Though we usually drink Rhein wine at the outdoor Shakespeare performance, we hydrated with a Riesling from Württemberg this year. The evening was sweltering, the play was cute and the Riesling was cold and good with our picnic dinner.
Upon leaving the park, I discovered the rear tire on my bicycle to be dead flat. I encouraged my wife to ride on without me but she refused, and so we began the walk, pushing our bikes alongside us. There were hordes of people out enjoying the evening, one of rare beauty in a summer of lovely moments but few splendorous days. While crossing the bridge over the Bow River, my wife pointed out two burly men walking along the path below us. They were shirtless, wet and loud, strolling with conviction and aplomb. We smiled as we watched them, mine broadening as I realized I knew the scarcely clad gentlemen. They're both buyers at restaurants that I sell wine to, and I get on well with both of them. We descended the ramp from the bridge and intersected their resolute trajectory.
“You boys just out for a stroll?” I asked before our unwitting interlocutors saw us. Upon recognition, they laughingly raised their chests and shoulders, explaining that, fuelled by Languedoc rosé, they had been swimming down the river from the 10th Street Bridge to Centre Street, thus having to walk back in such a state. We explained our station too and bid them good evening, proceeding eastwards with our bicycles as they dripped their way west.
Excepting near-death experiences with electric scooters, we proceeded through an uneventful stretch of pathway before encountering a conspicuous gathering not far from Reconciliation Bridge. It was a huddle of two women and a man and as we came closer, two of them scuttled a bit further down the path leaving one bedraggled woman standing next to a filthy suitcase. She looked to be a veteran of the streets, somewhere between the age of 30 and 50 and it would take a keener eye than mine to narrow it down further. Her eyes were dead and her body spasmodic in upright repose, likely from the recent integration of a drug fix, or the dire need for one. She divined our presence and began to speak.
“Could you spare any dollars, anything? I didn't have the supper tonight, could you spare any change? Could… Just enough for…”
My wife found an energy bar in her bag and extended it to the woman who rocked from foot to foot in anticipation. Seeing that it was foodstuff and not money, she slapped the sustenance to the ground and stared through us to a planet a billion miles away.
"Well, I'm just going to leave that there in case you change your mind,” said my wife, unperturbed.
10 metres further, the woman's companions eyed our approach. The man was another veteran, closer to 50 than 30, twitchy and emaciated but betraying a wiry strength. He had drug-crazed eyes and cracked lips, framed by an incidental beard and parted to reveal the gateway to a putrid red cave. Atop his head was a black baseball cap which, in fluorescent lettering of alternating colours, read, "IT'S MY MOTHERFUCKING BIRTHDAY.” Next to him stood a virtually untarnished and surprisingly pretty girl of no more than 22, her long chestnut hair falling upon summer attire that showed signs of repeated wearing but not blatant dishevelment. She smiled effusively but vacantly, not at us, not at anything. Her eyes twinkled with chemical adventure, her glass world not yet shattered, her dreamscape not yet a nightmare.
I hoped forlornly that whatever emptiness catalyzed her initiation into such a milieu could be rectified. I hoped that the transportive lure wouldn't atrophy her soul and capture her permanently. I hoped she wouldn't be enslaved by the drugs and the streets and the company of insatiable zombies. My melancholic thoughts were interrupted by a voice whistling through the man's desolate cave of rotten dental stalactites.
“You, ahh… it looks like you got a flat?”
“Yah,” I replied, “it happens - what can you do?”
“I've got some tools, I could fix it,” he stated confidently, the twitchy woman now dragging her suitcase towards him and the girl.
“I absolutely guarantee that you can't,” I thought to myself, but instead replied, “I appreciate the offer, but we're almost home and it's a beautiful evening for a stroll.”
He wheezed uncontrollably and then managed to sputter, “suit yourself. And have a good night then.”
My wife and I wished him the same and continued down the path, exchanging looks of bewilderment and dejection. We extended hands to each other, despite the precariousness of pushing our bikes in such a way. After a moment I paused and turned around. The threesome of derelicts stood listlessly, not looking at us, not looking at anything.
“Hey!” I called, winning back their attention. “I forgot to mention… Happy birthday!”
Following a bemused pause, they erupted into laughter as the man took the cap off his head, gleefully assessed it and nodded approvingly to us.
Sometimes life is like that. Sometimes sleep eludes us and we regale the gods by seeking answers, not realizing that there aren't any questions. And sometimes, on oppressively hot evenings, life's beauty shimmers with such crushing vividity that one can only accept it.