Thursday, March 29, 2007

The More Things Change

Spring made a sudden appearance in the Sack on Saturday. The warmth of the sun seemed almost therapeutic. There was a fresh smell to the air and only the smallest hint of a breeze.

It was a glorious day.

Throughout the ages, spring has been the inspiration for many great works of art, music and literature. Poets have long described its beauty and splendor. Many speak metaphorically about notions of birth and renewal.

Sadly, there are no poets in the Sack.

On this comparatively balmy Saturday afternoon, we were sitting on Oscar's front steps. I had just returned with a takeout order from the local coffee cathedral.

Oscar was clad in a faded, blue sweatshirt and a pair of pyjama bottoms. A black toque sat tightly on his head. He also wore a pair of brown slippers. Spread out on the porch step was an array of remote controls for a variety of electronic devices. He was changing the batteries on the various units.

"This," Oscar said, squinting into the sun, "is the only spring cleaning anyone is gonna see me do."

Oscar has lived in the Sack for about nine years. He has lived here longer than anyone else.

Spring in the Sack, in his opinion, isn't a new season at all. "It's the same old season," he told me with authority. "This spring is just an instant replay of all the ones that went before it."

Through Oscar's lens, Sack residents are predisposed to routine and repetition. What people do on the first nice day of the year is likely the same as they did in previous years. It's not a change in seasons; it's a return to an old one.

"Look around," he said confidently. "Tell me about anything you didn't see last year at the same time."

I took a quick glance around the Sack. He was right.

From the viewpoint of Oscar's porch, Sack kids seemed to be everywhere. Almost simultaneously, they had unleashed themselves from hibernation.

In the winter, Sack kids are exceedingly scarce. Very few will play outside unless the weather is anything but amiable. Oscar says they're indoors playing with their digital doohickeys and other electronic notions.

He could be right about this.

The most notable aspect of this youthful emergence was the sound that generated through the Sack. When I closed my eyes, I heard the frequent scuffing of shoes on the pavement as children darted about. Amidst the anarchy of their play were occasional, exaggerated shrieks of protest.

In the background, I also detected the dull, repetitive thud of a hammer. This particular sound was emanating from the Sack's centre circle. Opening my eyes, I spotted young Doo. He was lost in concentration as he hammered an unidentified object into smithereens.

Doo has an affinity for smashing things.

Briefly, I considered making some polite inquiries to determine what Doo was pulverizing. In the end, I decided to let sleeping dogs lie. It was warm and pleasant on Oscar's porch. There would be no value in seeking out unpleasant business.

The Sack's ten-year-old cowboys had also returned to their old stomping grounds. To be accurate, I believe they are eleven-year-old cowboys, now.

The two cowhands were galloping around the circle. They were in hot pursuit of some youthful, yet uncooperative varmints.

Meanwhile, Tremayne was dribbling a basketball through this maze of childhood pursuits. He had a serious look on his face as he manoeuvred around the other kids. He was pretending they were defending opponents.

Tremayne, of course, is an avid basketball player. He was wearing his New Jersey Nets attire. On the back is the name of one of his favourite players, Kidd.

I am the only one in the Sack that finds this amusing.

On this first warm day of the year, Sack kids had clearly returned to the activities of previous springs. From the appearance of things, Sack adults were doing the same.

Big Doug was carefully washing his truck. Painstaking would best describe his attention to the matter.

Small brooks of soapy water curled down his driveway and then along the curb. Eventually, it reached its destination, a sewer grate at the foot of Gordon's front yard.

This is not the first time, of course, that Big Doug has washed his truck in recent months. As long as the temperature is above freezing, he'll do it during the winter, too. But he will always wash it with a special fervor on the first nice day of spring.

Oscar says Big Doug's painstaking effort gives him the creeps.

Rental Doug, meanwhile, was decorating the exterior of his home for Easter. He is the only one who does this every year.

He was attaching a large cutout of the Easter Bunny to his front door. A white basket filled with fake, colourful eggs had been placed at the top of his front steps. The front window was filled with images of bunnies, chicks and other Easter-like images.

The Easter decorations, of course, are incongruent with Oscar's perception of Rental Doug as a key figure in the Devil's senior management structure. For the third year in a row, I remarked about the dichotomy of these competing images. As usual, Oscar was ready with his consistent defence of the matter.

"Overcompensation," he said flatly. "I tell you this every year. If you were trying to hide your allegiance to Satan, you'd be decorating your house for Easter, too."

Over at Little Doug's house, an older man had arrived in a late-model American car. The car was parked in the driveway and the hood was up. Little Doug was bent over the engine, while the older man stood beside him and observed.

Little Doug's head was buried under the hood of the car. His yellow T-shirt was riding slightly up his back, exposing his pale skin to the elements. At the same time, his jeans were beginning a gradual fall down his backside. Little Doug, of course, is very good at helping people with car repairs. He is also a man who must constantly hitch up his pants.

"Presto." Oscar said with muted glee. "We have the first sighting of Little Doug's plumber's butt. Just like last year."

The older man, according to Oscar, was a member of Little Doug's extended family. It was possible that the man was actually his one-eyed uncle, the one prone to removing his prosthetic eye at family gatherings. Unfortunately, we were too far away to get a definitive look at his eyeballs.

As Little Doug concentrated on his task, the older man lit a cigarette and coughed harshly. Then he spit a long loop of phlegm onto the grass beside Little Doug's driveway.

"I don't think we need to see that," Oscar said, looking up from his battery-changing.

"I could've done without it," I replied.

Elizabeth had also made an appearance on her front porch. Broom in hand and with stiff, stern strokes, she swept an accumulation of winter debris from her lofty domain. Even from a distance, I could see the accusing glare she cast at each piece of unwanted matter.

Spring cleaning, in Elizabeth's case, is always a matter of revenge.

Over at Ben and Norma's house, Jeff Christ had emerged from the garage with his mountain bike. He was wearing a purple bike helmet.

Jeff Christ balanced his bike upside down on the driveway and began to engage in some springtime maintenance. Young Doo, his demolition duties complete, quickly rushed over to witness the affair.

