Fishing Expedition
by Lea Tassie


The final warning letter from the bank arrived one morning in mid- March. I read it right there in the hall, my heart pounding, my lungs desperate for air they couldn't seem to find. If I didn't pay the mortgage arrears within thirty days, the bank would foreclose. It was no good pleading with them; I'd already tried that. I opened the front door, craving fresh air and a quiet place to rack my brains for another solution. Delivering their mail to my boarders could wait.

"Mary!" Mrs. Taylor, wrapped in a lilac mohair shawl, creaked out of the elevator on her cane. "Going for a walk, dear? It's such a beautiful spring day." Her faded blue eyes twinkled up at me. "May I come, too? As senior oldie around here, I think I'm entitled to special privileges."

I hesitated. Mrs. Taylor could talk the hind leg off a donkey, and I needed to think, not listen. But she's one of my favorites and sharp enough to know it. I felt sorry for her, too. It must be awful depending on other people all the time.

"Of course you can," I said. "I'm only going to sit on the bench and watch the birds, though."

"Oh, Mary, you are a dear. I love watching birds."

What she loves is company; she doesn't know beans about birds. I took her arm and we walked past my daffodil border to the front gate. Pink and blue hyacinths were in bloom, their scent so strong in the warm air that I could smell them even after we were out on the Keyhole walkway.

My favorite bench, a few yards from the gate, is on the broad paved path that borders Keyhole Narrows for a mile or more. I like to spend an hour there every day, if I can, watching the birds and mulling over my problems. Afternoon is best. That's when the oldies are busy with naps or outings and the ones who can still swing a golf club are puttering on the greens.

My problems were beyond mulling now. If I couldn't stop the bank from foreclosing, I'd lose my lovely house and end up in some poky basement suite with nothing to do but wait for my old age pension to start. A life like that, I might as well go lie beside Charlie in the graveyard and pull the dirt up over me. My oldies would have to leave, too, and where else would they find a real home to live in with somebody who cared enough to listen when they recited their aches and pains every day? Nowhere, that's where.

Keyhole Narrows is a long, meandering saltwater inlet and here, half a mile from the Pacific Ocean, it's less than a couple of hundred feet wide. There are always fish for the birds to catch and now millions of herring were coming up to spawn. Cormorants and blue herons nested in the Douglas firs and cedars in the park directly across the Narrows from my place, though most of the ducks that had spent the winter were headed north now.

Charlie and I used to watch the birds in the Narrows. He'd be spinning in his grave if he knew the state I'd got myself into. He wouldn't buy a house--too much hassle, he said--and we lived in apartments all our married life. Whenever we walked along here and saw the big old Victorian mansion with its bay windows, little turrets and a thousand nooks and crannies, I wanted it so bad I could have cried.

Mrs. Taylor, maybe reading my mind, squirmed around to look at the mansion. "I'll never forget the day my son brought me here. Such a blessing. The owner of the other home I was in--you know the one, dear--only cared about getting his checks every month. And that woman he hired to keep us entertained acted like we were children. You wouldn't think a young person could be so officious."

She turned to the inlet again, knocking her cane off the bench. "I feel so very lucky to be living here now."

She's only told me this about a thousand times, but it makes me feel good each time I hear it. "Me, too," I said, picking up her cane and resting the crook near her hand. But how long would our luck last?

A bank of white fog lay over the ocean, the top just visible beyond the park trees, but the sky above was clear blue and the sun so warm my rhododendrons would be bursting into bloom any minute. Forsythia was already bright yellow along the south side of the house, matching the daffodils by the front walk. Could I fend off the bank long enough to see the chrysanthemums and dahlias bloom in the fall?

It had been fall when the mansion came on the market, a few months after Charlie died. I knew I was a fool for even talking to the real estate man, but when I learned the money Charlie left would cover the down payment, I couldn't stop myself. I was scared spitless, but it was my one chance to have what I'd always wanted. Now it looked like I was going to lose it.

I tried to give my worries a rest by watching the Narrows. The tide was slack, the glassy water mirroring blue sky and the trees along the far side. Coots, widgeons and buffleheads paddled lazily in the center of the inlet and mallards cruised near the banks, looking for handouts from people on the walkway. A few cormorants glided down for a landing, their braking feet speckling the glossy surface of the Narrows with sprays of water. They headed upstream and began diving for fish.

I like cormorants. People who think their long necks and black feathers are ugly aren't paying proper attention. Close up, their plumage has glints of dark green and purple. They're supposed to be greedy, too, but I don't know where that idea came from. We all have to eat.

