“The victim tried to write something as he was dying,” she said.
“And how do you figure that?” I asked.
“The scratch marks. I see an “A” and a “B”. He must have realized there was blood under his nails.”
“So you think that he was writing the alphabet?”
The victim was a teacher. It could make sense. I covertly consulted my watch. Unlike my younger associates, I do not carry a cell phone. The superintendent ordered one for me. An eyephone, or maybe an earphone. I don’t know. We have no enforced retirement, thank God. Not that I wouldn’t want it, if I could afford it, but Mabel invested our retirement savings with her brother, who is currently on an island in the Pacific with said savings. As a result, I had to come out of retirement last year, and here I am, age eighty-one, supervising homicide cases again.
“No, that’s not what I think,” she said with exaggerated patience and rolling her eyes at the constable. She was sharp in every way. Sharp eyed, sharp nosed, sharp nostrils, pencil shaped, pencil browed. You can be assured that she has an eyephone and an earphone and every other electronic device that can be ordered from the tech division.
I suspect that she’s had my phone—the one that’s wired to the wall in my office—bugged. Do they still call it that? Surely there is something more clever than the bug that resided in the American ambassador’s office in Russia 70 years ago. It worked well, though. It was the discovery of that bug that made me want to be a spy. With my facility for languages I was a shoe-in. Unfortunately I didn’t have the stomach for murder. I flunked out of spy school, and they recommended I try the police force. A man disgusted by murder would make a good cop, they said. They were facaetious, but it was true. I am a good cop. “What do you think?” I asked.
“A name. Or initials. The A, B being sequential is coincidence.”
“You’re reading too much into it,” I said. “It looks to me like he was trying to hold onto the wall. That’s what I would do if I was shot and dying. I wouldn’t be thinking of leaving messages. Have you ever been shot?”
“No,” she said reluctantly. Presumably she looked forward to being shot. Sharply.
“I have. And you don’t think about leaving messages. You experience pain, shock, and disbelief, and your only thought is putting things back to the way they were. Staying upright, or shoving your guts back in. Personally I have not had my guts fall out, but I can attest to that being the case as I have observed other people’s guts falling out on more than one occasion.”
Did I mention that between being a spy and a police officer, I was a soldier? That is also not an occupation I would advise for someone who dislikes killing. However I did get a medal, which Mabel prizes. She even purchased a display case for it, and can’t understand how I could misplace the medal. It’s gold. If we are ever that broke, I can assure you that I would be able to place the medal in two shakes of a lamb’s tail. I have seen lamb’s tails shaking, and not just on a plate, but in the field. That was when I was a spy student. My friendship with the shepherdess I was supposed to be spying on was the result of my flunking my field assignment, not because of our relationship, that was encouraged, but because I refused to terminate it in the manner specified. If I hadn’t been a student, but a sworn in spy, I would have been disposed of in the manner that I refused to complete. “Have you checked his pockets?” I asked.
She—Detective Bradford, Anastasia Bradfrod—turned to the Constable. “Did you?”
He brought out the evidence bag. Both of them looked askance as I reached in with my bare hands. “This isn’t CSI,” I said. “You won’t find the murderer’s prints in your database. That’s what you call it, right?”
I was pulling their legs. Even fifty years ago, we had databases. They were on paper. I like paper.
Exercise 11: Crime scene
Hi Ellie, good to get your email. It’s been ages! I’m so glad to hear all your good news. The promotion sounds fantastic, and Guy must really adore you to take you on an around the world trip in a private jet for your honeymoon. I so sympathize with your troubles renovating. I could barely cope with renovating my kitchen, never mind turning a 2500 sq ft house into a 5500 sq ft house. The log cabin at the end of the property for your art work sounds fantastic, especially the large windows to look out on your private woods.
