Tuesday, February 6, 2018

4. Thelma

The rain continued.  “Where are we, and where are these alleged mountains?” Alan asked as they inched along Lougheed Highway in Fooj’s old Pinto.  Fooj could not bear to sell his Pinto after he became wealthy, even though he seemed to have lost the humor in its paint-job and spent much of the previous year grumbling about other drivers who would point and laugh.

“Well, it’s your joke,” William would say.

“And not theirs,” he would reply.

Out the window were car dealerships and discount stores and strip malls.  William told Alan that they were on the ugliest road in the Vancouver region.  There were several east-west slashes across the Lower Mainland, ineffectual arteries linking one city to the next, and a few were labeled “Highway,” although only one — the Trans-Canada — really was a highway in the conventional sense.  William assumed that the misnomers were historical artifacts from when any long, continuous horse track was called a highway. 

Alan said he was glad that the Lougheed Highway was the ugliest road in Vancouver, because it was nice to know that things would only get better.

They were on their way to the house Alan was sitting — what he believed was Fooj’s house, where, according to Alan, the plan was to drink beer and figure out a way to rescue William.
“Rescue me from what?” William asked.

“From being here,” Alan said.  He then revealed that until that plan came to fruition, he would be Fooj’s replacement in the driving capacity. 

“You came out here to drive me to parks so I can do programs?” William asked.  “After all this time, why would you do that? Not that I’m not grateful.  I am.  But how did you even know about me, and why would you take time off from your busy life to do this?”

“It all fell into place, the way things do.  Hiroe was talking to Fooj about his modeling, and he said one thing that bothered him was that he wouldn’t be able to drive you around.  He said he was letting you down.  She kind of volunteered me, seeing as I’ve been planning on coming out here to gather images.  I want to do some west coast critters, but I need backgrounds. I thought it was hilarious when I found out Fooj’s buddy was you. It seemed like fate.”

“How long are you going to be out here?”

“No set plan.  How long do you need me?”

“Programs go on till Halloween. You can’t stay that long.”

“Let’s take it a couple weeks at a time. I can go back and forth. Those things called airplanes.”

“Hiroe doesn’t mind?”

“It was her idea.”

“You don’t have kids?”

He hesitated, slightly.  “Not yet.”

William knew that whatever this was, it was a lucky coincidence that couldn’t last.  He had already taken the departure of Fooj fatalistically.  It was a reminder that he should be moving on...to something.  Now, whatever that something was would be temporarily set aside by the arrival of Alan. While William was out doing programs, Alan would be off taking photographs. It seemed to William more than a lucky coincidence. It was a strange coincidence.  Or maybe it wasn’t.  Compared to what?  Where his life had taken him thus far was pretty strange. And what could be stranger than being struck by lightning, not once but twice?

“It’ll work out perfectly,” Alan said.  “We go to all the different parks with all the different habitats, and while you’re doing your Mr. Nature thing, I’ll be taking pics.” His words, “It’ll work out perfectly,” had a familiar ring.  William had probably heard them a hundred times seventeen years ago.

William asked, “Maybe Hiroe can come out for part of the time too?  Can she get off work? What does she do?”

“She’s little miss lab-coat,” he said.  “I’ll leave it to her to explain it to you.  She’ll be out here too, pretty soon.”  The light changed and they moved ahead.  Alan added, in a low voice, “Do me a favour though, don’t tell Fooj she’s coming. Don’t even mention her.”

“A surprise?”

“Big surprise,” he said.  Then he asked, again, “Seriously, where are the mountains?  There’s supposed to be mountains somewhere here, right?  All I see is clouds and rain.  God, this is a depressing place.”

“It can be,” William said. “August is nice.”


Fooj’s new place, where Alan was staying, was pretty far west, near the university in the upland part of Point Grey known as Dunbar.  William had never been to Dunbar, but knew it to be an affluent neighbourhood.  Fooj had told him the house he’d recently purchased was “modest, a bit of a fixer-upper.” He said, “Something to work at on weekends.”

But the house was neither modest, nor fixer-upper.  It was a palace, in size anyway, a huge pink box that smothered the lot it sat upon.  Some other, likely vastly more tasteful home had been obliterated not long before, and this behemoth, with it speckled granite stick-on stonework and brass carriage-lamps, had been slapped up to replace it. 

William got out and stepped back to take it in.  “Alan, this can’t be the right place.”