"Look, Mary, one of those black birds just came up with a fish in its beak."

"It's a herring, I expect." I was finding it hard to keep my mind on Mrs. Taylor or the birds.

I knew when I bought the house I'd have to rent out rooms to pay the whacking great mortgage. Turned out the best bet was to take in seniors and give them bed and board, though I wasn't keen at the time. I figured looking after a bunch of old crocks would be a constant reminder that I'd soon be an old crock myself.

It worked out fine, though. Sure, there's been a few oldies miserable enough to make a cat cry, but on the whole they're a good bunch. If I'm as lucky as some, I've got plenty of good years left.

"Too bad there aren't any seals today," Mrs. Taylor said. "They're so sweet, like teddy bears with no ears."

The week before, the paper had a piece about some resident sighting a sea monster. I figure what he saw was a seal rolling around just under the surface of the water. The inlet isn't deep enough for what you'd call a sea monster but the kind of person who dreams about discovering a west coast Nessie doesn't care much about reality.

Of course, the oldies who live along the Narrows are always looking for some excitement and a sea monster right at their front door will do fine if there's nothing else. There are dozens of big apartment houses full of retired people and two seniors' homes besides my own along the Narrows. Every day the walkway is full of people walking, shuffling or rolling along in their wheelchairs, some of them looking pretty bored.

I'd had more excitement than I wanted the last couple of years. First, the health inspector said I had to upgrade the kitchen or he'd take away my license, so the last of my savings account got wiped out and I had to struggle with bigger mortgage payments. Then four of my oldies passed away, one right after another, and I couldn't meet the payments. What I needed--fast--were four new residents to fill up the empty rooms so I could get the bank off my back. It seemed pretty hopeless. There are a lot of seniors in this city but the competition to look after them is fierce.

Birds compete, too. Across the Narrows was a big blue heron, standing on thin, spindly legs in about a foot of water, long neck curved downward, head bent to the side and one beady eye peering into the water. How they can stand still like that for so long, I don't know, but they do. Out in the center of the inlet, between me and the heron, the cormorants dove all at once, like they were run by a single brain. Thirty seconds later the heron stabbed his beak into the water and came up with a silvery, squirming little fish. He raised his beak, flipped the fish around until its head was pointing down his throat, and swallowed.

Mrs. Taylor and I watched birds until it was time for me to help the cook get lunch started. That hour on the bench did me some good after all. The birds had given me an idea I was itching to try, but it had to wait a few days.

The regular meeting of the Association of Rest Home and Seniors' Home Owners was on a Tuesday night. We'd all been crying the blues for months because of a lack of customers. I stood up and said, "I've got a suggestion. What we should do is get more aggressive in going after clients."

"Ha!" said Mrs. MacKay, owner of the seniors' home down the street from me, her chins quivering. "Aggressive costs dollars. I can't afford to put out more money for ads."

A babble of voices agreed with her.

"My idea won't cost any money," I said.

The faces around the table swiveled to stare at me in disbelief.

"Look," I said, "there are thousands of retirees living in apartments all over the city. On any given day, a couple hundred of them are out strolling on the Narrows walkway. They're all potential customers, right?"

"Right," someone said doubtfully.

"Okay, so what we need to do is get out there with our brochures and business cards, maybe even some small signs, and talk to every one of those people. If your place of business is right on the walkway, like mine, you can even drag them inside to have a look at the facilities."

"All too easy for you, Mrs. Fisher," Mr. Bradley snapped. "What about those of us on the other side of the city? Or downtown?"

"What are cars for? If you're on the walkway handing out brochures, your car will be parked on the street. So grab a couple of hot ones and drive them over to your place. Won't cost you anything but gas."

Nobody said a word and I thought I might have to explain to them where I'd found my idea. But I didn't get a chance because next thing everybody was talking at once. By the end of the meeting it was agreed we'd all be out on the walkway the following Sunday, the most popular day for strolling, with our brochures, signs and anything else we thought might lure the oldies.

The following four days I was too busy to watch birds. I polished furniture and the walnut banisters on the wide curving staircase that the oldies rarely used, though they were always saying how much they loved it and how you never see stairways like that any more. I even scrubbed the elevator from top to bottom; the smell of soap and water is the smell of home. The cleaning lady washed the antique china plates and put them back on the plate rail in the living room while I vacuumed the red velvet curtains and polished the brass. The final touch was getting up on a stepladder to wash the windows, including all those fiddly little stained glass panels. Someday I suppose I'll have to depend on somebody else to do it but I don't have to think about that yet.

