(A novel by Susan Overturf)
[“Don’t tell them anything about me. Nothing.”]
Mark was in the hallway waiting for me when I came out of my door the following morning. We had both dressed casually: jeans and a shirt. I suppose we both thought we might “blend in” better with the street people; that was certainly my theory when I had dressed that morning. I didn’t wear any jewellery either and carried the simplest backpack I owned.
“All set?” Mark asked.
“As ready as I’ll ever be.”
“Good,” Mark smiled. “Where do you want to begin?”
I had given this much consideration the night before. Betty had said that Margaret was not always on the streets at night, that she often found a place to sleep in a boarding house or other shelters for the homeless. In the daytime, however, she said that Margaret usually walked, pushing a grocery cart in front of her filled with things she hoped she could sell. If she didn’t go looking for items in dumpsters, however, she sometimes panhandled on Robson, Granville, Denman or Davie.
I told all of this to Mark and then suggested we begin by simply walking the “square” of the four streets that Margaret often frequented. We could ask anyone we saw if they knew her or had recently seen her. With luck, we might even find her today, but I wasn’t holding out any hope.
Mark was agreeable to my plan, but made one suggestion: “Let’s don’t worry about Denman right now. Let’s go up Davie and down Granville. Then we can move over to Hastings and Main and check in with some of the rooming houses and shelters. If we haven’t found her by then, and we’re still up to it, we can walk down Robson on our way back.”
I agreed to Mark’s plan, as I thought we were playing a gambling game anyway: which direction we took would not, I thought, make a lot of difference in the long run. So, we walked to the corner of Denman and Davie and began to climb the hill up Davie street. A usual group of street people stood or sat on the sidewalk outside London Drugs and McDonalds, so we stopped and asked them — two teenage boys — if they knew of Margaret or where she might be. Across the street, at Safeway, we found two men in their thirties. One said he thought he knew Margaret, but other than that, they had no information for us.
We found more people at Bute and Davie, as this is a common corner for drug trades to occur, right outside the government liquor store, ironically. However, since Margaret was not a drug addict, we were skeptical that we would find anyone there who knew her. We were right.
Once we reached Granville, we found street people on nearly every block. We must have asked at least thirty people if anyone knew Margaret, and by the time we reached Granville and Hastings, I was worried that we would not find her. But our luck changed when we started talking to a woman who was panhandling on the corner of Granville and Robson.
After asking her if she knew a woman named Margaret, she seemed confused. “Margaret?” she said. “Not Maggie?”
“I think she calls herself Margaret,” I replied, “but maybe she prefers Maggie now.”
Mark smiled encouragingly but said nothing.
The woman was wearing an old wool coat, a pair of dirty boots, and a worn-and-faded toque. Someone had just bought a McDonald’s hamburger for her, and she had just taken her last bite, but she still had a little relish on her cheek. She stared at the sidewalk, as though that might help her to think.
“I knew a woman named Maggie. She sometimes stayed with me in a place on Hastings, down near the Public Library.”
“What’s your name?” I asked.
“Maria,” she said, and when she smiled you could see that she was missing her two front teeth.
“What did she look like?” Mark asked.
“Sort of tall. Sort of short. Not too fat. Not too thin. Blonde — no brown — hair. Blue eyes, I think. No, maybe they were brown. Or green? I really don’t remember.”
“Did she ever talk about herself? About what she had done earlier in her life?” I asked.
“Yeah, she said she’d been a teacher.”
At last, Mark and I knew we might be on Margaret’s trail.
“Yes, Margaret was a teacher,” I said. “What rooming house did you say she was in?”
“Well, she weren’t always there. But I spent a few nights there with her. And I seen her in other places, too.”
Mark and I knew that we were not likely to get more information from Maria. We thanked her for her time, gave her a toonie, and decided to head down Hastings, checking in at any rooming houses, shelters, or old hotels. We might find Margaret there instead of on the streets.
Two hours passed with no luck at all. Generally we got cold, uninterested stares from people when we asked if they knew Margaret. It was hard to tell sometimes if they were high on drugs, drunk, or just completely debilitated by a life on the streets. I felt sorry for them, yet I knew that my pity would not do them any good. I also couldn’t afford to take them all home and serve them a meal. Mark and I continued our crusade and we eventually ended up on Hastings, as far as Dunlevy, but we knew there were places on Powell and Pender, so we decided to head back on Powell and perhaps cross over to Pender as we got closer to the downtown area.
On Powell Street, we found a small, rundown hotel — named after its street, The Powell — and we walked in. Even on a fairly bright day, the lobby was dark and dingy, the carpet faded, the chairs antique and dusty. The clerk at the desk did not look up at us as we entered. Mark tapped on the counter and cleared his throat. The clerk, an older man wearing coveralls and a faded red plaid shirt, looked up from his People magazine. “Yeah,” he said disgruntedly, “what ‘cha want?”
“We’re looking for someone,” Mark said. “We wondered if you had seen her. Or perhaps she lives here, or stays here sometimes.”
“Her name is Margaret. She’s about 52. Tall, blonde but probably going gray, wears glasses, thin. Sound familiar?”
“Yeah. She’s in Room 202. Upstairs.”
Mark and I looked at each other, surprised that our all-day search had suddenly, apparently, reaped rewards. We were still unsure, however, if we had actually found Margaret, so we climbed the stairs and found the door with the number “202” on it, still without much excitement.
Mark knocked three times, but no one responded.
“Margaret?” I called. “Are you in there, Margaret?”
“Yeah, who’s asking?” a voice called from the other side.
