Retired, happy, married, traveller, minimalist, artist-writer, not necessarily in that order. What else is there? Look for me on www.bellaonline.com the Canadian culture channel and in the spring of 2021, my debut novel The Lucky Man--An Act of Malice will arrive. Yeah, for me!
*Photo is taken at Grace Dieu Priory, Leicestershire, Uk, September 2019
There must have been thousands standing in the rain that day. Like soldiers standing as sentries, I watched them from my window. I longed to rush out and spread a protective cape over the delicate poppies as the rain tore their fragile petals from their stems. It was an impossible task because I was weak, and there were too many. Besides, thunder and, more specifically, lightning frightened me.
The poppies had just started to bloom. Seeing them from my window was a small joy, and I felt a sense of protectiveness towards them as if they were somehow mine.
Years later, this memory anchors me to a beginning with no end.
“I hope the rain won’t pummel them all,” I said as the heat of my breath fogged the cool glass.
My voice was weak from not speaking for hours on end, other than the conversations I held inside my head when I lined up the toy soldiers and the Indian and Cowboy figurines and created a dialogue. Until I met my Indian Chief toy, which came in the coffee package that my mother drank all day, I suddenly knew I wanted to belong to a tribe. Not as a chief but as a warrior.
“Who?” My mother barked.
My mother spoke to me in barks, yips, and grunts that, even as a boy, I understood were rooted in her discontent. Though I still clung to the hope that one day she’d see me as I was, a fragile boy, and wrap her arms around me and hold me like I’d seen the mother holding the boy and girl who played games in the alley and sometimes waved to me.
“The poppies! What do you care about the poppies? You’re a foolish boy.”
She put her cigarette down. I could see her reflection in the glass. Disgust distorted her face.
Even blindfolded, I knew when she stubbed another cigarette in the overflowing ashtray. A perpetual stink permeated the air and our clothing, but a smoking cigarette has a different stench than a smoldering butt. The fact that the plumes of her acrid cigarettes triggered my coughing spells never bothered her.
I covet the stillness of the early morning. A hot cup of coffee warms my hands, and sounds spring to life outside my window: a barking dog, the hum of a car, and the ceaseless waves of the ocean lull me. I like the illusion that, like me, the sea rises and does what it’s called upon to do.
My laptop is on; I resist the temptation to check my emails, blogs, and social media accounts. They’ re destructive to my creative spirit, and does it matter if some man posing as Keanu Reeves on Twitter likes my tweets?
I know the answer.
A collection of notebooks is spread out around me. I write while in bed. There is no desk for me to sit at; the chairs are like torture devices. I take my chance and sit in the lotus position; a pillow cradles my computer.
I bring my breath to the center of my nose, that special chakra place where a soft pale blue light shines the way for me. I think of a million brilliant things to say and try to capture them like the fragile butterflies they are.
The cat nest on my notebooks and keeps them warm.
A document is open to the last scene from the night before, and I read my previous entry, the place when the curtain fell over my cast: That’s where I know Betty from. I saw Betty from my window when the cops dragged her toward the ambulance parked in front of my old house all those years ago. I always believed she looked me right in the eyes—pleading. An unedited chapter from my WIP, The House on Latimer.
Stop! Liar. Not unedited. I can’t write and leave the glaring mistakes marked in red ink from the spellchecker.
Betty yawns, she makes her presence known inside my mind. I wished someone would do something about her mussed hair, that vacant stare and stereotypocal description of individuals with mental health issues, like a Hitchcock scene, yet that I borrowed like a charity shop suit that someone else once wore. She wonders what she’s ever done that I’ve cast her as the crazy woman. But I needed her to own the character. I need Betty to drive the plot and lift the climax in a complex story of murder, betrayal, and the mysterious past of a house. All the while, Helene waits in the shadows. She’s not worried; she knows she is the star of the show.
I write by the seat of my pants. It makes me proud that Steven King writes that way too. Yet, I don’t need to explain to anyone why those characters in my head need a permanent home on paper. They simply exist; they’re not a stolen impression of someone I know. As I dig deeper into their existence, I become lost in their world and emerge with their stories as they whisper it to me.
Some days I become a hostage and can’t find my way out of my own stories, but I like being there. I feel safe and part of something greater. A place where I belong, even if it is just fictional.
There is no process to writing other than typing and organizing the text as it perculates like popcorn, overflowing the vessel and spilling over.
I always wonder what will happen or how. Each day I receive a new installment if I choose to listen. Some moments are filled with raw excitement, while during others, I’m busy sewing the costumes each character wears, and I pray that the eventual reader will fall a little in love with these people so they can come to the surface and breathe.
If there is one constant in this process, it is the habit of writing until I am empty. And then I start to edit, flesh out the context, and with much angst and trepidation, say to my husband, “here, read this.”
When the ax made contact with the wood, the powerful impact surprised Helene. She hadn’t expected that the old wooden panelling would be so hard. On contact, the ax nearly slipped from her grip and off-set her balance. But no matter what—Helene rode the adrenaline rush like a jockey in a derby, determined to win. She braced herself and leveled the ax again behind her shoulder while keeping her eyes set on the knotty grain pattern in the wood.
Oh my, I miss my fiction writing routine. But I sold my soul to content writing for a lousy buck.
Whenever Emmerson entered, a perceptible shift occurred in the room’s atmosphere. He was used to it. But after all those years, the gasping and staring still made him uncomfortable.
He dreaded those small gasps that intruded on conversations and hung in the air or when people stopped and stared without wanting to be caught. The chilling hush. It had been happening since he was a small child. And as bad as the attention was, it was worse when they reached out to touch him without permission.
“How’s it going?” Emmerson set his refillable mug on the counter.
“Good. You Em?”
Dorothy no longer saw him as he was. She saw him as a young man with ambition, good manners, and dreams of being like everyone else. With her back turned to him, she slipped a few extra mini-donuts into the box. It was her only way of saying she cared for him without making an embarrassing fuss.
“Great. Nice weather. Finally.”
Emmerson smiled and set his client card on the counter for Dorothy to stamp. Behind him, he felt a person invading his space. To others, it may seem imperceptible, but it made him apprehensive. It was too close for his liking, so he stepped aside, trying not to be rude or cause a commotion.
“Well, you get out there and enjoy that sunshine.” Dorothy shot a defiant glare at the person standing behind him.
Emmerson gave Dorothy a small wave, took his coffee and box of donuts, and left. He wasn’t the sort who could sit in the local coffee shop. He learned long ago that it ruined everyone’s day. And when he took his coat off—their appetite. Well, and it actually ruffled his feathers. Back out under the sunshine, he strolled toward the river. A few years ago, an old log washed ashore during the last flood and remained stranded on the bank. It served as a bench and as his sanctuary. He spent his lunch hour there, weather permitting, and watched the sun reflect on the waves. A place where waterfowl dived and plodded along to entertain him. Next to the river, any body of water, he felt at peace.
He took his sandwich out and set it on his lap. Sometimes the geese and ducks teased him into sharing, but he knew that bread wasn’t part of their natural diet. And like him, they had to learn not to rely on people. It was best that way, even if sometimes the loneliness eased its way in and made him feel hopeless. At least he had his parents, and siblings, and a faithful dog who adored him—just as he was.