“Well I like it,” he said, leaving the driver’s door open and skipping backward to a towering cedar hedge to frame Pinto and monster home between his hands, movie director-style.  “Casa Foojia!” he exclaimed, and then sprinted across the narrow lawn, leapt the garden and landed on the porch.  “His key,” he said, brandishing it for William to see, before inserting it in the lock.  The door opened.

“No alarm?”

“There is, but would Fooj bother to use one?” 

Alan had a point.  There was a panel on the wall, not squealing for a code.  This was proof enough for William, briefly.  Anyone else in the city would arm the alarm, but Fooj wouldn’t bother.  He rarely bothered to lock the Pinto.

The entry floor was alarming, black marble with red veins in it, like a picture of a smoker’s lung on a cigarette box. William was hesitant to step on it.  There was a staircase swooping counter-clockwise up to the second floor, and a crass, brass chandelier filling the surrounded airspace.  Above the front door was a crescent window in pie-slices with mother-of-pearl inlays.  Balancing the hideous floor, in the living room was a black marble fireplace with a mirror above, reflecting William’s startled face.  There were leather sofas facing each other, golden rod yellow.  This place was ostentatious and tacky.  It was as clean as a surgical surface.  This was not like Fooj at all.  Further in, William saw a walnut dining room set, which, being a recognizably organic thing, seemed out of place.  On the living room wall there was a portrait photo he couldn’t spread his arms across, white people all dressed up, a jut-jawed father in a blue suit, poofy-haired blonde mother in a prim dark green frock with a white collar, similar daughter in a similar frock, and blonde baby boy in a red plaid jacket and shiny shoes.  Last year’s Christmas’s card?  Fooj was ironic, but not this ironic.  Wouldn’t the people he bought the house from have taken their portrait?  Alan was in the kitchen while William was fighting a knot in his boot, one eye scanning the un-Foojie surroundings.

Outside there was a scuffling, followed by a dull thud.  Something had arrived on the front porch.  William squinted through the peephole.  A chubby man in a blue jump-suit was climbing into an open-doored delivery van.  It lurched back out the circular drive and onto the street before William was able to push down the correct flouncy handle of the double front door.  He saw darkness and confusingly bright streetlights.  He reached around inside and clicked along a lengthy panel of light switches until the front porch was illuminated.  There, a few feet to the right, was a bundle of brown newsprint, sealed with packing tape. It was the size of a human torso.  William stepped out and prodded it with his toe.  It felt exactly like a human torso.  He prodded it again and it fell over, off the porch and into the garden between two rhododendrons.  William went back inside and closed the door.

“Quite the place,” Alan said, jokingly.  He handed William a beer.  “Fooj’s lady must have picked this.” He meant the house, and everything in it.

“She doesn’t live with him yet,” William said.  Monique still had her own place in the densely populated West End area of Vancouver.

“Yeah I know, but she must have helped him decorate.” 

William said, “Really, this doesn’t make sense at all.”  They started scrutinizing things, William for the first time, Alan as if it were. 

“Who are those people?”  William pointed at the portrait.

Alan figured they came with the picture frame, and thought it hilarious.  William examined it closely.  In the bottom right corner there was a small decal that said, ‘David Ellison, Photographer.’  “This is a custom portrait,” he said.  “This is worth hundreds of dollars.”

"Really?" said Alan.  He came to read the decal.

There was a heap of mail on a rubber pad beside the front door.  William went over to rifle it, mostly bills, L.L. Bean catalogues and fashion magazines addressed to people named “Morrow.”

“Previous owners,” Alan said.

“They didn’t cancel their hydro bill?  Or their gas?”

“The key opens the door,” he said.  “Fooj told me the key was under the azalea to the right of the front door.”  Alan opened the door.  There were potted azaleas on either side.  “Under this one.” he said.

William went onto the porch, leaned into the darkness of the garden, lifted the fallen paper torso-package, carried it into the front hall and placed it on the smoker’s-lung marble.

“What’s that?” Alan asked.

“Some guy just delivered it.”

Alan peeled back the tape and lifted a flap, revealing a stack of folded white cloth.  “What the fuck,” he said.

“Diapers,” William said.  “Why would Fooj be continuing these people’s diaper delivery?”

“I admit, that is odd,” said Alan.

They were sitting on the floor cross-legged with beers in front as though playing caps when a key turned in the unlocked latch, and then unturned, and then turned again, and then unturned.  The door opened and a short, brown woman almost came in, but then stepped back onto the porch.  She emitted a whoop of surprise.

