Story from Don McLellan

There and Back

On a nippy Monday in April, the storm of the previous evening having drifted east, Olga Petrovich scurries along the alley backing onto her Amherst Avenue two-storey. She can hear as far away as the Jefferson place her TV echoing off the living room walls. A gardening program, the gladiola. It’s left on day and night, the box. A house needs voices, even an empty one.

     She’s off to The Grove this morning, the leafy retreat and community garden at the foot of Broderick Street, where, in her volunteer capacity, she disposes of the liquor bottles and glutinous condoms accumulating there over a typical weekend. Befitting a widow of Old Country custom, she’s attired austerely, with a dark shawl hugging her spare but spry frame. Curled at the bottom of the canvas bag swinging from her shoulder is a length of nylon rope, one end of which is braided into a noose. She’s already picked out the tree. Today she’ll select the bough.

     The Grove’s Yoshino is one of the first cherry trees to blossom in the spring. Its height matches a telephone pole, the span can extend ten metres. Though too bitter for human consumption, the garlanding berries attract a crush of starlings. Lovers have chiselled their initials into the tree’s sturdy trunk, a rite of passage dating back to the young Sumerians of Mesopotamia.  

     It was in this newly minted housing development thirty minutes from the city centre that she and Florek raised the kids. As newlyweds they’d joined fellow residents lobbying the municipality to have the swampy woodlots to the south rezoned as a green space, a park in all but name. Campaign strategy was crafted by a former peacenik. “The best time to strike,” he’d persuaded the others, “is when the ball comes loose in the scrum.”   
     And he was right, as the bureaucrats stalling the initiative eventually caved, and The Grove today is a valued asset booked well in advance for birthdays, weddings, and school outings. Throughout the summer and early fall amateur musicians and comedians are welcomed to a plywood stage. Friday nights are reserved for karaoke. 

     Seniors gravitate to the pond at the rear of The Grove, where cedar plank benches are set back from a marshy shoreline. Though not much deeper than a bathtub, the pond was referred to by some jester as Africa’s Lake Tanganyika, the world’s largest freshwater lake, and the nickname has stuck. It’s sheltered by unruly bush and bramble, and comfortably distant from traffic fumes. There are welcoming faces most days, gossip and laughter; solitude, too, for those who choose it. When the mercury soars, carp surface from the murky depths to snatch a hapless dragonfly. Fowl come and go, a few grebes and mallards. The occasional loon, both avian and human.  

     Olga finds the winged creatures more convivial company than some neighbours, uncomplicated and less needy, and she worries about the birds’ decline. Likely suspects are the raccoons and coyotes, as their droppings are plentiful. Others blame the vandals convening nocturnally in smoky clumps along the forested penumbra. Cursing and scowling, boom boxes reverberant, a weapons-grade contempt for all things adult. 

     “This year they’ll smash your car window for kicks,” opines Mia Huntcliffe, a woman of generous circumference and contrary temperament. “Next year they’ll be poking a Smith & Wesson into your ribs.” 

     Guilty or not, the delinquents animate much discussion lakeside. When Mia stomps off—because Mia always stomps off—a squinting, middle-aged fellow beneath a BC Lions ball cap turns to Olga on the bench, and says, “She’s a piece of work, that one, but I agree with her: Those punks are on a pogo stick to hell.”

     She stays clear of Maggie Horton, who resides with a deadbeat husband and a pride of rescued cats in a shabby bungalow on the south side of Kensington. Ratty tablecloths drape the living room window, the lawn is a jungle. Sopping heaps of junk mail jam the front entrance. “A rental,” sniff home-owning neighbours. “A stain.”
Social media sites and a popular TV station known for partial-truths have Maggie and others believing the Chinese are taking over the world, and that Moslems, “every last one of ’em,” are “murderous bastards.” Each sentence out of her mouth is exclamatory, as though the spittle accompanying the canards strengthen their veracity. 

