Errol stands in front of a two-storey walk-up apartment building. He squints through the dusty plastic cover of the directory and scans handwritten names in faded pencil. Most are crossed out or erased. Near the end, he finds it: J. Timms – 204.
Errol shifts a bag of groceries to his other arm and awkwardly dials the number on a filthy keypad. No dial tone or beep. He tries the door. It resists uncertainly so he pulls harder. It snaps open.
He stomps the snow off his worn cowboy boots and treads up dirty carpeted stairs to the second floor. Passes piles of newspapers, a rusted bicycle, sagging boxes covered in water stains. Errol stops outside apartment 204 and knocks.
Shuffling feet and movement on the other side of the door. Errol knocks again, smiling to convey his warmth through the barrier. “Hello! Jessica? How are you doing?”
More shuffling and a quivering, anxious voice. “Who is this? What do you want?”
“It’s Errol. I saw you a few days back at the Cornerstone Hotel Bar.” No response. “You were playing guitar. George Straub was singing. I had a drink with you guys during a break.”
Errol thinks back to their meeting. How Jessica had been so quiet and how her hands shook when she tapped ashes from her home-rolled cigarettes. How she damn near jumped out of her skin when the door slammed. And the strange tremor in her voice when she turned down a glass of draft from the jug Errol ordered for the table. He figured she had the shakes, the kind you get after a night of hard drinking. Yet she didn’t have the bloated face or assless chicken legs of a drunk. Jessica had substance, he could sense that. But he couldn’t understand her nerves.
The door cracks open. He smiles nervously through the slit and she hesitates before slowly opening the door. The corners of her mouth flicker upwards and she adjusts a worn terrycloth robe closer around her neck. “Errol, I’m sorry, I wasn’t expecting anyone. Please come in,” she says, dabbing her fingers over her curlers. She wears heavy make-up, inadvertently accentuating the dry skin on her cheeks. Errol stands awkwardly in the entry way, his boots wet. In the background he can hear music, but can’t make out the song.
“Uh, well, I wasn’t planning to stay,” he says haltingly, “but I was in the city today. Thought maybe you could use a few things.” Jessica stares at him, her heavily drawn eyebrows twitching. When she doesn’t speak, he adds, “Just a few odds and ends.”
Pulling at her robe, she stands up straight. “That’s lovely, Errol, but I just got groceries. I don’t know why you’d think I need anything.” His face drops as he repositions the bags in his arms. She adds, in a softer tone, “Let me make you a cup of coffee. How kind for you to come out in this weather.” She motions to the open area of living room, dining room and kitchen. “Please have a seat, I just need to put something on.” She scurries past him, disappears through a door off the living room.
Errol wipes his boots on a clean mat by the door and shakes the droplets off his cowboy hat. He heads to the kitchen and opens the fridge to unpack the eggs and milk. Stares for a moment at its spotless interior containing nothing but ketchup, mustard and jam. Quietly closes it. Glances at the transistor radio plugged into the single kitchen outlet, and recognizes Country Carl’s voice on the afternoon show. A few seconds later, Loretta Lynn’s voice warbles through the tiny speakers.
Errol picks up the bags from the counter, places them on the entry way floor, and decides to sit and wait. Can’t get into too much trouble doing that, he figures. Plunks down on one of the two mismatched chairs at the wooden kitchen table. The oak is stained and badly scratched, yet Errol is drawn to the sturdiness of the piece. Some sanding, fresh stain and a few layers of varnish would transform it into something worth keeping. He runs his hand over the rough surface and the table bobs on an uneven leg.
Jessica appears wearing grey slacks and a shapeless black sweater. Her fine light-brown hair hangs in springy waves around her broad face, stopping at her neck. “Please make yourself at home, Errol,” she says stiffly, shuffling in heeled slippers towards the stove on the far wall. She fills the kettle and turns on the gas burner.
“I’m afraid I only have instant. How do you take it?”
“I just take it black,” Errol says, examining the table. “This is a solid piece. It looks like it’s been through a lot. Where’d you get it?”
She leans against the cupboard, “It was here when I moved in. This place came furnished.”
“Have you thought about getting it refinished?” Errol asks, bending to check one heavily scratched area.
“Goodness, Errol,” she fusses, “you’re full of ideas.” Jessica pulls an oversized mug from the cupboard, spoons coffee crystals into the hot water, and places the steaming cup in front of him. The table bobs and a few drops of coffee spill. Jessica wipes them with a dish rag.
She sits across from Errol and clasps her fingers on the table in front of her. Errol quickly lifts his cup to prevent another spill. He notes that the tips of her thick fingers are discolored, yet the apartment smells only faintly of cigarettes. A light pink polish coats her square fingernails.
