Jean McKay

WALK, WALK

     We've come to watch Daniel walk. He's built a wooden boardwalk inside the front window of the gallery. Pale unpainted boards, evenly spaced, it's a tidy piece of carpentry. An interior white wall runs beside the boardwalk, and he's screwed a clothes hook into it to hold his baggy suit; dark brown jacket and pants. Just before 7:00 he gets into the suit, puts on a pair of brown shoes and a fedora, and starts off. He sets a brisk pace, but he doesn't look like he's hurrying. His shoes click decisively. He covers the length in thirteen strides, turns, thirteen back.
     The rest of us have been on Toronto Island all day, with our bikes. We had to race for the ferry, to get here on time. I've still got my bathing suit on under my clothes. My hair's full of sand. I get a bottle of beer from the gallery's fridge, and watch as he begins. Thirteen steps, turn, thirteen more, he plans to keep at it for an hour.
     I wander outside with my beer, join the crowd on the sidewalk. From here we're looking up at him. He's rigged a microphone under the boards, so the sounds of his footsteps are broadcast into the street. Passersby by stop and watch for a while. A kid walks in step below him, back and forth, on the sidewalk. Makes about a dozen passes, and gives up, laughing. An old couple come along, carrying bags of groceries. The woman says, "What's that now?" and her husband says, "That, Mabel, is yer Performance Art." They keep going.
     I go across King Street to get a distant view. Sit down on the curb with my beer. The dark clothes against the white wall make him look like a little moving logo, like the man sowing seeds on the spine of a Simon & Schuster book. The rumpled cut of the suit, moving through the dream-like seashore atmosphere of white light makes me think of Jacques Tati in Mr. Hulot's Holiday. The parking lot attendant comes over and sits down beside me. We light up cigarettes, smoke while we watch.
     "What's he saying with that?" he asks me. I shrug.
     "Maybe it's the artist's life," he says, "a long walk, never gets anywhere."
     "You must see a lot of interesting stuff from over here."
     "Oh yeah, there's always something."
     A streetcar goes by, clanking and sparking. It drowns out the footsteps. The window frames flick against the larger Mercer Union windows and break up the walking image into a series of little Daniels, flipping down the length of the car like early experiments in animation.
     Back and forth. There's a fair bit of traffic, but cars slow down while their drivers take a look. From this distance, as the hour wears on, he's beginning to look brave and intrepid. He takes off his hat and wipes the sweat from his head. His face is neutral, non-committal, although occasionally he smiles on the turn at the people watching him from inside.

- - - - - -

     The following winter, back home in London, a cold and dreary December morning. I'd parked my car and was walking across the street to work, when I was suddenly overcome by the effort of locomotion. I was putting one foot in front of the other, but it felt like I was walking on the spot, spinning the street back under me, a long tedious slow-motion log-rolling event. My days were a blur of test tubes, lab coats, telephones, computers. No windows; this near the solstice I saw daylight only on the weekends. The work equation, the exchange of time for money, was beginning to feel unbalanced; my way of looking at the world was thinning out. I missed the nourishment of time unraveling, unregulated by the clock. There was no opportunity for the sweetly accidental. And now here was some trick of perception, presenting me with clear evidence of futility: a long walk, never gets anywhere. So on the first of January, I quit. And then every morning I put my feet, one in front of the other, on a piece of neighbourhood sidewalk, to see where it got me. To see what I could see.

 

January

Up Cathcart to Devonshire, back down Edward, picked up a Globe at B&E. Three windchimes, including the one next door; rainwater gurgling in the drains; crows; a tawny damp labrador loping down a sidestreet.

Saturday morning, up to have a shower, the light bulb was flickering and pinging, I dropped my clean underwear into the toilet. January thaw. Rain all night, the lower backyards submerged.

Sitting in the living room lamp-light, wet from my walk, eating bread and marmalade. All this has brushed across the feelers of some old stored memory; it stirs but doesn't surface. I think about getting up early to go duck-hunting, but that's something I've never done.

East on Briscoe, hello to Tim's cousin on his way to school, south on Wortley past Tecumseh to Duchess, west on Duchess to Deane, north to Tecumseh, west to Cathcart, up to Briscoe. Sneaker heels thunk thunk thunk. A woman with two dogs, one leashed, the unleashed one under voice command. Back off, she said to it when it passed me.

