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No Elleby Chris Green
Not wishing to start the day just yet, I listen to the springtime chirping of the birds outside the window while I piece together the events of last night. The concrete that seems to be lining my head suggests to me I had a fair bit to drink. I remember I got in late from a celebration of my team’s promotion. It was altogether a good night. In order not to wake anyone when I got home, I took the daybed in the downstairs study. Elle has not been sleeping well lately, stress at work and the like, and I thought I might be a little restless. Also, it gave me a chance to be able to look at the photos of the evening on my phone. Probably best not to share all of these with Elle, I thought.
It gradually occurs to me that…
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The Moons of Uranus by Chris Green
‘Look, Sean! There are some avocets,’ says Mara, excitedly. ‘They are avocets, aren’t they?’
Mara turns and notices that instead of looking out of the window at the expanse of estuary they are passing, Sean is studying his train ticket.
‘You’ve been poring over that ticket for about ten minutes,’ Mara says. ‘Is there a problem with it?’
‘Has it been that long?’ Sean says. ‘No. No problem, dear.’
‘Don’t you want to see the wading birds?’ Mara says. ‘This is the best time to see them. The tide’s just going out. Look! There’s a curlew.’
‘Sorry,’ Sean says. ‘I got distracted. I’ve not noticed it before but there’s lots of interesting information on a train ticket. For instance ….. ‘
‘You’ve been getting …… distracted a lot lately,’ Mara says. ‘We don’t have many days out together. You could at least try…
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DARKby Chris Green
I am in the garden at The Pig and Whistle on a hot August evening. About a dozen of us are sat around a table. Darkness is descending, rapidly, the way it does in mid-August. The English summer is so fleeting. Blink and it is gone. Every year it seems the locals try to hold on to the disappearing season by savouring these last moments. Soon it will end. It is not like this back home.
I have been holding forth about a painting of Jim Morrison that I have just finished. I have called it Lizard King. It is part of my Twenty Seven Club series.
‘I’m Matt,’ says the man sitting opposite me. ‘They call me Matt the Hat.’
I already know this of course because I have been sleeping with his girlfriend, Saskia. The last time, not two hours previously, as…
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The middle years had not been kind to Muriel Tweedsmuire. Her love of fine food, had ultimately been her undoing. Her job at The Daily Factor as food critic had left her with an insatiable craving for exotic fare, and when the tabloid folded, so in fact, did Muriel. Days of dining and critiquing for the morning paper had come to an end.
Not one to make friends easily, and known to be very sharp of tongue, she had no contacts to speak of. She was no longer able to make a living as adjudicator of gastronomic edibles, and being too overbearing for the foodie shows on television, although word had it that she had auditioned several times, her repugnant articulé (as the French would say) when angered, was a definite impediment. Thus, she resigned herself to living off the sale of her extraordinary Biedermeier and exquisite table linens, which had enjoyed impeccable and loving care in her family for generations.
Not being a “meat and two veg’ gal, however, and given her constant craving for the finer delicacies of life’s palate, Muriel soon found that her monies had run out. Going on ‘the dole’ was a necessity, and she moved into an efficiency council flat in the “SW9.” It was an insufferable humiliation, more so because she could not free herself of the scintillating aromatic memories that at one time welcomed her daily arrival at the finest eateries in London town. Just thinking of a fabulous Grand Mushroom Feuillete, plated with a finely seasoned Steak Tartar would render Muriel faint of heart.
Attired in her Sunday best (the buttoned-down black grey dress, with jacket and veiled pillbox hat), Muriel would spend a noon hour at Jarrod’s. It was one of her favorite food emporiums, and her most cherished once-a-week venture.
Wednesday was “Taste and Sample Day” when Muriel would help herself to a large plateful of Fougasse (leaf shaped bread with parsley and sea salt). “Just browsing dear, thanks ever so,” and under her breath an almost inaudible “and bugger off” to the clerk who had addressed her.
After one particular Wednesday afternoon at Jarrod’s, she decided not to go right home. It was a balmy July afternoon, and she did not want to suffer the noisy doings around her council flat. She took the underground tube to Archway Station, catching the bus that would take her to Waterdown Park. The country-like surroundings were beautiful at that time of year.
Muriel strolled about Swain’s Lane, adjacent to the Highgate cemetery, reaching into her faux leather stenciled alligator bag, for some bits of the delicious Fougasse that she had, with almost slight of hand, spirited away into the plastic bag lining the inside of her Italian satchel.
The motorcade that approached the cemetery was most impressive. Sleek black limousines, ten in all, trailed after a massive flower topped hearse. Elegant automobiles followed, and one by one, beautifully dressed men and women stepped out into the pathway, slowly following the lead of the procession. Muriel, appropriately dressed for the occasion (the Jarrod’s “Taste and Sample” outfit) took it upon herself to follow at a respectful distance.
