He’d put his two hours in, hard labour, perspired, moaned, and swayed, but when he went to his desk for his reading glasses, so he could read the paper, they were nowhere to be found, even though he looked everywhere three times (they were in his shirt pocket – Alina would have found them); frustrated, he took his beige windbreaker and driving cap and went for a walk. It was Saturday late morning and the sun was shining. Negotiating the ascent to Castle Park, he bethought himself he should get a dog – he seemed the only pedestrian not trailing behind one. Not that he’d have the heart since old Dentulus died. It would be a disloyalty. The park was spread over a rise beside the banks of the Fraser River. There was a cement-ringed pond at its centre where young boys sailed boats, facsimiles of battle ships and sail boats and tugs, generally of the store-bought variety, though a few were homemade, out of Popsicle sticks, cardboard, paper. He was amused to witness the launching of such a one with “Helen” crayoned on its bow.
This man, Albert Prescott, had recently described himself as “begrudgingly sexagenarian.” He was a lanky man, generally thin; long salt-and-pepper hair protruded from under his cap, though the hidden crown was bald. He was starting to stoop a little and his vision was blurring. The sun reflecting off pond water made him squint. He departed to follow the meandering path to the crest of the first rise. There was a bench, with a perspective of the river, where he and Alina liked to recoup.
He was there when his phone rang. His brother, Del, was calling. “Whacha doin?” he asked.
“I’m in the park,” said Albert. “I’m taking a walk.”
“Is Alina gone?”
“I took her to the airport last night. She’s in Montreal now, with Hanna.”
“That’s tough about Hanna’s husband.”
“Yes. Alina says she doesn’t know how Hanna will cope.”
“Do you know, this morning was the first time since Alina and I were married that I’ve woken alone?” Then Albert regretted saying it; his brother was a widower.
“That’s what, thirty-eight years? Listen, we should do something. A movie night, or a pub. We haven’t done something together – just you and me – for ages. Let’s have some fun. Maybe hire us a couple of them escorts.”
They both laughed.
Albert puttered. Watered the garden. He’d resolved nothing would suffer in Alina’s absence. The lilacs she’d planted were prospering. He decided to cut the grass. They’d recently purchased an electric mower – no more cables for Albert, wrenching muscles in the shoulders and back. One might suppose nothing was new at this age, yet Albert was discovering hitherto-unknown sources of discomfort, so that in fact one could say life was a constant series of fresh challenges. An unravelling, to be sure, but also an evolution. Experience helped. The mindset was key.
Newlyweds had moved in next door. The young bride – her name was Jasmine – guided a Lexus convertible into her driveway while Albert pushed the mower back and forth. She got out of the car and called something out to him. Albert shut off the engine.
“I beg your pardon?”
“Hi there! I’m reading your book. Alina told me about it. I found a copy in the library.”
This was always embarrassing. “That’s fine, my dear. How are you liking it?”
She came over to him, tall, fresh, attractive. “It’s kind of philosophical. I may have to get you to explain some things.”
“I’m sure that would be very dreary for you.”
“When does Alina come back?”
“We’re not certain, at this moment.”
“Well, if you need anything just ask. I promised Alina I’d look after you.” Her smile bright, exposing the whitest of teeth.
He spent the afternoon in the hammock, reading, his concentration diverted by the occasional buzzing wasp. There was a nest in the grapevine growing over the trellis; Albert was maintaining an uneasy truce with it. The previous summer he’d decimated, with a jar of sugar water, a similar nest. The process had taken several hours and after he’d had to dispose of the dead. In response, over the following two months Albert had been stung a dozen times. This summer, when the nest reappeared, Alina advised him to leave it alone. She’d never harmed a wasp, she said, and she’d never been stung, though she spent far more time in the garden than he did. Albert followed her counsel and the results so far were fortuitous. He’d only been stung once – albeit right on the ass – when he’d inadvertently sat on a wasp.
