(It should be a lazy Sunday, perfect for reading. For now, more of the modern horror.)
Chapter 2: Normal
Life went on, as I said, and my childhood was as normal as it could be for a young orphan living with her grandmother. Midland was a smaller town than Kitchener, even at that time. Not that I was the most street smart kid or anything, but my new town had a more relaxed, rural feel to it; there was something safe about it that couldn’t easily be identified. Grandma was the watchful sort, as I mentioned, and that added to my general sense of security.
So, I went to school, made friends, took swimming lessons, did crafts with Grandma, and generally began to grow up. My life was fairly normal, as far I knew.
Where normal ends and not normal begins is never a fine line. Everyone has little oddities in their life that are less normal than the rest of the world. Those little oddities mostly fall into the spice of life or less normal category, and are usually harmless. I had some of those oddities. I also had some that crossed the line into definitely not normal. The trouble with being six, losing your parents, losing your friends, moving to a new city, and everything that goes with that experience is that your sense of judgement is lost. Your ability to know where the line beyond normal, as fuzzy as it can be, starts and ends is practically zero. So, I did what any right minded little girl would do and trusted Grandma; she wouldn’t steer me wrong. In this case, however, even that obvious, default decision was the wrong one.
Grandma always kept a spot in the refrigerator for a bucket. It was an old tin bucket with a round handle. It was in pretty good shape for its age. Anyway, the bucket was always in the bottom left corner of the fridge and Grandma was always very particular about it. Any meat scraps from our meal or its preparation were put into the bucket. Nothing was thrown away, not even the fatty or bony bits. Grandma was meticulous about keeping everything that wasn’t used and putting it into the bucket. After a few days, she would bring it downstairs to be collected. Downstairs was the initial destination I was given for the bucket, which was the same place Grandma would go to retrieve it the next morning; only it was empty on the return.
My initial inquiry about the entire process and purpose for the bucket was easily answered. Grandma explained that the scraps were left for a man who would bring them to his farm for feeding pigs, or something like that. The man came in the evening and took the meat scraps, and Grandma would get the empty bucket the next day. At six, that made as much sense to me as anything, so I never questioned it; not for a long time, at least.
After a while, I hardly gave much thought to Grandma and the normal factor of bringing a bucket of meat and bones to the basement every few days. Occasional questions in the years that followed got me as far as understanding that downstairs meant the storage area of the building; it also lead me to understand the farmer was too busy during the day to pick up the slops, which is why he came in the late evening. It was nothing strange by my reckoning, and life went on.
Fast forward a few years and things began to change. My tough, independent grandmother had slowed down a great deal. I was aware she suffered from arthritis, even before my parents died, but it really meant nothing to me. Grandma had no obvious symptoms, other than occasional soreness after a long day; nothing out of the ordinary for an old lady, right?
Sometime around my ninth birthday, the signs were becoming more obvious. It didn’t register with me right away, but a series of incidents caught my attention and I began to notice her suffering and slowing. She would make little excuses for not going on a walk or finishing the dishes or whatever. She was fond of citing a knot in her back for the trouble, but the truth had become clear to me. By the time I was ten, she had all but admitted to the trouble her condition was causing. The benefit package from Grandpa only covered part of her pain medication costs; and I was an unexpected cost, too. My parents had not left much, but it had been enough for the first years. When that money ran out, something had to give.
When it was clear to me that money was an issue, and I was part of the burden, my guilt and sense of duty kicked in. I took on a paper route, which doubled as a glass bottle collection. Every penny went straight to Grandma, who took the money with muttered regret.
Anyway, pain medication made little difference to Grandma’s condition, which continued to degrade with time. At ten, I was doing a lot of the household chores and running errands on days when Grandma was really hurting. I never complained about it; in fact, the little bit of help I gave made me feel better. The loss of my parents was something I had not exactly forgotten or disconnected from. I was deeply aware of how quickly and easily you can lose someone close to you, so I wasn’t about to lose Grandma by wearing her out with housework that I could do. Being a natural introvert helped because the loss of free time didn’t impact me much.
