Monday, October 16, 2017

Fiction #75: E.D. Morin

Black Currant

We share a bus seat — me with my grubby backpack jammed against my knees, her with her Chanel knock-off tucked beside her. I have the window. She has the aisle.

Where you from? she asks.

Here, I tell her, skirting the truth. You?

Up north, she says. Goin’ home.

We say nothing for a while and the bus lurches past sun-reflected towers, up Edmonton Trail, past houses and apartments, past diners and a tire shop and that building painted a piebald cow pattern, past more houses and down into the industrial section. The driver hauls at a good clip — until a hard, controlled stop throws us both against the seatback in front of us and the air brakes blast.

Bull nuts, my seat companion says. She rescues her bag off the floor.

I smile and take in a little more of her. Early twenties? Nothing too remarkable, jeans and a ruffled sleeveless shirt that could have come from Sears. Decent haircut, smidge of eye goop and all in all more fashion sense than I’ll ever possess. Seems that no matter how often I go to the mall or thrift shops with the intention of buying something pretty, I always come home with cargo pants and another boring plaid shirt. Force of habit. Lesson drilled into me early. Think you’re so special?

Turn and gaze out the window, and I realize how much dread I have about this bus ride. Or not so much the bus ride as the arriving at the other end. Home. Is. Was. At the other end hangs a series of tearful long goodbyes, the way my family prefers them. Inevitable is the gathering at my parents’ front entrance before one or the other of us departs, that momentary scuffle to retrieve boots or bags or coats from the hallway’s hard, red tiles. An embarrassing incident will be alluded to, something suitably squeamish. The time Maddy threw up at the kitchen table. The time Yvon baked his nefariously bad pound cake, the result of muddling the sugar and salt tins, and then confusing ginger with powdered garlic. Or when I fell off a chair waiting with our mother at the bank, and I bled all over the place.

Up to her usual antics. Never could sit still, haha.

Good natured on the surface, yet somehow giving a sensation of ants crawling under my collar, ants up my sleeves. And this time, the goodbyes will be especially tortuous and drawn-out knowing that once I walk out our parents’ front door I’ll be gone for a long stretch.

Up north. Goin’ home.

Turn to my seat companion. I say, how far north you live? And by the way, I’m Clod.

She squints. Clod is your name?

Short for Claudine.

Her eyes sprout crinkles. She puts out her hand, says her name is Paulina Georgina. Great grandma calls her Paulie, but only her. Usually, though, she goes by PG.

Nice to meet you, Paulina Georgina.

Tell me about it. And the crinkles spread. A charmer she is.

How far north is home? I say.

Pretty far. Fly in only. Hamstring Lake it’s called. You hear of it?

I nod-shake my head, tell her I’ve heard the name, but don’t know much about the place. So — I continue, pausing to rearrange my thoughts, to consider my own complicated relationship with home — you live there now? Or just used to?

Live, used to. Same difference. Can’t get rid of the place if I try.

Paulina opens her purse, sifts inside and retrieves a pack of smokes, slides one out, holds the tip to her nose, inhales.

She catches me observing her. — What?

I can’t help it, I glance at the No Smoking sign above the driver.

She shoves the cig back in with its cellmates. — You ever eat black currants, Clod?

Think so? I say. My mind wanders to that time near my parents’ house, eons ago. The bushes along the ravine where I picked a handful of small, dark berries, so sour my eyes watered when I bit into them. Maddy freaked out, shouted they were poisonous. Said I needed to be rushed to the hospital and have my stomach pumped.

Never did get sick, I tell Paulina.

And I recall the perfume of warm berries. The sourness.

Yup, that’s black currants, she says. It’s why I smoke these. Tobacco reminds me of the smell of home. The leaves do, you know? But I can tell you’re not a smoker, probably paid better attention to those cancer warnings. All that cancer talk didn’t go anywhere with me. Once tobacco gets a hold, it’s hard to smother the craving.

I took up smoking when I was seventeen, I say. Only lasted one summer. The craving still comes occasionally. Bad habit in other ways though, since I bummed all my cigarettes off friends. Reason I quit is because people stopped lending me smokes.

Lend, she laughs. Good one.

I laugh too and my dread eases a bit. Paulina organizes her earbuds, fiddles with her phone and we ride along in silence. Out my window the fields are scattered with round hay bales wrapped in protective plastic that give the bales the appearance of supersize marshmallows. Marshmallow fields forever.

Up north, high above the Arctic Circle, there’s tundra and coast and no marshmallow fields. My destination tomorrow. Leaving 0800 hours. In the baggage compartment of our bus is my massive MEC duffle bag, and the rest of my stuff? In storage bins at my ex’s. So this is it, my somewhat clean break. Renewable energy technician at a radar station up north, the pay outrageous, at least on paper, but when you factor in the high cost of living in the remote north, nothing to write home about. Still, a heck of a lot better than any unpaid internship, which is all I can get in Calgary in this stupid economy. Also, a lot better than my ex’s spare room with his treadmill and dumbbells.

Stop gazing out the window, nose through my backpack, locate the book I brought.

