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That's the Problem with Rainbows - Chapter One


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They said 1979 would be remembered as the year Trivial Pursuit was invented and the YMCA sued The Village People over their catchy hit song. But it was China's new one-child policy that had me all riled up; plus the fact nobody even gave a shit. They were all too busy lining their cars up for blocks to save a measly three cents a litre because the price had risen to an all-time high.

Instead of going to work I called in sick. At the corner of King and James in Hamilton, across from the Woolworth's, I held up a placard denouncing the Chinese government--a big red X through the black magic marker outline of a baby with almond eyes in a toilet bowl. Not one person honked in support but a few gave me the finger.

"They don't have toilets in China," a jerk in a three-piece suit shouted from his Nissan.

"Fuck you!" I hollered back, throwing a rock at his rear window. More like a stone it didn't do any damage, but I was ready with a real rock in case he circled back.

Guys like him would be the first in line to buy a Sony Walkman but on January 5th, 1980--the night I ran away for good--the cool, new cassette player wasn't in Canadian stores yet. Too bad, because I definitely would have shoplifted one before jumping on that bus to the west coast.

 

Thirty-eight hours later, the Greyhound pulled into the Winnipeg bus station. I spent most of the night staring out at the blue-black sky listening to the woman beside her chain-smoke her way through a disastrous life story.

I hadn't had a cigarette since 11:55 on New Year's Eve. Everyone warned me the first week was the worst but nobody said a word about non-smoking sections, how they existed only in theory, that in fact, they were as effective as an imaginary friend on moving day.

Head pounding and squinting against the bright lights on the platform, I popped another aspirin, and slinging my knapsack over my shoulder, followed Chain Smoker into the depot. Hoping to avoid the awkward we-should-stay-in-touch-but-knew-they-wouldn't goodbye, I lost myself in the crowd and slipped into the washroom.

Leaning in front of the wide mirror I used a paper towel to rub the fuzz off my teeth. Every day my hair was curled into the famous Farrah Fawcett swoop, but now it hung limp. I looked like shit but too exhausted to care, shuffled back through the noisy lounge, past the rows of passengers slumped on uncomfortable seats, muttered an indignant "sorry" after bumping into a woman standing in the ticket line.

The dispatcher's voice crackled overhead as he announced the departing gates for Portage la Prairie, The Pas, Flin Flon. Ignoring the little voice in my head warning me to pay attention I boarded the bus on platform eight without even looking up. I found a seat near the back and held up my ticket for the driver to see. Once we were moving again and everyone's cigarettes were lit, I hunkered down and closed my eyes against the smoke and street lights along Portage Avenue.

Three hours later I awoke once again to the tire bump against the curb and the driver announcing a forty-five-minute breakfast stop. The hydraulic swoosh of the door ushered in a startling blast of frigid air.

Outside, everything was white-washed in a shimmery arctic frost--the buildings, pavement, even the snow appeared covered in ice. Exhaust fog hung in the air as cars crawled down the double-wide streets past all the flat-fronted buildings. The one-pump gas station across the street seemed deserted, its metal Texaco sign swaying in the wind.

A 1972 Chevrolet Biscayne parked in front of a dinky-looking restaurant had a plastic oval stuck to the driver's window and a yellow extension cord wrapped around the side mirror. I'd had my first taste of Ontario's north the day before but ignored all the just-you-wait-and-see warnings about January in Manitoba. Seriously, how bad could it be?

"We're not in Kansas anymore," the native guy in front of me chuckled, pointing out the window. Crescent beams of light rose up on either side of the rising sun.

"A sun dog. Not a good sign." He flipped up his jacket hood as I followed him onto the sidewalk where everyone jumped from foot to foot, waiting to get through the restaurant door. The squeak, squeal, squeak of heels digging into snow dry as Styrofoam gave me the heebie-jeebies.

The native guy winced. "Oiiiiii, I hate that sound." His buffalo chest, cheerful brown eyes, and deep, soothing accent reminded me of Gramps.

Holy hell was it cold, so bloody cold my eyes watered and each breath seared my lungs. Sealing my lips tight I tucked my nose into my jacket and jammed my bare hands under my armpits while trying to make myself small. A gust of wind swirled snow around and caught in the vortex, it lifted my hair, and I turned but couldn't escape it.

"Hurry up already." It was hard to see exactly what was what because of the plywood shack plunked down on the sidewalk to keep the wind from whistling in the restaurant. As each customer went into the shack, they pulled the flimsy aluminum door shut behind them.

"Come onnnn," I whispered but the native guy heard me. He held out his hands, offering his suede, beaded gauntlet style mitts. I told him it was okay as a group of men from the restaurant filed past. The door opened again and out came a few more. I'd waited near the end of the line for only a few minutes, but that's just how cold it was.

When I was a little girl, me and Gramps would sit in front of his old black and white and watch The Andy Griffith Show, and stepping into that cafe was like being dropped down in Mayberry. The locals eating breakfast glanced up as chairs scraped across the brown tile floor.

Along the walls, against the big windows letting in too much sunshine, sat high-back booths upholstered in orange-red vinyl that made a flouffy-farty sound when you sat down. Mismatched tables with wads of napkin folded under the legs kept them from wobbling. Brewing coffee, freshly baked cinnamon buns, bacon, and a hint of last night's fried onions on the sizzling grill smelled fantastic.

Choosing a stool at the lunch counter, I noticed they'd decorated the walls with large, framed snapshots of the town in its early days. The photo directly above had Funeral Home, 1936 handwritten across the bottom. A man and a boy, both wearing suits, stood together in front of an old two storey house.