Jessica finally speaks, “So hello Errol. You must be new to town. Do you work around here?”
Errol sips his coffee, slow to answer. “I’ve been down at JB’s Custom Carpentry. Mostly contracts, but keeps me busy.” He doesn’t tell her that he hasn’t worked in two weeks. “Mostly I move around though. Have a little home on wheels, let’s me head out when I get tired of a place.”
He warms his hands around his cup. “Yeah, keeps me busy.” Errol waits for Jessica to say something, taps his foot on the linoleum. Glances surreptitiously around the apartment, looking for something to compliment her on. Notices the lack of clutter, the worn fabric on the couch, and an absence of personal effects. The room reveals nothing.
Errol keeps one hand wrapped tightly around his mug, the other flat on the table. “So, are you going to be playing with George again soon?”
Jessica stands and opens a kitchen drawer. Pulls out a small ashtray with a half-smoked cigarette resting in it. Sits back down and lights the stubbed butt with shaking hands. “We’re playing the Cornerstone this weekend,” she sighs. “I can’t say I like the place.” She takes a shallow drag, then another. Butts the cigarette carefully and puts it back in the drawer. They sit in silence as Errol drinks his coffee.
Errol finishes the last few drops from his cup and clears his throat. “Well, thanks for the coffee. Hit the spot. But I’ve really got to get going.” He stands and walks to the door. “I’m looking forward to hearing you and George play again. I’ll be right up front!”
Jessica smiles as she walks him to the door. “Thank you for dropping by Errol. It was lovely to have a visit. You’ll have to come again. If I know ahead of time I can make some fresh muffins.” She picks up a bag and hands it to Errol.
Errol shakes his head sternly and puts the bag down on the floor. “No ma’am, I’m not hauling this stuff back out again. It’s staying here whether you like it or not.” Adds, with a glint in his eye, “Maybe you can dedicate a song to me.” Tips his hat and leaves her standing in the entry way.
As he drives away in his pick-up truck, Errol’s heart races. Grinning and giggling, he sings full volume to an old Kenny Rogers tune warbling through his cheap speakers. Errol tries to imagine Jessica’s face when she opens the envelope he tucked next to a jar of peanut butter. He giggles again.
Wearing her best wool slacks and her yellow silk blouse, Jessica hops out of George’s rusted station wagon. Her low workboots fill with snow as she ploughs through the small parking lot. The truck is beside a boarded-up warehouse, just as George said it would be. A blue pick-up with a dusty Frontier camper. Holding a casserole in her gloved hands, Jessica climbs two tall steps and pounds on the camper door.
Her hands are shaking but damn her nerves for once and for all. She will thank him personally. The note was simple, “to help with rent—Errol.” What wasn’t simple was the three hundred and fifty dollars in twenties and tens. She would have come yesterday but her eyes were too red from crying. Thinking about it she begins to well up again.
The camper door flies open and newspapers swirl around her ankles. Errol’s startled face appears in the dim interior, one cheek creased from lying against something.
“Hi,” Jessica says, breathless from the cold, “maybe this is a bad time?” Her thin voice continues apologetically. “You don’t have a phone, so I didn’t know how else to reach you.” She doesn’t mention that her phone has been cut off for months.
“No, no,” Errol mutters groggily, motioning her inside. He stumbles around the camper, reconfiguring his make-shift bed back into a table and bench seating area. Blankets and food wrappers are stuffed into the bed alcove above the cab. Errol’s movements are slow and cumbersome beneath his heavy parka.
“It isn’t much,” Errol says with thick breath, motioning around the camper, “but it’s home.”
Jessica stands in the doorway, her gloved fingers clutching a macaroni casserole made from her mother’s recipe.
Errol picks up a half-empty vodka bottle from the floor, places it on the table. “I don’t have any clean glasses, but this stuff is the best disinfectant I know!” He sits on the far bench, slides the bottle across the table towards her. Motions for her to sit down.
“No. Thank you,” Jessica says, “I don’t drink.” She looks at her casserole. “I just wanted to thank you for your generous gift the other day. I don’t know what to. …”
Her voice falters and her eyes are drawn to the filthy countertop beside her. The camper sink is stacked, precariously, with crusted pots and plates. Her voice rushes, “I will pay you back as soon as I get back on my feet.” Thrusts her arms out mechanically, “Here’s something for dinner.”
He sheepishly stands up, takes the casserole. “Thanks. Things are a bit of a mess right now. With the cold spell I usually just warm the camper up once in a while, then turn her off. Saves on propane.” Jessica notices her breath making clouds in the cramped quarters.
