FLORENCE, FLORENCE TREADWELL, WHERE ARE YOU?
by Mary J. Breen
I spotted their ad at the Chamber of Commerce where I’d gone in search of a local map. There among the ads for B&Bs, pizzas, and cottages for rent was a little pink flier: “Poetry Writing Group. New members and guests always welcome. Tuesdays, 7-8:30, above The Sugar ’n Spice. Contact: Herbert Ezra Thompson. I thought the name Ezra boded well, but what really caught me was the poem they’d included at the bottom written by someone named Florence Treadwell. It was called “Visit,” a lovely piece about an absent father, just the kind of poem I’m a sucker for. I figured if someone in this group could write that well, I’d happened upon a wonderful bonus while I was roughing it in the bush. Besides, I figured they might like to meet a real published author, not to mention one all the way from BC. I think it’s our duty as artists to share our talents.
So I called up Herbert Ezra. He was very sweet, and welcoming. He asked if I was new in the area, and when I told him I was just house-sitting for the summer, he knew right away that I must be Laura’s “lady friend from out west.” I suppose here in the back of beyond they don’t have much to do besides keeping track of each other.
But I’m very grateful to the peace and quiet of Laura’s house. I need to get this damned manuscript done before the fall; then maybe, M&S will take a look at it. And of course it might give me the opportunity to meet a local character or two. We writers have to keep an eye open for material. Small towns abound in characters; everyone knows that. And besides, I’ve always been a good judge of people.
Herbert Ezra seemed very pleased when I told him I was a published poet. I also told him I’ve taught many poetry classes, and I’d be happy to give people a few pointers if they’d be interested. He sounded very grateful.
And so that night I walked down to the main street, called Main Street, and found The Sugar ‘n Spice. It turned out not to be a coffee shop, but a hair salon, a tiny little storefront with pale, faded cut-outs of fancy ladies in 1950s ball gowns glued to the front window. Beside the salon entrance was an open door leading to a. Sure enough, there on the wall was the same pink flier I had, and right beside it, a black arrow pointing up. So up I went. The top floor was all one room with the staircase leading down from a hole in the middle of the floor. It certainly can’t be safe not to have any railings around it. Three flickering, fluorescent lights buzzed away above us. I wondered why they bothered with them on such a lovely light evening. I made a mental note to tell them how dangerous those bulbs are. Perhaps living out here they don’t get to keep up as they might. The place smelled of perm solution and burned coffee.
Several older people were gathered around a tray of donuts and a coffee urn, shaking little sugar packs and throwing creamer cups into the trash. A few others were chatting as they fanned themselves with miniature pads of paper. As I reached the top step, every head turned as one, and everyone—everyone but a sad-looking young man over by the window—smiled broadly. One very wrinkly woman even waved. An old Venetian blind rattled in the cross-breeze, but the room was very warm.
“Hello dear! Meredith, isn’t it?” one woman rushed towards me. “Welcome, welcome. I’m Dorothy.” She was wearing a plain white shirt, navy blue skirt, and running shoes. She took my hand, and led me over to meet two other older women, Margaret and Evelyn, who were standing by the coffee. Someone tried to press a cup on me, but I showed them my BPA-free water bottle. One of them asked what it was!
Everyone else was in jeans or shorts, often with matching tee-shirts, one all in red, another in bright yellow. All very tight. I guess they’ve seen thinner days. I hoped they would pick up some fashion ideas from my sundress, shawl, and sunhat. I looked around for who might be the wonderful Florence Treadwell; I couldn’t imagine she would ever wear outfits like these.
Herbert Ezra pattered over to shake my hand. He was tiny and bent over like a keen, hungry mouse. Just then one of the women pulled a little bell out of her purse, and rang it, just once. Herbert Ezra curled his finger for me to follow him to the circle of wooden chairs. He patted the one beside him and we all took our spots.
They began by saying a little prayer for divine guidance. Dorothy—it occurs to me she might be a nun as she had a largish cross around her neck—invoked the assistance of St. Francis de Sales, patron saint of writers. Who knew? Then Herbert Ezra introduced me simply as Meredith, the person looking after the old Blakely house. It must have slipped his mind to mention my two poetry collections, but someone did ask me what I write: stories or poems? I said I prefer to think I write literature. They looked blank, so I told them I mostly wrote poetry of late, but I had had a collection of essays published a few years ago. “Essays? Like in school?” someone asked, and I just said, “Well, no, but like the kind published in The Atlantic.”
“That’d be down east, right?” the same woman said.
The woman in red suddenly said, “Oh!” and reached into her bag and pulled out a plastic bag of chocolate chip cookies. She leaned across and handed them to me. “They’re for you, dear. Heard you were coming. Welcome to our town and welcome to our group!”
