A short story that I am working on based on a real person.
Connie Converse worked at Academy Photo Offset publishing house in New York’s Flatiron District. This was after the second world war. She was happy there, and enjoyed the company of her colleagues who found her exceptional. That was how Connie came off: exceptionally. She was an original, a person of uniqueness. They all said it, both in her presence and not.
She had a way about her that others lacked, though visually it was difficult to put one’s finger on exactly what that was. Her style of dress was simple enough for her plump frame: she often wore muted colours, cinched at the waist with a thin chestnut belt, complemented by cute sensible flats, as this was routine in women’s fashion since the end of the war. Her hair was mousy brown and she kept it away from her round face with thin silk scarves of varying colours. She wore no makeup except on evenings out at the saloons. Though her fashion and appearance were not noteworthy, her other, more idiosyncratic qualities more than made up for that.
Connie was brilliant. Everyone said it. From an early age she had an aptitude for all academic subjects. There wasn’t a topic that she wasn’t immersed in. She spoke equally and with great verve about the arts and science; but the humanities interested her most, for it was in humanities that science and arts were founded.
She had attended Concord High School in New Hampshire where she was valedictorian and won eight academic awards. Connie’s brother, Phil, who was now a political science professor at the University of Michigan considered his sister a polymath, a genius, words he did not use lightly. Growing up Connie and Phil were close, they respected each other’s intellect. They made for great company, both insightful from an early age. Opposed politically, she a Democrat, he a Republican, they never raised an irate voice against each other. Instead they listened intently to one another’s point of view. They’d stare earnestly, nod their heads, utter affirmations while waiting patiently for their turn to speak. Then they’d delve into their reasoned, and informed counter arguments.
In her late teens Connie departed Concord for a scholarship at Mount Holyoke College, a liberal arts college for women in Massachusetts. But, after two years, disillusioned with what she considered idle minds, she dropped out and moved to Greenwich Village to pursue her dream of becoming a writer. Her parents were devastated, not only because their little girl wasn’t returning home, but that she wasn’t pursuing a more respectable and conventional line of work. This running about their daughter had embarked on was embarrassing to the Converse patriarch and matriarch; they raised their two children as strict Baptists. They felt to fear the Lord was becoming, noble and well, expected. It was tradition! But Connie had a determination that was rare for young women in her hometown and she thirsted for a city that was big enough for her talents.
Once while leaving Sunday service towards the family car, a nine year old Connie asked, “Mommy why is God so mean?” She asked this because the sermon was particularly angry that day. Father Martin was railing against desegrationalists, and assailing negroes who wanted to be educated.
“Blasphemy,” Father Martin declared in a righteous shout, more than once. “Degradation!” Connie sat bewildered as his spit hit the cherry wood pulpit; his red face contorted, his forehead wrinkled, his bony finger pointed, waving at the air. Further shouts were heard: “He wouldn’t hear of it!” Connie wasn’t convinced that Father Martin knew anything whatsoever about what God thought. To her, Father Martin was a cartoon character. As her eyes floated across the church, focusing on the same-attendees she saw every Sunday, she was confused: how could anyone take Father Martin seriously?
“He’s not mean darling. He loves you,” Mary, her mother, replied laughing nervously. “You have to open your heart to his love, you’ll see it one day, when you’re older. Now the best thing to do is to read your Bible, and if you have any questions, to ask your father or me for answers.”
“But he seems mean, mommy.”
Mary feigned a smile, afraid that parishioners could hear her daughter’s insolent questioning and think of her as an incompetent guardian of the faith. Through gritted teeth Mary seethed, “Hush now Elizabeth. We’ll talk about this later.” But they didn’t talk about it later. When they returned home, Connie and Phil went to their bedrooms to change into more casual and comfortable clothing. Mary retired to the kitchen to make lunch while Robert, Connie’s’ father, hid in the basement where he worked on his taxidermies.
