NOTE: “The Story Of The Month” changes every month OR bi-monthly and might also have been featured in my collection DOWN INDEPENDENCE BOULEVARD published by MiddleRoad Publishers in 2017 and available on Amazon, or might be an Extract from my two novels RACING WITH THE RAIN and JUNTA.
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Down Independence Boulevard: and other stories
by Ken Puddicombe
December –The Touch Of Peace
Jan – The Interview
Feb – The Underground [2nd Prize Polaris Magazine]
Mar –Welcome To Punta Canada
APR – Return Of The Prodigal [from Down Independence Boulevard and Other Stories]
MAY- No Thank You
JUNE – The Shoplifter
JULY/ AUGUST: The Last Straw [from Down Independence Boulevard and Other Stories]
SEPTEMBER/ OCTOBER: Relics In The Attic [from Down Independence Boulevard and Other Stories]
NOVEMBER: The Day Queen Victoria Lost Her head [Published in The Caribbean Writer]
DECEMBER— The Touch Of Peace
JANUARY/ FEBRUARY –The Effect Of Light Rays On The Milky Way and Minor Constellations
THE EFFECT OF LIGHT RAYS ON THE MILKY WAY AND MINOR CONSTELLATIONS ©
It had happened last Friday, anEnd-of-week boss taking you out to dinner event, ostensibly to tell him what a good job he was doing. But then came the crushing news, his boss trying to soften the blow and convince him it was not personal, but rather a sign of the times.
How could it not be anything butpersonal? He’d been expecting a raise, or perhaps even an elevation to Vice-President. And why was he the one? He’d always given more than a hundred percent to his job, a corporate man if ever there was one, someone who believed in and was loyal to his superiors.
Mitch wondered when he should tell Maricia and the kids. He had thought about it on the drive up from Toronto. Was there ever a good time to tell your wife and two kids their husband and father had lost his job, that he was no longer the main breadwinner of the family and had very few prospects in sight? That their entire lifestyle was about to change drastically?
He’d had the weekend and three more days to think about it, during which he’d felt as helpless as a man sitting on his rooftop, watching the floodwaters rise slowly, with no visible means of escaping the inundation. He was reluctant to break the news and put a damper on the planned trip up north. So, for the first three days of the work week, he’d dressed as usual and left the house as if he were still gainfully employed, fully knowing it was going to be the start of the most turbulent period in his life.
The area they were passing through on the return trip to Sault Ste. Marie was sparsely populated, a few structures occupying the flat landscape, a house here, a farm there, a road running through a small town. As the train slowed for a bend in the tracks and Mitch looked through the picture-window, he could understand the challenge the first surveyors would have faced to carve it out of the wilderness.
It all had to do with reference points. They would have had to rely on the interstellar system: the stars, the planets, the moon and the sun. And in addition to the heavenly bodies, it all came down to the horizon in the distance, longitude and latitude lines, minutes and seconds, a tripod and a good sextant.
The train passed over a culvert and fifteen feet below, children frolicked in the water of a stream that had shrunk in the summer heat. Above the clickety-clack of the wheels reverberating on the concrete walls of the gorge, came screams of elation and jubilation. Happiness was infectious, Mitch thought; easily spread around, like good news or a juicy piece of gossip. And the children—he looked at them, off from school, waving and shouting greetings to the passengers, not a care in the world, just living for the moment.
Mitch shook his head. It had something to do with innocence and lack of responsibility. He couldn’t help the cynicism creeping into his trend of thought, and before he knew it, he was thinking out loud: “Just give them a few more years, when they have to go out and work for a living and realise the responsibilities that come with it.”
Maricia raised her head from the magazine. “What’s that, Mitch?”
“Nothing,” Mitch said. “Just wondering about something.”
But he couldn’t help being pessimistic. Just wait until they’re faced with an economic downturn and lose their job after thirty-one years of dedicated service to the same company, with nothing more than a handshake and a severance package to show for it. Let’s see if they manage to retain their sense of excitement and exhilaration after that!
The train approached a barrier at a level crossing. Behind the barrier, vehicles queued—several cars, a truck loaded with construction material, a man with his bicycle leaning on one hip, watching, his eyes darting from window to window, looking, for what, or for whom? It was the age-old fascination with trains. The man might have seen the train passing up and down a thousand times on the same route, and yet it still held his attention. But, unlike the man, Mitch was finding it impossible to maintain a sense of enthusiasm over anything.
