Gabriela Maria raises a ceramic spoon filled with cold gazpacho to her lips and sips the contents. The hot, dry afternoon sun filters through her faded yellow curtains and lands slanted onto her brown, wrinkled arm then to the tricoloured carpet on the floor beside her. Involuntarily she gazes out her window and through her backyard to the road that passes her doorstep. There are no cars and no one walking along the road and Gabriela experiences a familiar pang of grief. It’s better not to keep looking at the road but her eyes keep drifting to it after every cold gulp of soup. Rodolfo glances up from his soup. His black eyebrows furrow and wrinkles appear on his otherwise smooth, soft forehead.
“¿Qué pasa, mamá?”
“Qué piensas, Rodolfo.” It’s useless. Rodolfo continues to look at her while his spoon floats on the top of his gazpacho. Finishing his soup he stands up and removes his mother’s bowl from the table. Gabriela remains in her chair clasping and unclasping her hands. Their bungalow, built of cement, is guarded by a black wrought iron fence surrounding the premises – a feature Hernando insisted upon only three month ago. Walking though the door there is a small kitchen with an electric stove, a refrigerator and an ornate armoire filled with hand painted china. In the middle of the kitchen is a solid oak table filled with scratches and dents. Etched into one edge of the table is Hernando’s signature word when he was eleven years old – “shit”. Gabriela had locked Hernando in his room for an entire night when she saw the engraving on her oak table, but the punishment would have been worse had she understood the English word. There is a large window with yellow lace curtains beside the back wall of the kitchen beside the refrigerator. This is the window Gabriela stares out for hours each day until her back cramps up and she shuffles outside to take a walk down the road that runs in front of her pink stuccoed home. Today, while walking down the road thoughts shift aimlessly through her mind: In three days she will need to pay the electricity bill; Rodolfo will have to go to work tomorrow which means she will be alone for the day; her heels are aching from the worn out soles of her sandals and she can feel the small stones under her paper thin footing as she walks. How many days has it been? She begins counting, although she’s already made the tally for today and can easily remember the tally from yesterday and add one or the tally from the day before and add two. 11 de Junio is when Hernando last came home and today we are 23 de Junio which means it’s been twelve days since she saw Hernando last. It’s the longest he has ever been away from home and Gabriela’s hands are stiff and aching from the twisting and pulling that they’ve suffered since Hernando’s disappearance.
I’m no idiot, thinks Gabriela. I know how much a new refrigerator and stove costs. I also know how much a wrought iron fence costs and all of these things could not be paid for off of Hernando’s salary as a mechanic – especially not when some of that salary goes to Alejandra for José. It’s been months since she’s seen either of them so it’s safe to assume they are split for good but why it happened is beyond Gabriela’s understanding. Families are supposed to stay together through the best of it and the worst of it, para mejor o para peor. Hernando won’t discuss this with her though and so she’s given up trying. She squeezes her eyes against the hot afternoon sun and wipes small beads of salty sweat from her creased brow. If Hernando comes home, she thinks, I’ll never bring up Alejandra again - never. She hears shuffling behind her and slows down her pace. Rodolfo catches up to her and slides his arm through hers. He’s a good boy, she thinks, but what happened to his brother? Ever since he was a child Rodolfo was meeker, sweeter, a homebody. Rodolfo would stand next to Gabriela in the kitchen while she pulled apart chicken for sopa de lima. He would peel the limes and dig out the sour flesh and hand them one by one to Gabriela, basking in the praise he’d receive for helping in the kitchen. Hernando could not be persuaded to stay inside. Where did Hernando go when he wasn’t home? Why wasn’t I paying better attention to that? When Hernando came home at 9 p.m., having missed dinner, moody and quiet, why didn’t I demand answers? Gabriela knew why. She wasn’t sure when it started, but there came a time when she started to fear Hernando – not that she believed he would hurt her, but that she was unable to discipline him anymore. He was beyond her, and if she tried to demand answers or keep Hernando home, she worried that he would simply disregard her demands. There would be nothing she could do to keep him home and by imposing rules that she could no longer enforce, she would lose what little integrity and power she had managed to keep in the house if he decided to disobey her. If only Miguel was still alive, still here – Hernando never would have slipped past the grip of his father. Nunca. How could Rodolfo and Hernando have turned out so differently, growing up under the same roof? These were questions that Gabriela could not answer and now they didn’t matter. Hernando had been gone for 12 días… y a dónde? So many questions existed within Gabriela’s mind without a single avenue for answers. Rodolfo knew none of Hernando’s friends and neither did Gabriela – he never brought a single friend home. As he got older he would stroll into their house later and later. Gabriela always waited up because she was incapable of sleeping when she didn’t know where Hernando was. She would wait up all night as he got older and started skipping coming home altogether. It was around that time that Alejandra came into the picture. Gabriela had hoped, in vain, that Alejandra would straighten Hernando’s direction. She had hoped Alejandra would encourage Hernando to come home and see her, to spend more time with her. The result was the opposite. Once Alejandra came into the picture he had a place to stay in Michoacán. However, even at the worst of times he would never go more than a few days without coming home to visit. He would show up at the door with some kind of gift – a peace offering – hoping to assuage his mothers concerns with gadgets. Hernando even had a cell phone which she desperately wanted to call but had no landline of her own. After he had gone a week without visiting, Gabriela walked the two hours to Hector’s house in their neighbouring town. Miguel had worked with Hector and he was a good friend to Gabriela, but he also had a landline. She stayed at his house all afternoon trying Hernando’s cell but the line would disconnect after two rings. Hector tried to explain to her that meant the cell phone’s battery was dead - muerto - a word Gabriela had no interest in hearing.
Rodolfo gently pulls on Gabriela’s arm, guiding her back towards the direction of their home. It’s getting hot and Rodolfo has learned that if he doesn’t walk with his mother she might wander all afternoon, returning in the evening dehydrated and full of dust. There’s no one left to take care of her, he thinks. He had once planned on moving to Guadalajara and finding a wife. He wanted to own his own store and sell some of the food he had been so good at preparing growing up. That would be impossible now. His mother would not leave her home where she had lived for over 45 years and he would not leave her alone. Pinche Hernando, he thinks, that selfish son of a bitch. He had never been close to Hernando - he couldn’t understand his callousness, his moodiness. He didn’t fear him the way his mother did in his later years; rather, he just resented him. He knew, without ever being told directly, that Hernando was selling drugs in Michoacán. He didn’t admire him for it and he wasn’t envious of all the money he brought home – money he had to begrudgingly accept because they needed it. He just thought his brother was impossibly stupid. Ever since the cartel split in Michoacán the competition for control of the city had been a blood bath. Rodolfo suspected Hernando was working with the Familia cartel, but he had no way of knowing for sure. He would never ask and Hernando would never tell. He didn’t want to know anyway – the further away you stay from that mess, the better. Rodolfo would listen to the radio in an effort to glean any information about the combat for dominance in Michoacán but the only information he ever got was running totals of the dead. The tally of los muertos only increased and they murders had become increasingly gruesome in an effort to send clear broadcasts of which cartel was the strongest. There were always more and they were always nameless – unidentified nobodies that no one sympathized for because that was the risk you took when you got involved in the trade. Furthermore, los federales and the DEA were becoming less inclined to get involved because involvement put their necks in the noose too. Rodolfo knew all this and Hernando knew it too – the reality of the situation escaped no one. He always turned off the broadcasts if Gabriela entered the room.
Rodolfo handed Gabriela some water he had brought along in a plastic bottle. Her lips were cracked and flaking and she drank the warm water quickly. Handing back the bottle to Rodolfo she straightened her stiff back and looked up to meet her son in the eyes. Her look conveyed too many emotions at once: Gratitude, exhaustion, fear, and love. By the time they made their way back to the road that passed in front of their door the sun was coming down and casting a dark red haze above the yellow sand of their road. In the distance they could see a car parked in front of their house, even Gabriela with her poor eyesight could discern the shape in front of her house. She breathed in sharply and squeezed Rodolfo’s arm and quickened her pace. The black SUV began speeding towards them, kicking up dry dust and creating a cloud of nothingness behind it. It sped past Gabriela and Rodolfo indiscriminately, as though if they had been only two feet to the right the car would have run them down just for being in the way. The dust settled and their house came back into view, much closer now than before. Rodolfo saw it before Gabriela did and steered her away from the front lawn where her oldest son lay slumped across their front stoop. “Necesitamos verduras, mamá” Rodolfo lied, leading her towards the small garden behind their house, instructing her to collect some cabbage for supper, but her eyes remained fixed on the SUV in the distance, now only a spot, a dark stain on the otherwise barren landscape.
Lindsay Clayton Day works as a
high school Spanish and English teacher. While teaching is a joy,
writing has been a lifelong passion. “Jalisco” is a reflection of her affinity for Mexican culture and
Cal discovered the book at the end of his shift. He found it wedged between the seat and the backrest in the back of his cab, stuffed so far in that only its black spine was visible. When he pulled it out he realized it wasn’t a book at all but a notebook – one of those cheap hard cover deals with ruled pages that you usually find in the accounting section of a stationers. About every half page or so, there was a gap, then a date, then more writing. A diary.
A name was written on the first page – Ruth Carson – followed by a date, July 1, 1995, and the word BEWARE, printed in large capital letters. Underneath that: (and that means you, Paula – touch it and YOU DIE, little sister.)
A girl then.
Cal closed his eyes and tried to remember the fares through the night. There was the girl that he had picked up somewhere around eleven. He had picked her up around the music conservatory. The only reason he remembered was because she looked a little too young to be out that late on her own. He’d made some comment about her being out so late and she had looked at him like he had just crawled out from under a rock. ‘I had a rehearsal,’ she said. ‘What’s it to you.’ He’d told her that he was a musician too.
‘Yeah right, the next Eddie Van Halen, I bet,’ she’d cracked.
He’d dropped her off on a street near Bloor and Jane. Baby Point Road? Baby Point Crescent? No. Baby Point Terrace. He grabbed the well-worn telephone book on the dispatch office counter and thumbed through listings for Carson and found one located on the street. When he dialed the number an answering service picked up. He left a message.
He was bleary by the time he reached his sister’s. He climbed the two flights of stairs to his room on the third floor. He threw the knapsack that still carried the diary on the chair then flopped on the bed and stuck his hands behind his head. He stared at the sloping ceiling that Fiona, his niece, had decorated with glow-in-the-dark moons and stars. Trucks rattled along the not-so-distant Keele Street, shaking the house. At least it was quiet inside. His sister and her husband would have left to drop Fiona off at school more than an hour ago; by now they would both be at work.
‘Don’t think I’m going to pick up after you or clean up behind you,’ his sister had said when he first arrived. ‘This is strictly temporary. Until you find your own place. ’Til then, I expect you to make your own meals, do your own laundry and pay me rent. AND get a job. It’s hard enough to make ends meet without having to look out for you.’
He thought his sister had overreacted. It wasn’t like he’d asked the factory in Port Owen to close just so he could move to Toronto and freeload. He was as uncomfortable with the arrangement as she was. Hell, he would have preferred staying up north. But where were the jobs?
