Tag Archives: Ed Staskus

At the Brim

Lighting Up

Not everyone was big at Time to Travel, but except for me they either were or were on the way there. Bernadette and Shlomit were chunky. Bruno had a tendency toward the beefy side. Sami and Simcha had fallen into the grease pit a long time ago.

The office wasn’t the biggest to begin with. There wasn’t a lot of jiggle room. It was a squeeze coming and going.

Bernie and Shlomit, the office secretary, and Sami and Simcha were Jewish. Bruno was an Italian man, gay, and hated Sami and Simcha. Even still, he was there before I started working at the agency and he was still there when I quit after the gasoline truck flipped over.

I was the blonde girl who was good for business.

Before I went to work at Time to Travel I worked at another travel agency on Fairmount Circle, not far from John Carroll University. A small handsome Jewish man who lived down the street owned the business. He put my desk in the window. He wasn’t hiding it. He thought I would attract waspy people from the college.

“Oh, look, they have a Christian girl there,” is what he hoped everyone would say.

Sami and Simcha were sisters. They owned the agency. They were from Israel, like Shlomit, their cousin, who was sweet, but ultra-Orthodox. Sami and Simcha were on the light side of Reformed. They had come here when they were children. By the time they were teenagers it was as though they had always lived in Beachwood.

In the 1970s Sami was a dancer in downtown Cleveland. She worked at a disco bar serving drinks and dancing in a cage. She wore go-go boots. Twenty-five years and 250 pounds later she showed me a picture of herself, thin, in a tight bright mini-skirt, doing the funky chicken dance.

Sami and Simcha’s world revolved around food. They loved to eat. Their favorite time of the day was breakfast lunch dinner. They weren’t food snobs. Their motto was, eat up!

They were supposed to fast during their holidays, but because they were fat they were diabetic and had to take medication. They had to take their pills with food, so they couldn’t fast. But, they were sticklers about breaking the fast. Sami would immediately go home and make a big batch of potato latkes.

Simcha had two sons in high school. Her husband worked at a grocery store. He was a butcher. He trucked food home. Sami had three daughters and her husband, a tall balding man with a nice smile, was a porno movie wholesaler. He sold them to video stores around the state.

All of Sami’s daughters were obese. The youngest one was 22-years-old and more than three hundred pounds. The oldest one’s neck was turning black because oxygen was being blocked by blubber. All three later had gastric bypass surgery and lost weight.

No one ever knew what got into her, but Simcha went to Weight Watchers for a month. She lied in her journal about what she ate morning, noon, night, and snacks all day.

“I’m not going to say I ate all that,” she said.

“They’re not going to be checking up on you,” I said. “You’re just lying to yourself.”

None of us believed she was going to lose weight. “It’s a pipe dream,” said Bruno. She didn’t lose any weight.

Sami went on the Adkins Diet. She loved meat and started eating a slab of bacon everyday. She brought it to the office in the morning. We had a microwave in the fax machine room. Sami was so excited about her diet. She piled her slices of bacon inside the microwave every morning, heated them up, and ate all of it. The office smelled like bacon until lunch.

“I don’t know about all that bacon,” I said.

“I’m on the Adkins Diet,” she said. “I’m allowed to eat as much bacon as I want.”

“She’s double-crossing herself,” said Bruno. She didn’t lose any weight, either, the same as Simcha.

Whenever Sami had to go to the bathroom she would hoist herself up from her chair. It took a minute. “Oy, vey” she complained. Her knees were giving out. When she came back and flopped back down in the chair, it bounced, the hydraulic hissing and moaning.

Every year, two and three times a year, Sami and Simcha went on cruises. They loved cruises for two reasons, which were all the food you could eat, and gambling. They didn’t care what cruise line it was, as long as it was the cheapest. No matter how cut-rate it was, you could still eat all you wanted, and they all had casinos.

The nightlife didn’t matter. The ports they stopped at didn’t matter. The only thing that mattered was that it was a floating buffet with one-armed bandits.

I went on one of their dime-a-dozen cruises. The ship was old and rusty. It sailed out of Miami into the Caribbean for a week. Sami and Simcha spent every waking minute eating and gambling. I got sun poisoning the first day and couldn’t sit out at the pool after that. The rest of the trip I had to sit on the shady side of the ship with all the 90-year-olds.

I was bitter about every minute of it.

When gambling started coming to computers, Sami started gambling at work. She played games at her desk on her computer and made Simcha do all the work. She bossed Simcha around most of the time, anyway. Sami was the older of the two, but Simcha was the harder worker of the two, so Sami could throw everything at her without caring too much about it.

They bought clothes from magazines because they couldn’t find their sizes at the department stores. Catalogs came to the office in the mail every day. Their clothes were XXL, but nice looking. They didn’t wear sack dresses. Most of the clothes were sets, coordinated stretchy pants and a top, like turquoise pants and a turquoise blouse.

Sami and Simcha were both top-heavy, but both of them had skinny legs. Sami talked about her legs all the time. “Look how thin I am,” she said, pulling up her pants. “My legs are so thin.” But from the waist up she was huge. She never pulled her top up or down.

It was when Simcha got false teeth that she finally lost weight. Her real teeth were a mess from smoking and eating sugary greasy food and not enough brushing and flossing. She was in pain for months because of the false teeth and she barely ate anything. Her dentist told her to stop smoking, too. She wasn’t happy, but she lost weight for a while.

She didn’t like having to buy new clothes and new shoes before their time, but she had to. Her fat feet got skinnier. She only ever had one pair of shoes, a kind of basic black loafer. When they wore out she would buy another pair just like it. She always had the same flat black shoes on.

Sami wasn’t happy, either. She didn’t like Simcha losing weight, especially whenever her sister leapt out of her chair to go to the bathroom. Simcha started saying, “Oh, I can’t stand that smoke,” whenever Sami lit up. They were sisters, but they bickered most of the time, bickering about whoever did whatever it was better than the other.

Everybody in the office smoked, except for me. They were always blowing smoke out of their mouths and noses. We were in a non-smoking building, but they didn’t care. They were all addicted to tobacco. Besides opening the windows to air out the smoke, they had bought a couple of those things that supposedly suck smoke out of the air. One was next to my desk, although I’m not sure it did much good.

One night right after work I met one of my friends for dinner. When we got to the restaurant she said, “We can sit in the smoking section if you want to.”

“Have you ever seen me smoke?” I asked.

“No,” she said.

I always smelled like smoke, since I sat in the office all day, an office where everybody else smoked. Bruno’s desk faced mine, which made it worse. I had a cloud of smoke over my head half the day. It wasn’t just all of them, either. It seemed like most of our clients had the same bad habit, as though we specialized in people who smoked cigarettes.

If Sami wasn’t lighting up a Virginia Slims, Simcha was lighting one up. One or the other was always huffing and puffing.

Sami’s wastebasket under her desk caught fire one afternoon. She absentmindedly flicked her butt into it instead of crushing it out in her ashtray. We had to call the building’s security guard, who had to find a fire extinguisher, and by that time the fire burned the underside of her desk and all the wires to her computer.

She never said she hadn’t done it, at least not to us. She never said anything about it. But she denied it to the insurance company. She didn’t want to pay for a new desk and a new computer. She didn’t do it purposely, which made it all right in her mind, and she got her settlement from the insurance agent in the end

One day a few days before Halloween a gasoline tanker truck overturned on Chagrin Boulevard, as it turned off too fast on the ramp coming up I-271, just outside our office building. The road slopes downward for a quarter mile as it wends east. The gasoline from the broken tanker ran down the road like smeary river water. None of us knew anything had happened until a fireman with all his gear burst in.

“Everybody out!” he said. “We’re evacuating the building.”

I grabbed my coat.

Sami leaned halfway up from her chair.

“Nobody take your car,” the fireman said. “The ignition could spark the gas. If anybody even tries to start their car, you’re going to get arrested.”

Sami finally got to her feet.

We all went out into the hallway, everybody from the upstairs offices coming down the emergency stairs, shuffling towards the front door, stopping and waiting our turn to go outside. Standing in line, rocking back and forth, Sami took out her hard box pack of cigarettes, her BIC lighter, shook out a Luxury Light 120, flicked the lighter, and lit up.

The fireman came running over to us.

“Stop!” he yelled. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?”

He pulled the cigarette out from Sami’s lips and crushed it between his gloved fingers. “Give me that lighter,” he said. Sami gave it to him. She wasn’t happy, but she didn’t say anything. I thought she going to say something to him, but she gave him the stink eye, instead. He didn’t care.

When we got outside everybody was walking up the road, up to the bridge over the highway, away from the gasoline. Sami and Simcha turned the other way. We followed them.

As we walked past the gas pooling on Chagrin Boulevard where it levels off, splashing down into the storm drains, I realized why we were walking in the opposite direction from everyone else. Sami and Simcha couldn’t walk far and besides, they had trouble walking uphill. They could walk farther if they were going downhill. We were also going towards the stretch of fast food restaurants where all the fire trucks and emergency vehicles, their lights flashing, were blocking the road.

We stopped at McDonald’s and everybody had burgers and fries. Then firemen tramped in and evacuated us. We had to move on. We stopped at Taco Bell and everybody had tacos. The next thing we knew firemen were evacuating us again. We stopped at Wendy’s and everybody had a frosty.

I never pulled my wallet out from the bottom of my purse. The gas smelled like more gas than I had ever smelled in my life. I didn’t have an appetite. The rest of the office had the empty feeling, a hunger that got bigger and bigger.

Sami called her husband from the phone booth outside Wendy’s and he finally came and picked us up in his Dodge Caravan minivan. He deposited Sami and Simcha at their house, drove Bruno to his apartment in University Heights, dropped Shlomit off at the synagogue where she was helping with a potluck, and then drove me home to Cleveland Heights.

In my driveway he turned in his seat and said, “You’re a very pretty girl, have you ever thought about being in dirty movies?”

He flashed me a warm smile.

“No,” I said.

“You could make a lot of money,” he said.

“No thanks,” I said.

He looked sad for a minute.

Walking up the sidewalk to my front door, as Sami’s hubby drove away in their family van, I thought, I’m going to have to quit my job soon. All those butts burning down to the filter tips in the fingertips of Sami and Simcha can’t be good for me.

That’s what I did, finally, the week after Thanksgiving.

Where there’s smoke, there’s smoke in my face. They never asked me, ”Do you mind if we have a cigarette?” I was just the blonde girl in the window. They were living large, Virginia Slimming, lighting it up.

I didn’t care if they were living it up anymore, or not.

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Born on the Barachois

Barachois

“Everybody went to church back then,” said Connie Lott. “Especially in a small community like South Rustico. My goodness, we all went. I just walked up the road from home to the church and the school. It was the same way we walked to the beach and went swimming.”

Walking to the beach was easy. There is ocean to see and wade into on three sides of the school and church.

There were four classrooms to the school and eleven grades, overseen by the Sisters of Notre Dame. Many of the nuns came from the Magdalen Islands, an archipelago not far away in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. “They were one hundred percent French,” said Robin Lott. “Connie’s French is fluid to this day.”

“He means fluent,” said Connie.

“My teachers were Mother Saint Alphonse, Mother Saint Theodore, and Mother Saint Cyril, who was sort of icky,” she said, almost seven decades later. “Kids came to our school from all over, from Hope River and Oyster Bed Bridge.”

South Rustico is on the north-central shore of Canada’s Prince Edward Island, where Route 6 and Church Road cross. The Lion’s Club, caty-corner to the church, hosts ceilidhs featuring local talent in the summer. There is a handsome beach on Luke’s Creek, which is a bay on the far shoreline, near the National Park.

“I went to mass once twice in twelve hours,” said Robin, Connie’s husband. “We were dating, I was on the island, and her mother insisted we go to church Saturday night before stepping out. So, OK, that’s it, we go. Sunday morning they wake me up and say it’s time to go to church again. I said, what? I thought, I must be desperate for a girlfriend!”

“You must have really liked me,” said Connie.

Built in 1838, the oldest Catholic Church on PEI, St. Augustine’s in South Rustico was already an old church when Cornelia ‘Connie’ Doucette and Robert ‘Robin’ Lott got married there in 1960.

