By Achyut Dutt
A month or so after Shanta passed on, in May of 1969, I began going out with the Culvers for breakfast every morning at the Tim Hortons, the one down by the ESSO pump, on Sherbrooke West and Grand. I’m referring to Irv and Sally Culver, recent retirees like me, living on the same floor, down the corridor, by the fire escape.
At first they felt I needed company and that’s why they invited me to join them at Tim Hortons for turkey bacon sandwiches one morning in late June. They liked the experience and insisted on having me around every day thereafter. I felt comfortable with them and came to enjoy those outings. There’s certain freshness to the early morning hubbub and the rustle of newspapers inside a cafe. Bright young counter girls, steaming hot coffee, the muffins and, of course, those awesome toasted sandwiches.
Breakfast in a cafe could be a bit expensive, if you wanted to do it every day. But at that point in time, I guess I needed to be out. Besides, once you’re over 65, your pension can allow daily cafe jaunts like this, if you stick to those 3-in-one combos. And if you had planned your retirement in advance and put away some money when you were in the workforce, then maybe you could take a cruise or visit your native land once in three or four years. As I used to do, when Shanta was alive. Not anymore. The travel is quite tiring, twenty-five to thirty hours in a plane or at airports, with my knees acting up. Besides, there just isn’t anybody there I know, anymore. Irv and Sally follow the Canada geese down to Florida in October, every two or three years.
I was telling you about our breakfast outings. I remember the morning of July 20, 1969. Irv, Sally, and I were talking animatedly about the moon landing the day before. In fact I am sure that everyone else in the cafe was wrapped up in it too.
“Did you watch Neil Armstrong’s little speech? One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind?” That was Irv.
“Of course. Apt, wasn’t it?” My interest perked up.
“Sally says Armstrong actually said ‘one small step for a man’ but I clearly remember him saying ‘one small step for man’.” Sally rolled her eyes at that and I couldn’t help thinking how lovely she still looked, even at 52.
“Interesting, how an article can twist the whole meaning of a sentence. Did you know him, Irv? Neil Armstrong?”
“Not personally, but I’d seen him a few times over the years. The first time was when he was visiting the Skunkworks, this must have been around 1962, maybe ‘63. He was a member of the ‘new nine’ group of astronauts, invited to take a look at the new YF-12A prototype, the fore-runner of the SR-71 Blackbird. We had tested out the TEB igniter on the JP-7 fuel inside the lab and were going to have a test flight that day. Things were pretty antsy around the huge shed. JP-7 burns only at elevated temperatures and is, therefore, quite safe to have lying around, but TEB ignites on contact with air. And without TEB injected into it, JP-7 wasn’t going to light up.”
Sally and I exchanged glances and smiled. Irv was in his elements and unstoppable now, “While the others in the group spoke only with our Chief Engineer, Kelly Johnson, Armstrong made it a point to go around, stopping by every member of the Skunkworks team and even the Pratt and Whitney guys working on the J58 power plant. He listened attentively to each one of us. My last glimpse was of him shaking hands with a contractor’s man who was holding a ladder while another changed a light bulb.”
I was primed by now and bristling with questions. “Wait, don’t move, I’m going to get us some more coffee and you’re going to tell me more.” I hurried back holding three mugs and I was firing away as I placed them on the table, “How did the Skunkworks get that name?”
“Well, when we started, back in ’43, it was in a converted circus tent as there was no other space within the Lockheed facility. And we happened to be right next to a plant producing manure, its odor permeating our tent. When my phone rang one day, I jokingly said, “Skunkworks inside man, Culver speaking.” The name caught on right away. Since then, the term skunkworks has been widely used to describe a group, within an organization, given a high degree of autonomy and unhampered by bureaucracy, tasked with working on advanced or secret projects.”
Irv and Sally had an engagement that day and had to leave. My curiosity had to wait till the next breakfast at Tim Hortons. A year slipped by. Three-sixty-five blissful days of walks, breakfasts and stimulating conversation with the Culvers. I reckon it was around the time that Irv began fading away. Gradually. Right before our eyes. It began with him not being able to locate the car keys. Alzheimer’s crept up on him steadily for the next nine years. Until one particularly frigid December night in 1980, he quietly died in his sleep at the Montreal General. Of course, one doesn’t die of Alzheimer’s. One just fades away. Irv actually succumbed to colon cancer. Sally had always pestered him to eat more greens but he never listened. Anyway, for Sally, Irv’s passing was more like the grand finale of a nine year long goodbye.
After Irv, Sally, and I would see each other at least once a day. We’d accompany one another to our doctors’ appointments. I had a painful knee condition that got aggravated in the cold. Sally was trying to keep her cholesterol and BP down. I had no living relatives in Canada and Sally’s only daughter, Cora, lived somewhere on the west coast. Therefore, for the most part, we had just each other. While we couldn’t bring ourselves to enter the Tim Hortons again, we had our daily walks down Sherbrooke. Some days we took the pedestrian path up to the Westmount Library, where we sat for an hour catching our breath and browsing through the journals. I loved the National Geographic and I loved watching Sally peer through her bifocals into the People Magazine or Vanity Fair.
Sometimes we ambled west, toward the Montreal West train station. We’d flop down on the benches by the tracks and watch the ebb and flow of the commuters. Once in a while, a long distance freight train thundered by. We’d sit a while and then make our way back, stopping at the Pharmaprix, right across from our apartment block, to pick up a prescription or maybe a toilet paper roll or something. We would then trudge back. To our separate little worlds.
I don’t know when it first happened but it gradually seemed natural that we held hands as we walked.
I don’t remember these days too well but I think it was the Christmas Eve of 1985. For Sally and me, it was like any other day. Except for the daily Christmas carol bombardment on TV and radio. She didn’t want to go for the mass at the St Joseph’s this time. Said she was tired. So we went for a walk, a shorter one, up Cavendish and back. And as I said before, my knees didn’t like the Canadian winter. Sally too had grown gaunter, with all her food restrictions. While the whole city seemed to explode in merriment, we were back, waiting, while the elevator took us up to the fourteenth floor.
The ritual thereafter began predictably. Like hundreds of other evenings. I gave Sally a quick peck on the cheek at her door and walked down the length of the hallway to my apartment. And she waited till I reached my doorstep and gave me a tiny wave.
Only this time, she wouldn’t let go of my hand. She slid her arms through mine and pressed up against me. “Don’t go…stay…please.” Her voice was a whisper. Afterwards, we lay in the dark, our faces inches away, lazily giving each other tiny kisses all over. My head felt heavy, like all this was a dream. The Christmas Eve excitement was ramping up outside our tiny oasis as we lay back and listened to the sounds coming from the hallway. Squeals of delight, hurrying footsteps, the pitter-patter of kids running ahead to catch the elevator. Across from us, a mother was shutting her front door, “Nicholas, did you remember to take your mittens?” A door opened somewhere, with sudden slurred shouts of welcome and, then, muted as it was shut.
When I turned to look at Sally, she was fast asleep, a smile still playing on her face, like some supernova remnant. “Goodnight, darling,” I whispered and held her close till I drifted off.
Sally surrendered her lease and moved in with me on Christmas day. It seemed only natural. We might follow the Canada geese next fall. If my knees can take it.
Illustration: Achyut Dutt
Achyut Dutt, 59, builds jet engines at Pratt and Whitney Canada. To read more about his take on life, just google ‘spunkybong’.
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