Mouth Honour

Now that I’m retired, people don’t quite know how to talk to me. They’re curious, but cautious –after all, they’re talking to an old man. Retirement is a kingdom far away and over a fence for most people. It is a land cloaked in eternal shadows, a place where people talk loudly, and canes, not swords, hang on the coat rack beside the faded pictures of those long gone. A realm where memories are indistinguishable from reality. A place of unhurried rest. I hate that.

But I suppose that’s what I saw when I was living prairie-like as a younger man and looked at the mountainous horizon ahead, full, not of peaks so much as troughs –valleys in which, once entered, I would be forever trapped. Well, I see it differently now, and although there is a certain sense in which I find myself confined, it’s a verbal prison, not one of steep cliffs.

The voice is like a muscle –it atrophies without constant exercise. Even its children, words, get lost if they’re not chaperoned, or at least analyzed at the table. There’s an unanticipated vacuum lurking in retirement for some of us. Unseen and largely unmeasured, it steals upon the unwary like a cirrus cloud on a winter’s day: adialogia. Okay, I just made that word up, and anyway, even for me, it’s only hypodialogia –I do speak occasionally to the cat, and in periods of exceptional verbal drought when the cat is out playing with mice, I speak to wrong numbers on the phone.

What this does, of course, is weaken the cords. I mean it’s not like I can talk very long to the mirror without running out of stuff to say –especially when the other guy keeps interrupting. And it’s not like at the office, where I had to be an active listener and an even more athletic answerer –people expect answers, if that’s why they came to you in the first place. So in those days, I got my exercise at work; these days, my voice is becoming obese –or whatever happens when it just sits around and lollygags its way through a rainy day.

But humans have not evolved this far without an uncanny ability to cope. To improvise. If the mountain will not come to the senior, why then, the senior must go to the mountain. Of course, even though there are a lot of mountains near where I live, I’d still be doing a monologue with the trees. I decided on Starbucks instead.

Even there though, it’s location, location, location. And similar to the housing market, you can’t always get what you want when you want it. Ideally, a table smack in the middle would allow a multi-quadrant exposure to potential ears, but one must adapt. Wasn’t it Camus’ Étranger, Meursault who said he could adapt even if he were lying in a hollow log looking up at the sky? Well, anyway, I thought that was what he said until I couldn’t find it.

At any rate, I decided to take whatever table I could find as a trial run, and then figure out an exaptation. And, of course, as luck and the morning addiction would have it, I was relegated to a table in a dark corner near the washrooms. I suppose it was a bit pathetically fallacious, though, because I decided to splurge on a Venti, dark (with room for milk) -I didn’t want to run out of coffee before I found someone to talk at… sorry, talk to.

The problem with too much coffee, apart from the obvious –which I figured I had aced- is that it shifts word production into overdrive, and I found so many wandering around in my mouth that I just had to let some of them out. There was an older woman sitting at the next table glancing every so often towards the door as if she were expecting somebody. She had enough napkins on her table for a bridge game, so I realized I had an opportunity.

“Excuse me,” I said, with a desperate smile on my face, “I seem to have forgotten to get a napkin. May I borrow one of yours?” Weak I suppose, but words were pounding frantically on my teeth to be let out.

She turned her head and examined me for a moment. “Borrow?” she finally said, her face trying to achieve some form of equanimity, while her fingers sorted through the pile to find one that wasn’t already soiled with spilled coffee. “Here,” she added when she happened upon a relatively dry one. “But I want it back when you’re finished, eh?” Her eyes twinkled at the thought, and a row of spotless dentures surfaced briefly.