There isn’t so much to say at my end. I’m still married to Xavier and he is still a devout Catholic like his mother with whom he is so close. They go to church so often that I’ve suggested that he might want to book a room there. LOL. Our children are all healthy Thank God, with the usual sniffles and illnesses. Right now they’re all down with the measles. It’s not that I’m against innoculation, but I think I slipped up in the schedule or else they’re in the 5% that the shots don’t work for. So all six are crammed into the one small room. Thank God I had the measles as a child or I don’t know how we would cope since number 7 and 8 are on the way. I’ve got plenty of energy, I just don’t dare sneeze because the old bladder ain’t what she used to be.
The other day in Loblaws, which is under renovation, some dust got up my nose and I sneezed and, well, you just have to imagine the water fall that ensued. The chubby lady who works the customer service counter came running over, thinking my water had broken, I’m that big and only 6 months now, but when she realized what it was, she skidded to a stop, not knowing what to do. I suggested a mop, and waddled away, no groceries purchased.
I think that I keep Loblaws afloat all on my own, or rather on my own with the help of my family. The older three are teenagers now, and I can’t keep the fridge filled fast enough. But I can’t complain since so many families I know have real problems with their children, and mine are all healthy. I Thank God every day for my blessings.
Oh, in my congratulations, I forgot to say how thrilled I am to hear about your two children. Full scholarships to Harvard and MIT! That’s quite the accomplishment. And the presidential award, well, who would have known that when we were back in high school and I was tutoring you in math. It must be your first husband’s gene’s, may he rest in peace. I am sure that he inspired your children with his heroism, and they fully live up to the legacy he left.
My oldest is applying for a mechanics apprenticeship. He’s always loved tinkering, and he is eager to be out working. He doesn’t get it from Xavier, who can’t lift a hammer, but from his grandfather. Xavier sings beautifully and is in the choir. He is very busy, when he’s not in church or at work, with the local amateur theatre. I’d better go as he volunteered me to sew the costumes. I’m just not busy enough! LOL.
Ever glad to hear from you!
Exercise 10: Letter to an old friend; Envy
I had hoped, when I was in the hospital, that my mother would tell me the things I’d always wanted to know, like why she got married at 16 instead of waiting until she was 21. She had promised she would tell me one day, when I got married, then when I married someone she liked, then when I had my first child, then—well, you get the idea. She never did. And I thought that, sitting by her side, with the machines whirring, and the quiet of the night in ICU, that she would say all the things I’d wanted to know. But when she was awake, she was gasping for breath and muttering about the pain in her legs, and when she slept, I was grateful that she was out of pain. The nurse, competent, cheerful, a Jungian archetype of Nurse, adjusted settings and injected medication. Her name tag said “Trish.”
“When she came in she was talking about the stars,” Trish said. “She said, ‘The stars are so beautiful. I have a big bedroom.”
“She was talking about her room at the rehab facility,” I said. “It’s brand new. The rooms are all huge.”
“No, I don’t think so. She said it was a bedroom in the stars and her bed was so comfortable.”
That didn’t sound like my mother. The bed would be lumpy, or too hard, or too soft—that would be something she’d say. “Mmm,” I murmured noncommittaly.
“I lost my mother twenty years ago,” Trish said. “You never forget it. But I still talk to her, and I think she talks back. When the sparrow comes to my window, that’s her.”
“Toronto has a lot of sparrows,” I couldn’t help but say.
She smiled. The Jungian nurse is wise? I wondered. I’d have to look it up when I got home. “Yes,” she said. “But they don’t all have blue beaks. Blue was my mother’s favourite colour. Generally, what I say, when my mother taps at my window, is Fuck you. Don’t think you can get my forgiveness now. It’s too late. You should have talked to me when you were alive.”
“You didn’t get along?” I ask, curious. My mother is out of it again. I can’t do anything for her but sit and hold her hand, which is dry, arthritic, incapable of smacking me one.
“Oh, we got along just fine until I got married.”
“She didn’t like your husband?”
“No, my wife. She didn’t like my wife.”
“I’m sorry,” I said.
Trish shrugged. “She wouldn’t have liked any wife of her son’s. I always was a Mama’s boy.”
“You don’t look like one,” I couldn’t help but say.
