Sunday, June 30, 2013

Fiction #44

New fiction! Issue #44
 Submissions now open for #45.

Special thanks to all who have been submitting. Enjoy.

Fiction #44: Kirsten Donaghey

The Retreat

Meredith sat across from Johnny in a crowded café, the smell of egg rolls and lemon tea hovered in the warm air. She listened to him talk about his screenplay, something she could do for hours because his English accent was like his bottled, slapped on scent- cheeky and enticing.

“Listen,” he said, “Eddie is still going to have his issues at the end of the story. None of this Hollywood happy ending shit. Eddie isn’t …” Johnny stopped speaking and stared at her. She thought he was pausing for dramatic effect, that any second he was going to tap the drooping ash off his cigarette and wink.  But his eyes remained locked on hers and he didn’t un-pause. He was frozen. It was like he’d met eyes with Medusa.

Meredith stared back, her heart racing, glancing away for a few seconds, locating the waiter who was behind the bar manning the grand cappuccino maker. The shining steel machine screeched and hissed and she watched it as if from a great distance. When a cloud of steam burst out she turned herself back to Johnny’s unblinking gaze and allowed it to coil around her. She thought of the man she met while on vacation in Spain who bound her wrists with a silk scarf. Inhaling deeply, she waited, wondering if she had done this to him. She waited until he snapped his fingers and gazed around the room, avoiding her eyes, and finally saying, “At the end, Eddie might see the error of his ways, but he’ll still be the same guy.”

Later, at home, Meredith read that people can fall in love as a result of prolonged eye contact. Meredith didn’t want to fall in love. And she didn’t want the suspended animation while falling. She was pretty sure it was the hard disoriented thump of landing that she wanted. The article said that the longer paired strangers held eye contact with each other, the more attracted they became.

* * * * *

Meredith is taking a long weekend with her writing group, driving three hours west of the city to Christian’s house. There are five of them- Christian and Johnny and Nina and Bev. They are all working on screenplays- but this weekend Meredith wants to make a serious dent in hers. She wants to find an ending, flesh out her characters, make it sing.

They arrive at midday and she feels the long afternoon stretched out in front of her. The house is open with windows, blurring the line of inside and out. Meredith can sense something sharp in Nina, something that needs to be worn down. Beautiful Nina in her ugly green sweater is in the kitchen emptying cardboard boxes of groceries. Nina’s been here before, it’s clear by the way she gets to making coffee, knowing exactly where the tin is, where the cups are. She empties a large Tupperware container of soup into a pot and says, “Keep an eye on this.”

Stirring a pot of lukewarm soup, Meredith observes the exposed beams above. Two oversized portraits hang on the wall in the living room. The eyes on the elongated, pale faces remind Meredith of eggs. And they have no mouths.

“Did Christian paint those?”

Nina glances at the art and tugs her sleeves down over her hands.

“Where is everybody?” she says. She rifles through a bag and pulls out a knife, the blade wrapped in silver foil.

Meredith sees the guys through the sliding doors, smoking, pulling chairs across the deck one-handed.

Nina places a water bottle on the table beside each bowl. She breaks large chunks of bread and drops them in a basket. She slices a large slab of butter and says, “Let’s get this show on the road.”

Meredith has never attended a writing retreat before-doesn’t know what to expect. So far it feels like Nina is trying to herd cats. The guys are sitting with their legs outstretched catching some rays.

Meredith goes out and says, “Nina’s got the lunch ready. You should probably come.”

“Just getting some Vitamin D,” Johnny says, his ink blue eyes flicking over her.

“Yeah, Says Christian. “When the sun shows face in February, you snatch it by the ass and hold on tight.”

Meredith likes Christian because she is never left wondering what he is thinking. She stands in front of them, glancing up through the sliding glass doors at Nina who is ladling soup. When Nina disappears down a hallway Meredith relaxes for a minute. Christian is smirking at her, raising his eyebrows, nodding his head at Johnny who has his eyes closed. Meredith shouldn’t have told him. What was she thinking? It’s this writers’ life: sitting in cafes, always self reflecting, letting the afternoon coffee roll into evening drinks, watching out the window as the real world shuffles home from work. Thinking she should get a job, shrugging off the sense that Frank is pissed off even though he says he isn’t. Letting her fantasy life merge with her real life- both becoming a form of fiction that awaits an inevitable yet evasive ending.

Christian knows about Johnny’s absence seizures. One night when Meredith and Christian had drinks, she leaned forward, eyes lowered, fiddling with the stem of her wine glass, and told Christian that Johnny’s absences had an effect on her. Meredith told him about the strangers and the eye contact experiment. And Christian had leaned forward, eyes flirting with her secrets, because he adores secrets. He lolls around on people’s secrets.

“What kind of effect, doll?” He can get away with speaking like this because he is Christian. James Dean one minute, a gay Scottish highlander the next.

“You know,” Meredith said.

“Of course I fucking know.” Christian laughed and took a swig of her wine. “The only problem is, Johnny doesn’t have a fucking clue. Get him in the loop. Lasso the poor bugger.”

“There’s only one problem.”

“You mean the fact that he may be looking at you, but he sure as hell isn’t seeing you.”

“Yeah. That.”

* * * * *

The five of them eat lunch at the big wooden table that has maintained the integrity of being a huge piece of tree. Nina says, “So does everyone have a plan?”

“Plans make my fingers cramp,” Christian says.

“Wouldn’t want that,” Nina says, rolling her eyes.

Sometimes she feels the chill of old age creeping over her and she has to remind herself she is only thirty-six. But she feels it anyway because she doesn’t have a plan. She feels it because she quit her job to write and she wonders if she will ever have another one. Meredith knows that eventually Frank will leave her and she will be alone. She wonders if this is it, if this is the best version of her.

Meredith glances over at Johnny. He is still. But after a few seconds he raises his hand and rubs it across his cheek and she hears the scratch of his unshaven face. The way he leaves three buttons undone on his navy dress shirt makes her feel very unmarried. He turns and catches her looking, winks and moves on to address Nina’s question. Suddenly, just like that, she is grasping at the secrecy that exists between them, drawn to the notion of something scandalous.

Frank has no opinion of her writing retreat. He works twelve hours a day tearing down drywall, putting up drywall, down on his knees lining up bathroom tiles. He comes home with a stiff back, a fine layer of dust on his sweatshirt, smelling ripe and looking old. He bakes in front of the TV watching back-to-back episodes of Dancing with the Stars. He is absent in a completely different way as he moves around her in the kitchen, careful not to touch her. This makes her feel breakable, explosive. Meredith thinks of their first date at the Fabulous Café after watching Highway 69, drinking peppermint tea, talking until the waitress shut the lights off and told them she had to be back for the morning shift.

