An old story re-run, just because it’s the stormy season.

(previously published in AlbertaViews magazine, and A Crack in the Wall  (Oolichan Books 2008)

 

Storm Warning

 

Jess has been staring at the ceiling for hours, possibly all night. But it’s only since dawn she’s noticed the water stain in the corner above the window. A dark blot that starts on the ceiling and trickles down the flowery wallpaper almost to the floor. She doesn’t remember if it was there last summer, or the summer before, or eight years ago when Brian first brought her home to New Brunswick to meet his family. She’s always been blind to imperfections in this house. Awestruck by a bedroom that has belonged to a boy for his whole life, and a family whose greatest sorrow is that the eldest son has moved away from home.

Brian stirs and she shifts onto her side so that they’re still touching. She can never sleep without the feel of his skin. She pillows her head next to his and whispers in his ear, “There’s a water stain. Does the roof leak?”

As always, he’s instantly awake. Eyes wide, he turns his head. “Of course. This is the stormy side of the house.” He plays with Jess’s thick black hair, arranging strands across the snowy pillowcase.  She could purr when he does this, every nerve in her scalp dancing with his fingers. She wishes they could hide in this room for the whole week.

“I’m taking the boat out,” Brian says, “I don’t suppose you’d come along?”

 

She shakes her head. He keeps hoping she’ll be reborn a sailor. Jess catches his hand where his fingers are traveling the curve of her throat. “Do you mind that it’ll be a whole year before you can come home again?” she asks.

“If I was that much a mommy’s boy, I’d never have left in the first place. And I wouldn’t have found you.” His other hand bends her elbow to work her arm free of the sleeve. “Mom always told everyone I was smarter than I looked.”

 

But later, in the kitchen, Jess feels awkward as ever when she opens three cupboard doors before she finds the coffee mugs. When the first thing her mother-in-law tells Brian as he comes through the door is that Priscilla called. As though it’s the most natural thing in the world for an old girlfriend to phone before breakfast. But like Brian’s mom, Priscilla has probably been up for hours. There’s bread dough rising on the counter, fresh scones for breakfast.

“Let me do the dishes,” Jess says.

“Then what would I do? You two go on out and have fun.”

Behind the good-natured smile, Jess recognizes her mother-in-law’s discomfort at the prospect of spending a half hour alone with her. They have never been able to convince Brian’s parents to visit them in Edmonton. There at least they would see Jess in her own kitchen, her own home. She can bake muffins, brew up a decent pot of tea, but feels, each time she crosses the threshold of this house, that she’s kicked her domesticity off like bad-fitting shoes and left it outside the door.

The women in Brian’s family are fair and round with a placid good nature, a fecundity in keeping with his father’s herd of Guernseys. Jess has a storm cloud of black hair and eyes like lightning bolts. Long ago, a social worker described Jess and her brother, Louis, as “wild little animals”. Jess has never been able to pull that sliver from the thin skin of her childhood memory.

She knows she is puzzlement to Brian’s mom. She’s overheard Marie say to Brian’s dad, “Never met anyone who seemed so much from away. Have you?”

When she slips her plate and cup into the soapy water and is shooed away, Jess waits on the front porch, watching the voracious traffic of bees in the lupins until Brian comes bounding away from the phone and out the door.

“What’ll you do all morning?” he asks.

Avoid your mother, she wants to say, but instead, “I have a book.  I’ll sit in the sun and read.”

He frowns at a bank of clouds on the horizon. “Maybe not for long. Not in the sun anyway.”

“Is it going to storm, do you think?” She struggles to keep panic from her voice.

“Nah!” He plants a kiss on her forehead, then lopes toward the truck. “Just some good wind coming in!”

She can’t stifle, “Be careful!”

He tosses it away with a laughing, “Trust me!”

Jess watches the truck drop out of sight beyond the first hill. Her father-in-law appears around the corner of the barn with a pitchfork in one hand, raises the other in greeting, but trudges on into the pasture without stopping to talk. Brian warned her eight years ago when he brought her home for the first time, that Charlie spends his words with the economy of a Trappist monk. But in spite of, or maybe because of his reserve, he is the one with whom Jess feels easiest.

Jess climbs the stairs to the bedroom for her book, but instead of going down again, she sits in a chair beside the window watching the road. Like a fisherman’s wife, she thinks, watching for the sea to return her man. Finally she picks up the novel Brian’s sister lent her yesterday, but she knows she won’t finish it. Louanne says she loves a book that’s good for a cry.  Already Jess can taste the sad ending, and she’s losing her appetite. She’s been reading a while when the curtains begin to billow against her knees and the room is plunged into gloom. The heavy deck of cloud is overhead, pulling the wind with it. Down in the yard, Charlie is closing the barn door. With his hand over his eyes, he scans the sky.

Jess grabs Brian’s jacket from the back of the chair, tears down the stairs. Brian has taken the truck, but she knows the way across the fields. No more than a fifteen minute walk, ten at a run.

Always, when she smells a storm, Jess’s heart races and she’s whirled into the eye of the tornado. She was driving cab on the south edge of Edmonton the day piles of coal black clouds rolled toward the city, bulging and heaving, gathering an eerie jaundiced light. When the car began to buck in the rising wind, Jess turned it around, driving furiously toward the edge of the storm. She hesitated when she saw a man at the side of the road braced against a mileage sign, his hair, his jacket, the legs of his jeans plastered to him. A glance at the sky in the rearview mirror and her foot hit the brake. She pulled onto the shoulder, backed to where he was standing and flung open the passenger door. Both man and door were almost ripped away by the wind before he pulled himself gasping into the car and heaved the door shut.

Jess put her foot to the floor, instinctively heading for home. They were silent except for Brian’s ragged breath until a tight black funnel came spiraling out of the clouds.

“Jaysus! Is that what I think it is?” His voice was muffled in the thick heat.

Brian’s family loves to tell the story of how Jess saved him, but it’s the story of his defection that she’s heard a dozen times. His mother and sister blame Priscilla, his childhood sweetheart, for his leaving. Even nine years later, with Priscilla trailing three babies in her wake, they say she scared him off, pulled too hard when what he needed was a little slack.

When Brian went west to look for work, he promised Priscilla he’d be back in six months. She gave him six months’ grace. After the year, she called his bluff and married his cousin. On the day Priscilla, veiled in white, lifted her face to Ralph’s broad, freckled smile, the tornado cut a swath through Edmonton and, but for Jess, would have sucked Brian into its eye and blown him clear back home to Moncton.

To Jess, all of this is ancient history. She dumped her own past when she turned eighteen and was given an indifferent farewell from her last foster home. Brian’s mother presses her for memories of her people, her “real kin” she calls them.