By the time she reached the burial site at the top of the hill, Muriel was out of breath. She leaned lightly on an ornamental grave stone for support. She had not expected the climb to be so tiresome and hard on her legs. Just as the ceremony was ending, a smartly dressed gentleman suddenly approached her.
“E stanco guardare, cara signora. Se non si dispone di trasporto, posso offrirvi un viaggio alla reception?”
Muriel could only make out four words: “Transporto, offrivi, alla, and la reception.”
She gingerly touched her pillbox hat and, lowering the tulle veil, nodded in the affirmative.
Her light and constant sobs, while holding a lacy handkerchief to her nose, dampened any attempts at conversation that may have been deemed appropriate during the automobile ride to the Mayfair district. Besides, Muriel couldn’t speak Italian, didn’t know the deceased, did not want to be involved in verbal exchange in any language, and more importantly, it was almost tea time and she was hungry.
And there, in a great hall, awaiting Muriel, was a wondrous spread of magnificent food, presented in such a spectacular fashion that it took her breath away. There were trays of prochetta, thinly sliced, and slow roasted, with Provolone, charcoal grilled red peppers with a spicy Balsamic reduction, Manzo Rastao (a spice roasted beef, stacked with Cheddar, oven baked onion and horseradish mayo) and Pollo Grigilio, (a flamed grilled chicken, topped with fire blackened red pepper, provolone, and a delightful chipotle sauce)….all displayed on at least ten tables of food, and wafting miraculous aromas from their open tureens.
Muriel didn’t speak to anyone, and no one spoke to her. She left the hall sated, walked down the cobble-stoned laneway, and looked for the first convenient bus that would take her to the underground and back to “SW9”
The next morning, Muriel awoke with a flash! An idea that was “manna from heaven,” as it were.
The London Times, The Telegraph, The Guardian, and The Evening Standard all had important roles to play.
And so began Muriel’s daily trips to the newspaper kiosk, wire-framed buggy-wagon clanking noisily behind her. Not just one newspaper did she buy, mind you, but a dozen or so, each with their tidy obituary columns. And why bother with just cemetery rituals? If an address was printed for a reception, with the given time thereof, Muriel would skip the burial altogether.
Saturdays’ papers were the best. Notices for the following seven days would appear. Week after week, her agenda date book would fill up in a menu-like fashion: Greek, Italian, Spanish, French…she would arrive a quarter of an hour earlier at the event address and wait a bit, keeping a small distance away from the reception doors, or gates. She would then position and pace her entrance to coincide with an approaching group of guests. Her black dress, pillbox hat and lowered veil, blended in beautifully with each newly found entourage…
And there were not only funeral receptions to partake in. Social columns offered other delicious enticements.
At an eightieth birthday reception for Benekykt Kucharski, in the vestibule of The Lady of Czestochowa Catholic Polish Church, Muriel sampled Nalesniki (pancakes with coddled sweet cream), Bigos (cabbage stew with robust meats, sausages and mushrooms), and Flaki and Plaki (tripe and potato pancakes, served with spiced apple sauce). Mme Lefevere’s fund raiser for the Orphans of Calais offered equally delicious fare: Flakey Pissaladiere (warmed flatbread with caramelized onion) and beautifully shaped Rillettes (coarsely shredded duck and pork pate on toasted sourdough bread, shallots and cornichons).
And how could Muriel not attend the afternoon garden party held by Adelpha Diodorus (in honour of her own daughter’s fifth born) on the lawns of the Greek Orthodox Church of St. Lazarus and St. Andrew in Forest Gate?
Muriel wore her champagne coloured pillbox and off-white gold buttoned double-breasted suit, lifting the hat’s veil to indulge in a wonderful Taramosaleta (a blend of whipped bread, olive oil, lemon juice and imported black caviar), and a superb Tirokafteri (feta cheese, metzithra, and ricotta, blended with peppers, spices and olives…)
A fabulous summer of feasting went by quickly. It was in late September, however, on a particularly dark and cloud-heavy day, that Muriel was about to experience her downfall.
She had been anticipating a particular food event, for weeks now, and had even tried to eat a little less the week before so that she could indulge herself on this particular occasion.
Once a year, around the start of Autumn, when the month of fasting, Ramadan, ends, there is no house in Turkey that does not serve a variety of sweet delicacies in accordance with the ritual holiday of Seker Bayrami…and so it was at the Turkish Embassy in London.
Muriel boarded the Knightsbridge bus and within a half hour period, was feasting on superlative sweets of the most incredible lightness of texture. Suddenly a piece of tulumba (cylinders of soft pastry soaked in sugary syrup) that had found its way to the polished floor caught Muriel’s right shoe at a most unexpected moment, causing her to backward somersault in an arse-over-tit fashion, and slide, feet first, under a table of firin sutlac (a baked milk-and-rice pudding of a mild yellow colour, with a crusty top mottled with brown spots, where the baking has slightly burned it.)