Took an umbrella for the first time, although god knows there hasn't been a dry day yet. Found a length of wrapped wire, yellow, with an occasional blue stripe.

Up Cathcart to Emery, across to Edward, Star and milk at B&E. How quickly, out of nothing, a pattern forms. Had the sense to take a scarf and kleenex. Yesterday I was wiping my nose on my glove. Temperature's dropped us out of that dreary wet. The soggy puddle at the bottom of the garden has frozen. Sky sparkling blue and yellow, like some kind of over-coloured kids' movie.

Snot, snot, I've forgotten how to be sick. Took to my bed, with Snow Falling on Cedars. Combined with cozy tuck-down naps, salmon sandwiches, I began to read about mid-afternoon, finished at 2:00 a.m. The bed filling up with juice glasses, newspapers, ashtrays, cats, cracker crumbs, used kleenexes. I began to feel like the giant slattern bird, building its winter nest.

Triangles of cedar shingle drying on newspapers on the kitchen floor, and Yo has decided to frisk with them. He frisks about twice a year, so it's an event. Wind so strong and gusty yesterday it finally blew down the corncob a squirrel had left in the eaves trough. Cleaned up the house (the trashed bed alone was a challenge). Seven-layer dinner sadly spent two days in the stove, instead of the fridge. Too bad, it was a good one. Cold outside, the cats won't risk it.

Down Cathcart to Bruce, over to Wortley, up to Tecumseh, back to Cathcart. What if you were plummeted into only these walks and had to extrapolate civilization from them? You'd be struck by the quiet of the weekends. This foray onto Wortley would be a big adventure. Stores, instead of houses. How long can a nose run? It's become the normal state. Blew it en route, and steamed my glasses. Cheered up by about Duchess.

Checked out the ice at the bottom of the garden. It's covered in a skiff of snow, and the story of a rabbit adventure. Tidy little four-circle track comes out from the fence but in the middle she slipped and skidded, the tracks are huge. That's what I noticed first, and thought Yikes, a giant rabbit of the night. Then they go back to tidy.

Slow start. Laid in until 8:00, listening to ice storm news, dozing. And then, an embarrassingly short walk, the shortest possible if they're to be more than linear. An inch or so of snow, a sparkling chain of lively footprints. I get that zing of excitement over tracks in the snow that archaeologists feel at cave paintings. Who are they? Where were they going? I compose the music for them in my head as I walk along. Evidence of one small rabbit, a dog trotting bravely along, bound to his/her master/mistress by either love or a leash. My own, coming out as I come back in. Tim's tires (driving his mom to work) dangerously close to the gas meter. One joyful twirl of doggie pee that looks like a drizzle of maple syrup in the snow.

Snow-white sunny blue day, like Calgary, we're talking the quintessence of January.

Cold, waking up. Cats sleeping by the register. The way to avoid steaming your glasses when you blow your nose is to leave them at home. Never mind if you get hit by a truck and have to sign a consent form before they operate. You can make them read it out loud. Beautiful round moon getting ready to set. Hush, blush of the delicate day beginning. Nobody but me out just for the hell of it. Chirping bird, cawing bird, barking dog behind a door, my crunching boots, the moon. A few little sly smiles of ice under the snow, so you can't just stride out like a Charley Girl.

Snow in flakes. Actual articulated feathery flakes. Snows of our childhood. The kind we were aiming for, when we cut them out of paper. The Sunday School proof for the existence of God. Each one beautiful, and no two alike. For the eternal depth of His love they used grains of sand. Even at seven I thought to wonder how the hell they knew no two were alike. They don't hang around to let you compare. I should have been a scientist. When does a sense of wonder turn into scepticism? Anyway, here they are, cold, complex, and beautiful.