When there is fixing afoot, young Doo will never be far behind.

As Oscar and your agent watched from afar, Jeff Christ patiently allowed Doo to pass him an occasional tool. The highlight was the ceremonial filling of the tires. Jeff permitted the boy to use the manual air pump. Filled with importance, Doo attacked the task with great enthusiasm.

When the tires were filled to the owner's satisfaction, Doo stood back with a look of exhaustion. Jeff Christ laughed aloud and gave the boy a gentle, playful pat on the top of his head.

I could also see Mrs. Wonders in our front yard. She was poking around the grass and garden areas to assess the extent and nature of winter's damage.

She had barely begun before she was joined on the curb by Norma and Marion. It would be more than an hour later before she would get back to her assessment.

This is the way it always goes on the first nice day of the year.

Oscar was replacing his last set of batteries. Our coffee cups were empty.

That's when Weed emerged onto Little Doug's porch. He was shirtless, barefooted and in serious need of a shave. He was also eating a banana.

Weed nodded to us and then slowly panned his eyes around the Sack. Between bites from the banana, he nodded his head gently up and down. When he finished eating, he looked over at us and said:

"Iced cappuccino?"

Oscar nodded and gave me a brief nudge. I held up my thumb in Weed's direction.

"Just give me two minutes," Weed replied, scratching his face, "and I'll be right there."

Oscar took his armful of remote controls inside and went to change his pants. I went to inform Mrs. Wonders of our quick jaunt to the local coffee cathedral. On the first warm day of the year, it's important to enjoy a cold drink. Iced cappuccino always fits the bill nicely.

As I walked down Oscar's steps, I noticed Britney Bitterman and her beau, Maxwell walking up the street. She was pushing a stroller containing the sleeping form of Baby Maybe. Maxwell held up his fist in greeting, as we passed each other. I replied with my trademark peace sign.

When I returned from the Wonders' front yard, Oscar and Weed were waiting. Both had changed into slightly more suitable attire. Weed, of course, hadn't shaved and his hair was sticking out in five directions. And Oscar, of course, was still wearing his slippers.

As we started for the old coffee cathedral, Maxwell emerged from the Bitterman residence. Apparently, he had only walked Britney and the baby home. Oscar tells me that Maxwell is currently banned from the place, but Maxwell didn't mention anything of the kind.

"Where you guys off to?" Maxwell asked, lighting a cigarette as he walked along beside us.

"Iced caps. Wanna come?" Weed replied.

Maxwell laughed. "Kinda early for iced caps, ain't it?"

"Of course not," Oscar replied, "it's what we do every year on the first nice day of spring."


Saturday, March 24, 2007

Family Affairs

After her time on the lam came to an anticlimactic end, Dora was released from police custody on her own recognizance. That's what Norma learned this week at her Tuesday night bingo game.

If Dora was released with such ease, Weed says the lam has certainly lost its lustre. "Where's the challenge?" he decried, when we spoke at the local coffee cathedral.

According to Norma, Dora now has a curfew as a condition of her release. She's not supposed to be outside after nine o'clock at night. Despite this, your agent saw her return to Burning Manor in a taxi on Thursday night. It was well past eleven o'clock. When Weed heard this, he snorted and waved his donut at me.

"See." he said forcefully, "Nobody has any respect for the lam anymore."

Last Saturday brought another indoor edition of our show. As usual, it took place in the Wonders' front room. When the warm weather arrives, the show will be held on the front porch.

Oscar and your agent are the show's co-hosts. A wide spectrum of topics is discussed during the show. This can range from debates on Canadian and international politics to the absurdities of cul-de-sac living.

Moderate amounts of the drink are usually involved in the show's production. This ensures that deep intellectual matters will not dominate the agenda.

This particular show was very well attended. Weed, a recurring guest, sat comfortably in the overstuffed armchair in the Wonders' front room. Daisy and Baby Doug were still visiting with her mother in the United States. As a result, Weed had an abundance of free time on his hands.

Daisy's mother lives in the great State of Vermont with her new husband. They met on the Internet a number of years ago while she was still married to Little Doug. At the time, her current husband was living in the great State of Pennsylvania.  Originally, he's from the great state of Maine.

This is why Little Doug is divorced.

Computer Doug also made a guest appearance on the show. He has been unemployed now for about a month. During this time, Oscar has taken him under his wing. He's teaching Computer Doug how to use idle time with grace and aplomb.

On this particular weekend, Oscar had convinced him that going out on a Saturday evening was an important part of being unemployed.

"You have to approach the weekend like you've been working your ass off all week," Oscar declared with a learned tone.

After some initial resistance, Computer Doug decided to attend the show. It helped, he told me privately, that his wife, Marion and their two little ones had gone away for the weekend. Like Daisy, she had gone to visit her mother.

Marion's mother is also divorced, but she lives in Cape Breton, rather than a great state. Her ex-husband didn't run away with anyone from the Internet, either. Computer Doug said Marion's mother divorced her father because he was a rotten bastard.

Little Doug was the final guest on the show. It was an unscheduled appearance.

He had declined an earlier invitation to the show. But he dropped by to fix the Wonders' wonky clothes dryer. Little Doug, of course, is very skilled in such matters. After repairing the unit, he decided to stay for a few minutes. In the end, he remained for the entire show.

When we last spoke of Little Doug, he had begun his first foray into the world of adult dating. He had been seeing a rather short woman named Marcella.

Marcella drives a pickup truck that's very similar to Little Doug's. She also has a bumper sticker that reads: I'd Rather Be Fishing. Little Doug has the same sticker on his truck.

Oscar said it sounded like a match made in heaven.

Sadly, Little Doug and Marcella have gone their separate ways. This was revealed during the show. Apparently Little Doug pulled the plug on their budding romance.

At first, Little Doug was somewhat reticent about discussing the matter. But Oscar's persistent curiosity got the better of him. Oscar is very good at getting Little Doug to do things he's initially reluctant to do. It was Oscar's gentle prodding, after all, that convinced him to start dating in the first place.

The decision to end the relationship had little to do with Marcella's personal qualities. It had more to do with her family than anything else.