Muriel winced in pain, as she was lifted off the wheeled stretcher that had carried her through the old corridors of the Royal London Hospital and hoisted onto a hospital bed.
Much later she was awakened from surgery by her council flat solicitor, advising her that there would be no lawsuit, but that a small settlement would be bestowed on her, even though she had been trespassing.
The Turkish Embassy finishing up with Ramadan, felt that a sum should be offered; enough to cover what the National health would not.
Muriel’s left leg, cumbersomely fitted with a cast that ran the length from hip to toe, was suspended a foot and a half in the air. In a fortnight, he told her, she would be fitted with a walking cast, and then released from hospital. A forlorn looking “candy striper” arrived with breakfast–boiled oats, mashed banana and prune, all in one bowl.
Muriel glumly chewed on a squashed prune and she listened half-heartedly to the solicitor’s drone. “My dear Miss Tweedsmuire, when we are involved with a willful act or active negligence as distinguished from a mere omission of a duty, that causes an injury to, or invasion of the person’s rights or especially property of another, or if you would,” he continued, “to enter wrongfully or without proper authority upon the real property of another….”
“My tea is getting cold, and I hate bloody prune,” Muriel mumbled.
It was one month later, with walking cast removed, that Muriel ventured back out into the world of fashionable edibles. A little shop in Kensington had advertised a first-come-first-serve taste of a Boulette d’Avesnes (a very strong and spicy French cheese) paired with a 6 ounce glass of a robust dark German beer. Muriel was first in line, having set her alarm an extra hour earlier that morning.
“Muriel! Muriel Tweedsmuire! ”
“Bullocks!,” cursed Muriel , as she heard her name being called out a third time, from somewhere behind her in the curving line-up to the shop doors. She lowered her sun glasses , and with a slight turn of her neck, she looked back and recognized the caller. It was that busy body, Lucy Huff, who wrote that insipid “Home and Hearth” column at the now defunct Daily Factor.
Lucy manoeuvred her way up the to front of the queue to where Muriel was standing collar up, neck receding turtle-like into her linen jacket.
“Why, Muriel, it IS you!. Where on earth have you been keeping yourself? Do you know that half of ‘The Food for Life Network’ has been looking for you?
“What on earth are you talking about woman?,” Muriel said, lowering her dark glasses to the tip of her nose, and peering over them.
“Why the show, the show of course! You auditioned for a show months ago. But now there’s a new show that will be going into production, ‘HELLION IN THE KITCHEN’. The producers have been looking for you everywhere. There are four of us…food adjudicators…and we judge meals prepared by young chefs. You would be the counterpart of what’s his name, on that other show–you know, the one with the bad manners and who swears at everyone–JORDAN TANSEY! Muriel, WHERE have you been?
Muriel was tempted to shout out, “Quit your squawking, you dumb nut!,” but she decided to hold her tongue and think pleasant thoughts…filet of sole, sauteed with almonds…mussels cooked in white wine and garlic purée…perhaps a grilled tiger shrimp or two. After all, if what Lucy had just told her was in fact true, she might be eating happily ever after again.
“Darling,” Muriel purred, in the sweetest voice she could conjure up, “How have you been, dear heart??”
Who would have thought Elmer Watkins would go out and get himself killed? But there it was, on the front page of the morning paper, right next to the headline on the Kardashians:
‘MONTREAL YOUTH KILLED IN SPAIN– Elmer Watkins, twenty, died as a result of a bus accident on a highway outside of Barcelona. More information will be available pending an investigation by the Spanish police. The parents of the deceased have flown to that country and will return with the body. Funeral arrangements to be announced at later date.’
I had met Elmer about a year and a half prior while making my first feeble attempt at university, and I must admit that I didn’t exactly take to him on the spot. In fact when I first watched Elmer lug his huge frame through the hallways of the various faculty buildings, I was put right off. I mean, the guy was huge. I know it’s wrong to go around disliking people just because of their appearance, and I’ll admit I’ve always been kind of ashamed of the way I make snap judgments on sight. I guess that’s why when I later discovered that Elmer and I shared the same curriculum, I decided to be a little friendly. After all, what harm could it do, right? I approached him in the hallway outside the lecture hall after almost falling asleep during an incredibly boring lecture on semantics.
“Hi,” I said. “I’m Barry Parsons. We seem to be following each other around this past week.” Elmer’s huge eyes bugged out in surprise. He looked sweaty and hot, and folds of flesh bulged out of a too-tight collar and closely knotted tie. It was an unseasonably hot September morning, and the prickly Harris Tweed jacket he was wearing didn’t seem to be adding to his comfort. Being somewhat of a casual dresser, I always wore jeans and sandals. Cold snowy days were the exception.
I looked down at my bare toes and began to wish that I hadn’t initiated the conversation, but Elmer was right in there extending a damp plump hand and introducing himself.
