by Christine Leclerc

“Oh my God. It’s too hot in here,” said Mr. Smith, his voice bouncing in all directions off the walls of the bathroom stall. Tucking his shirt into his flannel pants frantically, he came out of the stall.

“What is this? There are too many people in here. The heat’s rising by the second. You take the kids on field trips to the toilet now?”

“I just wanted to show them what I’ve done with their art work.”

“Oh, the drawings! Kids,” he said, turning his eyes on them, “it’s my only joy since the food they serve in this place brings me here so often. Now get out before I die of heat stroke!” One of the children began to cry at his abrasiveness, so he tried to apologize, “Oh, I’m sorry little girl.” They were already capering out though, except for the child he had upset. She was trudging and preferred to look at the taupe tiled floor instead of accepting his condolence. Offended by this, he added, “Hey little girl, nice toosh.”

I wasn’t going to say anything in front of the kids, so I glared at him abhoringly instead, and followed them out into the hall. They visit with us at the residence once a week, a group of ten, to keep the seniors company. Sometimes they go for walks in the garden together with the residents. Other times, like last week when it rains, they stay inside and draw for them. That’s where the stuff in the washroom came from. It was my idea to put it up in there; a deglooming effort. Their visiting seems to please everybody, except for Mr. Smith. He always manages to have one of them in tears by the end of the visit.

He spent the rest of his afternoon telling dirty jokes to our female residents, who were invariably unamused. Then he moved on to playing chess with some of the sourer men. I approached him at dinner to deliver the apologies he felt he deserved. One for the invasion of his precious privacy, and another for the evil eye. I wasn’t going to apologize twice though. I’d lump the two into one. I went to the end of the dining room table he was sitting at. He had been served and was already eating when I got to him. “I’m sorry about what happened in the washroom today,” I said.

He knew that I hadn’t meant it, but grinned anyway. Having gotten what he wanted, he told me to forget about it. I hate when he does that. Every time I apologize, he acts like as though he hadn’t been bitter about the supposed injustices I’d administered him. As though he hadn’t been cursing me in his head: ‘that disrespectful bitch’, ‘that smiling fraud’, all day. He must realize how ridiculous he is. If I don’t apologize before he goes to bed though, he curses me out loud the next day, and rallies his chess mates against me. “Are you enjoying your dinner Mr. Smith?”

“It reminds me of my wife. She couldn’t cook for shit.”Maybe it had something to do with who she was cooking for. “Is she dead?” I inquired spitefully.

“No, that’s why I’m here alone. Yes she’s dead! Don’t you think she’d be here with me if she weren’t. Couldn’t cook and diabetes. Those were her only faults.”

“Is that what she died of, diabetes?”

His thoughts trailed with the gravy over a mound of potatoes and mingled at the base of a rubbery chicken breast. He heard me though and answered after finishing his thought, and swallowing a gravy sopped piece of bread. “No. Not really. Some little bitch did her in.”

I disregarded this comment, figuring it completely ridiculous, and asked him how old she was, meaning his wife, when she’d died.

“Five,” he answered, thinking that I had meant ‘the little bitch’. What an incredible man. But not being wholly vindictive, I figured I may as well humor him and allowed him to exorcize the incident. “A five year old killed your wife? Really Mr. Smith.”

“She did, and she was a bitch. None of the other kids in the neighborhood would play with her because they thought so. We used to live in one of those town houses. You know, the ones that are stuck together in rows of six or eight, or whatever. Where your back yard is everybody else’s backyard, except that they pretend privacy with eight foot fences. Anyway, all the kids used to come to the backyard and play horse shoes with me summer afternoons. That, while the little bitch would crochet on the front porch with Rachel and our cat Winston. I used to ask the kids why they hadn’t invited Emily to play horse shoes with us, and they’d say that she didn’t like them. They didn’t like her either. She was too bossy, they said. So Rachel taught her to crochet and the little bitch kills her. Some gratitude.”

“What’d she do? Stab her with a crochet hook? Strangle her with yarn?”

“No, I was getting to that. This isn’t a joke you know. That little girl was always bringing sugared papayas around with her, to snack on while she crocheted. And Rachel was a serious diabetic. She knew that she wasn’t supposed to eat that kind of stuff, but when Emily offered those things she couldn’t resist.

One day I went in to get the kids some freezies to cool off; you work up quite a sweat throwing shoes around in the sun, you know. I checked the front to see whether Emily was with Rachel and Winston to offer her a freezy too. The lesions on Rachel’s legs had been getting worse for a while, but she’d just say that she couldn’t figure out why when I asked her about them. Rachel was laughing at some childish anecdote that day when I saw them together. She really was a beautiful woman, even at seventy. Had a hearty laugh. But she was eating those damn papayas. So I didn’t give Emily a freezy, and I didn’t go back out to give the other kids their’s either. Do you know what I did? I went up to my room and cried like a big old baby. We’d been married fifty-two years, and I’d just realized that I didn’t want Rachel to die.