"They were," Little Doug said cautiously, "a little bit crazy."

According to Little Doug, he really enjoyed Marcella's company at first. He said they shared many common interests and values.

"Like fishing," Oscar said flatly.

"Yeah, like fishing." Little Doug replied.

With each progressive date, however, Marcella started to complain about her crazy family. The last few times they went out, she scarcely spoke about anything else. At the same time, Little Doug said Marcella was insistent that he should meet her family. Unable to muster a refusal, he agreed to attend a party at her youngest brother's home.

Most of Marcella's adult family members were in attendance at the party. There were also a few neighbours there, along with some nefarious-looking friends of her youngest brother, Jamie.

Little Doug said there were massive amounts of the drink at the party. Apparently, the fridge was completely filled with beer.

"There wasn't a speck of food in that fridge," he said, an incredulous look on his face.

Even though there was an overabundance of the drink on hand, vast amounts of the stuff had already been consumed when he arrived with Marcella. Little Doug was introduced to several people who could only utter a few garbled words of greeting, all because of the drink. Those folks, he explained, were using all of their powers of concentration to remain in an upright position.

Little Doug also said he never did get an opportunity to meet Marcella's father. When they arrived, he was fast asleep on the livingroom couch while the party raged around him. Marcella said this always happens when her dad drinks rum.

She had previously warned Little Doug that her dad had a bit of a drinking problem.

About ninety minutes passed before the party evolved into complete chaos.

Two of Marcella's four brothers had found themselves in a disagreement earlier in the day. Apparently, the matter had been simmering throughout the evening.

Little Doug was sitting on the arm of the livingroom couch, just near the gently snoring head of Marcella's father. At the time, he was talking to a very engaging woman who wore a white patch over her left eye. Little Doug said he never did find out why she was wearing the patch. He thought it would be inappropriate to raise the matter.

"Maybe her eye was missing," Weed offered, with enthusiasm in his voice.

"That's what I was afraid of," Little Doug replied.

As Little Doug enjoyed some small talk with the woman, loud angry voices erupted from the kitchen. This was followed by the sound of breaking glass. When he investigated the ruckus, he witnessed a terrible row between two of Marcella's brothers. Other family members were quickly jumping into the verbal fray. There was broken glass on the floor, but no evidence of how this occurred.

The brothers and their various supporters continued to spew venom at each other. Little Doug said the dispute was focused on a missing carburetor. The youngest brother, Jamie had been accused of stealing the object from another brother. Jamie was hotly disputing the other's claim of ownership.

The argument seemed to quell for a few minutes. At least, that's what it seemed like to Little Doug. But Jamie fanned the flames of conflict by murmuring a few disparaging comments about his rival sibling. Suddenly, fists began to fly in every direction. One of Marcella's sisters was in the midst of the fisticuffs. She hit Jamie with a vicious backhand slap.

Suddenly, Marcella unleashed an angry howl and lunged at her sister. Little Doug said he was aghast at her sudden fury.

"She punched her sister right in the left boob," he said with a look of amazement.

The dispute quickly grew into a full-scale brawl. Within seconds, it migrated into the livingroom. Marcella's father awoke groggily from his prone position on the couch. This was after someone fell heavily on his outstretched feet. Nevertheless, Little Doug said there was little opportunity to be introduced to him.

After repeated shouts to do so, someone placed an emergency call to the peelers. Little Doug thought it was Marcella's mother who made the call.

"She seemed like a decent woman, I must say," he added graciously.

Little Doug had no desire to be present when the peelers arrived. He said he had seen enough shenanigans in front of Burning Manor to remain at the party. He quickly grabbed his coat and navigated his way through the throng of Marcella's embattled family. He did not pause to announce his departure to Marcella.

She was otherwise engaged in a tortuous hair-pulling contest with her older sister.

Little Doug said he could understand that Marcella has a crazy family. "Lots of people have crazy families," he offered thoughtfully.

"Besides, I've already got my own crazy family," he added, looking at Weed with a grin. "I've got no room for another one."

Everyone agreed that it was a shame about Marcella and her crazy family.

"Now you know why she'd rather be fishing," Oscar observed.

"Families," Computer Doug said philosophically, "You don't get to pick them."

"True enough," Oscar replied.

Weed thought Computer Doug's comment about picking one's family was intriguing. He quickly outlined one of his patented ideas for the betterment of mankind.

Every ten years, after the age of twenty-one, a family could vote to expel one of its members. The estranged family member would then be eligible to be picked up by another family. Of course, as Weed explained it, the person would have to "clean up his act," if he had any hope of catching on with a new family.

While Weed believed that most people would vote to keep their families intact, he said his idea would also allow a sane family member to escape from his own crazy clan.

"Everyone would also have the right to resign from their existing family and join up with a sane one," he explained.

Oscar thought Weed's idea was a good one. He said it could be structured like a draft of players in professional sports. If Marcella, for example, did well in the draft lottery, she could select a new brother with her first-round draft choice.

"Or even a new dad," Computer Doug interjected.

Weed, of course, thought Oscar's vision of his patented plan was preposterous. "Now, you're just talking crazy," he said hotly.

Oscar and Weed began to debate the details of Weed's latest plan for the betterment of mankind. This is how our show usually reaches its conclusion.

Amidst their inane banter, Little Doug told me he wasn't too upset about the end of his dalliance with Marcella. He said it was fun while it lasted. It had also given him the confidence to continue dating in the future.

Little Doug also admitted that he was quite enthralled by the woman with the eye-patch, he met at Marcella's family party. Apparently, she's a friend of one of Marcella's three sisters. Recently divorced, she works at a local grocery store. According to Little Doug, she is also fond of fishing. He didn't say if she had the bumper sticker to prove it.

Although he normally shops at a competing grocery store, Little Doug said he's planning to shift his food dollars to the woman's place of employment. This will be the only way he can discover whether she's actually missing her left eyeball. Apparently, Little Doug's uncle lost his eye as young man. It occurred during a vicious street fight. Unfortunately, his uncle was prone to removing his prosthetic eye during family gatherings.

