Gone, Baby, Gone
When I moved to Salt Spring Island twenty years ago from the city, I thought the locals were so out there. There was this strange old woman who lived up the coast, sheltering under a boardwalk that looked out to the harbor. If the tide was out far enough, she burned fires on a patch of beach and warmed whatever food she could find to eat that day. She lived with this guy with weathered skin and his hair looked bleached, although it was hard to imagine that he did such a thing.
Often, from my car, I still see him walking along the main road. I don’t know where he sleeps nowadays. Their encampment was cleared away by the police when it was overrun with rats and the old woman moved off-island. The couple’s misfortunes were documented in the local newspaper. I felt connected to them somehow, as if they were our homeless, as opposed to the drifters that camped every summer, often teen runaways looking for adventure, romance or escape.
I sympathized with the couple because we too were overrun with rats once. Ours was a new house, but the plumber forgot to screw down a metal screen on a drain. A rat couple made their way in and hid under our stove until we went to bed. I woke up to the grinding of teeth on wood, chewing through whatever scrap of sleep I had that night. In the morning gnawed hollow in the pantry door propelled us into the village to buy traps.
The rat couple proved elusive. They bred 10 babies which we eventually trapped one by one, leaving them for a good long time before disposing of the trap and body in a garbage bag. If I attended too eagerly after the sound of the snap, I might see the animal in its death throes, dragging the trap behind it in an uncomfortably human way. Just when we thought we were done with them a gray blur would whip out from under me to disappear beneath the chest of drawers by the kitchen. Now we seal all our pantry goods in clear containers, like a health food store, only one that stocks Frosted Flakes.
Rats are a downside of island life. Some people find island life irksome, taking the ferry to the city for specialist appointments, especially as you get older, or being snowed in for extended power outages. That loses its charm if you can’t shovel your own way out, or walk through snow drifts to get milk. I can still light a fire to warm myself, however, and heat up any food at hand. I might follow the old woman to the city, but I’m not there yet.
A brief encounter with this woman happened like this: we were cruising the thrift store, a small and crowded shop that supported the local woman shelter when– no, come to think of it, we were in the drugstore, in the makeup section. She looked straight into my eyes and asked, “You wouldn’t happen to have a spare twenty, would you?” I turned to her, surprised, and mumbled an embarrassed no. She had never approached me before. Shrugging, she limped off into another aisle.
Her voice contrasted with the slurred or affected speech I expected. Because her clothes were theatrical: large, tilted hat with straw fruit adorning its brim, full skirt and a bright red coat. She sounded just like any other neighbor. It struck me that I might be as recognizable to her as she was to me. An old guy who lived in a derelict boat collected litter in the village with a spiky stick. Accepting donations for his service, I often gave him a twenty, grateful he was tidying up the place. Had the trash collector spoken to the old woman about me? Other unsettling thoughts about her seeped into my mind. I would be applying blush at the mirror and falter: is this the same blush she uses? With few drugstores on the island, there were only so many blush options to be had. Like her attire, her makeup was of the stage, with bold circles of rouge, overdrawn lipstick smeared on her mouth and thick black eyeliner curling up at her eyelid corners.
When my hair started going grey, I wondered if I should let it come, or move into old age with a falsely bright head of hair. Then I’d think of the old woman’s hennaed head, how she must have dyed her hair in the public restroom at the park, or perhaps a kind hairdresser did it for her. I realized that she had dealt with this grey hair problem just before me. (My father-in-law solved it a by using raspberry mousse, tinting his hair an unnatural red.)
Rifling through the thrift store racks, I’d disentangle some hippie jacket with cheerful patterns and think can I pull this off? Slowly I’d lower the hanger back on the rack. I might look like I was dressed for the stage, like the old woman, with her floppy hat and Bohemian clothing.
The coat would be useful as a spare in my studio, to be honest. The other day I nipped into the Post Office during a brief but furious windstorm. Unprepared for weather, I swept a pink blanket around my shoulders in what I hoped was a stylish wrap. And then there was the time I attended a party at my neighbor’s, looking down to discover I’d kept my slippers on. Their ratty fake fur trim peeked out from my trouser bottoms.
I thought I had a brief encounter with that old woman, but now I see it was more a passing of the baton. We gazed at the same choppy water, shopped in the same shops, warmed by the same fire, fought the same marauding rats. Technically, a neighboring fire and neighboring rats. Her ex chats in front of the grocery store just as my partner often stops to do. For now, I’m the old woman who lives on the island. And I’m gone, baby. I’ve gone island.