Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Trouble at Redwood Arms

There’s something about a scream. It gets people moving out of the way, scurrying like cockroaches when a light is switched on. Mark had been in a deep, dream-like abyss called black-out. It wasn’t a complete black-out; he could hear the voices of his neighbours waging another argument on the proper use of the toilet seat. Up or down. The universal question. His dream found him looking for something, moving through an apartment. He thought it was his place, yet not – in the contradictory way of dreams. Then the blood-curdling scream that sent every hair on alert. His eyes snapped open. Shit! Who the hell was this? he thought.

Glynnis was a nice lady, living in a nice apartment, living a somewhat nice albeit boring life with her cat Peaches and her turtle Slow. It didn’t matter that the Redwood Arms apartment complex was now 60 years old. It didn’t matter that the neighbours around her had changed many times over, apartments and businesses changing hands monthly. This was her neighbourhood and no amount of gunshots or sirens were going to get her to move. This is where her Harold lived. On her mantlepiece and in her memories. Moving, Glynnis thought, would lessen Harold’s presence and that was something to which she would never agree. 

It was just past 11 p.m. The nightly news had wound down, fading to black from her old walnut-encased television.  Flat screens had no place in Glynnis’ life. As she changed into her flannel dressing gown and brushed her teeth and hair the regulated 100 times, Glynnis realized that something was not quite right. She wasn’t alone. No. It’s not Harold. Glynnis was quick to dismiss that notion. Harold would never intentionally scare her; he’d announce his presence with a slight smell of his Old Spice as he always did in the past. 

She exited her bedroom that housed her 40-plus-year-old marriage bed, dust ruffle and all and her collection of Lipton Tea animals on display, flipping on lights as she went. First the hallway, then the bathroom before she reached the L-shaped living and dining room. The room was illuminated with one flip before Glynnis herself flipped out. 

There, standing in her beige-on-beige living room was a very large man with many tattoos. Prison tattoos? He had been facing the fireplace before Glynnis had illuminated the room in 100-watt florescent light.  She let out a piercing, calling-all-banshees scream that must have alerted the whole building. Who needs a fire alarm when Glynnis’ scream could be heard at the fire station three blocks away?

“Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ!” Glynnis did not normally swear, let alone call Jesus’ name unless only in prayer, but the shock of seeing her neighbour Mark in nothing but his skivvies had sent her over the edge.

“What in tarnation are you doing in my house? MY HOUSE?” Instinctively, Glynnis reached out a hand to the table closest to her, grabbing hold of the antique stained glass-shaded lamp, tugging the cord out of the socket as she aimed to throw the lamp, shade and all, at her intruder.

At 6 ft. 4, Mark was a domineering presence, and the tattoos didn’t help, splayed across his chest, stomach and arms – prime real estate for the 290-lb. man. But the confused yet dead look in his eyes belied his imposing façade.

The lamp, a worthy weapon for someone a little less full-figured, bounced off his 24-pack beer belly and landed with a thud at the base of the fireplace, the lampshade ricocheting off the red brick surround before splintering into tiny shards.

Neighbours craned their necks out of their apartment doors, curious about the melee but also a little nervous to put themselves in front of the firing range. No one moved an inch in the stand-off, least of all Mark who was just shaking himself awake to take in his surroundings.

“What the hell, lady? Who are you and what are you doing in MY apartment?” It took Mark mere seconds after he uttered the question to realize he was in the wrong. “This isn’t my place… what the hell am I doing here?”

“That’s what I asked you, young man… and for Christ’s sake, put on some pants! I can see everything that god gave you… and it wasn’t much,” Glynnis said with a scowl. “Now get out before I call the police.”

The neighbours, a little more brazen, began to crowd the doorway, witnessing the exchange between the scarcely clad man and the 5 ft. 2 senior who was now brandishing a fire place poker at the man’s nether regions. A few chuckles turned into full-on guffaws as they noticed that the tattooed ex-con standing in a few feet away from Glynnis, start to tremble in his tightie whities. 

“Glynnis, there’s no need to call the police.” Herbert, her long-time next-door neighbour stepped forward. “This here is your neighbour from the end of the hall. How he ended up here I have no idea… did you lock up before you went to bed? Obviously not,” Herbert fingered the door knob and the security chain that swung from the door frame.

“I’m so sorry, ma’am.” Mark uttered the short and sweet apology, with tears in his eyes, his hands still trembling as he held onto the mantel. “I really don’t know what happened. The last thing I remember is getting under the covers.”