He pulled the portable cd player out of his knapsack, plugged in a cd and focused on the Led Zeppelin poster he’d fixed on the wall across from his bed. As he listened he imagined he was holding a guitar. He tried to match the hand positions for the chords. Later in the afternoon, he and Angus planned to look at the guitar he’d spotted last week in a pawnshop downtown. Angus figured that Cal really had a chance as a musician. He’d told him that a couple of weeks ago after betting that Cal couldn’t make it through Stairway to Heaven without making a mistake. Cal had sung it word for word.
The girl woke him mid-afternoon.
‘My diary. Oh my gawd, you’ve found it,’ she yelled into the phone. ‘You haven’t read anything, have you, HAVE YOU?’
‘I want it back.’
‘That’s why I called you,’ he said. ‘I can return it to you tonight if you want. Just let me know where.’
He heard the sound of her hand smudged over the mouthpiece. He heard voices, a pause. Voices again, another pause. The girl released the mouthpiece. ‘Okay,’ she said, ‘this is what you’re going to do.’
He was to meet her at the west-end restaurant where she worked. She gave him the name and directions. No later than nine-thirty. Her shift ended at ten.
As he hung up, Cal had a sudden, very intense memory of sitting up close to the front of the classroom in high school and feeling the stick of a spitball on his neck as he flubbed yet another question. What is this girl’s problem? It’s not like he stole the fucking thing.
He looked at the clock. There was barely enough time to shower and dress before meeting Angus. They had planned to meet at the Dundas and Yonge northeast subway exit – Angus’ usual afternoon busking haunt. In the mornings, he played at Union Station, just in front of the main exit.
Cal hadn’t known Angus all that well when he lived in Port Owen – Angus was a few years older than he – but when he ran into him in front of Sam the Record Man a month ago, Angus had treated him like a long-lost brother, hugging him and slapping him in the back.
Right then and there, Angus took him out for a coffee (he told Cal it should have been a beer but he was a bit short on cash at the moment) and asked him how the old town was doing. He hadn’t been back in a long time. He’d been far too busy with his career. He was a musician. Not like the guys up north who played weekends in bars like Doyle’s at Wheable’s Corners. Fuck that sort of thing. He was a professional. Why, when U2 were in town a while ago, he’d jammed with The Edge at a party.
It was impressive that Angus took the time to chat with him. ‘You’re on the way, man, you could be next, you don’t have to talk to someone like me yet here you are,’ Cal said.
‘A good man never forgets his roots, no matter how successful he gets – that’s my number one rule,’ Angus had responded.
Cal spotted Angus and waved. Angus was singing some pokey old Patsy Cline tune, with this serious long face that Cal knew was a subtle send-up of the song and the people who might like it. Angus saw him and winked.
‘Hey there,’ he said after he finished. He peered into his guitar case at the handful of change. ‘Not the best day.’ He picked up the change and dropped it into his pocket. ‘Got the rye?’
‘Sure.’ Cal set down his knapsack and opened it. He grabbed one of the bottles of Coke he’d swiped from his sister’s cupboard, took a couple of swigs then unscrewed the cap of the twenty-sixer he’d picked up at the Eaton Centre and poured. He took another swig then passed it to Angus. They passed the bottle back and forth and watched people emerge from the buildings along both streets and lean into the wind tunneling between the buildings. They were like a huge herd of horses clopping along.
Cal remembered the diary. ‘Hey,’ he said.
‘Somebody left something in my cab last night.’ He pulled out the book. ‘A diary.’
He told Angus about meeting the girl later that night.
‘Here. Pass it over.’
‘It’s not like I’m going to tell this chick I looked at it.’ Angus called all women under the age of thirty chicks. He called some over thirty chicks too, if they’d kept their figure. If not, they were cows. ‘Does it have any juicy stuff?’
‘Don’t tell me you haven’t looked at it.’ Angus shook his head and clucked. ‘Man, oh man. You’re too honest for your own good, you know. Here. Hand it over.’
He beckoned. Cal passed him the diary.
‘Look at this, see?’ Angus snickered. ‘A real girly-girl this one. Just look at those i’s. Like bubbles. Sweet.’
Cal looked over Angus’ shoulder. He was right. There were the circles all over the page like open mouths expressing surprise.
‘Shit. Listen to this.’ Angus pointed to the passage as he read it out loud. He flipped to another page and read about the girl’s involvement with a boy at school. He snorted and rolled his eyes.
Cal looked at his watch, noticing it was getting close to six. He wanted to get to the shop before it closed.
‘That’s enough.’ He reached for the book.
Angus turned away from Cal so he couldn’t get the diary. ‘I bet ya there’s lots of stuff in here. I bet ya this chick’s done it a few times. How old do ya think she is?’
‘C’mon Angus,’ Cal snatched the book back. ‘We gotta get moving.’
By the time they arrived, the store had closed. Through the window they could see the clerk counting out money from the cash register. Angus banged on the door, yelling for the clerk to let them in. The clerk gave them a dirty look. Angus kicked at the bottom of the door and the clerk gestured with his hand and pointed to the telephone.
Cal pressed his cheek against the display window. It felt cool and grimy, like it was covered in soot. He eyed the guitar in the window display. The red inlays were what had caught his attention a week ago. He pointed at it and asked Angus what he thought.
‘Fucking clerk.’ Angus set down his guitar case and pulled a pouch of tobacco from his pocket. He alternated between looking at the cigarette he was rolling and the guitar in the window.
‘Expensive,’ he finally said. He moved up to the window and peered inside. He pointed to a dull acoustic guitar at the edge of the display. ‘That’s more your speed right now.’
‘Shit,’ Cal said.
Angus scrounged for matches in his pocket and lit his cigarette. ‘Hey, what do I know? It’s not like I’m the expert here. Oh, that’s right, I am.’ He smacked his forehead with his palm.
‘Look,’ he said. ‘There will be a time for the shiny guitar. Right now you need something to learn on. Something that you can’t fuck up on.’
The clerk gave them another dirty look. Angus spat on the ground.
‘What’s your problem, man?’
‘It’s sure a nice guitar,’ Cal said.
‘Jee-zuz. Buy it then.’
‘No, you’re right.’
The clerk came up to the door and started turning the handle but stopped as if something had just occurred to him. The bells attached to the door jangled. The clerk returned to the sales desk and picked up a phone. Angus yanked on Cal’s jacket sleeve.
‘This shit’s going to call the cops.’
They walked down the street to an intersection. Angus suggested they head over to the Silver Coin until it was time to go meet the girl. As they trudged into the bar, Angus told Cal to forget the guitar. It was over-priced and probably a lemon. He figured he knew where he could get one for Cal, dirt-cheap. His friends had piles of old guitars.
They grabbed a table near the stage. Cal ordered beer from a waitress who looked old enough to be his mother. She spoke with an eastern European accent and tapped her fingers against her bony hip as if she were in a hurry to get some place else and they were taking too long to order. In front of them, on the stage, a girl wrapped in a skimpy towel pushed a bathtub on stage. The lights in the bar dimmed and bubbles appeared. A disco tune blared. More beer arrived. More strippers appeared on stage.
It was after eight o’clock when Cal remembered the diary. He stood up and swore. He told Angus it was time to go and drop off the book. Angus decided to go with him.
They bought another bottle at the liquor store and had a pretty good buzz on by the time they reached the subway. On the train, they took turns singing the introductions of songs and making each other guess the song’s name. The other passengers gave them a wide berth and Cal pointed this out to Angus. It was hilarious.
The restaurant was empty when they arrived. They stood at the entrance until the girl Cal had driven home the night before emerged through the kitchen swing doors.
‘Hey,’ he yanked on Angus’ arm. ‘There she is man. Hey.’
He reached into his knapsack. Working carefully, for his fingers did not seem to want to cooperate, he picked out the diary. The pages were wet from the rye.
He waved the book. ‘Come and get it,’ he yelled.
The girl wiped her hands on her apron as she looked at him. She leaned back, pushing the kitchen doors open. She must have spoken to someone in there because all of a sudden a large guy in an apron walked out. The girl approached Cal in quick, angry steps and snatched the diary.
‘It’s wet,’ she said.
‘Yeah.’ Cal tried to stifle a giggle.
‘You’ve ruined it.’ She held it away from her and chewed her lip.
The large guy in the apron stepped in front of her. ‘There boys, you’ve done your good deed, now it’s time to go.’ He gave Cal a friendly but firm push.
‘Hey.’ Angus set his guitar case down and crossed his arms. ‘My friend deserves to be thanked properly.’ He pointed at the girl and wagged his finger. ‘I’ll have you know that my friend performed a true act of chivalry to return your precious little diary. He could have thrown it out. Or ridiculed it with his friends. There was any number of things he could have done. But not our Cal. No. He’s got morals.’ He swung his arm over Cal’s shoulders and pulled so hard Cal almost fell over.
‘Get over yourself,’ the girl said.
Cal regained his balance but then the big guy started shoving him. There was something he wanted to say but he couldn’t remember what. He lunged at the big guy and tried to make eye contact with the girl. ‘I didn’t read it,’ he yelled as the big guy slammed him against the door.
‘What do I care now?’ The girl opened the book up and began to rip pages out, throwing them on the floor. She was crying.
‘Get lost or I’ll call the cops,’ the big guy said.
‘Fuck you!’ Angus gave him the finger.
In the subway, as they waited for the train, Angus embraced Cal, slapping him on the back, like they had just lost a football game but were showing face.
‘That girl knows shit,’ he slurred.
Angus started singing a Pink Floyd tune about heaven and hell. They stumbled to a bench. Papers and garbage floated up off the tracks fueled by the compression and release of air. Angus barreled out another line as he slumped down on the bench. Cal lurched down beside him.
‘Stop it,’ Cal said. ‘I don’t like that song.’
‘You know what your problem is, man?’ Angus prodded him. ‘You think too much. You’re like the fish in the bowl, swimming round and round in your thoughts, convincing yourself the world out there’ll be your ruin. You gotta leap outta the bowl, man, breathe in your fears. Be a hero.’ He slumped against Cal and began to snore.
The train rumbled into the station and dank, fetid air swirled around Cal. The doors slid back and revealed a handful of people, most sitting alone. He should get in but he was getting the spins and doubted he could stand.
As the doors drew closed he remembered walking in the bush at home and the plush scent of cedar. Wish I was there, he thought. He repeated the phrase out loud. Then he yelled it at the departing train and its passengers but his voice was no match for the moan in the tunnels. Beside him Angus turned and snorted.
Mary Baxter is a London, Ontario Canada writer
whose quest for great literature has led her to the mountains of British
Columbia to earn an undergraduate degree in English literature and to
Dublin, Ireland to “master” Anglo-Irish literature (not to mention the
fine art of pouring Guinness). Since then, she has written about
agriculture in Canada for which she has received many awards, including
the 2012 International Federation of Agricultural Journalists’ star
prize for print journalism.
For a second, as Jack fingered the keys in one hand while almost subconsciously touching the back of Grace’s forearm with the other, Nella wants to steal their rich lives, the ease with which Grace accepts his touch. Then she imagined what it would be like to be Grace, who sat there angular on the couch — too haughty, stick-like and starving for Nella to really want to be her with anything more than a momentary conviction. And Jack was so one-dimensional, all money and business and always wearing the right shoes.
The keys dangled from his hand, catching and dancing in the light like glass wind-chimes. Nella closed her hands around the cool metal to silence them, and slipped them into her purse and then those polished shoes were walking out the door, Grace’s expensive perfume a soft cloud dissolving behind them.
