WEDNESDAY: On The Line

BY LAUREL KARRY

Copyright is held by the author.

SUSPENDED IN rain, snow, and sunshine, they swung from their strings along the hydro lines at Barclay and Newton. On windier days their toes performed like weather vanes for the pedestrian traffic. Some were fashioned from canvas; others from leather. Just the sight of them made Clayton wonder how far these shoes could have journeyed before this final destination.

The first time he noticed them, Clayton was on his way back to Lou’s. The Oil and Lube Shop on Barclay babied his fire-engine red ’65 Ford Mustang like it was their own. The car had been his father’s. Lou still serviced it as he had when Sam could no longer look after the repairs himself. Nothing serious this time, just a routine oil change and tire rotation over the noon hour. Until a few months ago, it had never crossed Clayton’s mind to find a garage in his old neighbourhood.

“Good mechanics are like good doctors,” his dad used to say. “Count your blessings when you are fortunate to find both.”

Every Saturday morning, when Clayton Zimmerman was young, he and his father would stroll past the driveways in their west-end neighbourhood and talk to the guys working on their cars. They never talked about anything other than cars — and fishing. Clayton took it all in. With no brothers or sisters, (and friends who preferred sports over spark plugs), he wanted to do everything his father did.

Samuel Zimmerman had worked in a garage all his life, from as early as grade seven, repairing everything from faulty transmissions to punctured tires. That was a respectable job in the 1940s for a young guy with a grade-10 education. On a farmer’s earnings, Sam’s parents had struggled to raise four sons. With more Holsteins than hay, especially in the drier months of July and August, the Zimmermans depended on any extra money their boys brought in from their after-school jobs to carry them through the season. Even though Sam had wistful aspirations of becoming a doctor, and the math and science marks to support it, university was never an option. He vowed, when he became a father, that his son would have the opportunity to attend college or university for a better career, no matter the sacrifice.

Sam and Clayton would always end their weekend walk with a visit to Chapman’s Bookstore. Sam loved the crisp pages of new books, even though he could never afford to buy them. He splurged when Clayton graduated from medical school, surprising him with a copy of The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway.

“Oh, how your mother wanted to see this day, Clay.”

Tears pooled inside Sam’s eyelids. Clayton’s mother had died just as he was finishing up his residency. Sam paused to take a breath.

“But I know she’s lookin’ over us.” He handed Clayton the book. “Open it.” Clayton turned to the first page. The inscription read:

Let him think I am more man than I am and I will be so.
Ernest Hemingway

Clayton knew it was his father’s dream to study medicine, but whether it was his, he wasn’t certain.

Clayton returned to the same childhood haunts every three months, or 5,000 kilometres, whichever came first. He always saved his bookstore visit until last. Now, with a practice of his own, he could afford new books. They were usually about Mustangs or muskies, just as his father would have chosen. Today, however, his purchase was different.

The shoes should have caught his attention on the way to Chapman’s bookstore, but he had taken a different side street in search of shovelled sidewalks. The one-and-a-half storey brick and stucco homes lined the street like a tobacco smoker’s smile: some originally white surfaces had yellowed more than the newly sided ones; some were spaced more evenly apart, while others had snuggled up against one another; and a few were missing altogether, pulled out after last month’s arson spree. Clayton straddled the crack in the sidewalk for a few minutes to survey the empty lots, then continued on. That’s when he spotted the shoes. Five pairs of shoes: sneakers, hikers, and oxfords, had been tied together as one complete unit of footwear for all-season comfort. Some shoes hung in pairs, like cherries in a tree; others hung in clusters, similar to grapes or bananas; another pair hung with one shoe just slightly higher than its mate’s. They were artistic in their own way, revealing a unique set of personalities. He thought about the children they’d belonged to, as they dangled precariously from their laces like a dog on a leash; tied to a pole until its owner had come back to retrieve it. But these shoes had been abandoned, perhaps in an act of bullying or on a dare.

And then he thought about his dad.

In Clayton’s mind, these shoes had been left behind, unable to fend for themselves, no longer young and free, but old and imprisoned, just like his father after his stroke. Although graceful in their carefree sway, they exposed man’s vulnerabilities.

Five pairs of shoes stranded high above the street like tightrope walkers without a net.

“Interesting, don’t you think?”

The sweetness of a butterscotch pastille coated those words. Clayton lowered his eyes to connect the gentle voice to a face. The silver-haired gentleman’s smile lines extended outwards into his tanned cheeks like the creases around the hide-covered buttons sewn onto Clayton’s brown leather club chair. His hand-knitted white scarf peeked out from under the collar of his pewter overcoat. The man pointed to the shoes; the tip of his forefinger poking through the loose weave of his woollen glove.

“Most of those belong to the Westdale kids. After exams they come down here and toss their shoes into the sky in hopes of landing a line. One lad told me they call it line dancing. Brilliant, aren’t they? Life is all about living in the moment.”

