Days and Nights in the City
The Man on the Bicycle
THE MAN ON THE BICYCLE WAITS IN THE RAIN on the corner of Stafford and Grosvenor, waits for the light to turn from red to green. He is dressed entirely in black except for his running shoes, which are grey and green and badly worn. His black hair is tied in a knot at the back and it hangs over his right ear. His denim pants are too short so that the small stretch of bare skin between the pant leg and the runner seems almost obscene.
He is nervous. He leans into the rain that is slanting from the west along Grosvenor. The cross traffic on Stafford is heavy. A city bus splashes a puddle in the cyclist’s direction, but he ignores it and stares steadily ahead. I watch through the windows of the Grove restaurant, which is decorated as an English pub, and I study my plate of bangers and mash. Marie toys with her plate, which she did not want anyway, but has chosen to share with me because she is saving money for a holiday, Cuba maybe, or Toronto or Vancouver, preferably somewhere we can find an opera. Chicago?
The man on the bicycle knows nothing of our domestic concerns. We know nothing of his plans and dreams. Is his lover waiting for his arrival? Is he cold and uncomfortable in the rain? It’s a game we used to play, imagining the lives of strangers, but we don’t play it often anymore. And it wouldn’t mean anything to the man on the bicycle if he could see us through the plate glass of the Grove restaurant.
If the lights were to change, the man on the bicycle would hurl himself down Grosvenor into the falling rain. I might sample my bangers or toy with my mash. The pretty waitress might come over and ask if everything is okay, and did we have plans for the afternoon?
But we have no plans. We will go wherever our Mazda takes us, probably to the bench in Assiniboine Park where the ghost of Marie’s mother hovers. The man on the bicycle will continue down Grosvenor forever, since he has had no will other than my imagination. I will make a mental note not to order bangers and mash again. With luck, the rain will end and the sun will shine, whatever is going to happen will happen.
The Girl in the Yellow Dress
The girl in the yellow dress splashes sunlight onto the bench where she sits outside the gelato store on Corydon. She seems fragile, ethereal. She belongs to a world occupied by unicorns, dwarves and elves. But of course she is only a girl in a yellow dress eating a gelato cone in the gentle dust swirled up by the traffic on Corydon and a sporadic wind that touches down on the parking lot between the gelato place and the drugstore on Stafford.
Marie has gone to the drugstore to buy some vitamins that we have begun to take to help stave off problems with our health. I am sitting at one of the metal and glass tables waiting for her. The girl in the yellow dress sits at the far end of the row of tables. She is probably cold, because her dress is sleeveless and there is a hint of frost in the air.
Somewhere there is music, not from the gelato place but behind it, more distant.
The school on the other side of Corydon has let out its students, but they must have dispersed moments before my arrival, because only an overweight older man with the blaze orange vest of his profession remains, and even he disappears around the corner of Corydon as I watch.
The girl in the yellow dress is probably waiting for someone, but she doesn’t seem anxious or eager. She eats her gelato cone fastidiously, holding it out in front of her as if to examine it. I consult
my iPhone not because I wish to find the time or read the latest news but so that I will not seem to be staring at the girl in the yellow dress.
Then suddenly Marie appears, holding a white bag with the drugstore’s insignia on it. Presumably it contains vitamins D, C, B12 and one whose name I can never remember. I stand up to give her a welcoming kiss, and I see that the girl in the yellow dress has disappeared as if she had never existed. I am sorry she has gone, but the world I live in is like that, offering sudden joyful moments that vanish as soon as they arrive.
Ford Crown Victoria
I pulled off Pembina Highway into the parking lot of the Original Pancake House. The lot is usually full, but I saw an open space near the restaurant’s door. I was about to park there when an older model white car pulled into the spot at high speed. I braked and avoided a collision. I found another spot a little further into the lot and parked there. The people from the car were unloading when we approached.
The driver was a blonde young woman, pretty in the tough way that some women in cheap bars are pretty. She was helping an old couple out of the car. The white-haired woman on the passenger’s side needed help getting out of the car and she walked with a surprisingly decorated cane. The man in the back seat got out by himself, and while the women made their way to the Pancake House, he walked around the car locking all the doors with a key on a chain.
It seemed a strange, extravagant gesture. I didn’t think that individual doors had separate locks. The car was white, badly damaged by rust and probably irreparable. It’s a 1983 Ford Crown Victoria LTD, I told Marie when we were settled in the restaurant and had ordered our Giant Apple Pancake. In ten years of going there, we had looked over the menu and always decided to share the apple pancake.
I don’t think so, Marie said. It looks younger. Probably a 1985. It might well have been. Neither of us knew enough about American cars to start an argument. My uncle once owned a 1956 Crown Victoria, pink and white with a glass roof, I told her.
You’ve told me that a dozen times, she said. And we rode in one in Cuba, a Cuban taxi.
I think the blonde woman must have been a granddaughter of the old couple. We had lost contact with them as soon as we entered the restaurant. Marie wanted to sit in the glassed-in room at the front that overlooked Pembina Highway. It was not a particularly scenic view, but it was brighter than the rest of the place.
They looked like nice people, I said. They were well dressed. It was a celebration, Marie told me. The older woman was wearing a corsage.
I didn’t remember the corsage but I was glad for them. They were celebrating. As we left I looked over the people in the other part of the restaurant. They were all happy. They were all celebrating. I leaned over and gave Marie a kiss on her cheek.
What’s that about? she asked.
I didn’t answer. There was nothing more to say.