Pressing on with my feeling of good Samaritan and knowing that our next lecture was not until two o’clock in the afternoon, I invited him to have lunch with me at a little place where I hung out on Stanley Street. He declined, saying that he was expected at home but maybe he could join me the next day. I admit I was sort of relieved as I watched him lumber off down the hall. At least I had made the effort.
The following noon, Elmer was waiting for me. I had fallen asleep in philosophy class. The lecture room had become uncomfortably warm and, were it not for a kindly nudge on my shoulder by Louise Franklin who was sitting next to me, I would have been more than happy to doze right on through. I stood up and drowsily gathered my books together. Suddenly Elmer was beside me, all tweedy and hot.
“Lunch,” he said, raising a heavy arm and shoving a brown paper bag in my face. He was smiling.
“Uh, Elmer,” I said, “I don’t think they’d appreciate it if I ordered lunch and you sat there eating out of that bag. Why don’t we make it some other time?”
The disappointment that flashed across his face was too much. “But it’s for both of us,” he said, looking at me as though I should have known. “I thought perhaps we could get some soft drinks and eat on the grass near the library.”
“That’s real nice of you Elmer–I mean….that’s kind of a nice idea.” I put my arm on his shoulder and walked along the hall with him. “I’ll get the drinks,” I said, “and I’ll meet you by the library steps in five minutes.”
When I arrived at the library, Elmer was squatting in a shady spot on the lawn, looking like a giant slug. The brown paper bag had been opened, and an array of wax papered sandwiches had been spread out around him.
“I told my mother all about you, and she made these for us,” he said. “Trimmed or untrimmed?”
“What?” I asked.
“Crusts or no crusts? Some people don’t like crusts on their sandwiches and so Mother made both. There’s egg, cheese and ham, and meatloaf and tomato. She says she’d like to meet you.”
“I’ll have the egg,” I said, wondering what the hell Elmer could have told his mother about me.
“No, they come together. The egg, cheese and ham is one sandwich, and the meat loaf and tomato is the other. There are three each.”
“The meat loaf and tomato will be fine,” I said.
“Crusts or no crusts?”
“Dammit, Elmer, It doesn’t make any difference,” I answered wishing, as I watched him perspire in his heavy wool jacket, that I were somewhere else.
“My mother said,” Elmer began, his mouth overly full, “My mother said that a person is really lucky to make a good friend.”
“Look, Elmer,” I said, “I mean like we only just met yesterday, and I don’t think….” I stopped myself. “What I mean is, I can tell right off the bat that you’re a good guy and everything, and I really would like to be your friend.”
“I thought so,” Elmer said, smiling. “What other reason would you have to come up to me after class? I don’t get many people speaking to me.”
“Well, to tell you the truth Elmer, I really don’t see why not. I mean you’re a perfectly nice guy.”
‘The kids used to make fun of me because I was fat,” he said. “And it‘s always been that way ever since I can remember.”
“Ya, but that was then , Elmer. Today people go for what’s in your head, not what you look like.” I was really laying it on thick. “Keep up with the times, dude! Things are different now.”
“Not much different for me,” Elmer said, starting on his second sandwich. “Things are always pretty much the same for me.”
I looked at him. “They don’t have to be, you know.”
“What do you mean?” Elmer said.
“Well, for starters, Elmer, it’s bloody hot out. Why don’t you take off your jacket?”
“I sort of feel more comfortable with it on,” he said, shading his eyes from the sun which had just passed over the protective tree.
“Yeah, well I think I’d better get going now, Elmer. It was a real nice sandwich. Thank your mother for me.”
”But we don’t have our next class until two o’clock.” Elmer said digging into the brown bag, “and you’ve only been here about ten minutes.”
“I know” I said, “but I’m cutting classes this afternoon. I have to get together with some friends.”
Elmer scowled. “You shouldn’t cut classes,” he said disapprovingly, and then added, “She wanted to know if you would like to come for supper tomorrow night. My mother, she wanted to know.”
“Oh, I don’t think I can Elmer, but thank her for me. Maybe some other time–”
“She said that Friday night would be alright too, if you couldn’t make it tomorrow.”
“I’m going up north to the cottage. Probably leave early Friday evening,” I said.
“Oh. I see.” Elmer looked at me dejectedly. “Are you sure that you won’t change your mind about cutting classes?”
“Fuck, Watkins,” I exploded. “It’s not really any of your god-damn business, is it?”
I looked down at the empty wax paper wrappers on the grass. Why did I say that? I mean, the poor guy hasn’t got a friend in the world. “What the hell, Elmer,” I said, “Tell your mother, Friday night will be alright. I can always take my brother’s car Saturday morning. I’ll see you at class tomorrow.”
I left him sitting there, sweating profusely. People could do really funny things to your head sometimes.