On the far bank, Emmerson watched a solitary swan glide on the current. Drawn to its elegant neck, graceful disposition, and beauty among beauties, he wished he could paint. From this vantage point, it was difficult to determine if it was male or female, only that it swam without a partner while the other waterfowl paired off. He felt an overwhelming affinity toward the swan.
“Mind if I join you?” The woman behind him asked.
He’d been so intent on watching the swan he hadn’t heard the footsteps on the path and missed seeing the shadow approach. A warning that the sun was intent on sharing, only he’d been so entranced by the swan that he missed seeing the elongated shadow cast over him.
Emmerson rose. “It’s all yours.” He was used to moving out of the way for people. It was best to be compliant and move on. Long ago, he was forced to stop caring; people seldom had the best intentions when approaching him.
“No! Please. Don’t. It was rude of me.”
“It’s fine.” Emmerson avoided eye contact. He saw she wore Dr. Martens, in vegan red, the same as his, and polished to a mirror shine.
Emmerson gathered his lunch bag, donuts, and his coat. He knew the woman was staring but couldn’t force himself to look in her direction. People couldn’t hide the shock taking up residence on their faces. It surprised him that some were adept at poker, as most could never hide their revulsion.
“Please.” She took a step closer. “I.” She stammered. “I’m sorry.”
It was the sincerity in her tone of voice that made Emmerson turn. Sometimes people mistakenly believed he had the power to heal. Hell, he couldn’t even heal himself, he always said. But what he saw surprised him. The woman slowly unfolded herself from her trench coat though it did a poor job concealing her disfigurement.
“It happened to you too? When?” For the first time, Emmerson desired to reach out and touch someone.
“About a year ago. In college.”
The woman was Emmerson’s junior by a decade. He had lived with his condition since he was a small boy. Not that he ever fully adapted, but he got used to it to some degree. It wasn’t difficult to see that she hadn’t.
“Sit.” Emmerson gestured to the log.
“How do you stand it? The staring. The rude comments? The incessant prodding by doctors?”
Emmerson understood, although the only prodding that happened now was when he had his yearly physical. And there were more uncomfortable methods of prodding than the pinprick of drawing blood, and spit to analyze his DNA.
“I admit. It’s not easy. How’d you find me?”
“Internet. You were the one closest to me distance-wise. I’m desperate.”
“I have no insight to share other than to hang on. What about your family?”
“They’re completely freaked out. There’s a lawsuit, but I’m not sure I can stand being dragged through the wringer.” Susan dared to look into Emmerson’s eyes. They were pale gray and sad, yet as beautiful as he–at least to her.
“I understand. It won’t help. But your family needs to feel that they are doing something to help you. It’s the only thing they have.”
She nodded. A tear splashed onto her lap, wetting her beige coat. Across the river, the swan spread its wing; it honked at a passing goose.
“What’s your name? I’m Emmerson.”
“Susan Watkins.” She held out her hand and, for the first time, allowed herself to smile.
“Being seen together is only going to make it worse.” Emmerson folded over his knees and clasped his hands. “People. You know how they are.”
“I’m just so lonely. I want answers. Now that the pain has diminished, I want to move on; or die. Every day I fight for one or the other.” Susan mimicked Emmerson’s pose.
“You have to find that one thing that means something to you.”
“I suppose I could go back to my music. What’s your thing? What motivates you to hang on?” Susan dabbed the tears with a crumpled tissue.
“Nature. Wildlife. My family.” Emmerson looked up and saw the swan vanish among the low-hanging branches on the river bank.
“I read you were very young when it happened. Is it true?”
“Yes. Maybe that made it easier. On me. Probably not my parents. I remember spending months and months in and out of the hospital. So many doctors. Men in suits. There was pain.”
“The legal costs must have been something. To take on such a conglomerate. My lawyer advised it would bankrupt my family for decades.” Susan let out a long sigh; the stress of it seemed insurmountable.
“Yes. We’re still paying off the debt. Another reason I can’t check out. At least by working, I help with the bills.”
“But isn’t it gross selling yourself like that?”
Susan hadn’t meant to imply prostituting himself. She’d been offered a job at a strip club for men with fetishes. The money they offered was incredible. But she just couldn’t. It was bad enough. And she respected that Emmerson had taken on a job at the local zoo.
Emmerson let out a long exhale too. He asked himself the same question, yet he had the right to make money—by any means. In the end, exposing himself was easy money. But he had negotiated that part of the profits he earned for the zoo would go back into building the best environment for the animals he had learned to love and respect.
“I can lie and say it gets easier. But I’ve come to terms with how I am. The name-calling, well, that’s still hurtful. Some people try to be compassionate, yet they don’t get it. And what’s worse, they don’t listen. They want to know what happened to me and how it happened, but they still spend over three-hundred-million dollars a year on the product that did this to me. To us.”
Emmerson braved a glance at Susan’s lovely profile. If it weren’t for the disfigurement, she’d be the sort of young woman men would dream of.
“It’s disgusting. I know. But is there nothing?”
“No recourse. It says so clearly on the can. Their slogan says it all.”
“It’s what my lawyer pointed out too. We don’t stand a chance. He said it’s clearer than the warning on cigarette packages,” Susan said, staring at the river.
“True. We’re living proof. For me, the biggest insult came when they offered to pay me thousands to appear in their ad. I guess they finally found one of us.” Emmerson snorted with disgust.
“But who would have believed it? My friends in college drank it by the case. It didn’t work on them.”
“I only drank half a can. Left on the coffee table by my father. He worked nights, then. The guilt is forever imprinted on his face.”
Emmerson pointed across the river, and Susan’s gaze followed. The swan had reappeared, and a mate joined him, protectively swimming behind six gray cygnets. Emmerson noticed Susan’s smile; he smiled too.
“Sad. We’ve got nothing to go on. The truth won’t set us free. Red Bull gives you wings.” Susan stiffened her spine. She hadn’t felt so hopeful in a long time.
When I first saw Puppycito, it didn’t take a veterinary degree to recognize the signs that his past involved pain. He was broken in more ways than one. His hips weren’t entirely aligned and sloped unnaturally, causing him to limp. He was thin, but his coat was healthy and jet-black. His smile and demeanor said, hey, may I stay awhile, always wagging his tail.
The name Puppycito was a temporary marker while trying to come up with a suitable name; perhaps I still believed in happy endings and a family reunion. Several names popped into my head while observing. Clown and Goofy were two contenders that crossed my mind when he joined us for our morning and evening walks. He was rambunctious and bounced like the happiest dog in the world. Because of his hip injury, his gangly legs often failed to work in unison. However, he had adapted to his situation.
But those names didn’t quite suit him either. Besides, Puppycito didn’t seem to speak any English. In Spanish, people add the ending cito or ito to a word to attach a term of endearment or size. It means little or bears the nuance of affection. Essentially, Puppycito meant little puppy or dear puppy.
My husband and I are traveling house and pet sitters. During this stay, we were caring for a gorgeous home in Mexico. Two adorable cats and two little dogs, Chuy and Honey, who accepted Puppycito into their midst.