Meredith never would have believed that the desire to tell each other things would disappear. That she and Frank would run out of things to talk about. A long steady absence where he hovers just beneath the surface of himself, too tired, too indifferent. But indifference isn’t enough to make him leave, or to make her leave. So they both stay, waiting for the inevitable ending.

Johnny and Meredith talk. Mostly he talks about his script, about his wife and his teenage daughter. He told her he found a condom in the waste bin- his daughter’s. She’s fourteen. He said this with a bit of envy, of her age, and her place in life. He confessed that he desperately missed being young and traveling on trains across Europe and meeting girls and saying good-bye to girls.

“Sometimes saying goodbye and knowing you will never see a girl again is the sweetest fucking thing there is.”

This is his dilemma with his script. Does Eddie leave his wife? Does he go to the woman he has a connection with even though they’ve never touched. He describes the scene where Eddie locks this woman into his gaze and feels the tension ripping and pulling at his body. “You know what I mean? It’s the fucking most brilliant feeling. It owns you.”

Meredith wants something too. A blast that will shake her to the core- split her skin and let everything spill out in a mess. She wants to be caught and have to fight to get away. She wants Johnny to throw her up against a wall, to feel the weight of him pinning her there, to feel the warm fumbling of his hands as he reaches under her clothes and pushes inside her. She wants to fight him and lose.

“I just want to go to Thailand and sleep and get massages on the beach. Does anyone fucking want to go to Thailand with me?” Christian says, as he leans forward and starts rolling a cigarette. Bev talks about when she went to Thailand and the masseuse massaged her naked breasts. Bev is from New Jersey and her accent makes her words sound held back in their attempt to escape from her mouth. 

Christian doesn’t look up. “Sweet,” he says. ”I can totally picture it, Bev.”

Bev is fifty-eight but sex still lingers on her. Meredith and Nina think it is her Bohemian thing, the silent explosion of an Afro beaver as the jeans unzip. A pot induced blow-job. 

    * * * * *

That night, she knocks on Johnny’s door.

Meredith sits on the edge of his bed, him in grey and white striped boxers and his leather jacket, she in boots in case she has to make a run for it. His hairless exposed chest stares at her.

“What’s with the jacket?” she says.

“You like it?” he says running an admiring hand down the sleeve. “Touch it if you want.”

She pushes her hands between her knees.

“Your absence seizures turn me on,” Meredith says.

Johnny looks at her and she glances up at his eyes, but quickly drops her gaze to the scar on his cheek that’s the shape of Italy.

“Interesting.” He says slowly. “This jacket kinda turns me on.”

“Was that weird of me to tell you?” Meredith says, wondering how he got the scar.   

“The weirdness isn’t in the telling,” Johnny says. He shrugs out of the jacket and drapes it over her shoulders. “Nice, right?”

Meredith didn’t think this far ahead when she imagined telling him. She never thought past the point where the confession rolled out of her mouth like a tractor trailer pulling out of a truck stop on a humid summer night. This feeling now that is racing through her body; this is the velocity required to merge.

She feels the weight of her own hand wanting to reach out and touch his chest. Open hand over his heart and feel it race. Down to the soft part of his belly. Sliding under the waistband. She doesn’t move. The cracked open smell of leather taunts her.

She meets his eyes for a second and then looks away.

The others are asleep, Nina, likely still wrapped in her green sweater, in the attic on an air mattress that moans each time she rolls. Christian is in the front room. An hour ago when she walked by he was smoking a joint, standing by the open window watching the snow. And Bohemian Bev is in a room just off the kitchen, banished because she snores.

“Are you going to say anything?” Meredith asks.

Her attraction to him has started to feel uncontrollable- like the time her washing machine flooded and the smooth edged pool of water slithered out of the bathroom, into the hall and hovered by the bedroom before she could contain it with towels.

He has his hand over his mouth, tapping his lip. His phone rings from across the room.

“That’ll be Sheila,” he says.

His wife.

Now, she is starting to regret telling him. It’s hanging there between them like the glare of sunlight. His door is slightly ajar. Maybe this is a sign that she should just get up and creep back to her room and face him in the morning like nothing happened. His suitcase is open on the floor with clothes strewn about it. For someone who always has such an immaculate appearance, he seems messy.

The dog Cleopatra barks in the hallway and Meredith stands up. The phone stops ringing. Johnny grabs her gently by the wrist.

“You’re not leaving?” he says.

“Yeah. I’ll let you process this.”

He raises his eyebrows, and grins.

“Lots of weird shit to think about. Maybe we can pick this up later.”

Meredith walks back down the hallway. One side is all windows. It’s still snowing. She wants to step outside and taste the cold air, to be reminded what it feels like to be cold.

Christian is still awake, standing where he was an hour ago. Meredith knocks softly on the open door.

“Hey Chris.”

“Where are you coming from?” he winks at her. “Old Frank won’t like this.”

Old Frank is twelve years older than her.

“There’s nothing for Old Frank to know.”

But she doesn’t care anyway. Something has to give.

“Ohhh, I don’t know how true that is. His sweet little Meredith off on a writer’s retreat, sneaking into the bedroom of the jolly old English chap.”

Meredith sits down at his desk and fiddles with the glass paperweight, a little man in a gold hat trapped inside.

“Tell me,” Christian says, “does our Johnny sleep in the buff?”

“You’d like to know,” she says, drawing circles on his notepad.

Christian is openly Bi. And Polyamorous. The best of all worlds.

“Someone’s gotta cut you loose. Let the crazy out.”

“My crazy is big,” Meredith says.

Christian nods. “I know. I can see it in your eyes.”

* * * * *

At breakfast they sit around in relative silence. It is a rule of the retreat that everyone is up by eight and working by nine. Nina is still floating around on her air mattress, calling down that she is awake, but taking her time.

“If you don’t move your ass soon,” Christian calls up, “I’m coming up there to deflate you.”

“Stay put. I’m not decent.”

“Where I come from, that qualifies as an invitation.” Christian gets up, his silk kimono fluttering to reveal tight black underwear, pours an extra cup of coffee and heads for the stairs.

Bev is eating an egg and starring unapologetically. She has hound dog eyes and a black and white sense of morality. Meredith chooses to look at the bright yellow congealed yolk instead of at Johnny who is reading his iPad.

“We’re reading Nina’s script out loud tonight, Bev says. “The one about the couple that miscarries.”

“Oh yeah,” Meredith says. The cat, Murray, is under the table rubbing against her leg.

“Meredith can read the wife and Johnny can be the husband.” Bev says deadpan.

Johnny looks up.

“What was that?”

“You’re going to be my husband,” Meredith says.

“Is that right?”

“Apparently it’s right on.” She raises her eyebrows at Bev and leaves the table.

