The son of Portuguese immigrants from the Azores, John Tavares was born and raised in Sioux Lookout, a town in Northwestern Ontario and the initial setting for Robertson Davies’ final novel The Cunning Man. He graduated from Humber College and Centennial College, where he studied journalism, as well as York University where he earned a BA Honours, Specialized, in English. He has written short fiction since he was a teenager, recently wrote a novel, and would like to broaden his horizons further into longer forms, although he is happy with his publications in a wide variety of American and Canadian magazines, online and in print. His interests are diverse, but he is particularly fascinated with American literature, including biography, history, and science, and enjoys creative photography.
Every morning George woke up with a sense of dread. He contemplated his life as a middle-aged man and loathed his loneliness. He thought he needed somebody like Maria for a wife, but he did not know how to proceed. Unlike restoring telephone service after a lightning and thunderstorm, courtship was not simple. Emerging from bachelorhood took more than patience.
The telephone company’s only employee in Beaverbrook, George was the operator, customer service representative, manager, sales clerk, and technician for the largest telecom in Canada. After working for four years in Beaverbrook, like previous telephone company employees in the small town, the company expected he wanted a transfer. The regional manager asked him to which market he’d like to move. George said he was more than happy to stay in the Northwestern Ontario community. The manager refused to believe he was content living in the small isolated town in the northern bush, even if it was considered a regional hub, a gateway to the north, because of the airport, highways, and railroad, and George tried to convince him he preferred not to move and another middle level executive of his intentions to stay. When George threatened to quit, the telephone company told him it was their practice in these smaller markets to move employees in these isolated niche markets to larger centers, like Thunder Bay.
George indicated he was happy to live and work in Beaverbrook; he owned his own three-bedroom house, which he dreamed of populating with a wife and children and could not have afforded as a single man in the city like Toronto, his hometown. Since Beaverbrook was a relatively remote town, in the middle of the wild and bush, he did plenty of hunting and fishing, another pursuit he loved and could not pursue in the city. He discovered a mysterious woman he wanted to know better, who he fantasized of making his wife. He nurtured a crush on a woman he believed he possessed a chance to make his wife and that dream encouraged him to stay in Beaverbrook. He found Maria beautiful, shapely, curvaceous, with long, dark flowing jet black hair, but she was modest and dressed plainly. Despite her aboriginal and Mediterranean heritage, she was also fair skinned, pale. Wayne expressed his loathing for her and said she did not get outdoors often.
George met the deliveryman for coffee almost every afternoon. He would have preferred different company, somebody better educated and less cynical and crusty, but the town was small. He could not afford to be fussy about friends. A deliveryman for the grocery store Maria’s father owned before he died, Wayne constantly reminded George the owner’s daughter, pretty and intelligent, was troubled. George grudgingly went for coffee with this former employee of Maria’s father with the understanding Wayne was a curmudgeon, so he didn’t lend his words much credence on his opinion of Maria or why such a beautiful woman could have been single for so long. She could be a lesbian for all they knew, but George believed she was single because she was misunderstood. Maria could not find her own place and niche and earn acceptance in the small town, although her father, an immigrant grocer, was beloved in Beaverbrook and considered a pillar of the community.
Maria woke to the noise of the white rat with pink eyes chewing through the potato chips crumbs haphazardly fallen at the foot of her wicker chair in the laundry room. She loved to read and fell asleep reading a history of the civil rights movement in the United States, in the handcrafted wicker chair in the laundry room. George visited the house to fix her telephone lines, which he occasionally sabotaged so he possessed an excuse to visit her house as he conducted checks and repairs.
While George repaired the equipment and wires, he chatted with Maria. When he asked her if she’d turn off the clothes dryer so they could talk, she said she found the tumbling and churning noises, the steady mechanical turning and churning of the laundry washing machine and dryer, soothing.
“What about the noise from air conditioning?”
The steady rhythm of the fan during the summer and the drone of block heater during the winter also brought her comfort, she replied.
Thinking this an unusual and peculiar trait, he imagined she felt lonely, but he sensed she cherished her solitude.
“Do you like to travel?”
Maria told George she was afraid of flying. She had only flown a few times in her life, including during a trip with her father to his home island in the Azores. In midflight, something odd happened, though: after she had finally calmed down, she found the steady drone of the jet engines oddly comforting.