Puppycito whimpered whenever he saw us coming out the gate and bounding to meet us. We already knew of his existence from our clients. He was a new stray in their neighborhood. They’ve offered him food, which he didn’t care for because what self-respecting stray eats plain kibble? He preferred a meat and human trash diet. My instructions were to feed and water him when I could, which I would regardless, I’d never deny a dog a meal.
After a few weeks, it became apparent that Puppycito didn’t have a permanent home. Even after a lost and found photo of him was posted on Facebook, no one came to claim him.
I jokingly named him Steve’s Dog for a while, hoping that the neighbor who lived up the road, named Steve, who didn’t have a dog, would open his heart to Puppycito. Sadly, there are thousands of stray dogs—pick one. It’s easy to find one to shower with mercy and kindness. Sometimes they find you.
During the day, Puppycito enjoyed hanging out with the young couple living at the corner lot. They had a beautiful and docile black lab, Jake, that accepted Puppycito as a companion. One bark from Jake and Puppycito would gallop across the field to answer the command. This behavior exhibited his first sign of absolute loyalty and attachment.
I continued to feed Puppycito twice a day, sometimes having to scour the thick weeds in the ditch for the dog bowl. Puppycito enjoyed take-out food and would carry his food to his other home. Life with dogs has taught me a few tricks to entice a stray to eat. He’d eat the quality, good-for-him kibble by adding an egg or a bit of raw food. It was a sure way into Puppycito’s heart, closely linked to his stomach. I may not have spoken Spanish well, but I am well-versed in speaking dog.
We formed a natural trust by encouraging Puppycito to walk with us and feeding him regular meals. He allowed me to pet him, respecting that he didn’t like fast movements or aggressive gestures. His confidence regarding most men was fragile, yet over time he learned to embrace them too, but at a distance.
Eventually, I was able to put a leash on him. When I tested our bond and trust boundaries, Puppycito again surpassed my expectations and heeled better than most dogs. He was full of surprises.
But the truest test of his loyalty came one morning while I was walking Honey and Chuy as I had done twice a day without fail. I knew which yard had dogs; I respected that. But this was also where I failed.
Before I realized my judgment error, this usually locked gate was wide open. A huge dog came barreling toward us. When my thoughts and reason argued within that tiny window, I mistakenly believed that we were safe since there were people in the yard.
I was very wrong.
This dog had it in for us. He lunged after Honey, a sweet, timid rescue dog, and was about to sink his fangs into her neck. Like a superhero, Puppycito flew into our midst, bounced the dog off Honey, and toppled him into the ditch. There was no hesitation.
While everything happened in slow motion, it happened with a lightning intensity that is difficult to explain. I know I yelled; I can still hear the echoes of my voice rising in panic. There was a chorus of barks, snarls, yips, and white fangs, and my voice yelling, no!
Puppycito put the dog in its place without drawing blood. He was so cool about it, like it wasn’t a big deal. He showed that dog he was the alpha on the block, and to dominate, one didn’t have to be a jerk about it. Honey wasn’t injured because Puppycito protected us with his unwavering loyalty.
The memory of his courageous behavior still brings tears to my eyes. He never hesitated. He put us, his new pack, first. I still see the images like miniature movies rolling in my mind. There was no doubt in Puppycito’s mind that his job was to guard us.
He still whimpers when he sees us. He enjoys a gentle pat on his head. His English hasn’t improved much. One night, he rolled over and let me pet his belly while eating his evening meal in our yard.
Regardless of what happens when the young couple moves away, if they take Puppycito, he will have a permanent home at this hacienda. A place in our hearts remains reserved for him.
He’s a great canine friend. He’ll remain our Spanish Angelito.
Nowadays, getting lost in a quagmire of daily bad news is pretty easy. One bad incident can destroy the reputation of millions, and societies become fractured by color and culture. Without experiencing human interactions, our understanding that we have more in common than not is diminished and distorted. Beneath our skin, however, we share the same wishlist for a happy life: love, food, shelter, respect, and belonging.
My husband and I travel. Our job is managing people’s properties and caring for their pets in their absence. We accept neither job lightly. It’s our reputation and our way of life. On this return trip to the Mexican Baja, we came mentally prepared for what to expect. Heat and humidity. Of course, COVID makes everything more complicated, and restrictions hinder the usual 4.5-hour trip, and it turns into a 24-hour ordeal. Such is life. While the Baja is an agricultural breadbasket, its prime source of income, which is directly related to people’s cash flow, is the tourist industry and the booming construction hub. Both of which the pandemic hampered.
Although Cabo’s quaint airport was like a beehive when we arrived, it hasn’t yet translated into cash for those in downtown Cabo San Lucas who rely on tourist money. But wherever we go, we interact with locals. We ask questions and take an interest in their lives, and we don’t consider ourselves tourists; we come to experience living in la vida loca style minus the loca.
On this particular Saturday, we planned a quick in-and-out shopping trip to the vibrant resort city of Cabo San Lucas. We were excited about the prospects of a beautiful day and, as a treat, a portable breakfast before hitting the stores. Wham bam, and back at the hacienda by noon, we thought. Our vehicle, however, had other ideas.
We grabbed breakfast and decided to eat in the parking lot. Because of the pandemic, we try to have less contact with people (which makes me sad) and surfaces. Our breakfast was delicious; we were ahead of schedule, and then everything changed. Our vehicle wouldn’t start. When my husband turned over the engine, all we got was rattling grrrrr, no spark, no engine response.
While the highway, snaking its way from Cabo in the south to Tijuana in the north, is pristine, sideroads are hard on cars. The paths are either a jarring washboard or a rough ride through miniature mountain ranges and troughs. The struts in most cars grind because sand gets everywhere, and if it isn’t screwed down, it will fall off.
My husband is pretty handy; he popped the hood and tried to adjust the loose battery cables. Since we lacked tools, he ran across the street to buy a set of vice grips. By then, we’d noticed three guys milling in the parking lot, smoking, washing their company vehicle, their gaze drifting toward us.
Mexico is often in the news for all the wrong reasons. Being cautious is wise no matter what country is on the travel agenda. We also understand that less fortunate people tend to view Canadians and Americans as wealthy people with abundant cash. This is sometimes true but not always, and I’ll casually mention here that we have never had a bad experience in any country.
After trying everything he could, my husband shook his head. This was beyond him to fix without some help. In my bad Spanish, I asked one of the men if they could give us a boost. As I discovered, this gentleman, Alejandro, from Venezuela, spoke excellent English. They hooked up the booster cables; I was very hopeful. Our battery, however, was deeply wounded.
Next thing, we had three men under the hood performing surgery. They brought out their tools and gadgets and tested where we had power and what was wrong. They went as far as climbing under our vehicle. After trying everything, including adding water to the dry battery, the diagnosis remained the same. A dead battery. Alejandro walked with my husband, taking half the battery weight, across the street to the club store, where he had a membership to buy a replacement battery. This was after about two hours of trying to resuscitate ours.
While they were gone, I chatted with Sergio, whose English was on par with my lacking Spanish. He explained to me that he earned twenty dollars a day. Cabo is very expensive, he said, and I agreed. A head of cauliflower grown in Mexico and shipped to Canada is the same price as in Cabo. On twenty dollars a day, that’s not too many heads of cauliflower for dinner. Sergio and I learned a lot about our cultures that day. I explained that Canada had its pitfalls too. And that the cost of living was a struggle for many. The pandemic brought it to the surface. The myth that we were all born with silver spoons in our mouths was dispelled.