*

She gets dressed in wooly tights, a thick sweater and her parka and goes outside to shovel snow. The house is spectacular. Christian bought it when the market was low and spent three years renovating. He works as a freelance copywriter and inherited some money when his partner died eight years ago. Meredith shovels the deck outside the kitchen window, pushing the shovel across the entire surface and dumping the snow off the end. Christian is back in the kitchen with Nina and Bev. Meredith waves at him and notices from this distance how sad he looks standing there with his skinny legs sticking out from his Japanese kimono. Johnny has come out to join her. He is wearing reflective sunglasses, their mirrored surface elongating and distorting images.

“Mind if I lend a hand?”

Meredith passes him the shovel and then brushes snow off a chair. 

The snow is thick and wet and after a few minutes he stops and props the shovel against the wall. From his pocket he pulls his little bag of tobacco and rolling paper, clearing a surface on the table to roll his cigarette.

He really is beautiful, kind of Nordic looking with his fine blond hair and sharp face. After a minute of silence she realizes that he hasn’t moved. His outstretched hand holds the cigarette.

“The sun is nice,” Meredith says.

He doesn’t respond so she turns her face upwards to the sun and basks in the heat. It has been a very long winter.

Meredith thinks back to the day she went for lunch and half way through her crispy General Tso chicken decided not to go back to work. Not after lunch, not ever. When Frank came home that evening she told him she was let go, and for the next two months she left the house and sat in the park and wrote treatments of movie scripts. She wrote the beginnings and the sex scenes and bits of the middle. She wrote herself into the script but carefully disguised. Sometimes she was a man who spent hours looking through his telescope, or a woman in her twenties who did whatever she wanted, and once she was an old woman that punched people she loved and got away with it because she had Alzheimer’s.

It was only by chance that Christian walked by and saw her writing, a giant cup of Tim Horton’s coffee beside her, Cleopatra with him.

“What are you writing?” he said.

“A series of films.”

“You’re fucking joking.”

“No joke.”

Johnny snaps his fingers and she looks over.

It is a minute before he is completely back. 

“How was that for you then?” he says.

“What?”

“Are you all hot and bothered?” He is smiling.

“You had your sunglasses on.”

“So?”

“It’s only when I can see your eyes, when you lock me in your absent stare. I feel like I can’t escape.”

“Right.” He nods. “No sunglasses.”

*

Meredith writes all day, only coming out of her room to make coffee and stuff her pockets with M&M’s. She works best this way- juiced up on caffeine and sugar on an empty stomach. She likes the hollow feeling, the buzz in her limbs and the clarity in her mind.

At seven they eat dinner together- curried millet. Meredith fills her wine glass and plate three times. When she reaches for a second helping of dessert Christian says,

“Doesn’t Old Frank feed you?”

*

Meredith sits beside Johnny on the sofa as Nina passes out copies of her script. He smells like Armani Code- she saw the bottle on the floor near his suitcase and Googled it- fresh lemon and bergamot, traces of the Mediterranean. His shirt rides up, revealing a handful of flesh.

Meredith gets to it, reading her lines seriously, not glancing ahead, because she wants each one to be a surprise.

“Do you want my cunt?”

This slips from her mouth without a hint of emotion. It’s all she can do not to laugh once it’s out there. Can he feel her resistance, the way her body is rupturing, shaking the sofa cushion gently? But when he speaks- the sweet warm breath of his voice, there is the brush of something luscious on her skin. She inhales, shifts into it.

“Not now darling. I’m tired.”

She shifts out of it.

“Too tired for my cunt? ”

The two of them read the entire script. They have sex, dry apathetic thrusts. She gets pregnant, has an ultrasound, miscarries the fetus onto the bathroom floor under fluorescent lights. They grieve. All of this in two hours. At the end Meredith is parched and a hard stone pushes from deep within her belly.

After the priest comes and tells her to be good to herself, she looks up from the pages and sees that Nina’s eyes are closed and her scrunched face is wet with tears. Behind her, snow falls silently behind a great pane of glass. Christian has his socks off, his feet curled into the shag carpet. Bev gets up and hugs Nina and they go off to the kitchen to make whiskey tea.

“I need a smoke, Christian says. “I need a fucking cigarette. That story was like the hardest nut grab ever.”

Johnny gets up too and they disappear out to the deck that is blanketed with snow again.

After a few minutes they are back inside, hair damp, cheeks slapped red, bringing with them the sweet smell of marijuana. And the women return, the whiskey steam rising from a tray of cups.

Johnny has sunk back into the sofa, soft and pleasantly stoned, beside her.

Bev starts the critiquing process, saying how brave Nina was to write this. Meredith wonders how brave it is to throw your mess out there like that.

“I think the scene with the fetus is too much. It’s hyper realism,” Meredith says.

Everyone turns to look at her. “Think of it on screen, larger than life. It’s too much to expect from the viewer. It’s assault.”

Meredith knows that she is full of shit. Too scared to look at her own life like Nina has.

“Do you think that’s true?” Johnny says, so only she can hear him. Christian has started talking about ways to film it- “A glimpse, full view, either way the viewer will look away.”

Meredith turns to Johnny and fumbles with her words. “It’s too raw. I don’t know what to do with that kind of rawness.”

Meredith feels the sharp edges of the lie as it comes out. He looks into her eyes, just for a second or two, and the grip of resistance holds her again. She wants to touch him, pull him in so close he becomes blurry.

“If you want to be a writer you have to force yourself to look,” he says.

“Yeah, Christian says. “Grow some balls.”

*

Finally, when the others have gone to bed, Meredith stays with Johnny on the sofa. He has his hand under his shirt, rubbing his belly slowly.

“Perhaps we should give this some attention?”

“We don’t have to,” she says.

“Right then,” he says, standing and pulling her up by the arm. He steers her by the elbow towards his room and when the door is closed he says,

“You’re turned on by the one thing that isn’t really me. You’re turned on when I’m mentally absent. Kinda fucked up wouldn’t you say?”

“Not really. It’s not your mind I need right now.”

He gives her a look that splits her wide open.

They have sex on his bed- him on top, watching her the whole time. She wants him to look away, to not talk at all. She just wants the collision of his hips smashing into hers. “Not so gentle,” she says at one point.

He stops being gentle and holds her wrists together, above her head with one hand. “Open your eyes and look at me,” he says sternly. She looks into his eyes, her heart pounding with anger. His eyes still locked on her he pushes his hand down between her legs and instinctively her hips rise up. She releases herself into the slap of warm skin, the hard crush of his lips into hers so she feels the awkwardness of her own teeth. Something in her shifts, screams and sighs.

He collapses down on top of her, the smell of lemon and bergamot grabbing at her throat as he buries his face in the space between her neck and the pillow. The real scent of him, something like warm bread, rises off his scalp through his hair. Calm. The weight of him keeps her still.

“How does your script end?” Meredith says, desperate for the sound of her own voice. She places her open palm on his back.

“Wouldn’t you like to know?” He pushes himself up onto one elbow.     “You’re really getting into this starring thing?” she says.