By the end of the service trip, George ended up encouraging her to try a new modern touchtone telephone, with convenient buttons instead of the irritating rotary dial of the traditional telephone, whose constant use he found annoying and calloused his finger. Still, she insisted he install a new rotary telephone. At the end of his visit, he gave her his home telephone number and urged her to give him a call.
Maria watched what she presumed was an albino rat chewing salty, greasy chip crumbs. When her father and his family physician sent her to visit the psychiatrist in Winnipeg, she thought her love of sour cream and onion potato chips a peculiar trait. The psychiatrist expected somebody who loved sour cream and onion potato chips and ate the snack food so often would be obese.
“You mean fat,” Maria said.
“I meant obese, overweight,” Doctor Hurl replied, making a note in her patient chart. “But you have a pleasing figure.”
That comment made Maria blush, and her cheeks reddened as perspiration broke out on her brow. She thought the visit of the white rat, or the albino rat, peculiar. Rats never visited her house or basement in the small town in Northwestern Ontario previously. She assumed most of them didn’t survive the severe subzero winters, with the ferocity of its cold. Winter was a time when she hibernated, instead of joining those, like George, who ice fished, skied cross-country, snowshoed, or drove snowmobiles, and drank beer and visited the crowded, rowdy bar in downtown Beaverbrook. She remembered the reaction of a college roommate to rats in the dorm room they shared, at The University of Toronto. The roommate stood on her desk and screamed in panic, but Maria reacted calmly in the presence of the unexpected intruder. So she was now with this intruder, an albino, which she thought a neighborhood teen might have released in her house as a prank.
She gently held out her soft smooth hand with potato chips from the supersized bag of sour cream and onion potato chip beside her chair. She even made a kissing noise with her puckering lips as she beckoned the rat over to her extended palm. The rat approached cautiously as it chewed on crumbs from the sour cream and onion flavored potato chips. She patted the rat repeatedly and gently stroked its restless head and back.
The telephone calls began innocuously. In the evening, she usually cooked a TV dinner in a microwave oven. (George believed she was the first resident of Beaverbrook to own a microwave oven; he only saw his first microwave oven a few months ago at a restaurant in Montreal, when he had to attend a training seminar at the company headquarters.) Then she slowly chewed her steaming processed food while she read the latest book club offering, a biography, history, or even a historical romance in a long civil war epic. Her routine was rigorous and methodical, but she found the monotony comforting, and her schedule never varied until the telephone rang. Maria allowed the telephone to ring exactly five times. Five noisy rings of the telephone—five rings of the rotary telephone was the amount of time she took, shuffling her feet in her slippers. She stepped upstairs from the laundry room to the kitchen, where the telephone nestled atop a gateleg table since she had been a child, but often the caller gave up after three or four rings, but not George.
George started making the telephone calls, hoping that she would complain, which would provide him the opportunity to interact with her. He hoped to persuade her to upgrade her telephone to a touch telephone and buy the newer caller identification devices. When he telephoned her in the early evening, he spoke no words and merely listened and he realized he risked being labeled a creep and a stalker, but his motives were pure and humane; he hoped she would open up. An only child, she had moved into the lakeside house on Lakeshore Street with her parents at the age of three. Her father passed away at the age of seventy-seven, after he and his wife lived in the house for past forty-two years. Her mother passed away at the age of seventy-nine, seven years later. She lived with her mother in the same house she inherited up until her mother’s death. Her mother died after she became mute, refusing to speak even Oji-Cree, and refused to eat, except tiny portions of bannock and pemmican, accompanied by sips of tea and drags on her hand rolled cigarettes, until one-by-one her organs failed.
Maria never worked outside the house, except for a few weeks during the summer after she graduated from high school when she worked as a cashier in her father’s grocery store, Comida, which turned out to be unnecessary, since, as her father put it, she was delicate and a lady. Her mother felt disappointed Maria had never been able to find a job and her father believed she was better off with a husband, but her parents expressed support for their daughter, reminding any clan member who cared to inquire, their daughter was of a shy, retiring nature. The psychiatrist she earlier saw at her parents’ orders diagnosed neurosis, phobias, and panic attacks, suffered since grade school. Since then she read books on psychiatry and abnormal psychology and researched mental illness and thought, if you were in the mood for dickering and were pedantic, you might add social phobia to the list.
