Published in Markham Village Writers, the Collected Works
Edited by Donna Marrin, 2004
It is January. The hard snow makes crunching noises beneath your feet. The street lights on Yonge Street reflect onto little Woburn Avenue, making the snow there sparkle. It is so cold that ice crystals have formed on your scarf, and your nose hairs tingle. The brisk air is intoxicating, yet your head is clear. Crystal clear. Never so clear. It is dizzying.
Most of the houses on Woburn Avenue still have lights on indoors, for it is only ten o’clock. You can look in the windows and see your neighbours. One woman sits at a computer, a man is reading on a sofa, two children are fighting, and many televisions flicker. What a strange place, you think as you walk. All these occupied boxes lined up in neat rows, so well-organized.
You reach into your pocket and pull out a key. How odd that you should have a key to one of these boxes, but there it is. Some papers were signed, numbers were written down and multiplied, computers went click click, and there was your key. It all seems so fixed – so unreal.
Why do you need a key to your box? Is it for you to get in or to keep others out? But who are you keeping out? Criminals? Robbers? Perhaps they want to steal your stuff. That’s what your house insurance broker said. You believed her then, but now it seems so strange. Why would anyone want to steal your stuff? You don’t want it. Why would they?
That’s all it is.
You insert your key into its slot and turn the door handle. You are surprised when the door opens. You feel very responsible, as if you are obeying some law – following some order.
You go into your box and look at your stuff. You have hutches full of fancy dishes you never use. You have pictures on your walls you never look at. You have a piano you never play. You have candles you never light. You have books you’ve never read. You even have chairs you never sit in. It is all so bizarre. And even more bizarre is the fact that you have never realized the ridiculousness of it all before.
You sit in a chair. You have never sat in this one before. You look around at your other chairs. These chairs are holding you down.
You take off your boots. You hear the jingle of a chain and your dog, Bella, runs down the stairs to greet you. She wags her tail and tries to lick your face.
“Off, off,” you order, not really meaning it.
Your dog. Very odd, this dog thing. An animal with four legs. She never talks to you. She lives in your box and sleeps under your bed. She just walks around your house. Sometimes she sits by the window and barks for no apparent reason. You feed her and pick up after her when she does her job. You don’t like doing it, but you are supposed to. You obey.
The telephone rings. It surprises you. Why would anybody want to talk to you? You answer. “Hello?”
“Is that you?”
You recognize the voice of your mother. “Yes, it’s me.” Who else would it be? Who was she expecting?
“Listen, can you come and pick up some stuff to go to your brother? He’ll come by your place tomorrow night and get it. He’d get the stuff himself but his car’s not working. It needs some stuff replaced in the engine or something. You’re not busy are you?”
Why would you be busy? “No. I’ll come up and get it. See you soon.”
Your mother lives in Markham, which is only a twenty minute drive from your place in Toronto, less now that the toll road is in. You go out to get into another box. This one has wheels. You possess a key to this box as well. You manoeuvre this machine very well, yet you have almost no understanding of how it works. You don’t like driving it, but you are supposed to. Again, you obey.
The highways are well-organized, you think as you drive along with the traffic. All these people in their little moving boxes. Where are they going? In such a hurry too. Off to more boxes lined up neatly in more rows, perhaps.
You are all so obedient. You stay within your white dotted lines. Arrows tell you where to go, what to do, when to do it, how fast to do it, and for how long. Nobody even needs road maps anymore – it is all signed, all labelled. You feel so controlled. You feel trapped.
Is this life? Is this living? You are just following the rules. You are going where you’re supposed to go, when you’re supposed to go there. Your life is about obeying instructions – doing what you are supposed to do.
Even the soup you make when you get home – it is all signed. Instructions are everywhere, even on your stove. All those dials staring out at you, waiting for you, telling you what to do, where to press, what to turn, how far to turn it. Even the dog food has instructions. Three cups of food per day for a dog of forty pounds. You never have to think. It’s all done for you.
You are dead.
You need out.
You stand in the middle of your living room and pick up your dog’s bone. You hold it in your hands for a few moments, contemplating. You don’t know what you are going to do with it. Bella looks at you questioningly.
“Good girl,” you say.
Then, without another thought, you hurl the bone at your living room window. It doesn’t break. It is good glass. Your dog yelps and runs under the table. You need something stronger – something heavier.
You have a lead crystal bowl in your unused hutch. You have to use both hands. You heave it at the window. The glass shatters. You are pleased. Your dog starts to bark at you.
“Quiet girl,” you order. She whines once and obeys.
You take hold of an armchair and half drag, half carry it out the front door into the frosty night. The cold air goes straight into your head. You put the chair down in the middle of Woburn Avenue, upside down. Your dog watches you from the house.
You go back inside to the kitchen and get a plastic ketchup bottle and some scissors. Returning to the chair, you cut the bottle of ketchup in half. It is hard work cutting through the plastic. Ketchup squirts out everywhere – onto the road, the chair, your pants, your hair. You leave the bottle outside and carry in your ketchup-stained scissors.
You stand beside your dog by the broken window and wait. The briskness makes you feel drunk, but you have never been more sober. You can feel the cold air whirring inside your skull. It feels like a hurricane, except you are calm. You are in the eye.
