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The experience of things

MADGE KNEW SHE WAS LOSING IT. It began to dawn on her the day her husband started calling her “Madge.” Not a big deal, really, she thought, staring out the window at the yellowing trees, to have someone suddenly bestow a nickname on you, though in the usual course of events nicknames were generally related to, derived from, diminished or ornamented versions of (preferably) the owner’s real name.

Madge’s real name was Sylvia. “Woman of the woods.” Sylvan person. Sylph, she used to fantasize when she was a teenager, like the floating, gauzy ballerina in the Tampax ads, back in the days when tampons were not named in mixed company, when ‘panty liners’ were bulky rectangles worn with a half-garter and referred to as ‘feminine napkins.’ She used to wonder what “feminine” napkins were, when she was twelve and knew nothing about the joys of menstruation. Were they extra-dainty things, kleenex with a lace fringe? What a shock, then, to open a box (she had put a dime into the bathroom machine once when no one was around and almost wedged two of her fingers permanently into the slot trying to get the pink polka-dotted thing out) and found the obscenely thick oblong of gauzed batting with the blue stripe running down one side. It looked like something the Friendly Giant might use to stanch a slashed wrist and came fully equipped with two tiny gold-coloured safety pins. She poked at it with her fingers, turning it over and over and examining its shape, unable to figure out what a woman would use it for, when she heard a footstep outside the washroom door, quickly stuffed the fat pad back into its innocuous box and shoved it all into her blazer pocket. Mary Lou, one of the seniors, walked briskly in, gave Sylvia a look, said “Hi,” and disappeared into a cubicle.

Sylvia forgot about the little pink box until recess, when she ran down the road to where the chaplain’s vines clung to a rocky stile, and tried to fill the pockets with her usual quota of concord grapes: as she pushed her grape-laden left hand into the pocket, she felt the cardboard and started. What could she do now? No way she could leave the pink polka-dotted thing among the grapevines – somebody might see her. Besides, what if Father Paul found it! She knew somehow that it would be awful, as if he were to find – a pair of girl’s underwear or something! Sylvia settled for one grape bunch in her right pocket and one to munch en route back to class. Just in case, she kept her left hand inside its pocket.

Madge couldn’t remember what she ever did with the hapless, and useless, pad but by the time she was twenty, ‘feminine napkins’ came in ten sizes and were considered essential for every day of the month by their makers – to keep you fresh as a daisy. These same makers also came out with deodorants for ‘down there.’ But wanting to be sylph-like, she had switched to tampons not long after her first sexual experience.

Unfortunately, the sylphs were rapidly being replaced by tanned young women in white, batting tennis balls with dainty expertise or emerging from a vigorous splash in the pool, neither of which Sylvia cared to do.

Madge watched the wind toss the leaves on her lawn in an idle fashion. Her first sexual experience hadn’t really been all that different from the first time she’d tried to insert a tampon at the age of sixteen: awkward, uncomfortable, and not quite successful. But compared with a regular-sized tampon, her boyfriend’s ‘thing’ was a monstrous, lustrous projection of dark-skinned muscle that hardly seemed to belong on him, let alone inside any part of her; and if she hadn’t been so astonished -and not a little embarrassed -she’d have laughed aloud at its blind, lazy bobbing. (She learned very swiftly that ‘things’ responded poorly to laughter, by and large.) It was a long time and several lovers on before men’s things began simply to be a part of their bodies and not whimsically growing and shrinking objects, in her mind.

But even now, Madge sometimes caught herself thinking of her husband’s thing as an endearing, diminutive pet – me and my Arrow – something that she might conceivably carry around in her jacket pocket, a rosary to fondle whenever she felt anxious or insecure. (She had learned, somewhat more slowly, never to voice certain fantasies: they not only caused the owner’s thing to shrivel and on occasion to retreat into the pelvic cavity, but in one instance had precipitated the infelicitous finale of a budding relationship.)

Madge looked at the tree and then at the back of her left hand. The branches were beginning to look like the three-pronged vein that ran bluely towards her outspread fingers. The funny part was, other than those images of various things from her past, she really had no memory of any of her lovers – not one kiss or touch came vividly to mind, not a single night spent making love. Just a sense of satisfaction, or the lack thereof, and a desire for more. She wondered if this was a sign of creeping age, or frigidity, whether she would forget her husband just as completely and be left with only the clear image of his slightly bowed, upward-springing – tool, engine, escaped cock…

On the other hand, maybe it was a sign that she was totally immersed in the present, a kind of mental as well as physical ‘faithfulness’. Madge laughed as she stood up and wandered away from the window seat. Craig was due back from Whitehorse just after five and she had three days of dirty dishes rotting in the sink, a smelly box of cat litter howling to be cleaned, and scattered mounds of clothing in every room, needing a wash. It was now three-fifteen.

