The snow, real staying snow, just won’t come this winter, and it’s already January. It has accumulated some at times, of course, if more like helpless Styrofoam pellets swept against tree trunks, where they grab at the base as if that’s the height of ambition, then climb even in a weak breeze, then give up and disappear to only God knows where. Such pathetic showings of snow as we have had soon turn to curb slush the colour of dishwater. Then everything just looks uglier, depressing as an open grave, and about the same colour. That’s another reliable ugly thing about Sarnia and its smoking Chemical Valley, the endless refineries continuously cook the earth and shower sooty particulate, so that our snow turns shitty not long following a fall. A sparkling winter wonderland has no chance of an encore here.
When I was a kid, we could build lasting outdoor rinks at the beginning of December. We’d water through bone-chilling evenings till bedtime, layering inches of diamond ice that would last through thaws and well into March. That was in Hanilee, not Sarnia, if the same southwestern Ontario territory (minus the Chemical Valley). Girls had to pitch in watering in the sparkling evening, though next day we’d have to beg the boys’ permission to play (melodramatically plead, a regular performance, a rehearsal for our lives as women). But a white Christmas was not something we had to dream of then: contrarily we prayed for no snow. I remember swinging down Hanilee’s Main Street arm-in-arm with Mari, heading for Christmas shopping at the Metropolitan on Christmas Eve, loudly singing “We’re dree-ming of a greeeen Christmas ...” Some citizens smiling small caution, others irritated at our un-Hanilee-like parading about.
I suppose climate change is to blame. Mother Earth’s big change. Her climacteric. I remember learning that word in our new grade-eight sex-ed class, and Mari and I were instantly using it loudly in study period:
“Oh, Mari dear, how’s your female climacteric coming along?”
“Torridly, Del dear, I’m simply flushing and flashing like a toilet on Victoria Day!”
Having to be shushed repeatedly at distance by old Mrs. Manery. “But it’s something we learned in class!” Laughing loudly. Then hissingly told close-up, through the puking stink of her eau-de-outhouse, that we should be ashamed of ourselves and ordered to the principal’s overheated office. Principal Johnson sat us before him and kept pushing his Coke-bottle-thick glasses up his nose as sweatily he leaned across the desk and tried to see up our skirts. If we tucked, we got detentions. If we clapped thighs faux-nervously, we got off with a warning. Girls learn.
But why am I back there again?
Remember remember remember. But why? No good meets me in memory lane. Yet the older I get the more I’m back there in school, in Hanilee, studying to see where today’s life sentence began to go wrong, wondering if a kinder word here, a gentle question there, would have changed for the better how I’ve come to converse with the world. Driven to conclude, again, how this sad-sack woman’s life would be judged by the puffed-up girl I was.
So, why go there, as the kids say, when no good can come of it? Aunt Avi would say, “What cannot be changed must be endured, God help us.” And Uncle Greg (not her husband, her brother) would ask in his pretend-but-real official voice, “But Avi, dear, how can you know what can’t be endured till you try and try again? Maybe that’s where God would come in.”
I’m tired of trying, Uncle Greg.
I’m in the middle of the big change myself now. It’s a nuisance all right, especially the once-laughable hot flashes and flushes, if still not the big deal we were led to fear. “A woman’s burden,” Aunt Avi would say, who was continuously suffering from what she called “women’s troubles.” Of course, some women do go crazy for a spell, though no one knows when she’s acting crazy, because then she’d not be crazy. I’m driven crazy not by the sudden symptoms but from thinking how my whole disposition—my very self—can be controlled by hormones. My pseudo-scientific Mom used to say, “That’s all we are in the end, Delphemia. Don’t be counting on that great patriarch in the sky for any help. He’s to blame.” This in response to my adolescent whining about having to have a period. Like Mom, I don’t believe in Santa God. But I’m no philosopher either. What I am is a compressing stack of bones covered evermore slackly in flesh and skin, a lukewarm container of souring juices and constant bile. That’s the woman girl Del became.
I’m always imagining lumps in my breasts too. Then convincing myself I really feel one. But I’ve been like this since I grew breasts: thrilled, embarrassed, cocky, exposed, and, yes, finally a finished woman. Then suffering the so-called “male gaze,” of horrible boys at first, then horrible men, for the most part anyway. We learned to deal with it, Mari and me, with what we called the “female glaze.” Now no one bothers me, which is more horrible.
The biggest change Mari reached after having her children was dying from breast cancer at age thirty-seven. It happened not long after her third child, leaving John to manage on his own, which he never did well (Aunt Avi always kept me up-to-date on Hanilee happenings wherever I happened to be; when I asked what she meant about John’s not managing, she just made the noise glug-glug). Poor Mari was too late for this new immunology treatment that would at least have extended her life. Though all it really does is extend the worst part of a life’s ending.
We’d grown apart anyway, Mari and me, with her never having left Hanilee while I wandered the world for twenty years. Well, world-wanderer all over Canada. Then settling in Sarnia, the “Big City,” as a half-drunk woman I once met in Hanilee’s Legion Hall called it. I’d believed I had a shot at fame as a singer, having had early success locally with a decent band (they broadening out, to Forest, Grand Bend, Goderich, if still mostly limited to the bright lights of Sarnia: the Happy Valley, the Holiday Inn, the St. Clair Hotel).
I took the plunge and wasted what remained of my youth (or so it looks now; at the time I believed I was starting too late) as lead of an all-female country quartet put together in London (not the real London): a great guitar player, Michelle O’Brien, the only one to stay with me through twenty years, with myself also strumming an electrified Ovation acoustic; a decent bass player, and a steady drummer (though rhythm sections came and went like costumes). Over the years we were variously called “Canadian Country Chicks,” “The Roaring Girls,” “All-Dressed Ladies” (that one in answer to a popular new group at the time called “Bare Naked Ladies”; I’d objected that it sounded like we were edible women, which referred to a novel by my favourite writer, Margaret Atwood), and finally “Melody’s Girls.” We went everywhere (in Canada) and nowhere anywhere else. I was the singer (aka “lead vocalist”), and I had a voice, if I do say so myself; I never received any but glowing reviews, even when the band was criticized (usually for our changeable rhythm sections, which never took the time to gel). We did enjoy some success, especially in the early years of Canadian Content regulations, encouragement enough to keep us going till we landed near middle age without much of anything tangible to show; and even into middle age (which starts at thirty, by the way) for the straggling ragtag band of us still trying (“Melody’s Girls”). We’d had the same manager for twenty years, Willie Coté, who’d been robbing us of our little for all that time while promising bigger paydays just around the corner, then the next corner (usually when entering some Saskatchewan backwater of tall demanding men and cheery-hyper women who hadn’t signed on for this sort of ‘Western lifestyle’). The age-old entertainment story, with enough versions to fill a thousand-and-one nights of any band’s complaining at the arse-end of a tour. A woman manager, by the way, Willie, a real cunt from the cunts, if you’ll pardon my talking truth to feminist power. She’s the one made us—sold us as—a feminist gimmick. ... We coulda bin contendahs too, Heart. (I didn’t just cover “Dreamboat Annie”—one of our few concessions to American pop—I made it mine, complete with the complex fingerpicking.)
