The last time she had shopped there she had run into a woman she thought she knew. Only she didn’t. When she politely moved away after realizing her mistake, the woman followed her, asking her so what do you do? She drew a blank. There was a job she had, a husband she lived with, a cat she fed, a mother she should call. I’m in transition, she finally said, picking out a $9 package of teriyaki salmon. She was a terrible shopper. She never came for what she got or got what she came for. Ingredients slipped her mind. Instant gratification took over like swarms of bees. What do YOU do, she asked in return. It was the obvious thing to do. I train trainers. Train trainers. I train people how to train people. Well she supposed someone had to. Train people. At the counter, paying for her groceries, she pictured untrained passengers swaying dangerously from the top of the caboose, admiring the crows as they headed east at sunset.
Fire is contagious. She knew that from the way her hands shook when people approached. Fire is what happens when we collect oxygen, fuel, and heat. Anyone can oxidize over time. Anyone can burn slowly. She bears the heat because it is slow. She can, on a daily basis, write down one word of him and it is enough. She can write down arm or leg or thigh or shoulder. Feeding the flame. But sooner or later, she will combust. She is combustible. She reaches the lid on a Thursday just after lunch. She presses in behind him, smelling rain on his hair. The pure moment is what gets to her. He turns around in the elevator. Blinks into her face. Eyelashes, she thinks. Consumed.
When I was your age we didn’t have none of them zoop-trams, we drove ourselves around in automobiles. None of this zipping across town faster than you can think. And no e-mitters coming outta our ears with everything under the sun just as you ask for it, we hadda use e-mail and we listened to iPods that hung around our necks and through headphones attached to our computers. Now you got all this surround-o-experience, it’s just spooky all them images like ghosts dancing around the room. Gives me nightmares. Course I never had bad dreams when I was a kid cuz our dog slept with me every night. Dogs was animals that lived in our homes with us, dogs and cats and fish and birds, pets we called them. Now we gotta sleep in them controlled baric chambers… when I was a kid we could sleep outside if we felt like it, in the real air. And water flowed outta our faucets, like rainstorms, like rivers, like tears.
56 flavours of ice-cream and Michael was on 52. He was making his way through the fruits, which he had saved for last. At number 11, White Chocolate Macadamia, he had asked her name. Amy. She worked on all the days with “S” in them. Pumpkin Cheesecake was her favourite she told him when he ordered it. Number 17 on a Sunday. It was a seasonal flavour. The day he lost his job he came in for Butter Almond. She gave him an extra scoop. By the time he reached Raisin Crunch he was getting tired of ice-cream. He’d never had much of a sweet tooth. He switched to bowls instead of cones. For 52 he ordered Honey Apple Lemon Ginger. Amy wasn’t there. It was Tuesday. Had she switched shifts? No, she wasn’t feeling well. He dropped the ice-cream in a trash bin outside. Amy wasn’t there on Wednesday or Thursday either. He had only taken one bite of Banana Nut and didn’t even bother tasting Mango Tango. When he came in on Saturday, he stared down at 55, Amaretto Peach, for five minutes. Would he get tipsy if he ate enough of it? You’d barf on all the cream before you caught a buzz, the pock-faced kid behind the counter said. Where’s Amy, is she still sick? No, she’s working downtown at Bambi’s Bubble Tea now. Michael put his wallet away. How many flavours do they have?
She arranged the red plastic flowers in the vase in front of the gravestone. She had been in a film once, as an extra. It was a wedding scene. She sat on the bride’s side of the isle and had scratched her arm on the plastic flowers attached to the end of the pew. “They gotta be plastic because the hot lights would wilt real ones,” said the brown-eyed grip she dated for three months afterwards. Her mother hadn’t liked him. Said he smelled like a shoe store. Costumes had given her a fake mink stole to wear over her own dress. The bride’s family was rich. She had sweated in the heat of the lamps leaving stains under her arms. Her mother hadn’t liked the dress either. Said it didn’t breathe properly.
Medicine Hat is the sunniest city in Alberta. Even so, to die of heatstroke in Canada seemed ironic and impossible. Her mother had been worried about her garden and whether she would have fresh flowers on the table for her book club, even though she hadn’t even finished Love in the Time of Cholera. She imagined her mother as a daisy, wilting in the sun.
The bus driver pulled to a sudden stop, everyone lurched forward and I fell into the lap of an elderly gentleman. I excused myself and his grin said all was right in his world. The doors opened and I exited, two stops early, but welcoming the walk on a mild October morning.
The bus didn’t move. An elderly Asian woman lie flat on her back in the street, her blue-gloved hands folded neatly over her chest, handbag by her side. The bus driver got out and asked if she was all right. “I’m fine,” she said, “just fine.” He then asked her what the hell she was doing in the middle of the street. “Waiting for an apology,” she said.
I cruised between the painted parallel lines marking the bridge to the other side. Half-way across, a car cut me off, just like that, speeding into a left turn, ignoring the bridge-crossers. When I hit the curb, I turned and lay down on the sidewalk, neatly tucking my backpack by my side. I clicked my toes together and watched two pigeons arguing on the ledge of a building. One of them took off in a huff. The other dropped to the ground and began pecking for crumbs around my head. “Nobody takes any responsibility any more,” I said. The pigeon thought for a moment, then lay down beside me, purring into the gathering sunlight.
She doesn’t understand how he can spend so much time on the back porch with his 101 Birds of North America book. “Ah, my little Yellow Warbler,” he says, “sunshine of my life.” And how can she argue with that? She doesn’t understand how she always gets stuck with the sensitive types, the dreamers, the gentle professors. She must have a birthmark on her forehead that reads fragile, handle with care. She ordered a sex-swing on line. He hung it outside and sits in it like a hammock, flipping through pages of Sherlock Holmes. He loves mystery novels. Says they’re exotic. “My little Bohemian Waxwing,” he flutters about her while she’s clipping fabric for her ongoing collages. If it weren’t for his gourmet cooking, his smooth chest, and his inheritance, she’d ditch him. His grandfather’s cabin is the perfect place for her to work. To piece her glass mobiles together in the sun while he scans the trees with his outdoorsman binoculars. “Aren’t the males flashier than the females,” she asks, “in the world of birds?” He struts around the porch with his pipe, which he never lights. She watches his arms swing as he talks and wishes he would light it, would light up, would take off.