They must be using a different plow blade. Ordinarily, when they do the streets they leave an impenetrable barricade of rubble across the driveway (Speedy Muffler rub your hands in glee), but this one spreads it evenly right across the sidewalk so that walking is impossible. It depends on the second stage, the cute little sidewalk plow. Indeed, this was done on all the streets but mine. I wonder if the postmen alert them to the ones they've missed. Communication within the infrastructure? Fat chance. A mix of detritus, with this double plowing. I don't know why I persist in this spelling, when I prefer plough. Dead leaves, bits of sod, grass roots where they cut too close. Dirt, so the cut sidewalk trenches have a floor of brown. Bright pink of shattered bubble gum. Unchewed, they were going for the hockey cards. One bright splash of yellow, the colour of bile. But a circle the size of a dinner plate. Human bile doesn't appear in such quantity. At least mine doesn't. (A vivid vomit on ER last night. One of the best. Indoctrination on a national scale: don't shoot heroin. Beamed into bunkhouse, penthouse, tenement and bayou.) A bird, over my head, and I look up to dark lacy branches, up from the colourful bile and bubble gum to black, muted browns, grey sky, silence.

Sunday quiet, but more other walkers than yesterday. Met an old gentleman, said good morning, then his foot-prints went with me, backing up, for a couple of blocks. Fresh snow on the old snow, prints brown on the slurry of the street, white on the sidewalk. Woman in a bright red bunty Neon, wearing a bright red bunty hat parked and headed for the Pentecostal church. Then, a thin zealous-looking young man, similarly bound, with a big book, perhaps the pastor, with bright red gloves.

The zany bird-feeder man is truly gone. Apartment empty, and for rent.

Fluffy is the word for to-day's snow. I've misplaced my toque, so I'm wearing the hat that makes me look like T.S. Eliot's poor mad wife. CBC Arts Report this morning said that Ted Hughes is getting out a book of poems about his time with Sylvia Plath. Said it puts him on a level with Blake and Auden. Who writes these things? You stagger back as from a fresh bomb crater. No scraping sounds (no ice), but cars idling while their bundled-up people brush at the fluff. The kind of day that could suck you into walking every sidewalk in the city.

Advancing dawn means it's lighter every day (weather being equal, which of course it never is). Cloudy, but a higher ceiling. The sky all one piece, dark blue, a sliver of promise around the lower edge.

Snow, snow, a big dump, wore an old pair of some kid's high school boots. Tim's car tracks so close to my house I can't believe he didn't hit it.

Across to Wharncliffe, down to Tecumseh, back to Edward. Going-to-work traffic whizzing by on Wharncliffe. That other world, at the far end of the neighbourhood. A day like any other, weather-wise. Old snow, ice, dirt. Rocky's virulent yellow pee still marking the telephone pole. Dogs piss, but what they piss is pee.

Up Cathcart to Emery, across to Edward, cigarettes at B&E. Feels perfunctory, but why not? That's what happens when an activity becomes habit. I don't expect an orgasm every time I brush my teeth. Although, the icon in my head for IDEA, the equivalent of the comic book light bulb, is watching my eyes snap to attention in the bathroom mirror, with a tooth brush stuck in my mouth. (And, there are the highlights: once, for example, I put my neck out brushing my teeth and had to go to the chiropractor, driving facing out the side window, watching the road through my peripheral vision. A more sensible person might have taken a taxi. He said, while he crunched my spine back into alignment, that the more likely underlying cause had something to do with playing the cello for five hours the previous day, after not having touched the instrument for two years. You might want to practise more frequently for shorter periods, he said. The medical profession is full of good advice.) But this walk was perfunctory only in terms of the route. It's the first day the sidewalks have been bare. Little shelves of ice hang out over the edges, rooted in the snowbanks, a miniature of the shore ice along the Great Lakes. I love the way Physics just quietly does its thing. Works well without supervision. This is what ice does, and it's just going to buckle down and do it, wherever it gets the chance.

Snowflakes dropping like mana, like shredded kleenexes, like dead bats. I stood out in the yard with a sheet of black construction paper, caught them. Plop. Made some snowmen. How much good snowman snow do you get, in the average winter? Damn little. It wasn't all that good, actually. Rolled spectacularly, but it was so wet and heavy I couldn't lift the torsos. And when I did the bottoms collapsed.

