(part 2 – a short story by Sha’Tara)
“Let me show you something, Reed.” He got up and led me from the kitchen down a short hallway. A closed door I knew hid a bathroom, I could smell it. He opened the next door and reaching up, pulled on a string, turning on a light bulb also hanging from the ceiling. I was amazed. The bedroom had a clean, fully made double bed in it and the walls were painted white. A crucifix hung over the headboard and a bible was on its shelf. One small closet and a set of drawers completed the room. He opened the closet and there were a few dresses and a couple of what were called ‘maxi’ coats, terribly out of style as were the two pairs of small shoes on the floor. I smelled the mothballs that must have been in the pockets of the garments.
“After she left I moved out and kept it as ‘ours’. This is all I’ve got left of her. I got rid of the pictures, they were too painful to look at. But this, I thought, was OK. It was an invitation for her to come back. Then it just became a shrine. I come here to pray. I read from that Bible, the only thing she insisted on bringing with her when I took her away from her folks. But I don’t find any consolation in it. I’m not of those who believe they re-encounter loved ones in heaven. If she didn’t want to be with me in this life, what would have changed her mind that she’d want anything to do with me in the next? I don’t know the rules there, but I don’t think I’d be able to court her all over and make her fall in love with me for the rest of time. I’ve thought about that a lot. It doesn’t add up.
“Anyway, if you want, you can have this room. Just leave everything the way it is, if you can. If you must move something, please let me know. I want everything back the same after you leave. I know I keep the house a bit chilly but I’ll make sure there’s a good fire in the stove tonight.”
I agreed to staying the night and we returned to the kitchen table to talk. I wanted to hear the details of his story, why Sally left, how she left, alone or with someone?
“Except for her folk, mainly her dad and her oldest brother who were what you’d call assholes, the people around here are quite open and trusting. We don’t think bad of any stranger until they give us cause. So after we’d been here three years and eight months, May came around and spring was in full when a government surveyor came by. He offered us some money if we’d put him up. We had the extra room then behind the house-kind of collapsed now-and he said it’d be fine. We certainly could use the extra money. He’d come back after each day out surveying and putting those steel markers at the corners of each section. He had bundles of those in the back of his government pickup truck.
He talked to Sally a great deal; I was too tired to talk much, after the field work and the chores. But Sally couldn’t get enough of his stories, and she looked through all his magazines. He gave her a transistor radio and she was happy to be able to hear what all was going on while she worked around the house. I never paid much attention to it all. Up here, a man’s married, no one bothers his wife. She’s safe with any stranger. And women know to stay with their men, that’s our way. You don’t worry they’d ever leave for another man. That’s city stuff, Hollywood stuff, not what real people do.
“But one day I come home from the fields to do the chores and there’s no one in the house. The dishes are done and in the drying rack, but there’s no cooking. The table’s not set. I get worried thinking she went out and got herself hurt. I call her and I look everywhere. Then it occurred to me that Jean (that’s the surveyor) isn’t there either. Now I think maybe he’s taken her into the city and maybe she thought she’d be back in time, so didn’t bother with a note. I waited a bit, made a sandwich, although I wasn’t hungry. I milked the cows and fed the pigs, going through the usual chores, trying to figure out what had happened. Finally I took the old Chief and drove to Webster’s Corner. She’d been there, and left a note. I could tell the store keeper, Mr. Jameson, was very upset when he gave me the unsealed envelope. I guess Sally’d told him what she was doing. He’d tried to talk her out of it but she had gotten really angry and left. She’d gone off with the surveyor. I read her note. It was a terrible thing. I remember it, although I tore it up then, then burned it later.
“Dear Pete, Thanks for taking care of me and taking me away from my folks. I never really loved you but I felt I owed you for helping me. So I didn’t know what to say when you proposed marriage. I really had no choice: either you, or them. You were nice to me. But that wasn’t the life I’d been dreaming about. Jean’s taking me to Toronto, or maybe Montreal, he speaks French and knows people there. I won’t be coming back. Find yourself a proper woman, Pete and forget about me. Take care of yourself, Sally.”