Elmer’s mother was a wisp of a thing; not at all what I had imagined her to be. She welcomed me at the door when I arrived, and I really had to look twice. She was so tiny and fragile. One would never have expected her to have parented Elmer. She told me that her son was upstairs taking a bath and would be downstairs shortly, and asked if I would care to join Elmer’s father in the living room.
As I followed her I became aware of the pungent smell of flowers. At first I thought it was her perfume, and if that was the case, she must have taken a bath in it. The place just reeked. Then I noticed them–big orange blooms everywhere, sprouting out of pots, vases, and stands littered throughout the house. They were all the same flower and all the same colour. I don’t know why, but just looking at them really gave me the creeps.
Through the hall archway, I could see Mr. Watkins sitting on a sofa, reading a newspaper. I suddenly felt terribly uncomfortable in my old shirt and jeans. Or maybe it was the sandals. He stared at my feet when his wife ushered me into the living room and introduced me as Elmer’s friend. There was certainly no mistaking him for anyone else–he was every bit as fat as Elmer, maybe even more so. His neck bulged up from his collar, and like his son, he wore a jacket and tie. He looked up from his newspaper when I sat down across from him, and made some kind of guttural sound. Fortunately at that precise moment Elmer appeared and, not surprisingly, he was all buttoned up too. He gave me such a somber ‘hello” that I wondered what in the world I was doing there. Mr. Watkins stood up without saying a word and I followed the both of them into the dining room.
Sitting at the Watkins’ dining table was an extremely joyless event. The heat that had built up during the week seemed to have compacted itself into that one particular room. I wondered why no one turned on the air-conditioning. It was like sitting inside the center of a cocoon. Mr. Watkins said nothing but occasionally would emit these funny little sounds that only Mrs. Watkins seemed to understand. The meal was nauseatingly rich, and there seemed to be cream sauces over everything. I managed to get through most of it by concentrating on the wallpaper that ran the length of the room in horizontal floral stripes. I kept wishing that they ran from floor to ceiling, and thought of this each time Mrs. Watkins got up and went to the kitchen to bring out more food. Without going into the details of the menu, one could easily account for the size of the men sitting on either side of me. It was almost as if Elmer’s mother was trying to make up for her own diminutive size. Mr. Watkins would mumble at the end of each course, and as if in response to a signal, his wife would pick up our plates and depart through the swinging door. After making a few feeble attempts at light conversation to which only Mrs. Watkins seemed to respond with little nods, I divided my time between the wallpaper and watching Elmer eat. When the meal finally came to an end, marked by a dessert of peaches, ice cream and topping, Mrs. Watkins went back to the kitchen and returned with a huge chocolate cake covered with whipped cream and nuts. I really thought I was going to puke. As the feeling of nausea crept up inside me, I managed to get away with a large burp rather than the more spectacular emission. I excused myself, saying that I was feeling a bit dizzy from the heat and that I really thought I should be going.
“It’s cooler up in my room,” Elmer said, helping himself to a large piece of cake.
The slob finally opened his mouth to do something other than shovel food into it, I thought.
“Why don’t you both take your cake upstairs?” Mrs. Watkins said. “It certainly is cooler up there, and Elmer can show you his collection.”
Fuck Elmer and his collection, I thought, but before I could express my desire to leave again, Elmer was up from his chair and out of the dining room. I had no choice but to follow him. Mr. Watkins stared at my feet again as I walked by him.
The walls of Elmer’s room were covered with glass-framed butterflies, wings stretched wide and pinned flat. There was even some kind of table with a glass arrangement over it. More butterflies. I have a particular hate on for things like that and always have. Now I could out and out hate Elmer too. The bed creaked noisily as he let his bulk settle down onto it. There was a chair at the far side of the bed and he motioned for me to sit down.
“I think I’d better be off,” I said. “I still may have a chance to get a lift up to the cottage. Thanks for supper.”
“There’s something that I want to discuss with you,” Elmer said, picking at the nuts on the top of his chocolate cake.
“Look, Elmer,” I said, “let me put it this way. I’m not in the least bit interested in these specimens, and if you want to know the truth of it, I have a downright dislike for this sort of thing. It makes me sick.
“I followed you,” he said.
“Yeah,well,” I replied, starting for the doorway. “But I really have to be going now. See you around.”
“You don’t understand,” Elmer said. “Last Wednesday–when you said you were cutting classes in the afternoon to be with friends. I know where you went and I know what goes on there.”
I stared at him in disbelief. Imagine someone actually following me. I didn’t know whether to be flattered or annoyed. In view of the fact that I anticipated what was coming next, I decide to be annoyed.
“There are naked women dancing there and….and people use drugs,” he continued. “I know all about it. You can get yourself in a whole lot of trouble, Barry, and besides… it’s not good for you. Being my friend I feel that it is for your own good that I–”
“Look fat boy,” I blurted out. “Why don’t you mind own god-dammed business and just stick to killing your fuckin’ bugs!”
