Stories from the Past?

Being an elder is an important job; not everybody can do it. There are qualifications… In traditional societies, survival was key –if you made it past a certain age, it was assumed you must have been doing something right. Teeth didn’t matter –just the ability to explain why you were still around. A few exciting stories didn’t hurt, either.

But evolution demands new stuff, and pretty soon, people began to want more than just being told things like ‘a tuber a day keeps the lion away’, or ‘be careful what you eat from your friend’s hair’. As knowledge accumulated, new generations began to demand more than just homilies from their old folk. They wanted more than memory –although that helped- they wanted entertainment: spellbinding stories around the bonfire that would keep the kids off the paths; clever lies about each family that would make them laugh and then argue later in their caves. Artifice required talent and the clever selection of words: metaphor; wisdom, however -the other ingredient- only required the clever sorting of experience: an accountant. Elderhood had specialized.

But the difference between elder and fogey, is knife-edge: you have to be old enough to have lived through things the young have not, but you also have to pretend to remember enough of it so you can tell them about it. Accuracy is not as important as story. History, after all, is what we choose to recall; it is what somebody decides is worthy of reminiscence -even if it’s not.

It used to be that we older folk controlled history –it was hard to check our versions. Nowadays, though…

Allan didn’t believe in the internet. He got all his news either from television or paying attention to the next table at Starbuck’s. He would readily admit that he missed some things, but by and large felt he had an adequate command of the stock of tragedies accumulating around the world. He also felt comfortable in discussing what he felt were the root causes of all the troubles: history. Strangely enough, history had a distinctly Allanesque flavour to it, though; everything seemed to be mirrored in the small Saskatchewan town where he grew up –it was the global proxy.

I happened upon Allan one day, sitting all-ears at a little table in a busy Starbuck’s. As soon as he saw me, he stood up and signalled me to join him. He looked pleased to see me. Pleased to have someone to talk to.

“Allan,” I said as I walked over to join him. “I haven’t seen you in, what, two years…?”

“Three,” he said, waving his hand dismissively as if impatient to dispense with the usual formalities of greeting. “Have you heard?” he started, as soon as he saw my coffee was safely on the table. I raised an eyebrow. Allan hadn’t changed physically, over the years –he was still short; still bald; and he still seemed incapable of getting his shirt buttons in the correct holes. I mean, how could you trust someone like that? Anyway, something in his expression also told me that he was also still story-laden. Word heavy. His eyes twinkled and I could feel one coming.

“Heard what?” I said, and smiled to be polite.

He rolled his eyes, as if he had yet more evidence to impugn the use of the computers for anything other than Pac-man -his keyboard excursions had aborted at an particularly early gestation. “About the hostages!”

Although they had always looked artificial and falsified, I remembered his almost-visible exclamation marks. Allan had the uncanny ability to project his words as if they were illuminated on a screen in front of you. I think he anticipated PowerPoint presentations by at least a decade. I could not remember a hostage situation in the news, however, so I shrugged politely to suggest that maybe I had, maybe I hadn’t.

“But taking hostages is not new, you know,” he said, and stared at me as if there was a need to defend the thesis. And then he was silent for a moment, probably thinking I’d want to digest that important revelation. “Capturing people was perfected long ago…” he added slowly, and then stared quietly, patiently, at his coffee so I couldn’t see his eyes.

But the stillness became uncomfortable as he waited for me either to challenge or agree with him and I felt compelled to splash the surface. “No… I don’t suppose it…”

He jumped at the opportunity. “I remember back in the town where I grew up…” He hesitated, to make sure I was following him.

“Small town in south Saskatchewan, right?” I added helpfully to reassure him I hadn’t forgotten.

North Saskatchewan,” he corrected me, complete with visible italics, as if the information would have a profound bearing on what he was about to say. “Anyway, when I was about eight… No, I think I was in Mr. Spencer’s class because my friend Janice had just developed smallpox, so I might have been seven.” When my eyes opened wide in surprise, he thought about it for a minute. “Well, maybe it was chickenpox –I forget, now…” but he shook his head when he realized where his confusion might have arisen. “There was a big chickenpox outbreak in the town some time around then. People blamed it on the eggs from McIver’s farm because they’d started to feed their chickens grain they couldn’t sell because of the fungus…” He stopped for a moment, shrugged, and looked at me. “Well, that’s what people said, anyway. Science hadn’t worked its way that far north yet, so people pretty well believed everything the old folks told them.” He smiled, as if to assure me that they’re much smarter in northern Saskatchewan nowadays.

