The Behemoth

     My husband and I took my thirteen-year-old son and his friend to Toronto last week to visit Canada’s Wonderland. In the week before, my kid could be found in front of the computer on You Tube, watching video footage of passengers riding the Behemoth, Canada’s tallest and fastest roller coaster. He was bound and bent to go on it, and equally as bound and bent for me to go on it with him.

     As we drove into the park, the Behemoth could be seen, towering above the massive parking lot. I heard the boys’ gasps in the back seat. Once we got our tickets and went through the gates, the boys led us on a bee-line straight to the Behemoth.

     We stood in the line for over an hour. I watched passengers get on and then get off, looking relatively unchanged after their experience. I was not anxious at all while standing in the line. My son had many concerns, which we went over several times. At last, it was our turn, and we climbed in–the boys in front of us, and my husband and I in two seats directly behind.

     The seats were metal, and had no sides. There were no seat belts, but simply heavy metal wheel-shaped pieces that fit over your lap, locking your legs in and giving you a place to hang on. The ride began and we started a slow ascent up a very steep, impossibly high and ridiculously narrow track. The view was stunning. I sat exclaiming over it, until we were almost at the top. Then I looked at my husband and said, “You can see for miles up here, but I wish this was a ferris wheel…” And then we dropped.

     I’ve been on roller coasters before. The sudden dip and rise of the stomach was not a new sensation for me–but what usually happens right after that strange lifting of the stomach is that you hit another hill and have a second or two of another climb before the next drop. This thing didn’t have that. The stomach rose, the breath was lost, and we were still plunging. The plunge would not end. Down and down at warp speed, like a rocket launched in the wrong direction. A direction pointed straight to hell. My head fell back, my eyes rolled and closed. I couldn’t watch. Ahead of me, I was slightly conscious of my son, yelling. I heard him as though from a distance between dimensions. Whatever was happening to him, there was nothing I could do for him now.

     “Corrina,” I heard, as though someone was talking to me underwater. “Open your eyes….” I forced my eyes open, and saw my husband, his head angled toward me, observing me calmly from his chair. The wind was doing something strange to his face; his skin had ripples in it. I could not fathom his peaceful expression. It was impossible. “Nooo,” I groaned, and closed my eyes again.

     We rounded some kind of insane curve. My hands were wet. I felt them slipping off the wheel/anchor that kept me inside the seat. I knew then that this anchor was going to come off, whether I could hold onto it or not. The anchor would fly off, and so would I. There was nothing I could do to hang on. I would be thrown–no, launched–from the Behemoth. I would be a horrifying mass of something no longer human that people would be seeing in their nightmares for the rest of their lives. I was resigned to it. I got on the thing. There was no getting off of it. Everything had been set in motion, and there was no undoing it now.

     “Open your eyes….” I remembered being in the middle of labour for my second daughter. The obstetrician had said the same thing to me then. He said it made the pain worse when you closed your eyes; you went deep inside a world of pain that you huddled in, all alone. That was what this was. A ride on the Behemoth was not fun. It was about as much fun as horrible contractions. My despair and terror were so abject, so ultimate; I could not even scream. I was as silent as a stone through the entire thing.

     Then, it stopped. My eyes were still closed. “Is it over?” I said. I was in a state of disbelief. But there they were, my husband, the boys, climbing out, laughing and exclaiming over how “cool” the ride had been.

     I staggered to a bench, and rooted through the back pack. “Let’s go on it again,” my son was saying. He had the words out before I had the two Advil liqui-gels down my throat.

     “I will never go on that thing again,” I told him.

     “Mom, you didn’t think it was fun at all, not even for one second?”

     I looked at him. “No,” I replied. What I meant was, I would rather have wisdom teeth pulled. I would rather have someone poke me in the eye. I would rather be in labour. I would rather be having a broken bone set. But at least, at the end of this, my son could look at me with some respect. I had gone on it, after all. Not all boys had mothers who would get on the Behemoth. That scored me some points, some big points.

    “Mom, you are such a chicken,” he said.

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Babies and Strangers

The story contest I wrote this for had a 500-word limit, and it was a major challenge to write something with so few words. I spent an hour writing it and another hour shaving details out of it.

Definitely a good exercise for me. The idea was gleaned from my daughter’s experiences working at the cemetery (see last post).

 

Babies and Strangers

 

Jack spends winters, plowing snow out of parking lots, and summers on the backhoe in the cemetery. There are gigs, when he can get them, at local bars on Saturday nights. Jack, adrift on a stool in a sea of empty peanut shells, hunched over his guitar. Thin, scattered applause wafting up through the stale, beery fumes. With cash harvested from his guitar case, and the seasonal work, it’s enough.

The cemetery work is steadier than the snow ploughing, which always leaves Jack at the mercy of the weather. Death is not seasonal. There is a consistent demand for graves that time and weather and changes in the economy cannot effect. Jack cuts the edges of the earth smooth, an artist of perfect rectangles. The coffins are lowered down, the mourners linger or hurry off to cars, and he fills the holes in again.

