After the death of her husband, and revelations about his double life, Nellie Hood contemplates how to create a new future for herself
Brakes cease whining then the bifold rubber-edged trolley bus doors open: hissss…rumble… rattle…clunk.
“Mornin’ Mrs Hood,” says the squat bespectacled ever-smiling driver.
Today, that smile, and even his warm melodic West Indian patois will not elevate her mood. It’s a day, like many others, already hijacked by memories. Nellie Hood, widow, reaches a foot, stiffly, warily for the bottom step as she grips the chrome handrail firmly and pulls herself up with her right arm. Little beyond an impressionistic image of the familiar grey-uniformed driver imprints on her consciousness.
“G-o-o-d…morning,” she wheezes, in an authoritative tone that still possesses a hint of the fastidious teacher correcting slovenly speech.
“It’s sufficient to know his name is Alf,” she complains to herself. She has enough to contend with now without knowing more about him; without knowing his wife’s and his children’s names, or knowing that he is from Saskatoon and was lured here by the twin delusions of oil prosperity and Tory politics. To know people is to incur responsibilities towards them and Nellie is already overwhelmed with responsibilities, and obligations, mostly related to her very survival.
“This is how it is in the seventh decade…” she keeps reassuring herself, “…this is normal.” She knows that age is gradually alienating her from her species, making her distant, aloof, indifferent, selfish, but she is powerless to prevent it. There are days, grey calendar voids, when life is pathless and impenetrable; days of being a victim of life, not a participant in it. “Is this normal too?” she wants to ask, “…to be rendered down thus, subjugated by life, reacting reflexively like some wounded animal?” But it is an inquiry never audibly articulated, and certainly never answered.
This business of keeping Alf and peripherally involved others at arms length is readily explicable. Her life has been saturated with human contact, engorged with the shenanigans of Mr, Mrs, Ms, Miss and Master Homo Sapiens. Of the Misters especially, and their Machiavellian wiles – not just husband Henry of course, but others too – every one she ever met. Enough is enough, she will tell you.
“Watch those doors now.”
The bus door hisses and rattles shut behind her. The discounted seniors’ ticket descends the steel chute, settles in the glass receptacle. She navigates unsteadily towards a vacant seat which is just ahead of a young aboriginal woman with a small baby, to whom the mother feeds fragments of an oatmeal cookie. Once seated, she notices the gaunt, malodorous downtown drifter sitting ahead of her, shabby, under-dressed and middle-aged, with a strong smell of alcohol about him. She sits next to the window and hot, dry air from a heating vent plays on her legs and on her head, the same desiccated air that sometimes gives her nosebleeds back at the apartment.
The trolley bus hums electrically from stop to stop through the brown slush of a warm spell, last hurrah of a Chinook and welcome relief from last week’s thirty below.
Three young aboriginal men stand at a traffic-hectic corner by a fur salon, smoking duty-free cigarettes. The avenue has a tradition as old as the Hudson’s Bay Company of being their home-from-home. Jasper Avenue warriors she calls them, likely as lost, used, conned and disillusioned as she feels. Their blue exhalations of smoke dissipate quickly in the swirling, exhaust-flavoured air of the concrete and glass badlands of downtown. Nellie muses: “Do they ever consider tobacco their carcinogenic ally I wonder, sociably infiltrating the lungs of their invaders?”
Past a boarded-up department store the bus then hums, and a moribund movie-house, victim of TV, the VCR, the DVD player, and the HD PVR. There is an abundance of half-occupied offices and professional buildings, symbols of speculative avarice. An oasis appears, in the form of a triumphantly successful bookstore, an antidote to electronically-induced illiteracy. And then trendy eateries that change ownership rapidly in a downtown that turns in for the night too early, at an hour when other cities are just starting to crank up the volume. More restaurants, a drugstore, fast food outlets, a carpet warehouse, a religious bookstore, and then the bus halts outside Hava-Java, her stop.
“You take care now Ma’am.”
She alights into the slush-bound street, pulling up the fake-fur collar of her quilted, maroon winter coat. Next to the coffee shop is her physician’s office, where she is to learn the results of some tests performed ten days ago.
Fifteen minutes of idly, nervously scanning the pages of magazines old enough to be collectibles, and then the ashen-faced, ashen-haired nurse, in white, to complete her monochromatic image, ushers Nellie into Consulting Room #2. She’s been a patient of Dr Myra Steinberg for eight years, and in accord with the geriatric need for constancy she prays that friend Myra will be there to conduct her physical being out of this world. The test results are favorable, “…for your age group Nellie.”