The one chore that Grandma was adamant about doing herself was the bucket. She always insisted she do it, and no reasoning would convince her otherwise. My offers to simply go with her and open doors were also dismissed. And so, every few days, without fail, Grandma would struggle with the bucket and hobble down to the basement, returning for it the next morning. For a day or two after, Grandma wasn’t able to do very much on account of the pain.
It was a rainy Victoria Day when Grandma fell and twisted her knee. She had been folding laundry, an easy job for her, when she lost her balance. She complained about my fussing the entire time, but couldn’t put any weight on her leg, either. It wasn’t until her knee had almost doubled in size that the trip to see a doctor was agreed to. Grandma wasn’t a very big lady so my eleven year old frame was enough to help her into a taxi. The final diagnosis was a severe sprain. The doctor said she had been lucky her weakened knees weren’t damaged beyond the ligaments. When he explained she would need to stay off of her feet for a month or more, I thought Grandma would leap out of the chair and attack him. She went on about taking care of the apartment, me, and everything else; but when she tried to stand up, and couldn’t do it, she began to cry. I had never seen Grandma cry like that before, and it was a shock. I tried to console her, only to find myself crying, too.
To make the long story of an angry grandmother and stubborn doctor short, Grandma agreed to take a wheelchair, with her church paying the rental bill for it, and a handful of free, sample pain killers from the doctor. The pain killers were quite strong and would help her sleep. The doctor told me that I could return for more of them if she ran out. It was 1985 in small town Ontario, so doctor-patient relations were much more casual.
The bucket issue had come to a head. The wheelchair was good, but old, and too heavy for her to comfortably move. The arthritis was also in her arms, so she could just barely move the chair around the apartment without becoming exhausted. Her leg was so bad she couldn’t even stand with a cane. Even prior to the injury, she had taken to sponge baths because getting in and out of the tub was tricky. It was clear she wouldn’t be bringing the bucket down for some time.
She slept in her wheelchair the night we got back from the doctor. The bucket was probably due to go down that night but the pain killers made her sleepy, and there was nothing to be done about it. I was a little worried about her reaction if she knew I brought the bucket down for her.
I consider the morning that followed to be the start of the most devastating and terrible period of my life; even worse than the loss of my parents, if you can imagine that.
Grandma was quite groggy for the first couple of hours after she started waking up. I made some porridge but she ate very little of it. When the pain killers finally eased up, and Grandma was properly awake, the pain started again. I brought her another pill, fresh from its individual paper package. Grandma refused it, and told me to get a paper and pen. I did what she asked and sat close so she could tell what was so important.
“Alice, dear,” she said, when I was ready to take notes. “You must write down everything I tell you, and carefully.” She paused a moment, pretending to clear her throat, a habit she developed to cover her flares of pain. “You know how I bring the bucket downstairs for the farmer, don’t you dear?”
“Yes, Grandma,” I told her eagerly, knowing she was going to ask me to take on that task.
“Good,” she continued. “Now I need you to do it, but you need to be careful how you do it. The farmer is very picky about where you leave the bucket. You also need to know that there are rats in the storage area. Don’t worry, dear, they can’t get out of that place.” She cleared her throat, wincing slightly. “The rats are only dangerous if you take too long, so it is very, very important you leave the bucket and get out of the storage area quickly. Do you understand?”
The level of shock I felt is hard to explain. Meat waste in a bucket was practically normal; a peculiar farmer collecting it was half normal; having rats in our storage was an incredibly frightening concept. That kind of fright doesn’t lend itself to questions of why are the rats there? or why hasn’t the landlord removed them? or the like. The raw fact freezes you in place, like the proverbial deer in the headlights. Grandma noticed that I was gazing into those headlights; I had stopped writing my notes and probably turned ghostly pale. The needle on the not normal meter had just swung well into the red zone.