Madge drifted past the kitchen and bedroom with a pang of accompanying guilt, and into the large bathroom, where she leaned over the sink to examine her face in the mirror. Was she beginning to look like a ‘Madge’? Hazel coloured eyes with bright gold flecks stared back at her. Maybe they were merely mottled. Her hair needed a wash, and even a cut, come to think of it, as the layers were beginning to hang irregular and chunky -one recalcitrant bit even stuck out behind her left ear she noticed. In the summer, in the sun, she thought of her hair as blonde – “light ash”, Miss Clairol would call it – but now she could see that in the wrong light it was merely mousey. “Merely mottled” and “merely mousey” – did that render her “merely Madge”? She leaned even closer to the mirror and scrutinized the skin on her cheeks, chin and forehead. Far from flawless, she grimaced. Bumps under the skin and large pores in the oily areas around her nostrils. A red mark on her forehead where something had taken its brief lunch. Or was it because of the chocolate she’d lunched on? She was feeling less sylvan by the second.

The outflung sleeve of a plaid shirt beckoned to her from the hallway floor. Madge patted the mirror good-bye and began collecting the dribbles of laundry from room to room. She found herself back in the hall with a mound of crumpled, stained, withered, or just plain stale clothing and linen, separated it into two pillowcases and dragged the lot to where the appliances hunched behind louvered doors, like pet boas sitting coiled and silent in the dark, waiting for their weekly meal. “One lump or two?” she queried, swinging the full cases softly onto an enamel top. She emptied one bag into the open mouth of the washer, sprinkled green and white soap crystals over the colourful mess, set the dials, and drifted back to the kitchen as water slowly drenched the clothes.

Three twenty-five and time to domesticate some dishes. She frowned at the SRO sink. On the second ring she recognized that the doorbell was calling. Madge’s hand stopped the tap just as the suds reached halfway. Three in the afternoon on a Tuesday. Jehovah’s Witnesses? She skittered down the hall, nervous with surprise, wondering if maybe Craig had come home early as she straightened out her shirt and pushed her hair back behind her ears. “Who is it?” she called as she walked to the door.

“Pete,” answered a muffled voice she couldn’t recognize. A crest of sandy hair appeared in the small beveled insert as she twisted the handle and swung the door open. Green eyes smiled at her for a second before a look of puzzlement replaced the friendly grin. “Oh, you’re not Sylvia, I’m sorry!” He smiled as if to say how stupid of me. “My friends must have moved away without telling me.”

Madge looked at him, squinting as if she were trying to read the fine print on his eyeballs. Bright green eyes, alert as a cat’s they were. She blinked and pulled back. “Why don’t you come in and have some tea or coffee anyway...”

Pete hesitated, then laughed. “Well, if they’re gone, I’m not likely to find them this afternoon. Thanks for the offer.” He stepped into the foyer next to her and looked at her with surprise, as if for the first time. “You know, you do look a lot like Sylvia in this light –what a strange coincidence. Did you know them at all? I mean the people who lived here before?”

She didn’t know what to say. Somewhere between the Clairol and the Oxydol, things had changed. She moved quickly down the hall towards the sunny kitchen, feeling the perplexity of the man behind her, sensing that he was about to pursue his thought a little further, wanting to divert him. She called over her shoulder, “I’m Madge. I’ve got to be somewhere by five,” smiling at the somewhere, the divertimento, “but we’ve got time for something warm.”

As they filled the kitchen, he with his navy-clothed bomber jacket and she in her purple plaid, she quickly filled the kettle, set it on the burner and plunged her hands into the soapy water in the sink.

Pete leaned on the counter after hanging his jacket on a chair back. “Been on your own for a few days,...Madge?” He pulled himself up and looked around for a towel.

“There, in the middle drawer...I just threw everything in the wash a half-hour ago.” He opened the drawer and pulled out a striped linen towel. “I’ve been on my own for about a week now. My...roommate’s coming in tonight.” “A he or a she?” Pete glanced at her as he wiped a plate dry.

