The snow had been falling steadily since dawn. By noon the wind had picked up and, as I started walking toward the bus stop, a full-blown blizzard had developed.
I managed to catch the Calgary bus a few minutes after one.
It was late, but so was I.
The driver caught sight of me on the road frantically waving my arms, and at the last minute, slid to a stop, spraying me with slush. After my performance the past weekend, I figured I was due to get dumped on somehow.
The driver grumbled as he stowed my bag in the bin.
"This isn't a regular stop, you know."
Stifling a sarcastic reply, I turned on my most ingratiating smile and thanked him for stopping — no point in pissing him off too.
The bus was almost full but thankfully warm. I shook away the snow clinging to my coat and shuffled down the aisle. I flopped down in the only empty seat next to an elderly gentleman near the back. Normally, I take little notice of my traveling companions unless they are young, female, and pretty, but this old man proceeded to stare intently at me. My paranoia had me imagining him, noticing all types of disfigurements on my face induced by excessive alcohol.
But somehow, he looked familiar. He was probably in his seventies; his body thin almost to the point of gauntness. His face, however, was full with a neatly trimmed snow-white beard coming to a point just below his chin. It was his eyes. However, that caught my attention. They were a clear crystal blue, and so very sad. Having been in sales all my life, I assumed he was a former client, co-worker, or one of the many contacts made in this line of work.
His gaze was unnerving, and I struggled to put him from my mind. In my present hungover state, everything and nothing seemed familiar, and I had probably never seen the man before in my life.
"You're Mrs. Reynolds' son-in-law."
"What?" I replied.
"Mrs. Reynolds. You used to come to see her when she would make her yearly trip to the Lodge at Lake Louise. She told me that you were her son-in-law. She looked forward to your visits."
As the old man spoke, the memories came flooding back through the fog. Mrs. Reynolds was Marcia's mother. As sweet a woman as Marcia was sour. Marcia, my ex-wife, was alienated from her mother and, although Mrs. Reynolds pleaded with me to bring her daughter to visit, Marcia always refused to go. So I went alone.
Every summer Mrs. Reynolds would come to Lake Louise for a two-week vacation, sometimes with her sister, but mostly alone. And she would hike. Each day she would have the folks at the Lodge pack her a lunch, and she would take off just after dawn to hike through the mountains, often returning just before dark. She would have a simple dinner at the lodge and then retire for the night, only to be up early the next morning to repeat the process. For fourteen days the same thing, then she would return to Vancouver to her other life.
I had heard bits and pieces throughout the years from Marcia about her mother's other life. Marcia's father was a drunk, never held a steady job, and was abusive both to Marcia and her mother. Mrs. Reynolds worked at three jobs to support her small family. Marcia had had enough, and by sixteen had left home and was supporting herself. She blamed her mother for staying.
"She was always telling me what a fine young man you were, and how fortunate her daughter was to be married to you.," he announced.
"You have the advantage on me, sir," I replied. "You look familiar, but I can't place the occasion of our meeting."
"I was night clerk at the Lodge. I was there for over thirty years. We only met a couple of times, but I knew all about you from Mrs. Reynolds."
I broke the ensuing silence with about the stupidest cliché that came to mind.
"Well, it's a small world."
My mind stumbled back through the years to that period of my life, when Marcia and I were still together, not happily, but together. Each year Mrs. Reynolds would send us a letter announcing her upcoming trip to the Lodge.
And, each yea, the letter was promptly torn up unread by her daughter. She never visited her, or as far as I know, ever saw her again.
I turned and addressed the old man.
“ I must confess I had no particular attachment to her mother, although I did learn to care for her and empathize with her situation over the years. I did, however, have an ulterior motive for making these trips, and many others to Banff. I had met a young lady, a sad young lady while skiing Sunshine. It was one of those perfect spring days when the sun was bright, the air cool and the snow crisp. By chance, we rode the same chair on my first run. Luxuriating in the beautiful day, we chatted all the way to the top of the mountain and skied down together, setting the pattern for the rest of the day. This sad girl seemed to brighten as the day progressed. We soaked our tired muscles at the Cave and Basin then had dinner together. We promised to see each other again the following weekend.
Each weekend we would meet, sometimes to ski another hill and sometimes just to be together and spend days exploring the town and surrounding country. By the end of the ski season, we had become lovers. We each had acknowledged our married states and had agreed early not to reveal our real names to each other. To me, she was Belle, and I was her Bud.”
The old man listened to my narrative with what appeared to be genuine interest, so I continued.
“Marcia learned early in the game of my other life. She had a natural radar for knowing what I was doing or thinking when even I wasn’t too sure about either. She immediately put the divorce machine in gear and was gone out of my life emotionally and visually within a few weeks., but I continued to set aside time to visit Mrs. Reynolds when she showed up at the Lodge. Our divorce saddened her, but she wasn’t surprised.”
“Why did you stop coming to see her?’
The old man’s question broke my reverie, and I had to think for a minute before answering.
“That was over five years ago. I had to move away. My job in Calgary ended, so I went east to find work and didn’t return until a year ago. Mrs. Reynolds continued to write to me a couple of times a year for the first two years and would send a card at Christmas. My correspondence with her was spotty. Three years ago her letters stopped, and I have no way of learning her present whereabouts.”
Sadly, he nodded his head and opened his mouth about to speak, then stopped. Finally, he asked.