Sometimes, while in bed preparing for sleep to take her over, a teenaged Connie would stare at her Bible as it lay unopened on her nightstand. She’d consider all the sinful, violent words that rested on its pages, thinking herself and the world better than its content. She became indignant while staring at this Bible. It was the reason for her shame, her unhappiness. She never read it voluntarily. It was always something she had to do. Always on Sundays when she was sure to keep a smile plastered on her face in an effort to satisfy her parents. She didn’t want to humiliate them. She couldn’t, there were too many witnesses. Their nosey neighbours were always observing. Would the Converse children behave today?
All that fret and nonsense ceased when she moved to New York. She was now free to choose her friends, to be who she really was. She basked in the vitality of city life, the rush; adrenaline pulsed through her veins with great vigour. She was now a full human being capable of finding her true potential.
Connie had lived in New York for two years when she was first published. She wrote a series of essays about United States relations in the Middle East for The Far Eastern Survey. Working for a printing house, her colleagues, some who were also her good friends, were supportive of her flair, and encouraged her whenever she complained about writer’s block, or when she couldn’t find the correct tone for a story. They’d take turns reading her material and offer suggestions on how she could overcome problems — maybe here, she could change this character to a man, they’d say. It would work better. She’d go home and mull it over, incorporate their advice or, sometimes not. Mostly she would solve her literary problems on her own.
Not happy enough with her modest writing success Connie began to write her own music and become in her own right an acoustic guitar genius. She created an intricate and particular fingerpicking style, developed an ardent knowledge of harmony and complex vocals, and became virtuosic in the stylistic distinctions of all manner of genres including gospel, country, blues, jazz and folk.
For Connie, music was a medium to express her distinct makeup. In her songs she communicated a vulnerability with sparse and mercilessly intimate lyrics. This is the body of work on which she felt would make her reputation.
Learning of her musical ability Connie’s friends were keen to help her talent shine. They’d host dinner parties where she’d strum her guitar and croon to them in kitchens and living rooms throughout New York City. They’d hold their heads high in admiring awe, mouths gaping, as she sung about serious topics in beautiful rhythms: promiscuity, sexual frustration, depression. Songs that were mechanically scant but poetically opaque. On many occasions it didn’t even have to be a party, sometimes Connie would play to an audience of one, or three. Connie had a deep speaking voice unique for a woman, and when she sang it was pure and sheer. Her confessional, soulful lyrics spoke of a woman in deep pain. But the stillness of her voice was able to mask these ills.
“Connie, you must come over tonight,” moaned Sheila, one of the executive secretaries. Connie couldn’t remember which executive as there were too many. Sheila was a total contrast to Connie. Her hair was perfectly coiffed and dyed blonde, and her skin-tight skirts and high heeled shoes were designed to be noticed. Her efforts paid off. She was noticed by the men who lusted and the women who judged. She spoke in an infantile voice, as though she was a victim of her own glamour. “I’m so upset I’ve missed ‘your little concerts.’” Whenever Sheila mentioned Connie’s little concerts she used air quotes. “Come over tonight, it’s Friday afterall. I’ll invite Thomas, wouldn’t that be a hoot!?”
Thomas was their work colleague who had a special appreciation for Connie’s company. The same could not be said for Connie, who felt awkward around the idea of potential romance of any kind.
“I don’t know Sheila, I’ve had a long week, I’d rather go home and go to sleep early.”
“Oh come on! I’m feeling left out. Everyone around here talks about how wonderful your songs are, and here I am, like some schmuck, ignorant of what all the fuss is about.” Sheila’s eyes were wide open, her mouth a pout — she thought what she put over on men would also work on women. There were times that it did.
Connie was irritated, she had been editing an article with a tight deadline when Sheila approached her desk. She sighed. “How many people will be there?”
“Not a whole lot! Just a few, no more than ten. I’m sure I can wrangle some of the guys from the office who’ve seen you perform to come by too, I’m sure they will! Especially Thomas.”
Connie rolled her eyes. She could care less about Thomas, he was not really someone she spent time considering. But Sheila was of the ilk that a woman was only valuable if she was considered attractive by a man. She had to be desired and if she wasn’t she had no real worth at all.
