Monday, August 30, 2010

The Steps

The Steps. North-facing, one metre outside the wartime house.

We were a front-door family. One of the most important memories from my life in Shaughnessy Heights happened on the front steps. In Shaughnessy Heights nobody said, “the porch.” It was always “the Steps.” Just like nobody ever said “sofa” or “couch”, it was “the chesterfield.” We had our own lingo.

The Steps was the place where we would gather. Anyone’s steps would do. The steps were made of two-by-fours. Nothing was pressure-treated in those days. There was no indoor-outdoor carpet and no rubber runners. Some steps were painted. There was really just one step to a landing which was a bit wider than the door, and then you were in. Some people had railings on the sides, but not everyone. Eventually, people started replacing the Steps with more upscale decorative and practical improvements. Wrought iron railing came much later. First, some people got poured cement steps and some got the Barkman steps with the little concrete pimples all over. Our house was a holdout. Our steps were replaced with wood, at least once, before the concrete steps came.

It is on the wooden steps, facing north, in the hot summer shade of the wartime house that many of my most pensive memories lay. I would stare at the cracked frontis-stone of poured cement that butted up to the step. Its diagonal crack had grass growing through it in the middle of July. I knew every pebble that was locked into the mix. I spent hours pouting and staring at that hunk of cement, lusting after the good fortune of the family across the street. I was trying to look sad and forlorn, aching with every theatrical muscle of my body and pushing forth my need with every paranormal sensory perceptual gift I was granted to get them to invite me with them. From that step, I’d watch them load a Coleman cooler, blankets, kids, toys, anything a good family would need for an afternoon at the beach. Stonewall Beach.

Take me! Invite me!

The waves of my thoughts would waft across the street as I tried to make eye contact and plead for an invitation to the beach party.

Pity me! You know I’m fun! Let me come too!

The girls, my so-called friends, would pass a smug glance my way, smiling, no, laughing happily, very unlike usual sisterly behaviour, as they piled into the car and drove west to the gravel at Keewatin and then off, north of the city, to the man-made pond at Stonewall. It would have been about 90 degrees in the shade that day. The resentment seethed out of me from those wooden steps after they pulled away and my pitiful theatrics dissolved into a bitter, hard-done-by attitude. I became snarly. I usually imagined myself as a conciliatory girl. A helpful girl. But on those steps, more than once, my less gracious sides were staged.

Later, when I was older, and paying my own way in life, I would return to Shaughnessy Heights to see my parents, and there would still be reversions to the former patterns of family angst. Frequently, situations would arise and my personal turmoil would spill back into that house and out again onto the Steps. There, where as a preteen playing fruits, I had chosen gooseberries and listened triumphantly to apples oranges peaches pears plums bananas as my neighborhood friends would try to guess my fruit so I could jump off the Steps and race them around the house, I sat again, with my mother. For some reason, I was in a fury, and for some other reason, she was sitting beside me in an infuriating calm. She wanted to get me through my fury, but it was not to be. I was fighting mad. Beyond snarly. I was so angry, I pulled my glasses off my face and wrang them into mangled snapping plastic trash, then threw them onto the same piece of concrete that had fed my sullenness many years before. The steps were the stage for poignant moments as well as drama. It was not a private stage being only a scant ten paces from the sidewalk, and the bus stop, for that matter. We had no front fence. What happened on the Steps was community theatre for neighbours and passers by. Except for that one time.

I had been commuting to Fort Garry Campus for a year by the time that hot summer was born. I was starting to realize that Shaughnessy Heights was indeed a cove, an urban cove, a mixed-up urban cove that was hard to describe to others. I’d never bother to explain it. I’d just say, “The North End,” when I told people where I lived, and their eyes would roll back and they’d imagine some mythical place they’d never been and abruptly change the subject.

I had a year of university under my belt and after first year had ended I landed the dream summer job; I became a Park Lady for the City of Winnipeg Parks and Recreation Department. I navigated the city on my ten-speed, from Shaughnessy Heights, jumping crumbling pavement along Selkirk to McPhillips, down Logan to my nest of youngsters at Roosevelt Park on Elgin and Isabel in the city’s core. We had a handsome Pool Man, Harry, another North Ender who was also unfazed by the reputation that preceded this little inner city playground. I received my first eye witness experience with solvent sniffing that summer, and I also met hundreds of kids who were game to sing and dance and cut and paste and roar with laughter over and over again. One day we were given a chance to leave the concrete wading pool for an overnight trip and take a school bus to Birds Hill Park, wherever that was, and go camping and swimming and, man alive, we would do it!