Once when I was cleaning up here at the Bluewater Café, I forgot myself and sang (the vaulted ceiling of this former Royal Bank is great acoustics, which just carried me off). I’d begun humming to myself, not thinking it was for the first time in forever, then singing right out unawares. It was the Hank Williams classic, “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.” I was swaying along with the damp mop like a mike stand (Old Ray, our dogsbody, was responsible only for cleaning the kitchen). When I looked up, Ed Brown, the owner-manager, and Old Ray were standing there holding open the swinging doors to the kitchen—and when I halted (radiating embarrassment) they applauded, and they weren’t being ironic.
I do it all the time now, after closing, my best voice at volume, different songs to match my mood, from the old repertoire, as it came back to me: Ian and Sylvia, Joni’s “Both Sides Now” (anything else of hers was too challenging, and not really my style anyway), Anne (my “Snowbird” killed, if I do say so myself), some Shania towards the end (I never put on weight, my “Man! I Feel Like a Woman!” drew more than just polite whistles). In all incarnations, we stayed as clear of American covers as insistent requests would allow (though Linda Ronstadt’s “Blue Bayou” remained my encore for the sopping patrons at closing time). But our staunch cultural nationalism, like our mistaken girl-band so-called gimmick, never did take us anywhere profitable; only a handful of times into the States, with most of those being just across the river from here, to a dive-below-dive in Port Huron creatively named The Huron, which we were soon justifiably calling the “Urine”: the bathroom was like a post-fest of the blind ... and that was the women’s (drum roll—rimshot). The upside, if you can call it that, I got to know Sarnia. I don’t know what attracted me. Maybe the belief that I belonged here.
A few feathery flakes float down hopefully, like clouds molting, becoming nothing before they touch down. January? On the walk to work this morning it was dank dirty as waiting at a splashing curb in March for a bus that never comes. So I’m glad at least to be inside here and looking out. ... Snow or no snow, the brown train stands out as it comes slowly rattling along the river heading for the plants of the Chemical Valley. Slows further, rattling more loudly ... Shudders to a stop, like a train that’s given up, or forgotten how to be a train. Shunts again, banging and clanging loudly through the wet air like hard things that hurt. Settles again. Anticipant train. I wait. But it looks set to stay put for a spell, right there in the middle of nowhere. Which is different.
Even though I have a slightly elevated perspective, the long line of rust-brown cars blocks the river frozen along the shoreline at least. It has been cold enough this winter, despite the January thaw, just no clean staying snow to cover the ugly world. The big St. Clair River has shrunk to a narrow strip of open darkness way out. It’s a view, I guess—the sloping embankment to grey macadam parking lot with scattered cars, the dark glinting rails, the frozen shoreline of white river out to narrowing black middle, then the same in reverse across to Port Huron—at least the only view sorry downtown Sarnia offers. That’s the word our few misled tourists to “Beautiful Bluewaterland” use when they’ve found the Bluewater Café and run out of things to say and are just hugging their coffee mugs like handwarmers and staring westward out the big old bank windows: “Just look at that view.” If unenthusiastically. Beginning to sense a nuzzling wet-nosed regret at having taken two nights at the Drawbridge Inn. There’s just something repellant about any Sarnia view, nothing warm and welcoming, whether it’s the international bridge to the north diminishing Lake Huron or the hellish eternally smoking plants to the south, or what should be a decent river view graffitied by rusty rails or blocked entirely by trains like industrial turds.
I’d just got rid of a couple of schoolgirls, who’d ordered one mug of hot chocolate between them, paid the exact amount in small change, then sat forever over their laptops, giggling and cursing loudly (“like truckers,” as we used to say; “like rappers” would be more like it now). For all I knew, they were emailing each other, about the boys they weren’t seeing this morning because they were surely playing hooky, it being a Tuesday (Mari and I; some things never do change). Most likely they were from the soon-to-close high school, SCITS, just up Wellington Street. But they could as well have been skipping out on an elementary school, for all I knew. The size of girls these days deceives; it’s not just that they’re taller, they’re also big as barns, with shoulders and biceps like football players. What’s that about? I’m not imagining it. I hope it’s not because I’m shrinking! ... No: everybody younger is taller nowadays, and the girls are playing catch-up to the boys. Or it’s those tyrannical hormones they’re feeding the cows (“Agribusiness,” my father spat into the bonfire he’d made of the fox pens. “Aggravation’s more like it”). Or maybe it’s the physical manifestation of all the gains made in the lives of girls and women riding the third wave, or the fourth or fifth, whatever? Girls don’t starve themselves anymore (like Mari and I were doing every other month to attract the attention of different boys we couldn’t really stand), so they get fatter and fatter drinking beer and pigging-out just like the boys. Maybe it has to be that way, progress towards true equality, I don’t know. I am woman, see me grow? ... Till I’m gross. C’mere, little man, I’ve got a job for you. Fact is (thank you, Mother), females probably pack on the fat more efficiently than males as some kind of evolutionary reproductive strategy. But better be careful there, girls (and thank you, Uncle Greg).
Am I guilty of what they call “body-shaming”? Fine by me: guilty as charged. But more than just shaming the social snowflakes, excessive fat, obesity, is a cause of cancer and diabetes and a hundred other afflictions—such as susceptibility to Covid—that’ll one day make you regret, dear, that jumbo drink and Flintstone cheeseburger with bacon, and all that equality beer with the keg-partying boys now too. As Mother drilled into me, “We women are especially heirs of the living body.” Mom would have had no problem with body-shaming, if Parkinson’s hadn’t made her final years a silencing shame for her.
I finally had to pick up the girls’ lone mug, tilt-prying it off the table, and obviously damp-clothing its ring; then fold my dishrag and scrub away at nothing; I kept wiping unnecessarily, right up close to their laptops, so that they had to lift their elbows and not put them back down on the damp. They made irritated faces, the little ... witches, but got the message and began packing up into their shiny pink and yellow plastic backpacks decorated with daisies and kittens, which looked all the more ridiculous on their broad backs. The one in the lead had the door open when the one who really did look a little like Mari—the pretty round face, if only she’d lose some weight, and if four inches taller with the same wavy chestnut hair—sneered over her shoulder for my benefit: “She thinks she’s really something ... skank.” They slouched off laughing after letting the door slam.
Mari and me. When we were that age. Now I am ol ... a skank.
I shouldn’t have let it, but that’s what dropped me into morose musing at this window, that one word: skank. Where does it get off slamming me like this? Like a jail cell’s door clanging on my youth. My youthful dreams? Skank. Am I really one now? No use Googling skank on the restaurant’s computer: the literal truth of words won’t save me now, never could (sorry, Mom). Words can’t help but distort the truth, they’re so far from it, stories too. Only music tells the capital-t Truth. When I bantered on-stage, it was truly a pack of happy lies. A lying performance. But when I sang “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” it was ...
Look at me: Big Thinker. Besides, if I did Google skank, in truth a photo of me should accom ... pan ... y ...
Something was happening down at the train.
The big iron door on one of the rust-coloured boxcars slides open like a black hole in brown space, just a half-foot crack at first—because someone in the dark would have been adjusting to the light and checking if the coast is clear. Then another couple of feet and a huge green backpack on a silver metal frame, of a size that would cripple even the big girls, is thrown from darkness onto the white gravelled embankment, where it lies like a life raft about to inflate. A man in dark clothing steps into the light and holds onto the frame of the doorway for a peering moment—jumps; he lands clumsily on his own backpack, or perhaps intentionally to cushion the fall, and rolls off onto his hands and knees on the large gravel (on walks I’ve palmed those stones, they’re the size of bookends). He’s no good at this. He struggles quickly to his feet and, standing slantwise on the graded gravel, one short leg extended, the other like a bicycle prop, whips about looking for witnesses to his poor performance. When he collects himself, I notice that his head barely reaches to the floor of the boxcar. Either those car wheels are a lot higher than they appear at distance or he’s pretty short. He slaps off the dust, grabs his sack and scuttles down the rocky embankment to the cinder margins.
