Tuesday, June 30, 2009
For years I had a covert and clandestine secret about bread. Nobody in the world knew it: whenever I plunged my hand into the packet to extract some bread for toasting, my fingers slipped past whatever slice sat on top, and scrambled instead for the one lurking beneath.
I was under the impression that the second in line was safer, more hygienic, less prone to worldly germs and the wrath of other hands. Were I the fortunate first one to tear open the packet, then the top slice was considered pristine; but it was a rare occasion and I usually stumbled upon the packet long after it had been torn asunder, slices all turned to face the sun, crusts mangled and the wholesome alignment obliterated.
Great was my surprise, then, when I one morning observed my sibling taking his share, and I felt that something was amiss.
Upon peering into the packet I recognised the very same slice I had discarded earlier; but surely that could not be right because my brother had since had a hand in there. The top fellow ought to have been eaten, but there was a familiar crust before me.
I stared at my sibling as he scraped butter, thick and yellow, onto the bread. Now that I thought about it, he did always seem to rummage in the packet for a longer spell than seemed necessary- as I routinely did.
I donned my detective cape and took a glimmer of a chance.
"Do you," I posed the question to my munching sibling, "ever take the top slice of bread?"
His chewing halted, his abashed expression said a score of words.
"I don't like the top slice," he mumbled eventually through toast crumbs when it became evident that his plan was revealed.
"I always go for the one beneath. Just a habit, I suppose. I prefer it."
"Ah ha," I said; and a few moments later I admitted my own truth.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 4:36 PM
Monday, June 29, 2009
It had the outward appearance of a fire engine, but Spouse and I heard only the toothsome chimes of an ice cream van. We heard strawberry-sweet chirps as the speedy red truck made a dash, lights twirling, to rescue some stricken soul.
"How is that possible?" asked Spouse as we watched it streak up the street, past the library and out of our sight.
"It looked like a fire engine," I said, "but it was singing the wrong tune."
"I think," said Spouse carefully, after a moment, "that there is an ice cream van very close by. The fire engine was actually silent. All we heard was the ice cream van, all we saw was the fire engine, and we put the two together."
I concurred, but I mourned the mystery all the same.
We belong, not to a world in which fire engines might jingle pleasantly like ice cream vans, but to a society of short-lived adventure and too-brief moments of wonder; one in which the spell of possibility is frequently extinguished by a blunt explanation.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 1:09 PM
Thursday, June 25, 2009
Just a jug. Just a teacher's water vessel. Mind you, I have seen much in my day, though it is all drawing to an end: I will soon be retired, either smashed to sad smithereens in a cardboard box or consigned to a dimly lit cupboard of forgotten artifacts. The teacher for whom I served a purpose is due to hang up her teaching hat. She wore that proverbial hat for forty years. To tell the truth now- and I have little time, for they soon will come for me- the hat was an ill-fitting one.
The children- four decades of them- knew what I knew, and year after year I watched, helpless, as little ones crumbled under her brittle authority, as the spark in their eyes flickered and grew dull, as curiosity was extinguished. We all watched as she pulled and tugged endlessly on that hat, forcing it to suit, willing it to be right.
The hat was wrong. It impaired her judgement, caused her to bellow caustic words in a broken-glass voice to bewildered youngsters who perhaps wriggled a little too much in their seats or cast an eye to the leafy trees beyond the window. She never withheld the option to humiliate, preferring that resource to the softer tones she might have employed.
The hat was wrong. She framed one of the brightest boys as a severely challenged and skill-deficient fellow, assured his poor mother that all hope was lost until a professional second opinion propelled the child, to the teacher's chagrin, into a higher class. The teacher never quite recovered from the grievance, offended as she was by the decision and by the sight of the boy lighting up her television screen, a contestant on a national quiz show, several years later.
The hat was wrong. Her mantra was "She Who Holds The Chalk Holds The Power." I ought to know; I was closer to her than any soul, and I sat on the desk as the months turned into seasons and the seasons fled and children grew and escaped from her charge, and a new line of wide-eyed infants filled the vacant seats to learn through the medium of an icy glare that their teacher's relish for control superseded a regard for gentle enlightenment. Yes, I saw it: the merciless grip on the chalk, the barely-repressed glee with which she castigated and lectured and dished out discipline.
The hat was wrong. And this week, her very last with the teacher's hat, as she picks me up and fills her glass with water, I detect an altered air. Her hand trembles slightly; a sigh here and there. I wonder at those times if she comprehends what she has done to the generations of boys and girls who got away as soon as they could and took with them no traces of joy for books or words or learning or rules.
