After she’s gone
When disaster strikes us we insulate ourselves in various ways: change jobs, move, take a trip, get drunk, go numb.
“Hey man, watcha doing today? Wanna go see the Expos play the Mets?”
“Thanks man, but I gotta wax the floor.”
“I’ve discovered I’m houseproud.”
“I’ll be listening to the game on the radio.”
“No, really, I always listen to the Expos when I’m waxing the floor.”
The end of a marriage is always a disaster. We’d been married eight years, a marriage better than most. But . . . things changed. There were no children, we were both young and healthy and self-supporting. We split our goods, she moved out. After a while we got a divorce. Divorce is always barbaric.
I insulated myself with housekeeping. It’s a routine job, it had to be done, it numbed me. After a while I even got to enjoy it.
All men have tried a bit of housekeeping. Brew a pot of coffee, fry up some bacon and eggs, steaks on the barbecue. Do the dishes. Once in a while.
It’s a different kettle of fish doing the whole thing. All the shopping, all the cooking, the cleaning, the laundry, the floors, the walls, the curtains, the mending, the . . .
All of a sudden the apartment is silent for days on end. You go around on tiptoe. Opening the fridge is like entering Jack Benny’s vault. The telephone bell splits the air: another friend wanting to go out for a drink. What the hell, there’s nothing else to do tonight.
The silence is still there the next morning. So is an empty stomach.
The secret of breakfast is timing. All those things have to arrive at the table at exactly the same time. The honey jar is sticking to the shelf; you wash the bottom, take it to the table, notice you haven’t put out a knife and fork. The butter is in the fridge, hard as a rock. The buns haven’t heated up yet. The milk bag is almost empty. Milk bags are always almost empty. And that burned smell is the scrambled eggs, turn down the heat, you fool! Gahh!
You get it all to the table more or less on time and remember the grapefruit still sitting in the fridge.
Timing and variety. There are four simple ways to cook an egg: fry, scramble, boil, poach. I’d been making my own breakfast for years so I had a jump on the game. An eggnog, for example. I have a recipe for eggnog with orange juice. Very pleasant. Just remember to wash the eggbeater right away or you’ll be sorry.
Or ham and eggs. Or sausage and eggs. Or try unsliced bacon for a change. It’s awkward to cut, but now and then you get a great batch, stuff that’s actually been smoked and not just painted with smoke flavoring.
Or a kipper. Wrap him in an alumi-
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from page 39
num envelope and pop into a 425° oven for 15, 20 minutes. Open the envelope, taking great care not to spill any juice anywhere, for the kipper has a most memorable presence. Fold the envelope carefully and put in a plastic garbage bag. Serve the kipper with a wedge of lemon. If you have a guest, garnish with a sprig of parsley. A nice change. Nourishing. High in protein.
This morning I had for breakfast eight cups of coffee and half a pack of cigarettes. You know how it is.
When breakfast is over and the dishes done, the apartment is still silent. I had some time off from work so I noticed the silence. I noticed a few other things, too.
Floor getting dusty. Windows getting grimy. Drop a spoon behind the fridge and you find, upon peering after it, something that looks like a central Asian village a few days after Attila and the Huns have passed through.
I am a short story writer, an artist of sorts. All artists are perfectionists. Not in all things, but we all are. A painter I know has the neatest apartment I’ve ever seen. Besides the usual paraphernalia of life he has all the junk painters need to do their work. And all his toys: sculpted pots, a fish tank, a cat, model cars and airplanes, gun replicas, golf clubs, dart board, 30 pipes, 20 musical instruments (really), crystal balls for
telling the future, history books for telling the past, strange hats. And everything in its place. Everything.
I’ve watched him and it’s simple. As soon as you finish using anything you put it back in its place. At once. Everything.
That’s all very well if you’ve been doing it for years. Starting is something quite different. Because the essence of housekeeping is that it never ends. I don’t just mean that it has to be done over and over again, I mean that one thing leads inevitably to another, they keep coming. Like those Chinese endlessly marching six abreast over the cliff.
Departure day left me with one blank
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wall. Blank because three paintings that had been there were gone. But not blank, for there were three big white spaces. I had three other pictures to put on the wall, but of course they didn’t fit the spaces.
There is no way to wash part of a wall, you must wash all of it. This one is 30 feet long. When you wash a wall you drip water on the floor. You wipe up the water and you have a one foot wide strip of floor which is cleaner than the rest. Washing all the floor means waxing the floor. Three times right now and once a week into perpetuity. And while you’re
washing the floor you find a chair with torn lining and it’s bleeding some sort of fibre dust onto the floor, so you fix it.