“Fine, I’ll come by. And I’ll bring my guitar,” Connie said, pretending to sound defeated. The truth is though, she loved performing, as much as she loved the applause and adoration that was lavished on her throughout the evening.
She arrived promptly that evening at Sheila’s apartment in Brooklyn to learn that she was the last guest to show up. She had not changed out of her work clothes, and did not do very much to prepare her physical appearance for the occasion. Instead, during her time at home she had practiced ardently, selecting which songs she would perform and in what order and what she would say in-between song breaks — carefully cultivating a show that would impress Sheila’s guests.
During these performances Connie would bring along not only her guitar, but her Crestwood 404 tape-recorder. It was with her wherever she performed, and if she deemed the quality from the evening magical enough, she would send the recordings to record companies in the hopes that they would be as moved by her musical gifts as her friends were.
“Oh how lovely you came,” gushed Sheila as Connie entered the apartment. “I was afraid you would change your mind, which would have absolutely devastated me. I’ve been telling everyone how much this evening means to me. My parents are even here!” Sheila took Connie’s coat and whispered in her ear, “That’s them over there in the corner near the window. Look! Wave.” Sheila’s parents waved back, eyes wide, mouths full of porcelain coloured teeth.
“Oh great, great to hear Sheila, thank you very much.” Connie said, trying to appear casual. Connie carried her guitar case towards the chesterfield, where she assumed she would be performing. Sheila clapped her hands loudly, “Excuse me everyone! Excuse me! We have a special guest tonight. I’ll let her introduce herself!”
Connie cleared her throat. She was standing cautiously. “Hello everyone, as some of you already know I’m Connie, it’s nice to be here with you all.” She shook the hands of those close to her and nodded her head. “I heard that I will be playing some songs for you tonight.”
“Yes Connie! It’s why everyone is here!” Sheila was ecstatic.
Connie sheepishly whispered, “Oh, I wasn’t aware of that.”
“Don’t be so modest! You’re all the talk around the office these days. Connie this and Connie that. If I wasn’t so pretty I’d start to get jealous. I have half the mind to sabotage you somehow. Aren’t I horrible!” Sheila let out a sharp chuckle and motioned for Connie to sit down. “Everyone, come around now, come around, it’s time for the entertainment to begin!”
Connie watched as the audience assembled themselves. There was Thomas, handsome, plain and tall as ever, near the punch bowl, glass freshly poured. He offered Sheila’s parents a seat and grabbed a couple of chairs from the kitchen.
When they were all settled Connie removed her guitar and began to strum, adjusting the chords. She cleared her throat and began, “Thank you everyone for being here. I must admit, I’m a tad embarrassed yet flattered, Sheila hadn’t told me that you all agreed to attend this evening’s soiree because of me. It’s a delight that you would take the time on a Friday night to listen as I play for you my simple songs. So without further delay, I would like to begin.”
The audience that gathered in the humble apartment politely clapped their hands before Connie began. Then she played like she did each and every time: with sincerity. “A lady never should habituate saloons, And that is where I find myself on many afternoons, But just as I begin to blow away the foam, Someone tips his hat to me and takes me home.” They applauded, and cheered when she finished the song. They smiled, and cried after every number. When she was finished she breathed deeply, intoxicated by their idolization of her. She said thank you and bowed her head meekly, but she felt the thrill at being loved for what she loved to do.
She placed her guitar back in its case and stood with the guests, now free to drink as much wine and smoke as many cigarettes as she wanted. Connie had taken up smoking and drinking upon her arrival in New York City. She felt it elevated her image as an artiste — she now had credibility as a deliberate and severe songstress.