When my husband and Alejandro returned, they installed the battery and juiced it up, and we were so grateful when our vehicle sprung to life. My husband tipped the guys half a day’s wages, but Alejandro refused his share and instead offered it to his coworkers. He explained to my husband that he had lost his job two weeks earlier and struggled to get his payout from his ex-employer. And while feeling bad about it at his daughter’s graduation, not wanting to ruin her day with news of his dire situation, he chatted with a man who offered him the job he now has. He now earns decent money as a supervisor.
After my husband offered to pay for his membership at the store and the box of popcorn he bought, Alejandro explained it was his privilege to return kindness. He felt he’d been blessed by kindness and how grateful he was for the opportunity to live with his family in the beautiful city of Cabo San Lucas.
That man is a walking life lesson. Alejandro experienced so much turmoil when he braved the challenges of being evicted from his homeland because of the dangerous political situation. Yet, he’s blinded by gratitude for the blessings and opportunities he’s given. That man is an angel and ambassador for loving-kindness. His spirit permanently marks us.
I couldn’t believe it. But there he was, the handsome man I had met on the train in Germany three years earlier. I stood motionless as a still portrait of his attractive face was broadcast on the television. I know I stared, my mouth was surely agape; the mug in my hand crashed unceremoniously to the tile floor sending the dog scampering.
When I met him, he was eating a tomato and cheese sandwich. Such a strange little fact to remember, yet when I thought of him over the last three years, two things stood out for me, and the sandwich was one of them.
I was on my way that day from Frankfurt to Linz, Austria. My visit to Germany that year taught me that Germans keep a pretty good secret. I would be foolish and even reckless to share it on such a public forum. Revealing what I learned would change everything.
But that morning, as I stared at the television, the anchor’s lip rushing, eager to share the tantalizing tidbits somewhat confused and intermingled with opinion and fact made me relive my German experience.
His name, they said, was Jacob Braun. He was thirty-six, an influential architect from Bonn.
On the train on that June day, I sat in the wrong seat, in the wrong carriage, and potentially even at the wrong time. Coming from Canada, I learned all about the importance of the railways that built the country. My grade eight geography teacher had bored me to death with RR2 this and the CPR and CNR that, that no teenager would ever find interesting. He didn’t teach us how to navigate the system, only the tedious elements that forty years later weren’t helping me find my way through the network of train lingo and fast moving stations.
In Canada, people associate the train with the past. Too bad for those hardworking individuals who devoted their lives to laying track and dying for the economy’s advancement and prosperity. In Canada, people drive everywhere. Only those who live in major urban centers rely on some type of train or subway service. Cars and trucks dominate our transport system. A scenic train journey is for people who can afford the opulence of chugging across the vast terrain on a Via Rail vacation.
In Europe, people rely on the train. I envy them the luxury of traveling to their destination in style and never having to find a parking spot; never mind parallel parking which is on the driver’s test but infrequently used. Traveling by train is second nature to Europeans. Thinking of the incident, I remember another particularly striking feature of the man. He had beautiful hands. The sort men who play the piano should have. His digits were long and slender. Each nailbed had a distinct lunula showing, and his cuticles were healthy and pink. He wasn’t the sort of man who got his fingers dirty. Riding the train can be such an intimate experience because you can’t escape the proximity of other patrons regardless how you try to hide behind the cover of a book, earbuds, or staring rudely out the window.
Because I travel frequently, I speak with many people, sometimes poorly in foreign languages, I can’t quite grasp. My train partner was highly educated. I sensed that from our short conversation and his mannerism. His impeccable English, even though it was laced with the typical German accent and lyrical lilt, suggested a worldly education.
I had just finished my sojourn to Germany, visiting many villages and cities reachable by efficient train links. In Darmstadt, I toured my first Hundertwasser building and became fascinated by Germany’s beautiful and serene parks.
While Germans understand structural elements as is so evident in cities like Wiesbaden, Bremen, and Leipzig, their parks charmed me the most. Parks in Germany reflect nature. Somehow those landscape architects found the true meaning of balance between serenity and nature. God couldn’t have done it better.
Reserved as they seem to strangers, Germans keep the secret of their beautiful country to themselves. Jacob kept his secret as he conversed with me and smiled. Guarding his secret, which, as the news was spelling out, went unnoticed for nearly a decade.
During the lulls in our conversation that morning, I looked out the passing scenery, and flashes of lush greenery from perfectly manicured clover, wheat, corn, and beet fields zoomed past my periphery.
I remember being nervous. Shifting nervously, thinking the train conductor would usher me unceremoniously from the carriage, I must have talked too much.
Although my German has deteriorated, I still understand the basics. Jacob was reading Die Welt, a popular news magazine. The front cover captured a series of photographs of missing women. Grainy images of women loved by family desperately searching for their whereabouts and clinging to that deceitful monster called Hope. I couldn’t say for sure, but there were at least twelve squares with portrait faces of young women. Vermist! Like people on our Canadian milk cartons, each missing German person had a name and a family desperate for answers. I couldn’t help them then.
Jacob, I remember, exited at Regensburg. A beautiful city that most tourists have never heard of. Yet, it’s so charming with its medieval core, its surviving 12th Century stone bridge, and intersected by the blue Danube that Strauss made famous with his waltz serenade.
Enough already. I knew Jacob had boarded the train in Bonn from my short interlude. He said so. And since it was the weekend, he was making his weekly trip to Regensburg. I didn’t know the importance of the statement until I saw Jacob on the news.
Jacob smiled at me as he alighted the train, his suitcase wheeled behind him. I’m an observer. A bit of advice to my family, friends, or even strangers within my proximity. I see you. I notice intimate details that will eventually give you away.
The newsfeed had switched to a courthouse staircase. Jacob’s lawyer faced a hundred microphones and recorders shoved in his direction. Nicht schuldig. Der falsche Mann.
Of course, Jacob was innocent. Of course, the police arrested the wrong man. In some lecture hall, the world over, attorneys must practice that phrase repeatedly until they sound authentic. I once abhorred defense lawyers. I couldn’t grasp their rationale for defending criminals. I’ve since learned that we wouldn’t have rights and laws without them. I believe in justice and truth, though both are not always swift and dutiful. What else would we do instead?
The lawyer was a stout man wearing a fine suit. He had a polished look about him and a seriousness that suggested his client was as innocent as he claimed. He barked into the microphones, “nicht schuldig!” to every question and accusation.
I learned many things about train travel in Europe. Train travel is an elegant way to cross from one country to the next. I learned the word alight.
When the automated voice announced the word, “watch your step as you alight from the train,” I assumed something got lost in translation. But alight really just means getting off a means of transport. It means get off or come down. A lovely word that doesn’t quite capture what happens as a person exits a train dragging an oversized suitcase like Jacob did that morning in Regensburg.
