A Short Story
The last frontier is the place where you finally leave everything behind.
12 Min Read Time
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She came from a town where the daily paper’s police blotter aired everyone’s business.
A woman from Primrose Lane reported the theft of a three-foot-tall cement owl from her yard.
A caller from the 400 block of LaMarque Court reported a man sitting on a bench in a yard and trespassing. The man turned out to be a Halloween decoration.
Not that small of a town, not as small as her professors would later want to imagine when they tried to find charm in her origins. There was a Smart & Final, a Kmart. Norah thought maybe she shouldn’t have mentioned that last bit to the admissions counselor from the University of Calgary. Made her sound cheap by association. Whereas, Calgary … she had chosen it because it sounded clean. And annihilating, though she couldn’t quite recall the TV ads that had run 20 years before her birth. Calgary, take me away? She thought she remembered her mom saying that. The admissions counselor had been less than impressed by the Kmart but still urged Norah to apply, said a 3.93 transfer GPA was certainly competitive. And by that point in the conversation, less than a year ago but part of a different lifetime, Norah had pulled herself together enough to heed her Uncle Leslie’s application advice. When the counselor asked why she wanted to move to Canada, she kept her mouth shut about Paul.
So now here she was, in Calgary.
For a week now and counting.
Sitting one table down from a coffee-skinned man who smelled like cucumbers.
And the city did appear as clean as the man two tables down smelled, at least the city as Norah could see it from her room on the eighth floor of the Calgary Marriott.
Downtown, and from what she could gather from taking the elevator from her room to the M Club Lounge for breakfast, then up to her room again, then down again to the lounge for tiny happy hour lamb burgers on buns that shone like the surface of an encaustic painting. Here she was in Calgary, and here she was in the M Club Lounge, since Uncle Leslie had declared her move to Canada a triumph and insisted on first class all the way. Hence her name, Norah Jedlicka, on the access list.
I’ve booked you a month in the hotel since the international housing won’t be open yet. I want you to go ahead and get there early so you can settle in before the first week of classes. It’s a whole new country, after all.
A whole new country — metaphorically as well as literally — that had been her goal. So, why was she afraid to step beyond the lobby? Calgary, for god’s sake! If you were going to risk being a foreigner anywhere, you couldn’t find a place less threatening. Calgary—the photo spreads juxtaposing cowboys and young executives on the tourism sites had comforted her with an equal mix of the familiar and the unknown, and played as big a role in her choice as seeing the city had a world-class museum. Calgary. The new frontier.
But she just took the elevator to the M Club. Lost herself staring at the enormous abstract paintings—real paintings! Felt soothed by the miniature cacti, the simple perpendicular lines of the lounge chairs, everything arranged in big, serene rectangles like a David Hockney pool-scape, she thought, wishing she’d looked at more of his work during art appreciation. She watched the slant of the crisp Calgary sun through the surreally spotless windows. Ate breakfasts of yogurt and some kind of unpronounceable berries. And then on the eighth day, opening her copy of The History of Modern Art upon the gleaming white table, Norah realized she liked the smell — was it the coffee-skinned guy’s aftershave? — of cucumbers.
A caller from a business in the 800 block of Sutton Way reported a man taking soup to the bathroom and then stealing alcohol. He was cited on suspicion of shoplifting.
No, she didn’t need to tell anyone about Paul.
On the ninth day, the coffee-skinned man chose the table next to hers.
Like the other men who came into the lounge, the coffee-skinned man didn’t dress like the cowboys back home. He wore button-up shirts in the same kind of plaid, but the fabric was subtly silky, and the threadbare patches on the hem of his jeans made a perplexing counterpoint to the spotless shoes with thin soles and thick laces.
She wondered about his age. She guessed he was in his 20s, no more than 30.
