Chapter Twenty-Six

Margaret was laughing so hard, water kept spraying out of her nose.

“And so there we were, feeling so fit and in shape since we could actually keep up with all the other women, who just happened to be eight months pregnant.” June was laughing too. They were all gathered on the floor of Illy’s living room around a bowl of popcorn. Illy had called Margaret after they’d slipped out of the Pilates class during the break, and Margaret had been happy to abandon the Downton Abbey rerun she’d been watching to hear all about their latest misadventures.

Illy chuckled a little but inside was sulking. She really had thought she’d found an exercise class that she could enjoy and commit to. She considered just attending the class anyway and letting the other women assume she was in the early weeks of her pregnancy. Although that could obviously only last a couple months at most.

“Oh Illy,” June of course could see through her fake chuckle. “Don’t worry. I’m sure we’ll find another class we feel comfortable in.”

“Maybe Step Aerobics for Seniors?” Margaret still hadn’t stopped laughing.

Illy had to smile. You just couldn’t sulk long when someone had water spraying out of their nose. And she was glad to see Margaret so happy. Ever since the coffee shop confession, Illy had noticed Margaret didn’t laugh much. “Okay. So it was slightly pathetic. And I’ll obviously never be the exercise guru my mother has groomed me to be. But I am walking to work every day, and I’ve been consistent and committed to it for two straight days now. So there’s hope.” She tossed a piece of popcorn into her mouth. One of the least emotionally damaging legacies her street fighting ex-boyfriend had left her was an addiction to evening popcorn. Every evening he had faithfully turned on his favourite gangster rap album, pulled out his grandmother’s cast iron pot, and made the fluffiest popcorn imaginable, the old-fashioned, shake over the stove way. Illy hadn’t understood why anyone would go through that hassle when the bags only took two minutes in the microwave, but after they’d broken up she’d found herself craving his popcorn every night around nine o’clock. So she’d invested in a big pot and soon was hooked. It felt so pioneer-like and wholesome, and besides the fact that it made her gassy, really was the perfect evening snack. Margaret and June showed up for it as often as possible.

“And how’s it been going? “ Margaret mumbled through a mouth full of popcorn. “The work part, I mean, not the walking.”

“Well, it’s only been training so far, so it’s pretty boring. I’m reading lots of phone manuals and lurking behind the real sales technicians like their socially maladjusted cousin. But everyone’s really nice and it’s sort of fun watching all the people in the mall.” Illy wiped her finger along the bottom of the bowl. Streetfighter had also introduced her to the glories of real butter. “I think people are afraid that if they look at me I might lock them into a Vulcan mind meld and coerce them into buying thousand dollar phones, so they pretty much avoid looking in my general direction. It’s like having unlimited staring opportunities. Plus we have a cappuccino maker under the counter.”

“Wow. Not bad at all.” June seemed to have temporarily forgotten about the radiation component.

It was true. The job was turning out better than Illy had expected. Simon was being ultra-friendly and helpful. He and Sally had even set a little plate of fudge outside her door congratulating her on her first day, which Illy didn’t know people in modern urban centres did any more. She assumed she could discard her mother’s warnings against ever eating any homemade or unwrapped food gifts from non-family members. Brownies from her new boss and fellow writing club members seemed to belong to a different category than razor-laced apples and cyanide cookies at Halloween. Plus it felt good to have a reason to change out of her pajamas before lunchtime. She’d even plucked her eyebrows that morning, a grooming event usually reserved for blind dates and hair cut appointments.

“But enough about me. Really. I appreciate all your concern and vested conversation interest in my life over the last few weeks, but now can we shift the focus for a while? I think we’d all agree I’m self-absorbed enough as it is. Margaret, have you had any revelations about how to escape from your job?”

Margaret’s smile vanished. She rolled a popcorn kernel between her fingers and sighed. “No. Nothing.”

Illy immediately regretted her question and looked at June with pleading eyes. June was the wise resourceful one. Surely she had a plan. Or at least some encouragement that could wipe that awful hopelessness off Margaret’s face and get her laughing again. She could tell June was thinking hard. She was rubbing under her chin with her thumb, which Illy knew meant she was feeling for stray hairs that needed to be plucked. June was dreadfully embarrassed when she’d discovered Illy knew that’s what she was doing and swore to never do it in front of other people again, but when she was completely absorbed in her thoughts, she did it unknowingly. It was always comforting for Illy to see. Both because it was one of those glimpses into another human’s imperfections that made her feel less alone in her own weird insecurities, and because it meant June was thinking really hard and would probably have a solution to the current problem within minutes.