“They’re buyin’ up the whole country,” she harrumphs of the former, “and right under our effin’ noses!” She fails to add that it’s homeowners who freely agreed to have a For Sale sign hammered into their lawn, and that due to market demand they earned lottery-winning prices. 
“If the price is right,” Florek says, “people forget their prejudices. They’ll sell to a Martian.” 
Following one of Maggie’s exits, a prim and reserved Oriental slipped from her poncho to better advertise the printing on her T-shirt, which in bold white letters strung between her elfin shoulders read, Animals Welcome, People Tolerated.
One never knows what to expect at the pond. On any given day the retreat could be as festive as a pub crawl or as sombre as a wake. Earlier in the year Olga had overheard an elderly couple at the end of her bench discussing the arrival of two gay men, one of them flamboyantly effeminate. They’d been admiring a bed of tulips and snapping photos, bothering no one; a young girl clung to the hand of one of them. “How do you tell which is the mother?” the man asked his wife. “Norm,” she was quick to respond, “asking gay parents which one is the mother is like asking which chopstick is the fork.”
Olga remembers that as a new immigrant herself, a teen with limited English, most classmates were helpful, and greeted her warmly, though a small but hurtful group would lob slurs at her as she passed in the hall. “Bohunk,” they’d hiss. “Alien.” The family’s new neighbours, many of them foreign-born themselves, had also been welcoming. The kids—Olga had two older sisters and a younger brother—were playing with counterparts before their suitcases were unpacked. Within days her mother was exchanging recipes and child-rearing tips with the other housewives, and her father, who struggled mightily with the transition, had before long fallen into lively conversation with fellow paterfamilias about international football rankings. 

     One morning a girl of similar age came to the house and introduced herself to Olga as one of five kids who lived in the split-level a few doors away. “How about we be friends?” she said. “Doesn’t cost anything.” Her name was Celinka, and she’d arrived in the country the previous spring from a village in the Carpathian Mountains. Her fat face was the colour of a ripe strawberry.  
“When I was a little girl,” she said apropos nothing, “an auntie told me that if I went into the hills alone I’d be eaten by giant shit monsters.”
“And did you do as she asked?”
     “Of course not.”
     “You must have defeated the shit monsters.”
     “I’m here aren’t I.”     
Olga’s family, especially her own kids, adopted over time the more liberal conventions and values of their new country, its long-standing celebrations, but she, like her parents before her, remained stubbornly faithful to many Old Country observances. Even now, all these years later, she doesn’t buy brand name clothing, as she believes trendy garments “will fill next year’s remainder bins.” She rarely visits a hairdresser, preferring the practicality of a simple bun or ponytail. On most social occasions she applies makeup lightly, if at all.  “A woman’s external beauty erodes,” her mother had often said, “but the inner light glows on. Best accept it.” Florek, too, is guided by homeland traditions. He’d choose her homemade borscht over a Big Mac, golabki rather than a pizza. 
Frugality is a high virtue, they taught the kids. The time-tested but waning practice of living within one’s means. Florek was always trying to reinforce the point, believing that toughening them up, teaching the value of sacrifice, prepared their spawn for the disappointments sure to come. “Some people are the bug, and some are the windshield.” It was one of his favourite sayings.   

From the air, as seen by birds, drones, and gods, the long and narrow slice of real estate ceded for The Grove resembles a snake slithering through high grass. Central to the front of the parcel are about a dozen coffin-size planters from which locals coax tomatoes and Swiss chard, cucumbers and onions, a medley of lettuces. Kathryn, an agriculture major, has been awarded a grant to help first-timers manage the plots and mind their progress through to the harvest. Complimentary beverages encourage an audience for her encyclopedic talks on local flora and fauna. She’s a pretty thing, with chipmunk cheeks and chestnut brown hair snipped short. The seniors adore her. 