I hadn’t expected the ‘eh’ for some reason and it threw me off. The only thing I could think of was a brief lip-wipe, and then a rapid redeployment of said napkin back onto her pile. “Thank you, ma’am,” I said, trying to make my now-clean lips appear grateful for the shine. But I shouldn’t have let my guard down, and a few more words burst out as if I hadn’t screwed the cap on quickly enough. “I really should have brought a few more over to my table when I got the milk and sugar so I could have returned the loan with interest…” I managed to stem the flow briefly, before some more spilled out. “Of course, if I had my own, then I wouldn’t have needed to borrow from your stash, so…” I had a quick sip of what was left of my Venti to discourage another prison break.

First she glanced at the barely-soiled napkin returnee and then turned the full force of her eyes on me. “But then we wouldn’t have been able to engage in this intriguing conversation either… Would we?” Her face softened and she unhooked her eyes from my cheeks and let them fly back to the door again.

But my words were milling around inside still, now excited that some of them had been able to escape. I could almost hear the vowels begging for a ride on the consonants so they wouldn’t be left behind if the doors opened again. I decided to go for it. “Well, if there’s ever anything I can do for you to return the favour, just look for me at this table, eh?” When I saw her eyes narrow, I immediately regretted my choice for parole. Of all the words banging around in there, why did I let that group out?

I have to say she did smile –well sort of. It was more the kind of expression you see on politicians’ faces when somebody heckles them at a rally. A kind of polite dismissal. The words inside suddenly fell silent and I could hear them taking their seats again, embarrassed at their usually well behaved colleagues’ improprieties. They weren’t going to be accused of Aspergering their way out. For a while, anyway.

And in the quiet that followed their abashed capitulation, I became aware of another voice from another region, gesticulating silently for my attention. I smiled and touched her sleeve as a sign of apology and headed for the washroom. But when I returned, I found that my table had already been taken by two other women, both talking to my new friend. They all fell silent when I reappeared, however, and their eyes bespoke a certain trepidation –like children wondering if they’d been overheard.

“I’m sorry, sir,” my lady said, pretending surprise, then glancing at her friends as if to say they would probably need the rest of her napkins. “I thought you’d left…”

I bowed slightly and smiled a weak acquiescence. My lips were more comfortable now but I thought maybe I’d order a cookie-to-go from the counter. Perhaps the barista would listen to me for a while if I took some time to choose…




You and Me

A face is very personal –it is what our friends recognize about us, and it’s what we get used to seeing in a mirror. It may not be beautiful and it may have some features we’d rather it didn’t, but at the end of the day, it’s still us. And apart from reconstructive surgery, or some terrible accident, we’re stuck with it. I wouldn’t have it any other way –I like to know what to expect in a reflection. I like to know just who I am shaving.

I suppose there are many ways to compare faces: ‘“Most people concentrate on superficial characteristics such as hair-line, hair style, eyebrows,” says Nick Fieller, a statistician involved in The Computer-Aided Facial Recognition Project. Other research has shown we look to the eyes, mouth and nose, in that order.’  And we tend to generalize similarities, even though side-to-side comparisons might not hold up, so unless a face is truly unusual, it could be mistaken for another. I was once mistaken for Steven Spielberg when I was visiting the old Jewish cemetery in Prague. I considered giving autographs, but I am neither Jewish, nor do I write very well. And anyway, I don’t think it was my face as much as the baseball cap I was wearing.

But that’s just the thing –if I’d been wearing a turban, nobody would thought to ask. Context is everything; you have to be lucky.

Edward was lucky –he was always being mistaken for somebody he wasn’t. And since he wasn’t really anybody in particular, he loved the opportunities it presented. Even I felt special if he came over to my usual table in the window of the local Starbucks. A tall man, with wavy  greying hair and impeccably dressed, he always carried himself like royalty. He looked like someone you should know. I’d known him since university when he was just a slob, though. I think that’s maybe why we used to hang out together –in those days he made me look good. Now, it was me who basked in his light.

“Thought I’d find you here,” he said, coming from the cold of a blustery day in February. It was snowing outside and I’d seen him hurrying by through the steamy plate glass window. “I need you to do me a favour…”

The way he said it made me suspicious. I’ve never trusted an ellipsis, and his was as obvious as a gravel road. I sighed, and reached for my wallet. “It’s not money again is it Eddie?”

