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