Jacob smiled at me once more before he alighted, and I waved. I wondered what on earth he could be dragging in that cumbersome luggage. I speculated he transported exotic antiques or religious artifacts and architectural salvage to decorate his apartment. As I mused over what sort of apartment a man like Jacob would own in Regensburg, I formed a detailed character sketch. He was a modern man, yet I sensed he’d choose an apartment with floor-to-ceiling windows, the shutters spread open, and a breeze billowing in the sheer drapes. The apartment would have to be renovated but with the original charm intact. It would be just off the downtown core, in a warren of narrow passages and cobblestone streets. There’d be no elevator, and Jacob would manhandle the luggage to the top floor.
I pictured an exposed wall, the original brick, and beams setting the theme. The kitchen would be ultra-modern and small. The washing machine built into the bank of cabinets as Europeans do and which always horrifies American and Canadian tourists on all those international travel shows. A washing machine in the kitchen is where audacity and practicality meet ignorance.
As the train pulled from the station, I saw Jacob weaving his luggage through the crowd and terminal. A few pigeons scattered and parted the way for him. I’m pretty sure he no longer thought about me.
For the next hour, I created a life for Jacob. I made assumptions and was right on one account. Jacob was notoriously meticulous. While I pictured him in his make-believe apartment, I assumed Jacob decorated tastefully with high-ticket items, like the marble bust of Beethoven or Mozart, a crystal glass bowl in liquid shades of blue. A landscape painted by an acquaintance with talent. Jacob wasn’t the sort who decorated with trash bought off the internet.
He’d keep his shoes in a row, polished as leather should be, the warm scent wafting in the room whenever he opened the antique armoire that housed his wool jackets, his leather shoes, and the umbrella with the carved handle. Every detail about Jacob was exactly like the knit in his merino wool socks and cashmere sweater he wore that day.
His girlfriend would be tall, lanky, and athletic. She’d have poker-straight hair like she had grown and styled since she was young. She’d gather her blonde strands into a ponytail whenever she got down and dirty to sprint in the park. It would bounce with each stride. I think I called her Giselle, or Gaby, then changed her name to Nina. She had the sort of complexion that tanned easily; she had a permanent healthful glow and no wrinkles in sight, although she was a year or two older than Jacob.
Nina would joke about having children. Secretly she didn’t want any because, like Jacob, she preferred order over chaos. She had a shrill authoritarian laugh and a direct way of speaking to people, making them feel vulnerable with no place to hide. She worked in finance. Numbers were her thing, and she could understand and debate complex topics.
On her nightstand, she kept a few copies of the works by Schiller, Nietzsche, and Goethe. She didn’t read modern fiction and deplored romance novels and films.
If Nina had a weakness, it was her inability to resist chocolate. She hid bite-sized bits of Suchard and Lindt in the kitchen and her coat pockets. Although there is no shame in liking chocolate, Nina thought it was her Achilles Heel. She didn’t want anyone to know, especially Jacob.
Jacob knew about Nina’s secret addiction. He found it intriguing that she would go to such lengths to hide this secret. Nina didn’t live at the apartment; she only came for weekends. She owned an ultramodern home that her parents built for her. It was all glass, steel, and white with sharp corners, hygienic tiles, and futuristic furniture imported from Sweden.
I didn’t like Nina. She was the sort of woman who made me insecure with her stallion-like beauty. We had nothing in common. I didn’t like math at all. But I wanted Jacob to be happy.
Jacob wanted to have children eventually. A boy or girl. It didn’t matter to him as long as they were healthy and miniature replicas of himself and Nina. Jacob found Nina fascinating. He’d never met a woman who was so intelligent and confident. Nina knew it all and believed that knowledge was a permanent condition. Jacob would watch her over the rim of a book and mused secretly that Nina, though seemingly perfect, had a giant flaw. She was blind. Blind to her ignorance and impeded vision of life. It’s why he kept her around. He wasn’t so much in love with her beauty, but with that giant fissure that exposed her for what she was once you got up close and personal. She was a snob.
When the train reached Passau, I had to show my credentials to the border security who boarded the train. He wasn’t interested in my Canadian passport. He seemed to be looking for someone. A refugee or illegal.
I slowly stored Jacob away in my memory bank for safekeeping. The last time I saw Jacob, he opened the door to his apartment and felt content to have reached his destination. He slipped off his shoes, stripped his garments, and folded them neatly into the hamper. He wanted a hot shower before Nina arrived. He left the suitcase in the hallway. He poured himself a glass of merlot and sat barefoot on the Bauhaus chair facing the street and sinking sun. His stomach rumbled, thinking about dinner.
As the news ticker spun across the bottom below the anchor, a series of faces populated the screen. It’s when I recognized Nina. Every single face had a classic symmetry. Pale skin, long blonde hair, startling eyes lined to accentuate their iris, and keenness on their brow.
Those women in the picture had something else in common. They were missing. They had vanished from their ordinary lives without a hint of where they were hiding. Their missing date ranged from six years ago to one month ago. I dug into the information about the case available on the internet.
With trepidation, I returned to my travel log and confirmed the date. The day Sabine Hofer didn’t show up for work, missed her lunch date with her girlfriends, and hadn’t been seen since coincided with the date on my ticket stub.
In my pathetic German, I explained what I witnessed on the day to the agent taking my call on the tipline. It’s circumstantial, he told me.
The police released a few details, like the remnants of a tomato and cheese sandwich and track marks on the carpet from a large suitcase. There was no DNa.
None of the women came from the same city. Their last whereabouts became pin marks on a map that followed the train line in a country that is breathtaking and perhaps the tourist industry’s biggest secret.
Despite my keen sense of observation, I had sat across from a serial killer, and I found him charming.
Loud Muzak played familiar ‘surfin’ music’ Rose recognized yet found inappropriate, considering near-blizzard conditions enveloped the village like the inside of a snow globe. Rose knew she shouldn’t have driven on the icy roads despite only living three minutes away by car; she had made a rash decision. But she needed a packet of vanilla beans, confectioner’s sugar, and that something else she was now cruising the aisles for but couldn’t remember.
“You need help?” A lanky store clerk asked Rose as she passed him yet again.
“Yes, it would be great if you could tell me what else is on my list.” She laughed. The clerk had heard that same line perhaps a hundred times.
She had made a list. On the advice of well-meaning family and friends, her house looked like a Post-it-Note factory that exploded and dotted the landscape of every surface.
Take your thyroid pills.
Water the plants.
Don’t touch the thermostat.
Don’t leave the stove on.
Your keys are in the bowl in the foyer.
It was true. She had difficulty remembering. It was normal. Everyone said. It was part of the grieving process. She would recover. She was too young for something more serious, like dementia; she wasn’t even sixty yet.
Lists. Yes. Rose made lists. She made a list of what she wanted to accomplish and what she had to finish. Her daughter Meghan had brought an assortment of cute packages of Post-it-Notes, and a litter of colored squares decorated her fridge, kitchen counter, and bedside table.
The little lists helped with the daily tasks, but they didn’t replace the giant void in her heart, and Rose dreaded the thought of her memory vanishing completely.
Yet, here she was loitering in the grocery store aisle, looking for that last item on the list that tormented her memory because she hadn’t remembered to bring the list.
How’s that for irony? She thought.
Most of the aisles had thinned out; there were only a handful of others desperately looking for that thing they couldn’t find. Rose didn’t think the man in the produce aisle was really looking for a kumquat or shallots; he was looking for conversation even if it was meaningless as “some weather!”