At supper that night, meatloaf, I asked Rachel about the papayas. She didn’t try denying anything. And I’d never told Rachel what to do before then, but that night I told her that I didn’t want her eating those things anymore. I went on to tell her that if her self-restraint was so weak, I didn’t think that she should see that little temptress anymore either. When I was done she threw her head back and laughed. “It’s the little pleasures,” she said, “that make life worth living, Kenny.” Little pleasures my ass. So she kept on eating those papayas all summer long. I should have told that Emily to stay away is what I should have done. So Rachel died that fall you know.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Yeah well, so was that Emily. One morning the next summer I was sitting on the couch with Winston and the doorbell rang. Emily had come by to call on Rachel. So, I told her ‘Rachel’s not home because you killed her.’ She just stood there with her little knees shaking in her blue dress and her lip quivering. Then she dropped a package on the porch and ran home crying. Never apologized. It said M s. Smith on it. I picked it up and tossed it onto the couch when I got back in. Never opened it myself, but Winston eventually got his claws into it. She’d made Rachel some useless round lacy thing.”

“I don’t believe you! How could you say that to a little girl.”

“It was true.”

So I let him eat the rest of his meal alone, turning my attention to more deserving residents. Whenever I start to feel a bit of sympathy for him he, Ugh! He was the last one out of the dining room that evening. Having finished his meal, he moved into the T.V. room and threw obscenities at poor actors until he went to bed.

The next morning I noticed that he wasn’t up for breakfast as usual, so I went to check on him in his room. He was lying in bed with his arms crossed over his chest and his eyes closed. It looked like he was practicing for when he died. He swallowed every now and then though, so I knew that he wasn’t really either dead or asleep. I asked him why he wasn’t coming to breakfast. No answer. Maybe he expected another apology; for the way I’d left at dinner the day before, but I wasn’t going to do that. “Mr. Smith? Can I get you something?”

“I’m not hungry. I want to go outside,” he said opening his eyes but not turning them on me.

“You really should eat.”

“I want to go outside I said. Did you hear me or not?”

“Fine.” So I got his sunglasses and sunscreen off of the dresser, and his bowler from the closet. Meanwhile, he got out of bed and dressed himself rheumatically. I had to insist he wear the accessories, “so that you don’t get a sun stroke,” I told him. He refused to put them on himself, but allowed me even to apply the sunscreen without resistance.

We walked out arm in arm so that Mr. Smith could avoid falling. Once out in the garden at the back of the residence, I asked him what the matter was.

“She’d be so ashamed if she saw me now,” he said, holding faster to my arm as he spoke.

“Who?”

“Rachel. The way I live. I’m too scared to enjoy much.”

He didn’t trail on from there, so we went to sit on a bench in the shade of an old birch. Once sitting he removed his hat and glasses. He then closed his eyes paying close attention to something. A song encased memory. And right then he looked so desolate that I began feeling sypathetic again. I let my head fall onto his shoulder and closed my eyes in the throws of what seemed to be an early morning affinity. For a while we listened each to our own songs. He, to the one’s in his head, and I, to the peculiar regularity of a breeze lolling wistfully on trembling leaves.

Birds began to flap in their bath at the center of the garden. That’s when he began humming a tune and tapping it’s swingly beat on my forearm gently. I giggled.

“I was once the greatest jitterbugger in Montreal you know,” he said. “I’d have liked to have seen that.”

“You’re right, I can’t dance like that anymore.” At that I lifted my head and opened my eyes. He was looking to see me squirm.

“I didn’t mean. . .”

“No, it’s okay. It’s true, but I can still do the slow steps.” He rose, walked around the bench and came full circle, as if he were making an entrance. Bowing his blue eyes to me, he asked, “Did you like that song Miss?”

“It was lovely,” I said.

“So are you Miss. Say, you don’t happen to like dancing do you?”

“It depends.”

“On what Miss?”

“On the person I’d be dancing with.”

“Well, I’d certainly like to dance.” He invited me onto the lawn offering his right arm. “Would you?” He asked. I accepted thinking what a charming man he must have seemed in those days. We revolved round the bird’s bath cheek to cheek. He hummed a slow song as we went, the birds in the bath simmering down to listen. The sky was so blue, and it all seemed so innocent. A perfect, perfect morning for spinning softly, but all that soon dissolved.

The sun started getting to him so we dawdled back to the bench. We gathered his things and he said that he was ready for breakfast. “You’re difficult when it comes to the asking,” he said, “but thanks for that dance anyway. Hey, guess what?”

“What Mr. Smith?” I could feel it coming. I knew he’d ruin it.

“I hadn’t had the jollies in fourteen years. Heh, heh, heh.”