BY SHEILA HORNE
Copyright is held by the author.
THE TWO women laugh as they run down the stairs. Sophia picks up the money they left on the table and counts it. She shakes her head as the walls of the apartment starts to vibrate from the loud music coming from her neighbours. The last time they had a party, she’d looked at their names on the mailbox in the downstairs hallway. She will check again and this time make sure she writes them down.
She pulls the sheer curtains aside, sticks her head out the small window and looks down onto Danforth Avenue. The two women are on the sidewalk laughing at the sign advertising psychic readings and spiritual healings. She thought the women skeptical. She could tell by the sideway glances and smirks they gave each other while she read their tarot cards and palms. But she is used to the doubters. But then there are the true believers who want a glimpse into their future, or to be healed or to believe she can save them. The two women eventually cross the street holding onto each other and giggling as they dodge traffic and enter The Parlour.
Sophia is about to turn away from the window when she notices two teenage girls hitchhiking. She recognizes the girl with short blond hair. She’s seen her sneaking many times into the apartment of the couple next door when the wife is at work. The girl had come to her once to have her tea leaves read. She had been rude to Sophia and gypped her out of 10 dollars. She cannot recall the girl’s name. All she remembers: the girl is trouble. A BMW stops. The driver looks at himself in the side mirror and opens the passenger door.
“Soon little one, I will remember your name and then who knows,” Sophia says, watching the car drive away with the girls.
She slips her swollen feet into worn brown vinyl sandals and limps down the stairs. Outside she fights her way across the Danforth, maneuvering between cars and trucks. She stops in front of The Parlour and peers between the writing on the glass window advertising ice cream, sundaes, pies. The best in Toronto! The best in Canada! Gazing into the ice-cream shop is her obsession. Every day for the past 30 years, she has looked through the glass window hoping Diego would somehow appear, and she might catch a glimpse of him at one of the tables enjoying a cup of coffee and a piece of apple pie.
“Hoping, always hoping,” she mumbles to herself as she opens the door to get a better look. “I waste this life hoping, and if he should show up? I don’t know.”
“Excuse me,” a hurried voice says. Sophia turns to see a dishevelled, middle-aged woman standing behind her. “Do not return home,” Sophia says and stares at the red-haired woman.
“I beg your pardon?” the woman asks.
Sophia holds the woman’s hand and draws a line across her palm. “Do not go home. You left the front door open when you ran out.” Sophia looks into her eyes. “But slamming it would have been useless.” The woman jerks her hand away, runs it through her un-brushed hair and goes into the restaurant.
In Lionel’s Variety Store, Sophia makes her way to the cash desk. “A packet of Hungarian tobacco and two packs of rolling papers,” she says, studying the young man behind the counter. “Where is Lionel?” she asks and takes a change purse out of her pocket.
“He’s not here,” the young man replies and rings in the purchases.
“Where is he? He is always here.”
“Look, lady, I don’t know where Lionel is,” the young man says. He continues to pack the two items into a paper bag and adds, “It’s not my business, or yours.”
“What is your name?” she asks.
“Tommy,” he says.
She hands him the exact amount. “It is $15 and five cents, and no more.” She picks up the bag and walks towards the door. She turns to look at him. “Tommy,” she says, “is a fine art to be honest. Lionel would not be happy.”
“Yeah right lady, whatever you say,” he says and slams the cash drawer.
“I know of what I speak,” she says. “No one gets away with what you are doing.”
Sophia makes her way across the street. Upstairs in her apartment she takes out the tobacco and papers out of the bag. She sits at the table and rolls a cigarette. It was Diego who had taught her to smoke and to make her own cigarettes. She’d enjoyed smoking from the beginning. She loved the smell of the tobacco, the warmth of the smoke in her throat, the feel of it travelling down her lungs. It had always comforted her. She had met him as a young girl of 17, 40 years ago. She’d left work early that day. Another aunt of many had crossed over to the other side and she had taken her mother to the funeral. The moment she saw Diego leaning against a wall outside Eaton’s, with his slick black hair, tanned face and cigarette in his hand, she fell madly in love with him. He gave her a diamond ring, promised her love and marriage. She’d bought a white gown and white satin shoes with ribbons that tied around the ankles.
A few months later, he left her a note: I have returned to my country to marry the girl chosen by my family. Sophia cried for months. Then she wrote his name on a piece of paper, wrapped the paper around the diamond ring and put the package in her small freezer. He was the first.
Five years later, her brother Samuel was the second one. A tiny, unhappy man, he worked at Carrie Ann Shoe Store on Bloor Street West. He stood all day selling to women who shoved their large feet into shoes that could only fit them in their dreams. Then they complained to him about the small sizes that the store carried. One night Sophia had caught him wearing her wedding dress and shoes. The wedding dress, grey with age, now hung in her closet, and the shoes, too small for her calloused, misshapen feet, were neatly placed underneath it.
“You wear my dress. I never wear my dress but you wear it to that place you go at night,” she’d yelled at Samuel. Hurt and angry, she put his name in the freezer and didn’t flinch when she identified his battered body.
“Beaten to death,” the police had said. “In the washroom of one of those seedy establishments.”
“No,” she said, shaking her head. “I know nothing of seedy establishments or his friends or even Samuel. I’m alone at home. He comes. He goes.” She’d shrugged and lit a cigarette as if to dismiss the officers.
A few weeks later, she added the name of a friend who had scoffed at her psychic abilities and called her odd. Over the years there were more names. The streetcar driver who refused to take her transfer and made her pay an extra fare; the hairdresser who cut her hair too short and still made her pay full price even though she complained; the landlord’s wife who yelled at her for being two days’ late with the rent and who added interest. They’d all died suddenly. Some in unexplained accidents. Others were murdered. The police were stumped. They had no clues and the cases remained unsolved. Sophia had tried to stop. Every time she placed a name in the freezer, she promised herself it would be the last one. Her mother had passed the freezer down to her. Over the years Sophia had thought of getting rid of it but there were too many names inside — too many to count and she had no idea what would happen if she removed them.
“People annoy you, you freeze them,” her mother had said to her when she told Sophia about the freezer. “It keep them away from you.”
It hadn’t quite worked that way. It kept them away but not how she’d expected. And her mother had crossed over to the other side before Sophia could ask her if the people whose names she put in the freezer were supposed to die. She often wondered whether it was the freezer, or if she did indeed have a great power. And what would happen if someone put her name in it.
The music next door gets louder. It’s mixed with lurid laughter and the smell of marijuana. Sophia stubs out her cigarette and stares into the darkness. She is old and tired. Tired of the noise. Tired of the street. Tired of people. Then there’s the burden she carries, and the names — still so many.
“Too much work, where to start,” she says, reaching for a piece of paper and a pen. She thinks for a minute, then scribbles. She tears the paper into three strips, folds them and opens the freezer lid. She stops for a moment.
“Only one name today,” she says and adds the paper to the others.