By Anna McDougall
In a quiet suburb south of downtown Calgary, springtime draws neighbors from hibernation and we become social beings again. Inspired to refresh our homes and our friendships, we open the windows and dig up the gardens while catching up on winter news. I seek fresh imaginative fuel for my writing projects from this community of families, but rather than pinching my acquaintances’ personal stories, I knock on the doors of strangers.
I press the bell then quiet my breathing while I listen for sounds of life behind each door. Muted jazzy piano notes greet me at one home; a vacuum cleaner at another suggests I ring twice, sharpening my pencil or tapping a notepad as I wait. At most houses I visit, dogs kindly announce my arrival.
There’s been no shortage of incidents on my walks to stimulate the beginnings of great fictional tales yet I appreciate the overall motion of door knocking as well. Its repetitive nature leads my mind from daily worries to a calm meditative state promoting creative thought. February to May is the season for most door to door canvassing and from the time I was a preteen girl guide, I’ve been involved in all types. Many characters who have opened doors to me have already appeared in my stories; I’m still dreaming about others who have made a home in my memory. I actually become quite attached to some of them, like the carpenter on the corner.
I first met this man five years ago, during the last federal census. My visit was meant to persuade him to complete the prying personal questions on the long form he hadn’t mailed back.
“Ah…you’re back,” he said. “Well you can forget it. The government has enough information on me - it's none of their damn business!"
His clean shaven complexion, now rosy from his mood, and neatly trimmed hair gave me the impression he was just like any one of my neighbors.
He assumed a ‘you can’t make me’ stance, criticizing the cost of implementing the census itself. With thresholds to reach in order to earn my pay, I persevered. I’d campaigned for left-wing political candidates in southern Alberta – there was nothing this guy could say to intimidate me. I kept my tone light and relaxed, smiling all the way through.
Eventually he invited me in, still ranting, but more globally, as if he were trying to convince me to adopt his skepticism and indignation. Appreciative for a break from the cool April wind, I followed the man through a tiled hallway, past closets and open doors leading to side rooms into an expansive area where the kitchen shared space with an entertainment unit and leather sofa.
Proudly, he indicated the cabinet installation I’d interrupted. The lovely maple sugar finish was unusual in our community; most homes were built in the late nineties and were fitted universally with standard oak or white painted wood features.
“They’re gorgeous,” I said, hoping to abate his mind set.
And then I spotted what would ultimately bring us onto the same plane, something we both could appreciate. An eight-by-ten portrait of a child stood in the center of an otherwise bare island. A son. A first born.
The man continued lecturing me on the federal government’s inability to manage taxpayers’ money, accusing them of overburdening every hardworking person. I nodded and made noises of passive agreement, simply biding my time until he ran out of steam. Just beyond where he stood, the large window revealed a perfect view of the Rocky Mountains. I breathed deeply and imagined writing about the peace this couple must enjoy daily, waking to that scene, and their future as they witness their family grow.
With nothing more to argue, the man turned to a new subject. He lifted the picture frame and handed it to me so I could take a closer look. The boy favored his father save the mass of blond curls.
I smiled. “Your wife is blond?”
“Yeah, lucky little guy got her looks. So smart too. Not even nine months old and he flips through board books, walks around the furniture….” The man's face was bright and full of pride.
“He’s adorable,” I said. I resisted the temptation to talk about my own children, instead remaining quiet, waiting for his next move.
He glanced at the wall clock. “So,” he sighed, “what is it that you need to know?”
We completed his survey together and with that, I was out the door, proud I had softened an opponent, pleased to have met this joyful new father.
Residents rarely remember my face, but some of them feel like old friends to me. Even when I think I’ve forgotten them once I’m back at home, surrounded by my own life, as soon I see them with their yappy pet or dressed in that familiar apron, it all comes back to me. Last Saturday, I found myself on the carpenter’s street again. This year, I’m taking the civic census. When I looked up from my preprinted forms, I recognized the bungalow trimmed in cobalt blue right away.
As I rounded his driveway, eager to fill in more details about the fictional life I was building around him, metal music blared from the open garage taking me by surprise. A lanky twenty-something fellow leaned against the vinyl siding, beer can in hand. I introduced myself feeling some disappointment; it seemed the house had changed hands.
"You'll have to talk to him," the young man said, jabbing a thumb at his buddy inside the garage. “I don't live here."
Another man wearing cutoffs and a muscle shirt was stooped over the portable stereo. He stood and walked towards me, revealing a beard and a silly grin on his flushed face.
"What can I do ya for?"
"Uh...how many people live here?" I looked back down at my book immediately. My stomach clenched, my face warmed.
"Well, just me….now!" He laughed along with his friend.
I lifted my eyes slowly to confirm this was the same man. He sipped his beer. An image of him standing in the kitchen, laughing about his son appeared to me. This had to be temporary. Just a misunderstanding. It’s not what I had imagined for this man at all. I finished the questions as quickly as possible never looking him in the eye again lest he notice the water in mine.
I returned to the colored-chalk decorated sidewalk and took in the busy neighborhood’s Saturday afternoon, a road hockey game the centerpiece in a cul-de-sac peppered with noisy children riding bikes and skipping rope.
At the next house, I was never so grateful to have no one answer the door, releasing my face from the required public smile, allowing the April wind a little more time to dry my cheeks.