     “Who planted the cherry tree?” she was asked at one of the workshops. Olga remembers Kathryn explaining, “The Yoshino is native to Japan, so it might have arrived here the way many trees do, via bird shit.” She’s interrupted by neophyte green thumb Paul Barton, a gaseous oaf, who says, “My family came west some forty years ago. We arrived via a shitty Buick.” He laughed heartily. 
The tree’s vase-shaped canopy during the humid summer months throws a comforting patch of afternoon shade. Its five-petal blossoms mature from white to pink over a period of two to three weeks. Before the autumn shedding, the green leaves convert to a yellow, then orange, and finally to the rusty hue of dried blood. The tree passes raw winters unadorned, a skeletal leviathan in sharp relief against the bleak skies. 
The kids always said she was a clean freak, so when they were old enough to take care of themselves, Olga started a house-cleaning business. Her clients were mostly professionals or business types who worked hard and enjoyed active social lives. A few were of old money, a class of people an uncle back home, a  communist, believed “lived idle lives gagging on silverware.” Though it was true many of her clients resided in posh homes concealed behind tall hedges, her experience didn’t square with her uncle’s characterization. “I didn’t see anyone gagging on anything,” she told Celinka. “They were always nice to me.” As for her clientele being wealthy, how could it be otherwise? The incomes of most eastside folks are meagre by comparison. “They’ve no choice but to mop up their own mess.” 

     Florek is strong-willed and taciturn, a man standing at a slight angle to the world. He’s second generation Canuck, a self-taught carpenter specializing in home renos. He played rugby on Sundays until his knees started bothering him, and votes Liberal federally, the party he judges most welcoming to immigrants. Based on their experience, both thought the antidote to a discomfort with newcomers, to people who look different and speak a foreign language, is not less newcomers, but more of them. Familiarity breeds friendships. Unfamiliarity? Suspicion. Fear.  

     After dinner they’d relax in the solarium he’d built onto the back of the house and watch the barn swallows descend on the yard. At the crocuses pushing up between the rocks, catkins bunching on the beech tree, monarch butterflies dropping their eggs in the milkweed. He loved a light spring rain, the solarium’s glass panels freckling with tears. If he wasn’t whittling something from a bar of soap or a block of softwood, a small animal of some sort typically, there’d be a mug of strong coffee with a dollop of cream steaming in his calloused hands, a pipe clacking between acrylic dentures. When addressed, muttering a barely audible “Uh-huh.”

     The kids, two girls and a boy, took to schooling, which surprised Olga, as neither she nor Florek had much formal education, and never advocated its importance. Leena, the eldest, also enjoyed the popularity afforded to the prepossessing. She married an American entrepreneur, Jack; they live in Florida with their two young children. Olga reserved judgment on the union, never airing her distrust of her son-in-law’s braggadocio. Florek, too, was distrustful of anyone whose wealth depended on the turbulence of the stock market and the voltage of his smile. “Jack’s a back slapper. Watch your wallet.”
Judith, their second, teaches elementary school. She’s also attractive, but in a quieter way. The introvert to her sister’s extrovert, childless by choice. Lives in Toronto with her longtime beau, Brendan, a pleasant enough IT sort. “Dull,” was Florek’s evaluation, “but a straight shooter. “When Brendan says he’s going to do something, he does it. A lot like me.”

     Julian is the baby of the litter. He has the reflective air of the artist. As a youngster he always seemed to be holding back something; his basement room as a teen was a no-fly zone. He’d inherited their father’s emerald orbs, making him, with those long lashes and hand cream complexion, more beautiful than handsome. He’d made money modelling for department store catalogues, which financed a backpacking trip to Europe, where, a decade later, he remains. Occasional collect calls suggest a nomadic life. She fears he might be homosexual; back home, a cousin had been killed for it. She’s troubled by thoughts of him loitering outside public washrooms, as she’s heard some do that. 
Their love began the moment they first set eyes on each other. It was at the monthly high school sock hop, her first ever dance with a boy. She was drawn to those grass green eyes and his physicality as he swept her across the gym floor. She remembers the first song, too: “Johnny Angel,” and the singer, Shelley Fabares, which accounted for all she knew of her adopted homeland’s popular music. Florek was two years her senior, an admired multi-sport athlete. Despite his youth, he comported himself like someone much older. “Like someone who’d sailed rough seas,” she confided in Celinka. Her very own Johnny Angel. 

