Stolen Goods

I rent. I live in this house with my kids. I don’t cook meth. I don’t have a stash of unsecured guns because I hate guns. And except for occasional loud expletives that escape the mouths of my teenagers, usually in response to a video game, we’re pretty quiet.

Do you notice what I just did? I didn’t write that I have bags under my eyes or that there are cobwebs in some of the corners of the rooms, that this house is messy and there are unpacked boxes in the closet. And I didn’t write that there’s a sparseness to it like its inhabitants are ready to flee at a moment’s notice.

The neighborhood is nice, close to the river and not heavily populated. My landlords are responsive if there’s a problem, which is why a contractor and his small crew came out today to replace a window.

They do their work and just before they are about to leave, a police woman and a city worker show up at the door.

       “Are you the homeowner?

       “Renter” I say.

       “Can we come in?” she asks.

       “Sure.” I say. I’m not very savvy and not a quick thinker.

They come in. A small interrogation happens. Evidently, we have a room full of stolen city property. Road signs. One of the stolen road signs, the STOP sign, was a gift from his aunt and uncle, purchased online and arriving just in time for Christmas a couple years ago. The stolen YIELD sign came from a garage sale in Minneapolis a few years ago. I’m not sure who would take the rap for that. And the stolen street signs were given to Pook in July by the city worker who was replacing them. I remember thinking at the time what a waste of resources it was to replace perfectly good, slightly used, street signs with new ones, the only difference being that the names on the old ones were all in capital letters. 

Luckily, Pook is home and I call to him, telling him the police are here, but that he isn’t in trouble. Pook has been listening to the whole exchange so far and comes into the room.

       “It was July 19th about 8am” he says.This is in response to a question asked a minute earlier about when we got the street signs.

       “Ask our neighbor,” I say, “He was there.”

The police woman asks for my ID, my phone number, and tells us to get the signs. The STOP sign has a bar code on the back and a sticker identifying the store it came from, so that’s one less stolen item. The city worker looks at the YIELD sign and says, “That’s not mine,” though I don’t know how he can tell. About the street signs, he says, “These are mine.”

       “Take ‘em”, I say. I don’t want them in this house. What had once represented a sweet memory of Pook as he joyfully and awkwardly carried the signs home has become tainted.

As they are leaving, my landlord calls. After they’ve gone, I call him back and assure him that it’s all sorted out.

  A couple hours pass. Pook vacillates between fury and sorrow. I am not calm so I text my landlord.

I’m just thinking about what happened this morning and I’m bothered that one of the people who came into the house to replace a window took it upon themselves to call the police about a street sign in the bedroom. It was given to my son by a worker from the city when they were being replaced. At any rate, it feels like aviolation.

Was that what happened? The pd said it was visible from the road. If so we will fix it w the window guys

Ha. Lying comes too easily for too many people these days.

Oh man that’s not ok and not the story I got. We will take care of it

It was against the inside wall of the west bedroom.

My landlord does take care of it. Late in the afternoon the city worker shows up at the door with some road signs for Pook. After he leaves, Pook says, “What would’ve happened if we were black?”

And the road signs are still in the living room. I’m guessing they’ll end up in the garage.

Florence for Expectant Mothers

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It is May of 2001 and our second day in Florence. I am here for a writing class. Terry, my husband, is here because I insisted he come.

We close the heavy, wooden door and lock it with the key that dangles from a dense black ball, the size of a fist. It is a key that cannot be conveniently carried or inconveniently lost. It is nothing that we own or need to feel responsible for.

As we left this morning, walking down the four flights of marble stairs to the street, the maid was turning the black ball key in the lock to our room. While we walked up Borgo Pinti, an unusually quiet road with small shops and few cars, she was yanking the white sheets smooth over the bed and tucking the red cotton bedspread under the pillows. When we turned the corner onto Via de Pilastri, where Vespas and cars gush like a swollen river, she was wiping out the bathroom sink. And, when Terry left me at the meeting point for my class, she was pulling closed the dark green shutters, latching the long, heavy window, and drawing the curtains to shut out the heat of the day.