After her father and then her mother died, she had no need to work, since she inherited the house, annuities, pensions, bonds, conservative blue chip stocks and even twenty years treasury bills. A devoutly religious man, her father started with a corner convenience store, Comida, which grew into a Railyardside Street grocery store, expanded into the town’s largest supermarket as his frugality, thrift, hard work, and sharp business sense put competitors, including another independent grocer, out of business. Her father had an unusual reputation in business for honesty and fairness, returning stock that “fell of the truck.” He personally accepted without question the return of sour milk, moldy cheese, stale bread, rotten produce, and packaged and processed food past the best before date. George expressed incredulity he did not charge check cashing fees or interest on credit.
A Portuguese immigrant, a member of the first wave of immigrants to land in Canada from the Azores, he came to Northwestern Ontario to work for the railroad. He learned to speak English from Beaverbrook residents and Oji-Cree from the indigenous residents of nearby reservations and especially from his wife, Maria’s mother. Even in his private life and affairs, he practiced what he preached in his personal and business ethical principles. Likewise, he stayed true to his own homespun economic philosophy of thrift, economy, and conservative investment, saving money earned from investments and business profits. Her father was also the only non-native man she knew who actually spoke the Oji-Cree language, which helped him in business with residents from the reserves and band councils.
In fact, they usually preferred business with him, an immigrant, one of the first Portuguese Canadians to arrive from the Acores in the nineteen-fifties. George learned more about her parents and their contribution to the community from speaking to Wayne, the grocery deliverymen for Comida and after reading an article she wrote for a local history. After the head of the local library called and badgered her to write a family history in the town, she made this literary contribution to the volume, which she also urged her to buy. She slammed shut the set of encyclopedias and the local history, a heavy hardcover books she mounted atop a paperback book whose dog-eared pages she wished to flatten. The albino rat continued to visit her, rustling its feet, scratching the linoleum with it tiny claws. She continued to pet and kiss the rat and to feed it crunched and crumpled sour cream and onion potato chips. Telephone calls continued to interrupt her routine.
Maria became so intrigued with the albino rat she ordered an extension telephone installed in the laundry room. She began to spend most of her time in the laundry room, beside the oil furnace and woodstove, since she always encountered the albino rat amidst the laundry baskets and washing machine and the dryer.
Every afternoon he called. She assumed the person who dialed her number was a man, but she could not put a name to the interlocutor. She would pick up the telephone, say hello once, and listen carefully and patiently—for the slightest noise or sound, heavy breathing, any kind of background or ambient sound. She said hello again and a third time and then listened to the silence, the static and cackling. She emitted a loud, bolder, more assertive hello, but she could hear nothing but the noise of a live telephone connection. George, hoping she would eventually initiate a conversation, made no loud noises, no heavy breathing wheezed. He left on no television or radio broadcast. Then the line went dead with a click, after George hung up the telephone. In the background, an uncanny silence pervaded the occasional cackle and static on the telephone and then the line went dead.
The rat continued to visit her at night. She even offered it her favorite potato chips and a sip of coffee, which the rat drank as she patted its white coat with her fingers. For weeks, the calls continued in the early evening, interrupting Maria as she read her way through several historical, romance, crime, and detective novels. At times, later at night, when she began to feel lonely, she thought about the caller and his potential intentions. For the most part, she felt unafraid, and even smitten—in love, perhaps. She envisioned, imagined, the caller was a gentleman, whose manner over the telephone betrayed his lack of knowledge of formal English. Like her father, she believed, he was a blue-collar man, dark, handsome, of Mediterranean European ancestry. She imagined he was a carpenter or a mason, with a gentle voice and immaculate manners learned at the hand of a strict Catholic mother. Despite what she considered her less than endearing physical attributes, her pale skin, and her shy and retiring quality, and her love of plain food and salty snacks, including sour cream and onion potato chips, she understood he was a man who would love her. He could accept her personality, just as she would accept what she perceived was his muteness, inability to speak articulate English, a language her parents never mastered since her father was fluent in Portuguese and Oji-Cree, and the mother tongue of his wife was Oji-Cree. In fact, after he suffered a stroke, her father only spoke Portuguese, which forced his retirement from business and the sale of his grocery store Comida. Her mother shied away from English and usually only spoke Oji-Cree with her father, friends, and family. Her lover could accept her foibles and she would embrace him. He would tolerate her at her worst, just as she might teach him English as a second language.
He would accept her regimented life, her love and passion for routine and reading, her reluctance to leave the house, except only when most absolutely necessary. She received her clothes in mail and courier parcels. Her imported food was delivered by Wayne, who clerked at the grocery store father once owned. She usually only ventured from the house after she swallowed a diazepam, which she chased down with a glass of sherry.