“I didn’t know what to do then. I went to the police and tried to enlist their help to find her. The RCMP were very sympathetic but there wasn’t much they could do. Although Sally was a married woman, she had the right to leave. Legally, there was nothing they could do, except to try to find out for me where she’d gone, or was staying. They traced her in Toronto. I sold our four cows and the pigs for the money and went there to find her, sure I’d talk her into coming back; that she’d have seen through it by then. But that was already two years later, two years it took for the police to trace her from an employment bureau. By the time I got there she’d moved again. Again they traced her, in another part, where she’d worked in a hotel. But she quit before I got there. Three years now. I traced her again to a slaughter house. Four years. I took odd jobs, lived in low-rent areas and sent just enough money to my folks to pay the taxes on the land. Five years, and finally another break. She was working for the CN as janitorial help. I tried to locate her but that company was reluctant to help me. Not our policy, they said. So I had to hire a private detective. It was him who found out she’d had a baby. Not only that, but she did the one thing that made me stop looking for her: she’d abandoned her child in a department store. I don’t know how these people find these things out, but I believed him somehow. I suppose because I figured he knew it would mean the end of that job for him. He told me to go home, forget her, and get my life back. But all I heard was ‘get your wife back’ and isn’t it amazing how those two words are so much alike? He told me the little girl’s name was ‘Redemption’ – that was the tag they found in a pocket of her coat when they picked her up. Even the police could not find her after that: she must have planned it carefully. Maybe she knew by then I was after her and I’d take the child. Only I didn’t. She wasn’t my kid. I wanted my Sally, not some bastard kid by some hated surveyor I would have gladly killed at the time. I could have found the kid. She’d be in an orphanage. The police would know. I could lay some claim to her and adopt her, most likely. But I chose not to go that route and I came back home.
“But it was never the same again. If you’ve ever considered the meaning of the phrase, ‘a broken heart’ well, that’s what I mostly suffer from. Some people heal and some don’t. I suppose it’s like other diseases that strike people, it seems, at random. Cancer, heart attacks, that sort of thing. I love Sally, Reed. I know I always will. Even if there’s a heaven, I’ll love her there just as much even though I have no hope inside me that I’ll find her there either, as I mentioned to you before. It seems as if I’m under some strange spell that nothing can break. Do you know how many times I’ve thought that maybe it was because I just didn’t want to stop loving her; that I was in love with something I’d made up and all I had to do was just stop? Stop, then start again fresh. ‘Get a life’ as the young people say now. Yes, wouldn’t that be easy, simple? Just change my mind about that part.
“Fine, except it’s not in my mind, it’s in my heart. It’s in every aware part of me. I guess you could say that half of me is, or was, Sally. It was that good and great half of me that left me. How could I deal with that?”
He started sobbing heavily, and tears ran down his face unto the old blueprints. I walked over to stand behind him and I put my arms around him gently, then hesitantly I put my cheek against his stubbly one. I was surprised at my own feelings. I held him tighter and when he calmed down I asked him to tell me about the blueprints.
“Mr. Jameson had been an architect of sorts before he bought the store at Webster’s. He knew how to make blueprints and everybody knew this. Some of the richer folks around had hired him to draw buildings for them, and make blueprints of the plans. One day while talking, Sally and I laughingly said, ‘Let’s get Mr. Jameson to make us a set of blueprints for our new farm house!’ Well, it was something we could laugh over together-we’d been drinking dandelion wine she’d made and feeling silly-but she decided on her own to ask Jameson how much he’d charge us for a house plan. ‘I’d be honored to do it for you as a Christmas present’ he’d said. We were shocked, but we accepted. The plans arrived on Christmas day and we pored over them through that long winter. We were able to scrape just enough money from the sale of our pigs to pour our foundation for the new house.
