Writers of fiction rely heavily on imagination, but claiming that their works are totally made up would be far from the truth. It’s impossible to keep life experiences from influencing what eventually ends up on the page. I admit to drawing heavily on my past, as well as my daily life to add depth and authenticity to my works of fiction, and I spend a great deal of time observing people in order to get fresh ideas. Barely a day goes by without my making a mental or written note about someone or something that has caught my attention. At some point in the future a detail of that person or situation might make its way into a novel or a short story, regardless of how unremarkable it originally appeared. Occasionally, however, I see or hear something so out of the ordinary that it’s like a gift.
* * *
Six lanes of traffic speed east and west, but pedestrians in this neighbourhood prefer to dodge the vehicles, rather than make the short trip to either end of the block where streetlights give ample time for crossing. I know this, not because I’m one of the jaywalkers, but because I can see them from my kitchen window. The Russian Roulette of street crossing didn’t start until the shopping centre was constructed on the south side a few years ago. At first I was morbidly fascinated by the foolhardy souls who were bent on beating the odds. Now I purposely avoid looking in that direction, not wanting to witness the imminent carnage.
One day not long ago, however, my curiosity triumphed over my caution, thanks to the woman. When I spotted her, she was marooned in the middle of the road. Vehicles flew by in both directions, seemingly oblivious to her presence, even though she was a startling sight. Having travelled successfully through three lanes of traffic, she was now bent forward from the waist at a ninety degree angle, and twisted slightly so that one shoulder was higher than the other. She appeared to be looking for something.
She was elderly and small of stature, and her position would have made her almost disappear amongst the cars and buses, were it not for her clothing. She was dressed from head to foot in white; a woolen hat covered her hair and forehead, and a full-length down-filled coat almost touched her white snow boots. Her attire would have been perfect during the endless winter months, but buds were finally beginning to appear on the trees.
On closer inspection I became aware that she was not in fact looking for something on the road, but was permanently contorted into that position. My alarm at this realization prompted me to question what pressing reason would motivate such a physically vulnerable person to take such a chance. Her determination to make it across the remaining three lanes, however, was obvious. She continually shifted her focus between the oncoming traffic and a definite spot just beyond the street. This action involved a rotation of her whole body, which threatened to topple her directly into the path of the oncoming vehicles. I followed the line of her gaze, and spotted her goal. On the far side of the street, nestled into the branches of a still-bare Forsythia hedge, was a re-purposed grocery cart overflowing with her worldly possessions.
A week later I saw the woman again. I was walking by Tim Hortons, marvelling at the number of cars that snaked around the corner and into the Drive Thru, spewing exhaust as they inched their way towards that early morning cup of coffee. There in line, nestled between a looming Escalade and a battered minivan, was the woman. She still wore her white, winter clothing. She was still bent over, but this time she was pushing her precious cart. She followed the minivan as it inched forward, and when she reached the intercom …
* * *
Some aspects of my encounters with the woman as I have described them are true; some are fiction. Were I to continue working on a story or novel based on or including my original experiences, my imagination would become even more involved. By the end of the crafting process, my sightings would have become mere snapshots in the album of her fictional life.