Nella waited for the door to close, the warm purr of the Lexus to subside. The chaise was a little uncomfortable – something to be touched and admired but not experienced. She sat perfect as a picture, dressed innocuously for the occasion in a navy skirt and non-descript white blouse, afraid to leave sweat-stained fingerprints on the buttercream leather. She held her breath, waiting for Grace and Jack to return for forgotten Gucci sunglasses or some other trinket. But why would they? If they forgot it, they’d just buy another. This open concept house left her vulnerable, exposed by glass for anyone to see, though the yard was so cloistered no one would. The kitchen blended with the living room with the front entry with the hallway and stretched on for miles. The furniture were small islands in a vast ocean of space. When you’re this rich, you don’t need walls. Nella listened for the moods of the house, the scratching and shifting of the floorboards, eventually peeling herself from the leather, standing and staring out the front window to make sure they weren’t coming back.
The image flashed red in her mind ‒ Grace flipping her neat auburn hair over her shoulders, discarding Nella with narrow, rich eyes. She’d do, as someone to look after the house, to fill space in their absence.
An open staircase led to a catwalk on the second floor and stretched across the expanse of the living room leading to apartment-sized bedrooms at each end and more staircases ascending to other levels, higher panes of existence.
The glass walls brought the moods of the mountains and the sky and sea swirling together inside the house. Everything was a rippling shade of aqua, reflecting infinitely in the mirrors.
The lesser bedroom was made up with clean grey satin sheets, the view of forests just for her. Not this time, she thought. At the other end was the master bedroom, the sparkle of the city dancing across the water, a massive king-size bed. Their room. Suddenly giddy, Nella ran and jumped on their bed, lay staring upwards, her eyes tracing the swirling white vines and acanthus leaves embossed on the ceiling, the pilasters guarding the corners of the room.
In the walk-in bathroom closet, she unfurled two sprawling white bath towels, found a white robe with ‘Grace’ embroidered in swirly burgundy. The robe was velvet in her hands; like nothing she had ever touched before. The warm water thundered into the cracked eggshell tub, and she opened the window, inviting the end-summer smell of dry leaves into the expansive room. On the floor, she shed the constraints of the navy skirt and white shirt like an exhausted skin; they were nothing to define her.
The water lapped over her as she submerged in the tub. Grace’s lavender bath bubbles expanded one on top of the other, rising over the edge. The bathroom was larger than her last apartment – so long ago she could barely remember it. After lounging for a half-hour or so, she turned on the Jacuzzi. The pounding amplified her thoughts about who she could be, in this place, where everything seemed to sparkle from the inside.
Dripping, she wrapped herself in Grace’s bathrobe and wandered through empty hallways. In their bedroom, a beautiful picture of Grace, 10 years younger, smiled radiantly out from their vanity chest. Nella picked it up and cradled it in her hand. Grace was taller and thinner, but with their milky olive skin colouring, their brooding brown eyes, they could be distant relatives. Especially because they have similar taste in clothes. Nella’s fingers caressed their way through grenadine silks, milky satins, cashmere sweaters, designer dresses made only to be worn once and then cast aside. From the closet, Nella could see the city before her. Who ever heard of a closet with a view? Here such things were possible.
Nella first saw Jack again at the West Vancouver yacht club, gin and tonic and crushed ice between his tan hand. It was less than a week after he left town with Grace and she wondered what he was doing there, if it was really him, and not a cousin of his or some other distant relative. Something in his ease, the way he seemed to occupy more than the space around him told her it was. From this distance, without Grace hanging off his arm scrutinizing, she could study him better, see him in his entirety.
Nella was still trying to decide if she should approach him, when he saw her. She didn’t think he would recognize her. She had changed a lot since she saw last him. He was standing up, zigzagging his way between mahogany tables towards her in country-club shorts.
But it wasn’t because he remembered her. He looked her up and down, lips turning up slightly, like he was hungry.
“You look like my wife,” said Jack.
“No, I don’t,” said Nella, smoothing her skirt.
“You’re wearing my wife’s dress.”
That might be true. Nella didn’t have the inclination to deny. The dress felt like a second skin. His wife may have bought it; but today it belonged to Nella. She shrugged.
“I know you, don’t I?” he said. “You look different though. You’re the housesitter.”
He circled her table, as though he was admiring a painting.
“Yes, something is different about you. You’ve changed your hair.”
He pulled out a chair without asking, sat down, leaned forward onto his elbows.
“I think I like it,” he said.
Then he slumped down into his high-backed mahogany chair.
“What are you doing here?” Nella said.
“I’m a member. And how about you?”
“I happen to be staying in the neighborhood,” she said. “You know that wasn’t what I was asking.”
“Business, you know.” His eyes traipsed around the room.
“What about Grace?”
“What about her?” he says, and then shrugs. “She likes it in Maui.” He chugged the last of his drink and waved for another.
He sat there for a few minutes but didn’t have anything else to say. Nella didn’t ask him the obvious question because she didn’t want the answer. She hadn’t seen him at the house, so she could only conclude that meant he was staying somewhere else. An itching niggled under her skin; she kind of wished he would leave. He seemed like less without Grace, as though she propped him up, gave him stature.
Nella wasn’t up to that kind of duty. She wasn’t capable of capitulating. She had their house. That was all she needed. When an acquaintance waved at Jack from across the room, Nella slipped out while his back was turned.
The next day was sweltering and Nella made sangria in their crystal pitcher. The hedge offered enough protection that she sat nude, let the bathrobe fall to the interlocking brick, as she stretched out under the burgundy umbrella in a white lounge-chair by the pool, skimming a romance from Grace’s collection.
A quarter of the way through the book and halfway through the pitcher she fell asleep. When she woke, a breeze had picked up, was fumbling with a few stray leaves in the backyard. Her limbs felt like dead weight from the booze, the heat. She stood up and let herself fall into the pool, sink to the bottom until she couldn’t stand it anymore. When at last she rushed up for air, she swam lap after lap until all she could see was bubbles. Finally exhausted she pushed herself dripping up to the edge, swaddled her limbs in the white towel, looked up and jumped.
Jack was leaning back in her chair in his black suit, silk tie loose around his neck.
“I’m glad to see you are making yourself comfortable,” he said, taking a sip of her sangria.
He pretended to avert his gaze as he stood up and handed her the bathrobe, “Thought you might like this,” he said. “I won’t stay long, I just stopped by to pick up a few things.” He gestured to the black duffle bag beside him and leaned back in the chair.
Nella quickly wrapped herself in the robe. It wasn’t that she had anything to hide, or any secrets, but Jack wasn’t making a real effort to look away. He continued to sit there, eyes semi-averted to her auburn toenails, as drops pooled at her feet. He didn’t seem to notice he’d taken the only chair, or he didn’t care.
She heard herself saying, “I think I’ll go get dressed.”
When she emerged from their bedroom half an hour later, in a velvety purple track suit of Grace’s that must have cost $500, she was hoping he’d left as silently as he came. But he was there on the couch, glass of whiskey in hand, and appeared to be settling in for the duration.
He gestured to the seat beside him, but Nella perched in the chaise, safe across the glass table.
Undeterred, he poured her a whiskey without even asking.
“Here, have a drink,” he said. She could hardly say no.
Nella admired the golden whiskey in the fish-bowl glass, took a sip. It went down easy, nothing like the moonshine to which she was accustomed.
“So what do you really do?” he stared right through her, and Nella began to get the inkling that maybe she should leave. Best to extrapolate now, before it got out of hand. But the house was so beautiful, so well-situated, impeccably decorated. And Jack could be managed with a certain amount of aplomb, or self-defence techniques, if it came to that.
“This is it,” she said. Not everyone was up to great achievements, being a businessman like Jack or a former model like Grace. Nella’s skill was her lack of skill – her ability to live lightly, leaving everything seemingly untouched. It was good to be talented, even if it was only as a stopgap who made sure the plants lived and the house survived their absentia in perfection.
Her life’s work.
“Nice gig if you can get it,” says Jack. “How did you fall into this line of work?”
“It started as a favour to a friend of a friend,” she said. The gig pulled Nella out of the darkness of a cramped basement suite on the unsavory side of town into the light of a medium-sized, ocean-view home on the peninsula. There, Nella felt her muscles releasing, her soul expanding. She petted the cat, mowed the lawn and they even paid her a small sum. A few weeks later a friend of theirs called and said they were going away for six months, and needed a dogsitter, was she interested?
She went on stress leave from her job as an administrative assistant and devoted herself full-time to the preservation of the house. She let her apartment go, shed her furniture – all scraps and miscellany scavenged from other people, anyway.
She felt lighter, more open this way, ready for anything that might come along, though more years had gone by than she cared to admit.
“I’m good at taking care of other people’s things,” she said.
“And wearing them too, I see,” he said. “Don’t worry I won’t tell Grace. It’ll be our secret.”
His lips curled in a conspiratorial half smile as he poured himself another glass, topped hers up too.
“Haven’t you had enough?” she said.
“I have a driver,” he said. “He’ll come back if I need to go anywhere. Why are you sitting so far away?”
Something about the tone, borderline pathetic, pulled at Nella. She dissected his features. The pointed green eyes, sharp nose, ruddy lips, solid body, a good size. Separately, there was much to redeem them, but together he wasn’t quite right, and he had a wife, too.
“I don’t think it’s appropriate,” said Nella. But when he moved so he was sitting down beside her she lingered, just to see what it would feel like, pretend a little.
“Fuck appropriate,” he said. “Forgive me, but you don’t strike me as the appropriate type.”
He slid his arm around her, kissed her neck. How interesting it felt, those ruddy, rough lips. She was testing the waters. The taste of him was alarming enough to make her push him away.
“No, no, this isn’t right. I’m your housesitter, not your escort service,” she said. “Besides, what about Grace?”
Grace, a fleeting sensation.
“I told you, Grace wouldn’t come with me. She was actually angry at me for interrupting our vacation. Like I had a choice about it.”
Nella could tell this was her cue, the moment where she is supposed to conjure up some sympathy for him, and the best she can do is: “It’s understandable, don’t you think? Maui or Vancouver, that’s a tough choice.”
“Am I a tough choice?”
His hand was on her leg. Even though he was a businessman, he still had dirt under his nails. That was enough to make her think, no.
“You’re a very attractive man,” she said, brushing his hand so gently from her leg, so it just hung there by his side. He stared at it and then her for a moment
She jumped to her feet.
“Are you hungry? We should get some food.”
Nella ordered a pizza with olives and anchovies and they sat eating it at opposite ends of the glass kitchen table on tiny barstools.
Afterwards, Jack drank a few more whiskies and passed out on the couch. Nella stood above him. Sleeping gave away all of his secrets. Seeing him there, mouth open, drooling slightly, he was only a fallible man.
The next morning he stood near the kitchen area, sheepishly chugging his coffee: “I’m sorry about that last night. I’ll get out of your hair here and try not to bug you anymore. Take care.”
His driver pulled up in a black limo and Jack was gone.
Thank God, Nella thought. Looking after the house was enough work without dealing with people. Though she speculated she could always try a sideline into husband-sitting and wondered what the going rate would be for that.