“Well, you’re not getting under my covers, if that’s what you were intending, asleep or not,” Glynnis shot back. “Can you kindly step away from Harord and leave me be with my nightmares?” Glynnis motioned towards the urn. “He still needs his beauty sleep.”

Still a bit woozy from his dream, Mark looked around, his eyes registering even more confusion as to where and who Harold was and why he wasn’t home protecting his wife from sleepwalking giants.

“This is Harold,” Glynnis said, pointing at the urn. “And if he was here right now, he’d kick your sorry derriere.”

Mark turned quickly and ran out of the apartment amidst the jeers and applause from the fifth-floor neighbours who were quite amused that a spry senior had scared the daylights out of the sleepwalking giant.

Monday, January 29, 2018

To catch a crow

Joe was only 9 years old, but he knew he could train the crow. He knew if he called and showed the bird shiny things it would just be a matter of time before it would come to him. I’ll will it, he thought. Just like he’d willed the shiny new roller skates he got last year for Christmas. Dad had told him it was a pipe dream. That cold, grey, freeze your tongue to the light post morning, there they were. For Joe, with love at Christmas – Mrs. Claus. 

The skates were bullet silver, and probably could go as fast as a bullet too, if Joe hit the sweet spot on top of the hill at Toronto St. Just as he’d tackled that hill on those supposedly elusive skates, he knew he’d be victorious here – it was a burning in his gut that had not yet led him wrong.

Two days in and the crow still hadn’t come to him, but Joe had proof that the bird was following him. He saw him everywhere – on the hydro wires leading out of town, at the school yard, and at the swimming hole. The crow had also left trinket gifts on the side porch of the old Victorian home where Joe lived with his parents, Sam and Mabel. A piece of red yarn, a silver bell and a skate key.

Patience. I just need to have patience. Joe set off again, tin plates in hand, silver wrapping paper and tinsel left over from last Christmas. With nimble fingers, he knotted the tinsel to his bike handles and fashioned a makeshift toolbelt from which he hung the plates. He was a cacophony on wheels and drew out the barber, the florist and the baker onto the main street to see what the racket was about. It was about attracting the crow Joe had discovered liked following him, at a distance at first but then gaining confidence and curiosity about this pied piper that all animals seemed to seek out.

Since it was a Saturday, Joe decided his first stop would be the ice cream parlour. It was never too early for a Knickerbocker Glory and a Coke Float, and the courtyard was the perfect hangout for him and Fred Peters, his best friend since kindergarten and one part of the Toronto St. Troublemakers. They were aptly named because of their penchant for spying on the religious cult that lived two streets over, late night cow tipping and a scandal that involved stealing pies cooling off on the spinster sisters’ kitchen windowsill. Boys will be boys, his mother would often say, but it also meant a long line of neighbours who had become victims to Joe and Fred’s creative exploits. And while harmless, these games sometimes led to the receiving end of his dad’s old belt.

This was no exploit though. This was a spy game of sorts, drawing out their subject, studying it and luring it to come closer and closer. Today is the day, Joe decided. He could feel it. The sky was crystal blue, with no cloud in sight, the wind hanging onto the trees as they swayed to and fro – it was the perfect day to catch a crow.

“What took you so long?” Fred asked. He was already knuckle-deep in his own Knickerbocker, ice cream dripping down his chin and landing on his chino shirt before resting on his flood-length Levi’s. Fred, only a few months younger than Joe, was tall for his age – gigantically tall. His long, meaty fingers tucked into his aged leather belt, now on the last hole and soon to receive a new hole hammered in with a nail. 

“You know how hard it is to get anything past Mabel,” said Joe. “I know it can’t be true but she really does seem to have eyes in the back of her head.” Joe’s hands touched the plates that reverberated off each other, attracting attention to the two boys.

“Keep it down, will you?” Fred said. “My dad’s just around the corner. If he thinks we’re up to something, I’m done.”

“That’s nothing. My dad threatened me with a switch that will cut me right through. Worse, Mom will break her last wooden spoon on my butt, and then I’ll really be in for it,” countered Joe. “Hold my bike while I look for my allowance.” He handed Fred the souped-up old bike that still held his baseball cards in the spokes. Joe slinked into the shop, hoping he wouldn’t draw too much attention and he could get his own Knickerbocker without any questions about what he and Fred were up to. Mrs. Henderson, the proprietor’s wife, had her ears to the ground, and as part-time telephone operator for the town, she had the means to distribute the news in mere minutes.

