From Lee Gowan’s The Beautiful Place

Dec 18, 2015 by

From Lee Gowan’s The Beautiful Place

Fiction:

 

A few weeks later Matthew was sitting in his favourite coffee place on Denman, skimming The Georgia Straight, when he glanced up and through the window saw, across Denman, an old man come around the corner from Comox Street, eyes trained at the sidewalk in front of him. He’d seen photographs of his grandfather, of course, but it wasn’t his face he recognized at first. It was something in the walk, an awkward sidle that for a second made him think maybe his father had come to the city to fetch him home. He actually had the feeling for a moment that he was about to be forced back to the farm, his new freedom stolen away just when it tasted best. But then he saw something else in the walk: a stumble and a tremor that made him think this person who was obviously not his father was about to fall. The man was much older than his father. Something in the profile—the nose and receding hairline?—reminded Matthew of a photo of himself that his grandmother had framed and placed on the centre of her piano.

And then he noticed that the old guy was wearing a pair of navy blue bedroom slippers.

He staggered along until he came to the sandwich shop directly across the street, where he managed with some difficulty to push open the door and stagger inside. It was a full five minutes before Matthew finished his coffee and mustered the courage to stand and walk out of the coffee shop. Jaywalking across Denman, he spotted through the window his grandfather sitting at a table with a cup of coffee in front of him. His skin was the colour of the fog obscuring the mountains to the north and his hand resting beside the cup on the table shook noticeably. He looked up and, through the space between some letters etched in frosted white on the glass (Fully Licensed), met Matthew’s eyes. There was a large ugly bruise over his right eye. His head trembled. Matthew thought he saw a look of recognition cross the old man’s face.

The door to the sandwich shop was heavy, so he understood immediately the difficulty his grandfather had getting inside. It was a new experience for him, feeling the weight of a door and thinking what such a weight would mean to an elderly person. Once inside, his grandfather was no longer paying attention to him but still looking blankly out the window at the pedestrians trooping by. He’d never been paying attention to him, of course; he’d only been staring out the window at anyone who happened to pass. Matthew approached the table and stood waiting for the man to notice him. This took an uncomfortably long time, but finally the eyes glanced his way, and he could see the old man was waiting for him to explain himself.

“Philip Bentley?”

Surprised at hearing his name, he shifted his attention completely from the window and scanned Matthew’s face and the rest of his body before he nodded his quivering head.

“It’s about time you got here,” he said.

Matthew carefully considered this statement and the scolding tone, but was not at all sure how to respond.

“Are you okay?” he finally asked.

Philip Bentley looked bewildered for a moment, raising a shaking hand to the yellow bruise above his eye.

“Yes,” he said. “I fell. It was an accident. I was trying to get out of the bath and came down on my forehead.” He indicated the bruise with a shaking finger. “Crawled for the phone but couldn’t make it. Blacked out right there on the floor, I must have. Didn’t wake up ‘til this morning. I think I’ll be okay. Is it morning?”

Matthew didn’t answer. It was four in the afternoon.

“We should get you to the hospital,” he said.

His grandfather sighed, a childish expression of self-absorption passing over his face so that he looked as if he might burst out in tears.

“Maybe you’re right,” he said.

Matthew went to the payphone by the door and phoned a cab.

“Do you want another cup of coffee while we wait? I could get you one to go?” he asked when he returned to the table, but his grandfather shook his head and, with his unsteady hand, motioned for Matthew to sit down across from him.

The old man leaned closer and began speaking in a self-pitying tone of voice. “I used to find young men attractive. Once. Too attractive, I mean. Not any more. Now they don’t have any meaning for me. Too old. Might as well be dead.”

Matthew squirmed a little in his chair.

“You can’t control it. All those priests and politicians who want young boys and give in even though they know it will be the ruin of them. The feeling finally gets the better of them and they fall.”

When Matthew didn’t respond his grandfather sat back in his chair and was silent for a time while Matthew struggled to think of something to say. Before he had, his grandfather started speaking again.

“The woman in the apartment over me is always banging on her floor for me to shut up. Not that I have anyone to talk to. I hardly know how to speak anymore. Any noise I make at all, she disapproves. If I play my music loud enough so I can hear it she’s banging away up there. I suppose my ears are going and I have it too loud. Do I seem deaf to you?” Matthew shook his head. “My hands shake from the Parkinson’s, and so sometimes without noticing I’ll be banging my hand on the table, and the next thing I know she’ll start banging on the ceiling in just exactly the same rhythm.” To demonstrate, he allowed his hand to tap on the table. “My shrink thinks I’m imagining it all.”

Matthew saw the cab pull up outside the window and jumped to his feet.

“It’s here already!”

Wearily, his grandfather turned to look where Matthew pointed. “Our coach awaits,” he said. He struggled to his feet, hands flat on the table, pushing down for support. Matthew stood back for a moment, until he realized he should offer some help, and took the old man by the arm. There was an unpleasant smell about him that he couldn’t quite identify.

In the cab, his grandfather was mostly quiet, but at one point he said, “I’m afraid of hospitals. You never know. You go in, you might never come out.” He coughed and then continued. “Once I’m inside I’m generally okay, though. It’s kind of nice to have someone looking after you.”

The waiting room at Emergency was crowded. They sat and watched the circle of injured humanity: parents with bored or weeping children, a man in work clothes holding an arm and gritting his teeth, an elderly woman with a man who must have been her son, a teenager and her friends making much over a broken wrist as they discussed her bicycle accident.

