Sunday, July 26, 2009

Chapter Two

Housework to me is pure drudgery. It offers no scope for creativity, self expression or satisfaction; thus, if I feel anyone has thoughtlessly increased the load or casually dismissed its import, I become furious.
After a morning of cleaning and tidying, I went outside with a full basket of wet laundry that I set down under the clothes line. I was on my way to the compost heap when out of the corner of my eye, I caught sight of my next door neighbour, tending his roses between our two properties. I was in a foul mood because Robyn hadn’t taken out the garbage or compost as she had promised, and she left the laundry out all night, which I’d have to take down before putting up another load. I had a lot to do before I’d be ready to pick up Fay. Seeing Fred quietly dead head his roses should have put a damper on my rampage but his calm only aggravated my rage.
“Hi Beryl,” he said, not looking up. “Got a bee in your bonnet have you?”
He must have read my body language. Still fuming, I approached him, a plastic bag of potato peels in hand.
“Hey Fred. Yeah, I’m grouchy this morning.”
“Don’t be like that. Enjoy this fine morning. You don’t know how many more you’re going to get.”
“ I wish I could. Robyn is driving me crazy. She’s got the get-up-and-go to party all night, sleeps all morning, watches television all afternoon and then she can’t muster the energy to dump a little bag of vegetable peelings on the compost or take her laundry off the line at the end of the day.”
“Sounds normal to me. Mary Frances and I get into this all the time. Fred Jr. is as buff as a bronco, can bench press hundreds of pounds, run miles in the sand, but can he feed the cat? Can he put gas in my car? I tell him it doesn't matter how many muscles he's got on the outside, if he can't overcome his lazy-ass tendencies, he's a weakling. He laughs it off. I'm threatening to write him out of my will. So how have you been keeping?”
“Not too bad, thanks,” I said out of habit. Actually I was feeling generally rather crappy and had done so for weeks. “How are you?”
“Still living, still smelling the roses.”
“Sounds ominous.”
“I’ve got to go into hospital again.”
“God, how I hate hospitals.”
“Now that’s funny coming from you, a former nurse. I’ve come to regard the hospital as a body shop and repair station.”
“Need something repaired do you?”
“May need another bypass. Don’t know for sure, gotta see my cardiologist this morning.”
I turned to look him in the eye. “Scared?”
“Nope, I’m going without fear!” He said with what I thought was false joviality.
I studied his stiff practised smile. Fred once owned a Canadian Tire franchise. He was used to pasting on a smile.
“Well as my cardiologist points out,” he continued, “the positive results of the last one lasted unusually long, thirteen years.”
“Was it that long ago?”
“That long,” he said, grinning at me now, some of the falseness had fallen away, as if he were proud of surviving so long. “You know, I think being healthy is largely a mental attitude. It all comes down to positive thinking.”
“I agree with you there, but a healthy lifestyle and good genes help too.”
“I think the media have got us all scared silly, if you ask me.”
I waited for him to elaborate.
“They keep telling us to exercise, eat right, don’t put on any weight.”
“A constant battle for most of us,” I grumbled.
“I presently weigh between 195 and 199 pounds. It seems to be my specific weight. I eat less than I used to, but well, and I don’t seem to be missing it. I think of myself as perhaps a little short for my weight,” he said and dead headed two more roses.
“Maybe this is too close to the bone, but may I ask you something?”
“Fire away.”
“ When you had the first bypass did you prepare yourself to die? You know, get your affairs in order or whatever one does if they know there’s a chance things might go…”
“South?” he asked with a twinkle in his eye.
“Badly,” I finished, a little uncomfortably.
Fred and I had seldom exchanged much more than pleasantries in all the years we’d been neighbours. As usual we stood several feet apart, separated by his rose bushes, but he answered my question without hesitating.
“Before I got the bypass, they tested me psychologically. Asked me about my fears, anxieties and so on. I think they were surprised, my family probably more so, that I went into the hospital totally without fear. Fact was, I’d been working so hard, I was looking forward to a month of not working. Running a successful Canadian Tire is no cakewalk. Sounds kind of funny I know, but that’s how it was. For me, putting my house in order was the purchase of a new, and I may say, needed car, one week before the operation. I expected to survive. I was thinking of ordering a new car this time round too. A really big mother. One of those SUVs.”
Funny I thought, how the least sporty are the most inclined to buy Sports Utility Vehicles. I held back from delivering one of my eco lectures. It was Fred’s money, but our planet.
“You know,” he said, lowering his voice and leaning a little toward me. “they saw through the sternum and peel back the rib cage to get at the heart? It’s quite something.”