Did it dawn on her at last that frightening or embarrassing children into obedience, or ordering them to read books for punishment was no way to make them return, years later, to speak of inspiration at her retirement party?
The hat was wrong. She chose it, I suspect, for all the wrong reasons- power over knowledge, dominion over effectiveness. She gained the upper hand over the smaller people of the community but I wager it rings hollow today, for at the curtain fall of one's career the edges are blurred no longer, the picture becomes sharp as a razor, accentuated and unequivocal. The men and women who declined an invitation to the farewell party- or the local artist who could not bring himself, when asked, to fashion a painting in her honour- their absence will stand like punctuation marks, pronounced and tremendously telling.
The hat was wrong, and it is entirely too late now for the students that passed through the school and went on their way, altered forever by a teacher who held the chalk without knowing what it meant.
The school will fall silent soon, the rooms stifled and sunlit while Summer rages on outside, only the faint whisker-noise of an occasional mouse fragmenting the heavy silence and causing a chalk cloud to swell momentarily. The phantoms and shadows of the past make no sound but the air is thick with their presence: they haunt every room.
I will be sent away, and the teacher will not return when the green leaves fade and perish and swirl and draw children's attention from their books. For those youngsters it is not too late. With the brief time I have remaining on this desk, I urge them to pay equal amounts of attention to the turning leaves of the trees and of their books; and I beg them, wherever they go later on, whatever adventures they embark upon, to choose a hat that fits well, that brings them happiness, that enables them to better the society they inhabit.
All that matters is that the hat should fit. I too will resign my hat but I am satisfied. I did what I knew best. I performed the task I was made for- and I did it graciously. The hat must be right.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 9:50 AM
Wednesday, June 24, 2009
Driving along the other evening, we observed a young fellow walking. Walking is all well and good but this particular walker was striding in the middle of the street. The headphones plugging his ears were further cause for concern, and I said as much to Spouse before the two elements were diluted by a third, which I first took to be an optical illusion.
"He isn't," I said as we drew closer. "He can't be."
"He is," Spouse confirmed. "He is. He's walking backwards."
Nor was it a matter of two steps, as one might do, in the most extreme case, to get a better look at something in the distance- the fellow was stepping along as though not a thing were out of place, in a nonchalant attempt to get to his destination.
With that spectacle mercifully behind us, I gesticulated wildly, intending to utter a remark to Spouse regarding the folly of human beings- but not a sound came out. Rarely have I been so flabbergasted.
Words are lovely little things. When adequate, they can frame a picture perfectly, but on occasion they are known to be stubborn and reclusive and refuse to do justice to an account for the benefit of those who were not present. In the case of the young man walking backwards in the middle of the street while wearing headphones, my words might falter but my memory never will.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 2:27 PM
Tuesday, June 23, 2009
Between the pair of us my brother and I decided to put the family dog on the roof of the house. It happened on of those luminous childhood days of July or August when a humble wooden ladder, propped idle against the house for a roof repair or a lick of paint, could become a handy tool for mischief and adventure.
Up and up we climbed to the flat roof above the kitchen.
The dog was entertained enormously by the unfamiliar corners and strange heights: he sniffled about from edge to edge, the furious flurry of his tail nearly enough to propel him off the roof and over the fields like a little black helicopter.
My sibling and I surveyed the landscape and scoured the immediate area for the lost objects of years gone by. It was pleasant up so high: we could see the tip-tops of trees and the ragged patchwork of farmland, and it seemed we had wandered hundreds of miles from home.
After a spell of exploration the little dog wished to return to the life of an ordinary, earth-bound canine. He inched his way to the lip of the roof, ascertained that he was at our mercy, and threw unmistakable glances of impatience in our direction.
"You'll have to wait," I said to him, distracted by the exhilarating notion of camping permanently on the rooftop.
The dog gave my brother and I one further stare that we could not decipher, and then he leaped off the roof. He sprang and landed on a garden of spongy grass. His knees were stained green for a week but he was wholly untroubled. There were no green knees for us upon descent; but tremendous was our astonishment upon seeing the flight of a brave little dog.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 6:33 PM
Monday, June 22, 2009
The librarian handed me a brightly coloured box and dispensed advice on the worth of the film. Spouse and I spoke with her about matters pertaining to the weather until a fellow came by, family trailing behind, and called greetings in Czech. The librarian responded in the same tongue; a nice character, she said, that spent a good deal of time at the library.
Shortly after, another man approached and grinned broadly at the librarian: another patron she was warmly familiar with.
