In April 2013, I decided to tell a story.
Motivation? Nothing less than National Poetry Writing Month.
I posted the 29 segments individually over that month, one a day . (Except when I missed a day.
Resolved wittily, I think.)
Because of the blog format, poems gradually appeared, telling the tale of Bill in reverse chronological order, newest at top. Since the story really is… a story, I thought it might be best for readers finding this site later to read it in the order written. It’s not completely chronological, and it is not really a biography, of course (nor an autobiography, as I initially threatened). But, in his challenges, I found I identified with my protagonist quite a bit.
This is about someone I knew. But it’s a work of imagination. I hope it strikes a chord of remembrance or seems dreamlike to you.
And I hope it doesn’t annoy anyone acquainted with the main character.
To Michael Ondaatje. Not a direct influence, but I read his work. I met him on a crosswalk once. Almost fainted. A certain other Billy is certainly in my personal archives, but did not inspire this thinking or writing.
To Robert Louis Stevenson. Some may instinctively feel where his wanderer may fit, here.
To another very special writer, who once unwittingly commended me for my skills as a poet.
But I had none! I laughed, at the time…
I wanted to do something about that.
I knew Bill, and did dream about him. It was a sad dream. I felt a curious and impatient sympathy for him, and for what seemed to be his total inability to control his life and his crumbling world. I saw some of my own foibles in his ways. Yours too, probably. (Not that I am actively looking for your foibles – no worries!) So, thank you W.W. Ave atque vale.
dear dear lord
its christmas and i cant even afford punctuation
im going to the shelter to take a shower now that always helps
cant even afford to pay the water
i had a dream a wonderful dream
i knew it was about me
i didn’t know which character was
a woman offered us a beautiful and slightly scruffy older
he can work she said
i didnt really know what that meant
you can have him for ten dollars she said
she clearly needed to sell him and
she clearly didnt realize that he was worth
so much more
to us to me
i clearly longed for this dog
this very dog
he wore a frayed black collar and
a red cord leash was attached to that
and to nothing else
he was the last thing
not a thing
that we needed
that we needed
not a thing
we said yes
then she was gone and
we knew we
hadnt known really
what she had meant
was he ours
he played in our yard like our very own but then
a young boy came and took his leash and led him roughly away taunting us angrily
yelling my dog
and then they were
i couldnt catch
i couldnt catch
or could not manage
the dog needing no one needing care playing when freed of worry
the sad angry boy whose
had been taken
or who was taking
just myself lost old poor lonely in need of care or some oblivious play
letting my house home world crumble around me
angry that something
so important had been taken
taken from him, from me
the many answers eluded me and i brushed away tears not knowing
not knowing where our dog my dog
nor whether the tears were shed
not knowing whether i (dog child myself) shed them
in mourning (always an option) or loss or
at my inability
i did know then
still angry maybe even angrier
he snarled over his shoulder at some unseen companion,
“they’ll probably . . . “
and the rest was muffled, somehow
drowned out. But I could breathe again. I could even afford punctuation.
Barking and whimpering a bit,
the loop of his slender red leash draped,
over our doorknob.
He did seem to be attached to
Now he was pawing at the door, maybe
asking to be let back in.
The ridiculous happy pomposity
thinking the dog, being the dog, seeing the dog:
no! MY dog
simply overwhelmed me
dear dear lord i thought punctuation may be free but i have to be realistic
i know its not really about a boy or
My house is having a problem
It’s not my fault
I’m not that old
I remember when
I’ve lived here forever
I can stay here
They can’t force me to leave
I can’t afford to stay here
It’s the weather you know
It’s not my fault
I’m feeling a bit poorly
It’s acid rain
Nothing works anymore
I can’t manage the tax bill
So they shut off my power
The world has changed
The roof is collapsing
I have termites too you know
I can’t afford to take care of
my mother’s house
Ah! The city will take care of it for me
The neighbours should help me
My garage is overflowing
My garbage is overflowing
Yes, that’s my old car on the street
Yes, the tires are all flat
I don’t know why the kids think I’m odd
Kids these days
I collect things
I grow weeds
but they are
Would you like a loaf of bread
I found a bunch of them
in the garbage
behind the diner
at the fair
I collect things
Why do I have to deal with everything
Everything has gone wrong
Nothing’s been easy for me you know
Life has been quite a challenge
I’m trying to keep up
Learning computer skills
I could spend the whole day online
at the library
and sometimes I do
It’s warm and bright there
Sometimes I recognize someone
Sometimes someone smiles at me
I collect things
I sell some of them
They’re worth quite a bit of money
Can I interest you in
a magazine subscription
I have no family
This was my mother’s house
Did I tell you I’ve always lived here
Actually I was born here
It’s not my fault
I’m not that old
Maybe I need a roommate
I guess I mean a housemate
or maybe my house needs a mate
someone to take care of me
and my house
I have termites too you know
Welcome to the neighbourhood
I’m ready now. Ready to leave. You wait here.
