Monday Morning Commute

I’m four minutes late picking up Shirley because I couldn’t find Edwin’s lunch box. The news jingle is playing as I pull up to the kerb. We should be down Gottingen Street by now.

“Hang on.” I say when Shirley’s puffed jacket emerges through the car door. I lean in front of her shoulder to wipe the inside of the fogged-up windscreen with my palm and leave the poor woman half in, half out. A sharp slice of cold air meets the hot vent gust and the CBC news: bombing kills 24 in Kabul. Shirley ducks her head and loads in, all black and bulky: jacket, pants, boots, a woolly hat which almost touches the car roof, black handbag, bulging black tote bag stuffed with God knows what, smells like a chicken sandwich inadequately wrapped, for one.

“Sorry, Shirley—had to heat up the car a bit.”

“Yeah, well, Canada in winter.”

She takes up so much room in the little Nissan I touch her knee as I put the car in gear, and she jostles me taking off gloves and hitching herself up to dig for a Kleenex in her jacket pocket. Solid thighs strain the pant material, shoulders round out the puffs in her bubble jacket. She’s unzipping, unwinding, releasing smells of dog, coat closet, cold gravy. I turn my head and breathe in away from her, see neighbour Matt with Jeremy by the hand, walking to day care, loose-limbed Matt is so tall he has to bend sideways to reach Jeremy’s little hand. Sweet. Bet Matt doesn’t lose Jeremy’s lunch box. Dave’s at home struggling with getting Edwin and Ava ready—darn—did I pack Edwin’s signed form? I can see the completed form and I can see Edwin’s Spiderman backpack, but I can’t quite visualize when I placed one in the other.

I need to tell Dave about Edwin’s form, so I hit the Bluetooth button to call him and start changing lanes for the bridge, signalling way in advance but the idiot in the SUV won’t let me in. I glimpse myself in the rear-view mirror flipping the invisible driver the bird and grimacing as I hear Ava’s screams. Snowsuit time.

“What?” Dave answers.

“Edwin’s permission form, put in backpack please, and remind—” but Dave’s gone. I look over to Shirley:

“Sorry—bit frazzled, you know.”

Shirley shrugs and her jacket swishes. Doesn’t reply, unusual for her.

“How was your weekend?” I ask. I’m calculating if I’m going to get through this light as she answers:

“Not bad.”

I’ve pushed the car in ahead of the SUV and I’m looking out for pedestrians as we turn for the bridge. You get these commuters dashing across the intersection heading for their connector bus and they don’t look, just take off in front of you and that’s what happened last fall, and I clipped this young guy as he was running across, red hand was up on the crosswalk sign, not my fault, but the insurance premiums went way up anyway, stupid guy with huge headphones sandwiching his thin face and wispy attempt at a beard, the thump of his body on the hood like an assault and the rap music still pumping from the headphones as I bent over him thinking ABC, Airway, Breathing, Conscious, from the first aid course Work made me do on a Saturday, a precious Saturday.

Which is the reason I carpool with Shirley. We had to get a second car when I got the job at Remetech because it’s way out in the boondocks, but we hadn’t budgeted for high insurance. Shirley’s a production worker. We started out alternating cars but hers kept breaking down so now she contributes to the gas, and I like it better this way, more efficient, more control. She lives closer to the bridge, which means no doubling back. I still don’t like sharing my car, but it helps money-wise. Dave acts like I deserve the punishment of carpooling, even though it was a joint decision to invest in my career this way, and he shouldn’t see getting the kids up and out in the morning as a negative, should he? Especially as I pick them up after work and do all the evenings and Ava’s night terrors, and guess who changes Edwin’s sheets at 2 am when he wets the bed?

We’re on the bridge and I’m glancing down at one of the new naval ships leaving the harbour when I realize Shirley’s leant forward, head in hands. They’re what my mom would call honest hands, veined and dry, slightly red and winter cracked, but the nails neatly trimmed, the cuticles even and pink. Shirley’s big, but she’s healthy. First sign of a cold and I’d leave her at the curb, I can’t cope with that when I’ve got one kid in day care and the other in Grade Primary, but it was always the car which was sick, not her. 