“Hello,” said Alan.

She stood with a thick book beneath one arm and her other hand up to her mouth.  Then she dropped the book, turned and ran.  Alan ran after her, but only as far as the book.  It was a medical text with the title, “Gastrointestinal Pathology of Ruminants.”  William went after the woman, who was speedy for her size.  He chased her out past the hedge in socks that had immediately become soaked through.  She ran to the next house, but couldn’t work the complicated wrought-iron gate, which was the only opening in another cedar hedge wall.

“Please, wait!” he called.  “I have to ask you something.”  She seemed about to bolt across the road until she saw his uniform shirt.  Then she looked at his feet.  She was puzzling over being chased down a rainy street by a security guard or bus driver in sock-feet.  Evidently he wasn’t a threat.

“Why are you in Mrs. Morrow’s house?” she asked.

“Who is Mrs. Morrow?” William asked.

“You’re in their house!  They’ll be home soon.”

“Where are they?”

“On vacation.  I’m coming over to make sure it’s all clean for them.”  She explained a bit more.
They went back inside.  “Alan, this is Thelma.  The Morrows—William pointed at the jumbo portrait—still live here and Thelma is the Morrows’ housekeeper.”  In the light she seemed very young.  She had a high forehead, bright eyes, and a small, round nose.

“Hello,” said Alan.  “Why were you carrying a book of horse diseases?”

“Not horses,” she said, quietly, “ruminants.  Horses aren’t ruminants.”

“I suppose not,” said Alan.

“I’m a veterinarian,” said Thelma.  “I mean I was, back home.  I’m trying to get my license here, but I have to go to Guelph to write the accreditation exams.  So I clean houses to make money to afford to go there to write the exams.  Excuse me, but now you have to leave this house.  Why are you in it?”

“Fooj let me stay.”

“What is Fooj?” she asked, perplexed.

“He owns it.”

Thelma turned to William.  “Can you explain to him?”

William said, “Alan, you’re staying in the wrong house.  Fooj gave you the wrong address, or you read it wrong.”

Alan went to the kitchen and hunted around for a scrap of paper.  He came out, reading, “2734 Oliver Crescent.”

“Close, but wrong,” said Thelma.  “This is 2734 Oliver Drive.”

Alan briefly looked stunned, and then burst out laughing.  “Oh shit,” he said. 

“They’ll be home soon.  You better go.”  Thelma moved her arms as if to sweep them out the door.  She had a simple ring of yellow gold on her left hand.  William squished his feet into his hiking boots as Alan went upstairs to retrieve his suitcase.  When he came down, he paused to pick up her book to hand it to her.  He had noticed her ring too. 

“Can’t your husband help you pay for a trip to Guelph?” he asked.

“He’s saving his money to pay for a trip to here,” she said. 

“He’s in the Philippines?” William said.

“I don’t know where he is.  He works on a ship.  The last call I got, his ship was in Singapore, a bit more than last week.  It was our first wedding anniversary.”  She touched her ring.  It was a sad story.

“I hope I didn’t make too much of a mess,” Alan said.  From his tone of voice William couldn’t tell if he cared or not.  Seventeen years ago he wouldn’t have cared.  “I used the small bedroom at the back and the bathroom next to it.  Oh, wait.”  He put his suitcase down and went to the kitchen again. “Beer,” he explained.  They heard clinking as he dropped the empties into the carton.

“And give me the key,” was the last thing she said. 

As they turned out into the black William struggled to connect his seatbelt, which wouldn’t click.  He gave up.  At the end of the street they waited at a light and a dark Lexus SUV turned left in front of them, heading toward where they had been.  William saw the strong-jawed husband at the wheel, his puffy-haired wife, and two little heads in the back.  “I hope Thelma cleans fast,” he said.

Alan wheeled the car around and started punching the horn, which surprisingly still worked.  William was thrown against the door, which popped open. Alan seemed not to mind that William was hanging half out, gripping the window frame, his body bowed above the wet asphalt whipping past below.  The Pinto screeched to a stop and his head hit the door.  He tumbled out.  Alan was gone, his door wide open.  William folded himself whole, and stood to look above the ridiculous Pinto.  Alan was talking to the driver of the Lexus, his hands on the roof.  William limped closer.

“So, I go left down there, then right, then left again?” Alan was asking, speaking ponderously.

