Lilies that Fester

They’re cute alright; nobody can deny that they are cute -soft, fluffy, teddy bear cute. Everything about them shouts hug. But when I first saw it lallygagging up the driveway as if it was just out for an evening waddle, those were not my thoughts. Crepuscular activity has always seemed suspicious to me. I mean if something is not willing to cast a shadow, then maybe there are issues. And anyway, allure is contingent, don’t you think?

So, even if you brush its coat, straighten its stripes, and tie a ribbon around its neck, a skunk is still a skunk. In an olfactory world, beauty is as beauty does. I’d like to think I’m not being unduly speciesist when I observe that some attributes are simply not attractive, however utilitarian they may be to the animal in question. That it’s not their fault will not get them through the door.

But I digress. I think would find skunks more attractive if they didn’t sneak up so quietly, or better still if they snuck up going the other direction. But I recognize that this would be asking a lot of an animal intent upon getting back to the wife and kids after an evening prowl through the garbage. Alea iacta est, right? What’s a driveway for, if not a direct route to the garage? And home. Had I not trespassed on his route when I did, the cares of its day would have folded their tents like Arabs and as silently stolen away… Longfellow certainly understood skunks.

I had begun to notice a distinct… bouquet in the garage over the previous week that had none of the characteristics of car, or woodpile. It did not smell faintly bicycley, or wet-booty, nor when I checked –just to be sure- armpitty. I had to be certain, you understand. Despite the ecological footprint, the house is heated by oil, and the tank is in the garage –I would have installed wind turbines had I been asked, but the real estate agent was new at her job I think. At any rate, depending on the prevailing wind strength, the overwhelming impression when you enter the garage is that I have an oil refinery in the back yard. An indiscreet date once asked me whether I should have my septic tank inspected… I don’t do much entertaining.

Skunks probably don’t either. Wherever they go, telltale effluvial fewmets follow. I can appreciate what dogs go through in their odour-driven world. I think only a skunk could live with a skunk. Good thing they don’t believe in miscegenation –they’d have a hard time selling their profiles even online. Interestingly, though, like a strong enough deodorant, the skunk fragrance almost camouflages the petrochemical aroma for which I have become famous. And for what it’s worth, I’ve noticed the disguise is particularly effective under the oil tank, although I haven’t actually poked a stick in there. It is still terra incognita to me.

I mentioned this to Brien when I next visited his porch. As usual, he was sitting, heavily wrapped in blankets, on a lawn chair whose aluminum frame bowed and creaked with the effort. It fairly screamed abuse, but Brien was deaf to pity. He’d continue to use it, he’d say, until they came for him. Typically, he did not elaborate.

In many ways, Brien is perceptive although I don’t think one could make a very good case for sensitive. As I worked my way up the broken fragments of his sidewalk, he inspected me with a pair of concerned eyes. He looked as if he wanted to say something and then decided to have another taste of his beer instead. He is nothing else if not a creature with poor impulse control.

“I suppose you’re gonna tell me another horror story of your rats, eh?” Like I say, he’s perceptive. Not subtle. But at least he’d intuited distress on my face. “Thought you’d got rid of the buggers with your peanut butter traps.”

“I have,” I said, unprepared to have to defend my rat strategy. “Well, at least they know enough not to wave when I go for wood…”

He nodded his head compassionately, but when I actually reached the porch he seemed to sniff the air like a huge prairie dog. “Skunks, eh?”

My eyes opened in wonder at his intuition. Did I look that skunk-laden, or were my eyes truly windows to my thoughts?

“Get sprayed?” he asked, pointing to chair for me several feet away.

Now I felt embarrassed. I’d just come from Starbucks and had wondered about the smiles. Normally people just ignore me. “No, but I think there’s one living in the garage,” was all I could think to reply.

“Near the fuel tank?”

Again I was amazed at his perspicacity. “How did you know?” I gushed.

He shrugged. “Oil stain on your pant leg,” he said, pointing rather rudely I thought.

This was positively Sherlock Holmesian. Brien was certainly more than just a big man, I realized.

“By the way,” he said after thinking about it while he emptied the contents of a bottle into his mouth, “If you’ve got one, then you’ve got more than one.”

