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Max Roytenberg

A SUmmer Mourning in WInnipeg

by Max Roytenberg, Aug 15, 2013

Dead! Gay was dead! And she died back there so many years ago, and he had not known.

Allen sat himself down on the parapet that marked the end of the low wall running along the walkway from the entrance to the Old Folks Home to the street. The building was set back, and in front of it was a manicured lawn with a few well-placed trees and benches. It gave the residents a place to sit in the shade during the very warm days of summer, relief from the dragging days in the residence during the long winter months. Allen preferred walking in the sun, taking exercise on the longish pathway to the street. He would stride energetically back and forth to the street several times during the day when the weather would permit it.

Today the left knee ached, and he felt like a little rest.

His left knee was a legacy from one of his better exploits of many years ago. Whenever his knee reminded him of its presence, he recalled his heroic act of many years ago. Well, heroic was really overstating it. He had just automatically done what anyone in his position would have done, wouldn’t they? He had been visiting his daughter in California. He was snuggling his granddaughter, Amelia, in his arms as he walked down the stairs, the last two or three steps. The three-month old babe giggled in his arms as he nuzzled her under her chin. Suddenly, he caught the heel of his shoe on the edge of the step and he was falling face forward toward the floor below. He would crush the baby if he fell! He had to do something! Instantly the thought came into his mind that he had to turn his body one hundred and eighty degrees so he would not land on the floor with Amelia beneath him.

The next thing he knew he was lying flat on his back on the floor. The baby was in his arms on his chest, giggling away. He tried to move his legs to get up from the floor. He found he could not move his left leg and any attempt to do so brought excruciating pain. He was suddenly surrounded by people. They had heard the loud thump as he had landed on the floor. Allen had fainted and had felt nothing. His daughter’s friend, a former nurse, in the house to help out with the new baby, quickly diagnosed Allen’s problem as a torn quadriceps muscle. He had indeed turned his body one hundred and eighty degrees to shield Amelia from the fall, ripping the thigh muscle loose from its normal attachment to the kneecap and surrounding structures. Allen must have fainted from the intense pain. He had absolutely no recollection of the event. Now, there was no way he could move his left leg until the damage was repaired.

They carried Allen on a board, (there were construction people in the house working on a renovation,) laying him in the back of a station wagon where his leg might remain extended. If he lay absolutely still there was no pain. In the fullness of time, he was driven to a hospital where a doctor had agreed to see him. The diagnosis was confirmed, the surgery scheduled, and, after a number of anxious days, including one painful sleepless night in hospital, he was operated on. Then there had been months of therapy to stretch the muscles and tendons to re-acquire full usage, but the knee had worked well enough after that. Allen had had to give up his jogging, which caused him a nagging pain whenever he attempted it.

However, aside from the occasional twinge, his knee had served him well. Amelia was grown up now and away from home, pursuing a dancing career, already acclaimed as a star. That always gave the grandfather great satisfaction.

But it was not his knee that was on his mind as he sat resting in the sun. No, he was transported back, much further back, to when he was a teenager. He was remembering his first love affair, the first girl of his teen-age dreams.

Gay attended St. Johns Tech, a high school in Winnipeg, as did Allen. “Who comes from Winnipeg?” Allen asked himself, an obscure town hidden away in the middle of the North American continent. Whenever, during a varied career that taken him around the world, he had happened to mention his birthplace, the inevitable response had been a puzzled “where?” Here he was now in an old folks’ home in that very place. It was poetic justice for his disrespect for his hometown!

He had never been much interested in girls. He had been lost in books as far back as he could remember. He had two sisters, so he knew a little bit about girls, but he had never thought about them beyond the fact of their existence. They could be a distraction. His youngest sister, Molly, had always wanted to tag along with him. And sometimes they played together. In that time Allen was thinking about, he did remember a rising sense of sexuality that he was trying to deal with, the realization that girls were really different from boys. Erections, and so forth! But he hadn’t really made the full connection in his mind, had he?

Now, that he thought about it, maybe his memory was leaving out some of the bits. There were those Saturday night dances at the YMHA. And it was all about being with girls at those dances. How do you act with them? How do you talk to them? What do you say? How do you hold them when you dance? If you don’t hold them close, how will they know how to follow you when you dance with them? Could you hold them close? Wow, that was a thrill! What if you sweat? Is your breath sweet? Are your clothes right? It was really complicated and you sure wanted to make a good impression so the girls will dance with you when you asked them. And the big one-will you be tall enough for them?

That was where he had first seen Gay. Although, she went to the same school as he did, and they were both in Grade Ten, until he saw her at the dances on Saturday nights, she had never existed for him. All the girls at school wore those identical dark blue tunics, with bloomers and dark hose. He could hardly tell them apart.

One Saturday night he had seen Gay on the dance floor. It was as if his head had exploded. He almost lost his senses completely. He stared at her, stunned, as she was whirled away in the arms of some guy he did not know. Suddenly, he was lost. Suddenly Allen was in love.

He was transfixed. His body was entirely out of control. He was trembling from head to toe. He craned his neck to follow her progress around the dance floor. She had blonde hair, worn short in a bob suiting her face, which was cherubic. Blue eyes-wide blue eyes-angelic-eye-brows, lashes, white complexion, full lips, lightly lipsticked. She wore a white frock, with a generous skirt down to below the knee. Her breasts were generous as well, high and obvious for her diminutive size. She was not tall. Surely he was tall enough, Allen had thought to himself. He recalled how desperate he had felt about that. Surely he was tall enough. Being the right height was crucial for him. What should he say? What could he do? In the end, for fear of doing something wrong, he did nothing.

He could not remember her legs. Legs were very important to him as well. He must have seen her around the school in her school uniform, but he could not remember it. He may have seen her on the street in a coat. For Allen, Gay was always in that white dress.

Allen did not recall ever having spoken to her. He carried his passion for her around with him at least for a year, like a locket round his neck, revived whenever he would catch sight of her. He never approached Gay. He might do or say something that might carry her forever beyond his reach. Better to retain what he had of her. Gradually she faded into the background of all the things in his continuing life. As the years went on, he met other women, learned what he had to know-had to dare-and built a life.

Today, in conversation with a chance acquaintance of his in the Home, when he asked if that person recalled what had been the fate of Gay, whose image had popped, fresh as ever, into his mind, he had then been told of her death. She had died young, of a malady related to diabetes. Now, seated alone, this event, which had occurred many decades before, was suddenly immediate. He was struck by the realization that, at the young age that he was at the time he knew Gay, his inner mind had not yet learned to command the actions of his body to achieve its desires, at whatever cost. He might have acted, as he had acted at many other times in the past, without thinking, to do just the right thing. 

Could his presence have made the difference between a death and life? The thought brought a feeling of deep sorrow washing over him. He was in mourning for a lost life. Allen sat in the warm sun of the Winnipeg summer and wept.

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