For the next two days, Nella busied herself listening to their CD collection, watching old movies on the giant screen TV, swimming laps on the pool, going to the yacht club and chatting up eligible rich, hopefully unmarried men, when she could find them, or when they found her.
Men like Seth, who after drinks and dinner and more drinks, came home with her. He was an executive of something, or at least that’s what he said he was. To Nella, his generous nature and his untarnished pretty-boy face made him seem so new like he’d just been born. But he wasn’t that innocent.
“So, this where you live,” he said, lifting her hair, kissing her ear.
“Uh-huh, do you like it?” she asked.
“Spiffy,” he said, tugging at Grace’s dress.
“Be careful, that dress is worth as much as your car,” Nella said.
“More,” he said, slipping the shoulder strap gently down her shoulder so he could kiss her there.
Someone flicked the lights on.
A woman’s shrill voice: “What are you doing?” A flash of blue spiralled towards them, a flung shoe with a spiked heel.
“Heads up,” Nella yelled, and ducked.
Seth was quick enough, only just, and the shoe left a dent in the wall above his head, before clattering to the white carpet.
His blue eyes burned. “What the fuck!?!” he said, as though it was Nella’s fault. He didn’t wait for an answer, instead grabbed his keys and ran out the door.
Nella stared up at the walkway and Grace’s flushed face peered down.
“Oh, it’s only you,” Grace said. “I thought he was my husband.”
She descended the stairs, straight-baked and serene as though she was on a catwalk.
“Wow, I sure scared him!” Grace laughed, closing the door Seth left open. “Have you seen my husband?” she asked.
Nella wasn’t sure what to say, if the truth would be easier than a lie. The sound of Seth’s motor died down. If her reflexes were better, she might have run out the door too.
“He left me alone in Maui,” Grace said. Up close, her hair was ratty, and her foundation caked with cracks in her skin. She was more mannequin than model now. “No doubt coming back here for some type of illicit rendezvous. Business, my ass. He doesn’t do business, that’s what our day trader is for. He came back here to do his business, screw some woman. Have you seen him?”
Nella wasn’t sure what the right answer was, she hadn’t seen him screw some woman, but whether he did or not, who’s to say. She searched for words that would cause the least amount of trouble for everyone, and help her get back to the job at hand.
“He stopped by to pick up some clothes,” she said.
“Did he hit on you?” Grace asked. Nella was too slow to answer.
“You’re the reason he came back,” said Grace. “He’s such a bastard, hitting on every goddamn woman we meet. I knew he would as soon as I saw you. Hey, what did you do to your hair?”
“You like it?” Nella asked.
“You look an awful lot like me,” she said. It was true. “You look good. That’s my dress.”
“It’s my dress,” Nella said. “We have the same one.”
“It is a great dress,” Grace echoed, but Nella could tell her mind was already wandering. “I don’t understand Jack. We’ve been planning this vacation for months and we are only there for three days when he takes off. Why can’t he just relax? We’re rich enough already. And he cheats. Oh, he does. Did you sleep with him?”
“No,” said Nella softly. She was surprised at the lack of conviction in her voice. She sounded guilty, and she hadn’t done anything. “I’m here to look after your house, not your husband.”
Grace circled around her slowly, and then grabbed Nella’s wrist.
“He asked you to, didn’t he? He’s such a slut, he’d ask anyone.”
The grip cut off her circulation, reddened her skin.
Nella suddenly, and she didn’t know why, there was no reason to lie, nothing she had to protect, said: “You’re talking nonsense.”
The words settled Grace down a little. She released her iron grip and started pacing larger circles around the room, her skinny legs blurring together before Nella’s eyes.
“I just don’t understand why he left me there only two days after we arrived,” said Grace.
“Didn’t he say he had business? Looks to me that’s why. Sometimes what you see is all there is.”
Grace’s eyes went murky, she collapsed down in the couch beside Nella, far enough away so their legs didn’t touch but close enough that Nella’s throat clenched on her perfume.
After a few minutes, Grace said, “Your stuff is in my room. I would appreciate it if you moved to the guest bedroom. I’ll be staying the night.”
Nella took the dismissal as an opportunity to go upstairs, move her things and lock the door. Even the second bedroom had its own en-suite bathroom, so there was no need to come out again until morning. Half of her was tempted to leave now and cut her losses, but couch surfing in a friend’s living room lacked a certain je ne sais quoi, and this still might work out. With just over two weeks left of their vacation, it was entirely possible they just might leave.
In Nella’s dream, Jack smashed the sangria pitcher on the diving board so the drink mingled like blood with water in the pool.
Even before Nella woke, she knew.
The moonlight in her room was a mere sheen on her skin. The voices clamoured. Nella opened her door a crack, and tip-toed to the walkway, as Grace hurled the crystal pitcher towards Jack. Her throw was weak and instead of hitting Jack it fell short on the glass table, shattering it and the pitcher into tiny little shards.
Jack lunged at Grace behind the couch, but the alcohol must have cut into his reflexes and he fell short, sprawling on the buttercream leather. Grace chucked a whiskey glass at his head, but it went hard and wide, puncturing a hole into the glass window behind the couch.
Jack was stunned: “The salesman said that glass was shatter-proof.”
“You said you came back here to do business!” yelled Grace.
There wasn’t anything else left to throw, so Grace fell upon him, hurling her fists at his face. He caught one tiny wrist, then the other.
Nella’s heart tripped over itself. She should call 9-1-1. She knew she should. But she didn’t want that kind of trouble. She slunk back to her room, as the shouting crescendoed. There was no phone. And the voices seemed quieter there. She lay on the bed, door locked, listening to their shouts rise and fall until they murmured off, or she fell asleep.
When she opened her eyes, even the moon was gone and all that remained was an uneasy quiet which pointed to all kinds of conclusions. She unlocked her door and stepped tremulously out unto the walkway in her sheer nightgown. Above her the stars twinkled with their secrets. Below on the couch she saw lifeless piles of limbs: the strewn body of Jack, limpid and half-clothed, intertwined with the stick legs and arms of what could only be Grace. Neither moved. Nella stepped closer, plotting her exit strategy while berating herself for falling asleep. She didn’t want to have to explain this if the cops got here; she was only the housesitter. There were limits to what she could reasonably be expected to do. She was halfway down the stairs when Jack groaned, shifting his weight slightly. They’re alive.
That was all she needed to know. She retreated upstairs, back into sleep.
Later, at a decent hour, she descended the stairs into sunshine. Windchime voices murmured in the kitchen. The morning seemed new. Nella wondered if she had been dreaming. There was no shattered glass on the carpet. The broken coffee table was gone. Only the hole in the window, the crisscrossing cracks in the glass, remained.
Grace looked 10 years younger in the kindness of morning light.
“Look who’s up!” she exclaimed, her brown eyes bright and relaxed, every hair in place. “Let me get you some coffee. And Jack’s making omelets, would you like one? Mushroom, spinach and feta, Jack’s specialty. Just try it.” She leaned back to kiss Jack before making a cappuccino and placing the steaming mug between Nella’s fingers.
When Jack turned to dish out the omelet, Grace saw a faint bruise on his face. She stared a second too long and caught Jack’s eye. Pleading, don’t say anything, don’t say a word.
“We’ll be out of your hair after breakfast,” said Jack. “We’re going back to Maui this afternoon.” He smiled too widely as though he was trying to expose all of his teeth, Grace beside him with fawning eyes.
Later, when Grace was upstairs packing, Jack handed Nella a blank check, and $200. In an undertone, he said: “Would you mind ordering us some new glass for the window? As you can see, I had a little accident last night. Here’s the number, and a cheque to pay them, plus a little bonus for you.”
After he passed Nella the cheque, his hand unmistakably brushed Nella’s ass. He didn’t say anything, and she almost was able to convince herself it was an accident.
She felt the paper between her hands. Amazing that something so thin and insubstantial could hold so many possibilities. She wanted to savour it, freeze this moment, that sensation that she had a ticket to paradise in her hand and anything was possible.
Kim Fehr's fiction has been published in the
Saranac Review, Descant, Room Magazine, Fieldstone Review, the Nashwaak
Review and the Toronto Quarterly. She also won first prize in the
Vancouver Courier 2008 fiction contest. Her novel, The Great Cubicle
Escape, will be self-published in 2014.
Last night in the bar, after he'd had one beer and then another, Alec started rehearsing a line to introduce his story. He tested it out in his head first, then mumbled it into his Molson Canadian, shifting the emphasis back and forth across the words until he felt he had it right. He was aiming for something that would make him sound like he was keeping it all together, like he was above or set apart from any pieces of the story that might make him seem broken or reeling. Alec had found he could deliver the line with a somber nonchalance, followed by an outward puff of air from his nostrils and a little shrug of his shoulders.
"This is how it went down."
He used that opener on Matthew when he finally joined Alec at the bar, and on both of their sisters when he telephoned them the next day. He'd use it later on Maureen when he felt up to calling home and telling her. He'd have to call her eventually. Now, in the bright light of midmorning, he was trying it out on Jonathan.
"What do you mean, 'went down?' " Jonathan frowned. "What happened?"
Jonathan was a doctor and the eldest child; it was killing him that he hadn't been there when she'd died, because he'd been there so much over the past few months. He'd bustle into Mom's hospital room in his white coat whenever he could step away from his caseload, then come back in the evening having changed out of his shirt and tie, but into something clean and pressed, with a collar and buttons. Just in case he bumped into a senior colleague. Alec, by contrast, had worn the same old Depeche Mode T-shirt and track pants for the past five days.
Jonathan, it was clear, wanted to hear about all her signs and symptoms, the clinical details: time of death, 10:42 PM.
"This is how it went down," Alec said again, stubbornly. This was his launching pad, and his story. "Stacey had been there most of the afternoon, then Lynn came at around 4 or so. You stopped in -- when? -- between 4:30 and 5? Around the same time as Matthew. Then you left to get home and the rest of us were all there, just watching her sleep and holding her hand. It was very peaceful." Jonathan flinched at the role he was playing in the story so far. The sibling who left. "I had to pick up the girls from gymnastics," he said, resenting that he sounded defensive.
"I went back to the hotel for a bit and had a nap," Alec recalled, "and Matthew went somewhere, I don't know where, and Stace and Lynn stayed, or I think they stayed, then I came back at around 8 and we all just sat with her."
Alec could tell that Jonathan was frustrated by this level of plot detail, shifting irritably on his leather recliner, his eyes flickering from the window to Alec, then back again. Alec paused for effect. Jonathan's twin girls, who earlier had been climbing all over Alec, were now outside, bossing each other around on the lawn.
"Mom woke up for a bit and made us understand that she wanted us to turn on the television, which we did, and we watched the end of some kind of game show with trivia questions, then a rerun of Downton Abbey."
By now Alec was hooked on Downton Abbey. He wasn't going to be able to admit this to Maureen when he got home. He could just imagine the things she'd say about the kind of guy who gets caught up in a BBC period drama. Could he watch it on his laptop at the office? He should try that. Or maybe he could PVR it, watch it on the nights she went out. When he'd left to fly to Vancouver it seemed she always had lots of reasons for being out on weeknights. So did he. Maybe he wouldn't mention Downton Abbey to her, wouldn't have to.
