In 2016 a couple of pretty great things happened to me. Well, if I am being perfectly honest, a couple of pretty great things happened because I made them happen. I understand that 2016 was a clusterfuck/dumpster fire of a year for a lot of people, and I am not trying to be”that guy” but I just want to say outright that I have had worse years. And sure, fuck me, right? Absolutely. But I just need to get that out of the way.
The main big, great thing was that I was able to leave my soul-crushing job of nine years to get on with my life. I had no job to go to, no real plan at all. Except that I was going to write. And I did write. Some of the writing was this blog, some was another blog that I write for a friend’s business, and some of it was just personal shiz that I wrote and that may never see the light of day. I also volunteered on a couple of committees that kept me fairly busy, and perfected my pizza dough. In short, it was a pretty great, pizza-filled few months.
By the end of the summer, I knew that if I truly, truly wanted to write, the thing I needed to do was to get myself enrolled in a course of some sort that would force me – FORCE ME – through assignment deadlines and the like, to actually spend a lot of time writing. Not just thinking about writing, but actually doing it. So I did. And then, one Saturday in early September, I found myself in a classroom at Sheridan College, eager to get started in Creative Writing 101. (That is not actually the course code, but you know what I mean.)
For twelve weeks I participated in class discussions, wrote and handed in assignments on character, point of view, setting, and more. Some assignments were easy and fun, others were a damned struggle. On some days I would think that I have written what is probably one of the best 350 word passages ever, and then the very next day I would considering burning my notebooks and jumping off a bridge. I have been told that this is actually what the writing life is like, so it would seem that I might actually fit in.
We would also read our assignments in class. Out loud. To each other. This was terrifying. At least at the beginning. It was a lovely group of people, all very supportive, and eventually I started looking forward to reading my work to them, hearing their feedback, and providing feedback of my own. We were a good group.
The final, culminating assignment had us taking the techniques we learned throughout the course, and putting them all together, to create a short story. We had two full weeks to do this, and then we read our stories to the class.
My story is below.
I’m not putting it here because I am supremely proud of it. I think it is ok. It’s an ok story. I worked hard on it, and I got a good grade, and it’s ok. I know that it is not 100% polished, not 100% perfect, and that too is ok.
I am putting it here because it’s my first story. First ever story. Hopefully, it’s not the last, hopefully it’s the first of many. And eventually, after many, many stories, I like to think that there will be one or two that I am supremely proud of, one or two that are 100% polished. The only way to find out is to continue to write them.
If you read it and you like it, please let me know. If you read it and you don’t like it? Well, I’d like to hear from you too.
Finally, please know that when I handed in this assignment, I had proper paragraph indents, but when I copied to WordPress all my formatting disappeared. Go figure.
“You know you have to do it. It’s all she ever wanted.” Carol’s words come back to me as I stand in the centre of the downtown mall. Waves of people move around me. The lunch hour shoppers trying to get their errands done before heading back to their desks. High school kids hitting the food court instead of the cafeteria. People coming from the market with bulging shopping bags, quietly saying excuse me as they try to get around me, and then saying it again, not quite so quietly. I’m definitely in the way. People don’t stand still in shopping malls.
The coldest, rainiest April has given way to the hottest May in recent memory, wreaking havoc on heating and cooling systems everywhere, and it is stifling. I consider taking off my jacket, but then I would have to carry it, along with my purse and the large tote bag I have brought with me. I leave my jacket on, cursing the weather, cursing my jacket, cursing everything.
The food court on the lower level is busy, and the noise of chairs scraping across the tile floor carries up to the main level where I am standing. This, combined with the heat and the too-loud piped in music, is grating on my nerves. The container bounces in my tote bag, and the sharp corner edge bangs against my hip as I walk. There will be a bruise there later. Sweat runs down my back and the handles of the bag dig into my shoulder as I ride the escalator down to the basement level, eyes closed, trying to remember, to get a feel for the place. Memories come in flashes. I see it, and then I don’t. It’s there and then it’s gone, like a dream you can’t remember once you wake up. The more I try to force the images, the further they retreat from my mind. I hate this place.