“Thanks!” Trish laughed. “I was a pretty boy. Probably better looking than I am as a woman.”
“You look very efficient,” I say.
“Damned with faint praise.”
“And your wife?”
“She left me. And then a year ago she came out. The irony.”
“Yes,” I said. “Did you always know?”
“That she was a lesbian? I had no idea. Never mind, I know what you’re asking. I did and I didn’t. If I’d been born a girl, I’d have been a tomboy. It wasn’t like I wanted to play house or play with dolls. They’re boring toys. I destroyed my sister’s dolls. Not on purpose you know, but having them act out parts in my game about the Gulag, and then forgetting them in the frozen wasteland. I was very interested in Russia. In a previous life, I’m sure that I was Russian. I loved War and Peace. I think the first sign, to me, was the books I loved. That one, and Anna Karenina even more. I didn’t know any boys who liked the same books. I pretended to be interested in worms, fascinated by them. I wasn’t afraid of worms, you understand. I wasn’t squeamish.”
“No, you wouldn’t be,” I said, “not if you were interested in nursing.”
“I wasn’t then, but I didn’t mind blood or worms. I just wasn’t interested in the things my friends were. I didn’t really want to play with girls, either. Or at least not their games. For a long time I thought I was neither.”
“What changed your mind?”
“I wanted to be a nun.”
“Not a priest.”
Exercise 9: The setting is a hospital
I don’t see why all this fuss is necessary, the holes in the walls, the drilling. The drilling! Nobody thinks about the pain this is causing. All day long drill and pull, drill and pull, cutting plaster, putting holes in my home. The only benefit is the light coming through the plate glass, the beams of sun shining on me.
Copper can only be properly appreciated in sunlight. Gold—who cares about gold! It’s soft and ornamental, but of what use is it? Copper is beautiful and its uses are beyond count. That made me nervous when I was young. Thieves love to steal copper. But that is not my anxiety now.
I am watching the giant hands approaching my home, tearing out wires to the left and wires to the right. What is wrong with them? Don’t they appreciate our steadfast work, our hum day and night? The burn and tickle of electricity has been my life, our lives, what will happen to me if they tear me out? Sold, even melted and re-formed into who knows what.
There are two pairs of hands, one smaller, and the voice that accompanies those hands is higher, I can just about hear the words. The other voice, with the hairy big hands, is too deep for me to understand. But what they say won’t change what they do, and I can well anticipate the tearing from the roots, the cutting of the branch, that is likely to be my fate. There are people on the other side of my home, in the cavernous vacancy. I don’t know how they can bear the expanse of space. No pipes. No plaster. No snug companions intertwined and connecting, hearing the bubble of water so close.
They just pulled out Aluminum. The smaller handed one said he’s burned at the tip. Of course he’s burned, he has done his service, and this is his reward. Discarded. As if he is ugly. I admit he’s not as handsome as Copper, but even so he shines, he carries, he does his work. He can’t even cry out as they take him away. Without electricity, we can’t communicate at all. We are dry, we are flat, we are dark. They may as well take me now.
What’s this? Something else is being threaded through the wall. I can’t see what it is at all, shrouded in some kind of white stuff. The big hands are threading it through, the smaller hands reaching for me. I am pulled, I am yanked, I am cut from my home, and tossed, as if I am nothing, onto the pile. Aluminum and Copper, together as we die.
Exercise 8: POV of an object in your house
This is my favourite way to spend a warm spring morning: lying naked in the hammock tied to the pair of maple trees, which were planted, fortuitously, exactly hammock distance apart by the previous owners of my house. They weren’t the ones that built the privacy fence. That was my addition, for obvious reasons. There is nothing like a spring sky when the air feels summer warm, as it does sometimes in Toronto, before air conditioning smudges the sky. In spring, a warm day is a gift, the memory of winter, especially this winter of the polar vortex, still fresh. I love the sun on my skin, I crave it, and indulge it on perfect days like this.
