In an on-going effort to get over my anxiety of writing a whole book, I am writing a series of Chapter Ones. They are all based on true stories from my life and this particular chapter is no exception. The only element of this story that is embellished is the breed of dog, simply because I can’t remember.
She hates this stretch of road. The long walk from the bus stop to Mr. Dawson’s house feels like an ever-expanding gauntlet. She squares her shoulders defensively as she starts toward home and wonders if they will ever refer to the house they live in as their house, or if it will always be referred to as Mr. Dawson’s house. Mr. Dawson was an old man, a relative of a family friend, who died entombed in his hoarder’s den. The house came “as is” and she had been in charge of sorting through the walk-in pantry, or bomb shelter, as she liked to think of it. There were times when she had stood beside stacks of moldering newspapers as tall as herself, and railed at an old man’s obsession she could not understand. An obsession that had meant she had to work twice as hard at clearing away his life. It wasn’t until she discovered the gas mask and tins of expired water that she had sat down amongst Mr. Dawson’s collections and cried, the sudden wash of empathy too much to process. She had taken her time after that, still marveling at what he had felt compelled to keep, and made up her own stories about Mr. Dawson’s lack; perhaps he was a child of the Great Depression or a WWII veteran. Her room in the back of the dark little bungalow surrounded by trees was filled with Mr. Dawson’s furniture and she often felt like an intruder. She would talk to him then, as the rest of the family tended to do, as if he were curled up in the corner, keeping watch, and she wondered if he got restless whenever she threw anything away.
The gunshots explode in the air above her and she jumps, cursing herself for letting down her guard. The gun range, from where the blast originates, is hidden behind a copse of trees. “Out of sight, out of mind” she says out loud and as if to punctuate her sentiment, a gunshot blusters its way upwards. She despises the gun range and imagines scores of yahoos (she doesn’t know what constitutes a yahoo but imagines amorphous shapes wearing cowboy boots) jigging about like billy goats, off-loading buckshot into the breasts of majestic pheasant. The closer she gets to the gun range, the higher the pile of pheasants becomes in her mind and there would be times when she would cry all the way home. This is, of course, ridiculous conjecture. Later that year she will challenge herself to write a college essay about the gun range. During her on-site visit she will find no dead pheasants, no billy goat jigging yahoos and she will discover that firing a shotgun is the most thrilling thing she will do to date.
She quickens her pace past the barrage of sound and prays that the two rottweilers that live on the corner are as frightened by the gunshots as she is. Like sentinels attuned to subtle shifts in the atmosphere, there they are, ears pricked, sensing her arrival before she even turns the corner. Of course they’re not frightened of the gunshots, she thinks, they live across the street from the range. The sound is as much a part of their daily soundtrack as their own incessant barking. She can see them slowly cross the grass, stalking her with their heads down and she refuses to make eye contact. I am not afraid, she tells herself and would have laughed out loud at the ridiculousness of the statement, if she didn’t think it would startle the dogs. Predictably they will pick up their pace and her heart will join them, the dogs galloping behind her, her heart galloping in its bony cage.
Everyday she anticipates their jaws crunching down on her heels and her breath catches in her throat and everyday the dogs are suddenly yanked back, as if on an invisible leash and they canter back to their station on the porch. Today is no different and as the dogs retreat she curses them under her ragged breath.
The gauntlet is over and she lights a last cigarette before reaching Mr. Dawson’s house. The gunshots are faint, barely discernible and the trees take over filling in the silence. Her adrenaline has been so high that this coming-down space feels almost contemplative. The tree branches shush her and she counts her foot steps, whispering the numbers like a mantra. She almost misses the shimmer on the side of the road, the shimmer waiting patiently as if, like the rottweilers, it has anticipated her arrival. She is so engrossed in her counting that the movement at the corner of her eye could have been anything; a bird, a flower, the wind moving a tree branch. She stops and squints. There definitely is something there but she can see the green of the bushes behind it, no, through it! She looks up to the tops of the trees and back down, as if to re-set her vision. Someone is standing by the side of the road and yet, there is no one there. “Mr. Dawson?” she asks and her voice barely carries past her lips. The longer she stares the more in focus the shimmering becomes and she yelps out loud with the force of it, the recognition of it; hands folded primly just below the waist, modest skirt to mid-shin, cardigan or perhaps a sweater, pearls around the neck, sensible shoes. And those vintage glasses, always so severe in the photographs. Without warning she feels a blow to her stomach and she bends over, gagging into the grass. She can no longer see the shimmering but she can feel it, as if it is only inches from her face and she is inundated with the familiar smell of make-up, an antiquated face powder she remembers from her childhood. A car drives slowly past and the spell is broken and she wonders what they see. What do they make of this girl gagging into the afternoon breeze.
She picks up the cigarette she has dropped and sucks the embers toward her lips, the burning of the filter catching in her throat.
She finally arrives at Mr. Dawson’s house and yanks open the front door, listening absently for signs that her family is home. She imagines Mr. Dawson reclining in his favourite chair, waiting for her to report on her day.
“I just saw my Grandma” she says to the empty room, “and boy, is she pissed!”