“It’s cool. And I like how it freaks you out.”

Meredith forces herself to look back but her gaze wanders. The bedside lamp is on, a dim tungsten light. She grazes the scar under his eye with her fingertip.    

“It doesn’t work if you don’t play,” he says.

After a while she leans in and kisses his lips softly and then gets out of the bed. As she gets dressed she notice his clothes again, on the floor, and resists the urge to pick them up and shake them, to fold them and hang them over the white wicker chair.

“You don’t have to go.”

“I still need an ending. I should go work on it.”

“Meredith leaving. That’s an ending. Meredith staying. That’s an ending.”

“What if I just sit on the edge of the bed for a while?”

“Crappy ending. Fence sitting.”

“How does your script end? Happy?”

“It ends the way it was inevitably meant to end.”

“Still not going to tell me?”

“No.”

She sits on the edge of the bed and takes her shirt off. He lifts his arms and folds them behind his head, content to watch. The skin on the underside of his arm is pale and smooth. She thinks about biting it, the sharp pinch of her teeth.

“Do she want to have sex again?” she says.

He laughs. “You know I’m not in my twenties, right?”

“You’re blocking my ending with your performance issues.”

“Good endings come to those who wait,” he says.

“That buys me some time.”

She crawls back under the covers knowing full well that for something to begin something must end.
   
*


KIRSTEN DONAGHEY is a Canadian writer and editor of short stories, and creative non-fiction. Her work has appeared in The Fiddlehead and Room Literary Magazine. She has also published two graphic novels for children. Currently she lives in Vienna, Austria. You can find her here: www.kirstendonaghey.com

Fiction #44: Chad Pelley

Soak

Someone will see his empty boat, and they’ll know. They might even see it in time to come looking for him. There was a crack at the back of his head, the shock of cold water gushing into his lungs. Stretching them out. The ocean flowing into his nostrils and rushing down his throat like his body had sprung a leak; like someone had torn the lungs from his chest. He gasped anyway, gurgling instead of breathing. The salt clawed his eyes, and he refused to shut them, panicked he’d not see his way to the surface. Panicked that, with his eyes closed, he could mistake up from down.

It was the moment half of Witless Bay had joked about for years: the fisherman who couldn’t swim, and how dumb was that. Dumber than a pilot afraid of heights, his wife always said. Back when Emily was still his wife.

He hit the water and the cold sea hacked his limbs off. He sank like a barrel. He grabbed fistfuls of water and pulled, like it was a rope he could climb. But he got the motion right. His head broke the surface, and he gasped his lungs full of air, and kicked and pulled his way to a buoy that was just out of reach. He wrapped his arms and legs around the thing like a spider sucking something dry. 

His boat was too far away to swim towards. Not for a man who could swim, maybe, but certainly for him. Every wave in the ocean looked to be purposefully pushing his boat farther away from him: each wave an angry blue shoulder, nudging and nudging. But he thought maybe the boat would save him. An empty boat, that far from land, was as much a cry for help as a signal flare. But more subtle, solemn. It’s probably too late to help him, but we should find the body. A proper funeral.

His tired arms were getting convincing. It would be bliss right now to let go, and relieve his cramped and aching muscles. Five hours was too long to keep every muscle flexed; five hours was too long to hold on for dear life. Five hours of hearing the lull of an ocean, of rising and falling with it, had a way of pacifying him. What he thought of was simple, random: the heat on Emily’s side of the bed, when he’d roll over in the mornings to throw an arm over her, a leg. Nuzzle in. Slide an arm between her breasts, grab a shoulder with that hand, to pull her closer. She was a fire that didn’t burn.

He was cold now, in that ocean. He was fucking cold, like someone was squeezing his balls and pushing them up into his stomach. He was a caveman, entombed in blue ice. Again, he pictured himself letting go. He pictured his own wake: people there to be courteous, people there who couldn’t live without him.

If he squinted, he could still see his boat.  It was green, Irish grass, with a candy-red stripe that had his daughter’s name emblazed on it: every last letter of the word Alexandria. An elegant name for a wreck of a teenager.

Alexandria was nineteen and married. Knocked up. And smoking anyway. Her mother had been as graceful as a symphony, but Alexandria was the sound of a record scratch. She was nails against a chaulkboard and she was a fork across a plate. In the end, his marriage couldn’t survive the train wreck of their daughter. Alexandria had been stealing things from them: bottles of scotch, bills left in wallets. And then it was Emily’s engagement ring, the one Gus had spent over a year saving up for. He’d had it custom-made by her high school friend, before that friend moved to Bangladesh. A month later, just as things settled down from that, Gus came home and found Alexandria pulling Emily’s hair; slapping her mother’s face like she was disciplining a dog. Emily had come home early that day, and found Alexandria and her boyfriend boiling magic mushrooms in the kitchen. She asked the boyfriend to leave, and Alexandria got so violent even the boyfriend called Alex crazy. 

Gus had been lucky to have a woman like Emily, and he knew it. He met her at his bother’s wedding in St. John’s. She was the hired bartender, and Gus liked to drink more than he like to dance, so he was the only one plunked at the bar all night. He barely knew anyone there, and the longer he sat in that barstool, swiveling aimlessly, and sipping hardily, the chattier and more friendly Emily got. He liked the look of the girl, well-kempt, but not in that prissy, store-bought sort of way. Her clothes looked like they all came with a story about how she’d acquired them. And she’d tell a man to fuck off, this one. He liked that the most. She’d tell a man to fuck off, and she’d gotten a little drunk herself as the night rolled on. Every drink she’d finish made her a little more curious about this oddball man on the barstool in front of her. He wasn’t one to talk about himself, but she kept digging so deeply they were hardly strangers come midnight.

“What about after,” she asked him, crunching through a vodka-soaked icecube, tossing her head in the direction of the dancefloor. “Things are winding down here, and I’m up for another few drinks before calling it a night. Are you? There’s a proper bar in the hotel.”

“I dunno,” and he didn’t. “I gotta get myself back down to the southern shore yet tonight.”

“Where?”

“Witless Bay. We covered this, earlier, that I’m not from town.”

“Why. Why do you need to be back to Witless Bay come morning? It’s Saturday.”

He looked at her, curious, genuinely curious. “What do you want with a fisherman like me?”

“What does that mean, a fisherman like you?” She laughed, almost offended. “What the fuck does that even mean?”

“You don’t look like the kind of girl who wants to go for a drink with the only guy in the place not wearin’ a suit. That’s all.”

“Now I’m just offended. What I’m interested in, is a drink with the only half-interesting person in the bar. And you’ll do. The night is young. Your brother’s friends, associates, no offense, but I’ve got no time for blinky-eyed big tippers, who think the suit makes the man. And you’re the person I’ve been chatting with all night, aren’t you? The only friend I have in this whole wide hotel.” She winked, smiled; she had a look on her face he couldn’t understand. “I’m only looking for another hour’s company,” she said. “I won’t keep you out past your bedtime or anything.”