His eyes immediately flew back to his face and his forehead, in a long-practiced sweep, suddenly appeared insulted. “No. Of course not… But, if you’re reaching for your wallet, I wouldn’t mind a coffee… Twenty dollars should do, I guess…” he said, eyeing the solitary bill inside.

Damn the ellipses. They were spilling out of him today. “Want your usual bagel, too?” I thought maybe if I were generous, he’d feel guilty about asking me to do something outrageous for him again. Last month, for example, he wanted me to tell a woman he had just met that I’d seen him in a movie.

“You can tell her you saw it a couple of years ago and forget the name of it now,” he’d said with his eyes holding out their little wings like they were pigeons begging on the street.

We’d arranged to meet right here as if by accident. But when he’d arrived at the assigned time, he was alone.

“Turns out she was married, and her husband came back early from his trip,” he said and shrugged, as if he couldn’t win them all. “But he saw me talking to her in the mall, and walked over and asked me if he’d seen me in a movie somewhere, though.” All was not lost. It never was with Edward.

I tried hard not to roll my eyes when he returned with a breakfast sandwich, a bagel and two chocolate chip cookies as well as a coffee –venti size, whatever that means. Oh, and a latte.

“Didn’t have time for breakfast today,” he explained. “And I have to meet Charlene again for lunch…”

“Again?” I could feel what was coming next.

“She’s the director of a small local film company and she’s looking for a lead male role –something about a guy who gets lost in a forest, or something…” He suddenly sighed. “I met her at a party last night, and we danced the hours away…”


He smiled his best innocent smile. “And I told her I starred in a little Nigerian film about an explorer in the jungle a couple of years ago…”

“So where do I come in this time?”

He wasn’t so shy about rolling his eyes when the need arose. “So, it’s a foreign language film, and you saw it on TV when you were visiting Britain last year and you immediately recognized a person you hung out with at university. But you don’t remember the name of the film, however.” Then he winked –or at least he closed one eye as if it was practicing for another role. “And the name didn’t make any sense to me either, of course…”

“Of course.” But I still suspected something. This time it was the italics that gave it away.  “When are you…?”

Just then he looked up and waved at the window. “There she is. We decided to have brunch here…”

I allowed my eyes to roll for a moment. Charlene burst through the door, her glasses steaming from the sudden warmth. A beautiful, albeit short, blond she immediately recognized Eddie and hurried over to the table.

“Charlie,” Edward said, standing up politely to offer her his seat, “This is my oldest, dearest friend…” but before he could say my name he realized she seemed to recognize me already. In fact, her eyes were saucers.

“You never told me, Eddie,” she said, her eyes prisoners on my face. “Wait, don’t tell me your name. I’ve seen you in something…” She closed her eyes for a moment, scrolling through her mental celebrity list.

I could already see that Edward was annoyed. “No…” I said, self-consciously using the dreaded ellipsis in my embarrassment.

But her face turned coy as soon as her eyes flew back to their little cages. “You guys are so protective of your privacy, I know. I won’t say a thing,” she added with a little theatrical gesture as her finger flew to her lips to ensure me that my identity was safe with her. She turned to Edward and blinked. “You never told me you knew him, Eddie…” she said, blushing, and then stared at me with eyes that flushed not so much with recognition, as worship.

Sometimes words are unnecessary; I decided to bask…







Evolution of the Clap (blush)

Exaptation­ –I’ve loved that word from the first time I heard it. Mind you, I don’t hear it very often and that may be what keeps it so special. Even its sound is pedantic though, don’t you think? Exaptation is a process by which an organ or feature acquires a function for which it was not originally evolved. It was first coined in the early 1980ies (by palaeontologists Stephen Jay Gould and his colleague Elisabeth Vrba) to replace the word pre-adaptation, a word that suggests teleology –purposive directionality- and therefore not random Darwinian selection of the most effective traits on offer. There are legion examples out there, but perhaps the most easily understood one is that of feathers. They started out as heat regulators (on dinosaurs), then served for sexual display (although as yet we have no pictures of dinosaurs doing this), and finally for use on birds for flight.

