A Piece for Peace

I picked it up for a song, a few dollars spent on a whim to solve a problem that had caused enough irritation warrant the effort. The other night, my wife had, again, complained that she could not sleep while I worked beside her in bed. The bedroom lights were “too bright” and the clack of my laptop keyboard was “too loud”. My response that the work needed to be done was met by an icy request to “take it elsewhere”. Further protestations fell on deaf ears and so, to keep the peace. I shut down my laptop, doused the nightstand lamp and rolled over to the edge of the bed.

The next day, while idling my way through an on-line catalogue, I noticed some gizmos, these flexible USB lights.  I have to admit, I’m a bit of a gadget nut and pieces like this always appeal to me, especially at such a ‘Low, Low Price!’ They arrived quickly, via messenger, in a brown, too-large box adorned with the well known Amazon Smile. Inside, a plastic bag held five cellophane envelopes containing lights, identical but for colour. I only need one but they come as a set and are cheaply made. I suspect I’ll use them all before long. 

I select an envelope and draw from it my prize. The LED light is narrow, six inches long and black in colour, except for a silver USB connector at one end and a soft-white lens cover on the other. I see that the center segment of its stalk is malleable and I twist it about until satisfied that it will serve its purpose.  I plug the silver USB into my laptop port and, Presto! I have light! There isn’t much that is more important to our daily activities than light, whether by raising a window blind or the flip of a switch.

I bend the stalk to set the lighted end over my laptop keys, canted in just such a way so as to avoid casting glare on the screen.  The small LED brightens the room a little more than I had expected and I peek at my sleeping spouse to see if she has been disturbed. There is no reaction and I begin work on my next task, confident that once again peace shall reign in the household and pleased that such an inexpensive piece has solved my problem so well.  

I pause for a moment, my fingers hovering over the laptop keys, and reconsider that last thought.  When I ponder my spouse’s repeated grousing that her sleep is being disturbed every night because of the room’s brightness and the sound of my typing, how is it that I decided to address only one of these complaints with the purchase of the USB light? Surely, I could have solved both issues by taking my work elsewhere, perhaps the dining room, which has the added advantage of its proximity to late night snacks, or even to the little alcove with its mini desk that I claim as both a home office and refuge.  Better yet, I could have chosen to work earlier in the day, so as to spend a little quiet time with her at the end of the evening, although that happens with much less frequency these days.  

In any event, I didn’t, and here we are, lying as far apart as the bed will allow. As I recline beside her slumbering form, bathed in the blue-glow of a muted TV, my typing sounds excessively loud. I tense for a moment as I wait to see if my wife reacts. I don’t want to get into yet another dust-up. Perhaps I should get out of bed and move to the other room. It would be the generous thing to do and yet, I don’t really want to. It’s my bed, too. I like working in the sack late in the evening. It’s comfortable and cozy and warm and besides, the rest of the house would be night-time cool by now. 

Maybe she will sleep on. If not, I’ll have to come up with another solution. Possibly another piece of kit to help keep the peace. I wonder if I’ll find earplugs among tomorrow’s  Lightning Deals on Amazon.

A New Acquaintance

Not long after I moved to town, my car needed a service. I took a stroll down to the garage at the end of the street. It was a two door affair with a cracked office window. Both doors were up but only one of the bays was holding a vehicle. I stepped in through the other doorway, looked at the tools resting neatly on the workbench and cork board behind it. The floor was clean and recently swept.

“Hi,” I addressed a pair of scuffed work boots sticking out from under the car. One boot was untied, the lace trailing away across the concrete floor like a line trolling for trout.

“OK, hold on,” a high, thin voice floated up from under the car.

After a minute he rolled out and stood up, wiping his hands on a rag. His coveralls were threadbare but had clearly been clean that morning. He was tall and fit, weighing maybe 150 lbs. Sandy hair flew long from under the ball cap, curling over his ears. His fingers were yellowed by nicotine and his hands and wrists looked strong.

It was his face that caught my attention. It was marred by a long red scar that ran from the hairline at the top of his left ear, across his nose and finished under the outer corner of his right eye. He saw me looking and one hand moved in reflex to shield it.

“Can I help you?” He was curt but that voice would have a hard time in a crowd. His pale blue eyes met mine briefly and then danced away as he ducked his head to look at his hands. The shadow of the brim of his cap fell across his face.