A whistle screamed out of the stillness, jarring him out of his reverie. If he could think of hisfirst reference point, what would it be? Would it be his first job in nineteen sixty-six with the Ministry of Northern Development and Mines in the government service? It had been a long haul and a far journey, both geographically and professionally speaking. Now, after thirty-three years with a private company, he was right back where he’d started—no job, no prospects, no future, and yet another reference point that needed to be established. Was it even possible to make a fresh start? Who wants to hire a fifty-three year old executive in an economic downturn? He was now in the unenviable position of: Too young to retire, too old to hire. Even if he did find a job, his last salary would be considered unmatchable. There were just too many younger graduates coming out, willing to work for far less, and no employer would want to hire him at a reduced salary and cope with the inevitable possibility of subsequent disenchantment over the lower compensation package.
He’d been trying the entire trip to anticipate how Maricia would take the news. He knew she would be devastated. Him being unemployed wasn’t something she expected—she’d grown accustomed to the good life his position and pay had brought. A high-paying position in a reputable company was the culmination of everything in life. Nothing else mattered, other than work, spouse and brood and her standing among her extended family of three sisters, two brothers, fifteen nephews and nieces, and countless cousins.
The train made its way through the rail yards to the station.
It was earlier this year, after he started winding down his out of town business travel and spending more time at home that he’d become aware of the increasing friction between mother and daughter. The car drive from Toronto on the first part of the trip to Sault Ste Marie had been peaceful and he’d been pleased that they hadn’t engaged in one of their infamous battles. After a while, though, he’d realised it was not goodwill defining their relationship for the trip—it was due to his presence, more as if they were co-existing, keeping in their own corner, like two prize fighters afraid of being called to task by the referee.
The peace and civility had lasted even beyond Sault Ste. Marie and through the train ride up to the Agawa Canyon. Perhaps it was the train ride itself that had done the trick. Apart from riding the subway in Toronto, it was the first time his children had traveled on a train in the countryside. The walk up to the top of the canyon itself had provided some excitement; they could see all the way to the other end of the valley, along the stream running down the center, the train itself looking like a toy-set on miniature rails. And, on the return trip, the kids had spotted a black bear in the woods. It was Aurelia who had seen it first and he could detect the excitement in her voice as she called them over to see the bear’s fast disappearing rump as it scampered off into the woods. In a few seconds, it came and went. A missed opportunity; like when they’d passed the farmhouse on the drive up. Fast moving rain clouds had shrouded the sky and when the cloud cover opened up, a rainbow appeared—a highway of brilliant sunshine streaming down to the ground. He’d been busy admiring the idyllic scene, thinking what a wonderful picture it would make, the composition, the lighting, all perfect, and just when he’d reached for his camera, the scene altered and the moment had passed.
They planned on having supper in the mall across from the train station when they arrived back in the Soo.
As they walked through the parking lot that was fast being emptied of tourist cars and vans, it struck Mitch as strange—for a late Thursday afternoon, there were very few people coming and going into the plaza. And there were no lights beyond the high, glass-enclosed entrance.
A boy in his early teens stood near the entrance, half-perched on the seat of his bicycle, one foot on the sidewalk, one of those positions that indicated he was about to go somewhere, but had not really decided on his his destination.
“Does the mall usually close this early?” Mitch said.
The boy shrugged and looked at him, in a querulous way that seemed to indicate: Don’t you know? You must be the only person who don’t know about this. And through a mouth-full of chewing gum, he said, “Not really. The ‘lectricity went out around two in the mall.”
“Oh,” Mitch said. “Is it confined to this area only?”
“Huh?” the boy said.
“Is the blackout elsewhere, or only in the mall?”
There was that puzzled look again. “All over,” the boy said.
“What do you mean by all over? You mean the entire city?”
There was a look of exasperation on the boy’s face, as if he thought he was dealing with a half-wit. The boy mounted his bicycle. As he catapulted off the sidewalk onto the parking lot, he looked back and said, “The whole city, all over Ontario, all over the U.S., mister.”
Mitch was about to shout: Do you know how long it’s supposed to last? But his view of the boy’s fast disappearing back told him that he’d already used up his quota of questions.