“Our wedding party was in Connie’s yard,” said Robin “The barn was behind the house and they brewed homemade beer. We didn’t have five cents to rub together.”

Connie Doucette was born at home in 1938. “I lived in what is now the Barachois Inn on the Church Road,” she said. A barachois is like a bayou, what Atlantic Canadians call a coastal lagoon separated from the ocean by a sandbar. But the home she grew up in wasn’t where she was born, nor were her parents the parents she was born to.

“When my twin sister and I were born, our mother died,” she said.

Her father, Jovite Doucette, a farmer with eight children, owned a house behind the church and croplands between Anglo Rustico and the red sand shore. “Where the new school was built,” said Connie, “that was once part of his fields.” Suddenly a widower, he was unable to care for the newborns of the family.

Cornelia and her sister, Camilla, were placed with foster families. Her sister went to Mt. Carmel, on the southwest side of the island, while she became a permanent ward of the Doucette’s, a husband and wife in their 50s, who lived down the street, literally down the street, on the front side of the church.

“It wasn’t traumatic,” said Connie. “I saw my brothers and sisters, and my father, all the time, and my foster parents made sure I saw my twin sister now and then.”

The Doucette’s she went to live with were islanders who had long worked in Boston as domestics, saved their money, and returned to Prince Edward Island, buying a house and farm. They kept cows and some horses. The Doucette’s were childless, and despite the surname, no relation to Connie’s family.

“I was spoiled since I was their only child,” said Connie “They were older and well-to-do. We had a car, a Ford. I didn’t do too much, although I might have milked a cow once in awhile.”

Before mid-century most of the roads on Prince Edward Island were dirt or clay, muddy when it rained, dusty when it was dry. The first paved road, two miles of it, was University Avenue in Charlottetown, the capital, in 1930. “They eventually paved the road up to the church,” said Connie. “We used to say, ‘Meet me at the pave,’ which was where the pavement ended.”

“Our generation, their children have built modern homes on the island, it’s not as basic as it used to be,” said Robin.

“Everybody’s got washers and dryers now,” said Connie.

Her mother’s sister washed clothes by hand in a washtub and dried them on the line. “We visited them in the late 1960s,” said Robin. “Their house didn’t have running water or electricity. I went out to the well and pulled the bucket up. There was meat and butter in the bucket.”

“That was their refrigeration,” said Connie.

“They finally moved across the road to an old schoolhouse that had power,” said Robin.

“They had thirteen children,” said Connie.

Although he was born in Quebec in 1936, Robin grew up in Ontario.

“My father worked on the boats all the time, Montreal to Thorold, where the locks are, and we ultimately moved there,” he said. From Montreal the passage is down the St. Lawrence and across the length of Lake Ontario to Niagara. The Welland Canal at Thorold, sitting atop the Niagara Escarpment, is ‘Where the Ships Climb the Mountain.’ Standing on viewing platforms, you can watch enormous cargo ships pass slowly by at eye-level a few feet away from you.

When he came of age Robin Lott joined the Royal Canadian Navy.

In the Second World War the Canadian Navy was the fifth-largest in the world. During the Cold War of the 1950s and 60s it countered emerging Soviet Union naval threats in the Atlantic with its anti-submarine capabilities. “We were off the coast of Portugal when my mother telegraphed me that she and Connie had decided I was going to get married,” said Robin.

The executive order said to be ready in October.

Robin and Connie met when she went to nursing school in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where Robin was stationed with the fleet. “I was working a little job at the Charlottetown Hospital,” said Connie. “A friend of mine told me about the nursing course in Halifax. Right away I got the bug.” It was 1956. She and her friend enrolled and her friend’s father drove them to Nova Scotia.

After nursing school, as part of her scholarship agreement, she worked at the Sunnybrook Military Hospital in Toronto. “They gave you $70.00 a month to live on.” She and Robin dated long-distance style. “Whenever I got leave I would pick her up in Toronto and take her to visit with my parents in Thorold,” said Robin. “That’s how I introduced her to my family.”

At the same time, Connie was introducing Robin to Prince Edward Island

One afternoon, making his way from Halifax to Rustico, coming off the ferry in January and driving up Route 13 from Crapaud, he was stopped by a snowdrift in the road.

“The road went down a valley and there was literally six feet of snow piled up,” said Robin. He reversed his 1955 Pontiac back to where his rear tires could get a grip on a stretch of clear road. “I hit the gas as hard as I could, went as fast as I could, hit the snow, everything disappeared, and I came out the other side. By the time I did the car was barely moving.”

Commuting between Nova Scotia and PEI, Robin rode the Abeigweit. Before the Confederation Bridge opened in 1997, the ferry was one of the busiest in Canada, the island’s lifeline to the mainland. Commissioned in 1947, ‘Abby’ was in its time the most powerful icebreaker in the world, capable of carrying almost a thousand passengers and sixty cars, or a train of 16 passenger cars. Its eight main engines drove propellers both bow and stern.

“I used to take the ferry across when we were dating,” said Robin. “You had to sleep in your car if you missed the last one. We would be lined up single file down the road, there were no parking areas back then, a hundred cars inching along trying to get on the first boat in the morning.”

In the dead of winter, crossing the Northumberland Straight from Cape Tormentine, New Brunswick, to Port Borden, Robin Lott stood bundled up against the cold wind hands stuck in mittens leaning over the bow watching ahead as the heavy boat broke through foot-thick ice.

“It would crunch gigantic pieces of ice and turn them over like ice cubes as it went across,” he said.

After they married the Lott’s didn’t stay on Prince Edward Island. “Both of the family farms were no longer farming,” said Robin. “I had an offer to partner in a fishing boat, but I didn’t take that up.” They moved to St. Catharine’s, the largest city in Canada’s Niagara Region, not far from Thorold. They rented an apartment and got busy.

By the time Connie was pregnant with the second of their four children they had bought a bungalow with a 185-foot deep backyard, near Brock University. “We had plans about moving, but we had a low mortgage on this house, so we never did,” said Robin.

They still live in the same house fifty-five years later.

“Those days we used to all climb in our station wagon on a Friday payday and go to the grocery store,” said Robin. There was a meat packing plant in the city and an adjacent store called Meatland. “They sold hot dogs in three-pound bulk bags.”

It’s been said you know you’re from St. Catharine’s if you know the difference between Welland and Wellandport, were in the Pied Piper Parade at some time in your childhood, ate fish and chips at the north corner of the Linwell Plaza, can drive through downtown without getting confused, pissed in the Lancaster Pool, hate Niagara Falls, and bought cold cuts at Meatland.

“When we went on holiday we took our four children and went camping,” said Connie. “We had a hard top tent. We went all over, as far south as the Teton Mountains near Yellowstone Park and as far north as Peace River.”

It is almost two thousand miles from St. Catharine’s to Peace River, and another forty miles to Girouxville. Towing their hard top trailer, their four children in tow, the family piled into their station wagon to visit Connie’s four uncles living there. Her natural father’s brothers had all long since moved from Prince Edward Island to Alberta.

The Peace River valley’s rich soil has produced abundant wheat crops since the 19th century. The town of Peace River, at the confluence of three rivers and a creek, is sometimes called ‘The Land of Twelve-Foot Davis.’ Henry Davis was a gold prospector who built a trading post in Peace River after he made a fortune on a tiny twelve-foot square land claim. After his death a 12-foot statue of him was erected at Riverfront Park.

“It was one of the highlights of our trip,” said Robin, about their excursion out west in 1976.

Girouxville is a small French-Canadian community surrounded by enormous farms. A hundred years ago the local Cree Indians called it ‘Frenchman’s Land.’ Every four years Chinook Days are celebrated. Besides farming, there are thousands of beehives, hunting for elk and moose, and good fishing on the Little Smoky River,

“Three of the brothers homesteaded, the three stronger ones,” said Robin. “In those years you could go up there, it was all bush, and if you cleared the land and farmed it, it was yours. They pulled out stumps and ended up with farms so big they weren’t described by acre, but by section.” Spring, durum, and winter wheat are grown on almost 7 million acres in Alberta. The average farm size is close to double the size of farms on PEI.

The fourth Doucette brother became a schoolteacher, opened and operated a store, married, and propagated a large family.

“We pulled into this little town with our trailer and kids,” said Robin. “Then it occurred to us we had no idea where they lived.” Spying the town’s tavern, they parked in front of it. Robin went into the tavern. He told the bartender he was looking for Emile Doucette. The bartender looked at Robin and bobbed his head at a table set along the back wall.

“Why don’t you ask his brother Leo over there,” he said.

“He was a single man, quite a drinker,” said Connie. “What else do you have to do after working all day on a farm? He eventually bought the tavern.”

That night Doucette’s gathered from far and wide for a reunion dinner. “Everybody came, everybody got together,” said Robin. “We talked long into the night and it was still light enough to see.” In northern Alberta in the summer the sun rises at five in the morning and doesn’t set until almost eleven at night.

The night before they left to go back to St. Catherine’s Uncle Leo invited them to his farm.

“We were having a beer when he said he wanted me to go into his bedroom and pull the suitcase out from under his bed,” said Robin.

“Open it up and count out some money for Connie and Camilla,” said Uncle Leo.

“It was full of cash, honest to God,” said Connie. “We just about died.”

“I was nervous, what if somehow or other he thought I had taken one dollar more than he told me to do,” said Robin. “But then on the mantle in his living room I saw checks for crops he had sold, thousands and thousands of dollars, none of them ever cashed.”

Robin and Connie have gone back often to Prince Edward Island, most recently the past summer when they traveled to the island for the marriage of a granddaughter. They enjoy eating the local seafood, especially oysters, mussels, and lobster. At one time they ate as much whitefish as they wanted.

“When we first started coming back here I would go out with friends who were fishermen and it was nothing to hand line 1500 pounds of codfish in the morning,” said Robin. “But that was all shut down thirty years ago.”

“We ate fish, potatoes, carrots, and turnips when I was a girl,” said Connie. “That was about it. Whenever we went to Charlottetown we ate at a Chinese restaurant, but that was as much as I ever knew. Before I came to St. Catharine’s I had never had Italian food. After I married, my cousin and a friend of hers said, we’re coming over to make dinner. We’re going to make spaghetti. I thought, yippee.”

In the years since, the Lott’s have discovered fare across Canada and the United States, in Spain, England, Austria, and Denmark. “I like to travel,” said Connie. “We’re going back to Mexico at the end of the year.”

“It all started when she came to St Catharine’s,” said Robin. “Our community has every nationality you can shake a stick at, Irish, Italians, Russians, because of the construction of the canal system. There are cabbage rolls and pierogies and souvlaki.”

When Connie’s daughter travels to Prince Edward Island on business, she has stayed at the Barachois Inn. “She told me my old house has changed a little bit, one of the rooms now has an en suite bathroom, but it’s still owned by the same people who bought it,” said Connie.

Not much is better than going from one home to another home to family and eating good food. When Robin and Connie Lott are on PEI they sometimes stop at Carr’s Oyster Bar in Stanley Bridge, zigzagging up the coast to the other side of the Rustico lands, and have lunch on the ocean.

“We love seafood,” said Robin. “It’s our heritage,” said Connie. They eat on the sunny open deck overlooking the dark blue water of the New London Bay. The dark water isn’t new. It’s been there a long time.

The being on the seaside, mind’s eye on the barachois, when it’s a living heritage, is like slipping into the ocean and being able to see how deep it is.

Horrible House

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Mike Butler was catching some zzz’s beneath a clear night sky and three quarter moon. When he woke up he woke up quickly. The car came to a stop below him, the engine went dead, and a car door opened. It closed quietly, a trunk opened, and closed quietly. He peeked down through the slats of the second story deck. The trunk wasn’t a trunk. It was a hatch. The car wasn’t a car. It was a black Lexus SUV.

A man carrying a rolled up bundle, like a carpet, wrapped in plastic, over his shoulder, went into the house through the side door. He beeped his way in with his set of keys. Mike rolled quietly off his folding chair. He stood to the side of the sliding glass door. No lights had come on and he couldn’t hear the man in the house. Was he coming upstairs or staying downstairs?