When you’re finally ready to put up the paintings you notice the glass is dirty. You can always put off a job like that until tomorrow because the grime of civilization is a uniform coating. But you get curious, you want to know just how thick the grime is, you wet a fingertip and wipe a space an inch long, ha, gotcha! And while you’re at it, why not do the other 10 paintings. And since the glass cleaner is out, why not do the mirrors. And the windows. Which means
dripping water on the radiators, amazing how much dust a radiator will pick up, and water on the floor, the freshly waxed floor. (At this point you rediscover an ancient truth: you clean everything from the top down.)
All of which leaves you, about midnight, dirty, sweaty, hungry, thirsty and sore in every joint. In the middle of the room a bucket of dirty water. Damp rags. Crumpled newspapers.
Satisfaction? About 10 seconds worth. Then you notice the other walls, you’ll have to do them. Next week. Sure. Hell, why not just paint the place?
In this state you can collapse into bed. Or you can have a shower, pull on your best boots (no, don’t bother polishing them) and head for the nearest alehouse. Having a beer from the fridge will not help. For you slouch into your favorite chair, take a sip, sigh, gaze vacantly about the room and then notice, from this angle, a smudge of cleaning fluid on the glass of the drawing above the buffet . . .
A world record? Perhaps: while eating breakfast one morning, I noticed some dust under the buffet. After breakfast, I swept it up, decided to sweep the whole floor. Over by the windows I noticed some grime on the floor: I’d left the windows open during a rainstorm. While washing up the splotches, I spilled water on the rug. Couldn’t leave the wet rug on the floor, had to hang it out to dry. It’s deep pile and had picked up a lot of sand over the winter so I decided to beat it, did so, then decided to wash it as well. Wool rug, why not?
No, it didn’t shrink, I washed it in cool water. Twenty times I washed it. It took six hours. And that was the easy part. The most important thing about washing rugs is knowing the long range weather forecast, for it takes three days of hot sunny weather to dry the thing.
But I admit: an old friend dropped in a few days later. After an hour or so he still hadn’t mentioned the rug, so I did.
“Well, of course I noticed it. I thought it was new.”
“Honestly. The old one didn’t have blues and greens, did it? . . .”
The single worst cleaning job is not the rug or behind the toilet bowl or under the fridge or even the inside of the oven. It is the wall beside the stove.
Some sort of chemical change happens to grease when it splatters on a wall. A demonic chemical change. There’s a word for that stuff, a word you hear if you’ve ever hung around a service station or the garage on a Saturday afternoon watching some uncles or older cousins fiddling with a car.
“Give us a rag so’s I can get off some of this gunk . . .”
That’s the word!
And you don’t get it off the wall with a
rag, either. Concentrated heavy duty cleaner left to soak for half an hour, then scraped with a putty knife. The only time to attack gunk is during spring cleaning. Go to bed early on Friday night, start work on it next morning, a bright sunny Saturday in June. You have to be able to leave all the windows wide open to let out the chemical smells.
Most cleaning jobs require foul chemicals. Foul chemicals and crawling about the floor. You have to wear old clothes, your knees hurt, your hands get red, cut, and your back and shoulders get all sore from reaching into dark corners.
In fact, there is only one pleasant cleaning job, and that’s the laundry. I have one of those little apartment washing machines. I keep it behind the closet door and roll it out once a week. The laundry is so pleasant that I have popped out of bed on a Saturday morning with a hangover and three hours sleep simply because my senses told me the weather was fresh, airy, perfect for wash on the line.
In doing the laundry you don’t use foul chemicals. You don’t crawl around the floor. It yields obvious and satisfactory results. In just a few hours that shirt with the honey-garlic sparerib sauce on the front is clean again.
But the great glory of the laundry is the peace that permeates the soul. No, wait, I know I’m only talking about the laundry of one person and that in the summer when it can go out on the line. I do realize that two or three (even one) child would change things considerably.
No, the laundry of one person with all the linen included is a nice chunk of work with a soothing pace to it, a peaceful rhythm. There is just enough work to keep you interested: these little machines are very fast — about three minutes for the entire wash cycle. You wear ordinary clothes and there are none of the mad panics you get with cooking (“If that sauce Mornay doesn’t thicken in 10 seconds . . .”) During the pauses you stand there idly stroking the machine and gazing out at the bright air.
And in that bright air, after a while, the clothes float and billow in the updrafts. I don’t care what the soap people say, there is nothing, but nothing, like sunlight and fresh air to get your clothes clean and white and bright and fresh. Which leads to another of the great rhythmic virtues of the laundry. We are told all the time by the media, by our own senses, that city people have lost contact with the great rhythms of nature: the rising and setting of the sun, the movement of the weather across the sky above us, the passing of the seasons.