“Anyway…” He hesitated, and then slowly sipped at his coffee, obviously wondering what he had been talking about.

“Chickenpox?” I suggested, helpfully.

“Oh yes. Well, Mr. Spencer was no fool.” Another pause. “Actually, no, it was Miss Alliman.” He started nodding his head at the memory. “She taught us arithmetic and geography…” He glanced at the ceiling for confirmation. “Health, too.” He smiled, evidently pleased with himself for finally nailing it down. “Anyway, Miss Alliman thought it was smallpox. She said she was pretty sure that Janice didn’t have chickenpox… or measles, or whatever. She had us all come over so she could point out what was happening on Janice’s face.” He tossed a cautionary glance at me. “Not to touch her, of course. ‘You must never touch someone with smallpox’, I remember her saying and slapping John Simcoe’s hand as he reached for her.”

I have to admit that the Starbuck’s, faded around me as I found myself in the little classroom crowding around Janice somewhere in the north. “How did Janice…?”

“Oh, she loved the attention,” he jumped in, anticipating the question. “You have to remember that Janice was shy –but only because she was taller than the rest of us and we used to make fun of her because her clothes never fit -she was growing so fast, I guess. But now, finally, she had something to show off other than the wart on the side of her nose. She used to charge new kids a candy during recess if they wanted to touch it…  She’d meet them out by the swings near the pump if the weather was good. Otherwise it was behind the little green outhouse –it had a bit of an overhang on the roof there for some reason. When she couldn’t get a candy, sometimes she’d settle for jam sandwiches, but when the new store opened in town, most of the kids spent their allowance there on candy so they were easy pickings…” A serious look appeared on his face. “She didn’t like peanut butter, she told me once when I tried to touch it.” He shrugged, embarrassed at the memory. “I was kind of fat then and I wasn’t allowed candy.”

It suddenly occurred to me that Allan was going nowhere with his story, but even though I couldn’t remember why he’d started, I have to admit that I was curious about the smallpox diagnosis in Janice. “Did Janice have…”

He chuckled loudly before I could finish -something else had occurred to him. “Miss Alliman took Janice to the doctor as soon as we’d looked at her poxes. It caused quite a commotion in town.”

I looked at Allan, expecting to hear that the doctor had needed to quarantine everybody. And then it occurred to me –maybe they’d been the hostages Allan had started to talk about. But, as with all of Allan’s stories, there was a twist.

“No, she didn’t have smallpox, or chickenpox, or anything like that…” He smiled at me, waiting for me to ask what she did have. But I was too confused to take it further and so he shrugged. Reluctantly. He hated to give stuff away without a struggle. “Impetigo,” he italicized finally. “It’s a skin infection,” he added, on the outside chance I didn’t recognize the word.

He sat back in his chair, pleased as Punch and massaged me gently with his eyes while he waited for me to process everything and come up for air.

I succumbed to the increasing pressure in spite of myself. “So what has all that to do with hostages?” I asked, finally deciding to confront him about the reason for his story.

For a moment, he seemed puzzled; the story had just kind of gotten away on him. And then his face brightened with a justification: “Uhmm…” He was stalling while he organized his excuse. “I just took you hostage didn’t I?” He downed the coffee, glanced at his watch, and stood up. “For about five minutes, I’d say…”

But he was wrong; hostages are unwilling prisoners; I’m still wondering about the eggs…

 

 

 

Batmen

Retirement is about more than naps. More than lallygagging about malls wearing out-of-date clothes. Retirement comes with responsibilities not even dreamt of in the philosophies of workies. Bats, for example.

Few people, in the midst of their busy and largely inconsequential lives, are aware of the unusual issues that continue to confront our species: the things that go bump in the night… Well, bats do more of a swoop and flutter as they make their last-second decisions to abort attacking stuff in our hair, but you get my meaning.

Until I had the leisure to think about it, I had always naively assumed that bats lived in immeasurably large swarms in caves somewhere. They came out at night to reek havoc on unwary blood-bearing creatures and gave them rabies if they resisted. They used radar and struck silently and unexpectedly from above on moonless nights like drones. Resistance was futile.

When you are retired, however, you can plan for these things. You have time to read On War-that timeless classic by Clausewitz- and I imagine Machiavelli’s the Prince, not to mention his Dell’arte della Guerra are on most of our bookshelves. But I don’t mean to be arrogant -in the years since my girth has ripened, my vision has followed suit, and despite the successful mastery of bifocalship, I always find myself sleepy if I make it past page three in Dell’arte… We are all not so much masters of our fate as captives of our reduced focal lengths.