He twists awkwardly getting into the backpack (definitely not practiced), which hangs past the backs of his knees like he’s carrying his whole house turtle-wise (definitely short). He starts the climb up the large embankment to Front Street, moving fast, those scuttling legs working like he’s kicking the world away behind him. Soon he’s standing on the other side of the street to my right, casing the scene.
He’s dressed inappropriately for the season, only a ragged cap slotted onto big exposed ears, dark green-checked flannel shirt, pale jeans belted high (for the illusion of height?), outfitted more for fall than the dead of winter.
But a modern-day hobo? With modern-day bindle? What is this, the Great Depression?
He’s looking for a fast-food restaurant, likely wishing for a Tim’s (great value, far better than the Bluewater Café), when he lights on me caught at my time-wasting window post (we’ll remain fairly empty till closer to the lunch hour). I still have 20/20 vision anyway: he has squinty eyes, greying hair from the faded green cap, big lobeless ears, clean-shaven, ‘cleaned-up real good’ in fact for someone just out of a boxcar.
It’s like we’ve locked onto each other, and then some spacey tractor beam from my eyes moves him leftward along Front Street’s sidewalk till he’s standing directly across from me. He smiles, seeming surprised, then smirking ironically, I think. I don’t smile back any which way. He crosses the street without looking both ways and comes in our entrance that gives on Lochiel Street. He shucks off the backpack and leaves it by the door. Pretty presumptuous, I think.
Grinning now he says, “You have a lovely smile.”
“I wasn’t smiling.”
“I know, I’ll bet you seldom do these days. I was being ironic. You should smile more. Tea and toast?”
“White or whole wheat or multi—”
“You choose for me. And honey if you have it, sweetheart.”
“Sweetheart and honey? With a side of irony?”
“Tell me your name then.”
I tapped my order pad three times with the new pencil. “... Delphemia.” I don’t know why I gave it. I added, as I always do the few times I’m being straight, “My whacky mom’s idea, to distinguish her daughter. Most people call me Mel.”
“Mel?” It was like he’d already known something, the way he smiled small to himself. “Why not Del?”
“Simon. Not my real name either.”
“You always come and go illegally on trains, unreal Simon?”
He snorted a small laugh first. “I come and go illegally on trains, just like in the movies.”
“Old movies. You’re a living cliché, Simon.”
“And you’re my crusty waitress, another lost type. Why don’t we get real with each other, Mel? Your move.”
“By the way, you may leave your backpack by the door, for now, but see that it doesn’t block the entrance.”
“What about the exit?”
Pinching my mouth with a shake of the head, I couldn’t help smiling as I turned away and passed into the warm kitchen with its big checkerboard linoleum. Why would I ever want to get real with this joker or make another move with him? For God’s sake, he’d need a ladder! My smile felt like the rusty cell door swinging open on the Prisoner of Chillon or the Count of Monte Cristo (are there no celebrated female prisoners? How about “Meghan, the Prisoner of Buckingham Palace”?). Because Ed Brown was away, Old Ray spoke ironically: “What brings Mel slumming to our kitchen cave?”
“Do we have any honey, Ray?”
“I think we’ve still got a never-used gallon jar of the stuff down in the hole somewhere.”
The name Mel was given me by Ronnie Hawkins, the old full-of-shit rock-in-roller. What he actually called me was “Melody,” because, he said loudly in that fake Good-ol-boys’ accent, “Y’all sing sweeter than mint Julep, Delphemia.” He laughed. “But yeh needs a showbiz name, girlee-girl.” The next day he cancelled our gentlemen’s-agreement contract as his warm-up act, stranding us in Weyburn Saskatchewan. Said he needed a “younger vibe.” He always did. As have I in the twenty years since my break with the Canadian music scene. But only Shania could pull off surrounding herself with bare-chested studs. (I’m joking already.) Anyway, the so-called Hawk left the Canadian Country Chicks high and dry in Rathole S-A-S-K, and me with a new showbiz moniker.
Here’s another thing: there was already something familiar about Simon. And this truth: I was attracted right away. It was his deep brown eyes of course, squinting or smiling, and his hair, thick and wavy grey. What it wasn’t was his negligible height. Or in a way it was, his aura of compact assurance and (an aging girl must dream) reassurance.
I left Hanilee to chase fame and fortune as a country singer (well, country-folk, which played better in Canada). I don’t tell anyone that anymore, though I knew I’d eventually tell Simon everything. As said, I can still break into song, if infrequently there for a long while. But when I broke with husband Pat and headed for London (not the etc.), leaving him with Jessie Georgina, Mavis, and Margaret, I actually assumed it’d be a shallow stepping stone to Nashville—because Willie had promised (whine)—or at the least to success in Toronto, and that I’d be back for them, my beloved girls, as I’d promised the crying three of them. Pat said right in front of them, “Don’t bother. You go now, you’re gone for good.” He needed to shave, his clenched grin was like a big black lock. The girls were wailing and clinging by the time I walked out the door carrying my own newly purchased bindle on wheels. When I stepped off the bottom porch step I stumbled in the half-heels, sure I wouldn’t make it to the taxi at the curb without fainting on the front walk. But I righted myself, telescoped the case’s handle like a Victorian lady’s parasol, and took one incredibly thick step after another. The world wheeling away in slow nightmare behind me, that’s all I remember of the rest.
I really don’t know how it passed, the time, but I didn’t return to Hanilee for a few years, always planning on a long then longer stay between bands. I lied to myself. First time I finally did return, the girls were already strangely grown, and Pat had Jane Glickman from the regional Child Welfare living with him (they’d begun their relationship with Ms. Glickman’s giving Pat a world of official nuisance about the girls’ rearing, insisting he had to abandon my ways of rearing and relearn). Regardless, my daughters have all grown up beautiful, with Jessie Georgina a semi-successful actress in Toronto, though divorced when her youngest was only five years, and already running out of roles in her late thirties. Mavis (May) lives in Toronto too, with a boy and a girl, doing something called “product display,” and seeing Jessie Georgina maybe once a year. And Margaret (Peg) is a successful and rich Marketing Engineer (don’t ask me) living in Vancouver with a househusband and two handsome boys. All of which is to say, the girls have succeeded in the real world where their dreaming mother failed—and done so without a mother.
Long story short: in the end I gave hobo Simon closet space to park his backpack, which slowly shrank. He never did find steady employment, there being little enough work still to be had in the smelly plants of the Chemical Valley (I should concede, they do look lovely lit-up at Christmas). I didn’t mind his not working, as he kept decent house in my musty apartment in the big old mansion on Vidal Street (supposedly Canada’s second prime minister, Alexander Mackenzie, had built it after having to retire from politics due to numerous concussions; he has his own park and monument by the river, on a small rise right behind where the trains block the view; but I guess such aside information hardly helps make a long story short!). I’m tall for a woman, or was so in my day at least, and only ever went with taller men (Pat stood six-foot-four), but I was comfortable with being inches taller than Simon. So I guess that expression could serve as our couple’s motto: long story short. Ha-ha.
