i´d been following a sad and lonely dirt road in chile for eight days, the duration of which it had rained and snowed and everything was wet and dirty and cold and i was beat. so i got to a small town and decided to look for a room to call home. i saw a dying tree and nailed to it a sad little faded yellow sign that said hospedaje, which means, rooms available.
so i leaned my bike against that lonely tree and underneath that sign and opened a little wooden gate that was crooked and rusty in its hinges and i walked to the door and i knocked and waited and blew in my hands and rubbed them together. it was drizzling.
it took a while, but the door slowly moved inward and all i could see was an eyeball and a two inch sliver of a body from head to toe. and then, very deliberately, the door opened and as it did i could feel heat seeping out onto me and i liked it and it was at that very moment that i first saw norma and her jumping bean of a dog. she said nothing. just looked at me.
i bid her a good morning and inquired about a room.
she eyed me up and down. i was a filthy, soggy mess and i still had my helmet on and what else could i do but just stand there and smile? i was nervous she may not like me as i´m not one to make a good first impression, and i mean that. in fact, any friend i have is someone who had patience with me and eventually realized, ok, he´s allright after all. i don´t know what it is about me other than that it is something. anyhow, i liked her. a nice old woman in a woollen sweater and her cheeks were red with cold and those glasses on a chain around her neck. her little dog, treeny, was leaping up and down and yelping and then buried its nose in my feet which made me uncomfortable, but i just let it be.
finally norma spoke. she told me to come inside so she could shut the door. ¨it´s cold out there,¨ she said and she said it just like you imagine an old lady would. we went into her kitchen which was warm with radiating heat from a beautiful and ancient wood burning stove into which she fed a piece of freshly cut pine which smelled delicious and made me sad for christmas. the floors were tiled in maroon squares and there was a 2003 calendar hanging on the wall. norma was still eyeing me, but the tinge of incredulity seemed to be fading. i know that things happen slowly here so i just leaned down and petted the dog and waited.
after taking a sip from a mug she embraced - almost hugged - with both of her hands, she said she had a room and i followed her up some creaky stairs and had a look.
it was perfect down to the sad little ornamental reading lamp next to the head of the bed. i told her i´d take it and she nodded.
i moved my things in as she watched me over her mug of tea and she said she´d get the hot water ready so i could take a shower and i thanked her.
i unpacked my possessions and strung them out to dry and got out my semi-clean clothes to change into and had my first shower in a long, long while. i had a look in the mirror and couldn´t for one second blame norma´s hesitancy with me. i ran a hand through my hair which did nothing to improve anything and i opened the door and entered the kitchen. and there was norma. tea in hand. in a nice little chair she liked to sit in right next to her wood burning stove on top of which there was never not, during my stay there, a kettle of steaming water. norma liked her tea.
she told me i looked clean. i didn´t know how to respond. so i didn´t and just smiled.
now i had planned to do my laundry by hand, my usual protocol, but norma insisted i use a little machine that i could tell she was very proud of. i had not a clue how to use the thing so she said she´d help me. we manually filled it with water - the hose bursting from the nozzle twice and spraying us both with water - much to noma´s good-natured chagrin. but you see, this mishap served an important purpose because we both laughed and when you laugh together with someone, well, that´s something. laughter dissolves things. we put my tattered rags of clothes inside to the tune of norma´s tongue ¨tsks.¨ i apologetically explained to her i´d been on the road for some time. she shook her head and closed the lid and twisted a knob and told me we´d need to move my clothes into another little machine, the centrifuge, in half an hour. i went to town and walked around and watched people do the things that they do - the things that maybe someday i´ll do - and enjoyed it
the centrifuge was norma´s favorite part and she explained what it did by spinning her finger in the air which made me smile. now she was very concerned about the balance of the thing and she stood there with both hands firmly on the machine and once it really got to spinning without knocking, she slowly lifted her hands and eased her look of consternation and clasped her risen hands and said, ¨presto!¨ and i let out a whistle. she went back to her tea and i poured the first mug of my own and then we heard a little beeping sound and she said my clothes were ready to hang and she pointed to a line outside and handed me a plastic bag of clothes pins. ¨your clothes are clean now,¨ she said. and that´s what i love about old people when they point out the obvious like that because it really melts you. i said, ¨yes they are,¨ and deeply inhaled on a sock to prove it. norma smiled. now i´m guessing for her, but i think it was at about that time that norma realized she kind of liked me.
before i go on too much further about norma, a few words about treeny, the dog, are in order. that little dog was norma´s companion and friend, and he was the most heartrending dog you could ever imagine. about a foot and a half high, that dog had a tail that wagged so fiercely it was all he could do to walk straight. he never barked but just sort of whimpered and leaped with 180-degree turns not knowing what else to do with his excitement. the thing was, it was like this every gawd-blessed time that dog saw you, sheer ecstasy and uncontainable emotion. it´s like that with dogs. i´ve seen dogs greeting boys and girls descending from school buses and just watching those dogs leap and whine, well, it´s enough to put a lump in your throat. people don´t get that excited to see each other, even ones they love. dogs do. i think we could all learn alot from a dog. after all, take a look at that word backwards.
