Wednesday, September 27, 2017

35. Toronto

Derek figured it out two days later while wedged into a seat on a crowded BART car, enduring fetid humidity from heavy coats and shopping bags soaked with winter rain.  To remove himself as much as possible from this wobbling hell he was daydreaming, and found himself holding juxtaposed in his mind the frayed edges of two conversations from the past year, one from August, one from Thursday.  They were about to fuse together in an intensely illuminating flash.

Michael said in his teasing way, "Oh boy, have you got a lot of touching to catch up on!"  That was in the airport lounge back in August.

Then were the words of the strangely-pushy Mimi-look-alike Macy’s sales associate, Estrelita, who had chased him down on Stockton Street after he had, on a whim, ventured back into that store to see if Mimi, or her sister, or the ghost that looked like Mimi, or whoever it was, was there.  He now knew with absolute certainty that Estrelita had lied when she exclaimed, "Yes, that one!" when he suggested that he had taught her physiology.  He had never taught physiology.  No way would he have been a participant in a course entailing vivisection.  During the conversation he wasn't sure why he had tossed up that suggestion.  Her response had either been a result of confusion, or a lie.  Now it was clear, head injury or no, it was impossible he had ever taught so completely unforgettable a woman of whom he had no recollection whatsoever.  The photograph, Estrelita holding the baby, Michael Reginald, that was a lie too.  That child was not her son.

Michael Spencer had said, "She had to quit school, you know," and then he wouldn't tell him why. 

Estrelita was Mimi's cousin, the one who lived in Daly City.

He jerked around in his seat and looked back furiously in the direction of the city, but saw only the dandery fringe around the back of a bald head in the reversed seat behind.  He turned forward.  Had he been looking in a mirror, he would have been watching the color drain from his face.  In Toronto, this minute, this second, there was an infant boy named Michael Reginald, namesake of a large Bermudian fisheries warden and some hapless guy who had been blown apart by a cannon three hundred years ago.  His mother was a woman from Manila named Mimi Villanueva.  His father was an idiot in California named Derek L. Coulter, who now fell forward and clapped his hands to his head.  Yet again he was on the BART beneath the bay in plane-crash position.  A middle-aged woman seated next to him prodded his arm as the train rumbled through the long tunnel to West Oakland.  "Are you okay?" she asked.  "You want off at the next stop and I'll get you some help?"

He thanked her, but told her that he was not ill.  He told her that it didn't matter anyway, even if he was ill.  He believed that he deserved the indignity of expiring on the train, to be rattled back and forth from Richmond to Daly City for a few days until somebody noticed.  His carelessness had added another human being to this overcrowded, cruel planet.

He tried to imagine Mimi pregnant.  He tried to imagine her in labor.  The images were false and stereotypical, as if from episodes of a sit-com.  He could only see her convincingly in things that had happened on the island.  She was holding a bottle.  She was rubbing her eyes on his sleeve.  She was turning and walking away.

On the way home from the station, he became very tired and stopped to sit on the curb in front of one of the pretty houses in the City of Albany.  He put his head between his knees.  A large orange cat came along to rub against his back.   He looked up, and just beyond the corner, a skunk was trotting across the road. 

Later that evening he recalled the name of the airline that each day lifted off from Toronto and drifted across Tea Kettle Island before touching down in Bermuda.   With a credit card on the kitchen table he went online to arrange a flight.  The earliest available was for two weeks later.  Christmas and New Year's travelers had purchased all the earlier seats and were in the way of his ridiculous life.

"That must be it," he said to the driver.  "Stop anywhere!"  The cab pulled over and Derek paid with the purple and blue money.  He ground the door into the dirty brown ridge left by the snowplow.  After several more crunching swings he understood that it would not be forced farther, so scooted across the bench and after a quick left-right glance opened the door and placed his cane onto icy Toronto asphalt.

The green and orange cab drove away.  Canada was a cold country where everything was the wrong color.  He tapped in a circle to face her house.  It was like all the others on Milverton Avenue, brick, two-stories, old.  It seemed that all the houses in Toronto were brick, two stories, and old.  So this was where Mimi Villanueva lived.  That was the front door of her house.  And there was the sidewalk she had walked upon uncountable times.  His heart and lungs seized.