I don’t realise how much I appreciate her effort until I return from my class in late afternoon and open the door. I blink in the dimness, breathe in the coolness of the room. I wish I had a curtain to shield my body, to quench its heat. I am sweating. The sweat drips under my arms, down my back, my chest, like a gently cascading fountain. But my feet are the worst. They are like fish with just enough water to keep them from dying and not enough to keep them from stinking. It isn’t the Florence sunshine that is causing me this discomfort. In fact, the May sunshine is perfect. It is sharp and white. Colorless. The reason I am sweating is to keep cool this baby in the dark room of my belly.

Terry reclines on the bed. Both of the flat, wide pillows are folded like crepes under his head. He hasn’t shaved and his beard is growing in grey.

“I am so tired.” I say. And, when I see the canister of potato chips on his bedside table, I grab them, stuffing one and then another into my mouth. I might as well be eating wadded up paper. That’s how satisfying they are.

The T.V. is on. Terry is watching the Simpsons. I pick up the remote control and turn down the volume. I do this at home too.

I can’t even hear it now,” Terry says. He always says this.

Face down on the orange tiled floor is Mary McCarthy’s The Stones Of Florence. I nudge it with my foot.

“How’re you liking it?” I ask.

“I think I’ll go visit the Boboli Gardens,” he says. “It should be interesting.”

I smile at this. For days I have been calling my tender, pregnant breasts bobolies. Until now, he thought it was a word I made up.

I spread myself out on the other side of the bed.

“Where’d you go today?” I ask.

“The Arno” he says.

“Is it really green like it is in pictures?” I haven’t seen the Arno yet but I imagine it’s the colour of birth.

“It is,” he says. “What did you see at the place you were?”

“Santa Croce. We looked at Giotto’s fresco, The Life and Death of Saint Francis.”

Terry is waiting for me to elaborate. Besides the fact that I find it hard to describe anything when put on the spot, while I was looking at the fresco, I was thinking about a turkey sandwich. Right now I’m thinking about what I want for dinner.

“I think I need a shower,” Terry says.

“No. That’s me,” I say.

I rummage around in my book bag and pull out a large bar of pink floral soap that I bought on the way home. I stopped in a small shop. I think it was a butcher shop but it was hard to tell. In the glass case were some meats and some cheeses. Behind the case was a spotless man in a white smock. Behind him, on a shelf above his head, was a long row of wines. Tucked back in the corner was a smaller shelf with one bottle of detergent, one roll of toilet paper, a roll of digestives, and a bar of soap. It’s nice not to have too many choices.

There is nothing spry about the way I move, pushing myself off the bed with a little grunt. I think for a moment that I am exaggerating. I’m only in my second trimester. But sounds like that seem to escape from my mouth unbidden with more and more frequency. I head for the bathroom.

The shower head is high on the wall between the toilet and the bidet. The space is small but the water falls in a good, hard current. I lather and lather and lather some more. Everything gets wet except for the toilet paper in its snail-like shell clinging to the wall. The drain in the middle of the floor is clogged. I step out of the bathroom as I would a wading pool and close the door behind me. I don’t care that the bathroom is flooded.

“Ahh,” I say as I sit on the bed, “Do I get one of those pillows?”

Terry pulls one from behind his head, just like pulling a sliver, something that has to be done. I nap. We get something to eat. I go back to sleep.

And then it’s morning. The square, black, alarm clock announces this at a quarter to eight. It’s the first day I’ve slept up until the alarm. After my shower, Terry takes his. While I wait, I pull aside the curtains, unlatch the window, and open the green shutters. This is my Italy–  the birds, the bells, the rising cupola of the Duomo, and the soft sun rising in the pale blue sky. I stay there, leaning out the window until I hear the shower shut off. Reluctantly, I turn back to the red bedspread, the black alarm clock, the orange tiled floor, the muted T.V. While Terry gets dressed, I think about breakfast. How contented I am with my daily foamy cappuccino, my blood red orange juice, and my little square buns, which I break into pieces and top with chunks of sweet butter.

Today, the class is meeting at the convent of San Marco to look at the frescoes of Fra Angelico.

“Should we meet outside San Marco?” I ask. Terry nods.

I’ve opted not to join the class for an afternoon in the hills of Fiesole. Instead, Terry and I will cross the river and climb up to San Miniato. Just before the Academia, Terry falls into the line of people waiting to see the statue of David. I leave him in a blur of tourists.

After the cloister of San Marco, I welcome the walk down to the river even though my feet are sweating and I’ve pulled a muscle behind my knee.