By the time our lovemaking became routine, we’d long since known everything worth knowing about each other. His beast of a binge-drinking father who only acted decently for public consumption. His abused mother. His ten siblings; the brains and talent that were stifled in them was almost as bad as smothering children in their beds. The disappointing marriage and two surly teenage sons he’d left, et cetera et cetera et cetera. The same old stories that can make soap operas look refreshingly inventive. The only surprise in Simon’s backstory was that he’d grown up and lived most of his life right here in Sarnia, before finding employment some fifteen years ago selling farm machinery for Massey Ferguson, which forced him to better locate in his own small town not far from my Hanilee. His wife and boys never recovered from the move. The first big surprise in Simon’s stories was that he’d regularly caught my act many moons ago, when the Seaway (now the Dollarama on Christina Street) was regularly on our touring schedule. And the second surprise, this one humongous, was Simon’s claim that it was he who’d talked to manager Billie and made the contact with the owner of The Huron, which led to our only successful gigs in America.
“I don’t believe you.” And I didn’t, seriously wondering if I’d hooked up with a psychotic (it wouldn’t have been the first time, and I’ve the scars to prove so, some of them literal).
“I attended every show I could during your Seaway stops, but you never stayed more than a week. Mostly Saturday afternoon matinees, when the place was rockin’ with stoned kids. Remember?”
“That’s right, I do remember those gigs, in the ’nineties, the height of my fame, such as it was.”
“Like the kids, I couldn’t get enough of those Ronstadt tunes you sang.”
“But I never sang ... Oh yeah. Blue Bayou. Wait, let me think ... You’re No Good, It Doesn’t Matter Anymore, Silver Threads and Golden Needles. I’d forgotten, which is scary. But that’s right, she was big again with the kids then, Linda, more incarnations than a bad Buddhist. We always avoided American covers, part of our so-called Canadian Chicks gimmick. But I don’t even remember if that’s what we were called back then.”
“Your Over the Rainbow never failed to bring tears to my eyes.”
“Huh? ... I liked you better when you were an ironic suspect Simon.”
“Much better. Though if we’d really been called that, we’d have got rich in the punk or new wave or whatever era. Look what country punk did for old K.D. Lang! ... As they came along, I loved the names Blue Rodeo, Cowboy Junk—”
“Truly good songs never get old, Mel. Your I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry also made me cry, like, every time.”
“Really? That’s more than just a touch pathetic.”
“A touch maybe, really. But here’s the thing: after a while I noticed that none of the songs really moved you. You acted affected when you sang them, and adorably so, but between songs, even while turning away, you were instantly all business again, throat sprays and make-up touch-ups and such practical fussing. I know, I watched you.”
“This is beginning to sound a tad stalky, Simon.”
“It must, I understand. But you’re avoi-ding!” he sang contralto. He was mocking, whacko Oprah, or deceptive Ellen, or some such TV-tripe hostess.
Level-eyed, I met him seriously, or we were already being reintroduced to each other. “The songs affected me too, Simon. Why else would I choose to sing them? But when you perform you cannot let yourself respond emotionally, that gets messy in a hurry.”
“Don’t get me wrong, Mel. You knew how to deliver a tune, and then some. And I bet you still do. ... It’s just that the audience, including me, we’d sit there blubbering into our beer, but there’s you up there delivering songs like scalpels made of sugar. That’s what I began to see, and hear, and feel.”
“Wow, sugar scalpels. That’s pretty good, Simon, you should write a hobo ditty.”
“Have you ever really loved anyone, Mel?”
“Whoa, careful there ... easy, Simon. I love my children, my girls.”
“Of course, you do. Me too, my boys, but here you are, and here I am, stalking you. Where are they?” He sniggered, just like a stalker pervert would; and I really don’t know whether on purpose or not.
“Children don’t count,” he hurried. “I came to suspect there was something ramrod cold at your centre, Mel, an icicle made of frozen honey. But I meant, loved anybody other than your children?”
“Honey ici ... I ... care ... ful ...”
I had to think fast. I’d certainly believed I loved Pat when I fell for him and married. But it took too long—three kids to be precise—to know that I’d only been using him to make the life I’d been told I should have. Eventually I had to admit the same about the children themselves, God forgive me. Oh, I loved them all right, with all my heart, though not really with all my heart. My heart was always mine alone, and it and I belonged wholly only to music, as I’d always known, which should have kept me alone. The family romance had slowly been choking that in me, the part that had to sing or die, and more of the same would have been the death of me. The church choir just wouldn’t cut it. If I didn’t find out how far I could go, I’d be no good to anyone anyway. I don’t care how that sounds. Or this: love or no love, there’s a lot about my grown girls I do not like, mostly it’s what I see of their father in them (which is unavoidable, and understandable, since I wasn’t around). But also we don’t expect that our beloved little children, codependent as pouched marsupials, will grow up to be people: good, bad, and ugly.
“Yes?” He drew out the little word, his eyes squinting the challenge.
“This will sound weird, Simon, it’s something I’m only just realizing, or admitting to myself: I loved my best girlfriend, Mari. Not in a gay way, but still in a romantic way, a kind of loving longing without sexual desire, if you know what I mean, and I expect you don’t. I just couldn’t know that then, what with the way the world in my day still moved a girl through childish infatuation to puppy-love believing she can love only the one boy who’ll be the man of her dreams she marries and has children with. But I loved Mari, with all my heart, I did, or most of it anyway, more in any case than I ever loved Pat or my grown girls or anyone since. It was the closest feeling to what I’ve always had for music and singing. Something of me died when Mari died, and I kinda gave up on my one way to that true feeling, singing. Isn’t that funny?”
“No. And thanks for it. You’ve kept Mari in your heart. That’s why when you sang we were moved. You had to have that nugget of a hurt heart to make us part of the song.”
“You think?” I was finding it difficult to refind my edge.
“Look, I’m a diehard Beatlemaniac, Mel. Lennon and McCartney both lost their mothers in their early teens, a very bad time for that. Those dead mothers are the lost girls who birthed that Siamese genius, and made all the real girls, and boys, feel a special part of something special. When a song is that truly birthed, which was well before my time, it works forever. And keeps its mystery, the mystery of true art.”
“Mystery? True art? It wasn’t like that for me, Simon, no high-falutin’ theorizing. I sang folk-country. I knew every note I sang, and the precise effect I wanted with every syllable of every word. I wouldn’t perform a song till I’d got it down like brain surgery. From my head to my throat, every note, every expression and gesture, all very technical stuff. For me the, uh, hurtin’ had nothing to do with it. I sang.”
“Of course. For you. You just sang.”
I froze, like a wind of the wintry St. Clair had blown open the back of my hospital gown. “What about you, Simon?” I’d just managed that, and I could tell he could tell.
“Me? ... Okay: cards on the table. I came here again, back home, because I’d heard a rumour that you were living here and I needed to meet you, to know you, Mel. I really have been stalking you for, like, a couple of decades now, if only in my mind, till now.”
“You’re scaring me, Simon.”
I tried to laugh off the truth of that in a nose puff only. We were sitting over tea after closing the Bluewater Café, with its lights dimmed like some lonely answering oil tanker sliding towards the Bluewater Bridge. That’s how we’d have looked from outside, from the street, and maybe even from the still-moving ever-narrowing middle of the river, like two aging sailors hoping for one last big payday. Inside, Simon was slow-stirring his tea, smiling weakly into the cup as if searching for a familiar loving face, or at least the promise of late good fortune.