She’s soon out in the slushy street again. Whenever possible she flees her claustrophobic apartment and heads for Hava-Java. Though grateful for the reassuring medical report, today’s coffee will not be in celebration of it. Only forty paces to the coffee shop door, forty familiar repetitious steps.
“Small decaf eh Mrs Hood?…and what else today?” The young counter assistant speaks in a patronizing decibel level reserved for the hearing impaired, foreigners, the mentally handicapped, pets…and the elderly too, it now seems. Oriental, and diminutive, her sociability is generic, autonomic, lacking dimension.
According to an oriental expert Nellie once met, people in China, and perhaps other parts of Asia, waste no time on small talk. Aimless chatter is redundant. Talk must only relate to some subject worthy of consideration – forget comments about the weather and other Western irrelevancies. Nellie sees a certain enviable pragmatism in that.
The girl is a student who could some day be the physician, dentist or lawyer whose services Nellie might need. She has long accepted the inevitability of changing demographics, particularly the welcome reality of banished male-Caucasian monopolies in the professions.
“Make it a blueberry muffin,” says Nellie, in a tone void of enthusiasm. .
“I’ll bring it to you Mrs Hood.”
Nellie visualizes the girl studying half the night and obtaining grades that put her at the apex of the bell curve.
She selects a wrought iron chair at a corner table, tiled in glossy black and turquoise tiles, sits down and picks up the complimentary newspaper. The vile tabloid, something she would not wish to be observed reading, has previously failed her empirical test for good journalism: namely, that quality is inversely related to the size of a newspaper’s sport section. Sport is overwhelmingly dominant in The Galaxy.
The muffin arrives, and then she walks to the island where the fixings are and empties six packages of brown sugar and four creamers into the big (small) turquoise mug. She stirs vigorously with a plastic stirrer and returns to her table, and to the joy of editing the despicable tabloid to shreds.
She sips and scans: “Feds Agonize Over Cloning Ethics.” (She visualizes all the wealthy narcissistic pagans cornering the market on eternity); a silly digest of trivia, allegedly from Around the World, but today it’s mostly from obscure towns in the boondocks; a Quebec federal politician cops a Nixonian plea – “…je ne suis pas un gangster” an incomprehensible article about microchips and megapixels; ciphered in non-committal politicalese, is a bewildering quotation from the nation’s leader.
“ENOUGH!” she says, forgetting to whisper, as she slaps the folded paper down onto an adjacent magazine rack. She takes out a small, well-thumbed Penguin book, orange and white cover, black title, and reads. A large gulp of Sumatra then, followed by a mouthful of the leaden muffin. A cold blast from the opening door disrupts the warmth of the café’s interior. Someone exited and the café is now nearly empty. In another era and another continent it might have become an assembly place for artists, thinkers and anarchists. She glances briefly at the wispy young server who is lolling against the counter reading a pocket book whose cover seems vaguely, impressionistically familiar from that distance.
Suddenly it’s 10.45. She got carried away, but has half finished the slim W.W. Jacobs volume. Chores await her back at the apartment, as does a hungry diabetic dog, requiring a meal and a walk.
The apartment is never referred to in any other way. It isn’t home, and it never will be. It’s merely a conglomeration of lumber, concrete, stucco, brick, steel and glass and is, to her, a mute monument to Henry’s duplicity and depravity. He cleaned out their savings account just prior to his fatal heart attack, leaving her on the brink of bankruptcy. The booze, the hookers, the racetrack – she finally learned where their savings had gone. In addition, he had opted for a pension arrangement whereby payments died along with him, after telling her all along the full pension would continue, for her, if he died first. He’d been thrown out of Woodwards department store downtown for being drunk and disorderly and trying to buy a toothbrush with Canadian Tire money. The ultimate exposure of his sleaze occurred when the physician referred him for an AIDS test, because of an incident in the murky gloom of the back row of a porno cinema. Incident was exactly how Henry had described it. Nellie had rushed to the bathroom and vomited on hearing that, wondering throughout if she would ever obtain forgiveness for wanting her husband dead.
