By Attila Zønn
Eddie Nova, a resident of the Wyndcliffe trailer park, sits his chubby soul in his cubby kitchen on Sunday morning and picks through a supermarket tabloid.
The center spread is festooned with voyeur shots of bikini clad Hollywood starlets caught not in the peak of starlet condition.
He shakes his head and says, “Poor human race. Poor world.”
Eddie knows what’s wrong with the world—there are too many famous people and too many people obsessed with famous people. He flips the page and says, “The masses of men lead lives of self-induced unconsciousness,” and smiles.
Eddie has been aware for some time that he talks to himself. He’s aware of this thing he calls his lonely passage through life, and has accepted it without regrets. There are people who can’t be alone, who panic when they lose sight of another human being, who must be surrounded by breath and heartbeats and words.
Eddie isn’t one of these people.
Though on occasion he has felt bursts of excitement, has flung open the door and teetered on the threshold, eager to be part of the human race but those times are aberrations.
Mostly, his door stays shut.
When he first moved in here Frank told him he didn’t have to deal with anybody. “Just keep your door shut, if you want. No one will bother you.” That’s what Frank told him, but they started coming out of the woodwork the next Saturday when he was building the deck. He actually didn’t do any of the building, Frank did all of it. He did help a little; handing a board or two here and there and getting bottles of water for Frank, who worked very hard for him.
Eddie didn’t want a deck but Frank insisted, saying it was a good place for Eddie to sit in the evenings and enjoy the air, but Eddie knew he was never going to use it.
And on that day people came by as they do when they see a new face. They introduced themselves and Frank introduced himself and shook hands but Eddie stood still, mute, like a monolith, without even a nod or a twitch of acknowledgement towards his visitors.
Frank had to introduce him.
Eddie felt their awkwardness staring at a middle-aged man in late June wearing a jacket, droopy wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses; his armor. His neighbors probably have a name for him now like weirdo or hermit or some other name people come up with when they’re talking behind one’s back.
Eddie doesn’t want to know anyone because when you connect with another human being a thing called feelings surfaces and then Eddie has to decide whether to like, love, trust, need, be grateful, be thankful ….which brings him to Frank, the anomaly to his view on his fellow human beings.
Frank was an all right young man.
Frank’s always around doing things for him and Eddie’s grateful for that. There’s a cleaning lady too. She does his laundry and dusts his place and does his groceries. She brings her kids with her; two little girls, a year and a half apart but they could pass as twins. He watches them while she runs some errands. They bring their picture books, and sit on either side of him on the couch while he reads them stories. He enjoys their giggles and laughter when he gives the characters funny voices. It’s the least he could do since she keeps his place tidy.
So apart from them, having no one else he’d like to converse with, he likes the sound of his own voice. As long as you know you’re talking to yourself, he doesn’t see anything wrong with it.
He likes his little TV—his ghost company. From the moment he wakes until the time he goes to bed, the TV is on. It’s tuned to a cooking channel and that’s enough for him. Today, a very attractive young woman is cooking low fat, organic, low cholesterol, and high fiber concoctions that Eddie would never consider eating but he likes her voice and the way she wields a knife. He wonders why anyone would go to such bland lengths to eat.
“Where’s the pleasure of good fat and real sugar?” he says to the TV. “The world is crumbling down around our ears and suddenly everybody wants to live forever.”
The sun streams in through windows adorned with beige horizontal blinds and casts bars across the floor just short of the tip out. The trailer smells of bacon, fried eggs and burnt bagels. A smoky haze stretches and twirls against the sunlight, below the open smoke detector.
Eddie could eat fried eggs and bacon every morning but the girl who cleans his place only gives him enough for one meal a week. She’s one of those healthy eating people. She wants him to live forever. So he looks forward to his Sunday morning breakfasts, and the aroma of simple pleasure.
He sets aside the tabloid, sits back and gleans the compartment and the possessions of a life secured inside this shell on wheels.
There’s the guitar, hanging on a hook by the hinge side of the door; a Martin he bought thirty years ago and has been trying to learn to play ever since. He picks it up sometimes when he feels a jolt of musical fervour, plucks a few notes, strums a few chords, rides the musical moment happily, then suddenly he’s struck with melancholy and a feeling that something is missing, and he looks around him, searching for that indescribable thing. A memory at the tip of his memory, its almost as if he is on the verge of remembering something important but then it fizzles, and sleeps till the next time he tries to play the guitar. So he hangs it up, sits on the couch and stares at it for a while.
Sometimes he sits on the couch for hours and stares at the door, and thinks. Then his eyes go back to the guitar. One day he’ll play it well. He’s getting there; he almost knows a full song now thanks to Frank’s kid.
Bit by bit it’ll all come together.
It’s a shame,though, that he has all this time yet fritters it away thinking.
Thinking goes hand in hand with doing. They are like ham and cheese, bread and butter, bacon and eggs. But he has trouble with the doing part. For him, doing can be put off for another day. Thinking is easy. You don’t have to move.
Later on today Frank is coming to fix his air conditioner and he’ll probably bring his kid; the head banger, with his long black hair, jeans ornamented with dangling chains and wearing one of his many black T-shirts displaying skeletons, skulls and upside down crosses or something to do with the dead.
The kid’s Godless.
He told Eddie so.
Back in his day, if anybody questioned God they’d get a slap across the face. But that kid sure can play the guitar. Eddie wishes he could play one fraction as good as Frank’s kid.
The kid rides his bike over at least once a week and Eddie sits at the window waiting for him. There’s an unexplainable emotion Eddie feels in his throat and chest when he sees the kid pull up that causes him to rush to the door and open it.
The first thing the kid does when he comes in, after he says hi to Eddie, he asks, “Can I play your guitar?” Eddie nods, and stands back, sees the kid pull a pick out of his pocket and go for the guitar, and the kid always says, “It’s out of tune.”
But soon enough, after some tightening and loosening of strings, he’s off to the races; spider fingers running all over that fret board, tone as clear as the sound of water over rocks and Eddie gets a lump in his throat and teary eyed at how beautiful his guitar sounds in someone else’s hands. He’s had thirty years to learn to play and this kid’s only been alive for fifteen.
The kid asked Eddie once, “Why don’t you have any books around here?”
It was true, Eddie didn’t have any books. When you’re with your thoughts all the time you don’t need anything to occupy your mind. Eddie answered, that he did have a book and it was the only book that mattered.
“Which one’s that?” the kid said.
Eddie went to get the book, inside the drawer beside his bed. A book that has always felt good in his hands; with its straight spine and tassel bookmark, still as pristine as when he bought it thirty years ago. He liked the feel of its black leather cover and embossed words: Holy Bible. He presented it to the kid who kept on strumming, saying, “Oh, that one.”
That one? Why, the little punk.
Eddie was about to straighten the boy out on the greatest book ever written, when the kid asked, “Have you read all of it?”
It was something Eddie was intending to do one day.
Eddie retorted, “No, just the parts that matter for now.” And then wondered why he would say that.
The kid, still strumming said, “It should all matter, if you believe it.”
Yes it did all matter. It did all matter and one day he was going to read the whole thing.
What did this kid know? He’s barely lived.
“I read it, last summer,” the kid said. “I wanted to know what the big deal was. It was a hard read. It had a lot of bumps in the narrative. My philosophy teacher told us that a good writer doesn’t make the reader stumble, but I bet there’s people tripping all over the place when they read the Bible. It repeats itself a lot, it contradicts itself a lot too and goes on and on about begetting and who was the son of who. How can people live to be six hundred years old? Nine hundred years old? And it’s full of terrible things people do to each other, especially to women. Women don’t rate in that book. I asked my philosophy teacher about it. He’s had a book published. He said, if the Bible was a novel being submitted to a publisher, the editor would demand a huge re-write. And people believe God wrote it. My teacher said the book’s got potential, it just needs a good editor.”
Eddie liked this kid very much. All in all, if one could look beyond the demonic clothing he was really a nice kid, misguided, but a good kid, but this time, confronted with that typical attitude; when the ignorance of youth disregards the past and can’t see beyond the things not relevant to their immediate lives, he lost it, and yelled at the kid, “Who does he think he is to make fun of the Bible? It’s the word of God!”