Rose had already given him that small token and a smile. It’s all she had to offer.
While scanning the shelving in the bakery aisle, she tried to find the clue that would trigger an avalanche of words that may guide her to that singular item she could visualize written on the bottom of her list, yet couldn’t read. She did a mental checklist: shortbreads, vanilla crescents, Linzer jam cookies, palmiers, cannoli, kolaches, meringue, and coconut macaroons. She’d been baking this European menu of cookies since she was young.
She had the essential ingredients, as any decent baker would, in the pantry. However, without that last elusive ingredient, her foray into her baking endeavor, if the weather forecast held, could end before she even got started.
She had taken the chance to leave the house when the storm granted the neighborhood a five-minute window. The idea to go came out of nowhere because Rose thrived on giving her home-baked cookies to friends and even strangers who would enjoy them. This little gratification went a long way to suppressing her feelings of loneliness and worry. It didn’t always pan out.
Since Mike died, the house had become too much. She could manage the inside, but the yard and the long circular sidewalk that bent around her house like an elbow was a bitch to shovel. Mr. Chapman helped when he could, but he had other battles. Rose hated that sidewalk; in summer, she hated the sloped lawn.
Standing in the baking aisle, she picked up a few tubes of sprinkles, miniature silver balls, and tiny white snowflakes. She added them to her basket, although the price was ridiculous. And she knew they weren’t what she came for.
That elusive item tickled her brain and ran away with the secret in a game of hide-and-seek, and she was losing more often than winning. And for the kicker, her memory played that other game of peekaboo at the most inappropriate moments. Of course, Rose kept that secret under wraps.
The forgetting didn’t exactly happen as she always thought it would happen. It wasn’t orderly how she usually liked to do things. It was random, without rhyme or reason, but always elusive.
Well-meaning people assured her: everyone forgets stuff. Who hadn’t scratched their head wondering where they put their keys, where they hid those important papers, people’s names, or that convenient lie: oh, I forgot to call, to pay the bill, to send a thank-you note. It was a side effect of living. They suggested she find humor in every situation.
And Rose knew that forgetting always lurked on the other side of remembering.
However, this forgetting was never as convenient as that. This forgetting habit played tricks. Rose forgot to eat. She forgot what program she was watching a minute ago. She forgot words and names. Common words. The names of family members. She arrived in places and didn’t know how she got there. What was worse, she was aware that these out-of-place moments were becoming a repeating occurrence.
It also happened with her dreams. Although her doctor tried to appease her, Dr. Halat said that forgetting her dreams wasn’t part of any diagnosis, yet it bothered Rose more than anything. She’d always been a vivid dreamer, so vivid that some mornings she spun herself deeper into the delicious web of the dream after she woke. Within her dreams, she felt so in tune with her world. Sometimes the images in her dreams were a confusing sequence of pets she once loved and a basket of distorted memories she took comfort in them. She resented that forgetting also robbed her of secretly meeting Mike in her dreams, yet these dreams also introduced her to people she had never met. Characters whose features she could see down to the moles on their upper lip and recognize the sound of their voices. As if a stranger visited her in her dreams. After Mike died, she didn’t sleep well for a long time. It disrupted her pattern—her doctor said. It would take time—her doctor said.
One morning a few months ago, she woke with the distinct impression that she had had a powerful dream. But when she transitioned from sleep to waking, the dream lagged. All that day, she felt the residual of dreaming and could hear the laughter and feel the sensation as if the dream was on the other side of the wall. Only she couldn’t pass through the door.
At first, it was a one-off. Like her doctor said, dreaming returned, and Rose took comfort in that. Then the memory lapses happened more frequently, and she googled the symptoms of dementia. Disappointed with her search, the top sites from the leading medical authorities listed cookie-cutter symptoms—a regurgitated list of ten signs.
Her doctor chided her for self-diagnosis, which irked Rose. If the NHS, the Cleveland Clinic, the Mayo Clinic, and the John Hopkins Clinics all invested in broadcasting medical advice on the internet, didn’t that substantiate the facts?
Rose merely twirled her thumbs and said nothing when her doctor told her not to worry. Yet, here she was in the grocery store looking for that thing she couldn’t remember. The more Rose strained to see the list she could picture on the kitchen counter, the more convinced she became she had onset dementia.
“You alright then?” A plump check-out girl tidying the front checkout asked with a courteous smile. It’s when Rose noticed she was the last customer. The light outside had transitioned into that nebulous white where snow glare and dimness uncomfortably meet and become indistinguishable from each other.
“Are you closing?” Rose suddenly became aware that the Muzak had stopped. Quietude replaced the incessant noise from cash registers chiming and clacking, or whatever the noise cash register made.
“Yes. The storm. We’re closing early so everyone can get home .safely.”
“Okay then. I’ll pay for my things.” Rose smiled and pushed her cart toward the checkout. Outside, the snow formed soft dunes on top of the few cars remaining in the parking lot.
“Sorry. It’s really coming down out there. Lost track of time.”
“That’s alright. We’ll get you on your way.” The check-out girl faked compassion and put the few items into Rose’s cloth bag.
The door silently swished closed behind her; Rose pulled up her collar and ducked deeper into her coat. She couldn’t remember where she had parked, but she concluded the grey Honda was hers since there were only four cars. It had the least amount of snow and was parked closer than the others. She deduced that employees always got shitty parking spots.
She rummaged in her purse for the fob and cut herself on a piece of paper; she should have kept her leather gloves on. A red drop of blood surfaced, and she fished out a tissue to stop the bleeding and walked toward the Honda; clicked the auto start and door locks, and threw her purse and shopping bag onto the passenger seat. It was a slight cut, but it stung.
The wiper cleaned most of the snow from the windshield, and her breath fogged the inside of the windows. Rose shivered in unison with the dropping temperature. Snow grumbled beneath her tires; the snow made it impossible to see where the parking lot ended, and the street began. She relied on instinct. Luckily, she only lived a few blocks away down the road. She looked forward to a piping cup of tea; a blanket draped over her knees while looking through the cookbooks to refresh her memory of which cookies to bake first. And more importantly, figure out how to cope with the missing item on her list.
Her speedometer said she was doing ten miles per hour; she couldn’t get much traction because beneath the snow lay a slippery layer of ice she now remembered had been an icy drizzle that morning before it turned to snow.
A car stuck in a deep drift blocked her street, so she had to keep going straight and backtrack up the laneway that separated the last block she lived on from the small wood but gave everyone on her street access to a garage and stored everyone’s whatnots. Except for Mike, he imported the habit to park in the garage from Canada, although he had to wiggle himself in and out of the car as there wasn’t enough room to open the car door properly.
Driving through the storm, she could barely see the houses. Snow dunes formed on people’s lawns—people she should have known because they were neighbors yet couldn’t remember their names. She concentrated on cutting a swath through the deepening snow, her hands knuckling the steering wheel like when she was sixteen and learning how to drive while her father yelled instructions at her and braced himself for impact.
“Eyes on the road!” She could hear his voice and the frustration that he’d rather be at The White Elephant on a Saturday afternoon with his friends than his teenage daughter, who couldn’t tell the clutch from the brake.