Lying in the hammock, his eyelids grew heavy. When he closed them the first image to arise in his consciousness was Jasmine, in her long gypsy skirt, the kind Alina used to wear when they’d first met. Despite his embarrassment, he was pleased his neighbor was reading his book. Thanks to Alina, of course. Jasmine had found the copy in the local library because Albert himself had donated it. The novel hadn’t been a success. Though he wouldn’t call it a failure – his teaching position at the college had been secured in part on the strength of its publication. He’d desired the book’s success not for himself but for Alina, who had supported him over the three years it had taken to write it, and there had been hard times financially. In fact it had earned little enough recompense in those terms. But Alina had read it, it had made her cry, and so from Albert’s perspective the effort had not been wasted. To be justified, he maintained, a book needs but one appreciative reader.
Eventually he drifted off into sleep. When he woke it was late afternoon. He struggled out of the hammock and went into the house. Alina had promised to call, but no doubt she had her hands full. He took a Tupperware container from the fridge and emptied a portion of chili into a pot. As he sat down to eat, his phone rang. It wasn’t Alina, it was Del. “Whacha doin’?” he asked.
Del grunted. “You feel like doin’ something?”
Albert considered for a moment. Things felt out-of-focus, off-colour, he didn’t know what – the tones were all wrong. “No,” he said, “maybe not. Maybe I’ll stay in, read Finnegan’s Wake. To tell the truth, I’m feeling a little unmotivated.”
“Lazy, you mean.”
“Lazy, yes. I’m good, might turn in early. Maybe during the week, or next weekend, we could get together. Alina’s sure to be back by then.”
“C’mon, bro,” said Del. “When’s the last time you had a night out with the boys? You know my neighbour, Eddie, the mechanic? I told him you and I were about to paint the town rouge, and he was like, ‘Count me in, neighbour.’ Tell you what – remember that pub downtown, The Cat and Fiddle? I took you ‘n Alina there once, it’s a good place, good music, our kind of people. I already told Eddie we’d meet you there; you can’t say no now.”
“Alright, Del. Alright. Since you’ve gone to such bother. I’ll meet you at the Cat & Fiddle. At what time?” He looked at his wristwatch. “Seven?”
“Too early. Let’s make it seven-thirty.”
When he finished eating Albert emigrated to the couch. He started watching a ball game, a dull no-hitter, and after a half-hour he shut the set off. It had returned, the disorientation he’d experienced earlier. Perhaps he was wrong to have accepted Del’s invitation. He called his brother, on the land line – Del had no cell phone. There was no answer.
“I’m free,” thought Albert. “I can do whatever I like.”
He decided to go to the pub. It was Saturday night and people were being sociable; he should too. Albert called a taxi. Then got his beige windbreaker and driving cap and waited for the cab to arrive.
There were two levels to the pub, and upstairs on a small stage a duo playing acoustic guitars was singing “Margaritaville.” It was 7:40 and there was no sign of Eddie and Del. Albert ordered a pint. He listened to the music and tapped his foot. After a minute he realized the performers were not entirely accomplished. In fact, they were clearly struggling. The few patrons on the upper level began to move downstairs, until Albert was alone. He couldn’t leave; the singers had their eyes on him. Mercifully, after a frightening rendition of “Hotel California,” they announced a break, and Albert was able to move downstairs.
Where was Del? He took a seat at the bar, the only one available. Everyone around him seemed to know everyone else. Albert finished his beer and ordered another. He eavesdropped on the conversations around him, turning the occasional phrase over in his mind, considering it as dialogue in the mouths of one of his characters. Then his phone rang.
“Albert? Del. I’m callin from Eddie’s cell. Bad news, bro.”
“We’re stuck on the freeway. Eddie’s car broke down. It’s no problem though, he’s got a buddy, a tow truck driver. But he says it’ll take an hour to get here.”
“Traffic’s bad. Just hang tight, bro, we’re on our way.”
But after fifteen or twenty minutes passed Albert received a second call. “Me again,” said Del.
“Looks like this is gonna take longer than I thought.”
“It’s Eddie’s buddy, the tow truck driver. Seems he’s locked his keys in the truck. The Slim Jim kit’s in there, too.”
“You know, Del, I may just call it a night.”
“Don’t know how long we’ll be. Don’t worry though, we’ll get there.”