Meanwhile, George called her every day, in the early evening. He hoped she would complain and then he would urge her to install a modern touch-tone telephone with a caller ID box. After a ferocious lightning storm, phone service and electricity was interrupted for nearly two days. Caught up in service calls and trips to restore telephone service, he stopped calling, but she continued to await the telephone calls.
George again offered to install a brand new cordless touchtone telephone, in bold bright red. He liked the telephone so much he wanted to keep it for himself, but the vivid color was wrong for him. He was so insistent he thought she ordered the telephone merely to placate him. When he brought the telephone over, she thanked him and took the cordless telephone in its shipping package. She said she would keep the telephone in the original packaging and have the red telephone installed at some point in the future. George shrugged and again offered her his telephone number. He encouraged her to call him, but he did not hear from her.
The white rat continued to visit her in the laundry room where George installed an ordinary rotary telephone he considered a piece of junk, which she leased for a pricey rate from the telephone company. After she conducted her research, she realized this was no ordinary house rat. The mysterious visitor to the laundry room was potentially an albino or laboratory rat, with pink eyes and a white coat, but where the creature originated was a mystery.
Maria kept in her home library a book on exotic pets, which remained on her bookshelf and informed her she should not feed rats potato chips, but, better yet, bread soaked in milk. So Maria ripped up slices and soaked pieces of white processed bread, soft, squishy hot dog and hamburger buns, from the shelves of Comida, in partially skimmed milk. The rat refused to eat the white bread, so she continued to feed it her favorite sour cream and onion potato chips, which the rat consumed voraciously.
When she did not receive any more anonymous calls, she felt disappointed and wondered what became of her gentleman suitor. She continued to await his calls. As days and then weeks passed, she wallowed in sadness and then panicked and became distraught. In fact, she found it difficult to concentrate on her reading, the passion and love of her life.
From the Toronto telephone directory her father kept from twenty years ago, when he attended business seminars and meetings in the city, she compiled lists of surnames, entries with Spanish, French, Italian, and Greek sounding names, and their corresponding telephone numbers. Her father used the telephone directory to contact importers of ethnic foods for special orders from Beaverbrook’s immigrant population, Italian, Ukrainian, German, and French customers who ordered foreign made cheeses and sausages and salted and cured fish and meats. The list of names was long, made in legible fine print. On the average day, she filled close to a ruled sheet with names and numbers.
Then she took several days to call each name and number on her telephone. Each time she called, she asked the person who answered if there was not a gentleman who wished to speak with Maria. Sometimes she found herself engaged in long telephone conservations with different people. By turn, they found her fascinating, nervous, lonely, smart, and articulate, albeit a few respondents who grudgingly answered the phone concluded she was mentally ill.
After several months of her phone calls, a police officer came to her house, knocking loudly and insistently on her front door. He looked grim, intimidating the lakeshore neighbors with his glare as he pounded the door and directed the utility van into the driveway. When she answered the door, he showed her a search warrant and an arrest warrant for mental health reasons. He introduced an owlish man in scrubs who accompanied him, a nurse from the psychiatric ward of Lake of the Woods Hospital. A telephone technician, whom the police service borrowed from the telephone company’s Kenora office, also came to the house. Her telephone was disconnected, seized, taken away by the technician, and tossed into the rear of his cluttered utility van. The police officer, who worked for the provincial force, had been trained with the big city Southern Ontario police service in social work and mental health counseling, a job, he told Maria as she began to sob, he left due to burn out. He advised her to keep an appointment with her family physician and psychiatrist, or face possible arrest.
The next day, she sat in the laundry room, reflective, pondering. She burned the sheets of names she had called for the last several months, in the woodstove. Eventually, Wayne the Comida deliveryman dropped by her house, asking why she had not called or answered her phone for the past several weeks. She said a malicious rat, chewing through her telephone line, interrupted her phone service. She drew up a list of groceries, which surprised him with a request for rat poison. In the afternoon, Wayne bought her groceries, including a large cardboard box containing twelve supersized bags of sour cream and onion potato chips, straight from the distribution warehouse of the snack food factory. Then he showed her a specially marked container of rat poison with a skull and crossbones warning symbol. He cautioned her about rodenticide’s dangers, and advised her in its proper usage. If she forgot, she could always read the label for instructions.
She asked the grocery deliveryman to leave the groceries in the veranda. She left rat poison with the crumbs from the sour cream and onion potato chips for the albino rat. Several days later, when she discovered her favorite rat dead beside the stack of Encyclopedia Britannica and the local history volume on her laundry room, she broke into tears and sobs.