All Park Ladies wore these outfits, homemade of indestructible polyester fabric that was handed to every Park Lady, courtesy of the City of Winnipeg, on their first day of training. We had to buy the pattern and had five days to make our Park Lady outfit. Most people hired a seamstress, but I made my own. Green shorts under a sleeveless goldish-orange shift. No hat. I had about twenty kids in my charge for the beach trip and somehow kept track of them. They filled pop cans and plastic bags with hundreds, maybe thousands of frogs, babies, not long since tadpoles, and threw them into the biffies where people, kids and grownups, entering from the blazing sun and blinded in the contrast of the dark building, stepped on them barefoot, not realizing what they were, and exited in screams and even nausea. I experienced my first official “sexual abuse” instance where one kid’s penis got zipped into his fly when a few of the other boys, probably playing doctor, were interrupted. The boss of our field trip probably had to file an official report. The poor kid had to go to Emergency to get unstuck, and I stayed camping with the rest of them. And we swam again the next day. It was 93 in the shade. We bussed back to the city to drop the kids off at Roosevelt Park, and I rode my ten-speed back into Shaughnessy Heights. I was a mess. My skin clashed with my Park Lady outfit. This was in the days before sunscreen was invented. My freckles were popping and the skin between them was redder than a raspberry. The part of my hair on my scalp was red. The tops of my ears and the tops of my feet were already blistered. It wasn’t my first sunburn but it was serious. I must have slept.

I must have dreamed. I woke. I felt really rough. Fever. Logic would have told me to have a cool bath, but once you pass puberty, your parents stop looking after you in Shaughnessy Heights, and you are not quite sure how to look after yourself. I was still wearing my Park Lady outfit and had been sleeping on the chesterfield in the front room. It would have been too hot upstairs. I was delirious. Again. This was not my first encounter with delirium. It was my second.

The first time I was delirious I had the flu and was about thirteen. I had been asleep and I suddenly woke on the same chesterfield and started raving. My brother and sister thought it was hilarious. I was the circus act of the day. My dad had just gotten home from work. He still smelled of fuel oil, and he was the first to realize that I was speaking from another realm. Maybe what he’d witnessed during the war twigged his awareness. He came over to me.

“Throw me in the garbage!” I was yelling. “Just throw me in the garbage!” The garbage was at the end of the hall near the kitchen, and that is where I wanted to be. From the inside, from the perspective of the delirious teenage girl, I could see myself. My head had become a shiny featureless ball atop a spindly neck. No eyes. No nose. No mouth and absolutely no hair. With this identity, I had no worth. I was determined to be shed from this place.

My dad lifted me from the chesterfield and I became a plank. I was stiff as a board, willing him to shove me head first into the garbage can. He carried me past it, though, and into their bedroom. He’d figured it out. He laid me on the bed and picked up my mom’s hand mirror from their dresser. He put it in front of my eyes, and as soon as I saw myself, I snapped out of it.

The second time, though, I was on my own, too old to expect parental support, and it was in the middle of the night. I lay there in the wartime house that hot July night and opened my eyes to see an illuminated, upside down capital T hovering in front of me, and it offered me a choice. I could stay how I was, very miserable, aching from head to toe, very very sick, or I could become the inverted T. That was a comfortable and peaceful option, and very tempting. I stood up and immediately felt better. The summer sun was rising. The heat wave would continue, but the early morning was pleasant and cool. I went outside through the unlocked wooden screen door and the spring pulled it shut behind me with a familiar bang. I entered the fresh morning air and sat on the Steps. The sun was just coming up over the wartime houses across the street. It was a brilliant yellow light and the dew made everything so clear and perfect. I rested a moment then stood again and went back in.

Odd, I thought, that Bijou, our yappy poodle hadn’t greeted me. Odd, I thought, that I could see myself lying on the chesterfield. I walked to my parents’ room, five paces away, and looked at them sleeping, the dog at their feet. I returned to the chesterfield and lay down and went back to sleep.

The front steps constituted the threshold of my life in Shaughnessy Heights. I crossed them to enter the world and to return to the home. It was the peephole, the magic tunnel of my life. I still can feel that flat urban summer sunrise of delirium. I can feel the comfort of the Steps in silence. I can smell them.

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