Creative Non-fiction

The Fieldstone Review (2018-2019)

Grandma Died Today

By Benn Ward

“Your grandmother died today.”

Mom told us over the phone while we were high on molly.

I was staying with my brother in London, and we were five hours ahead of Toronto, where Grandma lived in a nursing home. It wasn’t yet 11 pm, and my brother and I had already drank the couple ciders we picked up from the offie and finished off yesterday’s half bottle of vodka with two friends – one of them I’d made out with a week before and the other my brother would later date for two years. They were there to see us off as we packed for a 6 am bus.

“You shouldn’t take drugs across borders.”

Someone had said what we were all thinking when the small baggie was produced, so we shared the leftover half gram of MD.

I could feel the drug in my gut, and my friend squeezed my hand while my brother spoke to our mother on the phone.

“Does Rich know yet?” I asked Mom when it was my turn to talk.

My brother and I were on our way to visit Rich, our cousin on our mother’s side. He was six years older than my brother and lived in Prague with his spouse and two children, whom we’d never met. We were going to spend a few days with them before they flew to Ontario to introduce their kids to our side of the family for the first time. Now they would be going to a wake.

“I spoke to him,” Mom said. “They’re cremating her, so they will hold the ceremony until Rich and the boys get into Toronto next week. You two are going to see him before he comes?”

“Yeah. We’re crossing the channel tomorrow by bus, and we’ll hitchhike from there.” It was 870 kilometres – doable in a long day, on the autobahn especially. Then we’d spend three nights at Rich’s place with his family before they left.

We were still awake when we walked to the tube station under a cold, orange dawn that made even the brown bricks of chicken shops look vibrant. The drug was still in my system. Our friends hugged us in tight goodbyes at the gates to the platform. By the time we exited the tube on the other end at Victoria Station, any sign of the sun was obscured behind London’s timeless woollen sky, and it rained all the way to Dover.

We had booked a discount bus fare well in advance on an essentially random date: whenever we could cross the channel and get a ride all the way to Amsterdam for £5 just so I’d have an onward trip to show the UK border guard when I had flown in six weeks earlier. It’s on the way into the UK that you have to be prepared, my brother said. The border on the way out is never a problem.

The date of our ticket turned out to be the morning after our grandmother passed away.

“If you could live in any city in the world, but you wanted to stay close to family, where would you live?” my brother asked. He had a way of dreaming up questions so as not to waste the silence.

“I don’t know,” I’d respond, if I didn’t feel like talking, and he’d go back to the book he was reading.

We chatted on and off, half-strung out, loudly whispering over the hum of the bus and the top 40 radio. As the conversation lulled, we drifted into jostled half sleep in our upright seats, or maybe we just sat there with our eyes shut.

“Please help me find Molly,” came over the radio in a feminine electric voice. It was my first time hearing the Cedric Gervais song, and I laughed as I stretched the sleep and drug out of my muscles. “What the fuck?” I joked in hushed tones to my brother, and looked around, trying to figure out whether the rest of the bus noticed or if they had no clue what I found funny. I tried to shake the feeling that they knew from the strain in our cheeks that we were coming down.

I caught the eye of a Dutch guy in oversized cargo shorts with stick-and-poke tattoos on his hands.

“Cool tats,” I nodded, motioning that I had a hand tattoo as well. I was sitting on the inside seat, so mostly he and my brother chatted as we drove into Ghent where he was transferring. Turns out they both knew one of the same social centre squats in London. He gave us the number of someone at another squat he was staying at in Brussels in case we needed a place to crash, but we re-boarded the bus.

That evening was my first visit to Amsterdam. I saw only the bus station in the south, and then we walked around the corner to a pullover lane for hitchhikers headed east on the autobahn. It was 6 pm, and our goal was to catch a ride to the first service station outside the city and camp in the bushes for an early start tomorrow. Some of our friends would have hitched on through the night, but it’s an exhausting way to travel. You never truly sleep in a moving car. We figured we could make it tomorrow with an early start.