My god, I thought, gazing at him with increasing admiration, this is sort of like hearing a Buddhist koan. I almost expected him to attempt to explain the sound of one hand clapping next.

“Probably got a common law and some illegits under there,” he added to diffuse what he thought was my puzzled expression while he searched blindly under his chair for another beer with his hand.

My heart sank. I’d never persuade a date to get out of the car –assuming I could even get one when word got around…

“Moth balls,” he said when his hand finally connected with a full bottle.

“Pardon me?” We’d gone from Zen koan to nineteenth century clothing pesticide. I couldn’t keep up with him.

“Roll a few of them under the tank,” he said and pointed to a beer on the far railing.

I stared at him curiously as I walked over to get the bottle, but he just smiled. “I keep a box of ‘em in the shed with the lawnmower.” He opened his bottle with a flourish worthy of a television commercial. “Never had skunks in there.”

I smiled at his wisdom. I don’t think Brien even has a shed, let alone lawnmower, but I didn’t feel I should point that out when he was trying to be so helpful. And anyway, maybe he keeps stuff under a tarp somewhere. We all have a suburban myth to live up to.

I stopped off at a hardware store on the way home to buy mothballs and the only thing the clerk said to me was “Be careful what you wish for, mister.” I thought it was kind of rude. He probably didn’t have a skunk family living under his tank.

At any rate it was with a certain flare that I emptied the whole box and kicked them, one by one, under the tank -crepuscularly, so I would not find them at home having supper.

It worked I think –I haven’t seen the skunk or his missus in days- but I’ve taken to parking the car in the driveway and using the front door to the house because a lady in Starbucks asked me if I’d just taken my clothes out of storage. I didn’t think she was my type though, so I didn’t sit at the table next to her. I have enough trouble getting dates without having to defend my clothes as well…

Going Gentle into that Good Night

Okay, okay, I just thought you had to be polite. Maybe a little sensitive: a smile here, a nod there –that’s all it was supposed to take. Nobody told me there was an ethical framework involved. For that matter, I wasn’t even told there were rules until I got here. But I suppose the play doesn’t end until the curtain comes down so I should have guessed. I should have realized they wouldn’t understand –they couldn’t. Once the curtain falls, there is no encore…

Retirement is hard on people –the ones still working, I mean- and you can’t just assume they will adapt. Or care. There should be classes they are required to take when they are first hired. Or maybe an app that guides them through it one stage at a time –an interactive one, so they can be sure they understand that work is only the second chapter in the drama. They are denied the third act until they’ve earned it –without that, the play is meaningless. Forgotten.

I’m usually only looking for a table in Starbucks –faces come in a distant second. And besides, unless they’re ringed with grey hair, the heads arrive and disappear like bubbles in a boiling pot. But every once in a while, a pair of eyes will inadvertently disturb the water where they’ve hidden, and pattern recognition takes over. Familiarity doesn’t necessitate identification at my age, but occasionally a name will float close enough to the surface to grab.

I hadn’t seen Thomas in a while –not since he worked for the accounting firm our office used, anyway. He’d changed in the interim, I think –what hair remained on his bespectacled head was thinner, with only hints that it had once been dark and shiny. Now he wore it much as a tonsured monk might –but messier. And yet there was a certain consistency to his appearance as a whole. He was dressed, tieless, in a creased, off-white shirt, open at the neck. I couldn’t see more than the cuffs of his pants, but even in the shadows of the table where he huddled, they too appeared wrinkled.

He sat, anonymous as a bush in a forest, staring sightlessly at the room, a coffee sitting motionlessly in front of him like a dirty rock steaming in the sun. If he hadn’t brushed me accidentally with his eyes, I might have missed him. Maybe he had not wanted to engage, or maybe my name and face lay as firmly in the past as his to me, but memories intertwined atavistically at the fleeting retinal touch.

“Thomas,” I said, walking over to his table with coffee in one hand and bag with a steaming breakfast sandwich in the other.

He glanced up from studying the faux-wood surface where his mud-filled beverage lay and suddenly smiled. “Edward,” he said, half rising from his seat and extending his hand, “How are you?”

“It’s James,” I replied, but sotto voce, because he seemed so happy to have remembered a name.

