It was cool in the grocery store. There had been a thunderstorm overnight but for the sheer devilment of it, the outcome was more not less humidity. I had a week left before going back to university, so I was winding up the summer at the cottage, having worked construction for almost three months. . My Dad was coming up for the weekend, so my Mom and I were shopping on Friday morning, before the whole weekend cottage crowd hit town. I was pushing the cart full of bags out into the mall and heading for the parking lot.
They were a couple, a farmer and his wife. Not quite American Gothic but getting there. His haircut was so close it looked like 300 grit sandpaper. He and his wife were exactly the same height.
I was surprised when my Mom stopped to say hello. She was an absolute Swede, fiercely independent and just plain did not need other people or their conversation. Although she had been born in the small town where our cottage was, she didn’t talk with any of the old people there. From the few things she told me about growing up there, this wasn’t a change at all.
He was shorter than me, and as they spoke I looked at his forearms and his hands and they had done more work than I could imagine. He was the classic wiry build — that being steel wire — that over time he had extended with a small paunch. He still looked dead solid. A tornado would not dare to knock him over. I had worked that summer with younger versions of him on the construction job out in northern Alberta.
His wife was as clean as a bar of Ivory Soap with the paper wrapping just removed. Thin silver wire framed glasses. A summer dress, a small flower print. White wicker purse. You know what her shoes looked like. They bored me.
It was a two minute conversation, but it seemed like an hour.
Out in the frying pan parking lot I accelerated the cart, so I could unload and we could get into the station wagon and crank up the A/C. I was already thinking ahead. After I got the groceries into the kitchen and the fridge, I would be racing to get into my swimming trunks and into the cool water of Georgian Bay. I had decided to spend the rest of the day there.
On the drive home my Mom told me, “I haven’t seen them in…it must be forty years. We went to the same church. Something happened to them back then. They had a little boy, named Jimmy, he was about five or six years old. One of their neighbours had a boy who was younger, maybe three years old and they use to play together. And then one day, they found the little one faced down in a deep, deep puddle and he was dead. Drowned.”
“What happened?” I asked.
“They never really figured it out. He might have fallen and hit his head and lay face down. Everyone kind of stayed away from Jimmy. Some people thought he did it, he never admitted to it. Later, he ran away from home. They never had any other children.”
A big blue station wagon passed us, the back seat full of kids and a dog, and behind them a million bags and tricycles and toys and all that good summer stuff. The kids waved at us and we waved back.