Stories by me

After the poets meet…

By Heather Leask Armstrong

We had been to a poetry reading, my son and I, and as we waited in the café attached to our favourite book store, we discussed whose poems we liked better.

We decided to order the usual – – creamy gelati shakes, mine mocha, and his, only chocolate, because he was newly 13 and just old enough for poetry readings, but, not yet for coffee.

The waitress arrived to take our order in her prescribed black dress pants and black blouse, the lace from a hot pink camisole extending below her shirttail, proving individuality can’t be constrained by the sameness of uniforms. I’m not sure if we noticed right then or some time later the young man, also dressed in black, who followed behind her, always at the same distance, not saying anything,
not doing anything, but, looking on and smiling.

As the evening wore on, we secretly nicknamed him the “Shadow”
surmising he was learning the job or checking her work. Giddy on just consumed poetry and anticipated sugar, we pretended to make up a poem about him…

“He followed her like a shadow,
the same distance back,
never saying anything,
never doing anything,
just looking on and smiling,
the same distance back.”

My son, having just discovered the concept of “found poetry” read a sign on the wall, and added:

“I read the sign again,
Soup of the day –
Irish Chicken or Potato Leek
and I wondered,
what makes a chicken Irish?
what makes a potato leek?”

This brought stifled laughs from both of us followed by a panoramic gaze around
the room at the blown up black and white photographs of Manitoba writers who have won awards over the years, the literary equivalent of actors’ signed head shots displayed in their neighbourhood watering holes.

We wondered quietly if the authors, when they came to this place, sat under their photographs. My son said they might but that writers were shy and they would never be that “showy” about it, so people wouldn’t likely notice if they did.
I joked that the space beside one of the photos – – of a local writer I admire and heard speak at the writer’s festival last fall – – would some day be mine. But, we both knew I was not bold or ambitious enough to even try.

Then, a lanky, somewhat rumpled gentleman who could have been in his 40’s or 50’s sat down two tables away from the photo I had just pointed out. He proceeded to write on what romantically would have been a napkin, but, just as easily could have been a piece of paper he slipped out of his pocket. I nonchalantly glanced at the photograph again to determine if the thought forming in my head was true – – he had the same mane of unruly hair, but, longer, with the hair receding a bit more, and the face more gaunt somehow than that of the gentleman pictured, but the similarity was striking.

The waitress and her shadow soon appeared at his table and commented on the scar on his forehead, which I had already noticed distinguished him from the photo. I wondered to myself, as she did aloud, whether it was from a bar fight or absentminded accident. If he answered, only the waitress, and perhaps her shadow heard.

I motioned to my son and he soon understood what I was implying. As discrete as we were being, he probably noticed our stares. Once the waitress and her shadow left, he rested his face on one hand, obscuring the scar and part of his face while getting back to scribbling his thoughts down with the other.

So, he was obviously a writer – – but, the writer? And, if he wasn’t the writer, had he noticed the similarity between himself and the photograph either now or before now? And, if he wasn’t the writer, was he in the habit of supping here and setting people to wondering if he was?

There were two ladies sitting a few tables away from us engrossed in conversation who hadn’t noticed the man’s arrival or his scribbling. Then, one of the ladies, wearing one of those faux black fur coats that make you notice their arrival and departure, departed, likely to go the ladies’ room. Her dining companion scanned the room. When her eyes fell upon if not the writer, a writer, she did a bit of a double take and then glanced up at the photograph. She spent the time until her dining companion’s return glancing first at the photo and then at the man by this time engrossed in his work, raising his head from time to time, appearing deep in thought, then, after scanning the room himself, setting upon writing again.

Our gelatis finally came. Because of the time and our thirst we slurped them through our straws quickly, leaving just enough time to scoop up the extra bits of chocolately cream with the long spoons provided before we had to pay the bill and make our way home.

On the way home in the car, we both had the same thought – – why didn’t we ask the writer if he was the writer? Would he have been shy about it? Would he have been flattered? Would he have been bothered? Would he have written about it? When we were wondering about him and considering how he fit into the poem we were constructing to pass the time, was he doing the same with us?

It was one of those moments you will never get back again, except to write about it later. I think in writing about it though, I would have us politely ask if he was indeed the photographed writer and exchanged some kind of pleasantry, and, if he was indeed the writer, complimented his work, which I admire. It would have been a lesson worth passing on to my son, who I already knew had a writer’s soul and I secretly hoped would pursue a life of writing himself – – wonder at everything but don’t be too shy to ask to be certain.

Heather Leask Armstrong is a free-lance writer whose work has appeared most recently in the Carman Valley Leader, the Farmers Independent Weekly, Cottage Magazine, Canadian Homestead and The Collective Consciousness Journal. A former newspaper reporter/photographer, editor and communications officer, she now has the enviable job of being surrounded by books as the librarian of her former high school. She once lived on an acreage near Brunkild with her husband, son, a border collie and three goldfish.