The laundry will reunite you with nature. As I mentioned, even my logy senses will wake me if they pick up evidence of wash weather, something that bombs will not do. Once the wash is on
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the line, it is impossible not to go out and look at it every 20 minutes. You go out and gaze at the clothes and at the sky . . . clouds! Just a few, but. . . and the Bluenose’s ancestral weather senses begin to probe the skies, squinting, sniffing for a hint of approaching rain, stroking the chin pensively, reaching out to stroke the shirt collars, nodding sagely, backing in the door with a last skeptical but loving glance at the dish towels.
The laundry provides the solace of nature. The solace of civilization is money. A staple of family jokes is the depressed wife who cheers herself up with a new hat or a trip to the hairdresser. Amusing? No, sensible. Our society encourages us to see everything as translatable into cash. Or credit.
One day I walked into a department store to buy a pepper mill and spent $76. Bright orange and yellow mixing bowls, red coffee grinder, orange ashtrays, snazzy set of ladles. An orange eggcup. An avocado eggcup. And I felt great.
The fabulous credit card, what delirious sprees I had with it. Impulse buying as psychotherapy. It’s hell on the budget, but within limits it’s harmless enough.
There was the day I wanted a replacement knob for a saucepan cover. That day it was a blender, a dozen beer glasses, a filter coffee maker . . . The other week it was a humidifier ... a while before that a new push-button telephone . . . next time it will be a convertible chesterfield . . . with matching chair ... an orange sunburst carpet ... a modular buffet unit . . . chrome and glass and leather dining-room suite . . . stereo. . . .
Of course you see the dangers. You have to get more and more expensive things to satisfy the impulse. And you find one thing leading to another. What is the use of orange and avocado ashtrays if you don’t have a matching orange or avocado carpet, and if you have the carpet, then . . .?
But there are other solaces, other disciplines. The most sublime is cooking.
I’ve always enjoyed food and anyone who enjoys food is going to be curious to some degree about how the food gets to taste so good. Even the most obsessed little hockey player has to cut candied peel for the Christmas cake. Little engineers are sure to notice Mom measuring half a cup of shortening by adding it to half a cup of water, thereby taking advantage of Archimedes’ principle. After he gets married, even the most virulent male chauvinist has a dish or two that he’s willing to trot out for company without fear of his image. Spaghetti or chili con came.
I had always cooked a meal or so a week. But specials, the easy ones, the fancy ones, the romantic ones. It’s not at all the same when you are faced with
your own meals every day month after month, year after year into the future.
The first three weeks are easy. You cook all your old favorites, try a few new ones, but inevitably comes the day you’re standing in front of the meat counter:
Pork chops . . . mint sauce? . . . No, applesauce . . . Yeah, applesauce, hohum . . . Why not something ... tomatoes, yeah, tomatoes and . . . onions, garlic, uhh . . . garlic, sure . . . and basil (always with tomato) and . . . oregano and ... a bay leaf (the Talia Douglass mle for stews: when in doubt, add a bay leaf) . . . green pepper?
And you’ve invented a basic Italian sauce. You could reinvent every recipe ever if you have enough time: say, 1,000 years. Much easier just to buy a few cookbooks, eh?
Find a good bookstore and browse. Then select a big, fat North American
WHAT IS THE USE OF AVOCADO ASHTRAYS IF YOU DON’T HAVE A MATCHING CARPET?
cookbook and a good French one, both in hard cover because they have to stand up to a lot of wear. Choosing a French one second may seem prejudiced but remember it will include German cookery from Alsace and Italian style cookery from Provence and even some Spanish style dishes from the south and southwest. You can branch out with paperbacks to Greek, Russian. North African, Scandinavian.
But if you have a specific interest you should get a hard cover. My third hard cover was a book of Chinese recipes. Anyone who has tried Chinese cooking knows how easy it is to make thousands of wonderful dishes, how nutritious those dishes are. You need a wok, the Chinese frying pan with the curved bottom. They’re easily found these days and cost about five dollars. Some of the more recherché ingredients (dried shark fin, cured duck liver, fresh winter melon, etc.) may not be readily available in small towns, but an amazing number of dishes can be prepared with nothing more exotic than soy sauce and fresh garlic. Fresh ginger root? If you can get a piece you’re in business, for the best way to store it is to bury it in a pot of earth; it grows there and when you want a chunk, you dig it up, cut off a week’s supply, and bury the remainder. A large supermarket will probably carry canned water chestnuts and bamboo shoots. Most large towns will have one Chinese grocery store (those restaurants have to get their stuff somewhere) and you can find hoisin sauce, oyster sauce, dried mushrooms, and suddenly you can cook just about any dish you’ve ever eaten in your local Chinese restaurant, and a
good many others besides. You simply wouldn’t believe how easy it is to make shrimp with lobster sauce and how wonderful it is. Or honey-garlic spareribs. Or pork strips with vegetables. Easy, fast, tasty, nutritious, the Chinese have it all.