Rose awkwardly parked her car in the lane, ten feet away from her own garage, because a drift created a natural barrier like a dune in the Mojave desert. She reached for her belongings, pulled the collar up once more, and left deep prints in the snow, the walls of snow collapsing into her ankle-height boots and melting against her thin stockings.
Rose used the fence to steady herself and propel her along when she stepped on a shovel buried in the snow. The handle sprung upward and punched her in the face with lightning speed, and ignited a spark on impact. If Rose had seen this happen on television, she would have laughed. But the pain was surprising and utterly unexpected.
She lost her balance before she could catch herself and fell face-first against the cement fence post she didn’t feel the collision or her skin tearing against the rough edge. Although she saw a series of sparks like miniature stars in a firework explosion, the flash of intense pain dominated all else, though she wouldn’t remember it later.
Rose landed awkwardly on her side, bracing her fall with her free hand. Speckles of red stained the snow like holes poked in a sieve. She might have passed out from the pain momentarily. She felt the slow crawling of a rivulet of red blood trickle down her face, over her nose, down along her skin until the collar of her turtleneck absorbed most of it. The rest bled into the snow.
Rose kept her eyes closed and summoned the strength to surmount the fire-like pain in her head when she thought she could hear the faint ringing of the telephone inside the house. She had one of those old-fashioned phones because she liked how they looked and how she could cradle the receiver into her neck while talking and cooking. She opened her eyes, and a big fat snowflake landed on her pupil. Instinctively, her eye blinked it away.
She tried to sit up, but the movement sent a burning poker of pain through her head. She fought for strength and prayed that the pain would cease. Undoubtedly, Rose knew she had to get up or crawl toward the gate, use the lethal post to pull herself up and pull the latch. Something she could do in her sleep most days.
Rose talked herself into taking three long breaths before trying to rise again. She was sure now that it was her phone that kept ringing, though, for a split second, she thought the ringing stemmed from the pain. She grimaced when suddenly, she could hear Rusty, her neighbor’s annoying Jack Russell, bark. That meant Mr. Chapman was coming outside to take the dog out for a piss. Small bladder. Rusty barked again and again. She overheard Mr. Chapman say, “Oh, stop it! Just do your thing.”
Rose could hear Mr. Chapman’s frustration; the dog was, after all, the family dog that their teenage kid was supposed to look after but seldom did. She strained to listen, and in between Rusty’s sharp yaps, she mumbled, “Help me! Help!” Only Rusty cut her off each time.
Rose brought her legs closer for warmth, and more snow infiltrated her boots; her one leg was exposed because, during the fall, her slacks had risen to mid-calf. The cold and snow burned her skin like fire, and shifting to pull her slacks down not only hurt her head, it intensified the cold.
One more minute. Rose braced herself for more pain and dug deeper for the strength to rise.
Rusty’s bark changed from annoying yaps to frantic barks and intermittent growls. Mr. Chapman reprimanded the dog, his curt, “shut the fuck up!” billowed through the snowy quietness.
And then the screen door slammed. The distant phone stopped ringing. Rusty barked through the glass, and only a stillness attributed to heavy snowfall accompanied Rose’s breathing. The snowy landscape took on a pale blue hue. A tear rolled over the bridge of her nose and splashed into the snow, burrowing like a worm next to the traces of blood. The annoying ringing in her ear broke the stillness; she heard her pulse emitted like a signal through the snow.
The news would report that it was the worst storm of the century. The snowfall broke records for the accumulated inches and the coldest day on record. Logistics became a nightmare for the number of accidents reported on the highway, injuries related to accidents, insurance claims associated with accidents, and broken water pipes.
Rose opened her eyes; the snow was quickly covering her red coat and black slacks. Her teeth chattered for some time until a warmness spread throughout her body, and she could no longer feel her body. Her blurred vision made everything look like a mirage, and the endless white shimmered like heat set on atmospheric boil. She also remembered the item on her list.
When the snowplow came down the alley, the driver cursed the grey Honda parked at what he called: “a fucking stupid angle.” The car forced him to pass closer to the opposite fence line than he liked, and the blade sent a stream of dirty snow into an arc that left a tall snowbank that someone would eventually have to clear by hand.
When the dull glare of the sun returned for half an hour that late afternoon, Rusty pissed on the mountain of snow. He sniffed the dropped leather glove frozen to the ground. Mr. Chapman lit a cigarette, cupping the flame and checking over his shoulder to ensure spying eyes weren’t watching.
He wondered why on earth Rose had parked her car that way until he saw a small mountain of plowed snow covering her garage door. He wondered if he should offer to shovel the snow; then again, he corrected his thought pattern, she could always ask for help. She has my number.
He stomped with Rusty down the plowed path toward the street that circled back on the sidewalk to the front door of his house. Using the front door would allow him an excuse to slip into the two-piece bath and wash his hands and face with the potent flowery soap and remove traces of his cigarette. He rarely smoked on his street; he waited to get to the park and hide beyond the row of evergreens before quenching the craving.
When he hung his coat up, he said to himself, “it’s getting dark so quickly.”
Later that night, he woke at two o’clock to the sound of ringing. At first, he thought he dreamed the sound, but he distinctly heard the soft ringing as he lay in the stillness. He recognized it as being Rose’s antiquated phone. He considered closing the window, but not with his sleep apnea. Nah, he just couldn’t. Instead, he hoped everything was okay. Only bad news ever came after midnight.
In the morning, he took his cup of coffee to the den. He’d be working from home today; such was the privilege of being the boss. He fired up his laptop and checked on the latest news. As predicted, the snowstorm had left a swath of destruction in its path. Road closures occupied the newscasts.
When the police cruiser pulled up at Rose’s door, he craned his neck. Two officers rang the bell and knocked loudly; one stomped in the deep snow to look inside Rose’s living room window. Mr. Chapman shouldn’t have been so nosy, but he watched the officers shift on their cold feet and wait impatiently.
On second thought, Mr. Chapman rose from his chair and inserted himself into their visit by opening his front door. “Can I help you?” He said while this breath sent plumes of white in their direction.
“Do you know Rose Grimshaw?”
“Of course. She’s lived on this street longer than most. Did something happen to her daughter?”
“No. We’re looking for Rose. Her daughter said she’d been calling all night. No answer, and that her mother wasn’t the sort not to pick up.”
“Her car’s outback. Covered in snow. So she’s got to be home.” Mr. Chapman gestured to the north.
The officer stomped through the high snow toward the gate when Mr. Chapman called him back.
“Come through the house. You won’t get that gate open without a shovel.”
While the officers backtracked through the deep snow, Mr. Chapman slipped on his coat and boots. He waited by the door.
Rusty barked and sniffed the police officers’ legs, but as a dog, he had a solid amount of respect for anyone in uniform, and he behaved. Mr. Chapman led the way out the backdoor; he had already shoveled a path for Rusty. Yellow snow marked the way.
“That’s hers. I think.” Mr. Chapman brushed the snow caked on the license plate away and nodded. “Yup. Snowplow really socked her in.”
“You think she may have gone someplace with someone?”
Mr. Chapman didn’t appreciate how the officer probed and dug into his eyes for an interrogation. Mr. Chapman blinked and looked away.
“Not that I know. She has some friends. But last year or so, she’s been staying home. Lost her husband.”