“When was the last time you saw Rich?” my brother asked as cars and under-sized European trucks drove past, picking up speed toward the highway.

“The last Christmas we spent with them in Ontario – when Grandpa was still alive. I was in grade six, I think.”

After an hour, a small car slowed and pulled over onto the shoulder. A tall, blonde woman wearing hiking boots gave us a lift on her way home from work. “It might be hard to get a ride,” she said with a slight accent. “Hitchhiking is less popular now that all the Dutch students have the national rail pass. And it is a holiday weekend. There will be a lot of cars on the roads, but the Dutch, they go on trips with their families. Everyone will have children in their cars.” She dropped us off where we wanted to go – only about twenty kilometres away, but at a large gas station with international highway traffic.

We set up camp in the rain-wet grass and awoke the next morning to wide blue skies and an horizon hazy from humidity already rising off the farm fields. My cell still had battery for an alarm as I had taken the UK SIM card out. I wasn’t interested in paying EU fees. Or maybe I couldn’t afford it that year.

The smell that rose from the warm grass on the wet air reminded me of southern Ontario – in the way that only smells can – and of driving from the Toronto airport through fields of cow-feed to stay at Grandma and Grandpa’s.

“What’s your favourite memory of visiting them?” my brother asked with his arm and thumb extended at the side of the on-ramp.

“Before or after they moved?”

“Either, or both,” he said.

“When Grandma and Grandpa lived in Drayton, it was the boat wars in the creek, when you, me, and Rich used to build crappy wooden boats in Grandpa’s workshop and race them down the water by throwing rocks at them.”

“You know,” he thought out loud, “Rich is eight years older than you. You were six, I was eight, he was like fourteen, and he was out there playing with us in the creek: a teenager babysitting his six- and eight-year-old cousins.”

“Yeah,” I nodded, but I hadn’t pictured him babysitting us. “His kids are like eight and six now,” I said, staring out at the highway. “They never met Grandma or Grandpa.”

We covered barely 200 km that day – we kept getting rides further south down the arm of the Netherlands rather than into Germany. Our last proper lift before dark was with two Turkish guys excited to share their electronic house music with us and who seemed certain they knew where we wanted to go. Unfortunately, where they needed to exit the autobahn, there was no service station. They had to pull over illegally to let us off on the shoulder. All that the four of us could do across the language barrier was shrug and force a laugh about it.

I was used to shoulder-side hitching in Canada, but it’s strictly verboten on the autobahn. We tried thumbing near the exit that we were trying to avoid. Sitting on a cement divider under the colourless sky of a grey sunset, we watched car after car of blonde Dutch families fly past at 150 kilometres per hour. There was little more than a lane’s width left for one to pick us up. A transportation service truck with flashing lights pulled over instead. He was there to divert traffic for when the police arrived.

“What was your favourite memory after they moved to Guelph?” my brother asked as we pretended to ignore the caution lights of the service truck parked beside us.

“It was playing role-playing games in their basement for like a month every summer, going on adventures at the spare dining room table.”

“We spent more time doing that with their neighbour than socializing with the family.”

“Was Rich too old to play with us?”

“No, Rich didn’t visit them as much those summers. Where was he living?”

“Maybe he was tree planting in BC. I don’t remember.”

The white and neon law enforcement car labelled P O L I T I E in bold wasn’t far behind the service truck.

“Passports,” the officer muttered in English after we stared at his Dutch. He had handcuffs, a radio, mace, and a touchscreen tablet on his belt, but no gun. He took our documents from us and returned to his car.

It started to rain – slow big drops that would soon empty the sky of humidity.

He came back shaking his head after checking our legal status in his computer, and then he drove us to the next exit, an autostop on the border with Germany.

“We should keep trying tonight,” I said.

“In the rain?”

