BY MICHAEL JOLL
Copyright is held by the author.
EVERY FRIDAY for years, white-haired Salvation Army Major Bob Goodrich had seen the bag lady come to their community hall for soup.
She was a mystery. All he knew about her was that her name was Freda, and that she came from Saskatoon. She refused to say more until one Friday when she pulled him aside and whispered, “It’s my birthday today, Major. I’m 74. At this age we really start counting our blessings, don’t we?”
Major Bob smiled. “Every day,” he said.
She took her place at the table, drank her soup from a mug and ate the bread roll. She got up and was about to leave when she spotted Major Bob staring at her. “You really want to know, don’t you?” she said.
“Only when you are prepared to share your burden with me,” he said.
Freda stood close to him and whispered, “This is as good a day as any to satisfy your curiosity.” She sat on a bench and patted it. Major Bob sat beside her.
“It was 19 years ago, my 55th birthday,” Freda said quietly.
Freda and her husband had planned to go out for a quiet dinner, just Ron, and Tammy, their daughter. “I returned home early from work to find the street cordoned off and my house surrounded by police sharpshooters. The police held me back, screaming, kicking, punching at anything that moved until they were forced to handcuff me and bundle me into the back of a cruiser. When I kicked out the side window they carted me off to the police station and threw me into a cell. I was in jail when two gunshots came from inside my house. The police and paramedics moved in and removed the bodies of my Ron and Tammy.”
They took Freda from her cell that evening and drove her to the hospital to identify the bodies. Then, still in handcuffs, they took her to the psychiatric ward where they kept her for six years, pumping chemicals into her blood stream. When she refused to eat, they fed her through intravenous tubes. She lost 70 pounds. Then, at 64, crazy one day and deemed sane the next, they released her, gave her the bus fare to her home, and wished her good luck.
“When I arrived home,” Freda said, “I found a family living there. I wasn’t surprised. We only rented it.”
Major Goodrich saw the tears well in Freda’s eyes, but she held them back. “I turned my back without saying a word and walked away. I wandered the streets of Saskatoon for hours until night fell. Finally, tired, hungry and miserable, I went to the police station.
“I’m Freda Jones,” she told the station duty officer. “I have no place to stay.”
The middle-aged officer took down her details and ran them through the computer.
“I know of you,” he said. “I remember the shooting. Murder/suicide wasn’t it? When was that?”
“Six years ago.”
“Right,” he said. “I suppose you must remember the incident better than me. I wasn’t on duty that day. Take a seat. I’ll be right back.”
Freda sat on a bench and stared at the notices taped on the police station walls without reading them.
The officer came back. “The Staff Sergeant says you can sleep in one of the cells if you like,” he said. “But we’ll have to lock you in.”
“I’m used to it,” she said.
“They gave me a hamburger and fries from McDonalds that night, Major,” Freda said. “And a coffee and doughnut from Tim Hortons in the morning. Before they let me out of my cell I tore up my prescription and flushed it down the toilet. I’d had enough drugs to last a lifetime.”
The day shift station duty officer turned the key in the lock in the cell door and pulled it open.
“I remember you,” he said. “I was there that day. Nasty business. Where are you going?”
“Away,” she told him.
“Wherever ‘away’ is,” he said, “I hope you get there safely.”
The officer fished his wallet out of his hip pocket and pulled out a 20. “Here,” he said. “Take it. It’s not a loan. It’s not much, but it’s all I have. My wife made me a sandwich this morning for lunch. I was only going to spend it on beer after shift.” He closed his fingers over the bill and gave Freda an embarrassed smile, the first she had seen in six years.
Freda tucked the 20 into her change purse and tried to return his smile. “I think I’ll go south for the winter. I could use some warmth and sunshine.” She left the police station and headed south. “And here I am, Major,” she said. “Regina.”
Major Goodrich smiled.
“Hey, Regina’s south of Saskatoon,” Freda said. “I never said how far south I’d go.”
A refrigerator packing case became her home, the first of several around the city. She found clothing at drop boxes, and discarded food behind restaurants and in supermarket dumpsters. She collected beer and wine bottles, and plastic milk jugs for their deposit. She avoided the food bank, which she regarded as “for the desperate”, but had no qualms about eating at the Knights of Columbus table or the Salvation Army. And once a week, always on a Monday, she stuffed her dirty laundry into a green garbage bag, left her refrigerator packing case, and took it to the ‘Soap Opera’ coin-op Laundromat on Hamilton Street.
The beat cops on the Regina city police all knew Freda, the bag lady, and did not hassle her. Constable Shirley Chisholm knew Freda better than most. She found her one afternoon coming out of a 7-11 store with several coins jingling as she tossed them in the air and caught them.