“Margaret, my name is Dorthea Parsons. I know your mother and father. They’ve asked me to find you and be sure you’re all right.”
There was silence. Not a word. Then, slowly, the door opened, and a middle-aged woman with dirty, uncombed hair looked out and said, “My parents? You gotta be kidding!”
“They really want to know if you’re all right,” I said.
“Yeah, sure, like they care.”
“May I come in, Margaret? May I talk to you?”
Margaret swung open the door, bent over at the waist and swung her hand before her. “Be my guest,” she said. “There‘s nothin‘ here worth stealing.”
Mark and I stepped inside. She was right. There was very little there that might be worth stealing: A small cot with a couple of blankets on it, a bureau with drawers but no knobs, a small closet with empty hangers, a window with dirty white blinds that were broken in several places. I assumed that bathroom facilities were communal, and probably located elsewhere on the floor.
There was literally no place where all three of us could sit down, but Margaret went over to the cot and sat on its edge.
“Are you Margaret Carlson?” I asked. “Are your parents Matthew and Betty Carlson?”
“Yes,” Margaret said. “I think so.”
“Which part are you not sure about?” I asked.
“All of it.”
“Were you a teacher once?”
“Yes, I think I was.”
“So was I.”
“Really? What did you teach?”
“High school English.”
“I taught elementary students.”
“Yes, I know. Did you like teaching?”
“Yes, I did.”
“Why did you quit?”
“I got sick. Very sick. Things got confusing and mixed up. I had to go to hospital. The doctors didn’t know what was wrong with me. My mind isn’t always clear, and I don’t always know what I‘m doing.”
“Is your mind clear now?” Mark asked.
“Yes. Better than usual.”
“Can I ask you some questions?”
I wanted to be able to look into Margaret’s eyes, to show her that I cared about her and was not going to harm her. I moved directly in front of her and sat down on the floor. She looked a little surprised, but said nothing.
“Margaret,” I said gently, “Do you remember your Aunt Mary?”
“Aunt Mary,” Margaret said, repeating the name but not showing any recollection.
“She is married to your father’s brother, James. They live in Kelowna.”
Suddenly, Margaret seemed to recall. “Oh, yes, Aunt Mary. I liked her. Didn’t like Uncle James, though. They didn’t have any children.”
“That’s right, they didn’t.”
Margaret moved her head a lot, from side to side, but I noticed that it stopped when she concentrated, so I again caught her attention, and asked:
“Margaret, do you remember your Aunt Hattie?”
“Yes, she was a teacher, too.”
“That’s right. Did you ever hear any stories in the family about your Aunt Hattie?”
“Stories?” Margaret asked. “What kind of stories?”
“Just anything,” I said.
Margaret said nothing. Her brow creased and she appeared to be thinking hard. “I remember,” she said. “Aunt Hattie never married.”
“The secret isn’t about that, is it?”
“No,” I said.
Margaret was 52 years old, but I felt as though I were talking to a child. I didn’t know if drugs were affecting her thinking processes, a long life on the streets, her mental illness, or all three things. She appeared lucid, but very slow to react. I was beginning to be very grateful that we found her when we did.
“Margaret, did Aunt Mary ever give you a letter to take care of?”
“Aunt Mary,” she clarified, “not Aunt Hattie?”
“Yes, Aunt Mary.”
Margaret frowned again and then began talking to herself. “A letter. Yes, a letter. About Aunt Hattie. Aunt Mary said to keep it safe. And I did. I did. I kept it safe for a long time.”
“Do you still have it?” I asked.
“Have it? Do I still have it? The letter Aunt Mary gave me? Do I still have it?”
“Yes,” I said again.
Margaret appeared quite distraught. She turned and laid back on the cot, resting her head on the very meagre pillow and crossing her forehead with her arm. “I don’t remember,” she began to repeat.
“Please try,” I said. “It’s important.”
Mark and I looked at each other. Mark shrugged his shoulders. It was difficult to tell if we were going to get anywhere at all, but I wasn’t ready to give up quite yet.
“Please try,” I repeated.
After several minutes of silence, Margaret said, “Yes, I kept the letter. I kept it safe. But when I got sick, before I really got sick, I gave it to someone.”
“Who?” I asked. I held my breath. We were close.
“Don’t remember. I don’t remember.”
“Was it a man or a woman?” I asked.
“A relative or a friend?”
“Older or younger than you?”
“But you can’t remember her name?”
Mark and I remained with Margaret for nearly another full hour, but she was unable to remember who she gave the letter to or what it said on the envelope or what Aunt Mary had said to her when she gave it to her. As we turned to leave, I gave Margaret my name and telephone number on a piece of paper.
“Call me if you remember anything,” I said.
“I don’t have a phone,” she said.
I gave her some quarters so that she could use a pay phone. “Call me if you remember anything,” I repeated.
“Would you like me to tell your parents where you are?”
“No,” Margaret said. “I don’t want them to know.”
“They love you, Margaret, and they want to know.”
Margaret stood up and stared directly at me. “Don’t tell them anything about me. Nothing.”
“Can I tell them that you’re safe?”
She thought about that for a few moments, and then finally said, “Yes. Safe. That’s all.”
Mark and I walked home, saying little. We had found Margaret, but not the letter. All I could hope for was that Margaret would remember something and call me within a few days. It was a small hope, but one that I was going to cling to for dear life. I was running out of options.
- Continue to Chapter 11.
- Refer to Family Tree to keep relationship of characters in mind.
- Return to Table of Contents of Chapters in Secrets.
Disclaimer: Let it be said that these characters are fictional and created from my own imagination. Similarity to persons living or dead is unintentional and coincidental.