In the slow descent from the end of the day to dusk, from the time they left the parking lot, through the drive along Main Street and the search for a place to have supper, the sense of impotence and lack of control increased. Restaurants, supermarkets, diners all along the strip had closed early. Gas stations were unable to pump gas. Traffic was down to a hesitant crawl as people came to intersections and paused, unsure of the protocol in the absence of traffic lights. Sirens blared up and down—an accident, or someone who had given in to stress and collapsed, Mitch wondered.
Mitch pulled into the parking lot of a restaurant only to discover that it was closed. Two more restaurants down the street were also shuttered.
“I’m hungry, dad,” Junior whined from the back seat.
“This sucks,” Aurelia said. “When’s the stupid electricity going to come back on? I know we should have stayed in Toronto.”
“What are we going to do, Mitch?” Maricia said. “Should we drive out of town and find a place?”
As if they thought he had all the answers! Based on what the boy had said, the blackout extended to all of Northern Ontario, maybe even beyond that. It was bound to happen sooner or later: too many people consuming a dwindling pool of resources.
“We’re better off sticking it out here,” Mitch said. ”We could run out of gas if we leave.”
Two more cars drove into the parking lot and pulled out in a similar fashion, with precision and haste. The search was on. Mitch pictured a town filled with hungry people roaming around looking for food, like a pack of wolves on the prowl. Hungry people were angry people—there was no telling what they would do.
“There’s a sandwich and convenience place across the road,” Maricia said. “Maybe we can get something there.”
“I don’t want a sandwich,” Aurelia said. “I want a burger and some fries.”
“I’ll eat anything,” Junior said.
“All the burger joints we passed were closed,” Mitch said.
He exited the parking lot and drove over to the sandwich shop. There was a line stretching to outside the front door and by the time he came out of the car, two more people had joined the queue.
Mitch counted—there were ten people ahead of him. Three teens: two girls and a boy were serving a man at the head of the line. Another couple came in behind Mitch.
“What the hell,” the man behind Mitch said, “it’s the same all over. We’ll be lucky if we can get a bag of chips by the time we get to the front.”
The man at the head of the line had completed his purchase. With his wallet in his left hand, he was slowly tapping on the counter with the other as the clerk checked off each item and wrote numbers on a sheet of paper.
After a couple of minutes, the male clerk lost his place on the paper. He regrouped all the items—six sandwiches, five bags of chips, four cans of pop, three candy bars, and started all over again. He proceeded to count the items off on his fingers and tally the amount on the sheet. The female clerk came to lend a hand. She ticked off each item while her associate called out the amount. Finally, they arrived at a total and now came the calculation of sales tax.
“Forget it,” the man at the head of the line said. “Keep the change.” He stormed out, his stockpile stacked in his hands and braced against his chest.
We’re all victims of technology, Mitch thought. Take the electric grid away and we’re useless, unlike back in the days of the pioneers, when the first surveyors relied on the solar system to do their work.
“I’m sorry,” the third clerk announced, suddenly. “That was the last of the sandwiches. All we have left is some chips and pop.”
“Hell,” the man at the back of Mitch said. “I knew it!”
They were sitting, all four of them, Mitch, Maricia, Aurelia and Junior, on the wooden boardwalk running parallel to the beach. By the time he’d reached the top of the line in the convenience store, the clerks had started to ration whatever was left and he’d barely managed to lay his hands on two bags of chips. Now, they were hungry, hot and cranky.
To the rear of the boardwalk, was the cottage they’d rented for the week. In the front was the shoreline of Lake Huron. It was a region he was familiar with, going back to the early seventies, when he’d come up all the way from Toronto to the mines in Sudbury to work for a while, and had taken several trips to Sault Ste. Marie on weekends.
“This is oh so boring,” Aurelia said.
Mitch knew what would come next.
“You’re always bored,” Maricia said.
“Maybe because there’s a lot to be bored about?” Aurelia said, somewhat in the form of a question, the way teens say things these days, more of a statement, rather than looking for a response.
But, Maricia was sure to respond, and she did. “You’re only fourteen and bored with school! You’re bored with the food I cook, bored with the clothes I buy. Is there anything that you don’t find boring?”
Aurelia bit her bottom lip. Then, she closed her eyes and took a deep breath.
