By Scott MacAulay
A woman at St. Vincent de Paul knows me. I’ve been going to the store since late January, since spring wasn’t too far off and I could start to think about sleeping out of doors again, in a quiet spot, in a spot where it gets dark because the sun goes down, not because the rules say it’s time for lights out. I’ve been giving her twenty dollars a month in case a good sleeping bag comes in and she can put my name on it and set it aside for me. She said I could trust her. Her name is Virginia. It’s a wonderful name. It’s wholesome. It makes me think she lives in house with a large, welcoming veranda—a two-story house with rose-coloured wooden shingles and chestnut trees in the yard. Virginia is great about my plan in another way, too. She puts aside too imperfect donations of cutlery, pots, dishes—stuff that wouldn’t make it to the sales floor. She puts them in a box with her name on it, told the other staff she’s gathering some things for her little niece to play with in her backyard playhouse. They’re for me, of course. When she offered to help, I already had a note in my pocket which listed some things I’d need.
lamp, chair, futon mattress, big
pot for spaghetti, fry pan, forks and
knives and things, a dish towel
Virginia is my age, fifty. Both of us fifty. Imagine. She’s got long, thin brown hair that’s usually pretty tangled. She wears peasant skirts and knee-high knitted slippers (or socks)—I’m not sure what they are—with leather soles, long-sleeve crew-neck shirts and turtlenecks underneath. Her face is not old, not fifty. It is narrow and smooth, no wrinkles, just hints of freckles. Her eyes are tawny. If I could love again, it would be her I’d choose.
But that’s just nonsense. Love is not on my mind. My mind is busy, busy, busy with other things. I note the things that are important to me, using stubby pencils and little squares of paper from the library. Getting to Shepherds, the Mission, St. Luke’s, St. Joe’s on time for free meals, buying my tobacco in bulk at the first of the month when my cheque comes in, before I start to drink, and protecting it from people who would steal it or would reduce it faster than you’d think by borrowing a smoke every second day. (Who borrows a smoke?
Lots of borrowers at the Cross Mission.
Monday Joe, Shin Bone, Susie are the worst.
You can’t return it except for the butt, I suppose. It’s not like a lighter.) I write down times, places, warnings to myself, and other really important things I should remember.
Virginia is lonely Be nice to her. She
told you she never married. Her niece is
named after her, Virginia.
I look at my notes at least once a week, to update them, to make sure they are current; my pockets are stuffed.
I make notes to myself. I forget things
if I don’t. I’m a note-maker. I mock notes.
I’m a note-mocker. Oh, I don’t know what
I am. I do like notes, though. I like them
so much I could lick them. That wouldn’t
be good, however. The writing would get
smudged and I’d forget what I noted. I’m
glad I wrote this down.
I bunk in shelters now. After roaming free this coming summer, I think I’ll get my own room again, so I’m going to a lot of places, dropping in on people I know or asking people I meet hanging around the streets or in the parks if I can take a look at their places. Not everyone obliges, scared I’m strange or I might roll them. All I want is to be sure I get a place with NO bedbugs. There are no guarantees, but if you find somewhere where people have been living for a while, no huge turnover, and the shared bathroom has lots of toilet paper and the shared kitchen has a clean pot on the stove, you might take the chance.
Shelters are a necessity. There aren’t any good rooms around. I’d freeze to death outside at night. Come mid-spring and for most of the summer, till the third week of August or so, I’ll use them only for the really rainy nights. There’ll be some decent rooms open by then, especially ones on the upper floors. People will have abandoned them, been driven out by the heat that’s built up over the previous three months and the cockroaches and other creatures that invade from garbage rotting along foundation walls, up through cracks in concrete and humidity dampened ancient drywall, through radiators and open windows without screens. (I can take these little guys, just NOT the bedbugs.) But these late summer fleers from upper floors are short-sighted. However endless and godless the heat seems, minus 30 degrees comes too quickly to Ottawa. Well before you can find a decent winter coat that fits and has no rips, no stains, it seems equally endless and godless. I’ve noted it in my list of things worth noting.
I’ll probably be sleeping close to some of the rooming houses that will have the fleers fleeing. My favourite place is Dundonald Park because it’s small, only one small city block square, manageable—you can see who comes and goes, who lingers. Its southwest corner is dark and the grass around the benches there is soft and clean.