He'd started watching the show with Mom when he'd flown out to Vancouver the last time, in October, when she'd first been admitted to hospital. Back then she was sharing a room with another older lady and the three of them would watch it together when it came on at 9, then talk about it all week until it came on again.
Alec glanced down at the piece of paper he was holding and noticed Jonathan was trying to read what he'd written, upside down. He casually covered it with his hand. He knew he didn't really need to worry: his handwriting was illegible. He should have been a doctor himself. He knew what Jonathan's handwriting looked like -- as if his pen could type in Times New Roman.
"When the show ended, Matthew said he'd drive Stace and Lynn home, so it was just me and Mom. She started trying to pull off her oxygen mask and was really insistent, so I helped her. She started talking and asked me to write some things down, so I went and got a pen and paper from the nurse at reception."
This was the same story Alec had told to each of his sisters that morning, and to Matthew when he'd finally arrived last night at the bar at the Century Plaza Hotel where Alec was staying. Alec could have stayed with one of his brothers or sisters, and Maureen had been on his case about how much it cost to stay at a hotel for so many weeks, but he'd wanted to be as close to the hospital as possible. Now he was glad he'd done it.
Alec was three beers in by the time Matthew arrived, then they'd each had at least two more. He could tell the bartender wanted them to pack it in, but he didn't cut them off. Alec figured, you run a bar across the street from a hospital, you get used to seeing people like them, staring at the bottom of their beers as if they'd miss something magic if they blinked or looked away.
Matthew came into the bar and gave Alec a bear hug of the sort he can't ever remember sharing with his youngest brother. Of all of his siblings, Alec was closest with his sisters, Stacey especially. He'd graduated from high school before Matt had even started grade 8. Now Mathew had a business selling parental-controls software and practiced a kind of avuncular hipsterism that only partially lent itself to hugs. Alec and Matthew held each other longer than either of them intended, squinting back tears, then pounded each other's backs and let go. Alec lowered himself back onto his barstool and told Matthew the whole story of what had happened after he and the girls left Mom earlier, using his intro line for the first time. The beer helped.
This is how it went down.
Jonathan had made a big production of making them coffees with his new Krups cappuccino maker, saying he didn't want to talk about anything until they could get some quiet. "Daddy needs to talk to Uncle Alec on his own, okay girls?" Jonathan said, peeling them off Alec after he'd come in the door. "You guys go and play outside."
Now Alec and Jonathan were settled in front of the big bay window. Jonathan hadn't even touched his coffee.
"Well, what did Mom say?" Jonathan asked.
"She told me she wanted me to pass along a message to each of us kids and that it was really important that I get it all right, so I had to write it down."
Alec made as if he was consulting his notes, which he wasn't.
"She started with Stacey first and said to tell her that she was so proud of her for going back to school, that it wasn't too late for a do-over, and that everything else would take care of itself and that you don't need a man to complete you."
Alec wasn't sure Mom had actually said, "complete you," but he felt it conveyed her meaning. "Then she talked about Lynn and said I was to tell Lynn that she was an excellent therapist and to ignore anything Mom had ever said in the past about therapy being for weaklings, because at the end of her life she realized it took special strength to try to talk about your problems, let alone listen to others."
Alec lifted his notes closer to his face, as if he needed to study them, then lowered them back to his lap. "She also said to tell Lynn that she knew about the time Lynn had hidden her boyfriend, Tim, in her closet in grade 11 and she -- Mom -- had come home early from work and Lynn had pretended she had been sent home from school because she was sick."
Alec stole a look at Jonathan. "I actually didn't tell Lynn that last part because she was crying so much, but maybe I should?"
Jonathan grunted. "Go on."
"She told me to tell Matthew that he was the smartest boy she knew" --Jonathan grunted again -- "so why on earth was he being so stupid, he should just ask Naomi to marry him." Alec broke off: "Is that her name? Naomi?"
Jonathan closed his eyes and for a moment looked tired. He never looked tired. He was always on, throttle forward.
"No, not Naomi, Naleen, " Jonathan said. "Mom always got that wrong."
"Okay, well, then she told me to tell you that she was very proud of you and that one day you'd be running this hospital. But also that you work too hard, and if you're not careful, you'll blink your eyes and the kids will have flown the coop -- she said flown the coop -- and you'll wonder where the years went."
Jonathan stared at Alec for a long moment, holding his gaze even as his eyes started to water. Alec swallowed a sip of his lukewarm latte.
"She was always telling me that," Jonathan said softly. "I thought maybe she'd wanted to tell me something new."
They sat quietly for a bit. Jonathan's sunroom was soaked in light, dust motes drifting as if lost. Alec felt too warm in his hoodie. Back in Hamilton it was -15C and Maureen kept complaining that the kids across the street, who they paid to shovel the snow, had gone away to Cuba, or maybe it was Aruba, and they'd chosen the worst possible time. Alec would be telling Maureen about Mom and how she'd stopped eating much, that they'd moved her to her own room, that she was seeming less and less like Mom. But Maureen, he could tell, wanted to get her grievances in too. What were his meddling sisters saying about her? Did he realize how drafty the window above the kitchen sink was getting? The winter tires on the car were shot, she was sliding all over the place. Maureen had never really connected with Mom and his family.
Outside in the yard, Jonathan's twins were digging at the dirt with sticks, squatting down in their red rubber boots. It was strange for Alec being back in Vancouver long enough to watch one season slip towards the next. On the street in front of the hospital, it was like the magnolia bushes had conferred with one another during the night, then shown up dressed in the same flowers the next day. He'd forgotten how much he loved this time of year out West. If you didn't know better, you'd think Spring was an invention this city was keeping secret from the rest of the country.
Jonathan twisted a knuckle into one eye. "What did she say to you?" he asked Alec finally.
Alec forced a smile. "Same old, same old. She told me it was high time Maureen and I started a family, that your girls needed some cousins, and that we should move back here to be closer to all of you."
For years, Alec had always told people that he couldn't imagine ever living so close to his big family again, all prying into his life, giving him advice. Now he thought about Stacey grilling him about his work and projects, like she was actually interested in all the things that were going wrong and how to fix them. About Lynn on the phone earlier, crying so hard all he could hear were the long stretches when her breathing stopped altogether -- how much he just wanted to drive straight over and be with her. He couldn't imagine flying back East, away from them.
"And then what?" Jonathan pressed.
"Right," Alec said. This was probably the part Jonathan had wanted to hear all along. "When she was done with all of these little messages, she looked at me with a little smile, gave my hand a squeeze, and closed her eyes. We just sat like that, not for very long, and her breathing got sort of rattle-y and then her face went quiet and I could tell, she was gone."
"That ending sounds like something out of a movie," Maureen said, sounding skeptical, when Alec finally called and repeated the whole story all over again, exactly the same as he'd told it to everyone else. This is how it went down. It did sound like something scripted, right down to the little squeeze of his hand, but he hadn't imagined that, he wasn't making it up. The stillness of Mom's face at the end, how it turned so smooth and peaceful: that was something he'd never forget.
Standing in Jonathan's garden, cell phone hot against his ear, watching a cat stalking something under the stand of cedars -- for a moment Alec couldn't remember the last time he had talked like this with Maureen. Him giving so much of himself away, and her actually listening.
"Typical that your Mom would say we should start a family," Maureen said, when he'd finished. "As if babies are a solution for everything."
Then she asked if they'd be having the funeral that weekend and whether she could just take the red-eye on Friday night or if he thought she had to take some time off work to come earlier. Work was unbelievably busy and nobody appreciated all the extra hours she was putting in. For the past two days her boss had asked her to work through lunch to help him get ready for a client visit and didn't even offer to order in so she'd have something to eat.
Alec lifted the phone an inch from his ear, then a little bit further, and further. At a certain point it was hard to tell whether the twittering he could hear was Maureen's voice, the birds in the hedge, or an argument still to come.
This is how it really went down.
Everyone but Jonathan had been there, pretending to watch the TV, but really watching one another. They'd shared tight smiles, all the time wondering if this was the night or if there'd be another and another. If this was it, what should they be doing, or thinking, or saying? There was a framed photo of all of them, taken at Mom's 70th; Stacey had brought it from Mom's place and set on a ledge beside the bed. Looking at his brothers and sisters crowded close around Mom along with Jonathan's wife and kids, Stacey's man of the hour, Lynn's golden retriever, Naomi or Naleen -- Alec realized: Maureen hadn't made it out West on that occasion either.
Mom lay in the bed, her slow exhalations fogging the mask over her mouth and nose. After a while, she had said she was tired and Matthew had offered to drive Lynn and Stacey home. All of them had kissed her and hugged her as best they could, then left, worrying as they did every night that this might be the last time they'd leave her. And it turned out it was.
Mom had tried to lift her hand to pull the mask aside, and Alec had helped her. Then in a sleepy voice, she'd asked Alec to write things down. She said the bit about Stacey and school and men; about Lynn, and therapy, and hiding her high school boyfriend in the closet; about Matthew and being smart but how he and his girlfriend should get married; and about Jonathan running the hospital but missing out on his kids.
Then she'd squeezed Alec's hand, which was like something right out of a movie only it had really happened. Mom had said the part she wanted to say to him in a whisper, so softly he'd had to bend close to hear it, had stopped writing things down so he could make sure he heard.
And you, Alec, you. I know you're not happy. You know you don't need to stay with her if you're not happy, right? You don't need to stay out East. Nothing is keeping you from leaving. Nothing is keeping you from coming home. *
Shelley Woodworks full-time as a medical journalist. She has a short story in the Spring 2014 issue of The New Quarterly and her creative nonfiction submission, What Happened That Day, won honourable mention in the 2014 Carte Blanche/CNF Collective contest.
As I twisted the very last Lifesaver from the silvery end of the pack the faux-cherry smell escaped the wrapper in such an overwhelming rush it made me feel I’d been full-body baptized, drenched with a faith polishing everything to the sheen of a golden apple. Patting my hair while stopping momentarily before a wide window, I gazed demurely into the wine bar on 23rd Street, then blinked and stared as if I were a snake in front of a charmer. Sun and shadow must have twisted things into strange shapes as heat and light skewed through the window to ricochet round the room. The man at the bar (or the lion?) was tall, very tall, and well built . . . sleek-looking in that rounded way some large gentle men have. But his face and his hands were those of a big cat. A white-blonde mane rose from his forehead in an exclamation of surprise.
I ran to the entrance and trotted in quickly without really thinking about it then walked directly toward him, alert for any trouble. The lion (or man?) growled slightly as I got close. Climbing up onto the bar stool next to him, I arranged my legs to be slightly provocative. This was a risky move, since I’m a lamb-woman and he was (apparently) a lion-man, but I simply had to meet him.
My tail started wagging a bit. It was making me uncomfortable. I can generally control my tail, so it must have been his scent. All I could do was to stare dumbly at his gorgeous mane. My mouth opened and closed, like I was chewing cud. How stupid!
He took a deep breath in then sighed. As I sighed in response, he turned his head to look directly at me. His eyes were a deep turquoise shot through with gold streaks.
"Hi," he said. "I'm Fez." He raised his glass up to the light. The wine was a perfect red, the color of berries, blood, or prize-winning roses. Closing his eyes, he took a small sip, tilting his head back slightly to reveal the full white-gold ruff of his mane. A white lion. "Drinking?” he asked, gesturing to the bartender.
