This is another story from when I lived in Toronto as a single guy. Interestingly Shirley lived two streets over, on Walmer Road, at the same time but we didn't know each other. When I think of marriage relationships I sometimes think of the old man in this story.
The Lovers“Do you know what you’re doing??” Gregory or Gustoff or something was gaping at me, his face combined curiosity and disgust. His processed hair, artfully pre-bleached shorts and manicured hands showed he was ready either for a day at a private beach or a modelling audition. BMW keys dangling from his left pinky showed how he would get there. He’d just moved into Bonnie’s old room; part of a new wave of students our landlord was using to try to upscale our aging rooming-house in Toronto’s Annex.
My arms were greased black to the elbows. I sat surrounded by oily tools and a flotsam of the dismantled motor that I had removed from my beloved VW station wagon. The body of the car was jacked humiliatingly high at the back and balanced on jack-stands. I sat on one of the rear wheels, gazing at my mess.
I looked up at my stylish new neighbour.
He had a point. Did I really know what I was doing?
Maybe his dad was named Wolfgang or Karl-Heinz who had a modern VW shop so clean you could eat off the floor, festooned with air tools and grease hoses and metric sockets all in a row.
Or maybe he was just plain rude.
“An engine job,” was all the cleverness I could think of to reply.
“Hunh!” he said in distaste and continued down the walk and into the street.
I thought of what my witty friends might have said:
“Ooops! My engine fell out, just like that! Help me stuff it back in!” or…
“Oh no! I was sleepwalking and I woke up doing this,” or…
“So you’re a VW expert as well as a first year U. of T. student? What’s the torque value for 1500 cc headbolts, hotshot?”
Instead I turned back to the work at hand, my opportunity for a clever reply fading into the sunlight.
“Crap!” I shouted after barking my hand against the fan housing while trying to loosen the last 9mm hex bolt. Sucking blood from my knuckle I searched for something clean to wipe it off. The growing heat of the day drew sweat from under my cap, but I left it, knowing that scratching and smearing grease onto my face would identify me even more as the backyard mechanic I was; too poor to afford paying a mechanic. Too poor to drive if I couldn’t get this engine fixed.
I was following John Muir’s classic manual, “How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive: A Manual of Step-by-Step Procedures for the Compleat Idiot”. Grease stained pages showed what jobs I had done previously. Today it was a do-or-die job of replacing a cylinder head. If I didn’t succeed there’d be no wheels for the rest of the summer.
Just as I was searching for a Band-Aid, my friends began to leave the house. Dave, Beth and Bruce trailed out with the cute new med student. Megan? Melanie? They had towels and a cooler and were going to the beach. I hid the bloody knuckle behind my leg.
“How’s it going, René?” Dave asked.
Always enthusiastic Beth surveyed the mess around me. “Wow! Hey! Look at that!”
“Join us when you’re done,” said Bruce, “we’ll be at Sunnyside Beach somewhere.”
Megan or Melinda glanced at me then looked away.
“Sure,” I said, but I knew the heat and the crowds of beautiful sunbathers would be long gone by the time this job was finished.
They left in Bruce’s boring-but-everything-works Volaré wagon.
My car was named Tito, because it was kept alive with borrowed parts, like the late Marshall Tito of Yugoslavia.
Last year I had been unable to afford a new starter, so for two months I had always parked on hills, rolling downhill to pop the clutch and start the engine that way. The year before I had been short of cash to replace the squealing front brake pads… so I learned to downshift to nearly zero mph before using the handbrake to stop.
Today, on the hottest day of the summer, it was engine-out time. I had found a used cylinder head at a wrecker to replace the damaged one. I would clean it up, bolt it on, and hope for the best. I was working in the gravel driveway of our house on Madison Ave. Toronto’s Madison Ave. isn’t like its famous New York counterpart. It is a quiet and leafy street in old Toronto, with upscale offices in large old 19th century homes, frat houses, a nursing home, or worn-out rooming houses like ours.
Down the street a strange shape was slowly coming towards me, rolling and shuffling. Something bobbed up and down, and at intervals something else swung out from the side. Because of the hot dappled sunlight through the trees I could not see it clearly. For all I knew a fifteen-foot spider was walking up the street… Lots of strange sights on Madison Ave. now that all the students were back.
I found a clean piece of rag to wipe the dirt from my hand and wrapped a couple of band-aids over. The offending nut removed, I reached back for the next one and slowly worked it loose.
The strange object on the sidewalk got closer. Soon there was a gleam of wheel spokes and the chrome rim of a wheelchair. I shifted my position to take the strain off my legs, cleaned off the bolt and put it into an empty coffee mug. Coming toward me was an old old man, impossibly bent, almost doubled over, pushing an even older-looking woman, droolingly asleep in a wheelchair. With every second step, his left leg kicked out in a wide arc, unable to step in line with the rest of his body. His head and shoulders bobbed up when the leg swung forward and lowered down when the leg swung out. Like a jack-in-the-box.
“Isn’t it a beautiful day?” a stentorian voice rang out.
“Hello,” was my reply. I was trying not to stare.
