut up,” he said severely, and held up his hand.
“Why should I?” she demanded, her face still turned to the rock, still oblivious to his alarm.
“Shshsh.” She turned, finally, at the unease in his voice and he pointed to the rattler a few feet away. Silently and quickly, they began to climb.

Violet first caught wind of the scandal at bridge one hot Thursday afternoon. Margaret mentioned in a fairly pointed way that she had seen Lorraine down at the Tim Horton’s with Albert on Monday. For a moment, the fans that lazily blew muggy air around the school gym obscured Margaret’s words, so that Violet had to turn up her hearing aid. Margaret must have taken the gesture as a request for more details, and launched into the story. Violet tried not to roll her eyes visibly. She instantly felt for poor old Lorraine. Since she’d had to put her husband in that nursing home, they hadn’t seen much of her at bridge.

“They were sitting close together,” Margaret leaned her ample bosom over the coffee urn and dropped her shrill voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “Very familiar, if you ask me.”

No one had asked Margaret, but that never seemed to stop the gossipy old biddy. Everyone knew, in fact, that if you wanted to keep something a secret, Margaret was the last person you should tell. The woman would sell out her own sister for the sake of a juicy morsel to pass along. It was disgraceful, really, especially from a woman whose violently orange wig (worn on the pretense that it was truly her own hair) was, without her knowledge, the talk of the bridge club, and not flattering talk, either.

There was a silence (rare, when one was talking to Margaret), and Violet realized she was expected to respond to Margaret’s revelation with a mix of shock and disapproval. She mustered up a frown that she hoped matched Lorraine’s.

“Isn’t Albert’s wife in the Golden Door too?” Violet asked, wondering if she had found a neutral question that might pass for one as judgment-filled as Margaret’s statement had been. “Maybe they were commiserating on the trials and tribulations of being nursing home widows.”

“Well, they were a little too close for my comfort,” Margaret replied.

It was out of her mouth before she could stop it. “What does your comfort have to do with Lorraine or Albert?” Violet blurted. Honestly, the woman was ridiculous.

“Well,” Margaret blustered, indignantly tossing the unnaturally orange hair. “It was just unseemly, that’s all.”

Realizing she may have already planted seeds that would make her gossip’s next victim, Violet made what she hoped was an indecipherable noise and busied herself adding powdered creamer to her decaf. Apparently realizing Violet was not going to bite on this tasty tidbit of drama, Margaret wandered away, probably looking for a more receptive audience.

It always made Violet angry, the tendency of some people to attend to the intimate details of others’ lives as if they were soap operas. It was as if they didn’t have enough drama in their own lives, they had to manufacture more. The problem was that most of the time, victims like Lorraine were simply innocent bystanders, caught in the line of fire. It was terrible to have to worry about it, but the fact was, they were powerful people, who could as easily ruin your reputation as your day.

The way Violet saw it people had two choices in life if they wanted to survive amongst people like Margaret. You could tiptoe around and spend all your energy trying not to do things that would attract attention, or you could plow ahead and do what you wanted to do in life without worrying what others thought about it. There were times it was a tough call, but Violet preferred to plant  her feet firmly in the latter camp. She had long since stopped caring what people thought of her or her choices. At her age, one did things because one wanted to do things, not because one was expected to conform to some capricious code of conduct. After all, to wear purple (or indulge in any other silly whim) was one of the few advantages of advanced age.

To remain consistent in her conviction that people had no right to care what she did, Violet made it a point not to care about what others did. She had always had a tendency to give people the benefit of the doubt, and assumed for the most part that motives were generally pure, but age and extensive experience with the subtle bullying tactics of those like Margaret who found entertainment in the social discomforts of others had only solidified her opinions.

She did feel very sorry, however, for those, like Margaret, for whom image must be so important that they felt the need to denigrate anyone nearby to build themselves up. What energy it must take to always be concerned about what others think of you! The ladies who never left the house without full hair and makeup, the fool down the street with that horrible loud sports car that scared the dickens out of her every time he revved the engine… they were all somehow so… pathetic. Not nearly as interesting as they thought themselves. No one cares! Violet wanted to scream. Just relax and enjoy life for a change!

From the corner of her eye, Violet could see that Margaret had turned away, looking for someone else to take part in her tittle-tattle. The woman sure had nerve, thought Violet.

Suddenly, an odd movement caught her eye. It was one of those situations where she could see what was coming before it actually happened.

As if in slow motion, Violet watched as Margaret crossed the path of the one effective fan in the gymnasium. The breeze caught her at the perfect angle, and instantly, it seemed as if her whole scalp had lifted off her head. The gaudy wig tried valiantly to escape its Purgatory atop Margaret’s wispy grey dome and hovered for a split second at the edge of her reach.  Just in time, Margaret snatched it out of the air and slapped it back down in its rightful place. Well, almost rightful. It sat only the slightest bit askew atop Margaret’s head. Violet felt slightly gratified to see Margaret look wildly around to see if anyone had noticed the mishap. Instantly, she looked away, stifling an involuntary giggle, hoping Margaret would assume that no one had seen.

Thankfully, it was time to deal the cards. Everyone hurried to the tables. At least Margaret was not her first partner of the day. Every time Violet’s gaze happened to fall Margaret’s way, another fit of laughter threatened. By the end of the fifth hand, Violet was becoming concerned for the effectiveness of her bladder control protection. It didn’t help that Margaret had never straightened the wig completely.

For the rest of the afternoon, Violet noticed a distinct lack of chatter from the woman and when it was time to go home, Margaret was, uncharacteristically, the first one out the door. Well, thought Violet. Maybe she learned a lesson about misfortune today. A couple of quick exchanges behind hands and a half-dozen surreptitious snickers gave Violet the distinct impression that she was not the only one who had seen the incident. All the other patrons of bridge club were gracious enough not to mention it, even though most had been burned by Margaret’s whispers in the past. Violet was almost sorry that Margaret would never realize how many people simply wouldn’t even think to be unkind enough to repeat such an embarrassing, and essentially inconsequential story. Their discretion nearly restored Violet’s faith in mankind.

When she got home, Violet poured herself some lemonade and picked up the phone. It would be nice hear Lorraine’s voice. It had been such a long time since they’d really talked.

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