Two waitresses darted from table to table, pouring coffee and jotting orders on small blue pads, ripping them off as they hurried through the swinging kitchen door. Each time it opened, I caught a glimpse of the busty cook working the grill.

"Good morning," said the guy who sat down next to me. His eyes moved from my short, rabbit fur jacket slowly down to the Pat Benatar boots. "Cold out eh?"

Jesus Christ, I thought, not another construction worker. I'd had it up to my eyeballs with his type. Green checkered lumberjack shirt, work boots, worn out jeans. And that beard? Good God. I deliberately lifted my nose and held up the menu. Snobbishness usually ticked off low class losers, but not Lumberjack Shirt. Too dumb to notice he just kept right on talking.

"So you're not from around here?" he said, taking a sip of coffee.

"I just got off the bus." Pretending to need something in the knapsack, I started fishing through, re-organizing as I went fully aware he was watching. That's when I realized what was missing. Zipping open one pocket, then another, I started to panic, looking through them all again. You know the heart pounding, oh-my-god feeling you get halfway to work and remember the eggs you'd turned on were still hard-boiling on the stove? Well, that's how it feels to lose your wallet.

"Can I take your order?" the waitress asked.

I hesitated but only for a second. "I'll have the breakfast special. Scrambled eggs, no meat, rye toast."

The waitress smiled at Lumberjack Shirt. "The usual?"

He held up his mug and she refilled it. Obviously, they knew one another. When she left, he asked if I'd found what I was looking for.

My smile was forced. "I must have left it on my seat."

He tried making small talk but my mind was already in reverse. Where the hell did it go? Five hundred bucks of hard-earned stolen cash, gone. Now what? I scanned the room, wondering which one of those bus losers might have taken it. And then I remembered Chain Smoker. That bitch.

The waitress set our plates down and tucked the bills underneath.

"Wait," I said. "I didn't order this."

"But you asked for the breakfast special--"

"I said no meat. I'm a vegetarian. Take it off and bring it back."

"One of those," she said, snatching the bacon off the plate and in the ultimate waitress revenge stuffed it in her mouth. She stood there chewing, even licked the grease off her fingers. I stared back. If it came to it, not sure I could take Waitress Girl in a fight. She had the thick European look of a Russian gymnast. Then she smirked like she just won the gold before hightailing it back to the kitchen.

"I'm not paying for that." Probably shouldn't have said it so loud because a table of locals turned to look. Surrounded by all those farmer caps and coveralls sat a dark blue uniform with a name tag above the right breast pocket. Not a city cop but an RCMP. He looked like a cross between Mick Jagger and a hammerhead shark.

My heart did that jerky thing. I knew all about cops. They came to the shack where I grew up often enough, usually to question my fake-dad Cliff but once for my fake-mom Connie, too. Cops always asked questions and wanted to see identification. This particular cop stared hard. Pretending like I didn't care, I turned away.

"Did you see her?" I still couldn't believe it. "Where I'm from she'd get fired for that."

Lumberjack Shirt took a bite of toast. "Aggie's the manager. One of the girls didn't show up for her shift. She'll get over it."

"Aggie? Who names their kid that?"

A man sat down beside Lumberjack Shirt, shook his hand, and said something about how sorry he was to hear the news. As they kept talking, I ate fast. When a line-up started forming at the cash register, I grabbed the bill and disappeared behind a heavy-set man. When no one was looking I stuffed the paper in my pocket and slipped out the door.

Squinting into the sun I surveyed one side of the street then the other. If I was going to make it to Salt Spring Island, I needed food. Kitty-corner at the intersection stood a row of short, flat fronted buildings. The one with a red Co-op sign above the metal awning had a shopping cart below it stuck in the snow.

Bracing against the cold I bolted across, heels sliding on the snow-packed street, swear words freezing in the air. I'd bought the coat at one of those weekend blow out, all inventory must go, we pay the sales tax events and the woman who took my forty-nine dollars said rabbit fur is as warm as mink. What a load of bullshit. I pulled open the door and the wind blew me in, slamming it hard. Looking around I could hardly believe her luck.

Sometimes when she thought I wasn't watching, Connie hid food in her sweater or left items at the bottom of the cart on purpose. Once I'd asked if she might go to hell for stealing and Connie whispered, "Of course not. Why do you think God made grocery stores?"

The Co-op was a thief's paradise. Connie would have loved it. Small and cramped with plenty of blind spots and no mirrors, there wasn't a clerk in sight. Opening the knapsack I stuffed what fit inside then went to the produce section, split a banana from the bunch and slipped it in my pocket. As I picked up an apple a voice behind me said, "Can I help you?"

A less experienced thief would have spun around red-faced but holding the apple in plain sight I calmly turned to face the clerk, a native girl around my age. Just like Connie's eyes always did, the clerk's gaze went immediately to the floor as if she was the one doing the stealing.

"Do you have any Kiwis?" I asked.

Her eyebrows clenched together. "Kee-what?"

I sensed victory. "You know, small furry little fruit."

The girl stared back dumbfounded.

"Forget it. Hard finding them in the city this time of year never mind in a shit-box town like this."

I held up my wrist to check the time and a guilt pang stabbed my gut. I tried to shake away the memory of Gramps; his soft smile on Christmas morning, how his eyes shone when I'd unwrapped the gift and slipped it on my wrist.

"Oh shit, I gotta go," I said, handing her the apple. Another wave of guilt as I headed for the door and told myself to stop being stupid, it's not like they'd deduct what I took off the girl's pay cheque or anything like that.

"See you around," I said.

The pumped up feeling I always got from outsmarting someone deflated the moment I looked across the street. How the hell the bus got away so fast I don't know, but that fucking thing was gone.

 

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