Monet and the Umbrella
The couple with the umbrella has burst from the doorway of the Mostly Stoneware shop on Corydon. They are around thirty, elegant and well dressed with leather jackets and fashionable boots, hers long and black, his short and tan. It’s a cool November day, rain that threatens to turn into snow. The umbrella catches on the doorway and they spin awkwardly onto the sidewalk.
And yet, there is something graceful in their lack of control. She spins to the left, away from him, and catches herself from falling with a ballet dancer’s grace. He steps out toward the street, his arms outstretched as if he would catch her. They recover with what looks from my perspective like laughter. She raises the package in her right hand triumphantly and he blows her a kiss.
The umbrella has floated above them throughout this small drama. It is quite a large umbrella with a scene from a Monet painting on it in shades of blue and orange. It seems inappropriate for a Winnipeg November. He tries to adjust the umbrella so that it protects them both but the wind threatens to turn the umbrella inside out, and besides, the rain is almost horizontal, so the umbrella is of no real help.
It feels to me as if they should take a bow and acknowledge this moment of grace and gracefulness. They slip into the coffee shop
next door and are gone. A moment later, Marie appears in the same doorway with a package that seems identical to theirs.
I want to tell her all about the beautiful people, their elegance and style. The moment of their appearance seems to me as a gift. I want to tell her about the lovely umbrella, but she has already noticed the umbrella, the beauty of the couple, their fancy footwork. I wonder aloud about what is in their package. It is a pottery coffee cup, she tells me, a deep blue pottery cup, identical to the one she has just bought for us. And I am happy.
The lights were low in Casa Grande, as they always are, and so it took us a minute before we could see our way to our table. Each red-andwhite-checked table had its own candle in an Italian wine bottle, the kind that has a base covered in straw and wax drippings. There was a light murmur from each table, and the waiters, dressed in black with white aprons, moved silently from table to table. We ordered water, because it was a period in our lives when we were not drinking. The waiter took our order and slipped away into the darkness.
The four people who claimed the table next to ours were all large. They wore black-rimmed glasses and heavy winter coats because it was November and starting to get cold. They hung their coats on the backs of their chairs although there were hooks on the wall near the entrance.
They ordered two bottles of Merlot, and they all removed their heavy black glasses. Three of them put the glasses in their pockets and the fourth replaced them with a lighter wire-rimmed pair. The two women were blonde and looked as if they might be sisters.
The Marriage Counsellor (Man and Dog)
The first thing I noticed was the neatly trimmed beard, the salt-andpepper hair and the professorial grey tweed jacket. The next thing was the fraying cuffs of the jacket, the scuffed shoes and the rope that acted as a belt. The third was the dog that sat motionless at his feet.
It was a large dog with long grey fur and a thin long face. The man stood patiently by the door to a building that housed a men’s store and a beauty salon on the first floor. Through the glass of the door you could read the list of businesses on the upper floors, lawyers and opticians and dentists.
The first name on the list was Darci Butterworth, Dr. Darci Butterworth, marriage counsellor as the lettering on the signboard proclaimed. The name seemed too young, too cheerful to belong to someone who could sort out the many problems of a marriage gone wrong.
What a marriage counsellor could do about that was beyond my imagining. The man next door and his wife had gone to one, he told me over a beer. The counsellor had turned out to be a sharp-nosed skinny woman with greying hair who immediately informed them that they would require a long course of meetings at $120 a pop. He had only gone to placate his wife and after the first session he had refused to return. His wife looked like Sandy Dennis in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and she had the same sort of high-pitched voice.
They had moved next door only a couple of years ago, and we didn’t know them very well. He had a little potbelly just like Richard Burton and a cranky domineering voice. I thought that their marriage had little chance of survival, but Marie said you saw the film. That kind of love always lasts. It’s the cold kinds that fail.
Marie was just coming into the building as the man with the dog was leaving. She stopped to pat the dog and asked its name. James, the man said. Like James Dean in that movie.
Marie was wearing her new glasses. It was cold out when we left and I thought that I was going to remember that grey tweed man and his dog for a long time.
The man on the bicycle hovers in my imagination like a figure in a frieze. He rides into nowhere in rain down some endless Grosvenor Avenue. The girl in the yellow dress has settled into some region of my mind between symbols of the erotic and the pure. The people in the Pancake House have followed our example and ordered the apple cinnamon pancake. The older woman has removed her corsage to
smell the flowers. The couple with the Monet umbrella have inserted themselves into a Russian painting and are floating through low clouds, their ceramic wineglasses in their hands. The people in Casa Grande are making toasts and laughing loudly. The men have grown horns and goat’s hooves, as I had expected they would. The man in the grey tweed suit has fallen, and though the passersby wish to help, the dog will allow nobody near him.
I am listening to Saint-Saëns’s The Carnival of the Animals with its mathematical purity and its feral energy. I would like to free my creations to their own carnival. The man on the bicycle might court the girl in the yellow dress. He will take his harmonica out of his dirty red bandanna and play songs of love and desire. The girl in the yellow dress will let down her hair and twirl to the rhythms of his playing. The 1983 Ford Crown Victoria will have a new paint job, and its engine will roar like the tigers at the Assiniboine Zoo. The couple with the Monet umbrella will hand their umbrella to the attendant and dance a Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers number, probably the piece “The Continental” from The Gay Divorcee. The people at Casa Grande will ride down Sargent Avenue in a coach pulled by leopards. The old grey dog, once more a puppy, will ride in the ambulance with the sirens screaming and his head out the window into the approving wind.
And Marie and I? We will enter the dance, do a schottische all the way down Portage Avenue to Main Street where we will pull down all the signs so that the traffic can go wherever it likes. And we will sing the Toreador Song from Carmen, or perhaps dance the habanera. In either case we will be happy.p