anyhow, two things were obvious and beautiful. norma loved treeny. and treeny loved norma. they needed each other and they had each other. and when the thought that i wish hadn´t crossed my mind crossed it about what either of them would do when the other died, well, it was the saddest thing in the world i could think of and i hated myself for thinking of it. but sometimes you just can´t help it and you end up cursing yourself. anyway, i stopped thinking about it and scratched old treeny behind his ears. norma said he liked that.
after laundry, i went and bought my dinner which consisted of four apples, four bananas, a liter of milk, a bag of cornflakes, some peanuts, and a piece of chocolate. no meal better than that. as i sliced and diced the fruit and put it all in one giant bowl, norma looked at me like i was a nut. ¨i´m a vegetarian,¨ i told her. ¨you´re a strange boy,¨ she said. and i just laughed. and then she did too. i took another sip of my cinnamon tea and poured some more.
i went to my room and ate in bed and read a book using that sad little table lamp. outside it rained and blew like a son of a gun against the window pane and it made me so happy to be right were i was. that night i slept hard kept warm by the heavy wool blankets, of which there were many, that norma had put on my bed.
now after drinking all that milk and delicious tea right before going to sleep, i woke up in need of a toilet. the thing was, those old hardwood floors in norma´s house creaked and squeaked with every gawd-blessed movement i made and i cringed with each tiptoed step i took, imagining - but hoping i wasn´t - disturbing norma as she slept. and when i heard her cough, oh and how it was the saddest cough you ever heard, i hated myself.
the next morning i came down and norma was in her well-worn pajamas and robe and just seeing her like that was endearing, but i could tell she was embarrassed and i wished she weren´t but emotions of others, much less sometimes your very own, are things you just can´t control. she was feeding that wood burning stove as i´m sure she´s done and will do every morning of her remaining life and i offered to help but she simply said no. sometimes she was like that. very curt, but it wasn´t rude. well, i poured myself some more cinnamon tea, how many piping hot mugs i drank of that perfect cinnamon tea!, and norma busied herself with the tasks one has of maintaining a house. again, i offered kindly refused assistance. i like to think that norma is very particular. ··exactly·· how to put the logs in the stove, sweeping, wiping the counters, these things. the last thing she needed was me fumbling around and messing it all up. so i told her i was going to town and i went.
now when i came back, after treeny finished jumping all over me, i had some soup to make for my supper and norma gave me a nice little pot and told me how to do everything and i diligently, under her watchful eye, followed her instructions. and when it came time to add some powdered herbs and spices, i opened the packet and dang it all to the highest of heavens if i didn´t somehow manage to drop it spilling it all over her impeccably clean floor. i silently cursed myself and profusely apologized and asked her where a broom was - i´ll clean it up norma, now don´t you worry, i´m sorry, so sorry, sometimes i don´t know what comes over me, now where´s that broom and i´ll start cleaning it all right this very second. but she shook her head and told me to calm down and she went out and got the broom and wouldn´t let me touch it and treeny was jumping all over and i felt like such a failure, like i´d let norma down. how seriously i took it all! but norma, good old norma, you see, it turns out she wasn´t concerned about the mess i´d made. she was concerned about my soup not having the right taste. ¨now norma,¨ i said, ¨don´t you worry. it´ll be just fine, really.¨
while that soup simmered above the burning wood norma invited me to sit down and watch tv with her. this involved me entering a room i hadn´t yet entered and that´s how you learn about people, by entering different rooms in their houses and just seeing things. well the room was perfectly kempt and everything was in its place and i felt a bit nervous that i might break something so i kept my hands in my lap. on tv norma was watching a trivia show for kids and so i watched too, but really, i just wanted to talk with norma but she seemed intent on this show and if there´s one thing i hate doing it´s disturbing people so i watched too. now norma and i, we were sitting on that soft couch of hers, we started answering the questions ourselves and usually correctly, but these kids, they kept saying the wrong answers. and after not too long, norma looked over at me and said, ¨that´s the problem today, these kids don´t know ··anything··.¨ now the fact that a kid didn´t know how many sides were on a dodecagon didn´t really bother me, but the way norma said this so very seriously made me feel it was my moral obligation to agree with her. so i nodded my head and said, ¨yes norma, these days the kids don´t know much,¨ and she nodded and i nodded and we were in agreement and that was a nice moment. my soup was ready.
now i didn´t know if i should eat with norma or up in my room again and as i held the pot i wasn´t sure what to do. if i outright asked to eat with her, she might say yes because she felt she ··had·· to say yes and i don´t like things like that, not one bit. but maybe she ···wanted··· me to eat with her, i mean, that was a possibility. but perhaps she just wanted what she was used to, to be alone with her tv and little treeny there laying on her feet and not have to worry about me spilling soup all over the couch and everything else. well, i couldn´t figure out what to do or say which seems to be a chronic condition for me so i said, ¨well, my soup´s ready....¨ and the tone i gave that last syllable made it so that what i said wasn´t really a declaration or a question or even a statement really. however, it did beg for some sort of reply. and norma looked at me and nodded and said, ¨yep, your supper´s ready. it smells nice.¨ and that was it. and heck if i ··still·· didn´t know what to do, i never do, so i poured some tea and took it all up to my room and just read my book thinking about if norma was lonely and if i should be downstairs watching those kids miss those questions with her. well, i´ll never know if i did the right thing or even if there was a right thing to do.
