Monday, August 31, 2009
I was assistant in a clothing store when I was sixteen. Look Smart was the name of the establishment; it was a suitable title. My boss promised all customers that they looked wonderful in her skirts and blouses whether or not they actually did. I would quietly whisper the truth if I thought the colour or the shape was not suitable. They would, usually, thank me for my honesty and dash away to leave my boss shaking her head in frustration.
"I don't know. They never buy, they just try on," she would mutter. "God forgive me."
One afternoon while we idled without customers the door flew open. A red-faced woman burst through.
"I need help today," she said. Then she noticed the vast racks and rails of clothing, and blinked in confusion.
"You do make keys here?"
My boss, a brittle woman with a grim deficit of people-skills and a limit to her English, grumbled her answer.
"You want a dress?"
"No. Just keys."
"We don't carry shoes."
"KEYS!" cried the woman. I thought she might back out and run away.
"Blouse? You see what we have! You go and look!" She waved an irritated hand.
The exchange was terrifying to the bewildered woman; my boss, ever curious about strange people, was climbing all over the conversation. I could not get a word in.
"Is this a lock smith or not?" she pleaded.
"Nobody is called Smith here," my boss said, but she stared at me anyway, on the off chance that my name was secretly Smith after work hours.
"I thought this was a lock smith's."
"We're called Look Smart," I said, explaining the root of the error. "We sell clothes."
"Oh. I see."
She took one more glance around the store, as if a corner for making keys might be tucked away among the sweaters, that we were just not telling her about it.
"Fine," she muttered. Outside she craned her neck to see the name of the store, enough to see the foot-high mistake, and she sidled away up the street.
My boss shook her head.
"They never buy anything. God forgive me but they never buy anything."
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 3:41 PM
Friday, August 28, 2009
We decided to acquaint ourselves with the new neighbourhood, and we had, anyhow, nearly run out of milk. So we set off, at twilight, on foot, to the supermarket.
As we drew close to a crosswalk there appeared before us a man, elderly, with a rather distinct head of hair.
It struck me as peculiar- he was all of a sudden striding in the very same direction as Spouse and I, yet I was certain he had not been in front of us moments before.
He kept walking, through the red light and to the other side; we waited for our turn.
After a moment or two he stopped, turned around and gave us a long, hard stare that I could not fathom.
Then, seeing that I saw, he quickly turned, slid up the street, and feigned great interest in the next building, which happened to be a gym that was closed for the evening. He looked at the building, and paused beside it, and examined it carefully, as though he might venture inside.
His steps were jittery, and I had the impression that he wished to turn around and look at us again. I could not think why.
I said to Spouse, "he looks like he's watching us."
"Strange," replied Spouse in a whisper.
After a spell the fellow must have vanished again down a side street, or else I simply forgot about him; we somehow reached the supermarket without giving the strange character another thought.
It was, by then, about half past ten at night.
We collected the few things we needed and waited in line at the checkout. That was when I felt a disturbance on the nape of my neck. A customer was idling close enough that I could feel the presence.
Still, I thought, we're in a new place, and people come here from all over the world with their different habits and ideas about personal space.
So I let it go. But just the same, I stole a fairly reasonable glance at the customer who was applying pressure to my back.
He carried only a bunch of bananas, which I considered an odd purchase at such an hour. Hardly was it what I would call an emergency item, worth venturing into the evening for.
I got a terrible shock when I recognised him and his hair.
"Spouse," I whispered, "look."
Spouse looked. "Yes," he nodded. "I see."
Then Spouse saw the fruit, frowned, and evidently thought the same about the acquisition of bananas at night.
We both wondered, silently, how our new friend had reached the store, or how he had arrived at the same checkout to end up one step behind us.
"I think," I said under my breath, "it's not a coincidence. We should run the moment the cashier gives you your receipt."
"Or we could go very slowly," hissed Spouse, "and see what happens."
"We don't want to find out what happens. I'm pretty sure it's not an accident. We might be stuck here. We don't want him to follow us home."
Spouse nodded again.
We braced ourselves.
"But," I added as our purchases were swept into packets, "be ready for him to drop the fruit and change his mind when he sees us running. I somehow don't think he wants bananas."
Spouse accepted the receipt, returned his wallet to his pocket, and gathered the bags.
Then we fled. We ran all the way home, bags flying and colliding with our legs, and we gave the fellow no chance to work out what on earth had happened or in which apartment we lived.
It might have been all perfectly innocent; but we got, nevertheless, a good jog out of the expedition.
I myself still strongly suspect that those bananas were returned to the shelf after we tore out of there and left a bewildered stalker to drift home, curl up with his Stalking Manual, and wonder where he had gone wrong.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 10:44 AM
Tuesday, August 25, 2009
We paused at a traffic light, and a young Chinese man crossed the street in front of the car.