Be good and take care of things.
Maybe you can find something productive to do.
I’m not suggesting anything specific.
Just do something.
And try not to wreck the joint.
Never mind. I’ll tidy up when I get home.
Be a good boy.
I’ll be back.
I’ll miss you.
You’ll miss me.
When I first came here it was all wide open.
A kid could go anywhere do anything be anyone.
Walk down the street.
…..Keep on walking.
Grab your bike.
…..Go out for the whole day.
Hop in the car.
……………The world is your oyster.
So of course I tried going away. Of course I did.
That didn’t work out.
So I just came back here and started
my life’s work.
Not much to show for it:
…..A collection of stuff out back.
…..And in the basement.
…..Hidden in plain sight on the porch.
……….And in my van.
And, mostly, in every room and hallway in here, too.
And sure. Why not. It’s good stuff.
I used to try to share the stuff
…..the great stuff
…..the amazing stuff
…..the free stuff
that I’d found.
With my neighbours.
…..With the really nice ones.
……….Who sometimes smiled at me while rushing past me on the street.
……………Who would sometimes stop and talk.
Well, maybe it’s more like they would tolerate me briefly with some discomfort
to assuage . . .
I know what you think of me and my straggly beard. I know
what you think when you see me, spindly old man
spindly old spinster (can a man be a spinster?) man
riding a rickety old spindly old bicycle
in rather wobbly fashion down your street.
It’s actually my street, you know.
You think: That will never be me.
You think: My goodness (a euphemism for your actual, awestruck exclamation),
…..isn’t he a tough old guy.
……….isn’t he amazing.
He certainly is.
You just go right ahead and
You all thought I was nuts.
You were right of course.
But so what.
Nuts to you.
…..Why should I care, now?
It was a fair summer’s day when
I went to the fair to enjoy the fair weather.
I paid my fare and fared well on good fare.
The CNE! Always the summer dream and destination of my childhood. And even later in life.
Anything could happen there. And, sometimes, did.
I was lucky to live within a long walk’s walk of the fair fairgrounds: the rides, the food, the noise, the people, the games, the smell, the excitement. I loved the spinning, whirling, colourful rides. The smoky, greasy, sticky food. The din. The crowd. The gambling, The stench. The sense of danger.
And the detachment from my sad, small, still, dull, drab life.
Anything could happen there.
And, for a kid, it sometimes did.
Once, I met a fair maid at the fair. We fared rather well together, for a fair time.
But we fell out of touch, and, far from the fairgrounds and that madding crowd, my fair fair faring
Recovering from the disappointment of young love, I decided I needed a day off.
I took many days off, after that. It seemed to suit me well.
I had a house. I found things.
What more did a young man need.
Days flew past and the loneliness did not abate. It dulled a bit. But was always there.
Because of that, the way I spoke to people became a bit needy.
A bit clingy.
A bit like… if they would just let me talk to them for a bit… I would never let them go.
And that didn’t sit well with many.
I would hop back on my bike and ride away,
never sure whether I had made a new friend or angered an old one.
Next time I saw that person, surely all would be well and we’d enjoy another conversation.
I would look forward to the day.
I want to share something cheerful with you.
I know I’m maudlin. I know I’m grey.
But there were good times. Ah yes, there were…
Let me tell you about the first time I fell in love.
Yes, that’s right.
Okay, well, it was the first time. And it was the one time. And once was enough.
Anyway, I fell.
I tumbled head over heels, actually.
And you know me (don’t you? by now?) -
love sent me flying right over the handlebars. Knocked me for a loop. Literally.
And this was in the days before helmets.
But let’s not rush ahead. Let’s stroll through this part. Things are looking up.
Around the neighbourhood, I had gradually become known as someone to
Can you imagine?
That s t u n g.
And I admit it: I was lonely.
Once in a while, I would get a job and I would always be willing to share my good fortune with the good friends I’d made all along my street.
If they would listen.
My mother was busy with the house and her other activities. I was an independent young career man!
I greeted people at their doors to sell them greeting cards.
I handed out handBills.
Once I baked in a bakery. I was always taking home the leftover leftovers at the end of the day. They didn’t like that.
Preferred to dump them in the dumpster.