There were women passing through the lounge, too, of course, far more women than Norah had expected, women with hair shiny as onyx who talked in strange code about “ROIs” and “scalability” and — this one especially baffled Norah — “unicorns.” It embarrassed Norah to realize she had expected mostly men, men in pleated trousers and polo shirts like her Uncle Leslie, though she could only guess that her uncle still dressed in such a fashion, since their last meeting had been in 2005, before Norah’s father had said he’d shoot Leslie if he saw that wiseass face on his property again, before Norah had needed to create an email account she used under an alias and checked only from the public library (no danger of her father snooping there) to tell Uncle Leslie about middle school, and high school and community college. Before Uncle Leslie had written:
I’ll pay your way full-ride to any college in the world, if you’ll just cut ties completely with that boyfriend. I know you don’t tell me half the mess he’s into.
As in: A caller from Primrose Lane reported a man was beating up another man. He was arrested on suspicion of battery and abuse of a cohabitant.
“Hey! My breakfast buddy’s here again,” the coffee-skinned man said on the ninth day. His eyes were a very deep brown and his teeth were very white. Norah wondered if that would be the color of Paul’s teeth, without the chewing tobacco. Without the meth.
“The History of Modern Art ,” he said, peering beneath the cover of her book. “Oh. I’m starting at the University of Calgary in Visual Studies,” Norah sputtered. The first words she had spoken to someone who was not a Marriott staff member since she’d started spending her days in the lounge.
“No joke,” the man said. His phone began buzzing in his hand, and he seemed embarrassed by it. “I’m in that game, too. Doing some consulting on engaging young museum-goers for the Esker Foundation here through Friday.”
It was Wednesday.
He said, “Have you been yet to the Glenbow?”
She had been to it in her imagination every night as she memorized the visitor’s guide in her room. But she could not get herself to answer this man with the beautiful white teeth and brown eyes.
“Well, I guess you have plenty of time,” he said.
There was something about the coffee-skinned man that confused her. Something about the way his shoulders rose toward his ears as he ate his breakfast and swept his thumb down his cellphone, some skip in the way he called out “Hey, breakfast partner!” on the tenth day. As though he didn’t feel quite at home, either.
He set down a plate of eggs, patted his pockets and lifted his hands and said, “You inspired me, always focused on that book. No cell phone. I’m going rogue today.”
Something about the phrase “going rogue” made a strange feeling surge in Norah. Whether it was fear of him or fear for him she couldn’t tell. She spoke before she could stop herself. “Where did you come from?”
He drew his chin back into his neck and narrowed his eyes as though suspicious of the phrasing. “Um, originally? Redding,” he said. “You’re from California, too, aren’t you?” Her face must have telegraphed yes because he went on more freely, “I thought so. You know Redding?”
Paul had often gone to Redding for the gun club.
“My dad owned the Shalimar restaurant there,” the coffee-skinned man went on. “He came from Pakistan. If that’s what your question was getting at.”
And then, her face hot, she understood. It was the kind of question Paul would have asked, in a voice like chewing tobacco about to be spit. The kind of question Paul would have followed by telling him to go back.
A caller from South Pine and Bank Streets reported a man attacked a woman and then drove away. She declined to make a report.
“I’m never going back,” she said to the good-smelling man. “That’s why I’m here. But I’m afraid.”
“You know what?” the man said. “We should both take the evening out. Meet me in the lobby at 6:30, okay?”
She did. They did not go far. Out the sliding glass doors and half a block down to the shopping center, to the movie theater, where they saw a film from France. He must have understood the movie theater was as far as she could stand to venture, her first time beyond the hotel. Whatever aftershave or shampoo he used that smelled like cucumbers had faded over the course of the day, but in the dark theater she could still pick up the scent, along with some other smell, warm, that must have been uniquely his. They walked quietly back to the hotel, nothing more. Said “Goodnight and good luck” in the Marriott Hotel lobby.
She didn’t see him in the lounge the next day, the eleventh day, though it was Friday, and he should have still been in town for his business. She ate a larger than usual portion of oatmeal and stepped out again onto the streets of Calgary, walking north towards the University, which she knew lay on the other side of the river.
**The blotter reports are taken from the Grass Valley Union.
Calgary Marriott Downtown Hotel