Every September, I thought about the start of a school year, mostly the first semester of my senior year of high school, when Tracey Simpson sat beside me in our English Literature class. On September 28, 2015, I was forty-two and still obsessed with Tracey, the great love of my life.
That was a gray, mournful day, in more ways than one. I spent most of the morning behind a standing desk, staring at a picture of a high school graduating class. I’d isolated the girl in the orange dress who’d reminded me of Tracey.
The girl had doe eyes and silky blonde hair in the picture, which I took in June 2014, and I was instantly mesmerized by her bright, gushing smile. At first glance, she looked just like Tracey.
Her name was Laura Hartley. She entered the University of British Columbia in the fall of 2014.
Tracey and I had graduated from Port Moody Senior Secondary in June 1991.
I was still behind the desk when a man and a woman, a couple, tentatively entered my small studio.
I opened my photography business in 2010, the year I finally moved out of my parents’ house, the year after my mother died. The studio was located in Langley, a densely populated municipality in Metro Vancouver. I described myself as an adaptable, affordable, friendly photographer who specialized in budget weddings.
The couple stood just inside the doorway. “My brother got a new camera,” the man whispered, repeating the line I’d heard so many times before. “He’ll take the pictures.”
“I want a professional photographer,” the chubby woman snapped. “Your brother’s an idiot.”
“We’re broke,” he said matter-of-factly.
Besides the picture, I had the book Lewis Carroll: A Biography with me. I alternated between reading the book and staring at the picture, looking down, pretending not to be listening.
I was getting ready to pounce when I turned on my phone, which had been lying dormant on the desk. I saw a series of frantic messages, sent in rapid succession, all from Bradley Tremblay.
I hadn’t spoken to my older brother in over two years.
“Ryan!” Brad said. “I’ve been trying to reach you all morning.”
“What do you want?” I demanded, eying the couple.
“It’s Dad,” he said. “He had a heart attack.”
My relationship with my father was defined, in the preceding months, by terse calls and messages, and I couldn’t, at that moment, recall the last warm exchange between us. He was extremely disappointed in me.
The phone clung to my fingers, but I couldn’t feel it. I was looking out the window, recording the colors and shapes, when I heard my brother clear his throat before he continued. “He’s gone,” Brad intoned. “He’s dead, Ryan. Dad’s dead.”
Early the following morning, after breakfast, I packed a suitcase and then returned to my hometown, Port Moody, British Columbia, after a long absence.
I entered Port Moody through the Barnet Highway, which only had one traffic light from beginning to end. With the North Shore Mountain Range and the sparking blue waters of the Burrard Inlet on my left, the drive was smooth and weightless.
As I neared the end of the Barnet, my eyes expertly deciphered Port Moody’s crescent shape. Then the four-way intersection appeared in front of me, which was the moment when I felt myself crossing over.
When my car came to a stop in front of the intersection, I looked straight ahead, past the opposite light, down Albert Street, where Port Moody Senior Secondary was tucked away. The school was surrounded by a forest of green trees.
My eyes followed the straight road, which had a gradual upward incline, to the top of the hill, where the range of my view ended, in front of the entrance to the school’s upper parking lot. When I looked diagonally to my right, I could just barely see the outline of my high school through the trees.
I made a right turn onto Snake Hill and began the steep climb. I ignored the right turn that appeared halfway up the hill and climbed to the top, which was the highest point in Port Moody.
When I reached the three-way intersection at the top of the hill, my car was alongside the parking lot of the defunct K Y Market, the store my friends and I visited daily during my Banting Junior High years.
I made a right turn onto the long, winding road that separated College Park, the residential neighborhood I grew up in, from the rest of Port Moody and the world.
I drove past Glenayre, the residential area in which I’d attended pre-kindergarten, and the Fire Hall, where two hulking firefighter/paramedics were dispatched from one fateful morning in March 2000, seconds after I’d called nine-one-one and said, “I think my mother’s had a heart attack or a stroke.”
I stopped at the invisible College Park border, looked to my left, and saw Westhill Park, a grass playfield inhabited by a baseball diamond and a soccer pitch, surrounded by a jogging path and a thick forest with many trails.
They’d added a row of fitness machines to the playground area since I’d moved away, and the lacrosse box I used to play ball hockey in had been given an extreme makeover. It’d been converted into a multi-sport facility to accommodate the needs of the growing population.
The seasonal outdoor swimming pool was empty.
I was thirty-seven years old when I felt able to live outside of 333 Princeton Avenue and take care of myself. This was only made possible because of the sizable legacy I took from my mother’s death.
I could count on my two hands the number of times I’d visited College Park and the house since I’d moved out. I hadn’t been inside my old bedroom since December, at Christmastime, which meant that nine months had gone by since I’d looked at a picture of Tracey.
At the front door, I found a plump garbage bag, which was full of leaves. The bag was untied, begging to be closed with one of Dad’s strong double knots.