The hammock swung gently, I watched a fluffy white cloud and didn’t even imagine what the shape resembled because that would be too much effort. I didn’t have my Iphone plugged into my ears. All I heard was the gentle wind in the trees and the waterfall of cars beyond my privacy fence.
My eyes opened and closed, I drifted in and out of sleep, and had a pleasant dream about my boyfriend. The sparkling green shapes were moving leaves in the sun. Or so I thought until one of them spoke.
“What yer doing there all naked like that, lovely? Don’t you know it revs up the boys?”
I fell out of the hammock. The ground did not feel nice on my naked skin. I grabbed the first thing that came to hand, a sweatshirt left in the yard last night, and tried to cover up my chest and groin at the same time by crouching with knees to chest, the sweatshirt gripped between. “What? Who?”
The green thing settled down on the edge of the hammock and peered over the side at me. It? She? Had a wrinkled face. No pointed ears. They were round and fluted like a cabbage leaf, ovesized for the face. Which also had eyes, a nose, and mouth. She was not a human in miniature. The eyes were bulged and fishy, the nose was flat and barely raised, the mouth had sharp teeth both upper and lower. Her lips were red, from blood? Those teeth did not bespeak a grass eater. “I’m not gonna bite,” she said. Was she—were they, whatever they were—mind readers? “I’m not a mind reader. It’s every human’s reaction to us. You’d think they weren’t the bloody big hunkers, and us tiny people. Humans are timid.”
“What do you want?” I asked.
“Do you repeat everything a body says? I want lemonade for my grandson’s coming out party.”
“Sure,” I said. “Lemonade. Doesn’t every fairy…”
Something bit my naked knee. It hurt and it bled, but I hadn’t seen anything except a green flash like the sun bouncing off a leaf. I tried to swat the thing, but it flew out of reach. “You insult me, you pay!”
“Sorry.” I wondered if there was a terrible disease, like Black Death or something, carried by these verbal insects. “I’ll have to disinfect this. I can bring you lemons after. I’ll just go inside.”
There was a high pitched whistle.
Exercise 7: Fantasy
When I was three, my mother caved in to the pressures of vaccinators because my daycare threatened to excommunicate me if she didn’t get me immunized. Consequently, I found myself time and again in the doctor’s waiting room, aptly named, as I waited to get stung.
The first time I was eager, my experience of doctor’s appointments consisting of—as far as I remembered—the jelly beans I got at the end of the visit. After that, however, I was less eager. And I hid under my mother’s chair, thinking that if I couldn’t see the nurse who usually brought us into the inner horror chambers, neither could she.
I remember the feet. I remember the smell of the feet. It isn’t necessarily as one would think, that the nicer the shoes, the nicer the odour. There was one pair in particular, high heeled and strappy—it must have been spring or summer—that smelled of a particular odour that I’d be hard pressed to identify except that at floor level it had great potency. Another pair, entirely odourless, was torn. I could see the sock inside it, grey. The shoes were nondescript runners, also grey, probably from age, rain, and mud. But no smell emanated from them. So surprised I was that I crept out from under my chair to sniff closer. The owner of the runners crossed legs and I scurried back. The nicest, I thought, were a pair of pink running shoes that lit up when the shoes started moving, induced, I’d guess, by the nurse. Those shoes were not going to be happy that the owner obeyed, I thought.
The most interesting was the shoe next to the cast, not only because of the pairing. The cast had drawings on it that continued onto the shoe, so you had to look at the shoe and the cast together to follow the story. The shoe was as large as the cast, which didn’t at the time seem to me in any way strange. It had an extended floppy toe, so there was plenty of room on which to draw the pictures. From above this odd couple, came an occasional honk, and I was tempted to come out to see where that came from, but I held my ground.
My mother’s shoes were delicate. She didn’t like heels, but she liked beauty, and her shoes were intricate concoctions of straps and bijoux. She was a tiny woman. Her feet didn’t reach the ground, and she would swing them back and forth. You wouldn’t think she was the kind of woman who would be stubborn, and she resisted the vaccination cult as long as she could. But she had to work and support us, and so she had to have daycare.