Should he go or should he stay? He knew he could ignore the stairs, swing over the railing, and drop soundlessly down on the sand at the back of the house. He didn’t know where the windows there were, not exactly, even though he had helped cater some parties in the house last year. He decided to stay.

He didn’t have to wait long. When the man came out of the house he walked to the front of the Lexus, leaned back on it, facing the dark ocean, and lit a cigar. In the flare of the lighter his lips were pinkish, like pink goo. The ash from the cigar flaked off and floated like charred mercury onto his safari jacket.

Mike stayed in the shadow of the eaves where he could see the man but the man couldn’t see him. He could hear Cape Cod Bay at high tide on the other side of the beach. The man with the cigar in his mouth got into the SUV and drove away.

Mike went the way he had come, walking up Chequessett Neck Road to Great Island where he had parked. At home he rolled a smoke. He had been surprised as anyone would be surprised by anybody showing up at a seasonal mansion in early May, in the middle of the night, even though the weather was unusually fine.

Vera Nyberg was and wasn’t in a hurry. If she left in the next five minutes she might be on time for work. If she took Archie for a walk she would be late for sure. Halfway into spring, halfway to summer, her job wasn’t so much work as it was holding down the fort. It’s never too late to go and get that fresh air feeling, she thought, thinking about going for a walk.

Besides, unless it was summer, when everyone on the Outer Cape worked like dogs, she tried as much as possible to get to the office late and make up for it by leaving early. If she left early today she could make the five o’clock Strong Flow class at Quiet Mind in Wellfleet.

“Come on Archie,” she clapped, reaching for the Airedale’s leash. They left the house on Washington Avenue and walked up Commercial Street. When they got to Lopes Square they turned down MacMillan Pier to the end where the ferry came and went to Plymouth.

Archie was her constant companion, her watchdog, and one of her best friends. He liked running full speed ahead into streams ponds ocean. In the 1920s President Warren Harding had an Airedale. His name was Laddie Boy. President Harding always included the dog in his cabinet meetings at the White House. Laddie Boy had his own special hand-carved chair.

They’re all mongrels now, thought Vera.

“Come on, boy, let’s go home,” she said.

Archie liked Vera more than anyone. He felt like there were three faithful friends in this life, ready money, a good dog like himself, and a good master like Vera. He liked everything about her. She enjoyed reading books at night. He curled up at her feet, keeping her feet warm and his belly warm, too. “Outside of a dog a book is man’s best friend,” said Groucho Marx. “Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read.”

Archie didn’t take it the wrong way. Besides, he didn’t know how to read. He wasn’t planning on learning, either, although Vera sometimes read stories out loud to him. Learning to read was the first step on the path to a career. He was not a working dog.

Dick Armstrong was a well-built man with thick lips and a crooked smile. At least Vera Nyberg thought so. She smiled back at him as he sat down carelessly. He wore a cotton safari jacket and aviator sunglasses. He had scrupulously white teeth, but she didn’t like the way he smiled, or the way he sat down. His face was scabrous and she found herself looking away, only glancing at him.

Vera shot an eye at his driver’s license. He did and didn’t look like himself, two-faced. She thought she might not like him. What if she had planted a bomb in the seat cushion by mistake?

“What can I help you with, Mr. Armstrong?” she asked.

“You work for me,” he said. “You watch our house.”

Vera smiled politely and imagined a small bomb in the seat cushion, again.

Vera Nyberg was an Ashtanga Yoga teacher, but yoga didn’t pay the bills in the off-season, or the on-season, either. She worked part-time for Focus Home Security, in Orleans, in a small office condo off Cove Road behind the Orleans Post Office. The office was on the first floor and faced south, lit by bright natural light on sunny days and gray natural light on cloudy days.

The drive was more than forty minutes from her rented room in Provincetown, but since she worked part-time, and since it was an off-season job most of the time, it wasn’t too long or too much. Route 6 was never overburdened in the off-season. Besides, most of her work was on-the-road work like property checks home watch resetting smart home features in Wellfleet, Truro, and P-Town itself, all of which were closer than the office.

She baby sat summer vacation mansions and held the hands of absentee landlords. Vandalism, storm damage, and frozen pipes were usually as nerve wracking as it got. Property surveillance was Focus Security’s bread and butter.

“I pay for your key-holding service, and since I was passing through, I want to stop at our house and walk through it, look everything over, before we come up next month,” said Dick Armstrong.

Who passes through the back end of a peninsula? Vera asked herself.

“Of course, we can arrange that,” she said. “When would you like to inspect the house?”

“Now.”

Twenty minutes later they got off Route 6 and drove through Wellfleet to the bay side of the town. The Lexus blotted out the sun as Vera followed behind Dick Armstrong down the curvy Chequessett Neck Road. Archie lolled in the back seat of Vera’s Honda CRV.

She had never been inside the Armstrong house, but had seen it often enough. She took Archie for walks on the long beach past what was called The Gut. After parking at Great Island, unless she cut through the woods and took a track on a backside dune, she walked past the house at the end of the road. She had even parked in their driveway several times, when she knew the house wasn’t occupied, when she was short on time for a quick short hike.

The Focus Security magnetic vehicle sign came in handy then.

The house was on the edge of the Cape Cod National Seashore and stuck out like a sore thumb. She knew it had a reputation. Eight years ago, when it was being built, it was sometimes called Horrible House.

An older, smaller house had been bought and torn down and the Armstrong’s had somehow convinced the town’s building inspector to give them a permit to build a house three times the size. It dominated the view across the Herring River. Wellfleet’s homeowner’s association and the National Park Service appealed the permit, but the house got built, anyway.

“Kill the Rich!” had been spray-painted below the garage door windows before the house was even finished. Focus Security parked a man in the driveway until the commotion died down. Since then the Armstrong’s spent three or four or five middle of the summer weeks on the Outer Cape. Sometimes their children, extended family, and friends took the house over for a weekend. After Labor Day it was shut up for the winter.

Everything about the house was Cape Cod-like, from the cedar shingle siding to the paired windows on both sides of the central front door to the fishy weather vane. Everything was right about it, perched on the sea, except for the King Kongness of it.

They parked in the driveway. Vera looked up at the second story deck. She liked the deck, round high facing the ocean.

“Unlock this door,” said Dick Armstrong, pointing to the side door. “I don’t want that in the house,” he said, pointing to Archie in the back seat.

Archie didn’t like the way the man said it, but he didn’t bark about it.

As soon as they were inside the house he jumped out of the car window Vera had left open for him. He barked at the Lexus. He sniffed at one of the rear tires, lifted his hind leg, and peed on it. Archie could hear and smell the ocean. In a minute he saw it and in the next minute he was at the shore, in the water.

Inside the house Vera sat at the kitchen table while Dick Armstrong strode through the rooms, strode upstairs, and strode back into the kitchen.

“Everything looks good,” he said. “Come down to the panic room. I want to check the alarm system and security cameras.”

“I thought they were called safe rooms.”

He gave her a sharp look. “Panic room.”

The basement floor was a mirror-like epoxy painted slab. There were a pool table, a billiards table, a snooker table, and a bar with eight or nine stools. The safe room was a concrete square in the corner. The door was a steel door. The hinges and strike plate were reinforced. A table with four chairs was to the right of the door. An open bathroom with a first aid kit on the wall was behind the table. On the left a two-door cabinet held dry goods, bottled water, and gas masks. In the far left corner were an office chair and table, an iMac, shortwave radio, and closed circuit monitors.

A woman was splayed on the floor, dress disordered eyes closed face blank, dark red blood drying in her blonde hair.

Vera looked up as Dick Armstrong took a step at her and grabbed her by the throat. His face looked like murder. She slashed at his mouth. His lips came off in her hand. He hit her with a short hard right to the temple and her legs went wobbly. She leaned into him. A black inky film filled her eyes. She lost consciousness as he let her go to the ground.

Archie was almost dry by the time he ran back to the car. He had a hard dense wiry coat. Thick heavyset dark clouds were rolling in across the bay. When Dick Armstrong came through the side door Archie wondered, where’s Vera? The side door slammed and the man strode towards his car.

Archie didn’t like the smell of it. The man had a sour smell. He wanted to ask him where Vera was, but the man, opening his car door, kicked at him. Archie was an Oorang Airedale. His great-great-great-great grandfather had been a fierce competitor in water-rat matches. He jabbed headfirst at the man’s leg, slashing through the pant’s fabric, and biting into warm flesh. He could taste blood in his mouth.

It tasted good.

Dick Armstrong yawped and flung himself into the Lexus, lurching and grabbing at the door. Backing out of the driveway he swerved at the Airedale, but Archie was graceful fast lissome, and it was child’s play jumping to the side.

The better I get to know people, thought Archie. He wasn’t trying to be narrow-minded, but what he liked about people most of the time was their dogs. Dogs never bite me, only people. He jumped into the CRV. The rain fell like dread.

Vera Nyberg blinked her eyes open. She was lying prone on a medical exam table. The ceiling was white. She took ten twenty then a hundred slow steady breaths staring into the white. When she was done she tried to prop herself up on her elbows. She slowly deliberately wary lay back down on her back. Her head hurt like somebody had hit it with a hammer. Hedging her bets she closed her eyes and fell back into the inky blackness.

Officer Matheus Ribeiro was stocky and had short stocky black hair. Besides routine patrol work, he was the medical supply officer and detainee monitor. He sat across from Vera in an interview room in the Wellfleet Police Department checking and double-checking a sheaf of papers on a clipboard. Vera knew him, not so much as a policeman, but more as a friend of Rachel Amparo, her friend on the Provincetown Police Department.

He was from Brazil, Porto Velho, one of the state capitals in the upper Amazon River basin. He was a graduate of the Plymouth Police Academy and had been on the Wellfleet force for six years. He spoke Portuguese, Rachel spoke Portuguese, he was a great cook, and Rachel loved great food.

One night, over plates of bacalhau, Vera asked him what he liked about being a policeman.

“I get to drive as fast as I want,” he said.

Rachel, whose duties routinely involved foot patrols, scowled.

“What the hell, Vera,” he said. “What happened?”

“Where’s Archie?” she asked.

“He was asleep in the back of your car. We called Bruce. He and a friend of his picked up Archie and your car and took them home. Now tell me what happened.”

When she was done she laced her fingers, reached up and behind the chair, and stretched. Officer Ribeiro leaned back in his chair, tipping on the back legs. He straightened up.

“Mr. Armstrong was who called us about you,“ he said.

“What?”

“He called the department and said he was worried, said he had called from Boston and asked that somebody from Focus walk through his house, that he was coming up for the weekend, since the weather was so good. He said you volunteered and would call him back within the hour. When you didn’t call by the end of the day he called your office, no answer, and then called us.”

The policeman drank from a bottle of Poland Spring.

“He asked us to drive by, see if everything was OK. When we pulled up your car and Mrs. Armstrong’s car were in the driveway.”

“Mrs. Armstrong? There was no Mrs. Armstrong, only him, by himself. And the woman.”

“The woman was Mrs. Armstrong. She was in the safe room in the basement, with you, except she was dead.”

“That was the first and only time I ever saw her.”

“I was going to ask you about that. We’ve told Mr. Armstrong about her death and he’ll be here today.”

“If that’s him in the picture you showed me, that’s not exactly him. That’s not the man who slugged me.”

“There’s something at odds here.”

“What time is it?”

“Nine, nine in the morning.”

“When did Mrs. Armstrong die?”

“The medical examiner so far is saying ten, eleven o’clock, the same time you were there.”

“How did she die?”

“The same as you, blunt force, but you didn’t die.”

“Am I a suspect?”

“Yes and no.”

“I like the no part better. Can I go have breakfast?”

“How’s your head?”

“It could be better.”

“There’s no substitute for a hard head. Where are you going?”

“The Lighthouse, then home, I’ve got to shower, and change. I’ll be back.”

“How are you going to do that?”

“I was hoping you could drive me to the Lighthouse. I’ll call Sandra on the way. She can take me home. Archie and I will be back by five.”

“This isn’t exactly how murder investigations are supposed to go.”