Success. Joe emerged from the shop with his take-away ice cream, quickly spooning gobs of ice cream into his mouth.

“Okay, here’s the plan. We ride out to the cornfields at Old Highway 109 that separates Markdale from Meaford. We’ll start tying the tinsel to the top of the corn rows – you’ll have to do that since you’ve got the height – and then we will hide in the field until he comes flying by,” said Joe, outlining the plan in a veiled whisper in between bites.

“What about the plates – what will we do with those?”

Joe sighed. “We talked about this before. We’ll set those down just on the outskirts of the field – he’ll come in to investigate, and then we’ll slowly walk out so we don’t spook the little guy.”
An hour and a pool of sweat later, they had arrived, undetected by anyone who would have suspected this was more than a mere bike ride. Fred quickly got to the task of bending the stalks down and tying the tinsel in a staggered pattern, glistening, taunting in the mid-afternoon sun. Joe, meanwhile, unhooked the six swiped tin pie plates from his holster and laid them out haphazardly, noticeable only to those with better than 20-20 vision – and his crow.

It was time to hide. Fred and Joe walked into the cornfield, the height of the corn a foot or more above their heads, even Fred’s. Crouching down, they tried to conceal themselves as much as possible. Joe’s old school trousers had seen better days, which was why he’d chosen them. They were also the colour of the soil surrounding the corn, his hair, eyes, and the freckles that stretched across his nose.

“Did you have to wear white socks, Fred?” Fred’s pant leg had creeped up as he pretzelled his expansive frame into the crouching tiger stance he’d taken. 

Just as Fred was about to readjust, the wind changed, and with it came a muffled sound of wings against the stalks. “He’s here,” Joe whispered, pointing two fingers to his eyes and then to the Cerulean sky.

Landing only two feet away was Joe’s Crow, quick-stepping to the plates before rising to try to pluck the tinsel from the top of the corn. Giving Fred a thumbs up, Joe slowly stood to his full 5 ft. height, moving stealth-like through the rows until he stood just on the perimeter, watching the crow with his treasure. Fred stayed in position, not wanting to divulge his coordinates nor wanting to spook the bird.

Joe stood ramrod still, for what seemed like hours, but was only two or three minutes. Suddenly, the crow’s head pivoted, two beady, midnight orbs linking with Joe’s brown eyes. Neither of them moved. Or blinked. A tether connecting the two. A jump and a sqwauk, an invitation from the crow to make his acquaintance. Joe slowly stepped out, one foot, one leg at a time, with no movement on the crow’s part. He wanted to make friends, Joe realized.

A long line of tinsel still fully entrenched in his peak, Joe’s Crow hopped in closer, one eye on the Indian summer sky and one linked with Joe. He laid the tinsel on the gravel shoulder, seemingly offering up the tinsel as a present. A peace offering. Friendship.

With skillful fingers, Joe plucked the silver thread and clenched it between two fingers before holding it up in the air, a hand length away from the crow, a steady stream of air making it dance. The tinsel stretched out further into the sky, beckoning the bird.

“Look Joe, he’s getting ready to fly off,” Peter said, coming to stand beside Joe. And with that, Joe’s crow opened its wings and soared up, grabbing the tinsel in its beak before roosting on the hydro wires. The crow held Joe’s gaze with razor-sharp focus for a minute, then spread his wings and took off toward town.

It was the start of a friendship that would span years.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

To my dear June Cleaver...

Dear Mum,

It’s been over a week and a half since I told you I loved you for the last time. I said it every time we spoke just in case it would be the last, and here it is. It was the last time I told you how much you mean to me.

I have to confess this is the second time I have written this eulogy. The first was very stoic and it chronicled your virtues like a resume. There’s no denying that you were one classy lady. You even invented words for bodily functions that will haunt me to this day. You were always dressed impeccably and told me to never leave the house without lipstick. Your sense of humour never aligned with mine, and that was okay because I lived to shock you. I wore fake nose rings and spoke aloud the jokes you always wanted to tell but wouldn’t because it didn’t suit you. I was the why child, the one who always questioned the rules. What I didn’t question was your overwhelming love for me. And for Don, Dad, Loretta, Emily and Ryan. You had our best interests at heart. Always.

You were a worrier. Over minute details that would not matter minutes, hours or years later. You worried because you cared. And judging from the outpouring of support our family has received since you left, you have cared and worried for many. You also didn’t want to put people out, even when you had chemo appointments. You worried that you were a burden. You weren’t. Your friends, Don and I, we wanted to do these things for you because you were there for us, but most importantly, because we loved you and always will.