After she poured herself a glass of wine she turned to Sheila who was extending her arms for an embrace. Connie pointed at her glass of wine, signalling for Sheila to back off. “Oh. Oh dear! Well, that was simply spectacular Connie, it truly was. What a lovely evening, thank you so much Connie. I’ll be talking about this forever!” Connie could sense the insincerity in that statement. Connie was invited because Sheila felt left out. That if Connie one day made it and released a record, Sheila could say that she was there from the beginning. That Connie Converse had even performed in her living room. Sheila’s vacuousness didn’t matter to Connie though. She was happy to share her songs.
“Thank you Sheila, it was nice. I mean it, truly nice.” With that Sheila’s face lit up.
“You know who else really loved it? I mean, he loved it more than I did probably…. Thomas!” Connie rolled her eyes. “Oh Connie don’t act so shy.” The two turned slightly to see that Thomas was staring at them. Sheila’s smile grew and she waved her hand as an invitation for him to join them. He walked gingerly forward, Scotch firmly in hand. He was unsure if Connie wanted to speak to him.
“Hello Connie, how are you?” He asked confidently.
“I’m well Thomas, thanks for asking. Yourself?”
“Oh my, after that little show you put on, I’m really well too. That was beautiful music. So sad, but also so lovely.” Thomas was a soft-skinned man, with long features and blonde hair that was beginning to grey by the sides. At the publishing house he worked as a marketer, and was noted for his strong work ethic.
“Oh my is right,” interrupted Sheila, fanning herself with some napkins, “I’m going to let you two talk a little more. If you need anything, just call out for me!” Sheila departed with a girlish giggle and left Thomas and Connie alone together.
Connie looked up at Thomas, “She’s quite the character isn’t she?” They both laughed , hands covering their mouths watching Sheila scurry about the room.
“Well yes. She dresses like that both at home and work, consider that!”
“As long as she’s happy I suppose.” Connie mulled this over before admitting, “She seems quite happy.” Connie wasn’t sure in that moment if she was envious. Sheila was the confident, happy, adventurous kind. She wasn’t moody, but consistent. Thoughtful about others even if it was a tad self-serving.
“Are you happy?” Thomas asked.
“I’m content, what about you?”
“Content. Yes, that’s a good answer. It’s sufficient. It’s not negative or positive, simply neutral. But what makes you happy?”
“Playing music clearly. My job. Writing.”
“But you’re a woman,” Thomas said innocently, mocking Connie flirtatiously. “Impossible for you to be successful with a musical career. I mean, you write all your music by yourself. Not many musicians do that.”
Connie was offended by this, but remained silent as Thomas continued. “I’ve never heard of a woman who writes and performs her own music. None that have found any success at least.”
“Thanks for the encouragement Thomas.”
“Well listen here, I didn’t mean anything by that. It’s the reality.”
“You know Thomas, I’ll do what I can to be successful. Seems more than you’re capable of. What do you do other than work? What are your hobbies? Can you sing? Can you play an instrument? Or do you simply flip on a record and smugly consider yourself better than those who can? Criticizing people for doing things you can’t do!”
Thomas took a step back. He had struck a chord and knew it. He didn’t consider his words carefully enough. “Listen Connie, I apologize. I was inarticulate and thoughtless. Of course you’ll find success.”
Connie glared back at her opponent, at least now that’s what she considered him. She felt briefly that she overreacted, but didn’t care if she had. “Thank you for the chat. I think I’ll collect my belongings and head home. I’m tired.”
As Connie turned Thomas raised his hands in the air with a shrug, perplexed by what had transpired.
Connie found Sheila and asked for her coat. Sheila was upset, pleading with Connie to stay. “Why are you leaving? You only got here an hour ago!”
“I’m tired Sheila. I put in a full week of work and I want to go home to sleep. Please tell your guests that it was a pleasure to entertain them.”
“Oh okay. Here.” Sheila handed Connie her coat and helped her put it on. “Well, again Connie, I thank you too. You didn’t really have to come here tonight but I’m very grateful that you did. It was a real pleasure for all of us.”
“You’re welcome Sheila. See you on Monday.”