“When it happened,” Philip Bentley suddenly said, “I thought about what it would have been like to have gone off the balcony. Falling, I mean. Instead of out of the tub and onto the bathroom floor, over the rail of the balcony and down five floors. Tumbling head over heels. There’s a parking lot down there. Make a terrible mess, the insides coming out of you, and somebody would have to clean it up.” Matthew must have been giving him a funny look. “I never even use the thing. The balcony. There’s always people out watching. There’s a man who dances with himself in the next building over.”

The woman across from them, her daughter’s nose in a book, glanced in their direction and looked away. Nothing to see. Just a young man and his grandfather waiting for the doctor. An anchorman’s mouth moved on the television mounted high in the corner of the room.

“It shouldn’t be too much longer,” Matthew said.

Three hours later they sat behind a curtain listening to the doctor in the next cubicle telling a woman there was nothing wrong with her son.

“But he’s been crying all day. He won’t stop crying. I don’t know what to do with him. I can’t stand to hear him cry another moment.”

“Sell him to the circus,” Philip Bentley murmured.

They took him away for X-rays. Matthew called Denise to tell her he would not be able to meet her at Checkers, but she wasn’t home and so he left a vague message of apology. An old woman watched him talking into the phone, her right eye open in a way that reminded Matthew of Denise in her hunting pose. Back in the waiting room, he got hungry and went to buy a bag of potato chips. Worried he’d missed his charge, he rushed back to the waiting room. An hour or more later, the old man came stumbling in and told him they’d found nothing serious.

“Apparently I’m unbreakable. They’re giving a money back guarantee. If you want your money back. You don’t look like you have much money.”

They emerged to a darkened land, the pedestrians on Burrard giving no hint they believed in a world of sick or dying souls. The cab whisked them up Nelson Street towards the apartment by the park. Matthew swivelled his head as they passed Denise’s building.

“Did you see that doctor?” his grandfather asked.

“Which?”

“I guess you didn’t see him. Curly black hair? Intelligent young fellow? Knew his way around a problem. Told me when to cough. If I’d had the opportunity I might have been a doctor myself. Not a chance, coming where I come from. Bastard child of a prairie town. That’s what the other kids called me after Sunday school: bastard. They might have forgotten, but their parents reminded them.”

“I’m from there too,” Matthew said.

Some expression of warning settled into the old man’s eyes.

“You’re a bastard?”

“No. But my father was a bastard. I’m from not far from Horizon. Near Broken Head.”

He looked at Matthew steadily, his shaking suddenly gone.

“I’m not from Horizon. Lived there once a very long time ago. Only for a year or so. Didn’t like it much. My condolences to you. How in the hell did you get here?”

“I’m your grandson,” Matthew said.

He might as well have punched the old man in the stomach. When Philip Bentley saw for sure it wasn’t some kind of joke he lowered his head to look at his dusty bedroom slippers. “I knew I’d seen you somewhere before,” he said, though he never had. He didn’t say anything else until the cab stopped in front of his building.

He insisted he pay the cab fare. Matthew got out and ran around to open the door.
When they were standing in front of the elevator, his grandfather turned and looked at him and said, “How did you find me?”

“I’m not sure. I recognized you when I saw you come around the corner from Comox. I recognized something. You look a little like my Dad.”

The old man nodded, but didn’t want to pursue it any further.

“Are you coming up?”

It was a large airy apartment overlooking the park. The furniture was Modern, possibly Ikea, and the patio doors to the balcony let the room fill up with light. Some large abstract paintings filled the walls. There was blood drying on the bathroom floor and Matthew wiped it up with paper towel and some abrasive cleaner he found under the bathroom sink.

When he emerged with the rag and can of cleaning powder, his grandfather was sitting on the couch, watching him.

“You remember Old Dutch Cleanser? I guess that’s before your time. There were all these women in bonnets chasing dirt around the cans. They had blue dresses and bonnets like white hoods and their faces were turned away from you like they couldn’t look you in the eye. They carried sticks: ‘I am coming to clean up the town.’ That was their motto. Could be that’s what they need here in Vancouver: a gang of hooded women to clean up the town. All the queers and addicts and the like.”

His grandfather smiled ironically and pretended to swipe with his imaginary stick. The swiping action made Matthew wonder if he should have a cane. He told his grandfather he didn’t remember Old Dutch Cleanser, but from somewhere in his mind he formed an image of the label his grandfather described. Maybe his mother had once used it, or he’d seen an old can of the stuff tucked somewhere out in the shop on the farm.

“It looks beautiful on the surface,” his grandfather said. “But it’s dirty underneath. Right? Dirty dirty dirty. Vancouver.”

Matthew didn’t respond. Trying to fill the awkward silence, he studied the abstract paintings, bleak hulking things, mostly black and metallic shapes hanging ominously against grey backgrounds. “My latest self-indulgence,” his grandfather said when he saw Matthew concentrating so deeply on them. It made him feel uneasy, being watched as he studied them, paint dripping down, the old man perhaps waiting for some word of appraisal, but Matthew had no idea what to say about such works. They looked to him like something he could have done himself in an afternoon if he’d had the canvas, a wide brush, and lots of black paint. The metallic paint was the one thing about them that appealed to him somehow, giving them a precious metal golden burnish.

There was a stereo on the credenza next to the table and he saw a note under the plastic lid of the turntable, but it didn’t seem right to read it.

When he said goodbye, he offered to come and check on him the next day, and his grandfather smiled.

“If you wish. Don’t knock yourself out. I get along just fine on my own. It’s been a long time since I had any family to check on me. But I do thank you for coming to my rescue today.”
Matthew promised he’d return.

“All right, then. Well, if you do decide to come, could you bring me some bananas?”

Matthew nodded and closed the door between them.

Lee Gowan directs the Creative Writing Program at the University of Toronto, School of Continuing Studies and has published three novels: Make Believe Love, Confession, and the Last Cowboy.

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