“Delish!” Irma shouted, carefully lifting herself from the water – already having stubbed her toe on the rock bed of Georgian Bay. "The water is magnificent!” she called out again, giving a thumbs-up to Chloe who sat comfortably in a beach chair grinning from ear to ear like the proud owner of the entire bay.
It’s good to see you smile again, Chloe thought – color in your face, laughter on your lips, obviously enjoying the sun, surf, and being free of that damn hospital bed.
Irma was now half-swimming toward shore, falling into the tide then walking against it, lifting herself up and over large slime-covered rocks.
“Ha-ha!” she spouted, pulling up an old rubber swim shoe and foisting it in Chloe’s direction. Plop! down it went into the shallow tide at the edge of the shore.
Irma emerged, a 60 year old goddess in a cherry-pattern bikini, her petite frame looking twenty years her junior.
“I had given you up,” Chloe said, handing her a towel. “You swam so far out I couldn’t see you. But you seemed so happy, I figured, hey! a good death is better than…”
“A good death?” Irma fumed. “What the hell?”
Chloe swallowed hard. Obviously her attempt at humor had gone over like a burst tire.
“A joke, I was joking.”
Irma’s eyes burned into her.
“I’m sorry. I’m an idiot, okay? An idiot.”
Irma circled her old friend, shaking her wet hair like a sprinkler gone mad. “You just wrote my epitaph!”
“Stop that!” Chloe shouted, lifting a newspaper between them for protection.
“Well, I’ve got news for you,” Irma said, “the grim ripper ain’t gettin’ me until at least … tea-time.”
The two women broke into laughter, their hearts wanting desperately to let go of the indelible memory of Irma’s near death experience. The doctors said it was best to talk about. Obviously joking about anything having to do with “the other side” was not.
Just ten months ago, as Irma drove from Toronto, north on Highway 400 then West on 26 along Georgian Bay to Chloe’s country place in Thornbury, a black SUV veered into her lane from the opposite direction and came straight at her. She was singing at the top of her lungs to a CD of her favorite tenors, Il Divo, when CRASH! The next thing she knew – she was in the hospital with six broken ribs, a punctured lung, and whiplash.
The driver of the SUV wasn’t so lucky. Only fifty-two, he had had a coronary heart attack just prior to impact and died two hours later. As for the birthday gift Irma had intended to give Chloe that day – it was miraculously found intact on the back seat – a porcelain plague that read: Live now! It’s later than you think.
That night, the picture was perfect. The bay, to the left, as the sun splashed streaks of gold against an azure sky, and a long stretch of lawn, to the right, filled with families, couples, friends, toddlers, a good 500 of them in red and blue lightweight folding chairs, on blankets, at picnic tables, joined together to hear Tommy Dorsey, Glenn Miller, and other big band favorites from the 20s – 50s, played by the Thornbury Community Band.
Chloe was smart enough to have bought a honey of a piece of land in Thornbury right beside a picturesque whooshing dam, a good 20 years before at a thief’s price. Now? A million dollar home was the price of admission for this country respite.
But, tonight – the cost was free, and Irma, having just driven up that morning from the bustle of Toronto was happy to join her dear friend for a trip down memory lane.
The band began to play …
Ouch! Ooooo. Sharp notes. Flat notes. Notes that weren’t even on the musical scale, more likely on the Richter scale. And the vocalist! Irma was a born-again Christian but found herself mumbling: Oy! Oy! Oy!
Her eyes rolled. Her stomach churned. She couldn’t bear it. One classic arrangement after another, brutally murdered. Where are the cops when you need them?
She scanned the crowd – mostly white hairs, which she would have been had she not colored hers red.
I don’t get it, she thought. Look at them. They’re smiling! Okay, Irma, she told herself. You’re Chloe’s guest. Stop being so critical.
“Oh my gawd, that hurt!” she spewed, “I need traction. Did you hear that one?! I think my inner ear just popped. My spleen! Mother Mary, my spleen!” She mimicked the singer’s vibrato so loudly that an entire family spun around and stared at her.
“Irma!” Chloe insisted. “Please, I live here.”
Suddenly, she felt as small as a snail. Who was she to judge? Those were Chloe’s neighbors on that stage – real people with real names and real histories and a real passion for playing music for anyone who would listen.
Irma became silent. She had to sort this out.
Had she so easily gone into judgment because they were sitting so far away from the bandstand and couldn’t see the musicians’ faces? Couldn’t consider that they were humans with feelings and issues – hopes, wishes and dreams?
From afar they were blobs. Noisemakers. Amateurs. Maybe one of them made it here today fighting a debilitating illness. Or is fresh on his feet after a recovery like mine. Maybe someone’s parent just died.
She searched even deeper.
Or is it because of all those television programs I watch. All those people pouring their hearts out to millions of viewers, subjecting their talents to be judged by millions of couch potatoes like me who don’t have the balls to get up and do what they’re doing?
“Dear gawd," she whispered. "Forgive me.”