Chapter Three: Fish ‘n Chips

Patricia L. Morris's novel Going Out In Style

With no other choice, I drive back to Beyond Travel Agency a car length ahead of death’s vanishing point. When I get to the bridge’s threshold, I shut my eyes a full two seconds so I can’t see the water. What do I have to lose? I’ve given up flossing my teeth.

The clock eyes on the container wall re-greet me. The tick-tick of the plastic gears mimics my heart rhythm and opens the yellowed folder in my filing-cabinet-brain that stores past images. I remember a stencilled poster that hangs above the door in the grade five classroom “Time will pass, but will you?” Each recess the words shouted at me on my way out and then in. It occurs to me that I can’t see time pass. I can only follow the cat’s eyes shift, the clock’s hands point, and the car’s odometer numbers change.

Cloying incense whiffs my senses back into the office. I hand Singh a present. He crunches the transparent wrapping from the Darjeeling tea as he puts it to the side of his desk. I explain the situation, deleting my gum neglect and bridge angst.

“My doctor fears a lawsuit, shipwreck, or death. The inevitable failure.” I speed up, “He won’t give me my expiry date unless he talks to a passenger.”

“Okay, okay,” Singh says. “You got this far, boss.” Thoughts visibly formulate on his forehead as if he’s a cartoon character. “I know an old woman who lives in … ” He bends in his chair and re-ties his suede shoe. He says, “Point Roberts” from under the desk. He sits back up and says, “She will not cruise, ferry, or take a trip on any sea vessel. She rides in the front seat of the Greyhound bus, right behind the driver. If she can’t get that seat, she’ll jump off the bus, and wait for another.”

“What?”

“Understand, this is second-hand gossip. Some call it ‘a miraculous recovery’. Some say fate, magic. Who knows? Horrible uncertainty, for sure. Prayers, perhaps a promise. She left the cruise. Rumour is she’s scarred for life. Policy was revised after this, tattoos are now voluntary.”

“Tattoos? Where is she?”

Singh tilts his head to the right and directs his chin to the left then right, a sideways no. “She doesn’t say anything bad about the cruise. She doesn’t say anything good. She uses no words, no language.”

“Unstable?”

“Oh no she moves fine. Some say ‘a kind of trance.’”

“Mentally ill?”

He pauses to think, and I hear a train rattle and a dog bark in the distance. “Since the cruise, she goes her own way. No need for an institution or anything.”

“Do you have her address?” I say too eager.

“I don’t.” His index finger presses the tip of his nose and stays there. “I couldn’t give it to you if I did.” His eyes touch his mail holder, then move back to mine, “Professional code, ethics, and all.”

I uncross my arms, and tip forward on my elbows at the edge of his cluttered desk. He whispers, “No trouble spotting her in the village. Less than five hundred families. She stands out.”

“Her name?”

“You did not get it from me!” He takes a postcard from the holder, points his pen to a paragraph on the side with a message.

I lean farther into the desk, plant my feet so the seat doesn’t tip. I read “Ms. Gauge” before he deftly replaces the postcard into the Slinky slot.

#

The moving countryside from beyond is a celluloid show: fields of ripe pumpkins over and over again, and trees beyond counting. The tear-along yellow line dissects the dry asphalt. I’m ready for any animal to jump out. Thunderbird’s leather seat massages my torso at level two, and Rufus Wainwright croons Judy Garland’s Somewhere Over the Rainbow. The top is buckled down with the heat on full blast.

The time is now, and now is the time; these moments are water going down an open drain. Straightaway short-term measures are needed.

I turn the music down as I pass through customs. My enhanced driver’s license with RFID chip gets me through. B2 or Not Cartoons did most of our sales in the US. Once we sold the company at the climax of the dot-com bubble, Benjamin and I scaled the social ladder.

All righty! I’m in this row of Point Roberts seaside houses less than two hours after I first heard Ms. Gauge’s name. I deposit a breath strip onto my tongue and let it tingle the roof of my mouth. It gives my saliva a site to cumulate. I haven’t tucked into lunch or settled on a plan. Nothing-to-lose curiosity, with a touch of nothing-else-to-do frustration, brings my guts out of hiding. Dr. H’s qualms propel me even if the body is none too peppy.