“Alright, Shirley? Not feeling well?”

We’re approaching the bridge tolls funnel and I’m estimating which lane is going to get through fastest and jockeying for position and the radio’s telling me there’s an accident on the 111 inbound and now we’re six minutes late.

Shirley heaves a sigh and slowly brings her hands down to her thighs and straightens up, looking ahead at the toll plaza, sticks out her lower lip, also cracked, and it’s then I see that she’s crying.

“Oh Shirley, what is it? The news from Afghanistan?” I know vaguely that her husband was in the military, and there’s a son in the army overseas somewhere, or was it the husband’s son, and was it Afghanistan? The other kid’s a girl, fairly sure that one’s not a step-kid, I think she went out West a few years ago.

I realize I know zero about Shirley for all the hours we spend in the car together. Thirty-two minutes each way. I keep the radio on normally. Sometimes we chat about what we hear on the news. In the morning I’m peeling away from home stuff to work stuff, and in the evening, I’m mentally lining up the tasks and ticking off the lists. No idea what’s on Shirley’s mind, really.

But now she’s distressed. Horribly upset. Snot’s coming out of her nose, and tears are waterfalling over her cheeks, streaking the heavy foundation she wears. She can’t seem to lift her hands from her thighs, like there’s a magnet holding them down. She’s slumped forward now so her bangs nearly touch the dashboard. I can see strands of grey hair round her temples, under the blond. She sobs out:

“I-I got some news yesterday. I-I haven’t told Hank. Sorry, sorry, I don’t want to burden you with this.”

I crack down the sun visor as we turn onto Myrtle Street, we’re going East, straight into the low winter sun. I feel panic stabs in my stomach. Can’t do this. Not. One. More. Thing.

“No worries. No worries at all Shirley!” I make my voice sound sympathetic, but I don’t really want to hear.

The traffic slows for the lights, and there’s a red Hyundai up my bum, better leave some room in front in case he’s texting and bumps me from behind. I do a quick sideways look and Shirley’s got her eyes squeezed shut now. She looks like she’s praying. Or deciding. This is a woman who stands on her feet all day on a rubber fatigue mat and assembles the products I design in my lab. I feel a surge of solidarity. I turn off the radio.

“Look, Shirley, whatever it is, if it helps, tell me. What’s said in the car stays in the car, I promise. OK?”


She digs again for a Kleenex, then blows her nose vigorously enough for the pom-pom on her hat to bobble. 

“I got a phone call yesterday, from my son.”

“The one in the military? Is he alright?”

“No, Jason is Hank’s son, though I raised him really. I have a son of my own.” She emphasizes the ‘own’, with a ferocity in her voice I’ve never heard before.

I’m dipping my head to check right before merging onto Pleasant as I’m trying to compute this information.

“Your own?”

Then she tells me the story. Pregnant at sixteen in a little town in Nova Scotia, didn’t tell anyone till it was too late. Parents kicked her out, moved into a group home in Halifax and gave the baby up for adoption. Registered for contact about twenty years ago, but both mother and child must want contact for that to happen. Never heard from him or of him, never told a soul, least of all her husband. Raised husband’s son, had a daughter with him, all good, nothing to complain about. It was her son’s fortieth birthday yesterday.

We’re going at speed now, past the billboards of giant happy families smiling down on us from device-filled living rooms, and I’m thinking of my firstborn, the way his delicate hand curled instinctively around my finger when I held him minutes after his birth, and the impossibility of giving him up to anyone, ever. Sixteen plus forty. Shirley’s fifty-six. Forty years of not having your child.

“What’s his name, your son?”

“They told us not to name them, and it was a closed adoption. I didn’t know what the family called him until yesterday, but my last name was MacDonald, so I called him Donny in my mind. Like Donny Osmond, I was crazy about Donny Osmond when I was a teenager.” Shirley inclines her head towards me and half smiles.

I half smile back. I don’t know who Donny Osmond is.

“Birthdays must be hard?”

“Yes, the hardest. It’s the toughest day of the year.”

Shirley fiddles with the Kleenex while she tells me the rest, worrying the tissue until it falls apart and there are snowflakes of tissue on her pant legs. The son must have put his name on the adoption registry and got her number, and the call was from Alan Donald Cleary. She’d accepted the reverse charges because her name was sort of in there and she must have had an instinct.