“How have you been?” he continued. “I haven’t seen you in…” he thought about it for a moment. “…Years…” But he sounded uncertain, so I left it lying fallow.

I sat down still smiling broadly. “Yes, I guess it has been a while hasn’t it?”

There was an awkward silence while he evidently tried to recollect just where he’d seen me. The fact that he and the accounting firm he represented had dealt with my taxes for several years seemed lost on him –or at least misplaced. But lost or not, he didn’t seem to be hauling unpleasant jetsam aboard, because his expression was unwavering, if unreadable. “So are you retired now?”

The fact that we both looked undisguisably long in the tooth and dressed the part, he could not see. Or chose not to. So I merely nodded pleasantly as if to acknowledge we were fellow travellers. But I felt I had to reply in kind, in case he saw it as a wound that needed bandaging. “How about you? Still working at…” -I couldn’t remember the name of the firm- “…accounting?”

His face changed and a shadow seemed to cross his brow. “Retired three years ago, Edward… I think you beat me by a year or two…” He glanced at his coffee as if something were written inside the rim. “Funny you should ask, though…” His eyes walked up my arm but stopped short of my face. “I went back to the office yesterday –just to say hello, I suppose. You know… see how things were getting along there without me…”

His expression darkened like that shadow; I should have left it there, but I smiled and looked at him as if it was the type of thing we all do. “So, how was it? Still the same people there?”

He glowered at the table. “Nobody even recognized me, Edward! After twenty years in the firm, and ten years in same the office at the end of the corridor, nobody even looked familiar -except one of the typists who got my name wrong when she saw me…

“They all thought I was on the wrong floor, or lost…” He stared at the ceiling for a moment. “Finally, one of the women –the one who emerged from my old office, actually- came over and shook my hand. ‘We had a heck of a job getting your old desk through the door, Timothy,’ she said, proud that she thought she’d remembered my name. ‘They even had to unscrew the legs and destroy one of the drawers to get it down the corridor.’ She laughed when she said that, as if it had acquired the status of a legend that was told with twinkling eyes around the water cooler, or something.

“My regional manager was away sick, she informed me, in front of some of the others, but by the looks on their faces and the eyes darting back and forth, I gathered he wasn’t expected back…”

His face seemed so sad, I had to look away for a moment.

“You ever go back to your old studio, Edward?” He evidently couldn’t remember where I worked either –the Past has a way of Rorschaching itself, I suddenly realized.

I smiled –lamely, I suspect- and shook my head. You can never go back.








High Intensity Retirement

I like exercise –if for no other reason than when I’ve finished, it makes me feel like I have expiated some ill-defined atavistic, yet autogenous guilt that I nevertheless like to blame on my mother. I suppose it borders on the masochistic to enjoy feeling that muscle groups everywhere are self-destructing, but there you have it –a modus vivendi. It’s not for everyone, I realize; not all of us require the degree of atonement bred so cleverly into my genes –okay, into my mother’s.

But each time I walk past Brien’s place and see him sitting motionless on his porch staring at his favourite tree, I wonder whether his mother had been a little too lax in her parenting. Too light on the guilt. Of course he’s retired now, as he is so fond of reminding me, and he feels he’s earned his sloth –although he prefers to refer to it as lassitude because he likes the word… I had to look it up.

Anyway, I am always on the alert for shortcuts to fitness for him. I have, in fact, made it into a kind of evangelistic vocation, so it was with no little frisson of excitement that I decided to tell him about an article I’d found in an old edition of the BBC news on the subject: And it’s rather cleverly disguised by what seems to be an encrypted acronym, HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) which is a plus –it would at least get me onto the porch.

“Hey Brien,” I said, waving at him from the sidewalk in front of his house. He always likes a warning salvo before the trespass.

“Hey,” he said, sounding as if I’d just wakened him up. Brien is a man of few words. He claims it’s to conserve energy, but I’ve been trying to encourage him to lengthen his sentences as a kind of warm-up thing.

“I found another article for you to read,” I said, threading my way with care over the cracked and broken concrete slabs that led to the porch. He used to tell me that he thought they discouraged thieves, until I pointed out that those kind of people would probably walk over the lawn to sneak up more quietly.