A city girl, see. He’d speculated all about them. He ended up in her hotel room that night, tearing the clothes off her, taking her demands. Slower, look at me, kiss me, slower, get that belt. A hand on his head, pushing him down there, talking him through it. Really, you’re kidding, you’ve never done this before? A boyish grin on his face for the first time in years. Both of them proud he at least tried. By four in the morning, they were spent from three hours of messing around. They were twisted up in the tangled bedsheets, sharing a smoke, despite the No Smoking signs.

He spent the week with her, and they only left her bed for food on her patio – in housecoats – or at a restaurant downtown. He went to leave one Monday morning, but ended up spending another night with her, before heading back to his life in Witless Bay. And that was that.
But she’d shown up a few months later, a hand on her potbelly, pregnant. She had a pie in her hand, something to eat as they chewed over where to go from here. I’m pregnant she kept saying, like she still couldn’t believe it. There’s a Goddamn human growing inside me! My blood is pumping through it, as we sit here to eat! She reached over and wiped some blueberry from Gus’s chin. He was staring at her belly, smiling at what he’d been lucky enough to do to this woman. In that regard, Alexandria was the best thing that ever happened to him. She gifted him Emily; twenty years worth of Emily. And then she pushed her away.

Emily had a fractured wrist the day she finally left Gus. Alexandria had pushed her over the stairs, climbed over her, stole their car, and got brought home for driving without a license. Emily left Gus for defending their daughter, every time. It’s just a phase, she’s flesh and blood, people can change. He couldn’t choose Emily over Alexandria, because Alexandria was a teenager, and that meant she needed someone, a parent, a father, if only for the roof over her head. Emily needed no one.
But now he was clung to a buoy, preparing to die, and all he could think of was Emily, everything about Emily, and not a thing about his daughter seemed to matter. He was thinking of the hairbrush that used to be by his sink, or the way Emily would hang her face over a mug of steaming tea. The heat, on her side of the bed. It’s not often – it’s never – that a man has five hours to just think. To let things soak in, float to the surface.

After Emily left, Gus let Alexandria’s boyfriend move in. He found out she was pregnant, and it seemed like the right thing to do. Alexandria and Billy couldn’t afford a house, and this way all three of them could pitch in with the baby.

Billy wasn’t a bright kid. Gus had tried to teach him how to play scat and gin one night, and the kid just couldn’t get it. Got frustrated, said cards were for old people. He didn’t laugh at comedies or cry at dramas, and Gus could never relate to a man so devoid of passion and emotions. Billy was crude in how he’d kiss and touch Alexandria in front of her own father, but he was not a bad kid. He wanted the respect of the company he was in. He’d shovel, help with the dishes, mention the compliments his mechanic boss gave him, so that Gus would know Billy was good at what he did for a living. Over time they’d settled on bonding over Crazy 8s. Billy could wrap his head around that one. Just, lay on the same kind? And Jacks is miss a turn? Gus waited a week or so before introducing the third rule of the game, about pick-up 2s.

It was getting darker out there on the ocean, scarier, and the blearing gulls had disappeared, and he wondered where they go. He thought about double lives, and wrong turns, and hindsight. His vision was blurry now, and his eyes dry as bone. He’d noticed they weren’t even blinking anymore.  What he knew was this:  if, two years ago, a man had kicked in their front door and started firing a gun at his family, it would have been Emily he’d have instinctively thrown himself in front of to protect.

*

He’d done his best to have a respectable baby shower for Alexandria. He made a sandwich platter, bought a tacky gold-foil banner from the dollar store, diced up some cheese and watermelon. Even then, as he hacked awkwardly and without confidence at the giant watermelon, he pictured Emily there beside him, laughing, taking the knife from him, doing it herself, doing it right. The watermelon would just come apart in his big hands.

Everyone knows everyone in Witless Bay. Everyone knew everything about everyone, and he hated that. Always had. May as well leave your curtains open in this town, Emily used to say. But there were perks to that. Some neighbourly women had a soft spot for a man struggling in the absence of a woman. There were women in Witless Bay who thought men couldn’t cook for themselves; there were women who thought in gender roles, still, in 2013. They’d drop by with casseroles, baked cod, scalloped potatoes: every female neighbour, he’d come to discover, had one specialty they were damn proud of. So he thanked them twice as much. And felt horrible the time his daughter smashed Clea Davis’s casserole dish after a fight with Billy. Women get attached to their baking ware; they think nothing else will cook their signature dish quite the same. He didn’t know where to go and buy Clea another baking dish just like the one his daughter had smashed. He had to hand it back to her in pieces.

“It was Grandma Mays’,” Clea said. “But that’s nothing. Don’t you worry about this.” Clea said it like she meant it, but that was the last he’d ever seen of her Sheppard’s pie. The whipped potatoes: crunchy on top, creamy below.

Clea had come by one day, by just after Emily left, and caught Gus hanging clothes in the backyard. She was laughing at his thick hands, struggling with dainty clothespins – they were like tiny chopsticks in clumsy hands. The way the sunlight struck her, and tugged her face into a new expression; the way the wind blew her skirt, it was enough to make him feel alone in the world.

“Here,” she said, and she hung the clothes for him. “Go put the kettle on for us. I’ve brought some date squares.”

There was no one left in his life who he could reach out and touch anymore, without shocking them. His daughter included. And the image of Alexandria batting his hand away was too much.
The cold water was cracking his bones – freezing them brittle, brittle enough for the push of a wave to splinter them. He thought back to the mystery of what had struck his head in the first place, and sent him tumbling out of the boat. It must have been one of those gulls, always diving into his boat for scraps of fish. He’d always sworn it was the same two gulls, and came to not mind them there. Almost trusted them, if that makes sense. Maybe it was the gulls, or maybe it was nothing at all.

He reached a hand out to feel the lump there, and be sure something had struck him. He felt the crumbling of caked blood under his fingers. He slipped off the buoy, and he thought about how if he did make it back to land, back to his life, he’d not be able to look his daughter in the eye. He’d track Emily down. She’s on her own, he’d tell her. She’s on her own, now, that one. But he’d never find Emily and he knew it. He’d heard she was in Ottawa. He knew that, even at forty-five, carrying the baggage of a failed marriage and a daughter like Alexandria, a woman like Emily wouldn’t have stayed single long.

That day at the clothesline, Clea had a hand held to her forehead, like a soldier in salute, to shield her eyes from the sun. A smirk on her face. C’mere she’d said. And she took the clothespins from his hand, giddy and giggling, sliding passed his body in a way he liked. “It certainly doesn’t help that these clothespins are dainty and foolish. I’ll come by tomorrow with a bag of normal ones. The wooden ones.” And she did. They shared some more date squares and cold milk and conversation. Until Alexandria barreled into the room, saying she needed a ride to the courthouse in St. John’s. Oh Clea said. I better go.