I didn’t always hate it here. For decades, this place was not a mall, but a large department store, the grande dame of the Canadian retail world, The T. Eaton Company. Or, more colloquially, Eaton’s. I loved every bit of it. Eaton’s was six floors of magic that you were granted access to courtesy of the white-gloved ladies who opened and closed the elevator doors with a flourish, and announced the wonders that awaited you. Second floor, shoes. Third floor, ladies wear.
Or, if you preferred, you could ride the wide, quiet escalators from floor to floor. I loved the escalators because they let the excitement build as the next level came gradually into view. Each floor held something different, and as a child, it was the most incredible place I could imagine. If you had told me Disneyworld was better, I wouldn’t have believed you. I still don’t.
You could buy anything at Eaton’s, and you could do it surrounded by beauty and luxury, in the form of high ornate ceilings, marble stairs, and polished wood trim. The revolving doors at the James Street entrance made a soothing whooshing sound as you moved through them, ushering you into another world where perfectly made up saleswomen offered spritzes of perfume as they moved amid the glass-topped cosmetics counters. It was a world where jewelry and watches, leather gloves, and scarves were laid out in perfect rows, a mixture of elegance and practicality. Handbags and wallets, purses and hats. All this on the main floor alone.
It was heaven, and then it was gone. I had taken it for granted, assuming it would live forever, but almost overnight all this beauty became a pile of rubble and dust. The store was eventually replaced with another Eaton’s, half the size of the original, and attached to this generic mall decorated in the awful 1990s colour scheme of seafoam green and peach. No grandeur, no beauty. This place has not aged well, but it is this place in which I now find myself, tired, overheated, and searching for what would have been the basement of the original Eaton’s, in order to fulfill my mother’s only dying wish: for me to scatter her ashes there.
Nine days ago I was sitting in Carol’s kitchen, the urn that contains my mother between us on the table, to the left of my large glass of red wine. Carol is my mother’s best friend. Was her best friend. It’s still so hard to think of her in the past tense. Tall, silver-haired and sharp-tongued, my mother was the polar opposite of Carol, a short, blonde, and sweet-tempered woman twelve years her junior. But their friendship worked, in spite of their differences, and the bond they had was one of the strongest I have ever witnessed.
I knew Carol was struggling through the grief of losing her best friend, grief that was different from mine, possibly even deeper. I thought of my best friend, tried to imagine my life without her, and I couldn’t. You think your friends will always be there. But they won’t. They can’t be. Everyone goes, eventually. Even my larger than life mother, who stood nearly five feet ten inches in bare feet, has been reduced to a small pile of ash. And now that small pile of ash is on Carol’s kitchen table, in an urn.
At the cremation place, while the man in charge talked about the costs of cremation and options for urns, I walked through the room and ran my fingers over the ones on display. SAMPLE ONLY, the labels read. I casually lifted the lid of a brass one shaped like an angel, and peered inside. It was empty. The labels, thankfully, were correct.
Urns are big business and the cremation place promised a style for everyone and something to fit every budget, but none of them looked right for my mother. I told the cremation man we were going to scatter her ashes, eventually. I started to tell him about my plan to take her to where Eaton’s basement used to be, and that this, one of her favourite places in the whole world, would be her final resting place, but he told me he didn’t need to know the details. It was probably just as well.
I don’t remember when my mother first suggested I scatter her ashes over the sales tables in Eaton’s basement. The bargain basement was her favourite part of the store, everyone knew that. Her friends, family, even the Eaton’s ladies who were always interested to see what fantastic deal she would end up with on her regular trips downtown. It started as a joke, something she would say at a party, laughing, after a couple of glasses of wine. A joke that showed not only the reverence she had for Eaton’s and for a good sale, but also illustrated her irreverence, and the way she flew in the face of expectations, and scoffed at traditions. But at some point, as she got older, it became something more than a joke, something important and more urgent. Then later, as she became sicker, the ‘scatter my ashes on the Eaton’s basement sales tables!’ battle cry became real, and it seemed I would be required to carry it out.