Even as I approached, I could see him rolling his eyes –his version of a stretch, I suppose. “Exercise again?” he asked with a yawn. He once called me an Exercise Witness, but I think he’d forgotten the right name. Anyway, I don’t hand out pamphlets or visit anybody else in the neighbourhood.

“Just fifteen minutes a week, Brien!” I thought I should italicize it, even though I knew he wasn’t very good at picking up those sorts of subtleties.

His eyes had stopped rolling by the time I reached the porch and were now wandering over my face as if they were hunting for something –the catch, probably.

“As a matter of fact, just 5 minutes at any one time…”

The eyes suddenly jerked upward to fence with mine. “Thought you said 15…”

His eyes were now embedded like fishhooks, so I smiled to disarm him. “Five minutes, at a time, three times a week on different days.” I thought I’d better clarify it for him.

“So that’s three days, you mean?” I nodded. “I have to spread it out…?” I nodded again, although I was beginning to wonder if I’d got it right.

He walked his eyes over to the tree again and hung them there for a while. Suddenly they returned with another question. “If you only need to do 15 minutes in a week, why can’t I get it all over with in one go, so I won’t have to worry about remembering it all the time?” It occurred to me that it might have been the longest sentence I’d ever heard from him.

I thought about his question for a moment. I couldn’t recall anybody in the BBC asking about that. I suppose the idea was that most people don’t have the time to do the 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week that they claim is usually recommended. “Well,” I started, sewing together my argument as I spoke. “It’s actually five bursts of 60 second exercise, each followed by 90 seconds of rest… I imagine it’s kind of tiring…”

“Hah!” he announced with a truly athletic show of eye-rolling. “Knew there’d be a catch.”

I sighed theatrically to indicate my frustration. “But that’s why you get to rest after each exercise!” I think I wasted the exclamation mark -they just seem to bounce off him like commas. “And you get to rest five times!” I wondered whether also adding two italicized words in a row might win him over instead, but I could tell by his confused expression that I’d squandered those as well.

“I’m not arguing about the rests,” he explained, obviously trying to be patient with me. “More about the need…”

I threw my hands up in exasperation. “We have to keep fit when we get older, Brien.”

He rested his eyes on my cheek and left them there until I cooled down. “Fit for…?”

That was unfair. “Fit… So we can…” But I was stuck, and although the smile that crept onto his face gave him away, he waited quietly for me to say something so he could refute it; I decided on ‘health’. “…So we can be healthy.”

His smile grew until it split his face into two halves. “Which means…?”

His use of the ellipsis was beginning to bother me –I hate it when people copy my grammatical stress relievers… “Which means… I don’t know… That maybe that we can continue being able to do what we want.” It was weak, but it was all I could think of with his eyes sitting on me.

“I am…” He was just playing –he knew he had me. He summoned his eyes and sent them off again to roost in the tree. “Isn’t that what retirement is for…?”

The Last Laugh

I can’t say I expected to wear my life like an unwashed shirt, or laugh so hard I’d wake the dead and startle babies in their cribs; I didn’t wish for endless sunny days, or nights so full of stars I could barely breathe. I am as content to live with rain, and wind that bends the forest trees; they all surprise me like the dawn each day –that they are each and always different is the delight. The wonder.

I am old now, and that, too, amazes me as much as finding laughter still waiting where I least expect it… ‘With mirth and laughter, let old wrinkles come.’ But who am I kidding? I’ve always chortled at the slightest mischievous glance and roared with glee with the roll of an eye. We all do, really… We think we only laugh at intentional humour, and yet most of us giggle or laugh spontaneously -incongruously even- to diffuse a situation, or to foster social bonding, perhaps… that you needn’t worry, there is no threat; it’s all just play:

There may be no rhyme or reason for it, so should we always call it laughter? Or something else? It is clearly not a form of speech –the tongue is quiet; the jaw is still- and yet there is a message in it. A purpose. It is a primitive, not a rational response; it was not snuffed out in the mutational race for adaptation. Evolution saw fit to keep it. Even rats can laugh –but quietly, I think; they have a lot at stake…

And yet, the thought that ‘One study found that people laugh seven times for every 10 minutes of conversation’ got me wondering. What, exactly, were they counting? Criteria are important here. When does a smile become a laugh? When does a sudden exhalation count? Or an unexpected expression? Do you always need the same pattern each time? I couldn’t find the original study –was it a joke? An attempt at creating yet another urban myth?