The painful irony of having lived with this stranger for four decades plagues her constantly. Henry had led a schizoid existence, straddling a despicable carefully honed knife-edge of duplicity that separated his apparent respectability as a suburban math teacher from his other persona as a drunken, porn-addicted gambler; a man who had forfeited a good home life for a life of degradation on the frayed outer perimeter of human morality. But despite the eventual revelations, she had stood by him. And now, condemned to die eventually in her accursed claustrophobic apartment she must subsist on her government pensions and modest academic pension, her income deficient because of pressure from him to retire early from teaching and divide her time between writing and volunteer work. Then suddenly she was past it, was too old to resume a meaningful career.
She’s leaving the café and as she passes the till the assistant, with “Lily” embroidered on her uniform pocket, looks up from the book she is reading spasmodically and says “Bye Mrs Hood…thank you.” Nellie nods, smiles, gets a closer look at Lily’s book and then her smile broadens as she pulls home her second glove firmly. The cover reads “Sun and Wild Roses: Short Stories by N. C. Duncan” – Nellie Catherine Duncan, her pre-Hood name. Was it published in ’65 or ’66? She’s not too sure now, except that she recalls it being the same year that, by way of a reunion, her entire class met outside the U.S. Consulate on University Avenue in Toronto to protest against the Vietnam War. She wonders if Lilly might be interested in such an anecdote, but fears that from an Oriental perspective it might be regarded as redundant small talk.
She waits for her bus just inside the glass door, prolonging the warmth of the coffee shop’s interior. She knows that it would have been normal and not eccentric in any way to identify herself to Lily as the author of that book. But nothing much seems to matter now that her life is coasting towards a condition of everlasting stasis. But the event, the reassurance generated by even that mute recognition, initiates a different kind of warmth that partially changes the disposition of another burdensome day, of which there are far too many now.
The bus comes. There’s a woman driver this time, and her journey more or less replays itself in reverse. She’s soon back at the yellow brick eight story building they affectedly call The Belvedere, that she will insist is not home, waiting for the temperamental elevator.
Grey and pink smudges beside the elevator doors (doors that jam open or shut too often) are vestiges of graffiti recently expunged from the faux granite walls for the nth time by the building’s patient janitor. The carpet in the eighth floor corridor is navy and beige, contemporary, practical and fairly new, an update that contributed to last month’s rent increase.
She turns the key in the deadbolt and pushes the door open. Twenty pounds of exuberant white poodle overwhelm her, bouncing, reaching upwards with a slobbering, effervescent greeting.
“Hi Muffy,” says Nellie, enjoying the welcome as though it were from one of her grandchildren. She thinks then of her children and grandchildren back in Toronto, and wonders what she is doing all alone in this gelid prairie city.
Wearily, she removes her winter coat, gloves and fleece-lined boots. Dog food is soon measured, placed in a dish, blended with bacon bits, heated in the microwave for ten seconds and served on the tiled kitchen floor. Kids in Africa should have it this good she tells herself. Today, walkies will be deferred until just before dinner.
As she ambles towards her cramped computer station, sandwiched between compact living room and micro-kitchen, she grabs the TV remote off the top of the set and summons CNN…Zap!: “…and today’s high school massacre is brought to you by the makers of …” Zap!. “Enough”, she says.
From some cobwebbed corner of her mental library a fragment of a Sandburg or Frost poem emerges, with its wry comment on pervasive U.S. commercialism. In it, a child, presumably an early victim of ubiquitous Madison Avenue, asks her father what the moon is supposed to advertise.
She flicks two switches and the word-processor, a technological dinosaur, fires up, its screen stating “Smith Corona 1992” in yellow on a black background. Near her feet a warm bundle of animated white wool settles, curling up much like its primal nemesis, the cat. Nellie hits the “2” button to set margins, and that done presses “Return” to enter her selection. The number “1” key is pressed twice and an inviting blank screen with calibrated, numbered spaces across its top appears, awaiting an engagement with her thoughts, analyses and pontifications concerning the day.
She relishes, feverishly, the tingling expectancy of creating with those malleable yellow letters, the literal clay of her word sculpting…afloat…moving…appearing and disappearing in the dark, watery night-sky of the monitor.
Mrs Nellie Wood is on her own territory now, a realm where she reigns, a world, a universe even, in which she calls the shots and decides outcomes. She invokes a six-space tab and begins to type: Brakes cease whining and then the bifold rubber-edged trolley bus doors open: hissss…rumble…rattle…clunk……
Cityscape with Widow was a long-list finalist in U of T Magazine’s 2013 Short Story Contest