Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...
The beginning is in an unusual place. Halfway under a bed, gazing across beige short shag carpet, towards a brown plaid velcro clasped wallet. Besides the bed, and the wallet, there is almost nothing else in the room, in terms of furniture, or belongings. Just the bed, with a flowered bed spread and an awful flowered and frilly bedskirt. The closet to the right of the bed is empty, the few toys and books placed in boxes and carried elsewhere the day before. The walls are pristine, no sign of a tack or even a streak. Which is no surprise, since there had been a rule against marking the walls. To the left of the bed, between it and the window, is a wheeled table, the sort people put televisions on in the seventies. Only an ancient radio with a dial tuner and a volume switch is on it now. It seems appropriate to leave the radio. The faux wood finish of the folding closet doors is a curious contrast to the beige venetian blinds, shut tight against the daylight. There was a rule against turning the light on in the evening before the Sun set, but also a rule against adjusting the blinds to maximize the light.
A glance out the window, past dust and metal slats and black dots left behind by the flies, is the garden. Marked into neat sections by two sidewalks, home of patches of lawn there were rules against stepping on, and the large plots of raspberry bushes, strawberry plants, and zuchini. Trees interrupt the vista in places, things to stand by and water for at least an hour in pounding Sun. The most foolish time to water, but there was a rule about doing as ordered. Beyond this, there lies a garden of vegetables stretching all the way back onto the utility verge, itself full of waist high grass any time of the year. Glance to the east, and notice how there is a gap to see through, with no buildings, or trees, or hills in the way. Eventually, the route does go east. But not yet.
Leaving the room reveals a grey carpet with brown speckles. Supposedly a hard wearing, homey carpet. Unlike the carpet in the room, it has loose loops that small, pointy objects can be caught in. The stretch of carpet is broken by a rug with long white hair. Some unfortunate animal once wore that skin. A goat perhaps. Pinning it down is a heavy coffee table with cast iron legs and a glass top. For a small child, it was an interesting place to play Alice in Wonderland. A tattered green couch and chair sit on either side of the table, and on one side is an always unlit fireplace. Across from that are sliding patio doors opening onto a grey painted deck, pristine of homey things like deck chairs, or shoes, or toys. Hard to believe that this is an expensive house, or a truly lived in one. There is a stain on the rug by the sliding doors, where a stunned sparrow fell after colliding with those infamous doors. After a few moments, it recovered itself and flew away. One corner holds a large television set. The rule had recently become that only one person may watch it. To enforce this, the plug is pulled out of the outlet just enough to prevent it from receiving electricity. It is easy to ignore this rule during working hours.
The kitchen with the futuristic island and even more futuristic appliances sits beyond this strangely tattered and yet opulent living room. It is a pristine kitchen. No dishes in the sink, no garbage under the sink, nothing in the refrigerator. A glance behind each brown cupboard door reveals old, chipped dishes, beaten up saucepans, deformed plastic cups. Out of reach is a small selection of good china. A very strange house, but this is the point. This is a deliberate effect, the one the rules were meant to achieve, the one that will exist now that the others who do not set the rules are leaving.
There is another room, the one that faces the street. It contains the expensive and utterly unused dining set with four chairs. Or perhaps six. That part is difficult to remember. The full and impossibly heavy china cabinet sits against the wall, and the dining set sits before it, a Victorian tableau. How weirdly appropriate, in this Dickensian, transparency causing place.
A table in front of the bay window holds a huge stereo system, affected by the same rule as the television set. It became too much trouble to reset the radio stations after circumventing that rule. Books line the floor along the two remaining walls, dusty and mourning for bookshelves. Many are old textbooks, wrapped in McGill university protective paper. Only a few truly stand out. The book on ancient Greek. The two drawing books. The collected works of Hans Christian Andersen. There is one bookshelf, which is in the other room, facing the sliding patio doors. Full of paperbacks. Several of them must have been carried back from an adult bookstore. They sit out in full view. The rulemaker seems to believe that the ruled cannot read.