“I’m your biggest fan, Mel, is all really. Your singing meant the world to me; you were singing for me, to me.” He chuckled awkwardly. “I guess I’ve always been so lonesome I could cry. Pathetic, eh?”
When is an awkward situation not awkward at all? We need a new word for two middle-aged lovers revealing themselves at closing time, unafraid, like undressing without thought of sex, exposing old scars and older wounds forever fresh, shamelessly displaying their stories written in flesh.
Comfoward. That’ll have to do, I’m no lyricist. The other day I heard a great title of a bad song: “I don’t look good naked anymore.” Do I need to say it’s a country song? Or concede that I’m, uh, avoiding again, Dr. Phil?
“I want you to sing again, Mel.”
“I do not think so, Simon.”
“Any more tea in this kip? And more of that honey, if you will, pretty please? Mine’s gone cold and bitter.”
“I don’t know where Old Ray keeps the honey ... honey.”
“That’s my girl!” Then dead-eye levelled: “The music is still there, Mel.”
On the way to the kitchen, I collected myself and called, “Let’s sing another song, Simon, this one’s grown old and bitter. Leonard Cohen.”
Through the swinging doors I heard him insist, “Another genius, but not your cup of pee, sweetheart!”
I didn’t miss sex with Simon, which at first disappointed but soon only bemused me; I mean my not missing it. And good sex had always been critical in my relationships. So I was confused when it ended with Simon and I still liked him a lot. But after a couple of months of flurried performances, desire began to settle, which was quick, for serious me with men anyway. With Simon the beginning of the end was like forgetting food you ate because it was good for you, muesli cereal say, which became increasingly, then undeniably, tasteless (no honey allowed!); you’d still eat it occasionally from habit and think well of yourself, but you shopped for it less and less, then skipped that aisle. No appetite, and no regrets, just a slightly sad memory of bunged-up passion that itself became increasingly less worrisome. It’s not that I hadn’t been satisfied, literally speaking. I had, and for a good while there. I don’t know. Besides which, having Simon on top of me got to be like a furry boy taking handholds on a rock face (with me on top I couldn’t get my mind off his toes coming only to the bottom of my shins). I wouldn’t be that way to him, move from bemusement to amusement. Mari and I had made a pact never to laugh at the other, even unbeknownst. I guess I began to love Simon like a beloved brother. As asshole men get away with saying: it was nevertheless like kissing your sister.
What I did begin to miss with Simon were the intimate stories, mine and his (if mine most, but only because my stories were getting closer to something true). Alone in his home once upon a time, Simon had found his mother crying over the child who’d died at nine years old only days before Simon was born, and she’d not even tried to shield him from the pain, which moved in him like a transfusion. Alone himself, he still sometimes cries over that memory; not the sorrowful substance of it but the passage it marked in his young life: when, at nine himself, he became old enough to know that his mother suffered and cried alone. And now he did too, and knew it was for his own fractured family and lost boys.
He didn’t say a word when I told him of my father’s fox farm failing because of synthetics and animal-rights movements, yet I knew in my bones that, after Mari, Simon was the only one who knew what that had meant to Dad and me. The whole of Hanilee only ever mocked him for the pretension in such an enterprise as a “fur farm” (we were very big on mockery in Hanilee). As Aunt Avi often sneeringly put it, in my and Mari’s presence: “Who does he think he is?” We sat down by the Wawanosh River the late afternoon of the day Dad made a bonfire of the cages, Mari and I, not saying a word as the skimming dragonflies skitteringly ventured nearer. Until she said, “Bob Ambroise still believes dragonflies can sew up your mouth.” Silence—then we burst out and ran for home through the prickly fields.
Simon’s father had never spoken a personal, let alone a kind, word to him. My mother had me reading the Children’s Encyclopaedia Britannica when I was three. Already advanced in Parkinson’s, she only ever cried openly when I left Pat and the girls and Hanilee. Then died not long afterwards (I wasn’t there, I will never get over that, nor should I).
We told each other best-friends’ stories, Simon and I, of childhood bosom buddies and first loves who’d rejected us so long ago yet so memorably. It’s not the subconscious that never forgets, Herr Doktor, it’s the plain old heart and head that never stop hurtin’. But do let’s sing another song, girls. This one really has grown old and tired.
“It’s the betrayal,” Simon had insisted, putting a stop to my country-girl ironic straying/avoiding. “It guts you for life when a bestee throws you over for another.”
I said, “At least you learn never to do it to others.”
Simon: “Do we?” He gave me his level look: “What about to ourselves?”
I had nothing to say to that.
We accepted that we both lied strategically in our stories, though neither of us would ever have conceded that we remembered falsely. We just told our stories creatively to advantage. That’s only human, we agreed. Yes, we knew the truths, the up-front and the unspoken, of what we were telling each other. And we both sensed the need for speed in the telling, because we felt our strange love attenuating as the winter’s inevitable snow and the river’s ice slowly dissolved into spring.
He gave me a CD of Linda Ronstadt singing classic torch songs (neither of us had ever got comfortable with downloads and ear buds and the like; neither of us owned a cell phone). For weeks it was playing when I got home, no matter the time. What a voice, I’d fairly forgotten, pure and ageless as a faithful angel’s. And just look at her today.
I don’t know where he got his money (though I think he carried a substantial stash in some secret pocket of his flattened sack; on the lam as he obviously was, he never used credit cards either). He gifted me a good guitar, a used Ovation (the lower-end Celebrity model) with subdued sunburst, the friendly neck width and easy action. He claimed that Gabriel Munro at the Music Box gave him a special deal when he mentioned my name (Gabby and I, old acquaintances, had dated briefly). I began picking out and singing some of my oldie goldies, and the playing came back slowly but surely, as the singing had. It made me self-conscious for only a while when Simon was in the room, because I saw he was always smiling small to himself. Soon enough I was going again like a sailboat on Lake Huron in good wind—Dreamboat Annie’s back again!
One evening, with only a few glasses of Merlot in us, we went to the Bluewater Café, where I played a set of seven songs for Simon. He didn’t clap ironically; he beamed throughout like the sun come out on a misty river, grinning away like the cat that. After the first song he hitched his head in that maddening man’s way that spoke a world of unearned privilege bumping up against arrogance, that what’d-I tell-ya hitch. I loved it. I remembered that I loved such men and all that’s wrong with them.
I’d left the guitar at the Café on purpose and next day at closing played an abbreviated set for Ed Brown and Old Ray, who sat on the coffee-bar stools. They were nothing short of stunned, then whistled and hooted and clapped. They both slipped from the stools and continued in a standing ovation. I pretended it was old times and flipped the guitar to show them the word “Ovation.” Good laugh, I’d work it into my act—ha! My encore was “I’m so Lonesome I could cry.” Even tough-nut Ed was speechless, just hurried back into the kitchen that wanted nothing at that time of day. There were brief tears on Old Ray’s cheeks, but mainly steady appreciation in his dark eyes.
Holding the guitar by the neck near the head, I went to him and placed my left hand on his plump shoulder. “Hey, Ray, you don’t have to prove the song true?” Nothing. “Sad memories, old boy?”
He sniffled and covered his face entirely with the white apron stained with grease and blood (we’d had a chicken-salad special that day). His voice came muffled like haunting: “They’re not just for me, Mel.”