     She had thick brows and angular features, with a farm girl’s sinewy arms and muscular legs. Some of the boys at school considered her homely. Others, though, were intrigued by her exotic ways and serious cast, by the extraterrestrial accent. Several anonymous notes proposing profane behaviour had been stuffed into her locker. Lick my cock, DP bitch! Celinka, who knew about such things, demonstrated with a carrot.

     Neither Florek nor Olga had dated anyone else, and their shared ancestral heritage pleased both sets of parents, the Petrovichs and the Kowalskis. In his senior year they’d hook up after basketball practice in a stand of woods behind the school. Tied the knot in the orthodox tradition a week after her matriculation, the seed that would be their Leena squirming in her womb. While friends were winging off to Hawaii and buying new cars, they, with family assistance, had already purchased the Amherst home and had begun paying down the loan.  

     They worked long hours and on weekends for low wages, endearing themselves to clients, but earning the ire of union members and those who wouldn’t. “We’re commoners,” he would say. “There’s only one way to go but up.” What they appreciated most about the true north strong and free was the liberal expression and absence of retribution for its exercise. “You can disagree here,” said Florek, “without being arrested or shot.” 
     Everything considered, they told themselves, theirs had been a good life—or, like all lives, good until something bad happens.     
He was driving little Judith and two playmates to a birthday party. It was the middle of July, the afternoon a West Coast gorgeous. At a four-way stop, his turn to advance, the other motorists began pounding their horns, but his head had slumped over the steering wheel of the family’s Mazda station wagon. A quick-thinking pedestrian crossed the road and opened the driver’s
door, stopping the car from rolling into the intersection. Taken from them, Olga would say, “before the arrival of a single white bristle.” It was his heart, said the doctor. “Unforeseen.”

     Acquaintances and parishioners from church mumbled canned Hallmark condolences or dropped cards through the mail slot, but the rote insincerity, the laziness of the phrase “I’m sorry for your loss,” disappointed her. “People hide behind words. A hug would have been nice.” 

     Celinka urged her not to give in to despair because “widows get used to living alone,” just as she had after a blood clot had claimed her Blazko, leaving her to raise two kids on her own. “They fade in your thoughts, like daylight.” 

    But Florek never did fade; Olga wouldn’t allow it. Years since his passing, she still chats with him on occasion while taking her tea in the solarium. His presence can seem so real sometimes that she smells the perspiration she could never dislodge from his work shirts. When she catches a whiff of his pipe smoke, she closes the doors and windows, locking it inside. Early one morning, talking aloud to herself, she’s certain she hears as clear as the door bell a spectral “Uh-huh.” 

     She never removed the hundred dollar wedding ring he slipped onto her finger those many years ago. It had been the cheapest band on offer at a dodgy jeweller’s on East Hastings. “I’ll tell you what I’ll do,” began the man’s pitch. Her favourite photo of them has a place on the mantel in the living room: Sunset at Spanish Banks. The incoming tide sweeping up the sand, chasing them to higher ground. 
Early in widowhood she found comfort replaying the tales he told of the sprawling Petrovich family. As the oldest son, he was entrusted with keeping alive knowledge of the clan’s colourful history. Some had died fighting for the resistance. “How can young people plan a future,” he always said, “if they don’t know their past?”

     She remembered a gathering in a relative’s backyard. The kids bunched around his size thirteen sandals as he talked of his Uncle Zyga, who, as a boy after the war, was put in charge of the family’s dairy cow. “Her name was Bronya, and she was the largest cow in the district.” Without her, he said, “many of you kids wouldn’t be here now.” Zyga swapped her milk in the village for potatoes and bread. “He bartered for beef, a luxury.” 