“Freda,” Shirley called out, and wheeled her cruiser to a stop beside the old lady. “What are you looking so happy about? Take the casino to the cleaners, did you?”
“Live, love, laugh, Shirley. It’s been a long time since I loved,” Freda said. “Close to 20 years, I reckon.”
Shirley nodded. “I’m with you,” she said.
“You’re still young,” Freda said.
“Not so young any more. Just a fat, ugly cop.”
“Not many make it to Hollywood, Shirl,” Freda said. “The rest of us, the real world, we make the best of what we have, and for most of us that’s more than good enough.”
“Christmas is coming, girl,” Freda said. “Less than two weeks. You never know: your luck might change.”
“Any man who made a pass at me would have to be more desperate than I am. Or wasted on booze or drugs. Not an option. The Department has been at me for years to lose weight. That’s not happening either.”
“Good for you, girl. Tell ’em where to shove it.”
Shirley paused for a moment. “How long have you been in Regina?”
“Nearly 13 years,” Freda replied. “Can’t see any point in moving on. It’s not like I know many people here, but it’s a friendly place. Not like Saskatoon. I didn’t like it there.”
“Are you going anywhere this winter?”
“Same as usual,” she replied. “Or maybe go south for a change.” Her eyes hooded. “Why?”
“I just finished my kitchen reno,” Shirley replied. “I put in a counter-depth fridge. It’s not as deep as a traditional one, but several inches wider. I can let you have first dibs on the case, if you like. It comes with the original Styrofoam insulation as well. That will help keep you a bit warmer this winter.”
Freda’s eyes lit up. “A double wide?”
“Can you get it to Key West?”
“Nope. But I can drop it off anywhere within city limits where it can’t be seen.”
“Deal,” Freda said. “How much?” She put her coins into the pocket of her baggy track pants.
“Let’s see. For you, I’ll give you 10 bucks to take it off my hands, and a coffee next time I catch you.”
“The last time a cop gave me money it was to get me out of town.”
Shirley’s eyebrows arched. “When? Why?”
“Long story. I just finished telling Major Goodrich and I’m not telling it again. Ask him if you’re really that curious.”
“So, where do you want it?”
Freda thought for a while. “Maybe it’s time for a new address. Yeah. Under the Albert Street bridge on the north side. It’s got a nice view of the Legislative Assembly building when it’s lit up at night, and the north side’s more sheltered from the wind. And I can lay the box on its side, cover it with branches and no-one will know I’m there.”
“You won’t be able to sit up in it, Freda,” Shirley said. “It’ll be too low but you can lay out in it and sleep more comfortably.”
“I always wanted a double wide, Shirl,” Freda said. “You’re a pal.”
“I’ll drop it off tomorrow after shift. Six okay for you?”
Freda held out her arm. “No watch,” she said. “And no cell phone. Don’t worry. I’ll be there.”
Constable Chisholm wheeled her cruiser away and in seconds vanished from sight.
Freda ambled over to the plaza and checked the rear of Safeway, picked out an apple that had only two bruises and chomped contentedly on it.
“A double wide,” she whispered. “Does it get any better?” She jingled the coins happily in her pocket and crunched again on her apple.
She heard the soft pad of running shoes behind her and turned. A young man in a dark bomber jacket and tuque rammed his shoulder into her and sent her sprawling to the pavement. He pressed his hand over her mouth and hissed, “Don’t make a sound, old woman. I saw you come out of the 7-11. Give me the cash and I won’t hurt you. And don’t squeal to the cops or I’ll find you and you won’t like it when I do.”
Freda patted her pants pocket. The man shoved his hand roughly in and pulled out some five dollar bills and a handful of coins. A few seconds later he disappeared behind the dumpster and around the corner of the supermarket. Freda lay on the asphalt for several minutes, gingerly feeling her extremities. Her fingers discovered a warm, sticky patch on the back of her head. She held them in front of her eyes. “It’ll scab over by morning,” she muttered and levered herself to her feet. She ran her fingers through her short, curly hair and fluffed it. A gust of wind ruffled the multihued windlestraw that passed for her hair, tangled strands of raffia, red and blue, purple, pink and green, courtesy of discarded Miss Clairol bottles she had salvaged from the bin at the back of the Shoppers Drug Mart on South Broad Street.
“Who steals my purse, steals trash,” she said as she sucked in a draught of chilly air and smiled. It was the first time she had thought of Shakespeare since high school English class. She picked up her apple and shuffled her way around to the front of the supermarket. Half way across the parking lot she stopped and turned to gaze at the lights in the Safeway store, at the people milling about inside, warm and secure with cars to drive them to their warm and secure homes in the suburbs.
The euphoria of only a few moments earlier dissipated like September mist on Lake Wascana. The depression that had descended like a black blanket that night 19 years ago threatened to envelop her once more. She sucked in a deep breath and clenched her teeth. The dark well into which she had fallen all those years ago yawned at her feet as it had so many times since.