The man looked to be about 100, as frail as any man I had ever seen alive, his bony skull like an Auschwitz survivor. His sleeping wife’s tiny head was hairless except for a few strands pulled back into a knot near the top of her head. She wore a fluffy shawl around her neck, despite the heat. Her jaw was sharp and sported dark chin hairs. Her mouth was so far open her chin touched her breastbone where a small spot of drool had formed. They had come from the nursing home a few houses down the street.
The old fellow could not have weighed more than sixty pounds, but his voice was clear as an AM sports announcer.
“Car troubles?” he suggested insightfully.
“Can’t afford a mechanic,” I shrugged.
“Aaah!” His crepe-paper neck twisted around to survey the scattered wreckage of my engine job. “Is that a Fiat?”
“No sir. A Volkswagen.”
“I had a Fiat once. A 1962 Fiat Cabriolet… yes indeed, a fine car.”
I shifted and stood, glad for a break.
“I’m taking my bride out for some sunshine.” He looked down lovingly at the old crone in the wheelchair. “It’s such a beautiful day,” he repeated and wiped some drool from her chin with a white handkerchief.
“It is. My friends have all gone to the beach, but I’m stuck here... ”
“Yes, there’s beech trees and oak. I prefer the maple.”
“Oh, of course. Beech trees. Yes…” I paused and wiped my hands on the rag and looked around for my thermos of water. “You live around here?”
The old man’s head swung toward me like an ancient turtle. He surveyed the car parts and spotted the cylinder head. “Did you lose compression?” He made it sound fatal and dramatic.
“Yes I did.” I was encouraged that he seemed to know something about engines. “The spark plug blew out. Aluminum cylinder heads... Somehow it got cross-threaded and wouldn’t hold anymore. I could get a machinist to do a heli-coil, but I can’t afford that so I’m putting this used head in… it’s cheaper…”
“I drove that Fiat Cabriolet for twenty two years, uphill and down dale, with a five-speed transmission, and I never once heard the gears clash…” he chortled a bit at this pleasant memory. The old woman let out a soft moan and shifted a little. “We’ve been married more than seventy years.”
“Wow. I mean, uh, congratulations.”
“She doesn’t remember much anymore, but she’s still my bride.”
A breeze shifted a branch overhead, sending a dappled beam of light down onto the old couple. All that was needed was a chorus of angels humming in the background.
“Where did you meet?” I asked, squatting on the spare tire to be closer to his eye level.
His old neck swivelled toward me again and he grinned at the memory. “She came to the church picnic with a boyfriend, but she caught my eye right away…” “He was a big fellow, a real man-about-town, but a braggart. She was cute as a button. I could tell she was uncomfortable with him.” He gazed down the street savouring the memory.
“What did you do?”
He glanced up at me, his eyes gleaming with canny insight. “I waited.”
“Patience is a virtue, possess it if you can. Seldom found in woman, never found in man,” he laughed. “I learned patience. I’m a small man, and I could never have stood up to that big fellow, so I waited and watched.”
I resisted the urge to scratch my itchy nose.
“Without being forward about it I learned what I could about her and began to write her anonymous letters, and poetry, and send her flowers. Eventually they had a fight and I revealed to her who I was. I won her over.”
“Good for you, mister.”
“If you want to find happiness in the life, you have to work at it…”
We spoke a little longer and eventually the old man continued up the street and I got back to work.
A few minutes passed. With a sudden aggressive squeal of front tires, Gregory or Jeffrey or whatever his name was came back and pulled into the driveway just a few inches from my car. He got disapprovingly out of his shiny car. He’d forgotten something and was going in to get it.
“Think you’ll get it back together?” he sneered.
The old man’s story had given me a certain vigour. Though lacking wit I was more prepared for the preppy. I stood and started walking toward him, dropping the wrench from my greasy hand. “Think I won’t, smartass?”
Preppy scooted into the house to find his missing item and quickly left again.
About twenty minutes later I could see the old lover returning; that same left leg swinging out to the side, the head bobbing up and down in rhythm and the slumped figure of the old bride in the wheelchair. By then I had the new/old head bolted and torqued on so I sat in the shade and watched him approach.
He was all smiles, pausing now and then to look around at the beautiful trees or greet people on the sidewalk. His old wife sagged lower than before, mouth open.
As they came closer I noticed the old lady’s arm had fallen from her lap and her hand was dangling loosely beside the wheel spokes.
The old man couldn’t see it from his angle beside and behind the chair. I was about to warn him about it when I saw with a shock that one of her fingers had already been cut by the spokes. A red patch showed where the skin had been sliced away like a sausage casing, revealing fresh meat beneath. But no blood flowed from the wound.
No bleeding... and her face looked decidedly greyer than before.
“Hey!” I heard myself shout, “Uh Mister…”
He stopped and smiled at me approvingly.
His voice was still strong and full despite the long walk he had just made. “You’ve made great progress on your Fiat, young man… I’m sure you’ll have it purring like a kitten in an hour or so…”
"Mister... your wife…” I began.
“Yes, we’ve been married over seventy years. I’ll just take her back for her nap. She doesn’t get out much anymore. Isn’t a beautiful day?”
There was nothing more to say.
I watched as the old lover pushed his bride down the street one last time.