He startled the kid. The kid stopped strumming and the color drained from his face.
Eddie felt guilty about yelling at the kid. It wasn’t his kid. He had no right yelling at Frank’s kid. Why was he yelling? Did yelling ever solve anything? It bothered him for days afterwards, even though he thinks some people need a good yelling at to set them straight.
He often worries about Frank’s kid and the cleaning lady’s little girls, and how the future might be for them. He was glad he never had any kids.
“I’m sorry Grandpa,” the kid said. “I didn’t mean to upset you. I was just talking. I didn’t know that book meant so much to you. Dad says what I choose to believe is my own business and I shouldn’t discuss it with people I don’t know, they might get upset. He says people will do crazy things in the name of God. So I should keep it to myself, but I thought I could talk to you about it.”
“You don’t question God. You can’t go against him,” Eddie said, feeling his body tremble as he eased himself onto the couch beside the kid.
“Why not? Grandpa, if people didn’t question stuff we’d still be living in the dark, riding horses instead of cars.”
“Would that be such a bad thing?”
“It would. It’s like being stuck in the past.”
“The past was better. It was simpler. Things are too complicated now.”
“Was it really that much better?” the kid said. “I’ve read a lot of history. The past was a very brutal time. It was bloody and unforgiving. This world isn’t perfect but its better than the past.”
“We live in the best time people have ever lived. We can speak our minds and be whatever we want if we try.”
“I know but—”
“Human beings are naturally curious, right? And if a god made us then he made us curious, so why should he punish us if we wanted to know about stuff? Think of all those diseases we’ve cured by being curious. If we weren’t curious we’d be dying from simple diseases. Grandpa, in the past you could die from just getting a scratch.”
“We can’t all live forever,” Eddie said. “We can’t be so selfish. Eventually we have to make room for someone else.”
“Have you ever seen God, Grandpa?”
“I haven’t had the pleasure,” Eddie said. “But I feel him. Right here.” He patted his chest.
“People feel all kinds of things,” the kid said. “ It doesn’t mean it’s real. If something is real then everybody should be able to see it and feel it.”
“Well, if there is no God, then who created all this?”
The kid shrugged. “It just happened. Why do we need to know that anyway? Here we are. Let’s just go with it. The meaning of life? Life just is. Why distract ourselves from living with questions like that?”
Eddie smiles and shakes his head when he hears it just happened. Random chance. A few chemicals getting together in a puddle of water, the right amount of sun, the right amount of air, and poof! Here we are thinking and reasoning. What garbage.
“There has to be a creator. All we have is this life? And then what? What is there to look forward to? What do we worship?”
The kid looked disappointed. “Why does anything have to be worshipped? That’s like saying we don’t rate.” He slouched back on the couch, thinking, then sat up with a glint in his eye.
“How about worshiping a tree? There’s no doubt a tree exists. And if somebody ever came out of the forest telling people that a tree told him they should follow him, no one would listen to him. There’d be no doubt he was either crazy or putting people on, ‘cause everybody knows trees don’t talk.
“Think of what a tree can give you; this guitar came from a tree, as well as a lot of musical instruments, and I think of all the things we know, music is probably the thing that makes people the happiest. Don’t you think so? We get wood to build houses so we can stay safe, wood to burn so we can stay warm and you can climb a tree and see far distances, and it gives you shade where you can sit and, and read your Bible. And a tree’ll never tell you what you have to wear, what you can’t eat or what part of your body to cut off. And no one’s ever heard of somebody losing control of their car on a wet road and hitting a god. But they hit trees. They hit trees all the time, ‘cause trees are real.” And with a self-satisfied smile he went back to strumming the guitar.
Eddie asked Frank once where his kid got all his notions. Frank had said, “He reads a lot.”
Then the kid stopped playing, frowned and sat up.
He said, “You know what might happen though? The way people are, some people might think that their tree is better than someone else’s tree. Like some people might like the oak tree and someone might like the birch, or the weeping willow, and think the other guy’s tree is inferior, and they might go around chopping down the other guy’s tree, and that might lead to a tree war, where they’ll kill millions of people till one side wins and then there’ll be too many trees from that side and things will look out of balance, and the losers will resent the winners because they can’t grow their own tree, and they’ll stew on it for years and years till one day they start another war in the name of their tree. People are like that and it probably could happen.”
Eddie had suddenly felt exhausted listening to this kid.
“Can you play Stairway to Heaven?” he said.
The kid frowned. “I could, but why would I want to? It’s such a cliché piece. Listen to this.”
And off he went a hundred miles an hour—bending strings, flicking strings and vibrating all over the place. The kids technique was impressive, but there was no familiar tune Eddie could latch onto. All Eddie heard now was a bunch of notes, nicely played, but meaningless to him.
“Don’t you know any songs I might know?” Eddie said.
“ Simple Man?”
“Heart of Gold?”
“Dust in the Wind?”
“I know that one,” the kid said, and off he went. It sounded just like the record. It was better than the record because some guy wasn’t singing over the guitar part.
Suddenly filled with an immense euphoria Eddie said, “Can you—can you show me how to play that?”
“Sure, it’s easy. Here, this is the basic pattern.” As the kid played, Eddie was mesmerized by the easy, smooth way the kid’s fingers plucked the strings.
“Its really pretty simple once you know how it’s done,” the kid said. “The right hand does pretty much the same thing throughout. I did this as a lesson. My teacher says Metal is good, but that I shouldn’t limit myself, that I should be an all round player, that I’ll appreciate it later. I’ll write the chords down for you if you get me a pen and paper.”
Eddie quickly stood and put a step forward but stopped and turned when the kid said,“Always remember it’s not what you play, Grandpa, it’s how you play it. It doesn’t always have to be complex, it just has to feel good.”
“Okay,” Eddie said then hurried to get a pen and a yellow pad from the drawer beside his bed.
After the kid demonstrated the sequence of notes Eddie took the guitar and tried it. As he was writing the chords down on the pad, the kid said, “You know what’s always made me wonder about Jesus?”
“I can’t imagine,” Eddie said, positioning his fingers on the strings.
“If it was God’s plan to sacrifice his only son for the sins of the world, why have people hated the Jews?”
Eddie was half listening, half trying to get his fingers to pluck the right strings. He had never considered the plight of the Jews. It wasn’t a thought utmost on his mind. The only Jew he had ever met was a lawyer in the big city when he and Frank had gone there to get Eddie’s affairs in order. That Jew had done alright by him.
“The Jews gave Jesus up to the Romans who crucified him,” Eddie said. “They betrayed our Lord.”
The kid smiled.
“See, that’s what doesn’t make sense,” the kid said. “If that did happen, why hold a modern people responsible for what an ancient people did?”
The kid said, “And anyhow, if it was God’s plan to have his son born only to kill him years later, then the Jews were just following God’s plan, right? God knew it was going to happen that way. He’s God, right? So why should anybody blame the Jews? They did exactly what God wanted. You could even say that God made them do it. They had to or else God wouldn’t be able to show how much he loved the human race by having his son tortured and crucified. Even Judas. He wasn’t a bad guy, he followed the plan, but he’s vilified. And think of how Christianity wouldn’t exist if Jesus hadn’t been crucified and then risen from the dead. See, if people would just look at it all logically and with a critical eye, so many lives could have been spared and the world would be a better place. That whole story is convoluted, you know. There’s a lot of holes in the plot.”
Eddie was thinking about what the kid was saying.
“I don’t know if that’s the case,” he said. “ But if history had gone a different way, you wouldn’t be here.”
“But I wouldn’t know I wasn’t here, so that doesn’t matter.”
“But knowing that you’re here now, isn’t it better to be here?”
“If a bunch of innocent people who lived before me were still alive and that caused me not to be born, it wouldn’t bother me.”
Eddie didn’t know what to say to that so he went back to plucking strings.
“My philosophy teacher says part of the reason Jews got picked on was because of their unwillingness to assimilate. They always wanted to be different. He said people that don’t conform will always get picked on.”