But a rather unusual example that has lately intrigued me is that of clapping. Who would have thought, eh? It was first brought to my attention by a BBC radio podcast (The Why Factor): – play

Bipedalism may have encouraged clapping the hands, or whatever you call them on non-humans, by freeing them from the mud. Chimpanzees apparently slap the ground –of course maybe that’s simply because they can; I find it difficult to get down that far unless I’m actually lying on it, but you take my point, I hope. Clapping the hands is a great way to make noise and attract attention without yelling. It can be done in large crowds where its mood can be conveyed by the intensity or tempo of applause, and where individuality is subsumed and effectively represented by the collective. Roman emperors used it as a kind of unofficial poll of their popularity, and so hired clappers to infiltrate crowds in stadia to, well, encourage clapping.

There are many variations of the clap and I won’t go into them at this time except to say that rhythm, cadence, intensity, and type of noise produced all convey unique and recognizable  signals. Much like the contagiousness of a yawn on an elevator, clapping can be infectious, especially if someone else starts it –a form of social permission, I guess.

Clapping varies according to culture or convention –clapping at church, for example, is usually frowned upon even more than falling asleep. You are allowed to clap after an operatic aria but not after the end of a movement at a symphony. Why? Uhmm, you just have to know these things, apparently.

So where, does exaptation fit into the act of clapping? And what, exactly, is being exapted? Well, it would take a rather bold leap to suggest that hands evolved for clapping any more than the knees did. Granted the hands make more noise and everything, but it’s still a stretch. Hands made it through the evolutionary mill because they can grab things –first, branches I suppose, and later, the salt shaker across the table. Fingers persisted because, among other things, they can point at stuff and indicate whether it’s the salt or the pepper you want –co-opting different hands, in other words.

Sometimes ideas are such good ones, I have to wonder why I hadn’t thought of them before. Evolution is one of them of course, but right up there and sitting in the front seat, is exaptation. What a great use of resources –waste not, want not. It makes me realize what a wonderful exapter my mother was –a woman clearly ahead of her time. Who else would have thought to use her hands, not to pick things up, make noise, or climb trees or anything, but to spank? Okay, the exaptation did not originate with her, but she was one of its most vigorous proponents.

I therefore like to think I am not only a genetic repository for her hands, but also their broker. It occurred to me that I could perhaps make use of the idea to fulfill a life-long dream: time on the pedestal -allow others to notice me as much as the mirror does.

Clapping is contagious, remember –but once it starts, you’re just another pair of hands. Stop clapping and nobody would notice. But start the clapping… Then you become the index case -the cause, the instigator, the powerful one. The idea of starting an epidemic like that was intoxicating. Even if there were no credits, no mention of it in social media, I would know. I could even do an anonymous post on Facebook using an avatar of a hand: the sound of one hand clapping, perhaps -the Phantom Clapper.

I decided to start off small -hone my skills. There is often a man playing a guitar on the sidewalk across the street from the Starbucks I sometimes frequent. He’s not very good, and I’ve never seen anybody putting money in his little tin, but sometimes people do stand around –usually at a distance- and watch, hoping he’ll get better, or maybe because they’re just embarrassed for him. Anyway, it seemed like a perfect place to begin.

I practiced my clapping for a couple of hours at home –you have to do the right clap, eh?- and then sidled up to listen from across the street. Two people were smoking at a little table outside the Starbucks, and a group of teenagers, seemingly oblivious to the guitarist, were gathered around a lamppost laughing at something. Nobody seemed to be paying the slightest attention to him, however. It is incredibly weird to start clapping about something nobody even realizes is happening, so I decided to buy a coffee and a cookie-in-a-bag, come back outside, lean against a wall so everybody could see me, and wait.

