FRIDAY: When We Are Broken

BY GORDON BOURGON

Copyright is held by the author.

“HOW OLD did you say your daughter was?”

“Twenty-three, I said. I said 23.”

“Victoria. Vicky, right?”

“You ought to get your ears checked, my friend. That’s what I said. Victoria. I didn’t say Vicky.”

“Well, it’s a shame anyway. Someone so young.”

“Yes. A shame. Beautiful, too. Like her mother.”

“Oh? I remember Elizabeth. She was a good looking woman. I remember her all right.”

“Yes.”

“We all do. The whole damn motel remembers her. Elizabeth.”

Sam and Ewan have been friends for five years. All of which time they lived here at the Cedar Park Motel on county road three, six kilometres from the main highway that stretched west towards Lake Huron. They came here to simply exist. Sam: divorced, retired, no children, no living relative in the province. Ewan: a retired musician, one brother out west currently in the throes of Alzheimer’s, a wife who passed away three years ago, and a daughter in Toronto recently hospitalized for trying to kill herself.

Sam had spent 25 years of his adult working life at an insulation factory. He’s lucky to be alive. Lucky to have only a mild case of lung disease. But all of his friends, the men he worked with, ate lunch with, had beers with at Darby’s one block down from the factory, were all dead. Their livelihoods killed them. Sam took to drinking to remember them, and forget them, to feel sorry for himself, to be angry at the world, and to pass the time.

His wife left him. He had a pension, nowhere to go but here, the Cedar Park Motel. By the time he arrived, he was broken. The drinking never stopped.

Some say Ewan was a failed musician, although with his wife, Elizabeth, he played a small bar circuit for a number of years, and finally laid his Fender Strat to rest when his fingers seized up with arthritis and a lifetime of cigarette smoking took the breath out of his singing. The late inability to play music, and the sadness that came with it, was what broke him. He came to the Cedar Park Motel with Elizabeth, but she hadn’t a clue how empty and broken her husband was. Even until the day she died.

Yes, everyone remembered Elizabeth, Ewan thought. How could they not? Every Thursday night she borrowed Mrs. Crocker’s electronic keyboard, set it up in the motel’s front lobby, played and sang old favourites that anyone could join in with the singing. The Gambler, After The Loving, Country Roads, and Those Were The Days (My Friend). Those were happy nights. Nights no one forgot. Ewan always remembered the pure joy on his wife’s face when she played and sang to a small, captive audience.

“She can sing like her mother, too,” Ewan said. “Voice of an angel.”

“Who hears angel voices?” Sam snapped. Religious-talk pissed him off. And angels had a religious connection no matter how you looked at it.

“No, like an angel. You hearin’ me?”

“It’s those damn fire trucks. Louder ‘n hell. Think they busted my eardrums. Somebody ought to say something.”

The two friends grew accustomed to the other’s moods and peculiarities over the years of sitting side by side in patches of sunlight along the motel’s cement walls or pockets of shade under the maples that stood guard at the motel’s turnaround driveway. They stopped talking. Rather, they sensed there was no need for talking. Like always, the silence that hovered between them spoke volumes.

Helen Lewis owned and operated the Cedar Motel, and it was her obsession to take in people who needed a place to live but could not afford homes, apartments or did not want to be put in “homes.” Some of them were locals she knew. As long as they paid the low rent she charged, “boarders” could remain as long as they wanted. There were always vacant rooms for the traveller looking for a room for a night.

Sam took a sip from a sweaty can of Blue he had concealed between his legs. He wiped a wet streak of beer from under his bottom lip and licked it. Rosacea peeked through the fine but thick hair on his pudgy hand that shook when he lifted the can to drink. After a few beers he would begin to notice shapes in the patches: one looked like the outline of Russia or Canada, another, the profile of Elvis Presley. Ewan moved around in the creaky lawn chair. It hurt his ass and chafed the underside of his thighs. He’d often thought he should get his sorry ass up off the chair and walk around like a normal human being, but he never had the ambition to do it. He enjoyed being lazy. Laziness was a right owed him.

Ewan said, “How’d the fire start anyway?”

“Heard it was Marjorie,” Sam said. “Passed out again with a lit cigarette.”

“That’s an easy blame. Everyone blames Marjorie for something or other.”

“Makes sense, though.”

“Sure it does. So does arson. So does someone else being careless.” Ewan was serious about this, despite what he knew. Anything, anyone could start a fire. He was tired of the blame always falling on Marjorie. Just because of that one time, two years ago.

He knew he was feeling testy. He could not get his daughter’s suicide attempt out of his system. They hadn’t spoken to one another in six months. Haven’t seen each other in a year and a half. And that was his daughter’s first visit after his wife died. Her mother.