“I don’t remember.” Jess’s voice falls flat when she’s forced to talk about her family.

“But surely you remember something, darlin’. You were eight years old when they took you away.”

“I don’t remember.”

Jess can’t blame Marie for being curious. Can’t blame the wariness she sees in her mother-in-law’s eyes. Her grandchildren, after all, will be heir to the mystery. This summer though, the conversation stays deliberately away from babies, at least in Marie’s kitchen.

On their first day back, when Jess and Brian met Priscilla on the street with her new baby in a sling, Brianna flushed and sleepy in her stroller, and Ralphine skipping ahead, the first thing Priscilla said: “Well, hey, you two. Still no babies?”

Brian’s hand reached out to touch the baby’s cheek but he kept the other linked with Jess’s. “Aw Priscilla, you’re making up for all the rest of us. Keeps you too busy to get in trouble, I bet.” He gave Jess’s hand a squeeze. “Can you believe this girl? She’s landlocked. She used to sneak away from helping her mom and sail with anyone who’d take her out.”

“If you weren’t family, Brian Maguire, I’d punch you for that. What a thing to say!  Jess will think I was some kind of tramp.”

The scope of Brian’s kinship astounds Jess. Cousins, aunts, uncles orbit the farm in an infinite galaxy. She and her brothers and sisters were more like a meteor shower, almost all of them burning out before they fell to earth in adulthood.

Every day while Brian and Jess are home at the farm, someone drops in to visit and share a meal. Last night, when Jess brought the cups from the living room, she caught Priscilla and Brian’s sister, Louanne, gossiping at the kitchen sink, their backs to the door.  Priscilla, as always, was wearing the azure green that matches her eyes; a soft sweater hugging her abundant breasts and a green satin ribbon securing the plait of blonde hair.

“I’ve heard that sometimes,” she said in a low murmur, “the partners aren’t compatible. It’s like the woman’s egg is hostile to the man’s sperm. But when people like that split up and find new partners, they’ll both be fertile.”

Jess stepped back into the hallway, eased the door closed with her foot, leaned against the wall, her cheek hot on the plaster. In the living room, the men were haranguing about bringing back capital punishment. A local girl had been murdered this spring. While Jess was still in the room, Brian had tried to change the subject. His dad was dozing in his chair. When Jess reached down to pick up Charlie’s cup, the corner of his mouth quirked up in a smile and he winked.  Jess suspects that Brian has told Charlie about her brother.  Brian’s mom and sister know that Jess is one of nine kids divided out to half a dozen foster homes, but they don’t know that Louis, the brother just a year older than she, the one with whom she moved from home to home, is serving a life sentence for killing his best friend.

Crimes of passion, they’re called, so Jess has heard. Louis gone berserk because he thought he finally had someone who loved him, and she was screwing around with his best friend. Still, Jess wanted to scream in his behalf, he only went after the friend. He kept right on loving the girl. Louis, who’d never loved or been loved by anyway but her.

Caught there between infertility in the kitchen, and punishment by death in the parlor, Jess stacked the cups on the floor in the hallway, and chose a third door. She tiptoed into the bedroom where Priscilla and Louanne had nested their babies among coats and pillows on the bed and settled on a corner of the chenille spread, her finger reaching out to stroke a buttery little cheek.

He looks like Brian, this wee nephew.  Jess has seen the baby pictures, the school pictures, the graduation and wedding pictures. Marie’s albums are a chronicle of family life.

Jess’s chronicle is a plastic folder of wallet-sized school pictures that starts when she was seven and finishes in high school. Grades five, eight and eleven are missing for reasons she can’t remember. She missed the picture day? She moved to another foster home before the pictures came back? Someone forgot to send the money? Neither she nor Brian are camera buffs, so their marriage is compressed into a handful of pictures taken at their wedding, and her formal convocation portrait which Brian proudly mounted on the living room wall. That, everyone smugly assures them, will change with kids.

When they’d just begun trying to make a baby, they’d stay awake in the dark talking about names, about bringing their child home to the family.  He’d teach their kids to sail, Brian said. On their first summer home to Moncton, Jess was game to share Brian’s love of sailing. He patiently walked her through the “rigging,” the “launching,” the jargon as light on her tongue as salt spray. They’d been sailing clear for almost an hour before she gave thought to the ocean floor.

“How deep is the water here, do you think?”

“Well, if you’re considering diving over and going down for a look you’ll need to pack a lunch for the trip.”

“Seriously, Brian, how deep?”

“Seriously, Jess, it’s so deep it’s irrelevant.”

She’d peered into opaque green glass, then up into endless sky, and was overcome with a whirling panic. Dizzy beyond reason, she jerked back, the boat tipped and she was dumped, flailing in the icy water.

When they were finally back on land again, she sprawled in the wet sand with Brian’s arms anchoring her in place. “Oh God, I’ve never been so scared in all my life. I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay. I never wanted to sleep with a sailor. And I’ve been waiting for my turn to save you.”

The day Jess rescued Brian, they’d hardly spoken as she steered the cab through wildly buffeting wind. When the windshield wipers surrendered to the deluge, she parked, and let the car idle. “Guess we’d better wait it out.” For the first time, she looked closely at the man beside her. His wet hair had dried into a deep wave across his forehead, his cheeks had lost their pallor and gleamed with the sun-burnished health of a young labourer, and he sat loose and easy. But it was his eyes that were Jess’s undoing — intensely blue with circles of turquoise around the iris that sent a jolt of electricity straight through her like lightning to the base of a tree. She turned away to hide the flush in her cheeks, and stared into the rain. “That was a pretty stupid place to be hitching, you know.”

“Yeah? Well, I don’t have a car and I was gettin’ out to a job. And pickin’ up hitchhikers is pretty stupid too.”

“Yeah? Well, I’m a cabbie. Picking up people is what I do. Would you rather I’d left you there? We can go back if you want.”

“No,” he said. “I think this was meant to be.”

She’d found what she was looking for in the calm face, and when the rain slowed she drove the few blocks to her basement apartment. They stumbled inside, and into each other’s arms.

Later, when the storm had passed, Brian looked at her with a stricken face. “How did you know I wasn’t a danger to you? You could be killed bringing a complete stranger home like this.”

She shrugged. “I just knew. And I was right, wasn’t I? You said it was meant to be.”

He’d stared at her long and hard, and she was afraid that he’d find enough to send him away. Know that this wasn’t the first time she’d taken a stranger home. But it would be the last.

They went back the next day to the spot where Brian had been standing. There was no sign of the mileage post, and a mountain of rubble stood on the other side of the highway where there’d been a warehouse. Gulls circled in a cloudless sky.