The wind gusted around her, swirling dust and dried elm leaves about her feet. The familiar black chasm loomed at her feet, a warm, secure cocoon tugging her to hot meals, no sharps and feel-good meds. She felt herself yielding. Prairie grit scrubbed her face and hands red-raw. She turned her back to the wind, pulled the hood of her ragged coat over her head and huddled in the lee of a panel van, unable to stop hyperventilating. I’m falling, she wanted to scream. I’m going over the cliff. I can’t stop it. I can’t . . .
She screwed her eyes shut. Her legs turned to rubber as she tottered on the edge of the abyss. She swayed and held on to the fender of the van until the wind died and her breathing slowed. Light returned as she opened her eyes a crack and gazed down at her feet. Her construction boots come into focus, then the Nipigon nylons rolled down over the tops, the broken, knotted boot laces and the raggedy grey track pants. Something lay beneath a boot, something white with sharp corners that she had not noticed before the pit had opened up and nearly swallowed her.
She bent down and pulled an envelope from under her foot. She turned it over several times as she examined it. The back was sealed but holes punched in the paper failed to hide the contents. The TD Bank logo on the top corner confirmed her suspicions: Banknotes. A bank deposit that had not made it through the slot in the ATM. Or a withdrawal. The envelope had no name or address on it. She looked around her furtively and slipped it inside her coat.
Cash winnings from the casino? Could be. Safeway was not that far from Casino Regina. Why had it come to her, of all people, who had no claim to it and no knowledge of the rightful owner? Her pulse raced. She fingered the envelope and resisted the temptation to open it.
The envelope burned a hole in her coat pocket. She ran her hand over it repeatedly, feeling the sharp corners, the smooth edges, the corners again, flicking them with the tip of her finger, embracing the paper as she had once embraced her husband when they were dating, delicately, wonderingly, grasping, squeezing and releasing the envelope as if it was his strong, young hand.
The envelope was not hers; that she knew. The contents certainly had no right to be in her possession. She should turn the whole thing over to the police and let them sort it out. She would do her civic duty and have a clear conscience. Tomorrow. If the envelope was not claimed, the money would be hers by right. This year. Next year. Whenever. Whatever the law said. As long as Shirley’s colleagues didn’t keep it. She trusted Shirley, but the rest? They had yet to earn her trust. And if she kept it, then what?
She had no idea what then.
Freda took shelter that night huddled for the last time in her refrigerator packing crate between two dumpsters back of the Revival Tabernacle on 6th Ave. The temperature plummeted. The wind gusted. Snow swirled and froze the moisture in the cardboard. Another prairie winter pounced, later than usual, but just in time for her moving day. Freda closed the flaps of her packing case. This time tomorrow night, she told herself, she would have her panoramic view of the Legislature through the ceramic pillars of the Albert St. balustrade in her new double wide. She braced herself against the thin wall separating her from a frozen death with one hand over the envelope, too fearful to sleep in case the cold killed her before her time.
She slid open the envelope and counted the money before replacing it in the envelope. She knew what to do.
The following evening Shirley arrived at the Albert St. Bridge promptly with the promised coffee and 10 bucks. “I siliconed the outside, made it sort of waterproof for you,” she said as she hauled the packing case out of the bed of her Silverado and lowered it to the sidewalk. She went back to the cab and activated the four-way flashers. “I’ll give you a hand getting it down the bank,” she said.
The wind tugged the hood off Freda’s head. The street lamp exposed the hair stuck to the back of her scalp.
“How did that happen?” Shirley asked as she touched the scab.
“Fell,” Freda said.
“Uh-huh,” Shirley grunted. “How much did he get?”
“Twenty four bucks and some change.”
“You going to report it?”
“No. What’s the point? Just some kid who needed it more than me. Leave him be.”
Shirley shrugged. “Your choice, Freda, but I wish you’d make a formal complaint.”
“Drop it,” Freda said. “Even if you found him, we wouldn’t be doing him any favours. Jail’s not going to help him.
“He’ll have to help himself. Some make it. Most don’t. I’ve seen too many of them fail.”
Together they hauled the refrigerator packing case down the bank and under the Albert St. Bridge. They set it up on a flat piece of ground well above the bank with the roof of Freda’s new home almost touching the underside of the bridge structure.
“I’ve salvaged some pink fibreglass insulation as well,” Shirley said, “in case you find some open spots.” She regarded Freda seriously. “I wish you’d come inside, Freda,” she said. “At least for the winter. You can sleep on my couch, if you like. God knows, I won’t be having any overnight visitors.” She uttered a hollow laugh.