The cemetery is like a park. People come through jogging, with dogs on leashes, or sit sunning on marble benches. Jack sees a woman, every morning around break time. He lifts the hose, drinks water frigid from the nozzle, and watches her, pushing a rickety baby buggy, towards Babies and Strangers. This is where they bury the children, and for some reason, the indigent–people with no one to pay for their funerals, to carve words of remembrance into stone, to bring flowers. Here they lie, the unloved, jumbled randomly with the over-loved. Graves decorated with flowers and balloons and soggy teddy bears and little stone angels, bright faces in frames, are mingled with plots, marked only by tiny cement squares and numbers. Jack can hear her cooing, sees her stoop to fiddle with soft blankets, adjust the hood of the buggy. Her hair sprouts, grey and lank, from under her straw hat. Then she straightens, becomes lingering and quiet. The birdsong seems to fade, the trees seem to still the wind in their branches. Her shoulders drop; she bends her head. Jack lowers the hose, lets the water run into the grass. Even though she is old, and demented, it’s as though the world pauses to remove its hat, to offer a moment’s silence. For what? What has she lost? Jack wonders some times.

It’s just a doll she has in there. Jack peeked in once, going past her with the wheelbarrow. She’s nuts, certified. Something bad happened. Jack shades his eyes, surveys the rows, the endless stone lines. She certainly wasn’t the first to leave a baby here, or a stranger. Jack is alone, and it wasn’t always that way. Where was that line, the border between simple sadness and utter lunacy? He’s worked among the graves for more than twenty years, and he’s still not sure. Some nights, though, his fingers stroking the strings of his guitar, he almost happens upon it, buried in a note, in a chord: an old aching sadness. A just-about memory. He would like to put it in a song, but he can never find the words.

Summer Jobs

When I was in university, I depended a great deal on the income that came from my summer jobs to finance my education. For two summers, I worked for the CNIB, escorting kids with assorted forms of visual impairment to day programs as their personal assistant…something like a personal support worker, as it’s called now. I spent another summer, filing forms in a windowless room in a government office. My most memorable summer job was at the now defunct START Centre, which consisted of six wards (attached to the pscychiatric hospital) of residential living for mentally challenged adults. Many of the residents, coming from an era where people like them got discreetly shoved out the front door in their infancies, had lived there, or in similar facilities, all their lives. My story of that summer needs its own forum. I’ll get back to that one, some day.

My daughters, all in university, are home for the summer and all have summer jobs. Daughter #2 works as a waitress/bartender in a local restaurant. Her morning preparations consist of make-up application and determining the whereabouts of her cummerbund. Daughter #3 dons her hat and striped shirt and heads off down the street to Tim Horton’s. This morning, she remarked that she wasn’t enjoying the job. Having been in her spot, I just shrugged.

     “You pour coffee. You get a pay check. It’s a summer job.”

     “Let me tell about my job,” she returned. “This old lady came in, no teeth, filthy. When I told her what her order came to, she worked her jaws a bit, opened her mouth, and took a loonie and a toonie off of her tongue.”

     “What did you do?” I gasped in horror.

     She shrugged. “Yeh, well…it was my second day of work.”

     Daughter #1 was fortunate enough to be invited back to her previous summer’s place of employment. She is a gardner and archivist at a cemetery. She quite enjoys the work, and is not at all put off by the constant (and what I would consider vastly overwhelming) reminders of where the road ends. Her most colourful stories come not from the dead, but from the living characters who make the cemetery their daily walking destination. There are several group homes in the area, and the residents often come through the cemetery. One, an old lady, pushing a baby buggy, often pauses to adjust her baby’s blankets or the hood of the buggy, to be sure the elements are not causing any undue discomfort to her infant. She murmurs soothingly and speaks gently as she pushes the buggy carefully down the cemetery paths. My daughter peeked inside once, and to her combined horror and relief, discovered a doll in there. (Is there a novel here? Without a doubt). It makes the heart stop to consider how this old lady ended up wandering through rows of tombstones with a doll in a buggy. The other day, my daughter saw the latest chapter unfold. There she came, the old lady, cooing to her doll/baby in the buggy, and trailing behind her, was another one–Lady #2, with her own buggy, and her own doll, and her own motherly ministrations. It was a copy-cat version of a psychiatric incident. So many questions…is this common behaviour for people moving in and out of the vague borders of dementia?? Does the first lady really believe this doll to be her child, or is she merely reliving her own childhood, thinking she’s a little girl with a doll buggy? Did she ever actually have children of her own? Did she once have a baby and then lose it? How long has she been out of her mind? How much better is it being out of her mind than in it? And the copy-catter…what’s her game plan? Does she like the idea of this fantasy world, or has she really constructed one of her own? Is she looking for the attention the first lady gets, an equal share of her own? Does she like the idea of a restored sense of purpose, something beyond cutting through a cemetery in an unending quest for the day’s third or fourth or fifth cup of coffee? Even if it’s pushing a doll clad in a hand-knit bonnet and mathing sweater and booties in a buggy through a cemetery?