Two months later, they were married in a quick civil ceremony with Brian’s foreman and his wife as their witnesses. Jess drove cab for the three years it took Brian to earn his electrician’s papers, then he bullied her into registering at the University of Alberta.

“You want to drive a taxi for the rest of your life?” They were in bed on a Sunday morning, and likely to stay there until afternoon.

“Of course not, but now that you’re working I thought I’d look around for something else. And who knows, maybe one of these days I’ll get pregnant.”

“I’ve been thinking we might be trying too hard, you know. People always say that if you want to have a kid, just take out a big mortgage or plan something that’ll take up the next five years of your life, and that’ll do it. Jess, you’re the smartest person I know. You said yourself you never did a bit of work in school, and you breezed through. Here’s a chance to kick back and get what you deserve. If you get pregnant, all the better. You can take night classes and I’ll look after the baby.”

There’d been no need for night classes. She earned her Education degree in three years, taking winter, spring and summer sessions with just a quick break for the trip to New Brunswick at the end of each summer.

She’s been teaching high school math for four years now, hoping at the beginning of every term that she won’t be there for the end. It looks as though she’ll stay forever.  Come back here to the farm each summer with empty arms, and Brian will have to settle for teaching his nephew to sail.  Or Priscilla’s three.

 

All this storm of memory, of what’s yet to be pounds through Jess’s head as she flies across Charlie’s pasture, and then the neighbour’s, and finally scrambles down the last rocky slope. When she arrives gasping on the dunes, there are gulls pitching like sailboats on the black ceiling of cloud. A dog runs pell mell along the beach, yelping at the waves. With her face pulled deep into the collar of the blue nylon windbreaker, Brian’s musky smell ripples around her.

Suddenly, Jess’s gaze captures a triangle of white. She fumbles in the jacket pocket for Brian’s binoculars, but behind the lenses, she loses the boat. Her long scrutiny of the rise and fall of the waves leaves her queasy. She closes her eyes, breathes deeply and feels her heart begin to calm.

When she looks out at the sea again, she stares hard at the patch of white and digs her heels into the sand, bracing against the wind.

She welcomes the intrusion of Charlie’s voice when he tramps across the dunes toward her. “Did you find him? You should have waited. I’d have driven you. You didn’t hear me calling after you?”

She’s never heard him speak so many sentences at once. She points, but for a moment a swirl of mist obliterates even the shoreline. “He’s out there. I think… I hope it’s him.”

Charlie’s breathing hard, and fumbles in his pocket for cigarettes. It’s just six months since Brian quit smoking, Jess trying hard not to nag. The corners of Charlie’s mouth turn up at her stern expression. “Oh, now don’t you be giving me grief about the weeds. I get enough from the rest of them.” His forehead wrinkles. “Don’t look so worried, Jess, he’s coming in. The boy’s had lots of practice with storms.”

“But he pushes his luck. I know he makes a joke of it, and I know someone else would have picked him up, but when I met him he was standing smack dab in the path of a tornado.” The splash of white is visible again. She raises the glasses to her eyes, then lowers them quickly. “It’s him. I can see the red stripes on his shirt.” She tries to blink away what this time is unmistakable — a flash of emerald green beside the red — and glances at Charlie who is watching the progress of the boat impassively, smoke curling around the brim of his sweat-stained cap. “Do you ever sail, Charlie?” she asks, trying to fill the silence.

He purses his lips, the cigarette clamped and bobbing in one corner. “Nah.”

“You don’t fish either, do you?”

“Nope.”

“Or swim?”

“Christ, no.”

“Why? You’ve lived a stone’s throw from the bay all your life.”

“I’m a farmer. Don’t like the water. Like you, I guess.”

“Me?” She begins to methodically snap the metal buttons on the jacket. “I’m scared to death of the ocean.”

“That’s because you’re not used to it. Guess we’re all scared of what we don’t know.” He grinds the cigarette butt into the coarse sand with the heel of his boot.

She takes a deep breath, tastes the salt in her lungs. “Did you know my brother killed someone?” He nods. “Did Brian tell anyone else?”

“Nope.”

“Charlie?” She feels a stinging on the backs of her eyes where the tangy breeze could not have touched. “Do you think I’ll ever really fit into this family?”

He takes a quick step toward her and, in an awkward stiff-armed motion, circles her shoulder to pull her face against the coarse flannel of his shirt. Then, as abruptly, he releases her. “Aw, Jess, you’re ours, just like Brian and Louanne.”

With the memory of the old man’s chest still warm on her face, she squints at the horizon, then reaches for his hand. Between her own smooth palms, it feels as coarse and dry as the ridges of sand under her feet. “Louis’s all I’ve got for family. I haven’t seen the rest of them in almost twenty years. And what Brian has here just blows me away. Sometimes I feel like I’m from another planet.”

“Well, I guess family is like ocean. If you’re not used to it, it scares you.” He holds out his hand for the binoculars. She hesitates, tracing a circle in the sand with her toe before she relinquishes the glasses. While he scans the sea, focuses and watches the bobbing sail, she rams her hands into the deep pockets, fingers the handful of change Brian always carries, and bites her lip.

When Charlie lowers the binoculars, he loops the strap around his neck and lets them dangle against his suspenders. He hands her a ring of keys. “Here now, it’s a long walk back and the rain’s coming any minute. You take my car and I’ll wait and come back with Brian in the truck.”

“I can handle a bit of rain. I’ll wait.” She sets her jaw, fixes her eyes on the sea.

“Serves no purpose. You pulled him out of one storm, but he wouldn’t want you doing it twice. Now you go on, and tell Marie we’ll be wet and wanting tea.”

“Could you see him?”

“Yup.” He looks away from her, his eyes intent on the boat.

Even without the glasses she can see that the ocean has begun to roll, whitecaps foaming around the pitching sail. The wind plasters Charlie’s wide khaki pants to his legs. “It’s picking up. Are you sure he’s coming in?”

“Yup.”

“Well, then I guess I’ll let you bring him safely home.” She catches her writhing hair and tucks it into the collar of the jacket. “Charlie,” she says “you don’t have to tell him I was here.” When he nods, she turns to leave.

“Jess?” She stops a few feet away. “That brother of yours, the one who made the bad choice. Do you love him less now than you did before?”

He’s like a rock, his solid presence standing between her and the sea. “No,” she says, “I have to love him more.”

On the walk back to the car, the wind flattens Brian’s jacket to Jess like a second skin.

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Finding the Pony in the Pile

 

After four years during which my muse found the pen too heavy to lift,  in the past two months it seems she’s stretched and yawned and decided she was too young to retire.