I thanked her, tucked the cookies away, and withdrew my notebook and pen from my purse. Perhaps I made a little more noise than necessary taking my poetry manuscript out of the notebook. Herbert Ezra turned to me. “Don’t worry, Meredith. We won’t be putting you on the spot on your very first night. Maybe in a few weeks. Besides, we’ve got some keeners all set and ready.” Everyone, except the young man, chuckled. “OK, Dorothy, all set?” So after making a special effort to come, they just ignored me. I thought about saying I’d just come back in a few weeks when they were ready for me.
Then Dorothy, the nun perhaps, began with a poem about God and love. It was all done in rhyming couplets, and it bore witness to the innocent beauty of rainbows, little children, and daffodils in spring. I remember that “lads and lasses” rhymed with “daffodils in the grasses.” I wanted to ask why on earth she felt obliged to make everything rhyme, but it’s a good thing I kept quiet, as soon several people were praising her remarkable skills in the rhyming department. Someone said, “Now that’s a real poem for ya.”
Then Herbert Ezra read one about the barnyard, full of what you might step in and what the barnyard boy animals were forever trying to do with the barnyard girl animals. I thought one woman was going to need resuscitation she laughed so hard. I didn’t want to meet anyone’s eye as I didn’t want to a) laugh or b) cry, so I thought instead I’d make a few notes. In some ways it was all too good to be true. When I opened my notebook, right inside was the pink flier with Florence Treadwell’s words: “My father, sparing of words…” There was no sparing of words here.
And so it went. The room didn’t get any cooler with the setting sun pouring in, and I was glad to have my manuscript to fan myself with while I listened to a poem on the death of a new puppy when the woman was a little girl. It could have been touching except she used words like “heretofore” and “forthwith” and “despoil” and, get this, her pet was of “the canine persuasion.” There was another that began, “The chicken doth scratch and look for grain, while the rooster crows and looks for gain,” and finally, after several more excruciating ones, it was the young man’s turn. Jason. Everyone pulled themselves up a little straighter and held their mouths a little tighter. If they’d been more familiar with urban lingo I think they’d have been even more dismayed, as it was clearly about sexual frustration and someone named Leslie. I’m sure it’s a young man. No one said a single word, so I told him I thought his use of metaphors was very skilful. I also praised his fresh new voice and his gift for understatement, but he just sat there hanging his head. Everyone else continued to stare straight ahead, until Herbert Ezra cut in to thank him, and quickly went on to a man who’d written something called “Life Happens” mostly made up of lines like, “Some days you wake up and there’s no coffee in the can. Life happens,” and “Some days you can’t get a thing done, no matter how hard you try. Life happens.” They clapped a lot for that one.
Before I knew it, the hour and a half had sped by, and it was time for me to make my permanent escape. I stood and all eyes turned to me. Herbert Ezra assured me I’d have time to read before long, but I quickly said I wasn’t sure I’d be in town, nor if I’d have anything ready. Then I remembered Florence Treadwell, and I thought how lonely she must be among these philistines, and how glad she’d probably be to meet a like-minded person like moi with whom she could discuss literature and real poetry. “Before I go, I did want to ask about Florence Treadwell. I notice she isn’t here. Is she away this week?”
“Who? Florence? We don’t have a—?”
“Florence Treadwell, the woman whose poem you put on your flier.”
“Oh!” Herbert Ezra laughed. “We don’t know her. Susanna over here,” the wrinkly woman waved again, “she heard this Florence person read one time down there in Port Hope, didn’t you, Susanna? That’s where this Florence lives, not way up here. Susanna just thought it would be nice to put her poem on the flier.”
My look of dismay apparently reminded Herbert Ezra of something. “Some day I’ll forget my head,” he said. “What we want to tell you is that the people at EOAPA—the Eastern Ontario Amateur Poets Alliance, but no one calls them that—are having a poetry night in Smiths Falls, and they asked me if anyone from our group would like to read at it. So I’ve given them your name. We thought you’d like this chance as you might not be here any other year, and we can always read another time. What do you think?”
It didn’t take me long to agree. I told them how flattered and honoured I was to have them put their faith in me, and promised to represent them to the best of my ability. Everyone gave me a round of applause. They really do mean well.
Now, two weeks later, just two days before the event, after I’d chosen the best of my poems from my oeuvre—the best for a possibly rural and certainly less sophisticated crowd than I’m used to in BC—the letter arrived from EOAPA. It seems there’s a theme every year, and this year it’s the Canadian north. And there I am on the list. Right at the very end. And the poems I’ll be reading have already been chosen! I’m to read something by Robert Service and something by Florence Treadwell.
Bio: Mary J. Breen teaches creative nonfiction and seniors’ memoir writing. She has written two books about women’s health; and her essays have been broadcast on CBC Radio, and her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in national newspapers, essay collections, travel magazines, health journals, and literary magazines. She lives and works in Peterborough, Ontario, Canada