“I’m just checking to see if you’d have time and to ask what you’d charge to do an oil change and rotate my tires.”

He looked over my shoulder. “What sort of car do you have?”

“6 year old Camry,” I said, “six cylinder.”

“Well, I’m a little busy.” He sounded less than interested. Maybe he had jobs lined up for a couple of days and didn’t think mine was worth the interruption.

“OK, well, any suggestions where I should take it?”

“I didn’t say I wouldn’t do it!” He shook his head in frustration, busily rubbing his bicep and then both hands flew back to the scar. His right hand stayed to tug and fiddle with his left ear, his elbow high, casting a shadow across most of his face. I wondered if his tone was more about nerves than impatience. He seemed uncomfortable with a new contact and I guessed that I wasn’t the only one to get this sort of reaction.

“Oh. well, could I bring it in tomorrow morning then? Would it be done by end of day?”

His eyes skittered to mine and then away as he ducked his head again. “I guess. I open at 8.”

“If you’re too busy…” I let it hang.

He became agitated. “No, no, I can do it,” His eyes rose to meet mine, “I charge $45 an hour plus parts and fluids,” he became a little defensive, his voice rising a bit, “I give all your old parts back to you.”

“That’s fine. It’s good to find a place so close to home,” I said quietly, trying to soften the conversation. I knew it was a good rate. “I’ll bring it by in the morning.”

He paused, as if surprised. He wiped his hands again, suddenly sticking one out to shake. “I’m Marvin,” he said, “I’ll show you where to park the car and leave the keys. Then we can go into the office and I’ll take some details.” ©

——–

Cherish

 

I stood at the window in the front room, looking across the street. Mrs. Pauley was standing on her front step, her chin in the air as she tried find the sweet spot to read the paper though her bifocals. She always looks funny when she does that, I thought, like she’s looking down her nose at whatever she’s holding. She said something to the old guy and he shook his head. She turned to the cops, fishing a tissue from her sleeve and lifting her glasses to wipe her eyes as she listened to whatever the smaller one was saying.

Mom? I called, “What’s going on at Mrs. Pauley’s?” My mother came in from the kitchen to stand behind me, drying her hands on a tea towel and looking over my head at the scene across the street.

Oh, my,” she whispered, “I didn’t know it would happen so soon.” She looked down at me and before I could ask, she continued. “When Mr. Pauley died, she found out that he’d let his life insurance lapse. Couldn’t make the payments, I guess. He didn’t leave much money and she hasn’t been able to pay her rent. I think they were already a little bit behind.”

So? Can’t she get a job or something? Maybe one of her kids could help.” The Pauley boys were all grown and had moved away. Four were married with kids and living in Toronto and the other two were in Vancouver.

She can’t work. Her health isn’t good and she hasn’t had a job since she was a girl. She’s not trained for anything. As far as I know, she hasn’t told the boys about this. I don’t think she wanted to trouble them and its not as if any of them could afford to pay it for her.”

She stood for a minute longer as the drama played out and then said, “I’m going across the street to see if she needs anything. I may be a little awhile”

I turned back to the window. The cops and the old guy were getting back into their cars. Mrs. Pauley, tears running down her cheeks, held the screen door open as Mom walked across the grass.

I felt confused. I understood what Mom had said and knew enough about money to appreciate Mrs. Pauley’s predicament. What I didn’t get was, how could her family not know and why weren’t they helping her? I wondered if the rest of the neighbourhood knew about this. Maybe they could get together and help her out. I knew that a lot of folks were out of work and times were tight but this was important. The Pauley place was like a second home to many of us kids. There were always a few friends of the boys’ around the yard or in the converted garage. Even the younger children were welcome to step in for a cookie or a glass of water or just to say hi. Many of us had spent time at her kitchen table sharing a tale of woe and getting in return a soft shoulder and a dose of common sense. Once the last of their boys were gone, Mr. and Mrs. Pauley had kept the garage open as a kind of clubhouse. We spent a lot of time there. 

After I raided the fridge, I started on my homework. Mom came in about an hour later and began preparing supper. “How is she?” I asked.

Not very well,” she answered, “she has to be out by the end of the month and she’s already started packing. Do you think you could go over after school tomorrow and on the weekend to help move boxes and furniture around?

I was glad she’d asked me. “Sure, I’ll ask Hamid if he wants to help. Where is she going to live?”