So “we” opened my file labelled “edit new work” wherein rest stories that never made it to completion for one reason or another. Some of them, when I read them now, are not and clearly never will be worth the candle.

But I came upon one that I felt had “good legs” and so I found the flaws, asked a friend to read and offer her criticism and ended up with a story that pleased me.  I went to my list of past submissions and publications for some hint as to where this story might find a friendly editorial eye. To my surprise, “You Must Remember That” had already found such an eye. It was published in 2010 in the Antigonish Review.

Lessons learned: keep files up to date; and (I believe the essence of the quote is from Aritha van Herk) “We never really finish a story. We just abandon it.”

A second surprise on this sifting of stories—there were two (one fiction and a personal essay)  that I had no memory of writing. Only the memory of churning them in my mind years ago, and telling myself that one day, when the time was right, I’d find a way to put them on the page. Completion and editing now done, stories kicked on to magazine slush piles. Mission accomplished.

Rather than give “the muse” full credit for this return to story, partial credit is due to  Queen Elisabeth II. Netflix series “The Crown”, numerous newspaper and magazine articles on HRH’s long reign, and Theatre Calgary’s beautiful staging of “The Audience”  reminded me that I too have a QEII story and it has nothing to do with highways.

I wrote “The Queen is Coming” in response to a call for submissions from CBC’s Alberta Anthology, a program that was a gift to Alberta writers.

The theme was “Alberta’s Centennial.” I normally avoid writing to “themes” because most often the result is a heavy-handed story written without real inspiration or passion. But when several friends who are dyed-in-the-wool royalists began to go gaga over the upcoming royal visit, I decide to translate my eye-rolling into a story.

A helpful CPL librarian helped me dig through archived news of HRH’s visit in 1951for background, and in particular to find out what Her Majesty was wearing. It was the hat I was after. I even stood on the corner of 9th and Macleod and drank in the spectacle.

“The Queen is Coming” had the honour of a CBC broadcast, and was also included in a lovely collection titled The Best of Alberta Anthology for 2005.

Because it’s been gathering dust now for 12 years, it’s time for an airing:

 

The Queen is Coming

 

My mother phones at eight o’clock in the morning on March 27. “Charlie! The Queen is coming for the Centennial. I want to go to the party,” she says. “You sound sleepy, dear.”

I’ve given up reminding her that I work nights. I do data entry at a bank. Suits me well, and I’m free to ferry Ma to medical appointments and funerals – pretty much her only outings these days.

I’d cruelly hoped, when I heard about the pending royal visit on CBC radio this morning, that Ma would be having one of her bad days. That the news wouldn’t penetrate the fog.

“You know I hate crowds,” I tell her.

“You’re fifty-seven years old,” she says. “You should get over these little fears of yours.” She sighs. “This will be my last chance to see her.”

My mother’s obsession with the royal family began in 1948 when she and Princess Elizabeth were both pregnant. I was born two days after the little prince. If the royal had been a girl, I would have been named Ernest, for my father.

“The tickets are free,” she says. “All you have to do is get in line.” I imagine her head trembling as she speaks. “I hope I can find my hat.”

In Ma’s royal album, there is a picture from 1951. The two of us standing on Ninth Avenue, Ma in a dark wool coat, matching felt hat with a brim and feather. Me, buttoned into a heavy brown coat cut down from Ernest’s overcoat just a few months after he died in a streetcar accident. I’m clutching a small Union Jack in my chubby fist.

The Princess was wearing a mink coat that day, and a matching hat that hugged her head.  Ma had a milliner fashion a replica of that mink cloche hat out of a piece of fur no has ever identified. My sister, Annie, swears it’s cat. The hat has only ever been worn for royal viewings.  Four in all.

I grudgingly agree to get tickets to the Saddledome reception. But I oversleep on the morning they go up.

Ma is surprisingly cheerful. “Never mind. I’m not sure I could have endured the program. They say it will be hours long.”

“Right!” I say in jovial response.  I’ve had nightmares about chasing her runaway wheelchair down ramps. About the accidents to which this proud woman is now prone and the mortification of both of us.

“We’ll just go down to the public viewing,” Ma says. “Maybe she’ll do a walk-about.” She’s getting excited now. “Wouldn’t it wonderful if Charles was coming?”

“Don’t know why he isn’t,” I say. “He’s fifty-seven. He probably loves riding around with his mother.”

“He’s busy,” she snaps. “He’s getting married again, you know.”

Ma loved Diana, is sour on Camilla, but says at least Charlie Windsor isn’t going to remain an old bachelor for the rest of his life. And he has those two fine sons. I, on the other hand, allowed a childless marriage wash up on the rocks ten years ago.

The weather in the week leading up to the Queen’s arrival in Calgary was cold, grey, fiercely windy. Not the sort of climate to which a responsible man would expose his frail eighty-two year old mother.

But she insists.  My sister, Annie, insists. “For gawd sake, Chuck!” she snarls over the phone, “I offered to take her myself, but she wants you.”

I slump in my chair, thinking about the hat I retrieved from the top of the closet. . Even after my heroic attempts to fluff it up, the old relic looked like road kill. I winced when Ma settled it over her scant curls and peered into the mirror. “Oh, Charlie,” she whispered, “I look so old.”  But I, standing behind her chair, was staring at my own reflection. A fat, balding, man who would never be mistaken for a prince.

Even though it’s a morning in May, Ma is bundled into her black winter coat, feet encased in fur-lined boots, hat perched over her freshly-permed hair. A policeman stands in the middle of Ninth Avenue, diverting traffic. Despite his shouts, I creep forward, waving my “handicapped parking” sticker. He shakes his head, but points to a loading zone around the corner.

I push Ma’s wheelchair to a curbside spot in front of the Palliser Hotel. Huddled into my windbreaker, I wish I’d worn my own winter jacket. But then, just minutes before the entourage is due, the sun breaks through. Ma twists in the chair to look up at me, her face tiny beneath the fur. “They say she never wears a hat twice.”

Suddenly there’s a limo approaching, and as it glides by, a smattering of applause from the crowd. A blur of face, a wave. Finished in seconds. Ma doesn’t blink. “That’s not her,” she says. “It’s that Clarkson woman.”

The Governor General, Ma tells me, is going ahead to stage the receiving line for the Queen and Prince Philip. It’s the way things work.

I’m eyeing the corner of Ninth and Macleod a block away, thinking that this is where the cars will slow. This is why the crowd is thickest there. For the better view.  I hope my mother doesn’t notice that I haven’t chosen the best vantage point. Haven’t even tried.

She turns again, and motions for me to listen. I crouch beside the chair. “You look at her face, Charlie. She’s so… serene. How can that be possible with all the stress the poor woman has been through?”