*

Chad Pelley’s fiction has been recognized by 10 literary awards. His debut novel, Away from Everywhere, was a Coles bestseller, has been adopted by university courses, and a film adaptation is underway. His second novel, Every Little Thing, was released in March of 2013 and Canada Reads’ winner Lisa Moore called it “Stylistically fresh and can’t-put-it-down compelling.” He’s taught creative writing at Memorial University, and runs Salty Ink.com.

chadpelley.wordpress.com

Fiction #44: Lauren Mead

Courtship and the Art of Retaliation

MONDAY, 3:00 PM: The Old Field

A truce of sorts; signaled by the waving of an old silk scarf out of her attic window.  The scarf, trailing majestically across the gap between our bedroom windows wasn’t white, but I knew what it meant.  We met in the old field, halfway between the school and our houses.  A narrow footpath ran diagonally across it, blistered and baked by the sun.  In the middle of the path, our shadows nearly touched. 

“You alone?”

She nodded.  A wisp of red hair wriggled in the wind.  I peered at her freckles, which were rust coloured and decided that I liked them. 

“Sorry,” was the word that had meant to come out in that moment but didn’t, because the other girls had shown up.  Except I hadn’t noticed until, giggling like hyenas, they pantsed me and fled. 

I wanted to believe that Stacey Margot hadn’t helped with the scheme—that maybe she had just been there at the same time and hadn’t told her friends yet that All Bets Were Off, but judging by the burning in my cheeks and unsuspected goose pimples that popped up along my naked legs, I thought it probably wasn’t true. 

TUESDAY, 4:00 PM, The Tree House

We all had a stake in it; we all had something to win and something to lose.  In the warm summer breeze, we sat around The Plan, our bums barely touching the hard, splintering wood floor of the tree house as we leaned in to hear more.  Sam had been our leader for a long time, so obviously what Sam said, went.  This—regarding the incident of last Monday, 3:00 PM had been the last deciding moment. 

Jim, short and bespectacled, cleared his throat loudly and pushed his stubby fingers into the air.  His forehead creased into a myriad of questions. 

Sam raised his eyebrows as if to say “Oh yeah?” A flick of bushy black eyebrows conveyed everything Sam needed to say. 

Jim’s hand sunk back into the darkness. 

“We have to find a way in,” said Sam.

A small, dry hand poked up in the gloom.  I saw that it was Moe, a blonde-haired boy with more acne on his skin than a ship has barnacles.  “Why don’t we just go straight to her house?” 

Almost immediately, in that hot, dry silence, after years of watching Sam as he made decisions after he had already made up his mind, I could see that the indecision that swept across his face was just for show. 

“I like it,” he said at last.  I had seen Sam with that childish glint in his eye before.  It made my stomach churn.  There had been the time that we had played a joke on the school librarian involving super soakers and strawberry jam.  The pack howled riotously at the warped and waterlogged catalogue of books, chairs askew and red glop oozing like sweet blood from the fancy dictionary that sat on her desk. 

The moment when I might have said “no” and left the pack behind had seemed more treacherous than playing along.  The plan then had seemed cruel.  But there I had been, after the decisive moment had already passed. 

It took me a minute to realize what was going on.  Sam’s nose poked over the ladder, his eyelashes looked like spiders in the dim flashlight beam.  I paused, thinking about Stacey Margot’s crumpled pink mouth, knit brow and the scream that had grinded the silence into chaos a few days before. 

Sam raised his eyebrows again.  This time, the message was “You gonna let a girl win?”
   
WEDNESDAY, 3:30 PM, the sidewalk

The question floated out of my mouth before I could stop it.  “You ever kissed anyone before?”
   
Sam’s eyebrow drifted upwards, then his dark green eyes fixed shrewdly on mine.  He stopped sharply and crossed his arms.  “If I had, do you think I’d be telling anyone?”

I shrugged, shoving my hands into my short pockets.  “No, guess not.  But do you ever think…”

Sam shook his head.  “I think you think too much.”

On more than one occasion, I had caught Margot watching me from behind her math textbook.  I always sat in front of her.  We never talked.  Would I even be able to get out a word if she asked me a question?  Once, some time after The Incident, that hollow plink of a dropped pencil alerted me to her sudden movement.  Checking that Mr. Harbour was still absorbed in his reading, I bent down and again we were face to face.  Her freckled nose grazed mine—an accident, I’m sure, but I couldn’t help noticing that it was soft as new grass.  I reached for the pencil and her grey-green eyes blinked. Her fingers warmed mine for a second or two before she took the pencil back. 

A croak erupted out of my bottom, into the air as I sat up.  Titters punctuated the silence.

“Ew, Stevie!” said Stacey Margot, pinching her nose and fanning at the air. 

Then again, maybe it wasn’t going too far at all.

Snatching up my flashlight in the present, I peered down the ladder.  The woods were just at the edge of the lot line, the plan being that we would sneak up to her house from behind.   From the back door, nobody could see what we were doing.

“Stevie, you know what you have to do already, right?”

Someone—I think it was Moe—nudged me and I nodded.  The Plan before me blurred a little and I squinted, trying to keep my eyes open.  Outside the tree house doorway was as black as the inside of a deep dark cave and even though we were up high, I wished for once to be in my bed safe at home like I’d let my mom believe.  On the edge of the ladder, my mind found itself wandering to another dark place. 

ONE YEAR AGO, 2:00 PM, THE INCIDENT, Stacey Margot’s drawing room

Funeral sandwiches soaked up the emptiness.  They lined elegant, frill covered tables and perched precariously on china plates held up by a forest of pale, tense hands.  I stood there awkwardly, hands in pockets of a grey hand-me-down suit that should have fit someone much smaller than myself.  The air inside Stacey Margot’s house was hot and stale.

Stacey Margot stood across the room, near the burgundy drapes with some of her friends, Alice and Marcie.  Cool sweat trickled down my palms.  I rubbed my hands again on my pants and they rustled like newspaper.  My mother shot me a sharp look that said, “be good, young man.” I hastily edged towards Stacey Margot’ side of the room.  Alice, thin and drowsy-eyed, took one long, sweeping look at me and rolled her eyes.  I joined the group anyway, standing there shuffling my feet on the grey-white carpet. 

Stacey Margot and I had only met once before, when she had introduced herself to the class as “the next greatest thing” and we all snickered at her declaration.  I thought I should at least say something to her.  Her eyes darted left and right, never quite meeting mine.  Her cheeks grew pink. 

“Thanks for coming,” said Stacey Margot. 

A whistle shrieked through the air and I was back in the gloomy tree house.  “Stevie—you coming?”
I paused, thinking of the moment that had started it all.  Once again I stood on the brink of decision, feet dangling over the edge and knowing all at once that I didn’t have the guts to go home alone. 