next morning i came downstairs before norma had woken up and i saw the way she hangs her slippers above that wood burning stove, and well, it was enough to kill your insides. you see those slippers hanging there and you actually catch yourself wishing and hoping and even praying that norma´s toes will be warm.
now one thing that concerned me about norma was the fact that she seemed to live in this rather large home all alone, only with the occasional guest like myself. i wanted to know, both for her sake and my peace of mind, that she indeed had family; someone, anyone. and so, later that day, hoping i wasn´t overstepping my bounds, i asked her. i found myself holding my breath as i did because if it turned out she didn´t have family, well, i guess i just feared that sad possibility. but she told me she had a daughter and that she usually visited here in the summer. this brought some relief, but also an additional curiosity in that i wondered about her husband, whose picture, at least i think it was her husband, i saw in the tv room. i wondered what had happened, how much she missed him, loved him, all these things. but i pursued none of them. she had the opportunity to tell me, but she didn´t and i respect that because sometimes people pry me for things and i know how that feels and i would hate to make norma feel like that.
the fact that norma had a daughter was indeed a relief for me. i imagined norma´s daughter calling and telling norma she would be arriving on a wednesday. and then i imagined norma anticipating her daughter´s arrival and cleaning everything really nice and how norma would probably get a restless sleep on tuesday night just thinking about holding her daughter once again and how she would probably wear some nice clothes for the occasion and of course treeny jumping all around and yelping and the rising steam from the tea kettle too.
i was glad to know there is that happiness for norma. i really do want happiness for everyone.
finally, the time had come for me to move on, to get back on the road. i told norma this and her reaction was stalwart, revealing nothing. and i started imagining that maybe she was glad to see me go which made me very sad. i mean, i had kind of dirtied up her laundry machine and then with the spilling of the soup powder and all. but that was the thing with norma, you could never tell what she was thinking with that warm cup of tea forever in her hands.
i packed up my bag and carried it downstairs, and - now i don´t know why - but i opened the wrong door, the bathroom door, to go outside. it was just a moment of confusion. what an absent-minded fool i am sometimes! well, norma had quite a laugh and this was great to see, a nice old lady laughing as few things in this world are better than that. so in the end, i was kind of glad i did it. ¨you´re a crazy boy!¨ she said. and i told her she was right because she was.
then something terribly awful, something that will unfortunately stay with me forever, happened. you see, i wanted to take a picture of norma and her good friend treeny. and so i got out my camera and i asked her permission. she was cutting vegetables, and as soon as the question escaped my mouth, she just held the knife in midair and looked down at the sink and didn´t, for entirely too many moments, say anything. i felt a pain in my stomach. that´s how i react to things that aren´t as they should be. i get a pain in my stomach. anyhow, i knew not what, but that i´d done something wrong. and i wanted to undo whatever it was. oh how that sad silence pained me! and then she slowly looked up and looked over at me and said, and oh god how i will never forget any of this no matter how much i want to, she said, so very sadly, ¨no, i don´t want you to take a photo. i never like the way i look in photos....¨ and lord almighty!, what was i to do? i had just heard the saddest thing of my entire life and i could feel a trembling breath rising in me that i hoped i would be able to conceal and did. i wanted to wrap norma up in my arms and hug her and tell her she was beautiful and that i was so sorry for asking and all these things and more because i could tell how self-conscious she was not only about not having her photo taken but also about letting me know this. but i am a coward and i didn´t give her that hug i should have given her and this is a regret that will surface within me, as it surfaces now, until there are x´s on my eyes . instead, i apologized for asking, and, hoping it was a good idea said, ¨then can i please have your address so i can write you a letter?¨ and for once in my life i think i said the right thing because she shook her sadness away, albeit very slowly, and there was even a hint of a smile on her lips as she wrote it out for me. but my stomach still hurt.
i was all packed up and all that was left to do was to open the gate, something norma said she´d do for me, and pedal away. i wanted to at least to shake norma´s hand before leaving but she was busily polishing something with a cloth and i didn´t want to disturb her because i really do hate disturbing people and so i decided i´d wait until she was done. well, it turned out she was polishing a gift for me, a spoon, and when she gave it to me it all but broke my heart. she told me to remember her by it and i said i surely would. i shook her hand with both of mine and told her she was a very kind woman and that i was glad to have met her. if she hadn´t been holding treeny in her arms, i may have given her that hug right then. at least i like to think i would have.
she walked over to the little wooden gate that was crooked and rusty in its hinges and opened it and i walked my bike out to the road and just kind of stood there. i didn´t really know what to say and was thankful when she spoke. she said, ¨travel well, my boy.¨ and her voice faltered.
she called me her boy.
i didn´t say anything. because i couldn´t. so i just waved. and i left.