I was so proud when you rang that bell at your final chemo treatment, and prouder still at your resilience despite the hurdles, the bad days and when you wished Dad were still here but knew he wasn’t, at least not in the physical form.

I didn’t tell you this before but a week after Dad died, he visited me – to wake me up before my alarm. The same thing happened with you. Two days after we last said goodbye, I was sleeping in the basement at your house with Kao (and yes, he was on the mat on the floor and not on the bed). Five minutes before my alarm was set to go off, I heard a knock at the door – just the way you used to when you knew I was going to sleep in. I called out your name, opened my eyes and realized that hearing the knock was impossible because I was alone in the house. But I wasn’t, because I knew you were watching over me. Both of you are – Dad, my cheerleader and you, my lipstick-wearing conscience.

I’m going to leave you with a list of things I will miss about you. It’s not a complete list because there are so many moments and memories.

  • Your care packages of toilet paper, oatmeal and deodorant. How did you always know I was running low?
  • Your insistence of a Christmas list and your aversion to gift cards.
  • Watching you wave enthusiastically as we pulled out of your driveway after every visit.
  • Seeing you in the kitchen watching out for my car upon my arrival.
  • Your constant reminders about oil changes, tire rotations and to drive or walk carefully wherever I went.
  • Telling the story of how you would call four times during a half-hour walk to your house and then seeing your car slowly drive down the street looking for me because the streetlights had just come on. I was 35.
  • You yelling and cheering at our sports event, whether it was at Ryan’s baseball games and rowing meets, Emily’s hockey or baseball games, or seeing you running along the bank of the Grand River cheering my dragon boating team. My teammates could hear you.
  • Referring to you as June Cleaver because you wore housekeeping clothes and saved the good clothes for Dad coming home from work.
  • You tugging at my hair trying to convince me to cut it short – just like you.
  • Comparing my smile to yours and realizing they are one and the same because I come from you.
  •  Asking question upon question about your life and you bestowing me the stories so that I would eventually become the keeper of the family secrets.
  • I’ll miss the days before cellphones and the roll of quarters you insisted I carry when I was out and you wanted my report on where I was, where I was going and what time I’d be home.
  • I will miss talking to you every day and telling you that I love you, sometimes three times in one conversation because I just didn’t want to miss another chance.

I will love and miss you forever, June Cleaver. And I will always remember to apply lipstick before I leave the house.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

A blip on the radar of life

It's a blip on the radar of life. It may seem like a small one, but for someone who is trying to get her life back on track, it could have been momentous.

For the past month and a bit I've been in training for two jobs. One is as a scheduler for a health care company sending out nurses and PSWs into people's houses. The other was as a medical office admin at a medical centre/walk-in clinic. I was hired at both (part-time), or so I thought.

The health care coordinator position is going well. I've learned so much and seen my confidence build. It was what was needed after a long road of obstacles and battles. The medical office gig was an exercise in futility. I had 36 hours of training over four days, and I was getting better, faster, more confident. That confidence was potentially shattered after finding out that a) the training was unpaid; and b) after a short training session, I was told that I was not yet fast enough to handle the plethora of patients on my own. I countered that remark by saying that I felt I would get faster with a little bit more time to learn the ropes - a new computer system, new procedures and the exact way the doctors and the managers liked for the work to be done. I filed, I billed, I directed patients to the appropriate rooms, I handled calls, I handled patients, all with a smile and the intent to do better and better. I was a hard worker who deserved more of a chance. Unfortunately, not everyone saw the potential that I saw in myself. In three days, I learned the inner workings of a very busy clinic. I managed people's case files and billed the services to OHIP, insurance companies and individuals. I mastered a very full paper filing system.I booked and confirmed appointments, sent out results and updated patients' health records. I learned a lot, and for that I will be forever grateful.

I was not grateful, however, for the lack of professionalism shown by the manager who could not give me a straight answer and who decided that I didn't deserve a return phone call or email when it came to making a final decision on whether I was to remain permanent or be on my way. I know the no answer approach was the answer, but I had hoped for a bit more class, and a chance to prove myself.

What I came to realize is that I wasn't getting the chance no matter what I did, whether it was to work faster, ask more questions or not be tired after a 10-hour day with a 10-minute break. It was unfair, but life is unfair and I can't expect everyone to uphold the rules that I live by: to be upfront and honest, and to offer professional courtesy even to someone just starting out. It's 36 hours I could have spent securing better employment, and 36 hours to which I was entitled to some payment for my work. And work, I did.