At the funeral—her mother’s—I had been faced with the awkward and heavy silence of bereavement and small talk.  I felt my tongue glue itself to the roof of my mouth.  My throat was dry as a dust storm.  I stood there stupidly, cheeks flushing crimson. 

Margot leaned in closer and whispered “Are you okay?”

My eyes had started to water from the heat that my face was creating.  Alice and Marcie regarded me as if I were a strange clod of dirt on their shoes.  I fought to pull a string of words out of my lazy, good-for-nothing mouth, but the words didn’t come.  There were a million eyes pressing into my backside.  In a moment of wordless floundering, I leaned in and kissed Stacey Margot on the mouth. 

Her eyes widened and she shoved me away. 

“Jerk!” she shouted. 

An eruption of giggles sounded from across the room where the pack was hovering around a plate of sandwiches.  For all my well-meaning intentions, I knew why Stacey Margot wanted her revenge. 

THURSDAY, 10:25 PM, the woods behind Stacey Margot’s house

Snickering and snapping through the dark, damp underbrush we went, carting our equipment along in sacks and old pillowcases.  All I had to do was stand there on Stacey Margot’s well-manicured porch and hope she came outside. 

I started thinking again of another time, before all of the scheming began. 

After school, some time after The Incident had happened, Stacey Margot and I walked home along the cracked sidewalk.  Its’ injuries snaked wildly like old, rotted scars.  Sam had been ranting about some new retaliation scheme, but when I’d asked all he had said was “It’ll be good—just you wait.”
As always, I had nodded along, knowing that Sam was too persuasive not to agree with. 

I knew that Stacey Margot usually walked through the field and not along the road, but I couldn’t help hoping that she’d taken this detour for me.  I was thinking about her hands, willow boughs on a breezeless night, draped casually at her side as we walked.  I tried to do the same, but my hands, swollen and clumsy, kept bouncing off of my tree trunk legs, so I shoved them in my pockets instead. 

We hadn’t spoken since her mother’s funeral, making the air between us stale and full of questions. 

At last, I settled on “I don’t blame you.”

She looked at me, eyes wide. “Oh?”

Slumping lower, I looked away. “I mean about the…you know.”

She blushed. “I know.”

I smiled a little. 

She observed her nails for a moment before looking me in the eye, lips parted. 

“I didn’t mean to…I mean…it was…”

We stopped walking.  Stacey Margot leaned in closer.  I leaned in too.  She stopped mid-pucker, her lips curving into an “o,” her cheeks flushed and eyes wide, shiny and wet and full of rage.  A scream escaped her lips as she clutched the back of her white dress, which was now soaked in grape juice a-la super soaker.  The pack jeered and clapped as they ducked out of sight, leaving me red-cheeked and mutely apologetic.

A week later, she and her crew had stolen my gym clothes and forced me to walk all the way to the principal’s office, naked.  I can’t say that I didn’t blame her, but Sam reckoned that this meant WAR. 

In the present, there were a few stray whispers as the boys set up The Plan. Electricity hummed serenely, a meditation imposing itself over the chirp of crickets as the fan was tested.  Somewhere, Ben, who wheezed when he sniffed dust, ripped open the feather pillow sending a silent explosion of gossamer wings drifting gently downward in the hot air. 

Sam’s job—the best one—was to oversee it all.  He whistled an upbeat tune that I didn’t recognize as he watched the others stringing wires, checking equipment and slinking around the yard.  As I stood there on the creaking porch, I wished that I could be Sam, who was charming and always knew what to do and say.  That’s why Sam was the leader and not me.  On the other side of the landing, Moe made sure the wires were ready so that when Stacey Margot opened the door…

I punched the doorbell and stood there on her clean wooden porch. 

“C’mon Stevie, run away!” shouted someone out there in the dark.  I turned to look, but only saw the vague shadow of hands waving. 

“C’mon, c’mon, c’mon, c’mon!” the pack chorused. 

A hush fell over the group as the sound of footsteps getting nearer echoed in the silence of the dusk.  Eyes roving, I stared at the welcome mat, feet like stone. 

The crickets had stopped.  The snickers were silenced.  Stacey Margot’s pale face gleamed in the moonlight as she flung open the door, eyes wide. 

“Stevie?” pink lips parted into a glorious smile. She crossed her arms, observing me as she stood in her pink nightgown, bare feet lined up against the doorframe.

I fumbled, words tripping over themselves as they tumbled out of my mouth.

“I just thought…I mean…maybe…”

Stacey Margot’s eyebrows raised a fraction. She crossed her arms.  “Truce?”

I looked up at her sweet, sincere face and said, “Yeah, I do.” I meant it too. 

From the bushes, I heard Sam hiss “Go! Go! Go!”

A burst of fly-infested honey oozed languidly out of the tin bucket above Stacey Margot and I.  We watched it glop downwards, the golden hues shining dully under the humming porch light.  I shoved Stacey Margot backwards as the honey landed with a wet plop in my curly hair.  Cool air gusted white feathers floating down like an absurd snowfall on the whole mess.  Stacey Margot let out a gasp as she tumble backwards, arms akimbo.  A hint of a smile, crooked and soft, crept up her perfect pale face.  I smiled too, because Stacey Margot was smiling at me.  Of course, I did what any gentleman would do: I held out my hand to her and to my surprise she grasped it.  Warmth spread through my body. 

A chorus of laughter erupted from the yard. I turned, blinking to see who might be there and was blinded by a flash.  When I turned back to Stacey Margot, she was smiling that wry smile, her lips parted.  She leaned in and pulled me close. Lavender hung on the air.  Blinking away little white spots as they danced in the dark air like firecrackers, I wondered if all first kisses were this spectacular and strange and embarrassing.  Stacey Margot pursed her lips and I stopped breathing, feeling the tingle in my palms as sweat trickled down my fingertips.  I closed my eyes and leaned in, feeling the warmth of her cheeks—or maybe that was still the warm honey running into my ears.  When she leaned in closer, my heart felt like it was going to take off.  I peeked open on eye to see her lips parting, her head bent towards my boiling lobster ear. 

“Gotcha,” she said.

As the sparks cleared and the door slammed in my face, I felt the blood rush to my cheeks so hard that my ears were on fire.  Blinking, I saw two girls dashing behind the bushes. One of them turned around and made a puckering sound as she waved the Polaroid of me, covered in feathers and honey and red-hot shame.  Sam shook his head at me, raising a furry eyebrow and the rest of the pack traipsed off after him.  The picture would be all over school tomorrow; there was no doubt about that. It wasn’t likely that the pack would stick by me after the fool I’d made of myself, but I decided that it didn’t matter.  I was nearly-sort-of sure that I’d almost kissed Stacey Margot. 

*

Lauren Mead is a secondary school teacher of English and drama who has been writing short stories, poems and novels since she was thirteen.  She has an MA in English and enjoys reading everything that she can find. 