I pull the car into the first public access noted on the GPS and park. The oceanscape offers chalk marks on a wide-stretched canvas. With this noncommittal sun no one thinks beach on a mid-October day. I drive to a second beach access and plant myself in a sand dune to survey the one person at the high tide mark on the American horizon. No need to worry about the salt breeze or anything damaging the car’s navy coat. I put the top up and lock the doors out of habit.

The autumn forest laughs with the wind behind me. I stand in a bay, in abeyance. Pay attention. Remember: breathe in and breathe out. The tightness around my chest subsides alongside the waves. Note to self: no hyperventilating.

Whew! My torso creaks as I get back into the car and pull my arm to retrieve the cane from the backseat. More than a crutch, this was my Zaida’s (Turkish grandfather’s) legacy. As usual I have forgotten to load its camera handle. History helps me to stand as tall as possible on this foreign soil and reminds me that my most cherished companions are dead ones. The ground crunches and sinks, the sea combs the rocks and shells. The cold grabs my ankles. The oyster-clouded air smells fetid. Kelp! Am I getting the flu? What now Einstein? Hot soup would be nice.

A fir tree length away, the person bends and investigates something in the hard sand. Condensation puffs in the breeze as the body rises. The darkened mark on her forehead spurs me closer. Her face is pale, drained as a gutter leaf bleached by the winter rain. There are more lines than a roadmap. Between her eyebrows the black tattoo sphere of numbers 12/31/14 are spokes on her wheel of fortune. She’s been like this for almost two years.

A grey cashmere scarf, an extension of her cropped hair, circles her rough fabric neck. Her earlobes hang with empty indents that suggest earrings in an earlier life. Were they diamonds or gypsy hoops? I shift my look away from the tattoo. I don’t want to pull too hard on this delicate line. I draw near and catch her espresso-agate eyes, “How’s it going?” Her mercurial eyes dart. “Can’t collect all the beautiful ones.”

No response; she looks down at her fallen shell. Certainty surrounds her.

“You Ms. Gauge?” My tone maybe too friendly.

A thirty-second pause then she slants her face upwards to me. There’s a sound emitting, “Whoa, whoa.” Pause. “Whoa,” like she slows a skittish horse.

“Boris. I’m Boris Schecter. From across the border. Canada eh, the land with the sick health system. Wonder how I know your name?”

She shifts her weight. Her seventy-something fluid body slips down onto a log. She uses her lined coat as a blanket, adjusts her legs straight ahead and waits.

My suburbs of my knees creak as I use my stick to get me down to squat alongside her. She’s right; there’s less wind down here. I begin the elevator speech that I’ve told countless strangers at Art’s lavish parties. “I’m one of those lucky guys who sold the software business before the crash. Born in the ‘Peg, lived in London, the Caribbean, and Vancouver. My work took me around the world. I collect art from Africa.”

Ms. Gauge grunts at this bit about the pictures. Of course this is a more interesting part. I slouch farther down and recount how I met with artists in Ethiopia, Botswana, and Swaziland. I animate the story with a crude line-drawing in the sand. She’s attentive to this drama of creation. My stick drawing of a nude woman with a beehive hairdo picks bananas from a tree. Poor drawing skills is the reason I developed my software to convert photos into cartoon frames. The software allows me to get my point across.

My left leg cramps. She rubs her ivory gloved hands from the cold. Do my words go farther than her eardrums? The lines of grief around her mouth wave to relax as if she forgives. Nothing reshapes the tattoo. The tide creeps closer and I still haven’t come to how I know her name, much less ask her about the cruise.

I carve a zed across the woman in the sand, and then move my right hand along the cold damp surface to erase the Etch a Sketch. I glance at her, “Let me take you to lunch. I’ll reveal your part over some warm coffee.” I shift upward with the invitation.

There’s a long pause before her fingers drop a shell from her coat pocket and she shifts her weight to one side to stand up, then the other.