The furnace roared from the basement as soon as I walked through the front door. After I took off my jacket and shoes, I stood still in the hallway and gravely stared ahead into the dim living room, which hadn’t changed much since November 17, 2009, the day Mom died.
The portable bed she had slept on, not in, remained in place alongside the sliding glass door, stripped, except for the pillows. The commode and the wheelchair were down in the basement with the twenty-one storage boxes that contained all of her belongings.
If I hadn’t been home when Mom had her stroke, her death would now be nearing its twentieth anniversary instead of its tenth. I wasn’t sure if I’d done the right thing.
She had the stroke in the master bedroom. I was sitting in the computer room down the hall, hiding from her, when I heard her body thud against the floor.
It was a concentrated, heavy thud and sounded as if her body had compacted itself into a ninety-seven pound medicine ball that fell straight down, dropped from a high place.
I immediately ran down the hall. I was surprised, but not at all shocked, when I saw Mom lying face down on the floor, between the front of the bed and the doorway, her pantyhose on her calves.
I waited downstairs after I called nine-one-one, barefoot and in my pajamas. I stood, unwashed, just outside the front door and looked up and down the hill in front of the house, waiting for an ambulance that turned out to be a multi-purpose fire truck.
I stood on my toes in a futile attempt to match the eye level of the firefighter/paramedics, both of whom were wearing thick-soled shoes, which they did not need to tower over me. They pushed past me into the house and raced upstairs.
We--the paramedics and I--saved Mom’s life that morning but not the mother I’d known before the stroke, who died sometime between the morning of the stroke and the subsequent brain surgery.
After Mom returned home from the hospital, in a wheelchair, I looked after her until Dad retired in 2005. I didn’t want to think of myself as a caregiver, but that’s what I was. I got her up in the morning, emptied her bedpan, dressed her, gave her breakfast, changed her diaper, put her on the toilet.
I was afraid to leave the house and College Park in case she needed me.
The stroke left Mom paralyzed on her left side, and she rarely left the living room between 2000 and 2009. Dad tried taking her upstairs to bed with him one night, which did not go well, with the bedpan and everything else, and the portable wasn’t big enough for two. My parents never slept in the same bed again.
The only times Mom left the living room, and College Park, were for doctor’s appointments, the platelet count checks, and bingo and bocce at the Dogwood Pavilion, the social recreation center Mom visited once a month.
No one visited Mom, who had always boasted about her many long-standing friendships and how well liked she was. They stayed away in droves. “I’ve got so many friends,” she would say when she was mad at me, “and you’ve got nobody.”
“Where the hell are they?” I’d yell back at her.
Although the doctors told us there was no reason why she couldn’t regain full use of her left side and even walk again, there was no improvement. She fought Dad and me every time we tried to stretch her left arm and mobilize the shoulder blade. Sometimes she pulled my hair and scratched my face. She stopped eating.
I could still smell the incontinence odor eliminator spray, the Shiseido revitalizing emulsion she applied to her crumbling face, the wetted-through bed pads.
I brought my head down on the bed, over the spot where my mother’s chest would’ve been at night. After she had her eight o’clock pills, before I went upstairs to bed, I’d always listen for her heartbeat.
The clicker was on the glass table. It was Mom’s security blanket. She sank into her chair every morning after breakfast and explored daytime television, which was a new world for Mom, whose busy schedule had kept her away from the house every morning and afternoon before the stroke. She loved The Price is Right, and she became addicted to The Young and the Restless, which shocked me, recalling how Mom had always belittled daytime soaps and expressed sorrow for the lonely, pathetic people who watched them.
She watched Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune before the stroke, back to back, every night, and this continued, though she couldn’t see or hear the television very well from the bed. I just wanted her to sleep.
Dad had a clear view of the bed and Mom’s empty chair from his chair. It was a devastating sight after she died, sobering with both of them gone.
Mom’s urn sat on the right edge of the mantel. I grabbed it and shook her.
The furnace was still blasting away when I stepped into the basement, past the laundry room, and faced the sliding glass door.
When I entered the furnace closet, I felt the force of the heat on my back and neck. I reached down to the cold cement floor and went through my old papers, from cardboard boxes that were packed at the end of high school. I found a pile of three-ring binders, mostly from grades eleven and twelve, underneath the boxes. The binders were all full. Every sheet of lined paper was covered with my illegible, ugly handwriting.
I also found board games, textbooks from Douglas College and Simon Fraser University that their bookstores were unwilling to buy back from me, and two dusty old photo albums. The oldest one was filled with pictures of my parents from the early years of their marriage, along with the only pictures I’d ever seen of my paternal grandparents. We were a small family.
The second photo album contained childhood pictures of my brother and me. The album began with baby pictures, then moved to baseball and soccer team pictures, and then to our class pictures from Seaview Elementary. I saw the entire cast of supporting characters from my childhood, between kindergarten and the seventh grade.
The rest of this album was devoted to pictures of three boys who became fast friends in the first grade and were clearly inseparable at one time. Most of those pictures were taken at the house, inside and outside, mostly in the basement.