It is tempting, to go and look out of the sliding doors on the front patio, the one that the movers nearly dropped the television off of when the house was first occupied. But this would be a bad idea. This carpet has hardly been walked on, there would be footprints remaining. But then – why not? Footprints can be rubbed out. A rule insisted that there should be no footprints in this room. Punishments for breaking this rule were severe. But since the ruled will be gone before the working day has finished, the punishments hold no more power than the rules now.
Of course, the view of the front yard is as uninteresting as ever. There is the perfectly tended grass. The driveway that was to be swept once a week each summer, for fear that it would appear dirty. A strange place, that driveway. A friend was made and lost there. But this is appropriate, the entire place is strange. A turn, to leave, and a surprise. There are no footprints. And now it becomes clear that there are no feet or hands to see either. No reflections, no bumping into objects. It is clear now, what this is. A visit. And an exorcism, perhaps.
To the head of the stairs, with the lathe turned bannisters, floating down the first five, pausing to gaze at the three that twist around the corner, down the last four. The floor here is dark brown linoleum with some obscure pattern. A long narrow window is to the right of the door, allowing a person to check who has rung the doorbell. There was a rule against this at Hallowe'en, as the door was not to be answered. There was also a rule against Hallowe'en, in this house. Together with a rule against Christmas, Easter, and birthdays.
Passing into the basement, which is unfinished, reveals a vista of dust and dirt, and unused powertools. A foam mattress bed with a badly made plywood boxframe. Shelves here, full of broken things. Pens that don't work, posters that are never put up, other things in boxes that have never been interesting. There are two doors at right angles to each other to enter this place separated by a handspan, as it was expected that a room would be made on one side. This was never done. A third door, to the carport is accessible here, but locked. This door was only used by the one who made the rules, officially.
Out the front door, and realizing that there is really no memory of coming in through it to examine with all of these others. No memory of really grasping the doorknob, twisting it clockwise and pulling it open. This is skipped over in favour of a leap up the stairs after coming back once before after time away, to give the one who made the rules a happy hug. It takes time for the emotions to reflect what the logical mind knows. In this case, that this particular visit would be over in a few months. All because, the one who made the rules never came down the stairs.
It is interesting to feel this separated from the memories of this place – a good thing to know that this has become like faded pictures of things you never felt were important kept in a box because someone else insisted, finally succumbing to the cleaning in spring. This is appropriate. The past is a static place. And place really is made of time as much as it is made of a specific spot on the Earth.
Out the front door, and a ways up the driveway. A glance back revealing the red truck that did not work, and the grey car that did but was not driven because the bus is considered cheaper by the maker of the rules. The irony is that none of those who were expected to obey the rules could drive any car or truck then, yet always the maker of the rules took the keys with him in the morning, and locked them away at night in the bedroom that he took for an office.
It is past time to leave behind this unlived in house. The four years spent there were not lived so much as existed. Moving up the road, to the beginning of a short path delineated by asphalt. The road curves here, and a spray of gravel is scattered in an arc over the road in the elbow of the curve. This scattering is familiar, seen each day on the way to a school only luck and necessity made possible to attend. Don't misunderstand, it was a public school. The maker of the rules did not believe that his children – actually, one of the children, who was an embarrassment – should attend school, but instead should be schooled at home.
Passing up the short stretch of asphalt and onto the path through the field, worn down to brown dirt, the only clear way through the long grass. Care had to be taken, there were nails to step on. The house to the left was home to friends who turned out to be enemies. Perhaps it still is. Ahead is a giant blackberry bush, so huge it's fierce thorns keep even the most foolhardy away. Tendrils work their way out from it, finding good spots to take root. Past this, up a slight hill, onto real sidewalk. Down to a crosswalk that lines up precisely with the gap in the gate that admits students to the schoolyard.
There is no grass here in the front on the school. Only pavement, and a curb that hems in 'all weather field covering' that is, small, jagged pebbles. Present tense is eminently appropriate here, because that is still what the schoolyard is full of. The pebbles cover the ground almost fifteen centimetres deep. Most students discover this, in the course of kicking around the gravel in fits of nervous boredom on the first day of school. There is playground equipment, but it is not terribly interesting. The front of the school has a sort of patio, a paved space with a roof hanging over it – perhaps a veranda then. A quirk of scheduling lead to at least the outside of the building being repainted just prior to the escape of the ruled from this town, so it is no longer brown and green. But instead of glancing over it empty, it is time to push further back in the past, to consider it full – it can be debated whether the building or the past is full.