Of course, if you really take off with Chinese cooking you can find some dishes that are complicated and take several days. Peking duck, for example, is best left to the better restaurants. But some time ago I served Szechwan duck to friends. It takes a day or two to prepare, though it isn’t all that difficult.
That feast illustrates an odd aspect of cooking. There were four or five other dishes along with the duck. It took a fair amount of money, a week’s planning and hours of preparation. It arrived at the table to the sound of smacking lips, sighs, murmurs of gustatory love. It was sniffed at, gazed at, tasted; the feast was under way. I was full in 10 minutes, my friends continued for an hour.
Now this has happened to me half a dozen times. I’m not quite sure why. Have I been nibbling all afternoon? Don’t think so. Have I a small appetite? Average, I’d say. The tension of preparation has ruined my desire? Possibly. Or am I more interested in preparation than eating? Sounds reasonable.
I’m no closer to the solution, but I know it happens, I know of no cure, and it keeps happening. Fortunately, I keep cooking fairly serious meals. For this, of course, is the great threat: that I’ll slip into an uncaring sloth and fall back into the darkness of canned stew or hamburg sandwiches at greasy spoons. Horrors!
Not only do I worry about the loss of appetite at banquets, a rather curious phenomenon, but about the continued strain of having to cook with care, imagination, variety. Surely there’s a limit?
I was very skeptical at first but I’m becoming more optimistic as the months go by. It seems to be turning into a habit. I find it revolting to even think of making simple pork chops with boiled potatoes and canned peas. Have I made it over the hump? Maybe, maybe. But the evidence mounts:
Last week I returned exhausted from work and spent four hours making a superb bœuf bourguignon. The next night it was ratatouille. The next was leftover bœuf bourguignon and leftover ratatouille. The next was oxtail Merton. Then a roast of pork that had been marinating for six days.
But the triumph has been a period of three months of seeing a woman who lives on cheese sandwiches if left to her own devices. I cooked us five meals a week during that period and did not repeat a single dish. I’d take that as proof positive except that I must admit I was showing off a bit. Still . . .
Of course, that last paragraph mentions the greatest question of all:
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women. In your attempted recovery from the disaster, you start with all the above basics of life. But then . . .
Comes the day you’re sitting there eating bifteck sauté Bercy, sauteed young potatoes and minted peas. You’re sipping a young, full-bodied red wine from the correct glass. You’re wearing fresh-air-and-sunshine-dried clothes. The apartment is spotless. And watching the Expos overtaking the Dodgers in the eighth. Something is horribly wrong.
I mean, it’s nice that Mike Marshall is chalking up his twelfth save, that Foli and Hunt have just executed another sweet double play, that in the sixth Fairly put another into the swimming pool out beyond the scoreboard. But it’s all out of phase somehow, like hanging a jockstrap on a silver candelabra.
After all, this is Montreal, isn’t it? I’ve been to New York, Paris, London, Dublin, Barcelona, Toronto . . . around a bit. But I can state with total conviction that the most beautiful women in the world are Montreal women. No, don’t bother trying to argue, I’ll have none of it. Of course, beauty is only outward show, but you can’t help noticing it. And assuming all people are equal, then Montreal women must be just as interesting people as all other women. So why am I watching a ball game?
Well, I don’t know. It doesn’t much matter why, anyway. The fact is I was spending my evenings with “the boys.” This is fine. They like good cooking, they enjoy talking. But they do drink a lot of beer and their conversation, while very interesting in its own way, inevitably leaves out certain subjects. And they go home to their own places when the bars are all closed. You can’t dance with them. So you decide it’s about time you started paying some attention to those wonderful creatures who make a trip to the comer for milk seem rather like strolling through heaven. But how?
If you have a decent marriage you’ve already got all the woman you need. So you get out of practice.