She then recalled seeing our name last week on books underneath the checkout counter- items the library had reserved. I replied that we had collected those pieces a few days before and our account had thus been settled.
With all that said and done it was soon time to part ways, and off went Spouse and I.
"It's strange," I remarked to Spouse, "but that was nearly like being at the library!"
We turned around to observe our friend, neighbour and librarian lifting her lively little terrier dog into the car. She beamed at us, waved farewell one more time. It had been a grand idea to arrange an evening stroll along the river and through the park: and it turned, because the world is full of minute surprises, into an exhilarating outdoor version of our weekly library excursion.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 5:59 PM
Thursday, June 18, 2009
We were flying: I had the window, Spouse had an aisle seat- our respective particular preferences- and there was an empty seat between.
The person in front of me reclined her own seat suddenly and with such force that my water cup, empty on the opened tray table, flipped upside down. I was furious, livid, imagining the consequences had the vessel been full. I bubbled over with years of carefully pressed frustration. Too often I had been walloped by a thoughtless recliner who forgot that someone might be behind. I had had enough.
I reset my cup the right way up, then remarked with a loud snarl, "I think I'll put away the tray." And I did exactly that, with a shove that rocked the seat in front of me.
Spouse had a far better view of my nemesis than I did, sitting diagonally as he was from her. He was immersed in a book of Feynman's essays but looked up to see the woman plunge forward with head bobbling precariously on the stalk of her neck, then back again against the seat rest.
Spouse raised an eyebrow at me. I explained my reasons in a fast and furious whisper.
"No," I said then, just as loudly as before, "I really think I want it open." I pulled the tray down, causing the seat to tremble.
"Or should it be up?"
Each time I touched the tray, the woman lurched; and after the sixth lurch she determined to look around and find out who or what was behind the trouble. She first noticed Spouse, who was making great efforts to swallow laughter. The empty place between us gave her cause to assume we were not travelling together, so that Spouse appeared to be either a madman or, for reasons unknown, supported the individual who was shaking the seat.
I leaned forward and spoke to her, softly to begin with.
"You turned my cup upside down."
"I did? But- but I did not do anything!"
She sounded as though she believed it, too.
"You threw your seat back a few minutes ago. I'm behind you. There's always someone behind you when you fly. You have to be careful, and have a bit of respect." I had wanted for years to say those words to a fellow passenger.
She was flabbergasted.
"But I did nothing!"
"No- you did. You definitely did. My cup was upside down. If there had been water in it it would be all over the place. Or what if my meal had been on the tray? Think about it."
"But I did not do it!"
"Nobody else did it. You did it. You turned my cup upside down."
Thus satisfied, I folded my arms and settled down for a comfortable flight.
At last she turned to her companions with a whimper: "but I did not do anything!" and she cast one more furtive glance at Spouse, who could not, try as he might, climb into his book and escape from her line of vision.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 6:50 PM
Wednesday, June 17, 2009
We were trailing in the woods with our friend when Spouse turned to me. I gathered at first that he was winking.
"Is there," he gently queried, "something on my eye?"
I glanced- and the forest floor rose to meet me.
"Perchance, Spouse, I spy a certain something," said I, gnawing on my hand. "I wager that is the thorniest of thorns protruding from your eyelid. But do not have fear! It is but a minor matter."
Spouse stayed perfectly still and I promptly called for medical assistance.
"Friend," I said, "be so kind as to remove the spiked impediment from the fragile skin of my spouse's eye. We would both be ever so grateful for the noble deed."
With a steady and nimble finger, and the slightest of motions, our friend plucked out the cruel barb and consigned it to the wind. The cavity immediately welled with blood, which trickled down for a spell into Spouse's eye.
Now it is told. Yet there is one rather curious thing- and it has naught to do with how a careful fellow could be pricked in the eye through a pair of sunglasses. Spouse insists that the exchange of dialogue- my portion of it- brimmed with considerably less eloquence and infinitely more panic than I portrayed in the telling, and is bold enough to suggest that my demeanor throughout the ordeal was not so calm after all.
I am sure that Spouse is recollecting it all wrong. Memory is an old mischief maker and a trickster that can alter the entire course of a tale.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 6:37 PM
Tuesday, June 16, 2009
Hours ago I watched a crying child as his fury rose, as his parents tried to soothe him, as his fat cheeks glowed with frustration.
The family cat, curled tight beside me, awoke with green eyes blazing wide. She leaped from the chair, padded across the living room, stood on her back legs, pressed her front limbs against the high chair and extended one slim black paw to the bawling baby. The latter stopped his wailing mid-gasp, and held the cat's foot in his own little hand.