“I love this city!” I say to Terry as we lean over the concrete rail, catching the cool breeze lifting up off the river. But I realise what I love more is walking out of it, leaving behind the opulence of created beauty that muddles and overwhelms my mind.

On our way down to the river, as we were passing the Medici Chapel, I said, “Terry, you have to go in there. You have to see it for yourself.”

What I wanted him to see wasn’t Michelangelo’s Dawn and Dusk. What I wanted him to see was the chapel, how the Medici’s brought marble and granite from their vast land holdings to lay the floor, to tile the walls. It was shocking how beautiful it was. It was frightening how cold it was. The white and pink marble was like a patchwork of ageing skin, spotted and freckled and lined. The black marble was so dark it was cavernous. The red marble was blood. Two days before, I had stood alone, apart from my class, not wanting to step on anything but the green marble.

While Terry was inside, I wandered the market stalls set up outside and bought a pair of fur lined slippers, perfect for a winter pregnancy.

We cross the river. It is different here, more residential, quieter, as if it got left behind in the many surges of development. There is no Gucci over here, just mustard colored buildings, solid wooden doors, and pots of scarlet geraniums. I am gleeful, close to giddy. Maybe it’s the sunlight, the way it brightens rather than diffuses the colors and sounds.

We climb the steep street up to Plaza Michelangelo and find the old stone steps up to San Miniato. I take off my sandals and climb barefoot. Trees arc. Shade cools the stone under my feet. We are walking the stations of the cross, each tier of stairs marked with a large wooden crucifix. We don’t talk but this isn’t unusual. There is a small garden off to our left, a good excuse for a rest.

“This is perfect,” I say and sit down on the bench.

It is perfect, here among the roses, swept over with the scents of gardenias and lemon trees. And it’s perfect because we can look across the river at the orange tiled roofs, the Duomo sticking its fine Italian nose in the air, as if for a whiff of fresh air. Views like this make me feel big.

The Church of San Miniato is dark. It smells of incense. I sit in the first pew I reach and lean my head back as Terry goes off to find the chanting monks behind the altar. There are so many triangles in the cross beams of the ceiling and the colors are bright. It’s a geometric paradise. It looks primitive to me and I like primitive. I know there is an astrological circle on the floor somewhere that I should have a look at but I can’t take my eyes off the ceiling. I can’t move my feet from the black and white tile of the floor. My back feels fused with the pew. I don’t want to see any more people. I don’t want to see art that depicts anything human. I just want to be back at the hotel, sleeping with my back to the window.

So this is what it’s like being pregnant. Or this is what it’s like to be crazy and full of contradictions. I am elated and then I am sad. I want to climb these hills but my body won’t cooperate. I want to feel the beauty of the art that surrounds me but I stare dumbly at the colors and shapes. I want to be sitting in a piazza cafe drinking wine. I want to see the face of the Duomo change color with the sun as it sinks. I want to be able to button my pants. And, I want to smoke. This is no Eden.

Despite the heat, on the way down from San Miniato, I wear my soft, furry slippers, appropriate footwear for the crazy woman I am. At the Arno, Terry and I diverge, he to the science museum to look at Galileo’s finger, and I go back to the hotel for a shower and a nap.

Our last day in Florence comes too quickly. I have learned how to tell the pharmacist that I’d like something for aching muscles, something with menthol. I have learned how to tell the woman at the deli counter that I want one sandwich, two slices of pizza, and water. And, I understand when I’m told how much money I owe and I count it out quickly.

I could live here, where dogs walk about as confidently as their owners, aloof and indifferent to the traffic, unconcerned to be sharing their streets. Or I could live over there, across the Arno in a mustard colored house.

Today we take the bus to Brancacci Chapel. It is the last stop for the class before we go our separate ways. I am not a calm traveller. Usually I am a day ahead of myself but today I am peaceful. Maybe that is why when I look at Masaccio’s Expulsion from Paradise, I look harder and closer.

Adam and Eve fall out of the pale blue of the garden of Eden. Adam covers his goat face with fat hands, oblivious to the salmon-colored, black sword wielding angel hovering guard above them. Eve has her eyes closed. Her small pointed chin tilts toward the sky and her mouth hangs open. I imagine the sound she makes. It is a wail and a moan, a combination of helplessness and agony. She covers her breasts, her genitalia. Together, they stagger away from the garden, in constant motion. They make no progress.

