My eyes opened to Clea, sitting perfectly still and staring out the bedroom window. She looked serene, perfectly at ease with whatever she was seeing. I wondered if this was a regular morning meditation. She hadn’t said anything about it, but just in case, I let myself quietly slip into the darkness behind my closed eyelids. I listened to my breathing and thanked god for small mercies. This was a woman I could live with.
Sometime later she was shaking me awake. George we going to miss our warm croissants and homemade peach preserves. Wakey wakey. I looked up at her greeny eyes and silvery charcoal hair and said Can we do this again sometime? She bit the end of my nose. Playfully. I got up.
Two other couples graced the breakfast table. It was the first place I’d been in where such a family atmosphere was forced upon you. I wasn’t entirely sure that I wanted to look at someone else’s dirty fingernails. An Asian couple from Albany, New York introduced themselves. Vicky and Daniel.
We made shy small talk for a moment and then they excused themselves. They were due in Ottawa for lunch at one and really couldn’t be late. I envied them and didn’t know why, though I would later.
Clea and I were then entertained by Dave, an ex-cop from Manchester, and Gillian, a Galt mother of four who grinned with the glee of a successful escapee. Between jokes Dave let us know all about suing for support if the business was shady and the papers missing. Gillian’s ex was, of course, the original slimeball from hell, the one from whom all the others took their cue. Dave obviously saw himself as St. George, the dragon safely buried and the kingdom restored to its rightful place in the sun.
They too had places to go and people to see. After their departure Clea and I shuddered at the shallow insignificance of our lives, and dove into the warm basket of croissants with renewed concentration. A very pleasant breaking of the fast ensued. Our host appeared, seeking approval. I had the feeling that his spouse had just scolded him and shoveled more warmth into my smile accordingly. He seemed to appreciate the effort and removed himself from the room quite satisfied.
Finally alone, we sipped at our coffees and smiled, all carefree and knowing. I heard Clea’s thought before she uttered it, or at least, I thought I did. Who is to be the judge of it? You? Me? A panel of independently selected judges? She wanted to phone and see how Kendra was doing. I reminded her of hangovers and their sleep inducing qualities. She nodded and grimaced.
I suppose I’m trying to be substitute mom. Maybe I shouldn’t, she is twenty.
Who knows, maybe I just want you to myself.
Aw George, that’s sweet. And maybe true.
I’ll see that smile as indulgent rather than patronizing if you don’t mind.
I dunno, I think I’d rather be enigmatic.
The minute I shut the bedroom door she called on her cell. Somebody answered, I could hear from the bathroom, but it didn’t sound like our girl. As I was shaving, Clea walked in and announced another crisis.
Another crisis George. You ready for this?
Kendra thinks she’s pregnant?
Well maybe, but when Marie got back from church she found her trying to carve herself.
I’m afraid so. She thinks we should come over quickly.
How much damage?
Sounds like Marie did her best.
We moved like middle aged lightning through the ancient rituals of paying the innkeeper and making our farewells. As we drove Clea brought me up to speed on Kendra’s family situation. Mother, of course, now dead; father long gone and seemingly untraceable; grandparents aging gracefully on Vancouver Island; an uncle of some renown teaching in Melbourne.
Well that really narrows down the options doesn’t it?
Clea soured her usual smile. I wanted to help when Peggy passed, but I sure didn’t bargain for this.
And what is this as far as you’re concerned?
Taking her in I suppose. Pulling her to my bosom and suckling her? Who knows?
“Your house isn’t big enough.
That’s if she wants to come.
Yeah, right. How are her marks?
Average. Not that great.
I guess mum slowly wasting away didn’t help much.
It was hard to tell just how much. Breaking up with her boyfriend last summer kinda clouded the issue. Peggy was all smiles on morphine…
Because you told her about the afterlife?
Well partly, but I’d been yakking away at her for years on that, but partly because she’d just surrendered her resistance.
Was that hard to watch?
Actually no. At least not for me. Her first year of denying, anger and struggle was tough. But when she surrendered she was really a sweetheart.
She found strength in surrender?
Or maybe I did. Maybe she just did it for me. Me and Kendra. I dunno, but there was something, something almost magical about her those last few months. You can say it was the morphine, and some did, but in her weakness and exhaustion there was a radiance and a stillness.
Sounds like that stillness kinda shook you.
You trying to be insightful?
No, but if it’s a sore point pretend I never said it.
She gave out an unbearably cute Clea grimace that I pretended to ignore in case she thought to modify it.
We climbed the stairs to what seemed to me to be very much like our fate. Clea laughed and called me a damned fatalist. In the otherwise empty hall we listened to ourselves walk. As she tapped on the door I flashed on a high school hospital visit to retrieve the first of several acid casualties. Mike Roy had dropped three tabs instead of the one he been told to and had flipped at a pool party. I’ll always remember as we dragged him away sodden how beautiful and rambling were his descriptions of water’s molecular structure. Fortunately his polished-to-a-shine parents were in the Caribbean and would not return until well after his manic stare had lapsed back into the droopy gloom we all knew and loved. My mum, bless her old hippy boots, insisted he stay at our place, where, with dad safely selling buttons to Eskimos, as she was fond of putting it, she tantalized him with tales of Michael Hollingshed and parties in swinging London with all the beat group boys.
