This Side of the Cloud
There’s a bare wall. And a picture window hidden behind the branches of an old juniper bush. There’s the across the street neighbours’ new car. Right now, it’s in their driveway. There’s the sun and, for a moment, that particular angle of radiance at this time of day on this particular day of the year. When the exact alignment has been reached, the late afternoon sunlight reflects off a wide band of chrome on the car’s trunk. The light turns back toward the west. It shines on the bush, casting shadow branches through the window and onto the wall. With one invisible brushstroke, an intricate and incredibly beautiful piece of art appears on what was a blank canvas only a second before. I’m looking in the right direction to notice the shadow painting as I cross the room. A slight breeze flows down the street. Two branches move. Two shadows move within the circled stillness of the others. There is something to be seen here, something hinted at by this light that paints with an absence of light. But too soon, a cloud drifts across the sun. On this side of the cloud, the light disappears. There’s a bare wall. A sense of loss. A sense of connections and possibilities. And then, a memory.
Once upon a time, I lived a fairy tale, a long dreamed of dream that appeared out of nowhere reality to, years later, become my remembered island of perfect life called “when we lived on Dufferin.” That small city block that gently surrounded us somehow contained the closest one can get to what seemed like true love and all that goes with it. And sounding strange, but true at the heart of things, for that long ago lost spell of time and place, there was only ever sunshine, pleasant warmth, and sky-blue skies no matter what the weather. Looking back, my heart won’t let it rain there. In fact, no storms of any kind ever echo back to me from that far off innocence. If there were troubles, and here the mind says, “Well, yes, of course, there must have been,” I can only ever remember deep peace, happiness, and a future that shone so brightly, it couldn’t wait to reach us.
On one of those always summer days, I decided to take a walk around the block. The whole block consisted of one long, three story apartment building, seven houses that were likely a hundred years old, a seniors’ retirement home/hospital, and a detox centre. As I rounded the corner of the little parking lot that fronted the seniors’ home, and headed east toward the centre, I saw someone coming down the sidewalk toward me. As he got closer, I noticed that he wasn’t wearing a shirt, not carrying one either, and that he seemed a bit unsteady. By the time he reached me, I could see that he looked agitated and must have had quite a lot to drink. “Can you tell me where I can get a bus to St. Joseph’s Hospital?” he said anxiously, “My mother’s just had a heart attack and I have to get there right away.”
“Uh, let’s see…,” I said, already starting to panic myself while looking around to try and get a sense of where the hospital was and what would be the nearest bus route that could get him there quickly. I went blank at first. Then, my mind clearing a bit, it seemed to me that he’d either have to walk a long ways to get a bus that would take him right by the hospital or get one a block away and transfer downtown. I thought to myself, “In the shape he’s in, this guy might get mixed up or lost.” I knew that I wasn’t thinking too clearly either and might be missing something. I told him about the buses and added that that might be kinda tricky and take too long, then said, when it occurred to me, “What you should do is get a taxi. It’ll be quicker and take you right to the door of the place.”
“I don’t have any money. I lost my wallet.”
About to offer to pay for the cab, I reached into my back pocket, “Damn, I didn’t bring my wallet.” I’d only meant to circle the block. Then, of course, “Look, I live right around the corner, we can call a taxi from my place. And my wallet’s there, so I can take care of the cab fare. How would that be?”
“Great,” he said, starting to walk beside me, “I’ll pay you back.”
“Sure, no problem. Too bad I don’t have a car anymore, I could’ve driven you there myself.”
As we hurried along, I was wondering how he’d lost his shirt and wallet when he started to tell me about his mother, what a wonderful person she was. At one point, he said, “She’s the best mother I ever had.”
Soon, we were standing in front of the steps to my building. I said I’d go call the cab and be right back. I called, told them it was an emergency, hung up the phone, and found my wallet. “Oh, no.” When I had a car, I always tried to keep a hundred dollars in my wallet in case the car broke down. All I had now was five. I figured it would probably be enough, then wasn’t sure, then was…. I was still estimating the distance by the time I got back to him and told him the cab was on the way.