“No, no,” said the man.  “Left, then left again, then immediately right, then it comes up on your left, as a fork.”

“A fork?  What does that mean?”

“Well, it splits.”

Alan shook his head.  “I better write this down.”  He patted himself all over as if to search for a pen.  The Lexus driver lost patience, and pulled away.

“What was all that about?”

“Cleaning time for Thelma,” he said.

“Thelma,” William answered. 

After driving in expanding circles for almost ten minutes, Alan said, “I was so intent on being a dumb guy that I honestly don’t know where Oliver Crescent is.”   They did two more circuits of the neighborhood to no avail.  William had an air mattress.  Alan would sleep on his floor that night.   As they left the west side of Vancouver, Alan kept remarking on how dark it was, how huge the trees were.

 William said, “Sad story, about Thelma.”

“Oh well, It’s a sad world now, isn’t it?” said Alan.

“You wish you could help people like that,” William said.

“Yes William, you wish you could help people like that.”

William remembered how cutting Alan could be and remembered not being able to predict when he would stab.  Alan Lennox was often entertaining, and could be generous to those he liked, but could also be an asshole, exploiting the weaknesses of those he didn’t like, for whatever Alan-reason, as a source of amusement. That was the trade-off.  He had inadvertently used Thelma and, because he thought it might be amusing to toy with a wealthy man, had pretended to help her out.  William suddenly wanted no more of him, at least not that night.  There had been no warning of Alan’s arrival, and William didn’t have room in his very small apartment, or his very small life, for someone Alan’s size. When the Pinto stopped at the next corner, William opened the door and stepped out. 

“I think maybe I should go home by myself, thanks,”  he said.  “Maybe you should stay in a motel.  It would be more comfortable anyway.  I don’t really need rescuing, thanks.  I’ll see ya later.”

“William, get back in the car,” Alan said, but William crossed the road and started jogging downhill to where he hoped there was bus stop.  Or he could walk all the way home if he had to.  He could walk for miles.  Alan soon caught up and drove onto the sidewalk to block William’s path.  William turned back up the hill, but Alan got out, ran after him and pushed him into someone’s reaching laurel hedge.  It was springy.  When William bounced back out, he punched Alan in the ear.

 “Ow,” Alan said, stumbling backward.  “That really hurt. You never used to do that.”  They stood, panting in the rain, throwing clouds of breath at each other.

“I’d rather be left alone,” William said.

Alan said, “Okay, look.  Thelma’s problem is easy.  I can solve her problem in a minute.” 

“So do it.”

Alan said, impatiently, “I have enough money for a plane ticket to Guelph in my pocket, enough for a week’s stay in a hotel there too.  I have a hundred times more money than it costs to fly her husband here, from wherever the hell he is.”  The latter seemed unlikely to William, but the former a possibility.  Alan had always been one for larks.  If sending a stranger to Guelph would seem larky to Alan, he would do it.  Finding a husband at sea and making the arrangements for his journey to Canada would have been too involved for a lark, even with money no issue.

William said, “So you’re saying you’re thinking of sending her to Guelph?”

“No, I’m saying I could.  It would solve her immediate problem, just like that.”  He snapped his fingers.  “It’s just money. A money problem is not a real problem.”

Easy to say when you have tons of money, thought William.

“There are worse problems. Way more difficult problems, that take a lot more than money.”

William said, “For example?”

Alan stared at him for at least ten seconds and then said, “Forget it. Where the hell are we?  You have to come with me because I don’t know where the hell I am.  I HATE THIS CITY!” 

A light went on behind the hedge and a man shouted, “What’s going on out there?”

William pushed Alan, gently, to get him moving back to the Pinto.  “What are you so mad about?” he asked.  “Are you hurt?”

Alan didn’t answer until he walked around the front of the car, about to climb in.  He said, “I’m not mad.  I’m disappointed.  At you.  After all these years I suddenly find out you fight dirty.”

William sighed, exasperated.  He didn’t fight dirty.  He didn’t fight, period.

They drove in silence east along King Edward Boulevard and then onto the Kingsway.  Outside in the dark the houses became smaller, with sagging carports replacing multi-car garages, and with gardens meager, or obliterated by gravel.  Inside those houses the people became browner and poorer, and were already asleep.  Tomorrow they would have to get up early to go work for the Morrows and the other pretty ones who live on the west side of Vancouver. 


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