Sunday, October 7, 2012

A close call

Some people are blessed with solid common sense. I'm not one of them. In fact, there have been times in my life when I've been exceedingly stupid.

I remember one such time, late September, 1998. It was the afternoon of the first day of my masters' program in applied social sciences at Concordia University in Montreal. Our professors had just given our small class its first assignment – a scavenger hunt. They thought it would be a good test of our collaborative problem-solving skills. A handout listed the objects we were to find and present to class the next day.

Not only was I stupid, but I showed no aptitude for collaboration. Instead of pairing up with someone, I volunteered to go out on my own to Mount Royal, the city's magnificent hilly park and pick up two items: a paper napkin from the restaurant at the top of the park and, a plop of manure deposited by one of the horses from a nearby riding stable. Since I was staying overnight with a friend who lived fairly close to the park – or the Mountain, as everyone called it – the logic seemed sound.

It was about 4:30 in the afternoon when I drove through the Park's entrance gates. The sun was leaning toward the Mountain's ridge. I parked my tinny grey Chevette in a lot about halfway up, and decided first to head for the top of the mountain to get the restaurant napkin, and then pick up horse manure on the way back. I wore a long blue linen wrap skirt, a loose white shirt and weatherbeaten Birkenstock sandals. Over my arm I carried a Holt Renfrew shopping bag in which was a child's bright yellow beach shovel for picking up the plop.

Looking back, it's easy to enumerate the evidence for my stupidity. First, I had never before walked up the Mountain, and so had no idea where the restaurant was actually located. Second, I couldn't read the park map to save my life: it looked like a maze of intersecting lines that wove back and forth. Third, I didn't factor in the time of day. Dusk falls early on the east side of the Mountain, which is where I was. Tall shade trees and thick bush line the serpentine roads and intensify the shadows. Fourth, of course I got lost, as I always do no matter where I am. I have gotten lost on the 11th floor of the Turnbull Building in downtown Ottawa.

Mount Royal by artist Paul Beique
After a good hour of walking up the Mountain following the winding roads, I became ever more confused while searching in vain for signs depicting the restaurant icon. No-one else was around and the shadows were deepening. Suddenly, in the half-light, a man leaped out of the shrubbery to my right. He threw me a wolfish grin, crossed the narrow road in a sinewy lope and disappeared into the bushes on the left. I abandoned the goal of finding the restaurant and turned back down the Mountain. It was at this point that I noticed that the scores of beaten earth paths branching off from the road – and not a road sign in sight. I rounded a corner. Like a bad dream, the very same man sprang out of the bushes again and crossed the road just feet from where I was walking. He stared at me intently before disappearing once more.

Raw fear flooded my body. A cold metal claw started to carve away at my insides which had disintegrated into a roiling, black ooze. My heart was frantically trying to escape my chest. Two thoughts scurried like rats in my brain: one said, “How could you be so stupid!” and the other said, “You are going to be killed.”

I forced my legs to move. Some blurred shapes shifted in the distance: a family! I hurried to catch up with a man, his wife and two children. “Do you know where the parking lot is?” I asked. They looked at me blankly, not understanding the foreign English tongue.

I cast around desperately. Coming towards us was a jogger in a white mesh singlet and light blue nylon shorts. “Excuse me,” I said, and he slowed down, bouncing up and down, glancing at his watch. “The parking lot?” I asked. He pointed down the road and without a word, began to leave. I hitched up my skirt and jogged quickly to keep up. My feet banged away in the Birkenstocks and the useless Holt Renfrew bag slapped against my thighs.

Down this road?” I gasped. “Isn't there another parking lot halfway up the Mountain?”

The runner shook his head. “Just take this road all the way down,” he said. “The parking lot's down there. You can't miss it.” With that, he fired his booster jets and tore away.

I stopped and caught my breath. Doubts fogged my mind. I distinctly remembered parking halfway up, not at the bottom. But maybe I was mistaken. I scurried down the road. At least it was lighter here, and there was the calming roar of traffic. The road curved around the base of the Mountain. There were no sidewalks, so I had to hug the side of the road carefully while cars sped past. At last I did reach a parking lot. It was definitely not the lot where I had left the car, but to my relief I saw a telephone booth.

Annie!” I cried as my friend answered her phone. “I'm lost!”

Where are you?” she asked.

I don't know!” I wailed. “I'm somewhere at the base of Mount Royal, in a parking lot, but it's not the right one!”

Voyons donc,” said Annie, exasperation in her voice. “Look around. What street are you on?” I poked my head out of the phone booth. No street signs were evident.

Mary Lou, calm down,” said Annie firmly. “Is there anyone there you can ask?”

I looked around once more. Yes. Parked halfway across the lot was a black Subaru, with the front passenger door open. A man sat slumped in the driver's seat. Outside the car, a woman paced back and forth, her arms crossed tight against her chest.

I said goodbye to Annie, hung up the phone and began to approach the couple. Just at that moment, the woman stopped her pacing and turned to face the man. “You loser!” she screamed. “I hate you! Get the fuck out of my life!”

You can understand why I hesitated. Who in their right mind would want to interrupt such an intimate moment? Desperation pushed me forward.

Um, excuse me,” I inched toward the woman. “Um, I'm lost. My car is parked at a lot halfway up the Mountain, and I don't know how to get there. Um. Would you know how to get there?”

The woman swept her angry eyes my way, contempt for her man now merging with disgust for the whole human race. She sighed hugely. Why, why was she doomed to be surrounded by imbeciles? She turned back to the open car door. “This woman's lost,” she spat. “Can you drive her to parking lot A?”

The man shrugged himself upright and reached for the ignition. “Get in,” the woman ordered me curtly. I made for the back seat but she blocked the way and pointed to the open door. “Up front.”

So there I was, in the front seat with her estranged man while she glowered behind me. Acrid tension filled the air. “Oh, you're such angels,” I prattled, my words scattering into the thick silent gloom. I finally shut up. The man drove up the Mountain, eyes fixed on the road. After several interminable moments we arrived at the entrance of a parking lot – the parking lot that faced south-east, the parking lot that I now christened Nirvana. I pointed out my little Chevette at the far end. Just ahead of us, a large silver bus blocked our path as it patiently swallowed a long line of tourists returning from a scenic look-out. The turn signal in our car ticked steadily, its annoying beat adding to the tension. At last, I couldn't stand it anymore.

Thank you, thank you,” I burbled. “I can easily walk from here.” I opened the door and got out. My two angels stared ahead stonily. “Goodbye,” I chirped. “I hope you work things out! Goodbye – and have a happy life!” I shut the car door and bounded across the pavement.


  1. Wow, you really got my heart pounding with this one! You described what happens when raw fear takes over your body feelings so perfectly that I was viscerally reminded of a few frightening situations of my own in the past. Your stories are short but so perfectly structured and well observed that I feel as though I'm always right there with you.

  2. Yes, I totally agree with sherrygaley, I've heard you tell me this story before. and still as I read this, my heart races with you especially as that bad, bad man jumps out, my embarrassment is real as you approach the couple, I can feel the woman's anger at her man! You are such a good story teller! Keep them coming!