A small-town reporter ponders what we know — and don’t know — of the people we see every day.
Hot, stale air shoots into Lauren’s face. After whirring madly all day, the heater in her rust-pocked Toyota is now stuck on full-blast. She bangs the dash, fiddles with the levers, and finally opens the window a crack. An icy gust swirls into the car, enveloping her face as she squints at the modest bungalow across the street. A few moments ago, the driveway was bare, pure black edged with neat curbs of snow. Now the asphalt is white. The wind twirls; snow twists through the air, disappearing upward.
Glancing in the rear-view mirror, she barely makes out the two other cars, the two other reporters. They are all waiting for Josef Donajski to get home, but she’s the only one who knows him. He’s a founding member of the 30-year-old Madawan Horticultural Society. She’s written notices for The Madawan Post about his seminars on exotic-bulb sources and cutting propagation. Until recently, he was just this old man with a foreign accent.
Lauren finds it hard to believe this is happening in her town. She thinks of it as her town when she’s talking to outsiders like these two reporters from the city dailies. Then, she’s the one who knows about the mayor’s racist tendencies, the local pyromaniac’s latest brush fire, the town’s waning prosperity. She finds herself speaking with the local twang, the exaggerated, prolonged a’s — “baaag,” “gaaag.” And using the local expressions like “He only has one oar in the water” or saying “Old year’s evening” instead of New Year’s Eve.
But in the end, she’s as much an outsider as these reporters. Even after five years at The Post, people ask where she’s from. She says Ottawa, and they invariably reply, “Oh, so you’re not from the Valley.” As if that explains everything. She knows they’ve drawn a line — you versus us, and don’t even think about crossing.
It suddenly occurs to her that things might be different if she married someone local. There’s always Tim, she thinks.
Snow flies through the open window, melting against her face. She brushes it away with her hand, briefly strays to run her fingers roughly through her hair, then rolls up the window tightly.
Last September, Donajski asked Tim to represent him. Tim gave him the name of a lawyer in the city, someone experienced in international law. He phoned Lauren to tell her about it.
“After he left, the new secretary came in and asked who he was,” Tim added. “She said he gave her the willies.” (Tim didn’t say how the man made him feel, but then he wouldn’t. He could barely choke out the words to express how he feels about her. He whispered it softly into her hair when she was half asleep, maybe hoping she was asleep. “I love you,” he murmured to the dark.)
“You shouldn’t have told me,” Lauren said. “You’re not supposed to tell me about your clients. It’s unethical.” And she hung up on him. He wooed her back with a graceful spray of deep pink
Saponaria backed by towering, shell-like Eustoma — midsummer splendours on a chilling autumn day. But he didn’t apologize or admit he was wrong. The card was signed by the florist: Love, Tim.
Five-twelve, and it’s dark already. Lauren feels her camera, makes sure the flash is securely attached. The bungalow’s porch light flicks on, illuminating the falling snow. His wife’s home, Lauren thinks. Waiting for him, and he’s late. She must be losing it — flipping her wig, as they say around here.
The neighbours seemed to pity her. Tim’s cousin, who lives next door to the Donajskis, said she hardly ever sees “the wife” — that’s how everyone says it around here, not Joanne or Susan — just “the wife,” like the butcher or the mailman, someone filling a role.
“I don’t think her English is that good,” the cousin said, then hesitated. “But she’s polite, y’know. Always says g’day. Smiles.” Other neighbours said he takes her to buy groceries every Wednesday, waits in the car while she shops. And she works in the yard, raking grass, then dead leaves, shovelling dirt, then snow. Lauren couldn’t find anyone who has ever had a conversation with her. An odd thing in Madawan, where everyone talks too much, knows too much about their neighbours. No one even knows her first name. She is anonymous, poised on the periphery.
Lauren fiddles with her camera, presses the battery check and shoots off the flash in the dark car, illuminating empty Styrofoam cups, bits of gravel, a hunk of ice. She wonders if Anita got the photo of Donajski at the courthouse. They need one for the front page. They have an overexposed one on file: him posing with the five-pound potato he grew in his garden. People are always wandering in with their freaks of nature — malformed carrots that vaguely resemble Charles de Gaulle, quadruplet radishes joined at the stem, monstrous pumpkins or tomatoes. Despite the poor exposure, there is something unsettling about the picture of Donajski. He stands, back against the bare
wall, looking into the camera, holding his potato. Like a surreal police mug shot. Lauren wonders if his wife clipped the news photo and taped it in her scrapbook. Everybody does that.