Once, when I was younger, my uncle, the Benedictine monk, asked if I knew that the story of Adam and Eve is myth. Of course, I said. I don’t remember what our conversation was or why he would’ve wanted to protect me in that way. But I know that humans need to count and measure, to have beginnings and endings, to have stories to make sense of our world.

Eve came in to the world an adult, memory-less, without any idea of birth or death. It is she that I want to take out of this fresco, bind the myth of her with the myth of me so she doesn’t have to be the first. That way she won’t be terrified when her belly grows and cramps, flutters and growls. She will have mothers and aunts and sisters to tell her this is how life cycles. This is how babies will be born.

Ann is Resting

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Ann is resting, I think.

She moved her house, her husband, and the silver to a new apartment. She did not bring the clunky pieces of silver or the bust of John F. Kennedy’s head.

She moved 40 coffee cups and at least 20 china tea cups. I don’t know of anyone who drinks from those anymore since our appetites have grown and our manners have become brutish.

She moved her Rolodex, the kitchen towels, her pots and pans, and filled a new junk drawer with all that was in the old junk drawer.

She brought the big family picture taken in the 1970s, all those redheads in front of the brightly autumn trees.

She brought the books, so many books, but not as many as she left behind.

She brought the crucifix, the one where Jesus slides up, right off the cross, to reveal a secret compartment with a bottle for holy water.

She gave away the cross country skis, the slide projector, and all four couches.

We have the blue beveled glass tumblers and the baby grand. The wooden sign that reads Rose’s garden is here, too, holding up a plant laden with tomatoes. (Rose was Ann’s mom.)

At the old house, Ann left behind 9 miles of creek through the picture window. She left behind the geese and the ducks and the long, long yard. She also left behind the mice and the tree roots clogging the pipes. She left behind the furrow in her brow and the ache in her eye.

For many months she was like a ball of string. We all helped out where and when we could but ultimately it fell to her. She carried the weight and her knees hurt.

Once she said, “Mine is a first world problem.”

I said, “If it feels heavy, it is heavy.”

At the new apartment she doesn’t get to see the creek every morning. Instead, she gets to hear bells from the church up the street and walk barefoot on the carpet.

If she feels like it, she can walk downstairs and play Bridge or Bingo with her new friends. Even though their bodies tell them they’re in their 80s, I imagine they talk and laugh like they’re 30. But who of us ever really feels older than 30?

Now Ann is happy again. She’s like a ball of yellow yarn.

It’s good to be reminded that the hard parts of life do come to an end.

Hong Kong

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I’ve been here before, trying to quell this underlying feeling of wanting to bolt, to run away, find something new. I’m mostly contented. The threat of violence or starvation or homelessness is not hanging around my door. I love my family. But day to day routines don’t hold much in the way of surprise and that little bit of fear that breeds excitement.

The last time I was away from what was familiar was before I had kids, a couple years before Hong Kong reverted back to Chinese control.

I was with ten other girls who worked in the same department at the airline. We were going to Hong Kong to see the hotels we were selling as part of a vacation package.

Stephanie was my roommate. All I knew about her before this trip was that she had just turned fifty and called in sick on her birthday. I knew that she spoke sweetly to the people who called in to make reservations. I knew that she had a wide, beautiful face, smooth white skin, and happy blue eyes.

The first thing she ever said to me was, “What are you?  A baby goat?”  It was right after I’d moved to her quad of desks and I was drinking from a pull top water bottle. I think I must’ve smiled at her but I don’t remember.

In Hong Kong, our friendship just happened. We laughed when the elevator alarms sounded because our group exceeded the weight limit. We laughed when she woke up “feeling like she had licked a cat.” We laughed when I said I felt like I’d been eating Science Diet dog food.

I told her I’d grown up in Venezuela, that the multi-national company where my dad worked had transferred him there when I was three. I told her that being in Hong Kong, which is much closer to the equator than Minnesota, I had it in my mind to find an expanse of lush tropical gardens, complete with the traffic of birds and over-sized insects. I was looking for the environment of my childhood.  Even when my eyes were focused straight ahead, I was really looking back.

So why didn’t I just go back to Venezuela, my heart even being its exact shape? Why didn’t I leave my husband, my kids, my dogs and cats? Why didn’t I move away from Minnesota, from the this place of crushing winters? I knew I was going to be laid off from my job in five months anyway, the job that took me to Hong Kong.