I offer my hand, “Alley-oop,” Her body is lightweight as if she has a wing structure to lift her. Ms. Gauge’s profile reveals an open tangle of lines bewildered yet knowing. The far corners of those canny eyes curve upwards as if each smiles and says I know something you don’t. I’ve never seen a face so expressive but what is it saying?

Even when her body stretches to full length, she’s low to the ground. I love my women short. Petite makes me feel powerful and protective.

#

We set off. A backward glance reveals our woven footprints in the sand. Mine are deeply imprinted paired with a series of pierced dots; her tracks are heart-shaped and closer to the surface, as if she were on the balls of feet that lightly tiptoe in a dancer’s second position. Connect the dots and the two paths become a whimsical pas de deux.

A blast of hot air and the smell of burnt coffee greets us at the old-fashioned coffee shop that sits amongst waterfront cottages. I rattle to the bathroom where I clean the sand from my hands. Out the bathroom door I bite my fingernail and look around for an ashtray. If Ms. Gauge were to speak just a few convincing words to Dr. H she could get me on my cruise. But Singh said she doesn’t speak. I watch as she nestles into the red vinyl bench midway in the room so at ease within herself. Ketchup-strewn plates clatter across countertops. The jingle song of ice in glasses and the cascade of coffee into mugs meld into a symphony of the ordinary. No one seems to find Ms. Gauge’s black numbered bindi odd. Anything but cigarettes goes these days.

She points her creamy-white-gloved index finger to the fish and chips line on the menu; I order the same. And two coffees. Is she going to eat with her gloves on? Do her gloves hide something? Our waitress, a middle-aged chunky American with a dirty blonde ponytail, a greasy uniform, and nurses’ shoes could have stepped out of one of  Edward Hopper’s wee-hour diners except for the nose ring. A community within a community, a picture within a picture. I borrow the pen perched behind the waitress’ ear. Nope. Ms. Gauge won’t write either. Why does she veil all messages? She’s consistent. So are the dead. I need her to show some sign that she’s with me here. She takes off her scarf. A clear signal that the room is warm.

No doubt my face divulges my predicament before death as I lean into the table and feel her soft breath. I steer my look away from her circle tattoo and make myself begin. The more she knows me the more she’ll trust. “Five years ago I was sick.” I attempt to catch her eyes without success. “Pain shoplifts the mind.” Her nod encourages me to go on. “My body was plunged into a smelly mechanical world. It took all my strength to ask each doctor to write their name and specialty in plain English into my notebook.” I smile as the waitress brings us water. “I didn’t have energy to look up those polysyllabic words from specialists.” Their mission seemed to be to improve my vocabulary.

Ms. Gauge head cocks like a bird, a little lacquered laugh but no eye contact. My nail-bitten fingertips fiddle with the warm gold around my neck. I continue, “Art and I joined support groups, made visits, phone calls, care casseroles, and vanilla desserts with the hope that if we understood more, we would lick it.” My freezer is still stacked with funeral casseroles on ice. I look through the flat surface of my water at the stains of the Formica table. In the beginning you suffer amongst a whole lot of others; then siren songs of their lives take them away. The healthy are busy. In the end you suffer alone. “When you get sick, your body becomes a test tube in a science project. It’s no longer private. Basic dignity is lost. Each time Art and I mourned a death, we promised not to let each other die like that.” If Ms. Gauge will rescue me, my exit will circumnavigate those medical interventions.

I talk and Ms. Gauge pulls out a string from her vest pocket. She ties the ends delicately even though she still wears her gloves, and begins to wind the string round her fingers, not thumbs. What is she hiding under those gloves? My goal is to get this strange one’s help. I’ll take whatever cancer throws my way and I’ll track my inevitable decline. I tell myself this is just an accelerated version of a healthy person’s torture of aging. But I will NOT let Dr. H’s experiments make my end of life into a “mattress grave” in a hospital bed.