I decided to do a pilot project of my own to see if there was enough evidence to pursue it further. But, rather than exposing my clipboard in malls across the city, I figured I’d start with Brien on his porch. And my criteria would be strict: a laugh would have to involve a kind of dance –either of the face, or the body; it would have to be non-threatening; and it would have to make me want to follow suit. Not leave.

But then I also decided there should be some eye action because you can tell a lot from the eyes. I added a few additional columns to my chart to include extra stuff that might crop up. I knew I didn’t have to worry about counting random smiles with Brien –they were not part of his social vocabulary- but shrugs were. In fact, he proffered shrugs like most of us extend our hands in greeting. So I added a thin little column for shrugs at the edge of the page. He was probably not the best person to enlist for a laugh study, but you have to start somewhere. And in science, you’re not supposed to pick subjects just because they will support your hypothesis. The fact that I didn’t actually have a hypothesis yet, was a bit of a worry, but I decided to create one if Brien went well.

“Hey Brien,” I yelled from the sidewalk in front of his little house. He was, of course, sitting on his porch staring at Sheda, his favourite tree. Usually, it is alive in the wind, and he likes to watch the waving motion of the branches and bob his head in time to the rhythm. I’m sure the neighbours think he will need to be moved to a Home in the foreseeable future; in fact, Brien is just easily amused. And harmless. But I could see a worried face inspecting me through an upstairs window in the house next door. I decided to leave the clipboard in my backpack.

He looked up as I approached and his eyes twinkled before his face spoke. “Why are you wearing the knapsack? Not trying to get me to go for a walk again are you?” But I barely heard the words –I was trying to decide whether the twinkle could be counted as a subspecies of laugh. It occurred in a jesting situation… Well, for Brien anyway. And he had kind of snortled when he said it.

I laughed in response. “No,” I said, a little too defensively, when I recognized my own laugh and glanced at my watch.

“You don’t usually wear one of those,” he said, this time shaking his head as if he knew something was afoot. “And there isn’t usually a clipboard sticking out of it when you do…” His face crinkled merrily and he would have reached for my pack if I hadn’t quickly moved it out of his reach with a short giggle. That unleashed a short “Ha!” on his part that caught me unprepared for his second and successful lunge for the offending board.

“Want to mark that one down, Brien?” I said as he examined the columns I had drawn and labelled. “I figure the ‘Ha’ probably counts…”

He chuckled. “What time do I put?” He wasn’t wearing a watch.

“And there’s another one, while you’re at it…”

He smiled and chortled softly to himself as he extracted the pen from under the clip. “This is almost as much fun as the tree.” He glanced at me. “Whoops, there goes another one.”

I had to join the giggle when our eyes met.

He handed the clipboard back to me with a little flourish, his eyes, positively dancing with delight. “Here, it’s your study,” he said. “Laughter Frequency Study?” He rolled his eyes and then shrugged. “Couldn’t you have come up with a more… clever title…?” He stared at his tree to see if maybe it could help.

I sighed stertorously, but with a smile on my face –a laugh…? “Like?”

Another shrug and an impish, mobile movement of his chest.

This was getting too complicated; there weren’t enough columns, I realized. Not enough criteria…

“Oh, I don’t know… How about…uhmm, ‘Titter-Totter’? Or…” But I could tell from his expression that he was more curious about why than what. He stared at me for a moment or two –examined me, really. “Why did you want to count laughs?” he finally asked, after an involuntary snuffle through his nose that was instantly defused with a toothy smile and a friendly shake of his head. “Thinking of doing Retirement standup comedy?” he said, looking at me suspiciously out of the corner of his eye.

I shook my head, embarrassed.

“Good,” he continued. “Never work, you know.”

“Why?” I said, suddenly defensive, as if he was trying to deny my sense of humour.

He shrugged again, but this time shaking his head and pointing at the clipboard as if he were confused. “You’ll never know if they’re laughing…” And then he actually laughed, and his whole body shook.

Sometimes, I think you can tell…