Thursday, 12 April 2007

About Ilse Dobler

They say the best way is to be working at a desk. And not listening to music. In a room with no distractions. I could wash down the drawers I brought in from outside. Neutral Milk Hotel certainly are wonderful. Jesus Christ or swimming by a lake. Sunlight streaming in through windows. Things you need a melody to uncliche.

David, Carolyn and I stood squinting at each other in the sun. We could hear that sound, the one almost like a cricket you only hear on a very hot day. High pitched, it never suits semi suburban cities like Kingston. The kind of sound that’s reproduced for movies about Vietnam or the desert. Concrete everywhere, outside a shopping mall somewhere near the highway. The dry cleaners where we asked told us we were an hour early for the bus.
Indoor shopping centres are the easiest places to lose interest in when you’re trying to have an adventure. Oh yes, the Adventure. Perhaps that’s where I start.

Or stop. What is this? Of course it's only as I am getting into things that I don’t feel like writing any more. Prose prose prose. Who needs it? Who even reads it any more? I don’t. Kurt Vonnegut died today. One of the last true torch bearers. Without him who publishes all that’s getting written? Who reads all that’s getting published? Maybe I’ll put this on my blog so the five friends I have who are occasionally curious about me will read it. Hi ho. (sure, make a sly reference. As though that’s not both painfully obvious and a little too obscure. Back patting references. Good work, you read. So happy for you. Now write, you pathetic, useless…) Hi ho.

Carolyn and I were officially spending one of the most

Hyperbolize, why not?

Carolyn and I were officially spending one of the most boring summers of my life together. Having stayed in our university town of Kingston slightly too long after semester ended, it was becoming apparent that there was nothing to do.

In retrospect, that “nothing to do” feeling was glorious and simple. Unemployed, but twenty. The comfort of another two years of legitimate study to pat myself on the back with. I actually felt excited to find a job.

We devised a plan to combat the ennui. Ennui? Ennui. Rooted in Adventure… It started when we were so bored we took an inflatable bunny rabbit her mother had given her for Easter and shot pictures of it all over Kingston. After that wore out, we took a ferry to Wolfe Island- a small residential island across the bay. We shot photos of the rabbit everywhere- most notably with an old couple.

You're summarizing. Stop summarizing. It’s boring to you, but at least try and make it exciting to the reader. That’s what this prose thing is supposed to be about.

We’d been walking on the island so long I had blisters. We considered sustenance sustenance? from the family owned pizza parlour a local video store clerk recommended to us. She said everyone ate there. When we got there "everyone" meant an old guy named Joe, who probably spent most of his day both annoying the waitress and keeping her sane. As vegetarians a defrost pizza was the best on offer.

This reads too much like memoirs. Yes it happened, but I don’t want that to be obvious. everyone will know how terrible I am at making up stories. Okay, third-person-present-tense starts now. Ah, the grammatical ruse…

Deborah and Carolyn look over at each other. Even the inflatable bunny rabbit seems disappointed. Silently, they decide to find somewhere more worthy of an adventure, bidding their goodbyes to Joe and the lonely waitress.
Only steps away is a restaurant, off the beaten path, looking down on the harbour. The sign above the wooden door reads “The Sportsman Café”. If variety is the spice of life, Wolfe Island’s restaurant selection tastes of luke warm porridge.

Sitting down with menus, the décor of the restaurant is their main topic of conversation. Canadiana of the least Canadian genre hangs wall to wall. A mounted Moose head over the mantle piece, a rustic fire turned up full blast, and fishing rods with old tackle line the walls. This is a slice of the country the girls are unfamiliar with in their country of birth. The stereotype. They spy a poster hanging among the bric a brac. Santorini. Dotted among the bludgeonly Canadian stuff are beautiful pictures of Greek Islands, reminding them of how they’d rather be somewhere else. They exchange a look, wishing their adventures were slightly more adventurous. A heavily accented old woman asks for their order.

Ack I am so bored of this already. During that last paragraph I thought about why I shouldn’t write prose at least four times. Every sentence is peppered with hatred and doubt. Canada, Canadiana, @:@:~, it’s all so :@:@::@y typical. Who cares? I don’t care about writing about Canada. I’m bored of this story already. Surely writing a story should be automatic, as easy to write as it is to hate trying to write it.

I’m in that restaurant, right, and Carolyn is there, holding the bunny. The lady walks up. She’s Greek. She’s says, “What do you guys want from our ultra Canadian menu?” (Which looked awful) and we say, “Where are you from?”
Then out comes her husband from the back, turns out they’re both Greek as salad, so that’s what we order, salad, and that’s what she brings us, a beautiful big Greek salad like I hadn’t tasted in months. Delicious. We ask her to hold the bunny and pose- but she is laughing so hard as soon as she looks at it that the picture is her, holding the bunny at arms length, laughing. The only really clear image I have of that whole day. This old Greek lady, holding the bunny, laughing.

We’d decided that we liked adventures- wanted more of them. We were so effing bored with nothing to do that we planned to devise crazy things to shake Kingston up a bit. That was when our flatmate Kat told us about the Casino bus that she’d been taking to Ottawa for free.

Apparently, you paid ten dollars, and a bus came to pick you up and drove you to a casino two hours away in Ottawa. (The Boring Nation’s Capital.) On arrival you were given fifteen dollars in chips you could cash in immediately. This meant that by taking the bus you actually stood to profit five dollars. And it went back to Kingston at the end of the day for free.

That’s why we were in the parking lot: Dave, Carolyn and I. We’d showed up early for the bus. When it finally did come loads of older people had already arrived. They were hard steely gamblers. Their slots machine strategies and bus buddies were pre-sorted.