I didn’t know what was up with Old Ray, psychologically speaking I mean. He’d never have spoken like that in Ed’s presence. With Ed he always “acted the eejit,” as my father would say, which at least better describes Old Ray than a word like “eccentric,” or even “town fool,” especially the “acted.” With me Ray was something else. Though we scarcely had a relationship at all, it was me got him the job in The Bluewater Café.
Dogsbody Paul Hunt had quit on us, and Ed Brown was complaining continually that he had no one to do the work whose doing he’d never stopped complaining about when Hunt did it. Brown was very tall, taller even than tall Pat, my ex. With men height counts for much when it comes to preferment, bossing others, and getting away with shit (same with being thin for women).
On one of my lunchtime relief walks I’d stopped in the little park at the end of Cromwell Street, Walkers Bros. Park, two lovely maples overlooking what used to be Ferrydock Hill on the river. It’s named for a long-defunct grocery store that paid for the instalment. Walkers had been a true local charity: meaning, it gave and didn’t go round advertising the act like that Pharisee in the Bible story, not like the petro-plants of The Chemical Valley, which hammer the p-r value out of every donated penny. And there was Old Ray.
I’d known about Old Ray, everybody knew about Old Ray, a street bum, wholly dishevelled in the same workee shirt and pants that must have been holdovers from the days when he did some sort of real work in the plants or Holmes Foundry or somewhere, and holy work boots whose laces were never tied, their tattered tongues like panting death in a desert. Supposedly Old Ray had lived in Sarnia all his life, except for a stint in Afghanistan with the Royal Canadian Engineers, where legend has it he’d lost his mind. Army psychologists had tried for a long spell to find it for him, but that must have been like trying to reform the Beatles without John and George. Old Ray may still have had Ringo up there keeping the beat, and Paul expressing whatever genius for survival remained, but the true music had died. And just like the endgame Beatles or any band, Old Ray could always be found squabbling with himself in Walkers Bros. Park, sitting on the same bench facing the river, then laughing quietly to himself there in Sarnia’s own grotesque version of Mersey harmony. Or so I’d once have thought that my clever parallel told all there was to know of Old Ray’s story.
In the park that day he was staring out across the rail lines at the St. Clair, more accurately our misery river, with his taupe cap pulled down on the full face whose cheeks were a tracery of their own empurpled lines. Yet Old Ray wasn’t a drunk, a ‘town drunk’. I’d never spoken to him and normally never would have, but I was feeling mighty low and harried, and not just from the upset at the café over Hunt’s departure and Ed Brown’s tantrums. We needed additional waitressing help too, as there was only Andrea for the day shift and myself for the afternoon and evening, and Ed wasn’t budging on a new waitress when he sorely needed first to replace dogsbody Hunt. On top of that, my Peg had called from Vancouver that she thought she and Frank would be separating; she didn’t know what to do, what with two young boys, hinting that she might need to come home. “Home?” I’d said. She’d answered, “Well, not home home, not to Hanilee but Sarnia. For God’s sake, Mother!”
I’d certainly not expected Old Ray to respond, or even to have registered my presence. I’d been talking out loud to myself, like he wasn’t even there, saying things I wished I’d said to Peg on the phone, but really just venting to that infernal river, which continued:
“Home for my people was Scotland, dear. We go way back. In fact, you’re a descendant of James Hogg, the great Scotch writer. Bet you didn’t know that!” Neither had I; the information had come from Ed Brown’s Christmas gift of a subscription to Ancestry.com.
Old Ray made an obvious noise, not a loud sigh but more blowing air from his wasted cheeks like some sick Beluga resigned to a beached death.
“I’m something of a pig myself. Shit, piss and puke, that’s what I come from.”
I hid my startlement, turning to him slowly; surely he couldn’t have been punning on Hogg? Old Ray?
“You’ve lived here all your life though, haven’t you, Old—I mean, Ray? Sorry.”
“Here,” he knocked his head with knuckles, then hocked and spat to his left, away from me. He came back halfway: “But yes, I suppose so. Except for time in the military, the Canadian Armed Foreskins, as we called our own fighting jackoffs.” He chortled: the very word for it, acknowledging a kind of dignified dig at himself and others.
He had a lovely voice, startlingly so, like an old-time FM deejay’s (on sleep-deprived all-night road trips to the next town’s gig), soporific, deeply resonant and excitingly male, nowhere near the hoarse cackle I’d presumed Old Ray would emit, that of some witchy old bitch in a TV doc who pulls a smoke from her trachea to croak curses for all that’s been done to her. Remarkably I relaxed.
It came home to me that Old Ray was never stumbling around downtown like the Indians from the Chippewa Reserve south of—so downwind from—the Chemical Valley (led by the violent De Gravelle boys); Ray only fought with them occasionally like cats in the midnight hour, and that would have been defensively for Old Ray. He never harangued for handouts or slept in his crapped-out clothes and had to be cleared off the stoop entrance to the Bluewater Café. He was just always there, was Old Ray: silent when not defending himself, patrolling Christina and Front Streets like he owned Sarnia, if mostly to be found sitting in this tiny park very still and upright in the centre of its one bench and staring out at the river like some Easter Island statue. Whatever assaults of nature and bad decisions landed other men in alcoholic street life had not determined Old Ray’s career. I had a revelation there in Walker Bros. Park: Old Ray had chosen this life. Despite whatever had happened to him in Afghanistan, Ray had chosen to live his life like this—in Sarnia Ontario of all the armpits of the world! That really was a revelation for me, I who’d railed all my life against the tyranny of hormones and the like, of the lives of girls and women in, uh, patriarchy.
“Do you want a job, Ol ... Ray?”
He examined me with eyes I suspect no one had ever really seen: gun-metal grey like a setting sun on the leaden St. Clair River early on a late-winter/early-spring afternoon. He could have been a dead man before the lids are lowered, or a zombie, or a blind man. He blinked slowly and nodded with more self-possession than any man ever had bowed at me.
I told him what he should do to win Ed Brown over: flattery of course, subtle or obvious didn’t matter, Ed would lap it up. To my increasing surprise, I saw that Old Ray didn’t need instruction repeated. I even let him use my place the next morning to clean up (he too cleaned-up good, pretty good if not real good like Simon). But where had he found the change of clothes he’d brought in a plastic Loblaws bag, another workee-fatigue outfit the same colour between sage and seaweed green? Was he like Einstein who kept the same twelve suits in his closet so as not to waste time deciding? Running interference, I’d spoken to Ed, who said only “What? Old Ray? Get real.” But I swayed him, mainly by saying that we’d got Old Ray all wrong, that he was surprisingly normal once you got to know him; he would eagerly do the jobs tall Paul Hunt had felt were beneath him, the toilets regularly, the tinkering with sub-kitchen mechanics and whatever other cobwebby tasks required regular doing down there in that dank crawlspace below the kitchen. And Old Ray spoke very highly of you, Mr. Brown, I lied.
“Ed Brown,” said Old Ray that day in Walkers Bros. Park, halting himself in another hock-spit to his left. “The past tense and shit. But I can dig it, as we used to say in our day, eh Mel? Or the artist formerly known as Del for Delphemia?”
“What? What the—” Now he really was scaring me.
