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Sneak peek at Outrunning Crazy

Chapter One: THE BIG PICTURE

Cover: Amber Martin/countylive.ca

The summer of 1968 is where my mind plops down and lights up a smoke. I am ten years old. It’s hotter than Hades and we are all standing in the woodshed, attached to the summer kitchen, my siblings and my mother, still as soldiers, barely able to catch our breath. It smells like mouse shit and dried wood.

Don’t make a sound,” she threatened us, “or I’ll crucify you.” My mother never followed through on these threats, but how many times I imagined myself being nailed on the back wall of the classroom, able to see everyone else’s test paper.

We had just gotten back from swimming; Alberta took us daily when we were haying. She hated wasting any part of her workday, but we were always sweltering by noon. She’d load us all in the back of the truck and drive like a bat out of hell through the backfield. Maybe if she’d slowed down a bit, she wouldn’t have worn out so many transmissions. I can still see us, holding our towels tight around our necks, bouncing this way and that. It was better than the Tilt-A-Whirl.

We cooled off in the river that ran at the back of the property. We called it the Cottage though the only building back there was an outhouse wallpapered with pages from the Sears Catalogue. We’d often eat our noon meal down by the grove of pine trees. Our family always had our big meal at lunch. It was no fancy picnic – nothing from a wicker basket like you see French people doing in a movie. There wasn’t a checkered tablecloth or wine, not even a picnic table. Alberta would boil up a ham in a pot of potatoes. Some days we’d be so anxious to get wet she’d let us eat straight from the saucepan. She caught me more than once drinking the ham water from the pot. “Put that down, you pig. Nobody wants your germs all over them.” That was me from the get-go, taking more than she was offering. I’d stuff myself until I almost bust a gut and then jump in the water. The rule about waiting an hour had not been invented yet. Even if it had, by mid- summer the river was so low the water only went up to our knees. If we’d got a cramp, we could’ve just stood up.

The river ran directly downstream from the canning factory in Spike Mills. The bulk of what they canned was green peas. By mid-August the river had artificial green foam floating on top. Every September we’d go back to school, our eyes oozing with pus. When we’d complain about the infection, my father King would tell us to stop our bitching. “It’ll grow hair on your chest,” which is not at all reassuring to a ten-year old girl.

On that scorcher of a day, we’d just gotten back to the house and were standing in the front yard picking the sand out from between our toes. Alberta had conniptions if we tracked it through the house, and there was nothing worse than getting it in the sheets. The sun had zapped our bathing suits dry and it was like we had never gotten wet.

One minute there we were – five children wiping our feet on the grass.

The next we were running this way and that trying to get out of sight. 5 kids. Three boys. Brothers that I never had a conversation with. NeilPatrickBill. One name. My mother yelled it out in one breath. A group. A subset. There were two girls. Me. Marley, the youngest. There we all were, plus my mother, standing in a woodshed, trying to outsmart one travelling salesman.

On summer afternoons, they could be seen walking up and down our side road. You could spot them a mile away, with their casual saunter like they had nowhere in particular to be. With jackets flung over their shoulders, carrying a big black suitcase, they sold anything you could imagine from gadgets to appliances to face cream – anything a housewife might need.

Alberta would never be accused of being a housewife. She spent more time in the barn than anywhere else, but she had a hate-on for those salesmen. To her they were blowhards who were trained to fleece innocent people out of money they didn’t have. By people, I mean King. She was mad at him for years over getting talked into buying the Instant Color TV Converter. It was only $4.95, but a big waste of money. The salesman convinced my dad that the contraption would magically turn our black and white TV into a colour one. When it arrived in the mail, it was nothing more than a piece of plastic that you placed on top of the screen. It had three colours: blue at the top for sky, green on the bottom for grass, and in the middle orange for everything else. That would have been fine if you were watching outdoor shows like ‘Lassie’ or ‘Bonanza.’ But for indoor TV shows like ‘Leave It to Beaver,’ it meant all the characters had blue faces. I hated that show to begin with – it was totally unbelievable that people would act that nice – but when Beaver’s face had a sky blue tinge, it really made me mad.

Not all of the salesmen sold useless and ridiculous items. The Raleigh man for one had good products: ointments for colds (we jammed the stuff up our noses even when we didn’t have a runny nose because we liked the smell of it), and brown salves for burns and sores, which could be used for people or cattle. However, that Raleigh guy had the knack of showing up just as a meal was about to be served. He was a Hunt; all the Hunts were like that. Nana said when she was first married the Hunt spinsters would come by unannounced on Sunday afternoons. There were four of the old bats and they’d land in, claiming they just happened to be out for a drive after church. It happened with enough frequency that Nana knew it had to be intentional. She finally gave up trying to give them hints. “You can’t fight city hall,” she’d say as soon as they drove up the driveway. She’d go out to the back, kill a chicken, gut it, pluck it and put it in the oven. The old bats were never well mannered enough to bring a pie or lift a finger to help with the dishes. The Raleigh man was from the same clan so he knew no better. It took nothing for him to wrangle an invitation for a noon meal. We’d see him and pull up another chair and put another plate on the table, but then he didn’t know enough to move on down the road afterwards. He’d hunker down and suck marrow from the pork chop bones long after we’d all gone back to the fields. It’s a wonder he didn’t stay on ‘til supper.

The best defense is a good offense’ is what Alberta always said so she trained us to be on the lookout for these salesmen. If we saw a man in a suit walking down the road whistling, we were to yell the code word ‘S.O.B.’. Cuss words were allowed if we spelled them. If any of us heard those three letters, we were to run to the woodshed immediately. I wonder who we thought we were fooling. If we could see them coming that meant they could see us too. One minute there were kids swinging from the tire on the tree, and the next minute the yard was empty.