"That always freaked me out when I was a kid," Little Doug said with a slight shudder.

Even if it turns out that the woman is missing her eyeball, Little Doug said he wouldn't rule out asking her out on a date. He said he could imagine getting used to it over time, especially if she was a very nice person.

"As long she didn't pull her eye out at parties, I could probably deal with it," he said seriously.

More than anything, Little Doug said he would only expect one thing from a potential one-eyed dating partner.

"She could be missing an eyeball," he announced firmly, "but she couldn't have a crazy family."


Sunday, March 18, 2007

The End of the Lam

Florence returned from Cuba this week. Her home did not burn down in her absence. Thank God for this.

In appreciation for caring for her home, she gave your agent a bottle of Cuban rum. I'm not sure what she gave young Doo for keeping her backyard secure. But I'm quite certain it wasn't a bottle of rum.

Neither your agent, nor Mrs. Wonders, drinks rum. I'll probably give the bottle to Oscar. He has a taste for such things.

I'm just relieved that Florence's house didn't burn down while she was away. That was enough of a gift by itself.

Sunday nights in the Sack are almost always very quiet, especially during the winter.

Most residents are at home on these evenings. People seem to shift their lives into a lower gear as the weekend draws to a close. Oscar compares it to the last few metres of a roller coaster ride.

"You go like stink for almost seven days and then you slam on the brakes and coast for the last few hours," he observed.

If you walked through the Sack on a Sunday evening, you could almost bask in the foggy glow of television screens emanating from residents' homes. Watching TV is what most people seem to do on Sunday nights.

Little Doug's house would probably stand out most. He likes to watch TV in complete darkness. From the street, it looks like he's operating a clandestine welding shop in his darkened living room.

Weed says Little Doug keeps the lights off because he's prone to falling asleep on the couch while watching television.

Last Sunday night began in this same unremarkable fashion.

Oscar was reclining on his couch as he enjoyed his new thirty-seven-inch LCD television. With his new digital package, he says he can watch four different episodes of The Simpsons on a single Sunday night. That's what he was doing when the shenanigans began.

Weed was lying on the couch in the rec room of Little Doug's house. He was listening to music on his MP3 player. Daisy and Baby Doug had left earlier in the day for a week long visit with her mother in the United States. Weed said it was the first time he had been alone on a Sunday night since Baby Doug was born.

Little Doug, of course, was upstairs in the darkened living room watching television. Weed reckoned that his de facto father-in-law had already fallen asleep. He says Little Doug rarely makes it past nine-thirty on most nights, before drifting off to the Land of Nod.

Weed had just finished smoking a joint when the shenanigans began.

Your agent and Mrs. Wonders were relaxing in our front room. Mrs. Wonders was curled up in an armchair with a book. She had started reading it on the day before and had scarcely put it down since.

"That must be a good book," I said absently, at one point. I was sitting on the couch with my notebook, scribbling something for the blogging machine.

"It is," she replied, without looking up. When she finished the page, she added, "With those powers of observation, you should become a private detective."

"Maybe I will," I answered. Then I yawned and continued scribbling.

The television was on, but the sound was off. Music was playing on the stereo at a low volume. A muted hockey game was in progress on the television screen.

At the Wonders' house, we were reading, writing, watching and listening all at the same time. When the shenanigans began, we were multitasking.

Gordon and his wife were also watching television when the shenanigans started. I have no idea what they were watching.

For a change, Gordon wasn't standing at his front window watching for an outbreak of suburban mayhem. That's what he seems to do on most other nights.

On Sunday nights, Gordon is usually off duty.

Just after nine o'clock, Oscar looked up from his thirty-seven-inch LCD television and noticed something afoot in the Sack. There was a peeler car in front of Burning Manor. A second peeler car was parked in front of Little Doug's house.

Immediately, Oscar phoned Weed and asked about the second peeler car. Weed was completely unaware of its presence. He wasn't happy about it, either.

Weed says the worst thing that can happen in life is when the police park in front of your house, just after you've smoked a joint.

"It's a good buzz ruined," he told me later.

Every week, it seems, Weed comes up with a new example of the worst thing that can happen to someone. It will always be a scenario that has just occurred in his own life.

During the previous week, he said "getting a soaker" was the worst thing that can happen to a person. This is a Canadian colloquialism for getting water in one's shoe. He made the comment after walking through some slush and discovering a hole in his boot.

Several weeks earlier, biting one's own tongue held the mantle of Weed's worst-ever life situations. He bit his tongue while watching a tense moment in a televised hockey game.

But last Sunday, having a cannabis buzz while the peelers were parked in front of his house was the worst thing ever. Weed said he wasn't concerned about his own legal position at the time. After all, he pointed out, the peelers don't pay much attention to the citizen pot-smoker anymore.

But it was the mere presence of the peelers that ruined Weed's buzz. As it turned out, they were only parked in front of Little Doug's house as they awaited the outcome of the matters unfolding inside Burning Manor. Either way, Weed said he couldn't relax until the car left the curb in front of Little Doug's house.

"It was like peeing in a public urinal with a big line-up of people behind you," he said later.

The peeler car in front of Burning Manor was empty. Its occupants were obviously inside the house. The second car continued to idle in front of Little Doug's place. By this time, more than a few Sack residents were standing at their front windows.

Oscar, of course, had already called Weed and your agent. He phoned Gordon, as well. Gordon then called Big Doug to inform him about the matter. Apparently, Big Doug said he didn't give a monkey's arse about what was happening at Burning Manor. He said he had much more important matters to attend to.

He didn't say what those important matters might have been.

Both Ben and Norma were peering out from behind their front curtains. And Jeff Christ's cherubic face was looking about calmly from the basement's rec room window. I don't think anyone had called them about the peelers. I think they discovered the unfolding shenanigans on their own.

Elizabeth was reportedly holding a stern pose as she stood at her front window. Apparently, her hands were on her hips.

"That's definitely not a happy stance," Oscar said later.

After about ten minutes, the second peeler car quickly accelerated and then stopped behind the first car in front of Burning Manor. The two officers walked purposefully to the front door and entered without knocking.