What I did learn about bats from more mundane and accessible sources, however, is that they are found all over the world, can live anywhere, and eat mainly insects or fruit, rather than necks. And while this bit of esoterica allayed a few of my primal fears, it did curb a longstanding habit of throwing my apple cores onto the lawn behind the house in the mistaken belief I was helping the environment. I still put the coffee grounds in a little pile beside the porch, however.

But despite all the time at my disposal and despite my appetite for delving into the Mysteria, I have to admit that bats were not a problem for which I felt I needed a prophylactic. Ants, yes. Ants are so visible, especially when they move. Especially when I find them floating in the hot tub. And especially when I find little bits of sawdust on the floor of my largely wooden house. Ants demand action. Bats…? Well, frankly I’d never seen one anywhere near the hot tub so why would the subject even arise? How would I know that they could capitalize on this indifference? Terror requires victims; bats require opportunities.

A friend of mine –okay, it was somebody I met in a line at McDonald’s- told me he was attacked one night on his balcony. He’d been using one of those hand-held propeller things for something and just as I was about to ask what that was and why it was being used on a balcony, he stopped talking and stared at me. ‘Bat’ he mouthed, as he grabbed his burger and fries with king-sized coke to-go and hurried away. I think it was ‘bat’ that he mouthed, but it’s sometimes hard to tell what lips are doing when your lenses are fogged up. In retrospect, he could have been referring to the rather large teenager behind the counter, but I can’t be sure.

Anyway, I started wondering about bats, and hand-held propeller things, so I googled them when I got home. I still don’t know what he’d been holding, but I did reclaim my knowledge of bats, and how they hunted. Apparently, their sonar allows them to detect movement patterns, so maybe his propeller had attracted them. Or, maybe I got it wrong from the start and he’d actually been holding a Hawaiian drink in his hand and overdosed on his statins. He wasn’t very clear on that.

It got me thinking, though. I have a propellor-like ceiling fan over my bed and a door that opens onto the porch and my hot tub… That’s as far as I got, however. I thought perhaps I could use that bit of information later -maybe even at McDonald’s. But the significance of what I had discovered escaped me until it happened: the attack.

It was a hot summer night (temperature only, I’m afraid) and I was feeling restless in the heat. For some reason I decided that a brief dip in the hot tub would make me so warm that my bedroom would seem cool when I got out. I mean the logic is sound, eh? Anyway, I forgot about the mosquitoes out there, so I never actually made it to the tub. I ran back into the room, slammed the door, and jumped on top of the bedcovers to take advantage of what evaporation the hot air being fanned onto the sweat on my skin could produce.

And then it happened. Ever get the feeling when you enter a dark room that you are not alone? I heard strange knocks on the walls; skitterings that only things with claws can make; and air currents that fans simply cannot produce. I tried to sleep, and was almost there, when something unutterably alien flirted briefly with my nose. My fancy immediately suspected an attempted abduction, but my hand –rational as always- simply reached for the light switch.

My walls are wood, and filled with knots and stuff, so it is really difficult to spot something –anything- clinging to it unless it moves. It moved. And when it saw me, immediately mistook my fly-away hair for a herd of insects and swooped. Actually, I think it panicked when it saw the size of what had been making the air move inches above my head (I had assumed a defensive squatting position on the bed by that time).

When I finally recognized it as a bat, my paternal instincts kicked in and I wanted to protect it and help it and, well, get rid of it. But what to do? I certainly wasn’t going to let the insects in that were now beating on the door to get at the bedroom light, so I did the next best thing –I opened the inside door so the poor thing could explore the rest of the house and eat whatever it could find. I would deal with it in the morning.

In fact, I have no idea what happened to it after that. It was nowhere to be seen while I was having my breakfast, and nothing turned up on a subsequent search of the house. I mean, I couldn’t inspect all of the knotholes or anything, so I comforted myself with the hope that maybe it was entombed in some room to be discovered years hence as an archeological treasure.

And yet, some nights, when the clouds are gathering around the moon, and the wind is whistling softly through the eves, the house will stir as I lie in bed. And I remember the little bat and wonder if it made it out somehow… until I hear the skittering on the wall. Dementia creeps in its petty pace from day to day -but so do bats…

 

A Day in the Life of…

We’ve all heard the urban legends of men refusing to stop and ask directions, preferring instead to drive around all day in hopes of happening upon their destination. In fact, neither gender likes to think it is lost; it’s all just fear-mongering -along with sex, the problem actually disappears with age: even if they let you out, it’s hard to get lost in a walker. And anyway, it is the days that cause us trouble.