Unfortunately, by the time I came out again, the guitarist was arguing with the teenagers who had now crossed the street to bother him. He was shaking his fist at them and shouting something that, even at a distance, sounded obscene; it was definitely not a clappable moment. Then I saw him kick at one of the kids which, although he missed, I suppose it was another exaptation –the world seems to be full of them.

I leaned back against the wall and sighed, disappointed at my failed debut, but I decided to attempt a little mini-clap at the venue anyway and then go practice my technique at home again. Unfortunately, though, my hands were full. Even so, I did identify one more exaptation that would have made my mother proud: ever hold a bag between your teeth?



Excuse Me?

You know, by and large I’m pretty content with being old… Well, not old as in wrinkly and cane-bound -more like calendarially acquisitive. However, there is one thing that I have lately discovered that greatly inhibits my social intercourse –a design flaw, I think: hearing.

It’s not that I can’t hear things –I am very attuned to volume and the background melee in which they seem invariably embedded -it is more the interpretation thereof. Indeed, the backcloth seems to swallow words, and dissolve them into a meaningless pap that I am forced to process later at my leisure like a cow. You would think that Evolution would have issued ear-cuds, or something, but I suppose Darwin couldn’t think of everything.

Evolution takes time of course, and yet I’ve learned it sometimes also takes short cuts; that gives me hope. Exaptations they’re called –the use of a pre-existing mechanism for something other than its original function. Jury-rigging it. Feathers, for example, which once-upon-a-time probably served only for thermoregulation and maybe sexual attraction, were then adapted, as time and circumstance allowed, for flight –a kluge. Why design something new, eh? So, given that I didn’t get in on the feathers, I figured maybe I’d be up for second prize.

I realized quite recently that most of my trouble with interpretive hearing loss tends to be self-inflicted, however -it seems particularly bothersome when I wander into people-infested areas. Starbuck’s springs to mind… Brien, too -when he’s not receiving visitors on his porch, he consents to meeting me for a coffee every so often. But although he is a man more comfortable with grunts and head nods, I still have trouble making those out from across the table in the noisy room.

So I decided to exapt. I’m actually kind of embarrassed I hadn’t thought of it before. And nothing very complicated, or anything –I think it’s better to go basic when you first try something. Sort of feel your way around. The concept I settled on was proximity –if you can’t decipher what someone is saying over there, go over there. I hadn’t counted on Brien’s reaction, though, and as I leaned closer to his face to decipher the sounds, he countered by receding. His back was to the wall, and when he finally realized there was no more room to recede, he pushed me away with a vigour he’d never demonstrated on his porch even when he thought I was reaching for the biggest cookie.

I immediately grasped the fact that not all exaptations succeed –or at least not at first. Proximity needed a little work. But as I thought more about it, I reasoned that since mouths form words, and lips can be seen from a distance, maybe I could fashion my own kluge: translipping, I suppose you could call it -lipping for short. The added advantage is that from a few feet away at least, the person observed thinks you’re really looking in his eyes. This makes him feel you are actually paying attention. I’ve come to realize that it works better with a gender imbalance, though, because when I tried it with Brien in the crowded Starbucks venue a few days later, he again backed away and kept turning his head. He needs to get out more.

But when I was lipping, it seemed to help a bit. I think consonants work best, though – probably because of the need for larger and more demonstrative lip excursions. It reminded me that originally, the Hebrew alphabet was an abjad­ and consisted only of consonants. Maybe they used to have hearing problems in those days too, so they figured they’d make it easier for people in the bazaars, or whatever. Brien didn’t think that was right when I told him my theory, but neither of us are Jewish, so we left it there.