Connie returned home in a panic. What if Thomas was right? What if she never found the success that she coveted? She had spent so much time pretending she didn’t want it bad enough, but she really did. The prospect of not being noticed for her talent defeated her, depressed her. She sat the tape recorder of her evening’s performance on the coffee table and listened back. She could hear her voice, her strumming. It was so real to her, the emotion, the devotion, the complete commitment to her craft. Maybe Thomas was right. She was too different. Women in the 50s weren’t writing their own songs. And so confessional. It wouldn’t work. But she didn’t know how to be anyone other than who she was. She didn’t have a backup plan.
The next morning Connie mailed a copy of her ‘little concert’ to her brother Phil and his new wife, Jean, who now lived in Ann Arbor. She did this once a month. If she felt the quality was there. With each package she included a heartfelt and thoughtful letter. One line worried Phil, “Being a complex and inward personality, I have always found it difficult to make myself known. I generally conceal my own problems and listen attentively to those of others.” This was accurate, Connie was a listener, she used the emotions from the confessions of others to inspire her music. But for Phil it seemed a dark thing to write, as though she was downtrodden, sick of rejection, sick of not being seen by those she felt should see her.
In spite of her brooding Connie continued her efforts to have her music heard. One friend, Gerald, wanted very much to find her success. They had met one weekday evening at an old saloon in Harlem, when Connie first moved to New York. In the beginning, after work, she would spend her evenings bar hopping, choosing a new neighbourhood to acquaint herself with. She found the alcohol brought the muses that would then inform her songs.
Gerald was a beet-red faced, rotund man with a thin moustache, and greasy black hair that he slicked back with a fine tooth comb. He was known for wearing the same dark mustard slacks and beige dress shirt that he complemented with a brown tie. This, they laughed, was his uniform.
“You’ve got what it takes,” Gerald said one afternoon drinking red wine and smoking Ronson cigarettes in Connie’s apartment. She had recently confessed to Gerald about her conversation with Thomas. “Fuck him. There’s not a single person more deserving of fame than you.”
“Gerald, I told you, fame is not a concern for me. I want people to hear my songs, to feel my lyrics,” she said with passion. “That’s what means the most to me. To make my living doing what I’m good at, what I love.”
Gerald waved his hand dismissing what she had said. “Sweetheart, you can have both! Fame and respect!” He set about using his connections as a junior television producer to find Connie a larger audience. And he came close, landing her a spot on a morning talk show where she could showcase her talent. She was excited at the opportunity. For the occasion she went to Macy’s and purchased a new yellow sundress. On the day of the broadcast Connie brought along her guitar and nothing else for the performance. She was permitted one song, and so she thought, How Sad, How Lovely was apropos — it perfectly described how she saw life. The host, Walter Cronkite was his name, introduced her. There was no studio audience, only the crew and luckier for Connie, the taping wasn’t live. If she made a mistake she was allowed to do as many takes as she liked. She felt that she might make many, considering her nerves. As the lights dimmed and the spotlight shone she became sullen singing, “How sad, how lovely, how short, how sweet, to see that sunset at the end of the street. And the lights going on in the shops and the bars, and the lovers looking for the first little stars. Like life, like a smile, like the fall of a leaf, how sad, how lovely, how brief.”
When she was finished she shook Walter’s hands, said thank you to the staff, got up and went home. The performance was moot, there were no other calls for on-air performances, no offers from record producers. Her music remained as it always was, underappreciated by anyone other than friends.
Fair enough is the phrase she resigned to herself. It only provided more time for her other hobbies: composing poetry, painting, drawing cartoons, taking road trips. She loved to venture outside of the city, the state. Once during one of her holidays she went to Toronto, Canada. Gerald told her not to, that it was boring. He had been there years prior and insisted there was nothing to do. But she had read in the New York Times that there were many beaches and the summers were warm. Also, they had recently built their first subway not two decades earler! So she went, by herself, which she preferred.
When she arrived downtown she was surprised with how clean and quiet the streets were. She was similarly stunned with how bare the highway to her hotel was. She went nearly 30 minutes before sharing the road with another car.
