Grandpa danced with Auntie-Jo in the living room, hi fi blaring the BeeGees. It was 1978 and I was jealous.
They held hands, disco dancing, and I watched them from the sofa, my feet tapping the floor. He dipped her low and her long dark hair fell to the hardwood floor.
I used to love that floor. Of course, this was back when hardwood floors were out of style. It was original and it creaked badly with each step. Sometimes the sounds it made sounded like plaintive kitten cries. Sometimes, it sounded like words I could only partway make out. Help. Heehaw. Cricket.
It was also slippery, layered with decades of old wax, and I liked to slide down the hallway in my socks even though Grandma would yell because she did want me crashing through the French doors into the parlour. The French doors had a decorative iron handle and a keyhole shaped like the kind in cartoons and old movies. If I peeked through it, I only saw the back of the second hand upright piano my Grandpa got for twenty-five dollars. It was stationed there because they never used the French doors. They were always locked and had curtains on them that were always shut. The parlour opened up to the living room through an arched doorway so there was really no point to the French doors which gave them an aura of mystique.
The parlour was where Grandpa played his piano. Auntie-Jo played the piano too and I desperately wanted to play as well. My mother finally relented, even though she didn’t see the purpose in it, and paid for some private lessons but that didn’t last long. It was only five dollars a week but it was an unnecessary expense and we were poor.
But, in the time I took lessons, I learned the scales and how to read the notes on the music sheets in Grandpa’s piano bench, and I decided to try and teach myself. I’d go to his house and wait in line for a chance at the piano. Sometimes, Jo would be playing. She didn’t like it when I listened. She’d roll her eyes which is what she always did with her eyes when I was around. And then she’d shut the top over the keys, go to her room and close the door.
Grandpa seemed to like it when showed up. He’d sit me down beside him on the piano bench and play songs and sing into a microphone he’d hooked up to a reel to reel recorder. Sometimes, he’d even take requests and I always chose Frankie and Johnnie because it had a dramatic story to it. He liked an appreciative audience.
Grandpa was self taught on the piano which was very encouraging. He didn’t read notes on paper. Instead, he learned by ear and played Honky Tonk and Blues. When he played, he spread his long fingers out like fans and wavered them on the keys, up and down the keyboard. When he sang, his Adam’s apple travelled up and down his long throat. He always closed his eyes. His voice vibrated everything in the room.
I never learned how to play the blues but I’ve been attracted to it ever since.
The air is more solid than I remember, a thick soup filled with grass clippings, alley piss, exhaust, and impending rain. The clouds have been gathering for hours, thunder cracking and rolling like avalanches and I fool myself into thinking that it will bring down the humidity, clear the air, but I know it won’t. These downpours seldom do.
My shirt is already wet with sweat. I’ve been using it as a rag as I retrace my steps back to the house where I will be staying until the end. There is a bit of barbecue sauce on my fingers courtesy of Fat Boys Ribs and it ends up on my shirt as well. I’m too hot and too tired to be embarrassed. Besides, it’s Ribfest and I’m not the only one.
London Ontario is a sizable city of over 350,000 but it’s a small town in every other respect. Change comes slowly, if at all. The Scottish pub I drank in and laughed in and weaved my way home from turns on it’s carriage house lights signifying that it’s open for business. The little parlor that served up enormous slices of mediocre pizza after a night of dancing pumps out it’s familiar mozzarella smells. The used bookstore opens it’s door and Ace Is Base sings memories down the street. I sing along until I’m out of range. If you wanna leave, I won’t beg you to stay…
I have a cold cider in the pub and leave a sizable tip. I’m feeling overly generous and sentimental and both younger and older than when I first walked in. Afterwards, I’m back on the sidewalk and I make my way to the bus stop on the corner. I’m hot again, already.
A man in a torn tee, baggy jeans and a cloak of body odor smiles at me, a rib bone sucked clean and hanging from his greasy lips.
“Saw you at the Ribfest,” he says with a nod to my shirt. I fold my arms over my chest even though it’s too late. I don’t want to engage him but I can’t help it. I nod back, eyes fixed on the bone and the orange drips forming on his chin from his drooling maw. He contorts his lips and adjusts the bone from one side to the other, sauce leaking.
His hair looks like it’s been cut, badly, with kitchen shears, long and short sections mashed to his sweaty head. I doubt he’s run a comb through it in weeks. I doubt that he could.
The waist of his pants are too large and cinched tightly to his wiry frame by a worn belt, his stomach curving in toward his spine before disappearing under his dirty shirt.
He smiles and tips his invisible hat with one hand, rubbing his belly with the other then he jumps up onto the thirteen Wellington. It’s the one I’ve been waiting for as well but I hold back. I’ll wait for the next one. Old Greasy might think we’ve developed a report and I don’t want him to know where my stop is.
I’ve been living in Vancouver for the past ten years and I’m used to men like this. I’ve watched them come and go from the alleys behind my building searching the dumpsters for bottles and anything else of value. Sometimes, but not often, it’s food.
When I used to live in London, there weren’t as many homeless. Or, maybe, I just didn’t notice them. Now, I see them everywhere. They mill around downtown, catching the shade in the alley between Dundas and the Farmer’s Market. So that’s one thing that’s changed. Another, is me.
The number thirteen lurches forward and pulls away from the curb and I sit on the stoop of the nearest building and wait, wiping the sticky hair off of my forehead with the back of my hand. I pull my handbag unto my lap and I wait for the next bus, in the afternoon heat, forgetting that buses don’t come as often here. I keep craning my neck to look down the street in vain.
My knuckles, tightly wrapped around the handles of my handbag feel the first few drops just as the thunder lets out a loud crack that makes everyone on the street do a startled hop and look up. Then they casually dip into their bags, pull out their umbrellas and begin unfurling. They don’t miss a step.
I haven’t got an umbrella. I’d forgotten about these summer storms that strike with little warning. It’s another in a long list of things I’ve forgotten.