“You’re right about that, about this being murder. He was the man who slugged me, with his wrong face or no wrong face. I think it’s all just sand in our faces, just some sleight of hand.”

“We’ve confirmed him to be in Boston with a friend yesterday.”

“What kind of a friend?”

The policeman hesitated. “A close friend.”

“It has to be something about the house, something personal. Why not solve your problem in Boston, or get someone else to solve your problem, make it disappear? I’ve got a friend, one of Sandra’s catering guys, who was once a jailhouse lawyer, before he went more-or-less straight. He’s an IT jack-of-all-trades, good at following the money. He’ll know how to find out.”

“I know Mike Butler, so let’s drop that within earshot of me,” said Officer Ribeiro.

“Man, that’s crazy, I was there the night before last, hanging out on that second story deck of theirs,” said Mike Butler.

Vera, Sandra, and Mike were having a late breakfast at the Lighthouse. They sat at the bar. Sandra lived in Eastham, but worked part-time at Herridge Books in Wellfleet. It was a small bookstore with no magazines and no café, just books. There were books in stacks on chairs tables and the floor. It smelled like a bookstore even with the windows open.

Sandra catered private parties on the side. Mike was one of the local men who worked with her. In the off-season, in the late afternoon or evening, he often roosted on decks and porches of unoccupied seasonal houses on seaside lots. “What they don’t know won’t hurt them,” he said. He never brought his iPhone. He never parked in the driveways. He always brought his own Eddie Bauer folding chair.

“Yeah, there was a guy, some kind of black car, a big one, like a Caddy, or a Lexus, maybe” he said. “He carried something into the house, didn’t stay long. As soon as he was gone I made myself gone, too.”

“Can you find out about that house, about them, who held the purse strings, and who was on the outs with who?”

“Sure, after breakfast, give me a few hours. Call me if I don’t call you. I might be taking a nap.”

Men are most sincere when they’re in love, when they’ve been empowered, and when they’re committing murder. Dick Armstrong must have fallen out of love with his wife, thought Vera. Murder wasn’t the next step, but it might be if his love had turned to hate. Murders are always a problem when they’re spur of the moment crimes, when they’re mistakes. But, Dick Armstrong had gotten too clever for his own good trying to send a message to the graveyard. When someone has thought and thought about something it isn’t hard working backwards and reading their thoughts.

Vera showered, fed Archie, and meditated for an hour. Most days she meditated for half an hour, except when she was busy. Then she meditated longer. She had been busy the past day-and-a half. Breathing exercises and meditation were about everything and nothing at the same time. They were acts of slowing down, getting centered, and finding some understanding and compassion for the living and the dead.

“It’s his money, real estate money, plenty of it and plenty of it shady, but all the personal property was in her name,” said Mike Butler as they sped down Route 6 to Wellfleet. ”She was after a divorce, she’s saying abuse, but she wanted more than alimony, she wanted the summer house.”

“The horrible house,” said Vera.

“It’s not so horrible, kind of big, but a great view of the bay.”

“Why did she want the house?”

“She wanted it because he wanted it. He planned the house just the way he wanted it, he bought off everybody and his brother, he went to court, fought off the do-gooders, the Feds, got it built even though they made him jump through hoops, got it done. Hell, he probably loved that house a lot more than he loved her. She probably knew that, too.”

Mike Butler had grown up in old Provincetown before it became new Provincetown, when property was cheap and rents low and hippies and gays were starting to show up. He didn’t downpress anyone one way or the other. His father had fished for cod on his own boat out of Provincetown Harbor. Mike still called Commercial Street Front Street and Bradford Street Back Street.

He didn’t care about bankers and stockbrokers buying up land, either. He had his family’s old small house in Provincetown. The front door still faced the ocean, unlike most of the town’s waterfront houses, which had been turned around so the front doors faced the street. He kept to himself, except when he was working, or watching a BoSox game at the Lighthouse, a Pabst Blue Ribbon at hand.

Mike lived with a box turtle he’d had since he was a kid. Inscribed on the underside of the shell of the turtle were the initials M. B. and the year 1979, where he had carved them with a pocketknife on his 18th birthday, six years after his father gave him the baby turtle for his birthday.

Archie liked riding in the CRV with the windows open, just in case anything came up that he needed to bark at. But, he had a bad habit of barking at anything that moved, a crossing guard, a passing bicyclist, a rafter of wild turkeys on the side of the road. Sometimes Vera told him to “Shut the hell up.” He didn’t know exactly what hell was, but he knew exactly what she meant when she said it. She wasn’t shy or dry nor someone who beat the sense out of words.

When they pulled into the Wellfleet Police Department parking lot and Archie barked at Dick Armstrong getting out of his white Lincoln Navigator, Vera said, “Good dog.” Two men in suits went into the station with him. “At least one of them is a lawyer,” said Mike. He rubbed the top of Archie’s head.

The police station was on Gross Hill Road off Route 6, tucked beneath Oakdale Cemetery where Cemetery Road began and ended. “I’ll stay here, maybe go for a walk in the graveyard,” said Mike. Vera and Archie went into the station. Vera sat on a plastic chair in the lobby and Archie flopped down on the floor. She had gotten a good look at Dick Armstrong and couldn’t swear he was Dick Armstrong.

A half-hour later, when Officer Matheus Ribeiro came out to the lobby and asked her if she could identify Dick Armstrong as the man who had attacked her in the safe room, she said, “No.”

“Too bad,” he said. “I don’t think we’re going to be able to charge him with anything.”

Ten minutes later Dick Armstrong and the two men accompanying him pushed into the lobby on their way out of the police station. One of the men gave her a look-see. Dick Armstrong stopped and eyeballed Archie.

Archie jumped up and started barking his head off. It was the sour-smelling man he had bitten outside the big house. He barked and barked, but could tell no one was making heads or tails of what he was trying to say. “Keep that damned dog away from me,” shouted Dick Armstrong.

Archie lunged at him, got his teeth into the right pants leg, and tugging violently tore the fabric off the leg at the knee. One of the men started to beat Archie with his briefcase. The police dispatcher, another policeman, and finally Officer Ribiero burst into the lobby, manhandling Dick Armstrong away from Archie, pulling Archie away from him, and pushing the lawyer with the angry briefcase away from the fracas.

“Look what that goddamned dog did to my pants,” yelled Dick Armstrong.

Everyone looked

“Look at his leg,” said Vera. “Look at the bite mark on his shin.”

Everyone looked.

The bite mark was black and blue in an ugly ring where the skin had been broken. Five inflamed red marks defined where canine teeth had drawn blood. Some kind of antiseptic cream was smeared over the wound. Two of the red marks were back to back.

“That’s Archie’s bite,” said Vera.

“What?” asked Officer Ribiero.

“One of his baby canines got retained, and since it wasn’t bothering him when his permanent teeth came in, I just let it go. He’s got two canine teeth on that one side, which is why his bite mark is the way it is. I’d know it anywhere, because that Dick Armstrong isn’t the first Dick Armstrong he’s bitten. If this man was in Boston yesterday, how did he get bitten by my dog on the same day?”

“Get the Medical Examiner on the phone,” Officer Ribiero said to the police dispatcher. “In the meantime, I think it’s best if we all go back inside and go over this from the beginning. And you,” he said, pointing to Vera, “bring that dog with you.”

Only the lawyer with the out of gas briefcase objected.

“They took photos, took some measurements, and took some samples from Archie and Armstrong,” said Vera.

Rachel Amparo and Vera were at Terra Luna in North Truro. They sat at the bar and shared plates of artichoke heart pate and grilled sardines. Rachel sipped on a Flower Power cocktail while Vera pulled from a bottle of Tank 7 Farmhouse Ale.

“If the DNA matches it’ll throw a new light on everything,” said Rachel. “That’s when the trouble will start. One lie leads to another until it’s all a house of cards.”

“I’m always telling Archie he’s not allowed to bite people,” said Vera, crunching on a sardine. “He agrees, I think, but he seems to think it’s OK to bite anyone who’s in the wrong place at the wrong time doing the wrong thing.”

“He’s a good dog,” said Rachel.

Archie was on his stomach lounging in the orangey sunset at the back of the small restaurant. Tony was working in the kitchen. He could see him through the screen door. Archie’s chin was flat on the warm grass, back legs tucked up under him. His front legs were extended before him. He could clearly smell pork chops being grilled.

Maybe Tony will bring me something to eat soon.

He was glad he had been able to help by biting the sour-smelling man. He didn’t often bite people. He preferred to bump them when he had to.

One night Vera had read a story to him called The Dog Who Bit People, about Muggs, an Airedale like him, but unlike him a dog who bit everyone in sight, although he didn’t bite his family as often as he bit strangers. “When he starts for them they scream and that excites him,” explained the mother of the house. The city police wanted him tied up, but he wouldn’t eat when he was tied up.

Archie thought Muggs lacked good sense.

When the screen door swung open Archie jumped up. Tony was bringing out a bowl of water and a plate of pieces of pork chop and the raw meat bone.

“The bone is for after your meal,” said Tony.

Later, chewing on the bone, he thought the sour-smelling man may have had the wrong mug shot, but he knew in his bones he had bitten the right leg on the right man at the right time.

From Bogota to Bittergirl

fhf-natalia-3

When “Bittergirl: The Musical” came back to the cabaret-style Mack Theatre in downtown Charlottetown, the capital of Prince Edward Island, it came back because it had played to laugh-out-loud crowds during its world premiere there in 2015, and everyone knew the home-grown Canadian merry-go-round about breaking up was worth seeing, or seeing again in 2017.

Based on a 1999 play lived died and written by Annabel Fitzsimmons, Alison Lawrence, and Mary Francis Moore, one of them divorced, one dropped like a hot potato, and one in the whirlpool of being dumped, and their later-on best-selling book, “BITTERGIRL: Getting Over Getting Dumped”, the musical is the best of the play and the book and 60s doo-wop mixed with 70s mega-hits.

“When he danced he held me tight, and when he walked me home that night, all the stars were shining bright, and then he kissed me.”

The show is a mash up of a live band song dance high emotion low comedy trenchant wisecracking and rip-roaring showcase performances. It’s about the one sure-fire way of hurting somebody’s feelings, which is to break up with them.

“Baby, baby, where did our love go? Ooh, don’t you want me, don’t you want me no more?”

Hooking up and heartbreak are as girl group as it gets. Taylor Swift’s ‘We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together’ was still fifty years in the making when Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound and Motown were going strong. The Shirelles were the first to hit number one on the HOT 100 in 1961 with ‘Will You Love Me Tomorrow’.

When the musical comedy wrapped up its second sold-out run at the end of August, and the last of more than 20,000 theatergoers had left the 200-seat Mack Theatre, the young woman putting away bottles of vodka and rinsing out cocktail glasses behind the bar on the far side of the stage was the one person who had seen the show more times than anyone else, save the cast, crew, and front of the house.

“I love the show,” said Natalia Agon, the Mack’s bar manager. “Sometimes on my nights off I go see it with my mom or my husband or my friends. It’s so fun and I’m so proud of it.” Since starting work at the theatre earlier in the summer she has seen “Bittergirl” close to 40 times.

The 25-year-old traced an improbable path to her first sighting of the show. She almost didn’t make it. A native of Bogota, Colombia, it took a death threat to shove her off Colombian soil and land her on the red dirt of Prince Edward Island. The threat to her family came from terrorists, in the mail, on embossed stationary, declaring them a military target.

“Bogota was good,” she said. “I grew up there. My dad worked hard, and my mom worked hard, to give us what we needed. Starting over from zero was definitely hard.”

Bogota is a 500-year-old city in the middle of Colombia, the capital city and largest city in the country. It sprawls across a high plateau in the Andes. More than 10 million people live in the metro area, the economic, political, and cultural center of northwestern South America. “Most Noble and Most Loyal City” is Bogota’s motto.

Natalia’s parents met in Panama City, Panama. “They were poor when they got together. They would buy clothes or cigarettes in Panama, where they didn’t have taxes, and bring it back to Colombia, and sell it,” she said. “They did every job on the planet.”

