Fic­tion WAIT­ING

Ottawa Magazine - - Volume 18 | Number 2 - BY BAR­BARA SIB­BALD

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.

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