He began to worry that they wouldn’t even let him in the hospital because he didn’t have a shirt on. I told him that it would probably be all right, but figured he already had enough to worry about, and wondered if I could go back inside, get a shirt, and get back in time for the cab. It didn’t seem likely, so I pulled off my T-shirt and said, “Here, you can put this on.” He thanked me while putting on the shirt and said that he’d bring it back to me with the money for the cab. I said, “Don’t worry about it, that’s ok.” But he insisted he’d be back.
The taxi pulled up in front of us. The driver had probably seen what had just happened. He got out, nodded hello, and took a quick look at both of us as his passenger started to get in. I said, “This gentleman’s mother has just had a heart attack and he needs to get to St. Joseph’s Hospital right away.” I showed him the five dollar bill, “Will this be enough?”
He said, “It’ll be enough.” Looking at his face, I knew that if I’d said that all I had was a quarter, it still would have been enough.
By this time, the passenger door had closed, though the window was open. I leaned over the roof of the car and said quietly, “He’s a little…. Could you make sure he gets to where he needs to go?”
The cabbie said, “Don’t worry, I’ll take care of him.” It’s strange how much we can read from the eyes of another human being. I knew that he would take him right into the hospital and make sure he talked to the right people. His look and tone of voice were also meant to reassure me as if he had said, “I got it from here, buddy.”
As the car pulled away, I heard the voice from the back seat explaining, “She’s the best mother I ever had.”
I sat down on the steps. Closed my eyes. Sent a little positive something northward to the hospital. When I opened them, I remembered that I had no shirt on and went inside to replace the one I never expected to see again. It wasn’t that I doubted the shirtless man’s sincerity in wanting to return it to me, I just thought it unlikely that he’d remember where I lived.
Months went by. In those days, I owned two identical, grey T-shirts. Well, had owned. Whenever I would pull the one I still had out of the drawer, I’d smile a little and wonder what its twin might be up to. Eventually though, the missing T-shirt story pretty much faded into the past.
Then, one day, the next summer, or the summer after that, we came home to find something waiting for us. Our back door entrance was through a small screened-off shed. We walked up the few steps to it and there, sitting balanced on my bicycle seat, was a perfectly folded sweater. “What’s this?” was the first question I asked, but there were others we asked of friends, family, and anyone we could think of. Nobody had left it for us, nobody had dropped something off at the wrong address, nobody knew anything about it. All of the questions after the first one weren’t really necessary though. Once I held it in my hands, I was pretty sure about where it had come from.
And it was a great sweater. Sky-blue, my favourite colour, and a small dark blue lion over the heart. There was a little darning that needed to be done. I believe in leaving such things to the experts (that excuse has always worked so far), so I gave it to my mother to repair. Quite impressed, she told me that it was a very good quality sweater made in Scotland. She should know, being made in Scotland herself. And when next I saw it, it had been fixed so well that it took me a while to find where the damage had been.
The fact that it was a bit frayed made it even more special. To me, it meant that it was his, that it was a part of his life. It may have taken him a while to find me, and maybe my old T-shirt hadn’t survived the time between, so he decided to give me his sweater. Or he might have just been passing by, suddenly recognized the house and when no one answered, took the sweater off, folded it carefully, and left it there for me to find.
Or perhaps it just appeared there. When we lived on Dufferin, anything was possible. Maybe it appeared because a story needed to be written twenty years later.
Three strangers connect for one purpose, then disconnect, never to meet again. When the exact alignment has been reached, sunlight paints beauty onto a blank canvas, then art and artist disappear. Like shadows that exist for too short a time, a love appears for two people, then vanishes. Seen from a different angle, there’s only ever one story. And within that story, we can sometimes see how Light moves. Sometimes. Just for a moment.