By the time she started school her parents had scrimped and saved and purchased and owned and operated a 1,000-acre beef and dairy farm four hours away from Bogota, while still living in the city. “We went there every weekend, my two brothers and me, whether you liked it or not.”

At the same time, “bittergirl” the stage play took off, playing from bliss to breakup and back to full houses in Toronto, traveling to London, England, and laughing its way to off-Broadway in NYC. It was the trifecta, the original recipe, extra crispy, and the Colonel’s special.

“I’ll make you happy, baby, just wait and see, for every kiss you give me I’ll give you three, oh, since the day I saw you, I have been waiting for you.”

It was a long way from the little Toronto café where the three writers dreamed up the loving and hurting story, based on themselves and everyone they knew. “We’ve had some adventures together!” said Mary Francis Moore.

“Every night our audiences were waiting for us as we came offstage with their very own stories,” the co-authors have said.

‘I got dumped in the hospital ten minutes after giving birth…’

‘He left me for my little sister and now he sits across from me at Christmas dinner…’

‘My husband worked for CSIS and said ‘You’ll never be able to find me’ and I never have…’

“Swear to God. All true.” Truth is stranger than it used to be. The snag about some hook-ups is that they’re not worth the break-up.

“My parents had a big problem with FARC,” said Natalia Agon. “It was because of the farm, about paying the vaccine.” Besides the coca trade, in other words, cocaine, which sustained the leftist group during Latin America’s longest running war, extortion ran a close second in the financial affairs of the rebels. The money payments were known as vacuna, or the vaccine.

Scottish Border Reivers ran a racket called black mal five hundred years ago, the Sicilian Mafia has always understood the protection trade, and there is little confusion about what the Russian Mafia means when they say krysha up.

The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, was formed in 1964, a peasant army that grew to number almost 20,000 militants controlling close to 40 percent of the country. The 50-year civil war, recently ended, displaced 7 million people from their homes and resulted in 220,000 deaths, among them 11,000 people killed by land mines.

“My dad paid the vaccine for a long time,” said Natalia. “But, once they saw they could use you for other purposes, whether storing drugs or storing guns, it was a yes or no answer, no matter whether you wanted to do it or not.”

Pedro and Maria Agon said no to cocaine and guns.

Soon afterwards, just before Christmas 2007, they got a letter in the mail. “It was on thick white paper, official looking, super fancy, with their FARC logo on it. We just left, our house, the farm, all my friends I had known all my life. One day my mom said, pack a bag, you’re not going to school on Monday.”

She packed pictures and letters from her friends and the blanket she was swaddled in when she was brought home from the hospital when she was born. “You can’t do that, my mom said. You have to leave everything.”

They left almost everything.

“We got out of there fast.”

The Agon’s were able to transfer property to sisters brothers aunts uncles, as well as convert some assets to cash. They were uncertain about relocating anywhere else in South America. They considered the United States a safe haven, but Natalia’s mother nixed moving there.

“She just didn’t like it, even though she had traveled to the States many times. She never felt welcome. She always felt a racial discrimination, even though she was going there to spend money. So we looked at a map and there was Canada. There was no thought process behind it, we just went.”

“Bittergirl: The Musical” took the Charlottetown Festival by storm when it opened in 2015, a crowd-pleaser bringing the howls and selling out all summer. Bitterness never felt better, nor misery in the hands of singers and dancers belting it out and mansplaining how he’s lost his magic and you’ve got to go.

“He’s a rebel and he’ll never ever be any good, he’s a rebel ‘cause he never ever does what he should, but just because he doesn’t do what everybody else does, that’s no reason why I can’t give him all my love.”

It went on to become a north of the border success story, having since been produced coast to coast, Edmonton, Manitoba, Vancouver.

Nine months after landing in Toronto, the Agon’s got their Permanent Resident cards. “It was a hard process,” said Natalia. “There was a lot of scrutiny, but it was never the you don’t deserve to be here kind of scrutiny.” The family rented an apartment and Natalia graduated from high school in 2010. She attended Centennial College, majoring in Food and Nutrition Management, and worked part-time in a nursing home.

In 2014 she and her husband-to-be, Miguel Cervantes, moved to Prince Edward Island. “I knew I needed a school that was going to give me a lot of interaction with professors and where there were internships to become a registered dietician.” She has an internship on tap at Humber River Hospital in Toronto when she graduates next year.

Natalia Agon enrolled at UPEI in Charlottetown. Her husband worked his way up to become the executive chef at Mavor’s, a contemporary eatery part of the Confederation Centre of the Arts. The menu ranges from the Moona Lisa burger, featuring homegrown PEI beef, to four-course dinners paired with Scottish whiskies.

Last year, looking for work, she applied at the Mack Theatre. She got the job. “I run the day-to-day operations and I’m the head bartender,” she said. She trains and schedules the other bartenders, keeps a firm hand on the inventory and cash register, and trims the sails on show days. Above all, all summer long she mixed Cowards, Mounties, and Magic Men.

“Those are the names of the three ex’s of the show, and they’re our three feature cocktails. The definite crowd favorite is the Mountie. I always tell everyone, I think you’re going to like it even more once the show starts.” At the break, however, the strains of ‘Be My Baby’ dying away, most order the drink they can relate to the most. Magic Men and Cowards give the vodka-heavy Mountie a run for his money among the crowd pressing at the bar, no matter that Mounties are renowned for saving damsels in distress.

“Ain’t no mountain high enough, ain’t no valley low enough, ain’t no river wide enough, to keep me from getting to you, babe.”

“Things have changed a lot in Colombia since we left,” said Natalia.

She has since returned several times for visits. Nevertheless, when her father went back to South America, the farm he bought was on the Ecuador border with Colombia. “He’s in love with the land. He can’t get enough of it.” One of her older brothers, a doctor, lives in Mexico and the other older brother lives in Spain. Her mother spends divergent parts of her year with her husband and far-flung children.

The Agon’s are a family of expatriates by necessity, not by choice. “My husband is from Guatemala, but he came to Canada when he was a one-year-old and never went back,” said Natalia. “His Spanish is broken. But I was born in Colombia, raised in Colombia, and most of my values are from being raised there. I loved it. Leaving was an emotional struggle.”

Although it’s true that loss is the same as change, and the world is always going to keep changing, surviving and coping with loss is difficult, especially when a chunk of your childhood goes missing. It leaves a hole in the world. It’s the price everyone pays for everything they’ve ever had, or will have.

“Weren’t you the one who tried to break me with goodbye, did you think I’d crumble, did you think I’d lay down and die, oh no not I, I will survive.”

It doesn’t matter if it’s a boyfriend or your birthplace. It doesn’t matter whether it’s played for laughs on stage or it plays out in real life. There’s a thin line between humor and hurt.

“I never get tired of the show,” said Natalia. “The ex and the girls do a great job portraying everyone, our emotions, all we’ve been through. It’s happened to me, when you’re dumped for no reason, or it’s not you, it’s me. I’ve definitely heard that one before, and I’ve totally said it, too.”

Behind the bar she hears what everyone has to say about “Bittergirl”. When a case of nerves orders a cocktail she mixes up a Coward. “The moms, maybe when they’ve had one too many, remember ordering pizza, eating their feelings. It’s just heartbreak.”

One day can be sweet as can be and the next day bitter as all get out. “You don’t know if you should laugh or cry,” said Natalia. Everyone has their share of heartbreak. If you’re singing about it, you’ve lived it. Natalia Agon has lived it and sung along with songs about it, but isn’t recording a full album of it.

Whenever bitterness tries to get in on the act, she offers it a Magic Man. “That’s my favorite,” she said. The Magic Man is a south of the border blend of Kahlua, Pepsi, milk, and crème de cacoa.

Sometimes when husbands and boyfriends are at the bar at the Mack at intermission getting drinks for wives and girlfriends, but can’t remember what they want, she suggests they “go check with the boss.”

She’s not a bitter girl.

 

Selfie by Natalia Agon

Down the Bay Boys

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“I’m going up the country, babe, don’t you wanna go…”  Canned Heat

“We’re always around here,” said Denver McCabe, casting a glance over the chairs and tables on the deck on the sparkling dark water.

Carr’s Oyster Bar is on the New London Bay, in Stanley Bridge, on Prince Edward Island, the Atlantic Canada province where Canada happened about 150 years ago. Opened in 1999, from the deck, kicking back with a pint on a summer day, you can see the wharf across the bay where oysters are landed.

They’re shucked when you order them, served with a fresh lemon slice, or you can order clams, mussels, quahogs. Last year the restaurant won the Restaurants Canada Shellfish Excellence Award. “I’m happy to showcase the best shellfish in the world,” said Phyllis Carr.

When she slides a sharp knife into an oyster and pries it apart at the hinge it’s “hoping that it’s the best one ever.”

“He was a bold man that first ate an oyster,” said Jonathan Swift. Life is too short to not have oysters. But, they are best eaten with friends family anybody somebody else. Although oysters keep themselves to themselves, they’re a weird thing to eat by yourself.

Native North Americans harvested them for thousands of years. In the 19th century New York City was filled with oyster saloons. Today no oysters anywhere taste as good as those found on the north shore of PEI.

Denver McCabe and Brenden Carr are ten-year-old boys born and bred on Prince Edward Island. Until recently both lived in Stanley Bridge, a small town of fewer than 300 on the north central coast of the island on the Gulf of St. Lawrence. “He swarms me when I come home from Edmonton,” said Denver. “I go to his house every day.”

They have spent all of their summers on the New London Bay, along the Stanley River, and making the scene daily on the deck of Carr’s Oyster Bar. ”We grew up together,” said Brenden. “He’s my best friend.”

You can’t make anybody be your best friend. Denver and Brenden have known each other since they were tykes. What do you do with your best friend when you’re both ten-years-old? A good time doing a whole lot of nothing, eyeing and gabbing about everything, cruising doing me, making fish faces, making mischief, making your summer jump, and jumping rocks.

“Most of the time we go on the rocks,” said Denver. “That’s how I get my energy up.”

The riverbank and along the shoreline are protected by piled rocks, riprap revetments.

“We go to my house and play on the trampoline, too,” said Brenden.

“I do flips,” said Denver. “I know how.”

“On the rocks we do hard core technical stuff. We jump rock to rock. He challenges me,” said Brenden.

“Sometimes I jump from one rock to the third one,” said Denver.

“So do I. I never fall down.”

“Me neither,” said Denver. “The other day I fell. Did I fall?”

“Unless you were faking me,” said Brenden.

Even though they are not yet preteens, they talk like old friends, which is the same as thinking out loud. Sometimes their thoughts are like toppings that can’t always be fathomed into a pizza.

“I fell once or twice, probably. It was because I jumped from one rock to a far, far one. I just got back up.”

Many people do all their playing when they’re children, all their working when they’re grown up, and all their retiring and regretting when they reach old age. When you play, no matter how old you are, you can be a kid as long as you want. Just watch out for the rocks.

“He jumps off the bridge,” said Brenden.

The Route 6 main street bridge crosses the Stanley River at the New London Bay. On one side of the bridge is Carr’s Oyster Bar and on the other side of the bridge is the Race Trac gas station and Sterling Women’s Institute community hall. Jumping off the bridge thirty feet into the bay is summertime chill in Stanley Bridge.

“We go to the bridge and tell them to jump, hurry up, don’t be scared,” said Denver. “I did it when I was eight. They’re teenagers, but they’re scared.”

“They never jump when we tell them,” said Brenden.

“I jump with my crush, Jess,” said Denver. “She’s a waitress here at Carr’s.”

“She’s my crush, too.”

“I got engaged to her,” said Denver.

“Me, too,” said Brenden.

“Whenever we tap our cheeks she has to come over and give us a kiss on the cheek.”

They tapped with their index fingers, the both of them. Jessica Gillis, twice their age and more than a foot taller than the boys, walked over to where they were warming seats at a table on the deck on the bay eating nachos and sipping from childproof Shirley Temples.

They looked up. “Oh, my God, now what?” said Jessica, looking down at them. It was like The Attack of the 50 Foot Woman.

They tapped their cheeks again.

“No,” she said.

