2.27 The Lighthouse: Margaret Caulfield
The usual route to work takes me through The Lighthouse Shopping Centre and Condominium Complex. The subway connects to The Lighthouse and is located in a newly gentrified downtown neighbourhood. There is every store you can imagine, library, condo building, restaurant, movie theatre, bar, gym and food court. There is no need to go outside – everything is accessible through an interconnected series of tunnels. The Lighthouse Series showcases the various inhabitants, employees and idiosyncratic characters I have met by spending way too much time in this complex. Doug Sole, the janitor of The Lighthouse Shopping Centre, walked down the hallway of the 54th floor inside the attached condominium complex. Passed his own door and moved on to his neighbour – his 87-year-old mother Margaret.
Da da da daaaaaaaaaa – the beginning of Beethoven’s fifth. The secret knock. No answer. Doug put his ear to the door. Nothing but the television. He used the spare key, quietly entered the condo like a burglar.
A burglar he was not. Glass crinkled under his feet. Already he screwed up. There was always something broken on the floor in her foyer. It was Margaret’s response to the Walking Seniors. Every morning at 6:00am, a group of seniors walked (and mostly gossiped) through the hallways of the condo building, collecting members for the daily rounds of The Lighthouse Shopping Centre. The stores in the centre were not yet open, and the CEO of the establishment, Germaine Stout IV, graciously gave the space to the old fogies.
The Walking Seniors assembled by banging on doors. Every door. When they reached Margaret’s condo, she grabbed whatever was closest – a vase, a record, a glass – and whipped it at the door. She had quite the arm. Doug had a box of cheap vases in his condo from the 99¢ store and every night placed a new one on her side table beside her comfy chair, next to the ashtray. Margaret had a bed but it went unused. It took forty years of work to make that chair comfy.
The pistachio coloured shards of glass caught Doug’s tiny reflection in a variety of jagged angles.
Margaret was asleep in the aforementioned comfy chair. Her head leaned to the left side as usual. This position would be uncomfortable for most but it was the only way she staved off the pain.
Mouth opened. No drool. “Margaret?”
Doug crossed the living room and bent over for a closer look. He cupped his hand over her mouth, checked for breathing.
“Margaret?” Doug asked, louder.
Her eyes opened and she yelped. The force shot Doug back a few steps.
“Ah, hell. What’s the deal, Double Down?” She squinted at him. “Trying to scare me to death?”
“I didn’t see any drool.”
“I’m 87, I don’t have any drool left.” Margaret adjusted her empty sleeve. Her left arm was amputated when she was 54 during her third bout of Cancer. Margaret managed to do more with one arm than most people accomplished with two. She had problems with her back, which caused her neck to fall to one side. It made her look like she was sizing you up, judging you. She was.
Margaret reached for her chrome four-pronged cane. She placed her weight on the cane, rising to her full height of 5’1”. Margaret looked past Doug into the kitchen. “Where’s Hammy? She said she was just going to the store for smokes.”
It broke Doug’s heart every time: “Aunt Hammy’s dead. Remember?”
She blinked three times.
She let out a barely audible sigh and sat back down, dust punched into the air, sparkled in the sunlight, created a halo of aura around her. Aunt Hammy was Mary Hammerstein and Margaret’s partner in crime. Mary's condo was next door and Doug moved in after she passed away.
“You gotta do something about those damn pigeons,” she said. “They’re keeping me up. I think they’re fornicating.” She placed a cigarette between her lips. The lighter clicked. Blue smoke drifted.
Doug laughed, “It didn’t look like they were keeping you up. Scare them away.”
“They’re in the space between the roof and the patio,” she said. “They’re laying eggs. You know what happens when they lay eggs. They’re yours for life!”
“What do you want me to do?” Doug asked.
“Pour some water down there,” Margaret said.
“I will not waterboard the pigeons,” Doug said.
“Ah, hell, Double Down,” Margaret said.
Change of subject: “Who won the match last night, I see you fell asleep with the TV full blast again.” Margaret was the #1 fan of the International Federation of Professional Wrestlers (IFPW). If you referred to wrestling as ‘entertainment’, you’d surely get a swipe of her cane off your head. Yes, she used the cane for walking but it was really more of a weapon. A knight’s sword. Margaret often gave people nicknames that resembled one of those steroid induced mega men. Doug’s full name was Double Down Doug.