Our manners meant that the elderly got on first. They were very old and we were very young. When the very last of them was finally been helped up the stairs, we bounded through the doors to find that the bus was practically full. We couldn't sit together. We all found a single next to the casino regulars who for some reason or another didn’t have a bus buddy.

Mine was an old woman with a heavy German accent. Small and cute, the way some women get. She dyed her hair a strange copper blonde. Through the window, she waved goodbye at her smiling husband. She told me she’d been married to him for fifty years. My boyfriend at the time was a bit of a douche bag. I couldn’t really picture myself with him for another fifty, let alone two. Which is exactly what happened, when two years down the line he called me and said it wasn’t working. I cried. He said his mum needed help with the dishes at three in the morning. I could hear her in the background bailing him out. He hung up. I didn’t hear from him again for months. Truly a bit of a douche bag. (If you read this, Adam, I don't necessarily mean it. But putting it any other way deteriorates the narrative. Plus, douche bag is a funny word.)

But there’s this old lady, waving goodbye, the bus takes off, and she unwraps some sandwiches. She starts eating and offers me one. I said yes because I never turn down a tasty sandwich. Unwrapped it, peanut butter and jelly, the sandwich of Gods. I’m chew chew chewing it the way one does with a really good sandwich, when I decide in my adventurous mood that I must have a conversation with this woman. Not merely a conversation - but a really effing good conversation, to tell Dave and Carolyn about it when we get off the bus. I look back at them, and they are both already engaged in what look like really good conversations. Carolyn catches my eyes and winks at me. Fucknuts. I must win.

I ask the most obvious questions first:

Where are you from?


How long have you lived here?

Sixty years.

Do you have any children?

A daughter in Scarborough. She has a budgie named Chico. (The old lady laughs, delighted.)

That’s cool. I’m from Toronto. My grandmother and mum are Hungarian.

She’s not really interested.

So I’d already run out of interesting topics of conversation. The only other option was to talk about what everyone had been talking about lately. Spring of 2003, Bush had just declared war on Iraq:
What do you think of this war coming up?

Terrible terrible, she said.

And I thought, of course you think it’s terrible, you’re a cool old lady and you just gave me half your peanut butter and jelly sandwich, you rock.

Yes, yes, she says, War, why always war? People want peace, not war.

Peace, you’re right, I said. What a cool old lady.

They compare Sadam Hussein to Hitler, you can’t compare him to Hitler, she says.

Right on, I think.

Hitler was a kind man. He stole from the rich and gave to the poor.

Yeah, because… Wait, what?

Yes, Hitler was a good man. He did good things for Germany.

What about the holocaust?

Pffff. (She makes a strange noise with her mouth.)

All of the Jewish people? You know, who died?

We did not know this went on. It was not so bad as that, my father’s tailor was Jewish. He did business with him years.

Right… I say, wondering if there was Nazi syonide in my peanut butter and Jew-hating sandwich.

They bomb Germany too, at end of war. Canadians bombed us. The streets were covered in yellow powder. Women and children dying in the streets.

Oh. I said. Not knowing what else to say. Maybe that was true, but my grandmother’s father was a Hungarian Jew. My grandmother had to hide all throughout the war in a convent. She lost her father and his entire family! Yellow powder, sounds awful. But War is awful. The losing side is awful- and, well, the Germans started it.

Germany was very poor, she went on.

(The old lady didn’t have anyone to sit next to her on the bus to the casino because she’d talk your ear off about why Hitler was a good man. Hi ho.) yes.

The bus stopped. A too peppy someone handed us a fifteen pound vouchers for chips. And I had a story.
I told Dave and Carolyn. They laughed at the nazi bus buddy all day. We didn't gamble.

In the evening, when the bus arrived to take us back to Kingston, I desperately wanted to avoid her, but she found me in the parking lot. She made it clear that I was her bus buddy and that this was an all day commitment.

I sat down angrily on the bus beside her. She took out another two sandwiches. She offered me one, “No, I’m okay” I started to say, until she shoved it into my hand. The bus took off. I started eating the forced sandwich. She talked away.
Turned out this old German woman was quite a chatter box. She went on and on about her daughter’s budgie chico, how she missed her daughter, the business they set up in Canada. To be honest I was too busy respecting my family to listen. Until she mentioned her stroke.

Stroke? I asked.

Yes, she said, two years ago. She She let me feel where they had inserted the disk. She was so delicate and fragile as she lead my hand up to feel right under her hairline. At once, I was sad and sorry for the whole business of this lonely German woman, her stroke, her daughter she never sees, her lonely opinions on the big lonely bus.

The sun set was shining through the window. Everything was that particular red colour, that beautiful end of day colour. The woman glowed. And I knew that I was having my revelation- the one that any character at the end of a short story is meant to have- and to be honest I don’t remember what the revelation was about any more. I just remember it was dark when we reached Kingston. I’d been buzzing and silent in the last bits of light, looking out the window or slyly at her for most of the journey.

When it finally did stop I knew I wanted to write about her. I wasn’t sure how, or when or if I ever actually would.

What’s your name? I asked.

Ilse Dobler, she said. We shook hands.

Four years later, the sun makes a window pane pattern on my early morning wall and bed. I sit and struggle with myself, again. I wonder if she’s still alive. I wonder where she is now. I still wonder if it’s right to write about her, as plainly as I just did. A story I’ve wanted to tell. A strange and quiet kind of silence I get after telling it. A stopping that comes easy, like words on a page or chewing a sandwich. Humbled by how large life is, by my own shoddy efforts to help a reader remember. Oh, it's useless-

1 comment:

Keeley said...

Nothing is useless. Everything is useless. We must do the best we can, share our stories and hope that someone is listening...