"Cynar."I hoped I didn’t sound too precious, or even worse, out of style. He reached over to offer me wasabi peas from the crumpled pack held in his enormous paw.
"Anthropomorph, huh?” His voice sounded slightly choked, as if some part of it was crushed or stranded somewhere far away. “You’re the first I’ve met. Are your
parents happy with you? Mine are disappointed I didn’t become an orthodontist, like my Dad."
When I told him I was a chef he leaned in so close I thought for a second he might lick my cheek. His fur smelled of cloves and musk, with a stronger undertone of cat than man.
"That was my dream," he said, "to be a chef. But it didn't work out."
"What happened?" I asked, wondering how this perfect specimen of big jungle cat and man could have failed in the kitchen. “You look like you’d be perfect in any kitchen!”
“I lost my temper,” he said, and turned back to his wine. “Often. I’m vegan, and the kitchens always smelled of meat. More than I should have, I roared - the smell of the meat so disgusted me. It scared the customers, I was bad for business. Now I represent wineries, sell wine to places like this,” he waved his paw in an arc toward the room. A few people looked up, startled, about ready to jump from their seats. “And I write. Poetry, mostly.”
He reached out to touch the wool of my shoulder, his claws extending out from his paw, arcing through my perfectly snipped creamy locks. The sharp tips touched my
skin as he scratched me lightly. I was stunned at first, but then I laughed.
“It tickles!” I couldn’t believe it. Lambs don’t generally feel tickled, as humans do, and I’d never even been tickled before – so this is what it felt like!
“Nice,” he said, in a voice half-guy half-purr. “I feel really comfortable with you.”
I’d never met another manimal in real life. We were extremely rare - the era we’d been bio-engineered in had been quickly cut short by legislation. We were the offspring created for people who wanted children carrying both human and animal traits. Most of us were part domestic pet . . . cat, dog, rabbit, a few snakes, lizards and ferrets . . . then there were others (like me) who were part livestock. But the rarest among us were those part wild animal.
That’s how Fez and I met. We exchanged emails at first and soon we were spending most weekends together. We’d travel around the city visiting markets and restaurants, wandering through neighborhoods where anise-scented Italian cookies of semolina flour were stacked high in neat wax-paper piles waiting their fates, where aromas of curry, garlic, and tomato sauce sailed from open windows and doors. We’d drink Persian lemonade with its hints of orange-flower water and mint and listened to the hiss of midnight black coffee decanted into heavy silver cups as big as your thumb.
Then one day Fez just disappeared. There was no explanation. No note, no e-mail, no phone call. He just wasn't around anymore.
Three months passed. I waited to hear from him but he’d fallen completely off the map. I felt betrayed - but was also worried. I stopped in at the wine bar often.
“Another?” the bartender asked with a professional smile. This had gone on long enough.
“Have you seen Fez at all? He’s disappeared,” I gathered up my courage to ask.
“Oh, the lion.” The bartender reached to lift a wine glass from the rack. “He's gotten a little strange. I heard he quit his job. Now he hangs out in Union Square harassing people, telling them they need to be vegan.”
“Are you sure this is Fez we're talking about?” It didn’t sound right to me - that wasn’t like Fez at all. We shared a similar diet, of course . . . as a vegetarian I understood his veganism, though I didn’t go to the extremes he did in his choice of food.
“Yeah, it’s him. People around here do know the guy.” He nodded, giving a final polish to the glass with the burgundy-colored napkin. As he reached to fit the glass snugly back onto the rack a ray of sun struck the high window. The dust motes looked a bit like dancing angels, the kind that stand on the head of a pin - but then again angels probably don’t spend their days hanging out in the upper reaches of wine bars in lower Manhattan.
I’d invented a million reasons for Fez’s disappearance, but his becoming one of the freaks in Union Square certainly wasn’t one of them. I didn’t want the rest of my drink - it tasted bad. I paid quickly, over-tipping the bartender.
I made it crosstown in record time. As usual, Union Square was a zoo. I popped two Lifesavers to calm my nerves while dodging the humping dogs and bumping people and the bumping dogs and humping people. Then I saw Fez. The gorgeous mane I remembered so well was almost gone, sheared right off. What was left looked like seriously bad dreadlocks.
I sat down next to him on the bench and he turned to me, frowning. Moving closer, I leaned up against his shoulder lightly. There was nothing to say. A Lifesaver, maybe. I pulled out one from the stash in my purse, but he shook his head.
I opened my mouth to tell him off but that didn’t happen. Instead, I bleated.
“Baaaa, baaaaa!” How embarrassing! I had to get out of here! “Fez, Fez, let’s go!” His tail was trailing along the bench. I grabbed the end of it. “Let’s get out of here, let’s get something to eat, we’ll go to the best vegan place in the city, whatever you want! Come on, my treat!”
I put my hand on his shoulder. It looked scrawny. His fur was coarse and dry. Then I was really shocked, as his big blue eyes started to fill with tears. I baaaa’d some more. This was terrible, I never bleated in public! I stood up and pulled his tail. He growled, but not like he really meant it. Grabbing his elbow, I pulled him up. When we reached the street I hailed a taxi, waving the end of his tail in the air. I certainly wasn’t going to let go of it, now I’d found him. The noise of the traffic passing on the street almost covered what the guy with the porkpie hat sneered at me as he sauntered up the street, his angry face angled toward us.
“Gonna make him your bitch, bitch?” Nothing new there. I heard worse than that every day. Being a lamb-woman is no joke. It really felt like it was time to get out of the city. As a taxi squealed to a stop, I pushed Fez in first then fell in after him.
“Take us to St. Mark’s Place,” I said to the driver, who had an African name. He turned back to stare at Fez for one long second then took off with tires screeching, driving as if possessed.
“Fez, listen,” I said to him once we’d settled in to one of our favorite restaurants. The taxi ride had been odd – Fez had nodded off, his head falling onto my shoulder. When we got out of the taxi he refused to choose a place to eat so we’d ended up at the last one we hit as we walked along.
Something had to be done, and the taxi driver’s name had given me an idea. The more I thought about it, it seemed the perfect solution. It would make who we were as friends just about perfect, and most important, would shake Fez out of whatever it was he was into.
“I have a lot of vacation time due,” I said. His eyes looked so tired. “Why don’t we take a trip together somewhere? Like maybe . . . have you ever been to Africa?”
“No,” he answered dully. “Why would I?”
“I don’t know . . . just ‘because’. Will you go with me, if I book it?”
And that’s how it happened. We set plans for a three-week vacation to the Congo.
On the one-night layover in Paris the trouble began. We were strolling through Chateau Rouge at dusk on a quiet side-street. Fez’s mood had been improving ever since we’d arrived.
“Lambchop . . . look!” He stopped at a small storefront. In the well-lit back room there was a man dressed in a white apron butchering a crocodile stretched out on top of the table. Behind him on another table was a pile of five or six dead monkeys stacked on top of each other.
“It’s bush meat.” I felt slightly sick, but no more than how I usually feel at the supermarket when passing the plastic-wrapped lamb shoulder roasts. I moved away from the shop and Fez followed, looking back over his shoulder. The tip of his tongue was hanging just a tiny bit out of his mouth, in the negligent way of some house cats. I’d not believed lions did this too, it seemed so incongruous but also quite endearing. I hugged him quickly then held his paw as we walked the darkened street.
In Congo-Kinshasa a few days later his behavior began to drastically change. He was odd and unpredictable. Every little thing sent him into a temper. He was so utterly aggravating I told him the heat was too much for me, my wool was bothering me, the dust in the streets made me itch, and I just didn’t want to go out, I didn’t feel well. He went his way, I went mine. On the day before our flight home, I found a note pushed under the door to my room.
Dear Lambchop, I want to thank you for bringing me here - I’m happier than I’ve been my entire life. I know now that we are most definitely what we eat. When I was vegan, I was myself a vegetable - without passion, half-alive for all purposes in any real way. Since discovering bush meat herein Africa, I’ve altered my diet completely. Now I only consume the wild meat of the jungle, the meat of animals vivid and sure in every moment of their lives that it could all end right now, in a snap second, simply from Nature's way. Now I’m the blood pulsing in the veins of the antelope, the muscle of the gorilla tensing to jump. I’m the lithe little tongue of the porcupine and the pounding heartbeat of the ancient crocodile rising from a slow-moving river. I’m the fast-running feet of the great cane rat as well as the rich velvety liver of a wide-eyed lemur. Without the spirit-body flesh of courageous animals (like me, King of Beasts, a lion however much bred a man) and without those sensibilities that become a part of eaters of meat, my own joyous roar had become a different sound. It was the white noise of 'No.' No, no, to everything, to everyone, to life. I might not go back with you tomorrow. This place is where I’m meant to be.
The letter was signed with a big sprawling "F".
As the taxi pulled up to the almost-deserted airport early next morning, Fez was there, leaning against an incongruous-looking silver Jeep. He walked toward me as the taxi drove away.
We hadn’t slept together, ‘lion laying with lamb’ never seemed to be on the agenda, but now as he got close he moved in such a way that his mane almost touched my face. His breath was aimed into my ear and his paw slid over my tail in that way men have, hesitating then dropping while pretending the entire thing was somehow unintentional.
That didn’t entirely surprise me. I turned and looked up into his eyes. They’d lightened to a sky blue, their gold tone seemed to have flattened out, and they were bulging slightly. I smiled a tense little smile at him, the smile that’s my only defense when threatened by the sudden knowledge that really, I have no good defense against the physical strength of others larger than me.
“Fez,” I said slowly, in the calmest tone in the world, He’d become so unattractive, ugly-looking, could it be the harsh sun? “Are you staying?”
He cleared his throat but didn’t answer. His eyes turned down toward his feet. I started walking toward the bright yellow airport terminal across the tarmac, pulling my suitcase behind me. Then without a word he moved toward me from behind and wrapped his arms tightly around me. His claws extended, pinching the skin at my waist. A scent rose from his fur –bitter, feral. His arms tightened. One arm pulled in to enclose me. The other lifted to my neck. He pushed me around to face him. I couldn’t move or speak, could just barely take a breath as his paw crushed my neck.
With both paws now around my neck, he lifted me up to carry me like a rag doll across the deserted parking lot. I was dangling above the ground, kicking my feet, trying to move my arms. I kept thinking how very strange it was to be carried along like this! My throat hurt, it was hard to swallow.
“Sorry, Lambchop,” he whispered in my ear. “I’ve been thinking about this for a long time. Maybe you’ll understand, being the sweet little girl you are. The meal I’m going to make of you will be the most sumptuous one of my life.”
He half-dropped me against the side of that ludicrous silver Jeep. The burning heat of the metal against my wool seemed almost welcoming after being carried through the air. As he loosened his grip on my neck, I looked up. His head was bent over me, his mouth opened wide. How many teeth ranged along the expanse of that fat pink tongue? I focused in on his canines. He moved closer. The pressure from his long right tooth was at first tenuous, exploring, then in one motion he moved his head and struck. The canine sunk directly into my neck.
I was warm, horribly warm. The world beyond his mane closed in at the edges then darkened till all I could see was a central point of light dotted with spots of color.
“Fez,“ My voice was a light whistle. His head was heavy. “You’ve got the wrong lamb, wrong person! I drink Cynar. I eat candy. I’m not what you want . . . I won’t taste right . . .”