The vaccination changed me, she said. I had never had an obsession with shoes before it. Afterward, I drew pictures of shoes, I talked about shoes, and I played with shoes instead of my dolls. For hours, I would stay in my mother’s closet and created a whole society with her shoes, of which she had many. From the days when my father also had a stake in the closet, she had high heeled shoes, and from the days not long after he vacated it, she had construction boots. Mother never gave any shoes away, though she threatened to if I didn’t stop playing with the shoes. It was the shoes, however, that made her realize I was colour blind, as my society of shoes was initially organized by colour, and all the red and green shoes—as she claimed—were together.
If there was a shot for that, I’d take it, but as there isn’t, I organize my three hundred pairs of shoes by date, and all I need is sixty-five more. Then my closet will be a place of real equality.
Exercise 6: Write about Shoes
He would rather do anything else than play cards. He would rather get drunk, he would rather get stoned, he would rather dive off the CN tower in a parachute or without one. He hadn’t bet a penny in fifty years, ever since his first wife left him. He hadn’t even had the dignity to be homeless and make her sorry for him. Instead, he’d served his time for embezzlement, and when he got out, educated and suited (even if the suit was borrowed from his twin brother), he got a decent enough job, then a better one, and finally he’d become president of the company.
Frank didn’t much care about that now. At eighty, his accomplishments felt less relevant than his blood pressure. His wife, his second wife, a spry seventy-one year old, was inside the cabin, preparing snacks, while he sat at the camp fire with his grandson’s friends.
They wanted to play for money. He didn’t want to play for match sticks. But he couldn’t resist looking cool for his grandson. When he shuffled, the cards danced in his hands, they flew in the air and came back to him like birds, they spread and reassembled, the way they always had, as if his hands weren’t old hands, as if his kunckles weren’t swollen, as if his fingers had no twist in them. Oh, yes, the cards loved him. But would his grandson?
He played the way he always had, he couldn’t play any other way, with an intensity that made him feel more alive than when he survived the bank robbery. Frank dealt, the boys—they were hardly boys at thirty, Elena would have said—admiring the way the cards fell into their laps. They joked, they smoked, they said they’d take it easy on the old man. But Frank knew, to his shame, that he wouldn’t take it easy on them. He would take them for everything they had because they were boys, because he was serious when he played, because he hadn’t played for fifty years and as soon as the cards were in his hands, all the old feelings came back.
They stopped joking. Frank knew he ought to say it was just a game, the bets weren’t real bets, he’d forgive them all, but he couldn’t. They kept playing, trying to recoup their losses, throwing in their iphones, their motorbikes, even a car. And they lost. Frank knew that they would lose. It was in the nature of cards to seduce you with a big win. There was nothing the cards would like better than to get him back in bed, to make him pay for his long absence. And the cards were so beautiful. They shone in the light of the fire. They winked at him. He’d always had a soft spot for spades. He loved the shape, he loved the pure colour, the no colour, of black ink. And today spades loved him back. He’d never been one for three of a kind, not even four of a kind. A flush, a royal flush, that had always been his hand, even when it buried him.
The night was clear. It was late in the season. The leaves were starting to turn, the nights cool. The sky was an inverted starry bowl. Frank loved the smell at this time of year, the burning wood, the pines and cedars. Leaves would fall soon. Then the earth would smell of mulch.
They were all silent when they went back inside. The boys had nothing left to give. Jason stayed back, not saying much, just “Hey gramps, good game.” He was waiting for Frank, even now, to say he didn’t care about the bets. But he couldn’t. Not even when Elena looked at him questioningly. The boys weren’t hungry. They grabbed their sleeping bags and their air mattresses, and headed outside to sleep under the stars. Frank was ravenous. He ate everything on the table, his portion, the boys’ portion, even Elena’s.
“I never told you about my first marriage,” he said to her.
“No, you didn’t.”
“Maybe I should.”
Exercise 5: Gambling