Not the names, of course –there are only, what, seven of them and they each end in ‘day’ so they’re pretty easy to remember. No, it’s just that they’re all homozygotes and dress so similarly, even their mother would be hard pressed to identify them. I used to be a whiz at days –even before iPhones or those watches with the answer written in tiny letters whenever you press the correct knob twice in a row. Sundays were especially easy for me: they always followed Hockey Night in Canada. And on Mondays there were usually people in the office… Long weekends were a problem, though, I have to admit.

But once I retired, things just sort of wandered out of order. Because I wasn’t going in to work, I realized I couldn’t even decide which socks to put on (I always used to save the clean ones for the office in case I was in an accident, and had to undress in the Emergency Department, or something). Rituals that had hitherto seemed day-bound and important, vanished along with the morning commute. Driving expletives slipped from my vocabulary leaving only pap to suffice for those rare occasions when I was honked at for walking on the road on my way to the store.

I am currently working on a system, though, and I thought I would try it out on my friends when I met them for coffee. Unfortunately, what with their medical appointments, physiotherapy bookings, and dietary restrictions, our visits were as yet unpredictable. Sometimes the excuse was that they were fasting for a test, or waiting for their refurbished dentures; sometimes they were dizzy on their new pills, or their driver’s licence had been confiscated –there was always something!

Eventually, though, I managed to hammer out a sort of tradition with those that survived and were still allowed out on their own. I suggested we avoid weekends because there are never any tables -same with Fridays for some reason. And because there always seemed to be some long-weekend or other that none of us could name, let alone predict, I suggested we nail down Wednesdays. Except for the occasional Christmas and New Years stuff, Wednesdays are generally free.

Of course, therein lies the original problem, doesn’t it? How do those of us without partners, find Wednesday in the rustle of days on either side? I suppose some of the lucky ones have those pill-reminder boxes that are labelled with the days of the week, but the rest of us are still left guessing about the socks.

I suspect I’m making these meetings sound like weekly conventions, but mildew -having whittled down the number left after eliminating those confined to bed, on chemo, or institutionalized- left us only three… and one of them sometimes had ‘spells’ after which his wife claimed he couldn’t speak for days.

George, however, seemed as healthy as me, and only rarely forgot to show. He became the obvious –and only- target for my system.

“George,” I said, as soon as he’d sat down and placed his wobbly coffee safely on the table. “We’ve got to find a bullet-proof way to identify Wednesdays in the otherwise endless string of days.”

He looked at me for a moment, unsure whether I was making fun of him or not. “Wednesday comes every week,” he finally said, having thought it over carefully. “They always fit right in the middle of the pack.”

“Then why did you forget to come last Wednesday?”

George shrugged and dressed his face in his best wry smile. “I was here; where were you?”

“That’s what I mean, George. We need to agree on what day is actually Wednesday and which one is just pretending, don’t you think?”

I could see the wheels turning furiously behind his furrowed brow as he tried to pick the logic apart. It was clear that at least one of us had counted wrong and he couldn’t convince himself that it was him. “They all kind of look the same when you wake up, don’t they?” he finally conceded so I wouldn’t lose face in front of him.

“Exactly my point, George. Fish in a bowl, right?” He nodded, but warily, in case I was trying to trap him into taking the blame for last Wednesday. “So I’ve got an idea…”

One eyebrow stretched lazily and he blinked –curiously I thought. “I’m listening…”

“Well…” I stretched it out for effect. “We both live nearby, right?” He nodded. “And if it’s Wednesday, you’ll be here, right?” He nodded again, but with more emphasis this time. “So… if I walk past and you’re here, I’ll know it’s Wednesday…” I knighted him briefly with my eyes. “And if you walk by and see me here…”

George is a smart man –he got it immediately and smiled. The logic was irrefutable. And it was win-win. “We’ll always, know,” he mumbled with admiration.

Yup, we’ll always know, I thought, proud of my idea. Even when we’re in cognitive decline, Wednesdays will still stand out like pills on the counter…

 

 

Outercourse

Conversations are good; you can even learn stuff. Of course I guess it matters who you talk to and where you are. You don’t learn much in a men’s washroom, for example -but then again you don’t tend to talk much in there either. It’s a guy thing, I suspect. So, you have to pick your spot if you want to commune.