Before long, four peelers made their exit from the house. Accompanying them was a familiar female figure clad in a pink sweatsuit. The woman was wearing a pair of long, black leather boots. The pant legs of the sweatsuit were tucked into the boots. Oddly, she was also wearing a white cowboy hat.

More notably, however, her wrists were in handcuffs.

Dora's time on the lam, it seemed, had come to a peaceful conclusion.

The process of taking Dora to the waiting peeler car seemed to be a very relaxed affair. Everyone, including Dora, appeared to be chatting amiably.

At one point, Dora seemed to be talking as the peelers listened intently. She must have reached the climax of her tale, because she suddenly cackled loudly. Two of the peelers erupted with uproarious laughter. The other pair was standing with their arms folded. They just smiled and started shaking their heads.

Dora didn't seem to be too upset by the matter, at all.

Just before Dora was placed in the peeler car, Dirk appeared on the front porch of Burning Manor. He was wearing a pair of flannel boxer shorts and a plain white T-shirt. He was also barefooted.

This was about the fourth time in succession that I've seen Dirk in these same boxer shorts. I mentioned this to Mrs. Wonders. She said she hoped that Dirk does his laundry on a frequent basis.

I said it was also possible that Dirk has more than one pair of the same boxer shorts.

"You really should become a private detective, you know," she said dryly.

"Maybe I will," I replied. Then I yawned and returned my gaze to the shenanigans at the front of Burning Manor.

Dirk called out something unintelligible to the peelers. One of them walked back to the front door and spoke with him for a moment. Dora didn't even look over at him. She was still having a good-natured conversation with her peeler pals.

Eventually, Dora was packaged into the car and it motored smoothly out of the Sack. The second car, its interior lights on, remained behind for about ten minutes. Finally, it drove from the Sack and into the foggy night.

Weed said he was unimpressed with Dora's strategy for remaining on the lam.

"She got off to a good start," he said thoughtfully. He referred to her dramatic absence from a sentencing hearing and how she initially disappeared without a trace. She even made a cameo appearance at Norma's Tuesday night bingo. Weed thought Dora was being quite creative, at first.

In recent weeks, of course, Dora had simply resumed her normal routine at Burning Manor. Weed said this was a very uninspiring strategy for staying on the lam.

"In the end," he added, "she just lacked imagination."

Gordon, on the other hand, was ecstatic about Dora's arrest. He said it was too bad that the peelers didn't take Dirk, too.

Privately, Oscar wondered whether Gordon had called the peelers himself to report Dora's presence in the Sack. He said it was the kind of thing Gordon would do in the name of Sack security.

Weed, however, dismissed Oscar's theory. He said Sunday nights are the best time for the peelers to "scoop up" people on the lam.

"Everybody's sitting around watching TV on Sunday night. The peelers just have to go to their houses and that's it," he said with authority.

"It's like shooting fish in a barrel."

On the following Monday morning, Sack residents once again shifted their lives into a higher gear.

With the work day looming, Mrs. Wonders and I were sitting in the car, waiting for the heater to do its job. Your agent had just finished scraping ice from the windows.

"You wouldn't have to do this in the morning, if you were a private detective," she suddenly remarked, looking up from the same book she had been devouring on Sunday night. "You could work from home."

"Maybe I will," I replied. I yawned and looked at my watch. It was just after seven o'clock.

I put the car in gear and ventured down the driveway. As I entered the street, I saw Dirk's car pulling into Burning Manor's driveway. Dirk had a passenger with him. The passenger was wearing a white cowboy hat.

I slowed the Wonders' car down as I passed Burning Manor. Dora was now standing beside the car and talking with great animation to Dirk. I could even hear her coarse laughter as we passed. Meanwhile, Dirk was trying to retrieve something from the glove compartment of the car.

Dora was still dressed in the same fashion as the previous night. This time, however, only one leg of her pink sweatsuit was tucked into her boots. This detail gave her a slightly crazed look. Mrs. Wonders said it would be more accurate to say Dora looked slightly more crazed than normal. She could be right about this.

As we passed by, Dora seemed to notice us. She gave us a broad smile and a friendly wave. Then she raised her arms in the air and gave out a great whoop.

I flashed her my trademark peace sign and we continued on our way.


Saturday, March 10, 2007

Worry Wart

Britain's Prince Charles is known for his views on modern architecture and urban planning. Recently, he took dead aim at the lowly cul-de-sac.

Oscar says he has no problem with Charles' position on the matter. In fact, he said he would be happy to see the Sack reconstructed into a regular street.

He said, "All we would need to do is run a bulldozer through Gordon's house and extend the street until it intersected with another one."

If my sense of geography is correct, this would eventually connect the Sack directly to Pleasant Street. This particular street, of course, is a sworn enemy to a number of Sack residents, especially Oscar.

I said this sounded like a fantastic idea.

Florence, the Wonders' next-door neighbour, has gone to Cuba with some friends.

As usual, she asked your agent and Mrs. Wonders to keep an eye on her home. Her house keys are now sitting on a table near our front door.

This is a big responsibility.

In many ways, looking after Florence's house is a simple matter. Pop in every other day to make sure nothing has burst or flooded. If the temperature drops, adjust the heat so the pipes won't freeze. Pick up the accumulation of newspapers on the front porch and put out the compost bin on Friday.

It's all straightforward stuff.

Nevertheless, I worry that Florence's house might burn down on my watch. It wouldn't matter if it was my fault or not. It would still be a very awkward situation.

Of course, it's highly unlikely that any harm will come to Florence's home during her absence. But it could happen. That's what makes it such a big responsibility.

I am always very relieved when Florence comes home from a trip. I'm relieved that her house hasn't burned down.

On those days, I am particularly lighthearted.

When Florence returns to pick up her keys, she'll have no idea about my sense of relief. First, she'll ask if everything was okay during her absence. I always reply with a look that's both confident and nonchalant.

"Everything was cool," I'll say in a casual tone.

When Florence expresses her appreciation, I'll wave dismissively and reply:

"It was no sweat."