Mitch could see that at least she was making an attempt to remain calm. He had the impression she’d been trying hard to forge a more amiable relationship with her mother after Maricia’s father passed away last summer.
Maricia seemed determined to pursue the subject, though. “I suppose you’d rather be with your friends back in Toronto instead of spending time with your own family?”
From the corner of his eye, Mitch detected movement, as Junior jumped from the boardwalk and strolled down the beach, his hands in his pockets, head inclined to the ground. He stopped about twenty yards away, far enough that he could escape being caught in the coming conflict, yet near enough to remain in the family orbit.
It was Junior that Mitch was concerned about. There seemed to be just too many changes going on in his life recently—the death of Grandfather Gomes last year, start of primary school and a new grade coming up next month, his mother going back to work part time and him having to go to a sitter. And now, if he were faced with Mitch’s news, it was sure to add to his uncertainty. There was already the onset of a stutter in his speech.
“I don’t see what’s so interesting about sitting out here, looking at the water coming in,” Aurelia said. “It’s the same boring thing over and over again.”
“That’s just the kind of talk I expect from you, with the kind of friends you hang around with these days,” Maricia said.
“What’s wrong with my friends?”
“Do you mean, apart from the fact that they always look so spaced out? Or should I talk about the one with the stud in the large hole in his ear lobe? Or…how about the one with the metal pole right through his nose? No? Then, how about the one who shaved his head and had it tattooed with skulls and cross-bones? And look at you, the way you dress and the way you carry yourself —you’re heading in the same direction.”
Aurelia surveyed her attire up and down, as if she were looking at herself for the first time since they started out for the day. In the fast approaching darkness, it was difficult to see her—she was dressed in a black outfit: a corduroy cap and shirt, leather pants, a pair of black shoes that had added four inches to her five foot-three inch frame.
“At least my friends don’t have their mother embarrassing them and picking them up everywhere they go, as if they were still little kids.”
“I do that for your own good.”
“How can picking me up from a school dance, waiting by the front door, all my friends laughing behind my back, be for my own good?”
“It’s for your own protection.”
“You mean you don’t really trust me, that’s what you mean!”
Maricia paused. “What I mean is that we want you to have a clean life, like your grandparents, and me, and your father. It’s only a clean living and having good family values that will get you far in this world.”
“How far did your so-called clean living get youin the world?” Aurelia was almost shouting, her words rolling out with a fierceness Mitch had never heard in her before. “Look at yourself, apart from your part-time job selling at the cosmetics counter at The Bay, you’re just a plain housewife. What have you done with yourlife so far?” But Mitch could detect a veneer of moisture in her eyes and he knew from past experience it wouldn’t take much for her to break down into hysterics. “All you’ve done is stay at home and make children.”
Here it comes, Mitch thought.
“Mitch, are you going to allow your daughter to speak to me that way. Aren’t you going to say something to her?” Maricia said.
It was the way the sequence of events went recently. At times, he felt as if he were strapped in a giant vice, the two sides closing on him slowly and squeezing the air out of his diaphragm. Times like this he wanted to shout: Don’t get me involved.You dug this hole, now try to get out of it by yourself. He had thought lately, that there was very little hope for his marriage if the situation continued like this, and now with the loss of his job, he’d have to put up with it all day. How would he be able to retain his sanity? A separation loomed—he could sense it coming.
He jumped off the boardwalk and walked briskly down the beach. He had to get away, to clear his head and think about what lay ahead for him.
When he returned he found them in the same position he’d left them. He joined them but couldn’t help wondering if Maricia and Aurelia were waiting for his return to continue their diatribe against each other.
The heat had built up during the day and the solitary relief now came from a cool breeze blowing across the lake.
The moon slipped behind a cloudbank and the shimmering light on the surface of the water grew fainter, as if someone had dimmed the lights. It seemed as if everyone along the shoreline lined with cottages had the same idea—find relief on the beach. Although Mitch could see very little in the dark, almost impenetrable mass, he could hear sounds nearby—waves lapping on the shore and boardwalk, someone laughing, a young child’s shriek of delight. From across the bay came the rousing howl of a wolf and a loon’s mournful appeal to a mate.