Ewan thought – and he didn’t know why – his daughter blamed him for Elizabeth’s death. She objected to them living in a motel instead of a house or an apartment “like normal people.” She held her father responsible for leading them down a miserable path in life.

“’Least the fire was away from our end of the motel,” Sam said.

Ewan grunted. He wasn’t ready yet to release the words piling up inside his head. Not unlike Marjorie. She told him last night she’d had enough of the words, the voices in her head: so many, so much noise she wished she had a gun to blow her brains out.

They talked, Ewan and Marjorie, for maybe two hours last night. For the past month they talked often, every night, hours at a time. Marjorie abandoned the notion that life – her life – was going to get better. Ewan tried to console her, persuade her. He lied to make her feel better, yet lies, even though sometimes more powerful than the truth, held no sway with Marjorie. She had given up good. She had given up forever.

He wanted to say . . . what? That he understood her pain? That he felt – had felt – what she was feeling? He wanted to pour out expressions of empathy, connection. He did not want her to think he was merely being polite. He wanted to convey how much alike they were.

“When I was a young girl,” Marjorie began, last night, “a teenager, one of my father’s friends touched me. He was drunk. My parents were throwing a party. I came downstairs in my nightgown and surprised him in the bathroom.

“It happened so fast. I mean, his hands were all over me in a snap. I knew he was drunk so I thought maybe he thought I was someone else.

“Then I thought, because he looked like he was in some kind of wonderful dream of his, he didn’t really know what he was doing. If he was dreaming then I was not real to him, even though his hands mauled my breasts and my behind.”

Marjorie took a long pull off her rye and ginger-ale, then a longer pull off her cigarette. Letting the smoke drift from her nostrils and mouth, she said, “I let him have his dream for a little bit longer. I never told anyone. I never felt bad about it, or him. The memory of what happened became like a little movie in my head. I like thinking about it.”

Marjorie crushed her cigarette in the crowded ashtray. She leaned forward slightly, as though to focus her eyes on Ewan’s face. “Just goes to show ya’,” she said. “Even when people do bad things, something good can come out of it.”

Ewan wondered what kind of good could have come from a child being molested. He figured Marjorie was going through her life, like leafing through a catalogue, and assessing the moments, the troubles that peppered her essentially uneventful life. That’s what people do, he speculated, when they come to the end of their life. But Marjorie’s not dying. Is she?

She looked ancient, near-death (Ewan and Sam liked to joke), but her spirit was anything but old. Not much of her past was known; she confided in no one but Ewan, and this information was guarded, dispensed like air squeaking out of a balloon. Ewan guessed she’d had a hard life, most likely abusive-husband-children-ignoring-living-with-poverty-type of life. Not an unusual life, but everyone handles the stains of living differently. Marjorie struck Ewan as the kind of woman who said “screw you, I’m better than you” to people and situations that weren’t altogether positive to her existence.

“All my life people did things to me,” Marjorie said. “But I’m okay with it. Not always. I was so pissed off once I nearly killed a man. Not my no-good-of-a-husband who left me for another man. Back in my darker years. When I was hitting the bottle and pills pretty good. I was an easy mark, I guess. This asshole beat me real good. Before and after he had his way with me.”

Ewan now wanted to tell Marjorie to shut up. Her dreariness sucked the sympathy right out of him.

“I figure you’re the only true friend I ever had, there, Ewie. You listen to me. Listening’s a lost art.”

Marjorie lit another cigarette. Her tiny room filled with the smoke. Ewan’s eyes burned and teared up. He gave up smoking years ago, and even if he wanted to start up again, this being in a smoke-filled room would take that inclination away.

He looked around, like he’s done before, at the small hints that Marjorie actually had a life before this. There was a T.V., now silenced but usually on and set to the stations that aired the real life programs he hated. There was a generic, framed photograph of a beautiful, dew-blanketed meadow with the word SERENITY at the bottom. There were empty vases stained brown, a few crossword puzzle magazines and, on the crooked end table at the end of the sofa, an aged photograph of a younger Marjorie and a little girl. They were sitting in a canoe on some sandy shored lake, both smiling ecstatically for the photographer. It occurred to Ewan he had never asked Marjorie about the girl in the picture, and she never once mentioned her. Now, it seemed, something was not right about that.

Like a well hidden treasure, Ewan kept a memory of his own daughter and a canoe.

Ewan had wanted the outing to be with just him and Victoria. The motive was not selfish but rather nostalgic. His father took him out on a similar lake when he was a boy to teach him how to paddle a canoe and appreciate nature first hand. Ewan knew that when he was married with children he would share the same experience with his kids.

Victoria was their only child. She was nine when Ewan took her and their green fibreglass canoe to Valdor Lake, where he and Elizabeth had rented a cabin. Elizabeth remained behind, watching from shore, protesting, though somewhat timidly, that their daughter was deathly afraid of water.