He lifted his head and the tooth pulled out of my neck. He was not as firm-bodied as he looked – it was like being smothered by a mattress with claws.
“I’m going to stuff you with truffles and wrap you in vine leaves then rub you with hazelnut oil and gild you,” he meowed and purred, “with saffron.” His enormous, rough feline tongue reached out from between black lips to lick the blood trickling down my neck and chest. “I’ll braise your little feet with tomatoes and cinnamon, and your ears, tail, and cheeks will be fricasseed with cream and wild mushrooms. Your rack! Roasted, rare, anchovy butter, mint, cippoline, medieval, distinctive! Your heart and tongue . . . left whole, baked together in a crust of pink sea salt, then laid out on a gingered seaweed salad as soft and sweet as a beckoning bed.” His voice was punctuated by my heartbeat pounding loudly inside my eardrums. “Poetry, baby, poetry . . .” he muttered.
He raised his head once more. I knew he’d struck again, but I felt nothing. Shock, I thought. It’s the shock. Blood trickled down my front, matting his fur and my wool together. I knew this was it, he was going to finish me off to make some ridiculous menu he’d planned.
I bleated. “Baaaaa. Baaaaaa, baaaaa!”
As he leaned in to me, a vision came to mind of being held like this at another time, in a pasture on a mountaintop. There was a large flock - many sheep, many lambs. Someone lifted me. The coarse hands were so capable, so inescapable, the fingers and opposable thumb tightly gripping what they had wanted to capture, which in this case was me. I reacted to the scene playing out in my mind by lifting my knee up and aiming it with strength I’d never imagined I possessed directly into Fez’s groin.
He yowled, and as he fell back he let go. I kicked him. My hoof was sharp - I always take good care of my hooves. It struck his knee. He tried to get up but couldn't. His desperate breathy roars blended with angry mews and he stunk, as if he’d marked himself.
“Things are going to be different now Fez,” I bleated, exhausted. Tears ran down my face. “I don’t care whether you’re manor you’re beast, things are going to be different. I’m not just a piece of wild meat you can hunt down and decide to cook! I’m human and I’m livestock. There are rules about these things and you’d better learn them!”
My legs were trembling so much I could barely move. I tried to trot away. He sat in the shadow of his Jeep, holding his leg, crying his big crocodile tears. I turned back and spit into his face as only a lamb can spit. A small plane took off from down the airfield close enough for me to feel its back draft. The sound of its engine covered Fez’s ineffectual meows.
“Don’t ever forget the power of racial memory,” I screamed out over the sound of the plane. Then I ran, I gamboled as if I was running through a beautiful grassy field covered in sweet rich pink-purple clover where other happy little lambs like me grazed and played, I leapt in bounds over the tarmac to get as far away from him as possible.
When I go to the wine bar - as I still do sometimes - my hooves are ready in case Fez appears, though he hasn’t, yet. I like to look at the sunlight spinning through that high window as it strikes the round gleaming bowls of the wineglasses just waiting to be filled. I know the dust motes dancing there aren’t angels, yet as I sip my Cynar I fall into a reverie at the twist of fate my life has taken. I am, after all, the powerful lamb-woman - the one whom the King of the Jungle lion-man couldn’t manage to roast for his twisted seven-course dinner. In my imagination I spin outward, held in the warmth of the scattered beam alongside all the infinitesimal glimmering specks of dust, and I know in each and every part of my human and animal self I’m exceptionally lucky to be who I am.
* Karen Resta’s short stories and poetry can be found in a diverse selection of publications: the Best American Poetry Blog, The Christian Science Monitor, Red Rose Review, eGullet, Serious Eats, One Million Stories, and more. Her blog ‘Postcards From the Dinner Table’ has over 1600 facebook fans and her other blog ‘foodgeekology’ harbors an immense collection of food art, history, and culture.
All last year, on Sundays, Sonya went with the Remingtons to a community swimming pool. Sonya’s mother, Joy, was at home in her studio, so Asta Remington took them. Charles made Grade Nine swim team last year, and Vee aims to do the same, in two years. Sonya, on the other hand, hated swimming lessons and only just passed an orange badge level several years ago. At the pool, while brother and sister dove for pucks in the deep end, Sonya splashed around in shallower water.
The island swim is a rite of passage for kids whose families cottage there. “I’ll get you there,” Charles tells Sonya.
Across the bay is Kingston, where they come from, and where they have left Joy behind. Kingston is in fog, and from their angle you can only see two kinds of grey—charcoal and feather—where water meets shore. Sonya stands slightly behind Charles, and Vee, short for Vivian, stands a couple of metres away. Tangy sweat floats off Charles. They’ve only been here for two days, having crossed over after the end of the school year, yet his skin is already brown. Beauty marks are constellations on the whole of his back. “Okay,” says Sonya. “Let’s try.”
Sonya had been packing when her mom came into her room. Joy sat down on the edge of her daughter’s bed, her small frame dipping the mattress only by a quarter inch. “Did you stay as long as that last year?”
Sonya picked up a shirt that had slid off the bed. “It’s the same every year.”
“I was thinking you might want to see your friends here.”
Her mom didn’t touch that, of course. As usual she couldn’t take what was actually going on in Sonya’s head. “Asta and Arnold might want to be with their kids. As a family, I mean.”
“They don’t mind,” Sonya said. But she didn’t put the shirt into her suitcase.
She has overheard things. Often, she tiptoes on the Remingtons’ landing and leans over the upstairs banister. One time, Vee complained to Asta about an extra place setting. “Why does she have to be here all the time?” she said. This was last year, and at eleven years old, Vee could still get away with whining. But maybe not quite, for Asta had sent her to her room and called Sonya down to help her set the table.
“I won’t stop you, then,” said Joy. She went out of the room. In her voice were two things: a sadness that Sonya was leaving her again, and a twangy cord of anticipation that meant that Joy was already thinking of whatever task she had planned that day in her latest project. Joy is a painter, and spends most of her hours in her attic, surrounded by large canvases, the smell of turpentine, and the sounds of Beethoven coming from an old tape deck.
Each summer, the Remingtons have a family venture, and each summer, Sonya joins them. Last year they built a shed. At first, handing Arnold Remington a nail gun and helping Charles and Vee carry lumber, she imagined she was a child being kept occupied so she would feel included. By the end of the summer, though, she was climbing up on the roof and shooting nails into the shingles, all under Arnold’s approving eye. Arnold is originally British, and left his family young, under circumstances that nobody talks about. He is something she has overheard adults say is a rare thing: an academic who is also a handyman. He believes that children should be self-sufficient, and that every one of them should learn useful, even dangerous skills.
Swimming with Charles and Vee, Sonya will fit right into the Remington family. And this year, there is Charles to think of. When she makes it around the island, he will smile at her. “Well done,” he will say, his jaw set in a way that echoes his father’s. She will feel the whole of herself, her fears and her sadness, contained in the square of that chin.
Joy paints in a tradition she calls expressionist: figures bent over or broken, all suffering in some way. Sometimes she paints over them in bursts of red and yellow and fiery orange until almost nothing is left, only a pinprick of black or grey, a cut-off shin or bone. One day she will suffuse everything with light and it will take over everything, she says to Asta, her neighbour in Kingston. Sometimes she hates what she paints, tells her art dealer over the phone that her latest paintings didn’t work out, piles these canvases against a wall where Sonya finds them, on her trips upstairs to visit her mother. Sonya asked her once why she didn’t paint more of these and Joy said, “they don’t sell.” Later, she said to her friend Asta: “Really they don’t sell because they’re terrible. I don’t believe in them, you see.”
The island, she loves. The long grasses, the wildflowers, the dandelion puffs. The Queen Anne’s lace and the purple loosestrife. When they were younger they played hide and seek in the grasses, holding in their pee until they couldn’t, running to the outhouse a few metres from the cottage. The outhouse was papered with the covers of old New Yorkers. Compared to Joy’s books on Bosch and Kokochka and Picasso, the New Yorker cartoon drawings seemed silly, even though she understood none of the jokes.
Charles and Vee have always taught her things. Charles takes the lead. When she was eight, he tried to take the training wheels off her bike so she could learn to ride for real. When he couldn’t manage the bolts, he called his dad. In the end, he and Arnold pushed her off on her bike, and she cycled a good few metres before falling.
Charles and Sonya stand on the rocky, sloping shore a few hundred metres from the Remington cottage. This is where they will practice.
“You’ll have to go in for real,” he jokes. “Not like last year.”
“I did!” she says. “I do.”
“More or less.”
The point where the lake water meets her calves seems to her to be a threshold. Above the water, her legs are unmasked in the sun. When she steps down, her feet stir up silt and disappear.
“If you swim the distance from here to the rock over there,” says Charles, “you’ll know you can circumnavigate the island.”
She slips in further. The water rises to her neck like a cold glove.
She tries to remember the front crawl she learned long ago, in the overcrowded community pool where she did her first strokes. She kicks away from the shore and swivels her arms. Her limbs start to ache almost immediately.
He calls out to her. “Don’t slam your hands in the water. Bring them down on the knife-edge. You’ll glide forward.”
She gets tired halfway to the rock and treads slowly, trying not to extend her legs too far down to whatever grows up from the bottom. She turns around so she can see the shore.
Behind the cottage, on rich green grass, Asta sits on a beach chair and reads a murder mystery. Sonya wishes Asta would look up from her book and tell her to come back, that she doesn’t have to do this ridiculous swim. She would actually say “ridiculous,” for she uses the same words as her husband. Asta sits on, her short, dirty blond hair spiky from an early morning dip. A triangle of sun drapes itself over her left knee. Soon, she will move her chair a few inches over, so she can stay in the light.
Each evening, after Sonya, Charles and Vee have put away the dishes, the family goes to the living room. Arnold sits in an armchair and reads a biography of Winston Churchhill. Asta leans back into a worn love seat and reads an old Vogue. Originally from Denmark, she came over to Canada at some point and met and married Arnold. A long time ago, before she gave up a job to raise her kids, she was a hairdresser or something like it: Sonya only knows that her work involved taking care of women.
The girls are on a faded Ikea carpet. They’re painting their nails using Asta’s mother-of-pearl polish., The girls’ heads almost touch, for Vee is teaching Sonya to apply nail polish just so, not quite at the cuticle, so it doesn’t spill over.
Books on famous swimmers are scattered on the floor. Naked from his waist up, Charles kneels and puts his hands on either side of a book. He rises on his hands and knees to read the top of a page, his back arching like a bridge. “Who could even beat this kind of time?” he says.
“Charles wants to be Kutral Ramesh,” Vee says. Ramesh is the youngest person to swim the English Channel.
Asta looks up to gauge which way the conversation is going, to see if Vee is picking a fight. Vee finds her brother annoying. In the water, Vee is as quick and light as a skating bug. It irritates her that in races her brother always beats her. “Ramesh was thirteen,” Vee says. “You’re too old, Charles.”
“Vee,” Asta says.
Arnold glances at her. “When you are as hardworking, you may tease your brother.”
Vee blushes and concentrates harder on applying nail polish to her smallest toe.
