‘Good riddance,’ Mother had said when my last girlfriend dumped me. My sister Joan could date two-timing losers or drug-dealing depressives, and Mother would encourage her to stick it out. ‘Long lasting relationships don’t just happen,’ she’d say. ‘It’s a job. It takes work.’ I was in no rush to apply, but Joan took it as a challenge and settled down with a guy named Brent. ‘He’s almost as good looking as your father was at that age,’ Mother said to Joan. ‘Enjoy it while it lasts.’
When my father was dying last spring, a silent understanding grew between me and Joan that Mother would come to live with me after he passed. I was a forty-three-year-old bachelor.
Before selling my parents’ house, Joan took on that dreadful task of sifting through things. Mother was a hoarder. She’d been filling up the nest since we left. Our old bedrooms became storage closets – stacked boxes filled with god-knows-what. Joan called me crying during this purging extravaganza, and I was grateful not to be there.
Mini aftershocks sounded at my place.
‘Michael, don’t you have measuring cups?’ Mother asked. ‘I thought I gave you new towels for Christmas last year,’ she said. ‘This nozzle is useless, it takes twice as long to get the shampoo out,’ she complained.
‘No, Mom,’ I responded. ‘I don’t remember, Mom,’ I said. ‘I’ll get a new one, Mother,’ I promised.
‘I had all that stuff,’ she moaned. ‘Your damn sister made me throw it all out.’
‘I thought you donated everything?’
‘I did, but I’d rather have given it to someone I know.’
She’s been busying herself with chores since she moved in three weeks ago. Before living here, she’d taken the Greyhound to visit me every fall. She knew the lay of the land, so I suggest she go for a walk as I leave for work.
‘There’s those nice antique stores up on Queen,’ I remind her.
‘Overpriced,’ she moans. Mother likes to shop but to her credit and my father’s relief she never spent a fortune. She goes for bargains and buys most of her ‘goodies’ at the Salvation Army or Goodwill. ‘Maybe,’ she says. ‘My knees aren’t so bad today.’
When I get home from the office, she tells me she’s been up the street but that most of the shops are closed on Mondays. ‘I did go to the hardware store,’ she says. ‘I met the owner, Abraham. You probably know him.’
‘How would I know him?’
‘Because, you’ve lived here eight years,’ she says, pulling out a new shower head from her bag. ‘You should meet the people in your neighbourhood.’
I think of that Sesame Street jingle and laugh aloud.
‘Why are you laughing?’ She suddenly looks much younger, childlike.
There is a curious woman in my neighbourhood. She appeared two months ago and strolls around the building that sits on the corner of my block. Every morning I see her walking past on my way to the streetcar stop and again after work. Around and around she goes. I’ve never seen her in any of the stores. Sometimes she stands, staring into space when I pass. She doesn’t seem to notice me, or that I notice her – two invisibles.
She wears the same thing most days: an olive-coloured three-tiered skirt, an over-sized brown leather jacket, and weathered cowboy boots. I imagine a nice body under her many layers. Her straight blonde hair is well past her shoulders. Her skin is tanned with freckles, natural, not one of those fake carroty rub-ons.
Last week I saw her digging cigarette butts out of an old ketchup can in front of the coffee shop. When I offered to buy her a pack, she didn’t look up or say anything but gave a gentle declining wave.
I want to live inside her head. An hour would suffice because I imagine unpleasant things lurking there, beaten down by medication. She slips into my mind at work. Where does she live? What’s her name? What does her voice sound like? And why can’t I stop thinking about her?
My mother calls me at work. ‘Michael, can you pick up milk on your way home? Not that skim stuff you drink, Carnation brand, sweetened condensed. I’m making my rum balls tomorrow. Michael! Are you listening?’
‘Yes. I thought you only made those for Christmas.’
‘They freeze up to three months. It should be in the baking aisle.’
On my way home I read the blue ink on the back of my hand: Carnation. My last question is answered. The invisible woman looks identical to Sarah Berry, at least my memory of her.
Sarah was my mother’s best friend when I was a kid. She was the prettiest mom on the street. Her son was a year younger and played on the same hockey team as me at the local arena. She was a supply teacher at my school. I called her Sarah once in front of my classmates at recess, and afterwards she pulled me aside and said, ‘Michael, I think you should call me “Mrs Berry” at school.’ A year later she quit teaching when she got pregnant. My mother called it an accident. ‘No one waits ten years between children,’ she said.