“We’re not going swimming,” Ewan had responded. “She’ll be in the canoe at all times. And to answer your next question: no, we won’t tip over because it’s a flat-bottomed boat. They’re impossible to tip.”

Valdor Lake was shallow and so old that its bottom was a mushy, brown cushion of sediment. It looked inviting and serene from any distance in any kind of weather.

Ewan slid the canoe out of the back of the Datsun pickup, carried it on his shoulders to the water’s edge. Victoria struggled behind carrying the paddles and her neon-orange life jacket. When she reached the lake she stopped dead in her tracks and let everything she was carrying drop to the ground. She stared at the water, trembling.

“What’s the matter, sweetie?” Ewan asked, knowing what turned his daughter into a statue. “Is it the water?”

Victoria nodded, slowly.

“Once I get the canoe situated,” Ewan said, “I’ll carry you, okay? I’ll carry you and put you in the boat. You won’t need to get your feet wet. Okay?”

His daughter nodded. But it was as though she never heard her father’s words. She trembled still.

Ewan never forgot the frightened look on Victoria’s face as he waded in the silty water with her in his arms and placed her delicately and securely in the canoe.

Throughout her life Victoria was always afraid of water.

Then why, Ewan thought, looking at Marjorie’s picture on the end table, did she try to end her life in a bathtub full of water? For symbolism? A message to those who knew her?

Ewan knew he had to figure out a way to get to Toronto. There’s a problem of logistics and money. The same reasons that held him back before from visiting his daughter. He’d made the excuse, to himself, and to anyone who listened, that it was his daughter hating him that prevented him from going to see her.

He alone knew any reason was an excuse, and any excuse sufficed as a reason. He wondered if thoughts like this went through Victoria’s mind when she tried to end her life.

Ewan was unaware. Marjorie was watching him. She was fascinated with how at first his eyes were absorbed by the photograph of her and her daughter, and then a strong force pulled his attention away and sent him daydreaming. It’s happened to her many times: on her third rye-and-ginger, Elvis on her cassette radio singing King Creole, her eyes focused on a dimple in the flower-patterned wallpaper on the wall by the window, or on that little girl in the photograph who lives a life now half a world away in Japan and devoid of her mother, and she drifted off – awake, not in the room, but in the place of memories.

She thought long and hard about putting him through this. Ewan had become her closest friend over the years. She moved in to the Cedar Motel three months after Elizabeth died, and they became fast friends. Music of the 50s and 60s was their common ground. They did not talk much of their past lives then. Not the deep or serious or emotional stuff. They laughed. Talked about music and how pop culture sold dreams to the innocent and naive. They enjoyed getting drunk together and watching the sun set behind the maples beyond the hotel’s parking lot.

Ewan would understand, she thought. He’s my friend. He’s a musician: he knows a thing or two why people decide to let go.

“Hey,” Marjorie said, snapping a finger. “You still in there?”

“Yeah, yeah, just thinking about something,” Ewan said.

Marjorie let out a big sigh. “But now. Ewie. I want it all to end. Enough’s enough, you know? Tired of thinking about things, reliving what all’s happened or didn’t happen.” She fixed another drink. She did not offer Ewan another because he’d hardly had a sip of his. “Took a bunch of pills earlier,” Marjorie said. “Booze’ll help.”

Marjorie sat back in a creaky recliner with starched, smoke and tea-stained doilies on the arms, and sipped her fresh drink. She closed her eyes and smoked dreamily. After a moment of silence she cracked open an eye.

“What’re you thinking there, Ewie? You gonna’ let me do this? Or are you gonna’ make the call? I know you’ll do the right thing, Ewie. You’re my best friend. You look out for me.”

Marjorie closed her eyes. Her breathing was deep and then short and fast. Words emerged precariously from her lips, “Her name’s Rebecca. My little, girl. She’s . . . she’s happy now. Goodnight, sweetie-pie. Don’t let the bed bugs . . .” Her drink slipped from her hands and smashed on the floor. The lit cigarette that had hung loosely from the corner of her mouth dropped inside the chair where it ignited the aged fabric. Ewan pretended not to notice. It was the least he could do.

He knew that when we are broken, the pain is ours alone and will last forever.

One fire truck, four firemen and the fire chief remained. Sam worked on another beer. Ewan squeezed his eyes at the memory of his last night with Marjorie.

Helen Lewis emerged from the front office and, halfway across the parking lot, she shouted, “Ewan! Phone! It’s your daughter!”

It was probably a minute but to Ewan it seemed like five for him to get to his feet. He waited until his hips and knees stopped throbbing, and made his way to the motel.

“Good luck, there, buddy,” Sam said, raising his beer as if for encouragement.

“Save me one of those will ya’?” Ewan said. Slowly he made his way to the motel, wondering how long it would take to repair what’s broken between father and daughter.

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