We were a loud people at the best of times, and so the ones brazen enough to come up and knock on the door would’ve been able to hear us too. The woodshed was attached to the house, right off the summer kitchen. The more we tried to be quiet, the more the giggle fits came. It’s a law of nature. If someone tells you to shut up, you can’t stop yourself from laughing. Of course, I was the shit disturber who got everyone else going by clowning around making faces. I was very funny; that is, before I became difficult.

On the particular day I’m recalling, this salesman banged on the door for so long Alberta couldn’t ignore him. He knocked and knocked until his fist must have been numb. When she couldn’t take it anymore, she stormed out of our hiding place and asked him, “Jesus Mary and Joseph, what the H.E… double hockey sticks do you want?”

When we stuck our heads out to see what this one looked like, we caught Alberta in the midst of latching the screen door. As if an eyehook was going to keep us safe, especially if he’d turned out to be some psychopath.

People say that all the time, ‘what if that guy was a psychopath?’ The truth is psychopaths are very smart. They’re not a dime a dozen.

You have to be focused to be a serial killer and this guy was a simple slack-jawed man with an ugly church hat. When he took it off he introduced himself as Mr. Martin and looked straight ahead into Alberta’s chest. He wasn’t being fresh; he was short in stature. She was a bruiser of a woman, so when he peered through the screen, he was eyeball to eyeball with her boobs. The size of her chest was substantial. This might have gotten an ordinary man excited. An ordinary man might have forgotten what he came for, but Alberta’s demeanor never encouraged fantasy in anyone. Ordinary men are still afraid of her.

Martin began his pitch on the other side of the screen door. “I’m a photographer. A few days ago, I flew over your property in my airplane and snapped some pictures of your land.”

What are you doing going around taking pictures of my land?” Alberta asked.

Not your land in particular, ma’am. Everybody’s land. I took pictures of all the farms in the neighbourhood.”

Why in the name of God would you do that?” This behavior did not make any sense to her or us.

It’s beautiful to see the way things look from above, so far above everything.” He continued, “It gives you a whole new appreciation of what a blessing land can be.”

A blessing? My land?” Calling land a blessing revealed he didn’t have a clue what it was like to be a farmer. That and there was something sissy about the way he pulled the photographs from the manila envelope and handed them to her. There it was, our farm. Picture perfect, parceled off in rows, neat as a pin.

Yes. See, what I will do is I will take this picture and place it over a lampshade.”

A lampshade?” She couldn’t understand where he was going with this.

Yes.” He pulled a small desk lamp out from his suitcase and placed our picture around it, attaching it with two clips so it would stick.

Well, isn’t that different?” Alberta used that word ‘different’ to describe just about anything she had never thought of.

Of course if you bought this it would be permanently placed on the shade.”
“I see. How would you do that?”

Well it’s a …let’s just say it’s advanced technology. Now if you’d let me come in, I could plug it in, and you’d see how wonderful this looks when it’s lit up.”

Mom, please, please, please?” We all chimed in, as if nagging ever worked. But she surprised us, and unlatched the hook, grabbed the lamp, shut the screen door and re-hooked it before Martin even realized that he was still stuck out on the verandah.

This contraption better not blow any fuses, or I won’t be happy,” she warned him.

Full electrical grounding – it will stand a storm even out here in the middle of nowhere,” he said, not knowing that calling a person’s location nowhere is never a good sales move.

She bent over and plugged it in all the same. When the lampshade lit up, he was right. It did look beautiful. It was odd to see our lives from that far up above things. All picture perfect.

Well, that is different.” Alberta said.

Yes, ma’am. It’s very reasonable for a beautiful piece of art.”

Art?” That word slapped her back to reality because she changed her tune right on the spot. “This is art? Why didn’t you say something? Do I look like I have time for art? I’m a farmer.”

She opened the screen door, handed it back to him, then hooked the lock again and exited to the woodshed, without so much as a good-bye or kiss my ass. A few seconds passed with us kids standing there staring at him like the hillbillies we were. When he heard Alberta start up the chainsaw in the back, Martin turned promptly on his heels and waddled down the driveway with his little penguin city boy walk, us kids in tow, yapping at him. But it was my cousin Elaine who had the nerve to ask him:

Can we have the picture, can we Mr.? Can we? Can we? Can we?” He turned around quickly and raised his hand. It looked like he was going to hit her and then he dropped his shoulders in defeat. When he saw her pus-filled eyes, maybe he felt sorry for us, or maybe he saw Alberta with a chain saw and safety goggles exiting the shed, he thought he’d walked into some back woods cult. Whatever it was, he offered up the picture to Elaine and said, “All right, all right, keep the dang thing. It’s no use to me.” Then he placed his hat back on his head and he and the lamp disappeared down the road.

I’ve had that picture taped to the lamp in my bedroom for years.

I took it with me when I moved to the apartment above the China Doll Restaurant with Elaine. I took it with me when she and stopped being friends. And I brought it here to this place that looks back across the river. They say a picture never lies but this one did. When I stare at it I realize it didn’t capture anything that was going on between the two of us.

*******

The rest of the story: Outrunning Crazy visit  Deborah Kimmett online at  www.kimmett.ca

Filed Under: Deborah Kimmett

About the Author: Deborah Kimmett is not just a funny face. She knows a thing or two about life. Whether on the stage, or in the conference room, this witty and wise woman knows laughing matters. With her hilarious stories and interactive exercises she ignites, inspires and offers strategies for success. Side Effects: You might get your sense of humor back. Visit her at www.kimmett.ca or on youtube at www.youtube.com/user/DebKimmett

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