Drew Hayden Taylor

Drew Hayden Taylor
Meet the Playwright

Sunday, January 27, 2008

A MILD ALLERGIC REACTION TO DEATH by Nancy Bjorgo

Sand sifted down to the kitchen floor from the lines of mortar in the red brick chimney where the new cat, the white one, started scratching. Sandra listened to the eerie and gentle sound—P—shshshshshshshshsh—and thought, like sands through the hourglass so are the days of our lives. Sandra was affected by the soaps she watched in a scattered way. The two grey cats watched the white one but it never occurred to them to scratch the chimney themselves.They wanted the louder pop of frayed carpeting or upholstery under their nails.

Away from home, the wheels of Sandra’s 1985 Dodge Diplomat kicked up sand from Ontario winter highways into the car, hushing her thoughts as she sped to the local college to teach occasional English courses, the sands of time seeping like an anaesthetic through raggedy holes in the rusted-out bottoms of all four doors.

In January, Sandra Hans Brinkered along because the road crew strike of 1996 meant sand was no longer applied to highways. For a time, her life was laced with excitement on roads pure and untouched by any sanding trucks. White as driven snow. Clichéd but true, just like the themes of the soaps.

Sandra watched a flip mix of the soaps every three or four days. That way, it didn’t matter what characters said what words—smiling, grimacing, crying, doing the TV hug: each chin locked over the other’s right shoulder. Scattered episodes compacted into one story—like life but not like life.

The white cat had spent two years of her life in a kitty mill in a shoulder-height cage on top of another cage until it was obvious that she was not going to produce kittens and was offered to Sandra, jokingly perhaps, instead of the kitten she wanted. Are white cats good luck, did anyone know? The cat was scrawny and needy but she turned out to be a quick one. She learned to jump, to sleep in a bed, to lick Sandra’s skin like a litter-mate sister, to lick Sandra’s nape hair so she would get out of bed and provide the cats their breakfasts. And to scratch the chimney. All in three days.

A quick study, Sandra thought. She’s looking after her self-interest in a solidly organized way. Establish family ties, get your food, sharpen your nails. Sandra wished she herself had been able to do these things as quickly.
* YESTERDAY *
Sandra lived in disappointment at the passing of the 70s. When times were such that she dressed creatively, her car never seemed to totally rust out, her 1938 homestead residence seemed to be standing up smartly to time, the vegetable garden easy to weed. When her blonde hair wasn’t turning silver.Time flies.

Too acquiescent. Shifting Sandra, unable to assert herself. Take that party, twenty years ago, a party thrown by a university faculty member for his leftist regulars. The after-dinner drinks were being offered by the host, long dead by now or at least suffering away in an oxygen tent. She had gone to the washroom and was on her way back when she heard Daniel say, "Oh, give Sandra the Creme de Menthe since you’ve poured too many. She’ll never know the difference." Daniel raised some laughter with his quip.

"Oh, what’s this?" she asked.

The affable host held the little glass out to her. "Creme de Menthe. Which you like, right?"

Which she didn’t. Its green medicinal look had no resemblance to the liqueurs she did like. Which Daniel knew. Drambuie or Grand Marnier were the other choices.

But she accepted the vile green stuff. Cloying. Thick. Thereby accepting the previous laughter, it seemed to her. A scene from a soap script. It hadn’t seemed significant at the time.

After the party, Daniel and she had argued about Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist—the last sentence. He said that the "artificer" was Joyce’s father, the old faker, who Joyce was siding with, having already rejected his mother’s piety. Sandra said that the artificer was classical Daedalus, the smithy, the artist metal worker, and shaper of words.

And her face had turned red on the left side. She pressed it with her sympathetic right palm. Hot. Angry.

So. The party was the beginning, as they say, of the end. Of her and Daniel. Of her and the End. These two things were separate. She and Daniel lasted five more years and the split had occurred fifteen years ago. She was glad to split. Their love-making was cold, mechanical, like the TV hug of locked shoulders and chins.

Sandra had decided to grow carrots and beans. To milk goats. Make cheese. It was the 70s, man. Like, pure ingredients. The white goat, Sculla, named for Yugoslavian rocks; the Alpine goat, Lana (as in Turner), named for her beautiful udder.

The aromas of the food the goats ate were part of Sandra’s memory of them—whole oats, timothy/clover/daisy meadow hay, and leafy willow branches dry or fresh. And the nutmeg aroma of their own clean coats and their fresh grassy breath.