“I accept your most generous offer with thanks, seriously. It’s time for a change.” He plucked his sage-green shirt away from his chest, crinkled his bulbous nose in a stinky face. “Though I was planning on leaving Sarnia some day soon.” He puffed self-derisively from that blowhole of a nose. “But that’s always everyone’s plan in this arsehole of southwestern Ontario, eh?” He snorted and again fixed me with those eyes the colour of some blackish-grey linoleum paste, but this time it was his big ears I saw for the first time: like Dumbo elephant wings, and as unfit for flight; and at their bottoms dollops of lobes like cartoon tear drops, like his scalp was slowly melting, threatening eventually to expose the vulnerable skull. But they heard everything obviously, just as he saw much more than we fools on our foolish hills ever thought.
“The best laid plans, eh Mel? As your plaid-arsed ancestor-poet’s poet-brother Robbie wrote.”
A snowflake would have finished this melting ice-woman.
We ate at all hours. Simon regularly had a feast waiting for me at the end of foot-weary shifts: bacon, cabbage and potatoes (we’d fart easily through the night); a chicken vegetable soup with enough grease on top to lube a train’s axels; real French fries (he bought the deep fryer); and eggs perfectly over easy or scrambled with no singeing; porridge every morning! I put on some pounds, which I needed.
Dabbing my lips prissily I said straight out, “Simon, you’re the man for my life!”
I immediately thought, Big mistake.
But he had said, and with no little fervour, that knowing me as he’d come to now meant the world to him. He said he’d dreamt of meeting me way back when, in his dark corner of the Seaway on a bright Saturday afternoon outside; he’d fantasized being with me, knowing me sexually that is and, he dared, more importantly, knowing me intimately as now. He’d even indulged in an adolescent boy’s fantasy of rescue and claimed that what he dreamed of most now was doing something for me. I didn’t like his repeated use of now, like there was no tomorrow. I didn’t like his claiming either.
When he didn’t respond to my declaration, I said, “I’m nothing special and I’ve done nothing special. It’s only luck that my daughters have turned out fine and not wholly away from me, yet anyway. I mean, look at me.”
He did, in a coolly appraising way that chilled further the ice that runs in these veins, because I knew what it meant to take the measure of another life that way: always the prelude to departure. But I guess I didn’t truly know Simon, so I was permitted to believe what I wanted for a while longer.
Then he said, “Del, Mel, darling: you are the thing itself! You don’t have to say or do anything more. You’ve sung it all and have nothing more to prove to anyone but yourself. Selfishly I wish you’d pick up a few gigs, is all, just hereabouts. These Chemical Valley ne’er-do-wells need your shining example, but they’ll never know it if you don’t sing them a few more songs. Make them listen and behave themselves!”
I smiled and filed what I was really thinking, then made a comical worried face: “Ne’er-do-wells?”
After that un-Simon-like speech, I knew what was coming, not because we’d been disagreeing about important matters but for the tone in the way he began saying things (like that repeated time-dating now). And because we’d made a deal. I didn’t have to hurry down to Front Street on the fateful morning. I didn’t let on I was awake when he rolled quietly out of bed in the early morning rain, rustled about, and failed to shut the front door in a way that didn’t click loudly (you have to hold the knob turned, gently pull the door shut, return the knob easefully). I lay on my side facing the window, staring at the Ovation on its stand, and taking what comfort was available. In my mind’s eye I saw him from the back this time, three-quarters covered by the pack that I’d noticed fattening up again over the past few days; stumbling up the white-gravelled embankment; trying boxcar doors till he found the right one; backing off and taking a short hopping run and throwing in the backpack like a caber; hoisting himself aboard with some struggle ... trundle of door, thump—bon voyage! “The Early Morning Rain” was one of my hits, unrecorded of course, performed only. Elvis did it better than Lightfoot, though not better than me. Anyway, it wasn’t The Great Depression.
A week later I arrived at work on an April morning of gifted warmth and sparkle off the revived river. I unlocked and, per usual, the door scraped ahead the morning’s Observer and whatever advertising crap had accumulated since last closing. Paused to listen ... though I don’t know why, as I can’t say that I sensed something was off. I entered the kitchen and hit the rocker light switch with the heel of my hand and turning only then noticed something wrongly different. The gallon jar lay on its side where the closed trap door gives access to crawlspace—my antennae quivered. A dollop of honey distended from the intact jar’s lip tapering till it attached to the trapdoor’s slit, like an icicle; the big jar still held a reserve of amber, like a frozen dirty sea where the bottle’s little ship would have been fixed. I then saw that the checkerboard linoleum was coated in honey near the trapdoor, except for a patch of floor that was disturbed by the clean sign of someone having slipped. I lurched across accompanied by the alien sound of my runners sticking and unsticking and, scrabbling for the recessed handle, yanked up the trapdoor, which weighed a ton, which was why we needed a man in the kitchen.
The honey had dripped onto Ray’s face, which was mauve-tinted, sealing his eyelids in gold. I didn’t have to do anything to know he was dead. Yet I couldn’t help thinking he looked peaceful for the first time since I’d known him, even lovely, like some colourful Indian god of death at home finally in a snug resting place. Call me a pervert, but it even looked attractive in a weird way. I wished I had a cell. But before going to the kitchen phone I continued staring down, and began to see Old Ray as sleeping in a cave only he had known was there. No room for two, though—one’s company. I stood like that for a spell, frozen stupefied, I couldn’t say for how long. It became like trying to read instructions in a foreign language, or like interpreting some abstract art, or like understanding a pretentious song lyric (we had a lot of those in the ’seventies), and failing to get “the message.” My face began to pain from crinkling and deeply frowning. What the—
I got it, loud and clear: Get moving, girl—go! Get out already!
Waiting for the police and ambulance and Ed Brown, I resisted the impulse to clean up the sweet sticky mess. I intermittently stared down at Old Ray, just dead Ray now. I was pulled away by Ed’s arriving and shouting hysterically even before he’d come into the kitchen. The police and ambulance were on Ed’s heels. As they all talked and figured how to do it, and then worked awkwardly to get Old Ray out—you couldn’t get down in the hole without stepping on Old Ray—between us Doug and I reconstructed the likely scenario of events.
In returning the big jar of honey to storage—the honey I’d asked for—likely lost in some old thought or other, maybe distractedly tilting the big awkward jar to replace the metal cap, Ray had spilled some, halted alert, then slipped and fallen into the crawlspace, either hitting his head on the way or the heavy trapdoor had cracked his stunned skull in the hole, then clamped down and latched itself.
I was still scraping up the honey when Ed returned to stand over me. He said, “Andrea’s quit. We’ve got customers waiting breakfast specials.”
“Me too,” said I.
It looked like everybody in Sarnia, and many who’d moved as far away as Toronto, attended Old Ray’s interment at Our Lady of Mercy Cemetery. The weather had continued especially fine for early April in these parts, and some reviving gardens were already being tended. In the graveyard, nearby Ray’s planked grave some huge statuary of the Crucifixion scene was being freshly painted white by an adolescent girl who’d got a lot on her face, so that she looked like some pagan memento mori. We stood at least ten deep around the grave, no one with anything to say when the priest invited us to share our memories of Old Ray; all that death-lite approach did was make everybody uncomfortable, likely in the realization of what we were doing—attending the burial of someone no one had much known or cared about when he was alive. I think everyone had expected no one else to attend. I think no one really knew why he or she was there. Yet there we undeniably were. Story of our lives.