“No, thanks, Shirley. I’ve made my choice and I’ll stick with it. Things could be worse, like punching a time clock, being in debt, beholden to someone or something. That’s all behind me now. I don’t regret it, and I don’t regret being where I am either. Choices, Shirley. Some you make. Some are made for you.”
“Know what you mean, Freda.” Shirley paused for a moment. “What are you doing for Christmas?” she asked.
“Sally Ann,” Freda replied without a moment’s hesitation. “Turkey dinner with the trimmings, a chance to catch up with a few people I know, then back here.”
“Want to come over to my place after?” Shirley asked.
Freda thought for a moment. “It’s kind of you,” she said, “but I think I’d sooner get home if you don’t mind.”
“I understand,” Shirley said. “But if you change your mind just come on over.” She wrote on the back of a police department business card. “Here’s my address and phone number. No need to call. Just show up if you like.”
Freda slipped the card into the pocket of her track pants.
“I’ll be seeing you, Freda,” Shirley called over her shoulder.
Shirley climbed the bank and was lost to sight. Freda heard the engine start and the truck pull away. She slipped her hand into her track pants pocket and felt the edges of the unopened envelope snuggled next to Constable Shirley Chisholm’s business card. Tomorrow, she decided, I’ll go to the police station and hand it in.
But tomorrow was Monday and laundry day. She scrounged some bottles and put the change into the laundry machine and the dryer. Tuesday it snowed and she did not leave her double wide. Wednesday was the same. And so the week went with guilt piled upon guilt. On Saturday she ambled through the Cornwall Centre, packed with Christmas shoppers, humming along with Harry Belafonte and ‘Scarlet Ribbons.’ She kept an eye on the security guards as they kept an eye on her when she took an envelope from an ATM. She passed a Salvation Army kettle and smiled at the young lass standing next to it in her uniform.
“Hi, Freda,” the girl said.
“Will we see you tomorrow?”
“For sure, Yvonne.”
“Look forward to it, Freda. Merry Christmas.”
Freda dropped a quarter into the kettle, left the mall and strolled along Victoria Avenue, admiring the lights in Victoria Park in the gathering gloom. Past City Hall she turned south onto Albert St. She stopped in the centre of the bridge and admired the Legislature building, lit up for Christmas in the December night. No, she decided. I have no regrets. Not any more. I may be alone, but I’m not lonely, not like so many people out there. I wouldn’t trade places with any of them.
A cruiser stopped by her. Freda turned around.
“I thought it was you,” Shirley called through the window. “The invitation’s still open if you want to drop by.”
Freda shook her head. “It’s kind of you, Shirley,” she said, “but like I said, I’m going to spend Christmas at the Sally Ann. Not that I’m a believer, mind you, but it’s family, all the family I still have.”
Shirley smiled. “Ten-Four,” she said and pulled away from the curb.
Freda took the short walk to the Citadel the following morning, dressed in the best, cleanest clothes she possessed, and took her place in a pew for the Sunday service. She glanced around and recognized several familiar faces, fellow travellers on the road through life’s battlefield. With the service over she filed into the community hall, set up with trestle tables, paper table cloths and place settings.
Across the table from her and several diners away she caught sight of a young man in a dark bomber jacket and tuque. He turned his head and looked toward her. She made eye contact with him, saw him squirm and look away, but not before she smiled and gave him a small wave. Had it not been for him, she thought, and left it at that. She ran her fingers through her rainbow coloured hair and turned her attention to her plate. She ate her fill of turkey and gravy, stuffing and mashed potatoes, vegetables, bread rolls and real butter, and English trifle without the sherry. When the dinner reached its conclusion, she sought out Major Bob.
“Major,” she said.
“Freda,” he replied. “I’m so glad you could come again this year.”
“Major,” she repeated. “I would like to offer you some token for the trouble and expense the Salvation Army has incurred in helping those who, like myself, have not always been dealt a good hand, or who have played it badly. I hope you understand what I am saying.”
The Major nodded.
Freda reached into her coat pocket and withdrew the sealed envelope. Inside her coat all night, the edges were no longer crisp, nor the corners sharp. She handed it to the Major.
Major Bob took the envelope and weighed it in the palm of his hand. “I take it this somehow missed the collection plate,” he said.
Freda nodded. “I wanted to give it to you personally.”
Major Bob slid his thumb under the flap, tore the envelope open and peered inside. He slipped his fingers in and peeled the papers apart as his lips moved silently. He looked up. “Twenty five, 100-dollar bills,” he said. “Are you sure?”
Freda nodded again as the weight of guilt floated from her shoulders. “It’s to help those less fortunate than me,” she said. “And to make up for not supporting you better in the past. It’s like blood, Major. It’s of no use if it doesn’t circulate.”
“Then may God bless you, Freda, now and forever,” he said.
An enigmatic smile creased her lips. “I think He just did, Major.”