Clayton studied the shoes a second time, searching for genius, as the man stretched his tight, navy toque over his earlobes, nodded politely, and hobbled up the newly-shovelled sidewalk with his hands in his pockets. A gentle flurry of snowflakes began to fall from the sky. The squeak of the man’s overshoes on the skiff of fresh snow brought a smile to Clayton’s face. They were the same galoshes his father wore in inclement weather. The boots’ industrial-sized centre zipper supported its thin rubber fabric like the spine of a yellow perch. Clayton studied the soles’ faint geometric patterns in the snow, noticing the slur of the man’s left foot. It reminded Clayton of his father’s exaggerated gait. Surrendering his driver’s license was hard enough, but Sam refused to carry a cane, making him more susceptible to stutters and stumbles, and frustrating his son to no end. Jaunts to the grocery store took two hours instead of one; strolls in the garden presented new hazards of uneven ground and cobblestone footpaths. Like a new parent watching his toddler’s first steps, Clayton never strayed too far from his father in anticipation of a fall. It was the reason he had chosen Green Meadows Retirement Residence in the first place. Its 250-acre property was anything but restrictive, and the trout-stocked lake provided all the fishing an angler desired. His father could go for walks whenever he liked, provided he had assistance, and the kitchen served fish and chips every Friday. A veritable fisherman’s heaven on earth. It satisfied all his father’s needs and wishes, or so he thought.

The call came that morning from Green Meadows just as a heavy snow was blanketing the city in a white shroud.

“Dr. Zimmerman, I’m afraid there’s been an accident at the residence. Your father has fallen on the property. He wandered off after lunch without his coat or his boots. You’ll need to come down here right away.”

Not one day passed that he didn’t think about his father, and his own negligence.

If I can’t look after the health of my own father, what good am I looking after anyone else’s? he thought.

A snow squall interrupted the moment, dusting the sidewalk with the precision of icing sugar. Clayton redirected his focus to the dangling shoes. Their youthful dance quelled the vision of his father’s laboured strides. Clayton cast his eyes down Barclay Street; the gentleman was nowhere to be seen. The white powder had concealed every evidence of the man’s tread. A gentler puff of snowflakes fluttered from the sky, lighting on Clayton’s prominent nose and blond lashes. He wiped the wetness off his face with his sleeve and continued his walk in the direction of Lou’s garage. The envelope-thin paper bag rustled inside Clayton’s black leather coat pocket with his purposeful stride. He slid the paperback deeper into his pocket and made his way up the street in a mindful daze, unaware of the sidewalk’s uneven slope. As though in slow motion, he stumbled, catching the sole of his boot on the crack in the cement. Lowering his head to correct his step, he spotted a gold chain snaked out across his path. Clayton retrieved the treasure concealed beneath the snow and a handsome reward emerged: a gold pocket watch. Drying the time piece on his pant leg, he noticed the cursive lines of a faded inscription.

Emmanuel C. Alvarez
Class of ’39

The inscription harkened back to the line his father had inscribed inside his copy of The Old Man and the Sea: Words of pride. Words of achievement. Words he hadn’t lived up to.

Hastening up the street, he scanned every veranda in hopes of spying the tails of the gentleman’s communist-grey overcoat loitering in the extended pause of an aluminum door. The 12:30 sunshine made a brief but warming appearance, tiring his eyelids to near closure. He loosened his yellow flannel scarf, allowing the fringe to flutter outside his collar, unbuttoned his waistcoat halfway, and removed his gloves, all in mid-stride. In a blink of time, the clouds had smothered the January brightness, enabling Clayton to widen his gaze. He reached the end of the street without seeing any sign of the man. Panting to a stop, just leeward of the concrete light standard, Clayton depressed the spongy black pedestrian button. He slapped the stiff leather gloves across his pant leg, and inhaled to a taller stance.

How could I have lost him? he thought.

A biting gust of wind pierced his eyes and blurred his vision before he could shelter his face. As he turned his head away from the deafening howl, he heard a faint and feeble cry for help. There on the curb, some 10 metres away, he recognized the sleeve of the gentleman’s overcoat extended beyond a pile of frozen snow.

Clayton’s feet locked as though anchored to the ground. He clutched the bottom seam of his left pocket to secure the jiggling timepiece inside and ran towards the site, oblivious to the strayed contents of his other pocket. Clayton did not break his pace until he had reached the fallen man.

The heavy grey fabric dwarfed his body like a tarpaulin on a pile of kindling. Thoughts of his father’s fatal fall flooded his mind. The old man was slumped over on his side and statue-still. Clayton kneeled beside him as gently as a minister in prayer.

“Everything is going to be all right,” he said, looking into the man’s pale face. “I’m Doctor Zimmerman.”