But I do sweat. I have enough on my hands making sure our own house doesn't burn down. A second house just adds to the sweat exponentially.

Sometimes I think it would be better if our house burnt down during Florence's trip, rather than hers. At least, it wouldn't be so awkward if that happened.

Sometimes I deal with tragedy better than I do awkwardness.

Of course, it isn't long before I worry that both houses could burn down while Florence is away. That would be tragic and awkward.

I don't think I could deal with that.

I've considered subcontracting the job of looking after Florence's house to Little Doug. There is no doubt that he would agree to do it. Little Doug will do just about anything for anybody.

"That's just the way I am," he told me once.

Little Doug is very good at home maintenance. When he looks around a house, he can see things I can't. He can probably do this better than most people.

Of course, Little Doug might forget to check in on Florence's house. In addition to his eye for home maintenance matters, he's also very good at forgetting about things. He is also very proficient at falling from ladders. But that's hardly relevant here.

In the end, after subcontracting the job to Little Doug, I would still be sweating about Florence's house burning down. If it happened then, it would be even more awkward.

I could also ask Oscar to keep an eye on Florence's house. I know for certain that he wouldn't forget to do it.

Oscar would take the responsibility very seriously. He would spend several hours a day watching television in the serenity of Florence's comfortable living room. That's what he does when he looks after the Wonders' home.

But if Oscar looked after Florence's place, I'd be worried that he wouldn't pay any attention to the required activities involved in its care. He would be too busy watching television. As long as nothing happened while he was there, Oscar would consider that everything was under control.

Either way, I'd still be sweating.

Responsibility can weigh heavily on one's shoulders. Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to have no responsibilities at all. But it's hard to get a clear picture of this. Maybe it's impossible to have no responsibilities at all.

Of course, most of us face the same kinds of responsibilities every day. We get up to go to work or school. We look after our basic needs and even those of others. There are also bills to pay and various possessions to keep in working order.

But people take on their own unique responsibilities, as well. Little Doug, for example, feels responsible for helping anyone who needs a hand with repairs. It doesn't matter whether he forgets to do it or not. He still feels responsible for helping.

Big Doug is conscientious about timely and efficient snow removal. He has this same sense of responsibility about lawn maintenance. In his eyes, it's just something that must be done. There are no two ways about it.

Gordon, on the other hand, feels responsible for the Sack's safety, security and sense of decorum. It would seem impossible for him to ignore these matters.

"It's just the way I am," he told me once.

Oscar would argue that Rental Doug is responsible for assisting the Devil in rolling out plans for the Apocalypse. Even though Rental Doug has been nothing but a model Sack resident, Oscar would say that deception is simply part of this responsibility.

Weed, on the other hand, would point to Jeff Christ's responsibility to be at the forefront of the Second Coming.

"If you want to talk about pressure," I can hear Weed say, "try carrying that around on your shoulders."

Florence has been gone now for almost forty-eight hours. There are still about a hundred and twenty hours before she comes home. Hopefully, her house won't burn down during this remaining time.

The first forty-eight hours have been relatively uneventful. So far, nothing has burst, flooded or exploded. Newspapers have been cleared from the front step and the doors have been secured.

Yesterday, I took a brief walk around the outside of Florence's house. Gordon told me that it's a good idea to do a "perimeter check" whenever one is caring for someone else's home. I prefer to call it a brief walk, instead of a perimeter check. The latter term only increases my sense of responsibility.

When I reached Florence's backyard, I was startled to find seven-year-old Doo sitting on the steps leading to her back deck. He was holding a hockey stick protectively in front of him.

It took me a few seconds to recognize the lad. His hair had been dyed a brilliant shade of orange. Smudges of dye were also visible on the skin near his ears. This gave the impression of sideburns.

Doo told me his mom allowed him to have his hair dyed for the duration of next week's March school break.

"What are you doing back here?" I asked Doo with authority. It was the tone of voice I reserve for moments of great responsibility.

"Florence went to Cooba," he replied. "No kids are allowed back here."

It was at this moment I noticed that Doo's front tooth was badly chipped. Momentarily, I forgot about my sense of responsibility.

"What happened to your tooth?"

"I fell off my bike."

"Ouch. Did it hurt?"


"Well, that's good."

A brief silence followed and then I said, "So, if no kids are allowed back here, what are you doing?"

"I'm in charge of Florence's house while she's in Cooba." Doo replied with his own sense of authority. "No kids are allowed to play here. Florence asked me to make sure."

"Well," I answered, taking a brief glance around the yard, "it looks like you're doing a good job."

Just before I left Doo to his sentry duties, I asked him one more question.

"Can you do me a favour?" Doo nodded agreeably.

"Make sure nobody burns Florence's house down while she's in Cuba, okay?"

Doo smiled, his prominent chipped tooth glinting in the sunlight.

"Okay, I'll make sure."

"Excellent," I replied.

Already, I could feel a sense of lightheartedness returning to my soul.


Thursday, March 08, 2007

That's Amazing

Last Friday, at eleven o'clock in the morning, a giant prehistoric pterodactyl flew over the Sack. Perched on the pterodactyl's back was a chimpanzee. The chimp was wearing a purple tuxedo.

Sack residents slowly emerged from their homes as the behemoth and it's primate pilot cast a dark shadow over the neighbourhood. People stood cautiously on their front porches and stared at the amazing sight above them.

The pterodactyl made a tight turn and then flew straight up the street at a very low altitude. The chimpanzee was squawking angrily. As the giant reptile flew past the houses, the chimp started to throw small, white objects at the assembly of residents. These turned out to be marshmallows.

After one more turn through the Sack, the pterodactyl soared upwards with a powerful thrust. Within seconds, the creature and its tuxedo-clad pilot were mere dots in the eastern sky.

It was the second most amazing thing that happened in the Sack that day.

The most amazing event took place several hours later. It caused Sack residents to forget all about the pterodactyl and the chimpanzee. Later, however, a few people still vaguely recalled the marshmallows.

The amazing thing was this: Maxwell, Britney Bitterman's beau, has found himself a full-time job.