And now that I am retired, I am trying to experiment with spots. Having been largely asocial for most of my life, however, I find myself at somewhat of a disadvantage in this regard. A superficial analysis might suggest that colloquy varies in direct proportion to numbers –the more people there are, the more they are likely to engage. But I have since found that this is frequently mistaken. You have to be standing in front to speak in church, for example –and even there, if a question is asked, everybody seems to answer at the same time. Otherwise they’re pretty silent.

Another seemingly obvious intuition that I have since proven unreliable, is the group rule: if a whole bunch of people are talking together, you are welcome to join the conversation. No, you are not. That’s all I’m going to say about that.

But, over time, I have managed to whittle down the situations where an outsider will not be savaged for attempting an innocent and unprovoked exchange of words -‘Outercourse’ I like to call it. Even so, I think you have to be very careful carrying unusual words near strangers lest they misunderstand your intentions and move away, however. I am still perfecting the technique.

One of my first experiments was in a Starbuck’s coffee shop. Coffee has always made me unduly chatty and I should have known better than to have attempted it without a more detailed preparation. Normally, I peek in the door first and see if there is likely to be a table free by the time I’ve made it through the line. And I generally avoid tables that are sandwiched in the middle of a row largely because of my apparently frowned-upon habit of opening my sausage and egg sandwich to let it cool. I can’t tell you the number of opprobrial stares that seems to draw in a crowded place. People will actually lower their iPhones and glare at me. The message is obvious: This is not MacDonald’s, old man.

So, although I prefer to sit apart –in the window if possible- I came to realize that the very practice that had served me well for many years was an impediment to any meaningful conversational opportunities. In fact, so was my breakfast choice. I decided to change: if distance was the problem, I would sit in a middle table; if the sausage-and-egg sandwich was a barrier, I would eat it hot –or at least let it sit in the little serving bag until it was safe to lick … I mean touch.

I rehearsed the initial stages of my plan in my head as I walked into the Starbuck’s. It was almost empty that morning –no line, most of the tables were free, and although the empty window seat beckoned me like a drug, I was resolved and my determination to engage in tentative Outercourse unshakable. There were only two tables occupied along the entire wall and I chose the empty one between them. Yes, there were stares and eyes that flitted like arrows pointing to the plethora of empty tables at a more respectful distance, but certain of my purpose and determined to sit beneath the sword of Damocles hanging above the table, I positioned myself conspicuously between two women.

One –a middle aged blond (I think)- was bedecked in bling and wearing what looked to be an expensive yellow shirt with a truly unique brown pattern on it –very Rorschach. I quietly compared it to the Walmart apparel I had chosen for the day. She was busy riveting her eyes to her phone and despite my accidental spill of salt onto her table from one of those little packages you can never tear, her fingers continued to tap at the phone like an urban woodpecker.

The woman on the other side of me seemed more approachable. She was older, bandannaed, and wearing what seemed to be running apparel that was clearly several sizes too small for her. But she eventually smiled at her phone and I took that as a good sign.

I left the sandwich bagged, and sipped noisily at my even hotter coffee. Suddenly I was a blank. Apart from the coffee, there was nothing on my table but the bag –no phone, no book, no computer –nothing to say that I belonged here. I had no excuse for my presence except consumption; I felt naked.

Suddenly the bandanna looked up at me, scowled, and then disappeared into her phone once again. But it was an opportunity of sorts –I figured she must have been between apps, so I leaned over towards her and pointed to my wrist.

“Do you have the time?” I asked, wondering if my watch had been visible when I lifted my arm.

She mumbled something irritably that I couldn’t hear, but it sounded like a question. Then she stood up, clasping her phone like a bible, and waddled away, followed almost immediately by the bling woman.

The two baristas stared at them as they left, and then smiled at me.

“Did I do something?” I said as one of them came over to clear the mess on the tables which the women had left.

The barista laughed. “You came in when it was all over…”

I sensed gossip and my ears perked up immediately. “What do you mean?”

The barista glanced around quickly to make sure nobody could hear her. “They were both sitting together at your table at first. And the woman in the running gear had ordered the sausage and egg breakfast sandwich like you.” Another furtive inspection of the room.

“But then, the runner opened up her sandwich to let it cool off, if you can imagine,” she said in a semi-whisper and shaking her head at the obvious Starbucian faux pas. She noticed mine still in its bag, politely cooling off on its own and smiled her approval. “Her friend got angry; said it was a disgusting habit and covered it with the bag. Then one of their coffees accidentally spilled…”

I’ve decided there are a lot more things in heaven and earth than were dreamt of in my Starbuck’s heretofore. Maybe they should post some rules at the door, though…