Anyhoo, I had a job in the park for a while. I picked up trash and helped weed out the weeds in the gardens.
That might have been my favourite job.
The park became one of my favourite haunts, even on my days off.
Even after they fired me. (“Laid off,” they called it.
I knew what that meant.)
But anyway. I walked there, in the sun, around the fountains, up and down the hills with their slow-trickling streams and tiny, precious, lush man-made lagoons.
I saw a bloated dead squirrel floating in one of those lagoons, once…
But. Back to finding love in the park.
Yes, that was where we met. Finally someone not so keen to get away, to avert eyes, to avoid conversation.
Ah, we walked together for a time and enjoyed the paths and flowers.
The tall trees. And the swimming swans with their tiny, waddling, fluffy and downy babies.
The willows leaned in to sip at the water’s edge. The tall reeds sometimes almost obscured a wading egret.
Turtles basked in the warmth on a rock, then. It was a pleasant summer and we enjoyed the day.
Other people, happily walking, talking, playing.
I felt welcome. I felt lucky. I felt surprised.
She and I walked with our bikes. We laughed and pointed out things we thought interesting. Beautiful. Strange.
We connected. Conversation was light and bright as the night approached.
She said she had to get home. Had a busy day the next day.
We agreed to meet, the following Sunday, under the pergola with the hanging fuchsias. We chose midday.
I waited. And waited.
With the beautiful drooping, dropping flowers.
That evening brought a spectacular sunset.
The colours were just like the sad and lonely flowers in the hanging gardens.
The park became a less-favourite haunt after that.
I know. I said I wanted to share something cheerful.
Nothing is cheerful.
(Don’t be ridiculous! (they said.))
So sorry to disappoint.
But parts of it were nice, weren’t they? Why, yes, yes they were.
I was an optimistic young chap, already eagerly anticipating the next happy chapter in my life.
There’s no time like the present.
—–Or the past.
—–That remains to be seen.
Where will I go?
What will I do?
Tomorrow is a new day.
—–No. No, it doesn’t.
I’m a lonely guy.
Days go past. People look right through me. I ride on by, with hardly a tear in my eye. At all!
My mother continues her work, and I try to continue mine. Ours is a funny life. But we are a stubborn family.
And even with my mother for some company in the evenings, and on the weekends, I am alone.
I should tell you about the rest of my family, I suppose.
But really, the rest of them pay us no mind, either.
Maybe we irked them. They rarely call, or visit.
Maybe they just don’t understand us.
And I guess that’s okay. I guess that is what we have. I guess we have no choice.
So, it does matter. I’m lonely.
I’ll keep trying with the neighbours and I will continue to hope that another friend is in my future.
“Hello! Will you be my friend?”
That is what I try to say and show, in my open and welcoming manner, when I meet new people.
Or even when I meet old people.
No one seems to hear.
I love wildflowers. Don’t you?
The ones in my front yard are particularly dear to me.
I didn’t plant them, they just grew there. That seemed like a special gift.
Really pissed the neighbours off, though.
City came. Told me to cut those weeds down.
Chop, chop, chop.
Oh, sorry. Were you listening?
I don’t really cover the waterfront, of course!
More’s the pity.
I just wondered what it would feel like to say that.
—–To think that I had a task. A specialty.
And there is a waterfront here, after all.
I could start there. With the title. With the location.
Then I’d work my way up to the actual work.
Idea…………………………. Tried it…………………………….. How it worked
Shovel snow?……………….. Too busy.……………………………Who knows?
Mow lawn?………………….. What lawn?…………………………That didn’t work out.
Play baseball……………….. Huh? What park?………………… Nah. Kids???
in park with kids?…
…..I find my neighbours a bit unfriendly.
……….What can the matter be?
Did I mention that neighbours now avoid eye-contact?
My mother and I are both actively involved in our productive scavenger hunt.
We find things. We bring them home. Maybe we can sell them?
We are accumulating a wonderful collection in our garage.
May I interest you in a life-sized cardboard cut out figure of an airline pilot?
You may have seen the large stuffed dog toy in the passenger seat of my van.
Don’t worry. He won’t bite.
Mother won’t allow him in the house. She’s not keen on dogs.
I’m quite keen. I had a dog once, for my very own, when I was young.
This… is a compromise.
The neighbours don’t care for my van’s visible display of goods.
I have a surprise in mind for them.
Bill, it’s nice to meet you. I hear you have lived a long time in this…
Neighbourhood. Why I sure have! I was born in my house.
It’s that one – right over there – the one with the stairs at a slight angle.
Ah, I see it – looks like a nice place. Do you have a f…
Family. I certainly do! My mother lives with me.