This teacher the kid keeps referring to talks too much, Eddie thought. This teacher was starting to annoy Eddie. A damned know it all. Its easy to point out what’s wrong with something, but they’ve got no solutions. Just complainers, complaining to hear themselves complain. Using their intellect to belittle everyone else.
“What’s wrong with wanting to be different?” he said. “People butting into your life trying to make you swim with them. They have all the answers, right? Living life to the fullest nonsense, but if you’re doing what you want and minding your own business—you know what I don’t like? Those people that come around and say that because you haven’t experienced what they’ve experienced, you’re missing out. That look down on you because you don’t want to sit around the campfire.”
“Yeah,”the kid said nodding, his eyes wide. “Like in school. They call me a freak.They call me an EMO. They call me a faggot too but they don’t know what they’re talking about. I’m none of that. They’re just throwing out labels ‘cause all they know is labels.”
“Yeah, my hair is long, I dress like I do, and the music I like isn’t mainstream. But that’s me. I’m an individual. I’d rather get good grades instead of wasting my time trying to be popular. You know, in a corner of the cafeteria there’s a place for the freaks and the nerds. I’d rather be there. We’re not very talkative. We mind our own business and don’t judge. You know, if it wasn’t for the nerds and the freaks, humanity would never progress. We’d still be living in the dark ages, praying to myths and bleeding the bad blood out of people when they’re sick.”
Eddie reached out and patted the kid on the shoulder. “Sorry,” he said.
“It’s alright, Grandpa, I can handle it.”
The kid went back to writing down the chords.
Eddie went back to plucking strings.
“You know, you’re too stiff when you play, Grandpa. You have to relax. Caress the strings. Treat the guitar like it’s a woman.”
Eddie laughed. He laughed so hard he started coughing.
He regained himself and said, “How would you know how a woman should be treated?”
The kid smiled. “I have a girlfriend now,” he said. “That’s what you should do Grandpa. You should find yourself a nice lady. Do stuff together, you know, go places, keep each other company. I know now that I have a girlfriend, my life feels happier.”
Eddie has no intention of finding himself a play mate. A woman would take up too much of his time. Interfere with his thoughts. He would have to be outgoing and sociable, and he’d have to compromise, which is the same as being owned. He’d have to remember birthdays and anniversaries, buy gifts. And feign that Valentine’s Day is a big deal. And he’d have to listen, to whatever problems these women might create for themselves. No, it’s not for him. Life’s too short for that.
The thought of women always causes Eddie to think of the picture hanging on the wall at the foot of his bed. It’s a picture of a young woman in jeans sitting on a blanket on the side of a grassy hill. Her mouth is open as if she’s talking to the photographer. He likes the curls in her brown hair. Her face is wholesome yet troubled. He has examined every inch of that picture; the way she’s sitting there he’s even counted the toes on her bare feet. She has ten toes.
There’s the slant of the sun as it hits her hair. He guesses the time of day is late afternoon. It has to be some festive gathering because there are people sitting at picnic tables in the background, some smoke, maybe from barbecues. It has to be summer. He feels the wind blowing through the curls in her hair and smells her skin.
Lying in bed sometimes he’ll hold her image up to his face. Who is she? Why does he have this picture and why does it feel sacred in his hands? There’s something about her face that comforts him.
But sometimes the feeling of comfort has no significance; it’s just a picture, and on one of his fits of spring cleaning, when he feels as if he can jettison an old life by filling a trash can full of junk, he has thrown this picture away. But then he thinks about the picture, digs it out, and hangs it back on the wall, where it looks down on him, and comforts him.
You can’t get too comfortable. No, it clouds your judgment; it stops you from looking over your shoulder and leaves you vulnerable. Eddie wishes he could remember the gaps in his life. He remembers he had a mother and father. He sees their bodies but can’t remember their faces. He remembers school, some teachers, he remembers moments in time; silly moments in time he thinks, like a summer evening when he was a kid, near dusk, sitting on his back porch and seeing a toad jumping in the grass. Why does he not remember the lives that have touched his life, yet remember that?
Some times when Frank talks Eddie doesn’t catch all the words. Sometimes when the kid talks he doesn’t catch all the words. It feels like they’re saying more than he wants to hear. Why is he like that? Why does he want to be alone? He prefers to sit by the window and watch life happen outside. Study people; try to figure out their motives. He has a good view of his neighbor across the lane; Arthur, always sitting outside, saying hello to everyone who walks by, inviting them to sit and have a beer. He sits there with a cooler full of beers like he’s baiting people to keep him company. How desperate can you be for companionship?
One morning he heard a knock on the door and found this pony-tailed, beanpole old man standing there.
“How you doin’?” the old man said. “Name’s Arthur. Live across the way here. Having a fire tonight. Just thought I’d ask you if you wanted to come over. You know, the more the merrier. Hope I’m not disturbing you. Just being neighborly.”
The too men stared at each other through Eddie’s screen door.
“You don’t have to bring anything. I’ve got everything. I’ve got all the drinks. Used to be a bartender. There ain’t a drink I don’t know. You want it, I can make it.” Eddie didn’t respond. Was this guy expecting to be invited in? “Like I said, just passin’ the invite. So take ‘er easy. And if she’s easy, take ‘er twice.” Was he expecting Eddie to laugh at that?
When Eddie just stood there stone faced, Arthur smiled an uncomfortable smile, exposing some misaligned but sparkling white teeth. Eddie finally nodded just to get rid of the guy. Arthur seemed happy to get some kind of response, waved a hand and went back to his seat and cooler full of beers.
Eddie hears the deck steps creak and a woman’s voice says, “Hola, Eduardo?”
A head bobs across the blinds. Eddie twists the blinds closed.
Her voice stabs his ears and bashes his heart into the pit of his stomach. She says, “Are you up?”
Eddie doesn’t answer.
“Eduardo? Look what I have done for you. I want you to know I have risen very early this morning to make you what will soon become your favorite cookies. We can have with some coffee. I even bring the coffee. Will you help me my sweet, my hands are full?”
Eddie doesn’t answer. He feels like a deer in the headlights. A groundhog cornered. A fox caught by the hounds. He’s frozen to his seat, wondering, is the door locked?
“Are you there?”
She knows he’s there. Where else would he be? He pries open the slats of the blinds with two fingers, and suddenly there’s a shadow on the other side of the blinds.
“Eduardo, I do not understand why you keep doing this. Why, why must you waste time and delay the inevitable?”
Eddie peeps through the gap in the blinds and says, “I don’t want to talk to you.”
“But Eduardo, it is pointless to resist. Why must I keep saying it? It is tiresome. I told you. You, are my soulmate. I read it in the cards. The cards have never lied, my sweet. Destiny is cast in stone.”
Will he ever be rid of this woman? He forgets about her but she keeps reminding him.
“Eduardo. Open the door for Dorina. Dorina is here for you. I promise you, you will not regret it.” She moved closer to the window. “If it encourages you Eduardo, I want you to know, that I am not shy to say that I want to put my lips on you.”
He’s been too nice about it. That’s the problem here. Its time to be extreme. Time to be an asshole.
He yells, “Get off my stoop you crazy witch before I call the cops! And don’t come back if you know what’s good for you.”
She’s startled and is jolted back. He catches the hurt in her eyes. He didn’t want to say that. He doesn’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings. Why can’t she take no for an answer? Whenever he tells Frank that they should get a restraining order on her, where she can’t come within a hundred miles of him, Frank just smiles and tells him she only wants to be friendly. Frank has talked to her, but it hasn’t stopped her from coming around.
She leans forward. Their eyes meet. She says, “I will unlock you Eduardo. Mark my words. You cannot run away from destiny.”
She’ll leave the cookies. She always leaves what she brings.
Eddie hears the plate clank down then the deck steps creak. He opens the blinds and watches her walk away. She looks back at him. He feels sorry for her. Why is she wasting her time with him?
After she’s out of view, he gets up, walks to the door, opens it, picks up the plate of cookies and stands there for a moment, breathing deep and admiring the shade and the good morning. It rained last night. He enjoys the quiet and how everything smells like it’s been pulled fresh from the ground. He tastes a cookie. They’re crunchy and chewy, but too much vanilla. He’s surprised. She’s always spot on with her baking.