With a long white cane he slashed the air, probing all the possible obstacles that might be before him. The cane slid from side to side, and up and down, and it tapped the road gently.
At length the pedestrian shuffled away around a corner. The light turned green and off we went.
"Do you think," I said, "that he was completely blind?"
Spouse, only half-listening behind the wheel, was not certain of my meaning.
"The fellow with the cane," I said. "I was just wondering if he was completely blind, or if he might have partial vision. He seemed so young."
"Oh," said Spouse with an amiable shrug. "I didn't actually see him. Where was he?"
"He walked right in front of us! He was waving his cane all over the place!"
Spouse shook his head. No, he had not seen such a person.
"How could you possibly miss him?" I demanded, flabbergasted. "How could you not... see... a blind..."
My words dwindled away there and then. I considered the matter. Evidently, Spouse did the same, for he gave me a most curious glance, which I returned twofold.
"That," I decided at last, "is enough discussion about seeing and not-seeing," and Spouse agreed it was far better left that way.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 12:27 PM
Friday, August 21, 2009
"Slow down a moment," squealed the car.
We had not seen it in weeks: it was fresh from a long, mysterious trek across the country, had just been delivered to our doorstep and was in a most frightful panic.
"I feel dizzy. Tell me: where on earth am I now?"
"California," said Spouse, heaving a box from the trunk.
"Wait. That's not right." The car appeared to frown in the intense sunlight. "Didn't I start out there- I mean here? Years ago?"
I remarked, while clutching a vacuum cleaner and a beaver-bitten chunk of a forest in Maine, "welcome home."
"But how?" exclaimed the bewildered car. "Didn't we drive together, the three of us, across deserts and mountains and purple plains, all the way to Texas? Didn't we do that?"
"We did," said Spouse, a trifle wistfully.
"I was ever so hot there. And we stayed a while- and then, just as I was getting used to everything, off we went again- east, wasn't it?"
"East," muttered Spouse, his arms full of cardboard.
"Then- then what happened? I remember lots of snow, whole flurries of it, and being jolted frequently by strangers- and a long, strange while in which nobody at all came to visit me. I had aches more often than not. Then what did we do?"
"Then," replied Spouse, "why- then we came home."
"Home," said the car softly, winking and sighing as it settled a bit, finding its feet on familiar land. "Ah, yes, I remember Home."
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 3:44 PM
Wednesday, August 19, 2009
We rely solely on the internet to provide a telephone line. Woefully, getting a connection in our new home took ten days, approximately a cup and a half of perspiration, and two rival companies seeking our patronage. We were left high and dry.
In between, I tried to talk to Mater, to calm the onslaught of questions she was bubbling with regarding California and my surroundings, but with a fragile internet connection it was akin to shuffling through a mud swamp with one's ears plugged with bits of tree bark.
My mother could hear my voice without fail, but of Mater's words I gathered no more than six seconds at a time before a silence fell and I found myself with a seemingly dead line; she would resurface moments later at the tail end of a good story or a query.
We developed a plan soon enough, and it worked, so to speak, in this manner.
Because she could hear me, I suggested she make ready a series of questions to ask rapidly during the time I could hear her until all was hushed, which I would indicate respectively with "I can hear you now," and "stop, you're gone again."
To an eerie silence I would then chatter the answers at my own pace, interrupted by the occasional glimmer of "hmmm," or "I see," whereupon I would shout, "I hear you- talk to me quickly!" and Mater might fling out another question or two, or tell me something she had just remembered, until her voice vanished and it became my turn to converse at length.
We carried on that way for days upon days, getting rather adept at resolving the issue and formulating a pattern by which we had, I think, a halfway-decent level of communication considering the set of circumstances we found ourselves in.
Ah, but then.
Then I lit upon a new method of occupying the silent moments. Instead of furnishing my curious mother with details of the new neighbourhood, and whether I was suitably attired in sunblock, sunhat and sunglasses, I read, aloud, entire sections of a book I had just added to the collection. On my first excursion to the nearby downtown, I found an old and lovely copy of Macbeth. It carried the scent of old libraries and worn pencils, and upon it was scribbled here and there thoughts of a reader from some forty years before.
I have for years threatened Mater with the complexity of Shakespeare's tragedy, a story I am particularly fond of and which, I hasten to note, my mother is not.
Delighted with my purchase, I was, and I set about reading bits and pieces of the play to my mother as the faulty telephone line held her hostage.
"I can't hear you right now," I would say to Mater with a smile she could see all too well, "but I'll just read a bit of Macbeth now, and if you want me to stop at any point, just say the word. Stop me whenever you get tired of listening. I hear no arguments from your end. Well, then, on I go!"
And on I went.
