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STEEPED IN MEMORY
a short story by Mark Kolke
October 17, 2011
I don't quite know how I got here.
Not to this place, but to this state of mind.It used to be so sweet, so light, so easy to do.
Itís not the fall nip in the air, itís me.
Iím getting too old I think, to get excited about life.
But I should, you know, like on TV or in the movies Ė where spirits are high and the rhetoric is snappy.
But you never know what lies down the path to the left or the right.Obscured from view, there can be a rock in the road, a lame critter, a fallen tree or some other natural occurrence that makes the day unfold differently than you might have expected.
Sometimes the solution is a walk after dinner, or going to town to pick up a shipment, or falling down when you shouldnít.
Iíve been out here Ė except for six months in hospital last year and rehab Ė my whole life. It has been a hundred and thirty years.Well, I havenít been here for all of them, but my dad and his dad before him Ė they were here.When there wasnít anything but what the ice-age left here five miles west of Ancaster, on the escarpment Ė west of Hamilton.The country roads are getting busier now, but I remember when the only traffic some weeks was old-man Courtney, Samís granddad, with his milk wagon, collecting from the farms around here who had surplus milk, for Bennettís Creamery on Shaver Road.
But then I met Joy and my troubles melted. For a few years, there was joy every day and a smile on my face every time I turned my wheel. But things changed.
ďGet out in the fresh air. It might helpĒ, Joy used to say.
Reality of the difficult and endeavors to maneuver through dire times, claw through muck, swim Ė as if I could swim Ė against the tide of it, keeping my head above water, as if I could touch bottom in my search in a sea of people, an ocean of women and a dearth of love.
Sure I can touch bottom, but I canít swim a stroke.
Iím a simple stubble-chinned hay farmer who hopes for rain, and then complains when too much of it hits ground.I didnít always want to be one, and then I wanted nothing else. But things changed.I donít run for fun or jump for Joy anymore. I donít jump for anyone anymore.
And Iím not capable, like I once was, of doing anything and everything.Some might say thatís wisdom brought on by maturity but it isnít. It sucks.
And Iíll have to get Frank Purvis to come over to install my new pump when it arrives. I was OK pulling the line up and disconnecting the old pump, but at the price of these things I canít afford to have an oops moment when it slips from my feeble hands and slithers down the hole, never to be seen again.
The idea of a submersible pump is that you can haul it up again rather than lose it in the reservoir 200 feet underground, but you canít go down looking for it if you drop it into the hole not properly connected to the rubber pipe that carries the flow to the surface.
After my stint in rehab, Dr. Hellman and his crew thought I would never be able to do this work, or do country living at all again.I was determined to prove to them, to me and to Joyís memory that I could do it, and do it alone.
Donít get me wrong. I had my own fears, different than theirs, about how I would do alone Ė on my own, whether I could cope, let alone handle the chores and rigors of any home maintenance work at all, let alone manage this place and take care of myself without falling into a dark place.
They were so worried about my mental state.
I wasnít concerned about head-doctor issues; I was pretty sure I was more sane than most of them that Iíd met throughout my institutionalized time . . .
I was worried about my physical capacity.
But I managed. Alone.
I had to relearn just about everything, but I was determined and I succeeded.
After a few months out here again, I was certain I would never leave. I managed just fine. I can still handle most of the challenges, but lately Iíve been having my doubts.Actually, doubts Ė isnít the accurate term.Insecurity, the kind that comes from not having reassurance from anyone, because there hasnít been anyone . . .
If there is justice in the world, I must have committed horrible unspeakable acts somewhere in my youth, or a previous life if such life exists.
What other explanation could there be?
Not that my suffering is unbearable Ė or that it is even sufficiently horrible to deserve a description as suffering, but it keeps coming at me Ė in chunks and splatters that convince me of the notion that nobody can avoid this pathetic oppression life delivers.
We canít avoid it, because Ė just as we dodge one bullet, another strikes us Ė metaphorically of course, which is life until one such blow kills us, and then we die. Our struggle then over, nothing matters.
So, there you have it. Struggle, or die.I prefer not to die, so struggling seems quite worthy then. Desirable in fact. Yeah!Yay! Up the struggle. But please, can I catch a break?
Or take a short one?
When I am least happy and most in pain I am best able to describe what I want, what I need and what I lust for in life.
Lately Iíve been that brand of unhappy, so my contentment has been absent.
And Iíve been restless. In fact, I havenít rested at all lately and, quite frankly, Iím fed up with it. Not fed up to the point of ending my life or changing it radically, but fed up enough to scream out in the middle of the night, or in the middle of the day in the middle of the street . . .