Even though both boys are in love with Jess, they don’t actually hang out with her. It’s not complicated. Most boys don’t like girls hanging around when they’re doing their own boy things.

“I never jump the bridge,” said Brenden. “I can’t swim.”

“I learned when I was four,” said Denver.

“I took lessons for a year,” said Brenden. “But, I don’t like people bossing me around.”

“It’s kind of weird because he lives right beside the water,” said Denver.

“I almost floated away,” said Brenden.

“It was a windy day and it blew his splash meter away,” said Denver. “He was trying to get it, but the wind blew him away, too.”

“I went to where it was just to my cheeks.”

“He needed my help, but I couldn’t swim fast because there were oyster traps everywhere.”

“My brother and dad were there, but then they went on their boat,” said Brenden.

“He stayed in the water and it became fine,” said Denver.

Brenden’s father David Carr is an oysterman. “He has his own boat. He catches eels, too. When he goes eel fishing he goes with his brother Stan.”

Eels are nocturnal, hiding during the day. Fishermen hunt them at night. Few fish put up the fight that a good-sized eel does. An eel held by the tail is not necessarily caught, yet. They can swim backwards as well as forwards.

“We went to the sand and I got a bad, bad sunburn,” said Brenden.

“Same with me, on the same day.”

“Yeah, but mine was worse.”

“That’s why you didn’t catch Jacob.”

“He’s sketchy,” said Brenden, making a face.

“He said my friends run away because of my ugly face. That pissed me off. I ran after him and pushed him. He ran to the park where there was a booth set up for Canada Day and got under it. I couldn’t bend down because my back was burnt from the sunburn. I would have given him a big one.”

After his sunburn got better Brenden had a tattoo of a barcode airbrushed across his chest during the Canada Day parade festivities concert fireworks. “It’s because I’m funny talented a good actor good singer good dancer and handsome and beautiful.”

Denver had a red maple leaf airbrush tattooed on his cheek. “I’m hot,” he said, looking out from under the brim of his bright orange Bass Pro Shop baseball cap.

“When I walk into a sauna I make it even hotter.”

“Dreams, Denver, dreams,” said Brenden.

Trying to tag along with the stream of consciousness of ten-year-olds can be like trying to play putt putt during an earthquake.

Lucy Maud Montgomery, who grew up on PEI and wrote Anne of Green Gables a hundred-or-so years ago, wrote that Stanley Bridge “used to seem quite a town to my childish eyes. It was the hub of the universe then – or of our solar system at the very least.”

“Brenden and I are cousins,” said Denver.

“My great-uncle, Granny Phyllis’s husband, is his grandfather,” said Brenden.

“Phyllis was my cousin before she married, so I’m related to Denver both ways.”

“My grandpa is a Carr and Granny Gallant was a Doiron before she changed to Gallant,” said Denver. “Everybody in Granny’s family was a Gallant. My grandfather was Tommy Gallant. He found the Marco Polo. He’s famous on the island. He’s famous in heaven now.”

“He’s my great-uncle,” said Brenden, “I took dancing from him.”

Given enough time and left to their own genealogical devices they would likely conjure everyone on the island a cousin in the 9th degree and discover a common ancestor in steerage on the St. Jehan, one of the first passenger ships sailing to the New World in the 1630s.

“We’re from here,” said Suzanne McCabe, Denver’s mother. “Cory, my husband, is from Rustico. We moved to Edmonton for the work. My grandmother and Brenden’s grandmother are sisters and my dad and his grandfather are brothers.”

The first to land on PEI were the French, who called it Isle St. Jean. They fished for cod and traded for furs. The first settlers were Acadians. After the Seven Years War it was re-named Prince Edward Island. Scots, English, and Irish emigrants sailed to the British colony and built their own close-knit communities. Doirin and Gallant are Acadian surnames. McCabe and Carr are English Irish Scottish surnames.

Some Acadians speak English with a French accent, even though, for one reason or another, they no longer speak French.

“When I wake up I go on my phone, track what time it is, eat breakfast, and brush my teeth,” said Denver.

“I don’t have a phone. Sometimes I have your phone in my pocket,” said Brenden.

“It’s dead,” said Denver.

“I was cranky this morning. My brother woke me up early. I usually get up at six, but there’s no school anymore,” said Brenden.

Denver and Brenden help out at Carr’s Oyster Bar peeling potatoes and washing windows.

“I do everything,” said Denver.

“I help my father get fish,” said Brenden.

“Me and Brenden used to go to the sand dunes and collect hermit crabs,” said Denver. “But, he hasn’t come to his job, the last time was a year ago.”

“Me?”

The most freedom most people ever have is when they misspend most of their free time as children.

“More than a year ago, actually.”

“I don’t know about that,” said Brenden.

“You’ve never come since you handed out menus and got no money.”

“I got paid five dollars and I got another five dollars when you won the 50/50.”

“Oh, yeah,” said Denver. “My aunt is religious and prayed to win the 50/50. When she did she gave me some of it and I gave some to him.”

“Do you remember when I peeled the carrots in the shed?” asked Brenden.

“Look at my muscles,” said Denver, flexing a bicep.

“You don’t have any.”

“I definitely feel something on my arm. What do you think this is?” said Denver, pointing.

“Is that like a pimple?” asked Brenden.

Denver McCabe is an aspiring hockey player in Edmonton, Alberta, playing for the Mellwood Icebreakers. “I might go to Double A soon,” he said. “It depends on how good I am. My team wasn’t good. They wouldn’t pass the puck, so I was the one who had to pass the most.”

Brendan Carr has studied judo and plays ball hockey. “On my own time, not with a team,” he said. “I played soccer, too, once.” The kicking heading game is beyond the pale. If God had wanted boys to play soccer he wouldn’t have made them with arms.

Brenden is a step dancer, like soccer got done sans hands. Step dance is a dance style in which footwork is by far the most important part of the performance. At ceilidhs in community halls across Prince Edward Island it is accompanied by toe-tapping fiddle tunes.

“Tommy Gallant taught me,” he said.

“But, I mostly taught myself. I was in a class for a year and then I watched and followed Robbie, who’s my uncle. I dance at all of my Uncle Leon’s music shows at the hall. I don’t dance at every one of his concerts, just every one when I’m there. I’ve never been to one since I was four-years-old that I haven’t danced up on stage.”

“I never get called up on stage,” said Denver.

“That’s because you never ask,” said Brenden.

“I asked Leon once, he said yes, but he didn’t even call me up.”

When they’re not jumping rocks, step dancing, or trying to cadge kisses from waitresses, they spend some of the summer at summer camps. Denver goes to a Bible camp in Malpeque and Brenden goes to a rock-n-roll camp in Charlottetown.

“My first son slept in a surplus Canadian Army tent,” said Suzanne McCabe. “He never went back to camp ever again.”

“Denver doesn’t like rock,” said Brenden.

“We were all at the beach, everybody had matching towels, somebody went under a dock, and there they saw a rock, it wasn’t a rock, it was a rock lobster, rock lobster, rock lobster…”

“I only like pop and country,” said Denver.

“Ain’t much an old country boy like me can’t hack, it’s early to rise, early in the sack, thank God I’m a country boy…”

Brenden probably wouldn’t mind being the lead guitarist in a wildly successful rock-n-roll band. He has a guitar. But, he doesn’t play it. He sings. “I do like to sing,” he said. “I only get nervous when I have to sing in front of my friends.”

“KISS is the worst band ever,” said Denver.

“I listen to KISS a lot,” said Brenden.

When Canada Day finally got dark on July 1st and they craned their necks to watch fireworks exploding over the harbor in nearby North Rustico, Denver and Brenden had two more months of summer to spend in Stanley Bridge before going back to school.

It’s only when you’re still a kid and the long summer is still stretching out in front of you that doing practically nothing all day becomes respectable.

“Are you going to the barbeque?” Brenden asked the next day.

“I’ll probably go with you,” said Denver. “Where is it?”

“It’s right here. Stanley Bridge is a wonderful place. I can see trees and the church from our kitchen window,” said Brenden.

The hub of the universe, re-mixed.

“I like the water. I like walking in it. Everyone should come to Carr’s Oyster Bar, where we are, sometimes, when we’re around here, if you live close,” said Denver. “It’s beside the main road.”

Water is always trying to get back to where it came from.

“Have fun and love life,” said Brenden, with a chuck of the head over his sleeveless t-shirted shoulder, as he and Denver ran off jumping rocks keeping their energy up for the rest of the summer.

 

Photograph by April Carr

Breathing Room

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If you can breathe, then it’s working.” Lemony Snicket

Many actors swear by yoga, from Matthew McConaughey to Naomi Watts to Robert Downey, Jr., because acting is largely a movement art and yoga on the mat is mostly about body awareness. Unless the role is Frankenstein or you’re Vin Diesel, more wooden than a talking tree isn’t usually in the script.

When Russell Brand dedicated himself to Kundalini Yoga he said, “these things are right good for the old spirit.” Gwyneth Paltrow wakes up every morning at 4:30 to practice, according to People Magazine. “It kind of prepares you for everything, honestly,” said Jennifer Aniston.

God knows, Iron Man could use all the yoga he can get.

Rock-n-Roll Hall of Fame superstar dancer singers plug in to the practice, too. Madonna has unrolled her mat down the aisle of jumbo jets. The spectacle of the Queen of Pop in down dog pose is worth the plane fare, given that the average ticket price to one of her shows is upwards of $400.00.

Even though yoga is great for mobility stability control, it doesn’t always work out according to plan. When the singer Rod Stewart was trying a beginner’s balancing pose at home, he lost his balance and fell into a fireplace. “Surely, if God had meant us to do yoga,” he said afterwards, ”he’d have put our heads behind our knees.”

Not many yoga teachers swear by acting. They usually swear about you not being your authentic self, pretending to be somebody else. One of the eight limbs of the practice is all about self-observation. In some respects all of the practice is designed to be an expression of your true self.

Bryde MacLean, a native of Prince Edward Island, an Atlantic Canada province, is an actor and a Moksha Yoga teacher. Two Canadian teachers founded the practice in 2004, focusing on strength, therapeutic flexibility, and calming the mind. It is in the vein of hot yoga, although not as hot as Bikram Yoga, nor as rigid in its sequencing.

“It’s built with the long-term health of your spine in mind,” said Bryde.

Moksha Yoga, which means freedom from the cycle of death and rebirth, is environmentally active, one of its pillars of purpose being ‘Live Green’, and active in its communities, as well. There are more than 70 studios, most of them in Canada. They offer weekly karma classes with all the profits, currently more than $3 million, going to groups supporting human rights and holistic health.

“I was 21-years-old, working in a bar, hanging with my friends, having a lot of anxiety”, said Bryde. “Ryerson University had turned down my application. My sister recommended yoga. I had never taken a class in my life. Tara was dating Ted Grand, and he recommended it, too.” Ted Grand, her future brother-in-law, was at the time creating what became Moksha Yoga.

Bryde MacLean took her first class in the basement of a church in Charlottetown, the capital of Prince Edward Island. “It was myself and a bunch of women who were much older than me, in a definitely not heated space. We did lots of slow breathing and long stretches. It was a powerful experience. I decided I could get behind that.”

When Ted Grand offered her the opportunity to join his team and go to Thailand for yoga teacher training, she made sure she didn’t miss the team bus. “I wanted to travel and I wanted a skill I could travel with. I jumped right into the hot room. I loved it.”

She taught full-time in Toronto for a year before moving to Montreal, where she also taught, as well as attending Concordia University. “I had a full course load, but I wanted to study what I’m passionate about, so I applied to Ryerson again, and got in.”

Ryerson is a public university in Toronto, its downtown urban campus straddled by the Discovery District and Moss Park, focusing on career-oriented education. Bryde Maclean enrolled in the 4-year Performance Acting program. Long before she wanted to be a yoga teacher she had wanted to be an actor. She was scripting performing directing shows from the time she was six.

“We’d haul out Halloween costumes and my parent’s old clothes and dress up. We’d write fantastical stories and use construction paper to build our sets.” She and her friends play acted in garages, attics, and basements. Her parents encouraged her.

“They inspired me.”