“You missed quite the match last night. Stainless Steele used his blowtorch. It kills me every time.” Margaret flipped the television off and returned to her throne, the comfy chair.
Doug made the mistake – once, because that’s all it took – of falling asleep on the chair. Margaret limped towards him, swinging her cane in an arc back and forth. The cane was turned into a Weapon of Mass Destruction. The rubber tip popped Doug right in the temple and he fell to the ground. When he woke, she was in the chair eating pretzels. She shrugged.
Doug walked into China: The kitchen. Every room was a different country, decorated with collected souvenirs from Margaret’s career as a travel writer. Her plates, bowls and tea sets were from Beijing. A didgeridoo from Sydney was in the corner of the living room – she was quite the player, even with her smoking. Her bathroom cabinet was full of Tibetan herbs such as saffron, aweto and snow lotus. And photographs: Margaret riding a camel in Morocco, sky diving in New Zealand, on top of Tai Shan Mountain in China. You could travel the world without stepping outside.
Margaret collected tiny statues of animals. Besides wrestling, she watched nature shows. Loved them. “Animals are sharp. Much sharper than humans,” she often said. “Look at the shark. If a shark stops moving, it’ll die. Imagine that? It’s gotta stay sharp with that threat hanging over its head.”
By the time Doug ate a peanut butter sandwich, Margaret was asleep, cigarette smoking idly from the ashtray. Doug covered her in a blanket. Stubbed out the cigarette. Doug’s most perfect image of Margaret popped into his head: Driving her boat sized Lincoln Mark VI stick shift with one arm, cigarette drooping from her lips, tumbler of gin and tonic with a squeezed lime piece balanced between her thighs, maneuvering the steering wheel with her knees, constantly honking at frickin’ jerks – cars, bikes, pedestrians and basically anyone else on the roads – to get out of her way. Shifting between puffs and sips, she drove fast and was no stranger to riding in bus lanes, bike lanes or on more than one occasion, the sidewalk.
Margaret’s wrestling name: Marathon Margaret.
Margaret woke in the middle of the night. The pigeons were fornicating again. She grabbed her cane, limped across the living room to the sliding glass door. The silhouettes of the birds could be seen on the balcony railing.
Margaret looked around, frustrated. Her eyes fell on a fluorescent object resting in the corner of the foyer. She limped over to find a super soaker water gun. There was a tiny bow and a note from Doug stating it was for shooting the pigeons.
The gun full of water, Margaret stood with her back against the wall, so the pigeons couldn’t see her. She lifted her cane, placing the prongs on the handle of the door. With movements that would be fast for someone half her age, Margaret slid the door open, leapt through the opening, aimed and pulled the trigger. Water sprayed all along the railings, but the pigeons were too fast. They spread. She wasn’t quick enough. The water gun was pump action and proved difficult with one arm. She had to rest the butt of the gun against the ground and pump it to build up the water.
Control your breathing, Margaret thought. They can sense fear.
The pigeons landed next door on Doug’s balcony. Margaret limped over, but the spray of the water gun couldn’t reach. She pulled a small stool over to the corner of her balcony. Stepped up on the stool, sat on the edge of the balcony.
After that, everything happened very quickly.
Someone screamed, saw Margaret leaning over the balcony on the 54th floor. Within minutes, sirens were heard. Police cars, fire trucks and an ambulance stopped in front of the condo building with squealed tires.
“Don’t jump,” said a scratchy, mechanized voice through a megaphone. “Life is worth living.”
The lights went on in Doug’s apartment. He opened his sliding glass door, “Margaret?”
At the sound of his voice, the pigeons flew off into the night sky.
“Goddamn it Double Down!” Margaret said.
Doug looked over the railing at the chaos below. Margaret slipped off the railing back on to the balcony.
Doug and Margaret explained the situation to the police, fire fighters and paramedics. They all sighed collectively and left the scene, hopefully on their way to more pressing incidents.
Margaret curled up in her comfy chair with the gun in arm’s reach. Before she could close her eyes, she heard the pigeons coo coo cooing out on the balcony.