Maxwell, of course, has been intentionally unemployed for most of his adult life. News of his full-time job would've been taken with a grain of salt, if trustworthy eyes had not confirmed the matter.

That's exactly what took place in the Sack early in the afternoon on that same Friday.

Weed is the Sack's official Maxwell correspondent. He works at a call centre adjacent to the local shopping mall. The corporate office of Cutlass Supreme Painting, Maxwell's ill-fated commercial painting business, is located in the mall's food court. It occupies a table immediately across from a booth that sells Chinese fast food.

One would expect that Weed would've broken the news about Maxwell's full-time job. But it was Oscar who found out about the matter first. Computer Doug was also a witness to this most momentous occasion. Your agent was there, too.

Ironically, Computer Doug is currently unemployed. He was laid off from his computer-related job several weeks ago. Since then, he has been spending a fair amount of his time with Oscar.

Oscar said he was very disappointed that Weed hadn't learned about such a significant event in Maxwell's life. He said this wasn't what one would expect from an official correspondent. Later, he told Weed that a letter of admonishment would be placed on his employment file.

"Fill your boots," Weed would reply.

Friday is garbage day in the Sack.

Oscar and Computer Doug were convening on Oscar's driveway when the old town's waste management professionals drove into the Sack. Your agent, buoyed by a free afternoon, had just joined them. We were discussing the details of a late luncheon somewhere in the downtown quarter.

As we debated the merits of several restaurants, the garbage truck neared the Sack's centre circle. That's when Oscar spied Maxwell leaping from the back of the truck to collect the green garbage bags in front of Rental Doug's house.

Maxwell, it seems, has joined the ranks of the old town's waste management professionals.

As the truck neared Oscar's driveway, Maxwell gave us a broad smile and a hearty greeting.

He was wearing a pair of dark blue overalls and an orange safety vest. On his feet were a pair of white Nike sneakers. Oscar said he was sure it was the same pair Maxwell had purloined last month from one of the Sack's overhead power lines.

Maxwell was also wearing his customary Montreal Canadiens baseball cap.

As he told us about his new full-time job, Maxwell was simply beaming with pride. He also appeared to be very stoned.

According to Maxwell, his cousin had recently been promoted to assistant crew chief within the ranks of the waste management profession. Apparently, this provided him with input into hiring decisions.

This particular cousin should not be confused with the one who owns the coveted 1993 Cutlass Supreme, the namesake of Maxwell's painting business. It wasn't the cousin whose friends are always on the cusp of giving Maxwell a primo painting gig, either.

This was a different cousin altogether.

Maxwell said he was enjoying his new job very much. He started on the previous Monday. So far, he had only missed one day of work. That was on Wednesday, when he woke up with a killer stomach flu.

Maxwell said he spent the whole day "on the throne."

But with almost four days under his belt, Maxwell felt certain that he would excel in his new position. In fact, it would only be a matter of time before he became assistant crew chief. Apparently, his cousin will surely be promoted again, very soon. After all, he plays on the same hockey team as one of the big bosses. When his cousin becomes a crew chief, Maxwell will certainly take over in the number two position.

Within a year, Maxwell said he would undoubtedly have his own crew of waste management professionals.

People have the impression that waste management professionals have a very mundane occupation. On the contrary, Maxwell said something new happens every day. So far, he had scored an old ghetto blaster, a kid's hockey net and a NASCAR windbreaker. These items, according to Maxwell, had been foolishly cast to the curb by old town residents.

"And don't get me started on the chicks you can meet in this job," Maxwell added with a big smile.

"Most people don't even think about that."

Now that he has a full-time job, Maxwell has some big plans for his coming prosperity. With his first pay cheque, he's planning to get a tattoo on his back. He said it will show the image of his two children.

"It's gonna cost me about three hundred bucks," he said with pride, "but it's worth every penny."

Maxwell, of course, is the father of Baby Maybe. Britney Bitterman is the wee lad's mother. Maxwell also has a six-year-old son from a previous relationship. Neither woman has seen much in the way of child support.

Thankfully, Britney Bitterman seems to figure prominently in Maxwell's vision for the future. He said he would probably buy a house for the three of them within the next few months.

Apparently, Maxwell's "step-grandmother" is ninety-two years-old and wants to get rid of her house. She's planning to give him the property for less than half of its market value. He said he wouldn't even have to make a down payment, either. Given her advanced age, he said she doesn't really care about money anymore.

"What are you gonna buy when you're ninety-two, eh? Maxwell said, holding his hands out for emphasis.

So, from Maxwell's perspective, everything seems to be coming up roses. He has a full-time job that brings the promise of random, no-cost treasure and a biweekly pay cheque. There is also the promise of a house for himself, Britney Bitterman and young Baby Maybe.

But what about Cutlass Supreme Painting?

Maxwell grinned and nodded his head with certainty when the matter was raised. He said the company would operate on weekends and evenings. In fact, he already had several painting gigs lined up.

"Ching, ching," he added with a gap-tooth grin.

About five minutes had passed as Maxwell stood talking on Oscar's driveway. The garbage truck had stopped and was idling in front of Big Doug's house.

Maxwell's co-workers were leaning against the side of the vehicle. All three men were smoking. "I'm pretty sure," Oscar said later, "they were only smoking cigarettes."

Finally, one of the men pushed his weight off the truck and called out to Maxwell:

"Hey, moron!" the man yelled. "Let's go."

Maxwell gave the man a brief wave and then started to make his exit. "That's my cousin Doug," he said with pride.

"Doug?" Oscar replied.

Maxwell nodded and then started off toward the garbage truck. There was a pair of work gloves in his back pocket. When he was about ten feet away, he turned back to us and pointed toward a nearby driveway.

"Hey," he called out, "so where did all the marshmallows come from?"


Saturday, March 03, 2007

Legends of the Fall

"A reputed crack dealer was walking down the street on a hot summer day. A street cleaning machine passed by him as he ambled along the sidewalk. Somehow, the crack dealer tripped and fell into the path of the street cleaning machine. He was killed instantly."

The above scenario comes from the irony file located in the deep cabinets of Weed's fertile imagination.

Dora is proving to be very good at being on the lam.