I choke back a snort. “She has a bit of hired help, Ma.”

“Oh, not that,” she says. “It’s the children. The way they live their lives. What a disappointment that must be.”

I feel heavy, leaning there on my haunches, the weight of my own dull life hovering over Ma and me. “I guess that’s just something that comes with being a mother,” I say.

“No dear,” she tells me softly, without taking her eyes off the street. “Elizabeth has had bad luck with her Charles. Aren’t I a lucky old woman to have raised a decent man like you?” She turns now and the smile takes twenty years from her face.

I can see cars approaching, people waving and cheering in the next block.  Too fast. They’ll be past us in a flash. I crank Ma’s chair around, bounce it off the curb and race down the street, Ma gasping and waving her arms.

“Make way!” I shout. “The Queen is coming!”  At the corner, the crowd parts to let us pop up onto the sidewalk just before the second limo in the procession slows, and glides past.  Under a big-brimmed white hat, a smiling face turns to Ma, a gloved hand makes an elegant salute.

Ma grabs my arm. “She smiled right into my face!”

I bend, press my cheek to hers. “Of course,” I say. “She recognized the hat.”

END

An afterword from the anthology: ” The Queen is Coming” is about the relativity of the child-parent relationship and explores how grace inspires grace.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A story just for the short of it

I had a pleasant conversation with one of my Calgary writing colleagues, Rona Altrows, earlier this week about the epistolary form in fiction. To my amazement, she reminded me of one of my “postcard” stories from several years ago. Rona even remembered the title, but why would that surprise me?

I went back to reread “Poste Restante”, published in FreeFall in fall 2011.  The story takes me back to the light on the cobblestones in Salzburg, 1977.  It also makes me yearn for Viennesse coffee and strudel. I’ll make do with the memory, but give the story its moment back in the sunlight.

 

Poste Restante   

Salzburg Oct. 19, 1977

At a sidewalk café, butterscotch light spilling across cobblestones, me with coffee and strudel, you with pretzels and a mug of dark beer, we open mail from home. A whiff of my mother’s hand lotion rises from the page.

Hope you kids are having a grand time. Remember to look up those names I gave you, I’m sure my cousin Ilsa is still alive even though nobody’s heard from her in years. And that little restaurant Daddy and I found in Frieberg in 1963. The man’s name was Otto. He’ll remember us because his wife had a sister over here and living in Red Deer no less.

Now my news. Henry and I are buying a house. We’ll get married eventually, but for now I think it’s best if we just live together. Your sister’s not talking to me. When did you say you were coming home?

My nieces have decorated my sister’s letter with rainbows and hearts.

I wish we could afford to take three months like you, but with the kids, a week in the tent trailer at Sylvan Lake is all I can count on. Mom doesn’t have time to babysit these days. She’s living with Henry. Not even two years since Dad died.

The pages of the letters crackle as I fold them into the envelope.

“Anything new at home?” you ask.

“Nope.” I fork up a bite of strudel. “Where’s out next poste restante?”

“Venice.”

A month away.

 

 

 

On Short Stories; Randomly Pulling Thoughts From the Air

But no, short stories aren’t scooped out of the air in nets. More often, they’re a flash of an idea that flies by so quickly we grab at them and have to run to catch up. Sometimes we have to walk backwards over the same ground to find them again. And again. And again.

What’s random here are my thoughts.

I’m perplexed when readers—smart readers who love literature—tell me they don’t read short fiction because …. The reasons are too many and too weird to list. I will strive to be respectful and not criticize. This is part of my resolve to cease judging other people.

What I know for sure, is that telling stories is innate in human beings. From ancient to contemporary times our lives are made up of stories strung like beads on a string.

Some of us write those stories, and the ones we steal from other people’s lives, and the ones that start with life but with which we play fast and loose.  Some people prefer to listen, to read, to be reminded that no matter how far away the story’s world, stories are universal. The stories we remember are the ones that strike a chord, resonate, make us catch our breath – all those clichés.

Just a few of the stories that I can’t forget, a few that immediately fly out of the books on the shelves behind me: “Hills Like White Elephants,” –Hemingway; “Why I Live at the Post Office,”- Eudora Welty; “The Lady With the Dog,”- Chekhov; “Dance of the Happy Shades,”- Alice Munro. And so many more.

There are novels I can’t forget, but the memories are different in the way they cling to my brain. A short story isn’t simply a short novel, nor a novel a short story that got carried away with itself.

I know writers who sell their first books—that collection of stories it’s taken years to gather and polish to a high shine—but the contract is conditional on the author producing a novel within a particular period of time. The two book deal.

So do we graduate from poetry (my apologies poets!), to short story, and finally produce the novel? I’m reminded of a story from my husband’s early years in retail pharmacy. An elderly woman, whenever she came into the store would look at the pharmacist on duty, shake her head, and say, “It’s too bad you didn’t make it.” Finally someone gently asked for a translation. She believed that if one started out with the dream of being a physician but didn’t make it through, then they became a dentist, and if that too was beyond their capabilities, they sighed and went to work as pharmacists.

Where did all this begin? With my daughter’s freezer and a pot of borscht. With a friend remembering one of my short stories, “Leftovers,” that began with a freezer. Although, where it really began was with an anecdote a friend told me about a young mom who was terminally ill and spent the last months of her life cooking and freezing enough meals for her family to eat one of her dinners once a week for the entire year after her death. My immediate reaction: who could eat those meals?

I loved writing that story, as I’ve loved writing every other one that’s reached the finish line. Novels? If a story is like training a rambunctious puppy, a novel is like wrestling down a woolly mammoth. The satisfaction when it “works”, the sheer relief at reaching the end, the rewards that no matter how small are always greater than they were for the collection of stories, is affirmation that the six years of wrestling the beast were worth it.

When the drunken muse in my soul finally sobers up and gives me permission to write again, story is where I will go. The short form. The novel? Though I know brilliant authors who if they live to be 100 will take a pen along to the grave, I can’t help hearing the tick-tock. It helps that I think short fiction—thousands upon thousands of stories written every year—gives us a gift box overflowing with jewels.

So long to get to the promo? Not really. But it seems fitting to end with an excerpt from the beginning of “Leftovers.” Perhaps you’ll look for A Crack in the Wall (Oolichan Books 2008), the collection where this story, after a good life in magazines and on radio, finally came to rest. Perhaps, you’ll reach for the book of stories you have closest at hand and re-read a favourite. Christmas is coming. The wish list if anyone insists that you provide one, should dangle to the floor with the titles of collections of short fiction. Toss in a novel or two if you must.