When she had settled into her hotel room on Dundas and Jarvis Streets, Connie took to the night looking for a local watering hole to spend a couple of hours. She settled on Fly by Night, mostly because when she entered, the all female patrons stared back at her. Too embarrassed to leave, she moved forward. She found a spot at the bar and waited to be served. She observed the juices and herbal teas along the bar, and for a second, thought she had made a terrible mistake.
“What can I help you with ma’am?” The bartender, a slight young woman with long thin hair looked at Connie with a smirk.
Connie lowered her voice and leaned in. “Do you sell alcohol?”
The young woman leaned in as well. “We do. But, we try to keep it low key.”
Connie looked perplexed and pulled back from the bartender. “Why?”
“To be honest, there’s been a lot of problems with alcoholism in the neighbourhood recently. The owners are trying to stop it. Along with the teas and the juices, they’ve asked us not to push alcohol on anyone. So we’ve kinda hid it all.”
“I see,” said Connie. Was she an alcoholic she asked herself. “I’ll have a bourbon, neat.”
“We’ve got Harper, are you into that? Connie nodded her head. “Okay then,” said the bartender, “Coming up.”
Connie watched keenly as the woman prepared her drink. The bartender placed the glass in front of Connie, then stepped back with her arms folded.
“You from around here?”
“No. I’m from the States. Thought I’d give Toronto a visit. Read some good things about it.”
“Ahhh.. that’s nice. It can be quite boring here for Americans, or at least that’s what they tell me. But a lot of the women think it’s a little more laid back here for them than say, New York City.”
“That’s where I’m from. Or where I live. I’m originally from somewhere you’ve never heard of I’m sure.” Connie glanced around the bar. She couldn’t find a man in sight.
“It’s a dyke bar, honey,” said the bartender, with a subtle laugh. “No men come here unless they’re drunk, dumb or horny. Mostly if they do they’re all three.”
Connie felt foolish that she hadn’t put this together more quickly. She wasn’t accustomed to having her ignorance exposed. She was rarely ignorant. “I see.”
“What’s the matter, you don’t have dyke bars back home? I’ve been to NYC and I can assure you that they do.”
“I know,” admitted Connie. “Sorry, I wasn’t looking for a dyke bar, but that appears to be what I found.”
“Yeah, I know. As long as you’re not going to cause any problems, you can stay.”
“I’m fine, really. I just feel stupid that’s all.”
“Should have known. Don’t think I’m stupid, and I have no business judging. Really, I don’t.”
The bartender smiled, without a hint of sarcasm this time. “I don’t think you’re stupid. Tell me, what do you do?”
Connie rolled her eyes, “Oh my it’s so boring to speak about work, especially when I’m trying to forget it.”
I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to pry.”
“No no, you aren’t. I’ll tell you what I love to do. I love to play my guitar and sing my songs.”
The bartender’s face brightened. “Like Joni Mitchell?”
Connie smirked. “Yeah, but I was doing what she’s doing twenty years ago.”
“What are you doing tomorrow?”
“Do you mind?” Connie mildly waved her cigarette pack. She wouldn’t usually ask but she had noticed that no one in the bar was smoking when she lit her cigarette. The bartender nodded her head that she didn’t. “I have no plans to tell you the truth. Was planning on walking around and taking pictures, stopping by a couple of bars for drinks. Smoking.”
“Well, there’s a potluck and dance tomorrow night at the Christian Studies over on Charles Street. Lots of mature women like yourself attend, sometimes I go. Thought I’d mention it if you get tired of the bars. It’s real low key and you can drink, no worries about that.”
Connie took a breath, inhaled and exhaled a plume of smoke and wrinkled her face a little to show that she was thinking about it. “Mature women. Maybe. How about you write the address down for me, and if I’m not too tired tomorrow night, I’ll give it a shot.”
“Yeah of course. We always love to see new faces. Not like this lot here. None of these bitches are gonna come up and talk to you. They’re bitches.”
Connie laughed heartily. “I see that.” She gulped what was left of her bourbon and asked to settle up.