She makes a wonderful cheesecake.
Many a night he has sat up in bed eating her cheesecake while wondering how he can stop her advances. Eddie never throws away what she leaves. He has a collection of her plates stacked on the counter.
She’ll be back. She always comes back.
He feels like taking a walk. He looks at the clock on the counter. It’s only eight o’clock, and Frank said he’d be by in the afternoon. He decides to go to the Falls. On the way back he’ll go to the Italian bakery and pick up a few of those cookies Frank’s kid devours whenever he comes over.
He chuckles when he thinks of Frank’s kid and his girlfriend. He’s brought her by a few times. She’s a little goth girl; her voice is barely audible when she says hi to Eddie. Black hair, skin as pale as a full moon, and purple lipstick; she has the face of a cadaver but pretty, and everything on her is black. She’s gotten over her fear of Eddie; at least he thought she was afraid of him the first time they met, or it could have been shyness. He doesn’t really know. When he brought out the milk and those Italian cookies, she waved him off. The kid said, “Go ahead. They’re really good.” She took a cookie, bit into it then looked at Eddie and smiled. She hasn’t opened up that much since then, just sits and nods as the kid plays, but she smiles more and looks less like a cadaver.
He stuffs his backpack full of water bottles and dons a floppy brimmed straw hat and sunglasses. He probably looks like a vagrant. He likes that. Nobody will bother him; people shy away from the homeless. It’s probably too warm for a jacket but he’ll wear one anyway. He picks up his walking stick. It’s an old broom handle, taped into a nice knob at the top end like a hockey stick.
He opens the door and sets off.
He likes the crunch of stones under his shoes and the rhythmic tap of his walking stick every couple of paces. He likes the image of the travelling pilgrim, off to a non-existent pilgrimage.
It always amazes Eddie at how the entrance to the park is like some mystic portal that once crossed, transports him from a world of chirping serenity onto a planet that clangs and clatters, and slaps you with gusts from cars full of people in a hurry. Its hotter out here, and dirty. A dust devil spins in the middle of the road, picks up a flattened cigarette pack and twirls it into the sky. Eddie watches it disappear into the heavens.
He blames Arthur for this predicament with the witch woman; poor lonely Arthur and his camp fires. It’s Eddie’s fault too, for that moment of weakness, that primordial attraction to heat and flame on a night he felt like taking a walk.
Around a campfire you can let your guard down. It probably goes back to the primitives, who could relax around the fire knowing that whatever might want to eat them was afraid of the flames.
When he passed Arthur’s place on the way back, Arthur called out “Hey, Mr. Nova. Come join us. ”
Why Eddie didn’t keep walking is still a mystery to him.
There was a group of people there, all arranged in a circle around a monstrous snapping fire; its embers scintillating into the air. The fire looked good and there was a chair waiting for him. He didn’t want to go. It’s easy to be rude and ignore an individual but Eddie found it hard to be rude to a group; all those eyes watching you; all those witnesses, who will probably talk about you as a group when you leave. So he sat, drawn into the fire with his eyes, the heat against the soles of his feet.
He felt comfortable.
Arthur introduced him to the group though Eddie took no notice of anyone, then Arthur continued telling tales about his years in the merchant marines and then his wild bar-tending days.
Arthur had been practically all over the world, seen almost everything. “But it’s the Orient that was the coolest place,” he said. “Young men coming off the ships and the whores waiting for you, barking, ‘Fucky, fucky, sucky, sucky, ten dolla’.'” That got a laugh. Arthur sure wasn’t a shy fellow. His life had been full of so many things to do that he never found time for a wife.
Eddie thinks Arthur’s gay.
But he could tell a good yarn. He had everybody captivated.
Then, he told of the night he had to break up a fight between two brothers.
“The bouncers?” Arthur said, “were just a couple of big useless kids. Door ornaments really, who flexed their big muscles for each other, working a summer job before they went back to university. Who’d never seen a bar fight much less had ever pulled two angry drunks apart. You know, when the beer bottles started flyin’, and the spit and blood started flyin’, they froze. Pissin’ in their pants.”
Arthur had to step in and bring those brothers to their knees.
“Back then, you know, wasn’t like now. People weren’t afraid to get someone else’s blood on them. It was a cleaner world.” He was cut while trying to break them up. He raised his open palm and showed a large scar running across it. “It was a bottle of Blue. Never forget it.”
As he listened Eddie felt he was being watched. He turned to his right, and there she was, at three o’clock, the witch woman, looking at him. She looked away, but moments later he felt her watching again so he looked. She looked away. After one more turn at this peek-a-boo game he’d had enough, stood up, walked back to his trailer and locked himself in his home. Before he closed the blinds for the night he looked out the window and from the illumination of the fire, he saw her looking in his direction.
The next morning there was a knock on the door. There she was, holding a plate covered with a sheet of paper towel.
“Good morning,” she said. “I have wonderful news! You no longer have to be alone. I am here now. May I come in? There is so much we need to discuss.”
Before he could react she had entered. At that moment Eddie thought of vampires; how if you let them in they’ll suck your blood and keep coming back. He could never have known that for the next year she would become the scourge on his solitude.
She surveyed the place then looked at him, assessed him from head to toe and smiled. She had that smell of people coming in from outside, mixed with some peachy, lemony perfume. She smelled very fresh. He liked her smell.
“Do you like muffins?” she said. “I brought some carrot muffins for us to enjoy together.”
Eddie had never had anyone force themselves into his private space. When there’s a door between you and someone, it’s easy to shut it. But what does he do when they’re already in? He had to admit that there was nothing unlikable about her. She was relatively slim. Her brown hair was in a bun. Big loopy earrings. She wore lilac lipstick, some eyeliner. Ample bosom showing a modest cleavage above the neckline of a white tank top. White sandals peeked out from the bottom of a long purple flowy skirt. He liked her green eyes. She had a piercing gaze that seemed to see into him.
She put the plate on the table.
“I am Dorina,” she said stretching out a hand. “And you are Eduardo?”
“Ed,” he said, looking at her hand.
“Can I call you Eduardo? Eduardo suits you better. It has more pizzazz.”
She laughed. It was a nice laugh. It surprised him. He expected her to cackle.
“When I hear the name Ed,” she said. “It reminds me of the talking horse. Do you remember the talking horse? It was so silly.” Eddie didn’t remember any talking horses. What was she talking about? This woman was crazy. He knew that when you are having a conversation with a crazy person, you have to humour them.
“Was it a unicorn?” he said.
“No.” She frowned. “It was not a unicorn. It was a talking horse. A palomino.” Silence followed. Eddie stood stranded by the door while she looked at him with those piercing eyes.
“Perhaps you are thinking I am too forward,” she said. ” You are a decent man, and perhaps expect a woman to act traditional. But I know what I want and at our age to play little games is a waste of time. We are the same age no? I think we are the same age. I am sixty. I am not shy to say I am sixty.”
Eddie was surprised. She looked no older than her mid forties.
“You think I am much younger don’t you?” she said and smiled. “A common and very flattering misconception. I have always protected my skin. The sun is a killer. May I sit down?” She sat on the couch. The flowy skirt parted at the side and her leg stuck out. It was a nice leg. She smiled at him then patted the space next to her.
Eddie stayed where he was.
“What can I do for you?” he asked, but he didn’t want to do anything for her.
“Last night, when I saw you, I felt your loneliness. It is the same loneliness I have been feeling. I went home, laid my cards on the table, and they said, you are my perfect match. The cards have never been wrong for me. So here I am. You are a Latin? I also am a Latin. I am from Ecuador, but originally my family comes from Frosinone. Do you not want to sit here with me?”
Eddie sat down on the opposite end of the couch.