Robbie and his wife are making room for her.” Mom gazed at me with an odd expression and I realized that she was a little afraid. This could happen to us, I thought with a shock. Mrs. Pauley’s life had been shattered out of the blue. You can’t be sure of anything.

The next evening I went over to Mrs. Pauley’s and helped her pack boxes and brought some things down from the attic. We didn’t talk much and I heard her crying once from the other room. I didn’t know what to say. The next day was Saturday and as I opened her front door I saw that the house was buzzing. It seemed as if every kid in the neighbourhood was there. They were dragging things from the closets and the basement and half filled boxes were scattered across the floor. The air was full of chatter and laughter and in the corner Kerry and Macy were arguing about something. It was bedlam. Mrs. Pauley was standing in the middle of it all with a jug of lemonade in her hand. She was crying again, but this time a broad smile lit her face.  ©

———  

Rubicon

I’m moving out.” The boy said quietly, looking at no one in particular.

The dinner table was usually a quiet place. His parents were as often as not engaged in silent combat and the kids would rush to finish eating and then get busy with the dishes before the storm broke.

Now, almost everything stopped. His oldest sister looked at him across the table, her cheeks flushing and her mouth dropping open. They were close and she knew about his plans, but suddenly the moment was here. His younger sister missed these opening tremors and picked at her pork chop.

He turned his head to the sound of a fork clattering on china. His mother was staring at him, her eyes wide and her mouth working in silence. “Where will you go?” she finally asked, looking from him to his father and back.

“I’ve found a place downtown,” he told her, nervously adding additional details, “An attic apartment. The ceilings are a little low but I like it, and its not too far from work.”

His eyes slid from hers to the other end of the table. His father speared a carrot and without looking up from his plate asked, “When?” as if this wasn’t the most significant event in his son’s life. As if he’d said he was going to the movies.

“Saturday. Archie will pick me up,” Letting him know that he was independent now and didn’t need anything from him.

Life with his father had almost made him shrink from this confrontation but he’d been fantasizing about this moment for months. He had turned eighteen just the week before. He was a man now and eager to be gone. He had planned the conversation carefully, confidently anticipating each response and he sat trembling in anticipation, arguments and recriminations at the ready.

His father put his fork down and studied him for a few moments and the boy imagined that he was considering options. This was definitely not what had been planned but no man-of-the-house reaction would work here. My-way-or-the-highway was staring his old man in the face.

Later that night, with time to think and in his bed in his parent’s house for the last time, he would be shocked at the indifference he’d heard in his father’s voice. It would linger in his memory.

“Well, be out by six. We have company coming and we don’t want to be disturbed.” ©

___________

Points of View

Scene: A man and a woman walk through the park together, holding hands. They pass an old woman sitting on a bench. The old woman is knitting a small, red sweater. The man begins to cry…

——

John:

“That lady made me think of Mom,” I tell Carla, “she was always knitting something for one of the kids on the block. Doesn’t that look like the sweater she was working on when we visited her last week?”

“Yes, it does. Do you need a tissue?” She gives my hand a squeeze and digs one out of her purse.

“Thanks. Just caught me unawares. The dog looks a little like Mom’s too,” I pause, ”we’ll have to do something about Buster.”

“Try not to think about it right now. You’ll feel better once this is over and we get home. Time enough then for decisions. Let’s stop over there for a cup of tea before we head back.”

“OK, we shouldn’t stay long though, they’ll be waiting for us.”

She’s right. I need a bit more time before facing the gathering at the reception. I don’t know what I’d do without her, especially over the past few days. She’s held me up, a real rock. She always seems to be looking out for me. That reminds me that I’ll have to sit down with her before Thursday and explain the changes Mom made to her will. I doubt she’ll care but I wouldn’t want her to be caught by surprise in front of the family.

——

Carla:

He’s crying again, barely holding it together. I look at him with dismay and wish we didn’t have to go back to the hall. Some of his relatives are a handful and his uncle is downright rude. I hand him a tissue and look over at the bench to see if the old woman has noticed his tears.

I wonder what he’ll do with Buster. He’s certainly not coming home with us. I liked John’s mother well enough but that stupid little dog is too much, yapping at every sound and begging scraps from the table. It makes me itchy just to think of sitting on that hair covered couch. Did she ever vacuum?