Oh, poor Mater on the other end of the line, struggling to be heard through a thick silence. From time to time I caught, I thought, a momentary fragment of her voice, a glimpse of "-op readin-" and then she was gone again.
All is well now: the book has been shut, the telephone is functioning, and we have resumed normal discussions pertaining to sunblock, sunhat and sunglasses, the quality of the neighbours, the various rooms of the apartment, Spouse's early opinion of his new place of work, the chance of thunderclouds on any particular day...
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 7:25 PM
Tuesday, August 18, 2009
Ask me not how or why, but Mater got a computer game the other day- a driving game in which she found herself zooming and weaving wildly all over the place. My mother is a perfectly good driver on the real roads of the world, and she was bitterly disappointed with the number of bumps and crashes and collisions she suffered crouched in front of the screen.
The trouble, she lamented, was that the necessary tools were awfully small. Her motoring was affected due to all that erratic fiddling with the keys and moving the mouse and pressing things and clicking buttons while attempting to keep the car on the track and the game in progress for as long as possible.
"I can't use this game at all," said Mater as she struggled again to locate the buttons, and she retired from the computer with a sigh.
My brother arrived at Mater's place this evening: he bore a grin, a steering wheel and a set of pedals- all the equipment a woman might need for fine-tuned virtual driving.
Soon the new implements were connected to the computer and negated any need to fuss with buttons.
Thus established, Mater went motoring once more, and she motored well, thanks to an industrious and quick-thinking son who saw that for every problem, great or small, there is an answer to be had.
Friday, August 14, 2009
Our has-been, once-was neighbour- I never knew him to park properly. We have since, mercifully, left behind his crooked-eyed, wobbly sense of direction and most extraordinary failure to conquer the luminous lines of the emptiest car park.
At first I spared the fellow scant few thoughts on Moving Day. I was too busy, awaiting the enormous truck that would sail in like a fine white horse to rescue two dismals in distress and hasten the few sticks of furniture to California.
At length the vehicle drew near, turned into the driveway and squeezed, with the necessary overlap, into one and a half parking spaces.
Our neighbour, on his way to work that morning, thumped downstairs, noted the disturbance and tried to guess what it was all about.
Who was moving? In or out? And why? To where- or from whence they came?
So many queries, so little time. He swivelled his head a number of times, eyes darting here and there- but he found no clues. He hesitated, frowned, gazed up at certain windows, shuffled with measured slowness to his own pitifully-angled car, certain in the knowledge that all would be over and done by the time he returned.
From the living room window I read it all, the curiosity and confusion, the desire to know the news.
I turned to Spouse.
"He wants to know who's moving," I said with unrestrained glee. "Look- he's annoyed he has to go to work and miss all the gossip."
"No," murmured Spouse solemnly. "I think he's just wondering who on earth is worse at parking than he is."
Aye, the fellow stole our space more often than not; but he never took Spouse's canny wit.
Thursday, August 13, 2009
Late afternoon in August we wedged our persons into one corner of an empty train carriage, wrapped arms around enormous articles of luggage. We slid from the railway station and watched, deliberately, as the town began to melt from our sight.
Not for us the anxious question of the front door having been locked, nor the fretful uncertainty of whether appliances had been properly unplugged. In all the world we could lay claim to no door. Our belongings had been thoroughly detached from their respective electrical sockets, bound, as were Spouse and I, thousands of miles westward.
With no fixed abode and nothing certain before us, we allowed the town to dwindle corner by corner, retreating from the familiar streets amid a painter's palette of thoughts and whirlwind possibilities.
Two weathered fellows soon made themselves comfortable in our compartment. They bore the dismayed, tangled hair of the homeless- still, who were we to remark on such things?- and threadbare, grubby vests through which peeked vast expanses of haggard skin.
I imagined we gave the impression of being on vacation; but our fellow travellers understood, inexplicably, that we were going far and would not return. A spirited conversation blossomed.
"You're doing a great thing. I bet," one neighbour jabbed a finger at us, "I bet you're making the best decision you ever made." His eyes were alight with the thrill of it all, and he sounded convinced of the words.
His companion nodded, and slurped from a paper cup. "I couldn't do what you're doing. Never. You guys have got bananas."
"Bananas," the first echoed soundly. "Yup. Plenty of bananas."
Over and over the raggedy companions assured us of our boldness, and of the rightness of our boldness, and that we were in possession of a healthy supply of bananas.
Our paths at last had to diverge. Shouts of good luck and take care and scraps of advice tumbled with us onto the platform as we hauled the burdensome bags to the next segment of our adventure.
With the fervent well-wishes of strangers, and the proverbial bananas- a dash of courage enough to set out on some railway tracks and leave the known world behind- with these our journey could begin in earnest.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 11:50 AM