I didn’t go back because the circumstances that took me there in the first place were gone. People, like land, are not static. I just wanted to relive it. What I was looking for in Hong Kong were the smells and sounds and colors of my youth. I wanted to feel the air again, wet and heavy, clinging to my skin like a blanket. I wanted the sun to dominate and permeate my vision, making the dirtiest, dustiest corners flash with color.

On our last day in Hong Kong, Stephanie and I opted out of joining the rest of the group on a bus tour to Canton. Instead, we took the Star Ferry over to Hong Kong Island in search of flora and fauna.

It was clear as we climbed the steep street that we were on a mountain. But it was a mountain of buildings, stacked and leaning over each other. We saw a church built in the middle of a parking lot. Sacred space, so sacred is the space.

We found a small botanical garden at the top of that road, a meager park with a zoo and a tiny hothouse. Inside the hothouse, looking at the orchids clinging to their tree fern fiber perches, I realized this was the closest I was going to get to Venezuela. But we stayed in that park for a long hour before going in search of the mountainside escalator we’d read about.

It went up in levels, that escalator, each one opening up into a singular community. Steps away from the escalator were households, laundry hanging out of windows, over walls. There was a level comprised of real estate offices. Another was food shops.

We got off the escalator where it opened into a mosque. Duly shedding our shoes, we stepped into a carpeted room. It was poor and plain and a group of children sat around a turbaned man. He attempted conversation with us, practiced kindness. But in reality, it was as if we had walked into a stranger’s house uninvited. It occurred to me that in this crowded city, boundaries were erected through body language. Downcast eyes were doors. Stiff bodies were fences. We left that mosque quickly, our eyes downcast.

As we wound our way back down the mountain, Stephanie tripped on a hidden step, crashed into me, crashed to the pavement. She said, “It feels like my foot isn’t attached to my ankle.” In the cab on the way back to the hotel, all I could think to do was to tell her stories so she wouldn’t pass out.

I told her about the time in Venezuela when my younger brother, Mike, skipped school, took a quaalude, and borrowed a motorcycle. He crashed. The person that found him didn’t know where he lived but knew he went to the American school so he called the school. The school tried calling our house but kept getting a busy signal. I was called out of class. My first thought was “Good. I don’t have to take that marine biology test I didn’t study for.” It happened that my first boyfriend, my ex-boyfriend, was up at the school. He drove me home in his little green Renault. And, while my mother got dressed and waited for my dad, he drove me to the hospital.

There was Mike in a darkened closet of a room, unconscious on a cot. Half of his head had been shaved.

When my mom and dad showed up and made arrangements to have him transferred to a private hospital, I rode in the back of the ambulance with him. While we wove in and out of traffic, Mike’s head rolled from side to side. I would be looking at the side of his face that was scraped black and purple and, suddenly, I would be looking at the smooth, untouched side, the sweet side. The ambulance attendant wouldn’t let me hold his head steady. Mike was in a coma for three days. Then the pressure eased. The bleeding in his brain stopped. He woke up and said he’d been attacked by a chocolate ice cream monster. There were so many things I didn’t know existed.

I looked over at Stephanie, her eyes closed, head leaning against the back window. I was aware of this new forced intimacy between us, her nylon covered legs stretched across my thighs, my hands holding them still. I reached over and rolled down her window, hoping the air would bring her back like my story hadn’t. And I began another story as we headed through the tunnel bridge to Kowloon.

I told her about the time my mother was driving us to the beach. The “us” was me and two friends from college. While driving down the steep mountain road to the coast of Puerto Cabello, my mother had a grand mal seizure. We flagged down a truck full of military men, my arm straight in the air, fingers spread, the same way I flagged down the cab Stephanie and I rode in.

Stephanie started to perk up. She rolled up her window. I relaxed and quit talking. This was familiar. I knew about hospitals in foreign countries.

Back at the hotel, we made the appropriate calls, ordering an ambulance like it was room service. I watched while Stephanie cracked jokes with the three ambulance attendants who grunted and groaned as they lifted her onto a stretcher.

“There are big Viking women in Minnesota, where we come from. Strong. Hardy.” she said. They asked her if she’d been drinking.

The hospital was like a classroom except there were beds instead of desks. Hand written signs were taped up around the room. The “Exit” and “Radiology” signs could have easily been child’s work.