“We have death in common, you know,” she said. “I am a widow and I understand you are a widower. I have made some inquiries. It has been five years since my Javier left this world. You are wondering am I over the death of my husband? The truth is, he could have died sooner. He was a beautiful man, but he had an ugly soul. He had many lovers. With me he was a terrible lover. Very selfish. That is to be expected when you are beautiful, no? I do not fault him. He was born selfish. You are asking yourself, how could I be with such a man? I wanted to leave my little town in Ecuador, and he allowed me to escape. He was a virile man, but unable to give me children. It was his problem, but in hindsight, it was good that I did not have his children so here I am, all alone, with much life still to live. To be alone alone is not good but not as bad as being with someone who does not love you. That is the worst kind of loneliness.” She sighed, looked away and said, “The devil is a tall and handsome man.”
“But,” she said and shrugged. “It is what it is.”
“You are wondering, why am I being so open?” she said, taking Eddie’s hand. “I am a firm believer in there being no secrets between two people who are meant for each other. This is why I am telling you all this. I want you to know everything about me today so we can continue with our life together. Javier left me a lot of money and property in Florida. I am telling you this because the cards have showed me that you will never want to steal my money. I will be very happy to share it with you. I will tell you that we will be very very comfortable together. I am looking forward to the best years of my life. And you are going to be a part of it.”
Eddie didn’t know why he was allowing this woman to touch him. He didn’t know why he was allowing her to be here so long. He should have booted her out the minute she said, “You have wonderful eyes. You have nice fingernails. Clean and short. That means you are generous and gentle. I like large men, who have settled into their age. I can see you are comfortable.” She turned his hand up and studied the palm.
” You’re mount of Venus is very pronounced,” she said. “You have a strong heart and a long lifeline.” She ran her fingernail along his lifeline then stopped at a point halfway.
“You see this? This point here?” she said. “You may think it is a tiny scar, but that is today.” She fixed her piercing eyes on him again, this time they felt more intense, and with her finger she rubbed figure eights on the center of his palm. It felt good. Eddie felt an erection coming on.
He pulled his hand away, stood and went to the door. He pushed it open, held it and said, “I don’t know if I’m a Latin, a widower or an Eduardo. I don’t know where you came from and its very rude of you to ingratiate yourself when no one invited you.”
“If you want me to leave all you have to say is, I would like you to leave. We do not need such drama. Drama is for the television. I know. This is too much to accept all at once. Ok.” She stood. When she passed him at the door she said, “I hope this is not going to be difficult. I am a very patient woman but time is a terrible thing to waste.”
Eddie stands at the corner of Lundy’s Lane and Montrose Road. He looks north, south, across the street, then back from where he came. For a moment his mind is blank. He sees cars drive by but they’re just colors and noise.
Why does he want to go to the Falls?
He’s suddenly afraid.
The psychiatrist has told him many times that there is nothing wrong with being afraid. “Feel the fear,” he said, “but don’t let it stop you. Fear is an obstacle to overcome but also a great motivator.”
It might be to some people but fear has never motivated Eddie.
He looks north again and sees the cemetery and decides to visit his old neighborhood.
He shrugs a few times to settle the backpack on his shoulders, tightens his grip on the walking stick and crosses the road.
He’s excited about going back to his bungalow.
Eddie is now two years removed from his little house. It was heartbreak to let it go, but Frank told him it was too expensive to keep, that if he sold it, along with the money he got from the government every month he could take it easy; he’d have money for the rest of his life. Back then he thought he’d let himself be talked out of a good home, but now he knows Frank was right.
Initially, Frank wanted Eddie to come live with them. He remembers sitting in Frank’s kitchen while Frank and the cleaning lady argued over him. Eddie wanted to make some pointers but all his “buts” went unheeded. Cheryl, the cleaning lady, wanted Eddie at her house; the kids were all going to school in the fall and she could look after Eddie. Eddie didn’t need looking after. He could still walk, new right from left and didn’t drool yet. Then Cheryl looked at him with pleading eyes. “You’ll come and live with me and Mike won’t you?”
He looked at Frank who looked away.
Eddie told them, thank you but no, he needed his privacy, he needed his space. So after more arguing, an apartment was suggested but Eddie didn’t want cockroaches running around his place when he was sleeping and didn’t want to smell what the neighbors were cooking, so they settled on a tin can on wheels in a place he could stay all year round. As they sat in Frank’s kitchen discussing it, Eddie imagined it would be a trailer all by itself in a field and he could see it, surrounded by wilderness, with smoke coming out of a smoke stack and the smell of burning wood permeating the fall air. Yes, that’s what he wanted. Frank would take care of everything. But what Eddie got was this place a stone’s throw from the highway. Though at times the smell of burning wood was rife, there were too many damned neighbors and no wilderness. When Eddie voiced his disappointment, Frank said the idea of being out in the middle of nowhere was an unrealistic expectation. It wasn’t safe. Now, two years later he knows Frank was right.
Frank was always right.
He’s walked by the old house a few times since he left and seen the metamorphosis from his home to someone else’s home. Now it’s just a house.
As soon as the new owners moved in they put on a new roof. He was meaning to do it but had never got around to it. The next time he went by it had new windows. Good choice. Sometimes when the wind hit the old panes they rattled. And this time, as he stands in front of it, it has new white soffit and eaves trough. And they painted the garage door white. For years it was dark brown, but now the house sparkles in front of him and Eddie thinks his house is finally happy.
He hears a door slam behind him and turns. A man walks out the front door of the house across the street.
That’s—what’s his name? Terry? Tommy? Teddy? It starts with a T.
T stands on his driveway and lights a cigarette. He throws Eddie a dirty look. That’s to be expected, Eddie thinks; a dirty look from a dirty guy. Guys like that bring down the neighborhood. The unkempt lawn—not really a lawn but a big ugly piss patch because of T’s big ugly dog.
Eddie wonders why dirty looking guys always have big ugly dogs.
Once, Eddie’s neighbors came knocking on his door wanting him to sign a petition. They declared that T’s place was an eyesore, blight against their nicely manicured properties. Torrance!—that’s his name. How could he forget a name like that?
Eddie wouldn’t sign the petition. As much as he didn’t like how the guy laid waste to his property, he felt he had no right forcing anyone to do anything.
Torrance still has that car on the driveway; some kind of sports car, green with primer patches, up on blocks, rusting away. It’s been sitting there for years. How pointless preserving a car on blocks is when you won’t even throw a tarp on it.
Today, with the sun shining and a sudden euphoria that grips his heart after seeing the positive change in his old house, Eddie doesn’t want to be the subject of someone’s perceived hard feelings, so he gives Torrance a nod, which transforms his dirty look into an expression of bewilderment followed by a faint smile.
Eddie turns away and moves across the sidewalk to where he can see the side of his house. He sees the shed he built, at the back of the slightly downhill backyard. He didn’t know what he was doing when he built it. It’s out of square and out of level. It isn’t anchored but just sits on the ground. He was learning as he went. And as he learned what not to do, redoing would have been costly and a fatigue so he left it as it was. If it was a house it would be condemned, but he built it with his two hands, it served its purpose and he was proud of it. He signed and dated it on the day he finished; in marker, up in the corner on one of the rafters. He always wondered why he built the shed since he never put anything in it except a lawn chair, on which he sat and heard the rain on the roof and watched the rain outside the door, and smelled the wood.
After all the changes the new owners made it’s still standing so they must like it. That makes him smile. They’ve taken down the chain-link fence though and put up a high green fence made of wood. He doesn’t like the fence. It blocks the view of the cemetery.
In his foggy memory he has the impression that someone wasn’t happy when he bought a house backing onto a cemetery. He had spent some pleasant afternoons standing by that fence and reading the headstones.
Why be afraid of the dead? They’ll never bother you. The dead make good neighbors; they’re quiet, aren’t nosy and don’t ask to borrow anything.
He remembers once having a discussion about life after death with Frank’s godless kid who told him that Heaven was only for the living. This didn’t make sense to Eddie because if you’re alive, you’re obviously not in Heaven.
A little blonde girl appears at the front window of the house and waves to him.
Suddenly, Torrance is standing beside him.
“Miss the old place?” Torrance says.
Eddie looks at him. “Sometimes.”
