Reading Norman Levine
by John M. Kehoe
From my window on the fourth floor of the The Olifaunt I have a spotlight view of the city’s only roundabout. Every morning, better than a shot of caffeine, the rush-hour chaos of car horns and brake squeals wakes me up to another day of revulsion and boredom. I came to this city three weeks ago to surprise my girlfriend on her birthday. Several months earlier she had won a chance to be mentored for a term by an expert Oboist who taught at the city’s university. When I saw her last on campus I had promised her I would return home, instead I committed myself to the stale comfort of my hotel room.
According to Ruth-Anne, the manager and cleaning lady of the hotel, there are only ten bedrooms for lease at the hotel and eight are still vacant. I have yet to meet the other person staying at The Olifaunt and Ruth-Anne is suspiciously tight-lipped about the occupant. She tells me only that she is a wise and stalwart lady. By the time the traffic dilutes below, the clocks are already bearing down on noon thus reminding Ruth-Anne to come in to clean. Tyler is by her side clinging to the Raggedy Andy doll some American tourist left behind years before his birth. Every morning they greet me with the same polite smiles.
I had arrived the day before Dahlia’s birthday and settled myself into The Olifaunt. It was the cheapest hotel I could find that was near the university campus, which was located on the outer edge of the metropolitan but still on the city side of the suburban bounds. My room is small and quaint even though it is decorated with abandoned kitsch instead of the innocent charm that one would associate with an English hotel. The university itself has one of England’s most reputable schools of music that constantly leaks young innovative crescendos into the cracks of street noises. The city in turn seems to be fuelled mainly by the industry of music. The cars are always fading out and then into it. The residents all speak in a gracious cadence reminiscent of Chet Baker serenades, and in little parks and outdoor malls students set up chamber music quartets or improvised jazz duos and lone guitarists also pepper the streets as municipal entertainment. The streets are named after local composers and musicians, and I am sure that behind my back I am snickered at for not having a perfectly timed rhythm in my stooped stride.
The night I arrived I searched out the dormitory that Dahlia was staying at and the next morning I arrived at her doorstep with a dozen roses and waited cross-legged on the low stone step of her entrance. I waited long enough to notice the first hints of wilting in the roses. Dahlia finally opened the door and stood amazed for a moment then greeted me with the exuberance of a reunited lover. She was going to a nearby café for breakfast before her practice session and invited me to join her. On the way I picked up on the slightly disappointed tone of her inquisitions into why I came all the way just for her birthday. During breakfast I asked her if she had met someone else
, if she was cheating on me.
“No, of course not, I love you Neil!”
“Well, what’s wrong then? You don’t seem very pleased to see me.”
“Of course I am! It’s just that I am surprised you’re here. How can you afford it anyway?”
“I’m using my scholarship money. Look, I can tell something’s up, just tell me, ok? I’ll understand whatever it is.”
“Neil. I love you, I do. I probably always will. It’s just that…”
“God, Neil, we shouldn’t be talking about this now, I mean I am truly happy you came here.”
“Please, just tell me what’s bothering you. I can’t pretend everything is OK now that you’ve begun, what…breaking up with me?”
“No, of course not Neil. I just, I just need some time I think. I mean I just feel like a different person here, like there are so many opportunities and I don’t-”
“You don’t want to be held down by some long distance relationship?”
“No, Neil, I just feel like what we had in Canada was in its own time and place, but here, I don’t know…”
The rest of the breakfast was the only time that I ever experienced true silence in this city. The café became void of music and of other peoples’ chatter. After barely touching my food I let Dahlia get the bill. We then stood in awkward positions outside the café and we both apologized to each other. No matter what mindless reason either of us uttered for the bitter situation, nothing we said had the ability to satisfy the other person. I soon realized that there was nothing I could say that would make Dahlia feel the same way she used to and so I stopped trying to persuade her. I told her I would be returning home on an early flight the next day then we re-enacted the scene of her departure from Canada all those months earlier by tearfully telling each other “I love you.”
Dahlia hugged me tightly then turned and walked across the campus field holding her bouquet towards the vibrancy of the fresh cut grass. I watched her become hazy in the rippling tears that would not leave the comfort of my eyes. Then I returned to my fourth floor flat and enshrined myself in sorrow.
The next morning Ruth-Anne came at noon to clean. Her son Tyler came with her and stood in the doorway playing with his doll as she dusted around the bureau and the windowsills. Sadness and distress invites pity and curiosity and so I had little chance of escaping Ruth-Anne’s enquiries. I told her my story. She, in turn, consoled me with the story of Tyler’s father. A loving man who worked as a cab driver and who had ambitions of becoming a baritone in musical plays. But when he found out that Tyler had cerebral palsy he moved out. The last Ruth-Anne heard of him was that he was living in London as a cab driver.
After a few days of dreadful contemplation I told Ruth-Anne that my final semester was about to begin, but I had no desire to return to Canada. I planned to use my tuition money to stay in the room as long as possible and then perhaps the sense of rejection would transform itself into something more constructive and I could return home with a renewed sense of purpose. She told me that the only famous Canadian artist The Olifaunt had ever housed was the short story writer Norman Levine who stayed for a short time in the 1970s. I thought if I was a writer then perhaps such news would spur me to do something productive, but being only a History student I instead curled myself up in empty time and sulked.
I had never heard of Norman Levine, so a few evenings later I ventured out and found a used copy of a collection of Levine’s short stories and read them steadily throughout the rest of the week. I read one story each night and with each story, I felt less despondent. Now, only one story remains and tonight I will finish it and then perhaps reconsider returning home. When Ruth-Anne comes in she asks if I have seen or spoken with Dahlia since her birthday. I tell her no and ask her why she is asking, and she admits to me that she is curious. Then there is a knock at the door. A tall woman with salt and pepper hair leans against the doorframe and as she stares at me she opens a metallic cigarette case and lights a long white cigarette.
“Is this the young gentleman you were talking about Ruthee?”
“Why, Mrs. Wallace! Oh yes, I’d like you to meet Neil.”
I quickly jump out of bed and shake her hand.
“Neil, this is Mrs. Wallace, she’s in room nine.”
“Pleased to meet you Neil, I hear that your heart has recently been broken?”
“Well, yes, I guess so.”
“Wonderful! That’s just wonderful Neil, oh how I wish I was young again.”
“Well…be careful what you wish for”
“Ruthee, I just wanted to thank you for the jellies, goodbye now. Nice meeting you Neil.”
“Eh, nice meeting you too, Mrs Wallace.”
“Goodbye Mrs Wallace.”
I watched Mrs Wallace’s shadow disappear on the stairwell and turned to Ruth-Anne, who now sat on the edge of the bed fixing Tyler’s creased chemise and smirking wildly at me.
“Oh, don’t mind Mrs. Wallace Neil, she’s a little eccentric. She’s been here for years, in fact she was here when Levine lived here, I think he even wrote a story about her. You see she came here on her honeymoon but her husband caught her cheating with another guest and left. She’s been here ever since, still contemplating that same useless thing.”
“You mean: what if she was never caught or what if she never cheated?”
“No, though you’d think those two questions would obsess anyone in her position. No, she’s just thinking about why she can’t ever get over losing him.”