“What about Belle. Have you seen her again since you returned?”
“No. When I left, we said goodbye. She would not give me her real name or address and implored me not to try and contact her. But, last year, when I came back, I tried to find her. When we were together, I had managed to find out where she worked. So, I went to that store and asked about her, not by name, but by description. None of the employees had any idea who I was talking about. I finally concluded that she had moved away.”
The bus had made a turn into Cochrane and pulled up in front of the local station and lunch counter. I offered to buy the old gentleman a cup of coffee and we slogged through the slush to the warmth inside. When we were settled in a booth, he said.
“You would like to know what happened with Mrs. Reynolds. About the time her correspondence with you ended, she came upon bad times. Her husband died, leaving her with a pile of debts that took the sale of her property to settle. With what was left of her meager funds, she decided on one more trip to the Lodge. We had become friends over the years, and I looked forward to her annual visits. This year, however, although she tried to appear jolly, I could see the underlying despair. Finally, one evening near the end of her stay, she opened up to me about her situation. She was afraid and didn’t know what she was going to do. I made suggestions that she contact her daughter, or you and ask for help, but she was too proud a woman even to consider it. I thought about it that night, and by morning had what I thought was a perfect solution.”
At that point, the driver announced that he was pulling out in five minutes and would everyone please go back to the bus. We gulped down our coffee and returned to our seats.
“I would have gladly helped her if I had known.”
“I thought you would, but she firmly admonished me not to try and reach you. As I said, she was a very proud woman.”
“What was your perfect solution?” I countered.
”Well, my wife had for the few years we had been married, a problem with bouts of severe depression. As she was somewhat younger than me, I thought she would get better with the medication she was taking. .Up to a couple of years before Mrs. Reynolds made that last trip, her condition was essentially under control. Then, all of a sudden, it wasn’t. She descended into a prolonged depressed period, showing no interest in her world and had seemingly lost her will to live. I had to hire a woman to come in at nights when I was working, to keep an eye on her.”
‘That must have been tough.”
“It was. I loved her, and it hurt to see that she couldn’t be happy. Anyway, I made the offer to Mrs. Reynolds that if she could stay and look after my wife at nights, I could offer her a place to stay and her meals. She agreed and offered to look after the house as well. The arrangement was wonderful, and my wife even seemed to brighten up a bit with Mrs. Reynolds around.”
“So,” I observed, “Mrs. Reynolds is living at your home.”
“No,” he replied. “There’s more to tell you. After about a year, my wife went into a deep depression, the worst I had seen. She became almost catatonic until one night she consumed a bunch of her pills and went into a coma. They pumped out her stomach at the hospital, but she died the next morning.”
His voice trailed off with the last sentence as he slumped lower in his seat. He was silent until I asked.
“What then became of Mrs. Reynolds?”
He didn’t answer for a few minutes; then he went on.
“After my wife died she seemed to feel she wasn’t earning her keep and continually put out extra effort to look after the house, but she didn’t feel that it was enough. I tried to reassure her that I enjoyed her being there and encouraged her to get back into her hiking. In spite of my bad knees, I even volunteered to join her. That worked for a while, but I guess her insecurities were too strong. Finally, after six months I came up with what I thought was the perfect solution. One evening I asked her to marry me. She smiled and took my hand and told me it was such an important decision she would have to mull it over. The next morning she was up early and prepared a super breakfast for us. She informed me she was going for a hike to do some thinking. She packed her lunch to set off about noon, and as was her custom, showed me on a map where she was headed. Then, she thanked me for the proposal and for all the goodness I had shown her.
I never saw Mrs. Reynolds again.”
“What happened to her?”
“I don’t know. I never did find out. When she didn’t return that night, I became worried. She had never stayed in the bush over night. The next morning I got in touch with the Park Rangers. They sent out a search party and a helicopter to try and locate her, but with no success. It was if she had vanished off the face of the earth.”
“There’s a lot of dangers out in those mountains,” I observed. “She could have been attacked by bears or cats, or fallen in some crevasse where no one could find her. Anything could have happened.
“I know, I’ve considered all the possibilities. But, from her actions that last day, I believe her intention from the start was not to return. I believe she took my proposal as strictly an effort to relieve her of her guilt, which, in part, it was. But, I had grown to care very strongly for that wonderful lady. I believe that when she went on her hike, she probably went in a different direction from what she showed me on the map. Once she started walking, she just kept going until she couldn’t go any farther and let nature resolve her dilemma.”
We sat in silence for the few minutes remaining in the trip, each of us submerged in our own thoughts. It was dark by the time the bus pulled into the Calgary depot. As we were preparing to leave, the old man turned to me with those piercing blue eyes and said.
“One thing that has been bothering me, and I have to ask even though I may not want to know the answer. When you were trying to find your Belle, what was the store you visited.?’
I was puzzled by his question but answered.
“It was a drug store or a pharmacy of some kind. I’m not too sure of the name, but it wasn’t on the main street.”
“Was it called Gourlay’s?’
“That sounds familiar, but I’m not sure,” I replied.
The old man sat for a few minutes while the folks around us were gathering up their belongings
“Thank you. It’s as I always suspected, but wouldn’t let myself believe. Your Belle didn’t move away.”
He stopped for an instant then continued in a whisper.
“She died of a broken heart.”