It was her house and now it’s our house and someday…
Oh, of course, it will be your house. Nice house. Any neighbourhood stories to sh…
Share. Yes! I know a little bit about all the neighbours.
Those folks over there usually put their garbage out
and always forget to take in their bins.
The couple in that very renovated house are kind of
shy and unfriendly. But she’s pretty.
The people in that house with the burgundy painted trim
they are nice.
They have little kids.
Kind of noisy.
They had an exterminator recently.
I think they have termites.
They used to have tenants in their
I should get some tenants.
That’s interesting. And what about the history of this area? Has it changed since you were a boy?
Is there anything special you remember about any of the buildings here? Or your school, perhaps?
Oh, right! My school! It was a few blocks away. I walked over there and
sometimes with the
I had one teacher who was really special.
It was a great school!
Did you go to high school in this area, too? Do you remember any favourite shop-keepers?
You’re sure bringing up a lot of memories.
Well, that’s the idea. We want to know what you think – what your childhood was like.
What your street and your home and school and friends were like -
when you were younger.
What comes to mind?
Oh, I see. Well, my childhood flew by.
My sister was much younger, so, not a friend for me.
The other kids on the street didn’t seem to like me much, but they were nice.
There was this little pharmacy a couple of blocks away that had candy…
I liked candy.
I had a dog once. My mother made me give it away.
She said we couldn’t take care of it.
Can you excuse me a moment?
There’s something in my eye.
she does not!
but she does shovel snow from the sidewalk in winter. when I don’t feel up to it.
and she does find groceries to put on our table.
she collects bottles to return for deposit.
once in a while, she delivers flyers.
what a mother!
I barely have to lift a finger.
don’t know what I’d do without you.
-But what do you say, this time?
-You say no more.
-You care no more.
-And I know you won’t be back, this time. Alas.
-Dear Mother, you’re gone. It’s only been a day.
-The neighbours stopped by with a casserole.
-Very nice of them. I miss you already.
-You know I don’t like to be
I don’t mean to be morose.
But each day follows the previous.
One foot follows the other, as,
around and around
on my bicycle
Did I mention that I should get a housemate.
Am looking into that now.
I found an old pixelboard.
Will plug it into the cigarette lighter of my van,
and it shall say:
…HOUSEMATE… WANTED… MUST… BE… ABLE… TO… COOK… NUDIST… PREFERRED…
That oughta liven things up a bit.
And won’t the neighbours enjoy that.
The city asked nicely,
but I cannot pay.
So I must move out of my old home today.
The house that I cherished,
the place where I grew.
And now I am lost, and there’s naught I can do.
I’ll move to a shelter.
I’ll junk my old van.
I’ll try to resolve this the best way I can.
I’ll be what my mom hoped: a competent man.
Mail now forwarded to:
[Insert alternate address of owner of condemned structure here. PLEASE PRINT.]
DO NOT ENTER.
Cease and desist.
I won’t resist.
But the bloody flyers are piling up on the tilting, decrepit porch.
Sad to see that. I’d prefer to stack them. Neatly. Somewhere.
“Sheriff’s office?” Seriously? Where are we – the old west?
I had no idea we even had sheriffs here.
Apparently we do, that much is now clear.
If you need me, just call. I’ll be gone ’til the fall.
Perhaps in the spring I’ll climb back in the ring.
My ship may come in yet.
My time will come.
Good luck is just around the corner.
And all that crap. I’ll save money. Pay my bills. Re-take my fortress.
The many reports of me sneaking over at dusk and quietly heading around to the back door to perform an illegal entry and search, flashlight in hand (looking for some old photos I’d misplaced) were not entirely inaccurate. It’s my house, for pete’s sake!
So sue me.
Shelter life is not all it’s cracked up to be.
Oh, wait, it’s not cracked up to be much.
But, well, then, like, you know: this isn’t a shelter, exactly. It’s a temporary home.
Away from my own home.
How could this happen to me? I wonder.
How could I let this happen? I ask myself.
I feel free and guilty and lost, all at once.
Time has spun and flowed and flown past and I’m an older man, now.
Still pretty fit, don’t get me wrong.
I still ride my bike. Still go to the library to check out the interesting things on the internet.
I’ve given up shaving. The beard is kind of stylish, isn’t it? Isn’t it?
And I still ride past my house.
I wish I could go back. Go back. Go back.
Eleven men, sharing a house meant for a family.
We just met. Some of us just arrived. Some of us will leave soon.
Some of us will never leave.
There’s someone here to help us. Sometimes we need help with groceries or cooking.