Goat society combined finely constructed etiquette with capricious surprise. The does sometimes ran at Sandra, heads down, horns ready, and stop a hair’s breadth from her middle. A feint. And then expect petting and sweet words for their cleverness. They played tag if Sandra ran and jumped with them. They were saucy and humorous, capable of deep affection and loyalty. They were masters of the assessing side-ways glance. What’re you up for? tag? humour? affection? It was the smell of the buck that gave the goat race a bad name.

So Sandra borrowed one for short periods of time. Lana and Sculla mated rather scornfully with males, but one, Harvey, had been a favourite. There were feints, smelling of coats, entwining of necks like they were large, supple-necked swans; altogether, a fun time for the goat three-some. There are, even, goats and goats.

Had the split with Daniel been about sex or Joyce? It had been about sex. But fifteen years later, it seemed to Sandra that it was perhaps more about Joyce. Like the soaps, Sandra’s life seemed to have a few scenes of magnitude that took five years to play out.

Daniel moved to Brandon. Nothing to say to each other, they never wrote.

Sandra began her association with college evening classes and then day classes. It was ironic, teaching people to speak and read when she could be teaching them to write, at least. The learn-as-you-go method. What better way? She began her apprenticeship of short story writing. Of all apprenticeships that could be attempted, this one paid nothing.

Lately, when she overheard contracted teachers at the college talking about topping up RRSPs with $5000 and about their pensions which they seemed to know down to the last dime, she knew, instead, how she was going to die.

How? She looked in the mirror.

Priority Courier had failed to deliver the signed contract she had sent back to a literary magazine in Vancouver. She would have a short story in print. Finally, an opportunity for her writing to last. Otherwise, who cared what she wrote? She had spent three weeks vastly cheered up. Then, someone from Priority Courier called her from Winnipeg.

No. They had attempted to deliver the letter once and hadn’t bothered to think what three weeks late might mean. Or had they lost her letter for three weeks?
"It has to be delivered. It’s a contract. Do you know what this might mean?"
"Well, we usually contact the sender in one week—five working days."
"Five? This is fifteen."
"Yes. We know."
"Deliver it. Deliver it. It’s a contract."

And in the mirror, the left side of her face was splotched red. The left eye was dry and fixed. The right eye cried out of pity for it. Death would be by stroke or fit, one side crying momentarily for the other.

Overnight, the skin on the back of her right hand turned papery. Wrinkled. Overnight, she had an old right hand and a still-young left hand. The sympathetic side had received the lasting blow. Why was that? A reversal of right brain/left brain, or some such thing? Stories about hair turning white overnight seemed utterly plausible to her now. People who faced the Nazis. Firing squads.
* TODAY *
She practiced for a few minutes in the morning to remember to cover her right hand with her left. She tried a ring on her left hand to draw attention away from its older wiser partner. The ruby ring, her great aunt’s, which had never been appraised. The gold would not turn to dust nor the ruby to apoplexy nor had she worn it very much. Now was the time.

But what could she do, really? She was right-handed. Post-Secondary Communications - CO 101: stand-up teaching. She had to write on the board. Friday (there would be no call from Priority Courier until well into a Vancouver afternoon), and she had to write
This is like.
This is as.
"Like is that you like or love something, a verb, or a comparison. I like you. Or. This picture is very like you. As, a comparison or a placement in time. I like you as you are. Or. As we speak, I like you more. Think of some sentences and we will classify them." That way, any mistaken usage would show up as non-classifiable.

Silence.

"I like fruit salad: the verb. The fruit salad is like the recipe I use: the comparison," she said encouragingly.

Again, silence.

So she wrote a creative conclusion on the board, she thought, since class time was running out:
Time flies like fruit flies.

And there was more silence. No laughter. A few copied it down. It had struck glazed eyes, stopped-up ears. And this was her English-speaking class.

"Like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore/So do our minutes hasten to their end," she said. "Shakespeare, Sonnet 60. Do the three exercises: A, B, and C, pages 289-290. We’ll do a homework check next time, O.K.? Then we’ll do the oral classification¼" And Sandra trailed off. She was bound by the course of study to take up like and as.

She should get home to the cats. Treat them to something. Like a name for the new white one. Or a plateful of Friskies Treats. But coffee in the staffroom would be comforting. Comfort the person; brave the topic which would be March break.

