Before today, I was not at all aware of the National Day of Listening. I like the idea. One hour of intentional conversation with a friend, an older relative, a coworker, or anyone else that you might find interesting to talk to for an extended period of time. The best part is that one is encouraged to record the conversation, making a permanent record of a fleeting moment in time.
I have been recording conversations for years. If you are reading this note, chances are that your voice has been captured by the pocket tape recorder I have been hauling around with me for almost three decades. I know that some people have a problem with this “infringement on private conversation”, but years from now, when you are on your death bed and I present you with hours of documented conversation from your youth, you will thank me.
Such was the case with Lily, the elderly woman who was my hairdresser throughout elementary school. I was shy back then (and still sometimes am) but I had developed a close bond with her, as one often does with the person that cuts his/her hair. I trusted Lily; we became good friends.
Lily died last week. In her own words, she was “ready to go”. Years of drinking had caught up to her and she had succumb to cirrhosis of the liver. When I presented the tapes to her in a visit this past summer, she was coughing up blood. Still, she was cheerful and laughed heartily as we listened to the tapes. At first she was kind of upset that I had never told her that she was being recorded as she cut my hair, but by the time the last tape came to a close, she was very grateful. She used her bloody Kleenex to wipe tears of joy from her eyes.
When Lily’s eldest daughter phoned me last week to tell me of the news, I listened to those old tapes again. I have since transcribed them to ensure that no nuance will be lost. Lily’s family has given their consent to share some of our conversations with you. They will be in chronological order. The first recording here was taped in 1987, the last in 1993. I hope you enjoy.
October 19, 1987
(Tape clicks on: whirring sound)
Lily: OK Nicholas, jump on up. Tell me if the water is too hot.
Nicholas: Its fine, thank you.
(sound of water upon scalp)
L: Now boy, I have been cuttin’ hair for almost fourty years now and I have a few ground rules. I’m not gonna do the usual grown up thing and talk down to you like you are some kind of invalid. I’m gonna talk to you as I would with anyone else. If I feel like talking about flowers, I’ll talk about flowers. If I wanna talk cat-fish, I’m gonna talk cat-fish, you understand?
N: Um, ok.
L: Good, now move on over to the chair over there and I will be right over with a cape for ya.
L: You came in here with spiked hair. You want to leave with the same only a bit shorter, right?
N: Yeah, that sounds good.
L: Figured as much. That’s how all the kids are wearing it these days. I don’t really care for it, but I guess that don’t really figure into the equation. How old are you, anyways?
N: I just turned seven this June.
L: So what is that, grade two?
L: When my son was in grade two, he had already taken to the slicked back grease look. He was a little hellion, but the little girls sure loved him. I figure he lost his virginity before he was in Junior High… you still a virgin?
L: I guess that’s none of my business. Don’t answer that question. Anyways, I would take him down to the Zellers every Saturday morning for breakfast. He would always get the same thing: two eggs, bacon, white toast with strawberry jam and a glass off orange juice. He never finished the orange juice, so I would slurp it up. It was the only thing I had—I just smoked my cigarettes and watched him eat. Didn’t make him nervous though. He ate really quickly back then, still does. I’ve timed him eating one of those Dairy Queen dipped cones: 33 seconds! Can you believe that? He’s like a vacuum: maybe I’ll start calling him Hoover, or Hoov for short. (Laughs loudly) You’re not much of a talker are ya?
L: Look straight ahead and stop moving.
(Buzzing of shaver)
L: I got stung by a bee yesterday. Look at my leg.
L: Bees are crazy at this time of year. I’m thinking of getting one of those epi-pens. I think I’m allergic. Look at the size of my leg! It is insane. Fucker flew away before I could kill it too. When I walk my leg feels funny…
May 19, 1988
Lily: … I’ve always thought of myself as a robust woman, but that’s just me. Twelve years in Texas will teach you a few things. Must be somethin’ in the water down there, frog-stompin’ sonsabitches walkin’ around town ‘til sun comes up. Peyote buttons being kicked around all over town. Coyotes, big ones, in packs: totally fearless. Rumour is that a lot of them have a taste for baby’s blood. Head straight. Alberta’s much the same, but I’ve never really felt at home here. People just don’t act civilized when they sit their asses down in my chair. I have this French woman who comes in every week… puts her head in the incubator over there and falls asleep instantly. Some kind of therapy, I guess. Expensive therapy, if ya ask me. I don’t even know why she bothers bringing those magazines with her. Drops ‘em on the floor in about five seconds—she’s out… keep still! If I had another boy, I’d name him Darwin.
June 26, 1989
Lily: …so he comes in the other night, drunk like a skunk, and decides that he wants to be all romantic. Broke my best vase, belonged to my grandma, as he tried to fit an entire bottle of Advil into it… said the florist told him that it keeps roses alive. I’d just put Albert to bed, and was sure that all that racket was gonna wake him up… what was he thinking? His lunch box really stinks, by the way. I tried to rinse it out with bleach water, but he’ll have none of it. Says that it “ain’t natural puttin’ that poison in his lunch box”— stubborn as a mule that man. But hell, I love ‘m. Thirty years this Fall. You should tell your mom and dad to come to our party. Say, you don’t talk much do ya?
Nicholas: Well …
L: Stop moving or I’ll cut off your ear!
December 11, 1991
Lily: …almost killed me. Seven hours in a car, driving through the prairies. Good Lord, someone put me out of my misery. All that drivin’ with nothin’ but the inlaws on the other end. And I know that as soon as we get there his dad will take us into the basement to show us the new additions to his train room. He’s trying to build an exact replica of Saskatchewan in his basement, you know. I think he should be sedated. Never leaves the basement. It smells like potato water down there, but he doesn’t seem to mind at all. Puts his Engineer Cap on before starting up the train, all I wanna do is eat every bagel in town. Have you ever had a bagel?
L: I like to cover mine with cream cheese. Can’t even see the hole in the bagel. It is covered in cream cheese like spackle on drywall… I’m gettin’ hungry just thinkin’ about it…
February 12, 1993
Lily: Back then they called them slacks. That word has a dignity about it that pants just never will. I’ve ironed countless pairs of ‘em, but it never seems to get any easier. Something therapeutic about the process though. You concentrate, but you don’t, you know. I like the sound of the steam iron. Sounds like a happy emphysema patient, the little train that could… ya know. Sometimes when he takes them off he gets a little jolt from the static electricity. He’s complained about that shag carpet for as long as we’ve had it… still nothing sexier than humpin’ on a shag, if you ask me. The budgies always get real quiet when we’re doin’ it, now there is a mystery. I’m just gonna get another cup of coffee, you hold tight.