“When I get back home, I’m going to send them pillows.” Stephanie said. She could have just as easily said, “They need pencils.” It was all the same.

I went outside to smoke when they wheeled Stephanie away for x-rays. In the span of a cigarette, I saw two ambulances drive up. Two stretchers were unloaded from the first ambulance. After unloading two more stretchers from the second, the attendants lifted out an old man and carried him inside. It was like a bus service.

I went back inside and found a chair under the taped up sign that said, “Waiting Room.” Seven out of the ten people that came in had head injuries. I knew this because of the blood stained rags and scarves that were tied around their heads. Was this the form domestic violence took? Or was this what happens in a society that is overcrowded, when doors and windows are unexpectedly thrown open?

Stephanie’s foot was, in fact, detached from her ankle. It had been broken in three places. Since we were flying back to Minnesota the next day, where she’d have surgery to reassemble it, they just put it in a thin cast. Then Stephanie could send pillows and pencils and a thank you note to the doctor. She was thoughtful like that.

As I sit here now, intermittently typing and petting Betty, for a second I think I’m petting Harry or Kimball, other dogs I’ve known. The feel of her fur is oily smooth one way and course and choppy the other. It is familiar.

In Hong Kong, I ached to recapture the feeling I knew at seeing the sun glitter silver and gold off the mica speckled rock we found at the base of the mountains that surrounded our house in Valencia, Venezuela. Here, in winter, when I look outside, I see the same shimmering diamonds crossing the snow. It’s as if shimmer and glitter and sheen are not phenomenon but species.

When I was in Hong Kong, I couldn’t see the sameness. I didn’t see that the neon signs arcing out over Nathan Road were the same as the trees that used to arc a tunnel over Summit Avenue, the same, even, as my arms arc away from my body.

I didn’t see that the woman in the jewelry shop who had followed me around, trying so hard to sell me a string of pearls was the same as the little boy in the Andino town of Jajo who had tried so hard to sell a plastic bag full of oranges.

I didn’t see that my friendship with Stephanie was the same kind as I had with Susie, my best friend I had in Venezuela.

Nothing has really been lost. Shapes have just been altered. So I will look more carefully, more expectantly, at what is routine and familiar, to see what surprises are there.

Backfield Cluster

Chantal and Sheryl

I’m in Montreal to spend the weekend with Sheryl and Chantal. I lived here from 1973 until 1979 and I haven’t seen them since. We met playing soccer. We were the backfield cluster. Chantal played defense. I was the sweeper. And Sheryl was the goalie. When I left in 1979, we had made plans to meet up on Mount Royal on July 4th, 1984 at midnight but I never made it. I was in Venezuela then, hoping I could stay there forever.

It’s 1 a.m. and I’m standing outside the hotel on Avenue du Parc. I saw the lit up cross on top of Mount Royal when I came outside and I’m tucked in between the hotel wall and a no parking sign, looking to see it from a better angle. A man walks by. I watch him and I don’t think he sees me but, suddenly, he turns around to face me.

“You must be a tourist,” he says.

“Is it that obvious?” I say.

“As long as I’ve lived here, I’ve never seen anyone stand where you’re standing.”

We introduce ourselves, shake hands. He’s Marco. I’m Shannon.

“Are you walking anywhere?” he asks.

“I’m going to find coffee and something to eat,” I say.

“I’ll walk with you.” So we walk. He tells me he’s an artist. I tell him I’m a writer.

“I haven’t painted for two months,” he says, “I’m afraid I’m all done.”

“That’s an excuse.” I say.

“Do you like sushi?” he asks.

“Not tonight” I say.

He holds up the bag he’s carrying. “Everyone gives me food because I’m such a big person. I don’t even like sushi.

After we’ve walked  a couple blocks, he says, “Do you want to sit? I have to rest.” There’s a bench so we sit and he hands me his iPhone and I look at his paintings. I like them. He reaches over to enlarge the photo I’m looking at.

“This I painted when I learned I had diabetes. The nerves crashing. The blood sick, you know.” And here I am thinking it was the shallows of the sea-  brain coral and scissor tails and angel fish.

A couple of Marco’s street friends walk over to greet him and I take my leave. I’m surprised when ten minutes later he finds me in the coffee shop.

“I have a gift for you.” he says, and pulls out a business card. “I burned it around the edges because I thought it looked better.”

I remember doing that when I lived here, giving everything I wrote a brown and jagged edge.