God it was cold.  He wished he owned gloves.  He wished he didn't have to walk with a cane, so at least one hand could be stuffed into a pocket.

Her driveway was unshoveled and, unlike most of the others, no tire-tracks were impressed through the crust of the days-old snow.  He didn't feel confident forging a virgin route, so picked his way along the street to the next house, up its shoveled driveway to the sidewalk, and back across in front of Mimi's house.  Now he was on the walkway to the front door, which also wasn't cleared.  Small boots had packed the snow to ice in frozen prints.  Which were hers?  But more terrifying were the paired parallel ruts shining up at him, the wheel tracks of a baby stroller.

Between them he made his way to the steps, his cane punching discs through the shimmery top-layer.  From his left hand dangled a shopping bag that contained a plush toy, an expensive rendition of a sea otter swimming on its back, gripping the polished valve of a small clam in its front paws.   He had broken his own rule in buying it.  No mollusc shells would be sold!  Two days earlier he had fired Ava for stocking more butterflies.  It had been remarkably easy.  He told her to leave the store and never come back.  She was no longer employed there.

She stared at him in disbelief.

He stared back, and said, “Good bye.”

Now his store was without a manager.  The drivers were filling in, earning time-and-a-half.  He almost felt okay about it though.  Peter had assured him it was the right thing to do.  His brother had a comforting way about ruthlessness.

At the top step he regretted that he hadn't phoned first to see if this wasn't going to be a hare-brained adventure into abysmal disappointment.  It would have been so much wiser to have phoned her.  He contemplated aborting the mission, but was in no condition to walk anywhere in this frozen city.  He looked down into the shopping bag at the otter.  It was very cute.  He pressed the glowing orange button and his cane rattled against the doorframe.  After that the world was unreasonably quiet for a long time.

He pressed the button again, and immediately the door popped open with a sucking sound as winterizing strips pulled from the frame.  It wasn't Mimi, but rather a 50-something-year-old facsimile.

"Yes?" she said.

Derek discovered that he was holding his breath.  Mimi's mother was very beautiful, dark and large-eyed with jet-black hair.  She was short and scary, exactly like her daughter.  "What do you want?" she said.

"Hullo," he said.  "Is Miriam home?"  He had no idea why he called her Miriam.  Although he had known that to be her real name, he had never thought of her as Miriam before.

"No," she said.  "Mimi's at school."


"University!" said her mother.

Derek was caught off-guard.  Michael had said she quit school.  "Okay, I see," he said.  “Is it in Toronto?”

"Of course.”  She became suspicious. “Who are you?" 

"A friend of hers.  We met in Bermuda."

Mrs. Villanueva's face changed.  She squinted up at him. 

"I'll come back later," he said, hastily, without knowing where he would go in the meantime.  He was in the middle of nowhere, in deepest wintery Toronto, with no gloves.  Where to kill time?  He was miles from his hotel, and this was a strictly residential part of town.  He had seen no malls or coffee shops or libraries nearby in which he could sit and wait.

"No," said Mimi's mother.  "Come in and wait.  She'll be home soon."  A small brown hand like the one he remembered, but older and tougher, had clamped onto the sleeve of his Macy’s parka.  In he went.

The first thing he saw was a pile of shoes inside the front door, against the wall.  There were lots of female shoes, boots and dressy pumps and running shoes and slippers, Mimi's shoes and her mother's shoes and her sister's shoes all heaped together.  He removed his shoes. 

"Why do you have that?"  Mimi's mother was looking at the cane.

"I had an accident," said Derek.  "This leg is a little weak." He patted his thigh casually.

Mimi's mother frowned.  "Put your coat in there," she said, and pointed to an open closet where there were naked metal hangers among the jackets and overcoats.   He placed his parka next to a long dark cloth coat that might have been the one Mimi wore to church.  He set the bag with the otter on top of his shoes.  She said, "Come and sit."  There was a living room to the left, a long hall straight ahead leading to the kitchen, and on the right, a narrow staircase to the second floor.  A buzzer sounded from the basement.  "Oh, laundry," she said."  She opened a door on the side of the long hall, below the staircase.  "I'll be right back.  Would you like a 7-Up?"  She disappeared briefly, then reopened the door and called, "You listen to 'da monitor for me!"