Mother planned a baby shower for Sarah, and I was roped into decorating our living room. I protested because it was a girly thing to do, but Joan was on a school trip to New York and Dad was her chaperone. Mom showed me how to make carnations out of Kleenex. I layered four pieces, folded them back and forth, folded again, and then wrapped the ends with twist ties. The tricky part was separating the layers without tearing the tissue. We taped the yellow, pink, and white flowers to our pale blue armchair that would seat the guest of honour.
In junior high, a year after that, Sarah and her family moved out west. It was sudden and I remember being angry. We never saw or heard from the Berrys again.
I had thought about telling Mother about my invisible woman but didn’t think she would understand what I didn’t myself. I curse under by breath when the streetcar driver announces a short turn because I was now eager to tell her I’d made this connection.
I get off on Queen and walk the three blocks down. Sarah’s doppelganger is sitting on a concrete bench outside the post office. I slow my steps, hoping to get a closer look at her face but her head is down.
Mother had made a stew and is ladling it into bowls when I get home.
‘Did you get the milk?’ she asks.
‘I forgot. I’ll go after dinner. Mom, you don’t have to cook like this every day.’
‘What else would I do with my time?’
‘What about friends?’ I ask, sitting down at the table.
‘I don’t need friends. My kids are my friends.’ This has been my mother’s long-standing mantra. We had moved off the street a year after the Berrys and Mother never kept in touch with any of the women – the ones who came to Sarah’s shower. She never established friendships in the new community and acted proud of her loner status.
‘You had friends on Homewood,’ I say. ‘Remember Sarah Berry?’
‘That was thirty years ago, Michael,’ she says, blowing on her stew.
‘There’s this woman in our neighbourhood,’ I tell her. ‘She looks like Sarah.’
Mother drops her spoon and squeezes one hand with her other.
‘She walks around the building on our corner every day,’ I say. ‘She’s strange, mentally ill perhaps. Have you noticed her?’
‘Why would I notice her?’
‘Because, Sarah was your best friend and this woman looks just like her.’
‘Stop saying that. I don’t think of her anymore. She was not a good person.’
‘What do you mean, she wasn’t good?’
‘Can’t you find someone normal to date?’
‘I’m not dating her, Mother. I was just curious. I thought you would--’
‘I’m going to bed,’ she says, picking up her half-eaten bowl of stew.
‘It’s only seven o’clock.’
‘I’m going to read,’ she calls from down the hall.
I stand at the kitchen sink, scrubbing pots, and thinking over and over – she was not a good person. I wonder if Joan knows anything. She had looked after Sarah’s baby a couple times.
The following day I zip to the grocery and back. I leave the can of Carnation and a note: ‘Mom. Working late. Don’t wait up. Michael.’ Instead, I go to the bar with the gang from sales, a mid-twenties crowd. I’ve always preferred the company of those younger than me. Joan told me once that I have psychological arrested development, whatever that means. She was hurt when I didn’t ask for an explanation and angry when I said I didn’t care.
My invisible woman is missing when I get back to the neighbourhood. She stops patrolling after dark.
I sit at the dining room table with warmed-up leftovers. After, I looked out the window and see Mother, who I thought was in bed, coming down the street. She lumbers up the wooden steps to our front door.
‘How do you like the beef?’ she asks, as though her being out late is nothing unusual. ‘I tried out a recipe from that food channel.’
‘Where were you?’ I ask.
‘Out with a friend.’
‘I thought you didn’t need friends.’
‘I don’t,’ she says, dropping her purse onto the hardwood. ‘I took that lady friend of yours out for coffee.’
‘What lady friend?’ I squeak.
‘That woman who walks around the block – the one you’re so fascinated with.’
‘Oh, Mother, you didn’t.’
‘I did. And, she doesn’t look a damn thing like Sarah Berry. I don’t know where you got that crazy idea.’
I trudge to my room like a grounded teenager.
The next morning I leave for work while it’s still dark to avoid my mother and the invisible woman. Deadlines at work keep me consumed all morning. At lunch I call Joan, letting it ring twice before hanging up. I’m afraid of what I might already know to be true.
The slow-moving streetcar home isn’t annoying at all. When I get off at my stop, I glance around and there she is – my mother’s new friend – the walking past.