There are many children, of course. Busy, hurrying to class, recess is over. There is a boy in a wheelchair, around his eyes and his lips blue, barely conscious, shoved along in the tide of children who ignore him. This isn't meant as callousness. One determined child has already alerted a teacher to this boy's plight. Her solution is to tell all the children to just go to class and not worry about it, she will take care of it. So the able bodied children appear to ignore him, but in fact they are looking away, trying not see, trying not to think about this frightening thing none of the adults they trust here will explain to them.
This memory is too strong to resist, and insubstantial as a person must be to revisit and exorcise the past, the force of that teacher's remembered will wafts the view away, towards the wrong doors, with a disturbing vision of a blue faced child caught behind.
There are two sets of double doors here, green because this time is before the repainting. Each one has an upper panel with a glass window with a screen between its panes, presumably to keep the glass from flying everywhere should it ever be broken. Before passing through, an old memory of a game of tag under the veranda out of the rain floats by.
The carpet inside of those green double doors is orange, and so thin it's hard to believe it wasn't sprayed on the cement from a can. Another set of four double doors to the right open into the tiny gymnasium, with the gymnastic equipment that folds flush to the walls when students end up playing volleyball or basketball instead. It seems like basketball must have been played in there, after all, there were hoops and there were basketballs. There is not a single game in this memory.
Out of the gymnasium and wandering along a hall, past the school nurse's office, schools could afford such people then, where students also had their teeth checked once a year. Beyond this is a long corridor of classrooms, ones devoted to special needs students. There are few able bodied students here, as they are regularly shooed away by the teachers. Past a room from which a perpetual series of sales seemed to be held – hotdogs, donuts, juice, and milk. There were never any questions asked when a student never or almost never spent money at these sales.
The opposite end of the corridor contains the last classrooms ever sat in during the making of this memory. Oddly, despite the student noise everywhere else, the two rooms are empty of students, the boards wiped clean. Even the long sheets of paper with lists of student names that would be graced with a row of stickers or black spots or both representing good or bad behaviour were gone. Peculiar, as the teacher used these every year. They were famous, students feared them, because it represented her strictness. Nothing, except for a few boxes folded together on the sideboard. What they were for is not part of this memory. The students were each to have a package of bubblegum in them to start with. The maker of the rules had taken to starving those who were expected to obey them, so one remained empty.
A rather abrupt scene change, to the other end of the school, to peek into the computer room full of Commodore 64s. The premiere program was Logo, and there had been a contest to encourage students to attempt to draw highly realistic things with this sadly unwieldy piece of software. The room beside it was the art room, depository of jars of tempera paint and sheets of construction paper. It was always the lot of one unlucky student to be stuck cleaning the room after art class when everyone else had gone. In due time, the job would cease rotating and fix on one individual.
There was of course, a library, with its selection of Cherry Ames books and 'The Last of the Really Great Wangdoodles' among many other things. The classrooms across from it are all empty but for desks and wastebaskets, blackboards and dusty chalkbrushes. Yet student noise is still audible. Across the hall to check in the washrooms, but there isn't anyone there rattling among the green stalls, not even the janitor with his shaved head and handlebar moustache. And then, there is someone, an old classmate shouting out in the hall.
After them like the wind, moving past the orange walls on one side and the white on the other, chasing the bouncing jacket, out through the blue double doors.
And now the reason for the student noise and empty classrooms makes sense. Somehow another recess has started, and the students are back outside, enjoying themselves. Bouncing on the playground equipment beside the all weather field, with its perpetual game of California kick ball in one corner. To get to the equipment, it is necessary to climb a small hill. This hill runs all around the back of the school, and where the small jagged pebbles stop, real grass begins. The small patch of level grass is well played on, but the rise curled around it like a donut is home to another monstrous blackberry bush. This one never seems to produce fruit.