 

February

The plopping Oobleck snow stopped yesterday just after I made the snow-men, and melted, and overnight there was about an inch of granular sifting stuff, so the tracks were very precise, as if they'd been done with cookie cutters, through to the dark wet underneath. Several quite beautiful designs, crossing, weaving, all bent on going somewhere; at the corners I regretted the loss of some, picked up new ones. Busy, teeming, there was no sound to it but it felt noisy. I was thinking story, stories, there's a whole novel on these strips of sidewalk that by noon will have melted away. I fell to singing Tell me the stories of Jesus, looked it up when I got home. What a peculiar narrative point of view. The kid knows the stories of Jesus already, and is delineating the particular ones she wants to hear again. At the end she says I don't care, whatever, as long as it's a story of Jesus, I want to hear it. Little suck. I was following several tracks, but I couldn't see my own. As soon as I made one it was gone, behind me. I stopped to have a look at them. Not as intricate as some, but clean, interesting. Creditable. A track I could feel proud to leave.

Grey day, although some American groundhog already found himself some sun, according to the CBC. Didn't leave here until 8:00, so there was a lot of go-to-work go-to-school bustle. Sidewalks dry, but occasional patches of crusty ice, frozen from yesterday's melt. An old lady with a cane remarked on it. Movement changes as we age. Kids frisk on that ice, I'm being careful, she's taking her life in her hands. In from the grey day, the warm light on the worktable brought up some small vivid flash of the dearness of going to school. Wet snow-pants, your own little wooden desk, Beverley Stebner's immaculate ropey pig-tails, the morning bustle of getting started. Get out your arithmetic notebooks. It's gone now, I can only remember remembering it.

Across to Wharncliffe, up to Langarth, back to Cathcart. Coffee water won't drip through unless you pour it in the top. Leave it in the pot, and it stays there. Remarkable as gravity is, it can't wreak miracles. I learned this a couple of weeks ago, and learned it again this morning. Snow crusty and stale, clutching the boulevards like psoriasis. Forces you back from precious perception to mere generalized thought. I wonder if there's down-time in Buddha-land? What's the haiku like after the lotus blossoms have fallen? I guess they take care of that with ah! the fallen lotus. But after that? Sat on the back porch while the coffee-water dropped. Back-yard trees lovely, but only there, only themselves.

Earth's tilt evident this morning, probably because of the high ceiling. It's not just that the light comes sooner, it comes differently. It's a separate thing from weather and its vagaries. More like returning colour in a convalescent's cheek. Made me feel upright and amiable.

Sun casting a shadow, my shadow, over the wretched snowbanks. They're locked into -1° temperatures, so all they do is get dirtier. I imagined a low camera angle, me and my shadow stalking across the cold desolate terrain. The world abuzz, of course, with bustle and traffic, but there I was nevertheless, my movie laying itself down over their movie.

Across to Edward, up to Emery, over to Wharncliffe, down to Langarth, Globe & Star at John's Convenience (not when, where?), back to Edward. Sunday, but too early in the day to check my budding theory that Pentecostals wear red haberdashery. Lovely clear crisp morning, John had Choral Concert on the radio. A black deflated balloon at Briscoe and Emery, covered in frost. Made it look like velvet, or a condom dropped by Satanic revellers.

Pavement between Wortley and Ridout pitted, as if someone had dropped blobs of acid. Half a dozen footprints of a female boot, right in the cement. And a big glob of frozen spit. Must have been horked up in the middle of the night when it was colder, because it froze before it flattened. And, most beautiful of all, a golden pear core, also frozen, glowing in the sunlight. Through the blessed gift of memory I can place it as companion to the black balloon from yesterday. Although they're both still out there, in reality, three blocks apart.

Puny linear walk, I nevertheless found a great button: I'M HERE ABOUT THE BLOW JOB.

I love the sidewalk immoderately, all its heaving and warping and patching.

Coffee in the village. Sidewalks come alive again in the rain. Last week or so they've been dry. Sneakers, instead of boots. Coat genuinely soaked when I got home. Restaurant coffee giving me hot flashes.

Fragments of a car grille on Wharncliffe, I was prying off the PONTIAC word, but then thought I might be tampering with evidence so I left it. Picked up a blue bottle-cap liner instead: please try again. A slice of evergreen branch on Langarth, still smelling of the northern woods, and a purple button. Studied the postman, a professional walker. Going at a trot, in the rain.