Permissive parents let their kids run wild among the headstones, which I didn’t mind at all, though others did. The only halfway pleasant happening was the girl painter, barefoot in old-style blue Bermuda Shorts and a striped top like a mime’s, and even with a shielding beret for her hair, who caught the noisy kids and readily had them helping her with the big statuary representation of such unendurable misery. In no time they were all looking ghoulishly white-faced and again squealing and chasing each other with dabbed brushes and sticks, to the growing consternation of priest and some biddy attendees. But that girl makes the dying world endurable, more than anybody else present, more than ninety-nine percent of the living. Myself, I endured the interment only from disciplining myself not to wander over and join the painters.
My Jessie Georgina and Mavis had come alone. Like everyone else, they’d known Old Ray only as a local Sarnia character. Every Christmas I renewed my three girls’ subscriptions to the local fishwrap, The Sarnia Observer. They’d read Old Ray’s obit, and both knew that I’d grown fond of him from our working together at the Bluewater Café, so had phoned me and come down. Peg had called from Vancouver to say—“Good news, Mom!”—that she and Frank had patched things up and were off on an Alaskan cruise without the kids. Good news, I guess, if your children cramping your style—married or performative, or both—portends good. It doesn’t.
Neither Jessie Georgina nor Mavis brought kids or husbands to the funeral either, which I didn’t remark, though it worried me. Both families were always immediately affectionate with me—“C’mon, give your granny a kiss!”—which I liked a lot more than I’d have thought. I loved it in fact, even the “granny,” though only for a while, till around the second mom-ordered hug and snotty kiss and the solid odour of poorly cleaned child.
“He liked my singing,” I said, determined not to be defensive, but insistent nonetheless.
They chorused it together emphatically: “He liked my singing? Mo-om. Always with the fucking singing!”
“Children,” I’d cautioned, referring mainly to my grandchildren’s alert pink ears.
We’d been talking about Simon, or so I’d thought. I’d watched them obviously checking out my latest place, and I could see they’d sensed the recent occupation of a man in that way only women can detect. We parted less friendly than at their arrival, which was usual if worse than, after supper and too much wine, and the age-old fight over my having left Dad with three little girls (who just happened to include the two of them). We could never avoid returning to that familiar dog’s vomit: abandonment, betrayal, my stubborn remorselessness. This time it had begun with the very first glass of Riesling, like there was no more time to waste, with Mavis’s saying that Peg was smart to stay well out of it on the West Coast. Out of what? questioned disingenuous Mom.
Then my capper: “Yes, dears, my singing career meant that much to me, more even at the time than mothering, and much more than being wife to your father.” That was a calculated showstopper. And then my prepared encore, because I’d known what was coming and needed to put paid to this eternal wrangle once and for all: “Given the same situation, I’d do it again.”
One awkward half-hour later, much earlier than we’d planned, they were gone again. This time for good, I feared, given all else we’d finally hurled at one another about that most important relationship in anybody’s story. Their own big shots, no doubt as long withheld, had left me shell-shocked. They hated me more than I’d ever imagined. I just hoped they loved me too, as I did them and always would. As Aunt Avi would say, Watch what you wish for.
Ed Brown took Old Ray’s death badly, if only for professional reasons, and as badly Andrea’s refusing to help us out even for a while. I found his come-down amusing. Tall Ed still sports some evidence of his once-red hair; like tall people everywhere, he always acted so superior, like his height was an achievement (that thought’s from short Simon). I suppose the tall can’t help it, as they’re always looking down on the rest of us.
Once-intrepid Ed Brown was himself another tail-between-the-legs returnee to Sarnia. He’d grown up here but left for Alberta during the boom there (“rode the rails to Fort McMurray” was always the start of his retailed legend in his own mind, though Ed and wife Amber would only have travelled first-class). He did make money out there, a lot, if not from working in the oil fields but in selling stay-awake drugs to the real triple-shifted workers. Truth to tell, it turned out Ed Brown discovered a real entrepreneurial genius (I’d met a man in Calgary who asked if I knew Big Ed Brown, then said Ed could have owned the illegal drug trade in that town). But instead of parlaying his dirty money into an illegal fortune, Ed had returned here and bought the old Royal Bank building, then exhausted what was left of his stash renovating it into our late-great doomed restaurant. It had already proved to be the death of Old Ray, and it would likely be the death of high-colour Brown. Another thing I hated about Ed Brown: he never left off complaining about his ex, Amber, who’d ‘stolen’ half his ‘fortune’ after having forced him to give up his chance to make millions in the Alberta boom and return to Sarnia, her hometown too. Going by Ed’s endless rehearsal, I suspected that Amber was one of those whose life was frozen in high school, where I also suspect she’d shone. But any talk of “ex-Am” rocketed Ed to seizure-threatening ravings of his own I-coulda-bin-a-condendah but for that bitch.
As recounted, I also abandoned the sinking barge of the Bluewater Café (I imagine it as having shrunk to pint-size and sunk to the bottom of Old Ray’s honey bottle). Ed was pleadingly apologetic, then apoplectic, when I turned away to walk out; it actually felt like walking the plank, even a bit reminiscent of the strange feeling leaving my girls way back when. It was similarly exhilarating too. Gabby Munro introduced me to a third-rate agent whose laughable office was above The Music Box on Cromwell Street (who was living there too, I deduced; and yes, there are music agents in Sarnia, one anyway). He said his territory was the southwestern-Ontario circuit, or as he called it, “Souwesto.” But right off he wanted nothing to do with me, despite Gabby’s high praise. His first question was “How old are you, Miss Melody?” Speechless from silly nerves, for answer I got out my guitar and, strumming an overlong prelude, launched lowly into “Blue Bayou.” When I hit the break, he actually stood from his gouged desk and—as I roared through “I’m going back some day ...”—pressed back against his flyblown-window, arms spread like a skydiver’s with palms flat to the wall as if a typhoon had roared up the stairs off Sarnia Bay. Then he just stared, his mouth half-open still on his last protest. Live music and a true voice can do that close up. He didn’t ask my age again, not even seriously, or call me Miss Melody. Then he said he remembered me from “All-Dressed Ladies,” and rambled on about how mismanaged we had been. As he flustered about in a drawer for what he assured me was only a temporary boiler-plate contract, a letter-of-intent really, I was already enjoying my act again. I knew small-time. I knew crooks. And I knew Sarnia.
I’d suspected too that the jig was up when on our last night together, in the spent doldrums of our one-more-time-with-feeling sexual revival, with rain lovely pattering the many maples round the old house, Simon propped on his elbow and looked at me in dead earnest. We talked low and seriously, about nothing and everything, till the fearless birds chirped the real world up to work. What beautiful music, birds in the early morning rain. We both knew it was over. He said,
“I get it now: you are the instrument, not the song. That’s what I came here to hear.”
“Silly, romantic man. But yes, that’s as good a way of putting it as any. The songs affect me just like everybody else, like I said, why else would I choose to sing them? But you can’t have the guitar strings slacking and tensing and snapping and curling up like pigs’ tails just because someone flies off in the early morning rain. And neither could my vocal cords take the stress. I don’t have that luxury, Simon.”
“You will book some local gigs at least?”
“... Only if you’ll return to being dependable Mr. Laidlaw in Wingham. That’s your life, Simon, and it needs to play through you, or those other lives that depend on you get all fucked up, just like yours and mine did.”
“Yes,” I said again. And once more sotto voce for myself alone: Yes.