Trust me to want to learn about the next episode of my life from a history book. A report on the Distant Early Warning line, sixty-three radar stations extending high across the continent, high above the Arctic Circle. The DEW line, a doe-eyed, euphemistic name for a military defence tool intended to ward off hostile attacks — the hostiles of the day being the Soviets. The original stations were designed to detect incoming Soviet bombers, but then ICBMs came along. Intercontinental ballistic missiles. Adjustments were made, the stations brought up to snuff even as the paint was drying. All very informative. But what did people do up there?

Who were the labourers who built the stations? The operators who maintained them? And the local Inuit — were they hired as guides? As operators? Next to me, Paulina gazes ahead, hums quietly, drums on her knees. A neon rainbow feather dangles from each ear.

Chapters about the scientists who commissioned the DEW system, highfalutin members of parliament and rubber stampers who took all the credit. Chapters that focus on the science behind radar systems too, which is fascinating but hilariously old-fashioned considering today’s real-time satellite tracking and lightning speed data crunching capabilities. Another chapter deals with the cold war landscape long before Perestroika. And the northern climate itself, references to permafrost, frozen equipment and system failures due to extreme temperatures. Nothing about the Arctic Cordillera or coastal tundra or polar bear or caribou.

I’m not running away. Everyone has a right to their opinion, of course.

Paulina catches my gaze as we pass the Bowden refinery. Closed recently. She removes her earbuds, asks if I work in oil and gas.

Used to, I say. Embarrassed a bit, like it’s a dirty secret. I’d rattled a few guys’ cages taking that job, bilked some male out of his rightful position. And for a while it was perfect. Odour and grind of metal on grease, clean concrete floors, the orderliness of it all. But as much as I tried to shuck off my gender, even a tomboy like me could only rankle like a goose-egg. Certain of my A-hole fellow operators wouldn’t stop harassing me. They wouldn’t shut up.

Good money? Paulina asks.

Good money, but I blew away most of it on big trips. New Zealand, South Africa, Patagonia. Let’s just say it was a good gig until it wasn’t. So, I quit and went back to school and shifted into renewable energy. Good move overall, easier to sleep at night, but I’ve yet to make any money at it. Course, oil and gas isn’t so lucrative anymore with these low barrel prices. It’s been, what, three years?

Paulina gives me a funny look. Guess so, she says.

Sensing I’ve strayed into chest-deep muskeg, I shift gears.

Tell me about Hamstring Lake. What’s it like up there?

She giggles. Paradise, if you don’t mind the black flies. Seriously, though, it’s way easier to grow a garden up north. Abundance of daylight. Cabbages as big as babies, bushes dripping with black currants.

What do you do with the black currants?

Pie is best. You ever make a black currant pie? No, I can see you haven’t. Let me tell you, what a production.

I smile. How’s that?

First there’s the crust, then there’s the dealing with all the tiny seeds. Paulina laughs. Honestly, the berries are too small to pit, so you gotta cook them first and mash them and then pick out the seeds one by one. Reminds me of trout fishing. So mind-numbingly dull you want to jump off the boat, but then you learn patience and after a while gain a rhythm. Enough people around, sisters, grandmothers, the occasional boyfriend, it’s not so bad.

A pie party.

Paulina nods. With everyone laughing and working, it’s easy to forget how many shitty seeds you’ve got to fish out.

At the Red Deer off-ramp, we trundle east and then north to the local transfer point, a mandatory fifteen-minute stop. When we pull in, Paulina bounces off the coach for a smoke. I head to the restroom at the depot and splash water on my neck. My sister keeps asking me, why north? Since when is Nunavut on your radar? I know what Maddy wants. She wants me to stay in Calgary and patch things up with my ex.

The bus rolls onto the highway and I flip to the last chapter of my book, all about the legacy of those radar stations. Contaminated soil, hazardous waste, toxins like lead, PCBs and asbestos. Released into the fragile northern ecosystem, persisting in animals, in fish stocks, in the ice. The clean-up process continues to this day.

I close the book and stow it inside my backpack.

My brother Yvon keeps emailing me facts about the north: which parka to buy, vitamin D supplementation, hydroponic gardening, setting up time-lapse shots of the aurora borealis. But what will I find when I get up there? What if it’s just more A-holes, more guys who think they have all the answers? What if I find I haven’t learned a thing?

I blame my family. Even now, at family gatherings, it’s like we don’t talk about shit. We hide the ugly parts. We don’t admit how much pain we’ve caused. We’re stupidly ignorant, even as the evidence of our wrongs mounts around us.

For the rest of the bus ride, Paulina Georgina and I don’t talk, and I’m envious all at once of those pie parties. Steady rhythm of that mundane act. Picking seeds out of the berry mash, little by little improving the pie for everyone.

Lend, I say under my breath. And she stares hazily past me out the window.

*

E.D. Morin is co-editor of Writing Menopause: An Anthology of Fiction, Poetry and Creative Non-fiction (Inanna Publications, 2017). For over twenty years, she's been exploring the intersection of science, wilderness and human shortcomings. Her writing has been published in Pank Magazine, Rum Punch Press, Fiction Southeast and The Antigonish Review, and produced for broadcast on CBC Radio.

Photo credit: S. Wakefield.

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