My folks and her two younger brothers (they were the decent ones in that family) came to help. It was the happiest time of our life together. When we’d taken off the shiplap forms, pulled the nails and stacked the lumber, we sat in what would be the living room and we drank her wine with our help. She’d also made egg salad sandwiches and bowls of fresh vegetables from her garden. Simon, her youngest brother, brought his fiddle and we danced to his scratchy music but no one cared. It was the best of times.
“Give us two years,” I said to Sally, “and we’ll be raising the walls and maybe put the roof on. In five years we’ll have our new home. You’ll see.” And she smiled and sighed and kicked one foot against the other from behind as she always did when she wasn’t sure how to deal with a situation. So, she smiled again. That was her answer: we’ll see. But she meant more than that. She was becoming restless again. She’d always been restless as a kid but I thought it was because of her home life. I didn’t think-didn’t know, even-that such people remained restless all their lives. Join up with a loving partner and everything changes, right? You know Reed, us humans, we’re a naïve bunch. We don’t know anything about each other and yet we assume we know it all. And that’s where we go wrong. We should never assume we know what the other person is thinking, or thinking of doing, at any moment. All of us, we’re liked cocked guns just waiting for something to pull that trigger. Of course we have all sorts of safeties we could use to make others safe from ourselves, but of course, we don’t believe we are the dangerous ones, only the others are. Our downfall is thinking that we are either better, or worse, than others and living within that constant judgmental attitude.”
I watched his head droop lower and I felt I’d heard enough for one day. I too was dead tired. The house was cold and I wanted a hot bath, which I would not get, so I wanted to get inside my sleeping bag on top of the nice clean double bed, pull my comforter over my head and cry myself to sleep. Yes, me, tough Reed, the girl who survived the orphanage, was never adopted because she was too strong willed-was returned twice!-now feeling like crying over some vague thought, idea, wish, dream. I’d come all this way in my own way to find a story-no, to find myself, or rather, to find a me that would be more real than the one that was raised in that horrible orphanage and who clawed her way to the top of her profession simply because she kept burning her bridges as she moved forth. There had never been any turning back for Reed. Her life was lived from a one-way ticket to another. When she left the orphanage with the help of a visiting priest, she closed that door. When the affair with Edward cooled, it was over-the end, that’s all she wrote. Now here I am, all emotional over an old man and his rather pathetic story.
I’d been warned in college not to get involved with the people in my stories, or with my sources. It was just business and you used your feminine attributes to get into places no one else could get into, and to get the answers that made great copy. You bargained with the chips life handed you. A female body was a great asset if you knew how to use it without getting slammed. If you got caught, your career could be over in a day. Found out. Exposed. A slut, cheat and liar. Men could do it, of course, but women, while giving the impression they were doing it, could never afford the possibility they’d be caught actually doing it, not if they held any kind of professional status in a man’s world. And journalism is a man’s world, make no mistake about that. As is publication. It’s a man’s world because it is a money world.
“Uh, Pete? I’m sorry, but I’m dead tired. Could we continue this tomorrow morning? I notice there’s a bathroom next to my room. Is it OK for me to use it, or… do I have to use the outhouse I saw out there?”
“Oh, sorry about that. I didn’t think to ask you. Sure, use the bathroom. Everything works, but there’s no hot water. It’s not the cleanest place in the house, I’m sorry. If I’d known sooner that you would be staying overnight I would have cleaned up…”
“That’s OK, thanks. See you in the morning then? Say around eight?”
“Anytime. I’m up around six anyway, don’t need to sleep much. Today’s the most excitement I’ve had in years so maybe tonight I’ll sleep more. Good night.”
I watched him for a bit but he didn’t look up. So I went out to get my stuff. It was raining, cold sharp needles that hit the skin and felt as if they were drawing blood. I shivered, grabbed my bag, sleeping bag, comforter and ran back in the house. Pete was stoking-that’s what I think it’s called-the fire in the stove and putting more wood in. The smell of dry wood burning filled the house and I suddenly felt really warm, good, safe. ‘Thank you’ I said to no one in particular, but if I’d been pressed to say, I would have said, ‘to the goddess’ and been none the wiser as to who I meant. Emotional shit is what.
(end part 2)