It could have been a huge setback for me mentally. Thankfully, it was just a small blip, and I remind myself that this was not a place I'd like to work anyways, a place where communication is not respected or practiced. Now I'm onto better and brighter opportunities, but I still have that worry in the back of my mind. I don't think it will ever go away, but at least I'm working on it.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

You is smart, you is kind, you is important...

I love this line and will say this to myself, my Boxerbeast and anyone else who needs to hear it.

"You is smart. You is kind. You is important." The K-Dog knows the words - I've said it often enough to him - and he perks his ears and I swear, he smiles. They are words that we don't often hear and even less, say to ourselves. This year and last have been the catapult for change. Over the last five years, life has continued to hand me obstacles. It's been two years in August since my dad passed away suddenly from an aneurysm. He was there on the phone talking to me an hour before and then he was gone. My buffer, my slayer of demons, my rock was gone and I was left to pick up the pieces. I don't think I will ever get over losing him so suddenly, but looking back, I'm glad he went suddenly and with little suffering. The suffering remained with us - my mum, his wife of over 52 years, my brother and his family, my niece and nephew, and his multitude of friends who continue to share stories with me of the man my father was. And, as his daughter, I am so very proud of him and will continue to extol his virtues to whomever will listen.

That year, 2013, was a life changer. I had thought I had gone through enough changes and turmoil. Life had much more in mind for me. In the span of one year, I had an operation to remove a cyst and had a relationship end so abruptly that it left me reeling. I experienced a homeowner's nightmare when my basement flooded and I had a plethora of repairs with which to contend. I put my house on the market and had the house sale from hell, with four offers falling through and a house that remained on the market for five months before it sold. My dad left me a day after I moved to my new locale, my trusty car of over 11 years decided to kick the bucket and I got laid off. From January to October, life was pure hell. And then the real work started.

"You is kind. You is smart. You is important." It was time to get back to basics. After taking a bit to pick myself back up, I went to work. Psychoanalysis and Self-analysis. I finally found a counselor who heard me, listened to me, acknowledged me as a person and said the words I was yearning to hear for so many years: "You've been through a lot. There is a reason why you are the way you are." Even as I write this, I tear up. Two years and a lot of work later, those very words stand as a life preserver in a vast ocean that was my psyche.

My counselor, my friend, was a mirror. She showed me my image as I presented it to her and said: "You is smart, you is kind, you is important. This is what I see when I look at and speak with you. You are strong. You're still here. You're still fighting. You're constantly evaluating, re-evaluating and taking stock, and you're making the changes you need to be the person you were meant to be." Okay, it's not verbatim but it's what she said each week. We set goals. I attained them, and sometimes I didn't, but I always made the vow to try again the next week... and I did. I saw the spring in my step return, the smile on my face start to appear and a sparkle in my eye set to radiate again. "You are absolutely glowing" was a common phrase I started to hear. I sent myself back to school because the writers' market is not what it used to be. I realized I am meant to help people, so I signed up for the Medical Office Administration course at a local college and I not only succeeded but I excelled, attaining a 91 per cent while working part-time. I studied. I participated. I met new friends. I was placed at a hospital for more work experience, and while the job market is a crazy one, I secured nine interviews in two weeks and am now training at two different companies in the health field. I got one word wrong on my medical terminology exam after taking a CPR/First Aid training course, working nights and weekends at my part-time job. One wrong in a potential 500 medical terms. I was on fire.

It all stemmed from three sentences. "You is smart. You is kind. You is important." Those are words I rarely heard in my childhood and adult lives, and it was certainly something I wouldn't tell myself, because I was too busy concentrating on everything I was not. It is important to hear those words and say those words to yourself, but more importantly, it's best to accept yourself and see you for who you truly are. My friends saw it. My dad saw it, and now I see it. Granted, some days it's harder to see it than others, but it's then that I breathe, especially when worry seems to be getting the best of me. Seven seconds in. Five seconds to hold it in, and then seven seconds to exhale. It's all in the exhale. You let out the demons and forget what put you in that panicked place to begin with, and then you can pick up and continue your fight, no matter what war you're waging. Breathe. Remember who you are, and acknowledge that you may not be perfect every single second, but you're pretty darn awesome once you forgive yourself for your little imperfections and be the person you are meant to be.

"You is kind. You is smart. You is important." It's a line in a movie, but also a lesson for us all to learn. I'm so happy I learned it before it was too late.