We waited out the weather until after dark in the gas station cafeteria. They sold a massive one-litre can of a 10-percent Danish beer I drank in Canada. It was more expensive than the other beers, but worth the novelty if we were going to be camping for a second night in the wet bushes beside a highway rest stop.

“You know, when Grandma’s speech was going, she still asked one of her daughters for a vodka-orange every afternoon,” I told my bother as we stood in line at the till.

“Yeah?” my brother laughed.

We shared the beer outside with two Polish hitchhikers as we all sat in the dark on a wet picnic table, our hoodies and scarves drawn tight against the chilly night.

“What do you think if we don’t make it to Rich’s in time?” my brother asked the next morning.

I didn’t have an answer for him.

A single ride that afternoon took us 600 kilometres closer, but he drove at about the Canadian speed limit because he had a large box van with a wooden trailer. He exported small-brewery beer to gentrifying hipster bars in the UK. He was coming back mostly empty with returned bottles and let us take turns dozing in the back of the van on his mattress among the beer crates.

Crossing Germany in a single day compressed it in my mind. Looking out the window at the breadbasket of western Germany in silence, I imagined those steel monsters of Canadian history amassing across the fields and headed in the opposite direction, towards France.

When he dropped us off, he gave us each a large beer with labels I didn’t recognize.

“Should we save them to share with Rich?” my brother asked when the van pulled away.

“We can’t split two beers with three people,” I answered with a caricature of a smile, but we agreed we would only open them on the road if we were stuck camping that night. We didn’t have far left to go.

By dusk, we had made it to an info-centre pull off at the edge of Prague, less than 20 km away. The sun was setting behind tall forests, and we debated calling Rich on the pay phone and asking for a drive. We had his number, but we hadn’t spoken to him by anything other than email – since childhood, actually – and he hadn’t heard from us since we left London three days ago.

“Is he the kind of cousin we can call to drive out to meet us at the edge of the city after dark?” my brother asked as I still held out our cardboard sign for Prague in the fading light.

“What time is it?” I asked. My cell-turned-clock had run out of battery. I forgot to check in the last car.

“The sun was setting at 9:30 in London, but this is further south. I don’t know.”

“If we don’t get there until morning, we only have one day with them before they leave for Canada,” I said.

“Still,” my brother hesitated, “some kinds of people are okay with a surprise, late-night guest...” He left the rest of the sentence hanging.

“Yeah,” I accepted. “We don’t know.”

We had to walk up a hill to find flat ground among the trees for our tent. After it was set up, we cooked couscous on my brother’s hiking stove and watched the red taillights of cars disappear into the forest towards the centre. The name on the dark turnoff sign in the distance lit by passing cars could have been for any city. I opened the two bottles and passed him one.

“What’s your best memory of her?” my brother asked.

“I don’t know,” I said. “I never really got to know her.”

We sat in the silence of the distant highway, warm beers dangling in hand.

“We should have tried to make it to Rich’s tonight,” my brother said.

“We’ve hitched for three days to visit,” I said. “He’ll understand.”

Past Prime Time

By Donald Dewey

The first clue to make a strong impression was, appropriately enough, a clue in The New York Times crossword puzzle. It said "actress Tierney," and I instantly went to jot down Gene. Except that there were five not four boxes to be filled. I woke my brain up to recall Maura Tierney, a TV regular since ER had been considered daring. But my instinct was troubling. Who else would have immediately thought of Gene Tierney, the Laura of ancient fantasies, but all those Turner Classic Movie people? Had I gotten old????!!!

I sought out more clues. When I boarded a bus, the young people who had taken over the front seats didn't jump up to offer their places but a couple gave me an expectant look that said they would do so if I begged them. One lobby guard earned his place in the flames of Hell when he said I would be allowed into one of his elevators if I could show him my Medicare card. An acquaintance assumed I had read an article on the benefits of honey that he had written for the AARP magazine. The neighbor upstairs cautioned me not once or twice but three times to walk carefully one day because there was a lot of ice on the street. For her I was not merely old and fragile, but blind!