"What?" he said.  "Sorry, I didn't hear you!"  She didn't reply, and he heard the stairs creak as she descended to tend to the laundry.  He entered the living room and sat on the edge of a faded red velour sofa.  A matching chair was in the corner next to the fireplace, which looked as though it was never used.  Above the fireplace, Jesus was nailed to a cross, and extending up from the mantle on either side was white candle.  At one end of the mantle were small portrait photographs in oval stands.  Even without close inspection he could tell by the teeth that one was Mimi.  The other had to be her sister.  Jesus was shown intact on the wall opposite too, life-sized head and shoulders, looking air-brushed and serene.  Derek averted his eyes.  Iconography was creepy.

In the middle of the room was a squat, low table made of chocolate-colored wood.  The legs and circumference of the top were intricately carved, and the top was inlaid with patterns of triangular chips of mother-of-pearl.  Below Jesus on the far wall was a television on a walnut veneer stand, and next to it was a wooden chest carved and decorated in the same manner as the table.  Derek guessed that this was Filipino ornamentation.  He could not help but notice that everything was somewhat old and shabby, and he felt guilty. 

His eyes fell into the next room, what would have been the dining room had a table been in the middle.  In its place was a playpen, a blue padded frame with walls of white mesh.  Inside and surrounding the playpen were plush and plastic toys of bright colors.  He worried that the otter might be too drab.  Perhaps it was something only an adult would find appealing.

A staticky crackle distracted him from this worry.  It was followed by a sigh, then a whimper, and another sigh.  These were baby sounds, but not from the playpen.  On one of the lower steps of the staircase sat a hand-sized, white electronic appliance, a radio or walkie-talkie.  A wail leaked from it.  That's what she meant, he thought, "The monitor."  He was hearing the waking sounds of the boy, who must be upstairs.

He padded to the basement door.  "Mrs. Villanueva!" he called.  He heard only the heavy hum of the dryer and the ting of buttons against steel drum.  "Hello!" he called.  From the other direction came the crackle and wail again.  Mrs. Villanueva seemed to be hiding.

He understood what he was supposed to do.  He picked up the monitor and slowly climbed the stairs.  These were Mimi's stairs.  He slid his hand up the old oak railing, where her hand slid every day.  He got to the top.  Straight ahead was the bathroom, and there were three other rooms.  Two of the doors were open.  One showed a single bed, the other, two twin beds.  The third door, leading to a room above the living room, was closed.  He stepped closer and the monitor in his hand squawked from interference.  He turned it off with his thumb, and opened the door.

The room was small with a slanted ceiling and a single dormer window.  The baby was wide awake, crying in its crib.  Its soft, chubby fists were shaking and its face was red.  Derek stood above it, looking down.

"It's okay, stop crying," he said.  "You can stop crying now."  The boy continued to cry as if unaware Derek was there.  "It's okay, it's okay," he coaxed, in the soft voice he had always used for small creatures.  He gently placed his hand on the baby's stomach and jiggled it.  The eyes opened, and the crying petered out.  The boy jammed two fingers into his mouth and looked up at his father.  The dark brown irises contained startling golden flecks.  On top of them Derek saw his own amazed reflection.  "Oh my God," he whispered, and his leg became shaky.  There was an old stuffed chair in the corner of the room.  He sat, and placed the monitor on the floor, but his lapse from view seemed to upset the boy, who began crying again.  Derek hurried to his feet and again jiggled the stomach.  "Don't cry baby," he said.  "You're not alone.  I'm here. I won't leave you alone, but I have to sit down."  Halfway back to the chair the crying began again.  Derek was afraid of the next part.  He had never picked up a human infant.

He carefully slid his left hand behind the neck and head.  He shimmied the right beneath the bottom, and before he lifted, the baby tucked its chin and tensed.  This reaction was a surprise.  The baby was working with him, sending a jarring connection.  He lifted him to his chest and the boy flopped against him naturally.  The swirled crown of coffee-colored hair smelled sweet, almost as sweet as his cat's fur.  "Whoa, Michael-boy," said Derek.  He moved to the chair and the child leaned away to spy him suspiciously.  Derek sat him on his leg and supported the unsteady body with one arm, and smiling down uncertainly, said, "There-there."  In response, the boy reached to his nose and squeezed.  Although this was painful, Derek let him squeeze as long as he wanted.



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