“A ...well...” Madge bit her lower lip and looked out the window at a cloud of leaves in a sudden gust. “Outside this kitchen window...,” she said, feeling odd. “Outside the soapy dishwater and the smell of toast and coffee,” she turned to Pete, “Outside these cosy walls and the rows of tea in neat, familiar order... I am a married woman.” Pete watched her, hands moving slowly along the rim of a plate. He finished drying the plate while Madge stared out the window again, and set it on the counter. “Who wrote that?”

Madge started. “What? Who wrote what?” “What you were quoting,” he said, picking up a glass, “I like it.”

“It’s a poem I wrote years ago, autumn outside the safety of a kitchen.”

“How does the rest of it go?”

“Well, ‘Outside these cosy walls and the rows of tea in neat, familiar order, death seeps through the trees.’” She stopped. “I don’t remember the rest, just the feeling I had, staring out the window on cold fall mornings and watching green things slowly die. I’ve never been very good at remembering my own stuff.” She finished scraping the pot in her hands and stuck it in the rinse sink, pulled the plug, and began collecting tea things: pot, strainer, cups, spoons, and honey. “What kind of tea, Pete?”

“‘In neat, familiar order’,” he laughed, hanging the towel over a drawer handle. “Make me an offer.”

“Lapsang Souchong.”

“What’s that?”

“It’s a smokey tea.” Madge pulled down a dark container, pried open the lid, and brought it under his nostrils. As he sniffed, his eyes met hers. That same puzzled look of almost-recognition. Her hair was obviously far mousier than she’d even imagined. She took the box to the counter by the stove and began the ritual of tea: leaves into the mesh ball, a slosh of boiling water to rinse the pot, setting the ball with its hook on the lip, and pouring the scalding water over it into the pot. Steam rose to her face and she smiled as the smokey aroma of the tea was released. “I love this scent.”

“So you’re married,” Pete said. “Where is he?”

She smiled inwardly at the “he.” “In Whitehorse.” “It could only be business!” “M-hm.” Madge carried the pot and honey to the table. Pete shifted his weight, started, and came over to help. “Don’t worry – why don’t you have a seat – you’ve already helped me and I barely know your name.” “Pete Halliday. And you?” He pulled out a chair and sat down without taking his eyes off her. “Madge Morgenstern.” Her mother’s name sounded wonderfully poetic next to ‘Madge’. “Morning star?” “Oh, you know German?” “Studied it in college – my family stayed in Germany for a few years.” “Military?” Madge offered, having set the cups and spoons down last. “You guessed it. My father retired when I was really little, though, and went into private practice.” Madge sat down and began to pour the tea. “Thanks.” “So he was a doctor, too?” “Still is. His specialty was forensic medicine. Medical detective work. He stopped doing that about ten years ago, and now he’s about to retire permanently. He used to tell us some great stories – in fact he’s tried his hand at murder mysteries and even had a couple of short pieces published in Ellery Queen.”

Madge sipped her tea slowly and watched Pete’s hand with its spray of pale freckles and strong square fingertips, holding his cup.

“Tell me some more about you. By the way, did you know Sylvia and Craig at all? The people who used to live here? I haven’t seen them for about five years, maybe more.”

Madge couldn’t decide which topic to avoid more. “The people we bought the house from were Joe and Judy Thomas. They, ah, moved back to Toronto... I like this house a lot. We’ve never owned one before, ...Harvey and I.” Whew, he had a name. A perfect match for a Madge. She smiled and looked Pete right in the eye at last. “Harvey’s a sociologist. He’s in the middle of some research on, uh, on the shifting of indigenous communities on the West Coast. Comparing British Columbia and Washington. Exciting stuff,” she concluded, with just the right touch of sarcasm. A branch rattled at the window and Madge suddenly looked at the clock. Four-eighteen. “Can I give you a lift somewhere? I’m going to have to leave, but I’ve got just enough time to drop you off wherever you’re going.” She added, “I never found out what brought you back to, I mean what brought you to Vancouver to see, ah, Sylvia and Craig.”

Pete finished the last sip of tea before answering. “I’m moving back here in about six weeks and I need to set a few things up first.” “Where are you staying, then?” “I’ve got myself a room downtown just for a couple of days. The Meridien. Expenses paid.”

As Pete buttoned his jacket, Madge went to fetch hers from the coat rack and slipped it on. She picked a light scarf from the shelf in the entry and wrapped it loosely around her neck.

