Dec 18, 2013, 07:20AM

More Than Many Sparrows

A Canadian writer’s life, and the Queen.

1st Place Winner, Splice Today Writing Contest.

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Queen Elizabeth II doesn’t know I exist. I doubt that I’ll reach 100-years-old, but if that happens, it’s possible that I would receive a card from the reigning monarch, on March 13, 2053. It won’t be from Elizabeth. Her body will be entombed in a crypt in St George's Chapel in Windsor Castle.

I’m not sure where her spirit will be, and honesty, I don’t give a fuck. I’m more concerned about the destination of my soul when what is left of my body is donated for medical use. There are already parts missing—my uterus is gone and the rest of my pelvic organs are held in place by a synthetic material known as transvaginal mesh. I have added my name to a class action lawsuit against the manufacturers of that material. I am hoping that one day I’ll receive a substantial pile of that currency that bears the countenance of the Queen for the damage it has caused to my body and my psyche.

I’m also missing the joints in my big toes, which were replaced six years ago by metal screws that look a lot like the same screws you’d drill into a piece of wood. My right breast is mutilated from breast cancer and the treatment that gave me more life to live, but I still have some body parts left that could be used when it all becomes useless to me.

The Queen sends anniversary greetings to couples on their 60th anniversary. It’s too late for me, since none of my relationships have lasted longer than 10 years. She also has the power to pardon someone or provide them immunity from prosecution. This is something I hope I shall never have to ask for. These are the monarch’s few remaining duties as “Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God, of the United Kingdom, Canada and Her other Realms and Territories, Queen, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith.”

I’m not sure how she’s the defender of the faith, but I don’t see her as someone who inspires faith in humanity. I’ve no interest in reading about the royal family. The death of Diana was sad, but not as sad as the deaths of thousands of starving children who never got to wear designer clothes or party on a yacht. They didn’t get to be royal babies who were pampered beyond all reason.

Those who may have the kind of faith that the Queen supposedly defends may know the answer to why some people are born into riches and others are born already starved, or why some are born into loving families and some into what must be the earthly version of hell, but I don’t.

I was born to a single mother in Sydney, Nova Scotia in 1953 when women didn’t openly raise children as unwed mothers. I grew up in the suburban wasteland of Toronto, but it wasn’t a wasteland if I compare it to many other places. My mother got married when I was a year old. She had three more children with my stepfather.

Liz glares at me from the new polymer Canadian $20 bill. Her stern look is probably directed at all Canadians, but I feel she has a special message for me. It’s not as if I see her very often, I usually use my debit card.

There are probably many younger Canadians who didn’t grow up having to sing “God Save the Queen” and don’t even realize that she has anything to do with their lives. As much as I’d like to ignore Elizabeth, she’s always there, lurking in the background. I never aspired to be like her. I wasn’t the girl who wanted to be a princess. I wanted to be a veterinarian, or a writer, or a private eye.

The Queen was part of a trinity who watched me, but didn’t watch over me in Catholic school, during the 50s and 60s. I knew the difference. The blessed trinity was supposed to be the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. These three, passed off as one, caused me to have a lifelong difficulty with numbers. It was never fully explained how three could be one and vice versa.

They were supposed to send guardian angels to keep an eye on us. Instead, I had to look at portraits of the Queen, the current pope and Jesus looking down from the cross. Jesus wasn’t dressed in the finery of queens or popes. The papal garments were made by hand of the finest linens, even though he had taken a vow of poverty. The pope also had a pretty fine piece of jewelry. It was no match for a diamond tiara, but the Piscatory Ring or Ring of the Fisherman was made from solid gold.

Occasionally, the bishop would visit our school. He wore a gold ring set with an amethyst. We’d line up and genuflect before the bishop and kiss his ring. Between each kiss, a nun would wipe it clean with a linen cloth. Nuns wore a plain gold wedding band on their ring finger, indicating that they were brides of Christ. I had one thing in common with them; I also married men who had no money. I had two wedding rings, but I sold them to a pawn shop, possibly passing my bad relationship luck onto unsuspecting women. One of those wedding rings came from the pawn shop, which should have been a sign.

I had an intense fear of authority figures. I felt judged by those photographic images of the two living people and the soon-to-die Christ staring down at me from the cross all covered in blood. Sure, he came back to life, but he bore more scars than all the operations have left on my body. I also felt that I was judged harshly by Sister Joseph, or Sister Mary Margaret or Mother Superior.

It didn’t take me long to realize that money was power and that even the people who claimed to live a life high above the mercenary world counted on currency for their lifestyle.

Our school gave the priests expensive gifts like golf clubs and bottles of scotch for Christmas or other special occasions. No one knew about sexual abuse by priests and they were revered, but I knew better. I intuitively understood that they were unfair and living a lie even as I sat in the confession box and made up sins because I couldn’t think of anything I had done wrong.

“Bless me father, it has been two weeks since my last confession.”

“Why has it been two weeks? Weren’t you at mass last Sunday?”

“No, my parents don’t have a car and we didn’t have a ride.”