Jessica weaves her gloved fingers together and realizes that her hands are not shaking. “Errol, why don’t you come back to my place for dinner tonight?” she says in an even voice. “It’s so cold today and it would be nice to have the company.”
She ignores Errol’s feeble protests and stands outside the camper to wave George away. She’ll ride back with Errol, she yells, no need to wait for her. Not that George gives a damn, but it’s the polite thing to do. She’d cleaned George’s house all morning for the ride to come see Errol.
Back at her apartment, Jessica hums to a Dolly Parton tune on the radio as she washes up the dinner dishes. Errol sits on the couch with a glass of vodka and chuckles in front of a 12-inch black and white television he’s brought in from the camper. Around midnight, he agrees to stay and sleep on the couch. Not because he is drunk, of course, but because the roads are getting worse. By morning he’ll be on his way.
In the entry way Henry ripped open an envelope with his thumb, checked the stub of the pension cheque. How different it was these days, he thought, when money went right into the account. Didn’t have to see tellers or go to the bank anymore, thank goodness. Those people were always giving him looks about his balance being too low, or telling him the account was overdrawn. Now all he had to do was put a plastic card into a machine, which suited him just fine.
Henry headed into the kitchen to check the stew. A Clint Black song played on the radio. Potatoes, carrots, onions, barley, ground beef, peas, green beans. He loved the smell of stew as much as the taste, feeling it fill up the house with its promise of savory warmth. He lifted the lid on the pot, checked to see if the veggies were soft enough, and put the wooden spoon down on a small plate beside the stove.
He opened the rest of the mail addressed to him while standing at the counter. He pulled up a chair for tackling the ones addressed to Errol. More stubs for supplemental funding, equipment and services covered under disability coverage, reimbursement and home care options. The details made his head spin, but he prided himself for keeping on top of it. He had to, no one else would.
Henry gave the floor a quick sweep, then decided it needed a wash. He grabbed a mop and pail and rolled up his sleeves to reveal faded tattoos on his forearms. He rarely noticed them anymore, but he continued to wear long-sleeves out of habit. Back in his day all the new army recruits got those foolish markings; he’d been no different in that respect.
Henry rubbed his fingers over his temples and thought about taking a painkiller. Decided against it. He had never liked medicine, even aspirin seemed to make him light-headed. He needed to keep his wits sharp. Since Errol Smith had a stroke, Henry had become his full-time caregiver. He had to be responsible.
Henry walked into the living room. Errol’s skeletal frame was shrouded by an overstuffed armchair, his long legs stretched out stiffly on a cushioned footstool. A couple of years ago Henry had built a sturdy 12-inch base for the chair to help Errol get in and out. That was before he found out about those fancy electric chairs the government would buy for you. He reminded himself to follow up on the application for that chair.
“How are you doing over there?” Henry yelled, trying to get Errol’s attention over the din of the 42-inch colour television. Errol’s blank face didn’t flinch. Henry moved in front of him, yelled closer to his ear, “Do you need to go to the bathroom Errol?”
Errol looked at him with glassy, bloodshot eyes and nodded. Henry gently took hold of one arm, raised Errol unsteadily to his feet. Together they shuffled down the hall into the small bathroom. Henry got Errol situated on the raised toilet seat and modestly looked away. When he was finished, Henry helped him pull up his sweat pants and wash his bony hands.
Errol hadn’t said a single word since his stroke five years ago. Henry had kept talking to him, hoping for a breakthrough. The odd grunts and squeaks had stirred up hope in the past, but nothing ever came of it. Now he just talked to Errol out of habit, no longer expecting anything. He got used to the quiet.
At the dinner table Henry settled Errol onto a straight-backed chair. A bowl of luke-warm stew waited for him on a thick placemat. Henry draped one towel around Errol’s neck and placed another across his lap. He pushed Errol close to the table and put a spoon in his hand. “Okay, Errol, you’re going to eat this all by yourself, okay?” he said, sitting down next to him. Henry held Errol’s hand and guided it to scoop a few mushy vegetables and broth. Errol stiffly parted his lips and Henry firmly directed the shaking spoon into Errol’s mouth. A few drips landed on the towel. “That’s good, Errol,” he said, “now let’s do another one.” They sat there until the bowl was empty. Henry washed Errol’s drooping face with a cloth, took him to the bathroom, then settled him in his chair in the living room. He switched on a western.
Heading back to the kitchen, Henry put the dishes in the sink and wiped around where Errol had eaten. Humming to a George Strait song, he put another thick placemat on the table, served himself a bowl of steaming stew, and sat down. Under four layers of varnish, the grain in the oak shone with a rich honey-coloured stain. He stared out the window at the stars and thought about what to cook for supper the next night.