“Is he overseas or something?”

“He was calling from Dorchester Penitentiary.”

I swivel towards her and then back to the road and have to slam on the brakes for the crosswalk lights and falling back from the jolt, white knuckling the steering wheel, I spot the red and blue of Edwin’s Spiderman lunch box sliding forward from under the passenger seat and then slipping back with the momentum. A tease of a glimpse. I imagine smears of pasty left-over hummus smudging the insides.

I’m going to ask if her son works at the Penitentiary, but a correctional officer doesn’t have to reverse the charges.

“Oh God, Shirley, I’m so sorry, that’s awful. Horrible. I can’t imagine.”

I don’t know what to say. It’s devastating. While I was pulling out Edwin’s old winter boots yesterday afternoon to see if they’d fit Ava and whether she’d wear blue boots as right now it’s only pink or purple, Shirley was talking to her son for the first time ever and finding out he’d be spending at least the next fifteen years of his unknown life in prison. For second degree murder.

Then I think about yesterday’s date and realize that today is the fifteenth and my quarterly report is due on my boss’s desk by 9:30 and we’ve made up one minute but I’m still five minutes behind and it’s going to be tight.

There’s a crocodile line of parents and kids in front of us crossing the road to day care. A little girl has her dark hair in neat braids with jaunty blue ribbons bobbing top and bottom. She is swinging one-armed on her mother, the other hand pointing at something, then tugging, pointing then tugging. I can’t fathom not witnessing your child doing these things, knowing your creation was out there, but not being present for any of the—of this. And then finding out that your child—because he’s never not your child—has become that.

The car behind is beeping because the last kid has crossed and I’m half a second late taking my foot off the brake. I want to shout at the driver: “Hey, can’t you see this woman’s in pain?” 

The tears seem to have pacified Shirley as she fills in some details. They were on the phone for about an hour. Donny/Alan had killed his girlfriend in a drug-induced rage. His psychiatrist said he should find out if there was a history of substance abuse or mental illness in his biological family. She couldn’t help him much with his biological father, she’d only been back home a handful of times, always for a funeral. All the men where she came from had a problem with something, far as she knew.

She wanted to visit him, but that meant telling her husband and she just couldn’t wrap her head around that one, talk about skeletons in the closet. Hadn’t slept, of course. Shirley’s looking out the passenger window now, talking into the misted glass as if into the curtain of a confessional box.

We’re nearly there. I turn onto Technology Drive and head for Remetech’s parking lot. Shirley starts her usual gathering, zipping, and then hauling herself out of the car. I glance at the car clock out of habit. Seven minutes later than I like. The mugginess of the car tumbles out with me, and we get smacked by the brisk wind coming off the North Atlantic. Shirley’s already heading towards the production wing. My office is the other way.

I realize the burden of lateness, my relentless lists, the quarterly report, have stayed in the car. They’ve tipped and sunk to join the messy lunchbox and other debris on the floor. Shirley’s unending, unplumbable loss has released above them into the urgent air. I have to call out to her because the wind carries my voice away:

“Listen, Shirley, what you’ve just been through is overwhelming, let’s talk about it more on the way home, OK? There’s a way through this, we’ll work something out, make a plan. It’s going to be alright.”

She stops, turns, sniffs, nods; arms stiffened by her heavy bags and held out from her body by bulky clothes. She’s trying to suppress more tears, her heavy features contorted with the excavation of deep-buried sorrow. I walk round the car and hug her. She doesn’t have hands free to squeeze me back, just half raises her laden arms and attempts to return the embrace. I rest my cheek on her chest for one shuddering rise and fall of two mothers’ hearts, and then we go our separate ways for the day.

Elizabeth Collis

Elizabeth Collis writes from her home in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Her work has been published recently in Flash Fiction Magazine, Understorey Magazine, and CommuterLit. Before focusing on writing, Elizabeth was a language teacher, a small business owner, and a business advisor supporting entrepreneurship. She has lived and worked on three continents, but is happiest when she is in, on, or beside the Atlantic Ocean.