There was some progress, however, so I thought I’d expand the potential and try distance-lipping. Brien encouraged this; he said it would feel like he’d got his face back.

“Try it on that woman over there,” he said, pointing like a child in a supermarket when we were next in Starbucks. His target, when I eventually grabbed his arm and lowered it, was an attractive brunette with long shiny hair and curls that danced on her shoulders each time she laughed. Her eyes were almost as alive as her full, red lips, and every so often I’d earn a hint of sparkling white teeth when she looked with growing concern in my direction. She’d started out with the expected balance of fricatives and labiovelar articulations, but as she began to glance my way, I noticed an increasing frequency of velars and labiodentals. Her eyes, too, began to harden. Soon, I had four lips to practice on, because her boyfriend –I didn’t notice a ring- began to velate. I was right on the cusp of decrypting their meaning when he stood up and swaggered over to our table. Brien pretended to have dropped his little paper napkin on the floor, so he missed the eye-boxing I received.

“Why were you staring at my wife?” the man said angrily.

That was unfair –I mean he wasn’t wearing a ring, or anything. “I…” Actually, I was so alarmed, I couldn’t think of an answer that would defuse the situation.

“He’s almost deaf,” Brien replied for me, coming up from under the table au moment critique. “He’s learning to lip sync..”

“Lip-read,” I corrected him. Sometimes you probably shouldn’t be too pedantic.

The man stared at Brien for a moment, and then shrugged. “Well… practice on somebody else, eh?” he said and walked back, somewhat subdued.

I risked a quick glance at them after he’d sat down again. Their faces were huddled together, but I was pretty certain I could make out lip for ‘handicapped’ before I hurriedly tore my eyes away.

“You’ve got to get a hearing-aid,” Brien said, as soon as they left, but he said it slowly, as if I were foreign to the language, and he opened his mouth like he was singing in a choir and made his lips over-perform with each syllable. I hate that.

Anyway, I’m okay on his porch when the only other sounds are Sheda, his tree, rustling in the wind, and the occasional rattle of his dentures when he eats cookies with nuts. So a hearing aid seems over-kill.

I’m waiting for the ultimate kluge that I read about in the BBC news. I found an article on the brain’s solution for making sense of speech in a noisy room:  I didn’t understand it really, but I gathered that scientists have found the area of the brain that not only processes sound, but is able to focus on different parts of noise to make it more intelligible. There must be a way of exercising it, I figure -maybe doing purpose-built Sudokus, or being strapped into a specially equipped seat in Starbucks or something. Brien is all for it.


Do you ever have the overwhelming need to confess something –well, at least share it without the need for absolution? Coffee does that to me –all I need is a stranger who, although she may think I’m weird, is unlikely to pass it on to anybody I might know. I’m not Catholic, so I don’t have a neighbourhood confessional that I could pop into whenever the mood strikes. And anyway, I’m looking for a laxative for my soul, not a penance for my sins.

The trick is to find the right person -you have to be careful. Older women in conservatively coloured dresses staring at newspaper crossword puzzles work best for me. Admittedly, this demographic tends to frequent libraries and you can’t talk much in there, but occasionally one will wander into Starbucks on the way, so I lie in wait. Their smile is important, by the way –it suggests openness to new ideas, and a readiness to engage, if only briefly. But that’s all I require, really. I’m not looking for a relationship, just a pair of friendly ears, and lips that won’t report me. I don’t think my behaviour is pernicious for a coffee shop, but my friends seem to imply that I’m overly needy. And of course, this is not one of the things I usually seek to confess. I am more into existential disclosures. Nothing personal, you understand –I don’t want to go viral on Facebook, or anything; I favour revelations that encourage sympathy and unfettered eye contact.

Most communication is said to be non-verbal, so I have developed various adjunctive measures to help me along. Coffee waves, for example. These are subtle, controlled movements of the wrist that swirl coffee perilously close to the rim while making a point. I had a few accidents in the early days, but I’m now pretty reliable except when I’m stressed.

