Illy smiled at the lady behind the One Happy Stop counter who was piling pennies in neat stacks. Her slender fingers flitted back and forth with delicate efficiency, as though playing a tiny stringed instrument. Illy could hear her humming something under her breath and wondered what her story was. What combination of hopes and losses and good luck—or bad—had brought her to this morning, stacking pennies in a muggy corner store? Illy wished she could talk to her, ask her where she was from and if she had a family and whether the song she was humming was as sad as it sounded. But she couldn’t ask any of those things, since, as far as Illy could tell, the woman’s English vocabulary consisted only of numbers and the most basic greetings.
Illy hooked a plastic shopping basket in her elbow and headed for the canned food section. Her gourmet resolve had dwindled after the steaks, and she was mostly back to pepperoni and canned corn. As she reached for a can, she heard a wheeezy cough behind her, the kind that made old men spit into their handkerchiefs. She cringed and turned to see just how close the coughing had been and whether she’d need to wipe off her jacket. Reaching for a tin of instant coffee was the Tuesday Lady from upstairs. Illy had never seen her so close up, but couldn’t imagine there were that many women in the neighbourhood with grey braids that hung nearly till their knees. She looked even older than Illy was expecting, with glassy grey eyes and splotchy skin, cracked and peeling like a layer of old paint.
“Oh hi!” Illy nearly shouted with enthusiasm. She had finally been meeting so many of her neighbours and felt buoyed by the sense of community she was developing. This was her rare chance to get to know Tuesday Lady, maybe build enough of a connection that she could offer to drop by sometime with groceries or flowers.
The woman coughed again and Illy willed herself not to back away from the little specks of phlegm that flew in her direction. “Who are you?” The woman’s voice was low and gravelly. She reminded Illy of a scrawny dog backed into an alley corner, snarling at an attacker.
Illy dropped her voice. “I’m Illy. I live in the same apartment block as you, I think. You’re on the third floor at Harrison, right?” The woman clenched her basket with both hands and looked passed Illy at the canned vegetables. “I’m in 2A if you ever need anything. I’d love to help.”
The woman turned from the rows of cans and glared at Illy. She smelled like old cigarette smoke and dryer sheets. “I’m. Not. Your. Project.” The woman pushed out each word through her pale chapped lips like it was its own sentence. Then she turned and walked slowly down the aisle, still clutching her basket in front of her as though she was pushing an imaginary shopping cart.
Illy felt her eyes filling with tears. She grabbed some pepperoni and a carton of milk, then stared at the piles of pennies while she paid for her groceries without even greeting the lady behind the counter. Illy could still hear the sad humming as she pushed open the door and stepped into the bright afternoon light. Her sunglasses were in her bag somewhere but she didn’t bother pulling them out. She felt jittery and panicked, like someone had just tried to grab her purse or she’d witnessed a car accident. She tripped over a crumbling corner of the sidewalk, grabbing a tree branch to steady herself. She stood there a while, holding the branch, trying to slow down her breathing and figure out why she felt so hurt and shaken. The lady hadn’t whacked her with her shopping basket or threatened to have her arrested, so it couldn’t really be fear that Illy was feeling. It was just that look in the woman’s watery grey eyes, the stiffness in her withered lips that held so much venom and offense when Illy had been trying so hard to be kind. She defended herself for a while, convincing the imaginary jury in her head that she had been brave and generous and that the Tuesday Lady had responded with inexcusable rudeness. She relayed the details of the encounter to the group that now had expanded to include her mother and June and Margaret and most of the Harrison tenants—the phlegm specks and the canned corn and her warm cheery greeting. But the members of the jury didn’t rush to console and praise her. They mostly looked bored. Illy didn’t blame them.
She dropped her case and stared at the sky for a while. It was that dark unlikely blue that kids chose for their crayon drawings of the sky. The dark branches and green leaves of the elm trees crossed across the sky in an intricate pattern. Illy remembered how as a kid she used to lie on the snow under trees just so she could see the pattern of their branches against the sky. She realized that at some point over the years, she’d become a sidewalk watcher—paranoid about slipping or tripping or stepping on gum. Her breathing slowed as she stared at the lacy designs. She thought of Tuesday Lady’s wrinkled face and the old maple tree on her grandparents’ farm that had the most delicate branches. Her panic settled into a sadness at all the crisscrossed skies she had missed over the years.
When she got home she walked straight to her kitchen. Earlier that morning, in an unexpected burst of domesticity, she had baked her favourite cappuccino muffins, and although she’d eaten way too many when they were still warm, there were a few left. Without allowing herself to over-analyze her actions, she set the muffins on a paper plate and scrawled a quick note on a serviette. This is not pity. This is an apology. 2A.
Illy could smell cigarette smoke seeping under the door as she set down the plate. She knocked, then hurried down the stairs.
Later at her desk she began to write a description of bare branches and the sky and the sound that the snow used to make under the hood of her jacket no matter how still she lay. She wrote about that numb stretch of skin between the bottom of her jacket and the top of her long johns and how she squinted her eyes so that the branches filled up her entire view. When she was done, she rolled the paper back to the top. For the Tuesday Lady. She knew she’d probably never show the piece to the woman, but it still felt like the truest title.
Continue Reading: Chapter Thirty-Six