When the moon and the stars finally emerged, they came out in a way he’d rarely seen them before, except perhaps, back in nineteen-seventy, when he had worked in the nickel mines in Sudbury. It was a period when he was unable to find work in Toronto and had to come north seeking something, anything that would keep him going while he tried to find suitable employment in his own field. The night sky tonight was like emerging from the mines after his shift was over, from an enclosed world of artificial light, to an open galaxy of the Milky Way, Orion and Andromeda.
He’d never seen anything like it, except, when he was a boy, growing up in small town Kearney, Ontario, before street lights were installed, in a time when some houses were still lit by the flickering flames of oil lamps, when he could sit on the landing of his front steps and gaze at the awe and marvel of a universe unaffected by the influence of light-rays. Or, when he could stand at the kitchen window at the rear of the house and see the wonder of lights far off in the distance, where the separation between sky and horizon was indistinct, and when he would be mystified about the source of the lights. Were they candle-flies, stars or house lamps sparkling in the remote expanse of the undeveloped hinterland?
It felt good then. It felt good, now. We need more nights like this, Mitch thought. They could help us to refocus and remember the importance of keeping the much-needed balance between progress and nature, between life and living, between family and the things in life that didn’t really matter in the end.
He felt a hand groping in the dark; he reached out, grabbed it and pulled the small body closer to him.
“Dad, it’s really black out here,” Junior said. “I can’t see a thing. What if the lights never come back on? How will we ever get back home?” He was whispering, almost as if he thought that if he spoke any louder, what he was saying would turn out to be true.
“That might not be the most tragic thing to happen to us, son,” Mitch said, stroking the boy’s head. “We might all be able to see again in the dark and find our way home.” Back in Kearney, as a boy, he had walked the country roads and found his way around solely by instinct.
“The lights will come back on, sooner or later. They always do,” Mitch said.
To his left Mitch detected movement, heard the heightened breathing and felt the proximity of Aurelia. She remained nearby, far enough to maintain her independence, close enough she could feel the comfort of her father. Maricia coughed—she was still on the boardwalk.
“Can animals see in the dark, Dad?” the boy asked him. It was one of those strange questions materializing from Junior out of the blue at times, as if it had suddenly popped into his brain and he had to get it out before it slipped away.
“Don’t you know anything, dummy,” Aurelia said. “Of course animals see in the dark. That’s why bats come out at night.”
“Yes, some animals do see better in the dark,” Mitch said, in a gentle way. He pulled his son closer and held him to his chest. “They’ve been adapted over thousands of years to do this, and some of them find their way home, by landmarks and traces left along the trail, and by the stars in the night sky.”
“Like birds following their migratory route,” Aurelia said, softly. “Sometimes they get distracted by the bright lights in the city. They find hundreds of dead birds every year on the ground, on the sidewalks. Outside skyscrapers in Toronto.”
Mitch looked towards Aurelia—her voice was filled with a sense of compassion and understanding, at a depth he’d never fathomed before.
“That’s so sad,” Junior said.
“Yes,” Mitch said. “Like baby turtles emerging from their hatchery on the beach. Instead of heading to the water, towards the light on the horizon, they’re distracted by bright city lights. In the confusion that follows, they quickly lose their way.”
Junior, still clinging to his father, surveyed the beach up and down, as if he expected to see the turtles emerging.
“And perish,” Mitch added.
“That’s terrible,” Junior said.
In the stillness of the night, there was a sudden disturbance in the air. Crickets paused in their unvarying cacophony, a frog stopped croaking for a moment, and even the waves seemed to have paused in their unceasing tumble towards the shore. Mitch looked over to the cottage on the right. The rear of the building and the adjoining beach area were now aglow with the flames of a bonfire; wood crackled in the flames; several people were standing or sitting around the fire.
A man peeled himself away from the shadows and came towards them.
“Hello.” The man greeted them. “I haven’t seen you around much—you’ve been more out than in for the time you’ve been here.”
It was true. After checking-in the prior night, they’d been up early in the morning to catch the Agawa Canyon Tour train.
Kirkland, the man from whom the cottage had been rented, was in his mid-sixties. He had a beer bottle in his right hand.
“We’re doing a barbecue,” Kirkland said. “We had almost an entire season of moose steaks in the freezer. Better use it up than let it spoil, we figured.” He held his bottle up and pointed to it. “Jim, from next door brought out his beer from the cooler.”
“Any word on what’s happened?” Mitch said.