     With each telling Florek added or subtracted a little something, depending on his audience. He’d exaggerate where necessary with the older kids, many of whom were certain, as he’d been at that age, that there was little about the world they didn’t already know. “Passing on family lore,” he’d said, “means you sometimes have to pass over the truth.”

     The country was lawless then, he’d tell them. Bandits came out in numbers after dark, and everyone needed milk, so the beast, the family jewel, was housed with the boys in the back room. “They had to cut a hole in the wall to get her inside.” He lowers the voice that had sung baritone in the church choir, asking the children, “Does anyone know why sleeping in the same room as Bronya was a problem?” A fair-haired niece of maybe ten years timidly raised a digit. “Because she was big, and might step on them?” A boy familiar with the narrative scoffed. “Because cows fart a lot, and Bronya’s were really stinky.”

     He also spoke to the kids of his maternal grandparents, who, on arriving in Canada, had settled on the Prairies. They had four children; Florek’s mother had been the youngest. The family’s first home was a sod hut on a high plain. “There was no town nearby, no road, no trees. His mother, in a diary entry, described their days there as “living on the moon.” 

     They arrived just in time to seed the allotment. The kids were responsible for collecting enough brush and twigs to keep a fire alive. But when winter pushed in, the northerlies were biting and the snow fell for days. Morale was low, and many times after chores they’d squeeze around the paltry flames talking wistfully of home.

     “No trees, no fire,” Florek said with a thespian’s pause. “No fire, no food.” 

     Each morning grandfather would venture out in search of a tree. “Even a stump would do.” On the second day he came upon a Jack pine tucked into a hollow. He dug it out of the frozen ground and hauled it home. Because the axe handle had split hacking through the ice, he couldn’t make kindling until it was repaired, so he left the door of the hut open just enough to insert one end of the tree into the mouth of the stove. “When it had turned to ash, he’d have the kids drag more inside.”

     Florek liked to leave his young listeners with a lesson. “Wood warms three times: when you cut it down, when you drag it home, and when you burn it.” 
Her beloved Yoshino has toppled overnight in the storm. Its corpse divides The Grove into an east and west, its immensity more fully appreciated when horizontal. The potting shed where Kathryn stores her tools has been clipped by one of the larger branches, as has a section of fencing surrounding the adjacent home, and from where its owner, a Mr. Devlin, peers disbelievingly from his fogged-up kitchen window. The spot where the tree for so many years had been imbedded in the loamy soil is now a gaping hole filled with rainwater. Exposed roots twitch like nerve endings in the morning chill. 

     She runs her hands over the tree’s scaly bark. The Yoshino was The Grove, its epicentre, the reason she’d decided to do it here. Early, at the first carolling of the birds, so the children wouldn’t find her. Yet she now views the tree’s demise as her reprieve, a stay of execution. She reaches into the shoulder bag, fingers the noose. When her plan had been hatched she’d been seized by an aching emptiness that had stretched interminably into days and then weeks. Each night she had the same dream: flinging the rope into the air, snagging on a limb, stepping off the edge of a picnic table.

     She sits atop the deposed colossus, scrolls through the memories. To the tire swings and forts it had hosted, the robins’ nests and hummingbird feeders. The faces of long-ago children appear before her. Those who snapped an arm or leg in a careless plunge, the boys who shinnied up the knotty branches to better admire through a bedroom window an undressing teenage beauty. She remembers the girls weaving blossom necklaces and bracelets, fitting almond-fragranced crowns onto their heads. Her Julian, joining them.

