4 min

The morning constitutional

My favourite old couple

Credit: Xtra West files

I saw my favourite old couple again this morning, on their daily walk about the neighbourhood. It was one of those bright blue and wind and orange and red days, the ones you only get in the fall. The kind of day that tingles in the back of your nose and makes you feel like cooking soup from scratch.

She had on a matching sweater set and windbreaker; he sported a navy-blue pea coat and those little rubber booties stretched over his good leather walking shoes. Their ancient poodle ambled along, watery-eyed and leash-less just behind them, as if the thought of going anywhere but where the old couple were had never even flit through its mind.

I noticed them the first time in the alley behind my house, because they didn’t walk like alley walkers. They weren’t rushing to make it home before the grandkids did, they weren’t looking for bottles or waiting for their dog to shit so they could make it home on time to catch the news. They were strolling, taking in the scenery, as if green plastic garbage cans and rusting hot-water heaters and peeled-paint garage doors and potholes were botanical gardens, or the seawall or something. They were taking their morning constitutional, and they were taking their time.

It turns out that they live in a house about halfway down the alley from mine, so I am usually witnessing them at the beginning or the end of this ritual, but I have seen them out and about, sometimes several kilometres from home, and most often in alleys. Most people choose to walk down the façade of a street, where the lawns are mowed and the flowers grow in rows, but not these two. I thought at first they were of a recycling mind, perhaps in search of discarded kitchen chairs or a decent bookshelf they could haul home and refinish, but I have never witnessed any evidence of this. I have come to believe, over the years, that they have decided to witness their world and its inhabitants from a more truthful vantage point, to see what their neighbours have discarded, rather than what we have chosen to display.

They talk to each other while they walk, and the romantic in me was once curious enough to follow them for a block or so, hoping to eavesdrop a little, to overhear what two people would still have to say to each other after perhaps decades together, but they were holding hands and she was almost whispering. He laughed, throwing his head back a little, and caught a glimpse of me over his shoulder. He stopped, dropped her hand, and they parted to let me pass them on the sidewalk. I was young, and probably in a hurry. They were not. I walked between them, feeling clumsy and somewhat ashamed of myself.

My girlfriend asked me the other day, what it was about these two that fascinated me so much, how just the sight of them and their graying old dog could move me to tears?

I told her it was because they still held hands all the time, except, like today when he dropped hers for a minute to slowly bend down and pick up a brightly coloured leaf. He held the leaf up in the brilliant blue with one thin-skinned hand for her to see, and traced its crimson veins with a long forefinger. Then he passed it to her, and she put it in her right hand along with several others they had already collected, leaving her left hand free to grasp his again until they reached their back gate.

Once I watched them exclaim over lilac buds together for 20 minutes.

My mother’s father died when I was five, of stomach cancer and cirrhosis of the liver. I was too young to be allowed to attend, but word has it no one cried at his funeral. In every picture I have ever seen of him, he is lying on the couch in an undershirt. His feet are always bare.

My Grandma Pat left my paternal grandfather’s bags out on the front porch with a note pinned to them telling him to never come back. He had trouble keeping down a job, she told me once, and she had grown tired of moving every six months. Plus, she was damned if she was going to let any of her four sons see him hit her a second time.

My parents divorced after 26 years. I went home to help my mom pack up the old house. “Who will mow the lawn?” My mom asked me, palms up, empty. We listened to all her old Abba records and Cat Stevens, and danced together in the living room. “Your father always hated to dance,” she lamented. We were face to face, she and I; she had both my hands in hers. “My God, you look just like him.”

Me and my girlfriend walk the dogs up the other side of Victoria Dr, admiring all the old houses back there. We want a porch with windows and a swing, and a fireplace. We talk about herb gardens and how you could easily knock a couple windows into that garage and I could have a private place to write. I make a mental note to take a stained glass-making course. I tell her I secretly always wanted to be an architect.

We wonder together what future generations will remember this decade by, and who invented stucco, anyway? We notice how when the wind blows the leaves off the sidewalk, there are sometimes little brown leaf shadows left on the pavement. They must fade quickly, I decide, because I don’t remember ever seeing them in the spring.

I wake up in the middle of the night because her cat is standing on my head. I move around too quickly and now we’re both up. I press myself closer to the heat of her.

“Do you want to be like that old couple up the alley with me?” I ask her in the dark.

“Maybe,” she whispers back, half asleep again. “If you get your fucking elbow out of the small of my back.”

I love how she hates it when I do that.