I was out of his room in a flash. No sooner was I out the front door than I started feeling bad. But what the hell should I be feeling bad about? I mean, he was the one who was spying. I don’t need a snoop in my life. And besides, what the fuck–I wasn’t doing anything wrong anyway.
I avoided Elmer the following Monday. I had just come back from a great weekend in the Laurentians, and when I arrived for my first lecture of the day, I really made a point to stay clear of him. I was standing next to Louise Franklin and when I saw him heading my way, I deliberately turned my back to him, interrupting a conversation that Louise was having with someone else.?
I chose the most occupied area of the lecture hall to sit in, so that when the two hours had passed, I could walk out of the room surrounded by other students. I had an hour and a half between lectures, so I went down to the “Cage” on Stanley Street. At precisely twelve-twenty I was on my way back to campus and arrived for my next lecture right on the dot. At about two o’clock, I spotted him from a distance. He was trying to catch my attention and had started to run in my direction. I was well on my way down the street when I started feeling stupid. I sat down on a bus stop bench and waited. He was out of breath, red-faced and wet. The top button of his collar was undone and his tie had been loosened. He couldn’t talk and just stood in front of me panting heavily. I moved over on the bench and made room for him.
He sat down, and it seemed a full five minutes before he could breathe more easily.
“I’m sorry,” He managed to get out. That, and nothing more.
“Okay,” I said quietly.
“Did you have a good time up north?” He asked.
“Yeah, I had a blast.”
“I’ve never been,” he said. “I’ve always stayed in the city. Even during the summer. Your parents have a place up there?”
“No,” I answered. “I rent the place with two other guys.”
“Oh,” he said, removing his jacket and folding it over his knees.
I detected a more than distinct sense of disapproval.
So what’s wrong with that?” I questioned.
“Nothing,” he said.
“What do you mean?”
He started undoing the knot of his tie.?
“I was just thinking,” he said, “That if it belonged to your parents, maybe I could come up one time. But I guess if you rent it the other guys wouldn’t want me there.”
“Hey Elmer”, I almost shouted at him. “You’ve got your jacket and tie off.”
“I know,” he said with a shrug of his heavy shoulders. “It was hot.”
Knowing that the cottage would be empty the following weekend, I invited him to join me. Don’t ask me why. I think it was because he took off his jacket.
“Just don’t bug me too much, okay?” I said.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen a face light up with such gratitude in my life.
The following Saturday morning I drove up to Elmer’s house. I had borrowed my brother’s car and stocked it with the supplies we would need for the weekend.
Elmer was already out on the front porch waiting for me. He was wearing a white polo shirt tucked inside a new pair of jeans. His waist-line must have measured a good forty-six inches, and the heavy denim stood out like cardboard around each leg. He was sitting on an old suitcase, the real heavy kind with the squared off edges.
“Hey, man,” I hollered through the open car window,” We’re only going for two days you know.”
He came down the steps and opened the back door of the car, putting the suitcase on the floor. I opened the front door for him and he got in beside me.
“I have some things that I wanted to bring along,” he said.
“None of those bugs you collect, I hope”
“No, nothing like that,” he said, smiling.
As luck would have it, no sooner had we turned off the Laurentian auto-route than the sky turned a shitty black, and down it came. Not just a quick shower, but a deluge that lasted all of Saturday and a good part of Sunday as well. We made it to the cottage and parked the car, but not without getting thoroughly soaked in the few seconds it took to reach the front door.
“We’d better get into something dry,” I suggested. “I’ll light the oil lamps and get a fire going. Better give me your wet things.”
Elmer set his suitcase down on the floor. “I haven’t got anything else to wear, just these jeans and shirt that I’ve got on.”
“Well, you’d better get out of them and put a blanket around you. Here,” I said, tossing him a towel and taking a wool blanket out of the closet. “What the hell is in that suitcase anyway?”
I took his jeans and shirt from him and put them over a chair near the fireplace. “With any luck, they should be dry in a few hours.”
I got out of my own wet things and dried myself off. I put on a fresh pair of jeans and placed my wet things beside Elmer’s.
“Come one, man, give me your underwear and socks too. You can’t keep those on.”
He took them off almost reluctantly, clutching at the blanket.
“I suppose these are the only ones you’ve brought, “I said, taking them from him. “So what the fuck is in that suitcase?”
He reached down, holding the blanket tightly around him and unfastened the funny looking clip locks. The top of the case released, and he opened it.
“This,” he said.
“What?” I asked, looking into the suitcase and seeing nothing but a paper bag and a pile of note books.
“These…these things that I’ve written. I wanted you to see them. I’ve never shown them to anyone else before.”
I reached down to touch a pile of note books.
“No,” Elmer stopped me. “Start with these first.”
He pointed to a second pile that looked yellowed and frayed “I arranged them in proper order last night.”