 

 

a-crack-in-the-wall-small1

 

Leftovers

Before she died, Margaret Murray cooked, packaged, labelled, and froze enough food to nourish her husband for a whole year. She also planned her funeral and gave away her clothes, but it was the meals that astonished anyone who heard the story. “Who could eat that food?” they asked. Frank Murray just shrugged. To ignore or dispose of the frozen labour of love would be to turn his back on Margaret, and he had decided twenty years before that he would never do that again.
Margaret’s grandmother, mother, and sister all died of breast cancer, and she announced at her sister’s funeral that she too would die before her fifty-fifth birthday. Pessimism typical of a Capricorn, her friend Sandra had said. Margaret was fast approaching fifty-four
On the December day that Margaret heard the results of the critical mammogram, Frank was so sure all would be well that he stopped to buy chocolates on his way home from work. Four hand-dipped Belgian truffles in a gold foil box.
He expected as he came through the door, to hear Margaret call out as usual from the kitchen, “In here, Frank! Supper in half an hour.” She was sitting in the living room in her wicker rocking chair. When he took the cup from her slack fingers, cold tea sloshed over the rim and across his knuckles. He reached toward the lamp but Margaret grabbed his hand, her face a solemn white moon.
“There is a lump.” She stared down at the front of her sweater. “How can it be that we didn’t feel it? Neither of us. I was so sure I’d find the lump myself. I thought I’d worry over it and feel it there and then gone and then back again for at least a week before I made an appointment. That’s how I thought it would be.” She stood up, grabbed his hand and slid it under her sweater, peeling away the cup of her bra so that the weight of her breast rested in his palm. She pressed his middle finger into soft flesh. “There,” she said. “Right there about four o’clock from the nipple, is what the x-ray showed. Can you feel it?”
Her skin was reassuringly warm and pliant. Frank shook his head. “No,” he said. He wanted to pull his hand away, but to do so he would have to wrench free of Margaret. And now, even though he didn’t feel a lump, there was something. A needle of heat radiating from deep inside his wife’s breast.

Oh, for the love of …. short story!

 

In 2008, I graduated from UBC’s Optional Residency Creative Writing program in the company of wickedly talented writers, several of whom were published very soon after that walk across the convocation stage. In quick succession, Sarah Selecky, Amy Jones and Matthew Trafford’s collections of short fiction hit the ground running. As a group, they declared 2011 the year of the short story, YOSS which I can never say without adding YES! http://yoss2011.com/

Sarah Selecky: This Cake is for the Party
Amy Jones: What Boys Like
Matthew Trafford: The Divinity Gene

and notably as well, Zsuszi Gartner, instructor of Short Story and mentor extraordinaire to many: Better Living Through Plastic Explosives

I’m quite sure I’ve missed some of the brilliant graduates of 2008 and 2009 and their books, and I offer an apology to not only those with short fiction collections but those with novels (one of those being my own, Delivery), non-fiction and poetry born out of the UBC experience.

I believe that every year since 2010 has been a YOSS. Numerous of my Alberta and Saskatchewan writing friends and colleagues have kept that lamp lit, and I believe the love of short story will shine on.

I’ve been asked many times which of my books is my “favourite”, which is as impossible to answer as which of my children is my favourite. All of them, for who they are and the joy they bring to my life. And the books, all of them because of the memories and moments in my life through which they were conceived. If pressed, though, my default response is A Crack in the Wall because the stories were written (and endlessly rewritten) over the course of almost twenty years, and each one of them has a secret at its heart that is mine alone.

I am blushingly reluctant to promote my own work – and grateful to have had the never-flagging support and promotion of Susan Toy since she introduced herself to me at a reading just prior to the release of Delivery. Up waltzes a woman with a huge smile who extends a hand and says, “Hi, Betty Jane. I’m your sales rep.” I didn’t know I had one! “And our mutual friend Vicki Bell” (another gifted UBC classmate) “told me that I must hear you read.”

But. Recently, two books clubs have invited me to their discussion of A Crack in the Wall and a lovely review appeared out of the blue, long after I’d come to accept that the book had gone to grass. A phrase I steal frequently from the title of another writer/colleague, Jean McKay who I met at at Sage Hill.

So. I urge you seek out the work of the UBC authors I’ve mentioned as well as that of a number of my talented friends : Audrey Whitson, Astrid Blodgett, Lori Hahnel, Barb Howard, Lee Kvern, Dora Dueck, Leona Theis, Dave Margoshes. And I know, once again, that I’ve missed some names and I offer my apology.

Now. After this lengthy prologue, I am going to step over the wall of my self-promo handicap and offer an excerpt from one of the stories in A Crack in the Wall, because of course I want you to seek out my work as well.

 

 

Burned

Val had just picked her way through a gang of kids in the parking lot of the housing project and was fumbling for her key when the door in the adjoining unit
flew open. A young woman, thin as a pencil, with a long neck and a head of greenish blonde tufts more like feathers than hair, stepped out.

“Hey, you’re Josh’s mom, right?”

Just once Val wanted to come home and put her feet up without answering to the world for her son. She set the bags of groceries on the concrete step and folded her
arms across the front of her tired uniform. “That’s me.”

This little gal was wearing a uniform too. A frilly apron over a black skirt that just covered her ass, and a black and white polka dot blouse.  She looked almost as young as Josh. Not at all what Val had expected. She’d envisioned someone more like the poster on the inside of Josh’s closet door.

“There’s two little kids and a . . . a girl,” Josh had mumbled the day the new people moved in. His ears glowed red, and he frowned. He’d run out to snoop when he saw the U-haul backing up to the townhouse, and rattled his skateboard up and down the parking strip while they unloaded. Since then, Val had worked eight straight days and by the time she got home from a shift at the nursing home she wasn’t interested in jumping on the Welcome Wagon.

“Does he babysit?”    …

“Josh?” Val felt her eyebrows take flight. It was only a few months since she’d reluctantly given her son a key instead of sending him to her sister’s after school.
She had nightmares about coming home to a smoldering square of rubble. “Oh no. He’s never looked after a baby.”

“Well, does he want to?”

Val blew out a long breath and shook her head. “He hasn’t been around many little kids. And he has a lot of homework.” She could imagine the look on the math
teacher’s face if Josh told him he’d failed a test because he had a job.   …

“I’d pay him good, and I won’t be too late. I’m kinda desperate here.”

“You mean right now?” Val glanced at her own door.

She could hear the electronic racket of Nintendo. Josh battling his way past the Big Boss of some mythical empire.

“No, my mom looks after them when I’m at work.
I need him Saturday.”    …

 ***

Jerry was as predictable as ever. “Look, Val, I can’t have the kid this weekend. I got an out-of-town job. How about we skip this once and I’ll pick him up in
two weeks.”
She curled her tongue over her front teeth. The icy cold pop had set up a dull ache in that cavity she was trying to ignore. “Maybe it’s just as well. He’s got a
job for Saturday night. What do you think about Josh babysitting?”

