Slushy mud. Muddy slush. Illy wasn’t sure which sounded better. She stared at the mounds of grey snow, melting into swamps by the sidewalk, imagined the taste of engine oil under her tongue and chewed her upper lip. Neither was quite right. She just couldn’t capture that mushy, crisp, ticklish feel. The word sensual came to mind. Sensual slush. She rolled her eyes. Muddy slush was probably best, even though it lacked any sense of gloopiness.
Illy hated writing descriptions. The words she wanted swam like beautiful and elusive mermaids in her mind, but as soon as she put one on paper, it bored her. There simply weren’t words for all those in between feelings that pressed at the inside of her skull and made her toes curl in her boots.
Mushy slush. That sounded like old Cheerios.
Despite the vocabulary failures, these were Illy’s best creative moments, walking down Queenston, feeling melancholy and bohemian. There was something so literary about walking downtown with a bulky scarf around her neck and a porcelain travel mug clutched between her mismatched mittens. The mittens were probably superfluous since spring had officially begun, but she thought the tenacious trails of snow on the ground allowed for at least another week of socially acceptable mitten wearing. It was exactly here, somewhere between Dakota and Wentworth, that she felt it most- that the perfect novel was waiting inside her. She thought of it as her own literary embryo, a brilliant piece that she was coddling and nourishing with her own lifeblood. She resisted the urge to pat her stomach, the proud mother of a non-existent story.
Illy had decided months ago that her novel would be about a smarter, braver version of herself. About a young writer who lived downtown in an unassuming prairie city and met eccentric artists and elm-loving activists. She didn’t yet know anyone that fit that description, but she had her eye on a few people in her apartment building with great character potential.
The girl stepped gingerly off the sidewalk, careful not to splash mud on her favourite green army pants. Army pants sounded so militant, and gingerly reminded her of her grandmother setting the dinner table. The girl skipped over the murky puddle, careful not to splash her crinkly tangerine skirt. Too cluttered.
Illy decided to abandon the mud description. She didn’t want to start the novel on a dreary note. The sun shone eagerly on the bustling street. She was trying to decide if eagerly was the written version of a smiley face on the sun when she reached the front of her apartment building. She instinctively looked up at the third floor window and nodded hello to Fern and the girls. Then, just as instinctively, she glanced around to be sure no one had seen her. She knew there was something embarrassing about a grown woman greeting her house plants through the window. But whenever she tried to ignore them and walk straight into the building, she felt like a guilty mother who didn’t wave goodbye to the school bus and then ended up running up the three flights of stairs to apologize. She made a mental note to ask her mother about her own weird plant relationships. Illy’s mother had an uncanny connection with the forests of potted plants teeming in every corner of her suburban bungalow, though as far as Illy could recall, she never discussed it. For someone so pragmatic she threw away every piece of Illy’s childhood art the moment it was completed in order to prevent clutter, her mother was surprisingly indulgent of the ivy creeping along the kitchen counters and the cactus blocking the hall closet. Her plants always looked like newly arrived rain forest immigrants, but if her mother ever left town for even a night, Illy watched them shrivel and droop like heartbroken widowers. Illy tried to imagine her no-nonsense mother singing love songs to her adoring plant family as she did her daily vacuuming, but couldn’t picture it. Her mother’s flora magic remained a mystery. She’d try to broach the subject the next time they met for lunch.
Illy stepped through the front door. The girl pushed open the large door and inhaled the familiar aroma of… Of what? She couldn’t say that it smelled like day-old marijuana smoke and leaky radiators. She needed something more sophisticated …the familiar aroma of cloves and pine needles. Perfect.
Bending over in front of the wall of aluminum mail boxes, Illy peered up at the slots in Box 14. A few months ago she had discovered that if she looked from just the right angle, she could tell if she had any mail without actually opening the box. Just at that moment, the front door swung open, and Illy froze, rear end in the air. She closed her eyes, suppressed the impulse to make a bad talking butt joke, and reached for an old gum wrapper on the carpet.
“There’s always so much litter in here.” Illy tried to sound cheerful yet sincere in her concern about the building’s slipping standards of cleanliness. She was afraid if she stood up too quickly, she’d look guilty somehow, and so she continued to peer at the carpet, butt in the air, as if she routinely examined the foyer floor for small bits of paper. She heard a muffled breathy sound from the person behind her that could have been a snort of disdain, but, she quickly assured herself, just as easily could have been the sniff of an allergy sufferer.
“I’ve been thinking about maybe putting up a little sign, you know, a friendly reminder…” Illy reached for an imaginary piece of lint, straightened up as naturally as she could, and turned to find herself face to face with the Crazy Killer Man from the second floor. She’d never seen him from so close. Usually he was running past her on the stairs, mumbling under his breath and fidgeting nervously with his keys or the zipper of his corduroy jacket. He always looked like he was on the verge of some horrific act of violence. Like tonight would be the night that the waitress would forget to put pickles on his sandwich one too many times and he’d pull out a pistol and wave it around the crowded diner, shouting about pickles and the apocalypse.
“A reminder to, uh, not litter. Maybe it could be like a little poem about how it doesn’t hurt to pick up dirt.” Illy forced a smile, horrified at what she heard herself say. She was even more horrified when she realized she was still talking. “Or maybe, don’t be mean, keep it clean.” Crazy Killer Man slammed his mailbox shut as his eyes darted between Illy and the stairs behind her. He was planning an emergency escape. Illy imagined him pulling a gun out of his jacket and pointing it at his own head as some sort of threat to make her stop talking about litter poems or else. “I’ll see what I can come up with. I’m a writer you know.” He snorted again. Illy suspected Crazy Killer Man didn’t have allergies. She eased towards the front door, trying to provide him with a nonthreatening route to the stairwell. “I should be able to whip up a little something poetic, and who knows? Maybe it will be the surprise launch of my literary career.”
By this point, Crazy Killer Man had made his break and was disappearing up the stairs. Illy called after him in a rather matronly voice that she’d never heard herself use before, “Keep your eyes out for the sign, and don’t forget to pick up your litter!” She remembered the need to justify her movement towards the front door, so she pushed it open with a great sense of purpose and strode out onto the front steps as the door slammed behind her.
There, it was with much compassionate self-pity that Illy thought back on the last few minutes of her life. She forced herself to accept the fact that not only had she contributed to the mental instability of a potentially dangerous man, but she had also dropped her keys on the floor by the mailboxes and was now stranded outside her own apartment building. She felt an overwhelming urge to sit down in the mud.
Continue reading: Chapter Two