He’s never spoken to Torrance before. For all the years he’s lived across the street from him he’s been a scowling face in the distance. He’d only heard his voice a few times when he was yelling at his kids to “get the fuck back in this house!” or “do what the fuck your mother tells you!” His wife was a diminutive woman but she looked tough. Actually, she looked like a bitch. And Eddie thinks maybe that was why Torrance was out every half hour smoking a cigarette.
Torrance points to the house. “This guy’s wife is a nosy so and so,” says Torrance. “Keeps looking over at our house and shaking her head, and won’t let my little one play with her kid. Of all these morons around here, you were the only one who didn’t give a shit about us. And I can respect that.”
Eddie very much gave a shit at how rundown a place Torrance had, only he wasn’t arrogant enough to display his disapproval in public.
Appearances are deceiving, Eddie thinks, because now, listening to Torrance, he sounds like a nice guy; maybe someone Eddie would have had a beer with back when Eddie used to drink. But he doesn’t want to spend the morning talking to Torrance so he taps his hat and says, “Good day,” waves at the little girl in the window then continues on his trek to the Falls.
“Hey!” yells Torrance. “Maybe next time you come by you’ll come over for a beer?”
Eddie looks back, nods and waves, but he knows he’ll never do that.
He wonders if anything has changed down by the Falls. He knows iconic places rarely change. That’s why the tourists come; to see the same old thing.
He feels the heat of the day coming on now and picks up the pace hoping to beat the tourists to the Falls. The tap, tap, tap of his walking stick resonates along the sidewalk. There’s a garden down there he wants to sit at. He hopes it hasn’t changed. He hopes peaceful gardens haven’t become outdated and replaced by superficial devices that can only amuse someone for five minutes.
First, though, he’ll have a look at the Falls and look across the gorge at that foreign country.
Eddie had been across the border once, with Frank when Frank’s kid was small. They had gone for the day to some amusement park over there. Frank and his wife sat in the front while Eddie sat in the back with the kid. The kid was firmly buckled in but it felt like he was loose in the compartment. There was so much frenetic curiosity in the kid that looking at him made Eddie extremely tired. He’d point at things out his window, then he’d point at things out Eddie’s window, with bursts of, “Look at that! How come…? What is…?” And all those why, why, why’s? For most of the questions Eddie didn’t have an answer and felt stupid answering the kid’s questions with, “I don’t know.” But he thought, better the truth of ignorance than some made up fantasy the kid will believe the rest of his life. He didn’t need to look smart in front of the kid, just honest.
There’s a rainbow over the Falls, and the Maid of the Mist is loading blue plastic covered people. The sun glares off the mist rising from the gorge and the froth at the bottom of the Falls looks like scum.
Nothing’s changed, Eddie observes, and across the gorge that foreign land is still there.
“It’s amazing isn’t it?”
Eddie hasn’t noticed the woman standing beside him.
“Pardon me?” he says.
She’s a plump older woman with long greying hair and cheerful cheeks.
“The Falls,” she says, “are amazing. To think that we have something like this in our part of the world. I’ve wanted to see this place ever since I saw Marilyn Monroe in that movie.”
The sun gleams off the sunglasses hooked on top of her head and she clutches a black bag hanging from her shoulder. She wears a white embroidered blouse and she’s all jeans and sandals. Eddie thinks she’s someone who never stopped being a hippie.
“Feel its awesome power, see its spectacle. We’re very lucky. I’ve been saving all my life to see this.”
“It’s okay,” he says.
“It’s okay? It’s more than okay! It’s a miracle of nature.”
Eddie would never call a natural thing a miracle. What is this? A cascade. A large one. There’s nothing miraculous about water falling over a cliff. Now if it flowed into the air, that would be a miracle.
“I don’t know,” he says. “I don’t think it’s all that special.”
“Why would you come here, from wherever you came, if you thought it wasn’t special? You look like a well-worn traveler.”
“I’m not from anywhere,” he says. “I live here.”
“You’ve had this at your doorstep all your life and never thought it was something special?” She looks at him in amazement. “If I lived here,” she says, “I’d be down every day.”
No you wouldn’t, he thinks. Eventually the shine wears off everything.
She sighs and says, “It’s true what they say, I suppose; they that live in the mountains yearn for the ocean and they at the ocean yearn for the mountains.”
Eddie looks at the Falls again. This time trying to observe as one who has never taken the sight for granted. It’s hard for him to see the exotic in something he has always considered commonplace but he can admit that there is a faint impression of awe.
“My name’s Valerie by the way,” she says offering her hand.
Eddie looks at her hand.
“Ed,” he says.
Valerie stands with hand extended. She says, “You know, you can shake my hand, it’s clean.”
“Take it,” she says. “It won’t hurt.” He smiles and shakes her hand.
“You probably think I’m odd,” she says, “but I’m from California.” She laughs. “I didn’t mean it that way. I’m not odd because I’m from California.” She laughs again. Eddie likes her laugh. It has that pleasant daffiness only women can get away with.
She examines him from head to toe. “Aren’t you a little overdressed for today?”
“The sun’s a killer,” he says. Valerie turns to the gorge and leans against the railing. “We can’t all live forever,” she says.
Eddie suddenly feels silly all covered up and holding his broom handle walking stick. He leans the walking stick against the railing and decides to abandon it there. He moves over and stands in front of it blocking it from Valerie’s view.
Still facing the falls, Valerie closes her eyes and smiles, then opens her eyes, looks at him and says, “Isn’t there some special place you’ve always wanted to visit?” Eddie can’t think of any special place, but he likes this woman and wants to keep the conversation going, so he says, still having California on his mind, “I’d like to see the Walk of Fame,” and regrets it as soon as he says it. It’s so unlike him to wish that. Sometimes he can say the stupidest things.
“Really?” Valerie frowns and turns back to the Falls. “That’s nothing special. It’s just a sidewalk. But this—she opens her arms wide and thrusts her chest forward—There’s nothing like this. This is something that borders on the cosmic. And we don’t have to go to Africa or some dangerous part of the world to see such majesty. It’s here, on our very own little continent.”
“There’s also the Grand Canyon,” he says.
She nods. “Yes, there is the Grand Canyon, and some other places I suppose, but they just lie there. This is a living thing. Listen to it. It roars and you can hear it moving beneath your feet, and it touches your face with its watery fingers.”
Watery fingers? Eddie wouldn’t want anyone to touch him with watery fingers.
They stand silent; Valerie looking at the Falls and Eddie looking at Valerie. She turns to him and smiles. “I’m sorry,” she says. “I do get carried away sometimes. I didn’t mean to force my fascination on you. Sometimes I get so wrapped up in my emotions that I want people to feel exactly what I’m feeling.” She turns back to the Falls and there’s that silence again, lasting a little longer, a silence Eddie feels might be permanent and the end of his time with this woman.
“Can I offer you a bottle of cold water?” he says.
The question seems to jolt her back from wherever her mind had gone. She looks at him intently, then gives him another once over. “Sure,” she says, then laughs. She looks across the street.
“Do you want to sit in that garden?” she says. “It’s shady and I like the flowers over there.” In the garden they find a bench under a tall tree.
Valerie sits down as Eddie removes his backpack, unbuckles the flap and reaches in. He pulls out two bottles of water and hands one to Valerie. She twists the cap off and takes a long drink, closes her eyes and looks as though she’s in ecstasy.
“That was good,” she says and licks her upper lip. “Thank you.”
He takes off his jacket.
Valerie watches him.
“That’s better,” she says. “Can I ask you to take your sunglasses off?” Eddie removes his sunglasses.
“And your hat?”
Eddie removes his hat.
“That’s better.” She pats the space beside her. Eddie sits. Valerie studies his face. “You know, you’re cute,” she says. “In a Billy Bob Thornton kind of way. I mean that as a compliment of course. I like rugged looking men and you’ve got the most amazing eyes.”
Eddie feels silly being complimented for his eyes but it’s a pleasant feeling coming from her. He says, “The better to see you with my dear.”
Valerie snorts a laugh and slaps his thigh. “You aren’t a wolf are you Ed? If you’re a wolf disguised as a mild mannered man…” she leans closer to him and lowers her voice, “I would have no problem being Red Riding Hood.” She blushes. “Oh my God, did I just say that? I’m so sorry. I don’t know what’s coming over me. I think—I think I’m getting drunk on your lovability. You are adorable.”