“Amazing isn’t it? Lots of people are getting it done now, more so than ever.”
“Sure and it’s getting safer and safer. I was in hospital seven days, the minimum. Be sixty-eight next month. Don’t feel it. Fact is, if I want to know how old I really am, I look in the mirror at the old man looking back at me.” He chuckled. “And you know what else? I don’t even think about death, which is unavoidably approaching, faster for me than for you.”
“Funny, I think about it all the time.” I do, I really, really do.
“No need to think about dying. It will take care of itself. Enjoy life as much as you can. It’s wonderful. I bet I have it as good now as never before, notwithstanding some physical limitations.” He winked.
I ignored the wink and steered toward neutral ground. “When you’re young, you think of your life stretching indefinitely but more recently I’ve become acutely aware that time is running out, fast. I feel a sense of urgency to get things done.”
“Well, I see you rushing through this chore without even stopping to smell my roses,” he said, with a wave of his upturned palm to indicate his magnificent rose bushes. “Ever since I retired, I just see life is accelerating all around me while I’m slowing down.”
“I’ve got to go to the airport this aft and I’m not nearly finished cleaning and tidying. Mary Frances gone power walking has she?”
“Ah yes, another task to rush through.”
“It’s supposed to be good for you.” I sighed.
“Do you enjoy it?” he asked emphasizing the ‘you’.
“Not a whole lot.”
“You know, I became a bit of a couch potato this first winter of my retirement. I sit around, watch the women’s talk shows. Funny thing about those talk shows, they have all these ads for sanitary pads, hair dyes and weight loss schemes, then the host comes back long enough to say he’ll be right back after more messages. As if we hadn’t just had a whole slew of ‘em. I’d be sitting there watching day after day. I started to pack on the pounds. Thought I better get me to the gym.”
“Did you enjoy that?”
“I did and I didn’t. Notice I didn’t say, I do and I don’t. Stopped going.”
I waited for him to explain.
He chuckled. “There’s a lot of thin women out there, who believe they’re fat, running on the treadmills. So I get into hamster mode beside this really thin woman. I like to have a little something to hold onto, you know, like Mary Frances…”
A flushed Mary Frances appeared just at that moment.
“Hi,” she gasped, “I just choked out two in twenty.” She bent over, placed her hands on her knees and tried to catch her breath.
Fred looked at his wife with amusement, then bent to attend to his roses again.
“Two what?”
“Two miles in twenty minutes! That’s terrific.”
“I didn’t power walk the entire way, only sporadically and I am totally pooped.” She collapsed on the lawn, looked at the overcast sky for a second, then closed her eyes.
“That is fantastic. I can barely do a ten-minute kilometre.”
“Oh God, it takes too long to recover. I can’t do this. I’ll have a heart attack. The last few yards, I made one big spurt.” She held up her hand palm facing me. “ I know, I know, that’s not good.”
“Not worth getting a heart attack.” I glanced at Fred to see if he caught that but he was busy snipping off the blowsy blooms. I guessed Mary Frances was in another of her diet and exercise phases but didn’t ask. We talked about diets a lot but never around our men folk and Fred was still within hearing distance.
“I don’t know what got into me.” Mary Frances pushed herself up and lay on her side supporting her head with her palm and elbow. With her other hand she ran her fingers through her hair lifting it and I could see her white roots beginning to show at the hairline. For as long as I’d known her, Mary Frances had always been meticulous about keeping her hair blonde without a trace of dark root showing. In fact I’d never seen her original hair colour but now, like the rest of us, I could see no colour remained.
“I think, you’re supposed to build up stamina, not hurt yourself,” I said, wishing I were as motivated as she.
“You are soooo right,” she flopped on her back again, shielded her eyes and looked at the greying clouds. “You know, I’m going to be sixty this October? I feel the need to do something totally out of character like sky dive or train for and run a marathon. I just can't believe that I’m this old, but my mirror does a good job of reminding me on a daily basis!”
“I think you look just fine,” Fred said, looking up from his work.
“I’d hate to think how I’d look if I didn’t do all this exercise.”
“I was just telling Beryl ‘bout my adventures at the ‘y’.”
“Did you tell her about the skinny dame?”
“Started to.”
“You’ll love this,” Mary Frances said.
“So any ways,” Fred said, approaching us, “there I was on a treadmill watching another stupid reality show, when some really nice butts in the magazine of the woman beside me catches my eye. Next thing I know the woman’s screaming at me, saying I can watch the television or get my own magazine. Then she’s yelling she’s going to call the manager. So I ask what for? ‘Go fuck yourself!’ she says. Never went back to the gym after that.”

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