Teachers lounged about the staffroom. Helen waved languidly at her from an armchair in a far corner.
"Where are you off to for March break, Sandra?" asked Dave, full-time person, partly across the room from the coffee machine.
"Off to?" She knew what he meant, of course.
"Hawaii?"
"Is that where you’re going?"
"Yes. You’ve guessed it. Yes, it is," he said in a satisfied way.
"I’m psychic sometimes," Sandra said. College teachers planned holidays like they were going to the supermarket. When she heard them talk, she knew what she had to avoid. A fit.
"I couldn’t survive without a trip," he said.
"Yes. Well. I’m planning to go to Safeway¼at least twice," she said.
"Mmmmm." He nodded his head sagely up and down several times.

She sloshed her paper cup of coffee-machine cappuccino around with her left hand in front of her grey flannel suit and white shell. Maybe she should develop a post-hippie wardrobe: stripes, flowers, polka-dots, bandana prints. Altogether in one outfit.

Prufrock thoughts: Shall I part my hair behind? Shall I wear white flannel trousers? And shall I walk upon the beach?

Lately, k. d. lang was dressing in hippie tunics—that strange cut—tight between the shoulders at the front and A-ing out slightly from the arm-pits. She was swinging away from cowboy clothes of denim and oiled cotton canvas to satin with silver sphere buttons. Watered taffeta with big lace. No fringes lately. The Village Voice ran an ad February 20, 1996 as ‘96 THE EROTIC YEAR, picturing a couple in A-line tunics; the man with matching slightly bell-bottom pants and the woman with bare legs. They could have been from twenty years ago.

Sandra downed her cappuccino, tossed away the cup, pressed her forehead with her open hands, and said, "Well, see you. After the break."

Sandra pictured the men in the room stretched out on the sand of several different states, paunches rising in the sun. Like the sun drew the tide to itself. Or was that the moon? Both?

It was an oddly sentimental time for Sandra. She remembered Trudeau once inappropriately saying, when he was asked where he would be for a long-ago March break, "Well, in Barbados like everyone else."

Sandra drove home at a good clip, passing every transport and car on the road. The highway whispered to her that in life, unlike vacations, there was a point of no return.

Sandra picked up the white cat and laid her cheek against one of her long slat-sides, burrowing her nose into clean, scented fur as she held her in the air. Much purring from—Emily. That seemed a good name. And disgusted looks from the others.

No goats to tend. They don’t last this long. One decently buried; the other decently cremated.

One recorded message.

Then she telephoned Priority Courier. Undelivered still? Send it back. Refund the $9.04 and send $4000 damages. Did they get that? Yes, it was entered in their computer record but that did not mean that they would actually pay damages. She understood that, right?

"I’ll tell everyone I know about Priority Courier," she ended with.
"We can’t prevent you from doing that."
"I’ll tell everyone I don’t know about Priority Courier." And Sandra hung up.

She requested the return on principle: they had illustrated they had no principles by keeping her letter for three weeks, undelivered. On the other hand, the recorded message (from Federal Express) reported that the duplicate material she sent out Thursday (as soon as she got the call from Winnipeg; as fast as she could maneuver the icy road) had been delivered at 11:15 Vancouver time that day.

She phoned the editor. Yes. Too bad. But not too late. Goodbye and best wishes.

Thank Buddha, Brahma, Gods, and Goddesses—all. Or. Sometimes a little luck was the best thing. Telling this story would be easy. Dialogue in Sandra’s stories was becoming more and more the conversations she heard the day before, what people said they’d eaten, seen, or sworn.

Some questions remained, however. Was $4000 enough for a wrinkled hand? Was it enough for being stupidly confident for three weeks? How many times would she ask herself the middle-aged question: By how many years has this shortened my life?
* TOMORROW *
Sandra wrote one complaint to re-state her right to reparation. More than that, she took no time for the matter, belonging as it did to the chronicle of wasted time. Four more weeks later, it took Sandra’s Member of Parliament to intercede for her with a manager at Canada Post Corporation to get her old letter back at all.

The envelope became dotted and then running with rain when Sandra stood at her mailbox at the edge of the highway. The letter was still sealed in the slick cardboard Priority Courier envelope. A yellow sticker, a white sticker, and two over-lapping stickers with dates on them had all been crossed out in heavy black magic marker. In the house, she burned the envelope in the woodstove.

However, written words lasted. Fiction lasted—stories. They weren’t passive in print or in memory. They didn’t wash away in rain and wind. They spoke up. The hushed message of the highway continued, however, until a lot of spring rain drenched the road and washed it clean, telling Sandra when so much time has lapsed, losses cannot be recouped.

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