It’s too cold for them today. Only a few showed up in the park, their oversized parka hoods drooping down to eclipse their eyes. Just the mouths and nostrils show. Today I can’t tell who is who.
On the sidewalk, there are only three: huddled in a cluster in front of the convenience store, hands stuffed into ripped pockets. One is a wheelchair. He talks the most, his words puffing out a steady stream into the chill. Like the exhaust of the little red rusted car idling beside them, sputtering out smoke that lingers then dissipates. The other two say little. The tall, black-haired man pinches a cigarette between tattooed fingers. He nods and offers one-word agreement with everything the man in the wheelchair says. The other man looks anxiously at the ground and says, Well I don’t know, I don’t know.
Sometimes they recognize me. Not today.
Last week as I walked past the jewellery store the man in a white jacket called out to me, You walked down this street earlier. Then he showed me his chunky turquoise necklace. It’s a native design. But the string is fraying. His wide-open blue eyes looked at me purposefully, unblinking. See my forehead? I have no lines. I’m 58 and I have no lines. I looked and nodded. Then pulled back my fringe. I have lines. He said, That’s stress. You can’t have stress.
He’s not out on the sidewalk today. He’s probably in his room across the street. Three floors up with a view of the park. Smooth blue walls with a woven web in the window.
It’s starting to snow. Tomorrow will be warmer.
I’m drinking coffee in a tattoo parlour. It’s also a coffee shop. It serves really good coffee.
It’s a long and narrow space, like most storefronts along these streets. In the front an old door functions as a table, and a bench quilted with rainbow colours and skulls stretches along its length. An old tin ceiling, painted white, floats above dark purple walls covered in indie art and hanging skulls threaded with heavy twine. There are skulls on my chair, too: an almost cartoonish print that seems suited to pajama bottoms. Festive heads and crossbones.
The woman making my coffee is laid back and nice. Like a friend that you would sit up with all night, drinking wine and waxing reflective about the 80s. I wonder if she’s the one who wields the needles in the back.
Old and new rock music drifts out from a lone speaker. It’s just the right decibel level. It warms the bones of the place.
It’s so bright in the front that I can’t quite see the colour of my coffee as I pour in the milk. A little dizzied by the holographic skulls flashing upwards from the coffee mat. Winking.
Into the dark back room, there are plush armchairs in deep reds and purples, embroidered with rich and gothic designs. And skulls, of course. All decadence and comfort. This is presumably where the inking happens.
I resist taking out my camera, as much as my fingers beg me. But I don’t want to feel like a tourist here. Because here I can be a writer.
But I’m also thinking of something more permanent.
The crack in his skin falls down to the bones
a split that starts here at your feet
and stretches upward. As far as you can see.
Cleaving the plain in two.
Which side are you on? Are you hiding
in the bumps and fissures of old wounds,
waiting to crawl from the the scars when darkness
blurs the edges of here and now?
Or will you travel this fresh path
straight and chiseled, to its unseen end?
The email said to meet her at a small Caribbean place in the west end. “It’s been years since I’ve been there, but it’s a decent place. Discreet.”
The wind is cold, and I didn’t wear a warm enough coat. Wished I had worn that red scarf. But that may have been too much. Too bright. Trying too hard.
Shaking. Could be the cold or the anticipation. Or both.
I’m early. The missive indicated 12:30. For days I planned the bus route, checking timetables on my phone, planning fifteen minutes’ buffer time in case of delays or missed transfers. But the trip moved precisely, each connection clicking into place. And I’m here at 12:15. Ready.
What isn’t perfect is the location. The pages and pages of newsprint covering the inside of the window are browned and losing their stick, revealing a dark dusty gloom within. I don’t bother trying to find dates or read the stories. It’s obviously been closed for a long time.
Until now I hadn’t questioned why she wanted to meet me, what made her finally change her mind after all of these months. But being chosen at last was delicious enough. Was the best thing that could ever happen.
But now, the questions come. Why this day? Why me? Why this place, papered-up and abandoned?
I don’t even know what she looks like. Not really. But I have pictured her a thousand times: dark hair, dark eyes, a scarce smile tugging the right corner of her mouth upward.
The plan was for me to arrive first and wait for her text message. “Instructions to follow.”
It’s 12:35. Panic sits in my throat. I have no way to contact her: just an anonymous email address. No phone number. And she has my everything.
I’m leaning against the grimy window, hand clenched around my phone. 12:40. 12:45.
And then, the vibration shakes my fingers loose.
I can’t wrench the phone out of my pocket fast enough. And it drops to the sidewalk. My cold fingers scape the pavement in a mad fumble to bring the screen to my face to read her message.
“I’m here. Where are you?”
I was off the hook then. Being feverish and fuzzy-headed snagged me a six-day pass. Expectations for creativity ebb low in a small sea of sweat and snot.
Not pretty. But in some brief moments there were ideas — unpathetic and unugly ideas — that could have pulled me here, dragged me up onto the sand to start again. To commit them to something safe, something a little more permanent.
And I thought about them as I looked upward, floating, faint light skimming across my face. But I let them drift away from me. Until the undertow of illness dragged them to their deaths.
Sitting here now, I think I can see their ghosts: filmy and flimsy. Flirting apparitions. Or maybe it’s just the seahorses: the forth and froth of my sick six days. Now barely visible from shore.
But I don’t press hard enough, and the lever barely lifts. Falls quickly backward in failure.
The next press is sheer violence. The lever whips upward with vicious ferocity, and the type hammer strikes the ribbon with brute force: the blood of it left in the lines of the “t” now scarred onto the face of the white page.
Many letters followed, heartbeat racing with the staccato smack of hard metal against the soft surface. Pounding the words into the paper.
The hard, rough, rasp of it:
that’s the worst part. The struggle of
air to venture in and to escape.
Whistling in, wheezing out.
A tough and tiring journey:
this labour to live.
Too many times we’ve heard this sound
and wondered Is this the last time?
This rattle that rattles us.
Desperately willing the sound to
stop stop stop, but knowing
the gravity of what an end means.
There was so much to write about today.
The first train. Morning full of light and coffee and promise. They a delay and a return. Full circle. A return to the beginning.
The walk back home. The quietness of a lazy Saturday shattered by a belligerent boyfriend, his voice high and shrill and sharp against the towering glass.
The streetcar ride back into the station. A small gaggle of girls giggling their way to a birthday party. Shrieking with surprise at every everydayness. Yelling out the window at a person they know. Passengers unsettled by the chorus of so many young voices.
And now, the second train. The rhythmic back and forth, the smooth and gentle sway. Dim light and the lulling mumble from the other seats. The seductive waltz clicktracking below: click-click-click, click-click-click.
So much to write about, and yet, it’s still just a series of tableaus staring back. Daring me to bring them back to life.
He drinks beer until the sun pulls
its heavy head up out of the still lake,
a drunken pink arc under the dissolving stars.
This first sunrise in a decade.
Unpeeled from his wrist, the watch sinks
into the charcoal water, turns over
in hesitant descent; the mooned face
blinks up in downward sift to rocks and sand.
On the deck, legs pointed lakeward
arms spread backward, he becomes a marker
for shadows: light measuring
the warm progression of morning.
As the moments shift soundlessly
over his skin, a full flex of breath
pushes yesterday down his throat:
it tastes of something sweeter than time.
pandemic perceptions from somewhere in canada
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by Ruann Weidemann
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