Baseball playoffs are on TV but I canít get interested like I used to.
Not that I ever followed it that closely, but it was something I grew up with, so every October when daily chores were done and the wind blew chilly, it was baseball time.Now I turn it on and I just canít get interested. I donít know the players, and all the great old commentators are dead. Long gone. Watching alone is joyless.And Joy-less.
It was a wretched week.I slipped into a hole the other evening, a deep rut actually, while out with my Black Lab Buddy on the trail by the south pasture.
I had trouble getting my chair upright and turned my ankle in the process before I got myself seated again.Good thing I have a lightweight chair because, if it was a heavier one or motorized, I would be too weak to get it back up, and surely too weak to crawl back to the house under my own power.Thatís why I carry a cell phone, so I could call for help.
Iíve often wondered what it might be like for the 911 operator to get a call from me saying, ďIíve fallen out of this wheelchair in the middle of the field, up the left hand turn a half-mile after you turn right at the old Texaco billboard, five miles west of AncasterĒ.
She, assuming itís a she Ė would probably ask me to re-state that in kilometers.Doesnít anybody under forty know what a mile is anymore?
I guess the police can track the GPS location of a cell phone.
Anyway, it didnít come to that. But, by the time I got back to the house and sorted out inside I was too limp to do anything but sleep on the floor inside the door.I woke up with Buddy licking my face, not to show appreciation for me, but to be let out to pee and again, after he came in, licking some more to urge me to put food in his dish.
Sure, itís dangerous. Wandering around a farm in a wheelchair, or crawling around on all-fours, but what if I wasnít?Iíd be strutting around feeling virile and invincible, and that would be more dangerous, I expect, than my reality of diminished capacity.
Anyway, it was the next morning that my well pump died.
Just up and died. I was running water for my shower, to get it hot, and the water slowed to a trickle. I checked the pressure tank and the valves Ė all was OK.I checked the breaker panel, and reset the breakers just in case but to no avail. Damn.That pump was only three years old.Actually, it turned out to be thirty-seven months old, just one month over the three-year warranty. This place has been bleeding, slowly bleeding, me dry for a long time, but I canít bear to sell it.
I should have, I suppose, the year Joy died, but I thought I could keep it going on my own. I leased out two 100-acre parcels to the Mickelson brothers for hay on a crop-share basis so I would have enough to feed my horses and I rented out the home place Ė except for my house and garden of course Ė to Sam Courtney from up the road so he can just work that piece along with his own to make it efficient. He pays me cash rent, in advance, so the only issues I carry on my own back are maintenance of the house and garden.
Anyway, I was there, ready to wheel my way up to the window to pay my $568.50 for the C.O.D. shipment once the bus arrived Ė just minding my own business, waiting for the Greyhound bus to pull in the stop at Rayís Garage with my parts order from Myers Pumps in Kitchener Ė the new pump and installation kit ordered the other day.
It was weird. I saw her coming from where she parked her car a half block away, with a large parcel under her arm.She wasnít looking at me necessarily, but I wanted to believe she was. Her grin was one of those big toothy ear-to-ear kind that lights dark rooms on cloudy days. Her silvery hair was shining in the sunlight as the breeze played with it. It kept blowing in her face and I couldnít help but notice Ė each time she brushed it away, how nicely her sweater mounds heaved and moaned. Iím not really a boob-man, but I was moved by the sight of her chest straining against the confines of that sweater.
My lusting aside Ė first time Iíve had those thoughts in a long while Ė I sat in my spot, and resumed my bus-wait while I observed her going into the garage, no doubt to ask Ray what time the bus was expected.She came out quickly, her package under one arm and a Diet Coke in the other hand.She moved toward where my chair was parked and began the chat . . .
She said, ďYouíre Sid Seton arenít you?Iím fairly new here. I was shopping with Val Courtney the other day Ė and we drove by your place. She described you and warned me to watch out for the bald guy in the wheelchair.Iím Eva MartenĒ, as she stretched out her hand to shake mine.
I lifted my right arm up, and my leather bound wrist drooped as usual even though I was straining to hold it high Ė to give her the firm kind of handshake I once knew as normal, only to give her a fairly ineffectual squeeze.But that was OK, because she squeezed mine softly, but firm enough Ė and better still, she held it a while, just looking into my eyes as I started to speak . . .
ďPleased to meet you Eva MartenĒ, I responded.I kept holding her hand, allowing her to think my grip, faint as it was, was stuck.It wasnít stuck.I held on, lost a little, in her pools of blue. Amazing blue.I wanted to go for a swim in there!Like I said before, I canít swim a stroke, but that would be a great place for drowning. She could give me mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.
