He’s distracted by the recent phone call, and his mind keeps returning to the same memory, his father watching the man crossing the pothole to get to the other side of the street just in front of their house and, later, the disparaging words.
There are raindrops on his eyelashes, splashed from a passing umbrella. It is a typical day in Vancouver, with plenty of rain and plenty of people dressed in dark clothes. They are both new to the city, and the weather is still a challenge.
Denman Street, busy with cars, buses and people has worn-out asphalt too, with those familiar holes.
“Do I need to wait for you? Can’t you get a cab?” He asks, with a furrowed face.
She is brushing her foot against the sidewalk. It looks as if something has been caught on the sole of a shoe. The neighborhood is filled with maple trees and large, dry leaves cover the sidewalk.
“You’re being selfish. We need the income,” she replies, defeated by the ground against her feet.
“You don’t really care,” his voice is glum, and he keeps glancing back as though being followed.
“What is this really about?” She’s distracted by the books and Christmas decorations in the window.
“My father is arriving in a few days,” he confesses, following her into Joe Fortes library. “And that’s why I’m hearing things I haven’t heard since childhood. And, the potholes….”
“Bobagem,” she says in a quieter tone as they enter the building.
“It all started with them,” he adds.
There is a pact never to speak Portuguese when outside of their home but, recently, it has been failing and they argue more often in their own patois.
The posters near the doorway herald the beginning of the winter and the various day-care activities for moms.
“Eu não consigo esquecer a velhinha,” he says, as they sit near the biography section.
“In English,” she says, whispering.
“My neighbor used to tell me that potholes are wells of secrets,” he says.
His words hang in the air. Other customers speak in murmuring voices as they go about their business.
“Do you think it’s true?” He asks, carefully taking in the desks and computers surrounding theirs.
Three older ladies, with heavy overcoats, are sitting at some of these desks, reading newspapers and doing crossword puzzles. A tall man, presumably staff, is shelving books methodically.
“It’s nonsense, I already told you,” she says, trying to save her work on a spreadsheet.
“But they found the old lady near the pothole,” he’s shaking a bit now. “I’m sure she was also looking for answers,” his voice rises with the force of his insistence.
“She fell,” her voice is flat in its dismissal.
“He used to tell me that our most inner secrets are kept hidden below the asphalt. And through the potholes, they are whispered back to us as we walk by – if we only listen. My dad didn’t like that we talked,” he recalls.
“Will you be finished early today? I want to go for a swim after work so I would have to keep the car. Would you mind that?” She asks, checking her watch again.
She finishes typing her schedule and sends it through. It is another day care job, she explains, when he looks at the screen inquiringly. But, his eyes are quickly drawn back to the woman and her dog outside, on the other side of the window. The dog has cocked its hind legs tentatively in the familiar stance and, just a few steps away, there’s another pothole.
“The dog on the other side of the street, the pothole, a moment in between,” he muses when they are back out and sidestepping it to get across. “Do you think this is where the old lady hurt her head?” He asks.
“Carrying too many books, tripped, and hit her head on the ground,” she repeats, with some sympathy for his terrified face.
He begins to talk quickly about the internet articles he has found about other tripping accidents with potholes. Too many coincidences, he fears.
“Do you think you might see someone? To talk about this? Get some help?” She asks, looking at him with astonishment as they get into their compact, frog-green Toyota. “It was a fatality. The old lady tripped over the pothole, hit her head and died,” She’s a bit nervous herself now, but wants to reassure him. “And this neighbor from the other side of the street, he probably liked to scare you, and that’s why your father didn’t like you talking with him.”
“I have to watch the potholes in my life, that’s all,” he’s staring out at the road racing by.
“I don’t know what else to say when you obsess like this,” she stops at the red light.
He knows she’s right about the obsessiveness, but, everyone obsesses about certain things, don’t they? He thinks – she also obsesses about making changes to their apartment, about the new furniture, and the rearrangement of plants, or finding the right Christmas decorations. It is their first holiday together in this country since leaving Brazil in September. He still hasn’t found a steady job.
“What time do you start work today?” She asks as she stops by the Chinese market on Robson Street.
“I’m already late, so it won’t make a difference,” he mutters.
Inside the store, she attempts to communicate with the Asian woman behind the counter. She talks with the employee as if she is Brazilian too, smiling widely, waving her hands and pointing to the back of the store. The Asian woman is still, quiet, unsmiling. Then, she writes down the numbers 110 and 220 on a piece of paper, draws the picture of a socket, and hands it to the employee, who directs them towards what they want – a voltage converter.
“We need to find a Christmas tree later this week,” she reminds him as she drops him off at the pet store where he works. Then, softer: “Try to think about good things.”
“Don’t worry, I’m OK. I just think my neighbor was on to something about potholes.” he kisses her cool lips goodbye.
As she drives off, he has a sense of relief that she’s not watching him so closely, with her brows creased. What he hasn’t told her, and later recalls as he starts grooming the dogs, is how he had developed a frequent habit of speaking to the potholes when walking the streets of Porto Alegre. About his wish to run away from home. To make a new home in a foreign city where he could start again. He wonders if the old lady who tripped and died was also trying to escape something. He mulls over this practically his entire day, which ticks by with hardly any visitors.
She arrives before his normal closing time, “Hey.”
“I thought you were going for a swim,” he looks up from his grooming paraphernalia, surprised.
“I wanted to be with you,” she replies, patting the animal he’s just finished with.
“I am sorry, I am not done yet,” he’s blow-drying the last dog.
“I was worried about you,” she adds.
“Give me a second,” he goes into the back-room quickly.
When he returns, he’s ready to leave, coat on, umbrella in hand. For a moment, he takes his fill of her lovely face. Her skin is tanned perfectly – an expense she has kept up in the Canadian winter. And when she smiles, her pink lipstick and the white teeth contrast sharply against the darker skin. She reminds him of warmer weather. In Brazil, it is the summer, and even though Porto Alegre is usually colder than other parts of the country, at this time of the year, it is balmy.
As they walk outside, it is freezing cold, and they have to cross another huge pothole near the lightning post to get to the car parked near the hockey field. There are haphazard weeds shooting out of this pothole and some cigarette butts floating in a shallow bit of rainwater that has collected in it.
“This wasn’t here before,” he says, avoiding it.
“It must be the heavy rains we’ve had since last week,” she holds him tight.
“You have to watch where you step,” he cautions.
Just then, his phone rings. He answers it, listens for a moment, then nods, “Sim, está bom, pai.”
“What’s up?” She asks when he hangs up.
“My father can’t make it now,” he can’t help the disappointment seeping through his entire being.
“That’s too bad,” her tone is a measured casual one.
They stop to let a city maintenance truck pass by.
“It’s better this way,” he looks away and stares at the heavy clouds in the distance.
She smiles up at him, “As long as you’re OK with it.”
As they’re about to get into the car, some men dressed in orange uniforms get off the city truck. A couple of them begin to square the pothole edges while another starts up the asphalt cement mixer. Almost at the same time, a regular customer walks out of the pet store and nods hello as he goes by, happily patting his little Dachshund.
She’s still holding onto him as they watch all this. And, the warmth of her skin against his calls for his attention, pushing back persistent memories of potholes and their secrets. For the moment, he does not need to run away anywhere, despite those open holes in his life.
“I’m getting a new job next week,” she whispers with large, shining eyes.
“That’s always good,” he tightens his arm around her, her warmth surging into him.