Throughout July, they practice twice a day. Vee is always the first one in, tiptoeing on the rocks as if they are too hot to linger on, and sliding in. Charles moves slowly but efficiently. Sonya is the last one in, and only after a good minute or two of stalling by pretending to adjust her bathing suit. The suit is one of Vee’s old ones. Asta gave it to her after seeing Sonya shiver in her own. She had only brought one bathing suit and had been wearing it when it was still wet.
Each day, Sonya increases the number of laps she swims by almost an entire lap. Some days her muscles ache and twice Charles tells her to take an afternoon off. “Your muscles need recovery time,” he says. After each day of rest, she swims further than ever before. By August, she can swim twenty-five laps. The water is no longer so frightening. With each stroke she creates a wall between herself and things that lurk.
One day, she catches her reflection in the mirror of the room she shares with Vee. Her fingers are long and brown. She’s stopped biting her cuticles: they are smooth as beach stones. When she turns she sees that her upper back has developed muscle. She is beginning to resemble, not Vee who is lithe like her father, but Asta and Charles, whose large-boned, Scandinavian bodies give off an impression of reliability.
Neighbours, Jean and David Thomas, are expected for dinner. Everybody knows them: five years ago, their daughter was the youngest person to swim around the island.
To host them, Asta wears an old, Sixties-style dress with enormous flowers. When she appears at the living room door, Arnold says, “That’s a bright piece.”
Asta frowns. She makes Sonya think of a piece of yellow glass polished by the sea. So unlike Joy, who is so thin she almost disappears. Whenever Sonya makes dinner for Joy, which is more often than not, Joy says, “God! If it weren’t for you, I’d forget to eat!”
Jean Thomas is a compact woman with blunt fingernails who wears a blue anorak at dinner. Their daughter isn’t with them, she explains, for she is on a sailing trip for exceptional teenagers.
“Ah yes,” she says when introduced to Sonya. “The young lady whose mother is an artist.” Mrs. Thomas keeps each food item separate on her plate. Halfway through dinner, she puts down her fork. “I always wonder,” she says, “If there’s anything else to say about the Holocaust.”
Sonya sees herself as a tiny figure pummeling Mrs. Thomas’ face that is as dense as an acorn. Words fly within her brain like mosquitos and she has trouble choosing which ones to put to Mrs. Thomas. It’s always like this, not finding the thing that fits.
“If someone is saying something more about it, then there’s more to say,” Asta says.
“Well.” Mrs. Thomas picks up her fork and tidies pork chop bundles into her mouth.
Sonya wants to hug Asta and also hide from her, for she is ashamed of what Asta knows.
Just before the summer, Asta and Joy had tea at Asta’s house, and Sonya overheard their conversation.
Joy was saying, “You don’t know what it was like. My dad and his moods. He used to shut himself up in his office with his war journals.”
“Your daughter needs you,” Asta said to Joy.
“I know, I know. I get carried away. But I’m getting closer, you know. I finally figured out the painting had to be from the perspective of the child. A baby who stares at her murderer. Complete ambivalence.”
“What are you going to do?”
“What, with Sonya? She wants to be with you this summer. As usual.”
“Oh, Joy. If you want her home.”
“No, it’s okay. I’ll keep at it,” Joy said. “It’s for Sonya, you know. Maybe after this summer, we can leave it behind. We can live more lightly, you see.”
Sonya and Vee go suntanning on the shore that faces away from Kingston. Here there are no cottages, only the rustle of grass, the crackling of tall pines, and the occasional rumble of a motor boat.
They close their eyes against the sun. Vee wears a purple bathing suit. She is on her back, her budding breasts thrust toward the sky. Sonya lies on her stomach with her head turned and her chest up against the bed of the warm stone.
“Have you kissed anyone yet?” Vee asks.
Sonya opens her eyes. “Have you?”
“There’s a guy I’m supposed to go out with when I get back to the city.”
“I’m saving myself,” Sonya says, then regrets it.
Vee props herself up. “For who?”
Sonya shuts her eyes.
“It’s not my brother, is it?” Vee asks. “Gross.”
The light under Sonya’s squeezed eyelids goes from yellow to red-black. In the distance, a motorboat approaches, a hum getting louder.
When they return to the cottage, Asta is leaning over an open oven. The kitchen is filled with the scent of roasting chicken. “Your mother called, Sonya,” she says. She takes a baster to a trussed chicken and curtains its skin with gravy. Rising, she says, “There’s a flashlight by the door. And take a quarter for the phone.”
The only phone is located in the middle of the island, in a hut. When Sonya sets out, it’s already dark. Her flashlight creates a small, full moon on the dirt path before her. In her periphery, giant pines sway.
The small hut, where from the ceiling hangs a naked bulb, is comforting until she catches sight of the cobwebs netted up and down its corners. The coins clatter within the phone’s belly.
“I’m just checking in on you,” Joy says, her voice coming from far away at first.
“Listen. I think I’ve figured some things out.”
Sonya strains her ears for Beethoven. “Are you calling me because you’re on a break?” This is how it is: the pity she feels for her mother when they are apart evaporates in her presence.
“No, honey. I just thought. If you wanted to come home.”
“Everything’s fine.” She longs to be back in Asta’s kitchen, its warmth and its scent of roasting meat. “I’m good.”
“Right,” Joy says. As usual, she gives in to Sonya.
If only she persisted, if only she tried to get more out of her daughter, something might change between them. This conversation is no different from those before it, after all.
“I have to get going,” says Sonya.
The next day, Sonya is in bed with a cold. Asta brings her ginger ale and feels her forehead. “Stay right here in this bed,” she says.
Charles comes in later that morning. “You missed practice.”
“I’m sick,” Sonya croaks. Her entire neck aches.
“Okay.” He shrugs.
She spends the next hour thinking of him swimming, his shoulders flashing above the water. She drags herself out of bed and puts on her bathing suit. The grass down to the shore pricks her bare feet.
Charles is sitting on a rock facing the lake. He looks up. “Ah. Great.”
He points to a figure further along the shore, in the water. “She’s moody, as usual.”
The cold water makes her breathless. She kicks out, concentrates on technique: rotate arms, kick strong, breathe efficiently. Soon, her body unlocks, glides forward as if it has a will of its own. She sees herself as if from above, a sea creature with water running off its oiled back.
Afterward, she’s breathless, aching. Soreness returns, coats the inside of her throat. Charles hands her a towel. “You see?” he says. “You have to push through.”
Across Charles’ right shoulder and descending diagonally across his back is a red welt. After morning practice, he took a canoe out. Balancing on the stern, he bounced up and down to move the canoe forward. The islanders call this “gunny jumping.” As he tried to walk on the gunwale (like a tightrope walker, thinks Sonya), a motorboat wake unbalanced him and he struck his back on the gunwale’s hard edge.
At dinner, Arnold says, “It wasn’t smart. You’ll need two or three days at least.”
“It could have been worse,” says Asta.
“He certainly won’t do it again.”
Charles eats steadily, his nape flushing.
After dinner, Sonya goes to Charles’ room. The room has a desk, a single bed, and a shelf, all wood. Charles is seated with his back to her. His legs, too big to fit under what must be a child’s desk, are splayed on either side of the chair. A lamp casts a pool of light on some papers. As Sonya approaches, he starts. “Woah,” he says. “What’s up?” He covers the papers, then removes them when he sees it’s her.
They are drawings of warships, in delicate blue ink. “Those are amazing,” she says.
“That’s the Achilles,” he says. “The first ship battle in double u double u Two.”
She leans over him.
“And here is HMS Prince of Wales,” he says. “Because of her, the German KMS Bismarck sank.” He looks at her. “I’m sorry,” he says. “I shouldn’t talk about the war.”
“Oh,” she says. “It’s not the same. Well, I guess it is.”
“Does your mother talk about it?”
“Not much,” she says.
“Is it true that her older sister was killed in a concentration camp?”
“Yes,” she says.
“Do you know how?”
“If you don’t want to talk about it,” he says.
How she wishes she could talk to him, but where would she start? How once one of her uncles took her aside and showed her an article someone had written. She couldn’t sleep for weeks. She felt like she did when she was seven, that time when her mom tried to talk to her about where babies come from. What her uncle had told her was far worse. For nights she imagined the story he had repeated. She tried to make up a new ending. In her script, the soldier put his gun down, took the child home. But each time she replayed this version in her head, the real narrative would intrude, superimposing itself on her made-up story. There was nothing she could do. For a long time after that, she couldn’t look her mom in the eye: it was the shame of knowing something like that.
“Her name was Sonya,” she says. Unbidden, tears come to her eyes.
“Forget it,” he says. Absentmindedly, he brings his arm around to his back.
It’s too late: he has scratched the sore. He grimaces. “Shit,” he says. He picks up a pen and weaves it between his fingers. He sees her looking at them. “What.”
He pushes his chair out from the desk. “I’m supposed to do everything well,” he says. “But you are good at things.”
“Right,” he says. “It might be nice to slack off. My dad—”
“He’s pretty scary.”
He laughs. “He doesn’t scare me. He annoys me.” He looks at her. “You’re lucky to avoid all this. Family.”
Her mouth opens.
“Anyway, I might pass on the swim.”
She steadies herself with her hand on the bed. “But you worked so much,” she says, her voice whispering. “I thought I might follow you. I mean, you know what I mean.”
A look crosses his face that she can’t read. “Yeah,” he says. “I know.”
On the day of the swim, the sky is blue. They go out to the grass above the shore. Asta is seated in her lawn chair at the starting point. Arnold, who will paddle beside them in the canoe, stands beside his son. He puts his arm around Charles and pulls him into his embrace. “You’ll hold up,” he says.
Charles smiles shyly and returns his dad’s pat on the back. A few second later, he starts to jog on the spot. He looks a little silly, like 1930s Olympic films that makes the athletes’ movements robotic. Sonya searches for signs that he’s going to change his mind again.
Standing there with a towel around her mid-section, she looks out at the water that is cold and black and maybe something that can be tamed, if only temporarily.
“Don’t bother him,” says Vee, who has come up beside her.
“He’s concentrating.” She’s wearing another one of her bathing suits, a navy blue and white suit bought when Vee got her bronze cross.
“He has a girlfriend, back at school,” Vee says.
“You’re not his boss,” Sonya says.
“He doesn’t like you,” Vee whispers. “He feels sorry for you.”
When Vee walks away, the scoop of her bathing suit shows off her thin, tough back.
Vee and Charles are already in the lake when Sonya drops her towel on the grass and moves toward the shore. There’s a cool edge to the wind and the hairs on her upper arms rise. She stands on a rock and lets the water lap her toes. She is thinking of how, when push comes to shove, the Remingtons help each other, stick together as a family.
For a moment Sonya forgets what comes next. Her calves strain like a dog on a leash, but her feet grip the rock. As if, if she goes in, she risks everything: her family, herself. The swim, like all the things Sonya does with the Remingtons, separates Sonya from her mother. Standing there, she feels, behind her ribcage, a languid caress of guilt.
Sonya pictures her arms windmilling, pushing aside things that give shape to horror and grief. Her hands pushing them aside, back down to the bottom of the lake.
Vee and Charles tread water at few metres away. Charles puts his hands around his mouth. His voice arcs over the lake. “Are you coming?” he says.
Laure Baudot's work has appeared in Prairie Fire: A
Canadian Magazine of New Writing, Existere: A Journal of Art and
Literature, and Found Press, among others.