“Well, for scattering ashes,” the cremation man told me, “you don’t need a decorative urn, you can just use the basic container that the crematorium provides.” This was a practical solution, and my mother would have approved. Basic black, recycled plastic, and also recyclable once we were done with it. Ashes to ashes, dust to blue box.
I finished the last of my wine, caught up in these thoughts. I looked over at Carol who was quiet, and then to my mother’s container, also quiet. So unlike either of them. I stood up and addressed the urn, arms outstretched, “Well, I guess I have to do this, don’t I? Think I can?” I smirked and raised an eyebrow. Carol started to laugh. My mother had an opinion on everything, especially when it came to my ability or lack thereof to get a job done. We stared hard at the container, waiting for guidance. It remained silent.
Carol walked me out to my car, we said our goodbyes, and I watched her head back into the house with an overwhelming feeling of loss. She was here now, but one day she too would be gone. Like everything else.
I dig my phone out of my bag and call her.
“There’s not a lot to go on,” I tell her. “I mean, I checked with the archives, looking for floor plans or layouts or anything, really, but there wasn’t much. I’m mostly going by memory, but it’s so confusing!” My voice but not my voice. Desperate, pathetic.
“I know it’s hard, but you can’t give up. You can figure it out, you just have to keep trying,” she told me. Her words were meant to be supportive, helpful. But at that moment they just made me angry.
Keep fighting. Don’t give up. You can do it. These words were said over and over to my mother, from other well-meaning friends, as she lay in her hospital bed, the cancer eating at her brain. It was maddening. There was no fight, no positive thinking that could stop the tide of malignant cells. These friends would tell me the same thing, that she needs to keep fighting, there has to be something that can still be done, let her know we’re pulling for her. Hollow platitudes, as unwelcome as the hugs that I accepted with fists and teeth clenched. Stay strong, they would say, stroking my cheek. Like there was another choice.
When she was still conscious, and the doctors said it was only a matter of time, I told her, “We’re going to lose you.”
“I know,” she said with a shrug, “but when your number’s up, your number’s up.” “But it isn’t fair!” I was sobbing.
“Life isn’t fair, and sometimes things don’t turn out the way you want.” Practical to the very end, she had accepted what so many refused to. Shit happens.
I ride the escalator back down and try again.
The food court is quieter now, most of the shoppers have gone back to work or school, and I slowly walk the length of the lower level trying my best to remember.
Step off the escalator and the bins of records and tapes are right here, sporting goods over there. I move to the right, the restaurant comes into view, and its orange vinyl booths are vivid in my mind. I keep walking. The thin wisp of memory is close, but I am afraid to let it take over, afraid that if I let it in, I am going to lose it. Then the fog lifts and I see them. Two large, square tables, shallow bins on legs, heaped with clearance items: socks, toys, cutlery, china. Books, candy, stationery. My mother in her camel coat and pink mohair hat, peering in, shifting items to get to something interesting, picking it up, putting it down again. Picking up something else, showing it to me, smiling. And me, too warm, always too warm, dragging my coat behind me, trying to be patient until it’s time for lunch, grilled cheese and chocolate milk in the restaurant, and then maybe a visit to the toy department on the fifth floor.
The image fades, and I am standing facing an electrical panel and a large potted palm near what had been a dollar store, vacant now, a For Lease sign in its window. This area of the mall is deserted. I reach out and touch the leaves of the palm, and my fingers come away dusty. Fake. I pull out my phone to call Carol, to tell her I am successful, but I don’t dial her number.
The bus is nearly empty for my ride home so I open as many windows as I can, and place the urn on the seat beside me. The air is warm, but the breeze picks up my hair, cooling my neck. I let my arm rest on the urn, and close my eyes.