     She makes her way over pottery shards that crunch underfoot like dry cereal to where a heart stained pink with berry juice is etched into the tree’s glossy skin. To cupid’s arrow. To the initials FP and OK.
There’s no shortage of folks volunteering to help with the cleanup. A group of women gather Saturday at the pond to assign tasks. During a tea break, the ladies bunched around a warming fire, a Mrs. Woo introduces a tale of her late mother, who had lived in mainland China during a time of war and upheaval. A crafty raconteur, she opens with a reliable page-turner: “The streets were littered with body parts. There was gunfire throughout the night, people screaming.”
“It must have been frightening,” says one, and the others, wanting more, surround Mrs. Woo.

     “The elders had a saying about fear: We were as scared as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs.”

     “We’ve never had anything like that happen here,” someone says.
     “Not yet,” remarks another.

      Mrs. Woo is a tiny, energetic woman with a warm way about her. A gold front tooth glitters when she faces the sun. “Once a week,” she says, “if the fighting had subsided, about ten to fifteen women, my mother one of them, would meet at what was left of the village square. From there they’d set off on a long walk.”
They’d visit the shops that hadn’t been destroyed in the bombings or follow the path along the river, which had become a means of disposal, as the graveyards were full. So many corpses would float by in a day that a new sighting would not be remarked upon. Villagers in such times liked to sit with a fortune teller, it calmed them, so the women would rest up and gossip as they waited their turn with the oracle. They’d help a farmer plant his crop. Visit a shrine, chat with the monks. Clear rubble from the streets. 
 “Every week was different,” says Mrs. Woo.  “It took the edge off their troubles.”
     A newcomer to the group, Mrs. Hansworth, a retired teacher, said, “Why don’t we do something like that? We can meet here, just as we have today.” 
And so it was that once a week thereafter, like the ladies in China, the ladies of The Grove would set off on an excursion. It might be lunch at an ethnic eatery one day, a point of interest the next. It didn’t matter where, because they were mingling and chatting, escaping their silos. Sharing stories as they ambled along, the joys and heartbreaks of their years. Occasionally a gent might join them, a spouse or maybe a child or a dog, but the participants remained largely female, middle-aged and up. Ladies with some serious tread left on their footwear.

     They’d explore new housing developments popping up beyond their own, or distribute sandwiches at one of the homeless encampments. They’d admire heritage homes and the landscaping surrounding them. Pose for group photos, weed each other’s spring gardens. A community TV station got wind of their activities and aired a feature. Mrs. Woo and a few of the girls were interviewed.  

     One day Mrs. Hansworth asked Mrs. Woo if her mother’s friends had a name for their day trips. Mrs. Woo and another Chinese woman wrestled with the translation. “We think that in English it would be called There and Back,” Mrs. Woo said. “A simple walk, and yet much more.”

     When the group had visited just about everything worth seeing within a day’s slog, they begin picking a section of the city, hop a public bus, and explore its streets and alleyways, visiting landmarks, engaging the residents there. They stop and eat their bag lunches in one of its parks or at the community centre, resting up for the return journey. Olga remembers the Christmas they stopped at a construction site and sang carols to the framing crew. 

     After the TV feature, community newspapers began running items about their activities, which spurred others to form their own There and Back. They were soon hosting potlucks and leading tours of their respective neighbourhoods. In the winter months, when the streets are slippery, activities were moved inside, at someone’s home. There were musical recitals, poetry readings, cooking demos, board games. A city historian addressed them, and bottles of beer were juggled by an erstwhile circus clown, who afterwards speedily drained each of them.

     Attendance eventually began to drop off, as all knew it must. The distances were becoming difficult for some, including Olga. “When I get home from our walks, my legs swell like sausages.” Mrs. Woo reported that she, too, could no longer partake. “I can usually make it there,” she said, “but not back.”