Students have crowded onto the equipment on the all weather pebbles, particularly onto the small bridge suspended on chains that leads from the tall slide to the shorter one. Throughout any given recess, students will be jostling for position on this bridge in order to stomp and sway, forcing to heave and drop like a boat on a stormy sea. It isn't entirely clear why this is considered such an important activity.
Past this equipment is a large, dead tree trunk, home to a massive colony of ants. They are fascinating to watch, and it is worth it to stand by, observing that some are red, some are black, and some are a bit of each colour. There is a small creek a few metres away, and between this dead tree and that creek is a long jump pit, perhaps one of the strangest places ever chosen for one. Determined long jumpers have managed to tumble into the creek.
Walking along the bed of the creek, hardly noticing when haphazard steps make no splashes, climbing into the Woods. As the name suggests, these were a small patch of fairly old trees, preserved for no apparent reason unless it was for the endangered trilliums in the area students weren't supposed to wander in. Of course, the first thing to do is to get away from the well worn paths students were allowed to use, full of red and spongy wood and equally red and spongy broken tree trunks. The moss and the fungi that look like tiny attempts at natural shelves tend to lose novelty quickly.
There are two small fallen logs here, pleasant to sit on and enjoy the cool breeze. A patch of trilliums isn't far away, and horsetails grow in their own miniforest, the entire tableau like a scene from a dinosaur textbook. This used to be a place to hang out with a friend, one who moved away. Memorable for her glasses, straight blonde hair, and the troublesome plantar's warts she sometimes got on the heels of her hands. A path that leads right through the Woods exists, but the chance to follow it never comes, even though it is tempting on the bad days, to just walk through the woods, out the other side, and keep going. After all, anywhere else must be better than here, where the rules always change as soon as obedience seems complete.
It is raining, a pleasant warm rain, and now tiny emerald green frogs will be bouncing happily through the grass. They can be easy to catch, although it must be done with care because they are so small. A team of younger students – teams of them have become the rage this year, and they spend their recesses chasing each other in packs around the school. Apparently finding this disturbingly moblike, the teachers have been taking steps to break them up. They will go underground, and reappear as cliques.
Floating back out of the Woods and down the hill, the classmate who unwittingly opened the double blue doors gone, there seems little else to do. Pausing by those doors, a small pile of three Professor Challenger novels rests by one wall. They are library books, to be sure. A tiny frog leaps past, and it seems quite a good idea to follow it. Far from the blue doors, the buzzer rings, and students instantaneously disappear, except for one, that classmate again, who rushes by to go in a set of green double doors instead. These doors open onto one end of the wing those last two classrooms of this memory are in.
But things have changed. Instead of light and phantomlike, heavy and slow. Feet seeming almost visible as the grass collapses into hollows where they strike, and the doors shut before they can be reached. And now solid, and hurrying to the firedoor that leads into the classroom in order to pound uselessly on it. No one hears, and there is no knob to turn. Now classmates are easy to see and hear. Rowan, with his knack for drawing and fascinating, or perhaps repulsing habit of drawing naked women firing babies like bullets from their vaginas. Edmund and Scott, who write comic books together which are impressively good. Ranbir, a good friend who certainly was never in this class. And there are the two Kims, who were both a year ahead and never in this class at all. It seems that this is a melding together of all the classes in this part of the past, and somehow there is no way to sort them out again.
Before, the rule maker insisted on carrying everything and everyone, and lashed out at the world for being heavy. Punished those within reach, for trying to take some of their own weight, and ease his burdens. Calling the slaves back from the first attempt to escape, claiming it would be different. And treating the slaves as invisible people, as slaves, again three days later. He did not speak to them, acted as if they were not present. If dirty dishes were left out, he threw them away. Slowly slaves starved there, and died, as he he refused to buy groceries and left the slaves to find ways to get them, or listen to him eat late at night. Sneaking out of bed to stare out the bedroom window, to wish to be walking far away, over the endless fields, somewhere east, no longer told that the only purpose of a slave was to be an empty lens that showed what the rule maker pointed it at.
The rulemaker was, perhaps still is, undead. The slaves were dead, like shells. Live people walked away.
- The End