Winner of 2017 Giller Prize

Winner of 2017 Giller Prize
Michael Redhill for his novel Bellevue Square

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Alone, a short story by Nancy Bjorgo

He was tired of it. Henry Sousa was tired of being alone.

It was 9 a.m., Monday, his day off. At Safeway, he walked past a man in a check-out line who cradled a big bunch of celery against his chest like a baby. The man’s left elbow was raised to protectively support its little leafy top. When Henry got to the cookie aisle, the loud-speaker system said, "Hello, honey." He waited, expecting an announcement for honey on sale. But there wasn’t one. Hello, honey. He imagined two employees manning (or manning and womanning) a microphone in a small, steamy booth. He searched his inner mind. Auditory hallucinations? God?

He grabbed two packages of Christie’s Pecan Passion cookies. He liked how the cookies crumbled around the pecan bits when he took a bite.

Henry was, you know, not that bad looking, a bit pear-shaped from behind, it was true. Not Bartletts which were very thin in the shoulders but more like sweet green Anjous. Portly, if he were older. Which he wasn’t. So that was a good point. He was still in the running.

Most days off, he wore grey slacks, a white shirt, a grey three-season overcoat. He wore such clothing to work, too, and then changed into his pharmaceutical coat. He had a healthy comb-over. He was a pharmacist at a south-ward Safeway, but he liked shopping in the north.

He generalized. Short, black-haired women seemed to like him. They came up to the middle of his chest where their vigorous hair bounced and their foreheads were spacious, probably because of the angle of foreshortening at which he saw them. Dates? Yes, lots of them. And then when he got around to explaining that Daniel, his older brother, was in a mental institution, their hair stopped bouncing and they ate their dinners or danced the dance silently.
Daniel had visual hallucinations. Henry made him give up driving when Daniel told him that every light looked green to him, even the red. And Daniel was spurred into action by green. He sped up, he careened away, and then it didn’t take that long until other difficulties arose.

On one crucial date, Henry actually took Daniel along to a restaurant. He had to have what remained of his family out in the open. He and Daniel, for better or worse (worse), looked alike except Daniel had good hair.

"That’s the exit," he explained to Daniel, pointing to a plump red exit light (green for Daniel) over a back door. "Don’t go out there, right? We have lots of time. Lots of time for a meal." Henry held Caroline’s chair for her and they all sat at a table not in view of the exit light.

Henry knew he had to watch Daniel carefully. He had to anticipate Daniel bunching his muscles and springing for the exit.

They were all, of course, a bit tense. Caroline said, her eyes faltering slightly, "It’s a lovely restaurant." But her smile didn’t waver.

Daniel said, "Henry likes to eat here. It’s one of his favourite places."

Henry was hopeful until Daniel started eating the salad with his fingers. It had happened before. When he was over-dosed on medication, he could converse, but he couldn’t manipulate silverware.

Caroline’s face didn’t crumple, exactly, but any trace of a smile vanished. He emphathized with her.

Henry liked women. He had liked his small, thin mother even in her dotage. She had painted a big white cloud on her kitchen floor and put a "9" on it. So she could be on Cloud 9 whenever she wanted to be, she said, whenever she didn’t want to think about Daniel. And then in the hospital, she murmured, "Put your head upon a pillow, ‘neath a weeping willow and watch the clouds roll by. You’ll find your love in the sky. Just watch the clouds roll by."

He didn’t realize that she was probably making a joke until she breathed, "If your heart for love is aching and it’s almost breaking, just watch the clouds roll by. You’ll find your love by and by. Just watch the clouds roll by." Those were her last words. Really a lot of words. Summoned up for him, he felt, but he wasn’t absolutely sure. They were raspy and carefully phrased, breathy, lingering, like a good jazz clarinetist might have done. Did that mean jazz was close to life and death? Encompassing? Or closer to death?

Though he had never heard the words before, he remembered them. It was several days—or weeks—until it occurred to him that there had been a reedy tune, as well.