Woburn Avenue is poorly travelled at night. You look at your watch. It is five to midnight. Finally you hear a car. It is coming fast. The driver doesn’t see the chair until too late. The road is slippery. You hear a dull crash.
You open your front door and walk out to the street. A man is getting out of the car.
“What the hell,” he is saying angrily.
“Is everything all right?” you ask.
“There’s some chair here in the middle of the road! Look at that. I’ve dented my hood!” He walks over to the chair which is now wedged between a hydro pole and the car. “What is this? Ketchup?”
“Strange,” you say. “I’m so sorry about your car. I can’t imagine who put it there. Probably some kids bored and looking for something to do.”
The man grunts.
“Do you want to come in and use the phone?” you ask.
“I suppose I should call my insurance people right away.”
“Come on in,” you say.
He thanks you and follows you to your door. Bella greets him happily. He does not like dogs. You show him to your phone.
“Did you have a problem with the window?” he asks, noticing the broken glass.
“Oh that? No. Just needed some air.”
He gives you an odd look. “Would you have a phone book?” he asks.
You give him one. He is still on hold when he notices your ketchup-stained scissors on the coffee table, along with your ketchup-stained hair and pants. He stares at you and gradually puts down the phone. “What the hell is this?” he asks. He rises and starts backing towards the door. “What the hell kind of person are you?”
He doesn’t wait for you to answer. He just leaves. You hear his car engine start and zoom off. You grin. Bella comes over and puts her head in your lap. She starts licking the ketchup off your jeans.
“Good girl,” you say.
It is only ten after midnight, so you play with your dog for awhile. You aren’t tired. You don’t want to go to bed. The cold air keeps coming in through the broken window and you feel alive. You don’t want this feeling to end.
You decide to empty your kitchen cupboards. They look so neat, so organized. You take everything out and dump it on the floor. You empty out the fridge too. You throw bottles and jars on the ceramic tiles below. Many things break, including one tile and the jar of pickled beets. You put your finger in the purple juice and rub it on your face. It is war paint. You are at war.
When your cupboards and fridge are empty and your kitchen floor full, you start to turn over your furniture. You start with the stove, but first you rip off its dials. You have to use pliers. Then you move on to the living room. You find an old saw and start cutting off some of the furniture legs. It takes a long time, and you are sweating by the time you are through with one chair. You throw the legs up at the ceiling. You throw them hard, to try to dent the ceiling, but it is solid. It is easier to just use the saw. You stand on one of the overturned chairs and start sawing at the white stucco. Some of it falls down on you. Bella whines. Your arms soon get tired.
You decide to cut up your carpeting instead. You use your ketchup-stained scissors. This takes quite a while. You don’t have a pattern in mind for your cutting. Sometimes you start ripping it if you have a good piece to pull on. You discover blue and white checked linoleum underneath. You decide to cut out a few blue squares. It is hard work. When you have the blue squares you fling them out the window where the lead crystal bowl lies.
After that you start smashing your ornaments, trinkets, and paintings. You use a metal candlestick holder for this job. It is easy, and quite satisfying. Bella is frightened. She barks at you.
“Ssh girl,” you say. “It’s okay.”
She starts to whimper and hides under an overturned chair.
Next you go upstairs. You smash your computer that sits on the office desk. You pull all the books off the bookcase. You take your scissors – now mostly clean of ketchup – and start cutting through your mattress. Springs pop out at you.
Just then the doorbell rings. This surprises you, as it is now three o’clock in the morning. You answer the door. It is two police officers. “Yes?” you say. Bella greets them with her tail wagging.
“Sorry to bother you, but we received a complaint earlier. That chair in the road? Did you put it there?”
“A chair? No. How odd. Teenagers perhaps.”
One officer is looking at your face. You remember the beets. The other officer is staring at your hair. His eyes move down to your hands. You are still holding the scissors. You notice that there is still some ketchup hardened on. The officers look at each other. “May we come in?”
You hesitate before showing them in.
“What happened in here?” one asks.
“Just doing some renovations,” you reply.
“Are you aware that you have ketchup in your hair and on your pants?”
“No I don’t,” you say, simply.
The police officers glance at each other. “Have you had anything to drink tonight?” one asks.
You reply that you haven’t.
“We’d like you to come with us to the police station, just to ask you a few questions.”
“No thank you,” you answer politely.
They insist, so you agree to go.
They charge you with mischief and send you home. You are told to get a lawyer, so you obey.
By the time you arrive home it is 6:30 in the morning. You have to be at work in two hours. After you shower and change your clothes, you say goodbye to Bella and walk to the subway. You go to a big office and sit in a box. You file papers you don’t understand and leave messages for answering machines whose owners never return the calls.
Your brother arranges for some people to go to your house and clean it up. A psychologist is going to speak to you the next day about what you have done. The psychologist gives you some drugs to take, and you obey.
When you get home from the psychologist’s office the house is mostly all fixed up. There is a new window and new carpeting. Upstairs you discover that you have a new mattress. The broken things have either been thrown out or, presumably if they were salvageable, placed in a big box in the middle of the living room.
You receive the bill in the mail.
You pay it.
What else are you supposed to do?