But bless her, her exaggerated concern steeled my resolve. Instead of wondering how ancient I had grown between one birthday and the next, I decided to drop astrology for gerontology as my favorite hard science and get some answers to what was going on. It loomed as an odyssey worthy of Homer and would surely produce findings reassuring to the calendars that I had used up.

The odyssey lasted only until my eyes dropped on the TV set in my living room. I suddenly knew what the problem was. I had been conveying a fatalism invisible to birth certificates but contagious for anyone exposed to afternoon television.

Not everyone has a schedule that condemns them to being in front of a television set while the sun shines. Most have the freedom of working in the offices of an insurance company, of keeping those Big Macs coming, or of sitting in a cardboard box on a warming sidewalk vent. Those who have never experienced afternoon television have no more in common with its victims than Rimsky-Korsakov has with the infield fly rule. By this I don't mean the programming. If anything, all those reruns keep alive issues that we had when young and now offer invigorating continuity for never having been answered. For instance, why did so many fools invite Jessica Fletcher to their homes knowing she would bring a stiff with her? Do all homicide victims die of a subliminal haematoma? Did Claude Akins ever take a day off? Time has stood still for some mysteries, and they have become richer --- and made us more robust --- for it. It gives us a sense of infinity rather than mortality.

But then we have the commercials where frailty is a requirement. The truth is ugly but simple: Advertisers assume the daytime audience is not only old but in an advanced state of decay. Those not suffering from dementia or cancer or Parkinson's have bleeding gums or leaking bladders. The fortunate ones are those who only have difficulty climbing staircases, climbing into a bathtub, or not hearing what the clown sitting alongside is shouting into their deaf ears Eighty-five-year-olds have been warned: They are going to suffer socially unless they get dental implants and canes that can do their walking for them. Hospices don't have as much built-in gloom and certainly not as much profit potential.

Every day brings commercials for Brilinta, Symbicott, Chantix, Epcluse, Cosentix, Dupixent, Eliquis, Embrel, Humira, Mayvret, Ozemprice, Olissa, Otezia, Reticare, Systane, Theraworx, Taitz, Xelianz, Xyza, and Xarleto. Don't ask what specific ailments they allegedly cure. Don't even bother about the ten additional ailments they will induce (not so allegedly, to judge by a quavering-voiced warning) if taken. The important thing is that after swallowing them, gray-haired people in dockers and canvas shoes couldn't be happier chopping up celery in their kitchen. And they are the survivors, those still spry enough to hang on to a glass of water to wash down their pills, capsules, and caplets. And why not smile and look wise? Their only remaining responsibility before leaving the planet is to pay for their cemetery plot so their 50-year-old children will be able to buy more iPhones.

Granted the logic of the advertisers is flawless. If Saturday morning on cartoon shows is the ideal time for pitching fatally sugared cereals and sodas to children, weekday afternoons were invented so that the retired, the homebound, and the temporarily bed-ridden could be exposed to the wonders of any product with an x or z in it that could --- but not always --- cause uncontrolled vertigo, diarrhea, or giggling so better check with a doctor before turning uncontrolled dead.

All that is the explicit part of the message. But stuffed into it are extras like the cotton wads in a pill bottle. For one thing, the happy addicts are shown almost always in a home setting --- the kind of home that has a TV set offering all-day access to medicine commercials before, during, and after hacking up the celery in the kitchen. If they are ever shown outdoors, it is as they fast-walk on some private property that may be because they are exercising to stay healthy or because they are trespassing on private property. But the much more penetrating message is its seriality: It will be shown afternoon after afternoon at the identical time until the viewer has indeed crossed Jordan to no longer be all that distant from Quincy. Nobody said Reality TV couldn't also be Interactive TV.

Just a coincidence that I haven't sensed those crepuscular shadows of age since I stopped watching afternoon television?

Creative Non-Fiction