Again I take my leave.

“Take care, Marco.”, I say, because what else can be said to someone whose company you enjoyed and who you”ll never see again? Encounters like this are easy. There isn’t the measure of remembrance.  http://www.flickr.com/photos/montreal_city

 

I have the whole next day to wander the city before I meet up with Chantal and Sheryl.  I’m walking toward the old port, The Quays, and find myself in the square in front of Notre Dame basilica. I sit down and a Hari Krishna woman comes over to offer me a cookie. I never see Hari Krishnas in Minnesota. Thirty four years ago I would’ve taken the cookie only because she wanted me to take it. In that way I’ve changed. With typical canadian politeness, I tell her no thank you.

There’s an admission fee for tourists at Notre Dame but when I walk through the door, the woman behind the desk says, “Tu es ici pour la messe?”, You’re here for Mass?

Reflexively I say, “Oui”, but I say it like a true Québécoise, pronouncing it “whey” and clipping the y. I walk in as if I belong.

The stained glass windows are open. I didn’t know they could do that. Why did the carpenter carve out those jagged spires? Why is there art layered upon more art, upon even more art? How to awe the simple person. But I’m not awed and, despite the beauty, I’m feeling a little crowded. And I think of the dream I had of my mom, years ago.

In the dream I was at her house looking for her and not finding her. All around me was the most beautiful furniture I’d ever seen and I would’ve hung out with the tables and chairs and dressers if I hadn’t been so intent upon finding my mother. They quivered with life, with soul.

I realize as I look up into the starry ceiling of the church that this is exactly an artist’s problem. We can create beauty, sometimes extreme beauty, but we can’t give it life. And I think this because no matter how much I might love a song or a poem or a painting, at some point I tire of it.

I’m much happier in La chapelle du Sacré-Cœur at the back of the church, with the golden sunlight and the fat brass faces behind the altar.

Is this nostalgia, the feeling of happiness I get when I hear the priest speaking french fast and loud? Is it because I’ve hit the mid century mark that what I knew in my youth pulls at me? It is true that, later, when I do meet up with Sheryl and Chantal, I will look at them and think they’re still young and beautiful. I will feel like a tubular plant in the flower garden. For all the years I didn’t wear make up, didn’t apply lotion, I suppose I never thought I’d age.

As the priest keeps talking, I know it isn’t about wanting to return to youth because I’m not even thinking about that. I’m not really thinking about anything. I’m taking a bath in language. I’ll feel this same contentment on Saturday when Chantal’s daughter, who is more francophone than anglo, comes to visit. She skips so naturally, back and forth, between french and english. And I remember some friends I had in Caracas who spoke a mix of french and english and spanish. I remember not saying much. I just wanted to listen. I want to be in that milieu.

This is how the weekend passes, sorting and sifting through memory and language. Finally, at fifty, I’ve slowed down enough that sound and image and understanding settle easily in my head.

On Sunday before Sheryl leaves to go back home to Toronto, she washes the windows of her car, inside and out. That isn’t something I would think of doing, especially after drinking wine the night before. She has taken on some passengers for the trip back. And even after one of them, a pregnant woman, throws up in the car and tries to cover the smell with a bottle of perfume, even after she learns that they are not going to Toronto at all but to Niagara Falls, she drives far out of her way to get her and her boyfriend to the train station. Sheryl’s always been one of those people who seem to bounce like a well inflated ball, doing what needs doing, reacting quickly and assuredly. This is why she was goalie. But I’d forgotten how kind she is.

While Sheryl is one her way back home, Chantal and I walk her big, big dogs in a steady rain. We walk up Fredmir, along Manuel, past Chantal’s old house, up Glenbrook, where I used to deliver the Montreal Gazette in the early hours of winter. Now we are on my street. The Quesnels lived there, the Floods over there. Here is my house, 17 Sandringham. The baby spruce my dad planted is now a tower.

Then we walk down Silverbirch, past the house where, when I went collecting, the people always said they’d just paid last week.

Chantal points to a corner house and says, “He was so cute with his curly blond hair. Did you know his parents were survivors of the Holocaust? I’ve always been interested in the Holocaust.”

“Me, too.” I say, “The problem of evil in our world.”

And I think this is one reason we were such good friends. We approach life similarly. Chantal has always been defending against darkness. I’ve always been trying to sweep it away. We are still the backfield cluster.