I see him there at the end of the bar. I think it’s him. Let’s call him Matt. He looks older, bigger. His goatee and what’s left of his hair? Greyer. He’s chatting away with two much younger women. Why? Does he think he has a chance with them? I mean, come on! And where is his wife?
I realize I know one of the women. I’ve seen her working behind the bar; she must be off tonight. It’s a Friday and my husband B and I are wolfing down fish and chips in an attempt to soak up beers and ciders just consumed on the patio next door while listening to live music.
On further eavesdropping, it seems the women might be a couple, so perhaps he’s just a friend, acquaintance? It’s a beach town after all; people chat at bars.
How well do I know Matt myself? And is it really him? It sure sounds like him. It’s really throwing me off that his wife isn’t with him.
I have to rewind my internal PVR several decades to recall our first brief meeting. He was my late husband’s first bank manager. Ah, a trustworthy type you’d figure, right? This was when we were just 18, not even married. Hugh was excited – and a tad nervous – to arrange his very first loan for a coveted 1976 Ford Econoline cargo van, three-in-the-tree. For those who don’t know, that means three gears shifted by a handle on the steering wheel. Fire engine red, it came to be known as the Big Red Tomato.
“I’ll probably have this loan the rest of my life,” Hugh joked after signing the papers in Matt’s office. “I’ll always need a vehicle. It’ll just get rolled into the next one.” As a bank manager’s daughter, raised allergic to debt, I was probably more nervous watching Hugh sign the papers. And as Hugh was a dollar-down-and-a-dollar-a-day-for-the-rest-of-my-life kinda guy? He was pretty much spot on about the longevity of that loan.
But Hugh trusted Matt. So years later, long after the Big Red Tomato had chugged its last kilometre (or mile) and when Hugh was making good coin selling roof trusses for the family business and needed to maximize his RRSP (the Canadian equivalent of a 401k) for tax purposes? Matt, still at that small town bank, became our investment guy.
When Matt left the bank for an investment company and the name of the investment – in mortgages, supposedly – sounded almost the same as the investment we were already in? We went with him, of course. A few years went by, the investments were doing well, but we had a financially demanding young family and house. A request was made to pull out $5k. A couple of weeks went by, phone messages went unanswered. One day, Hugh was on the road selling and heard on the radio that the CEO of said investment company had committed suicide. Well, that was shocking news! And a very ominous sign.
I recall a bloated moon shining through our bedroom window as sleep eluded me that night. I crafted a poem: “Full moon over London comfort me . . .”
It turned out the investments into mortgages had not been made. Perhaps funds were used to bolster office space and furnishings, in a fine upscale building downtown, with blue glass? Perhaps funds were used to bolster management salaries and bonuses?
Hugh went to a legal meeting to discuss a class action lawsuit. When he came home, he said, “Rita, we will recover from this. I know it was $22k, but we’re young, we’ll earn it back. There were people at that meeting, older people . . . they lost hundreds of thousands. This was their retirement.” That was really hard to reconcile.
Hugh was right. We were fine. We built the RRSP money back up – and then some – over the years, while the class action lawsuit turtled along in the background, eventually surprising us with a cheque of about 25 cents on the dollar. We started our own successful truss plant in 1998 and built a cottage in Grand Bend in 2000.
And we’d be out, at night, having drinks, listening to live music, in the various bars in town, just as B and I were doing now. In would walk Matt – usually wearing a natty hat – and his wife. Hugh would stop mid-conversation to stare daggers at him until he left. After this had happened several times, I said to Hugh, “That has to stop. We’re doing good, right? We have a successful business. A cottage. It’s bad karma. We have to let it go.”
The next time Matt and his wife walked into a bar? I looked over and there was Hugh, buying them drinks, cheers-ing them. “That’s not quite what I meant,” I said into his ear when he got back to the group.
But that was Hugh. And he’s been gone so many years. B and I, together for several years now, have also run into Matt and his wife many times, once even sitting at the same table at an outdoor patio. For me, it was just a look and a nod. We never really talked.
The women are leaving and Matt is paying the bill. “Matt?” I say. “It’s me. Rita.”
“Oh, hi,” he says.
We get into a conversation and he shares that his wife was very sick, with cancer, died in the fall of 2020.
“Glioblastoma,” he says, “like what Gord Downie (of the Tragically Hip) had.”
“Oh sadly, that’s what my Wish child had,” I say. I’m surprised that Matt knows I climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro for Make-A-Wish Foundation, in honour of Hugh. He was paying attention.
We chat for a while longer. He tells us about his three daughters. One committed suicide. He bought farms for the other two. Doesn’t really have a lot of money for himself, but he’s fine, he says. Choices. Wow, they linger.
He’s lived and lost. Money. More importantly people. Me too.
We rise to leave. I instinctively give him a big heartfelt hug. “I’m so sorry you lost your wife,” I say.
“Well, you know what it’s like,” he says.
Yes. I do.
Website photo: The Big Red Tomato hanging with a couple of friends.