If Only We Knew

My father-in-law was a contadino from Castropigano. He was brilliant. He had a grade five education. He possessed the patience of the sun and he could fix anything. He created tools that could fix anything, even better. A natural-born engineer who constantly saw what the problem was, he designed sistimi to improve upon the solution every year. He knew how to graft plants. His garden was lush. He preferred to speak Italian but learned English on the job. He worked for TTC for 23 years as a dispatcher and SYO, Senior Yard Operator. He led men. He was in love. His home was his kingdom and his kingdom extended up each side of the neighbourhood. From time to time, he left the kingdom to go the hardware store for a part. I often accompanied him and was surprised at how the young and the velocity-challenged treated him. They spoke as if he knew nothing. Too often, they turned to me, the Canadian guy to explain what he needed. The old contadino shrugged his shoulders, said “to heck with it” and we returned to his kingdom and his brilliance. The disconnect between the contadino in the hardware store and the contadino in his kingdom never left me. If only they knew.

Time passed. It was easy enough to register online with the region. Any soul that could turn on a computer and click a mouse could book an appointment. My wife helped me. Date, time, location, bring your health card: SOCIAL DISTANCING WILL BE IN EFFECT.

Like any practical couple, my wife and I booked for the morning. The location was a block away from a large Italian supermarket, where the olive oil that my mother-in-law used was on sale. Dio. They were practically giving it away. We were used to the lines by now, the hand sanitizer and the masks. “Social Distancing Is in Effect,” is, indeed, a new verse in our national anthem.

The irony of going to a “wellness centre ”in an identified “hot zone” near a large hospital to get our arms pricked to protect us from death did not escape me. Typically, we arrived early. We are always on time. We staked out the parking lot, purred quietly the way husbands and wives do, and waited our turn. I imagined an army of variants stood vigil in the air like a murder of crows, just above the entrance. I got a smack on the arm for saying it. My wife, she wondered why we did not think to bring the coffee from home. She is not a fan of drive-through aqua sporca for some reason.

Security in the parking lot was capably provided by Canada geese. A large male waddled up five feet from the driver’s side of our car. He stood, stretched his neck and watched me. I wanted to see who would blink first, and the bird won.

At exactly 9:05, risking a peck on the arm, we exited our car and held hands for comfort through the entrance of the wellness centre. An actual security guard motioned us to halt. He was not as alert as his colleagues in the parking lot. A bird cannot use a smart phone, though, and does not carry pepper spray. I said good morning to the guard. Wordlessly, he motioned us forward after a line of citizens cleared the ramp to emerge into the fresh air. None of them spoke. I saw souls of every nation inside and out: Having “married into” I love the harmony of variety, for where harmony exists, unity is possible and where unity is possible, humanity finds its fullest expression. We were all, in fact, good people united in community during uncertain times.

The efficiency with which my wife and I were processed was a marvel of engineering. Social distancing was, indeed, in effect, but made pleasant by courteous volunteers. We were their elders after all. No detective work required. It was easy to see we were all “over 60” was the obvious point.

At the precise time, my wife and I were directed to a large room with Samsonite chairs spaced at intervals. On the far side of the room three nurses sat in kiosks beside boxes of blue surgical gloves and clinical piles of indifferent looking needles. A paper instructed us to wait our turn, approach the nurse, answer questions, get our shot, wait 15 minutes, and then proceed to the long desk at the front to process out. There was no coffee. There were no donuts. We were not giving blood.

A cavernous room is a kiss of death to a man who reluctantly wears hearing aids in both ears, with extra geezis batteries for back up. To be honest, I would not wear them at all, if not for the love of my wife and a strong desire to stay married, especially in the mornings when we sit quietly together, sip espresso and purr. I learned the hard way if I don’t wear my hearing aids I will have trouble in my marriage, is the point.

When it was time to get the needle, my wife, she went first. I wanted to go first, but the nurse, after she talked to me, turned to my wife and invited her to sit down, so she did. When the needle went into her arm, it looked to me that she winced. Later, she told me it was a wink to send a silent message that it did not hurt. It is hard to read face language with masks under our eyes. To me, I tell you, it looked like a wince.

When it was my turn to sit, I was pleasant and mumbled some happy chatter. The nurse, she smiled. She spoke to me through her mask. Her voice was soft and quiet. I did not actually hear a word she said, so I plucked both hearing aids out and let them dangle like earrings. “I am hearing impaired,” I told her, perhaps too loudly. “It is perfectly okay to yell at me,” I added to make light of the moment and to put her at ease. She nodded.

At that point the questions came and I know I nodded yes to the wrong question. The nurse looked uncomfortably at my wife. My wife explained that we have not left our house much, let alone the geezis country. When the nurse looked back at me, I realized I was being asked the “symptom” questions and I panicked. I told her again: “It is okay to yell at me, I will not be offended.” I did not want to get the answers wrong. My wife did not want me to get the answers wrong either. Thankfully, she stood behind the nurse, out of her sightline. I am smarter than I look, and interpreted her head nods for “Yes” and head shakes for “No” fluently. It was clear I started to get the answers right.

Why the nurse gave up on me, I will never know. I was pleasant, told a joke, answered the questions. But at some point, the nurse was busy. She gave up the charade of interaction. I saw that SOCIAL DISTANCING was indeed, IN EFFECT. She spoke directly to my wife like I was the bump on the log; like an old Italian guy in a hardware store; like I was hearing impaired. I saw that my wife was yet again being pressed into service as the translator, as the interpreter she was back in the sixties, during the hard years when social distance was a way to survive and sometimes a way to thrive.

When I arrived at the wellness centre, I felt vibrant, had the inner grin, and took for granted I led 50 or so social workers for 21 years, investigated child abuse for two years, two months and two days, and was a published author. I was happy. The needle did not hurt and when I rose. I was filled with the experience; with the insight. It is difficult to fathom when people think you are stupid. I sat opposite my wife for fifteen minutes. We giggled and laughed in sign language.

When it was time, we rose and retained our receipt and next appointment stub. We ascended the ramp, thanked the security guard and emerged into the clean air. I heard cardinals and for a moment grew silly and asked my wife if they were laughing at me. She was my interpreter after all. My wife laughed at her royal mate and smacked me on the same arm the needle went into. She did not mean to. We walked to the parking lot. I almost got in the passenger side because, for a second, I was filled with doubt and wondered if I was competent enough to still drive. Thankfully, the security goose let me pass and I started up the car. I carefully backed out without killing anyone and followed the one-way signs. Down near the end, two Canada geese directed us left. I saw the exit and made haste for the road.

We bought more olive oil than even my mother-in-law stored in the cantina, and I drove home to our kingdom without incident. The neighbourhood unfolded and we waved to our friends. I stood to behold my backyard. The garden will be beautiful and productive once again, this year. The onion and garlic are already in. I am the greatest of gourmet chefs and I am adept at small engine repair. Io sono un uomo ricco. Mask or no mask? Everyone mumbles anyway. It feels good to shelter in place.


Glenn Carley’s published work includes Polenta at Midnight: Tales of Gusto and Enchantment in North York (Vehicule Press, 2008); Good Enough From Here, a memoir of his time at Canadian Forces Station ALERT in Canada’s Arctic (Rock’s Mills Press, 2020); and Il Vagabondo: An Urban Opera (Guernica, 2021). A frequent contributor to Accenti, Glenn has recently published Jimmy Crack Corn, A Novel in C Minor (RMP, 2022). He is a retired chief social worker with a Toronto-area school board.

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