“It doesn’t look as if the ‘lectricity’s coming back on soon, or so they said on the car radio, anyhow. Something about the grid on the whole eastern seaboard gone down, and no one knows the reason why, as yet.”
“So much for modern technology.”
“Yeah, we can’t seem to live without it these days. Everything’s at a stand still. Jim was in the supermarket when the power went out—long line-ups, the cashiers standing by not knowing what the hell’s going on. Can’t even pull out an old cash register and use it—don’t know what the prices are with all this bar coding and scanning business. Jim just left his shopping cart along with all the other customers but when they went to the exit, they couldn’t even open the door. It had to be pried open.”
Kirkland continued: “Mike, two doors down, brought the corn. And we have lots of food to go around. So why don’t you and your family join us?”
“I’m afraid we don’t have anything we can contribute to the party,” Mitch said.
Kirkland hesitated; it seemed for a long while. Mitch was afraid he had insulted the man. Instead of accepting the invitation gracefully for what it was—from the heart, like a typical big city slicker, he’d questioned the motive.
But, Kirkland said, “Your company’s good enough. We’d love to have you.”
Mitch looked at Aurelia and Junior, then at Maricia who had come up behind him. There was no mistaking the appeal in their eyes and eagerness in their faces. Like him, they were all hungry. He nodded.
Kirkland looked up at the sky. “Heard over the radio: some folks in the city phoned the air force. Seemed that they thought we were being invaded by aliens; something about a strange cloud in the sky.” Kirkland laughed. “They should make more trips up to these parts,” he said. “They will see things a lot clearer.” He started back for the group on the beach.
Junior looked up. “What did he mean, Dad?”
“Reference points,” Mitch said. “Something us surveyors can’t live without, son. The place we start out from, the place we keep looking back to make sure we’re on the right path.”
Junior still had that puzzled look on his face. Aurelia was looking up to the sky, trying, it seemed, to make the connection. Mitch wasn’t sure whether or not she had succeeded.
“See that, over there,” Mitch pointed to the night sky. “That large cloud of lights, it looks like a trail of vapour with Christmas bulbs all lit up—it’s the Milky Way. We can’t really see it in the city—too many bright lights create a glow that dims the effects. And if you look to the right, the first of the three bright stars in a row—that’s Orion. On Orion’s left shoulder is Betelgeuse, and to his foot is Rigel. And there’s Orion’s hunting dogs at his feet.”
Junior nodded, his mouth gaping. Mitch wasn’t sure his young son could grasp what he was trying to tell him about the lights. But he could see the awe and wonder with which his son held the scene. It reminded him of when he was a boy.
Aurelia grabbed her brother by his right hand. “Come on, let’s go have some fun. I see some kids over at the campfire,” she said. Just after she started out, she looked back at Mitch and smiled. “We’re all going to be fine, dad,” she said.
Maricia had come up behind and circled her arms around Mitch He felt her breath against the back of his neck.
The crowd had grown by several more families around the bonfire. Fireflies drawn to a light, Mitch thought; a light that penetrated a dark void and held out hope, like a beacon shining from afar, a reference point to which one always needs to come back.
“Have you found your reference point, Mitch?” she said, as she squeezed him around his chest.
He hesitated. There was little he could hide from her after eighteen years of marriage. She was able, recently, to verbalise his thoughts and complete his sentences, something that amazed but left him frustrated at times.
“How did you find out?” he said.
“I phoned for you at work on Monday, to tell you that I’d made the booking for the train and the motel.”
Mitch smiled. He could see Aurelia and Junior, their faces ablaze in the firelight as they stood around the now crowded campfire. Junior was occupied, holding a branch into the fire and prodding the logs from a safe distance. Aurelia was talking to two teenagers—a girl and a boy. She was facing Mitch, her hands in her pockets, the flickering light sending sparkling rays bouncing off her large silver earrings. Mitch was sure he detected a nod of her head and a smile when she looked at him.
“Do the kids know?”
“Yes, I told them late this afternoon, when you were out for your walk on the beach. I thought it was only right they should know….so, do you think you’ve found your reference point again?”
“Yes, I think so,” he said. “As a matter of fact, I know so,” he added. “It’s not the end of the world. It never is.”
“I want you to know that I’m going back full time. We will manage until you get back on your feet.”