“Why not? When I was fourteen I was helping my dad on a construction site.”

“This job doesn’t come with a hammer. We’ve got a new neighbour with two kids. You’d trust Josh with a baby?”

“How hard can it be to look after a baby for a couple of hours?”

Val raised the glass of ice cubes to her forehead.    …

She’d been prepared for a flat refusal when Josh heard Tonya’s offer, or an indifferent shrug and a quick return to Mortal Kombat, but not for the big-eyed whoop of
delight.

“Really? Oh man, that would be sweet! Devin babysits and he makes mega-bucks every weekend.”

“Devin? Oh, well then.” Why would she worry about Josh if someone, anyone had entrusted a child to Devin? He was Josh’s only friend, but Val wouldn’t have
given Devin responsibility for a turnip.

The next day after school, Val sent Josh to tell Tonya he could sit for her on Saturday night. When supper was ready and he still wasn’t back, she went out and rang
the bell. Josh answered, with the baby on his hip, the three-year-old, Travis, wrapped around his leg, and a grin that stretched from one blushing ear to the other.

“Tonya wanted me to stay and get to know the kids. We’re like hanging out in the living room, building stuff while she takes a break.”

“Two hours should be plenty. You look like a pro. Supper’s ready.”

“Yeah, but Tonya’s sleeping, and Travis says they’re hungry and he wants me to make grilled cheese. Only there’s no cheese and no bread. Do you think I should
open a can of soup?”

“I think their mom can make their supper.”

Same floor plan as her place. Val scooped up the kids, one on each arm, and stomped up the stairs to the master bedroom. She banged on the door with her
knee, then cracked it open just enough to herd the kids through.

“Josh is coming home for supper now, Tonya. Bye bye!”       …

“Did she say anything about paying you for today?” Val asked as she pulled him out Tonya’s door and back through their own. She’d been cleaning the bathroom when he left and
hadn’t noticed that he’d changed into his khakis and button-up shirt. His hair was different too. Instead of swooping low over his forehead, it was spiked into a
ridge from hairline to crown. He looked painfully like a rooster. …

continued on pg 126  A Crack in the Wall, Oolichan Books 2008

Head vs. Heart

When I was in the throes of writing The Boy, I told my sister that this was a challenging book to write, not just because of the subject but because I’d been convinced that in order to tie the fiction and non-fiction together, I needed a third thread — memoir.  And I was terribly uncomfortable writing about myself.  She looked at me wisely, as older sisters are prone to do, and said that she had always had the feeling that I was hiding in the heart of all of my fiction, and how was this different.

In its own difficult  way, adding the personal to that hybrid has helped me to get past the boundaries I’d  built into my writing.  Personal essay, or simply “spilling my guts” (as I’ve described it to my family) in posts like this seems to demand to be written.

When I saw the call for submissions for A Family by Any Other Name, edited by Bruce Gillespie and forthcoming from Touchwood Books in April  http://www.touchwoodeditions.com/book_details.php?isbn_upc=9781771510547  I didn’t hesitate to write about my reaction to our daughter’s coming out, or the way in which it challenged my faith.  I sent the essay to Elisabeth before I submitted it and asked if she and Barb would be comfortable having this story out in the world.  Of course, she answered, but you know, you made me cry.  I believe she said the same thing when I asked for her reaction to a very short piece of “fiction” that I was hoping to include  in my collection of short stories, A Crack in the Wall.  When I look at both pieces now, I see myself perhaps even more clearly in the fiction, which sprang from my surprise that my heart had a different reaction to Elisabeth’s coming out than my head. The essay, writing as myself, from the heart, helped me follow the path to the point of “Finding My Grace.”

Simply because the book and the story have been a long time relegated to “back list” status, I think “Stitches” needs to come into the light one more time.  So here, with my thanks to Oolichan Books for permission to reprint is “Stitches.”  http://www.oolichan.com/hegerat-a-crack-in-the-wall

Stitches

 

 

There is a knot in the thread. So close to the end of the hem, the woman pauses to tug each stitch through the fine cloth.

These are her mother’s hands, her grandmother’s hands. Always stitching.  Christening gown, plaid jumper for first day of school, red velvet Christmas frock, graduation dress, wedding gown, christening gown. Sewing the lives of daughters. 

          The girl on the floor squares her shoulders, braces palms on either side of blue-jeaned legs and drinks a deep breath. “I have to tell you something,” she says on the exhalation.

          The fabric puckers. “I wish I had a finer needle, and lighter thread,” the woman says. “I wish you’d asked me to do this when I got here yesterday instead of when I’m halfway out the door.”    

          “Mom! Will you just listen?”

           The daughter’s voice stumbles over words. The mother’s vision blurs. She crosses her knees to bring the work closer, head bent to the needle. Measures her stitches smaller, tighter.

 She wants to cover the soft lips with her palm, to say No telling is needed. While you were at your class this morning I did what visiting mothers do.  I tidied and snooped. But it seems she’s sewn her tongue to the roof of her mouth. 

 

A photo frame lay flat, folded, face down. It’s usual position, upright, drawn in clean lines on the dusty desk top. She’d picked it up and tilted the glass to the sweep of window in this twenty-second floor student apartment, sunlight turning the faces in the picture to spangles.

          A triptych of two girls. No. Two women. In the first frame both squint solemnly into the distance, in the second they smile their secret to the camera, and in the third unabashedly into one another’s eyes. Telling this mother what she already knew.

 

The girl is still again. So quiet the room, the sound of the last stitch piercing the cool skin of fabric is audible.

          How to keep the wrong words from exploding. Bouncing off the wall of light and ricocheting around the room.

How to say thank you for telling me.

          When she stands to gather her girl into her arms, the dress refuses to slide free, dances instead from where she’s stitched it to her lap.

          In a minute she will pick up the scissors. Snip her daughter free. Stitch by stitch.


 

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A story, just because

I’m not writing these days, not even playing with old stories, haven’t sent anything out in ages.  But suddenly today, it seems time to get something “out there”.  And because this one has never been out anywhere, here’s  Aunt Jewel  just because.

Jewel

 Barbara knows that Gary will not be pleased when he finds out about her visit to his Aunt Jewel. He insists that everyone in his family is A-okay with their daughter’s gay wedding. What the hell are you trying to forge with Aunt Jewel? he’ll say.