Thus satisfied, the cat slipped under the kitchen table and left the rest of us, bewildered humans, to remark on what had just taken place: and we found that words were scarce.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 1:31 PM
Thursday, June 11, 2009
My neighbours insist on making themselves heard night and day and the in-between hours before dawn, bellowing extended hellos and goodbyes at full volume while the stars are shining in the sky, repeatedly pressing their car horns and my doorbell at all hours, galloping and thundering up and down the stairs as though each step were crumbling behind them, as though their very lives depended on equal quantities of haste and noise.
My comfort depends on a little silence now and then: lately both have been in short supply.
We had neighbours when we lived in California; a young couple shared a duplex with us. A minimum of noise emanated through the walls except approximately once in two weeks when a musical interlude could be detected.
On cue, as I sank into sleep, the sound of a jangling, amateur guitar tune would strike my ears. The fellow- for it must have been he, it always seemed that way- would pick up a guitar and pluck strings for a minute or so. It was the note of a practicing student, an uncertain choice of chords that would not resonate well even in the light of day.
Then, invariably, there would be a hush, followed by audible evidence of the instrument being put back into its corner until the next musical event several weeks later.
It struck me as curious even then to observe that over the years we lived there, the tune neither progressed nor changed, the fellow never improved, the length never varied and the routine did not alter.
In the way of regrets gathered and lessons learned I would exchange the current cacophony of ear pollution for a fellow's honest attempts at musical endeavour. I wonder how much better my guitar neighbour sounds these days, and I wonder whether I am qualified any longer to judge: for I suspect that, given another chance to listen, I would hear only the sweet strum of a guitar in perfect harmony with the night and with a peaceful life.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 12:50 PM
Wednesday, June 10, 2009
There was a solitary diner in the restaurant- a garrulous, retired fellow who frequented the establishment during slow-paced breakfast hours and who spent his mealtimes attempting to make conversation.
The dining room had a single window that faced onto an alleyway and onto a great big wall of stone.
I glanced up during that morning and saw shadows streaking across the wall- as happened when somebody strolled through the alleyway.
But nobody passed by. I was thoroughly perplexed, and when I drew his attention to it so was the patron.
Neither of us could understand what we were witnessing: shadows- human figures- flitted back and forth, back and forth; but no persons appeared. On occasion the forms would raise their arms, and it seemed to me they were brandishing weapons.
We discussed the possibilities, which were limited to the presence of ghosts, perhaps spirits of diners past. The gentleman, naturally, could not sit and puzzle about it all the day long, but he was perturbed and intrigued by the matter. He requested that, should I ever find out the solution, I might let him know. I suspected that his routine and his days were not filled with sufficient mystery- thus the perpetual need for company while he ate, the eagerness to believe in something astonishing.
I found the answer shortly after lunch.
It consisted of no ghostly elements, but of repairs that needed to be done to the restaurant's roof, and of the hammer-wielding men that wandered around up there.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 10:42 AM
Monday, June 8, 2009
Mater's car was being inspected by the family mechanic, a cousin. When the vehicle had been mended to the young fellow's professional satisfaction he climbed into his own car- a jazzy, sporty affair with black tinted windows.
Mater peered in as the mechanic-cousin lowered the glass and prepared to drive away.
"Tell me," said Mater, "can you see out of those windows?"
"I can," he replied, with a hint of confusion. He was uncertain as to whether the odd question was leading anywhere or, indeed, was even genuine.
Then off he sped with his dark windows, his sense of reality distorted ever so slightly.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 12:48 PM
Friday, June 5, 2009
The mall was open but most of the shops inside still wore their shutters like enormous heavy eyelids. Spouse and I were the only customers- if we could qualify for the title without a hint of intent to spend a cent.
We paused at a booth that advertised Internet and cell phone packages. A young lady stepped forward to assist us.
"Hi there," she beamed, "do you have any answers I can question?"
As a matter of fact we had plenty; but before she could challenge any of them she stuttered and blushed and admitted she had made a mistake, which we had strongly suspected.
"I'm so sorry," she said, "it's a bit early for me. I'm still asleep."
She helped us nevertheless, which was the important thing, and we had a nice chat. Then away Spouse and I went through the empty mall, having successfully consoled the sleepy-eyed, tongue-tied assistant.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 10:36 AM
Wednesday, June 3, 2009
I had an attic bedroom, and I wanted a carpet to cover the cold, worn linoleum floor. In truth it needed quite a bit of renovating and I got to work immediately, delighted to be a teenager with a room, at last, of my own.