     The next week the ladies went by Mrs. Woo’s home with a shopping cart borrowed from the market. It was lined with pillows and blankets. She was lifted into it and pushed by the two strapping sons of a group regular. Their destination was one of the city’s oldest parks, a lovely spot favoured by Mrs. Woo where weeping willows shaded the fish ponds and rhododendrons grew in clusters along its tree-lined trails. The ladies that day pitched horseshoes, and though signs advised against it, fed the squirrels. Someone played the accordion, someone else launched a kite. A few weeks later, Mrs. Woo passed. 
What hair remains is white and lifeless. Bones grind and groan. An older sister writes from California, where she’d settled after marrying; her brother calls from Halifax, talking again of a family holiday back to the motherland. Birthday greetings from the grandkids are brief and hurried. Stick-people drawings, “Merry Xmas, Grandma!” She waits, as will each of us, for a malfunction; a hemorrhage; for a defect or an irregularity; for a glitch; a blockage; a mysterious rash or lump; the troubling results of a blood test. Hoping the fateful date never arrives. Hoping it soon does, and swiftly.

     One day after a light lunch she feels bloated. Then it’s a nagging back pain. She dismisses the discomforts as inconveniences to be accommodated. “Drink five ounces of barley tea every night before going to bed,” says Celinka, a self-certified expert. “It’ll make you poop.” Celinka believes most ailments are curable with a burst of stool. 

     She’s scrubbing dishes after dinner one night when she hears what sounds like a dripping faucet. Bending to inspect the sink trap, she notices the spotting pooled on the linoleum floor between her legs. At the clinic she chats with another patient, who says, “Whenever I talk of my illness, people tell me about everyone they know who’ve been sick, what they have, the symptoms. My advice? Keep it to yourself.” A lady she talks with in a lineup at the pharmacy refers to old age as “a massacre.”

     Tests confirm her suspicions. The odds of meaningful survival are poor. From the moment she declines treatment, thoughts never before contemplated consume her waking moments. Is that it?  Daily chores are rendered meaningless. Fill the vases with fresh flowers from the garden, eat healthy—why? Being told the estimated day of your departure, she tells Celinka, is “a purgatory. You’re not dead yet, but you’re not really alive, either. It’s like being told to sit in the waiting room, the doctor will see you shortly, for what remains of your life.”

    A kindly specialist at the clinic urges her to reconsider treatment, tells her there’s always a chance, but it sounds to her like mumbo jumbo with a red bow on it. A woman comes to the house and explains alternate strategies like hypnosis and meditation and aromatherapy; like acupuncture; like yoga and tai chi, but these remedies, too, sound like mumbo jumbo. Mumbo jumbo with a scented candle perhaps, but wellness hooey just the same. 
She remembers a family friend unwilling to surrender to a terminal illness. He’d flown to Mexico and paid a great deal of money for a “miraculous” potion made from shark marrow. At his funeral, the chaplain droning on, Florek had whispered into her ear, “Fish flop around before they die.”

     On the bus ride home from the clinic one afternoon, she turns to Celinka, who’d sometimes come along to keep her company, and says, “Last night before bed I decided to accept it, and I could feel this heavy weight slide off my shoulders. It just jumped out of my head, I don’t know why. I’m done flopping around.”

     What did ease her despair was not medicine, but weekly visits from the There and Back girls. They’d stomp across Olga’s yard on their way to somewhere and stand under the open window, serenading her with a piece of music they knew she admired. They’d show up alone to sip tea or unannounced, in small, hushed groups, with a fistful of flowers.  As a few sat gossiping bedside, others would be washing dishes, vacuuming, hanging laundry. She could hear others mowing the lawn, sweeping the walks. On one such visit she was presented with a yellow T-shirt one of the members had designed. Where a woman’s breasts might rest were the words Broads of There and Back. Below them was a blow-up of a running shoe very much like the kind members laced up for an excursion. So threadbare, one of the girls commented, “you can almost smell the mileage.”
She can feel the disease spreading throughout her body, down her legs and along her wilting arms, worming its corrosive way into her plumbing. She doesn’t fear the end, it’s only sleeping, after all, but she does fear an agonizing passage of the kind she’d seen others suffer. Her vision narrows, the appetite shrinks, and so does she. A walk to the grocery store at the corner leaves her winded. She misses most of all Lake Tanganyika, its hard wooden benches. The lively conversation. The birds.  