I picked up the first book and opened it. It was written in childish script and was signed Elmer Watkins, nine years old.
Today was my birthday. I had a party and it was fun. Mummy and Daddy were there and we had good things to eat. I got presents too.
“Elmer,” I said, looking up at him, “Do you really want me to read this stuff?” He said nothing and just nodded.
Today I picked up a pretty marigold that was growing at the side of the school entrance and Michael Felton threw a stick at me. He threw it, he said, because I was “fat”. Tonight, my mom made my favorite dessert. Cherry pie, topped with whipped cream and colored candy bits.
“Elmer” I said “I don’t think I can read all this stuff. There’s so much, and besides–”
“But I want you to read it.”
I saw the hurt in his eyes. Aw, shit, I thought, and continued reading.?
He had detailed everything, from the special chocolate fudge cake his mother had laboured over on the occasion of his eleventh birthday to his first wank. His high school days were filled with dozens of unkind remarks and relentless bullying, all connected to his ‘morbid obesity’ a term that the school nurse had referred to when doing a ‘weigh-in’ as part of the ‘physical health program’.
Each notebook contained pages devoted to his love for flowers and a growing obsession for butterflies. He described how he would gently catch them with the net he had purchased at a pet shop; the first killing jar he had fashioned; the poisoned saturated cotton balls that would ultimately kill the butterfly once it had been caught and sealed in the jar; the removal of the insect from the jar, and finally the pinning of it through the thorax as it dried out on wax paper. It was starting to turn my stomach. “Elmer,” I said. “I can’t read anymore of this”
He looked at me and said nothing.
I felt uncomfortable. “Not much of a weekend after all, is it?” I said, putting down the note book and looking away.
“It doesn’t’ matter,” Elmer said. “I’m enjoying myself just being here.”
“Yeah, well that’s good,” I said. “You know, Elmer, I think that one of your basic troubles is that you spend too much time alone. Y’know what I mean? You have to get out more. Really make an effort to meet people.”
“Its’ not easy,” he said, “When you look like a–”
“Cut that out!” I interrupted. “Have you ever thought of trying to do something about it? I mean, haven’t you ever heard of the word exercise?”
“Of course,” he said, “but I’m not very good at it .They always laughed at me in school. You read about it yourself.”
“Elmer,” I said, brainstorming another one of my good Samaritan ideas that I was sure to regret later. “You and I are gonna work out at the gym, before classes. We’ll do it two or three days a week. The place is empty early in the morning, and I know enough about simple exercise. We may not make an Arnold out of you, but we’ll sure as hell get you into better shape. Here,” I said, tossing him an apple, “Munch on this while I get some steaks going.”
“I brought some chocolate bars too,” he said.
“Where are they?” I asked.
“In the paper bag in the suitcase,” he said, reaching down for it.
“Give that to me,” I said.
I took the bag from him and looked inside. There must have been about forty dollars worth of chocolate. I reached into the bag, took out one bar and handed it to him, and brought the paper sack into the kitchen with me. Shit, I felt like a god damn dietician.
“You gotta cut out that sweet stuff Elmer,” I hollered back, “And don’t go fucking up once you get home. Otherwise, no go at the gym. You get fed like elephants in your house.” Elmer was silent.
“Hey!” I said, sticking my head out the door. “Move your ass and check the clothes to see if they’re dry. Then come in the kitchen and help me out. I ain’t your mother y’know.”
Meeting Elmer at the gym at eight o’clock the following Tuesday morning meant having to get up an hour earlier than usual. I was kind of hoping that he wouldn’t show up, and then I could use that as an excuse for not following through, for even though I had extended the offer with all sincerity, I felt cheated out of sixty minutes of snooze time.
But, sure enough, Elmer was there waiting for me. He had brought along a canvas bag, and he unzipped it proudly, showing me a new pair of gym trunks and tennis shoes. We went into the locker room and changed our clothes. I decided to start with simple laps around the room. Three times, fairly slowly. Elmer was out of breath after the first lap and by the third I knew I was pushing him.
“Easy man, easy, “I said. “Let’s stop now and rest a bit.” After he had caught his breath, I started him on the exercises that I could best remember from my days at high school.
“C’mon Elmer,” I said. “Watch.” I demonstrated. “Arms forward raise, upward stretch, rise on the toes, inhale. Sideward lower, slowly press the arms back and exhale.”
I did this twice, and he followed my example.
“No bad, not bad,” I said, praising him. “Now, stand with your arms at your side. Then sideward raise, upward stretch, inhale, forward bend, and rise. Arms sideward, lower, exhale.”
This was more difficult, and he looked at me with a pained expression after attempting it.
“Never mind,” I said. “If you think that one was hard, this one’s going to knock the shit out of you, but you gotta remember…it takes a lot of time if you want to get in shape.”