At least Montreal is encouraging. Montreal women are not just interested in their own beauty, but in yours too. As you approach one along Sherbrooke Street, she will look at you. And if she likes your looks she will look at you and smile. It’s as if she’s saying, “I’ve taken care to look my best and I’m glad you appreciate the effort it has taken, and I’m glad you’ve also taken some time and trouble to look your best. It’s pleasant isn’t it? Keep Montreal beautiful, eh? And perhaps some other time, some other place . . .” And then she’s past and there’s another one 10 feet farther on. Make no mistake, this is definitely a look-don’t-touch arrangement, that girl really is a secretary or a teacher or a store clerk or a copy editor and she really is just going to lunch and she
probably has a boyfriend and meeting her is just as difficult as it is anywhere.
A friend who became unattached about the same time as I did put the problem this way: “Where do I find and how do I meet an intelligent, witty, wellread, sane, single, 30-year-old woman?” “How about attractive?”
“An asset, but not a necessity.” “Mmmm.”
“I mean, do such creatures exist? Aren’t they all married?”
“Well sure they exist. I mean, we’re the male equivalents. Statistically . . .” “Name one.”
An hour later I had to admit: “Okay, okay, you’ve got me. But I still insist they’re out there.”
“All we have to do is find them, like that thing in Winnie The Pooh, you know, where do you set a trap for heffalumps?”
FINALLY I SAID THE HELL WITH IT AND WENT BACK TO WATCHING THE EXPOS
“Where the heffalump is only two feet in front of him.”
“Exactly. You won’t find your woman in a men’s tavern, for example.”
“Your logic has the clarity, the limpidity of mountain spring water.”
“Of course. Now, how about. . . how about that hotel where the stewardesses train?”
“Well... do you know anyone in the CBC?”
“Only in Toronto.”
“We could try hanging around the lobby of the Radio Canada building . . . all right, all right, I’m onlyjoking!” “I’m waiting.”
I am beginning to see the light: “That’s your problem, you just want to sit and have the woman walk in and flop down in your lap.”
“It would help, wouldn’t it?”
“Well, you’ve almost got it, my friend.”
“Where is she?”
“No, I mean, it can happen if you just put your lap in the right place. We just put our laps in the kind of bar where the right sort of woman drinks and . . .”
“I thought we’d agreed that that sort of thing was crass and vulgar and that we were a bit too old for it?”
“Not trying to pick them up, but waiting for them to pick us up. It’s a conceptual difference. We just sit there as if we were out for a few beers. We let them do all the work.”
“In the meantime we spend a fortune and get alcohol poisoning.”
“Faith, old man, you need faith.” “That’s what Wilbur Jenkins had.” “Who’s Wilbur Jenkins?”
“He invented the airplane.”
“That was Wilbur Wright and brother Orville.”
“Jenkins invented the airplane in 1451.”
“Fine, okay, scoff if you will, but there are new worlds to be discovered, new lives to be lived. The tide’s at the full, the wind is freshening in the west . . .”
I don’t know what real alcohol poi-. soning is like, but after a few weeks of trying my scheme I had something that felt like it. Not just the head and the stomach, but all the muscles and joints. You feel delicate all over. You need sunglasses. You move very slowly. Everyone seems to be shouting. As you sit staring at another glass and contemplating your depleted bank account you find yourself muttering: “She’d sure as hell better appreciate this.”
She was never found, by the way. But I insist the plan was not a failure. You don’t have to believe me.
So I went back to the old schemes. Go to parties. Look up old friends. Finally I just said the hell with it and went back to watching the Expos. Obviously the women did appear. I don’t know why or how or what I did that was different. One woman friend gave me some advice that I find intriguing, though I’ve never tried it. She said, “Women are only interested in a man that other women are interested in. Be seen with one on your arm and others will flock after you.” “Like a decoy, you mean?”
“Like a decoy.”
“You’re cynical beyond your years, young lady.”
“And I drink too much.”
“So do I. Let’s have another.”
“Why not indeed?”
It’s been 10 months now. The dishes are all washed. My linen napkin sits at the other end of the table in its silver napkin ring. The napkin ring is gleaming because I polished it a few minutes ago. I’m proud of the neat kitchen, the gleaming napkin ring.
But the apartment is no longer as clean as it was during that first burst of enthusiasm. There’s some dust under the buffet, the rug is full of sand again, there is a dull film over the pictures.
When disaster strikes, try housekeeping. For me, for a while, it did the job. Now it’s becoming a job I do. When I began to sense a few weeks ago that the enjoyment was wearing thin, I looked around for something else. I found Strauss waltzes. They take your mind off things, take you back to old Vienna, an elegant ballroom, glittering chandeliers, the lilt and swirl of gay, frivolous music, gay, frivolous people, the sparkle of jewels, champagne, her eyes . . .
When housekeeping fails, try Strauss waltzes. They numb you too. ■