     Celinka doesn’t like driving at night, especially when it’s raining, so most evenings Olga spends alone, plopped in front of the TV. She pays no heed to the news, all that killing and thieving, the lies and broken promises, but one night she comes across a program about MAID, which she learns stands for medical assistance in dying. It had apparently become legally available for the terminally ill, and more people every year are choosing “death on their own terms,” as its being called. 

     She squats inches from the screen. A man has allowed his death to be filmed. Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” sounds from some off-screen device. His wife is in bed with him, her arms lashed around his waist. Hoping to stall his departure, to make him miss his flight. The man signals the physician, and the needle slides smoothly into a vein. The patient’s colouring fades to a ghostly shade. His eyes roll, the mouth slackens.  
She wears the cotton dress he’d always liked. Carnation pinks and marine blues; she’d made it herself. The ribbon clasping her hair is mauve. Celinka applies a few dabs of makeup. Family photos are spread across the bed; everyone is so much younger. On vacation, attending graduations, feting anniversaries, the lot of them bunched and clownishly shouting “cheese!” around some forgotten roadside attraction. A signed glossy from the There and Back broads propped up on the night stand. The framed snap of her and Florek at Spanish Banks.

     Leena and Jack, his bombast tamed, are the first to arrive, having flown in from Miami; the grandchildren are left with in-laws. Judith and Brendan follow. They make room on the bed, lock hands. The doctor, a tiny man with rheumy eyes, waits quietly in the corner, the little black bag nestled like a sleeping kitten in his lap. “Pretend I’m not here.”

     When it seems he’ll be a no-show, she nods, and the MD prepares the jab, but there’s a light knock at the door, and Celinka peels back the curtain. “It’s him!” He’s brought someone, a beautiful French boy, Alphonse. Judith plays “Johnny Angel” on her iPhone. Olga hums along, and the others join in. Midway through the second refrain, her eyes close.
     Heads are bowed as Celinka reads from Genesis: “…you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are, and to dust you will return.”      
The annual Grove fundraiser, a Saturday evening early in the fall. The replacement Yoshino, now the height of a household broom, is shielded by traffic cones. Volunteers have built a bonfire, its glowing embers flit into the inky night. A rock musician who describes himself as “medium famous” volunteers his cover band, which proves a great draw with the teens, including the most menacing of the ruffians. 

     Kids have been washing cars at the Chevron station and flogging fifty-fifty tickets. Girl Scouts sell homemade pies at the curb, torches flare at Lake Tanganyika. Speeches are made thanking the volunteers, explaining how The Grove came into being. One of the speakers mentions the lady who for many years cleaned the grounds every Monday morning, but the sound system is faulty and most people didn’t hear. It’s an uncomfortable observation, but alas true, how swiftly we’re all forgotten.

     For several years the severed limbs of the original Yoshino had been left stacked at the back of the property, but this year they’ve been bucked, bundled, and sold for firewood. The trunk has been diced into blocks and auctioned off as garden stools. The piece that raises the most is the stool bearing FP’s declaration of his undying love for OK. 

     The highest bidders are the bohemian couple who’d purchased the Amherst Avenue place, the well-kept bungalow with the solarium out back and the great garden. “Does anyone know who they were?” the wife asks of the anonymous paramours. The lady running the auction explains that the carving was likely done when the sweethearts were young and unmarried, before The Grove. “People have been guessing their identities for years. Maiden names aren’t commonly known.” 

     The husband, a fellow of mystical bent, drops onto the stool and runs his fingers over the engraved initials, thinking that by touch he might better channel the artist at work. He’d been smoking herb earlier, and imagines the blade gouging bark, sawdust flecking boots. Did their devotion endure? he wonders. He blows a lock of hair from his eyes, scratches the beard. To no one in particular he mumbles a barely audible “Uh-huh.”