The Greyhound bus pulled in to the parking lot to unload. Eva went over to give her bill of lading and parcel to the driver. I wheeled myself over to the counter at Rayís, to exchange my cash for that damned pump.Well, there I was, $568.50 poorer, staring at a box that must have weighed seventy-five pounds. Even if I could have lifted it, I would not have been able to maneuver it on my lap. It was too wide and awkward. I was about to open my mouth to ask Ray if he could carry it to my van for me when Evaís big grin appeared, ďCan I help you with that Sid?Ē
But of course she could!And she did.She offered as well, to follow me home to help unload it Ė which was great.All the way there, every mile, I was dreading the next step, which was to invite her in for a cold drink or some tea, and to visit a while. Dreading, because the house was a mess.
Iíd left with no expectation of having company. When we arrived, and unloaded the pump box onto the veranda, I explained my predicament. Eva kindly agreed to wait outside while I went in to tidy up a bit.
I spent about ten minutes, but it seemed more like an hour Ė though I really didnít make it that presentable. In any case, Buddy stayed with her out on the porch to keep her company.Actually, I think it was Evaís hand lotion that attracted Buddy more than anything, and by the time I returned to the front door to invite her in, Buddy had surely licked her skin right off the flesh!
I left her there for a while Ė time for me to tidy up while the kettle boiled. I had a plan. Well, more a notion than a full-on plan. I would serve her some tea out on the porch, and then invite her inside later if she wanted to stay for dinner.
I didnít mind leaving her outside for a while. The view is spectacular . . .
In mid-October maple trees paint this landscape better than any Tommy Thompson canvas could Ė and the best ever by the Group of Seven artists could never match this place in the fall.
Paint bursts of every shade of red, orange and ochre that flow from the night frost to tree branches and then, on rainy or windy days, to the ground below to build the floor of the woods as it has for millennia.
Waking up in the morning, roosters crowing and wind howling Ė without a car in sight Ė thatís my idea of home-life.No neighbors as far as the eye can see.
Morning coffee on the deck and a roaring fire at the end of the day with stars so bright no telescope is required. Rain and thunder; snowstorms that shut us in sometimes.
No life like it. The only thing better would be the same Ė but on a seacoast someplace where winter snow never visits and winter winds donít howl. But, however idyllic that sounds, there are roads Ė graveled ones in this township, that lead to a crossroads of life.
Pushed, to the edge of control and reason, I didnít know which way to turn. But I got through it. At forty-nine, mangled by farm machinery and given a new ride Ė a wheelchair with sporty wheels that rolled with a minimum of resistance so I could manage it on my own with my marginal upper body strength and spastic hands. The leather glove/straps hold my wrists rigid, so that helps but the strength I had as a young man is long gone.
Summers tossing bales like they were pillows and winters throwing body checks at oncoming forwards keeping my end of the rink puck-free are almost dream-like now in my recollection.
Well, I do, actually Ė but on the tough days it is easier to blame the world, to blame the old Massey combine that chewed up my body or the woman who had teased my life to highest point and then left me as swiftly as a cleaver separates the chicken from its head.Iím still shaking, quivering, like the headless chicken that doesnít have to worry about tomorrow or about being alone ever again.
I realized Ė just now, that having Eva here is the first time Iíve had a woman here since Joy died.
She died of ovarian cancer. It was so sudden Iím stunned still, six years later, every time I think about it.Mostly, I regret not saying good-bye.
She was in hospital, sick and, according to the doctors, likely to live another three to four months. So, when I went home that Thursday afternoon in February, I expected she would be there in her bed the next day, snoozing after her lunch as usual when I would come for my afternoon visit.
That Friday never came for Joy and I never got a chance to say good-bye and good luck for her final journey.
I wonder, will Eva be my new Joy?
Thatís a nice thought. Brain candy. Speculation. Wishful thinking.
Maybe she can be a new Jill or Jane . . . or a Sally, but she can never be a new Joy.
Can you imagine that, what it would be like to have two great loves in your life with the same name?
Or Susanís, or Wendyís?
One great love by any one name is all a man can handle.Iíve had one Joy.I couldnít want for another. That would be disrespectful to her memory.
But, a new Eva?Thatís an idea worth considering.
The tea was ready now, I loaded it on the tray that attaches to my chair and wheeled out to the porch.Buddy came over to hold the door ajar for me . . .
ďEva, would you like some tea? Iíve got a pot of Earl Grey here, steeped and ready.Ē