“Come on Errol, it’s time for your bath.” Henry gently shook Errol’s shoulders. “We’ve got to get up, come on now, you have to help me.” Pulled him up under the arms and took him to the bathroom. He helped Errol out of his clothes, supported him as he stepped over the side of the bathtub, and lowered him onto the plastic chair. He sprayed Errol down with the shower hose, soaped up his back and arms, and reminded Errol to wash his own private parts.
Henry rinsed him off and dried him, helped him into soft flannel pajamas. He sat him on the raised toilet seat as he massaged body lotion over Errol’s cold hands and feet. He gave Errol’s nails a quick trim, brushed his teeth with a brand designed for hot/cold sensitivity, and combed Errol’s short white hair.
Down the hall Henry nestled Errol into his bed between a sheepskin pad and goosedown comforter. Turned him on his side to help with the sleep apnea. “Good night, Errol,” he said, patting him on the shoulder. “If you need anything, just bang on the wall. I’ll hear you.” He closed the door three-quarters of the way to block out the hallway light.
Henry threw a load of laundry into an old washing machine at the back of the house and opened the dryer to take out some wrinkled things he’d forgotten about from earlier in the week. Mostly his own clothes, a few towels and pillowcases. He bundled them up as best he could and shuffled through the kitchen to his own bedroom down the hall from Errol’s. Dumped the clothes on the bed and began sorting. Rolled some socks, folded t-shirts, put shirts and underwear to the side. He opened the closet door and barely noticed an old guitar behind some boxes on the floor. Shuffling through clothes to find hangers, he caught a glimpse of yellow behind an old robe. Henry reached back to slide the fabric between his fingers and pulled the blouse from the closet.
It was the only thing he’d saved.
He held the yellow blouse up to his chest and turned in the small room to watch the sheen change colours in the dim night-table light. He remembered getting that blouse. The thrill of finding something so beautiful at the bottom of a giveaway box he’d collected at the church. It had never been worn, tags still on. $49.99. Real silk. It had slid over his skin like water, skimmed his padded bra and draped straight over the tummy he’d always been so self-conscious about. Quality did that, he realized, flattered the body in ways cheap clothes never could. He’d bought delicates-only detergent for that blouse. Of course it was supposed to be dry-cleaned, but who could afford that?
Henry pulled off his checkered shirt and slipped into the soft fabric. The arms were tight and the front wouldn’t button closed. His tummy roll was now a full-blown paunch and protruded through the flowing material. He didn’t look down, just closed his eyes and ran his hands over the worn silk.
He’d lived as Jessica for seven years. Almost scheduled the final operation a few times, but there was always something that stopped her from finishing. The relief in being herself, being Jessica, was clouded by an ever-growing reality. She wasn’t viable as a woman, especially as she got older. Nobody quite believed it.
It wasn’t as though anyone disputed her gender, but there was always a question in people’s faces. Something was wrong with her they suspected, but no one could understand what it was. So they stared. And they stared.
For years she’d been trying to ignore it. She figured if she waited it out and just kept trying, one day it would all come together. She’d somehow learn to say the right things, move the right way, wear the right clothes. One day she’d be a normal woman.
On the Thursday in April that Jessica overheard a bartender laughingly refer to George’s mutt-faced lackey, she decided to get a new wig and higher quality make-up. The next week she spent two hours making herself up and choosing the right outfit before heading to the supermarket with Errol. This time, instead of averting her eyes, she watched the faces of all the people she encountered. A mother shopping with two pre-school children, a stock boy tagging cans of soup, a retired couple bickering over cuts of beef, and the tired cashier who rang in their purchases.
That night Jessica put on her workboots and kicked in the bathroom door. She threw everything—curler, wigs, make-up, perfume, clothes—into boxes and told Errol they were moving. They dropped the boxes at the church on their way out of town. She didn’t even say goodbye to George; that cheap son of a bitch had barely paid her half her fair share for gigs anyways.
But Henry saved the blouse.
He opened his top dresser drawer and pulled out a small ashtray with a half-smoked cigarette in it. Sat down on a stacking stool against one wall. Took a shallow drag, and then another. Henry knew he had to quit; it wasn’t good for Errol to be breathing in that crap. Especially with his apnea.
Henry continued to run his hands over the silky fabric, avoiding the cracked mirror above his dresser. He swayed slightly, his eyes widening as he recognized the Johnny Cash tune he overheard from the kitchen radio. It was the same song Jessica and Errol had sung together at the top of their lungs while driving down a deserted country road one summer in the pick-up. Having a ball, being normal. »
“Refinishing” was selected as the winning entry (Creative Nonfiction Category) in the 2008 Lush Triumphant Literary Awards.
Back to top
From Issue #51.