Across to Wortley, Globe at Angel's, down to Tecumseh, back to Cathcart. Little Pentecostal poodle, snappy red waistcoat. His mistress looked United.

Up to Emery, across to Edward. Streets lined with blue boxes. Little houses, little yards, snow-blowers, blue boxes, everybody's got one of everything.

 

March

Buoyant sunny spring-like day. Although a cold cut to the wind.

Found a yellow plastic bird whistle.

Found a radiator cap. Caution. Remove Slowly. Fuel Spray May Cause Injury. Fuel? Must be a gas cap. Sidewalks wet, a lot of drenched leaves, maple keys, brown evergreen needles. It's light before seven now. Big box in somebody's garbage: Dwarf Rabbit Starter Set. No sign of the rabbit. May he be safely indoors. Ad for a pet cemetery at the vet's yesterday. Sandy Ridge. Is this name meant to assure us that they have good drainage? They go on to explain that the place is funded by some kind of annuity, so it won't be sold to a developer and the sacred little carcasses dug up by a backhoe. Well, they don't explain all of that. I just rode the train to the end.

Little skiff of wet snow from overnight, being held cupped in patches by the grass, looks like Queen Anne's Lace. Sidewalk chalk art, hopscotch but also drawing, in coloured chalk. I've seen three of them in the last week, two this morning, the snow's melted off and left them blurry and glistening. Soft to the boot. Woodpecker at Elmwood. Couldn't see him.

One square of sidewalk loomed at me, I wanted to eat it, fall upon it and kiss it, write the topography, invent the life story of every ant that crossed it. Bring out the tub and take a bath on it.

Sometimes I amble, sometimes I trudge. Sidewalk thrusting its geometry at me. Or rather its deteriorating geometry, slopes, heaves, sink-holes. When you make a sidewalk, by and large you try to get it right. Physics helps out, to a certain extent. The cement's wet, finds its own level, cures in a fairly predictable way. Then time starts to work on it. I'm obsessed with the change, the random beauty of the cycle.

Rain, umbrella. Not cold; gloomy if a person were into gloom. The wet sidewalk world between boot and umbrella edge. Blobs of beige kleenex that I mistook for chunks of coughed-up lung. Barking Irish Setter lunged at me until he reached the extent of his chain.

Nippy again, powdery snow, back to the big boots and toque. Sidewalk under there, a spine, a river. Some walks cleaned, shovel, broom, snow-blower, you can tell which by the marks. Compacted white footprints on the swept ones. Cloud cover thin, the sun's up there waiting to make it Spring.

Snow, snow, mounds, piles, armloads, cushions, puffins. Snow falling in my backyard, why don't I just sit down and write Snow Falling On Cedars?

Santa banner still hanging out over a store in the village, says HO HO HO, or OH OH OH depending on your direction. Brisk, snowy bright sun, everything will be dripping by noon.

Rain. The season feels like it has an old piece of dog crud caught in its throat. Puddles and reflections of trees. That whole mirror world, that's so easy to forget about when the streets are dry.

 

April

Sneaker day, the bulbs are sprouting, warm wind, supposed to be balmy by the weekend. Scilla and snowdrops. Was woofed at half-heartedly by a white lab cross.

Nippy. Jacket weather. Kid with a little beagle that I've seen a few times before. Always prepared to smile, a rare thing. Nice to see a kid who hasn't been street-proofed right out of ordinary friendliness. I persist in my sandals, fight the season. They've shown us warm, so we know it's possible; defiance will force them to show us again.

Gave a cigarette to a chilly teen.

Some serious gardening has happened in the flowerbeds. Spring bulbs standing clean. Hyacinth, tulips, daffodils all out, peony and lily of the valley unequivocally declaring themselves. Rectangles of grass a patent green, yesterday's rainwater sparkling in the sun.

Found a zipper tab.

Tall stalking shadow. Clomp, Clomp. Variety-store-related detritus in a dense circle around John's, fades as you walk away. Some lawns with little signs saying DANGER. Because of chemical weed-killer. Like cats can read. They look like little European war-grave markers.