The man’s eyes were clear and bright, but he uttered no verbal response. “Now don’t move,” Clayton added. He lifted the gentleman’s arm, then pressed two fingers to his wrist. Clayton looked to his watch to assess the pulse, but his wrist was bare. His fingers fumbled inside his pocket to retrieve the found-pocket watch. Smile lines grew wide around the gentleman’s brown eyes as he followed the movements of the prize within Clayton’s hand. “Pulse is normal,” he said, checking beneath the man’s toque, “and just a bump on the head to take care of. You may have a headache for a little while, but nothing serious.” Clayton assisted the man as he rolled onto his back. He could read the gentleman’s delight as the colour returned to his cheeks, but it wasn’t his diagnosis that was making him smile. “And I believe this may be yours, Mr. Alvarez?” Mr. Alvarez sat up and paused to catch his breath. Clayton handed him the watch.

“Oh, bless you, young man,” he whispered as Clayton placed the watch in his gloved hand. His speech was slow and laboured. “It was a graduation gift . . . from my father . . . just after he came back from the Spanish Civil War. Once I noticed it was missing, I began to retrace my steps from the post office. It must’ve been the wind that pushed me over.” He looked down at the watch.

“He’d spent all his savings on this watch . . . so I would never let a minute go by without counting my blessings.” Clayton bowed his head, and thought about his own father’s sacrifices. The two men sat quietly for a moment, then Clayton helped Mr. Alvarez to his knees and then to his feet.

“I think I’m fine now,” said Mr. Alvarez as he stretched his hat over his ears. “Yes, I’m definitely better.” He brushed the snow off his pant legs. “Thank you. Thank you.” He checked his watch. “I’d better be on my way. The wife worries, you know, if I’m the tad bit late,” he smiled. Clayton nodded.

The gentleman’s balance improved with each step. He cupped his hand into the air as a final gesture of thanks as he passed Clayton in the direction he’d just come. Clayton buttoned his coat, and slipped his hand into his pocket. His fingers searched the silk lining in vain. He wouldn’t have time to find his gloves or his book without returning late to the office after picking up his car. It wasn’t the gloves he was concerned about, but the loss of the book. He needed some Hemingway inspiration more than ever after the journey his thoughts had taken this afternoon. Clayton shoved his hands into his empty pockets and sighed. With his head down, he continued his walk in the direction of the garage when the squeaking of wet rubber galoshes filled his ears. Looking up, he noticed Mr. Alvarez coming towards him.

“Are you all right?” Clayton said, placing his hand on the man’s shoulder to calm his pace. Mr. Alvarez was out of breath.

“Oh, yes Dr. Zimmerman, everything . . . is perfect,” he panted, “except I believe . . . these may . . . be yours?” His words were heavy, and yet the same butterscotch sweetness filled the air. He handed Clayton a pair of leather gloves and a thin, wet paper bag.

“Why, thank you very much, Mr. Alvarez,” Clayton replied.

“I see you like Ernest Hemingway,” the old man said as he slipped his gloved hands into his pockets. “He was also my father’s favourite author. He had his books on loan from the library more times than I can remember.”

Clayton removed the paperback from its damp sheath and dried the cover on his pant leg.
“Here.” Clayton handed the book to Mr. Alvarez. “My father would have wanted you to have it.”

“You have been so generous, thank you. Your father must be very proud of you, Doctor.”

The old man accepted the gift, nodded politely, and continued on his way. Clayton walked to the corner to cross at the lights and finally pick up his car. He stood still for a moment and faced north. Less than a block away from the abandoned shoes hanging along the hydro lines at Barclay and Newton, he envisioned them swinging, colliding, and celebrating life amongst the street lights without a care in the world. They were clearly line dancing.

12 comments

  1. Dave Moores

    Now THAT is a proper short story. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end, very nicely written, and has something to say. Thank you Laurel.

  2. Tracy

    In such a short time Laurel has developed her characters and scene that drew me in through building curiosity, compassion and differing perspectives. “On a Line” is a most fitting title as it can be taken literally with the shoes and figuratively as each life is on the line between life / death, old / young, past / present. Thoroughly enjoyed this short story.

  3. Jazz

    DAVE: I guess you’re not a big fan of the ‘Flashback’…. used successfully by some the very best writers in the literary world.

  4. Dave Moores

    Hi Jazz, could you explain why you concluded that? I’m quite happy with flashbacks, honest 🙂

  5. Jazz

    Easy conclusion, Dave; you commented, rather strongly that you much prefer a linear narrative. Flashbacks certainly don’t follow that pattern.
    I’m all for experimentation in literature, painting, acting etc.
    You haven’t lived ’till you’ve seen Macbeth played out with our hero in jeans and a t-shirt.

  6. Kathy Tatsu

    Endearing short story that sustained my interest until the end. It brought back memories of my parent’s sacrifices for their children. Congratulations Laurie. I look forward to reading your next story!
    Kathy T.

  7. Laurel Karry

    Thank you for the encouraging words all of you have shared. Much appreciated!

  8. Pingback: RERUN FRIDAY: On the Line |

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