Except this time she didn’t. She just sat there rubbing her chin while Margaret picked at the popcorn kernels in the bottom of the bowl, then suddenly stood up. “I should go. It’s getting late. Thanks for the popcorn and the laughs.” She smiled at Illy, though Illy could tell it was more of a don’t-worry-about-making-me-feel-awful-about-myself kind of smile than a genuinely happy one. Which of course made Illy feel even more awful.

“I should go too,” June said as she pulled on her sweater. I’ll walk with you to the bus stop.”

They all gave each other quick hugs and promised to meet for Evening Popcorn again soon. Illy went to the window and watched her friends disappear down the sidewalk. Hours later, lying awake in her bed and staring at the street light patterns reflecting through her blinds, she could still feel the helplessness settled deep in her gut.

~~~~~~~~~~~~

The next morning, Illy crammed one last t-shirt into the washing machine and leaned on the lid till it clicked. She knew her mother would faint if she saw how full Illy packed the machine, but she just couldn’t justify another three dollar load for a couple of t-shirts. She added extra detergent to compensate. Besides, her mother would also faint if she knew Illy didn’t separate her colours and whites, do any pre-scrubbing or even own dryer sheets,, so Illy banished her mother’s presence from her psychological laundry space altogether.

Illy hated the basement laundry room. It was dark and musty, and she could smell the hockey equipment mouldering in the tenants’ storage spaces that lined the wall. She always wondered why people couldn’t wash their hockey equipment more regularly, but when she’d suggested the idea to some hockey players in her Intro Psychology class, they’d looked at her with shock and then burst out laughing. Apparently there was some sporty magic contained in all that rotting sweat and padding. If she ever married someone who played hockey, she’d make him sign a pre-nup agreement regarding the location of his hockey bag. She realized it would probably be in the laundry room storage space. He’d have to be in charge of laundry.

Illy hurried to the door, eager to get back to her writing and to breathe fresher air. Just as she reached for the handle, the door swung open and knocked her shoulder. She gasped in an overly dramatic fashion since she’d been holding her breath, and scowled at the unintentional offender. It was Crazy Killer Man.

She hadn’t seen him in weeks, and almost didn’t recognize him without his leather jacket. He was wearing a white undershirt and baggy sweatpants— the Laundry Day Uniform—and seemed almost normal until they made eye contact. Then he glowered at her with the panic of a criminal caught crouched over a car battery, and dashed across the room, throwing his clothes into an empty machine before he’d even come to a complete stop. Illy watched him for a moment, fascinated and terrified, then slipped out the door, holding her aching shoulder.

Back at her typewriter, Illy was still thinking about how weird and scary Crazy Killer Man was. She wanted to describe him for Margaret, who was always asking about the people in Illy’s building. Margaret lived in a little bungalow in the suburbs and longed for quirky neighbours, even though Illy tried to convince her that most of the people in her building went well beyond quirky. Crazy Killer Man might persuade her. Illy started typing a description of an ex-convict hiding out in the basement of an unassuming apartment block who hid pistols in his jacket pocket and studied maps of downtown, waiting till just the right moment to whack people with doors.

After a minute, she stopped typing and read the description she’d written. It sounded like a really cliche comic book character. She tore out the paper and looked out the window, remembering the man’s grey sweat pants, the pink bottle of fabric softener that lay on top of his laundry basket, the way his hair curled over his ears. She tried again. Leonard missed his wife before he even opened his eyes. Her absence was a presence lying beside him that he could smell in the sheets and hear in that immense morning silence.

Two hours later Illy was still writing. She’d developed an affection for the man she’d named Leonard—his conscientious laundering and his jittery grief. Margaret would like him too, would probably tell Illy to make him muffins or something. Illy finished her paragraph and stacked up the first few pages of his story. Maybe she could make a copy on her way to work and give it to Margaret as a little Happy Wednesday present. She still had no solutions for Margaret’s job dilemma, but she could at least drop off a goofy story to cheer her up. And maybe a chocolate bar. Sometimes the most you could do for your friends was just show up in the middle of all the despair and bring some snacks.

Continue Reading: Chapter Twenty-Seven