But here’s Barbara, pulling open the first set of doors at the entrance to Woodcrest— wondering why so many nursing homes and seniors’ residences, even posh ones, pretend to be in the woods, and why there are always Adirondack chairs on the lawn—and there’s  a woman clumping toward her in a walker. There’s no one behind the woman, no one in sight at all. Barbara hesitates. Should she help this patient out the door?

Relax, the woman tells her. I’m as compos mentis as you are. The woman presses a button on the wall and the exit whooshes open. Outside, she settles into one of the big wooden chairs and lights up a cigarette. Barbara wonders how the old woman will ever get out of that chair again, never mind back inside. Perhaps she should alert a staff member. On the other hand, the woman made it outside on her own, and hasn’t set off any alarms. And for the money people pay for this care, surely someone is watching.

Inside, Barbara hesitates. So many corridors and she only vaguely remembers the one she and Gary followed when they dropped in with a plate of shortbread last Christmas. Or maybe it was two Christmases ago. One thing that hasn’t changed is the smell. The cloying perfume from the vase of lilies at the reception desk almost more gag-inducing than the underlying fecal scent. Barbara wishes she’d taken a deeper breath before she stepped inside.

The woman behind the desk tells Barbara that Jewel has moved up to the second floor. She says it with a lilt, as though Jewel strode out of her room and punched that elevator button all on her own. Barbara has been in enough care facilities to know that upward mobility is about loss of mobility. Why hasn’t someone in the family told them Jewel is losing it?

Jewel, sitting in a chair at the window, might have seen Barbara park her car, walk up to the door. But it’s obvious she doesn’t recognize her.

Gary’s wife. Your nephew Gary?

Of course she knows Gary. No loss of voice precipitated the move upstairs. Jewel sounds as testy as ever, the spinster teacher, the family’s legendary lesbian. Nonsense, Gary always insisted. Gossip. Just because she never married. Maybe she wanted to be a history professor instead of a housewife. Some people, Barbara reminded him, do both. She herself has been a teacher and a mother. Not in Jewel’s day, he said. Gossip.

Choice pieces of Jewel’s furniture from home followed her to the care facility, followed her upstairs. Dark mahogany desk still waxed to a shine, pens in a brass cup, small stack of envelopes neatly squared on a leather-cornered blotter.

Jewel interrupts Barbara’s snoopy scan of the room to ask what brings her by on a day when anyone who’s able should be out in the sun. Would she like a cup of tea? The offer seems to use up all her energy and she melts back into her chair.

A bit of family news, Barbara says. She doesn’t know if anyone has told Jewel that their  Kaitlyn is getting married next month. To her roommate at Ryerson. Kaitlyn and Diana.

She wants to say, like you and Henrietta, but Barbara never knew Henrietta. Henrietta (Jewel called her “Hank”, this Barbara gleaned from Gary’s sister who is Barbara’s source of all she knows of Jewel and Henrietta/Hank)) is part of the legend of Jewel the lesbian, how they roomed together at McGill. Stayed close after they graduated in spite of the miles between them, the teaching positions, Jewel in Edmonton, Henrietta in Montreal. Visits back and forth at Christmas, and every summer vacation together; a new picture of the two of them in London, Rome, Madrid in Jewel’s Christmas cards each year. Until suddenly no Henrietta, no more mention of Hank. None, and no one dared to ask. She’d bite your head off, Gary’s sister told Barbara. Briefly, rumours of another woman, another professor colleague, but only Jewel’s smart solo presence at family functions ever after.

The old woman in the chair was likely described as handsome in her youth, still is, hair cut Prince Valiant style across a broad forehead, tweed skirt and pale pink sweater, leather walking shoes solid on the floor. Only the deep-set hoods of her eyes droop, and only for a second until she peers out from under the lids to say she hadn’t heard this was now possible. For girls to marry girls.

The law just passed, Barbara tells Jewel, as breathless as though she hauled a tablet carved with Bill C-38  to the top of the mountain herself.

Is that so? Jewel closes her eyes. Her chin sags. Now Barbara sees the drip-drip stains on the sweater, the snag in the hem of the skirt, wonders who looks after Jewel’s clothes, the personal touch. There are no grown daughters, just gossipy nieces, slightly afraid of this aged aunt.

A woman in floral print uniform glides into the room, eyes flashing into every corner. This is the one who should be watching the smoker out front. You have company, she chirps, plants a hand on Jewel’s shoulder. Jewel’s eyes open. She knows she has company, she says. Just when Barbara has decided that now the news has been shared, she can leave, the nurse shifts a chair into position, beckons Barbara into it, facing Jewel, their knees touching. There you go.

You’ll be getting an invitation to the wedding, Gary will be happy to pick you up, Barbara tells Aunt Jewel.

Gary is going to be furious.

I do not go out these day, Jewel says, clear voice, clear eyes, clear as can be. But a minute later, she sighs and drifts away again.

Sounds of squeaky feet in the hallway, a rattling cart, whine of something hydraulic, a lift for someone else who’s up here because they’re down? Barbara leans back, waits. Fidgets, leans forward, elbows on her knees, chin in her hands. Now she sighs. It must be the air in this place.

Why did I come, you’re probably wondering? she asks out loud. Not a twitch from Jewel. Oh, I don’t know. Another sigh. I’m good with this wedding, and the relationship. Things are so different these days. So open. Not like it was for you and Henrietta, this she whispers to herself, oh she hopes it was a whisper.

Jewel’s head bobs up a notch, her mouth opens, a soft snore escapes. Barbara nods. It’s a good thing, that it’s all open now, don’t you think? I’m fine with it. Only… It’s like when I sing inside my head, you know? I’m Joan Baez, in my mind. But I’ve never been able to carry a tune. In real life, when the song pours out of my mouth I’m off-key. When I try to tell people about this wedding…and I see the way they smile, I can’t sing the song I want to sing. I sound warped. Why is that?

Jewel stirs, her tongue working against her teeth. Barbara reaches for a knotted hand, surprised by the softness of the skin. She strokes the map of veins with her fingertips. I’m sorry, she tells Jewel. I shouldn’t have come. I can’t seem to get any of this right. She gently releases the hand to rest in the folds of tweed across Jewel’s knees.

When Barbara has moved the chair she was sitting in back against the wall, and turns to say goodbye, Jewel’s eyes are open wide and clear. “Henrietta got married, you know. To a man.” Hands clenching the wooden arms of the chair, she pulls up straight, her head high. “Oh, don’t look so sad. It was long ago. It ran its course.”

There’s more clatter in the hall and Barbara knows that any minute there will be a tray with tea and biscuits.

Jewel thanks Barbara for stopping by.

Outside, the same woman is sitting in the smoking chair, but this time there is a woman in the chair beside her. She has a bouquet of flowers across her knees. Flowers. Barbara walks away thinking that she should have brought flowers.