Oh, I so hate those mountains. To think I once thought the lions were like a woman’s breasts nurturing us all.
“Don’t wiggle Keemy, I have food for you.”
She limped round the tiered, semi-circle of wooden benches until she felt her back to the wind and rain. She sat down with a grunt. She was alone. She wore two fully buttoned, ankle-length over-coats; one for protection from the weather, the other to keep in the warmth. She always wrapped one shawl around her neck and another red, heavy wool shawl over her head. She wore the same scuffed, brown army boots she bought from the war surplus store on Main with some of the money from one of her final welfare cheques. After she gave up her last address, only the Salvation Army provided her a bed and a meal. Now she walked the streets endlessly, for days on days.
My son, my son, oh God, my son. George died. Why did he go to the war in Asia? We were never the same after that. I couldn’t go on without him. Why did he do it? Why did he leave me? We used to come here for movies, dinners, the White Lunch, cokes at Woodward’s, fish and chips at Lumberman’s Arch on Sundays. One year, we went to five symphony’s in Queen Elizabeth Theater.
“Okay Keemy. We’re here now.”
She opened a middle button of her outside over-coat and a blonde Pekinese head popped out, flat face with kind, brown eyes looking up at her, pink tongue licking, body squirming in anticipation, asking the question. Cooing to her pet, she took the small, expensive can of cat food out of her right pocket and opened the tin with the key. Slowly, painfully, the arthritis almost completely crippling her so she could only manage small movements with her fingers, she rolled back the cover.
God, I hate this rain. It never used to bother me. Now it is my enemy.
“Here, Keemy. Good girl.”
After the struggle, she took pinches of food and fed her dog. She always fed Keemy this way. She did this until the can was empty. Then Keemy would snuggle and snort and cuddle with her, happy and contented.
And Arthur, her second son, last time she talked with him, saying, “Come live in a home in West Vancouver, momma. I will pay for it. But Sharon says you can’t live with us. You argue too much. Your grand-kids would love to see you more.”
Put me in a home? Never. I make homes, I don’t live kept in one. And Arthur has so much money and she won’t let me live there. I want to see my grandchildren. But I don’t think Arthur knows where I am or he’d come and take me home.
She was gripped suddenly with the recurring stomach pain, doubling her up on the bench. In a terrible substitution, the agony replaced her anguish, holding her longer in its vice grip. Even now she was careful not to roll on Keemy. My beautiful Keemy. As the wave subsided, she was able to raise herself into a half-sitting position again. The hurting never completely left her now and the attacks came more often and were more severe.
Two men were standing in front of her. Street bullies. She could only partially make them out. Her pain blinded her with tears, it took time for it to end. She felt so vulnerable. The over-head lamppost lighting behind them obscured their faces. One had a shaved head, the other a ponytail. Both were skinny, young and smelled of alcohol. Their faces looked metallic in this light, threatening. She pushed Keemy back deeper into her coat.
“Think she’s got money?”
“Nah. This ol’ bat’s half dead anyway. Maybe she’s got smokes. Go through her pockets.”
She knew not to resist. The bald tuffy hesitated then went roughly into one of her coat pockets and brought out a blood-stained ball of toilet paper. He threw it on the ground. Both boys stepped back from the woman.
“She’s got the TB. I’m outta here. “ He turned and left.
The other tuffy kicked her in the legs with hard boots, swore at her, then walked away quickly to catch up with the other. Once she was sure they’d left, she let Keemy back out. She went to do her business and find a drink of water in a puddle. When Keemy returned she burrowed into the safe coat again, nestling, like she had done since she was a puppy. They’d found each other when she was going through cans in the alley. There was the little puppy. Scared. Lost. Confused. Also looking for food. A kindred soul. She could help and love this puppy.
So much has changed.
She struggled but couldn’t sit right up. She had to continue leaning. Her ankle hurt so much now. Something inside still hurt bad too.
She talked to Keemy. “It used to be so different. George and Arthur and him and me. We were a family. Then he left me to go with another. George died and Arthur went with him. Now I only have you Keemy. I hate the mountains.” She paused, breathing heavily, afraid. Something is wrong. “When we get up, Keemy, we have to go to the clinic. I need some medicine. Just wait a bit for me to get better. Then we’ll go.” Her breathing was labored.
There is nowhere to go now but to the Sally Ann. Everyone is angry, suspicious, so greedy.
Earlier that evening, buying Keemy some dog food with the money from collecting cans and bottles all day, the young, black-haired man watching her said, “You want to sell that dog? Buy more food. Some brown-bag wine? I’ll give you twenty bucks. I’ll find it a good home. Take care of it. Not like you.”
She paid for Keemy’s food then left the store angry, silent. There was a time when you didn’t push people around, you helped them, you held out a hand, you didn’t take the last someone had. Where is God?
Then she walked away from Gastown, to these familiar benches in the heart of the city. This used to be a courthouse. This is where my George is honored. He gave his life. His life! How did this happen to me? How can this be?
The endless rush hour city traffic rolled past her, surrounding her with rows of bright white lights like pearls on an endless necklace and red Japanese lanterns stringing forever into the distant night. The blended echoes of the traffic soothed her when she was here. She sat quietly with Keemy, with the memories of her son. As always, the sounds of the city became a neutral backdrop, allowing her privacy. Sitting in the soft Vancouver rain, she felt insulated and safe again. This was a place where good triumphed over evil, where sacrifice was remembered and honored, where hard memories of death and loss were softened with pride, where the spirit of many aching hearts for many lost sons helped her to renew her memories and give rebirth to the love she had for so many years with her family.
She still could not sit up right. Tonight she would stay a little longer. With Keemy. Just a little longer.
“How’d ya wanna handle this one? Looks like she’s been gone a while.”
The cold, sterile face spoke as the blue emergency lights on the Coroner’s van cast a harsh, strobing light across the wet concrete.
“I got a technique how to handle these lice bags. Got yer rubber gloves? I don’t want no stink in the truck. Here, grab the hands over the head and cross the arms over. Careful, don’t touch the head. Lice can jump. I’ll take the feet the same, and we can roll it onto the gurney, then zip up the bag, and it’s off to the burner. ”
“Hey, what’s that? Watch out! It’s a rat.”
“Look, she had a dog in her coat.”
“What’re we gonna do with that?”
“Only one thing I know. Else it’s a lot of paperwork.”
“C’mon. Let’s just let it go.”
“Aw, I’ll take care of it. No one’s lookin’; no one cares. One quick twist and then the landfill boys ‘ll take care of it by tomorrow. Don’t tell no one.”
The hands took a strong hold. Not like the woman who cradled with softness and care. There was pain.
Staring up through the donut hole from inside the garbage can, Keemy, motionless now, breathing fast shallow breaths, alone, unable to move because her neck was broken, darkening shadows shrouding her pain. Surrendering finally, the life in her eyes fading for the last time, watching the emergency lights turning mercifully to black as they flashed, again and again, across the war memorial cenotaph in Victory Square.
Now that persistent dream, to his great satisfaction and pleasure, has become reality. He is working on a series of five novels inspired by his travels on the coast of BC.