Rusty peed on the high snowbank; he scratched at the glove frozen in the snow, biting the leathery thumb.
“I guess we need to find a way in. We’ll try the front again. Maybe she is a sound sleeper.”
“She keeps a spare key under the dwarf holding the lantern. In case you need to.” Mr. Chapman didn’t like to divulge this bad habit and had warned Rose several times to find a better hiding spot. Now he felt guilty for knowing where the key was.
“She have any medical issues? That you know of?” The shovel dug around in Mr. Chapman’s eyes again; cops made him uncomfortable.
“No. Never one to complain.”
“Thanks for your help. What’s your name?”
When they entered Mr. Chapman’s house again, Mrs. Chapman rolled her eyes, questioning her husband with unspoken words. She nodded at the officers while pinching her housecoat tightly at her throat.
Mr. Chapman closed the door on the officers and the cold that entered the front door. He explained to his wife that they were concerned about Rose at the behest of Rose’s daughter.
“I’m sure the old bird’s fine. Probably drank herself to sleep or mixed up her meds. You know how old people are.” Mrs. Chapman poured herself a cup of coffee and stared out the window with a blank look on her face.
“When are you going to shovel the driveway?”
“I have work to do. Get your son out of bed. Since he’s not going to school, he might as well make himself useful.”
“Yeah, like he’s gonna listen to me.” Mrs. Chapman turned her back on her husband and plopped a piece of bread into the toaster.
Mr. Chapman sat back in his office chair; his coffee had gone tepid. He saw one officer leave the house, get something from the cruiser, and return a few moments later.
Mr. Chapman decided it was only courtesy to get his coat and boots on again and shovel Rose’s long sidewalk. There was a fat chance his son would do it for nothing. And he didn’t want another confrontation.
He heard the tail-end of the weather forecast; they expected another three inches of snow.
He yanked his woolen snow hat down over his ears and wound the scarf across his lips. Sometimes he resented his son and that lazy attitude.
The patrol car remained parked in the driveway all morning. Mr. Chapman shoveled three times to keep up with the falling snow. He took Rusty for three walks, and three smoke breaks, and debated the independent thoughts of what he would say to his son at the dinner table tonight. They couldn’t let him continue as he was.
At midnight, the snowplow made another pass. Because the driver had a cousin who lived on the street, he also cleared the back laneway again. There was no point in denying that who you knew paid dividends.
The evening news had shown the highlights of the havoc on a loop; every essential service personnel heeded their call of duty. If only his son had such inspirations.
Rose Grimshaw’s latest Facebook imprint made the evening news. A quick and breathless interview with Meghan, Rose’s daughter, asked about her mother’s last whereabouts.
Rusty hadn’t stopped barking all day and evening as officers came and went. Nosy onlookers tried to pump Mr. Chapman for details that he couldn’t answer. Rose Grimshaw competed the following morning with highway and school closures, weather advisories, and stay-at-home warnings.
“Last seen…” Mr. Chapman’s head snapped around, “…at the independent supermarket on Crenshaw Avenue, just before closing. The anchor said, “Rose Grimshaw was last seen wearing a reddish coat, dark slacks, and carrying a cloth shopping bag with flowers on it.”
The news anchor also included that Rose, now classified as missing, seemed dazed. A courtesy interview with a check-out girl added a personal detail. “She wasn’t out of it if you know what I mean, but she was oblivious kinda; she was in our store for about an hour. We asked her several times if she needed help, but she just shook her head. I think she bought some baking stuff.”
Mr. Chapman was confident they had the right Rose. Rose had always been an avid baker, and with Christmas two weeks away, it only made sense. His family always looked forward to the tin of international cookies. But what made little sense was that Rose vanished. Who would harm that demure old lady? Sadly, Mr. Chapman had suspicions about his son, who wasted hours playing games pretending to kill. However, the police let it slip that nothing appeared disturbed or stolen.
Over the last few days, Rusty had barked himself hoarse and was now barking with a winded rasp. Mrs. Chapman talked on the phone with the vet, who advised her to keep the dog calm and secluded and away from the disturbance.
Rusty was now whimpering, scratching, and frantically yipping in the two-piece bath. Mr. Chapman had no doubt that when Rusty ceased the pathetic behavior, he was unraveling the toilet paper or chewing on the toilet brush during those rare intermissions of quiet.
Although Mr. Chapman kept vigilance, Rose’s house remained dark and quiet. As the snow melted on the sidewalk, nosy passersby would point at her house and even dare to look inside the dark window until he shooed them away.
A reward poster made the rounds on Social Media channels, light standards, bus shelters, and the supermarket’s bulletin board. Everyone on the street speculated. Meghan was beside herself. She phoned Mr. Chapman for an update every evening.
Mrs. Chapman noticed the first green shoot of an early crocus under their bay window where the west-facing sun always fooled the flowers into sprouting too soon. Christmas was a distant memory. Winter had been too long and severe. Everyone was sick of snow.
The roads were a mess; there was talk of flooding. The village didn’t have it in their budget to remove any significant accumulations of dirty snow on the side streets; they concentrated on major arteries and highways leading in and keeping to their strict budget despite irrational complaints.
Mr. Chapman returned to his routine of going to work, and each time he saw a grey Honda, he wondered what happened to Rose. Rusty recovered his barking voice and was still pissing on the giant heap of ice on the north side of the fence in the alley.
Hundreds of people called the hotline and claimed they had seen Rose in locations that always proved false. Everyone has a look-alike.
Mr. Chapman no longer bothered to hide his smoking from his wife. Although she was often on the cusp of nagging him, he shot her a look that stopped further discussion. He never bothered her about the chocolates and candy she consumed when she thought he wasn’t looking.
Rusty discovered the body; in hindsight, Mr. Chapman believed that Rusty had always known. As more of the snow pile melted, the dog became obsessed with tugging on a corner of red wool cloth. It’s true what they say about a dog and its bones.
Meghan had sent a tow truck to move the car to storage weeks earlier since Rose’s garage front had become a deposit for excess snow. The cops had dusted the car for suspicious prints and other telltale signs of foul play.
Mr. Chapman cocked his head when Rusty pulled out a leather handle that slowly gave way from under the snow. It looked like a purse. And then it was a purse. He dropped his cigarette butt, and it hissed for a brief second on the wet ground.
He fought Rusty for the purse and when he won, his hand dove into the purse to retrieve the wallet. His gut churned with excitement and trepidation rolled into a nausea-forming ball in his gut and throat.
The wallet came out and dragged a square, orange piece of paper with it and cut his finger with surgical precision. It fluttered like paper flutters before it lands.
The license identified Rose Grimshaw.
The Post-it-Note, which was stained with two drops of blood, was a short shopping list. Two ingredients: vanilla bean, and confectioner’s sugar.
Beneath the shortlist it said: “My name is Rose Grimshaw; I live at 2023 Burnhamthorpe.”
Like many great artists, Beethoven, despite his massive talent was always an outsider. Class snobbery was rife during his day and age and it tormented Ludwig. I’ve always loved Fur Elise and can visualize an entire story. This is my interpretation of how the story came into existence.
The other part of this story is the setting. There is a reason millions of tourists flood the city. It’s gloriously gorgeous. Echoes of past lives linger on every street. If you listen, you can hear them.