“$2.50,” said the bartender.
Connie laid a fiver on the bar. “Well, maybe I’ll see you tomorrow. By the way, what’s your name?”
“Nice to meet you Belinda. I’m Connie.”
“Hope to see you again Connie.” They both made eye contact and nodded their heads before Connie turned her back to the bar and beelined for the door.
Connie entered the humid summer Toronto air with a confused smile on her face. What had just happened? Was Belinda making the moves on her? Nah, she couldn’t have been. Connie was far too old for her she thought. It didn’t matter anyway, Connie wasn’t queer. She wasn’t a dyke. She wasn’t really anything. She always was a lone wolf, not really attracted to either sex, happy enough to be left alone.
She tried a few other bars in close proximity to her hotel before she returned to her room. She was drunk. Her clothes and hair reeked of cigarette smoke. But she was too exhausted to remove her clothes, to wash up. So she fell asleep.
The following day she woke late, nursed her hangover as best she could through coffee, cigarettes and the pastries she picked up at a nearby bakery. She went to High Park, dressed in a white blouse that she tucked into her flared brown slacks. Today wasn’t the day for skirts she believed. It was hazy and, at times, the sun would peek through the clouds and wash over her. She was weak from too many drinks the night prior and took many breaks on benches, or rocks, or at times, she would squat and hold her head in her hands moaning.
By the time evening rolled around her hangover had vanished and she was prepared to drink again. She walked to the address that Belinda had provided and stood at the front door listening closely. She heard the sound of women laughing, talking, gossiping, telling dirty jokes. Her hand rested on the knob of the heavy mahogany door a little while longer imagining what she would say when she walked in. Would Belinda be open and introduce her to some of her friends? Would she tell them all about her musical ability? Would they ask her to play for them? Would they understand her lyrics, take to them, embrace them as so many of her friends had?
In the end Connie decided to walk away. She returned to her hotel and changed her flight. She would leave in the morning.
When she landed in New York she felt despondent. Back to the same grind that she was familiar with. Within a month Academy Photo Offset was sold to a company out of state and she was soon out of a job that she had grown to love. Two decades of loyalty rewarded with abandonment. She grew tired of attempting to sell her songs in New York. With no job and no musical career, nearing 50, Connie moved to Ann Arbor where her brother was a professor of political science at the University of Michigan.
But the depression increased, as did the smoking and drinking. There were too many dark days. During one of her more depressive episodes Mary took her daughter on a trip to Alaska. Connie’s mother disapproved of her daughter’s life. She believed the cigarettes and saloons contributed to Connie’s melancholy. These habits starkly contrasted with her parents’ strict Baptist convictions, ideas Connie had long rejected. The trip was meant to cure her. And for a bit it seemed to help. They took long drives across the state, stopping for hikes in the woods, dinners at lodges. She even got to see a white moose as it crossed the road in front of her. “My God,” she exclaimed to her mother. “Have you ever seen anything so beautiful?”
Mary thought that this was the antidote to her daughter’s malaise. All she had needed was a break from urban life.
When Connie returned to her apartment in Ann Arbor she sat on her bed and stared at the walls, the picture frames, the carpet. She packed her belongings in the back of her VW bug and drove away forever. Before she left, she called her family, spoke to her parents and Phil, explained her need to start over. “Let me be if I can,” she told them, “Let me not be if I can’t.”
“Elizabeth,” Mary quivered over the telephone. “What are you talking about?” But there were no words Connie could express to convey how she felt, no hysterics she could expel that would convey to them how defeated she felt by life. And with that, Connie hung up the receiver. She drove all the way to Canada.