“Art was to take me to Haida Gwaii. We both pined for cedar. He teased me about the phallic trees up north. As Art’s own body deteriorated, he arranged other lovers for me. One day he and I lay in his Japanese garden beside his office and watched the clouds. As he approached the realm of death he grew more absent every hour. It was hellish to gaze at his pallor and listen to his shallow breath gurgle. He wasn’t delusional when I asked him ¾ hypothetically giving him the option of further life – ‘When you arrive in paradise what do you think they’ll say?’”

Ms. Gauge looks to me for his answer. Her string pulls taut and suspended. Her eyelids pressed with creases of sincerity; the lines in her face are as distinct as folds left in paper.

“He smiled the most serene luminous smile and said, ‘Go back and do it again.’” Ms. Gauge’s pupil’s dilate and I blurt out, “Art’s fear was as terrible as the sickness itself. He never progressed past monstrous denial. Denial was his life force. His disease put its foot to the pedal and didn’t slow down. Two days later he was in the hospital. Death changed him forever.” It metamorphosed me. My idea of death had nothing in common with that nightmare to end. He died yet he remains an anguish inside me. A door left unopened. Our chance to travel together irretrievably lost.

I want to believe Ms. Gauge’s eyes swim with mine. Her cloaked fingers move back and forth producing a cat’s cradle. She’s reassuring like proximity to art and Art’s breath on my neck. But what could she think of me? “Magic,” I say. My hands come up to my forehead, a tip to her prestidigitation. I don’t have a clue how to complete her game so I go back to my story. “Every time I had to tell people what happened to Art I churned. Stuck in a washing machine of idle questions and inane comments.”

Ms. Gauge scrunches her jowls; her brows puzzle and make the tattoo circle jump. She shifts focus from my hands to her own. She interweaves her fingers and turns them upside down which re-jigs the cradle into a bridge. She must smell the sulphur of desperation that seeps from my pores. What does she think of my flustered zigzagged tongue-tied monologue? This’s a rehearsal, right? My performance has to be on the ship. We don’t know each other in this over-warm diner. I can’t just come out and ask this stranger to speak about her cruise. Wasn’t it the cruise that made her lose words? I wipe my brow with the napkin.

“Idiotic comments like, ‘Good thing you don’t have kids,’ or ‘Attitude makes all the difference,’ made me want to hide under blankets. And ‘I know how you feel,’ ridiculous. Yet my responses were as silly.” I look at the water in my glass and wonder why I am so vacuous. My own bereavement was nothing unique. I say, “I was the sick guy with the celebrated lost lover. That’s all.” And she’s the woman who didn’t die and doesn’t speak. And if she doesn’t speak, I won’t go on the cruise. And if I don’t go on the cruise, I will die like Art in the hospital except I will be alone.

Ms. Gauge transfers the string from her fingers to the table. With a sly slash of her mouth, she brings her hands up. Does she play an invisible violin? Not a good sign; she’s got to think me a milquetoast. Or maybe a chronic complainer? At least she hasn’t left the table.

“You’re right. No need to play poor me. But I wanted to talk to God, the superior, a higher up and make some sort of arrangement. No chance. I was stuck in a loop. Press 1 for the places you’ve been.” I press an imaginary phone and then hold my fist to my ear. She mimics my fist. Does she think me the coward on a yellow brick road? “Press 2 for the places you’ll never be. Press 3 for forms by fax. This information is also available on our website at www dot your end of life. To hear these choices again press 4. To disconnect press star.”

“This was purgatory.” I wave my hand in the air. “I couldn’t talk to a being or arrive at a new place.” God is unavailable at this time, dead to me, but Death is available and willing to befriend me.

Ms. Gauge’s scarf snakes beside her on the bench. Her gloves are still on as she salts and vinegars her plate with relish. Like the ubiquitous greasy spoon, death’s fishy smell inundates my shaky senses. After my first taste, I stare at my plate, and say, “The fish’s good but featureless. No glassy eyeballs or fins.”

She looks over to my hidden camera cane, her ivory fingers stained with oil dance. I want to peel those gloves down off her hands and undress those hidden fingertips that have graced her own end.