A boy and his dog and his bicycle

I remember the day the boy got his dog.He wasn’t even sure he wanted a new dog. But, in my experience, the heartbroken look on his face when he was advised of the passing of his old dog, could only be mended with the unconditional love of a new one.

After combing through the “pets and working animals” section of the Farmers Independent Weekly, and following up on some disappointing leads, I finally found what sounded like the perfect border collie puppy.The dog understood right away that he was the boy’s and the boy reveled in the dog’s devotion from the first moment the dog gave the boy the look – raised ears, head tilted quizzically to the side, brown eyes pleading for one more pet, one more game of fetch before bed.It was a look we would see many times.

As puppies always will, the dog that could do no wrong at first, soon proved it lacked consideration when it came to chewing, and, if left unchecked, destroying others’ possessions.When these possessions were the boy’s, forgiveness was not always easy or swift.“He just wanted to play with it because it reminded him of you,” we would console after a favourite toy left outside was chewed beyond repair. The dog, who knew somehow that he needed to make amends after these incidents, would use the “look” and soon, hurt feelings over broken toys were traded for the love of a dog who would follow the boy on his bicycle to the ends of the earth, should the boy be inclined to go there.

For it was before the dog arrived that the boy got his bike.It was not a garage sale find tricycle or training wheeled two-wheeler, but the first bike that mattered.It was the bike he was going to learn how to ride no matter what it took.It wasn’t even a new bike.But it was a bike that when it had been lovingly purchased for another boy, his uncle, a generation earlier, all the kids around had stopped to admire it like old men checking out each other’s new cars.It had the rugged wheels that would be needed for country graveled roads, and, distinct from the banana seat mounts of its time, it was a bicycle version of a flashy motorbike, complete with a red plastic “gas tank” and fenders, black padded vinyl motorcycle seat and the number “9” (the age of both of its owners) emblazoned on a motocross-style sign below the handlebars.Like his first car would no doubt represent in the future, the bike represented freedom and maturity.During the summer that riding it was mastered, the boy grew 2 inches in stature and spirit. The dog soon came to respect the power the bike had on the boy and learned to follow rather than try to impede the bike in its path.

Then, one evening, when the boy, now 10, was already in bed, dreaming summer-time dreams, the dog, missing the boy after a rainy day, found the bike errantly left lying on its side in the grass close to his favourite chewing area.The strewn bits of broken foam and black vinyl that remained of the once majestic bike seat would have been a sight too much to bear for the boy who was already worried a recent growth spurt would require the retirement of the bike to an empty grain bin to await its passage to a future rider.As I hid the evidence, scolded the dog, and tried to take stock of the damage, it was if even the dog knew the “look” might not work this time.

Finding a replacement seat or late night upholsterer by morning, if at all, would be impossible.The boy’s father was out of town and couldn’t help or at least convince a desperate mother that there are some things a boy must face.Perhaps with the use of a piece of foam from an unfinished craft project and an old black leather purse, once owned by the boy’s grandmother who had decided before her passing that one day this boy should have this bike, the bike seat and the bike could be restored to its former glory.Four hours later, after much cutting, wrapping, forming, gluing, and admittedly some cursing, it was done.The bike would never be the same, but, at least the dog’s work in tearing the seat apart had been disguised.The few hours left before daybreak were spent preparing how to present the news…

“He must have really wanted to go bike riding with you,” (no mention was made of the fact the boy had been told to make sure he always put his bike away when he was done with it – no need to add salt to the wound).“Look, it’s not so bad.Now it has a real designer leather seat like on a real motorcycle.” The boy was, of course, heartbroken.I was beyond caring if the boy ever forgave the dog.But, I would have done anything, bought any new bike, to melt the lump in the boy’s throat and replace the sullen, silent look on his face.In the end, it was the dog, witnessing the seemingly inconsolable look of the boy, who broke through.

“Don’t give me that look,” the boy said finally.“I invented that look,” he added, copying a saying from one of his favourite TV programs. And, the boy forgave the dog.A ride on the bike with the new seat resulted in the pronouncement that it was “okay” but not quite as comfortable of a ride as it had once been.It looked good, though, said the boy, and perhaps it was time to finally move up to a new garage sale find bigger bike as we had suggested, and put this one away “to keep forever for my kids”.That’s when it became clear that the boy wouldn’t always be 9 chasing down dreams on his bicycle with his dog following behind.Some day he would have to mend broken bicycles and broken dreams, with a trusting boy or girl and, hopefully, their dog at his side.Epilogue Lost – Black and white border collie dog that went on a journey with the neighbor’s dog and hasn’t come back..Please call 736-4002 if he visits you.And please be patient with him. We will gladly replace any damaged bicycle seats.

 

– Heather Leask Armstrong is a free-lance writer and librarian from Carman, Manitoba.She once lived with one husband, one boy, three miniature goats, a miniature horse, at least three old bicycles, and, usually, a border collie dog on an acreage near Brunkild, Manitoba.

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