He would finish his beer, Albert decided, and if Del hadn’t arrived by then he’d catch a cab home. The world was off-kilter, tilting towards the ironic. Perhaps it wasn’t even safe.
There was a young woman at the bar, she’d been speaking to a man with a cleft chin but he got up and left and after a while she addressed Albert.
“Don’t zink I’f seen you herre beforre,” she said. She was a slim pretty blonde with a heavy accent.
“I’ve been once or twice,” Albert said. “Usually with my wife and my brother.”
“So?” queried the young woman. “Your vife, vere is she tonight?’
“She’s with her sister in Montreal.”
“I see. So ven zuh kit’s afay, zuh mouse vill feedle, no?” It sounded as if her tongue were stuck at the back of her throat.
“No,” said Albert. “But that’s very clever. Where in Russia are you from?”
“Ah, I’m zat obvious. I im from Petersboorg.”
“I’ve been there. Post-Perestroika. The Hermitage. The promenade along the Neva.”
“Actually,” said the young woman, suddenly without a trace of accent, “I’m from Saskatchewan. I guess my accent is pretty good, huh?”
Albert laughed. “Young lady,” he said, “you’ve been pulling my leg.”
She smiled broadly. “Hope you aren’t offended. I work here, just finished my shift. I’m only a part time barkeep, though. Full-time I’m a student.”
“I’m a teacher,” said Albert. “Are you a Drama student?”
“Hey, you guessed right. I was practicing my Olga accent. From Three Sisters.”
“Have you really been to Saint Petersburg? Or are you like me, just another barroom tale-teller.”
“No, I’ve been. A beautiful city. But sadly in decline, when I was there.”
“Fantastic! I’ll travel someday. Have some adventures.”
“You should. I met my wife while travelling.”
“Where? In Saint Petersburg?”
“No, in London. Earlier. I spent the first half of the 1970s traveling and working in Europe. I was in London as I’d run out of money – I was looking for employment, and it was the best place to do so quickly.” Albert paused. “You know the expression, under the table?”
The young woman nodded her head. “Uh-huh, yeah.”
“Okay. I got work doing what you’re doing – a barkeep, as you say. Of course, being a young man then, and abroad, I’d already fallen in love. There was a young lady, I didn’t know her name, who came to the pub I was working at to sell roses to the customers. One look at her and I knew. I vowed to introduce myself the next time she came back. Only there was no next time. You know how it is with that kind of work; I suppose she found some more lucrative employment. I was staying in an Earls Court youth hostel, forty bunks to a room, snoring and belching and farting all night.”
“And that was just you.”
Albert laughed. “One night the police came in and arrested someone. He had a gun in his suitcase. When I got the bartending job, I decided to find better accommodations. I’d made a friend at the hostel, a Punjabi fellow who was planning on studying Business in London, and he suggested we hitch our wagons together. So we set about the disagreeable task of flat-hunting, with a fixed budget in mind, and I’ll tell you, we must have seen half the horror-houses in London. I particularly remember one dank basement, lit by a hanging lightbulb, with a Cockney slumlord showing us a shared bathroom, a blood-stained shower curtain, fungus on the walls. It was so disheartening I laughed, but my friend wanted to keep looking, he pointed out there was only one address remaining on our list. It was in Fulham, on North End Road, a ground-floor suite. The house had been subdivided into separate living quarters. Three Polish girls – working girls, we were informed, very quiet – were living upstairs, while a Spanish couple occupied the flat below. The rent was more than my friend and I had agreed upon, but this was the first reasonable place we’d seen, so we took it. The next day we introduced ourselves to the neighbors, and would you believe it, one of those Polish girls was my rose-selling beauty. Consider the odds. I knew at that moment we were fated to be together. And we are, thirty-eight years later.”
“Wow. That’s so romantic.”
Albert nodded. He’d talked himself into a reverie. He thought now it was time to leave. He was a little drunk, both happy and sad, affected by the soporific of beer and the sting of missing Alina. He wanted to surround himself with the familiar. He thanked the bartender for her enjoyable company. A taxi took him home. In the warm dark of the back seat, he closed his eyes. When he did so, Alina was there.