Her parents were Sharlene MacLean and Bill McFadden. Her mother was pregnant with Bryde the summer of 1984 at the same time she was stage-managing ‘Blythe Spirit’ at the Confederation Centre in Charlottetown. As an actor Sharlene MacLean has played the maniacal Lady MacBeth in ‘Macbeth’ and the prattling Minnie Pye in ‘Anne of Green Gables’, working on stage and on film, working around the births of her four children.

Her father worked and performed long and often at the Victoria Playhouse. Victoria is a seacoast village on the south shore of Prince Edward Island. “I spent a lot of time in that theater as a little person,” said Bryde “My dad and I lived in the building down the street that is now the Chocolate Factory.”

Her parents played the aging couple in ‘On Golden Pond’ in 2012 at the Victoria Playhouse. They had both starred in ‘The Owl and the Pussycat’ during the theater’s first season in 1982, thirty years earlier. “I had never seen them on stage together, not as an adult,” said Bryde.

By the time she graduated from Ryerson University in 2011 she was teaching other people how to be yoga teachers. “I didn’t know what I was doing when I started, other than enough about teaching classes myself and being a good listener,” said Bryde. She became Manager of Yoga Teacher Trainings for Moksha International for 3 years.

“I dove into that. There’s a big community vibe. It pushed me to learn how to do things I didn’t consider myself capable of.”

2011 was a big year in more ways that one. She graduated with a BFA, got a full-time job, and got married, too. Jeremie Saunders, her boyfriend fiancée husband-to-be, was in the same class in the same program in the same university as her. One thing led to another. After graduation he trained to become a Moksha Yoga teacher.

“So, there we are, we do all the same things,” said Bryde.

They do all the same things, but with a difference. Yoko Ono once said the most important thing in life was, “Just breathe.” When Bryde wakes up in the morning she breathes free and easy. When her husband wakes up in the morning it’s with the thought, at least I’m still breathing.

Born with cystic fibrosis, Jeremie Saunders is in a lifelong fight with the inherited life-threatening disease. It is a genetic disorder that mostly affects the lungs. Infections and inflammation lead to a host of problems. 70 years ago, if you were born with it, you were likely to die within the year.

Even today, while cystic fibrosis has been made livable, there is no cure. No matter exercise regimens treatments antibiotics, median survival is less than 50 years. “I’m living with this terminal illness,” said Jeremie. “I know that my life expectancy is significantly shorter than most people.”

Two years ago he ran an idea for a new podcast by two of his friends. A month later they recorded their first episode of ‘Sickboy’. The podcast is about the day-to- day of living with an illness. Four months later it officially launched and three months after that it was included on iTune’s Best of 2015 list.

Although it is the essence of innovation to fail most of the time, when time is of the essence it’s better to succeed as soon as possible.

“It’s a comedy podcast,” said Bryde. “It’s laughing about the absurdities that happen when you’re sick, all the embarrassing and difficult things people usually don’t talk about.”

“I’ve always been a fan of honesty,” said Jeremie. All good comedy comes from a place of honesty. He doesn’t try to keep the beach ball underwater. “Every time I would talk to someone about being sick, this fog of awkwardness would fall over the conversation. It’s empowering to drop that, let it go, and not feel confined or chained down by your circumstance.”

Living in Halifax, Nova Scotia, teaching Moksha Yoga, co-starring in short films by Tiny Town Media, in early 2015 Bryde spied a last minute casting call for a summer show in Charlottetown. “I was lucky to see that.” She landed the role of the mom in ‘Hockey Mom, Hockey Dad’ in the Studio 1 Theatre at the Confederation Centre. She and the show were a hit. “Sets, characters, director score a hat trick,” wrote The Guardian in its review.

“Bryde MacLean says much with her guarded, often wordless reactions, like a smile tucked into her shoulder.” It was her first professional appearance on stage.

When actors unroll their mats it’s to learn to control movement. It helps them be more aware of where their physical bodies are in space and the dynamics of change in that space. “Yoga helps me get very present with my body and what’s going on with it,” said Jennie Olson Six, who is, like Bryde MacLean, an actor and yoga teacher.

It also helps develop command over one’s breath. But, that kind of command can be a double-edged sword.

“Yoga helps, definitely, as an actor But, I think in some ways, because I did my yoga training before my actor training, it has hindered me.”

Actors practice breath control so that they can manipulate the range, volume, and speed of their speaking. They might breathe in to the count of four, just like in yoga classes, but when they exhale they do it through their teeth with an sssssss sound. When they come back to four they cut the exhale crisply. It’s a way of practicing ending speech on an exact syllable, making it toe the mark.

When it doesn’t, sometimes actors will flap their lips, making a brrrrrrr sound.

“When you breathe in yoga it’s to create a steady, measured breath, focusing on it, calming your nervous system,” said Bryde. “You don’t want that when you’re acting. You want your breath connected to your voice. When you breathe to speak you want your breath to come from a place that’s connected to your impulse. Yoga is about observing your impulses, but not reacting. Acting is reacting.”

In Shakespeare’s day acting was called a performance of deeds. It’s the same today. “Acting is reacting in my book,” said Morgan Freeman. Where actors want to go in their work, even though they’ve walked through it a hundred times, is to express feeling by following an instinct, not by controlling it. Magic on film and stage is created, not by staying in the rehearsal hall, but by being in the moment.

“You need to have a cool head, however, not get caught up in whatever you’re working on, and go off into another dimension and never return,” said Bryde.

“Yoga has been good for me in terms of focus, my ability to concentrate, and be able to handle my anxiety. It keeps my feet on the ground. It rebalances my body, too, which is the only thing I have to work with.”

While at Ryerson University she played King Richard the 2nd in a student production. “He’s a hunchback, crooked. After two hours of him every day I had to balance out that side of me. Maintaining a healthy body is a super important thing for a performer. Otherwise, you end up with injuries.”

She went back to her roots in 2016, appearing in ‘Blythe Spirit’ at the Watermark Theatre on Prince Edward Island. It was her second professional appearance on stage. It was the same show her mother managed on the same island thirty-two years earlier when she was carrying her daughter-to-be. If anyone was ever born to play one of the leads in the Noel Coward play it was Bryde MacLean.

That same summer her husband starred in the comedy ‘The Melville Boys’ at the Victoria Theatre, the theater she had roamed explored left no stone unturned as a tyke. The Watermark Theatre seats about a hundred people. The Victoria Playhouse seats about fifty more than that.

Spectacle sells, splashy musicals, casts driven by stars. But, small gatherings at indie theaters can have a big impact. Little theaters, summer stock, some in your own backyard, often have big talent. “Bryde MacLean has probably the most difficult role to play – the straight woman – and she carries it like a pro,” wrote theater critic Colm Magner. “She has great fun combusting before our eyes later in the play.”

“I love small, intimate performances,” said Bryde. “I like to be right in there with the audience.” It works for her because she often works in film. “I tend to be a little smaller in my performance size. You can do the subtlest things, so subtle, but so real.”

She kept up her practice all summer at a Moksha studio in Charlottetown, taking bar classes, a mixture of ballet, pilates, and yoga. “I love it, but it kicks my butt.”

There are many reasons people take up yoga, among them stress relief, flexibility, and physical fitness. “They come to yoga to get a cute butt, but you can’t escape all the other benefits of it,” said Bryde. “They stay because they get more mindful, awake, in touch a little bit more.” If they stick with it, the reasons for doing yoga change. The focus shifts from the physical body to the subtle body. Almost 70% of people and 85% of teachers say they have a change of heart over time, changing their focus to self-actualization and spirituality.

“Their buns still get really tight,” she added with a teacher’s keen eye.

After ‘Blythe Spirit’ closed Bryde worked on a 5-week shoot of a horror film called ‘But What Are You Really Afraid Of’. She wasn’t an actor in a trailer waiting to be called for her next scene. She was one of the workers who serviced the trailer. “A craft services job takes care of all the food on the set, the crew that does the dirty work,” she said. “It’s not for the faint of heart.”

Although she continues to teach Moksha Yoga in Halifax, and continues acting, on stage and film, she is writing a screenplay for a feature film, producing a play she hopes to get on the road in 2018, and has launched another new podcast with her husband.

‘Turn Me On’ is a show based on sharing the couple’s sex life with others through interviews, candid conversations, and discussions about sexual orientation. “I don’t need crazy shock value to be interested,” said Bryde. In any case, guests on the podcast are free to talk about their sex lives “whether they’re whacky or not.”

“We are definitely having conversations that feel taboo,” said Jeremie Saunders.

Franklin Veaux, an author and sex educator, believes that what Bryde and Jeremie are doing is doing their audience a good service. “Sexual shame undermines people’s happiness and self-esteem, prevents them from being able to understand what they need and advocate for it and hinders intimacy,” he said.

Although ‘Turn Me On’ is not necessarily about heavy breathing, sex has always been a bestseller. It is often more exciting on stage and screen than it is between the sheets, but it is still emotion in motion, and a big part of nature and human nature. “I couldn’t have imagined we’d have over 12,000 listeners so quickly. It’s very cathartic for me.”

If it is about anything, yoga is about slowing down, slowing down your breath, your body, and your brain. It’s been said once you slow down you will connect with your heart. As many irons that Bryde MacLean has in the fire is enough to take your breath away.

“I wrestle with attachment and detachment,” she said.

Although detachment is a linchpin of yoga, nobody ever sincerely does it without a strong feeling of attachment to doing it. Almost everything we do is invented, so that detachment can be a kind of freedom. But, getting on the mat or breathwork or meditation is about involvement. Pattabhi Jois, who created Ashtanga Yoga a generation ago, on which most of today’s yoga is based, once said it is 99% practice and 1% theory. ,

“Lazy people can’t practice yoga,” he pointed out.

The way to get started is to get going get doing, opening doors, working hard at work worth doing. “I’m casting a net out for a bunch of potential opportunities. What matters is doing what you’re passionate about,” said Bryde MacLean.

Not much is ever accomplished without energy and passion, but to get anywhere you have to act it out.

“When you are inspired by some extraordinary project all your thoughts break their bounds and you discover yourself to be a greater person than you ever dreamed yourself to be,” said Pattabhi Jois. “Just do and all is coming.”

Catching your breath will take care of itself.

The Second Anne Shirley

gracie_finley

“Many people think I was the first Anne, but I wasn’t,” said Gracie Finley.

Every summer for the past fifty-two years the musical ‘Anne of Green Gables’ has played on the main stage of the Homburg Theatre at the Confederation Centre in Charlottetown, the capital of Prince Edward Island. The show is based on the 1908 best-selling book written by Lucy Maud Montgomery.

No show on London’s West End or on Broadway has been on the same stage for more seasons. It is not only Canada’s longest running smash hit, it’s the longest continuously running musical theater production in the world. Eighteen actors have played Anne Shirley since 1965.

“I was the second Anne, not the first. It’s an urban myth that I was the first, probably because I’m a local girl.”

Although Gracie Finley is a local girl, it is in the way that Anne Shirley, the red-haired orphan from Nova Scotia, hero of the story, is a local girl on Prince Edward Island.

“I’m an Islander,” said Gracie. “But, I was actually born, hold on to your hat, in Sheffield, Alabama.”

Her father was an American serviceman from Walnut Ridge, Arkansas, where there is a statue of James Finley, one of his forebears. The woodsman Daniel Boone came clean when he said, “I have never been lost, but I will admit to being confused for several weeks.” James Finley was one of the scouts who helped guide Daniel Boone through the Cumberland Gap in the 1790s.

Her mother was in the Canadian Armed Forces. They met in London, backstage at the Royal Albert Hall, during World War Two, at a fund-raising joint services concert. Fund-raising led to raising the roof and they married not long after.

In the 1940s Walnut Ridge was a farming community of fewer than three thousand. Croplands of grain, oilseeds, and dry peas were its chief commodities. Alberton, on the northwestern shore of Prince Edward Island, her mother’s hometown, in the 1940s was a silver fox farming community of fewer than a thousand.

“Alberton, those are my roots,” said Gracie.

After the war the newlyweds moved to the United States, to Walnut Ridge, to hot muggy summers and wet chilly winters. The closest ocean was nearly 500 miles away.