As I looked at myself in those pictures, I listened for the sounds of my long-lost friends, whom I hadn’t spoken to in nearly twenty years.
I went upstairs to my room. Before I entered my old bedroom, I stood in the middle of the upstairs hallway and stared into the darkened bathroom. I listened to the annoying, steady drip of the leaky shower faucet. The master bedroom door was on my left. It’d been left ajar.
I listened for Dad’s cadence but not for long. I turned and faced the two other bedrooms in the hall. I reached for the knob on my door. I was thinking about the yearbooks and seeing Tracey Simpson again.
I dropped my suitcase on the floor and flopped onto my bed. Then I stared at the three dressers in the bedroom, which were pushed together and extended across the front of the bed, sitting between the edge of the closet, which was on my left, and the window. The single dresser, which was closest to the closet, contained a cluster of socks and underwear in the top drawer.
Four short comic book storage boxes rested on the four-drawer double dresser, which sat directly in front of the bed. Those boxes contained the remains of my once glorious collection, which I assembled over the course of my lifetime and dismantled in a matter of hours. All that was left were the unsalable dregs, the degraded, unwanted books that would never increase in value, no matter how long I lived.
The bookcase stood in the top right corner of the bedroom, against the wall, on top of the third dresser, which jutted out, away from the others, toward the window. This dresser only had one drawer. This was the yearbook drawer.
I turned away from it and slid over to the window, where I had the clearest view of the whole of Port Moody. The Burrard Inlet sat squarely in the center of this three-dimensional picture, beneath the opposite end of Port Moody, Port Moody’s northern edge, to the left of downtown Port Moody. The traffic between the Barnet Highway and downtown Port Moody sounded like a continuous breeze.
Whenever that window was open, the sounds played tricks on me. I heard a pounding noise, which played every day after I returned home in 2015. It sounded like it was nearby but originated way out near Port Moody’s eastern border, where construction workers were nailing wooden boards onto metal stakes for the rapid transit line that was going to run through and underneath Port Moody.
I’d stood in front of the window countless times before, staring into the Inlet’s waters, which were black, unable to conjure up a scenario in which I would ever be near Tracey again. Once again, I felt the dull ache in the roof of my mouth and the sting behind my eyes that heralded tears.
Then I sat down on the front right corner of the bed, inches away from the yearbook drawer. The yearbooks were hidden underneath a pile of crayon drawings from Seaview Elementary. The yearbooks were stacked in chronological order, from 1987 to 1991.
I peeled away the Banting Junior High yearbooks and grabbed the Port Moody Senior Secondary yearbooks from 1990 and 1991. Then I slid across the bed with them until I was sitting upright while leaning back against the headboard.
I reached for the 1990 yearbook first. My left thumb bent the spine with little effort. I opened it and tried to shake the sticky, yellowing pages back to life.
I stumbled over my grade eleven headshot and forced myself to look at it, at myself, for only the second or third time in my life. I quickly turned the page and flipped through the rest of the yearbook
I paused when I saw a picture of myself sitting in the school cafeteria with Michael Gillies and Stuart Malley, my former best friends, the only friends I’d ever had.
Then I turned to Tracey Simpson’s headshot. Her glowing forehead, sparkling doe eyes, and wide smile gleamed through the fingerprints and shadows.
I put down the 1990 yearbook and opened the 1991 yearbook, which was nearly worn out. I stared at Tracey’s senior headshot, and then I flipped over to a color picture of Tracey. In this picture, she was sitting in front of a row of lockers, alongside Robin Daly and Shannon McKenzie, who were Tracey’s only real friends at Port Moody Senior Secondary.
I pored over every word of Tracey’s yearbook inscription, as I’d done so often throughout the nineties, wondering what and who was on her mind when she wrote it.
Cheers to the Class of 1991!
Tracey will remember those just passing through,
but a special few will remain forever golden.
Thanks to amazing parents for everything.
Gallant spirits can never be defeated.
I flipped back and forth between the two images, contrasting the black-and-white headshot with the color picture. I kept going, back and forth, over and over, until I could no longer see clearly.
I closed the 1991 yearbook and lay on the bed, looking up at the ceiling. Then I turned to my left to face the radio, which sat on the nightstand between the bed and doorway.
I opened the nightstand drawer. I couldn’t see the oversized picture amidst the junk as I reached inside. I blindly dug around until I felt the edge of the picture, which had gotten lodged underneath the drawer over the years. I removed the picture, carefully, knowing this was the class picture that was taken behind the school in June 1991.
I was surprised by how much color and sharpness the picture had retained after more than twenty-four years. It looked like it could have been taken in June 2015. Everyone in the picture looked so animated. I believed that Michael and Stuart were with me again. I could feel their arms around me and hear their voices.
My eyes drifted across the picture and found Tracey. There was dead silence.
I held the picture against my chest.
© 2017 by David Grove