I could really go for a cup of tea before we head back to face his family and Mama’s friends. They want to talk about her money, of course. Well, they can go to blazes if they think they’re getting much of it. They won’t come right out and ask him today but I know we’ll get an earful once the will’s been read. It won’t matter, he’s been a good son and 8 years definitely entitles me to something. I had choices but it was unquestionably the right move to marry a lawyer.

——

Mrs. Kane:

I look up to see a young couple stroll by my bench. I think of it as my bench because this is where I always sit, if it’s free when I come to the park. Of course I don’t come every day. Sometimes the weather is just too horrid.

He seems to be upset. I wonder if he’s caught something in his eye. They don’t seem to be fighting, holding hands like that.

I like to watch people and try to imagine what’s going on in their lives. I think I’m usually correct. You can just tell what people are about, if you study them carefully. Maybe this man’s just happy. A young couple like that, I’ll bet she’s just told him that she’s expecting. They look the right age and are obviously in love.

I’m pleased with my deductions and hold my knitting out at arm’s length to inspect the last few rows. Very nice. This will be a lovely sweater for Walter. It’ll help keep him warm on our walks. He’s getting on and it’s been a little chilly in the evenings.

I tuck the knitting away in my straw bag and struggle to my feet. It gets harder every day. I may have to start using a cane soon. My daughter is always after me to get one. She’s afraid I’ll fall over and break a hip.

“Come along Walter,” I give the leash a gentle tug, “time to go home and make dinner.” ©

——

Give and Take

“Remember this?” Becky broke the silence, holding up a photo. She had been sitting on the end of the couch, a box from the closet on her lap.

I nodded, “Hubert’s cottage. We rented it for the summer. Your mother and her friend Doris came along.”

“Lois, not Doris,” she said.

“Right, they stayed a month.”

“Two weeks,” she said.

“Really? Seemed longer.”

She swivelled her head a quarter turn and gave me the eye, “Don’t start.”

“I’m not,” I assured her, “remember that party across the lake at the Parkers?”

“Palmers.”

“Right. Their son was a doctor,” I said, into full windup mode now.

She was quiet for a few seconds. “Dentist,” she said, her voice just a little clipped.

I decided not to ruin the mood any further and ducked back into the book I’d been reading. I could her muttering as she dug through the box.

“I thought I threw this out,” she said, a chapter and a half later, “remember Mark and his friend Peter?”

I looked up, slightly peeved at the interruption, to see a handbill. My friend had spent a year trying to kick start a musical career. “His name was Dieter.”

“Right. He played the guitar.”

“Dobro.” What was she thinking? Becky had always been a big fan of bluegrass.

“Oh, right. Remember the gig at The Castle?”

“Cassell’s.” I had lost the thread of the chapter by this point.

“He wrote that lovely song. What was it called, the one with the duelling fiddles?”

“Payback.” It slipped from my lips before I could stop.

“That’s right,” she said and went off to the other room. ©

——–

Harry Martin

Harry Martin died this week. He’d been telling a story, something about a frog and a lantern, but didn’t get to the punch line. He just paused, looked at the man in the chair, uttered a soft sigh and slid to the floor.  It was over in a few seconds and the doctor said that he hadn’t suffered much at all.

Harry was 64 years old and had been married to Karen for 37 years. They had two boys and three granddaughters. They’d raised the boys in a two story house on Merton Drive which they’d bought just before their oldest was born. They’d lived in town all their lives.

Harry owned a barber shop just off Main Street which had only three chairs, one each for him and Nelson, who had been with him as long as anyone could remember, and a third chair that served to hold the morning’s papers and a few out of date copies of Maclean’s and the Hockey News.  Harry had always said that if he ever hired a third haircutter, he’d know he’d made it “big”. His friends enjoyed his wide grin and quiet humour and gave him grief, saying he’d already made it ‘big” by charging them so much to sit in one of his chairs and to wait so long on Saturday mornings for the privilege to do so. Harry argued that a visit to his shop was more than just a haircut. It was a chance to visit, chat awhile and get over the rush of their busy week. He said that it was so relaxing that if he offered tea along with their trim, they’d have to pay him a spa fee.  As it was, he might just change the sign, call the place a Salon and charge accordingly!