During last Sunday’s stint in the darkroom, Lauren asked Anita what she thought of Donajski’s wife.
“She’s an odd one all right. Never leaves the house. Has no friends,” said Anita, pressing the enlarger button, exposing a negative. “But who knows what kind of hell she’s from. He brought her over here. From the old country — somewhere in Eastern Europe. She’s prob- ably grateful, you know, for the house and that, clothes, proper food. A little comfort.”
Lauren switched off the safety light, cracked open a canister of film, and wound it in the cold metal reel.
“Do you think she knows?” Lauren asked in the darkness. “Do you think she knows whether he did it or not?”
“No way,” said Anita.
Lauren remembers him standing at the farmers’ market, hands deep in his pockets. Standing in front of dripping pails of red and orange hollyhocks, white lilies, a low card table to one side spilling over with scarlet tomatoes, potent onions, and dusky cucumbers. I touched his fingers when I bought his tomatoes, she thinks, unconsciously wiping her hands on her old coat. They were calloused but well-scrubbed, no dirt hiding in the crevices.
She shakes her head in a stupor; the heat is unbearable. She switches off the ignition and opens the window a bit; it creaks in protest. Maybe he’s innocent, she thinks. Maybe they have the wrong man. Half a century is a long time.
Donajski is accused of murdering 390 Jewish people in a Polish concentration camp.
Lauren closes her eyes. Newsreel images of Auschwitz come to her, photos she’s seen of starving men, living skeletons lying on bunk beds, operating tables with drainage holes and huge vats underneath to catch the blood.
Her journalism profs would say it’s a once-in-alifetime story, but it makes her sick.
Car lights flash across her face, jerking her out of her stupor. She’s tired, so tired. A dark sedan with tinted windows drives slowly by. Maybe it’s them, Lauren thinks. They’ve probably spotted us and gone on. Maybe to a friend’s house.
The reporter from The Ottawa Mercury walks toward her car. She unrolls her window but he hops in the passenger side, a wall of cold air accompanying him. “Do you think that was him?” he asks. “Could be,” she says. “Court got out more than an hour ago.” “Where else would he go?” he asks. Lauren shrugs. As if I’d tell you, she thinks. Now the reporter from The Ottawa Dispatch comes over. Lauren unrolls her window again; he asks the same questions. She notices traces of icing sugar on his cheek.
“Do you think he did it?” asks the reporter from the Dispatch.
“No,” Lauren says, without hesitating, then wonders why she’s defending him. “Innocent until proven guilty,” she adds.
“I think he did,” says the Mercury reporter. “There’s too much evidence. They have witnesses.”
The other reporter nods knowingly. “This is the perfect hideout,” he says. “A little hick town in the middle of nowhere. No one would ever suspect. And the gardening is a nice touch.”
Jerks, Lauren thinks as they trudge back to their cars. What could they possibly know?
She shivers, closes the window, and starts the car again, cringing under the torrid blast of air, her eyes drying instantly. She flicks on the wipers, cutting a swath through the snow. Across the street, a light goes on in the living room, shines through the part in the drapes. Lauren sighs and peers at the snow whirling around the bungalow, wonders what Mrs. Donajski knows — how much she knows.
“I’m astounded by his duplicity,” she told Tim yesterday evening. “No one had a clue. He was a guy selling tomatoes.”
Tim looked up from his file. “You never know what to expect with people,” he said. “What do you mean?” He closed the file. “The other day, a businessman comes in, a guy I’ve known since I was a kid, respected, former chair of the chamber. Turns out, his wife caught him in bed with her best friend. Her best friend! Someone she’s known for twenty-five years. And they’d been having an affair for the last ten.”
There was a pause between them; he raised his paper again, hiding his face.
“Obviously you can’t know everything,” Lauren continued. “But you can know the important stuff —
She is outside the house, barefoot, struggling against the wind; snow pelts her
face, yet she sweats. The wind wails in her ears; she leans into it and wades through the drifts to the front door. She taps on the window. Waits. Taps again.
whether they’re loyal, honest, that kind of thing. You have to, don’t you? Otherwise you’d never trust anyone.”
“Do you want to go to Rosa’s for dinner?” he asked.
Sweat trickles down her sides, into her bra. Lauren unbuttons her coat completely and yanks her collar away from her neck. She peers at her wristwatch: 5:43. Where the hell is he?
