You wake up in the morning and something has changed. It happens
every day but some days you don’t notice. Something has
appeared, disappeared, there are animal tracks in the snow or
there’s a change in the weather. Some seed you planted came up,
someone tagged your garage door, the bike was stolen, leaves
have started to fall. You had a dream. You slept poorly. You
finally slept well. It is another cold morning, the neighbour’s
dog is barking and you look outside to see what you will see.
Our house was on a busy-ish corner, and the living room window
was close to the sidewalk so we were very much aware of
everything that went by. The neighbourhood was what you might
call semi-upwardly gentri-mixed. Lots of young families like us, lots of
people fixing up an old house like us, but there were swampy
parts. We were not far from Main Street and the rougher
neighbourhoods on the other side. It was not what I’d call a
high-crime area, but there were a lot of “goings on.” Tagging,
as aforementioned. Plenty of dumpster regulars making their
rounds. The less up-and-coming street behind ours came complete
with a crack house.
In the sixteen years we were there we had two vehicles stolen
and one time we came home to find a lawn-mower not our own in
the back yard. Someone had let themselves into our back yard,
taken our almost new lawnmower, and left us a crappy one that
didn’t work. “Hello, police? I’d like to report a down-grading.”
They didn’t always steal cars, but they broke into them all the
time. Walking the kids to school one day I saw a whole bunch of
CDs strewn across the boulevard and it took me while to
recognize them as mine. The culprit didn’t take any (CDs aren’t
worth shit anymore), but I guess whoever it was thought it would
be fun to throw them around.
I honestly thought I was locking the car. I would push the
button and it would go “click,” but I didn’t know it was quietly
unlocking itself after I’d walked away, which explains why we
would come out morning after morning to find the ashtray open
and the glove compartment emptied.
Nobody likes to have their personal space invaded, so it’s
fortunate I don’t have deeply personal feelings about cars. I
had good reasons to be a tiny bit sentimental about my first
car, but since then I do not name my cars. I do not tend to
decorate them. My husband comes from a family where the opposite
is true. If a car was purchased by a member of that family the
event was duly photographed and the photo put in the Car Photo
Album. Your car was an extension of you, like your clothes; one
of the ways in which you might show the world who you were. My
Mother-in-law decorates everything, and when we were helping her
sell her car, she left the bunch of silk flowers in the back
window, I presume so that the car would show well, and she
instructed us to make sure it went to a good home.
The nightly cavity search of the Honda didn’t bother me too much.
There was never any damage to locks, doors or windows. I was
careful not to leave valuables in there. I thought about taping
a sign to the windshield that said “don’t bother.” It seemed like
we were dealing with the same visitor night after night: a well-brought
up person who had fallen on hard times, not a yob on a spree. If
there’s going to have to be petty crime, let it be as respectful as possible.
I like respectfulness. I am a sucker for manners. Little kids
saying please. Letting a driver into traffic or being let into traffic,
and the thank-you wave. Anyone holding a door open for anyone
is more than fine with me. My Ob-Gyn used to apologize to me
every time he gave me an internal. “I’m sorry,” he’d say, pulling off his glove,
like his need to help deliver me of my babies had caused him to do something indelicate. A faux pas, like he’d stepped on my toe at a cocktail party:
“I’m so sorry, a thousand pardons, I didn’t see you there.”
In this part of the world, the winter of 2013 goes down in the
books as The One That Almost Did Us In. Cold that shattered
records: meteorological records, vinyl records, the record for how
fast your bottle of vodka turns into a slushie if you put it in a snowbank
to “chill” at a party. It went on for weeks. The cold, I mean. The bottle
of vodka didn’t last very long at all. That was the New Year’s Eve the news
reports all said Winnipeg was “Colder than Mars.” The comparison
turned out to be inaccurate, or incomplete at best, given that at times some
parts of Mars are 27°C, or “Hotter Than Churchill.” But we
grabbed the Colder Than Mars thing and ran with it, because when
it’ s -37° C in Winnipeg without the windchill, it definitely
feels like you’re stranded on a distant planet, wondering why it
seemed to anyone like it would be a good idea to build a city here, and by
god, you need something to brag about.
One morning that winter I looked out the living room window. You
can tell it’s cold without resorting to thermometers. You can
just tell, the way you can tell a dog is unfriendly or a co-worker is going
to be a problem. So I’m looking out at the icy dawn gathering my stoicism,
and just sort of checking, the way you do, if anything is out of place in your
corner of the world.
I like the split second between noticing something, and
perceiving what it is. The moment between “is that?” and “that is.” There was someone in the car.
I thought it was the nightly hopeful making his rounds. So I watched, expecting he’d soon be on his way. It did seem odd that
he was in the back seat, somehow. It was still dark, and it was
hard to tell what he was doing there in the orange-y
streetlight. He was moving around quite quickly, waving his
arms, rocking back and forth.
Then there’s the moment, or moments, between “there’s a guy in
my car” and “what should I do about the guy in my car?” It
turned out to be a long moment. What to do? Go out and shoo the
guy away? Maybe dangerous. Wake my husband? My husband loves
those movies where the good guy is wronged and must go off on an
elaborate revenge mission and everything blows up. I live in
constant fear of the day when something finally pushes him over
the edge and he goes Neeson. That morning it was far too cold
for a revenge mission and my husband needs his sleep. Should I
call the police? By the time they came the guy would have opened
my ashtray and sneered at my copy of Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours
and left. And as I said, if this was our regular guy, he had always
been the most considerate of would-be thieves. I hesitated, trying to
think how I could protect self, car and neighbourhood (and
husband) while being as respectful as possible to all concerned.
I drifted to the kitchen, considering my options but mostly
hoping that by the time I plugged the kettle in and fed the dog
and put my boots on he’d be gone and the problem would have
solved itself. I am a great one for waiting for problems to
solve themselves. That works well for some things, but not so
well for others. The Canada Revenue Agency comes to mind.
When I got back to the window, what do you know, he was gone.
Later I went out to the car and it was clear that this was not
the nightly guy. The various compartments and cubbyholes had not
been emptied, but the dog’s mat from the hatch had been moved to
the back seat. There was a tiny pink princess backpack on the
floor, empty, and some garbage. There were two or three
cigarette butts on the floor and a burn mark on the arm rest.
This guy spent the night.
Colder than the Cold Part of Mars on a Cold Day and nowhere to
sleep but the back seat of a stranger’s CRV. I wished I’d left
some change in the ashtray. I wished we’d had more blankets in
the back, and a well-stocked emergency kit. I wished I hadn’t missed
my opportunity, standing there waiting for the kettle to boil.
I’m guessing, but it’s quite likely we have eight travel mugs. I could
have spared one. I left the little pink backpack by the tree on the boulevard for
a week or so but no one picked it up. Later that week, I took a
bag of tube socks down to the Mission but I know it doesn’t even
the score. I could have done without the cigarette burns in my car,
sure, but I am well aware that they were made by someone who found
a couple of good-sized butts on the sidewalk that cold cold day,
and considered himself lucky.
©2016 By Ellen Peterson
“Colder Than Mars” drawing by Maureen Shelley, the First Follower Deluxe.