Days and Nights in the City

Prairie Fire - - TABLE OF CONTENTS - DAVID AR­NA­SON

1

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.

2

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.

3

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.

4

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.

5

Dark Glasses

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.

6

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.

7

Kalei­descope

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

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