‘There are times/ When a black frost is upon/ One’s whole being, and the heart/ In its bone belfry hangs and is dumb.” – R. S. Thomas, The Belfry
Forty years an outside lineman with Bell Telephone in the Kingston area, he told me as we drove along Bath Road in Amherstview on a muggy and overcast late July day (there’d been rain a little earlier). He never missed a day’s work, he said, nor was he in an accident while driving a work vehicle; and he worked in all weather – “I didn’t mind the cold, so long as there wasn’t any wind” – and mostly alone. When he turned sixty he retired, which was just before Christmas the year before. Then on a day of blowing snow before New Year’s while he was driving with his wife from their home on outer Bath Road, which was on the water side (and which we were on now, too), to the train station to pick up his sister-in-law, who was coming to stay for a few days over the holiday, he lost control of the car on a curve in the road and got turned sideways into the oncoming traffic. “We got hit pretty hard on the passenger side,” he said. “My wife, who was killed instantly, ended up in my lap. I ended up with a concussion as our heads slammed together, the effects of which I’m still dealing with. I’m not the same person anymore, not the same person at all.”
“I’m sure you’re not,” I said, listening.
“She was going to go alone, but I said no, I’ll take you. I’m retired now. I don’t know what happened. We had the snows on, as we always did. The visibility wasn’t great so I wasn’t going too fast – no one was – but I’d driven in worse, a lot worse. The police said I drifted onto the shoulder, then over-corrected. Maybe I did. I don’t know. I don’t remember that.”
“Was it another car?”
“A pick-up, with a snow-plow on it,” he said. “And it was my neighbour, just a few doors down. The wrong place at the wrong time for him too.”
“Jeez. What happened to him?”
“He was a bit shaken –”
“– and the force of the air bag broke his nose, but otherwise not too bad.”
“A young guy?”
“No, about my age. And a good neighbour. Always helpful. Even now he tries to be helpful – given the conditions, he didn’t think anyone was to blame – though of course things are different now. We used to have a beer together from time to time, just sitting quiet down by the water, but not anymore. Can’t drink now anyway. Can’t concentrate for long. Can’t keep my eyes open for long before I start to feel dizzy.”
“Is any of this going to go away?”
“Who knows? I got rattled pretty good, is what they tell me. It sure feels like I did. The doctor I’m seeing today, an eye doctor, is going to try to help ease the strain in the muscles in my eyes. Apparently, the dizziness I feel is the muscles in them going into spasm, or something like that. I’m not sure. He’s going to give me some exercises to do.”
“Can you see all right?”
“Until I start to feel dizzy. Then things get blurry.”
“Was your wife retired, too?”
“No. She was still working part-time. Just at Briargate here we’re about to pass. A dietician. Still liked the job; still liked the people. And she was killed just up here. I’m going to close my eyes for a minute.”
Not only did he close his eyes, as I took the curve, but he put his hand over them too, though, thankfully, there weren’t any tears.
“I don’t know if passing here will ever be easy again.”
“Do you think about moving?”
“I’ve been in that house thirty-five years. It was all rural when we first moved out here. The changes – my God, hard to believe. We raised our family in that house. The children are gone now, so maybe I should, but I can still feel her there. I mean, her things are still there but it’s more than that. And I don’t want to lose it. Not yet, anyway. I find it’s helpful. And being by the water too. We weren’t swimmers – it’s not good swimming there anyway; too rocky – but the lake’s been my backyard for so long I don’t know if I could live without it. Again, not yet.”
“So, what were your plans for retirement?”
“Nothing special. We have a piece of land down towards Glenora, about five acres or so, and about five years ago we planted an apple orchard. About eighty trees, and almost all of them have survived so far – that was her doing, not mine; I mean, she’d tell me what to do and I’d do it – and they’re maybe a year from bearing. Mostly for cider, is what she was hoping. Then there’s about an acre for beans, peas, a little corn, squash. Sell it at the market in Bath on Saturdays. Of course, I couldn’t get at it this year; and I doubt I ever will now. I could give her the muscle, and was happy to, but she had the know-how, always reading about it on the computer. And we were going to help with the grandchildren too. We’ve got a small handful now and one with a few extra needs. Good natured, but still needs a little extra help. It was a life.”
“Sounds like a pretty good life.”
“Maybe,” he said. “But it’s something what you have to survive so you can say that. I mean, the days when the kids were young, and the going non-stop, and then the fights sometimes – you just didn’t know you had it in you to be so angry at someone, and you didn’t know she had it in her to be so angry at you either – but you get through somehow. And then this. Try to do the right things, try to be committed, try to work hard, try to be home when you can, and then this great big hammer comes down and smashes it apart. And that’s really the hard part. Until it happened you felt pretty sure you knew what it meant. Or at least you never questioned it. Now it’s all you do. I mean, when I can think straight it’s all I do. And you wonder too if she’d gone alone that day…”
“You blame yourself?”
“Sometimes. Even more than sometimes.”
By now we were well into Kingston and as I approached Bayridge Dr. he asked me could I take Bayridge down to the water and along that way to the hospital and, going right around the yellow-sided No Frills grocery store, that’s what I did. After that he was silent for a time. I could see too that, dropping his head a little, he’d closed his eyes again. He was a large man, but not overweight, with curly hair that, though still thick, was mostly grey now, and his face, pale, weathered, and bearing still a look both of shock and sadness, was clean-shaven, and his blue short-sleeved shirt was neatly buttoned. He wore clean faded jeans and brown leather shoes. His hands, large and strong-looking, but with knuckles now a little swollen, lay flat against his thighs. When past the airport I turned onto Front Road and he opened his eyes again I asked him his name.
“What was your wife’s name?”
“How long were you married?”
“Did you meet here in town?”
“At a party, or something?”
“No. I was up a telephone pole on a cold winter day back of her house, if you can believe it – she was still living at home then – and out she came with a cup of coffee and offered it to me. I said I couldn’t come down just now as I couldn’t leave what I was doing but if she wanted to climb the pole to give it to me – well, there are spikes on either side of it. I was just kidding, but darn if she didn’t start to climb the pole. But she was like that. Liked an adventure, and not too afraid of things. That’s why it bothers me about driving her that day. If she’d been alone, she’d have made it. I know she would have.”
“Did she really climb that pole with a cup of coffee for you?”
“So, I guess you owed her a dinner then?”
“Then, a dinner. Now I owe her my life.”
Then, closing his eyes, he was quiet again. It wasn’t until we were passed the Invista plant and coming towards the low bridge across the swamp just before the train track that served the plant, where the road got rough, that he opened them again. And, because of something he’d said a little earlier, I wasn’t too surprised by what he said now.
“We were fighting. I mean, everything was okay until we got going. Then she said something – or maybe I said something, I don’t know – and we got fighting. It was nothing. The sort of thing you quickly move on from. But it could be I got distracted. It could be that’s what happened. Not the snow, or the slippery road, but a fight.”
David Malone was born and raised in Toronto, Ontario. He now lives in Kingston, Ontario with his family. He drove cab for many years.