In a few weeks, the deliveryman discovered the groceries accumulating in the veranda outside the front door to the house. Wayne helped himself to her heirloom jewelry and cash in her bedroom and living room. Afterwards he even began to help himself to the groceries that had not perished. The food that perished or was no longer fresh he threw into the garbage.
Later, George received documents shipped by courier to the business office of the telephone company. When he opened the officious looking legal size envelope, he found court approval to reconnect her phone service. Court approval to reinstall her telephone? What?! He was disappointed the police and courts became involved. Riled, he vented angrily at Wayne over his morning coffee at the judicial system—that they would gang up on and prey on a lonely woman, but he realized this was the way of society and its institutions; many were not open-minded and compassionate. Wayne shocked him with the revelation she had ordered rat poison, and George started to worry.
George proudly brought her a new phone, which he paid for with his account, the best, newest cordless telephone set he could find, with premium features, including caller and name id, speed dialing, a speakerphone, numerous other convenient features, and a three-year warranty, including the set of double AA batteries for the handset, which was rechargeable.
The night before he visited her house on the work order he wrestled with sleep.
Instead of waking up early wondering how he had managed to make it to middle age without a wife, now he could not sleep. He wondered how he could survive the remainder of his life without a spouse. He went to sleep and dreamed: he rang the bell at her house several times and knocked on the front door, but there was no answer. He glanced at the windows and drove around the neighborhood block several times, as he checked his hair, mustache, and teeth in the rear view mirror. Then he crumpled up the work order and finally summoned the courage to visit her home, ready to reconnect her phone to the telephone lines and cables and boxes. He kept knocking, noticing a strong odor, which initially he found repugnant, but made him more determined to contact her. After returning several times and getting no answer or reply, at the door or back door, he realized something was wrong and used his toolkit to break through the front door into her house. He realized he should call the police, but his need, his impulse, to do something immediately, to help, was strong. He cautiously stepped room to room, checking, and finally found her body in the laundry room body decomposing, according to strict natural laws, on the wicker chair close to where he planned to connect the new telephone to phone jacks. The receiver of the bright red telephone, in a color too bold and vivid for him, a cordless set he had given her earlier, was cradled against her head with its beautiful long flowing dried hair and decomposing flesh and the withered tissue left of her ear.
That was when he woke up, disturbed by the dream and contemplated his future. He was filled with regret at his own dreams and illusions, his fantasies of a relationship with a woman who seemed happiest alone, and how his own anonymous calls may have set in motion a series of events, including those of a psychological nature, that unbalanced her, knocked out of balance her sense of equilibrium, in her solitary existence. Still, he thought he needed to make illusion reality. From a glasses case, which contained his deceased mother’s bifocals, he took his father’s wedding band and his mother’s wedding ring, inherited, both plain gold bands for fingers of approximately equal size, into his breast pocket, alongside his pocket protector, pen, and notebook.
That morning instead of dropping by the coffee shop for coffee, and jabbering and gossiping with the Comida grocery deliveryman, he went straight to her house. He glanced at the windows and drove several times around in the neighborhood, as he checked his hair, mustache, and teeth in the rear view mirror. Then he crumpled up the work order and finally summoned the courage to visit her home, ready to reconnect her phone to the telephone lines and cables and boxes.
As he reattached the wires to her telephone, which was unnecessary, since really all he needed to do was plug in the jack into the phone box, he asked her if she wanted to get married.
“Pardon me? I don’t think I—I—I heard you correctly?”
George looked up from the telephone cables and the wires he attached to the base for the cordless telephone. He set his pliers on the washing machine and took both plain gold rings from his breast pocket beside his notepad and pens. He set both rings on her finger and the pair fit snuggly.
“Would you marry me?” he asked.
She took a deep breath and started to hyperventilate. He brought her a glass of water and when her shaking ceased and her voice was not tremulous, she said, “I’ll say yes for now, but if I change my mind later will you be angry or upset?”
“I might be upset but I won’t be angry, particularly at you.”
She thought he might have said that the same way she would consider opening another bag of sour cream and onion potato chips, but whim and impulse she could not ignore as she reached and hugged him. Then she asked him if he could help her bury a beautiful rat with the coat of a polar bear and pink eyes in the huge backyard garden her father and mother had maintained so beautiful and which he had become overgrown with thick weeds and tall grass.