The Tourette's lady was in Tim Horton's, told us all to fuck off before she stomped off into the rain. An umbrella walk, temperature warm, gutters gushing. We're at the green-yellow tree-dropping stage, it all pours along the top of the water, into the drains.

Lovely uses of the grape hyacinth. Must be the season I was handing out pamphlets for the NDP last year, because grape hyacinths were the defining characteristic of that walk. And For Sale signs. They were the defining characteristic of that bloody election. Be nice to hang around with a postman for a while.

Perfunctory walk, the shortest possible, but done. Practised keeping my shoulders level, ready for the violin. Those who are into multi-tasking would stand agog at the interfoliated rat's nest that is my mind. Whistle and knit and carry me kit and fart and drive the coos.

Across to Wortley and back. Got to that corner and neither turn option appealed to me. Holiday weekend, it was very quiet. And I had my silent world-traveled Mekong-mudded Cloudwalkers. A landscaper/gardener guy, with his edger and mower poised to go, taking apart somebody's front porch light fixture to get a plug-in. Bet the neighbours were happy when he started that up at 7:30.

Spoke to two separate women who were out gardening in the fresh cool of early morning. One had just come off the night shift, figured she might as well trim her hedge before she went in to bed.

Early. Blinding horizontal sun illuminated a lady's head. She was wearing one of those netted snood things, red, and it glowed around the silhouette of her actual head like the burning bush.

Tourette's lady at the corner in the village, screaming at the traffic: Useless! Useless! Useless! You can see him every day for the rest of your life. And you can scream Useless! Useless! Useless! She stumbled, faltered over "rest of your life," as if the energy source had flipped off briefly, but the idiom carried her through. Full voice again for Useless. A mournful cry, not the same up-front anger of her usual Fuck Off. Coffee in the restaurant. Waitress talking about her farflung sisters. There's not much difference between Toronto and Montreal, once you get going. You're either here, or away. A brisk beautiful windy morning. Across Askin to Teresa, up to Bruce, over to Edward. Choosing the sunny sides, rather than the shady ones. Garbage day. Everything neatly bundled and stacked. Clutter sucked out of the houses. I imagine the interiors clean and empty.

At the Tim Horton picnic table, where I was doing the crossword, another street person verbalizer sat down. He said (several times), do you want to be robots again, or do you wanna help? A sentiment I'd heard from him before, maybe six months ago, in a context where I mistook it for ordinary discourse.

Rain in the night, finally, a gentle one, not a downpour. Good for my garden's purposes, but maybe not enough for the farmers.

Up Cathcart to Langarth, across to Edward. Globe at B&E. Wet word indented in the pavement, CHAD, that I first noticed back in January, dusted in snow. Umbrella-circle, sneaker-toes, walk, walk.

A deaf couple having a signing argument across an intersection. She was standing at the bus stop with a few other people and I couldn't figure out at first who she was talking to, because none of them appeared to be looking at her. Easy to refuse to listen, just turn away. In a hearing milieu you have to actually walk out and slam the door. Then I wondered if it was a monologue; talking to herself. Then I saw him across the street, exasperated, signing furiously back at her. The dialogue went far beyond the two of them, beyond this intersection. They appeared to be shouting into the windy sky, into the whole world.

- - - - - -

     I ran into Daniel again the next autumn, in New York City. A group of us were on the Staten Island Ferry. We sauntered around the deck, then along the deserted streets on the island, looking for a place to get coffee. It was Columbus day; everything was nailed shut. Daniel was walking. He was dressed in his ordinary clothes, jeans and a windbreaker, but I couldn't stop thinking about the suit, and his amplified footsteps.
We didn't find any coffee, caught the next ferry back to Manhattan. I had a postcard of the skyline, and I stood at the rail, watching as the ferry's forward motion drew the famous landscape into the picture's focus. With a winter of sidewalks behind me, I could feel the sinewy texture of my past laying down its trail. The balance was restored.

 

 

 

- - - - - -

Jean McKay lives in London, Ontario, Canada.  Her books include Gone to Grass and The Dragonfly Fling ( both from Coach House Press), and Exploded View (Douglas & McIntyre); and the chapbook The Page-turner’s Sister (Trout Lily Press). She’s now working on a novel, On Edge.

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