She longs to be in her apartment, cooking a cheese omelette and listening to the CBC. Maybe Tim could come over. They spend a lot of time sitting and talking. But it occurs to her that these conversations are really one-sided: she asks question after question. He’s a difficult interview. She remembers the prolonged pauses between her questions and his brief answers. She hears him whispering “I love you” into the night but has never said anything in return.
Lauren shifts her body, moves her head to one side so that the blast of heat jets past her. The dull roar of the engine, the whirring of the heater, the heat itself, lull her.
It’s all so pleasant, she thinks, closing her eyes. The beautiful house on Ross Street, elegant flowers, easy old friends. His life is a sure thing. Comfortable. Me and Mrs. Donajski. Marrying into a sure thing. But now, now, look where she is, trying to believe he’s innocent, otherwise how can she stay and what would she do — what would I do if I were her … if I were … if I was waiting for him and he comes home from the hearing, home through the back door, stomping loudly, dirty snow flying from his black galoshes. He sits heavily in his chair, stares at his thick fingers, the scar on his thumb where he nicked it with the pruning shears late last summer. I set a bowl of soup in front of him. Nourishing soup that has been simmering all day, first the bone boiling, steaming liquid trapping the marrow’s goodness, then chunks of beef from last Sunday’s roast and home-grown vegetables retrieved from the root cellar — carrots, turnips, potatoes. I set a bowl down in front of him as I have a thousand times before, and he grunts in — in what? Appreciation? Acknowledgement? Disgust? “You have to tell me,” I blurt out. He glares, and his face transforms: he becomes Tim. Tim sitting at his oak dining room table. He says: “You never know with people. You think you can, but you don’t.”
Lauren struggles to wake, then succumbs to heat, hot air, the engine droning.
She is outside the house, barefoot, struggling against the wind; snow pelts her face, yet she sweats. The wind wails in her ears; she leans into it and wades through the drifts to the front door. She taps on the window. Waits. Taps again. She peeps through the glass and glimpses a small woman, Donajski’s wife. She has huge rollers crowning her head. They look like the small orange-juice tins Lauren used to roll in her own hair in a futile attempt to control her curls. Oddly enough, the rollers perched up there make Mrs. Donajski look like a middle-aged Statue of Liberty. Suddenly the Wife is right in front of her, her face blotchy, her red-rimmed eyes looking into Lauren’s eyes.
“Please, Mrs. Donajski …” Lauren begins, but the woman puts her finger to her lips — the universal sign for silence — then pulls down the shade between them.
Lauren knocks on the window. Knocks. Then hears far away someone calling, “Hey, hey, in there!”
Then she’s coughing, gasping in the piercing fresh air, and a man asks, “Hey, are you all right?” Her eyelids flutter open — the reporter from the
Dispatch reaches across her and turns off the motor. “You should keep your window open in this old heap,” he says. She struggles to catch her breath, wheezing. “I think you got a touch of carbon monoxide poisoning,” he says. “Let me drive you to the hospital, okay?” “No,” she gasps. “I’m fine.” He tells her to breathe deeply, pats her back. She sips the cold air tentatively. “You really don’t look so good. Let me drive you in.” “No, no, really,” she whispers, embarrassed to be seen like this. She clears her throat, takes a gulp of air. “I’m feeling better already. It’s okay.”
“Well, if you’re sure,” says the reporter, pausing. “Look, Donajski has obviously gone somewhere else. We’re taking off. Let me call someone for you. You probably shouldn’t drive.” He pauses; her breathing is more regular. “Anita,” she says. He clicks his pen. “623-4180.” He scribbles in his notepad. “I’ll tell her to hurry. Deep breaths, now. Walk around if you can.”
She watches him drive away, a nice man after all. Tim was right there: sometimes you really can’t tell. The snow billows through the open door. She holds up her arm and sees a tiny, individual flake silhouetted against the dark fabric. Another lands on top and another, gradually forming a layer on her coat, the floor, and the upholstery. She breathes slowly, evenly. Consciousness comes in small waves. Moving boxes. Laughing with Anita. Galley of type. Fresh ink. Perfect omelette. Tim. She struggles to picture his face and knows her answer. Has known for ages. Tomorrow, she decides, I’ll tell him tomorrow. Tonight I want to go home.
Lauren steps out of the car into the falling snow. The bungalow is completely dark now; the street, still and white. Barbara Sibbald is an award-winning journalist and news editor at Canada’s leading medical journal. Early in the morning, you’ll find her writing fiction in her Chinatown house. Her three novels include Regarding Wanda, The Book of Love: Guidance in Affairs of the Heart, and Kitchen Chronicles, which was published in 52 instalments at ottawamagazine.com.