I don’t drink too much when it’s hot because I get dehydrated. And I don’t drink too much when I sleep outside: I need to be alert. I should be able to save a lot of the little bit of social assistance they give to people with no fixed address. I’ll still get around to free places to eat. When I get a room, I’ll do it up well and be ready for fall and winter to do their cold and blowy business—FIRST I need a sleeping bag from Virginia at St. Vincent de Paul.
I want a good one, good to minus 20, at least, so I can start sleeping out as soon as possible. I won’t be sleeping out in minus 20, but it can get chilly at night in late April and in May, even early June sometimes. I want one with lots of room up top so I don’t feel trapped, and tapered as it goes down with lots of space beyond my feet for a thermos or cans of beer, spare socks, my watch, my glasses case, tobacco.
This day at St. Vincent de Paul, Virginia says, “Guess what, Mark.”
“No, close your eyes. No, open them. You’ll have to follow me.”
“I’m no mind reader, but I’m guessing this has to do with a sleeping bag.”
Virginia’s peasant skirt is decorated with peacocks, crazy blues and greens. From grades seven to nine in Sydney, Nova Scotia, I watched a peacock and a peahen in the small park behind my junior high school. They had a small, red wooden shelter in their enclosure for rain, I guess, or for privacy. I don’t know where they went every winter. They couldn’t fly.
Virginia is excited. She’s leading me through the “Employees Only” door and down white concrete stairs, badly chipped and in need of a coat of paint. The ceilings are low. The basement is full of donated items from books to clothes to dishes to kitchen utensils, big things like mattresses and sofa combinations, and a special section for furniture that had been upstairs but just wasn’t selling and will now have to go to a landfill. It’s marked “DISPOSE”. This is where she leads me.
“Sit down, Mark.”
I sit on a scuffed-up plastic patio chair that wobbles.
“NOW close your eyes.” Virginia is standing behind a white, velour sofa, which appears to have urine stains on its cushions.
I do as I am told as she ducks behind the sofa and counts dramatically to three.
“LOOK! Tah Dah! This is yours! It came in three days ago with your name on it, literally.”
She is holding a bulky, rolled-up bundle, wrapped in clear plastic. “A sleeping bag, a really, really good one. We had something like it two years ago and the manager priced it at $120.” Virginia seems shy now that the surprise is over. If I could love again, it would be her I’d choose.
“You’ve got what, sixty dollars of mine? Can you hold the bag a while longer? Maybe the manager will let it go for eighty or something.”
“You don’t understand. Some woman came in and said she was putting an end to her boyfriend Mark’s camping expeditions. That was his name. It’s sewn in the bag. The woman said camping was an excuse for boozing, maybe a whore or two with his buddies, pardon my language. I did the inspection and reported the sleeping bag was damaged, a rip, and a zipper that needed replacement. I wrapped it up and put it here for you. Dump run is next week.”
I am grateful, but feel awkward. “Virginia, you’re nice, but I don’t’ need a ripped bag without a zipper. I’ll be sleeping out…”
“Don’t be a goofus, Mark. The sleeping bag is fine. Practically brand new, I’m telling you. You take it! You come to the basement exit an hour after closing time. Your money is wrapped in the sleeping bag.”
“You’re giving it to me. And my money?”
“It is marked for disposal.”
“Yeah, but you’re all churchy and everything aren’t you.”
“Look, some college kid would’ve grabbed it in a snap and used it for god knows what. You don’t take things now and then?”
“Well, I like to be anonymous about it.”
“Well, consider us both anonymous about it.”
I arrive at the basement door at the right time. It is at the back of St. Vincent de Paul and I feel like a sneak because all around me it is quiet and Virginia is doing something wrong, for me. And I know it. Light from the yellow bulb above the door casts my shadow and makes me want to confess, but I knock. She is waiting there, on the other side: With one knock the door opens and I’m inside. My eyes cannot adjust. It is too dark, though a candle burns a short distance behind her.
Virginia puts a finger to her lips, then a hand over my mouth.
“Shhh,” she says.
She lowers her finger, then lowers her hand.
Soon I am naked.
When you get a room, get the box of
things Virginia put aside for you.
Remember that she loved you in your new sleeping
bag on a sofa in the basement of St. Vincent de Paul.
Scott MacAulay is a former educator and community development worker. He now devotes his time to learning the art and craft of good story telling. He resides in Ottawa, Canada.