“Couldn’t your parents take the bus?”

“They don’t come, it’s just me and my sister.”

“You should have walked.”

“It’s three miles and our parents won’t let us walk that far alone. I’m only eight.”

“You should have disobeyed your parents in this instance. God comes first. For your penance say three Hail Marys.”

“Thank you, father.”

He wasn’t my father, he wasn’t like a father and he was as distant as the one I already had at home.

I didn’t understand the Latin mass and the point of saying the same memorized prayers over and over. I didn’t get “Blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.” I had no idea what kind of womb Jesus was or what a womb actually was and what it had to do with fruit. What I knew about church was that you needed money to go there. They gave out a year’s worth of envelopes and when they came around with a basket attached to a long handle, so they could reach the people sitting in the middle of the pew, you were supposed to put your financial offering in there, or at the very least, throw in some cash. I wasn’t about to hand over any of my meager allowance to some people who dressed better than I did, ate better and lived in a much nicer space.

My mother would give us some money for the collection basket and I would throw the crumbled up bills in there. It never occurred to me to keep the money. I was terrified that one of the gods—either the father, son or holy ghost—or one of the saints would know what I was thinking.

None of those bills I placed in the collection basket featured the Queen. Only $20 bills bear her likeness. The rendering of Liz was quite lovely on the old bills, which technically weren’t made of paper, but cotton or in later years cotton and flax or some other fiber. I’ve never paid attention to the men on the lesser bills and I rarely have had temporary ownership of a $50 or $100 bill, so I don’t have any idea what boring Canadian politician was lucky enough to be memorialized in this way.

The Queen probably pays a lot of money to have her hair cut and styled. I cut my own hair with a dull pair of scissors from the dollar store. It’s not something most smart women would do, especially when they aren’t great at wielding any kind of cutting instruments. I learned how to do it on YouTube, the home of beauty tips. It’s the same place I learned that you could temporarily add blue, green or purple color by rubbing pastels along the length of your hair. It’s not something I do often, even though I don’t have to worry about making an impression at work. I work at home as a writer and the only people who see me are my neighbors. These are the same people who are used to seeing me walking my dog in pajamas.

I’m lucky that my hair is wavy, so my mistakes don’t show that much. I live in a small town where there are plenty of cheap haircuts, but I can’t afford those and besides, I can’t tell the difference between the cut I give myself and the $15 haircut. My relationship with money is like my relationship with men. All or nothing. I used to spend $80 on a cut and color. I no longer color my hair bright red. I let it go gray and it turned out to be a lighter and more delicate shade of gray.

According to Luke 12:7: “But even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not therefore: ye are of more value than many sparrows.” Sometimes I read passages in the Bible, looking for answers or inspiration. I’m not religious and I don’t like it when people describe themselves as spiritual. I am none of those things. I had a Gideon Bible that I took from a hotel room, but I misplaced it. It wasn’t stealing, I don’t steal and I read that the Gideons want you to take them. Now I have another Gideon Bible that I bought in a thrift store. The hotel Bible had pristine pages and the spine bore no crack marks. The thrift store Bible is worn and falling apart. Sections are underlined in ink. Usually I just look up passages online, but there is something special about having the book around.

I’m sure it’s true that God knows how many hairs are on my head and how my fingerprints are different from everyone else’s in the same way that all of those snowflakes falling on my empty bird feeder are different. God may care about the sparrows, but if he wants me to feed them, he’s going to have to find a way to put more money in my bank account.

My hair isn’t the only thing I don’t spend money on. I don’t buy clothes, and haven’t been to a movie theater since 2008, when I went with some women to see Sex in the City. I had money then. My sons had grown into wonderful men and I moved to a condo in downtown Toronto. It was an expensive place to live, a couple of blocks from a crack corner on the east and the Eaton Centre on the west, which is a large mall I rarely entered except as a shortcut to get out of the cold.

When you quit school at 16, your chances of making a pile of money aren’t great, unless you have some special skill, inherit money, start a business that turns you into a millionaire, or you win the lottery. I make my living as a writer now, but I like to say I am a starving writer. It works because my neighbors bring me food all the time. I’ve published one book of short stories, which was a labor of love, although I made a tiny bit of money from it. I write articles for a media company and I make a living, but it isn’t really enough to survive on.

I’ve done all kinds of things to make money. Nothing illegal, although some of them were unethical or in that gray area. I straddled that line for many years, working as a private investigator. I made good money, which was important because I was raising two sons as a single mother for much of the time. Before working as a private investigator for over 25 years, I changed jobs almost as frequently as you're supposed to change your underwear. I worked as a waitress and a coat check girl at a disco in the 70s. At the same time, I worked in a dry cleaning depot and would often fall asleep with my head on the counter.