I had pasted purple flowery wallpaper of my own choice and was contemplating the next decorative action when some raggedy fellows drew up in a van outside. Mater, suspicious, went to shoo them away.
"We have carpets," they insisted. "Lovely carpets."
Mater surrendered and had a look and then called me down.
Soon, having handed the men a reasonable portion of my funds, I was hauling a roll of green material up to my bedroom.
Given both the dubious source of the carpet and the curious shape of the bedroom, both Mater and I were certain it would either be too big or too small; but we were wrong. It was perfect. It reached to each corner with ease, and not one thread had to be cut, not one inch of floor was left bare. I was able to do it by myself, such was the easy nature of the project.
The characters, shady and suspect as they seemed to be, had sold a piece of material so perfect it was uncanny. Whether or not they knew it they offered their most awkwardly shaped carpet to the person with the most awkwardly shaped room, and it turned out to be a happy meeting, as happens sometimes.
Fifteen years have passed. The magic carpet is still, from Mater's accounts, in superb condition, but the fellows have never been back.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 11:32 AM
Tuesday, June 2, 2009
Spouse and I watched a film. The central character battled with an arcade machine for custody of a shiny object. The machine won, as they always do: it was the sort of machine that frequently pretends to grasp and dispense the item for an unsuspecting passer-by.
"Look," the victim says, face pressed eagerly against the glass, "it's picking it up! It's grabbed the very thing I want! I'm going to have it! Victory will be mine!"
Then the claw invariably releases its grip, drops the prize back into the assortment, and lets another soul go home forlorn and luckless and world-weary.
Spouse turned to me at the close of the scene and remarked, "didn't you win something once, from one of those machines?"
"I did not."
"Are you sure?"
Rarely have I been so certain, and I assured Spouse of the same.
Spouse was doubtful, but I was adamant.
"Absolutely never in my life have I won a thing from those contraptions, though I've tried. I don't even win when we go to carnivals, where you have to throw hoops or basketballs or darts or hit three somethings in a row. I never win anything."
The lecture came to a stop; I had run out of breath but I thought about how routinely at funfairs I saw babies carrying enormous stuffed ducks and dragons and dinosaurs- prizes three or four times the size of the owners- and I empty handed all the while, year after year.
"In fact," I added for good measure, "I'm lucky if I can get anything out of a vending machine."
Spouse surrendered. There are winners, and there are not-winners; when it comes to arcade machines and carnivals and keeping one's money safe, it is wise to know which society one belongs to.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 2:25 PM
Monday, June 1, 2009
I was in India with Spouse and learning how to tune out the various voices. Wherever we stepped there were people calling us to buy this or that, or to beg something from our wallets.
One afternoon we set off for a stroll around some chaotic and crowded streets while our driver- what a rarity and a luxury- waited for us in the shade.
Spouse had urged me to ignore the calls that tumbled one after the other- the pleading tones, the business-like greetings- and to keep moving no matter what I saw or heard.
"You can't help everybody," Spouse said, and I knew he was right.
Still, my heart broke at the first pitiful "please, Madam" that came from a tiny child. I strode forward anyhow, determined to be ruthless. They would dance around us, run between Spouse and I, follow us for entire street lengths, tug our sleeves and attempt to shake our resolve.
They succeeded, of course, and when our pockets were emptied of loose change and all sights had been exhausted, we decided to return to the car.
I became gradually aware of a rather persistent person who insisted on speaking to our retreating backs.
"Madam. Sir. Madam."
It was for all the world like an echo. Spouse heard it too, but we marched onward and took in our unique surroundings as tourists.
"Madam. Sir. Madam. Please. Madam. Here!"
We began to walk a little faster in order to lose the voice.
I would not turn around, no matter how he bellowed. He called and even whistled for a couple of minutes; one had to admire the man's patience, whatever he might be selling. Pearls? Peanuts?
It was only when we heard the sound of frantic footsteps behind us, and the breaths of a running man, and only when that same man took Spouse by the shoulder that we understood his cries.
We walked behind the driver, back the way we had just come, and we got into the waiting vehicle. We were suitably mortified.
Our faithful driver had jumped to attention when he saw us, oblivious pair, streak past. For our part we had increased speed and led the bewildered fellow on an almost-futile foot-chase through the streets.
As our driver took us back to the hotel, I suspect that he wondered about us and perhaps spared a little pity for our strange affliction; but as they say, you cannot help everyone.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 12:47 PM