They sit in silence for a while and sip their water.
Valerie looks up at the boughs of the tree, leans back and says, “I think that I shall never see—”
“A poem lovely as a tree.”
“Oh my God!” Valerie says, turning to him. “We’ve only just met and already we’re finishing each other’s sentences. My God, we’re kindred spirits.”
No we’re not, Eddie thinks, it’s just a popular poem most everybody has heard.
“That’s a poem I’ve always loved,” she says. “It’s so simple yet so beautiful.”
She hooks her arm with his and snuggles against him, leaning her head on his shoulder. “I like the whole poem but my most favorite lines are upon whose bosom snow has lain. Who lives intimately with rain. Can’t you see and feel the rain flowing down from leaf to leaf? It’s a simple but brilliant poem. That’s what poetry should be. So simple, so obvious, that it makes you rediscover and appreciate what you’ve always taken for granted. Lately, I’ve been appreciating many things.” She laughs.
“I’m sorry,” she says. “I keep laughing like a ninny but I’m just so happy today.”
If someone had told Eddie this morning that down at the Falls he’d meet a woman from a foreign country, who’d sit next to him on a park bench and then recite poetry to him, he’d have told them they were out of their mind, and to get the hell off his porch.
They sit in silence.
After a while Valerie says, “One day, many years ago I went to visit my mother. Daddy had died the year before and because of that I saw mother more often. I felt she was lonely. But Mother and I had never been close. I’ve never had children so I can’t imagine what would ever cause a rift between a parent and a child. But as long as I can remember there was a wall between mother and me.
“It was afternoon and when I got to the house the front door was wide open. I walked in. I saw the back door was wide open. I called out for her. No answer. I looked all through the rooms of the house. Calling. Calling. My heart was racing. I expected the worst. I expected to see her lying unconscious on the floor.
“I checked the backyard. I went to the neighbor’s house. She wasn’t anywhere. So I called the police.
“The police came. They searched. We found her; crouched in her bedroom closet frightened out of her mind. I said, ‘Mom. Didn’t you hear me calling you?’ But she just stared at me like she didn’t know who I was. And that’s when it all began: mother’s slide into her fantasies. She’d see her reflection in the mirror and talk to it. When I caught her doing this she said she was talking to her sister. She never had a sister.
“She became fixated with visiting Spain. Why Spain? We weren’t Spanish. She had all her bags packed, she said. She was going to leave any day now. She said Spain was on the other side of the hedge in the backyard. I told her, ‘Mom, you have to cross the whole country then you have to cross a whole ocean to visit Spain.’”
Valerie sat up and looked at Eddie. “You know when you’re trying to reason with someone who can’t reason, sometimes you get caught up in their delusion. You want to convince them but you end up talking in circles.
“So, I found a way to work from home, sold my place and moved in with her. I looked after mother for years, but she passed on three months ago. I always wanted to come here but I couldn’t leave her. Who would have the patience to deal with her? Debra said now that I could I should go and do it; visit Niagara Falls, I mean. And Brian wanted to come with me. He’s always been the great protector. Even though I was visiting Canada he said, it was still a foreign country and he didn’t like the idea of a woman traveling alone. But I feel safer here than in my own neighborhood.”
Eddie nods and keeps nodding. Valerie looks at him and laughs.
“Sorry,” she says. “You wouldn’t know Brian and Debra from Adam and Eve. Sometimes I feel that everybody in the world knows each other.”
Valerie falls silent and stares off into the distance. Eddie wants her to rest her head back on his shoulder.
“You know, mother used to talk about me in front of me. She thought I was the hired girl. She’d say how she used to have a daughter, that I had been an ungrateful bitch from birth and just when she needed me I had abandoned her. Can you believe that? Right in front of me. Then she’d reach over, pat my hand, smile and say, ‘You won’t leave me though will you dear?’”
Valerie smiles but it’s a smile on the verge of tears.
Eddie tightens his grip on her hand. He doesn’t know what words of comfort he can offer.
Valerie says, “The night mother died, I heard a thump, and rushed down the hall to see if she was OK. She used to fall out of bed a lot so I had her sleeping on a mattress on the floor. That night as I was rushing to her room —”
Valerie embraces herself. She runs her hands up and down her arms as if she’s cold. “Something…brushed passed me in the hallway. I know that sounds creepy, but that’s what I felt. It was like someone was trying to get around me but brushed against me instead.
“I found mother half on the bed with her head touching the floor. I tried to rouse her but she was gone. You know what my first feeling was?” She stares at Eddie. Her eyes well up. “Relief.” She wipes her eyes. “No sadness, no tears. It felt like the weight of the world had been lifted off my shoulders. Isn’t that terrible? I think I’m terrible.” Eddie doesn’t think she’s terrible and is about to tell her he understands when she says, “Look at me. I don’t know why I’m telling you all this.” She reaches into her bag and pulls out a crumpled bit of tissue. “I think I need to tell somebody and you just seem like such a sympathetic fellow,” she says wiping her eyes. “Has anyone ever told you that? And it feels as if I’ve known you for years.” She took his hand and sandwiched it between her hands. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to get you caught in my tragedy. I didn’t mean to burden you with my tormented thoughts. Here I am talking up a storm. How about you? Who are you Ed?”
“Nobody special,” he says. “Just a guy living a life.”
“Nobody special? Don’t short change yourself, lover. We all have something to offer. Is your family well?”
He says,” I don’t have any family.”
Eddie shakes his head.
“How is that possible? Did they all die?”
“I don’t know. I can’t remember.”
“What do you mean you can’t remember? What’s stopping you?”
Eddie shrugs. “I just…don’t remember if I have any family. That’s all.”
Valerie scrutinizes him again. Eddie sees her looking at his jacket, his hat, his backpack. Then she looks over to where he abandoned his walking stick.
“Where do you live?” she says. There’s an uncertainty in her voice that Eddie doesn’t like.
“Up the road aways,” he says.
“Are there nurses where you live?”
Eddie laughs. “I’m not escaped from a mental hospital if that’s what you’re thinking.”
“You said you can’t remember any family. What does that mean?” Eddie doesn’t have an answer and feels he’s losing her.
Valerie reaches into her bag and pulls out a yellow sticky note pad. She takes a pen and draws a circle. She hands him the pen and pad.
“What’s this for?” he says.
“Draw the numbers of a clock around the circle.”
He draws the numbers of the clock then shows her.
“What’s the date today?” she says.
“And the day of the week?”
She scrutinizes him again.
“Oh,” she says to herself. “Oh, it must be some kind of psychosis.”
“It must be some kind of psychosis,” she says, looking at him. “You must have experienced something that you have tried to forget, but in doing so — it’s a kind of amnesia you’ve got Ed, maybe brought on by some traumatic episode in your life that you keep denying. Something happened to you and you want to block it out, but it looks like you’ve blocked out everything, even your family.”
He doesn’t like how she’s looking at him; like he’s an oddity she has to figure out.
“Is there someone that’s always around you, that does things for you, that helps you?” she says.
Eddie thinks of Frank and the cleaning lady. “There is.”
Valerie squeezes his hand.
“That’s your family! Ed, that’s your family, and I bet—for sure, that they’re heartbroken because you don’t recognize that. Oh, it’s the worst feeling in the world, when your loved one treats you like a stranger.”
She takes his hand again and leans her head on his shoulder. “You’ll be alright Ed. I know it. You’ve got family. I don’t have anyone.”
Eddie wants to console her, tell her that not having anyone is a good thing. That you don’t have to worry about anyone if there’s no one to worry about, that you don’t have to rely on anyone, or feel happy when they’re happy or sad when they have problems in their life. How you can stand your own ground and not suffer vulnerability when you’re not responsible for someone else’s life. And that you don’t have to grieve. That’s a good thing, isn’t it?
He is about to say so, when she says, “About a month ago, I was in the bathroom, fixing myself up for the day, you know, and I looked in the mirror and the image looking back at me wasn’t me.”