“Say, do you two like music? Jazz?” “Er, Harvey doesn’t go out much.” She locked the door. “In fact he’s going to be pretty busy when he gets back, and he’s really into this study.” They headed up the walk, a few early leaves crackling under their feet. She hated this time of year, when the days slowly shrank and darkness crept in ever earlier. “I’d love to go some night, though. I used to do that quite a lot before...” She unlocked the passenger door and went around to the other side of the navy blue Accord. Pete didn’t respond right away.

Madge felt uncomfortable as she sat in behind the wheel. Maybe she couldn’t pull this one off after all. She’d never even listened to a live band since they moved to Vancouver, and traditional jazz was certainly not her choice in music now. The car purred easily when she turned the key. Pete still hadn’t spoken. “So where are you exactly, the one on Davie Street, or the new one over on Beatty?” “It’s the one on Davie. If you’re sure Harvey wouldn’t mind, I’d enjoy some company down at the Landmark tomorrow night; there’s a local band called Skywalk playing.”

They pulled out of her quiet street into the heart of rush hour on Cornwall Avenue. Luckily it was mostly in the other direction, Madge thought. This was going to be very tight, she realized, regretting that she hadn’t called the airport to confirm the flight’s arrival.

“You look a little worried. Am I making you late?”

“Oh? No, not at all. I think I’ll be just fine for time.” Madge moved them swiftly down to the bridge and across the crisp blue bay. Once she dropped him off, she’d be right in the middle of all the bumper-to-bumper going out of the city center. She turned to Pete and said, “Why don’t you give me your number and I’ll call you tomorrow if it works out. When’s a good time to get a hold of you?” “Sure thing,” Pete patted his pockets for a pen, pulled it out and checked his wallet. “Here’s my card and the hotel number is –” he wrote it as he said it as though to reassure himself of its correctness “– six-eight-one fifty-five-hundred. I’m in room 1803. There.” He put the card in the little tray on the dashboard where quarters and parking stubs had accumulated. “I’ll be going out around 9 a.m. and I should be back for a bit after supper, say eight o’clock… Actually, I heard the Jazzbar has great ribs; I might just eat there. Why don’t you call me around 7:30? The show should get going around 9:30 or so.”

Madge drove the car down Davie and manoeuvred a series of turns to pull up in front of the stylish Meridien. Letting the car idle, she picked Pete’s card up, then smiled at him as he unbuckled and got out. She leaned over and extended her hand. “See you tomorrow.” His warm hand clasped hers firmly back. “So long. Thanks for the ride.”

Madge locked the door behind him and waved as she pulled back out into traffic. In her mirror she could see Pete stop and look after her, then pull open an ornate glass door. Madge drove into the stream of suburbanites leaving the West End, one solo car after another, bright little boxes that were losing their colours as the sun slipped away to Japan. She could see the orange orb dwindle over the mountains of Vancouver Island as she slipped slowly across the Burrard Street Bridge and up into the ridges of Vancouver itself. Lights beamed on as car after car acknowledged the twilight. Soon the trees were silhouettes of black against the barely rosy sky and Madge drove further and further away from Pete.

By the time she had crested the highest ridge and began the long roll down towards the delta, the sun was a thin rust-coloured line, it was five o’clock, and she knew she would call Pete the next day. Madge smiled to herself and turned the radio on, fiddled the dial and tuned it to 97.0 FM for the first time. Served him right for picking such a godaw¬ful haggy name, madge, badge, badger... She listened to the announcer: “You are listening to CJAZ, Vancouver’s 24-hour jazz station. Next we have something from Pat Metheny called Are you going with me?” A quiet drum, sticks shirring, soft bass and piano chords laid down the background for a haunting melody. A saxy wail softly drifted in above the steady heartbeat of the rest, then the piping of concertina swept her off to a café in Paris, where it would be 2 a.m., the last pair of lovers wandering off, half-sleepy, half-lusting, and the owner paying some band its hard-earned wages. She sped along the off-ramp to the airport, feeling her spine tingle as the voice rose up and up, sax-like, the cymbals shushed louder and the melody whistled insistently...flirted down a little...flew higher again...then floated, keys, bass, drums and all rippling, down, down, down...

Madge pulled the car off into a three-minute zone, set the flashers blinking and looked up to see her husband walking towards her as the drums rumbled their finale. She opened the door and smiled and extended her hands towards him.

“Harvey... darling...”

Published on 11/07/2005

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