Or fixing something. Or mending something.
But nothing can fix everything. That stings.
No one much cares about any of us, and we don’t really have any reason to become friends.
Or even friendly.
It is an odd situation. One I never thought I’d see firsthand.
Here I am in what is essentially a daycare. For old men.
And I’m not an old man, am I? Am I?
I thought I’d always be free to ride and roam and drive.
And collect stuff.
First you’re eleven. Then you’re thirty. Then you’re fifty. And then you’re 74. And looking older.
Ripe old age, indeed. Eleven seems like only yesterday.
Days are small, now, like those of my childhood. I really have nothing to do.
No responsibilities. Nowhere to go. Should that feel good? Should that feel light?
And there’s always someone here to help, if I need it.
After all this time, I’m not sure whether that is comforting. Or maybe not.
Today is sunny bright warm sparkly. There are bits of broken clouds blowing across the downtown sky.
Looks like a good day for a bicycle ride over to my house.
Just to make sure everything is okay over there.
Ah, I thought I’d never leave my house, my home.
And the ride over is only about half an hour.
I know you’re out there somewhere. Are you wondering where I am, too?
Why did we never meet? Did your mother
not want you to know me?
Did she not want you to know about me?
I don’t care what she told you none of it is true.
Depends what she said, I guess.
I heard of you, of course. And maybe I can try to find you.
I’d like you to know about our family. And I’d like to leave you
As you might have heard, I have quite the collection of stuff.
I need to start thinking about giving it away, making sure it is cared for,
making sure someone special cares for it,
cares for my home.
I choose you.
Where are you?
The city now plans to repair my roof.
The roof on my house.
My old house.
You remember my house, don’t you?
It’s the one across the street from you, down the street from you, next door to you
that has the sad drooping windows.
The tarpaulin draped to keep out the rain.
The broken mailbox, tied to the fence post.
The wildflowers in the front yard.
They will add the
for doing this roof repair to my tax
Not much use to me now, is it?
The roof, I mean. On the old house,
where I used to live, where I can no longer live.
Where I can no longer afford to live.
Condemned, liened and leaning, it’s a wee bit grey and flaky. A bit like its owner.
Who will fix my roof?
Each word, new.
Each season, too long.
Every encounter, painful.
Every moment of loneliness, my own fault.
So I return by transit to my old neighbourhood today. The house is still there and looks like
an empty shell.
The tarpaulin on the roof, which I installed myself, I might add, is ragged now, and
flapping in the breeze at my arrival.
Flyers and junk mail pile up variously on the porch and some junk is blowing around in the
front yard. I want to tidy it up, but I am afraid to
Someone else had started to do a bit of gardening
on the lawn, it seemed, but they appear to have
A broken old bicycle is chained to the handrail. The seat has been stolen. The bike looks unfamiliar.
My old home, I miss you so. As it turns out, over these many long years together, you were my
most important, most trusted and most deeply lovely comfort and companion.
I wish I could stay with you now. Visit. Catch up. Share a cup of coffee. Discuss the news. Gossip about the neighbours.
But I come no closer. Small animals now hide in your upper reaches, having gained access through the holes and gaps and openings.
Mold and mildew flourish inside, in those piles of precious magazines and newspapers and interesting old furnishings.
Goodness (or other behaviour) knows, there are probably mice, rats, termites. Oh yes, I think there are termites.
peer and frown, unsure whether they now recognize me or think perhaps I am a stranger.
But really I am no stranger than I was before.
28. Days go by
Days go by. Many days.
Weeks pass, flying by.
I don’t visit my old house now. I’m an old man now. Hey, that’s hard to admit. That’s hard to fathom.
I don’t have time for sentimentality.
They towed my van from its new parking spot. The city sent me a bill. I did not pay it.
Someone stole my bike from its lock-post outside the men’s shelter.
Do I need to find another bike? No, not really.
I guess now I need to think about…
What do I need to think about?
Should I be planning? Something?
Are there events in my future? Will I read a great book? See a film? Make a lovely meal to share with my housemates?
Will friends visit? Will family get in touch?
Would someone invite me out for brunch, for pete’s sake?
No. I suppose not. No.
No, to so many things,
Days go by. Many more days.
Nothing much else happens. I think of my past but I also think of nothing.
I’m still that strange, lonely guy who used to be your son, your brother, your friend, your schoolmate, your neighbour.
29. both, still, empty
that emtpy space next door now rings with loneliness
but I’m not there now, and it misses me
I’m glad for that feeling
I miss it too, my home
I think I would like to visit it again, one day, some day
but not today
I were still.