She looks at him with eyes wide.
“I don’t know who it was. It was a different woman, and at the same time I felt I wasn’t in my bathroom anymore, in my house and I wanted to hide, suddenly, this overpowering feeling came over me of wanting to hide from this woman in the mirror. I ran out of the house, into the sunlight and I didn’t know where I was going, I just needed to hide from that woman.”
“A hallucination. Maybe a bad reaction to some medication you’re taking. Sometimes—”
“No. I’m not on anything like that. Just some pills for my cholesterol. Days after, all I could think of was how my mother hid in the closet. Is that what she had seen? Was I losing my mind?”
“But you’re alright now. It hasn’t happened since?”
“I’m all right, for now but…it made me think.” She looks back at the Falls, sighs and rests her head on Eddie’s shoulder.
Eddie looks at his watch.
“Am I keeping you from something,” she says.
“No, it’s just—I have somebody coming by to do a repair, and I should be there. But you can come with me. We’ll get a taxi. We can talk some more at my place and then Frank, he’ll drive you back to your hotel.”
She looks at him; her eyes soften. She shakes her head.
“This is my last day here,” she says. “And I’d like to absorb as much as I can of down here before I go.” She stands up. “It was nice to meet you Ed.”
He looks up at her. “There’s still time. I don’t have to leave right this minute,” he says.
She extends her hand. He stands.
“Well, if I make a phone call and tell him what’s happening he can do without me. You don’t have a phone I can borrow for two seconds?”
She shakes her head. “I have to go,” she says.
“May I call you when you get back home?”
She smiles. It’s an odd smile. She stands there looking at him, then says, “You can.” She pulls the yellow pad from her bag, writes down a number, folds the paper and hands it to him. As she hands it to him she won’t meet his eyes. Instead she looks away. In that moment it crosses Eddie’s mind that she might not be giving him her real number. But he brushes the thought away. He feels he’s made a great connection, and why wouldn’t she feel the same way after holding hands and snuggling against him? Women don’t do that unless they really like you.
“How about a good bye kiss?” she says.
He moved to kiss her cheek but she guides his face towards her lips and kisses him. After they unlock she looks at him. Her eyes sparkle. “How about another kiss?” she says. This time it’s a long kiss. It’s followed by a tremendous hug that almost lifts Eddie off his feet. She holds him, presses the side of her head against his shoulder and says, “Oh, Ed. Why couldn’t I have met you twenty years ago?”
Eddie walks towards Clifton Hill, turns back and looks for Valerie. He wants to see her face again but as she approaches the Falls she doesn’t look back.
He feels good. He feels a lift in his life and something to look forward to. He wants to hurry home and tell Frank what just happened. He takes the phone number out of his pocket and looks at it. He likes how gentle her handwriting looks.
He has to make plans. He has to get his passport in order, buy some new clothes. Buy new underwear. Yes, he definitely needs new underwear. There was so much he wanted to see now. With Valerie he could visit all these places that were just pictures in books. He’ll go to California. See the La Brea tar pits, the Hoover Dam, the Pacific. Would the Pacific look any different from the Atlantic? It was a warmer ocean wasn’t it and wider?
Suddenly from behind him he hears screams. He turns and sees a crowd at the edge of the Falls. There’s some commotion going on down there. He starts to walk towards it. Then from the blurry mass of people Valerie appears above them. Arms are grabbing at her, she’s fighting them off, her face is blank, and then—she leaps! And disappears. More screams follow. The crowd quickly disperses in a wave, leaving one man at the railing looking over the edge. Eddie walks towards the crowd as it approaches. He expects Valerie to emerge from that crowd and come to him. But as the crowd passes Valerie isn’t there. He must have missed her. He turns around and follows the crowd. He’s unsure of what he’s seen. Had he seen Valerie jump? No, his mind is playing tricks on him. He’ll find her on the Hill. He follows the crowd through the garden.
As the thrust of the crowd meets people coming from the opposite direction, someone asks, “What’s going on?” and someone responds, “Some crazy woman just jumped into the Falls.”
Eddie’s legs tremble. He reaches the sidewalk, walks to the side of a building, supports himself against the wall and throws up, and looking down at his vomit he sees a dark house, on a dark evening. It’s November.
She had a headache when he left for work in the morning. She’d been having frequent headaches but didn’t want to see a doctor. It was typical of them; they were indestructible, never taking anything seriously, winging it through life. No pain killers for her. She liked toughing it out. He went out for a drink after work, like he always did. Though he loved his family there was never an urgency to get home after work. He needed to take the edge off. But as he pulled up the driveway the darkness of his house terrified him. His heart in his throat and with his shaky hand he turned the key in the lock, pushed the door open and called out. The darkness and the silence. His heart thumping in his head. Switching lights on, calling. Switching lights on, calling. Down the hall to the bedroom, and there in the lamp light he found his two sleeping children snuggled against her dead body.
Now on the sidewalk, staring down at the vomit and supporting himself against the wall, he cries, “It’s not my fault!”
Did he really love her? If he loved her why didn’t he look after her? Could he have done anything? If he hadn’t gone for a drink. If he hadn’t wasted that hour. If he had been a man. The ambulance, the police, the crying children, it was too much. He started to run, run, run to the end of the world if he could then keep running, tears blurred his eyes, up the street and when he reached the end of the street he didn’t know whether to go right or left. He collapsed on the grass. This is where he wanted to be; dead to the world.
Sirens are coming down the road and there’s a helicopter overhead as Eddie crosses the train tracks and heads back home. He walks up the sidewalk looking down at his puke splattered running shoes. Had he really met a woman down here? He’s unsure. He sees a face but can’t remember her name. Keep walking. No. He didn’t meet anyone. More sirens scream passed him. He wonders what all the commotion is about. He doesn’t care. He’s been sick. Too much heat. He shouldn’t have come down here. It’s too hot to be walking around. He stops and pulls off his back pack, grabs a bottle of water to rinse away the sourness in his mouth. He remembers he’s got to get cookies for Frank’s kid. He takes off his jacket and stuffs it in the back pack. What was he thinking wearing a jacket on such a hot day? The water hasn’t washed away the sourness in his mouth.
He enters the bakery. He asks the girl to give him a small bag full of cookies. He doesn’t know what they’re called. He says, “The almond flavored ones,” then sees them behind the glass and points.
Outside there’s an octagonal bench wrapped around a tree. He sits in the shade, opens the bag and decides to have a cookie to get the sourness out of his mouth. One cookie becomes two, then three. He hears the crunching at his temples. He sighs and keeps pulling cookies from the bag. He chews and swallows. Chews and swallows. They’re so good he can’t stop. The sourness in his mouth is gone, replaced by the flavor of sweet almonds.
“Eduardo? How nice to see you.”
Eddie looks up from his munching. The witch woman is standing in front of him. She holds a paper bag from which the ends of two baguettes stick out.
“Listen Eduardo, I want you to know that I forgive you for the hurtful things you said to me this morning.” She sits down beside him. “I know I have been very forceful on you. I apologize.”
He hands her a cookie.
She smiles and takes it.
They sit and eat their cookie. For the first time, sitting here in silence, Eddie doesn’t mind her presence. For the first time he doesn’t feel trapped, pushed upon. The moment is slowed down and he can actually think.
He hands her another cookie.
“Eduardo,” she says. “I am preparing to make a delicious dinner tonight. It will be so delicious that I think it would be wasted on just one person. I—”
“Okay,” Eddie says. “I’ll come to your place.”
She squints. “Pardon?”
“I’ll come to your place for dinner. I’ll bring the plates you’ve been leaving.”
They look at each other. Her expression is—what is it? Quizzical? Is she surprised? Suspicious? Eddie can’t tell.
“Oh,” she says, and stands up. “Wonderful!” She touches him on the shoulder. “Wonderful!” She walks to her car at the curb, gets in, then looks back at him.
Eddie realizes he’s been wrong about a lot of things. She isn’t a witch or a scourge on his solitude. She’s just a lonely woman. And he’s a lonely man, and looking into the bag he also realizes he’ll have to get more cookies for Frank’s kid.
©Attila Zønn 2016