One thing I had thought of was letting the cleaning lady and the two part-time cooks go, but there's no way I can look after a three story house and twelve people--sixteen if all the rooms are full--by myself. Anyway, what I'd save on their wages wouldn't make up the shortage on the mortgage payments.

Late afternoons and evenings I worked in the garden. If I do say so myself, my rhododendrons are the best in the street, maybe even the city. The blooms were opening in soft shades of pink, rose, mauve and white. Primroses shone red, yellow and purple-blue against velvety green grass. When the garden was as neat as I could make it, I scrubbed the wrought iron benches and tables scattered beside the path that goes all the way around the house.

The sight of my cosy-looking, turreted house, painted a warm sand color and trimmed with forest green, and the garden glowing with color made me feel good. Who wouldn't want to live here? The other two seniors' homes on my street are fairly new, but they're stucco and concrete boxes. Not places I'd ever want to live, even if one does have a sauna and the other a games room. Their gardens are laughable; a bit of lawn and a few ornamental cedars. No color or life at all.

Sunday morning the cook promised to have fresh bread coming out of the oven by early afternoon and I put a pot of water laced with cinnamon on the stove to simmer. There's nothing like the hint of cinnamon buns to make people feel at home. Not that we don't have fresh cinnamon buns maybe once a week or so, but we never make them on Sunday. Most of my oldies go out that day.

At two, I crossed my fingers for luck and sat on my bench as usual. Along the walkway, Mrs. McKay, dressed in her best purple with a white carnation pinned to her front, was trying to steer a couple of oldies up her sidewalk. They didn't seem too keen.

A little later Mr. Bradley, looking irritable but elegant in a pin stripe suit, his hair slicked back like in a 30's movie, stopped beside me. "Where are your brochures? Don't you even have any cards?"

"I've been under the weather so I decided not to bother this time. How are you making out?"

"Not very well. There's a lot of resistance for some reason," he muttered, and walked away. As he bore down on a white-haired woman in a wheelchair, I could see the muscles in his cheeks stiffen to force a smile.

Ten minutes later the couple who'd been in Mrs. McKay's clutches came wandering along, holding hands like they really meant it and conferring in indignant tones.

"Nice afternoon," I said.

They looked at me suspiciously. I gave them my best smile and dropped my gaze to the book open in my lap.

"It would be," the man said, "if it weren't for all those sharks trying to sell us space in seniors' homes. City council should do something about people like that, ruining our afternoon walks. I've a good mind to write a letter."

"I wouldn't blame you a bit," I said. "I run a home for seniors myself, but I'd never stoop to soliciting. That's tacky."

They looked at me, then at my cozy mansion with its stained glass window panels, and the garden blooming in all shades of the rainbow. "That your place?" the man asked.

"Yes," I said, and picked up my book again.

"Well," the woman said, tucking a strand of white hair behind her ear, "it's true we're thinking of moving but we certainly aren't going to let ourselves be pushed into anything." She glanced at the house again. "Do you have any double units available?"

"As it happens I do. Drop around sometime when you're free and I'll give you the grand tour."

"Why not now?" the man said. "Can we do it now?"

Within half an hour they'd signed up. By six o'clock, I'd signed up another couple and two singles. My home was finally full and my mortgage worries had shot to the bottom of the Narrows like a cormorant after herring.

After dinner that evening, I went out to my bench again, this time with a glass of something that looked like water but wasn't. Vodka, actually. Celebration time.

The bare branches of dead trees were loaded with cormorants, their wings spread and drying, but a few came flying along the inlet, swooping to land on the water and cruise the far side of Keyhole Narrows. As the sun slipped down behind the hills, the clouds turned to peach and gold, their reflection broken and shimmering on the darkening blue water. A few seconds after the cormorants dove, the blue heron on the far side gulped down a fish. The cormorants surfaced, paddled across the Narrows to my side and began working their way back upstream.

As I'd known he would, the heron lumbered into the air on his great wings and flapped lazily across the Narrows to splash into the water a few yards from me. When the cormorants dove a few feet from him, he speared another fish.

"Thanks for the idea, old buddy!" I raised my glass to him. "I guess depending on somebody else to do things for you isn't so bad after all."

How long had it taken him to learn that the greedy, energetic cormorants would scare fish in his direction? I'd learned just in time.


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