I went over to a row of bars that ran horizontally against the wall from ceiling to floor. I lay back, catching the instep of my shoes under that last bar. With hands clasped behind my head, I raised it, extending the spine, pressing my elbows forwards. I repeated it five times.
“That one’s not for today,” I said. “Let’s go through those first ones again and then call it. We shouldn’t do too much at first anyway, but you’ve got the general idea for starters. We’ll go through the same routine on Wednesday. You’ll probably feel a bit sore, but that’s the price you have to pay. I’m going to shower.”
Elmer waited in the locker room fully clothed until I had finished showering.
“Hey, boy!” I said, slapping him playfully with my towel, “Where were you? There’s nothing to be shy about. I’ve seen one before.” Elmer looked away embarrassed. “So…what’s for your lunch?” I asked.
“Two egg sandwiches and a Hershey.”
“Sounds good,” I said, drying myself off and getting into my clothes. I shoved my sweat shirt and trunks into my gym bag. “I’ll see you at class. Don’t drown in the shower.”
The three months that followed brought incredible changes in Elmer’s appearance. He worked out at the gym every day. I had stopped going after a couple of weeks. He was following through with the arduous task that he had set himself and, as if this were not enough, he had bought himself exercise equipment to work out with at home. By the end of December, he must have dropped about forty pounds.
In mid-January, I had several course changes that kept me in the buildings on the other side of campus. That, plus the fact that Brenda from Boston had entered my life during the Christmas holidays, prevented me from having any contact with Elmer until late Spring. Brenda and I were strolling on the campus grounds one Saturday morning and I walked right by him. He had said hello; at least Brenda had heard him.
“Who was that?” she asked, her eyes big and wide. I turned around, and he was standing there smiling .
“Elmer?” I half questioned.
A lean but well built young man in blue jeans, deeply tanned, flashed white teeth in our direction. His facial features were finely chiselled, with bone structure that had obviously been there all along. He extended his hand to me, and I reluctantly introduced him to Brenda.
“What have you been up to Elmer?” I asked. “Been hibernating or something? Where’d you get that tan?”
“Flew down to Tampa for Easter vacation. Got to keep moving while you can,” he answered smiling at Brenda.
“Elmer, you look fantastic,” I said. “I just can’t get over it. I’ll bet you don’t collect butterflies anymore, huh?”
I threw that in to help Brenda close her gaping mouth.
“Not much time for that anymore,” he said, “Look, we’ll have to get together soon. So much has happened. I’ve got a class in three minutes. Tried to get out of a Saturday morning lecture, but just couldn’t manage it. I’ll call you. Really nice meeting you Brenda.”
“Well I’ll be a son of a bitch,” I said under my breath as he disappeared from view.
“What?” Brenda asked.
“Nothing,” I answered. “It’s not important.”
I miraculously managed to get through my final exams in spite of the distraction of having Brenda in my life. Commuting weekends was making me a nervous wreck, even though she did her share of traveling as well. I convinced her to persuade her parents to let her continue her education in Montreal in the Fall and they agreed. I found myself studying much harder during the new term, anticipating the weekends we would be spending together, plus all the other moments we could manage. I was in love and it was really great.
It didn’t even occur to me that I had not seen Elmer around campus when the new academic year started, and then in March, I read about him in the newspaper.
I watched for the funeral announcement, and took Brenda into the chapel with me.
The room that we were directed to was filled with flowers. Only Mr. and Mrs. Watkins were there, sitting together facing the open casket. I don’t think they remembered me for they stared back with blank eyes when I approached them. I walked over to the coffin and looked down. Elmer’s face was gaunt, and the skin which had been richly tanned by the Spanish sun was stretched tightly against his cheek-bones. They had given him some kind of powder job which seem to have considerably aged him. Mr. Watkins joined me at the coffin, and Brenda took her place beside the frail little woman, sitting down beside her and taking hold of her hand. Mr. Watkins’ collar was still too tight, and his neck bulged out. He stared into the mahogany box, holding on the edge.
“It was a freak accident,” Mr. Watkins said. “A tire blew out on the bus and it hit a street lamp. The pole crashed through the bus window piercing my son’s chest, impaling him to the bus seat. Other passengers were injured but Elmer was the only one killed.”
There was a moment of awkward silence as Mr. Watkins stared blankly at the displays of marigolds surrounding the casket.
“Elmer loved these flowers you know,” he said.
“Yeah, and butterflies too,” I said, motioning to Brenda that it was time to go. “He let me read about it once.”
The changes which pass in the history of the butterfly are great and abrupt. The egg is laid singly or in patches. In a few days or months, as the case may be, a caterpillar appears and sets about its life-work, which is simply to feed ravenously, to grow, rest and molt. When it has collected much reserve food material in its fatty body, it conceals itself within a hard pupal skin. Changes foreshadow the limbs, wings, and organs and finally the image bursts forth to dry its wings and soar majestically.
The length of the life history is variable, depending on the species.
Lionel Walfish© 2015