He moved out of his apartment into her house, into his birthplace house—with Cloud 9—on Broadway Avenue, past old historical Fort William, but not where backyard basements were crumbling into the Kaministiquia River. He got there from the south end by driving past the airport and turning right at the graveyard which spread on either side of the country street.

The house had a low cottagey front porch; the back of the house emerged one and a half storeys because of the down-sloping yard. It was painted old-fashioned light green. Henry liked to sit behind the house in an old wicker chair that had a high back and low rounded arms. From there, the river was light blue at a distance. He always remembered to bring the green and white striped seat cushion back into the house in case of rain.

Waiting for a woman who might look and smile favourably at him again like Caroline, Henry tried to keep fit. He put more commonly called-for drugs on top shelves so he would have to stretch for them. Fellow workers complained but he persevered. He could do—and once in a while did—a mean cartwheel in the lead-up space to his pharmacy counter after he had shown a woman where the Q-tips were or the Band-Aids. He had mastered cartwheels in grade three. His shape hadn’t changed that much since then, just his size. He had pleased Miss Hargreave with his cart-wheels long ago. Now, he would cart-wheel and end up with his hand nonchalantly on the counter and say, "What’s up, doc?" to Mary who worked days with him and kept her three children and husband in line on her off hours.

Henry’s father, a high school English teacher, had wanted him to study literature, complimenting him that he had the mind for it. But Henry wanted something more exact and was approaching his last year of pharmaceutical studies. It was summer—August—when Henry’s father died unexpectedly of a heart attack.

It had been a hot day. Henry was trenching-in unsold three-year-old roses at Hyatt’s Greenhouses to winter them over. How they were going to stay alive in that dry, sandy field was anybody’s guess. They had only their restricted, potted roots, nothing more. He set his spade upright in the ground when Old Man Hyatt came across the field from the house and told him his mother had phoned, saying that the ambulance had already taken off down the road.

The Sousas were dwindling fast. Henry’s father had been an only child.

Henry sometimes saw a family on Saturdays, his other day off, at this north-end Safeway, the father in tweeds, dark-haired mother, three little daughters and probably a tiny son in a heavy-duty carriage with what seemed like off-roader wheels. He could be that man. Except for the English accent. Lose the English accent.

Bread and butter, bacon and eggs in his cart, Henry hit the fruit section last. A tall blonde woman whose long straight hair spread like a light around her shoulders hefted orange after orange in her right hand, trying to pick the heavy, juicy ones. Women weighed fruit like that. Men went for appearances.

When he was sure she was looking at him, Henry did his neatest nip and tuck cartwheel for the woman at the mound of oranges, the hem of his overcoat hardly flapping. "Hello, honey," he said, forgetting that he wanted to hear it, not say it. She giggled at him and threw him the orange which she had been hefting. He caught it smartly.

Then she turned away, her eyes still crinkling in a smile. He smiled back at her, at her back, unfortunately. Too late.

He wanted to lose his identity or gain it. He wasn’t sure that they weren’t the same thing. If he had children, his family name would not disappear. If he had children, he would at least disappear into his children’s memories for awhile. Lose with dignity. Amplify, maybe. Be more than he was. A man who exists in someone’s memory. He couldn’t count on Daniel.

The 9-items-or-less-Scandinavian-goddess-woman at the check-out called, "Hurry up, men. Flex it fast. Air Miles?" Old, young, toothless, and toothy men gathered in her line, under her power. He counted his cookies, eggs, butter, marmalade, and limp lumpy bags of fruit. Yes, he qualified, too.

He signed a cheque and quickly slung the two plastic bags of groceries over his left wrist. His car was parked practically at the door. He settled the bags in the seat beside him and was about to turn the key.

Just over the driveway in front of the Safeway doors stood the Scandinavian goddess and the woman with flashlight hair. They were both tall. Radiant in the morning sunshine. Smiling like crazy.

The goddess waved a piece of paper. The other blonde waved both her hands over her shopping cart. At him. He got out and the piece of paper was thrust in his hands. He had signed his name Henry Safeway. He had to think fast.

Somehow he had to turn this to his advantage. He had to turn everything to his advantage now.

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