It was a rather grey and dreary day. November 1975. Connie ventured to Charles Sauriol Conservation Reserve adjacent to the Don Valley Parkway to watch the salmon run. Along her morning walk she noticed something laying motionless in the river. With her trusted Wellington boots, she ventured into the water by carefully descending the bedrock, stepping conscientiously against the current until she found a fish who didn’t make it. The salmon run is an arduous journey. By instinct alone, the chinook salmon begin their pilgrimage from the mouth of Lake Ontario and venture to the Lower Don River — to where Connie stands now — and beyond. Many do not survive. For passersby, who are, or were ignorant of such a display, it’s a spectacle to behold. There was no better day than today, when it is drizzly and somewhat brisk, to catch the show. Connie had read about the run in a tourist brochure she found at the public library a few years prior, and though she lived close to the Don River, she never thought until yesterday to see it for herself. She stood there a long time and stared down at the carcass lying at the bottom of the river, weighed down by the bloat of decay. It must have, during the evening or even the day, been overwhelmed with exhaustion; he could muster no more energy, his reserves emptied.
Connie wept a little, barely any tears really. The torment of seeing death so plain and clear was humbly released from within her. Small whimpers expressing anguish expelled from her mouth before she righted herself. In one of her last correspondences to her brother before she vanished from her family member’s lives, Connie wrote, “Life fascinates me and awes me and fills me with grief and joy — there is so much emotion in every experience — sometimes I just can’t find my place to plug into it. To cope and move forward, to leave the past behind.” Nothing really had changed. Connie laboured too long on what could have been, what had been, that it left her frozen, incapable of setting a conventional course that would please others.
The weather wouldn’t choose what it wanted to be. One minute it was raining lightly, then pelting so hard Connie could hear each drop land on her charcoal rain hat. Then it was drizzling, which was more bearable. Before Connie left her apartment for her morning excursion she had prepared for the forecast wearing not only her Wellington boots, but a jaunty rain poncho. It was probably quite a sight for those who passed her on the path, she must have looked like a raving lunatic. A mad old cat lady.
As Connie stood next to this lifeless body she could see not far from where she stood a school of salmon preparing to leap over the river drop. This must have been what did most of them in. The current was swift, and the water levels had risen on account of the rain. She kept her eyes readily focused as the fish swam with the current before briskly turning, gathering their energy and ample courage to dart swiftly forward to make their jump. None succeeded in the time that Connie observed them. A few almost made it, but quickly fell backwards, mercilessly.
After one too many grimaces at their failed attempts Connie continued on her way. This is how she spends most of her days since the hysterectomy. Odds and ends. She endured a short period of convalescence before her energy began to return; though she is not her old self, she’s getting there. It’s been challenging, to say the least, she tells those who listen.
She now works at a small publishing house on Berkeley Street, downtown. She’s even been published by the Globe and Mail, and the Body Politic: short stories, personal essays, the like. It keeps her busy, but not too busy. She makes time for her hobbies: writing songs, poetry and painting.
To their credit Connie thought, her family respected her wish to be left alone. She had no knowledge that any effort had been made to locate her, which suited her fine. She was accustomed to a life of loneliness, it is what soothed her. Still she couldn’t help but be disappointed that there wasn’t even a cursory attempt on their part to find her.
Several years after Connie left, someone told Phil that they had seen a phone book listing for “Elizabeth Converse” in either Kansas or Oklahoma, but he never pursued the lead. Then one night, while looking at old photographs of his sister, he persuaded his wife and the rest of the family to hire a private investigator in hopes of finding her. The investigator told the family, however, that even if he did find her, it was her right to disappear, and he could not simply bring her back. Since then, Phil respected her decision to leave, and ceased looking for her. To this day, Phil suspects that his sister may have taken her own life. That she had driven her car into a body of water. Maybe he thinks this way because it’s an easy out. He can forgive himself for letting her leave him so easily.
Connie continued her morning walk along the river, eventually coming towards a steep hill that would take her off the path and onto Lawrence Street, the cars passing by.
In her final letter to Phil before she moved to Canada, Connie included a cheque, and requested that he make sure that her health insurance was paid for and in good standing for a certain amount of time following her departure. She believed it might be a real possibility that she’d return one day. But she also wrote in the same letter that he should cease paying the policy on a certain date.
One day, a decade after reading his sister’s final letter to him, Phil did as he was told.