This, of course, was Oscar's assessment. His pontificating on the matter took place during last week's show in the Wonders' front room.

About seven weeks have passed since Dora failed to appear in court for a sentencing hearing. Sack observers say she had been found guilty of assaulting another woman during some shenanigans at a local tavern. A period of probation was expected to be the outcome of the affair.

Nevertheless, Dora chose to go on the lam.

Weed, on the other hand, took a more discerning view of Dora's time on the lam. It's possible, he argued, that the peelers aren't trying very hard to find her. He thinks the peelers took some immediate interest in her whereabouts, but then quickly moved onto more urgent matters.

"They might get back to looking for her when their workload drops or when they need to pump up their arrest stats," he said with authority.

Weed is a big fan of The Wire.

Even though the peelers may not be concerned with her whereabouts, Weed admits that he's impressed by Dora's style. According to Norma, Dora made an appearance at last week's Tuesday night bingo.

"Dora went to bingo while she's on the lam," Weed said, with obvious respect in his voice. "That's either very stupid or very, very cool."

Norma said Dora was her usual rambunctious self during the bingo night. Although her voice was very hoarse, it didn't stop Dora from ranting and raving about a variety of inane subjects. Apparently she was seated at a table quite close to Norma's and was very disruptive to surrounding bingo players.

"Everybody wanted to tell her to shut her cake-hole," Norma said demurely.

It should be no surprise that Dora's fellow bingo players held their collective tongues. Dora bites.

Dirk, on the other hand, seems to be settling into a relatively quiet existence. Of course, he has continued to enjoy periods of socialization with the infamous friends of Burning Manor.

Last weekend, during the middle of our show, a one-armed man came to visit Dirk at Burning Manor. Using his remaining arm, he retrieved a large case of beer from the trunk of his car.

Maxwell, Britney Bitterman's beau, has a one-armed uncle named Ted. Oscar wondered if the two men were one and the same. He didn't think the old town boasts very many one-armed men, so the odds would be very good that Maxwell's Uncle Ted was a bonafide friend of Burning Manor.

Weed, of course, thought Oscar's comments were preposterous. In fact, he accused Oscar of being "disabilist" for this view of people with physical impairments and one-armed men in particular.

"Just because you know a single one-armed man doesn't mean you know them all," he argued.

From my own perspective, I remain doubtful that Uncle Ted is the same one-armed man who paid a visit to Burning Manor.

According to Maxwell, Uncle Ted is a legendary candlepin bowling champion. Dirk's visitor was a rather dishevelled character, who, despite a rather slender figure, possessed an enormous stomach. A cigarette was clenched in his teeth and he seemed to have a bit of a hitch in his gait. Of course, the hitch might've had something to do with the case of beer carried by his remaining arm.

Either way, the dude didn't look like a legendary candlepin bowling champion.

Accompanying Dirk's one-armed visitor was a spectacularly obese, middle-aged woman. She was carrying her own of case of beer. Oscar thought she looked vaguely Italian.

As the one-armed man and his obese companion neared the top of Dirk's driveway, they encountered some slippery, icy terrain. Since Dirk continues to be away for three-week periods at his job on an oil rig, his snow removal efforts are sporadic. As a result, a solid layer of ice covers the upper part of his driveway and the entry to Burning Manor's front steps.

The two visitors had to negotiate an incline as they reached the top of Dirk's driveway. For a brief moment, both came to a standstill as the ice prevented them from moving forward.

The one-armed man was ahead of his female companion on the driveway. Suddenly, he started to slide backwards. The obese woman gave out a yelp and blocked him from sliding further. Both remained upright and made corrections to their stances as if they were perched on a circus high wire.

For a few more seconds, they stood frozen in place before continuing their ascent toward the top of Burning Manor's driveway.

The one-armed man took several frail and uncertain steps on the icy driveway. Then he came to a stop again and tried to restore his equilibrium. His obese companion did the same.

Then he took one more step forward. This time, he lost his balance completely and started to fall backwards. The obese woman was in the midst of taking her own step forward and was unprepared for his fall. He careened into her, causing her to lose her own footing. Their respective beer cases fell with a thud on the icy driveway. The one-armed man's cigarette flew from his mouth in a shower of fiery sparks.

The obese woman hit the ground first. The one-armed man's landing was cushioned by her ample girth. Oscar said it was the funniest thing he had seen in a very long time.

The Burning Manor visitors lay prone on the icy driveway for a few moments. While we debated whether they might require our assistance, the one-armed man managed to get to his feet. His female companion remained on her back like a turtle thrown on the back of its shell.

As the one-armed man laboured to pull her upright, Dirk emerged from Burning Manor. He was wearing a sweatshirt, flannel boxer shorts and a pair of work boots.

The two men succeeded in bringing the obese woman to a sitting position, but several attempts to bring her to a standing position were in vain.

That's when Dirk picked up one of the beer cases and disappeared into Burning Manor.

Dirk reemerged from Burning Manor a few seconds later. He paused at the doorway and took a quick look around the Sack. Then he started down his front steps to assist his visitors again.

A few steps behind him was Dora.

Dora was wearing a pink, hooded sweatsuit and a pair of winter boots. The hood was pulled over her head and the peak of a baseball cap was visible under its cover. She made a few tentative glances around the Sack and then joined Dirk and the one-armed man in lifting the obese woman to her feet.

Eventually, they managed to escort her and the one-armed man into Burning Manor. Dirk returned to the driveway and collected the remaining beer case.

The show concluded with a raucous debate on whether the peelers should be notified of Dora's clandestine return to Burning Manor.

Oscar felt that we had a moral and civic responsibility to see her brought to justice. From his perspective, he said, "We're either part of the problem or we're part of the solution."

Weed, on the other hand, felt we should mind our own beeswax. When someone is on the lam like Dora, he said we should let nature take its course. Besides, Weed argued, "This is a matter between the peelers and Dora."

Your agent, of course, remains without a definitive opinion on the matter. I can certainly see both sides of the coin. The only thing that seems certain is that Dora's adventures on the lam provide an entertaining diversion during the dark days of late winter.



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