“My mom had a big problem moving to the south. She was a young girl from PEI. It was awful after the war. She just couldn’t stand what was going on there.”

Jim Crow had ruled in Arkansas since 1868 with the passage of laws segregating schools. By the turn of the century white primary law had been institutionalized, effectively disenfranchising the black vote. In 1957, after a Supreme Court ruling struck down so-called separate but equal education, the 101st “Screaming Eagles” Airborne Division had to be mobilized to enforce the federal ruling in the state. The Ku Klux Klan to this day maintains its national office in Arkansas.

“It upset my dad, too. The decision was finally made. We were high-tailing it out of there.”

Gracie and her mother, although living in the south, had been spending their summers on Prince Edward Island through the 1950s. “She had to get away. We stayed at my grandparent’s farmhouse up in Alberton.” After pulling up stakes, moving nearly two thousand miles northeast, the family settled down to spring summer fall and Gulf of St. Lawrence winters on the island, winter being waiting for the next spring.

By 1965, when the newly-minted ‘Anne of Green Gables’ headlined the Charlottetown Festival for the first time, Gracie Finley had several years of small fry ballet classes under her belt, was experienced in grade school theatrics, but hadn’t yet founded the drama club at her high school-to-be. That summer she performed with the Circus Tent Theatre at the Confederation Centre.

“We did children’s productions in the afternoon. We didn’t get paid, but we could have jobs as ushers in the main theater at night.” She was thirteen-years-old. Chutzpah is something you either have or you don’t. “I saw the show from the first season. I snuck into rehearsals. I met Jamie Ray, a Texan who originated the role. She was the first Anne.”

The first Anne took an interest in the second Anne. “She went out of her way to talk to me, wanting to know what my plans were, always willing to lend me something, help me,” said Gracie.

The next year, 1966, the show’s co-creator Don Harron, who also wrote the musical’s script, sought Gracie Finley out after seeing her in a small local play.

“Do you sing or dance?” he asked.

“No, why?”

“Because you look like an orphan,” he said. She was five foot two and 100 pounds.

He suggested taking singing and dancing lessons. She took lessons and took on something like the likeness of an orphan. Actors said, she’s more of a dancer. Dancers said, no, she’s more like a singer. Singers said, no, you’re both wrong, she’s really an actor.

Two years later, in 1968, by then a triple threat, she took over the spotlight, becoming the youngest singer dancer actor to ever play the role of Anne Shirley, and the first of only two native Islanders to do so.

“It was pretty terrifying, I can tell you,” said Gracie.

She stayed in straw hat and red pigtails for seven summers. The show toured nationally in the off-season. In 1970 it went to Japan. The cast and crew shared a chartered plane with men from the RCMP Musical Ride. The ride is a choreographed spectacle performed by a full troop of 32 Royal Canadian Mounted Police riders and their horses.

“Strong drinks were flowing freely,” said Gracie. “No one could get any sleep as the noise level got higher. When we arrived I was deaf in one ear. I had to go to a doctor. He couldn’t speak English and I could only say hello goodbye and ice cream in Japanese.”

But, the show had to go on. Lucy Maud Montgomery’s book was translated into Japanese in 1952, ‘Akage no An’ became a part of the country’s school curriculum, and remains improbably popular to this day. The show went on and was a hit.

Between seasons she got married. “I met Barry at a party in England. We’ve been married 47 years.” She gave birth to her first child. After the 1974 season, when her husband, Barry Stickings, a chemist working for the German multi-national BASF, was offered an opportunity to work in Germany, Gracie Finley Stickings was ready to go.

“I thought, my first child is nearly two. I didn’t have that child so someone else would see him stand up and walk and speak for the first time.” Besides giving up a social life, sleep, and losing track of the space-time continuum, actors often are forced to sacrifice their families. ‘I can’t, I have rehearsal,’ is a common refrain.

“I’m ready,” said Gracie.

After several years in Germany, and after several more years in Montreal, where Barry Stickings was next transferred, Gracie Finley got a phone call. The man on the other end of the line was Alan Lund, the artistic director of the Charlottetown Festival from 1966 to 1986. He invited her back to reprise ‘Anne of Green Gables’.

“I was 30ish, married, and had two children.” She thought about it for a second-or-two, and then said yes. She was back in pigtails in 1984. In 1985, her second and final year back, she became and remains, at 33-years-of-age, the oldest actor to play Anne Shirley. She was the youngest and the oldest. But, she wasn’t done setting records.

“I was going from one form of birth control to another. My doctor told me to watch myself, because it might take awhile for the changeover. I said, la, la, la, nothing’s going to happen.”

Instead of exercising restraint she exercised. What happened was she got pregnant right away.

“I sat down in front of our producer, Jack McAndrew, who always called me Miss Gables. Jack, I said, I have something to tell you.”

He looked her in the face. “You’re having a baby.”

“How did you know?”

“We have three kids. I know the look.” She became the first the last the only pregnant Anne Shirley, breaking new ground in the world of Avonlea.

“They said I could still pass for the petite orphan girl.” She was excused, however, from jumping off tables. An understudy played the matinees. “Toward the end of the run, at seven months along, the costumes were getting tighter and tighter.”

In 1985 Gracie Finley hung up her straw hat and her career on stage. The Stickings moved back to Germany and bought a house. “We went through all the rigamarole, lots of red tape. They have to put a stamp on everything.” As soon as they settled down Barry Stickings was transferred to New Jersey.

“We lived up in the hills, outside Morristown, where there are lots of horses. I love horses. My father wanted me to be a ballerina. He would put on classical music and I’d spin around. But, I was in love with Roy Rogers and Gene Autrey.” Rogers and Autrey were singing cowboys on the radio, in the movies, and on TV. “I told my father I wanted to be a cowboy.”

Daniel Boone, with whom the family has a kindred spirit, once offered the counsel, “All you need for happiness is a good wife, a good gun, and a good horse.”

In 1996 they moved to the UK. “When my husband got the opportunity we said, we have to, we just have to. I was thrilled. We love England.” They bought a house outside of Oxford with a large garden and stables. The house was nearly 400 years old, originally the Woodsman’s Inn.

“Our part of the country is where they first started turning chair legs.” Her part of the country is what were once the forests of Shotover, Stowood, and Wychwood. Shotover Forest, nearest to where they live, supplied wood by royal decree for both fuel and building from the time of Henry III. Turners shaped legs with chisels and gouges while spinning them on a lathe.

They lived in England, their children growing up, but often returned to Prince Edward Island. “We came summers, and after my mom died, and my aunts got too old for us to stay with them, we bought a year-round cottage in Stanley Bridge.”

Stanley Bridge is a small town west of Cavendish on the north shore. It is known for the Sterling Women’s Community Hall, the New London Bay, and the bridge on Route 6 over the Stanley River. When the weather is good, sitting on the waterfront deck of Carr’s Oyster Bar, you can watch kids jump off the Stanley Bridge the thirty thrill feet down into the bay.

The thrill is in the scariness.

“We’re right across the bay from Carr’s,” said Gracie. “There’s a small lagoon, a swampy place, which is great because we get all sorts of birds and wildlife.”

One day she got another phone call. The man on the other end of the line was Duncan McIntosh, director of the Charlottetown Festival and soon-to-be artistic director of the new Watermark Theatre in North Rustico, 12 minutes on Route 6 from Stanley Bridge.

He invited her to dinner. She knew what was coming. He had been dropping hints.

“So Gracie, I’ve been looking at doing Chekov’s ‘The Cherry Orchard’, but set on PEI in the 1970s,” said Duncan. “What would you think of playing the lead?”

“I went home and thought, why not?” said Gracie.

“Aren’t you afraid to come back?” her friends asked her.

“I think it does you good to give yourself a healthy scare. I wasn’t frightened so much as I was excited. I fell in love with Russian literature when I was a teenager. It’s when you’re going through the terror you get right into it. I love Chekov. That’s how Duncan reeled me in.”

If ever stranded on a desert island, she said, she would make sure to have an iPod that never died, an endless supply of food, and lots of Russian novels.

Twenty-eight years after leaving the stage Gracie Finley was back on the stage, not in just one play, but in two plays at the same time at the Watermark Theatre. One was ‘The Shore Field’ by Duncan McIntosh, inspired by Anton Chekhov, and the other one was ‘Alice in Wonderland’.

“It’s like riding a bicycle. You get up there and start pedaling,” she said.

“I played the Queen of Hearts. Off with your head! She is just so preposterous. But, I had a dynamite costume.”

It was dynamite until she actually had to don the poofed panniered straightjacket dress and move around in it. “It took two people to get me in and out of it. When I went up to the balcony to play the judge, there’s a narrow part of the staircase, where I really had to push to get up those stairs.”

It’s been said, never look backward, you’ll fall down the stairs.

In the 1960s, when repertory theater was going strong, Gracie Finley specialized. In the age of specialization, when repertory is fading away, she jumped feet first into repertory. “It’s a big challenge finding two plays where you can cross cast people. You become close very quickly, become a family. It’s chemistry.”

The Homburg Theatre, home of ‘Anne of Green Gables’, seats more than a thousand on two levels. The Watermark Theatre, a member of the Professional Theatre Network of PEI, is small, seating a handful more than a hundred. “Doing live theater, in a small theater like this, is like no other experience. It’s a smaller version of the Stratford stage. The audience is inches away from us. We feel that energy.”

Last year, her 4th season there, she played the jolly hockeysticks Madame Arcati in Noel Coward’s ‘Blithe Spirit’ and the faded Southern belle Amanda Wingfield in the memory play ‘The Glass Menagerie’ by Tennessee Williams.

“This is going to take a lot of energy,” she said while rehearsing in early June. “And, I have to say, I am very tired at the moment, very tired. I have to take a nap.”

Many people get snappish if they’re not well rested. A short afternoon snooze means waking up fresh again. It also means you end up with two mornings in a day, although not necessarily a second plate of Mussels Benedict.

This year, returning to the Watermark for her 5th season, Gracie Finley is playing the wild-evening-of-romance Ethel Banks in Neil Simon’s ‘Barefoot in the Park’ and the imperious Kitty Warren in George Bernard Shaw’s ‘Mrs. Warren’s Profession’.

“The best part about being here is that I’ve gotten to play some of the best roles in theater for a woman my age.”

When women actors reach about 50-years-of age they discover auditions are suddenly looking for a younger version of you. Age and gender matter on stage. There is a trove of plays, starting with the male-heavy Shakespeare, featuring men over 50. There is a scattering of plays featuring women over 50.

“Let’s face it, the roles get fewer and fewer for older women,” said Gracie.

Nevertheless, the roles keep rolling up to her doorstep.

“There’s nothing like the first day of rehearsals,” she said. “We sit around a big table, the cast, production people, and the director. We see a model of the set and sketches of the wardrobes. We take a break, get a cup of coffee, and read through the script.

“The rehearsal period is always one step forward, two steps back, you have a good day, and then think I don’t know what I did today. You get going again, you get to the stage, where you think, I think we’re getting there. It’s about a group who start to gel. It’s about taking an author’s idea, voicing that idea, and making it a reality.”

“If you cannot get rid of the family skeleton, you may as well make it dance,” said George Bernard Shaw.

Gracie Finley raised her family off stage. Even still, they were the kind of family that didn’t look at her like she was crazy whenever she broke into song and dance. After she got back on stage they were the kind of family that made her feel less crazed whenever her script director stagecraft weren’t making sense.

The theater for many actors is a second family, which is what happens after twelve-hour rehearsals and sharing the fear of opening night. Remember your lines and don’t freeze up stiff as a board. You can’t choose your family, on or off stage, but you can choose to make magic with them.

“I feel very lucky to be back working again,” she said.

“Our little stage, it’s so immediate. It’s electric.”

When most people are getting home for dinner, or getting ready to go out to dinner and a show, Gracie Finley is making the scene punching in to work, lifting words off a printed page and by lights make-up wardrobe dialogue action making them into a show, an electric thrill up and down the spine, the first time and time in hand until the curtain call.

 

Photograph by Andrea Surich