Fiction #44: Liz Betz

Gladiolas

Glads, she calls them.  After a moment I make out that ‘glads’ is short for gladiolas. She does not mean what makes a person glad as I first thought.

“I’m digging my glads today”, she announces, the first thing out of my mother’s mouth. Does she think I’ve come all this way to hear about her garden? 

Does she know it’s me?  Has she erased me from her memory, or has time?  Somewhere, years ago we stopped talking, stopped being mother and child.   

“I’ve got to care for the glads.” she repeats.  I gaze at the flower bed.  At her glads.  So the end of September is the time that gladiola bulbs need to be taken out of the ground. Does it have to be today?  If she left it until tomorrow it would be too late?  The streets of this old village are lined with huge trees ready to shed leaves, to bury everything, at the first wind. 

Her glads, those sickly yellow spears, might as well be called sads.  Or pities, like the peonies that have long ago lost their blossoms.  And me…?  Unwanted.  

“I’ve got someone coming today.  To prep the garden for winter.   This is a busy day.” She’s eighty-one in another month, but her voice is forceful and sure and her movements easy.  Easier than mine; the arthritis that plagued my father belongs now to me. 

“I had no idea you’d be coming.”  She shakes her head.  “Today of all days.  Really.  You couldn’t call ahead?”

Perhaps she has me confused with someone else, but then she asks me plain, “Why didn’t you phone first, Janice?  Before you landed on my doorstep, on my gardening day.”

I’d imagined a good many things that might happen at my return; her throwing her arms around me, her weeping, or initiating some wary questions about my life, or statements of how difficult our estrangement had been.  Even bitterness and exchanges of hate and disappointment would not have surprised me.  But I had not imagined this claim.  I’ve interrupted her and that I should have known better.  Monday is for laundry, Tuesday is for dusting and the garden day is the Holy Day.  I’d forgotten the designated day thing.

She doesn’t wait for me to speak.  She walks past me to another flowerbed.  I would recognize her back anywhere; it’s an old signal for belligerent silence.  She’s dressed for action, in tidy yellow and green gardening clothes, appropriate, ironed and stylish, like she were in a theatre production, cast as an old lady gardener.  Her hair is white and cut in a smooth wedge and looks smart in the ball cap that matches her cotton gloves.  I sense a closet full of other ensembles, matching accessories included; designated.

I remember once, she wore a periwinkle sash on the crown of a hat, the ends tied under her chin.  I told her it was absolutely stupid.  Oh, the anger confused as wisdom by a teenager.  It is suitable and stylish, she told me, looking aghast at the headband of leather that I had stretched across my brow. 

She’s so phony.  My teenaged self, emerges in my 60 year old mind, assigns this old label.    And like I am the helper of the moment, there to serve her needs, she sends me to fetch a fork from the little garden shed.

I've matured.  Haven’t I?  Gerald and I raised a family and dealt with life’s ups and downs.    I do understand.  She’s planned on bringing in the gladiola bulbs today and that’s what she will do.  Her ways are set in cement; right beside her heart.  I don’t understand.  I fetch the fork.

I traveled today to be here, across the province of Alberta, a four and a half hour trip, but more than miles have separated us.  Hills of disappointments, valleys of hurts. Each of us staking the place where we would not forgive.  And yet. 

Now she plants the fork into the rich loam soil, the tines pierce deep. “The more I get done myself, the less I’ll owe my helper”, she tells me. “It’s the composting that I’ve done, that your father thought was a waste of time, that’s made the soil so nice.  Isn’t it lovely?”  

She expects me to answer that?  I take a deep breath.

“Gerald died.  In June.”    

She looks puzzled. 

“Gerald.  My husband of 35 years.  The father of my two children.”   Did I have to spell it out?  She was at our wedding.  Her eyes drop to the garden fork that is at the edge of some yellow spears; more gladiolas.  

“Everybody dies eventually.”  She continues to knife the soil.  “Your father took over a year to die after his stroke.”  She lifts the fork, moves it and places her foot on it again.

“Such beautiful soil.  It took a lot of effort to get it like this.  When I started it was backfill, nothing more than clay.  Hard like you wouldn’t believe.”

Hard?  Gerald would ask me, what possible reason does she have to shut you out?   Then he’d say.  She’s one difficult and stubborn woman.  Thank God, you aren’t anything like her.  

I came to give her a chance.  One honest chance, one- forgive and forget and we’re family after all - chance.  I didn’t phone; I didn’t think she’d take my call.  I didn’t send a cards or a letter; I believed they’d come back unopened.  I came to Dad’s funeral; I sat at the back of the church.   I cannot start by telling her this, it is too accusing.  I swallow. Why did I think that face to face was the right way to do this?  I only see her face in profile; her attention is on the flower bed in front of her. 

“There were gladiolas on your father’s coffin.  There were from my own garden. Everyone said they were the loveliest they’d ever seen.  It’s the soil that makes the difference. I tell everyone that.  If you want to garden, you have to start with good soil.”

Is this her way of acknowledging her widowhood and mine?  Has time taken away the sting of grief and left a triumph of gladiolas for compensation?  Is that how it works?

The image of Gerald’s coffin, the flowers, the service, all comes back to me.   I wipe away a tear, my gesture is unnoticed.  She steps onto the garden fork again and the tines sink into the soil.  Then she stops.  She has spotted her helper, his van has parked in the drive way. “Any day is a good day, if it’s a gardening day.”  She smiles at the young man who gets out of the van.  The door reads Chris’s Lawn and Garden and in small print is my mother’s greeting.  For a moment it seems the young man regrets his choice of motto. Old women and their gardens would be his bread and butter.  He, I realize, is the person designated for today. 

“I’m going now.”  I say and she stops for a split second and then without glancing at me, she shrugs her shoulders.  “I can see you’re busy.”  I add.  She nods, I think, in my direction, while she points out what the gardener is to do.  I wait a few minutes but the two of them go right to work. 

I came to see her, I came to try once more and now it is done.  I ask myself if I’ve given her enough time, but the answer comes back.  Yes.  More time, even more effort will not make a difference. 

The last time I see her, she is down on her knees; her concentration is complete.  If you want to garden, you have to start with good soil.  Or you have to put in a lot of effort to make it good.  She told me that about her dirt.  It seems enough for her.    

Her helper digs as she gathers bulbs; her fingers in the soil that she’s worked so hard to develop.  Her gladiolas will bloom again but I won’t see them; in this place there is no growth to anticipate, no buds to watch blossom and no lush harvest.  For that I’m going back to my children and my life.  I doubt if she will glance up as I leave so I don’t let myself look back.

*

Liz Betz writes from rural Alberta where she enjoys her retirement.  She is particularly fond of late bloomers as she is one herself.  Recent publications can be linked to from her website www.lizbetz.com.