When someone new came in for the first time, they’d often find that the row of chairs on the long wall opposite the mirror were occupied. They’d wonder if there might be a shorter wait elsewhere but Harry or Nelson would tell them to just sit anywhere, they’d be done in a minute. If they stayed, they’d soon notice that not everyone seemed to be there for a haircut. Men came and went, passing the time of day and chewing the fat. They talked about their jobs and bragged or complained about their kids. They bitched about Ottawa and the Leafs. They shared Timbits and bought each other coffee. It was a club and for more than a few, a regular Saturday morning haunt. Frank Brenner apparently held the current record. He’d been seen in this shop every Saturday for going on seventeen years.

Harry and his family had been involved in the life of the town. He’d been on the school board when his boys were of that age and had served two terms as Alderman. He’d been a Lion for thirty years. Karen had worked at Stamford’s Grocery until she retired and still volunteered at the veterinary hospital. His boys had played for the high school hockey team and the youngest had gone on to semi-pro.

So, it was no surprise to find that the church was full for Harry’s service. There was standing room only, mostly men who had vacated the pews for the women and children. It was a mild spring day and some of the men were content to stand outside the open doors. They could hear the pastor’s sermon from there. A few lit cigarettes while they waited for the service to end so they could make the move to the cemetery.

After, at the house, they gathered in groups on the main floor, spilling onto the porch and lawn and drive. Most held a beer bottle or a coffee cup. Several held paper plates of cold cuts and potato salad or casserole. Karen sat in the corner of the living room with her friends and listened to the chatter and laughter as the men recalled Harry’s best moments. People stopped by her chair for a quiet word or to give her hand a squeeze. They made promises to stay in touch and offers to help out if she needed anything at all. Just call.

There were many stories and a lot of laughter. No one seemed eager to leave and the afternoon turned to evening. After a time it became clear that these men were doing more than saying goodbye to Harry. They were saying goodbye to a time. It was a changing of the guard. Everyone’s life shifts a little when a close friend dies but they were saluting something most couldn’t put words to. They knew that Nelson wouldn’t keep the shop going. Their lives were about to change. Saturdays just wouldn’t be the same. ©

——-

The Camp

The Camp was located on a small parcel of land on the Ostrea Lake Road in Musquodoboit Harbour, a half hour’s drive from Dartmouth. It was owned by the parents of my closest friend and was their weekend cottage. From the time the first of us had a vehicle it become a regular summertime retreat.

The property was only large enough for a short dock, a small house and a garage. The driveway cut through the trees and gave a first time visitor the fleeting impression of impending solitude. Once through the trees and onto the patch of lawn I could see that the property was bordered on two sides by water and not very secluded from passing eyes. Fortunately, the road was not busy in those days and the place felt quiet and serene.

Like the property, the house was small. Single story and clad in white clapboard and green asphalt shingles, it had a short covered porch under the picture window that overlooked the water. Inside, the kitchen was dominated by an old free standing oil burning stove whose oven door would more than once serve as a foot rest while drying damp socks. There were two tiny bedrooms and a living room with walls faced in pine or something like it. The window faced west and during the day provided all the light one needed. The furniture was as old as the stove, welcoming and comfortable.

The Camp seemed like different places to me depending on the times of day. At dawn in summer the air was cool and fresh off the water which, if the tide was still, could be like glass. Birds would call from the trees behind the cottage. No buildings broke the treeline across the water and it seemed to me as if no one else was within a hundred miles.

Later in the day, if the tide was not too low, the water would lap against the dock, a gentle metronome measuring the passing of the day. On the water, small fishing boats and smaller pleasure craft would occasionally pass. Behind us, a few cars would run up the road. The place felt like a summer vacation spot, unhurried and peaceful.

Sometimes at dusk, if the harbour was still and the night quiet, you could hear the barely discernible pop of feeding fish breaking the surface of the water. My friend would stand on the dock and taking a piece of broad leaf grass would blow a low, hoarse cry across the water. (I could never master this trick). In a moment an answer would float back over the water and then, remarkably, a second loon would respond farther down the harbour. For a few moments they would converse, the calls haunting and forlorn.

Nights at The Camp were when I enjoyed it the most. Up until the wee hours playing chess or nickel poker depending on the numbers present. Laughing together and talking about everything and anything, opining and pontificating. Quoting little known or understood facts out of Time magazine or some such authority and calling each other out when opinion was replaced by bullshit.

I think that The Camp was special to all of us but for me, it was a welcoming and safe haven at a time when I had none other. Forty years later, it still claims a spot on my short lists of favourite places and best memories. ©

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