Marie hushed our entry, as our wounded soul lay snoozing. I could see she wanted to fuss but was afraid of waking her charge. I stepped back into the hall to hear all the details. At the conclusion of her little victory speech I awarded her an elaborate and sincere badge of gratitude, which I’m sure she wore well into the next week. She asked if we were taking Kendra home; I said I supposed so, but refrained from adding god only knows what we’ll do with her. With Marjorie back in town Clea’s space really was seriously curtailed and I just couldn’t see where she would put her. But leaving her here didn’t seem to be much of an option.
I poked my head back in; Clea was sitting quietly by Kendra’s bed. She raised her eyebrows in silence. I made a cup to mouth gesture and whispered half an hour: Clea nodded coolly. Clicking the door quietly I said where can we get a good cup of coffee?
Marie directed me to a reasonable facsimile of a bistro, where she surprised me by ordering a latte and not once speaking in tongues. What she did speak of was riddled with worry and concern: worry over society and its corrupt and materialist values, concern over others who might so indulge and fall by some wayside she could clearly see. A study in the pitfalls of being earnest, thought I, as removed as any king from the concerns of the common man. I seemed to float above the scene, borne aloft by the burble of Sunday morning banter. Offering occasional comments of a, shall we say, more worldly nature, on my young companion’s very Christian plight, I thought I glimpsed a fake impersonating a buffoon, but I could’ve been mistaken. Marie seemed impressed with my shepherding of her youthful concerns and we returned to the scene of her good samaritanism in the smug accord bestowed upon those who so place their begging bowls that they form a smooth looking sphere.
Before she set out to a friend’s for a late lunch, Marie scribbled her number in my daybook, declaring her availability for anything that might come up. I thanked her again and offered a hug. Perhaps the tumultuous events of the morning had prevented her from taking that much needed shower, but I admit I was relieved when she backed off to smile bless you before turning away.
Feeling, in some small measure, actually blessed, but begging off with the usual case of unworthiness, I ascended to the next level of intrigue that would inevitably drag me, in craven curiosity, further into the alarming enigma which seemed to want to engulf me. Maybe it even needed to engulf me.
Clea and Kendra were ready to go. I smiled to the sad girl’s apology, bent to carry one of her bags and we were off. Our procession was stately and somehow funereal. But what, exactly, were we putting to rest? Certainly not Mr. Lee, who popped up impudently to manicure my momentary freedom from guilt. And I must say, he did a fine job. I offered to drive, and Clea wisely sat in the back with the basket case, who began by mournfully staring at the passing display, moved into snuffles and muted sobs, and then fell asleep on Clea’s shoulder. I grinned at the face in the rearview mirror: a tongue waggled in reply.
A tape of Clea’s, what sounded like new-age harp and trickling brook, soothed away the miles. Sometime later I noticed that she had moved to maneuver Kendra’s head onto her lap. I gave her a friendly wave and seeing her lovely smile, silently thanked that portion of my luck which allowed her, of all people, into the drama.
Toronto, as usual, lured me into fancy metaphors of arterial flow and the trance dance of fear and desire. But something in me didn’t buy it, and never had. Sounded way too much like a bad case of the thought-trendies, the type of thing that could easily get me a job on one of those earnest lefty weeklies. I thought of my mother’s tee shirt save the baby whales for jesus and flattered myself by assuming I’d come by my iconoclasm honestly. But just to be fair, you should know this: once while defending cities to a couple of ecoterrorist types at a party, someone had recommended Jane Jacobs as the bible for urban apologists; rapscallion that I was, I was still trying to get around to her. Meanwhile I lane hopped with the best of them, my charges safe and snug.
Clea’s place was empty but for cats, who purred about our ankles expectantly. Kendra sat stiffly on the couch where Clea and I had carved our love nest but a few nights before while Clea buzzed about organizationally and I stood about trying not to look clueless as I thanked the gods for Marjorie’s absence. Finally I asked Kendra how she was doing. She shrugged in as perfect a portrayal of disconsolate as I’ve ever seen. I wanted to weep, I wanted to slap her upside the head, but I sat down and threw my arms about her shoulders and whispered these things pass. She did not appear immediately convinced so I hugged her again. But I quickly felt her stiffen and pulled back. Now it was my turn for a shrug, albeit a reluctant one. Maybe the tooth fairy would drop by tonight and put things aright, but I was fresh out of moves.
In the kitchen I kissed Clea and asked if she thought I’d be better out of the picture for now. She pursed her lips and nodded. I suggested she call me if anything came up and slipped out before the second act, her beguiling smile shadowing my retreat.