I drove a horse and buggy for two summers in downtown Toronto, showing tourists City Hall and the Parliament buildings. I sold muffler dealerships over the phone at a call center. I had a job that lasted three days as an elevator operator in an exclusive women’s wear store. The store was only three stories tall. The elevator was an old manual one with a gate and you had to gauge how to match up the elevator exactly with the floor or people would trip. I used to stop between floors and have a cigarette and drop it down the crack. I’d taken over the job from a woman who had been doing it for five years and was finally given a promotion to the sales floor. After three days of standing in a windowless box that goes up and down, listening to some rich women complain about my driving, I quit.

I’ve had other jobs that didn’t work out. I drove a taxi for a few weeks until I totaled the cab and got a concussion because I wasn’t wearing my seat belt. I worked in a portrait studio. I took photos of new babies in a hospital. Every morning, I would go in and greet the new citizens of earth and take a photograph of their lovely squished faces. The person who trained me said that you had to smack them on their feet to get them to open their eyes because taking photos with the eyes closed made them seem dead.

I’ve taken jobs because I convinced myself that it was research for a writing project. I’m happy to say that I never appeared in a porn film, at least not for publication, but I wrote reviews of adult films for an online porn site. They were ghostwritten from the perspective of a horny young male. After watching hours of close-ups of every form of sex act, including double penetration in one tiny asshole, I had to quit, even though I needed the money. I was losing my soul and my sex drive.

I had another temporary job that turned me off sex, and I love sex. I worked as a phone sex operator for a very brief period of time. I convinced myself that it was similar to what we refer to as “pretext calls” in the P.I. industry. As an investigator, I was the go-to person for obtaining information over the phone by lying, or as I like to call it, acting. I figured phone sex would be the same thing only with some dirty language thrown in. I have no problem using every filthy word that has ever been invented.

I also told myself that these men are just lonely and looking for a compassionate ear. At least that's what I thought until I had a call from a man who wanted me to have an orgasm while he pretended to kill me. The phone sex company manager said that it was the worst call they had ever received and it was just bad luck that someone who had only been on the job for two weeks had to deal with it. I hung up my phone sex career.

I never worked as a stripper, but did work as a desk clerk in an infamous hotel that had a strip club. The strippers’ dressing room was right beside the front desk and I watched them get dressed each night. The residents of the hotel were mostly old men who were alcoholics and younger people who were drug addicts. When I applied for the job, the manager, who was an ex-bouncer, asked how a tiny middle-aged woman like me was going to handle herself in such a tough place. I said that I wasn’t afraid and the only thing I didn’t like was bugs.

“What are you going to do if you find a dead body in the room?”

“Are there a lot of those?”

“It depends what you mean by a lot.”

“As long as the body isn’t crawling with bugs, I think I’ll be fine.”

I only worked weekends in the day. At 11 a.m. I was supposed to knock on the door of those who were due to check out and tell them it was time to leave or come down and pay for another night. If they didn’t answer, I’d knock again. After that, the manager told me to open the door with the key, stand back and kick the door open with my foot. He said, don’t step into the room, just hold it open and look around from the hallway. If someone is in bed and not moving, check to see if they were are still alive. I never saw a dead body, but I quit because he lied about the bugs.

Since I started working full time as a writer, I could no longer afford to live downtown. I moved to a tiny cottage in a town called Jackson’s Point, an hour north of the city. There is a lake at one end of the street and a forest at the other end. I find this much more soothing than being bookended by a mall and the place where the addict hookers ply their trade.

As I’m writing, one of my cats, the fat calico, Audrey, is sleeping on the desk beside my computer. I watch her breathing and when I need some comfort, I press my nose into her fur. For some reason she smells like a rare plant. My other cat and my rescue greyhound are sleeping together on the couch.

Being surrounded by peaceful animals who share my life makes me happy. They cost money to keep and I worry that if something goes wrong I won’t have the money for vet bills, but somehow I manage. Back when I was making more money, I had a cat that swallowed a large piece of wire. I paid $2000 for an operation and he died during the night at the vet’s office. They still made me pay. When my old greyhound needed an operation, wonderful friends in my old condo put on a fundraiser in the building to pay for her operation.

One of my friends and neighbors says that if I think positive thoughts, money will come my way. She said that although I seem to be able to think positively about many things, my feeling that I don’t deserve money is affecting my earning power. I try to think that way, but deep in my heart I doubt it will work, in the same way that thinking that I’m going to have sex with a certain person also hasn’t worked for various reasons.

I never open my bills. I usually throw them under the seat of my car because I go the mailbox when I’m going into town. I don’t even know why I get paper bills, since I opted out of those, but they still come, probably because they are cut-off notices. I’m an expert at delaying these situations because I have been doing it for many years.

“I work at home, if you cut off my phone and internet, my hydro (power), my gas etc., I won’t be able to work and you will never get what is owed to you.”

“Look at it this way—you are making more money off me because I eventually pay and for the last 40 years you have been making all this extra money from me in late charges every month. I’ve never paid on time, but I do eventually pay.”

What feeds my soul doesn’t come with a bill. The Queen may not know that I exist, but I’m sure God does. I see God when I look out at the trees that surround my house. I hear that unknown quantity in the songs that the birds share with me every morning. I feel that presence when I look into the eyes of my sons. None of this costs me a penny.


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