At coffee, she vocalizes a sound poem on “shuu ga, suu gaa.” Her voice comes from the depth of some acoustic cave. She repeats the sounds in diminuendo, “sug gar, sug gaa, suug ar.” This is too crazy. The waitress pours as if it were business as usual: I rubberneck the room. The hum of diners’ chatter, the clatter of china being dealt, the loud Red Hot Chili Peppers music suggests that everyone is lost in themselves. Certain we have something in common I pass Ms. Gauge the sugar, she swallows the entire cup without using it.

I trickle three Splendas into my heavy white coffee cup. Ms. Gauge’s fish is gone but most of her fries remain in a heap on her plate. I have vacuumed everything off my plate but the long translucent bones. I’d like to sneak a chip without disturbing the remaining ones but am too self conscious. I abandon the undrinkable coffee un-drunk.

The waitress accepts my VIP Amex card and my generous tip. Out the door I step in the direction of my car. Ms. Gauge comes in front of me and blocks me. Okay I get it. Her glove takes the end of her scarf and points the way down O Avenue as she continues to walk. One of the corners of her scarf is cut off. Should I get behind this non-confidence motion? I follow her lead.

What is going on? Her story is told with the economy of silence. What she doesn’t say says more than what I have said. Much of the time I feel lost, What is right? What is true? Why don’t I just say, Will you tell me about your cruise? Because it sounds stupid period. Because she doesn’t talk period. Because there must be a reason period. I don’t want to say something wrong about the right cruise. I can not afford to make a mistake. A black kitten shakes it butt back and forth in the space between us and I wonder why Singh sent me here.

Beside her cabin the clothesline sags and tilts. Faded pegs are festooned with spider webs that hang forlorn. Is she a squatter?

I want to say ‘nice meeting you’ but that doesn’t seem appropriate. I need a hug to reassure me. She turns to me with appreciation? Curiosity? I sputter a flustered “See you.” She brings one gloved hand up to her forehead into a limp salute that hides her tattoo. She dissolves into the door.

Alone and still, I watch the empty landscape where she was seconds ago. This is a dead end. The ocean creeps uncomfortably close to her cabin and the waves offer unproductive thoughts. I shiver as if someone shakes me. Gravity pulls at me in the sand but I make myself walk. There are people who fight and people who desert. And I’m a fighter. I cannot help that. I’m probably destined to be killed in action. When I get to the car, the low murky sun is at the horizon. Days are shortening. Sunset is the sad hour that holds me.

As the sky loses its intensity of light, questions swim in my mind; front crawl, breast stroke, and backstroke. The drive home seems longer than the day. I am able to look at my life with more objectivity than usual; travel does this. If I had thought about death sooner, it would have intensified life. You know, the squeeze of the lemon and a pinch of salt makes all the difference.

Death was always on the way, but the fact that I didn’t know when it would arrive took away from its precision and finiteness. So I treated life as an inexhaustible well. But everything happens a certain number of times, and a very small number really. How many more times will I remember a certain afternoon of my childhood, the afternoon that’s so much part of me that I can’t conceive of my life without it. Perhaps four or five times more. Perhaps not even. How many times will I watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet I lived as if it all seemed so limitless. I would have made fewer foolish mistakes.

Enough backward imaginings. I need to accept the past as past without denying it or discarding it. It was what it was. Right now my goal vibrates nonstop in each side of my brain like tocsins (alarm bells). Or is it a death knell? Temptations rely on such seconds. It’s all they need. I thought she could. Now I know she can’t. I need to find someone else. If not, there’s nothing but the morgue.

Yesterday I didn’t know a Ms. Gauge. Is she an invitation or a warning? What if thousands like her walk the earth, returned from a cruise, mute with fresh tattoos? An inky embarrassment, a token of forestalled fate, a premise for a dystopian dance? Could this be my fate?

Yesterday is centuries away. My death progresses and it takes away enterprise. It adds to the deterioration of body functions, breathing and balance. I am resigned that every day represents more and more subtracted from less and less. While I am still able and keen to score overtime, I need to find someone else to get me closer to what is seeming like an iceberg in the mist, the inexplicable reality of the Luminous Liminality. But who?


 

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