I also use the finger jab to good effect. This is risky, of course, and requires careful timing and impeccable judgement so as not to be construed as an assault, but with a little patience, it can be an effective technique. The finger has to be in and out quickly; it must never linger on the sleeve or describe any motion other than a mathematically unidimensional point. And, lest it be misconstrued, it must be used sparingly, if at all.

The object, as I said, is to solicit commiseration and unwavering attention. Not anybody will do, so I’m always on the lookout. Yesterday, for example. I spotted a grey-haired woman in a long, black woolen skirt and white linen blouse sitting comfortably alone at a table reading some papers. Although she was scowling, she was sipping on a latte of some sort as she sorted through the reports, and I took that as an encouraging sign. Nobody’s perfect, eh? A real estate agent, I figured. Good –they’re trained to listen. There was an empty table next to her, so I sat down with my multigrain bagel in one hand and tall, dark, blend-of-the-day coffee in the other as if I was a regular. Actually, I was just trying to get out of the weather.

As my wet clothes started to steam in the too-warm coffee shop, she looked over at me -rather haughtily I thought. “You do realize you’re dripping on my table, I hope.”

This did not seem like the opportunity I had envisaged, but I thought a clever reply on my part might diffuse the tension. Unfortunately, I was still trying to think of one when she sniffed at me –I can describe it in no other way.

“You’re just like my husband,” I could hear her mutter to herself as she moved her latte to the other side of her table.

“I’m sorry,” I said, although I wasn’t.

“He always says that, too,” she said in a louder, more directed whisper, all the while shaking her head. Then she stared directly at me, her eyes uncertain whether they should roost on my lips or my wet clothes; they decided to take up temporary residence on my face after hovering over it for the longest time.

“I didn’t mean to take out my frustration on you,” she conceded, but her expression was tentative, and it was clear that she was relieved that she did. “I’m sure you’re a better person than him…” And yet there was a hesitation in her words, that made me think she wasn’t at all certain. She sighed and withdrew her eyes so she could drop them onto the pages in front of her. The papers were obviously important.

“I didn’t mean to keep you from your work,” I said lamely, and then took a bite out of my bagel.

A smile surfaced briefly on her face, then disappeared into a scowl again. “I wish it was work,” she whispered enigmatically, and attacked her latte.

I made the mistake of glancing at it and was immediately jabbed by a finger.

“Do you mind?” she growled testily, and moved it further away. She was silent for a moment as she skimmed through a few more pages, all the while swirling her latte around inside her cup. I have to admit she was pretty good at it for an amateur.

Then she suddenly looked up from the page and glared at me. “Look, it’s a separation agreement, okay?” Her eyes were granite. “You don’t have to be so nosey…”

I quickly disappeared into the bagel and stared at my table as if I’d noticed something fascinating on the faux grain. Then I felt the finger again, only softer this time, and it lingered, evidently unconcerned about misconstrual. “He’s really not a bad person, you know…” she added, with marshmallow eyes, now intently massaging the paper in front of her. “He means well I think… He just has trouble expressing it.” She glanced at me briefly, but I could see tears forming in her eyes. “He wanted to go for counselling, you know,” she said smiling, finally. “I didn’t want to…”

She touched me again, but this time on my wrist and with her whole hand. She left it there, warm and soft, for a moment. “But, you know, after talking to you, I think I’m ready for that now…” The voice softened like her hand; she seemed a changed woman. “You’re such a good listener.”

Her smile was contagious and I couldn’t stop myself from nodding in agreement.

“I’m so glad I met you today,” she said, scooping up the papers and shoving them into a briefcase hidden under her table. Then she scraped her chair as she got to her feet, sighed in my direction to demonstrate her gratitude, and walked resolutely towards the door without looking back.

It’s so nice to share things with strangers, you know, but you sure have to pick the right person.

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.