He was definitely underdressed.
Blake switched his briefcase from right to his left and jammed his cold fingers into the warm coins and paper clips in his khaki’s pockets, remembering how that very morning, he’d stared into the closet, right past a cardigan sweater and picked out his linen shirt. Kate had once jokingly remarked that he dressed like a professor in the movies. They’d had a chuckle though Kate had actually stumbled onto the truth. Dressing the part had given Blake the confidence to stand in front of a classroom of undergrads and believe they would take what he had to say seriously.
He favoured the houndstooth blazer and denim shirt for casual lectures like talks on early twentieth century poetry. His cashmere pullover was reserved for more elegant affairs such as book launches and introductions on symbolism in Chaucer. Linen was strictly worn when discussing classic stories charged with social commentary. It was just his luck to hit the Jane Austen module when the temperature decided to take a plunge.
Now, walking home against a brisk wind, the cold piercing his loosely woven shirt and swirling about his torso and arms, he could imagine how tea bags felt.
‘Blow, blow, thou winter wind’, he muttered reminding himself he was nearly home. Then, he caught sight of one of Gary’s poster fluttering on a nearby phone pole. The wind had ripped the poster right under Gary’s nose. Gary’s eyes flapped around the pole, returning again and again in a sightless “j’accuse” just as Blake remembered the remainder of the quote: ‘Thou art not so unkind / As man’s ingratitude’.
Blake’s gaiety instantly evaporated.
He a fraud. He was self-centered. Lost to thoughts of his comfort while poor Gary was who knew where? Perhaps starving, thirsty, injured? A fresh gale blew bits of earth and sand into Blake’s face stinging his cheeks and brow. Blake dove into the wind, accepting its judgement and punishment. He deserved it and more. Rather than quipping Shakespeare quotes, he should be hurrying home to check in with the shelters again. To make more posters.
By the time Blake reached his house, he could barely feel his face.
He went in the back way, over the patio stones, through the latched gate door, just brushing clear Alves’s treacherous iron gate which was yawning into his yard until he stood in the mulch he’d piled around the hydrangea bushes.
Blake stared at the patches of spotted yellow grass Gary had favored, then noted that the old dog’s plastic chew toys were scattered all around the yard. They were covered with pale gray tooth marks but they no longer spoke of Gary’s full dog life. Rather, the bits of rope and the scuffed squeaky steak only confirmed that Gary had deserved more.
Dogs and maple walnut fudge had always been a weakness of Blake’s mother. Throughout his childhood, she’d regularly brought home mutts and runts and had given them colourful names like Foofur and Mooch and Bingo and Lucky. Gary had been the exception. He’d apparently “told her” his name.
Everyone –being Blake, his sister Judy and a case worker from the CCAC – argued that adopting a blind pit bull was a questionable choice for a woman of a certain age who needed a walker. He weighed over fifty pounds, all of it muscle and had the boundless energy of a two-year old. But Dorothy had stuck to her guns. They needed one another, she’d said. And it was good she did, too. Gary’s love and devotion had been a comfort to them all, especially near the end. And now, he’d lost him.
Blake set his keys on the hall table and stood there a moment realizing how quickly the sounds of his arrival had been absorbed by the empty house, swallowed like a dime by a bowl of thick tapioca.
Refusing to succumb to the silence, he crossed to the living room, turned on the TV and flipped through channels until he found the Weather Network. It was currently 14 degrees.
He briefly considered inviting Kate over but she normally refused midweek invitations. At the beginning of their relationship, Blake would often offer to make the trek to her place but Kate seemed to always have a reason to refuse him. It had become such a consistent refrain that at one point, Blake asked her point blank why he wasn’t welcome. Kate had declared she was a private person and that she had a right to that privacy under sections 7 and 8 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. And if Blake had a problem with that, he could walk away like every other man she’d ever gone out with.
She was a complex creature.
Strong yet vulnerable. Meek with sharp edges. A renegade spirit. A wild child. A gypsy. An enfant terrible. She was Shakespeare’s Kate and Saint-Exupéry’s little fox. And he would tame her.
Blake’s stomach growled. He grabbed a piece of string cheese from the refrigerator door and walked over to the window, pulling the mozzarella into long thin laces. Spotting his neighbour out in his backyard, rooting around in the dirt, Blake discretely slipped behind the curtains to watch him.
The old fellow was covered in muck up to the elbows as though he’d just sprouted from the garden bed – a species of dirty, bald mushroom feasting on decaying roots. It was impossible to believe he could have ever been married.
You normally saw Rose outside. She was always dressed neatly and rarely without a broom in her hand. She’d never been able to speak more than three or four words of halting English but somehow, she managed to communicate that she was a warm and compassionate human being. She’d died a dozen years back. Then, his family had stopped coming around – Blake’s mother had all sorts of theories about it.
Afterwards, it had been like watching a vacant house succumbing to spiders and mold. Once Alves had become used to living alone, his humanity decayed and any trait that made him, him, was lost in the backyard dirt.
Blake enjoyed his solitude, particularly when he was writing. But in the wee hours of the night, solitude fabricated deception, re-examining every word ever uttered and every intercepted glance. Was he destined to become the next Alves? As he stood there, pondering his fate, Blake took a bite of his cheese and was pleasantly surprised to discover that braiding had somehow made the mozza better.
The temperature had dropped to 12 degrees before Blake noticed the message light was blinking on the answering machine. He crossed to the machine and hit the play button.
“Hello. This is Miriam Mitchell. I’m the fiction editor at Brick Magazine. We’ve had the opportunity to review the first five pages of your short story “Inert” and would be interested in reading the remainder of it for our next issue. Could you please give me a call at your earliest convenience.”
Then came a number which was repeated. Twice. Shaking a little, Blake rewound the tape and listened to the whole message again. This time, he also heard the commas and the quote marks.
“Jesus on a stick!” said Blake.
Next week: Blake excites Kate for all the wrong reasons.